A Strangeness in my Mind

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

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Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously at the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with cousin Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha which has its own twist, or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter or being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others .

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that the novel is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

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A Rag Doll after my Heart

A Rag Doll after my Heart, is written by Anuradha Vaidya and translated into English from the original Marathi by Shruti Nargundkar.

The story is told in verses and hence the description as a ‘poetic novel.’ It is a straightforward story of a mother’s relationship with her daughter, who is fashioned out of rag clothes, since her mother was not bestowed with a child like the others. The nosy Indian society of course maliciously points fingers at this anomaly of a daughter, even accusing the mother of trying to act like God by creating a daughter/doll from rags. Only God can create, so why have you as well?

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With this Frankensteinesque beginning, also begins their odd journey embedded within a larger metaphor of life as a game, with its set rules, that doles out the fates/destinies to all the people. The writer has used this overarching metaphor and within it several others to refer to their bond or the daughter’s journey such as the most important one that of the doll and daughter, or a bird or a fish or even horticultural metaphors. These metaphors within metaphors beautifully encapsulates the emotions of mother and daughter but the larger metaphor is a tad bit overused and can wear out the reader.

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Guest Post: The Women’s Courtyard – A Complex and Thought-Provoking Look at Feminity and Suffocating Traditions

Guest Post by Arun Kumar

Arun Kumar is a Software professional with an unbridled passion for the world of cinema and books. He believes in an enriching film culture – from watching great cinema to engaging with its connoisseurs. Currently, he blogs at Passion for Movies and Passion for Books.


!!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!

These exalted humans are really something, she thought, when they don’t believe in God they even consider the very word ‘God’ to be false, but when they do come around to believing, they begin to see divinity even in the threshold beneath the feet of saints.”

Urdu novelist Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (originally published in 1962 under the title ‘Aangan’ and succinctly translated to English by Daisy Rockwell in 2018) is set in the backdrop of the final stages of the Indian Independence movement. But this isn’t a narrative that offers a familiar retelling of the political uprisings to break free from the British Raj or provides an account of the communally charged politics that lead to the trauma of Partition. That also doesn’t mean Khadija’s poignant literary creation is apolitical. The novel rather speaks of how a society that demands freedom from its colonizers is firmly bound to the rigid codes of class hierarchy and patriarchy.

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The Women’s Courtyard, as its title suggests, revolves around ordinary Muslim women, confined to their house’s inner courtyard. They are largely cut off from the outside world and deeply embroiled in the narrow-minded cultural practices. Aliya, the young protagonist of the novel, dreams of breaking away from the chains of domesticity. She identifies the traditional romantic legends as the means to dis-empower women. Her skepticism about love is aroused after the suicides of her elder sister Tehmina and her best friend, Kusum, whose lives are overturned by the traditional narrative of romantic bliss. Aliya’s father and uncle are swept up under the ideological storm and the politics of freedom struggle so that they only exhibit aloofness when it comes to dealing with their family’s economic ruin.

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The Reading Spree: September

30th September is International Translation Day! It was declared by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017 to foster peace and greater understanding among nations.

It is therefore a great way to end the National Translation Month (also September!) on this day and take a look at the books that were read as part of this month.

Since August was Women in Translation Month, I simply continued that in this month as well! It is always great to read more women writers, don’t you think so?

Here’s the list:

  1. First up was Shanghai Baby which was written by Wei Hui and translated by Bruce Humes from Chinese. The the novel takes you through Coco’s story, living in Shanghai and trying to write a novel while living with her boyfriend, Tian Tian. Read my full review here.
  2. Second came A Rag Doll after My Heart. Translated from Marathi by Shruti Nargundkar and written by Anuradha Vaidya, this ‘poetic novel’ is a lovely, though a bit dated and patriarchal, look at a mother and daughter’s bond by evoking it through thought provoking metaphors. Read my full review here

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Please Look After Mom

“It’s been one week since mom went missing.”

This is how Please Look After Mom, by Kyung-Sook Shin begins, plunging the reader headlong into the plot.

It’s a chilling start, one that no one would want to experience.

Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim, Please Look After Mom, tells the harrowing aftermath that the family deals with when their mother, Park So-nyo, goes missing after she was unable to board a train with her husband at Seoul Station.

The story is told through different perspectives: first the elder daughter, Chi-hon; then the eldest child, Hyong Chol, and then her husband and finally the mother (who seems to be flitting between this world and the next).

Each perspective is steeped in regretful reflections and replete with poignant memories about Park So-nyo.

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The daughter recalls her mother always working, and in her mind she is synonymous with the kitchen. Only when her younger sister, who herself now has three kids, asks her, “Do you think mom liked being in the kitchen?” does she even weigh in the enormity of her mother’s difficult and sacrificing life.

Hyong Chol, on the other hand, regrets not fulfilling his mother’s dreams and the promises he had made her, particularly of being a prosecutor.

Whereas the husband now regrets taking his wife for granted, not being able to help her even during her illness and how he had automatically assumed that she would be the one to take care of him.

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Quick Reviews: Shanghai Baby

Shanghai Baby by the Chinese writer, Wei Hui, has been translated into English by Bruce Humes. The novel is set in the turn of the 21st century in Shanghai, China.

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What is the book about?

Shanghai Baby unravels a story about Coco, living in Shanghai, who wants to be a writer and who eventually drops her waitress job, when she meets the artist Tian Tian, at the same cafe. After a little encouragement from him, she decides to pursue writing a novel full time. She had already published an erotic and daring collection of short stories titled, Shriek of the Butterfly, and was working at a magazine before. What prompted her to leave that job and become a waitress is not explored. What is explored, however, is her relationship with her city, with her parents, with Tian Tian, who is a drug addict and impotent; and her lover, Mark, a German expat, working there and the one who satisfies her sexual desires.

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Seeing Red

!!!! Spoilers Ahead!!!!

I had diligently followed the idea of Women in Translation Month in August and the last book in my list was the intensely terrifying Seeing Red by Chilean author, Lina Meruane.

(On a side note: Click here and see the other books that were part of my Women in Translation month)

Translated from Spanish Megan McDowell, Seeing Red, narrates the story of Lucina, a Chilean national, who moved to New York and is pursuing her PhD. One night at a party, something strange – yet something that she has been forewarned about – happens!

Her eyes haemmorage; blood gushes through her veins in her eyes leaving her vision clouded. She returns home with her partner, Ignacio, trying to make sense of this new reality. The months that follow show Lucina navigating through this new found blindness: they move to a new place and she tries to orient herself there, she goes back to Chile for a vacation where her relatives provide her with unsolicited advice about her impending eye operation. Even her parents who are themselves doctors, are stunned by Lucina’s illness.

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Musically Yours: Music in Solitude

Aranya is chaotic.

Ishan systematic.

Ishan is a family person.

Aranya questions the idea of family.

Ishan is spiritual.

Aranya a feminist.

Now I know what you are thinking: that this is just going to be some modern run-of-the-mill opposites attract love story.

Fortunately not!

Because Music in Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia, is not a love story, but rather a loving tale of two elderly individuals, Ishan and Aranya, who are in the autumn of their lives and yes you guessed it, are complete opposites. Yet it is their age and the life that that brings along in it’s wake, which helps them come together. Not to mention that they stay in the same building in Delhi!

Originally titled as Samay Sargam, the novel stitches together episodes from the two protagonists’ lives. Especially the time spent together discussing myriad topics over tea, lunches or dinners!

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The Reading Spree: Women in Translation Month 2019

And so the Women in Translation (WiT) month has ended. And oh what a beautiful reading spree it was!

As part of WiT, I read female writers that have been translated into English and I managed to read a humble total of six books!

Here is the list:

1. First on my list was When the Dives Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, translated from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers. This novel is a story of two Estonian cousins and their very different reactions to first Soviet occupation, then Nazi German and then back to Soviet occupation. Told using two parallel timelines, this was my first book by an Estonian writer that also shed a lot of light on a little known aspect of world history: Estonia’s role and struggle for independence during dark periods of occupation.

