Category Archives: Books

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

IYSMDSH Title: If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
Author: Neel Patel
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN:9781250183194
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

A short-story collection that is written well and paces itself beautifully always lifts my spirits. It is the feeling of the book never ending. A feeling that it should last a little longer, even though it might end. Some more. And that’s exactly what I felt but of course while reading If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.

Neel Patel’s stories are quiet and tender. They pack a punch nonetheless when they have to. What lends to them superbly is the writing – the in-depth and heart-wrenching intimacy of this collection, and more than anything else, the tapestry of the lives of second-generation Indians – their lives and loves in the US of A.

Relationships are at the core of this book and no one is judged. These eleven stories pack a punch every time. The stereotypes grow with every turn of the page and then Patel shatters them with one giant stroke of the hammer. Whether it is a younger gay man involved with an older one, three women who want to defy every norm of society there is, a young couple trying to carry on with their lives amidst gossip, and whether it is standing up to arranged marriage, every story is layered and compelling.

Neel Patel’s prose isn’t sugar coated. His characters betray, regret, and realize that living is perhaps all of this and more. That makes it real and relatable, no matter where you live. The landscape doesn’t matter. The stories do for sure. They speak to you. You can see these characters around you and that’s where I guess Neel also gets his inspiration from.

“If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi” is a collection of stories that must be read this year. A debut that is so strong, introspective, and will make you perhaps see the world a little more differently than you are used to.

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Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

MB

Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera Title: What If It’s Us
Authors: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Publisher: HarperTeen
ISBN: 978-0062795250
Genre: LGBT, YA,
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It is a classic boy-meets-boy story. Of the universe, of things working out, of some things not working out as you go along, of an age of rapidly increasing technology and yet believing in destiny, fate, and knowing that you met him and that he met you for a reason. Arthur and Ben are teenagers who meet, but will they stay? Has the great wide universe planned it that way for them at all?

I know exactly why I read queer-theme based YA novels, even though I am not a teenager, even though I am nowhere close to being one. Because I never had this while growing-up. This kind of comfort that love and companionship is possible amongst two boys or men was unknown to me. The 90s were all about ignoring, of not seeing, of the queer community being invisible. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. We need more Indian LGBTQIA voices though and that discussion is for a later day. Today, it is about What If It’s Usby Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera.

What I love the most about What If It’s Us is that while it is a queer-themed novel, it also moves beyond that and includes larger themes of friendship, family, and love on a scale that we do not seem to gauge when we are teenagers (or do we?). And of course, you cannot, the almost BIG WRITING COLLAB of all-time – Adam Silvera meets Becky Albertalli. I love their individual works, and this one is even more special because its two of them who have worked on the same book.

Arthur is an out-of-towner in New York on an internship, in his mother’s law firm. Ben is a New Yorker who is trying to get his grades up and is studying in the summer. Arthur has never had sex, let alone be in a relationship. Ben is just getting over a recent break-up with Hudson. The setting is perfect. Summer in New York and they met, and what happens next is what obviously I am not going to tell you. You have to read the book.

The writing is crisp. The context of each character could get long, but it doesn’t bother you all that much. You don’t realize which parts are Albertalli and which Silvera, but you don’t have to, because the book merges wonderfully in these collective voices. Every character is sketched well and doesn’t seem excessive. The writing is real and relatable. The teenage angst, the crush that turns to love and what happens next will make you want to not stop turning the pages.

What If It’s Us is a book that is real, kinda bittersweet, and mostly full of possibilities. The writing doesn’t become mushy. It is real. You can relate to it, because you know people like Arthur and Ben and their friends. You can also relate to it because more than time you have also looked at a stranger, who you randomly bumped into and thought: What if?

 

 

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Chris Riddell Title: Art Matters
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Chris Riddell
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group, Headline Review, Hachette Books
ISBN: 9781472260086
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 112
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It has been established the world over (if not, then it should be) that Neil Gaiman is one of the most prolific writers that we have, and we must never forget that. In fact, we must cherish what we have every single day and celebrate him by reading more of him, but obviously, day after day.

Art Matters is a collection of his short essays (all previously published individually and collectively in The View from the Cheap Seats) about art, reading, libraries, and why all of it is so important even more so in today’s time and age.

I love what Gaiman writes, and even though I’d read these pieces earlier, with Chris Riddell’s illustrations, they seemed different, more invigorating, and captivating to say the least. There is something about the power of the written word, isn’t it? That’s what this book is about primarily – about words, reading, and how the world can be changed, one book at a time.

Of course, the piece that stands out for me is Make Good Art, in which Gaiman talks to us about how he started writing books, how to do what you really want to do, push boundaries, and be what you set out to be. Yes, it does sound self-help like and maybe it is, but coming from Gaiman, everything is great and achievable and inspiring.

