The Nine Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat

Title: The Nine Chambered Heart
Author: Janice Pariat
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-93-5277-379-4
Pages: 200
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 2.5/5

The nine perspectives on the woman at the heart of this novel are tightly framed, and show how people perceive what they want to see in a relationship. However, these vignettes told from the perspective of people who have ‘loved’ the woman fall back on several tropes and fail to deliver any deep insight into human relationships or the characters.
The blurb on the back of this book promises incomplete but illuminating slivers of a woman; shards that we can piece together and reflect on ‘how sometimes we tend to become what others perceive us to be’. The inner monologue of the narrators is stylishly written, and the backdrops for the many fleeting encounters are enchanting. However, the beauty in the writing and in the characters, is strictly superficial – by appealing to romantic fantasies, the author tries to cover up the internalised misogyny and self-centred actions. The abandonment issues of the central woman are similarly written in with a heavy hand, yet remain unexplored in any meaningful way.

The sad takeaway from this book is that the author has romanticized some rather selfish, unhealthy and even lurid characters, none of whom see the central woman as much more than a vessel for their version of the manic pixie dream girl. The woman herself is equally selfish, and doesn’t share the intimacies which build relationships with her lovers. Applying for studies abroad without even mentioning it to the man who seems to be providing her a place to stay is particularly telling of her callousness. Worse yet is that she accepts all manner of mistreatment so long as her beauty or generosity in loving is praised. Thus, she buys into the shallow notions of who she should be, and in return emotionally abuses partner after partner while we are meant to feel sorry for her.

The Nine-Chambered Heart delivers to us a sexually liberated yet immature woman, whose life is filled with a cast of convenient caricatures. The delusional view of their fights and lusts as being beautiful or grand makes for painful reading.

 

The Boys Who Fought by Devdutt Pattanaik

Title: The Boys Who Fought
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 978-0-143-44161-8
Pages: 107
Source: Review copy
Rating: 4/5

For a book this short, Patnaik succeeds in taking the reader for a long journey through the ups and downs of the Pandava family fortunes. The seeds for the Mahabharata’s climactic battle are sown in the childhoods of the Pandava and Kaurava cousins. This abridged retelling of the Mahabharata epic emphasises how fights begin in emotions and thoughts. Not sharing toys grows into not sharing a kingdom, and violations of ‘dharma’ or social rules and duties lead to the destruction of the family. The change of focus from the time spent on the battleground to the reasons for disputes amongst the brothers lends freshness to the story, and the annotations stimulate curiosity for the reader to ask questions and explore the rich mythology further.

Through a concise and well-paced narrative, even the large cast of actors and antagonists becomes memorable. While it is a wonderful introduction to Indian mythology for children, the narrative retains instances of caste and gender discrimination practices, but does not comment on how the characters’ actions would be viewed unfavourably today. With some of the problematic aspects of the Indian epic removed to make it palatable for a younger audience, The Boys Who Fought captures the essence of the story.
Along with its companion title The Girl Who Chose, this would make for a fun and accessible start for young readers exploring Indian lore.

Murder in Paharganj by Kulpreet Yadav

Title: Murder in Paharganj
Author: Kulpreet Yadav
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-93-86826-61-9
Pages: 274
Source: Review copy
Rating: 3/5

Murder in Paharganj is a compelling thriller, one you may well find yourself carrying around and snatching every opportunity to read during the course of the day. It opens on our crime-reporting protagonist observing the hotel room in which a woman has been found. The orderly room and the circumstances of the death are mysterious, and we continue headlong into the reporter’s investigation. The classic potboiler plot is crammed with with political intrigue, a struggling romance, inner demons, and foreign locales. The writing style with chapters from various characters’ perspective allows us to see more as events unfold, while also developing secondary plots. The supporting characters are interesting choices, but their development is limited, especially that of Tonya, Vicks’ girlfriend whose professional experience in criminal profiling complements Vicks’ investigation.

