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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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Ruskin Bond - Looking for the Rainbow

Reading Ruskin Bond for the first time as an adult turned out to be all about nostalgia. The book reminded me of all those Bond stories in English textbooks back in school (was there at least one every year, or does it just feel like that?)

In "Looking for the Rainbow", Bond indulges in an exercise in nostalgia himself, revisiting a golden year he spent with his father. The year was 1942, and the young Ruskin's parents had just split up. His mother takes him out of the "fun-less convent" where he had been "serving a two-year sentence" and sends him to Delhi to spend some time with his father.

His father, it turns out, isn't like normal fathers at all. He has a stamp collection, for one. And he is perfectly okay to let Ruskin spend time on his own at home.

Ruskin Bond brings to life a simpler time, pre-Independence India, a time when it was okay for a young boy to take a year off from school and stay at home with his father, playing with the local boys and watching movies and reading books and arranging the stamp collection.

But a year later, it's time for Bond to go back to school; his father is getting transferred and can't take him with him. Thankfully, the new school turns out to be much more fun than the old one, with eccentric teachers and nice kids he soon makes friends with.

More than the text, the illustrations are what make this book such a collectible. I don't know who Mihir Joglekar is, but I love what he has done for this book.



Bond lets the readers know at the beginning that he lost his father when he was a child. This knowledge makes "Looking for the Rainbow" a bittersweet book, the usual childhood carefreeness shadowed as it is by the thought of what is to come.

Overall, a short beautifully packaged book that would make a perfect gift for a young kid. 
• • •

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Baaz by Anuja Chauhan - Book Review

I think I was always going to like this book. After all, I loved Anuja Chauhan's first book (The Zoya Factor) - it is one of the few books I've read twice. Her books are well-written stories for people wanting an escapist romance, a page-turner for a few hours. Baaz follows almost the same formula, though its setting and ending make it a leeettil bit different.

Baaz is the story of Ishaan 'Baaz' Fauzdaar, a boy from a small village in Haryana, who joins the Air Force and becomes a famous pilot during the 1971 war. It's also the story of Tehmina 'Tinka' Daddyseth - a photographer and a pacifist. The two meet and fall pretty much instantly in love - but how does their love story work out against the backdrop of a war?

For me, the Ishaan-Tehmina story was less important than the background against which it all plays out. We get a sneak peek into the lives of Air Force personnel and the planes they fly. Since the story is set against the 1971 war, we see a lot of the action live (though from the aerial perspective, of course :D). The book's cover says it's Anuja Chauhan's 'homage' to India's armed forces, and that definitely shows.

Despite a rather somber setting, Anuja Chauhan's wit and voice sparkle throughout the book. (The fact that the book is written in present tense is a bit jarring though.) Her writing is so vivid that you feel like she's drawing a picture with words right in front of you - I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the aerial battles.

How do I compare The Zoya Factor with this one? TZF, I felt was funnier, and had the most outrageously awesome plot (a woman who can ensure a cricket team's victory just by having breakfast with them? I mean, wow.). But it could have been about a third shorter than it was.

Baaz, on the other hand, is less funny, but more tightly written. The action pretty much never falters. Those who don't like the lovey dovey stuff can wait for the fighting. (Though I do know somebody who stopped reading the book because she didn't like all the descriptions of planes and fighting.)

Overall, a bitter-sweet read, but lovely nonetheless.
• • •

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

(Book Review) Yashodhara Lal's When Love Finds You

Yashodhara Lal's last book, There's Something About You, was the first book that I read as part of a book reviewing program I signed up for last year. I loved it and it really changed my perspective on Indian chick-lit. So when I was offered the chance to read and review her latest, I signed up quickly.

It was a ten-day wait to receive the book, presumably due to all the festivals we've been having lately. But once I received the book (thankfully on a Friday night), it took me just a few hours to read it, despite having a very demanding toddler at home. (The fact that it was the weekend helped.)

Before I begin, let me just get this off my chest quickly - I didn't enjoy this book as much as the last one. Sure, it's a good read and unputdownable and all that, but it doesn't have the wit and sparkle of the last book.

