Tag Archives: January 2021

The Gaze by Elif Shafak. Translated from the Turkish by Brendan Freely

The Gaze by Elif Shafak

Title: The Gaze
Author: Elif Shafak
Translated from the Turkish by Brendan Freely Publisher: Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241201916
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations, Women in Translation
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Reading Elif Shafak is a thing of joy. For me at least, and I am guessing for most people as well. I am also one of those who perhaps didn’t enjoy The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi as much as her other works, but even then, I will never write her off basis one book. Anyway, back to the point.

I have started an Elif Shafak Reading Project this year – to read one Shafak every month starting with The Gaze, which I reread in January. The Gaze still is my favourite book written by her. It unpacks so much. It is layered with so much – our preconceived notions about people, about the way they look, and how we look in that regard; of how the world views us, and how our desire to look at others takes life spinning in different orbits.

The Gaze is perhaps not Shafak’s popular book, but I absolutely adore it. A story that spans across time and characters that are embroiled in the concept of how they look and what it means to them. An obese woman and her lover, a dwarf, decide to reclaim the streets. They decide to step out in the world that ridicules them. So, they reverse roles. The man wears make-up and dresses like a woman. The woman sports a moustache on her face. This is their story.

There is then the story of Memis that takes place centuries ago – who decides to create a circus of people, and not animals – weird looking people to get others intrigued and curious to come and see them. At the same time, we see Memis’s loneliness and why he does what he does. In all of this, there is also the Dictionary of The Gazes that the dwarf is working on. It is based on incidents, and movies, and what does the gaze mean at the end of the day.

Shafak’s prose shines on every page. The writing is terrific and for me it was hard to believe (as always) that this was one of her earlier works. The translation by Brendan Freely is on point. At no point do you feel that you are reading a translated work. The book is suggestive. The book is all sorts of unique and perhaps even difficult to get into. The book isn’t linear in its narrative and I love that about it. Read The Gaze to get a sense of Shafak’s writing and the worlds she conjures, as an extension of the world we inhabit.

Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story by Yasser Usman

Guru Dutt - An Unfinished Story by Yasser Usman

Title: Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story Author: Yasser Usman
Publisher: Simon and Schuster India ISBN: 978-9386797889
Genre: Biographies and Autobiographies
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Usman is well-known when it comes to chronicling the life of people from the Hindi film industry. His works are on Rekha, Sanjay Dutt, Rajesh Khanna, and now to join this bandwagon is the tragic life and works of Guru Dutt, who was born Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone. Usman’s book is a window to the actor, writer, and director’s life in great detail, not hesitating to speak about it all – the loves, the losses, the addiction, the abundantly talented persona, his relationship with his family and wife, and above all the love for his craft, which shone on screen.

To write a biography and that too about such a tortured soul could not have been an easy task. The idea to remove oneself, and look at the text only as an outsider cannot be easy. At the same time, this book is written with such brilliant eye-for-detail, bringing to fore so many details of the man’s life – as a human being, as an artist, and as someone who loved and lost.

The book starts from birth and ends at death, and all of it that took place in-between. From Dutt’s need to make movies that reflected life, and at the same time he also knew how to make commercial hit films. He was of the opinion that for every art-house film he made, he would follow it with a commercial viewing experience. Usman in great details charts every movie that Dutt was associated with in whatever capacity and through those films makes us know the man. Of how he wanted every shot to be perfect – hence the several takes and retakes. Of how portions would be filmed and not used. Of how films got shelved and he incurred losses and jumped right back.

In all of this, what struck me the most was his personal life. The inner turmoil that Usman speaks of so poignantly, and this is where I thought the writing couldn’t be distance from what Usman felt for Dutt. His writing does not ignore the minor or secondary characters. He takes into account every aspect of those films and presents Guru Dutt to the reader – raw and brilliant. The idea of a troubled genius is clearly communicated throughout the book, and what I found most intriguing was how Usman has managed to understand Dutt layer by layer purely through his cinema and silences.

As a reader I didn’t want to take sides. There is no villain here. It is just how life played itself out for the artist, that he couldn’t bear living. I loved the parts of Geeta and Guru Dutt’s life – of how they were so much in love, their pain, anguish, competition, and also how they tried to make things work but could not.

