Sunday, 3 January 2021

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – A critique


I re-read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and jotted down a few thoughts regarding this amazing novel, which is set in a village called Umofia in pre-independence, south eastern Nigeria and is considered to be a milestone in African literature.

Okonkwo, the novel’s protagonist, is Umuofia’s wrestling champion, a man who had defeated "Amalinze The Cat" when he was just eighteen. Okonkwo is tough on himself and tough on those around him, stamping out all weaknesses, beating his wives and children often. Okonkwo’s father Unoka had been a man with a weakness for song and wine and had left behind many debts. Okonkwo is determined to be the exact opposite of his father and works hard to build his wealth entirely on his own. Okonkwo is very successful, until things fall apart for him.

Things Fall Apart is set in the set 19th century and Nigeria still has witch doctors, black magic and tribes. The beauty of Achebe’s writing is that he does not make any apologies for the customs of his Igbo people. The various sub-tribes of Igbo are what they are and the reader has no option but to accept them without any changes to suit modern day values and form his/her own private judgement. Halfway through the tale, Okonkwo is selected by the elders of Umofia to take care of Ikemefuna, a boy offered to the clan as an offering, along with a virgin, for the murder of an Umuofian woman by Ikemefuna's father. Ikemefuna lives in Okonkwo's household and Okonkwo grows fond of him, although Okonkwo hides his feelings for the boy. Ikemefuna looks up to Okonkwo as a second father. Three years after Ikemefuna joined Okonkwo’s household, the Oracle of Umuofia decides that Ikemefuna must be killed as a punishment for his father’s actions. Though resisting the Oracle is never on the table, Okonkwo could have refused to play an active role in Ikemefuna’s killing, but Okonkwo voluntarily strikes the killing blow. Afterwards he is sick for a couple of days, but recovers quickly.

Fate deals Okonkwo a blow below the belt when his gun explodes accidentally at a funeral and kills the son of the man being buried. Okonkwo and his family are exiled from Umofia for seven years.

When Christian missionaries infiltrate the villages and overturn the ways of the Clan, Okonkwo wants to resist. However, the rest of the village doesn’t stand with him the way he wants and when a few join forces, it is too little and too late. The ways of the Christians, when seen in the cold light of the day, are more rational and logical than that of those who respect the spirits of the forests and the Oracle, but Achebe’s narration is such that one has nothing but respect for the old ways, though he does not embellish them.  Towards the end, there is acceleration as things fall apart even faster and Okankwo commits suicide rather than be punished further by white men.

A classic, this definitely one of the best novels I have read it my entire life. To top it all, the opening paragraph of this celebrated novel is supposed to be the one of best opening paragraphs for a novel.  


Saturday, 26 December 2020

Book Review: Excess Baggage, by Richa S. Mukherjee


Shedding excess baggage is an arduous task, one most people don’t even take on. Both the Punjabis, Smita and Anviksha, have plenty of excess baggage. Anviksha has survived two marriages and has a tendency to speak frankly, something which doesn’t go down well with everyone. If frankness doesn’t drive home the point, she is capable of slamming the hand that touches her offensively, even if the hand belongs to a relatively senior colleague. She also holds modern views on social issues, which seem to be at odds with her mother’s, though Smita Punjabi is also a divorcee.

When things get really bad in Mumbai, both at home and at work, Anviksha decides to take a solo travel holiday. True to form, Smita Punjabi decides to tag along with her daughter and Anviksha is unable to shake her mother off. The mother-daughter duo travel cheaply (on Ethiopian Airways), stay with friends and family in London and Amsterdam and have adventures which would put Tom Sawyer in the shade.

