Category Archives: 4th Estate

Read 210 of 2021. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois

Title: The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois Author: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Publisher: Harper ISBN: 978-0062942937 Genre: Literary Fiction, African American Literary Fiction, African American Women’s Fiction
Pages: 816
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I will always be grateful to Oprah’s Book Club for introducing me to the debut novel of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The minute I saw it being picked by Oprah for her book club, I knew I had to read it. A multigenerational saga, with African American history at its core is something I wouldn’t want to miss reading. What I didn’t realize was how attached I would become to the characters, how I would root for some and become their cheerleader, how I would hate some with a vengeance, how I would fall in love with the language, and more than anything else, how I would find parts of myself in this novel.

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is more than just a story told through the lens of an African American family. It is so much more than that. It is not just about African history intertwined with contemporary living, but so much more. Jeffers lays it all out, bares her soul, to make us – the readers see what it was and what it still is. This is most marvellously done through the songs and writing of W.E.B Du Bois who is at the center of this magnificent epic.

Ailey Garfield is a headstrong, vulnerable, emotional, and highly intelligent women coming from a long line of women of the Garfield family. This is her story. This is the story of the women of the Garfield family – her mother, her maternal grandmother, great-grandmothers, her sisters, and her ancestors tracing way back to how they became slaves and what happened. It is the story of so many generations and somehow the story sadly is still the same, the one of fight – the one of voicing what is right, the one of standing up against wrong, and yet at the heart of it all there is love. A whole lot of love, that shines through the writing.

Ms. Jeffers’ voice shifts beautifully between times, between the past, the present, and beyond. The narration shifts swiftly to communicate the timbre of the times, the tone, of how it was, and in all of this never losing sight of the family and its struggle.

What I loved the most about the book is how emotional it gets you, and yet all you want to do is turn the pages. And yet there were times I wanted to just keep it down, which I did, and make sense of all the writing and the emotion. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is personal, it is political, it is devoid of the constrict of time (though it may not seem that way), and above all it is kind. It is a kind novel. It still preaches that over and over again, no matter what. Ms. Jeffers’ takes on topics that are so difficult and yet have to be talked about – the demonic nature of child abuse, the way relationships can get so messy, about slavery and colorism, about what it feels like to be the only black student and a teacher on campus, about black women who lead the novel and life, of how Ailey confronts tough situations as she goes along life, with help from her family and friends and about history that must not be whitewashed or forgotten. History that runs through the veins of every marginalised folk, in this case the African American people. The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois is compelling, gorgeous, stunning, and a read that has to be mandatory for all. Please read it.

Interview with Karan Mahajan

Few books enter your soul and manage to shake and stir it. Those books remain with you, no matter what. “The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan has been one such book for me this year. I am dazzled by it and will remain so for a long time to come.

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I was excited to get a chance to be able to interview Karan and here is the interview. The review to the book is here. Please do read the book. It is beyond super.

Keeping in mind the title of your book, why are small attacks not remembered? Why do you think they erase themselves so quickly from memory? What are in fact, small attacks through small bombs?

They’re not remembered because we have a limited bandwidth for tragedies that involve others. Modern India is a feast of tragedies. It’s not surprising that the smaller bombings are covered for a couple of days and than overridden by larger fires, train collisions, scandals, terrorist attacks.

The book is all about people who are affected by a small attack or lead to a small attack’s occurrence. How did the story come about? I know it is a rather cliché question, but we sure would like to know.

All good novels come from a mysterious emotional source. I must have felt, at the time when I started writing the book, all the way back in 2009, that my personal experience resonated with the pain felt by the parents, the Khuranas, in the opening of the book. I remembered the Lajpat Nagar bomb vaguely from my childhood but it came rushing back to me with a great violence soon after the 26/11 attacks. In a way, it was a sort of gift—a negative gift. Suddenly I had this thing—this world at my disposal. I spent the next five years figuring out what it was trying to say to me.

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You bring out the real and human and very insipid daily acts of terrorists in the book. Why did you do that? Did you want to show them as more human than they really are? Do we in our need to objectify confuse humaneness with just being a human being?

I like the word “insipid” in this context! Basically, I wished to erode the negative glamor around terrorism. I wanted to say: these are the banal steps that lead to a bombing. Don’t be in the thrall of these figures: they are often bumbling, sad, confused. That said, I don’t downplay the evil of terrorists. Their actions are inexcusable. But it’s possible to be evil and petty at once, or to be evil and stupid. It’s our collective imagination that transforms terrorists into these god-like masterminds.

I was most taken in by the family that disintegrates because of the terror attack. Were they always dysfunctional? Were the cracks always there but never seen?

