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 clichéd, 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.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Tell me a Long, Long Story: Edited by Mini Krishnan: review

Tell me a Long, Long Story: Edited by Mini Krishnan
-Review by Divya Dubey

[Published by India Today, Sep 29, 2017:]

Mini Krishnan, the editor of Tell Me a Long, Long Story, explains in the preface how the anthology came into existence. While she was putting together translations of some novellas from certain Indian regional languages for Oxford University Press, she came across some stories that were neither short enough to be included in short-story collections nor long enough to be published independently.  They were in the range of about 8000 to 20,000 word
s. Since she felt they were ‘exceptional pieces of fiction’, she decided to compile them ‘as part of a larger collection’.

Tell Me a Long, Long Story is therefore a compilation of twelve such stories translated from the original Indian languages, including Bengali, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. Only one story, Chetan Raj Shrestha’s ‘The King’s Harvest’ doesn’t seem to be a translation. Most of the original authors as well as translators are well-established names (from Mahasweta Devi to Pratik Kanjilal to J Devika, Shanta Gokhale and others) and the stories, naturally, carry the legacy of the Indian classics forward.

Mini Krishnan
Krishnan’s preface elucidates the context in some detail: ‘My immense and astounding country […] has a god beneath every stone,’ she says. ‘This Truth and the myriad lesser truths of India present a formidable challenge to anyone who sets out to study the essence of the country, the essence that drives its creativity and informs its fiction.’ Then she proceeds with an account of Indian history, battles lost and won against foreign raiders and the consequent influences of alien people, cultures and languages upon the country’s own literature and culture. The selections in here are a rich example of these.

Writers have raised their voices against social evils right from the beginning. Like termites issues of caste discrimination, sexism, misogyny, illiteracy and superstition, patriarchy and insensitivity among myriad others continue to afflict the society even today. Some of the stories depicting these are more hard-hitting than the others. For instance, Shripad Narayan Pendse’s ‘Jumman’ (trans. By Shanta Gokhale) or Ismat Chughtai’s ‘Lingering Fragrance’ (trans. By
Tahira Naqvi). Some are unique and evocative of the realm of magic and the supernatural. For instance, KR Meera’s The Deepest Blue, and Kamalakanta Mohapatra’s ‘The Witch’.  Bolwar Mahamad Kuni’s ‘Period of Mourning’ also deserves a special mention as a heart-wrenching piece.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout: book review

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
Oneworld Publications
Rs 399

[Published in india Today mag, Nov 16, 2016:]

Was it as ‘post-racial’ America under Barack Obama? Beginning with Donald Trump, will it ever be?

Strange that The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, should not only have won the Man Booker Prize 2016, the first American novel to have received the honour, but that it should have done so at a time when the US presidency is about to be transferred from Obama to Trump.  Such a book has rarely been timed so well.

2016 having been an election year in the US, the country has already seen enough action: unprecedented political polarization, a high incidence rate of the shootings of black people by the police, resurgence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement – later eclipsed by a huge populist counter-movement for white supremacy championed by a bigoted presidential candidate – finally culminating into a shock victory for that very contender. America has not experienced such turbulent waters for a long time. So wide is its impact that on social media the US is now being referred to by some as the Divided States of America.   

Following in the Swiftian tradition Beatty’s tragi-comedy, a biting racial satire, strikes every target with equal wit and force (the civil rights movement; the Black History Month, etc). Its opening lines reveal the tenor of the entire novel: ‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards.’

The first-person narrative flows from a nameless Afro-American narrator, who is occasionally called Bonbon by his girlfriend, Marpessa, or simply ‘the Sellout’ by Foy, the leader of the Dum Dum Intellectuals. It begins with Bonbon is waiting in the Supreme Court, charged with an unexpected crime: trying to reinstate slavery and segregation of the local high school (non-whites only) – as the owner of the black slave, Hominy Jenkins.

Bonbon is born in a ghetto – Dickens – on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Raised by a single father, a controversial social scientist and ‘a sole practitioner of the field of Liberation Psychology’, the young boy serves as a subject for his dad’s myriad sadistic experiments on race. If the accounts were not so comic, they would be horrifying. Ironically, the father is also a ‘Nigger Whisperer’, a man whose ‘sonorous’ voice calms disturbed black men – a job bequeathed to his son after his sudden killing by the police at a traffic stop. He is also the founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group of ‘star-struck, middle-class black out-of-towners and academics’ who meet regularly at the doughnut shop. Beatty’s portrayal of this assembly is the sharpest spoof.

The father’s death triggers the plot. Initially, Bonbon is told that his father’s memoir would solve their financial difficulties, but then he realizes the document never existed.

As gentrification of the place begins, Dickens vanishes from the map quite literally. Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of Little Rascals and Bonbon’s first ‘nigger whisperee’ insists on being his slave. With his help Bonbon takes upon himself the task of restoring the erstwhile ghetto on the map and starts defining the boundary of his hometown on the road with white paint and a line-marking machine. 

