Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Book Hunters of Katpadi – by Pradeep Sebastian: book review

The Book Hunters of Katpadi by Pradeep Sebastian is a rare debut. Imagine an India where bibliophilia rules not just a handful of serious book readers, academics and publishers, but also typesetters, printers, booksellers and book collectors. Imagine a certain level of knowledge, scholarship and passion each one of them possesses that makes them engage with each other regularly to hold discussions about the physical book as a form of art. Imagine well-attended auctions of rare first editions where learned bidders will go to any extent to outdo each other. That is the kind of Utopia Sebastian offers his Indian readers with Chennai as the setting for his ‘biblio-mystery’.

The story revolves around Biblio, an antiquarian bookshop in Chennai, run by two women – the owner, a forty-something Neelambari Adigal (or Neela), and her younger assistant, Kayalveli Anbuchelvan or Kayal. Kayal is the protagonist. Through her POV the reader learns about Nallathambi Whitehead, ‘a book collector of particular importance, one among a band of wealthy, significant collectors in India’ and his archrival, Arcot Manovalan Templar (owner of the only book-auction house in India). Whitehead tells the women about the existence of some rare documents about Sir Francis Richard Burton, the British explorer and writer, having recently come to light.

Pradeep Sebastian
On Whitehead’s behalf Kayal visits Selvaganesan, the man who claims to be Burton’s descendant, in possession of the rare documents, including the controversial ‘Karachi Papers’. ‘Karachi Papers’ happen to be the ‘unholy grail’ collectors from all over the world have been trying to lay their hands upon for years. They are supposed to hold the key to the mystery behind Burton’s disgrace and sudden departure from India.     
Sebastian’s passion about books and book collecting is evident on every page; so much so that it pervades the reader. He explores each aspect of the physical book in detail, offering little stories and anecdotes to make them appealing. In fact, this kind of almost-academic minutiae and digressions from the plot might have become tedious but for his clever leaps back and forth.

There are way too many aspects in the book to cover in this review. For a genuine bibliophile/book collector, however, this book is nothing short of a slice of paradise. The descriptions of cozy little antiquarian bookshops and private libraries are beyond beautiful. Many readers may feel skeptical about the Indian setting, but Sebastian somehow manages to pull it off.  One just wishes the focus on the plot had stayed consistent – it takes a backseat midway – but the surprise element in the end more or less makes up for it.


Friday, January 19, 2018

Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead: review

Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
368 pp
Rs 499

[Published by India Today mag, July 3, 2017:]

Colson Whitehead’s novel, Underground Railroad, works well as a literary thriller of sorts set in the pre-Civil War era, with all the excitement of a physical chase – a cat and mouse game between the slave and the slave catcher, with the latter closing in upon his quarry all the time.

At the centre of the story is Cora, an African slave on a cotton pla
ntation in Georgia, ‘an outcaste even among her fellow Africans’ because her mother, Mabel, managed to run away, leaving her daughter and her fellow slaves to their fate. Cora is welcomed to womanhood by four rapists who drag her behind the smokehouse to finish their job. Nobody intervenes. ‘The Hob women sewed her up’, the narrator informs us clinically.

When Caesar, a young slave from Virginia, decides to include her in his plans to escape through the Underground Railroad, it does not take Cora too long to give in even though both of them know it would be Death for them if they are caught, especially after Cora kills a white boy in order to escape from his clutches on the way. Accompanying them is Lovey, another young slave, whom they lose at this point.

The Underground Railroad is not simply a metaphor; it’s an actual track with a box car led by a steam engine that occasionally harbours refugees and conveys them to their freedom. At one of the stations there is even a cave-in, ‘a ruse to camouflage the operation below’.   

Close on their heel is Ridgeway, the most brutal of slave catchers, who despises Cora more because her mother managed to escape him. After a while Caesar’s and Cora’s paths diverge. Help comes from unexpected quarters in unexpected ways – from Sam, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher – amateur rescuers, sympathizers and raw abolitionists who eventually have to buckle before the powerful evil forces. 

As a character says, ‘And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all […] This nation shouldn’t exist […] for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty.’

