Tag: Set in India

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

“Because if the dead are really and truly dead, null and void, snuffed out without a trace – then everything we grow up believing in is a lie. All religion, theology, my father’s life and beliefs and prayers, the pumped-up ‘power of faith’ – everything is simply wishful thinking.”

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI first read about the Towers of Silence in the James Patterson-Ashwin Sanghi collab project Private India. Until then I did not know about the Parsi custom of disposing corpses by leaving them for vultures to feed on. The Parsis are a close-knit community and I admit there wasn’t much I knew about them before reading Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.

According to custom, the Parsis are not allowed to touch dead bodies, even those of their closest family, as they’re considered unclean. It is only the corpse bearers, or the khandias, who carry the corpses to the Towers of Silence, where they are left for the vultures. The khandias are therefore considered untouchables. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, son of a priest, who falls in love with Sepideh and is forced by her father to become a corpse bearer if he wished to marry her. Phiroze loves Sepideh enough to denounce his family and priesthood, and join the ostracized community of khandias. His father breaks all ties with him, and the only news he receives from home is from Vispy, his elder brother. Sepideh, or Seppy as she is fondly called, dies soon after, leaving Phiroze with the responsibility of raising their three year old daughter Farida.

The corpse bearers were forced to work for long hours under harsh conditions. One morning, overcome by fatigue and hunger, Phiroze faints, causing a corpse to fall off its bier. The superiors, convinced that he was drunk, suspend him and later place him on probation. Given the other challenges the corpse bearers were facing, they decided to go on strike. The strike lasted three days, during which no corpses were removed from their houses. The superiors agreed to their demands and also reinstated Phiroze.

This strike, in a way, forms the crux of the story. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is based on the true story of a corpse bearer who led the only khandia-led strike in Bombay in history.

What I liked about this story: An insight into the guarded Parsi community. Phiroze questions many of the rigid religious customs, and is often admonished by his father, Framroze, who considers it his responsibility to uphold the orthodox traditions. Framroze believes his wife died of cancer because she sometimes refused to follow his religious instructions. Phiroze, though overly fond of his father while growing up, begins to see him in a different light when this revelation is made. His heartbreak over losing Seppy is also a main part of the story – his belief that they will be reunited in the afterlife is quite moving.

What I did not like: The writing! The writing was too verbose for me to be invested in the story. One of the simplest examples of this is the following sentence: “He and I were meeting after the passage of a long time.” Needlessly long. The book is written in first person – Mistry has written it as though Phiroze himself has written it, but at no point does Mistry’s writing voice not conflict with his intended narrator’s voice. If you have read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, you can hear the story being narrated by none other than the geisha in question. This is not the case here. For one, Phiroze is described as a simple man. However, the sophisticated language used is quite out of synch with the kind of character described.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story in which a lot is written, but very little is said. On the whole, considering the potential of the subject matter at hand, I feel a tad underwhelmed by the book. The title rouses one’s interest, but the title may just be its most interesting part.

Goodreads | Amazon

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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.

Goodreads | Amazon

 

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

Goodreads | Amazon

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.

 

Wages of Love, by Kamala Das

“Like other women writers of my class, I am expected to tame my talent to suit the comfort of my family.”

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I remember reading a poem by Kamala Das in school. It was part of the English literature syllabus. I had heard Kamala Das’ name whispered conspiratorially between my parents, but I never knew why. (I had also heard Arundhati Roy and Neena Gupta’s names mentioned in those very same tones, on different occasions). So when I found a poem by her, I was wildly curious. I hoped to find a glimpse into the adult world of literary gossip. I found nothing; I did not even like the poem very much. I was perhaps too young to appreciate Das’ direct way of expressing thoughts, being more used to as we were back then to rhyming poetry about sunflowers and daffodils and such.

When they saw me read a poem by Kamala Das, my parents casually remarked how she wasn’t very good. I was easily influenced (still am) and so I nodded my head in agreement. Similar casual (snide) remarks followed, with my mother going rather ad hominem and colouring Kamala Das as an example of what a writer – and more importantly, what a woman – must not be. I did not press for details, but I smelled a scandal.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when someone (who intensely dislikes me) read my blog and commented that I write like Madhavikutty (Das’ pen name). I felt proud, humbled, and insulted all at the same time! The childhood bias was still present, I suppose; however, being compared to a splendid writer such as herself did wonders for my ego, even though I knew I was nowhere near as good. The sad thing was, I had never read any of her works, apart from that one poem.

Fast forward again to last week, when Amazon Kindle decided to treat us all with some cash to buy any ebook of our choice. As to why I chose a Kamala Das book, I’ll never guess (given that I have several other books on my TBR, and hers is one name that never really crossed my mind), but that is, as you can see, what I chose. Sometimes, our instincts know.

Wages of Love is a collection of short stories, plays, poems and essays compiled by Suresh Kohli. It starts with the short piece “The Fair-Skinned Babu”, the story of a contract killer. Its ending gave me goosebumps. And with that, I was hooked. Das’ writing is as raw as it gets. Poignant and melancholy, set against a sepia tinted background. Stories such as Neipayasam will tug at your heartstrings and leave a cloud of sorrow over you. There are other stories and plays that question traditional notions of morality and holds a mirror over society’s rigid and frigid laws.

It’s the non-fiction section of the book that I absolutely loved above all else. If there’s one thing you must read, it is Das’ thoughts on religion. She wanted to get the fields “Religion” and “Caste” removed from all government forms, a view I completely agree with. Every time I go to a hospital, and their registration form has a “religion” field (most do), I make sure that my displeasure is obvious. Another essay worth noting is Shattering Misery’s Silence. It talks about how the matriarchal and matrilinear society of Kerala went on to become a patriarchal one, and how the bold women of previous centuries gave way to meek, submissive ones. She talks about how clothing is used to judge people. The slightly sardonic tone in which Das writes is quite gut wrenching.

“If wrappings of cloth can impart respectability, the most respectable persons are the Egyptian mummies, all wrapped in layers and layers of gauze.”

Finishing this book has filled me with a quiet restlessness. Why had I not read her books for so long? Why was I advised against reading her, when of all the writers I’ve read, she seems to be one of the fearless ones that need to be read. Yes, her work NEEDS to be mandatory reading. She spoke her mind; how many of us do? What holds us back?

For far too long, I have placed Sylvia Plath and Anais Nin on the pedestal of honest and bold writers. For far too long, I have revered Anita Nair’s skills as a writer. Today, I place Kamala Das on that pedestal. Or perhaps on an even higher one.

Amazon | Goodreads

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.