July 2018 Book Report

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Love And Marriage In Mumbai- Elizabeth Flock
 
This book had me intrigued. Its coverage in the press had me waiting to lay my hands on it. But having started reading it, I almost didn’t want to finish it, and almost gave up on writing this report. But then, a disappointing, baffling book too needs talking about. Maybe someone else has a different point of view, and will share that in response.
 
This book a hard one to classify. It is reportage, it is creative non-fiction, it is sociology, anthropology and ethnography, and all round confusion. Probably inevitable, given that the topic it covers is in the throes of some of its greatest upheavals and confusions. On top of that, it is written by an American, for whom Mumbai and India are new territory.
 
Elizabeth Flock comes to Mumbai, just out of college, and is fascinated by the filmy, ritualistic, larger than life notions of love and marriage she encounters. She wonders if there is something new and deep that Indian marriages and Indian couples in love can teach her. She is looking for such perspective in the shadow of her parents’ multiple marriages and divorces. And she has a book idea. About the kind of book she feels no one has written about India, about Mumbai. She decides to write that book.
 
Mumbai and its middle class are caught in economic and socio-political transformations. Middle class marriages seem to be going through tectonic shifts. It takes her almost ten years of repeated visits, months of being immersed in the lives and homes of her three case studies, and hundreds of hours of interviews and observation, to create this book. In the process she realizes that the impressions she first formed about love and marriage did not stay the same over time. This book is her deep deep dive into what happened to three couples through that period, and even before they became couples. There is plenty of show, and some tell, about their lives. But there is little else.
 
In the story of Maya and Veer’s surreal love affair and runaway marriage one sees a desperate grabbing for the fantasies of Bollywood. In their arriving at some sort of peace after experimenting with an ‘open’ marriage does one see pragmatism, or fatalistic resignation? Is Shahzad and Sabeena’s arranged marriage (and later issues with infertility, and a crisis of the man’s sense of self) the more typical case, closer to the reality of millions, and not just in their particular sect of Muslims, but almost all Indians? Ashok and Parvati are well-educated, professional, urban upper middle class Tamil Brahmins who get married through a matrimonial portal. Parvati is haunted by the memories of her Christian boyfriend. Ashok has never quite been able to hold on to a girl friend, and has a broken engagement behind him. Both understand that marriage is something that takes work, and that love is not always the best beginning for it.
 
The book opens with great promise, and feels unique and refreshing. But as the couple’s marriages grow and change, the narrative seems to drag, and get repetitive. The excruciating details and stretched out sequence of things tends to get boring, rather than interesting. I felt much irritation at typical ‘firangi’ mistakes in writing about India. Sharp and careful editing should have taken care to remove those bloopers. Also, Suketa Mehta’s claim on the cover that it is “Easily the most intimate account of India that I’ve read…” makes me wonder about how little he really reads about India, if at all.
 
All in all, the inside picture of love and marriage in the life of three Mumbai couples, as written up by Flock, is likely to fascinate Westerners. As an Indian having had my share of the laddo of marriage, and heard hundreds of inside stories of friends, relatives and strangers on the matter, I was left wondering as to the point of the book.

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.