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!!!

Adrift – A Junket Junkie in Europe

— by Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Before beginning the review, I have to say that this is my very first travel journal. I have read travel anecdotes and accounts on blogs all over the internet, but I had not read such an extensive journal till date.

My first reaction after reading this book was simple awe and a decided kinship! It is amazing that this author can pack up her bags and leave to the most favored destinations of the world trusting a shoestring budget and a bunch of relatives & friends. I am yet to go alone on a trip anywhere! And she managed most of Europe on her own. She is living my dream and I have to applaud her for this.

I started this book not knowing what to expect, but the author has managed to move me with detailed accounts of all her destinations. She has devoted a chapter each to significant places of visit. Mostly following a pattern, she begins by introducing her hosts in that place, all of them old friends or relatives. She then briefly describes her accommodation conditions and then launches into an extensive narration of the history, nuances, culture, people and cuisine of each of the places. And being a self-professed foodie, she describes the culinary delights of the place with mouth-watering descriptions! She effectively captures the core attraction of the place through her experience of it and feelings towards it.

As much as the book is about Europe, it is also about the author. Her personality and preferences shine through her words. Without being too narcissistic, she manages to balance the information and her own personal feelings towards these destinations. We gather from her journal that she is a seasoned traveller and not a mere tourist. It is not her job to go to catalogued places and take pictures , live in expensive resorts and wind up a trip. She is determined to soak in the experience of a particular place. By meeting its people, by eating the signature dishes, participating in the local events and in general by enjoying herself thoroughly!
The journey through Europe for Puneet starts by the discovery of a ticket that was gifted to her long time ago. Some rummaging around found her a couple of relatives in Germany and UK. So she gathers her essentials, scrapes some money together and sets off on the trip. With her determination to not delegate herself to being a tourist, our happy traveller sets a few ground rules for herself. She does break a few of them but under pressing circumstances. Her wit and humour are a part of her writing too. She also manages to sufficiently convey her sympathy when she visits places with unfortunate history like the house where Anne Frank’s family hid from the Gestapo. She parties hard and fully exploits the delights of places like Amsterdam. She finds the best of eateries in Paris, bicycles through the plains of Sweden and even manages to travel on a train in Paris without a ticket! Though not many misadventures, except a near escape from a customs officer and a bad movie experience, her other happenings are thrilling enough for somebody who truly would love to go to Europe!

I was a bit put off by some of the writing though. Though I do applaud her vocabulary, the book consisted of one too many unnecessary words. Also some of the complex sentences were not well formed and it is real hindrance to read a sentence multiple times, distracting the reader from the real intent of the book. Also, I was amused to find British influences in her writing. The trip really seems to have had an impact on her! Looking over other aspects of presentations, I have to say, the cover art of the book really did its job by capturing the mood.

All in all the book is an excellent ride through Europe. I thoroughly envy the author for her spirit and independence. Still I hope she goes to more places and documents more of her travels for me to read!

My Rating 4/5
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Love on the Rocks

- Ismita Tandon Dhankher

My first thoughts on hearing the title of this book was categorizing it to the arena of sappy romantic stories. But surprise of surprises! It is an enthralling thriller with strong undercurrents of love. The first two pages of the book are enough to  make you get up and take notice of the plot line.

In a cargo ship sailing from Japan to America,the Sea Hyena, among with the 24 crew members, the chief officer, Aaron is newly wed and decides to bring along his wife, Sancha on board for the voyage. The husband and wife are blissfully in love but there is turmoil on the vessel. A murderer is on the loose and this in turn causes turmoil among the happy couple too. Everybody is under suspicion for theft and murder. Once the detective authority comes on board, it becomes a vicious cat and mouse game. With the thrill of murders there are also revelations of various key characters and they are not pretty. Sancha even doubts her own husband and doesn’t hesitate to voice these doubts. A gloomy masked presence looms over all this drama.

The narration of the book is unique. Every character explains the proceedings from their own perspectives in their respective chapters. This style may start out to be mildly confusing, but you soon get into the rhythm as you grasp the nuances of each character. There are several mysteries entangled in this story but the author deftly extracts each one and even succeeds in connecting them to each other to form a beautiful large picture at the end.

The mounting suspense predictably climaxes to the finding of the murderer without any twist. But it is then that the author brings out her trump card and reveals the identity of Manna, the mysterious journal writer with the violent past.

One flaw that I observed was the characterization was incomplete. There were some gaping holes in the character descriptions. All the characters have some kind of a past which could have been better illustrated in the soliloquy chapters.

Even through all of this and some mild confusion in the middle of the plot , the book turns out to be a delightful read. It is non pretentious, mature and manages to be practical and true to the characters at all time. An engaging thriller with great description of life on a cargo vessel. Kudos to Ismita!