Paul Beatty
One of the major themes in the book that Bonbon returns to over and over again comes from his father: ‘Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’

Besides the ‘bat-shit crazy’ Hominy Jenkins, the other interesting character is Foy, a caricature-litterateur and the author of The Adventures Of Tom Soarer, Measured Expectations , who also rewrites Twain’s Huck Finn, replacing the ‘n- word’ with ‘warrior’ and ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer’, being overly obsessed with the idea of respectability. 

The problems with the book, as they have increasingly been with the Man Booker Prize winners over the recent years (Richard Flanagan, Han Kang, Marlon James, etc) are the almost esoteric culture-specific references and dialects that appeal primarily to academics and intellectuals. But to a general reader’s palate?  Not quite.


Loyal Stalkers – Chhimi Tenduf-La: review

Loyal Stalkers – Chhimi Tenduf-La
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
232 pp
Rs 499

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

Loyal Stalkers, Chimmi Tenduf-La’s latest offering – a collection of interlinked short stories – is a far cry from The Amazing Racist, his first and perhaps most popular work of fiction. Yet his most serious tales reveal a dapple of cheerfulness that marks him as a unique writer.  A stark contrast between subject and style means he risked the collection being dismissed as superficial by some. Curiously enough, this peculiarity only heightens the darkness and makes the narrative more hard hitting. 

An amalgam of sanguine and gloomy the fifteen stories evoke a thousand emotions in the reader simultaneously, keeping them on edge all the time. While the
‘happier’ ones such as Lovable Idiot, My Fair and Lovely Lady, and Everyone Has to Eat, have a somewhat Manu Bhattathiri-like feel to them despite a shadow of melancholy in the background, the others are simply disconcerting. The title story, Loyal Stalker, for instance, where Chin-up Channa, a gym instructor obsessed with his beautiful rich client, first follows her abroad and then takes to living in her house like a phantom, watching, observing, and acting on her behalf – all without her knowledge.

Another is The Dog Thrown Off a Building, probably inspired by a recent real-life incident in India, whose video went viral on social media, but with a twist towards the end. Other examples include White Knight, Devil Mask Tattoo and Tuk Tuk Bang among others – that create the same creepy feeling and sense of anticipation that Ruth Rendell stories tend to do. As the title points out, there isn’t one stalker but several. But all these stories are also strangely poignant. The best part about them is their ability to spring surprises upon the most widely read reader. Tenduf-La does it over and over again convincingly. Meanwhile, the larger plot develops subtly, almost imperceptibly, and unfolds only towards the end. 

Tenduf-La’s characters throb with life: Chin-up Channa – the gym instructor, the cricket coach (Coach Uncle), Jinesena – the security guard at Monsoon Lodge, Pasindu Amarasinghe – the young cricketer with an overzealous mother, Kiyoma – the battered maid soldie
ring on in her life. Only, the writer seems to have a soft corner for fair women, since majority of those who appear in the book are described as such.

Overall it is a brilliant collection – one of the few to appear in quite some time that rekindles the reader’s interest in the short format. 


Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me -- Bill Hayes: review

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me -- Bill Hayes
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
294 pp
Rs 599

[Published in India Today mag.]

Bill Hayes

At its core Insomniac City by Bill Hayes is a love story – or rather two love affairs running on parallel tracks. The first focuses on the author and the distinguished neurologist, Oliver Sacks, the object of his affections, and the second is the love affair between him and New York City.

Hayes is almost fifty when the book begins – with the death of Steve, his partner. Steve died of a heart attack, ironically, on a day when the ‘insomniac’ Hayes was asleep.

Guilt-ridden and unable to bear the heartache Hayes moves from San Francisco to New York City where he meets Sacks, thirty years his senior and a man who asks ‘What is Michael Jackson?’, has ‘no knowledge of popular culture after 1955’ and ‘zero interest in celebrities or fame’, and falls in love with him.  

Sacks’s unique personality, in fact, comes across more emphatically through Hayes’s precise, simple descriptions and sometimes single lines. For instance, Sacks describes the sunset as ‘an attack of beauty’; voices his thoughts aloud, such as: ‘Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?’ or confesses to Hayes in a rare erotic moment, ‘I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins’.

Hayes’s musings on NYC that alternate with the other thread, emerge mostly from the random subjects of his photography – people he meets and interacts with on the streets: Ali, a neighbourhood shopkeeper, skateboarders on the road, an aged artist who just draws one of his eyes for him, etcetera.

The magic of Hayes’s writing lies in its surprising minimalism, yet brilliantly evocative images. The focus is so much on Sacks and his growing deafness, blindness, Cancer and approaching death in the later pages that one often overlooks the modest, self-effacing Hayes nursing his aging, dying love as he grapples with emotional upheaval for the second time in his life. Hayes himself leaves no scope for the reader to pity him. 

