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  Books   29 Jul 2023  Book Review | In defence of living things, big and small

Book Review | In defence of living things, big and small

Published : Jul 30, 2023, 12:10 am IST
Updated : Jul 30, 2023, 12:10 am IST

The story has a powerful message that renders its effect both long-lasting and satisfying.

Cover photo of 'I Named My Sister Silence' by Manoj Rupda. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'I Named My Sister Silence' by Manoj Rupda. (Photo by arrangement)

As far as literary style goes, this Hindi-language novella follows the tradition of Indian language realist fiction of the progressive genre; frank, linear and with no artistic flourishes or flavourings. The writer’s imagination and storytelling skill manifests itself in the form of this story which is a fictitious first-person essay, recalling three instances when an object grand and awe-inspiring was taken out by powerful forces. For the unnamed narrator, these are life-changing events and frame his bildungsroman.

Translated by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, I Named My Sister Silence by Manoj Rupda is about a Gond Gowari boy in central India who is raised by his stepsister within a boorish, uncaring family. With the help of her consistent support and at her initiative, he educates himself and goes to engineering college. He takes a job in the merchant navy upon graduating.

The first large creature he sees torn down is an elephant chained to a tree attacked by a pack of wild dogs; impuissant and conscious in demise. The second is his ship which had a good five-six years left to be decommissioned, but it is perhaps 2008, and recession hits. The destruction saga of the third forms the meat of our story. A spoiler? It can hardly be called dystopic because we are all in it. We simply play our respective parts. The writer’s success lies in that its horror still keeps the reader rivetted to the page. Invested as they are in the characters, they will seek to learn the outcome.

The boy is still in school when he spies his sister stowing away guns and conducting secret nightly meetings with Maoists. He returns on his first leave from work after years to find his village uprooted. His father has passed away and his mother is running a prostitution ring at a nearby refugee camp where most of the villagers are penned. Right down the middle, they are split in two groups: the ‘special police officers’ armed and coerced by police to shoot their own brethren, and often shot in turn merely to indict the latter, who are Maoists. The corruption is so blatant that were it not so sad it would be funny. A statue has been erected of the boy who has been declared a martyr. Someone took advantage of his long absence to pocket the compensation money. The boy falls ill and is rescued by the Maoists who send him on his way.

Aside from the thought-provoking denouement, my takeaway from the book was its passages interpreting the subtle psychology of survivor’s guilt, trauma and transformation flawlessly. They were raw, detailed enough to be clear and curiously accurate. What I appreciated a little less, perhaps, was the sweeping broad brush stroke with which the author conflated profiteers with bigots. I refer to the Jim Crow era lynchings and a father slaying his five minor daughters during Partition described in the novel with the narrator likening the violence to corporations ravaging the forest in his musings.

The story has a powerful message, nonetheless, that renders its effect both long-lasting and satisfying. Thanks to Hansda for this sensitive translation and for curating the book.

I Named My Sister Silence

By Manoj Rupda

Translated by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar


pp. 180, Rs.499

Tags: book review, maoists, gonds