Books

Cough Syrup Surrealism

Tharun James Jimani

I’m not sure I really ‘got’ this book. The obvious story line is not really complex – Charlie, a Mallu boy in Chennai, whose dad expects him to become an IAS officer just like him, gets sucked into a world of drugs, music and sex, every fifth page. He also has an identity crisis, and like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up, despite quite a lot of self flagellation and advice from his parents and friends. A nineties kid who refuses to acknowledge, let alone accommodate the noughties, his relationships are anything but simple.

Mao (a figment of Charlie’s imagination) might get irritated, but I wondered if this was the only level this book was operating at. The narrative (and this is not necessarily criticism) is very Charlie-like. I always had this feeling that there was subtext I was completely missing out on. On many occasions, I plodded through text – the Charlie analogy I’d use is that it’s a bit like smiling at pop culture references you haven’t really got. Charlie’s thoughts – for example, mixtapes and body parts – would make for a great conversation when stoned. I wondered quite a few times whether that condition was a prerequisite to reading the book! I’m not even sure if the author meant for this to work that way, but when we have a title that has cough syrup and surrealism, that thought is bound to cross your mind. More

Hawaii

This is my third attempt at this book – I bought it in 2008! In the first attempt, the geological history of Hawaii in the first 15 pages put me to sleep and in the second, the journey of the first settlers of Hawaii from Bora Bora just became too much of a plod work. This time I was determined to complete it, and I am glad I did – the book is magnificent!

We use the word saga a bit loosely, but this one truly deserves that description. From the geological explanations of the formation of Hawaii to the Congressional politics of the 20th century, Michener does what he does best! More

City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi

William Dalrymple

After finishing the book, I was surprised that it was only 339 pages, there is so much in it, and unsurprisingly so. The author mentions in the prologue that depending on whom you ask, the number of Delhis that have existed before the current one is anywhere between 7 and 21, and it is to his credit that he has probably brought out many, many of them. Not in the way of the structured and stratified thirty feet wall that represents 3000 years of continuous occupation to which Professor Lal points and says “The whole history of Delhi is there”, but through different journeys.

There is clearly a preference for the ‘Twilight period’ – between the Mughal decline and the British ascendancy, but there are quite a few pages spent on the Mughal golden age, Tughlaq and other pre-Mughal Delhi rulers, right up till the Mahabharata’s Indraprastha and before, and the post Independence era. It must be mentioned that despite the seriousness with which the author has approached the content, his wit shines through! More

Spoke in the Wheel

Amita Kanekar

‘A novel about the Buddha’ is the way the book is described. Let’s start from that. It’s probably to dispel any ambiguity about the book’s historical authenticity – it is a work of historical fiction. But such is the force of the narrative that it really becomes easy to believe that this version is probably the correct one! It is also the most novel way of presenting the Buddha that I have read.

The book has two parallel narratives. One traverses the path of the Buddha’s life, and the other is set almost three hundred after his death, with a monk named Upali serving as the protagonist. More

The October Horse

Colleen McCullough

I had read the final book in the series – “Antony and Cleopatra” – earlier, so this turned out to be the last book I’d have to read in the ‘Masters of Rome’. That turned out be a good thing because while I liked the entire series, this would be among my top two. An excellent choice of title – borrowed from the ritual of sacrificing the best horse that Rome has. A character compares Caesar to an October Horse during the assassination conspiracy.

The book spends about one third of its pages mopping up the Republican campaign, (rather its remains after the death of Pompey) another third in Caesar’s efforts to ‘put Rome back on her feet’ and the final third in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. More

Mofussil Junction

Ian Jack

What a lovely read!

Now that we have settled that, let me elaborate. Mofussil Junction is a collection of the author’s articles about India, written for various publications, over a time frame of more than 30 years. There are essays, profiles, and some wonderfully wistful travel writings. The book is divided into five parts – places, people, (the Nehru-Gandhi) dynasty, ‘Life and Death’, and ‘Fellow Travellers’.

