Tag: India

Shadow In The Mirror, by Deepti Menon

imagesShadow In The Mirror: A Thrilling Quest for Redemption is a book whose subtitle does not quite go with the plot. It starts with the suicide of a pregnant woman named Nita. Vinny, a journalist, who is covering the story receives a note that says Nita did not commit suicide, but was murdered.

I honestly believe this story would have been much better had the whole scene with the note been avoided. We are told in the first chapter that it was a murder, and because we know it, we identify the murderer just a few chapters later. If the reader was convinced that it was suicide throughout, and if the murder angle was revealed only at the end, the word “thrilling” in the subtitle would have been justified. In this case, there’s not so much as a twist as a blatantly obvious conclusion with regards to the identity of the murderer. There’s not a lot of redemption either – those who are mad stay mad and those who are sad stay sad. Those who are dead (thankfully) stay dead.

With that said, the most interesting character in this story overrun with too many characters is in fact the murderer. Not that she/he committed the murder, but her/his history, as revealed in the chapter set in 1962, Dark Icy Winter. That was one twist that I did not see coming, and was totally impressed with that storyline.

The language is simple, and therefore this was a breezy read.

Too breezy.

And with that, we come to the flaws: the plot is wafer thin. Too many characters running amok in the story, but almost nothing of substance. Nothing meaty. All their backstories felt rushed, and there was too much telling and absolutely no showing. Do not tell me again and again that a character has “always” been a certain way (friendly/moody/artistic/level-headed/business-minded/whathaveyou), show it to me! Given the number of characters in the book, a little more care could have been taken to turn it into a character study of sorts – jealousy, possessiveness, effect of aging etc. Alas, it was a wasted opportunity – only the murderer’s psyche was fully delved into.

Some characters added nothing to the plot, such Kavita’s maid or the whole Gautam angle.

The prose is covered with a thick layer of adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and dead idioms and metaphors. While in the beginning, every setting was described in purple, this reduced as the story progressed. There was, however, no shortage of extra adjectives. Even the cliches and idioms take away from the reading experience and you wish the style of writing could have been better.

The plot takes you from 1958 to 1994. I noticed some inconsistencies in the timelines that I can’t quite wrap my head around. If you look at the dates preceding the chapters, technically this should make sense. But if you close your eyes to the dates and read only the plot, you feel there are some things off. For example, Roma and Vinny were once classmates, so let’s assume they’re of the same age. In one chapter, Roma is said to be older than Nita: “Roma had been shrewd enough to realize the immense advantages of playing tag with a girl, who despite being slightly younger than her, would catapult her straight into the upper bracket of society.” On the other hand, towards the end, it is revealed that Vinny is younger than Nita. Also, in 1989, Roma has a teenage daughter who runs away and becomes a model – considerable amount of time should have passed between these events but there’s definitely a mismatch. And there are several instances where the story jumps in time, but the same does not translate on to the page (no extra line gaps/section breaks). One such instance is: “Vinny brought with her all the normal upheavals that a brand new baby does. . . late nights, erratic feeds, colic and the smell of vomit and Johnson’s baby powder everywhere. “Mummy!” trilled Vinny one day when she got back from kindergarten.” When did kindergarten happen out of the blue? We were talking about colic, weren’t we? You feel at times that the author’s thoughts are not being correctly conveyed through the writing.

On the whole, Shadow In The Mirror is OK. It’s not a new story, but it definitely takes a longer route to reach the usual destination. It’s fast-paced (albeit at the cost of character development) and it keeps the reader mildly curious. Read it if you want a break from heavy literature.

Goodreads | Amazon

PS: I received a PDF copy of the book from Readomania. My review is honest and unbiased.

Dark Things Between the Shadow and the Soul, by Sudha Kuruganti

It’s difficult to fight when you have no idea who your enemy is.

