Nights of the Dark Moon by Tutu Dutta

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Not any kind of review but just some thoughts on a young adult storybook, I read recently. I had placed this post on my Facebook Timeline and I thought that it would serve as a kind of incentive… a motivating factor to get me blogging about books again. This would be a one-off as my love of books lie in serious fiction that focus on relationships. I am not a fan of horror or supernatural elements. I do love talking about my favourite books. I just need to recall the discipline:

‘I ferried Malaysian writer, Tutu Dutta’s newest storybook called Nights of the Dark Moon, published by Marshall Cavendish Editions in Singapore, to Dublin, a few days ago. It will prove an enthralling addition to my library. It is a beautiful looking book comprising 13 gothic Asian folktales. These also include two from Africa. I feel like a child again.. ready to cherish the glossy cover, thick cream pages & illuminating b/w sketches that enfold the start of every tale. These are from Dutta’s own talented hand.

At just RM49.90 (Malaysian Ringgit), Nights of the Dark Moon is no less, a great gift for an older child. After having read it all, I would term the collection as grim fairy- tales; some even signifying high mystery and adventure. All stay riveting, captivating and gripping in their context. Each tale offers stimulating wisdom for a lifetime. Tutu Dutta narrates her stories with an engaging vocabulary, a great love for thoughtful storytelling and also, with painstaking affection.

Just think of the few ugly demons that pop up as more of witches & wizards bent on their missions of hell.

My favourite stays the first one, The Haunted Bridge of Agi. Possibly because, an older Malay friend with great knowledge of Malay culture, told me two years ago, about a true and eerie ghost tale… this very kind of bridge is said to exist somewhere in Perak state of the Malaysian Peninsula. There are said to be night ghosts on the bridge and the only ones that they will not harm – that are allowed to make a return crossing safely – are those holding a royal Perakian bloodline. Otherwise, you will be faced with a devil in front of you at some point, and your wily, frightening escape, will then depend on how bravely you handle the shock.

Although the tales in the book are ancient Asian folklore in retrospect but they appear to hold a distinct European flavour in parts, especially with the dramatic but tragic love story gone wrong in India’s The Weeping Lady. It was so romantic, I even forgot it was a ghost story and supposed to raise the hairs on my neck.

Then, I found another Indian tale, King Vikram and Betaal the Vampire to be truly ticklish. I mean, when you think about it, these days, we live in such an evil world that even the Vampire here, appears a real gem. It knows how to hold a civil dialogue with an irate King and unlike many today, practices its own serious moral code of ethics and integrity.

The stories although nicely arranged, proved a rather tame read but then, that is understandable as I am now an older adult and have already devoured hundreds and hundreds of similar tales like these, as a child. It would be a natural effect. Hang Nadim – the legend of old Singapore’s swordfish battles, was narrated to me in the classroom at nine; by our Primary School teacher, who loved oral storytelling. She was called Cikgu Norsiah. When I first heard it, I was held enraptured to my little, wooden chair in Standard 3.

I also know of the Yoruba tale, The Curse of the Iroko Tree, that originated possibly from Ibadan. I don’t know if I had read this from some African literature in my library or picked up the tale of a child found in a tree and had to be returned to it as an adult, from some Yoruba classic film which I would have watched. A lot of Yoruba films rely on proverbs and oral-storytelling of old but I can’t remember the source, now.

Still, another two elements I strongly feel, that might have removed any possibility of a chilling fear could also have been the following: One: With the exception of the illustration, heralding The Shapeshifter of Co Lao – a clearly ghostly drawing, all the rest of the sketches were pleasant and pleasing. Maybe in future, Tutu Dutta could challenge herself to create more frightening images. That would help the ‘ghostly flavour’ of the book by leaps and bounds.

Also, in real life, I’ve found with a few good supernatural encounters of my own – incidents that defy logic – that fear pops up suddenly from sideways or behind a person, without warning. It’s almost lawless, there’s never a perfect timing or order. In the Nights of the Dark Moon, where the moon becomes the motivating element for a ghost to appear, after a while, there this a strong chance that this may appear predictable and formulaic with its tidy and orderly protocol.

