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.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Book Review: The Outraged – Times of Ferment

Despite having read all of Aditya Sudarshan’s previous works, I was not fully prepared for The Outraged – Times of Ferment, which is set on a more elaborate and grander scale than his previous three. My suspicions were doubly confirmed (I say this with gladness) when at the end of the 350-odd page tome, I found a blurb on Book 2, Times of Strife. No, I had no inkling that Times of Ferment is only Book 1, especially since the front cover doesn’t say so, unlike some recent bestsellers which proclaim that a trilogy is on its way. Now, I don’t even know if The Outraged is a trilogy, though I’d be delighted if it is.

Dhruv the narrator mingles with the most happening people in Mumbai, its liberati, and lives in its artiest, and possibly nicest, suburb, Versova. Dhurv’s set is growingly upset with the increasing intolerance in India. There’s Ahishor Frances, a young filmmaker, one of the most vocal and one willing to put his money where his mouth is. However it is not really his money, since he has a sponsor, but that’s beside the point. No, not actually, but I’ll come to it later. Sasha, the son of a successful Indian bureaucrat and his common law Afghan wife, spindly and hunchbacked, is just as keen on freedom of speech, but unlike many of his fellow liberals, his love for God permeates his being. Maithili Krishna, attractive, talented, driven by wander-lust, with whom Sasha is hopelessly in love, is more interested in what makes the universe spin, than in freedom of speech. Definitely a modern day flower child, she disappears towards the middle of the book, but her influence remains. And many more.

Ahishor Frances starts to make a movie which exposes a god-man and incurs the wrath of the god-man’s followers. To make things worse, Ashihor's financier pulls out. Bashed up and with a head wound, Ashihor’s friends and family decide to go on the offensive. Friends of Freedom is launched and it brings in its wake the various schisms within the liberals and so-called liberals. Jatin Khanna is appalled with Sasha’s write-up for the Friends of Freedom project. Can god-men ever be called gifted? Are all mystics frauds? Sasha is hounded out of a gathering and takes refuge by the sea.

Sudarshan has an easy way with words. His language is not poetic or unnecessarily flowery, but has the right dash of elegance to push the story along. As with any large literary undertaking, Sudarshan does not get to the story in a hurry. He dawdles and takes his time to get there and even then, does not rush the plot, which worked for me.

However, there are times when Sudarshan does cut to the chase. For example, when Sasha whines to Ashihor that he hasn’t got Maithili, who seems to be too complicated, mysterious and profound, Ashihor clarifies that Maithili’s outwards demeanour is a deception, that she is actually quite dumb and confused.

How does one respond to being raped? File a police complaint or out the rapist, who is well-known to the victim and her set, on Twitter? Sudarshan tackles these questions with verve, though he doesn’t give you the answers easily. The answers aren’t blowing in the wind, either.

I give The Outraged – Times of Ferment, four stars out of five. Do pick up a copy and read.

You’ll find my reviews of Sudharshan’s previous books here:

A nice quiet holiday
Show Me A Hero
The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Book Review: Happy Birthday and Other Stories by Meghna Pant

I’ve been planning to read well-known writer Meghna Pant for a while, but its only now that I succeeded. The wait was worth it. Pant is a good writer. A very good one. In The Gola Master, when Vora got into a flimsy, rickety lift that would take him to the twentieth floor of a building under construction, I could feel his fear, even as his son’s future father-in-law teased him. As Vora stood frozen at the far end of the lift, clutching a metal bar with both his hands, I too clutched an imaginary metal bar. Later on when Vora dumped the Gola Master and forced the driver to speed away, I left sad. However, when I tried to summon some anger towards Vora, I failed.

Sometimes there is a twist in Pant’s tale. In Hoopsters, I kept wondering if and when Payal would come around to showing kindness towards Mary and her basketball playing friends. It was a matter of time, I was sure, but when Payal finally found it in her heart to give Mary the money needed for the Agnis to travel to Delhi for their big match, she did it in a way that was unexpected. Was Mary a thief or did she take the money knowing that it was kept there for her? Had Payal been right about Mary all along?

Happy endings aren’t Pant’s forte. When I reached Dented and Painted Women, the penultimate story in the collection I wondered if Meenu would manage to snare Pramod before the story ended or if she would be taught a lesson, but I should have known better.

