Monday, 15 July 2019

Book Review: The Outraged – Times of Strife, by Aditya Sudarshan

I just finished reading Times of Strife, the second book in Aditya Sudarshan’s The Outraged series. The first volume, Times of Ferment, had come out a little over a year ago. My verdict? Another excellent, muted outburst by Sudarshan.

In Times of Strife, the liberals decide to strike back against the right-wing fanatics who have taken over the country. Ahishor Frances is the leader of the liberal pack, having proclaimed his Manifesto, which draws inspiration from the likes of John Dos Passos, Hans Andersen, John Stuart Mill, Tostoy and Martin Luther King Jr., and proposes a (liberal) way forward for the nation. Ahishor is supported by the liberal set which is now willing to shed sweat, blood and tears for their cause. The best thing about Ahishor is that he is squeaky clean, with no skeletons in his closet and his willingness to call a spade a spade, even when the spade happens to be a close friend or family member.

However, in Sudarshanland, things are never what they appear to be on the surface. To start with, liberals comes in various shades and hues. Are all liberals so very different from the right-wing fanatics from whom they wish to rescue the nation? Godman Narayanan, who squares off against Ahishor and his step-father Karim, is no pushover and holds his own. The beautiful Maithili Krishnan who has fallen into the clutches of Narayanan, seems to have gone into the Godman’s den voluntarily. Does Ahishor have a personal agenda when targeting Narayanan? Do the liberals need to be rescued from extreme liberalism?

What I liked most about Times of Strife, other than the subdued beauty of Sudarshan’s prose, are the sharp twists and turns in the story as one drives along on Sudarshanway. A young lady Ruhi Khanna accuses director Pankaj Pande of sexual harassment. Is Pankaj actually guilty of harassment or is it an affair gone wrong? As the story develops, one gets to know of more facts regarding this distressing case, which complicates the picture even further. Most importantly, until the end, Sudarshan keeps his reader guessing about the outcome of the left wing versus right wing war. A couple of times, I even wondered which side Sudarshan is on, he’s that even-handed and fair.

Sudarshan’s writing style reminded me a bit of classical writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Even though the story does not pick up tempo until one crosses the half-line, one does not feel like putting down the book, mainly because Sudarshan has such an easy way with words, without any unnecessary frills. Do pick up a copy and read, your money won't be wasted, I assure you.

Not counting Times of Ferment, Sudarshan has published three other novels, namely A Nice Quiet Holiday, Show Me A Hero and The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Book Review: Days Of My China Dragon, by Chandrahas Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, author of Arzee the Dwarf and Clouds, has come up with his third offering, Days Of My China Dragon. Narrated in the first person by Jigar Pala, a restaurateur based in Prabhadevi, Days Of My China Dragon is quite different from Choudhury’s previous two works, though the prose is just as sublime, unless it has possibly become a tad better.

Days Of My China Dragon
is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel, or possibly the other way around. Jigar Pala is a restaurateur pretending to be a philosopher or a maybe he is a philosopher trying to run a restaurant. Choudhury is a food critic and Michelin star awarder pretending to be a writer and a connoisseur of human nature or maybe the reverse is true. Do you get the drift? Never mind, do you know why human beings go to a restaurant? Never mind, especially if you are an Indian who was born in the 60s or 70s, since you most likely a miser who goes to a restaurant only if you are travelling and have exhausted the food you brought with you.

And so I thought Days Of My China Dragon was a collection of stories and anecdotes about the China Dragon restaurant, until Pintu Masurkar, one of the waiters at China Dragon decided to join a political party, one to the extreme right of the spectrum and Jigar Pala took offence. Ha! I have a political thriller on my hands, I thought. Yes, there was politics and even some bloodshed, but the tsunami didn’t last long and I was rowing on a placid stream once more. Until a real estate shark turned up, that is.

