Friday 22 December 2017

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

A few thoughts on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea

This is why you read. This is why you read stuff you didn’t know much about. This is why you trust “best books” lists and critics’ opinions, and pick up a book you’ve never heard any of your friends talk about.
Because sometimes, the book you picked up as a result turns your mind upside down and makes you see the world through different eyes. I’d bought this book several years ago, but it just sat in my shelf after I found it was a “response” to Jane Eyre, and I hadn’t read Jane Eyre yet.

So last year, I finally read the classic and liked it enough to want to put this book back on the reading queue. And now that I’ve read this one, it’s as if Bronte created a flimsy story on top of a seething cauldron of experience, something tame that hid all the violence that colonialism and racism has wrought. Rhys unpacks all those underlying experiences - the heiress from Jamaica who’s caught between two other sides in her own country, the Englishman with his assumed superiority, whose discomfort with the tropical paradise makes others doubt their own home, the tacit assumption by him that non-whites aren’t mature or cultured enough, the same place turning beautiful or strange when seen through different eyes. She makes us see all these experiences through the characters’ eyes, and we understand them all even if we don’t always agree.

And by the end, the death of the heroine - yes, Antoinette is the real heroine, not the governess who stole the Englishman’s heart - comes as a fated, prophesied event rather than a happy accident to free up the husband.

Read, read. Really.

The Girl with the Golden Parasol, by Uday Prakash

A few thoughts on Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol

Nope, this is not a romance set in dreamland. This is a book that hits you with force, reminiscent of militantly activist stories like Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal or the Marathi hit Sairat. This is because it comes from the modern Hindi literature milieu, which has been (over- (in my opinion)) focused on issues of caste over the past decades. It’s written by the progressive writer Uday Prakash, and translated by the extremely talented Jason Grunebaum. Personally, however, I can’t imagine reading only this one style of literature, which is what’s been keeping me away from “serious” Hindi lit lately.

But at its core, this is a very engaging story. Rahul and Anjali (I’m pretty sure these names weren’t chosen at random, refer to DDLJ) are students in a university in Madhya Pradesh. Anjali the daughter of a brahmin and socially powerful father, Rahul from a lower caste, middle-class family. Yes, they fall in love, and yes, everyone is against them. The story is set in the backdrop of student life in the late 90s in the Hindi heartland, with political goondas, unqualified teachers, and the essential-to-hindi-lit question of caste troubling the hero. Every once in awhile, the internal monologues veer towards the oppression of caste and the oppression of capitalism.

For all the heavy-handedness, you genuinely feel for the characters, and you enjoy the rootedness of the story (the references to Madhuri Dixit, the samosas, the hostel life). The rootedness has been conspicuously missing from Indian lit in English, but it’s there in Hindi lit in spades. This is a worthy book to have translated and brought to the larger reading audience.

Apropos of nothing: I remember reading a recent Hindi book named Banaras Talkies that captured the hostel life in Varanasi. It wasn’t as serious as this book, but it was recommended to me by a friend of a friend who’d actually studied there and vouched for the authenticity of the tone and the locale. The Girl with the Golden Parasol captures that same kind of feeling even though I haven’t been there. That’s some kind of achievement.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

A few thoughts on Masako Togawa’s The Master Key

The Master Key is set in a rather rundown apartment complex for women. Each of the occupants have their own dramatic stories: a woman who want to be a mouse, a violinist with a paralyzed finger, a dwarf medium, a woman in a Miss-Havisham-like state of waiting. Togawa makes this a building of endless morbid interest. The Master Key of the title refers to a key that hangs behind the receptionist’s desk, a key that can open any of the doors in the building, and which would give the owner the power to peer into all these rooms. In some sense, the book itself is the reader’s master key, letting him into private rooms and private lives.

Binding all these separate stories together is a shadowy crime: a dead child buried in the basement 7 years ago. And now that the building is about to be shifted to make space for a road, the discovery of the crime is imminent. But there’s a religious cult leader who seems to know about things from the past. And there are mysterious phone calls to the receptionist. Who else knows about the murder?

To be clear: this is not a detective book. There is no deduction or investigating as you’d expect from my summary above. It’s more a series of psychological portraits of damaged women, tied together with this overarching theme of murder. Yes, there is a mystery that is resolved at the end with a surprising twist, but to my mind the core of the book would probably have worked without it, too. The pattern of the book is somewhat similar to this year’s Penance, by Kanae Minato, where the tragic stories of the characters after the crime was committed are more important than the crime itself.

Given this is a short book, it would be a good sharp read for fans of thrillers. Parts of it may feel slightly dated - this was written in 1984, after all - but the characters live on in your head.

Smoke, by Donald E Westlake

A few thoughts on Donald E Westlake’s Smoke

Well, yet another Westlake novel being read. Shouldn’t be a surprise considering how I enjoyed the previous ones. This one’s a little bit different, though: it features an invisible man. True to Westlake tradition, however, the invisible man here is Freddie Noon, a small-time crook who immediately uses his powers to steal gemstones, furs, and other such.

