Category Archives: Books

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar

How does one talk about a book that says so much, that has so many layers to it? How does one even try to make sense of such an empathetic, sometimes unforgiving, mostly sensitive book? These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light by Dharini Bhaskar is a debut, and doesn’t read like one. It has been nurtured and taken care of for years for it to be what it is. It is a book that is about women, absent men, houses that are spectators, and emotions that are unexpressed.

What is the plot of the book, you ask?

Well, it all begins with Ammama and how she was married to a stranger – almost taken – before the Partition of the country. It then follows the story of her daughter, Vanaja and how she comes to marry Karthik, who chances upon her outside a temple, till we finally get to the narrator of the story Deeya – the second daughter of Vanaja – the middle child amongst three daughters – each with their own fate, body, and mind. Each struggling in their own way to cope with the absence of their father – who just took off one fine day, never to return.

Bhaskar’s prose is haunting. The only way I can describe it, I guess. It takes you back and forth into the narrative – the past, present, and even the future intermingles and that jolted me – and also made me see my relationships in a different light. We are all flawed – and so are Bhaskar’s characters. No one is perfect. No one is expected to be. That to me is the beauty of the novel at its very core. The decisions they take – of falling in love with an older person, of leaving, of wanting to run away only to come back, and mostly of loving, being cruel, and taking relationships for granted.

These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light is so much and all of which is so wonderfully laid out for the reader. The loneliness, the angst, also the wonderful compromises we all make in the name of love and togetherness, and above all the longing – the longing that is present throughout the book – running through every woman. Conversations that are never spoken. Absent people who inhabit spaces of the heart, from which they can’t be evicted, no matter how hard one tries. Women who love beyond – with inner lives, far removed from being just maternal figures. Different women, different times, from the same family, blending into being alive – just alive.  

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s fiction is not for the weak. It isn’t for the ones who want happy endings, or maybe even believe in them. That doesn’t mean Ferrante’s characters aren’t happy or don’t aspire to be happy. If anything, because they are so broken, they want nothing else but that, or so it seems. 

The Lying Life of Adults is nothing like the Neapolitan quartet, which spanned more than half a century in the lives of two friends. The Lying Life of Adults is about adolescence and not the dreamy, rainbow-eyed, unicorn believing kind of adolescence (if you read Ferrante, you know you will never get that anyway), but a time when lies and deception loom large, and growing up means so much more than just changes of the body. 

The book opens amongst the educated, the elite, the affluent, and the ones who believe more in the nature of science than God (that also is a wonderful sub-text to the book). Giovanna’s father is all of the above and more. He is the center of her world whose validation is needed at every step in her life. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s friends Angela and Ida are daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. Everything is bright and happy in their bourgeoise world, until the day Giovanna overhears a conversation between her parents, which is also the start of the book. 

“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” 

The story moves on from here, where we as readers are introduced to Giovanna’s aunt, her father’s estranged sister Vittoria, who he compares her with – the aunt that her father has detested for the longest time. Ferrante then turns the story on its head by moving from the affluent spaces of Naples to the not so affluent space, the dingy, the dirty, the filthy industrial neighbourhood where her aunt lives. Giovanna decides to meet her aunt and see for herself how ugly she is and whether she will grow up to be this person or not. From here on, Vittoria becomes a permanent fixture in Giovanna’s life and things change drastically. 

Giovanna lies. Her parents lie. Her friends’ parents aren’t telling the truth either. The entire construct and fabric of her life falls apart as incidents are played out, and the past is brought to life. No one is perfect. No one is a villain. Maybe they all are the villains in their lives, and try as they might, they cannot change that. 

Jewelry, mirrors, dolls, the smell, pleasure of adolescence and the need to derive it at any cost, education as a means of climbing the ladder – of proving your worth to others, keep constantly reappearing in the book. Ferrante shocks you with the familiar. There is no redemption for anyone. Characters accept the cards handed out to them, to point of them unabashed about their situations. It is what it is. 

Body image in The Lying Life of Adults is its own beast. We encounter it through almost every major and minor character and how they deal with it, is well not up to the people around them. Ferrante somehow ensures that it is only the readers that can feel pity, empathy, or any kind of emotion for Giovanna, Angela, Ida, or anyone else. In their interactions with each other, these people are harsh, cold, mean, and maybe rightly so. 

Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian as always is spot-on. You forget it is a translation, and most often than not you are reminded of the beautiful turn of phrase, or the clinical way in which emotions are dealt with, or the way somethings aren’t said and get stuck in characters’ throats – that you realise the beauty of a translation that makes you see this, feel this, and experience it to the optimum. 

“The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that,” Giovanna’s told, when she points out that adults she is learning to lie to have been doing that to each other all their lives . “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” she observes. 

There is a lot going on in the book. You get used to it as a reader. The book however is deeply moving, brutal, honest, wise, holding its ground – balancing itself in the beautiful and ugliness of everyday life, manifesting itself on the body, and making sense of it all through the women – old, middle-aged, and young, one lie after another.

Thank you Europa Editions for the review copy.

In Search of Heer by Manjul Bajaj

In Search of Heer isn’t a love story. Well, it is, but it isn’t a typical love story. It may have been inspired by an old-fashioned one, but Bajaj’s Heer and her Ranjha and everyone else in their lives, are her own people. Yes, the story’s skeletal frame has been maintained. That Bajaj hasn’t strayed away from. What she has done is to hit the reader at every turn of the page, with some thought-provoking, profound, and most intense prose.