Usually a real estate shark gobbles up its victim and swims away in search of its next prey, but then, Jigar Pala is not your standard, soft and easy prey. A man whose father put him through boot camp before handing over the reins of his Udupi restaurant, a man who fights survival battles every day, I was sure that Jigar Pala would put up a good fight and I wasn’t wrong, though things didn’t go exactly as I had anticipated.

Choudhury writes exceedingly well, his limpid language underscoring the beauty of his prose, each word carefully chosen and placed in perfect position, not unlike the cups in a Japanese tea ceremony. Choudhury is not only an excellent writer, he is also a good story raconteur. Days Of My China Dragon doesn’t appear to have a plot or purpose, until you realise towards the end that it did have one all along.

I’m not going to say more and spoil it for the readers. Do order the book online or buy it from your nearest store and you’ll be giving yourself a treat!

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Book Review: House of Screams, by Andaleeb Wajid

Though I am not a big fan of ghost stories, I’ve read a number of them. Many of them fell flat and I can count on the fingers of my hand the number of good ghost stories that I’ve read. The best ghost story I’ve read till now is The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009. Andaleeb Wajid’s House of Screams comes pretty close, though it is not set on the same scale as Waters’ The Little Stranger and is a slightly lighter read.

Muneera inherits a grand, old, dilapidated house in the heart of Bengaluru just at the right time, when her husband Zain’s business is in hot water and they are trying to save money. Muneera, Zain and three-year old Adnan move in. As may be expected, the house turns out to be haunted, thanks to its past occupants. The bungalow’s walls have unseen dimensions from which screams emerge and bloodied hands reach out to grab and spirit away. To add to the fun, a few of the local folks, Muneera's new neighbours, if you will, are from the haunted past and have deep, hidden secrets. I do not want to divulge more and spoil it for those who are yet to read the novel.

Wajid writes well, in simple, elegant English, spinning a yarn that keeps her reader engrossed, captivated and terrified, in a manner not unlike the walls of the bungalow on Myrtle Lane. The 230 odd page book is practically unputdownable, not just because Wajid keeps her reader frightened and at the seat’s edge.

Ghost stories come in various forms. In some, the ghost is witty and fun loving and in a few, it is more fearful than fear-inducing. However, usually the ghost is scary and Wajid’s ghosts run true to the norm and are truly terrfying. I highly recommend House of Screams, even if you are not a sucker for ghost stories.

Wajid is a writer based in Bengaluru, whose writing I discovered recently. I’ve read two more of her books (My Sisters Wedding and More Than Just Biriyani) and they are equally good, though they belong to totally different genres. In all the three Wajid books that I've read, just as Jumpa Lahiri’s characters are all Bengali immigrants in the USA, Wajid’s main characters are all Muslim and surprise, surprise, they are no different from human beings from other communities. They fight, love, suffer pain, show surprise and carry on with life. I can’t think of any other modern Indian writer who writes so well on a variety of topics, from cabbages to kings, cutting across genres and leaving many, many happy readers in the wake.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Book Review: Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup

Thapa could skim pebbles on any water surface and if there existed an Olympic medal for such a sport, he would have won it. After all, he hailed from a very poor part of Nepal where rocks and pebbles were the only objects in abundance. Just like Thapa, Shubhangi Swarup is also a champion skimmer and her literary pebble skims across various lives and continents, eras and fault-lines, creating an astonishingly good debut novel.

When Pangaea the supercontinent began to break apart around 175 million years ago, various land masses were created and they drifted apart, only to ram into other landmasses, thus forming new mountains, valleys and even continents, reforming Gaia as it existed them. Some of the collisions even created pebbles, possibly the pebbles which Thapa skimmed across waterbodies in Rangoon, like ducks. Did Shubhangi Swarup also help herself to one of those pebbles, which she has skimmed across four epochs, to create Latitudes of Longing, a work of fiction which is not only very good literature, but also a very good read?