Mukherjee is extremely good with her description of Smita and Anviksha and the rest of their circle, including Mutton the Shih Tzu. In simple but elegant prose, each character is allowed to breathe and flower in a manner that conveys the essence of the person. In the case of Smita, the transformation as she sheds her excess baggage is almost extreme. Smita doesn’t travel light since she carries with her the desire and ability to feed those in her vicinity with tasty Sindhi fare. For Smita, carrying lots of cooked food when travelling is not just about penny pinching, rather, it defines her personality. As she sheds her baggage, she learns, innovates and transforms. Still one is surprised when Smita starts taking up cudgels on behalf of Anviksha during family arguments around Anviksha's lifestyle and freedom of choice and one continues to be surprised as Smita’s views become increasingly progressive. Smita ‘understands’ two Dutch sisters who are veterans of the sex trade. In the Chotramani household in Amsterdam, she gulps once as she is introduced to a gay couple, but her shock subsides soon enough and she calmly offers mithai to Mr. and Mrs. Ravi.

Since Anviksha is single, Mukherjee keeps her reader guessing about the book’s ending. Anviksha is on talking terms with Rudra, her first ex. She takes time to fully get over handsome hunk Ranvijay, her second ex. Aakash makes his appearance right at the start and it is clear that Anviksha likes him a lot, thought we do not know the full depth of Anviksha's feelings for Aakash till the end. We know that it is unlikely to be Ranvijay, though he is the most handsome of the three and the richest. As part of her journey, Anviksha becomes more and more tolerant of Rudra and his weaknesses, even as she falls in love with Aakash. To complicate things further, towards the end of the novel, Smita and Anviksha run into a close, but long-lost family member in Amsterdam. No, I’d rather not give the story away. Please do read Excess Baggage to find out for yourself how this excellent novel ends. Highly recommended.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Book Review: Girl In White Cotton, by Avni Doshi


The mother-daughter relationship is supposed to be a special bond, which is unique and can’t be replicated. Antara too has a special relationship with her hippie mother, though it is a tad different. Brought up by her divorced mother in an ashram in Pune and on the streets, and by her grandparents in a catholic boarding school, artist Antara has more than her share of grudges and bruises, and she remembers each of them as her mother slips into Alzheimer's disease. American Husband Dilip isn’t too pleased when Antara takes her mother in to look after her and Dilip’s mother is even less so, but Antara doesn’t shy away from her filial duties.

Antara is such a fascinating character that at times I wanted her to go downhill like her mother did, just to see how far she would go. She does slide down many times, though, for most of the story, if one ignores the past flashbacks, Antara is not very different from any other modern Indian married woman. Antara has many, many dark secrets, a few of which she shares with her special friend Purvi and one is reminded time and again that Antara’s lifestyle isn’t normal, though Antara is totally placid on the surface. Each time I thought Antara was beyond the point of no return, she surfaces, in a manner that doesn’t look too strained or contrived and holds up her life, marriage and the baby who arrives towards the end.  

Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl In White Cotton is set in Marathi speaking Pune, in a world of Mozarin biscuits, middle class housing societies and maids. When I reached the middle of the novel, I was suddenly reminded of Shinie Antony’s novel The Girl Who Couldn’t Love, which also has a very similar troubled and tortured mother-daughter relationship in the background. However, unlike Shinie Antony who uses the rusty relationship to tell a very clever story, Avni Doshi’s story is the relationship itself. In impeccable native English that has shades of Arundhati Roy, Doshi travels back and forth across time zones and relationships, opening small memories every few paragraphs and then slamming the drawer shut or opening it even wider. Just as Shinie Antony’s Roo did in The Girl Who Couldn’t Love by sleeping with her brother, Antara too extracts her pound of flesh from her mother (or rather her mother’s boyfriend), but the similarity ends there.

Girl In White Cotton, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, is an excellent read and I highly recommend it. This novel goes by the name Burnt Sugar in the UK.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Do Tamilians Think or Tink? A Response For Justice Katju

 Those who follow Justice Katju on Facebook are bound to have noticed his frequent assertion that “Tamilians cannot think. They can only tink”. Apparently, according to Justice Katju, Tamil does not have the ‘th’ sound required for ‘think’.

