From Behind The Yellow Door

Anjum Hasan
Anjum Hasan

Anjum Hasan is a poet, novelist, and a chronicler par excellence of our times. She has published two novels, a book of poems, short fiction, reviews and essays in various anthologies and journals. Her first novel, Lunatic in My Head was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Award 2007 and her second novel Neti, Neti was on the longlists for the 2008 Man Asian Prize and the 2011 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the Hindu Best Fiction Award. She is also the Books Editor at The Caravan.

I first met Anjum at a panel discussion titled These Hills Called Home at the Jaipur Literature Festival.I thought she was the quietest panelist present. I ran into her at some other events and I always saw her with a diary, making notes, intently listening to the various speakers. Following this interview and after reading some of her works, I’ve come to realize how keen and discerning an observer she really is.

Excerpts from the interview:

Before we begin talking about writing, books and other things, could you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how writing came into the picture?

Writing is a kind of biography, an alternative one. I don’t mean that one always writes about one’s own life, but that one creates a life story in and through the writing.

In Shillong, I grew up in the protected and somewhat insular way in which most Indian English writers grow up – going to an English medium school and reading a lot in English. Writing appeared naturally – I was always attracted to literature and with a house full of books and teachers for parents, it didn’t seem like a very radical thing, putting pen to paper.

-Sophie Das is living in big-city Bangalore, with all the freedom that she can get and yet she feels unable to let go of that “out of place” feeling. Do you think that this feeling, of not finding oneself accepted, of not belonging anywhere, is something that never really leaves a person, but swings from one extreme to another with time and place?

It’s different at different times and in different places. I think it’s important to try and pinpoint the exact nature of 21st century urban Indian alienation. I think the lack that Sophie feels is a cultural lack. It’s about the values that are on offer. She likes her friends but cannot completely fit in with their world of hard materialism and functional attitudes. And she feels this as a shortcoming. She would like to be more like them but cannot. There is nowhere, no institution or space that she can turn to whose values fit in completely with her own unarticulated ones – the family is breaking down, religion has become functional in its own way, and as for literature and art, which she does fall back on from time to time, that is of limited help because she has only read 3 books! But even if she had read more, literature would offer a solitary recompense, while Sophie wants a social one. She would like to belong.

-Your characters migrate from one microcosm to another, from one faraway corner to a big city, across the vast diversity that is India. Where smaller cities are sprouting up malls, multiplexes and CCDs, youngsters are getting trendier and stylish everywhere and economical development is seen as a means to bridge the cultural gap, how wide really do you think is the divide between big cities and small towns? Can and should this breach be removed?

Yes, you’re right – smaller towns are increasingly becoming like bigger cities. The middle class everywhere seems to want the same things. That’s what Sophie Das discovers too in Neti, Neti. But what my characters are interested in and what I’m interested in are the ways in which these are place aren’t the same – how each place has a specific local character which is erased in the name of development. That’s what my novels and poems try to capture.

-You have published poems, essays and novels. Which form comes to you most easily and which poses the biggest challenge?
They’re all incredibly difficult! What I enjoy is not being locked into one form, being able to move from one to another. That movement itself is inspiring because when you’re turning from one form to another, there is a sense of freedom and possibility. I like that.

On Record: Samit Basu

This is my second official interview as such. And this time the man is Samit Basu, novelist, screenwriter, writer of comics and local monster, talking about his latest book Turbulence and writing among other things.

Snippets of the interview:

Samit Basu
Samit Basu

You’ve been part of quite a number of anthologies and collaborations. Which one was the best experience?

Collaborations – I co-wrote a comic, or graphic novel if you prefer, with Mike Carey, who is a writer I’ve idolized since I first started reading comics. If you haven’t read his Lucifer comics or his Felix Castor books, do so at once. For someone at that level, he was both incredibly generous as a collaborator and surprisingly nice as a person. The comic is called Untouchable, it’s a turn-of-the-century romance/horror story about a young Anglo-Indian boy’s twisted relationship with a rakshasi. It’s set in India and England, and starts this doomed couple, both outcasts, one caught between the different worlds of his parents, another caught between different eras and worlds.

Anthology wise, Electric Feather, the anthology of erotic stories edited by Ruchir Joshi. I wrote a story about a bunch of twentysomethings going back to Cal for a wedding and getting it on afterwards. It was lovely, because I got to write a kind of story I wouldn’t have done otherwise, have a great deal of fun, and people responded strongly – most people absolutely loved it, and others were deeply offended, and both responses pleased me greatly.

