The Unreliable Narrator: Exploring Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

How many voices can an author create? How evolved can craft be that there comes the point when the creator ceases to exist, and all that is left is the immersed reader, intruding in another world? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, the man who, for me, has taken first-person narration and a compromised narrative to the point of no return. Choose a character, and he will get into its skin like an invisible cellular organism with no home of its own. He will do so in so fantastic a way that it leaves you questioning the truth, like speaking to someone you aren’t too sure about. After he or she departs, you think, “What are they hiding? Am I in the dark?” 

An Artist of the Floating World is a masterpiece that glides in out and of many dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of generations separated by a massive ideological gulf. On the other, it is about an older man attempting to come to terms with his mistaken philosophies. It is also a historical fiction set in the Japan of limbos; Japan, which has suffered because of its misplaced imperialism, been shattered by bombings and is now critical of the past and every person representing it. At the heart of it is an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. Once an acclaimed painter, Ono is our guide through post-World War II Japan and its sociopolitical and emotional trauma; felt in extremities like the once-vibrant pleasure districts destroyed by bombings and kids who loved Popeye and Godzilla.

The book is a contemplative journey, spread across four time frames: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950. We are introduced to a retired artist of great acclaim, Masuji Ono. Ono lives with his youngest daughter Noriko, and his attempts to secure a good match for her is a central theme. In the past, Noriko’s engagement had been called off. While Ono likes to believe that his family was more powerful than the boy’s, Noriko’s often belligerent behaviour suggests the unsuccessful engagement has more to do with Ono’s past. His older daughter Setsuko asks Ono to meet his acquaintances and rectify his errors should Noriko’s prospects inquire about the family’s history. This simple task is the starting point of his recollections, opening twisted alleys of memory.

We seek to understand concepts like Ono’s rise as an artist, his relationship with his students and peers, the moral chasm that exists between him, his sons-in-law and his grandson, and the politicisation of art. I have reasons to say that we seek to understand Ono’s life – the untrustworthy memory and what he is telling us. Ono’s narration is not dependable, and there is not a second perspective to corroborate what he is saying. This is displayed continually; Ono never completes an anecdote in one go, one recollection invariably gives rise to another or how he thinks he knows someone only for us to find that the person has no memory of him. What Ono thinks of himself does not resonate with people in that world. For his disillusioned son-in-law, Ono is one of the many traitors who led the country awry with grand plans of Japanese Imperialism that caused only pain and loss. Ono himself lost his son to the Manchurian War and his wife to a freak raid. The reader might assume these topics to be of particular importance to him. Still, Ono avoids speaking about any issue that exposes his emotional vulnerability and delves too much into his past affairs. Mentions of these deaths come and go, as little remarks stuffed into the larger scheme.  

Why our narrator is unreliable is a debatable topic. At first go, it can be age. After all, Ono is well-retired with two daughters and grandchildren. However, the irregularity in information can be attributed much more to more unpleasant circumstances than memory failing. As the novel progresses, Ono is revealed to have been a man of controversial associations. During World War II, Japan was an Allied Power alongside Germany and Italy. A considerable section of the population was pro-War, viewing any opposition to the war effort with great scepticism. Ono, a pro-government imperialist, broke away from his master and drawings of the floating world (a phrase used to describe Japan’s pleasure districts) to begin painting subjects that depicted military might. At the beginning of the war, he becomes a part of a state committee clamping down on unpatriotic art. Ono reports Karudo, once his protégé. As a result, Karudo’s paintings are burnt, and the police harass him. Ono tells us that he tried to step in and convince the authority to go easy on Karudo. However, whether it is the truth or just another way to hide his betrayal and cruelty, we don’t know.

The ideological tussle between Ono and his family members is an essential thread in the novel. To some extent, Ono realises that he was vastly mistaken during the war and the younger generation, like daughters and his son-in-law’s look at him with a degree of suspicion and contempt. The latter want men like Ono to take accountability for steering Japan on the wrong path. They now live in a post-war society where America is the centre of culture and politics. This is not a phenomenon that has gone down well with Ono, who would rather have his grandson enjoy samurais than behave like a cowboy. Although he claims to be unaware of his importance in society, we understand that Ono likes to think of himself as someone who has been quite influential, a part of the crème of the art world. Towards the end, when Setsuko (his older daughter) consoles him that his pro-militancy paintings weren’t influential enough to have caused massive harm, it is a very hurtful thought for him.

Like Ishiguro’s celebrated The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful lesson in restraint. The former is the story of an English butler whose commitment to service caused such emotional limitation that he could not pursue the woman he loved. In the latter, we have an ageing man whose convictions are failing him as he grapples with guilt and ethical tussles. War is an important occurrence in both, and more than war, the sides one chooses. In The Remains of the Day, the protagonist reflects on how the reputed British manorial lord he served sided with Nazi Germany because he did not know better. In such scenarios, as both age and regret become strong, exuberant or verbose writing would not be relatable. Ishiguro’s writing is fluid, hard-hitting, but not raw. His style is refined, elegant prose at its best, entirely moulded according to the narrator’s realities.  

