On books and saviors

Breathe. I had to remember to breathe. And stop wringing my hands, stop hovering over the friend’s conversation on WhatsApp, stop fidgeting and for the love of God, stop hyperventilating. But I couldn’t. See, I thought I was ‘over’ this – this intense craving, this indescribable need to possess and…caress. Well, apparently not. I was as addicted as always; maybe I’d been fooling myself with the modern replacement the last few years.

See, my friend is moving out of the country. And she’s getting rid of (blasphemous, yes) the huge (did I say huge? I mean humongous!) collection of books that they had accumulated over the years. Books of the exact genres that I read. Yes, Merry Christmas to you too! But the reason for my restlessness was because she put up the ‘giving away books’ on the public WhatsApp group of the apartment ladies (I should’ve disowned her right then, but dude, humongous books yo! I can bear the betrayal this once) and I DIDN’T WANT MY BOOKS (yes, MINE) to go off to somebody else’s house!!! So, there. After the Kindle, I stopped buying paper books and thanks to my fairy Godmother (commercial name: Amazon.in), I didn’t have to go to bookstores. So I was book-sober, for the past 8 years. Only ebooks. No smell of paper or the feel of those grainy yellowing pages, crisp almost bordering on brittle for the old ones. I was over it. Just like that. Out of sight, out of mind.

Until now. I went over to her place and the entire bed in her spare room was filled with books. It was like a second hand books’ shop. I was in heaven. I wanted to just throw myself on them and sing a song reminiscing the good ol’ times of paper books. (Don’t worry, I didn’t. The bed would’ve been reduced to dust and debris!) The amount of self-control it took me to not lug out all those books back home? Haha, I did not KNOW I had that kind of self-control. Good to know. So, like a complete schmuck, I took 3-4 of them and acted like the bigger person, not giving in to the temptation.

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It’s a year and a half later now (yeah, I wrote the above like a year and a half ago, and I found it now, in the Drafts – I know! I suck!) and I’m yet to read those books. Or the other 3-4 books that  I got as gifts or a during a momentary lapse of judgment. Because, dude, I cannot read paper books anymore!

When I pick one up, all I can think of is arrghh, my hand hurts..how do I turn the page when I’m holding the book with one hand and eating with the other? What’s this new word, why can’t I tap on it and have the dictionary pop up? Where’s the bookmark, why does my 4yo keep stealing them?! Ughh, the font is so small! The print is so light! Who prints books of such quality?! How am I supposed to mark the page or highlight a line without using a pen or dog-earing the pages? WTF is this nonsense? Why did I even buy this book? I should stick to the Kindle.

Kindle, I love you. You are my savior, my knight in shining black armor, with your savvy buttons and pearl white screen. You, who comes to me in the dead of the night, gives me company till I can fall asleep with you in my arms! You, always with me, so I never feel lonely, so I never have to drink my coffee companion-less. You, who only asks for a measly 2 hours of battery charge, effortlessly updating all my new finds, keeping me from going insane with boredom. You, you, just you.

Book Review: Hangwoman

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

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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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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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