Monday, March 30, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of the Afghanistan war and how it affects the lives of Miriam, Laila, Tariq, Rasheed and their families.
With the war as the background, we are drawn into a world of unhappy families and repressive social customs that award even small deviances with extraordinary punishments.
Miriam, the illegitimate daughter of a rich businessman, is torn between two worlds – the make believe one that her father creates for her on his weekly visits and the reality her mother attempts to keep forcing on her.
Ultimately, reality triumphs and Miriam is forced into marriage with Rasheed. As Miriam finds out, marriage is a brutal struggle to survive an abusive husband and she lives in fear of “his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks, and sometimes try to make amends for with polluted apologies and sometimes not.”
In contrast to Miriam is juxtaposed the second female protagonist of the novel, Laila. She is everything Miriam is not – educated, loved by her father, taught to value herself as a person. Laila is lucky to be born beautiful, have good friends and find Tariq, best friend turned lover to enrich her life.
Laila resents her mother’s indifference to her and her constant mourning of her sons who died fighting against the Soviet occupation. But Laila always has an escape route. Either through her father or with Tariq.
When a rocket lands on their house and kills her parents, Laila finds she is pregnant with Tariq’s child and alone, since Tariq’s family has already left Kabul for Pakistan. Left with no alternative, Laila agrees to become Rasheed’s wife.
Contrived coincidences and mawkish scenes tend to dominate the earlier part of the book. And the characters too tend to be rather flat and one-dimensional. But from this point on, the book really takes hold of the reader.
As the Taliban with its impossible rules makes life meaningless, Miriam and Laila create an alliance and grow as people. Miriam learns what it is to love and be loved in return, they learn to share the child Laila has and whatever bits of happiness they can steal from life.
When Laila becomes pregnant for the second time, it is Miriam who acts as her mother. In their struggle to survive, Laila has become the child that Miriam never had and eventually it is this emotion that foreshadows the end of the book, when Miriam makes her last sacrifice.
For Miriam, there is no happy ending – she dies as she lived – atoning for actions that are wrong only in the eyes of an unjust society.
But Laila and Tariq and the children get a second chance at life and one assumes that Hosseini is suggesting a happy ending for Afghanistan as a whole.
On a personal note, I find it difficult to believe that Laila and Tariq are just going to live happily ever after all that misery they have experienced. But maybe, such miracles do happen…
What Hosseini has done is to twitch away a veil and take us into the everyday life of a war torn country. To show us how war and an oppressive regime are not mere historical events but forces that destroy ordinary lives.
Grab a copy. A book worth reading.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Zoya Factor - Anuja Chauhan

I am okay with chick-lit. It’s a genre created to meet market demand and if we were all determined to read only the classics, a lot of good writing would never get the recognition they deserve. So this is not an anti chick-lit tirade. Although I confess that I prefer my chick-lit small and sweet. The Zoya factor offers me 509 pages… value for money one would say, but not mine sadly.
If cricket is an Indian religion, then our cricketers are surely gods. But fallible gods who need a little help from ordinary mortals. The adoration of a billion fans, the lucrative advertisement deals and the demi-god status are not enough to motivate them to win.
But when the cricketers find out that Zoya, an advertising executive who is sent to work with the Indian team for a shoot, was born at the exact time and date that India won the world cup in 1983, they adopt her as a lucky mascot. Remember Rushdie’s Midnight Children? Saleem Sinai, born at the precise moment of Indian Independence at midnight on 15th August 1947?
Well, I did. And having Rushdie in mind when you read chick-lit is not ideal. So well, the book began to go downhill immediately.
There is a Mills & Boon type romance between Zoya and the Indian captain. When they are not being mushy, they spend a lot of time wondering if this is true love or if the other person is a gold digger.
Zoya is especially convoluted – first she hates the guy for not believing in her incarnation as the Goddess Luck, then she wonders if he is actually pretending not to believe in it so that she spends more time with the team determined to prove her luck and thus helping him to win. Honestly, I felt the deep desire to give her a hard knock on the head!
Just in case we dismiss the book as total chick-lit, there are various tales intertwining the main plot. Cricket statistics, ball by ball accounts of some matches, and a sub plot detailing the machinations of the evil swami (who is something less than a cliché now!).
And there is Zoya’s brother, the soldier patriot who is fighting a war at Poonch, but still manages to call his sister and advise her on her love life. Obviously with such divided focus, no one is surprised when he is injured and sent home, just in time to explain the whole plot to his reality challenged sister.
The book meanders to its expected end. A clichéd story that could have benefited from some ruthless editing is my conclusion. And yes, true to tradition, there is enough movie masala and lots of Hinglish to make into a Bollywood movie… or perhaps Hollywood is the way to go?
Are there books that you want to hear about? Send us a line and we will put it on our (endless!) list.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Silver Swan, by Benjamin Black

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym of the 2005 Man Booker winning novelist John Banville, under which he has begun a series of crime novels set in Dublin in the 1950s . These novels feature a rather beleagured protagonist, a pathologist called Quirke with his share of midlife crises - a struggle with alcoholism, the loss of the only woman he has ever really loved, and his increasingly fractious relationship with his estranged daughter.

