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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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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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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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You Are Here – Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

She was on ‘We the People’ a while ago, awkwardly warding questions about how much of her blog is fact and how much was fiction. Meenakshi also talked about how the popularity of her blog resulted in her being approached by publishers to write a book. Ever since I was intrigued about her book and was looking out for the launch. I am not sure if it did justice to the hype. I remember a similar book I read long ago which was similarly hyped up – Babyji by Abha Dawesar. It was so lame and superficial that one felt cheated. Meenakshi’s book is definitely vastly superior to that. 

The novel is about Arshi, a twenty five year old working in a PR agency in Delhi. A broken family, a dragon lady as a boss, a boyfriend who blows hot or cold based on unexplainable factors, a room-mate who is unsure of her dreams are the people Arshi deals with. The narrative is stream of consciousness and is used pretty well. It is also slice of life and deals with a particular phase in Arshi’s life – her break up with her cheating boyfriend, her total frustration with her job and her coming to grips with her new beau’s boorish behaviour. And therefore there is no real development of character or plot. The plot, if there is one. is simplistic and does not have any real meat. However, Meenakshi uses humour pretty well, and several passages will have you smiling. Her use of language is pretty good.

But when you have turned over the acknowledgements page and you sit for a while and think about the book, there’s nothing that really stands out, except probably that Arshi has so many lovers cum dates cum buddies that you lose track of their names. And if this is any reflection of life in our metros, well thank god for condoms, else we would need to colonise a planet pretty soon.

 
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Posted by on September 4, 2008 in Disappointing

 

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The Small House – Timeri N Murari

Timeri N Murari is a name that you will see tucked away among the likes of Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Anita Nair, etc in the Indian Fiction section of libraries and book shops. I had never tried reading Murari before and if this book is any reflection of his skill I won’t be reading anymore.

The novel is based on the concept of ‘chinnaveedu’ (made famous by Maniratnam in Agni Natchathiram and Bhagyaraj in Chinnaveedu), a social norm that has an unspoken acceptance in Tamil Nadu. It is the tradition of bigamy where a man has two houses, one to house his mistress which is the chinnaveedu or literally the small house. Politicians and thespians in Tamil Nadu indulge in this even to this day. ‘The Small House’ is the story of Roopmati a modern day princess from a derelict lineage, who is a Professor in History. Her failing marriage sees her business tycoon husband Khris finding solace in the scheming TV journalist Maya. There is a parallel plot of her friend Tazneem who is also battling a similar crisis, except that her husband Hari finds comfort in Sanjay, a famous film actor. There is also the convoluted story of Roopmati’s long-lost brother Tommy. In the background there is the legend of Rupmati, the shepherdess who charmed Sultan Baz Bahadur. She is Roopmati’s friend, confidante and companion in her sleeping hours.

This novel is feeble in its appeal at best. Murari could have done so much with the theme of chinnaveedu, the interplay of characters and emotions is totally lacking. He just does not make use of it to make the narrative stronger. The plot is very weak and so are the characters. Rupmati’s story served no purpose as well. This again could have been used to the author’s advantage. And Tommy the brother, played no real part and one wouldn’t have missed him even if he lay dead in the sea. And the denoument is so farcical like a Bollywood movie where all the characters come together and there is the resolution except that the cops make their appearance one scene too early. And even in the resolution there are so many loose ends – we are left wondering what happens to Maya, Tazneem and Hari. Murari could have done better even with his choice of words. He does take a bold step with the intimate scenes but even there his choice of words is quite jarring and seems contrived.

I don’t know if I will take a risk with Murari’s more accomplished works. It may take a while for me to forget the disappointment with this one.

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2008 in Disappointing

 

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A Journey Out Of India – Anna K Chacko

I am thoroughly confused about this book, I searched the book for clues, I trawled the Internet and yet I am not sure – some say this book is a memoir, some say fictionalised autobiography and some others say it is a novel. And what exactly is a fictionalised autobiography? It can only be one of the two – fiction or autobiography. I don’t know if it is deliberate, but the author also does not clarify anywhere. And why am I caught up with on that one point? Because any review will revolve around that critical aspect. If it is an autobiography, I would say it is a very brave attempt. If its fiction then it is lacking on several fronts.

‘A Journey Out of India’ is the story of Anna, a Syrian Orthodox Christian growing up in Hyderabad. Born into an affluent family, she is living under illusions of external grandeur and contentment. Underneath the exterior of domestic harmony, Anna is battling feelings of inadequacy, neglect and abuse. Her father is disappointed that his first born is a girl child and that actually starts the downward spiral of the family’s fortunes. Adding to this misery is the fact that Anna is born with a congenital problem. There is a simmering conflict between her parents and she finds love and care in Lakshmi her maid. She is abused by her uncle and molested by a family friend and therefore grows up confused about her own sexuality. A failed marriage, familial betrayal and exodus from India are offset by her success as a doctor in Hawai. Her ally till the end is her sister Rachel. Together with her mother and sister she finds freedom and contentment.      

While Anna is an amusing character, she exhibits shades of grey. On the one hand she is independent, perceptive and intelligent but there are times when she prefers to be led and has no clarity or purpose. Rachel is a much more firm character. The mother scores no points for tenderness or concern barring a few instances. One cannot ignore the strains of Lear in the father, more sinned against than sinning. The men obviously take the brunt in terms of characterisation, with the exception of her father the others including Uncle Joey, her husband James are amorous and devious. (One can’t fathom how one man can abuse three women in the same family despite being so close knit, especially since Anna and Rachel share practically everything). What makes the characterisation realistic is that all of them are flawed – her aunt Anna (her role model), her upright uncle Matthew, her mother, her father even Lakshmi.

The setting is in old nawabi Hyderabad, where religion has not yet divided the people, where there is harmony. Anna uses plants and flowers like Chitra Divakaruni does with spices in ‘Mistress of Spices’ to give clues of how the plot will unfold. It is a little hard to understand how plants can govern human destiny. The author seems much more well versed in Urdu than with Malayalam and she has made errors in her translations of malayalam words and phrases. Aban she says is malayalam for brother when it is malay. One glaring instance is when she writes ‘kurielaison’, as ‘kyrielaison’ and says it is Aramaic while it is actually Syriac for ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ (atleast that is what I believe). There are several typos and errors in the book that the editing team has missed – leaves a bad taste.

Give it a miss and you won’t have missed much.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2008 in Disappointing

 

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