Monthly Archives: August 2021

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I was absolutely stunned as I turned the pages and devoured this previously unpublished work of Richard Wright.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.

Read 204 of 2021. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571364886
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

There is so much going on in Klara and the Sun that it was impossible for me as a reader to not put the book down and mull over what Ishiguro was trying to say, if one can get what authors try to tell you every single time. Ishiguro’s latest (and long-listed for the Booker Prize 2021) has been published after six long years, and all I have to say is that the wait is worth it.

To understand the concept of Klara, an Artificial Friend, and then to understand her thoughts and feelings and how she makes sense of the world is fascinating. Ishiguro’s writing in this one to me was way different from his other works. There is a sense of restlessness that I felt inside of me as I navigated through Klara and the Sun. Her world is very different and when she’s with her human friend, the perspective changes drastically. Memories merge with Klara’s observations that sometimes she comes across as an unreliable narrator, but that is also another aspect of the novel which is joyous to read.

The latent struggle of trying to make sense of what is going on and at the same time to be true to her human friend is real. The loneliness, the meaning of love, and could she ever love someone, and what makes her who she is are elements so complex and core to the novel.

Klara and the Sun was definitely worth the wait after The Buried Giant. I thought it would be similar to Never Let Me Go or on those lines, but Ishiguro not only surprises you, but sometimes urges you to look at the world differently, and in the process perhaps understand yourself, and maybe even your heart a little more.

Read 203 of 2021. Are You Enjoying? : Stories by Mira Sethi

Are You Enjoying?-Stories by Mira Sethi

Title: Are You Enjoying?: Stories
Author: Mira Sethi
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 978-1526643957
Genre: Short Stories, Contemporary Fiction Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

With the onset of the lockdown last year, my mother and I watched Pakistani serials. We were reeling under the influence of Dhoop Kinare watched years ago and thought that Pakistani serials would be made the same way – with nuance. We were mistaken to a large extent. They were just like the K serials of India, barring a few. The same old upholding of values, same old serials seeped in patriarchy, the same old stories of sacrifice and love.

Why do I speak of these serials? Because Mira Sethi’s collection of stories set in Pakistan are refreshingly different and real unlike these shows. Or maybe these shows are also real, each depicting their own universe of events, and the truths that reside in them.

Mira Sethi’s collection of six stories and a novella is not only extraordinary but also immensely detailed, with an eye for pointing out the quirks, eccentricities, and to a large extent satirical. These stories are the much-needed representation we needed of the country. Maybe some of them even made me think of Zoya Akhtar’s movies. They seemed to be set in the same milieu. The rich with their immense set of problems, insecurities, constantly finding ways to escape what is being served to them by life or by fate as a consequence of their deeds (maybe). Whether it is a man who is recovering from his divorce and falls in love with a neighbour in “Mini Apple” or a young actress who wants to make something of her life in “Breezy Blessings”, or even if it is the matriarch in “A Life of Its Own” (which is in two parts) – all of them are struggling with something or the other – their lives are no different than what you and I live. Sethi draws from people she knows, irrespective of whether rich or not. The stories matter and they speak for themselves.

My personal favourite was Mini Apple till I read “Tomboy” and fell in love with the story. The understanding between the friends Asha and Zarrar, as they get married and continue living, hiding their sexuality from society at large, spoke volumes to me as a gay man living in India. We think we have managed to break free, but have we really?

Mira’s stories constantly defy, they are thinly veiled in wit and humour, sometimes even to make a point, but mostly these stories reveal the human condition and the spaces we inhabit. These stories could be set anywhere in the world, but Mira’s Pakistan is the modern country we need to know of – its contradictions, the complexities, the night life, the lives that are not supposed to live to the fullest, and the constant battles of power and desire. It is the Pakistan that speaks volumes, if you read carefully between the lines.

On the surface these stories look simple but let them not fool you. They are anything but easy. They are an easy read for sure, but their impact lasts longer than you think it would. Sethi’s writing is brazen, feisty even, it is refreshing and more than what you have already heard of it. It is a collection that has rightfully earned every bit of praise. Read it.

