Tag Archives: Bloomsbury India

Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown by Udayan Mukherjee

Essential Items

Title: Essential Items: Stories from a Land in Lockdown Author: Udayan Mukherjee Publisher: Bloomsbury India ISBN: 978-9390252213
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5 

So, this had to happen. Sooner or later. This is the second collection of short stories based around the lockdown, that I have read in the last seven months or so. And more such books will be published. There will be what will be called “Pandemic Literature” or “Covid Literature” and such and maybe some of it will be really good, but there will be some which will also not be very good. Essential Items by Udayan Mukherjee is a collection of stories falls in the former category.

It isn’t easy to relive the period of lockdown through these stories, I thought to myself as I picked up this collection. And once I thought that, I checked my privilege. I had everything – access to all of it – the Internet, food, shelter, running water, electricity, medicines, and emotional stability as well – to a very large extent. What had the lockdown taken from me, beside my freedom for a couple of months? What had it really taken from me when compared to the migrants, the poor, the displaced, and the ones who even lost their jobs? This pandemic was easy on me, and people like me. We, the privileged. And these stories hold a mirror to our society – touching on all the themes and people during the lockdown.

Stories of common people, and then not so common. How soon is it to start telling these stories of living in a time that was unheard of, unimaginable even? Is it too early? Maybe literature is the only way to make our peace with the times we are living in. Or any form of art for that matter. These stories will make you relate hard with what we have lived and seen others go through.

An elderly couple relies on a social worker for their essential items, and a moment of kindness turns it around on its head. A mountain climber strikes an unlikely friendship with a seven-year old boy in the hills, as the world is in lockdown. A domestic worker is grappling at straws with the situation at her home. Migrant workers travelling the distance, funeral workers trying to find some way of making money, an elderly man trying to make sense of his walking routine that has now abruptly ended, and many such lives in the pandemic that are brought to fore in this surreal and very sensitive collection of stories.

Udayan Mukherjee’s writing is stellar. He takes the ordinary, with a lot of dialogue, and makes it relevant to each reader, whether the experience is lived or not. We are truly all in it together, and yet each going through it differently, which is the core essence of these stories. His writing shines, bringing empathy to fore, with every turn of the page. We never thought we would be witness to something so singularly devastating in our lifetime, and yet here we are, and it is writers such as Mukherjee who know it best how to give words to what we feel.

Essential Items is the story of us, and yet not so. It is the story of people whose lives we will never care to know more about. Whose lives will sadly always be on the periphery of things, while we are cocooned and nestled safe. Essential Items is also an eye-opener to how it is, and what it shouldn’t be. Read it. Like I said, there will be more lockdown and Corona literature coming our way.

January 2020 Reading Wrap-Up

January 2020 Wrap-Up

The start of the year has been great. I wanted to read 20 books. Ended up reading 13. Not bad though, out of which two were graphic novels and one a picture book for children (seemingly). .

Books read transported me to so many lands and made me explore my own stance on issues and life in general. From a story of a marriage to a story of how a movie on Manto was made to a novel on racism in modern-day America to a book on Dara Shukoh, I’m quite pleased with the diverse reading. At the same time, it so happened organically that I ended up reading 12 books by women and 1 by a man. Also, thank you to all the publishers who sent these books.

Here are the titles with my ratings:

1. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (5/5)
2. Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (5/5)
3. Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy (4/5)
4. I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached (5/5)
5. Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale (4/5)
6. All my Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos (5/5)
7. Manto & I by Nandita Das (4/5)
8. North Station by Bae Suah (5/5)
9. The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante (5/5)
10. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu (5/5)
11. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (4/5)
12. So All is Peace by Vandana Singh-Lal (5/5)
13. The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India by Supriya Gandhi (5/5)

This is my list. What have you read this month that has got you excited or made you want to recommend it to everyone you know? .

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett Title: The Dutch House
Author: Ann Patchett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526618757
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a novel of many wonders. It is a box of things that are seen at first glance, only to discover a secret opening, where new things emerge from. This book gives, and gives, and gives some more. As a reader, as a fan of Patchett’s works, as an ardent admirer of what she puts to paper, my experience with The Dutch House has been surreal, mixed with nostalgia, and snatches of memory of my own childhood (though not this morbid or unfortunate).

What is a novel? What should be a novel? Is there such a thing as an ideal novel? Who decides that, if there is something like that? The critic? The reader? Or all of us, trying to find answers to questions of meaning of life, hope, and love as we turn the pages of novel after novel, searching for truths unknown as we move from one work of fiction to another?

The Dutch House is a fairy-tale. It is also gothic in nature when you least expect it to be. It is also full of misery, and then surprises you with moments of hope and togetherness. It is the story of two siblings – how they lose their home, how they understand each other (or not), and how they reclaim some of their lost home.

