Sunday, April 22, 2018

Book Review: Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life

I read somewhere recently that reviewing a book is all about giving it an identity. If that is so, how do you review a book of short stories? Each story has its own identity. The easiest way to do so is to write one-line reviews of each short story. I have done it before, and it's the coward's way out. The other way is to look for common themes in each of the stories - what ties them together?

Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life is about the common man and woman, the ones who seem to be doing nothing spectacular with their days, and yet the very fact of their life is fascinating in itself, if seen through the right lens.

And so we have a man who has taken a step back from corporate life and settled in a village. Or a woman who is sick and stuck in her high-rise apartment. A newly married woman trying to settle into married life. There are two little girls in search of that elusive thing called style. A mother struggling to get back to her thesis writing while looking after her young daughter. A bedridden old woman, waiting for death in her nephew's house. A young man who wants to buy his bride-to-be a sari of expensive Banarasi silk, in the Banaras of the nineteenth century.

They are all very real people; surely there must be hundreds or even thousands such everywhere. Anjum Hasan's talent lies in bringing them to life in her precise and laid-back style, and making them interesting and relatable. Her stories have a very "material" quality to them, as if you can hold them in your hands and examine them, pick them apart if you wish to.

As always with her, it is the Bangalore stories that stand out (or maybe those were the ones I related to the most). In the story "I Am Very Angry", an old man tries to get used to his new neighbours, who fight too loudly for his liking (his new neighbours seem to be a metaphor for the changes in the city around him). In "Nur", a young Muslim girl tries to find out where her no-good husband has gotten to. In "Sisters", a sick rich woman who is stuck in a high-rise builds a sisterly bond with her forthright maid, who nurses her back to health. Each story showcases a different aspect of this varied city.

Overall, this is a book of stories that will stay with you. Days or weeks or months after reading it, you will suddenly recall something from it, maybe a line or a smell or an incident, and try to recall from where, because it will feel as real as if you had experienced it yourself, and then remember that it was, in fact, a story you read in a book long long ago. 
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Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review - A Girl Like That

Going almost blind into a book, not having read reviews at all, and not knowing what to expect, is something I haven't done in a while.

The cover of A Girl Like That didn't promise much - I thought it would be your typical YA book, with a teenage heroine besieged by challenges on all sides and finally emerging triumphant, having conquered all.

I was partly right, because it IS a book peopled mostly by teenagers. But BOY, was I wrong in every other sense.

For one thing, AGLT begins with the death of its chief protagonist, Zarin Wadia. We see her looking down at the sight of the car crash that killed her. And instead of feeling sorry for herself and wondering why things have turned out the way they have, she can't wait to get away from her life; she feels glad that she has died. What, we wonder, can have been so bad in her life that she is glad that she is dead?

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. Her parents died when she was little, her aunt beats her, she has no friends at school. To top it all off, she is living in a repressive society where girls aren't allowed to even meet boys they are not related to. She has just one friend in the middle of all this - but the problem is that he is in love with her, and she doesn't feel the same about him.

A Girl Like That is about everything that is most essential to us as human beings - the security that comes from knowing you are loved, the knowledge of where you fit into society, the safety of having a place to call home.

No, let me be more accurate - it's about what happens when you DON'T have all these things. How self-destructive you become, how defensive, how confused.

And yet, AGLT isn't a depressing book at all, somehow. It sparkles with life, with Zarin's little rebellions, her continuous attempts to get away from everything that she hates in her life. She manages to get herself little freedoms, despite shuttling between a prison-like school and a depressing home.

The knowledge that a particular character is going to die soon doesn't usually result in much emotional investment, but in this case I was almost rooting for Zarin, even as she makes mistake after mistake, even after she rejects the one guy who could have helped her out.

All in all, I think I will definitely be looking out for more from Tanaz Bhathena. What an accomplishment of a first novel!
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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book Review - Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart

The cover of Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart is one of the most beautiful I have seen in recent times. Nine translucent pink ovals adorn its white cover - are they rose petals? Or are they the nine chambers the title refers to?

The book itself (her third, but the first that I'm reading) is experimental. What is the true identity of a person? Each of us views others through our own lens, our own values and stereotypes. But can a person be understood completely if we have enough lenses to view them through?

