Book Review: Hangwoman

Hangwoman by K.R. Meera

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m still in Kolkata I think. It’s crazy how this book stays with you long after you’ve finished it and even moved on to the next book. I think the protagonist in this book is as much the city as it is Chetna Grddha Mullick.

(I’m not going to give a synopsis of the story – that’s not how reviews work, IMO.)

First off – 3 cheers to the translator J Devika for a stupendous job of translating this from Malayalam. Not even for a minute did it feel like a translated work (which is a distraction for me, esp if I know the original language – which in this case, I do!). She’s got the nuances and the evocative nature of the prose spot on. For once, I didn’t really mind not reading the original.

Hangwoman is a story of stories. The history that permeates every second of the lives of the Grddha Mullick family finds a way to enter our world too. We lose track of time, of space and sometimes, our self. I loved the way K R Meera has used the hangman and his daughter as master storytellers and spun tale after tale of courage, perseverance, revenge, betrayal and every other human emotion that has changed the course of history. It’s not just the hangwoman we read about, it is also about all those before her who moved through their times so it all culminates in a single moment when she has to decide whether or not to pull the lever.

I was surprised to know that the author was never a resident of Kolkata and she merely visited the city a couple of times for the sake of the book. It does not read like that. The glimpses we get of the Bengali way of life (authentic or not, I wouldn’t know) is hard-hitting and the imagery is unforgettable.

Why then have I given only 4 stars and not 5? Well…because of the textbook K R Meera heroine being a wee bit unbelievable. I had this problem with “Gospel of Yudas” too. the female protagonist in both books are alike – they have extremely strong feelings towards the man and there just seems no basis on why and how the feelings got so powerful. Somehow for me it doesn’t seem real. Maybe it’s an exaggeration – it’s perfectly fine to do that in a work of fiction, but for me personally, the lack of plausibility when juxtaposed against the reality of the supporting narrative somehow makes it seem hollow and well…obviously exaggerated. Might just be me!🙂 That said, I liked Chetna better than Prema!

Hangwoman will always be a memorable read for me and it’s arguably one of the best works in Indian writing.

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“One does not love breathing”

My spectacles broke. Yeah, one min I was drinking a teeth-chattering-throat-freezing strawberry smoothie and the next thing I know the right temple has fallen on the table, leaving my glasses woefully unsupported and wobbly. You know, that feeling when you’ve been wearing a bra and then suddenly it gets unclasped and for a moment you feel un-hugged, unloved and well, unsupported? Just like that. (If you’re a man reading this, you lucky dogs never had to have your chest supported! Go away!) If you know me, you know I’m blind as a bat without my glasses – only my hindsight is 20/20, not my regular sight. (Haha, see what I did there? What? I’m a blogger. I have licenses.)

So there I am, pink drink in hand, parts of glasses strewn around and vision too blurred to even make out my friend’s face. Begged for some cellotape from the sour-faced barista, taped it up temporarily, finished the darn drink, picked up son from school and went home. With the mother of all headaches. Not my son! I mean a real headache.

My cup of woes is not full yet. Since the minute I realised my glasses broke, all I could think was ‘omygosh how am I going to read?!’. It’s another matter that I haven’t read anything of consequence in the last 2 weeks. But hey, if I WANTED to, I could have read. Now I can’t. I CAN’T READ TILL MY GLASSES ARE FIXED. These back-up glasses are all OK for regular work, but anything beyond reading show names on the TataSky blue bar is inviting the wrath of Thor and his hammer inside my head.

I even fantasized for a minute how it will be if I were a witch and I could wave my wand and the glasses will be fixed. Yes, exactly like how Hermione fixes Harry’s glasses on their first ride on the Hogwarts Express. And nope, I can’t read that book now even if I wanted to. Woe is me.

Slade House beckons and I have to let the calls go unanswered. It breaks my heart. Shehan Karunatilaka’s cricket based shenanigans await. So does the apsara Menaka and her choices. All those unread books that I arrogantly scrolled past on the Kindle, without a second thought – they mock me now, this blurry eyed me that cannot read. My son ate less than he usually does because we couldn’t read his meal-time book. He then proceeded to recite The Gruffalo from memory, but had to stop because one lady kept pushing food into his mouth. Mothers!

