01 March 2011

On two feet and wings by Abbas Kazerooni

The diary of an unusually courageous child
I was reading another book, one which I had actually been waiting for for several months, when I received this one and happened to pick up and idly flip through it.
Before I knew it, the pages had flown by and when I realised, startled, that I was already on page 50 – well it was time to face the embarrassing reality that, despite any pretension, I’m nothing but a sucker for a fascinating story.

Abbas is nine years old and his family, once among the most prominent in Iran, has been a victim of the Ayatollahs. To save him from being recruited into the army – the age has been lowered to eight – his parents have no option but to take him out of the country.
A series of events leads to little Abbas finding himself living alone in a seedy hotel in Istanbul and proceeding to have a series of fascinating adventures. His goal is to get a British visa and go and live in safety in the very country that his great grandfather funded a guerrilla opposition against when the rulers of Persia would not fight them. Accordingly, this book has three sections which tell us, respectively, about Abbas's early life in Tehran, his struggle in Istanbul, and a little of what happens after he arrives in England.

When I mailed Abbas Kazerooni, the author, to ask him how much of this was actually his own story, he replied, “I would say about 70 to 80 percent. Obviously I have used a lot of artistic license but you would probably be surprised to know that some of the more shocking parts actually happened.”

When I read a book, I try my best to avoid preconceptions. This means not discussing it with anyone beforehand, not reading reviews or opinions, avoiding the publisher’s note and the text on the book jacket, or any supplementary text inside the book which usually tries to impress you with how wonderful the author is and what a great books this is. I’d really rather find out for myself. As I read, I also try my best to remain impervious to opinions formed by previous books by this author, or previous knowledge of the author’s reputation. In this particular case I had never heard of the book or author before, so it wasn’t difficult to form an objective opinion. I enjoyed the book very much and though there were many phrases and words that I felt could have been tweaked for a better flow, I was so engrossed that they didn’t upset me too much.

Going online, I now found that this book had been published in the US in 2008 under the title The Little Man and if you like you can read the first part of that book here
though I must say I found this version rather self indulgent compared to the casual style of the Indian edition.
I did feel that Indian readers would enjoy this book more than western ones who might tend to exoticise it more than we would. And when, for instance, a dog called Barfy turns up in the story, we would know it just meant Snowy rather than looking around for a vomit bag.

What I liked best about this book is that it can be read and enjoyed as much by children as by adults. After I finished, I had noticed that the book was dedicated to the loving memory of the author’s mother. Seeing this, and having observed the depth of feeling little Abbas repeatedly expressed for his estranged mother made me very curious to know the circumstances in which he had lost her. But when I asked, the author replied, “This will all be revealed in the sequel!”
Well I was longing to know what happened next, after the book got over, and find out exactly how poor Abbas went on to become someone who worked in successful theatre productions in the West End in London – and now lives in California where he has his own law firm and practices law when he's not writing semi-autobiographical novels – wow! But he would only say, to my dismayed impatience, “I do not want to give away too much and I will only tell you that the story gets more and more interesting and the protagonist is going endure a lot more!”
This of course brought back to me what a very intelligent and clear-thinking person the nine-year old Abbas had been, and I felt happy to think that he had done justice to that early promise.

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