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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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A Disobedient Girl – Ru Freeman

Thanks to MA, for lending me the book after my futile efforts to find it in a few leading bookshops.  I am usually circumspect about novels that are launched amid hype. However, I am glad that this one proved me wrong. Another good piece of work set in the Tear Drop Isle following on my last read of Roma Tearne.

Take away country specific nuances and this novel could have been set in India and you would not notice anything out of place; goes to show how closely we are related to our neighbors. Beyond the most obvious like names, Buddhism, love of Bollywood or the awe of the West there is the caste divide, the all pervasive adherence to religion and the belief in the inherent goodness of the human kind. I was amused to read about the popularity of Amar Chitra Katha comics and Madhuri Dixit, I must confess I did cringe at the mention of the infamous Indian Peace Keeping Force.

On to the book now, the title itself is loaded with intriguing ambiguity – A Disobedient Girl. There are at least three characters that qualify for that epithet – Latha, Thara, Biso and at some level even her mother.  Besides disobedience is generously painted as an almost positive trait.  The story is about Latha, an orphan servant girl at the house of the Vithanage’s who grows up as hand maiden to Thara, the daughter of the house. During this evolution she traverses through stolen love, hurt, betrayal and finally freedom. Her fate is closely interlinked with Biso, a young mother who is fleeing from an abusive husband with her three children. She also attains freedom albeit very different from the one Latha finds.

The actors are brilliantly etched, Latha as the headstrong maid is of course the show piece. Portrayed so well that one tends to forgive her even when she steps beyond accepted norms. Thara as the privileged offspring has her moments as well, but Ru ensures that we do not endow too much of sympathy on her. Biso  is almost relegated to a lesser heroine under the strength of Ru’s portrayal of Latha.  Again another well drawn out character, Biso is strong, resourceful and touches a chord with her almost pointless struggle. The male characters are again pale shadows, Ajith as the callous opportunist and Gehan the unsure. However, I loved the way Ru has created the character of Mr. Victor Vithanage, without training the spotlights on him and just through the flow of the novel. He emerges as the most unlikely hero, if there is space for one in this female dominated novel.

The beauty of the novel lies in the narrative. Ru has attempted and pulled off a brilliant tactic. There are two plots – one centering around Latha and the other around Biso, the interspersing of the two is done well. While the one with Latha is largely about her life the one with Biso is a train journey. The slow pace of the Latha part is hardly felt because the train journey dictates a sense of movement.  Its almost like having a white piece of cloth with the train as the embroider’s needle drawing out an intricate tapestry of political turmoil, human frailties and destiny.

My reservations? If it were not for the pace of Biso’s journey, the Latha part tended to get a tad tedious. The early part of the book was too slow and I had to push myself to wade through it, however the latter parts moved at a brisk speed and kept me hooked. The Latha – Daniel dalliance looked out of place, I was expecting it to have some link to the plot at the end.

A good read, my rating is 3.75 on 5.

(Published by Penguin Viking)

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2010 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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In The Country of Deceit – Shashi Deshpande

I was wading through Lament of Mohini by Shreekumar Varma and feeling any book would be a reprieve when I started on ‘In The Country of Deceit’. I have to admit that it started off well and then it just tapered off especially towards the end as though the author also lost interest and just was not sure how to end the story. While Varma tries too hard to impress with a convoluted plot marred by stilted language, Deshpande skims across barely scratching the surface. 

Devyani is a young unmarried woman living alone in a small town in Karnataka called Rajnur. She is just recovering from the loss of her mother and starting life anew, symbolised by the demolition of her ancestral home and the building of a modern house. And with the modern house Devyani sheds her conservative outlook on life and her inhibitions. And this alteration comes with the arrival of Rani, a retired actress and Ashok, a police officer into Devyani’s life. Devyani has a brush with the filmdom given Rani’s persistence as Rani makes a last ditch effort to court the camera. Devyani  walks on the wildside with her relationship with Ashok and that is the pivot of the story. The novel peters out to a predictable end without much fuss.

