25 April 2012

The Spell of the Flying Foxes by Sylvia Dyer

Adventures in a faraway world
This book is set in the 1930s and 1940s in Champaran, Bihar, near the Nepal border. It is a true story, based on the childhood memories of the author. It starts with tales of her great-grandfather, Alfred Augustus Tripe. A young man from a prosperous family, he had left his home in England in 1848 to settle in this distant, untamed land, and made a fortune of his own.
Sylvia Dyer grew up in a time of great drama. There was the massive earthquake that killed many and destroyed the family home. There was immense wealth – and greed from some quarters balanced by generosity in others. There was murder, illness, suicide, complicated family relationships, illicit love affairs, devoted but peculiar family retainers, a dacoit with a heart of gold, animals charging into buildings … and much more, all in a complicated, colonized and highly stratified society. Yet, all is founded in fact, and beautifully detailed.
I enjoyed this book very much and what I admired most was that although the author was very young during the time of which she writes, she has created an intricate and evocative work strewn with insights that surely come from her adult years. I found the descriptions enchanting, and they brought the bygone landscape and lifestyle alive. Here are a few:
We ran home to wash our hands in the bathroom, in a big aluminium mug with ‘1 seer’ stamped on it. The bathrooms those days were very spacious, with polished teak wood commodes, bathtubs and grand wash-hand stands, each with a large mirror, porcelain washbasin and jug. A lantern sat on our wash-hand stand. Inside its polished glass chimney, from out of a bubble of metal, it stuck forth its yellow tongue of flame, steadfast and reassuring. But the water in the mug was as dark as the khariyan well with its monster.
Puckry village was blessed with two wells that never ran dry (a dry well was unimaginable in this land of the Baghmati), one in the east for the Brahmins and upper castes and the other in the west for the lower castes. Priests, warriors, clerks, merchants, farmers, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, oil men, milkmen and the whole long string of trades that existed at the time. You could gauge from his surname what caste a man came from. Puckry village had just about every caste with the exception of Rajput warriors, even a witch – though there was no particular caste for her.
They chewed a lot of tobacco, and did a lot of spitting. Besides, in the old days, people couldn't swallow all the things we have to now. There were spittoons in homes. Even pure silver spittoons. Outside, men were free to spit everywhere; spitting out paan and tobacco, noxious odours inhaled, revulsion, indignation, guilt and perplexity – unpalatable things seen and heard, that they could not stomach, and sought to expel with spittle, “Thooooo!”
It was spitter’s paradise.

Every January, the mustard bloomed, turning the fields to carpets of gold. Mustard was followed by linseed, which when in bloom looked like the sea on the calmest, clearest day.

Man chuckled softly. “You know,” he told us, “once a drunken Musahar was on his way home from the bazaar. It had grown late, and a full moon was up. He came to a linseed fields and – baap re, he tried to swim across! He thought he was drowning and started shouting. In the end he gave up and fell asleep in the linseed!”

19 April 2012

The lost flamingoes of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Forgive me, dear lord
What a lovely, evocative title! Imagine a Mumbai commuter train stuffed to the brim with flamingoes in startling shades of pink, red, and orange – their bright feathers flapping in the breeze as they swell from overcrowded doors, and their strong, hooked bills pressed against the side, as the Local banks and hoots. I’m afraid I found much of this book as unlikely, as cutely stylised, as this image. After a tedious build-up of characters and situations, aptly couched in laboured language, a woman is shot dead in a bar – just as Jessica Lal was. If you want a more lifelike version, go see the movie No One Killed Jessica.

What upset me most about this book was the rave blurb by Amy Tan on the cover – if not for that, which marks it out as a fabulous global work of art, I wouldn’t have dreamt of demeaning it in public. In any case, to be fair, maybe it was just too artistic for my plebeian tastes.
What I will always remember about this book is the leering looks the waiter gave me as I read. It was a roadside joint near the Dadar flyover, and the yumptious-scrumptious pau bhaji dripped with butter and soothed some of my aesthetic senses while this book jarred some others as I waited for my ride home. It must be ten (or twenty or maybe even thirty) years since anyone gave me those serious oh-my-god-you-hottie looks. Only later, when I took a closer look at the cover of the book I was reading, could I imagine what the man might have been thinking watching me sitting there, slurping at the food and reading engrossed, but with expressions of distaste flitting across my face every now and again.

