(Considering the fact that I have been so sorely disappointed by books written by bloggers in recent times; yet I didn’t even blink when I spotted Annie Zadie’s book Known Turf at Crossword. I bought it immediately, forgetting I would get at least 20% discount if I bought it online and I already have too many new, unread books at home. Why? I have loved Annie Zadie’s blog, even if I discovered it tad too late.)
Known Turf is a collection of short essays – a mix of reportage (Annie is a professional journalist, has worked for Frontline) and personal memoir, which ranges from various interesting topics such as dacoits of India (really); hunger deaths, sexual harassment, casteism, Sufism to some inane, conversation subjects as drinking chai.
Book starts with the chapter about dacoits, replete with the comparisons of perceptions of dacoits as created by Hindi movies about dacoits. Annie draws heavily from Dev Anand starrer movie Dushman. [That’s another thing about Annie’s blog; her posts beautifully elucidate both overt and covert perceptions from hindi movies, some of them are at times, little known. I remember a post on her blog about how a rape victim is projected in movies. Either she’s hero’s sister who commits suicide. I do not remember other ‘or’ Annie mentioned; but I do remember a movie called Raja ki Ayegi Baarat where Rani Mukherjee asks the court that she be married to the rapist. There are many more apt hindi movie references in the book. ]She wonders why Chambal is home to dacoits and discusses dacoits from Gadariya tribe, Nirbhay Gujjar and first female dacoit Putli Bai. (No, this chapter doesn’t mention Phoolan Devi, though she fleetingly discusses her in a latter chapter. If you are looking for a profile on Phoolan Devi, most memorable one I remember is from one of Khushwant Singh’s books.) In hindsight, this chapter could be smaller, though objective writing ensures that you do not have such complaint for rest of the book.
To me, most moving chapter in the book was about hunger deaths in Sahariya tribe in Madhya Pradesh. Only for this chapter, the book was worth it. It made the meaning behind words, ‘Reality Bites’ oh so apparent. Abysmal number of tribal children in MP die young due to malnutrition. These tribals were displaced and their suffering is ensured by cruel, heartless mix of inaction and corruption right from ground level. Here’s a paragraph where Annie sums up her observations: (Page 74-75).
“I have been thinking ever since. About comments from administration officials on the Sahariya ‘culture’ of dying. About pregnant women who chew bits of gum plucked of gum trees trying to kill hunger pangs. About women who have not eaten for three days giving birth alone in dark hovels, knowing their breasts are dry. About the dismissive assistant in the nutritional rehabilitation center who said that Sahariya women hardly deserve the state’s help, because they smoke beedis. About Lakshmi, and how she was lighter than my purse. About a state that promises handouts to a group of people who are clearly on the brink, and then fails to deliver. Is this what you call being squeezed off the map?”
Other two chapters that moved me are ‘Looped with Silk and Silver’ and ‘Prone to Bondage’. The first one is about starving families of weavers and embroiderers of Benaras. Read it to know why you should not mind paying for the authentic but expensive embroidery, how much hard work that is. Second is the piece that breaks the stereotypes about affluence of Punjab. There are lot of landless, bonded labourers. Caste-ism exists, Annie recounts the story of a Dalit Bant Singh who his lost his three limbs because he refused to take his case back against rich landlords who raped his daughter.
There are chapters that discuss foeticide and infanticide in Punjab; some of which I too have written about in this angry post. Be it corruption by affluent businessman or eternal punjabi ambition to flee a phoren country or opium-baazi, Annie has covered myriad aspects of Punjab.
There is much touted chapter about Sufism, which I found it bit self-indulgent (Writer is deeply influenced by Sufism) and bit off-track with rest of book. This chapter, however, is peppered with tales of fakirs and also throws light on recent Dera Sacha Sauda controversy. Later, Annie Zaidi self-consciously talks about being a Muslim in the country and the perceptions associated with it in a secular country. You can find most of that chapter here on her blog.
She notably concludes (Page 185): All prophets have been Kafir to the rest of the world, and so have all poets and most great readers. Gandhi must have been the biggest Kafir of the subcontinent according to the imperial masters, and he certainly was one for the people who eventually killed him. Touche.
I identified with Annie when she considers which place is home. I identify because my both parents belong to different states (grandparents too have interesting story of birth and upbringing in different states); I was born elsewhere where my father happened to work; grew up in different state and live elsewhere to make my living. I had lovely time wherever I lived. And when I lived there, I thought the place as home. I thought of contributing/improving the city as best as I could. So what or where is my home?
Last but not the least, Annie writes about being a woman in India: the ‘eve teasing’, molestations, myths and statistics. This part was familiar to me since on her blog I have read several of writings on the subject in association with Blank Noise Project. Also, because I am a woman who has lived in Delhi and travelled in Bombay locals. I know what it is like. Come to think of it, I was familiar with all the references, arguments she made in this chapter: Manish Jha’s movie Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women and Pooja Singh (or Chauhan) who stripped to her undergarments just to get an FIR.
[I am not sure if most of her book is collection of posts from her blog by same name. Though she says here, not quite. In case blog is book, then it would only have been fair to put that information over book lest a regular reader of blog buys and book and is disappointed. It has happened with Great Bong’s book May I Hebb Your Attention Please. Several of his blog readers complained after buying the book. The book itself offers no such disclaimers. I think not telling your readers that some of it is pre-published (like on your blog) is dishonest.]
As P. Sainath, the eminent journalist, says on book blurb, Annie writes with ‘gentle humor’. Humor lies in simple observations as advertisements of sex clinic when you travel in any train, a butcher shop place called Murga Mahal (translated as Cock Place), the regional dialects, and so on. The book is not fairy-tale; it is full of lamentable facts and stats about India. Book may appear sedentary at a glance but interspersed as it is with Anne’s personal experience, notes and interesting literal vignettes, it holds interest.
Rating: A mixed bag; but will recommend it.
Visit this FB page to get more updates about book launches.