July 19, 2014

The House Of Blue Mangoes - David Davidar


Title: The House of Blue Mangoes
Author: David Davidar
Publisher: Harper Perennial
First Published: 2001


There are two angles I'd like to take when writing about this book. 


The book as an experience

As an experience this book satisfies the Tamil whim in me in every which way. The descriptions, the names, the settings, the conflicts - every single aspect of what I can only define as mann vaasanai (the raw smell of the earth) hits the marks effortlessly. Considering just that, I'd give five stars to this book anyday. Kudos to Davidar for having retained the terms in Tamil, infusing them into the dialogue, allowing you to make the book your own, revel in the atmosphere it creates. What Kannan feels when he finally returns to Chevathar, I felt as an essence from cover to cover. Its a rewarding experience and nothing short.

That said,

The book as a novel

As a novel, the book has gaping holes. It begins with brilliant flair, Davidar has a strong knack at painting pictures that automatically hook you right in. The first part of the book, Chevathar reads like the formulaic plot of a Tamil naatamai (village leader) movie. If you are a Tamilian you will know the elements by-heart. But, Davidar writes convincingly. You understand and sympathise with Solomon Dorai for all the pain that goes into administering his motley village and even the violence you can take in stride if not condone. 

Where the book fails, in my opinion, is taking off from where Chevathar ends. While mapping Aaron and Daniel's lives, there are too many elements coming into play, so all the 'showing' from the 1st part becomes outright 'telling'. Aaron and Daniel don't grow in front of your eyes, you are told they've grown up like that, so you can't quite relate to them, especially not when there's an illogical making-up happening between two brothers who loathed each other for life. The weakest character development was that of the senior Daniel. Perhaps, Ramadoss should've been given a voice and Daniel's story told from his eyes. Doraipuram as a section failed to impress.

Which brings us to Pulimed, again a disappointment. While Kannan as a character had strong potential (there are obvious conflicts here, Daniel tries not to put pressure on Kannan like Solomon did with him, yet there are grey areas) he is not used to his fullest capacity against his father, against his family. The boy does not have a strong need to get away from his family (the push), which logically he must do, go through the process so that he can come back home again (the pull.) Kannan's story runs off swiftly, none of the underlying emotions exposed. It was like watching a character's progression in fast-forward motion, or within the space of a single song as happens in a typical Tamil movie. 

And aside from all of this there's the Indian War of Independence as another layer, one we are told to ignore because Daniel does not like politics and hence Kannan doesn't either. Yet, the British identity conflict forms the basis of Kannan finding his place. This doesn't quite tie up. Usually when your lead characters don't care about something, you tend to not care too, so Freddie and the laddies and that goddamn Mrs.Stevenson (who ironically gets two chapters of character development when so many other characters could've used some!) don't bother you too much except as a bunch to be tolerated. 

And what's with the tiger? I understand the need for an analogy to denote a character coming to a take-off point to hunt for a deeper inner meaning (Aaron had his well. Daniel had his first leech patient.) but this was just not quite enough because Kannan just whined through the whole thing. 

If there's one conflict-freedom-identity based movie that Tamilians love, it is Devar Magan; The book follows a similar plot. The movie with its honest plot and haunting performances left a mark for eternity on our hearts. The only part in this book that comes close to achieving that is the 1st section. But just so. If only a few critical plot points and characters could've been put to better use. (starting with that blasted Vakkeel Perumal!) The book loses its way after Chevathar. But Chevathar was brilliant.


Rating
3/5

Verdict
Brilliant as an experience


June 21, 2014

Akasa Thamarai - Indira Parthasarathy

One Line Synopsis

When it comes to social norms and the willingness to conform to it, how do you decide on right or wrong?

Thumbs-up

- The diversity of thought amongst the characters.
- A genuine and relatable potrayal of the points of view.
- Beautiful yet simple Tamizh prose.

Thumbs-down

- A few of the plot points were a little contrived and one or two characters a tad illogical in their sketch.

Verdict

This is a book that'll draw the right kind of angst and reactions from you. The sharply etched characters will certainly help you realize where you stand on the issues discussed and give you an introspective glimpse into your own beliefs.

Links to the book

Goodreads

Poor Little Rich Slum - Rashmi Bansal, Deepak Gandhi


               Poor Little Rich Slum, the latest from Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi,  begins with the old poem,  ‘It was six men of Indostan…Who went to see the Elephant’ Unlike those blind men of Indostan however, the authors of this book, in my opinion have succeeded in painting a picture of the Elephant with better clarity and resolution.  Poor Little Rich Slum is an out and out account of Dharavi (dhaa-raa-vi), Asia’s largest slum, as it stands credited and the grounds of Slumdog Millionaire as it was further popularized as. 
  
