The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto

SGTitle: The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale: Edited and with an Introduction by Jerry Pinto
Author: Shanta Gokhale
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
ISBN: 978-9388070492
Genre: Nonfiction, Anthology, Essays
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

You do not just read Shanta Gokhale. You literally take in everything she has to say, and mull over it for days, weeks, and sometimes even months. That to me is the power of prose, of words on paper, and most of all it is about the emotions she can evoke in you. You read Shanta Gokhale to take count of the world around you – to see its decline, the society we live in, its hypocrisy (laid out by her with immense logic and facts), and how at the end of it all, there might also be some hope and redemption.

I remember reading Crowfall way back when it released (in English though) and was moved deeply by it. There was nothing specific I could put a finger on, but what she wrote was enough. All of it. Every single word. What Jerry Pinto does through this anthology of her selective works is give you a fair enough glimpse into her mind and writing, so you can read more of her and I bet you will, once you are done with this one.

This book is varied – that because Shanta Gokhale is so prolific – having written so much – from theatre of Bombay to the theatre of Mumbai, the political scenario, on India, on Literature, the Marathi culture (that is trying very hard to revive itself), and everything else in between. I don’t think there is any topic that Shanta Gokhale hasn’t written on. But it isn’t just this, it is the way she writes – almost makes you feel that you are the only one reading her at that time.

The Engaged Observer (what an apt title) is about so many things and yet doesn’t feel overdone or trying too much to fit into one book. In fact, if anything, I wanted more. Shanta Gokhale writes with clarity. Every sentence is in place. My favourite section has to be the one on women – the patriarchy, feminism, and women defying the misogynistic constructs of society.

Shanta Gokhale’s writings are lucid, rich in facts, detailed, and doesn’t veer at any point into becoming something else. Points are made and then it is up to the reader to make their judgement or not. The writings are not biased. As the title aptly suggests, Gokhale observes intently, engages with the observation by making notes, writing about it, and leaving it to the readers to consume. Also, kudos to Jerry Pinto for carefully selecting the pieces he did to introduce us/enhance our understanding of the writer – and the neat sections that help the reader navigate.

There are a lot of reasons I would recommend this work. Some of them being: clarity and simplicity of language, the varied pieces – there is literally something for everyone, and to top it all her writing – the kind that cuts through without seeming that way, the kind that makes such a strong impact that you cannot help but want more, the kind of writing that shakes you up and makes you see the world differently. It is the kind of writing that only comes from an engaged observer – the one who constantly sees, relates or does not, but definitely engages – no matter where she is.

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Pyjamas are Forgiving by Twinkle Khanna

Pyjamas are Forgiving Title: Pyjamas are Forgiving
Author: Twinkle Khanna
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
ISBN: 978-9386228970
Genre: Fiction, Humour
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I normally do not read “celebrity books”. However, this isn’t the first time Twinkle Khanna has written a book, so to me she is just a regular author than a celebrity author and thank God for that! She has the craft, she knows how to tell a story, and be funny at that – not the laugh-out-loud kind of funny, but sure the chuckle kind of funny, the funny that leaves this smile on your face – also the one that you will not forget anytime soon.

I will also literally kill the next person who asks me what the title means. Read the book if you’d like to know that. The book takes place in the sanctuary of an Ayurvedic retreat in Kerala. Anshu tries to heal herself in the wake of a divorce and believes that things will become alright once the doshas are fixed, so to say. But of course, there is more to this than meets the eye. There is love that is clearly not quite lost, once her ex-husband Jay arrives at the same retreat with his younger, trophy wife, Shalini in tow. To add to this, there are other characters that enter the plot and those only make it richer, funnier, and quite a rollicking read.

Pyjamas are Forgiving is the kind of book you take to the beach, to the pool, or lay in bed all day and finish it with your favourite reading snacks. It is the right dose of funny and some contemplation on what relationships really are. What I love about this book is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, just like life must not be for most part. Twinkle’s characters are expressive, they say what they must, they are most human, and stumble and fall like any of us.

