Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

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First off how good is the minimalist cover of Olive Kitteridge? I really thought I got lucky with this edition not just because I love lighthouses.

I have been delaying talking about Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge because I read it within a month of my grandfather’s death. Saying we were very close would be an understatement. At first the book hurt terribly. I thought I knew heartbreak and then life decides to say ha let me show you how you wrong you are! Initially, you want to escape the pain not experience it more deeply. But then the latter is more cathartic in the long run, and you start to heal when you realize this is the way of the world. We are all connected by loss, love and longing.

I was astounded by Elizabeth Strout’s writing. There’s a kind of gentleness about the everyday life she writes about. It is never banal. I never thought everyday life could be written about so poignantly and have such an immediacy to it. Ordinary people, everyday entanglements and normal lives in the hands of a gifted writer makes for a compelling narrative.

Henry Kitteridge, the husband of Olive Kitteridge, reminded me of my grandfather – kind and affable, never wanting to make a fuss and trying his best to be in harmony with what is.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Olive Kitteridge is the portrait of a long marriage and of an only child’s failed relationship with his parents. It is learning that marriage cannot alleviate your loneliness completely even though you are bound together for life. It is about the deterioration and fatigue that sets in old age. It is about finding companionship when you least expect it. It is about tender unexpected love that has no name but which gushes forth without caring if it’s appropriate. It is a deep yearning to be connected yet unable to bridge the gap.

It is about the truth and being straightforward being the kinder way in some cases. It is about the meek and submissive becoming vile when it is they who wield the power.

It is about small things, things of no apparent consequence and almost invisible to others, having the capacity to cause such tremendous heartbreak that it takes you by surprise.

It is about compassion lurking under battle hardened hearts and letting go of judgement, living with everything as is. It is being true to yourself above all because in the end when Death is coming for you, that’s all that matters.

Olive Kitteridge showed me all that and more. I could identify with many things. Things I didn’t know I felt, things I suppressed because they weren’t important in the scheme of day to day living. And there were things I could foresee myself identifying with in the future. When a book does that you know it’s a keeper.

Continue reading “Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout”

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Book review – Rail Romance by Krupa Sagar Sahoo

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Having grown up in 1990s India, train journeys are familiar territory for me and they hold a special place in my heart. I connect them with carefree and simpler times when happiness was eating the fluffy son papdi that hawkers sell and getting a seat by the window, looking out at the ever changing terrain till I fell asleep. Trains are still the most affordable mode of transport for most middle class Indians but I suspect more than that it is the comfort of the familiar. The author of Rail Romance, Krupa Sagar Sahoo, is a Sahitya Akademi awardee and is a well known Odia writer. When I was offered a chance to review the book, I was excited to read the book (full discolusure – I am an Odia).

The first thing I noticed about the book was its cover (I always judge books by their covers!). I loved the vibrant cover designed by Tina Patankar which was so detailed that I was transported to the railway station. Incidentally this is probably the first book with a red cover that I own which isn’t gag worthy or too cutesy for its own good.

The stories set on the Coromandel Express appear in the first part of the book. Here Nakua, the fly travels on the Coromandel Express to see more of the world. In this section there are 7 interconnected stories. It was entertaining to watch Nakua’s thought process as he tried to make sense of why humans do what they do. His journey offered new insights into the 1999 super cyclone. As he saw different places, along with his worldview, mine appears to be shifted as well. I remember the gale force winds and the days being as dark as the night. There was no electricity for days. Of course, in Odisha we are no stranger to cyclones. When Cyclone Raya made its transit recently, the memories came rushing back.

The second part contains 10 independent short stories. Deftly woven into his stories are the conditions prevalent in the society. There are insights to be gleaned by reading between the lines. I am a product of this society and I may not agree with how it functions but the milieu was certainly familiar to me, sometimes to the point of being uncomfortable. It is his narration with a sense of humour that kept me turning the pages. Some of the stories had me thinking long after I finished them. The Daughter, The Gypsy Girl, The Hidden Stream, Party on a Pay Day and The Curse of the Cobra were the ones that stood out.