We are introduced to Danny (the narrator), and his older sister Maeve right at the beginning of the book. Their introduction to their would-be stepmother Andrea is where the book starts, and that’s when the series of events unfold in front of the reader – travelling between the past and the present of the novel.

The fairy-tale element runs strong, with a fair share of the Gothic that adds to the strong plot. Not to forget the way Patchett builds on the characters – from the housekeepers to the people that enter and exit from the siblings’ lives. Each character and each plot point is thought of to the last minute detail and maybe therefore this novel is as close to being perfect or it already is in more than one way.

What I found most interesting was the use of narration – by using the first-person narrator technique in a novel where time is of most importance, we see events unfold through two perspectives – the younger Danny and the older Danny. A doppelgänger effect, adding another layer to the complexity of the book.

The Dutch House is deceptively simple. It is a book that seems so easy to read on the surface, and it is. However, it is in joining the dots that are far and wide that adds to the reading experience. It is for this reason and more that Patchett is one of my top 10 favourite writers and will always be. She makes you feel, she makes you internalise how you think and feel as you read her books, and more than anything else she reminds you that being humane is the heart of it all.

Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob

Good Talk by Mira Jacob Title: Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 978-1408880166
Genre: Graphic Memoirs
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

We don’t know what life has in store for us till it flings itself in our faces. Then we know. Then we truly begin to see as it unfolds itself. Mira Jacob’s Good Talk is not just a memoir. It isn’t just a conversation. It is so much more that as I sit and type this, I literally have gooseflesh.

It is a book about identity, about interracial marriage, about when do we know we are citizens of a country? Is there a certificate that gets handed out? We are constantly seeking validation about ourselves – be the way we look, or the way we feel, and most certainly the way we think. What if you needed validation that you belong to a country? What would you feel then? Good Talk is mostly about it, a lot about it, and sometimes less about it.

It is about trying to explain to a seven-year-old that he belongs. That being of the same skin colour do not make families. That it’s okay for his father to be white and his mother and him to be brown. It is more than that. It is about given the freedom to love, to choose, to make your decisions, and to also regret them.

The book travels between the past and the present – and what I realised as I read it was that not much has changed. The issues of race are the same in America. Brown bodies or black ones or anyone who isn’t white is fractured when it comes down to living life in the United States of America. In some way or the other that is. Good Talk is about Mira giving answers to her seven-year-old son’s questions about race, America, and modern politics.

The push and the pull that comes with it, and the several questions that she never side steps, but involves her husband Jed as well in the process. In all of this, the reader also moves back and forth in Mira’s life – the past to the present and how it all threads together – her insecurities while growing-up brown in America and her son’s in the present environment. The juxtaposition on some level is surreal. Obviously her son is too young to experience more, but I am sure that is another book for another time.

Good Talk is about resilience and what it takes to navigate the world we live in and its interconnectedness. It is a book that resonates the time we live in, and heavily at that. It is the era when a man is willing to build a wall to keep the “other” out. Who is the other? Are we the others? Or are the others the people who want to box and categorise people? Who are devoid of empathy? Who are devoid of sentiment? We might think we are isolated and something happening in Africa may not be linked to us, but we need to think again about everything and its impact.

Good Talk is not an easy read. More so it isn’t something we can read and forget. It applies to all of us. After all, aren’t we all a part of a family?

Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee

Dark Circles by Udayan MukherjeeTitle: Dark Circles
Author: Udayan Mukherjee
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
ISBN: 9789388134910
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 215
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I got to know very recently that Udayan Mukherjee is the brother of Neel Mukherjee. Not that it matters to the writing of this review, however, I just thought I should let this information be out there. Alright, now to the book. Dark Circles by Udayan Mukherjee is the story of a family, torn apart by a secret, at two points in the family’s history. There is a lot happening in this novel. Ronojoy and Sujoy’s mother dies alone in the Ashram she retreated to quite suddenly twenty-eight years ago, after the death of her husband. She has left a letter behind for her sons, in which contains a secret that has the power to wreak havoc in their lives. Though this might seem to be the plot, there is a lot more taking place in this novel.

The book is also about family (but of course), it is about depression, about how to live in the face of tragedy, and how decisions made once can never be undone. It is about forgiveness, and more than anything else, about redemption and the human heart. The writing is sparse, to the point and extremely moving in most places. What I wanted from the book was more. I wanted to know more about the bond between the brothers, what their father Subir was like (though Mukherjee has said a lot about him, there is so much more to know), what were the relationship dynamics, and why was their mother Mala the way she was.

I am also aware and agree that the writer isn’t supposed to spoon-feed the reader all the time, but all the same, I thought a little more could’ve been added. The characters are wonderful, there is this sense of darkness hanging over each of them, that lends beautifully to the telling of the story and to the title as well. Udayan Mukherjee for sure knows how to tell a story, to keep the reader gripped from page one. More than anything else, it is about relationships and ties that bind us and sometimes tear us apart.