I am not saying this as a fanboy, it’s just that this book really inspires you to step out and make good art. And not to forget that the Make Good Art piece has come from his commencement address at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in May 2012, which I am linking below. The illustrations by Chris Riddell are as usual stupendous and go hand in glove with Gaiman’s prose. Though, I would love to see how this book comes alive in colour as well. Maybe, even a graphic version of these four pieces and more.

Make Good Art just makes you want to go out there and create. Be it anything. A sentence even, or just those two hundred words you’ve been telling yourself you will write, or the composition you are stuck at, or when you feel that you just cannot create anything, this book will at least inspire if nothing else. Read this. Read it again like me, if you have already read them. The illustrations and the reminding of what great art can do is absolutely worth the experience.

Link to the commencement speech:

 

Polite Society by Mahesh Rao

PS Title: Polite Society
Author: Mahesh Rao
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0670091003
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I remember being on the fiftieth page and wanting to give up reading, “Polite Society”. I mean I had read Emma multiple times and saw no reason to continue with the shenanigans of the Delhi elite. It just didn’t make sense to me. Till I persisted of course and then too I wouldn’t really call it a smooth-sailing ride, oh but what moments we had – the book and I. It was read everywhere. I carried it everywhere with me – from the South of Mumbai (which the characters would approve of) to the North of Mumbai (don’t roll your eyes now, come on, be kind or at least pretend to be) to places I shall not mention here, but you get the drift.

So, we know “Polite Society” is modelled after Emma by Austen. Austen brings it out in us – as writers and readers to take the imaginary baton and pass it on, keep passing it on, and more so till something can be done with it. When something isn’t Aisha (thank God for that) or even Bride and Prejudice (thank Heavens, I left in the interval), and something then becomes a Bridget Jones’ Diary (the sequel was a disaster) or even Polite Society (the right turn on the 75th page or so).

“Polite Society” is an out and out, witty and most certainly a satire that you just cannot put down after a couple of chapters in. Might I also add, that it is dangerous and quite risky to adapt an Austen novel. It isn’t about the time or the characters or even relevance (some works are universal and break through barriers of time, no matter what), it is about the urgency, the speed, the context needs to drive fast in this time and age and not languid as Emma or Mansfield Park is. Rao takes care of that aspect brilliantly.

Set in contemporary Lutyens’ Delhi, we meet Ania Khurana, a native of Prithviraj Road. From the first page, you know that you have bumped into Emma. Miss Taylor is Renu bua, Ania’s unmarried aunt who she eventually sets up with Colonel Rathore. Dimple of course is modelled after Miss Harriet who is Ania’s special project to work on. Mr. Knightley is Dev, a close friend of the Khuranas. And the stage is set, well almost.

We all then know how it proceeds, don’t we? Ania is a 20-something who just is a meddler and thinks she can make matches, after she sets up her aunt with Colonel Rathore. All she wants now is to find a great match for Dimple, which of course she fails at miserably. So, what is different in this book you ask? Isn’t it just like Emma? Well, I revere Austen and everything she ever wrote, including her letters. I think for the major part so does Rao. Actually, throughout the book that is.

Till the third portion of the book when things become darker and oh so yummy! There are a lot of twists and turns which as a reader you will not see coming and which as a reviewer, I just cannot disclose (spoilers and all that, you know). The framework of Emma is intact, and yet Rao has given himself and the characters more than enough room to play and act out on their own. The style of writing also veers right from the very beginning – an almost mocking tone used for Lutyens’ Delhi and what they represent. Unlike Austen, who wrote in the third person, Rao takes the route of making his characters visible – they are transparent to the reader and have the much-needed gravitas.

At the same time in “Polite Society”, Rao’s maturity comes from the auxiliary factors – the sights, the smells, the touch and what Delhi and its people are made of. There is the sense of discomfort present in all characters – it’s as though they are aware of their shortcomings and flaws and yet will never call them out for what they are. There are neat sub-plots, that when mingle as well do not cause confusion or stir up a storm for the reader.

What is also of interest is how Rao’s characters demand empathy and in more than one-way Mahesh Rao gives it to them straight up. Whether it is Dimple’s dilemma at balancing Ania’s decisions and hers at the same time, or Ania’s failed attempts over and over again, there is always empathy. There are no caricaturist Austen-inspired genteel creatures so to say. The world of Lutyens’ Delhi as presented in “Polite Society” is cleverly funny and satirical, though sometimes it might feel a tad bit exaggerated. There is a lot of back and forth in the plot structure and sometimes internalisation, but it is needed to propel the book. All in all, “Polite Society” is a very interesting and dynamic read, which most of the times comes into its own, and away from the shadow of Austen.