Lal presents us with a really dislikable protagonist - Natasha Patnaik is a 35-year-old Vice-President of Sales at an HR software company. She's extremely ambitious and a tough boss, very sure that she has to be doubly hard on her team to overcome their resistance to having a female boss. She's single, and not sure if she wants to mingle. She clearly has health and body image issues (though she doesn't seem to realize it).

Unfortunately for her, all the sacrifices she has made for her career don't seem to be enough. Her boss feels that she needs to develop her "people skills" and brings in an extra layer between him and her - a business head who seems to be all style and show, but who is supposed to mentor her.

Throw in a hot new colleague at work, a crochety old neighbour and a sexy gym instructor, and you've got everything you need for a riveting few hours.

You'll enjoy the book if you don't expect much more than your usual romantic potboiler. Personally, I had high expectations thanks to her last book, but this one doesn't quite match up.

All of Natasha's troubles are over by the end of the book. But there's no clear reason why.

(Possible spoilers begin)

Yes, she finally decides to deal with her past, but why? Yes, she suddenly becomes a manager the team loves performing for, but why? Yes, the guy she likes falls in love with her too, but why?

(Possible spoilers end)

Other peeves, while we're on the subject. Natasha introduces herself to her new boss in the first half of the book as an IIMC alum. In the second half of the book, she says she did her MBA from FMS. WTF.

And my major peeve from the last book holds true for this one as well - the cover. Dayamn, that is one terrible cover. And let's not even talk about the title, which is so generic it must have come from some Random Romantic Title Generating Machine. 

Overall, general timepass read that your brain cells can sleep through.
• • •

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, "The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them."

This belief in the Universe and its connection with creativity is a recurring theme in this book on creativity and inspiration. Indeed, that's what she refers to as Big Magic.

She believes that "creativity is a force of enchantment--not entirely human in its origins." Also, "Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life form. ... And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner." She even provides "proof" for this belief - an idea that supposedly jumped from her to another writer because she didn't give it enough time.

A bit hard to take in? Same here. But who are we to judge what helps her write?

And to do her credit, the rest of the book is a bit more realistic. The book apparently grew out of her famous TED talk on creativity, and it's a compilation of her thoughts and research on the subject. It's divided into six parts, each dealing with one of the six ingredients she thinks essential to creative living - Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity.

Gilbert's idea of creative living goes beyond the usual "artistic pursuits" such as writing or painting. Do something, she says, ANYTHING that takes you out of the mundane and the ordinary. "By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creativity] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are."

Despite her belief that ideas have a life of their own, she places great importance on hard work. Creativity is a fickle partner, she says. If you keep waiting for creativity to show up before you do your thing, then you will end up waiting for ever. You need to work steadily, day after day, even when you would rather be doing anything else. In her own words, "I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done."

In fact, for her, the outcome is less important than the process itself.
What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it's sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.
Her language is, as usual, conversational and free-flowing. Each part of the book is divided into short chapters, and she includes plenty of inspirational stories to illustrate her point.

I think different parts will appeal to different people. The parts on Courage and Persistence, for example, appealed to me. The one on Enchantment (in which she talks about the whole Ideas as Disembodied Beings concept) - not so much.

But perhaps different parts will appeal to the same person at different points in the creative process as well. If you're feeling stuck, for example, and the ol' Muse just isn't making an appearance, you could probably go back and read some of the chapters in Persistence. But if you're stuck at the beginning, aware that you want to do something beyond your daily routine, but not sure what, then the chapter on Trust will help you out.

Overall, a short accessible how-to guide to creativity, and a good behind-the-scenes peek into the thoughts of a writer.
• • •

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sriram Karri's Autobiography of a Mad Nation


Disclaimer: I read a free preview copy of this book.

A good idea, badly executed. That about sums up this book for me.

Sriram Karri clearly has a lot of anger bottled up inside him. He's angry at the system - the politicians, the bureaucrats, the media, the corrupt, the greedy, the silent majority - and he has let all his anger spew out in this book. It reads less like a novel and more like a criticism of the functioning of the Indian democratic system.

