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Found 13 results

  1. Antara is a middle class Indian woman. Her husband, Dilip, is an American Indian (no, not one of those) who was sent by his company to Pune despite hardly speaking a word of Hindi and breaking his rotis with two hands. What had been a very happy, westernised relationship is now transformed by the arrival of Antara's senile mother and the imminent arrival of a baby. Antara is less than thrilled by her change in circumstances as she explains to readers in sassy, sarcastic tones. Antara loathes her mother, but she is honour bound to support her. The mother - Tara to her daughter's Un-tara - seems to have made curious decisions in the past. Antara was sent to a strict school run by nuns. Tara separated from her wealthy husband and became a beggar outside the Club - that haven of the middle classes. Tara joined the Ashram and wore white, despite not being in mourning. Antara resents this, and resents the intrusion Tara is making on her now comfortable life as a conceptual artist. The real strength of the novel is Antara's voice. She is self-entitled, whining, rude, ungrateful and hilarious. She may well have cause for complaint, but her petulance in putting that view across gives the reader a strange sense of schadenfreude. The legitimacy of her complaints is further undermined as the reader gradually discovers the appalling way she has behaved as an adult. There are vignette like chapters - almost like Slumdog Millionaire - with each one offering a different facet of life in India, spanning the social classes. There are real, compassionate characters in the novel. But always, there is Antara's voice. Burnt Sugar is not a long novel and it is tempting to start all over again to extract every drop of brilliance from this novel that starts so sweetly and becomes so bitter. *****
  2. Jai is nine years old. He lives in a slum in the shadow of high rise (hi fi) apartments in an unnamed Indian city. He goes to school; his family has food on the table; he is addicted to crime documentaries on TV. He is on the cusp of leaving childhood as he has an emergent adult awareness of the perils and opportunities around him. So when an unloved classmate goes missing, Jai rounds up a posse of friends and embarks on detective work to try to trace him. Gradually more children disappear, but still the police aren't interested - what are poor lives worth anyway? Jai is mostly used as a witness to report on life in the slums. He provides a lens through which to see the emergent middle class and the way they suck the oxygen away from those still living in poverty. He shows the slums as a world with its own commerce, its own rules - one that defines its identity from the purple metro line on which its residents cannot afford to travel. People in the slums still have ambitions and aspirations of one day joining these middle classes. And needless to say, Jai is not a great detective. This is not The Red Hand Gang or Scooby Doo. Kids with no money and no influence do not unmask villains through finding clues. But their dogged determination can eventually stir the authorities from their torpor. Purple Line is a very bleak novel and it is clear from the outset that for most of the families - for most of the disappeared kids - this is not going to have a happy ending. Rather, they each offer a different story, a different facet of life in the neighbourhood. Despite the context, and despite the poverty, most of the stories involved playing and laughter. But always with the spectre of child abduction lurking in the background. As well as the characters, a key strength of the novel is the sense of place. Whether in the residential area, the bazaar or in the city station, the writing transports the reader to a real and immersive world. This is all the more impressive as the city is clearly an amalgam of different cities and locations throughout India. This is not a quick or easy read. It is very rich and dense; there are details that are important but easy to miss - I found myself constantly having to flick back a few pages. Perhaps also the overall lack of plot development can make the middle section feel a bit slow - and inevitably some stories appeal more than others. When the ending comes - and eventually it does - the pace picks up and it becomes much harder to set the book down. This is a worthwhile novel that, like some other recent works from Commonwealth countries, deals with poverty in a modern world that interfaces with mod-cons and mass-communication. It's not a misery novel. In her Afterword, Deepa Anappara explains that she did not want to portray the kids and their families as Victims (with a capital V), but instead to represent the vitality, humour, schemes and scams she found in her encounters with kids in impoverished circumstances. Together, of course, with the lack of basic security that India's poor face on a daily basis; the threat of physical harm on the one hand and the threat of bulldozers on the other. ****0
  3. Saroo Brierley was years old when, out on a nefarious expedition with his older brother, he crept into an empty train and fell asleep. By the time he was able to get out of the train he was in Kolkata with no idea of how to get home. He lived on the streets for a while, had some very narrow escapes, then was picked up, sen tto anorphanage and after fruitless attempts to find his family was adopted by a couple in Australia. 25 years later, with only hazy and inaccurate memories of his train journey, he set about trying to find out where he came from and his birth mother. It's an incredible story, slightly marred by Saroo Brierley being at best a functional writer, it would have been so much better if he'd got a good ghost wroter to do the narrative for him. It has also been made into a film, called Lion, Saroo's nckname as a child, which a friend tells me is very good. It may be one of the few instances of a film being better than the book. Those reservations apart this is definitely well worth reading or seeing.