Anshu is the kind of person who seems all so powerful and could also be putty in Jay’s hands. She is the kind of woman who knows what is her worth and will also doubt her capabilities most of the time. Then there is the gay couple, Javed and Anil that I loved. What I think resonated right till the end of the book is that they didn’t seem out of place in the narrative, which usually happens when LGBTQIA characters aren’t protagonists. This to me is a great start when it comes to Indian Writing in English, in the popular segment (so to say, hate saying that). Javed and Ali aren’t caricaturesque and that to me was simply great.

Twinkle Khanna never loses sight of the Shanthamaaya spa (this is but obviously a major character) and the oddballs who work there – the Ayurvedic doctors, the ghee routines that make you vomit, the hilarious situations (when Anshu realizes in one chapter that men in the adjoining spa therapy room can see her in the buff), the forbidden foods and of course the strict no-no when it comes to sex, everything comes together very neatly. Also, a little later in the review, however, I absolutely loved Anshu’s Mummy and her sister, Mandira.

There are range of emotions in the book, sometimes as sudden as one sentence to another and somehow as a reader, I did not have a problem with this kind of writing at all. If anything, I thought it was cleverly done. Twinkle Khanna makes no bones about writing the way she does – it is intelligent, funny, and even warm and quite emotional in some places. I loved how there is no redemption or the “perfect end” that ties the novel without any hiccups. Like I said earlier,  these are regular people with regular problems and problems don’t just vanish in thin air at the end of the novel. Pyjamas are Forgiving is witty, sometimes poignant even, and just the kind of book that Ayurvedic doctor recommended.

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

IYSMDSH Title: If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
Author: Neel Patel
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN:9781250183194
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

A short-story collection that is written well and paces itself beautifully always lifts my spirits. It is the feeling of the book never ending. A feeling that it should last a little longer, even though it might end. Some more. And that’s exactly what I felt but of course while reading If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi.

Neel Patel’s stories are quiet and tender. They pack a punch nonetheless when they have to. What lends to them superbly is the writing – the in-depth and heart-wrenching intimacy of this collection, and more than anything else, the tapestry of the lives of second-generation Indians – their lives and loves in the US of A.

Relationships are at the core of this book and no one is judged. These eleven stories pack a punch every time. The stereotypes grow with every turn of the page and then Patel shatters them with one giant stroke of the hammer. Whether it is a younger gay man involved with an older one, three women who want to defy every norm of society there is, a young couple trying to carry on with their lives amidst gossip, and whether it is standing up to arranged marriage, every story is layered and compelling.

Neel Patel’s prose isn’t sugar coated. His characters betray, regret, and realize that living is perhaps all of this and more. That makes it real and relatable, no matter where you live. The landscape doesn’t matter. The stories do for sure. They speak to you. You can see these characters around you and that’s where I guess Neel also gets his inspiration from.

“If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi” is a collection of stories that must be read this year. A debut that is so strong, introspective, and will make you perhaps see the world a little more differently than you are used to.

Interview with Manu Bhattathiri

The Town That Laughed

I had a ball reading The Town That Laughed and couldn’t wait to interview Manu Bhattathiri. The Town that Laughed is reminiscent of Malgudi Days, of small towns, and small lives that amount to a lot when viewed from their side. And yet there is always change that takes place in small towns and things perhaps aren’t what they used to be. The fictional town of Karuthupuzha, nestled within the Kerala countryside, is home to eccentric and the unexpected. The predictable lot of people and the ones who aren’t easy to gauge at all. This is one book that I would recommend to all, who are looking for a light read. It is hilarious and quaint and rather charming.

Here’s my interview with Manu Bhattathiri: 

When and how did you start telling these stories?

I think I picked up my passion for storytelling from my granddad. He would tell me stories from mythology when I was a child. I always wanted to tell stories the way he told them – fantastically, mixing real characters with incredible happenings, lending life to creatures and even inanimate objects. Somewhere along the way, somewhere during adolescence perhaps, I picked up the art of lying: yes, simple lying, to friends and family, just for the sake of saying something I had made up! It was only in my mid-thirties, though, that I realized instead of making things up in my talks with others I can actually just write fiction.

Were you inspired by R K Narayan and similar others who have created fictional towns?

