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”

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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”

Book review – Baaz

In the past Anuja Chauhan has tackled topics such as cricket and politics in her novels, The Zoya Factor and the Battle for Bittora respectively. I like her writing but I’m not what you would call a fan. Anuja Chauhan is known for witty romances nestled in good, if sometimes unbelievable plots. I was skeptical going in when I heard Baaz was about war, the Indo-Pak 1971 war no less. Baaz offers us a behind the scenes view into the lives of everyone associated with air force.  The multitude of things the air force men worry about, knowing their future is uncertain. How their wives and girlfriends deal with the stresses of their men being in combat.

Baaz opens in 1957 newly independent India. 10 year old Ishaan ‘Baaz’ Faujdaar is standing in front of an incoming train to get his adrenaline kick, to get that dhook-dhookk-dhoookk feeling, as he calls it. Ishaan or Shaanu, as he’s fondly known, is a thrill seeker. Motherless, his stepfather isn’t too fond of him but his five siblings hero-worship him. His Nanaji gives Ishaan the idea of becoming a pilot so that he could get the thrill he craves for. And there is no looking back.

10 years later, Ishaan gets through the exam and joins the  Indian Air Force (IAF). Here he meets Rakesh Aggarwal (Raka) and Madan Subbiah (Maddy) who were in NDA corps together. Initially they make fun of him but soon become his good friends. Ishaan takes never having known his father, coming from a humble background and not knowing English, lightly. His faith in himself (read cocksure) tides him over.

Ishaan meets Tehmina Dadyseth (Tinka) when he’s on duty and she’s fleeing her marriage. They appear to have some kind of a connection which they realize when their paths cross again. She doesn’t believe in hyper-patriotism and hates the idea of war whereas for Ishaan the country comes first, and everything is black and white. Their backgrounds are vastly different and so is the way they view the world, but they do have something in common. The chemistry was sizzling but there was something missing.

Tinka, the motherless daughter of Major General Ardisher Dadyseth, was born to challenge the status quo.  She is unafraid to go where very few women have gone. From studying photography to becoming a war correspondent in Dacca, she is undeterred once she has made up her mind.

Caste is very much in the air though caste system has been abolished. Pakistanis and Muslims were viewed with the same suspicious lens. The society then was regressive and not to mention conservative – not ready to accept independent free thinking men or women who deviate from the norm. So it was heartening to have many strong female characters in the book, who defied convention in their own way.

Continue reading “Book review – Baaz”

Book review – My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories

Late at night reading the stories from Madhulika Liddle’s My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories I knew why I waited so long before reading the book. The devious machinations the characters devise to get their sanity back is the stuff nightmares are made of. The twist in the tale endings leave you feeling bleak and second guess everything in life. I read this fine collection of short stories at the wrong time when I was wallowing in negativity. It resulted in a black mood I couldn’t shake off very easily. The hangover of hopelessness, thinking of duplicitous people and the likelihood of being taken for a ride being were swimming in my head.

Reading these stories made me feel like the writer really enjoyed writing it. The writing is effortless and the dialogue is crackling (you can almost hear it). It was a compulsive read for me but the stories will remain with me for a long time to come.

Some stories are deliciously macabre and reminded me of Roald Dahl’s The Landlady which had us flabbergasted in school.  It also reminds me of  Daphne du Maurier’s The Rendevous and Other Stories.

We follow the trail in fiction and believe what we are told. What if there’s an unreliable narrator? Sum Total delves into the mind of a troubled young woman. Forced to be good by her mother, she is under immense pressure. Her way of dealing with people who annoy her is to get rid of them. Turns out you don’t need blood and gore to write a chilling story.

Why do we make snap judgments about people? And more importantly, how accurate are they? We assume the friendly, gregarious ones are nice whereas surly, cantankerous people, who keep to themselves are not so nice, if not bad. In A Tale of a Summer Vacation, the fate of two sisters hangs in balance on their ability to decipher the world around them, and the people in it. The story is set in a village in Goa, which is wonderfully evoked.

Another such atmospheric tale is The Howling Waves of  Tranquebar. I could almost sense the changes in the weather. Two friends meet in Pondicherry while doing their own thing. Something happens in Tranquebar, which at first glance isn’t extraordinary, but not quite normal either. The truth when it comes out is something sinister. Also, it is close to being a story within a story, in a sense. The main narrative falls by and another narrative takes over. Towards the end both unite revealing the unimaginable twist. Continue reading “Book review – My Lawfully Wedded Husband and Other Stories”

Book review – Chaos Theory by Anuvab Pal

A love story by any another name is still a love story, especially one masquerading as friendship. Don’t believe me? Read Anuvab Pal’s Chaos Theory, and if you come away thinking they didn’t love each other, I promise I will refund your money for the book (if that isn’t possible you can throw the book at me). Mukesh and Sunita meet each other in college and they stick together through decades but not in the way you’d imagine.

They hover around each other all their lives and mind you, this was an era before the internet, and cellphones became commonplace, when keeping in touch was much harder and people actually wrote letters and made phone calls. What bound them together all their life, through different continents and their respective families? To find out read the book or watch the play. Didn’t I mention? It was originally a play which was later adapted into a novel by Pal himself. I am dying to see the play and hope they revive it so I can see it in this lifetime.

Head here to read the review of the book. Continue reading “Book review – Chaos Theory by Anuvab Pal”

Book review – The Purple Line

Six Indian women from diverse backgrounds as different from each other as chalk and cheese. What could they possibly have in common? What could a childless performance artist, who likes inflicting pain on herself, have in common with a young Muslim house wife, who was taken out of school the day she had her period, and married to an older man? What could an anaemic housewife afraid of delivering a girl child have in common with a beautiful computer programmer, who is looking forward to complete her family? What could an artist working in an advertising agency, who yearns to have children, have in common with a pregnant teenager distraught at the news of her pregnancy?

Unaware of each others’ existence they are bound by a common thread – they see the same gynaecologist, Mrinalini. She serves not only as their doctor but as a woman and a confidante, who helps them take decisions that are best for them whether or not they appease their families (or the collective social conscience). This is a story of the people we see everyday. I had read the book years ago, and rereading it again, I felt it was a more universal story – the story of every woman. Continue reading “Book review – The Purple Line”