Jayant Kaikini, No presents please: Mumbai stories (#BookReview)

Book cover

Jayant Kaikini is an Indian (Kannada) poet, short story writer, playwright, a public intellectual and a lyricist in Kannada Cinema. Kannada is new to me, but it’s the language widely spoken in the Indian state of Karnataka, where Kaikini was born (in 1955). He is regarded, according to Wikipedia, as one of the most significant contemporary writers in Kannada and is “credited with revolutionising the image of Kannada film songs”. I make this point because references to film and film songs abound in No presents please.

No presents please is a collection of short stories that are both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, but before I talk about them I’d like to share some insights from the translator, Tejaswini Niranjana, who was also involved in selecting the stories. She shares the issues she faced in translating Kaikini’s work, particularly “the flavour of the speech, the hybrid Hindu-Urdu-Dakhani speech, that is the cultural vernacular of Bombay” and is prominent in the stories. It’s clear that there were vigorous discussions about translating this speech. Kaikini apparently complained about her “frugality”, but she was worried about how the book would challenge readers not proficient in Hindustani. She solved it “by doing parallel translations–leaving in the Hindustani but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning”. I read this discussion after reading the book. I must say that there were times when I was a little challenged, but my reading philosophy is to go with the flow and, overall, Niranjana’s approach combined with my strategy worked!

The other point I want to share is Niranjana’s insight into the content of these stories which, as the subtitle clearly states, are about Mumbai. But, here’s the thing: Kaikini has, Niranjana writes, “mastered the ruse of the ordinary”. By this she means that every story “begins with an extremely ordinary person or situation–sometimes both” but that “the ordinary often reveals itself as surreal”. Her challenge was

to maintain the ordinariness of the narrative until it could be maintained no longer, and to let the translation lead the reader along without drawing attention to itself. At the same time, when the surreal began to seep into the story, and the ruse of the ordinary opened out onto a different terrain of engagement for the characters, the translation had to find the right words to signal this “turn”.

She’s right about the stories moving, almost imperceptibly at times, from the ordinary to the surreal. I suspect that Kaikini’s (sometimes subtle, sometimes less so) references to cinema help us readers have the right mindset for shifting between reality and illusion, which is more how I would describe most of the funny little moments, than actual surrealism.

So, the collection. Titled by last story in the book, it contains sixteen stories, dated between 1986 and 2006. All are written third person, and explore Mumbai as it is experienced by its “ordinary” inhabitants. The first story, “Interval”, is about a young couple who meet at a cinema where he works and she’s an audience member:

That these two were planning to run away together early tomorrow was a fact nestling snugly in the dark, like the secret of a bud that had not yet blossomed.

You can tell here that Kaikini was first a poet. What happens is not at all what you would expect – which is one of the delights of this collection. The stories are not predictable, but neither do they have dramatic twists. Things just work out differently, quite often. In a neat rounding off, the last, titular, story, is about a young engaged couple with no family, and what happens as they draft their wedding invitation.

“the friendships among strangers” (City without mirrors)

In between are stories about, for example, a father looking for a husband for his daughter (“City without mirrors”), the despairing father of a very naughty but irrepressible 6-year-old-boy (“A spare pair of legs”), a bus-driver wanting to return to his village for an annual festival (“Crescent moon”), a stunt man (“Toofan Mail”), roommates who suddenly become estranged (“Partners”), a loyal maid who becomes ill (“A truck full of Chrysanthemums”), and a child quiz contestant (“Tick tick friend”). These stories pull no punches about the lives of people living on the margins or struggling in some way. Kaikini is not afraid to expose some of Mumbai’s (and India’s) underbelly. In “City without mirrors”, a bachelor is “aghast at the cruelty of a situation in which an old man had to speak to a complete stranger about the proof of virginity of his nearly forty-year-old daughter”.

Many of the stories, like “City of mirrors”, involve chance meetings between strangers, strangers who tend to offer something positive, rather than danger. “Tick tick friend” is about a young quiz contestant coming to the big city to compete in a television studio that happens to be in the basement of a hospital. Schoolgirl Madhu and her father meet a young man in the hospital canteen. His cheeky, positive attitude to life buoys them. Mogri (“Mogri’s world”) grows up in a chawl with her mother and frequently absent father. Early on, she realises that sex can be women’s downfall, but learns through meeting an older waiter at work that there are different ways of being between men and women.

In “Water”, two men, one ill with cancer, meet on a plane and spend a night with the third, their taxi-driver, when a huge storm creates havoc in the city. It’s a moving story, full of philosophical observations about life. Taxi-driver Kunjbhai, answering whether life seems “like hell or like heaven”, says:

Well, everything depends on how we think about it. If I think I’m happy, it’s happy I am. If I think I’m sad, then I’m sad.