And of course, the other characters are even more colourful: Noon’s girlfriend, a variety of crooks and lawyers, even the scientists and corporate types who were working on the chemical that contributed to Freddie’s state. Westlake weaves them through into a series of coincidences and Priyadarshanesque set pieces that leave a smile on your face. Picture this: the invisible man riding a bicycle full tilt on a country road. Or the invisible man choosing to wear a Bart Simpson mask so his girlfriend can make out where he is. Or even a woman nuclear scientist hoping to become invisible so people can be attracted to her for her brain, not her looks.

The story careens along, from scene to scene, and it is obvious that Westlake is having fun with the idea. But things begin to bore us after a while - this book is longer than the typical Westlake at 300+ pages, and cutting it down to the usual ~250 would have benefitted it a great deal.

In any case, my review here is the same as for the previous books: A fun read, with chuckles every so often, like eating a big bag of caramel popcorn. Personally I’ve always preferred the Richard Stark/Parker books even if they were too over the top in the other direction. But these comic thrillers are a fun diversion every once in a while.

The Bankster, by Ravi Subramanian

A few thoughts on Ravi Subramanian’s The Bankster

So Ravi Subramanian’s been called The John Grisham of Banking in India, and it is easy to see why with this book (my first read of his works). The story, featuring two parallel threads, tracks (a) an idealistic man driven to protest against a nuclear plant in South India, and (b) corruption and murder (or is it?) in a high-profile private bank in Mumbai. Subramanian uses his insider’s knowledge of the banking field to great effect here, laying out the daily routine of the employees of a bank, and the various functions like HR, Enforcement, Relationship managers, and so on. But several employees are dying mysteriously, just as they stumble upon some sort of nefarious plot. Can our hero, Karan Panjabi, figure out what’s going on before the next victim dies?

Subramanian does a neat job of creating a complex conspiracy that spans continents, while being tied to current events. The investigator, Karan Panjabi (a recurring character, I think), is smart, and the clues are well placed even if overexplained at times. There is some misdirection and a surprise at the end. The writing is smooth. But somehow, the book feels a little lifeless. Why is that?

It took me a while of thinking over this to figure it out. With apologies to Mr. Subramanian, I will now proceed to spoil the story in the process of dissecting it.

The criminal plot that is revealed over the course of the book is this: There’s a shadowy company in Vienna that’s working for the interests of Israeli defense. They recruit a few guys in India to (a) finance agitations in India, and (b) open accounts in corporate sector banks in Mumbai and whitewash money through these accounts, through planted bank officials. When a few people start to suspect these accounts, they get killed.

Even then, I’m oversimplifying here - there are quite a few pieces to this conspiracy, and not everything is revealed, either. Ideally, the people involved should make a formidable foe - they can get people killed in India and Europe, they have presence in three continents, they possess millions!

Now what are the evidences of their evil power? They kill four people over the course of the story, all of them related to the bank, who started suspecting there was something wrong. It is nearly halfway through the book that their nemesis, Karan Panjabi, shows up on the scene.

Karan’s entire role is limited to sitting in one room for 2 days and gathering evidence through phone calls and interviews, much like a Poirot of old. At the end, in fact, he literally assembles several important characters, calls the police, and lays out the entire plot. The Poirot comparison is even more pronounced.

If you see the way the bad guys operate, as compared to the way the good guy works, the reason for the weirdness becomes clear: the former is a thriller novel standard, while the latter is a cozy detective novel trope. In a pure thriller novel (say the Jack Reacher books), the bad guys are in motion all through, doing things, chasing Reacher, trying to kill him, changing their methods, and so on. The story is revealed through action. Even in a forensic thriller like the Lincoln Rhyme books, Rhyme’s agents who do the legwork for him are actively in conflict with the bad guy. To take this pattern to The Bankster, you’d expect Karan to get attacked on his way to the office, maybe for his home to ransacked, or maybe for him to have to make a dangerous journey to a nearby town to meet the most important witness.

None of that happens. All the clues he needs are available to him for the asking. He has people to fetch him anything he asks for. He never feels threatened at a personal level. When the culprit is caught, there is no debate on the truth of the revelation. This doesn’t even belong to a thriller novel.

And that - the two halves of the book being from different genres - is the reason IMHO for the feeling of something missing.

I think this critical analysis has taught me more than I expected about writing :).

Tuesday 28 November 2017

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

A few thoughts on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale

I haven’t read too much of recent Fantasy, but I was interested in The Bear and the Nightingale. Part of this was the number of positive reviews it was getting everywhere on twitter and in the popular sites.

