Tag Archives: bloomsbury

The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury

The Epic City Title: The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
Author: Kushanava Choudhury
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-9386432575
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I have always been fascinated by Calcutta – right to its portrayal in movies to books to even theatre and sometimes even TV shows that are genuinely set there. Something about that city – it has managed to mingle the traditional and the modern so well, that it makes me more curious about the thing they do, how they do it and why – the culture of Calcutta cannot be spread across one book or one review (most certainly not), however “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury is indeed one of its kind books on the city.

I remember my first visit to Calcutta. It was 2011 and I had gone there to prepare for a course, which meant Calcutta was home for about forty-five days. The city was hesitant to be my friend initially and as I learned its ways and sought it out, it almost became a second home. Everything about it seemed better and yet there were times that nothing about it made sense to me. Sometimes I would find the people cold and distant and at others extremely affectionate. The polarity of the people lends itself to the city or is it the other way around?

So as I read “The Epic City” by Kushanava Choudhury, I would often find myself nodding my head and agreeing or disagreeing with what he was saying about the city. Kushanava arrived in New Jersey at the age of twelve – migrated from Calcutta with his parents. After graduating from Princeton, he decided to move back home – Calcutta that is and this book is a medley of experiences of that movement. As I mentioned earlier, you cannot encapsulate Calcutta in a book, but people must and need to so readers can know about this soulful city.

The book traverses through the city and Choudhury introduces to places and people off the streets. He makes us acquaintances of jobless men, of looming buildings, of a city abandoned and people who are there and yet only in a limbo. Calcutta belongs to a different era perhaps. Or it did. Yet, it struggles so hard to keep up with the rest of the country. Choudhury at the same time in his writing is hopeful of what the future holds.

“The Epic City” is written from inside out and also to a large extent from outside in. There is a quality of frankness and melancholy in Choudhury’s way of describing the city that almost breaks your heart. You want to know more about the place and yet you want to resist, because Calcutta then seems like an aged queen whose grandeur is not lost, yet she is.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire Title: Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408886786
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I will try doing some justice to the book with my review. I will only try. “Home Fire” is one of those books that come when you least expect them to and leave you stunned, make you feel a thousand things, and then pretend that nothing has ever happened. There is the storm and also the lull at the same time. When that happens to me, while reading a book, I know that the book will stay for a long time.

Shamsie’s prose is so evocative and tender that you can feel the characters trying very hard to balance themselves – their emotions and their motives more than anything else. “Home Fire” as most people have said and so will I, is an adaptation or inspired by “Antigone”. Antigone, a teenage girl is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land (her uncle, the king of Thebes, has forbidden the burial of a traitor who happens to be her brother Polynices who declared war on the city and in the process kills his own brother Eteocles) and religious law and sentiments toward her brother. The good brother gets the funeral and the so-called bad brother doesn’t. Antigone then must decide if she wants to give Polynices a burial or not, the punishment for which is death penalty.

I remember watching Antigone a long time ago. Ratna Pathak Shah was Antigone and I could not get images out of the play out of my mind as I read “Home Fire”. Art does cross boundaries. Anyway, back to “Home Fire”. This is the same dilemma faced by Aneeka, as of course Home Fire is loosely based on the play by Sophocles. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz has left London to work for the media arm of Isis, after knowing about their father’s death. Their sister Isma tells the police where he is gone and Aneeka is most angry, almost to the point of telling her that they have no sister. Isma is the older sister to the twins who has taken care of them like a mother. She is the voice of reason, while Aneeka’s voice is that of strong emotion. Isma meets Eamonn (, while she is studying in the US and he is on a holiday. There is a connection. However, on his return to US of A, he falls in love with Aneeka, who will go to any lengths to go home and search for her brother.

Shamsie raises the issues of love, freedom, longing, exile (from a beloved and from a country), what home truly is and of course the most underlined theme of all: xenophobia and what it is to be Muslim in modern times. There is so much going on in the book that I had to stop, hold my breath or sometimes just wait till I finish gasping and then turn the pages once again. Her writing is stunning and more than anything else, she has this quality to speak with you and anyone else through her emotions. Her words are universal. She also makes Antigone accessible but after a while the story of Antigone is merely a skeletal framework while the story of Aneeka, Isma and Parvaiz is what keeps you glued.

“Home Fire” truly deserves a place not only in the long-list for the Man Booker Prize 2017 but also in the short-list and perhaps even the winner. The book makes you see your world for what it is and is most emotional of her works if you ask me. In fact, I think, this is my most favourite of her books. A read which you will not forget.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me by Bill Hayes

insomniac-city-by-bill-hayes Title: Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me
Author: Bill Hayes
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1620404935
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I remember a friend sending me excerpts of this book. I read it while I was at Doolally – a taproom in Bombay. I was waiting for friends to show up for the Wednesday night quiz and then something happened which I hadn’t expected to – I wept by the time I had finished reading the long excerpt. I cried. I think I even bawled. I strongly also believe that when an art form does that to you – when it creeps up on you like that and almost shatters your world – you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. That happened to me as I was reading “Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me” by Bill Hayes, from which the excerpt was.

