Daily Archives: March 29, 2011

Book Review: What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Title: What the Body Remembers
Author: Shauna Singh Baldwin
ISBN: 9788129117472
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Rupa and Co. 
PP: 626 pages
Price: Rs. 395
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The book tells a story which resonates deeply with my own views; being a middle-ground-sort of person in a world that forces people to take sides is tough, especially if you were a woman, and were not afraid to speak out.

Ms. Baldwin’s writing is beautiful; sometimes I paused and re-read a paragraph or a sentence just to admire how she describes things and tells her story. Sentences like, “Afterwards, she can return to her room, moon-shadow crawling like a lowly untouchable along his bungalow walls,” immersed me in the irony of Roop’s situation as the second wife; she was needed and wanted, but received only a “look from the corner of her husband’s eyes,” in return.

The character Sardarji came to me as patriarchy personified. Kind and generous, but for all his education, could never truly understand his wives. His adherence to British education and standards, which caused him to forget the “music of the dilruba” and resulted in his refusal to listen to Satya’s views, was also reminiscent of the rigidity of the patriarchal society.

For most of the book, my favorite character was Satya. She was so strong and fearless. I love how she questioned the gap between the intention of Sikhs to treat women as equals and the reality of women not being valued or treated the same as men. The following passage is such a good example of how Satya’s wishes express the struggle between the reality and her wishes for it:

Surely, there will come a time when just being can bring izzat in return, when a woman will be allowed to choose her owner, when a woman will not be owned, when love will be enough payment for marriage, children or no children, just because her shakti takes shape and walks the world again. What she wants is really that simple.

Towards the end of the book, all of the characters worlds are rocked by the religious divisions between Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims which intensify as the departing British prepare to divide the land into India and Pakistan.

During this period, I especially appreciated the growth in Roop. She goes from being timid to finally finding her voice and having the courage to stand alone. Throughout the book, I really HATED Sardarji. On some level, I could sympathize with is struggle to rise in the British government that was in India. However, I felt so angry with him for how he treated Satya and I did not fully understand or appreciate his need to take a second wife. Towards the end of the book, there is a powerful scene at a train station in which the iciness in my heart for Sardarji began to defrost

Closing the back cover, I cannot help but ponder about the ending. Even though this novel is set in 1937 India, the story rings true with religious disputes everywhere, forcing moderate people to take sides. Watching extreme religious groups enforcing their prejudices and judgments with violence makes me wonder, what would stop the tragedy in this book from happening in my country?

Book Review: Playground – Rangbhoomi by Premchand

Playground: Rangbhoomi
Author: Premchand
Translator: Manju Jain
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 9780143102113
Extent: 692pp
Format: Paperback (Demy)
Source: Publisher
Price:  Rs. 500

I had not read a single book by Premchand (or Munshi Premchand, as he was known) till I read Rangbhoomi. I had read a one-off story in school (since we had a story by him as a part of the syllabus) and that was that. Nothing more than that as he never sparked my interest when it came to either Basha Literature or the fact that I found his works too depressing and rustic. I was at a stage in my life when probably the world literature influences were heavier than the Indian ones. Till lately, my interest varied and I wanted to read something by him. I have read a lot of Indian Literature; however we belong to the generation sadly of translations and must make do with them. Here, I would like to give full-credit to the translator of this work, Manju Jain for providing us with this gem of a work.

Translating a work is not easy. There are times when maybe you miss out on the finer details that the original work intended to communicate to its readers. However, thankfully so that is not the case with this translation, owing to the fact that the translator is also an Indian. Rangbhoomi as a novel is complex – it has many layers to it which take time to unfold and come to the surface. The title itself means, “The arena of life” – which is so apt to the entire book. It is life playing itself in its arena and in many shapes, forms and emotions.

At over 700 pages, Rangbhoomi is a big book and yet it satisfies the reader in ways one cannot even begin to fathom. The plot of the book is simple as the case is in most Premchand’s works: Oppression of the working classes, namely in Rural India, which would mean – the farmers. We encounter the blind Surdas and his chronicle from life to death and the hardships he suffers on the account of his place in the society – that of a farmer.

Munshiji has been the hallmark of Indian Literature. Right from Godan (The Gift of a Cow) to the short story Kafan (Shroud), his penmanship skills have been brilliant and long-lasting in the memory of his readers. The narrative of Premchand is biting – it makes you think and wonder about the caste system that still exists in our country in hamlets and villages. May be a change will come someday. It ought to.

Book Review: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

The Ask
Author: Sam Lipsyte
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 9780312680633
PP: 304 Pages
Source: Publisher
Price: $15.00
Rating: 5/5

The Ask is a weird novel to find yourself really enjoying–it’s like getting punched in the face and laughing about it. It’s hilarious and dead serious at the same time; on one page you laugh out loud, only to be soberly put in your place on the next by the pitiless resentment and biting cynicism that plagues Milo, Lipsyte’s hapless protagonist, who gets fired from his job at the development office of a Manhattan university after mouthing off to an overly entitled student. Then there’s all the other failure in Milo’s life–the failure to be a successful painter, son, husband, and father–and the added burden when his college friend Purdy (the picture of wealth and success) comes out of the past with a particularly awkward proposition for him.

