Read 209 of 2021. The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose

The Illuminated by Anindita Ghose

Title: The Illuminated
Author: Anindita Ghose
Publisher: HarperCollins India
ISBN: 978-9354227257
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of The Illuminated when I first started reading it. I read a couple of pages and for some reason didn’t get back to it. It didn’t call out to me then. I had received an ARC and thought I would read it eventually before the finished copy was out in the market. However, when the finished copy was sent to me, I thought let’s do this. Let us read The Illuminated and so I did. Dear reader, I was in for a roller-coaster ride, a ride that was calm, in its own manner quite tumultuous, deceptively simple, with no twists and turns, and the kind you have to surrender to completely.

Relationships are messy, but that’s how they are. I guess because humans who are in those relationships are complex themselves. Each carrying their own burden, trying very hard to make sense of the world. Shashi and Tara, the mother and daughter at the center of this novel are quite the same. Each trying to make their way in the world, after the death of the center of their lives – the husband and the father. Anindita throws her characters in unfamiliar waters, and it is up to them to sink or swim. Being who they are, they swim. Sometimes in the opposite direction, so as not to cross each other – but what comes of it ultimately is what you will know after reading the book.

The Illuminated is about women – women from different spheres, class, sensibilities, and more than anything women who lead such complicated inner lives – that are brought to fore. From affairs of the heart to desires of the body to how one feels in a marriage, to living in a country where an organisation decides how you should be in the world, Ghose gives us a view (albeit a minor one) into a world unknown to those who live outside of it.

I was mostly reminded of Anita Desai’s writing as I made my way through the book. Initially I thought I could hear Jhumpa Lahiri’s voice, but I was mistaken. It is just Ghose’s own tone that finally makes the book what it is. The themes of loneliness, liberty, of always overlooking one’s shoulder as a woman in modern India, and more than anything longing is constant throughout the book.

The title The Illuminated is self-explanatory. It is of the illumination, of the precise moment of epiphany that Shashi and Tara come to feel is the crux of the book. Of seeing the light that maybe was always there but just got hidden for a long time by the sun. The metaphors do not get in the way of the reading at all. They are subtle, and you get it if you get it.

Anindita’s writing is detailed. I particularly loved Shashi’s parts – the slowness, the sudden change in the tapestry of her life, the choices she then makes, and the determination with which she propels ahead is told skilfully and with most empathy by the writer. It took me a while to get used to Tara. Somehow, I just couldn’t relate to her. There were times I wished I would read more of Shashi and less of Tara, but I also understand that we need Tara’s perspective as readers because that’s where the balancing act happens. At the same time, the parallel but most significant part of the story is also the organisation MSS – that seems to have taken over the responsibility of showing women their place in the society – and how Shashi and Tara navigate their lives around it.

The writing took me some time to get used to, but like I said Anindita’s voice is unique and lures you in after a point. The Illuminated is a nuanced, sometimes faltering, sometimes finding its way and getting there, and sometimes just knowing what it wants to say debut book that stands on its own. I am looking forward to what comes next from Ms. Ghose.

Read 208 of 2021. Taxi Wallah and Other Stories by Numair Atif Choudhury

Taxi Wallah and Other Stories by Numair Atif Choudhury

Title: Taxi Wallah and Other Stories Author: Numair Atif Choudhury
Publisher: HarperCollins India, Fourth Estate India
ISBN: 978-9354892134
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 132
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I haven’t read Babu Bangladesh!, but now I will. I will ensure that I do, at least before the year ends, because Numair’s writing holds you by the throat, it suffocates you, it does not let you be, and more than anything else, it makes you see the stark differences in society, if in case you didn’t know about them already. 

Choudhury’s Bangladesh is a place very much like others in and around the country – poverty-stricken, gross injustice and inequalities that are visible from a mile, and more than anything else for you to acknowledge it. They make you uncomfortable because that’s the truth and we are aware of it.

Whether it is the very evident class difference that surfaces in “Rabia” – a story of a house-help and her sudden change of relationship with her aapa (who doesn’t want to be called that anymore), or in “Crumble” – a very hard-hitting story of Shahed – a brick-breaker in Dhaka who is just trying to make ends meet, or even if it is through the story “Different Eyes” about organ donors – the ones who have no choice but to do what they do, to settle their loans, each story exposes the darkness within. Choudhury’s stories aren’t for the faint-hearted. They aren’t glossy, they aren’t easy to digest, they don’t exist in happy and shiny places. They live hidden in shadows and come out when they wish to, or are already in plain sight but not seen by people.

Numair sees the world through a lens so huge and yet so minuscule – the stories could perhaps be sent in any third-world country and yet only belong to Bangladesh. The joys (however small), the sorrows, the defeat, the victories (very rare), and kindness that displays itself unexpectedly (say in “Chokra” – a beautiful story of street children and one in particular), Choudhury’s writing is sharp, raw, poetic, and shows the mirror the world.

Read this fantastic collection of short stories, and then read Babu Bangladesh! (as I will), and then lament about the fact that he was taken away too soon.

