Oct 19, 2009

The Wish Maker - By Ali Sethi

I have a penchant for picking up famous titles. Of course, when I actually pick them up, I vaguely remember that the books are famous for some reason. The only reason is perhaps that publishing houses are rather active nowadays in splashing the name and author of a new book before it’s out in the market. So that’s how I ended up picking up this book. I was also in for a pleasant surprise when I discovered that the author was a Pakistani and not an Indian Muslim as I had assumed. I have always been eager to try and discover cultural nuances and similarities among our geographical neighbours and I feel that books are one small way towards achieving this goal.
Ali Sethi is a young writer albeit an experienced one. Of course in my opinion, some writers have inborn talent and the remaining few manage to reach desired levels after years of cultivation of the habit. It’s difficult to compartmentalize Sethi in such specific divisions but he has the sparks of talent.
The protagonist Zaki Shirazi is perhaps the only male character in spotlight and in the entire duration of story telling, he even appears dwarfed by the female characters around him; his mother Zakia, Daadi (paternal grandmother), cousin Samar Api and servant Naseem.

People usually have this wrong notion that working women are the only ones who exert their personality and housewives are an example of docility. None of Zaki’s women, who are housewives (except for his mother) really rebel against tradition but they are firm in asserting their own rights wherever required. Whether it is Daadi refusing to stay with her wily mother-in-law, Samar exerting herself in her relationship or the servant Naseem who manages to buy a wagon for her son or wangle a trip to Mecca, these women refuses to be bullied by life. However, Zaki’s mother is the real heroine. And as according to the author’s extracted quotation of the Prophet, Paradise lies at the feet of the mother.

Taking difficult decisions on her own, bringing up Zaki as a single parent, and running a progressive women’s magazine, she might also be expected to impart a similar liveliness to her son as well. And this is probably where Sethi disappoints. Zaki doesn’t seem to have a definite personality as expected from a protagonist. Instead he absorbs life’s nuances as they come upon him, unlike his female relatives who fight their way out. This might also be an extension of Sethi’s view of preferred male behaviour where according to Zaki’s Urdu poetry spouting teacher, the men should know their place and observe modesty just as the women should. And this tone runs throughout the entire story.

Another peculiarity of The Wish Maker is that Sethi mentions a lot of big events – the India-Pakistan partition, different elections and regimes in Pakistan but he just touches upon them. One can know little of the impact of these life-changing events on the story’s characters because even they comment very little on them. The best part of the book is the way different time-periods are interspersed and almost glide towards completing the whole story ; and of course the climactic last line ” ..your Amitabh has arrived”.
Overall it is a nice read but somehow I still feel I didn’t learn much about the Pakistani culture, or is it my biased mindset which expects a whale of differences between the two countries that probably are still as similar as they were before the night of 15 August 1947.

Sep 21, 2009

In Custody by Anita Desai

I have been extremely lucky to be reading books by two wonderful Indian authoresses one after the other. One was Shashi Deshpande and the other is Anita Desai. I remember coming across Anita Desai’s name a couple of time but had been unable to read any of her books till date. Thankfully the opportunity came my way and the fact that the story had been made into an award winning film piqued my curiosity even further. Of course the mere acting cast of Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor would entice me to watch the movie even if it had not won any award.

I had been musing about the title of the book since I picked it up for reading. Somehow the name had set me thinking though I had to read the entire story to realize its significance.
“In Custody” is primarily the story of Deven, a Hindi professor and his inspiration, the erstwhile famous Urdu poet Nur. Despite his first love for Urdu, Deven had to resort to teaching Hindi in the college. One day his old friend Murad comes and manages to wheedle a confirmation to interview Nur for Murad’s magazine. Murad wants Deven to get a full interview and some of Nur’s best poems from the ever reclusive poet. Deven, who has encountered plenty of uncomfortable situations with the irresponsible Murad, agrees to take on this difficult project only because of his love and devotion to the poet and his works.

The next part of the story and almost all the book is about accomplishing this daunting task. Meeting Nur seems only the start as Deven cannot even imagine the present dilapidated state in which Nur is living. If Deven manages to get rid of the crowding sycophants, he still gets interrupted by Nur’s dramatic and second wife. Else he manages to plonk himself unwittingly into the domestic wars of Nur’s harem.