The child might know what to expect in advance, further down the pages and so, both excitement and anticipation, could be sadly curbed.

I think that Nights of the Dark Moon would be a wonderful meditation even as parents or grandparents choose to read to a child or to have chats with then, either a 10, 11 or 12 year old. Not as a bedtime read of course, but as something far more ruminative. Where the child could absorb good judgement ie. foresight and understanding, about people in the real world today – both good and bad. Some evil can be eliminated, some others like bullies or thugs – well… it’s best to keep a careful distance.

Perhaps, more importantly also, on how not to be naive or to trust just any stranger too easily and also, to recognise that time is probably the best teacher in the aspect of studying human characterisation. Also, many other lifelong and necessary ethics that may be drawn upon, to make the child rise as a fabulous thinker turning it eventually, into an adult reader, holding profound intuition.’

Further Reading:

Tutu Dutta’s Blog

How to Purchase Nights of the Dark Moon from Malaysia
Note: Speaking from my own experience, MPH Bookstores in Malaysia are excellent with international courier deliveries and I have received my book parcels here in Europe in the past, in record time.

 

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After a Long Hiatus – August 7th, 2017

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A big apology for those who read me faithfully, in the past. I haven’t been here for a long while as I was deathly ill for close to a year. Perhaps someday, I shall feel inclined to talk about it. However, I am now well enough to blog about books again. I find blogging regularly these days to be a difficult discipline but am glad I never gave up. Still, since I am presently, surfing  the road to recovery, I read whatever I crave at the moment, which could just be about anything although I stay inclined towards serious fiction. Literary fiction is what holds my heart.

For many months, I couldn’t read anything at all so it’s good to say hello to my own trusty library and also, bookshops again. I still own a mysterious love for Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature. I seem to really enjoy reading stories on Islamic regions probably because it is a point-of-focus that proves illuminating and intriguing for me. Or perhaps, because I was born in Malaysia although I now travel and spend quite a bit of time in Dublin, Ireland, where I am at the moment. I also love British fiction and stories of the Malay Archipelago. It feels really good to be back and being able once more, to reclaim the desire to write about my favourite reads, after such a long, long time away.

Then and Now

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For a few good book posts in the past, please scroll down and for new book posts, it all begins again here from now. Hope you like my subterranean photograph which I shot of summery tree-leaves being reflected in the water, while I was at St. Stephen Green’s park in Dublin. For a touch of celebration, I used an animated feature to show the moving ripples.  – Susan Abraham

animatedwater

To Fleece a Kiss

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by Susan Abraham

Dear Readers,

After almost 14 months, I am resurrecting this books blog. I open up with a forgotten Moorish custom. I look forward to writing once more,  about the kinds of world literature I love to read from specific international regions and also other things like art films and traditional coffee cultures, to be found in the Middle-East. morocco

Here is an ancient Moorish custom where if a man on wanting to avenge blood is able to trespass victoriously on the land of a different tribe and kiss one of their women on her breasts; with his lips – if he can succeed in doing this – then he becomes a brother to his new kinsmen who will defend him and offer protection from dangerous enemies. A valued & original antique print that I purchased from Charing Cross Road in  London, England on  April 29th of 2014.

Afsaneh: Short Stories by Iranian Women

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by Susan Abraham

Short stories by Iranian women edited by *Kaveh Basmenji

This book of 20 unusual short stories by Iranian women edited and translated by the 48-year old journalist, Kaveh Basmenji and spanning several decades, is deeply melancholic with its spartan prose.

A profound sadness with no respect for the etiquette of pretense, hovers like a funeral wake in calling out for each story’s theme, no matter the character’s nested joys or sorrows. A poetic atmosphere, designed to haunt and trigger lugubrious reflections and this; leading to a startling introspection, is what lends the reader, its lavish beauty.

No doubt, the English-Language collection has been translated as closely as possible from the Persian and so there is no boastful writerly approach or superficial sophisticated style one way or the other.

