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March 31, 2013

Book Review - 118 : A Free Man

[This book review has been done in association with Random House India and India Book Store]

Author : Aman Sethi
Publisher : Vintage Books / Random House India
Rating : 5 / 5

‘A Free Man’ by Aman Sethi is humorous yet disturbing work of non-fiction. The main subject of this remarkable work of reportage is Mohammed Ashraf, a 40-year-old safediwallah (painter) and construction worker. Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, first encounters Ashraf while working on a story about various ‘types’ of construction workers (namely mistrys, beldars, karigars, mazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers). Subsequently, when he needed personnel for a research project he’d taken up on “the life of the labourer”, he goes back to Ashraf.

Over a period of time, he forms a bond with Ashraf and his labourer friends — the crazy Lalloo, the muscular Rehaan, the dying Satish, Kaka - the tea seller, and many others. He smokes with them, drinks with them, gets stoned with them, and becomes more involved in the lives of his subjects than a journalist might be expected to during a project.

Ashraf has made a living as a butcher and tailor; he’s sold lemons and lottery tickets, but in another life he could well have been a philosopher. His musings offer deep insights into the struggle and, poignantly, the solitude of poverty. Trapped by his almost complete lack of power, he’s obsessed with exercising the little power he does have.

About 90% of India’s working population belongs to the unorganised sector, and people like Ashraf would figure close to the bottom of this level. Indeed, the labourer class exists in the consciousness of the country’s elite more as statistic and subject of policy debates, than as living people with names and even lives. The achievement of Sethi’s book is to extract a person from that statistic and paint his life in all its moving humanness.

The most poignant passage in the book appears after Sethi has extracted from Ashraf what he had wanted right from Day 1 — the ‘timeline’ of his life. By then, in five years, Ashraf is now in a TB hospital, weakened by the disease, exhausted by the treatment.

The labourer tells the journalist, “That’s it, Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me — sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our faces are pasted in your notebook, our voices are locked in your recorder — me, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, everyone. Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again?”

It is moments like these in the book which are so rich of irony and tragedy that your heart will go out to these characters. It conveys truth of the nation but unfortunately, common people like you and me can do little to improve the situation. The one who can i.e. government and the bureaucrats do little to ameliorate the current condition of the lowest strata and as a result, they are stuck and suck in the vicious circle of poverty. This piece of narrative non-fiction abundantly illustrates the sickening gap between the rich and the poor. A must read!

[The review first appeared on the Bookish - The IndiaBook Store blog. You can read the whole review here]

March 30, 2013

Book Review - 117 : From the eye of my mind

[The following book review has been done in association with Random House India and India Book Store]

Author : TGC Prasad
Publisher : Ebury Press / Random House India

Mallika, an eighteen year old, is a very intelligent but autistic girl, who remembers everything a person tells or she reads in books or the Internet including the trivia. She stores all the collected information in folders and sub-folders in her computer. She organizes the information with proper cross-reference and dates. She can memorize things in menu cards and remember details in the telephone directories. Mallika also likes solving puzzles. She attends class in a special-school where her friend Swati, another special girl gives her company.

Mallika lives in a strangely whimsical yet ordered world of her own. When her mother breaks the news to her that her beloved elder brother Ananth is going to get married, her fragile world collapses. How will she deal with a stranger in her home and life? The author displays great research in getting into the mind of Mallika – narrating her insecurities, her instincts, her fears and her genuine confusion at the helm of things. There are few really touching scenes – like the one in which she boards a bus in order to get away from the mess of being in the company of a stranger (Ananth’s fiancĂ©e) and finds herself saved by a nun. Or the one in which she finally accepts the new member in her family.

The book makes a pertinent point about how autistic people need social acceptance and a right to lead a life of dignity; if handled with care, love and patience. Where it falters slightly is the final act – where it goes well in establishing the world of Mallika but the climax is just too simplistic and it appears that the author did not wanted to take the difficult path to end this interesting story. The whole point of accepting a child with special ability by sacrificing your own financial and emotional security is plain rubbish and could have been dealt with more maturity.
Length has always been a problem with Prasad’s books and this one is no exception. There are just too many self-referencing and quizzical portions which are fine to start with in an order to explain the world from Mallika’s point of view but when it keeps on going on an infinite loop, it is distracting and adds very little to the flow of the story in totality.

Told in an inimitable style, it is a tale of acceptance, love and indeed, a beautiful mind. I am going with 3/5 for TGC Prasad's second fiction novelRead it because it has been well researched and told. You just wish it was a lot shorter and had a more bolder and meaningful ending. 

[The review first appeared on the Bookish - The IndiaBook Store blog. You can read the whole review here]

March 19, 2013

Notes on 'Love, Peace and Happiness : What more can you want?'

