Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Summer Book

By Tove Jansson

A remote island, one of many in the Finnish archipelago, is the setting for Tove Jansson’s lovely little The Summer Book. Sophie and her grandmother, inhabit the island in the Scandinavian summer. They spend their hours building Venetian castles, writing a book about angleworms, discussing God, Heaven and Hell, superstitions. They squabble, make up, squabble again.They entertain visitors, take in a cat, worry about storms, swim, take a boat out to another island. The summer seems long and endless but the island is filled with fascinating things to wonder about, work on and watch. “A small island, on the other hand, takes care of itself. It drinks melting snow and spring rain and, finally dew, and if there is a drought, the island waits for the next summer and grows its flowers then instead. The flowers are used to it, and wait quietly in their roots. There’s no need to feel sorry for the flowers, Grandmother said.” The island is a character in itself.

Sophie’s father is around in the background, working, planting flowers not native to the island, bringing in supplies; only someone to  worry about as he goes out in a storm or someone whose warnings about forbidden things are to be ignored. In the background is also Sophie’s mother’s death, an event that is never fully explored, but which tinges everything.

It’s a series of summers, we are never sure how many. We know little of Sophie’s and her grandmother’s lives other than their island days. Yet what we see of them in these summer days on the island affirms the love they have for each other and for the island. It affirms the power of imagination that lets a little girl and an old woman create an entire world on a tiny piece of land surrounded by sea. Death is always there in the background - the grandmother’s impending one or Sophie’s mother’s recent one. It fills the book with a curious sense of sadness. Yet it is a happy book, one that affirms life and beauty and hope, filled with little nuggets of wisdom and common sense. “Sophie asked her grandmother what Heaven looked like, and Grandmother said it might be like the pasture they were just then walking by, on their way to the village over on the mainland.” or “”It’s funny about love,” Sophie said. “The more you love someone, the less they love you back.” “That’s very true,” Grandmother observed.”And so what do you do?” “ You go on loving,” said Sophie threateningly.” You love harder and harder.””

Sophie and her grandmother wind their way into your heart slowly and gradually. Just as the small island does. And you suddenly realize that you have discovered a gem of a book that you wish  you had a child to pass on to.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


By Colum McCann

“When you get up to sit with God or the devil you can curse them both for me. This god-awful manufacture of blood and bone. This fool-soaked war that makes a loneliness of mothers.” The war in question is the Irish conflict. It is a conflict that has been documented well in English literature. Yet it is one that is unfamiliar to me in a very fundamental way - and I have to go back to google to pick up the bits and pieces of that history that McCann litters his Booker-nominated novel with. Which is probably the reason the book does not grab me the way his Let the Great World Spin did.
Lily, Emily, Lotty, Hannah - four generations of women who live through love, loss, pain, loneliness, joy. This is their story, set against the larger political backdrop of Irish (and North American) history. The Irish famine, the civil war in America, the waves of Irish immigration to America, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the peace process… it’s all in there. Through it all, the first non-stop transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown, an event, like the wire walk in McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, proves to be the pivot to the story.

Lily is the Irish maid, transfixed by Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist and orator, who makes the tough passage to America. She loses a son in the civil war and two more in an accident. Her daughter Emily is a woman ahead of her times; she has a child out of wedlock, and works as a journalist and writer, making a name for herself in her small community in Newfoundland. Emily and her daughter Lottie are the ones who see off Alcock and Brown on their transatlantic flight, even giving them a letter to deliver to Lily’s saviour in Ireland - a letter that proves historic, as it is one of the few that goes across the Atlantic on that first flight. Lottie returns to Ireland to settle with a Cork linen merchant. But she too cannot escape the sorrow of loss as she loses her only grandchild to the conflict in Ireland. The last section is Hannah’s - Lottie’s daughter as she grows old in Ireland, mourning her son, and trying to cope with the loss of everything she has held dear.
There are long sections where McCann recreates historical moments - Frederick Douglass’s sojourn in Ireland, Alcock and Brown’s actual flight, George Mitchell’s role in the Irish peace process. They are long winded and sometimes distracting, especially for someone like me who is not clued in to the history. Yet McCann’s language has a strange, powerful hold that drags you along these back-and-forths across time and place. And I was forced to finish a book that I was at times willing to give up on.
Transatlantic did not grip me the way Let the Great World Spin did. Yet the story of 4 generations of women does have something to say to you - of how women have always borne the brunt of men’s conflicts, that nothing ultimately can cure the loss of a child, that however hard your grief is to bear, life must and will go on, filled with everyday beauty that one can see if only one is willing to stop and see it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Grief. It’s the primary emotion underlying the book. Everything is tinged with it - even the most evocative descriptions of beautiful landscapes - warm, marshy Tollygunge in Kolkata in the ‘70s, the harsh yet gorgeous Rhode Island coast. This is my first Jhumpa Lahiri and the emotion doesn’t surprise me. I watched The Namesake and saw the same. 

