(Almost) being inside a dystopian novel: A non-review

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   I read Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last as soon as it came out last year. This is how Goodreads describes it:

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

For someone who lives on dystopian fiction and cannot do without Atwood’s writings, this was good book. When I read it, I was confused: Why would an accomplished writer like her write about soo much sex? Don’t get me wrong, I am not being judgmental – characters in coitus is not really my thing, but I don’t mind it if the plot calls for it.

I obviously did not get the point of the novel when I read it. During the LitFest, Atwood spoke about the layers in the story – dystopia, the idea of prisons as safe-shelters in a post-apocalyptical world, the concept of depravation and love and betrayal… I’ve been meaning to re-read this book – perhaps this time in paperback (whenever it comes out); I am too dependent on my Kindle nowadays (Is that a bad thing, folks?)!

Anyhow, this past LOONG weekend, my boyfriend and I got our own taste of being Charmaine and Stan. For the past three days, we have had no water, fluctuating electricity, and barely anything to eat; also, we’ve been in the car a lot – traveling to friends’ houses for showers, for the AC and the like. You might think that Bangalore is a tech-city but clearly that’s only the view on the surface. The city administration is corrupt and has eluded financial accountability for the past five years. Bangalore proper remains untouched by corrupt harakiri. These areas are near my workplace – it’s (almost) sparsely populated, more green, very residential. You know, areas that will more likely survive if there’s an apocalypse! The area where we live is the hub of start-ups. Overpopulated and dense with Indian eateries and the over-enthusiastic student crowd. During summer (the state of Karnataka has seen drought during the last two years…) there are are a lot of power cuts, consuming full days, there’s no water and people turn on each other. This area will be one of the first to implode in a catastrophic end-of-the-world event.

Throughout the weekend, I imagined A and I in one of these catastrophic events. Bangalore at the brink of destruction. The city, fastened tight in a gridlock (this is not uncommon in Bangalore, dear Reader) and we are escaping this rundown rented apartment, stocking up on food supplies, sleeping in the car. We are united at first, mellow but happy to be alive and with each other despite all odds and then, one fine day… we begin to turn on each other… A is Stan – he keeps a watch at night, at the helm of the car, always on guard; and I, losing it day by day, always in need of protection, always pretending to be someone I am not…

… until one day, we walk into a dilapidated restaurant and find an advertisement for a prison that provides shelter every alternate month…

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Meeting Margaret (Atwood)

 

2016 started off on a great note. I attended the Jaipur Lit Fest and saw Margaret Atwood up close. If I could describe the feeling of meeting my favourite author, I would. All I know is that the next few months will have me gush about this one event. Atwood’s poetry and prose, punctuated by my resolve to be a feminist, has literally made my life what it is.

I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was in the throes of deciding my future career plans, and I cannot help but speculate that Atwood had something to do with it. In another post, I will describe my experiences at the Lit Fest. For now, I leave you with some pictures.

P.S. – I also got to hear Stephen Fry talk and met Mona Eltahawy briefly.

Reading when there’s no time for reading

I discovered the joys of reading discreetly in class in grade six during maths classes. Needless to say, I was atrocious at mathematics but I always kept myself busy. My teacher, a petite little monster, wrote on the blackboard for what seemed like eternity and I read to my heart’s content. I made sure I would never sit at the back of the classes; she would notice them a lot – instead I sat close to her and read to my heart’s content. I never took down all the vivid (mathematics) imagery from the blackboard, but I did spend a lot of time reading. And this was a time when there were no fancy apps/websites tracking your reading and reading-guilt had not been discovered and also, noone cared about the reading/not reading dichotomy because there were no activities to compare reading with (Reading vs. netflix and the like…).

In law school, too, there were ways to escape classes simply by making sure I carried a book everyday. Banking law and Investment Law classes are a blur because I have no idea whether I even attended these. I got out of law school in 2013 and despite my insane schedule during my post-grad course in Budapest thereafter, I tried my best to squeeze in some time at least for reading. When I turned in my last batch of books before leaving Budapest in 2014, the librarian told me that I was the only one in the legal department that year to have checked out books from the fiction section. I felt accomplished, very very proud of myself that someone had noticed my efforts to lead a normal life in spite of a gazillion credits, two internships, and a research tour for my 100+ pages of dissertation… and not forgetting, the hours of cooking and food-prep in a bid to live through my stipend.

Cut to now – I am in my second and this is a much much more extensive job that requires a ton of traveling and much to my chagrin, find no time to read. I stock up my Kindle when I am on the field and always carry a paperback or two but the nature of my work is so sensitive and so unsettling that I come back to hotel rooms (or home) completely unable to concentrate on reading. On some days, I listen to audiobooks on the commute just to make myself feel better. Making a schedule for reading seems as unfair as making a schedule for sex – schedules aren’t made for things you love doing.

