Book review – I Quit! What Now?

Meet Nimisha, the protagonist of Zarreen Khan’s I Quit! What Now? She is a corporate drone (think Ranbir’s character in Tamasha except wittier) and works so hard at her job that she hasn’t had a weekend to herself in a long time. Sounds familiar? She hates her job and the daily grind that comes with the territory. She desperately needs some time off to recharge her batteries and the idea of a sabbatical is planted in her head when her colleague takes one because of her pregnancy. She thinks a sabbatical is the answer to all her problems. But life rarely works as per our plan. She is forced to quit when she isn’t granted a few months off. So she starts off with the list of options typed in her excel sheet, ready to dive in. And we journey with her as she goes through the list, trying things, with hilarious consequences.

Nimisha, fondly called Nimi, lives with her mother and maid. With a distinct personality of her own her maid is one of my favourite characters. Nimi has an elder sister and her nieces adore her. They love the stories she tells them. She has a bunch of friends who keep in touch in spite of their busy lives. Her relationships with friends, family, and office colleagues is portrayed in a real manner and there isn’t a single false note.

Nimi is afraid to make a fool of herself like the rest of us.  But she is a diligent worker who hasn’t more or less caught a break in 8 years and feels unappreciated. No wonder the burnout happened.

Nimisha is a likable protagonist but more than that she is flawed and real, like you and me. Initially I couldn’t connect with the corporate droning but I suspect most  people would identify with it. After that the pace picked up and I couldn’t stop reading. I haven’t worked in a corporate set up so for me it was looking in from the outside. A fresh perspective, and a scary one at that. I cackled at her jokes in the middle of a wintry night. There was a very real chance of waking people up and making them think I was a lunatic. Continue reading Book review – I Quit! What Now?

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The English Pupil

Time flies. Staying at home for extended periods of time when I was unwell I could feel the passage of seasons, days going by excruciating slowly, each day with its own set of struggles and now I cannot believe such a large chunk of time has passed. The descent of time?

Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett is a collection of short stories I wanted to reread as soon as I finished the book, and it has taken me nearly two years to do it. I bought The Voyage of Narwhal immediately after finishing Ship Fever, and recently The Air We Breathe has come into my possession but I still haven’t read them. What am I scared of  – her not meeting my exceeded expectations or idiotically trying to collect all her other books (very hard to find in India) while not reading the ones I do have. Life is too short to wait for a complete collection. You read along and hope for the best.

In The English Pupil Linnaeus is nostalgic for the past and remembers his apostles (read pupils), who went about the world carrying forward his legacy, sending him specimens and discovering new species. All of his apostles are dead, and he’s inching closer towards his own.

Linnaeus and his wife remind me of an old couple, who are in the autumn of their lives and are not at peace with it or with each other. (What is the point of companionship then?) His wife doesn’t care about his work or his legacy. His work fulfilled him but didn’t make him rich. The family’s demands weren’t being met and to her that was what mattered the most. She was the pragmatic sort. A dreamer has to be paired with a realist. It is a question of survival, you see.

A man who is known as the Father of Taxonomy, and spanned such a legacy now has trouble remembering his own name. He finds it hard to deal with the fact that he needs assistance to do the most basic of things. Life is nothing if not ironic. I would say it is greatly satisfying to look back on a life well lived. He had an illustrious career – his binomial nomenclature is the accepted standard for naming living beings worldwide. The thing is, he doesn’t dwell on what he has achieved but what is lost, the difference between what he was and what he is now.

Andrea Barrett pieces together the story in a manner where fact is melded with fiction so convincingly that one believes it has a kernel of truth in it. I know what she is talking about on account of my life science background. I know the scientists and the work they have done but unfamiliar with their personal lives. And this is where Barrett steps in with her historical fiction narrative.

The writing is beautiful and melancholic but (for me) ultimately uplifting. He has his memories which are fading away fast but if he hadn’t lived life there would be nothing to remember in the first place. He knew what it was to be young and full of ambition. Some people live their lives without finding their purpose, searching for meaning but never finding it. Some people grow old without knowing what it is to be young. If we are not careful, this is the end that will await most of us.

The story is crammed with information for a life science student. I was delighted to see Potamogeton mentioned. After so many years of making fun of the name I find out it means something beautiful.