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in the Kolkata of the sixties. It’s a middle class childhood spent playing football in the fields beyond the lowland that flooded in the monsoon, sneaking into the exclusive Tollygunge Golf Club in the neighbourhood, spying Bengali actresses outside Technician's studio, working hard at their lessons in school. Subhash, older by a year  is the conventional, timid brother; Udayan the quick and impulsive one. While Subhash is content to let things flow, Udayan questions, prods, pushes. As they move into college, their lives diverge irrevocably.

The Naxalite movement in the ‘70s always had a romantic feel to it. CP Surendran’s Iron Harvest tells it as it was - a doomed uprising, brutally put down by governments in Bengal and Kerala. The Lowland revisits it, in a far more particular, individual manner. As fiery Udayan gets caught up in the ideology, Subhash is content to move away to America, far away from the uncomfortable debate about the rights and wrongs of a movement that is the closest we ever came to a revolution. But Subhash cannot move too far away. The consequences of Udayan’s actions bring him back - to a family forever broken, to a sister-in-law Gauri and an unborn child. And when Subhash tries to repair some of the damage in a way that is more Udayan than Subhash - impulsive, uncaring of repercussions - all their lives are irrevocably changed.

Gauri is complex. She can never stop loving Udayan even if he was a man who risked that love for a belief system. Her grief though is complex - underlying it is her knowledge of the reality of Udayan’s last days and her ambivalence towards his actions. Her consequent actions - towards Subhash and her child Bela - are tinged with this complexity and are quite inexplicable to a world that has prescriptive notions of marriage and motherhood. But to me, she is the heart of the novel. Beautiful, torn, unable to tear herself away from the past, she wanders through Subhash and Bela’s lives as a wound that refuses to heal. 

Subhash, Bela, Gauri - three lives charted by events in Kolkata in the seventies. Jhumpa Lahiri delineates them through exquisite prose that can on occasion bring you to tears. It is a novel that reminds you of the worlds of Anita Brookner, Anne Tyler, even sometimes Arundhati Roy - human stories, individual, particular, minutely observed. I liked Jhumpa Lahiri. I will be reading more of her.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Forbidden Kingdom no more

7 days in Bhutan

Bhutan, the land of the Thundering Dragon, the last Shangri La, the Forbidden Kingdom, the place time forgot. Well, it’s not quite all that in the summer of 2013. There was wireless in almost every hotel and restaurant we went to. The TV had more channels than Tata Sky gives me at home. Mobile phone penetration was nearing 100%. Hindi film songs and the Indian Army were ubiquitous. Jeans and sneakers and Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed the norm in Thimpu.. There is a construction boom as the Bhutanese build newer hotels and homes everywhere. And they are a democracy - that most modern of political theories.

Children in traditional Bhutanese

Yet, people still talked of that quaint term, Gross National Happiness as something real. They wore the traditional gho and kira. They seem to love their kings, especially the one who abdicated - K4, they call him. They still have an amazing 70% of their land under forest  cover. Dzongs and lakhengs continue to be important hang-out joints (as opposed to malls). All the new buildings are still built in the traditional architectural style. And they continue to be an agrarian economy. Nestled in the Himalayas, between 2 giant neighbours, Bhutan is a small jewel that is still making attempts to hold on to some form of cultural authenticity in an increasingly homogenised world.

Hike up the Cheri Goemba
Bhutan is beautiful. Irrespective of the tradition vs modernity debate, it is worth visiting purely for the incredible mountain-scapes and the blue skies, the whitewashed goembas set against the beautiful vistas of green rice fields, the magnificent dzongs on hard-to-climb cliffs and mountain-tops. Visiting it in August meant that we did not sight some famous peaks in the Himalayas. But it meant that we captured some lovely misty and cloudy landscapes, the weather was warm, the greens were lush and abundant. And the prices were off-season.

