Author Uncovered : P.D. James

Cover Her Face is Baroness P.D. James’ first book.

August is Baroness P.D. James’ birthday month, her 100th birthday no less, and I took it as a sign from the universe to start at the beginning. I read a delightful autobiographical short from her childhood published in honour of her birth centenary, and that is how I ended up reading Cover Her Face. Also, gloomy monsoons, the sound of rain thundering outside while we are at home (most of us are thanks to the pandemic, right?) and murder go quite well together, no?

The title (I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out the obvious) seems eerily apt for our times! I was plunged into a different world (the story did appear dated but it was true to its time) and a simple murder mystery by today’s standards but the people in it were far from simple. I really appreciated the psychological insight into well fleshed out characters, and of course, the leisurely pace. I was impressed by her sense of humour and her scathing social observation. She’s a Jane Austen fan, and I could see that in her writing.

I listened to her interviews where she spoke about writing Cover Her Face which was published in 1962. I am one of those people who are always interested in the artist behind the art, in the life of the author beyond the book. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, it’s just the way I am. And I can’t say it doesn’t colour my perception but I try to be impartial to the written word.

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School of life

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Instead of teaching us geometry and mensuration why were we not taught basic survival skills, when we still had the energy to learn them? How to cope with a bad day or a bad partner (that is if you are lucky to have already chosen one!)? Making a perfect circle with a rounder requires precision but even better is a round roti, if one wants to fit in, I suppose. I don’t know about you but sticking out like a sore thumb is somehow less appealing during the times we are living in. Maybe not better just aesthetically pleasing. Not for me a job well done and all that, but the quiet sound of people other than my mother reaching out for my rotis. Mine turn out to be map-like hence I stick to baking where failure is less easily noticeable (especially if you have a sweet tooth) and you can always blame the elements!

Why weren’t we apprised of the fact that life isn’t neatly divided into past, present and future like the tenses we were so diligently taught in school? Just because you ate tiffin (lunch break it was but lunch it never was) together (okay you ate your friend’s tiffin and your friend ate yours!) and sat together in classes for nearly half a decade doesn’t mean that you will remain friends or even in the periphery of each other’s lives. From seeing each other everyday to now just seeing or liking their posts. If you are lucky that is! Oh yes, hate following is a thing.

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Eating Wasps by Anita Nair

The words refused to come. They stayed away as if to make a point, like angry relatives refusing to attend a wedding. An adjective or two danced in front of me. A few verbs did cartwheels and a group of nouns turned somersaults. But the opening sentence sat with its back to me. I cajoled and pleaded but she wouldn’t listen. As long as she did that, the rest wouldn’t emerge either.

In my world a new Anita Nair book is always a good thing (I have enjoyed most of her books) and I was really looking forward to devouring Eating Wasps. I loved how the author narrated the stories of so many women but felt only a few were seen through to their conclusion. There were 10 characters with weighty issues of their own so that’s understandable. I would have preferred fewer characters and a better resolution but then it’s not my book. It is a brave book, a very powerful one but I still prefer her Ladies Coupe (my first book by her which had me smitten) to this one, especially the ending. It’s much more hopeful and the characters appear to be in control of their destiny, even while they continue to challenge societal norms.

Anita Nair’s women have always crossed boundaries and been their own people in spite of what society dictated, and paid the price for it. How easy it is to vilify a woman because she is different from what is the norm or what is expected of her. I didn’t know I will meet a subject I love but had left behind nor had I ever imagined I would see a zoologist, a lecturer no less, as the sutradhar in a book – teacher, writer, ghost all rolled into one.  Sree appears to be formidable but that’s what she wants the world to believe, for who in their right mind will reveal their inner turmoil to the world at large which will only mock and point fingers.

I had always been drawn to the potter wasp. I saw it everywhere, but there was little I knew about this solitary creature beyond the basic information. Scientific name: Eumeninae. Higher classification: Vespidae. Order: Hymenopterans. Rank: Subfamily. Kingdom: Animalia.

