Saturday, April 4, 2015

Literary fiction that I've read recently -- Book Reviews

1. Barracuda by Christos Triolkas 

ReviewHow the past and the present can get fused in our heads, like one large time-bubble in which we are forever suspended, struggling to make choices on our way to the future, trying hard to make sense of the experience gained of the past that stays within us and breaks into a throbbing echo in the quietest of the nights. In deciding to merge that sense, of time lost and despair won, of time yet-to-be-lived and hopes conceived, in Barracuda, as a story of a young boy born to an immigrant’s family in Australia, Christos tells us a story that questions the relevance of how, sometimes, a family can destroy its people, and how wafer-thin is its patience for ordinariness.

This is a story of loss, of darkness in the lives of urban families, and of a new nation that is struggling to own an imagined culture. And it’s telling wants us to revisit our notions of modern family, and the ambition—often unassailable—that it fosters. 

2. Open City by Teju Cole  

Review: OPEN CITY attempts to seek answers, rather indirectly, to the most common of questions that dilute the abundance we expect from our lives: what do we seek, what drives our conscience, where do we look for inspiration to conquer our compelling fears? There are no direct answers. There has never been. But the narrative leaves sufficient inspiration to search with fresh eyes, sharper senses. The ability to question—insolently—and right so—the established rituals, the division of class and language, or entitlement by birth, even proximity, that makes a man odd for another man, can, therefore, be only called as natural.

Writers discharge their inhibitions, and reservations, and muted confrontations, through a dignified silence of words, sitting for hours, scraping at ideas, molding them, making them impactful. Teju Cole makes you think, makes your old thoughts struggle with new, the potency is deep, and real, and maybe, just maybe, a shade morbid.

A remarkable book that swings from urban disenchantment to a solace that being alien brings to a rootless wanderer. Highly recommended.  

3. Travelling In, Travelling Out, edited by Namita Gokhale

Review: This book is a treasure, a compendium of gossamer images to travel with, a collage that will haunt the reader, making him, in the process, to imagine newer journeys.

In “Moving to Bombay,” a fluid narrative recounts a young Gujarati man’s relocation to Mumbai in search of livelihood, an experience that blunts his ingrained sense of gender bias. Bombay to him represents the progress of self and the soul, and while the former is external (not superficial), the latter is internal (not always integral). I liked the journeys this essay made me take, in my mind’s eye, to places I too have called home: Poona (not Pune). Bombay (not Mumbai). Madras (not Chennai). Cochin (not Kochi). Goa. Chandigarh and Delhi.

“The Foreigner’s Situation” by Ali Sethi is about the dislocation that the Pakistani emigrants living in Denmark feel—often described as caught between ‘isolation’ and ‘integration’. Through the lives of an old painter who had married a white Danish woman, and two other Pakistanis, much younger, one of them married to a Pakistani though from a different caste, the essay captures the mood of these displaced people, called the Foreigners, as they struggle to balance their lives in a crowded neighbourhood where even the Danish police is afraid to visit. 

When I came across the title “Beauty in India” by Aman Nath I was compelled to read it. About Gandhi and the relevance of the potency of less as a tool to negotiate with fortitude, says the author, “In the Orient of dervishes, sadhus and yogis, fakir is an honorific title borne out of an understanding that poverty is necessary—ever desirable—to achieve proximity to God. This tradition of less is more gave Gandhi the power to wear just a loincloth, and it empowered him to disrobe British Europe of all its protocols, trappings and regalia.”

Fragile societies use temples and deities as lighthouses to discover the right course for a more meaningful life. Kota Neelima in “Tirupati” and Saba Naqvi in “A Muslim Goddess” reaffirm faith as a teasingly luminous idea.

Sometimes short bursts of intense-looking—the privilege that comes easy to a geographical outsider—can help bring focus to our ignored fallacies. I enjoyed the non-acerbic account of Marie Brenner as she carefully worded her frustrations in ‘A Retreat to Holy India” while staying at expensive spa resorts in Mysore and the Himalayas. She figured it out finally as she summed up, that the lesson, indeed, is within.

“A House for Mr. Tata” by Mishi Saran is an agonizing tale of a Parsi family’s inability to claim a property in Shanghai—a villa—which they had to leave behind while fleeing after the Communists took over in the 50s. The property still remains with the Chinese government, who, quite ironically, had vowed to uproot capitalism, but instead, have become a slave of it.