Whitehead’s accounts of the horrors of slavery are unsparing. He writes about them unflinchingly. Yet one senses a distance between the writer and his work. The narrative lacks psychological depth that would hook readers who demand more.
Colson Whitehead

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks: review

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks
--reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today mag, Nov 12, 2017:]

Over the last few years India has seen book launches and literary festivals across the country bombarded with big names from Bollywood. Often these events are described as ‘star-studded affairs’. Now, increasingly, from being chief guests cutting ribbons to release books, actors are becoming active participants as writers or protagonists in their memoirs/autobiographies/biographies. Twinkle Khanna, Sunny Leone, Karan Johar and Rishi Kapoor are some recent examples. Out of these both Khanna and Leone have successfully tried their hand at fiction.

Skeptics may wonder how many of them can really write, but better than usual sales figures usually make up for other inadequacies. Some, of course, do succeed in surprising their readers with genuine talent.

Quite natural then that Hollywood stars should be next. Well-known actor and Oscar winner, Tom Hanks, has just published his collection of seventeen short stories, Uncommon Type, about 400 ambitious pages long.

The obvious question that comes to mind is: Can he write?

Answer: Sure he can. Better than most people would like to believe. He may not exactly be a literary giant in the making, but he can certainly tell a story and tell it well. A distinct voice – even if the tone is informal for the most part, a racy style and believable characters are the stronghold of his literary universe. Sometimes the stories are interconnected, the characters repeated. The very first story, ‘Three Exhausting Weeks’ has its characters recur in ‘Alan Bean Plus Four’ and ‘Steve Wong is Perfect’.  They are also perhaps some of his best stories. In fact it is quite easy to imagine the author playing the male protagonist in a TV/movie adaptation of most of them.

Hanks also experiments with form. The character, Hank Fiset, for instance, is a columnist at a newspaper struggling to survive. He is also, perhaps, the actor-author’s alter ego whose own stories occur in column inches more than once. Yet another, ‘Stay With Us’, reads like a play. Hanks draws a great deal from his experiences as an actor. ‘A Juket is the City of Life’ is a fine sample.

To Hanks’s American readers, especially those acquainted with his movies, a lot of it may sound familiar or even clich├ęd, but it still works pretty well for the majority of Indian readers.

Tom Hanks

Tin Man – Sarah Winman: review

Tin Man – Sarah Winman
--reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today mag, Sep 8, 2017:]

After the huge success of her first two novels, When God Was a Rabbit and A Year of Marvellous Ways, Sarah Winman has returned with her third novel, Tin Man, a rare gem and literary feat for any writer. The opening line says, ‘All Dora Judd ever told anyone about that night three weeks before Christmas was that she won the painting in a raffle.’

The painting in question is a cheap copy of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that Dora chooses over a bottle of whisky in defiance of her husband’s wishes at the event. The painting of sunflowers is a recurrent motif in the book as its possession passes from Dora to her son Ellis and later his friend Michael. It is symbolic of ‘the life she wanted: Freedom. Possibility. Beauty.’

Right after this prologue Dora disappears and the stage is taken over by two other characters: Ellis and Michael. The narrative shifts from the former to the latter and then back to the former. Ellis is forty-five in the initial chapters and works at a Car Plant at Cowley Road, Oxford, repairing dents with the proficiency and love of an artist. As a child he wanted to be an artist and had his mother’s encouragement. But after her death his father forced him to take up a job.

When Michael enters his life in his teens, Ellis discovers love. Michael is both his best friend and lover. Michael’s relationship with Dora is that of two equals, both intellectuals and art lovers. Nothing in the book is overly stated; the reader is left to read between the lines. And then Annie enters the lives of the boys. Both Ellis and Michael fall in love with her, though she chooses to marry Ellis. Michael vanishes from their lives – to return much later.

Sarah Winman
This multilayered narrative brings several works to mind to compare and contrast with, including Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City, Anais Nin’s diaries, especially Henry and June and even Ken Follett’s historical novel, A Dangerous Fortune. This novel beautifully explores the themes of love, longing, loss and the easy acceptance of all three. The poetry lies not in the novel’s eroticism or exploration of sexuality, but elsewhere – in the pursuit of liberty and art. The author says much without saying much.

The Small-Town Sea – Anees Salim: review

The Small-Town Sea – Anees Salim
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
Rs 599

[Published in India Today mag, June 3, 2017:]

Anees Salim
Even a cursory reading of Anees Salim’s latest novel, The Small-Town Sea, reminds one of EM Forster’s A Passage to India, where the most ordinary becomes extraordinary through the writer’s craft. Salim shares that quality with the great literary master.

