Month: June 2017

The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad, by Twinkle Khanna

“The weather forecast in the Indian Express had predicted a week of sunshine but on the day that Elisa Thomas was getting married for the third time to the same man, it began to rain.”

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You know when you’re at the checkout counter at the grocery store and you see a row of Tic Tacs arranged neatly? It’s some new flavour that everyone’s been talking about. You’re almost sure you won’t like the flavour, but then, curiosity messes up with all your better decisions.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Twinkle Khanna’s memoir, Mrs. Funnybones was an instant hit that placed her firmly very high up in the literary circuit. Suddenly she was the “new big name” in Indian literature. Now, I’m not saying the book didn’t deserve to be a hit. I quite enjoy Twinkle Khanna’s columns myself (although they took me quite by surprise in the beginning to be honest). But when it comes to writing fiction, nope, she isn’t cut out to be a fiction writer. A one-word review of this book would be: boring.

The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad is a collection of four short stories, mainly centred around women. The first story, from which the book derives its title is about a young girl, who lives in a village where daughters are considered burdens (story of nearly every part of India). She comes up with a revolutionary idea to change this.
The second is Salaam, Noni Appa. It narrates the story of two sisters, Noni and Binni. Binni, the younger one, loves to follow fads and trends, and Noni, having nothing better to do, participates in her sister’s newest interests as and when they come. When they decide to join yoga classes, Noni finds herself attracted to their instructor, a married man with a shrill, ill-tempered wife.
The third story, If The Weather Permits is the story of Elisa, who gets married multiple times, each time to a terrible person. Every time she returns home, her father insists that a “man is a man is a man” and she must find the right one and marry soon. The story reminded me of Susannah’s Seven Husbands by Ruskin Bond and I liked the irony at the end. I would’ve liked this story even more had it not been for the racist stereotypes used to depict the Malayalee family – I found this to be the only decent story in this collection but it got ruined because of this. However, I have to say, the opening line of this story is the one noteworthy sentence I found in the whole book (quoted on top).
The final and the longest story, Sanitary Man in a Sacred Land is based on the true story of Muruganatham Arunachalam, who is most well known for making low cost pads in a village in Tamil Nadu. In the fictionalized version, the protagonist is called Bablu and lives in a village near Indore.

The premise and the intent of each of these stories is good. But the execution is terrible. It reads like a children’s book of parables, with rigid beginnings and equally rigid endings, often with a moral. Twinkle Khanna’s signature sarcasm is missing in these stories, resulting in dull writing and narratives that sound more like the summaries of the stories than the stories themselves. The very same plots in the hands of a different writer would have had very different results.

A disappointment, this. I bought it on a whim while at the checkout counter of my favourite bookstore. And that’s where it will go back on my next visit.

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First Thoughts: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

“Nothing

I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens, there’s lots to write about. This can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated, what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.

Q1. Why is it not sophisticated?
Q2. What is the acceptable amount of blood for good literature?”

image1The air was filled with anticipation a couple of months ago when the world woke up to the news that Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, was coming out in June 2017, 20 years after her first novel, the Booker Prize winner The God Of Small Things.
Her first novel not only happens to be one of my favourites, but also happens to be the only book that I’ve read three times. I read it the first time because it was my then best friend’s favorite book, and I hated it. I was disappointed in Ms Roy, and more so in myself for failing to find whatever it was that my friend found in it. Almost ten years later, I picked it up again (I can’t say why – once a book fails to impress me, it usually goes into my pour-vitriol-over-this pile). It may have been a whole other book, because I found myself falling in love, page after page, line after line. The reason why I hadn’t liked it the first time (and let me be the first to admit it) is that I hadn’t understood a word of it!

The third time was last year (two years after my second reading), and I discovered many things I had missed the previous time. I won’t be surprised if two years from now, I’ll be reading it a fourth time, discovering even more things, hidden in plain sight.

That is the draw of Roy’s writing – the nuances, the layers. The strength of its subtleties. It does not reveal itself at once and it does not reveal all of it unless you’ve revisited it a few times, with fresh eyes each time.