If you could be one of your superheroes, which one would you be?

Tia. I love her power, the ability to duplicate yourself and therefore essentially never have to make a choice again, because now you can live several lives and experience so many more things.

One book that you’d bequeath to your favorite niece/nephew.

I’d be a fairly sad uncle if I gave my favourite niece/nephew only one book. Lots and lots and lots of really good books. Do I have to bequeath them? That seems to involve dying. Must I die now?

One writer that seriously scrambled your brains with his/her dangerous and exciting ideas.

China Mieville

 

You can read the full interview here.

You can also read my review of Turbulence here or there.

Eldest : Book Review

Eldest - Christopher Paolini
Eldest - Christopher Paolini

Eldest is the second book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. I’d read the first book almost 5 years back and had resisted reading the second one because I thought it would be boring, considering it was a good 700 pages or so and 5 years is too long a break to watch out for series.

When I discovered the book to be lying on my bookshelf, brand new and yet gathering dust, I decided to give it a try.  Eldest begins few days after the events in Eragon’s last chapter. The Battle of Farthen Dur over, the Varden, the rebel group opposing evil king Galbatorix’s reign over Alagaësia  (the fictional continent where the Inheritance Cycle takes place) are busy mourning their losses and preparing to move to Surda, the only place out of the empire’s reach.  Eragon, with the help of Saphira and Arya kills the shade Durza in the ensuing battle and earns the title of Shadeslayer.

When Eldest begins we see Eragon swearing loyalty to all the races- humans, dwarves and later to the elves. Shortly thereafter, Eragon, Saphira, Arya and Orik leave for Ellesmera where Eragon and Saphira will be trained as proper Dragon and Rider.  As the Varden needs his and Saphira’s help, they have to leave their training and fly back to join the Varden in their Battle on the Burning Plains. There he comes face to face with someone he thought was a friend who had died and learns the bitter secret of his true identity.

In a parallel plot line we see Roran considering how to ask for the hand of Katrina, his beloved in marriage from her father Sloan and trying to fight the Ra’zac who are chasing him because of his relation to Eragon. Despite his many attempts to keep the villagers safe, Katrina gets abducted by the Ra’zac and Roran must chase after them to save her.  He convinces his fellow villagers to fight the Ra’zac and rise against the Empire for the atrocities it has committed upon their village. He manages to stir up a following and they embark on a tumultuous journey to find a safe haven from the Empire.  Following a chance meeting with Jeod, who along with Brom had stolen Saphira’s egg from Galbatorix and had helped Eragon and Brom earlier, the villagers of Carvahall, Roran and Jeod set out to go to Surda where Roran meets his cousin, Eragon Shadeslayer.

This time Paolini infuses some maturity into his young characters and depicts their coming of age, their struggles to cope with adulthood and burden of responsibility very well. You can see his characters questioning and learning a great deal of things because of their roles in this war. That Paolini works on this process is very good indeed, but one does wish the process was more elegantly portrayed.

Throughout the book, it’s hard to detect any anticipation. The characters, the plot all seem to wander and roam at their own paces, rushing in places and meandering on unnecessary detours at many places. In attempt to show the cousins Roran and Eragon’s different yet similar struggles, Paolini harps again and again on similar stories and adventures with unexplained miracles and divine intervention sprinkled across here and there.  His imagination goes through sudden spurts but nothing extraordinary comes to the surface. In a tale involving humans, elves, dwarves, Urgals- a race which survives on their love for war and bloodshed and most importantly sentient intelligent dragons, Paolini could have cooked up a much more riveting and gripping work. Instead what we get is a mild mannered account of a war from various narrow perspectives and the occasional interesting insight.

It’s not a bad book, but it’s not a great book either. With Eragon, Paolini was sitting on a goldmine of potential brilliance.  He has pulled off a good second offering, but it falls short on many counts, the first and foremost being any lack of writing style that would stand out and add to the subject matter of the tale. With a good many interesting and eccentric characters, Paolini could have produced much witty dialogue, but all we see are few feeble jabs and exchanges.

In any case, I’m sure anyone who has read the first book will read this one (It’s the curse of reading series- one has to know what happens next) and whether they like Eldest or not, they will look forward to read Brisingr.

 

You can also read other reviews here.

