Red Sorghum

The opening of Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum – a child of fifteen setting out to join his foster father’s mission to ambush the Japanese – sets the tone for the rest of the novel: not only violent but intensely detailed violence.

Within that violence is embedded the story of three generations of a Chinese family that lived before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Cultural Revolution up to the 1970s.
The part which is most emphasised on is the first one: the life of the family before and through the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Keep on Reading!

Quick Reviews: Funny Boy

Funny Boy: A Novel in Six Stories by Shyam Selvadurai is just that!
It is a collection of short stories that are interlinked with each other and that is what ironically makes it a novel. The six short stories seem episodic but that is deceptive and it is actually quite a fun exercise to connect the dots in each vignette as if you are putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Keep on Reading!

Guest Post: The Thief

Guest post by Linda Shaji-Pauline:

Linda Shaji-Pauline, a fellow feminist and a rice lover, who had an affinity for post-colonial literature but now realises that there is much more to read as well. When she’s not at work, her motto is, “will walk for food.” You can often find her walking around all over the city in search of that new restaurant. She is still undecided if she loves music or books more but agrees that together they make the best combination. Together they make her life in finance very tolerable.


I have read just one other book that was translated from Japan – The Cape and Other Stories from the Japanese Ghetto written by the acclaimed author Kenji Nakagami, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

So when I saw a copy of a book that was a translation yet again from Japan titled The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura; translated by Satoku Izumo and Stephen Coates, I jumped at it.

Was it worth my time? Yes and no – because this is a short and easy read.

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Guest Post: Weep Not, Child by  Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’

First Guest Post of the Blog:

Guest post by Linda Shaji-Pauline:

Linda Shaji-Pauline, a fellow feminist and a rice lover, who had an affinity for post-colonial literature but now realises that there is much more to read as well. When she’s not at work, her motto is, “will walk for food.” You can often find her walking around all over the city in search of that new restaurant. She is still undecided if she loves music or books more but agrees that together they make the best combination. Together they make her life in finance very tolerable.


“Fear not, read”

That is how I encouraged myself to pick up a Kenyan (notice I do not refer to this as an African) classic, Weep Not, Child.

Why? Because I thought that this work would be a cliché as it was one of first works of post colonial literature.

Also never have been a fan of “classics”. But yes, the story is rather simple, and sticks to the use of long, oft repeated themes of post colonial literature like redemption of one’s oppressed life through western education / Christian God, that colonialism was never any good at assimilating with the local population, but were merely diving cultures, etc. These themes have seeped into our imagination since pioneers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’ thought it was important to write about them.

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Rumtum the Sailor

Bored of all the run of the mill kiddy books that flood stores? Tired of the same old, oft repeated rhymes?

How about picking up a beautifully illustrated, Rumtum The Sailor, which tells the story of a determined sailor father who resolutely tries to reach home from an unexpected halt at a deserted island.
As he relentlessly tries to get back to his family, he is unknowingly accompanied by none other than a mischievous octopus!

Will Rumtum get back to his family in time? Read and find out!

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Of Dogs and Walls

The Penguin Modern series presents a brilliant collection of stories from authors which you might not encounter in your everyday bestseller list. Plus it is super cheap! What more could you want?

One title from the series that I recently bought was two short stories by Yuko Tshuhima. I have never read this author before. I have heard of Yukio Mishima, but yet to read him as his books are so hard to get here! So I was excited to find this gem on an online website and its price was hard to resist even with the delivery charge!

The book uses the title of the second short story as its main title: Of Dogs and Walls.

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Bitter Wormwood

Bitter Wormwood. How does the title sound to you? Bitter? Would you ever pick up a novel named so?

Don’t judge a book by its title!

This is because the novel, Bitter Wormwood by Easterine Kire, deftly deals with the issue of freedom of Nagaland and the movement to form an independent country. Beginning with a gripping prologue, and then winding down to a bildungsroman style, it then traces the beginnings of the movement through the character Mose’s development.

The writing is crisp, clear and action packed taking a panoramic view of the conflict and Mose’s life. They move simultaneously. It begins with his childhood which is as the cliche goes, quite innocent and blissful (there is a poignant scene where the only thing that concerns Mose is his school, teaching his mother and grandmother English and helping them or moments of listening to the radio together!). Mose’s only struggle is his school till India’s Independence comes closer and the idea of Nagaland being part of India becomes an problem. The growing dissent is marked by his growing years that disrupts him and his whole life be it family, school or his villagers.

Like his childhood, the conflict is also small but then grows its tentacles as the idea of remaining independent grows further without any proper discussion or response from the other side.

Soon violence and crime take over as the major response from the monolithic Indian government is deploying the armed forces and use of fear tactics.

Mose gets swept up by this tide as well and soon joins the rebels in his teenage angst (though I do not think that the conflict or his joining can be trivalised by that phrase!)

By the end, we see how the movement has become old, warped, lost some of its initial principles, and petered into a conflict among its own people rather than targeting the bigger picture. This is mirrored through Mose’s old age as well.