To follow in the shadow of something that’s both widely loved and extremely successful is a monumental task (siblings, teachers, lovers, ministers, they will all vouch for this). The weight of expectations alone would crush it, and in the case of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, add to it, the 20-year gap. Whispers of anticipation in the crowds of readers and writers aside, I decided to plunge in with lowered expectations to be fair to the book. But the first page said, “To, The Unconsoled.” The second page was a quote by Nazim Hikmet, “I mean, it’s all a matter of your heart…” The third page was a story of vultures dying, and on the fourth page began the first chapter titled, “Where do old birds go to die?

I can’t say what it was about those first four pages, but I felt like I’d been kissed for the first time.

The book begins with the story of Anjum, who lives in a graveyard and sleeps on a different grave every night. It is she who poses the question, “Where do old birds go to die? Do they fall from the sky?” and receives a stony silence in response – the effect she was hoping for.

And because Ms Roy can never tell a story with a linear timeline, we go back to take a glimpse at Anjum’s history. Anjum, who was once Aftab.

In this way, several other main characters are introduced – Saddam Hussein, Musa, and the woman who carries the story on her shoulders – Tilo. Each of these interconnected stories is laid against the backdrop of the Indian political climate – especially the volatile situation in Kashmir. From the militants, to the military, to the Holy Cow, to the cow-related lynchings, Arundhati Roy holds nothing back. She writes about a certain former CM, current world traveller, and his rise, in a way that’s a political satire as well as black comedy as well as horror. The line, “A devotee gifted him a pinstriped suit with LallaLallaLalla woven into the fabric. He wore it to greet visiting heads of state.” made me laugh out loud, just as the account of the 2002 riots filled me with rage. It is no wonder that this is a book that will more than just upset Lalla’s insecure troll army (*cough* saffronparakeets *cough*). I imagined a Nazi Germany-like scenario where this would be one of the first books in a pile to be set on fire (and I hope someone like Liesel Meminger will rescue at least one copy).

At first I felt the book had too much of non-fiction in it to qualify as a work of fiction. I even wondered how much of Tilo was Ms Roy herself (much like I thought about Rahel from her first book). I had reached about four-fifths of the book when I understood, truly understood, what the book was about. I took a few moments, sitting very still, to process it all – to process how the various parts worked together. In the beginning, I was a little put off because there were too many characters – they took away from the reading experience, but by the four-fifths mark, I understood they were all a part of the same tapestry, and they were all essential.

My knowledge on the subject of Kashmir is too limited to form an opinion. A conversation I had with someone from Kashmir a while ago tallies with what is written in the book, and my mind kept going back to that conversation as I read. But I have so many questions, and I wonder whether there will ever be a solution.

Reading this book made me feel that every other author (with the exception of maybe Salman Rushdie) should just retire and go home. I didn’t intend to write this review at first. The reasons were many – including the fact that I know I will read it again, and discover new things and this review will then seem unjust and insufficient. If I said the book is about India and its new regime, I would not be wrong. If I said it is the story of Tilo and Musa, I would not be wrong. Or even if I said it is the story of how a graveyard turned into a guest house, I would not be wrong. But in all these cases, I would not be right either, because while it may be those things, it is also much bigger than the sum of its parts. Someday I hope more writers write as fearlessly as Ms Roy, shattering rose tinted glasses and the comfort of common ignorance. And to acknowledge that is why I decided to go ahead and share my thoughts.

From a literary standpoint, a few things to note: the (irritating and fascinating) non-linear timeline. I call it the one-step forward, three-steps back timeline. Those who’ve read The God of Small Things are familiar with this style. Others will find it confusing at first. Those unfamiliar with Indian politics will also find it difficult to follow the story, or at least to connect with it. I found the prose to be less… musical… that her first book, but that’s just me.

On the whole, an excellent and bold piece of writing that’s unassumingly charming, yet somehow aware of itself. It is dark and terribly disturbing, yet poignantly romantic. If I had to choose, I’d still choose The God of Small Things over The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. At the moment, I do think her first novel is superior to her second. But call me after ten years and see if I’ve changed my mind.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Tagged! Anything But Books

I haven’t accepted tags/blogger awards in a while. It’s shocking how lazy I can be when it comes to answering questions about myself. Really, my laziness is limitless. But when Shantala tagged me in the Anything But Books Tag, I decided to give it a go.

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Here’s how it works. I’ve been given a set of questions. My answers have to be about anything – as the name suggests – but books. At the end of the post, I’ll tag a few other bloggers to share their answers.

Here goes!

