Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: In the Convent of Little Flowers

The huge acclamation Indu Sundaresan's Taj Trilogy (the trilogy comprises of books - The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses and Shadow Princess) received made me purchase her only short stories collection - In the Convent of Little Flowers.  This book stood "sort of first" in many ways - first one I purchased from site, first one I read from all penned by the author and first in which some stories had Chennai connection.

The book comprises of nine short works of fiction running roughly into a total of 210 pages with an afterword and acknowledgements section at its end. The first story - Shelter of Rain details the journey of Padmini, from Chennai to Seattle, from being just another girl in an orphanage, the Convent of Little Flowers to acquiring a warm and secure identity and being daughter to Tom and Diana Merrick. The journey in the story is interspersed with contents of a letter that Padmini receives from a nun in the convent who claims to be her biological aunt. Shunned away in past, forgotten for long, more appropriately, handed over to safe hands in a distant land, Padmini struggles to reason why her measly past in Chennai nags her current identity and peace. 

The second tale in the collection is Three and a Half Seconds, the best one in my opinion. It traces the path of a family as they migrates from village, leaving behind destitution and drought stricken farmlands to cacophonous urban life in Mumbai in search of work and money.  Meha and Chander strive hard to adjust to city life, tackle many challenges to ensure a better living for their only son - Bikaner, only to be ill treated, recklessly insulted and physically abused by him in their old age. The plot is highly common place but the author strikes hard in the way she narrates it. It is simply astounding how one can engage a reader so thoroughly even when with a plot so typical.

The Faithful Wife and Fire come next in collection, both bear a strong voice of outrage against injustice meted out by society in name of up keeping ancient traditions and practices. The author views these old customs as "just a vicious need to connect with the past, with a willing scapegoat". 

The Most Unwanted is a story where the author, in my opinion, strikes gold, much like she does in Three and a Half Seconds. The story is simple, say even banal but the rendition sets it apart from everything else. Parvati and her child Krishna, throw their entire family into a tumultuous state, open up a chronic scar but with time comes a healing effect, a much needed one.    

Bedside Dreams iterates the premise of old ones deserted by their own blood, in a slightly different setting and in a tone less intense than Three and a Half Seconds

The remaining stories are where the author goes into a deep slumber - The Key Club, The Chosen One and Hunger. It is sad to see the awe you built up for the author's story telling skills disappear in a jiffy with these follies. 

Most stories have sad endings, however, in all that tragedy and drama the author creates, she embeds little hope as well, some relief after breaking free, free from the clutches of constraints and rules the society lays. In Indu's Convent of Little Flowers, there are many thorns as well. A decent book to read, definitely overpriced, but barring the follies, the author's art of story telling needs a good round of applause. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

It would only be appropriate to say that I was little scared to pick up this book after reading Old Man and his God by Sudha Murthy and Nine on Nine by Nandita C Puri. Sudha Murthy's book lacked substance and Nandita Puri's stories revolved, focused and acutely centered on societal atrocities inflicted on women. Definitely, Jhumpa Lahiri is a much more accomplished and acclaimed writer and this book being a Pulitzer Prize winner could not be a debacle. Also, Interpreter of Maladies figured a noticeable number of times in many of my friends' Facebook pages in top ten books challenge section. I picked up this book from Flipkart website at a reasonable discount and here goes my review of the book. 

Some quick facts about the book - it is a collection of 9 short stories - A Temporary Matter, When Mr.Pirzada came to Dine, Interpreter of Maladies, A Real Durwan, Sexy, Mrs.Sen's, This Blessed House, The Treatment of Bibi Haldar, The Third and Final Continent and the book runs to a total of 200 pages. 


For me, A Temporary Matter, When Mr.Pirzada came to Dine and The Third and Final Continent were outstanding. 

The first story in the collection - A Temporary Matter deals with the emotional crisis a young Indian American couple face when their first child is born dead. The couple's character sketch, before and after the catastrophe, expertise they attain over time in avoiding each other and then how things change over a period of just five days are all well illustrated. There are no loud reprimands, no accusations hurled at one another, a lull in the couple's routine; a polite distance they upkeep conveys an undoable damage in their relation. The end is terrific and highly melancholic, easily sufficient to make the story a clear title holder in the collection. I wonder how the author who penned down such a  fine story overlooked the simple fact of naming her book after it and instead chose the story - Interpreter of Maladies, not even half as good as this one. 

