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Category Archives: Highly recommended

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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Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie

Nice, very nice. Kamila Shamsie is definitely an author to watch out for. Burnt Shadows has been receiving good reviews since its launch early this year and it has done pretty well in India too.  We have some great literature coming out from our neighbourhood which is very encouraging.

In terms of scope Kamila has used a vast canvas that covers 5 countries, as many as 5 nationalities spanning 60 years. One has to commend her courage to attempt something on this scale. And that is the simply the greatness of the novel.  Kamila used instances in history and these are the pivots of the narrative – the interplay of history with personal lives gives it realism and authenticity. Starting from the bombing in Nagasaki to the India – Pakistan Partition, to Soviet War in Afghanistan to 9/11 in the US. The story is about two families – the Weiss family and the Sajjad clan who are players and victims of these historical events. It begins with young Hiroko in Nagasaki where she is courting the German Konrad Weiss, and then the bomb falls on Nagasaki killing Konrad and with it her dreams. She travels to Delhi to meet Konrad’s sister Ilse and her husband James and stays back with them. She meets Sajjad an employee of James who teaches her Urdu and they fall in love, they move to Karachi to escape the post partition violence. They have a son Raza who wanders into the Aghanistan conflict. The other side of the story is about Ilse, her son Harry Burton who worships Sajjad as his childhood guide, Harry’s daughter Kim is drawn into the complex relationship between the two families.

Kamila does well with delienation – Hiroko as the central character is tolerant, sensitive and enigmatic. She is the one that holds the plot together, she is the glue that keeps the two families together despite their differences and motives. Sajjad is the dreamer who toys with big ambitions but fate has him settle for less. Ilse the free spirit lives life by her rules and so also in death. I like the way Kamila has played the relationship between Ilse and Sajjad, they are circling cats constantly on guard about each other. Kim has traces of grandmom’s high spirited ways. Raza, the rebel, is impetuous  and headstrong. But the most interesting of the characters is Konrad Weiss. He is always in the background like the water-colour on a document.

Now to my reservations. It is with the narrative and the pace – three quarters of the book is easy paced and then it plays out at breakneck speed. Till the point where Sajjad, Hiroko and Raza are living a normal life in Karachi, the narrative flows along smoothly and then its a blur. I skipped several pages where Kamila overdoes the Afghan war bit with Raza and Abdullah. The editing needs some tightening, there are numerous typos. 

With promise like that I will definitely be checking out her other books like In The City By The Sea and Kartography.

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2009 in Highly recommended

 

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The Finger Puppet – Anu Jayanth

Reading The Finger Puppet on the heels of Lost Flamingoes of Bombay,  was very reassuring – all is not lost with Indian writing.  Which brings me to my pet peeve – that authentic and deserving writers rarely get nominated for those awards. Shashi Deshpande’s In the Country of Deceit was the Indian nominee for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize recently and Siddharth Shangvi’s book has also been nominated for some vague award.  I can see why Aamir Khan doesn’t believe in awards now.

Sorry for the digression, and let me get on with my views on this superb novel. The Finger Puppet is a brilliant book, period. Anu Jayanth knows her craft well which, to put it simply, in the case of a novelist is having a story to tell and saying it well. This is a coming of age book and deals with some uneasy truths and questions several conventional mores. Set in Trichy, the plot revolves around young Tara and her middle class family. Lonely and suffering from a speech impediment Tara creates a finger puppet, Gayatri who becomes her doppelganger and the narrator of the story. The story traces the struggle of Tara to find her identity – from  a timid and diffident pre-teen who is dependent on her puppet to give voice to her feelings and emotions to independence and freedom.

The characterisation is very well done. Gayatri obviously is the most distinctly developed of the lot. However the others are also well drawn, my favourite is Padma as the strong and upright older sister. Haughty Cordelia as the enfant terrible is involuntarily playing the sutradhar. (Anu has created a twist using the name Cordelia, this one is far from long suffering as compared to the original, though she is willing to state her point even in the face of abuse). I am quite impressed at the way Anu has created the character of the abusive Appa. through the eyes of Gayatri. And by that what she has effectively done is create an aura of terror and dark mystery around him. Amma is the weak character and at times is not consistent.

If I thought that God of Small Things and Purple Hibiscus had striking similarities, Anu Jayanth’s book and Adichie’s novel share several more – Tara and Kambli, the relationship between Kambli and Jaja echoes in the one between Tara and Gayatri, Tara’s infatuation with Vedprakash is similar to Kambli’s feelings for Father Amada.  Amma and Mama as the long suffering spouses, the abuse, the abortions, the trauma. And above all the abusive patriarchs Eugene and Mr. Ramakrishnan. I will concede that Anu’s characters are better etched.