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Book talk – Normal People by Sally Rooney

wp-15921579591542144702135574400385.jpgNormal People is one of the most uncomfortable books I have read in a while. I simultaneously wanted to stop reading yet wanted to know what would happen next. Sally Rooney’s book is an emotional roller coaster and anxiety inducing. Warning – this is not a romance romance. Trigger warning for abuse, anxiety and depression. Had I known what an intense and disquieting read it would be I wouldn’t have read it now. Who am I kidding! Once I read the excerpt after hearing about the BBC series there was no looking back. I read a few pages of Conversations with Friends (Rooney’s first book) and it’s no beach read either. The last book that caused me to squirm, curl up into a ball and cry was Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. I didn’t cry while reading Normal People but the sense of unease was palpable.

The spotlight is on Connell and Marianne, and the people they are involved with during different times. You could say they are the leads and the rest are supporting characters which come, and go out of focus as per the requirement. We follow them from high school to four years of college but it seems much longer because of the minute way the book observes them.

They without knowing it save each other from their most destructive selves. A lot of tears (most of it hidden from each other), and of words unsaid due to which misunderstandings abound, but in the end they always find a way to be in each other’s lives. I didn’t look at them as a will they won’t they couple because even when they were apart something kept them connected, and that for me is the beauty of the book, and human relationships.

Their wanting everything to be easy but not being entirely comfortable with the arrangement but acting like they are, is the facade that protects them, and devastates them in equal measure. In short, acting insouciant but caring deeply. It takes too much out of them to appear casual when they would just be happy being who they are.

Someone appears calm or put together doesn’t mean they are. Someone appears independent doesn’t mean they are. What we portray to the world is an image that we want the world to see, the idea we want to present of ourselves, and that acts as a carapace to protect our real fragile selves.

I thought I would nod off to sleep as is my wont with audiobooks but the abrupt ending had me sitting upright. It’s a short book but it will linger on your mind.

Possible spoilers ahead.

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Empty

white flowersLike there is a difference between unease and sickness, there is a difference between emptiness and stillness. The moments of stillness feel complete in themselves and they have a calming effect on you (dare I use the word recharge?), like you are at peace, if not one with the world (that’s too much to ask for). With emptiness, you feel as if there is a gaping void in your life, and it leaves you feeling drained. You don’t know the why or how of it, only that something has to change. Simple really, but it takes a lifetime to know the difference, as always is the case with what appears to be the most obvious on the surface.

Book Talk – Bhoot Bhavish Bartaman by Mehool Parekh

IMG_20200125_160500-01The first thing that I noticed about Mehool Parekh’s Bhoot Bhavish Bartaman is its arresting cover – black and red is a combination I have always loved so maybe I am a tad biased. Inserting the lead’s name into the title and yet referring to the past, the present and the future is clever. I was intrigued by the title and was looking forward to a murder investigation and some excellent sleuthing.

The book is centred around Rupali who is murdered. The Mumbai police term it an open and shut case suspecting the help of having done it because he ran away with the valuables, but as is always the case there’s more to it than what meets the eye.

It opens in the present era but soon we are plunged into the 90s when mobile phones were just entering the Indian market. The book takes us inside Bombay dance bars when Madhuri Dixit’s Choli Ke Peeche was all the rage. Bombay is known as the city of dreams but here we go behind the scenes where it is sordid, and a city which rewards those who seize opportunities that come their way.

Initially, Rupali wanted to be an actress, then worked in a bank.We see Rupali’s journey to earn her own money and be the master of her own fate. Rupali’s cold blooded ambition endears herself to no one but her goal is not just survival but being successful, and we know it comes at a price, especially if you want it badly and quickly. Every man who met her, was enamoured with her and that became boring fast. Rupali is one of those women for whom power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. She lusts after money not people. Women to make a mark have to use everything in their arsenal. Of course we are talking about Rupali here – an unscrupulous woman! I admire the author for making a basically unlikable character the protagonist but her treatment still rankled. Maybe it was the male gaze that I had a problem with.