However, Pant’s standout achievement (or signature move, call it what you will) is in walking the tightrope, effortlessly. There is sorrow and happiness, optimism and despondency, pain and hope, all in the same story. In The Gecko On The Wall, the widower and his daughter, who is visiting him from the US, are miles apart in their assessment of each other. Each thinks the other has all material needs fulfilled. The reader feels an unease as the widower uses up his entire bank balance, whilst awaiting his pension. The US returned daughter is around to take care of her father, if he were to ask, the reader knows. The reader can also sense the danger lurking underneath. And when it all implodes, reader gets a knot in the tummy, though it wasn’t unexpected and there is hope that the widower will enjoy his time with his granddaughter.

In Happy Birthday, the story which has lent its name to the entire collection, Nadia is ill at ease at Dolly’s party. Baman Tata’s advances have not made her feel any better. That it’s her birthday adds to her unhappiness. Suddenly, as Nadia and the reader both sink into despondency, Pant shakes up Nadia. She was being too cautious, as if she was surrounded by shards of glass. So far, her life with Danesh was a misstep, not a car crash. Pant makes Nadia confront her demons and she has a brief victory. Then as she walks away, for a brief moment she contemplates a new life with Boman, before she returns to the hollow in her pillow. That night, as Danesh makes his appearance and she considers crossing the wide gap, it is Danesh who reaches her side.

In Shaitans, the last story in the collection, the goalposts kept changing as each character uncovered a shaitan and Pant kept her reader guessing. Though Pant didn’t end on a clean or even clear note, I wished there were more stories to read.

Book Review: Saving Maya, by Kiran Manral

When I picked up Saving Maya at a book store, I half visualised a woman named Maya who had to be sent to rehab or needed to be rescued from a cult. However, the blurb on the rear talked of a divorced woman in her mid-thirties (with a young son) finding love and I was intrigued enough to drop the book into my shopping bag.

Maya is a modern woman, living in a modern city, aka Mumbai. She uses modern gadgets and apps, including WhasApp and Uber, goes out pubbing at joints such as Irish House and, as may be expected, works for a startup. Her son Dushyant crimps her style a bit and her mother is not of as much use as may have been expected. However, she has a good domestic help, who unfortunately is on a month’s vacation, which stretches across most part of the story.

Enter Samar. Handsome, successful, intelligent and a professor at a top notch university in the US. Maya’s neighbour, they are on the same floor, which makes it rather convenient. Samar has smoky eyes and the women in the building can’t have enough of him, though he is a recluse. When Maya enters into the first of a series of brief conversations with him, she finds him incredibly attractive, but there’s no sign of reciprocity. Instead, once they get to know each other better, Samar offers a quid pro quo, one that would kill the spirit in any romantic woman, but hey, Maya is a street fighter and after some bargaining, she accepts the offer, albeit with some modification.

It’s not a straight forward romance, and Kiran Manral does not offer her readers the assurance of a happy ending. Towards the end as Maya prepares to attend her ex’s wedding, I did for a brief while wonder if Manral would end on a philosophical note.

I usually don’t read romantic fiction, but I am glad I picked up this book. Written in simple, but elegant English, Kiran Manral not only tells a good story, but also transports her reader to Maya’s world in Mumbai, one I have some familiarity with, which made the story all the more enjoyable.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Book Review: At Home In Mumbai, by Chandrima Pal

As a human being obsessed with space and privacy, my stint in Mumbai has made me realise that these are not always complimentary. In Mumbai, space doesn’t come cheap. However, privacy is easy to obtain, once you cross critical mass in terms of space. You need to be able to rent your own enclosed space, without having to share it with anyone else. It could be a studio flat with just a room, a kitchenette and a toilet, but once you have that enclosed space to yourself, Mumbai leaves you alone. The crowds on the roads, the jammed commuters on trains, the fellow cab sharers, they leave you in peace, unlike in smaller towns and villages across the length and breadth of India, where space may not be at such a premium, but privacy from intrusive questioning is. If you are a Mumbaikar with a roof over your head and your own walls, you don’t have to worry too much about having to fend off questions such as what’s your salary, are you married, when will you get your sister married off, something that would not be too easy in mofussil areas.

