Manto’s stories

No other person in Indian English literature is as closely associated and identified with the Partition as Sadat Hasan Manto. He has to his credits a novel, radio plays, essays, film scripts but he is synonymous with the Partition short stories he penned.

Penguin Books has recently come out with a collection of cheaply priced books-Penguin Evergreens. The few books in this collection are mostly (not necessarily) short stories by numerous Indian authors.  It also includes stories by Manto . The collection is titled-‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, Translation by Khalid Hasan.’ It is quite commendable that Penguin has come out with easily affordable collection of short stories by renowned authors. This will hopefully make the Indian readers take up short stories by Indian writers.

There is a good variety of stories in this collection and are not confined only to the Partition. They deal with many subjects-Partition being one of them, human nature being another subject etc. His most famous stories like Toba Tek Singh, Colder Then Ice, The Dog Of Titwal etc., are included in this collection. Others may not be well known but are equally well written and give a startling glimpse into tender human moments or into the twisted human mind. The great advantage of short stories is that it can capture the boldest, the most essential and deliver it with a bang in a few words which immediately hits the reader. This advantage Manto exploited thoroughly to make his point to the readers. Toba Tek Singh is a brilliant example of how Manto comments on the issues of nationality and the futility of constructing them arbitrarily. Odour captures Randhir’s wistful reminiscences of a girl he met on a rainy day and how the peculiar odour she exuded completely enchanted him and how he searches for that in his bride. The Gift borders on the comic as it narrates the story of Shankar and how he cleverly dupes two prostitutes by giving them gifts that belonged to each other. Bitter Harvest is a poignant story of the manner in which hatred and violence can consume the best of friends leaving only animals raging with vengeance. A Woman For All Seasons is about the vagaries of fame and fate from the point of view of an actress. There are in all fifteen stories that will surely give you a fleeting glimpse of a range of societal mores and characters. These stories depict how Manto wrote about all subjects, all sorts of people-whether the hight, middle, low class etc. There shines an honesty and an ache for humanity in his stories. His approach to writing his not selective as he wrote about everything under the sun be it taboo subjects like sex, prostitution or sensitive topics like the Partition.

This Penguin Evergreen is sure to delight everyone. What may not be delightful is the simplistic translation by Khalid Hasan. It is too banal and often fails to capture the mood and feel of the story with the same bitterness that Manto suffuses them with. The only stories that felt like a good translation were Odour and The Dog Of Titwal. Others had something or the other lacking in them. They didn’t make you sit up and feel shocked. They somehow lulled you into numbness which is not a reaction to be elicited when reading a Manto story. The latter always makes you think and imposes on you a new idea, a new viewpoint that you are compelled to ponder over. This translation fails to do that. The reader will only be able to take a momentary pleasure from them and not a sustained, lingering and fresh perspective. I don’t have any other recommendations to read other translations as I have forgotten the translators’ names of whatever few stories I have read in different collections.  Recently in 2012 a collection, ‘Manto: Selected Short Stories’ was released and it is translated by Aatish Taseer. How good it is is yet to be ascertained. But it is worth giving it a shot.

Despite the translation flaws in ‘Toba Tek Singh: Stories by Sadat Hasan Manto’, it is worth picking it up (and not just because it’s cheap) as it will acquaint any reader with some of Manto’s works and his style of writing. Hopefully, this book will generate more interest in Manto’s writings.

The Games People Play

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.

The Blue Umbrella

Simplicity personified is one way of describing stories and books penned by Ruskin Bond. ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ is true to this very description. It may be dismissed a little too easily as a simple children’s story but it works at many levels.  The story revolves around a young girl-Binya who lives with her mother and brother-Bijju- in the hills in India. One day she comes across a group of picnickers while she was searching for her grazing cows in the evening. Binya immediately falls in love with a blue umbrella which one of the ladies has and hesitantly exchanges her lucky charm of a leopard’s claw for the pretty blue umbrella. It soon becomes her prized possession and also the envy of the entire village particularly of Ram Bharose who owns a tea stall. He badly wants to own that object for its beauty but fails in all his attempts to acquire it. One of those attempts almost brings him to ruin. Eventually Binya herself gives him the umbrella and Ram Bharose gives her a bear’s claw in return.

The Blue Umbrella‘ has a Blakean feel about it as the story flourishes on innocence, simplicity, childlike wonder and awe and imagination. The story proffers a simple juxtaposition of the ways of the people of the plains and the mountains as well a juxtaposition of children and adults. The people of the plains are greedy and materialistic while the people of the mountains are inherently joined to the nature and appreciate its value and beauty to the fullest. The adults can be fixated only with meaningless objects while children also do feel awe for objects but they realize that other aspects are of more importance and value which is why Binya willingly gives the umbrella away as she believes that people are more important than objects. She is easily able to forfeit the umbrella as if she wasn’t attached to it at all. This may seem to be a very binary and simplistic analysis but this is what Bond does best-takes the simple things and blows on them the kiss of the extraordinary which will perhaps be able to teach us a thing or two about life and its mystery.

The landscape, as always, is an integral part of Ruskin Bond’s stories and is given quite a lot of spotlight even in ‘The Blue Umbrella‘. The beauty, whims and vagaries of nature are all spread out for the reader to enjoy. The purity of the hills is reflected in the purity of Binya and Bijju’s behavior.

The Blue Umbrella‘ may seem very childish to some ‘old’ and ‘erudite’ readers. However Bond’s genius lies in revealing many profound truths in that very simplicity. These profound truths are as useful to children as to adults.  The story is even relevant in today’s overtly materialist  and consumerist society. We can all depend on our gadgets and designer coffees but at the end of it all that is not what makes life. Its the people, the family, nature, our emotions, feelings,our actions and more importantly-our ability to let go- that matters.

Go ahead, pick up ‘The Blue Umbrella‘ and see if you fail to find some meaning within this’ mere simple tale for kids.’ Be adventurous and accept this challenge.

Feel free to comment about your experience of reading the story and if you have watched the 2005 film adaptation of the same story, do let us know how it turned out to be.

