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. :-D

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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Remember 10-15 years back, when Internet meant sitting in front of a little dial-up box and mechanically re-trying because the sonofab**** just won’t get connected? All that silent cussing and praying, both equally earnestly? And then when it DID get connected, that loud crackling noise and assorted beeps and bops and oh joy, when opens up nice and bright?

Today was like that. Because, thanks to the incessant rains or whatever nonsense, my WiFi died on me. Actually not just me – on the entire population in my apartment complex, but when did I ever pass up an opportunity to wallow in some self pity! And I’m thinking now or rather I’m unable to imagine now how we lived back then without Internet!

If you’re in your 30s now, you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about so don’t bother acting like I’m talking gibberish. Yes, you. You know how it was. No WhatsApp, no Facebook and above all, no Google.

No. Internet.

When I had a doubt in Field Theory (hypothetical – you need to read something on the subject to even have doubts!) I first called my friend/classmate and hoped she had the answers. And if she didn’t? Well, wait till I got to college and ask one of the brainy types (One never had a doubt that was doubt enough to take to a professor, so let’s not complicate things). There were no quick solutions. Convert Fahrenheit to Celsius? Look up the formula from a textbook, yo. What’s the capital of Sierra Leone? Check the atlas or the GK book (we had those things back then!). How to bake a pavlova? Pavlova who? Right.

Well, nothing earth shattering, no. We got by. We lived. We spoke to other human beings in person. We walked to the shops. We had books and libraries. We didn’t second guess our teachers and doctors. We didn’t let the milk boil over too often because someone was engrossed in a smartphone. We did good.

But it’s not so now, people. I think I’m going insane. Like, slowly but surely treading the path to cuckoo land.

I make breakfast but where’s Instagram to take a pic?!

I put the milk on the stove, but where’s Facebook to catch up on?!

Son wants to see Little Krishna, but where’s YouTube?!

And I have to ask the rest of the folks if THEIR WiFi is up or not BUT WHERE THE HELL IS WHATSAPP?!!!!




And then the son (who was till now yelling Amma Amma like a million times!) asks me to help him fix his building blocks. Well, alright kiddo, you’re in luck because Amma has nothing better to do right now. I chuck the phone and sit down with him. And we built an aeroplane. Stairs to climb up. A toll booth. An entire parking lot with real (toy) cars and trucks. We had little cops pull up errant bulldozer drivers and take them to jail for not following traffic rules. We hauled playdoh rocks into trucks and sent it spinning down a ramp. We sang made up songs about each other (“Amma Amma goes to kitthen…and bwings me chapati buvva” – Amma song, by V). We did good.

If you think I’m going to end this piece saying it’s a great blessing to spend time with family, yada yada yada..well..yeah, that’s there but, dude, I want me some Internet, yo. My brain cells are fried after that little play session and I NEED MY BYTE FIX RIGHT NOW.


Book Review: Bhima Lone Warrior

Bhima Lone Warrior
Bhima Lone Warrior by M.T. Vasudevan Nair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If there’s one thing I’ve realised after reading M.T.Vasudevan Nair’s Randamoozham (English translation by Gita Krishnankutty) is that there is no one interpretation of the Mahabharata. There have been numerous re-tellings so far, from the PoV of so many characters and yet, every time I read it I come away with a different feeling and a different understanding of the characters. Like MT says in the Epilogue, the credit goes to the original author, Sage Vyasa – not just for what he said, but also for what he didn’t. The ‘silences he maintained’ in some parts were the places that future authors could interpret in their own way. And I can see now how it is that the same story can be told in so many different ways and still not sound repetitive. If anything, it only makes me want to read more versions of it.

Like all books translated from a language I know (Tamil, Telugu, Hindi or Malayalam), this one also started off with me feeling I’m getting a raw deal, to not be reading the original. The first few  chapters I struggled a little bit to shut out the constant comparison of the English words to the equivalent in Malayalam. But once I did that, I enjoyed the book immensely. The translator has done some justice to the work, without losing out too much of the poetry that would’ve been MT’s Malayalam version.

Bhima is a strange choice for a protagonist. The popular retellings do not pay too much attention to him – he’s overshadowed by Arjuna in terms of prowess and Yudhishtira with his claim to the throne. This is probably why Bhima’s PoV is a bit refreshing from the usual stories we read. Yudhishtira is shown in a completely different light and to an extent, so is Draupadi. But the surprising part was the portrayal of Krishna. MT has stripped off all traces of divinity from this retelling. Everyone is human. Mortal. Krishna, included. There is no flowing saree covering Draupadi’s shame during her disrobing by Dussasana. During the war, Krishna does not use his discus to block the sun, to bring Jarasandha out in the open. Not just that, Karna is not depicted with any permanent kavacha-kundalam. So the book comes off as a regular narrative, stripped off it’s divine and fantastical connotations. I guess this is what makes it a unique read, compared to the other versions of Mahabharatha.

