BOOK REVIEW

The Man who learnt to Fly but Could not Land

Here is a novel that speaks to millions about the instability of our country’s current fragile condition. The death of democracy. The sweeping of power from the smaller public to transfer of it to the ones who control economy and government in their pockets. The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could not Land is at once a whisper to the artistic society and a scream to the political pivots.

A poet and political activist, Kottoor was active in political and literary circles in Malabar but never moved centre stage to etch his name in history. He symbolises many such activists who are the lifeline of any movement. They remain anonymous or, at best, as footnotes in the pages of history. We don’t know their names or their achievements or about their families. But each person must have had his/her own story. KTN Kottoor, a fictional character, was one such person.

Through Kottoor, we step into the main political movements that rocked Malabar and meet the leaders who were at the forefront of those struggles.

The Man Who Learnt to Fly but Could not Land is thinly veiled fiction. It barely hides that the author borrows everything in its pages from real history and from the events of the Freedom Struggle. This is a book about India’s cultural history, and in that sense, it is a good one. For those who are familiar with cultural and political scene in the last century, it’s difficult not to recognize nearly every character as a real person or escape the novel’s use of inter-textuality. It doesn’t try and hide cheeky references either. This intermixing of fact with fiction is something that struck me right at the first sight. As the author goes on shifting voices, from active to passive, to passive to active, from second to third person throughout the book, you continuously question yourself what is real and what is not. It is almost a Ramachandra Guha biography stuck in an intermixing fiction like that of Thayil.

KTN Kottoor struck me at many different levels. His efficiency at judging political situations at a young age is something we can hope each one in the youth to have to save this country from doom. His poetic sense and his incredible clapback at stupid reviewers was such a spectacular scene to read. He laughs and says an incredible line which even today after a whole century is applicable at many levels, “….what they have read is not the poem. They have been reading the time and context of the poem. I am not a party to that.”

Though this book has a whole plethora of characters, a plate full of people who are different from each other in many many ways, yet this unusual satiable and acceptable protagonist is the apple of my eyes. I have not come across at such a dominating and strong protagonist presence in a novel in a very long time. Rajeevan’s style of storytelling and commentary has left me moved. There is not even a single moment in the book where you are not remembered of the protagonist. This is something that often only biographies have but to achieve this in a novel is really commendable.

One of the most striking scenes of the book comes right at the start when Kunjappa Nair, the father of Kottoor dies. The scene and it’s striking narration catches the breath of a reader. There is no gloom in the scene but rather a sensation of realisation in it. The way “independence” required a “sacrifice” is such a strong catchphrase. Rajeevan’s striking power of telling the scene with robust prose and ensuring that the reader gets not gloom but rather the sense of freedom and liberation after reading the part. The scene that made Kottoor who he is even the one that makes the reader cling to the book.

Why to name the book with such a long title? The title strikes you as a lightning bolt after you are done with the book. Kottoor learns to fly, to fly till the sun and enjoy the fluttering winds of the higher skies, above the clouds. He gets up from stratch, from his father’s death’s misery, grows wings and flies at the highest points. But as the country is caught in chaos in its rebirth, the life of this idealist is caught in the maelstrom. Not knowing how to land properly, he goes missing into thin air like a kite lost after the string is cut.

The additional writeups are masterpieces in themselves. One is hit by a sense of conflict when reading it, is it the author speaking through the protagonist or is it the protagonist acting like th author? As one ponders over this fact and tries to unknot to the tight and complex knot, he is sucked into the short prose’s unimaginable beauty in language and it’s attachment to the realism and it’s sense of current timing. The poems etched to perfection, liked diamonds formed under pressure, present fractured and hidden within miles of paragraphs.

An essential quality of works like these is a kind of boredom with the sheer exhaustiveness of details. This results in a constant turning of the pages to the endnotes. As a reading experience, this book is exasperating as well as exhilarating. T. P. Rajeevan handles the jargon and maxims with quite an expertise, satisfying the need of the themes. His style, depending upon the demands of the mood in the stories, could be racy or reserved, flowing or laconic, narrative or symbolic. While weaving the language into the fabric of his style, he maintains a logical balance to form a regular pattern. A novel with a difference, it tells us very human stories that make us smile, laugh out loud and sometimes get jolted. Hard. At other times it evokes poetry that makes the heart sing. The book is part fiction, part biography and part cultural criticism and it’s through its irreverential blurring of these lines that the book delights. This is among the best historical fiction I have ever read. Complex and fascinating. A treat for globetrotters who like to get under the skin of complex places.