In the last part, we also see the conflict from the soldier’s perspective albeit briefly. We see how stereotypes can be broken about each side through Mose’s grandchildren and I feel that that is the best message which the book can give to its readers because both sides need to stop this kind of prejudice towards each other.

I would recommend this book to all, just for everyone to know a little bit more about India’s history that is routinely swept under the carpet because it is not appetising. It helps us to know a little bit more about Nagaland, a part of the north east, that is routinely stereotyped against! It is something you will never find in a history textbook, so might as well read it in the form of an engaging and quick to read novel!

And what about the title?

Read the novel and find the significance or its symbolism on your own! There, I have already given away a clue: that it has some significance!

Buy Bitter Wormwood here:

http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/bitter-wormwood/

A Fabled Tale

For all the Kpop and Kdrama fans, fancy a quick dip into Korean literature?

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a short novella by the beloved South Korean author, Sun-Mi Hang.

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Accompanied by very cute illustrations, the simple story is about a hen, aptly named Sprout, who does not want to lay eggs for human consumption anymore and instead wants to raise a chick on her own. Her determination to follow her dream is fraught with danger and several obstacles. Will she be able to achieve her ultimate dream? Borrow the book from the library and find out!

Constructed like a fable, the story’s myriad characters are like metaphors that readers-both children and adults-can relate to. In the simplest way possible, the story talks about following one’s dreams despite what the world tells you, the need to find your own identity and that it is alright to not fit in with the world around you, or the ultimate importance of letting go of people and things even those that are the closest to you. These may sound cliched or philosophical ideas, but the author wraps these themes under the guise of an animal fable and is not trying to rub those ideas into your heads or is not consciously trying to teach you those moral lessons.

The novella stands somewhere between children’s literature, a fable and philosophy book. It will remind the readers of other favourite animal classics like The Wind in the Willows or Charlotte’s Web or the evergreen The Little Prince, which similarly deals with larger existential issues through the eyes of a little boy.

In this case, it is through the eyes of a hen on a farm and her chick. So sit back on a cloudy Sunday afternoon and enjoy this quick and easy read!

(Side Promotion: Read my review of The Little Prince herehttps://bookreviewsgalore.wordpress.com/2013/01/15/a-princely-read/

Read the first 20 pages of the book, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly here:

https://oneworld-publications.com/media/preview_files/9781780745343.pdf

Read a short interview by the author, Sun-Mi Hang here:

https://oneworld-publications.com/media/wysiwyg/Reading-Guides/hen-who-dreamed-she-could-fly-reading-guide-draft-3.pdf

Lets have a mango party: A Case of Exploding Mangoes

Boom! The ending drops right at the beginning: that Zia ul-Haq will die.

Much like in the novel that is referenced, The Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammad Hanif.

Set during the military rule of President Zia ul-Haq, A Case of Exploding Mangoes looks at the fictional events leading to his death and alleged assassination. For most part of the novel, the story  fluctuates between the President’s viewpoint and that of the protagonist, the wry and indifferent junior military officer, Ali Shigri, who himself is haunted by the death of his own father who was also in the military and who he believes was killed on the President’s orders.

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Through Zia ul-Haq’s viewpoint, we see the fears that plague him and the religiousness of the man who uses the Koran as almost a prophetic device to guide his everyday actions. Much like in Wilkie Collin’s novel, The Moonstone, where one of the characters uses the book, Robinson Crusoe, for seeing the future.

This is how we first see the President as well: ruminating over the different translations of a verse about Jonah; finding meaning in it and deciding to up his security level to Code Red.

On the other side, we see Ali Shigri, who views and comments on everything in a cold, calculating and sarcastic manner (even his own brief stint with prison) as if nothing effects him. He is portrayed as a tough and dedicated officer but who lands in trouble due to his missing roommate, Obaid, with whom it is suspected he was very close to. Both land up being held for hatching a plot to kill the President and through this we see the elaborate conspiracies and schemes wrought by the Intelligence Agencies and government to keep the many suspects at bay (or more precisely in prison!).

We know the the President is going to die. We know the moment we start reading the last section of the book titled, Mango Party. Yet, this foreshadowing does not dull any of our excitement since the narration is done at a suspenseful pace that keeps one on tenterhooks. We are racing towards that one final moment where not just the President explodes but so do many, juicy mangoes, along with a unlucky crow! While racing ahead, we see the many threads coming together, we see who is plotting against whom and how this will end!

So whodunnit?

Got to read the book, my friend!

Start with the first chapter here:

P.S. Read reviews of his  second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, below:

https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/r4wrV70ARes9Q7jrX112LL/Our-Lady-of-Alice-Bhatti–Following-the-fallen-angels.html

https://tribune.com.pk/story/257182/book-review-our-lady-of-alice-bhatti-alice-in-charya-land/

 

Weight of the World!

