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Tag Archives: Indian Writing

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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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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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 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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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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