Book report – Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie

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I read A God in Every Stone four years ago, and found it stunning and unforgettable. It is a very complex and layered book, contains centuries of history and references and literally digs into archeology and archives to tell a story of people caught in geo-political shifts and between betrayals of a more personal kind. It is staggeringly well researched and well imagined tale.
 
So I expected a lot from Home Fire. And it has lived up to the expectations, but it has also surprised me with how different it is from A God In Every Stone. It is very current story – an adaptation of Antigone’s story to this period in time, and it takes the old concerns and conflicts of ties of family, love, religion, and nation states, and places them in today’s world of immigration, terrorism and Jihad, and Muslim identity in the West.
 
Home Fire was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and has everything that a smash hit must have, and it is presented in great style. There are strong, memorable characters- the three siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz, the love interest Eamonn, and his politician father. Isma is the much older sister who had been almost mother to her younger twins in London for years since their mother died. Their father had been a Jihadi, long absconding from their lives. Free at last to go and pursue her own dreams independently, in America, Isma can never be free of the fallout of her family’s history.
 
Isma stands by the rules of the country that is their adopted home, above all. The younger twins are closer to each other than to their elder sister, and Aneeka is willing to go against sister and country and ‘use’ her lover to save her twin when he seeks to undo his ‘mistake’ of trying to be his father’s son. The story feels like a true life narration because of wonderful characterisation, and because of the contemporary nature of all that goes on.
 
We move through the story with trepidation through airport immigration security hold up, attempted and aborted romance in small town America, politics and fiery love and guilt in London, and Jihad in Istanbul and Syria and the climax across London and Pakistan played out to the world over television.
 
The story steps up in tension as it progresses. The choices keep getting starker and the characters more and more desperate as the plot unfolds. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly bleak ones I have read in a novel in recent times. It is so real and yet so fantastic that it could certainly be tonight’s news.
 
The book raises eternal questions about the nature of love, and the conflicting claims of family, lovers and the state, to our loyalty. In the life and deaths of its characters, we also see the longing for home, and the craving for a fixed identity. The author is masterful in braiding all of it together powerfully, and unforgettably, in a bravura piece of elegant and refined storytelling.
 
This is a memorable, classic novel you won’t forget in a hurry, and will go back to again and again to find new stories with each new reading. I really cannot add a negative point to artificially try to be more balanced in my view. I think Kamila should have got the Booker too.
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https://litmag.com/fiction/wasted/

December 26, 2017

Wasted

Kiran Chatuvedi

The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheelbefore sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.

Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.

Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.

Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.

This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.

I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.

Standing by the jheel one summer evening soon after my arrival, I had wondered too. Bulbous tentacles crisscrossed most of the jheel. Vapors of methane and carbon dioxide suffused and stilled everything—the air, water, and my thoughts. A psychedelic pink and green carpet of water hyacinth sprawled over the eutrophied waters, while below the surface life suffocated to death in a zone of depleting oxygen and fading sunlight.

I wondered about Baba Jeewan Ji, out to heal nature using his mass appeal as a Jogi—urging people to come haul out the invasive, over-competitive colonizing water hyacinth; sitting on a hunger strike to demand a heavier discharge of freshwater into the wetland from the feeder canal of the river upstream; going from farm to farm, asking owners to change the practice of monocultures of cotton and wheat and reduce the use of toxic pesticides and excessive fertilizing. Could he succeed? Would land, water, air, and all that lived off it, ever be healthy and fecund again?

Malti harbored no such hopes about the jheel. “This is a rotting place. No one comes here except the ganjdis and amlis. Druggies. No animals anymore, no deer, turtles, dolphins or otters. No fish. All dead or gone. It is not safe. Maybe it wasn’t that much of a great place when we were small. We were kids after all, and kids tolerate such a lot…but now I would not come here even for a secret meeting with someone.”

“So, is there a someone then?” I asked, seeking a thread to connect with her.

“Here, in this back of beyond? There is not a hope… there isn’t even enough for my daaj if we did find someone. You know how things have gone downhill here. It is hardly the sabz baag you somehow remember.”

“Malti, I know what has happened, but you were there with me. You must remember too… plucking ber, the thorns cutting our fingers, hiding in thejamun branches where no one could find us? The trees are gone, but not my memories. There are problems no doubt, but new problems only lead to new solutions. Baba Ji is making a huge difference too. People listen to him, and the government listens to him. That is rare.”

“That is all good for talk, for pictures in the papers and to show on TV. You will get your Ph.D. and find another place to work, get married to a nice educated man, and all that. But what will I do? I can’t wait to leave this dead wasteland. But it isn’t easy. Where will I go?”

From my earliest recollections, the jheel and its surroundings had been the highlight of the landscape of my childhood. We lived in a fertile and lush submontane region at the foot of the Dhauladhar ranges, cut across with three of the five rivers that gave the land its name. Mustard blossomed bright yellow in winter and wheat stalks turned the fields into swaying sheets of gold in summer. In the wilderness of the forests around us we sighted deer and wild boar and partridge and porcupines on many a dusky evening.

I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me.

Daddy used to drive off road into the jungles with Mummy, Malti and me on his photography expeditions. Sometimes he would take us fishing. I would sit mesmerized by the shapes and colors of the smooth riverside pebbles, imagining their journey from the glacial home of the brook down to these foothills. Malti would wade into the shallow snowmelt and scream as the chill cut into her ankles. But she would stay put in the freezing cold water, determined to catch the smaller fish with her bare hands. I was the lazy one, content to rest on the sand and stones, my thoughts riding the melody of the river.