Pardesi: The Namesake and Leaving India

Despite the US and UK tightening their grip on immigration, the ‘foreign’ dream will perhaps never go out of fashion for the Indians. Immigration-whether forced or voluntary- explains the history of the Indian diaspora to a large extent. There is a reason embedded in history which explains why Indians are found in such a large number in South Africa or Fiji, where there has often been a lot of violence between the native Fijians and the Indians, and other places.

Literature, whether Indian or otherwise, has brilliantly captured (as it always does) the emotional, nostalgic and human elements involved in the process of immigration that goes beyond the numbers and figures that ministries and studies on this subject routinely throw at us.

Let’s take a quick look at two Indian authored books which provide varying perspectives about the idea of immigration and its implication on the people who embark on that journey:

1)  Title: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents

Author: Minal Hajratwala

Thoughts: Though it a non-fiction book which chronicles precisely what the title says, Hajratwala has wonderfully spun this tale of her own family’s (both maternal and paternal) forays into the different countries such that the book appears like history book narrating not the stories of great kings and queens, but rather a fateful story of an ordinary Indian family whose destinies were shaped by forces beyond them (such as the emergence of the indentured labour system, the failing art and crafts market in British India, etc). Let not the ‘non-fiction’ tag deter you from immersing yourself into this mesmerizing story because it is skillfully written with a charm and passion that is hard to find in other non fiction books as they tend to be drab and factual. Along the way, you might learn just a little something about the Indian history such as the connections Gandhiji had with South Africa(apart from the fact that he was thrown out of the train) and some such other tidbits which never make into our history textbooks. Minal Hajratwala traces her family history by juxtaposing facts with anecdotes and the former always explain the reasons for her family’s movements and successes across the globe.This helps a lot in understanding as to why Indians in general and her family members in particular migrated when they did.

Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents is truly an engrossing read that will take you on an enchanting journey across half the world while still keeping you grounded in your Indian roots.

2)   Title: The Namesake

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Thoughts: Jhumpa Lahiri hardly ever gets the fanfare she deserves. Actually, most deserving Indian authors are often lost behind the haze of cliched bestsellers. While we can argue this for an eternity, one thing is clear: that her second book, The Namesake is beauty personified. It is centered around the Gangulis, a Bengali family who move to the US for greener pastures. Ashoke Ganguli, the breadwinner, a student and later a professor and Ashima,(a very apt name for an immigrant as it means one without borders) his wife, have their first son whom they curiously name Gogol, after the not so famous celebrated Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, which thus further adds to the child’s identity issues: he is caught between his Indian and American identities but his name reflect none of these two as it is of Russian origin. The story gradually progresses with Gogol’s growing up, dealing with identity issues and how his family members, particularly Ashima, deal with being away from home with hardly any relatives surrounding them. The story illuminates the life of the Gangulis as they make their way in an unknown country and gradually come to accept and even love.

The Namesake is a poignant story that tackles issues of homelessness, assimilation, cultural and emotional identities, forging one’s own unique identity in a unique culture, displacement, diaspora, cultural and ideological conflicts, adjustments, generation gaps etc. But Jhumpa Lahiri explores all this with a quite emotional power that will hit you sensitively. There is a delicacy in her writing style that asserts the fragility of human relationships, asserts that they are precarious and can shatter anytime.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of short stories that also deals with similar issues in the same characteristic style which is sensitive and beautiful. Click here to check out my review for this book.

Do you know of any more books that deal with this issue of immigration? Please feel free to share in the comments below!


This post is part of the Pardesi series that highlights immigrant experiences.

You can contribute as well! Click here for more information.

‘Leuk(derma)’ing Bad

Step into the world of leukoderma and understand it complexity, problem and the various Indian superstitions revolving around it. Before you groan and go away, let me tell you that this isn’t a book a la ‘Emperor Of Maladies'(though I am told it is a fascinating book) but rather a fictional story of the struggles that a woman suffering leukoderma faces. ‘Mahashweta‘ by Sudha Murthy, from the synopsis at the back and the glittering praise from well established newspapers, promises to be a unique read that delves into the suffering of a disease that afflicts many but doesn’t find its way in the stories. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to those promises for which there are many reasons to which we will get back to later on.

Mahashweta‘ is aptly dedicated to women suffering from leukoderma and urges them to fight and not be oppressed by their disease. The story begins on a congratulatory note with the birth of a girl child which is a means to establish the single status of Dr. Anand-the successful, handsome and rich doctor- who helped give birth to the baby girl. Later while at his work, Anand is coaxed into buying a Rs. 1000 ticker for a play he has no idea about by the ‘incomparable’ Anupama. The play is a love story between Mahashweta and Pundalik and is part of the book ‘Kadambari’ written by Bhana Bhatta. Anupama plays the heroine and as expected Dr. Anand is mesmerized by her beauty and acting skills. After a few irrelevant incidents, they both get married(how predictable!) despite the difference in their economic status. It is only after marriage that Anupama develops a white patch and it begins to spread despite her clandestine treatment. When  her mother-in-law realises this, all hell breaks loose. She accuses Anupama of having tricked her son into marrying him and begins to consider her inauspicious because of leukoderma. She eventually returns to her father’s house, disgraced. Her evil stepmother’s taunts and ill treatment just worsens the situation. To top it all, Dr. Anand- being a doctor at least should know that leukoderma is nothing but a disease and not something that turns a person inauspicious-also does not support Anupama and abandons her when she needed him the most. Anupama, however, does not let the circumstances get the better of her. She bravely decides to go to Mumbai, away from her callous family and in-laws, to eke out a living and carve a place of her own free from any pain, stigma and stereotypes. She is quite successful is achieving her dreams and standing proudly on her own two feet.

Mahashweta‘ is a conventional story of the suffering bravely overcoming their difficult trials and tribulations. The only redeeming aspect of the story comes at the end when Anupama decides to remain her own master and be economically independent rather than being bound by someone else’s rules and regulations. Other than this, the novel as a whole is marred by a fragmented narrative, dollops of stereotypes, amateurish writing, no smooth narration and a very soap operatic treatment of the entire story. In fact, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that ‘Mahashweta‘ is a soap opera in prose style as it has all the prerequisites of one-the constant preoccupation with marriage, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law twist, the evil stepmother convention, the too good to be true daughter-in-law who suffers silently, the narrow minded and religious focus of the story at time and the list is endless.

