Monday, September 14, 2020

August 2020 Read (Part1)

 August month sees the celebration of Indian writing in the form of a readathon called - Discovering India readathon hosted by select Indian bookstagrammers on the Instagram platform.

Adding my reviews of four books that I read for the readathon - different books fitting different prompts/themes marked for the month long readathon. 

1. Sepia Leaves 

Sepia Leaves by Amandeep Sandhu, semi autobiographical in nature, is an account of a 7 yr old boy Appu's highly fractured childhood with a schizophrenic mother (he calls her Mamman) and a meek father (he calls as Baba) who has unconditionally surrendered to fate. Appu acts as a bridge between his parents who don't touch each other even by mistake. At a tender age, he swaps roles with his mother, escorting her to the hospital for her psychiatrist visits, cajoling her to eat, calming her after her bouts of unguarded temper for she simply cannot stand the sight of Baba. 

The narrative shifts between the present - Baba has passed away at the age of 66 in their Bangalore home and the past - Appu's childhood days in well planned steel town of Rourkela during the period of Emergency mingled with days spent in parents' native towns - Rajpura and Bhatinda, Punjab and in his boarding school in Dehradun. After Baba's death, Appu makes a piecewise approximation of the trio's journey as a family, not an absolutely normal one but one that managed some peace with the passage of years from memories, pictures in albums, ghazal casettes, diary entries written and letters filed by Baba.

The book is absolutely brilliant for its brutal honesty. It needs lot of mettle to lay bare details of a difficult childhood, talk of one's parents, their shortcomings without getting judgemental, a nearly impossible feat. There are parts that make you cry (not just moist eyed). 

Baba is definitely a man from Mars, he defines what true commitment is, loves and cares without reasoning, staying distant from his wife who physically abuses and mentally tortures him reducing him into an aimless pulp. Appu too in many ways is like Baba for his sense of commitment and love. 

The book clearly reveals the plight of the caregivers for the mentally ill, how their lives totally eclipsed dwindle between the storm at home and silence outside for people on streets either kill them with excess pity or stigma. 

Sepia Leaves has important lessons for parents without getting preachy - to not thrust what they feel is good for the kid but know what the kid feels is right , to draw a line on information dissemination - know how much to keep away and divulge to kids, never expect them to prematurely shoulder too many responsibilities that the very word responsible itself evokes hatred. The book would have shone brighter with tighter editing in parts and with some important WHY s getting answers. Memory constantly shifts shapes , their origin at times cannot be traced, they stay strong or get too frail to recall but to let them go rather than have them weigh upon us may be the best exercise as quoted in the book - "in order to generate new life , a tree sheds its sepia colored leaves".  

2. The Night of Broken Glass 

The Night of Broken Glass by Feroz Rather is a collection of 13 interconnected short stories set in Kashmir scarred by 3 decades of insurgency. Sharing characters and events between them, these do not interlock perfectly like puzzle pieces but weave in to make an impressive 'dastarkhwaan'. The book begins with - The Old Man in the Cottage where an unnamed narrator's earnest wish - to wreak vengeance on Inspector Masoodi who nearly killed him 25 yrs back is squashed by a strange twist of fate. In other quirky stories, tyrannical Inspector Masoodi is taunted by a rebel leader's ghost and highly notorious Major S who unleashes terror in the valley has his inner demons to tackle daily when he heads back home. 

The Souvenir gives a quiet but strong blow  where a teenager strings a rosary not out of prayer beads but from bullet shells. Rosy, The Cowherd, Robin Polish, The Night of Broken Glass studded with many characters freely moving between them make an incisive commentary on caste divide and gender atrocities that plague the society. With Syeds on top of the caste ecehelons and Sheiks near its bottom, powerful lines reveal how man erects many invisible 'walls' around him. There is no escape from excessive scrutiny of identity even on death - was he a renegade or a martyr? A collaborator or a rebel?

Stories - Summer of 2010, The Stone Thrower and The Pheran send a terrific chill down the spine. 

