Tag Archives: September 2020 Reads

Navigate Your Stars by Jesmyn Ward. Illustrations by Gina Triplett.

Navigate Your Stars by Jesmyn Ward

Title: Navigate Your Stars
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Illustrations by Gina Triplett
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1526620347
Genre: Speeches, Non-Fiction
Pages: 64
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 stars

This year hasn’t been easy on any of us. We have all tried to fight a lot – anxiety, confusion, lethargy, to just be able to function on a daily basis, and sometimes even to give up and restart the next day. This year hasn’t been easy. I chanced upon Jesmyn Ward’s slim book “Navigate your Stars” – a book that is now a constant reminder of value of hard work and hope for a better tomorrow.

Ward just reflects on her experiences as a Southern Black Woman addressing all the themes of grit, the problems she and her family faced, and above all the importance of also learning together as a unit – sometimes not even the same lessons.

This book is a result of Ward’s commencement address at Tulane University, where she teaches creative writing (I think she still does). Navigate Your Stars is also about the people in her family who weren’t that fortunate to get the chances and opportunities that Ward did, and yet did what they could to better their lives – or make their successors’ lives better.

There is so much wisdom and inspiration in this sixty-four page very short book that sometimes big tomes fail to contain. Also, not to forget the beautiful illustrations by Gina Triplett that shine on every page. Navigate Your Stars is a book to read when you are down in the dumps, when you are happy, when you feel all of it, and just want to feel hopeful all over again.

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.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s fiction is not for the weak. It isn’t for the ones who want happy endings, or maybe even believe in them. That doesn’t mean Ferrante’s characters aren’t happy or don’t aspire to be happy. If anything, because they are so broken, they want nothing else but that, or so it seems. 

The Lying Life of Adults is nothing like the Neapolitan quartet, which spanned more than half a century in the lives of two friends. The Lying Life of Adults is about adolescence and not the dreamy, rainbow-eyed, unicorn believing kind of adolescence (if you read Ferrante, you know you will never get that anyway), but a time when lies and deception loom large, and growing up means so much more than just changes of the body. 

The book opens amongst the educated, the elite, the affluent, and the ones who believe more in the nature of science than God (that also is a wonderful sub-text to the book). Giovanna’s father is all of the above and more. He is the center of her world whose validation is needed at every step in her life. Her mother teaches Greek and Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s friends Angela and Ida are daughters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano and Costanza. Everything is bright and happy in their bourgeoise world, until the day Giovanna overhears a conversation between her parents, which is also the start of the book. 

“Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” 

The story moves on from here, where we as readers are introduced to Giovanna’s aunt, her father’s estranged sister Vittoria, who he compares her with – the aunt that her father has detested for the longest time. Ferrante then turns the story on its head by moving from the affluent spaces of Naples to the not so affluent space, the dingy, the dirty, the filthy industrial neighbourhood where her aunt lives. Giovanna decides to meet her aunt and see for herself how ugly she is and whether she will grow up to be this person or not. From here on, Vittoria becomes a permanent fixture in Giovanna’s life and things change drastically. 

Giovanna lies. Her parents lie. Her friends’ parents aren’t telling the truth either. The entire construct and fabric of her life falls apart as incidents are played out, and the past is brought to life. No one is perfect. No one is a villain. Maybe they all are the villains in their lives, and try as they might, they cannot change that. 

Jewelry, mirrors, dolls, the smell, pleasure of adolescence and the need to derive it at any cost, education as a means of climbing the ladder – of proving your worth to others, keep constantly reappearing in the book. Ferrante shocks you with the familiar. There is no redemption for anyone. Characters accept the cards handed out to them, to point of them unabashed about their situations. It is what it is. 

Body image in The Lying Life of Adults is its own beast. We encounter it through almost every major and minor character and how they deal with it, is well not up to the people around them. Ferrante somehow ensures that it is only the readers that can feel pity, empathy, or any kind of emotion for Giovanna, Angela, Ida, or anyone else. In their interactions with each other, these people are harsh, cold, mean, and maybe rightly so. 

Ann Goldstein’s translation from the Italian as always is spot-on. You forget it is a translation, and most often than not you are reminded of the beautiful turn of phrase, or the clinical way in which emotions are dealt with, or the way somethings aren’t said and get stuck in characters’ throats – that you realise the beauty of a translation that makes you see this, feel this, and experience it to the optimum. 

“The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that,” Giovanna’s told, when she points out that adults she is learning to lie to have been doing that to each other all their lives . “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” she observes. 

There is a lot going on in the book. You get used to it as a reader. The book however is deeply moving, brutal, honest, wise, holding its ground – balancing itself in the beautiful and ugliness of everyday life, manifesting itself on the body, and making sense of it all through the women – old, middle-aged, and young, one lie after another.

Thank you Europa Editions for the review copy.

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.