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When I read the title, I thought it was a collection of passionate romances, my thoughts colored heavily by a poem by Neruda from which this book derives its title. When I saw the cover, I thought it was a collection of horror stories. But Dark Things Between the Shadow and the Soul: Fractured Fairy Tales from Indian Mythology is a darkly colorful mix of everything – romance to horror to fantasy to even humor. All based on, as the subtitle states, Indian mythology.

The book is divided into five parts – Vedas, Trimurti, Ramayana, Mahabharat, and Urban Legends & Myths. There are a total of 22 stories and an introductory chapter that summarizes the Indian myths and epics. This chapter is useful for those who are not well-versed in the epics. There is also a note at the end of each story which describes which specific episode from the epics was the basis of the story. I have, in the past, felt rather lost while reading stories of a similar kind without these background notes, such as in the case of this book.

About the stories themselves – some stories are told from the perspective of a character different from the traditional narrator of those stories, some are modern retellings, whereas others borrow the central theme and/or character names from the original stories but have wholly unique plots. My favourites in the book are To The Victors, Soul Eater, and Storyteller. To The Victors is from the Ramayana section of the book and it tells the story from Surpanakha’s perspective. While I am by no means a member of Ravana’s recently formed fan club, I always firmly believed nothing can ever be as black and white as the epics portray. Of course, I also never believed in Rama’s oh-so-ideal-glory-be-me-can’t-touch-me name and fame. Of course, as a country, clearly we have a warped view of what’s “ideal”. But that’s a discussion for another day. I loved Soul Eater because a) I never knew such a tribe or clan existed in Bihar (please read the story to find out more about this tribe) and b) this story isn’t based on any existing episodes; it’s fresh and very interesting. As for Storyteller, the last chapter of this book – it’s a famous story that every Indian is familiar with, but the way it is told made me laugh – and also made me look over my shoulder! I won’t reveal anything other than that. Nice way to end the book though – with a smile and a chill.

The language used is simple and the book is a quick read. In some places, it could have been more descriptive, more firm than airy. I suspect it would have slowed down the pace a tad, but that wouldn’t have been an issue. For instance, in the first story, it took me a while to gain a footing; similarly with stories such as By The Numbers and Dreams, I felt I was plunging headlong into them.  The descriptions would have actually helped. While there are no glaring errors in language, and it isn’t at all tedious to read, I felt in one or two places, it could have used an extra bit of proofreading.

I understand this is a self-published  ebook, but there were some Wiki links in the notes section of some of the stories – this seemed a bit odd to me, from a reader’s perspective, especially because on my Kindle, they didn’t work and appeared only as underlined words (I realized they were links when I opened the pdf file on my laptop).

This book is a good choice for anyone delving into Indian mythology for the first time. As the author states in her introduction, there are very few books in this category. Well, very few good ones, anyway, in my opinion. And this is a good one. Give it a read!

Goodreads | Amazon

Note: I was given a PDF copy of this book in exchange for a review. This review is unbiased and honest.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

There’s so much in your head that you can’t bear any distractions, you want to pay attention, careful attention, otherwise everything is going to explode.

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I am not quiet about the books that I like. I talk about them. To whoever’s willing to listen. But I’m reviewing Em and The Big Hoom really late. Why? Because I was still trying to gather my thoughts around its beauty.

While I regularly shout out book recommendations from here, I sometimes share them on goodreads with selected people. On rare occasions, I write a personal note with my recommendation, because I want people to know that I’m not just clicking a button. I genuinely want to know what they thought about a particular book. I want them to know that they crossed my mind while I was reading this book – whatever the reason may be.

In the case of Em and The Big Hoom, I recommended it to only one friend. Not because I did not want others to read it. In fact, most others already had. I sent it to my friend because he is often hard pressed for time, and is therefore choosy about the books he invests his time in. I recommend to him only those that I believe he would enjoy, and those whom I want to discuss with him, during the few and far occasions that we meet or speak. At that moment, I wanted my recommendation to be exclusive, and thus Em and The Big Hoom went only to him. I decided to write a note. That is when it struck me.

