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Shortlisted for the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize, Mishi Saran’s The Other Side Of Light, is written beautifully – although one expects more from this gifted writer.
Review by Anjana Basu
Mishi Saran created quite an impression with her travel book Chasing The Monk’s Shadow, a blend of poetical language, history and autobiography that blended beautifully to make an unforgettable impression on the reader. It was obvious that she would go on to fiction and The Other Side Of Light is her much awaited debut novel.
The problem is that certain achievements are hard to follow, especially a book like Chasing The Monk’s Shadow. The Other Side Of Light tends to be uneven in places, despite the lyricism that is Saran’s forte.
The novel tells the story of Asha who is gifted an old camera by a friend’s mother and who discovers with the gift the art of looking at life differently. So much so that she leaves her girlfriends, Nishita, Meethi and Melana; who are described as being like ‘a blessing of unicorns’, Kabir whom she met at college and gradually fell in love with, and her parents, for life in Switzerland where she studies photography under an eccentric teacher, Jean.
The trip to Switzerland while it divides her life, also divides India’s past and present. The country is swept by the Emergency, the Khalistan movement and the riots in Bombay in 1984. Asha encounters these experiences partly in her growing years through her activist mother and partly as a photographer after her return.
The four friends with different growing pains, the activist lover with a poet father – these have a sense of the expected about them, and on occasion it feels as though separate writings were strung together on the thread of Asha’s life. However, parts of the novel certainly seem to be autobiographical and as if to confirm that, the cover photograph is taken by Saran. The “other side of light” is in fact a term used to describe certain photographic processes.
Saran’s experiences in Switzerland and her camera training in a quaint chalet come across vividly. So does her growing closeness to Akash whom she meets on the heels of the Bombay blasts after she loses Kabir, suddenly and shockingly. In fact the second half of the book post Switzerland is a smoother read, though one might wonder why so many girl friends were necessary, especially since their experiences have to be sketched in; not to mention the detail of Asha being born with a harelip, which adds very little to the narrative barring a small buzz of imperfection that niggles at Asha’s consciousness.
Given the vast terrain that she actually covers, Saran’s coming of age tale is a slim one. While her lyricism cannot be faulted, The Other Side Of Light seems to ask for the generous time and space that she gave Xuanxang in her previous book.
Publishers: Harper Collins.
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There are many mountains I need to climb just to be, just to live my life, just to have my say... because they are mountains you've built to oppress women.
Trigger Warning: This deals with various kinds of violence against women including rape, and may be triggering for survivors.
I haven’t climbed a literal mountain yet
Was busy with the metaphorical ones – born a woman
Fighting for the air that should have come free
And I am one of the privileged ones, I realize that
Yet, if I get passionate, just like you do
I will pay for it – with burden, shame, – and possibly a life to carry
So, my mountains are the laws you overturn
My mountains are the empty shelves where there should have been pills
When people picked my dadi to place her on the floor, the sheet on why she lay tore. The caretaker came to me and said, ‘Just because you touched her, one of the men carrying her lost his balance.’
The death of my grandmother shattered me. We shared a special bond – she made me feel like I was the best in the world, perfect in every respect.
Apart from losing a person who I loved, her death was also a rude awakening for me about the discrimination women face when it comes to performing the last rites of their loved ones.
On January 23 this year, I lost my 95 year old grandmother (dadi) Nirmala Devi to cardiac arrest. She was that one person who unabashedly praised me. The evening before her death she praised the tea I had made and said that I make better tea than my brother (my brother and I are always competing about who makes the best chai).
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