There is tenderness without sentimentality, acceptance of what cannot be altered and a strong positive attitude that embraces life in its entirety. This book is a fascinating ode not only to romantic love, but to Life. It is as much a celebration of Life as it is a reflection upon Death. The little ‘vignettes’ are meant to be enjoyed slowly and gradually as sips of fine wine rather than in a single gulp. 

Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales

I Am Watching You: Teresa Driscoll: review

I Am Watching You: Teresa Driscoll
-Review by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today mag,]

Perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers released this year, I Am Watching You by journalist and former BBC news presenter, Teresa Driscoll, is a novel about the mysterious disappearance of the sixteen-year-old Anna Ballard from a club in London.

The book begins with Ella Longfield, the ‘witness’ watching Anna and her best friend Sarah being chatted up by two young men on the train. Ella is bored to death by the book she has bought and to pass the time she finds herself overhearing the conversation between the four youngsters. Anna and Sarah are travelling to London to celebrate the end of GCSEs – a gift from her parents. The girls are travelling solo for the first time.

Teresa Driscoll

Soon Ella’s curiosity is piqued further when she realizes that the two young men are ‘fresh out of prison’. She is shocked when, at an impulse, she follows the girls around and catches the second one locked in the toilet having sex with a man she has just met. Ella is in a dilemma. On the one hand she is tempted to trace the girls’ parents and raise an alarm; on the other she is doubtful about interfering in their personal lives as a blabbermouth ‘prude’.  Finally she decides to maintain silence.

But the next day she wakes up to the news that the gorgeous green-eyed beauty, Anna, has suddenly vanished. The police step in. Anna’s family and friends are questioned and so is Sarah, but there is no progress. They all seem to be guarding their own secrets.

Wracked with guilt, Ella informs the police about her own role in the matter. Somehow her name is leaked and she has to face a trial by the media and the public who roast her relentlessly for failing to look out for the young adolescent. To the extent that she has to disappear from social media and close down her flower shop temporarily.

A year later Anna is still missing. On the anniversary there is yet another appeal on television leading to new developments. Some people have not forgotten. And now Ella has begun to receive threatening anonymous postcards. Someone is watching her closely and constantly.

Like any good suspense thriller the pace of the book never dips. Eve
ry thread is developed well and tied up neatly. Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger. And Driscoll manages to maintain suspense throughout, heightening it at times, revealing just the right amount of information at the right time. Apart from the overuse of one refrain, ‘You disgust me, dad’ in Anna’s dad Henry’s musings, the book seems to have no real flaw. Certainly a treat for crime fiction lovers.   

Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie: review

Home Fire: Kamila Shamsie: review

[Published in India Today mag, Aug 19, 2017:]

The personal is political. Nowhere does one find a greater example of this phrase than in Kamila Shamsie's latest novel, Home Fire, long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Woven around two Muslim families in the UK, juxtaposed time and again, the tale speaks of love, longing, loyalty, rebellion and defiance, justice and injustice, and the price one eventually has to pay.

Isma Pasha is finally 'free' when the book opens. She no longer needs to play mother to her siblings -- nineteen year old twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, as she had since their mother's death. After struggling with the visa office and quietly swallowing her humiliation she lands in the US to pursue her PhD in Sociology, while the twins stay back in London. Yet she cannot really get away.

By happenstance Isma runs into Eamonn Lone, an old acquaintance and now the son of the Home Secretary, Karamat Lone - a British Muslim. Eamonn is a handsome young man well aware of his position of privilege and also bound by it. Smitten, Isma reveals her background to him, the fact that her father - Adil Pasha - was a jihadist.

A photograph Of Aneeka's at Isma's makes Eamonn trace her down to London. Eamonn and Aneeka are caught up in a whirlwind romance until Eamonn discovers her secret mission, which he perceives as treachery - at least for a while. Meanwhile, lured into following his father's footsteps by a 'friend', Parvaiz travels to Syria, only to find himself trapped in a situation far worse than anything he imagined.

Shamsie's character portraits are realistic: the quicksilver Aneeka as a foil to the somber Isma; the young and defiant Eamonn as a foil to his conformist father, Karamat; the twins as a composite whole with no space to accommodate their elder sibling. The only time the author seems to falter a little is while depicting Aneeka's mercurial nature and whimsical actions, which sometimes come across as contrived.

Shamsie's novel, which moves at the pace of a thriller, is more gripping than any literary novel this reviewer can recall, except perhaps Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Every page is fraught with tension and conflict - both social and psychological, and the pitch perfect account of Parvaiz's life, especially in Syria, reflects the author's exhaustive research and familiarity with the subject.