Mehool Parekh has recreated Bollywood of the 90s. We are led to believe the casting couch is ubiquitous which is a scary thought. We are shown how difficult it is to break into the Hindi film industry without a godfather. The author’s thinly veiled references to people in Bollywood by slightly tweaking their names is hilarious. Akhil kapoor is Anil Kapoor and there’s a reference to Madhuri calling her Madhu.

Our lead is Major Bartaman Bhowmick, a gruff unmarried army guy, who is afraid of cats. (In case you are wondering it’s called ailurophobia!)  He is fondly called Batty by his partner, Robin Chowdhury. She is a reporter with a good nose for unusual stories, and she is the one who smells something fishy in this open and shut case, and enlists the help of Bartaman. Continue reading “Book Talk – Bhoot Bhavish Bartaman by Mehool Parekh”

In defense of reading

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So I told my friend about The Mother-in-Law – the other woman in your marriage by Veena Venugopal (I know the title is a mouthful but it’s apt) which deals with real life case studies; it dissects the relationship between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, as seen from the eyes of the daughter-in-law (except one). I told her to give the book a try because of her impending matrimony, and she asked me why was I reading it. She didn’t roll her eyes at me but she might as well have. I was stumped for a second before I replied. The book was on my TBR. Why is that so hard to believe? I don’t think the blue cover had any role to play in making the book appealing though I was more than happy to own a book with an ice blue cover. My interest is in the psychological roles because of the power dynamic, and how it continues to be problematic for most married women, who may or may not live with their in-laws.

Let me digress and ask a very important question – why do we read the books we read? I don’t think I can answer the question because it changes. There are reasons galore but we don’t read because of them, we just read. The takeaway is the bonus of course, except for the really horrible books we throw against the wall. I haven’t done that yet but there’s always tomorrow. As of now I am content with just giving them away (*sits there feeling saintly just for a second before it fades*).

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The Zoya Factor

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Caution: the following post is about the film not the book.

I’m like Zoya who isn’t a fan of the gentleman’s game but unlike her I kept it a secret. For years. It’s a big deal because I’m a natural blabbermouth. When the girls from my colony played cricket I gritted my teeth and did the bowling (and the batting?) like I was interested. To admit to not liking something when everyone around you loves it requires standing out and being comfortable in your own skin. I was an unsure 10 year old, so I went along with the charade.

I went in blind (read without seeing or reading a review) to watch The Zoya Factor (thanks to Cinepolis points). And I was disappointed. The book was dramatic but cheeky in a different way but the film is over the top.

Sonam Kapoor sadly isn’t Zoya for me. She never truly came to life. Where are the cheeks of Gaalu my mind cried. Fans of the book will know what I’m talking about. I had the book Zoya stuck in my mind – an imperfect idiot, ditzy but lovable, misguided but loyal. If you say that about the titular character, you’d think it’s all downhill from there but there’s reason to cheer. Two words – Dulquer Salmaan. Not a single false note by DQ. I was impressed with his acting prowess when I had seen Karwaan but now I’m star struck. The man has an earthiness and undeniable charm which makes him immensely likeable. Our Bollywood actors could take a leaf out of his book on keeping it real.

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Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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I loved Tracy Chevalier’s earlier work Girl with a Pearl Earring and looked forward to reading more historical fiction by her. So when I found Remarkable Creatures in a book fair I lunged at it surreptitiously (my heart went whoa but my brain said act nonchalant). The book is reminiscent of Austen, with long sentences and pauses; set in that era but it had none of her wit (not complaining, just stating facts). Her book Persuasion is set in Lyme and another book set there is on my to-read-soonest-list, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. But I’m digressing. For the highly unique subject of fossils and how their discovery changed science as they knew it, full marks to the book. And what made the book interesting for me is its genesis in truth (Okay simply put it is inspired from real life).

The beginning was slow but your patience will be rewarded. The two part narrative added to the experience of connecting with the narrator, Mary. Her crude accented English was done with the purpose of keeping it real (yes I’m using millenial lingo) but it was a tad annoying.