              The book has the feel and effect of a handycam taping a day in Dharavi, with a voiceover by the authors that steps aside occasionally to let the locals talk. Focusing on the Dharavi Redvelopment Project at the outset, the authors proceed to obtain a critical opinion for themselves on what goes into life at Dharavi and why all this fuss about DRP anyway. What follows is a glimpse into the reality that has lingered over Dharavi ever since it all began, one that leaves you amazed, confused, touched and outright speechless in the end.

              With my usual judging a book by the cover exercise, I anticipated this account would either be a story of accomplishment – Check it out, we did a study in a well known slum; or a manuscript for one of those documentaries that Social workers come up with – dark, questioning  and uncomfortable. The fact is, it was both, but without being cocky and arrogant like the former or depressing and blameful like the latter. This was an honest account of things as they are, from a group of people who chose to venture into the study with as much nervousness as any individual that chooses to do something right because he believes in it.

             The account takes us into the lives and existence of Dharavi folk, natives and immigrants alike. It speaks mostly of how, under what we see as grime and slush, are living beings who do not seem to share the same world as us, but sustain in a dynamic world of their own; with the same kind of dreams and aspirations as ours, but deprived of an easy entry ticket. To the urban eye Dharavi sounds and appears lost. Listen to the voices in this book and you’ll know you couldn’t have been more wrong. For Dharavi is a huge pulsating heart, that beats with the spirit of its people, a thousand success stories running through its spine.

             Every story presented, reeks of optimism and survival of the human spirit through the toughest of times; hardwork is a habit at Dharavi and it is not considered an imposition, which is what makes its inmates an enigma. What you make out of the stories in this book are entirely up to you because whatever I might conclude would only be subjective. But in the stricter view of a book review:

What worked for me:

     1.       Tiny chapters with delicious pictures at every turn and spaced out printing.
     2.       Simplicity of narration that didn’t try to wallow in sorrow, blame urban dwellers or delve into the poetic for effect.
     3.       The beautiful pictures by Dee Gandhi.

What didn’t work for me:

     1.       It is a bi-lingual narrative given the interviews with Dharavi residents featured, but I personally felt there should have been an English translation for Hindi dialogues for folks who are not familiar with the language.
     2.       One sore fact remains that, after the roller coaster ride through Dharavi this book takes us through, I could, in the end, still not understand what the authors’ stand is on the DRP. Do they agree? Do they not agree? Do they want us to decide?
     3.       I personally feel, Dharavi is too huge a study to be put into one single book and while the earnestness of the authors stands appreciated, it is only the tip of the iceberg that is featured between these covers.
     4.       A majority of these stories are of success and achievement. Of how people made it through hardship. But reality has an ugly side to it and in a place like Dharavi one can only assume a stronger presence of it. The authors but only touch lightly upon it. So the question in the end becomes – Do you want us to save Dharavi only for its successful side?

      My verdict:
Poor Little Rich Slum, to me is like a vitamin pill. I know I will browse through it when my urban life gets dull, boring or depressing because if, with an environment like Dharavi and no luxuries whatsoever, men and women can work their butts off to chase after their dreams, I should be able do a hundred times as much. 

Rating:
3.5 / 5

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Shades Of Life - Vasundhara Ramanujan


                      It was time to sit, plan and execute a plan for survival. We had to accept this as a challenge’ reads one line in the beginning of this narration. The background to this declaration is the knowledge of the fact that twelve and a half year old Aditya has been diagnosed with acute kidney disease. While most people would have gone crumbling along with their world, when hit with news of such a magnitude, Aditya’s mother and family took it as a challenge that they eventually overcame with extraordinary measures of optimism and healthcare.

                      Shades of life is a first person account of Aditya’s struggle and subsequent recovery from  Renal Failure that caused him to lose function in both kidneys even before adolescence. While it was the boy who suffered from the clinical implications of the disease, his family – father, mother and elder brother, suffered along with him, emotionally as well. Vasundhara Ramanujan’s moving account, detailing her younger son’s condition and how it affected and changed normal life for the family, is a revelation. Of how, the ring of suffering and recovery is not just restricted to the patient but extends to his loved ones who wish to see him heal and return to life as they once knew it.