Greek myths are omnipresent. Most kids would have heard about some ancient Greek God such as Zeus or Athena or Hercules particularly thanks to cartoons and Hollywood film franchises.

However, myths like most folk literature are oral, not always recorded, can be fluid and changed to retell stories.

This wonderful Canongate collection, the Myths series, has done exactly that: taken myths from all over the world and allowed writers to re imagine them by adding their own thought to them.

The collection has several writers presenting well known myths in their own way. They do not necessarily change the whole story but give it more insight and suffuse it with their own ideas and views.

Weight by Jeanette Winterson also makes for an interesting read since it narrates the story from Atlas’ point of view. We not only get to see Hercules in his interaction with Atlas to finish his Twelve Labours, we also get to see how Atlas thinks and feels about his own burden- to hold the weight of the world.

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It gives a poignant and philosophical insight into his thoughts. What must it feel like to hold the world? To see the universe, to feel time’s relentless push and worse, to feel time’s relentless push when one is stuck with the weight of the whole, wide world? How does one escape? Do we escape at all? Are we all carrying our own burdens?

Need more reasons to pick the book up?

In an adorable twist, Laika, the dog sent by Russia in 1957 to space, makes a guest appearance and Laika and Atlas become unlikely eternal companions.

Read more about the book:

http://www.jeanettewinterson.com/book/weight/

Take a look at the other books in this collection:

https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/6763.Canongate_Myths_Series

Have you read any other books from this series? Comment below what you thought about them. Or better yet, ping me about doing a guest post on them!

Happy Reading!

Carry On

When the author’s name itself reminds me of something inexplicably happy and definitely of unicorns, how can Rainbow Rowell disappoint with her book, Carry On.

“Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home,” said J.K.Rowling famously at the premiere of the last film of the Harry Potter series.

While Watford may not be Hogwarts and may not be the home most hardcore Harry Potter fans would prefer, it is faintly reminiscent of it with its castle like structure and the choosing of roommates procedure. The characters such as the Mage and even that goatherd could have easily been inspired by the HP series.

Carry on may smell like a fan fiction but also manages to weave its own enganging story revolving around Simon Snow, an orphan who is prophesized to be the Chosen One to destroy the most oddly named villain, Humdrum.

He is surrounded by the usual cast of friends, who help him in his trials, and enemies. But there is a catch, his nemesis, Baz, is his roommate and they are both hopelessly in love with each other.

Do I smell a Draco Harry fan fiction?

Probably not. Though I never shipped those two and do not think they could have really fallen for each other, the two in Carry On are quite a contradictory fit. One sassy and sharp while the other clumsy and caring. Take a guess who is who!

They both hate each other but one cannot exist without the other’s constant opposition.

Apart from their secretive romance, most of the novel takes us through Simon Snow’s other friends such as Penelope and Agatha, how he and Baz come together to sort the mystery of Baz’s kidnapping and eventually the gang fights the Humdrum.

So do they come together romantically though or does their mutual hatred overcome them, would be your question I suppose?

Well read and find out!!!

Carry On is definitely a great book to pick if you love fantasy and are in a desperate need to read something that is not mind bogglingly dense and difficult. It is quite a fun and light read.

And by the end of it you will be humming to yourself these lines from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters.

Which actually resonates quite well with the title and the meaning through that title emphasised in the book at the end.

Happy reading!!

If you have read this one, let me know in the comments below what you thought of it!

P.S. Have you read any of her other novels? What did you think about them? Comment below!

One Last Drink at Guapa

One Last Drink at Guapa intertwines two very sensitive themes or ideas: homosexuality and the Arab identity. In a nutshell, the novel is about a man named Rasa, living in an unnamed, presumably a Middle Eastern or a predominantly Islamic nation, who gets caught by his grandmother in bed with his lover, Taymour. Taking place within the short span of just 24 hours, the novel looks at Rasa’s present dilemma of being caught and how to continue the relationship with Taymour, takes the reader through flashbacks into Rasa’s past including his time as a student in America; and brings us back to the present which seems as fraught with complications as the past.

The readers view the events in the story through Rasa’s eyes. We see his predicament as a young teen trying to search for the right word in either Arabic or English to encapsulate his homosexual identity. We see later in America how him being bilingual further alienates. We see how as an adult, he navigates the mix of his grandmother’s hegemonic rules along with the new ideas his education gives him. We see how Rasa’s own individuality is overshadowed by the Muslim stereotype and how he traverses that mix as well being both Arab and gay in both America as well as his home country. We see him being forced to confront this new sense of the Other which before was simply the normal way of life for him.

Along with Rasa’s own individual turmoil, we see the political upheavals raging within his own country. This adds another layer to the novel where challenging sexual norms are meshed with challenging oppressive political regimes as well.

Apart from Rasa, other interesting characters that feature in the novel are his lover, Taymour, who eventually succumbs to the pressures of society and settles down for a heterosexual marriage; and his fiercely principled grandmother who controlled a lot of how Rasa’s family functioned. A close friend of Rasa is Maj, who is an activist by day and a colourful cross dresser by night and performs at a bar named, Guapa, where Rasa and his gang spend most of their nights reveling away. There are plethora of other characters you meet along the way as well.