Read 202 of 2021. Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro. Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

Title: Elena Knows
Author: Claudia Piñeiro
Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
Publisher: Charco Press
ISBN: 978-1999368432
Genre: Literary Fiction, Women in Translation
Pages: 173
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Elena, all of sixty-three years old, knows that her daughter did not die by hanging herself. She knows there is more to it and wants to find out what happened to Rita. Why do they claim that Rita hung herself in the church belfry? How could that have been possible since it was raining that night and Rita would’ve never gone out in the rain as she was petrified of lightning? Elena wants answers about her daughter’s death, and no one is willing to help her. She is determined to find the culprit. Even if it means she has to venture out and journey through the suburbs of the city, to call on a favour from a woman named Isabel, who she and her daughter met twenty years ago. Even if it means that she has to do this as she suffers from Parkinson’s – the disease that will not let go of her and will obstruct her search to some extent. What happens next is what the novel is all about.

Piñeiro is well-known as a “thriller” or “crime” writer in Argentina and even around the world. Elena Knows, according to me is a good start to get to know her writing and fall in love with it. I’m surprised that with almost four books translated in English, Piñeiro is still not that well-known. I hope that changes when more people read Elena Knows.

Elena Knows is so much – a detective novel, a woman dependent on her disease to make all basic decisions – that of walking, turning her neck, seeing someone, and even sometimes breathing. It is a lucid and most disturbing commentary on mother-daughter relationships, and what happens when the child becomes a caregiver. It is also about the role of the government when it comes to providing medical care to its citizens – the red tapism, the bureaucracy, and the narrow-mindedness of it all. The book is political. It is about the agency of women and who controls their bodies. Piñeiro doesn’t hesitate to show society the mirror and make them realize what they stand for or not.

The plot unfolds in a day with clearly marked sections – Morning, Midday, and Afternoon – the times that are governed by Elena’s medication schedule. If she misses this, she will not be able to function. She will not be in control of her body and has to follow the schedule. This is another important element of the book. Let me also add here that Elena is not a likeable protagonist. There are shades and layers to this character and that’s what makes her also so endearing to some extent. There is no maudlin expression of her coping with her disease. There are facts, there are emotions, and sometimes the two converge most beautifully in the book.

Elena knows is so much more and I am stunned at how Piñeiro managed to say so much in such a small book. At the same time, Frances Riddle’s translation is on-point and makes you wonder what it would sound like in Spanish. The sentences gleam and I often found myself underlining passages.

Elena Knows is a book about patriarchy, structures, narrative (italics for dialogues), time, gender, motherhood, illness, and law and what we do with it, as we move on – day to day, hoping for a better tomorrow.

Read 201 of 2021. China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

Title: China Room
Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 9780670095070
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

I honestly picked up China Room without any expectation. There was zero expectation as I started the book, and savoured it over a period of a week or so. China Room was a revelation of many aspects. It unravels itself as you turn the pages, and with such elegant and deceptively simple prose that makes you go back and read some sentences all over again.

China Room in brief is about three women who are married away to three men in the year 1929, in rural Punjab. Mehar is one of the brides who is trying to find out the identity of her husband, since she has never seen him. The wives are cut off from their husbands during the day and only called on at night if their mother-in-law Mai wills it. All of this of course because there is need of an heir. What comes of it is the rest of the story.

In another time, in 1999 to be precise, another story unfolds. That of a young unnamed man who travels from England to a farm that has been abandoned for decades, with his own demons. The trauma of his adolescence – his experience with racism, addiction that continues, and more importantly the chasm between him and his culture.  In the process of finding himself (or coming of age in some sense), he finds his roots linked to Mehar.

Sahota does a brilliant job of intertwining the two threads. At the same time, at no point as a reader did, I feel I needed to know more. Sahota’s storytelling skills are totally on-point, and at most times I felt I was reading a literary page-turner (which I think it was). The issues that this book brings to light are so many. There is the awareness of India’s struggle for independence looming large, the idea of women’s liberation (that doesn’t exist at all, whether it is 1929 or 1999 in a country like India), and above all the concept of family and loss that makes for the entire arc of the story.

China Room is also to some extent based on what the author heard from his parents and ancestors, of what happened in his family and that’s why you resonate so much with the writing. It is told with a lot of heart and soul. It explores lives that go by without being chronicled, the book aims to understand the human heart, and what often transpires inside of it. A must-read in my opinion.