Chandrima Pal has done her time in Mumbai and knows only too well the premium placed on acquiring one’s own habitat in Mumbai. A journalist who had the opportunity to wander around the metropolis while on her beat, meet people ranging from movie stars to slum dwellers, and record their stories, Pal’s second book, At Home In Mumbai - Stories from the City’s Living Spaces, takes the reader into numerous living rooms, bedroom, toilets, kitchens of Mumbaikars, occasionally delving into pain and trauma, at times flirting with happiness and in a few instances, crime. There are stories of Sindhi refugees who came to the city penniless and made it big, big enough to buy good properties, stories of Delhiites who relocated to Mumbai for work and had to live in flats half the size of their former abodes, stories of movie stars who bought properties which defined them forever. Bandra, Versova, Navi Mumbai, SoBo, Pal traverses through them all, as she meets interesting people and gathers her tales.

Pal’s style of writing is gentle, never too intrusive. One can smell the respect which Pal has for individual space and privacy, having had to buy it at a premium while in Mumbai, like everyone else. The narration is simple, never flowery or adorned, but still beautiful. At Home In Mumbai isn’t meant to be a masterpiece, like Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, but it will leave its mark on you, nevertheless.

Pal’s first novel, A Song For I, was published around six years ago.

Friday, 2 February 2018

Book Review: Clouds, by Chandrahas Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury has come out with his second novel Clouds. His first novel Arzee the Dwarf had come out in 2009 and a number of people, including yours truly, have been waiting for Choudhury to repeat his magic.

Clouds is set almost entirely in Mumbai, a light, airy and fluffy Mumbai which is never depressing, though it could easily have been. This is as much a result of the quality of Choudhury’s prose as it is a result of Choudhury’s outlook on life, as superimposed on his characters. Old man Eeja has come to Mumbai, all the way from Odisha, for his medical treatment. He stays in a new and cheap flat on the outskirts of Borivali, with his wife Ooi and Rabi, their Man Friday, a tribal from Cloud Mountain. Eeja and Ooi’s son Bhagaban has gone back to Bhubaneswar, for he has more pressing matters to attend to there, but his spirit is nevertheless a constant among Eeja, Ooi and Rabi. As for Farhad and Zahra, they never meet Eeja or his clan, and they lead a much different lifestyle, with values so much more at place in San Francisco than in Mumbai, but they too are enriched by the clouds around them.

From the outset, the two sets of characters move towards their targets. Farhard towards an exit from Mumbai for San Francisco and Bhagaban towards the climax of his struggle against the Company which wants to takeover Cloud Mountain and extract all its valuable ore, at the cost of possibly ruining it. However, Choudhury’s world is one of grey and things are not always what they seem, though Choudhury makes all effort to appear to be an innocent jholawala.

Farhad is all sorted until his world comes crashing down on him, the result of Zahra’s genuine outburst one night in Udvada, a few hours after they had listened to a Narendra Modi speech, that he be a true man and fuck the brains out of her instead of being a politically correct goody, goody, sweet and tender, wafer biscuit. Can the progressive and post-modern Farhad put himself together and get on with Zahra and her yoga classes in SFO after such a downpour? Do please read Clouds to find out for yourself!

The South Indian and feminist Hemlata is the pole opposite of Zahra and at first Farhad finds her amusing. Towards the end, he is still exploring Hemlata and if there is any attraction between them, it is strictly the reader’s imagination, stoked by an anonymous cloud.

As for Bhagaban, he does win an election and become an MLA, but does he actually get to do all that he wants to for the Cloud People from Cloud Mountain? Or will they let him do what’s good for them? Do they want him to? I mean, if you are a tribal, what are the chances of you accepting the Company’s offer to give up your ancestral land and all that you know, uproot yourself, go elsewhere far away, eat better, work less, explore new worlds and possibly lead a more comfortable life? Choudhury tells us that the tribals seemed to like the idea of engineers settling amongst them and speaking in Hindi, though none of them condescended to talk to the Cloud People.

Choudhury’s world is a sensitive but cloudy one, filled with interesting people, who discover more and more about themselves as they get on with life, making up stuff as they move on, possibly not much different from Choudhury’s journey as a blogger, a journalist and novelist and an explorer. The lyrical prose interspersed with references to Mumbai suburbs, good whiskeys and other useful stuff, gives one the feeling that the story is moving rather slowly, when one suddenly realises with a start that one has travelled further and faster than one wanted to. I can't guarantee that Clouds will win the Booker Prize this year, but I seriously recommend that you read it nevertheless.

In the past, I have reviewed Arzee the Dwarf and A Travellers' Literary Companion, a compilation of translated stories from all over India edited by Choudhury.