Category Archives: 2019 Women Writers Reading Project

Beast by Krishna Udayasankar

Beast by Krishna Udayasankar Title: Beast
Author: Krishna Udayasankar
Publisher: Penguin eBury Press
ISBN: 978-0143444480
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

So, I must admit that I do not read Indian crime or fantasy. That’s just my preference and nothing to do with how its written. Although this time I made an exception and deep-dived into “Beast” by Krishna Udayasankar and loved every bit of it. I think it had to do a lot also with the pacing, beside most things. It works superbly for a novel of this nature – a novel steeped in mystery, reads like an action thriller (is also by the way), and interspersed richly with fantasy, character development and parallel running storylines that do not lose sight of overall plot.

Beast is an urban fantasy thriller, deeply set in Indian myths and legends. Krishna Udayasankar doesn’t stray from what she knows best and that’s fantastic to me as a reader. I’ve read Immortal and loved the way the story was told. The narration of Three left me stunned. And might I also add, that her books grow on you. The narration grabs you and then you are hooked. Beast delivers on all of this and more.

Aditi Kashyap, the assistant commissioner of police is called to solve a gory triple homicide in a Mumbai suburb. The story starts this way and before you know it, she is a part of the terrifying world of the Saimhas – werelions, who live alongside humans since ancient times. She joins hands with Prithvi, an Enforcer called on to solve this case and hunt the murderer. That is the plot in a nutshell.

Udayasankar’s writing is detailed, rich, and her dialogues are absolutely on-point. No sentence is out of place. No one is out of character at any point and of course the female agency that Aditi has is much-needed in art. And might I also add that this isn’t your cliché werewolf story, if that’s what you think it is. Not at all. Far from it. I loved the  friendship between characters The friendship and camaraderie was something else and worked like a charm – the one that you can perhaps relate to in daily life.

Beast most certainly also needs a sequel to answer some plot points, however, that’s just my POV. The book is extremely entertaining, and if you like a good fantasy-cum-thriller, this is the book for you. Hands Down! Even if you don’t like this genre, pick up the book.

 

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Magical Women. Stories edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan

Magical Women Title: Magical Women
Stories edited by Sukanya Venkatraghavan
Publisher: Hachette India
ISBN: 978-9388322027
Genre: Fantasy, Magic
Pages: 232
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

An anthology isn’t easy to edit. There are varied voices – each with their own agenda, writing style, and each writer that adds wonderfully to the collection. Sukanya Venkatraghavan, author of Magical Women has done a wonderful job of the anthology of 14 Indian women writers writing fantasy and all things magical in the aptly titled, “Magical Women”.

All these stories may seem similar at some level, and probably they are – most of them reflect on Indian magical creatures and stick to making them relevant for our time and age. What is also wonderful is how the “feminist angle” is subtle, but strong. It doesn’t shout out from the rooftop, but it is there – in your face, making you aware of how you read some narratives or stories.

The collection starts off with “Gul” by Shreya Ila Anasuya – a story of love, a story of freedom, a story of longing and nostalgia that was rounded beautifully. A read that I still think of once in a while.

There are also the obvious stories of goddesses in the modern context and they work superbly as well. The one that stood out for me was Nikita Deshpande’s “The Girl who Haunted Death” – a story of Savitri and her love for her husband. But this one of course is with a twist that I would not want to reveal. The prose and the context of this story astounded me – almost made me think of various conclusions and interpretations, and that’s what a good story is supposed to do.

All these stories infuse new life to the form of storytelling – they don’t follow a linear plot and even if it seems that they do, it is usual very deceptive. Kiran Manral’s story, “Stone Cold” for instance is dystopian in nature and deeply rooted in ancient myths and culture. The merging of the two makes it unique, but not only that – the brevity of the story makes it even more interesting.

We live in times when patience runs thin. People need to consume content at a fast pace, and something that is also very relevant and thought-provoking, and above all entertaining. Sukanya Venkatraghavan has done a fantastic job of merging these elements when it comes to setting up this anthology. More than anything else, the writers have individually contributed to the whole idea beautifully.

