July 16, 2015

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' - A Searing Saga that Shocks and Humbles.

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' is simply brilliant storytelling with some very rich and evocative language.

"Do you know I've been here a dozen times, but I've never known anything about who built it or why.
My history is your picnic ground," he said..

“How to explain to the earth that it was more functional as a vegetable patch than a flower garden, just as factories were more functional than schools and boys were more functional as weapons than as humans.”

"We anticipate disasters, calculate stress with mathematical precision. The messier our personal lives the better we are at designing structures that withstand the pressure they'll inevitably- or potentially- endure.  Bring on your storms, bring on your earthquakes. We've done our calculations.  And lovers, take note....when we break up with you, it's because we've modelled the situation, run the simulations, we know which way things are headed."

“....barriers made of metal could turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side...”

"This Pakistan, it's taking my friends, my sister, it's taking the familiarity from the streets of Dilli. Thousands are leaving, thousands more will leave. What am I holding on to? Just kite strings attached to air at either ends."

This 2009 novel of Ms. Shamsie was recommended by a friend quite a while ago, but the somber nature of the title put me off, and sadly enough, 'Burnt Shadows' sat on my shelf and on my 'to read' list for quite some years! So much for never judging a book by its title!

For someone that young, Kamila Shamsie took on a very vast canvas to paint; her novel 'Burnt Shadows' spans several decades and travels across many countries on different continents. The storyline weaves itself around three generation with the one common thread, Hiroko, the female protagonist, a 'hibakusha', who, though homeless never hankered for home,  and had 'not thought of destination so much as departure'. Having witnessed the bombing of Nagsaki, the aftermath of the India Pakistan partition in Delhi, a nervous Karachi during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and an Islamophobic New York post 9/11, Hiroko is Shamsie's global citizen carrying 'burnt shadows' of a tortuous history on her back, literally and figuratively. What these 'burnt shadows' are, how they came to be, and how they affect her and those around her is what the novel is about!

Did Ms. Shamsie have a message to convey through this novel? Obviously she did, and I'm sure readers will find several themes embedded in the panoramic saga of this novel, but the one message that stands out for me is that History cannot be ignored as it colors and determines the future of humanity. If and when you read the novel, could you think of another theme that is as pervasive and relevant ?

Kamila Shamsie's 'Burnt Shadows' is a must-read! It is a page turner that enthralls with vivid settings, expressive language, dynamic characterization, and a storyline that never loses it's grip.

June 30, 2015

Amulya Malladi's "Serving Crazy With Curry" - An Easy and Interesting Read

A simple story that's simply told - Amulya Malladi's "Serving Crazy With Curry". A dear friend of mine brought me a few Indian Literary treats, as she called it, from her recent recent trip to India, and Malladi's novel was one of them. Having read a couple of her other novels, "Sound of Language" being the most recent, I was eager to read this one even though, to my disappointment, it was one of Malladi's earlier writings. "Serving Crazy With Curry" was an easy read, and I enjoyed that since I was on my first week of vacation from school. The simplicity of the reading experience is what I liked most about this novel. 

Though Malladi's picked on the very serious subject of suicide survivors, she gave it a delectable gustatory twist, and that removed all hues of morbidity from the ambiance in which the story unfolds.  The protagonist, Devi, takes to cooking almost as a sort of rehab therapy. What drives her to suicide, and whether her unique rehab works for her is basically what the novel is about.  Malladi's does not explore any profound truth in the novel, neither does she delve into thematic complexities; she focuses on her storytelling interspersed with random sampling of Indian recipes concocted by Devi, the suicide survivor. In fact, the title is quite the give away, but fortunately for the reader and Ms. Malladi, one realizes this only at the end of the novel. There are three other intriguing female characters in the story who, besides being related to Devi, have very unique life styles that add a pulsating readability to the novel; in fact, Ms. Malladi's could very easily spin another story around any one of these three women!