Drawn from a rigid faithfulness, expect plainly-written lines like “I went there seldom” or “He smiled at me also.” Yet, these are extraordinary and memorable. In Simin Daneshvar’s To Whom Shall I Say Hello, one may be feted to unusual phrases like “3 ripe daughters” and a “giant of a wife”. Or perhaps, “Someone is clawing at my entrails again.”

Stories thoughtfully sketched by reowned writers like Shahrnoosh Parsipour, Zohreh Hatami and Fereshtei Sari among others only serve to search a woman’s heart with a resignation of never-ending sincerity and pain.

In the collected tales, the Iranian woman is not as worried over physical circumstances or as what the excruciating demands of religion may prove itself to be. Rather, she is concerned with family ties, a parent’s approval or a man’s touch and this in a sadly idealistic way where no happy ending may be celebrated on the horizon.

The challenge is to wisely capture the valuable meaning of existence. As such, she may not question her chador but rather her carers in those frightening twilight years. Would her husband leave? Would the snow bury a village home? Would a nasty son in law ever let her see a daughter? Would she still find herself a bed to sleep in at 80 or would she be left to die somewhere unkind? And so forth.

The reader is able to seek out philosophical truths and a pained realism stemming from a simple woman’s heart. The message of the authors, having lived through different eras are all the same.

The gentle Iranian woman from days gone would have desired to love and live with equal eagerness and bountiful joy for the sole purpose of a full engagement with life; only to have found her struggles latched in remoteness, from the way destiny would ruthlessly weave its thick web around her.

*Kaveh Basmenji lives in Prague and is the author of the 272-page Tehran Blues: Youth Culture in Iran, published by Saqi Books (2005).

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi

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by Susan Abraham

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadivi is a no-holds barred war story. It offers an intriguing storyline and one laced with tragedy, from start to finish. The dense plot reflecting battlefronts with the same atmospheric aura as pitiful families, lies condensed within this 292-page paperback, that may remain as beautifully encased and yet as vulnerable, as I still remember another beloved war story. That was Fair Stood the Wind for France, written by the famous gentleman farmer and prolific novelist, H.E. Bates (1944, UK).

In The Age of Orphans, the reader is treated to shocking disclosures of barbaric violence attributed to torture of rebel fighters and the odd sexual encounter, through mismatched opportunity between hero and villian. In the same breath, Khadivi’s brilliant literary genius, is careful to caress ruffled feathers and brutal scenes, using an assortment of haunting reflections. Her refined and elegant vocabulary is beguiling, to say the least.

Briefly, the crux of the plot is that it starts off being set, in the early turn of the 20th century, before the Shah of Persia, came into power. It will eventually work its way down into modernity. Reza, a little Kurdish boy, living with his father’s rebel and misplaced tribe, high up in the Zagros (Persian) Mountains, idolises his Maman (mother), while all around him, brave men prepare to take on the army.

The Kurds want their own land and country. Unaware, Reza appears tender, gentle and sensitive…a kind, pensive little boy who takes delight in heaping affection upon his mother and by feeding at her breasts, every chance he gets. However, he is prepared for early manhood by his father and neighbouring men, who take him into the caves and through a painful ritual, announce his manhood.

Reza suffers the first injustice at being separated from his Maman. A man no longer suckles at his mother’s breasts he is told with fury by an irate, rude father…often callous to his son’s demands. To Reza’s red-faced candour and very much a misfit in his own society, he is laughed at by the others and teased by the girls. He and his mother meet in a secret place, so that Reza may still feed on her milk. This secret tryst is soon discovered by the menfolk who laugh out loud and make his maman go insane. Being unofficially mad, she takes to hovering about in an isolated garden. Reza is eventually taken into battle with his father, where ambitious plans fail dismally in an army massacre. Reza observes the series of brutal murders with horror and that of his own father, being stabbed and kicked to death.

The foundation of the novel, begins from here.

