Tag Archives: literary fiction

Love and Lust: Stories & Essays

Love and Lust Title: Love and Lust: Stories & Essays
Author/s: Various
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-9388292528
Genre: Anthology
Pages: 152
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

How can an anthology on love and lust go wrong when it has writings by Kamala Das, Vikram Seth, K.R. Meera, and Rajinder Singh Bedi to name a few? Can it go wrong at all? Aleph Book Company has got it bang on with these mini-anthologies, titled Aleph Olio. There are a couple of other titles in this series as well, but for now we will focus on Love and Lust.

It isn’t about the range as well, as much as it is about what these writers are trying to communicate. We live in times where perhaps both love and lust are looked down on in most places. Lust a little more than love. Anyway, the point of this collection is to show us both love and lust through various lens – whether it is that of a mother who just won’t have her khatri daughter dating a Muslim man (an excerpt from A Suitable Boy), or whether it is Kamala Das demonstrating feminism and all shades of desire through her story A Little Kitten, or even of course Manto who doesn’t stop at anything to make us see our hypocrisy when it comes to matters of the flesh in Tang (translated from the original Boo), this short but extremely effective collection has it all.

I also think that it has been edited very cleverly in so many ways – first what I have already mentioned earlier – the authors, what to select from what these authors have written, and the order also in which these stories and essays are placed. And might I also add that I did think earlier about representation – in the sense of covering identities, however, one cannot encompass everyone when it comes to a limited anthology such as this. So it worked for me, irrespective.

Aleph Olio series are perfect to understand the writing of a particular writer whose work you want to explore in detail. Pick these series for that and also of course for the broader themes. The ones that are out are: In a Violent Land, The Essence of Delhi, Notes from the Hinterland, and Love and Lust.

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If I Had Two Lives by Abbigail N. Rosewood

If I Had Two Lives Title: If I Had Two Lives
Author: Abbigail N. Rosewood
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609455217
Genre: Literary Fiction, Immigrant Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Sometimes you just don’t know what to make of a book till you are done reading and pondering a bit over it. If I Had Two Lives was that kind of read for me. This is a coming of age book, it is also a book about an immigrant in the United States of America, and it is also about going back home. Honestly, it might also seem been there, done that (and I also felt that on reading the blurb), but it isn’t that at all. I think every book no matter how similar the plot line to another book, always has something different to say – no matter in what capacity.

If I Had Two Lives is the story of a child who has been isolated from the world in a secret military camp, with a distant mother. Distant mothers as we all know only lead to more mental health issues in all of fiction. Anyway, there she meets a sympathetic soldier and another girl, leading to a very unlikely friendship.

The scene then jumps to New York, where as an adult, she is torn between people who are no longer a part of her life and people who are. She understands that for all of it to make sense, she has to return to where she started from: Vietnam. This in short is the plot of If I Had Two Lives.

Why did I like it?

Rosewood’s writing is sparse and most effective. Most of the novel is without names, except for some and you will understand why as you read the book. I think it is actually because of the title and what it means – the sense of identity (can there be one without a name?), memory (how twisted and convenient it can be), and what is the value we place on people in our lives?

If I Had Two Lives seemed like not a debut, but a work of someone experienced. I think it is also about how well you tell a story, and what do you want to communicate to the readers. In this case, it was the brutality of dislocation and the force of compassion that came through stunningly, with every turn of the page. It is a modern tale, seeped in the past and that’s what makes it what it is: intriguing and gorgeously written. A great debut that deserves all the attention.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

The Body Myth Title: The Body Myth
Author: Rheea Mukherjee
Publisher: The Unnamed Press
ISBN: 978-1944700843
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 234
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

There are some books that hit you unexpectedly. You don’t expect anything out of them, maybe because you don’t know what to expect which then turns out to be great, when a certain threshold is met. This is what happened to me while I was reading The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee. It is a book about love and love that knows no boundaries or limits. The kind that we all want to experience and yet are afraid of what will happen to us when we do. It is all-consuming and will just not let you be till you are a part of it.

The Body Myth is about Mira – a teacher living in the heart of a fictional city called Suryam in India. It is the place where the Rasagura fruit grows. The only place as a matter of fact. Mira lives by herself and leads a quiet life. She is recently widowed and is trying to cope with loss and loneliness. One fine day she comes across Sara, who suffers from a seizure in the park, and Mira but obviously tends to her. Thereon she meets Rahil, Sara’s husband and before she knows it, her life is on a course of an emotional rollercoaster ride – filled with angst, love, loneliness, and desire.

Mukherjee’s writing is to the point. She doesn’t extend herself without reason. There are of course a lot of metaphors ascribed to the Rasagura (a fictional fruit by the way) – its sweet and sour nature and how it is meant to be full of mysticism (really need to read the book to understand this at a deeper level). The relationship between Mira and Sara is astounding – how it is so much more without stating the obvious and how Rahil then is a part of it all or not. Mukherjee’s characters are willing to change and embrace it even though sudden. What starts off as a friendship between Sara and Mira, and then becomes this triad of a relationship with Rahil in the fray as well is a thing to experience while reading.