Malladi's novels have always been my favorites when I'm looking for a light read, and "Serving Crazy With Curry" fit the bill.

June 29, 2015

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's "Sister of my Heart"

Which one comes first to a writer, the theme or the story? I always imagine it's the story that is born first; the theme is embedded almost subconsciously by the storyteller.  However, is that always the case?  And when it isn't, does that impact the quality of the end product, be it a short story, a novel, or a drama?
Divakaruni's novel "Sister of my Heart" may be a good case study. I started reading this novel with a very definitive set of expectations: it would have a page turning quality, a unique setting, some very plausible characterization, and an element of surprise. Divakaruni delivered on all of those expectation but with somewhat of an effort and delivered only to a degree. She spun an engrossing story about two close but very different cousins, who are born and raised in Kolkata, the setting of the story, and they make some baffling choices and live out the consequences of those choices in the stranglehold of familial pressures in a caste and gender biased society.
I started reading the novel one afternoon and finished it in two sittings. However, even as I was a third of the way into the novel, I already knew what to expect! There was an underlying desperation on the part of the writer to make the characters fit into the bigger storyline, and sadly it was evident at times. For example, when Sudha sacrifices her love, Ashoka, and consents to an arranged marriage after she overhears her cousin's to-be mother-in-law's threatening stance on families who violate social norms. The scene was so obviously coined to fit in! With one deliberate stroke the author simultaneously makes Sudha and Anju victims of a caste-based and patriarchal society. What follows is that which is expected. One of the victims then picks up on Ms. Divakaruni's other pet theme, the quest for the American dream, and moves to the United States, the land of freedom where she pursues a college education and even finds herself a part time job, the latter, obviously, without her husband knowing.
Having read several of Divakaruni's novels, and as a fan of her writings, I was let down by this one.


March 05, 2015


What he is, is but a fast fading shadow of what he was and has been:

A feisty
A father

A stalwart
A survivor

A botanist
A bulwark

An energetic
A yogi

A powerhouse
A parent

My rational, proud, and dependable Pappa;
the stoic, an omniscient presence in my life. 

February 17, 2015

Hugh Grant's "The Rewrite" - A Witty and Intelligent Comedy!

As winter storm "Octavia" blasted all across the North East and covered us in a blanket of snow and sleet, I couldn't think of a better thing to do than watch a Hugh Grant movie. I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie of his I hadn't seen! Given that I have watched all Hugh Grant movie numerous times over, finding a movie of his that I had not seen was like finding a treasure.

Hugh Grant's movie, The Rewrite, directed by Marc Lawrence, their fourth one together, was a low key release, which, perhaps, is the reason I saw it on Pay per View TV and not in a theater. After watching the movie, it became obvious why the movie didn't get much publicity; there is not much of a plot to speak of, and were it not for the brilliant acting of the two lead actors, the movie would have been hard to sit through. Hugh Grant, in his signature style, captivates the viewer with his charming indolence, and his accented wit. His impeccably timed dialogues are a delight as are his deliberate body movements that speak volumes to the audience. Hugh Grant plays Keith Michaels, a one-time-wonder of Hollywood, a screenwriter who is unable to make ends meet anymore, and is left with no other option but to teach creative writing in a remote Binghamton college, a far cry from the happening Hollywood that Michael's had been a prt of for the last several years. What transpires after Keith Michaels takes up a teaching position at Binghamton is what constitutes the plot of The Rewrite, which is not saying much. However, Hugh Grant's underplayed portrayal of Keith Michaels the teacher,  and his innumerable gaffes in a new and nerdy academic setting make The Rewrite a hilarious movie to watch. The erudite exchange between Keith Michaels and the English Faculty at the college is sheer wit, and with Hugh Grant's perfect timing, it becomes simply brilliant!  Marisa Tomei as the female lead with Hugh Grant does an equally remarkable job as the effervescent single mother and part time student in Grant's Creative Writing class who is ever optimistic about life's vagaries. Both, Grant and Tomei have literally carried this movie with the brilliance of their acting!

