Book Review: ‘Panther’ by Chhimi Tenduf-La

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Chhimi Tenduf-La’s latest novel, ‘Panther’, is a gripping tale set in a hostile environment where communal tensions, bloodlust and vengeance rules. He has set it in Sri Lanka…but honestly speaking, it could be any country: from the war-ravaged East to the civilized West, where they don’t speak of it. In the end, it’s a tale about human nature and the fight of humanity against evil forces that often may exist in your own mind. It reads like a poem and reminded me of these lines from ‘The Second Coming’ by W.B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

A haunting tale that will inevitably remind you of all your troubles back in high school. The novel traces the journey of Prabhu, a young Tamil boy and a cricket protégé growing up in Sri Lanka, who is admitted to an elite school of rich boys. But Prabhu has a past that his classmates who have lived comfortable lives guarded against all harm cannot imagine: he is a former child soldier and had been once closely associated with the fictional terror group of ‘Panthers’. With a past that refuses to be silenced and memories that abruptly rear their ugly heads, Prabhu has to learn to overcome the onerous burdens of high school.

What is noteworthy about the author is his incredible talent to poignantly pen on paper the angst of adolescence, for all boys, rich or poor. Some problems like finding a perfect date, scoring good marks in your examination, gaining popularity among your peer circle, impressing your crush and living up to your parents expectations, or more pertinently, them living up to yours, are universal themes all adolescents can connect with. But at the same time, the novel deals with darker themes like the plight of child soldiers, or simply of children growing up in a war-ravaged nation. Children growing up in an environment where tensions are high are forced to make impossible choices between right and wrong, good and bad; sometimes with no proper guidance. More often than not, they end up emulating their parents and other elders around, but the real question is: what happens when the elders are prejudiced and misguided? The vicious cycle of hate pervasively present in so many South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Western nations has been pain strikingly taken apart by the author and presented to us in vivid detail.

From paedophiles who rape orphaned boys, to terrorist leaders who brainwash child soldiers to fight wars they don’t understand, to army soldiers who shoot and torture even those who surrender, to families forced to sacrifice one child to the ‘cause’ to save another: this book (some may find it disturbing) expostulates on the worst side of human nature. It talks about everything society would rather push under the rug. Yet, as is atypical of this author, the serious is peppered with moments of hilarity. This extract, for instance, is one of my personal favourites:

…the letter ‘A’ pendant cost six thousand rupees, but they had a discount on the letter ‘I’ pendants. He deliberated for a while. Since Achala’s name began with ‘A’, the ‘A’ pendant might have been the more appropriate, but he knew he couldn’t ask Indika, whose name began with an ‘I’, for more money. So the ‘I’ would have to do.

Indika and Prabhu’s friendship is one of the most humane bonds of friendship that I have ever read in a novel. The characters of both boys is so well-developed that you would feel you know them personally. In many ways the novel is also a ‘coming of age’ story, as different characters evolve and grow in different ways as the novel progresses. The concluding chapters especially have a beautiful point of climactic twist in certain protagonists’ personalities, but saying more would be giving out spoilers, and for a book as captivating as this, it would be a cardinal sin.

The only minor point of contention for me would be the excessive use of abuses in the text, but I guess it does help set the mood, and my prudish love for ‘proper’ language would probably be judged by most to be orthodox. We all do have our points of squeamishness, don’t we? The style otherwise is unique: the narrator, who is incidentally also the protagonist, shifts from second person, to third person and even to first person narrative. Sometimes it feels like he is narrating a story to us, while at other points the readers are standing next to him, watching an event unfold. The style is such that all passing thoughts and sudden observations are noted down in vivid details, for example a page devoted only to a cockroach on a cricket pitch. Yet the details aren’t random or arbitrary. In many ways this book has a firm foundation in psychology and these seemingly random details, in the end reveal a lot more than one could imagine. The language is simple and easy to understand, but hard to gauge. You might just find yourself turning the pages for one more read.

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Revenge and Solace

He could see the terror in the eyes of the twelve-year old. It reminded him of his niece, Sakina, killed by a stray bullet.

