Last Man in Tower

…by Aravind Adiga.

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Vishram Society, Vakola. The site sought after by builder Dharmen Shah to demolish and rebuild a new development in its place. The residents of both Tower A and B are given an offer for their flats. Given that Vishram society is falling to pieces, most of the residents are more than happy to sign the contract, get the money and find a new and more stable place. Except for one man.Yogesh Murthy of Tower A. A retired teacher also known as Masterji to his neighbours. What initially begins as a way of sticking up for friends eventually results in him taking a stance for exercising ones freedom and rights to keeping ones roots. However, Masterji’s stance soon sees him making enemies and those people he thought of as neighbours and friends can no longer be trusted. There is Mrs Puri who longs for a new life after 18 years of penance looking after her disabled son Ramu. There is the building secretary, Mr Kothari who longs to live in Sewri watching flamingos and reliving what his father lost. There is the scheming broker Ajwani who will do almost anything to make more money. And the cyber-cafe owner Ibrahim Kudwa who thinks more money would mean a better life for his family and who is always looking to please everyone. Then there is Mrs Rego, a single mother and social worker who is envious of her sister’s life. And the Pintos who were very good friends with Masterji but have troubles of their own. Finally, can Masterji trust his own son Gaurav who seems to have grown all the more distant since the death of Masterji’s wife Purnima a year ago?

How far will people go to get what they want?

Will one man be enough to stand up against corruption in society?

And what makes a person good or bad?

To know all these, you have to read the book.

I thought this was an interesting book. It took a little while to warm up but then picked up really well. It really makes you question humanity in general particularly the lengths that people can go to when they are desperate. It also makes you question issues around good versus bad and whether deep down some people are evil or whether circumstances make them that way. Adiga delves into the corruption that is rife in Indian society and how sometimes it is a struggle for one man alone to fight the system. Especially when the system is bought by the corrupt and rich few. I found all the characters interesting and intriguing, each with their own background stories and morals. Some of them I must admit, reminded me of people I’ve encountered over the years. Mrs Puri in particular was one of those characters most people might have encountered — a martyr of sorts but a hypocrite at other times. Your regular nosey neighbour.

I’d picked up the book ages ago because my maternal grandparents lived in Vakola and it was an area I’d frequented for years. It definitely brought back memories of the area and well, of Bombay in general. Bombay — the city of dreams. But also, the city that can make or break you.

In short, I really liked this book. Even more than the one that won the Booker Prize! I give it a rating of 4.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Note: This post first appeared on my personal blog

Gifted

…by Nikita Lalwani.

14 year old Rumi Vasi is a maths prodigy. Living in Cardiff in the 1980s with her parents Mahesh and Shreene and her younger brother Nibu, she faces the challenges that most children of migrant parents do: caught between two worlds. Rumi though has the added pressure of being gifted in maths and consequently, has been pressured to do well academically since a young age by her parents. After years of putting up with her father’s regimented tutoring, Rumi finally begins to crack. She starts to long what most teenagers do: a life beyond numbers and academics. But unfortunately for her, longing and desire have no place in the Vasi household.

I really enjoyed this book. My heart went out to poor Rumi who had to put up with the pressures of parental expectations and being a first generation migrant. She tries to find herself and her own identity without much help from her family. A father who is rigid and aloof and whose only role is to push Rumi to succeed acadenically on all accounts is probably not uncommon in Indian households. Shreene though was an interesting character in that she is traditional and a prude and yet, at some level, you wonder whether she wanted Rumi at all. She pushes too but it’s her punishments and cruel words that cut through you as a reader. What I liked about the book was that unlike other books by Indian authors that portray the west as being negative or that the rebellious Indian girl eventually finds that all things Indian are the only right things in life, this was balanced. Yes, the parents are deeply rooted in Indian tradition and see the west as being a negative influence. But Rumi…while she enjoys Bollywood and feels a connection with India, also seems to realise that independence and a life of one’s own is just as important. I think because I see a lot of clients like Rumi, I was able to identify with her a whole lot more. And kept rooting for her. Nikita Lalwani has done a wonderful job in portraying her characters as well as unveiling the story.

It’s the kind of book I would have loved to write. My rating: 4

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

***This review originally appeared on my personal blog***

A Calendar too Crowded

…by Sagarika Chakraborty.

This debut book is a collection of short stories and poems about Indian women in different stages of their lives and the issues surrounding them. While the book is divided into months of the year that highlight important days (e.g. 1st December: World AIDS day), the author tells us in her introduction that it is not just to highlight the days but rather, “to delve deeper and analyse whether it is merely enough to rely on statistics and be complacent in the knowledge that the numbers indicate a better society in the making, or whether there is an urgent need to look beneath the covers and realise that despite all such dedicated days, there are 300 odd days when there is nothing special that life has to offer. Where each day is still an unending drudgery and where womanhood is cursed and trampled upon.”

The stories, despite being fiction, are probably quite familiar to people who grew up in India. Particularly to women. There are stories about sexual harassment and rape (and how it’s the woman’s fault as always), dowry, domestic violence, the stigma associated with menstruation, female foeticide, and abortion among others. There are stories of young girls dealing with being adopted and widows dealing with the stigma of their status. There are empowering stories about the daughter of a prostitute and a woman observing a mother. There are also stories about women dealing with in-laws, going to extremes in terms of independence and being able to do it all (i.e work, keep house, have kids, be traditional). All in all, they are stories people in India would have read about, heard about or even experienced first hand.

While reading the book, I noticed my views change. There were some stories that totally gripped me and had me nodding all the way through. Naked was by far, my favourite story. I loved the writing and the story and it spoke volumes about Indian society. The poem Can you hear me, Ma? was heart-wrenching and a familiar one. One that probably makes most of us women reading this book born in India feel fortunate that our mothers did hear us! On the other hand, some stories just didn’t grip me. An Equal Friendship which is a letter from Draupadi to Krishna was one that didn’t gel with me. Probably because my memory of the Mahabharata is not so good any more but also because I don’t remember Draupadi as being the strong woman the author has portrayed.Knowledge beyond the printed letter was another that didn’t grip me and felt a bit unrealistic.

On the whole, the book is a pretty good read. I guess most of Indian society is aware about these social evils but doesn’t do much about it. The hope would be that books like these would help give these women a voice and start to change things. None of the characters portrayed in the book have a name and although initially I found it frustrating (despite the reason the author had given), I found myself liking it in the end. Possibly because there is a mentality with people from India to associate stereotypes the minute you hear someone’s name (e.g. north Indian versus south Indian) and not having names meant the reader was unlikely to engage in that association. To sum up, if you are looking to read a book about women from different walks of life in India going through similar problems and trying to manage their lives, then this is the book for you.

I give it a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!