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The ending is most interesting as it ends not only on an ambiguous note but also on a hopeful, poignant note where the characters seem to accept that living their life and living in their country will be rife with problems and stress but they are going to soldier on and stay true to themselves and their beliefs. While it is difficult to often stand by your own, it is heartening to see a book ending on such a positive note where the characters are not simply scrambling away to America or other such dream country to end their woes.

The novel therefore gives the readers a unique glimpse into Arab gay culture: something hitherto not as well known in popular literature thanks to the stereotypical Muslim equals terrorist image that colours popular imagination.

Available on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.in/One-Last-Drink-at-Guapa/dp/9385755099

See more reviews here:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/34234646-one-last-drink-at-guapa?rating=2

 

Bond is back!

Books can have many different functions. They can moralise, instruct, take you to places and enable you to engage in vicarious travelling. But there are some books and stories that can just put smile on your face and simply please you for a long long time. Ruskin Bond books are something like that. They aren’t great works of literature (not were they written to be) but just the ordinariness of it can be (to use a oft used cliche) extraordinary! Plus they help in vicarious travelling. That, friends, can be the best book ever no?

So it is time to go pick up a Bond book incase you missed out on your yearly dose of travel this year!

Need help to choose?

Here is one with 21 short stories called: Time Stops at Shamli. It is a quick read, the kind that you can read on a realllly long train journey or if you simply want to get away from the mundane life as you trudge your way back from office to home everyday.

All the stories are imbued with the everyday stories of everyday, ordinary people that could be you or me which is why anyone can connect with them easily. In their quotidian existence, several facets and truisms of life are revealed. But no, Bond does not moralise but merely shape the stories and it is for us, the readers, to take away from it, gems embedded in them.

For instance, stories like “The Room of Many Colours” or “Most Beautiful,” talk about celebrating difference in a subtle manner almost imperceptible and who hasn’t known the pain yet beauty and courage of going/being against the norm and experiencing the different worlds.

It is nigh impossible to write a summary of each short story here without making the review look like a grocery list. But suffice to say that each story has its own charm, ingenuity, shrewdness and the hallmark of Bond: an omnipresent simplicity. So there’s a spooky ghost story to scare the daylights out of you, a story told from the perspective of the crows, about the poisonous schemes of relatives, about the importance of trees (told indirectly), about the ordeal of the migrants and the sense of loss and belonging (but narrated in less sentimentally than I have put it), a mystical transfiguration story with the perfect setting of the moon and the mountains and several more. The eponymous story again highlights the urge, temptation to do something against the grain, to go somewhere not known, to take a path less traveled (literally; you will see what I mean when you read it!).

So dig in into the many worlds of each story, relax and let a smile linger on.

For more Ruskin Bond reviews on this blog, click here.

Tess of D’Urbervilles

Victorian Age, that supposedly dark age of medieval thought, is known for its strict morals and orthodoxy and perhaps a few would associate it with Dickens too. It was those double standard morals that shaped every bit of society from the clothing to the stories in the magazines to the way women and men should behave and carry on relations.

Tess of D’Urbervilles is very much a product of its time. But wait, there’s a twist. And you would have to wait a bit longer to know that or perhaps when you read the book, eh?

Moving on, the novel by Thomas Hardy is singular in that it features a woman protagonist: Tess as the heroine. And like all heroines she too faces her own set of trials and tribulations in love and money matters among other things. And typical of Hardy, the novel is set in the country side-a place he never tires singing praises of as the sylvan beauty as against the raging industrialisation that was changing the British landscape.

The novel begins with Tess’ father finding out from Parson Tringham that he in fact belongs to an old lineage, an ancient line of family who were once rich and owned boundless land. This sets him on the path to use this info to his advantage and therefore sets out his eldest daughter, Tess, to be engaged to work with a rich relative (who are actually upstarts who have merely borrowed the last name!) close by. It is there she meets the brash son of the old lady she has to work for, Alec D’Urberville. And his constant pursuit of her despite Tess’s dislike for him, changes Tess’ life for the worse until she decides to take matter into her own hands and find another occupation in Mr. Crick’s dairy instead of sitting idle crying over her fate. Over there her life unfolds without much ado as she likes it and she falls in love with one of the dairy hands, Angel Clare, who had interestingly even seen her before at a countryside May dance and danced in that very group too. What then happens is a series of romantic trysts along with a bit of tragedy and the book ends on a bittersweet note that will linger for sometime.

So that seems plain enough right? Girl loves the boy and they have ups and downs and somehow then its smooth sailing? So where’s the twist?

