Book Reviews

One Love and The Many Lives of Osip B

Book Review by Sadaf Munshi
Author: C.P. Surendran
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2021

The book revolves around the story of Osip Balakrishnan, a young boy from Kerala’s Thrissur city, and many interconnected stories of people in Osip’s life. Narrated by the protagonist (in first person) and by the author (in third person), the book offers stories happening across time and space, all converging into one. Osip’s story begins with his desperate search for Elizabeth Hill, the English teacher at his boarding school in Kasauli, who Osip is obsessively in love with. Elizabeth has suddenly vanished after their brief romantic intercourse that resulted in her pregnancy and an abortion drive. After traveling from one city to another and across countries over to Oxford, Elizabeth’s hometown, Osip does manage to find her. And yet he does not find her afterall.  

The novel is dense in content and cosmopolitan in nature, and hence, of interest to a wide range of audiences. The author has done an extraordinary job of summarizing in the book many issues faced by an ordinary Indian citizen aware of their surroundings. There are several characters in the book some of whom never quite make their entry into the scene and yet there they are, adding to the reader’s intrigue. From a social psychological perspective, the novel presents a complex array of rifts and ruptures in relationships depicted by characters engaged in nuptial and non-nuptial arrangements taking an immense toll on them. For instance, Gloria is exhausted at her “small town sacrifices” for a revolutionary husband with a murderous past and her desire “to start living” her life. Maina is devastated and embittered by the apathy of her rebel-genius-intellectual-author husband. Sangita, suffering at the hands of a class and caste-based society, has parted from her own child for prospects of a better future for him. Here Elizabeth comes as an outlier — a free-spirited woman attempting to escape the clutches of custom and commitment. The problem is that there is only a hairline between freedom and estrangement, between surrender and servitude. 

Spanning over various time periods and set in different places across continents, laden with historical detail, presenting layered complexities around the stories of “the victims and their victims,” the novel is more than realistic in its many different dimensions — social, psychological, historical, political, and philosophical. Whether it be the effect of the political events on the psychology of a common man, the futility of and frustration against the modern day “cafe activism”, the hypocrisy of the Indian nation in its conflicting responses to internal and external political problems, the overwhelming nature of the deteriorating politics in contemporary India and around the world, the heavy toll of forced migrations and dislocations resulting from wars, the problem of racism in Europe and the after-effects of colonialism, the depiction of the tension in inter-personal relations and individual aspirations, or the daily grind of a common man at meeting basic survival needs. 

The book is a chronicle and critique of contemporary India facing communal tension, fighting social taboos, and juggling with political movements challenging its national integrity  — an atmosphere where it’s the “hour of the crowd” and personal liberties must succcumb to national security. Through Osip’s struggle to become a responsible adult man, it takes a dig at the corrupt and monstrous media enterprises dancing to the tunes of their masters in power where investigating facts is no longer lucrative. Through Anand’s story of an aspiring godman, it gives the reader a tour of the murky market of religion and spiritualy mushrooming out of India and expanding its reach beyond borders. In Idris’s struggles at making ends meet, it highlights the complex picture of the inter-faith and inter-group hierarchy in a nation of many faiths and identities. And through Arjun’s story of his trials and tribulations against the allegations of sexual misconduct, it exposes the wickedness of cults, witch-hunts seeking fodder to fuel movements often insensitive to the consequences of missteps and resulting in extreme reactionary responses that could damage lives beyond repair.  

Perhaps the illness shared by Osip and his Stalinist grandfather who adopted Osip at an orphanage is both real and metaphorical and so is the unconventional bond between young Elizabeth and old Kris, the estranged brother of the grandfather — triggered by experiences of contact and commune, by shared history, or by the “unique germs of misery” that humans “infected each other with.”  The kidnapping of the corpse for a ransom or the murder of a fly at a dinner party and the events surrounding these are symbolic — tragic as well as comic, depicting the meaninglessness of class and ethics in the face of emotion, greed, ritual, reputation, or simply survival. 

From an artistic perspective, the book merits applause for its linguistic beauty, lyrical quality, poetic texture, deeply sensitive detail, satirical tone, raw humor, powerful metaphor and philosophical touch as illustrated by a few excerpts I quote below:

“My grandfather and I shared a world where centuries fluctuated and flickered , dull one moment, dazzling the next, but never steady….”

“The flowers looked painted, and brittle, almost as if they were made of paper and stuck to the air. Half above, the stars shredded the sky.”

“… summer dusk [in Delhi] falling like a shutter over the Fort; trees turning deep as caves.”