Feroz Rather's lyrical prose, little ornate at places, juxtaposes the beauty of Kashmir with brutality of everyday existence here. A Pheran with embroidered venations of leaves in its neckline and sleeves symbolises beauty, also a bullet ridden Pheran is all a father has to remind him of his deceased son. The valleys and peaks pose in splendor against the eyesore like military camps - huge concrete walls, barbed wired tops & piled up sand bags. A snag in a machine ruthlessly consumes an innocent's life on the Zero Bridge which gets etched in our memory as a site of horror. This masterfully crafted collection that draws its title from German November pogrom - Kristallnacht (reasons become clear in last few stories) makes a good, impactful read.

3. Khooni Vaisakhi 

The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, popularly known as the Rowlatt Act - a draconian law that allowed indefinite preventive detention, arrests without warrant, no judicial trial turned out to be huge turning point in the Indian independence movement, none in the British Raj anticipating the opprobrium it would generate.

Dubbed as no Dalil, no Vakil, no Appeal, the passage of the act prompted resignation of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Madan Mohan Malviya from the Legislative Council. Dr. Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew lead a huge hartal in Amritsar, mobilized people from both Hindu & Muslim communities in huge numbers for the Rama Navami celebrations on April 9, 1919. The display of communal amity shocked and scared the British to such extent that the two leaders were arrested and deported the next morning to Dharamsala on orders by Governor of Punjab - Micheal O Dwyer. Repeal of the 'Black' Act and release of arrested leaders were clear demands of the people. In quick precipitation of events, Brig Gen Reginald Dyer was posted in Amritsar to control the mayhem.  

On 13, April 1919, with 50 soldiers for assistance, he ordered opening fire on a large, peaceful and unarmed crowd gathered in Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed maidan on Vaisakhi day. Sealing the main entrance, he ordered 1650 rounds of firing till they ran out of ammunition creating the worst 10 minutes in our history leaving a toll that till day cannot be accurately confirmed.  The bullet pockmarked wall and the Martyr's well are silent reminders of the most heinous episode under colonial rule, one that made Tagore give up his knighthood and Gandhi his Kaiser i Hind title.  

Nanak Singh, the father of Punjabi Literature, a trail blazing writer was 22 when he visited the Bagh on the fateful day, he survived the massacre but the indelible mark it left on him made him pen down the poem Khooni Vaisakhi. Published , only to be banned and destroyed in entirety by the British in May 1920, it took 6 decades to trace a stray copy of the original and many's concerted efforts to republish it. The translation of the poem by the author's grandson Navdeep Suri came years later. 

The poem in bilingual format is comprehensively packaged along with the translator's recollection of his grandfather's life and literature, the Bagh Massacre, the events in its run up and immediate aftermath. Justin Rowlatt's The Sins of the Great Grandfather talks about a sense of shame he can never assuage. HS Bhatia's essay details excellent instances in Punjabi Literature centered about the massacre. A scathing critique of the British Raj, an impeccable piece of survivor's literature on contemporaneous history , a precious artefact, Khooni Vaisakhi makes a must read for every person who can trace their origin to undivided India. 

4. Walled City

From an art critic & an artist, Esther David turned an author at the age of 50 with this debut work. That she chose to write about the Indian Jews is readers' good fortune. Set in Ahmedabad, The Walled City in short chapters is a 'coming of age' story of a young girl in a large Indian Jewish family. Beginning 1940, our unnamed narrator (possibly in pre/early teens) through description of her family members, friends, other important people, and scattered life events paints a family saga in which she is trying hard to understand her roots, her home and her Jewish identity. 

With no clear plot and a slow start, what feels like "why am I even reading this" transforms into an irresistible urge to keep reading for the pull of the author's writing grows on you. In staccato prose, the narrator weaves a web of life (rich in Jewish everyday traditions) with her parents, maternal and paternal grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, school friends and domestic help detailing the clear imprint each one of them has on her. There are many characters but you are never squashed under the number. Winds of change blow constantly over the family as its members carefully safeguard the purity of their tribe and ensure strict adherence to Jewish rituals. Old ones die, sons in the family go astray; it's left to the women and young girls of the household to bury themselves under a gravestone of 'responsibility'. The narrator and her cousin Malkha are groomed to bury their dreams of romance and family life, expected to serve as an anchor for their old parents even as they remain rudderless thus giving this work a clear feminist tone.  The sights, sounds and smells of Ahmedabad, the demonic riots that plague the city come alive in writing.The Sabarmati river that divides the city often matches the narrator's moods.  