Name a cartoon(s) that you love

I haven’t watched cartoons in forever, but as a kid I absolutely LOVED Dexter’s Lab. I also liked Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, and Duck Tales.

What is your favorite song right now?

I take a break from music every once in while (just like I take a break from books, writing, social media, etc.) My latest music break started on June 11th. At that point the following three were my favorites:

Sia – To Be Human feat. Labrinth 

Luis Fonsi – Despacito (Original) ft. Daddy Yankee

Calvin Harris – Slide ft. Frank Ocean & Migos

What could you do for hours (that isn’t reading)?

Sit on the beach, staring at the waves.

What is something you love to do that your followers would be surprised by?

This is going to sound super weird coming from me, and even I’m surprised – cos this is something I discovered recently about myself – I really enjoy cleaning! This doesn’t explain why my house is almost always a mess, but whenever I’m in the mood, I’ve learnt I can go around scrubbing, dusting, mopping for as long as I feel like. It’s almost therapeutic.

What is your favorite unnecessarily specific thing to learn about (this can do with books, I guess)?

I keep watching random tutorials on YouTube and my interests keep changing (I have a terribly low attention span). At one point, it was T-shirt laddering and all other kinds of T-shirt makeovers. Then it was nail-art and water marbling (I don’t even know why; I don’t have the patience for it, but I just like learning I guess?) I even tried to learn crochet and knitting once. The bottomline is, I spend way too much time on YouTube!

Aside from all of that, as of this moment, I’m learning the ropes of travel writing.

What is something unusual you know how to do?

I can mend broken toys. At least my son seems to think so.

Name something you’ve made in the last year (and show us, if you can).

The last thing I made was a little stand for my earrings back in the year 2012! Other than that, last year, I upcycled an old t-shirt. I don’t have a pic, but the design was similar to the Teary Fringe on this link (yes, I know it’s ridic simple). I do plan to make a nameplate for my house, and also a collage (although I’m planning a very basic one – nothing intricate) inspired by this post by Jini.

What is your most recent personal project?

Buahahaha, there’s something in the works. But it may be a long while before it comes to light (if it does at all). That’s all I’m gonna say.

Tell us something you think about often (maybe while staring out of windows).

Oh wow, I love this question. Until last year, I used to think about my purpose, and wonder where “home” is. This year, I’ve decided it’s futile to try and figure that out, cos half the fun is in not knowing what’s coming, or what we aim to do. Instead, this year, I’ve been pondering over other things. That is, I know I’m searching for something (NOT the meaning of life), something extraordinary, but I don’t know what it is. So yes, I think a lot about that. And I still wonder where home is.

Give us something that’s your favorite, but make it something oddly specific, not like your favorite food, but like your favorite food when you’ve been studying for hours and forgot to eat. Or, you know, something like that.

Does it have to be food? If yes, then I have to have pani puri when it rains. If not food, then let’s see – everyone knows my top three TV shows are HIMYM, Sherlock, and Friends, but specifically on the days I’m feeling low, I choose the first one over the other two (and over everything else). Listening to Ted’s (sometimes questionable) advice to his kids really lifts me up.


So that’s it! Those were all the questions I got from Shantala. I’d like to tag JaibalaNamy, Vidya, Shinjini, Chandni, Lalita, SudhaLouise, and Debra. I’ll keep the tag open for anyone who wishes to take it up. Please do share your answers on your blogs (or the comments section – whatever suits you 🙂 ) Looking forward to it! 

 

 

Reading Slump and Half of a Yellow Sun

Hello. I’m back. Or am I? Too soon to tell!

I’ve been facing the reading block from hell such that there is little else I think about these days. This time last year, I was on book # 31. Whereas, as of this moment, Half of a Yellow Sun was book # 4 for this year. I’m so disappointed in myself that I don’t even feel like counting the other three books. It’s like the gap in reading negates everything I’ve done.

My last review in 2016 was published on Dec 1st. Post that, all I was doing was trying to read. To be fair, I was even trying to live, so everything I did on a daily basis got lost in the effort of keeping myself alive. I confessed in a post last year that I read books to consciously keep the real world out. Therefore, not being able to read was doubly suffocating. Like a singer who woke up one day to find she’s lost her voice.

