Category Archives: Reading Women Challenge 2022

Read 64 of 2022. The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara

The Immortal King Rao

Title: The Immortal King Rao
Author: Vauhini Vara
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393541755
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 384
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

When I started reading this book, I didn’t know where it would go at all. In fact, even when I was mid-way, I didn’t have a clue about the progression of the plot. There is so much going on in this close to 400-pages book of love, family, climate change, death, of how memories function, and magic as well somewhere down the line. I was also kind of shaken by the way the Internet is reimagined in a sense – of how it will take over the world, and the role the corporations would play in this.

The Immortal King Rao breaks genres. Yes, it does seem literary on the surface, but it also goes beyond that – it is speculative fiction, historical fiction, dystopian even, and not for a minute does Vauhini Vara make you stop turning the pages.

There were times I was reminded of Moustache by S. Hareesh while reading the book. Then, I was reminded of Jejuri by Arun Kolatkar, given the lyricism of the prose. There is also only one way to read this book and that is to give in.

The story begins in the India of the 1950s. A young man is born into a Dalit family of coconut farmers in a remote village in Andhra Pradesh. He is named King Rao (I love the irony about this, which is also seen in other instances throughout the book). He studies in Seattle and rises up the ladder in the Silicon Valley to become a famous CEO of a tech-company, aptly titled Coconut Corporation. This is where of course the author’s skill of being a technological journalist shows, in the way that she makes you believe it all. In all of this, we meet Athena – the very talented daughter of King Rao who is trying very hard to escape him after being implanted with his memories (the idea to make him immortal – hence the title) is extremely fascinating. She is raised by him on a remote island after her parents’ divorce. This aspect of a single-parent and that too a father unfolds itself very cleverly later on in the book.

The core of this novel perhaps is not technology as it seems at first glance. There is an almighty algorithm as well that will run everything, and humans aren’t needed to apply in the company but after all it is humanity and the need to be keep it all together that will run the planet.

Vauhini’s writing appears to be simple but it is so layered and dense (all in a good way) at almost every page. It is reflective of the past, of how we are living now, and takes into account the entirety of the future or perhaps what is coming for mankind.

As Athena grapples with her father’s memories and what they stand for, forever jostling between his reality and hers, I could see traces of Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, where a world unfolds slowly but takes the reader to this completely believable alternative reality where technology and capitalism have replaced human emotions as we know it.

Fathers and Daughters have always been depicted in literature so very often with a lot of emotion at play. Vara tends to not do that, which is quite refreshing. The relationship between King and Athena is very Shakespearean (had to be) – reminding the reader mainly of King Lear and the Tempest.  The constant back and forth of wanting to be loved by her father and constantly seeking his validation makes Athena also seem weak but that is not the case. She is her own person and yet seeks the anchor in her father.

There is the Dalit narrative that is told through flashback – painful memories that come to fore – told by Athena as she spends time in a jail cell. The revolution, subjugation, and the collective consciousness through one man is repeatedly communicated and done so in a satirical and sardonic manner.

Not once does Vara lose the believability factor when it comes to her characters or even the fantastical plot for that matter. I would also like to mention the role of wit and humour in this book that Vara employs to the fullest. The oddness of certain situations – of dreams merging with reality, of Rao’s internal musings through Athena’s recollections (well, not really hers) could only have been managed by a writer who sees and recognises the absurdity within.

There are three distinctive timelines in the book only for them to merge seamlessly, not seeming separate at all. Vara forces us (well in that sense, almost) to look at the world that we want to look away from. The world full of its eccentricities, absurdities, the greedy world, about Shareholders, and how it all comes together with one Dalit family’s lives and histories. It is almost fascinating, but also heartbreaking to read those portions – just to understand that the technique of magic realism is employed to make the reading of Dalit lives bearable.

In all of this, there is also a lot of beauty and grace in the novel that cannot be missed. It is about the stories we tell ourselves in order to live and continue living, no matter what. The resilience of Athena, King Rao, and even King Rao’s wife Margie is what makes the reader grow to love them despite their inherent flaws and warts for all to see.

