Review: One Part Woman

One Part Woman
One Part Woman by பெருமாள் முருகன் [Perumal Murugan]

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first heard about this book when its author declared that the writer in him is dead. The book raked up some controversy in Tamil Nadu about some of the events being derogatory to some caste-based community or whatever. Lot of noise later, Perumal Murugan comes out and says he’s done with writing. So, of course I had to read such a controversial book.

And I did.

It has been 3 days since I finished the book and I still don’t know which part was controversial. I looked that up on old news later and apparently it was the part about the ceremony that used to happen (pre-Independence, mind you!) when any consenting man and woman can end up having sex on a certain day, irrespective of their marital vows. So they can have children. You know, when there was no IVF or fertility treatments, not even proper hospitals for childbirth. I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s fiction. Who bloody cares? Well, looks like some nitwits do.

Anyway, history aside, the book was very average. Probably more poignant and real in its original Tamil, I’m assuming. In the English version, the prose is nothing to write home about. The plot is new, yes, but the build-up towards it gets very repetitive after a point. That said, I did enjoy the images the author conjured about Thiruchengode and the villages around. But that’s pretty much it. These are times when I wish I could read Tamil fluently enough (I can read, but not fluent enough to read an entire novel! More like skim through news headlines and read political posters on Chennai roads!) because I can sense the poetry the words might have had. Example, there’s a scene where Kali’s mother is lamenting about his childlessness and the English word used is ‘dirge’ – with my limited Tamil knowledge, I’m guessing the Tamil word would have been ‘oppari’. Now, dirge is the very literal translation of ‘oppari’ – what we hear in a funeral. But I feel ‘lament’ would have been a better word here, given the context. Yeah, small things like that do get lost in the translation. Pity.

Bottom line, if it weren’t for the controversy, it’s a pretty average book in its English avatar. In it’s Tamil version though – would’ve been a tad bit more enjoyable because the point of this book is the prose, not the plot (we know the plot from the blurb already!).

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[Re-post] Rail Sneham

I blogged this back in 2008. When Chennai Egmore was celebrating its centenary (news link at the end of the post). I’m glad I wrote this. Now it serves beautifully as a memory of a memory. Perks of blogging, yo. ;-)

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The alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. Alarms, by some freak of nature, are audible only to parents. Dad and Mom are up and ready in no time. And since we’re children (my bro and I, that is) we get an extra 1 hour of sleep. There’s something about brushing your teeth and getting ready at 5 in the morning, isn’t there? Crappy is an understatement. But then, if you’re getting ready to catch a train that will take you to your favorite aunt’s house for summer holidays, there’s nothing that you won’t put up with. Even getting up at 5 AM.

For a family of four, we sure had a lot of luggage. 2 full bags. (It’s a different story now – for a family of two, we carry 4 bags). And Dad always made a comment on how we (Mom and me, generally) never travel light. I’m too sleepy to care. My brother, ofcourse, is falling asleep on his feet. I still wonder how my Dad can be so chirpy in the mornings – one thing his children did not inherit.

A 45 minute bus ride (and a nap) later, we’re at the railway station. People all dressed up, aunties smelling of Ponds powder and jasmine flowers, uncles smelling of vibhuti and Charlie and kids our age, sleep-walking behind the parents. The moment we enter the station, I wake up. Not because of the noise or the crowd, but because of the huge time table with the train arrival and departure timings. No one told me then that my parents were very literate and could read out the departures and platform numbers themselves. I took it upon myself to patiently stand there (the sleep fairy nowhere to be seen), ticket in hand trying to find our train. Another matter that our train was almost always on platform number 1, bang in front of my eyes. And the moment we enter the platform, I used to look at the huge railway clock and adjust my own watch to the same time – after all, that was the time the train was going to follow so I might as well follow the same! We had rituals as kids, didn’t we?

Next came the hurried walk down the train’s length trying to get into the right compartment. Since our parents were excellent planners, we rarely had waitlisted or unconfirmed tickets. Get into S1 or S2, fight with brother for the window seat, give up when Mom reminds me that I’m the older one, punch him once for good measure, have him sit at the window seat for exactly 15 minutes after which the poor thing would be sleeping, gently move him beside Mom and hog the window seat for the next 5 hours – phew, it was a lot of work getting settled on a train. Having a brother who used to sleep at the drop of a hat, helped.

