Saturday, August 29, 2009

thank you, god.

thank you for the sustenance

and of course, the diamonds

thank you my undying faith

that the bedbugs will have their wake

for the boy angel who sleeps at night

and the brat he turns into at light

thank you for the cozy apartment

and for someone to pay the rent

thank you for keeping the love alive

and knowing that it’ll never die

thank you for the brief separations

and superfast broadband connections

thank you for my strong mother

without her, you’d still be a stranger

for the million friends and family

who’ve always, always forgiven me

thank you for the free books

and the koftas my maid cooks

for the impromptu kisses and hugs

that make up for fat pay cheques

but most of all i thank thee

for never ever giving up on me.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Review of The toss of a lemon by Padma Viswanathan

This review appeared in The Sunday express in more or less the same fashion.

One reads the title and sighs, lemons, mangoes, poppies! Another Indian novel serving varied flora. And that too across 600 odd pages. Well, the suspicions turn out to be right with 'The toss of a lemon'. In the sense that it's about a family tree. But that's where the similarity ends. That's also where other similarities begin. Because anyone but anyone has a family tree. And if that anyone happens to be a tam-brahm, the book could very well be about her own family tree with all the usual suspects and then some.

At the head of the tree is Sivakami the teenage widow in pre-independence India, who goes through the next 60 odd years covered in pearly whites and hidden in dark shadows. Then there's her daughter Thangam, the woman who spends all of her mature life making children; Sivakami's son Vairum, the generous-to-a-fault business tycoon who's unrelentingly cruel to his mother; his wife Vani, the childless, musical genius with duly appointed eccentricities; Thangam's husband Goli, the handsome rake who contributes little to the story but tremendously to the growth of the family tree; and of course the gay servant Muchami, who also serves as an alter ego to Sivakami. Add to this melee, a friendly neighour or two, a devadasi, and a dozen or two fruits of love who make their appearances randomly.

Random is what you might think about the book too, with its no plot approach. But that in no way denies its appeal to keep the pages turning. All the way to the 619th page. Which, for fear of gushing, is an enormous feat for a first novel. Especially for Padma Viswanathan, who despite her name and brahmin origins, is a Canadian. The depth of research is commendable and the novel seems to have consumed 10 good years of her life. I, repeat, good years. In another time, it could've spawned a large family. Her own, actually, as the novel is part biography part fiction. And for that reason one is tempted to compare it with 'The God of small things'.

Interestingly, the novel is written in the present tense, except for the epilogue. It helps the reader literally walk with the characters in every stage. One wishes that the characters were etched out a little deeper. But then you could reason that in a self-abasing society, the individuals do not summon much space. There are also moments in the book that would've justified more evocation. Vairum's ousting of his aged, helpless mother from his house and her persistent longing for him for example, are goldmines that have been passed over with barely a few handfuls of earth to show for it.

Although Rushdie-like, the mix of the fantastical with the real does not gel in this novel. For instance, the seasonal shedding of gold dust by Thangam, and the waxing and waning of Vani's moods along with the lunar cycle, for no apparent reason. The chronicling, however, is precise with only the occasional burst of poetics drawing attention to it. Like an elegant silk sari with sparse gold work on it. Making the novel richer but not vulgarly so.

The descriptiveness in the novel is also limited though treated well, with some interesting allegories woven in. The description of a tamil brahmin wedding meal almost make you smell the sambar, for instance. Some images recur with reason and are duly evocative. Don't be surprised if Jagadhodharana plays in your head like a stuck record for the duration of the book, which by no means is a short time.

However, the most remarkable thing about the novel, is that you find yourself constantly replaying one scene or the other, musing about one character or the other, in the way you would think about your son playing in the park, or about the neighbour who never returns your books. Sivakami and her family might just end up traveling with you in your car, interrupt you during a phone conversation, and might even sit at the table to eat with you. Which, in my opinion, should give the Adyar Alamaram a run for its money.

Review of The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

An edited version of this review appeared in The Sunday Express.

If Houdini ever made a film about Big Brother, then how would it be? Would it be magical? Would it be a reality show? Improbable as the situation is, my guess it would be a bit of both. If it were really good, it would be like 'The Other Hand' by Chris Cleave. The high brow might call it Magical Realism, Rushdie might phrase it a development out of surrealism that expresses a genuinely Third World consciousness, but I would just say that 'The Other Hand' is all flesh and blood and callused and lined so intricately that it can only foretell an extraordinary life. And, of course, it also wields the wand.

'The Other Hand' is the story of two women who could not be farther removed from each other, racially, economically, demographically, and what have you, and how their lives come together in a dark twist of events. Little Bee is a teenaged Nigerian refugee in the United Kingdom who has seen humankind at its sordid worst, and Sarah is a high powered, white, career woman with a life that is as regular as the tea she drinks every morning. While Little Bee is running away from her country and its surreptitious barbarity, Sarah's issues are mostly moral in nature, not to mention extricating her four-year-old from his assumed Batman identity and costume. In an interplay of events, all jumbled up for intrigue, we see the seamless transformation of girl to woman, emptiness to meaning, superhero to child, darkness to light. Furthermore, the novel unfurls the glaring twin faces of a democracy, the elusiveness of freedom to a certain section, that surprisingly is also human; the reality of horror, which to most of the civilized world is a genre of cinema; the concept of suicide as a comfort blanket; moral ambiguity and its decisive consequences; and most remarkably, humour as a natural ally in the darkest of moments.