Reza is adopted by an insensitive but amused army, together with other orphaned little boys who all vye for favour with rivalry, and soon begin their training as soldiers. Eventually, Reza rises into a powerful rank and with a stern, po-faced conjecture but terribly guilty conscience at the same time, fights against his own people. The Kurds naturally see him as a traitor but are too afraid of his power. However, one cruel farmer, takes actions into his own hands that will change Reza’s destiny in a shocking, sudden way. By now, our protagonist has properly hardened his heart and turned appropriately cold and distant, towards everyone in general. He contains all the attributes of an actor, heroic, handsome, brooding and charismatic.

Reza marries a beautiful Persian woman, with a mind of her own. She hates the Kurds and brings their children up to reflect the same misgivings. Materialistic and selfish, she takes revenge on Reza, whom she feels has short-changed her with a failed promise of glitzy wealth and status, by sleeping with other men. She earns herself a scarlet reputation.

Not that Reza minds of course. As the years flee and we now see ourselves in modern-day Iran, we also observe an increasily brooding Reza, who feels an immsense sadness at having betrayed the Kurds. He has never got over missing and losing his mother and through a chained series of events, this is naturally reflected in Reza’s initial experience with women.

The novel grows with sharp strength as the plot progresses through Khadivi’s easy ability, that allows her to reveal the often hidden but affectionate heart of Reza. Slowly but surely, despite all his brutalities, the reader learns to love him. Khadivi avoids the usual sentiment associated with heartbreaking novels, that trace a deep sense of emotion.

She does this by seeming to write with a strong masculine hand and one suspects that she rides through her own played out brutal scenes, with nary the blink of an eyelid. Her story is devoid of emotion and sentiment is played out through narration. One expects a thick maze of skilled literary metaphors and complex wordplay, poetic in rhythm and structure, and all of which are managed beautifully by Khadivi herself.

I rarely do this, but I feel that unless one is at home with serious fiction, I become protective of the author’s genius in this case, to warn the lover of general fiction or lighter literary reads, so as to thread with caution. Perhaps because I am a writer myself, that it would pain me to hear someone complain of a novel being too complex or dry, or dull, solely because of a lack of capacity to understand the author’s cleverness.

I marvel at the workings of the human spirit that seek to expand the mind and heart to unfathomable possbilities. And so it currently is with me. From an intial love of Middle-Eastern literature, I fell in love with Iranian culture and the Arts and to think, that I am now deeply curious about Kurdish history and literature. This, however gothic and foreboding, it may appear to be. My only other experience with Kurdish history and society has been in the form of a famous Iranian film, called Blackboards, made by one of the nation’s youngest award-winning film directors, 28 year old Samira Makhmalbaf.

I was held captivated by the vast isolated landscapes that made for the border of Iran and Iraq, and the lifelike performance of Kurdish refugees on their way to escaping an enemy life. The refugees all nurtured a sole dream…to reach a promised land and despite its serious connotations; the film proved highly comical and witty, with its never-ending satire. It all involved a small group of men who carried blackboards like bird wings, on their backs, so as to bring education to remote regions. However through a certain circumstance, a teacher end up trailing the refugees instead and reluctantly enters her own chapter of high comedy.

Some Poetry and a Film Clip (Iranian Cinema)

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by Susan Abraham

Captions: 1st b/w pic above is of Tehran professor, novelist & playwright, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, while below are a film clip from It’s Winter, directed by one of Iran’s new wave of contemporary film-makers, Rafi Pitts and final picture sketch of the late Persian poet, Mehdi Akhvan Sales or otherwise, popularly known as M. Omid

The poem Winter of 1955 (Tehran) written by the late Iranian poet, Mehdi Akhvan Sales or otherwise, popularly known as M. Omid was a true scholar and romantic, lauded for his quiet passions and judged as a fine contemporary Persian poet in his time.

M. Omid was enthusiastic in exploring different methods of picturing poetry and in composing new style epics and social poems.

As a matter of interest, in Iran, the winter solstice celebrated for centuries on December 21st, is called after a Syric word, Shab-e-yalda, which refers to the birthday of the sun or the renewal of its power and its rituals which once followed ancient Egyptian traditions.

This contemporary narrative piece translated by Mahvash Shahegh Hariri ,describes the winter of 1955 in Tehran. Winter of 1955 (Tehran) or called Zemestan.