Now my criticisms about the book. Anu has tried to pack too much into one book and therefore at times loses grip on an otherwise strong and gripping narrative. It does meander a bit at times and I did skip a few pages. There are instances where she has not effectively connected the dots and some characters and instances hang limply. Also having a twelve year old talking or even thinking on deep philosophical matters is a little far stretched.

My advice – read and be proud of Indian fiction.

 

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Tunnel Vision – Shandana Minhas

I have started to widen my reading just to keep myself aware of what is else is out there. I looked at books coming out of our neighbours including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I read ‘Shodh’ by Taslima, ‘The Match’ by Romesh Gunesekera and ‘Turtle Nest’ by Chandani Lokuge. Amidst all the clamour about Taslima and her being bundled about, it was surprising to see the criticism that came even from literary circles about her being an average writer. However, I found ‘Shodh’ to be a decent read. As for Gunasekera and Lokuge, I didn’t go very far with their novels. So it was with doubts that I picked up ‘Tunnel Vision’ by Shandana Minhas. My only other exposure to Pakistani literature was Saadat Hasan Manto , though I don’t know if he classifies as one. More about Manto later.

Now here is a book that is a clear winner. Everything about it is right. The cover has a face half covered by a shroud with a hazy picture of a busy thoroughfare. I like the play on the title – Tunnel Vision. It connotes the myopic view of the average South Asian, narrow and coloured. It also refers to the  blinding light at the end of the tunnel that supposedly hits departed souls as they enter the afterworld. This is a super debut novel and certainly promises some great work coming to us from Minhas. She has an easy style of writing and engages the reader right through the novel. A refreshing sense of humor and brilliant sense of comic timing sets this book apart.

Ayesha, the central character meets with a near fatal accident and lies in a coma. Her soul hovers over her body and she is watching the drama of her family’s grief, their hidden angers, while hidden secrets are revealed. The style is ‘stream of consciousness’ as Ayesha reveals her past, her fears and the reason for her angst. She is an attractive middle class working woman in Karachi who is dealing with a multitude of problems – the disappearance of her father, the lack of love from her mother, her inability to sustain a relationship. A strong willed lady, her prickly exterior is actually her defence and her way of dealing with her lot. Her views about her mother are quite severe and is her response to her mother’s total severance of tenderness after the birth of her brother Adil. Jahan, the mother is also a very strong character with two sides to her, her apathy towards Ayesha and her infatuation with Adil. Throughout the novel Ayesha is fighting the inevitable, her slow but steady transition to a splitting image of her mother. She is also acidic, bitter and selfish. Beneath the dry humour and bitterness there is a sad young woman who just wants to live her life by her rules and her beliefs and is unwilling to conform.

As is expected the male characters are weak and almost inconsequential. Abba lives two lives and is hollow. Her love interests Omar and Saad are tied to their respective mother’s apron strings. Adil is self centred and cares more about self perservation and his new girlfriend even in the time of grief. The uncles are simpletons who are timid and intimidated by their wives and their sister.

Minhas scores with her humour and uses lines and phrases from various sources like the rear of rickshaws, trucks, buses and jingles as chapter titles. This gives it the sense of realism in a setting that is astral and nowhere near believable. Karachi is almost a character and has a huge role to play in the narrative. Karachi is like any metropolis in India, the same traffic jams, the same filthy government hospitals, the same pollution and corruption. There is so much in common between us and our neighbours, our middle class norms, our hatred for the political class, our views of forward thinking womenfolk. May be that was why I related to it more.

The narrative slips and so does the editing in a few places. But then those are minor flaws in an otherwise brilliant novel.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2008 in Highly recommended

 

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Such a Long Journey – Rohinton Mistry

‘Family Matters’ was my first taste of Rohinton Mistry and I have been hooked since. A master story teller, he grips the reader with easy paced narrative, one rarely feels tedium. There is always a shadow of gloom in his books, and that is what gives it the sense of realism and the need for empathy. He uses humour and brilliant characterisation to offset the pall of grey.

Like most of his novels, ‘Such a Long Journey’ is set in the Bombay of the 70s. Gustad Noble, is a middle class Parsi going about his life quietly without much bother, until the point when he gets a letter from his old friend, Major Jimmy Bilimoria. (To digress a bit, in all the books of Mistry that I have read there is a clear point of crisis. In ‘Family Matters’, it is the point when Yezad gives into the temptation of gambling, in ‘A Fine Balance’ it is the point when Ishvar and Omprakash return to their village.) Gustad’s life is thrown in turmoil and he is buffeted by the Fates. His son is estranged, his friend Mr. Dinshawji dies and his job as a bank clerk is shaky.