The plot is fast-paced and the leads for the resolution are sprinkled throughout the narrative without giving away the end. The climax, however, is a rushed affair helped along with coincidences and some out-of-character actions to close out the plot. The antagonists lean towards cliche in their villainous monologues, but never veer into absurdity.
Murder in Paharganj is the perfect weekend read to transport the reader from India to Bangkok via Iran, with side trips into the minds of spies and killers.

 

A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee

Title: A State of Freedom
Author: Neel Mukherjee
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-670-09015-0
Pages: 275
Source: Review copy
Rating: 4/5
This review contains spoilers.

The sections in A State of Freedom have common themes, or characters recurring in the periphery of each section’s primary narrator’s life. Migration emerges as the central theme, and its accompanying freedoms and losses are explored as the loosely intertwined stories unfold.

The first of these narratives is of an Indian man who moved abroad into a first-world life of comfort visiting India with his son. During a tour of Agra and Fatehpur Sikri on a sweltering afternoon, it dawns on him that he has become that caricature of middle-class Indian migration – he feels like a stranger in his country and his son’s foreign accent makes him feel guilty. Disturbing comments and sightings of a fox-faced man in a Mughal-era palace put the narrator on edge and heighten his sense of disconnection. Retreating from the heat and the monuments in a car back to the hotel, the narrator is struck once again by his inability to respond when a dancing bear approaches the car and scares his son. These feelings of loss, helplessness and fear culminate in a shock ending to the opening chapter.

Another urban migrant voice shines a light on various forms of persistent social divides – the subtle caste and class politics in the treatment of domestic workers, the elevation of or distaste for certain foods, and the role of formal education in bridging gender and social disadvantages. The section follows a young Bengali man living in America and returning to his parents’ home in Bombay to research Indian recipes for a book. Needless to say, the base need of food for survival is raised to an art form and the nuanced differences in regional food preparation are celebrated in this story. Renu, the cook at his parents’ home is treated with sadly unusual respect, and the family cook back in Kolkata is discussed as a prized heirloom. Panch phoron, hing, and other spices and condiments are described in delectable detail as the narrator watches the cook preparing meals. Food and education take centre stage in the tensions of social class playing out here – the narrator strikes up a friendship with Renu, makes an abridged visit to the slum where she lives, and recalls how he stood up for a servant girl when she was berated by his father. The cook’s hidden story of hard labour to finance her nephew’s study to become a physicist is discovered on a visit to her village. The girls in the family are not given schooling, and there is no talk of them having a life different from that of the squalor and meagre resources they grew up with. Yet, Renu overcame this life dictated to her and migrated to Bombay to find work and send money home.

The lives of two girls from a village in Jharkhand play out in contrast with each other, with each of them growing into a different ‘state of freedom’ as their paths diverge. Milly sees her brother’s hand chopped off by a local Maoist group and is packed off to earn a domestic worker’s wage in the city. Faced with thankless hard labour and treated like a sub-human because of the low social position, Milly soon forgets her childhood friend Soni, and slowly loses hope in continuing her education. Back in the village, Soni is a bystander to the rapid decline of her family as it faces disease and brutality from Forest Department officials. By joining a Maoist group and learning to live in the forests, Soni takes charge of her life to fight injustices, but sacrifices her freedom of movement as she will always be on the run. Milly escapes the village, but has her movement constrained by her employers and limited literacy. Milly finds a certain agency as she escapes her controlling employers, finds love, and begins a family living in a cramped slum in Bombay. By persevering in providing for her family, Milly is determined to give her daughter the education she could never have herself. She hears of Soni’s death year later and affirms to herself the thought that no matter what Soni thought, her life of frequent movement had coherence – the individual living each life gives it coherence.