Author : Rituraj Verma
Publisher : Jufic Books / Lead start Publishing

Rating : 3 / 5

Gently wafting through 9 short stories in the book will make you feel like the real potential of these stories has been squandered off in order to be experimental by providing alternate endings on the author website. Inherently, 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' in spirit each story centres on the life of an urban middle class character caught in a set of circumstances beyond his or her control. The stories are about common people and their circumstances are some thing which we all have come across in our daily lives.

'A high like heaven' is about a young couple taking a leisure tip to the hills,  only to find themselves entangled in mystery and myths of a wild flower. The husband becomes obsessed with the flower, suitably instigated by the tour guide only to teach a lesson of life at the end of the quest.

'The Practitioner of Austerity', arguably the best of the lot skilfully displays the vagaries of life. It emphasis the importance of living for yourself first and then look out to help others. Only once you remove the obstacles from your own life and achieve a modicum of satisfaction, you can look forward in contributing a semblance of happiness around your loved ones.

'The Intimacy of Space' sets up an interesting 'Big Boss' like premise with multiple characters introduced as participants along with a couple who are in a live-in relationship and are at crossroads how to take it to the next step. The build up to the climax is even but the ending is abrupt making you wonder what the fuss was all about in the first place.

'The Night of the affair' is about a one night stand waiting to be explored and turned into a full blown romance. Sincerely written, it has undertones of erotica and emotional chaos which make the characters full flesh and blood human beings waiting to be heard. The ending may surprise a few people, but it does remain in sync with the central theme of the book.

'The Soul Mate Theorist' start will make you feel like being thrown in a philosophy class with your hands tied down and the main point of contention gets buried under preachy chatter between two friends. Lines here are over-stressed and dialogues heavily over written. Could have done with much better editing and execution. Another case where the excitement of having an alternate ending has taken its toll on the story execution.

'The pursuit of perfection', the last story in the book wraps up the collection explaining why author decided to wrote this collection in the first place. It displays the emotional turmoil of the protagonist in his life and brings a nice round up to the book.

The book tries to make some bones about the heavy duty stuff of love, peace and internal happiness but the tone is mostly surface level and do get preachy at times. There are multiple portions which are trite and forced in. I also could not found even one alternate ending appealing on the author website which in turn completely defeats the purpose for these experimental reads. But if you are looking for some deep voice reparations by reading short stories, give it a chance.  You will not be entirely disappointed.

PS: Read the way the stories end in the book, but if you don't agree with the ending, find some new endings or write one of your own.

March 16, 2013

Notes on 'Lost Libido and other Gulp Stories'

[This post first appeared on the website Zapondo]

Author : Salil Desai

Publisher : Fingerprint

Rating : 3.5/5

‘Lost Libido and Other Gulp fiction’ wades through multiple short stories voicing the lives of several thousand people across the country, living the urban region. It is easy to relate to most stories since they are slice of life stories but single-mindedly sets out to dwell on the darker side of humans. It captures these very moments in the literary equivalent of a mouthful of flavor to be savored and easily consumed i.e gulp fiction.

You can read the whole review here.

March 2, 2013

Notes on 'Urban Shots - The Love Collection'

Rating : 3.5 / 5
Publisher : Grey Oak / Westland
Edited by : Sneh Thakur

With 31 stories contributed by 27 authors, Urban Shots - The Love Collection is an interesting anthology of short stories that traverse's the magnitude of love and will make you smile once in a while as you read on since there’s a lot you’ll be able to relate to- not because you've been in similar situations but because love is  cuts across all barriers of location, culture, language and gender!

Ira Trivedi’s 'In Love With A Stranger' talks about a bride’s conflicting emotions on her wedding day. Lipi Mehta’s 'Twisted' on the other hand tells us how love is equally strong among gay lovers. 'A Good Day' by Richa. S. Chatterjee is the tale of a young married couple whose feelings for each other are rekindled after a rather devastating experience. '32 B' by Varsha Suman had an undertone of lust and was an entertaining read. 'Pause, Rewind, Play' by Shoma Narayanan question the acceptance of homosexuality in India.

My personal favourite, however is 'Sahana or Shamim', written by Sangeeta Bandyopadhay and translated by Arunava Sinha. It takes an unusual fetish and turn it on its head by roping in a love story across a suffocated marriage. Along with this, 'The Jhalmuri Seller' by Bhabani Shankar Kar and 'Sleepless in Night' by Mona Ramavat create genuine pathos and a credibility that is hard to ignore. Some of the dispappointing ones, though comes from the senior writers - 'Coffee?' and 'Rishta' by Ahmed Faiyaz are predictable and you can guess the climax from the word go.

Overall, the anthology has most of the areas covered as far as emotion of love is concerned. Read it on a day when your romantic hormones are in an over drive and you are bound to enjoy it even more. You will like it, just don't keep your expectations too high.