An Artist of the Floating World was a delightful, very enlightening experience about a unique world that conventional reading may not expose one to. Despite being a history student, I was surprised at the nuance of ideology and radicalisation in post-War Japan that the author highlighted so brilliantly. The writing flows; through former pleasure districts, reception rooms in Japanese homes, the villas of master painters and pubs where artists gathered with pupils. Each of these spaces stands for a different ideology and a different time in Ono’s life. Ishiguro’s most outstanding merit is shaping his style in a way that changes with age. A young Ono is much more aggressive, while Ono as a grandfather is loving and almost endearing. The tonality changes beautifully, and this requires immense, almost God-gifted skill.

Ishiguro gifts his readers a story that is almost the truth but has enough cracks for falsities to creep in.

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Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.

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Rutger Bregman’s Humankind Amplifies the Voice of Hope in Human Nature

How many times have you come across a really disturbing piece of news or development where humans have indulged in the most inhumane acts possible and wondered if humans are after all terrible creatures who stay civilized only because they are regulated by law? How many times has someone tried to convince you that a law abiding citizen is abiding only because he has never got an opportunity to become a terrorist, that if the circumstances allowed, people would resort to their primal instincts and eat each other alive?

Remember the much celebrated movie – The Dark Knight? Joker puts his philosophy thus – “They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other...” Throughout the story, Joker is trying to establish that when humans get into the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, they choose themselves over others. He devises a social experiment with the passengers of two boats – one has the civilians, other has the prisoners. He proclaims – “Tonight you’re all gonna be part of a social experiment. Through the magic of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, I’m ready right now to blow you all sky high. Anyone attempts to get off their boat, you all die. Each of you has a remote… to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I blow you all up. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So, who’s it going to be: Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection, or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose… oh, and you might want to decide quickly, because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.” How many times have you found yourself in agreement with Joker?

The Joker Meme

Recently, a Gangetic Dolphin was hacked to death by a group of men in Uttar Pradesh, India. It looked like they were killing for fun, out of a compulsive thirst to do something outrageous. Of course, such incidents make us want to believe in that seductive philosophy of Joker. A meme keeps roaming around in the social media space and must have at some point appeared on your timeline/inbox too.

What if I told you that several pioneering psychologists and scholars of our world would stand by Joker’s side when it came to the nature of human behaviour. Not only that, they also created different experiments to establish that humans are inherently evil. One of the most famous experimenters of the kind was Philip Zimbardo who is attributed for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Such experiments have been repeated in different time periods with minor modifications time and again by different people to theorize the same piece of ‘fact’ – that we are bad people! (Note: If you like watching Big Boss or other reality shows like Big Brother, you should read the book right away!)

In such a dark and depressing universe, what then remains of ‘Hope’? That and then some more are answered in Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History‘. Bregman begins with the contrasting models of human behaviour propounded by Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau, and argues that we would be better off with the goodness of Rousseau than the cynicism of Hobbes. It is a difficult side to pick in a debate on human nature and that makes the book a riveting read from cover to cover. By the time I got done with the prologue, I had already put this book on my ‘few good things to come out of 2020’ list.

In order to bolster his argument, Bregman takes up the most famous episodes of human history and evaluates the conclusions drawn from each one of them. Some of the cases selected for investigation in the book are Stanford Prison Experiment, Death of Catherine Susan Genovese, Holocaust, and the novel Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding. Even though the author seems to have indulged reams of research papers on the matter, the book has been brilliantly composed to not overburden its readers with the routine of an academic journal. In fact, you will be surprised by the writing style, the tone of narration, and the impeccable transitions between themes. The book keeps you hooked on till its very last word.

A very touching tale unfolds in the chapter ‘When the Soldiers Came Out of the Trenches’ when the trenches on opposing sides celebrated Christmas together during the first world war. While the author draws several lessons from this episode, we as readers are given a reality check on how the social media, originally meant for connecting with people, use the same tool to judge, hurt, and stereotype people according to our prejudices. In this context, Bregman’s unconventional arguments on empathy & compassion shape the heart of the book around which all the remaining narratives flow.

It is tempting to like the Joker meme. However, I have never personally been a fan of such overarching generalization and could never bring myself up to like this theory that when the situation arises, we are going to eat each other. This was also the reason I could not convince myself to like the ending of an otherwise outstanding movie ‘Jallikattu’ which also happens to be India’s official entry to the 93rd Academy Awards. The ‘pessimistic’ view of reality sells like wildfire. In the video of the murder of this gangetic dolphin, even though I knew how it would end, I kept waiting for someone to stop the killers. And then I heard a voice in the video pleading with them not to kill. It sounded like hope. But like the men in the act, we have either ignored or silenced that voice at several turning points of our history. With Humankind, Rutger Bregman tries to amplify that voice to a decibel where it cannot be ignored or unheard anymore. I want to see him succeed.