The Immortal King Rao is no less than an epic tale of human relationships. Of a daughter getting to know her father in death more than when he was alive. Of how relationships are so estranged not only between lovers but also parents and children, who cannot see eye-to-eye. It is about the future and yet looking into the past at all times, realising that one cannot work without the other, almost to the point of it being inside your head. The book is about moments that pass us by and in the grander scheme of things, while may not seem much, they do account for something.

Read 42 of 2022. Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir by Kathryn Davis

Aurelia, Aurélia - A Memoir by Kathryn Davis

Title: Aurelia, Aurélia: A Memoir 
Author: Kathryn Davis 
Publisher: Graywolf Press 
ISBN: 9781644450789
Genre: Memoirs 
Pages: 108 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

Aurelia, Aurélia is a memoir that is sporadic, all over the place, doesn’t make sense sometimes, but so rewarding from the first page. It is also quite random, but the writing charms you, beguiles you, and makes you stay. I haven’t read much by Davis. I think only one book in the past, Duplex which I immensely enjoyed, so I definitely had to read this one.

This book is a memoir – about the death of Davis’s beloved husband, Eric. It is about grief, its contradictions, shuffles between time – from when Davis was sixteen to present-day to recent past to the reader’s some present-day making sense of all the profundity packed into such a short book, one hundred and eight pages long.

This memoir just like her novel is wonderfully strange, turning grief into a universal emotion from a personal one, and to then talk about her cultural preoccupations and interests – from Hans Christian Andersen to the movie, The Seventh Seal, to Beethoven’s Bagatelles, and Virginia Woolf’s, To the Lighthouse.

Aurelia, Aurélia was read slowly by me, and I think that is the way to read it. I might even get back to it again before the year ends, just to also make sense of some of the writing. I loved the last chapter of the book the most – the part when Davis explains the book’s title, and how it all ties in with the core of the book.

Aurelia, Aurélia is a book about memories- disjointed ones, about a couple and their life together, about being alone (though not so explicitly), and haunting, inviting you to make sense of the limitless connections, and the knotty and most complex way of grief.

Read 40 of 2022. The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

Title: The Swimmers
Author: Julie Otsuka
Publisher: Penguin Fig Tree
ISBN:  9780241543887
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

We descent into something unpleasant. We fall toward it. We do not know how it happens, but when it does, we don’t even know how to witness the deterioration, because people around us are busy doing that. Not only witnessing it, but also remembering it for us. The big and the small incidents. The ones we have forgotten along the way, and the ones we will not remember soon enough. It isn’t that we choose to forget (or sometimes we do), but that’s how it is. Memory is like water.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka is a book about memory, about its loss, time standing still for some, maybe also about redemption, and forgiving oneself to a large extent. The Swimmers is a short book that cuts through you with its brilliant prose, reminding you of the transient nature of memory. We take such pride sometimes in remembering. I know I do, till I cannot remember the word for “chair” one day and I lose my bearings over it.

The Swimmers reminded me of my living parent and her mortality. Of how she could suffer from dementia some day and what would I do in that situation. The Swimmers, as the title suggests, is about a couple of swimmers who swim in an underground pool, away from the rest of the world, in their own blissful bubble. Till cracks appear in the pool, and everything changes. They aren’t allowed to swim anymore. Alice, one of the swimmers is slowly and steadily suffering from frontotemporal dementia – changing, drifting, losing her personality – cracks that take over her life.

Otsuka writes beautifully and with so much grace, that you wish the book were longer.  She makes you a part of the story. You become one of the swimmers (even if you are petrified of large water bodies like me). You become the crack in the pool. Otsuka makes you believe you are broken (which you probably are anyway). She speaks of swimming as an act of praying. A ritual that has to be followed, speaking of people who undertake it, who become obsessed with it, who feel safe because of it, focusing finally on one person who perhaps represents them all – Alice. Alice who is now forgetting, soon becoming the forgotten.

