Category Archives: Penguin Books

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.

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Stories on Caste by Premchand. Edited by M. Asaduddin. Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various.

Stories on Caste by Premchand

Title: Stories on Caste
Author: Premchand
Edited by M. Asaduddin
Translated from the Hindi and Urdu by Various
Publisher: Penguin India, Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978-0670091447
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 168
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

There is no chance that you will read any short-story written by Premchand and not be moved in some manner or the other. To add to that, I started reading his “Stories on Caste” which I knew would show me the stark mirror of reality that exists in our society, even until today. We might like to believe that the caste system has been done with, but we are so wrong. It exists and how. And not just in small towns and villages, but also in cities. When we normalize abuses referring to caste; when we overlook perhaps even the smallest occurrences of caste differences at home – that’s precisely when we need to be aware and look at what is happening around us.

Premchand’s stories aren’t extraordinary. Not the writing style to a large extent. However, what makes them extraordinary are the circumstances – the acute sense of observation and transferring those experiences to words. It is unfortunate and very sad that he had to write from life. At the same time, Premchand’s stories are not all without hope. There are some that bring some amount of wit, cunning and not-all-is-lost sense of things to the table. For instance, in “The Lashes of Good Fortune”, an orphan makes something of his life when he runs away from his oppressive master and returns to a different village altogether and a different life. The book begins though with a punch-in-your-face story “Thakur’s Well” (Thakur ka Kuan) – where a woman has to slyly try and get clean water for her ailing husband and that too from the Thakur’s well.

I think Premchand was perhaps one of the only writers then who depicted the lives of the underdog so to say with such empathy and nuance. The oppressors and oppression did not limit themselves – they came in various forms in his stories. For instance in “One and a Quarter Ser of Wheat ” (Sawa Ser Gehun), a poor farmer doesn’t even know what he has done to his generations to come, just by borrowing sawa ser gehun from the local landlord. Premchand never shied away from telling it the way it was (that quality to a very large extent, I have found in most regional writers’ works. The stark reality is always shown to the reader, no matter what).

At the same time, what I found very interesting about his stories was that the oppressors were found whether sarcastically or not shown to be oscillating between doing the right thing and what their “dharma” asked of them to do. In “Salvation” (Sadgati), poor Dukhi dies a meaningless death, trying to work on something so senseless because he doesn’t want to offend a Brahmin priest. And yet, ironically enough there are times in the story when the priest and his wife get sentimental about Dukhi and yet do nothing to show any emotion because they aren’t supposed to as they are of a higher caste. This inner battle of what to do and what is ultimately done continues to be seen in almost all of these stories in this collection. Of course, Premchand explores guilt in every form – but redemption is something rare.

Premchand’s stories may seem clear and straightforward and yet the layers to each of them are that of a wider scale and thought. Might I also add that nothing gets lost in translation in these stories. I was told by plenty of people on social media to read them in Hindi but I chose to read in English only because it moves faster for me. Having said that, none of the nuances of Hindi or Urdu (3 have been translated from the Urdu) have been lost. I had read some of these stories in Hindi earlier so I am aware (well superficially though) that the translators (there are about twelve to thirteen that have worked on these stories – sometimes individually, others collectively) have been true to their craft, because the emotion hits you real hard, no matter the language.

“Stories on Caste” is one of the five collection of Premchand’s stories published by Penguin India. The remaining four are on: Women, Village, City and Animals. Each I am sure unique in their own way. I for one can’t wait to start reading the others.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleTitle: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN:978-0571334643
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages:  288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

So, I got to read this book last month and I must say that I enjoyed this one a lot more than “Conversations with Friends”. It felt as though Rooney has finally found her voice and she must stick to that. “Normal People” is a breath of fresh air that raises so many questions of class, race and above all, it speaks of love and what happens to it over time.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. They attend school together and are familiar with each other as Connell’s mother is a cleaner at Marianne’s house. Connell, after school,  visits his mother at Marianne’s house so they can go home together. And in that time he gets to know Marianne, who is plain, stubborn and friendless at school. They share a connection, a bond and soon discover that there is something between them. Furthermore, they both get accepted to Trinity College in Dublin and this is when things change. Marianne is now the popular one and Connell is on the sidelines. What happens next and how they realize that they will always be in and out of each other’s lives is what the book is about.