“They are not going to answer your greeting, their heads are in their jackets.
Nobody is going to raise his head, to answer a question or to see a friend.
The eyes cannot see beyond the feet,
the road is dark and slick.
If you stretch a friendly hand towards anybody,
he hardly brings his hand out of his pocket,
because the cold is so bitter.
The breath which comes out of his lungs,
becomes a dark cloud, and stands like a wall in front of your eyes.
While your own breath is like this,
what do you expect from your distant or close friends?
MY gentle Messiah, O, dirty dressed monk,
the weather is so ungently cold.
You be warm and happy!
You answer my greeting and open the door!
This is me, your nightly guest, an unhappy gypsy;
this is me, a kicked up, afflicted stone,
this is me, a low insult of creation,
an untuned melody.
I am neither white nor black. I am colorless.
Come and open the door, see how cheerless I am.
O, my dear host, your nightly guest is shivering outside.
There is no hail outside, no death;
if you hear any sound, it is the sound of cold and teeth.
I have come tonight to pay up my loan.
I have come tonight to leave my debt beside my mug.
What are you saying, that, it is too late, it is dawn, it is day?
What you see on the sky, is not the redness after dawn,
it is the result of the winter’s slap,
On the sky’s cheeks.
And your universal sun, dead or alive, is hidden by the long coffin of the dark.
O, partner go and get the wine ready, the days are same as nights
They are not going to answer your greeting,
the air is gloomy, doors are closed,
the heads are in jackets, the hands are hidden,
the breaths are clouds, the people are tired and sad,
the trees are crystallized skeletons,
the earth is low-spirited the roof of the sky is low,
the sun and moon are hazy, It is winter.”

I had read that poem through several times. A sophisticated narration indeed by M. Omid. In spite of his wretched complaints of the cold, I found in reading the poem, that I may have just been studying a film reel with an engaging storytelling clip. The poem produced a strange but convincing surreal effect on me. (Caption: fr It’s Winter)

This reminds me of several Iranian films in the vein of Niki Karimi’s One Night, set in similar formats with bold plots destined to create an etheral effect. Filmmakers take advantage of the rugged landscapes by producing stunning cinematography. The script is often spartan, the plot is likely to end with an unsolved riddle and when anyone does utter lines, the renditions or supposed conversations are almost taciturn in speech.

Much of a plot is left to silent movements and facial expressions Besides, the winters in Iran are bitterly cold. Such mannerisms in comparison with the descriptions of cinema and poetry, would be familiar.

In this case, 47 year old Rafi Pitt‘s highly-applauded film, It’s Winter, – see video/trailer – spotted an isolated village setting in the outer hills and bore a striking resemblance to Winifred Holby‘s The Land of Green Ginger where the husband leaves and the outsider comes and the wife discovers, a love she has never known but faces the battle of tradition and convention.

It is shrouded by the theme signature tune, a haunting classical number, sung in Farsi. Rafi Pitts had based his script directly on a story called Safar (The Trip) written by the Iranian novelist and playright, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi currently a professor in Tehran University and who was one of the first of new wave writers in Iran to support himself primarily through writing.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi in his younger years.

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi in his younger years.

He was self-educated, worked as a shepherd boy and later as an actor for the stage and film. He was once famously imprisoned while performing on stage.

Dowlatabadi is famed for his tales on village life. Here is another old winter poem by M. Omid, although somewhat darker, more subdued and sadder.

“Although the night has for long overwhelmed the city,
And through his dark breath has turned it into a cold, misty, and gloomy site,
And has taken away and destroyed the shadows,
I through the magic I learned from the sorcerer of my own self
Was able to hide my shadow from him.
I walked around the misty city with my shadow.
We moved here and there, In the coldest days of winter
And I could see and so could he
The raggedly-dressed youth who suddenly
Fell on the ground due to his pretentious epilepsy
For some time or so and then
Through his pretentious move fell into a gutter
Whose slime and ooze was but true.” – M. Omid

For a further engagement with this post, do watch this 2010 interview with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, uploaded on Vimeo and courtesy of Kamran Rastegar.