Category Archives: Fiction

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

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It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.

The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.

The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.

The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.

If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.

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How they find me

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The name of the movie came up time and again as I flipped through Netflix. A lazy Sunday evening seemed the perfect time to watch it, finally. I had found the book quite underwhelming, so did not expect much from the movie. It was a pleasant surprise to have been absolutely delighted. Meryl Streep, as phenomenal as always. The movie, you ask? Well, ‘Julia & Julie’ 🙂

The reminiscing mode switched on afterwards. If I had to take up a project for a year, what would it be? Not ready to kill myself by experimenting with a new recipe everyday when these days cooking is done in between the short intervals from work, what would be the next best option, I wondered. Maybe a recipe a week, from books I’ve read or that I will? Patting my back, I told myself, “brilliant idea!” Try it out, it’s easy. Patting yourself on the back 😉

‘Swimming Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor was a book I was looking for, but was not willing enough to buy. The library messaged, “we’ve put in hold for you, come get it.” Two birds in one shot and I was off. With Tharoor’s book in hand, I started typing the key words on the library computer – ‘food books,’ ‘books with food theme,’ ‘books on food’ and so on. Trust it to come up with this, ‘Browsings – A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books,’ by Michael Dirda. The cover said, ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.’ How could I not grab it?

While at the shelf, my hands went to the othe nearby, but of course! Books on books, can any book lover resist them, ever? So jumped the next one winking at me, ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’ in large print and ‘and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts,’ in small print. That went right into the bag, no prizes for guessing that.

No, I was not done yet. The ‘food’ had to be taken care of. The name M.F.K Fisher caught my eyes. I had read about her sometime ago, she was said to be a legendary food writer. Her books had eluded me and it continues to be so even now. The next best thing , I hope. ‘The Arrangemnt’ by Ashley Warlick, a novel based on Fisher’s life.

Finally, a challenge to myself for the Thanksgiving weekend, at least a couple of recipes from ‘Appetites, A Coobook,’ by none other than the Anthony Bourdain. Ambitious, aren’t I? Who knows, where it might lead me to? 😉

How do your books find you, my friends?

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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An 18 year old Australian girl goes to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange program, hears of an execution which incidentally is the last one there, then spends ten years in research and converts it into a spellbinding story – that is Hannah Kent and her debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for you.

Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend. The story is set in early 19th century. The execution is to happen in the area where it happened, but there are no prisons there. Jon Jonson, a regional official is forced to take her into his household for safekeeping until the deed is done. His wife Margaret and their two daughters have mixed reactions to Agnes being with them. The story unfolds mostly through Agnes narrating it to Toti, the young priest who is assigned to make her repent before her death.

Margaret has heard bits and pieces of Agnes’s story and she is rightly uncomfortable with having to put up with a murderess in her life that is already fraught with enough pain and challenges. But her innate goodness comes through right from the beginning. The background that is set is already stark with the unbearable cold and the dilapidated, grimy state of their surroundings. Even that seems mild in comparison to the state that Agnes is in. Margaret cannot ignore it even though she had decided not to have too much to do with the fallen woman.

Agnes slowly settles herself into the household silently, and she turns into a support that Margaret desperately needed. The two daughters are a contrast in characters and the way they treat Agnes. As her story unfolds, along with the reader, the family also comes to know of the why and how of what happened that night.

The maturity of the writing and the understanding of the psyche of the characters is truly commendable. What held my attention was the nuances of the underlying emotions between the women. The connect that only women seem to have, the subtle ways in which Margaret shows her support for someone who has no one else in the world and how she defends Agnes against her nosy neighbours tugs at your heart.

Agnes, like any other woman longs for stability and validation that has been denied her right from childhood when her mother leaves her when she was six. The manner in which her life turns out shows us how circumstances and people’s opinions can make or mar us. It underlines how nothing ever is stark black or white, and it is in the gray areas that we live and love.

The characters are drawn out so well that we can almost touch and feel them. It is as though you are lying in one of the beds in the room and listening to Agnes pouring her heart out to the young priest. You cry for her as she refuses to taint anyone, especially the baby that she saved the life of. And the despair and futility of it all, when finally the inevitable happens.

