31 July 2007

Beastly tales from here & there

Author: Vikram Seth
Pages: 124
Price: 250
Genre: Verse
Publication :Penguin India
Publishing Date: 1992 (first)

Fun with fables

I've never been much into verse, if you exclude that brilliant satire by Alaxander Pope, The Rape Of The Lock or Milton's Paradise Lost.
Barring these classic works, I haven't really bothered with verse, especially when it comes to modern writers. Which is why, this quite simply escaped me and in any case, I'm yet to really sink my teeth into any of Vikram Seth's works.
But a very heavy recommendation by a friend, who insisted that there was possibly no better writer of verse in India than Seth prompted me to check it out.

The book is a compilation of ten fables, retold and reinterpreted in the author's own inimitable style, lending it a lot wit and some clever twists. While two of the stories come from India, there are other fables taken from China, Ukraine and Greece. (The fact that Vikram Seth learnt Chinese poetry during his stay in the country might have had some bearing here).

Quite obviously, as Seth himself says, his decision to write this Jungle book fable was an impulsive one, prompted by a hot, sleepy day. He says."I decided to write a summer story involving mangoes and a river. By the time I had finished writing 'The Crocodile And the Monkey', another story and other animals had begun stirring in my mind. And so it went on until all ten of these beastly tales were born"

Among all the stories, at least four of them are extremely entertaining and Seth's rhyming scheme is a delight. I especially enjoyed The Hare And The Tortoise, which the author writes with much chutzpah and there's a nice little twist in the end.

Sample this:

"After the announcer’s gun
Had pronounced that he had won,
And the cheering if the crowd
Died at last, the tortoise bowed,
Clasped the cup with quiet pride,
And sat down, self-satisfied.
And he thought:: That silly hare!

So much for her charm and
So much for her idle boast.
In her cup I’ll raise a toast
To hard work and regularity.
Silly creature! Such vulgarity!
Now she’ll learn that sure and slow
Is the only way to go---
That you can’t rise to the top
With a skip, a jump, a hop

But it was in fact the hare,

With a calm insouciant air
Like an unrepentant bounder,
Who allured the pressmen round her.
“Oh Miss Hare, you’re so appealing
When you’re sweating,” said one, squealing.
“You have tendered gold and booty
To the shrine of sleep and beauty,”

Or check out his verse in The Elephant and the Tragopan, where the animals describe mankind :

He grasps our substance as of right
To quench and spur his appetite,
Nor will he grant us truce or grace
To rest secure in any place.”

Two other wonderfully told stories are, The Frog And The Nightingale and the first one, The Crocodile And the Monkey. I didn't care much for many of the other fables in the middle portion, which I thought were sort of violent and also repetitive. Make no mistake, this is not necessarily a lighthearted, feel-good read. Some of its stories are very much in the vein of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which we know was a hard-hitting political allegory.

Of course, there are fables here which offer plenty of personal lessons. If The Crocodile And The Monkey talks about the ugliness of greed, The Frog And The Nightingale (a personal favourite from the book) is a particularly moving story about a nightingale, who loses her voice and her audience, by heeding to the selfish frog's advice.
Vikram Seth displays mastery in poetry and this is especially a good book to read out aloud to children or anyone, so that the lyrical and rhyming quality of the words are effectively brought out.
So great repeat value.
Keep this for one of those rainy days (literally! if you must!). :-)
-Sandhya Iyer

27 July 2007

The Last Mughal

Author: William Dalrymple
Publishers: Penguin Viking
Published In: 2006
Price: Rs 695

Pages: 586
Genre: Historical
BY Sandhya Iyer

Last glow of light

Being fairly intrigued by Mughal history, Dalrymple has always been one author whose books I’ve wanted to read. I missed out on his White Mughals but got an opportunity to read The Last Mughal and must say, it turned out to be every bit the rich, luxuriant and fascinating experience I imagined it to be.

I must confess here that I have no problems with a Westerner writing about Indian history --- I say it because this seems to be everyone's pet peeve against Dalrymple-Now, as long as the author approaches his subject with honesty and doesn't adopt a patronizing tone, as the likes of V. S Naipaul, E M Forster so often do, it's really fine by me. And as I see it, this author is not really guilty of any of the above charges.

Having read the book, I will say that this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, informative and entertaining works on Mughal history. No other book probably has approached the 1857 revolt and the disastrous impact it had on a culturally thriving Delhi, the way Dalrymple has in The Last Mughal.

Besides the fact that it extensively covers and nostalgically looks back on the wonderful city that Delhi was in the 1850s and 60s under the rule of its benign, tolerant and pluralistic Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, it gives in-depth sketches of the prevailing British officers of the time. Importantly, it directs our attention to several of our presend-day issues and
attitudes, a direct result of our legacy.

That there's a wealth of historical information to be derived out of this book is a given, but truly astonishing is also Dalrymple's ability to weave in so many cobwebs of events and characters with such clarity.
Not to add, his meticulous, hypnotic attention to detail, with some of the passages sparkling like pure gems -----muc
h like the Mughal arts he describes in his book.

The story begins in the early 1850s, a time when Delhi's political fortunes had started to plummet. The Britishers were fast spreading their tentacles and tightening their hold over the Mughals. The bonhomie that existed between the Bitishers and Muslims in the city was starting to wane and Victoria's men were under no obligation to please the Emperor any more. In fact, the king, Zafar Bahadur was rendered powerless now.
Yet, for all its political decline, "the city's reputation as a centre of learning, culture and spirituality had rarely been higher".