That may sound a bit pat, I suppose, but in the context, it’s beautiful. I liked this story for the warmth generated between three strangers.

And that’s the thing about this book. For all the challenges most of its characters face, there is also warmth and humour in the telling, the end result being stories that don’t drag you down but that also don’t lull you into thinking all is well. There’s acceptance and resilience, but also little glimmers of hope in the stories.

No presents please won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2018. It’s the first translated work to win the award, and the jury particularly noted “the outstanding contribution” of the translator. That tells you, I think, how special this book is.

Jayant Kaikini
No presents please: Mumbai stories
Translated from the Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana
Melbourne: Scribe, 2020 (Orig. pub. in India, 2017)
ISBN: 9781922310187

(Review copy courtesy Scribe)

Neel Mukherjee’s The lives of others, and those epilogues

MukherjeeLivesOthersChattoWhen my reading group discussed The lives of others questions were raised about the meaning of the two epilogues, specifically in terms of what they contributed to the meaning of the book. Not having finished the book in time, I wasn’t able to join in, so I’m having a go now.

As I mentioned in my review, the two epilogues are dated much later than the main action of the book, the first occuring in 1986, and the second in 2012. Let’s start with 1986 …

Epilogue 1

It’s about Sona, the youngest grandson in the house and the son of the youngest, and most ill-treated, daughter-in-law Purba. At the end of the novel, before the epilogue, we learn that his mathematical skills have resulted in his being offered a scholarship to go to America. He’s 15. In 1986, he is 30, and a Professor of Pure Mathematics at Stanford University – and he has won a special Mathematics Prize. What has this to do with the novel?

Tricky. At one level, it shows that the lowest in the family hierarchy did manage to get away and “make good”. It’s lovely seeing poor Purba, even before they left, suddenly being recognised and appreciated by the family. But, it’s how they got away that is also significant, which is through skill, ability and education. Education is one of the novel’s themes. Early, daughter Chhaya sees a niece (another grand-daughter in the family) displaying signs of immodesty and defiance:

This is what happens when one has an uneducated mother, Chhaya thinks …

Then again, the rather unpleasant Chhaya is unmarried. Some say that

being a graduate, having a BA degree, had harmed Chhaya’s chances of finding a husband.

Even given that Chhaya is not the most sympathetic character, the message seems to be that for women education is a complicated issue – at that time, in that society. For men, though, it is a way out. For Sona (our Professor), education was critical to escaping a controlling family. For Sona’s grandfather, Prafullanath, however, education was unnecessary to his achievement, and he doesn’t see its value. His oldest son Adi though does, as does second son Priyo, who wishes he’d been born into a different family, one comprising “fierce reformers; progressive, educated people”. Go down another generation, to Sona’s that is, and we find Prafullanath’s oldest grandson and Adi’s son, Supratik. He is, in today’s parlance, radicalised at university to the point that he becomes a Naxalite.

I could go on, but for me it’s clear that a major point of Epilogue 1 has to do with education, and with the fact that with education you can escape.

But, what about maths? Why maths in particular? Is this significant? I think it is, and it deserves further study. For example, here is Supratik near the end, when he is under arrest and being confronted by his surely hypocritical decisions and actions:

The calculation at that time, he remembers, had been strictly mathematical – if one have-not had to be sacrificed so that fifty have-nots could be benefited, nothing trivial such as emotions could stand in the way.

I’ll leave you with that thought! Maths, like education, itself, or almost any idea in the book, has no intrinsic value. It is how it is used that is important. In other words, as I said in my review, Mukherjee doesn’t seem to want to give answers, but to show different ways of being. I think I know what he thinks, just by the fact that he has told this story, but he certainly doesn’t ram it down our throats.

Epilogue 2

This Epilogue is dark. It describes a terrorist act that will result in mass murder, and it is conducted by new revolutionaries, revolutionaries who see Supratik as a hero, a martyr to their cause. Their technique is his:

The trick is more than forty years old, she has been told during her training. Someone had come from Chhattisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar.  […] his gift to his future comrades survived and, for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest …

Our young Maoist revolutionary knows what she is fighting for:

The tribal people knew what fate awaited them outside their land – daily wage-labourer in the city, maidservant in someone’s home, prostitute.

And she’s pragmatic about the implications of her role:

They would all die one day – and it will come a lot sooner in their lives than in others’ – but it was better to die fighting, like a cornered wildcat, than crushed underfoot like an unseen worm.

But what is Mukherjee saying? That it’s ok to continue to calculate, to sacrifice the lives of others for some better future?

I’m not sure, but going back a few chapter to when Supratik is under arrest, he thinks

The questions of feelings and principles and inhuman betrayal that he has had to wrestle with surge back, this time without the soul-destroying arithmetic to balance them out: did he . . . did he go down that route because of reasons of class, because a servant stealing is so much more credible, so much more natural, than a member of the family? Was it to make the theft believable to the police that he had framed Madan-da, or was it because it had cost less to betray a servant than one’s own kind? The questions are so unbearable …

And so now, I think, I understand the novel a little more. The questions are, indeed, unbearable … and the basic one is: when are the answers absolute and when do they require calculation, that soul-destroying arithmetic? The risk is, I suspect Mukherjee is saying, that when we apply that arithmetic we are more likely to sacrifice the lives of others than those of our own.

Neel Mukherjee, The lives of others (Review)

MukherjeeLivesOthersChattoBefore I talk about Neel Mukherjee’s Booker Prize short-listed The lives of others, I want to briefly mention the experience of reading it on the Kindle. I probably haven’t told you my little reading rule of thumb before, which is that I aim to buy Australian books in print, and overseas books electronically. It’s my measured foray into downsizing!

However, I don’t greatly enjoy reading on my Kindle. I like the Kindle itself. It handles pretty much like a book, the e-ink technology is easy on the eye, it’s light and portable, and with this particular author whose vocabulary is impressive, I did find the in-built dictionary to be very useful. But, I don’t find reading books in e-formats particularly pleasurable. It’s not easy to get the measure of a book, to flick through it and see what’s what. Consequently, I didn’t discover the family tree until I’d read the first couple of chapters. Now, if you’ve read this book, you will know that the three generations of the Ghosh family who live in a four-storey house are introduced in one chapter. Their names are unfamiliar to a westerner’s ears making it hard to remember who’s who, so that family tree was a godsend. But, I only found it when a a reading group friend mentioned its existence. The diagram’s small print was, though, very hard to read, and could not be enlarged like e-text can, so I hand-drew a family tree, photographed it, and shared it with my group. Then there were the many specifically Indian words that were not in the dictionary. They were in the glossary at the back, but it’s tedious flipping between glossary and text in an e-book environment, so I didn’t. How hard would it have been to hyper-link those words to the glossary?

“the very quicksands of family” (Suranjan)

Rant over, let’s talk about the book! The lives of others is set in West Bengal from 1966 to 1970, with two epilogues set much later, one in 1986 and the other in 2012. It centres on the aforementioned Ghoshes, a well-to-do family whose wealth comes from paper mills. By the time the novel opens, business is starting to fail, so there is tension in the air, exacerbating the rivalries, envies and secrecies which characterise the family’s relationships. That’s the personal, but this book is also political, because one of the characters, a grandson of the old couple, becomes a revolutionary with the Naxalites, a section of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (or, CPI-M). In 1967, they commenced radical action to redistribute land to landless farmers and labourers. The book’s chronology mirrors the early years of this movement.

Indeed, the book is chronologically structured, with each chapter labelled by date. The first thirteen of its nineteen chapters comprise two sections – a third person story about the family in the Calcutta house, and a first person epistolary story (presented in a different font – unless your e-book was on an iPad, but that’s another story) by Supratik, the revolutionary grandson who is in the countryside “where the real politics lay”. This first person story finishes in chapter 14, when Supratik returns to Calcutta. The effect of this structure is to parallel manipulative behaviour and power plays in the family with the societal/political power imbalances against which Supratik fights. Just before he leaves the family, Supratik says to his mother, Sandhya:

Are you happy with the inequalities of our family? Of the power-on-top-ruling-people-below kind of hierarchy? Do you think it’s right? Has the thought ever crossed your mind that the family is the primary unit of exploitation?

This structure is just one example of how carefully the book is crafted. There are also allusions – and I’m sure there are many that I didn’t get – to literary classics. Chapter 4’s opening line that “not all family bonds are equal” must surely allude to the opening of Anna Karenina, which is also both about family and land/farm reform. And there’s a scene reminiscent of Sense and sensibility. In it the Ghosh patriarch, Prafullanath, is done out of the inheritance his father wanted him to have by a half-brother, who is spurred on by his wife. This reminded me of Fanny Dashwood talking husband John out of properly helping his stepmother and half-sisters, despite his dying father asking him to do. One of the themes of Sense and sensibility is economic power and inequality, and how families can wield power.