The Body Myth is a book about relationships that aren’t easy to define. They just are. While people may judge and do what they do best, the relationship continues. I loved how the three of them were discussing, loving, figuring out the dynamics, and just being. I also think that one must read this book with an open mind and heart, or it will just not sink in. The end is inevitable but the book leaves you with a lot of questions about the body, and how we think we know ourselves, but do we really? The tone of the book is just perfect, and you actually also get a holistic view of the situation. The Body Myth might make a lot of people uncomfortable, however, it is a book of our times and Mukherjee definitely knows how to address emotions and thoughts we all feel and think, but do not say them out loud.

 

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka ViertelTitle: The Kindness of Strangers
Author: Salka Viertel
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372747
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

If you feel like reading the quintessential twentieth-century autobiography, then this is it. You just have to read The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel. It is everything I expect from an autobiography and it delivers down to the last page. Viertel’s life was not only interesting but also lived variedly and maybe that’s the reason the book shines the way it does. It is almost a pilgrimage of one woman through the twentieth century’s darkest times and also a chronicle of the good times. I could easily classify The Kindness of Strangers as an epic read, mainly because of its sheer expanse.

The Kindness of Strangers is the journey of a woman. It is the journey of a century – all rolled into one – from a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire to Hollywood. Viertel’s book is unique in the sense that it doesn’t try and pack everything in one chapter or paragraph. It takes its time talking about people, events, and their impact. Normally, I have observed myself getting bored of such autobiographies that start right from childhood and unfold against a backdrop of larger events. That wasn’t the case with The Kindness of Strangers. I enjoyed the read and that of course had a lot to do with the writing.

Of course this isn’t an easy read, in the sense of the turn of events – from the First World War to the Second and incidents that are recalled from memory, Salka Viertel’s writing is too detailed. Sometimes that works wonders for the reader and sometimes it is too much trivia. However, it made me think about how should an autobiography be written at all then? Is there a template? Should there be one? I don’t think so though. The Kindness of Strangers as any good autobiography merges the personal and political perfectly. For instance, her concern over her children’s safety during WWII or her time as an actress in Europe to her time in Hollywood and how that merged with political opinions of many is a delight to read.

There is a lot going on in the book and I was only too glad to see timelines so as not to miss the drift of what is being said. I had no clue of who Viertel was till I started reading her memoir. The relationship with her parents, the rebellion, the relationship she shared with her sister Rose, and most importantly leading the life she wanted to. The sense of loss of innocence is spread throughout the book. Nostalgia plays such an important role – not only in its conjuring but also it feels like it is not a thing of the past at all.

My favourite part of the memoir is Salka’s later life, spent in America, where she worked in Hollywood, made friends with Greta Garbo, became an American citizen as well, and helped many artists find homes – the ones who escaped Hitler’s clutches so to say. There are these lost worlds constantly at play of which the reader is privy to. The writing while gives a sense of staying on some details a little longer, still feels hurried. I wish for some parts there was more.

The Kindness of Strangers is full of life and joy. It is also full of instances that demand attention and empathy. It is the kind of book that talks about relationships – the constancy of them and the passing on of most. Ultimately, it is the book that makes us see our follies as humans and also the kindness we are ultimately capable of which sometimes we do not know of ourselves.

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza

Dangerlok by Eunice De Souza Title: Dangerlok
Author: Eunice De Souza
Publisher: Penguin India
ISBN: 978-0143065074
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Pages: 166
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

I remember reading Dangerlok a long time ago and being so moved by it. Nothing was different this time around as well. I felt more, if not the same. Eunice De Souza, being the poet, she was makes you see the way sentences can be strung together and how poetically prose can be handled. I think this is true of most writers I have read who are poets first and then writers of prose. Having said that, I think everyone who is from Bombay or not, should read Dangerlok. It encapsulates the city like no other I’ve read set in the city.

Eunice’s Dangerlok is precise, exact, and doesn’t waste time. Its brevity astounds and makes you understand that a book need not be lengthy to say what it has to. So, what is Dangerlok about?

Dangerlok is Mumbai – the swirl, the scum, the acid aftertaste, the lingering, the seductive city who lures you and then enters your head and heart like a disease. And in between all this stands the protagonist, Rina Ferreira (positively modelled after Eunice) who is an English Literature Teacher, who lives in Santacruz East with her two parrots – Totha and Tothi and her hoard of books, writing letters to David (a man who she once loved and may be still does), enjoying a casual cab ride, observing her neighbours, friends, cabwallahs, the existence of them all and the humour and irony behind things that seem so little and normal on an average day. She comes across Dangerlok on a daily basis while smoking her cigarettes and drinking her jungli tea. She observes. She notices and dashes off letters to David about the world that surrounds her.

I cannot put a finger on what I felt while reading this book – I loved it to such a great extent. It was the description of the small things – Totha sitting on her head as she opens the door to a neighbour, the memory of having bought David Copperfield for four bucks, her worry over her parrots and hence she does not leave the city for long, the fact that she does not want to be “involved in life” and yet her heart goes out to the stray pup, nutty clerks at the post office who refuse to acknowledge, and many such instances. De Souza gives Rina her space to play, her canvas to paint and yet it’s sad that the canvas is only a mere 124-page long novella. It makes you yearn for more. There is ennui and there is hope. But you better watch out, because chances of seeing Dangerlok everywhere around you are not that slim.