I want to say that I have solved this problem a hundred percent, but I haven’t. I have begun to forgive myself for times when I cannot read like the older days, when finishing a book in one sitting is not possible anymore. I have started to reward myself for chores/completed tasks at work with reading time. I have started looking for less stressful plotlines in books – these look like they are easier to get through. I have a TBR but I don’t destroy myself over it. Turning into a mood-reader at times like these help; sometimes I pick just the right book off the shelf – something that is perfect for my mood at that point in time.

I watch book hauls sometimes knowing well that I might not have the opportunity to find a bookstore anywhere nearby – I’ve worked in Kashmir for over a year and women at bookstores were stared at. Sometimes I feel I might have nothing to blog about because I might not have read enough. Reading when there’s no time for reading is difficult. And sometimes, it starts with forgiving yourself… for you’re stretching yourself thin impacting people’s lives and it’s alright.

Plotting my way back

I am back from wherever one comes back from, after a hiatus. I devour the written word without a doubt, but writing becomes an issue, even for work. Which is why document what I read makes sense, but I grow tired of my laxities. Let’s hope I can come back to writing regularly.

Now, about reading. I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last month and was completely bowled over by it. How does she do this? Write so effortlessly. And Ifemelu is me, I don’t know how — she is probably the closest to who I am in real life. Before Ifemelu, the only other character I thought was me was Maggie Tulliver from The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. More on that later. So, after Americanah, I could not get myself to read for a long time. I kept crawling back to Ifemelu and read parts of the book, to feel better about myself.

Then this week, I read a mediocre crime fiction called The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly and my reading mojo came back to me. It was just beautiful to finish the book, to turn to the last page (albeit, in my kindle), to see that line under the name of the book on my kindle home-screen stretch out to its maximum. I began reading Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy earlier today, and haven’t reached a point where I can form concrete opinions about the book, but so far, I am liking it.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls: Cat on the cover, Indian love story, forgiveable anachronism.

THOSE PRICEY THAKUR GIRLS

Those Pricey Thakur Girls is Anuja Chauhan’s third popular fiction novel. However, I hadn’t read any of Chauhan’s books before this.  In fact, I’m not very swift to pick up Indian popular fiction especially because most of them turn out to be quite bullshit, frankly. Anyhow, two of my closest friends from college have read the book and one of them sent this one as a (two-months-advance) birthday gift, and both of them were raving about how amazing the story is so I decided to try it.

Part unwillingness, part sheer apathy for how Indian popfic writers pen down stories made the reading process complicated and LONG! But I dived into Judge Laxmi Narayan Thakur’s (LN to his wife; BJ/Bauji to his daughers) life. LN is an eccentric, suspicious, kot piece playing father to five girls who he names alphabetically. People might find this erratic but my OCD-laden heart finds it adorable and proper. In fact, this detail reminded of a story by Jean McDevitt I’d read as a child – it was about the Apple family and how Mr. Apple tries to find innovative names that compliment the surname, Apple (Mackientosh Apple, Jonathan Apple, Delicious Apple and lastly, Ann Apple). But I digress!

LN’s girls – A for Anjini is married to A for Anant and cannot have children; B for Binodini is married to Vickyji (LN believes this mishap of un-alphabetical disaster has caused her to be wayward and selfish) and has filed a case in court for her share in property; C for Chandralekha has eloped with an Estonian and LN hasn’t spoken to her since; E for Eshwari is in school, and still in tumult about how to express ‘hormonal feelings’ for guys; D for Debjani/Dabbu, our protagonist, is his favourite daughter and reads the news for DeshDarpan and falls for Dylan Singh Shekhawat – our hero: hardworking, honest, handsome journalist.

The story is set in the early 1980s: DeshDarpan is Doordarshan (obviously), the then-Prime Minister’s (Indira Gandhi) assassination is mentioned, the Sikh riots is the spine of the story. Dylan is chasing Motla (for every Indian story must have a villain) who is accountable for the Sikh riots and is completely smitten by Dabbu’s confidence, her moleonchin and her “love for losers”. The story starts with Dabbu beginning as a newsreader but she grows (?!) throughout the novel into a confident twenty-three old.

