Monthly Archives: April 2010

Quarantine by Rahul Mehta

I do not like to read every new gay novel or short-story collection, unless it is highly recommended by someone I know. That’s how I like to pick my gay literature and to most extent I have been proved right. I was also of the belief that when gay writers write, they tend to over-exaggerate the sex scenes and play them to the hilt. I also think that it is somehow the “gay writer thing” to have to depict sexuality in the forefront, as though that is the only thing that matters – the fact that we sleep with other men.

Quarantine thankfully does not do that at all and this book was not recommended to me by anyone. It was sent by the publishers as a review copy and I am elated to review it. Not because Mr. Mehta is gay or not because this book is centred around gay men, but because there is honesty that rings true in this book, that everyone – irrespective of being gay or straight can relate to and that’s what matters.

There are nine short stories in the book and they shuttle between being based in the States and India. The characters are faulty – they are not perfect people, they are young and gay and only try to realize their dream. Rahul Mehta’s voice may not be unique, you may have read these stories set in different time periods with different characters, and yet there is this freshness that exudes itself from the stories. There are gay cliches and that was expected to a certain extent, but they go beyond that. They take the reader to the hearts of the characters.

For instance, in “Yours” we meet the unknown narrator who is trying to come to terms with his boyfriend Don’s liaison with an older African-American Man and the feelings he harbours for him at the same time. While another story is about lovers who end up going to a night club with the agenda of cheating on each other.  There are subtexts to every story which takes it beyond the queer realm – there are parents and siblings who are trying to get on with their lives, there are best friends who feel left out and alone and then there are relatives who with a simple smile and a shoulder to cry on make life seem simpler and easier to live. And yes at the end of it all, these are ordinary people trying to live their lives in a quarantine of emotions, love and sometimes hatred.

All I can say at the end is that this is a book one must not miss reading this Summer.

Book: Quarantine by Rahul Mehta; Random House India; ISBN: 9788184001358; PP: 248; Price: 399

It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose

I wonder when will people understand the importance of literature and the freedom of authors to express what they feel like and do not go around banning books just because they are written with verve and hold a mirror to how we live.

It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose is one such book that was banned in 1970, the original title being Raat Bhor Brishti. The police at that time did not even spare the manuscript and it was burnt to ashes. Later though the high court overruled the banned and set the book free.

I did not even realise the book was banned till I researched some on it. I am certain that it was banned on the ground of vulgarity and some such thing, however my question remains: So why can’t a wife look outside her marriage for physical fulfillment, if her husband fails to meet them? Just alone for this I guess the book would have been banned today as well, considering the dark ages we now live in.

The plot of the book is simple: Maloti, an attractive Middle-Class Bengali girl, marries the pendantic college lecturer, Noyonangshu – and too for love, only to discover him to be, “insecure, sexually timid” and confused.

Noyonangshu on the other hand is quite liberal with his ideas with reference to the nuclear family concept and wants his wife to enjoy the very best. He is aware of her trysts with his friend Jayanto who seems to match her desire and intensity.

The entire book juggles between the socio-political and the sexual awakening of its characters in a time when Calcutta and Bengal were shaping it self for greater things. I enjoyed reading the book and loved what the author had to say for instance where marriage is concerned and how it is not needed in an evolved society like ours (really?).

Marriage! What a complex, difficult, necessary and fantastically durable institution it is – yet so fragile. Two human beings will spend their entire lives together. Not five or 15 years, but their entire lives – what more atrocious a tyranny, what more inhuman an ideal could there be

Buddhadeva Bose’s writing is crisp and to the point.  It is racy and not cluttered at all. In fact the reader is often looking forward to what is in store next. The style though is disjointed and has a series of monologues of the internal storms of each character and what they go through as situations come along.

It captures the conflict of values in a beautiful and unsentimentilizing manner. It does not through sentiments in your face and yet emotion is at the core of the book. At this point, I would like to say that the translation is superb by Clinton B. Seely. It does not take away the essence of the book like most translated works. All in all this book is unforgettable. In almost every way.

Book: ‘It Rained All Night’ by Buddhadeva Bose; Translator: Clinton B. Seely; Publisher: Penguin Books-India; Price: Rs 150

Secret Son by Laila Lalami

Youssef and his mother Rachida live in a one-room house with no view and a tin roof held in place by stones in a Casablanca slum. When it rains, it is but obvious that the roof leaks. And when it doesn’t, they live in the yard under the sky – where Youssef’s dreams come out to play.

He has never seen his father – who according to his mother, died when he was two. There is only a photograph hanging from a wall that gives him any idea about the man that his father would have been. Its not very late in the book that secrets begin to unravel themselves.

Youssef discovers that he is the product of his mother’s affair with a much married man, who is an affluent businessman and alive and kicking in the city of Casablanca, which prompts him to go out in search of all that he has been denied, without knowing whether or not his father will accept him as a son. But he does and he lives in the lap of luxury for sometime, before reversal of fortune strikes right back and he is forced to go back to the streets with his friends. This is where a “Party” – a volatile fundamentalist group is looking for easy preys and Youssef proves to be just that.

What I loved about the story was that it was realistic and moreover there were no overtones of sentimentality or the high-strung moralistic ground, which it could have become. The story does have its political angles and touches on women issues, class struggle, religious extremism, and the suffocating dynamics of other aspects of life in Arab countries.

However, at the heart of it all Secret Son is a tale of longing and belonging – and sometimes in search of identity, leaving behind people and places who we call home.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I remember reading, “Pigs in Heaven” by Kingsolver a long long time ago. I was twenty-one I think and was enthralled by the way she wrote that book, after which I tried reading, “The Poison wood Bible” and could not get past the fiftieth page and I wonder why. I am happy to acknowledge the fact that I managed to read, “The Lacuna”.

This book is a unique one. The story is written in the form of diaries, letters and entries, which makes it a special one to read. The plot though seems simple, is yet intricately layered and speaks volumes on the author’s talent and eye for details. The story oscillates between the United States of America and Mexico, and revolves around Harrison Shepherd. His mother Salome and her need to climb the social ladder at the earliest, for which she will not stop at anything, even if it means leaving her husband and fleeing to Mexico. There begins Shepherd’s story – in his diaries and entries.He journeys through life living with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the infamous Trotsky, at the age of 13 to abruptly heading to America and writing books with his secretary in tow, Ms. Violet Brown (who is quite instrumental in bringing the man to us through notes).

I took a long time to finish this book, but I loved it to the T. Considering that Ms. Kingsolver took eleven years to write this one, it is nothing short of an epic. My favorite parts in the book are the exchanges between Shepherd and Frida. Here are some for you:

Frida to Shepherd: Soli, you are neither small nor tedious. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to confide in me, one pierced soul to another. Sleep on it Soli. Consult your pillow.

Where are your dead, Soli? Here, and the devil take it,a note-book for the altar of the dead in this lonely house. Dead and gone, the companionship of words.

A life is documented in this book, and that’s what makes it interesting, besides the fact that it brings famous dead people to life. That’s what makes it doubtful, with respect to having facts correct and I really do not know about them. All I know is that this book has resonated for the longest time in my head, after reading it.

This book is available at all bookstores. Publisher: Faber and Faber, Pages: 527; Price: 550