If you appreciate science, especially the living world, I suggest you give the short stories of Andrea Barrett a go. Start with Ship Fever, which won the National Book Award for fiction and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Lessons in life from a little girl (real and fictional)

Unexpected intrusions of beauty. That is what life is. – Saul Bellow

There are no words to express the way you feel when you hold the hand of an eleven year old, let her take charge and be your guide. For a few moments I felt like the schoolgirl I had once been, carefree, innocent and oblivious to what the world looked like to grownups. I thought I had left that self far behind but it was hiding in the open underneath the veneer of adulthood. I desperately hope (in spite of knowing that it will) growing up doesn’t rob her of her curiosity.

This child was knowledgeable about the technicalities of photography and that impressed me, I am still an amateur photographer years after professing interest in photography as a hobby. There lies the difference. It is more than a hobby for her. She is passionate about it.

I took to her immediately. Our vibes matched. It would appear strange when I say that because I am a world weary adult (even though I cringe while saying it) and she’s a bright kid. My inner child connected with her and perhaps in her I could see a glimpse of the happy-go-lucky child I used to be.

I have always connected well with children. At the same time, I have been told by my older friends that I am far too mature for my age. I am an old soul with a young heart. And only with a Gemini it won’t be a conundrum.

She was cheerful, restless and bubbling with enthusiasm like children are. It was something I could not have asked for but got in spades interacting with her that day. I was not supposed to meet her but she had come with my friend and how funny it was her that made my day.

The same night I found a book  I had been looking for ages, Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle. I don’t have to tell you that the illustrations are beautiful because it’s a book by Oliver Jeffers. It talks about a girl shutting herself away from the world because something bad happened to her. To live and to just exist are two different things. She allowed grief to overwhelm her and forgot to live until a little girl shows her what she was missing, just by being herself, full of life and not being afraid of the future (the great unknown for most of us unless you are a seer). I was that little girl but I don’t want to be that adult. Finding the way to yourself, and discovering who you are, isn’t that the purpose of life?

Life mirrors art. Art mirrors life. And we continue to live on trying to find meaning in the things we do.

Yesterday I read an insightful interview about Oliver Jeffers’ new book Here We Are which comes out today. The cover looks stunning and I cannot wait to read it.

Fitoor

As the movie began there was a wide smile on my face watching young Noor and Firdaus. The stirrings of first love. The awkwardness and the unexpected pleasures that lie ahead. Young love is so beautiful, the possibilities are endless but when it doesn’t work out which is inevitable because it is not made to weather the storms of the world, you get your heartbroken. It is a rite of passage. You feel as if you will never be whole again and your pain is unprecedented in the history of mankind. (Guess what it’s not and this one is practice for getting your heartbroken many times during the course of your life.) A door to a new world is opened and the universe is forever altered.

Mohammed Abrar as the young Noor is terrific as the vulnerable, shy boy who desperately wants to belong, and be a part of Firdaus’s world. Earnest and likable, I would have liked to see more of him. Watch out for the hole in the shoe moment; it is tender and heartbreaking.

The innocence is carried forth into adulthood by Aditya Roy Kapur splendidly. My eyes stay on Noor even when he isn’t shirtless. Katrina as Firdaus looks chic but not that big a departure from her conventional avatars. She looked better in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, if you ask me. Tabu is matchless as the Begum who plays Firdaus’s mother. No husband in sight, it’s just her and her daughter. It is her machinations which drive the plot forward, and it is her story which sets the tone for the characters.

He is thrust into the world of art after an anonymous benefactor recommends Noor’s name (it is not who you think it is) to an art residency in Delhi, a world far removed from his own. Here the adult Firadaus makes her first appearance in his life.

Unsure about his place in the world, making art is the only thing that makes sense to him. He doesn’t know why he loves Firdaus. He just does. This gravity defying love he feels for Firdaus I don’t understand (must read Great Expectations!) but I suppose that’s what great love stories are about.

His lack of sure-footedness is portrayed convincingly. A lost soul, a dreamy artist but chillingly aware of the harsh realities of life. He doesn’t quite fit into the unforgiving materialistic world he is a part of.

The scenes where he’s making art shine. He is perfectly believable as a tortured artist. It is not exactly a case of the artist and the muse but a case of unrequited infatuation. quite possibly love finding a vessel in his art and hence her serving as a muse first indirectly then directly. Watch the movie it will make sense to you.

Firdaus is a terrible beauty who feels but knows that she is not allowed to feel. Noor emotes with his eyes and carries his pain in his persona.

