Monthly Archives: February 2011

Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota

How do you write a first person narrative about a potential suicide bomber? I mean, how can you imagine yourself into such an extreme situation and tell a believable story about it? I really had my doubts but, on the whole, I think that Sunjeev Sahota has achieved it.

The story is written in a popular slang style – Imtiaz is from Sheffield and so the narrative is written with Sheffield slang – ‘I were this’, ‘I were going up Meadowhall’, ‘it sempt to me’ – and there are no chapters, simply gaps where the narrator stops writing. It’s not a diary but more sort of notes to himself, not to justify his actions, but to try and explain them to himself.

Basically, it strikes me as a desperately sad story. It’s about a deep, deep sense of alienation. Imtiaz grows up in this northern town, watching his parents sacrifice themselves, taking almost any abuse in order to raise him, to see him have a better life than they. But when his father dies and he returns with the body to Pakistan, he finally feels a sense of belonging and quickly wants to fit in, to adopt the clothes, manners and beliefs of those around him, to not be the foreigner.

And really, it’s this sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that prompts him to take the actions he does. He watches the videos of atrocities but doesn’t seem particularly moved by them, says that he’s seen them before. He is outraged by what the fighting has done to Kashmir, but it’s not a strident, violent anger. His commitment seems to come much more from that sense of belonging he finds in Pakistan and his sense of alienation when he returns to Sheffield.

By making Imtiaz’s motivation more subtle and complex, perhaps Sahota risks making the story less believable. I had my doubts almost all the way through. But, in the end, it hardly matters because the story ends up being much less about a potential suicide bomber and far more about belonging, friendship, loyalty and loss.

Ours are the Streets; Sahota, Sunjeev; Picador India; Rs. 450


From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus

Setting her novel in Cagliari, Sardinia, author Milena Agus creates a story which spans three generations, focusing on women from two families who are joined through marriage. An unnamed contemporary speaker feels particularly connected to her paternal grandmother, and as the speaker pieces together this woman’s life from what she herself recalls about her and from the family lore which has survived through the memories of the rest of the family, she creates a woman who not only searches earnestly for love but is absolutely determined to experience it in all its splendor, believing that it is “the principal thing in life.”

The background to the story is simple and is simply presented. This grandmother is thirty in 1943, and unmarried–she has never had a real love. The local boys have always seemed to be attracted to her initially but then somehow are repelled within a few meetings with her, despite her beauty. Her eventual marriage, forced upon her by her father, who fears that her growing reputation of being mad will eliminate all future possibilities of marriage, is to an older man, a widower who has lost his family in the Allied bombing. Neither partner expects anything from the marriage, and she encourages her new husband to continue to visit the local brothels. When, after seven years and many miscarriages, her doctor advises her to go to a spa for treatment, her life changes, leading, nine months later to the birth of the speaker’s father. The speaker’s other grandmother, Lia, has had daughter at age eighteen with a local shepherd, who is married, and this daughter becomes the speaker’s mother.

As the speaker further develops the stories of these characters, the narrative swirls in time and place, and it is impossible to tell the extent to which the speaker may be embellishing them. Several story lines overlap, and the two grandmothers have similar experiences. Both grandmothers write poetry, and the deaths of true lovers (or those believed to be true lovers) seem to happen simultaneously. The reader does not know whether these are coincidence or if, memory being fallible, the speaker is confusing family lore and the family members who have experienced these events. Then again, she could be inventing everything, following in the tradition of her two writer grandparents.

