Some weeks ago, I found Gautam Malkani’s ‘Londonstani’ beckoning from amongst those very aisles, and this week, here was where I discovered Jay Basu, the 2002 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist for ‘The Art Seidenbaum Award - First Fiction category’.
Like they say, every now and then you land up with a book in your hands that will pleasantly surprise you. Or maybe it is so that such a book will find you or find its way into your hands. I truly enjoyed reading this short but pleasing read in one sitting. If one asks me why I picked up the book in the first place, I would say that it was because of the familiar surname Basu and the kinship with my countrymen. But if somebody asks me why I read it and why I am writing about it, it is simply because I liked it. The book has nothing to do with India; in fact it is about distant WW II Poland of the 40’s and is about something that the author heard from his Polish grandpa.
If Khaled Hosseini’s ‘Kite runner’ covered the relationship between father and son and his ‘A Thousand splendid suns’ did the same for two women, this book covers the relationship between siblings, an elder and an younger brother.
The story of the two bothers Gracian Sofka and Pawel Sofka, separated in age by all of 12 years, takes you to a small fictional village called Malenkowice in the Upper Sielsia region of Poland. The Germans are coming, there is poverty around and the town is rife with rumors, the Polish uprising and the German supporters. Basu portrays the effect of all this on the Sofka family, with touching words in this fine bitter sweet story.
In the middle of it all, the young boy of 15, Gracian is hard at work in the dangerous Polish mines, to support the family, a kilometer below the earth, shoveling coal all day into the waiting wagons. Gerard Dylong, his friend, soul mate and work partner is the much older coal blaster who is hoping to find that rich vein of Sulfur in the mines (something that he hopes would make him a millionaire).
Gracian has a hobby, he loves watching the stars, creeping up the forest at night, lying on his back in the clearing and watching the galaxy with its mysteries till dawn, but that is also very dangerous with the German arms depot nearby and the prowling patrols that could kill him instantly.
Pawel on the other hand is the mysterious one, the man with no job, one who has a haunted past and is in and out of the house al the time. He loves his younger brother immensely and is very protective of Garcian, trying always to keep him out of harms way. One fateful day, Pawel presents Garcian with a telescope.
It is this shiny brass instrument that then exposes the young Garcian to the world he never knew, both in the skies up above him and the woods in the darkness. The telescope exposes him to the grim danger of a country at war, to the beauty of his brothers fiancée Ana Malewska, to tragedy and finally teaches him to take the first steps into the world of the grown up.
So who is Basu? Jay Basu was born to an Indian father and a half-Polish, half-Russian mother. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1999. The Stars Can Wait is his first novel. He lives in London. But he says, "My father is Indian and I can't speak Bengali. My grandfather is Polish and I can't speak Polish, and my grandmother is Jewish and I can't speak Yiddish, and I'm actually quite pissed off that I can't speak any of these languages."
Basu has no formal writing training (source – above Bookslut article), but he stresses that craft is important, that you have to learn it, and that comes through practice. When somebody commented on how he especially admired the research Basu did to set his novel in World War II Poland, Basu quipped, "That's funny that you admire my research since I didn't do any." Basu's research was talking to his Polish grandfather.
These days Basu is writing screenplays (Last Fare) by himself or with Josh Appignanesi. (Within). Song of Songs, a movie, with script by Jay Basu was released in 2005.
Silesian History - Throughout its history Upper Silesia has been under the control of Poland, Bohemia, Austria, Prussia, and Germany. A turning point in Silesian history came in 1922, when it was divided between Germany and Poland. Thomas Kamusella explains - for Berlin, the Silesians became "in-between people" and, for Warsaw, a "nationally labile population." During World War II, the entire region was reincorporated in Germany, which nullified the achievements of Polonization. After 1945, the process was reversed, with all of Upper Silesia being granted to postwar Poland along with other formerly German territories.
The book is available on Amazon or rediff. Check out also the Barnes & Noble review or the Wiki article
P.S – Jay Basu the writer is not Joy Basu the guitarist or the Bangla writer. Further attempts in obtaining information on Basu at Google kept providing me hits with our Bollywood siren Bipasha Basu. While that specific serach route may have proved pretty interesting, I desisted.