As the chapters progress, the book of course becomes less about swimming, but more about memory and dementia – in a way also about swimming through one’s mind to remember, to hold on to what one can, to the husband and the children and their perspectives as you are swimming away from them into oblivion. Otsuka writes about it all – the past, the present, and what might shape the future. A chapter on the home, Bellavista, in which Alice is a resident after things go south is written in the most dystopian and clinical way (as it must) and shakes you up as a reader. Each chapter by Otsuka is carefully plotted – no sentence is out of place. Each memory, each object, each incident mentioned in the book makes you as a reader feel enough and more – about your life, the objects that surround you, the incidents that have taken place in your life, and finally about the impermanence of it all.

The Swimmers is a book that says so much in so little. What it feels like to lose a child, to move to a new country, to lose someone you loved a long time ago, the children you raised and what has become of them now – all of this in relation to what you were and what you are.

Julie Otsuka is a writer of great brevity. Her books have always been short, and yet communicate what they want to. Her characters are mostly lost, each searching and finding themselves, as though lost in a maze. Once again, I cannot gush enough about her writing prowess. The Swimmers is a book that will leave you thinking so much more about memory, forgetting, death, and how life fits in all of this.

Read 39 of 2022. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree

Title: Tomb of Sand
Author: Geetanjali Shree
Translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell
Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284611
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Literature
Pages: 730
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

A book like Tomb of Sand comes once a while – encompassing everything – all of it – maybe all our stories, or some of our stories – intermingling, intertwining, greeting each other along the way, choosing whom to converse with, whom to ignore, and how to navigate life.  Stories that have a life of their own – breathing, living creations that only need an audience and Tomb of Sand will get its audience, and should – more than its fair share, because this book deserves it all.

I am gushing. I shall gush some more. So be it. Some novels do more than just provide entertainment or are more than means of passing time. They demand to be read, reread, reread some more, till they enter your consciousness and then refuse to leave. Sputnik Sweetheart is one such book for me. This one is definitely another.

Tomb of Sand on the surface seems like a book with a very simple plot-line. A mother of a family and her relationship with a transgender person, in the wake of her husband’s death. This causes some kind of confusion in her daughter who always thought of herself to be more progressive of the two. However, let this plot not fool you. This could very well be a book without a plot for the first two-hundred pages or so, and honestly it wouldn’t matter to the reader or deter the reading experience.

Tomb of Sand is so much more than just a story of a family or of a woman trying to come to terms with the past and the present as it shapes itself around her. Tomb of Sand is a book about families, about life lived in-between contemplating how to live it and the parts that you so want to live but cannot, and more than anything, it was for me – a novel about redemption, about so many what ifs, about the choices we make – intentionally and unintentionally, about empty spaces we choose to fill and sometimes the void is even more glaring than it was, and it is a novel about boundaries, about how we limit ourselves through identity and gender, about how we are much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Geetanjali Shree experiments with language, makes it her own, makes it fall flat on its head, and doesn’t bother with the rules of grammar. She makes her own rules as she goes along. I say this after also having read major portions of the book in Hindi as well. The translation by Daisy Rockwell is a different book – a unique entity, if I were to call it that. Daisy takes the book in Hindi and gives its English readers a new landscape to imagine and embrace. I do not mean the translation doesn’t do justice to the original, in fact, if anything it takes the playfulness of Hindi – makes it more than palpable to English and doesn’t transpose or transliterate, just for it to sound right, but gives it its own vocabulary, adding if I may call it the “Rockwell Touch”.  Her translation doesn’t miss a beat. It is lucid, clear, and gives the reader what they need, and also what they thought they didn’t need.

Tomb of Sand also seems like a rather simple novel, which again it isn’t. I do not mean only when it comes to structure or who is the narrator, or what is happening but also language that I have spoken about earlier. There is a sense of calm to the choice of words – both in Hindi and English – which makes the novel so relatable. I think that the “Indianness” of the novel is what lends it the added layer of appeal. For instance, the entire angle of the mother staying with the daughter in the daughter’s house while the son has his own family is something not permissible in an Indian household. The mother has to stay with the son. Shree breaks this mould and presents a new way of life. Rockwell takes that new way of life and brings to life the conversations between the two women (of course from the original) – without discussing a man – they discuss their bowel movements, they discuss childhood, life, what the mother thinks, what Beti feels, but not a man. This is perhaps intentional but does the job of meeting the Bechdel test than most other novels and movies.

