The Witch In The Peepul Tree - Book Review

 


Author : Areefa Tehsin

Publisher: Harper Collins

Price: 399 INR

Pages: 327

Genre: Period Drama/ Historical Fiction/ Murder Mystery

Buy At: Amazon

About the Book:

It is Makar Sankranti,1950, when sixteen-year-old Sanaz's body is discovered in her father Dada Bhai's house in Bohrawadi, Udaipur.

A few of those in and around the house that day are the cruel zamindar Rao sahib of Singhgarh, the devout degenerate Hariharan, the young Bhil Nathu, visiting from a remote tribal village to inform Dada Bhai of a leopard kill, the attractive night soil worker Parijat, and the acerbic widow Sugra, who rolls a rosary and wishes for the jeevti dakkan-the living witch in the peepul tree-to be her secret ally.

As the shadows grow long, it becomes clear that something sinister walks the halls of this grand old house. What unfolds is a genre-bending tale of suspense, intrigue and something so much darker.

Review:

The story is set in 1950s, in a newly independent India, all the pivot events take place on the day of Makar Sankranti with kite flying competitions, cheers and revelry happening in the background. It doesn’t read like a murder mystery. The murder happens in the first chapter. Then the book introduces us to all the characters who frequented Dada Bhai’s villa throughout the day, the lead players around the household, the possible suspects. We get a glimpse into their individual lives, their thoughts and aspirations. There’s Rao Sahib – the Zamindar, Sugra – Dada Bhai’s widowed mother, Parijat – the untouchable nightsoil worker who collected feces from Dada Bhai’s household early morning, Hariharan – the middleman, Nathu – the person from Bhil Tribe. The narrative proceeds from their perspective. We also meet some supporting characters – the larger-than-life Dada Bhai, his sons engrossed in flying kites on the terrace, the sly servant Ismail, the old housekeeper Badi Bi – a child widow, Sugra’s daughter Khadija, a discreet visitor – a transgender, Parijat’s husband Bhoola, another Bhil Doonga, Dada Bhai’s saree-clad wife Mena who teaches the women of the neighborhood to read and write, etc. Each of them has a role in the tale.

The chronology of events shifts from before noon to morning and then to the start of the investigation late afternoon by the inspector and his aides. The first half of the book is when the context is set, the characters introduced, their histories and lives laid bare. Each of them has something to hide. The second half is when the investigation begins and the unraveling starts to take place. The secrets are slowly spilled open, the mysteries revealed one after the other. Some are just shocking, unexpected yet understandable. What lays at the forefront is not just the murder mystery, but pitiful caste discriminations, the sorry lives of those belonging to the lower rungs of the societal hierarchy, the backlash against attempts for women empowerment, the weird belief in superstition devastating lives, the hypocrisy of ideals and action and the holiness vs unholiness of religion. This book makes not just a good read but an essential one.

The narrative is crisp, no detail gone wasted, no lengthy descriptions. The author marvels in brevity, providing such apt visuals of the scenes with few words. Character building and world building is what keeps the reader going. The ever-present witch in the peepul tree has a mention in every chapter. But there is greater evil in humans than the invisible spirit residing on the tree.

Few Quotes that stayed with me:

“They didn’t need to purify money. Money had no caste. It passed effortlessly from the bed of a prostitute to the begging bowl of a leper to the praying(preying) thali of a priest to the bloodstained plank of a butcher.”

 

“Nothing in this household went to waste. The worn-out odhani were converted into curtains, the torn curtains to scrubbing cloths, the threadbare scrubbing cloths stuffed in blankets, the blankets used as pall for the dead.”

 

“But what do men know about childbearing and birth? Except having a few more pegs of mauda with other men as the wives are lost in screams and agony and fluids pouring out of their wombs.”

 

“Death was an urchin running unbidden around the house. Toppling things. Poking needles. Throwing tantrums. Spilling pots. Ripping curtains. Raising hell.”

 

“Beatings didn’t matter. She had learnt early on that life was a sum of your scars.”

 

About the Author:

Arefa grew up treading jungles with her naturalist father. She was often found trying to catch a snake or spin a yarn. She’s the author of several fiction and non-fiction books and contributes to dailies and magazines like The Indian Express, The Hindu, Deccan Herald, Scroll.in and Outlook Money. Her picture book 'The Elephant Bird' was read at 3200+ locations in India from the slums to the Presidential library on the International Literacy Day, 2016 and translated in more than 40 languages. A few schools in India and Sri Lanka are using her books as textbooks and supplementary readers. 'Do Tigers Drink Blood and 13 Other Mysteries of Nature' is being translated in Chinese and 'Amra and the Witch' has been translated in Hindi. Her books have been shortlisted for awards like FICCI Best Book of the Year Award, NEEV Book Award and The Hindu-Goodbooks Best Author Award. She was appointed the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Udaipur district and has pursued nature conservation through her writings and columns. Find out more on www.arefatehsin.com

 

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Comments

  1. True, nothing went to waste in those days. Also, human lives remain the same, whatever the era. It's a gripping tale and I enjoyed the way Arefa Tehsin has woven the plot.

    ReplyDelete

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  Queeristan (Amazon Link) Thanks to Audible Free Trial I listened to this amazing non-fiction on LGBTQ inclusion in Indian workplaces. Author Parmesh Sahani identifies as gay Indian, working closely with Godrej higher management and employees for years to create an inclusive workplace, both legally and in spirit. This book is a result of those years of experience, research, collaboration with individuals from difference spectrum of the society and organizations who has successfully transitioned into a queer friendly one.   Indian history is inclusive. From the Khajuraho temple architectures, to Konark to the Rig Veda, there is existing proofs even 2000 years ago of Indian inclusiveness of queer. It’s the draconian British law that criminalised it, which was scraped in 2009, came into effect once again following a sad judgement in 2013 and eventually was scraped off for good in 2018. I am in awe of the lawyers who fought this legal battle- colleagues and partners – Arundhati Katju

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