Relationships are fragile, they are also very strong. At the same time, what do you do when it ends all of a sudden? When it ends not because you want it to, but because death comes suddenly knocking on your partner’s door and there is nothing you can do about it. Then what? Hayes’s partner died after sixteen years of togetherness. He then moved to New York from San Francisco in search of a new start (as most of us do). He found himself in a city that was surprising, random, and at the same time made him see the humanity that exists. Slowly and steadily, he fell in love with New York and found love in the form of the late, great neurologist and writer, Dr. Oliver Sacks.

This book “Insomniac City” as the title suggests is about New York, Oliver Sacks and Bill Hayes. It is also about life – majorly so, and how it changes constantly whether we would like it or not. It is about New York – of how brutal and gentle she can be at the same time, of how to surrender to the city is to love her completely and without any prejudice. The book ultimately is about great love that transcends all barriers, challenges, doubts and the throes of darkness. There are also the author’s stunning photographs – capturing his love for the city and Oliver.

Let me not forget the portrait of Oliver Sacks that Bill Hayes paints so vividly and beautifully – a genius who did not own a computer – who always preferred to communicate via letters and longhand, who didn’t know how a champagne bottle was opened and used goggles when he first opened them for the fear of the cork hitting his eye, who called pot “cannabis” and who believed in living life as it came – day by day. Hayes met Oliver after Oliver wrote him a letter praising his book “The Anatomist” and this is how they met and love blossomed. The book is about that love, about how Oliver met Hayes after three decades of being alone and celibate. “Insomniac City” will surprise you in ways more than one.

“Insomniac City” is about the love between Oliver and Hayes and what they shared in Oliver’s final years. The writing is so personal and out there that you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Their love for things common, their roads to discovering something they did not know, and what it is to live daily – for the bond to strengthen and one fine day to see that love slip away. The book teaches you about grief, about people coming together quite randomly on a bus or a train and makes you more aware and conscious of what it is to be human. I cannot recommend this book enough. Do yourself a favour: Order it, read it and weep. You need a good cry, now and then.

Tharun James Jimani’s Favourite Bombay Books

I love asking authors such questions or wanting them to write about their favourite books so that their readers and fans can read a lot more than just being stuck to the said author’s works. I honestly believe that authors must constantly recommend books that they have enjoyed and loved reading. That way readers get to explore so many books.

tharun-james-jimani

Here are Tharun James Jimani’s (author of the newly released Mornings After and Cough Syrup Surrealism, both of which are must reads in my opinion) favourite 5 books on city by the sea and I love how he has put his emotions in words. A little about Mornings After though: It is the kinda book that is perfect for our times, it is about gender roles and how the line is so blurred when it comes to identity and what it means to be urban. I loved every bit of it. A longer review a little later.

mornings-after

Tharun’s 5 favourite Bombay books:

This is kind of an awkward question to answer because it implies some deeper understanding and/or experience of the city because of my having read –and, I suppose, written- stories set in Bombay. And even more difficultly, of being able to rate the Bombay-ishness of said novels by authenticity; to distinguish “first copies” from the real thing. The problem is you and I could spend a hundred years in the same city and experience entirely different Bombays depending on who we are and what we’re drawn to.

Whereas as I’ve grown older –and perhaps because of all the many ways cities have become more and more like each other in the last couple of decades in which I did all my growing up- I find it increasingly difficult to buy into the city-as-character trope, especially in literature. (The visual medium is a different story.) Could some stories have only happened in certain places? Maybe. Could the same story have happened to another group of people in the same city? I’m not so sure. So maybe it’s just the characters after all?

This is also the sentiment I set out to express with Mornings After: “Bombay will hug to her bosom, take to her grave, tales of love and despair, of life and longing, because cities are really just the secrets they keep. And because cities—and Bombay—are not dreams or abstractions or joy or melancholy, the easiest way to put yourself in a city’s shoes may just be to put yourself in the shoes of its residents.”

Either way, a beautifully written vignette of city life is a joy to read, and the books I’ve listed below contain some of my favourite stories set in Bombay.

