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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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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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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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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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Madras on Rainy Days – Samina Ali

I read this book several years ago, but I can still vividly recall the plot and the characters. This is one of those books that haunt you. For a debut effort, ’Madras on Rainy Days’ is definitely a great piece of work. The feelings, the emotions, and the situations feel authentic and realistic. Samina Ali in one of her interviews candidly says that the book has grown out of personal experiences and personal challenges. She recounts an interesting anecdote about the actual genesis of the idea behind the book. She had written out a scene as part of an assignment for a creative writing course and her professor was so impressed with it that she asked her to write a novel. The scene which is set in Madras on a rainy night is the one where the muslim healer performs exorcism on Layla to set right her marriage. And obviously that scene is one that stands out in the book as highly charged. Sameer is hoping that divine intervention will help despite his awareness of the root cause for his marital problems. The alim is trapped between his divine mission and carnal temptation as the beautiful Layla lies half undressed before him. The fear of the unknown and the fear of futility plagues Layla.

The story is set in Hyderabad and not in Madras and recounts the story of the young NRI Layla’s tryst with love, betrayal, abuse and religious restrictions. Samina has based Layla on herself, she herself was married off young to an Indian and went through similar emotions in her life. Therefore Layla as a character is very strongly and intricately crafted. Sameer is a weak caricature and lacks depth. The others are all fringe actors and are obscure. The plot is well thought out and keeps the reader interested. The twist in the tale is also well planned and does take you by surprise.

However, there are some criticisms about the book that are valid. She tries to pack too much in one book – sexuality, repression, child abuse, religious intolerance, irrational beliefs, divorce and several more. She is quite dramatic with her symbolism and tries to shock the reader at times with her candour.

My recco? worth a shot.         

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2008 in Recommended

 

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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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