Two essays are set in Nainital or the areas surrounding it. The first, “In Search of Lost Time” by Mayank Austen Sufi, juxtaposes the old with the new, using a narrative, I paused to reflect, that was dense, succinct and packed with interesting information. And in the other, “In Armchair Travels,” Namita Gokhale explores the Himalayan Mountains through the notes of a tireless local whose proficiency to map his routes makes for a purgatory toolkit.

The lingering prose of “Village on Treasure Hill” transported me to the idyllic Nobgang, a small village in Bhutan, where the writer lived in her childhood, where men and women enjoyed equal statuses and the villagers listened to the only gramophone that played nothing but the sound of laughter. 

I found “Bhangarh: Of Darkness and Light” by Ipsita Roy Chakraverti, flawed. Not just writing but also the content. I had to reread several sentences. Sample this: “The impression one gets as one enters is one of a town once vibrant now desolate.” The author says she doesn't believe in superstition but ends up chanting mantras to release the trapped souls from the abandoned fort. Her surprise at the greenery of rural Alwar, a district that sits on the edge of Haryana, reflected basic lack of geographical knowledge. Nestled amidst the final stretch of the Aravali hills, Alwar has been known for its fertile, well irrigated land and a low water table. There are numerous lakes, many not motorable enough to reach, besides the 866 square kilometer of Sariska, a green wilderness right in its heart that is known for its flora, fauna and avifauna that thrives amongst the dense forest of deciduous trees. 

Namita Gokhale’s calling Dayanita Singh’s photographs “photographic fiction” sou
nded like an odd oxymoron, but when I turned the pages to look at the photographs more closely, I was mesmerized by their fictional dimension. 

“Lost without a Face,” I thought in the beginning, exhibited a proximity to the inane, but as the writer transformed his brief experience of getting a photo clicked at a studio into an opportunity to reveal himself, I was left thinking about the impermanence of the human face.

Highly recommended.

4. Lovers Like You and I by Minakshi Thakur

Review: Written with a poetic precision, ‘Lovers like you and I’ leaves you with delightfully crisp and haunting images that resonate with love and longing.

Nayan, 25, is sure-footed, firmly in grasp of her worldly sanity, even though her life is falling apart. Her best friend has committed suicide. Nayan’s mother is seeking solace in music to cope with a troubled relationship with her busy husband. And Nayan’s lover, Salil, is busy cohabiting with his own dreams and occupational displacements. This is a story of real desires, of you and I, held captive, by our real inhibitions and fantasies. Its aesthetic prose brims with incandescent nakedness and lingering tenderness, enough, for many of us to map parallel courses from our own lives.

I thought the illustrations could have been better. Sharper images, more white space perhaps, would have worked better. But I am no expert.

Overall, an outstanding debut. Strongly recommended.

5. Lost and Found by CP Surendran

Review: Set in Mumbai—and partly in the Punjab province of Pakistan—‘Lost and Found’ is a riveting drama which is as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. The narrative is engaging, with a fine eye for detail that makes it delicious too. Mumbai cows, taxi drivers, mujrawalis, artists, Thackerays and people on the roads, it’s all there in precise, sensitive and inventive detail.

Here’s the plot. A delusional mullah in Pakistan sends boys just out of their teens to carryout jihad in Mumbai where all but one are killed. Nirmal, an orphan, who has worked as a pimp’s assistant and as a barbeque help in Mumbai, is reunited with his father, mother and brother in circumstances that reminded me of Hindu movies. Yet the unpredictability of the twists and turns and the ability to blunt death and grief with humour, makes this book highly readable and entertaining.

There're no riddles here. There’s no good versus bad. Or cause and effect. There are no lines, definitely not the ones that divide people as individuals or groups or nations. The lines have been, intelligently, blurred by the author. This book challenges the fundamentals that we have held dear for all these years.

Highly recommended. 

6. Boats on Land by Janice Pariat

Review: Set in Meghalaya, a piece of paradise, away from the popular routes of tourists, both domestic and foreign, Boats on Land, is an intimate journey that introduces you to the sights and sounds of this amazing corner of India with its characteristic narrative replete with folklore and candid tales. I have been to Shillong only once in my life. I think I was in class 6 when I had accompanied my parents and younger brother for a short family vacation in the early eighties. This book brought back memories that had been locked in the subconscious for the lack of a proper catalyst for a really long time.

I have always wondered how many local words and myths should a writer use in a book that is intended to reach a wider, probably global audience. This is a tough question to answer and well worthy of an interesting debate. In my view, the details should lend only a flavor, not overpower the narrative and make it difficult for the reader to continue. Janice, I think, has used more details than necessary, which made me skip a few pages (something that I rarely do) and give up a couple of stories altogether.