The insight the author offers into daily life of the Indian Jewish community is terrific that at the end of the book, you may want to kiss the Mezuzah before entering home or put a Kiddush cup of wine to your lips on Sabbath day. A crackling debut novel in 200 pages where each turn of a page sharpens the final image in words, so poignantly beautiful. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

March 2020 Reads (Part 4)

BOOK REVIEW: Son of the Thundercloud by Easterine Kire 

Pele leads a simple life with his parents, wife and child, content with the harvest from his land. However, an unprecedented famine causes death of all his family members and Pele leaves his village. He wanders aimlessly hoping to reach the Village of Weavers where he is told he may get food and shelter.
Enroute, he stops at a highly desolate place with grey, parched earth where he meets two old women, sisters nearly 400 yrs old - Kethonuo and Sietze. The sisters claim they thrive eating hope and are waiting for the arrival of the Son of Thundercloud, one who will herald unbelievable changes for the better. Pele and the sisters are welcomed in the village of weavers by Mesanuo (younger sister of the older duo) who claims is impregnated with a single drop of rain.

An age old prophecy that a tiger widow who lost her husband and 7 sons to a 'spirit' tiger will be impregnated by a single rain drop, bear a son who will avenge their deaths is finally unfolding into reality with Pele a witness to it. Rhalietuo, son of the thundercloud is born to Mesanuo and Pele begins to find a new purpose to his life being around the boy.
Though titled Son of the Thundercloud, the story is of how Pele realises hope, love and longing sustain life for eternity, and how the dark side of human beings - hatred, greed, envy can wreak complete havoc. 

Will the age old prophecy come true? What happens to Pele, Rhalietuo and the sisters? 

Folk tales have a rustic charm. They impart simple joy, one like you get from resting your head on granny's lap while listening to her stories and comfort you get from hugging your mother - her cold, sweat soaked skin, her crumpled cotton saree easing the summer afternoon heat.

Easterine Kire's lyrical storytelling, simple prose blended with magical folklore in this book manages to create the above said effects partly, if not entirely.

BOOK REVIEW : The White Umbrella by Brian Sewell 

Mr. B, a 50 yr old man from London is in Peshawar with his crew to make a TV series when he stumbles upon a donkey foal, wounded and tottering under the weight of loads piled on it. Eccentric Mr.B decides to take the donkey back home to England with him. He names her Pavlova after a famous ballet dancer. 
Dropping out of his planned flight journey, he decides to travel by foot from Peshawar to Wimbledon, via Quetta, Zahedan, Kerman, Isfahan, Tabriz, Doğubayazıt, Istanbul, Bosporus, then into Europe via Macedonia.
Mr.B though perceived as an addlepated crackbrain for his expedition westwards with a donkey gets great help from kind souls who ensure he reaches the next important town in his journey in some vehicle in comfort with Pavlova.

A pharmacist in Peshawar, a poet in Zahedan, a carpet dealer in Isfahan, deputy governor in Dogubayazit, the British ambassador and his wife in Istanbul, Hector (who becomes a best friend for life) ferrying him all the way home after Macedonia, helping him smuggle the donkey across English channel are lustrous examples of kind hearted human beings.

The book is highly redolent with history, geography and culture of each town en route - Isfahan, the ancient bustling centre in silk route, Mount Ararat in Dogubayazit where Noah's Ark halted safely, Metz and Verdun towns near French border which witnessed Battle of Attrition in 1916 et al. 
Equally abundant are mentions of local food and drink - Kahraman Maraş, a eastern Turkish city famous for its elastic ice cream; Ayran, the refreshing buttermilk like drink of Iran, Slivovitz - the strong plum brandy of the Balkans, Piesporter - a fine German wine.