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Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo Has All the Sunshine You Need to Kickstart Your New-Year

At least in India, our entertainers still have some time to go before they can get rid of their obsession for pessimistic realism. From the millions of episodes of reality television shows to creating gloomy pieces of art and cinema, we are being served hopelessness and negativity every day in the name of realism. Add to the mix, the pandemic of news media, the common man is forced to feel vulnerable and powerless with every primetime broadcast. Not to forget, our own magnetic attraction to all things negative makes us the perfect guinea pig in the laboratory of so-called ‘realism’.

Naturally, it always takes much more force and motivation to stay positive and hopeful in today’s age. With business models created to make us lazier and more worthless every passing day, people have begun to lose control of their lives as early as their toddler phase. Contrast this to our parents and their parents, things were more complicated than they are now. They didn’t have access to google to look up for ‘how to make myself dumber’ every time they had to do something. However, they perhaps lived a more complete life than many of us are living now. They knew how to fix things. Even if they didn’t, they didn’t tap on a screen to get things done. They tried and learned. This is where Marie Forleo’s wonderful book ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ begins with a chapter on her mother who could figure out just about anything. Here’s how she begins – 

“My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver. She grew up the daughter of two alcoholic parents in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. She learned, by necessity, how to stretch a dollar bill around the block and is one of the most resourceful and industrious people you could ever meet. She once told me she rarely felt valued, loved, or beautiful, but she held tight to the promise she made to herself that, once she was old enough, she’d find a way to a better life.”

It makes sense. When I observe the lives of people who are now in their late 50s and beyond, each one appears to me as if they were books to be read cover to cover and as they pass away without telling their story, it feels like a library getting ransacked in a siege laid by time and the modern man’s self-obsession. Enter COVID-19, and the entire process gets fast-forwarded. It is indeed depressing to be an audience to this pandemonium.

With all the bad things happening around us, I was looking to read something that shines some sunlight towards the end of the year. This is when I found Marie Forleo’s ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ – a phrase she has loaned from her mother and inspirer-in-chief. Guess what, this book was exactly what I was looking for. Marie Forleo is a ‘multi-passionate’ entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. She was named by Oprah Winfrey as the ‘thought-leader for the next generation’. The introduction will take up the whole page if I go on about her achievements and how she inspires millions around the world. Coming back to the book, Marie draws from her own life experience, her personal as well professional journey, her hits and misses to compose a transformative book for her readers.

There are chapters on the magic of belief, befriending fear, the suicidal road to perfectionism, the myth of ‘I’m not ready’ or waiting for the right time. These chapters are full of practical suggestions and instructions laced with homour and anecdotes to keep you engaged. As a result, you gain something from every page of this book. There is not a dull moment, thanks to Marie’s conversational style of writing. It feels more like a personal session with the author herself. One of my favourite sections of the book is about how the modern day products have turned ‘us’ from being consumers to becoming products. She underlines the damage social media and all the insta-gratification tools and apps are doing to us. That is only the first half though, she also comes up with exercises and activities to help the reader fix this problem. And these are very doable if you want to put your mind to self-improvement. I am writing this review more from the perspective of a beneficiary of Marie’s ability to stay positive and spread it around her than merely jotting down a plain-old book review. The book is also interspersed with testimonials (field-notes) from her readers who have benefitted from the book and are so powerful that a collection of those stories can make a great book in its own right.

2020 was a year of harsh realities for most of us. People died, plans stalled, and businesses shut shops. But was it all as dark and negative as we want to think it was? Well, many got a chance to reconnect with their family. Many people I know went on an online certification spree to upskill themselves. Some of us learned a new language. Many came out fitter physically, mentally, and spiritually out of these serial lockdowns. There are certainly a few positives to count, no matter how sparse they are. Marie’s life and her book tell us exactly that without the ‘preacher mode’ on. This definitely makes the book a recommended read to begin your year with some more light around you.

Tales from the Himalayas by Priyanka Pradhan Takes You on a Nostalgia Date With Your Childhood

Someone pushed gently at our gate and my husband rushed to check. I saw his face light up with a smile and he was wishing our visitor a happy new year. Our visitor was hardly bothered and babbled away in her merriment. She and my husband have been trying to befriend each other for a while now. I played the observer. The only part of the conversation that I understood was when she said ‘Oh My God’, although I have no idea what made her say that. “Children – theirs is a world of bliss. Won’t it be wonderful to be a child all again?”, I thought to myself. So, the universe conspired later in the day to grant me the wish. Except there was a twist. The wish came true in the form of Priyanka Pradhan’s ‘Tales from the Himalayas’.

As an adult, we tend to oversee the various emotions that fill the world of a child and paint them all in the colours of carefree joy and playful innocence. The book reminded me of how wrong I was. While their world is a lot simpler than ours, they too experience a whirlwind of emotions. Priyanka Pradhan makes us relive at least some of those different emotions, joy included, in her book ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. 