But to begin at the beginning. The President of India has received a strange letter from a convicted murderer awaiting execution - a challenging letter, a letter that demands justice and not mercy in the form of a pardon. Intrigued by the letter, the President asks his old friend Vidyasagar, the retired former head of the CBI, to investigate. Did Vikrant actually commit the murder he has been convicted of? Vidyasagar digs into the crime, only to find that things are murkier than they appear. The trail of one crime leads to another, and yet another.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part flows quickly - Vidyasagar's investigations, combined with what appear to be Vikrant's diary entries. I was actually enjoying the book at this point, despite the sometimes amateurish writing and the irritatingly self-righteous diary entries.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fall apart in the second part. Ideology-filled monologues dot the text, especially in the latter half of this section. The author seems to be making the characters speak for him, expressing his anger at all the ills affecting the nation.

The third part does a good job of tying up the whole. The threads of the mystery are satisfactorily untangled, and what appeared to be an insoluble mystery does end up having a logical, clear and satisfactory ending.

Unfortunately, it isn't enough to save the book. What could have been a unique novel ends up being a trite obvious diatribe.
• • •

Friday, July 10, 2015

Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You

I've been on a non-fiction streak lately. History, travel, what not. But there's only so much non-fiction I can handle at a time. After a point, I need a quick light read to relieve a bit of the seriousness. So when a mail popped into my inbox offering me a preview copy of Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You, I clicked through to the free three-chapter preview with interest.

Before I continue, I should confess something. I don't generally read such books. And by "such books", I mean the ones that directly or indirectly trace their lineage back to Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone (the book that kicked off a whole industry of Indian "commercial" fiction). I've tried a few of these books and been turned off by the shoddy sentence construction, the deluge of typos, and the way they talk down to the reader.

So when I see books packaged (yes, that IS the best word) in bright colours, with long titles that give away the plot line of the book, my brain generally tends to hit Skip. 

Which is why, when I started to read the preview chapters, I didn't expect Yashodhara Lal's book to be much better. But I was surprised - pleasantly. It was so nice to read an Indian "light read" written by somebody who can put a sentence together properly. I binge-read the three chapters in the preview (and then her blog for good measure) and realized that I would have to read the rest of the book somehow (she really knows how to throw in a cliffhanger). 

The book isn't releasing until July 20th, so I responded to the mail and asked for a preview copy. The book popped into my mailbox (the real life physical one) three-four days later. And I finished it before the day ended. When the mother of a five-month-old says that about a book, you better believe that that's one unputdownable book. (Or maybe I have a bad binge-reading disease. Possible.)

So what's the book all about? Though it's been billed as the Romance of the Year, it's actually much more than that. It's about Trishna Saxena (Trish), an overweight 28-year-old who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism. She feels the need to protect herself and her family (a father with Alzheimer's and a mother who tries to dominate her life) from any intruders. Her nice comfy life is disrupted when she loses her job. To add to the confusion, there's a seven-year-old who behaves like a teenager, an agony aunt column, a tragic accident, and of course our male protagonist, Sahil. 

Yashodhara Lal writes well - she's funny (in a sarcastic way). There are some interesting non-cardboardy characters, a decent plot that is predictably feel-good, and yet has some surprising elements (does that even make sense?), and a love story that is kept subtle and low-key. 

The best part of the book was that it didn't talk down to me, the reader. It expected me to be intelligent and yet want to have a good time - something other writers in the genre don't seem to have understood yet. 

And - hell - I might as well confess it. I LIKED Trish. I identified with her, I liked her sarcasm, I liked her flaws, I liked how she didn't have everything together in her life (at the beginning of the book anyway).

I do have a few things to crib about, of course. By the end of the book, there are just too many plotlines. Those who read the book will understand what I mean - the final plot element is a bit too dramatic and hard to take in.

The second crib I have is the cover. I mean - would you look at that cover? Is that supposed to be Trish? That looks more like a fashion-conscious teenager than a 28-year-old overweight writer. But I guess this cover will sell better.

Overall - a well-written, light, feel-good read that has ensured that I won't discount all commercial fiction out of hand in the future.
• • •