Category Archives: fiction

Chai and a book with a dash of nostalgia #WordsMatter

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It’s a wet wet day but I’m not complaining. I like this respite from the sun. Besides, when it rains, the balcony beckons, the tea tastes better and a book looks ever more inviting. Giving in to temptation, I drag out a bean bag, grab a cup of tea and pick up a book from my nightstand resolutely pushing away thoughts of unmade beds and messy rooms. Just this once, just one hour I promise myself as I settle down for a read.

‘What are you reading?’ did you ask? Here take a look.

Yeah, I recently started re-reading Gone with the Wind as part of a buddy-read.

I pick it up now running a hand over the plastic cover that has turned translucent with age. I imagine myself covering it lovingly, possessively (and numbering it too). It has been a long time since this book came to me, and I mean a really really long time.

As I open it to the first page I find a simple inscription from my aunt.

My aunt marked it is as a gift for my birthday even though it was some six months later.

Reading those well-loved lines brings a smile and a deluge of happy memories. Despite the rain around me it transports me to long hot summer days, of noisy coolers that blasted air along with occasional drops of water and the delicious smell of khus khus, and noisier cousins who played, fought, chatted all day.

Each vacation my aunt would come visiting along with my cousins. Before she left she would get us a gift. Each time she would ask, ‘Do you want a dress or a book?’. Each time, without fail, I’d say, ‘a book’.  And off we’d go to browse and buy.

Books were precious treasures back then. We read a lot yet owned a few unlike now when parents start building a library even before their child is born.

Gone with the Wind was the most expensive book I’d ever wanted. Our budget used to be somewhere around Rs 50 but this came at 60. I well remember standing in the bookstore staring at it, knowing it was beyond reach, too embarrassed to tell my aunt just how badly I wanted it, yet unable to tear myself away from it. And so I stood there, desperately wanting to wish away those ten rupees standing between me and my happiness.

I am not even sure my aunt noticed my dilemma. All she said was, ‘You want it? Okay.’ And just like that, in a heartbeat, the book was mine. I cannot even begin to describe what that meant to me. Not only did I get to read the book but I also got to own it! I went through it at breakneck speed, sitting up late into the nights. I strutted about school for days magnanimously lending it to everyone who asked for it.

As I leaf through the yellowed pages now, I notice a few are coming loose from the binding, some evil silverfish have dug in fine holes too. And yet, each page is more precious than the freshest, crispest, whitest pages I will find in any new edition. So no, I won’t be ordering a new one. I’ll sit down with tape and put the pages together, I’ll leave it out in the sun to get rid of the silverfish and I’ll read it multiple times. I’ll preserve it for as long as I can because, more than a book, it’s a cherished memory.

Do you have a book that evokes a special memory for you? A person who was instrumental in igniting a love for stories?

*****

I am participating in the #wordsmatter bloghop. I received this tag from teacher and writer Jyotsna Prabhakar who blogs at  Jonaatbest. I’m passing on the tag to the very artistic, very humorous Rajlakshmi at Destiny’s Child. Do follow the #WordsMatter Blog Hop for some interesting reads.

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Ravan: Enemy of Aryavarta #BookReview

Book: Ravan: Enemy of Aryavarta
Author: Amish Tripathi

I have a soft spot for this series by Amish Ramayan series because it was with the first book  Scion of Ikshvaku that I kicked off this blog. I loved that one. I was curious about how Amish would handle this multilinear narrative and that was what made me pick up Sita and now Ravan: Enemy of Aryavarta.

The story

The book traces the life of Ravan, son of Rishi Vishrava and Kaikesi. Disliked by his father and not particularly fond of his mother Ravan, is a lonely child. He has a streak of cruelty that makes him torture small animals and watch them die.

If he has one tender place in his heart, it is for his baby brother Kumbhakaran. Ravan leaves his father’s ashram with his  mother, his uncle Mareech and Kumbha to protect his (Kumbha’s) life.

He knows he is made for great things and he sets out to achieve what is rightfully his, Kumbha and Mareech by his side. From a small-time smuggler he turns into a pirate and powerful trader. Unfettered by the values and principles that hamper others he forges ahead.