2. Next was The Music of Solitude by Krishna Sobti, translated from Hindi by Vasudha Dalmia. This is a touching tale of two elderly people living in Delhi, Ishan and Aranya, who are diametrically opposite people yet are brought together by proximity and burdensome and very palpable questions of old age and death. Read my complete review here.

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Quick Reviews: Gigi and the Cat

Gigi and The Cat by the acclaimed French writer, Colette, are two novellas published together by Vintage and I read them as part of Women in Translation Month.

Don’t know what that is?

Find out here!

What is this book about?

Gigi and The Cat consists of two stories: one is titled Gigi and the other, The Cat. Translated from French, both the stories adeptly capture the vivacity of the fin de siecle in Paris.

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Gigi is about the eponymous protagonist, ebullient girl of 15, dictated by her grandmamma who lavishly rains on her several rules of how to behave like a woman. Both her grandmamma and mother think that she is a simple, childish, naive girl who is unable to understand the intricacies of class and its politics. However, when an admirable suitor, Gaston Lachaille, confesses his love to her, Gigi or Gilberte, employs her own tactic of figuring out how to handle the situation, breaking away from her grandmother and mother’s advice.

La Chatte or in English, The Cat, is a much more complex story narrated in rich, detailed prose. The Cat outlines the love of the protagonist, Alain, towards his beautiful cat, Saha. The story then unravels how his marriage to Camille Malmert affects Saha and Alain’s relation with Saha. The story takes a plunge into Alain’s thoughts and emotions toward Saha, Camille, and his life in general, especially his deep love for the house he grew up in. Alain’s love for Saha is clear in the way he fondly calls out her name (with an aspirated ‘h’) and behaves with her ever so lovingly. His instinct toward Saha and his ability to know her inside out irks Camille to a certain extent, though she does try to come to terms with the cat.

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The Bluest Eye

The recent demise of Toni Morrison was a truly big blow to the world of diverse literature. With her end, comes an end to a writer who stood up for lesser known and oppressed voices, who urged those who did not see themselves in literature to write their own stories, to voice themselves since each story and each voice matters.

I am not really sure of how I picked up Toni Morrison’s books. I remember reading and loving the subtleties in her books, Sula and Mercy, which are my favourites while the more darker and deeper, Beloved, was a tough read to grasp. Perhaps, I should give it a try once again to enjoy and understand it thoroughly.

One of the recent ones I read was The Bluest Eye which is now my favourite, toppling the previous titles.

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The Bluest Eye is her debut novel, a heart wrenching story of two black girls, Claudia and Pecola, and how the widespread racism in their society affects them both.

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Women in Translation Month!

Starting the Women in Translation month with this promising read:

Because August is Women in Translation Month!

Let’s celebrate it and put the limelight on more women writers!

When the Doves Disappeared is an intriguing tale about Soviet occupation of Estonia which is told through the interweaving of two separate timelines!

I am excited to dig into my first book from Estonia!

Click here to read more about Women in Translation month and about endless lists of books by women writers that have been translated.

Travel Diaries: Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings

Narrow Road to the Interior and Other Writings, written in Japanese by Matsuo Basho and translated by Sam Hamill, is published by Shambala Classics. Matsuo Basho is famous for reinventing the haiku and imbuing it with true qualities of simplicity and natural beauty. This book is a beautiful haibun that chronicles Basho’s travels to the northern parts of Japan in late 17th century. Haibun is a form of writing that combines haiku and prose. Essentially, Narrow Road to the Interior or Oku no Hosomichi is a travelogue wherein Basho beautifully pens down his thoughts and journeys using both prose and haiku. The haikus often remark on particular incidents or scenes that Basho found memorable.

Read more about haibun here.

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The travelogue begins with these inviting lines,

The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.

Such an alluring beginning immediately pulls the reader in and reflect on the idea of journey itself.

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Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology

I am pretty sure that I have read Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Eunice De Souza, in my undergraduate days but I stumbled upon it once again in the library and the faint familiarity of the poems within the book wafted in my mind.

As the title suggests, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology, contains a selection of poems written in English by nine Indian female poets. The poets included in this anthology are Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Melanie Silgardo, Eunice De Souza herself, Imtiaz Dharker, Smita Agarwal, Sujata Bhatt, Charmayne D’Souza and Tara Patel.

