Ghachar Ghochar – Vivek Shanbhag

Ghachar GhocharThis novel by Vivek Shanbhag originally written in Kannada has created quite few ripples in literary circles and now with the translation into English, this one is surely slated to win more acclaim and awards.

For me coming on the back of a re-reading of Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ this was as antipodal as you can get. Right from the size, to Murakami’s intricate imagery, complex symbolism, intimate characterization and surrealism this one was just the opposite. It is just 115 pages long, a deceptively simple novel with what feels like very superficial character delineation, a simple plot, none of the usual ingredients of a modern day novel. And yet, it had me finishing it in one sitting and left me thinking about it over and over.

Set in modern day Bangalore, the novel is about a typical middle class family that lives ‘a hand to mouth existence’. The description of the locality is very real and palpable, it is like any lower middle class area in Bangalore with ‘small houses packed together’. The other locale that plays a critical role in the story is the Coffee House, it is modelled after the famous India Coffee House outlets that was an important part of cities across India. The description of the waiter’s uniforms, décor and its windows facing the road where one could sit and watch the world go by while sipping on a coffee is very reminiscent of the India Coffee House on MG Road in Bangalore.

The narrative is plain and straightforward. The family survives on the meagre salary of Appa, who is a salesman in a company dealing with tea leaves. They live a contented life despite the difficult finances till their fortunes change with the loss of Appa’s job and the start of a family business. The lack of money that actually kept them together becomes a divisive factor and pulls them in different directions. With wealth their simplistic morals and outlook gradually change into avarice and the overarching need to protect their wealth even if it means resorting to extreme diabolical methods. The reader is forced to reread the part where the family is having tea together after a long time, the conversation is a regular family interaction but you realize in the end that exchange is loaded with inner meanings.

The characters are normal everyday people that you bump into on the roads. There is Appa who is upright, his only fault is that he is garrulous. Chikkappa, the man who controls everything and everyone has shades of grey to black. The author has done a brilliant job with this character, he is simple and straightforward but as the story develops the reader is given very subtle hints about his dark side. Amma, the quintessential middle class matron trying her best to manage her household with the limited income. Malathi, the daughter, given to haughtiness and arrogance. Anita, the protagonist’s wife, a woman of ethics and a sharp view of right and wrong. The three women are strong and form the core of the novel. The protagonist himself, is a weak and lazy man who likes living of wealth that he doesn’t work for. The most interesting character is Vincent, the waiter at Coffee House, who is a sounding board, counsellor, agony aunt without meaning to be any of these.

The ants are symbolic in many ways, they are an intrinsic part of the family’s life just like their poverty, it just can’t be wished away how much ever they try to rid themselves of the pests. And the reference to it in the final pages should give the reader some idea of what happens in the end.

Vivek is a master of subtlety and that will leave you reflecting on the storyline over and over. Mention must be made of Srinath Perur who has done a commendable job on the translation into English.

This is a must read. My rating – 3.5 on 5.


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Posted by on February 22, 2016 in Highly recommended


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Overwinter – Ratika Kapur

It took a book like Overwinter for me to breathe life back into my long neglected blog. That in itself is an indication of the impact of the book. Provoking, nuanced and unforgettable is how I would describe Ratika Kapur’s novel. ‘There are some things about your family that you know in your bones; you come to life with the information, and from your first breath your understanding of the world is shaped by it’. This excerpt for me is the essence of the book.

Overwinter is set in New Delhi and centres around artist Ketaki, her aunt Neera and her uncle Deepak who is in a coma. It’s a novel that centres around a family secret that is hanging in the background while the characters go around with their lives trying to deal with it. The secret means different things to each one and effects their lives depending on each one’s approach to it – one forgives, one tries to forget and one keeps the secret alive.

