Rekindling hope for a dark subcontinent

Book: "False Sanctuaries: Stories from the Troubled Territories of South Asia"; Author: Meenakshi Iyer; Publisher: Bibliophile South Asia (Promila & Co); Price: Rs.395; Pages: 282

You cannot shun war and run away from the death and destruction that follows you. You cannot dodge the fear of terrorism, bomb blasts or a fidayeen. You cannot shut yourself to the latest round of intifada or Kani Jung, threatening to suck life out of your hinges.

You cannot avoid these things in the 21st century's new war zone - South Asia. Yet you live, smile, shake off the dust as if nothing happened and move on, braving all odds and, YOU are the hero of 'False Sanctuaries: Stories from the troubled territories of South Asia'.

Freelance journalist and South Asia observer Meenakshi Iyer's debut book is about people in this sub-continent who have kept their hopes alive in hopeless situations, who have failed, or have been failed by their governments, and have yet moved on, alone and undeterred, to face fresh threats awaiting them.

The partition and beyond, the bomb blasts in Mumbai, the insurgency in Kashmir, the Taliban backlash in Afghanistan, and life in a displacement camp in Sri Lanka -- the book is a collection of short stories set across South Asia, trying to locate the pulse of defiant individual expression in a people scarred by terror.

"A Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka, Kashmir using its anti-India protests, Afghanistan under the Taliban -- setting her fiction in the heart of conflict, Meenakshi Iyer captures dramatic encounters of survival with sharpness. Unburdened by sentimentality, this collection of short stories celebrates hope," says Meena Kandasamy, an acclaimed poet, writer and activist, about the book.

The book talks about Riyaz who wants to be a chef when those around him want to pick up arms. It is about Purab, whose only dream is to take his grandfather to his home in Dera Ismail Khan; Ramnath Purandare, an affable Marathi who fails Mumbai; and Dharmambal, who chides herself to believe that she is childless the moment it is revealed that her son is an LTTE pointsman.

Set against a realistic backdrop of conflict and terror, the characters may be imaginary or unrealistic, yet there is a deep-rooted belief that we can find them somewhere within us. It is as if we have met Riyaz Wajahat before, if not in Kashmir then probably in Bangladesh or Nepal. Landscapes change, people don't.

"Grief, memories and melancholy are briefly relieved by the moments of happiness that come to the people of these stories," says the author, whose stint in mainstream media woke her to the inner uprootedness and unerasable scars of the mind bequeathed to the people by crass, divisive politics and policymakers of the subcontinent.

In short, the book is a take on the "lives of South Asians at a primary human level, at which grief and melancholy overpower all other emotions".

(Kunja Joshi can be contacted at

Kunja Joshi

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