Flat-track Bullies by Balaji Venkataramanan

February 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Originally published at goodbooks, a website for  reviews, discussions and more on Indian Children’s books. 

Every once in a while, one ends up with a book which sounds promising, gets excited, only to be disappointed in the end. Madras, Chennai, if you want, is my home and it isn’t common to find a children’s book, set here.

The story as such is truthful- Balaji Venkatramanan takes us through the world of IIT classes, cricket coaching, spelling bees etc- the cold, planned summers which are built by zealous, domineering parents for their wards. The book is a journal of Ravi, the child who decides he is to have a few fun things as well, and, along the way learns a few invaluable lessons.

Where the book fails though, is the writing. Children’s books are about children. As such, the best writers for children are great story tellers- they bring to life a world of adventure, discovery and most of all, do not impose adult views of the world on to the story. The author has liberally sprinkled his take on everything under the sun as the view of the narrator. A few examples:

“Storytelling- it’s such a girly session. The less said the better. Only girls and the girl-type guys attend. I am too old and macho for that.”

“Sanaa, though thirteen, is wearing a six-year-old’s top and a five-year-old’s shorts. Seriously, where are they from- Delhi or Denmark? GRUMPY GRAPES I dare not think what they would wear if they went to US or elsewhere.”

“Mom thinks marbles is a game for those who use Indian-style toilets. What skewed logic! But that’s mom for you.”

“One thin AIDS-patient-like guy asked for Suresh’s cigarette to light up his own.”

“Every moron these days can play the keyboard or sing or dance with the exception of me…”

“I do really hate the retired types. The JACKFRUIT retired cases. I think they should keep a warning board in every apartment ‘beware of dogs and retired cases: one barks, the other bites, guess who?”

’Who won it? Was it the yellow-underwear girl or the black-underwear girl?’ Would you believe it? It was our tennis coach”

Not sure what exactly is the author’s intention here, but a plain reading of it, does come out as distasteful, sexist and utterly inappropriate, especially in a children’s book. Not merely the comments, but their position in the book- these could have been done away with entirely and don’t add much to the story. Wonder if the publishing house (Duckbill) holds similar views, considering they have kept it.

Ravi Venkatesan, a twelve year old boy, loves to swear. Of course, there isn’t actual swearing, just names of fruits, as he fears the journal might land up in the hands of his mother. Funny name calling should be fine, but page upon page, we are put through mangoes, grapes and watermelons- bigger the fruit, the more intense the emotion. It is almost tiring even, to imagine an adolescent with such a big gutter mouth. JACKFRUIT tiring.

The strength of the book is the plot. Ravi gives the slip to his parents to play with Durai, the son of his family’s ex-maid and Durai’s friends along with his best friend, Ramesh. The adventures are exciting and fun. We are even taken on a tour of the Mylapore street festival. As the boys lounge in a graveyard and Ravi ensures they win a few bet matches against rivals, the trouble comes when there is a “gang” fight- Ravi and his friends jump into a flat, where a car with broken glass gets them into trouble. The two worlds of Ravi meet, with an obvious ending.

Ravi is also obsessed with breaking coconuts for God, with him offering the tropical fruit for all sorts of favors. Nothing wrong with that, just might not be everyone’s cup of filter coffee, especially when the same thing is repeated over and over and over and over.

While the story as such is exciting, it wasn’t a fun read, as the author keeps tripping on his shoelaces, imposing his sordid views throughout. Overall, the book could have been made to work. Looking at the plot objective, there is nothing wrong with it, in fact the book presents a reality. If the author had kept out his prejudices and merely written the story, the book might have worked.


July 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Image from here.

The Cat’s Table is the second book by Michael Ondaatje that I have read. Ondaatje is one of those authors whose writing leaves you with that funny little good feeling. His words caress the landscapes of familiarity with a touch so distant, that your senses feel tickled, searching half in joy, half in melancholy for a reconciliation with the fictional world.

If Anil’s journey(In Anil’s Ghost) to find evidence against the government during the civil unrest was about an adult traveling through a home that never was, Michael’s journey on the Oronsay is about a small world drawn by a boy around himself, on a ship while crossing the seas. A world, which even though years pass, he cannot forget.

The journey has a childish innocence to it, and as a contrast, the parts where the author talks about what happened after the voyage leave you spell-bound as he flexes the words to bend backwards in presenting the complex relationships and affections between the people he met on that fateful boat.

