Book Review: River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh


“Democracy is a wonderful thing, Mr Burnham,’ he said wistfully. ‘It is a marvellous tamasha that keeps the common people busy so that men like ourselves can take care of all matters of importance. I hope one day India will also be able to enjoy these advantages – and China too, of course.” – Excerpt from River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh.

River of Smoke is the second book of the Ibis trilogy. Like the first book, Sea of Poppies, it is set in early 19th century, against the backdrop of the opium trade between India and China, and explores the lives of various characters involved in the trade.

As against the Sea of Poppies, which was set mostly in India, a large portion of River of Smoke happens in Canton, the port thru which opium was imported to China. Balram Modi, a wealthy Parsi businessman from Bombay is carrying one of the largest consignments of opium ever on the Ship Anahita to Canton. Another ship, Redruth, carrying horticulturist Frederick Penrose and his assistant Paulette, who are in search of rare Chinese plants and flowers, is also heading towards Canton. Things take an unexpected turn when the Chinese emperor bans opium trade, resulting in some interesting social, political, and economic consequences.

There is no doubt that River of Smoke is a difficult book to read. It contains dialogues in multiple dialects – English, Hindi, Gujrati, Bhojpuri, Cantonse, pidgin etc., with little effort from the author to translate everything to English. Many a times, one has to judge the meaning of these dialogues by the context. There are words like pus pus, muchi, allo olo, gradmanzees, etc. One has to interpret the meaning of these words. Although making reading difficult and demanding, it give a unique flavor of authenticity to the narrative. And in spite of being laborious to read, it is by no means boring or dull.

The characters, some continued from ‘Sea of Poppies’ and some new, are engaging and there are interesting ways in which their  stories crisscross each other. The author has presented early 19th century Canton beautifully. The depth of research which has gone in writing this book is commendable.

The book (and the trilogy) covers one of the most interesting and historically significant part of British-Indo-chinese history (the events leading to the Opium War). It is most certainly a captivating read of those who are interested in this slice of history.

I have read the first two books of this trilogy and I have no qualms declaring it one of the most epic and grand literary exercise undertaken by any Indian author. Eagerly waiting for the third installment.

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

Book Review: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri


The Lowland By Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland By Jhumpa Lahiri

“Isolation offered its own form of companionship: the reliable silence of her rooms, the steadfast tranquility of the evenings. The promise that she would find things where she put them, that there would be no interruption, no surprise. It greeted her at the end of each day and lay still with her at night.” – Excerpt from The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland is the second novel by the famed Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri. Her earlier works include Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and novel The Namesake (which was adapted to a motion picture directed by Mira Nair). The Lowland has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2013.

The Lowland is the story of brothers Subhash and Udayan. Born just 15 months apart, but having a dramatically different personalities – Subhash is pragmatic and realistic whereas Udayan idealistic and romantically besotted with the ideals of communism. Udayan gets drawn to the violent Naxalite movement whereas Subhash moves to the US for further studies. The story takes an unexpected turn when Uadyan is killed by the police for involvement in anti-government activities and Subhash marries his pregnant widow Gauri and takes her to the US. But it is difficult to escape the consequences of what Udayan had done, and which will define the lives of Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela.

Similar to her earlier works, the characters here are burdened by sense of remorse which results in their emotional isolation. The highlight of the book is the emphatic portrayal of these characters, particularly of Gauri and Udayan. Some of Gauri’s actions seem to be cold-hearted and, at times, even cruel. However, Jhumpa never makes an overt attempt to justify these actions, gradually revealing information from the back stories and leaving it to the readers to make any judgement.

Similarly for Udayan, he seems like irresponsible and unemotional to his family, putting them into unnecessary danger and hardship. From a rational point of view, it is difficult to understand and reconcile with his behavior. Yet, not much space is spent explaining his point of view.

The complex relationship between Bela and Subhash is captured beautifully and forms some of the most emotionally satisfying parts of the book.