I really would’ve loved to read this in Malayalam – maybe when the husband is in a good mood, I can coax him into reading out the good parts! ;-)

P.S.: Planning to read Prem Panicker’s translation soon.

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Image courtesy – Google image search

Once in a long while there comes a movie that will take your breath away. That will have you tied up, heart and soul, in the narrative so much that when it ends and the lights come on, there’s a moment of complete disorientation and you wonder where the heck you are. You keep playing the scenes over and over again in your head and it feels real, every single time. To me, Bāhubali was THAT kind of a movie.

Let’s get some things out first which might have a bearing on my experience –
(a) I set foot in a movie theater yesterday after almost 3 years. [Yes, when a child happens, some other things don’t happen.]

(b) I have a thing for Prabhas and Rana [yep, both].

And (c) I’m a sucker for period films with all the silks and crowns and royalty and macho looking kings and princes. [I’m a living stereotype, eh?]

Now, I went for the movie with moderate expectations – my husband had seen it already and he wasn’t all amazed, so I knew better than to expect the sky and heavens above. But I loved it! Yes, there were some inconsistencies and imperfections. Yes, there are a lot of scenes that require turning off the logic and reason button in your brain. But hey, that’s what entertainment is to me. For the umpteenth time (on this blog), I don’t like to go watch a movie only to see reality there – I have enough of it in my real life. If we go with that attitude, this movie is such a treat.

On to the details (oh so many details!)

[SPOILER ALERT – I’ve laid bare almost all the good scenes and the general story line. Consider yourself warned of spoilers.]

Cast: Loved Rana. Loved him in ‘Leader’, but after the eye-candy phase ended, I realized he can’t really act. Didn’t watch any of his other movies after that, but much drooling happened over his photos. Prabhas was good too, but he looked a tad old. Maybe all that body building took a toll, who knows. Oh oh, that scene with lifting the Shivalingam? Oh. My. God. I’ll go watch the movie again just for that scene, yo. Anushka didn’t have a lot of screen time in Part 1 (apart from the initial shock-value scene when we first see her face) and I’m assuming they’ve kept her for Part 2. Tamannah – hmm, this one is tricky. She did a good job, but I felt she was the wrong choice for a warrior woman. Her ‘manly’ warrior walks, dialogues and expressions didn’t seem natural and in some places, I kind of felt she was overacting. Maybe a Nithya Menon or Anushka Shetty (the ‘Arundhati’ type role) would’ve been apt. Nasser, Ramya Krishna – class acts, both. Satyaraj – good to see him on screen after a while! He was every bit the Kattappa character and was a joy to watch. Have I got them all? Ok good.

Music: Loved the BGM – it’s the goosebumps inducing kind, especially the part where they show the Mayushmati city/fortress for the first time. The songs themselves were not so memorable. I can’t recollect a single tune or word even from the songs now. Maybe if I hear them again a couple of times? I’ll try. What I felt was the music in the songs ended up being contemporary, rather than match the period in which the movie is set – the instruments and the digital undertones didn’t sit well with the overall theme.

Art/Special effects/Cinematography: Win. Win. Win. You have to see it to believe it. Here’s what I tell everyone to please watch this in a theatre – not on a laptop, not on a tab and not on a TV. In a theatre. Please. You can thank me later.

Costumes: I might have been actually drooling (imagine a gaping mouth and a stunned expression on the face) over the silk and handloom ensembles. All those ikats and pochampallis and raw silks – I died and went to costume heaven. There’s this item song with 3 item girls – oh their ikat harem pants! Beautiful! It’s all I saw (stop sniggering, yo). And Prabhas’ waist coat type thingie too. Much deep sighing happened. Also, I hate my wardrobe (rather, what passes for one these days).

That said, there were some inconsistencies with the costume in the first half – when Prabhas scales the mountain, he reaches a place that’s snow covered. But the people living there are wearing cotton! Fail. Rajamouli could’ve used some leather for equally good effect (the colors were anyway browns and reds). Small thing, yes, but this kind of attention to detail is what makes a movie perfect.

Story: Let’s face it – it’s a formula film. Son separated from mother at birth, grows up as commoner and then comes back to save mommy and take the throne. We saw MGR do it in Adimai Penn, a million years ago. But I’m willing to ignore that fact because of the way it’s taken. And the reasons above.

