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The River Has No Camera – Anjali Chandran

If one went by the title or the packaging, one could have easily missed this book. If you took a little trouble and pulled it off the shelf and read the blurb, you may take a chance. That’s what I did.  Anjali Chandran launched this book in 2001 and I dont remember reading about it, must have slipped under the radar. It should have received better treatment, since it is not a bad effort at all.

Anagha moves to Kerala to escape her past. She comes to the Alanthur to get away from a life that borders on debauchery  – including extra marital relationships, abortions, drinks, drugs, origies. Rebuilding and reclaiming the Alanthur mansion is a stop gap pretext for her to recoup and decide on life ahead. But Alanthur has dark secrets that tumble out much to her surprise and alarm. Just like the mansion that has hidden rooms and spaces Anagha looks inward and discovers things about herself as she goes about rebuilding Alanthur. While on the exterior she tries to adapt to the village living among them, making friends – Solomon, her emotional support; Nandu and Shailaja, who give her shelter; Lakshmi and Devi, her domestic help whom she rescues from poverty. And in the process of living and discovering, her life is altered in several ways – there is loss  – Solomon, there is reconciliation – with her mother and there is the promise of a new life.

The symbol of rebuilding of the mansion plays out at two levels – rebuilding the past fame of the Alanthur family, Anagha’s coming to grips with herself and gaining self esteem which was thoroughly stamped out in Mumbai. The characterisation is weak except for the protagonist. In this one Anjali has excelled, Anagha is alarmingly direct, unafraid to take on adversaries and challenges, while at the same time she is endowed with a sense of humour. And these make her realistic and likeable. The others are bit players with not much to stand out.  Her narrative has an edgy quality to it and is pretty interesting. However, when she gets into a descriptive mode – for instance on the of marumakkathayam or the references to religion; she gets boring and the narrative loses sheen. Also the ‘suspense’ is no suspense at all, one can figure it out pretty early in the story.

One the biggest issues with the book is to do with editing, there are errors on almost every second page. The other flaw is of course her use of Malayalam intended to give the narrative a local flavour.  However, this falls flat as she makes glaring errors with her use of malayalam phrases.

The ‘return of the native’ kind of plot has been overdone, especially when it comes to Kerala. Anjali also falls into the same pitfalls whether it is to do with her snobbish commentary on life in Kerala, overdose of intellectual posturing or even the way she has used the language.

However, I will still say it is worth a read.

(Publisher – Srishti Publishers & Distributors)

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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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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Escape – Manjula Padmanabhan

Two budding flowers and few drops of blood, the cover says it all. It took me a while to make the connection. Deep, I must add.

Actually the only new IWE book the Bangalore Airport had was this one. Only later did I hear that most critics had trashed this one anescape-manjula-padmanabhand not without some reason.

Escape is the story of teenager Meiji who is the only surviving female in a country that has wiped out the fairer sex. The land is ruled by a general and marshalled by his marauding Boyz.  Meiji has been kept hidden in an estate and reared by her three Uncles – Uncle Zero, Uncle One and Uncle Two. When keeping her hidden further gets tougher by the day, the Uncles decide to move her to freedom. Uncle Two, the youngest is entrusted with the task of taking her to her freedom. The entire plot is built around this journey. Fairly decent plot at that, has several layers of symbolic meaning – Meiji’s the journey to womanhood and maturity, Youngest’s struggle with his carnal feelings and propreity, etc.

The characterisation is decent too. Meiji, as the confused girl suddenly having to accept bitter truths while at the same time handling her bodily and emotional changes is the pivot. In her mood swings, a petulant child one minute and a high strung woman the next, Manjula has made this character authentitic and realistic. Youngest plays his role well too, the older uncles dont occupy too much of stage time. The narrative tends to drag sometimes. I must point out a totally superflous tactic she has used – the story is interspersed with parts of an interview with the General. It has absoluetly no connection with the story and could have been left out, she may have had a tighter story. The end is a let down after all the build up.

So what is the problem, you ask? The setting dear Watson, the setting. Manjula has taken a potential winner story and messed it up with the setting. My view is that Indian Writers appear uncomfortable with the Sci Fi genre and they should stay away. She has over-reached and tried to be creative but is found wanting. There are several instances where she appears confused about her view on a futuristic world and her attempts to keep it real. For example at several times during the journey, the duo have nutrition or food pills and the next meal they have to heat and eat paratas. Youngest wears high tech clothes and at home wears kurtas. There are several such instances. This plot would have worked better in any other setting, it could have been an Arabic country in contemporary times  and it would have still worked.

A big let down.

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2009 in Disappointing

 

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Afterwards – Jaishree Misra

Disappointing, was my thought as I turned the last page. Another Indian author that I had not tried for a long time despite several people urging me. The fact that she is related to Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai as stated by Wikipedia  was certainly one reason to try this one out. May be this is not her best book, however isn’t consistency the halmark of a good writer? Look at Rohinton Mistry or Anita Nair they manage to keep at it book after book. Her other books like Ancient Promises, Accidents Like Love and Marriage seem to have done much better.