Dreams in Prussian Blue- Book Review

 

Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam
Dreams in Prussian Blue - Paritosh Uttam

I have some bias against Indian writers and writing. It was with much reluctance that I agreed to read Dreams in Prussian Blue. I didn’t have much hope from it and struggled through first quarter of the book. And somehow against my will, I started relating with its characters. And even more unwillingly, I felt affected by the fate of its doomed protagonists.

The novel begins with a simple, and somewhat clichéd, premise- that of a young naïve girl falling in love with a mysterious, somewhat obsessed artist. Love blossoms, and the odd couple struggles to set up a happy life together. Naina, the young feisty art student shoulders responsibility far beyond her age and Michael, the brooding painter immerses himself in his art while leaving his partner to make ends meet. Fighting against the world at large, and with each other, the pair still learns to love and live. Then calamity strikes and their already wobbly world breaks and shatters.  Michael is robbed of his eyesight in an accident. An accident that might not have happened had Naina not given him an ultimatum.  Naina fights with the guilt, but little does she know of how many more burdens she will have to bear in the near future.

What is a painter without his eyes? What is a relationship without trust? Paritosh Uttam weaves a story of conflicts that will sadden and trouble you, make you wonder what you would have done in their stead.  I personally hated the character of Naina. I could relate to her, understand her, even empathize with her to some extent, but I still hated where and what she had led herself to become. On the other hand, I felt more deeply for Michael, in a distant detached way, mourned for him. But after all of this, I can’t deny I was shocked at the end. For a small breezy read, the ending sure doesn’t hold back any punches. It can knock the wind out of you and leave you wondering, with a small knot of unease inside.

The story could have been paced better and characters given more depth I feel. But, it makes for an engrossing read nevertheless, once you get beyond the first few chapters. The writing style gives the impression of a strong current being held with much restraint. There is a lot explored within few lines, one only needs to look at it in the right way. The book might appeal a lot more to women than men I think, but that again is a very personal assumption.

Dreams in Prussian Blue came out from Penguin’s offering of “Metro Reads”, pegged as fun, feisty and fast reads that will go down with the temperament and taste of the burgeoning Indian urban middle class readership (or as Penguin says, for “readers on the go”).  In that league, Dreams in Prussian Blue fits almost perfectly. Readers who have grown up to city clatter and noise, rocky relationships and issues, the passions and dreams fuelled by a city like Mumbai, will be able to relate to the match that is Michael and Naina. But I wouldn’t categorize this one as a ‘fun’ read, where I count fun as something that will make you laugh, rollick and giggle at each turn of page. I won’t mark it for those who are “on the go” either. This one is meant to be consumed on a warm lazy weekend.

So would I recommend the book? I think yes. I think some folks, who enjoy reading about shifting dynamics of relationships, will like this book. It will give them much satisfaction to mull over what happens when love kills.

 

Psssstt.. I also interviewed Paritosh Uttam for BookChums. My first proper “interview” as such. You can read the interview here.

Misery by Stephen King- Book Review

 

Misery - Stephen King
Misery - Stephen King

Misery was the first Stephen King novel I read. Before I begin with the review of this book, let me say how I feel about Stephen King novels in general. I’ve mostly seen the movie versions of his novels. I’ve read bits and parts of his stories, his writing to me seems interesting and twisted, one that I’d love to pick up on a weekend and scare the living daylights out of myself. So what about Misery?

Misery revolves around Paul Sheldon, the author of a best-selling series of Victorian-era romance novels surrounding the heroine character Misery Chastain. Having finished his manuscript of Fast Cars, a new novel, he decides to go to Los Angeles by road from Colorado. On his way, his car gets caught in blizzard and he loses consciousness in the struggle. He wakes up to find himself rescued by Annie Wilkes, a former nurse who lives nearby. There she nurses him to health and claims herself to be his number one fan. Throughout all this, she never takes him to the hospital, but keeps him in her house, sedated with painkillers.

She reads his latest manuscript and disapproves of it. She buys the latest copy of the Misery series, where she’s shocked to find that Paul Sheldon has killed off Misery. Enraged, she demands that he burn his new manuscript and continue the Misery series by bringing her back from death. And what she does to Paul Sheldon to get her wishes fulfilled is what this novel is all about. And it is gruesome and awful.