However, there is one pure, unsullied memory from his childhood that refuses to leave him – a face, a voice that could potentially steer him away from his reckless path. He seeks out that face but on the verge of turning over a new leaf it is snatched away from him. Filled with rage, he unleashes it on the Sapt Sindhu. Ravan thus emerges as the quintessential villain. He challenges the authority of Kubaera the businessman ruler of Lanka and displaces him to become king.

As he notches up victory after victory he is unaware that he is part of a larger plan, a cog in the wheel rolling towards a greater goal, orchestrated by the great rishi Vishwamitra. 

Ravan was a disappointment

First there’s the voice of Amish. He speaks the language of the millennials and that gets jarring, specially in a mythological setting (Remember Hanu Bhaiya in Sita?). I get that it’s his style and I did love Meluha though it had the same voice. Perhaps it might have something to do with the fact that I’ve grown up listening to the Ramayan and so find it tough to adjust to this pop-version.

My biggest complaint however is that the book turns plain boring in bits. There were too many and too detailed explanations and descriptions – of the Sapt Sindhu, the caste dynamics, the trading system, of traditions and palaces. There are too few dialogues, slackening the pace of the story.

Then there’s the story itself. Amish is known to give his own twist to every tale. I’ve liked his twists, I’ve liked how they tie in neatly with the original familiar story. However here, without giving out spoilers, all I’ll say is that Ravan as an angry lover-boy didn’t seem believable at all, more fantasy than mythology.

Then there’s the reference to Sabarimala. In his previous books he brought in references to a gory rape and then Jallikattu, this time it was Sabarimala. Perhaps that’s an attempt to weave in current events but it seems like a forced addition to the narrative.

The saving grace was the portrayal of Kumbhkaram – the endearing, good-natured giant. He is Ravan’s conscience and emerges (almost) as the hero of the book.

Also, I’m a little curious how Amish will take the story forward now that Ravan knows who Sita is. I’m hoping with all the war-action the next one won’t be a disappointment.

Perhaps the author should stick with lesser-known mythological re-tellings. He certainly has the knack for bringing alive mythological settings, of building up strong characters and of springing surprises.

Last thought: Read it only if, like me, you’ve committed yourself to the series. You might find yourself skipping pages though.

Freedom

Sofia sat crouched at the edge of the cliff, muscles tense, senses alert. A wave of vertigo threatened to drown her and she averted her gaze from the valley below. She forced herself to breathe deeply willing herself to relax, muscle by one tiny muscle.

You can do this, she said, slowly, gingerly, stretching out one leg, then the other. An intense urge to draw back to the safety of the ledge hit her again. She fought it down …. again.

She let out a shaky breath which turned into a nervous laugh at this small victory.

She forced herself to look down focusing on the brilliant shades of green. She smiled at the distant cluster of houses, far enough to mute the mundane sounds of everyday life yet offering the comfort of human presence.

With growing confidence, she stretched out her legs, threw back her head and let out a delighted whoop.

This is what she had driven miles for.
This freedom from fear.

It was a birthday ritual – a gift to herself.
And she’d do it again – another year, another fear – she’d demolish them all, one by one.

Happy birthday to me, said she, smiling softly.

***********

Do you have a birthday ritual? What’s your idea of a perfect birthday? Would love to hear about it

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Linking up with Mayuri and Rashi for #WoWe. Do drop by their blogs every Wednesday if you want to flex your creative muscle.

Everything I never told you #BookReview

Book: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng

‘Lydia is dead’ says the opening line of this book. However don’t go into it thinking it to be a thriller and you’ll love it.

This is the story of…

a mixed race couple, Marilyn and James Lee, and their children Lydia, Nathan and Hannah.

Lydia is clearly the parents’ favourite. She is the focus of their lives and carries the burden of their expectations. Marilyn wants Lydia to become a doctor and sees it as the fulfilment of her own childhood dream. James on the other hand has always struggled to fit in being a child of Chinese parents. He wants Lydia to have friends, to be a ‘regular American teen’.

Nathan and Hannah get stray bits of their parent’s attention. Nath is bullied by Lee to the point where he begins to doubt himself. He is by turns resentful and sympathetic towards Lydia. Hannah remains an invisible presence longing for her parents’ as well as her siblings’ affection. She is an insightful little girl observing much more than she’s given credit for.