But more importantly, for me as an Indian reader, was the connection to Russian folk tales, which is the starting point for Arden’s fantasy universe here. You see, most Indian kids of the 80s have read and treasured those subsidized books from Progress Publishers and Raduga Publishers - “Ukrainian Folk Tales” and “The Little Straw Bull” and “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and any number of others. We all know about Baba-Yaga and about characters like Masha and Sasha and Misha and large Russian ovens and so on. Even the very typical translated-from-Russian language from those books will strike a chord.

I’m glad to report that Arden has nailed that tone in her book. In general, her language is excellent and brings the atmosphere through.

I’m also happy to say that the very slow transition from the normal-sounding world in the beginning of her book, to the fantasy one, chapter by chapter, is even better done. You’re eased into the various supernatural elements, with no overt explanation but with enough context to understand what’s going on. By the time you’re two-thirds through the book, you’re well set in this new place that’s actually different from what those old fairy tales talked of.

And a very cool world it is. <SPOILER> There are creatures that surround us, taking care of small parts of our lives - the kitchen, the stables, the lake - and they only require our belief to sustain themselves. But there are more powerful creatures abroad - Death/Sleep, Chaos - and their balance gets disrupted from time to time. And in the middle of that disruption is our heroine, Vasilisa. Fortunately, she has the second sight and is able to converse with various domestic sprites, help and be helped by them. She’s going to need her abilities if she has to save her home. <END SPOILER>

Vasilisa - Vasya - is a powerful heroine. The idea of a woman beyond her time, not built to be caught up in the inevitable grind of household and child-bearing, and yet affectionate to her family, is not new, but it has been done really beautifully here.

Where the book suffers a little, is in not following the fairy tale template closely enough. There is a climactic battle, similar to other modern fantasy books, there are creatures on both sides of it, noble people must lose their lives, and the heroes must escape mostly unscathed. It’s a bit of a climbdown from the sharp, terse climaxes of fairy tales where a quick application of the wits, or maybe a sword, is enough to close out the tale. But the slow buildup here, perhaps, requires a fitting climax.

It turns out that this is the first in a trilogy. I will probably be reading the further parts when they come out, hoping the minor flaws in the first part mean nothing in the broader scheme of things. 

A Fit of Shivers, by Joan Aiken

A few thoughts on Joan Aiken’s A Fit of Shivers

It’s always been a pet peeve of mine that Joan Aiken isn’t better known these days. And to make it worse, her most well-known works aren’t even the ones I like the best - typically, she’d be known as the writer of Jane Austen inspired works, or at most for her alt-England series starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

My favourites are her short stories. Both the fairy tales and her horror stories, written for kids of all ages, have a sharp touch to them that someone like Enid Blyton cannot even come close to. In her fairy tales, for example, it is no biggie for kids to be orphans, or poor, or starving, or even ending up dead. In her horror stories, there is absolutely no guarantee that there’s a happy end in store.

A Fit of Shivers, as is evident from the name, is horror stories. Once again, you go in with no guarantees of safety, and the stories take you all sorts of places. One of my favourites here is about a boy who can teleport through mirrors. Not only does this not help him, but he winds up homeless, starving, and eventually drowned. Another one is about a girl whose mother is in a coma, sent to live in an aunt’s house that’s haunted. The collection features ten-odd stories, each a gem in itself.

There’s a reason I compared Aiken to Enid Blyton - it’s because of the droll British style of writing that desi readers will find very familiar. People have accents from various parts of Britain (which, me being me, can’t really place), and they live in the typical small villages and towns with greengrocer shops and the village constable. That's where the similarity ends.

Even her fantasy stories, in collections such as A Necklace of Raindrops or A Harp of Fishbones, have that same sharp edge and unforgettable scenes, so they come just as highly recommended. I've been collecting these short books over the years, Amazon of course being a huge help in recent years.

When I’ve gotten tired of heavy-duty literature or long-winded passages, it’s Joan Aiken’s short stories I come back to. Try them. Trust me. 

Fictions, by Masti

A few thoughts on Masti: Fictions

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, always meaning to read it but never quite getting around to it. But after my previous attempt at a British book that I couldn’t finish, I was looking for something similar in flavour to R K Narayan. Masti was the choice.

Yet Masti isn’t quite RKN. For one, he’s much more comfortable with historical/religious settings. He’s focused on the history of Karnataka. And he takes pains to manage the narrative distance from his characters, often by couching the main story in a wrapper.

This book is a collection of his popular short stories, translated into English and published by the ever-reliable Katha. It serves as a Masti Reader, introducing the writer and his life and philosphy along with the work itself. And I for one came away impressed.

The stories vary from the true-crime genre (but told in a very human way), to tales modelled on Puranic tales. In none of them is Masti condescending to us or to his characters. For example in the first one, the narrator decides to arrange a match between a young man who doesn’t want to marry, and a young girl. Your typical chick-lit-type writer would have spent chapters upon chapters explaining how the relationship formed, how it blossomed, what impediments inevitably came in their way and so on. But Masti is extremely focused - the story goes exactly up to the point where the young man’s resolve is broken and he begins to ask who that interesting girl is. The very next scene is set years after the marriage. You’re expected to understand that it all went off smoothly.