The White Umbrella, mostly humorous and little poignant is a tale of a man who loves animals down to his bones.

End note:
How Covid 19 pandemic has scarred us all cannot be conveyed in words as precisely and incisively as numbers specify a death toll. With oodles of compassion & empathy, this book on a normal day would have choked me with its utter sweetness. But for the current tumult, it managed to partly nullify the effects of a bad spell around us.

March 2020 Reads (Part 3)

BOOK REVIEW : The Mountain of the Moon by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

"It is much better to be a shattered piece of jade lying on the floor rather than a tile in the corner of the roof". -- Chinese proverb from the book.
And Shankar Roy, the protagonist of - The Mountain of the Moon (the original in Bengali titled Chander Pahar) by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, translated by Jayanta Sengupta, believes in the above.

Set in 1909, Shankar, an arts student in Calcutta, an avid fan of travel, astronomy and geography and a very promising sportsperson, reluctantly takes up a job in the jute mill in his village to meet his family's financial ends. 
Thanks to a neighbor's husband, an opportunity beckons him to the Dark continent, the alluring lands which he always gazed at fervently in maps. In Mombasa, he works in a railway construction firm, and then as railway station master before the call of the wild takes him on a grand expedition with an older Portuguese man, Diego Alvarez who he saves from death throes.

Alvarez tells Shankar tales of his earlier unsuccessful expedition in Richtersveldt mountains close to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), his quest for diamonds and tryst with an evil monster that killed his teammate Carter. Shankar yearns for a life full of adventure and Alvarez wants to accomplish the unfinished task; having forged a father-son, master-disciple like relation, the two set out on a journey where known factors are very few and unknowns uncountable and highly intimidating.

With frugal maps, a non working compass in a land with no natural landmarks, limited food, water and ammunition can the two achieve their dreams, come out alive and victorious?

Impenetrable jungles, arid Kalahari desert, chattering baboons, man eating lions, tsetse fly that causes sleeping sickness, evil monsters like Bunyip and Dingonek that devor those who trespass the lands they guard, an active volcano explosion, labyrinthine cave systems add thrill to Shankar's peregrinations that cover most of Sub Saharan Africa.

Well translated, this brilliant work of fiction gives vibes of movies like King Solomon's Mines and Congo. 

Thanks to such stories, the 'free spirited, wide eyed and mouth agape' kid in us stays alive.

BOOK REVIEW : Ships That Pass by Shashi Deshpande 

Radhika is a fiesty, headstrong girl who has just finished her BA degree. Questions on 'what next' from friends and family members jangle in her head. She just cannot make up her mind and when she does, getting married; an arranged marriage seems the best answer. Though taken aback at her suggestion, her family finds her a groom - Mr. Ghanshyam with Radhika still mulling over her choice of the man and marriage as a solution.

Meantime, a letter from Shaan, her elder sister Tara's husband, written in a secretive tone arrives. Shaan sounds both urgent and helpless describing Tara's failing health condition and summons Radhika to their home in a different town hoping Tara will feel better.
Tara, 33 yrs old, looks aged and withered since the last time Radhika met her. Tara suffers from arthritis and a psychosomatic illness. Shaan conveys that Tara refuses to see doctors, considers pain her punishment and fears she would commit suicide one day. Tara, on the other hand fears Shaan is putting her life to risk. Between two whom she trusts and cares for equally, Radhika sways like a pendulum between extremes, unable to understand what led this once ideal marriage esconced in complete love to decay.

There is none to offer her clues except Dr. Ram Mohan, their neighbor since childhood days in Mumbai. The denouement arrives with Tara's death and Shaan's arrest for her murder.

Did Tara commit suicide, what caused her illness? Did Shaan kill Tara, but why? How do these events shape Radhika's future, her thoughts about marriage? 

Ships that Pass by Shashi Deshpande smoothly blends elements of a murder mystery with keen observations on human relationships, putting greater stress on delving into human psyche. All this in a 144 pages novella in simple and powerful prose speaks immensely of the writer's prowess.