Kamila Shamsie

Himalayan Hazard – Amitabh Pandey: book review

Himalayan Hazard – Amitabh Pandey
--reviewed by Divya Dubey

Amitabh Pandey’s first novel, Himalayan White, did well as a crime fiction thriller with its protagonist, Gautam Shukla. Shukla is a former lieutenant colonel who used to work with the ‘shadowy’ Special Forces unit and moves to Noida post retirement in this second book, Himalayan Hazard. In this one, the second in the Himalaya series, Gautam Shukla is in search of peace – heading now to the Kumaoni mountainside. In the whole course of the novel he shuttles between Delhi and his 20-acre Himalayan retreat.

However, peace seems a distant dream. This time the aging hero meets Ruth, a ‘striking young Israeli security officer’ – or rather – he and Ruth are deliberately thrown together by Annie, the wife of his closest friend and associate, Datta. Shukla and Ruth hit it off immediately and together they happen to witness a fatal attack on a politician, a VIP, in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. 

It transpires that the assassins behind the killing are ‘bhais’ working in tandem with an international drug cartel  to build opium-growing farms in the Kumaoni region. While Shukla is dragged into the affair against his wishes, trying to track them down along with Datta and another friend and associate, Sanju, Ruth is also involved in the matter officially but in a roundabout way, thanks to a former friend and close colleague.

Amitabh Pandey
One’s reaction to this novel is lukewarm at best. Most of the characters are interesting and realistic – Shukla, the Dattas, Ruth, Sanju and the others, but the plot does not have anything new or fresh to offer. The ‘bhais’ and their henchmen, including the mysterious sounding Mo, live up to their television/movie clichés. They are more of the cardboard variety, quite predictable in their words, tone, actions and fate. Most of the ‘who’s are revealed early on in the novel, so there is no real suspense as a whodunit would have. This novel is more of a cat-and-mouse game with a neat car chase for a climax – the kind that young men might enjoy, but that would certainly work much better in visual media than it does on paper.  
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales

Don’t Let Go – Harlan Coben: book review

Don’t Let Go – Harlan Coben
--reviewed by Divya Dubey

Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben is an American crime fiction and thriller writer whose last ten novels seized the first spot on the New York Times bestseller lists. He was also the ‘first ever author to win all three major crime writing awards in the US’. Translated into 43 languages his books keep appearing on all major bestseller lists around the world. His latest release, Don’t Let Go, is already a Global Number One Bestseller. 

Needless to say Coben is a master at crime fiction and knows exactly what he is doing. Don’t Let Go is a stand-alone novel and a great page-turner. The story revolves around Napoleon Dumas or Nap, a cop, who is determined to resolve the mystery of his twin brother’s death fifteen years ago. Leo and his girlfriend Diana were found at the railway tracks one night, struck dead by a train engine. Most people believe that the teenagers were drunk or stoned, trying some bravado at the tracks. Some others believe it was a suicide pact between the lovers. Nap is unconvinced by either explanation.

When two police officers appear at Nap’s door with the news that the fingerprints of his ex-girlfriend from fifteen years ago, Maura Wells, have been found at the site of a murder of another colleague, Rex Canton, Nap is forced into action again. Maura Wells disappeared on the night his twin and the twin’s girlfriend were killed. Helping Nap is his dear friend from school, Ellie, and his mentor, Diana’s father, Augie – another cop.  
Somewhat like the characters in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, most of Nap’s school friends grow up in the same neighbourhood and stay on to make their lives. Few leave for greener pastures far off. In fact it is Ellie who suggests that Leo and Diana’s killing could be connected to a secret club – the Conspiracy Club – the teenagers used to be a part of along with four other friends including Maura.

Nap is an exceptionally interesting protagonist and very self-aware. `A la Sherlock, he is only a halfhearted sociopath and does take pains to appear friendly enough to his immediate neighbours. A part-time vigilante who doesn’t mind beating up bad guys and breaking their legs on the sly, he is also ready to pay the price if he is caught. The reader thus knows that he will go any length to get what he wants. Strangely, he is also a character most readers will probably identify and empathize with quite easily.  
The prologue sets the pace of the entire book. Unexpected twists keep the reader hooked. Suspense rules every page. Coben makes sure that the reader will finish the book in one sitting.

Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal, the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle, and the author of Turtle Dove: A Collection of Bizarre Tales

Boo – edited by Shinie Antony: book review

Boo – edited by Shinie Antony
--reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today mag, Nov 19, 2017:]

Not all ghost stories are horrifying. But they do instantly create an element of suspense and anticipation in the reader that no other genre does as easily. Since India has had a long tradition of paranormal tales of every kind – both oral and written forms – right from olden times, creating something com
pletely new is a much more challenging task for contemporary writers.