It is quite easy to identify with Deven’s frustration rising from the current situation and his inability to deal with the different characters who are almost thrust upon him. However at times, the entire situation appears outright comical. Personally I have no idea about the original emotions that were present in Desai’s mind when she described the different scenes of encounter between Nur and Deven. In reality, the rare spouts of poetry and knowledge drowned by the never-ending sessions of food and drink, as well as Deven’s utter dismay at the poet’s state of life and affairs, incorporated more laughter than sympathy, within myself.

Somehow this story and the protagonist’s fate reminds me of “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham. Of course Deven’s character is a far cry from the newbie lawyer, Rudy Baylor. The lazy tone of the book almost mirrors the life at Nur’s abode but every moment one tends to tire of the pace, the interest again arises as Deven comes across some new but fallible method of achieving success. This book takes you back to the ancient life of peace and calm in northern India which also helps us in slow realization of  the dilemma of the custodian. A good book but not for the impatient ones.

Sep 19, 2009

Come Up and Be Dead by Shashi Deshpande

When I picked up this book by Shashi Deshpande, I felt she would be like the usual Indian authors. Strong emotions, usage of local slang, vivid descriptions would probably be abounding in the book. Thankfully her book was a pleasant and surprising change from all that I had expected. Her writing reminded me so much of DM, my favourite Bengali teacher. I have been very fond of all my Bengali teachers but DM was different. DM had the wonderful knack of expressing things simply and beautifully. It used to be very helpful for a student like me who was already rather flustered by the grandiose writing style of her previous Bengali teachers. And that is also where Shashi Deshpande scores over other authors by proving the oft forgotten fact that simplicity is attractive as well.

"Come Up and Be Dead" is a mystery thriller though the simplistic narrative makes you wonder many times whether it is one at all. One is almost influenced into thinking that the protagonist of the story would be Kshama, the new headmistress of the girls’ school. She is young, competent and also incorporates the usual conceived traits of successful women which include being reserved, aloof to the point of cruelty. One realizes the extent of her insensitiveness when she doesn’t flinch from asking her psychologically ill brother to leave the school and thus save her career as the headmistress. However, the main story teller is Devi, her cousin sister who is invited to come and look after Kshama’s house and brother, which she does rather successfully. She also manages to befriend Kshama’s brother Pratap and realize that he probably is not as mentally weak as portrayed.

An interesting part of the story is how part of the mysterious events have begun even before the reader has settled through the first chapters. It almost feels like when we are late in entering the cinema theatre for a movie screening and miss the first few scenes but have no trouble in catching the flow of the story.

A young schoolgirl’s suicide shakes the school out of its usual reverie and the rumours abuzz seem to be rather cruel. Some precocious schoolgirls seem to know all about it but then it’s natural to ignore their knowledge. While Kshama tries to ignore the ongoing scandals as inconsequential, Devi realizes that Pratap is probably directly or indirectly involved in the girl’s death. Before she can even get to know the truth, Pratap is dead and Devi alone feels that he has been killed. While Devi never attempts to take an active stance in investigation, she comes to know different facts naturally from the different characters who flit around- school teacher Sapna, the dead girl’s friend Sona and of course the doctor Girish. In course she also unwittingly offers herself to come up and be dead.

Shashi Deshpande is an extremely competent author. Most thriller stories are extremely difficult to attract one, with unnecessary complicated plots, a love story on the sidelines and of course unwanted characters to add to the mystery. She manages to hold the author’s attention very deftly. The characters in the story are all needed in some part or the other. The small stories about the characters help to describe them and their emotions better but they never meander into a story within another story. Of course the characters and their stories sound very familiar but probably they can be excused for remaining settled in a simple story. Finally, the mystery and the climax still manages to keep one’s nerves quite taut even though the entire storyline is simple and the characters seem to flow from every day life. Not an Agatha Christie, but when did she pretend to be one?

A pleasing read and highly recommended.

Aug 22, 2009

Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Who is your sister? I am she.