  4. Samskara (a Sanskrit word) has many meanings: A rite of passage or life-cycle ceremony, forming well - making perfect, the realisation of past perceptions, preparation - making ready, are just some. This novel (written in Kannada and translated to English by AK Ramanujan) has the English subtitle A Rite for a Dead Man, one of the meanings of Samskara. But that meaning, while being the immeidate subject of the novel, is less important than some of the others. Set before independence, it was written in 1965 and translated into English in 1976. When Naranappa, a renegade Brahmin who flouted the rules of caste, dies his community can't decide whther he should be buried as a Brahmin. And so we explore the flaws and foibles of the community as the decision is dsicussed, prayed upon and delayed. The autor describes the novel as an allegorical tale and reading it that way helps. Because despite a readable translation, the lack of knowledge of Hindu practices, legend, faith, means a lot of the nuance is lost. I think a translation that allows for a westerner's ignorance of the nuances would make this a diferent book. Perhaps the time is right for a new translation.
  5. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a long and sprawling novel that seems to cover a vast swathe of current political issues, seen through the lens of modern Indian society.We open with the story of Anjum, an intersex woman who identifies as female despite being brought up as a boy. She finds others in the same position and joins a community with them in Delhi’s old town. But gradually, she branches out on her own and forms her own community of oddballs and misfits, hanging out in a graveyard. Much of the mis-fitting seems to stem from religious and caste based prejudice.Then the story shifts to Kashmir and the struggle between Islam and Hinduism as it escalates into full-on war. We meet a different cast of characters, one of whom, Tilo, an architect and activist, is to be the lynchpin of the Kashmiri part of the book. However, Tilo’s central role is not immediately obvious and emerges almost by default as other characters fall away.This is a difficult book with a cast of hundreds, multiple story lines and themes jostling for attention. All with lengthy asides drawing on literature, poetry, political invective and spiritualism. And there are whole sections that are so esoteric they are almost unintelligible. And the Tilo and Anjum sections of the novel never integrate. They don’t even try to integrate. It is as though multiple sections of various incomplete novels have been gathered and bound together.At a conceptual level, it conveys the chaos of India. Individual scenes are very evocative – whether that is in a bustling market, a protest outside Jantar Mantar or in a cinema turned torture centre in Srinigar. But as a story telling exercise it just doesn’t work. There is little plot and negligible character development. It feels like a series of scenes created and loosely linked to illustrate political points. That’s something that might work in a shorter work, but after so much of the Ministry of Utmost Happiness, it has long outstayed its welcome.Nevertheless, the book clearly has something. Normally a work this disjointed would have been abandoned relatively early in the piece. But the more lucid pieces do command the attention and the novel does create a level of intrigue to see where it all might be heading. ***00
  6. Ghachar Ghochar is a deliciously nasty little story.Our narrator is sat in Coffee Shop, a Bangalore restaurant that has humble origins. He sits, making his coffee last for hours, admiring the sophistication and discretion of Vincent, the handsome waiter. Our narrator quietly watches the drama in other people’s lives unfold around him, sitting serenely with his coffee getting cold. This inspires our narrator into reminiscing how he came to be sat there. Our narrator’s story peels back in layers like an onion. First he tells us of his daily life coming to the Coffee Shop; then he tells us how the family’s peace was disturbed by a strange woman coming to the door for his uncle, the proprietor of a successful spice company and sole provider for the family; and then we learn of our narrator’s humble origins, growing up in a small, dark house almost devoid of furniture, rubbing shoulders with his parents, his sister and his uncle – all supported by his father’s meagre income as a salesman. Having gone back layer by layer, we then track back forward to the present moment. But each time we come back closer to reality, we have to slightly reassess what we thought we knew delving back into the past. The narration is beautiful. The narrative voice is gentle, cultured but slightly aloof and judgemental. You feel the voice is just the right side of arrogant. It opens a window onto a slice of modern India, the incredible land of contrasts. On the one hand, there are colourful saris and aromatic spices, but on the other there is poverty, destitution and subsistence-wage slavery. Ghachar Ghochar avoids the tendency of Indian novelists to load their text with untranslatable terminology – there is the odd term of art (including the title, which turns out not to be in any language at all) – but for the most part it is extremely clear. The narration is also very concentrated. The short number of pages contains a huge amount of plot and character development; significant detail can be contained in what might appear to be a throwaway line. This will keep the reader flicking back to check what actually happened couple of pages back or perhaps even a couple of dozen pages back. Although the sentences are clear, keeping on top of it all is a Herculean task – albeit one that rewards the patience and cross-checking.This is actually a really complex novella that works on a number of levels. It addresses themes such as money and happiness; whether a person has a responsibility to work; whether possessions are actually worth anything; and the role of women in modern (Indian) society. For almost all of the novella, it appears to lack a bit if direction, being a bit of a meander through these issues. You feel it couldn’t possibly come together in the space remaining. But right at the death, there is a sentence that turns the whole novella into something coherent and nasty. I defy anyone who gets to the end not to reread the last 20 pages – working back and back and back towards the middle of the book. *****
