Author Uncovered : P.D. James

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Author Uncovered : P.D. James”

Book Talk – Bhoot Bhavish Bartaman by Mehool Parekh

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mentalist to the rescue

What are the odds of me peeling an orange at the exact time as Simon Baker is peeling one in The Mentalist? It’s a pity I have never broken off an orange or for that matter an apple from a branch and eaten it (another one for my bucket list). You can call it a coincidence but looking at it as a matter of chance takes the magic out of life and makes the words serendipity or happenstance (if you prefer) redundant. I understand that sometimes you have to let go of fanciful notions and think practically. What. I didn’t get to be three decades old without knowing something about how the world functions.

It wouldn’t do to complicate life by overthinking I have realized. (Turtles All The Way Down was a great help in this regard, thank you John Green). As a bookish reflective sort I have a tendency to brood and try to figure things out (read stew in it) when it should be left to life to sort out the mess.

And here I see Patrick enjoying an orange plucked straight from the tree after knowing something terrible. Don’t dismiss it by saying it’s fiction. There are people who feel deeply but don’t shed tears. I knew such a person. They internalize their grief and hide their disappointments from the world. They deal with it on their own.

There’s always a reason to smile and many reasons to live for, that is if you look at life the glass half full way (sometimes it pays to be an optimist) and not in the pessimistic glass half empty manner. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

Continue reading “The Mentalist to the rescue”

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”

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

My first thought as I watched Dunkirk was remembering Ian McEwan’s Atonement; both reading the book with its long war passages, and watching the devastation unfold on screen.

The  pounding musical score by Hans Zimmer in Dunkirk isn’t what you would ever want to download and listen to (Do listen to the OST of Atonement by Dario Marianelli.) but it works for the movie,​ pumping it with urgency. And how the movie is shot adds to the tension so we are able to feel the rising​ panic and helplessness. Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is outstanding.

Dunkirk was emotional for me. The movie has a beating heart. A war movie without any of the goriness but all the urgency thanks to the way it is shot which puts you in the thick of action, and that’s something that appealed to me. I don’t know how people found it cut and dry. Dialogue is sparse. There was pin drop silence in the hall. Everyone was listening intently and watching like a hawk so as not to miss anything because the narrative is such; we weren’t being told just shown. We don’t get a history lesson here. Nothing is explained. We get to see a dramatization of experiences of how the soldiers themselves might have experienced it.

Both for a war movie, and the cinematic flourish that Nolan usually brings, Dunkirk was understated and subtle.

I loved the patriotic spirit of the people, civilians who went out to rescue their people on being urged by their government, knowing fully well that they are undertaking a a huge risk.

Honour and bravery  are all very well but it is survival that matters in the end. Survival by any means possible is what the movie focuses on. I chose to believe that survival in this case isn’t an act of cowardice because staying alive they will be more useful to their country’ the war was far from over.

Survival isn’t fair.

There’s no melodrama and some scenes are almost clinical in its brutality but no fuss is made about it. If anyone says it’s not engaging, it’s probably not their cup of tea. Even though the outcome is widely known we (those of us in the hall) were watching what was unfolding on screen with bated breath, till the credits rolled on.

When the movie ended there was applause.  Clearly the audience was moved. Continue reading “Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk”

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”

Reflections on reading The Wife’s Letter

Coming home to Tagore is always a revelation. I have probably owned this fine collection of short stories for over a decade now. My aunt had funded it when she saw me lurking in the aisle of the book corridor in Big Bazaar back when it still sold books, along with stationery. How little I must have understood of women’s plight and their predicaments, when I was a teenager if not a child, is dawning on me now. A great story is that which reveals itself anew whenever you pick it up to read. In short something which has repeat value. Tagore is a genius; every sentence has its place and importance in the narrative.

I never pick up Tagore lightly because I can never shrug off his words casually and carry on with my life pretending to be unaltered when the soul has registered change. Reading Tagore needs complete involvement of the brain and the heart, and I need to be on stable ground otherwise it would be tough to balance the emotions when I’m on uneven terrain. The emotions generated on reading the text will overwhelm me and teetering on the edge of a precipice isn’t good for my health.

Reading The Wife’s Letter I had to stop at a few sentences to completely understand them (I am not sure if it is brain fog or ageing in action) and compare it to the real world experience I have had in the last decade. My first hand experience might be very limited but observed or heard second hand experience is so much more. Women talk. Women share. Stories of friends, acquaintances, neighbours, stories from the media. A woman has empathy for all the women of the world (barring duplicitous mother-in-laws and conniving frenemies).

There is no doubt about that Tagore understood the female psyche and portrayed it in his writings better than any man could. I am really looking forward to reading another translation of Chokher Bali soon. Continue reading “Reflections on reading The Wife’s Letter”

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.