Category Archives: Book review

A non-spoiler book review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

the-lowland-jhumpa-lahiriThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is a book worth your time; if you have time to spare.

It is a story of love and loss spanning six decades but expertly wrapped up in 340 pages. What else, but pithy prose, can you expect from an author with the prowess that received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for a short story collection?

We start off in a middle class neighbourhood of 1950s Calcutta, India (back when it was still called that) and end up 1000s of miles away in another part of the world. Lahiri with her usual keen sensibilities portrays with delicacy a variety of familial bonds: my favourite amongst them being the love between the brothers Subhash and Udayan. The narrative starts with them and ends with them, but in between we see their lives and lives of those closest to them being rocked and then ravaged by the Naxalite movement.

The movement began in the spring of 1967, in the village of Naxalbari in Darjeeling district, close to the border between India, Nepal and Pakistan (back then Bangladesh was still Pakistan). Lahiri has crafted her story around the socio-political tensions caused by the emergence of a violent communist revolutionary organisation. The research is well done and I am happy to note the reference books that Lahiri used to understand the movement listed in the Acknowledgements. Personally, as a 90’s child, all I can remember of the Naxalites is gruesome images of guerrilla soldiers posing with decapitated heads and swords that I saw on the cover of magazines like India Today. I learnt more about the movement a few years ago when I read India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha (a key reference for anyone interested in modern India). Here’s a related excerpt from India After Gandhi (page 426, 2008 paperback edition)

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In the villages , Naxalites had hoped to catalyse unrest by beheading landlords; in the city, they thought that the same could be achieved by random attacks on policemen. Kipling had once called Calcutta the ‘City of Dreadful Night’; now the citizens lived in dread by day as well. The shops began closing in the early afternoon; by dusk the streets were deserted. ‘Not a day passes in his turbulent and tortured city’, wrote one reporter, ‘without a few bombs being hurled at police pickets and patrols’. The police, for their part, raided houses and college hostels in search of the extremists. In one raid they seized explosives sufficient to make 3,000 bombs.

This passage essentially sets the tone for the most dramatic part of The Lowland. Around this time we are also introduced to another character which also became the one I found most intriguing: Gauri. As the tempo of the political movement dies down within the story we see that Gauri emerges to fill that void and thus becomes the tumultuous force. Unfortunately since I will never reveal the intricacies of the plot in any of my reviews I cannot go into detail about why Gauri made me sad and angry in equal measure. Her characterisation is complex. It’s not surprising then that there is a thread of approximately 60 (rather elaborate) comments in Goodreads just for Gauri.

My copy of The New Yorker with Brotherly Love. Loved it as it is.
My copy of The New Yorker with Brotherly Love. Loved it as it is.

Sparing the nitty gritty, the plot is simply not air-tight. Some twists are obvious and one can smell them coming a mile away and others are just unrealistic. I read first 120 pages of The Lowland as Brotherly Love which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 2013. I thought it was brilliant. I didn’t wonder what would happen next in the story. Honestly, I didn’t need the rest of the novel.

Yet, I am happy to have read The Lowland – A Novel for it has wonderful prose and Lahiri is a terrific writer. Being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013 is not completely unjustified. She writes what she knows best and does it very well. But if you are going into the novel being a big fan of Lahiri’s previous works then I would urge you to not have vey high expectations. It is subpar to The Namesake.

I understood the significance of the title only upon finishing the book.

Once, within this enclave, there were two ponds, oblong, side by side. Behind them was a lowland spanning a few acres. After the monsoon the ponds would rise so that the embankment built between them could not be seen. The lowland also filled with rain, three or four feet deep, the water remaining for a portion of the year.

Lahiri’s choice of setting: middle-class Tollygunge with its high-class Tolly Club and the lowland, is as much a part of the story structure as the Naxalite movement. I find that the merging of the two ponds to create a lake over the lowland for a part of the year is a metaphor for how the lives of Subhash and Udayan come together to then be cleaved apart time and again. The Tolly Club teaches the two brothers two different lessons to two different ends. The lowland eventually becomes Udayan. The setting, for me is a wonderful character within the novel. I daresay I prefer it to some of the humans.

