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Tag Archives: Novels

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 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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The Japanese Wife – Kunal Basu

An engaging collection of short stories, this is a good read. ‘The Japanese Wife’ the title of the book and the first story is definitely the best in the collection. Here is a story that talks of innocent love, transcending the physical. The love between Snehamoy, a rural schoolteacher, and Miyage, his Japanese pen friend, is touching and poignant. In ‘Snakecharmer’, Israeli business man Jacob Tsur comes to India to end his life. He meets a snakecharmer’s daughter who takes it on herself to stall it. I found ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’ to be interesting as well, with Mary the Filipina maid’s painful story. Mary is quite a strong character, stoic, unwavering and practical. I like the way Basu has weaved the Gujarat riots into the story showing its consequences in far away Hong Kong.

‘The Accountant’ deals with rebirth and the travails of a man who wants to speak the truth that history has coloured over the years. The title of the story ‘Tiger! Tiger!’ is haunting and remniscent of Blake’s poem, ‘Tiger’. It is a story of love and betrayal, set in the Sunderbans. Despite it being a short story, Basu does well to build the lead characters, Rowena the foreigner, Anwar the poacher, Amina his wife and Captain Singh the forest officer. Rowena is caught between the paradox of right and her friendship with Anwar. Amina shows her feline side by taking a younger and virile mate and then ensures his end to maintain the pack’s customs.

As always with most such collections, the quality cannot always be consistent. Some of the stories like ‘Lotus-Dragon’, ‘Lenin’s Cafe’ and ‘Miss Annie’ are tedious and convoluted. However, it is definitely worth a dekko.

 
 

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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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