26 March 2012

An evening in Lucknow by KA Abbas

The way we were
This collection of short stories is based largely in the 1940s and 1950s and takes us back to the time just before and just after Indian Independence. Gladys brought this book for me to read to her, and we both enjoyed the stories and found them engrossing and beautifully written. Abbas takes us into a mujra at Kennedy Bridge and shows us the meaning of true love; he depicts for us the horrible farce behind Independence-day celebrations in a north Indian village; gives a glimpse of the oppression of underprivileged women and the odd circumstances by which they are sometimes afforded an education; the dissipated erstwhile royalty of India; the ways in which Partition changed the course of innocent people’s lives – and many more.
Each story is alive with imagery and the kind of detail that bring a scene alive before your eyes.
On a bus ride on the top deck, the hero of one of the stories (a lowly Indian proofreader), sits next to an attractive English girl:
Now we are passing through Bhendi Bazar. Across the road was stretched a cloth streamer bearing the legend: PAKISTAN OR DEATH. In the rain, the ink had spread and distorted the words. Pakistan had grown a beard and Death had become more fearful. I thought to myself, I am afraid of Death. Give me Pakistan instead. And then my newspaper mind said, “You are Hindustan and this girl is Pakistan. And this umbrella is the Himalayas which protects both …”
After the death of Patrice Lumumba a ghost enters the UN building in “the world’s second-largest city”.
Not a bullet, a hundred thousand bullets are flying about to kill children like Henry Junior. Bullets and bombs and rockets and atom bombs and hydrogen bombs and poison gas bombs and bombs loaded with typhus and plague germs, I know. I have been to all corners of the earth. In Algeria, I have seen the custodians of the celebrated French culture torturing Arab nationalists with live wires, shooting enough electric current into their naked bodies to burn their flesh, to crack their bones, to make jelly of their muscles, but not enough to kill them …
Besides fictionalised political events, this book’s themes include social class distinction, and wry and despairing comments about the state of the nation. It is filled with passion, and is highly dramatised, in keeping with the idiom and genre of the time. To be honest I found this a bit disturbing. The other thing I didn’t care for was the rather sloppy editing.
Finally, I felt that these stories were rather poetic in the sense that they are clearly figments of the author’s imagination and not necessarily grounded in reality. Most fiction-writers try to mirror reality. Here I saw little trace of that aspiration. In the story Sylvia, for instance, Sylvia is a nurse in the General Ward in a government hospital in New Delhi. Sylvia is kind, patient, and solicitous. Even more surprising, the doctor is concerned about his patients too! I’ve never seen anything like this in an Indian hospital – not even in private ones which have the most highly-skilled medical practitioners in the world, and the best equipment and infrastructure.
I recorded some of the stories to pass on to another friend and, though I was disappointed to hear myself sounding like a prim Anglo-Indian schoolmarm, uploaded Three Women. In case you want to hear it, along with a few wry comments from Gladys - click this link. .

20 March 2012

Mumbai Dreams by Joygopal Podder

Chatpata Chowpatty Bhel
On my way home on the Deccan Queen (which has more leg room than Business Class, and portly, uniformed waiters courteously dishing out chai-coffee to accompany their spicy, deep-fried snacks), I was transfixed, agog, gobbling kanda bhajias in a daze. When the train pulled in to Karjat, my resurfacing consciousness flashed back to similar trysts with James Hardley Chase on Local commuter trains in decades past. This book is composed of elements of Mumbai masala, including Bollywood and the construction mafia, and how things fall into place for two smart young small-town lads to achieve fabulous success. Each chapter paints a quick, action-packed scene. Sex and drugs shimmer discreetly in the background. Who am I to complain about the numerous factual inaccuracies in this book, or to wish that the author had spent more time getting the language right instead of scurrying recklessly ahead in an effort to be “heralded as the fastest-published Indian author by the Limca Book of Records” (whatever that means)? After all, the racy story certainly had me hooked.

18 March 2012

Tea for two and a piece of cake by Preeti Shenoy

A pleasant afternoon
Preeti Shenoy is a talented storyteller, and this book has a sweet story with a good dose of wish fulfilment and some unorthodox angles. It reminded me of the Mills and Boons of yore – a similar pace, similar peaks and troughs, and uncomplicated passions, although with contemporary characters in a contemporary Indian urban setting. If I didn’t consider the description ‘chick-lit’ patronising, that’s the label I might have used. In the specific genre of romance wannabes or ‘metro reads’ this book is reasonably high-end, with almost-there editing and unusually few loose ends. The only (minor) thing that I found annoying was the use of the expression ‘cilantro’ which sounds misleadingly exotic; it’s a herb used every day in Indian kitchens and taken for granted as dhaniya or kothambir or kothamalli or even coriander – but cilantro, really, please.