I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me. Malti and I collected bags full of these snowy silk-cotton pods. Her mother said it was all going to go into the pillows that would be made for our wedding trousseaus. Malti always managed to hoard much more than I.

Geese and herons dotted the wetland between fields and forest. We made fun of the bagla bhagat, the heron pretending to be a pious yogi standing in austerity on one leg, while focusing its gaze intently under water to catch the unsuspecting fish.

There were no books in Malti’s house and her parents could barely be called literate. But they knew how to read the land, the signs of the seasons and the hum of the trees. We watched in awe as migratory flocks of birds landed each winter exactly as Malti’s Mataji predicted. When the gorgeous, massive Siberian cranes landed on a little sandbar island on the other side of thejheel, we took it for granted as the way it had to be. That had been their roosting spot all winters since the time of the first Guru, and even earlier, said Mataji. When I shared this with my mother, Mummy read out the lines written by Guru Nanak back in the sixteenth century alluding to their flight here from the frozen Arctic.

I had held onto these images. Malti would not reminisce with me about how we roamed the land, played in these waters and climbed the tress, and watched the birds and copied their calls. Times had changed, she said, and she had moved on. So had much else. The cranes had stopped coming a long time ago. I found out from the internet that the migration had stopped because the birds themselves were on the brink of extinction, faced with habitat loss and dire dangers on the migratory routes. And worse, that if they did somehow come now, Shahpur would not be the place that could host them anymore.

But once upon a time it had all been real, those evenings of chucking pebbles into the jheel, the baths in the tubewells, the weaving of ropes out of wild grasses, and playing imaginary royal battles as brave queens in thesarkanda beds. We had known and understood the land and its creatures well, even as children. We knew its dangers, its treasures and its pleasures and had worked at our daily negotiation with it. Fertile, lush, rich in diversity, dangerous, nurturing and threatening…it spoke to us in many hues, offered up many blessings, and filled our senses with wonder. Knowing it as we did, we were at home. We were watchful, and yet we surrendered. We were different strands woven together into a seamless tapestry. Perfectly embedded notes in a collective symphony. Jarring notes might have disrupted the flow in the recent past, but now there were corrective forces afoot.

The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence.

I saw reason for hope. Baba Jeewan Ji was onto a great initiative, and it was part of my research to monitor the wetland toxicity data before and after his interventions. He was working closely with the University, and for a man following the ancient path of the ascetics he was surprisingly attuned to modern science, and fascinated by the internet, data and laboratory work. I saw something new and better coming to Shahpur. The project for reviving the wetland had been going spectacularly well. People listened to Baba Ji because of his rustic speech and folk references, and he built his program of action on sound scientific facts and methodology. I started spending more time with Baba Ji, and Malti and my childhood memories soon receded from my everyday routine.

The one habit of my childhood that did not fade away was my daily recitation of Gurbani. The Japji Sahib every morning, and the Sukhmani Sahib each evening. And sometimes, I would read the Janm Sakhis, or the Barah Maha, and would be reminded that every season and every life form is part of the same circle of creation. Daddy had introduced me to the Barah Maha verses, which praise nature’s bounty as a celebration of the Supreme in all the seasons. The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence. With every turn of the sphere we live on, nature shifts gears, and the land sheds one ensemble of its bouquet of flowers and fruits, for another. The mango and the aak and the dhatura, the mosquitoes and gnats and the bumblebees and the birds, the water reeds and the soft spring grasses, and the dark dry bare twigs of winter, are all emanations of the same force, rising from and dissolving into the One creator.

The jheel has changed much over a few months. The cover of hyacinth reduced enough to let sunlight reach into the depths. Little tadpoles swarmed in the shallows next to where Malti and I sat on the sandbank. Frogs croaked in the sarkanda cluster behind us. Far ahead on the horizon the Shivalik hills rolled on towards the snows of the Dhauladhar. A couple of days more of monitoring and then I would be done with this part of the research. Follow-up data would be gathered for another year, and then we would have conclusive proof of a reversal. I could feel vitality and new life rising already around me.

In a few years there would again be found on the menu sweet and juicy mulberry, the tangy astringent palate teasing jamun, and the sharp and acidicber, and not just kiwi and cherry and Alphonso mango imported from miles away. Bahera and lasura would once again be part of the repertoire of pickles made locally. Organic farming of native fruit trees was being received well in the farms in the region. The network of Viraasat Kheti volunteers was growing in numbers and resources. The good work and good word of a few was now rippling across in wider and wider circles. It was better than a return to memories of childhood. It was a step into new beginnings. I had so wanted Malti to be apart of this work. But she would not agree.

The morning Malti met me here, just outside our site office, I had let my hopes rise. “So all is well with your project work? When do you wind up and leave for home?”

“Maybe in two three days. I have not decided.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know…depends on the thesis. But I am more or less done with this work. Next are my exams for the lecturship.“

“I have go away from here Raavi. I really have to. Could I come with you?”

“Oh of course, Malti. Mummy and Daddy Ji will also be so happy to see you. Oh, I should have asked you myself.” I hugged Malti and wondered why I had felt that I had not quite rekindled my childhood connection with her. She was still my almost-sister. She was going home with me. I had just not been able to see it sooner.

“Raavi, you need to know something before you take me home.” She hesitated, looking at me with a questioning, assessing gaze.

“Is it money you are worried about? The travel expense? I should be able to manage.”

“No. I have a new job. Or a project you could say. But I need your help.” Her chin shook as she gulped back more words. She sat down near me, on the sandbank and stared out at the wetland.

“Have you signed up with Baba Ji’s team then? Good! Better late than never. You can see the lake is already so much better. It is a great start.”