Much has been written about Masti’s spiritual faith in God and in order in the universe. It shows through in the stories. He treats devotion completely unironically, and several of his characters are genuinely holy men. This may be offputting to modern English readers, but to my mind it feels like a throwback to an older, simpler time. Nor is he advocating any sort of hate or exclusion in the name of religion.

I’m sure I have another of his books - a novel, Chikkaveera Rajendra, lying around. Maybe I’ll pick that up later this year. For the current volume, it gets a thumbs up. 

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Yellow Lights of Death, by Benyamin

A few thoughts on Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death

Every school student in India learns that this is an ancient country with a heritage and a very complicated history. We take it for granted, yet never think of it as marvellous - it just is. Perhaps it’s because we were taught that the dates of the Battle of Panipat and the exploits of Shivaji/Laxmibai are the sum total of our history. The nooks and crannies that make up the really interesting bits are never explored - until we get to books like Benyamin’s Yellow Lights of Death.

But it’s unfair to treat YLoD as a dry history book. That’s like calling The Da Vinci Code a textbook on Christianity and on Leonardo Da Vinci. The difference is, while Da Vinci Code veered off pretty quickly into fictional cults and secret code, Yellow Lights of Death has an almost entirely real background, with maybe only the lead characters fictional. There are two main historical threads that Benyamin incorporates into his narrative. The first is the history of the Christian Church in Kerala, and how it’s evolved to have its own rituals, customs, and even secret cults and Gods, not to mention it’s intersection with Hinduism. The second is the South Indian diaspora - not limited to Kerala - and the strange story of the tiny island nation of Diego Garcia close to Mauritius. Googling this place on the net talks only of how the place is a secret military base, but to read Benyamin it’s as if this is a relatively prosperous small country with boats used for transport and any number of people resettling from Kerala to there and vice versa. Goodreads reviews talk of Benyamin’s details as mostly correct, down to the Andrapper family that he’s made the central figure of the book. This blog post even has someone from the family and vouching for several details! The intersection of all these details - the religious and the historical - turn YLoD into an engrossing book, very difficult to slot into a genre.

To make things worse, there are two other metafictional angles to the book. The top-level story is narrated by Benyamin, the writer, himself - how he gets a partial manuscript by an unknown writer, and how he then pieces together the whole manuscript while figuring out the truth of the story. Benyamin has a circle of friends who help with this exercise. The book goes from a few pages talking of Benyamin and his interpretions/reactions/investigations of the manuscript, and then a few pages of the manuscript.

The manuscript is actually written by someone of the Andrapper family. Hang on, we aren’t done yet. The manuscript is structured like a crime investigation! At least to start with, until it veers off into murky historical plots and potentially a love story, or is it a conspiracy thriller?

I’m probably doing potential readers an injustice by talking of the historical facets of the book - they aren’t discussed in detail until some way through the story. However, everything mentioned on the back cover of the book is fair game for reviews :).

Is this the best book ever written? Well, no. For one, the suspicious ease with which both Benyamin and the Andrapper character meet the right people takes some of the fun out of it. You don’t expect every piece of the puzzle to come to you from random guys you meet on the street who happen to classmates from a dozen years ago. Think of it as “plot compass”, something like Plot Armour. Had Benyamin read a few dozen thrillers beforehand, he’d have some more ideas to advance the story, and maybe have made it harder for the characters.

On the other hand, was that really the point of the book? You have to wonder. If all the author wanted was to talk of the dichotomy between migrants and natives (yes, I too have heard of his previous book Goat Days), then the criticism is invalid. But the mechanism to deliver the point is so rich and distracting that most readers are just going to care about that part.

A note about the translation. While smooth overall, there are little bits where it becomes clear it’s a translation - some places, this is good (such as the endearing Malayalam practice of using people’s names in third person even when talking to them directly), and some others it feels like the translation slipped. You’re also left with no appendix to explain the family relationships. With a passing familiarity with Malayalam names, I could navigate it, but I can see at least one reader from a different part of India cribbing about this on Goodreads.

You know what? Ignore this long rant. Just go read it, this book is an amazing example of the range and diversity of Indian Fiction if you go beyond IWE.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

A few thoughts on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens

This is practically the Sholay of humorous fantasy books, written by the two biggest names in the industry, known to everyone who is aware of the field, and recommended on every book forum that exists. I’m almost scared to admit that it has been lying on my bookshelf for five years and I only now happened to pick it up.
I’m even more scared to admit that I didn’t think it was the best ever book of the genre. Sure, parts of it were good, and parts of it reminded me of other books that I’ve enjoyed a lot more (back to this topic in a bit), but overall it felt a bit jumbled up and generally pantsed as far as the story went.