In The Silver Swan, second in the series, the husband of an apparent suicide victim approaches Quirke , asking that a post mortem not be conducted on her body. Quirke is drawn into the case first by personal obligation, and then his own curiosity. Despite finding evidence to the contrary, Quirke misleads the coroner into concluding that the woman may have accidentally drowned. But with the case now seemingly closed, he feels compelled to begin investigating the circumstances leading to the woman's death.

The book now takes on an interesting structure - it alternates between parallel narratives, one, folowing Quirke's investigation; the other, replaying the life of the dead woman herself, right upto her death.

This is a well written, if bleak, book - less about the solving of a crime, than it is a study of the weaknesses and compulsions that drive its central characters.There is a feeling of each character being caught up in forces they can neither fully comprehend nor control. Deirdre Hunt, the dead woman, tries to escape poverty and an abusive father by marrying the much older Billy Hunt. But she needs more and soon enough, she finds herself drawn to an exotic spiritual healer, and then into an affair with the dashing but clearly opportunistic Leslie White, from whom the title of this book derives. The two begin a business venture that seems headed for success, until she realizes she has been used. Quirke struggles to befriend the daughter he has never acknowledged till a few years ago, only to find her begin a relationship with White. He himself begins an affair with White's wife even as he wonders if she may in fact have precipitated Deirdre's death.

Banville keeps his characters' frailties in keen, unrelenting focus. The gloom pervading the Dublin he describes stays overhead through the book as well, as Quirke fumbles towards closure in this case, even as he dreads what he will find. More than one character is portrayed as struggling with darker, or more repressed, aspects of their personality. Here's Quirke, for instance, veteran of several unsuccessful relationships, uneasy over his attraction for Mrs White;

"...For there was another version of him, a personality within a personality, malcontent, vindictive, ever ready to provoke, to which he gave the name 'Carricklea'. Often he found himself standing back, seemingly helpless to intervene, as this other he inside him set about fomenting some new enormity. Carricklea could not be doing with mere happiness or the hint of it. Carricklea had to poke a stick into the eye of this fine, innocent, blue-and-gold summer evening that Quirke was spending by the sea in the company of a handsome and probably available woman."

This is not a book for people who like their 'whodunits' neatly solved and wrapped up in the conventional sense; at the close of this book, the case remains unsolved in one narrative, even as its unexpected solution is revealed in the second. This is also not a book for people who like their endings happy, or at least definite - the book closes in a way reminiscent of those freeze-frame photographs of people caught mid-stride.

Read it for its gripping prose, its dark yet compelling portrayal of obsessive love, deceit and the destruction that must inevitably follow.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson

(translated by Steven T Murray)

This book , a runaway bestseller in its original Swedish version, has been widely praised in its English avatar as well. It marks the debut in crime fiction of Stieg Larsson, a rather well known Swedish journalist. Interestingly, this is also a posthumous debut - Larsson died of a sudden heart attack very soon after submitting the manuscripts of this book and its two sequels, to his publisher, and therefore never lived to see their success.But aside of all the hype these facts generated, this is a book memorable for introducing to us an enigmatic young crime fighter- Lisbeth Salander, the deceptively tiny, much tattooed, sociopathic and brilliant young hacker who gives the book its name.

Bur first, the mystery itself -

Harriet Vanger disappears from a small island in Sweden in the middle of a family reunion in the 1950s.Every year after that, a little reminder of her is sent to her grand uncle, Henrik Vanger, patriarch of the dynastic Vanger business empire. Forty years after the disappearance, he decides to hire investigative reporter, Mikael Blomkvist, to solve the mystery under the pretext of writing a book about the family. Blomkvist himself has his issues - he has recently lost a case of libel filed against him by a very powerful industrialist, and Vanger's proposal offers him a chance to regain his reputation. Along the way, he discovers Salander's considerable investigative skills and convinces her to help him figure out what happened to Harriet.