I cannot describe in words how beautiful this piece of literature is. If I’m recommending it to others, I can’t help but turn into a bumbling idiot, unable to convince people that if you read one book this year, or this decade, let it be this one.

2016 has been a good year for me where books are concerned. Forget that my own depression has resurfaced, or that I have decided to stop updating my other blog. At least, I have good books to keep me company through this. I have discovered and read some great books this year. I’ve learned something from each; each had its own merits, and its own beauty. Out of all those wonderful books, Em stands out with its simplicity. It is a profound book, yet utterly unpretentious. It deals with truth. No glory, no gilded-frame of self-pity, but stark truth. The reality of living with a depressed parent. The lightheartedness of that parent narrating to the children the story of how she met their father. The fear of living with a parent always on the verge of suicide.

The book is so fabulously effortless to read. But as Pinto himself describes,

I have discovered since that such effortlessness is not easy to achieve and its weightlessness is in direct proportion to the effort put in.

Pinto’s prose isn’t the musical kind like Zusak’s or the slow, glide-into style of Lahiri’s or the heavy, engrave-this-into-your-memory style of Rushdie’s. It is a class apart. It stands its own, with its head held high (and rightfully so) in a scenario where simplicity is often confused with stupidity. There is no dumbing down for the reader here, much like Em never talked down to her children, however young they were. This here is a book that tells us a story directly to the reader, considering the reader as an equal who can understand the issues of this dysfunctional family, but one who does not offer false sympathy.

Em has no time for these falsehoods.

Goodreads | Amazon

This is a book I will read again. And again. And again.

 

A Place of No Importance, by Veena Muthuraman

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A Place of No Importance (APNOI, for the rest of the post) is collection of 13 short stories set, along the timeline of the Tamil Calendar, in the little village of Ayyanarpatti. The book begins in the month of Aipasi (mid-October to mid-November) with the story A Festive Suicide, Attempted. As the book (or the year) progresses, the reader learns of the characters who live here, and their idiosyncrasies.

As the author mentions in her note at the end, most of us are accustomed to reading stories with an urban setting. APNOI with its rural setting is refreshing, not only because it offers a different viewpoint (the “other India”, as some people call it) but also because the customs and traditions of the characters in the book give the reader a whole other-worldly charm. Not an unfamiliar one, just a forgotten one. In Ayyanarpatti, caste and gender roles are still strictly defined – the lower castes cannot own houses on the main street (there is only one main street that runs through the village – The Upper Street), the women marry young and stay in their kitchens, the men work in fields and send their sons abroad for work.

The stories in this collection are:

A Festive Suicide, Attempted – A drunkard attempts suicide on Diwali to show his villagers that his family does not take care of him.

Possessed – A boy believes that a ghost from a banyan tree has possessed him.

God’s Own Country – Muthu buys land from Rathinam to set up an international school, but Nithya gets suspicious

A House On Upper Street – A man from the lower caste returns from Singapore and decides to buy a house on the main street.

A New Release – A young wife, whose husband is abroad, and whom she has only known for 2 weeks, awaits the release of her favourite actor’s new film.

Scenes from a Scandal – The village’s only divorcee and an old widower set tongues wagging (this story is my favourite in this collection)

A New Beginning – An old farmer’s wife goes missing one day.

A Love Story, starring Councillor Muthu – An inter-religious love story with a political background

Prelude to a Wedding – A mother and daughter try to dissuade their family from marrying the daughter off to someone she does not like.

The Demon Wind of Adi – A farmer thinks of the “olden days”

A Yank in Ayyanarpatti – An American builder gets confused and fascinated with the village’s politics and superstitions.

The Amman of Saris – A sari seller hatches a plan to sell more saris to the naive and pious villagers.

Macondo Thatha: Origins – A man decides to get married for the second time, but his plans go awry.

APNOI is the literary equivalent of a lopsided grin. The way the author has captured fine details with her evocative prose, the stories are a clever and satirical portrayal of life in this little village that few have heard of. The stories aren’t interlinked, but several characters appear in multiple stories, such as the witty Nithya or the wily Muthu. Some stories have tragic ends, but are so well written that the reader applauds the author’s skill even while mourning for the characters. Some others have elements of black comedy in them, while yet others bring a smile to the reader’s face.