I don’t know why we are so amazed reading a brilliant debut novel, especially by someone young. How can one write about such emotions without going through something similar, we wonder. Then you realize, that is what brilliance is all about. That one can write so deeply about something they might not have experienced.

A must read, I would say. And totally deserving all the awards that it garnered.

 

 

The latest from my favorite author

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Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.

The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’   the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’

We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability  after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.

There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark.  The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.

What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.

The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.

And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going  on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.

The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.

 

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

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Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.

Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.

“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”

In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,

“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.

‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “

Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.

The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.

Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.

“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.

The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,

“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”

The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,

“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “

You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?

To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.

Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.

5/5 

Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

imageThe name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.

I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.

Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.

A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound  volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’

The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab  Sahib.’

As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room,  she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.

And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,

” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”

The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read.  Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.

Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.

Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?

As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.

( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )

That picture in your mind

Some books leave a lasting imprint on your soul. You might forget most parts of the story , the characters must have long receded into some obscure part of your amnesiac brain, even the author would have been long forgotten. But, the moment someone mentions the name, or you see it referred to somewhere, a picture pops up in your mind. It takes you right back into that place and mood you had escaped to  and sets you off on a dream, again.

I read Heidi first in school. Johanna Spyri’s spirited little girl who was dumped unceremoniously on a grandfather who never wanted her in the first heidiplace. Was it the first time I heard of a far off country called Switzerland? A few years before the book, I had fallen in love with hills and mountains. It was but natural that the love extended to the enchanting story of a lost little girl, running around freely among the meadows of the Swiss Alps. And the picture, a cute chubby girl in a red gingham dress with white frills and a hat to match, with a milk pail in one hand that went up in perfect balance to the sprightly feet that was dancing its way in the green grasslands. The background always looked like those ‘hills that are alive with the Sound of Music.’

Some books leave a colour on the palette that your mind is. One that immediately pops up – ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruis Zaffon.’ Sepia tones, bronze lighted up with sunlight and dreary brown in between . The dark mood of the story commingled with the eternal eagerness in the young boy’s mind. The colour of a classic movie.

The picture takes the form of a person in some others. Esteban Trueba, the ageing patriarch in Isabel Allende’s ‘The House of Spirits,’ with a forlorn look on his age withered face, loose trousers and a shirt that is too large for him, billowing in the wind, an antique walking stick in his right hand and the left hand slightly lifting the faded hat of his half bald head. As I move to her ‘Paula,’ it is the author herself that catches me by the throat. In fact, there are two pictures that keep coming back to mind. A self assured young woman running up and down the streets of a slowly disintegrating capital citu. Neither does she have the time nor the inclination to even think about others or what they might say. The focus is on the next interview and the safety of her children. The determined look hasn’t changed a bit as we meet her again, years later, by her daughter’s sick bed. A mixture of emotions on her face, from hope, to despair, to sadness and finally, of peace. The book left me with a feeling of contentment, the kind that comes only with pain and acceptance.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is the cantankerous Renee`, seated in front of her TV that is tuned low, a voluminous book in her lap and eyes darting surreptitiously to the door every time there is the slightest of movements. Paloma is a sophisticated version of Heidi, her mischievous eyes hidden behind a philosophical demeanour.

tuscanySome pictures light you up from within. It’s your own dream in another’s words. As if the author sneaked into your head and spirited away your deepest yearnings , only to give it back to you, as a gift of love, in the form of ink on paper. The house keeps changing. Today it is a tall, white colonial structure with large French windows, stately wooden chairs placed in just the perfect manner. White silk curtains fluttering in and out in the breeze on a bright sunny day and the chairs adorned with fluffy cushions in raw silk with most delicate of embroideries in red, green, pink and blue. Tomorrow it will be a low roofed building of red bricks, wide stone paved veranda with lush green plants in planters of all odd shapes and sizes. Bougainvilleas creeping up the sun beaten stone pillars, arm chairs in cane and rattan that speak of morning coffee and scones, afternoon siesta, the heady aroma of evening tea and long hours of exciting reads. I step out with an apron in pastel green tied around my waist, a tray of freshly baked muffins and garlic bread in hand. The table is huge, seating more than a dozen at a time. Faded white linen cover and mats in natural fibre, the serving plates are in white with a thin silver line around the edges. A large pitcher of ginger lemonade, a bottle or two of wine in ice, the clinking sound of crystal, baritone voices, musical notes , reminiscing chuckles, a sigh that escapes now and then, baby laughter, the rustle of silk, the comfort of cotton and the mountain breeze bringing in a whiff of the centuries old olives. Those who know me well, would know the book in an instant. ‘Under the Tuscan Sun.’ One day, soon.