There is very little else to say about The Rewrite except that you should go see it if you wish to see an intelligent comedy. I enjoyed the movie very much, and during that time I even forgot the vicious Octavia that was battering us mercilessly.

November 23, 2014

Akhil Sharma Weaves a Winsome Web of Despair in his Semi-Autobiographical Novel "Family Life".

I read an excerpt from Akhil Sharma's new novel "Family Life" in the New Yorker a while ago, and right then I knew that I wanted to read more of his writings; it was so distinctly different. As a result, I added Akhil Sharma on my starred 'to read' list.

Luckily for me, only a few months thereafter, someone presented me a signed copy of Akhil Sharma's  "Family Life"  bought at an 'AuthorReading' event in NYC. This is what that someone said when he gifted me this book: "He writes immigrant stories, and the reading session of his I attended was very impressive. The story is semi autobiographical and sad, but it appears to be different." There again it was the 'different' in Sharma that had gotten through.

 "Family Life" is indeed different in that it has a stagnant plot, and yet, the story is captivating. Though told in the most simplistic and matter-of-fact way, it sucks the reader into an emotional whirlpool almost with a Naipaulian √©lan. The readers are so drawn to every character in the story that there is empathy for each one of them despite their frequent mean and hurtful exchanges. Only a master writer could accomplish such a feat: to get the reader to understands and even admire a mother who emotionally orphans her younger child by blinding herself to his needs while he is growing up in a foreign country, and to not hate a father who brings his young wife and two young sons to a foreign land only to become an alcoholic in the face of a humongous tragedy.  Even the narrator, oftentimes a mean and foul mouthed younger brother who taunts his paralyzed and brain-damaged older brother by calling him names, is endearing to the reader! How does Sharma manage to do this all within a compact 200 page novel told in the voice of a young adult.  I loved each one of his characters, and even though they drew me into their all encompassing despair, I was but a willing participant who didn't want to let go. Sharma's deceptively simple narrative, a loom of lure, wove a magic of despair around me, and, quite like Ajay, the narrator, I too didn't realize I "had a problem" until the very end!

Akhil Sharma's novel "Family Life" is a must read, and it isn't just an 'immigrant story'; it's a saga of pain, loss, and helplessness in a foreign land.

November 07, 2014

Suketu Mehta's Presentation of Mumbai as "Maximum City" Carries a Diaspora Bias.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is a kaleidoscope on Mumbai at the turn of the century. This kaleidoscope, though vivid and engaging, appears to have a diaspora bias to it.

Mr Mehta has very deliberately selected to explore and present the most salient and perhaps the most sale able facets of Mumbai, India's city of dreams. Mehta's novel is a collage of his experiences in Mumbai that capture the daily routines of some very colorful characters that inhabit the darkest, some of the seediest, and also the high power wielding venues of Mumbai, not surprisingly referred to as 'a city in heat'? For instance, the charming dance bar prostitute Monalisa who becomes Mehta's good friend, or even the simpleton Sunil, "a man who has murdered, but is not entirely defined by it", are fine examples of how intriguing and enchanting each of these characters are. Sadly enough, their heart rending stories, be it Monalisa's or of the bad guys such as Satish and  Sunil, if housed in a work of fiction, would not have jarred as they do in Mehta's "meticulous documentary of living -- and struggling" in his native city, Mumbai, to which he returned after spending several years abroad. The characters, and even the milieu in which they dwell, often appear staged and melodramatic, and challenge the readers willful disbelief. If Maximum City is indeed a documentary, a reporting, a narrative on Mumbaikars, the residents of Mumbai, then why is it that each character and every venue depicted is a hotbed of controversy and has a dynamism to it that needs Mehta's "meticulous' reporting? Does Mumbai have no ordinary commonplace people who go about their lives without being embroiled in 'encounters' with the 'bhais' of the underworld or the partisan politics of the Nationalist Party, the Shiv Sena? Mehta has dedicated six hundred pages of brilliant writing to 'meticulous' reporting on the film stars of Bollywood, the dance bars, partisan politics, and the underworld gangs with connections to the Dubai based mafia; all of which make for some racy reading that gratifies the insatiable appetite of the Indian diaspora across the world. The Indian diaspora that no longer recognizes the new India that has emerged since they left, crave for the corrupt and corruptible India they left behind. Novels such as Mehta's and even Anand Girdhirdas' India Calling' tap into this need and write best sellers capturing the maudlin Indian diaspora that indulges in nostalgia for a homeland it left decades ago! In fact it would be no surprise if non-resident-Indians (NRIs) are Amazon's largest clientele for purchasing books by Indian writers. 

