Tag Archives: Literary Fiction 2020 Reading Project

Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi

Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi

Title: Prelude to a Riot
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292818
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

“Prelude to a Riot” by Annie Zaidi is a book that needs to be read and reread. It is a book of our times, for our times, and while you are reading it, there is melancholy, a rush of sadness – because we are all trying to hold on to something, a sense of secularism, of brotherhood, of living that isn’t dictated by what you eat or how you pray.

The book is in the form of soliloquies, newspaper columns, letters to the editor, and what goes on in Garuda teacher’s classroom – in a town in South of India – an unnamed town – that is the center of what’s to come, a town that is at the cusp of tension, the rage that is silently brewing – a riot about to happen.

Prelude to a Riot is about the silent emotional riots that take place. Instances of a Muslim girl being forced to eat pork by her Hindu friends, of friends divided and a bright student who fears his family’s safety and just wants them to leave. There is no other side. I tried very hard to gauge if there was the other side to things – but there isn’t. When there is a riot, one community, one religion, one side – always suffers the most, and that sadly is the one of the minority, the outnumbered, the ones whose agency has been taken away from them.

This book is about the current socio-political climate – of the not-so-secular-environment we are living in – of Hindus being pitted against Muslims – this book is about what happens before it all explodes. Of how we pick sides, of how we behave, of how all our relationships are tethered to which side the wind blows, and what comes of it.

Zaidi’s writing hits the bone. It cuts through, and it hurts. That’s the intent. And yet there are moments of empathy, of kindness – far and few in between, but never veering from what she wants us to read and feel. The soliloquies give us some insight to the mind and hearts of characters – and yet it is only one-sided, there is no dialogue, or room for conversation with anyone else – no one to tell what you are going through, and all sentiments are simmering under – way under, till they find a way through tools of anger and resentment.

Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction by Roshan Ali

ibs-endless-search-for-satisfaction-by-roshan-ali

I remember reading this book when it was first long listed for The JCB Prize for Literature last year. Given all that has happened since, it feels like another lifetime. Having said this, I reread it this month and in a very quiet, almost unassuming manner, this book touched me. I think I read it with a different point of view the first time around, or I do not know what was so special about it this time, or perhaps I had forgotten all about it, but that’s hardly the point. Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction in more than one way felt like my story. Or at least similar.

Ib is perhaps not a nice young man to know. He is self-absorbed, only worries about himself (sometimes not even that), is a wayward in more than one way, doesn’t know where life is to take him, and yet so endearing, real, and only too brutally honest. His father suffers from schizophrenia. His mother moves from one day to another – lost in her thoughts and the world of being a caregiver. His maternal grandfather, Ajju, is mean and loves that Ib’s family is dependent on him for almost everything. And in all of this, there is Ib – growing up – trying to grow up – trying very hard even not to, and sometimes just trying to make sense of the world he has been thrown into.

Ib doesn’t have friends. Ib prefers looking at everything in great detail. Ib knows what he wants and then doesn’t. Ib craves for human attention, company, the tenderness as he calls it at one point, and he wants it all on his terms. Ib’s journey is mundane, it is of the everyday living, it is of boredom at work, of not suffering the banal in college, it is of preferring one’s company to that of others, and living as honestly as possible.

Roshan Ali’s city – the one in which Ib lives and comes to inhabit closely could be any city – any at all, and yet it is only one. The one that Ib and the readers come to love. Roshan Ali’s writing is unapologetic – he speaks of things that are uncomfortable – of death, sex, his father’s condition, and in all of this the complexity of living.

Ib is not an easy person to understand or to write about is what I think. At the same time, what I loved about the book was the minor characters that aren’t minor – the mother, the friend Major, Annie, Maya, and even a sadhu thrown in for good measure. There is a lot taking place, and as a reader I revelled in all of it.

Nothing happens. Really. Almost nothing happens in Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction. There are revelations but nothing happens. Death happens, loss, grief, and yet nothing at all. In all of this everyday living, there are glimpses of hope in all of the melancholy, in all of the anguish – to be able to live and be.

In Search of Heer by Manjul Bajaj

In Search of Heer isn’t a love story. Well, it is, but it isn’t a typical love story. It may have been inspired by an old-fashioned one, but Bajaj’s Heer and her Ranjha and everyone else in their lives, are her own people. Yes, the story’s skeletal frame has been maintained. That Bajaj hasn’t strayed away from. What she has done is to hit the reader at every turn of the page, with some thought-provoking, profound, and most intense prose.

In Search of Heer is aptly titled. It is about Heer. All about her. Everything, and rightly so. It is about Ranjha. Yes, without a shadow of doubt. It is about their love and everything else that follows, but it is mainly about Heer and the women who possess the narrative. Bajaj does a fantastic job of not only excellent storytelling, but also of being able to turn the narrative on its head. She gives us perspectives of a crow, of pigeons, and of a lamb when it comes to the story and does it very convincingly.