More than the lead characters the movie belongs to Tabu which is a shame because it was marketed as a love story. Slowly fading away in sadness and illness, the elaborate costumes make her look deranged. Never seen a character like this in Hindi cinema (or maybe I haven’t watched that many movies). Continue reading Fitoor

Rains Ridiculous

Like a typical Aries one day I was returning after experiencing something practically life altering (to someone else it would be lunacy not path breaking), I decided to take a chance and get wet in the rain. My God it was a scary experience. So much for new experiences. It’s so not true what they show in movies. It’s the opposite. And highly impractical might I add.

It was humid, the clouds were mongering and I was waiting for the bus for what seemed like an eternity. I was so busy writing I missed two buses. I people watched when I felt tired and fatigued (Man watching is the term). Finally got on one when I waved my hands madly and the bus that was moving away screeched to a halt.

Getting wet in the rains is overrated. (God help me if I am ever stuck in the Mumbai rains.) You soil your clothes and shoes, which take forever to dry if you live in a humid place like I do. Cleaning them is a task, and then there is the imminent threat of a raging cold. I felt nothing but tedious. Where was the magic I wondered, when I was dragging myself home.

Rainy season is the least favourite of all the seasons though I love the accompaniments – clouds being formed, the colour of skies darkening and the streaks of lightning, sudden and unexpected. The dreamer in me cannot ever reconcile with the realist that shows up from time to time.

I will never say rain demands to be felt. Big fat drops hitting you with all their might making the short stretch leading home seem like an long endless road. Shudder! Continue reading Rains Ridiculous

Book review – Have a Safe Journey

If walking on the roads wasn’t scary enough with increasing traffic, people following their own rules and the dismal law and order situation should be enough to scare you. It is the ugly truth. I think it is very commendable that such a book has been published. Nitin Gadkari played an integral role in bringing out the book. He has also written the foreward for Have A Safe Journey. The book is divided into two sections. The first section has stories by established writers and the second section contains stories by people who participated in the Have A Safe Journey (HASJ) contest.

Anand Neelakantan’s story Hit and Run was disappointing, an old fashioned fable on truth and morality. It was followed by Ashwin Sanghi’s story Something About Mary which is an account of the first accident. The way the story was presented makes the reader care about the character and the outcome. I really enjoyed it and wouldn’t have minded reading more about her. Kiran Manral’s story Sudden Break will speak to you and leave you thinking long after the story ends.

In Car Pool by Pankaj Dubey easygoing  Avni with a disregard for rules and Suryash, a stickler for rules, carpool to Goa. Opposites attract and they bond with each other to the extent of falling for each other. I really enjoyed the story. Written in lucid prose and very believable, you are in for the ride with them. It effectively makes a point about wearing seat belts without an ounce of preachiness.

Priyanka Sinha Jha’s Rush Hour is interesting because the victim is rescued by the one who caused the accident. He got her admitted, checked her progress and later on told her the truth. But left the decision to go to the police entirely to her. She got a new lease of life because of him. What would you have done?

I felt Why We Don’t Talk by Shinie Anthony didn’t quite belong in the collection. It was murky and a bit spooky. But the unexpected makes the story enjoyable.

The Level Crossing by Vikram Kapur is about a driver who hasn’t  slept three nights in a row and continues to be on the road. He is working round the clock because he needs the money for his sister’s wedding. Without sleep he’s a sitting duck. A disaster waiting to happen. As passengers all we care about is our comfort and reaching our destination on time. Do we ever care or think about the driver’s comfort? After reading this story you will think about your driver and be more alert on the road.

Now moving on to the amateurs’ stories. Most stories are good as quick reads which has to do with the format of the short story contest (1500 was the upper word limit). These stories present themselves completely, mostly. Some of these stories are predictable because you know someone will die or be gravely injured in a road mishap of some kind. But having said that many stories are unpredictable and those are the ones I enjoyed.

In Ambalika’s An End I Did Not See competitions are being held on the occasion of Road Safety Week at NEHU. In a debate for Safety Ideation Contest, a literature student talks about creating a mobile signal jammer for vehicles to reduce the number of road accidents. One of the panelists is eager to turn her idea into reality. Talking and driving has become more common than drinking and driving.The story is well narrated and the surprising twist will break your heart.