“No Raavi. The jheel is much better. I had not believed it could change. Baba Ji and you were right. But that’s not what I mean.” She kept staring out across the water.

“So what is this project then? Growing organic vegetables, like some of the farms around here have started?”

She did not turn to look at me. “There is this couple, very nice people, from LA. They are paying me well. But obviously it is a secret, and I need to go away. It is surrogacy, Raavi.”

Words died in my throat. My arms were so leaden I could not lift them to reach out and touch her.

She looked at me, chin up and eyes coldly boring into mine.

“Here everything was banjar. At least I will make good money with this. Just tell me if I can come with you.”

I nodded weakly. We were together in this. Just like in the days of our childhood.

Kiran Chaturvedi is a sociologist who has worked as a qualitative consumer research specialist for many years. She lives in Gurgaon, India with her family and pets. This is her first published fiction.

March 2018 Book Report .Ghachar Ghochar.

Ghachar Ghochar

 

By Vivek Shanbhag. Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur

Meeting Mr. Shanbhag recently made me go back to his internationally acclaimed, translated into English novel. This is also the time I have been paying more attention to translations in general, and I must say that if you haven’t been reading outside the borders of English language originals, please start to do so.

Ghachar Ghochar is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The nonsense title phrase is easily understood as something terribly tangled, and needs no translation. But the rest of the book could not have reached non-Kannada speakers without the brilliant trans-creation. And that is something all discerning readers can be grateful for. Because this a novel that is not to be missed if you appreciate a finely crafted, solidly rooted story of large themes and concerns, that is as subtle as it is disconcerting.

Ghachar Ghochar is a scathing social and moral indictment, a detailed empirical study, and a precise self-reflection of the unnamed narrator on himself and his rather toxic, enmeshed family. Nothing is quite as it seems, in the claustrophobic life in the narrator’s home. The early privations of the family and its later wealth change something in the nature of power, loyalty and obedience between them. They remain a unit ready to defend and attack as one, through the change of fortunes, from attacking and crushing ants to breaking any intrusion or opposition in any form from anyone inside or outside the home. Into this tribalism comes the wife of the narrator, an outsider who refuses to assimilate and become a cog in the system of daily cruelties and blind obedience. Her independent stance and critical eye on what goes on around her are the undoing of much, in horrific ways.

The novel leads us to the edge and then does not tie up any lose ends. The reader can form their own conclusions with a mix of dread and hope against hope.
At 115 pages this is one of the slimmest books you can find so go get it if you haven’t yet. I am sure you will be left reeling.

Not A Missed Connection

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Amit curses the Delhi summer. He has been away for two weeks in misty Arunachal Pradesh, and his body seems to have forgotten how to transit back. Endless heat and dust and paseena, and the Metro carriage full to bursting are not conducive for a man to keep his cool. The thought of the new semester at college from tomorrow doesn’t hold its usual eager charm. Not after the setback to his doctoral plans. He doesn’t really even want to do the PhD; it isn’t the label he cares for. All he wants is to read, to discuss, and to teach. But he has to earn his keep in this world.

“Thand rakh yaar” is a lofty idea favored by his trek guide Dorje, back in the mountains, but that is so impractical here, velcroed to each other’s reluctant bodies as they all are. It may be better to get off and wait for another less crowded train, thinks Amit, and steps off at the next halt.

Peak hours in the sky too, he notes, looking at the airplanes that streak across the kaleidoscopic evening sky, up above the Qutub Minar and the Mehrauli forest. It is almost sunset, and the hydrogen fireball that powers all of life is slipping out of sight. It has been twenty years since Amit had his first look the Qutub Minar and the fascination has not faltered. He still gets his students out here for quite a few lectures, and spends winter weekends at one or the other monument lawns across the Capital.

Amit slips his backpack off, and sits down on a bench. The bag is beginning to weigh him down in the heat. It has been a long day since he left Itanagar early in the morning. The Pepsi he bought at Delhi airport is still somewhat cool, and he sips the leftover before chucking the bottle in the dustbin. The trains come and go, blasting him with a rush of hot air. The crowds of passengers are thinning, he can see.

“No extra baggage. Empty what’s no use.” Dorje’s words come back to Amit as he opens the cover of his bag and lifts out a thick spiral bound document. This is the useless baggage he has carried all through his holiday in defiance of Dorje’s instructions and checks. It is his PhD proposal. The one his HOD has rejected two weeks ago. Amit has not opened it these two weeks, and he has thought of little else, while in the midst of awe inspiring earthly wonders and novel experiences with different man-made systems in a new place. He knows he will not be doing anything with it now. What use is it to dwell over what cannot be? The deadline for submitting a proposal looms ahead in a few days. His HOD has left the university, handpicked for a place on the Council of Historical Research. Some committee to re-look Indian history or something such, Amit heard, after his proposal was rejected and the HOD’s leaving was announced, all on the same day.

Amit knows a new HOD joins tomorrow. Someone from Oxford, relocating to India. Some Dr. Amandeep Sandhu. Amit has not bothered to read the circular in any detail. How does it matter now? He wonders if it might be the time to move on, to apply for a place in a university abroad, what with the ghar wapsi of so many from there. But for now, he still has to find and submit a new topic for his PhD thesis. Brave New World may be his favorite book, but using it as part of historical scholarship seems too brave an idea, even in this new workplace. Amit is sure he cannot – or does not want to – think of something else soon enough to make the deadline. He is not a quick turn around person, in most things. Almost everything about Amit is slow, considered, and gentle. “Thehrav hai ladke mein”, as his Daadi used to say.

