Category Archives: family

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

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Wild Child and Other Stories by Paro Anand

Wild Child and Other Stories contains stories about teens dealing with issues that they grapple with. Paro Anand’s earlier book School Days which I thoroughly enjoyed was about tween’s issues but this one is so much darker because of the themes it deals with. Teens are unruly, difficult and moody but always in the need of love, both tough and tender.

This is an award winning book but why does it have such a bad cover? I mean come on, YA audience is used to being treated better all around the world. So glad it has now been re-released by Penguin India as Like Smoke which has 20 stories.

The title story Wild Child deals with a girl who is always bunking school (I had read an excerpt and decided to buy the book), vanishing somewhere where no one can find her. Intent only on punishing her, the elders make no enquiry or try to find out what is the matter with her. The answer when it comes, sheds light on her behaviour. People who deal with children need to be more aware and open, not to mention perceptive, to catch what is really the matter.

This is Shabir Karam is about children whose parents have been killed in Hindu- Muslim conflicts. Kids from different religions live together in a home but they have no love lost for each other. How children, who have no clue what religion is, are caught in the crossfire of hatred and bigotry will make you very uncomfortable.

Children are vulnerable, yet to form their opinions and adults, who are in a position to influence it, do grave disservice to them when they do it to meet their agenda. It makes children easy targets. Early childhood trauma is not something that can be reversed and their childhood is lost somewhere.

They Called Her ‘Fats’ is about an unruly, unfriendly and angry girl. Fatima has no friends and the children in the school spread vicious rumours about her. It is not only adults but children also fear what they don’t understand, and Fatima doesn’t make it easy for anyone. The sports teacher sees the potential in her when she throws the javelin.

Very few people are lucky to find  something that channelizes what they have inside them. It just takes one person to believe in you. What makes the story riveting is that it has roots in reality.

Santa’s Not So Little Helper is in a lighter vein. A boy who writes a creative writing piece in class about being part of Santa’s family. It is funny and did take me back to my school days but it didn’t quite fit in this collection.

In Jason Jamison and Ia star tennis player with swoon worthy good looks is troubled inside. The perfect exterior is a facade. He is the new boy who defeats the old reigning champion. Looks can be deceiving (quite literally) and friendship can spring up in the oddest of places between unlikeliest of people.

Mixed marriages are taboo in India and it is the worst when it is a foreigner. When the marriage doesn’t work out the family is left in the deep end, shunned by the society. What is the child’s fault? But he or she is the one who has to bear the brunt of it.

Hearing My Own Story talks about abuse that goes on inside the house. Physical and mental abuse is a reality for many married women. They have no clue that they can walk out of their abusive marriages and claim compensation. But the ground reality is murky and in India where marital rape isn’t a crime, women are helpless. The social fabric is at fault. Both people, outside and inside the home tell you to keep mum. 

Like Smoke was gut wrenching but felt short and abrupt. Maybe that is what the author wanted to show, how living in terrorist climes is, with bombing and shooting being everyday affairs. How uncertain and fragile their lives are with the threat of death looming on the horizon.

It makes you think about what is really being done about the situation in Kashmir. The militancy is destroying the lives of so many people, who are easy targets because they refuse to leave their motherland; it is the civilians who are paying the price for the unrest. Continue reading Wild Child and Other Stories by Paro Anand

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 Just Married, Please Excuse

Finding Violet Park again

I finished reading Finding Violet Park a couple of days ago and I am still thinking about it, which is always a good sign because my memory isn’t as reliable as it is used to be. I think the cover is brilliant (much better than the photograph I have taken) and when I first got the book, I thought someone had actually doodled all over it. I remember thinking I liked it and at the same time wondered how could they sell such a book, even if it is second hand, until I read the blurb. Silly me.
I knew the book as Me, the Missing and the Dead (but I must confess I like the title Finding Violet Park better because it is a title that doesn’t give anything away) as it was released in America. It’s a title I was familiar with since 2010, when I had read Broken Soup (Jenny Valentine’s second book), having noticed it in Pantaloons (when it still housed books) perhaps because it stood out due to its unusual cover.