Continue reading “Book review – Rail Romance by Krupa Sagar Sahoo”

Going back to Chokher Bali

Sometimes when we wait for something for a long time and then we get it, we are often underwhelmed by the actual thing.  Has it ever happened to you? Is it the great expectations built up over time to mythical proportions that did me in or something else? I don’t quite understand. It seems the older I get there are more questions and there are no definite answers. And to think as a child I had thought it would be the opposite. As an adult I would have the solutions to all the problems in the world and have a rollicking good time with no one telling me what to eat and to come home before it gets dark.

I finally had a chance to see Chokher Bali and it was a let down. I had loved the book and after searching for a version with Hindi subtitles (in vain) this dubbed version fell into my lap years later when I wasn’t even looking for it. I wanted to see the adaptation by Rituparno Ghosh having loved many of his movies, especially Raincoat which left an indelible mark on me. But I may be biased because I absolutely adore O Henry’s The Gift of Magi which it is adapted from.

Eons back I wrote a blubbering post about being stunned by Chokher Bali where I said nothing of any real value. I was amazed by the level of manipulation  in the book when I had read it 6-7 years ago. A lifetime ago really.  Aishwarya Rai was good in Rituparno Ghosh’s Raincoat (so was Ajay Devgn). So I was even more astonished by her dismal performance here. She doesn’t do justice to the part of Binodini. But the rest of the cast were good in their roles. I am now on the look out for Anurag Basu’s version which has Radhika Apte as Binodini. I have a feeling I am going to like it.

In between I have found a copy of the book. The cover is intriguingly underplayed and is in shades of grey. This one is Radha Chakraborty’s translation, different from the one I had read before. I am familiar with her having read her translation of Shesher Kobita, published as Farewell Song.

Here’s to rereading and rediscovering Chokher Bali anew.

Book review – A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliff-hanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated gives them depth, and makes them appear real.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to stop but I urge you to read on (and not be put off by big words).

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, live in Mumbai and their son, a young writer, lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu, who works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu because of her surly manner and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds, old and new, and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way things continue to be done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother leaves home to find work. This section follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a living. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He names it Raju. With his brother gone, the responsibility of feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’. It makes you question who is really savage, man or beast?

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime one could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train Raju to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making him dance. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware that he is at the mercy of the ‘helpless’ animal. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.)  Continue reading “Book review – A State of Freedom”

Book review – Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman

10-year-old  Nanju  wears a diaper to school and hobbles around as he has crooked feet. He lives with his Appa and older sister Shanti. He doesn’t pay attention in class and regularly scores zero but manages to hide the evidence from his father, who threatens to send him to a hostel. Happy in his world, nothing seems to bother him much. His best friend is Mahesh, who is terribly clever and lets Nanju copy all his answers. He gets by with a lot of help from his friends.

When I was reading Simply Nanju many people commented on the lovely book cover. The face of an innocent child with an endearing smile, who can resist that? (People who have hearts of stone, that’s who!)

It is business as usual in school with petty rivalries and merciless teasing, greeting teachers in a singsong voice, and the class turning into a fish market when the teacher leaves the class momentarily. Class topper Aradhana’s notebooks vanish and return days later in a shoddy condition. Nobody knows who is behind it and Nanju makes it his business to find the culprit when fingers are pointed at him. Mahesh and Nanju, though not quite Holmes and Watson, set out to solve the mystery. Do they manage to find the thief who isn’t a thief? Read Simply Nanju to find out. Continue reading “Book review – Simply Nanju by Zainab Sulaiman”

Speak

 

I always read the book first if I can help it. Like most book lovers or booknerds (I don’t mind what you call us, we are what we are) if I know the movie is adapted from a book I prefer to read the book first and I had to wait for a long time to read Speak. It has always been rewarding because I get to build the world created in the book, and that joy every book lover knows. Of course, on the minus side the movie usually (I thought of using the phrase ‘more often than not’ but now that I have read On Writing I feel King’s watching me) falls short of expectations, except the adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird which was stellar.

I don’t know why so many people look down on YA books. Trust me there are many. What you read popular fiction?! The term pop fiction is even more hideous. What’s wrong with the term contemporary fiction? Other than classics and books written by dead writers everything else they look down upon. They deal with real things in a real and sometimes not so grim manner, and do not put people to sleep so that the target audience actually does read and understand it. I was absolutely bowled over by Speak. Possible spoilers ahead! Anderson is brilliant in the way she captures the voice of a teenager on the precipice of completely losing her sanity and spiralling into a quiet depression. She would have lost herself but for one person who gives her something to look forward to, hence something to live for and she stays in the land of living day after day.