Then one day Lydia disappears. A few days later her body is fished out from a lake. That’s when the delicate threads that hold the family unravel, spilling out ugly secrets. Is it a murder? Is it a suicide? Does her friendship with their neighbour Jack have anything to do with it?

What I thought of it

Although a murder mystery forms the core of the narrative, the book is the story of a family, its criss crossing relationships and the desire of every child to be loved and accepted.

Each of the characters is beautifully etched with strong back stories that explain clearly why they behave the way they do. That is what makes this book exceptionally readable and relatable.

One can see where Marilyn and James are coming from, why they want what they do for Lydia. And yet one can also see its terrible consequences.

The relationship between Nath and Lydia is beautifully portrayed. Nath obviously resents her and yet the two share an unsaid understanding. He knows that the constant attention of her parents annoys and upsets Lydia and he tries to deflect it too, not always with happy results.

Everything I never told you talks about how expectations can weigh down a child no matter how honourable the intentions. It brings home the fact that parents can sometimes pressurise their children without even being aware of it. There’s the obvious coercion where they push, nag and reprimand and then there’s emotional coercion which isn’t as obvious and yet can be far more overwhelming and potent. Worse still, it leaves little room for refusal or rebellion because one isn’t being coerced overtly at all.

That’s a dangerous place to be in.

Oh I felt for Lydia. I know children like her – the ‘good girls’ who struggle to deliver at every level. But what happens if they cannot? What if they do not want what their parents want for them and can never say it for fear of breaking their parents’ hearts? So intense and palpable is the constant tension in Lydia’s life that one almost feels a sense of relief as the waters of the lake close on her.

As a mom to twins who worries constantly about dividing time and attention fairly between them the focus on Lydia seemed incongruous. That was perhaps the single jarring factor of the book. However, that’s not to say I haven’t seen it happen. It definitely does, thought perhaps it isn’t as blatant.

Last thought: A wonderful read about love and family and expectations. Definitely worth a read.

Linking up with the Write Tribe Reading Challenge – This is my review for ‘A book on crime-solving’.

The Night Rainbow – A hauntingly beautiful read

Book Title: The Night Rainbow
Author: Claire King

What do you do if you lose your papa in an accident and your maman, pregnant with a baby, moves to a far away place in her head where you cannot reach her? In a place where she cannot abide loud noises, cooks when she feels up to it but mostly keeps to her room?

Well, you take care of yourself the best you can even if you’re just five. You make sure you don’t bother maman, you play in the meadow, splash around in the stream and eat fruits or make yourself a sandwich when you’re hungry. Most of all, you try to find ways to make maman happy because you want her back with all the wanting in your little heart.

That’s the story

..of five and half year old Peony, better known as Pea, her little sister Margot and their mum Joanna. As Joanna loses herself to depression the two little girls are left to their own devices. They spend their days talking and playing. During their wanderings they meet a man, Claude and Merlin his dog, and strike up a friendship. Claude keeps his distance even though he is affectionate and caring but the girls come to look upon him as the father figure they miss so much.

Set in the summer of a small French village, that is the all the plot you’ll find in The Night Rainbow. It isn’t much, so if you’re looking for a story you will be disappointed. Nothing really happens. The narrative has the dull sameness of the  routine of Pea’s days. As you progress through the pages you wait for something to happen. You wait for the market days when Pea gets to go out with her mum as much as she does. You look forward to her interactions with Calude or even the small chance encounters with other village folk.

But here’s the thing, the book draws you in. You step into it and you feel what Pea is feeling. You find yourself grinning when she manages to draw a smile from Joanna, you cringe in the dark with her as she battles her imagined monsters and you want to hold her and hug away her yearning for a real family.

This one isn’t meant to be read for its racy narrative, it is one of those soul-stirring stories whose beauty lies in its slowness. There’s a bit of a revelation towards the end which makes the story even more poignant. And I wonder how I missed it through the book.

Perhaps the book affected me as it did because it spoke in a child’s voice.

