Phoolan Devi was an Indian parliamentarian in the 1990s, but only after she achieved fame for becoming a modern day Robin Hood, taking from the rich to give to the poor. She also, perhaps more importantly, sought revenge on the many men who sexually assaulted her, before and after she was married off at the age of eleven. She became known as the Bandit Queen and was assassinated at the young age of thirty-seven. Devi serves as a source of strength for the main character in Parini Shroff’s debut novel, The Bandit Queens, a dark yet uplifting story of village women who fight domestic violence and caste discrimination.
When Vijay Balan was a young boy, his father would regale him with stories inspired by family history. One of these centered around Balan’s grand-uncle, a police officer in 1920s and early 1930s India who later went on to Singapore and became a spy for the Japanese military during World War II. Balan has turned this tale into his first novel, The Swaraj Spy. The title refers to the Hindustani word for self-rule, and it’s this wish that drives the main character, Kumaran “Kumar” Nair. The book is less a mass market spy thriller and more of a character-driven story of a man who hopes to do right by his family and country.
At the beginning of the 20th century, nice Indian girls did not sing in public. Female musical performances were restricted to tawaifs, of a slightly sulfurous reputation, during soirées frequented by cultivated male patrons. If the tawaif wound up getting married, the husband almost invariably required his bride to abandon her art. Men, on the other hand, had for centuries been honored as musicians, patronized by padishahs and maharajas. Their craft was handed down from father to son, and still is today.
While the foreigner in colonial India has become, at least since EM Forster, something of a genre unto itself, the foreigners are almost invariably British and the novels mostly in English. Museum of the World by Christopher Kloeble is something of a novelty not just because it is based on the true story of the three Bavarian Schlagintweit brothers who explored India for the East India Company in the mid-19th century, but also because it was written in German; this new member of the canon appears via translation.
When Hazel Selzer Kahan’s parents left their homes in Germany and Poland in the early 1930s to study medicine in Rome, they envisioned spending the rest of their lives helping patients in Europe. But as Fascist governments deepened their hold in both Germany and Italy during their medical studies, Hermann and Kate Selzer did not see a future as Jewish doctors in Europe, at least for the time being. Hermann sailed to India, thinking it would be safe to live under the British. In 1937, he traveled from city to city in India, looking for a hospital that would take in a couple of Jewish doctors. When he finally reached Lahore, he found acceptance. Kate joined him six months later and a couple years after that Selzer Kahan would be born, followed by her brother Michael two years later.
The tradition of great oral epics survived on the Inner Asian steppe perhaps as long as any other place on earth. At the dawn of the 20th century scholars managed to record bards singing stories that might have been five centuries or more in the retelling, embellishment and polishing. Jangar is one such epic, belonging to the Kalmyk people, once the left wing of Genghis Khan’s armies, now a minority people in the Russian Federation. Russian-educated Kalmyks collected these tales, and their work somehow survived the Russian Civil War and Stalin’s ferocious persecution of the Kalmyks and their literature. Translated into English for the first time by Saglar Bougdaeva, non-Russian, non-Kalmyk readers can now appreciate these tales.
It helps to come to Islands & Cultures—a collection of essays focusing largely if not exclusively, as goes the subtitle, on “sustainability”—with at least some background on Polynesia, not because such background is necessary to follow the arguments in the various papers, but because otherwise one will be spending a great deal of time on the Internet chasing down one interesting reference after another.