Teatime for the firefly

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Title: Teatime for the Firefly
Author: Shona Patel
ISBN: 9780778315476
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Source: Advance copy via NetGalley
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

From Shona Patel’s blog:

My name is Layla and I was born under an unlucky star. The time and place of my birth makes me a Manglik. For a young girl growing up in India in the 1940’s, this is bad news. The planet Mars is predominant in my Hindu horoscope and this angry, red planet makes people rebellious and militant by nature. Everyone knows I am astrologically doomed and fated never to marry. Marriages in our society are arranged by astrology and nobody wants a warlike bride. Women are meant to be the needle that stitches families together, not the scissor that cuts.

But every thing began to change for me on April 7th, 1943.

Three things happened that day: Boris Ivanov, the famous Russian novelist, slipped on a tuberose at the grand opening ceremony of a new school, fell, and broke his leg; a baby crow fell out of its nest in the mango tree; and I, Layla Roy, aged fifteen years and three days, fell in love with Manik Deb.

The incidents may have remained unconnected, like three tiny droplets on a lily leaf. But the leaf tipped and the drops rolled into one. It was a tiny shift in the cosmos, I believe, that tipped us together—Boris Ivanov, the baby crow, Manik Deb, and me.

I loved this book! It is such a beautifully written book that I couldn’t put it down but somehow I made myself stop to just let the words wash over me and to feel the characters and live with them for some more time. Shona Patel’s storytelling and writing ability is so powerful that it transports you and you can’t get out of that magical place. While reading the book, I felt nostalgic for an era I didn’t even live in. Is it even possible?

In Teatime, we follow Layla’s journey from her laid back life with her grandfather, Dadamoshai to the turbulent times she faces during India’s independence and thereafter. Layla is born under an unlucky start and is orphaned at a very young age. Yet, she is brought up by her wise and forward thinking grandfather to be a smart, educated and independent thinking girl. After marrying Manik Deb, Layla moves to the borders of Assam to live in the tea plantations where her husband works. Overnight she finds out that she is a now a memsahib with a fully staffed bungalow at her disposal and has to look and act accordingly. Soon we see that her relaxed life with her grandfather is over and she has to face many issues arising out of the changing economic situations at that time. Set against the spectacular backdrop of tea plantations, Shona Patel remarkably portrays the contrasts of an idyllic exotic location and it’s flawed society. Through Layla we see the life and times of the local plantation workers as they face racism, poverty, superstition and even politics.

I fell in love with Layla first and with her grandfather a little later – but these are not the only people who are delightful to read. The other motley of characters that Patel weaves in this story are equally captivating and touching – from Layla’s extended family to her servant staff, her husband’s colleagues and their wives and mistresses – every character is a joy to read – they are real, believable and you can easily picture them in your head with their nuances.

Shona Patel’s prose is lush and lyrical. It transports you to the India in the 1940’s and completely immerses you in that time and place . Layla’s story is funny, adventurous, dangerous and courageous. You would at times wish to stop and savour the moments yet find yourself distraught at the thought of staying away from the beautiful place and characters of this book. A coffee addict myself, after reading this book, I craved for a cup of tea…

Highly recommended! Can’t wait for her next book!

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Wanting

‘Wanting’ is a book by Australian author Richard Flanagan. The year is 1839. The setting is Van Diemen’s land (Tasmania, as it is known today). A young Aborginal girl by the name of Mathinna attempts to get help from the Protector for her dying father. Fast forward twenty years on. Charles Dickens, the most prolific author of his time, is dealing with a dead end marriage and lack of interest in life. Until he is approached by the person connecting the two stories together. Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of one of the most famous explorers, Sir John Franklin.

