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!!!

Switch Bitch

…by Roald Dahl.

Switch Bitch is a collection of short stories with the central theme of sex and erotica. If you are a bit prudish, don’t let that put you off the book. Do read on.

The first short story is The Visitor which features one of Dahl’s character’s Uncle Oswald who is known for his sexual escapades with several women. Here, Uncle Oswald finds himself to be an unexpected guest at the mansion of Mr Aziz during his travels in Egypt. As he spends the night flirting with both the wife and daughter of Mr Aziz, he believes he has won them over. And he does get a visit in the night but is unable to tell who it is…

The second story is The Great Switcheroo which is a daring attempt by two married men to switch places in order to sleep with the other’s wife. The planning, the precision and the risk involved are all too great. Does it work out? And can anyone actually win a risky game such as this?

The third story, The Last Act, has as its main protagonist a woman who has lost her husband of many years in a car accident. As she contemplates ending her own life, she is caught up in work which gives her meaning. She reignites contact with an ex-beau but then ending of this contact is one completely unexpected to her. And to the reader.

Finally, the last story, Bitch, also features Uncle Oswald. In this story a scientist attempts to create a scent that will result in a man reacting like a dog when it sees a bitch in heat. However, with such a dangerous scent, the outcome surely cannot be a positive one. Especially when it already involves the incorrigible Uncle Oswald!

All in all, the stories are fascinating with brilliant twists in the end. The consequence of falling prey to lust without thinking of the aftermath is portrayed beautifully without any judgement in all four stories. While the characters may not stand out much (apart from Uncle Oswald), the plots are ingenious and filled with dark humour. Once again, having never read Dahl’s work for adults, I found myself mesmerised enough to read this in one sitting. I would highly recommend this book and give it a rating of 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

The Boat

…by Nam Le.

‘The Boat’ is a collection of 7 short stories of individuals across the globe. The author is a Vietnamese-born Australian who also spends his time in America. His stories are not just of Vietnamese or Australians but rather of different ethnic groups across different countries. There is the struggling author and his difficult relationship with his Vietnamese father; a hitman in Colombia who is just a teenager and his struggles with having to kill his friend; an aging painter and his relationship with an estranged daughter; the young Aussie teenager at Halfhead Bay; the American woman struggling with her friendship in Iran; and finally, a group of Vietnamese people on The Boat escaping war-torn Vietnam and the trials and tribulations faced by one young girl estranged from her family.

The stories all revolve around characters facing some kind of pressure in their lives and attempting to deal with these whilst trying to attain some form of control. Two stories that stood out for me were ‘Cartagena’ and ‘The Boat’. The former is the one with the teenage hitman in Colombia and the emotions and struggles kept me on edge all the way through. The latter, which is the last story in the book, is about the “boat people” escaping Vietnam and looking for better lives but at the same time, taking extreme measures to get there. In many ways, it was heart-wrenching. Especially in this day when there is a big deal being made about people arriving on Australian shores by boat, it gives us an insight into the difficulties faced to get here.

There were other stories though that didn’t grip me as much…they seemed to have great beginnings but faltered somewhere. I think it was more about the characters than the plots themselves.

All in all, a decent read. I give it a rating of 3.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!