Amit leaves the document on the bench, closes the bag, and lifts it on his shoulders. Adjusting the weight, he scans the platform. A train is headed his way, its headlight dancing a racy number on the tracks. The pages of the document flutter in the powerful draught pushed ahead by the speeding train. Amit watches the pages straining against the hot air. For two weeks Dorje has urged him to drop all that is not needed. Dorje knows all about survival, about what to carry and what to leave behind. Amit lunges for the document, and flings it on the tracks. He boards the almost empty compartment.

Amit has always been happy to be outside the limelight. Doing his work quietly, doing it well, and finding the time to indulge his pet hobbies of trekking and sketching monuments. As a history lecturer in a government college till recently, he has been quite out of the race for publishing in professional journals, and is never found jostling for a seat on the conference circuit merry go round. He is popular with his students, as he is a kind and concerned teacher. He is liked well enough by his colleagues, and is a great cook and keeps a well stocked bar at his rented flat. But everyone senses there is an Amit they can never touch. No wonder he is still a bachelor, they say when he is not within earshot. Who spends their free time always in the library, always at bookshops, always reading at home? And then not even publish papers?

Amit keeps his fiction ambitions to himself. He cannot face the endless questions any mention of his one published historic fiction brings. You wrote a historic love story? Are you a romantic? Why aren’t you married? When are you getting married? What are you writing next, why don’t you write more? Why don’t you focus on academic writing more? Why don’t you do your PhD? Hardly anyone he knows outside his students’ circle has read the book, though.

Everyone has ruled out that he is gay, finding he makes no distinctions between the way he is equally courteous to both men and women. But they all agree he is too fussy, and a bit strange. He has opted out of all whatsapp groups even though he has a smartphone. He objects to jokes that laugh at men, women, married, single, queer, Punjabi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Bengali…. Irish, Jews. Well, some people are just born serious, they say. But he is a nice sort, they all agree, Means no harm. So they leave him alone, except when they invite themselves over, and he lets them come and feast on his food and drink his wine and then politely asks them to help him do the dishes. They don’t mind, not particularly. At the university he has now joined, in fact, he is a sort of trendsetter. At every party at all faculty homes he is invited to, the guests help clear up and do the dishes. He has so far avoided moving to campus housing. The Metro is a boon.

Amit stretches his tense and tired body. Legs outward, back against the seat back, arms upward. The coach is empty, practically. The contained spaciousness inside the carriage feels soothing and cool. There is one woman seated near the exit. She is reading a book. He cannot make out which one.  Amit finds it fascinating that she hasn’t looked up at all from her book since he has stepped in. He hasn’t been able to take his eyes off her, though he is trying to be very discreet about it. The train has slipped underground and the windows face a black emptiness. Amit makes himself turn his face in the opposite direction.

He must think of what he has to do from tomorrow. Now, this HOD, who is coming in. He must be savvier and sense the ideological leanings of this one before he does anything about the new proposal. The thought feels like a heavy burden. A stifling of everything Amit lives by. He does not wish to put anyone under a microscope, to feel them out like a hunter. He feels cornered himself, shrinking with the familiar sense of being held back. His father and his uncle pressing their hands on his shoulders, and shaking him. “Why can’t you help out in the summer holidays? When will you learn this work if all your time will be spend stuck to a useless book?” Surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and neighbors in their modest chawl room near Opera House, Amit has spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, walking the streets of South Bombay, and then indoors at the dark and cool public library a few blocks away, and in the Irani Café across the library after library hours. A studious boy, who preferred to discuss books about imagined scenarios that didn’t involve buying and selling fast moving commodities, he has been secretly pitied and publicly scolded for his lack of smarts all his childhood.

“History! Who studies history, for Narayan’s sake…what will you do, be a school master? And live in a village?” The family had been shaken by his choice of a college out of town. “Delhi? Junglee place it is! They eat non-veg all the time, and drink whiskey and beer. Why are you doing this to us, haven’t we let you do your silly book worship without making a fuss all these years? Keep reading, keep writing your little articles. Peanuts you get paid for them, but we don’t want money from you. Why ruin your life now? Correspondence B.A. is possible, why don’t you do that, if you really want the degree so much?” It is hard for Amit to feel his own breath. He stands up with a small jump. The woman’s head jerks towards him. “You alright?” She stares at him with questioning brown eyes. Her voice is like the flow of the rivers he has been boating across till just yesterday. Perky, and quick and sweet.

Amit glances around. He is embarrassed. He sits down again and shakes his head at the woman. “I am sorry”.

“No problem. But are you okay?” She pulls a bottle of water out of her bag and stretches her arm towards him. He gets up and walks towards her across the compartment. The water is chilled, the bottle is some sort of thermos. It feels lovely. Comforting.

“I am a bit stiff. Just back from a long trek.” It feels nice to stand, to stretch up a bit on his toes, to flex his hands and arms at the holding rail.

“My station is up next.” The woman is standing next to him now, putting her book into her bag. The red spirals are scribbled over, but there can be no mistake. It is the book he hasn’t been able to get of his mind, Brave New World.

“You are reading my favorite book in the whole world.” Amit hastens to tell her, as the train slows down. His own voice is quickening, his heartbeat racing.

The woman smiles and her eyes shine at him. “Wow, it is my favorite too. I go back to it all the time. I am Amu.” Her skin is soft, her hand small and her grip firm, and Amit catches a whiff of khus. The doors slide open and she takes her hand away from his, and steps out. The doors slide shut even as Amit takes a step forward and shouts out his name.