Disclaimer: Thanks to Hachette India for sending me a copy of this book in lieu of an honest review.

Originally published on A Hindu’s View

Listicle

Indian language translations to look out for in 2021

The year 2020 was consumed wrestling with a predicament of unimaginable proportions. However, things were not so bleak for translated works in Indian literature. Last year was especially pivotal in driving home the perseverance of translations.

Transcending the challenges posed by the worldwide pandemic, translations shone in their roles of bridging cultures and amplifying under-represented voices in Indian-language literature. Masterpieces like Pandey Kapil’s Bhojpuri novel Phoolsunghi and pioneering Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s short story collection Ratno Dholi were made available to the English-speaking world for the very first time. They also served as a reminder that our journey through the nuanced and variegated depth of our literary roots is ever-continuous. It will keep leading us to chart new territories every year.

With that in mind, we have compiled a list of the upcoming translations from across Indian languages, which are currently gearing up for their much-anticipated release. Diverse and thought-provoking, add these riches of Indian language literature to your reading list for 2021:
 

BENGALI

Kaste
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Arunava Sinha

Through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra, Anita Agnihotri’s Kaste illuminates a series of intersecting and overlapping crises: female foeticide, sexual assault, caste violence, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations. Translated as The Sickle by Arunava Sinha, this gripping fictional narrative tells the darkest truths about contemporary India. It is set to release this March, by Juggernaut Books.


Ether Army
by Sirsho Bandopadhyay
Translated by Arunava Sinha

This powerful novel narrates the true story of a handful of broadcasters in the port city of Chittagong in East Pakistan, who joined the Liberation war with the only weapon they had: a radio transmitter. We are hoping Westland Books releases it on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh Liberation War.  


 
Mahanadi: A Novel about a River
by Anita Agnihotri
Translated by Nivedita Sen

Woven around the mighty river Mahanadi that originates in Chattisgarh, Anita Agnihotri’s novel documents the life and struggles of people through the confluence of myths, legends and archaeological anecdotes. First published in Bengali (2015), this translation by Nivedita Sen is expected to be released in May through Niyogi Books. 


Amrita Kumbher Sandhane

by Samaresh Basu

Written by the Sahitya Akademi-winning Bengali author Samaresh Basu, Amrita Kumbher Sandhane is narrated through the gaze of the protagonist, who has come to the Kumbh Mela—one of the largest Indian religious fairs —not out of any religious sentiment, but merely to see and understand people.

 

 
 
Chandal Jibon Trilogy — Part 2
by Manoranjan Byapari 

Translated by V. Ramaswamy 

While The Runaway Boy was released late last year, it introduced us to Jibon, who arrives at a refugee camp in West Bengal with his Dalit parents and later runs away to Calcutta to earn his living, we are anxiously awaiting Part 2 of the trilogy.

 


Chhera Chhera Jibon

by Manoranjan Byapari

Translated as A Tattered Life, Manoranjan Byapari’s most recent standalone novel is about a boy called Imon who goes to jail in his mother’s arms, and is let out in his early twenties long after his mother has passed.

 
 
 
 


TAMIL

Generations
by Neela Padmanabhan
Translated by Kaa. Naa. Subramanium

Set in the 1940s around a community of Tamil speakers who live on the borders of modern Kerala, the novel offers a sensitively drawn profile of the passing of a traditional way of life into modernity and the nostalgia that comes with change. The book is expected to release this June, by Niyogi Books.

 

The Collected Stories of Imayam
Translated by Padma Narayanan

Imayam is one of the foremost and bestselling Dalit writers in Tamil, closely associated with the Dravidian movement and its politics. Speaking Tiger brings together his selected short stories in English for the very first time in this collection. We are eagerly looking forward to this one.


ASSAMESE

Five Novellas about Women
by Indira Goswami
Translated by Dibyajyoti Sarma

From the pioneer of feminist Assamese literature, here’s a cross-sectional portrayal of her lesser-known writings with a special focus on women. The lives of the rural poor, the situation of widows, the plight of the urban underclass and various social constraints under which people are forced to live, are depicted in these impactful narratives. The book is slated to release this July, by Niyogi Books. 

Incidentally, we have learnt of a collection called Tales from Assam by Ranjita Biswas, that is on the cards later this year, by Rupa Publications.


MALAYALAM

The Book of Passing Shadows
by C.V. Balakrishnan
Translated by T. M. Yesudasan

Set in a Malabar village of Christian settlers, C.V. Balakrishnan’s The Book of Passing Shadows resonates with the pathos of the human spirit caught in the travails of earthly life. Translated by T.M.Yesudasan, the novel has remained popular with readers since the Malayalam original Aayusinte Pusthakam was first published in 1984.