The peace gets disrupted when rebel sepoys from Meerut (mainly) and some other regiments request Zafar to support them in their fight against the Britishers. As history tells us and the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey showed, there was discontent brewing among sepoys of North-west provinces. Dalrymple records this in detail and abundantly agrees that Victorian Evangelicals had indeed been speeding up their plans to convert Hindus and Muslims.

While the sepoys were disgruntled about their low salaries among many other things, it was the issue of religion that really sparked off the revolt.
Now, coming to a point I've always reiterated ---- Mangal Pandey was no icon of the 1857 revolt and the book not only succinctly states that, it adequately proves it.

"For a century, this fact has been partially obscured by nationalist historians for whom the idea of Hindu sepoys flocking to Delhi to revive the Mughal Empire was more or less anathema"

"Since the time of V. D Savarkar's book, The Indian War Of Independence 1857, the March outbreak in Barrackpore has been seen as the crucial event of the Mutiny and Mangal Pandey Pandey its central icon. This is a position that was further cemented by the recent Bollywood film, Mangal Pandey. Yet, in many ways Pandey was almost irrelevant to the outbreak, which took place two months later in Meerut in May"

"If Mangal Pandey was the sepoy's inspiration, they certainly did not articulate it, nor did they rush towards Barrackpore or Calcutta."

Zafar, already in his 80s, clearly had no real say in whether to support the sepoys against the Britishers or not.
But in the end, he lend his tacit support to the rebels and what followed was one of the bloodiest massacres witnessed in Delhi, with Englishmen being pulled out of their homes and killed mercilessly by the sepoys and jehadis.

Retribution follows and the Britishers swear to take revenge and destroy everything the city stands for.
At least two chapters of the book describe in minute detail the progression of the war --- For a long time, the sepoys succeed in restricting the Britishers to a Ridge. The fact that the sepoys outnumbered the British force by a great number was also putting pressure on the Englishmen. But going by Dalrymple's version of the war, the sepoys were courageous, but they made several tactical errors. The Britishers soon get the better of them and invaded the city again.
The sepoys, in a desperate bid, ask Zafar to lead them in a final assault. Left with no choice, the king agrees but is soon fraught with a sense of fear, and retreats. “Zafar’s catastrophic failure of nerve was the decisive moment that marked the beginning of the end of the rebellion,” writes the author.

What follows is one of the most vengeful attacks by the Britishers on the jehadis and locals. Every man is shot dead and the women and children are forced to leave the city. Dalrymple infuses several ‘real-life conversations’ made by Englishmen in the narrative by way of letters they wrote to their wives, father to a daughter etc.. describing the turn of events throughout the book.
One such letter says about Delhi, “The town now presents an awful spectacle
The city that was at the height of its cultural vitality, with arts, literature and poets such as Ghalib and Zauq, was in perfect shambles now.
The book also acquaints us with how senior British officers had almost made up their minds to demolish every standing edifice in the city, including architectural wonders like the Red Fort and Jama Masjid but were prevented by an influential officer in the nick of time.
However, this still was an event, which changed destinies forever.
For one, Mughal arts “never really regained their full vitality and artistic prestige even after independence
More significantly, as the author points out, after the revolt, “The Indian Muslim became almost a subhuman creature for the British, tagged along Irish Catholics or the ‘Wandering Jew’
Correspondingly and gravely, “this profound contempt that the British so openly expressed for Indian Muslims and Mughal culture proved contagious, particularly to the ascendant Hindus, who quickly hardened their attitudes to all things Islamic
Quite rightly, the seeds of suspicion that got sowed then, came to show its ugly face with the 1947 Hindu-Muslim Partition.

But the book’s most decisive statement is about how from pre 1857 and after to even today, Islamic Fundamentalism and Western imperialism have closely, and dangerously intertwined.
Again Western countries blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked –as they interpret it-by mindless fanatics.”
No need to mention 9/11, is there? Most certainly, there's an urgent need to learn from history and not repeat it.

20 July 2007

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Publisher: Harper Collins
Prize: Rs 250
Date of Publishing: 2006
Genre: War drama

‘I wrote this book because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today’ says 29 year-old Adichie, about what prompted her to write about one of Nigeria’s most bloody civil wars that happened in the late 60s.

The Biafran civil war, a terrible blot on Nigerian history and humanity has not surprisingly found voice in almost all major literary works produced in the country so far. Adichie was not born when the war happened but says that she grew up in its shadows and could never forget how she lost several of her family members to a situation, which was entirely man-made. This naturally, allows the author to recount incidents with unusual fervour, giving graphic images of the horrors that descended on Biafrans, following the breakout of military action.