But no Tess of D’Urbervilles is more complicated than that. Hardy has nuanced the story well so that it does not read like just another moral story about love, relations and women. It is layered story which at every turn of the page forces you to think beyond the status quo, beyond the rigid morals and social norms and archetypes especially that of the fallen woman and woman as a temptress. He thought way ahead of his time! For one, Tess is not the typical damsel in distress who believes her world has ended if no man loves her or rejects her. She picks up the pieces and gets on with her life and tries to order her life with her own choices. She is the agency for her own life and that is something commendable to see in a Victorian Era book (Indian soaps should learn something from Hardy!). The ending jars with the whole plot and may have been put perhaps to please the moralistic Victorian readers of the time. Who knows?

Hardy himself does fall prey to certain set ways of depicting the woman such as Tess as a divine ethereal being, the portrayal of her physique to emphasise her beauty and put her in the stock character of the temptress, thus exempting the man from any blame.

Yet, the novel is peppered with several gems like his beautiful descriptions of the setting-Blackmoor Vale and others that are too exhaustive to list here. But one I cannot help listing is Tess utterance when she is leaving Alec and her work to go back home in the 2nd part of the novel: ” If I did love you I may have the best o’ causes for letting you know it. But I don’t.” It is a succinct take on the much abused “no” of a woman to her so called admirer, pursuer who expects that he alone can somehow convert that no into a yes. It is clearly stating that a no means a no and if i did love you I would let you know it. Are the Bollywood filmmakers listening??

For the review of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, another marvelous and beautifully written novel, click here.

Anna and the House Of Hypocrites

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.     

The opening lines of the enormous Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy would draw in any reader despite the sheer size of the book. I mean who wouldn’t want to derive voyeuristic pleasures from the sorrows of others and feel good about yourselves right? And get some masala/drama in your life right? Isn’t that the principle which the Indian soaps thrive on? Who wouldn’t want to get away from their drab mundane lives to gorge greedily on the much more exciting conflicts of others?

But comparing an Indian soap to one of Tolstoy’s masterpieces is a grave sin in the world of literary canon hegemony but an analogy never harmed anyone now, did it?

Saying that, I will confess that Anna Karenina is a splendid look at the Russian upper class society through the microcosm of a few representative individuals. It really can never be compared to a soap because it has none of its crass vulgarisation of emotions and conflict and societal ills.

For those of you who don’t know, Leo Tolstoy is a Russian author, born in the 1800s into a upper class estate owning family much like the ones depicted in the novel. He is known for this novel and another huge book, War and Peace. Despite the size that can put off many novella, quick read obsessed readers of today, Anna Karenina is a brilliant, beautiful novel that is gripping and engaging as it ploughs it way through a range of characters and stories and covers within its range a sweeping yet scathing look at the hollowness of upper class Russian society. For more on the writer and his works..well don’t click anywhere, go find out on your own!

Now to the plot:

WARNING: Spoilers ahead:

Anna Karenina is told from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. The narrator shifts the attention to several characters and namely the stories of Anna and Levin are often paralleled with the other characters’ mixed in.

The eponymous heroine, Anna, is apparently happily married to a well off bureaucrat,Alexei Karenin, but on the railway station(not sure but I think it was in Saint Petersburg), where she decides to take a train to see her brother-Oblonsky (Stiva) to save his marriage after his affair has created fissures between him and Dolly(Stiva’s wife), she stumbles upon Vronksy and she immediately has seeds of something uneasy moving in her which later blooms into a full blown love affair with the man.

Meanwhile, Levin, Stiva’s friend from the country, has come to propose to Dolly’s young sister, Kitty, on her debutante. However, it seems like she is smitten by this Vronksy fellow as well. Things don’t exactly go as planned for any of them at the debutante. Both Kitty and Levin have their hearts broken as one they love is in love with someone else.

Tolstoy quickly in the first part introduces you to all the characters and sets all the plot lines in action for the story to move forward and we get slowly enmeshed in their troubled, unhappy lives. Anna and Vronksy carry on their affair discreetly at first and then too much in love they decide to defy everyone and live off on their own while Karenin files for divorce. Levin on the other hand gradually recovers from his heart break through work on his farm/estate where he is continually trying to better the farm yields and the lives of his tenant farmers. The clandestine affair quickly spirals downwards as both face the bitter consequences of society’s disapproval (which for Anna is more pronounced than for Vronksy because well since Russian society like most patriarchal societies is quick to blame the woman rather than see it as an affair involving two people).

The novel proffers multiple viewpoints and at first there is no character that is given the privilege of being the right one. Yet somewhere, Levin and his lifestyle and his eventual settling into happiness through a family of his own seems to suggest that he was the author’s voice. In fact, many critics have speculated that Levin is a semi-autobiographical character. Tolstoy’s own wife, Sophia, after reading the first part of the novel commented, “Levin is you, minus the talent.” There are undoubtedly similarities between the two and by the end of the novel, we can be sure that it is Levin and all that he stands for that Tolstoy privileges from among the plethora of his characters.