In Shinie Antony’s anthology, Boo: 13 Stories that will Send a Chill Down Your Spine, a combo of new and known writers, most of whom have not experimented with this genre before, try their hand at it. The consequent collection, therefore, is a superb amalgam of traditional and modern forms of storytelling with some unexpected twists. And then there is Shashi Deshpan
de’s ‘mythofiction’, with Krishna reflecting upon war, death, destruction and his role in the battle of the Mahabharata after the  fact – a story that perhaps falls somewhere in between the two sub-genres.

Shinie Antony
The ‘traditional’ stories such as Manabendra Upadhyay’s ‘The Face’ (trans. By Arunava Sinha), Madhavi S Mahadevan’s ‘The Tiger Lady of Kabul’, Kiran Manral’s ‘Birth Night’ or Durjoy Datta’s ‘Claws’ follow the pattern of Satyajit Ray’s Indigo Stories and Stranger Stories or Ruskin Bond’s familiar ghost story collections that one might enjoy by a campfire at night. Some of the best in the collection, though, are the modern-day psychological thrillers and feature right at the beginning of the collection: KR Meera’s ‘He Ghoul’ (in which a woman spends a night in a bungalow where her first lover was killed), Kanishk Tharoor’s ‘Monkeys in the Onion Field’ (with a most unexpected ghost who turns up unexpectedly to take care of an unexpected task), Jerry Pinto’s ‘In a Small Room, Somewhere’ (that redefines the relationship between a horror story and fear in the present-day world)  and later Shinie Antony’s own ‘Ghost No. 1.’ (about the world’s first – and feminist – ghost). Very few fall short of expectations, given that the writers are well established in their own fields. 


David Grossman; A Horse Walks into a Bar: review

David Grossman; A Horse Walks into a Bar: review

[Published in India Today mag, July 10, 2017:]

A horse walks into a bar, begins an old Jewish anecdote. The barman turns around to him and says, ‘Why the long face?’

In Israeli writer David Grossman’s Man Booker Prize-winning A Horse Walks Into a Bar, the ‘long face’ belongs to the protagonist, Dov Greenstein, a 57-year old stand-up comic in a basement club at Netanya (a coastal town near the West Bank). One evening he proclaims he is planning to enact the ‘mother of all shows’.

In the audience is Avishai Lazar, his childhood friend, the narrator of the book.  A former judge who retired early due to his inability to control his anger, Lazar has somehow been persuaded by his old friend to turn up at this performance, even though they haven’t met for forty years.  ‘I want you to see me, really see me’ he tells Avishai and later to tell him what he sees.

Also in the crowd is Azulai – a tiny ‘medium’ with a speech defect – whom Dov protected from abuse when they were neighbours. Watching the show, Azulai wonders what has happened to Dov; he used to be a ‘good boy’. Now, Dov is irreverent and offensive, and his jokes, though familiar and clichéd, are also sexist and misogynistic.

As the evening progresses, the show turns from a standup performance to an autobiographical narrative in which a disillusioned Dov reveals horrifying details about his past life – his violent father and his helpless mother who worked for the Israeli military industry.

David Grossman
Avishai remembers Dov as a perpetual victim of bullies at an Army Camp that the two of them attended as children, recalling an incident in which Dov walked on his hands to escape a beating while Avishai stayed a silent spectator. The author hints at something more than an ordinary friendship between the two, but leaves the reader guessing.

Dov’s audience, however, wants jokes and is both impatient and uncomfortable at his stories. Avishai wonders, ‘How, in such a short time, did he manage to turn the audience, even me to some extent, into household members of his soul? And into its hostages?’ Gradually, the audience too begins to leave.

The whole novel takes place over a period of two hours with long digressions into the past, into Israeli history and politics woven into the personal life of a broken man. According to Nick Barley, chair of the 2017 judging panel, ‘… every sentence counts, every
word matters in this supreme example of the writer’s craft.’ It is slightly difficult to agree with this view. Jokes that tickle Dov’s audience seem either hackneyed or incomprehensible, especially to a reader unfamiliar with the environment and context.  Language and expressions may be simple but don’t qualify as awesome. Of course translation has its challenges and that fact cannot be discounted. But these factors do influence the overall appeal of the book. 

We That Are Young: Preti Taneja: book review

We That Are Young: Preti Taneja
-Review by Divya Dubey

[Published in India Today magazine: Dec 10, 2017:]

Preti Taneja’s ambitious novel, We That Are Young, touted as a modern-day retelling of King Lear set in contemporary India, is a classic example of a fine writer failing to deliver on a promise. For the book, despite its lovely language and original expressions, comes nowhere close to its original. The original tragedy makes an impact because of its intensity
and the passion of the characters. In this novel, both are lacking. The primary characters aren’t even introduced until much later.

The novel opens with Jivan, half brother of Jeet and the son of Ranjit, returning home from the US after a decade. His long and winding reflections are about his dead mother, his altered relationship with his father and half-brother, and his life thereafter. None of it really counts when we arrive at the novel’s main plot – as we later realize.