It’s no point going to Bhutan, if you aren’t willing to exert yourself a bit physically. The best of the country is seen in hikes (and there are enough short ones, for the physically not-so-fit, like me) up to hill tops that afford you incredible views around. Every hill top seems to have a goemba or a dzong. We did a few. One was a hike up to Cheri goemba, Bhutan’s first monastery  - a steep climb with lovely views of the Thimpu valley below. There were horses grazing on the mountain top as we struggled up the last few steps. The warm sun, the white washed goemba
Another hike, another goemba
and the peaceful horses made for a perfect morning. Another was a sweaty hour-long hike up to the large but relatively new
View from Zuri Dzong
(consecrated in 1999) Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, dedicated to the 5th King. It has elaborate idols across 3 floors and the rooftop has fabulous views of the Mo Chu and rice fields of the Punakha valley.
A third was the hike up to Zuri Dzong, from the Uma Paro. This was a steep one, but Zuri Dzong is pretty and
the views again on the way up and from the Zuri Dzong itself, are lovely. The climb down to the museum and then to Paro Dzong too wasn’t easy… but the views always make the effort worth the while.

The ultimate hike was to the Taktshang Goemba, more popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It is Bhutan’s most famous one, perched almost precariously on a cliff face. The walk up is tough - a steep climb of almost a kilometre, with steps for the last few metres.
The Taktshang Monastery
But there are incredible views of the monastery along the way, making it a superb subject for photography, if you are so inclined. I was worried about the climb - my fitness has always been suspect even in my younger days. But here I was, 43 years old, having never done any serious trekking, but attempting to do a tough hike with little preparation. I had memories of having chickened out of a hike up to Hemkund Sahib lake, opting to ride up on a horse instead. This time, I told myself I would make it on my own two feet. And I did - even if it was with some huffing and puffing. And it was well worth it. Taktshang was burned down twice and re-built - the last time in 2005. You can see the monastery rising up from the cliffs as you negotiate the tough climb… and it prods you to keep going. There is a cafe midway from where the views of the goemba are incredible. And the sight and sound of a waterfall as you near the monastery is breathtaking. Guru Rimpoche was supposed to have flown on a tiger to the monastery, where he meditated in a cave for 3 years. The innumerable legends associated with Taktshang and the difficulty in getting to it, just make it more intriguing and compelling than any other holy place in Bhutan. It was well worth the half day it took to go up and come down.

Pretty rice fields en route to
Chimi Lakhang
There were other dzongs (Paro, Punakha Tashi) and goembas and pretty lakhangs (Kyichu and Chimi). There was the legend of the divine madman Kunley and the penises it inspired - painted on walls and hung on doorways. There was a burnt down dzong near Paro that tourists go to for its
Pretty Punakha Dzong
dramatic ruins. There was that funny animal - the Takin - not quite
The Takin

goat and not quite cow. There was archery practice in Thimpu grounds - with incredibly far away targets. There were handicrafts to buy and the old, traditional Paro town to wander in. There were modern coffee shops in Thimpu with some seriously nice coffee. There was

butter tea that wasn’t quite to my taste. There was a pretty tea house in a nice luxury resort in Paro, where we stayed. And there were even rumours of mysterious midnight knockings at the hotel we stayed in at Punakha.

These are the memories of pretty, quaint, the not-so-forbidden
Tradition and modernity
Bhutan I will carry with me. I am not a big believer in holding onto traditions that are losing their relevance in a modern world. But even I hope that what Bhutan is trying to do - keep their traditional culture relevant and alive, while embracing modernity - is at least partially successful. So that it remains a bulwark against that increasing homogeneity that engulfs most parts of the world today.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

