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. 
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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.
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