Now go ahead, close your eyes. Tell me , which book was that, what is the picture that comes to your mind in an instant and leaves you with a smile, a tender sigh, an inexplicable longing?

 

The Year through the Reads – Part 2

…..continued from here

The year saw few books on food. Quite a surprise, considering the ardent foodie that I am. Maybe it has to do with the amount of baking that I did last year. It might have been an overkill. But, read I did, a few. The aroma of bread baking in your oven must be one of the most heavenly ones that you could ever experience. No wonder then that Barbara O’Neal’s ‘How to Bake a Perfect Life‘ found a place on the list. A simple, heart warming story of a single mother, this is an easy and pleasant read. Perfect for a winter afternoon or a rainy evening.

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table‘ by Molly Wizenberg was the next on the list. Another one that I would recommend only if you are a foodie. I loved it, by the way.

tuscanyI’ve always been envious of restaurant reviewers and critics. The amount of free and scrumptious dishes that they get to taste and the way they write about it so authoritatively leaves me wondering at the kind of life they lead. The fact that many of them still look fit and lean in spite of all the gourmet food confounds me no end. Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater‘ was an eye opener in many aspects. This was a four star one on my scale.

As each book of 2014 flashes by in my thoughts, I realize this was an year I turned a book infidel. Margaret Atwood is the only author who was lucky enough to pass through the hands more than once. The year also showed me that an author being a favorite is no guarantee for your liking their books. Sue Monk Kidd turned a favourite last year after ‘The Secret Life of Bees‘. Less than 4 months after reading her ‘The Mermaid Chair‘ , I don’t remember a thing about the story. Never take anyone for granted, authors including. Even Atwood let me down, ‘Wilderness Tips‘ left me bewildered. Markus Zusak was the next one in line. While his ‘Book Thief‘ stole my heart the year before, there was no message for me in his ‘I Am the Messenger.

The best part of having book lovers for friends are the new authors and genres that you get introduced to. And when they come in a group, that’s the biggest blessing a wannabe bibliophile could ask for. Some of the best reads of the year reached me through these kindred souls. It was from Maya that I first heard of  ‘Infidel.‘ Promptly bought, the book stayed in the shelf staring at me for more than a few months. But, there was no stopping once it was opened. Some say half of it is made up. Even if the the other half is true, it’s too gruesome a tale to believe, it has to have happened. And I respect the spirit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to have not only escaped a prison but also to fight for women like her.

Call me a cynic or even an old hag, books with the tag of ‘Young Adult’ are one of the few things that I run miles away from. And I have to thank my business consultant friend who made me pick up ‘The Fault In Our Stars.‘  Yes, it is a typical teenage love story with a Bollywood type illness thrown in for good measure. It also taught me not to be prejudiced, that young does not mean immature. It was again the same friend who prodded me towards another gentle and enchanting story, ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor.‘ A brilliant maths professor with a short memory span of eighty minutes, a single mother who is trying hard to make both ends meet and her bright 10 year old boy, this is one read that will leave you with a feeling of ‘all’s well with the world.’

History and war were anathema to me until I got to know this oil man. Carlotta Gall has written in detail tuscanyabout the war in Afganistan, the origin of Taliban and how Pakistan has abetted it silently and otherwise in her ‘The Wrong Enemy : America in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2014.‘ The war stories continued with Samanth Subramanian’s ‘ This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.‘ An unbiased view of what happens to normal human beings in a war that may or may not be theirs is written in a down to earth manner. Hope seems too far away as the author leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Some of the much touted ones left the reader in me disappointed. Neither the story nor the style could hold my interest whether it was Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants‘ or Sidin Vadukut’s ‘The Sceptical Patriot‘.