Ratika has amazing mastery in characterisation. I loved the way she has built her characters over the course of the novel. Of course being the centre of the novel Ketaki is well drawn out as strong-willed, unpredictable and an in-your-face kind of person. However, despite her showy bravado she is unsure, emotional and highly dependent. Neera is the mysterious one, she never really reveals what is going through her mind and that is what keeps the plot alive. One is kept waiting till the last paragraph to get a glimpse of the real Neera. Her friends Krishan and Adil stand out in this largely female dominated cast. Of these Krishan is an intriguing conundrum, who doesn’t mind hitting the sack as long as it is justified in his uncomplicated ‘traditional’ sense of right and wrong. Adil is the actual pivot in her life, having been through similar tragedies he is her support. Probably a reason for her dependence on him is that Adil doesn’t get carried away by her pushy and unpredictable streaks, he plays out at his own pace and by his own rules.

The person that engulfs the novel from start to finish is Deepak. Ratika has scored with this character. For a large part of the novel he is in a coma and doesn’t utter a single word, but his persona is created by references to him, discussions about him, memories of him that the others reveal. And yet he is one of the most fully developed characters in the novel – smart, fun, intelligent, loving, manipulating, bold and insensitive too.

My reservations? It may not go down well with the squeamish, the sex scenes are one too many and feels a bit overdone. Cut down on those between the sheet sessions and you still have a winner.

My rating 3.5 on 5. Go buy the book and read, you will take few breaks.

(Published by Hachette India)


Posted by on June 30, 2012 in Recommended


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A Disobedient Girl – Ru Freeman

Thanks to MA, for lending me the book after my futile efforts to find it in a few leading bookshops.  I am usually circumspect about novels that are launched amid hype. However, I am glad that this one proved me wrong. Another good piece of work set in the Tear Drop Isle following on my last read of Roma Tearne.

Take away country specific nuances and this novel could have been set in India and you would not notice anything out of place; goes to show how closely we are related to our neighbors. Beyond the most obvious like names, Buddhism, love of Bollywood or the awe of the West there is the caste divide, the all pervasive adherence to religion and the belief in the inherent goodness of the human kind. I was amused to read about the popularity of Amar Chitra Katha comics and Madhuri Dixit, I must confess I did cringe at the mention of the infamous Indian Peace Keeping Force.

On to the book now, the title itself is loaded with intriguing ambiguity – A Disobedient Girl. There are at least three characters that qualify for that epithet – Latha, Thara, Biso and at some level even her mother.  Besides disobedience is generously painted as an almost positive trait.  The story is about Latha, an orphan servant girl at the house of the Vithanage’s who grows up as hand maiden to Thara, the daughter of the house. During this evolution she traverses through stolen love, hurt, betrayal and finally freedom. Her fate is closely interlinked with Biso, a young mother who is fleeing from an abusive husband with her three children. She also attains freedom albeit very different from the one Latha finds.

The actors are brilliantly etched, Latha as the headstrong maid is of course the show piece. Portrayed so well that one tends to forgive her even when she steps beyond accepted norms. Thara as the privileged offspring has her moments as well, but Ru ensures that we do not endow too much of sympathy on her. Biso  is almost relegated to a lesser heroine under the strength of Ru’s portrayal of Latha.  Again another well drawn out character, Biso is strong, resourceful and touches a chord with her almost pointless struggle. The male characters are again pale shadows, Ajith as the callous opportunist and Gehan the unsure. However, I loved the way Ru has created the character of Mr. Victor Vithanage, without training the spotlights on him and just through the flow of the novel. He emerges as the most unlikely hero, if there is space for one in this female dominated novel.

The beauty of the novel lies in the narrative. Ru has attempted and pulled off a brilliant tactic. There are two plots – one centering around Latha and the other around Biso, the interspersing of the two is done well. While the one with Latha is largely about her life the one with Biso is a train journey. The slow pace of the Latha part is hardly felt because the train journey dictates a sense of movement.  Its almost like having a white piece of cloth with the train as the embroider’s needle drawing out an intricate tapestry of political turmoil, human frailties and destiny.

My reservations? If it were not for the pace of Biso’s journey, the Latha part tended to get a tad tedious. The early part of the book was too slow and I had to push myself to wade through it, however the latter parts moved at a brisk speed and kept me hooked. The Latha – Daniel dalliance looked out of place, I was expecting it to have some link to the plot at the end.

A good read, my rating is 3.75 on 5.