The book has been called flawless by several modern authors such as Dostoyevsky and Nabakov. What however, I personally feel that Tolstoy falls short of is that he left his defiance incomplete. It was quite uncommon to write about women having affairs and that too so blatantly in his time and in the initial parts he succeeds, through his careful underlining of Anna’s marriage breaking up or being just another societal charade and his skill in outlining the confining conventions of society that reek of hypocrisy, to present a balanced, if not glorified, picture of a woman who is trying to break away from constraints of being a woman. Tolstoy in the end makes her nothing more than a Hardyesque tragic herione who was bound to fall given the sin she committed. This in my opinion just basically goes to show how he left his great defiant novel to be nothing more than a comfortable cosying into the norms and conventions.

To read the novel, click here.

Love and War

Half Of A Yellow Sun is a brave book; brave because of its heartfelt, honest writing; brave because it highlights truthfully the colossal loss of everyday life during war; brave because it is clear in the political points it wants to make.

The novel written by Chimamanda Adichie is a story of three individuals-Ugwu, Olanna and Richard- caught in the three year Biafran war in the 1960s.  But you may ask what is new

about novels written about war-there are gazillion of them out there and this is just one needle in a large haystack? True though that is, Adichie’s novel is not the average run of the mill book about the war because what stands out in the story is her heartbreaking, close portrayal of the all the main characters so that you are immersed in their lives and war’s turmoil as they are thrown into it and face it everyday. She gives a remarkable, intimate portrait of them and of other marginal characters too who provide multiple viewpoints of the ravages and the sufferings of war. And that’s the power of this story-to make the reader feel the suffering, sense the shattering of relationships and the immense tests they go through. And isn’t that in a more broader perspective-the power of literature? To proffer a humane perspective to any crisis, to portray the human element of it and not just as a drab and dry report. In a way it is similar to what Manto did for the Partition of India-his stories depicted its horrifying consequences on the individuals and did not treat them as merely a statistic. To read my review on Manto’s stories, click here.  Every individual has a story to tell and Adichie’s novel shines through with the ordinariness of her characters and how they deal with that falling apart during the Biafran war. She doesn’t make the story into a sob story to garner attention but emphasises on the everyday emotions and how they go on despite the crisis raging on.

Ugwu is a poor village boy who is brought by his aunt to Nsukka to work as a houseboy in her master, Odenigbo’s house. Olanna, a smart intelligent woman, has had a life of privilege in Lagos but still sets to live with her lover, Odenigbo who is a professor in Nsukka University. Richard is the Englishman staying in Nigeria and slowly as he gets caught up in his love for Kainene and the war, he drifts apart from the stereotypical, white colonial view of Nigeria and comes to love the country. Their lives intersect as tensions simmers between the Hausa and Igbo tribes. The story is very well structured with each chapter focusing on one of the three character’s point of views. Each chapter plunges us thoroughly into their lives as we are allowed to take a peak into their thoughts and apprehensions and feelings. Adichie doesn’t use the omnipresent narrator and leaves a lot for the reader to interpret. We therefore see a bunch of characters with all their imperfections and doubts and emotions as most human beings actually are. We see them as introspecting themselves; searching for who they are; negotiating their selves, their identity, their relationships to other people and the world and the war. The story is also open ended with a hopeful ending but that which is tainted by heartache and hurt along with a tragedy and loss that comes in the wake of any war.

Half Of A Yellow Sun has an interesting feature-Adichie has incorporated snippets of book written by one of the characters and the revelation of who that character actually is makes quite a strong and brave point as to who should actually be writings stories about Africa and that brings into consideration the whole idea of a white, colonial, racist appropriation of history. In writing Half Of A Yellow Sun Adichie takes a bold step of depicting the Biafran war through the eyes of the people actually being affected by it. In using the feature of a book within a book she subtly makes a scathing comment on the Western idea of war, of Africa and its people and how they created and used the tensions among the tribes for their own vested interest.

Need I say more?

Control Freaks

Amidst the hullabaloo of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US government snooping on its own citizens and those of foreign countries, George Orwell’s 1984 has been mentioned countless times and how he was right in predicting the government’s role of the Big Brother. Another author depicted a dystopian future wherein the government had a different sort of control over you-controlling your violent instincts. While the government spying on one’s phone calls, emails, social networking data is not a comforting feeling, the government actually controlling how you behave is even more disconcerting.

Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess, explores precisely this aspect of control. Alex, the anti-hero of the novel, is a the narrator and refers to himself as “Your Humble Narrator.” He narrates his and his pals’ violent escapades in a nameless town where such violence by teens is rampant. They engage in brutal violence-assaulting, stealing, beating and sexual violence during the night. On one such escapade, Alex and his gang decide to rob a single woman living with dozens of cats. However, the plan goes awry as Alex’s usual ruse of acting like a wounded boy and fooling the woman to open the door fails. He then goes through the window and threatens her but the old woman isn’t frightened so easily. She seems to get time to call the police and eventually in a fight, Alex gives a fatal blow. The police picks him up and he is shunted to the prison for a good 14 years. It is here Alex learns of a miraculous technique that will reform him quickly and let him get out of jail in no time. The prison chaplain, the only decent person around, warns of this so-called-miraculous Ludovico Technique and of its ethical ambiguity. Due to a turn of events, Alex is eventually subjected to this technique which is torturous in its own way and has terrible consequences for our Humble Narrator.