She is waving at him and laughing as the train moves away, and Amit hasn’t felt this light and happy in years. He will meet her again, he is sure. She will find him. He will look for her. She seemed to be an office goer, from her rather formal blue pantsuit. Back from a business trip from somewhere abroad, going by the airline tags on her bag. He pulls at his earlobes. His station is two stops away. He begins to hum a tune. It is the first time he has actually talked to someone on the Metro.

—-

Amit’s morning lectures are over. The new HOD had called a staff meeting over lunch. Amit is the first to arrive, a little before the said time. The office assistant is arranging chairs around the large worktable. In his Bengali accented Hinglish he tells Amit, “Woh bahar gaya, phone ka signal bery bad. I go tell you here. ” The office looks completely different from the last time Amit has visited. There are books piled on the wall mounted floater shelves. The walls are otherwise bare but have a new coat of bright yellow paint. Cartons still unopened are crowded into one corner. Amit moves towards the pile of books. He cannot stop his hand from reaching out. It is incredible, but there can be no doubt. It is the same book. The same scribbles on the red spirals. He opens it. In black ink, well-formed words proclaim “For Amu. With hope, love and blessings, Dad.” Amit is shaking, holding the book close to his chest. A faint whiff of lignin, and then khus. A voice he has not forgotten since last evening whispers softly in his ear. “You didn’t tell me your name in the train, so shall we start with that now?”

“Good afternoon Dr. Sandhu”, calls out Amit’s colleague Sameer’s loud voice. Amit turns from the bookshelf and watches the woman from the train move to a chair around the table. The HOD is about to start the meeting with her staff.

 

Book Report : The Librarian

 

February Book Report
The Librarian by Kavitha Rao
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A book about books is always going to draw me in, but that it does so while being a dark and disturbing one about a destructive obsession, now that is a new one. The fact is that I have been in love with a couple of libraries long after having been away from them for years, and the vivid descriptions of the library setting in this book had me hooked from the start. Just as much of a hook were the highly relatable main protagonists, a little bookworm of a girl and a librarian who cares only about keeping his library going against all odds. I could relate very personally to the story and its setting even though I must clarify that I bear no resemblance to any character or thought in the book. Just so you know.
I bought this novel at the TimesLitFest Bangalore a few weeks ago, where I met the author. I was intrigued by the backstory she shared about the inspiration for the book. What a spin the artist’s imagination can give to what they come cross.
The Librarian is set in these times, and has a very current ring to it. It is a fast paced character and plot driven story with quick twists and turns and keeps the reader engaged and curious. The author works wonderfully well with a rather unusual approach to the theme of relative ethics, crime and corruption in the setting of a staid and decrepit library. The book is also the story of the coming of age of a precocious book worm and her later day disenchantment from the hero of her childhood.
The writing is polished and smooth and the story weaves in realistic portrayal of a part of Mumbai and some true historical events. And being about a library and a couple of book mad people who run the library, it also often has references to many books and authors. I read the book at one stretch because I just had to know where it was headed. The end is sad though inevitable, and I wonder how difficult was it for the author to give a negative turn to the character who is such a devoted book lover.

January Book Report.Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. By Gail Honeyman

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
By Gail Honeyman

I picked up this book the favourite way I like to explore and buy books. I regularly walk into bookstores and browse many volumes. Linger over blurbs and jackets and flip through the pages. And then buy some because they make me want to spend more time with them than just the moments or hours possible in bookstores.
Anyway, coming to the book. I picked it up because of the catchy curious title. And something about the way the blurb was framed. I could sense this was a story with an emotional load I was going to savour. And I was right.
This debut novel set in modern day Glasgow is so refined and polished and subtle that I wonder how long the author held the story in her mind before it actually got published. And what a story it is. A gut wrenching tale of loneliness, soul damage, social anomie and being saved, of being on the outside and wanting to fit in while being clueless; at the same time a story filled with gentleness and warmth and finally, hope. And keeps a genuinely light funny attitude to things without sounding clever or over sophisticated.
Eleanor is the narrator who is an odd one who leads a lonely life of fixed routine and simple habits. We realise soon enough that this is her safe holding phase after a traumatic childhood and an unsettled youth. She wants to be left alone and yet she longs for love and can get pretty delusional about it too.
The story starts with Eleanor attempting to make a change. And then relentlessly keeps bringing change and novelty to Eleanor, and with ever so natural nudges the house of cards that holds memories and emotions in check comes tumbling down.
Eleanor is by chance pulled in to help save a stranger’s life, and then into befriending his family. In all this, she also becomes friends with her office colleague Raymond. All the while, she also has an almost delusional crush on a no good musician. From a recluse and office robot Eleanor starts shifting into someone who meets people, goes out and starts to dress well and groom herself more stylishly. She cries without warning. She takes risks. She is ready to be different, she thinks. She wants her life to be different, to mean something, to be fine. She is desperate for something to change, for the ‘correct’ love to rescue her somehow. But of course life is not a simple wish list. Eleanor’s delusions come crashing to the ground as soon as she tries to make them real. But while she breaks down along with her dreams, she is finally able to come to grips with the truth about herself, and reach out for help offered by her new friend, and to overcome a lifetime of fear and fabrication.
The author shows immense control over a suspenseful narrative while threading a plot through past and present. I don’t want to say more about the story as that would be giving away too much, but I can talk about the intelligence with which the narrative unfolds. It is a lesson in crafting a gripping drama in the first person. The voice is intimate yet never lazily familiar, and helps each of the characters become real people we know and care for and cry for and hate and feel scared of. I love how the book remains light and nimble and conversational while it goes at difficult themes and macabre minds. In the end it feels like a simple good versus bad kind of story that leaves the reader full of hope for the characters, and with a paisa wasool feeling for themselves.
A recommended read if you want an old fashioned drama with innocents and villains and good samaritans and a few twists, and a redemptive closure, laced with wit, intelligence and lots of warmth and grace.