With a threadbare plot, Afterwards is a weak novel with nothing that really stands out. It is the story of Maya – her oppressive married life, her brief dalliance with freedom and finally her demise. Abused by her suspicious husband in Kerala, Maya strikes up a friendship with Rahul Tiwari an NRI who hires out the house next door. Rahul is her ticket to freedom and she cajoles him into taking her and her daughter Anjali with him to the UK. After a short but happy life in England with Rahul, she dies in an accident. Pretty simple? While I do prefer simple plots, this one is too simple even for my liking.

In terms of characters Maya is the obvious central pivot. She is the only saving grace in another wise pretty ordinary set of actors. What makes her interesting are the grey shades that Jaishree has painted her with. She is not all love, grace and longsuffering as seen on the surface, she is conniving and scheming at some level especially in the way she impresses on Rahul to help her. Rahul, though the narrator of the story, is not as clearly drawn out. The others like Govind, Maya’s husband;  Kevin, Rahul’s English friend and Rahul’s parents are the others that do not make much of an impact. Rukmani, Maya’s mother is the only other character that has a decent role to play.

Jaishree seems to try a little too hard to make her descriptions of the mileau be it Kerala or London realistic. However, she is no match to Anita Nair or Arundhati Roy in the way they paint Kerala in their writings. She also goes overboard with the phase where Rahul is mourning Maya, a real tear jerker. I had to skip pages to escape repitition and boredom.  

Even the back of book comments are for her other books like Ancient Promises and Accidents Like Love and Marriage. I will definitely be more careful before I pick up another book of Jaishree.

 
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Posted by on April 25, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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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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The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay – Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

If the ‘Last Song of Dusk’ was bizarre, this one is bizarre too; less but bizarre all the same. Siddarth hid behind the facade of magic realism in his last book, this one however exposes him. ‘The Lost Flamingoes of  Bombay’ is disappointing and does not stand up to all the hype created by the spin doctors. Even the 11th hour attempt to rake up a controversy on  TV about characters resembling real ones will not resurrect this one.  

The book is the story of Karan Seth, an ace photographer who moves to Bombay to work for The India Chronicle. His pet project to capture the dying old world charm of Bombay sets him on a journey of discovery – of self, of others, of the strength and frailities of realtionships, of the deep rooted corruption in the Indian polity. During his assignment for the Chronicle he meets and befriends Samar, a failing celebrity pianist;  Zaira, a successful yet lonely Bollywood star and Rhea Dalal, a wealthy and free spirited artist. Coming from the small town of Shimla, Karan is lost in the morass that is Bombay. His friendship with Samar and Zaira is tested at several points and matures into strong bonds that lasts through the book. However, it is his relationship with Rhea that takes him to the peaks and troughs of success and love. Zaira’s murder and the trial puts her friends and acquaintances through severe strain. Frustrated over the outcome, each of them go their separate ways in search of love, respite and escape. Samar follows his lover Leo to the US, Rhea rekindles her marriage and Karan moves to London in search of work.

Siddharth has used real life incidents and people throughout the book but has given them different hues for obvious reasons – Samar the child prodigy pianist is strongly remniscent of a music composer who is regularly in the news these days, Malik Prasad is a mixture of traits drawn from several progeny of politicians, Rocky Khan is an obvious caricature of one of the Bollywood stars who tears of his vest at the drop of a hat and the list goes on. Real incidents like the murder and trial of Zaira is taken straight off the Jessica Lal case, Rocky running his car over pavement dwellers, the Hindu Political Party driving out north Indians from Bombay give the book some sense of realism.

The narrative does maintain some sense of suspense and tautness till the trial and then it falls apart, almost like the author was unsure of how to end it. It is hurried and boring towards the end, one just wants it to end eitherway. His use of language is weird and at times his attempts at humour is way off the mark. Sample these – Her voice was wobbly with emotion like a hippo on stilletos. Or – She thought Inspector Rajan had the slightly glandular, fatigued air of someone who masturbated for a living and moonlighted as a policeman

The corniest piece of symbolism that I have read in a long time  is this one where Claire, Karan’s English lover, is getting intimate with him in her parent’s house – Outside, Mr. Soames was cleaning the head of his rifle with a square of cream muslin. 

If Meenakshi tried to shock readers with promiscuity in her book, Siddharth has tried to be bold his dealing of homosexual love between Samar and Leo but is restrained when it comes to intimate scenes as opposed to the intimacy between Karan and Rhea and Karan and Claire. Still squeamish and not brave enough to take on our moral police, eh Siddharth?

My advice? You can safely let ‘The Lost Flamingoes of  Bombay’ stay that way, and you wont have missed much.

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2009 in Disappointing

 

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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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