Who is your mother? I am she.
Day dawns the same for you and me.
This quotation is from Innana’s Journey to Hell (3rd millennium BC, Sumerian language) and is quoted in the beginning of the book The Palace of Illusions. The quotation also sets the tone of the novel. Most ancient Indian epics have always focused on the famous warriors and kings who have created and destroyed empires. While some of the famous beauties had a subtle hand in politics, history has never given women their due. The womenfolk were treated akin to property. Draupadi, queen of the five Pandavas however was different. She changed the course of history as foretold. 

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has also felt that women in Mahabharata were noted only when their actions had affected their men folk but no one really thought about the various emotions and circumstances affecting such behaviour. This has always been a mystery and that’s why the author wants to relook at the epic Mahabharata in a different light from a woman’s standpoint and she finds no better muse than Panchaali, who was an inherent part of the entire epic.

The Mahabharata was a long epic with different stories entwined with each other. Ms Divakaruni however recounts a rather simple tale and retaining most of the authenticity of the original epic. The word “most” is used here because at certain points I am not sure whether the story telling has really overtaken the actual facts. However I would prefer to overlook such details because they help explain the story and its ensconced characters so well. 

Panchaali, queen of the Pandavas, was renowned for her dark dazzling beauty as well as her pride and arrogance. The latter quality had allegedly led to the Great War of Mahabharata. However, in this story one gets to realize why Draupadi acted the way she did. Accepted hesitantly by her powerful father, the King Dhrupad, Draupadi clings to her brother Dhristhyadumna who refused to let go of her, while emerging from the sacred fire at birth. She has spent her entire life in loving and sacrificing her children, her pleasure, for her five husbands but ironically, despite such marital devotion, she is also attracted throughout her life to one man – not Arjuna, but Karna.

If Ms Divakaruni’s almost lyrical story establishes anything, it is probably that man cannot overlook his destiny; and that is how , Draupadi cannot escape any of the mistakes she has already been forewarned of, by Sage Ved Vyas. Thus even when in her heart she prefers Karna to Arjuna as a suitor, she ends up humiliating him only to save her brother Dhristhyadumna. She cannot but help insulting Duryodhana or cursing the entire clan who attempted to shame her in court. She realizes how Bhima loves her more than any of the brothers and how Arjuna can never be fit to be the lover or husband that she thought him to be.

It is life that makes Draupadi choose her husbands over her palatial life, her children and her personal mental peace every time. Although she learns of Karna’s love for her, she is never able to confess to him. An admirer of Kunti since childhood, but she fails to become the beloved daughter she would have loved to be. While she is also able to realize how she cannot exist without her friend Krishna, she has never been able to tell him how much she loved him. Despite knowing Bhima’s love for her, she never is able to reciprocate; and finally even her endearing love and prior knowledge of the future is futile in trying to save her loved ones.

Despite this, Divakaruni’s Draupadi doesn’t come upon as a tragic character. She tries her best to endure life’s gifts and torments as they are flung upon her . Among the other women in Mahabharata, Kunti, Gandhari, Subhadra, Uttara and few others are acknowledged as spokes in the giant wheel of fate but Draupadi is obviously the central character. While one might be tempted to think that the author is trying to create a heroine out of the Pandava queen, it would be fair to acknowledge that the whole flow of the story makes one empathize heavily with Panchaali . In the end we accept her as she was, rather than grudging her few characteristic traits and blaming her for the Pandava Kaurava war. As Krishna explains later, the war was always waiting to happen but needed some events to push it to initiation. And that is the real story of the dark princess who changed history.

Jul 23, 2009

Q and A - Vikas Swarup

The brouhaha on Slumdog Millionaire hasn’t fully subsided yet and I have already forgotten the name of the book which inspired the Academy award winning film. I was looking at the cover of the book Q and A – by Vikas Swarup and I felt there was something familiar about it. Had I heard about this book? I still could not remember. I finally looked at the cover and decided to take it.I know you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover but I decided it doesn’t harm to make a try.

I also liked the fact that it didn’t have an intriguing cover. Some covers have enticing pictures, some have the author’s name swamped all over , almost enveloping the almost invisible book title and some have intriguing covers; the word we would have used in college would have been fundoo. You didn’t even know what was striking about it, but there was a weird attraction. At times I felt the mere attraction in the cover was the fact that its author was famous or the book had won some prestigious award. Hence when I saw a white book with a big Q and A in pink-magenta combinations across it, I was rather pleased. After I finished the book, I was quite happy with the story. It was a feel-good and they lived happily ever kind of story.

I haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire yet. I have a tendency to delay watching such blockbuster hits. God only knows why. However this time it helped me to read the book without any bias of watching the story on screen earlier.

Ram Mohammed Thomas is a waiter who is punished for being lucky and his luck helps him in winning the reality quiz show “ Who Will Win a Billion “ or W3B. While reading the entire story, it feels that Thomas as he is known, is way too lucky. An orphan by abandonment, Thomas views all kind of child and human abuse but he never faces it himself. In some situations it is explained that his knowledge of English saves him from a lot of troubles. Despite Hindi being the national language, India has a die-hard attraction towards English. The knowledge of the language does make a difference all over the country but saving oneself from street gangs, child abusers with help of English is probably pushing the envelope a bit too far.

The format of the story is interesting. Once Thomas proceeds to tell his tale, it proceeds according to the different levels of the W3B game. While the story is interesting, the twists in each incident become rather predictable. Some how the whole story has a Bollywood feel to it where Thomas escapes street gangs, police rather easily and manages to kill villains as well. In the end, it just feels that Thomas is made to live different lives in the course of one story which does not even cover his entire life. Some of the stories do tug at your heart, but somehow there is this feeling of déjà vu while reading about Thomas’ travails and it is probably all due to the predictability factor emanating through out the story.

I guess I will have to applaud Danny Boyle for making this into an Oscar winner as I would have never dared to think beyond Bollywood for such a story.

Jul 15, 2009

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra

When I pulled out the book from the library shelf I decided upon taking this book home for a couple of reasons. The title of the book did ring a bell in my mind but I also registered the fact that this author was not the same one who wrote an equally thick book “A Suitable Boy”. Somehow, I am not in love with most Indian authors. I do not why I just cannot get to like their stories, their way of writing or their take on Indian way of living. Perhaps it is our education which has kind of ensconced the British English and their literature well in our minds. So when we read books we still expect similar kind of writing. At least I do (sigh). However, I did like few authors and Vikram Seth and Jhumpa Lahiri were among them. Hence the primary assumptions while selecting the book were that I would be keeping myself busy thanks to the thick volume and it would hopefully be a nice read like the author’s namesake (by first name:D ). 

Both assumptions weren’t fully correct. I realized that I really am a voracious reader and my abundant free time helps me in finishing the books earlier than either me or my family would like. My mother’s frequent complaint is that I almost gobble the books when they come from the library. I behave as they would be taken away from me very soon and hence the only action left to me is to finish reading them as soon as I can. Thankfully this volume kept me busy during the days of no phone and Internet connection. I am one of the present generation who somehow cannot live without at least 5 mins of Internet surfing a day, at home. While traveling I am usually sane without any such connection but one never knows. 

Regarding the author, I hardly remember Seth’s style of writing, but I wasn’t very pleased with Chandra’s. Perhaps it was the indulgent use of Bombay Hindi, more known as “tapori” language. With just one book I feel I am quite familiar with the street talk. Unfortunately most of the terms are used by the police and gangsters. While the writing didn’t exactly enthrall me, I really liked the story and the plot, especially the way he kept two different loops of story telling on the same events run parallely. One was happening in the present and one was telling the story from past. 

Chandra claimed to have undergone a lot of research in the beginning of the book. Hence I assume a lot of the story is based on few real-life incidents. With the intersecting lives of mafia dons, Bollywood, one would feel at many places that some characters are probably based on people we know. I haven’t figured out any till now though I am still ruminating. There are numerous characters all throughout the story. Some have lives of just few pages but their stories are very interesting and touching like Navneet behenji, Dipika. I am yet to find a male character whose life touched me! Most part of the book is about a don and a policeman investigating his death. There are countless characters and most are interconnected. The book also seems to have an invisible moral of Karma in many of the mini stories as well as the main one. Funnily or happily, the don dies a sad death while the supposedly good police man leads a happy life. However, on second thought I have read about these people ending their lives rather violently. Prabhakaran who was quite a don in his own way is probably a recent example. Overall, the book is quite an interesting read though the language really pained me. The best part of the book as mentioned already is the story and thanks to it I have been seriously wondering where the divide ends between research and fiction.