The most familiar poets for me were Mamta Kalia, Kamala Das, Eunice De Souza, Imtiaz Dharker and Sujata Bhatt.

My favourite has to definitely be Mamta Kalia’s cheeky and wry poetic style.

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Most of the nine poets have a common theme through them of addressing ideas and issues that affect them such as identity and language, marital relations, family matters or even ex lovers. However, saying that this is all that their poems express would be a gross generalisation which I will not be a party to. Each of the nine poets have specific issues that they deftly express. Each is versatile and each has her own unique style.

For instance, one of the central ideas in Kamala Das’ poems included in his collection is navigating the dynamic of male and female gender roles. On the other hand, Mamta Kalia’s poems artfully use wit to portray women and their routines and challenge those very routines, be it in the automatic love expected out of a daughter to her father or the routines of married life. Whereas Sujata Bhatt’s poems are on the other end of the spectrum where she tries to make sense of the various identities that she carries within. Eunice De Souza’s poems however often take into consideration very Goan Catholic themes as do Melanie Silgardo’s poems.

One of my favourite poems is by Melanie Silgardo titled, Cat, simply because of its words’  visual power that being a cat lover, I can immediately recognise as being typically belonging to any cat’s idiosyncrasies.

Mamta Kalia’s poem, Tribute to Papa, is another of my favourites as it boldly challenges a typical Indian privilege we proffer on to our fathers. The poem stands out because of its sheer defiance.

All in all, Nine Indian Women Poets: An Anthology is a visual and aural delight as one gets to read the best of 20th century female Indian poets.

Be sure to read them out loud and immerse yourself in their lilting rhythms!

Travel Diaries: Circle of Karma

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden is the first novel written by a woman in Bhutan. Using simple language and straightforward plot line, the story weaves around Tsomo and her literal and metaphorical journey from her childhood to her old age.

Set in the mid-20th century Bhutan, The Circle of Karma‘s protagonist is Tsomo, who lives in Tang valley in Bumthang (one of the districts of Bhutan), is burdened with household chores and envious of her brothers getting a religious education from her scholarly father, who was a gomchen (a religious scholar/monk).

She deeply loves and respects her mother. She fears her father. She wants to learn to read and write but being a girl, she is not allowed to do so.

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Her observant nature though allows us a glimpse into several cultural aspects around her such as the nature of society and its bias towards women or the rituals that happen around her in her society.

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Blurb Appreciation Reviews: The Red Room

The Blurb Appreciation Reviews presents it fourth review!

Quite honestly, it was actually the cover of The Red Room that caught my eye itself, yet it was the detailed back cover or the blurb that finally made me decide to lend the book from the library.

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Despite the mention of trauma, I couldn’t help but gawk and be awed at the deep red of the cover and wonder at how pretty it is! Don’t you think so?

My interest in Korean literature is a recent development. So I ideally wanted to pick up this book just to broaden my perspectives about books and stories from Korea. However, since trauma was mentioned, I debated whether I wanted or had the mental space to read something heavy, dense and thought provoking.

But, it was the beautiful blurb that sealed the deal!

The Blurb: 

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The Red Room, translated by Bruce and Ju Chan Fulton, has three stories about “trauma in contemporary Korea.” The stories narrate how traumatic experiences have become a part and parcel for many Koreans especially because of the Korean War and the Gwangju/Kwangju Massacre. The Red Room is bookended by in depth forward and afterword that help the reader to know more about the specific events that the stories in the novel talk about.

A Quick Word

The first story, In the Realm of the Buddha, by Pak Wan-so is about the how a mother-daughter duo have yet to come to terms with the death of their father and brother, twenty years later. It is a heart felt story about what binds the living together, despite their differences in the way they share this unresolved grief.

The second story, Spirit on the Wind, by O Chong-hui is my favourite and employs two point of views to present its story.  Un-su is the wife who often abruptly leaves her home at random for short intervals, without any consideration for her husband or son, Sung-il.