While Sudha Murthy does take up a relatively lesser known disease to tell her story, she does not break any new ground on it as the entire novel is steeped in too many stereotypes particularly about girls and marriage. For eg, on the first page itself, the nurse who assisted in the birth of the girl ponders over how the female child is stronger at birth than the male but later on becomes the one who suffers. The nurse attributes this as being ‘a fact of life’ which is not really true because being feminine or masculine is not a fact of life but rather a cultural construct. The system of patriarchy conditions women to expect suffering in their life. Anything that is exploited or oppressed is associated with the female sex. For eg. it is ‘mother’ earth and never ‘father’ earth. The novel is replete with such redundant stereotypes. Murthy may have wished to challenge them but she does not do a good job as she merely states them with no attempts at challenging them much like any commonplace Indian soap opera.

Moreover,her writing does not have the emotional depth that is perhaps required in such a sensitive story. Most of her attempts at philosophy(through Anupama) are also blunt and shallow.

Although, ‘Mahashweta‘ educates the reader about leukoderma and the debilitating superstitions that even ‘educated’ Indians follow, the novel becomes a drag to read. It reveals the hypocrisy of the Indian society in their attitudes to leukoderma but does not do so in a profound, erudite and  personal manner.

Final Verdict: It is best to skip ‘Mahashweta‘ altogether. If you really want to know more about leukoderma, then contact you nearest dermatologist. Or if you don’t have the time, then just click here to know more!

Growing Up and Other Things.

This summer vacation visit your childhood days again. Simply delve into the worlds of Rusty and his gang of friends in the famous Rusty series penned by our very own, lovable-Ruskin Bond. The first in this series is ‘The Room On The Roof‘ which Bond himself wrote when he was only 17 years old. It was the story that got him fame and won him the John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize. While the entire series is promoted as predominantly children fiction, anyone can read the books as they are simple and refreshing and not merely childish. They can take you back to your fun filled adolescence and leave you touched by its thoughtfulness.

The Room On The Roof‘ revolves around Rusty who at the start is a lonely boy of 16 who loves to take aimless walks in the forests of Dehradun. He is under the guardianship of Mr. John Harrison, a strict, intimidating British fellow who has only contempt for everything around him-Rusty, the Indian side of the town, nature, his wife even etc.. By coincidence he meets two very friendly and warm Indian kids -Somi and Ranbir- on one of his many walks. They quickly become friends and indulge in the ‘masti’ of childhood-from riding their cycles, to their daily visits to the popular chaat shops etc, to playing Holi etc. Tired of the restrictive atmosphere of his guardian’s home and the European side of the town, Rusty runs away in a moment of madness and fury to be with his Indian friends. He only later realises the gravity of his decision and what it means to be living on one’s own. The story then takes a turn from its playfulness to a more serious tone as Rusty grapples with his new situation with the help of Somi and Ranbir.

The best part of ‘The Room On The Roof‘ is that Bond very lovingly sketches the development of Rusty’s personality. Bond thus makes the story not simply about the unbridled, pure and innocent joys of adolescence but also about the certain issues that rack one’s mind at that age for eg, Rusty’s loneliness, his adolescent love, his insecurity etc.. The story is also meditative as Rusty ponders over his ‘insignificance’ and purpose of life. So dismissing the novel as simply a childish one would be wrong. It may not proffer profound truths about the world but it does provide an adolescence’s point of view of such abstract aspects which also attests to the fact that the adolescent stage is not only one of frivolous frolic and time pass. It is quite commendable that Bond wrote this when he himself was only 17. Such sort of maturity in writing is not seen today from teenage authors anymore. Many aspects of the novel are also Bond’s own and perhaps the reflective tone of the story stems from his know meditations at that time.

Another feature that stands out is the true, minute depictions of Indian life whether it is the European part of Dehra, the buzzing bazaar, the simple toys, the smoky chaat shop and its delicacies,the intoxicated playing of Holi, the myriad Indian railway, Dehra’s natural beauty and the characters connections with it, Rusty’s room on the roof etc. While many of them may seem cliched like the cows on the streets and the beggars, they are life like nonetheless and attest to a way of life that is fast disappearing. Even the characters whether it is Rusty’ friends, Mr. Harrison’s wife’s brief appearances, Meena Kapoor-Rusty’s employer, her husband-Mr. Kapoor etc are all complex and have a story to their lives that make them full, rounded people with personalities and not just one sided characters.

A story of growing up, friendship, love and responsibilities,’The Room On The Roof‘ is a charming little novel that will regale all children and even adults. It will make you slow down, think and appreciate the small things of life.

Love Across The Salt Desert

Wistful, melancholic, historical and isolated stories that cherish hope at times or relinquish  it completely is what characterizes the 20 selected short stories of Keki Daruwalla’s magnificent new book titled, ‘Love Across The Salt Desert.’ These 20 short stories have no thematic similarities as they portray a wide range of characters and surroundings from a disconcerted British officer during Quit India movement to the religious, intellectual and insightful Parsee father, from a sensationalist journalist to a deceitful doctor, from a loving granddaughter to a jilted yet content wife etc and from Rann of Kutch to the lofty, ethereal mountains of Niti valley, from the cultured pre-independence to the sleepy Gorakhpur, from the ancient India of Porous to the ancient Aegean regions etc.

Yet despite this disparity, each story has a perfect Aristotelian beginning, middle and end. Each story has ordinary humans (and even animals at times) at its core, dealing with their worries, hopes and problems, which may seem purely mundane but Daruwalla imbues than with a soft magnitude that touches the chord of every reader’s heart. This makes the insignificant details of daily life come alive and when told while focusing on only one issue, one hope, one worry, they achieve an importance that everyone can identify with. Thus we see in ‘the jahangir syndrome’, Kunwar Tejbhan Singh moving out of Lucknow and reflecting on the feudal system, the irony of a granddaughter not being there when her grandmother passes away in the story, ‘going’, the tender relationship between a mute and a cook who finds the former’s mimes fascinating in the ‘retired panther’, the warm, delicate, young love of Fatima and Najab across the bristling desert of the Kutch in the title story and many such more stories that delight the readers with its lucidity and clarity of places, insights, people and emotions.