The book, published by Rupa Publications, is a collection of 17 short stories based mostly out of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. Some stories like ‘Kafal’ are inspired from age-old folklore. However, some of them do sound contemporary, especially the ones that touch upon social issues. The story ‘The Villain’ for instance reassures the dark-skinned Kisna to be comfortable in her own skin. In ‘The Bagpiper’ Priyanka encourages little Paru to defy the tradition that doesn’t allow girls to play the masak-been from the bottom of her heart.

Stories like the ‘Daak Ghar’ and ‘The Village Monster’ remind me of those days when I would be terrified to go alone into the kitchen at night for the fear of ghosts. 

Priyanka introduces her readers to the hills, the birds, the berries, the songs, the food and the very culture of this Himalayan state. While ‘Haria’s Kitchen’ made me hungry for all the delicacies of Kumaon, I liked how cleverly she employed the narration to acquaint us with the Choliya dancers with their swords in ‘Holi’ and the famous song of Kumaon in ‘The Spring Song’. She also draws inspiration from history and brings to us the stories of Indian explorer and surveyor, Nain Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi of the famous Chipko movement.

The memories of  our childhood are never complete without our grandparents. So it is only natural that grandmothers and grandfathers make their presence felt in ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. The award-winning ‘Postcard’ especially is quite heartwarming. My favourite, though, is ‘The Long Lost Friends’. It reminds me of how everyone’s childhood is not the same yet most of us have been happiest as a child.

All the stories leave a moral for children and adults alike. Mohit Suneja’s illustrations add colour to this beautiful ride through the mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start the new year with. Go for it, for the nostalgia that it promises. More so if you are a parent because here is a book to bond over with your child.  

A Millionaire Assassin, Dense Conspiracies, and Slick Writing Make Operation Prometheus a Thrilling Read

2020 has been a brutal year. Of course, the year itself can’t be blamed as it is becoming quite indisputable that the bad omen is going to travel with us well into the year 2021. So, all the mayhem effectuated in 2020 are not going to get gulped down with a few drinks on the new year eve. While the Coronavirus claimed many lives, the mildly luckier ones ended up spending days in self or state imposed quarantines. In a year when a routine body-temperature increase was suspected to be a symptom of COVID-19, reaching the year without dying has already become a sort of achievement. However, like always, there is one set of people who couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to get back to their To-Do list and tick those boxes with a flair for ‘toofani’, aka thrill. This year, some of these people finished their first novel.

Aryaman Chakraborty, a young boy of 17 has come up with this first novel – Operation Prometheus with a promise of bringing up more books in the series of Paine Books. Operation Prometheus is a slick thriller with Delbak Cath as its protagonist. Delbak is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar conglomerate tech company called ‘D-tech’ and also works as a dangerous assassin. The story revolves around the joint hunt of the CIA and the FBI for the perpetrator of a series of high profile assassinations around the world, the latest ones being in Bangalore and Mumbai (India). This is a tale where Bruce Wayne gets really shady and doesn’t need the Batman cape to carry out his missions.

Aryaman’s attention to details is remarkable. From the cars used by the characters to the guns owned by them, the author has got all the names there for you to imagine the scenes with the kind of clarity only motion pictures offer. Although the book begins slow, it catches pace without much of a trouble once the author is convinced that his readers have understood the premise. Once the story picks pace, there is something happening in every sentence. We are taken through action packed sequences one after another with a deftness that will make you wonder whether this is the first book by the author or there is a twist to that fact as well.

However, the book is not without its foibles. There are unnecessary details and repetitions at a few points without which the story could have become grippier. The editing has a lot of room to improve and must become a focal point for the author for the next book in the series. Apart from these, there are certain tropes which have now become cliches for developing leading characters and should be ditched by the new authors. To be more specific, the crutch of parents-dying-in-a-car-crash can perhaps be left alone now.

The book has more strengths than weaknesses. One of the major accomplishments of Aryaman as a first-time author is the distinctive sketches of all his characters. They have distinguishing voices, different reactions to circumstances, and carry out different functions in the larger context of the story movement. The author gets the timing of his twist-reveals perfect and makes this an amazingly engaging book that must be read in one straight sitting. 

The book is published by Notion Press and is available for purchase on Amazon. Get your hands on this wonderful debut by Aryaman Chakraborty to finish 2020 on a high with adrenaline gushing from the pages of Operation Prometheus.

As Real as Real Can Get: Reading James Joyce’s Dubliners

Every avid reader is often consumed by a sense of guilt. Guilt at their inability to finish a seminal piece of literature. This could be due to different situations. Perhaps at that moment, the book was too lengthy. Maybe it needed more patience. Or, you couldn’t comprehend the societal and historical context. This happened when I attempted reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. A milestone whose cultural and linguistic nuances I failed to grasp. Moreover, to keep Googling for the meaning of every second sentence was tedious. It extracted the joy out of reading. So, to go easy but not be deprived of Joyce’s genius, I opted for Dubliners. Equally rich but comparatively more accessible, this collection of short stories describes the Irish life in the early years of the 20th century, chronicling routine existence, love, politics, sexuality and coming-of-age.