It Ends With Us – A novel by Colleen Hoover. A Review.

My April Review. Kind of late, but still within my target of the month. Triggered by some things read recently about the abused wife of an Indian-born Techie CEO in USA.
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“Why did she not leave him?”

“Why do you stay on?”

“If you take it, you deserve it.”

We have seen statements like those above. In the media. We have heard them from friends and in the family. We may have made them ourselves.

Judgments. Opinions. Rarely based on personal experience or insight. Rarely made with any degree of compassion. Often, a one up-manship. Or, a satisfied smugness, born of a safe place. Or, a resentment, born of denial.

Colleen Hoover is a New York Times best selling author who writes entertaining, contemporary novels about a certain kind of people in a certain milieu. ‘It Ends With Us’ though, is a very different kind of book from her; a work of fiction that derives directly from her own life. It has a message and a life lesson woven into the plot. With this book her avowed goal is to help people see things in a different light, and possibly find a way out.

This was not a book I had particularly wanted to read. It happened to be the selection of my book club group for March, and then they changed their mind. I already had a copy, and had started reading it when the change happened. So I carried it with me on my solo holiday to Kerala, not really intending to read it, but to give it away to a friend I would be meeting there.

And then, one night while it was raining and a rough high tide rolled up on the beach across my room window, I picked it up with a vague idea of studying the author’s plotting technique. I had a notebook and pencil ready.

I ended up reading the book over the next few days, carrying it with me to a fisherman’s home, to a beachside diner and around the hotel grounds. While Colleen Hoover plots smoothly and writes in a breezy, witty, chatty, easy to read style, those are not the reasons I kept reading this book. To me, the book is worth reading and worth reviewing for the compelling story it tells about the pernicious cocktail of love and abuse. And it is told with sensitivity, insight and honesty, coming from the author having lived that life, and her generous and kind decision to come out in public with it.

In her twenties, Lily bloom is trying to find her place in the word as an independent professional adult. She has come a long way from a childhood spent watching her mother being abused at home. The story starts right after the funeral of her father, whom she hated. She has refused to say anything in his praise at the funeral. It pains her that her mother never had strength to leave her abusive husband. She has her own past sorrows, and a journal where she has recorded her teenage turmoil in letters (never sent) to TV host Ellen. She is sure her life will be different from her mother’s.

Lily comes to live in Boston, works hard, falls in love, dreams of marriage. She is a girl with spunk, and a sensitive and kind heart. She is a girl who once sheltered and fed and fell in love with a homeless teenage squatter. She sticks to her ideals and values herself and is a loyal friend. Life seems to be finally offering her all her wishes on a platter- her dream of owning a florist shop comes true, the handsome, rich and brilliant neurosurgeon Ryle Kincaid agrees to ditch his aversion of a committed relationship to get engaged to her. She can start to put her difficult childhood behind her.

Typical to a bestseller’s arch, and maybe real life, this is all too good to be true. There are horrible things that start to happen. Shadows emerge. Past secrets get exposed. Trust is broken and fears have to be faced. The present seems to resemble a forgotten nightmare. Love is put to cruel tests. There is a price to be paid, sacrifices to be made. What will you stay true to – to the one you love, though they hurt you, and let the cycle of abuse and indignity continue? Who has to take responsibility to heal themselves? Does being in love mean giving up responsibility for your own integrity? Does being in love also allow for boundaries? When do you know it is time to back out? How do you deal with the fear of losing all you craved for and have found?

The author takes you through the tortured back and forth of a relationship that stumbles from extremes of passion and commitment to jealous rage, mistrust, violence and regret. Lily starts to find a new understanding of her mother, once she finds herself in the same shoes. She can relate to what, as a child had seemed sheer cowardice and a shameful lack of spine. She can understand why her mother had stayed on. And she has to ask herself- can she be the person who will be different? Can she muster what it will take?

The author does a commendable job of presenting both sides of the picture, when it comes to the perpetrators and victims of abuse in loving relationships. There are no pure black as sin villains, no pure white as driven snow victims. Just real people with real problems, real hopes, real personalities, who are making the best they can of the cards dealt to them. People who decide they have a choice, to change the way they play those cards. Or not. And we are made to feel like we can see why each of them does what they do.

Lily comes into her own finally with her brave choice. And for that, she is willing to pay the biggest price. Because, somethings cannot be allowed to continue, no matter how much you love what they bring to you, and how much it pains to let them go. Therefore, the title, It Ends With Us.

Colleen’s skill is in making a story about the most painful choices in life seems like a feel good read. There is no shying away from the gore, and yet, there is a happy ending. The only issue I have with the way the book is the way the story ends. Lily’s bravery and her difficult choice seems less of a stand-alone act of strength with the twist at the end. In the novel the author has clearly tried to make things seem easier and rosier for her fictional characters than it was in the real life inspiration for this book. Most people in such difficult situations stay on because they fear the unknown outside the walls of the known hell. They keep hoping the better moments will prevail more often. They cling to every kind word, every positive thing that happens. They cannot imagine being on the other side, which looks like an even darker void. I wish the author had not gone for a neat tying up of all lose ends, and left Lily unclear about the shape of her future, yet firm and clear about the choice she made for the present.