At first glance, Justice Katju seems to be making a ridiculous assertion. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Tamil Nadu, studied Tamil as a second language in school and can vouch for the fact that Tamil does have the ‘th’ sound required to say “think”. However, Justice Katju isn’t a newbie to Tamil either. Justice Katju took a diploma course in Tamil while he was at Allahabad University and later spent a year at Annamalai University in Chennai learning spoken Tamil. He also served as the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court in 2004-2005.

Having seen Justice Katju’s Facebook status updates on this point many times over the past few months, I kept wondering what is it that makes Justice Katju pontificate thus.

Then one day, the penny dropped. I remembered an old conversation with a friend named Lata, a native Hindi speaker, who married a South Indian. My relatives keep spelling my name as Latha, she complained to me. Is it a big deal? I asked. Isn't Latha phonetically closer to the way your name is pronounced, rather than Lata, I wondered? No, “my name is Lata, not Latha’’, she told me, pronouncing the T in name with a soft ‘th’. Sounds like Latha to me, I said. ‘No,’ came the retort. ‘It’s L-A-T-A.’ I was left none the wiser then.

I’ve had similar conversations with friends from north of Deccan regarding names like Nithin, Sunitha and Latha. Heck, even with my own name, it was so common to have people in Tamil Nadu write it as Vinodh or even Vinoth. My parents, like many thousands of South Indians who copied the names of North Indian movie actors when naming their kids, copied Mr. Khanna’s spelling as well. If they weren’t Vinod Khanna fans and had to spell Vinod, the chances are that they would have spelt it as Vinodh.

It took me many years to figure out the Lata/Latha, Sunita/Sunitha, Vinod/Vinodh conundrum.

In written Tamil, there’s only one alphabet for ta/tha (), while Hindi has four versions of ta/tha, namely [त थ द and ध]. Similarly, Tamil only one alphabet each for ka (), cha (), da (ட) and pa (ப), even though in spoken Tamil, each of these alphabets can be expressed in multiple ways. Hindi has four versions of each of the alphabets ka (क, ख, ग, घ), cha (च, छ, ज, झ), da (ट, ठ, ड, ढ), ta (त, थ, द, ध) and pa (प, फ, ब, भ).

In Malayalam, which is a mix of Tamil and Sanskrit, the alphabets correspond exactly to the Hindi alphabets, but all Malayalees spell names like Sunitha, Latha etc. the way the Tamils do – when writing in English, that is. I assume this is the position with Kannada and Telugu speakers too. My father, who grew up in Kerala and learnt basic Hindi as a student, pronounces the D in Hindi the same way as he pronounces the D in Dictionary.

For many Hindi speakers, spelling Lata with a T makes it phonetically closer to the relevant Hindi alphabet (the first Ta in the four Hindi variants of ta/tha) than a TH. For Tamils and other south Indians, spelling Latha and Sunitha with a TH makes more sense, since a T is usually pronounced as a hard T, as in the word “Time”.

The TH in think requires to be accompanied by a small exhalation of breath and is not, strictly speaking, the Tamil THA, though it is phonetically closer to the Tamil THA than the hard T in time. If a Hindi speaker had to write “Think’’ in Hindi, he would presumably use the second THA () from out of the four Hindi variants of ta/tha. When Justice Katju says Tamils don’t think, but they tink, he is possibly pointing out that Tamil doesn’t have an alphabet equivalent to the second Tha () in the four Hindi variants of ta/tha. When he says Tamil tink, he isn’t using the hard T in the word Time, but the first Ta [त) in the four Hindi variants of ta/tha, the one used when writing names like Lata or Sunita. For Justice Katju, the T in tink matches the T in Lata, whilst for a South Indian, the T in tink would match the T in time and the TH in think would match the TH in Latha or Sunitha.

If you disagree with my analysis, please let me know, I could be wrong. I don’t claim to be a linguistic expert. And please let’s keep the conversation civil.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

My Discovery Of Whole Wheat Yoghurt Bread

The covid – 19 pandemic and the lock down have made all of us take up activities we normally wouldn’t do. I always “knew” I could bake bread, but the pandemic has made a baker out of me!