APNOI has been compared to R. K. Narayan’s famous Malgudi Days, and it does not come as a surprise. Veena Muthuraman’s sentences do sound post-colonial with a smear of vernacular thrown in, the kind of language one does not get to read nowadays. It is utterly captivating and a joy to read.

Highly recommended! Rating: 4/5

The book is available on the Juggernaut app. The book has not yet been added to Goodreads. Will update the link once it’s available.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to me by the Juggernaut team for an honest review. This has in no way affected the review and my opinions are personal and unbiased.

False Ceilings, by Amit Sharma

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We seek to make our own lives complicated, because we are drawn and addicted to drama, pathos, chaos and noise. And thus we turn simple tales to highly charged, emotional tragedies or comedies.

As it turns out, I have made yet another error in judgment while choosing my weekend read. But I will hold back my characteristic harshness and trademark vitriol. Why? For the simple reason that I could have chosen not to read it. Yet I did. And because I did, I must now speak about it. But it’s not nice to act all tart about the book, when it was my own fault that I chose to read it in the first place.

Another reason why I’m holding back is the fact that False Ceilings is a highly ambitious novel. I don’t mean it succeeds, but I cannot deny that ambitious is what it is or tries to project itself as. At least, it’s not a run-of-the-mill love story, and for that we should thank our stars, I must say!

The narrative follows a non linear sequence, a technique that I’m quite fond of [aside: if you think you’re reading a “but” at the end of that statement, you’re right. But tarry a while, my friend, we’ll get to it]. Due to this, I cannot properly summarize this book for you. Well, that, and the fact that there are way too many main characters, all just strewn about in the book like scrambled eggs. The sequence of events takes place from 1930 to 2062. While the story begins with one of the main characters, Aaryan, who seems to have lost his marbles, that part of the narrative is set in 2001. If I were to try summarizing, I should give you a glimpse of Shakuntala’s life – she is born in 1930, to a rich builder named Kanshi Ram. His mother, disappointed that his wife, Kusum, did not give birth to a son, keeps torturing and taunting everyone in the family. Kusum dies giving birth to her second child, a boy. Contrary to the custom of the time, Kanshi sends his daughter to a convent, so that she gets a proper education. However, soon after she turns ten, Kanshi dies in an accident. She decides to leave the convent and goes to live with her uncle. A few years later she gets married, and on the day of the wedding ceremony, her uncle hands her a “secret” and asks her to use it wisely. Does she? Doesn’t she? Who does? What is it?

Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than poor editing. In addition to that are those sentences that leap at you like artificially ripened fruit – the ones injected with a word from the thesaurus that is just slightly… off. Most importantly, it is the little things that matter. Even if the sentences are laid out perfectly one after the other, one misplaced preposition just turns the whole thing around. I know I make a lot of typos on my blog, and sometimes misspell words, or leave some out, leaving you to wonder who am I to judge? But the reason is, I don’t pay an editor to look for typos, and I rarely go through my posts before hitting Publish. Hell, I’m lazy, so sue me! But a book isn’t like that. It has a wider reach. It has a responsibility, so to speak. So when I turn to the first page and I see the word “Acknowledgment” without the “s” at the end, when clearly there were more than one person being acknowledged, I get a wee bit irked. And everything that follows is like an annoying hiccup in my head. A sentence  that does not quite sound right or even outright wrong makes for some tedious reading. As a reader investing my time in someone’s work, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of something so tedious, so hiccoughy, like a jagged cut in a piece of wood.

Now let’s talk about why I called this an ambitious work that did not succeed. It had the ingredients of ambition. But a few things must complement that ambition: complexity, research, layers. For a book set in the pre-independence era, one that records the horrors of partition etc, the right atmosphere needs to be set through the narrative – which isn’t. Sure, a paragraph about bloodshed, but that’s it. Secondly, even in the later parts, a simple mention of when Maggi noodles or colour televisions made an appearance in India does not constitute as research. Show me details, show me intricacies.