In fact almost the first hundred pages of the book describe Jivan’s first day back home, punctuated with several memories, musings and flashbacks. The reader gets the impression that the novel is about Jivan or Ranjit or both – but it is not. The men are only peripheral to the story and the central characters – Devraj, the father of Sita, Gargi and Radha – the owner of Devraj Company or simply the Company, along with his three daughters.

Preti Taneja
However, they bear minimal resemblance to Lear or his offspring – Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Just when the story begins to develop and the reader is somewhat nudged out of indifference at the interaction between Jivan and Gargi, the POV and narration are handed over arbitrarily to Devraj. POV/narration shifts between the characters and the third-person arbitrarily. Unfortunately, in either case, it never quite manages to draw the reader in. At best actions and dialogues remain superficial, never quite creating the desired effect. For the most part the novel remains dry and dreary, offering nothing to the reader to root for. Even the present-tense device, usually employed to create a sense of immediacy, falls flat. It seems as if in the attempt to be intellectually impressive, it completely ignores the reader or the need to connect with them at a deeper level.

The plot is roughly modelled on King Lear, built around the Company, which has under its umbrella – coffee chains, hotels, fabrics, etcetera – which Devraj wants to divide equally between his daughters. However, unnecessarily long and banal dialogues with occasional sprinklings of Hindi straight out of Hindi soap operas are more frustrating than engaging. Devraj as Lear is a damp squib. The book could easily have been two hundred pages shorter and a great deal tighter.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories: book review

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories: edited by Catriona Mitchell
--reviewed by Divya Dubey
266 pp
Rs 399

[Published in Hindustan Times, Jan 28, 2017:]

As the incidence of crime against women continues to increase in India, feminist discourse has acquired greater relevance than ever. Eighteen voices (women with varied backgrounds and histories) in this non-fiction collection, Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, spell out ‘what it means to be a woman in India in a time of intense and incredible change’. Yet, one cannot but admit the more things change the more they remain the same – especially regarding the majority of the population’s mindset which, even in urban India, is firmly rooted in p
atriarchy. Despite the hostile environment more and more women, regardless of the stratum of society they hail from, are constantly rediscovering and reinventing themselves.

Writer and publisher, Namita Gokhale, says in the Foreword, ‘In a society where women’s minds as well as their bodies are perceived as  belonging to their fathers, their brothers and their husbands, women write about sexuality to test the limits of autonomy, to take charge of their intellect and creativity.’ This indeed is a crucial step where women’s freedom and empowerment has clear limits.

A blend of young and old voices (most of them well known; one anonymous) provides the book variety and perspective. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the younger writers come across as more candid and emphatic, while the older ones sound milder and more circumspect in their writing. Overall though, the compilation is a smooth concatenation of ‘mini-memoirs’. It isn’t possible to delve upon each piece individually, but that hardly makes any less significant than the others. The scope of the subject is so vast and the repertoire of women writers so great, that sequels or series could – and perhaps should – be a distinct possibility.

Some narratives are more hard-hitting than others, while some have more heart. Annie Zaidi’s piece, for instance, is one of the most appealing and memorable. She speaks about her life as a journalist, about the limited options women had in terms of career when she was young and the way working women were generally perceived: ‘The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one […] The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for “other” purposes.’

Being denied the most basic rights and amenities, besides being subjected to various injustices and humiliations has always been a matter of course for Indian women. This collection brings them firmly into focus. Several contributors have mentioned the Indian obsession with fair skin, especially while seeking matrimonial alliances. A finalist at the Miss India beauty pageant, Ira Trivedi, who spent a few years working at a marriage bureau, says, ‘…here in Punjab, the Mecca of fair skin, I realize how pervasive the obsession with fair skin is […] cast doesn’t hold as much status as before […] so because of the lack of any other metric, people are using skin colour to judge class.’ Rosalyn D’Mello, on the same theme, reveals: ‘Once, two women who were walking towards me on a street in Mumbai […] noticed how my colour resembled a black cat’s and spent a fair amount of time manoeuvring their gait so as to avoid crossing my path.’

Mitali Saran talks about being a wildly independent woman in a country obsessed with marriage; Tishani Doshi’s bold and poignant piece reveals her thoughts on the concept of motherhood and choosing not to be a mom; Margaret Mascarenhas speaks of gender identity flux and an affair with another woman; Sharanya Manivannan discusses how she turned the traditional Indian symbols of marriage around (sari, bindi, toe rings, etc) to make a different kind of statement (marriage to her art); the anonymous writer’s narrative about being chained to fear and violence is tremendous.
Almost all the writers have mentioned the 2012 Nirbhaya rape incident as the turning point in Indian history regarding altering laws in favour of women victims. In this context the Preface by Justice Leila Seth, who was directly involved in the case, becomes pertinent.