After reading Broken Soup, I came to know that her first book, Finding Violet Park, won the Guardian children’s fiction prize and I wanted to read it (the stunning cover was the actual reason). Then university happened and I forgot all about it. Recently I saw it on a used book site (thank you Bookchor) and it all came back to me. Jenny Valentine felt like a nom de plume to me but it is indeed her real name (she married her Valentine).

It is odd coming back to an author whose work I had read when I wasn’t as much of a cynic and sullied by the world as I’m now. While reading I felt as if I was reconciling the present and past versions of me, which is weird because it is the first time I am reading this book but my mind associates Finding Violet Park with an earlier time, a pre-university era.

I read a major chunk of the book while awaiting my turn in a long line (which twisted and turned in ways unimaginable) of people waiting for their turn at the registration counter at a hospital. And if my nose wasn’t buried in the book, the two hour wait in the line moving slower than a snail, which ultimately turned out to be for nothing, would have been maddening. If there is anything I have learnt all these years, it is this – Never leave the house without a book.

The book deals with how Lucas, a 16 year old and his family – mother, sister, brother and grandparents, cope after his father goes missing (read ghosting in real life). It’s a book where death has a strong presence since the other lead character Violet Park, is in a urn (as in already dead). Their paths crisscross and what happens then forms the rest of the narrative.

Lucas has been forced to grow up before he hit his teens and never got the chance to be a normal teenager. He is a bit of an oddball and strange for his age but  that is what growing up too early does to you. He talks to himself often. I get you. I really do. When others don’t understand the only option left is oneself. He idolizes his father, who vanished without a trace, leaving behind his pregnant wife, two children and ageing parents. And this breaks my heart because I know the truth won’t be pretty.

Lucas conjures up out of the world scenarios for his father’s disappearance, never believing him to be dead. He believes that one fine day he will be back in their lives. He is unable to face facts or refuses to do so because the world he has so carefully constructed would then crumble and, he would be left with nothing but a gaping hole, where life as he knew it used to be.

Pete, Lucas’s dad, was absent from their lives but is present throughout the book. Lucas was the worst affected by his absence and could not let go of him even as time passed and there was no hope of his returning home. His mom let him be a walking shrine to his dad, thinking it to be a way he could cope with the disappearance though it made moving on very difficult  for others.

Though published by Harper Children in 2007 this is not a children’s book but would belong in the category YA (young adult). The writing is simple but the themes are complex but then YA books have never been traditional and that is what I like about them. Some people think YA books are rubbish and precocious, and isn’t worth the hype. Read the book for the most unexpected pair of protagonists, if not for the themes it addresses – death, alienation, loneliness, assisted suicide, dissolution of a marriage and growing up in a broken family, trials of old age and ravages of dementia all without ever getting heavy handed.

The book is equal parts funny, tender and sad and hopeful though not all at once. And the ending will leave you gobsmacked. I suggest you get your hands on a copy, if YA floats your boat.

It occurs to me all that most people do when they grow up is fix on something impossible and hunger after it.
 I can’t believe how people turn themselves in circles and repeat the mistakes that screwed them over in the first place.
It’s funny when you start thinking about pivotal moments like this in your life, chance happenings that end up meaning everything.
 Maybe Pansy saw him the way I wanted to, half blind, without the cruel light of actual knowledge. 
I don’t know if I said it right or not when I said it to Bob. It’s much easier saying everything you want to say when you are the only one that is listening.
 
…I was thinking how ironic it was, how unfair that I’d been mad for so long at the person who stuck around instead of the one who abandoned me. 
 It’s what you do when you grow up, apparently, face up to things you’d rather not and accept the fact that nobody is who you thought they were, maybe not even close.

Mrs Funny Bones is a could have been

Mrs Funny Bones by Twinkle Khanna is a lighthearted fun read. Witty observations on life and the world around her. I found it hard to stop once I started. It does not read like a book in the true sense of the word but like a series of (very )short blog posts.

I had read a few of her columns in Times of India, where she took digs at accepted norms in a very pop cultury manner and made them look quite silly. Taking everything not so seriously, that is not always a bad thing, is it? Having said that the book would have found it very hard to achieve what it has, had it not been not written by a star wife and backed by aggressive marketing.

