Sunday, December 23, 2012

Book Review: Secret of the Scribe by Douglas Misquita




Has there been a more competent writer to emerge in the past year in the Indian English mass market publishing than Douglas Misquita? I very deliberately choose the word, "writer"  --  using it in the sense of a "craftsman" -- rather than calling Misquita a "storyteller." Misquita to me, in his earlier book -- Haunted, and as well as his current publication -- Secret of the Scribe, comes across as very skilled hack -- a writer who is accomplished in writing the genre fiction of his choosing, but whose storytelling and the stories themselves hardly leave behind anything for you to savor and remember. Misquita's Haunted too was a well crafted exercise, but would you remember any incident or character quirk or a plot point from it? Unfortunately Secret of the Scribe leaves me with the same feeling. I marveled at Douglas Misquita's competence, but even as I read it, I had the disquieting feeling that I had read all of this in some other story or book by some other author at some other time. That little or nothing of the story will stay with me once I am done with the book. And this kvetch of mine, could probably be generalized to any other example from the Indian English mass market publishing genre.

Misquita, however, for me stands out because he is so very good at what he does. To me he has become one of those writers about whom I wonder more than I wonder about his books. Why is he willing to settle for something that will at best be a mediocre story rather than use his talent and skill to narrate a tale that will be interesting? Is he more secure and confident about his ability only as long as he confines himself to tried and tested story in a tried and tested template? Is it because there is a vast (and presumably easy) market for this kind of genre writing? Or is he a writer who is still coming to terms with his own skill before attempting to push his boundaries?

Once you start with Secret of the Scribe, you know you are in the hands of an adequate and efficient writer. You also realize that you are going through an equally adequate plot, one that you have read in some form or the other, or whose elements you have come across, in many other similar books. And you know that the combination of this particular writer and this particular story will keep you moving at a brisk pace from the first page to the back cover of the book.

A venture capitalist launches Linguistics, Inc. that develops a remarkable nanotechnology-based communication that seems to proclaim that the age of the written and spoken word is over. The unsuspecting world enamored by this wonderful technology fails to realize that Linguistics Inc. is actually setting the stage for total control of everyone in the world. Lance Michener, the leader of a resistance movement (whose father is connected with the initial development of Linguistics Inc.'s technology when it is not consumed by the world-dominating vision of its management), along with a few others tries hard to shut down the Linguistics network before it manages to fulfill its agenda of global mind control.

This conspiracy plot line, plays out in the background of the extraterrestrial and the mythical. A cave-expedition somewhere to the remote borders of China and Tibet unearths some discs believed to be of extraterrestrial origin - a discovery that is quickly squashed. What is the significance of this discs? Why is Linguistics Inc. seeking them? And this conflict between Linguistics Inc. and Michener's band in the book is centered around a hunt for the mythical Book of Thoth -- the Book of Wisdom of the Gods -- a book that is believed to contain the key to all the languages on earth and the languages that will ever be in the future.

This -- a tale of an evil organization trying to seize global control, the story of extraterrestrial/mythical artifacts of great power, and a small but determined bunch of heroes resisting what seem to be insurmountable odds -- is ground that has been trodden so many times by many a book and a movie that all the writer and the reader has to do is to dutifully connect all the dots from the start to the end of this well-worn path. The story and the plot points, from one confrontation to another, from one near escape in an ancient maze to another, virtually write themselves. But apart from a demonstration of proficiency with the craft, there is nothing remarkable in it -- no character, no moment in the plot or even an interestingly wrought passage. All there is on display is dull competence.

Like I have said earlier, Douglas Misquita, the author of Secret of the Scribe, knows what he is doing -- he knows how to skillfully set up the plot and then set up a brisk pace as it moves from one location to the next, from one fight to the next conflict. His problem with this story (apart from that mentioned earlier) is that he cannot decide what he's after -- a thriller of a David standing against the almighty Goliath of an organization or a puzzle that seeks to unravel an ancient extraterrestrial/mythical mystery. So pulled is Secret of the Scribe between these two strands of the plot that at times you feel that you are reading two books in one, neither being able to dominate and establish its supremacy over the other.

All of which is another way of saying that Secret of the Scribe, is more fun to chew on as an exercise in writing rather than as a story. And I mean it to be an "exercise" in a manner very similar to the assignments students are set in schools and colleges -- to perform a task in order to develop skill or understanding. I can't shake off the feeling that Douglas Misquita set himself this assignment of writing a thriller mixed with elements of extraterrestrial and mythical in it. It shows his immense skill that he makes a very decent and workmanlike book out of it. But I can't help thinking, Misquita is a better writer and storyteller than he currently allows himself to be.

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Note: Thanks to Douglas Misquita for a review copy of the Secret of the Scribe. Also my apologies and a special thank you for his immense patience - this post was months in coming.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book Review: The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi



Reading Ashwin Sanghi's The Krishna Key -- nearly 500 pages long what with a references section appended to the end to lend it that air of researched seriousness -- with the specter of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code hovering insistently over it, was not going to by any means easy. Particularly if within the first few pages of the book, you start feeling The Krishna Key is trying really very hard to be Sanghi's The Da Vinci Code -- there is a historian/Symbologist professor who is accused of murder, there's an intelligent and  beautiful female accomplice who helps the wrongly accused professor escape the law and then stay ahead of it, there's a female version of Bezu Fache called "Sniffer Singh", there are of course quite a few ritualized murders, there's a mysterious, religious killer directed by a "Mataji", there's much "heltering-skeltering" to various locations of religious and mythological significance, and above all there's some vague but powerful ancient religious-mythological-historical secret around Krishna which different groups are trying to uncover.