“this unvarying calculus about the worth of one’s own kind measured against the lives of others ” (Supratik)

Mukherjee, however, takes these themes to another level. The lives of others is a powerful and often brutal book. The prologue, which tells of a murder-suicide enacted by a poor sharecropper after consistently receiving no help from his landlord for his starving family, establishes the two main themes – economic inequity, and the inhumane treatment of “others”. These themes are played out in the way various members of the family treat each other, their workers and those with whom they come into contact, and are paralleled in the farm politics which engage Supratik’s passion. While the themes can be simply stated, the story-telling is sophisticated. Complex links and parallels, together with concrete and abstract motifs, evocative images and targeted allusions underpin the novel’s layers to expose human capacity for cruelty, self-preservation and self-deception. In a devastating conclusion, Mukherjee shows what happens when idealism loses sight of the humanity it is trying to protect, when calculation over-rides empathy. He offers no answers, makes no judgements, but simply shows.

The result is tough, and sometimes very uncomfortable, reading, but what drove me on was Mukherjee’s language. It is truly delicious. The imagery is accessible, often referencing the very ordinary, but it is so fresh that it takes its mark perfectly, again and again:

… if you fail an exam, it decreases the chances of getting out of the system that will slowly crush you to a flat piece of cardboard


Two things with the power to scrunch Prafullanath’s plans into a shapeless paper bag had not occurred to his myopic mind.


His voice has the serrations of a knife in it.

Cardboard, paperbags and knives. All so mundane but, in Mukherjee’s hands, so on the money. Here’s one more, describing one of the daughters-in-law:

Haranguing the servants at last gave Purnima a point of convergence for all her diffuse days and energies to focus on, and she took to it like a spindly, undernourished sapling to rich loam.

Mukherjee’s ability to capture people and place with such vividness and clarity is impressive. It’s not a perfect book, being weighed down at times by detail that, interesting though it is, doesn’t always seem essential.

However, Mukherjee’s compassionate but unsentimental understanding of human nature, combined with his clear-eyed analysis of how the personal interacts with the political, reveal uncomfortable truths about our dealings with other, and make him, unlike Supratik, a more trustworthy “defence counsel for humanity”.

Neel Mukherjee
The lives of others
London: Chatto & Windus, 2014
ISBN (e-pub): 9781448192182

Amitav Ghosh, River of smoke (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

I’m rather sorry that I haven’t read Amitav Ghosh‘s Sea of poppies because, while River of smoke does work on its own, I think my experience would have been richer had I read the beginning of the trilogy. This shouldn’t affect its Man Asian Literary Prize chances, but you never know.

Giant water lilies, Pamplemousses

Giant water lilies, Pamplemousses Botanical Garden

I loved that the book starts in the gorgeous island of Mauritius which I visited for a couple of weeks in 2004. Pamplemousses Botanical Garden was one of the first sights we visited. It is full of wonderful exotic plants, particularly spices, that we hadn’t seen before. This sounds a bit nostalgic but it is relevant to a book that is, as the artist Robin Chinnery writes, about “flowers and opium, opium and flowers”.

Let me explain. The story centres on three boats – the Ibis, the Anahita and the Redruth. The first two are involved in the opium trade – one English owned, one Indian owned – while the Redruth is involved in plant collecting and trading. The novel is primarily set in Canton in the lead up to the first Opium War of 1839-1842. At the time of the novel, the Chinese are in the process of trying to ban the opium trade and consequently have forbidden foreign ships to enter the port. The result is that the traders are all in Fanqui-town (Canton’s foreign enclave) waiting for the situation to resolve in their favour, while their boats are moored in the Hong Kong-Macau area. The novel reminded me a little of Dickens, not just because of its length but also because of its large cast of characters, its plot encompassing nefarious deeds, conspiracies and adventures, the comic relief, and its socio-political themes. There is also colourful language, satire and irony. Of course, Ghosh is writing historically while Dickens was exploring his own place and time, but that’s a minor difference.

The story is told from two main points of view. One is a traditional third person story of the opium traders, seen mainly (but not only) through the life (and eyes) of the Indian opium trader, Bahram Modi. The other combines the opium story with the plant story, through letters written from a young gay artist in Fanqui-town to his botanist friend, Paulette and her employer Mr Fitcher, on Redruth. He, Robin Chinnery, describes the hunt for the elusive golden camellia, while also providing a (semi)outsider’s perspective on the unfolding events in the opium trade crisis. I enjoyed Robin’s generally cheery voice and his colourful descriptions of life in Fanqui-town but I wonder whether the novel needed this extra layer to provide this added perspective? Paulette, the recipient of his letters, is largely silent and seems to add little to the narrative.