The author narrates without imposing any views about the characters, they are people with their funny little ways and means.  Indeed, that is what makes the description of the journey what it is- the unbiased presentation of a territory inhabited by an eleven year old- Curious, inquisitive about the adults on board and their travails while causing a riot every now and then.

What makes the book special, is how the author brings together, the story of a childhood and juxtaposes it against the story of an adult.  His affection for Ramadhin, the career of Cassius- his two close friends on board, the various people of the Cat’s table and his cousin, Emily and her life after the ride across the seas, are told with a margin of emotions. Not everything is pleasant throughout the journey, we see the child trying to cope with death, being used to steal and almost being killed in a storm.

The Cat’s table is a wonderful read, one which can be savored. There is a satisfaction in reading it, inspired by the author’s own journey from Colombo to London, one gets to see a world which seems dear to the writer. It is as if he is telling you his favorite story, as if you are special enough to hear it.


July 10, 2012 § Leave a comment



“Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.”



Some books transcend beyond the obvious, play with your little grey cells, fascinate and leave you in a world unlike anything you know. Such books become a journey at the end of which one is left to ponder upon the  ironies and foibles of life .


Metaphysical Detective stories are where instead of arriving at a solution for the case, the protagonist loses himself in the mysteries, questions his existence and the world around him and emerges as a completely transformed person. The stories tend to suck one in, the metamorphosis slowly but surely spreading to the reader as they progress.


The New York trilogy is a master piece. It leaves you enthralled not just by its simplicity but a profound beauty in both style and essence. The protagonists of the three stories are tormented due to  their own stubbornness and become part of mysteries reluctantly. Daniel Quinn chases shadow and camps outside a window, waiting.  Blue tails White with dedication and determination which seems to lead nowhere. Fanshawe’s friend is left with a tormenting  legacy which he admires.




City Of Glass:-


“It was a wrong number that started it.”


A detective writer receives calls asking for a certain “detective Paul Auster”. While at first he tries to ignore the calls, he is over come by curiosity and decides to play along. He assumes the personality of the detective and visits his client Peter Stillman who narrates a tale of his dark childhood. Quinn dons the role of a private eye and is soon consumed by his mission- keeping track of Peter Stillman the elder to ensure he does not attempt to kill his son.


The author brings to life the streets of New York in this book. As Quinn follows his suspect, his form and person give in to a routine unlike any other. The case starts to define his life and as it wears on leads to disintegration. The already sketchy existence of Quinn, who writes novels under a pseudonym soon reaches the margins of the society. In his attempt to define his new personality, he sheds everything that was him and finds the place he occupied before filled by other things and people. It leaves you with a strange kind of silence, a place where one  questions one’s sanity.





Blue accepts to watch Black for White. He is given an apartment opposite White’s, money to meet expenses and a comfortable remuneration.  Blue watches Black day and night, trails him, follows him compulsively. He changes his routine to match that of Black. He sends in his reports duly,distances himself from his lover and people he knew and dedicates himself to the job at hand.


Yet as time passes, doubts creep in and not only is he driven to find out more about Black, he begins to doubt White’s motive and identity. Blue decides to get to the bottom of the case only to find the reality nothing like what he imagined. Was it worth his time and the love he gave up? He tries to reconcile his life to find a fleeing meaning in it.



The Locked Room


When Fanshawe’s friend steps into Fanshawe’s life, he does it completely- he marries his wife, adopts his son and  publishes his work. That’s what his friend wanted, he is assured. The books become a success and he leads a comfortable life albeit still clueless to Fanshawe’s sudden disappearance,  till one day he receives a letter from Fanshawe, thanking him for his efforts.


This  leads the friend to go in search for him. He also decides to write about Fanshawe and is slowly and surely driven insane. The search turns out to be futile till one day he ends up at a locked room. In his quest to find his friend and write about him, the friend loses everything he has and finds himself in a hard place.





“It seems to me that I will always be happy in the place where I am not.”



The stories and the characters are interwoven. The narrative is about men who lose their identity to the task at hand. At first merely inquisitive, the mysteries capture their identities, twisting and turning, redefining the position and personalities.


The protagonists are manipulated by the people and their surroundings, pulled into unknown territory. Jobs that look quite comfortable and outright  lead to positions unlike any other. The madness that possesses their subjects spreads out bit by bit to catches their own shadows; Albeit sensing it at some level, they give in.


Writing is something which is very much part of the books. There is always someone who is writing in the three stories. While there is little about what they write, the stories are about the impact the writing has on the world, its critics and the authors. While writing is healing is a common enough notion, the book deals with the influence it has on a person beyond the healing effect. One finds what goes into the book, the emotions attached to the act itself, the mind behind it and the creative.