Except for this one cop out at the end, I still think It Ends With Us makes a very important point. That we are the only ones who can chose to break legacies of abuse – as the ones who heap it on others, or as the ones who are its targets. It is never our job to be another’s punching bag, or to keep hoping against hope that their ‘better nature’ will prevail in the face of all proof to the contrary. And while making this point about taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions, the book also shows us why so many of us caught in situations of abuse in intimate relationships are helpless to break out of the cycle of enmeshment. It shows how difficult it is to gather back a sense of self, when enmeshed in toxic love. It lays bare in beautiful excruciating detail the guts and self-discipline required to honor one’s own dignity, the fears to be dealt with on the way. It brings a lot of insight and wisdom and empathy of a survivor to a topic laden with much judgment and prejudice. By sharing her own life story as the starting point for this novel, Colleen Hoover offers redemptive hope for all who dream of a better tomorrow in their intimate relationships.

I hope this book makes many more people feel brave enough to decide that It Ends With Us. It must.

Why Does Chetan Bhagat Get Your Goat

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I am no fan of Chetan Bhagat (CB). The mediocrity of craft in CB’s books keeps me away from them. His tweets and columns and speeches are often terribly offensive and rather unintelligent and crass.

I cannot wish him away just as I cannot wish away the reality of Dengue and Chikungunya. Some try, of course.

UK-based journalist-writer Salil Tripathi says “He exists for readers who are new to the English language and new to the idea of reading.” Author-columnist Santosh Desai agrees, “It marks a breakthrough of sorts – writing in English becoming popular in a mainstream sort of a way, moving away from a desire to exclude, speaking to a new set of aspirations with simple but resonant stories, cocking a snook at elitism.”

Moving away from a Desire to Exclude! I am not going to focus on the Desire, but lets just go with the word Exclude. Along comes CB and INCLUDES. Of course he has devoted fans, won’t you, if you spoke for and to someone, about things that they mull over, dream of, and if you took their thoughts as worth any attention? When the arbiters of ‘taste’ and ‘art’ and ‘culture’ made these multitudes feel not quite ‘suitable’, not quite ‘in’and ‘just like them’?

Ranting against CB might do a lot of things for the one who rants, and for those who go “yeah!” with those rants. It does not change anything for those who are his fans and readers. It makes them love him all the more. It shows, in fact, a rather close-minded, one size fits all mentality of entitlement among the ranters. A smugness that comes from a lack of any examination of their own position.

A refusal to understand or acknowledge that there are logical, real reasons behind his success, and not CB’s magical ability to ‘fool a generation of readers’ is an arrogant refusal to face colossal shifts and new fault lines in our nation. It is a refusal to see who holds what kind of cultural, economic and social power.

So, I‘d go beyond. I’d like to offer explanations, understanding, and hold out a hopeful call for a more creative response to the world’s realities.

I am a compulsive student of society. So I take an interest in what makes CB click so well with millions of my desh-waasis (English and non-English reading), and many in foreign lands too. (Yes, his books are translated in to many Indian and foreign tongues- French and Japanese included). He opened a new market segment for books, created a new breed of readers. He does not necessarily have to be the one who helps them evolve as well. Bacche ki jaan loge kyaa? He is not God, even though his stamina and self-belief might make him a demi-god to those who don’t know better.

In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them? What do we have to offer them, instead, that will be resonant and connecting? Which voice will speak to their yearnings, and can someone help them find a more sophisticated and refined, nuanced awareness of that yearning?

Respect another’s experience and life view, because it comes from a different place. Would you be you had you been in their place? Too much to ask, I know. I got carried away. Why be so serious? WHY ever not?

Market forces understand consuming power. Money talks. Sales figures are the kingmakers. What is to rant about? Don’t like what the system throws up? Want to rant against the real root of things, and not the symptoms, maybe? Rant against the forces of consumerism, which turn everything into a market product. Give it a thought.

Sadly for the ‘English’ types, CB got on to the hotline too easy. And then the gods of the market put all their armies at his disposal. He keeps going. It pays him handsomely. Why would he do any different? Once he hit the mark, non-book markets came to cash in on him. He sold out. Given his clout should he choose better? Maybe, maybe he can’t. Would you? Have others? Give it a thought!

Look at the basic premise that the advertising and marketing industry works on. Seriously, GIVE IT ALL A THOUGHT. A lot of thought.

It is a free world, people. No, it is a ‘free’-market world, specifically. When CB first came into the market he had a unique and novel product. Five Point Someone spoke to a segment of youth about things no one had publicly talked about, but which were ripe for articulation. He did it soothingly, gently, without making the reader uncomfortable. In the newly liberalizing Indian middle class, comfort was at a high premium.

My neighbor told me excitedly that on reading this book, she felt she could understand where her husband came from, a little better. And she thanked CB for it. This was a Loretto school educated Delhi University girl married to an IIT IIM boy. That segment may not be his core audience anymore, but give the devil his due- he spoke to someone’s heart.

CB has moved on to other topics. He picks the stories carefully; with studied deliberation I am sure. Then, he plays the market. He touches on pain points but does not go for the jugular. He gives you resonance, but does not break your heart. That is his choice. And the reader’s too. We cannot rant against that. C’mon, not everyone wants to be shown all the skeletons in their cupboard. You cannot give babies real knives and scissors to play with. There are a few who are born to high art. For the rest it takes growing into. The consumer society public discourse and media does not help that growth. It wants to paint a utopian, no difficult questions scenario, where every answer is achievable, every problem solvable with something readymade off the shelf. Like it is with the situations and characters in CB’s novels. Or it wants to scare you about impending doom. There is no nuance.