The strength these women find in their adversity as it hardens and shapes them is reflected in the story of a dancing bear. An abandoned bear cub, first mistaken for a puppy, is taken in by Lakshman. Ramlal and Lakshman grew up orphans under the label of ‘bin mai babok’ (the fox twins) because of their deformed pointy faces. After Ramlal abandons his family in the village in search of work elsewhere, Lakshman tries to devise ways to provide for them. Under the guidance of a ‘qalandar’, the bear is subjected to horrific pain to tame it, and it takes on an uncertain role as companion and performer for his ‘master’. Since the bear will always be a wild animal, Lakshman can never be sure if his bear will obey him or maim him. Nonetheless, Lakshman’s travails as a travelling performer, always an outsider, always shunned for his lower social position, lead him to draw his sense of security and companionship from the bear. The questions of dependency, ownership, and authority on the periphery of this story remain unanswered as we witness Lakshman’s emotional and financial devastation.
The fox-faced orphans resurface at the end of the book, with Ramlal entering a rushed dreamlike state as he loses consciousness. His ordeals as a day labourer and addict are at an end, and his thoughts tie together the threads on class, food, need, migration and displacement woven through the individual stories.

Read this book for the accurate observations on daily life of the often-ignored. These stories separately may have been maudlin, but taken together tell a national story greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking for the Rainbow: My Years with Daddy by Ruskin Bond

Title: Looking for the Rainbow: My Years with Daddy
Author: Ruskin Bond
Publisher: Puffin Books
ISBN: 978-0-143-44107-6
Pages: 110
Source: Review copy
Rating: 4/5

After the separation of his parents, 8-year old Ruskin Bond went to live with his father for two years. Looking back at those years, he describes the rich tapestry of his boyhood – misadventures at boarding school, the joys of stamp-collecting , bicycle rides with friends, and going to the cinema with his father. Even as he learns the first lessons of independence and fortitude, young Bond senses the guiding presence  of his father.

This journey back to a defining period of Ruskin Bond’s childhood is a short and heartwarming read. The events and experiences are narrated with simplicity and poignance. Illustrations by the talented Mihir Joglekar give us a view of the world from a child’s eyes, putting into pictures what Bond does so masterfully with words.

Highly recommended for young and old readers alike, reading this book is like sitting with the author himself and listening to him recount these years as the sun sets over the hills.

 

 

Writing about reading

I haven’t been writing one minute fiction for the past couple of years, having hit what they call the creative block – I can’t call myself a writer yet. So what is the best one can do when not writing regularly? Write about reading!

Over the years I have been fortunate enough to receive review copies of newly-released books from a dear friend and a giant of the Indian literary scene, Mr Vivek Tejuja. Check out his colossal, lush reading blog here. In fact, I attribute all the credit to him for encouraging me to start writing short stories! How it all started is a longer story for another time.
I usually post book reviews on my Goodreads, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I shall now start sharing them here as well – and yes, dear reader, these reviews will not take more than a minute for you to read.

Thank you, Vivek.

The Chase

Udaysingh tied the half full sack of peanuts securely with a jute rope and swung it over his back. The coarse jute rubbed against the side of his neck as he shuffled slowly toward the bus stand. The smell of dry mud, rubber, jute and sweat hung in the air. He was just in time to catch the 03:15 bus. His knees creaked with an audible pop as he boarded the bus. Crepitus, the doctors called it. He had been delaying treatment for over a year now.

He spotted a place at the back of the bus and sighed happily. The journey back home would take the best part of three hours and he was looking forward to a nap. The bus conductor came around and Udaysingh fumbled in his pocket for money. He only had two rupees, so he opened his sack of peanuts and took out the dented steel box which held his day’s earnings. He carefully counted eleven rupees and gave it to the conductor.
Bhaisahab, the cost of the ticket is fourteen rupees. The fares have been hiked”, the conductor remarked in a monotone.
Udaysingh piped up. “How is that possible? I travel this route every week. The fare is eleven rupees!”
“I have been repeating the same thing since the past two days. The cost of diesel went up three days back. Fares for all routes have been hiked since then. You must not have travelled in the past two days. Fourteen rupees”, said the conductor, arms outstretched. Udaysingh chewed his lip and cursed. His hand dove into the steel box and he handed over three rupees whilst muttering constantly under his breath.
The rickety bus rumbled along the highway and soon Udaysingh was snoring gently.

