Tag Archives: literature

Book Review: The Missing Queen by Samitha Arni

The Missing Queen by Samitha Arni Title: The Missing Queen
Author: Samitha Arni
Publisher: Penguin Viking/Zubaan Books
ISBN: 9789381017647
Genre: Mythology, Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I have always wondered and thought that the Ramayana has nothing to offer in terms of shades of grey. I thought that it was a plain vanilla story, with nothing of value, though at the back of mind I was aware of Sita and her predicaments, I somehow did not give it too much thought. I was more focused on reading more of the Mahabharata, with its vast number of characters and intricate plot, there was no way any other mythological text could hold a candle to it. This was my opinion till I started reading, “The Missing Queen” by Samhita Arni.

I had read Samhita’s graphic novel, “Sita’s Ramayana” sometime ago, however that did not impact me much as this one has. Once in a while, I read a mythological piece of work that compels me to recommend it to whosoever I meet, and this time it is “The Missing Queen”. I cannot stop raving about. Most of it has got to do with the writing; however most of it has also got to with the plot and the new angle or twist so to say to the epic.

“The Missing Queen” is set in modern-day Ayodhya, ten years after Ram won the war and Sita disappeared basis the hearsay from the Washerman and other speculation by Ayodhya’s citizens on her chastity. Things have changed a lot since then. Ayodhya is indirectly a totalitarian state kept under strict vigilance by the Washerman and his people. Ram, but of course is the shining hero and king who looms large and makes decisions, however not without consulting some people. This Ayodhya is of television and media, of Cadillacs and malls, of consumerism and a complete dry state with bootleggers reining at night-time in shoddy basements. It is also on its way of becoming a democracy, which in a way is scary and at the same time liberating for some. Amidst all of this, a young journalist begins asking questions about Sita: What happened to her? Why did she disappear? She wants answers and does not even stop at asking Ram during an interview about Sita and her whereabouts.

She must not be asking such questions. The Washerman and his fleet chase her out of the city and she goes to Lanka in search of answers, which further takes her to Mithila. For me this was the best part in the book. Samhita has brought out different perspectives through this short book – of Surpanakha, of Vibhishana and his daughter, of Urmila and others who have been a part of the epic. While reading this book one also gets the feeling of the “other” part of the story. The question posed by the journalist seep into the readers’ head and that to me is great writing as demonstrated by Arni. There were so many places in the book where my heart just went out to Sita and also to the Lankans. That is primarily because of the writing and the world that Samhita conjures given her imagination and what happened after the war. There are so many questions in the book and also so many issues. For instance, the one line that struck me the most in the book was the one said by Surpanakha: “Do women need circles drawn in sand to protect them?” I think this is so relevant even today. Some men take it upon themselves to protect women, without wondering what they want. There are parts like these in the book that shake you up and make you question everything around you.

At times while reading the book, I felt that Sita and Ram and the Washerman were merely metaphors for who we are and our beliefs (if any) and that made me think a lot more of the plot of the book. I will of course not give away the ending. However at the end of it all, what I can say is that you have to read “The Missing Queen” to experience a different kind of tale and storytelling when it comes to mythology and more so to the Ramayana. A must read for February.

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Book Review: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Title: The Marriage Plot
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador USA
ISBN: 978-1250014764
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

After reading two of his earlier books, there was no way I was going to miss reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ third book, “The Marriage Plot”. It is very different from the other two though and that’s what I liked about it. An author’s real talent lies in the different genres he or she is willing to explore and takes that risk. If the risk pays off then nothing like it. If it doesn’t, well then at least the writer did what had to be done.

For me as a reader, the risk (if it was that) where, “The Marriage Plot” was concerned, paid off for Jeffrey Eugenides. “The Marriage Plot” as the title suggests is about the much talked about marriage plot that featured in books in the 1900s – the very Jane Austenish plots of meeting someone charming, maybe one or two, and marrying “the” person to live out your life. The difference being: The plot is set in modern times.

The story centers on three people – Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell, three students at an Ivy League University in the early 1980s. They study challenging and diverse philosophies from one another and unite in ways one cannot imagine. Madeleine is clueless and has a keen eye Victorian and Regency classics. She is studying semiotics though and has still remained true to Jane Austen and George Elliot. Mitchell Grammaticus befriends Madeleine and is secretly in love with her, and is drawn to Christian Studies and metaphysics. He cannot confess his love for Madeleine and moves to India for a while to work amongst the poor. Leonard Bankhead is charismatic, brilliant, a loner, who Madeleine falls for (why am I not surprised?). Leonard is everything that Madeleine wants and maybe is not for her or anyone else and yet she is drawn to him. She soon sees what is beneath the surface and her dreams of love and marriage are thrown off-course, before the story goes through various sub-plots and ends the way it should.