Besides the daunting task of assuming a female voice, Chris Cleave tells the story with two narratives to paint the dual worlds of the protagonists. While Little Bee's narrative weaves magic, albeit dark, Sarah's is more on solid ground and closer to the real world, if you'll pardon my civilized tongue. Little Bee's narrative is profound, sometimes unbelieveably so, coming from a third world teenager however intelligent. But the profundity is so beautifully profound, that it makes you read at the pace of a second grader. The magic in Little Bee's narrative is so bewitching, that I was tempted to skip Sarah's narrative. I mean, why would one choose to read about a life that is so soap opera, when exotica awaits you in the next chapter? This of course, is no fault of the writer, who astounds the reader with his astute writing, and some excruciatingly artistic metaphors, that made me physically close my eyes and visualise them.

The year of research Chris Cleave has done for his second novel has held him in good stead. In that he manages to portray quite accurately, even if it's for a largely unexposed audience, the variations in dialects in Jamaican, Nigerian and of course, British English, with their respective brands of humour. The dismal and deprecating conditions of the Immigration Detention Center whose roots are mottled with monetary motives, surface with suitable subtelty. The imperfect British democracy has been thrown light on, if not laid threadbare, but maybe there was no need to research that one.

You'll forgive the slight repetitiveness and teeniest bit of verbal superfluity for the brilliant ideas and the wonderful humour that show up in various forms throughout the book. You'll forgive the incongruity of the four-year-old who has a wonderfully developed imagination but the grammar of a two-year-old, for the depth and range of emotions the novel elicits. Yes, you'll also forgive the fly that sits on the page while you're reading, or most likely you just won't notice it.

Review of A thousand splendid suns by Khaled Hosseini

'There is a way to be good again' wrote Khaled Hosseini, the resounding refrain that gently suggests redemption, in the Kite Runner. Redemption, he has no need of, as thousands of readers will agree, but he sure has lived up to that statement with his second novel 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'. Is it good? Yes. Is it splendid? Most definitely. It could've been a story about two struggling housewives during a war. And it is. But Hosseini has teased out the various layers that carefully make the housewives and their struggle so finely, that you cannot but feel that this is a story of valiant heroism, silent matyrdom and the infinite love the human spirit is capable of. Not that they require it, but the backdrop of the war only make them starker.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two Afghani women divided only by age and upbringing. Laila, a teenager in love with her childhood friend Tariq, loses both parents to a stray rocket launched by the Mujahideen, and loses her love Tariq when he emigrates with his family to Pakistan to escape the war, and later to a lie. Left with a broken body, and a surprisingly resilient child in her womb, she becomes the third wife of her aging neighbour, Rasheed. Whom she shares with Mariam, his second wife who failed to give him children. Mariam is the illegitimate child of a rich businessman from the far away town Herat and had been given away to Rasheed years ago to erase all signs of his indiscretions. While they share the same neighbourhood in Kabul for years, indifferent to each others' existence, war makes them share a husband, a home and children, binding them together in a relationship that is nothing short of filial. What follows is struggle for survival not just in a war ridden city, but in a home that mirrors the terror and violence outside. A failed escape, two children and one lost child later, Laila's love, Tariq comes back in person to banish the lie about his death. When Rasheed finds out, war breaks out in full fury. And as in any war, there is death, sacrifice and guilt. The aftermath, of course, consists of reform, peace and a happy ending. But by the time we get to that, more than a tear is shed. And rightly so.

Hosseini makes us see an Afghanistan that until now has only been an item of general knowledge tucked away on the third page. He introduces us to Afghanis like they could be our kith and kin. He reveals to us their womens' subhuman existence the way no saas-bahu serial can claim to. Most of all, he makes us believe how fortunate we are to have the freedom we do, to walk the streets in the clothes we wear (though if you live in Karnataka, that might not last long), to live the lives we live. And what is most splendid is the carelessly masterful way in which he does it.

A somewhat rare phenomenon in which a male author writes about female protagonists, the only other who comes to mind now is Milan Kundera, Hosseini has managed to capture with great accuracy the infamously complicated female mind and its surprisingly simple workings. Perhaps the early morning quiet during which the novel was written helped him, perhaps his profession as a doctor did it, or maybe he is just one of those intuitively talented writers. My humble guess is the third. The classic narrative that goes from point A to point B in a ramrod straight line with no unnecessary detours, helps tell the story in a lucid, simple, and because of that, reminiscent manner. This is a style he has used in the Kite Runner, and yes, it works a second time round too.

His articulation is impeccable, language devoid of erudite ramification, and is pretty much free from cliche. Every sentence in the novel leads the story forward like a breath that you never really notice but nevertheless sustains precious life. But most of all, you marvel at his easy, spontaneous storytelling, that keeps you turning page after page ignoring pangs of hunger. But what is more wondrous is the pangs of separation you feel from the book even as you near its end.

If you haven't read A Thousand Splendid Suns yet, all I can say is I envy you the pleasure of reading it for the first time.