So, today, I wait impatiently for the husband to get home from work. Not because I miss him, no (because we have been married for more than a decade and hence are past such silly things as ‘missing you’ and ‘I love you’. It’s all ‘get some eggs and bread on your way back, won’t you?’ and ‘Please fix my glasses on your way back, or don’t come home’ these days.) but because my precious pretty prescription (hehe) glasses are coming home with him.

I can’t wait to get back to my book-babies. I probably won’t read anything today. Or tomorrow. But hey, if I WANTED to, I can. That’s all that matters. Wasn’t it Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared losing it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” One does not worry about not being able to read until one can’t. Shudder.

Hold on now, David Mitchell. Be right there.

Book review: Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter


With #ChennaiRains on my mind, it has been a distracted kind of reading today. I read two lines and I space out wondering if so and so cousin and her family are OK or not. I force myself to come back to the book, but of course I’ve lost track of the plot and have to start again. It’s all I can do now to NOT keep thinking about my parents because I know if I start, I’ll go to pieces in no time – the human brain’s capacity to conjure up the most horrible worst-case scenarios is astounding and quite debilitating.

So the book that bore the brunt of this reading and not-quite-reading was Anuradha Roy’s ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’. I loved her first book, ‘An atlas of impossible longing’ and where that triumphs, ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’, sadly, fails to impress. All the not-quite-reading notwithstanding.

I found this book lacking on coherence. The characters were all over the place and somehow didn’t seem as real as the ones from ‘An atlas’. The threads connecting them were very superficial and lacked depth and credibility. I don’t know if that was intended (if it was, I can’t fathom why!) but it ruined the experience for me.

Some parts of the story were predictable (esp those involving the sexual abuse) but I could have overlooked that if the finale was redeeming. Sadly, no. I’m not very particular about having the story end with all the loose ends neatly tied up but this one was still too bizarre – coming from a woman who loves Haruki Murakami, that’s something.

So, disappointed? Yes. The prose was still a delight in places but it also evoked disgust in the first few chapters (a kissing scene involving chewed up pan in the mouth – shudder puke shudder) and I was thoroughly put off by it. But hey, that’s probably just me – not everyone might react the same way!

I’ll still savor the journey that was ‘An atlas’ but I’m not looking forward to sleeping on Jupiter again.

Book Review: Shoes of the Dead

Shoes of the Dead
Shoes of the Dead by Kota Neelima
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kota Neelima’s Shoes of the dead left me feeling uneasy. Uneasy is a vague description, I know, but that’s how I felt – part guilt, part sadness and somewhere in there a small sense of relief and gratitude that I live in a better world. A world infinitely better than what Gangiri Bhadra and his family live in. And what makes it all the more gut wrenching is the fact that farmer suicides are not fiction. There are scores of Sudhakar Bhadras dying every day, unable to take another day of the poverty and hunger. Not of their own probably, but of their family especially the children.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up the book – I bought it solely based on the blurb. That probably helps when trying to discover new authors, esp Indian ones. And Kota Neelima is a discovery for me. The prose was beautiful in places and the visuals and emotions were rendered crisp and perfect, like oil paints on canvas. I could’ve sworn I felt the winter in Mityala and the dirt and dust of its villages and streets. And that proximity, imaginary yes, but that proximity made it that much harder to digest the reality portrayed in the book about the vicious cycle of debt these poor farmers get into and how the politicians and local stakeholders still try to get mileage out of their grief.

The characters Gangiri and Keyur are written very realistically – the former suffering for his ideals and torn between standing up for justice and taking the easier way for the sake of the children and the latter showing his inexperience in politics, trying to learn everything on the fly. I liked the uncertainty about Keyur – one time he’s the ruthless politician and the next he’s almost humane and before you understand that he’s gone back to being a pampered son born into power. My only grouse is with how Videhi and Nazar’s characters are hardly used to their potential – the book was surely not that long so as to exclude these two the way they were. Under utilized, surely.