Like all children all over the world, the first thing we did after settling down was to start asking the million dollar questions – “When will the train start?”, “When will we reach Madras?”, “When will the breakfast come?”, “Can I have vegetable cutlet and tea?”, “I have to go the bathroom. Can I go now before the train starts?”. The last one was always met with a hard stare and a stern line that one does not use the bathroom at stations ‘coz that will make the tracks and the station stink. Good sense prevails. The second thing we did was to make Dad get us the latest copy of Champak, Gokulam and Chandamama.

The smells and the sounds of a train are from another world, aren’t they? The iron smelling windows, the rexin seats with the Southern Railway emblem stamped on it, the two sets of shutters, one just plain glass and one with ribbed bars. The stinky toilets, the gymnastic balancing act one had to do to actually use them. And above all this, the food! O dear God, the food! I’m yet to have masala dosa that tasted as yummy as the ones sold on Southern Railways. The hot coffee. I always burned the tip of my tongue trying to drink the coffee when the train was moving.

When we run out of books, we turn to the window and watch the paddy fields go by. My brother would have occupied the other window seat ‘coz the benevolent looking uncle whose seat it was, felt sorry for him.

Each big station on the way was a milestone. “How much longer to Madras?”. “Is the train late?”. “Will uncle come to pick us up?”. “Can we go by auto?”. (FYI – I thought autos were proprietary to Madras. No other place on the planet had autos.)

The moment we reach Tambaram, all hell breaks loose. People scrambling to get their luggage down for the next station, Mambalam. The train stops there for a mere 2 minutes, so if you had to get down you had to be standing at the door. We used to sit with a smug expression that we’re going till the very end and we didn’t have to hurry.

The train rolls into Mambalam. The platform is much higher and seems more closer from the window. I always thought Madras had a distinctive smell and feel. Maybe the sea breeze, maybe the humidity, maybe the Coovum (which, by the way, was a landmark)! Or maybe the simple thought of a long holiday without any books or homework.

The first sign of home were the extra railway tracks. Small stations had only one or two. Big stations had 9 or 10. Big station meant home at last! The moment the platform starts, our heads were trying to get out of the windows trying to catch a glimpse of Uncle and wave like mad so he can know the devils are here. After being sufficiently satisfied that Uncle has spotted us and won’t go off without picking us up, we impatiently wait for Dad to bring the luggage down. Champaks and Gokulams neatly packed in to be given to the cousins at home.

And as we get out of the train, surrounded by this huge sea of humanity, getting propelled out to the entrance even without doing anything, I always turned back for one look at the great giant who got us there. Tired, puffing and panting, creaking and stretching, the great big train stood there – mission accomplished. A mission of getting hundreds of people safely to their destinations.

There’s still a small part of me that longs for those train journeys and summer holidays. That feeling of having done the journey, of travelling from one home to another, the sights and the smells – you don’t get that when you travel by air, do you? It’s an experience in itself to travel by rail. And when you go home and wash off the smell of the train from your body, it is with the knowledge that 30 days later you will be at the same station, waving goodbye to Aunty and Uncle, ready for another journey in that wonder of a transport mechanism, the train. And exactly a year later you will come back for another summer, on another train, but the journeys are new each time.

Chennai Egmore celebrates 100 years of being Chennai Egmore! For close to 18 years I have set foot on those platforms every year, without fail. There’s a personal relationship with Egmore that’s not there with any other station – not with Chennai Central, not with the Secunderabad station. Egmore was summer holidays and cousins. Egmore meant I was going to see Grandma in about 30 minutes. Egmore was the destination.

So, here’s to the big station. Here’s to the station being what it is to me, to many more children in future.

P.S: ‘Rail Sneham’ is a term used in Tamil for the friendships one makes over a train journey. My friendship was more with the train itself than the people in it!

Book Review: Em and The Big Hoom

Em and The Big Hoom
Em and The Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I had to create a new shelf on Goodreads for this book – family. Because that is what Em and The Big Hoom is about. Family, in all it’s fragility and pain. But Jerry Pinto has somehow made a painful sad story into one of love and hope, of accepting our human-ness (for want of a better word) and all that it entails, even at the cost of one’s sanity. It doesn’t make you sad, this book. It just leaves this warm fuzzy hangover of a feeling that you knew the Mendeses as intimately as the author himself. There are little parts here and there that pierce straight to your heart and, if you were to mull upon the words, it brings out feelings that you won’t normally have when reading a book.

Em is the mother (she herself says it like a cuss word – Mudh-dha). The Big Hoom is the father. There’s Susan the sister. And our narrator. They live in a 1 bedroom-hall-kitchen flat in Bombay. What makes them different from any other middle class family of their time is Em – she’s ‘mad’. Manic depressive or schizophrenic or delusional – there’s never just one diagnosis. And the narrative is about how the family copes with Em and her repeated attempts at suicide. The story is set more like a set of events and dialogues, attempts by the narrator to learn about Em and her history with The Big Hoom (their rock in that tumultuous ocean of depression that was Em).