Written in the “Nadsat” language, which is the lingo used by the teens of that world, Clockwork Orange is a gruesome look at the politics of control and surveillance and raises questions about the need for an individual to have a choice in the way s/he behaves. Ludovico Technique essentially conditions Alex to have sickening feelings for anything related to violence. It ‘cures’ him of his bad behaviour by leaving him with no choice but to be good because being bad or even thinking of violence entails a rising of aversion in him. Burgess cleverly shows how the government’s method of reducing crime by relying on such ethically questionable techniques is not a foolproof method but only raises more problems rather than resolving them. For example, if Alex is faced with a situation where he has to defend himself he is absolutely helpless since he cannot resort to violence as he has been conditioned to be averse to it.

To complicate the plot further, Alex after being ‘cured’ is used by certain individuals for their own personal gains-namely to show that the present government is using such brutal techniques in the reduction of crime. Alex becomes a trophy prize over which politically motivated parties and individuals tussle, leaving behind the core of the problem-if the Ludovico Technique is not morally correct and the usual punishment of imprisonment also fails, then how exactly to reduce the rate of crime and violence in a world where youngsters are increasingly setting up sub cultures of crime and violence.

Clockwork Orange doesn’t answer those questions outright. Instead the story explores the ideas of the nature of evil and if it is really possible for the government to control the individual’s violent inclinations and urges through conditioning techniques. The book shows how the government treats people like machines, like ‘clockworks’ that can be tweaked to make a better, crime-free society. We have already seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how the media has been effectively used to tweak people’s way of thinking and getting their support on certain politically important matters (For eg, it is thanks to the relentless media proclamations of US’ war on terror that the entire globe sees the Middle East as merely a part of the world crawling with terrorists out to attack America while completely disregarding their own unique culture. Closer home, the media is often used in India to mobilise people’s opinion for the ambiguous notions of ”development” and “growth” while cleverly trying to put down all those who clash against these ideas). It is not just the media alone, mainstream culture-whether it is books, movies or art-all are effectively used by the government to mould people’s opinions for or against something. Therefore, it is perhaps not far away that the governments all over the world will be able to control its citzens’ behaviour. And that would indeed be a scary prospect.

Though small in size, Clockwork Orange may not be a breeze to read thanks to the “nadsat” words that Burgess uses which can be understood only by referring to the glossary every once in a while. It can be frustrating because while you want to get on with the story(which moves at a good pace), you have to pause and find out the meanings first but be patient and it will definitely be worth it. It will take time to accustom yourself to the language but once you are attuned to it, it will be an easy and enlightening read. Try and read this one-it is relevant and will always be because no government has come close to curbing violence among its people. So while you figure out what “droog”, “carmen”, “chasha,” malchick,” ‘mesto” etc mean, don’t forget to also ponder over the subtexts of the story.

Orlando

‘Orlando’ may not be Woolf’s most famous novel but it certainly is her most fun and playful novel. While her other works can be tough to peruse, require a lot of concentration and have been viewed as tedious and heavy reads, ‘Orlando’ is an enjoyable read. It seems as if Woolf was taking a break from all her other ‘heavy’ novels to write something ‘light’ and so she penned Orlando. This however does not entail that the novel is a mere story with nothing in terms of depth and meaning. On the contrary Woolf uses her story to make comments on a number of aspects of her society. First and foremost, the novel was written to underline the issue of how the female sex was denied any rights of inheritance. Her friend and lover, Vita Sackville West, who came from a prestigious lineage was denied the inheritance of her ancestral Knole House on account of her being a woman. Woolf highlights this and several other aspects in her novel.

Orlando is the name of the protagonist of the novel and many critics have asserted that Orlando is modeled after Vita herself who at the end of the story is able to inherit his lands. The novel is truly modernist in its approach as it uses the idea of the fluidity of time which is the main crux of the novel. Modernists were fascinated with deconstructing the notions of time and its linearity. Consequently, ‘Orlando’ spans four centuries with the protagonist living through various time periods. The time periods are also distinctly described in terms of literary periods. The story starts in the Elizabethan Age with Orlando, a man, who owns vast lands and a huge house and has the privilege of gaining an audience with the Queen herself and ends in 1928. In the four centuries, Orlando falls in love with a Russian princess, becomes a successful Ambassador in Constantinople, writes a novel-Oak Tree, gets it published, meets his literary idols in cafes and undergoes one important change (which if revealed can be a spoiler) that Woolf uses to state the ideas of bisexuality and also gets married among other things. For literature fans, the novel is a fun ride through the various ages, like studying the background of English Literature but in a cool way rather than in a the drab manner of reading up a Daiches or Boris Ford volume. It gives a sweeping survey of the literary periods of English literature but also critiques them simultaneously. The quirky character, Nick Greene, is an author but also a pompous critic who Orlando meets in the Elizabethan Age and then in the Victorian Age but his manner of appreciating the older works rather than the contemporary ones does not change over the centuries. For example, in the Elizabethan Age, he mocked Shakespeare and Marlowe while extolling the Greek writers and their works. He termed the latter as ‘great’ and the former as just a shadow of the latter’s greatness. However, in the Victoria Age, he calls the Elizabethan Age as having produced great literature and the Victorian Age as being wishy washy in the literature it produces. Woolf uses Nick Greene cleverly to prick the hallowed literary canon and to show that what constitutes ‘great’ works is rather subjective and fickle.

