Tag Archives: penguin modern classics

Steps in Darkness by Krishna Baldev Vaid

Steps in Darkness by Krishna Baldev Vaid Title: Steps in Darkness
Author: Krishna Baldev Vaid
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 9780143419792
Genre: Translation, Literary Fiction, Indian Fiction
Pages: 170
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This is another one of those books I would have never thought of reading and it just happened to me. It is fun when these things happen. The monotony of life gets broken. There is something new to look forward to. Even if it means that it is just about turning pages of a new book. “Steps in Darkness” is one of those books which I had not heard or, neither did I want to read it. It came to me and I read it. I was pleasantly surprised. I started enjoying the nuances brought out by the writer and what I liked the most was that the book has been translated from Hindi by the author himself, so there is a lot of originality which is intact and left sacrosanct.

“Steps in Darkness” is about an Indian family, living in pre-partition times. It is a family living in poverty and each member is struggling with his or her own insecurities and fear. Vaidji has written the book with utmost clarity and fierce honesty. Beero, but a boy, lives through the day to day events, as his family cannot make sense of themselves. His father is a gambler and wife beater. His mother blames him for everything and yet loves him the most or so it seems to him at times. His sister Devi does not know what to do. She is flirting with men all the time. His grandmother is nothing but a nuisance for his mother.

All of this plays out in extreme poverty and sadness of life. All of this is witnessed by a boy on the brink of manhood and yet who cannot understand why things happen the way they do. All Beero wants are snatches of joy and kindness, which he tries very hard to come across at and outside of his home.

Baldev Vaidji’s writing shines in so many places. I could almost imagine and hear the voices as they were written in Hindi. There are a lot of dialogues and inner dialogues as well, which according to me is the highlight of this book.

“Steps in Darkness” is in some way coming of age, but it is also about what it takes to perhaps be human and patient, no matter what life dishes out to you. I also think that there were times when I could not stand to read the book, because of the stark nature of poverty depicted, but I had to, because the book did not leave me with any other option.

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Book Review: Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

Title: Mrs. Bridge
Author: Evan S. Connell
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0141198651
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell is a deceptively simple story. On the surface it might seem to be just another story of a woman, rather a portrait of a woman, and a housewife at that, told in over one hundred brief and discrete chapters.
Mrs. Bridge to a very large extent could very-well be any Indian housewife (without the household chores) – with her suppressed desires, yearnings and longings, while focusing entirely on taking care of her family, in this case Mr. Bridge and her three children. She is a Kansas City housewife who spends her days shopping, visiting, and playing bridge. Her housework is taken care of by the maid. Her husband works long hours. Her children grow up as children often do.

The book traverses the so-called journey of a woman – from childhood to when she got married to how she lives and that is what is most appealing. The writing at times feels thread-bare but as the reader continues reading the book, the opinion changes drastically. Connell takes the book to a point also when the reader starts pitying the protagonist. It is then that the book seems to be frightening in its own way.

Connell is a master of the highest order. His prose is as crisp as it gets. He does not believe in wasting words and that is evident throughout the book. Mrs. Bridge never sees herself the way she wants to. She always sees herself the way others would – from her country-club friends to her husband to her children. The time also in which the novel is set is important. Set in the decades surrounding World War I and World War II, it reeks of change and yet juxtaposes monotony in the protagonist’s life.

Mrs. Bridge is such a character who will not even admit to herself what she goes through and the characterization done by Connell is excellent. Mr. Bridge is hardly present in the book (he later appears though in another book called Mr. Bridge, but that’s another review). The prose is biting. You may not be an affluent housewife and yet you will connect to the character in more than one way. Mrs. Bridge cannot assert any kind of individuality in her life and I was overwhelmed a little reading those parts. I would recommend Mrs. Bridge only if you want to read something to shake you up a bit. It sure will.

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Book Review: The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

Title: The Tunnel
Author: Ernesto Sabato
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0141194547
Genre: Modern Classic, Literary Fiction
PP: 160 pages
Price: £8.99
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

This is a succinct novel told from the point of view of a man obsessed. The reader follows the narrative through the eyes of the main protagonist, a jailed artist, Juan Pablo Castel, explains why he murdered a woman. He recounts the story of his intense, destructive relationship with Maria: it begins with a fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moment but turns in to an obsession which consumes him completely.

This is written in sparse and succinct sentences which makes this easy to read but nevertheless the reader can relate totally with the narrator. You the reader start to understand and share his obsessions and frustrations.

The narrative voice is aggressively intellectual, but almost delirious, as Castel veers between self justification and self loathing, whilst trying desperately to fight against his own destructive impulses. But it’s also funny, and planted enough in reality that you can identify with his painful shyness, his jealousy, and his compulsion to find this woman and somehow ‘possess’ her. Anyone who has ever admired someone from afar, yet felt completely paralyzed when in their company will appreciate how brilliantly written these parts are.

Castel is well-named: he is an artist whose intellectual arrogance creates a castle in which his own psyche runs wild, uncompromised by the views of others. We follow him through the cold, hard passages of his mind as thoughts and fantasies feed on themselves and paint an increasingly perverted view of the world. Sabato creates another metaphor in the book’s title The Tunnel, referring to Castel’s sense of going through life cut off from everyone else.

The imagery is subtle yet satisfying, and the story echoes Camus’ The Outsider, although Castel is very much an Insider too, trapped in his own mind. There is irony too: as an abstract painter he cannot deal with the abstract responses of Maria, demanding empirical truth and solid facts. Denied them, he creates them for himself.


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The Tunnel

Book Review: Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers

Title: Reflections in a Golden Eye
Author: Carson McCullers
Publisher: Penguin Modern Classics
ISBN: 978-0-141-18445-6
PP: 125 pages
Price: Rs. 299
Genre: Novella, Literary Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

I have always believed in reading big books. The bigger, the better I say and have always maintained that. Having said that, I am also partial to novellas and short novels as and when they come my way and off late they have been coming my way more so than I expected. Reflections in a Golden Eye is one such short gem that most people do not know about. Carson McCullers has always been and will in all probability always be famous for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Ballad of the Sad Café, of course as they were brilliant books and pieces of magnificient literature, but this is no less. I picked this one up on a lark and I am glad that I did.

Carson McCullers had a knack of portraying the loneliness her characters felt. When I read her books, I am almost overwhelmed with sadness myself. The plot almost becomes secondary. It is the way she writes and describes the surroundings that almost make you skip a heartbeat and wonder how did she manage to churn out such brilliance. I for one am not surprised, considering she knew that she always wanted to be a writer and admitted it to one-time friend Truman Capote. And now to the book.

Reflections in a Golden Eye is set in the American Deep South, in a fort, during peace-time in an army camp. The story centers around six people, each battling with their own demons, each wanting love in it’s varied fractured forms, and each looking for salvation and finding none whatsoever. It concerns the relationships between five key figures – repressed and confused Captain Penderton, his unsatisfied flighty wife Leonora, who is having an affair with Major Langdon, whose wife Alison is suffering great mental and physical exhaustion. Outside of them is Private Williams, somewhat simple and quiet, but menacing. As with all of McCullers’ work it deals with the nuances of spiritual isolation, the ways in which we find ourselves completely alienated despite and because of our surroundings.

The novella is brutal in the refusal to soften these stark elements of the human psyche. Shockingly violent, in both actions and private thoughts. These lives are burdened with intense hatred for each other that it controls their entire spiritual beings disallowing them to fully comprehend themselves.

It is typical McCullers’ in that it is unspeakably bleak, and delves into the darkest emotions. Knowing of McCullers’ personal life, and her dedicating Reflections in a Golden Eye to Annemarie Schwarzenbach – who she was immensely attracted to, but who constantly rejected her advances – speaks volumes about where she is coming from, and relates to the concept which she would come to struggle with in her later work The Ballad of the Sad Café, the eternal disparity between the lover and the beloved. Reflections in a Golden Eye is a masterpiece according to me. A book that you should not miss reading. Once you are done reading the book, try watching the film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. It will for sure knock the socks out of you.

This Is Not That Dawn by Yashpal

 

Jhootha Sach was serialized almost 50 years ago, by the most popular Hindi magazine then, called Dharmyug. The effect it had was huge: People looked forward eagerly for the next installment. Much of the Hindi reading populace of the country had for the first time read an authentic and humane narration of life in Lahore and the trauma of the exodus that had struck Punjab. The author, till then better known as a revolutionary and a writer, instantly carved a niche for him among literary giants.

Today, for those of us who are aware of the trauma that the partition of the country inflicted upon them or their grandparents or their parents for that matter, Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, christened as “This is not that Dawn” in its English avatar, is not just a novel dealing with the cataclysmic event. It is rich in its writing and vision – it takes you to the same places with a new perspective. This, according to me is the only definitive fictitious account of the Partition and its aftermath.

I still remember as a child watching Buniyaad – a serial about the partition and wondering: Is this what my grandparents went through? My Nani (maternal grandmother) used to tell me endless tales of the life she led before Partition and it almost seemed unreal to me. Her world was cut into two – Pre and Post Partition and she like many countless humans would live like this. We tend to take everything for granted, well almost, including freedom. Our right to express and our right to do what we wish to. It is almost like we have no value for it, and may be we don’t. Our grandparents would think differently though.

It is not easy for me to chronicle a huge masterpiece such as this into a single review of close to a 1000 words even – considering the book is close to 1119 pages long, and not once did I get bored reading it.

Jhootha Sach narrates the events of Partition through the lives of the people who suffered a thousand deaths before they were actually torn away from their motherland to become sharnarthis (refugees). The story of their transformation from sharnarthis to purusharthis in the second volume is equally riveting, more so because the author, like his characters, is hard-pressed to provide some moral moorings to an increasingly amoral society in the new nation. It does not place a judgmental value to decisions made in those times – probably because they did not seem best in such a situation, nor does it try to evoke feelings of any volatile nature. What it does best is present the truth.

Jhootha Sach is a huge canvas that needed not only large brushes with huge strokes but also the delicate handling of a watercolour artist. It is a sad movie that runs into reels and the one that you so riveting that you don’t want it to end.

Thus, he deals with the politics of Partition wherein the dubious role of the much-lauded Khizir Hyat government and the British bureaucracy in Punjab is exposed as also deftly examining the socio-economic composition that gave birth to inequities and consequently the need felt by Muslims to have Pakistan. As Pakistan begins to emerge as a distinct reality, many of the Hindus remain baffled, clutching at straws of hope, arguing that since 80 per cent of the property of Lahore was held by Hindus and the vast majority of the industrial workers in Amritsar, Jalandar and Ludhiana were Muslims, the creation of Pakistan was an unrealistic goal.

Yashpal breathed life not only in the characters of Bhola Pandhe’s Gali but also brought alive a life, where the neighbours demonstrate their solidarity and concern in matters of both life and death. The first part of the novel, Homeland and Nation, narrates the lives, hopes and fears of the characters in the shadow of the powerful tempest that was about to strike and when it does overwhelm Lahore and the rest of the Punjab, it fathoms the pits of degeneration and depravity that mankind descends.

This is Not That Dawn; Yashpal; Penguin Modern Classics; Penguin India; Rs. 599