By Mohsin Hamid

I am not a fan of Mohsin Hamid. I didn’t quite get the character of the Reluctant Fundamentalist and so couldn’t quite believe in its plot (Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier was a more credible and affecting exposition of a liberal Muslim turning fundamentalist, even though it wasn’t Nagarkar’s best work). And I could not get past the first fifty pages of Moth Smoke.
The title of Hamid’s latest though, was intriguing. And it does turn out to be the best of his three books, in my opinion. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not a story that’s not been told before. In fact, it so totally recalls Adiga’s White Tiger that you can’t but help compare the two. Both have protagonists that feed off South Asia’s liberalized economies and climb out of debilitating poverty to a measure of wealth unbelievable a generation ago. Both use forms of storytelling a tad too clever, but which make an already engaging story even more so. But it’s been a few years since we read Adiga. And so it comes to pass that Hamid’s latest has a certain freshness that takes you by surprise and a momentum that has you racing to the finish of its relatively short length.
The protagonist is unnamed. As is the country. It could as easily be India as Pakistan, New Delhi as Islamabad, Mumbai as Karachi. The story is told in the form of a self-help book, a parody of the innumerable ‘How to’ books that are so ubiquitous in bookshops today. And amazingly, Hamid manages to sustain a second person narrative through the entire book, without disconcerting the reader even a little bit. But what made the book for me, were nuggets of real insights into what makes for success or failure in our nations today. “There are forks on the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and in your case, the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like the fourth of you three surviving siblings, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree,” or “Meeting the gaze of a landlord has been a risky business in these parts for centuries, perhaps since the beginning of history. Recently some men have begun to do it. But they have beards and earn their keep in the seminaries.”
The story moves on predictably but interestingly. The protagonist joins the buzzing beehive that the country is now, becomes an entrepreneur, falls in love, keeps the love in abeyance, marries, befriends bureaucrats and politicians, uses a little help from the local mafia along the way, reaches the zenith and then slowly, inevitably begins the slide back down again. Yet however much he falls, Rising Asia ensures he never falls back into that penury from which he began. It is a narrative that despite the cruelty and occasional crudity of poverty, struggle and strife, has a certain gentleness to it. There is real love and tenderness, between parents and children, brother and sister, boy and girl, even between estranged husband and wife.
And that is where this book irrevocably diverges from Adiga’s White Tiger. The brutality and abiding anger of Balram Halwai is absent and so is the discomfort an average middle class Indian felt while reading White Tiger. This is a gentler book. And that perhaps is also the reason ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’ won’t stay with me as long as White Tiger did. It still is, however, a very good read.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Antoinette Cosway is a Creole, meaning a person of French descent, in the West Indies. She comes from a stock of slave-owning European settlers, who are left quite high and dry, when slavery is abolished. Her father dies, leaving her, a mentally incapacitated younger brother and her mother Annette, the Coulibri Estate, near Spanish Town in Jamaica. It is an impoverished existence they live; fearful of the resentful freed slaves, never completely belonging to the land that has become suddenly hostile, yet not knowing of any other place to go. But her mother is young and pretty and manages to marry a rich Englishman Mason, who is willing to lavish her and her children with his wealth and love. But when the Coulibri Estate is burned down by former slaves, and her brother dies, her mother goes insane. The effect of all this on Antoinette is quite devastating. The only thing constant for her is her sense of the place; it is a sense that even the hostility of the locals does not manage to displace. “I love it more than anywhere in the world. As if it were a person. More than a person.”, she says.

Mason manages to get Antoinette married off. To an Englishman in search of a fortune. And so begins the second part of the book, narrated from the point of view of the husband. He is out of place in the West Indies. He sees the beauty of it, yet knows that the place has secrets he will never guess at. It is in a sense a metaphor for his impression of his wife as well – he sees her beauty, but he is suspicious of her past, of the secrets she will never let him into. “It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, “What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.”

Antoinette is never able to shake off her husband’s suspicions about her mental normalcy, once he discovers her mother’s insanity. He begins to distance himself from her and the effect of that begins affecting her mentally. In desperation, she tries ‘obeah’, the West Indian version of voodoo, but all that results in is a further alienation, when her husband guesses at the truth. As a reader, you root for Antoinette and want to tell her, like her beloved Christophene does, Christophene, her father’s black mistress, that she should go away from her husband, that he is not the man for her, that “ ..this is not a man who will help you when he sees you break up. Only the best can do that. The best – and sometimes the worst.”But Antoinette never does that. Instead she goes to England with him. A place that to her, a Creole girl who has the sun in her, seems like cardboard – “It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it.” And he locks her up, his Bertha, as he calls her, insane beyond redemption, secreted away from the world with Grace Poole for company. And Antoinette, longing for “the smell of vetivert and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees when they are flowering – the smell of the sun and the smell of the rain” does what we know she will do – burn down the house and jump to her death.

We know she will do that, because somewhere in the book, the knowledge creeps up on us that we know Antoinette. We know her because we have seen her before as the mad Mrs. Rochester, the one who prevents Jane, lovely sweet Jane’s wedding to her beloved Mr. Rochester. So that is really what this story is about. A prequel to Jane Eyre, the story of the woman locked up in Thornfield Hall, the woman who causes Jane so much grief, the one who we always knew had a story to tell.