As in food, I turn adventurous with books also. Sometimes, it is the title that calls out to me, while at other times it could be the blurb. This habit has led me to some treasures and to some disappointments as well. The one that I loved in this group is Jonas Jonasson’s ‘ The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared‘. The story is as outrageous as the title. A sprightly centenarian who was instrumental in inventing the atom bomb, was friends with Truman, Franco, Mao and Nixon, not to mention some higher ups in KGB, and then decides to run away from the old age home on his hundredth birthday. What follows is equally hilarious. A suitcase full of money, a dead body and an elephant. This one was a riot. One that totally disappointed in spite of a promising start was ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman‘ by Denis Theriault.

I finally read an Anees Salim book in the last month of the year, ‘Vanity Bagh‘. Maybe the expectation was so high, that it had to be a disappointment. Loved the language and the images, especially of Vanity Bagh which in itself is a character, but there was this nagging feeling of missing that special something. Shashi Tharoor did not disappoint with his short essays on reading, writing, books and authors with his ‘Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writings and Writers‘, though I have to admit a few chapters were beyond my comprehension.

tuscanyAnd now, for the book of the year. If I were asked to choose one from the eighty plus that were covered during the year, without a second thought it has to be ‘Aarachar‘ by K.R.Meera. Set in Kolkata, this is the story of Chetna Mallick, last in the line of a family of  hangmen, with a lineage of more than 400 years. Meera’s women were always a class apart. Chetna is no different. Courageously moving into a role that was till then reserved for men who were strong in character and build, she is fearless and practical. Interspersed with history, Kolkata comes to life in front of your eyes as does its characters. The story also brings out the shallow world of media, of which the author herself was a part of. Meera is easily one of the best writers in India today. It is indeed a pity that she and her works are rarely known out of Kerala. ‘Hang Woman,’ an English translation by J. Devika is now available.

2014 has also been an year in which the reader in me slowly started shifting focus to non-fiction. The New Year has also started with the same genre. As I wander through Psyche Abraham’s ‘From Kippers to Karimeen‘ I realize again, life is indeed far more interesting than fiction. But then, doesn’t fiction grow out of life?

The Year through the Reads – Part 1

Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books  against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others that started well, and well, lay somewhere between the beginning and the end.

tuscanyThe year started slow. Work was low key, books were aplenty and I had all the time in the world. Chin propped on a few pillows, body spread languidly on my bed, I would read a few paragraphs and then gaze out into the horizon, lost in a world that was far away, yet so familiar. A dilapidated stone villa somewhere in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, pathways covered with bright bougainvilleas,  olive trees all around and an ancient kitchen, it was as if the writer had got into mind and stolen my dreams. It took me almost a week to finish the book, it was like drinking vintage wine, sip, swirl and savour, at leisure. Her memories of restoring a run down Tuscan villa, Frances Mayes’ ‘Under the Tuscan Sun‘ is definitely one of my favorites this year.

The next one couldn’t have been a wilder contrast. Life is not just stranger, it is much more starker than fiction. This was one story that proved it, yet again. A much talked about one, this was on the reading list for quite sometime. The Middle East is a land of honey and gold, for those who have never been there. To each who has made his millions there, there are hundreds who have burnt themselves, caught in a life that you could never even imagine. Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham‘ (translated as ‘Goat Days’) leaves you disturbed for days after you have finished reading it. The taste  that it leaves behind in your mouth is something that you would find difficult to swallow.

Authors are a breed that I normally know through their books and they inspire awe more than love and affection. This was a year that I learned the reverse could be true as well. When someone whom you love like a little sister publishes her first novella, one doesn’t need another reason to celebrate. When the story turns out to be as lyrical as a poem, it is like the proverbial cherry on the cake. Intermingling myth and love, Neelima Vinod has woven a story that is as beautiful as the yakshi in the old palace. ‘Unsettled: The Search for Love and Meaning‘ was a short and delightful read.

The year also saw a passionate book lover turn into an e reader. It is a blessing to have someone in your life who notices  what you do and thentuscany tries to ease your burdens that extra bit. The husband must have been noticing the weight of books that I lug around wherever I go, that he decided to gift me an iPad for my birthday. The transition was not easy, I admit. And I have to admire his optimism, a Kindle that was gifted two years ago lay long forgotten in the dark recesses of a cupboard. What they say about first impressions must be true about first reads as well. ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tart, which had won more than a few awards was the first e book of the year. To say that I was hooked would not be an exaggeration, by the book as well as the device.