Theeyoor Chronicles
by N. Prabhakaran
Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Theeyoor Chronicles by N. Prabhakaran follows the trail of a journalist who visits Theeyoor or ‘the land of fire’ to investigate uncanny happenings. Interspersed with history, myths, nature, political events, and everyday concerns of ordinary people—this novel is widely regarded as a masterpiece of contemporary Malayalam literature. We can’t wait for its release.


Lesbian Cow and Other Stories
by Indu Menon

The most outspoken contemporary feminist writer from Kerala, many consider Indu Menon a successor to Kamala Das, having inherited the same progressive outlook. In Lesbian Cow and Other Stories, she uses raw images, bolder language and empathetically records the lives of marginalised sections of society.

 
 
 
Collection of Stories
by Shihabudheen Poythumkadavu
Translated by J Devika

On the collection, translator J Devika says that ‘Shihabudheen’s stories are sometimes realistic, sometimes terrifyingly not…you can sense in his writing the deep anxieties of the Muslim male and all kinds of inversions…and crossings between the human and non-human universes.’ We wonder what this abstract collection would read like.

 
KANNADA

This Life at Play: A Memoir
by Girish Karnad
Translated by Srinath Perur and Girish Karnad

First published in Kannada in 2011—and being made available to English readers for the very first time—This Life at Play provides an unforgettable glimpse into the life of a towering figure on India’s cultural scene—actor, film director, writer, and playwright—Girish Karnad.

 
HINDI

Where Silence Reigned Once
by Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated by Satti Khanna

From one of the finest Hindi writers of our times, comes another translation: Where Silence Reigned Once tells the story of a group of young kids who discover a forest where sound has long ceased to be. They call out to each other but can’t be heard. This book expected to release in April by Westland Books.


Fifty-five Pillars, Red Walls
by Usha Priyamvada
Translated by Daisy Rockwell

An iconic work of modern Hindi fiction, Usha Priyamvada’s Pachpan Khambe Laal Deewarein is hailed for its unflinching and deeply sensitive exploration of the emotional life of a single woman in Delhi in the 1960s. One of Priyamvada’s best-known works, we are eagerly waiting for one of our very first translations in collaboration with Speaking Tiger.


I Haven’t Seen Mandu
by Swadesh Deepak
Translated by Jerry Pinto

Recovering from a long spell of recurring bipolar psychosis, the celebrated Hindi writer Swadesh Deepak finished the manuscript of his memoir, Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha. Indian literature—in Hindi or any other language—has never produced anything as harrowing, yet strangely hypnotic as this. It remains one of the most revealing and powerful first-person accounts of mental illness and we are eagerly looking forward to Jerry Pinto’s translation to make it accessible to English readers.


Fragments of Happiness
by Shrilal Shukla
Translated by Niyati Bafna

In Shrilal Shukla’s Fragments of Happiness, an ordinary businessman from Delhi, Durgadas is apprehended for murder. Translated from Hindi by Niyati Bafna, the novel explores the psychological aftermath of the event by delving into the tumult of ordinary people coming to terms with their desires and helplessness. 

 

GUJARATI

Krishnayan
by Kaajal Oza Vaidya

Kishnayan is indisputably Gujarati literature’s biggest bestseller, having sold over 200,000 copies and gone into 28 editions. This tender, lyrical novel starts when Krishna is injured by Jara’s arrow, and gives us glimpses into Krishna’s last moments on Earth. The most important women in his life—Radha, Rukmini, Satyabhama and Draupadi—appear before him. The novel is stitched together with what they meant to Krishna.


MARATHI

Battlefield
by Vishram Bedekar
Translated by Jerry Pinto

A tragic love story between Herta, a Jew escaping Hitler’s Germany, and Chakradhar Vidhwans, a Marathi man returning from England to India, the novel was originally published as Ranaangan in 1939. Translated by Jerry Pinto, this novel is a rousing investigation of nationality against the backdrop of World War II. We are looking to read this fresh translation, sometime this year.


SPECIAL MENTION

Voices from the Lost Horizon: Stories and Songs of the Great Andamanese
by Anvita Abbi 

Voices from the Lost Horizon is the first-ever compilation of folk tales and songs, rendered to Prof. Abbi and her team, by the Great Andamanese people in local settings. It comes with audio and video recordings of the stories and songs to retain the originality of the oral narratives.