The last few chapters are a tough read because of the way the story progresses. I wish it were just fiction. Because if it isn’t, we’re all guilty of ignoring the plight of the farmer who grows our food. And their blood will be on hands as much as on the government’s.

And oh, if you’re wondering about the title – you’ll understand in the last few pages. Not before.

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Book Review: Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir

Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir
Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir by Fatima Bhutto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The short version – I loved it! It’s an amazing account of resilience, courage, integrity and above all, the love between a father and daughter. All this, amid blood and swords.

The long version – nah, not very long. I liked the way the book was structured, how the people and places intwertwined and made it a surreal journey through the most violent and remorseless history of Pakistan and it’s politicians. I agree, there’s another side to every story and I haven’t read any from the enemy camp (Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari, etc.) but still…some things are incontrovertible. Like death.

All I knew about Pakistan’s politics was this behemoth personality called Benazir Bhutto (and after her assassination, her husband Zardari) and nothing else. We were all probably in awe of the fact that a woman was at the helm of affairs in an Islamic state like Pakistan, that too at the age of 34. (Yeah, 34. I’m 34!) But I never knew about her brother, Murtaza Bhutto or the fact that he was killed in what seemed like a government-sanctioned encounter. I did not know about this charisma or his socialist ideals. We will never know what Pakistan would be now if he had been alive.

The book traces the history of Pakistan from the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the fall of Murtaza, and eventually, Benazir herself. It’s heavily biased against Benazir and her husband Zardari and I guess it’s expected. But I’m still stupefied how Fatima Bhutto continues to live in the country, amid all those people in power who were responsible for her father’s death. That’s resilience of a different level. And courage too, for writing this book – I can imagine it would not have been easy given the political climate there. So more power to her!

I haven’t read her fiction (In the shadow of the crescent moon), but I might just pick it up – I like her style and her prose. I liked how she’s not overly filmi (for want of a better adjective) or verbose when describing events, people or places. I liked how she builds up to the event and quietly deals the blow.

When I finished the book, sadness aside, I felt a mild relief as if I’ve finally come out of Pakistan and their blood and swords.

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The ones we lost

There are some things we don’t talk about. Some words we just hush up or just whisper, making sure we’re not overheard. When the topic comes up, we look away, make some excuse, act like we didn’t hear or just change the topic.

An abortion.

A miscarriage.

A termination of pregnancy.

A stillborn child. (I like the other term some people use here – angel child.)

October 15, apparently, is Pregnancy and Infant loss Remembrance Day. I say apparently because I came to know of it just now. It’s a day for remembering our loss (es), a day to talk about it to show that those going through it are not alone. I wish I’d known this sooner. Why? Because I want to talk about it. Because this here, this blog, is probably the only place I can talk about it. No one at home wants to listen – it’s painful, so we bury it deep along with other unmentionables. We don’t forget, but we don’t remember either.

I lost 3 pregnancies before having my son. The first, at 9 weeks, was a spontaneous miscarriage. 2007. I was pregnant. They even found a heartbeat. But then 2 weeks later there wasn’t one. I got a tablet to expel the pregnancy, a super painful night of cramps and what not..and then it was over. The next morning I cried over the phone to my mom. I was back at work 3 days later.

I lost my second pregnancy at 23 weeks. 2009. It was supposed to have been a regular second trimester scan. But as the radiologist was doing it, I could sense something was off. He wouldn’t make eye contact and when I insisted he tell me what was wrong, he said there were some abnormalities and my doctor would explain it to me and most likely suggest an MToP. Medical termination of pregnancy. He wouldn’t tell me anything further. It was around 8 PM and I remember holding back my tears from the scan centre till the car. I was trying to be strong. I called my Dad from the car because my Mom was alone at home (Dad was traveling) and I didn’t know if she could handle it. I said hello and started sobbing uncontrollably, unable to utter even a single coherent word. My husband took the phone and explained it to Dad. He said they’ll take the next flight out. We went home, sat on our bed and cried. The next day, in the bathroom, I held my stomach and cried again, asking that unborn child to forgive me for what I was going to do and begging God to not let my child feel any pain. We were in the hospital the next day and 36 hours of labor-room-screaming later, it was all done. Not even a scar. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I came home feeling empty and guilty. I screamed at my Dad and husband that we threw our baby in a dustbin and came home. It was a girl.

