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.

Continue reading “The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald”

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

IMG_20190319_212240_EDIT_1

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”

Miss me? Not really.

Miss me? Not really is the short answer. For the long answer read below.

I do but I don’t want to deal with all the things that follow in your wake. It’s a chore and like blizzards always intense. Why is it never sunny? It was a deadly winter and I need to survive.

Why so many lies or omissions of truth, in your words? Why promises that you won’t keep and had never intended to keep in the first place, made only for the sake of making yourself look good?

I catch myself thinking you would like Inspector Montalbano or tell you that I found peace in volunteering. I wanted to tell you my grandpa was dying. I wanted to ask you what the right thing to do was. But I could never get past how formal and cold we had become. And you had never shown any interest before in spite of knowing the circumstances. So I absolve myself from all guilt.

Was this only entertainment for you? What was it – the thrill of the chase? How cliched and, you know how I hate cliches. All of us become the things we hate.

It doesn’t matter now because I have seen through you. Perhaps there is a price you pay for being naive stupid. Believing you was my Achilles heel. The amazing thing is the disbelief because I am not usually the kind of person who gets caught up in this kind of drama. You proved me wrong yet again and my only consolation is for everything in life there is a first time (and hopefully a last time).

Why is there never a straight answer but only roundabout clues? It’s a maze I am tired of navigating and red herrings I am tired of dodging. You probably think people have a lot of time on their hands to brood over things. Let me correct you. They don’t. Survial takes precedence. Wading through your mess without complaining, I laugh to myself thinking about it now. Didn’t anyone tell you I don’t even like getting my feet wet and here I am drowning. I don’t even know how I got here. Oh wait you knew I disliked it yet continued to pour water saying it will quench my thirst.

What’s the use of saying pretty please, listen to me? What will I do with it, you selfish pig? Once someone tells you truth, instead of acknowledging it, you wave it aside and walk away only to come back to stomp on their hearts. I wish you would vanish into the unknown never to be seen. Wait, that’s not completely true. In this age of social media I check if you are alive by stalking you online like normal people.

Continue reading “Miss me? Not really.”

Book review – Rail Romance by Krupa Sagar Sahoo

61E16Fh1GgL

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 disclosure – 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”

October is not a love story.

There are few films where I immediately want to go back to the world it portrayed and my first thought after watching Shoojit Sircar’s October was just that – I have to watch it again. This is not a movie review but a discussion. Spoilers ahead.

For some reason October reminded me of The Big Sick (another movie I wanted to see again as soon it finished) even though the leads Dan and Shiuli aren’t romantically inclined like the real life couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon in the former. Perhaps because like The Big Sick, October dealt with something catastrophic happening out of the blue with humour.

I am foolish. I am naive. I am easily irritated. I am moody. I get affected by things which most people shrug off without a care. I am frequently annoying, and have been known to speak out of turn when I should have kept my head down and looked at my feet. I hold on and be direct in the wrong-est of situations, and do things because I want to without thinking of returns in the hope of things working out, even when there’s no chance of it. In short your typical Aries. (No better time than Aries season to embrace who I am.) So I could relate to Dan’s character in the film October more than I’d like to admit.

I don’t believe October is about a romantic relationship. Affection, connection and love are different things. But people have always seen what they wish to see. Although Dan and Shiuli work in the same hotel they had barely interacted with each other outside of work when she was conscious. Most of their interactions are after the accident. Shiuli cannot reciprocate Dan’s affection or repay what he has done for her but he continues tirelessly without hoping for much, a little (flash of) recognition maybe, and, of course, her recovery. Continue reading “October is not a love story.”

Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

IMG_20180212_170614.jpg

I loved Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth and I have come to expect lyrical prose and magical realism in her work. I am not a fan of magical realism as such but hers I gobble up like a plate of hot Top Ramen noodles (read the fragrance of childhood). Poetry, magic, fate everything I have never understood and can’t put into words, Alice Hoffman does it with ease like she has done it all her life, which she has, but it always takes me by surprise.

I usually steer clear of misery or negativity in pop culture unless I think I can handle it. And Alice Hoffman should be read when you can handle her prose. Her words pierce your soul. She wrings out emotions and feelings you never thought you had. The storyline is easy to follow but the themes are weighty. The Ice Queen deals with matters of life and death and everything in between that constitutes the business of living. She writes fairy tales for adults but don’t be fooled into thinking that it would be simple or straightforward.

I took the book with me when I was travelling but somehow I could sense it wasn’t the place for it and I read very little. And I didn’t want to read the book at breakneck speed because I wanted to inhabit the words of this book until I absorbed its essence.