  7. The Lowland is a flat area of marshland next to the settlement of Tollygunge in Calcutta. Tollygunge houses a golf course and, even after independence, is well patrolled to keep the locals out. This symbol of colonial power is the catalyst to inspire brothers Udayan and Subhash to join the dangerous world of Indian-Maoist Marxism. But, as time passes, the brothers mature. Subhash takes up a study scholarship at a university in Rhode Island whilst Udayan stays loyal to the cause. This parting of the ways is deeply symbolic of the crossroads at which India found istelf in the 1960s and 1970s - whether to look to the east or the west for its politics and its economy. For a long while, it was not clear which would prevail, even as India seemed to choose the west there were regrets and hints of reconsidering. There were turbulent times in which leaders were assassinated whilst the economy stagnated. The Lowland offers this drama in an exquisite and extended metaphor. Just as in Midnight's Children, we see wrong choices being made and opportunities lost. We see the grind and monotony of following the respectable path in Rhode Island whilst the history of India is out of sight and out of mind. What maked The Lowland special, though, is the perfect writing that allows characters to feel real and complex; situations to feel three dimensional. Subhash and, particularly, Gauri have nuanced shades of light and dark. And there is no temptation to match morality to outcomes; both characters are well intentioned, thoughtful people but they end up hurting one another and hurting others without effort. They are caught in a web of their own making and the more they struggle to free themselves, the more ensnared they become. As the novel progresses, we start to see more of the backstory and understand more about how Subhash and Gauri came to make the choices they did, how they came to be the people they are. In particular, we start to learn more about how they each relate to Udayan. We see different points of view; we spend time with the older generation, and also with the new. This passing of the generations is done with sadness and poignancy. But as each generation loses the fire in its belly, so the next generation represents a fresh hope, as will the generation after that... The depiction of places is also genuine; Calcutta is a city of bustle, airports, railway stations and history. The clothes are bright and the food is rich. It is refreshing to visit India and not be immediately sent to the slums. Rhode Island, by contrast, is cold and sterile, safe but bland. But for all that, it never feels less real. There is not a word out of place in The Lowland, not a line that causes the reader to stumble. It is an engrossing and complex story that works on many levels. It is moving, it is frustrating, but it is always meaningful. Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, it will be interesting to see whether it can take the crown. *****
  8. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is very topical, dealing with the lives of illegal and semi-legal migrants to the UK. But topicality does not guarantee that a novel is any good. In this novel, Sahota introduces us to a number of Indian migrants who have ended up in Sheffield and London. Principally, we follow Randeep, Avtar and Tochi as they embark on a new life. Avtar is on a student visa but has no intention of studying; Tochi arrived hidden in a lorry, and Randeep has hit the jackpot with a marriage of convenience to Narinder, a British woman of Indian heritage. They struggle to find slave-labour work, they and their families are laden with debt, and generally life is a whole lot harder than they imagined. On the positive side, Sahota gives a humanity to these hidden migrants. They are individuals rather than part of some generic swarm. We see their back stories in India; we see the impact of the caste system and how far it restricts social mobility – preventing movement upwards but also burdening high caste Indians with expectations they cannot always fulfil. We see the fine line between ambition to work, and the temptation (and even need) to lie, steal and cheat. We see the confusion that can arise from misunderstanding a strange culture and fear of exposing oneself by trying to resolve those misunderstandings. But on a heavy negative side, we find a novel that is clumsily structured and whose execution does not match its ambition. Having established the cast in the opening pages, we find ourselves spending a good half of the novel back in India telling four separate back stories (those of our three heroes and Narinder). These are way too long, don’t have proper links to the main novel or to one another, and just sit like undigestable lumps. They break all sense of narrative drive and confuse as much as they illuminate. It makes the novel feel like a real slog, and when you get to 60% on your Kindle and you’re still dealing with the background, you wonder whether there is even going to be a foreground at all. It might have been preferable for the back stories to have been shorter and, perhaps, dripfed into the main narrative. A further problem is that: the characters are insufficiently distinctive. They take it in turns to be the