Whatever the case, the novel deals beautifully with primal events and universal themes–the need to belong, the importance of ties to a community, the yearning for true love, the vagaries of chance or fate, the importance of memories, and the need to create. As the generations move forward from World War II to the present, each character must protect his/her memories against change in order to preserve a sense of selfhood. It is only the speaker who has the liberty to tinker with the past and/or the truth. When, in the conclusion, the speaker’s own life is brought up to date, the reasons for all these memories become clear, and her need to connect with the past poetically is understandable. Passion, in all its many forms, rules the lives of the characters here–and affects the reader, too

From the Land of the Moon; Agus, Milena; Europa Editions; $15.00

Reflections of an Uncommon Man by Aminuddin Khan

“Reflections of an Uncommon Man” is a roller-coaster ride of a book. Trust me when I say that.  Told in a simple manner and style, the words do not leave you, long after you have finished reading the book. And this I speak out of experience.

What is the book all about?

It is about the search for meaning and truth in our lives, which often is right before us and we fail to see it most of the time. It is about the smaller and the bigger things and events of life. It is but essentially about having a soul.

Afsar Ali Khan is the protagonist of this tale. He is the patriarch and everything of an aristocratic family that goes back several generations. Till the dreaded day when he chances upon a long hidden family secret, which takes him to places he never thought they could.

He meets a variety of people on his way to uncovering the mystery behind the secret – from a man searching for his roots to a young Englishman who is besotted with all things historical. Each of the characters in the book is on his/her path – the path that leads to truth and meaning, as mentioned earlier.

The characters are well-etched and almost lead you to believe their situation and their tales. I for one loved reading this book, not so much for the writing but for the way the story was heading. It kept me up and wanting to know more. A good read for a rainy day.

Reflections of an Uncommon Man; Khan, Aminuddin; Rupa and Co; Rs. 195

Xcess Baggage by Varsha Dixit

This is a strange book and it comes with its own excess baggage, so to say. Yet another book about a Vampire falling in love with a mere mortal and all of that. I mean how many more books do we have to endure about love-sick vampires? This is again set in the US of A. What again happens (by mere chance I guess) is that the Vampire turns to a Werewolf and as such.

I was not happy reading this book. While I believe in fiction which is supernatural, this one just did not do it for me. It was a sluggish read, though the repartee between Meghna (the protagonist) and Byron (well trying to be poetic I guess) was the only saving grace in the entire book.

I always give the benefit of doubt to such books – I always thin may be I am not the target audience for such books and rightly so. However, what would be great is that if a reader who doesn’t read and indulge in such fiction is transformed by it and wants to read more of it. Sadly, I did not want to.

Xcess Baggage; Dixit, Varsha; Rupa and Co; Rs. 95

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

I whooped with joy when I received an Advanced Review Copy of “The Summer without Men”. There was nothing better I wanted to do at that time than just stretch myself on my bed and read the book. To devour it, to read it word by word and not miss out on anything. I loved “What I Loved” and was waiting to read something else by Ms. Hustvedt right after and yes I read this one.

What happens when out of the blue, your husband of thirty years asks you for a pause in your marriage? Yes literally calling it that – a pause. What do you do? How do you react? Mia Fredricksen, renowned poet and writer gets asked that by her husband and cracks up to begin with, and then decides to take the summer off and hibernate to the prairie town of her childhood. She rages, she fumes, she bemoans, she suffers silently to begin with and slowly and steadily she gets roped into the lives around her. From her aged mother and her friends to the young neighbor with her disastrous husband and kids to the puberty-hit girls in her poetry class.

Mia then begins to see things differently (Surprise! Surprise!) and while doing that she comes across problems bigger than her own. She learns to see people differently and also corresponds online with the anonymous and sometimes abusive Mr. Nobody. Though initially trapped in a cerebral solitude Mia opens up and in doing so, she lets in some much needed air in her life.

This is not a chick-lit book. This is pure writing and thankfully it does not take pages to describe what the characters are going through. I loved The Summer without Men because it is not pretentious nor does it claim to be a feminist-central book. The prose is crisp and hits home all the time while you are reading it. Chuckle! Laugh! Grin! Read this book and all these emotions will for sure come alive.

Summer without Men, The; Hustvedt, Siri; Picador; $14.00 – Releasing in March 2011