In Search of Heer is aptly titled. It is about Heer. All about her. Everything, and rightly so. It is about Ranjha. Yes, without a shadow of doubt. It is about their love and everything else that follows, but it is mainly about Heer and the women who possess the narrative. Bajaj does a fantastic job of not only excellent storytelling, but also of being able to turn the narrative on its head. She gives us perspectives of a crow, of pigeons, and of a lamb when it comes to the story and does it very convincingly.

The book is about so many things. There are so many layers to it. I am stumped what to say and what not to say, but I shall try. Feminism is at the center and heart of this novel. From Heer to her mother to Heer’s friends, Sehti (a very pivotal character according to me), and others who come and go are so strong, sometimes weak, but rooted in a sense of independence – even though not fully realised at times. Heer’s feminism as portrayed by Bajaj is just natural – that’s the way she was raised by her father Mir Chuchak – to be whatever she wants to be, and live life on her terms. At the same time, through another lens, Bajaj takes us to a place where feminism doesn’t exist, and is brutally trampled on in the name of religion, and ironically women’s safety. This happens through the villainous uncle of Heer, Kaido Langda.

Longing is another recurring theme, expressed without any drama or theatrics. There is one section in the book when Heer speaks of months as they pass, as she waits for Ranjha and that to me is the highlight of the book. Longing also expressed through people’s inability to get out of circumstances – Sehti’s love for Murad, Seida’s love that is not acceptable, and the longing of so many to just live and let live.

Manjul Bajaj’s In Search of Heer is a modern retelling in the sense that it breaks all barriers of telling the original story. It also sticks to the skeletal system, but creates her own flesh as she moves along. There is so much that will strike home – everything that fits in the world we live in, we are a part of, the magic realism, the surreal, the impossibility of love, the love that doesn’t give up, and love that ensures people are free rather than bound to each other.

The Book of Extraordinary Deaths: The True Accounts of Ill-Fated Lives by Cecilia Ruiz


Title: The Book of Extraordinary Deaths: The True Accounts of Ill-Fated Lives
Author and Illustrator: Cecilia Ruiz
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
ISBN: 978-0399184048
Genre: Humour
Pages: 80
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

Death comes to all. It is the how that makes things interesting or not. For instance, twins dying on the same day, almost at the same time or dying in a hot-air balloon duel or even because of a fatal wardrobe malfunction. I mean it does sound silly, and unreal, but it happened. Cecilia Ruiz’s slim book deals with such extraordinary deaths.

It is a short compilation of unusual and ironic deaths throughout history. Of course, she couldn’t document all of them, so there are some that I guess were close to her in a sense, and therefore are in this book. The images that go along with the short note are as stunning as they are in The Book of Memory Gaps (another fascinating book by her).

I loved this book because while being macabre, it was also funny. Ruiz has a knack of doing that. The ways in which some people died intrigued and interested me. I think I will most certainly read up more about their lives later in the month. Pick this one up. It is a lot of fun!

Undertow by Jahnavi Barua

Estrangement. What an odd choice of word to define the not-so-closeness to a person who once was your world. Really an odd choice of word. There is loss, and yet it doesn’t feel like that. It sounds almost clinical, like a surgery has been performed on it, and the word that remained was this. Estrangement, in its various forms.

“Undertow” by Jahnavi Barua is about relationships that go sour, that are no longer what they used to be, that can be mended, relationships that can start over. Loya is twenty-five and has never met her maternal grandfather, Torun, who lives in Assam in a Yellow house all by himself. His wife Usha, the matriarch and an intimidating figure has long gone – it’s been four years. Loya’s mother Rukmini was banished from home, twenty-six years ago, in 1983, when she decided to marry Alex, the love of her life. Since then, a lot changed. Loya arrives at the Yellow House to meet her grandfather Torun and this is where the story begins.

Undertow is not just this though. It is so much more. Nature is described by Barua in a manner that is delicate, nurturing even, and personal. She speaks of clouds, of the sky, of a crow pheasant, of views, of walks, of how humans and nature can co-exist, and she also speaks of climate change most subtly. I loved Barua’s prose that is stable, though there are a lot of emotions simmering underneath, it is on the surface of it still as a lake during summer. No movement at all, and yet the story propels in the direction it has to. A voice of its own, almost.

Relationships aren’t perfect. Neither are people. Relationships are imperfect. They take a lot from you, but also somehow are fulfilling in their own dysfunctional manner. Undertow is all about such relationships – jagged, brittle in the mouth, and where snatches of happiness are far and few and in-between. Yet, there is much comfort in this short novel. Food being one of them. Barua writes about food with much affection. The fish and the fish seller, the five courses of Assamese food, the vegetables, and even a simple cup of tea evokes yearning for all the food. You just want to eat it all as you turn the page.

Feminism is also at the center of all of this – and yet it is not as palpable. Even then, it questions so many things along the course of the novel. Loya’s feminism vs. that of her mother’s. Usha’s brand of feminism and how it brought about emotional destruction in its wake, and even Sita the house help’s brand of feminism that is silent and speaks volume.

The secondary characters see the very same relationships so differently. From Romen, the cook to Biren, the handyman in a sense, to lives that converge and melt into the other lives, without realising that we are all perhaps just connected one way or the other.

“Undertow” shines on so many levels. Barua’s craft is surreal and yet it stings quite appropriately when it has to. Her writing is calm, restless, and disquiet – ample with love and loss, reminding us always that estrangement can be overcome. Over and over again.