(Published by Penguin Viking)


Posted by on June 27, 2010 in Uncategorized


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Mosquito – Roma Tearne

What can I say about what was an absolute delight to read.

Call it my ignorance but I had never heard of Roma Tearne before this and from what I hear Mosquito was her first novel, she has published two novels since and is launching her fourth soon.  If this anything to go by, I will be searching out the others soon.

Mosquito has a simple story line and what makes it standout is that it is told simply without distracting artifices. Theo Samarajeeva is a successful novelist who returns to war torn Sri Lanka to write his next book where he meets young Nulani Mendis who is a budding artist. The story is about how their relationship grows from friendship to love.  It is as simple as that. The setting is beautiful Sri Lanka but like the characters there is turmoil and danger lurking behind the splendor.

Theo as the middle aged widower writer is delineated very well. He is torn between  memories of his departed wife Anna, his growing love for Nulani and his sense of propriety in wooing a girl far younger than him. However, Nulani is the one character that stands out. Her journey as the troubled girl who finds expression of her talent under Theo’s guidance traversing across teenage innocence to a victim of circumstances to the successful artist in the end is really an example of well etched characterization.  Sugi as Theo’s Man Friday taking care of his everyday needs but doubling up as his conscience keeper and emotional anchor also plays a very important part in the story. I loved the way Roma transitions the ‘sutradhar’ role from Sugi to Thercy (Sugi’s female friend). The difference between the two is subtly portrayed Sugi is at blinded by his devotion to Theo while Thercy is more pragmatic. The other actors like Theos’ friends Rohan, Giulia and Gerard go with the flow and are neatly placed in the plot. The only character that is not as easily weaved into the story is Vikram. There is a steady build up and one expects him to play a very significant part in the denouement but that is not the case. The story would have done as well even without Vikram.

Roma’s painting skills come to the fore in her descriptions of Sri Lanka. She doesn’t go overboard but her painting of the Sri Lankan landscape is done beautifully. Neither does she overdo the descriptions of war atrocities something which many authors are guilty of.

A wonderful read. My rating 3.75 on 5.

(Published by Harper Perennial)

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Posted by on June 13, 2010 in Recommended, Uncategorized


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Lessons in Forgetting – Anita Nair

I know I am not going to gain too many friends with this review. I am a self-confessed fan of Anita Nair, but this book is definitely not one I would rate very high. I read a recent interview of Anita Nair about how Indian media is obsessed with obtuse authors. ‘It almost seems that a work has more gravitas if it’s obtuse. But the moment a book becomes accessible, it seems to lose value’. ( I am not a fan of that type either but with Lessons, being accessible should be least of her concerns. It is too shallow.

The story is about Jak and Meera who go through their personal tragedies and trauma. Meera is a ‘corporate wife’ who is deserted by her husband Giri. Jak is a cyclone expert who moves to Bangalore to tend to his  daughter Smriti rendered comatose after a brutal attack. The story is how they find solace in each other. Thats how simple it is. Though there are the long drawn sub plots – Meera – her husband Giri – children Nayantara and Nikhil – mother Saro – grand mother Lily. Jak also has his share – Smriti’s trauma – his wife Nita – aunt Kala – his parents. All these don’t seem to serve too much of a purpose and adds very little to the main plot. The narration is also staccato and distracting, and tends jump from one sub plot to the next (this was one device that Anita used to good effect in Ladies Coupe).

As for characterization, which is Anita’s strong point, the main characters are largely unidimensional. Going by the plot Meera – is a sensible woman, accustomed to corporate circles, a decent writer, a lady who has grown without the support of a father – should have been portrayed much stronger. However, she seems a stark contrast to that. She doesn’t know when and how Giri started distancing himself, she needs Vinnie, her friend’s counsel, she is led by Soman. She just doesn’t gell with the story. As for Jak, though he portrayed as a man going to lengths to uncover the truth behind Smriti’s fate, his actions are quite limp during his quest. The only fact that stands out is the novelty of his profession, we haven’t seen too many characters who are interpreters of cyclones. Smriti’s character built through narration from other actors’ point of view is interesting. The other notable character is probably Kala, Jak’s aunt with her symbolic burden of her tresses and her emancipation.

