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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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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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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’. (http://churumuri.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/indian-media-is-obsessed-with-obtuse-authors/). 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)

 
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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.

 
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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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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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