Direction: Fairly good, in short. Like I said earlier, there are some little slips here and there that could’ve been done better. There’s an overall lack of attention to detail, I felt. And we really could’ve done without that ‘romantic’ bit where Prabhas is giving Tamanna an impromptu makeover – there are a lot of ways to show a man wooing a woman and this was a bit creepy, with the disrobing, tearing, etc. And at the end of the song she’s instantly in love with him? Yeah. But hey, suspension of disbelief. So, ok.

I enjoyed the movie more than I expected to. I’m not a big fan of war scenes, so I found the last 20 mins a bit of a bore – there’s only so much killing you can see in a movie, no? [I didn’t enjoy the Whitewalker-Crows battle in GoT Season 5 either!] And the big suspense in the last scene – yeah, I saw that last week in some idiot’s FB or Whatsapp update (if I remember who you are, you better run and hide in a cave across the seven seas!), so slightly bummed.

So, all said and done, I’d love to watch it a second time! :-) Those 3 hours inside, I was not on this Earth. That’s the kind of entertainment I love.

Now waiting for Part 2 in 2016. Not very happy, but what choice do we have eh? Add this to the ever-growing list of sequels (books and movies, both) that I’m forever waiting for.

The second snip

My son started nursery school 2 weeks ago. The first week was orientation and I was present with him throughout. He was fine. The second week he had to sit through 3 hours of school without me. He bawled his eyes out for the first 30 min every day. But he was ok. This week – yesterday was the same clinging-to-Amma’s-legs-and-crying routine. Today? Today he walked in like he owned the place, kept his bag in its place, looked at me and said, “Will you come back later, Ma?”. And when I said, “Yes, baby! I’ll come pick you up at 12!”, he turned and walked away to his friends and toys. Not another glance. His class teacher and I were gaping at each other wondering what the heck just happened.

And on the drive back home, I realized what just happened – the second snip on the umbilical cord. He’s spending a part of his time on his own, without me. Without his parents or his home. His first few tentative steps towards being himself.

Even though technically the cord is cut at birth, the way I see it, the first real snip was when I stopped nursing him. When my body no longer nourished his. When he had to eat and drink on his own, to nourish himself. His body and mine were no longer connected in any way. If I ate, that does not mean he got the nutrition anymore. The first few days I was actually apprehensive – is he getting enough food? Is that formula any good? What if he loses weight? You get the drift. But then I adapted (yes, me and not him). And before I knew it, there were a whole new bunch of challenges to face and milestones to celebrate. Like weaning him off the bottle. Like the first time he recited the entire Gruffalo book to an awestruck mother and father. And then came school.

After breaking our heads on a million different parameters and planning which banks to rob, we decided on a school and got the admission done. I was more nervous than him, trust me. Nervous mostly on how he would adjust without me. And then I looked at my husband and realized the poor man was even more terrified. The 5 minutes when a teacher took him to participate in an activity (while we listened to the Orientation demo), his attention was entirely on the son and I’m sure he would’ve sprained his neck trying to see where he was and what he was doing. It’s another story that the little guy came back in 5 min saying he wanted us. Yeah, well.

So now looks like he’s all set in school. Yes, there will be days when he still might cry and refuse to go. But I think he knows by now that school is going to be a big part of his life hereafter. Once he makes friends and finds activities he loves doing, he might actually love school.

Well, I hope he adjusts well and adjusts soon. I’m already all adjusted with the 4 hours of ‘freedom’ I’m getting, 5 days a week. I’m planning to catch up with all my friends over breakfast and if that’s not enough, I’m going to make new friends and catch up with THEM over breakfast. Yeah, baby. Because I can. Because I don’t have a toddler hanging off my legs anymore. Well, he does get home by 12, so I have a curfew after that, but still. 4 hours, yo. So many bookstores and supermarkets to get familiar with. So much ‘adult’ time. Please stop me before I sound too desperate and lame over 4 measly hours. What? Too late? Ok.

It’s 5 PM now. And he’s here, eating my brains with his ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘where’. Another couple of years and there will be a change in the communication. I’ll probably be running to Google every hour to answer him then, but hey, it’s good progress! As before, there will be new challenges, new beginnings and a lot of more memories. I guess the next milestone I’m looking forward to is to have a diaper-less handbag for myself (yes, my bag will always always have a diaper – I might forget keys or even my phone, but good God, I won’t forget the damn diaper).

There will be many more after that, the little steps from being a baby to a little boy to a teenager to a grown man. Some good ones, some that will make you realize how fast time flies, some that might even break your heart a little bit. For now, I can probably take heart with the fact that there is still a long time for the third and final snip – when he flies the nest, armed with whatever we have taught him, chasing his dreams and all I am is a contact on his phone that says ‘Amma’.