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie

the-moors-last-sigh

This book is especially dear to me as it was the first I’d read anything like it- my first Rushdie. And to make things even more interesting, it was set in two cities – Bombay (which I had never visited at the time) and Cochin, Queen of the Arabian Sea! As a fifteen year old living in Trivandrum, it was almost a privilege to read (parts of) a story set in a city you knew inside out. I’d read The God of Small Things before this, but Roy’s Kerala was one I was familiar with. Rushdie’s Jewish Cochin of generations ago, not so much. Add to the mix the dark, dark genius of Aurora- the Moor’s talented, conflicted mother- and the alternative universe of her art that she prefers to validate her offspring through, and you’ve got one of those “What were you doing when..?” reading experiences few books can boast of. Coming back to Bombay, it’s Rushdie’s descriptions of the Ganesha festival (and Aurora’s annual dance against the Gods as the procession passes by their house) that linger in memory, but it was the interweaving of the very real terror the city was reeling from and the obvious references to Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray that titillated at the time. I’ve always been fond of real life signposting in my own fiction, and looking back it’s not hard to imagine the Moor played his part in shaping that sensibility.

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

midnights-children

A group of kids born at the stroke of Indian independence or within the next hour, all with different super powers? The narrator as telepathic moderator of their “midnight parliament” to find out what it all means? Rushdie was doing the Wachowskis before the Wachowskis knew it was a thing! Before this descends into total fanboy fare, Midnight’s Children was more accessibly Bombay than The Moor’s Last Sigh for me, perhaps because it was also a story of growing up – both of the narrator and his country. Pop culture references and geographical quirks aside, who hasn’t visited South Bombay and wished for a funtabulous falooda or at least bhel puri served up Bombay style?


Serious Men – Manu Joseph

serious-men

We need to talk about caste, guys. A theme that could have easily petered out into Good vs. Evil blooms instead into a sublime –if ridiculous- battle of wits in this hilarious Bombay novel that pits an astute Brahman scientist against his Dalit assistant. I read somewhere that the author himself was resident in a poorer part of Mumbai as a young journalist, and it shows in his descriptions of Worli’s chawls. No clichés or poverty porn; just one man’s very understandable itch to get out of his damn cage. Teach a man to fish, right? Well, Manu Joseph gave his Dalit protagonist agency. Score.

Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto

em-and-the-big-hoom

How I Met Your Mother, but in the form of a series of conversations between a suicidal matriarch and her two kids in the psychiatric ward of a Bombay hospital. In a wonderfully concise, beautifully illustrated novel (no prolonged eight seasons of shoddy story-telling here). Em and the Big Hoom’s courtship is glorious in its details, and Em’s madness is the incessant black drip that holds together and drives this family nuts at the same time. But what stood out for me was the cultural context: the characters’ Goan-Catholic heritage (Maka Paao, as they’re referred to in some parts of Bombay) and the sheer delight in picturing the characters utter the very relatable turns of phrase ( I took to using “this-thing” in conversation for a good couple of months) Pinto puts in their mouths.

Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry

family-matters

Like with Pinto’s novel and its Goan heritage, what screamed out at me from the pages of Family Matters was the cultural setting – Bombay’s Parsi community and their fears, inhibitions and humanity. But equally telling is the novel’s exploration of that most middle class of maladies – the economic and social burden of caring for one’s parents in their old age in a community that puts family above all else. The elderly, Parkinsons-afflicted patriarch flailing about in the tiny flat his daughter shares with her equally well-intentioned husband and kids pictures the claustrophobia of Bombay’s tiny middle class abodes in a way that moves and makes you want to move at the same time.

Thank you Tharun for doing this. I know it must not have been easy for you but thank you so much for this.

Interview with Matthew Griffin, author of Hide

highres_hide

I read “Hide” last month or so. I loved the book. Every bit of it. So I decided to contact Matthew through his publishers and managed to get an interview. The book is beautifully written – of same-sex love in times when it was unimaginable to even think of it. I cannot wax eloquent enough about the book. Here’s my interview with the author:

1. Why did you choose to set this story in the time it was set – the 50s? Why not a more modern time?

Setting the bulk of their love story during that time period was partly a necessary extension of the initial impulse behind the novel, which was that I wanted to write about this gay couple who’ve been together for a very long time facing the end of the life they’ve built with each other, struggling to cope with the sacrifices they’ve made to stay together, the failures of their bodies, the slipping of their minds, the approach of mortality. In order to have that portion of the narrative set in the present day, which seemed most natural, it meant that I really had to set the early years of their romance during some of the most oppressive decades for LGTB people in America. And although this started out as a sort of secondary choice, it became really central to the novel, the fear and oppression of that time period being a great crucible to intensify the conflict and sacrifice that’s inherent in any long-term relationship—and, consequently, the ultimate devastation when that relationship is lost.


2. How did the voices of Frank and Wendell distinguish themselves as you were writing?

Frank and Wendell’s voices were probably one of the first aspects of the novel that came to me, and they really guided me through writing the book. Large parts of Frank and Wendell’s lives and personalities were based on my own grandparents (this is also partly responsible for the novel’s time period, which reflects the span of their lives). In a lot of ways, Wendell’s voice is sort of a combination of my grandmothers’ voices, while Frank’s is a combination of my grandfathers’, and so the process of writing the book was mostly about me trying to listen to them and write down what they were saying—both in dialogue, and in Wendell’s narrative voice. I always used to hate it when writers talked about just listening to their characters and letting them do the work, but that’s really how it felt—although, of course, those voices were voices that I had been absorbing my entire life.

