Book Review – The Hymn of Dry Tongues And Brave Hearts

Kabir Deb

The Puranas of Sanatana Dharma are often not considered as some of the finest anthologies we’ve had with us. The reason being their association with religion, for which they have to be referred to as texts. But for me, they’re brilliant anthologies where the authors did not just include a single story, rather the authors, even after being men, had to become women, sometimes had to live the life of the personalities of our minds, each with their own sexual orientation, to make people live with wisdom and a compassionate heart. If someone is unwilling to ingest wisdom and compassion, then I guess the storytellers did not fail in any way. Most of the people who have been walking this planet for the past five hundred years have failed to become a Brahmin (and by Brahmin I mean the enlightened one, not the ones who belong from the upper caste), and they cannot be referred to as Dwija or twice-born (a human being is born twice: once after coming out of the womb, and then again after gathering wisdom and knowledge to become enlightened).

Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts (KhushZubaan, Bebaak Jigar), perhaps one of the finest anthologies I’ve ever come across, introduces us to the same concept or thought process that the Puranas did a thousand years back. This brilliantly anthology has been edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali and consists of poems, prose, short stories, sketches, photographs and some absolutely stunning semi-autobiographical short memoirs of instances. I’ve been a part of numerous anthologies (always as a poet), but this anthology of 150 women coming together to spill their heart out for the readers to understand the importance of their space, places and identity is a Purana in itself. Whenever people, especially men, come across a book consisting of women writer/s, then they expect something that is definitely going to haunt or target them, and hence, if we go through the reviewing section of Goodreads and online shopping platforms, then the ratio of the number of women and men who do give their opinion, in the form of reviewing, clearly tells the story of the bias.

This anthology is all about what Virginia Woolf once said, “I want to write a novel of silence. The things that people don’t say”. One can be in her kitchen and can obviously wonder that, “I am there in a book, in the form of a lady who’s doing her stuff in the kitchen and I want to see myself in her, but I fail to connect. There’s always this wall of words and ideas which tries to either force me into the space that’s for everyone, or I am told to not be there because the space has eaten a million women like me”. Aratrika Das’s short and beautiful memoir about her life in her kitchen along with her son speaks about the beauty of cooking, caring and cultivating compassion with utmost delicacy and perfection. She builds the world of her kitchen like it is a gift or treasure (which it is). Vasundhara Singh’s beautiful poem made my heart heavy. To write a short poem by not leaving anything behind is the toughest task for someone who’s into poetry but her poem is the perfect example of what poetry is all about. Her poem reminded me of one of the characters of Nirmal Verma’s short story “दूसरीदुनिया” where the protagonist (an Indian man living in London) gets introduced to a mother (who’s a British), and the man starts living her pain she is going through and forms a bond with her daughter who’s about to leave her. The poem is different from the context of the story but the love and warmth instead of an enormous chaos inside a mother for her child made me fall in love with this poem.

Kusum Choppra’s powerful piece (non-fiction) on the variety of women she saw in a train station is not only about the variety of women but also about the constancy of oppression. It is a piece that will haunt me because of how beautifully she made me live the life of all those men who live around me. I guess we’re on the verge of witnessing a cultural renaissance with women writers bringing out the story of women from our history not only on the screen but also in the form of a fictional universe. The Ahalya Series by Koral Dasgupta is one such universe where one can easily find how we, as men, have manipulated history and our tradition to not only blind a thousand generations, but also to make us hate our own culture and rashtra. Kusum Choppra’s”..Where Am I?, is a must-read for anyone who wants to get out of luxury, to know what’s happening right outside your own cubicle. Lina Krishnan’s hypnotic sketch named, “A Place to Read”, made me revisit Manav Kaul’s prose on the world of morning, afternoon, evening and night. There are very few writers who pen an essay on how he, personally, loves to read books. The way he mentions the idea behind reading in various places of his choice is a treat for the mind. I am very fond of abstract paintings and I believe that if a poet hates to write, she/he paints. One can ignore a poem and abstract paintings/illustrations because both of them demand time which we do not have. But trust me, “Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts” has some of the finest illustrations and they can make the reader live in multiple worlds within a few seconds.

Rituparna Sengupta is a gifted writer and her beautiful piece named, “The Case of the Stolen Flowers”, is intimate, engrossing and haunting. I don’t know whether she has lived the life of all of the characters in her story but she made me believe that she did, and I’d like to stay with it. From longing, loving and luxury to discomfort, dryness and debris, the short piece is a work of beauty. It reminded me of multiple short stories and novels I read in my life, but surprisingly, the entire structure and atmosphere of Rituparna Sengupta’s piece stayed unique because of the world she developed like one of the finest engineers of contemporary time. I’ve a favorite and that’s Amrita Singh’s “If You Haven’t Been There, You Haven’t Lived”. This piece speaks about so many things that one can build an entire textbook just by reading it again and again. The diasporic nausea of her protagonist Ira is what I have been feeling from so many years as a Bengalee of Assam. I was amazed by the care the writer showed towards her protagonist. This love and care is needed in a society that has been acting like a scissor. There are pieces on partition and I have read so many that I have become judgmental and very critical of the pieces of literature that are centered on partition, and trust me, the writer and the piece won my heart, not because of how it made me feel of the longing and subtle heaviness, but also because of how it kept on developing through not just this topic, but also through other worlds that speaks of the identity of a woman and what comes with it. To be precise, she just wrote one of the best short stories of modern English literature. Was I reminded of Krishna’s departure to Mathura from Braja? Absolutely! Was I imagining Srimati Radharani during the story? Yes, a thousand times yes!

I can keep on writing on all the immensely beautiful and important pieces of art present in this book, but that’d be exhaustive for everyone. Before I end the review, I want to add a few points:

  • Is the book capable of making its readers feel disturbed?

Ans. – Yes!

  • If the book is capable of making us wake up in the middle of the night, then give me a “Hell Yeah”…

Reply. – Hell Yeah! (a Stone Cold reference)

  • Does it help in the process of healing like a book should do?

Ans. – Definitely!

  • What could we seriously expect from this book?

Ans. – Warmth. Compassion. Beauty. Care. Audacity. Non-uniformity. Chaos. Godliness. Wounds. Anatomy. Intercultural marriage. In short, everything.

  • I want a pitch report. Give me some.

Ans. – 150 extremely gifted writers coming together, and giving their best shot to make the world know what they do, whom they love, how they love, what they wear, and where do they think they’re going, without any moral ventilation or speed breakers. If the reader wants the heart, here’s the heart. What else do you need to go for a book?

“Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts” is a book that should be on every reading list/table of every living human being. Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali’s compilation is the best of the best. Red River just took this project and did something that no other publisher ever took the risk to do. It is hard to get through the thick skin of the society we’re living in, but I am sure that these 150 artists did their task like the writers and poets of the old times. The sages who wrote the Upanishads cannot/should not be held responsible if an individual manipulates the verses and teachings for his/her benefit. Similarly, this book is going to stay with me forever, and I just want to say that the artists involved in this particular project are phenomenal. I don’t care how other readers are going to receive the book, but I do want to suggest that one should go through these pieces of literature without any kind of preconceived notion, because then, like most of the books of the present time, this book would also make you think for a few days only. If someone asks me which is my favorite anthology from the past twenty years, then Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts would be the obvious answer. Period.