The story begins with what Blomkvist calls a 'classic closed door mystery' and the assumption that Harriet may have been murdered by a family member, but then rapidly progresses towards darker, more sinister possibilities. Even as Blomkvist and Salander try to find clues to Harriet's disappearance, they discover the existence of a religious fanatic, who may have tortured and murdered women over a span of thirty years. I should point out here that the book's original Swedish title was" Men who Hate Women', and that is pretty much what you get here, as Blomkvist steadily unearths evidence of horrific crimes committed against women. Salander is herself a victim of abuse from her legal representative, before she finds a way to outwit him, and this makes the investigation especially important to her. As if that were not enough, each section of the book is preceded by little nuggets of information about the sexual abuse of women in Sweden. In startling contrast to all this brutality (or perhaps to paint a kinder picture of the Swedish male) is Blomkvist himself, who ends up in bed with practically every adult female he meets in the course of his investigation. And is saved in more ways than one by his diminutive female sidekick.

This was an engrossing read despite its slow start ( nearly half the book is over before the first lead to solving the case is found,) but the mystery itself left me disappointed. I guessed the solution to the Harriet mystery fairly early on, especially given the statistics that set the pace of each section. This solution also depends entirely on the presence of photographs documenting the events of the day Harriet disappears, which felt too convenient. A series of codes with Biblical references are rather easily solved, again because Blomkvist's daughter just happens to be a fervent Church-goer. And in the end, after closing the Harriet case, Salander's rather uncanny hacking (and acting) abilities speedily bring Blomkvist his much needed revenge and redemption. Too neat, too easy.

But finally, as the title suggests, the real mystery in this book is not the one concerning Harriet at all, but the gutsy Salander herself. Her remarkable skills are never clearly explained (though autism is fleetingly hinted at), nor her troubled past revealed. She will be the only reason I go read the sequel.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People - Farahad Zama

I bought this book simply because the publisher’s review claimed it could be compared to Alexander McCall Smith and Jane Austen. Both favourites. And hallowed names, at least, in my literary canon.
Farahad Zama is in no way comparable to either of these authors. A simple, light read that has not the layers of meaning that you will find in an Austen novel or the quirky humor of McCall Smith. It is a book that does not even attempt to subvert the clichés, but instead embraces them as the only sense of reality.
The story begins when Mr Ali, bored of his retired life, decides to open a marriage bureau for wealthy clients. Business flourishes and characters look to Mr Ali not only to find them a life partner but also to untangle their complicated lives.
Among them are Mr Ali’s young assistant Aruna, who falls in love with a client and needs large amounts of help and time to answer what seemed to be a straightforward question. I personally thought she behaves rather brainlessly through most of the novel.
I was bored with Ramanujan, the oh so good doctor who is Aruna’s love interest. Zama is so busy making him look perfect that he failed to make him appeal as a human being, turning him out as flat and one sided rather than as a rounded personality. As Mark Twain once said and I paraphrase – living with a saint is more difficult than being one!
While Mr Ali is in the foreground, it’s his wife who exhibits more pragmatism and understanding of the world. Not surprising that I found myself warming much more to her than to Mr Ali.
Another character who could have been sketched out more is the Alis’ son who is a rebel of sorts because he chooses to fight for the rights of dispossessed farmers rather than settle down to a conventional middle class life of a steady job and marriage.
Overall, the book was not gripping or a page turner. Characterization - disappointing. Plot – thin. Maybe aimed at a Western audience who love to hear of exotic Indian customs. Bollywood movie? A definite possibility!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Charmed Life

'Eat Pray Love : A Woman's Search for Everything' by Elizabeth Gilbert is a breezy, well written memoir about the author's journeys through Italy, India and Indonesia seeking happiness, God and purpose.It is upbeat,full of self-deprecating wit and colourful characters, and has a fairy tale ending. The fact that it is all true makes it all the more compelling.

At her lowest, crumpled up and weeping on a bathroom floor, Gilbert discovers both God and her inner voice, and they guide her through some more dark moments- divorce, an ill fated rebound affair,anti-depressants. And then she is ready to travel. First stop, Italy, where Gilbert dedicates herself to a few months of learning and speaking Italian, eating pasta and practicing celibacy. She succeeds with all three. Next stop, India, where she joins a remote ashram and struggles with more celibacy, austerity and meditation.Finally, in the lush green paradise that is Bali, Gilbert finds love, happiness and a cause to work toward - collecting funds to help a friend buy a house.

Gilbert's writing skills are considerable - she can keep you hooked with long discussions on yoga and the levels of consciousness in meditation, as well as with stories of her mishaps and adventures. She turns the same keen eye and gentle humour on herself as she does the people she befriends in the three countries she visits. She does a very good job of standing by and observing herself , describing her highs and lows with honesty and compassion.

