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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

20140108-215723.jpgMy first book of 2014 and not a bad beginning. Lahiri’s prose is as always, sensitive, eloquent and evocative. Her ability to paint pictures with words is undiminished. What I really liked about this book though was its departure from the customary ‘migrational angst’, that has been the focus of her previous work. Although the characters in this story are also immigrants to the US, their struggle to adjust to an alien culture is thankfully not the prime focus. Instead Lahiri concentrates on the relationships between her characters and weaves together their disparate lives and memories in India and the US in a gentle,subtle mesh that is ever present but never overwhelms. And although neither the characters nor their stories are particularly original, her writing never falters. I understand why this book was short-listed for the Bookers (Lahiri seems a firm favourite!), but I also understand why it didn’t win.

So we have the two brothers, Subhash – the older, conservative, dutiful son bordering on the insipid and Udayan – the younger, spirited, a rebel in search of a cause. And Gauri – an unwilling link between the two, intelligent, sensitive and yet astonishingly weak and callous. There were times when I wanted to strike her, she made me so angry! And Bela – a product of equal measures of love and indifference – learning to survive without really living until the truth finally sets her free. The characters are not really likeable but they are human – flawed, weak, selfish, capable of great love and greater cruelty. I wish Gauri had got counselling. She really needed it.

I thought this book should have ended at the conclusion of Part VII. That to me seemed just right. Part VIII doesn’t feel extraneous, just a teeny bit forced & repetitive in an attempt to tie up loose ends. I just wish Lahiri had found another way. Still, it’s an easy read, the prose flows effortlessly along carrying you with it on a not uninteresting journey. There is tragedy but there is hope and on occasion if it all gets a bit maudlin – well I’ll survive πŸ˜‰ I think this will translate very well onto screen and I have a sneaky suspicion that That is what Lahiri intended all along πŸ˜›

Here are a couple of quotes that gave me goose flesh πŸ˜›

“A time she’d crushed between her fingertips, leaving no substance, only a protective residue on the skin.”

“Her mother’s absence was like another language she’d had to learn, it’s full complexity and nuance emerging only after years of study, and even then, because it was foreign, a language never fully absorbed.”

“They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed.”

If you’re a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri, you’ll love it. If you’re not, it’s still an extremely well written book, albeit with a familiar, predictable story. The choice is yours!

Here’s to great reading year in 2014 😊

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2014 in Non-Booker Reviews

 

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The Aryavarta Chronicles: Book 1 – Govinda by Krishna Udayasankar

The Mahabharata retold – reinterpreted & reworked – yet again!

This Epic has always fascinated me, as indeed it has millions of Indians who have grown up listening to its stories at Granny’s feet and from reading the Amar Chitra Katha series (a staple diet for all budding readers when I was growing up). It’s just that – an Epic – a tale spanning generations, choc-a-bloc with fascinating, complexly-layered narrative & characters (gods, demons, humans and everything in between!). Vast in scope (The ‘Bhagwad Gita‘ is just one part of this rambling parable!), and yet still relevant in today’s milieu – it makes for an utterly engrossing read – a veritable treatise on human emotions and relationships.

Many authors have attempted their own interpretations and re-tellings and this is yet another version from yet another author. I’m a huge fan of the original and I think it’s always risky to tamper with a well-loved, well-known story, especially one that is an inseparable part of our collective Indian psyche – but I must confess – Krishna Udayshankar doesn’t let me down. There are no Gods here nor demons – just humans – in all their frailty, grace and courage – and that instantly offers a refreshing if challenging perspective. Challenging in that, often ‘divinity’ is explanation enough (even for sceptics like me, in the fictional context), but humanity beggars logic and rational justification. So, although I may accept a particular behaviour in the God Krishna, will I accept a similar behaviour in his purely-human avatar ‘Govinda Shauri’? Will I accept that their motivations are similar – ‘The Greater Good’ that the Gods bandy about as an excuse and explanation for everything? That’s the question isn’t it? And that’s what I particularly enjoyed about this version – the way the author challenged my beliefs and status quo, forcing me to at least allow for a new perspective, if not accept it. No mean feat that.

I also enjoyed that she took some of the lesser known characters from the original and turned them into game-changers in her version, while down-playing some of the major players! It made for refreshing reading. So Vyasa – who is author of the original, is a king-maker in this version – a calculating, powerful man of hidden intent and cunning, a master manipulator. Sanjaya – King Dhritarashtra’s faithful servant in the original – has a much larger presence and role in this version – as an important counsellor to the king and right-hand man to Vyasa. In contrast Shakuni, Vidur, Duryodhan, Partha/Arjun and even Bhishma are surprisingly downplayed – a fact that I enjoyed, especially in case of Partha – whom I’ve never liked much πŸ˜‰ And Shikhandi! How can I not say how much I enjoyed the fact that he and not Partha is Govinda’s confidante in this version? Shikhandi is a fascinating if low-key character in the original, believed to be the reincarnation of the Princess Amba, who committed suicide rather than marry a man she didn’t love. She is reborn to revenge herself on Bhishma – the man she holds responsible for her tragedy. Here, Shikhandi is a peace-loving man and consummate warrior, at home with Nature, Govinda’s friend and confidante, loving brother to Panchali and Dhristhadyuma and at odds with his father King Drupad. I hope he continues to play an important role in the forthcoming books or I will be very disappointed indeed!