bad guy, the voice of reason, the desperate, and the pious. They don’t behave consistently from one scene to the next; they don’t seem to have much logic behind the decisions they take. There are also a slew of supporting characters, most of whom seem to be nothing more than their actions. If the story requires someone to be daring, a side character will pop up to be daring. If the story requires someone to know something, up will pop a character to know it. For a novel that tries to show migrants as individuals, it is a bit disappointing that they all seem so interchangeable. If the men are indistinguishable, Narinder is simply not believable. She has an over-bearing father; an over-protective brother, yet she seems to traipse off to India at will, hanging around with whomever she pleases and engaging in a series of relationships in plain sight – yet her family never notices. The explanation for her offering herself as a bride of convenience is not plausible and her method of going about it seems to fly in the face of her supposed motivation. She zips between strength and victimhood; independence and beholdenness with dizzying speed. A further irritation – and this is a common failing of Indian themed books (Amitav Ghosh comes to mind) – is the constant dropping of Indian words into the text. Not once or twice, but several times a paragraph. Perhaps this is intended to remind us that the characters may not be speaking in English, but it does render much of the descriptive narrative pointless. This might be compared with The Fishermen (also Booker shortlisted in 2015) where the few Nigerian words deemed necessary are translated or explained. By the end, a sort of story has started to emerge. Even then, it is pretty loose, proceeds at glacial pace despite frenetic travel between various English cities. Multiple strands seem to fly off (in slow motion) but never land. This all leads up to an epilogue which, in too many pages, tells us that they all lived happily ever after – whilst not addressing the cliff-hangers at the end of the story proper. It’s deeply unsatisfying. As in his previous novel: Ours Are The Streets, Sunjeev Sahota has taken an important and interesting subject matter but not quite made it work. This could have been insightful and moving. Instead it feels clunky and sterile. ***00
  9. Sleeping On Jupiter is extremely neutral. Yes, really. Some of the writing is good, the characters are clear cut, but overall it is very, very meh. Part of the shortcoming is that the novel features three stories all set in the coastal town of Jarmuli. One is the story of Nomi, an Indian refugee returning on a filming mission to the scene of some atrocities she experienced in childhood. The second is the story of Gouri, Latika and Vidya, three older women on holiday and trying to cope with Gouri’s dementia. The third is the story of some of the beach boys who sell tea and guided tours to the visitors. The three stories all touch on one another, but the linkages manage to be both insufficiently substantial and overly coincidental to make for a single story. Sometimes three stories can nevertheless rub along, perhaps through creating the location as the star of the story, but this never quite happens. Instead, the reader tries to fill in gaps and spot linkages whilst not appreciating the stories that actually are on the page. Some commentators have said that Anuradha Roy has created a good sense of place. I tend not to agree. Although some of the individual details are right – the interior of the Indian Railways carriage; the tea cart on the beach, overall Jarmuli doesn’t feel right. It feels too small, too empty. There are no characters other than those named in the text – no background crowds or incidental people. There seems to be no employment, no industry, no hinterland. Just a temple, a couple of hotels, and a very unspecific place where children were detained many years ago. The ages also don’t seem to tie up. Nomi is supposed to be a young woman – almost of backpacker age – yet she treats the land she left at the age of 12 as though it was some vague memory from early childhood. She is supposed to be the contemporary of one of the beach boys, yet the elderly women are supposed to be just one generation above the beach boys. It doesn’t quite add up. Sleeping On Jupiter is not a terribly demanding read. It does have some scenes of brutality and unhappiness, but they do not dominate the story. Mostly it is a novel about a beach holiday, suitable for reading on a beach holiday. And like that beach holiday, it slips away quite quickly without leaving much lasting impression. That such an ordinary novel is long-listed for the 2015 Booker Prize, and that it sits somewhere in the middle of my 2015 Booker reads, really speaks volumes for the poor selection made by this year’s Booker judges. ***00
  10. The Lives of Others is long. Way too long. This sprawling Indian family saga charts the rise of the Ghosh family, Calcutta industrialists, as they accumulate wealth in the paper and publishing industry and then proceed to lose it as their country disintegrates and their investments fail to pay off. Against this backdrop, the sons and daughters of the family squabble. The backdrop is good. There is a wonderful insight into the politics of change; the sleaze; the corruption; the instability. We see the contrast between the young Turks of the Communist Party ranged against the old order of the caste system and acceptance of your place in society. The traditions of accumulation of wealth; patronage; marriage and funerals are set out in magnificent detail. There are some great set pieces. The police interrogation, for example, is very well done. But at other times, the injection of long lists of Indian words can grate a bit. The real problem, though, is that the cast is too large and too hard