The book is about so many things. There are so many layers to it. I am stumped what to say and what not to say, but I shall try. Feminism is at the center and heart of this novel. From Heer to her mother to Heer’s friends, Sehti (a very pivotal character according to me), and others who come and go are so strong, sometimes weak, but rooted in a sense of independence – even though not fully realised at times. Heer’s feminism as portrayed by Bajaj is just natural – that’s the way she was raised by her father Mir Chuchak – to be whatever she wants to be, and live life on her terms. At the same time, through another lens, Bajaj takes us to a place where feminism doesn’t exist, and is brutally trampled on in the name of religion, and ironically women’s safety. This happens through the villainous uncle of Heer, Kaido Langda.

Longing is another recurring theme, expressed without any drama or theatrics. There is one section in the book when Heer speaks of months as they pass, as she waits for Ranjha and that to me is the highlight of the book. Longing also expressed through people’s inability to get out of circumstances – Sehti’s love for Murad, Seida’s love that is not acceptable, and the longing of so many to just live and let live.

Manjul Bajaj’s In Search of Heer is a modern retelling in the sense that it breaks all barriers of telling the original story. It also sticks to the skeletal system, but creates her own flesh as she moves along. There is so much that will strike home – everything that fits in the world we live in, we are a part of, the magic realism, the surreal, the impossibility of love, the love that doesn’t give up, and love that ensures people are free rather than bound to each other.

Undertow by Jahnavi Barua

Estrangement. What an odd choice of word to define the not-so-closeness to a person who once was your world. Really an odd choice of word. There is loss, and yet it doesn’t feel like that. It sounds almost clinical, like a surgery has been performed on it, and the word that remained was this. Estrangement, in its various forms.

“Undertow” by Jahnavi Barua is about relationships that go sour, that are no longer what they used to be, that can be mended, relationships that can start over. Loya is twenty-five and has never met her maternal grandfather, Torun, who lives in Assam in a Yellow house all by himself. His wife Usha, the matriarch and an intimidating figure has long gone – it’s been four years. Loya’s mother Rukmini was banished from home, twenty-six years ago, in 1983, when she decided to marry Alex, the love of her life. Since then, a lot changed. Loya arrives at the Yellow House to meet her grandfather Torun and this is where the story begins.

Undertow is not just this though. It is so much more. Nature is described by Barua in a manner that is delicate, nurturing even, and personal. She speaks of clouds, of the sky, of a crow pheasant, of views, of walks, of how humans and nature can co-exist, and she also speaks of climate change most subtly. I loved Barua’s prose that is stable, though there are a lot of emotions simmering underneath, it is on the surface of it still as a lake during summer. No movement at all, and yet the story propels in the direction it has to. A voice of its own, almost.

Relationships aren’t perfect. Neither are people. Relationships are imperfect. They take a lot from you, but also somehow are fulfilling in their own dysfunctional manner. Undertow is all about such relationships – jagged, brittle in the mouth, and where snatches of happiness are far and few and in-between. Yet, there is much comfort in this short novel. Food being one of them. Barua writes about food with much affection. The fish and the fish seller, the five courses of Assamese food, the vegetables, and even a simple cup of tea evokes yearning for all the food. You just want to eat it all as you turn the page.

Feminism is also at the center of all of this – and yet it is not as palpable. Even then, it questions so many things along the course of the novel. Loya’s feminism vs. that of her mother’s. Usha’s brand of feminism and how it brought about emotional destruction in its wake, and even Sita the house help’s brand of feminism that is silent and speaks volume.

The secondary characters see the very same relationships so differently. From Romen, the cook to Biren, the handyman in a sense, to lives that converge and melt into the other lives, without realising that we are all perhaps just connected one way or the other.

“Undertow” shines on so many levels. Barua’s craft is surreal and yet it stings quite appropriately when it has to. Her writing is calm, restless, and disquiet – ample with love and loss, reminding us always that estrangement can be overcome. Over and over again.

Mac’s Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes.

Mac's Problem by Enrique Vila-MatasTitle: Mac’s Problem
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes
Publisher: New Directions Publishing
ISBN: 978-0811227322
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translation
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

This book was a treat. At almost every level – the plot, writing, characters, pacing of the novel, and the fact that a master such as Vila-Matas has written it, only adds to its wonder. The idea of life imitating art and vice-versa has always been a personal favourite, and then to find one of the few novels whose premise is seeped in it is a thing of joy to read and contemplate about.

At the heart of this novel is Mac, who is unemployed and dependent on his wife’s earnings. Being an avid reader and beyond, he decides to maintain a diary at the age of sixty. His wife who is dyslexic thinks he is wasting his time. A chance encounter with a neighbour – a successful author of a collection of stories, Mac decides that he will improvise his neighbour’s stories, which are in turn narrated by a ventriloquist who has lost the knack of speaking in different voices. The book then takes a strange turn and only gets stranger as you go along, with art imitating life or vice-versa.

Mac’s Problem is a book that had me in from the first page. Again, it is not an easy read, but there is something to it – the concept of a diary, and then someone’s short stories, and how they become personal after a while, and the paranoia that takes over. Vila-Matas’ writing is full of literary references, and stellar prose if anything. It is also quite funny in a lot of places – I am sure that was intentional.

The book does drag and something about it being two-dimensional worked so much for me. It takes time to get to the actual plot perhaps but if you persist, you will be massively rewarded in the end. A must-read if you ask me.