Overall, The Lowland is a beautifully written book. Highly recommended.

Bonus Material: Jhumpa talking about the book

Trying to Understand India – Three Books You Must Read


The Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru

There is no better book to understand the history of India. Right from the Indus valley civilization through the various phases of its history, it is truly a journey to discover India. Written by Jahawarlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, when he was imprisoned during India’s freedom struggle, this book was an effort by the leader to understand and chronicle the rich past of his country. 

Notable Quotes

“India has known the innocence and insouciance of childhood, the passion and abandon of youth, and the ripe wisdom of maturity that comes from long experience of pain and pleasure; and over and over again she has renewed her childhood and youth and age”

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Nothing captures post Independence India like Salman Rushdie’s seminal work – Midnight’s Children, which is probably the best book ever written about India. 

Notable Quotes

“‎No people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for ‘tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”

“India, the new myth–a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is to post globalization India, what Midnight’s Children is to post colonial India. Aravind has such a fine understanding of the pulse of this new India, it almost make me jealous.  

Notable Quotes:

“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.”

“The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.”

“Do you know about Hanuman, sir? He was the faithful servant of the god Rama, and we worship him in our temples because he is a shining example of how to serve your masters with absolute fidelity, love, and devotion.

These are the kinds of gods they have foisted on us Mr. Jiabao. Understand, now, how hard it is for a man to win his freedom in India.”

Enjoy Reading!!

 

Book Review – The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam


“History is the third parent.” – Opening line of The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

I read this line. I re-read this line. I took a pause and inhaled. I read it again. This is one of the most powerful opening lines in recent times. And then I realized, this isn’t going to be an ordinary book. It is a piece of art, the kind of book which remains with you forever. It cannot be treated like an ordinary book. It has to be given the respect and reverence a masterpiece deserves. You have to read it slowly and attentively, savoring each and every sentence, some times re-reading portions to admire the elegant, poetic and beautiful writing.

The Blind Man’s Garden is story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events – the aftermath of 9/11, USA’s attack on Afghanistan, the resultant rise of taliban and religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. Rohan is a religious Pakistani from Heer, a small town in Pakistan. He used to run a school, which has now been taken over by the fundamentalists. His doctor son Jeo, along with his close friend Mikal, sets off to Afghanistan to help the wounded civilians. However, they get entangled in the war there, Jeo get killed and Mikal captured by the tribal lords and handed over to the US military. Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s wife, were in love before Naheed’s marriage to Jeo. There are multiple sub-plots, each character has its own story, however, Mikal’s journey back to his love Naheed forms the main plot.

It is a beautifully written book with very well itched out, realistic characters. The way the inner conflicts and turmoil of the characters is brought out by Nadeem is commendable.

The dialogues are deep and meaningful, sometimes you have to pause your reading to fully absorb them.

Highly recommended!!

Bonus Material: Nadeem Aslam taking about the book

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

Book Review: Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel


Trail  of Chupacabra by Stephen Randel

Trail of the Chupacabra by Stephen Randel is the story of Avery, an eccentric and quirky geek/explorer, who enters Mexico in search of the mythical animal – Chupacabra. His companions in this adventure are Zippy, a burnt out hippy and a crazy private militia (called as “Southwest Texas Revolutionary Armed Confederate Border Operations Militia STRAC-BOM”; headed by General x-Ray). It is about how they get entangled in the rivalry between the feared drug lord Padre, his enemy Barquero and the Mexican army, and how they eventually come out of it.

The premise of the story is interesting and has a potential to be a highly entertaining book. There are two parallel tracks – Avery’s search of the chupacabra and Barquero’s revenge on the Padre. The two tracks merge towards the end of the book resulting in a superb climax. However, the undoing of the book is its uni-dimensional characters. While funny and hilarious to start with, almost all the key characters (Avery, Ziggy, General X ray etc.) become repetitive after some time. Even the humor (Avery’s complaint letters to the authorities, Ziggy histrionics, and STRAC-BOM’s stupidity) feels stale.