I saw Speak a while ago, the movie adaptation of the very acclaimed book of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson, starring Kristen Stewart in the lead role. Despair not, it’s nothing like Twilight (to be fair to her, Twilight fans say that’s how Bella is, in that case excellent acting ) where she has only two expressions (longing and longing) but it doesn’t translate into emotion. She is so much more than a pretty prop. Incidentally I knew that she can act having seen her in the bit role I had seen her in Into the Wild (one book I must get back to again). She emotes with her silence which speaks volumes. The movie does justice to the absolutely brilliant YA novel that deals with teenage rape and depression, alienation as a result of it, very serious issues which parents, teachers and the society at large will rather not admit exist, forget dealing with it. I kept remembering stuff from the book, the lines from the book in the screenplay and the things they missed.

It was first published in 1999 and five years later the movie followed in 2004. At first look the movie appears to tread familiar ground because we have seen so many high school movies but it couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

The book cover had intrigued me for a long time and I took some time to be convinced about the story – I did not want to read about another victim who had thrown her life away. I liked Laurie Halse Anderson’s website, read her blog, bought the book and absolutely fell in love with the cover again, one of the most beautiful covers ever and waited. I believe every book finds you at just the right time. Another way of saying it unless I feel compelled to read something I don’t read it. I read it and it was literally life altering. The author interview at the back gave me some background to the book and the furore it created after its release.

She deliberately goes mute, chooses not to say a word, because when she tries to speak out nobody listens. It gnaws at her inside and she changes from a girl who lived life to just existing. Finally she is the one who helps herself climb out from the horrific past and begins the process of acceptance. She tells herself that denial is futile because she is never going to forget it. The best way to deal with it is to confront it head on, which would someday eventually lead to healing.

The book is a must read. How come it doesn’t top favourite lists here isn’t exactly a surprise to me, it is because of the themes it deals with. I highly recommend it. Speak the book is more powerful than the movie. I will be talking about the book again soon. It’s been calling out to me. Time for a reread.

You have to know what you stand for, not just what you stand against.

You can’t speak up about your rights and be silent.

You need to  visit the mind of a great one – Picasso who saw the truth and ripped it from the earth with two angry hands. If something is eating at you, you have gotta find a way to use it.

A revolutionary is only as good as his analysis. Why? We should be able to shout out how things can be better.

The characters in Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth

I found Here on Earth in a book fair I shouldn’t have gone to but went and, if gone,  I shouldn’t have bought anything which was not on my to-read list, but I did (or so I thought). I saw the cover and it instantly jumped out at me. I looked inside to convince myself to buy it, and off went my resolution. Finding it was accident, serendipity or chance, I don’t know. Neither did I know that I would read it over that weekend abandoning another great nonfiction book I was reading. The name seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it till I came home. It was on my Goodreads to-read list. To think I had added it three years back and it has landed on my shelf only now, without me ever searching for it makes me want to attribute it to fate but I doubt Fate bothers itself with such puny things. Happenstance more like.

I never thought I would like magical realism, and lyrical prose usually annoys me but this was different. In a way it reminded me of The Last Song of Dusk, a book I had liked  but I wasn’t too keen on reading something like that in the near future. But a fair warning, this is not a romance. It is a cautionary tale of doomed love and obsession.

When we are young we believe in so many unrealistic things, like living in a fairytalish world, where everyone gets what they deserve, and every thing works out in the end. Alas, reality isn’t so simple or straightforward. It doesn’t matter if something is fated or not. It’s how we deal with what has happened and what we ultimately do.Here on Earth makes it amply clear.

There was a line in the book, which I cannot find now (I didn’t stop to copy lines until I was near the finish line), about lions and lambs being warm blooded, which chilled me to the bone. They are not as different as the world makes them out to be. Predator and prey are their ecological roles but they belong to the same class (Mammalia). How could I, a student of biology, not have considered this fact before.

Alice Hoffman’s descriptions are otherworldly but felt so real that you want to believe every single word, and hope it doesn’t break your heart but it does. A thing which isn’t real can feel realer than the everyday reality (that we mostly choose not to dwell on). That is the power of fiction written from a honest place; I am surprised every time it shakes me up and makes me see things anew. Continue reading “The characters in Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth”