The Difficulty of Being Good

 Gurcharan Das

I’d liked Gurcharan Das’ “India Unbound” (that was a long while back, I haven’t read his later works) and I’m generally a sucker for all things epic, so buying this was a given.

The blurb created quite the hype for me by stating that the book “shows us how we can come to terms with the uncertain ethics of the world today.” (a world which according to them can be compared to the one in Mahabharata) On hindsight, this does seem a reasonably impossible task and I should have figured that out before I started. More


 Jeet Thayil

What a trip! Right from the single sentence prologue that lasts 7 pages which, to me, also gives a clue on how to consume this book – “Do I take a single continuous drag? You can, but then you have to recycle it inside your lungs, better to take short pulls, “How long should I hold it in?… it depends how much nasha you want” In essence, I could have read it in one shot and deconstructed it in my head, or I could consume it languorously and let the author take me through it at his own pace. I chose the latter, trying to keep up with his lucidity and fantasy. I honestly don’t know if I got it all right.

The narrator Dom leaves us soon after the book begins – to Rashid, the owner of an opium den, Dimple, the eunuch who is his ‘kaamvali’, and to a small extent Rumi. (no, just a shortened form of Ramesh) The networks of stories are like waves, probably matching opium induced undulations of the mind. They are continuous, and have similarities – of pain, and a need for belonging and love. But they are unique too, as we watch time pass by – backward and forward – through the perspectives of different characters. The Stoneman references give us an indication of the timeframe the novel is set, but we also get a glimpse of the socio-political scene of China in the 1940s thanks to Mr.Lee. More

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

The good part is that the usual characters are all present – Kolkata, Boston, melancholy, wistfulness. The better part is that Jhumpa Lahiri is in top form. I was a bit disappointed with the last book so I started this with a skeptical mindset, but am extremely glad to have been proved wrong.
The story spans about four generations, beginning in the 1950s and ending in contemporary times. What is interesting is that, though at least a couple of the characters seem easy enough to slot into standard stereotypes – a Naxalite moved by his milieu into embracing a fiery ideology, and his brother who moves to the US and becomes the immigrant absorbed in scientific research building a new life in an alien country, the author takes them beyond that in the story arc, giving them depth and layers.

One wonders whether it is the story of Udayan whose influence in the lives of the characters extend far beyond his death, or that of Subhash and the women in his life – a mother disappointed by his choice, a wife who never loved him as he wished she would, and a daughter whom he raised but is not his own. Or is it really the story of Gauri, and her journey which seems to be played out in a real as well as philosophical level? “Plato says that the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die.” Between these three, the author travels the spectrum of human nature – from its most benevolent to its most selfish. The Lowland is the stretch of land between two ponds – probably also symbolising the two brothers and Gauri. More

The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer

 Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash remains one of my favourite books in the genre, and it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that this book does for nanotechnology what the former did for the internet – give a fantastic perspective of the possibilities. I have to confess that Stephenson’s books are not the easiest to read- as anyone who has attempted The Baroque Cycle would agree to – but what I give him the most credit for is his scope of imagination. That matter compiler, (MC) which is one of the standard technologies in this book, is probably an advanced form of 3D printing, and this book was written in 1995!

From a plot perspective, there are at least two main protagonists. Nell, who escapes from domestic abuse with the help of her brother and gets a copy of the Primer, a book that adapts to the life conditions of the reader, and was originally made at the behest of an ‘Equity Lord’ for his granddaughter to propel her towards a more interesting life. (read subversive ideas) John Percival Hackworth, the architect of the Primer, who begins to be used by two separate forces to meet their own objectives. The story primarily focuses on Nell’s ‘evolution’ after she gets the Primer and Hackworth’s journey after he hands over the Primer. More

Frankly Spooking

Sriramana Muliya

I must first confess a little bias – I have known the author virtually for around a decade now, as Phatichar, his blogger handle.
He has tried at least two kinds of fiction genres here – sketch stories (or perhaps flash fiction) and short stories. The first kind does away with any setting or build up – they are just scenes or slices which begin and end abruptly. That’s not a problem, it’s the way it is supposed to work. :) The last five stories could be categorised as short stories – lengthier, with more complex plots and a more concrete narrative flow.