What was this civil was about? While the Housa Muslim tribe populated Northern Nigeria, the South consisted of the Igbo, a Christian race. Ever since the country got freedom in 1960, there was deep resentment brewing between the Housa and other tribes who believed that the Igbos held all the prime positions in the country. A military coup by an Igbo colonel follows a counter coup by the Northern army, supported by the West. Soon, Igbo soldiers are brutally murdered all over the northern territory. Col Ojukwu, puts forth the idea of a separate Igbo state called Baifra and takes control of all the oil rich territories. The Nigerian government is not willing to take the rebellion lying down and what follows is a deadly war, which tests its victims in a shockingly inhuman way.
Even as the Nigerian army captures one Biafran region after another, the Igbo population is pushed into a corner, literally and all food links are blocked, leading to intense starvation with people scrambling for food. So while people in other parts of Nigeria worry about silk laces and their golf sessions, the other part hopelessly scrambles for food.
This is the story Adichie narrates in her book and she does it through the lives of four people living in Nigeria. The author’s central characters are twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, daughters of a rich businessman. However, none of them are especially interested in their father’s wealth and choose their own paths. While Olanna starts living in with prof Odenigbo, her anti-colonial, ‘revolutionary boyfriend’ ---as the brazen Kainene prefers to call him, the latter herself dates Richard, a bashful British expatriate, who is sympathetic to the Biafra cause.
To give a glimpse of the colonial Nigeria that still existed, the author introduces us to Ugwu, a teenager, who is brought from his village to be a housekeeper to ‘master’ Odenigbo.
The book starts in the early 60’s, a comparably idyllic time when Odenigbo’s friends come over each evening and engage in heated, intellectual debates. In the dim-lit room, amidst the clinging of beer bottles and exotic, herbal stews, it’s a time, when the generation’s finest brains are working out Nigeria’s future. The coup throws the characters apart. Ollana and Odenigbo first move into a humble three-room house, quite content as long as they know they are part of the Biafra cause. But as the Nigerian army closes in, the couple, with a child (Odenigbo’s illegitimate one) in tow and Ugwu, find it find it impossible to retain even a semblance of dignity to their lives.
To the author’s credit, she weaves this long forgotten human-interest story, with a sultry, lush family tale, about love, betrayal and redemption. In fact, Adichie is clearly at her best here.
In the end, while it is important to realize the sheer magnitude of disaster that was brought down upon unsuspecting souls---this is an eerie reality we live in even today---what is also heartening is that people actually survived through it all. Olanna's character is especially remarkable, as someone who keeps the family standing even amidst insurmountable problems. With time, Odenigbo loses his revolutionary zeal and resigns himself to his fate. Ugwu, who is always a support to Olanna, is taken away forcefully to join the Biafran war. Unable to bear the stench of the toilets, Olanna is forced to bath out in the open. When a man terms her 'shameless', she screams back asking him why he wasn't supporting the Biafran forces, rather than staring at women bathing. In her steely determination, she's something of a Scarlet O Hara, only, more compassionate.
When the war recedes and the links are opened, the Biafrans are 'officially' assimilated as 'brothers and sisters' into Nigeria, but not without enduring some amount of humiliation.

The book is spectacular, epic-like in scale and monumental in design. Yes, there are portions, which go on and on…..yes, there is an attempt to have graphical images…..yes, the book is controversial and political, which could be viewed as a shameless Booker bid.
Adichie in her skill as a writer and her social consciousness is rightfully considered the literary daughter of Chinua Achebe and the future of African literature. Incidentally, this book has just won her the Orange Book Prize and looks like a hot contender for Booker as well

The book's last section, PS, has a fairly detailed interview with Adichie and other info about her favourite authors and works.

11 July 2007

Men In White

In Crackling Form

Author: Mukul Kesavan
Pages: 278
Publishers: Penguin
Price: Rs 395
Publishing Date: 2007

It’s hardly arguable that the frenzy around cricket has significantly died down in the last few years. Our team's timid performance in the recent World Cup only sealed its fate further.
Quite naturally, everything cricket-centric has lost some of its sheen. Which is why, I wondered if a book on cricket is such a good marketable idea.
Obviously I was wrong, because Men In White makes for fantastic reading, much like a compilation of crisp Sunday newspaper columns that one devours with joy. Given that its author Mukul Kesavan teaches history at Jamia Millia Islamia and blogs passionately on cricinfo.com, makes this book a fascinating blend of piquant cricketing insights along with sharp observations on the game’s social impact over the last few decades.
Without a shred of doubt, this is a book meant for avid cricket buffs but such is the elegance in Kesavan’s writing, that even semi-cricket buffs would consider this pretty much ‘unputdownable’.
The cause is further helped because the author is never overindulgent in his writing and barring a few chapters, the rest of the book is racy, informative and sparkles with delightful one-liners. This is especially true when he describes yesteryear and modern day cricketers. While he talks of Vinod Kambli as 'the definitive example of the corrosive triumph of style over substance’, he defends Saurav Ganguly’s attitude towards arrogant teams like Australia with the following, “Ganguly had neither Imran’s authoritative hauteur, nor Ranatunga’s smiling, beatific ruthlessness, but his talent for in-your-face insolence served India well through his captaincy."
Among the senior cricketers, Kesevan’s absolute favourite is quite apparently Sunil Gavaskar, whom he describes as the man ‘who supplied Indian batting with a backbone’ and ‘Never does he look clumsy or crude as Tendulkar so often does...’
Another interesting section is on Azharuddin, where he talks of how this young Muslim lad from Hyderabad lost his eminence, no thanks to his commitment to flamboyant aggression. “From the movie mannerisms young Indian men affect--- Azhar made an unusual move for a cricketer: he bid to live that life. It is the difference between imitating the flash street-cool of the Rangeela character and actually wanting to be Aamir Khan. In India, there’s just one model for metropolitan bon vivant: the Bollywood star, so Azhar married an actress and began living like a hero.”

This is, of course, just one chapter of the book. Kesavan talks with great passion about the elegance of West Indies cricket through the 60s and 70s and how Indian cricket fans like him worshipped their players. On the other hand, Australians, as world champions, brought certain coarseness to the game, he says. You can respect their commitment to win but you cannot love them. With West Indies, you could do that.