Dubliners captured the socio-political and economic zeitgeist, intricately weaving the currents in the experiences, actions and language of the characters. It was published in 1914, a time caught in poverty, Irish nationalism, and Modernism. Oppressive colonial domination by the British government in Westminster had resulted in destitution, widespread squalor, and repression of indigenous culture. The Celtic Renaissance was working towards renewing nation’s cultural identity and brining Irish folklore, authors, and literature to the forefront. Modernism was itching to grow. The style was gathering momentum and ultimately, Ulysses would become its magnum opus. This was the hotbed of change in which the book was embedded.

Every story in Dubliners is a study of society, survival and even grammar! Since it isn’t possible to discuss each, I’ll share certain observations about the ones that for me, made an overwhelming impact in terms of the themes they address, the realities they reflect, the variations in form and the atmosphere they weave around the reader.

The Sisters is about an unnamed boy whose mentor, Reverend James Flynn has died. In the mourning house, the sisters of the deceased describe the priest’s increasingly insane and distorted actions and his involvement in Church scandals. The death kickstarts Dubliners and its consistent commentary on themes such as paralysis, indecision, and demise (both literal and metaphorical). Instead of sadness, the boy feels free. This is an allusion to the suppression of the Irish by the British government and the Roman Catholic church, the latter embodied by Reverend Flynn and his influence over the boy. An interesting aspect is the author’s deft inclusion of ellipses (). This method is used liberally, a powerful way of conveying human distraction and the act of zoning out in midst of a conversation.

Two Gallants reveals the dead-end Irish existence. Lenehan and Corley are scheming men who trick girls into stealing from their employers and giving them money. On a particular evening, they plan to dupe a housekeeper. While Corley is the chief strategist and executor, Lenehan is eager to catch a glimpse of the woman. They are competitive, each fearing that the other will cut them out of the plan. As Corley enjoys his date, Lenehan is left feeling lonely. Eating a meal of beer and peas, he longs for a stable job and a happy home. He is more reflective than Corley but ultimately, both are crude and desperate for easy money. They have little prospects and are worried about betrayal, representing a generation of Irish youth who have been disappointed by delayed Independence. Well, there’s nothing gallant about these two!

According to me, A Little Cloud was the most relatable of the lot. It speaks of a reunion of old friends. Little Chandler is a timid clerk, burdened by his cyclical and deadpan existence. Once an aspiring poet, he has long abandoned his creative persuasions. On the other hand, Gallagher is flamboyant, well-travelled and a powerful man in the London Press. As the evening progresses, Chandler is disheartened listening to his friend’s extravagant (yet superficial) adventures and blames his inability to write on the pathetic condition of Dublin and his claustrophobic marital life. Interestingly, he spends more time thinking about poetry and fame than translating his wild passions into actions. When Chandler returns home, he loses his temper and berates his infant. As his wife soothes the sobbing baby, Chandler is utterly remorseful.

The Clay is fascinating on account of its unassuming nature. At the first go, it appears to be about nothing. It describes an evening in the life of an unmarried maid named Maria. She spends Hallows’ Eve with the family of boys she used to care for as a governess. Maria is docile, compassionate, and loved. They play a game where a blindfolded participant must place their hand in one of the three saucers on the table. Each contained a different element that carries a specific meaning. In her first try, Maria places her hand in the saucer containing clay. She cannot discern what it is and is asked her to choose another plate. This time, she touches the prayer book and they guess that she will soon join the convent. The evening continues. It is only when you delve deeper that you realise in Irish tradition, clay is a symbol of death. The family listens to Maria sing and convinced of her ill-fate, do not interrupt when she repeats the same stanza twice.

Technically, Dubliners is an assemblage of short, seemingly unconnected, tales of survival in Ireland. However, my experience is more complex. This isn’t a novel. But the episodic structure is more interconnected than one would assume. Themes frequently mirror one another. An idea that finds infant expression in one story is taken to its logical conclusion in the next. Let’s observe A Little Cloud and Counterparts. Both are about frustrated men who vent their anger on innocent family members. While Little Chandler shouts at his infant son, Farrington from Counterparts mercilessly hits his boy after a bad day where he is humiliated at work and social circle. They don’t do much to alleviate their position. However, it takes them no time to project their failures onto children who have nothing to do with it. I felt that the final half of Counterparts is the most chilling part of the collection. As Farrington beats his son, the child cries and promises to say a prayer for his father if he stops hitting him.

Death penetrates Dubliners like a sharp knife cutting through the cake. Apart from actual deaths such as those of Reverend Flynn, Charles Parnell, Eveline’s mother and Mrs Sinico, characters suffer spiritual deaths. This is signified by the morally ambiguous ways they make money, ethical corruption and an invisible, endless loop of failure that encircles their life.

An Encounter follows the journey of a young boy who meets an old man whose speech is full of discomforting sexual innuendos. Whether it’s the conmen in Two Gallants or the party workers in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the broader objective is to make a quick buck san feeling, integrity or passion. Dubliners have no glossy lacquer. The filth, scarcity, and unappealing lives of the characters tend to dampen the reader’s temperament. Was progress so stunted? Were lives that meaningless? Was there nothing to celebrate? 