In terms of characters, as is expected Devyani is the only well developed character. She is generous, long-suffering and patient with all the calamities thrown her way. Above all she is honest, honest to her own self. At times she is sickeningly subservient and lets herself be led. The other characters are bit shadows, Ashok included. There was so much potential to fill out his character which Deshpande has missed out on. There is this one instance where Ashok assaults a young man who drives carelessly in front of Ashok’s car and one saw a glimpse of the dark side of this man. Sadly he remains unidimensional and indistinct. Another event that held the potential for a gripping plot was the accosting of young Devyani and her friends by a man on their way home from school. It showed glimpses of terror, guilt and self preservation. Again Deshpande glosses over that as well as part of a conversation.  

Savi, the sister Sindhu, the aunt are all weak and listless. Rani who plays the alter ego is also tepid. Again here is another wasted character when the author could have delved deeper into why she did the things she did.The author tries to draw Rajnur on the lines of another Malgudi, again another let down.

The narrative is in first person and from Devyani’s perspective. Deshpande uses letters from various people to Devyani to probably fill out the other characters and their perspectives. However, this falls flat as the content of the letters is stilted and definitely not realistic. Simply put they are more like conversations than missives. There is no discernable difference between the regular narrative and the letters in language or tone. The lines exchanged in those intimate scenes between Devyani and Ashok are cheesy and repetitive. 

The jacket say the book is a subtle, many-layered exploration of the consequences of betrayal on people’s lives and relationships. There is nothing subtle, there are not many layers and as for exploration it is like taking a straw to drink from a river.   

‘In The Country of Deceit’ is an example of missed opportunities and unrealised potential.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2008 in Disappointing

 

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Elvis, Raja Stories

I am moving to another genre today – short stories. My biggest complaint about airports in this country is the lack of good book stores in any of them. More about that later. I was almost in panic, I had miscalculated the amount of reading material I had packed. I felt that since it was a short journey I needed only one book. The one I had, ‘My God Died Young’, I had already devoured. So the book store at the Thiruvananthapuram Airport looked like a frosty beer mug on a summer afternoon. The mirage didn’t last long, there were hardly a hundred books which were hidden among those tacky wooden kathakali masks (which the tourists buy by the dozens) sandalwood garlands and those irritating noisy strings made of sea shells. And in the true spirit of ‘lets hook the firang’s hunger for Indian spirituality’ there were rows of books on Osho, yoga and ayurveda. Let me add that there were a couple of books by Khushwanth Singh and Shobha De and obviously I was not in the mood for any of them. I was looking for something light and easy. I saw this oddly colored book with an even odder name – Elvis, Raja Stories.

This is a delightful collection of short stories that had me hooked long after my journey had ended. I sat up and finished it that night. Largely set in Africa and Canada, the stories are brilliantly crafted. They are humorous, witty and ‘slice-of-life’. The first story ‘When She Was Queen’ gets you hooked. Despite the limitation of the novella medium, Mr. Vassanji has complete control over the narrative. The story is a study in the art of keeping the reader hooked and socking him with the proverbial twist in the tale. Watch out for it. ‘The Girl on A Bicycle’ is another one that kind of shocks you right in the beginning and then develops into a tale of betrayal. ‘The Expected One’ is funny and entertaining. I also liked the conflict that Yasmin is confronted with in ‘Her Two Husbands’. ‘Last Rites’ is again about conflict. Shamshu is caught between tradition and his friend’s dying wish.

Most of the stories are entertaining, some I admit didn’t appeal to me as much. I did skip a few like ‘Is it Still October’, ‘The Trouble with Tea’ and ‘She, With Bill and George’.

Mr. Vassanji is a highly impressive writer who was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania before moving to Canada. He describes himself as an “IndoAfrican Canadian writer”. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories.

 
 

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