In this book, we get different people's perspectives on the same woman - how they got to know her, how their relationship developed, and, ultimately, how it ended.

The writing is beautiful - as tender and fragile and simple as the pink petals on the cover. It doesn't take long to guess that the book is at least partly autobiographical - perhaps the real-ness of the details and the simplicity of the incidents.

Unfortunately, the people who write about the woman are very similar and their perspectives are pretty similar too. Of the eight people who write about her (one person has two entries because he was in a relationship with her twice), six are lovers (including a husband), one is a female flatmate who had a crush on her and one is her art teacher from school. (Leading me to question if that teacher was more than a teacher, of course.)

The most authentic and different perspective is that of the husband. From being completely in love with the woman (and seeming slightly dazed that somebody like her would agree to be with him) to plaintively complaining about how her lifestyle doesn't quite match his income to finally just being exhausted of the entire relationship, the husband is the only one who dares to write negatively about her.

Apart from the husband, the lovers all seem pretty much alike. Okay, let me count them without looking at the book - the first boyfriend (who returns later), the older married man, the poet-publisher married man, the older married man who sees her as a stopgap, the Italian four-night-stand and - wow, I got them all!

Why am I talking more about the people who provided the perspectives, rather than the woman the book is supposedly about? Well, frankly, because we get to know so little of the woman herself. What do we know about her at the end of the book? We know she loves cats. We know she's good in bed (more than one lover vouches for this). We know she likes older married men. We know she's not a "leaver" - she is usually the one who is "left" in relationships. (We are told this multiple times, and not very subtly).

Ultimately, we end the book without a clear idea about the woman herself. The book somehow feels self-indulgent. If the author had chosen to get a more diverse set of people to talk about the woman, and if more of them had provided a realistic narrative, this book would have been a more substantial read.
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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Book Review - A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I read Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth when I was fourteen, and it was like being hit on the chest with something heavy (maybe the book itself - it was one of the longest and heaviest I had read till then). I loved it absolutely - the descriptions of the cathedral being built in Kingsbridge, the beautiful women and their drama-filled lives, the rich imagery and narrative. Years later, visiting an actual medieval cathedral for the first time, many of the terms the audio guide used were familiar, because I had already "lived" through the building of a cathedral.

A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Strictly speaking, it's not a sequel - it's set many centuries after the first one, and the only thing that connects the books is the setting of Kingsbridge. I'm not sure how World Without End (the second in the series) is, but A Column of Fire isn't set only in Kingsbridge. A lot of the action takes place in other places - Paris and London being the main ones.

One of the main threads in the book is the love story of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald. The two are a young Kingsbridge couple in love, but Margery's family is against their union. A rich Catholic merchant family, they want her to marry into nobility and raise their social status.

The Ned-Margery love story plays out against the backdrop of almost fifty years of Protestant-Catholic conflict in France and Britain in the sixteenth century. The ebb and flow of these two opposing views on Christianity makes for fascinating reading - how something as simple as a change in monarch can change the religious tendencies of an entire country. There were killings aplenty on both sides in the name of religion.

Ken Follett takes actual historical events and adds to them some great characters to show us how these events impacted ordinary lives - Ned Willard of the Secret Service (a tolerant Protestant), Margery Fitgerald (a Catholic), a French villain by the name of Pierre de Aumand (a Catholic who instigates Protestant killings to further his own ends), a Protestant book-seller named Sylvie Palot.

Personally, I didn't know much of the history of this period before this book. But that didn't prevent ACoF from being an engrossing read. It's a great introduction to famous personalities like Queen Elizabeth the first (she of the white face and red hair), Queen Mary Tudor of the Scots (imprisoned for decades by Elizabeth) and Duke Scarface of France. And you also get a ring-side view on historical events such as Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, Queen Mary's wedding to the French king, the failure of the attempted Spanish invasion of Britain, and the St Bartholomew's Day masscare in Paris in 1572.

If I have one quibble, it is that it feels like Follett is breezing through history at too fast a pace. Fifty years is a long time to cover even for a history book. But there were certain threads in the book that could have been excluded (Ned's brother's, for example).