From one story to another, the reader is treated to new images of India whether of the present, the recent past or its ancient past. The stories’ charm lies in the characterization of Indians( although there are exceptions) across all age groups, historical times, class and gender that underline their idiosyncrasies that proffer more information on Indian people than any erudite book could ever do.

‘Love Across The Salt Desert’ is a captivating and engaging collection of short stories that asserts Daruwalla’s status as a compelling short story writer. It is a book highly recommended that won’t be a waste of time or money but rather a journey all across India and its many moods and the world.

The Opium Trade

While ‘Sea Of Poppies’ focused on the opium trade, with Ghosh sailing the story across so many myriad, interesting characters brought together by that one single drug; ‘River Of Smoke’, the second book in the Ibis trilogy, zeros in on the merchants directly involved with the opium trade in China and how the Chinese Emperor’s strict rules to completely ban its trade affected them.

So, ‘Sea Of Poppies’ ended with the Ibis’ course upset by a storm which allows a few men-including two prisoners- to escape.

The ‘River Of Smoke‘ starts, like the first one, with Deeti in a very distant future(the exact date is not mentioned) in her shrine of images. Deeti reminisces about the images and how each one was drawn by many different people she had known aboard the Ibis. She remembers how Neel had drawn the picture of Ah-Fatt’s father with his ship,Anahita, behind. Ah-Fatt was one of the prisoner on the Ibis and his father was an immensely rich, Bombay Parsi merchant- Bahram Modi.Then the novel goes into flashback tracing Neel’s life after the Ibis. He ended up in Macao and then was able to procure a job as a munshi with Bahram Modi. So he sailed away to Canton where all the opium merchants had their quarters in.

From here on, ‘River Of Smoke‘ mainly focuses on the story of Bahram Modi-his predicament of not being able to sell his latest opium goods because of the tightening Chinese rules against its trade, his manners, his lifestyle, his position in a white dominated world, his desire to be independent economically from his rich in-laws,his love for a Chinese boat woman etc. The characters of the previous book make fleeting appearances such as Zachary Reid and Baboo Nob Kissin. Others characters’ stories like Paulette’s runs parallel to Bahram’s story. An equally more number of characters are introduced in the novel. The most vivid are the the numerous British merchants that are blinded by their contorted ideas of free trade and spend countless evenings arguing about the need for opium’s trade. The other memorable ones include-Vico who is Bahram’s purser, Fitcher Penrose-a botanist in search of the elusive Golden Camelia with Paulette on his ship, Redruth,Charles King-a British who opposes the opium trade vehemently and Robert Chinnery,a famous artist’s son whose letters to Paulette light up the narration every now and then.

Unlike, ‘Sea Of Poppies’, this novel does not meander a lot to other characters’ situations and circumstances but Ghosh weaves them together with Bahram’s problems and the Chinese crackdown on opium’s trade.  However, like the last one, ‘River Of Smoke‘ is suffused with ample of details that are a testament to Ghosh’s love for research in his novels. Canton, particularly the fanqui town, which is the center for the foreign traders but is outside the city limits of Canton itself, is vividly described. Nonetheless, the fanqui town is an animated enclave with all sorts of services available for everyone. It is a self-sufficient enclave. The reader will be left mesmerized by the variety of people, food, clothes etc. They will be caught up in the frenzy pace of its lifestyle and overwhelmed by such a unique, vibrant amalmagation.

River of Smoke‘ ends with the Chinese authorities being able to force the Canton traders to surrender their opium goods which are then burnt by the former. However, the British would not, owing to their colonial superiority, accept such humiliation. Thus the novel ends at a juncture when it is is poised for the opium wars. Infact, after the burning incident, the narration jumps back to Neel in Deeti’s shrine talking about how Kalua and Jodu fought in those very wars. This foreshadows what will perhaps be the focus of the third book in this trilogy.

River Of Smoke‘ is a a beautiful novel which brings together a history of the forgotten, of those who are on the fringes, who were despite their marginalized status affected by the opium trade. The trilogy effortlessly moves from the country of its production to the centre of its trade in China illuminating along the way the hundreds of lives it changed and tied together in a familial sort of manner.

 

 

An Opium Journey

Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

The Forgotten India

Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom, smile at at old, mildewed photos of one’s ancestors, open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books.

These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era, preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.

For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, Sunlight On A Broken Column celebrates the past – a harmonious and elite life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.

Continue reading

Musically Yours: Words Of Music

Music is the universal language of mankind.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Which is why when it is intertwined with the written word, music helps to express what words alone could not.
Music dripping with the heartache of a rash mistake in love, music bubbling with pure passion and reaching ethereal heights. All this and more defines Vikram Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. It is steeped with Seth’s intense love for music and his love for literature. Both these loves merged splendidly together make this musical novel a beautiful love story of love lost and found and ephemerally cherished.

Though, An Equal Music is a masterful book,the plot is quite conventional. A violinist in his 30s named Michael is part of a string quartet, Maggiore Quartet. He lives in London and one day he accidentally sees Julie, the girl he loved 10 years ago and who he left, back in the days when they were music students in Vienna. This coincidence raises Michael’s hopes for reigniting their love and a string of events-Julie coming to meet Michael after one of his concert performances,she dropping in his apartment, their walks in the park – do just that (much to Michael’s pleasure). However, ten years is too big a gap to fill out by merely walking in the park. There are several changes in their lives that constantly keep altering the love affair they both find themselves in. These anecdotes of love are suffused with fine touches of soft musical notes, fugues and pieces of great musicians like Mozart, Schubert, Bach etc. that define and even take their fragile love forward. Apart from this love story, the plot revolves around the music of Maggiore Quartet – their trials and tribulations as well as the lives and relations of its musicians.