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Within the Realm of Happiness

Dasho Kinley Dorji’s collection of 13 short stories about different aspects of Bhutan is aptly titled, Within the Realm of Happiness.

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The thirteen stories are a mix of fiction and creative non fiction that take a leaf out of his life as well as the different shades of his country.

It begins with a wonderfully innocent story, Angay, about a 10 year old who is intrigued by her grandmother’s (Angay in Dzongkha) mousetrap and what she does with the mouse when finally caught.

This is followed by an equally warm story, Mi-mi’s Surprise, about a father-son relation and the skills the father passes on to his son, Dorji, along with a surprise gift.

Two Men, Two Worlds is a relevant story about the division that modernisation created and is continuing to create among the Bhutanese people.

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The Bees

If you have not yet fallen in love with Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, you must pick up her latest collection, The Bees (2011).

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Divided into four sections and encompassing various themes that are held together by the one of the tiniest yet the most important creature of the planet: bees.

Interspersed between odes to the vitality and importance of the bees and the gardens they enable to bloom, are myriad poems ranging from feminist to ecological themes to the ones that comment on current political scenarios that dominate the West.

The ecological poems are beautifully portrayed through the use of the bees metaphor. The use of the bees metaphor is definitely something that is not an oft used idea, particularly to talk about the ultimate devastation that our planet is heading towards; yet it is one of the many creatures that is threatened and which also threatens our existence in return.

Though all the poems that center around bees are heady and evocative of lush blooms and bouquets of flowery beauty, my favourite is Scheherazade. It is about the need to speak, the necessity to speak out rather than die. It is a lovely take on a well known fairy tale trope of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights, weaving tales to stay alive; each story narrated taking her one step away from death.

Sarcasm is also a tone prominent in many of her other subversive poems such as The Female Husband which portrays a different side of gender or the immensely witty, Mrs Schofield’s GCSE which takes a dig at the way we assess the learning of literature.
Read the poem here.

Romantic strands are subtly woven into a few other poems. These poems’ obviously hidden romantic veneer comes as a surprise at the end. Case in point is Rings. Take a guess what it is about.

And true to her well known style, many of the poems in the collection are devoted to the questioning and presenting of issues through use of larger mythological characters such as Achilles or Leda.

While it is easy to simply say that The Bees is about saving the bees and introspecting about the environmental damage, the poems will actually take you on a roller coaster ride of varied themes with its ups and downs of subversion, sarcasm and stark beauty.

It is akin to entering a beehive itself: well organised but so vast that one can get lost. But only when one is lost though, that one can come out enriched and truly know why Carol Ann Duffy poignantly says, “Honey is art.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Reviews: Touching Earth

Touching Earth by Rani Manicka opens with the graveyard and the narrators long gone but reminiscing about their lives. Then the novel plunges into the beautiful vistas of Bali to feast on; its power and the magic that can beguile anyone. It is Nutan, one of the twins who is narrating the story, who herself is about to tell a story but she starts with her childhood: the typical fairy tale start of innocence when she lived with her twin, Zeenat and her mother, grandmother and father. But therein lay a dark secret that is cut wide open right at the beginning. And that sets the course for the lives of the Balinese twins.

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Top 5: Female Bildungsroman Novels

If you have been following The Book Cafe posts, you may have noticed about how I have been trying to read more female writers and how many of their novels have had a sense of growth and change in the female characters which makes them qualify as a bildungsroman novel. A bildungsroman novel can be loosely defined as a coming of age novel focusing on the protagonist’s formative years or a novel that highlights a physical or psychological growth and change.

Often, these bildungsroman novels have a male protagonist and their specific growth. But in this post I would like to highlight my top 5 picks of female bildungsroman novels!

Come take a look!

5. In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez:

This is a heart wrenching true story of three Mirabel sisters who became legends because of their defiance during the gaunt Trujillo regime in Dominican Republic. It is not just about their rebellious years but also about their innocent childhood, their family life and how they grew into the symbols that they have become today.

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Read my full review here.

4. Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden:

This one is a debut novel in English from the renowned Bhutanese author, Kunzang Choden and she takes us to join Tshomo’s journey towards her acceptance of her self and her spiritual love.

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