He had me hooked from the first chapter, when I learned that Bihar was the birthplace of George Orwell! There are vivid portraits of Bombay and Calcutta in the late 80s, but it is the tales of Serampur and McCluskiegunge (not to forget this chapter’s superb title) that truly amaze! More

March of the Aryans

Bhagwan S Gidwani

I feel a little conflicted about this book – on one side, it is wonderful to read a perspective on the dawn of civilisation and the kind of denizens our land had, but on the other, this is clearly a work of fiction, and the author himself states that his sources are not any written ones, but oral traditional memory from different parts of the world. It is clearly aimed at debunking the Aryan invasion theory, and tries to show that the Aryans had merely returned to their place of origin after traveling to many parts of the world.

In addition to demolishing the invasion theory, the author also tries to show that the Dravidian culture was not really independent in origin, but that civilisations on the Ganga, Sindhu-Saraswati, and other regions all had a common point from which they all emanated. More

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini

My perspectives are a bit skewed because I have read the author’s works in reverse chronology. I think that probably explains why I found this a little underwhelming compared to “And the Mountains Echoed“. But if I move that out of the equation, then this is a good book, not just from the point of a universal human story, but for the fact that it is a window into life in Afghanistan.

The book covers the time frame from a few years before the Soviet occupation to the post-Taliban era and covers three generations.
The characters are really fleshed out and this is what works for the book. Amir’s loneliness living as a motherless child, his friendship with Hassan, his complicated relationship with Baba that continues even in adulthood, and his guilt stemming from what he let happen and made happen have all been well captured. Hassan is immediately lovable and the author is able to convince us that such a genuinely noble character can exist. All the others – Amir’s Baba, a complex character who never stops being a proud Afghan despite a massive change in fortunes, his wife Soraya who has her own relatively minor demons to conquer, her parents who probably fit Afghan stereotypes of an older generation couple, and Rahim Khan, who serves as a father figure to Amir and finally shows him the path to redemption – serve as perfect foils. More

Em & The Big Hoom

Jerry Pinto

“Home is not an address, home is family” pretty much defines what the story is all about. Jerry Pinto’s debut novel is the story of one woman, her madness, and how her family lives through it in a 1 BHK flat in Mahim. There is no large canvas, no spectacular events, it’s a simple story about complex lives, narrated in the most disarming and sensitive manner.

Em holds the story together, as she does her family too, despite (or because of) her manic and wild self that writes, embarrasses her kids, smokes beedis, attempts suicides, and in flashes, also reveals an understanding of raw human nature. In contrast is The Big Hoom, standing like a breakwater that calms the storms lashing through their lives. He is an enigma to me, and it would seem, to the narrator too! The nameless narrator and ‘Lao Tsu’ complete the family. The back stories and idiosyncrasies of the other characters give them an identity that does not get lost in the narrative. A good time to note that Bombay exists too, peeping out once in a while, though thankfully it doesn’t take itself seriously and is content being a backdrop. Goa probably gets a better role! More

Sita

Devdutt Pattanaik

Fantastic!

When I reached page 250 (almost 5/6th of the book!) – at which point Sita is freed – I finally allowed myself the comparison that had been bubbling inside my head for a while. Jaya, an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata by the same author, ranks among my top five books of all time. Thus far, this book had not really touched those levels. Rationalisation was easy – the Mahabharata is perhaps a more complex and interesting tale because of the sheer number of characters, the back stories, and the grey shades that permeate every character in it. There were many little nuggets I hadn’t known about earlier, and that made the reading more exciting. On a relative note, the Ramayana is more ‘linear’, and there are a limited number of layers that the author can add to situations or characters. I consoled myself with the fact that the narration was as spectacular as Jaya, and I had gained at least a couple of perspectives beyond my current understanding of the epic and its underlying philosophies. (Aham, and Aham Brahmasmi, for example) I did wonder though, why the author had to call it Sita – there wasn’t really a justification. More