Seth’s poignant writing is bound to take the reader on a lovely musical journey as grand as any classical concert itself. However such brilliant writing cannot hide away the predictability of the story at the start. This can be forgiven because of the utter sensitivity, hope, loss and fragmentation that shines through which is not exactly unique but can hardly be called cliched either.
The plot in general tends to peter out and become too self indulgent. and tends to revolve around Michael alone for a large part of the story. This snatches from the novel the accolade of being completely perfect. Another negative aspect is the overuse of music jargon. Seth definitely has a wholesome knowledge of music but throwing a barrage of musical terms on an ignorant reader (like me) can sometimes take away the pleasure of enjoying the music depicted in words rather than increasing it.
Other than that,the novel is pure magic and a divine concert of love.

Ending on an exalted note that states the importance of letting love go sometimes, An Equal Music does what most love stories fail to do:end on a bittersweet note with Bach’s glorious music lingering on even after the cover is closed. Perhaps this lingering memory can create an awareness of the potential and power of keeping love alive without having to constantly assert it and even create an everlasting love for beautiful classical music.

I’ve learned what ‘classical’ means. It means something that sings and dances through sheer joy of existence.
Gustav Holst
Perhaps like Holst, one may learn to appreciate its existence too.

Of Holy Men and Monkeys

The problem with reading an awesome novel by a particular author is the high expectations one has with the other novels and when that doesn’t happen,you feel heartbroken for both yourself and the author. And that’s exactly what happened with ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ written by Kiran Desai. Having read her other, more famous, Booker prize winning novel, ‘The Inheritance Of Loss,’ which is quite splendid weaving strands of varying themes into a beautiful story, I built up many sky high praises for Kiran Desai. But, unfortunately, her debut novel doesn’t come close to her 2nd one. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard,’ is a good read nonetheless, yet lacks the brilliance that lights up the storyline of ‘The Inheritnace of Loss.’

Taken from christophersrarebooks.com

The plot of ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ begins with the birth of Sampath in an apparently middle class family living in a village named Shahkot. Then the novel does an Indian soap opera kind of leap and we see Sampath twenty years later, quite dull, and doomed as a failure by his father. Only his mother, Kulfi, has faith that her son will be able to be something in life. And ho! what do you know, he does manage to do just that. But not before getting fired from his clerk job in the post office and running away from Shahkot to be away from the misery of life. He then comes across a guava orchard and decides to climb on a guava tree and interestingly finds peace and solace over there. He feels uncluttered and unfettered on that tree. With a quirk of fate, he gets mistaken by a holy man atop a tree and his father gets a brilliant idea to juice out money from this venture. People flock to listen to his wise words and seek his advice and blessings! Sampath thus from being a good for nothing fellow becomes a famous Monkey Baba revered by one and all. Apart from Sampath, we get to see the rest of his peculiar family like his mother who relishes food and whipping up quite grand and glorious dishes. Then his sister, Pinky who falls in love with an ice cream seller, Hungry Hop.

The one word for this novel is eccentric. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ reminds one of the bumbling comedies staged during Elizabethan Age that had similar comic situations with myriad quirky characters. The book gives a satirical take on rural/town India and its obsession with godly figures. It highlights the dishonesty that prevails among the fake babas that spring up in all nooks and corners. Of course, Sampath never intended to become a Monkey Baba. He in fact wanted to run away from all things pretentious. So perhaps Desai is trying to bring out how holy men should be in their heart and soul? Well, one can interpret it in anyway one wants. The characters are also well fleshed out particularly Kulfi whose love for food has been highlighted since page 1.

While the comic ans satirical part of the book is perfect, its the Bollywoodish touch and the simple, immature writing and the weak climax that make the book rather disappointing. Its quite entertaining and funny in its ludicrous situations but not really a must read, though a fun read!

Well, you could either go for it and enjoy the fun or avoid it completely. Take your pick!

Crime in Corrupt India

The dearth of Indian crime fiction has been partially saved by the novel ‘Six Suspects‘ written by Vikas Swarup, better known for his novel, ‘Q and A’ that was adapted into the Oscar winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While ‘Q and A’ was a rather amateurish, not at all researched book with bits of faulty writing, ‘Six Suspects‘ is a tad bit better. While it has its own flaws, it is nonetheless a pretty good detective/thriller story that exposes the corrupt India and has a story that will be lavished by detective fiction lovers/fans.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The plot revolves around Vicky Rai’s (the son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh) murder that took place while he was partying at his farmhouse in Delhi to celebrate his acquittal in a Jessica Lall style murder case(only in the book, the girl who was shot dead by Vicky was named Ruby Gill). There are essentially six suspects that are detained by the police as they were found carrying guns. Then, aptly, Swarup goes on and gives elaborate descriptions about all the six suspects and their motives to kill Vicky Rai. The six suspects are a motley crowd-including a sexy actress, an American,a mobile thief, Vicky’s own father, a tribal from Andaman and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. These stories are cleverly interconnected and intelligently converge at Vicky Rai’s farmhouse. In the end, an investigative journalist, Arun Advani, solves this murder mystery and the end is, I might say, quite unanticipated! The murderer is an unexpected one.

The story is well structured, with quite a few twists and turns that are definitely surprising.

Along with giving massive details about the life stories of all the six suspects, which by the way takes up a large chunk of the novel, Vikas Swarup also highlights the corruption rampant in India’s politics, displays the divide between the rich and poor and the different classes, the world of powerful contacts and influences and several more such instances that reveal the sleazy side of India.

Despite ‘Six Suspects‘ being a good detective read, it still has certain weak spots. Firstly, Vikas Swarup tries to put in a lot of information about India in the novel and most of it is sadly lifted from ‘breaking news’ sessions of the Indian tv channels that can get monotonous. This aspect makes it look like ‘Six Suspects was written for foreign audiences and Swarup was aiming for this book to be made into a film as well.  It seems there is a lack of originality. Secondly, certain ideas are rather stereotyped like the American’s view of India when he comes for the first time, the bit about Islamic fundamentalists is also very cliched(all Muslims are terrorists and all that crap). Although the story has an unpredictable end, there are times when the stories of the six suspects get predictable-for example, the tribal from Andaman has to be foolish and get duped by several people in India. Why can’t the tribals be intelligent for once?And there are several such examples.