Half an hour later Udaysingh woke up with a start with an urge to relieve himself. He waited anxiously as the bus motored along a highway specked with sleepy bunches of mud-thatched houses. Fifteen long minutes later, the bus pondered to a halt at the bus stand of a neighbouring village. Udaysingh shot out of the bus and made a beeline for the urinal at the far end of the bus stand. He was basking in welcome relief when he heard the bus horn. He hurried to make his way back. Even so, he could only wave out frantically as the bus pulled out of the stand ahead of him. He cursed and cracked his knuckles nervously when he realized that his sack of peanuts and dented steel box were in the bus. He waddled as fast as he could to the adjoining highway and started waving out to passing vehicles. A number of cars zoomed past and a lorry trundled by without stopping. Presently, a truck screeched to a halt owing to his desperate waving. Udaysingh explained his situation to a droll-faced truck driver. The truck driver regarded him curiously and told him to hop in. Udaysingh hauled himself in the passenger seat of the truck and they set off.

They rode almost silently for a couple of minutes. Udaysingh was cursing and muttering under his breath.
“Where are you coming from?”, the driver inquired casually.
“Lohagaon. I got down to relieve myself at Ratanpur bus stand and the bus sped off without me. My peanuts and my money are in the bus. I must get my sack back! Hmmm. I hope nobody runs away with it. I had half a sack full of peanuts. And my money! Those are my earnings for this entire week! I only have two rupees in my pocket. We must catch that bus.” The words tumbled out of Udaysingh’s mouth in anguish.
“Don’t worry, we’ll catch up with the bus. It cannot be more than three kilometers ahead of us. Though you must give me two rupees when we catch the bus”, quipped the driver, glancing at Udaysingh.
“Hmmm”, grunted Udaysingh, eyes fixed on the road ahead. They drove for ten minutes without any sign of the bus. The driver kept making small talk and Udaysingh responded in monosyllables. Soon the only sound that could be heard was that of the roar of the truck engine.

Udaysingh spotted it as they were rounding a bend in the road. He smacked the dashboard excitedly, “There it is!” The driver saw it half a kilometer ahead and sped up. “Sohangarh is coming up in less than a couple of kilometers. We’ll catch your bus by the time we reach the bus stand.” They pulled in at the bus stand right behind the bus. Udaysingh jumped out of his seat when the truck driver called out, “Bhaisahab, my two rupees?”
“Two rupees for what?”, snapped Udaysingh.
“We spoke about it. You said you would give me two rupees for catching up with the bus and dropping you”, the truck driver reminded him.
“Look, but I will give you no more than a rupee. I can’t spare more than that”, shrugged Udaysingh.
“Well, you are an ungrateful one, aren’t you?” frowned the truck driver, and spat out of the window in disgust. The sound of the spit and the bus horn sounded as one in perfect harmony. They both looked up and saw the bus pulling out.
“Nooooo! Wait!” shouted Udaysingh and leapt out of the truck, showing remarkable agility in spite of his ill-health. The bus trundled off and Udaysingh climbed back hurriedly into the truck. The truck driver raised his eyebrows.
“Please, quick! Help me catch that bus!” pleaded Udaysingh. The truck driver smirked and said, “I’ll help you catch it, but now you’ll have to give four rupees.”
“Hmmm! I will. C’mon now!” urged Udaysingh.

The truck driver had had enough. He wanted to get Udaysingh to his bus, get his money and be on his way. He revved the engine and threw the truck forward into a violent acceleration, sending two children flying to the pavement in fleet-footed horror. The bus was only a couple of hundred metres ahead when they swung on to the highway. He floored the truck to top speed. Udaysingh grinned as they drew to within a few meters. Just then, they both heard a loud crack. The front tyres of the truck burst and the truck veered to the shoulder of the road. The driver struggled to control the vehicle, but it ran off the road and the passenger side struck a huge oak tree. The driver bounced on his seat along with the truck. His hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as the truck ground to a bone crunching halt. He sat there for a minute, ashen faced. He finally glanced over to his side. Udaysingh had cracked his skull against the dashboard at the exact spot where he had smacked his palm a few minutes ago. The driver slipped his hand into Udaysingh’s pocket and slipped out the two rupee coin. He glanced at it and wiped the blood from his nose against the back of his sleeve. He smirked and pocketed the coin wordlessly.

