Category Archives: penguin india

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma

Title: A Life of Adventure and Delight
Author: Akhil Sharma
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House India
ISBN: 978-0670089024
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Akhil Sharma is the kind of writer who gets under your skin, whether you like it or not. I was apprehensive of reading “An Obedient Father” a long time ago (and still haven’t by the way), but I did read “Family Life” in 2015 I think and it completely swept me by my knickers. The book was emotional and yet not sentimental, it was wry and not funny, it showed me facets to the human condition and made me see some people differently, which very few books manage to do. His third book and this time a collection of short stories titled, “A Life of Adventure and Delight” does just the some – maybe in a lot more measure but sure does hit the spot.

His writing is raw and quite grounded and maybe that is what attracts me to it. This is a collection of eight stories about Indians living abroad and at home. The stories range across various themes – love, the suddenness of it all, loneliness, grief – the stories are just a way of glancing in another’s life – to perhaps relate to it (most of us do and sometimes we don’t admit to it as well) and thus know the fragile ways in which we live.

The stories are diverse and yet there is a commonality to them all – the universe of human emotions is all but the same in these stories. Each one can stand alone and yet the binding factor of human loneliness, cruelty, baggage and how we just wait for another day of happiness is overwhelming, only sometimes to the point of being repulsive. Why repulsive? Because you so want these characters to stand up and take control and yet even though they want to do that, life doesn’t quite turn out that way.

Don’t be fooled by the title of the short-story collection. The lives of characters are neither adventurous nor delightful. So the play of title works only till the time you start the first story. His stories are about fragile relationships and all that goes with this territory. For instance, “If You Sing Like That for Me” is about grief – and how a song finds itself in it so beautifully that I could not stop thinking about. And the story is about love – the love a woman feels for her husband. Trust Mr. Sharma to turn this one on its head.

On the other hand there is the title story about relationships, to what extent we trust and what goes on when humans are just humans who are flawed. The writing doesn’t seem wasted at all. Every word is in place and every sentence and description deserves that attention. It is extremely well-crafted and exquisitely interwoven (not literally but from a broader theme perspective).

All said and done “A Life of Adventure and Delight” is a short-story collection where almost every character yearns to be happy and will go against every social grain or norm to find it, only to see and realize that life works very differently.

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.

The Book of Destruction by Anand

Title: The Book of Destruction
Author: Anand
Translated from the Malayalam by Chetana Sachidanandan
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0143068464
Genre: Literary fiction, Translated fiction
Pages: 242
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“The Book of Destruction” by Anand isn’t an easy book to read. I am forewarning you because it is the truth. At the same time, you must read this book according to me, even if it means slaving through the first couple of pages (actually it is a slave-through after the first couple of pages) but do persist and then you will know why you will fall in love with this piece of work.

Anand’s book is about thugs and hashashins (assassins as called in Persian), it is about destruction and murder – right from the medieval times to the world we live in. The book is a three-story episodic narrative – all of them centered on one narrator and a man named Seshadri, with whom it all begins. In one, the narrator knows of the book of destruction and also the fact that he has been selected to kill – in the second a discotheque is bombed and in the third there is a staged orgy to which the narrator is led.

“The Book of Destruction” is essentially on the nature of murder and what drives a human being to kill (very little as a matter of fact). At the same time, I also thought the book was rambling endlessly and out of hand at sometimes, which could’ve easily been cut out. Having said that, Anand’s research is point on and only makes you want to know more about people who exist in the shadows.

Chetana’s translation is spot on and makes you wonder what the original would have read like. I think it happened to me more in case of this book because of its density and detailing. I absolutely enjoyed “The Book of Destruction” and if you are remotely interested in violence in literature, then this is the book for you.

The House that Spoke by Zuni Chopra

Title: The House that Spoke
Author: Zuni Chopra
Publisher: Penguin Books India
ISBN: 9780143427841
Genre: Children’s Books
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the longest time, “The House that spoke” lay on my bookshelf and somehow there was no inclination to pick it up. One of the barriers was that it is written by a teenager and somehow that thought kept becoming an impediment till it did not. Till I picked up the book and finished it over a weekend and enjoyed it a lot at that.

Having said that, “The House that Spoke” also tries to pack in a lot in one book which at times does feel tedious but eventually grows on you. The book is about fourteen-year-old Zoon Razdan who is instantly shown to be witty, intelligent and above-all perceptive. She lives in Kashmir with her mother in a house – which of course is a part of the title. The objects in the house converse with her. She isn’t new to magic. There are forces beyond her control that threaten to take over her life, the house and her beloved Kashmir.

The book has a lot of metaphors given Kashmir’s situation as of today and that is laudable. Zuni is very empathetic in her writing and that shows. I think that perhaps when you are younger you aren’t influenced by all the writing around you. Of course you read a lot but then again, it isn’t what drives your writing. Your experiences do and after reading this book, I think Zuni’s writing comes from a more personal space (as it should). The characters could have been culled out in a more interesting manner but I guess that can be ignored given it is her first book and she is only sixteen (I think). The writing though is powerful and I loved how the narrative of historic fiction was blended in seamlessly. “The House that Spoke” will charm you, move you, and also make you think about what we’ve done to heaven on earth.

The Day Grandfather Tickled a Tiger by Ruskin Bond

the-day-grandfather-tickled-a-tiger-by-ruskin-bond Title: The Day Grandfather Tickled a Tiger
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 978-0143428732
Genre: Children’s Books
Pages: 64
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

This is another title in the same Bond series – chapter books that is. The first one that I reviewed was “The Tree Lover”. This one as the title suggests is more on the funny side and was again, a breeze to read. Just that for this one, there were no watercolour illustrations so that was kind of disappointing. At the same time, the story is delightful (I had read it earlier) and this time it had me wondering if it actually happened or not.

“The Day Grandfather tickled a Tiger” is obviously again about Rusty’s grandfather – this time involving a tiger. I enjoyed this story a lot and also recalled that I had read it earlier but the illustrations by Viplov Singh helped enhance it. This one is a little longer than “The Tree Lover” so perhaps the older kids would enjoy it more, plus it is funny.

Ruskin Bond as I have said before has this uncanny ability to appeal to all age-groups. It doesn’t matter if you are his target audience, so to speak or not – I think he writes for everyone and that is the beauty of his writing. This is most certainly a solid reason to read him.