To mark the ordinariness we have a nameless thirteen-year-old protagonist from a nameless little town (apparently Varkala) and a nameless father (called Vappa) in the first chapter. The boy is forced to move from a big city, where the excitement of a metro-line is just beginning, to the small city – his father’s hometown. As a patient of terminal cancer, his father wants to die in a house near the sea.
The boy makes friends with Bilal, an orphan who lives at the orphanage with the Imam, near his new home, and the two become partners is the usual boyish ‘crimes’. When his father finally dies, his mother is pushed into a second marriage by her relatives. The boy’s life changes radically as he is left behind alone, lonely and unsupervised in the care of his grandmother.

Salim’s obsession with human mortality is quite apparent in his novels. Each has been darker than its antecedent, but this is his darkest yet. All the elements of black comedy are there: the terminally ill vappa on his bed surrounded by relatives planning his obituary, while he stubbornly refuses to die; a street-smart Bilal who invents stories about witnessing pirate battle
s at the sea, perched upon a tree, as the narrator looks up awestruck; the narrator trying to use an injured pigeon in his house for pigeon-post, etcetera, buttressed throughout by strong satire.

Motifs and metaphors abound. Vivid imagery prepares the reader for the string of tragedies to occur. The sea, for instance, is almost a character itself, beautifully described as a ‘blast of white, a streak of cobalt’ and yet nothing but a ‘liquid desert’.

Salim likes to experiment with form. The Blind Lady’s Descendants was written as one long suicide note. This book is a letter by the narrator to his father’s literary agent, Mr Unwin (reminiscent of Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger). A glossary precedes the two parts of the book, dutifully labelled as ‘rising action’ and ‘falling action’ as in a creative writing class.

Compared with Vanity Bagh or The Blind Lady’s Descendants the pace may be slightly slow. Despite certain bursts of brilliance, the excitement around this book is a notch lower than the others perhaps because the readers are by now familiar with the scenario. An important factor is the similar-sounding narrators in all three: young, male, subtly funny, removed from their surroundings and perceived as somewhat slow by their peers. Over the last few years Anees Salim has easily been Everybody’s Favourite Author. Expectations are naturally high. It will be a treat to see him experiment and whip up something surprising. 

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told: Edited by Muhammad Umar Memon: review

The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told: Edited by Muhammad Umar Memon

-Review by Divya Dubey

[ Published in India Today mag: Oct 20, 2017:]

In 2003 Sahitya Akademi published an anthology, Short Stories from Pakistan, translated from the Urdu (1998) into English by M Asaduddin and edited by Intizar Hussain and Asif Farrukhi. In its Preface Hussain says, ‘…just after the Partition the writers and thinkers had to negotiate questions that were specific to Pakistan. The writers in India were not faced with such questions as they were inheritors of a historical and literary continuity. We had to discover the connections anew. If we were a different nation then what was our national and cultural identity?’

Given that stories of Partition form a significant part of Urdu literature, this is an important point. The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, Aleph’s new anthology of 25 stories from India and Pakistan, edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, is broader in scope. Memon’s collection traces the journey of the short story in Urdu from the oral, and later written, ‘dastan’ in the early 1800s – with its love for the fantastic and supernatural – to its engagement with social realism and political protest (esp. from the Progressive Movement in 1936 to India’s Partition in 1947) and, more recently, to the exploration of deeper psychological issues and intellectual concerns.

The collection includes well-established names such as Premchand, Manto, Ismat Chughtai, etc, to new voices such as Khalida Asghar, Sajid Rashid, etc. What emerges, eventually, is a range of themes – from the horrors of war, migration and exile in the classics to fear and desire (‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’), literacy, education and the love of learning (‘The Shepherd’),  mixed-faith marriage and terror (The Saga of Jaanki Raman Pandey), trauma and lunacy – both temporary and permanent, women’s sexuality and situation in a highly patriarchal society (Lajwanti, Aanandi, Fists and Rubs, Banished, etc).