There are certain creative bits as well like the English Literature professor ,which the former Chief Secretary met in jail, who expresses himself by uttering book titles only.

So the final verdict would be that ‘Six Suspects‘ is definitely worth a read, a good crime novel that unfortunately shows only a newspaper version of India and does not delve deeper into India’s chaotic soul. From the writing it becomes apparent that the India of ‘Six Suspects’ though very real still has a touch of being seen from a distant lens. The lack of research shows through. So if one knows nothing about India, one can probably grab this book to know about its underbelly and get some background on all the wrong things that happened in the country in the past decade or so.

Folktales galore!

This one book is a definite must for all parents who want their kids to read Indian stories rather than just Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Hardy Boys or God forbid, Twilight series!!!!!

It is called, One Hundred and One Folktales From India written by Eunice De Souza. The book, as is self explanatory, is a collection of folktales from all across India-from Kashmir, to Nagaland, from Assam to the Konkan coast. Some tales are new, never before chronicled, or rarely narrated in other similar collections. While some others are very popular and well known stories.

The book is divided into 6 parts, each having a separate theme. There are stories about magical beings, about kings and queens, heroes, Gods, clever men and women, saints and sadhus, of famous personalities like Akbar Birbal, Tansen, Tenali Raman, of beasts and birds and several more!

The language is simple, clear cut, easy for children to grasp. Accompanied with superb black and white illustrations done by Sujata Singh, these tales are sure to entice kids. The stories can also be enjoyed by adults who have little time to read and want short, simple, witty stories. Its a great book to read if one is travelling short distances. One can easily read five to six stories in about 15 minutes since most stories are one or two pages only. Its a good way to revisit one’s childhood when such stories were popular to read or get in touch with Indian folktales.

Despite its collection and marvellous illustrations, many parents would prefer buying some other folktales books like the Amar Chitra Katha or Aesop fables books. The former is in general very popular and its colourful illustrations along with the comic book style format will surely catch the eye of any young kid more than Eunice De Souza’s One Hundred and One Folktales From India. That’s one and the only disadvantage of the book. There are just so many better, more vibrant, colourful books about India’s rich folktales and mythology that both parents and kids might prefer that. They may view De Souza’s book as just another big, fat, long, textbook type book that completely discourages them from buying it. Of course, a parent can definitely influence a kid’s choice!

Apart from that, One Hundred and One Folktales From India is a brilliant collection of stories, fables and folktales that allows any reader, with its simple language, to get a glimpse of India’s rich stories!

Getting the blues!

We all have read stories of abusive families, violent relationships and we are bombarded with it even by the television media. We are exposed to it to such an extent that it gets morbid. Now suppose there was a book that looked at these aspects from a different view, a subtle view;wouldn’t that make the novel with a used storyline, well, quite, ‘novel’? But well, you’ll ask, is there such a book?? But of course there is…there are always all kinds of books to be read!

And this one is called, The Blue Bedspread, a debut novel of Raj Kamal Jha which chronicles a tale of a abusive family history and incestuous relationships. And it is quite a quick, interesting read that still manages to evoke a spectrum of touching, depressing, momentous, happy emotions!

The story starts with an unnamed narrator who hears of his sister’s death during childbirth. His sister gave birth to a baby girl who he takes home for the night. Fearing that some other people might want to adopt the girl, he begins writing his family’s story so that the baby knows of its background, knows more about her mother and the family she came from. As he begins to write, the stories initially revolve around innocuous, childlike tales but gradually they begin to reveal the rot that festered in his family. The narrator opens a can of worms and the reader finds out about certain dark secrets of the abusive father, of the bold, defiant sister, of his mother and of the narrator himself. He talks of a blue bedspread that symbolizes the intimate relationship between his sister and him. That blue bedspread comes to symbolize a different world, away from the trauma of a dysfunctional family. In the end, the reader sees the shocking, exact nature of that relationship.

Raj Kamal Jha in The Blue Bedspread has skillfully written vignettes about the narrator’s family. It comes across as a jigsaw puzzle that the reader has to solve to view the complete picture. Each vignette has its own mood, emotion, feel and yet each is interconnected with a thin strand of the narrator’s memory and facts. The novel could have worked well as a collection of short stories as well because of this aspect. The writing style is sparse, straightforward, precise and to the point. It does not mimic other more famed Indian writers like perhaps Salman Rushdie or Siddharth Dhanwant Shanghvi who use either countless descriptions or a flowery prose. Yet, the book seems, at least to me, very similar in terms of structure to Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. It might be written by an Indian author but the subject of the book is universal and though it is set in Kolkata, the narrator’s abusive family could be from any part of the world-be it Delhi, Mumbai, Shanghai, Nairobi, Milan, or any other corner. The Blue Bedspread has a non linear narration, no fixed time line as it moves from one time span to another.

Unfortunately, this jumbled up narration can get confusing, jarring and even nonsensical. Certain vignettes also seem very inappropriate as they do not help the story to move forward nor are they very cohesive. The lack of a cohesive narration and structure of vignettes mars the effect of the story.

Its a great book to read, with Jha giving soft touches to a melancholic scenario, giving it a fresh look, yet gently showcasing the immense, long lasting impact of such family violence. But be wary of its narration and structure.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories

‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is a fabulous book written by Salman Rushdie that can be interpreted at varying levels by the reader. It can be viewed simply as a creative fairy tale written by a father(Salman Rushdie) for his son(Zafar) or can be seen as a commentary supporting free speech or as a postmodern fairy tale  or a criticism of the postmodern novels or whichever way one wants to see it. The book will nonetheless not fail to enthrall the reader as Rushdie takes you into the realms of an exuberant, richly created magic world.