Pea was a delightful heroine. Sometimes she seems a trifle old for her age but I forgave her considering she’s had to run her life on her own. I had to try hard to not get judgemental about Joanna. Mothers cannot afford the luxury of withdrawing into themselves when they have a five-year-olds to look out for. My heart broke for Pea as she tries, tries ever so hard to make Joanna happy. Her deep yearning to bring a smile to her maman’s face, for the hugs, the kisses and the cuddles, for the warmth of the old times and her childish attempts towards that are heartbreaking. When she fights the night demons, her loneliness is palpable and yet so strong is her concern for Joanna that she is refuses to wake her up.

There were times where I wanted to shake Joanna out of her depression. If that were even possible. But when I would put away the  judgemental mum in me I’d feel so so sorry for her. To have lost a baby first then your husband, to be far away from your own home, with hostile in-laws, heavily pregnant and all alone – how terrible must that be. She tries. She cooks somedays and smiles too but the sadness weighs too heavily on her leaving her lethargic and uncaring.

Though Pea rarely cries or even complains, her longing is tangible and that is what makes this a sad, haunting, beautiful read. When Shelly said ‘the most beautiful songs were born out of the saddest things’ he could have been talking about The Night Rainbow.

Last thought: It’s definitely worth a read but it’s likely to pull you down into a well of sadness so pick it up with care.

This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info

Salt to the Sea – A #Review

Book Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Ruta Septeys

The more I read about the Second World War, the more I realise how little I know. So here’s another WWII story, another perspective, another group of people displaced from their homes and homeland in search of peace.

The Story

The War is almost at an end. Germany is on the back foot, though refusing to acknowledge it even as the Russian Army advances, raping and killing along its way. Through this terrifying chaos, four refugees – two Germans, a Pole and a Lithuanian – with dark tortured pasts, try to escape the war, making their way to the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to board a ship to safety.

Even after they board the Wilhelm Gustloff their struggles don’t end. For one, they still have secrets to hide. Also the German ship is a target for Russian torpedoes even if all it carries are wounded soldiers, women and children.

Four protagonists, Four POVs, Many stories

The story is told through four points of view, with each of the characters getting two or three pages at a time. It took me a few pages to get used to it but then narrative caught pace and didn’t flag till the very end.

The success of a book like this one depends on how much and how soon the reader gets invested in the characters and their lives. I found myself gripped by not just the four main ones but by many others too. I wanted to know their stories, their families, their background and the past they were hiding. The secrets were revealed slowly over the pages leaving me horrified and amazed by turns. I wanted them desperately to find the safety they craved, I mourned them as much as their friends in the novel.

The journey

A large part of the book talks about journey of the four protagonists to the ship. It is a passage plagued with fear. The biggest threat is from the Russians who are technically the liberators, but are just as vicious as the Nazis, claiming all they find as victors’ spoils. There are the Nazis themselves who wouldn’t hesitate to persecute a Polish girl or a deserter as also the old and disabled. Above all there’s hunger and cold. Septeys descriptions brought home how cruel, how persistent and how insidious the two can be, cutting through layers of meagre clothing, freezing and starving victims to death.

On the ship

Images of surging desperate crowds anxious to board the ship with their belongings, often reduced to a single bag, were heart wrenching. There were moms throwing their children onto the ship hoping they’d get to safety or ‘buying’ children hoping they’d be their passport for the voyage – those are scenes that’ll remain with me for a long time. Desperation makes one act in ways one never thinks of. It brings out the best in people and also the worst.

I must mention that though Salt to the Sea talks about struggle and fear and loss, it isn’t a sad book. It has moments of warmth and genuine goodness that make it worth a read.

Last Thought: This one has to be read.

To buy the book at Amazon click on the picture below.

The Forest of Enchantments – A #Review

Mythology tells timeless tales. Which is why we never tire of listening to these stories from our childhood. Or perhaps the charm lies in the voice of the storyteller who brings something new, something unexpected to the tale; a new perspective maybe, or a poetic narration – something that makes the same old story fresh and exciting.

That’s why Chitra Banerjee’s The Forest of Enchantments was a book I was really looking forward to. It made me break my no-book-buying resolve within a few days of making it. Oh well!

The story 

…. of Sita is not new – found as an infant by the king of Mithila she is married off to Ram, the charismatic scion of the Raghu clan. When Ram is banished to fourteen years of exile she decides to accompany him, is abducted by the powerful Asura King Ravan only to be rescued by Ram. Barely has she settled down in the palace when she is banished, once again to the forest, this time by Ram himself for imagined infidelity. Finally, broken and hurt she finds refuge within mother earth.