I love Em. She’s so endearing, even in her madness or rather because of it. She’s so honest and irreverent, even towards her children (in one of her bouts of depression she says she didn’t really want to have children!) that, at times, you don’t know whom to feel sorry for – Em or her family. We are exposed to all those moments of self-doubt and fear the narrator has, when he has to be there for her but doesn’t really want to even though she’s his mother. That conflict, for me, was the most poignant piece of the story. I have extended family who deal with differently-abled children and I can imagine that pain, that helplessness one feels when being a caregiver 24×7.

This paragraph describes perfectly how it all is, to be one –

“I sympathized with Granny but I also felt a deep vexation. She loved Em and she thought that should be enough. It wasn’t. Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be. Then it vanishes and you are outside the dark tower again. At times, when I was young, I wanted to be inside the tower so I could understand what it was like. But I knew, even then, that I did not want to be a permanent resident of the tower. I wanted to visit and even visiting meant nothing because you could always leave. You’re a tourist; she’s a resident.”

The style of the narrative is something I’m encountering for the first time – it’s refreshing and easy on the mind. It’s like this window through which we can see into that little Bombay flat, seeing that family go through a not-very-normal life in a normal way. You can’t help but fall in love with them.

There’s also a bit of humor in the narrative, which is surprising considering the subject. And also a bit of a relief. Like this –

“‘You know when I found your Debonair …’
‘You what?’
‘Oh, I put it back, don’t worry. Behind the tank in the toilet, what a place! I suppose you’d have hidden them under the mattress in your room, if you had a room. Poor beetle, where else are you going to fiddle?’
‘Em!’
‘Anyway, I looked at the centrefolds and I thought, some nice girls. But I didn’t want to nuzzle.’
‘Em!’
Her conversation had a way of reducing me to exclamations. I think she enjoyed that and worked out exactly how she was going to do it.”

There are many more heart-warming and some chilling conversations too. Probably what kept me hooked because it was all very comforting and disconcerting at the same time!

And hence the hangover. I haven’t picked up my next book yet. I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to lose this fuzzy feeling I have. Maybe I’m in mourning.

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If not God, then what?

I’m reading Jerry Pinto’s “Em and The Big Hoom”. Right now, the protagonist is losing faith in God seeing his mother’s suffering due to manic depression.

Here’s what he says –

No one could offer any explanation for the suffering I watched my mother go through. Nothing I read or heard fitted with the notion of a compassionate God, and God’s compassion, one uncomplicated, unequivocal miracle of kindness , was the only thing that could have helped. The sophisticated arguments of all the wise men of faith— their talk about the sins of a past life, the attachment to desire, the lack of perfect submission— only convinced me that there was something capricious about God. How could one demand perfect submission from those who are imperfect? How could one create desire and then expect everyone to pull the plug on it? And if God were capricious, then God was imperfect. If God were imperfect, God was not God.”

And it got me thinking. We all have our moments when we doubt our faith and our very belief in God. Especially in times of strife and loss. It’s probably a very human reaction to pain – the “why me?” and the “how can God let it happen?” parts. I have had those moments too. But it didn’t last all that long. Why?

Because every one of those times, I asked myself what will I do when I’m confronted with something beyond my control, which hurts me or the ones I love. And the only answer I get is I’d pray.

And I wonder what the atheists do. What do they believe in? In their most desperate, vulnerable and helpless moments, whom do they turn to? Do they get any answers to the “why me?”?

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Unrelated pic: a rainy day and a little boy by the window.

Are you a feminist? Am I? We should be.

I don’t do argumentative topics on my blog. I wish I could, but I’m a coward. See, I don’t do well with trolls and negative criticism. I get all emotional and then everything goes downhill from there on. I know it’s not a desirable trait in a blogger, but it is what it is. All I can say is I’m working on it. So let me get this out while I’m still ‘inspired’, for want of a better word.

So I was scrolling-shopping on Amazon, in the ebook section for something interesting to read and I came across this Kindle single of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay on Feminism, in the context of Africa. The product description said it was a TED talk, so off I went to YouTube in search of it. Found it. Heard it. And I realized how misinformed most of us are when it comes to feminism, even the ones who call themselves feminists. Somewhere along the way, the word has picked up all this negative connotation and it’s more like an abuse than a compliment these days. I’m guilty of that too, by the way (apparently today is be-brutally-honest-on-your-blog day!). Maybe because the literature and talks I’ve been reading/listening to were not the right ones.