Another major and welcome change for me personally is that Panchali is a central, pivotal character and narrator along with Govinda. In a satisfactory change – her marriage here is to Dharma (the eldest Pandava brother), and not to all the five, a fact that disturbed me endlessly in the original. Although she is no less pivotal in the original, here, she is refreshingly center-stage while her husband Dharma takes a definite back-seat. Dharma – an epitome of honesty in the original, is similar here, but the author puts her own spin on his character – allowing us a glimpse into the psyche of one who is not as comfortable with his chosen path as one assumes. An indecisive man, easily influenced and full of his own self-importance, desiring to be right and true at all times while unwilling to do the work that makes it so – relying instead on Vyasa’s machinations, the prowess of his brothers and Govinda’s intellect – justifying their actions on his behalf as divine intervention. Fascinating! And so we come to the man who graces the title – the lynch pin – Govinda Shauri – without whom there would be epic. He is as enigmatic and charismatic as his namesake Krishna in the original. He may not be divine here, but his influence, principles, and readiness to sacrifice all for the ‘Greater Good’ are identical. What particularly intrigued me was his intimate relationship with Panchali. Whereas in the original, it came across as a brother-sister bond, here, it is anything but! The tensions between the two friends and almost-lovers are palpable and make for some very interesting, taut scenes that will translate excellently on film! I wonder whether she’s sold film rights? JP – are you listening?

I loved that she used lesser known names of the characters – so it’s Dwaipayana instead of Vyasa, Panchali instead of the more common Draupadi, Balabadra instead of Balaram, Partha and Dharma instead of Arjun and Yudhisthir – refreshes my memory and adds novelty. She also introduces a new concept – The Firewrights – a race of brilliant innovators & inventors (akin to magicians), that work with the First-Born (the Vyasas) and the Kings – but that have fallen into disrepute and are being hunted down by both. Her writing is spot-on – she manages to weave an undercurrent of mystery & suspense even when dealing with a story we all think we know by heart; her concept is interesting and her perspective refreshing. Except for the font-size which is too small, I have no major cribs! I will definitely read her next in this series – Kaurava, probably on Kindle to rest my poor eyes J

P.S. Reading this has made me want to re-read the original and I’ve downloaded The Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari to refresh my memory!

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Non-Booker Reviews

 

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Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto

During the course of this book, certain events in my family, made it an all the more relevant and poignant read. I first picked it up because I had read some good reviews and because the title seemed so reminiscent of Dr. Seuss! It held promise and boy did it deliver!

Written from a son’s perspective, the book tells the story of Em, his mother, who suffers from bipolar disorder. Pinto describes Em’s condition – her symptoms, with great accuracy and depth. The frightening highs of her mania and the oppressive darkness of her depression are all narrated through her son’s perspective and the language and conflicting emotions are spot on. As Em battles her disease and swings relentlessly from highs to lows to highs, the family, rally around her and each other, as best they can, to form what can best be described as a care-giving task force. They feed her endless cups of tea, listen to her incessant manic chatter, tolerate her dark, overwhelming depression and rush her to hospital every time she tries to take her life. Her chaotic life is in effect theirs, and they crave,Β especiallyΒ the children, a ‘normal’ routine, devoid of incessant drama.

Pinto allows for some method to her madness and we see her character unfold through conversations with her children and the letters that they find. She is revealed as a young migrant from Burma, a survivor, thwarted from pursuing her education because of poverty, and a dutiful daughter silently shouldering the burden of supporting her family. She seems in all ways a normal young woman of her time, and yet even early on, rather unconventional in her thoughts & actions on occasion. She has no qualms for example, writing to her fiance about the fact that she isn’t too keen on sex, and asking him whether that would be a deal breaker for the marriage! Pretty radical for the times she lived in! She’s intriguing, endearing, and frustrating all at once – to us and to her son, who oscillates between love and hatred just as she does. He fears for his sanity and yet cherishes her eccentricities, he wants to be rid of her but cannot contemplate the reality of a life without her presence, he wants to emulate his father but lacks confidence in his own abilities, he wants freedom from the constant upheavals that are their life and can only imagine what ‘normal’ will feel like.

The story is tenderly told even when Em is at her sneering, hurtful, manic best. The narrative isn’t sequential, but is still an easy read, moving seamlessly from past to present, from letters to conversations. Pinto handles his characters with a gentle humor & understanding that is warm and reassuring even when the tale is dark. Also, his descriptions of the Goan ethos are wonderfully pithy and authentic, be it the people or their way of life, their attitudes and expectations of themselves and of others. Ultimately this is a story about family, about strength, courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds. I do wish there was more of The Hoom though. His stoic, rock-solid presence throughout the narrative lends it a backbone, much like his. So although we get to know his roots, we’re never quite sure of his feelings about his wife’s illness. That he is devoted and caring is obvious but not much else. Pinto leaves him a mystery of sorts, perhaps intentionally, to add to his aura. It works.

Here is a passage that I like from early on in the book,

“There may have been a time when we called her something ordinary like Mummy, or Ma, but I don’t remember. She was Em, and our father, sometimes, was The Big Hoom. On certain days we called her Doogles, or The Horse, or other such names that sprang from some subterranean source and vanished equally quickly. Otherwise, she was Em, and most of the time she was Em with an exclamation mark.”

And here is another,

“I loved the word hypothesis. It sounded adult and beautifully alien. I had never heard anything like it before. I wanted more words like it. I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words like hypothesis, you would be able to deal with the world. I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there wasn’t a fixed syllabus.”

This is a great read, especially for those dealing with mental illness in the family. In a strange and bizarre co-incidence it found me at a time when I could truly relate to it on a personal level. The author mentions in his note that it took 25 years for him to write this book…it’s certainly well worth the labor! ‘Em’ is unforgettable and so is her story.

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2013 in Non-Booker Reviews

 

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