Auster’s magic lies in translating the deeper need for definitions and belonging in society into real characters. One can see those magical moments of change touching them and transforming their lives. One can hear a silence as the beauty(in a sad sort of way) overtakes their earlier self. As Quinn walks through the streets of New York or waits in the streets for a face to appear at the window, as Blue trails Black in deep concentration and expectation, as Fanshawe’s friend searches for him, thinking about him always, reading his works, living with his wife,  they evolve step by step. They come close to becoming real in the reader’s head even as their existence in fiction becomes wraith-like at times. One understands their madness and can feel it lingering in deep recess waiting to manifest.


The trilogy is a must read if you like detective fiction. Auster’s work has the thrill and suspense a detective fiction possesses. It is also about writers ad their pointed need to merge the identities of fiction and reality to paint a world of their own. While the concrete mysteries are sure, the abstracts leave much to solve. One can feel their madness- much like staring at the computer screen for too long, lurking somewhere inside.


Rating:- 9/10



Magnolias by Malati Shah and Amrita Kanther

March 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

The beauty of the book lies in its simplicity and the colourful Pahari paintings. Pahari is used to describe the painting style from the Himachal region during the 17th-19th century. The style is characterized by breathtaking and colourful backgrounds, bringing out the colours and vistas of the region. The book opens with a beautiful painting of the farmer walking up a path with the sunrise in the background. Every illustration by Amrita Kanther is worth more than thousand words!

Gulab the gardener picks up a bunch of Magnolias as requested by his wife. On the way back home, he presents it to various people and animals. He even leaves a flower on the grave of Coonah the dog. For his wife though, Gulab has a surprise, a pleasant surprise.

The story by Malati Shah is simple, yet detailed. Aided by the paintings, the simple sentences show us the colourful valley of Shimla. The diversity of the valley is brought out as Gulab presents flowers to various people who have come to live there and be associated with him.

It is quite intriguing how even as an adult, you learn about a place from such a book. Photographs put an address to an unknown place but it is illustrations such as these that bring alive the everyday aspects of life and make them seem fantastic;  The elements are bound together subtly, with an ending that will put a big smile on your face. I love the book. It is worth spending time looking just at the art!


P.S:- Time I start planning a trip to that part of the country.



January 18, 2012 § 5 Comments


Beautifully illustrated and exciting!

Enchanted Saarang and the six other stories are from the valleys and hills of Kashmir. The book offers an insight into the life in that part of the country through well written and beautifully illustrated stories. Based on morals and virtues, each story has a different feel to it. One can feel the adventurous Marmot’s pain when other Marmot ostracize him and children’s excitement when they receive Traamkhazaan’s gift. Karim is brave enough to take on two thieves while Gulal the pony proves a mother’s love by fighting a leopard.

The book brings alive the flora and fauna in the valley. One also gets to peer into the customs and values of its people. In the story of the Black Calf, we can see the men drinking tea and smoking. We see young boys and girls gracing cattle and their attachment to their flock.

In Drin, a Kashmiri marmot, we see the curious and adventurous Marmot explore and almost fall prey to poachers. A narrow escape from them and a forest fire later, Drin is almost rejected by the other Marmots because he still smells of the fire! The story acts as a good opening to the book and the theme. The first scene when you part the curtains, the marmots prepare for winter. “He may have been mained for life…but was also now very, very wise,” the author concludes.

In The Enchanted Saarang, Sona is seen grazing his flock when he encounters a girl chased by a demon. He needs to find her Saarang to chase away the demon. Having found the magical Saarang and rescued the girl, he is rewarded by the Naga to king for saving his daughter. In House Thieves, Karim goes after two horse-thieves to rescue Lallo from their clutches. Humza and Fazli are rewarded by the mountain for their selflessness by the mountain Traamkhazaan.

In The black calf, we see Lal Din trying to protect his pony and is in turn protected by it. Power Of Snakes, sees Roger going on an expedition to try to find treasure without heading the warning about snakes and their power and pays for it. Finally in Gulal the Kashmir Pony, we see Gulal the pony fight a leopard to rescue her foal.

The simple yet engaging style of writing has a charm of its own. Proiti Roy’s illustration are lovely, detailed and appropriate. I would say the book is fit for children of four years and above. Asha Hanley does a good job of bringing out the morals by telling the story rather than trying to drill them in. Educative and thought-provoking, the stories show how closely the fates of people and their animals are intertwined. Entertaining and exciting, the book is a very good read.