From why the format of Indian first class cricket needs to be abolished to why there’s no place for the cricket referee in the game to how one day cricket is getting painfully boring…Kesavan provides his pithy comments and possible solutions for each of the above…and there’s lot more.

The fact that Kesavan is a huge fan of the game naturally prompts plenty of nostalgia to creep in but it’s the sort of stuff cricket buffs will sniff out in a jiffy. For the others, there’s cricket commentary at its very best.

-Sandhya Iyer

The Kite Runner

Flights of fancy

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published in: 2003
Pages: 324
Genre: Fiction

It's not difficult to see why this Hosseni book is such a monster hit all over. The Kite Runner reads almost entirely like a Bollywood potboiler, with its thrill-a-minite twists & turns and emotional dramebaazi.

In any case, given that Hindi cinema is hugely popular in Afghanistan (the place Hosseni lived in and has written about in this book), it’s almost certain that the author's sensibilities have been greatly shaped by them.

But the above feeling gets overwhelming only somewhere in the middle of the novel. Its 100 pages or so, are sheer magic. No doubt even these are parts 'set up' to garner an emotional response, but Hosseni still manages to weave in a rivetting, emotionally charged narrative.

From a critical standpoint, The Kite Runner's merit lies in the fact that it offers a glympse into 1970s Afghanistan, an age and milue that not too many may be acquainted with.

The story is about the 8-year-old Amir (who serves as the author’s alter ego) and his loving servant-friend Hassan. Their childhood appears a picture of bliss, though Hosseini constantly draws our attention to the fixed power equation between the two. While Amir is the son of a wealthy businessman, Hassan is not only poor but also cursed to be born as a Hazara (Shi’a Muslim) in a place where the community is constantly taunted and ill-treated.

Amir’s father, a generous but emotionally withdrawn man, treats Hassan with unusual kindness. The latter, in turn, shows undying devotion and love to his little master (Amir).

The author, who quite obviously, has a penchant for irony as a literary device (and he even mentions this through
one of his characters), uses it excessively all over the place. Here, he employs it to bring out the slightly perverted streak in Amir’s character.

Amir knows Hassan’s unstinted love for him and hence loves to tease him.

'Would I ever lie to you Amir agha?’
Suddenly, I decided to toy with him a little. ‘I don’t know. Would you?’
‘I’d sooner eat dirt,” he said with a look of indignation.
‘Really? You’d do that?”
He threw a puzzled look. “Do what?”
“Eat dirt if I told you to.” I said…..
“If you asked, I would,” he finally said, looking right at me. To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say.

But a great act of betrayal from Amir changes their lives forever. Hassan is brutally raped by a bunch of bullies but Amir is too scared to launch an attack and just helplessly watches on.
The guilt kills Amir slowly and it pushes him further and further into an abyss. The fact that he didn’t stand up for Hassan in his desperate hour of need fills his heart with remorse.

What starts on such a promissing premise simply spirals downwards once Amir and his father flee to America. I didn’t care too much about the dozen pages dedicated to explaining Baba’s illness or even Amir’s marriage to Saroya.

In all this, the reader misses Hassan immensely. But the author has other ideas. When Amir comes to Peshawar, at the request of his mentor-friend Rahim Khan, he comes to understand truths that both shock and unsettle him.
From here on, the novel is so tastelessly manipulative that its plot points will seem jarring even to the most charitable and indiscriminate of readers.

Hosseni's intent is only to bring redemption to his protagonist and in this blinkered approach, he mangles the story to such an incredible degree that it rings a totally false note. Moreover, his attempt at irony is so literal and the effort is so obvious, it fails to move you. As a saving grace at least, I was desperately hoping he wouldn't employ the ending that he does.

Also, his craft has its share of problems – Hoseni's writing lacks subtely and he ends up spelling out things that should really just be a whiff of suggestion.


Ultimately, I’ll say this is a commendable novel for its first 100 pages, parts which have tremendous emotional power. The rest of it is trashy, though still a page turner, in a low-brow sort of way.

But coming back to its huge popularity, the driving force behind the success of such works is the accessibility they offer for the non-serious reader, in terms of it being an easy read.

If only Kite Runner's bestseller status is not used to overemphasise its critical merit, I'm willing to give it credit for one thing --- even the most apathetic of readers have actually cared to read this one!

Sandhya Iyer

The Match

Lost in No Man's Land

Author: Romesh Gunesekera
Pages: 307
Price: Rs 365
Publishers: Bloomsbury
Publishing Date: 2006
Genre: Fiction

When I picked up The Match by author Romesh Gunesekara, I did so with considerable curiosity and expectations. Though I haven’t read any of his earlier works, I believe his debut book of short stories Monkfish Moon, published in 1992, became quite popular. Then two years later, he recieved a Booker nomination for his book Reef. From there on, I understand, the author’s works have evoked mostly mixed reactions.

His reputation as a writer aside, the fact that the book talks about cricket and how it helps the protagonist to reconnect to his past through the game, appeared interesting enough.
However, as I discovered, cricket is only a very small part of this novel and most of it is about the feeling of displacement and rootlessness that the protagonist goes through. The theme seems partily derived from the author's own life, who was born as a Sri Lankan, then spend some of his childhood in Manila (Philippines) and finally settled in England.

The novel essentially traces the difficult journey that its protagonist (Sunny) makes; right from his teenage days to the time he gets married and becomes a father. In many ways, Sunny suffers from a certain Hamlet-like state –both including inertia and confusion about his relationship with his parents.