Even without the detailed preliminaries this collection would have made a mark. Ideally, it should be compulsory reading at every university, regardless of the student’s gender or specialization. The fundamental theme, i.e., respect for all women should, in fact, be introduced at kindergarten level so that tomorrow’s women do not have to grow up with such horror stories . 

Thicker than Blood: book review

Thicker than Blood: Munmun Ghosh
--Reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in Hindustan Times, Oct 18, 2016:]

Munmun Ghosh

Mummun Ghosh is a journalist with two novels to her credit already: Hushed Voices (2007) and Unhooked (2012). Apart from Stardust and The Economic Times, she has worked for The Daily and

Her third novel, Thicker than Blood, fits neatly into the arc of a traditional fiction novel: quest, obstacle, dilemma, choice, climax. The protagonist, Mayuri, is a Bombay-based woman who gave up a possible career in Psychology to marry Vimal, her dream man, rather early in life. Both husband and wife are in their mid- or late twenties.

The quest in this case is Mayuri’s pregnancy – she is obsessed with the ‘maternal urge’ and the desire for motherhood – and obstacles are many: Vimal’s rich but stingy father who resents the expenditure on expensive infertility treatments; Vimal’s mother, who believes children are gifts from God and Mayuri should be spending more time praying and practising rituals to please them rather than chasing doctors and hospitals; Vimal himself, who believes he and his wife are still quite young and have enough time to make babies; and the futility of all the treatment processes already undergone.
Mayuri, however, soldiers on, driven by her yearning for a child. In the process she drags Vimal into several of her experiments – procedures or poojas and rituals.  Once he is asked to undergo a surgery; at another time she coerces him into relinquishing non-vegetarian food that he loves. Her desperation has been portrayed very well.  She even lands up at a shady locality to visit a tantric on the recommendation of her hairdresser, but manages to leave unscathed. Later, her confession to her husband makes him thaw a little towards her and he agrees to see the doctor with her.

Another couple that serves as a foil to Vimal and Mayuri, and perhaps occupies almost as much of the story-space as them, is Rahul and Seema, Vimal’s brother and sister-in-law. Seema is a strong woman, the daughter of an actor, who had to suppress her dreams of acting when she married Rahul. However, several years after marriage, now when their children are
slightly older and more manageable and Rahul has taken to visiting dance bars to entertain bar dancers, Seema returns to theatre, her first love. She is the kind of woman Mayuri both admires and abhors, which is perhaps one of the main reasons why they are best friends. When the story opens, Seema is practising reading from Tenessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, with her theatre group. With time she excels at her part, is made an offer and is quick to accept it. To find something that would fulfill her, at Seema’s suggestion, Mayuri joins an NGO.

Much of Mayur’s personality is revealed through her interactions with Seema, her responses to her behaviour and judgement of her actions, many of which she cannot comprehend since she views her as ‘endowed’ while she herself is ‘deprived’.  At times, in fact, the novel begins to seem more like Seema’s story than Mayuri’s own. Her character, too, is better etched.

Out of the five parts the novel has been divided into, the first deals with the issue of infertility, the second with home, family affairs and resorting to prayers and ritualism. The next three deal with the two parallel storylines – Mayuri’s and Seema’s – as they face and slay their individual demons.
As Mayuri hops/skips/jumps from doctor to doctor in the hope of being able to conceive, her fears and frustration are very well conveyed. The author’s familiarity with the subject and the thoroughness of her research are also apparent in her portrayal of these visits and dealings.

At one point Mayuri reconnects with a friend from college, Shreyas, whose wife committed suicide. He is a common friend and Vimal shows no jealousy or insecurity towards him. Mayuri, sure of her own love for her husband, encourages Shreyas to flirt with her. Afterwards Shreyas is emboldened enough to make a pass at her. Even though she is tempted to give in to this one indiscretion, she resists and manages to ask him to leave.

Right from the beginning, Mayuri has been shown as a middle class ‘good girl’ with all the right values. She never had any experience with men before Vimal, barring a vague ‘necking’ incident with a cousin when she was a teenager. Her conjugal life, before the obsession with childbirth, was near-perfect, and she emerges triumphant after the Shreyas debacle, completely in love with her husband again. As a heroine though, Seema is a far more realistic and likeable character.

The only thread in the story that doesn’t quite hang together is Swati, Mayuri’s sister-in-law from her own side, and her daughter, Payal, about to finish school. There is too little about them, for the family tragedy that follows, to make any impact upon the reader. It seems like an extraneous element introduced simply because the book seemed incomplete without a loss.

The acceptance of fate and evolution at the end are realistically drawn, if somewhat predictable. However, shoddy editing and absolute howlers take away a great deal from the reading pleasure. 