Yes, like any other anthology, you don’t expect to love them all. I have my favourites and then there are the ones that aren’t favourites. However, every story will find its reader. The one who will love that story more than the others.

Whether it is “Gandaberunda” by S.V. Sujatha, a tale of a sinister tattoo, or “Apocalyptica” by Krishna Udayasankar which will take you by surprise, even though you think you have an idea of what it is going by the title, every story says something unique.

I loved the overtones of feminism and also its undertones, depending on the writer. Neither the writers of these stories, nor the stories themselves fit in a box. I think for the sake of convenience we shall catalog them in a genre. After all, “Magical Women” aren’t meant to be handled by all. Definitely not mere mortals. Read the book though. It is all worth it.

Love Without A Story: Poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam

Love Without A Story Title: Love Without A Story: Poems
Author: Arundhathi Subramaniam
Publisher: Context, Westland
ISBN: 978-9388689458
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am very particular about what poetry I read. After all, poetry is acquired taste. It needs that breathing time. Time to mull over and make sense of what is going on and how it has managed to leave you breathless in its wake. How a poet has that power over you, and you just cannot seem to decipher that. You just let it be and accept that as your fate or whatever you believe in. Arundhathi Subramaniam’s collection of poems “Love Without A Story” is a book of poems that just is. I don’t think it is trying to make a point or say anything that you haven’t already heard in various forms – it just is though, in all its beauty, subtlety, and grace.

The poems jump at you, almost ambush you. But isn’t that what good poetry should be all about? The ambushing. The cornering. The making-you-sit-down-and-listen kind of poetry. From making you think of old friends, to getting down to the business of love – sometimes said out loud and sometimes hidden for reasons only known to the beloved, Subramaniam’s poetry cannot be placed on any understanding or technique and quite frankly, doesn’t even need to. As long as the reader feels what she is trying to say is more than enough. Isn’t it?

“It gets easier, friend,
With age,
To delete, plan breakfast,
Turn the page.

It would have been easier still
If you hadn’t deleted the sun”

The above lines are from a poem called “Deleting the Picture”. This one hit home the hardest – the one that made me weep a little and mourn the loss of a friendship. This is what poetry is supposed to do, right? Good poetry at least – to seize you, jolt you out of your existence, and make you see what was always visible.

Arundhathi’s writing isn’t difficult to read at all. If anything, it is so simple, that you connect with it instantly. Her poems are of longing, friendship, of boundaries we are willing to cross, of relationships that break and don’t return, of people who break them and survive. It is almost like every poem is a universe of its own – so vast and detailed, even if it seems contained in the pages of the book.

When parents die,
You hunt for clues
In strips of Sorbitrate,
Immaculate handwriting,
Unopened cologne
And in evening air,
Traces of baritone.

Finding Dad is another of my favourites. Once again, this made me weep. Made me think of things that I did not say to my father while he was alive, and now I search for him in objects, in his favourite songs and movies, and sometimes I think I am reminded of his voice.

Love is a strange territory to navigate. Poetry most certainly helps us. Good poetry makes it even better and tolerable. It makes us see the people we were and what we have become. Arundhathi’s poetry does just that. It has the sense of abandon that poetry demands from its creators. It has the sense of fulfilment and yet keeps you on the edge, wanting more, and not giving it. You have to make do with what you have. That’s the first rule of poetry according to me. You soak in its brilliance and dare not ask more, till it is given on its own. Every poem of Love Without A Story leaves you with something – big or small doesn’t matter. The emotion is there, the feeling of empowerment and helplessness, and above all of love and its various forms. I leave you with this one.

For lovers flatten
Into photographs,

Photographs
Into reminiscence,

Reminiscence
Into quiet,

And then what’s left?