R K Narayan is a legend. It sometimes makes me a little self-conscious when Karuthupuzha is compared to Malgudi. But I must say, I have read very little of R K Narayan. I have only read The Guide, and I think a couple of other books. No, my fictional town is not really inspired by his. I cannot trace it to any particular imagined town at all, to be honest. I draw from a real village called Cherupoika in Quilon district of Kerala. This was home to my maternal grandparents and was where I spent a lot of my holidays as a kid.

MB

Karuthupuzha is almost idyllic and I am guessing that's how it is meant to be. Was it easy or difficult to write that?

I think it is when you keep your characters simple on the surface that you can dive deep into them, like the stars can be well studied on nights without too many clouds. It certainly isn’t easy to define your characters strongly and yet portray them like simpletons. But fortunately in the villages and small towns I draw from, there are real people like this: people who are simple yet deep. They are a reference for me.

How did you manage to excel in characterization given there are so many cameos, and yet each one seems fleshed out so perfectly? Was it difficult or easy when it came to that?

Perhaps that has to do with the fact that for my writings I pull out not from other literature but from life. Every day you meet people and connect with them, but their story—their character, emotions, inclinations—is not any less detailed even if you only met them briefly. You might get chatting with an old man waiting for the same bus as you and never see him again in your life, but even in that brief meeting you can see he isn’t a flat character. There is still a complete and complex story of his life that he carries with him. I think literature must emulate life in this. So whether a character is major or minor
in your novel, I don’t think he/she ought to be flat and lifeless. Working this way takes a lot of thought and careful orchestration between characters, but it is also very satisfying.

Who are your favourite novelists and have any of them inspired the writing of this novel?

My favorite authors are Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, more recently, J M Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro. While The Town that Laughed is not directly inspired by any of them, I do believe they make me who I am. So the stories I think up will have something to do with them, yes.

There you go! This is my interview with Manu Bhattathiri. Do read the book. It is fantastically written.

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera Title: What If It’s Us
Authors: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera
Publisher: HarperTeen
ISBN: 978-0062795250
Genre: LGBT, YA,
Pages: 448
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

It is a classic boy-meets-boy story. Of the universe, of things working out, of some things not working out as you go along, of an age of rapidly increasing technology and yet believing in destiny, fate, and knowing that you met him and that he met you for a reason. Arthur and Ben are teenagers who meet, but will they stay? Has the great wide universe planned it that way for them at all?

I know exactly why I read queer-theme based YA novels, even though I am not a teenager, even though I am nowhere close to being one. Because I never had this while growing-up. This kind of comfort that love and companionship is possible amongst two boys or men was unknown to me. The 90s were all about ignoring, of not seeing, of the queer community being invisible. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. We need more Indian LGBTQIA voices though and that discussion is for a later day. Today, it is about What If It’s Usby Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera.

What I love the most about What If It’s Us is that while it is a queer-themed novel, it also moves beyond that and includes larger themes of friendship, family, and love on a scale that we do not seem to gauge when we are teenagers (or do we?). And of course, you cannot, the almost BIG WRITING COLLAB of all-time – Adam Silvera meets Becky Albertalli. I love their individual works, and this one is even more special because its two of them who have worked on the same book.

Arthur is an out-of-towner in New York on an internship, in his mother’s law firm. Ben is a New Yorker who is trying to get his grades up and is studying in the summer. Arthur has never had sex, let alone be in a relationship. Ben is just getting over a recent break-up with Hudson. The setting is perfect. Summer in New York and they met, and what happens next is what obviously I am not going to tell you. You have to read the book.

The writing is crisp. The context of each character could get long, but it doesn’t bother you all that much. You don’t realize which parts are Albertalli and which Silvera, but you don’t have to, because the book merges wonderfully in these collective voices. Every character is sketched well and doesn’t seem excessive. The writing is real and relatable. The teenage angst, the crush that turns to love and what happens next will make you want to not stop turning the pages.

What If It’s Us is a book that is real, kinda bittersweet, and mostly full of possibilities. The writing doesn’t become mushy. It is real. You can relate to it, because you know people like Arthur and Ben and their friends. You can also relate to it because more than time you have also looked at a stranger, who you randomly bumped into and thought: What if?