Books

Solo

Rana Dasgupta

I remember liking Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta’s earlier (and first) work of fiction. When I first came across Solo, its blurb content for some reason made me stay away. I remembered the leaps of imagination and thought I might not be able to keep pace. Recently, I read his non-fiction work ‘Capital’ and thoroughly loved it. And thus Solo arrived on my bookshelf.

A blind old man in Bulgaria, cared for by his neighbours, and dependent on them for many of his basic needs, reminiscing about the days gone by, might seem like a rather dry premise to base a novel on, but it magnificently surprised me. Ulrich is nearing the end of his life’s tenth decade and has lived through years of Bulgarian political experiments as the country’s elite switched their ideologies through the great wars and after. His early well-provided-for life contrasts sharply with the poverty of his later years, and the steadily declining quality of his life is poignant in itself. Through Ulrich’s perspective and experiences we see the socio-economic changes that take place in the country, and the author is able to do justice to both the suddenness of some of them as well as the gradual nature of the others. The sensitivity with which the author narrates a life that’s fallen on hard times that’s truly wonderful. More

This Divided Island : Stories from the Sri Lankan War

Samanth Subramanian

We visited Lanka in 2010, just after the war had ended. Reading this book, and on hindsight, I think we underestimated the seriousness of what the country had gone through. I remember the undercurrent of bitterness in a conversation I overheard while sitting in a Colombo cafe. Directed at Rajapaksa, whose smiles beamed down on you every time you looked around, it was about how he was presiding over a reign of terror. I was surprised, because I thought everyone would be happy that the war had ended. Another instance I remember clearly – driving through Trincomalee and seeing some lovely beaches, I asked the driver to stop so we could walk a bit. He laughed ruefully and said that entry was restricted. The soldiers were clearing the area of land mines and a walk there might relieve me of limbs or even life!
When I wrote the travel log, I had the luxury of making these footnotes, but this book is a visceral breakdown of what Lanka went (and still goes) through. The war might have ended, but the scars remain fresh. I haven’t read any war or post war accounts, and therefore lack the perspective to compare, but I do know that this book really brings out the futility of such human conflict. The battle has very less to do with good and evil, because both sides have very little territory to occupy on moral high grounds. A line from Star Wars comes to mind “you have become the very thing you swore to destroy”. Prabhakaran’s treatment of fellow Tamils is about as bad as what the Lankan army inflicted on them. As a Lankan Tamil says in the book, the Tigers first lost the war “for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils” before it lost the other war.

The Road to Character

David Brooks

The concept of the book is something I could easily relate to. In fact, it reminded me of a favourite concept from the Mahabharata – Jaya and Vijaya. Vijaya is victory over others, and Jaya is victory over self. In this book, the author writes about two sides of our nature – one that is ambitious and career oriented, and another that is more concerned with the moral battles within.

He calls the former the ‘Big Me’ culture, where the focus is on the individual – be it consumption, or self actualisation. The alternate is where the individual has the humility to understand that he is part of a much bigger picture and through what the author calls ‘eulogy virtues’ builds relationships and moral standards. Using examples across history, walks of life, gender and race, he illustrates how some people have built themselves a moral fibre slowly but surely. He then uses the lessons from these as a contrast to the excesses of our age – from contexts that range from parenthood to social media.

The journeys of the individuals are in themselves fantastic reads. The chapter titles are a clue to the thrust of the arguments within – self conquest, struggle, self mastery etc – and the author does a great job of tracing the tribulations, and the moral ascent of the people involved. My favourite would be George Eliot. Across the vast stretches of time that separates us, her words spoke to me. More

The Consolations of Philosophy

Alain de Botton
“Helping us live our lives” is the purpose of philosophy, says the blurb on the book cover, attributed to Independent. I vaguely remember Plato saying that the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die, but let’s assume that Independent is talking about the purpose of philosophy in the context of this book. The intent of the book, therefore, cannot be faulted.
The author, both in terms of content and style of writing aims to make the works of the masters accessible to us. Content both from what he chooses to share from the works as well as the packaging. The human conditions that are addressed are universal and what keeps us up at night – unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy (that’s probably not that universal), a broken heart, and difficulties. In each of these contexts, the author draws from not just the philosophies of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche but their lives as well. He also uses snippets from his own life to give it a contemporary flavour and wit to make it relatable. So far so good.

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro

I was a little biased before I started this book. It is impossible to escape the hype – it is a Booker prize winner! But two points – the ‘slimness’ of the book, (!) and the overall premise – a butler’s reminisces – made me wonder about how good it would be. Silly me, I realised long before the book was finished.

The premise is indeed that – Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall sets out on a ‘motoring’ tour at the suggestion of his new employer Mr.Farraday. In addition to some leisure time before he implements a new (and much reduced) staff plan, Stevens also looks forward to meeting and recruiting the mansion’s former housekeeper Miss Kenton, who had left the service to get married. He is hopeful of achieving this end thanks to a letter he has received from her which hints at some dissatisfaction in her life and a desire to be back at Darlington Hall.