Perhaps just the oldest thing in the world,
Love without a story.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

Tell Me How It Ends - An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli Title: Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Publisher: Coffee House Press
ISBN: 978-1566894951
Genre: Essays, Emigration and Immigration Studies
Pages: 128
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

Some books leave an impact that lasts forever. Tell Me How It Ends is one such book. A book about migrant children – children who have crossed into the border of United States of America illegally from these three countries – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And why so many children migrated to the US of A between 2014 and perhaps continue to till today? Well, the reasons were simple – to escape gang violence of their countries, to escape poverty, and to flee abuse from their own families or people outside of their families.

This book is not an easy one to read, and you would’ve guessed that by now. It is a book that made me think and question so many things around us – why do we think we own the land we are born on? What makes us think that parts of the earth belong to different people and not to all of us? Why are we the way we are when it comes to people who seek asylum or shelter in our countries? Why aren’t we more inclusive? And this book is about child migrants – these children are anywhere from the ages of five to seventeen and they are usually accompanied by coyotes to enter the US of A.

These are the children who are murdered along the way, go missing, are raped, and abused – all for the dream to make a better living, to escape what they wanted, and most importantly to never go back to that life. They cross the border, hand themselves over to the border officer who then notifies their relatives/family about them and then a trial begins. Luiselli’s job for some time was that of a translator – she had to translate answers to forty questions asked of these children – Why did they want to come to the US? Did they face any problem getting there? Do they have family in the US? These questions are what make this book’s subtitle: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Tell Me How It Ends is what Luisell’s six-year-old daughter (then six) asks her. Tell Me How It Ends. What is the fate of these children? Why does the US Government not want to acknowledge their role in children migrating? The gangs are but of course started to meet the drug demands of the people living in the US. That’s one part of it. The book breaks you. It makes you want people to sit up and take action. And then Luiselli speaks of Trump in her post-script note. She speaks of the horror that this man is and the fear that exists. But this book is also about hope and what it can do to change things.

Tell Me How It Ends is a book that makes us think about ourselves in the context of the world, humanity, and the selfishness we are made of. How we perceive people given their race, class, skin colour, and who they are, most importantly where they come from. It is a book that is not for the weak-hearted. I would recommend it every single time. While you are at it, also read “Lost Children Archive”, the first full-length novel by Valeria Luiselli on lost children, migrants, and what is called home.

Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke

Foursome by Carolyn BurkeTitle: Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paul Strand, Rebecca Salsbury
Author: Carolyn Burke
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780307957290
Genre: Art History, Literary Biographies
Pages: 432
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I had only known of Georgia O’Keeffe before reading this book. The others were merely names till I read this biography. Of course, I was aware that Alfred was Georgia’s mentor and love, but that’s that. This book is not about the gossip, as much as it is about art and what it does to artists. Foursome is a read about four brilliant artists and their place in the world. It is about an “inner circle” – their turmoils in relation to art, their successes, the places they lived and visited, and the relationship they shared with each other.

Foursome is a book that takes its time to grow on you. You cannot jump into it expecting immediate gratification as a reader. You have to be patient with it for itself to be shown to you. Burke’s new impressive book Foursome is also about America in the making. This book also made me see that perhaps personal relationships (no matter how crucial to artists) are not larger than the artistic ones that develop between people who would go to any lengths for their creative passions.

The centre of Burke’s research are the years from 1920 to 1934 in which the four companions (can term them that) flirted, developed and knew their passions, experimented artistically, and also saw fame – some greater, some lesser. It is almost like living in a bubble surrounded by people you can feed off artistically. And I think this is what led them to become such sources of gossip. Burke looks at all of this and more. She strives to write about what went on in the world as well, while their stories and lives were unfolding. History then becomes a parallel story-teller of sorts, drawing upon what changed and therefore how their relationships altered.

Foursome is the kind of biography that makes you want to jump right in and read more about the world at that time and the people who inhabited them. It is about people who take their chances, and are aware of their flaws, strengths, and all of it. The nature of art and its relationship with artists is of course the crux of the book but Burke goes further and gives us journal entries, letters, and conversations (some recorded, most not) that adds to the telling of lives that is fascinating, intriguing, and above all just makes you think about people who influenced the structure of twentieth-century art.