Rating:- 7/10


January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

Image from here.

There is a genre of Indian movies with villains clad in dhotis, the hero in non-designer pants-shirt, kick ass music, dangerous looking gundas and cops- fun, fast and exciting.  Unfortunately, they don’t make many of these today- take Don 2 for example, the antagonist is surely ‘bad’ and  Hollywood, the locations nothing even remotely close to home(given they probably flew over the Indian Ocean from Asia to Europe) and the only ‘Indian’ element seems to be language.

The Newsroom Mafia, on the other hand has familiar aromas-A Dharavi Tamil villain, a super cop, journalists and politicians. The clique is so cliched that one wonders if it would excite and do what endless movies have done. Oswald Pereira manages to do it. The book has that adrenaline rush which ensures one cannot keep the book down.

The book begins with an inside scoop gone wrong. The Super Cop and his forces fail to capture the Godfather Narayan Swamy, who manages to sneak away from under their nose to Mayiladudurai. The journalist Oscar  narrates the story of the acclaimed Don, his methods and the nexus between the Black, the Gray, the White. With copious amounts of money and bloodshed, all is fair in business especially in a world without much ethics to go by-expect maybe a liberal amount of sacred ash smeared on a forehead.

With the help of ‘consultants’ the Don tries to turn a new leaf, hoping to be seen as a philanthropist and a businessman. But with the Super cop on tow, the firm illicit grounds on which the Godfather’s empire is found is threatened.

Dramatic with masala and booze, the book runs well, drawing inspirations from the lives of Varadhabhai, Haji Mastan and others. Told from a journalists perspective, the author narrates the atrocities and horrors of the underworld and the moves by the Supercop with the same vigour and zest.

One can also see how it is tough for a journalist to remain ‘clean’. With little income, their need for big stories is exploited by people who plant and fabricate stories for their better purposes. The Don, with his sly, manages to recruit a team of intelligent, smart and ambitious journalists to not only help him with an image makeover but also for doing his dirty linen.

A game of chess with an unfair amount of knights and bishops on one side and an uncanny player who tries to bulldoze with rooks, a queen moves with deft feet to make the difference. Well written and researched, the Newsroom Mafia is a thrilling read.

Rating:- 6/10.


December 7, 2011 § 4 Comments

Two Fates: Story Of My Divorce by Judy Balan


Fun, funny and enjoyable!

In India, people just don’t  marry each other rather marriage is a great coming together of two humongous galaxies. The couple is nothing more than two insignificant stars somewhere in this cosmic event.  So what happens when a couple decide to get divorced by mutual consent and remain simply as best friends? Hilarity ensues.

The couple of course is pressed all the while to have a baby. What’s more the Punjabi and Tamilian families go overboard in blending in with each other. Deepika’s money conscious, stingy and traditional Tamil family lets its hair down and does the cha-cha along with a few healthy shots of whiskey. The zealous Punjabi family of Rishab camps in Chennai to be partners in crime in the mission of coercing the couple to have a baby. The families conclude the best way  make ’em make babies is to send them on a second honeymoon to the UK.

The book isn’t a spoof of Chetan Bhagat’s novel, Two States. The author borrows the background, she does what she does best- write a ridiculously sensible and fun book. With a flourish for the language and a simple style the book races ahead in good humour.

The remarkable difference between Two States and Two Fates is the lack of spite. While the author of the former insisted he meant no harm, there were times when one did feel a certain venom(that probably is his nature?) but Judy has none of that- you can see it is in good humour. One might say though that the former edges ahead in terms of being a story-teller.

One cannot but like Deepika and Rishab. They seem so harassed by their families that one hopes they succeed in their divorce. But most of their efforts seem to backfire leading to desperation. The ending has a suitable twist which does leave you with that nice content smile.

A wonderful quick read. Priced at Rs.105(on flipkart), there is no reason you shouldn’t read it. Funny and enjoyable, the book has enough masala thrown in as well. I had high expectations in terms of the content(especially since I know the author) and wasn’t disappointed. The book is marketed as a parody of Two States, which is quite unfair to the book. There is a fine thread which connects the two but one needn’t read Two States to enjoy this- the book stands out on its own.

Rating:- 8/10


September 12, 2011 § 6 Comments

Beyond The Blue River by B.Vinayan

Wheels, check; breaks, check; engine, check-  let’s go!