Overall, a good book, a promising debut. 

7. Roll of Honour by Amandeep Sandhu

Review: A first person, non-linear narrative that juxtaposes the realities of two different times: one, when the narrator was a student at a Sainik school in the year of the Operation Blue Star, and two, the present, when the wounds of those who had faced the brunt have healed, as some believe. My best guess of the author’s intention is to expose the permanence of the shadows of those wounds, memories that have been haunting him ever since, pains he needs to shed. The book, for him, is the medium. His catharsis.

Handling a non-linear narrative requires special skill, which I saw at work here.

Appu, the narrator, and his classmates feel let down when they learn on reaching Class 12 that the powers earlier conferred to the seniors have been taken away. At the time, outside the school walls, tensions in the Punjab of the 1984 are rising. As the Indian army conducts its operation to flush out the terrorists from of the Golden temple complex, it creates, in the process, wounds so deep that it affects the entire nation. The students, raw, and under the tutelage of indifferent teachers, are exposed to this catastrophe. It ruins the future of many, among them Appu, who decides not to write the NDA exam, his life time ambition, and ends up living a life of a broken man.

A very moving account that is honest and raises the question: Is a scarred soul really capable of a life? Perhaps not everyone, but to the reader’s delight, the narrator is.

Highly recommended. 

8. Another Man's Wife by Manjul Bajaj

Review: With an interesting mix of themes and clever plots, ‘Another Man’s Wife’ is a vivid medley of prose fiction that I enjoyed immensely.

Stark in its appeal, the opening story, ‘Ripe Mangoes’, deals with the primal urge of a young Muslim woman, who is trapped with an older man, to be loved. Her journey to seek love, her legitimate desire, turns her into a scheming mother whose identity blurs when she is challenged by her own daughter.

‘Birthmark’ has a good social message. I was truly moved, though I thought a linear narrative would have worked better. I found ‘Me and Sammy Fernandez’ interesting too, particularly the relationship of Cory with her father-in-law.

The narrative of ‘Marrying Nusrat’ rambled. The story of a woman’s cooperative in a village near Lucknow felt mundane, somewhat labored. The reason, perhaps, was its fattened up prose.

‘A Deepavali Gift’ is a delicate inquiry where roots of an individual are delightfully juxtaposed with unfamiliar acceptance. I found this story of giving, and moving on, very powerful indeed.

‘Under the Moonlit Sky’ has a muddle in-between that had set up obvious expectations about where the story was headed. But in the end, the story ran downhill along an different course altogether, as it climaxed, I thought, rather decadently.

In ‘The Lottery’ faith and reality collide to reveal the dark side of taking small family decisions.

‘Another Man’s Wife, balances desire and dissent through the lives of a displaced tribal family who have to learn fast to survive. The character of the tribal woman Kuheli is both bold and vulnerable in equal measure.

Overall, a good collection of short prose fiction. Highly recommended.

9. The House of Twining Roses by Nabina Das 

Review: Though the choices life offers at different times trick us into believing that they will keep us from fraying, these choices are, in truth, designed fumbles. This is the profound reality that Nabina’s stories echo of.

And to prevent a fall, as we contemplate our choices, all of us, in the end, become stories. In these stories Nabina Das captures, with an engrossing narrative, the societal imbalances some of us might be opaque to.

‘Homecoming’, is a heartbreaking story of Pushpo, a widow, and a mother, whose innocence and helplessness have diluted her right to a happy future.

‘Waterborne’, an interracial story, seeks to explore new definition of love.

In ‘The House of Twining Roses’, set in Assam where ethnic trouble is brewing at the time, Mitra and Indu, childhood friends now staying separately, mirror their thoughts through letters, raising questions about identity and faith in a society that is on the verge of being consumed by uncertainty, a premonition that will change their lives forever.

Highly recommended. 

10. The Smoke is Rising by Mahesh Rao

Review: I have always liked persuasive descriptions and writing that has flair to assimilate the fecundity in common people’s lives they have no idea of. Mahesh Rao, without a doubt, has that eye, a rare ability to stick the stagnant out with a new meaning. This is a highly readable book that seeks to examine the perils of rapid, unplanned urbanization of spaces belonging to the poor and impressionable. Reminded me of ‘India Becoming’ by Akash Kapur, which has a similar premise, and is set in peninsular India too.

As a reader, I thought, the narrative slowed down for my attention span a few times though. 

Overall, a good first book.

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