Book Review: The City of Devi

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The City of Devi, by Manil Suri, is the story of Sarita and Jaz, both in search of their love, who happens to be the same person, Karun, in a war ravaged and under nuclear attack threat Mumbai. Told alternatively from the points of view of Sarita and Jaz, the story is interesting and engaging. Karun, a physicist and a closet homo-sexual, is heart-broken after being betrayed by Jaz, reluctantly moves on and marries Sarita, a statistician. Although he loves and cares for her, their relationship is not like a typical couple. Jaz, on the other hand is still madly in love with him and wants him back. The relationship and the emotional dynamics between Karun and Jaz, Karun and Sarita, and Sarita and Jaz is very well and sensitively written. You really feel the emotional turmoil these characters are undergoing. Kudos to Manil for such a brilliant portrayal of these complex characters and their interactions.

Here is where the book could have been better – the whole set-up of pre- apocalyptic Mumbai. I expected more imagination and creativity here. The whole idea of a movie sparking extreme religious fanaticism which leads to intense riots between Hindus and Muslims and divides Mumbai into two parts – each dominated by one religion, seems far-fetched. Same for everyone blindly following a fake Devi and her antics. Also, except for Karun, Sarita and Jaz, other characters are not very strong, some are stereotyped caricatures, others are too shallow to bring any substance to the story.   

The book cover compares Manil Suri with Narayan, Coetzee, Naipaul, Chekov and Flaubert. He definitely is a good and promising author, but has a long way to go before such statements would start making sense.

Note: Homophobes would be better if they avoid this.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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“As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.” Excerpt from Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Pulitzer Prize winning author Katherine Boo

Stunned. If I have to put it in one word, that would be my reaction to this book. Stunned by the devastatingly visceral narrative, stunned by the ruthless frankness in which the characters are portrayed, but above all, stunned to know that the book is not a work of fiction, but a true story. It is hard to believe that this is a true account of what Katherine saw while interacting with the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum near the international airport in Mumbai.

Annawadi Slums in Mumbai

Annawadi Slums in Mumbai

Behind Beautiful Forevers is a very well written book which focuses on the lives of three families living in abject poverty in one of Mumbai’s many slums.  Katherine has come up with a very vivid portrayal of life in the slums, the hopes and dreams of the characters, the challenges faced by them and the interactions they have among themselves and with the world outside the slum. The characters of Abdul – the enterprising rag picker and Asha – aspiring to be the most powerful person in the slums, are particularly hard-hitting.

This is an exceptionally well written book. The fact that Katherine is not from India and does not understand the language spoken by the slum dwellers (she had to reply on translators), and yet she has written such a remarkable book based on their lives, is an ode to her journalistic and literary abilities.

This is one of the two outstanding non-fiction books I have read in the last couple of months, the other one being Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton

And yes, it would be a good idea to read the Author’s note at the end before starting the book.

PS: I received a complimentary copy of this book, in order to review it, from MySmartPrice Books. Know more about them here

Related Posts:Mumbai in Ink: Five Amazing Novels About Mumbai

Mumbai in Ink: Five Amazing Novels About Mumbai

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Some stories are about people, some are about people living in a city, and some are about cities with people living in it. Most stories set up in Mumbai belong to the last category. The role played by Mumbai in the narrative is so powerful that it becomes an inseparable part of the story, one of the main characters, sometimes even more important than the main characters. Mumbai in these novels is not just a prop, it’s the hero (some times the villain), it is what defines these stories. Put Mumbai out of these, and they stories are dead.

Mumbai

My list of five such truly amazing novels on Mumbai:

As per Pat Conroy, “Gregory David Roberts does for Bombay what Lawrence Durrell did for Alexandria, what Melville did for the South Seas, and what Thoreau did for Walden Pond: He makes it an eternal player in the literature of the world.

When Salman Rushdie calls a book “Mumbai’s slum understood and imagined as never before in language of intense beauty.” you do not need to say anything else. This is an awesome book. Period.

Beautifully captures the credo about living in Mumbai “Only a man must want something; for everyone who lives here knows that the islands will shake, and the mortar of the city will dissolve, and Bombay will turn again into seven small stones glistening in the Arabian Sea, if it ever forgets to ask the question: What do you want?

Contains some of the best one liners about Mumbai. Sample these: “A city is only as thriving or sickly as your place in it. Each Bombayite inhabits his own Bombay.”; “Mumbai is a city in heat”; or “…the ethic of Bombay is quick upward mobility and a scam is a shortcut. A scam shows good business sense and a quick mind. Anyone can work hard and make money. What’s to admire about that? But a well-executed scam? Now, there’s a thing of beauty!”

This Booker prize nominated book is a brutal depiction of “the ugly Bombay – drug dens, prostitutes, etc.” See my review of Narcoplois here

Other notable mentions:

Book Review: Narcopolis

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Narcopolis

“Because, said Dimple, it isn’t the heroin that we’re addicted to, it’s the drama of the life, the chaos of it, that’s the real addiction and we never get over it; and because, when you come down to it, the high life, that is, the intoxicated life, is the best of the limited options we are offered – why would we choose anything else?” – Excerpts from Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

To be frank, Narcopolis is a complicated and difficult to read novel. The characters are complex, sentences go on for multiple pages, the narrative keeps shifting from one character to another and from one time period to another. Everyone may not like or enjoy it. There were portions of the novel where I lost track of what is happening and had to re-read some pages to understand it fully. However, once you get to know the characters well and get into the flow, the book is an absolute delight. It exposes the filthy and smelly underbelly of Bombay with a brutality that has never been attempted before.

Set in the infamous opium dens of Shuklaji Street in Bombay, it is a story of addiction with the city of Bombay as the protagonist  Supporting characters include Dom – the foreign returned junkie, Rashid – addict and owner of an opium den, Dimple/Zeenat – addict, eunuch prostitute who works at Rashid’s, Bengali – addict and employee at Rashid’s who has an opinion on everything from religion to politics to science, Mr. Lee – the Chinese addict and owner of another opium den, and Rumi – another addict (you get it – everyone is an addict). Through these characters Jeet has drawn a naked portrait of Bombay – ugly and nasty, yet so true. There isn’t any well-defined plot – just an amalgamation of various stories of related characters connected by the drug, the den and the city. Jeet is also a poet and the influence is clearly visible here. This influence has made his writing unique, one of the strongest points of this novel.

Narcopolis is the debut novel by Jeet Thayil. It was nominated by the 2012 Man Booker Prize. In his own words, Narcopolis is about Bombay of the 70’s and 80’s – the city of intoxication, where the substances on offer were drugs and alcohol, of course, but also god, glamour, power, money and sex. The book draws from his own experience as an addict.

PS: The novel is laden with foul language, violence and sexual content. Not suitable for underage readers, or for readers who are easily offended.