To summarize, Trail of the Chupacabra is the kind of book which can be harmlessly browsed through if you have spare time and nothing better to do. However, you may not like to take out time specifically to read it.

PS: I received a complementary copy of this book in order to review it.

How to Write a Book Review?


The best way to write a review is as if you are telling a dear friend about the book. You are not “reviewing” the book and passing a judgement about it being good or bad or trying to give it a rating score (4/5, 8/10, etc.). It should be a much more intimate experience. Like you are discussing the book with a buddy, talking about what you liked, what you did not like, how you felt while reading it, would you want your friend to read it, what do you think about the author, her style, etc.

Conversations are not about the number of words in it, do you start a discussion thinking – I will cover this topic is 500 words? Similarly, reviews should not be about its word count. Tell what you want to tell – no matter how many or few words it take.

The structure you should follow depends on the book and on you – for some books, you may want to start with  the author, for some with the narrative, you may want to talk about the characters first for some, or may be an absolutely brilliant dialogue can become your starting point. What ever you think can start an interesting conversation.

Also, the most important thing to remember is that you are not selling the book, you are helping someone make a choice whether to commit his time and money to read it. As with a friend, be very frank, highlight both the good and the bad points and leave the decision to the reader. This frankness is something you owe to your readers – and you have no obligations (to give a positive review) to author, publishers, PR guys – even if they have provided you a review copy. 

Books and buddies

Books and buddies

Writing reviews should make you as happy as discussing books with friends. Enjoy your next review, the way you enjoy chatting about a book with you buddies over a cup of coffee.

Kindle Single Review: Fox 8 – A Story


This is a very unconventionally written book, where the narrator is a fox who has recently learned human language and his story telling is characterized by improper grammar and abundant typos. Fox 8 is a story about a fox who gets exposed to humans and learns their language by listening to stories told by human mothers to their kids. When the jungle in which the fox lives is destroyed by the construction of a mall, the fox reaches out to humans to seek help, establish a fox-human connection. However, as he tries to come closer to them, the ugly side of humans is revealed, turning his life upside down.

As the fox says – “Why did the curator do it so rong, making the groop with the gratest skils the meenest?” So true.

Good and enjoyable, as well as thought-provoking.

Fox 8: A Story is a Kindle single written by George Saunders, the New York times best seller author of the short story collection – Tenth of December

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia


How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia“And where money-making is concerned, nothing compresses the time frame needed to leap from my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence like an apprenticeship with who already has the angles all figured out.” – Excerpt from How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid.

The most striking thing about this book is its structure. Modeled as a self-help book, How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is about the journey of a young man from abject poverty to being rich, well filthy rich, in the rising economy of an unnamed country of the Indian subcontinent. Divided into twelve chapters, each representing a phase of the life of the unnamed protagonist, and each based on an advice which the self-help book author is giving (avoid idealists, befriend a bureaucrat, don’t fall in love,etc.), the book is a very intelligent and well written satire on the contemporary urban life in the region.

This is probably the first novel I have read, where the entire story is told in a second person narrative mode (the self-help book author is talking to the unnamed protagonist, referring him as “you”). Further, none of the other characters have any names, they are just referred to as son, father, sister, pretty girl, wife etc. This unusual structure and writing style is the highlight of the book and makes it a must read for those interested in new and ingenious ways of constructing a narrative. 

On the flip side, what this novel really lacked was a well-formed plot. The story moves really fast, often skipping decades between chapters. Not enough time is spent on developing the characters and I was never able to emotionally connect with the two main ones – the protagonist and the pretty girl. I neither felt the pains of their struggles, nor the joys of their success. This left me slightly disappointed.

Bonus Material: Mohsin Hamid talking about the book:

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

Is Bollywood Finally Waking up to Indian Literature?