The only time one really sees him excited is for an amateur game of cricket, which he plays along with his friends and father’s buddies. For Sunny and some other Sri Lankans based in Manila, cricket is a game that helps them stay connected to their roots and hence there’s a great deal of passion as they play it.

From there on, the novel goes into a completely different territory. It looks at Sunny’s feeling of displacement, his inability to cope with the standard demands of a career and marriage among other things.
Finally, it requires a high profile cricket match at Oval, between England and Sri Lanka, for him to grope back into his regular life ans make sense of it. Something as simple as cricket brings him face-to-face to a world that he loved but feared he had lost.
The author captures well Sunny’s turmoil and inability to find relevance to his displaced living. His sudden decision to visit Sri Lanka, even when it isn’t quite cleared of violence, mirrors a desperate urge to hold on to whatever is left of the past.
But having said that, the problems with his novel are manifold. Firstly, the prose slips at various places, with some shockingly inferior writing like the conversation quoted below;
'Yes, I’ll… get the guys going. My friend Junior wants to learn to’
‘Don’t forget the girl. What’s her name? Tarka?’
‘Tina? Yes, whatever. Anyway, she’ll be a great surprise. Keep her up your sleeve’

Also, there's a lot happening here but nothing's exciting enough. There is Sunny’s friend Ranil and mentor-guide Hector, who bring a semblance of hope to his life. But these parts just keep meandering. Then there’s the aspect of Sunny dropping all contact with his father, Lester, whom he blames for his mother’s sudden demise. Also, Gunesekera brings in the violence and terror that Sri Lanka and Manila are faced with from time-to-time to establish his connection with his past. Then there's an inane track of Sunny's childhood crush, whom he meets after many years at the Oval match.
None of this is wholly convincing.

While one can empathise with Sunny’s slow drift into abyss and the author’s effective portrayal of it, it ultimately ends up being painfully indulgent and sluggish. Certainly not for the one seeking thrill-a-minite, pulsating cricket drama.

-Sandhya Iyer

The Bachelor of Arts

Author: R K Narayan
Pages: 166
First Edition: 1965
Genre: Fiction

Lessons of life

Among R K Narayan’s most popular books are Swami And Friends and The Guide, of which the latter saw a grand, cinematic interpretation in the classic Dev Anand-Waheeda Rahman film.
While there’s no doubting the genius of the above two works, it needs to be said that even some of R K Narayan’s lesser-known works are little gems that just cannot be missed.
Personally, I have a great fondness for this novel, which not only makes for riveting reading but also mirrors the post-independence mood in Southern India wonderfully.
The Bachelor Of Arts is the second part of the trilogy of novels that R K Narayan wrote, along with Swami And Friends and The English Teacher. Yet, the novel stands perfectly well on its own, without any references needed. It would be useful, however, to know that these three novels are R. K Narayan’s most personal works, derived heavily from his own life. After capturing some unforgettable childhood images in Swami And Friends, The Bachelor Of Arts sees him as a youth, a collegian (Chandran) in the 1930s. Understandably, it’s a time when the effects of colonialism ,with its accompanying modernity are seeping into the sleepy, insular world of Malgudi.
Chandran is a bright, young boy, who has grown up in the comforts of a warm, traditional Tamilian family. Since this is a very secure word, with humble aspirations, it’s a culture that lays great emphasis on following the beaten path and generally tends to frown upon any sort of wayward activity.

Chandran symbolizes the new generation of the time, who with their growing consciousness, have started to feel disenchanted by the smallness of their world and want to break free. This feeling rises in him when he goes through a severe heart-break.
Chandran falls for a girl whom he sees at the bank of a river and desires to marry. However, the horoscopes don’t match and the girl’s parents politely decline the offer. The fact that he can do nothing about the situation and has to quietly submit before traditions, fills his heart with bitterness and confusion. Interestingly, R K Narayan met his wife Rajam in a similar fashion and the same horescope issue had cropped up in his case as well. He, however, went ahead with the marriage and the couple spend some very wonderful years of domestic bliss. But tragedy did strike, and Rajam died of typhoid making the author distraught. Narayan’s third book, The English Teacher, captures this part of his life and the deep sorrow he experienced quite vividly.

Chandran’s rebellious spirit takes over and he feels determined to unleash revenge on the world that deprived him of what he wanted so badly. He quits Malgudi and starts staying in a hotel. Then, shaves off his head and starts living like a sanyasi begging for alms.
However, over time he realizes the futility of this exercise and returns back to his own little world. He takes up a challenging job as a publishing agent and agrees to marry again, much to his parents delight.

In Chandran’s process of self-exploration, challenge and reconciliation, R K Narayan makes a broader statement about the spirit of adventurism that grips us but most of us quickly realise the smallness of our horizons and quietly slip into a world of 'quiet and sobriety'
The best recourse here, as suggested by Narayan, is to manipulate one’s own space in a familiar world -much like what Chandran does. This theme, in many ways, mirrors Narayan’s own struggle with the rigidity and practices of his society. However, none of that took him out of Malgudi, did it?

-Sandhya Iyer

Shooting Water

Love's Labour Found!

Author: Davyani Saltzman
Published by: Penguin Books

Publishing date: March, 2006
Price: Rs 295.00
Classification: Non-Fiction/Memoirs

I must confess that I was a bit bewildered as to why a book like Shooting Water needed to be written, even if it was by Deepa Mehta’s daughter, Devyani. On first glance, it seemed like an attempt to probably piggyback ride on the enormous curiosity generated by Water. Also, I had already read Bapsi Sidhwa’s book, Water – an adaptation of the screenplay. But having gone through it, I will say that this proved to be one of the most engaging reads for me in a long time.