As always, I leave you with a passage from the book that spoke to me personally and may even have inspired a poem that I wrote around the time I was reading the book,

Once more the leaves of the trees lost their chlorophyll, replaced by the shades he had left behind: vivid hues of cayenne and turmeric and ginger pounded fresh every morning in the kitchen, to season the food his mother prepared. Once more these colours seemed to have been transported across the worlds, appearing in the treetops that lined his path.

And another,

Just as time stood still but was also passing, some other part of her body that she was unaware of was now drawing oxygen, forcing her to stay alive.

Sigh. Jhumpa Lahiri is a truly gifted wordsmith.

Dan Brown’s Inferno must burn

…Or be sent to Recycling – depending on how green you are.

I paid for it and read it a while back. I seem to have a knack for paying for bad books. And oh boy! Do I pay!

It’s always easier to rant about a bad book soon after you have read it. I don’t keep notes on everything I found wrong in a book, but I do take care to detail all that I find right in one. I am just a half glass-full, happy sort of a person. No troll here. Please cross the bridge. Thank you.

So why this sudden declaration about Inferno? Well, Enter, Stage right. Clive James. He’s Australian but has lived and worked in the United Kingdom since the 60’s. He’s an author, memoirist, poet, essayist and many other cool things. He’s totally brilliant and a very funny man and sadly dying of cancer. He has been awarded the Cultural Commentator 2014 award and the President’s Medal from the British Academy.

I am totally chuffed! So, I re-read some his reviews published in Prospect Magazine. My favourite has to be the one on Dan Brown‘s Inferno titled, The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown: The less his talent, the more amazing his achievement. This may well be one of the great reviews. Here’s how it starts,

As a believer in the enjoyably awful, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly if I could. But it is mainly just awful. Nevertheless it is still almost worth reading. In the publishing world they have a term, “pull line,” which means the few words of apparent praise that you can sometimes pull out of a review however hostile. Let me supply that pull line straight away, ready furnished with quotation marks: “The author of The Da Vinci Code has done it again.”

Once again, that is, he makes you want to turn the pages even though every page you turn demonstrates abundantly his complete lack of talent as a writer. The narrative might be a bit less compulsive this time but you still want to follow it, if only to find out whether the hero and the heroine will ever get together. But to do that, they will first have to stop running to escape the heavies.

If you liked that then read the rest here.

I am sorry if you liked Inferno. Or if you are a Langdon fan. Or if you like Dan Brown. To be honest, I did like The Da Vinci Code. I am going to chalk that up to being young and impressionable; bored basically.  I can own up to that and not be ashamed. But Inferno was horrible. I am so glad I read it on a beautiful white sandy beach, in Porquerolles, which helped mitigate some of the acrimony. I did however wish I had chosen some other easy-summer-read.

I did not have a blog then and so could not vent to my satisfaction. And Now *evil laugh* the time has come. I have forgotten most of what annoyed me about the book and that is why I have referred you to the brilliant review by Clive James. He has picked up/on almost everything. Yes, I dared to say almost. For me, the point when I had to shut the book and close my eyes and calm my nerves was when I read this (Chapter 10; I had to google it),

“Okay… I guess that beats ‘I am Vishnu, destroyer of worlds.'”

The young woman had just quoted Robert Oppenheimer at the moment he tested the first atomic bomb.

Arrgghh! It STILL hurts. On so many levels. Firstly, Oppenheimer never said that. This is a misquote of a very famous Oppenheimer quote. In fact, it is so famous that it has its own youtube video,

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

(Which may in turn be a misinterpretation of The Gita I am informed, but let’s not get too picky)

Secondly, all he or his assistant/fact-checker or someone in his editorial team had to do was know a little bit about Hinduism. Just the very basic. They could have even asked the great gods of the internet for some direction and the truth would have been revealed in 0.06 second. Shiva, as part of the Trinity, is the destroyer and Vishnu is the protector, while Brahma is the creator.

