Books

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

Gone Girl

Gillian Flynn

I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book if everyone and their everyone else had not raved so much about the movie. I am glad I did. (I need to add a few thrillers to the reading list occasionally) One of the indicators of how much I enjoyed a book is the number of days I take to finish it. This one was completed in half the time that had been allocated for it.

“You two are the most f*cked-up people I have ever met, and I specialize in f*cked-up people.” says Tanner Bolt somewhere in the last fifty pages of the book. That, arguably, is the best description of this book. From the time you wonder, just like Nick, what happened to Amy on their fifth anniversary, you’re hooked. That is the beginning of a roller-coaster ride, which keeps you on the edge pretty much all through the 400-odd pages. More

Possession

Kamala Markandaya

Kamala Markandaya’s writings have always intrigued me largely because of the times she lived in and the socio-cultural themes they therefore brought out. In this book, for instance, there were at least two themes I could make out.

The first is obvious enough, and also stems from the title – a battle between the spiritual and the material. The story begins with Anasuya, a writer, becoming the inadvertent connector of two lives – Caroline Bell, a rich, divorced, beautiful English lady with an iron will, and Valmiki, a poor peasant boy who is also a gifted artist. Valmiki’s parents have a very dim view of him, and the only person who sees his talent is Swamy, an ascetic who lives a solitary life in the hills near Valmiki’s village. Valmiki is swept away by Caroline to London, where she introduces him to her society and culture and tries to help him develop his talent. But it isn’t all altruistic – even as Val’s talent ensures his popularity, Caroline extends their relationship and ensures that he feels beholden to her. She goes to every extent to destroy any competition that arises, and succeeds. In a sense, it is difficult to say who possesses and who is possessed. Swamy’s mostly invisible hand brings out the battle between spirituality and material success. More

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Like I’ve said before, what does it say of a story when countless people, centuries later, can continue to render it in their unique way? It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who’s completely enthralled by the phenomenon that is The Mahabharata. It’s even more heartening when renditions are such that they do justice to the epic.

This is the Mahabharata told from the viewpoint of Draupadi, and as a reader, I could easily believe this to be indeed her autobiography. I could sense the changes in Draupadi with time, not just in her behaviour, but also in her perspectives and even the words she uses. It is almost as though the author walked in her shoes! It is difficult to bring anything new to the table with regards to the basic story itself, but the author manages it with the help of at least three devices – the role of Karna in Draupadi’s life, the perspectives of a female protagonist and finally, the interpretations Draupadi draws of and from the events that happen around her. There is a fourth too, that lends a uniqueness to this retelling – the Palace of Illusions, and what it does to Draupadi’s own perspectives. More