Tag Archives: Poverty

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670090150
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 275
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Neel Mukherjee’s “A State of Freedom” begins with a father who has come to India with his six-year old son from the States (where he now works). He wants his son to see the Taj Mahal and the nearby monuments at Fatehpur Sikri. The son is intimidated by the landscape – he doesn’t belong to this country and the father feels that even he is a “tourist in his own country”. This sense of alienation and weirdness furthers on into the first chapter, only to leave the reader gasping for more and turning the pages.

The start is powerful, albeit not very clear, but powerful nonetheless. It will leave the reader with two choices (as most starts do) – to either abandon the book or to carry on with it. I recommend that you edge on and you will be in for a surprise. Mukherjee’s characters are closely interlinked with the plot – though the plot is finely segregated into five segments (that is only too deceptive by the way), you see how characters appear time and again from one plot to another – it is as though they have decided to colour outside the lines and they very well will do so.

A construction worker falls to his death in the first section of the immigrant young father and his son and how his story is tackled later. At the same time, let’s not forget the core of the story (to me at least) of a passing poverty-struck man with his dancing bear (the cover is thus inspired) – each trying to find a way out – one of poverty and one of captivity – a “state of freedom” is being tried to achieve. The themes of alienation, identity and longing are further explored in the section of a young man who lives in London and visits Bombay time and again to meet his parents. In the course of the visits, he is taken in by the life of their cook Renu and another servant, Milly – so much so that he is encouraged by Renu to visit her village and stay with her brothers and their families – only to reach an understanding that he never can and never will be able to imagine the lives of others and how they live – his capacity for that is too diminished.

For me, while reading this book, there was the sound of loneliness that rang in almost every page – thus leading to the sound of grief, of belonging and to find salvation in one’s circumstances. I did read The Lives of Others last year, but this book has had an altogether different impact. I think what worked for me while reading this book is the association of daily life that Mukherjee doesn’t throw in your face but doesn’t hesitate to make you see what you normally would’ve shirked away from – the class, the racism, the feeling of not crossing lines because it gets uncomfortable after a point is so stark and raw that it will leave you with a lump in your throat.

For instance, the angle of Lakshman and the bear. There is so much going on in this part of the book that you would have to stop, take a breath and then continue – from the way Lakshman trains the bear (or so he thinks he has) to the drudgery of day to day living – to finding food for himself and the beast, Mukherjee’s prose shines on every single page. The peripheral layers to every section may seem ordinary, till they surface in another section and realism merges with the philosophical.

As a reader what also took me away was the different forms or narratives in which each section is written – the first section is in third person, the second in the first person, and how with each section the story only becomes even more complex and yet so simple. The fourth section is that of Milly and her friend Soni and how these two girls born and brought up in poverty, set out to want better lives and what the outcome of that is. The meaning of dislocation is the strongest in this portion of the book, thereby tying all loose ends.

The last section of the book is the one that is an unpunctuated chapter – told in first-person. It definitely gives the book the much required closure but it is also the chapter that I cannot talk about. “A State of Freedom” is one of those rare books that take you in slowly, capture you by the throat, overwhelm you time and again, make you see broken, fractured lives and at some point also make the attempt to make you whole again from that experience. It is one of those books that you would have to read, no matter what. I cannot stop talking about it.

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate Title: Crenshaw
Author: Katherine Applegate
Publisher: HarperCollins Children’s Books
ISBN: 978-0007951185
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 256
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

If a book like “Crenshaw” doesn’t warm your heart, then I don’t know what will. I absolutely adored the book. I knew it would end soon (barely about 250 odd pages) and I so didn’t want it to. I had read “The One and Only Ivan” two years ago and couldn’t stop recommending it to people. I loved it. I cried, I laughed, I wept like a baby, and I needed to be consoled after the book ended. I was scared picking up “Crenshaw” thinking I would feel the same, but surprisingly I was perhaps stronger or the story sailed me through the parts when I came this close to burst into tears but did not.

“Crenshaw” is an imaginary cat. He is ten-year-old Jackson’s friend and times aren’t easy for Jackson and his family. The landlord is at the door. There is not much to eat in the fridge. His parents are trying very hard to keep their family afloat. And in all of this an imaginary friend comes along and changes his life forever, making him realize how to hold things and people dear to him.

The plot of Katherine Applegate’s books for children is threadbare. What infuses life into them is language, the fact that you can not only relate to them but that the feelings resonate, and you then realize that it is absolutely okay not to have answers to everything in life, because life doesn’t work that way anyway.