Swarup takes us to the Andamans just after India’s independence, where Girija Prasad, a civil servant educated in Britain, lives, with his clairvoyant wife Chanda Devi, who dies in childbirth. Chanda Devi can talk to trees and see ghosts all the time and it is not surprising that their daughter is a female Mowgli. Rose Mary, an ethnic Karen girl handpicked (or rather rescued) by Chanda Devi to be their maid servant, helps Girija Prasad bring up his daughter who is packed off to a boarding school in the snowy Himalayas when she is of an appropriate age.

Thapa goes to the Andamans in search of Mary to tell her that her son Plato (whom she had abandoned as an infant) is imprisoned in Myanmar by the Junta and so, off she leaves the Andamans to see her son and possibly rescue him from his captors. Having helped Mary locate Plato, Thapa goes to Kathmandu where he finds (or rather rescues) Bagmati, a bar dancer (who might strip if the money is right).

Swarup’s pebble then lands in a no-man’s land between India and Pakistan in the Himalayas (not far from Kargil and Siachen), amidst the Drakpo tribe. Apo, the village elder is agile and active, though very old. He loves Ghazala, a Kashmiri woman, amost as old as him, as much as he detests the mechanical threshing machine which a Kashmiri trader has sold to his family. When Apo goes to do battle with the trader, he discovers that his love interest Ghazala is the enemy's grandmother. A new chapter begins for Apo and Ghazala.

When I started wondering what happened to Girija Prasad’s clan, I ran into Rana, a scientist, embedded with Indian soldiers posted on Siachen, analysing glaciers, talking to plants kept in a greenhouse and trying to figure out if the Himalayas are sinking or rising. Rana is Girija Prasad’s grandson.

Swarup is a very good story teller and keeps the yarn spinning at a fast, even pace. Of all characters, I liked Rose Mary the most, her natural rescilience and beauty amidst so much personal tragedy and grief, an amazing counterfoil to the convulsions around her. Latitudes of Longing is not a thriller, and is not even meant to be one and hence the description, unputdownable, would not be apt. However, I did finish this 300-odd page book over a weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly. Swarup’s language is unapologetically beautiful and lyrical and one gets a sense that a new star is on the horizon.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Book Review: The Reluctant Detective, by Kiran Manral

Kiran Manral’s The Reluctant Detective was published in 2011. Recently I read Manral’s Saving Maya and liked it enough to want to pick up another Manral novel. Voila, The Reluctant Detective came to rest in my hands.

Manral’s writing style is the same in both novels, which I guess is not big deal, though Saving Maya is a romance and The Reluctant Detective a totally different genre. But it not just the writing style which is common. Kanan Mehra, aka Kay and Maya have a lot in common. Both have very young sons and both struggle to stay in shape. They also have a good sense of humour and enjoy partying. Kay is however, happily married and isn’t struggling to find a mate. Which gives her a fair amount of extra time, something Maya didn’t have. And so Kay puts that spare time to good use and solves a couple of murders which take place in her background. Almost.

The corpses turn up in almost the same spot. One, Sheetal Jaswal, a woman who lives in the same residential society as Kay. The other, an outsider, an aspiring actor, possibly a gigolo or a drug dealer. Kay isn’t someone who enjoys gore. Rather, blood nauseates her, unlike her friend Runa who is a professional detective and eats murderers for breakfast and other criminals for lunch. Runa is also a mercenary. She agrees to help Kay solve the murders, but won’t do any leg work, because she isn’t getting paid, other than a free lunch.

Manral’s trademark jokes and punchlines make the pages turn fast and there is never a dull moment in the story, which is not exactly a thriller or a page-turner, but a nice, gentle, humorous read, with the murder solved at the end. There were times when I wondered if Kay was up to it, especially when she starts seeing Sheetal Jaswal’s ghost and later, accidentally pepper sprays her husband, but I shouldn’t have worried too much. Kay may not be a super detective, but she is dogged and does not concede that which does not have to be conceded.

Let me not say more and give away the plot. If you are looking for a light read on a sultry, pre-monsoon Mumbai afternoon, you could do worse than settle down with The Reluctant Detective., a cold beer in hand.