Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tender Hooks - Book Review

I recently read an interview with Pakistani author Moni Mohsin regarding the launch of her new book "Tender Hooks" and was intrigued enough to pick it up at Evening Hour. This is her second book after the huge success of "The diary of a social butterfly", based on her popular column in the newspaper.

The premise is simple. The protagonist, assumed to be "Mrs. Butterfly" is from an elite, well-do-to Pakistani family with an enchanted life - a large house, many servants, an adorable son and an Oxford educated (referred to fondly as Oxen) husband who lets her be herself. Butterfly observes the world through her rose-tinted glasses and her nose in the air, considering her place in society. Through her liberal use of grammatical errors (Thanks God), homophones (waste deep in snow), spelling goof-ups (good baggrounds), good old funny takes on known institutions (works in a bank Golden Sacks), slightly off the wall phrases (good radiance) and the like, Butterfly maintains a running comic monologue. I burst out laughing at least once in each chapter.

The chapters are short and begin with a date and what is presumably a newspaper headline. The book is not just about an airhead's view of Pakistani high society but a tongue-in-cheek critique of life in Pakistan today. Butterfly's breezy views on the army versus taliban, honest citizens versus the smugglers are put forth in an understated manner without ruffling any feathers.

In this book, Butterfly has the task of finding a bride for Jonkers, her cousin, by his overbearing mother, Aunt Pussy. Finding the right girl from the appropriate background is not as easy at is seems to be and we meet an endearing cast of characters in hilarious situations as we hurtle towards an unexpected ending. Butterfly operates from her superficial principles in most situations but is actually a feisty and sensible woman when push comes to shove.

I think Moni Mohsin has brought the right balance of humor to a lovable protagonist to highlight current issues in Pakistan with her breezy narration and wonderful wit. Definitely a must-read.

Monday, May 23, 2011

First Proof Volume 6 - Book Review

The Penguin Book of New Writing Volume 6 contains a selection of non-fiction, fiction and a couple of poems. Reading an anthology reminds me of the famous words uttered by Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump in the eponymous movie " a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get." The collection is a little erratic, with some excellent writing, some fantastic translation from regional languages and some run of the mill stuff.

The first non-fiction piece is a beautiful but heart-wrenching tale, "A Young Man", by Sunanda Sikdar, who has excerpted and translated from the original Bangla "Dayamoyeer Katha" by Anchita Ghatak. It deals with the barbaric practice of making young widows shave their heads and lead an austere life upon the death of their husbands, whether or not the marriage was consummated. The generosity of these women who were doomed by the prevalent customs with no way out is sure to bring tears to the most cynical among readers. Chatura Rao's three vignettes titled "By the Ganga one winter" has a memorable piece on the momentary fame experienced by an ordinary person and how one can live on a long-forgotten memory that lights up the monotonous present, if only fleetingly. In "Cabbie", Anindita Ghose poignantly captures the nuances of an unlikely friendship between a graduate student in New York and a Pakistani cabbie, how class differences may blur in a strange environment but only momentarily.

In the fiction section, Triptych by Ranjan Nautiyal describes the advent of rain and its effect of three young children with a loving touch in "Forgotten friend". "Soul Mates" by Kanchana Ugbabe is an extremely believable tale of a freeloader whose unwelcome stay creates problems in the household. Through "Aaba and other mysteries" Deven Sansare relates the effect of the prolonged mill workers strike that ended the industry in Mumbai and changed forever the lives of the workers and their families through the eyes of a young boy who comes of age in this period. Two wonderful stories of families with children abroad and the effect on the family members left behind are worth reading as they express the same sentiment through different protagonists - "Mrs.Dhillon" by Purnima Rao and "A 33-1/3 LP" by Somnath Mukherji. "Stink" by D. Rege is a hard-hitting tale of hijras and how their life does not become any easier even if the government passes article 337 in their favor. Of the two poems at the end of the book, I loved Keyur Patel's Conversations.

I am not sure what criteria was used by the publishing house to pick these stories amongst the myriad others that are available. A brief introduction to the authors is provided at the end of the book. It is clear that many of the authors are established in the writing profession, either as reporters, translators, screen writers, ad writers and such. Perhaps it is their level of proficiency that impacts the quality and feel of their words. What would be a worthwhile effort for Penguin is to bring out genuinely "first" writing by budding authors.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Vague Woman's Handbook - Book Review

Lately I have been having difficulty in figuring out the relationship between the title of a book and its contents. This debut novel by Devapriya Roy falls into that category. The brief description at the back sounded interesting, about an unlikely friendship between a newly-married young woman and another one, almost three decades her senior.