Sometimes she tries too hard to be funny. Sometimes it is all very predictable and you can predict how the sentence would end. But she is funny, and with her pithy observations, you will let loose a giggle or two, like I did. To be funny one has to poke fun at oneself first and not take themselves too seriously, which she does with aplomb. You also have to be a bit brave to poke fun at your fraternity, more so if you are famous.

For me, however, the book will forever be an opportunity wasted. She could have done so much more. This is by no means a tell all account which will give you insights into a star household and like Aarushi, I resisted it for the longest time but then one fine day I decided to take the bait. I’m pretty sure it had to do something with a sale and a friend’s indirect recommendation.

The last two chapters (I find it odd to call them chapters even though they have been named with great care to elicit a laugh or at least a chuckle) were more emotional than silly and a few life lessons were thrown in. I felt like telling her that you don’t have to change your tone just because the book is coming to an end. The illustrations were perhaps supposed to be cute but they missed the mark.

The fun aside there were some things which rankled. She juggles her work with responsibilities at home. How many women claim they are modern but fit into the same age old traditional roles, is a little heartbreaking. She questions traditions but not enough, I felt.

A woman plays so many roles and she shows that it is not always smooth sailing, transitioning from one to the other. Wife to daughter. Wife to daughter-in-law. Wife to mother. Working woman to housewife. She talks about her issues with weight and how they stemmed from being overweight during childhood. There has always been societal pressure on women to conform to invisible rules in every sphere, which is both stifling and damaging. Naturally, breaking free is the only logical option which is what is happening now. I thought this is a book my mother would identify with better and commiserate with the author, so I read out a few snippets to her and she nodded solemnly.

The husband is called the man of the house and son is called the prodigal son. I wondered if she was poking fun at centuries of conditioning or reinforcing it?

Perfect for a few hours of downtime when you want some some light reading, so light it doesn’t feel like reading at all as the movie plays on in your head. I have seen a few movies of Twinkle Khanna and Akshay Kumar as a kid. That certainly helped. I have probably seen their son somewhere (on TV). It was only the baby I had to imagine and I imagined the baby in Baby’s Day Out. Where stupid? Right here, baby.

(Not) In Judgement

A judgmental person is shown the mirror.


Judging people sitting from a high throne
Who are you?
Have you never made a mistake?
If not how are you human?
Which planet have you come from?
Go back! 
There is no place
 for people like you here.
Sitting in judgment on friends
for what they choose to share.
They consider you an insider,
the story of their lives is precious.
Is it to be listened to with full concentration
or with half a mind sitting in judgment?
They talk of experiences you will never have.
Of the people you will never meet.
Of the places you will never go.
They give you a window into a new world.
Sharing their highs and lows,
moments of ecstasy,
pain and confusion.
For what?
Not to be judged, surely.
So that you may live,
more than one life.
Sitting in judgment on family.
For the things they do.
For the things they do not do.
For the people they are (or appear to be).
For the people they are not.
What will please you, pray tell?
If the world is run to your diktats and fancies,
my way or the highway style?
Sitting in judgment on strangers.
People you come across in everyday life.
The fleeting connections
which touch us or pass us by.
Subjecting them to your petty judgment
without even knowing them.
Do you know yourself?
Set aside all judgment.
Look at yourself.
How you really are.
Not what you want to be.
Not what you appear to be.
Just as you are.
It would make a world of difference
to you.

Thoughts on Sachin Kundalkar’s Cobalt Blue

 I started Cobalt Blue written by Sachin Kundalkar(of Aiyyaa fame)  in Marathi and translated by Jerry Pinto into English , before going to bed and couldn’t stop till I fell asleep(obviously). In the morning I finished the few pages that were left, wishing with all my heart I had more to go on as the day stretched on. It is a thing of beauty with simple uncluttered prose but heartbreaking since it is, after all, about heartbreak. Not the why, how and when of it, but something more organic.  If you ever had your heart broken or stomped on or ripped out by somebody you will get it.

A paying guest enters into the middle class Joshi household and siblings Tanay and Anuja fall for him, each unaware of the other’s affair with the same person. He vanishes without a trace leaving these young adults heartbroken. How they deal with the memories and come to terms with it forms the story.

The paying guest is a painter, who is very comfortable with his own solitude and bohemian in his approach to life. Tanay was in the need of a friend. And, in walks the painter who Tanay instantly connects with and is drawn to, unlike anyone until now in his short life. Anuja was intrigued by the paying guest who was so different than anybody she ever knew and falls  for him. Being unnamed added to his elusive nature.