It's ‘selling point’ of course is the whole Water fiasco in Benaras which happened in 1999, when members of the RSS vandalized the shooting, until the whole film was scraped. It’s an episode that Devyani vividly describes and her disgust for the BJP government, which gave her mother so much heartburn, comes across clearly. A particularly interesting episode in the book mentions how Deepa Mehta had a meeting with head of RSS, K S Sudharshan to see if he could intervene and stop its various wings like Vishwa Bharat Parishad etc to back off and let the film’s shooting continue.
Narrating the episode, Devyani writes: Mr Sudarshan sat down and told her (Deepa) not to have any preconceptions about the RSS’s ignorance… “
Why did you make a film like Fire? It’s not what our culture is about,” he said in a calm, measured voice.
‘The Ganga is very precious to us,’ he said.
‘Have you read the script for Water?’ Mom asked.
Mr Sudharshan placed a copy of the script on the table.
‘Where did you get that?’ she asked.
Only one script had been submitted outside of the production, and that was to the Ministry of I&B. Mr Sudharshan replied, ‘After all, whose ministry is it anyway?’
It seems the RSS chief added that the script was good and with some minor changes there would be no more problems. But obviously, Deepa and her crew’s joy was short-lived, as the UP government pulled out support.
The second part of the book looks at how the film was revived again in Sri Lanka. Again, an interesting bit here is about Deepa deciding to change her entire cast this when she revived the project. Devyani talks about how Nandita could not be cast as the young and innocent Kalyani anymore and Shabana was too high profile and the producers didn’t want her in the film.
‘In fact, that was one of their conditions’, she writes in the book. ‘Mom’s decision not to cast Nandita cost them their friendship,’ she says.
While the book is primarily about Water and how it got made inspite of insurmountable problems, there’s a very sensitive, tumultous personal layer that Devyani reveals.
Not able to completely recover from the divorce of her parents and the choice she made (she chose to stay with her father when she was asked who she’s like to live with), Devyani says she found refuge in books and traveling. The coming together of mother and daughter during the shooting of Water was an emotional moment for both of them. Devyani writes about how her mother had probably never forgiven her, so in many ways, the revival of Water, she says, was the renewal of their relationship as well. Whatever issues they may have had, it’s abundantly clear that Devyani is fiercely protective about her mother and that element comes shining across.
I find it particularly interesting the way she defends her mother on the issue of her ‘selling India to the West by choosing controversial themes’
“After 250 years of British rule, it was clear that India still had a love-hate relationship with the West, eating up its pop consumer culture while at the same time pandering to it… all nations indulge in a bit of myth-making to bind their people together. Water was one of the casualties of maintaining that myth’
Quite refreshingly, Devyani makes no attempt to put a show of neutrality while discussing the BJP and the whole Water experience. In fact, she describes a scene when the entire Water team celebrated when BJP lost the election in 2004.
Her tumultuous relationship with her mother aside, one gets a glimpse into Devyani’s inner self when she so movingly describes the intense feeling of love she experienced for a member of the crew. She is besotted with Vikram, a well-read, intelligent, wannashine director and follows him to Mumbai, even though he tells her that he is engaged. These portions are marvelous and it’s touching to see how Devyani manages to be so unflinchingly honest about her emotional lows.
There are also interesting bits about her interaction with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, who was helping Deepa with the Hindi version of the script. Devyani, being just 19 then, Kashyap instantly gave her an affectionate handle ‘Chutku’ which stuck on for some time.
All of the parts and characters mentioned above make Shooting Water a tantalizingly interesting read. However, I would not say that about the whole book.
A self confessed perfectionist, Devyani gets into tedious details of inconsequential events. This is done almost naively, presuming the reader would be interested in gathering every tid-bit about the production of Water. I found myself sifting through most of these pages. The second part of the book is especially lackluster with an excess of these particulars.
All in all, I liked Devyani’s earnestness that comes across clearly through her narrations. Also, there’s no doubt that she is a wonderfully gifted and sensitive writer. Shooting Water will hopefully not be the last we will hear from this talented author.
-Sandhya Iyer

The Legends of Pensam

The Call of the Wild

Author:Mamang Dai
Pages: 192
Published by: Penguin Books
Date of Publishing: 2006
Price: Rs 200