Suketu Mehta's writing is definitely a treat, and if you are an Indian living abroad looking for an entertaining and a gripping read, then Maximum City fits the bill. Mehta doles out exactly what his diaspora reading community longs for, the drama that is India in the eyes of an NRI. Although it is rather disappointing when an NYT reviewer says Maximum City is "narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years". Alas, the NYT reviewer must give due respect to the number of copies sold of the book in question, so what if most buyers of the book are NRIs!

Was it Forster who once said that a novel that is written with a select audience in mind, has already lost ground, and if it is a non-fiction piece that relies largely on its emotional appeal in order to sell, it surely rests on shaky grounds.

August 19, 2014

Visiting India's Capital - New Delhi

Delhi has been the capital of India for several hundred years. Even when India was ruled by the British and the Mughals, Delhi was the capital, though under different names. Clearly, Delhi has been a privileged city in the Indian subcontinent for at least two hundred years. However, for an outsider it is a challenge to figure out why Delhi continues to enjoy this privilege.  Is it because the Rashtrapati Bhawan happens to be housed here, or perhaps Lyutens Parliament House was built in this city? Outside of this, there appears to be no justifiable reason why the second most polluted city in the world, and one that competes to be the rape capital of the world is held in such high esteem by its citizens in the world's largest democracy.

Even though I don't live in New Delhi anymore, I have lived in this city for an extended period of time, and in the last two decades I have been visiting it quite frequently. In spite of which, Delhi still remains an enigma to me. It is a city that has inspired and lured conquerors and artists for centuries, yet their experiences, writings, and representations of Delhi, though varied, have only added to the enigma of this ancient city. There is no one defining aspect to Delhi other than the fact that it is and has been a nation's capital. Artists and writers have tried long and hard to capture the entirety of Delhi's ethos; every now and again an artist is able to capture or highlight one facet, a mood, a characteristic of this vibrant metropolis.  Delhi transcends, or else defies definition, and that may be the very reason why 'dilli', as it is referred to by its residents, has captured the imagination of so many rulers, artists, and writers. Each one wanting to find meaning in the ever evasive Delhi, manages only to provide and project a myopic and unilateral vision of this dynamic city, and are often disappointed with the outcome. For example, the last Mughal King of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in one of his most soulful lyrics laments that this city 'could not offer a couple of yards of earth to hold his grave'. Khushwant Singh, a writer and journalist wrote a most gripping novel depicting Delhi metaphorically as a 'slut'.  Ahmed Ali in his novel 'Twilight in Delhi' captures it's elusive nature when he said  "Delhi, built hundreds of years ago, fought for, died for, coveted and desired, built, destroyed and rebuilt, for five and six and seven times, mourned and sung, raped and conquered, yet whole and alive, lies indifferent". 

Delhi has, indeed, evoked some very strong emotions in many brilliant and imaginative minds, and when one visits this city it is easy to see why. Daunting as it is, I have tried to capture and document the various moods and colors of this enigmatic city during my stay here this summer.....

More to follow....