There are so many bread recipes out there on the internet that one is spoilt for choice. I’ve done a lot of cooking in the past, mainly for my own consumption, during phases of my life when I’ve lived on my own. When I was young, I used to routinely help my mother bake cakes, my contribution mainly in kneading the cake mix and licking off the remains of the batter afterwards.

I should confess that I’ve never been one for using precise measurements when cooking, mainly because (i) it takes away the joy of cooking, (ii) I could afford to make mistakes since most of my cooking has been for myself and there wasn’t been anyone else around to complain and (iii) of plain laziness.

After surfing the net, my gut feel about baking bread was confirmed to be correct. All one had to do was to mix flour with water, with a bit of yeast or baking power thrown in, along with salt.

I always try to avoid all purpose flour (maida) to the extent possible. Though all the recipes that I read mentioned either maida or a mix of wheat flour and maida, I doggedly went ahead with just whole wheat flour. Yeast in warm water, with salt and a pinch of sugar. Once the yeast rose by all bubbly, I added it to the flour and started to mix it with water. Once the dough attained chapatti dough consistency, I kneaded it for a few minutes, patted it down to the shape of a flat bread, rubbed some oil all over (so that it wouldn’t stick to the foil) and put it in the oven. After 20 minutes I checked, it wasn’t done. Another twenty minutes, and it still wasn’t done. A third set of twenty minutes and I took it out, determined to eat the fruit of my toil. It tasted like a chapatti, a chapatti that’s two inches thick and semi-cooked inside. Actually, it tasted okay (and I did eat it in instalments), but no one would call it bread.

It was obvious that the flour hadn’t risen. Was there something wrong with the yeast? Had to be. I wasn’t sure how old it was and it wasn’t easy to get some fresh stock, what with a lock down on. And so, I tried again, this time, using baking powder and ended up with the same result.

I did some detailed googling and got to understand that if bread is being made entirely with whole wheat flour, it needs to ferment for much longer. One website mentioned thirty six hours! Also, the dough needs more water than required for dough made out of maida. However, if the yeast and baking powder I had was no good, there was no point in keeping the dough mix to ferment for longer. I looked for alternatives to yeast and baking powder and found that if yogurt or whey is mixed with baking soda, one gets the same effect as baking powder. I didn’t have any baking soda and so I decided to mix some yoghurt with my baking powder, in the hope that the baking powder, even if old and not so effective, would trigger the yoghurt to cause fermentation in the dough.

So, I tried again for the third time. I mixed the dough with just yoghurt (no water at all), after adding a couple of teaspoons of baking powder. I made sure the dough was soggier than earlier. I allowed the dough to ferment for over 24 hours. Boy, did the dough rise up! It almost doubled in size. I baked it for 60 minutes, in three sets of twenty minutes each. When I ate it, it tasted like nothing I had eaten before!

It wasn’t bread. It wasn’t cake. It had a texture and consistency that was more cake than bread. Though I had added no sugar, there was a tangy sweetness, on account of the yoghurt. I really liked the outcome and finished it off in a day.

I slowly came to the conclusion that there was possibly nothing wrong with my yeast or baking powder. So, I tried once again, this time with yeast and did not add any yoghurt. I allowed the soggy dough to ferment for more than 24 hours and saw that it rose up well, just as in my previous attempt. I baked it and got bread!

I think I had added a tad more yeast than I should have and the bread suffered a little bit on that count. However, it was good, tasty, whole wheat bread, which was very different from the “brown bread” that comes from the bakery. I suspect the brown bread one buys from stores has a fair amount of maida and colouring.

Today morning I baked bread for the fifth time, this time using yoghurt once again, because I had liked the product of my third attempt so much. I used three full cups of whole wheat flour and this is the outcome. Whole Wheat Yoghurt Bread! It tasted yummy and I immediately gobbled up a fourth of it without any sides!