Compared to other parts of India, the North-East still remains largely unexplored but like many others, I too have held a fascination for its rich bio diversity and wild life.
Mamam Dai's book provides one such rare glimpse into the life of a tribal community, residing in far away lands in Arunachal Pradesh.
While there are more than 29 major tribes in this part of the world, the author brings to focus intricately woven stories of the ‘Adi’ tribe with their myths, legends, oral history and daily living patterns. This is a community that lies at the foothills of the Himalayas, sharing borders with China, Myanmar and Bhutan.
The word ‘Pensam’ in the title, means ‘in-between’. As the author herself puts it, ‘
It suggests the middle, or the middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart’
Truly, as the book will reveal, this is a small world where anything can happen. Being adherents of the animistic faith, the tribes here believe in co-existence with the natural world along with the presence of spirits in their forests and rivers.
The first few chapters introduce readers to this strange phenomenon as people get killed mysteriously inside thick, dense forests. Then there is an episode where Kamur, a perfectly normal man, hacks his baby girl and attacks his wife. The elders in the village realize how heinous his crime is, but also believe him when he says that he did it in a 'haunted' moment.
To readers of modern sensibilities, these chapters can seem a bit alien, though it’s still intriguing for sure.
What one can emphatize with, however, are the vagaries of the weather that people living here have to contend with.
The rain lashes ferociously day in and day out in this region, followed by times when the sun and heat become unbearable. This throws the tribals into a mad rage.
"Is this a place to live? Arsi had asked. ‘Why did our forefathers choose this place? Surely, we are outcasts dumped in this bone and knuckle part of the world!’
By what reason are we here with the rain, the mud and the fungas, can you tell me that?’
No doubt, the weather, with its constant fear of earthquakes, landslides and floods, is a part of nature’s cruelty that the people here have come to accept.
But the book also brims with descriptions of breathtaking natural scenes and Dai, being foremost a poet, has penned them in great lyrical style. The blue hills with its lush greens, the wild berries, the spring waters and the orange trees...all have a soothing effect on its inhabitants.
There’s also a story here about the intense love affair between a tribal girl Nenem and a British soldier called David. I must say that I loved this portion of the book the best, as it’s very vividly narrated.
The last few chapters of the book show how even a distant, far flung land near the Himalayas cannot escape the influence of the ‘new world’. The people staying here meet this change with both trepidation and hope.
Mamang Dai’s book, then, is useful in the understanding of the tribal community and how life functions in this lesser-known world. I liked it for its queer appeal and the author’s ability to transport its readers to this rain drenched land. Not to forget, it's beautiful front cover, taken from a painting.
-Sandhya Iyer

Funny Boy

Heart of the matter

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Publishing Date: 1994
Price: Rs 250
Genre: Novel

For a long time, Shyam Selvaduarai’s semi-autobiographical novel Funny Boy has remained my most favourite book. The novel’s backdrop is 80s Sri Lanka, a time when the cracks between the majority Singhalese population and minority Tamilians had started to widen. This external intolerance is mirrored in 12 year old Arjun’s innocent, private world, whose need for natural expression is stifled against the oppressive air of rigidity that adults unleash.
Divided into six chapters, the first few parts capture Arjie’s (Arjun) childhood and the growing confusion in him regarding his sexuality. Arjie does not like playing with the boys, he prefers decking up like a girl and playing bride-bride. However, once Arjie’s ‘queerness’ is recogonised by his family, things start to change dratically for him. His concerned yet stern father makes it amply clear that he does not want a ‘funny boy’ in the family and packs him off to an All Boys Public school. Arjie’s father believes that the strict ways of the institution will “force him to become a man”. But, quite ironically, Arjie’s sexual realization and awakening happen right here, amidst the brutal, rigid setting of the school.
Arjie’s relationship with a fellow Sinhalese student, Shehan Zoysa is probably one of the most touching episodes in the novel. Arjie is initially hesitant about accepting his homosexuality and shuns Shehan’s advances. But when he sees the latter being bullied and cruelly punished by his principal, Arjie’s love for Shehan (Zoysa) comes gushing through.
The author does well to captures the undercurrents in the Tamil-Sinhala relationship in Sri Lanka around the 80s. The prevailing ethnic tension is evident when Arjie’s aunt, Radha is strictly dissuaded from having anything to do with a Sinhalese man. Again, Arjie’s father cannot provide a level playing field to one of his favourite Tamil employees and surrogate son, Jegan, for fear of offending his Sinhalese employees, 'who refuse to take orders from Jegan’.
Then in Arjie’s school too, there are ample traces of racism. Ultimately, Arjie’s family is forced to migrate to Canada almost penniless when a riot breaks out in the last chapter.

Funny Boy has no political axes to grind. More than anything else, the novel is about the gagging of individual free will by the use of brute force. The central theme is primarily how society straitjackets individuals, valourising the macho and lampooning the sissy.
Selvadurai's writing is elegant, real, with an emotional power that compels you to connect deeply with the characters and their situations.

Certainly a book everyone must read.


Running Deep

Author: Bapsi Sidhwa (based on the film by Deepa Mehta)
Pages: 201
Price: 325
Publishers: Penguin
Genre: Fiction

This is probably a rare occasion when an author writes a book, based on a film. Almost always, it has been the other way round. But then again, director Deepa Mehta and Bapsi Sidhwa have had a very close creative association, what with the former adapting Sidhwa’s The Ice Candy Man into 1947 Earth several years ago.
I must confess here that I liked the book far more than the movie. It’s a very gripping and moving narrative and Bapsi’s passionate writing lends it a texture and depth that was probably missing even in the film.

The book's theme—a brutal examination of the lives of widows in colonial India, is riveting from the word go. The potency and emotional impact of the story is probably why Deepa Mehta refused to let go off her dream of making the film. And one must add that there’s great intensity and passion in Sidhwa’s storytelling that grips you at various points in the novel.

While the novel itself is a useful chronicle in understanding a certain stinging reality, what really elevates it –even on a fictional level- is the character of 8-year-old Chuyia.
Between Sidhwa and Deepa Mehta, they’ve come up with a character rarely seen before. Chuyia is spirited, feisty, rebellious and raring to go. But as convention would have it, she is hurriedly married off and then widowed in a few months. Her in-laws send her to an ashram meant for widows, a sort of ghetto where they are supposed to lead pathetically austere lives. Of course, things are not exactly the way they appear on the surface and there’s a lot of murk lurking beneath. Through various characters and episodes, the narrative does well to question this absurd life of deprival and misery
Chuyia’s feisty spirit never dulls till a very long time. Part of the reason for this is her warrior like attitude and die-hard optimism. In true child-like outspokenness, she retorts to her imposing widow-in-chief, 'I don’t want to be a stupid widow! Fatty!’ Most of the story moves through Chuyia’s eyes and, one must say, it’s a great narrative choice. Firstly, it allows the author to survey and describe the scenes with impartial, child-like curiosity, thereby also dispelling some of its solemnity.