When a novelist writes a work of historical fiction, I wonder s/he has chosen to set a story in a past time – and look to see whether there is some application to the story in the novelist’s own time. In this case there is, for Ghosh’s target is the complexities of international trade, and the hypocrisies and fallacies that are still evident in the notion of “free trade”. He shows that “free trade” is rarely free or equal to all parties. The opium trade (and the British East India Company’s involvement in it) is perfect for this with its additional moral problem involving trading (or is it smuggling – the line is a fine one) a product that is injurious and that was, in fact, banned in England. Towards the end of the novel, the traders discuss their response to the Chinese Commissioner Lin’s demand that they give up their opium cargoes. The American Charles King appeals to their “better” natures:

‘ … Are you not aware that with every shipment you are condemning hundreds, maybe thousands of people to death? Do you see nothing monstrous in your actions?’

‘No, sir,’ answered Mr Burnham coolly. ‘Because it is not my hand that passes sentence upon those who choose the indulgence of opium. It is the work of another, invisible, omnipotent: it is the hand of freedom, of the market, of the spirit of liberty itself, which is none other than the breath of God’.

Guess who wins the argument?

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

The most interesting character in the book is Bahram, the Indian opium trader who is only just accepted by the British traders. He is a complex character whose nature, motivations and flaws we come to know well. His flaws as a husband, father and businessman are many, but so are his strengths as an employer and friend. We  feel for him as he has to make a difficult decision and wish he were a little braver, a little wiser. He is testament to Ghosh’s ability to draw a flawed but sympathetic character.

A major pleasure in the book is the writing. Ghosh is a versatile writer who can slip from the breezy, colloquial vernacular of Robin to the formal tones of the English merchants. His grasp of the period is breathtaking. I gave up “Googling” the unfamiliar words and just let them flow over me, because the context made them clear:

On reaching the enclave the lascars and lime-juicers had gone, as was their custom, straight to the shamshoo-shacks of Hog Lane, so as to get scammered as quickly as possible.

In other words, as soon as they got off the boats, the sailors went to the pubs and got drunk (by drinking too much “stagger juice”).

There were, though, occasional lapses into didacticism. They were rare but they jarred when they occurred. An example is a little aside describing the Spanish silver dollar.  Mostly, though, Ghosh does show rather than tell and the novel is full of colourful detail about food and dining, art, plants, boats and business.

River of smoke is not a perfect novel but is a great read – for its description of a fascinating period in history, for its lively portrayal of characters you would recognise today, and for its exploration of issues (still) relevant now. My overall assessment? Read it.

For reviews by other team members, please see my Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 page.

Amitav Ghosh
River of smoke
London: John Murray, 2011
ISBN: 9780719568992

Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Jahnavi Barua on reading

In my recent review of Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth I quoted the following line: “No, I will not buy a book today. I will try and live in my life instead”. I really wanted, though, to quote the entire preceding paragraph, but it didn’t really suit the direction of my review. And so, instead, I’m posting it today.

The protagonist, Kaberi, is in a bookshop (as you will have guessed):

I begin with the As and work my way down the bookshelves. I stop at C; I have not read Disgrace yet and would have liked to have browsed through it but somehow today my heart is not in it. Still, I wander down the aisle looking at the familiar names; I am compelled to stop at K, Kawabata. I caress the spine of the book as if stroking the hand of an old and beloved friend. I cannot forget the girl in his book, The sound of the mountain. Her relationship with her father-in-law haunts me; is it possible that there can be only friendship between a man and a woman unrelated by blood? I had been so deeply unsettled by the book when I first read it; your father had only laughed. He said I had lived so little in the real world that the fictional appeared so significant to me.

I love this paragraph for so many reasons. Let me count the ways! No, let’s not be quite so mechanical but I will say that I like it for personal and structural reasons. Personal because I’ve read and loved the two books she describes, and because I can relate to her need to caress a loved book and her being unsettled by a great book.  And structural because this paragraph contains several clues to character and even plot in the book … but I won’t give those away (beyond of course what you’ve already gleaned from this piece of text itself).

Jahnavi Barua, Rebirth (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

What a shame Jahnavi Barua‘s novel, Rebirth, is, to the best of my knowledge, available “for sale in the Indian Subcontinent only” (backcover). Our Shadow Man Asian team had real problems tracking this one down, but I’m very glad we did manage to obtain some copies, eventually, because this is a beautiful book.

The title, Rebirth, might give you a sense of its subject matter – but, then again, it mightn’t! The novel – novella really – is a first person monologue by a mother to her unborn child. The child is waiting to be born – not reborn – but there is a sense that for the mother, Kaberi, a rebirth might be in the offing as she explores the state of her shaky arranged marriage, and of some tricky or unresolved relationships with family and friends.