In 1841, Sir John Franklin was the governor of Van Diemen’s land and lived in the convict colony with his wife. Lady Jane is enamoured by Mathinna and decides to adopt her as part of an experiment to ‘civilise’ the ‘savage’ child. The underlying belief of the times is that by controlling one’s passion and wanting, one will be civilised. It is apparently the ‘savages’ who give in to the passion and wanting. Thus, Lady Jane, being the civlised person that she is, does not give in to her needs to hug or comfort the child. On the other hand, Sir John eventually finds himself living for the time spent with Mathinna. Thus drawing ridicule from his peers. Lady Jane’s experiment fails and Mathinna is left back in Van Diemen’s land in an orphanage. Sir John Franklin disappears on an exploration which is rumoured to have ended in cannibalism. A scandalous suggestion for the times. Lady Jane requests Dickens’ help to put an end to these rumours. As Dickens get into the story, he ends up producing and starring in a play inspired by Sir John Franklin. His belief is that discipline and strong will can help conquer yearning and desire. Except, through the play, he meets Ellen Ternan and finds himself unable to conquer his own wanting.

The central theme of course, is wanting. The belief of the era that giving in to your longings and wants is something a ‘savage’ would do and not a gentleman or lady. The book looks at how there are consequences of giving in to ones wants and that is seen through the characters of Dickens, John Franklin and even Mathinna while similarly, you can have negative consequences by not giving in to your desires as is depicted through Lady Jane. Flanagan also explores the colonisation of the Aboriginals. How there was a belief that they needed a ‘protector’ or someone who could make them more ‘civilised’. Through Mathinna’s character, you see the ill that was done by the British and the whites to the Aboriginal population of Australia. The stolen generation rings out loud even though this book was before the time. The sad thing is that the repercussions of this colonisation is seen till today with the Aboriginal population. Mathinna’s character is endearing and the conflict she feels after being abandoned by the Franklins between her race and the white race is one that is very relatable. You feel for the pain she goes through. The writing is quite exquisite and the chapters move between Dickens and Franklin/Mathinna, thus keeping you engrossed to know more. The author warns that it is not a novel of history. But to me, it was enlightening to learn about the past.

I give it a  rating of 4.

Note: This post has been cross-posted on my personal blog.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is a modern literary classic written by William Golding. The book begins with a plane crashing into a deserted island and the only survivors are a group of British school boys aged 13 and under. Most of the boys don’t know each other apart from a group of them who are part of a school band.

Some of the school boys include

Ralph – he is chosen as the Chief of the group because of his attractive looks and apparent leadership skills.

Jack – the leader of the band, resentful at not being voted Chief but still leading some of the boys to hunt for pigs on the island.

Simon – a quiet and sensitive boy, apparently ‘odd’ to the others around his age.

Piggy – an intelligent, bespectacled and overweight boy, unfortunately nicknamed thus. He is the boy picked on by the others.

Sam and Eric – A pair of twins who do everything together and are almost a single entity.

Roger – A member of Jack’s band and his group of hunters.

What starts off as an attempt to run a society with rules and regulations until they can be rescued eventually goes pear-shaped. At night, the boys’ dreams, particularly the little ones, are haunted by an image of a terrifying beast. A rift occurs between the older boys in terms of leadership. And finally, their behaviour becomes more savage and takes on a murderous turn not necessarily for the sake of survival.

I had heard of this book years ago but only just got my hands on it thanks to my book club. It is a fantastic read. It makes you understand the importance of living in a society with law and order — and more importantly, consequences of breaking certain rules. Through the boys’ behaviour, you can see what would happen in a society where there were no consequences. Furthermore, you get an insight into how groupthink works versus an individual thinking for himself. And how if that groupthink is not necessarily the most moral form, it can have disastrous results. For me, another issue it seemed to bring up was that some individuals in this world can in fact be born evil. All they need is the space and the trigger to engage in the evil behaviours. You can see it in the difference between some of the characters — how some thrive on murder and others have a conscience. Of course, those that thrive on the savage behaviours also have a ‘mask’ of almost anonymity to protect them. And it makes you wonder, if that were the case in society, how many individuals would be that way?