And pantsed seems to be exactly what it was : Gaiman wrote a bit, sent it to Pratchett, who added some, and then back to Gaiman, and so on and so forth. It grew organically, thus gaining both the sudden unexpectedly rich passages that come from spontaneous writing, and also suffering from the not knowing the overall arc in advance. The jokes come thick and fast - but either work for you or fall flat, depending on your mood. Maybe if I’d read this lying around in a hammock in Hawaii, all tensions left behind, I’d have enjoyed this more. As it was, the success rate was maybe 30% of the jokes. 

I don't suppose I need to explain the story to you: Apocalypse is here, and an angel and a demon who have gotten far too used to the world as it is, are trying to prevent it happening. In the meantime, the Antichrist, who is an 11 year old boy, is not quite sure he wants to destroy the world. But it would be nice to make this minor change, and that one... and in the middle of all this is a witch who's descended from the only true prophesier ever, a young man who's just signed up with the Witchfinder army, and random other folks who are annoyed at the turn of events. About what you'd expect from the intellectually zany Terry Pratchett and the intellectually playful Neil Gaiman.

But returning to the bits I particularly enjoyed: DEATH of Discworld-and-capital-letters fame, who livened up every scene he was in, even if he wasn’t as tongue-in-cheek as in the Pratchett books. His three other partner horsemen (of the apocalypse) felt kind of forced in comparison - walk-on roles, delivering their lines because they were asked to.

And another bit I loved: William Brown, who shows up here renamed to Adam Young. As a long-time fan of the Richmal Crompton William books, I noticed Gaiman’s mimicry of the accent as soon as I saw it, and was vindicated when Gaiman mentioned it as a specific source in his afterword.

Another little bit, not directly related to the book itself, which I’m loving: David Tennant of Broadchurch/Jessica Jones/Dr. Who fame will be playing Crowley in a TV series of Good Omens. I couldn’t have asked for a better actor!

But did I hate the book? Not really. Loved it to bits? Not really. The Discworld books are the last word in humorous fantasy if you ask me, and I’d probably choose those over Good Omens.

Sorry, Neil. 

Don't Let Go, by Michael Bussi

A few thoughts on Michael Bussi’s Don’t Let Go

So this is the third of Bussi’s books translated from the French into English, and so far I’ve read them all, in sequence of (translation) publication. My first thoughts when I read Don’t Let Go was that this must be an earlier book of his. It eschews much of the fancy writing techniques that characterized the first two books (After the Crash, Black Water Lilies) - there’s no unreliable narrator, there’s no twist out of the blue, there’s no shuffling of time. On the face of it, this is a relatively straightforward chase thriller set in an exotic location.

Martial Bellion’s wife has disappeared, probably murdered, from their hotel room on Reunion Island. Eyewitnesses say he was in their room for a while, leaving behind blood on the walls and taking along a laundry cart that might have held his wife’s body.

Now he’s on the run, taking along his young daughter, finding ways to escape the island-wide manhunt launched by its entire police force. He certainly acts guilty, but did he really kill his wife? We’ll go through a long series of manhunt-evading maneuvers and counter-moves by the police before we find out.

I read a review a long while back of the movie Terminator 2, which said the movie was basically 4 chase scenes punctuated by dialogue. A similar reduction could be done of this novel. Again and again, Bellion finds a refuge, or seems to be cornered, with the police moving ever closer, and again he manages to slip through the trap. Some of these are made to show off Reunion Island’s scenery and geographical quirks. In between, we have a varied cast of characters digging up details of the case: an ambitious inspector, a sex-crazed deputy, a local “Miss Marple” (a little confused on the role of this Miss Marple, by the way - but I suppose she adds local colour and some tension towards the end).

The ending, let it be said, has no surprises beyond those mandated by the genre. And if there’s a weakness to Bussi, it is a tendency to give happy endings, or at least proper closure, to his leading characters. True, there are a couple of disturbing murders here, but things could have been much, much worse.

This doesn’t mean the book is boring. It moves quickly, there is a constant barrage of twists and facts and revelations, and of course the writing/translation is more than competent. The setting of the novel, and the descriptions of the class structure of the place, are a novelty, but that is about all the novelty there is. It is as if Bussi is aiming for a clean, straight novel that one can read at a sitting. In that motive, he succeeds splendidly. 

Saturday 19 August 2017

A Mirrored Life, by Rabisankar Bal

A few thoughts on Rabisankar Bal’s A Mirrored Life

So, a biography of Rumi, as narrated by Ibn-e-Batuta? What’s not to like, for a modern reader who’s read the Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s iridescent poetry, who want to hear more of that Sufi longing for the beloved?

This book is a mistake for you, modern reader. Because it talks of Rumi not as a poet, but as a Maulana, a religious teacher. And the focus of the book is the deep (shall we say divine) affection between Rumi and Shamsuddin Tabrezi, another mystic that Rumi revered as his teacher and guide. It also talks of Rumi’s father (a religious teacher himself), and his wife and children, and of Rumi’s composition of his masterpiece, the Masnavi. A few places, yes, Rumi’s poetry shines through, but that’s not the focus. The religion and the person is.