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer: book review

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer
Reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in the Asian Review of Books]

Aatish Taseer, the son of well-known Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh and Late Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan who was killed by his own bodyguards for standing up against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, made his debut as a writer with his memoirs, Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands in 2009 – a
work which prompted VS Naipaul to declare him as ‘a writer to watch’. Since then Taseer has produced three novels in quick succession that reflect various kinds of turmoil in his own life. The Temple Goers, his first, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2010. The second, Noon, was published by Picador (UK) and Faber & Faber (USA).

 Taseer’s latest work, The Way Things Were, released recently, is a story about the parallel lives of Toby, a half-Indian, half-Scottish Sanskritist and his son Skanda, revealed through the voices of an omniscient narrator as well as Skanda’s own, which take the reader into frequent flashbacks as Skanda recounts to Gauri, his new girlfriend in India, his family’s history and the doomed romance of his parents, and how their lives fell apart amidst major events in the country – the Emergency (1975), Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the consequent Sikh killings (1984) and the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya (1992).

Toby’s death is announced at the beginning of the book. Toby, the Raja of Kalasuryaketu, had left India for good after his estrangement from his wife, Uma, Skanda's mother. Now Skanda is an adult Sanskritist himself, busy translating the text of The Birth of Kumara in Manhattan. It is his responsibility to bring his father’s body back to his birthplace and he is also entrusted with the task of immersing his father’s ashes in the holy river Tamasa – something he doesn’t accomplish until much later. It is during this time that he rediscovers his roots. By the end of the book Skanda realizes what his father’s death symbolizes:

‘His father, when he was alive, had, no matter how nominally, embodied the past. But, with that body gone, it was as if he, Skanda, needed the child to come up in him from the depths of a buried past to merge with the adult, like a reflection rising to meet its object […] “Men need history,’ Naipaul tells us, “it helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there.’’

History is significant throughout this book which the blurb describes as ‘a magisterial novel about the pressures of history upon the present moment.’

In the initial flashback pages, after Toby’s talk on adi-kavya at the Indian International Centre on June 26, 1975, the first day of the Emergency in India, a man asks him what the Ramayana means to him. Myth or history?

Toby replies with a smile, ‘Why not stick with the Indic definition? Of Itihasa! Which is a compound, as you know, iti-ha-asa, and when broken down, means, literally, The Way indeed that Things Were. That covers everything: talk, legend, tradition, history…’

Unlike most diaspora writers, Taseer’s novels are not focused on hyphenated identities or the angst of second or third-generation Indo-Brits or Indian-Americans still struggling to comprehend their relationship with the country of their ancestors, torn between disparate cultures.

Aatish Taseer
The most amazing thing about Taseer’s novel is his genuine love of Sanskrit – a language even most Indians living in India look upon as defunct today. Taseer has lived in India, Pakistan, the US and the UK. Yet his knowledge of ‘cognates’ (words with the same origin) is quite deep and has been used as a device that connects father (Toby) and son (Skanda), both of whom share a passion for them. Skanda, for example, is shown pondering over them:

‘A game of cognates – a game his father had taught him – begins on the plane with the flight map. Distance to destination. Destination: gantavya. The place to be gone to. Gerundive of gam, an old Indo-European thread which takes little leaps of meaning as it travels west: turning go to come. In Gothic, qvam; in English, come; in Latin venio for gvemio….’

Taseer uses many such as these exhaustively in the book – to the point that one of the critics has commented that his ‘characters pale before cognates’. The observation is justified considering the protagonist and his family – Toby, Uma, their children Skanda and Rudrani, and later the children’s step-parents Mani and Sylvia – seem somewhat insipid vis-a-vis the ideas they represent. The portrayal of other major characters such as IP (Uma’s brother and a major cause of the rift between husband and wife), Viski (Uma’s brother-in-law), Vijaipal (the author), and Kitten Singh (a former friend turned ‘enemy’) too could have been more forceful.

In a recent interview with Newslaundry Taseer mentioned he believes in two kinds of people: those who are of the intellect and those who are not. His preoccupation with his intellectual and philosophical quests and ruminations is reflected in almost all the characters in this novel, including some who, given their background, should have been two-dimensional. A few of them have been identified as caricatures of real-life ‘drawing-room’ people from Lutyens’ Delhi – the elite from Tavleen Singh’s circles.

It is interesting that this novel appeared soon after Smriti Irani, the minister of Human Resource Development in India, announced the decision to re-introduce Sanskrit as a subject at school-level (replacing German) – a move that invited much flak from the media and the country’s citizens. Taseer himself spoke of it as an act of piety rather than an intellectual exercise.
The role of language and its relationship with the past then has been clearly defined. As Toby says in the book:

‘…if we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing – the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting – we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language […] It changed my entire relationship with what remained of old India in India…’

 A discerning reader with some interest in history and etymology will enjoy this book very much indeed.