To be honest, yes. These are tales of domination, exploitation, and futility. Neither are they adventurous. No story promises glorious adventures or unimaginable twists. These are the most accurate geographical and emotional description of the city from those turbulent times. Down to the pubs visited by the characters and the songs they sing, they are real. The sadness, politics, planning and plotting, marriages and affairs – hauntingly accurate.

Falling in Love With a Young Adult Novel – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor & Park was originally published in 2012 and has won over 20 literary awards including the Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013.

What you’re about to read is less of a review and more of a fangirl gush about falling in love with a book in all its entirety and feeling the emptiness of parting away when it’s all over.

Eleanor & Park is well, about Eleanor and Park- two intense and naive 16 year olds who end up falling for one another even though the association seems unlikely to both of them. Eleanor is the aloof new kid in the town of Omaha and Park is an existing resident. While facing all the strangeness that a new kid does, we are also taken through Eleanor’s unstable household situation, one she dreams of escaping. Park comes across as a reserved loner kid who belongs to a close knit half Korean-half white family. It seems completely justified that Eleanor and Park end up together as they are presented as misfits of sorts in the book, separated from the rest of the kids and their coming together seems organic.

For both these kids going through transformative periods in their lives, it all starts with exchanging comic books and playlists. It all leads to secret meetups and finding a home in one another in a world that might not always be kind to them. Rowell has a brilliant skill to use the simplest of language and yet keep the reader engaged thoroughly. In showing both Eleanor and Park as intense characters, it’s remarkable that the author didn’t forget that they are after all teenagers. She has also portrayed them as sexual creatures who are confused by all the newfound feelings of self discovery. If I am being very honest, I thought myself to be over and above the teenage puppy love that populates stupid Netflix movies and monotone romcoms but this one is completely different. Both Eleanor and Park are their own people as well. They have their insecurities and showcase fragility for falling in love for the first time which is bound to remind the reader of an age gone by. 

The romance genre definitely caters to a certain readership and I do not consider myself to be one of them. I am also aware that the heady nostalgia that romance novels usually provide to its reader isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Eleanor and Park isn’t just a romance novel, categorizing it as such would be a disservice to its characters who come alive through Rowell. This book showcases a love story of two young adults with a lot of nuance and sensitivity, cutting through all that would normally overshadow each character’s journey when they are in love. Eleanor and Park stands as a testament to the true potential that the young adult genre possesses for readers of all kinds. There is a certain raw emotion to the delicate characters that gripped me through the novel, I kid you not, I finished it in 3 hours. This was a first for me. 

The climax of the book took me by heartbreaking surprise. It even drove me a tiny bit mad for how Rowell decided to end things for both the characters. The conclusion of the book is not completely unforeseen as the reader senses the perilous situation in which Eleanor finds herself.

Apart from the end that might stand as an impediment, there is some racial tension in the book that seems out of place. Park is a mixed race kid whose race seems to have been characterised deliberately yet not treated nearly enough by the author. In the current context, it becomes difficult to not investigate race if it’s a part of anything related to pop culture. I would warn the readers to take this angle of the story with a pinch of salt. 

Eleanor and Park is your regular boy meets girl, meet-cute love story, but it will steal your heart and jolt it. If you’re not in full blown tears at the end of the book, I’d consider myself a pathetic softy. This book is a brilliant gateway into the young adult genre for anyone looking to explore. It is neither a long nor a very heavy read and can be your new relaxing weekend companion.

Pankaj Dubey’s Debut Novel ‘What a Loser!’ is the Story of Every Stereotyped Human Soul Around Us

The world around us is so full of stereotypes. Some claim to be good whereas most of them turn out to be disastrous. There is also an army of well-intentioned people who work to break these stereotypes. Yet it seems almost impossible to wipe out these stereotypes. The world likes to thrive in these patterns irrespective of whether you like it or not. So, what happens when one chooses to tell the stories of these stereotyped human souls around us? It turns out to be a laugh riot and that is what Pankaj Dubey’s debut novel What a Loser! is. The book is published by Penguin Random House India.

 

Being faithful to his roots, Pankaj picked a protagonist close to home. The interesting aspect of his protagonist is that he is strangely familiar and popular among the rest of the countrymen. But only Pankaj could bring out the finer aspects of this innocent yet dreamy PAKS. PAKS arrives in Mukherjee Nagar carrying some seemingly lofty goals and loads of Sattu and achaar from Begusarai. From the significance of the colour red, be it in the gamchha, the name embroidered in the pillow covers to the terracotta-coloured shirt pieces and the information on the ‘penties’, our author’s attention to details is just spot on. Even if you are not from Begusarai or the cow-belt, you still might relate to PAKS especially if you were raised in a village or small town and migrated to the cities to pursue some sort of a career. Feel free to blame the author if you become all nostalgic and secretly wish for PAKS to succeed in his journey. But he is not even my favourite character.