The book is quite disturbing yet fascinating. For me personally, some of the characters reminded me of some clients. And that’s a scary thought. It was made into a movie in the 60s I think and I’m curious to watch it. To sum it up, this book deserves a rating of 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Meet Renee (or Madame Michel as she is also known), the concierge at Number 7, Rue de Grenelle. Only she is not your typical concierge. Behind the mask of an average telly-loving, couch-sitting, frumpy looking concierge, Renee in fact has a love of reading philosophy, enjoying art in its various forms and taking pleasure in some of the finer aspects of culture. She is way more knowledgeable than her rich Parisian employers at 7 Rue de Grenelle. She is the hedgehog.

On the outside, she’s covered in quills……on the inside, she has the same simple refinement of the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant. (pg. 139)

Also living at 7 Rue de Grenelle is 12 year old Paloma Josse. Paloma is an extremely intelligent girl who despises her bourgeois family and neighbours — her politician father, her mother who thinks psychoanalysis is the answer to her troubles, her older sister Colombe who is flighty and arrogant. Paloma has a plan to avoid the future she thinks is pretty much set out for her. By planning to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. And in the process setting fire to the apartment.

However, both their lives are changed by the arrival of a newcomer to the building. Monsieur Kakuro Ozu.

In order to find out how, you need to read the book.

It’s an engaging book that looks at philosophy and poses interesting philosophical questions, into people’s behaviours and attitudes, the class discrimination that exists and most importantly, delves into the characters of Renee and Paloma. It’s not necessarily a book about a basic plot or story but rather about life in general through the eyes of two main characters. The story seems to occur around the characters (if that makes sense). There are several profound statements and thoughts, particularly in the form of Paloma’s journal on profound thoughts. And there is a search for Beauty in life. There are moments that make you smile, some that make you chuckle and some that make you cry.

Here are just a couple of examples of the lines that I found meaningful:

If you want to heal

Heal others

And smile or weep

At this happy reversal of fate (pg 286)

Our eyes may perceive, yet they do not observe; they may believe, yet they do not question; they may receive, yet they do not search: they are emptied of desire, with neither hunger nor passion. (pg 300)

The book has been translated from French into English. And yet, the language is beautiful. It’s definitely a work of literature. The book can leave you with this heavy feeling in your heart but also with the thought that there is beauty in this world we live in. No matter how cruel. No matter how fake. No matter how cynical. No matter how discriminatory. There is still beauty. You just have to know where to find it.

I would give it a rating of 5 and would highly recommend you read it.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

To Kill a Mockingbird

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee is an American classic. Set in the deep south in the fictional town of Maycomb in the 1930s, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is narrated by eight year old Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch. Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy ‘Jem’ Finch and father Atticus Finch. Scout is a tomboy who enjoys roughing it up with Jem and together they befriend Dill, who lives with his aunt next door during summer. Their summers consist of enacting stories, climbing trees, and trying to entice the elusive Boo Radley to come out of his house. Scout and Jem live a pretty good life in sleepy old Maycomb. Scout has the usual problems with bullies, the usual sibling rivalry with Jem and hates school because she apparently has learnt too much prior to starting school, arguments with her aunty because she is not ‘ladylike’ enough and has plans with Dill to marry him when they are both of age.

Everything is pretty routine for Scout and Jem until they find out that Atticus is defending a black man, Tom Robinson who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella Ewell. In the racist and narrow-minded society of the 30s, Atticus is seen by majority of the townsfolk as a traitor. For them, it’s one thing to be assigned to defend a black man but it’s a totally different thing to actually make an effort to defend him. And Scout and Jem are forced to face the harsh reality of society. Jem being slightly older, has formed his views. Scout, on the other hand, is still trying to gather information to make up her mind. She doesn’t understand why her father has to defend a black man. She doesn’t understand the manner in which society is reacting to him. She doesn’t understand why some people are hypocritical (even if she doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrisy’).

Despite Atticus’ efforts and despite clearly casting reasonable doubt, the all white male jury convicts Tom Robinson. And what follows is anger and incredulity on Jem’s part and confusion on Scout’s. And through them, a greater insight into the kind of society they live in. The racist and hypocritical nature of majority of the population. The appalling injustice faced by the blacks.

This one question she poses about her teacher to Jem pretty much sums up all seems muddled in her head:

Miss Gates is a nice lady, ain’t she?