Now to the writing: As always, Eugenides did not disappoint with the writing. The style as I mentioned earlier is very different from his earlier books, but completely satisfying for a reader. References to literary works are all over the book and this is a treat. It has its own pace and at the same time the reader doesn’t feel bogged down with the writing or the references.

The characters are confused (that’s how they should be) and fit into the plot like a glove to a hand. Eugenides knows where to take the story and what to do with it so subtly that though the reader is almost expecting what is going to happen, he or she is in for a surprise.

“The Marriage Plot” is an intelligent read. It breaks elements of what marriage was thought to be in the past and at the same time pays homage to it. I would recommend this book to you more so if you are a literary fiction fan, more so for the references and the analogies. I would reread it for sure.

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The Great Unknown by Sankar

It did not take me long to finish reading Sankar’s “The Great Unknown”. I remember a time when I had to accompany my aunt to the court of small causes. I vividly recollect the experience and the sights and smells are still fresh in my mind – from the attitude of the peons and clerks to the lingering smell of disdain and disappointment. This book only brought back that day. It was long and I didn’t want the experience to be repeated ever again. I had had enough of court rooms in our country.

The Great Unknown captures many such experiences – sometimes sad and sometimes witty. The whole idea of the book being published I guess is to make readers rediscover certain writers and Sankar being one of them. It is the story of the many people that Sankar encounters as a young intern at an English Barrister’s office in Kolkata and their lives as they play themselves out for him. Some are seeking justice and the others are just standing by and watching the wheels turn.

What I loved about the book was the inherent fact that it makes you feel. For the people who are waiting and sometimes have to keep coming back till justice is served. The pathos and the comedy (sometimes) as drawn by the writer are magnificently simple and well laid out in almost all tales and vignettes.

For whosoever who has not read any Bengali fiction translated to English you have to read this one for the sheer poetry and prose that come together and trust me you will not be disappointed. If anything else you would only want to read more from this writer.

Great Unknown, The; Sankar; Translated by Soma Das; Penguin Viking; Rs. 350

The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe

Fractal designs, such as used to be popular twenty years ago, have the property that any part of them replicates the whole in miniature. If you zoom in on even the tiniest detail, you can reach an understanding of the entire shape. This analogy occurs to me after reading THE CHANGELING by Kenzaburo Oe, a late work by the Japanese Nobel Laureate, and so far the only thing by him that I have read. Where most novels have a linear narrative behind them, this one reads as a series of one-sided conversations, thoughts about literature and other arts, buried memories, and some bizarre incidents — all generally minor in themselves, but each seemingly endowed with immense hidden significance, each a clue to some overall design that only gradually emerges as the various details replicate and mirror one another.

Despite its abstract content, the book is easy to read and its framework simple. Kogito Choko, a celebrated writer, is listening to some tapes sent him by his brother-in-law Goro Hanawa, once his childhood friend and now a famous film director. At the end of one of the cassettes, Goro remarks “So anyway, that’s it for today — I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Immediately after, Goro throws himself out of the window of his high building. Kogito (an obsessive thinker, aptly named by his father from the phrase “cogito ergo sum”) engages in months of conversation with the dead Goro, playing snatches of the tapes, stopping them for his own response, and then continuing to hear his friend’s answer. When his wife suggests he needs to get away, he accepts a guest professorship in Berlin, where Goro had himself lived a few years back.


As an example of Oe’s method, take the chapter in which Kogito is being interviewed on television in connection with the Berlin Film Festival. There is a long section about how he gets to the interview, or almost doesn’t get to it: crossed wires with the person picking him up, confusion at the hotel where this is taking place, description of the technicians setting up the equipment in the hotel ballroom, the physical arrangement of the chairs, backdrop, camera, monitors, all in obsessive detail. And then, without further preamble, Kogito is shown a number of film clips on the monitor: samurai fighting off a peasant army, and a modern game of rugby football. He recognizes it as scenes from a book he had written, entitled RUGBY MATCH 1860. In the novel, he had used the battle and the game as metaphors, but he intrigued by the decision of these filmmakers to film them literally, with an acute feeling for the Japanese atmosphere. He is told that what he has just seen is the only footage from the project so far shot, but the young filmmakers have run out of money; would he be willing to concede them the rights for free? Kogito’s translator warns him that he is being ambushed, but he agrees, and the chapter ends.