10 April 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Shadow people, real lives
There was just one thing that troubled me about this book as I read – and that was the way the author had got inside her subjects’ heads, revealing their inmost, and sometimes very private, thoughts. How could she have known them?
This quibble was resolved when I read her explanatory note at the end and it described exactly how.
To write this book, Katherine Boo spent four years observing and understanding Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai international airport, and here she has profiled some of the people she met and written about the events in their lives during this time.
In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, easy to read, full of drama and tragedy, and confronts the reader with complex thoughts and feelings – especially privileged readers who believe that Mumbai belongs to them (like me). It attempts to answer Katherine Boo’s questions:
What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?
I felt sad to think that we are probably a long way away from a situation in which someone from inside the many Annawadis in our country could write a book like this a long way away even from an Angela's Ashes kind of book.
What I admired most about
Behind the Beautiful Forevers was its high standards at every level and in every area – time and attention spent on listening and observing, previous perspective, accuracy and detail, literary and intellectual quality – something I’m afraid I have not encountered for a very long time and had begun to believe that I was fortunate to have ever known that it existed at all, but would probably never see again.

08 April 2012

Now that I'm fifty by Bulbul Sharma

A new lease, or something
As I approached fifty, I was filled with incredulity, overcome with the conviction that surely someone must have counted wrong – a cosmic miscalculation. I felt relaxed and energetic – not decrepit or ready to begin planning retirement, or prepared to accept trendy new algorithms that declared “fifty is the new twenty-one”.

A few months later, settling into (but still a bit bemused by) the (yes, unexpected) new seniority, I received this book – not something I would choose off a shelf, except perhaps for a friend on the verge of fifty – as a gift. It was given to me by Janaki, the creative and dynamic owner of twistntales,a bookstore in Pune where we launched The Songbird on my Shoulder on 10 March and had a women’s-day related discussion on ‘the changing role of the Madam’.
What an appropriate gift – what an attractive cover! And when I started reading, the stories moved smooth and easy, and painted lovely pictures of the different lives of women who had arrived at this significant milestone.
Though the language is uniform throughout the book, it’s clear that these are separate women, each with her own voice and personality – her own unique problems and pains, gifts and opportunities. We have village women and city women; women who go to live in a new country and learn about different cultures and different cleaning materials; women who have endured torturous mothers-in-law; those who have remained the envy of their siblings because they never married, those patronised by their grown-up childrenand more.
Fifty was a turning point for sure: life might become simpler, or you might come to the end of your tether, or – after a lifetime of submission and repression, new horizons might suddenly open up. You might perhaps encounter a nice young man while walking in the park – and though you walk faster, hoping no one will see him asking you the name of that tree over there, you might just find yourself chatting away and he telling you about himself, very quickly and with amusing details, as if he was mining someone else’s life, as if he was a character in a comic strip.
All kinds of new possibilities appear:

I thought love could only happen between a man with a good job and a pretty, fair young woman. Nothing else was possible. Older woman and younger man, man and man, woman and woman were unheard of in my world.

Why couldn’t he run off with a woman? Surely there were female secretaries in his office. Why shame us like this by going off with a boy, for God’s sake.
I enjoyed this book very much and it made me think seriously about being fifty and what a wonderful, perfect age it is and how, like Winnie the Pooh, one might want to be fifty “for ever and ever”.

Now We Are Six - A.A. Milne
When I was one I had just begun
When I was two I was nearly new

When I was three I was hardly me
When I was four I was not much more

When I was five I was just alive
But now I am six, I'm as clever as clever;

So I think I'll be six now for ever and ever.

05 April 2012

Open the door, dear brother by Nirmala Savadekar and Ashutosh Bhupatkar

Play, colour, song and prayer
This is an unusual and very attractive book. It links Nirmala Savadekar’s collection of photographs of doors with Ashutosh Bhupatkar’s translations of Muktabai’s devotional verses.
Muktabai, revered as one of the saints of 13th-century Pandharpur, was the youngest of four siblings and the only girl. They led a hard life as children, gaining spiritual prowess in their wanderings, shunned and ridiculed for no fault of theirs: role models for generations of the oppressed.
As they rose to sainthood, they shared their learning through exquisite verse and song that emerged from them in effortless bliss.
In this collection, the imagery of young Dnyaneshwara as he sits in a terrible sulk having locked himself up in a hut, his little sister knocking on the door, beseeching him to open it, works at different levels. Perhaps gaining enlightenment really is as easy as just opening a door!