Exploring the institution of marriage, its perplexities, the burden of fear and guilt, the need to love, forgive and forget, this open ended novella asserts that there is no bigger enigma than the human mind.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

March 2020 Reads (Part 2)

1. Book Review - I'd Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel 

"For everyone who's ever finished a book under the covers with a flashlight when they were supposed to be sleeping" - a book with such a dedication can only be a charmer from start to end.

I'd Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel is a very aesthetically crafted book that discusses the delights and dilemmas in a reader's life with bookish examples that make you smile, grin and nod your head in approval.

The author begins with asking us to confess our literary sins, accept the divide between what we think our reading life should be like and what it really is, this sounds hilarious.

There are totally heartwarming sections on how the right book finds you at just the right moment, how few pages with words have the power to instill an entire gamut of emotions, books that bind us in a spell, books we keep close to our heart in inner circles and those that give a preview of life experiences.

Libraries and bookstores are chief characters in this book, many books referenced to serve as examples quite easily make up a 'Good Reads' information portal.

The coming of age tale of a reader, the need to re-read a book to know the divide between what you were when you read a book earlier and what you are now, the need to read the acknowledgements and author's notes in books - pages ooze with love for reading which the author states though mostly viewed as a solitary act is very much a social activity for there is an urgency to discuss books with other reader friends.

A chapter on Book Bossy is the most hilarious section where the author details how 'should' be never used when suggesting a read. Unsolicited book recommendations are like unwarranted advice on one's private affairs. This she says is because reading is a very personal experience. A simple question like 'Suggest me a Great Book' requires not just knowledge of books but knowing the poser of the question really well.

A beautiful love letter to reading, this book is pleasant and wholesome much like the process of reading itself.

2. Book Review - White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht is a tale of an impossibly ideal sibling love, of 2 sisters torn apart by war - of Hana who makes a colossal sacrifice to keep up a promise and of Emi whose life bequeathed to her by Hana is only a burden without her.

Hana leads a simple life with her parents and sister Emi (younger by 7 yrs) on the island of Jeju, colonised by 
Japanese forces since 1910. Hana and her mother are haeneyo women, fiercely independent,  
strong sea divers who earn their living by catching & selling abalone and sea weed.

Life turns tumultuous for Hana one summer afternoon in 1943 when she surrenders herself to a Japanese soldier, 
Corporal Morimoto in an attempt to save her sister from his prying eyes. 
Pushed into sexual slavery by him, Hana leads an infernal life in a brothel in Manchuria as a 'comfort' woman 
servicing never ending lines of soldiers who rape her brutally, strip her of her life & dignity. 
A vague possibility of re uniting with her family some day and watching her sister become 
a haeneyo lets her endure her stay in the hellhole.

Will Hana's glimmer of hope thrive the endless ordeals that crush it down to the wick? 
Will the sisters ever reunite?

We get the answers as we alternate between Hana's accounts in 1943 and Emi's accounts in 2011. 
Emi has survived two wars, seen her family and home perish, borne two children out of a loveless marriage 
who now as grown ups lead a comfortable life in Seoul. She attends few Wednesday 
demonstrations where Koreans gather outside Japanese embassy 
demanding an apology for war atrocities hoping to meet Hana there.

The prose is highly mature and the author is wise alternating narratives between the sisters. 
In Hana's accounts, we feel trapped in the darkest depths of sea, an unbroken expanse of water weighing upon us, 
squeezing our lungs and choking us and in Emi's accounts comes the reprieve, we resurface to catch a breath. 
The author's note, notable dates in history and list of reference reads provided at the end indicate 
that the work of fiction is firmly grounded in facts.
Though grim and harrowing in parts, the book ends with humanity making a delicate win, an element that illuminates 
this earth despite all the murk. 
A heartbreaking, important work of historical fiction that clearly reveals war affects women like no other.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

March 2020 Reads (Part 1)

Books read during the month of March 2020 shared below - 

1. Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi 

Grace Marisola arrives in Pondicherry from America to cremate her dead mother. Her mother has bequeathed her a huge land in Paramankeni, a big house on it very close to the sea, with a sprawling garden and an elder sister, Lucia with Downs syndrome, her existence unknown till then, all this even as Grace is grappling with her decade long unsuccessful marriage with Blake, her job and social life in America.