Another instance that intrigued me the most was the class difference and the way Shree has highlighted it throughout the book. Domestic help have names attached – full names and personalities – from what they do to who they are and their role in the family. On the other hand, the members of the household are not known by names, except for one son called Sid. The rest are nameless, known by their roles and what they add to the plot.

Tomb of Sand also becomes a partition novel somewhere after four-hundred pages, and it didn’t surprise me at all, when that happened. I was so immersed in the world created by Shree and her magnificence, that I submitted myself more than happily to this plot-twist, if I can call it that. This again makes the novel even more profound and complex.

Tomb of Sand is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022. I hope it wins. I hope it is known widely. I hope because of this other Indian language books get their place in the sun. Tomb of Sand is a delight to read and reread. If you have already read it, I recommend you go back to it. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Please read it. NOW.

Read 37 of 2022. Paradais by Fernanda Melchor. Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor

Title: Paradais
Author: Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Publisher: New Directions
ISBN: ‎978-0811231329
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

My mind is numb, and my heart is a mess. The latest offering by Melchor is dark, overwhelming, rustic, punches you in the gut, devastating to say the least, and more than anything else, in a very nuanced manner touches on the class differences in society and what happens thereof.

Paradais is a shorter compared to her previous work Hurricane Season, and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Its 125 pages are packed with unsettling language, doesn’t play to the reader’s expectations, and definitely does not believe in toning it down.

We meet Polo, a 16-year-old school drop-out who works as a gardener in a luxury residential complex called “Paradise” in Progreso, Mexico.  The title comes from the fact that he cannot pronounce it, and his boss teaches him to pronounce this way. Even in language, he cannot have a piece of paradise.

Polo is the narrator and all he wants to do is get out. He is not rich like the other teenager he introduces us to – Franco Andrade – who is overweight, addicted to porn, only fantasizes about his neighbour and the ways in which he will have sex with her – who is an attractive married woman and a mother of two.

Polo just wants to escape his overbearing mother, thinks of his dead grandfather, waits for a phone call from his cousin to get him out, and drinks with Franco (whom he calls Fatboy) so he can forget his existence for a while. It is in such moments of desperation, they hatch a plan, which might go either way for them.

Melchor’s writing is not easy to digest. It is bleak, it is angry, it wants to tell so much, and it does, even in so little prose. The anguish, the frustration, and the idea to do better through worse is so ironic and yet the only thing that seems right to Polo. We only see Franco through Polo’s perspective, so at some parts I was also doubting that, but Melchor’s writing convinced me about that as well – that perhaps all Polo says is in fact the gospel truth.

The darkness that runs through the town and into the lives of Franco and Polo is palpable. Most of the novel takes place at night – some also during the day, but that’s when the ridicule happens, the discrimination is made clear, the anger is seething – only to appear at night when drunk and find escape by imagining various ways to find an exit. All of this is conjured through Hughes’ fantastic translation that doesn’t miss a beat.

When Melchor writes about the Mexican society – whether it is the wealth gap and gang violence, she does it as a matter of fact attitude. It doesn’t preach, nor does it seek pity or empathy. What it also does at some point is scary – it gives agency to the naïve, to the fatalistic teenagers who have no clue what life has in store for them or how will it all turn out and make the most horrific choices.

Paradais works on so many levels, and for so many reasons. It is built on the shoulders of toxic masculinity through and through, and you know that world will not last long. The casualness, the most nonchalant manner in which people are thrown about in the book says a lot about the societies we inhabit. Melchor just brings it to fore, and a lot more. Reading this book also repulsed me a lot of times, yet with the constant nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this is the truth – whether I like it or not.