Nirmala’s photographs of doors are colourful and thought provoking. My favourite is a battered blue and red wooden door – with a shiny keychain hanging on an ugly curved nail in one corner.
I enjoyed the verses, though in some places idiomatically discordant, and tried to focus on their deeper meaning.
Nirmala (who connected to me on facebook) told me that she is a fine-art photographer whose work has found a place in the “world’s most creative photographs” and in the permanent collection of the Samuel Dorksy Museum, USA. She said that her interest in spirituality and psychology has led her to a study of different meditation techniques and therapies and that painting became a road to self discovery and meditation. You can see her work on www.neermalasavadekar.com and she offers her Door series on request in enlargements in archival quality paper and archival ink. You can also contact her with queries about this book through her site.

04 April 2012

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Luxuriating in an inhospitable land
This book is set in the bleak, isolated area where the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, and begins with a glimpse into the life at a military outpost there. Each chapter then depicts different aspects of life and covers a wide range of subjects: the role of honour in different situations; the isolation of the Baluchis and negligence towards their needs in their own country despite their graciousness, trust, and spontaneity in offering affection; the wandering tribes, their culture and specific tribulations, and the points – sometimes fatal – at which they interact with the mainstream; the meddling of international agencies with vested interests in this crucial frontier area and how they use money and religion in twisted ways for short-term gains – and how their craftiness is sometimes played back against them; how a playground for privileged visitors can turn into a graveyard for locals … and many more.
Jamil Ahmad is a retired member of the Civil Service of Pakistan and he served as political agent and then commissioner in these areas, and as a minister in Kabul. This book is testimony to his love for and understanding of the people and land in which he worked, and his prose is sparse and starkly beautiful, strikingly appropriate to the story.

Here are a few examples.
These men died a final and total death. They will live in no songs; no memorials will be raised to them. It is possible that with time, even their loved ones will lock them up in some closed recess of their minds. The terrible struggle for life makes it impossible for too much time to be wasted over thoughts for the dead.
In their minds, home and permanency only meant a stay long enough to wash clothes or to fix the cradles to the trees.
In this land where imputation of immorality meant certain death, both men and women were careful.
I must also say that, while the lives described here are hard, this book is very easy to read and I read it aloud to my friend Gladys in just three sittings.

02 April 2012

Can Love Happen Twice? by Ravinder Singh

I too was waiting eagerly for this one
When I read Ravinder Singh’s first book three years ago, it was with a sense of disbelief. HERE is the, er, dissertation I wrote about it on this blog.
Leaving its flaws aside, however, I too had a love story is a seamless read, good for one sitting even if it leaves you slapping your forehead at the end of it. But this book begins badly, using a device strewn with irritating bumps and starts. I too had a love story sold phenomenally well and created a huge population of fans, and Ravinder Singh’s second book has been published by Penguin. So I was expecting copy free of major grammatical or style flaws and horrified to find, as early as pages 3 and 4 respectively, the words ‘disagreement’ and ‘nostalgic’ incorporated in unique ways:
With this gesture he signalled his disagreement to take a cab.
Would that be his ‘refusal’ to take a cab? Or his ‘disinclination’ to take a cab? I suppose it doesn’t matter that thousands and thousands are going to read this book and will believe that disagreement can be used this way quite correctly.
It was nostalgic for them to meet each other after so long.
The carnage continues, with Penguin India setting new standards for an entire generation of second-language English aspirants.
Grammar and style may certainly remain subservient to a good story. Ravin has grown up a bit and moved on from the rustic lad he once was - he can even use the word 'Voila' in daily speech. “Unlike India, where a sandwich is more like a snack, in the West it is more of a meal. Having lived in various countries I have adapted to every kind of meal now,” he tells us modestly. And Ravin, a wonderful new role model, “loves to booze” and unerringly picks yet another true love who is “very fair in complexion” and has “shining white teeth”. She also has any number of “cute” habits which you are going to love. Alas, I promise you.
The part of this book I liked the most was when Ravin’s true love no. 2 drinks too much and begins to vomit. Instead of vomiting right back, Ravin understands his responsibility and takes tender care of her.
This book is not as easy to read and gripping as his first one – but it does deal at some level with some of the issues of ‘real’ love such as understanding each other as separate human beings, and the need to develop common goals rather than battling bitterly against each other’s goals forevermore.