While set in India – in Bangalore and Guwahati (in the troubled province of Assam) – this novel does not have the noise and energy that often accompanies stories from the subcontinent. It’s quiet and contemplative. Moreover, while it is imbued with gorgeous descriptions of the plants and landscapes of India, and while it refers to the ongoing political unrest in Assam, it is not specifically Indian in theme. Its story is universal, that of the desire for love between husband and wife, and of the love of a mother for her child. And here is the difficult part, because it is hard to describe this largely plotless novel without making it sound twee or mawkish, but somehow it is not that at all. Barua manages to find a voice for Kaberi that is tender but matter of fact, that is tentative but also confident. The progression is chronological, commencing with her husband leaving her for another woman at the beginning of the novel just as she discovers she is pregnant (after many years of trying). She doesn’t tell him – or her family and friends – for some long time as she considers her life. In the opening paragraphs we are given a picture of her as somewhat passive and inward-looking. Before her husband left, she says she

had been partial to the large soft sofa in front of the television, from where I had a good view of the screen, but from where I also looked inwards, into the heart of the house. I did not see much of the sky or buildings clustered around our own, but all that, anyway, did not cross my mind very often, so focused was I on your father and myself and the home we had fashioned together.

Ah, we think … a person ripe for “rebirth”. And yes she is, but it is slow and undramatic as she gradually, by meeting friends, remembering her old childhood friend who’d died in a bombed bus in Assam, and reflecting on her marriage past and present, comes to a better understanding of who she is. Early in the novel she, a keen reader, says:

I will not buy a book today. I will try and live in my life instead.

As the novel progresses, we find that she is, in fact, stronger and more directed than we (and, more to the point, even she) had realised. She has, for example, written a book and organised for her friend Preetha to illustrate it. This is no simple thing, but her husband, “whose public manners were always nice”, knows nothing of this. Ah, we wonder, what is she saying about his private manners, the way he treats her? We learn, through more stories in the next few pages, that what she hasn’t received from him is tenderness and love. But we also receive a clear sense of strength growing in her:

I demand love. Now, especially now, at least now.

This comes about a quarter of the way through the novel … the rest explores, in the same quiet tone, how things fall out for Kaberi, how she confronts her fears and insecurities. Things do happen – her father dies and she returns home to Guwahati, she eventually tells her husband, family and friends about her pregnancy. You can’t hide that forever after all! In other words, there is a plot of sorts, but the story is mostly an internal one and the ending is appropriately open albeit also with some sense of things resolved.

A little over halfway though the novel Kaberi says:

Birds wheel around slowly in the cloudless sky. Seemingly aimless, but I know better; little happens in nature accidentally.

And, I’d say, little happens accidentally in the writing of this book. It has been carefully and subtly structured to lay the foundations for Kaberi’s growth, and this makes it an absolute pleasure to read.

For other reviews by the Shadow Man Asian team, please click on my Man Asian Literary Prize page.

Jahnavi Barua
New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010
ISBN: 9780143414551

(Review copy supplied by Penguin Books via Lisa of ANZLitLovers)

Anuradha Roy, The folded earth (Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011)

Anuradha Chenoy (Jawahar Lal Nehru University,...

At last I’m posting my first review for our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize longlist reviewing project. The book is The folded earth  by Indian writer Anuradha Roy.  Like many others, my first reaction when I saw this book listed was to wonder whether Anuradha was another name for Arundhati Roy – but it isn’t. She is, however, used to readers confusing her – and now that we have cleared that up, I will get on with my review.

The folded earth is Roy’s second novel. It’s a contemporary story about a young Hindu woman, Maya, who marries a Christian man, Michael, thereby angering both her parents and his. Consequently, when Michael dies, mountaineering, after only 6 years of marriage, she has no family to turn to for support. Grief-striken her solution is to move to Ranikhet, the nearest town in the Himalayan foothills to where he died. The novel chronicles her life in that town – the work she does, the friends she makes. It’s a fairly simple plot, though there are some complications: there’s the mysterious Veer who comes and goes and with whom she develops an uneasy relationship, and there’s the backdrop of conflict as the impending elections bring into focus Christian-Hindu tensions. There are also some references to real people – to the romantically involved Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, and to the legendary big-cat hunter Jim Corbett.

The main appeal of the book for me was the evocation of village life through its colourful characters. They include Ama, the  stereotypical but nonetheless believable wise village woman; Charu, her lovelorn but resourceful granddaughter; Mr Chauhan, the officious Administrator; Diwan Sihab, the eccentric would-be biographer of Corbett and generous landlord to Maya; Puran, the simple cowherd; Miss Wilson, the austere principal of the Catholic school at which Maya works. And of course, Maya, herself, who is the first person narrator of the novel. These characters come alive and we care about them, even Mr Chauhan who, with his attempts to beautify Ranikhet (“In foreign countries I have heard people have to pick up even their dog’s … waste from roads”), provides light comic relief. He is not totally benign though, as he is also behind one of the book’s cruellest moments when his henchmen torture Puran.