The Reluctant Barber

Elite Hair Saloon was an establishment older than its current owner, passed on to him by his enterprising, impatient and short-tempered father. The father had no flair for cutting hair, but back in the day money was hard to come by for a fourteen-year old orphan.
Abu Hafeez had to put food on the floor for himself, so he started shaving beards. He figured hair would never stop growing and neither would people’s laziness to shave on their own. Abu knew this from his own experience. The hair on his chin and cheeks kept growing back stubbornly no matter how many times he trimmed it. He didn’t mind it at all in the beginning, but after a thrilling year of self-discovery the novelty wore off as swiftly as his beard kept growing back. So off Abu went around the village, blade and scissors in hand, eager to shave. He often felt secretly pleased about overcoming the laziness of so many men.

For the first five years, he travelled daily to all villages in the district, looking for work, relentlessly pounding the same beat. In the sixth year he opened his own saloon in the neighbouring village. He bartered a lifetime of free shaves with the previous owner of the premises – a worthy daily investment of five minutes, considering that the previous owner was eighty-five years old. In the five years after that, he opened three more saloons, two of them in his village.
At the age of twenty-five he decided the time was right to fall in love and get married. So he duly fell in love with the youngest grand-daughter of the erstwhile eighty-five year-old, now deceased previous owner of his first saloon. A week later they got married. Within a year the couple was blessed with a hairy baby boy. The father proudly named him Hamza, a clever wordplay on “Hajaam“, Urdu for “barber”, thereby clearly outlining an intended career path for his son.

After thirty years of toil Abu Hafeez abruptly decided to take early retirement one day and handed over the reins of eleven saloons to an unwilling Hamza Hafeez. Hamza was all of nineteen then, and keen to make a career as a theatre artist.
All throughout his growing years, Hamza avoided his father’s saloon by going for a hair cut to the only other saloon in the village. This was a monthly bone of contention between father and son. It wasn’t Hamza’s fault as Abu started explaining the nuances of the hair cutting business to him from the time he was five. “Abu, please let me go play with my friends”, Hamza would plead. The first time he said this Abu lost his temper thinking that his son is calling him by name. He promptly realised Hamza was merely calling him “father” as per their cultural tradition, but not before Hamza had received two slaps in front of all the patrons and barbers.
Hamza managed to avoid the saloon on most days by devoting majority of his time to school activities and drama practice. The latter was frowned upon by Abu with a passion second only to the one he had for beards. Discontent manifested itself in various forms over the years, but Abu was confident that Hamza would eventually fulfil his wishes without question.

Meanwhile, Hamza’s stature as a theatre artist grew in concurrence with his father’s trade. He scripted and acted in all his plays. Hamza’s troupe travelled all over the state, earning plaudits for their performances. Impressed with his talent, Hamza received an invitation to join a leading acting academy in the city run by one of the finest theatre actors in the country. Overjoyed, Hamza promptly approached his parents to give them the good news. Abu in turn promptly hung up his blades and handed over a flat refusal to Hamza along with the responsibility of all eleven saloons. There was real drama on display at the Hafeez household that night, and anyone who would have witnessed Hamza’s pleas would be left in no doubt of his passion and ability for theatre. Only this time the tears were real and the ending wasn’t scripted by Hamza to his liking.
That night Hamza gave up theatre and sullenly took up his father’s profession. Travelling to all the saloons and overseeing their functioning became a daily, despicable chore for Hamza. Some nights he would visit the local theatre and wistfully watch the plays. Being the perfectionist that he was, Abu routinely berated Hamza for his general disinterest and continued exercising an iron fist over his professional and personal life.