 

While the author was cheering for his protagonist, I was rooting for the self-proclaimed Badshah of 440, Mukherjee Nagar, New Delhi. Haven’t we all had such wonderful characters in our lives, who are so full of their insecurities, vulnerabilities, false pride and fear of failures? Putting up a brave, proud face even during unfortunate times while making life miserable for others the rest of the time, Subodh Singh only makes this comedy ride of the story more entertaining. His character touches the epitome when PAKS’s Babuji arrives in 440.

 

None of the characters seems fictional even if the author claims so. From the north-easterners Ronnie and Amilie to the Jats who form the opposite gang, each one looks handpicked from one or other’s real life. So are the events in the plot. The secrets of evening colleges, the university politics, the obsession with ‘cool’ English and British Council, the fascination for ‘milky white’ skin and the Punjaban girls are all inimitable truths of a small-town guy in Delhi. The book knits together these urban legends and takes you through a hilarious ‘Dilli Darshan’.

 

I find it hard to ignore that the author doesn’t have much kindness left for his female characters. They are either cold and vicious or come across as eye-candies. I wonder what grudge does the author have against the beautiful girls of Delhi.

 

Even as the book gives a comic touch to the many miseries of these super commoners, the author also manages to poke your eye occasionally while you are busy laughing. Some of us might not even notice the poke, for instance when Subodh Singh asserts his ‘caste superiority’, or when a shootout happens in a University classroom. You realize these are matters of greater concern, in retrospection. But to brood is against the spirit of the book. So pick this book, when you want to leave out your cares for a while and have a peal of hearty laughter.

You can buy the book here.

Creator's-Image-ShwethaHS

Creator’s Image by Shwetha H S Looks for the Interesting in the Mundanities of Life

The difference between a full-blown novel and a short story is perhaps similar to that of a long term relationship and a one-night stand. A reader reads a short story without the expectation of a long term commitment but this very aspect of a short story compounds the pressure on the writer. The margin for error is nil. The author cannot make mistakes in the first page to compensate for them in the subsequent pages. What comes about in those few thousand words lasts as the first and the final impression of the encounter on the reader’s mind.

Shwetha H S begins her short stories collection with the title-story Creator’s Image which is a deeply reflective metaphorical tale about the human civilization. With multi-layers of deliberation presented with intelligent twists and turns, this story holds the book together. There are ten other stories which tell us the tales of extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. In fact, the selection of subjects and plot betray Shwetha’s love for the fleeting moments of life, her attempts to hold them for a little longer in her gaze and pluck a story out from those moments.

Most of the stories are relatable and you will find parts of yourself in one or the other tale. The stage is most often a snapshot of the routine life. Through the course of the story, her pen closes in on one character who can be considered the protagonist. She deals with the character in greater details and the suspense hangs around this character’s action or inaction. While this method works for a few of the stories, it also makes a few of them predictable. As a result, they end up short of making a lasting impact. The stories that hit the mark linger with you for sometime and keep you invested in the plot even after they have ended.

The book also deals with moments of dilemma humans face while making decisions in life, no matter how significant or insignificant. This pits the reader’s choices against those of the characters time and again and makes for a very fluid vantage point which does not distance itself too much away from the characters and the stories. You will find yourself in situations where your vantage point gets flooded away with helplessness and there remains hardly any difference between you as a reader and the characters sketched in the stories.

The language is lucid and mature. The author has constructed her stories with not a word extra or unnecessary. There is no needless rhetoric or the microscopic background details. She balances the ‘told’ and the ‘untold’ deftly in all her stories and the reader is neither dumbed down nor is left to stray too far in the dark at any point.

My favourite stories in the book are Tears of the Goddess, To Each His Own, and Creator’s Image. The book is available on Amazon Kindle and if you are looking for a quick-read without having to commit to the rigours of reading a big fat novel in the already ominous season of lockdowns and unlocks, Creator’s Image is the one night stand you are looking for.

You can buy the book here.

The Circle of Karma Is a Moving Depiction of Individuality and Self Reflection From Bhutan

Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma was the first English novel to be published in Bhutan by a woman.

Set in approximately, 1950s and 1960s Bhutan, the novel is written in a chronological order and narrated from a third person point of view. The protagonist in The Circle of Karma is Tsomo. The novel portrays the various events and experiences that Tsomo goes through in her life right from being a child in Tang Valley in Bumthang District in Bhutan to her old age in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. The central theme of Tsomo’s journey and her self-development shows the importance of individuality and self-reflection as a way to always improve oneself.

The novel moves from giving a general glimpse of Bhutan’s cultural and social aspects from a child’s (Tsomo’s) perspective at the beginning to the more specific events of Tsomo’s life and journey.

Through her family, Tsomo learns several gender roles (doing household chores, gardening, and weaving, to name a few) and gender myths namely that of female suffering and endurance. From her father, she learns the cruel truth that girls, because of their gender, are not supposed to get educated and learn to read and write.

