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.
THE CAT’S TABLE BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE(book review)
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.
THE NEW YOUR TRILOGY by PAUL AUSTER(book review)
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.
NEWSROOM MAFIA by OSWALD PERERIA (book review)
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.
TWO FATES: THE STORY OF MY DIVORCE by JUDY BALAN
December 7, 2011 § 4 Comments
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.
MEMORIES OF A ROLLING STONE by VINA MAZUMDAR(book review)
August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments
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!
RIVER OF SMOKE by AMITAV GHOSH(book review)
July 29, 2011 § 1 Comment
Intricate, detailed and beautiful.
The details they hit you, they tickle you and they mesmerize you. The book is like that statue which holds your breath and makes you forget yourself. Yet there is something lacking- the warmth, that which makes you curl up in your bed and forget everything else, except the tranquilizing world of the book. The problem is with expectations, Ghosh to me is not merely an author- he is a writer, he is a storyteller; He is that boy, that uncle, that aged R who you love to listen to.
One can’t but help being lost in the pidgin speaking world of Canton. The Pearl River, the avant-garde paintings and the opium all seem to spin around the ball room, pulling us, swaying us. We are at his mercy- we want more, it does not matter what awaits us, yet just when we think we are about to be hung or lost in ecstatic love, we are shoved rashly into a different world. Familiarity breeds contempt- if only I hadn’t read Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide and The Shadow Lines(currently reading).
The book takes us across oceans, rivers, cultures, people, love it has it all. The trilogy is no doubt is an adventure like never before yet none is there to haunt me like Laakhan, make my heart beat faster like Ila and Piya or make me wonder what Tribid would say. Each character is so fit for his part that I am left wanting that imperfection that makes him human and brings him alive. The character who for me is trademark Ghosh is Paulette aka Puggly. She is quirk, beautiful and smart. If only we could have had more of her.
The artist Robert Chinnery and his letters while being a very clever way to give a different perspective, do seem to yearn the secret ingredient and at a couple of places had me longing for more of Bahram Modi.
Neel, the erstwhile ruler turns into a Munshi and is a man of his own. Nowhere do you find evidence of a fall in station; The time spent locked in a cell seems to have sucked away the royalty and yet he maintains a poise which speaks of his breeding. Bahram Modi, his employer, paces him room, brilliantly dressed and imposing with Chi Mei, always lingering, haunting and comforting him.
The characters make the story. Considering the amount of intricate detailing and the gargantuan information thrown in, the book is inspired. It is amazing how he manages to make us sympathize and hate the same person- to narrate and to be unbiased is restraint which is worth admiring.
The book engages and presents a city like none other where men stride across a maidan and smuggle opium in boats. The author enunciates the sing-song language used to trade in Canton and recreates a melting pot like none other. The city with the awe-inspiring Commissioner Lin, who takes it upon himself to try to end the opium trade, its friendly locals, stuck up Englishmen, Indians and people from around the world, is an enchantment, painted in Chinnery’s grotesque ways.
The book is a must read. Especially if you have read The Sea Of Poppies. I have refrained from talking about the story, simply because it isn’t about what happens, but who make it happen. But, there is a part of me, that wishes he wrote like how he did before. It feels like my favorite teacher has become the school principal.
JAYA: AN ILLUSTRATED RETELLING OF THE MAHABHARATA by DEVDUTT PATTANIK(book review)
July 8, 2011 § 2 Comments
image from here.
Crisp, precise, informative and gripping!
While Vedas and Upanishads are the ‘backbone’, epics such as Mahabharta and Ramayana are the nerves of our ‘culture’. In his telling of Mahabaratha as ‘Jaya : An Illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata’,the author informs, educates and makes sense of the massive story in a little over 350 pages.
The book has each of the important events in simple paras with the author’s interpretation(and two cents) following it. The book moves along nice and quick with the events that have the major baring on the great war.
Don’t expect to be enlightened the book is lesser about that and more about giving a quick account of the epic to people who haven’t heard about the epic. One nice thing about the book is that the author has collected tales from different regions of India and other countries such as Indonesia and included them in his ‘explanation’.
The book is also illustrated(by the author himself), but it probably would have been a better idea to have images from famous artists, considering the book is a 2 minute version of the epic probably aimed to impress.
Personally, I liked the book, it was like brushing up through the Mahabharata. The tales from across the country and abroad add value to the narrative. The book is pretty much no frills and does not try to glorify the Pandavas overtly. The author stays true to being impartial and provides a balanced view of the epic. It is easier to see cause and effect, especially with the author reminding us of the same, time and again.
The book was a gripping read no doubt. It had been a while since I read anything regarding our mythology and thus it was a reminder of the moralistic uncertainties and the essence of the epic. Read it if you want to remind yourselves about the Mahabharata. A quick and effective version of the epic, it cuts straight to the point albeit with some of the magic being lost.