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Category Archives: Recommended

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)

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Posted by on June 30, 2012 in Recommended

 

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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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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.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2010 in Recommended

 

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No Onion Nor Garlic – Srividya Natarajan

I attempted this one more out of compulsion, so that P did not crib about her failed attempts to make me read Seven Ancient Wonders by Matthew Reilly. By the fourth page even the mallu on the PA system saying, “Ladies and gendlemen,  flight number won, seero, seero….. from Chennai to Baaingaluur”….. could not distract me. I have not giggled as much in a long time.

I can almost picture Srividya grinning and chuckling away while she typed out the manuscript, she must have had so much fun writing this one. Here is a novel that was not written for Bookers or other awards, but just because the author had a great story to tell and not to say it would have been painful. Pay heed Amitav Ghosh and Aravind Adiga.

Set in Chennai, the novel centres around the glories and travails of Professor Pattabhiraman aka Professor Ram, the guardian of art, culture and the purity of the Brahmin way of life. The plot is simple and  is centred around the proposed weddings of his children – the obnoxious Chunky and the fiery Jay with Sundar and his sister Uma.  There is the sub plot of the elections in the Chennai University which Prof Ram wants to win at any cost.  In terms of characterisation Prof Ram stands out and so does Sachu, Sundar’s mother. The other players are not as well defined; they include Sundar, the reluctant; Uma, of the dark skin curse; Jiva, the accomplished dalit girl, and Jay the headstrong.

The language is at once the strength and the weakness of the novel. It will go down very well with people who are used to typical tamil lingo and therefore is a limitation for the larger audience. The lingo is funny, colloquial and authentic and you just have to get it first up, it cannot be explained. Other authors provide an appendix and try to explain vernacular words –  its like eating an exotic dish and then asking the chef what went into it. Besides how many people actually flip over pages and read up the meanings. The narrative is gripping and is in second person, and in a delightful twist, the identity of the narrator is revealed only at the end. At several places she addresses the reader and that makes it more direct. The climax which is a satire on Kollywood is done well too.   

Though written in a slapstick style, Srividya conveys several serious and haunting issues through her novel. She deals with the caste system, the corruption in the academic circles, the unscrupulous builder – bureaucracy nexus. And here she scores over most other writers who have no message to convey.  

If there is a talent that Srividya should be credited with, it is her gift of observation. She makes some amazing descriptions that shows a heightened sense of detail, for example the tea boy’s fingers being three fourths inside the glass when he clasps the glasses, buckets lined up for the water lorry, the lingo used by different characters. 

While one accepts that comedy is serious business and Srividya does a great job, one has to point out  that in her effort to be consistently funny, Srividya gets too verbose at several places.

 An advice to my fellow bloggers Padma and Karthik, guys please try and read this one if you haven’t already. This one is right up your alley.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2009 in Recommended

 

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The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

The whole world is talking about Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize but I got to read it only now. The write-ups before the Booker were uninspiring and I stayed away. Come to think of it, I think only Arundhati Roy deserved her Booker, Kiran Desai’s book was lame and Rushdie’s book convoluted. The White Tiger is a ‘made for Booker’ product – clinical and following a formula, with the right ingredients in just the right amounts.

The narrative is in the form of a letter that the protagonist is writing to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabo on the eve of his visit to India. It plays out on the lines of a confession. Set in modern day India, the book traces the life of Balram Halwai from impoverished Laxmangarh in Gaya to the city lights of Bangalore. Starting off as a driver, Balram turns into a succesful entrepreneur and in the course of that journey he murders and robs his master. The plot is simple and unpretentious and that makes it eminently readable. The simplicity is keeping in with the allegorical style that Adiga has used. However, this is where the whole plot is suspect. The benefit of using the allegorical style is that it leaves the onus on the reader to try and discover meanings and thoughts hidden in the novel. Classic modern examples are Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? One can find hidden meanings every time you read it. I dont see too much of that happening with The White Tiger and that is a smart move by Adiga.

He has used two main leitmotifs – Darkness and the Rooster’s Coop. Darkness is the stark reality – of life in Indian villages, of ignorance and poverty. And the Rooster’s Coop is about servility, of serfdom and the infamous Indian habit of reticence and irresponsiveness to injustice. The imagery is stark and tends to get nauseating, he tends to go overboard with the descriptions of dirt, grime and filth. At times it feels like he is playing to the galleries. He has however captured the ethos of both Delhi and Bangalore brilliantly. The digs on bureaucracy, the allusion to ‘the great socialist’ and the police force sit well.

In terms of characterisation, Balram is drawn pretty well, though his reason for the murder is not convincing enough. And this is largely because the build up to the killing is not laid out well. Ashok as the business man is painted with the soft human colours but again not well etched, there are several instances when his actions lack logic. The language is simple and Adiga has done well on that front keeping in mind that Balram is semi literate. There are flashes of well placed humour as well.  

Amitav Ghosh will feel indignant that all the research and hard work he put in to create Sea of Poppies came to naught beside The White Tiger, and rightly so. The White Tiger, a decent read? Yes. Booker? No.

The White Tiger hardly mews.

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2008 in Best sellers, Recommended

 

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Naked in the Wind – Brinda Charry

It almost seems eerie that I read this book given the recent religious strife in Orissa. It also received the Golden Quill Awards this year. An interesting book, I liked it. Scout’s honour, I was definitely not intrigued by the fact that as a boy I stayed on Campbell Road. It had nothing to do with my being drawn to it.