I also enjoyed the writing. Roy’s descriptions of the foothills and seasonal changes bring the landscape alive:

… I stood looking at the mountains, which had risen out of the monsoon sky. Clouds were piled high at their base so that they floated in mid-air, detached from everything earthly. Something in the quality of the light made the peaks appear translucent, as if the molten silver sky were visible through them.

Her descriptions of people and their relationships are often spot-on, such as this of a new relationship:

We were too new and fragile, too skinless to be exposed to daylight just yet.

Roy explores some of the changes confronting the region, particularly in relation to religious difference, education, and the role of women. Should women be educated, and if so how much? (Ama, for example, would like to see Charu educated so that “she won’t let a man get away with treating her badly” but not so much that it will stop her getting a husband.) How do hardworking villagers comprehend the seasonal influx of wealthy travellers? Here is Ama again:

Travelling is all very well […] But it’s for people with money to burn and nothing better to do but eat, drink and idle. Why go walking up and down hills for pleasure? We do that everyday for work.

Social conflict and change are real issues in this neck of the woods!

And yet, despite these positives, the book doesn’t quite hang together, mainly, I think, because it doesn’t know what it is. Is it about coming to terms with grief, an ideas novel about political tensions in contemporary India, a mystery about Michael’s death, a hymn to the Himalayan region (in the face of encroaching urbanisation), or all of the above? I suspect Roy intended all of these but the book is a little too disjointed, a little too unfocused to quite pull it off. The politics seem important but are mostly a sideline to the personal stories. For the political ideas to have impact they needed to collide in some major way with the characters rather than form a backdrop as they do here. There is a mystery about Michael’s death but Roy doesn’t build or sustain the tension well, and when the true story comes out it’s neither surprising nor particularly powerful. There are references to the destruction of the natural world, to humans making “anthills out of the mountains”, to “the distant past of the forests when the shadow of a barasingha’s horns flitted through the denser woods”, but the ideas are not fully integrated into the story.

I’m not sorry to have read it, however. It’s not a ground-breaking book and it doesn’t fully cohere, but there is a lot to enjoy – the writing, the exotic (to me) setting, and the characters, for a start. I don’t imagine this will be my top-ranked book in the longlist but neither would I discourage people from reading it.

From the team: Matt (A Novel Approach) had similar reactions to mine, and Fay (Read, Ramble) also had reservations.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Anuradha Roy
The folded earth
London: MacLehose Press, 2011
ISBN: 9780857050441

Salman Rushdie, The enchantress of Florence

The enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Cover image, used by permission of The Random House Group Ltd

Where to begin? Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The enchantress of Florence is one of those books-writ-large: its canvas is broad, its structure a little complex and it has a large character set. In other words, you need your wits about you as you read this one.

This is only my third Rushdie. Like most keen readers I read and enjoyed Midnight’s children, with its inspired exploration of the partition of India. I also loved his cross-over children’s book Haroun and the sea of stories. It is a true laugh-out-loud book. In fact, as I started this book I had a flashback to Haroun, not so much because of the subject matter but the light rather satirical if not downright comedic tone. It is very funny at times, particularly in the beginning.

Akbar the Great

Akbar the Great (Courtesy: Wikipedia, Presumed public domain)

The novel is set in the 16th century and revolves around the visit of a young Italian, the so-called “Mogor dell’Amore” (Mughul of Love), to the Mughal emperor Akbar‘s court and his claim that he is a long lost relative of Akbar, born of an exiled Indian princess (Qara Köz) and a Florentine. The story moves between continents, with “Mogor’s” story about his origins in Medici Florence being told alongside that of Akbar’s court. The book is populated with a large number of historical figures – and at the end of it is an 8-page (my edition) bibliography of books and web-sites Rushdie used to research his story. They include social, political and cultural histories as well as fictional works such as Italo Calvino’s Italian folktales. One could wonder, at times, whether it’s a little over-researched, but perhaps that would be churlish.

The next question to ask is, What sort of novel is it? Is it historical fiction? Well yes. Is it a picaresque novel? Yes, a bit. Is it a romance? That too, a bit. Is it a comedy? Certainly. Is it a fable? Could be! What it is, under all this of course, is postmodern.