15 March 2012

And all is said by Zareer Masani

Black and white
I would normally not be attracted to a book with an archaic title, and which claims to reveal intimate information about people I’m not much interested in. But my friend Manjula Sen, whose opinion I value, said it was a good book – and I’m glad I bought and read it.
And All Is Said is a memoir, with the focus on the author’s parents’ troubled relationship. Minoo and Shakuntala Masani were exceptional individuals, at one time important characters in Indian political and economic life. The book intersperses their son Zareer’s memories and insights into past events with actual letters and diary entries written by his parents, both of whom write beautifully too – though much of what is published here was never meant for anyone else to read, and that vaguely troubled me.
What I did enjoy were the real-life glimpses into recent Indian history: Minoo Masani’s violin lessons from Count Odone Savini who also taught Mehli Mehta, father-to-be of the conductor Zubin ... the life and contributions of Sir JP Srivastava, Shakuntala’s father ... Minoo’s father’s refusal to allow his son to be given a grant (the Law examinership at Bombay University) when he was in the chair:
This is a country full of nepotism. Everyone is helping his own sons and nephews. Somebody has got to set an example. That’s what I’ve done, and I’m sorry you’re at the receiving end.
... and many more.

I liked the endorsement of the now dissipated knowledge that Independence was won for India by Indians who had been educated in England.
Father often used to say that the British Raj ‘played cricket’ in the way it dealt with nationalist agitators like himself. These Indian nationalists, after all, were the children of British education and liberal values, steeped in the literature of Western humanism and radicalism. Except in their treatment of avowed ‘terrorists’, the authorities used to torture or gratuitous violence and treated political prisoners with the respect they deserved, even during times of greatest crisis like the Quit India agitation during World War II. “Had the British authorities not behaved like honourable officers and gentlemen,” Father always maintained, “Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns would never have been possible.”
Much else has changed in the world around us. The Masani family lived as tenants of an aristocratic half-French Muslim called Barodawalla du Randé in a home with beautiful mosaic floors which were scrubbed with soap and water every week, high ceilings, a multitude of windows with elaborate wooden shutters and long verandas with elaborately carved, latticed, wooden railings looking out to the Arabian Sea, which lapped at the foot of Cumballa Hill. This is architecture a contemporary Mumbai-dweller would recognize – but these homes have long lost their glory to laundry hanging in those balconies alongside money plants in tinpots.
Zareer Masani was deeply attached to his mother but not to his father – and what touched me most about this book is his painstaking honesty in presenting his father’s point of view fairly and without judgement, while describing just as honestly, but in a judgemental way, his mother’s behaviour and how it affected him.
You can read more about this book in Manjula Sen’s interview with Zareer Masani HERE

04 March 2012

I lost my job but ... by Lakshmanan Solayappan

Keep smiling, Charlie
A book by a first-time writer, from a small publishing house, and with mediocre production values, usually evokes some prejudice. So I was happy to find that this book, though lacking in cutting-edge idiom (and the services of a highly-paid editor), is written by someone with the knack of keeping a reader engaged.
It is the story of what happened when the author lost his well-paying job at a large BPO. Losing a job is not a simple story – and here the author builds a whole context around himself, presenting a wonderful picture not just of his period of unemployment but also his family, his values, his community, and some of the important events of his life.
What happens to a person who loses a job, at which they have excelled and been appreciated and well rewarded, merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? What does the blow to self-esteem and the feeling of insecurity caused by loss of income do? Lakshmanan Solayappan is blessed with a reflective nature and maturity, and they enabled him to use the gap in his career not to blindly rush into the first job opportunity that presented itself, to protect his self-esteem and cash flow. Instead, he took time out, did a few really important things that he never had the time to do before, and wrote this book. In the process he also did a little research to find out how people in his position were prone to react.
His findings are useful to anyone who has just lost a job – or fears that he or she may do so – pretty much most people, that is. So this is not just a good, interesting read – it’s a useful book too and gives plenty to think about.
Here’s a photo of Lakshmanan Solayappan, mike in hand, at my book launch in Landmark, Chennai.
We were meeting for the first time. I had read and liked his book. And what was his question?
“How do you feel – launching your book, seeing this display?” he asked.

I answered that more than anything else the whole concept amused me. That I was glad I’d written it – but it wasn’t exactly a culmination of a goal or fulfilment of a dream. “Actually, I feel like laughing,” I told him.
I thought about my response later and wondered why I really wasn’t excited about having brought out a book – and a rather good one, if I may permit modesty to step aside for a bit. There were a number of good reasons – more about them, in a separate 500 words, another time. But there is one which is relevant here: I myself have traversed this nebulous twilight zone of Being Without of which Lakshmanan Solayappan writes, and learnt to tread carefully, understanding my innermost values and priorities before making the next choice. A book like The Songbird on my Shoulder is a milestone on the path – not the end of it, and I think Lakshmanan Solayappan would agree that that’s a good feeling to have about any achievement or disappointment in life.