Thirdly, the ‘young woman’ referred to here is supposed to be a genius with an IQ of 208.

Okay. That felt good. That was the one thing I had to get off my chest about the infuriating Inferno. For every other thing, please read the linked article and enjoy it with a nice beverage and biscuits.

Thank you listening dear Void.

Can’t sing but can read

The friendly editors at The Daily Post had prompted us (WordPressers at large) to write about/construct a soundtrack to our life a couple of days ago. It didn’t inspire me then to write anything ‘meaningful’ or ‘transcendent’ even in the mildest sense of these words and the end result can be found here. It did however get me thinking about books that I had read that have a musical theme. I could recollect two such books: Jazz by Toni Morrison and An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. Both alike in some ways but really worlds apart.

An Equal musicAn Equal Music is a love story between a violinist and a pianist. The lovers use classical music to bind, express, remember and repair their emotions. It seems like music is the second, parallel language in the book, and that unless you known your quartets and quintets and your Schuberts and your Beethovens you won’t fully understand the gravity of the dialogue. Despite my lack of ‘culture’ I found it engaging; mostly because Vikram Seth’s character portrayal is good. Well, that was the least I expected after having read A Suitable Boy. It is definitely shorter and better paced than A Suitable Boy (thank heavens!). I went from liking to pitying to finally getting annoyed with the lead character, Michael Holme. What more can you say about an ageing underachieving but talented musician, who has issues with authority and throws tantrums like a disgruntled child, and who is hopelessly in love with the unattainable woman of his dreams? It gets messy in a very neat, well-imagined and well-researched package. It shouldn’t take you long to unwrap though. I would say go for it if you know more about classical music or have played classically. Maybe then you will gather more of the novel’s essence. (Note: I did put on Beethoven and Schubert while reading the novel. It helped.)

Jazz is sJazzimply art. For this book Toni Morrison uses her mighty, almost unearthly, powers to do something I have not experienced before. She uses Jazz music as not the theme of her novel but as its rhythm. She writes her story, which is essentially that of love and betrayal, with a musical soul. Her language seems to jump out of the page and engulf you. At times it feels like a sudden descending thick fog and you lose your orientation and at other times it rattles your very bones. It can soothe and caress your mind’s eye. It can lift your soul and then an ingenious turn of phrase can bring it crashing down. Such is the force of her talent. Such is the force of Jazz music, no? Here’s what she had to say about the process in her Foreword,

I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge was to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.

To me, it is special. It’s always special when you are on a journey with Toni Morrison. But this one more so because it was hard on me personally. It moved me the whole way through. I was calm outside but I was in turmoil internally. Funnily enough that’s what Jazz, the music, makes me feel. I find that this book also has the rare distinction of being a perfect companion to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue record.

Here are my favourite chord progressions from Jazz – they all broke my heart.

…Laughter is serious. More complicated, more serious than tears.

‘Taught me two lessons I lived by all my life. One was the secret of kindness from whitepeople – they had to pity a thing before they could like it. The other – well, I forgot.’

Don’t think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.

‘A son ain’t what a woman say. A son is what a man do.’

I still see the dips and dunes on the pages made by the drying of my tears, from back in 2011, when I first read the following prose and even now as I type out these borrowed words I am choked up.

Only now […] that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone when it sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves. They dangle and writhe. Singing pain. Waking me with the sound itself, thrumming when I sleep so deeply it strangles my dreams away. There is nothing for it but to go away from where he is not to where he used to be and might be still. Let the dangle and the writhe see what it is missing; let the pain sing to the dirt where he stepped in the place where he used to be and might be still. I am not going to be healed, or to find the arm that was removed from me. I am going to freshen the pain, point it, so we both know what it is for.

Read it if you have the time. If not, make time.