Also did it meet the expectations I had from reading Pillars of the Earth almost two decades ago? No, it didn't. But I'm not sure I can blame Follett for that. Maybe I was more wide-eyed and open to such immersive reads then? Growing up can sometimes be a pain. 
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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Forest Dark - Nicole Krauss (Book Review)

What happens when the foundations of your life no longer make sense to you? When you realize that the things you always enjoyed, the goals you always worked towards, the very beliefs you built your life on, no longer make sense? It's as if you've suddenly woken up on an unmoored boat in the middle of a strange sea, no land in sight, unfamiliar stars above.

This is what has happened to Jules Epstein, wealthy Jew, patron of arts, a man who fought his way up the ladder of life and has always ensured that he had the best of everything. At the age of 68, after losing both his parents in quick succession, he retires from his law firm, divorces his wife, and gives away most of his possessions. All in quest of a "lightening", as if giving away all his life's accumulations will help him discover himself again.

This is also what has happened to Nicole (no last name), famous author, unloved wife, mother to two needy children. She is unable to sleep, unable to write, unable to walk out of a long-dead marriage. One day, she comes into her own house and suddenly has the feeling that there is another Nicole inside the house, walking around, tidying up, talking to the children. As if years of living for somebody else has split her into two, the other half doing all the duties and chores that she has trained herself to do. Nicole dreams of the Tel Aviv Hilton, a blocky monstrosity, where she spent many childhood vacations. She feels the need to go back there, as if going back will help her get back to her normal self.

In Tel Aviv, Nicole falls into what seems like an absurd but exciting conspiracy tale. She meets somebody who claims that he can prove that Kafka did not die in Prague at the age of 40 - that he traveled to Tel Aviv and lived a long and quiet life there as a gardener. The man wants her to write the story of the "actual" ending of Kafka's life. Epstein also meets a succession of people who try to get him to contribute his wealth towards their objectives.

What do Epstein and Nicole have in common? Both are Jews, both are lost, both travel to Tel Aviv to find themselves again. But the stories somehow never synchronize. They feel like individual novellas, blended together just for showmanship. Despite some insightful passages and delicious writing, the book feels disjointed and leaves the reader feeling unfulfilled at the end.

A strong thread of Jewish history and culture runs throughout book.  Perhaps I would have liked the book better had I had a better understanding of the origin stories of the Jews, and the beliefs that hold them together. As it was, I kept trying to figure out if a particular detail was relevant to the story, whether it had a hidden meaning quite beyond my comprehension.

The ending leaves the reader at a bit of a loose end. What really happened to Epstein and why? (The book starts with his disappearance in Tel Aviv.) Did Nicole's Kafka enthusiast even exist or was he just a figment of her imagination? Where do the Epstein and Nicole stories overlap except that they both stayed in the Tel Aviv Hilton? The reader is left to figure out all this herself.
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Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Book Review: The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara

(Yes, I chose to read this book despite that cover.*)

The whole yakshi trope is very common in mallu horror. What is a yakshi, you ask? 

Well, a yakshi is a sort of mallu ghost. 

No, seriously.

In mallu horror movies, a yakshi is usually shown as a beautiful woman clad in a white sari who has had an unnatural death. She comes back to take revenge on the man (it's always a man) who killed her. After she avenges herself, she figures she might as well have some more fun, and stays on to kill random other men who cross her path.

She usually lurks near roads and lures lonely travellers with her beauty. The travellers enter what they think is her house, only to realize that it's the top of a pala tree. Once they are in the yakshi's pala tree, they are hers to devour.

Seriously, it's quite a stereotype in mallu horror movies.

I was reminded of yakshis and mallu horror movies because a yakshi is the main demon in The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara.

Chottanikkara is a village that is, for some reason, terrorized by demons. The demons live in a patch of land near the village, and whenever they get bored of the food in their own land, they come to the village to drink the blood of the villagers' animals or children. Fortunately, Chottanikkara has a powerful demon hunter, Devi, who has sworn to protect the villagers from the demons.

Questions I had with this setting - why is it that only this village is infested with demons? If other villages also face the same trouble, what do they do when a demon descends upon them?

But if you can accept this basic premise, then the book is a rollicking read with a crisp plot and a writing style that's quite visual. A couple of scenes in particular were absolutely heart-in-the-mouth for me. Unfortunately, I could foresee the "twist" at the end at about the half-way point, but still.