Tsomo suffers a terrible loss during her childhood and consequently, she runs away from her home to free herself from the restrictions of belonging and relationships. Her bold decision is a major turning point of the novel. It puts her on a bumpy path of severe trials and tribulations. However, those very trials also give her the independence to grow and stand on her own two feet. To sustain herself during her days of struggle, Tsomo becomes a road construction worker. The reconstruction of the Thimphu Dzong and the construction of the roads provide a sense of the setting, which is around the time when Bhutan had chosen to modernize and open up to the world, slowly but surely.

Tsomo meets many women sharing the same dreams and struggles. She finds a new sister in another fellow worker, Dechen Choki. She also embarks on many pilgrimages which broaden her way of thinking by giving her exposure to several other cultures and peoples. At the same time, these travels also force her to face a pressing conflict that has consumed her since she ran away: whether to have a ‘normal’ life (with a husband and children) and be a good wife and a good woman as her parents had taught her or to pursue a life of religion.

The next set of events takes her away from her religious desires at the end of which she learns how the patriarchal society has taught women to always have hatred and suspicion towards each other and not to hold the men accountable. She realizes that she must relearn everything that society has taught her about gender roles. This is the other major turning point that portrays an epiphany and self-realization on Tsomo’s part.

By tracing Tsomo’s growth from childhood to adulthood and finally old age, The Circle of Karma, can be called a female bildungsroman as it depicts both Tsomo’s physical and psychological journey. The story highlights girls’ experiences of the world and how from an early age itself, both boys and girls internalize gender roles and expectations. In making Tsomo, someone who has chosen to not be defined by relationships that burden a women’s identity, the author has deftly questioned those gender roles. She has depicted the conflict that Tsomo faces in wanting to fit in to society’s expectations from a woman, yet at the same time trying to carve her own identity.

The novel showcases female friendships and solidarity and how women can support each other in times of need and deed which is the exact opposite of the internalization of the predominant idea about women being enemies to each other.  

The other important themes are religion and the idea of karma. The latter permeates the story and is reflected in the title of the novel. The idea of karma is present in everyone’s thoughts. This religious concept is used to rationalize one’s fortunes or misfortunes, but karma as a journey is what stands out as Tsomo’s life comes to full circle at the end of the novel.

The Circle of Karma employs several nuanced interpretations of travel as a motif – be it in Tsomo’s actual physical journey, or her spiritual and mental growth, or in the abstract concept of karma itself which travels and walks together with you in the present and in the afterlife.

You can buy the book here.

Abdullah Khan’s Debut Novel Patna Blues Is More Than Just a Political Statement

In India, we attach a plethora of stereotypes to one’s identity. Judging the person by his/her name, religion and home-state is a common practice. Some words like Bihari, Momdan, Chinky, Madrasi among others are used loosely and are often meant to be derogatory. Abdullah Khan in his debut novel Patna Blues traces the life of one such identity which is both a Bihari and a Muslim. The book talks about the desire, dreams, and destiny of a young boy Arif Khan based in Patna. Arif khan in his early 20s preparing to be an Indian Administration Officer, falls in love with a married Hindu woman much older than him. With so much to handle in a large family of three younger sisters and a brother, his miseries increase with this sweet distraction. He consistently finds himself at the crossroads- struggling to choose between his dreams and desire.

The book is a page turner with a lot of drama unfolding with each chapter, line by line. It is set up in early 80s spanning over 20 years against the backdrop of political events of the time. The political events are so intricately woven and meticulously placed in the story that for a moment you forget that it was a reality of a time- The times of VCR, PCOs, Mandal commission, fall of Babri Masjid, 1993 Mumbai attacks, Bihar’s Chara Ghotala, and many more.

The book does not sympathize with the struggles the identity brings him rather makes a strong point on what is and what ought to be. It smoothly ventures into the life of his family members and their aspirations. Many a time, it cuts open the wounds to show bare the prejudices of a majority of society towards a few. Arif’s father, a police officer in Patna is not handed over confidential documents just because of his religion despite his clean records. Younger brother, an aspiring actor faces mockery and rejection owing to his accent despite being talented. The family has to deal with the pressure of ill practices and beliefs of society like arranging dowry for his sisters. However, the author does not delve much into the lives of sisters and they are just to add more ‘blues’ to their life and story. Their portrayal is typical- with suppressed dreams and forced acceptance for their destiny- with everything culminating into marriage.

The book is not at all about making a political statement but shows the effort of a Muslim family to live a comfortable and respectful life despite all odds. Intermittently, the story line is showered with Urdu shayari and old Bollywood song lines which make it refreshing. The story written in simple words is entertaining. It also captures the popular places of Patna like Gandhi Maidan, Dak bunglow Square making it vivid and close to reality. This story of love, aspiration, failure, and grief travels places from Patna to the interiors of Bihar, to some of the metro cities and captures the sentiments of society about one’s identity.

Pick the book for a journey back in time, for a journey from expectations to reality, dreams to destiny, and above all from grief to hope. You can buy the book here.