If I had to use one word to describe this book it would probably be paradoxical. On the second page of the story, the bullock cart driver who brings the stranger (our “Mogor”) to town, describes his passenger in these terms:

If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well, and, the driver thought, everyone around here is a little bit that way too, so maybe this man is not so foreign to us after all.

And thus the scene is set for a rather rollicking tale about people who either aren’t all – or don’t seem all – quite real, who play games with each other, who are perhaps more alike (“not so foreign”) than they are different, and who manipulate, fight, love and hate each other as they struggle to find (or understand or establish) their place in the world. In fact, at the end of the first chapter the sort of paradoxical story we are embarking on is made clear:

The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered prosy fact.

In other words, as you read this book, keep your wits about you! And that is, I admit, what I found a little hard to do as stories, people, and ideas were thrown at me…and then taken back and thrown at me a different way. As I read books I tend to jot notes on the blank page/s you usually find at the end. My notes on this one are all over the place: Love, Power, Names and their mutability, Truth, Religion and Faith, Imagination and Reality, Stories, Nature of men and women, East versus West, and so on. The question now is, Do any of these tie together or form a coherent thought upon which to hang the book? I think there is, and it is to do with ideas surrounding imagination and reality. In Chapter 3, for example, we learn of Akbar’s love for Jodha, the woman he has conjured up for himself:

She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends…and the emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real.

Their love is called “the love story of the age”, and the chapter talks about the border between “what was fanciful and what was real”. Love, and its power, is one of the driving forces of the novel, and, without giving anything away, the ending more or less unites the two ideas: the power of love, and the conjunction of imagination and reality.

But, truth be told, I’m having trouble writing about this book…and I think this is because, for me at least, it started off with a flourish but got bogged down, particularly when we moved from India to Florence. That said, it picked up again near the end. Here is Akbar in the last chapter:

Again, at once, he was mired in contradictions. He did not wish to be divine but he believed in the justice of his power, his absolute power, and, given that belief, this strange idea of the goodness of disobedience that had somehow slipped into his head was nothing less than seditious. He had power over men’s lives by right of conquest … But what, then … of this stranger idea. That discord, difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence might be the wellsprings of good. These thoughts were not fit for a king.

The word I used earlier in this review to describe this book was paradoxical and this is because almost every “truth” presented within its pages is met by an equal but opposite “truth”. And perhaps that is the biggest truth of all!

Salman Rushdie
The enchantress of Florence
London: Vintage, 2009
ISBN: 9780099421924

Aravind Adiga, The Sultan’s Battery

Adiga’s next book, after his very successful, The white tiger, is a collection of short stories titled Between the assassinations. It has already been published in India, and apparently refers to that period in India between the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv. An abridged version of one of its stories, The Sultan’s Battery, has been published in various newspapers around the world.

It’s an intriguing little story. It’s about a man, Ratna, who sells, among other things, fake cures for venereal diseases (STDs) because this is the only way he can raise money for dowries for his three daughters. Quack doctors and “sexologists” are apparently prevalent in India, as this article explains. Anyhow, the first suitor to come forward turns out, ironically, to be inflicted with a venereal disease. From this point the story takes a turn that one might not expect from such a set-up.

The irony, fairly quiet though it is, is one of the appealing things about this story: the man who sells fake “cures” ends up caring for someone who is sick of the very thing he sells his “cures” for; the Sultan’s Battery which is a major tourist attraction is a place of fakery and misery; and the Dargah behind which Ratna sells his fake wares is a shrine built over the grave of a revered religious figure.

The story is told in third person, and the language is simple and direct, but a careful reading will see an equally careful use of words. Ratna’s sign is written in “golden words” and he arranges his wares with “grave ceremony”. The young men surrounding Ratna are described: “the crowd of young men had now taken on the look of a human Stonehenge; some with their hands folded on a friend’s shoulder, some standing alone; and a few crouched on the ground, like fallen boulders”. Hmm. Stonehenge  conjures something strong and enduring but he quickly undermines that with those final words of the paragraph.

An interesting comment, which draws our attention to the title of the collection, is made late in the story when a passing character says:

Everything’s been falling apart in this country since Mrs Gandhi got shot … Buses are coming late. Trains are coming late. Everything’s falling apart. We’ll have to hand this country back to the British or the Muslims or the Russians or someone, I tell you. We’re not meant to be masters of our own fate.

Adiga here, as in The white tiger, is not impressed by India’s ability to manage itself for the good of its citizens, but is going back the answer? Is this suggestion the ultimate irony?

The story has a somewhat open ending – but, given that it is an abridged version of the one in the book, we’ll have to wait for publication (late June 2009 in Australia, by Penguin) to see whether more information is provided in the book version. From this little taster, I’m willing to read more.