Divakaruni’s Sita

…is my Sita too. She was closest to the one I’d always imagined and loved.

I loved that Sita chooses to tell her own story. Valmiki’s version wouldn’t do for her. How could he, a mere man, be equipped to understand a woman, divine guidance notwithstanding? So this here is the Sitayan.

Divakaruni crafts Sita’s character with care – her traits and her strengths complement her origin. Daughter of the earth, she understands all things that come from the earth. She has a green thumb, she can heal through herbs, she talks to the trees, she feels their pain, she craves the forest. Divakaruni’s pen brings to life Sita’s love in beautifully flowing prose, making one fall in love with the world as she sees it – free and unrestrained.

Sita is taught to use her body like a weapon, to centre her whole being and withdraw into herself when situations around her became unbearable.

Her natural gifts coupled with learned skills make her, to me, the perfect woman. One with silent strength and quiet courage, in Divakaruni’s words, ‘easy to mistake for meekness’; Sita has the courage of endurance.

On Love

Ramayan, as also Sitayan is definitely Sita and Ram’s love story. However, beyond that, The Forest of Enchantments is a treatise on love. Every action, good or bad, stems from love and its myriad shades – joy, ecstasy, expectation, pain, suffering, even death. Divakaruni gets elegantly lyrical as she enumerates how each action, each emotion finally finds its root in love. And every single quote is worth being read over and over again.

My absolute favourite is the one on Kaikeyi

It’s not enough to merely love someone…. we must want what they want, not what we want for them.

And this one from when she isn’t able to tell Ram how desperately she wants children during the banishment.

That’s how love stops us when it might be healthier to speak out, to not let frustration and rage build up until it explodes.

I know I’m overdoing this but just one more..

How entangled love is with expectation, that poison vine!

The other characters

..are beautifully etched too. Ram, the duty bound Raghuvanshi, Kaikeyi – strong and stubborn, Urmila – happy, effervescent as also Ravan, Shurpanakha, Mandodari, Sarama (Vibhishan’s wife), Ahalya (my favourite) and Shabari – they were all just right.

I would have liked to see a softer side to Lakshman. He seems forever angry and suspicious. Ram is his whole world, to the exclusion of everyone else. I sorely missed the warmth of his relationship with Sita.

But I’ll let that go, there is only so much one can do while cramming an epic into a few hundred pages.

The ending

…needs special mention because it is absolutely magnificent. Sita’s last few lines completely satisfied the feminist in me, without being angry or aggressive or loud. You need to read it to get what I’m saying.

The few bits that missed the mark

I loved Sita, I’ve made that pretty clear. That said, there were parts of her character that didn’t come together. One, she seemed overly empathetic, unnaturally so – even with Ravan and Shurpanakha. She is constantly thinking from multiple points of view even in the most dire circumstance. I get that she’s a divine, evolved soul but in her human form, it didn’t ring true.

Yet at places what she feels and says doesn’t tie in with her divinity. When she thinks of dying in the Ashok Vatika one of her thoughts is,
‘I wouldn’t be able to tell him how I’d suffered and how all through that suffering had remained true to him.’ Only too human!

I’m being too demanding, I know. The balance between the divine and mortal is difficult not to say subjective.

There were also bits of writing that didn’t quite come through. The abduction scene, for instance, didn’t turn out to be as dramatically horrifying as I thought it should have been.
Says Sita ‘My nails raised welts on his dark smooth skin…’. No one would note her captor’s ‘smooth’ skin while being abducted.
Also, when Sita sees the Pushpak Viman, she says, and I quote..
‘I was so amazed, I couldn’t help staring in open-mouthed wonder. For a moment, I even forgot to struggle.
‘You might want to close your lips’, the rakshasa (Ravan) said kindly (?). ‘A bug might wander in.’
The humour detracted from the horror of the situation.

And yet, despite the few hiccups I’ll say this is the best retelling of the Ramayan I’ve read. The one that reminded me of my grandma’s stories only in a more colourful, more fresh, ever more engrossing form.

Last Thought: Buy it.

Click on the image to buy the book.