The first part of the narrative is by Tanay, who speaks directly as if addressing the paying guest in words written or spoken. He remembers things from their interactions and tries to understand how he was in the dark. And at the same, he is processing his grief at being left so abruptly. The second part of the narrative is by Anuja , who in her diary entries, goes back and forth and tries to make sense of events that happened.

The book raises a lot of questions about what is acceptable in the society and how society impinges on individual freedom curtailing their desires to be sacrificed at the altar of societal normalcy. In the book, Anuja wasn’t permitted to go upstairs where the paying guest lived but nobody minded Tanay practically living with him.There is talk of a homosexual movement and there are meet-ups to discuss and do something about it which was a step ahead at the time the book was published, in 2006.

There were some Marathi words I didn’t know the meanings of and I didn’t Google them while I was reading and I took them to mean whatever it meant in the context and imagined it when I couldn’t get the meaning. I didn’t pause even when things resonated with me. Like, when Anuja is talking about why she puts a date on her diary entries.

In the translator’s note Pinto says reading about the events from Anuja’s  view point of the same events after reading Tanay’s narrative is heartache inducing. Siblings. Do they really know us? They know our daily persona, our habits but do they know about our inner world, our deep seated longings, burning hopes and dashed dreams.  Rarely.  Anyone who has grown up with brothers and sisters(identical twins are exempted of course) this would leave them with deep questions.

As Jerry Pinto points out in  the translator’s note at the end of the book, there are no timelines and no asterisks that demarcate the past from the present. There are no chapter endings; it all flows without chapters to guide you though Anuja has a few diary entries which are in a chronological order.  I realized how accustomed I’m to the breaks that chapters offer.

The book ends abruptly (or so I felt). I found myself wishing I had more details about the mysterious painter.

The quotes that follow spoke to me. There were many passages that need to be discussed but that is for another post.

“I have no tears now. Why should I? No one around me would understand.”
 
“Now I know longer feel like weeping for him. I just wanted to meet him once, to ask why. What explanation? From whom? What will I gain by holding him responsible?”
Anuja has a nervous breakdown for all to see but Tanay breaks down inwardly unable to give an outlet to his grief.In a sense we don’t weep for the other person but ourselves. For what we think we have lost.  After crying comes acceptance in its own sweet time. In the time when we are looking for answers, we want closure and we make the mistake of depending on the other person to give us that when it is up to us. We think answering the whys will clear everything. No, although some admissions do help. One can take a conscious decision to step back but closure occurs of its own accord but yes, it does help if the wounds aren’t being pricked anew when healing.
 
 “Why do we judge relationships only by their age? Why is it that a long-lasting relationship maybe called successful?”
I was devastated when an old friendship broke and I realized then that they had never known the real me and now I no longer fit into their world. Not being on the same page is still okay if we can grow together but that wasn’t the case and it was tough to accept that.  I shunned all friends and refused to have anything to do with the word friend. In spite of my ‘how to lose friends and alienate people routine’ some friends stuck by me and made me see the truth. 
 
“Today when I sat down to write and put the date on the page, I began to wonder: why do I insist on this date business? Why must I put time stamps on everything?”
Why indeed I asked myself, who is a stickler for the date and time so that when I go back and read or edit I know exactly when it was written. What is the purpose one may ask other than the obvious? To place the words in the moment, in relation to what was going on at that point in time and how the words came into existence. But it doesn’t always work, sometimes things have to be explicitly mentioned, time is cruel and mere hints don’t always suffice.
 
“Why aren’t things easy? Or do we make them difficult?”
This is what was zooming in my head and I found myself thinking of the times when I had made a simple situation complex.

Cobalt Blue is a short book and can be finished within a few hours, but one that would linger on your mind for quite a while. Utterly compelling. I cannot recommend it enough.

Update – I had the chance to interact with Jerry Pinto and after getting my copy of Cobalt Blue autographed, I asked him what were his thoughts on the book and he said it’s not my book(I was dismayed that I had offended him due to omitting one word!). Before I could tell him that I knew he was the translator and reframe my question he was swarmed by school kids for autographs.