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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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Mosquito – Roma Tearne

What can I say about what was an absolute delight to read.

Call it my ignorance but I had never heard of Roma Tearne before this and from what I hear Mosquito was her first novel, she has published two novels since and is launching her fourth soon.  If this anything to go by, I will be searching out the others soon.

Mosquito has a simple story line and what makes it standout is that it is told simply without distracting artifices. Theo Samarajeeva is a successful novelist who returns to war torn Sri Lanka to write his next book where he meets young Nulani Mendis who is a budding artist. The story is about how their relationship grows from friendship to love.  It is as simple as that. The setting is beautiful Sri Lanka but like the characters there is turmoil and danger lurking behind the splendor.

Theo as the middle aged widower writer is delineated very well. He is torn between  memories of his departed wife Anna, his growing love for Nulani and his sense of propriety in wooing a girl far younger than him. However, Nulani is the one character that stands out. Her journey as the troubled girl who finds expression of her talent under Theo’s guidance traversing across teenage innocence to a victim of circumstances to the successful artist in the end is really an example of well etched characterization.  Sugi as Theo’s Man Friday taking care of his everyday needs but doubling up as his conscience keeper and emotional anchor also plays a very important part in the story. I loved the way Roma transitions the ‘sutradhar’ role from Sugi to Thercy (Sugi’s female friend). The difference between the two is subtly portrayed Sugi is at blinded by his devotion to Theo while Thercy is more pragmatic. The other actors like Theos’ friends Rohan, Giulia and Gerard go with the flow and are neatly placed in the plot. The only character that is not as easily weaved into the story is Vikram. There is a steady build up and one expects him to play a very significant part in the denouement but that is not the case. The story would have done as well even without Vikram.

Roma’s painting skills come to the fore in her descriptions of Sri Lanka. She doesn’t go overboard but her painting of the Sri Lankan landscape is done beautifully. Neither does she overdo the descriptions of war atrocities something which many authors are guilty of.

A wonderful read. My rating 3.75 on 5.

(Published by Harper Perennial)

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2010 in Recommended, 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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Tunnel Vision – Shandana Minhas

I have started to widen my reading just to keep myself aware of what is else is out there. I looked at books coming out of our neighbours including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. I read ‘Shodh’ by Taslima, ‘The Match’ by Romesh Gunesekera and ‘Turtle Nest’ by Chandani Lokuge. Amidst all the clamour about Taslima and her being bundled about, it was surprising to see the criticism that came even from literary circles about her being an average writer. However, I found ‘Shodh’ to be a decent read. As for Gunasekera and Lokuge, I didn’t go very far with their novels. So it was with doubts that I picked up ‘Tunnel Vision’ by Shandana Minhas. My only other exposure to Pakistani literature was Saadat Hasan Manto , though I don’t know if he classifies as one. More about Manto later.

Now here is a book that is a clear winner. Everything about it is right. The cover has a face half covered by a shroud with a hazy picture of a busy thoroughfare. I like the play on the title – Tunnel Vision. It connotes the myopic view of the average South Asian, narrow and coloured. It also refers to the  blinding light at the end of the tunnel that supposedly hits departed souls as they enter the afterworld. This is a super debut novel and certainly promises some great work coming to us from Minhas. She has an easy style of writing and engages the reader right through the novel. A refreshing sense of humor and brilliant sense of comic timing sets this book apart.

Ayesha, the central character meets with a near fatal accident and lies in a coma. Her soul hovers over her body and she is watching the drama of her family’s grief, their hidden angers, while hidden secrets are revealed. The style is ‘stream of consciousness’ as Ayesha reveals her past, her fears and the reason for her angst. She is an attractive middle class working woman in Karachi who is dealing with a multitude of problems – the disappearance of her father, the lack of love from her mother, her inability to sustain a relationship. A strong willed lady, her prickly exterior is actually her defence and her way of dealing with her lot. Her views about her mother are quite severe and is her response to her mother’s total severance of tenderness after the birth of her brother Adil. Jahan, the mother is also a very strong character with two sides to her, her apathy towards Ayesha and her infatuation with Adil. Throughout the novel Ayesha is fighting the inevitable, her slow but steady transition to a splitting image of her mother. She is also acidic, bitter and selfish. Beneath the dry humour and bitterness there is a sad young woman who just wants to live her life by her rules and her beliefs and is unwilling to conform.

As is expected the male characters are weak and almost inconsequential. Abba lives two lives and is hollow. Her love interests Omar and Saad are tied to their respective mother’s apron strings. Adil is self centred and cares more about self perservation and his new girlfriend even in the time of grief. The uncles are simpletons who are timid and intimidated by their wives and their sister.

Minhas scores with her humour and uses lines and phrases from various sources like the rear of rickshaws, trucks, buses and jingles as chapter titles. This gives it the sense of realism in a setting that is astral and nowhere near believable. Karachi is almost a character and has a huge role to play in the narrative. Karachi is like any metropolis in India, the same traffic jams, the same filthy government hospitals, the same pollution and corruption. There is so much in common between us and our neighbours, our middle class norms, our hatred for the political class, our views of forward thinking womenfolk. May be that was why I related to it more.

The narrative slips and so does the editing in a few places. But then those are minor flaws in an otherwise brilliant novel.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2008 in Highly recommended

 

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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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The Age of Shiva – Manil Suri

I just turned the acknowledgements page of Manil Suri’s ‘The Age of Shiva’. It took me a week to finish this one. I have not read his earlier book ‘The Death of Vishnu’ which I am aware met with decent success.

Suri shows promise as a story teller as he tries to fuse several characters and their idiosyncracies. The story is about Meera the daughter of a rich Punjabi business man and her experiences as she traverses across roles as daughter, sister, wife and mother. It may seem highly simplistic to say this but her character is strongly remniscent of the children’s ‘Ugly Duckling’ fairy tale; Meera is the duckling who does not blossom till the end, at times flattering to deceive. Throughout the novel she lives under the shadows of Paji, her sister Roopa, her husband Dev and Ashvin her son. There is also the strong theme of sibling rivalry Roopa vs Meera, Dev vs. Arya. Roopa is the prickly sister who despite nature lands a good life, while Meera despite being a better person is always struggling. Dev is the romantic and he gets the rich Meera, while Arya the activist is constantly living the life of pretence. Paji is the master puppeteer controlling his family’s destinies.

There also the strong element of sexuality. The affair between Roopa and Dev, the constant lusting by Arya for Meera, the subtle lesbain relationship between Sandhya and Meera and finally the Oedipal relationship between Meera and Ashvin. The mother-son relationship is sometimes too stark with eroticism (not recommended for the squeamish). The other theme of politics is loose and hangs loosely. It is not as strongly embedded as in Rohinton Mistry’s ‘A Fine Balance’.

Technically the book has a few flaws. The narrative is in second person, Meera is narrating the story to Ashvin. The problem with that is that it is awkward and unnatural, especially the sex episodes. Also the narrative is not crisp and meanders along drearily without adding anything of substance to the plot. At times I had to flip the pages to get a move on.

A decent read, provided you have the patience to plod through almost 450 pages.  

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2008 in Manil Suri, Recommended

 

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