Reading this book, I found myself saying "What incredible luck! What a charmed life!" Very little goes wrong for Gilbert on this journey (generously funded by advances on this book, which she was already planning to write) - she meets wonderful people who treat her well, finds amazing houses to live in, stumbles upon heavenly pasta and love equally easily. Pesky urinary infections and infected leg wounds clear up instantly thanks to her friendly neighbourhood healer. Her attempt to locate a Balinese healer with very little information other than his name is instantly successful. A night on a rooftop helps her find closure, she even learns to meditate with success.
'You have more luck than anyone I ever knew", the healer tells her and, reading this book, you have to agree. You know this book will end happily for its heroine from very early on.

At one level I liked the sunny, 'all's-well' quality of the book, but it also left me a little bemused. Her descriptions of her problems alternate between amused philosophical detachment and mocking humour - she makes her periodic bouts of depression and loneliness in Italy sound fun! And while we never know what her problems really were, we certainly get a lot of candor about sex, masturbation and her wooing by Mr Right. She makes her road to recovery seem so appealing and achievable that a lot of her readers might probably feel like following in her footsteps, if they can afford to. Even she perhaps realizes how seductive she makes her whole ashram experience seem, as she never reveals its location or even the real names of the people there. And a rather self congratulatory note does creep into the writing as she goes from one success to the next.

Another impression I came away with was how clearly her religious experience seems compartmentalized- God is never again mentioned after she leaves India. She meditates and spends time with healers,sure, but she also rather easily moves back into the life of an expatriate and all the pleasured she denied herself at the ashram. Incidentally, she never really travels through India at all, but spends the entire time in the ashram , mingling for the most part with other non-Indians. I must confess though, I was rather relieved by this, as this memoir could very well have descended into the anecdotal evidence about India - poverty, filth, traffic, begging children, colourful locals speaking weird English - that characterizes most Western travel writing on India. For example, these books. Finally, the choice of India seems really only based on the I in its name (to complete the I trinity) and to lend a certain exotic appeal to the book, as she could just as well have found austerity, seclusion and wisecracking Americans in Idaho.

Overall, cheery and uplifting, witty and wise - a good weekend read.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Feast of Roses, by Indu Sundaresan

The Feast of Roses is an engrossing fictionalised account of the lives of Emperor Jehangir and Meherunissa (renamed Nur Jehan) in the sixteen odd years between their marriage and their respective deaths. It is a sequel to Indu Sundaresan's earlier book, The Twentieth Wife, which chronicles the lives of Jehangir and Meherunissa before their marriage.

The Taj Mahal is usually what comes to mind when we think of immortal love stories, built as it was by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife. But reading this book, you quickly realize that the greatest love story ever might in fact not have been his, but that of his father, Emperor Jehangir, and stepmother, Empress Nurjehan. A love so deep that Jehangir willingly flouts legal process to save her neck, allows her privileges unheard of for women in that era, and political power at par with his own.The feast referred to in the book's title is itself another extravagant gesture he makes entirely for her benefit, to symbolically assert her importance to the women of the palace.

Meherunissa, as portrayed in this book, is fascinating - astoundingly beautiful and courageous. Also shrewd, manipulative and obsessed with power.She is devoted to her husband yet never hesitates to use his position, and love for her, to her advantage.She therefore becomes the first woman of the Mughal court to attend court and be seen to have a say in public affairs , the first also to have a royal seal of her own, as well as her likeness on the coinage of that time - all this at a time when women were expected to stay hidden within the walls of the house and procreate. Even marriages at that time were essentially statements of male power, marking affiliations between their families and that of their husbands'. In such times, for a woman to become a public figure, to assert herself in politics and trade, was especially remarkable.

Sadly, Meherunissa is also quite tactless. Even as she forms a little inner circle comprising men she considers her allies - her father, her brother and the prince who will go on to become Shahjehan - she alienates herself from practically everyone else including other women of the palace. Even her daughter isn't spared her manipulative games. It is rather telling that, despite using her own feminine qualities to keep the Emperor close, Meherunissa views other women as either rivals or pawns in her rise to the top. This attitude, and the many slights and insults she delivers to people during her reign, inevitably contribute to her downfall.

This is a book that highlights otherwise forgotten people in history, like the rather luckless Thomas Roe, and his failure as an Ambassador of the Crown to Jehangir's court. I was also intrigued by Mahabat Khan, a childhood friend of Jehangir's, who feels slighted and distanced by Meherunissa's manipulations. His attempts to regain the Emperor's favour make him unwittingly stage a royal abduction that quickly spirals out of his control . It is also a grim reminder that the primary reason the British empire succeeded in colonizing India was the locals themselves - the petty squabbling, the ceaseless warring that Meherunissa and her rivals were co consumed by, practically delivered a rich and diverse country into the hands of a tiny nation intent on plunder.