Why else couldn’t I be convinced of the setting? The dialogue. We have people from the 1930s and people from the 2060s. They all sound the same. None of them even remotely sound like they belong to the eras they’re supposed to belong to. The dialogue’s potential in a novel has not been utilized at all in this case.

There are several instances where I felt the chronology was all wrong. For instance, Shakuntala’s father dies in 1940. An actual sentence from the book reads, “A few months later, the Quit India Movement begins in the year 1942.” Let’s forget the syntactical blunder in the sentence for a minute, and only look at the timeline issue – how are 1940 and 1942 a “few” months apart? Something similar happens  between 1942 and 1946. Four years. Separated by a “few” months. Apparently. Is this science fiction set in some parallel universe?

I could go on – in 1984, Aaryan is 5. He spends three years in school with his friend Priya, assuming his age to be 8 by the end of said three years. The year should be 1987. He is an excellent student and participates in all kinds of extra curricular stuff [aside: in my personal opinion, I find him too young to be as competitive as he is described] However, his family moves away from Priya and the school in 1986. So much anachronism that I have a headache trying to keep track of all these events.

Coming back to language, the sentences sound too literal (example: “she pointed her nose to the sky” “He uprooted his hair from his head” uprooted? really?). Too literal. There are no idioms, no style, no phrases. It’s all thrown in the face.

And now back to the plot. Why did I keep reading if I kept groaning after every few sentences? Well, I now know there’s some sort of secret, might as well find out what it is, yes? But the climax left me rather deflated. I don’t wanna give out any spoilers, but once you reach the climax you say, “What? Is that it? You built all that up for this?” Then you realize there were hints right in the beginning. There usually are, of course, but this one leaves you meh. Which explains the line I started this review with – by the end of this book, you feel everyone involved was just being irrationally over-reactive. Reminded of those Indian soaps where they repeat a word thrice and then a loud clap of thunder is heard.

Overall, a giant plot that topples on itself without the support of the right legs to stand on. You may still pick it up if you wanna read something slightly different from the usual fare. But do I recommend it? I’d like to safeguard my credibility as a book reviewer, so no.

Goodreads | Amazon

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from The Tales Pensieve.

 

 

Water, by Bapsi Sidhwa

I am not a movie buff. I am choosy about the films I watch and only very few times have I been cwater-bapsi-sidhwa-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-bookompletely enthralled by a film. Also, when I read a book, I don’t wish to see it as a film no matter how much I enjoy it (in fact, a lot of times, when a book I’ve loved is adapted into a film, I end up not watching it at all).

However, only twice in my life have I watched something on screen that made me think, “How I wish this were a book!” One of the times I wished this was when I watched Water. The poignant story and the breathtaking visuals affected me enough to leave me speechless. The book came out after the film. How often do you see the words “Based on the film by…” on a book’s cover?

Genre: Historical, Cultural, Indian, Feminist Literature, Literary

Summary: Set in 1930s, Water is the story of Chuyia, a girl who is widowed at the age of eight, and forced to live in an ashram for widows. Her head is shaved, she is only allowed to wear white saris, only certain kinds of foods are permitted, and she is not allowed to touch anyone or talk to anyone outside the ashram. With all her innocent curiosity, she questions why the widows must be forced to suffer so much. The more she questions, the more Shakuntala, an older widow in the ashram, begins to wonder why the holy scriptures were so against women, why a widow was considered to be a danger to society, a lustful creature that would lead good men astray. Meanwhile, Chuyia, and a beautiful young widow named Kalyani become good friends. Since the time Kalyani was a child (she was widowed very young, like Chuyia), the head of the ashram, Madhumati, had been sending her out to the houses of rich seths in the city as a prostitute. One day Kalyani and Chuiya meet Narayan, a young man who is a follower of Gandhi. He does not believe in the ill-treatment of widows and wishes to marry Kalyani. Fate, however, has other plans.

