Monthly Archives: January 2013

Book Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the Banyan Title: In the Shadow of the Banyan
Author: Vaddey Ratner
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451657708
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A tragic event is never easy to chronicle. More so, when it has to be fictionalized so that the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. So almost, no one can tell what actually happened or whether the author went through what is documented or not. The same is the case with the book that I finished reading last week – “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner. The book largely stirred me and almost made me gasp for breath in most places. You will know why when you read the book and discover its power, the writer’s ability to weave a heartfelt and yet hopeful story.

“In the Shadow of the Banyan” is all about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, where an estimate of two million people lost their lives. The book’s protagonist is seven-year old Raami, whose world and childhood is shattered the day her father brings news of the Civil War’s triumph on the streets of Phnom Penh, the capital city. Soon the family’s royal privileges are taken away (they are but royalty), and they have to flee their palace, their home, their country, only to be haunted by memories and what each family member faces in that time.

For me, the book was a heavy read. But obviously given the content, I had to almost keep the book aside for some time and then get back to it, but more so because I was too overwhelmed to read further. Raami’s voice is almost Vaddey’s voice, as the author also had to run away from Cambodia, did not know English and yet educated herself in the United States of America and is where she is today. The book is based on memory and experience and yes it is close to the author’s life and yet Raami’s voice is not lost or diluted. The book does not let you forget tragedies that took place (even if it didn’t happen to the author) and rightly so. I was just astounded by what evil lurks in men to commit the crimes that they do. I was left with that thought way after I had finished reading the book.

Ratner’s writing is stark and she does not leave out anything and at the same time the description of a land torn and its people left in despair will leave the reader wanting to know more about Cambodia and Khmer Rouge. The brutality, the violence and the tenderness is present in equal measure. What rises above of this is that there is still hope, which of course worked well for the writer and maybe for many more like her.

For me, all I can say is that there are very few books like, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” that provide the much needed comfort and hope in difficult times. One can relate to it no matter what and as you close the book, you feel a little more hopeful, a little less angry and a little more belief in humanity through the eyes of a seven-year old till she turns eleven. A beautiful read. Be prepared though to cry a little.

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Interview with Manil Suri

So I got the opportunity to interview Manil Suri, the writer who I have admired since some time now and it felt amazing speaking with him and interacting with him and talking about books that he has written, their plots and his thoughts. It is always a surreal experience speaking with a writer. When you want to uncover some questions and know something more about the writer and what led him or her to write the books he or she has written. Here is another interaction with another writer of great quality and who has many more books to write.

Manil Suri

1. I read somewhere that you took a workshop with Michael Cunningham when Death of Vishnu was just in its initial stages. How has that affected your writing style, if it did?

It did not affect my writing style at all. What I got out of it was that it was he was so encouraging. He made me see where I wanted to go with my writing. I had barely written two to three chapters when I met him. He was able to anticipate the problems I would have, from the allegorical plot to the number of characters, whether too much had been written or spoken about them.

He gave me the confidence I needed. I was not a full time writer then. Someone who is not published needs the encouragement and Cunningham gave me that.

2. The trilogy is distorted in its approach, which I loved and yet it connects so effortlessly. How much of a task was this? Also, how come earlier it was supposed to be a trinity of Gods that ends with Devi?

Well it was like when I was doing The Death of Vishnu, I had no idea that it was a trilogy. The original idea was Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. Shiva is supposed to destroy things and Brahma is the one who creates. The way it turned out was the first book was more of a contemporary times novel and the second one was more of a book in the past and the third book is about the future, maybe it occurs, maybe it does not.

It was a very organic and unplanned process. It was one book after the other. I was still trying to keep them separate. Some connections are to be made and they are sort of in there, in all the three books.

The shift to Devi from Brahma: Just before I published the first book, I met Devdutt Pattanaik, and I told him about my idea about writing these three novels, with these varied themes of trinity. He told me that that is one way of looking at it, but some people look at it from Vishnu, Shiva and Devi’s perspective.

That’s where the Devi idea came about. Academically also it does make sense. I knew that the city would play a major role for sure. Until I was half-way through, I did not know whether it was Brahma or Devi. There had to be someone to save the city. The saviour then had to be Devi.

3. A mathematician and a writer. I am sure you must have been asked this several times, however how does it all add up? Does any influence the other?

Yes I think it does but not as much as one might suspect. But not something that I can easily put my finger on and say, “I had this followed because I am a mathematician”. For instance at times, I did try and follow the decision tree making process to writing. A character makes one move and then different moves which affects the narrative as well.
The danger in that is that it rarely provides the complete picture. With this book, I did all the plotting, and realized that the ends were not working. I finally decided that more or less I experimented writing it in a mathematical manner and then gave it up. I was relieved that I did not have to work on it. But later, I looked beyond the mathematics. I saw something more to fiction, than cold reasoning that numbers provided. I actually started seeing the main characters and then started connecting those, to give form to this novel.

4. “The City of Devi” reads so fast and yet there were so many times, I had to put down the book and mull over the intricate parts. Was this intentional to your writing?