Muhaamad Umar Memon
In fact, stories such as ‘Lajwanti’, ‘Aanandi’, ‘Jaanki Raman’, ‘Fists and Rubs’, ‘Banished’, etc, mark it almost as a feminist collection. In more than one story parallels are drawn with Sita and the Ramayana. In ‘Lajwanti’, it is the idea of Ram Rajya, while ‘Banished’ shows yet another Sita. Strong satire and hard-hitting images make a lasting impact upon the reader. Khalida Asghar’s ‘The Wagon’ is a unique story with a unique theme. It is both a reminder of a deadly past and a warning of impending doom in the future. A red sky, three mysterious men, a stench-drenched city and a vanishing wagon are vi
vid symbols suggesting a nuclear war. The story slowly builds up a sense of terror and anticipation. In a way, life comes full circle after the Partition.  

The Book of Dhaka: book review

The Book of Dhaka: A City in Short Fiction: Edited by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha

--reviewed by Divya Dubey

Comma Press
Rs 698

[Published in India Today mag, Jan 15, 2017:]

The Book of Dhaka is the result of a collaborative creative writing project between Comma Press and several writers/translators, publishers and institutions from Bangladesh, India and the UK (The British Centre for Literary Translation,  Bengal Lights Books, Commonwealth Writers, British PEN, ULAB, etc) , working towards a common goal: to broaden the reader base for literature that was once meant for a specific target
audience in a regional language (in this case Bengali or Bangla) in order to help ‘unify experiences’.

This collection of ten short stories in translation by various writers, put together by Pushpita Alam and Arunava Sinha, combine classic, modern and contemporary literature, exploring themes such as love, longing, misfortune, heartbreak, fear, failure, corruption of the soul, loneliness, violence, class divide and even lunacy (ultimate isolation).  Most of the stories are open-ended.

K Anis Anhmed’s Introduction mentions, ‘In 1952, East Pakistani Bengalis fought against the West Pakistani imposition of Urdu above their own beloved Bangla language. Every February, Dhaka rolls out the largest of its cultural events, the month-long Ekushey Book Fair, honouring the Language Movement that eventually spurred the country’s liberation.’ Military action and violence move unapologetically, and at times unexpectedly, from background to foreground in some of these stories (‘The Raincoat’, ‘The Weapon’, ‘Mother’). For those familiar with narratives of Partition, however, it is still familiar ground; there is nothing new in these tales per se. Their uniqueness lies in the human element, in personal accounts of loss and sorrow. Not all losses are physical or tangible.

Some of these stories capture, like a camera, the precise moment when one finds oneself staring into the eyes of defeat; when the very effort to fight back a greater force becomes a travesty. Some of the finest examples of this are ‘The Raincoat’, ‘The Weapon’, ‘The Circle’, ‘Home’, ‘Helal was on his Way to Meet Reshma’, ‘The Path of Poribibi’ (with its mythical quality) and ‘The Widening Gyre’.

‘The Weapon’ is the only story told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who is also supposedly a character in the story. His intrusive voice insists upon the authenticity of the story and of the tribe of storytellers. This one traces the life of its protagonist, Ponir Ali, as a book-loving child to the time when he becomes a young, formidable man in the neighbourhood. It certainly strikes a chord with a sensitive reader.

‘The Circle’ shows a couple’s effort at romance. Though on the surface it is very simple, even an amusing one to some, it has a strong fundamental message. Fine nuances and sheer pathos make it one of the most memorable pieces in the book.

‘The Widening Gyre’ celebrates and satirizes Dhaka’s ‘great tradition of political protest’ similar to India and quite relevant to current-day scenarios. It is a realistic portrayal of what happens at an organized protest rally when a student leader dies. The banner the three protestors carry reads: ‘We shall not let our anti-authoritarian, democracy-loving leader Swapan Bhai’s blood be shed in vain. Justice for the murder of Swapan, etc…’ Towards the end the slogans become symbolic of something else – complex but false ideals, the pinnacle of apathy; the words acquire consequence because of their insignificance.

Characters belong to different strata of the society and are tied together by the essential human condition. Though the stories are centred on Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, they could have happened anywhere, any-when. In fact, very often Dhaka seems to be built upon the same social, political and cultural blueprint as Delhi. Like Delhi, two very different worlds coexist: posh glass-and-chrome offices of multinationals or wealthy indigenous set ups overlook shanties and jhuggi-jhopdi colonies; the same kind of hustle-bustle, vigour and vitality can be felt in the atmosphere which brings together ‘slum kids, film stars, day-dreaming rich boys, gangsters and former freedom fighters’ amongst others. And it is for this unity in diversity that these stories ought to be read.