Sakina. Her name meant peace, serenity – that elusive dream he had been hunting for three years now.

Have patience” they told him. “We will extract our revenge“.

This was his moment. His moment to take vengeance for her death and the deaths of all children who had died like her.

He uttered the name of his God for forgiveness and courage, and shot the girl at point-blank range. The bullet hit her right in the centre of the forehead. Her eyes glazed over. All the life, laughter, mischief and innocence in them died. She lay extremely still, one more body in the sea of blood in the deathly-silent auditorium.

He waited for peace, for the serenity he had been waiting for, once the anger and rage in him burnt out.

All he felt was grief.

Revenge was easy to get. Redemption was harder. 

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. An innocent death for another innocent death is just the massacre of humanity. 

Things You See on Mumbai Locals #1

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Mumbaikars, especially those staying in the suburbs spend nearly an hour or more everyday traveling. How do you utilize  this time?
The lady whose hands I have captured in the above picture is typing out the name of Hindu Gods on a special notebook with grids, that help you keep count of the number of time you have written the name. After you finish a certain number (I think it’s 108 but am not sure; and it may also vary) you get to have one wish fulfilled; or one sin forgiven. Kind of a neat practice, don’t you think? Like reward points on a shopping card!

But jokes apart, I still find it admirable that within the crowded rush-hour, this lady manages to find God and spirituality,

Just another day in the city…

In the morning rush-hour, the Mumbai local is jam-packed. Sweaty bodies packed against each other like sardines in a tin. All you can see around you is the coloured fabric of your neighbours clothes, or the shiny leather of her handbag; sometimes, the quick glint of her watch, or bracelet, or mangalsutra as it catches the sunlight. Above you there is a veritable mess of hands, clutching at the rods, and all around the pervasive odour of dozens of different perfumes mixed together. Amidst all this serene and regular chaos there was a woman, maybe 50 or 60 years old, placidly knitting. Her needles clicked, and the bright orange jumper materialized before my eyes. Something productive amidst the mad frenzy of ‘office time’. 

In this crowd you would go mad with claustrophobia if you didn’t distract yourself. Some, like me, listen to music on their i-pods, mp3s or cellphones. Some squint at newspapers or books in the dim light that slants through the jumble of bodies; while others, with a snobbish shrug, use a Kindle. Some play games on their tablets, while some others are busy issuing directives on the phone. Amidst all this, there was also this lady, who was busy praying. Her eyes closed, she sat placidly, completely ignoring the mass of people around her, clutching her prayer beads, and serenely reciting the name of God. 

Outside the station, the hawkers had already set up stall and were screaming out their wares. The food stalls made the most business at this time of the morning. All those who had sacrificed breakfast for a few minutes of extra sleep now tried to cram some nourishment into their bodies. Others who had forgotten to pack their lunch this morning, purchased food packets for the afternoon. Among them, there are also some mothers who had packed their share of into their kids’ tiffin boxes, because it is his/her favourite dish. For them the roadside dosa/vada is the only option now. 

After the train, it is time to board a bus now. Just as crowded, but if you run, and are lucky you might get a window seat. I was extremely lucky today. I got a window seat. So while everyone else had to clutch at the handlebars and try to hold their insides in while the bus rolls onto its destination at breakneck speed, reminiscent of a roller coaster ride, I got to sit and admire the scenery of the urban jungle. Our bus stopped at a traffic signal, and beside us another car stopped. In the front seat there were two women, busy gossiping. In the back seat, there was a young child, about 2 or 3 years old. He stared at me with wide-open eyes and I looked back. After a minute I waved. A minute later, he tentatively waved back. A bond had now been established. Soon we were playing peek-a-boo, and laughing uproariously – at 9 o clock in the morning, at a busy intersection. Soon, the lights changed, and the traffic started moving. The car carrying the child vanished in a puff of smoke, and I was left waving. My quota for magical moments of the day was over. 

