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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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: 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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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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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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