One of the greatest fallacies (propagated by the Church) that Earth was just 6000 years old, was challenged and refuted when extinct animals were found. Creatures which had earlier died out. Which no longer existed. They questioned God’s plan for he turned out not to be infallible, if not mortal, which was the beginning of the end for Creationism (I so wish!) and paved for the road for Darwinism.

The book at its core is about the friendship between two women from different walks (read class) of life – Elizabeth and Mary; their upheavals when the fortune of one changes rising above her station while life of the other remains the same, and how their friendship is tested. More than friends they were each others’ companions (as they were called then). They understood each other best, and made sense of each others lives in a way no one else could. Neither of them married. Intelligent readers will get what the book was hinting at.

The status of women in the 19th century,  and  their role in science overshadowed by men; their opinions ideas and discoveries not even treated as having value forget being given importance, and the tussle between religion and science are some of the themes discussed in Remarkable Creatures. The story is slow and set in a time before *revolution* was afoot, setting the stage for Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

Remarkable Creatures made me want to pick up Ship Fever again. It reminds me of the kind of historical fiction Andrea Barrett writes. And I can offer no higher praise than that.

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Some books are meant to be savoured a few pages at a time. Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is one of those. With her sparse unadorned prose and economy of words, it reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. I find it hard to believe that this was her second novel but it isn’t hard to believe that it was shortlisted for the Booker. She started writing after 60 and quickly became one of the forces to be reckoned with in British literature. It is one of the few books where I don’t mind having seen the film (brilliantly adapted by Isabel Coixet) first because it was true to the book, and left quite an impression on me.

When I got the book I was disappointed to see the shape the book was in. What did I expect of a copy that’s as old as me and was published in 1978! But instead of returning it, I started reading it that day itself, trying to read it at the slowest possible speed so as to absorb every little detail, every turn of the phrase. I could afford to do that because I had already seen the film, otherwise the book is quite compelling.

Florence is a widow, who plans to open a bookshop with the little money her husband left her, but the locals aren’t keen on it, particularly a high society woman (for the lack of a better word), Mrs Gamart, who wants to open an arts centre in the same place.

We all have that one bookshop in our city where we bought our books growing up, one which has stood the test of time. The place becomes a landmark and holds countless memories because of how it is linked to our formative years. Florence intends to build such a place in the hostile little town she resides in.

It is not a cheerful book but hard-hitting and incisive. It is about a community of people who are resistant to change. It is also about the nature of business and what goes on behind the scenes. Reading about arranging books and the working of the library made me feel a strange wistfulness which quickly gave way to relief. For those for you who have always wanted to open a bookshop or a library, The Bookshop would serve as a real eye-opener.

Understated, loud, quietly menacing, cowardly – all her characters are distinct, and in a slim volume without much background information we still get to know what these characters stand for. At the same time they remain an enigma and you can’t quite grasp why they do the things they do. The book is a masterclass in writing (of show not tell should be her middle name) and one, which will throw up new things on each reading.

Spoilers ahead.

Florence fends for herself and doesn’t play the part of a hapless widow, and that perhaps offends some people more than others. More importantly, she thinks she can do it all on her own because her intentions are good (ha!). Her outsider status adds to her woes. The question here isn’t how much time one has spent in a place but how well one integrates in to the community. To survive is a tricky business as it is.

It’s a peculiar thing to take a step forward in middle age, but having done it I don’t intend to retreat.

Florence appoints bossy Christine as her assistant; a 10 year old who speaks her mind (she more or less hires herself). Christine is outspoken and likes to do things her way. The third child in a household she learns from an early age to fend for herself. She gives the book some much needed comic relief by the way she sees life.

How Christine’s life changes due to working for Florence, and the direction her life took we can’t exactly say, but all deep associations change us, especially with people who are markedly different from us.

The two of them during the past months, had not been without their effect on one another. If Florence was more resilient, Christine had grown more sensitive.

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