In Anukriti Verma’s Safety First Alex and Rick were inseparable like Jai and Veeru from Sholay until death played spoilsport. The story gives a strong message about drinking and driving is strong but it gets preachy towards the end.

In Arvind Passey’s The Street Photographer a street photographer who captures gritty images meets a grisly end. The way things played out was unexpected yet real.

In The Perilous Eve by Aritri Chatterjee the life of carefree youngsters drinking and speeding on a bike to celebrate the New Year’s eve collides with death. I don’t understand parents gifting their underage offspring bikes and cars. They have had so many years of practice but they still don’t know how to adult.

Misplaced Dreams written by Barnali Ray Shukla was one of my favourites.  Bus driver is casually drinking and risking so many lives. And there is no one to stop him. Three old friends are on a pleasure trip but they don’t know it would their last trip together. It is gut wrenching listening to their thoughts as they hurtle towards death. Even Gods can’t save you, if you drink and drive. Another clear message it delivers is that life is lived in the moment and does not come with any guarantees. Continue reading Book review – Have a Safe Journey

The Same Song

While cleaning and rearranging my books the other day, without thinking I selected  the OST of The Namesake to play on the phone. Perhaps because it is mostly instrumental with just a handful of songs and has always soothed me in the past. Also I needed to focus on the job at hand and get it done. Even though it is one of my favourite activities, working all day, I was beginning to tire. So I needed the music to not be distracting but help me calm down and at the same re-energize, if there is such a thing. When the album reached the end and The Same Song played, I realized I had completely forgotten about its existence all these years even though the same singer (Susheela Raman) had sung another song in the OST and I had listened to just minutes before. It was as if my brain was refusing to connect the dots which is weird to say the least (not a good sign in any universe).

It was as if no time had passed and I remembered the first time I had heard the song. I googled the year the movie had released and I couldn’t believe it’s been over a decade since it released. I can’t be sure of the exact year I read the book as I wasn’t a member of Goodreads then. But I remember reading the book during college and eagerly waiting to see the movie adaptation which I ultimately saw when it came on the TV. (If The Sense of an Ending and A Death in the Gunj didn’t release here now there was not even a sliver of hope of The Namesake releasing then.) I have a vague idea of the timeline. It must be scribbled in one of those notebooks I used as diaries(=journals) then. It will be difficult to mine out information in the old fashioned way, riffling through pages remembering which notebook I wrote what in (I tell you that’s half the battle won). Even if I am orderly because systematic I am not and my memory isn’t what it used to be (the unfortunate truth). Plus my diary handwriting is godawful to say the least, hurriedly jotting down before I forget things and sometimes even I have  trouble reading it. Continue reading The Same Song

Going back to Chokher Bali

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

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

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

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

Here’s to rereading and rediscovering Chokher Bali anew.

The Sense of an Ending (film)

Let me make it clear from the outset The Sense of an Ending isn’t a film you watch while munching popcorn. It is a very quiet movie and every sound is important. It is also not a film you watch with giggly friends (it is not a hangout movie). Of course the name is a dead giveaway. Spoilers ahead.

Ritesh Batra has done a commendable job on adapting The Sense of an Ending into such a lovely film. Philosophical and minimalist like the book but he has redeemed Tony Webster, the unlikable protagonist at the center of it. I love that it ends on a good note, quite unlike the book which ends with unrest (and a punch to the gut). Because Barnes does not believe in redemption. A crusty curmudgeon who sees the error of his ways late in his life but that he does is enough for the audience. The film ends with hope and you carry that into your life.

The film flits effortlessly between the past and the present like the book. Nothing is spelt out in the film too, and if you can believe me, it is more enigmatic than the book; you have to read between the lines and carefully observe what is unfolding on screen to get the complete picture.

Jim Broadbent (Prof. Slughorn!) plays the retired Tony Webster. He is given a profession here as a camera shop owner unlike the book. He does something constructive with his time other than ruminating on the past, and ruining his present by trying to imagine how different scenarios would have played out. It’s what we all do from time to time but allowing it to take over your life is foolishness. Is that what you want to do with your one precious life?

Tony was delusional, unable to see things as they are; he couldn’t see it when Veronica was his college girlfriend and even now when he is an old man. Like Tony, most of us just bumble along in life and try to do the best we can. When the truth finally dawns on him, he is shattered but picks up the pieces and endeavours to do the right thing in his own way. But one’s right is another’s wrong. Continue reading The Sense of an Ending (film)

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