to tell apart. There is a family diagram at the front of the book and it is actually smaller than the reader might expect. This is in part due to the use of various names and forms of address for each character. But also, too many of the characters seem to be placeholders with no real spirit of their own. They do deeds, but there’s no consistency or predictability about most of them. One or two – Madan the servant and Chhaya the ugly sister – do stand out and seem to have underlying motives. But for the most part, it feels more akin to a 19th century Irish Novel of Manners than a 2014 Booker Prize contender. Many of the chapters have a chapterette between them that follows one of the characters (I won’t say which one in case it’s a spoiler) as he roams the countryside sowing the seeds of insurrection. For the most part, this is dull. Sure, it provides a vehicle to see how the other half lives, but it feels like a laboured device weighed down by a revolving cast of revolutionaries and long tracts of Maoist political philosophy. It wears its research heavily. This is awkward because, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that it is the central theme. It does pick up towards the end, but much of it feels padded. Whilst the novel is ostensibly set in 1967-1970 (helpfully signposted at the start of some chapters) there is a tendency to slip back into the past. Hence, one is never quite sure what age some of the characters are at any given moment. Is Somnath a little boy or a grown man? Is Purba a middle aged woman or a child bride? It can get mighty confusing, especially when the lengthy tome has started to outlive its welcome and the reader’s interest in sorting it all out has waned. I am sure The Lives Of Others will have its fans. For this reader, though, it was a bit too familiar. It bore more than a passing resemblance to Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good. ***00
  11. This is not your normal theatrical biography, though Felicity Kendal does describe her career and its sucesses this book was written while her father lay dieing and is largely a paean to him. Geoffrey Kendal was a beloved monster, charming, beguiling and utterly selfish. He fell in love with India and the idea of setting up a touring Shakespearean troupe and that's exactly what he did, dragging his long suffering actress wife, 13 year old daughter and baby Felicity in his wake. The story of Felicity's peripatetic childhood travelling all over India, taking her first role aged six, snatching her schooling where she could (at one school she took two exams and came top in Urdu and bottom in English) is utterly fascinating. Her sister, one of the company's lead actresses married one of Bollywood's rising heartthrobs much to their father's rage - he wanted to keep his troop together, later on the same thing happened when Felicity broke away and tried to launch an acting career. She was woefully ill equipped since she knew nothing of how to behave in swinging London or even what was required for an audition since she'd never had to do one. For me this latter part was less interesting than India though Felicity's charm and style of writing carried it through. She never says anything nasty about anyone - except about herself - but the result is far from anodyne as she's a clever enough writer to let you make up your own mind about the people she's describing. White Cargo is out of print but if you like to read about unusual lives I'd recommend hunting out a second hand copy.
  12. Guest


    I read books set in Asia, books about Asia, books by Asians (regardless of where in the world they may reside), books about the immigrant experience, and basically anything that can by any definition broad or narrow be called 'Asian'. I have deliberately made this broad, broad, broad because I don't want to get bogged down in discussion ending arguments about who or who isn't Asian and if a book is or is not 'Asian'. If it is about Asia, Asians, an Asian experience or written by some one who is Asian - its in!
  13. Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil's debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize, although as I recall considered a rank outsider to win. It certainly has the kind of elements that might turn the heads of some prize judging panels. It is stylistically experimental, with a first sentence running to six pages, even longer than it seems in the context of what is a fairly short novel. It is epic in scope, covering thirty years in the history of Bombay's (never Mumbai) opium smoking classes, and examining the lives of a variety of characters, from Mr Lee, who flees communist China's Cultural Revolution and winds up running a drug den, to the wealthy high caste Hindi Rumi, Muslim dealer Khaled and the novel's central focus, eunuch prostitute DImple. Thayil's poetic language suits the dreaminess of opiated states, which is occasionally punctuated by hideous squalor and inventive swearing, much like I imagine junkie life itself must be. The novel itself is appropriately plotless, drifting along and tuning in to the stories of Dimple, Khaled, Rumi, Mr Lee and other denizens of Bombay's Shuklaji Street. As a backdrop, we see the city's transformation from 1970s stop on the hippie trail to the dawn of the 21st century, with call centres and night clubs infiltrating the street. Opium moves onto the more damaging heroin and from there to the shiny modernity and narcissism of cocaine. If one wanted to stretch a point, one could argue the changes in Shuklaji Street are meant to reflect the changes in India as a whole during the time span the novel depicts. Narcopolis is probably not a novel for everyone - steer clear if strong language, filth and hard drugs are not to your taste - but has many seductive qualities.
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