Rating – 4*

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The Vague Woman’s Handbook

… by Devapriya Roy

I first noticed this book in my neighbourhood book store. Fresh new copies were on the shelf. My first impression was it must be a new time pass book by another new author. I have had some bad reading experience with some new authors. The cover art looked light and on a whim I picked the book.

I got immersed in the story of the two protagonists. Sharmila Mukherjee and Indira Sen are two different strata of women. In fact Sharmila or Mil is still a girl. Newly wed Mil is proudly living with her husband, while the long-widowed Indira is an outwardly mature Government officer. They meet in the offices of Academy of literature. And become fast friends. The unlikely friendship blossoms to a great extent, bringing solutions to many problems and great companionship.There is also the very immature but cute love of Mil and her husband Abhi, Indira’s dominating mother, Abhi and Mil’s uncompromising parents, the nosy neighbors and insufferable house owners too!

The beauty of the book lies in the dynamics of the different relations described in the book, estranged mother-child, not-enough-space mother-child, the newly married lovers, the college friends. All of these relationships are described and built to the reader with utmost care. The author puts forth incidents that test these relations and shows us that the relationships deserve to exist and will stand every test. The love of a young couple, the frustration of living frugally in expensive Delhi, the pain after fights, all these leave the reader with a lot of warmth towards the characters. Both the women are slight scatter brains, Mil not possessing minimal direction sense and Indira being prone to apathic Credit card spending. This definitely helps the women to identify themselves very easily with the characters. Even with their flaws they lead very fulfilling lives. There is no drama in what the author writes. The problems faced by these women are hard ones. They don’t have miraculous solutions but over time with some determination and support, they all overcome their problems, managing to get a few laughs out of them and even managing to allow themselves happy endings.

As for the writing, I enjoyed it immensely. The writer is such an imaginative person and the best part is that she can so easily translate that to the written word. The imagery she builds up to describe all the situations and the surroundings is so beautiful that I fell in love with the writing. The fact that I finished the book in one night is itself a testimonial to that.

My only gripe is that though the cover art is interesting, it does not portray the women as described in the book. Hope that changes in the next reprint!

Excellent read. My rating 5*

Chanakya’s Chant

… by Ashwin Sanghi


Two thousand years ago , there existed this brilliant king-maker, economist and tactician. After his father’s murder under an egotistical king, he made it his life’s purpose to unite Bharat into a single sovereign under a worthy ruler. He was VishnuGupta , better known as Chanakya ,the son of Chanak. In an unstable Bharat which is facing the imminent threat of the invincible Alexander , the comprising kingdoms are busy fighting among themselves leaving their subjects to the mercy of the Gods. Chanakya identifies potential in the son of the chief army general and takes it upon himself to make ChandraGupta the ruler of Bharat. He plots mercilessly to meet this goal. He brews trouble between kingdoms , manipulates many people and tweaks a lot many circumstances to achieve this aim.

In the present day we have Pandit Ganagasagar , a lowly history teacher , who learns the rope of politics and vows to counter the corruption , poverty and waywardness plaguing India. He finds a suitable candidate in young Chandni Gupta. While grooming her for the post of the Premier, he works very hard to build a new political party and garner enough support to wield power at the central level. He employs a repertoire of political gimmicks like manipulating oppositions , blackmailing high-placed officials and even smoothing international relations!

The book basically comprises of two stories narrated in a parallel manner to the reader ,of course each of them pausing at tantalizing moments. The protagonists are wily teachers who do not want to hold the reins to great power. As Chanakya guides ChandraGupta , Gangasagar grooms Chandni for the highest power in India.  What follows is a series of cleverly plotted events that ultimately leads to success in both the stories. The pitfalls and the master-plans are detailed in a very realistic and well researched manner. The games of politics and the idea that every event can be controlled is laid bare in front of the reader. But the best thing about the storylines are that instead of each of the gurus mirroring each other, we have both of them coming up with different but suitable plans for their wards advancement in their present eras. This makes for a lot of unpredictability in the story and good thrills for the reader.

Political intrigue is the crux of the book. Being straight and naive will not get you anywhere , the author seems to say. One has to manipulate every circumstance and luck plays zero part in these games. If you have strategized well enough then everything will definitely go through your way. Necessary sacrifices for the greater good are ruthlessly made in the stories. Just as Chanakya gives up his love for the country , Gangasagar does not tolerate anyone who tries to tarnish Chandni’s reputation.

Reading this review you may get alarmed at the ruthless power hunger , but these king makers do not, for one minute, forget that they are doing this for the good of the country and the society , to bring in a ruler and a time which the common man deserves. This aspect , I must say, has been beautifully captured by the author.  This may not be the best of the books I have read , but kudos to the author for the masterful plot and the obvious research of current and ancient politics. The events in the book are very much plausible and give a true insight of a real life power struggle.

A definite must read.

My Rating – 4