Yeah it was. On one hand, looking deeper, other structures and metaphors, and dig deeper, try to put more in there was always the concern. It did finally work out the way I wanted it to.

5. The book of yours that touched me the most and which I ended up reading on a Sunday afternoon was The Death of Vishnu. How did the idea come to you? How did it all work out?

There was really named someone Vishnu. I was a kid in Bombay, growing up at that time. He used to wave at me. I guess he lived around our area. It was around 1994 or in 1995 that he died on the steps. The municipality came and took his body away – that was kind of a springboard, from where I wanted to start my story. At first I thought I will write a story about the neighbours. I then slowly began to think that there was more to it than a short story. The scary part was that people started saying it was novella, and it ultimately took the form of a novel.

The Death of Vishnu

6. Your novels are all about faith – sometimes the lack of it and sometimes the point when it becomes a little too much to handle. Does this affect you as a person?

Well, it certainly is something that is deeply invested in various parts of my life. Different terms of my own faith, you would call it – it can be seen very deeply in the first book, my own faith and lack of it. From one perspective as a mathematician, I brought about the rational, cold and unrelenting attributes in Mr. Jalal. He had to discover his faith and I had to voice through him all the questions I had in my mind.

Faith in a person – that’s what plays out more visibly in the last book. Faith in someone you think you know and someone you trust and what does that mean. I tried to work on a spectrum. I guess for myself, it’s always a question of faith, which is the opposite of rationality. I don’t care about the evidence but I believe in it. For a mathematician it is bad news, because you need evidence and proof.

7. Your love for the city by the sea. How would you explain that? Though you live far from it, does Bombay continue to enter your dreams?

Oh yes it does and you would think that I spend 20 years here, and 32 in US, that I should be able to write more about where I live now. However that did not happen. It is almost that I transferred the obsession of Mumbai to the US. I could not imagine writing anything deep – with reference to any other city. It had to be about the city I grew up in. It is definitely a very deep-rooted connection; I guess I was not aware of, however it definitely is there. I renew it each time I come here. On the other hand, capturing Washington DC in my books would not have the same effect. It would be flat. I don’t have the same kind of connection with the city.

8. Your literary influences.

When I was growing up, I was reading a lot of bestseller fiction, from Harold Robbins to Arthur Hailey to James Hadley Chase. It was the “rites of passage” almost for people growing up in the 70’s.

I read all of that and after that serious fiction – R.K. Narayan to the others. I think the first kind of real kind of lit fiction that I remember reading was Shame by Salman Rushdie. This was in the late 80’s. I did not have much of lit fiction education till later. I slowly started reading more lit fiction like some of the Indian authors in the last couple of decades. The big thing was Salman Rushdie – huge larger than life. I always end up comparing my writing to his at some point or the other.

The City of Devi by Manil Suri

9. Dystopian fiction has always intrigued me, and yet going by what you have written earlier, I would not imagine something on those lines to come from you. How did that process develop?

With dystopia, there is more futuristic and speculative writing involved, about what might happen, 70 years from now and 100 years from now, nuclear war has come and gone and that is lot easier to write and you can arrange the landscape. People have to accept the landscape. The difference in my book is that it is set in near future, which is harder to relate to and you have to give it more depth and angles.

The near future was definitely harder to write about. The near future has the uncomfortable characteristic of being near. How am I going to make this believable if someone reads it two years down the road? That was the question. I had to cancel the dates and make it believable. It is also after all a love story too.

10. The dual-narrative structure in the book is what kept me going last night, up and about to finish the book. Did the narrative at any point drain you as a writer?

The City of Devi was a very complicated book to write. I had to almost structure it like a thriller. Hold back bits of information and give some. The hardest thing was to write about India and what happens in the world at the same time – apportion between the two narratives.

The right narrator had to be on stage when certain actions demanded that. If something has happened and say it was Jaz’s turn to narrate things, he better be talking.

It was actually a lot of technical stuff like that. Towards the end, the cutting back and forth, happened more frequently. At the same time, it had me picking up the pace alternatively, which helped the book.

11. Now that the trilogy is over, what is next on the cards?

There’s this thing that I am working on which is completely different. A combination of sorts – a math novel infused with fiction. I hope it works best for me. It will for sure be a different experience for the reader.

This was the end of a great interview. I had so much to learn from the man – his insights were amazing and the way he communicates is stupendous. I had a great time for sure.

Book Review: The City of Devi by Manil Suri

The City of Devi by Manil Suri Title: The City of Devi
Author: Manil Suri
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-93-82563-09-9
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 381
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I started reviewing books when I first read, “The Death of Vishnu” by Manil Suri. In fact, that review is also one of the first on this blog. From there on I have read everything that he has written, not because of the fact stated above, but because I admire his writing and his thought process. Suri has the uncanny ability to make so much sense of ordinary situations. His characters aren’t larger than life, however the circumstances are and with good reason – to move the plot ahead, to make the reader see and above all, to make them feel.