Mistry has an enviable gift for characterisation, though some of his characters seem similar in his books. Yezad from ‘Family Matters’ and Gustad have a lot in common. The characters are simple and so realistic that if you went to any typical apartment block in Mumbai, chances are you would see these characters in some form. Mistry keeps his characterisation very simple and does not overreach by adding complicated clutter. Gustad is a simple man almost helpless against the troubles that come his way. However, in his own way he is strong and grounded. I also like the play off between the flamboyant Jimmy and the tepid Gustad. And also between Gustad’s only friends Jimmy and Mr. Dinshawji. Mr Dinshawji provides the comic relief and actually is a man with a heart. The mentally challenged Tehmul is another typical character that you would see in most middle class localities in India. The neighbours in Khodadad Building Miss Kutpitia, living in the memory of her dead nephew, the meddlesome Mr. Rabadi, the eccentric Cavasji are natural and highly realistic.

I am biased about Mistry’s work, I would still recommend this book like all the others.

 

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Mistress – Anita Nair

I have had several mails on why I have stopped posting here. No particular reason, just that I wanted to find the right book to write about. So here goes, this is one my favourite writers of all time. The High Priestess of contemporary Indian Writing in English, Anita Nair is one of the greatest writers of our times. I am an avid fan of Ms. Nair and I own most of her books.  I was hooked by ‘Ladies Coupe’ and since then I have kept track of her and her literary works. She is very authentic and has complete control over her art. I know that there have been several reviews and criticisms about ‘Mistress’, but I bought the book as soon as it was launched on a hunch.

The book is set on the banks of the river Nila, there could not have been a better setting. Just like the river the plot is a journey to self realisation. The four main characters evolve over the course of the story and as usual her strength is the intricate characterisation. Koman, the kathakali doyen, is the central character on whom all the others hinge and from whom everything flows. Ms. Nair has bettered herself with this character, an absolutely complete character in all respects. Take away all the other characters and you still have a very strong plot with only Koman. Radha, the heroine is almost a doppelganger of her uncle Koman. She is a strong willed character and lives by her own rules. She looks upto Koman for guidance and one almost feels that her relationship with Chris is her way of proving her independence to herself and to Koman. Shyam, the husband, is easy to despise. Ms. Nair almost seems to set up his character in order to justify Radha’s actions. Chris the weakest character in the book, is predictable and tedious. He is the typical foreigner completely taken in by India and all things Indian even if some of them are forbidden.

In terms of ranking, I would rank ‘Ladies Coupe’ and ‘The Better Man’ much higher than this book. The only grouse I have against the book is the central theme of kathakali. At times it seems contrived and seems like Ms. Nair’s way of ensuring that the book does well in the west.

Miss it at your own risk.          

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2008 in Anita Nair, Highly recommended

 

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A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

Like my clan, the Syrian Christians, the Parsis are an interesting community. In the south, we are not as exposed to other communities like people in Mumbai or Delhi. Prior to Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Family Matters’ my understanding of Parsis was limited to knowing that one of my colleagues in Mumbai was one and looking at the ‘Fire Temple’ off Queen’s Road in awe. I read the “Story of Zarathustra” from Amar Chitra Katha as a kid. And I did score a point at the high school quiz contest with my tremulous, “Is it the Zend Avesta?” answer.

Pardon the digression. Rohinton Mistry is another writer that I really like. Though I wont rate ‘A Fine Balance’ among his best, I still think it is way better than a lot of books I have read recently. The story is about Dina Dalal and has a strong hue of Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Like Tess, fate treats her unfairly all through her life. All through the book she is battling against odds and just as we think that she finally has come to grips with it, misfortune rears up again. Even the three other main characters endure the vagaries of fate. The untouchabe uncle-nephew duo, Omprakash and Ishvar try to escape their miserable life by becoming tailors, only to realise at the end that there is no escape. Maneck the paying guest goes through loss as well. All through the novel there is a pall of gloom except for a brief period when all of the characters are at peace with each other and their lives.

In terms of characterisation, Dina of course is sensitive but turns harsh largely due to insecurity and her fear of losing control. One tends to get exasperated with Omprakash for his boorish and ungrateful behaviour. Ishvar is a delightful character, always calm and never complaining. The relationship between young Maneck and the matronly Dina has strong erotic undertones. Mistry plays safe and sensible with his portrayal of that relationship.

As always, the structure is strong and the narrative strong too. The backdrop is the dark hour of Indian history, the ’emergency’ and all the characters are effected in diferent ways by it. Mistry makes his abhorrence for the ‘prime minister’ and her party very clear. My only reservation with the book is the number of characters, the novel has around 24 characters. There were several times when I had retrace chapters to recollect a particular character.

My advice? It is Rohinton Mistry you will like it anyway.

 
 

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