Taken from penguinbooksindia.com

The story has two protagonists-Rashid and Haroun. Rashid has a gift of telling stories upon stories to anyone who would request him one. This talent earned him the sobriquet, Shah of Blah. However, one day, his wife,Soraya, leaves him for a better life with a Mr Sengupta who was their neighbour. As a result of this tragedy, Rashid loses his ability to tell stories. He just simply runs out of them and cannot summon the magic with which he used to narrate his never ending stories! His only son, Haroun, therefore sets out to restore his father’s talent. However, Haroun soon realises that this task is far from easy. His father’s stories come from a subscription to the water supply to the Gup City in Kahani. This subscription has been canceled and now Haroun must go to Kahani, to the Gup city to renew it which will renew his father’s story telling gift as well. While over there, Haroun finds himself embroiled in another adventure. The princess of Gup city is kidnapped by Chup city who forbid people from speaking and where it is always dark. He and Rashid discover these two cities while saving the princess and helping Rashid to once again become the Shah of Blah.

‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ is an upbeat, imaginative, buoyant fairy tale that works as an allegory along with drawing parallels between Rushdie’s and Rashid’s life. Rushdie has used references from several past books as well like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Wizard of Oz,’ ‘One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ etc. Rushdie’s brilliant writing, lucid style and imagination and copious humor will appeal to all readers-from young to old, to literature students and scholars. There are so many layers to the story and can be seen from so many numerous perspectives that one can can get lost in the depths of the story. Each character has a parallel in real life and the some of the places mentioned in the book are obviously inspired from real life places.

It is a wonderful book to peruse, a delight for all bookworms the world over.

Go grab it and fly along with Haroun to the Gup and Chup city!

Glimpsing Mumbai

Short stories are usually good,easy read proffering an anecdote,a glimpse into someone’s life, drawing you in that story and leaving you satisfied of having dabbled in their life. ‘Window Seat‘ by Janhavi Acharekar is a collection of short stories that have the same effect on the reader. There are 30 short stories-each revealing a different side of human nature, emotions, of India, of Mumbai and each is well crafted, well written and always ending with a concrete resolution-absent in many other short stories that often mar the story’s charm. But not Acharekar-she is one brilliant writer, way better than the popular Chetan Bhagat or any other IIT/IIM students turned writers we see today in India.

Taken from amazon.com

Each of her short story explores a new idea, divulges the good, the bad and the ugly of Mumbai city. And none are cliched. They are simple, realistic, displaying the daily lives of many common folks of the city-their struggles, their fights, their dreams, their feelings, their worries, their happiness-almost everything under the sun. It is this portrayal of the daily, everyday, mundane aspect of people’s lives polished with Acharekar’s fine, creative imagination, that makes each story is distinctive and unique. The readers will connect to atleast one short story because Janhavi Acharekar covers everything-from the slum life, to the middle class worries to the high class celebrity to the party life-everything that together comprises the reader’s perception of Mumbai.

The stories have varied themes, ranging from a couple searching for the perfect flat/home in Mumbai, a freedom fighter’s popularity in his Girgaum neighbourhood, a unique event at Mumbai Central Station, the cause of a riot, a teacher’s wistful memories of her old school days, a cyberspace love relationship, an art preview, four women’s lives in Mumbai’s lifeline-the local train and so many more.  Giving a full detailed description of each story would kill the joy of reading it on one’s own.

Now you might ask, why would one want to read about the daily life of Mumbaikars? Simply because, one can connect with them and also because, the writer plainly, economically, straightforwardly puts her story across, accessing our hearts and moving us too!

The book, ‘Window Seat‘  is divided into 2 parts. While the first part has unconnected stories, the second part is further subdivided into 3 parts and the stories in each of the 3 parts are connected to each other in terms of their setting and characters and not necessarily continuity.

There are a few disheartening aspects of the book as well. Firstly, some stories go back in time, see Mumbai nostalgically and not con temporarily which is good in a few stories but not always. Also, some stories are not even set in the 21st century. They have an old world charm to it which again is not necessarily a bad thing but a more contemporary setting would do better with many newcomers to the city and other too. Besides there are far too many Mumbai novels that nostalgically always stay in a bygone Mumbai that will definitely never come back again. So why bother writing pages and pages if so much has already been written about it? Secondly, some stories tilt only towards South Mumbai not bothering to explore North and Navi Mumbai. Thirdly,the title, ‘Window Seat‘ is also misleading suggesting that the book has stories set in the Mumbai locals, when in fact there are myriad settings to each story.

Besides those few points, ‘Window Seat‘ is a marvellous novel the keeps you wanting for more. Acharekar’s lucid writing, her non-romanticized notions of Mumbai and her brilliant story telling ability make the book worth reading it. Wish she writes more such books and hopes she becomes more popular and widely read because a good writer like her definitely deserves it!

Here’s a toast to good contemporary Indian English writing!

Musically Yours: The Last Song Of Dusk

The Last Song Of Dusk written by Siddharth Dhanvant Sanghvi is a beautifully conjured novel, a moving tale of singular people and their extraordinary lives.

Taken from scholarswithoutborders.in

Taken from scholarswithoutborders.in

The novel begins in the early 1900s’ with Anuradha’s story. She is going from her hometown Udaipur to Mumbai to meet Vardhaman Gandharva, a potential marriage partner. Just when it seems that things may not work out, Vardhaman openly admits his love for her and they predictably get married. Their love blossoms splendidly like a lovely flower. However, later, an unforeseen tragedy strikes them both tearing them asunder and changing Vardhaman irrevocably. Anuradha goes back to Udaipur where she dabbles and masters over the music and the wondrous songs that are an integral part of her soul. In the course of this stay, she meets other extraordinary people like Nandini who is an unusual artist and an even unusual woman having her own tragic tale.

Will Anuradha and Vardhaman overcome the tragedy that ripped them apart? Will their love blossom fruitfully once again or will it be lost forever?

The Last Song of Dusk abounds with comparisons which increases the depth of the emotions, thoughts, situation etc. and helps in understanding it better. The novel is replete with romanticized descriptions. Sanghvi has a very flowery style of writing. He infuses great grandeur and oodles of opulence not only in the story’s setting but also in the copious descriptions. Everything in the novel is exquisite. There is great abundance whether it is the character’s emotions, the royal settings of Udaipur or British city of Bombay or just the physical beauty of a human. Everything is made out to be insanely beautiful and he uses exquisite words and expressions to convey that beauty to the reader. For eg, “pashmina of exquisite remembrances” (pg. 80). There are also instances of magic realism suffused in the story. Sanghvi has also made music an important part of the story. It is manifested literally in the many songs, symphonies and musical instruments that are described. There is also a certain kind of vibrant and even melancholic musicality in Sanghvi’s writing that overwhelms you.

