Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

Title: The Age of Shiva
Author: Manil Suri
Genre: Fiction
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 451

1955, India. The political unrest caused by the India-Pakistan partition had barely abated. The country was still recuperating from the loss of hundreds and thousands of Hindus and Muslims who got killed by angry mobs. The lawlessness that prevailed in the country during the Hindu-Muslim riots was seemingly under control, despite the efforts of Hindu and Muslim extremists who were carrying out clandestine operations to implant the seeds of hatred and revenge in people's minds. Thousands of people were still struggling to find abode, after having lost everything.

The story begins around this period when Meera, the protagonist, in her late teens fled Rawalpindi (now part of Pakistan) with her parents and two sisters Roopa and Sharmila. Meera's father had successfully managed to establish a printing business which eventually helped them settle down in Delhi. During her school years, Meera was constantly vying for her parents attention, as they doted on Roopa and swooned and squealed in delight over everything she did. When Roopa fell in love with Dev, a singer from her college, Meera felt it was time to avenge her for all the unfairness she was subjected to. Luck favored her by causing a rift between the lovers and Meera seized the opportunity to marry to Dev, much to her father's disapproval.

While Dev was still heartbroken and sulking about his breakup, Meera struggled to move on with her life. Her mother-in-law's oppressive ways and brother-in-law's covert glances only worsened the situation she found herself in. With her father's help, Meera pulled herself out of this mess, by relocating to Bombay where Dev could pursue his career in music. But, her freedom came at a terrible price. It took more than 5 years for her to finally have her wish fulfilled, to quench her thirst for love. The birth of her son, Ashvin filled the void in her life. She loved him like no mother would love hers. She pampered and protected him from everyone, including Dev. But, where would that blindfolded love lead her? And, what was the price she had to pay then?

The story almost spans over 3 decades and captures all major historic events like the India-Pakistan war, Emergency declared during Indira's period, China war and so on. The writing was so elaborate, painstakingly detailed and exquisitely beautiful. The author shows his adeptness at writing all the way through, but the most astonishing part is the way he has written from the perspective of a female protagonist. Its not easy pulling off something like that and he needs to be applauded for his efforts.

However, the book has many negative characters such as an overbearing father, a haughty sister Roopa, irresponsible husband, drunkard father-in-law, pervert brother-in-law and to top it all a selfish, unforgiving and vulnerable protagonist. I could hardly empathize with any of them and probably that's why I didn't enjoy this book much. Also, the portrayal of a mother's love for her child seems a bit exaggerated, sometimes even unbelievable. To add to that, I wonder how much the snippets from the Hindu mythology would appeal to the western readers either. Compared to his previous novel, this book was a bit of disappointment to me but not quite enough to refrain myself from his future books altogether..

My Rating: 3/5

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Almost Single by Advaita Kala

Title: Almost Single
Author: Advaita Kala
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
Edition: Paperback

I do read chick-lit novels. Every once in a blue moon. Perhaps its due to the fact that I get my own share watching Bollywood movies. When it comes to books, I mostly stick to literature, fiction and non-fiction types. However, an occasional chick-lit can do wonders for me. An alluring front cover and an impressive blurb on the back is all I need. And this book just perfectly fitted the bill.

Aisha Bhatia. 29. single. female. India. Upper middle class. Desperately seeking a groom. Well, you get the picture. But, how could it go wrong with a promising start like that? The protagonist just rambles on and on about her philandering boss, sucking job, gay friends, cocktail parties, single women friends and her adventures in pursuit of love and marriage. As far as the story goes, there is nothing more to it. You can probably fit it in a post-it note.

I don't know how it all ended. I never really bothered to finish it. It is noteworthy to mention that the first half of the book had a few hilarious anecdotes I enjoyed. But, the author fails to keep up with her pace in the latter part and it is all downhill after that. However, I won't dismiss the novel as a sloppy piece of work altogether. I just feel that the book appeals to a niche audience and I don't belong there.

My Rating: 2/5

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Q & A by Vikas Swarup; Slumdog Millionaire

Title: Q & A
Author: Vikas Swarup
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 361
Edition: Paperback
Movie: Slumdog Millionaire

My bookshelf is teeming with books of literature, fiction, and non-fiction all neatly stacked waiting to be read. Quite often, I pick one up run my fingers down the spine, weigh the book in one hand, flip through the pages, catch a phrase or two in the process wondering if it should be my next book. Some books get picked up again and again. Some books just gather dust over time. Q & A falls in the second category. I believe I have had it on my shelf for over a year lying untouched. I never thought about it much until one day I ran into a friend who bragged about a movie called "Slumdog millionaire" and how its based on the book "Q & A". It sure did ring a bell. I dashed back home, headed straight to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of Q & A. With a little over 350 pages, what I once thought would be a boring book turned out to be just the opposite.

Ram Mohammad Thomas, an eighteen-year-old boy hailing from a slum in Mumbai wins a whopping one billion rupees in a quiz show "Who Wants to Win a Billion?". Before he could bask in the glory of winning the most coveted prize, he was accused of cheating and arrested. He pleads his innocence, to no avail. A lawyer comes to his rescue and what he recounts with her forms the compelling story of Q & A.

The book has 12 chapters one for each question from the show. In every chapter, Ram narrates an event from his past and ends with a question from the show. By the time you finish a chapter, you would realize that the question is a no-brainer for Ram. In quiz shows like this, the questions increase in complexity as you plow your way through. And since each chapter spins a tale around the question, the events don't follow a chronological pattern..or any pattern at all. This makes it a much more difficult read. I was trying to puzzle several pieces together the whole time, as Ram (the protagonist) goes back and forth in time. The author does seem to realize this predicament, yet the challenge remains.

He touches several topics like Ram's upbringing in a christian home, his experiences from doing odd jobs, his love with a prostitute and such. Some stories are well written. A few rather seem to be forced. But, it was a great effort overall. What I found to be profoundly moving was the day-to-day life of people in Dharavi (a renowned slum in Mumbai). I have seen slums whenever I used to travel by train or bus. But, never up close. Now I begin to understand what life would be like for those people who live on the brink of extreme penury.. what it would be like to line up in queues for everything from water to public restrooms...to spend endless nights without an electricity..to pilfer food from trash bins..to toil everyday for pennies.. to live under appalling conditions. Thanks to Vikas for reminding me how grateful I should feel for the happy and privileged life I lead everyday.
My Rating: 4/5

Now, a little bit about the movie "Slumdog Millionaire". Directed by Danny Boyle, the movie has earned 4 Golden Globe nominations already including the best motion picture - drama. The trailer looks very appealing and hopefully I would watch it someday.