Once that expectation is set, the book reads better. It describes how Ibn-e-Batuta came to be entrusted with a manuscript written by Rumi, which talks of his, Rumi’s, life story. Batuta then narrates from this manuscript in Rumi’s voice, interspersing it with a bit of his own intentions to travel. The story begins from Rumi’s childhood and his wandering life with his father, and goes up to him preparing for death. Shamsuddin Tabrezi - I had to look him up on the net - yes, he’s a real figure and his companionship with and guidance of Rumi is extremely well known - the book expects you the reader to know who he is, actually, and foreshadows his appearance in the narrative - but I found the whole thing a little contrived, and couldn’t quite grasp the reason for the affection. That's the drawback of coming at this story blind.

The translation by Arunava Sinha is top-notch, as expected from the unofficial king of translation from Bengali. I have a copy of Dozakhnama somewhere, by the same pair of Bal and Sinha, and I probably will read it, but with tempered expectations. That one is a dialogue between Manto and Ghalib - but who knows whether Bal’s picure of Manto and Ghalib is the same as mine!

Waiting for the Mahatma, by R K Narayan

A few thoughts on R K Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma

A K Ramanujan said somewhere that no Indian hears the Ramayana for the first time. It seeps into everyone from the environment, bits and pieces are always known, and so on. He would probably have said the same for R K Narayan - no Indian of today has not heard of RKN, or is not familiar with at least some of his work. The Malgudi Days TV serial title tune is a ringtone now, the old episodes keep showing up on repeat somewhere, Swami and Friends is a rite of growing up, and so on.

Which may or may not be the right kind of justice for the writer. After all, he isn’t a childrens’ writer, nor one who peddled nostalgia. He wrote a true picture of India at the time, the 40s through the 70s, and his work was respected by serious readers. Associating him with our own childhood memories is a side effect.

This was what made me keen on reading Waiting for the Mahatma - although it was set in the town of Malgudi, it dealt with a more mature theme, talked of history and more tumultuous times, and was unlikely to feature any cute children.

All of those expectations it satisfied. WftM is the story of Shriram, a young man who lives an uneventful, closeted, life with his grandmother in a bylane of Malgudi. His life is upturned one day when he meets a young girl, Bharati, who is collecting funds for Gandhiji’s movement, in preparation for the great man’s arrival in Malgudi. Bharati is an orphan, attached to Gandhiji’s camp forever. Smitten by the girl, Shriram joins up the freedom struggle as another foot soldier. He meets the Mahatma several times, in fact is in communication with him through most of the book. The story covers the 40s, so it walks us through the common man’s experience of the freedom struggle - a very different experience from what our bombastic official accounts tell us.

The biggest surprise for me was that Narayan treats Gandhi and his movement unironically (mostly), yes, there are sly digs at how the common man interprets the movement, and the fact that Gandhiji is fine with the superhuman image of his. But still - he’s a real person here, and his word matters a great deal to Shriram and Bharati. As you read, you realize how far we’ve come from the days when Gandhiji was taken seriously - nowadays he’s an icon, on a pedestal, to be revered as a god but not to be understood.

Unexpectedly, the book did make me nostalgic - for the time when Narayan’s fluid, rooted writing was more popular and it was okay to write about small towns as simple innocent places. Ever since Arundhati Roy, Indian villages are regressive, casteist, and whatnot. Maybe either extreme is wrong - but it’s to be noted that Narayan’s village/small town are not exactly utopian - people die in them, get ostracized, go to jail, starve, all of that. But he still makes you feel like he loves them and their people - and this is what shines through in his work.

Yes, I’ll probably be reading more of his books. Maybe not Swami and Friends, though. Or maybe I will. For old times’ sake.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Chain of Custody, by Anita Nair

A few thoughts on Anita Nair's Chain of Custody

Well, when I read Cut Like Wound a few months ago, I liked it enough to want to read the next in the series, which happens to be Chain of Custody. And here we are. Inspector Gowda is back, this time in the midst of an affair he won’t allow himself to feel guilty about. Santosh is recovering from the events of the last book. A new officer has joined the group.

But the main focus of this book is the organization and methods of child trafficking. From makeshift brothels with cupboard-sized partitions for the sex slaves, to the innocuous-seeming recruiters who prowl the town, to the various agents and customers who prop up the trade, and finally to the victims who suffer the worst depravities, Nair captures it all in agonizing detail. We squirm through it, knowing this is all based on research she has done and that it’s all too real. The efforts of Gowda and his crew seem futile next to the bloodthirstiness and implied scale of the operation.