Now to the actual question of the soundtrack to my life: ‘Life’ is too abstract a concept I find. ‘Memories’ is a better word. I do not wish to start cataloguing my music montage just yet, even though it does make for an interesting insight into my psyche. For example, my earliest memory of loving a song which was not a lullaby and which I wanted to play all day was (not a rhyme, but) Funkytown by LIPPS INC. I was maybe 3 or 4 years old. ‘Nuff said.

I thank the Universe for Stephen Fry

Here are my favourite bits and bobs from Stephen Fry‘s brilliant autobiography of his young years – Moab is my Washfry_moabpot. A few years old now but timeless in its relevance. It’s funny, acute, sad and charming. He’s brutal when he sits in his own judgment and paints the world of teenage angst with such honesty that it breaks your heart. Of course, he writes this knowing now that some of his more extreme behaviour was the first manifestation of his bipolar disorder. And yet he spares no rebuke. A genius who hates himself for it. A human who challenges humanity to be more tolerant, inquisitive and just better.

I thank the Universe for Stephen Fry!

We keep our insignificant blemishes so that we can blame them for our larger defects.

Glory never arrives through the front door. She sneaks in uninvited round the back or through an upstairs window while you are sleeping.

Good advice, like a secret, is easier to give away than to keep.

Novels meant less to me (unless they were stories about my kind of love) and rightly too, for while the novel is an adult invention, the poem is universal but often most especially charged in the mind of the adolescent. The most common betrayal the literary-minded make as they grow up is to abandon their love of poetry and to chase the novel instead. To find oneself believing, as I did when in my twenties, that John Keats for example was strictly for moonstruck adolescents is as stupid and ignorant as to think that grown-ups shouldn’t ride bicycles.

…I don’t know that love has a point, which is what makes it so glorious. Sex has a point, in terms of relief and, sometimes procreation, but love, like all art, as Oscar [Wilde] said, is quite useless. It is the useless things that make life worth living and that make life dangerous too: wine, love, art, beauty. Without them life is safe, but not worth bothering about.

Didn’t Woody Allen say that all literature was a footnote to Faust? Perhaps all adolescence is a dialogue between Faust and Christ.

We tremble on the brink of selling that part of ourselves that is real, unique, angry, defiant and whole for the rewards of attainment, achievements, success and the golden prizes of integration and acceptance; but we also in our great creating imagination, rehearse the sacrifice we will make: the pain and terror we will take from others’ shoulders; our penetration into the lives and souls of our fellows; our submissions and willingness to be rejected and despised for the sake of truth and love and, in the wilderness, our angry rebuttals of the hypocrisy, deception and compromise of a world which we see to be false. There is nothing so self-righteous nor as right as an adolescent imagination.

Reading to write

Dear Void

I am starting off. Yes, it IS time. I will not dwell on why it has taken this long. That self-psychoanalysis is reserved for another day – one where I am feeling more introspective and self-destructive. Rather, let me tell you what got me started now. I needed to kill the miming bird. The voiceless words that form in my head, all the time, while I stand, sit, read and breathe, needed some physical manifestation. I have been miming my mocks for many moons. So here are my bits for you to byte on.

My first post is mostly a book review. How very secondary schoolgirl of me – straightening the starched collar. ‘ASU13563459RA: Tale Of The Vanquished’ by Anand Neelakantan is a work of fiction nestled in the now blossoming genre of Alternate (Hindu) Mythology. It features Ravana, and equally prominently, Bhadra – an unknown fellow Asura tribesman, as protagonists in the retelling of Ramayana as Asurayana. How would the great story hold up as seen from the eyes of the ‘villain’? A very interesting premise indeed. An idea that could easily rattle the staunch Hindutvas and entice the renegade Brahmins. I picked it up with big, curious eyes (the cover art is rather attractive), paid the 499 rupees and read it a year later (reasons for which are irrelevant for the present purpose).

