Category Archives: Hamish Hamilton

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.

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.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

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.