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.
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.
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.
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.
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.