Tag Archives: December 2020 Reads

Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories by Kamala Das

Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories by Kamala Das

Title: Padmavati the Harlot and Other Stories
Author: Kamala Das
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9389836165
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction Pages: 108
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Don’t get taken in by the title of the collection and the begin to read it. Actually, you know what, get taken in by the title, buy it because of it, read it, and understand the brilliance of Kamala Das’s writing that is often layered, always real and grounded, criticising the world and its limitations when it comes to women – in the way they are treated, and sometimes also how they take charge of their lives.

Kamala Das’s women are fierce, bold, courageous, even shy, but do not mistake them to be fearful. They may seem like that at beginning of some stories, but they do not end with that character trait for sure. Her women battle. Her women speak their mind, and mostly don’t. The women in her stories are her. The women in her stories are perhaps all of us – the ones who have been denied a voice and do what it takes to assert themselves.

Her writing is about losses and perhaps some wins along the way. It is about abandoned wives, and women who step out and live the way they want to. Leaving men, leaving lovers, and leaving parts of themselves as well. Whether it is Padmavati the Harlot who just wants to redeem herself in front of her God (while clearly shown as being abused by the priest), or a housewife whose husband loves another woman and all she wants is a little kitten and what happens thereafter, to the protagonist of The Sea Lounge who is at the mercy of her lover, each women is a world in herself, and Das doesn’t shy away from telling it as it is. She speaks of empowerment in her own way – of small choices made by her characters, and then it all overwhelms the reader, raining down like an avalanche of emotions.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Title: Interior Chinatown
Author: Charles Yu
Publisher: Europa Editions UK
ISBN: 978-1787702578
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This one was a reread for me, and I loved it even more the second time around.

Interior Chinatown is a deeply emotional book about race, identity, pop culture, and what roles we are forced to play in society, because of where we come from. Willis Wu is not the protagonist of his own life. He is always, even to himself, the Generic Asian Man. He is an actor. Sometimes he gets to play the Background Oriental Making a Weird Face, and sometimes just an Asian guy, but never the protagonist. Never the Kung Fu Guy which he longs to be. Willis lives in a Chinatown SRO (Standing Room Only) and enters the Golden Palace restaurant, where a cop show titled Black and White (how apt and ironic as well) is perpetually in production. He is a sidekick or an extra in that show and just wants to do more. We only see his mother who has long separated from his father, being the only one who believes in him.

Charles Yu’s story is for our times, and also set in our times. Yet it somehow seems like it also has elements of the fantastical – of the novel being written like one big script (which works wonderfully for the book), and also of the show being in constant production took me some time to get a hang of the novel, but every minute of turning the page was worth it.

Yu speaks from a place of knowing. Every sentence is in place because of that, which most instantly connects with the reader. The stereotypes are so on-point that as a reader I was screaming with anger and yet understood where the writer and the characters were coming from. Interior Chinatown is a book that needs to be read and understood by everyone. It speaks of such a great need to fit in, to be someone bigger than what the world thinks you were meant to be, and be constantly at it.

The Windows in our House are Little Doors by Vinod Kumar Shukla. Translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna.

The Windows in our House are Little Doors by Vinod Kumar Shukla

Title: The Windows in our House are Little Doors
Author: Vinod Kumar Shukla
Translated from the Hindi by Satti Khanna
Publisher: Harper Perennial India 
ISBN: 978-9353574819
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations 
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5 

It isn’t just magic realism that makes this book what it is. There is magic, yes. There is a lot of it, some which is mostly unseen or even unread on the pages. There is adventure, and a sense of listlessness as well. Vinod Kumar Shukla captures it all on the page. It seems as though his childhood years are encompassed in this book.

“The Windows in our House are Little Doors” is an English translation of Yasi, Rasa, and Ta from the Hindi by Satti Khanna. Vinod Kumar Shukla’s story takes place in an unnamed city, could even be an unnamed small town, a village even, or just somewhere in your vicinity. The time isn’t mentioned either. There is fluidity to it all. Yasi and Rasa are siblings. Their parents are Niya and Vendra. Ta is their cousin. Their uncle Bhoona loves to sleep and doesn’t want to do anything else. Ta is Bhoona’s daughter. But all of this doesn’t matter. Nothing matters since there is no plot as such to the book, but you continue reading it. The writing pulls you in. it intrigues and teases and doesn’t let go.