Like many reviewers I agree there isn’t an extra word in The Ice Queen. She covers so much in 211 pages. It is a sentimental tale but the ending is unpredictable. At the centre of the story is an unlikeable protagonist – the unnamed narrator, who is a librarian and a lightning survivor. Something happened when she was a child and and she has allowed it to colour her entire life. Lightning has always fascinated me but this scared me, the damage it can do to your system if you have the misfortune to be struck by it. Her character changes in a fundamental way and she sees herself differently by the time the book ends and so did I. Alice Hoffman makes you feel for her and in spite of everything you root for her. Deep down we are all dreamers.

The Ice Queen is a book about life and death, and about love and hate. It is a book about secrets and their power to define us if we let them.

Secrets are only knowledge that hasn’t yet been uncovered… Therefore, they are not in fact secrets but only unrealized truth.

The Ice Queen is about all kinds of love – love between siblings (blood ties can’t be so easily dismissed), love between people who have survived the same thing, love between people who are married and their lives tied together in ways unimaginable and love that remains even when the object of affection has vanished into thin air. (Not literally true but I wanted to use it because I am feeling theatrical today!)

Feel lucky for what you have when you have it. Isn’t that the point? Happily ever after doesn’t mean happy forever. The ever after, what precisely was that? Your dreams, your life, your death, your everything. Was it the blank space that went on without us? The forever after we were gone?

The Ice Queen tells me things find their own way to fruition if it’s meant to be. And to have an open heart and appreciate the present. Nothing I didn’t know but how many of us actually live fully in the present?

Continue reading “Thoughts on The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman”

I Capture the Castle

While reading I Capture the Castle I thought it could be adapted into a very good play because the antics of the characters would have people laughing out loud. And Google told me that it has already been done. I recently saw the movie after reading the book and here I talk about them both. You have been warned!

I wish I had read this book as a teen, I would have been bowled over by it. The book is a tad wordy (I only felt that when she was describing the castle too much). No wonder she admired Julian Barnes’ masterful economy of words.

The Mortmains are a crazy bunch. The writer and father James Mortmain’s creative juices seem to have run out after one successful book. The family lives in genteel poverty in the hope that one day he will produce another masterpiece. Topaz, is his loyal wife, and eccentric but beautiful stepmother to his three children. She communes with nature to keep her sanity and needs to be a muse to exist. They live with their daughters, Rose and Cassandra, and their little brother, the studious Thomas. They are joined by Stephen, the son of their dead housekeeper who does chores around the house.

Cassandra, the younger sister, is like Elizabeth Bennet in the sense that her mind is not on matrimony unlike older sister Rose. Like Austen, her mind is on literary pursuits. She dreams of becoming a writer like her father which one would think is surprising because of the example he has set. So she writes diary entries for practice to sharpen her claws prose.

Poverty doesn’t bother Cassandra as much as it bothers Rose. Cassandra takes refuge in writing and hence she is saner (she believes that). Even though Rose is the elder sister, it is she who is childish in her ways, demanding things that she knows are impossible.

In spite of her father’s example Cassandra wants to be a writer (natural proclivity?) like her father. Both the sisters don’t do any housework – it is shared by Topaz and Stephen. The onus of earning money is on the menfolk. Published in 1934, the book appears dated because of the time period it is set in. The men and women were defined by set roles, rigid and fixed by society.

There’s talk of Bennets (from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) in the beginning, and Rose is hell bent on marrying the first rich suitor that comes a-knocking to get out of poverty even if she doesn’t love him. And that is where Simon Cotton comes in.

Cassandra is a precocious narrator (I would never call her ‘consciously naïve because I don’t know what it means!), who wants to be a writer and is always recording things that happen in her life in a notebook. This was at a time when paper is scarce, and there was no electricity in the castle, mind you. She lives in her head (like most writers) which some times makes her miserable, and she has no understanding of how the world works that adds to the ensuing drama.

The way the story is narrated (Aren’t epistolary narratives the best?) by Cassandra through her journal entries, it puts us right in her shoes.

They live on the castle on a lease and haven’t paid the rent in a long time. It is when the owners arrive, the Cottons from America, the story takes a different turn.

A few pages in I knew why I Capture the Castle is a cult classic. It seems like a fairytale in the beginning with very good dialogue, and the setting but the ending is ambiguous and quite realistic, open ended which is quite a departure for books written in those times, especially for the kind of story it told.

The book will give you a bad case of the giggles, whether you are reading in public or in private. I tried to keep the wide grin off my face to appear respectable (read not look like a complete idiot in the park where I have maintained over the years a very serious no nonsense persona) but the narration by Cassandra is such that you will fail.

A story where the women decide who, where, and when they want to end up with someone (if at all), and choose to walk out of marriages when it doesn’t work the way they want it to – it would have been groundbreaking for the time it was written in.