Born to an Italian father, Giacinto Marisola and an Indian mother, Meera, Grace finds her every childhood memory thwarted into a deception by the secrets her parents kept from her. She unravels the truth over time by interacting with her mom's friend Kavitha Raman, her mother's lawyer and Lucia's teacher at a centre for disabled children where Lucia has spent all her life, her father in Venice.

Grace is keen on bringing Lucia home; together the sisters stay with a few dogs, a litter of pups and Mallika, a caretaker woman. Valluvan, the village headman, their only acquaintance is a source of security with Grace feeling constant threat from every man's prying eyes.

When Kavitha auntie tells Grace that she wasn't expected by her mother to stay with Lucy, Grace only replies - it isn't difficult, it's just the repetitiveness. 
It is this mundaneness of routine, the mere predicability, inevitability of decay in a relationship over time, the ways one deploys to wriggle in and out of life that is dealt with in lush and evocative prose in Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi.

The author also lays bare how a dysfunctional family leaves cracks in children that can never be mended easily, the creaking noises their lives make cannot be drowned by all din in the world. The prose assumes the course of a meandering river, bright & free flowing in most places, prosaic and little stagnant like when stuck in whirls at times.

Torn between a parent who led a life of guilt, another who believed in complete renunciation, little like her mother, a little like her father, Grace settles over time into being just who she is, comfortable in her skin and with her soul.

Small Days and Nights with a ray of hope in its open end is a book that poignantly states no matter how much we try , many WHYs in life cannot be answered. Sharing a quote from the last chapter - "In the days to come there will be children engineered to resemble our ideas of children. They will be born in petri dishes and every chromosome, every strand of genetic evidence will be tampered into perfection. And still, we will fall short". This is the truth that man blatantly or half heartedly refuses to accept. 

There are books that quench our thirst as readers and then there are few books like this one that proceed a step further, prove the sheer beauty and power words have which will force us to pen down something beautiful on a piece of paper.

2. The Demon Hunter of Chottanikkara  by SV Sujatha 

Devi, a young girl but no ordinary mortal, and a lion Ugra, her mount, guard the village of Chottanikkara against evil spirits. The densely forested northern limits of the village, marubhoomi is home to demons with never ceasing blood lust like Jalapisacha (water demon that resides in old, decrepit wells), Kollivaipei (demons that breathed fire), Pretha (scavenger spirit that roamed the graveyards), Brahmrakshasa, Mohini Pisacha, Vetala. Devi could hunt them all down, reduce them to ashes or nail them to a neem tree (the metal iron was believed to maim these demons). .
But a crime scene like no other in a grove befuddles all. Leads from the scene, Devi's nightmares, a warning by a rakshasa she last slayed and lastly an eye witness's accounts ascertain the presence of a monstrous Yakshi who assumes a reptilian form with cerulean blue scales, sword like teeth; a flesh eating demon who cannot be thwarted by use of iron.

Parasurama who trained Devi in arts of combat provides answers to crucial questions, what is a yakshi & how can she be slayed? Rolling a set of cowrie shells, he prophesies this hunt will be the most daunting task for Devi that requires her to do the unprecedented.

Who is this Yakshi, why was she killing the men in her village? Will Devi succeed in killing this indomitable demon? 
The characters are few and well chalked out. The clean & fast paced narrative holds attention unto end though the end itself is clearly predictable.

SV Sujatha's story Gandaberunda (from anthology Magical Women) was a neatly crafted thriller and this book too pleasantly surprised me, have never devored a book so fast in recent times.

This book brought memories from my childhood visit to the Chottanikkara Bhagavathy temple, close to Kochi; many possessed by evil spirits were exorcised here. The trees with iron nails driven in, strands of human hair wound around them, the sight is clearly etched in my memory. Making a mention of guruthi puja and naming a character as Kannappan (Devi's foster father), the author has used practices and beliefs of/around the temple in weaving a decent supernatural thriller for the readers.