Jean Rhys tells that story and tells it so beautifully. She brings alive the vivid lushness and colour of the Caribbean as also its strangely gothic horror. She fleshes out the Bertha of Jane Eyre, creating a fragile beautiful woman who somehow ends up as the crazed wife of a man who never really knows how to love her. It is a haunting book; and if you have at some point read Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea will resonate that much more. Jean Rhys is quite a story-teller.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

By Paolo Giordano (Translated from Italian by Shaun Whiteside)


A prime number is of course indivisible by anything other than one and itself. Giordano describes them as numbers standing aloof and apart from the rest, their tracks running parallel to but never meeting the other prime numbers.  And in his debut novel, he creates two characters, Alice and Mattia, investing in them the same characteristics of prime numbers – the apartness, the solitude, the parallel tracks.
Alice and Mattia are severely damaged people. Alice, who never gets over a skiing accident as a child that leaves her scarred and limping, grows up anorexic and unable to fit into a normal world. Mattia, who leaves his retarded identical twin sister in a park, out of a childhood fear of embarrassment, loses her forever. He is a mathematical genius, but this childhood trauma never leaves him, and he grows up hurting himself with knives and burns, unable to fit into any semblance of a normal life.
Alice and Mattia find each other in adolescence and they recognize in each other the similarities of damage. Similarities that ensure a connection that stays with them through their lives. Yet, they spend their lives on parallel tracks, never able to take that special connection towards anything more meaningful than friendship. They grow up, people fall in love with them, people they are never able to love back enough as they attempt to lead lives like other people. Yet it only results in each of them hurting everyone who attempts to get close, never able to let go of their aloofness in the universe.
It is a savagely bleak book. But there is a searing, haunting quality to it that keeps you turning the pages, desperately wanting redemption for Alice and Mattia, even though you know they are too far gone for it to really happen. The language is spare, yet has a lyrical quality to it. “Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.” Or describing Mattia’s strangeness, Giordano writes, “He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it on your own, because all the things you study are already dead, cold and chewed-over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they leave you time to choose, that they never hurt you and that you can’t hurt them either. But he said nothing.” Straightforward writing, yet it leaves a mark.
Paolo Giordano is a mathematician, who wrote this very successful book before he turned 30. And he turns out to be gorgeous; in the way Italian men are meant to be. Some people seem to have all the luck. But if it’s luck that churns out such a gem of a book, I am not complaining.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Heart of the Matter 

Graham Greene

I visited Greeneland after years. And I am struck by how much an outdated religious sensibility still has the power to affect.
Scobie is a police officer in an obscure African colony during the war. The Vichy French are neighbours and a clandestine trade in industrial diamonds means an air of suspicion hangs around the colony. Colonial Africa is a character as much as any of the others – the heat, the colonials with their ‘boys’ and pink gin and the club and the gossip and their deference to hierarchy. Scobie is a good man, an honest police officer, with a faded wife and a genuine love of the land and people he has governed for over 15 years. He is also a converted Catholic and that proves the defining characteristic taking the story forward.
Pity and sympathy are Scobie’s routes to love. He loves his wife Louise best when he is able to pity her disappointment at his not getting a promotion (something that does not really bother him). So, to accommodate her wish to get away from the local bitchiness, he borrows money from an under-suspicion Syrian trader, to buy her a passage to South Africa. When she is gone, he falls in love (or should we say, falls in pity again) with a ship-wrecked young widow who has lost everything. When Louise is back, he forces himself to go to communion, without confessing – again, engendering more guilt in his Catholic heart. The affair and the borrowed money prove to be a heady cocktail that spiral Scobie towards that most un-Catholic of emotions – despair
 Wilson proves to be Scobie’s counterpoint. The clerk is actually a spy sent to investigate the trade in diamonds. He is the colonial who visits the whorehouses, has no pity for the locals in their petty larceny, whose rigid sense of right and wrong has no place for Scobie’s tolerance. It is a point-counterpoint that is often present in Greene’s novels. The good man driven to wrong-doing by his inherent ‘goodness’ and the bad man with his rigid correctness ending up doing wrong.
Nobody does Catholic guilt and despair better than Greene. When Scobie chooses his own damnation in order to stop hurting others, Greene asks that question that must haunt Catholics at some time or the other – what is a good Catholic? Is that rigid sense of sin more Catholic than a sense of sympathy and humanity for the other? Father Rank, the Catholic priest has truly the last word in Scobie’s case. As he tells Louise at the end of the book, when she despairs over the state of Scobie’s soul, “It may seem an odd thing to say – when a man’s as wrong as he was – but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.”
It is easy to find silliness in this Catholic sense of sin. And it is easy to get impatient with a character like Scobie. As Orwell in a damning critique of the book says, “Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is - that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain - he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.”
But it is a testament to Greene’s masterful storytelling that even if you agree with Orwell on a rational level, you still feel a deep sense of liking and sympathy for Scobie. You live his pain and his despair. The Heart of the Matter is not my favourite Greene novel, but it has enough in it to let me rank it as one of my better reads in recent times.