Given a choice, travelling is something that I would do for a living, second only to reading. The motto is, if not in real life, vicarious at least. No surprise then that stories of travel turn favorites. I have to admit women travelling alone is something that fascinates me no end. And this was an year that I got to do a much longed for solo trip. Let me not digress. So, it was with great expectations that I started with ‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman‘ by Alice Steinbach. It didn’t take long to realize that what each of us expects out of travel and life could be as varied as chalk and cheese.
tuscanyIt was not all bad for travel, though. I first heard of P.G. Tenzing through his obituary. Someone who went before his time, to borrow a clichéd phrase, he might have had a foreboding as to what was waiting for him. For, he chucked his Civil Services job and went on a ride of his life on his Enfield Bullet. ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions‘ is a celebration of friends and life.

Husband says he is thankful I don’t ride a bike. He knows me well, I should say. Else, who knows where I would have taken off to. Having resigned to the fact that there are some things in life that you may not get to do, this book has rekindled my hopes. ‘The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle‘ by Diana Bletter may not be great literature, but it did remind me again that you are never too old for anything, even to get on a bike and ride all the way across to Alaska.

‘Things that your heart yearns for come searching for you’ is something that I live by. Life has proved it to me time and again, especially in the case of books. Serendipity it is then, when you find one of the best travel books of the year while travelling. The first thing that the eyes search for in a new place are the books that adorn the shelves. I have to be honest here and admit the expectation level was pretty low as I picked this book up from one of the old wooden shelves of a home stay in Himachal Pradesh. Alone, but not feeling lonely at all in the mountains, I was prepared to read through a documentary kind of book. The evidently Malayali name of the author had also piqued my interest. To say that Vivek Menon had me by hook right from page one would be an understatement. Tales about nine animals that were on the verge of disappearing from the face of the earth, in a style that has no parallels, the book had me in splits several times. Sparing no one including himself, he regales us with tales of rogues as well as honest to the core forest officers thanks to whom we still have semblance of forests across the country and animals in them. From Eravikulam to Ranthambore to lesser known national parks like Laokhawa in Assam, the author takes us to places we may never get to see otherwise. The sad part is that we may also never get to see the animals that he talks about, thanks to the roaring underground trade in exotic animals and birds. ‘On the Brink: Travels in the Wilds of India‘ is one of those rare finds for me this year. Especially because it has kindled my interest in a genre that I rarely venture into. A must read, for wildlife enthusiasts and those who love a good read.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” observed Jhumpa Lahiri in ‘The Namesake.’ If not for books, how could you traverse the paths followed by those famed travellers of the past? Marco Polo was just a name in school history text books and some passing references on travel. Until I read ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu‘ by Laurence Bergreen. An expedition that ran over twenty four years, from Venice through Constantinople, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China , Tibet, India and back to Venice. It is a treasure trove of customs that sound strange to us, of people whom we consider barbarians yet seem to have been far more progressive than us and of lands and paths that the wanderlust in our souls yearns for. Marco spent seventeen of the twenty  four years serving the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, son of the great Genghis Khan. This is again another book that a lover of history and travel should not miss.

It would have been no coincidence that two of the best books of the year were on travel and I got to read it during one of the best travels in my life. I cannot but mention another one that I read before my travel. It was a few quotes from his ‘On Love’ that made me go exploring the books of Alain de Botton. However,the first book of his that caught my attention was ‘The Art of Travel‘. The title was misleading, I was expecting to get some glimpses of the author’s thoughts on how to take travel as an art. Sometimes, not meeting your expectations can be a huge blessing. The last chapter of the book was the best and will stay with me for life. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ as it is called, talks about John Ruskin, an artist whom I’d never heard of before. According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?

“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”

This had set the tone to how I experienced the places and people on that trip. Look and observe, think of the minutest details, listen to the leaves rustling around you, feel the wind and its myriad forms on your face, in the water, see how the mountains change colours, in short be still and know the nature. When the hustle and bustle of daily life frays my nerves too much, I go back to Botton and Ruskin. Absolute serenity, it is.

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 The Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin

(continued here…)

‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng

rainThese days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother  or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.

Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of  Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”

The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.

Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san,  a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.

There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.

At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.

If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.

The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,

“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”

It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,

“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”

In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.

Verdict – I was ready to judge it  a little above a  customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it if you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what this life is all about.

4.5/5