An early review at the Quarterly Conversation has called The Ask “another unrelenting tour de force of black bile…there is no cushy fictional distance between the world [Lipsyte:] describes and the world he inhabits.” But even though The Ask ends on the most unnerving note possible–and regardless of whether or not you’re repelled by Milo’s view that “stories were like people…we pretended they all counted, but almost none of them did,” you at least realize (as Milo does) the guilt-inducing fact that there are always people worse off than you, that no matter how low you think you’ve gone, there are things to feel lucky for. “Everybody wanted to get home,” Milo reminisces after he hits rock bottom at his childhood home in New Jersey, where his lesbian mother lives with her longtime lover. “Home could be a ruined place, joyless, heaped with the ashes of scorched hearts, but come evening everybody hustled to get there.” A concrete sense of home is what Milo apparently seeks the most, but ultimately he wants a life free of illusions about what “home” really means.

What really won me over in The Ask was not only the razor-sharp writing–phrases like “sexagenarian whippersnappers” and “greeting card ontology” are abundant–but Lipsyte’s equally razor-sharp observations about the absurd truths of American life: of the spoiled, uber-connected kids at the university (“they were happy, or seemed happy, or maybe they were blogging about how they seemed happy”); the purgatorial middle class existence he is destined never to leave (“We still did not own the devices that let you skip the commercials. Would we always be part of the slow television movement?”); the satirical, misguided manifestos of child daycare centers; and the sobering realities embodied by war veterans. The Ask avoids tempering the bitterness that comes with all this; instead, it stews in it, even embraces it. It’s sort of exhilarating to finish the book seeing Milo “digging in for the long night of here.”If he gains anything, it will be peace…maybe

Book Review: Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories by Tara L. Masih

Where the Dog Star Never Glows
Author: Tara L. Masih
Publisher: Press 53
Genre: Short Stories
ISBN: 9780982576052
PP: 143
Price: $14.00
Source: The Author
Rating: 5/5

So here is the deal: I think it is very difficult to write a short story than a novel and it is true. A Novel probably has more life than a story and for an author to successfully manage to engrain a story in the reader’s head is a task of great proportions. I for one love the short story reading as a genre. What I most enjoy is the writer’s capability to say it all in a span of say three pages or sometimes even lesser than that. Someone once asked me if I had read Ulysses by Joyce and I promptly said “No”. Well I was given the scorn of the century, and yet my thoughts on “The Dead” as a story saved my skin in that discussion. It isn’t easy to write a short story and with this thought I start my review of “Where the Dog Star Never Glows” by Tara L. Masih.

The first thing that struck me about the collection of stories was that Tara’s voice was so precise and clear. She can make you sense the crickets cricketing away in the night, a stream that is rushing close  by and also mingle the thoughts of two people in a disspirited marriage in “Champagne Water” and that is just one of the strokes from this look-forward-to writer. The stories remind you of a different time, life being simpler and yet complicated. People wanting more for instance in the story, “Memsahib” that is about a young boy who is trying to understand an Englishwoman. The story is set in India and you can almost smell the earth while you read the story. Tara makes it look so easy – the stories that are so clear in what they want to say and how it is being said. The beauty of language is hard to come by and Tara does a fantastic job of conjuring words and stringing them to meaningful sentences  – almost like a magician.

But do not be fooled by the writing and the wordsmith yarn she spins, there is a lot more to the stories than just pretty and appropriate words. There are raw and hidden emotions, ones that sometimes cannot be spoken about, the ones that are said aloud anyway and the ones that yearn to have a voice and do not. The stories will reach deep in the recesses of the heart and may be if you are lucky enough pluck on those heartstrings as well. For instance in a story titled, “Say Bridgette, Please” she follows a lonely schoolgirl’s discovery which could either result in knowing oneself or knowing too much. I could almost hear Carson McCullers speaking to me aloud while I was reading this story. And then my favourite collection in the entire story has to be a very short piece titled, “Suspended” which suggests that the kindness of strangers as Tennessee Williams put it is also hard to come by but it does eventually. I almost wept a little at the end of this story and you will only know why when you read it.

For me the book was a revelation. Each of the stories in this collection focus on the loneliness and the longing of the human heart and the roads one has to take in situations probably one didn’t want to be in. There are no forced happy endings in this collection. Tara says it the way she feels it and wants to. I loved this collection and probably that is an understatement. I am at a loss of words. You have to read it to feel the way I do.

You can buy the book  on Flipkart or also on Infibeam