13 weeks was how long I could hold on to my third pregnancy. 2010. The year my brother got married. I was around a month into the pregnancy at the time of his wedding. But the trauma of the previous one was still on the horizon. So I stayed back with my parents till the first trimester was over. 12th week scan. Rinse and repeat. I was a labor-room pro by now. The wide open hospital gowns didn’t make me feel naked. I couldn’t care less. A few hours of cramps, a D&C under general anesthesia and I was done. Back to work 2 weeks later. A girl. Again.

2012 was a good year. I had my own little miracle – my son. And I’ve bid adieu to this whole pregnancy thing. My body has done enough.

I’m crying as I write this now. It was 5 years ago, the last one. Yes, I have a child now. It should have healed by now, no? No. It never does. Not even time can heal this loss. Know why? Because you have nothing to hold on to and remember. No memories. No photos. Not even a name. Nothing. But that feeling in your gut every time you think of it, like you’re falling down from a height, like all your insides are suspended in mid air and then suddenly there’s a lurch and they all come crashing down – that feeling never goes away. Not in 5 years, not in 50. The first step in the process of healing – grieving – is absent. We don’t get an opportunity to grieve for a child we lost.

Let’s not be like that. Let’s talk. I’ll show you you’re not alone. You show me I’m not. Maybe just this one day. So we can remember the ones we lost. And grieve a little. They’re our children. So what if they weren’t born?

My unborn children showed me how strong I am, how strong I can be if I had to. They put all of my other troubles into perspective. They taught me to cherish what I have, to never take anything for granted. That the miracle of birth is exactly that – a miracle. There are a 100 things that can go wrong, in those 9 months. Sometimes they do. And when they do, we undergo a transformation and come out slightly (if not entirely) different. We won’t always have scars on our bodies, but in our hearts, we do. Once a mother, always a mother. Even if there’s no child.

We don’t have to forget, you know. And we can talk about it if we feel like. I’m listening. And I know you are too.

Book Review: White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

White Oleander
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Once in a long while do you come across such a book that’s a sheer pleasure to read. Every line, every word, so perfect and such poetry. I’m a sucker for good prose (even if the story is hardly there!) and this is just my kind of book. And to think this is the author’s debut novel. Bravo!

I loved Astrid Magnussen. I hated Ingrid Magnussen. The 3 days it took me to read the book, I was living with Astrid. The string of foster homes, the good ones and the bad. When she ached for her mother, I was there feeling her loneliness. When she found her light at the end of the tunnel, I was there cheering for her, but at the same time, praying that it doesn’t get messed up, that it’s not just a dream she wakes up from. It’s that powerful a book, the way it makes you identify with everyone. I don’t know how Janet Fitch does it, but she did – we look at the characters the way Astrid does, we feel what she feels, our perspective changes when hers does. We love Ingrid. Then we hate her. Then we’re confused. Just. Like. Astrid.

On a side note, I’ve always been enthralled by the oleander flower (in Tamil it’s called arali) – when I was a child, we had a shrub in a neighbor’s garden and I remember being warned by the adults that it was poisonous and not to ingest it. And oh, most Tamil movies in a rural setting had at least one or two women committing suicide by eating ground arali seeds! Ah, well.😀

The theme of the book reminded me of another coming-of-age book I read recently – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I found Tartt a bit of a chore to read at times and I definitely found the book long by half. But where Tartt lost me, Fitch just had me wrapped up in beautiful prose and kept me in that cocoon for days, snug and comfortable in the sweet melancholy of those words. I remember feeling greedy and hungry when reading the book – my eyes would jump to the next line, next paragraph and I had to pull them back and savor the words at hand. (Afterthought – I felt so when I was reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

This story of a mother and daughter has sadness, but it’s not sad. There’s a constant glimmer of hope, of good things even amid the despair and loss. And that’s probably what I loved (I felt the Goldfinch was very sad) about this book. I don’t know if I will read it again, but I will always remember this feeling I have now, of quiet contentment and calm that comes when a great thing ends but envelops us with a gentle hug and whispers that it will be back soon.

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