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! ๐Ÿ™‚ 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: 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. ๐Ÿ˜€

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 fewย  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! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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.. ๐Ÿ™‚

…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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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! ๐Ÿ™‚

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A penny for two thoughts?

A couple of thoughts that got processed over the past few days, interestingly both related to books in a way –

I was reading a book review (this one) and it made me realize that motherhood has made me weak-hearted in some ways. It’s another matter that I’ve become brave on certain other fronts, but let’s leave that for another day. So this book –ย  from the review, I could imagine it would be a nightmarish read. The kind that would twist your insides and make you want to curl up in a corner and die. And I’m almost sure it wouldn’t have been so if it weren’t for the mother part in me. Because, and I’ve been noticing this very often, every time there’s a person in pain, I end up seeing my son’s face.

Those child beggars at the traffic stop that we’re so used to seeing that it’s part of the scenery now? I notice them more. And I can’t bear it. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. The closest description would be someone holding your heart and squeezing it till you feel nothing but an emptiness there. Slowly, that emptiness travels to your gut and there are some moments of weightlessness, like just before a fall. You’re this close to breaking down and then the light turns green, you drive off and remember to breathe.

I don’t recollect being like this before my son was born. It’s a bit like the character May in Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The secret life of bees’ – she takes empathy to an extreme level wherein she starts to feel sad as if she herself were enduring the pain, even if it was actually happening to somebody else.

So, yeah, to quote what I had written as a comment on the book review, my tolerance for pain or sadness has gone down a lot. It’s probably because of this feeling of helplessness that after that moment when he came out of the birth canal, my son is on his own. Yes, I’m here for him but I can no longer shield his body with my body. I can no longer nourish him with mine. He’s another person – OUTSIDE of me. And he can be in pain, all on his lonesome. And THAT, by far, is the most scariest thing ever for me.

Sentimental, much? Ok, I’m stopping.

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The other one is on this article, about those weirdo children’s books we reading-parents come across all the time. I say ‘weirdo’ because, even though the language is fine, the books themselves are an empty read – there’s nothing to remember or learn, other than the actual act of reading to the little person in your lap. I could identify so much with what’s written in the article! Like this bit –

The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage. Another problem, which compounds the first problem, is that they want to hear the same books hundreds of times in a row. So for all the joys that storytime can offer, it frequently entails a kind of dismal self-abnegation thatโ€™s too excruciating even to describe as tediumโ€”an actively painful sense of my precious time on earth being torn from my chest and tossed into a furnace.

It’s so so true. And I also agree with the part that we tend to buy books that we remember from our childhood – but the thing is we’ve forgotten what the book is about and we only have the nostalgia of seeing that book when we were kids. And, honestly, when we come across the stories now, my first response is usually ‘What the heck?!’. Like the one about the goat kids and the wolf – the wolf eats up the kids but the Mother Goat then goes and cuts up the wolf’s belly, takes out the kids and sews it back up, with stones inside. Say what?! I had to change that entire bit to say the wolf stole the kids in a bag and the Mother Goat saved them by tearing open the bag. Why couldn’t the story have used bag instead of belly? Which kindergartner needs that kind of gore?! And how am I to explain to him later that you can’t just cut open stomachs and sew them back up with stones stuffed inside? As if I don’t have enough tough questions to answer as it is.

That said, I feel we shouldn’t THINK too much about the content, as long as it is written in a coherent manner, with tasteful illustrations and without any general bias or prejudice. Just like those umpteen nursery rhymes about old men being thrown down the stairs or little boys indulging in eve teasing (yep, those are rhymes. See this.). The article refers to ‘The little engine that could’ as one of those ‘terrible’ books – I don’t agree! ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s a story about how an engine breaks down and the toys in the train try to hail some other engine to pull them up the hill. Most engines give some reason or the other and go away without helping. And along comes a little engine which hasn’t really pulled a big train but is willing to help and try! It’s a bit adorable, actually. I’ve read it many times to my son and recently, in a different context about helping me with chores, he just said, “Like the little engine helps, Amma. I help.”. What more do you want of a children’s book, eh? So, yeah. Let’s just screen the books for language and child-friendly content and let the kids have some fun without worrying about morals and lessons and what not. They have their entire life ahead to deal with that!