02 March 2012

Artist, Undone by Sanjay V. Kumar

Rave review
Reading this book I found myself thinking, after a very long time, “How I wish I could write like this!” I very much admired both style and content.
Harsh Sinha is good-looking, well-educated, articulate, regular Joe and premier arranged-marriage votary. He has never wooed, never flirted. (Never learnt the give and take, the sensitive yes and no, the important maybes, the gestures, the unspoken thoughts, the ups and downs that make for companionship with women.) The drafts folder of his email is always full with his jottings. (Naerapongo: Go straight is the only direction you will ever get in Chennai. ‘Naerapongo saar’. It is accompanied by a wave of the hand that could be in any direction. Go straight. I think it is a philosophical derivative because it usually doesn’t get you very far.)
Through Harsh’s story, the author gives us a sweeping view of the Indian art world: how some artists live, the cold silence and unique marketing style of Mumbai galleries, the ad-hocism of price and purchase, the hard-to-decipher (although very elegant and all) language of art-catalogue writing, the wide scope of art studies – including the what-will-they-ever-think-of-next of Confessional Art – and even, right at the end, a comprehensive (and in-your-face) answer to that provocative question “Why do people buy art”.

The characters in this book are real ‘characters’ … check this.
Newton Kumaraswamy. Given to speech at the oddest times. Like when there was no one around.
And Gopi … he was in a halfway house – all the time. He had been single for a decade, during which the closest he got to a woman was when the ayah swept the floor under his bum as he lay sprawled on his chair.
Manoj Tyaagi’s parents fretted for years at his lack of communication skills and social etiquette – little knowing what a prolific and exhibitionistic writer he would turn out to be one day.
There are others, equally fascinating.
One of the things I admired most about this book was that sections are presented in different voices and each one is unique to its owner – a skill only the best writers have.
And – the book is an intriguing combination of fact and fiction (and some minor errors). Many of the names are of real people and real works of art or writing. But many are entirely made up and I found that confusing were there all kinds of insider references I wasn't getting?
What I didn’t like is the editors’ poor knowledge of Bombay – mixing up Arthur Bunder with Arthur Road Jail and calling the Bombay Gymkhana Club the Mumbai Gymkhana Club – hahaha.

Anyway ... Sanjay V. Kumar – can I get your autograph please?

01 March 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

A memorable journey
This is the story of a sea voyage from Sri Lanka to Britain, told by one of its passengers, looking back to his time on it as a young boy with two other boys of the same age. It’s a story filled with every element of drama – not just the usual seaboard romance and idle crime but such delicious features as terrifying illness, a mysterious prisoner, an intense young woman with a disability that turns out to play an essential role in the plot, a terrible storm that causes danger to the children and results in mayhem on board, an exotic herb garden that could bring the passengers intoxication – or even worse … and too many more to list here.
But this book is not all masala. I would read it over again for the way its language and imagery wash over your emotions and intellect. Here, as an example, is a small description of what the boys saw at Aden Market when they (slyly) went ashore:
I was used to the lush chaos of Colombo’s Pettah market, that smell of sarong cloth being unfolded and cut (a throat-catching odour), and mangosteens, and rain-soaked paperbacks in a bookstall. Here was a sterner world, with fewer luxuries. There was no overripe fruit in the gutters. There were in fact no gutters. It was a dusty landscape, as if water had not been invented. The only liquid was the cup of dark tea offered us by the carpet salesman, along with a delicious, permanently remembered almond sweet. Even if this was a harbour city, the air held hardly a particle of dampness. You had to look closely, for what might be buried away in a pocket – a petite vial of oil for a woman’s hair, folded within paper, or a chisel wrapped in oilcloth to protect its blade form the dust in the air.
Each short chapter offers vignettes: a look at the different characters, new angles, thoughts and insights. They hang well together and build together to form a powerful story. I was particularly impressed because Michael Ondaatje’s last book, Divisadero, was so bad – neither well written, nor interesting, nor, to my mind, any sort of redeeming feature.

In a book about childhood memories, one of the most critical attributes is the difference between what the child actually experienced and the perspective of the adult telling the story, and there is a brilliant balance between the two in this book. In the privileged position of being invisible to ship officials such as the Purser, the Head Steward, and the Captain, the boys learn about life. There’s an Australian woman they watch carefully, observing that none of the female members of their families behaved this way. Why is their table called the Cat’s Table? They discover that each one on it has an interesting reason for the journey – even if unspoken, or as yet undiscovered.

Yet, the table’s status was minimal while those at the Captain’s Table were constantly toasting one another’s significance. That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.
They experience total independence, smoking twigs broken off from a cane chair that they lit and sucked at. (Because of his asthma Ramadhin was not enthusiastic about this, but Cassius was eager that they should try to smoke the whole chair before the end of our journey.)
Most interesting of all is that our narrator’s name is Michael. So is this a true story of his own journey from childhood to adolescence? There’s a disclaimer at the end. And yet – in the author’s list of ‘thank-yous’, there are indications that much is rooted in reality.
It’s nice to wonder.