                     The book is a trove of information on renal disease, a more personal account rather than medical, offered from the point of view of Vasundhara and her family. While a text book or encyclopedia might give you all technical details of the condition and case studies to accompany, Aditya’s story includes a different perspective. It gives you, in addition, the reaction of a family, which until a stubborn headache, had a peaceful existence worrying about the result of cricket matches and college admissions. You get to feel and experience the patient side of the story, from the initial shock to coming to grip with the condition and choosing to fight to live and live with better health.

What worked for me:

1.       Short chapters with concise accounts of events.
2.       Chronological sequencing of experiences and information that make this book more of a journal than a compilation of medical inferences.
3.       The physician profiles at the end, detailing the work and achievements of experts in the field that I am sure will be useful to many.
4.       The honest tone of the book that does not at any point of time attempt to be overtly dramatic.

What did not work for me:

1.       While being a science student puts me at an advantage for understanding the medical terms and names of drugs listed in this book, to a non-science reader, it does tend to come across sometimes as too much detail.
2.       Some chapters have a final passage called reflections, that goes on to explain in some more detail about the emotional side of points covered in the text. In my opinion, I didn’t really find the need to separate the passages. They seemed to convey the same kind of matter as the rest of the chapter.
3.       The narration, fueled by a very emotional trove of experiences tends to get monotonous at times. There are opinions, anger, confusion and clarity from so many people closely involved with the problem, not to mention Aditya himself and I couldn’t help but want for a tighter script.

Verdict:

Shades of Life is a story of survival. Of how one family braved it through two critical health problems that threatened to rob one of their own, of holistic living. When you just can’t find that ray of sunshine in your life, pick up this book.  Aditya and his indomitable spirit will help you through.

Rating: 3/5


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Image Courtesy : http://www.shadesoflife.org/about.htm

Title : Shades of Life
Author : Vasundhara Ramanujan
Publisher : Westland
Price : 195


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The Krishna Key - Ashwin Sanghi


                    The first reviews that I read of ‘The Krishna Key’  were adamant on comparing Ashwin Sanghi’s latest thriller to Dan Brown’s bag of tricks. Then, I felt it was very unfair for an author to be blindly dismissed because of smiliar plot ground shared with a bestseller. Now, I sadly stand corrected. The Krishna Key, starts off, travels and chugs to a stop in typical formulaic fashion that cannot not be compared to that other fellow’s works. Alas, while Robert Langdon had me biting my nails with the agony of a wild goose chase, I wished I could have responded to Saini with a ‘No. Thank you very much’ when he handed me an invitation on the first page. I am going to directly delve into the ‘whats’ of my review.

Warning : This review contains spoilers. Do read the book first, if you wish to not know them beforehand.

What Did not work for me:

1. The narration and so many aspects of it. The entire plot revolves around a hunt, a few murders, an almost psycho youth led to believe that he is the Kalki avatar and yet the story failed to engage my intrigue in any way save for a few comparisons and facts. That is just plainly sad because the premise is outright fantastic and holds such promise.

2. The characters – None of them made me want to even remotely root for them. Everyone seemed annoyingly all knowing. Even Sir Khan! If Khan knew about everything, runs an underground empire and has powers virtually everywhere in the world, why would he need such a round about route to find what he was after? His reasons for employing Priya were just paper thin. And he dies in a puff anyway, so don’t bother.

3. The parallel narration of Krishna’s story. What was the point of it?! Really. Where did it fit in, in the story? To me, it was just a mass of text in italics that kept disrupting the already sloppy narration every now and then. I personally felt, it  mocked the legend of Krishna more than helping it in any way.

4. The flow of material – And I’m not even talking about the information overdose. Given the umpteen number of characters and sub stories, the publishers should have very seriously considered presenting them clearly. Given that they did not, you have a mass of italics followed by a dozen paragraphs of narration in the present, caught in a web of flash back and ruminations of each and every character, all in the same font, that play mind games with you. I did all I could to not chuck the book and walk away.

5. Most of the characters seemed to oddly sound the same.  There’s no distinct personality you could pinpoint. We actually have two characters counting prayer beads. Although, the higher purpose of that fact is supposedly a knot that conceals the identity of the villain. 

6. Every single sequence, save for the facts, was predictable. This is a given, in my opinion, in any kind of historical thriller. You expect such things to happen and you guess what certain characters are going to turn into. But, it is solely in the hands of the author to turn it around in his/ her favour, lend it a voice of his/her own and have  readers hooked involuntarily. This book had me rolling my eyes at every instance. 