‘Why sure,’ said Jem ‘I liked her when I was in her room.’

‘She hates Hitler a lot…’

‘What’s wrong with that?’

‘Well, she went on today about how bad it was him treatin’ the Jews like that. Jem, it’s not right to persecute anybody, is it? I mean, have mean thoughts about anybody, even, is it?’

‘Gracious no, Scout. What’s eatin’ you?’

‘Well, coming out of the court-house that night Miss Gates was – she was goin’ down the steps in front of us…she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin’ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home -?’

It’s a coming-of-age story and a literary classic. In some ways, you can also see that things have changed to a certain extent. I’m sure many of you must have read this book at some stage in your lives. If you haven’t, I advise you to read it as soon as possible! It’s definitely one of those must-read books in your lifetime. Jasper Jones has shades of this book but in an Australian context with a few other issues added. I rate it a 5.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

Jasper Jones

The year is 1965. The season is summer. The place is a little regional mining town called Corrigan. In Australia. This is where 13 year old Charlie Bucktin, our narrator, lives with his parents. Charlie is teenager who prefers spending his time reading and writing at home, hanging out with his best mate Jeffrey Lu playing cricket or talking about a million different things, performing well at school, while at the same time having a crush on Eliza Wishart from his year. He leads a pretty normal life with his studious father and frustrated mother, toeing the line all the time, whilst being bullied at school for being a nerd.

However, everything changes the night Jasper Jones knocks urgently on his window. Jasper is a social outcast in Corrigan. He is of mixed-race and tends to keep to himself. Jasper is the one every parent blames if their child gets into trouble since the immediate assumption is that their child was with Jasper Jones. An alcoholic father, a mother who died when he was aged 2. That’s all Jasper Jones has. And Charlie has never really known Jasper Jones. So when he sets out with Jasper in the middle of the night to his secret glade in the bush, Charlie is confronted by Jasper’s horrible discovery. Laura Wishart. The shire president’s older daughter. Dead. Beaten. Hanging from a tree.

Jasper Jones is not guilty. But he knows what this looks like. And he knows who will be blamed. And so, with Charlie’s help, he wants to find out who did this to Laura. Charlie, who has so far led a pretty quiet life, is now burdened with this secret and the urge to help Jasper at the same time. Can they find out who really killed Laura? Or will Jasper Jones once again be made the scapegoat?

The book is beautifully written from Charlie’s point of view. There are several laughs throughout the book. Jeffrey is a hilarious character and a great mate for Charlie. Their ribbing and teasing will definitely keep you smiling. Their hypotheticals are over the top. And I especially loved their discussion on the most courageous superhero. They are not just two 13 year olds having a laugh. They are two intelligent 13 year olds having a laugh. With substance to some of their conversations. Charlie’s awkawardness with Eliza will probably bring back memories of your own crushes and how you were around them when you were Charlie’s age.

But the book is not all laughs, of course. Issues such as injustice, racism, narrow-mindedness, and the crazy world of adults are all revealed through the eyes of a 13 year old in a very delicate and sensitive manner. Charlie questions why some of his school mates exclude Jeffrey Lu who is by far, the best spinner and a good batsman, from their cricket team just because of his ethnic background. He wonders why his father is spineless and his mother so bitter. And why people judge Jasper Jones harshly when in reality he hasn’t hurt anyone. Jasper is symbolic of the scapegoat in society. The one people love to hate. For what reason? No one knows.

The ending could have been a bit better in my opinion but I wasn’t too disappointed given that the rest of the book was outstanding. There were also some sections I wanted to know more about. A lot more about. Such as Laura Wishart’s history. But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to others. I give it a rating of 5.

Jasper Jones, the novel by Craig Silvey, is about the musings of the world by a 13 year old boy. Who after seeing what he has, loses his innocence. And loses his faith in the goodness of human beings.

Go read it.

Until next time,

Cheers!!!

P.S. This post has been cross-posted on the author’s personal blog.