Which is why, it’s particularly ironic and touching when the 8-year old innocently asks ‘Didi, where is the house for the men widows'

Bapsi’s racy style of writing ensures that there is not a single dull moment in the book. The climax, where Shakuntala--- the sympathetic, middle-aged widow, holds Chuhia close to her chest, looking out desperately to give the child away to one of the Gandhian followers at a station, is one of the most touching portions of this book.
The fact that Chuhia manages to escape a life of drudgery and other ills associated with the widowhood in the ghetto symbolises a ray of hope even for those caught in the most helpless circumstance. And it is exactly this feeling of redemption, running throughout the book, that prevents it from ever getting morose and depressing.

Finally, if you’ve already seen the film and not read the book, this could still be worth visiting. However, if you’ve already read the book, I wouldn’t particularly recommend the film. The book inspite of being an adaptation of the film’s screenplay, astonishingly, captures the essence of the story far better.

-Sandhya Iyer

Book of Rachel

Of Faith and Food

Author: Esther David
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 295
Genre: Fiction

One reason that makes Book of Rachel so special is because it recognizes ‘food’ as a vital factor in creating and sustaining human bonds. Which is why every chapter here begins with a recipe and allows the protagonist to re-visit her life (in a bit of stream of consciousness style) through its ingredients. The very first chapter here has a fish fry recipe.
Semi-autobiographical in nature, Esther describes the life of the middle aged Rachel, a Bene Israel Jew, who has made India her home for years now. Her husband Auron is no more and all her children have migrated to Israel. In spite of repeated pleas from them, Rachel refuses to return to her birthplace. She’s adapted well to the Maharashtrian way of life in a village near Alibaug and doesn’t feel like uprooting herself from a place that carries so many memories for her.
Her days are spent in quotidian serenity, reflecting on the past, looking after the village synagogue and cooking simple yet delectable Bene Israel Jewish food for her visitors.
There’s nothing remarkably unique about Rachel, until you see her putting up a passionate fight to rescue the synagogue from falling in the hands of a few builders. Even though she cannot imagine a life in Israel again, Rachel tenaciously guards a part of her past and the synagogue becomes her strongest connection to her faith.
Some of the novel’s most striking portions are the ones where she interacts with her son’s lawyer-friend Judah, who over time becomes a surrogate son and then her son-in-law. This whole section is very affectionately narrated and there’s a certain heart-warming nestling beauty here, as you watch Rachel preparing hot, lip-smacking food for Judah, as he busies himself with the synagogue case.
Another wonderfully described chapter is the one where Rachel fixes a quick lunch of chappatis and pitthal (pithale in common usage, a dish made out of besan, onions and chilly garlic) for a family friend.
Also, there are some extremely likable chapters where Rachel recollects some bittersweet episodes about her married life. The fact that Esther uses food to bring out the essence in relationships, a facet that has rarely been explored in either films or literature, makes this novel very unique.
-Sandhya Iyer

Diddi- My Mother's Voice

Diddi (2005)

Author: Ira Pande
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs 250
Genre: Biography

I picked this up at a quaint local bookstore recently, and learnt that this one-year old book without releasing with any hype,  had already got a good number of readers asking for it.
Diddi is a tribute that a daughter pays to her mother by way of bittersweet memoirs told in a very unique literary style.
Author Ira Pande, who worked as both a university teacher and then editor, unravels page by page the ordinary yet extraordinary life led by her mother - the famous Hindi novelist Shivani aka Guara Pant in this deeply personal yet affecting piece of work.
Perhaps because we called our mother Diddi (elder sister), our relationship with her was always somewhat ambivalent…she was for us a difficult sibling, an eccentric, much older sister…’ she says in her opening lines.
The easiest route for Ira Pande, as the author, would have been to simply to write a biography on her now deceased mother. Instead, she ingeniously infuses her narrations with generous sprinklings of her mother’s writing, giving us a real insight into the mind of this witty, sensitive and impulsive writer.
Guara’s (Shivani) writings can be viewed at two levels - The first is the surface one, where she writes about her blissful childhood in Gujarat, her earliest memories of the people, mostly several of her household aids, who formed an important part of her life.
The second level, as Ira Pant points out, is where the real story of Gaura lies. As most romantic idealists and dreamers, she used her writings as a shield to escape from the complexities and harsh truths of the real world. And consecutively, ‘she bled into her plots, often not knowing she was doing so’. Her hidden desires, regrets and pains, which she never made evident before her near and dear ones, preferring to hide them beneath her jovial, wry wit, made their way subconsciously into her stories. Her disappointment with her marriage, her take on the disintegration of the joint family system…all these themes found their way in her fiction.
The fact that this is not a straightforward biography can make it a wee bit confusing in parts and might need you to re-visit certain chapters. Also, there’s an erratic pattern to the presentation, possibly a metaphor for Gaura’s restless, wandering mind.
The language is racy and the choice of stories is very interesting. The parts involving Gaura’s childhood are highly readable, given its old world charm and fascinating characters.
The novel is then, especially useful in studying how reality creeps into fiction writing, creating characters that tell a truer story.