Idli for President!

The first 20 years of my life, I hated idli. Oh, for my international readers, this is idli. Idli is to a south Indian what toast is to most Caucasians. Anyway, I hated it. What’s there to like – it’s bland, it’s a boring white, it’s not crispy, there’s no oil involved! Boh-ring!

And then I got a job and moved cities. From home, I went straight to this city called Hyderabad where the nearest idli was at least 20 km from where I lived. When you’re a single girl, on your own in a big city for the first time, dependent on public transport, it might as well have been 2000 km. For almost a year, I didn’t eat good idli. The ones I did eat were not even in the same food group as idli. I missed the buggers!

Then wedding happened. And hey, my mother bought me this wet grinder to make my very own batter and all my idli fantasies took flight again. Heaven.

Without further ado, here’s my idli journal. These were made in the course of the last month or so. See. And enjoy.

Idli, with Sambar and chutney. The Holy Grail of South Indian breakfast.


Idli, with Chicken curry. Typical breakfast fare in a Telugu household when the son-in-law is visiting.


Idli, with Peanut chutney. This is my childhood, at my maternal grandmother’s house, on a plate.


Idli, with Pappulusu. Rayalseema fare. Comfort food when you miss Mommy.


Idli, with Kurma. This is my humble idli making the most of a parotta-chapati invasion from the North.


Idli, with Kumbakonam kadapa. Native of Tamilnadu but very joyously adopted into a Telugu household!


Idli, made with oats, with Tomato pachadi. This is my idli adapting to the health conscious 21st century.


These are just the ones I made and had the patience to take a photo of before stuffing my face. There are countless other accompaniments and variations of the idli, it’s actually ridiculous.

So, let’s raise a mug of sambar and a spoon of chutney to this most humble, unassuming of breakfasts – to the humble idli, which let’s the accompaniment take all the credit, while silently being the rock (not literally, mind you) on which they all flow.

Idli for President!

Book Review: The Wildings

The Wildings
The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up this book solely because of the author – I’ve read her journalistic work and found them engaging and good. And I also had just finished another book by a journalist (Jerry Pinto) and was completely wow’ed by it. But the similarity between ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ and ‘The Wildings’ ends right there. While the former is a prose-lover’s paradise, the latter comes off as young-adult popular fiction and not really a great novel. Nothing wrong with being YA or popular fic – just that it wasn’t what I had in mind when I picked it up.

The idea of a cat world, where humans are just the props in the narrative, is genius. I read the blurb and I instantly bought and started reading it. I liked the attention to detail in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ and habits of all the animals involved in the plot – it was well researched (I can iamgine the author stalking cats to figure out how they lived and it’s not easy!) and well thought-out. The characters were good, too – cats, cheels, birds, people – all of them. But…but.. :-)

…just a few pages into the book, I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the book as much as I expected to because the words were merely words – there was no vivid imagery, no playful hide and seek between the author and reader, nothing that made me stop and imagine for a second what the words were hinting at. If I wanted to read a tree being described as just a tree, I wouldn’t read fiction; I’d read an encyclopaedia, no? So that was my problem (because I’m a sucker for good prose, to the extent I can put up with a lousy story if the underlying prose is like poetry!) and it was more pronounced in the first half where the story was meandering around to the big set up and the wild, albeit expected, climax.

I also had to contend with Roy’s style of changing PoV midway in a paragraph. One line we’re seeing through Beraal’s eyes and a fullstop later, it’s through Mara. I found that a bit distracting because it doesn’t let us get comfortable enough with a character, to empathize more. It’s not bad writing, it’s just a very jumbled way of going through feelings and somehow it didn’t sit well with me.

After a point, I gave up on the prose and just read for the sake of the story – not my most favorite thing to do, but it was all I could because I didn’t want to give up on the story, per se. And I quite enjoyed the plot, mind you. So, by the time I finished, I guess I was generally ok with the book.

Am I nitpicking? Maybe. Because it’s such a letdown. It could have been so much more because the underlying seed of the story is a great one. But, alas, the curse of lackluster prose.

By the way, if you are a cat person, you should definitely pick this up!

The last few lines may be a spoiler – be warned! :-)

P.S: For some reason, this book reminded me a lot about Harry Potter :-D. Similar circumstances, similar good-cat, bad-cat, teacher-cat thing going on and the big ‘war’ at the end, with the good-cats almost losing and then, thanks to the ‘hero’, winning. But that’s ok, I guess. Harry Potter is a great story! :-)

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