The core of this chapter, I believe, lies in one of its smallest details, the samurai film clip. Certain aspects of it reflect other images we encounter involving Kogito’s father, who appears to have been something of a philosophical leader of an ultra-right-wing movement opposing the Japanese surrender to the US. Kogito’s own politics, on the other hand, are liberal, so perhaps he is the Changeling of the title? (Or one of them, along with Goro.) One begins to see that the whole novel is about change. In the background, there is the reconstruction of Japanese society after defeat. But this is worked out in terms of ideas — translation between languages, translation of one medium into another (writing into film or opera), and perhaps (as the example above would suggest) the handing over of ideas from one generation to another.

The fractal metaphor works on the personal level as well. From what I can gather, this novel reflects themes from every other book that Oe has written, and these in turn reflect the author’s life. His brother-in-law was indeed a famous film director, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in a similar way. Like the fictional Kogito, Kenzaburo Oe has a son who was born brain-damaged, barely able to communicate in words, but who eventually found success as a composer. All Oe’s novels contain such a character, and the writer has spoken of his aim to give his son a voice denied to him in life. While the composer-son plays a relatively small role here, Oe shifts the relationship back a generation, as Kogito tries to understand the legacy of his own father and the huge changes between the Japan of his time and that of the present. The themes of rebirth and the passing of the torch between generations become clear only at the very end, but after so much mind-play they bring a lovely touch of simple human emotion.

Changeling, The; Oe, Kenzaburo; Atlantic Books; Penguin Group; Rs. 999

Top 10 Reads of 2010

So here is my personal favourite list of Top 10 Reads of 2010.  Here goes:

1. Castle by J.Robert Lennon: I loved this book. I mean, I loved it! The story was taut. It was not all over the place. It maintained the sense of mystery and thrill that a book like this deserves and at the same time did what few writers manage to – get a grip on the landscape and create it into a living and breathing character. I am all for this one and cannot recommend it highly.

2. The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov: Though I found the book to be a little boring in the middle, I have to admit I loved it. There is no way I could not. Here we have Nabokov’s last book (can we call it that?) with his original writing on cards which were well etched into the book. Brilliant design and even better story.

3. Quarantine by Rahul Mehta: Hands down for this collection of queer short stories written by an Indian living abroad. Not because I am gay, but because he did a terrific job of writing such crisp and well-defined stories, though they had absurd ends and yet this one remains to be re-read.

4. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: Highly accoladed and well-deserved for all the awards it won, Kingsolver did it again. It takes a lot to write a fictional tale and spin with historical characters – to breathe life into them – about what they will say or do given the situation. I bow to The Lacuna. The writing was lucid and emotional in too many parts to be described here.

5. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell: A masterpiece of titanic proportions. A saga (of sorts) set in 18th century Japan. A nation closed to the idea of international trade and confined to its customs and traditions, and who better to write it for us than Mr. Mitchell himself. I was enthralled by it and it held me captive for 3 days and nights at a stretch.

6. The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi: And from the moment I started reading this book, I could not put it down. The tale of the Patels had me eating out of Ms. Doshi’s hands and I wanted more of it. I just cannot wait for another of her books to come out. An under-rated writer for sure. Please read this one.

7. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: This has to feature on my list for sure. Dysfunctional family. Midwestern American State and all the action that takes place. How could I have not enjoyed this one? I loved it to the core. A Must must read for everyone.

8. The Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das: A brilliant meditation on how the Mahabharata still affects us in this modern world. How truth, karma and dharma play their roles in the corporate and personal life. Gurcharan Das has done a brilliant job with this one. And I for sure am a sucker for mythology anyday.

9. Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller: If there is one biography I would urge anyone to read, it would be this one. Most people only assume about Ayn Rand and that is because no one knew her. Anne C Heller does a marvellous job with this iconic biography. Read more to find out more about Ayn Rand.

10. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman: Last but not the least it had to be this book. With the way it is written to what is being written about, I fell in love with this book from the word “Go”. A book to ponder over for sure.

So this is my Top 10 reads for the year and I know it will only get better in 2011. Bring it on!!