7. Just simply too much explanation! Everywhere. Where underplay and subtlety could’ve worked wonders, Sanghi has his characters explaining everything. Literally. From composition of injection fluid at the hospital, to aircraft models, to a tough cop detailing every move she made to kick another’s ass, to why pressure applied behind the knees would stop bleeding….I could keep going on. The whole book felt like a crash course on everything under the sun.

8. As if explanations were’nt enough, there are several passages (complete) in the book that are reiterated word for word between the characters and with themselves. The dialogues are just bland. Need I say any further?

What worked for me:

I really hoped Sanghi would silence those who compared him to Brown and wished I would be one of those on his side but, the only positive thing I have to say about the story is the freshness of illustrations and images that prove some respite from the encyclopedia stuck in fiction, that is the rest of the book. Nevertheless, kudos to the effort that went into all that research, Mr. Sanghi.

Verdict:

I can handle information overload. I did read all of Dan Brown’s novels but while those books made me want to read them all over again, Sanghi’s ‘The Krishna Key’ makes me want to return the key back to Krishna. Chanakya's Chant was far better!

Rating : 2/5


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Thundergod: The Ascendance Of Indra - Rajiv G Menon


                Rajiv G Menon’s debut novel, ‘Thundergod : The Ascendance of Indra’ is a bout of relief amidst the various attempts at handling mythology by his contemporaries. While the plot draws a sigh out of you; yet another story based on yet another character out of Indian mythology. The neat narration that doesn’t lose pace (or gore for that matter) has you hooked until the end. The language is clean, save for a few bumps that I shall talk about in a minute.

                The book details the birth and rise of Indra as the king of Devas and in time, ascend to being god of thunder. What begins as a journey of vengeance, takes him through his self as a barbarian who works to become king, then the ultimate warrior, leader of brother tribes, slayer of evil and eventually graduate as a god, literally relocating to heaven, so he could keep a protective watch over lesser mortals.

                This journey as you can imagine, is not easy. Why and how Indra tackles life and his destiny is what the novel attempts to convey. Proceeding to the dissection :

Warning : This review contains spoilers. You might want to read the book first, if you don't wish to know them beforehand.

What worked for me:
1. The plot, events and narration in general. One thing leads to another naturally and the author takes us through in a logical pace.

2. Short chapters that makes it easy to navigate.

3. Subtle humour that runs along, without getting cocky.

4. I liked the names of Indra’s friends; the fact that they happen to be named so and acquire their powers only later on. The author plays a clever hand here.

What did not work for me:
1. Inspite of an interesting plotline and good narration, this book can actually be summarized in one equation : Sex + War (Die Hard style). If someone isn’t cutting someone else’s head off, or disemboweling an army, they are jumping into each others’ arms.
                  *  There are women of all sorts – goddesses, slaves, wives and friends, using sex as the only weapon to either humiliate Indra & Co or to supposedly attempt to defeat them. At one point it just got plainly queasy and felt like the author had run out of imagination. Granted, our ancestors lived literally like animals but detailed explanations everytime and the frequency only made the author sound like an ancient version of E.L.James.
                 *  If you held the book sideways and squeezed it hard, you could most definitely collect a bucket of blood and gory body parts. Ruthless killing in the name of war happens page after page. No wonder history is so violent! Be warned of possible nightmares if you sit on this one late.

2. There are atleast a hundred names in here. And a few hundred more for animals and weapons even. They all end up sounding very very alike, and sometimes even gender-neutral. I had a tough time placing Ur-Uruk and Ugra. Wait, did I get it right?

3. The war sequences are presented in excruciating detail. While watching it on screen would be easy on your imagination, reading about it line by line, grows tedious after a hundred pages.  Those sequences could have been trimmed. And, the mission of Indra, describes the need  to unite the sons of Aditi. Sadly, you have to dig that act up amidst descriptions of a hundred other battles.

4. The blurb wonders whether Indra would ever get the one woman he loves, to love him back again. There is no description of any such attempt in the book. She hates him after a terrible incident and that's it. They drift apart. Later he comes to know she considers him dead and he just let's her go. For someone he claimed as his true love, this was simply lack of effort and interest. Why?

5. The biggest thorn in this books fictional flesh, is the phrase ‘Unlike the world had ever seen’. Take my word for it when I say, that phrase appears atleast 675 times in this book. I admit, the number is exaggerated, but that is how magnificently annoying it was. It reminded me of Harold Bloom’s review of Harry Potter, where he claims JKR had over used the phrase ‘Stretched his legs’. One more occurrence and the book could have been renamed. Thundergod –Unlike the world had ever seen!