The reason why book lovers love to bitch about movies is simple: the movies always get something wrong. For a book lover, this is like a guilty pleasure – like there’s a secret between the author and the reader, which those who’ve only seen the movie will never know. In the case of Water, however, either because the book came after or because I saw the movie before reading the book, I was robbed of that experience. The book is fantastically written, but scenes from the film constantly interfered with what I was reading. Also, the film was woven around Chuyia, the eight year old widow, but the book was more about Kalyani – it’s the same story, but the book somehow leaned more towards Kalyani than Chuyia.

Overall, a heart-wrenching read. If you do get the chance though, watch the film it is based on too.

Goodreads | Amazon

Rating: 4/5

 

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

the-white-tiger-aravind-adiga-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-book“I am India’s most faithful voter, and I still have not seen the inside of a voting booth.”

Whenever I buy a book, I write my name and date of purchase on the first page (in the past, I also signed my name on random pages, a habit I have since gotten rid of). The first page of The White Tiger tells me I bought it on 15th Nov 2009. I also remember a bus journey from Bangalore to Kerala, when I first flipped through a few of its pages, shut it, and snored for the rest of the trip.

There is a time and place for certain books. Or, there are certain books for certain moods. In the interest of never leaving a book unfinished, I’ve been picking up some previously abandoned books since the past few months, such as Chokher Bali, The Girl On The Train, this one etc.

Genre: Literary (also maybe, crime, cultural, but most definitely literary)

Summary: Balram Halwai, a man from the “Darkness” (lawless villages of India), gets the opportunity to come to the “Light” (New Delhi, or the cities of India) when he is hired to be the driver of a rich family. He is now a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. He writes his story over seven nights, addressed to the Chinese Premier Mr Jiabao who is visiting India shortly. He confesses that he murdered his employer, Ashok before coming to Bangalore. He then recounts why he murdered Ashok and how he turned from faithful servant to successful entrepreneur.

Balram Halwai is an almost detestable protagonist. The kind that you dislike, but at the same time cannot help but respect his genius. He speaks of everything in an utterly irreverent tone, and his take on all subjects, big and small, is written with cynical wit. He is ignorant and naive in some matters (“Do these women in the city have no hair on their legs like the ones in the village?”) whereas highly shrewd in some of his other observations (“The Rooster Coop of India does not let anyone escape – it is secured from the inside”) You can dislike him all you want but you will admire him!

The only people more despicable than The White Tiger’s intriguing protagonist are his rich employers, and the politicians of India. Personally, I feel, The White Tiger was a few years ahead of its time – there are parts of the narrative that resemble what is happening at present (I won’t mention any, as I don’t want to give out spoilers). But what I will say is, had this book been released, say, in 2015 (seven years after its actual release), it would probably have been banned. Balram Halwai mentions that the Indians worship Hanuman – who was a faithful servant to his master Lord Ram – and as a result, servitude (or the possible need for it) has become an essential part of the Indian psyche. According to Balram, this is what helped the Brits and the Mughals to rule over the country and Indians merely bowed their heads because they were only too happy to be ruled. Honestly, I cannot dispute any of Balram’s thoughts and logic. But only imagine, had this book been released recently, with all its cheeky commentary (there’s more where that bit about Hanuman came from) on the flaws of India(s) – that of the Darkness and the Light – what would have been its fate?

As for the rating – I will give it two different ratings. It is a brilliant book, and Aravind Adiga is nothing but a masterful storyteller. For the ingenuity of the plot, I’d give it a 4/5. However, if I were to base on taste (and this is STRICTLY me), I am not too fond of political dramas, so on a taste-based scale, I would give it a 3/5. But like I said, that’s just me. The book on its own is a must-read.

Get it here: Amazon

*Favourite quote at the beginning of the post. The context is how the elections in Indian villages are always rigged and how those in the villages never really vote, as somebody else always uses their name to vote for whom they want.