It is no wonder that I absolutely loved reading his new book, “The City of Devi” (the last in the not so connected series). “The City of Devi” has been touted as a dystopian novel; however I did not think it had anything to do with it. The story as his other two books has been set in Mumbai. It is about Sarita, a thirty-three year old statistician (the math angle did not surprise me considering Manil is a mathematician) who can throughout only think of one thing: To be reunited with her physicist husband Karun, who has disappeared. The times are tough: Mumbai is emptying itself under the threat of a nuclear annihilation. There are not many people left. This has almost led to anarchy. The past can but only be remembered.

Amidst all this Sarita sets out to search for her husband, in-between the gang wars of Hindus and Muslims (this angle makes you also choke a little). With her is Jaz, a Muslim whose religion is only to have sex with other men. That is what he enjoys the most – sex and nothing else and at the same time he is looking for his own lover in the city. The third angle to the book is the Goddess Devi herself who has materialized on the beach to save her city. Sarita, Jaz and Devi play their roles in the book from there on. That in short, is the summary of the book.

The book is quite unusual. Something that probably has never been tried by an Indian writer. The book is easy to read and yet there were times, I had to stop and think more about the scene I had just read or turn back the pages and read some parts all over again. Devi and her role in the book is humongous (but of course), and yet it is so calming at times, that I almost wished that she would materialize in this time and age to save her city. On the other hand, I could most relate to Jaz and his dilemma – the way he is searching for answers and not finding any.

Manil’s writing is direct in most parts and yet the web he weaves of storytelling almost leaves the reader breathless. His descriptions of a dying city are breathtaking. You can relate and yet at times, you choose not to. The city comes alive with his words and that is the power of some great writing. The situations he creates aren’t easy, the answers provided are not black or white, and yet as you turn the pages of “The City of Devi” all you want is to feel the city and hope that the characters’ lives are sorted. A must read this season.

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Book Review: Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Adverbs by Daniel Handler Title: Adverbs
Author: Daniel Handler
Publisher: Harper Collins UK
ISBN: 9780007181285
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

It is an old book, published in 2007 and yet it makes sense to me every time I read it. “Adverbs” by Daniel Handler (the real name of Lemony Snicket, oh yes, that’s trivia for you) is a treat for the reader. I guess not many people have heard of it, however it is time that they do and hence this review, hoping I can reach out to some of them. “Adverbs” is a book of short stories (some interconnected as well) about love and lost chances and basically back to love. Every chapter is titled on an adverb and the story is related to it (but obviously).

Adverbs is an unusual book. May be because it explores the state of love so beautifully and rather differently as well. Love keeps modifying in all stories, just like it does, every single time. Hence I guess the title of the book. Adverbs is all about love and its nature – from a passenger falling in love with his cab driver to love falling itself out in a relationship, the stories are charming, wistful, and seductive on most levels.

I have always loved Lemony Snicket’s books; however I guess I love Handler’s books a lot more than A Series of Unfortunate Events. I think that is because of the love plots intertwined in them, whether it is Adverbs or Why We Broke Up (a teenage love story and loads of heartache). “Adverbs”, in its writing is clear and precise, and it would definitely ring true for everyone who has ever been in love or has aspired to or has his or her heart broken.

I am glad I reread it this year as the book speaks to you emotionally at so many levels, sometimes interconnected and sometimes not. I would definitely recommend this book to everyone. A great read on a winter’s day.

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Book Review: Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor

Shakespeare's Restless World by Neil MacGregor Title: Shakespeare’s Restless World
Author: Neil MacGregor
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1846146756
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was never a fan of Shakespeare’s works. I have never been. Either at school or later. Most of the time it was only the movies through which I discovered Shakespeare or through a play here and there, which I really wanted to read. Besides that I did not care much about the guy. However, after reading, “Shakespeare’s Restless World” by Neil MacGregor, maybe I will read all his works after all. I might even reread some works just to understand more about the times he lived in and to put everything in context with the book I just finished reading.

“Shakespeare’s Restless World” as the title suggests is all about the world and the times in which The Bard lived. The twist in the tale is that MacGregor talks of Shakespeare’s times and worlds through twenty objects. At this stage, I must also mention that MacGregor is the director of The British Museum, so getting hold of these objects must have been pretty easy for him. Having said that, what worked most for me was the premise of the book. It is unique in its approach. It also at the same time cannot be categorized as a “history read” because though it is that in some parts, at others it is very different. It speaks to us about the times gone by, the objects and their meaning in those times and how Shakespeare finally has emerged to be a world-wide phenomenon.

The reason I loved this book is it is but obviously written differently and at the same time, it is not a boring read at all. It makes you want to know more. After all what could be the relation between a fork (not invented in England) and Shakespeare? What could be the connection between swords and battles and the plays as written by the man? To what extent was he influenced by his world and the objects around him? I also cannot stop gushing about the book. In fact, at a point, I also went back and reread my favourite parts.

The book is written in a superb manner. There are parts that are funny and parts that are not so. The objects picked are so unique and that is the major point of the book. The vivid description of the objects (along with a lot of pictures – so please do not read this on an E-reader) adds to the writing and how the influences came about. “Shakespeare’s Restless World” is a unique read of how the socio-economic structure, the religious turmoil, the rampant diseases, sex even, lead to Shakespeare’s plays and their writing and how influenced he was by the world around him. A must read for history and Shakespeare fans.

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