Until now.

Adichie talks in the context of Nigeria, her homeland, but every incident she recounts could very well be true of India. Every single one of them. Right down to the social conditioning that we are exposed to, even as children. And among all the people I’ve heard speak of on how to remedy the gender inequality issues, hers seems to be the only possible way forward. Which is? Forget about the current generation – we’re beyond redemption. Start with the next. With our children. Teach them that a boy and a girl are the same (among other things). And I especially liked the way she put it across – of course, that’s her day job, to find the right words and put them together just so! :-)

Ok, enough of me. Listen to her.

Let’s all be feminists, yo.

Review: The Midnight Palace

The Midnight Palace
The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was surprised by this book. Not the story or the narrative, but by the fact that I DIDN’T like one of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s books. I’ve read 3 others of his and they were great. This one? Not so much. And I think I know why I didn’t enjoy it all that much – because it is set in India. Calcutta, to be precise. Why is that a problem? Because I know India. I know how the weather is, how the people are, what the food is. I probably know it a wee bit better than the author himself – or so I’d like to think. So when Zafon takes artistic license with names, weather, etc. it put me off.

Spoilers ahead.

At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to the villain – Jawahal. Mysterious, dark and who can set fire to things. We know he’s not human. Great so far. Typical Carlos Ruiz Zafon. And then we are introduced to his childhood friend and our hero’s father – Lahawaj Chandra Chatterghee. Have you seen the problem yet? No? The name Lahawaj is so obviously a mirror image of Jawahal. Our good ol’ Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde. Right there, at around 10%, I guessed..rather knew the entire plot, which is actually revealed to us at around 75%. So I have to read almost 3/4th of the book, knowing what the big twist is. Bummer.

Another thing that got me: the story is set in May. In Calcutta. In summer. And we have the hero and his friends sitting around bonfires and fireplaces at night. Seriously? In summer? Unless you’re living IN the Himalayas, I doubt anyone needs a bonfire or a fireplace in India in May.

Silly, right? I know. I hate myself too. But see this is my problem – I’m all for artistic license as long as the plot either acknowledges facts or is so removed from reality that it doesn’t even matter. If George RR Martin tells me in Game on Thrones that they had a 7 year summer, I don’t question it because everything in GoT is made up! Fantasy! But if Zafon is telling me they get so cold, as to to need bonfires, during peak summer in Calcutta – I have a problem there because Calcutta is real. I know it doesn’t rain cats and dogs there everyday during May. It doesn’t. So the plot loses credibility in my eyes.

I know, I know. I’m every author’s worst nightmare, I know. I try to second guess the plot right from page 1. I don’t like it when names of persons or places are misspelled or mispronounced when I know about those names (primary reason why I have trouble enjoying Indian authors – all your Ashwin Sanghi, Amish and ilk). I don’t like it when you expect me to invest myself in your plot if there are factual issues with the props and/or environment. It’s like a constant distraction that I can’t ignore. Nails on a blackboard type distractions. I’m sorry! :-(

I really tried to like this book. But the writing seemed so forced. As if trying to stick to the signature Zafon style of how things happen. I never felt that when I read Shadow in the Wind or The Angel’s Game or The Prince of Mist. I didn’t even feel the words in these books – just the scenes flying past me as if in a movie. I remember feeling cold and despondent when reading Angel’s Game. I still remember the constant rain and the alleys of Barcelona when I read Shadow, years back! Zafon’s books, to me, were that good. This one is such a letdown.

I wonder now – could it be the translation? Even so, there’s no excuse for the plot. It was too obvious. Too open!

Oh well.

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A dream coming true!

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My son loves books. He loves his books and he loves mine too. Yes, even the boring ones with no pictures – he just likes to riffle through the pages, turn it this side and that side and I even caught him smelling the pages once. If you know me, you’ll know that that moment was probably one of the most happiest moments of my life. See, I could never be sure he’ll take to books. Half of his genes vehemently detest books of any kind and there’s nothing I can do about it. But looks like the better half of his genes (yes, mine!) prevailed.