The second story - When Mr.Pirzada came to Dine is set in 1971 against the backdrop of war for independent Bangladesh. Lilia, a young girl in Boston and her family play host to Mr. Pirzada who visits them every evening, watches the edition of national news with her family over dinner in order to gather information about his family residing in Dacca, then a part of East Pakistan. In the story, Lilia's father initially indicates that Mr.Pirzada is a Pakistani Muslim and their family are Hindus from India and are actually different but Lilia observes the overt similarities like speaking same language, eating pickled mangoes along with meals and eating hands than an indicated difference. Initially unflustered by Mr.Pirzada's visits, the story beautifully depicts how and when Lilia actually pays importance to her visitor.

The Third and Final Continent appears last in the collection and deals with the journey of a man from India (Calcutta) to London and then to Boston. Simple and straight forward in import and content, the story impressively details hardships a man faces while settling in a land far away from home land and strong emotional relations he develops with a handful. Unlike other stories in the collection that have bitter-sweet endings, this story ends on a nostalgic and clearly optimistic note.

This Blessed House and A Real Durwan are mere fillers meant to add few pages to the book. Sexy cannot be dismissed as an insignificant component in the collection. The Interpreter of Maladies in which Mr.Kapasi, a tourist guide and a translator for a doctor in his neighborhood is bowled over by an astonishing revelation of one of his clients, Mrs.Sen does not appeal much either. Mrs.Sen's and The Treatment of Bibi Haldar definitely evoke sympathy in reader for the protagonists.

The back cover of my paperback edition states - Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say "Read this!" She's a dazzling story teller with a distinctive voice, an eye for nuance, an ear for irony. She is one of the finest short story writers I've read." - Amy Tan. 

I do agree with the last two sentences from the claim above. However, I would not urge the next person I see to grab this book and read it. Good book, glad I read it, that is all.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

AJAYA - Book 1: Roll of the Dice - Book Review

Book Details:

Name of the Book - AJAYA, Epic of the Kaurava Clan, Book 1 - Roll of the Dice
Author - Anand Neelakantan (also authored best seller book Asura)
Publisher - Leadstart Publishing
Chapters/Pages - Organised into 27 chapters, a total of 455 pages.
Price in India - Rs 299

Prelude to the Book Review:

The Mahabharata - longest known epic poem written by Vyasa has always fascinated me. I am sure many will agree that we were literally transported to the kingdom of Hastinapur and its times through BR Chopra's television series (1988) based on the epic. The Mahabharata has been narrated by many in different manners highlighting myriad aspects. Many tales of this epic find reasoning and revelation in Bhagavata Purana, a work again attributed to Vyasa. Each narration of this gargantuan epic unfolds hidden tales and perspectives. I picked up this book AJAYA - Roll of the Dice with the same intention, to visit episodes of the epic from an unseen angle - from the viewpoint of Kauravas, more aptly Duryodhana, topically referred to as Suyodhana. 


What caught my attention as I opened the book was its immaculate structure. The author's beginning note titled "Why write about Duryodhana" sends a clear message on his intention in writing the book and justifies his efforts. It reminds me of the proverb - The devil is not so black as he is painted.

Few pages are dedicated to explaining characters that feature in the book and there is an impressive genealogy tree diagram relevant to the epic too. Right from the prelude, where Anand explains Bhishma's exploits in Gandhara and unravels the birth of the story's real villain - Shakuni; he plays devil's advocate. And, I must admit, he pulls off this tough job in an elegant fashion without mincing words and sans editing gaffes. 

In the opening chapter, animosity between cousins - the Kauravas and the Pandavas is portrayed in a light hearted manner, Suyodhana hates and fears mighty Bhima who always prowls around him. Another cousin he dreads is Yudhishtra who he feels is only more "poisonous" than "pious".

As the story unfolds, Drona, the teacher arrives to make true Kshatriyas out of Pandavas and Kauravas. Suyodhana is depicted as one who lacks interest in teacher's lessons, who often gets reprimanded as son of a blind fool, one who prefers appreciating the love between birds perched on a tree rather than treat them as mere target, one who wishes to fight the rigid varna system and many other perils like hunger, poverty, caste discrimination and untouchability that hog his kingdom. He is projected as one who possesses a strong vision to rebuild the society, base it on merit and talent rather than on caste and dogmatic rules laid out in scriptures, an idea patronized by only few mavericks like Kripa, Carvaka and Balarama.