I tried my best to fix my reading problem – a candle of hope that if I read one book from start to finish, maybe, just maybe, other parts of my life would begin fixing themselves. We attach significance to certain actions in certain ways. In an effort to bring this to fruition, I joined a book club. It didn’t help with the reading, but it helped in other ways – it allowed me to revert to a side of me I had hidden for the last few years under a cloak of introversion. It was quite beneficial to my self esteem which had been on an all-time low. But with the reading, nah – I’d bring a new book with me each week, pretend to read a chapter, and then put it back on my shelf. Nothing stuck, nothing stayed.

6318821It was the same with Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The first time I brought it to the club, I didn’t even open it, as I was  too busy chitchatting with everyone else. Two weeks after that, while at home, I decided to start reading it on a whim. This isn’t my usual “book called out to me” phenomena that I keep talking about on this blog. This was just another attempt to kill the block. At first, it was as bad as ever – not the book, but my focus and concentration. I felt like a calf learning to walk and constantly failing. I’d read one sentence and dream of clouds for the next three paragraphs. I chided myself and a part of my brain became a stern parent to another part. Instead of giving up on the book, I’d go back and read those paragraphs that I’d missed. I vowed to not let the slump get better of me this time. Slow and steady (real slow cos it took me a month to read a book I would have finished in maybe four days before).

Adichie is someone I admire a lot for who she is. I’ve listened to her talks and interviews and I have immense respect for her. Last year, I read Purple Hibiscus and quite enjoyed it. The prose was simple, the story realistic, with characters that stayed in your mind even after you put the book down.

I decided to read Half of a Yellow Sun more out of my love for Adichie than anything else. I didn’t even read the blurb before signing up. And, forgive me for being so ignorant, but I learned about the Nigerian Civil War only after reading this book.

Set in the ’60s, the story does not follow a linear timeline. It starts with the early ’60s, then moves to late ’60s. we go back to the early ’60s where some important revelations are made, and we return to the late ’60s, in the middle of war and starvation and destruction. In the beginning, the characters seemed almost hopeful that the war would come. A fight, a hope for independence. The story is told through the POVs of the three central characters – Ugwu, Olanna, and Richard.

The story begins with Ugwu accepting a job as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and an intellectual strongly in favor of creation of the new state, Biafra. Odenigbo entertains other intellectuals every evening, while Ugwu observes their mannerisms and tries to learn as much as he can.

Enter Olanna, the beautiful woman Odenigbo is in love with. She has decided to leave behind her hometown and rich parents and move to the university town with Odenigbo. Her arrival makes Ugwu uneasy at first; with her polished manners and refined language, Ugwu believes she is not right for his master, but soon his respect for her grows beyond his respect for Odenigbo. When Odenigbo’s mother hatches a plan against Olanna, it is Ugwu who tries his best to warn her.

Olanna has a sardonic twin sister, Kainene – the ignored one. The different treatment the two girls received from their parents has turned Kainene cynical and indifferent. She meets Richard, a shy English journalist at a party and the two soon become lovers. Even though Richard falls in love with her, he is too afraid to ever fully express his feelings. It is Igbo art that draws him to the country, but he stays to document the war.

In the beginning, the book gave off a Gone With The Wind vibe, as both have a war setting. There is also a tinge of The Kite Runner. However, Half of a Yellow Sun focuses more on the characters in the story than the war itself. The brutality of war has been captured to an extent, but not with the severity it demanded. The war serves as a backdrop, and is almost like an afterthought in the work as a whole – more time could have been devoted to show just how terrible it was (this is just my opinion). In this regard, I liked Purple Hibiscus better, as in that book, the setting is as important as the characters.

I quite related to the character of Olanna and her blind love for Odenigbo. There was a devotion in her love that I could understand in a way that I wish I didn’t. However, it is Kainene I looked up to. Her development as a character has been very well written. She is a perfect blend of strength, willfulness, and levelheadedness. I absolutely admired her (and wished I was more like her than her twin).

I’m yet to read Adichie’s other works of fiction (Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck etc.), but I enjoyed the two I’ve read so far. Although I liked Purple Hibiscus more than Half of a Yellow Sun, I will still equally recommend both, the important reason being they’re not exactly comparable and are so different from each other, they could’ve been written by two different authors. That said, I will always remember the story of Half of a Yellow Sun. It is, after all, the first book I read in a bloody long and hard time.

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