Give it a thought.

Having seen that he could catch reader’s attention, and a slice of the book market, CB turned bolder. Tier two and tier three towns, the lesser known engineering colleges and regular graduates with dreams fuelled by liberalization and globalization of the job-market were a big market hungering to hear about people like them. People whose young lives had changed in unimagined ways in a matter of very few years. The narratives of their parents were a misfit in their new world. Nor could they relate to the writers who wrote in ‘elite’ English for the elites readers. This was the setting ripe for One Night @The Call Centre. Lets not forget, this was the time when “most people like us’ sneered at those taking up call center jobs.

How judgy is it of some of us to decide that people different from us must adhere to our tastes and not like what connects with them?

The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism. Quite lacking in anything educative for the seeker of good reading guidance, or for someone looking to develop a higher order taste in reading, and offering nothing to help readers understand what makes CB a poor writer. There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB. ‘Tilmilahat’. It captures the essence of the reaction.

I saw the film Two States with a ladyfriend who loved the book and the film because it was the story of her life. Who is to judge the value of her fondness for what holds meaning for her at such a personal, deep level?

I found my tailor reading Half-Girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of the book. He said he found it realistic, and enjoyable. I got a copy and read it (it was a drag, honestly) to know what was working for this book. As a piece of art, and for its craft, I could trash the book. But I admired it as a product. Could have been better. But then, CB never claims perfection. Just that he sells. DDLJ sold. Dil Chahta Hai sold. Both left me cold. But they were cult hits, I keep hearing. Why? Give it a thought.

On a recent visit to the parlor, I was reading Ramachandra Guha’s massive tome, India after Gandhi, while getting a pedicure. The boy attending to me was a young lad from Madhubani, sweet and curious and confident. He talked in English, and asked me to correct him if needed, so he could improve. He asked questions about the topics in the book. We discussed the role of mass media, book publishing, the role of English as the language of power and knowledge. And I wondered if there was a simpler, easy to read version of this history book I could recommend to him. I am sure the same boy could read CB. And that is the underserved market we have in this country, hungry for so much. Junk will be lapped up as greedily as long as it is available and somewhat understood. As of now, all this pedicure boy can perhaps reach for, in English, is CB. Will there be a better book for him to read in English soon?

I want to end with this old quote from … http://danieldmello.blogspot.in/2010/03/why-we-hate-chetan-bhagat.html

“CB’s work is mediocre….it isn’t snobbishness to find a piece of work mediocre and reject it for being so. But as to the question of holding the creators and their fans in contempt for patronising mediocrity, and denying them any form of attention, that’s just wrong, and could well be snobbishness….. Some of them read his books because they don’t know any better or they don’t enjoy reading good Indian fiction or contemporary international literature, or even the classics. No wonder then that they worship Chetan Bhagat. …. Is this Chetan’s fault? Of course not. He didn’t force all these millions of Indians to buy or read his books. He simply used his natural talent to write within his capacity, and the masses happened to love his work. Why blame Chetan for the reading habits of the masses? Our anger at Chetan Bhagat’s success could actually be our displaced anger at the masses….. if you’re a lover of good literature, and are amazed by the constant attention CB gets, my advice is to ignore it. That’s right. We are an evolving society. Until we all evolve to a point we we appreciate good literature, we should realise that there will always be some people who will enjoy reading CB. What’s more, no one’s forcing you to read his books. “

For those who still want to stay angry, is being angry and full of hate all we can do? Can we instead turn our anger to something more positive, creative and better?

Give it a thought.

 

 

 

 

Fiction by Chance.

Musings as we head into another writing workshop this weekend.

Our next workshop is round the corner. ‘Tick- tock it is 30th”. On Sunday. A full day of inner connect, discovering one’s voice, and learning the art and craft of writing. Mentor author Milan Vohra will be with us to share some readings from her works and to discuss romance writing in the current urban Indian set up, YA writing and much more. She will also of course review the writing we do during the day. I have a piece all ready to be reviewed and critiqued. And I plan to write some fresh pages too, while at the workshop itself. Because the energy, the synergy, the sparks flying off and igniting our creativity have to be simply experienced first hand to know their power.

In eager anticipation of what unfolds anew for all of us on 30th August. In this process, truly, the journey is also the destination.

When I think back to how much I have learnt and grown in terms of my writing skills, in the year and half that we have been running Write & Beyond workshops and events, my mind boggles at the results.From being a person who could only ever think of writing in terms of non fiction, and not even ever be able to write a simple short story for a school assignment, to now penning my debut fiction novel, I have been through an incredible progression. Last week I completed a short story of some 3000 words, and shared it on a public forum. This was a first for me. All I have written for public consumption till last week – save an extract from my WIP first novel, as a entry for a contest at the Bangalore Lit Fest 2014, has been non-fiction;  articles, reviews, feature posts, blog writing and professional, analytical non-fiction writing.

And I only have the happy happenstance of Write & Beyond to thank for my venturing into fiction, for being the seeding ground of my tryst with fiction writing. Things come together and shape you path when you are ready. I was ready without my knowing it. But ready I was, and something, some power out there knew what was needed. The dots connected. Passion found purpose. Purpose found supporters. And a whole new movement was born. And I marvel as I see it grow every day. A path was shown and I walked. And here I am now, thrilled that I can write in ways I thought were not ever going to be mine. And even more thrilling and satisfying is the fact that through Write & Beyond I share my learnings with others on a similar journey. And that makes me learn more, better and deeper.

Hail happenstance and hail holding on to a dream. And here is wishing our ‘Tick Tock It is 30th’  writing workshop all the best.