I think “Normal People” is one of those books that has the power to wake you up from your stupor and see love, for what it is – complicated yet simple and a whole lot of wrongs till you get it right. The writing hits you hard and there are a lot of books mentioned which I loved. Connell and Marianne are loveable, endearing, and there are times you also detest them for doing the things they do. But there is always hope and some redemption.

“Normal People” is written in a manner that speaks directly to the reader. Rooney comes to the point quite directly and that is extremely endearing. The characters’ hearts and emotions so to say are placed in front of the reader, without judgement and the story plays itself out quite meticulously, to the point of being extremely relatable.

Last Stories by William Trevor

Last Stories Title: Last Stories
Author: William Trevor
Publisher: Viking, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241337769
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Of all that I have read of William Trevor’s work, one thing is certain: There is a sense of magic to his prose. His sentences take you by the hand, lead you on (you give in quite readily as well) and for sure you will never be disappointed. As a reader, you will be at a loss, because you loved every story and that hasn’t happened in a while with a short-story collection. You then realize that you after all read Trevor and make a promise to reread the collection and you do. Nothing sweeter than to honour this kind of a promise.

I am obviously referring to Trevor’s last collection of stories, posthumously published and aptly titled “Last Stories” (though I think to some extent that was very lazy). “Last Stories” is a collection of stories that is mysterious, enigmatic, sparse and yet spot on – the pace of the prose is languid and easy and somehow has the potential to draw you right into it.

Now to the stories. Trevor wrote of common men and women – those who are lost and are struggling to come to terms with life. I think after Alice Munro, Trevor is hands down my second favourite short-story writer. Every story that I have read by him has left a mark on my mind, heart and life.

All through the book what tugged at my heart is loneliness and longing that is consistent in almost every story. “Mrs Crasthorpe” is about a middle-aged widow who is only seeking companionship, only to be rebuffed later on in the story by a widower. It definitely broke my heart and that too with luscious prose at its center. And then there is “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” which is perhaps the most cheerful story of the collection. Miss Nightingale is the protagonist of this story who has known a bit about disappointment in her life, who in her fifties is almost reminiscing about her sixteen-year-old affair with a married man. Like I said, loneliness and longing are at the heart of every story in this collection and Trevor doesn’t let you forget that.

In “At the Caffe Daria” a wife whose husband left her for her best friend, renews her relationship with friend, after the husband’s death. And then there is “The Unknown Girl” featuring Emily, a housecleaner who commits suicide after speaking of love to the son of the house. William Trevor knows the harshness of the real world and yet somehow his characters never let go of some hope, in whatever way and manner, even in death so to say.

His stories spell disaster, confusion and loss of innocence (if there was any) for his characters. They grow-up but perhaps a little later. Or they also grow-up a little sooner than expected. Life is unfair and unkind to them and yet they are survivors all along. “Last Stories” will remind you of his genius and make you wonder why he had to leave us so soon. A beauty of a book.

 

The Worm and the Bird by Coralie Bickford-Smith

The Worm and the Bird Title: The Worm and the Bird
Author: Coralie Bickford-Smith
Publisher: Particular Books, Penguin
ISBN: 9781846149221
Genre: Picture Book
Pages: 64
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

 

Is it even a book read, if it is a picture book? I say, why not? A book is a book is a book. Different genres are still counted as books, isn’t it? Picture books read are still counted as read books according to me and that’s quite alright.

Now that that is out of the way, let’s talk about, “The Worm and the Bird”.  This book is about a worm and a bird (as you might have rightly guessed, duh!) and the different things they want and how they almost get it or they do for that matter. Under the earth, the worm needs more space. Above the earth, the bird searches for something else. And that’s what the book is. Of course, what makes it so endearing are the illustrations and what one doesn’t expect (which I will not reveal) as well.

Coralie Bickford-Smith’s earlier book, “The Fox and the Star” was a delight and so is this one. “The Worm and the Bird” is also about the shortness of life, but it also rings true of how life should be lived. Being a picture book, it cannot get preachy at all, which it isn’t.

“The Worm and the Bird” is the kind of book which has to be read and appreciated by people of all ages. It is a lesson, but beyond that it is also to be read because of the stunning illustrations, the ink artwork and to get back to understand how stories are told.