Guru Dutt: An Unfinished Story by Yasser Usman is a very detailed and easily accessible read about a man who went away too soon. He was a tortured soul. He was constantly haunted by life, and that was brought to life most beautifully on screen through his films. Yasser Usman pays the most befitting tribute to a genius, through this book.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Title: Jack
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Virago Press, Hachette UK
ISBN: 978-0349011806
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Jack to me was as beautiful in its writing as Gilead by the same writer. The interior monologues though they went on and on, worked for me. They got me off-track sometimes, but I was back in the book for most part. But perhaps the idea of the book was also to make you feel and think so much as you read along, which it managed to accomplish quite successfully with this reader. Also, might I add that you can read Jack as a stand-alone novel, though it is from the world of Gilead. It would be great if you would also read Gilead, Home, and Lila before embarking this one.

Jack is a book of romance. It is a book about God, faith, religion, and what we hold close. (well in more than one way). It is a book about John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, and his romance with Delia Miles, an African American high school teacher, who is also a preacher’s daughter. The book is set right after WWII, thereby making it all the more paradoxical of American way of life then and now – of these star-crossed lovers navigate their way at home and in the world.

Robinson’s writing is quiet. It is gentle, and also ferocious when needed. It is about people who don’t fit and how the world they inhabit is not of equals and doesn’t believe in equality. A world that will not let them forget who they are. Jack is about so much more – faith in each other right at the center of the novel, and about how even though cut from the same cloth, people still want to segregate.

Jack is a book that wants to show you how love overcomes it all and tries so hard to do that. I was convinced and loved that aspect of it. At the end of the day though, it isn’t that easy. Robinson’s usual gifts are present throughout – the pacing of dialogue, the story taking its time to get into gear, and how bit by bit all of it is revealed. Read them all. Read all the four books.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Title: The Vanishing Half
Author: Brit Bennett
Publisher: Dialogue Books, Hachette UK ISBN: 9780349701462
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 2/5

I really wanted to like The Vanishing Half, and I also did to some extent, but some parts of it were just too boring and the plot did nothing to build on the characters of the twins, who leave the town they are born and raised in one fine day.

The Vanishing Half is the story of very light-skinned identical twins Stella and Desiree, who grew up in the tiny Louisiana town of Mallard, that is inhabited only by light-skinned people. The story reminded of “Passing” and I was quite intrigued to therefore read the book. The story of these twins and their lives in and out of Mallard did nothing to arouse my interest nor did it whet my appetite after the first three chapters.

The writing is good, in fact great in some places. The bone I had to pick was with the plot and like I said the characterization of the protagonists. It does not take into account the important topics that is somewhere also at the core of the book – that of sexism, colorism, domestic abuse, and being a trans person. I could not see anything moving in that direction. It then becomes the usual – about family, sisterhood, and their children and that’s that. The Vanishing Half got me all excited but left me feeling all wasted at the end of it.

Cry, The Peacock by Anita Desai

Cry, The Peacock by Anita Desai

Title: Cry, The Peacock
Author: Anita Desai
Publisher: Orient Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-8122200850
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 184
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

The beauty of an Anita Desai novel is that it is. It exists. It takes its time to breathe, to soak in, for readers to discover it, and then work its way into their minds and hearts. That is what an Anita Desai novel looks like, feels like, and well, is.

Her books aren’t easy reads. Perhaps nothing happens in them on every page or even every couple of pages, but that’s how it is, and as a reader over the years of reading her again and again, I have learned to admire what I see before me. Yes, I shall sing praises and yes, I shall gush because I don’t see enough people doing that.

Cry, the Peacock is the first novel of hers. Published in 1963, a story of a young woman Maya, who is obsessed by a childhood prophecy of disaster. She lives life on the precipice of it coming true in her head and how it all plays out one Indian Summer with her husband Gautama who is radically different from her.

Anita Desai’s characters have set motives most of the time, and when they don’t is when you’re flummoxed but you’re in for the ride anyway – for the writing that gingerly sneaks up on you and takes you by the horns. The book is full of metaphors and expectations. Expectations that one has from life, and people in it. It is about what you start with and how it all ends (or so it seems at that time).

Cry, the Peacock is a book about so much longing and sensitivity that it is surprising that it doesn’t become sentimental or maudlin at all. Anita Desai’s prose is imaginary, reckless, cautious, and also extremely precise. In less than 200 pages or so she says what she has to, her characters charm and equally annoy you, and her writing mesmerises you. One must read Anita Desai with a lot of time on hand, and when you aren’t rushed to read. Her books demand that time and attention, forever oscillating between hope and hopelessness.