Category Archives: penguin india

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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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

The Water CureTitle: The Water Cure
Author: Sophie Mackintosh
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241334744
Genre: Women, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I finished reading The Water Cure at neck-break speed. There was no other way to read this book. Yes, it started off a little slow. Yes, it took its time to grow on me but when it did, there was no turning back. There is a lot happening in the book – it is dystopian, it is feministic (well, you will struggle to see it but its there) and in most parts, it is also very fantastical. It may seem that there is no story really but there is, and the writing is on point – every word and every sentence where it should be.

At various points in the book, you might even think that the book is loosely based on King Lear and maybe it is, but it is so much more than that because the King soon disappears in the book. House on the island, alone by the sea. Three girls, Grace, Lia, and Sky live with their parents’ Mother and King (see the use of a patriarchy term right here – while the parents have no names, the father is always known as King).

Their worldly knowledge comes only from what the King dishes them. They have no contact with the outside world. They are in a world of their own. Till of course, like I said, King disappears, Mother takes over and their world crumbles as other men wash up on their beach, lay claim to their land and everything changes for them – in an instant.

Mackintosh’s writing isn’t easy but it is extremely engaging. There are times when you feel the book isn’t even dystopian as it claims to be, but there are only parts that are far and few in-between. The plot is for sure disturbing, but if it is to your taste, then I would recommend that you carry forth and finish the read, because it is extremely rewarding. The storytelling is unique and mesmerizing. Mackintosh is a new voice that has to be heralded, and this one most certainly read like a debut. It is that good.

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.

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne Title: The Adulterants
Author: Joe Dunthorne
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241305478
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Ray as we are told is not a bad guy. He has just cheated on his pregnant wife a couple of times. He isn’t popular among his friends. On most days, he doesn’t like them either. His job is that of a freelance tech journalist and he doesn’t do much when it comes to that as well. Everything in his life is at a languid pace – nothing happens and nothing is expected to till a string of events take place, only to make him see that he has a knack to just make things spiral downward and perhaps affect lives (including his own) in ways he did not imagine.

“The Adulterants” is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud in so many places and this is despite the irony. The book is also dark in so many places. Dunthorne has this uncanny ability to make you stop in your tracks amidst all the humour and fun and let things take a turn that you never expected. And yes, there will be a lot of times when Ray will not be liked (as that is the point really), but what Dunthorne does is shows us human nature and nothing else and for that no one should be begrudged.

Sometimes tongue-in-cheek and most times just profound (in a way one can’t imagine really), “The Adulterants” is a book about coming-of-age (no fixed age you see) of an everyday man, trying to cope with life in his thirties. It isn’t as if Dunthorne isn’t aware of the fallacies of Ray, but it is also that the protagonist is just there and whether or not the reader warms up to him, you will still feel a sense of odd affection.

And how can I forget London, that plays such a major part in this story as the city where it all begins and ends. I just wanted to pack my bags and be there! “The Adulterants” is a perfect book for our times – of how we are, why we are and what does it take sometimes to see things differently.