The cat on the cover, as my friend puts it, has a role in the story (and the cute little tortoiseshell really does!). The novel is about Delhi sheher in the eighties but there is some very obvious but forgiveable anachronism. The story has Hindi phrases, dialogues and one-liners that tickle the funny bone but sometimes are distracting too. However, it is a 400-page novel and seems to go on and on. It could have been better edited perhaps? Towards the end, it seemed like I was inside a Bollywood movie: police on trains, overpowering politician acting like an ass, hero in the hawalat (YES, SPOILERS!), heroine in copious tears, and then, the quintessential deux ex machina end.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls is hilarious in parts but only a one time read.

2/5 stars

High Fidelity

The thing is I had read this book before and I didn’t know it till I read half the book, and then I realized I had forgotten the ending so I read along.

Cover of "High Fidelity"

However, let me tell you: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is not something you read and forget (you may question my forgetfulness about reading it before and I’m going to use my insanity as a defense). The story is about Rob, a thirty-five year old man (who in the course of the book turns thirty-six but that’s hardly important, is it?) who owns Championship Vinyl, a record shop and has  broken up with his long-time girlfriend. The thing about Rob is that he is a sort of mid-life crisis – he is practically broke, Laura has left him, he doesn’t know where his life is headed. Rob is also the modern man who does not believe in grey areas – for him, the pleasures and pains in life are either black or white; things are neatly written off categories and columns; distributed in labelled boxes. He thinks in Top Fives: top five break ups, top five records for break ups, top five records at home, top five movies, and the like. Rob is also deeply insecure – he is a loner.

The book is hilarious. But Hornby’s message about relationships are clear: nothing is smooth-sailing, and you have to decide if a person is worth it! The music mentioned in the book is amazing. I’m already downloading the original soundtrack of the movie based on the book. I also plan to watch the movie sometime later in the week.

3.5/5 Stars

The Fault in Our Stars

the_fault_in_our_stars_by_missheatherelizabeth-d5eptlw    I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars on my Kindle on my way to Dilli sheher. I wouldn’t say I haven’t tried Green’s work before; I tried reading Looking for Alaska but abandoned it after about sixty pages. Possibly because the stories are just too “light” for the likes of me. But on a train journey/flight, I normally like reading books of this sort.

There is a plot in the book, and it revolves around cancer, and how it starts a friendship and then kindles love between two teenagers who visit a Support Group. Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters and their journey through cancer, a book they have begun to love (Green makes up a make-believe book called An Imperial Affliction by a make believe author – mad, arrogant, stuck up – named Peter Van Houten), and a trip to Amsterdam because of the book.

It is a silly love story for sure, and I can’t deny that I’d love having an Augustus Waters when I was sixteen: the personality, the confidence, oh-the-sweettalker! However, I don’t know if I’d categorize this book as a young adult novel. It is not exciting; you can predict the end; the book dragged on in parts.

This is a one time read, if you aren’t a sucker for young adult/teenage romance like me. In any case, it has changed my opinion of John Green – the guy can write beautifully, without a doubt.

Two out of five stars for this.

The Sense of an Ending – Barnes Revisted.

Sense-001Photograph I took of the book with the battered dustjacket

So I’m going through something of a re-reading phase. Today I reread Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending instead of packing for a trip that I have to take to Delhi (I still haven’t started packing; I am lolling on the bed and writing this post and I have thrown all caution to the wind, and it’s after two in the night, mind you – also, I have to take a train tomorrow but who says one has to abandon book-blogging for that reason?)

The library sent in this book, with the dust-jacket a little battered – at first, I was annoyed, I don’t like books treated like garbage. But throughout this evening, I turned its pages and remembered the mundane but magical worlds of Tony Webster and Adrian Finn and the ever-intriguing Veronica. I felt excited that this book has changed hands so many times!

The book is short one, in terms of pages – one hundred and fifty only. But the story, the characters, and Barnes’ treatment of the plot will make it seem like you’ve travelled throughout Webster’s childhood, like you know Alex, Colin and most importantly, Adrian very intimately. You will resent Veronica Mary Ford’s existence, in the beginning. Time and again, you will wonder if/why Tony loved her, why he met her family and why he loved seeing her dancing in his dorm-room. And in the end, you might reconsider your views about her.

The novel talks is prosaic about how we choose to interpret our memories the way it suits us. And how our fickle memories leave us with vast histories that we ourselves might have created for ourselves.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but — mainly — to ourselves.”

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

The story is told to us by Tony Webster himself and so it may be possible that he manipulates facts to his advantage – the reader will sigh at his expressions, descriptions and delineations. Webster may or may not be an unreliable narrator but that is totally up to the reader to decide. The beauty of this novel is that everything is up to the reader: for instance, I loved Adrian Finn even after I read and put away the book, even after I read the ending; I wished to sympathize with Veronica but I couldn’t (perhaps I thought I was a little like her?); I genuinely waited for Anne to appear somewhere in the course of the book, she didn’t; I wished Margaret wasn’t right but she was all along; despite Tony’s self-righteousness, I refuse to be cross with him even as the ending approached – people make mistakes, things go horribly wrong, sometimes even ironically wrong, any of this could hardly be poor old Tony Webster’s fault.