I’ve been asked how he does this. How is he so interested in books, at 2.5 years of age. Simple – he’s always been surrounded by books, right from the time he could crawl. Not before, though. I was not one of those women who read or sang to their unborn child. I wanted to, but I couldn’t afford to become attached to the baby before he/she was born and have my heart broken yet again. And I also had a distinct indifference to books when I was pregnant and during the first few months of motherhood – I’m going to blame the hormones and move on. So yeah, if you didn’t read to your pregnant belly, it’s ok dude – they can still like books, don’t worry! ;-)

Right. So, when he was around a year old, he got his first picture books. Ironically, we didn’t buy it for him – it was a gift from my friend when we dropped by to visit her! It was a board book with no sharp edges (very important, when giving books to little children) and a touch and feel theme – the images were laid out in patterned paper/cloth/fur so the child can touch and learn. I lose count of the number of meals I have gotten him to eat with the help of these board books. Oh, that’s a great time to get them to see books, btw – when they are tied and bibbed up in their high chair, with a table in front of them.

The next few months he was getting more and more picture books (alphabets, numbers, animals, birds, vegetables, fruits, vehicles, etc.) thanks to his super-enthu Dad who couldn’t stop buying them for some reason. At some point, I might have actually asked him to stop buying so many books. So even though there was no active reading per se, books became as familiar to him as toys, if not more. He could sit by himself and run through all the books, sounding out the words he knew.

Then came nursery rhymes. First the audio and then the books. Nursery rhymes are a fun way to get a child to learn a language and introduce new words and actions into their vocabulary. Only thing is we need to try not to complicate things by looking at the inner meaning of some of these rhymes because, dude, they are downright mean! :-D Just sing the damn rhyme and get it over with – don’t go around explaining the meaning to the child please! They have some time before reality hits them on their butt, before swinging a punch on their face.

We then gradually moved to stories – simple ones, with every day terms and themes. It need not be the actual classics, but a heavily watered down version is good. He has a version of Alice in Wonderland that’s about 8 pages, with 2 or 3 lines per page – THAT simple. The language lacks nuance and quality, of course, but I make it up when reading it to him (I correct the grammar before I read it aloud! Heh heh, old habits die hard mate!). In hindsight, check the language before buying the book – some of them are very badly written and it’s a pain (literally!) to read them.

When he was almost 1.5, I got him his first Dr.Seuss book – A wocket in my pocket. It is gold, trust me. The Blue Back series is for toddlers, so I just blindly bought a couple of them – result, he was already finished with the slightly complex ones before seeing the simpler ones! :-D Example, The Foot Book is probably a good one to start with, instead of ABC or One Fish Two Fish. No harm done, just that they enjoy the simpler book a tad less than the others.

The latest additions in his library (yep, he has an ever-growing one!) are The Lion King, The Jungle Book and T.S.Eliot’s Old Possum’s book of practical cats. The last one was a gamble, but hey, he did like the poems and has some favorites too! These books are for me to read to him – they have comparatively less illustrations than his earlier story books and I was wondering if he would like them or not, but he did. It all comes down to how we read, btw – a monotonous reading will not help in getting the child interested, trust me. They need to feel the drama and the excitement! So I had to brush up on MY reading skills before picking up the books. And the other thing I do (rather, ended up doing without realizing) is to read each story the same way every time – the same cadence, pausing/stressing at the same place, etc. so now he’s able to complete the sentences in the book after reading it 3 or 4 times. This, I find, is a good way to improve their speech and vocabulary. I’ve heard him repeat those phrases to himself when he’s pretend-playing with his toys!

So, there. Even though I’m running out of space in the cupboard for all his books and even though there are times when I don’t really feel like reading but I HAVE to because he’s being all whiny and cranky, I’m completely thrilled that my boy loves books almost as much as me! I’ll never have to worry about him being bored or lonely as long as he has books around him. I can’t wait for him to grow up and discover the infinite pleasure that is reading, all those wondrous journeys to far away magical places, to let his imagination run riot at the mere sight of words.

His first Eric Carle is in the mail. And I’m buying him his first Enid Blyton shortly. That’s a milestone. The next would be when I thrust a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone into his hands and see him vanish into his room for a day and a half. All the Ruskin Bond. Calvin and Hobbes. I can’t wait to roll my eyes at him when he invariably tries out some of the Young-Adult junk and hates it just like I do. I can’t wait to see him inhale his food down so he can go back to the Jonathan Stroud or Neil Gaiman book, unmindful of my exasperation at yet another uneaten meal. And before you know it, he’ll be old enough to read Ayn Rand. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Murakami, David Mitchell and all my other favorite authors. And all the contemporary fiction of his time, 20 years from now.

I can’t wait for him to recommend a book to me, maybe even buy me one with the first bit of money he earns. And then we will have come full circle.

I can’t wait for him to read, even without food or water or sleep, as if his life depended on it.