This is a really long book, and best avoided by people who don't enjoy history or like it well-couched in romance. This book, infact, does start off reading suspiciously like a romance novel, but quickly moves on to get into political intrigue and Meherunissa's unyielding struggle to be seen and heard.It is also meticulously researched, and this clearly shows in the details. I enjoyed it, but did feel at times that a need to include every last bit of research into the plot may well be the real reason for its length. There were times when I would get a little impatient with yet another tender moment between Jehangir and Meherunissa, yet another description of an amorous prince romping among half clad slave girls.Entire dramatic episodes- Meherunissa's coldblooded murder of an intruder in her palace quarters, the princes groping handmaidens with clockwork regularity through the book, the burning of Indian ships by the Portugese - could well have been condensed and the overly-dramatic prose reined in.

On the other hand, the book barely mentions Jehangir's well known addiction to opium and alcohol, which effectively left the reins of the empire in Nurjehan's hands. Nurjehan is also renowned for making perfume, but that's another detail I couldn't find in this book.

Nevertheless, still a book worth reading for its portrayal of an enigmatic and gutsy woman ahead of her time.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield

This 1994 best seller and its sequels suposedly gained a huge global following among people inspired by its message for spiritual growth. Strangely, it chooses to present its message through a novel involving ancient manuscripts, gun toting soldiers, evil priests and a race to find precious documents.

The plot revolves around an American man who winds up in Peru, looking for translations of an ancient Mayan manuscript that promises to change the direction of human life forever. This Manuscript comprises nine Insights that will set people on a path to spiritual growth .Key to this growth is a realization that the Universe isn't matter but an enormous energy field, and human interaction is essentially a series of energy exchanges, with our energy fields waxing and waning and even mingling with those of others.

The plot line is really weak and entirely dependent on a steady stream of coincidences, intuitions and visions to take the story forward. The narrator bumps with increasing frequency into people in the know about the Manuscript.In between bouts of getting shot at, our hero also has stupendous visions where he witnesses the birth of the universe (rather like one of those TV series by Carl Sagan), falls in lust with a woman, meets a succession of mysterious strangers who are always expecting his arrival, and is thrown into possibly the most benign prison in the third world where the principal form of punishment is thelogical discussion. Meanwhile, in full accordance with their prophecies, the Insights practically land in the narrator's lap in sequential order and increasingly offer the promise not just of salvation but also the end of pollution, poverty and unemployment. (Apparently the future is flexitiming) .

Along the way, we learn other key lessons to reaching enlightenment - eat your vegetables,be calm, be positive. Be amiable in group discussions, be better parents, plant more trees, use birth control.Oh yeah, and give your money to the person telling you all this (I take cheques :D) Did I mention flexitiming?

I found nothing original or particularly exciting about these Insights - they read like variants on some pretty standard mantras in pop psychology. For all the fussing about their sequence, most of them could have been interchanged . And what, after all, was the need to thinly disguise this guide to saving mankind as a thriller, and such a poorly written one at that? And, despite all the hysterical dialogues involving enraged clerics, a certain silliness prevails in the premise that these Insights would have the Church up in arms - really? What next, Yoga instructors and vegans? For that matter, why would the Mayans write in Aramaic anyway?

It is also rather ironic that a book that talks about issues that are essentially to do with a person's internal growth and discovery - self awareness, positive energy, spiritual bonding - should use such a noisy and contrived vehicle to present its case. Surely if the author believes in his message, he should convey it as is, rather than couching it in racy fiction. But that would probably have meant a deeper examination of these Insights, which the author has for the most part avoided in this book - most Insights are hastily described in between fleeing from soldiers, eating vegetarian meals and passionate encounters with a fellow believer. Then again, why do now what could best be left to the sequel?

Also for a book structured as a thriller, the end is a damp squib, with little more to offer than the promise of that sequel (a tenth Insight, what do you know!). And the rather silly revelation of the Ninth Insight - people increasing their energy levels to the point where they can disappear from the earth and pass on into the spirit world - pretty much undermines any credibility the earlier eight Insights might have earned till then.That, apparently, is how the Mayans vanished enmasse. (Hey, maybe they have Elvis. And a lot of the socks from my drier.)

Finally, a book I found dull, flimsy and uninspiring - in the spiritual and literal sense.

Read it for comic relief. If you're looking to grow in any way, however, go eat your vegetables.