One fine June afternoon, Abu decided to make one of his customary visits to the saloon. Hamza was sitting alone, leafing through the newspaper. The other barbers had gone out for lunch. It was summer time and people rarely ventured out in the afternoons. A bunch of enthusiastic kids were playing football on the street. Most of the shops had their shutters down half-way. The occasional kulfiwala passed by tinkling his bell, much to the delight of kids and old men fanning themselves outside shops. Abu walked in and sat down for a shave in one of the chairs. Hamza groaned, dragged himself up and wordlessly started with his job. He lathered shaving cream on his father’s face, changed the razor blade and started shaving. He looked at his father’s face – eyes closed, a half-smirk permanently plastered across his lips. The next moment a powerful stray kick rocketed in through the open door of the saloon. The football struck Hamza’s arm and bounced back outside. His arm slipped and the blade cut through Abu’s jugular. Blood spurted out like a merry, erratic fountain everywhere – on to the counter top, cascading down the barber’s cloth, on to Hamza’s arm, and all over the mirror. Hamza stifled a cry of disbelief and stood transfixed, watching with a growing sense of calm as his father choked and bled to death.

Foreboding

The rain fell steadily on that cold September morning in Prague. In spite of it being summer, rains often made an appearance in the form of a prologue to violent storms.

Precisely what Berta was fearing, she did not know, but as she read the morning newspaper, a familiar chill crept up her spine, not caused in the least by the gloomy weather. Her long, golden hair fell in a neat, beautiful mess behind her shoulders. She absent-mindedly kept stirring the tea in her cup, not realizing that the sugar had long dissolved.
At one end of the narrow cobbled street, the building she lived in stood wet and solemn, facing another structure of similar architecture and flanked by a dead-end and an identical building on either side.

At the other end of the street, a car rolled to a halt with a confident finality that belied the nondescript location of the street. A man in a dark grey suit stepped out from the back seat and pulled the overcoat tightly around himself, slightly nervous at the task ahead of him. His experienced eyes surveyed the lane on either side of him. Taking a deep breath, he set off towards the dead-end, his black leather boots echoing a dull, muffled thud on the wet cobblestones. He screwed his eyes into narrow slits as he gazed upwards. A solitary drop managed finding its way into his eyes nevertheless. As he pulled his hat further down, he looked around him. All the small buildings were colored in a consistent shade of beige. The dark, cobblestoned path and low, grey skies made the red tiled roofs on the buildings the only bright spot in Prague, he thought. He counted one hundred and twenty eight windows in eight buildings and tried to clear his mind. The suitcase felt heavier in his hand as he approached the last building.

Berta had finished her tea. The cup had turned cold quickly. She had just pulled her legs up from the floor into the relative warmth of the sofa and her thighs, when the doorbell rang in a shrill, long monotone. She jumped at the sound, the sense of foreboding within her increasing considerably. For a moment, she stood frozen near the sofa, not daring to move.

The man stood outside the door, alert and apprehensive. He rang the doorbell for the second time; this time a lot shorter. He hoped inwardly that no one would open the door, but the very next instant he heard the lock turning. The door swung open and he took his hat off and held it under the arm in which he held the suitcase.
Bowing slightly, he asked, “Are you Mrs. Berta Dvorsky?”
Berta whispered, “Yes.”
“Is your husband Captain Bojan Dvorsky?”
She nodded, her throat dry.
“Ma’am, I regret to inform you that…”

Berta collapsed and fainted.

Tiptoe

Ria clutched the door handle tightly and turned the knob downward very slowly, gritting her teeth as she did so. She didn’t want to wake up her parents sleeping in the adjacent room. Besides, gritting her teeth made her feel that she wasn’t making any noise, especially when she released the door handle and the knob let out its customary squeak half-way up.
She craned forward and peeked at the bottom of her parents’ bedroom door. In the darkness of midnight there was no sliver of light coming through. “Good. They are asleep”, she thought.
She was feeling slightly thirsty, but decided against walking to the kitchen and risk making more noise. Instead, she quickly walked to the living room, unplugged the charger from the wall socket and tiptoed back to her room.
She noiselessly shut the room door, plugged the charger into the socket near her bed, put the pin into the phone, plugged the hands-free into her ears, and breathlessly spoke into the mic, “Sorry love, battery was low…”