The year is 1956, and this is as close to a roadtrip I have read of in that era. :) The narrative, in the first person, is as revealing of the perfect butler qualities of Stevens as the actual stories he shares. This is actually the triumph of the author – the masterly control over every said and unsaid word of the protagonist. The book takes us through the events of the trip itself as well as anecdotes from the past – when Stevens was still serving Lord Darlington. These tales bring to light the political intrigues at Darlington Hall as well as Stevens’ relationships with those around him – primarily his employer, and Miss Kenton. Hindsight gives Stevens (and the reader) a much different perspective of events from the time they actually occurred. We are able to see things much more clearly, something Stevens failed to do then. More

Capital : The Eruption of Delhi

Rana Dasgupta

Much has been written about the Maximum City – fiction and non fiction – and it continues to be the muse of many authors. But other than Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, I have not really read a book on Delhi. Add to that Rana Dasgupta’s superb play on the title itself – Capital – and this was a book I had to read. I am really glad it didn’t disappoint.
There are many Delhis, as Dalrymple brought out in his book. The city has existed in many forms across centuries, and many of them live side by side – Mughal, British, post-partition, post 1984, and the one that the author stresses most on – post 1991. It is easy to see many parts of the commentary as a standard impact of globalisation, but if you have lived on both sides of the 90s, you would know what an enormous impact liberalisation has had on our lives. But I get ahead of myself!  More

Last Man in Tower

Aravind Adiga

Vishram Society, and its original version – Tower A – is not a symbol of modernity, nor of comfort. But despite the peeling paint and the patchy water supply, the building and its residents represent an “unimpeachably pucca’ middle class residential cooperative. Inaugurated in the 50s on Nehru’s birthday, the originally Christian residents showed their secular spirit and openness by allowing Hindus, and Muslims later. A monument of times past, that is how one could describe the place whose character is etched out really well by the author.

He sets up the plot really well by showing the tiny chinks in the otherwise abundant neighbourliness that exists in the apartment complex. From the respected Masterji to the security guard Ram Khare, and the Puris and Kidwais and Regos in between, the author quickly starts peeling open the characters, and the veneer.  More

Red Bull to Buddha

David Passiak

I came across this book thanks to an article on the web that quoted a paragraph from this book. The paragraph comes pretty late in the book and deals with the ‘cycles of birth and death’ tenet in Hinduism. It is indeed one of the several bright sparks in the book.

Let’s start from the beginning. It’s pretty much the typical ‘story’ of a Westerner feeling disgusted with the levels of greed and materialism rampant in the US suddenly deciding to drop everything and come to the East for ‘the answer’. To his credit, the author himself acknowledges it, and calls out the fact that everyone is in search of the elusive ‘answer’. I actually saw the title in that context but it actually is about Red Bull being considered a legit offering made to the Buddha by his devotees in parts of Thailand. I found some of the events narrated a tad difficult to believe – specially the encounters with the sadhus in India – but hey, as the author states, ‘our beliefs create the world we live in’. Also, the experiences indeed make for good stories at the very least. More

Axiomatic

Greg Egan

I have always been amazed at Neal Stephenson for being able to write Snowcrash and The Diamond Age in 1992 and 1995 respectively. I am now equally amazed that Greg Egan wrote this in 1995. In fact, even more, because while the first two books were novels and dealt with a smaller number of concepts, this book is a collection of short stories, and except for a (connected/repeat) couple, are unique concepts. Imagine, 18 stories with ideas that would still be regarded as science fiction!

In addition to this, there are at least two factors that made me a fan. The first is that while the ideas themselves are wonderfully imaginative, the focus really is on the effect on humans and humanity. Nuanced explorations of how the human psyche functions and reacts when faced with profound moral choices. The technology, though advanced, is taken as a backdrop against which societal, psychological and philosophical questions are raised and consequences revealed. ‘The Hundred Light Year Diary’, for instance, where everyone knows their fate, or ‘Eugene’, in which a couple try to design a perfect child. Both stories featuring the ‘Jewel’ are a wonderful study on the idea of consciousness. ‘The Walk’ is a fantastic thought on ‘identity’. ‘The Moat’ I found particularly relevant in this era when we are facing a widening economic divide. More

The Calcutta Chromosome

Amitav Ghosh

“The Glass Palace” is one of my all time favourites, and I find it difficult to believe that it was written by the same author. That is by no means a takedown of this book, in fact it is to the author’s credit that he manages to do such a fantastic job across genres!

I’m finding it very difficult to give a genre label to this work – fantasy, horror, thriller, medical mystery historical fiction – though sci-fi for some reason seems to be its accepted genre. The plot uses a whole lot of themes – science, mysticism, religion, mythology, counter-science, even nihilism to a certain extent. I can’t be sure but I also wonder if the author was firing a tiny salvo at a Western attitude towards Indian scholars, and how history has been written to glorify its authors. (non-objective and not giving credit where due) More