Verdict:
Thundergod is a good and interesting narrative. It guarantees a read that will take you from cover to cover, having to make only a few pitstops enroute. Definitely commendable for a debut.  Pick it up when you are in the mood for a history lesson that holds the promise of a roller coaster ride.

Rating : 3.5/5


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P.S : Incase you are wondering how I was able to review the book when it is due for release only later this month - Abracadabra! Read below :)

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The Bankster - Ravi Subramanian


                    Before I get into the review, let me provide a quick list of things I expect from a novel classified as a thriller. 
1. A well connected plot, 
2. Gripping, edge of the seat narration, 
3. Loose ends tied up towards the end and 
4. Atleast one character that takes my arrogant deductions for a toss.

                    Ravi Subramanian’s ‘The Bankster’  in my scanner, scored a tick against all of those points except for the language and narration. That said, let’s proceed to the surgery.

                   The Bankster is an elaborate plot that describes and exposes a massive scam of international proportions, that involves diamonds and nuclear plants. Under the lens, those two areas do not matter much towards the end, but they drive the unraveling of the plot nevertheless. The story revolves around the Greater Boston Global Bank, referred to as GB2 (On the lines of DDLJKBKGKANKOSO and the like from Bollywood) and how a bunch of corrupt individuals in an unseemingly innocent day to day operation, paint a picture of fraud, money laundering and murder even.  What begins as a bits and pieces  timeline narration, grows into a full blown goose chase, brought to a glamorous and convincing conclusion by Karan Panjabi, who comes across as a minimalist version of 007. The fact that he happens to be a journalist cum ex-banker cum sleuth-in-training tends to sound a wee bit easy. I personally felt he could've just been another smart fellow who figures things out logically.

What worked for me:

- The plot in general. Good story, well-woven and neatly tied up.

- No stereotyping anyone anywhere.Which was a huge relief and helped take the story forward at a good pace.

- Though there wasn’t a big bang type of revelation during the climax, this one character’s involvement in the evil plans caught me by surprise, even if mild, and was worth the dough.

What didn't work for me:

- The language and the narration, throughout. For a thriller, it was quite bland. The plot was doing all it can to keep me intrigued but the writing remained lagging all along. So, what could’ve been a well above average thriller, ends up a few bars below, lacking panache. More reasons in the next few points.

- From cover to cover, the language is extremely colloquial and by that I mean the kind of conversational oddities we employ while talking to each other. To me, when it comes to the written word, I prefer language that stands up to some degree of quality and given this genre of fiction, lends it a more ominous and persistent voice. As a result, we have ‘na’ and ‘re’ and a generous dose of Hindi, which is not even highlighted in italics, peppering the text. Beyond a few pages, this got very annoying and watered down the seriousness of the pace. I’d cut some slack if the author had intended such dialogue to differentiate between two sides to a single character, for example, chocolate boy next door is actually a serial killer, but no, here it only makes the text sound flippant.

- I was left in a muddle at a few spots in the text.

1. Almost everyone treats everyone else like dirt. They call each other idiot, fool and swear constantly at each other. I understand that all of us are chronically frustrated towards our co-workers but I have not come across folks who hurl obscenities at another openly. What would become of bathroom breaks and back talking then!

2. There are scene changes within chapters that could’ve been separated with a dash or star or something to that effect.

3. During the climax, Vishnu Shome goes from being introduced as Assistant commissioner of Police (ACP) suddenly to DCP (Deputy commissioner of Police) within a few pages! Typo, I assume, or that man is Sherlock Holmes (The surname could actually be a play on the name!).

4. In the first few pages, one character advises another to hire pretty women even if they aren't particularly quick on the uptake. The dialogue says ‘Hire smart young women, even if they are thick-headed’ – Eh? If a woman is smart, she can technically not be thick headed right? Enlighten me if am wrong.

- The first half of the book is slow. It picks up pace only after two thirds of the story is down. But it doesn't get boring anywhere along the way, I’ll give you that.

There are a few grammatical errors and spacing issues that show up, a definite headache for any author and any editor, given that these days we edit on our computers. I’m including this here in the hope that people concerned with the book, might take notice and fix it in subsequent print runs.

Verdict:

The Bankster, started off as a slow disjointed read but ended up picking pace and finished as a well connected, neatly closed plot. Perfect for a weekend read, especially when you've had a tough week and would love to juggle up your mind and forget that Monday is fast approaching.

Rating : 3.5/5

P.S : My copy was autographed! :) Yay! Thank you, Mr. RaviSubramanian. All the very best.

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