There are mainly three things I like about this book. The first is the simplicity of the language. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious effort or just a natural way of writing, but irrespective of that, it works very well. A big word or a complex sentence could have easily spoiled the gripping narratives. The second is the imagination – the sheer scale of scenarios, names, occupations, characters and their descriptions is admirable. Depending on your ‘palate’, you might consider some spooky, some scary and some as just a good story. That leads me to the last point – the structure of the book. More

And the Mountains Echoed

Khaled Hosseini 

Before I write about the book, I think a disclaimer that I haven’t read the earlier books by the author is necessary. Reviews tell me that there are patterns easily discernible in Khaled Hosseini’s works, so it’s probably good that I was introduced to the author with this book.

It’s been about five minutes since I finished the book, and my eyes are no longer moist. The thing is, I knew the ending. Pretty much everyone who reads the book and realises the intent of the story (within the story) that’s narrated by the siblings’ father at the very beginning of the novel- of a div who visits a village and takes away a child, of the father who braved odds in an attempt to win him back, and its ending, memories like ‘the tail end of a sad dream’ – can picture the frame in which the novel will end, or almost. Yet, like many other points in the novel, it did not fail to move me. That’s probably the defining character of this book – an unbearable sadness. More

The Seeds of War

Ashok Banker

The second in Banker’s MBA (Mahabharata) series. The book quickly moves through the progeny of Bharata, pausing only for characters who have a direct bearing on the final epic war. Kacha – Devayani, Yayati and Puru are such, with the latter also offering lessons on dharma.

The plot then moves on to the story of Shantanu and Ganga, and thus Devavrata, later to be known as Bhishma, after his terrible vow. The last few portions are focused on Shantanu’s second wife Satyavati and their offspring, and the continuation of the dynasty by Vyasa. More

Gods Without Men

Hari Kunzru

Fantastic! It’s one of those books which you either immediately connect to or switch off from. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it because a few reviews said that the book leaves the reader hanging, and does not have a conclusive end. From a conventional perspective that’s probably true, but I felt that was precisely the point of the book – there are some things that will remain unknown. We need to acknowledge that in our lives and continue seeking or come to terms with it. It is that very human search for connection and meaning that made this book work for me. The other reason I was skeptical was because it was also described as an ‘American novel’, insinuating a deep cultural connect I feared I would miss out on. That fear proved unfounded since the work is nothing if not universal in its roots.

The action is mostly centred around the Pinnacles, a rock formation in the Californian desert, and the various intriguing happenings around it. Hari Kunzru has created a vast spectrum of characters, across several centuries. A British rock star, an Iraqi teenager, a family consisting of an Indian, an American and their son, believers of an alien worshiping cult, and so on. There is some immense imagination that is evident in the way the characters have been crafted – we can sense their back stories even when it’s not overtly mentioned. The narrative does not flow linearly, but I didn’t find it difficult to pick up the pieces of specific character plots or to identify their presence in others’ plots. More

The Accidental Apprentice

Vikas Swarup

If you’ve read Q&A (or seen its more famous screen adaptation) and Six Suspects, you’d recognise the narrative style in this as well – a series of sub plots driven by a connecting thread. In this case, an eccentric businessman sets a series of 7 tests for an initially reluctant young woman in order to prove herself capable of being the CEO of his conglomerate.

An ordinary person and her responses to circumstances that one would find familiar if one lived in India, that’s pretty much what the tale is. I finished the book in 2 days, would have finished it in one if not for a splitting headache. (not because of the book) That’s a testament to the pace of the narrative. Except for a slight lag towards the end, the plot is an edge-of-the-seat roller coaster. It also manages to showcase the various problems we face as a nation – from relatively small scale ones like khap diktats to large scale corruption. It also has characters whom one can easily map to real life popular personalities. That’s the good part. More

Best Kept Secret

Jeffrey Archer

The third volume of the Clifton Chronicles, which picks up right at the point where the second one ended – the House of Lords deciding the beneficiary of the Barrington fortune.

This one differs from the earlier volumes by almost ignoring the protagonist – Harry Clifton – altogether. There are plots around Giles, Emma and Sebastian, and they manage to take the story forward very well despite Harry remaining in the background most of the time. More