In some sense, this is what makes the whole book single-flavoured instead of a balanced recipe. You’re left only with that sense of horror and shame, as if you just read a non-fiction book on the flesh trade. To make things worse, the investigation into the sordid affair - which was triggered by the kidnapping of Gowda’s maid’s daugher Lalita - seems to always lag behind the culprits. The only way the case is resolved is through a couple of involved parties either surrendering to the police, or being ratted out by victims’ relatives. Which would have happened even if Gowda had not been around. Yes, there is a murder that Gowda solves - but, as the book proceeds, you’re left with not much sympathy for anyone involved, and you care very little for it.

One thing that Nair pulls off really well is the absolute ending - it’s so typically Indian and so realistic, but with a touch of the Gowda magic. I will say nothing nothing more, except to allude to an old Stephen King book, Firestarter, as a touch point.

Once again I have the same complaint with this book that I had with the previous one: no allusions to the gigantic, influential, software industry and the effects it has on the city?

Would I read another of the series? For all its faults, yes, I would. The Bangalore setting brings things alive, Inspector Gowda is fun, and Nair’s writing is smooth as always. The pattern, too, is emerging: if it was the plight of the sexually fluid in the first book, it is child trafficking here. What will she bring up next?

Thursday 20 July 2017

The Puppeteers of Palem, by Sharath Komarraju

A bunch of young folks are called back to their childhood town  village. When they were little kids, they were responsible for killing a terrifying monster named It her. But now it looks like the monster is back, and they must again do the deed.

Glad to get that out of the way. Honestly, though, I’m not giving Sharath Komarraju enough credit here by alleging that The Puppeteers of Palem is a plain ripoff of Stephen King. Komarraju goes a lot further, and in fact does something very interesting here.

He takes the Indian village setup: farmers, lakes, a river, the old Shiva temple, old guys telling stories to younguns while sitting on charpois, and so on. And it’s not just a generic village, it’s a village near the Godavari, in Andhra Pradesh and peopled with Telugu-speaking natives. And then, he turns this into an actually creepy place. The ghost of a wronged woman haunts the temple. Something strange burrows under a field. A langur kills a villager by biting pieces off him. Multiple places in the village are named after women who died gruesome deaths. And underneath it all runs the gleefully malign undercurrent of misogyny. Rape, molestation, prostitution, all have their place here. If you’re a woman you wouldn’t want to live in an Indian village like this. Remember my old post about needing a new language for Indian fiction? That's the approach taken here.

I’m reminded of a Malayalam movie that has a somewhat similar undercurrent: 2009’s Paleri Manikyam. The movie has no supernatural elements, but is a tense, gripping murder mystery. I don’t know whether Komarraju has seen it, or whether there are dozens of similar movies around, but there’s some thematic resemblance here.

The book is also organized somewhat similarly to It, with chapters alternating between the childhood segment and the grown-up segment. But, in contrast to the King book, we have several more timelines of the characters that come in, revealing bits and pieces of the characters and their pasts. It takes a while to settle in, but Komarraju does a good job with that.

The writing is good, the descriptions and the flow are good, the book is generally worth reading. The only place, IMO, where it falters is in trying to stuff too many surprises into the ending. It almost seems like Komarraju’s trying to challenge all the genre conventions in one shot, while also bringing in the Indian spooky stories element. He could have kept it a little simpler, or spaced the ending out a little to allow readers to digest it.

Notwithstanding that, if you’re a genre fan, or a fan of Indian settings used in surprising ways, The Puppeteers of Palem is definitely worth reading. 

Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

A few thoughts on Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River

So this book has been in my bookshelf for nine years, unread! (there are a few that are even older, I’ll get to them eventually). The HT Brunch challenge got me to pick it up, finally, so that’s one (more) good thing it achieved.

Mystic River and Shutter Island are probably the best known of Lehane’s books, thanks to the movies. Reading MR, one can see why it got turned into one. There’s a very atmospheric quality to the writing, describing a typical, downmarket, Boston neighbourhood and the people there. The story starts with three boys, one of whom gets abducted by pedophiles, and then escapes them after four days. This is just the bare bones, though - the reactions of all the three, their families, and their neighbours, are what give the narrative its texture.

The “real” plot then starts twenty years later, with these three kids grown into adults. A murder takes place, the event and the investigation eventually enfolding all the three protagonists. Events trigger off events, as in the best crime stories. This is not a police procedural - and that’s kind of its strength. I’ve written elsewhere that police procedurals are typically bound by their genre - the policeman must catch the bad guy eventually, most of the characters must survive to another day, the reliance on the police system must be eventually justified, and so on (see my notes on Cut Like Wound for another example). Here, we have no genre safety net, and anything could happen to even the good guys. Lehane plays this off really well, and the murderers’ motives are perfect for the location and setting.

Spoiler alert: If you’ve seen the third season of Broadchurch, you might find the solution here easier to guess. There are multiple thematic similarities, though no exact matches.