There are certain sexist stereotypes that the books has-like Anuradha’a need for marriage, the tiffs between her and her mother-in-law etc. Granted that the book is set in the 1900s’ where woman were treated as inferior but if Anuradha can be bold enough to leave her husband’s house, Sanghvi should have been bold enough to write something more than the overemphasized importance of marriage in a woman’s life.

Leaving that one negative point aside, The Last Song Of Dusk is undoubtedly a marvelous debut that spins together a lavish, grand love story that is bound to charm any reader. It is not the usual tale of love and sorrow, of man and a woman being in love, being happy, having troubles and reconciling them. It is much more as it infuses a portrayal of different sides and aspects of that one ubiquitous emotion called love. The novel reflects and gradually reveals layers and layers of that emotion between Anuradha and Vardhaman and other characters too like their son-Shloka or Nandini’s idea of love and safety etc. The reader, if attentive enough, can easily pick on these ideas, learn that love can have two sides just like anything else and know that it can teach us all one lesson or two.

Its a poignant love story that depends on the stark emotions for its narration; its beauty, its invulnerability, its vulnerability, its magic, its pain and countless other things. It is painfully beautiful, musical and aptly touches the right chord in the reader’s heart.

The Last Song Of Dusk is one story that will be in the reader’s heart long after its been perused.

The Glass Palace

Taken from 43things.com

‘The Glass Palace’ written by Amitav Ghosh is a massive account of the lives of several unique, interesting people over the span of a century from about the late 1800s’ to the 1990s’.

The book’s size maybe daunting for many novella addicted readers but it is surely worth perusing. The book’s size should not be a deterrent for reading it because believe me it is one heck of an interesting read!

The story starts with an Indian, Rajkumar, who works in a food shop in Burma and parallel to this story runs the story of the King and Queen-Thebaw and Supalayat- of Burma and the latter’s maids, specifically Dolly. Rajkumar later on goes into the timber business along with Saya John, a close friend of sorts. Rajkumar tracks down Dolly, who had gone to British India with the exiled royal family of Burma. Rajkumar predictably finds her and they predictably get married. The story then superbly weaves itself around their lives as well as their children and other significant people of their lives like Uma Dey, who Dolly had met during her stay in India, Saya John’s son, Matthew; Uma’s sister’s kids-Arjun and Manju and Bela and many more myriad characters. Ghosh closely follows each person’s story but at no point does it get drab or boring. Ghosh takes us into the hearts and souls of each character, giving us intricate details of several emotions, several nuances and much more. The novel also deftly manifests how world events or incidents beyond one’s control affect individuals in a way that they can’t even imagine.

Ghosh uses simple short sentences and keeps it brief yet conveys the intensity of the  situation or the emotions quite marvelously. However at times he tends to run away with unnecessary descriptions that veers off from the actual story.

The best part of the book is that it is soaking, literally dripping with history/past. It brings alive an era gone by, how lives were interconnected even then, how even then the world was globalized! It is extraordinary to see the Burmese and Indian interrelations that operated at that time and how porous those borders were until the British took over.

‘The Glass Palace’ is a multicultural and family saga that stands out because of its beautiful depiction of human lives-their vulnerability, invulnerability, their courage, their emotions, their thoughts, their culture-with so much depth and sensitivity that is hardly seen in many books today. It draws the reader into the story, makes them feel like they are part of that era, that family, that life and culture.

Railway Stories

Indian Railways are an important part of our country’s landscape, a necessity that moves life, that helps travelling. Yet, we hardly have many stories on them or about them or them figuring prominently in a novel/story. Most kids know about the famous, ‘Railway Children,’ by Edith Nesbit but Indian railway stories are hard to come by.

Taken from penguinbooksindia.com

I recently came across, a wonderful collection of short stories about Indian railways titled, ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ edited by Ruskin Bond. I was delighted to read it as trains are an everyday part of my life.

The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories,’ is divided into two sections:

I) Stories Before Independence

II) Stories after Independence.

The book is fabulous from start to the end. Even the short poem,’ A Traveller’s Tale’ by A.G. Shirreff (1917) right at the beginning as well as the beautiful introduction written by Ruskin Bond helps to draw the reader into the right mood so she/he can plunge into the depths of each carefully chosen short story.

Through the 18 stories, we can sense the transition of the Indian railways from during the British period to after India’s independence. Some of the stories are extracts like R. K . Laxman’s ‘Railway Reverie’ or Khushwant Singh’s ‘Mano Majra Station.’ Some are stand alone stories. Nonetheless, all of them are equally mesmerising and enjoyable and some even have a slight mysterious element. Some brilliantly capture the railway’s ubiquitous presence and charm and its importance.

I will refrain from elaborating on all the 18 stories mostly because it will be too tedious and a pain to all reading the review. But I do want to mention that my favourites are ‘Cherry Choo-Choo’ by Victor Banerjee and ‘Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment’ by Satyajit Ray. The former is a nostalgic story of a defunct train called locally as ‘Cherry Choo Choo’ which was an admired and much loved train during its lifetime. The latter story is a brilliant story of a unique coincidence occurring in a train carriage. There are a few stories that are very technical and only those who are knowledgeable about railway jargon may understand  it better. There are few stories, because they are written in the pre-independence era, have certain racial aspects which are disconcerting yet if one overlooks that, then the story turns to a good one.

All in all, this collection is a must read. Even though it does not talk of local trains of Mumbai, it reminds us of how railways helped this mighty nation to develop and how trains have a special place in our hearts and the collection of the short stories helps to ignite that love in our heart’s special for trains. The book is a great read and for best results, it is best to read it while travelling in a train. It just helps to add to the atmosphere, to the setting and the mood of each story.

Happy journey and happy reading!