Yes, the family was always dysfunctional, in my mind. Vikas Khurana has never resigned himself to the bourgeois trappings of his life—his extended family, his kids, his wife—though that is his life. He sees himself as an artist primarily, but the lie of that premise is already showing through when the novel starts. The bomb widens that gap. Deepa and the kids live in a stalemate alongside Vikas’s brooding. We tend to believe that the best parts of people can emerge during a tragedy but I wanted to show how the worst parts can come out too.


What were your favourite books growing up? Did they have any impact on “The Association of Small Bombs”?

I’m sure they did have an impact. “Growing up” isn’t quite the right place to look—I’m sure reading PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie affected my prose style, but I don’t think they’ve had a bearing on other aspects of my sensibility. I think Naipaul, Narayan, Hemingway, Bellow, Conrad, Ozick, some of (Arundhati) Roy, Philip Roth, Yashpal, Rushdie—these have loomed larger as influences. I tend to find Naipaul a bit chilly for my tastes, but I love the speed of “Half A Life.” It’s a book with an actual narrative—which a book like “A Bend In The River” lacks (with every year it seems more like an academic text than a novel to me). I connect with RK Narayan’s humanistic humor—particularly in books like “The Vendor of Sweets” and “The Painter of Signs.” Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” is brilliant, but again, quite sluggish to read. I took some of his world-weariness but threw away the odd sensation that the narrative isn’t moving forward. I aspire to the loose, conversational style of Bellow. I don’t like it when writers lyrically sermonize from a mount. The key is to be intelligent, direct, musical, conversational—and to appear to do so without effort.

There are a lot of observations throughout the novel – either first person or third person based. Sometimes from a vantage point and others in close quarters. How do you bring that in your writing?

Instinctively. There are some moments that require a zoom lens and others that require an aerial view. Let’s take grief. We can obviously empathize with a couple that has lost two kids in an attack. So there’s no need to remain yoked to their perspective the entire time. It might be more interesting to view the social context around their grief or even the strange ways in which their moods shift. I guess POV is a way of deciding what’s interesting in a moment and going boldly toward it.

Male friendships are a major part of the book. Why do you think they needed to be there? Any specific reason?

Terrorist groups, religious groups—these tend to be crowded with men and divided by sex. Religious individuals are often uncomfortable with people of the opposite sex—it’s the job of religion to divide the sexes. So showing male friendships in all their complexities was necessary.

How is your writing schedule like?

I write best in the mornings and I tend to research or write non-fiction in the afternoons.


How is Karan the reader and the writer? Do you get critical when reading?

Being a writer has ruined reading fiction for me. I can only focus on fiction when it seems it might feed my work, which is unfortunate: a lot of great books have fallen by the wayside. But I find it easy to get lost in non-fiction and films: these are the two mediums I enjoy the most. And yes: I hate the critical part of my brain when I read. To open my own novels is to experience tremendous pain. I know exactly how I would have rewritten or improved every sentence. I have no choice but to close my eyes and live with a million imperfections.

So this was the very erudite Karan Mahajan on his book “The Association of Small Bombs”. It is definitely the read of the year.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan Title: The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publisher: 4th Estate, Harper Collins
ISBN: 9789351777878
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I finished reading “The Association of Small Bombs” two weeks ago and I am still reeling from its effect. Sometimes you know when you love a book too much and you also know that you can read it fast and finish it but you want it to last longer, so you don’t finish it really fast. Ever get that feeling? Happens to me all the time when I am reading a book I’m really enjoying and that has occurred after a long time with this second novel by Karan Mahajan.

At this point, let me also tell you that I had read and not thought much of Karan’s first book “Family Planning” at the time of reading it (I am being extremely honest. Please don’t kill or hate me for it Karan). I will for sure go back to it after some time. For now, let me share my experience of this literary stunner of a book “The Association of Small Bombs”.

You will one way or the other get the title relation once you read the book, so I will not talk about it. Let me instead go straight to the plot: It all begins with a bombing that takes place in Delhi’s crowded Lajpat Nagar. The year is 1996 and it is not a big bombing. It is a small bombing. Lives are lost – and amongst those lost lives two belong to the Khuranas’ sons Tushar and Nakul. There is also Mansoor; their friend who accompanies them to get the Khuranas’ repaired TV home and while he is alive, he is scarred for the rest of his life by the incident. The book in short may seem about this but there is so much more to it. In fact, there is so much more that I do not know what to include and what to omit from this review.