I have only one complaint to make here, and that is the long, long descriptions Lehane puts in. Not War-and-Peace-level long, but still - I bet fully 20% of the book could have been pared out and created a tighter product. You hear about people effortlessly writing thousands of words a day, and then you read something like this and see how they did it. Now, James Ellroy, on the other hand, though his books are just as long and even more atmospheric, doesn’t really have any fluff to his writing.

But never mind that. Once the book gets going, it gets going well, and you are willing to read the 400 pages just for the ride.

But I’m not sure at this point whether I’d read another book by Lehane. 

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut

A few thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake:
So let me say this up front. I’ve never really been able to connect with Vonnegut’s work. Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions were on the Modern Library’s top 100 list, so I read them as part of that binge. While S-5 was okay, with a bunch of quotable thoughts, BoC felt like rambling, too meta for my taste, and overall too lightweight to really enjoy.
I picked up Timequake against my own better judgement, deciding to give Uncle Kurt another chance, and I’m glad I did. Probably my own writing and reviewing experience helped me “get it” to some extent.

So here’s the concept: Time has reset itself to ten years ago. Everyone finds himself doing what they were doing ten years ago, and are forced to do exactly the same thing again, with nothing changed at all. What this means is no free will - everyone is, and everyone knows they are, ordained into a routine they don’t need to think about.

Given this idea, how would you write a book around it? The beginner would take it step by step, detailed what triggered it, selecting a bunch of characters to live through it, examining the after effects through these same characters, and so on.

The advanced would pick up a small piece of the concept, zoom into it, and tell the events of that short part in detail with all the ramifications.

But what does Vonnegut do? He turns it into something almost real. Timequake is partially an autobiography with Vonnegut talking about himself, but also about Kilgore Trout, his alter ego, and how he, Trout, survived the timequake. Vonnegut “hears” the story from Trout over multiple sessions, while also talking about a book written by Trout, Timequake One, that is somehow fictional but also real and describing the events in the linear manner. It all gets mixed up and feels somewhat like Vonnegut just rambling about random things, from his two wives to his children and his work, and then little stories he’s heard here and there (like the Robert Fulghum stories) - and then, interspersed, what happened when the timequake hit.

The approach almost reminded me of Borges’ reviews and examinations of imaginary books. Implicit in Borges’ approach is that the books themselves aren’t as interesting as our reaction to them, and their place in the larger scheme of things. Implicit in Timequake is the assumption that all the wierdness did happen, there’s no real reason to explain it further, and we might as well just get on with it. Wonderfully done.

It helps that Vonnegut is extremely quotable. The one I’m taking away from this book is Trout’s exhortations to the world at large, to get them out of the catatonia of the timequake: “You’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.”

Don't Disturb the Dead, by Shamya Dasgupta

A few thoughts on Don’t Disturb the Dead, by Shamya Dasgupta

Every 80s and 90s kid in India knows about the Ramsey brothers and their stream of horror movies - Tahkhana, Veerana, Purani Haveli, and so on. Like most others, my cousins and I used to reference these very movie names when talking of scary stuff, even if we never saw the movies. Indeed, my first Ramsey movie was Purana Mandir, as late as 2010. But there was always the Zee Horror Show, and bits and pieces of their movies seen at video parlours, playing on cable TV in the late nights, referenced in all sorts of other media.

So Shamya Dasgupta’s book was an instant buy for me. It’s the kind of pop history that is documented all too little in India and is even acknowledged grudgingly by the self-declared cultural custodians. Dasgupta painstakingly documents the history of the brothers (original surname: Ramsinghani, before their father moved from Karachi to Mumbai). He talks of their struggles to get their movies made, on low budgets and with opposition from the established film industry. From multiple interviews with members of their family and their regular stars, a picture emerges of sound businessmen who nevertheless mastered their own art form and produced something memorable.

One surprise for me was the attention to detail that the Ramseys paid in their projects - the masks were ordered from a custom craftsman in England, the statues on the sets cost lakhs, and the scripts were written around specific locations that they were comfortable with. In fact, in the industry, they were considered the “premium” horror film makers, with others making even cheaper movies with only good posters. The reason for their decline, Dasgupta ventures, is just that unwillingness to let go of their formula and to start learning again. He points out newer projects by the extended family, stating that they aren’t as good. But then - many of the Ramsey’s first projects weren’t good either. What they did was to keep going at the problem, honing their skills as they went. That’s how they got good.

You know what? Forget the self-help books section. Read this one instead for inspiration.

The only thing I didn’t enjoy as much was the extended profiles of the younger Ramsey generations - none of them are as iconic as the original brothers, and we’re simply not as interested in them. But I suppose those are needed for completeness’ sake.

And one thing that would have been nice is a synopsis of their movies - there is a detailed list with cast and crew listed, but no synopsis.

But still - if you’re one of those people who stared at the posters of Tahkhana and Purani Haveli with fascination and who laid bets with themselves on watching the movies, this is the book for you. It does complete justice to desi horror cinema’s First Family.