There are scenes so vividly described that they would make you cringe, would make your skin crawl. I so hated Annie Wilkes, I kept imagining ways for her to die in the same cruel manner that she would make Sheldon suffer. And I felt angry at Sheldon for making stupid decisions like taking the car to LA. I was so engrossed in hating Annie that I never really looked at King’s writing. I was so put off by the book that I swore never to read Stephen King; I was so disgusted by Annie Wilkes the character that I washed my hands clean of Stephen King novels.

I guess the fact that the book succeeded in evoking such strong emotions in me should be a mark of merit for this book. And it does hold true, the book will affect you strongly. Some books are for pleasant reading and some are for giving your mind a ruddy good wake-up call. This one is of the latter kind.

Now whenever I come across a Stephen King novel, I read the description hungrily, look at the cover and its pages and its numerous good reviews longingly and put it in my basket of books. Then I think of Misery and I quietly replace it on its shelf.

I know I’m missing out on too much. But you know how first experiences are..

 

You can also read the review here.

 

Book Review: Diary A Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

Diary - Chuck Palahniuk
Diary - Chuck Palahniuk

Diary is Chuck Palahniuk’s sixth fictional novel, following the success of books like Fight Club, Invisible Monsters and Choke.

Diary is written in the form of, well, a diary, by the leading character Misty Wilmot, a one time promising artist, now working as waitress in a resort hotel on Waytansea Island, where she landed after marrying her art school boyfriend Peter Wilmot.

While looking to sort her life and come out of it alive, she has completely given up art, any hope of becoming a renowned artist, any promise of returning to her old talent. Misty seems to think the whole town is urging her to start painting again so that she can restore the family to their old grandeur and wealth and also save Waytansea island from being turned into a tourist dump. She seems to be able to paint only when she’s under extreme duress.

The diary shows her journey through her days, from when she reluctantly picks up the brush, how she copes with her miseries and how she comes to face the reality which turns her world upside down.

The novel is short, precise and cuts across like a sharp knife. Palahniuk always claims to write in verbs i.e. his story is told in action, his characters are talking and acting, he doesn’t waste much time describing background, settings, and other elements of the bigger picture. This style works very well for his writing and his plots- he keeps the reader focused on the main story and uses his characters to channelize the emotions from a first person voice, which obviously is more engrossing for the reader.

Some parts of the novel will elicit very strong reactions; one almost cringes at the cruelty she has to suffer to produce great art. That’s one of the distinctive features of Palahniuk’s works, they have scenes of physical, mental and psychological violence which can remain frozen in your memory for a long long time. Though he has been criticized for employing violence and disturbing imagery with excessive force and frequency, one can’t deny that it lends a distinctive and vivid touch to his writing.

Diary will keep you engrossed, cringing and breathless throughout its 270 odd pages. A must read for Chuck Palahniuk fans and for those who’d like to experiment with horror and satire concocted in a heady blend.

 

You can read the complete review here.

Kari- Book Review

 

Kari - Amruta Patil
Kari - Amruta Patil

Kari is the dark twisted tale of our eponymous character. Twenty something, working as a copywriter for an ad firm in the city of dreams, she wakes up to a failed suicide attempt. Or was it? Her love and soulmate Ruth has left the city, saved by safety nets while she was left to crawl from a sewer into a landfill. Thus begins Amruta Patil’s debut graphic novel, throwing the reader into a whirlwind of colors and words from the first page.

She takes us on a ride with Kari, where she stumbles and falls, retraces her steps, and picks up after herself. We watch her floating through life as if in a dream and search for meaning in trance, all the while struggling wearily with the dreariness of real life, mundane and painful. Patil paints a picture of gloom and despair, her grey ink leaking from pages, into the lives of her characters.

There are writers and there are illustrators. Amruta Patil dons both hats with apparent ease and adroitness. Her words and colors melt into each other, her writing and artwork complementing each other, like two entwined streams of thought and consciousness. She captures the city’s soul and her heroine’s with a keen observer’s eye and infuses a sense of dystopia that at once overwhelms and relieves. Kari’s emotional turmoil, her distorted realities, and her alter-egos each have their own nuanced hues and shades, bringing to the reader a breathless and entrancing escapade from our monochromatic lives.

Amruta Patil has a Master in Fine Arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston, and has been an editor, a copywriter and a school teacher before making her fray into the world of graphic novels. Kari has been claimed to be a definitive piece of work in Indian graphic fiction and is a must read for graphic novel lovers and people who love the feminine mind, body and soul.

 

You can also find the review here.