We are introduced to a hare-brained Sharmila Chatterjee, twenty-two years old, helplessly late for a job interview, having taken a break from her studies to financially help the dire home situation. Her husband, the idealistic Abhimanyu Mishra is pursuing his Ph.D. in an obscure subject, having given up the prospect of a Ph.D. in the USA. Consequently the two have eloped and married in Delhi, much against the wishes of the parents living in Calcutta. When Mil (Sharmila)is hired at the Indian Academy for Literatures, she meets Indira Sen, a senior government officer with whom she hits it off and thereby is supposed to begin a tale.

There are some vivid descriptions of New Delhi as the seasons change and some introduction to the mysterious working of the Indian governmental bureaucracy. However, there isn't much of a story to tell in the 300-odd pages of the novel. Indira's life seems to be one where an interesting plot could have evolved, given her strange home situation with a domineering mother, an obsessive-compulsive mother-in-law and a quirky Uncle along with a headstrong teenage daughter. But they seem to carry on with their weirdness, contributing nothing to Indira's life or to the novel. Mil helps Indira with her mounting, incomprehensible credit card debt while Indira seems to do nothing more than share junk food with the younger woman.

The characters seem two-dimensional with no significant inner angst other than the obvious daily difficulties of urban life; money problems, maid issues, interfering landlords and in-laws. As I mentioned earlier, the title and the story did not match but I can attest that the author seems as vague about what she wanted to convey through her characters and it is perhaps Devapriya Roy's handbook as a vague woman herself.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chanakya's Chant by Ashwin Sanghi

In the recent times, I started posting mini book reviews directly on the facebook page. If it is a simple straightforward review, figured it will be easier to read from the page than go to a blog. But, this book, Chanakya's Chant deserves a bigger space.

I do not usually pick a political book nor a historical book by choice. But, Chanakya's Chant just changed it all for me. During the entire book, there was no lull, there was no page where you could miss even a single paragraph.

There are two stories that are run parallel to each other. One is the story of Chanakya and how he got Chandra Gupta to be united Bharat's emperor. The other story is of a Brahmin from Uttarpradesh, Gangasagar Mishra. His goal is to make a little girl from Kanpur to be the Prime Minister of India. The character of Gangasagar is analogous to the famous Chanakya.

The team even went on to create a Chant and called it Chanakya's Chant. It is even uploaded here. In the story, the chant is described to be very powerful and supposedly written in Chanakya's time.

While the book is almost 400 pages, it is so worth a read. You will remember the history around Chanakya, Alexander and will appreciate the will and purpose of Chanakya. It is a fiction book based on many many facts. Lots of research has gone into the book. The author, Ashwin Sanghi, even listed all the various books and links he referred to during his research.

Worth the read!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Legacy by Danielle Steel

One of my favourite writers,definitely a page turner!!
This is the story of a 38 yr old lady named Brigitte whose life changes when she is dumped by her boyfriend after 6 yrs of relationship and is laid off by her employer.She is a gal who would never want to take risks, either personally or professionally. She helps her mom on a family geneology project and falls in love with the character of her ancestor who is a Dakota Sioux named Wachiwi and travels to salt Lake and then to Paris and Brittany in search of her family history.
She happens to meet a writer named Marc at the National Library at Paris who helps a lot in her research of family history and changes her life from then.
Wachiwi is the great-great-great-grandmother of Brigitte, who travels from the Dakota Sioux - New orleans - Paris to marry her man who is the brother of French Marquis but marries the Marquis himself.
I personally fell in love with Wachiwi and Marquis, the perfect couple!!

SudhaRani Pisupati

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Almost Single - Book Review

One more in the ever-growing genre of Indian chick-lit, this book has one strength. Humour! The novel breezily captures the life of the protagonist, Aisha Bhatia, almost thirty, very single and surrounded by friends who are in a similar situation.

Most of the book is devoted to the single-minded pursuit (or discussion) of booze, cigarettes, available men, not necessarily in that order. Aisha's best friends,a very available and always on the look out, Misha and Anushka, undergoing the throes of divorce, provide able support to her angst as she works in a fancy hotel with its dark underpinnings reserved for the rich and the minions who serve them. It is not clear what the other two girls do for a living as they brunch at five-start hotels, discuss expensive shiatsu massages and consume copious amounts of branded liquor. Comic relief is also provided by a pair of gay characters who appear to be in a monogamous and committed relationship while the straight women ogle every specimen of the male species.

Of course, there is Aisha's consistent love interest, the hunky NRI Karan who has all the required attributes of a eligible bachelor and the multiple unfortunate liaisons of the intrepid Misha to spice up the narrative. The women seem be connoisseurs of wine but can't tell daals apart. Their redeeming feature is their closeness and camaraderie.

The novel is light-hearted and fun, with the devil-may-care attitude of the urban youth that laughs at tradition but is not averse to clinging to weird gurus and rituals when the situation demands. It is well-written but by no means a literary marvel. What saves the book from being mediocre is the irreverent humour that makes light of every dark situation, including the majestic institution of marriage.