Revisiting An Old Favourite

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I recently re-read Salinger’s The Catcher  in the Rye (for a friend’s coursework) nearly ten years after I had first read it, and as unexpected as it sounds, I didn’t like it that much. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still your average disillusioned, melancholic teenager (remember while I’m in my early twenties, I never could outgrow my teenage years). But I cannot identify with Holden Caulfield anymore.

When I had read it I was 13 or 14 and I was just growing up and the world felt awkward and absurd and it felt like I’d never be a part of it. Holden came to my rescue then. He was sad, he hated that the world was closing in on him, he felt helpless, he felt trapped between  stereotypes and the opinions of others. There was a lot he could do perhaps, to salvage himself from the situation but if he had then the book wouldn’t be as beautiful as it is now.

Again, I love Absurd Heroes: the quest to find the meaning of life, and the futility of it all and thereafter, the foreboding, the pain is beautiful in its own way. Kind of sexy too, perhaps. But I’d much prefer the Byronic hero over the Absurd one anyday now that I’m older.

Anyhow, I will always hold this book close to my heart. For the wrong reasons. Holden was a rebel, and I aspired to become one but … now years later, I think I just succumbed to the world.

And that’s not a bad thing, right?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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Boy! Have I been excited about this one?

Neil Gaiman, another one of my favourite authors announced the release of his new book a few months ago, and the Heavens have seen Disney and I discuss it over Facebook (now that law school is done with, what option do we have?). Of course, most of these painstaking discussions were about how to procure it. Pre-ordering the book was out of question: Flipkart indicated it was Out of Stock (?), HomeShop18 didn’t know who Neil Gaiman was and Amazon India has just began its business (who am I kidding? It was overpriced!). Also, I won’t buy ebooks unless it’s my last resort. Anyhow, Disney found it on one of the websites we usually scavenge – and that’s not the great part! She found it on the day it released. YAAY. So I read it that day itself, and I couldn’t be happier. This man kills me everytime he publishes something new.

——-

The summary goes like this:

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE is a fable that reshapes modern fantasy: moving, terrifying and elegiac – as pure as a dream, as delicate as a butterfly’s wing, as dangerous as a knife in the dark, from storytelling genius Neil Gaiman.

It began for our narrator forty years ago when the family lodger stole their car and committed suicide in it, stirring up ancient powers best left undisturbed. Dark creatures from beyond the world are on the loose, and it will take everything our narrator has just to stay alive: there is primal horror here, and menace unleashed – within his family and from the forces that have gathered to destroy it.

His only defense is three women, on a farm at the end of the lane. The youngest of them claims that her duckpond is ocean. The oldest can remember the Big Bang.

And my FB status message after reading it goes like this:

Neil Gaiman, Why, WHY would you write a story so magical, so comforting, so fantastic in one seventy eight pages only? 178 pages, what were you thinking? You absolutely adorable curly-haired storyteller man, you! Now I cannot pick up another book and you have me running around the empty house, panicking and shaking my fists at boxes of Quaker Oats!

Yes, the book is actually a teeny-tiny book-let, a novella, if you may. One hundred and seventy eight pages ONLY. I was upset when I finished it. Not, because it was bad, nosir! But because it was sooo good that I didn’t want it to end. I mean, he writes after aeons and I finish the book in less than two hours; that is so not done!

Anyhow, the book is magical, to say the least. When you start reading it, the story sort of unfolds itself quietly and even before you know it, it has crept up inside you. It was like a bridge between childhood and growing up. As you begin reading it, you might feel like it is a book for children, but Gaiman is intelligent: he knows there is really no difference between children and adults!

The narrator is a young boy who is now a grown-up, and the story is through the eyes of his seven-year-old self – reticent, wary-of-the-world, lover-of-books, one who isn’t too upset that noone comes to his birthday party but is appalled by the idea that someone else is living in his room! Much like me. And so much changes for this unnamed narrator one night.

There’s so much I want to say about this book. But it would be wrong. Just violating to all the other readers who are waiting for this one. All that is left to say is that the story will stay with me, like an unfinished song. 🙂

P.S. – There are so many quotable quotes in the book but I’ve decided which ones are my favourite.

“I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”

“Books were safer than other people anyway.”

“I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else.”

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