Read 207 of 2021. The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk. Illustrations by Joanna Concejo. Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

The Lost Soul by Olga Tokarczuk

Title: The Lost Soul
Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Illustrator: Joanna Concejo
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
ISBN: 978-1644210345
Genre: Graphic, Illustrations, Picture Book
Pages: 48
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The Lost Soul is one of the best reads of the year, where I am concerned. It not only makes you introspect about life and everything in-between, but also makes you want to stop in your tracks and just be for a while.

The entire book is told in pictures, with very few pages taking up text. It is about John, a workaholic businessman in existential crisis who feels he has lost his soul, and all is gone. A doctor diagnosis his malaise as his soul has been left out in the running game and all he needs to do is wait for his soul to catch-up. This is the plot. The story of our lives.

Tokarczuk is empathetic, poetic, and above all has a sensibility that matches Concejo’s beautiful illustrations, and though the text isn’t so much, yet the translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones hits the spot, like a tonic that you need to get you rid of your ailment.

I think most picture books that I have read my entire life have been more philosophical in nature than literary tomes. They say what they have to quite simply and you have no choice but to go back and reread them. Concejo’s illustrations change with every emotion on page – from sepia tones to being monochromatic to colourful, they are breathtaking in every way.

The Lost Soul teaches us about stopping, slowing down, about the grace in standing still and doing nothing. I think I need to follow this in my life for sure. To just be calm and breathe. To try not to think so much.

Read 206 of 2021. A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

A for Prayagraj - A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

Title: A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad
Author: Udbhav Agarwal
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 9789390652723
Genre: Non-Fiction, Commentary
Pages: 120 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

Udbhav Agarwal’s writing is precise, and he knows how to cut to the chase. Udbhav’s Allahabad is of the past (of course), but it belongs to the present in so many ways, and not just as a means of nostalgia but so much more. And then there is the modern-day Prayagraj that one sees and yet doesn’t (thankfully). Who is to say that Allahabad doesn’t exist? Who is to say that people there do not address it yet as Allahabad and not Prayagraj? That’s hardly the point though.

A for Prayagraj brings forth the city through memory, through what is, what was, and its people who leave and return. The book opens with the prologue aptly titled, “Yogi ki Prayagshala” (a pun on Prayogshala) – where Agarwal returns to the city that is now a stranger in so many ways and yet familiar. The name change hasn’t changed the soul of the city. “That, in one of the oldest living cities in the world, things have come, and things have gone. Things have fallen apart. And yet, the city endures.” he writes with emotion that rings throughout the read.

Whether Agarwal is speaking of Holy Waters touring company owned and run by a practical Neelesh Narayan or when he is documenting his search for Upendranath Ashk’s autobiography “Chehre Anek”, or even as he speaks of the parkour boys, who just want a way out, Agarwal brings to fore the Allahabad – the one that is scrambling to accommodate all spaces – the past, the present, and perhaps even an uncertain future.

My most favourite section of the book has to be “F for Fyaar, F se Firaq” – a love story (lust story?) of sorts – somewhere between Grindr and poetry, there is love, with Firaq paving the way, and yet as it happens with most such encounters, it is in vain.

A for Prayagraj is a memoir of growing up in spaces that no longer exist, or some remnants do. It is a travelogue even, one that made me Google all the places Agarwal mentions in the book. It is about the good old days and how they have disappeared or so it seems. Udbhav’s writing makes you think, and feel, and leaves you wondering – it tells you that the personal and the political are the same, it shows you how a city can become a world.

Read 205 of 2021. The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

Title: The Man who Lived Underground Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Library of America
ISBN: 978-1598536768
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was absolutely stunned as I turned the pages and devoured this previously unpublished work of Richard Wright. The Man who Lived Underground is about an innocent black man who gets trapped in double homicide and brutalised by the police force. He is wrongly accused, interrogated for the sake of it, and finally not even entitled to a lawyer to fight his case. This book is set in 1942. Sadly, nothing has changed.

Fred Daniels manages to escape from police custody and enters the sewers, and this is really where the story takes place. He has lost his home, his wife, and his new-born child – all because of his colour and the racism that exists. He is making his way through the sewer questioning life and death, his existence at large, and what will happen to him once he is found by the authorities.

The writing is quick in most parts, verbose in some, but never lets go of the reader. You can see Wright’s touch through and through, but more than that, I also saw a lot of Baldwin in the book. Perhaps Baldwin inspired Wright to write the way he did.

The experience of reading about a man in a sewer is nightmarish, almost allegorical, even magic realism taking on in the prose to some extent. Everything in the sewer takes on a different meaning – from a car sloshing through a puddle, or the scream of a baby, or a shout – it is all different for Fred much like when he exists on the world above.

Wright’s writing cuts to the bone. Empathy flows throughout. There is madness. There is chaos. And it all seems like one big fever dream, an old story told over and over again – when everyday life is taken over by hallucinations in order to make it bearable.