Some of my best and most memorable cinematic experiences in life involve movies based on novels/books. Be it the Lord of the Rings series, the Harry Potter series, Life of Pi, Pursuit of Happyness, Hunger Games, A beautiful Mind, and above all The Godfather – the list of such awesome movies is endless. There are few things in life which can match the joy one gets by seeing one’s favorite novel adapted into a good movie.  It is always exciting to compare the way you visually imagined the book with the way the director of the movie has done, put faces to the characters, see which portions of the book were dropped and what new elements (sub-plots, characters) were added. Watching Ang Lee’s Life of Pi was one of the happiest things I did last year.

The Movie and the Book

The Movie and the Book

Unfortunately  Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, has shown great reluctance in adapting literature, especially Indian literature. This has always surprised me, given the richness of India literature. There are so many great Indian novels which can be made into awesome movies. However, I can count good Hindi movies based on Indian novels on my fingers tips. Notable few are: Dev Anand’s Guide based on the novel of the same name by R. K. Narayan; Dev Benegal’s English August based on the novel English August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee; Devdas, Parinita, Swami and Choti Bahu based on various novels by Sarat Chandra ChattopadhyayShatranj ke khiladai based on a novel of the same name by Munshi Premchandra; and Train to Pakistan based on the novel by Khuswant Singh. (As per Wikipedia there are seventy such movies, including regional language movies – see complete list here)

Well, seems that the trend is changing. These days there is a lot of buzz in Bollywood around adapting Indian fiction to movies. We have Karan Johar planning to make a movie (probably a series) on Amish’s Shiva Trilogy. Another upcoming movie: “Banaras 1918 A love story” is based on Munshi Premchand’s “Baazar-e-Husn/Seva Sadan”. BA Pass (see trailer here) is based on the short story The Railway Aunty by Mohan Sikka (part of the Delhi Noir collection). A couple of Chetan Bhagat’s books have been/are being made into movies (Kai Po Che, Chennai Express, Hello). There were strong talk about Anurag Kashyap making a movie based on the “Doga” the title character from the Doga series of comics by Raj Comics.

The result may be good, bad or even ugly, but it’s really heartening to see that Bollywood is finally waking up to Indian Literature and hopefully in the coming years, we will see many more of our favorite Indian novels on-screen. Looking forward.

Book Review: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared


100 year old man Cover 1Allan interrupted the two brothers by saying that he had been out and about in the world and if there was one thing he had learned it was that the very biggest and apparently most impossible conflicts on earth were based on the dialogue: “You are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid.” – Excerpt from The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared is an unusual, and quirky book. The main character, Allan, an explosion expert, has had an eventful life, paying an important role in some of the key events of the 20th century. Just before his 100th birthday celebration, out of boredom, he escapes from the old age home, unintentionally gets possession of big suitcase full of cash, and has both police and a bunch of gangsters after him. With no particular destination in mind, Allan wanders aimlessly, meets some crazy people during the journey, and has a hell of an adventure.    

This is a well written book with a very interesting story, although it’s not very believable. There are two separate tracks in the book – one narrating Allan’s current adventure while on run with the suitcase, the other about his younger days as an explosion expert with neutral political views caught in a world where capitalism and communism is at logger heads. Allan finds himself in the company of some of the most powerful political leaders (Stalin, Truman, Churchill, Mao) and has unknowingly been an important instrument in shaping the world as we see it today.

With Allan, Jonas may have created the coolest 100-year-old character of all times!! Even the other characters are awesomely idiosyncratic and funny.

The unique Scandinavian humor, characterized by its understatement and satire, is the highlight of this book. There were several line in the book that made me laugh out loud multiple times (to the amusement of people who happened to be in the vicinity).

This is my second Scandinavian book (The Dinner by Herman Koch being the first, see my review here) and I am totally floored by this type of humor.

It would have been an even better read, if it was a couple of pages less lengthy. Otherwise, it is a very enjoyable book.

PS: A film deal has been signed and we may see a movie version as early as the end of this year. Looking forward.