So I will start with it all. The Khuranas’ live with their guilt for years and Mansoor lives with that terrible memory and how he is physically and emotionally damaged by it. There is also the terrorists’ (so-called) side of the story (which isn’t all that much but when you read it in the context of the plot – it makes so much sense and is needed there). The empathy, the rawness of the writing and above all the precision with which every detail is explained – you cannot help but fall in love with the book.

The book begins in 1996 and ends in 2003 (I assume because there is nothing more after that). Mahajan’s capturing of the seven years throughout the novel and its protagonists (there is more than one) is magnificent and taut. For instance, the relationship between the husband and the wife after the sons’ death is something that I still think of – the edge of the relationship ,the brink of it which they face and sometimes only to go back because there is nowhere else to go. Mahajan is a master of his craft.

I have so much to talk about this book and I know that words will fall short. I will not be able to explain what I felt every time some stunning paragraph or line hit me. A small detail you would have not paid attention to in your daily routine shines in the book. The mere simplicity and elegance of writing is what will make you turn the pages and not stop. I will not be able to put that in words – because you have to feel it as you read and wade through this one – hoping it will not end. All that I can say is: READ THIS BOOK NOW!

Here are some of my favourite parts from the book. There are a lot more but for now I will list these:

“It was as if, having failed to protect them in life, they felt double the responsibility to fulfill their duties in death.”

“The station was so bloated with people that the loss of a few would hardly be tragic or even important”

“The May heat was horrifying, violating the privacy of all things while also forcing you into yourself.”

“She was aware, suddenly, that the death of her children was not a metaphysical event, but a crime. A firecracker set off by uncaring men in a market. She did not trust the government or the courts to do anything.”

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr Title: All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 978-0008130824
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 544
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

There are books and then there are books you cannot tear yourself away from. Books with intricate details and sub-plots that make you beg for more. The kind of books where the writing shines on every page and all you want to do is get home and race through it, savour it, hold it and not let go of the book till you are done with it. The book is “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and while I was late to this party, I was glad that I attended it. The book will leave you speechless and I am not just saying that for the sake of it.

The characters in this book do things that ordinary people do not. They are also a part of circumstances and situations that only ordinary people are capable of being in. Doerr brings to forth WWII stories that could have been forgotten. These are fictional, however these could also be true, given all that is hidden or not seen (a wonderful play on the title).

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a book of three stories – intertwining strangely enough, and not so. There are three stories. One of a French girl, who becomes blind and her father builds her a perfect miniature of their Parisian neighborhood so she can find her way home and navigate in their town. The second story is of an orphan named Werner who grows up with his sister in a mining town in Germany and has no choice but to join the force of Hitler Academy. He is interested in science and will do anything to learn that instead of joining the forces. The third story in the book is of a man who refuses to leave his home till he has no choice but to.

The book is about these stories and how Marie and Werner’s lives converge into Saint-Malo, where the action begins and ends, almost. Doerr makes the book profound on so many levels, that it is impossible to just speak of one. The writing is around seashells, physics, electricity, love, war and what it means to be human. I was completely overwhelmed and taken in by the writing. It is pure, surreal and makes you wonder why you didn’t pick this one up sooner than later. “All the Light We Cannot See” is a treat for all literary fiction lovers and you shouldn’t miss this one at all.

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All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel

The Americans by Chitra Viraraghavan

The Americans by Chitra Viraraghavan Title: The Americans
Author: Chitra Viraraghavan
Publisher: 4th Estate
ISBN: 9789351362593
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A lot has been written on the migrant experience. It has been written from various points of view. Sometimes, it is a man’s voice and sometimes it is a woman’s voice, journey and careening their way through an unknown land. I have also managed to read quite a few books on the topic. So when I picked up, “The Americans” by Chitra Viraraghavan, I was apprehensive. However, one hundred pages into the book and I could not stop reading it.

“The Americans” is about different people and how their stories merge together, at a point in the United States of America. This is what I loved about the book – the entire concept of six degrees of separation and how it was rolled in beautifully in the narrative.

There is an old man trying to find his way in a new land, on a vacation albeit. There is Tara, a single woman who visits America to look after her niece, as her sister is struggling with other issues. There are eight other stories that merge with these two and to me that was the highlight of the book. I am also somehow fond of books with short chapters and this one was written in that manner, which made me cry: Hurrah!

Viraraghavan has an acute sense of surrounding and nature to her writing. The book is set in 2005 and one can see that she knows America inside-out as she of course studied there and that has definitely helped in the research of the book.

The writing is lucid and heart-warming in most places. For me, what worked the most were the journal entries (or so they seemed) of books read by a teenager and her view of the American life. “The Americans” is a thought-provoking book on what it means to cross borders – physically and emotionally and sometimes what it takes to perhaps not cross them.

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