Grace operates in the city of Sadram and looks like any other Auto, but she isn’t! She hears her master Guru hum the tune of ‘ The Blue River ‘ , sure enough she picks up the tune as well. Soon she has an urge to find The Blue River and when her driver and family go on a vacation, Grace vrooms away through the city into a whole new world!

Fantasy is always fascinating. Autorickshaws have a charm of their own. B.Vinayan, not only brings the Auto alive but  spins a world which is fantastic and educative. Writing for children is an art and the author is very good at it. The charm lies in extending known boundaries by making use of a child’s creative to enthrall and bring to life a whole new world.

The book flows easily and one looks forward to what happens next. As ‘grownups’ one has to try to forget our preconceived notions and prejudices- once one does that, it is a jolly ride! After all not everyday do you come across an Auto that can bend its handles, talk to the wind and even turn into a subatomic particle!

Vinayan, introduces the idea of ‘ extremely tiny creatures’ , ‘ nowHere’ and such in a magical yet elegant manner. The mythological elements are done with gusto. The cart telling stories of The Blue River, reminds me of the narrative tradition in our country.The poems and songs add to the fun.

For children, the universe comes alive to become a cohesive part of their world through stories. The book comes out among other things as a novel attempt to introduce the quantum physics at a very early age- I am not complaining!

While the cover says 12+, I would say 9+ would be more appropriate. The Auto might not be the boy who lived but her adventure sure is exciting and fantastic!

Rating:- 7/10


August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

Memories of a rolling stone by Vina Mazumdar


There are some books which attract you. For some reason, one gets pulled towards them and then there is no turning back. One knows that it is going to affect one is strange ways. Memories Of A Rolling Stone, did precisely that. It has been over a week since I completed the book and I am still mesmerized, influenced and inspired by the book.

This is the first autobiography that I have completed. The book not only gave me an insight into the women’s movement in India but also segments of our history. One of the toughest things to do is to accept that one is wrong- the author talks about the misconception which existed prior to the study conducted for the UN report(during the International Women’s decade) and how even after conclusive facts, politicians and governments were still resistant and apprehensive in accepting the study.

The author talks with humility and confidence which gave me the shudders. In times when exaggeration is the staple and limelight is what many seek, she maintains a poise and narrates her story with calm and unadulterated passion. There are many who dismiss the women’s movement as that of the elite the author highlights the fact that indeed it was so and that rural and poor women, women who did the actual work in the fields where still riddled in the old narrow-minded society.

The book opened a new perspective for me. This is the first time, I have had the opportunity to listen someone who was part of the system. Vina Mazumdar talks about her journey from her home is Kolkatta, through independence, through Oxford, as a teacher and then as a part of the women’s movement. We learn from her life experiences and come to realize that a certain amount of tact and willpower is needed to tackle the problems in our society and country.

While our politicians and TV anchors harp away to glory, there are many who do the actual work. They are the ones who are responsible for our development, freedom and day-to-day existence. The author, inspires and at the end of the day, all I can do is thank her for the book. Well narrated and detailed, the book is like the author a Rolling Stone- the pages keep turning. It would be delightful to have a teacher like her!

Rating:- 8/10


August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Pacy, simple and entertaining.

It is okay if a book isn’t mind-blowing or life changing and just tells a story as long as it is well written and engrossing. Blinkers off may not make you forget everything else around you and transport you to another fantastic world, but it does entertain and is a fun book.

Any well written book has elements that represent reality without making you feel it is real. The trick is to knit a story with the right characters, information and narrate it in an engaging manner. Andaleeb manages this with enough thrill in it to ensure you don’t want to keep the book down!

You can relate to the characters and understand their sentiments. There is no exaggeration, albeit the story having the potential to have enough fake Yankee accent to put your US-return aunt to shame. The author keeps it simple and tells us a story without any pretense or airs.

The book is about a girl who decides she wants to become a writer a screenplay writer no less. It is her first step into that world, we get to see she joins the film classes in her college.

Noor, soon becomes quite a favorite. Though being from a ‘traditional’ family, she learns how  to use the freedom she has been given in the right manner. She becomes a better person, from that girl who everyone seems to ignore to a person who has the confidence to step up and take on the world. There are enough stereotypes in the book to have made it drab, yet Andaleeb goes beyond using them as mere tropes and brings them to life.

A past paced, quick and thrilling read. Simple and elegant. I wouldn’t mind seeing what Noor does after this, in fact I am curious!

Rating:- 7/10

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