So many things have been talked about in this book without being self conscious, which would have otherwise made reading it a tedious affair. It touches on poverty, nudism, religion, psychoanalysis, distinction between the classes, and a very real portrait of a marriage and family. Also shows us a portrait of an eccentric writer, artistic expression and the way genius works (or doesn’t work) and what the people living with him have to put up with.

The book destroys many idealistic notions of love. The teens reading it will have a realistic idea about consent, love, longing, heartbreak and infatuation; they are different things whose boundaries sometimes overlap. The book drives home the message that it is okay to make mistakes. And most importantly it is okay not to find the love of your life the first time around.

The social observations the book makes and the way Cassandra views the world, it is true what another reviewer said and what I had felt from the beginning – it’s Austen for the 20th century.

Continue reading “I Capture the Castle”

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”

The Postmaster

After watching Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of The Postmaster, a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, and I am forced to think how little I had understood of Ratan’s plight, and the subtext, when it was taught to us in school. I wonder if the opinions were even our own. Then the only interpretation that flew was the teacher’s. We weren’t encouraged to apply our brains much those days. So many years down the line I don’t even remember who taught it. That’s what memories are. Fleeting and evasive, just beyond your grasp when you need them. You seem to remember some things while forgetting others. That’s where people come in. You ask them what they remember of an incident or something that happened, and you will be amazed to hear the stories, real and imagined. Everyone thinks they remember it correctly, the way it happened. But it is the prism of perspective that colours everything we view.

Chandana Banerjee as the young Ratan is outstanding. I couldn’t have expected more. She brought Tagore’s Ratan to life. I have no love lost for the postmaster but it was portrayed well by Anil Chatterjee. Incredible acting. The fish out of water-ness and his loneliness were apparent. I can’t exactly call him unfeeling or unkind but in the end he thought only of saving himself. That is human nature, the survival instinct kicking in. I won’t reveal much that may spoil your reading or watching. But I shall say this, you will be surprised by what you feel once you have finished watching or reading it.

It’s a pity I found subtitles only for a part of the story.  It wasn’t that big a problem because I do understand a bit of Bengali, especially when it is spoken slowly, it being similar somewhat to Odia and all.

The Postmaster is one of three short films collectively titled Teen Kanya. I have only seen The Postmaster which is so nuanced that even though you don’t understand the language completely, by dint of what’s unfolding on the screen, the feeling will find its way to you. What the director was trying to convey  is in tandem with what the writer was trying to say. Do you know how rare that is?

I loved the black and white minimalist cinematography where every single thing that unfolded on screen added something to the story. Nothing was extraneous. I found this podcast online where Anita Desai narrates The Postmaster which is followed by a discussion. Listen to it now. It is of course thousand times better than me reading the text. Needless to say I love and admire Anita Desai having read her The Village by the Sea when I was young (for school again) and the book has stayed with me all these years.

It’s been a while since I read Tagore. It’s time to reacquaint myself with his prose. And what better time than the monsoons, when loneliness and desolation walk hand in hand.

Book review – Just Married, Please Excuse

I read Yashodhara Lal’s There’s Something About You about two years ago and had quite liked the book for its unlikely lead pair (What’s not to love about an overweight, clumsy woman and a mild mannered man finding love!) and her sense of humour. Since then the name of the author had stuck. So when I saw Just Married, Please Excuse in the book fair I bought it without any compunction.

Yashodhara (Y) is a drama queen losing her temper at the drop of a hat. Vijay (V) is steady and has a cool demeanor. Both work in the same company and they ‘fall’ in love. I don’t think it’s clearly stated in the book why V fell for Y. Complete opposites in every which way, they belong to different generations (a 7 year age gap), and have different backgrounds (big city girl and small town boy). They also have different world views and ideologies unable to agree on anything except their love for each other. With possibly the shortest courtship in the history of modern romance, they jump into matrimony because V is getting older. He pesters the reluctant Y to say yes within months of going out. Yes, that is how it happens. No, I am not exaggerating.

How is 30 old (unless of course you live in a small town like me)? Isn’t 40 the new 30? Are we still living in the 21st century? That is the beauty of living in India. You can simultaneously experience many centuries in one lifetime.

V wanted to know Y’s caste before approaching his family but he assures her it won’t matter. Y on the other hand has no clue about her caste. I would like to say casteism is regressive and has no place in the society but having seen the matrimonial columns, and living in the society with my eyes and ears open, I have seen caste rear its ugly head more often than I’d like to admit.

Just Married, Please Excuse isn’t exactly a romcom but a scathing look at marriage using humour (sarcasm) as a tool.   Continue reading “Book review – Just Married, Please Excuse”