“Crenshaw” is a big-hearted book for people who have a long way to go. It is not only for children or teens but most certainly for adults as well. Our lessons after all do come from places where we least expect them to pop from. I love that about life and about books that teach us that.

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid Title: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin India
ISBN: 9780670086375
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

Mohsin Hamid’s books are biting and raw in their nature of storytelling. Nothing is rosy and that his readers are aware of. Nothing is sugar-coated. He tells it the way it is and maybe that is why his readers like reading what he has to write. Hamid writes about the society, the way he sees it. Whether it is a story of a young man in love in his first book to a fundamentalist born out of probably no choice in his second to his latest offering, “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia”, which is as raw and vicious as the other two.

The book is unusual in its writing and plot. It is a satire on the society told fictionally, through a self-help book format, with twelve rules in place on how to get filthy rich in rising Asia. It is the story of a young boy (unnamed but of course), born into a poor family. As he moves on from the village to a slum in the unnamed big city, his hopes and aspirations rise. He wants to be the very best. He wants to be rich and nothing else beyond that. As he rises through the success ladder, and sets up a bottled water factory, he realizes that everything but of course comes for a price. At the end of it all, there is one thing that remains constant in his life: His teenage love – he can never forget and yearns for all the time and all those years. The book is all about his life and the people in his life and the consequences of wanting to get “filthy rich” in rising Asia.

That in short is the plot of the book. The writing being sarcastic is highly humorous and at the same time leaves you with a sense of sadness as you turn the pages. Mohsin Hamid’s writing is strong and packed with punches and surprises in almost every chapter. The reality of the situation is seen and at the same time, it tends to get boring at a couple of places, given the repetitive start to every chapter, which is that of a self-help book.

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is a short book and yet touches on the complexities of living and surviving in big cities. It portrays the paradoxes that lie in “Rising Asia” and its impact on the so-called “class” system that exists. Like I said, Hamid does not shy away from saying and seeing things the way they are. The book is highly entertaining and also thought-provoking to a very large extent. A perfect read for a Sunday afternoon.

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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9780670086092
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 280
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

When I first started reading, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo, it didn’t strike me as a different book. I mean I had read the similar story in Suketu Mehta’s, “Maximum City” (Honestly I didn’t think much of it), though it was in brief. It was still more or less the same – Mumbai and its dichotomy (like every major cosmopolitan), its slums, its smells and sights and the hidden side to the city, which we ignore or pretend doesn’t exist most of the time. Then what made this book so different that I finished in almost a day?

The difference lies in the way Katherine Boo has written the book – from providing a perspective on the what, the why and the how to experiences that will sometimes warm the heart and sometimes break it, knowing that this is the condition of a city that never sleeps. Having said that, there were also gaps in the book – the way it jumped from one story to another and how that was written almost in a haste which at times provided some disconnect with the overall structure.

The book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is essentially about “Annawadi” – a slum in Mumbai next to the International airport and close to the luxury hotels there (again another facet of the caste and class division). The Annawadians are full of hope as the Indian Economy rises without any realization that nothing is going to change for them. The parity will exist if not widen itself. The under-city and over-city are explicitly portrayed in the book and that makes the reader think: Is this my city? Or could this be any booming cosmopolitan in the nation? The story (I call it that because it reads like one at times) is essentially about these people and their lives – some more and some less.

Abdul, a teenager sees a future beyond counting the recyclable garbage that the city’s rich throw away. He is quick at sorting waste. He is almost there in fulfilling his family’s dreams of moving out of the slum. Asha, a woman of the world and witty at the same time, opts for a different way out of this misery: political corruption. She wants her daughter to become the first female graduate of the slum and will not stop to make that dream come true. And just when all seems to fall in place, there is global recession and Abdul is falsely accused of a terrorist attack and the dream-world they are hoping has crashed to pieces.

Boo’s writing is stark and in your face. There is no pretense and cannot be when one is writing life-stories. The people in the book may seem stereotypical but they aren’t. Each of them is as different as you and I and with their own story to tell, which Boo captures beautifully. There are times when she appears disjointed in the book and fragmented, however in the larger scheme of the plot and writing, the reader tends to easily overlook that.

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a depiction of our times and where we live. It represents the societies we create and how we take advantage of those to fulfill our selfish ends. The book removes masks that we sometimes wear and compels readers to take a better look at their worlds and surroundings. A disturbing read at times, however quite stark and impactful in its essence.

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