“…watching news or porn, ‘the two secret and interchangeable career aspirations of the hardworking Indian’”

“There are twenty million people in Bombay. But no one has a face, except the film stars.”

“When everybody is rich and free, the idea of the nation will not count.”

“Have you watched the night sky? …..You should. It’s then that you realize that not everything has to make sense.”

“It takes every man’s past to arrive at this moment. Somebody’s future is our past. We are nomads wandering through time. And in our mind any event from any place can recur, and it becomes us.”

The book is definitely not an easy read. It may feel like the author put too many eggs in one basket, and perhaps that is its strength as well as its weakness. But if you are a thorough reader, it will surely activate your pineal gland. 

Originally published on Sept. 17, 2021, at:

© Sadaf Munshi

The Secrets of Ishbar

Since I do not consider myself a connoisseur of art, this is my struggling attempt to provide a very brief account of my experience with a book of poetry written by Subhash Kak which a professor friend of mine at the University of Texas at Austin, knowing my interest in Kashmir and Kashmiris, lent me to read a month or so ago. Subhash Kak is a distinguished professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. Born in Srinagar on March 26, 1947, Kak did his schooling in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, and completed his college education at Kashmir University and IIT Delhi. Should one acquaint themselves with Kak’s work on Indian Science which has been argued to have transformed the understanding of Indian civilization, one comes to know that Kak has been considered as one of the prominent figures in contemporary India as an expert in this area. I had no choice but to appreciate Kak’s personality for his interest and expertise in areas as diverse as physical science, art and history. Kak’s multi-dimensional personality is revealed in his commendable works in many different areas. On the one hand are his many beautiful poetic compositions, and, on the other his service to the information theory and quantum physics as well as to the history of science and Indic studies, especially the Vedas. These include his very many books and articles published from time to time. Great effort, immense patience and dedication are required of one to be able to perform in such broad dimensions.

A leading expressionist poet of India, Kak is the author of “The Secrets of Ishbar, Ek Taal, Ek Darpan,The Conductor of the Dead and other poems” and “The London Bridge and other poems”. Here is what Rani Singh of Asian Affairs, London, said about The Secrets of Ishbar: “For those with a feeling for South Asia but who do not live there and can only visit from time to time, it is difficult to capture at any moment the sights, sounds and smells of the subcontinent. For them or, in deed, for someone who has never been to Kashmir, The Secrets of Ishbar is a ‘must’. This analogy transports one immediately viscerally into the heartland of South Asia. Each poem has to be savored and pondered, and each varies in subject matter from the pleasant to the disturbing. Colors, images and aromas are evoked with a poignant simplicity….Every poem in the volume has a precious quality.” The book was published in 1996.

After going through the contents of The Secrets of Ishbar, I could not help but read each poem again and again and help myself interpret the many different messages offered by the poet. Every poem is a unique experience in itself. The book takes you to a journey that carries images celebrating the days of happiness in the sights of beauty, sighs of pain and regret at the loss of proximity to the “paradise”, the encounters of love, beauty, wisdom and philosophy. As and when I read through some of the pages of the book, the beautiful imagery offered by the author would tickle down my viscera and awaken so many living, dead and semi-dead memories of my time in the homeland: a “Pony ride in the Liddar Valley” across the wooden bridge on to the “smooth grassy slopes”; “Sweet, warm smells from the bakery waft”; “rainy evenings” of Ishbar and a walk in “wooden sandals over deep mud”; “chickens shivering as the cold wind gathers under” a loose shirt; the “sweet waters of the Cheshmashahi spring” and “steaming” samovars; and what not. Despite the fact that they are written in English, the poems dedicated to Kashmir’s beauty, culture, art and tradition are rife in expressions authentic to Kashmiri language and enriched with a taste native to Kashmir which the reader is bound to cherish. The poet attempts at recounting his childhood years through memories living “behind the barred doors”. Here is a verse that enthralls you to great happiness and there is one that puts you to tears. The secrets are revealed in many different ways and many different colors. Juxtaposed together are the historical details and the legendary accounts of the Sharika’s town. The book also offers many poems dealing with the philosophical questions and spiritual issues and conflicts related to his perception of time, space, events and expositions that the poet-scholar has played with. One of the best aspects of the poems is observed in their word play on the one hand and their natural flow, beautiful rhythm, music and sonority in free verse on the other. Putting in much simpler words, the book is a tremendous piece of artistic performance and scholarly expertise.

© Sadaf Munshi (April 3, 2004, Kashmir Observer, Srinagar).