The bus stopped and half-a-dozen people poured out.In front of the bus stop, there is a Sai Baba Temple, with a golden spire. 5 out of 6, stopped for a second to fold their hands in obeisance before the idol, sitting placidly in its marble sanctum with a golden spire. Only one stopped to throw down some coins to the dust caked hands of the beggar children with matted hair, sitting in the sun, with their arms outstretched. 

It’s just another day in the city of dreams. Broken hopes galore and the defeated sit back and watch, while others persevere for a golden illusion they have heard whispers of. Still others have given themselves over to the rhythm of the city, allowing it to take them where it will. 

(My first Writing 101 post).

Everything I have ever been

Today’s Daily Prompt: If you were one part human, two parts something else — another animal, a plant, an inanimate object — what would the other two parts be?

A lot of images run through my mind when I read this prompt:

  1. I am 10-years old, and standing on the boundary wall of the playground. The earth seems so far away. I shake my head, and tell my friends, I can’t jump. One of them shouts, Chicken! You are Chicken!
  2. I am 12 years old, and my mother is telling me: A Woman should be like Water. She should fit in whatever bowl or situation she is poured into, perfectly moulding herself to the requirement. I remember her words vividly till day. It is some of the best advice I have ever received.
  3. I am 13 years old, and my mother is screaming at me – You are a Locked Chest. You never tell me anything anymore. This was the age when I first started keeping secrets from my parents.
  4. I am in ninth-grade. I am 14-years old. This was the time when my biology teacher devised a nickname for me: Dictionary. I was a voracious reader, and thus had built up a vocabulary better than the average 14-year old student. I don’t remember which word it was whose meaning I was able to correctly tell her, but soon she affectionately started to call me Her Dictionary. Whenever while reading out a chapter in class any student would ask her the meaning of a word, she would turn to me. When I couldn’t answer, she would be so disappointed, that I soon started making it a point to read up lessons before class, and learn all the difficult words I didn’t know the meaning of. In a way, I guess, I did become the class dictionary then.
  5. I am 16 years old. I have recently joined high school. The teacher asks something and I know the answer. I raise my hand, recite the answer, and become my friend’s Encyclopedia. That was my nickname in high-school, sometimes inter-changed with ‘Wiki’ (from Wikipedia).
  6. I am 17 years, and my article has been published in a magazine. My friends look at me with awe. One of them say, You write so well. You are like a Pen. Words flow easily from your mind.
  7. I am 19, and taking an online test What Animal Are You? The answer comes – Beaver (Really, I have never even seen one in my life! But apparently, I am like one). 

If you ask my opinion, I am one part human, one part chameleon and one part of a budding flower. 

I am a chameleon. You will never be able to categorize me in one pigeon-hole. I am made up of many colours: red for assertiveness, blue for desire for peace, black for recklessness, yellow for cheerfulness, dark blue for sadness, gold for joy, green for imagination and pink for femininity…..and white to absorb all these colours into one. 

I am a budding flower. I blossom a little more everyday. Everyday as I learn something new, I open my petals a little further, and look at the world with a new perspective – see something that I never knew existed before.

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28th February 2014: Somebody’s Mother

    The woman was old and ragged and gray
And bent with the chill of the Winter’s day.

The street was wet with a recent snow
And the woman’s feet were aged and slow.

She stood at the crossing and waited long,
Alone, uncared for, amid the throng

Of human beings who passed her by
Nor heeded the glance of her anxious eyes.

Down the street, with laughter and shout,
Glad in the freedom of “school let out,”

Came the boys like a flock of sheep,
Hailing the snow piled white and deep.

Past the woman so old and gray
Hastened the children on their way.

Nor offered a helping hand to her –
So meek, so timid, afraid to stir

Lest the carriage wheels or the horses’ feet
Should crowd her down in the slippery street.

At last came one of the merry troop,
The gayest laddie of all the group;

He paused beside her and whispered low,
“I’ll help you cross, if you wish to go.”

Her aged hand on his strong young arm
She placed, and so, without hurt or harm,

He guided the trembling feet along,
Proud that his own were firm and strong.

Then back again to his friends he went,
His young heart happy and well content.