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is set in India in the mid-1970s. When Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and a state of emergency was called upon the country. The book begins in the City by the Sea where Om and Ishvar, tailors from a village, meet Maneck Kohlah, a college student, all on their way to Mrs Dina Dalal’s house for different reasons. Om and Ishvar are hired as tailors by Dina to undertake sewing for an export company while Maneck is her new paying guest. They are the central characters of the book.

Each chapter takes you into the characters’ pasts. Dina came from a Parsi family and was brought up in the city by her kind and generous father who was a doctor and her mother and older brother Nusswan. Unfortunately, hard luck hits the family and Dina is forced to leave school and is under Nusswan’s reign. She manages to escape through marriage to Rustom but once again, life isn’t fair to her. She strives to keep her independence and dignity despite struggling with money for basic necessities like rent and food and clothes. Yet, she ploughs through what life throws at her.

Ishvar and Om (uncle and nephew) belong to the Chamaar caste or the ‘Untouchables’ and their family has been on the receiving end for generations due to the nonsensical caste system that ruled rife in India. Ishvar’s father Dukhi finally snaps due to the unfairness of it all and sends his sons, Ishvar and Narayan, to the nearby town to his friend Ashraf, a tailor, to learn the trade. The upper castes in the village are obviously not happy with Dukhi breaking the norms of Hinduism and the family have to pay for it dearly for generations. However, Ishvar and his nephew Om, eventually set out to the City by the Sea to earn more money before they can go back to the village. However, not all is rosy in the city either, especially with the Emergency and the unfair treatment continues. Through their escapades, they meet other interesting characters such as Shankar, the crippled beggar, Rajaram, the hair-collector, the Monkey-Man. and Beggarmaster.

Maneck is probably the most privileged of the lot. An only child, he is born and brought up in the mountains and is doted on by his parents. Until the change in the cities begins to affect the mountains. Maneck’s parents send him to boarding school and then off to college in the City by the Sea thereby creating a distance between themselves and their son. A gap that only widens the older he grows. However, despite this, he is not an arrogant boy and befriends Om and Ishvar. He believes that everything ends badly, and unfortunately it seems more prominent as he grows older.

Dina automatically mistrusts the tailors as has been taught to her by society. Om too is not fond of her and is hostile. Ishvar plays the peacekeeper. However, slowly and steadily, the relationship blossoms between the four central characters and they do seem like family after a point. Dina forgets what society tells her to do in terms of class barriers and treats the tailors as family. The tailors for thier part are always willing to help…helping Rajaram, Shankar, the Monkey-Man, despite struggling to make ends meet themselves at times. However, things start to go wrong when two beggars are murdered. Who has done it? And will the upper caste brahmins make Dukhi regret his decision? And will Dina manage to live independently?

The book critically looks at the caste system that was so rampant (and still is, though not to this extent) in India. It looks at the hypocrisy of the same. It also questions the state of emergency and its farcical nature. [Funnily enough, I don’t remember learning about the Emergency in history at school. I wonder why…] It looks at what a mockery Indira Gandhi made of democracy. And it looks at the massive class difference, the scale of corruption and yet, the goodness of mankind that is struggling. The fine balance that exists is one between hope and hoplessness for all characters. Which ones continue to have hope and which ones succumb to the hopelessnes is for the reader to find out…

There are so many aspects of the book that make you smile…especially where the so-called lower castes or the poorer people help others worse-off. And there are several things that make you feel sad…and leave a hollow feeling. The book has a bitter-sweet ending.

I absolutely love the book and have read it twice. Yes it is a thick book (about 600 pages) but it is an easy read and flows really well. From all Indian authors I have read, Rohinton Mistry remains, by far, my favourite. He tends to have Parsi characters but I don’t find that a problem. A Fine Balance is my favourite book by an Indian author. In this book, Mistry never names the City by the Sea but I suspect it is Bombay. A city where several people around India migrate to with hopes and dreams…and some of whom do not get what they expect.

Highly recommended!!! A page-turner for sure. And after that, I’m sure you are not going to be surprised with my rating: 5

Until next time,

Cheers!!!