Short Takes
Breaking the mould

Qurratulain Hyder & The River of Fire
Edited by Rakhshanda Jalil.
Aakar Books.
Pages 248. Rs 595.

Reviewed by Randeep Wadehra

SHE was barely 11 when she wrote her first story. Her debut short story collection, Sitaron se Aage, was published in 1945. She migrated to Pakistan, where she published Aag ka Darya in the late 1950s – a novel that "rocked the literary circles in Pakistan". However, she returned to India a disillusioned person and worked for the Imprint and the Illustrated Weekly of India. She published over 15 books belonging to different genres. But mere cataloguing of the numbers does not do justice to Qurratulain Hyder – the first lady of Urdu literature. She was a maverick, who broke all stereotypes vis-`E0-vis women writers and characters. She was not prepared to confine herself to feminine issues alone. This book is not a mere collection of platitudes and homilies but its different contributors underscore diverse aspects of Qurratulain’s personality and works – especially the trailblazing Aag ka Darya, which "engages with the question of composite culture in India in the backdrop of the Partition of the subcontinent". Interestingly, this novel has been republished several times in Pakistan although its narrative goes contrary to that country’s version of the subcontinent’s history. This is a must read for all lovers of good literature.

The Body in the Back Seat
By Salil Desai.
Gyaana Books.
Pages 254. Rs 250.

Ashish Karve goes missing. A couple of days later his body is found in his own car’s back seat with his wrists slashed. Inspector Saralkar is sure that someone has tried to camouflage murder as suicide. Thus starts a riveting whodunit. There are several suspects – each having a powerful motive to kill Karve. Desai has skillfully strewn red herrings while leaving genuine clues staring the police and the readers in the face; the clues appear so innocuous that one realises their worth only in the final pages. Clearly, the author has done his homework. He is able to maintain mystery and thus sustain readers’ interest till the end. Having said this, it would be pertinent to mention that more could have been done to enhance the reading experience. The overall atmospherics could have been better, the police humour sharper and their language more realistic – they are unbelievably polite. More importantly, the language could have been more in line with the narrative’s tenor – at times it gives the impression of being a bit literary. Expression to passions is a bit too staid. Not a single invective! Saralkar’s counterfoil is his sidekick Motkar but, gradually, the contrast between the two disappears when the latter starts behaving like his boss. Neither is anywhere near Keating’s Ghote in terms of characterisation. But, these are nitpickings really. This is the best murder mystery by an Indian author so far.

Local Democracy and Good Governance
Edited by Ranbir Singh & Surat Singh.
Deep & Deep.
Pages xx+288. Rs 1,280.

Although panchayats have been part of India’s rural scene since times immemorial, their worth as effective tools of grassroots governance has yet to be recognised fully. The Balwant Rai Mehta Committee had envisaged the "planning from below" concept as early as in 1957 but it took the government quite a bit of time to fashion necessary micro-level systems for making panchayats viable vehicles for development. Before this happened, several other committees and working groups were formed that looked into several aspects of micro-level planning at the block level and the reasons for the failures of the Panchayati Raj. However, the Panchayati Raj Institutions have yet to be made a seamless component of the overall architecture of governance. The constitutional amendments of 1992 and 1993 have helped in revamping the PRIs and have also, arguably, empowered women. This book dwells extensively upon the evolution of panchayats over a period of five decades since 1959. It also enumerates various strengths and weaknesses of the PRIs.