“She’s somebody’s mother, boys, you know,
For all she’s aged and poor and slow,

“And I hope some fellow will lend a hand
To help my mother, you understand,

“If ever she’s poor and old and gray,
When her own dear boy is far away.”

And “somebody’s mother” bowed low her head
In her home that night, and the prayer she said

Was “God be kind to the noble boy,
Who is somebody’s son, and pride and joy!”

– ‘Somebody’ s Mother, Mary Dow Brine

I had read this poem in fourth grade, or maybe it was fifth – I don’t remember exactly when, but I remember being mesmerized by it. By the simple association that we should treat people with the same love and care as we would to our family members, because they are someone’s family. I always felt that world peace could be achieved quite easily if everyone was to believe in this simple principle. I am sure terrorists would think thrice before bombing innocent people if they considered the pain they would be inflicting upon the families of the bereaved! But maybe world peace is too big an aim. I would be happy applying it to my everyday life. I do try to.

Maybe that is why I gave my seat up to an elderly lady in the crowded train, in the hope that someday someone might do the same for my mother.

The Sweater (A Short Story)

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The bell rang slowly as she walked into the shop. The assistant rushed forward her winning smile plastered over her face, and enquired how she might help. I want to see some balls of wool please. The lady smiled and led her through the many aisles to the furthest corner of the shop, beside the window, where they kept all sorts of sewing materials. She would get everything she wanted here, the assistant assured her.

Sarah looked at the different colour threads hanging as samples on the window, glittering in the winter sunlight. She stared at the various colours, mesmerized. It seemed to her as if someone had collected all the colours of the world and arranged them here for her perusal. And why not? Her Teddy deserved only the best. Again, she remembered his last letter. She had read it so many times, that she could by now recite it word to word. It is so cold here, darling. At night, when the snow falls, we feel as if we would freeze to death.

It was at that very moment that she had decided to knit a sweater for him. Now, again she glanced at the rainbow in front of her – the reds, the blues and the greens. All of them were so beautiful, which one should she buy. The dark red one, like the roses he used to give her everyday; the light blue one, which reminded her of the colour of the sky of the day when he proposed to her, the light yellow like the honeysuckles under which he had first kissed her, the dark emerald of her eyes in whose depths she could see the reflection of her face; the choices were endless like her memories, each a treasured jewel within her chest. Three months, was all that they had spent together. Three months of infinite joy, of tender love and wild passion. Three months before this infernal war started, before he left her. Her lips still tingled from his last kiss; his parting words echoed in her ear, Wait for me, my dear. I will come back soon.

In the end, she chose the white wool. White like the fluffy clouds they used to watch together, and imagine shapes in; white like her wedding dress; white like the rose he wore in his buttonhole on their wedding; white like his teeth, when he smiled; and white like the snow-flakes which fell around her, the day he left.

She knitted the sweater every day, patiently weaving all her love and care with the wool. If she made any blunder, she would go back, undo it and knit again, until the pattern was perfect. She would accept nothing but the best for him. At each stitch, she would imagine his face, his delight when he would see the sweater. He would swing her in his arms, so fast that the wind would race by her hair, and then they would fall down together on the lawn, laughing so loudly, that the sound would carry to the seven heavens.

Finally, after a fortnight, the sweater was ready. Only the last few stitches remained. In her enthusiasm, she pricked her hand with the knitting needle, and watched with growing dismay, as her blood seeped on the sweater, staining it a bright ugly red. Oh, she cried to herself aghast, Teddy’s sweater is spoiled. Unspeakable grief overwhelmed her heart. She could not help the tears running down her face, and she cried, burying her face in the sweater.

The doorbell rang, harshly, discordantly. Hastily, she wiped her face, and dusted down her skirt. She walked with composed steps to the door, and opened it. Two soldiers in uniform stood outside. Her heart fluttered wildly, like a trapped bird and even before they spoke, she knew, and the terrible knowledge, made her knees go weak. She collapsed on the floor, even as the soldier started to speak, We are sorry to inform you………….