Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Death of Vishnu

Title: The Death of Vishnu
Author: Manil Suri
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 295
Edition: Paperback
Accolade: 2002 Pen/Faulkner Nominee

Manil Suri's latest novel 'The Age of Shiva' is due out in February, 2008. As I await to lay my hands on his new book, I decided to read first his much acclaimed debut novel 'The Death of Vishnu'. In this charmingly funny novel, Suri invites you to meet some very interesting characters living in a 3-storied apartment building in Bombay.

Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak are neighbors. Not the friendly, harmonious type, but the war-mongering kind. They squabble over frivolous matters and a sense of hatred for each other runs in their blood. To top it all, they had to share a kitchen on the first floor.

Mrs. Jalal, a devoted muslim lives upstairs with her husband and son Salim. Mr.Jalal is propelled by the quest of enlightenment and his eccentric behavior drives his wife crazy.

Kavita (Mrs. Asrani's daughter) and Salim (Mrs. Jalal's son) love each other and they meet clandestinely on the terrace often.

Vinod, a reclusive man, lives on the second floor. He depends on his hard-earned money as a banker, a flat he now lives and the food brought over by his servant everyday for his sustenance. All cooped up in his flat, he whiles away his time, lying in bed grieving over his wife's death.

The story begins with Vishnu, an odd-job man who lives on the landing, lying motionless on the verge of death. The stale chappatis brought over by Mrs. Pathak and the watered-down tea from Mrs. Asrani's house stay untouched, as Vishnu daydreams about his childhood days and a love affair with Padmini, a prostitute. His health is deteriorating but, life goes on around him and the apartment dwellers seem oblivious to his physical condition.

One night Jalal, driven by his quest for wisdom, decides to sleep next to Vishnu on the landing. He has a strange dream where Vishnu, the drunkard, is 'Lord Vishnu', the god and he himself the prophet. Next day, Ganga, the servant, finds Jalal asleep on the landing with a dupatta wrapped around his head. Also, Kavita and Salim had eloped the previous night. Despite the hullabaloo about the missing lovers and the mysterious dupatta wrapped on Jalal's head that night, Jalal continues to rant about his strange vision and why everyone should worship Vishnu, the drunkard. But, Where would all this lead him?

No major story plots or anything here. But, Suri makes it up to you with his engaging characters, vivid narration and an interesting prose that might tickle your funny bone at times. I found myself racing through the pages and thought it was a good read overall.

Author's Note: Manil Suri got his inspiration for the central character of this novel from a man named Vishnu who lived on the steps of the apartment building in which he grew up. Apparently, he died on the same landing he occupied for many years.

My Rating: 3.8/5

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Title: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
Author: Mark Haddon
Pages: 226
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Paperback
Accolade: 2003 Whitbread Book of the Year, Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book

Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy, is autistic. He is a keen observer, adept at solving math problems and knows every prime number up to 7057. He attends a school for children with special needs and his pet-rat 'Toby' keeps him company after school. He doesn't like being touched, dislikes meeting strangers (because of the 'stranger-danger' thing taught at school) and won't tell lies (except a 'White Lie'). He abhors anything that is Yellow / Brown, but loves 'Red' color. He won't eat two foods if they touch each other on the plate. His favorite dish 'Aloo Saag', which is yellow, is OK though, as long as its camouflaged with red-dye powder. Witnessing four yellow cars in a row makes it a 'Black Day' (Neither does he eat anything nor does he talk to anyone on a Black Day) and five red cars in a row makes in a 'Super Good Day'. Walking down streets or places crowded with people makes him jittery and he comforts himself by grouching and groaning or doing some mental calculus. He hardly ever ventures out and likes to shuts himself in his house and play on his computer.

One day Christopher walks into his neighbor Mrs.Shears house to find her dog 'Wellington' killed by a garden fork. Troubled by the event, he begins to investigate the murder. Christopher wants to solve the case just like the way he solves his math puzzles. But, his father Ed won't let him get any further. He confiscates the diary he was using to jot down his observations with the murder-mystery case and hides it somewhere. When Christopher searches around the house for his missing diary, he not only uncovers what he meant to find; but also something that he was unprepared for...

Written from the perspective of an autistic child, this touching novel offers a great insight into the world of autism - a place where normal human behavior and emotions have little meaning. Human brain is very complicated as such. And, that of an autistic child is even difficult to comprehend. But, Mark Haddon writes with such beauty and poignancy that I begin to wonder if anyone else could have said it better. With so many wonderful hand-drawn illustrations, this could be one of the rare novels you will ever find. I wonder how I missed such a gem of a novel. Probably, I must have been living in a cave or something ...

My Rating: 4.8/5

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Blind Willow Sleeping Woman

Title: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction / Short Stories
Pages: 352
Edition: Paperback

Translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin.

I am a short story buff. Just nibble your way through a few pages and you have a perfect little nugget. I never knew about Murakami until I read Lotus' review about one of his novels 'After Dark'. Much intrigued by her post, I picked up his short story collection 'Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman' thinking it might be a wonderful way to break the ice... If you have never read Murakami before, let me assure you. You are in for a surprise!!!

'A Perfect Day for Kangaroos' is a story about a couple who visit a zoo to get a glimpse of a baby kangaroo. That's about it. Nothing more.

In 'Nausea 1979', a guy vomits everyday for almost 40 days. Every time he throws up, he receives a phone call from an anonymous caller who just says his name and hangs up. You think the story is getting somewhere..right? Well, one day the vomiting stops and so does the anonymous call. Now, Who is the caller? And Why or How did his vomiting stop? Only Murakami knows.

In 'New York Mining Disaster', a man meets a woman at a party who tells him she killed someone who looked just like him by throwing him into a beehive. They say 'Good bye' to each other and the story ends there. Then What?? Go figure...

'Where I'm likely to find it' has an interesting prelude, though. A man who lives in the 26th floor of the apartment mysteriously disappears on his way back from tending to his mother on the 24th floor. His wife hires a detective who is determined to solve the mystery. Everyday, he walks up and down the staircase between 24 and 26th floor looking for clues. But, his efforts go futile when soon after, the lady's husband shows up one day (though in an altered state). The sleuth moves on thinking his search will continue somewhere. "A search for something that could very well be shaped like a door. Or may be something closer to an umbrella or a doughnut. Or an elephant. A search that, I hope will take me where I'm likely to find it." The story never reveals how the man turned up all of a sudden or what happened to him.

Even though some stories are just banal, a lot of them are noteworthy of mention. In 'Dabchick', a man with a crumpled envelope in his hands sets out to win a job he desperately needs. After meandering his way through a labyrinth of tunnels, he arrives at the doorstep greeted by a guy in his bathrobe (!!). An eight letter password should get him through the door. And what would that password be? Very interesting story!! 'Chance Traveler' chronicles Murakami's strange experiences & observations and 'The Mirror' is a brilliant story that can scare the heck out of you. 'Sharpie cakes', 'Firefly' & 'Tony Takitani' are some fantastic stories that will keep you riveted to the book.

I must admit some are mundane; some are obscure or even pointless; but some are over the top. May be they are just vague at times, but they are so unique. May be you will go nowhere with it. Or May be you will. I guess that's just Murakami. His stories rely so heavily on reader's assumptions and judgements. May be that's what makes his books interesting. Its a sort of invitation / challenge to leap beyond your creative boundaries into a unique, imaginary realm that's even surreal. Are you up to it?

My Rating: 3.8/5