Apart from contradicting ideas of male inheritance and taking a jibe at literary tradition, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ is also very English in its essence. The importance of home, one’s roots, one’s land is highlighted in subtle ways. The work that Orlando writes, ‘Oak Tree’ is itself a symbol of that. Moreover, his sense of Englishness comes through when he is ambassador in Constantinople where he adores the foreign and exotic but also longs for English landscapes. The novel does have hues of the English pride and a respect for British imperialism.

Overall, ‘Orlando’ is a cheerful and lively read and even if you have a love-hate relationship with Virginia Woolf or hate her outright, this novel should not be given a miss.

Romping through chawls

Today, Mumbai is obsessed with skyscrapers. The illusion among officials running the city is that high rises (that like its name also have high prices) with kitschy colours or made of crystal clear glass will help the city achieve that elusive status of ‘world class.’ No matter that half the population still lives without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, proper toilets etc; as long as the city has the veneer of being world class, the have nots be damned. Redevelopment is the norm nowadays and a redevelopment of Dharavi is also on the cards; now whether this move is truly to uplift the people and give them better homes or just a ruse to make available vast tracts of land for greedy land developers is for the experts to decide. What is being missed out in this race for constructing tall buildings in the hope of emulating the Western ‘world class’ cities (remember the program of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai?), is that Mumbai is also home to numerous clusters of chawls, bungalows, smaller buildings, heritage areas that are being slowly effaced from the face of the city.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when the fad of high rises was still a distant dream, it was the chawls that dominated the topography of the city with just a few multi storeys towering over them. Kiran Nagarkar’s novel,’Ravan and Eddie‘ capture that time of Bombay by chronicling the story of the two boys of the title who grow up in the Central Works Department (CWD) chawls in Byculla. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a tongue-in-cheek tale that traces the two boys’ growth as they try and overcome the hurdles of living in the chawls and their own set of familial troubles.

The No.17 CWD chawl in which the two boys reside are themselves neatly divided on the basis of religion: on one floor live the Hindus and the other the Roman Catholics. The novel starts with the dramatic birth of Eddie Coutinho with his mother, Violet, in the ambulance just minutes after she lost her husband, Victor, whose only claim to fame in the novel was being infatuated by Parvatibai, Ravan’s mother and dying while trying to save him. Thus Eddie is born fatherless but with Father Agnelo by his side at the time of his birth. The novel then meanders its way snidely and gradually as both the boys grow up hating each other;one accusing the other of killing his father, the other believing in the truth of the accusation and finally convincing himself to be a killer. From Eddie’s dabbling in Hinduism, to Ravan’s tiffs with her mother, from Eddie selling black tickets of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ to Ravan receiving letters requesting him to kill some irascible person in their lives, from the unending work of Parvatibai to Violet’s mum acting matchmaker for her, from Father Agnelo’s constant reprimands to Eddie to Ravan’s dad, Shankar’s unemployment, from the saga of the nine Sarang girls to the saga of Ravan’s mysterious lecherous aunt, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is a hilarious, bawdy post-colonial novel that will transport the reader to the very corridors of the chawls that have been so vividly recreated in the story

As much as, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is about the two boys, it is also about the life in the chawls and moreover, a subtle critique of the condition of independent India’s urban areas. The numerous digressions that interrupt the imaginative narrative are telling comments on the tough life of the people there. Kiran Nagarkar captures both the joviality of their lives along with their hardships with the digressions such as, ‘The Great Water Wars’ and ‘A Harangue on Poverty’ breaking the illusion of a problem free, happy, independent India. There are several other digressions that talk about other quintessential aspects of Indian life and don’t necessarily try and burst the safe bubble of independent India. What they have in common is a sarcastic and snarky tone that succeeds in making a point.

The overall tone of the entire novel is cheeky and sarcastic. Nagarkar’s writing is concise, to the point and doesn’t wander away unnecessarily. Like the hustle and bustle of the city and its chawls, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is also a bustle of incidents that are crammed into 330 odd pages that leave you in a huff and puff as you try and take in all the delights, adventures and troubles of the variety of people populating the story.

Go grab a copy and immerse yourself in a world where high rises just don’t exist and where chawls were not an eyesore but a living, breathing microcosm of the city.