Ekalavya and Karna come along as victims caught in this societal quagmire, rebuked and shunned to darkness despite possessing immense talent. While the former tastes only failure and loss, the latter proves little luckier to be trained under Parashurama and be crowned the king of Anga by his loyal friend, Suyodhana.

An adage states - only lawyers and painters can turn white to black; through many episodes like the burning of house of lac at Varanavata, creation of Indraprastha and curse of Mayasura, Draupadi's Swayamvara; her subsequent marriage to five brothers and Arjuna's marriage to Subhadhra, the author manages to paint the Pandavas, their mother Kunti and even Krishna "black" with words.

The book ends with the infamous dice game between the cousins where Pandavas lose everything to Kauravas.

Anand has treated this book not just as a piece of fiction but moulded portions of the epic to incorporate many present day problems in society. Lot of research has gone in as seen from concluding sections of the book - notes on Polyandry in Ancient India and Gandhari and Dhritharashta's 100 sons and one daughter. A short glossary and a preview to the sequel of this book - Rise of Kali too follow these articles.

Anand Neelakantan does a decent job as devils' advocate all along. However, why the game of dice rolls on even when Pandavas gamble away their wife, why self righteous Suyodhana and his friend Dharmaveera Karna turn a blind eye to the farce unfolding before them is inexplicable. Does Suyodhana really turn into Duryodhana in the last few pages of the book despite author's best efforts, is he really just a "son of a blind fool" are questions that need rumination.

This book is a definite NO for those who view Pandavas as unquestionable heroes and refuse to introspect Lord Krishna's naughty shenanigans even jokingly. The book might also prove cumbersome for those who do not have a broad idea of the chronological sequence of events in the epic. Otherwise, the book offers a good read and a distinctive perspective. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Elections 2014

Elections 2014 in India has earned many sobriquets - watershed elections, India's most polarising elections, elections with the highest voter turnout. The longest election ever held in the history of the largest democracy in the world, with nine phases spanning from Apr 7 to May 12, 2014 culminates tomorrow, May 16, with results declaration.

The elections to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha in 543 constituencies has been a significant one in many respects. It has witnessed sledging and slamming that downplays infamous episodes in cricket and puts masters like Aussies to shame. Repugnance and acerbity have overflown in excess in all directions.

While debates still ensue if a Modi wave exists at all, it is undeniable that an insuppressible urge to vote persisted in the youth of the nation. For the first time, youngsters cared to look and think beyond cricket and its closely linked partner in entertainment, cinema. While people wanted to come out and vote, the Election Commission did not quite like this over enthusiasm and deleted as many as 74 lakh names in the state of Maharashtra alone.

People thought only paper and ballot boxes proved convenient for rigging but were taken aback when Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) too malfunctioned. Irrespective of any button pressed, lights flashed against the current ruling party. As if men were not enough to rig, rodents too joined in creating mayhem, cut wires, devored buttons and damaged EVMs stored post voting in Ghaziabad, the only solace that rodents imparted damage impartially.

News channels ate, drank and slept elections 2014. News on weather, sports, cine glitz and glamor, terror/militant attacks, economic/market affairs, international topics like problems in Nigeria,Ukraine, Turkey, South Korea all went missing much like the missing Malaysian airline MH 370. Reporters ran between Amethi and Varanasi like lunatics and many reconciled to spending days and nights on Ganga ghat in Varanasi.

Nations' pulse is high, anxiety and enthusiasm levels hit a top notch, call it over awareness incited by media or a mad drive against incumbency or intolerance to unfathomable corruption and scams in the nation, this election has been the most closely followed one by many who never cared to check how the government formed or functioned.

I voted in Bangalore on April 17, 2014 and did my duty as a citizen. As said in the Gita, I am only supposed to do my action and not expect the fruit of it. I wait with bated breath (minus expectations) for the announcement of the nation's leader for that decides the country's future. And yes, a quick sign off from the post before someone terms me communal and non secular for having quoted the Gita.