There are digressions like the Soman – Meera affair, Kala chithi and her battle to snip her locks, the Meera – Hera comparison, the one pagers on the weather. I believe that if you took them away, the plot would still be as good or bad. There was potential to build on the central theme of female infanticide which is largely lost. At the final count the story seems to say that women need men and marriage.

I don’t know if its irony but the title is true of the novel. I rate it 2 on 5.

(Published by HarperCollins)


Posted by on May 24, 2010 in Anita Nair


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Arrack in the Afternoon – Mathew Vincent Menacherry

Like I said earlier, who but a mallu would call a novel, Arrack in the Afternoon? Our fondness for Bacchanalian pleasures tends to come to the fore almost everywhere. On to the book, the lone review that I read was insipid (the review, not the book) and all it really talked about was the sexual content. Here was another squeamish reviewer who missed the point. What’s with Indian critics and adult content? I was relieved to find that there was definitely more to the book than  just sex.

Mathew has done quite well with his debut novel. The story is about Varghese, a failed and drunken poet, who in a rare moment of reprieve from drunken stupor decides to end his life. And miraculously escapes from under the wheels of the truck. Karan, a conniving con man spots huge potential in the act and takes Varghese under his wings. Karan transforms Varghese into  a god man and together they progress into the sitting rooms, party halls  of the rich and famous. The story ends with Varghese returning to the life he left behind.

Characterisation seems to be Mathew’s strength. Varghese, as the reticent, intelligent and strong willed anti hero is likeable and real. Karan plays the sly and slimy fixer very well. Patricia, Varghese’s patient lover; Sabu, the good guy journo are well etched. There are several characters that are drawn from real life – the gang-lords, the socialites, politicians are easily recognisable. The narrative is easy paced, humorous for the most part. The language is also quite free flowing. The intimate scenes are anything but that, they are hard hitting and don’t seem forced into the plot. Mathew holds up a mirror to society with his book. Our generation’s need for godmen, exploitation on religious grounds, politicians leveraging religious beliefs, the sleaze in the upper echelons of the rich and the famous.

Now to some of the weaknesses, like many non-resident-Keralite authors the part in Kerala is forgettable. He just doesn’t get the essence like Anita Nair or Arundhati Roy. He makes errors with the mallu lingo with verbatim translations (its thozhilaliye and not thorillaline for labourers). The whole plot revolving around the one circus like act of escaping from the jaws of death seems too far fetched. Repititions could have been avoided, he keeps using the phrase ‘worthy’ to refer to people. The other irritant is his constant references to passing wind, gets a little nauseous.

My rating 2.75 on 5.

Published by HarperCollins.


Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Recommended


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Vodafone-Crossword Book Awards

From the press release

The Vodafone-Crossword Book Awards 2008 shortlist is star-studded — and finding place are ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ by Salman Rushdie, ‘Sea of Poppies’ by Amitav Ghosh, ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ by Jhumpa Lahiri, ‘Past Continuous’ by Neel Mukherjee and ‘Escape’ by Manjula Padmanabhan.

This was announced by a panel comprising publisher-writer Urvashi Butalia, authors Mani Shankar Mukherji and Namita Devidayal and founder of Crosswords Bookstore R. Sriram in the capital Thursday.

The shortlisted nominees were selected by a panel of judges from a long list of 176 entries submitted by publishers.

The eligibility criteria for the award is that entries must be works of prose fiction, excluding teenage and children fiction, the entries must be either full-length novels or collections of short stories, they must be original works in English and the authors must be of Indian origin.

‘The role of the awards is not just recognising the authors. It is almost like the Oscars. We want to take contemporary Indian literature to a new level and involve people,’ said Namita Devidayal, winner of the award in 2007 for her work of fiction ‘The Music Room’.

How do they shortlist? is it on popularity of the book or the fame of the author? I can understand Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and even Jhumpa Lahiri, no one dare leave them out of an award such as this. But Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan???? Even a google search for reviews of the book will put the book in perspective.


Posted by on June 29, 2009 in Uncategorized


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