The author uses the yakshi trope (white sari, pala maram, etc) but brings in a twist by getting us to empathize with the yakshi a bit. Since I'm so familiar with yakshis, I was surprised to see that Devi hadn't even heard of a yakshi before one actually attacked her village.

Reading the book, I was trying to remember other "horror" fiction in Indian writing recently, and couldn't think of a single one. Has this genre been unexplored so far in the recent book explosion in India?

*I do have to wonder though - what on earth were the publishers thinking? Was it a ploy to get people's attention? A "so bad it's good" kind of thing? Because you can't exactly forget the terrible cover once you've laid eyes on it.
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Friday, July 14, 2017

A Life of Adventure and Delight

Four stories into this collection of short stories, I was wondering why Akhil Sharma had decided to call it 'A Life of Adventure and Delight'*. Because none of the protagonists of the first four stories seem to find their lives either adventurous or delightful. On the contrary, they are all stuck in situations they don't want to be in. 

The first story ("Cosmopolitan") is a gentle one, it floats along like a boat in a slow-moving river. Gopal, intensely lonely after his wife leaves him, starts a relationship with his neighbour, Mrs Shaw. He doesn't know much about her apart from that she's a divorcee and a guidance counselor. His motives for the relationship seem clear, but what are hers? Why is she interested in this obviously pathetic man? 

From questioning HER motives, the reader moves on to questioning anybody's motives for entering into a relationship. What loneliness or need drives anybody into being emotionally dependent on somebody else? 

By the end of the story, all doubts are laid to rest. Or maybe that's my positive spin on the ending.

This is who we are, he thought--dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside. We are made who we are by the dust and corrosion and dents and unflagging hearts. Why should we need anything else to fall in love?

The second story ("Surrounded by Sleep"), on the other hand, is a breathless one. It starts by knocking the reader's breath out:
One August afternoon, when Ajay was ten years old, his elder brother, Birju, dove into a pool and struck his head on the cement bottom. For three minutes, he lay there unconscious. Two boys continued to swim, kicking and splashing, until finally Birju was spotted below them. Water had entered through his nose and moth. It had filled his stomach. His lungs had collapsed. By the time he was pulled out, he could no longer think, talk, chew, or roll over in his sleep.
And throughout the story both you and Ajay are haunted by those three minutes. What if they had found Birju a little earlier? What if he just woke up from his coma and returned to normal? What if Ajay could pray harder and tell God to make Birju normal again? What if what if what if? 

It's a heart-breaking story, but less for Birju's mishap and more for its effect on Ajay. His mother starts emotionally distancing herself from him, he feels that somehow what happened to Ajay was his fault, he thinks his mother sometimes wishes it was Ajay who lay for three minutes at the bottom of the pool, and not Birju. 

The fourth story ("If You Sing Like That For Me") was the highlight of the collection for me. It starts with a woman waking up after an afternoon nap, seven months after her wedding day, suddenly in love with her husband. 

Her marriage is like any other arranged marriage. She met her husband once before she got married, and she only got to know him afterwards. The first couple of days, she dreams of going back to her parents.
I would think of myself with his smallness forever, bearing his children, going where he went, having to open always to his touch, and whatever I was looking at would begin to waver, and I would want to run. Run down the curving dark stairs, fast, fast, through the colony's narrow streets, with my sandals loud and alone ... and finally I would climb the wooden steps to my parents' flat and the door would be open and no one would have noticed that I had gone with some small man.
The evening of the day she realizes she is in love with her husband, her husband comes home carrying a plastic bag of mangoes. It is just another day as far as he is concerned. But for Anita and for the reader, the evening builds up like a time bomb. Will she tell him of her love, will she won't? How will she tell him? How can she ensure the love stays? 

The other stories, all shorter than these, didn't make much of an impression on me. In fact, I had to go back and refer the book to remember what they were about. 

But the three main stories more than make this collection worth it. All the stories are in the spare distilled prose that Akhil Sharma is famous for. Five out of the eight stories are set in the US, but most of the characters are thoroughly Indian.

(Though sometimes they do strike a jarring note with American usage. Here's an example from Anita's story, set in India - "I made rotis and lentils on a kerosene stove." #Okay)

*It turned out that the collection is named after one of the later short stories.
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