3. The book is all about “tough love” and yet so many moments of tenderness. Do you think men of those times didn’t have to say it out loud that they loved each other? You think actions were enough?

I don’t know that I think actions were enough; so much as that men of that time period in America simply didn’t feel very comfortable expressing their emotions, regardless of their sexual orientation. Nor were they expected to—particularly during the 50s, men were often expected to be these idealized, strong, impenetrable fortresses, who never showed any weakness, expressions of emotion being considered weakness. Frank and Wendell are very much men of that generation, and their ability to explicitly share their feelings is further blunted by the very real danger in which they’re living, which makes the public expression of those emotions a real risk. The sense of fear arising from that really bleeds into their private lives, too, which is why so much of their love for each other ends up being expressed not in words but in the intensity and strength of their devotion, and the sacrifices they make for each other.

mattgriffin

4. In an age of social media and technology and so many dating apps, do you think same-sex love survives a lifetime?

In a way, it’s probably easier now for same-sex love to last than it has ever been, at least in the modern configurations that we think of as love. But when I look at relationships I know that have lasted a lifetime, there’s a real sense of obligation and duty to them, and also a sense that you can’t have everything, an acknowledgment that you are closing off other possibilities for excitement and romance and newness in exchange for a different set of possibilities—companionship, steadiness, mutual growth—with a single person. And I think in certain ways, dating apps run counter to that, by presenting this endless smorgasbord of people to meet, with new ones always popping up, looking their best in carefully-curated photos. But in the end, of course, it’s all about how you use it and what you want. I think any kind of love is hard-pressed to survive a lifetime. It’s this sort of impossible aspiration, to find this single person that you promise to love and stay with no matter how you change, no matter what happens. I think the beauty of that promise is precisely in its impossibility.


5. Your top 5 favourite LGBT love stories

I’m going to play a little loose here and start with Xena and Gabrielle from the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, which I was so obsessed with in middle school that I had a different Xena t-shirt to wear every day of the week. Their romantic relationship was mostly kept under the surface of the narrative (it was the 90s!), but it was pretty clear if you were looking for it, and also one of the longest and most complex, fully-developed LGBT relationships I’ve ever seen in entertainment. I love Jamie O’Neill’s novel At Swim Two Boys. I thought Carol, the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, was brilliant, and the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple—both the book and the movie—will always stick with me. I’m also going to stretch the rules and wrap up with Melville’s Billy Budd, which isn’t technically an LGTB love story but is probably one of the most homoerotic and gorgeously-written pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and there is a real romantic ache to it.

6. What is your next book going to be about?

I have no idea! I’m slowly writing my way into something new, but I tend to write haphazardly at first, without knowing what’s going to stick or how different pieces might cohere, and I’m so early into this next project that I really don’t know what it will become, or if it will become anything. I’m also a little superstitious about talking about what I think I’m going to write next, because I’ve spent years working on projects that went nowhere. Hopefully that won’t happen this time. I do know that I want it to be different from Hide, that I want to challenge myself to do something new, though I don’t know yet exactly what form that will take.

7. Was writing “Hide” cathartic? If yes, in what ways?

I don’t know that I’d characterize it as cathartic. But it was distinctly different from every other piece of writing I’ve ever done, in that, especially in the first draft, it really did seem to come from someplace outside me. That first draft was the most fun, blissful experience of writing I’ve ever had, and it’s one I’m desperate to recapture as I start working on something new. After that, of course, every subsequent draft was more and more difficult. But that first one was pure joy. Even when it was hard, it felt right.

8. Did you have to research a lot for “Hide”?

I did do a lot of research, particularly into the details of taxidermy, which was challenging because I needed to know how Wendell would have learned the craft in the 1930s and 40s, which is quite different from the way it’s done today. But the internet is a great resource, both because of all the information and videos it makes available, and the way it leads you to other resources—I ended up, on recommendation from an internet message board, ordering a taxidermy correspondence course from the early 20th century, which was invaluable. I also did a lot of research about LGBT history and discrimination in America during the 20th century, as well as the broader political climate, particularly during the 50s and 60s when fear of gay people was tied to the threat of communism. I wrote the first draft with as little research as I possibly could, because it’s really easy for me to get caught up in being historically accurate instead of imagining deeply, and I wanted to avoid that in the initial material. Then with each subsequent draft I did more and more research and incorporated it to refine the particular details, though even then I tried to include only what was crucial to the story or had some particular metaphorical or emotional resonance.