So the setting for this novel is Campbell Road. Given the clues like The Hindustan Tobacco Factory, Thoms Bakery, Gymkhana Grounds, the Railway Track, Ulsoor Lake among other things this is somewhere in North Bangalore. The locality has a mixed group of residents like Anglo Indians and Tamilians. There is Joe retired from the Railways, his wife Marie and their teacher daughter Kathy. There is the Iyengar family of Shanti, her daughter dentist Priya and her son Vivek who is a techie. Shanti’s mother in law Jamuna and her son Rangan stay in the next street. As in most such localities there are the odd characters like the self appointed morality keeper Daisy Noronha, the wilful maid Rani, the flirtatious fruit vendor Basheer, the crazy vagabond girl Railway Track. Brinda lays the setting very well and any long time Bangalorean will identify with Campbell Road. She also uses real events and instances to give it that sense of realism – the attacks on catholic nuns in Madhya Pradesh, the nalle ba ghost scare, Rajanikant’s movie Dalapati,etc.

The story hinges on one incident – the return of Shanti’s husband Vasu who walked away from his family fifteen years earlier. There is also the arrival of Anand, Vasu’s companion on the stage. This single event changes the lives of all the characters in some way. The opening of the circus is the second significant episode that sets the stage and the setting for the denoument. The narrative is from the perspective of the leading characters, all in first person and are like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in progress. The good part of this structure is that it aids greatly in characterisation which definitely is Brinda’s strength. Characters that stand out are Kathy who is torn between her Anglo Indian heritage and her need to be accepted as any other Indian, Rani who lives by the carpe diem motto, Priya who cannot love and Shanti who has moments of clarity despite her drugged and imbalanced mental state. Jamuna the practitioner of the dark arts and the transvestite Sapna play out the role of the traditional sutradhar. Despite Vasu’s arrival  being the pivot, he is just a shadow. Anand, Vijay and Rangan are also chimera like throughout the book.

Brinda places the religious conflict between Christians and Hindus as the backdrop and that puts the cordial relations between the residents through severe strain. Her delienation of the Anglo Indian family is extraordinary – almost like Rohinton Mistry’s in-depth portrayal of the Parsis. She shows an admirable grasp of the fears and the insecurities of the community. However in contrast the Iyengar family is not as clearly painted out.

The narrative while interesting is also the undoing of the novel. The nuances of each character’s narrative is not distinct. Whether its the maid Rani, the educated Kathy or the dentist Priya, they all use the same idiom. One of the most jarring instances is when Jamuna explains the etymology of the word ‘terrible’ to Rani. Besides sometimes the narrative gets confusing as at times a particular speaker also describes intimate feelings of another character and this could have been avoided. For instance Sapna describes her foster daughter Aida’s innermost thoughts or Jamuna talks about something that Kathy or Marie is thinking. And this is disconcerting.

My rating two and a half on five.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2008 in Recommended

 

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Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Evening Standard said the ‘Purple Hibiscus’ is as revealing as Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’, which I did not really believe. To my amusement I found that the likeness grew stronger as the novel progressed. There are so many striking similarities that at times you wonder if Chimamanda had read Ms. Roy’s book. The sibling attachment, the abusive fathers – Papa and Pappachi, the silent suffering Mama and Mammachi, the biscuit factory and the pickle factory and even the use of the local dialect in both the books. To me the biggest similarity is the relationship between Kambili and Jaja and the asusu anya, the non verbal language of the eyes they share. This is so similar to the ties between Rahel and Estha. Well the differences are in the intensity of the plot and the narrative. While Ms. Roy’s imagery and language have layers and layers of meaning Chimamanda is strikingly simple and direct.

There are several critics that say it is the story of the sexual awakening of a 15 year old, I disagree vehemently. This is more a story of exploitation and liberation; of abuse, domestic and religious; of clash of faiths, of love and responsibility. Kambili and Jaja are the children of Eugene, a rich neo convert, and live their lives in fear and unquestioning obedience to their father. Their lives are dictated by the daily schedule handed down by Papa. Kambili lives in constant terror of her father and does everything to please him and so does her mother. Everything changes when the siblings go to Nsukka to visit their university lecturer aunt, Ifeoma and her children (here again the initial rivalry between the cousins and the final camaraderie is similar to the visit of Sophiemol in Arundhati’s book). In Nsukka they learn to be indepedent and understand the value of tradition and heritage. Here they learn to be free with their thoughts, their fears and their joys. They also learn to question the way they have been ill treated and tortured by their father. In a matter of five days Kambili metamorphises into a woman capable of knowing what love is and Jaja becomes an adult with an acute sense of his responsibility to his family. In death and loss the family is united and hopeful of better times.

Chimamanda’s characterisation is her biggest strength as shown in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.  She says that she wanted Papa to be a character who did horrible things but was not a monster. Eugene who towers in the book is a fanatic and a sadist. He rules the lives of his family and is a benefactor to all those who live by his tenets and laws. And like all power hungry and egotistical characters, he feels undermined when someone stands upto him be it Papa-Nnukwu, Aunt Ifeoma and finally Jaja. Ifeoma is a brilliant creation, strong, unafraid, practical and very loving. Mama is pusillanimous and irritatingly subservient but ultimately surprises everyone. Kambili is a cloistered teenager who does not trust her feelings and her needs. Jaja is a very strong character – sensitive, rebellious and sacrificing. The relationship between Father Amada and Kambili is a let down  – almost like a chick flick.

I would recommend that readers ideally should try this book before reading her other celebrated novel. ‘Purple Hibiscus’ wilts under the brilliance of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.

 
 

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