Book Review : Animal Farm

Animal Farm-George Orwell
Animal Farm-George Orwell

The year was 2004. I was with couple of friends, discussing books that we’d read and how they were. After moving on from the heroines of Sidney Sheldon and the shrewd rags-to-riches billionaires of Jeffrey Archer, we broached upon other lesser potboilers. Somehow the talk led to Animal Farm. I’d finished reading that book with much patience and bit of difficulty about a year back or so. At the mention of this book, one of my friends piped up, “It’s so boring. There are only animals talking all the while and ordering other animals about. Such a stupid book!” I sat there, stunned. I was torn between wanting to laugh, to smack her or just commiserate with her for I’d felt that way when I’d heard of the book for the first time.

When I’d picked it up, I remember struggling through first few pages and trying to see beyond it. Then when the pigs began to become more equal than the others, I thought I knew where it was leading. I read the book a second time immediately after finishing the first read. Saw through the representation of animals, human nature. The book is said to be an allegorical depiction of USSR and communism. The book is said to be a lot many things, a dystopia, a representation of politics and so on.

For me, the book remains the representation of human nature, the balance of power between people and how the scales tip. Any society, every society functions on rules and rules give power. A society is how it distributes power and who it deems worthy to hold the power. I’d like to believe beyond the political conflicts implied in the book, it goes beyond isms. It is a very subtle, dark and almost comical depiction of how human society functions.

The greatest thing about the book is it’s size. An hundred odd pages, minus much musings and ponderings that lead nowhere, a fable told directly and with simple words, the book asks only one thing of you. That you think, that you read and think.

Read the complete review here.

Review: Major Barbara

Major Barbara- GB Shaw
Major Barbara- G B Shaw

Major Barbara is a three act play by George Bernard Shaw, written and premiered in 1905 and first published in 1907.

The plot revolves around Major Barbara Undershaft, an officer of the Salvation Army and the dilemma she faces when her father Andrew Undershaft, a millionaire and an arms dealer donates a large amount to the Salvation Army. While Andrew Underhsaft is a millionaire, he has been estranged from his wife and children and Lady Britomart, his wife is struggling to get her children to come into money so that they can have a comfortable life. The story revolves around the differnt eccentricities of the characters, the crux lying in Barbara dealing with her disillusionment with the relation between money and charity.

Throughout the course of the three acts, one can see the churning of scruples that the characters go through. There is a faraway ideal enshrined in Barbara’s beliefs, while Undershaft shows strength and fortitude in achieveing the greater good through smaller steps. While Barbara thinks of the ends, Underhsaft tries to provide the means to that ends.

Shaw, one of the most successful playwrights and writers of his time, was a strong reformist socialist. This piece of work is possibly one which closely reflects his political ideologies and beliefs. Though he touches upon very serious subjects, the treatment keeps it from getting brooding and dark. The characterizations are sketched to flit between stereotypes and exceptions so that they seem more real than they can be, yet grounded.

Read the complete review here.

Review: My Name is Red

My Name Is Red- Orhan Pamuk
My Name Is Red- Orhan Pamuk

The title is bound to intrigue and lead many to pick up the book. The fact that it is a bestseller, an internationally acclaimed work with many awards to its name, and is written by Nobel Laureate author Orhan Pamuk definitely heightens the interest.  And it doesn’t disappoint.

The novel revolves around the murder of a miniature artist from the Ottoman Empire and is narrated through different characters throughout the book. The book is a maze, that gets deeper and complex with each chapter, with the maze being so intricate and beautifully composed that it overwhelms. Towards the end, the book becomes a question and answer within itself- What is art– the artist’s rendering of his views or that which is perfect and as God made it be? What is the artist allowed to draw and depict? To whom does the artist’s soul swear allegiance – to God or his art?

Pamuk wonders aloud about these questions through his many narrators, while unraveling the mystery of the murdered miniaturist. The thematic and narrative styles, along with the lyrical fluidity of prose make this a very engrossing read. One might have liked it more had they read it in the original Turkish version, but Erdağ Göknar‘s translation does bring out the beauty of the prose and plot.

But, the book brings with itself a task, a task those well-read can hope to live up to. The constantly changing narrators and their many voices may begin to crowd. The complex overlapping and recurring references to books, stories within stories, art styles can begin to befuddle.

If you do pick up the book, read it with a deeper mind and keener eye than you would spare a Grisham or Archer thriller.

Read the complete review here.