Here’s my summation: Oh! The horror! The horror of it all! The story starts off well enough, but a few chapters in I realised that the author, a) cannot write and b) CANNOT WRITE. I resigned to the plot as it is, after all, the creative license that is due to every fiction writer. But the poor characterisation, reiteration of the same laments and arguments over and over (and over) again, the substandard English (not helped by the poor editing – typos, grammatical errors galore), blatant anachronisms, indiscriminate use of the ‘inner voice’ made me cringe, guffaw and, at times, shut the book and watch ‘Family Guy’; just to saturate the stupidity I was inflicting on myself. The masochist in me demanded it. She also seemed to have made a deal with the perfectionist in me and so I had to finish the book. At this very moment, I see Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ mocking me from the bookshelf (Yes, yes, yes, I know. I will get back to you…at…some…point…). Ahem, so anyway, it’s done. Ripped it off like a Band-Aid. I am not bleeding anymore but the wound is yet to heal. And scar it will.

I do not want to summarise the reinvented story here. I hate spoilers, even if it is of works that I don’t approve of. You can pick up a copy if you have some money and have (literally) nothing better to do. Also, if you are the kind that goes by ‘official’ reviews and bestseller lists then maybe you will find yourself buying it. The book has a 3.6/5 on Goodreads.com and apparently was #1 CNN-IBN and Crossword Bestseller in 2012. Hand to face! But you have been warned.

However, if you are in the mood for reading interesting alternate interpretation of Hindu mythology then there is not30843hing that can surpass the genius of Shashi Tharoor’s ‘The Great Indian Novel’. The Indian Independence Movement and early post-independent Indian history satirically superimposed on the great Hindu epic, The Mahabharata. The book is discerning and funny in equal measure. I collect quotes from books I read (insert broad nerdy grin here), so here is my collection from ‘The Great Indian Novel’,

…India is not an underdeveloped country but a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay.

It was essential to accept punishment willingly in order to demonstrate the strength of one’s own convictions.

You can’t know, with your ration-cards and black markets and the cynical materialism of your generation, what it was like in those days, what it felt like to discover a cause, to belong to a crusade, to BELIEVE.

As Bengalis say when you give them a cod, ‘we still have other fish to fry.

He balanced an hour of meditation with an hour of martial arts. ‘Of course I believe in non-violence,’ he would explain. ‘But I want to be prepared just in case non-violence doesn’t believe in me.’

Indulge an old man’s rage and write this down: the British killed the Indian artisan, they created the Indian ‘landless labourer’, they exported our full employment and they invented our poverty.

Great discoveries, Ganapathi, are often the result of making the wrong mistke at the right time. Ask Columbus.

All we are left with is drama without the sacrifice – and isn’t that a metaphor for Indian politics today?

Indians learned to talk about politics like Englishmen about the weather, expressing concern without expecting to do anything about it.

On the partition of India and Pakistan,

It is flight that makes men vulnerable, it is flight that makes them violent; it is the loss of that precious contact with one’s world and one’s earth, that pulling up of roots and friendships and memories that created the dangerous instability of identity which makes men prey to others, and to their worst fears and hatreds.”

Interpreting The Bhagavad Gita,

We are all in a state of continual disturbance, all stumbling and tripping and running an floating along from crisis to crisis. And in the process, we are all making something of ourselves, building a life, a character, a tradition that emerges from and sustains us in each continuing crisis. This is our dharma.

On Indian diplomacy,

It is like the love-making of an Indian elephant: it is conducted at a very high level, accompanied by much bellowing, and the results are not known for three years.

And, finally, my favourite,

 Law, of course, rivals cricket as the major national sport of our urban elite. Both litigation and cricket are slow, complex and costly; both involve far more people than need to be active at any given point in the process; both call for skill, strength and guile in varying combinations at different times; both benefit from more breaks in the action than spectators consider necessary; both occur at the expense of, and often disrupt, more productive economic activity; and both frequently meander to conclusions, punctuated by appeals, that satisfy none of the participants.

Thank you Ganesan uncle for the brilliant recommendation, so many years ago now.

I feel that I have washed away some of the bitter aftertaste of ‘ASURA’ with that nostalgic recap. Thank you, once again, Shashi Tharoor. I have Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Lowland’ waiting for me now. Life is ever so full of promise when there’s a new book ready for discovery. Until next time dear Void…