Vinod Kumar Shukla’s world is unique in that sense. Bicycles understand that they have been stolen and return to their owner. A single melon starts growing on its own, and adds to the weight of the cart, till slices are cut and sold. Houses make way for people. There is no concept of home, and yet there is. Home is at the heart of this book, told through twenty-six storeys (as it is said). Everything makes sense, and nothing does.

“Time bakes the present into the past. Sometimes, much later, shards show up in digs, buried under mounds of dirt. The shards are fragments of time. The ambulant present moves on; history keeps hiding behind it.”

See what he’s done here? I mean the writing is about time and yet he separates all of it – the past, the present, and the future, and again somehow gathers them together. The writing then isn’t just metaphorical. It takes on the shape of something else.

Shukla’s writing makes you believe like you are in a dream. Anything and everything are made possible. Sandals have a mind of their own and get lost. People get lost and are found in an instant. Bicycles smile and remind people to buy towels. Yes, anything happens. There is a jalebi store that is never shut, and the fire is always burning under the jalebi pan. I mean, I just gave in to what Vinod Kumar Shukla had to offer. I entered the world created by him and was happy being there.

The translation by Satti Khanna is magnificent. I say this with confidence, since at some points, I had the Hindi edition also in front of me and read from it a little to contrast and compare. Every sentence has been dealt with kindness and care, and perhaps that’s why the essence remains.

Worlds collide in Shukla’s writing. Day and night cannot be differentiated from. He writes, “A person wishes to become a tourist in the place he has lived for decades” and you relate hard and strong because you also have looked at your city that way. When he says, “We make our homes into prisons. Let us live in a house as if we could pack up and leave for another habitation any time” you nod your head with great affirmation because you have thought about it as well.

“The Windows in our House are Little Doors” has to be experienced and felt. It cannot just be read. But read it going blindfold. Do not read the synopsis. It is nothing after all. You won’t know till you read it.




 

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Title: Abandon the Old in Tokyo
Author: Yoshihiro Tatsumi 
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly 
ISBN: 978-1770460775
Genre: Comics, Short Stories, Graphic Short Stories 
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

So, I have just finished reading, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” by Yohishiro Tatsumi – the father of “gekiga” (he coined the term, and its literal meaning is dramatic pictures), aimed at adult audiences with more mature themes. This collection of comics is just that. Eight stories with themes dealing with existentialism or morbidity that stuns you.

These comics explore the murky side of humans, of the society we live in, and constantly through the use of allegory or metaphor bring that to fore. What I found most remarkable was how it was all achieved through the medium of minimal words in the comic panels, relying heavily only on the power of art.

The collection delves deep into the underbelly of Tokyo and the life of its residents in the 60s and the 70s. Most stories deal with economic hardship, loneliness, longing to better their circumstances, and estranged relationships. Everything is played out not-so-neatly – the twists and the turns are immense, and somehow to me they also seemed subtle. For instance, “Unpaid” for me was the darkest story of them all – of how a bankrupt businessman deals with life by connecting with a dog (you will understand the twist when you read it). Another favourite was the title story, about the relationship between a young man and his mother, and what happens when he wants to start living on his own.

Tatsumi’s characters are ordinary. They lead ordinary lives, and perhaps aspire for a little more than what life has offered. He symbolises or at least tries to symbolise the mass – the everyone, and how drama is played out in their lives, sometimes much against their wish. Even though the stories are set in a different time, and even written in a different time, they make their presence felt through crowds, manholes, buses, trains, restaurants, and the ordinary that still exist and will continue to. His art and the words that accompany them complement each other throughout. Your emotions are tested – since some of the vignettes aren’t easy to handle. Yet, you must read Tatsumi. Start with this. Get introduced to a softer version of the gekiga. Highly recommend it.