It so happened that at the same time as i was reading The Krishna Key, I started dipping into (what to me seems to be a wonderfully written) Salman Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton. Rushdie, at a point in the book, tells his friends to help him "Defend the text" of The Satanic Verses. Not that I am going to commit the sacrilege of comparing Ashwin Sanghi with Salman Rushdie, but that line of Rushdie helped recollect a very important lesson learned in my literature classes,  "Discount everything else and analyze the text." And that was the only way to approach Ashwin Sanghi's The Krishna Key -- forget the specter of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, set aside the strong feeling that it is but a recontextualization and Indianization of that best-seller, and read and evaluate the text and story that is The Krishna Key. That, to this reader, felt was the only way to be 'fair' to Ashwin Sanghi's book.

The Krishna Key is Sanghi exploring and riffing on the myth of Kalki - the final avatar of Vishnu/Krishna. Professor Ravi Saini who believes that Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, is not a mythological character, but someone who existed 5000 years ago, is framed in the murder of his friend. Other murders follow. Soon with the aid of his doctoral student Priya, he turns into a sleuth trying to solve the murders and in the process track down Taarak Vakil -- who the readers are told, considers himself to be the Kalki avatar.  Sanghi tries to narrate this story by mixing the race to unearth the murderer and to understand the entire conspiracy around discovering Krishna's Dwaraka and "The Krishna Key" (believed to unlock a priceless treasure, left behind by Krishna) with a lot of historical-mythological facts and stories. Sanghi also tries to play with the narrative a bit by moving backwards and forwards in time. And he makes an attempt to draw parallels and link his story with the Krishna one by beginning every chapter with an interlude in which Krishna recounts his story from his birth to his death.

Sanghi is however not an adequate enough writer to make this mix work. The book is shaky as a "suspense-thriller" and then falls flat as a tale riffing on the historical-mythical. Sanghi mistakes mentioning numerous historical and religious places in the book, analyzing obscure symbols carved on temple walls and much of such pseudo mumbo-jumbo as sufficient to make a convincing tale. So obsessed is the author with this "research" presented in his book, that he fails to realize that a memorable tale is built on a solid foundation of a decent plot, great characters, and some good story-telling. The Krishna Key has a highly boring plot with derivative, unremarkable, and inconsitent characters and a narrative technique that exposes the author's lack of competence with his métier.

The Krishna Key, thus is quite disappointing. If you liken it with The Da Vinci Code (which at least had a plot with some pace to it), Sanghi's book only comes off as a clumsy and fumbling imitation. View Ashwin Sanghi's The Krishna Key from any perspective -- as a suspense-thriller or as tale that tries to mix history and mythology into fiction -- the book is not up to scratch.

There is this wonderfully caustic comic/poster that is doing the rounds of Facebook for sometime now. It attempts to capture "That moment when you finish a book, look around,and realize that everyone is just carrying on with the their lives . . . As though you didn't just experience emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback." Quite a few books I have read recently have left me with that feeling. The Krishna Key is just the latest.
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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: Skid Marks of Logic by Divya Diana Dias


 "Some people stop themselves from doing what they want because of what their friends would think about them. . . Some people regret their silly reasons, wondering why they did not succumb to their desires at the time. . . But now they want to change. They want to shatter the chains that the society has bound them with and win the war that rages within them, once and for all. Will they succeed?"
Divya Diana Dias thus posits the purpose of her Skid Marks of Logic in the book's blurb. Do the three stories of Payal, Danielle, and Janvi justify the books stated purpose? It depends.

Divya's Skid Marks of Logic has three female protagonists acting on their desires in different ways in their respective stories. Payal, a "Timid Mouse" cons Xerxus into kissing her. Danielle, who has never been kissed, takes up her best friend, Satya's, offer to satisfy this void. Janvi lets her pharmaceutical company be taken over by the "Mr. High and Mighty" Rhys Callahan in order to save it and then finds, much to her chagrin, that she has fallen for the devil himself.

As long as you read the stories purely as the protagonists fulfilling their desires, they work  — with a very generous glug of romantic fantasy (in the tradition of racy Mills and Boons offerings) added to the tales. Read and viewed simply as straightforward romantic fantasies the stories are not bad, they are actually quite well-written (and correct in grammar and language — a big relief from the amount of crap the gets published as mass-market writing these days). Divya shows a flair for characterization and conversations. The characters, though largely stereotypical (both the female protagonists and the male characters against whom they play off), are acceptable if you view them as staying true to the type in the romantic fantasy genre. And while every now and then something corny does find its way to the book's pages, there’s also the occasional dash of humor or an (albeit rare) attempt at wordplay.

It is however when you try reading the author's intent and ambition in the stories that Skid Marks of Logic fails to reach the mark. While the three protagonists do decide to act on their desires, the act doesn't ever feel like they wanted to "to shatter the chains that the society has bound them with." Divya does try to bring in the society, but its chains are hardly ever evident or they come across as so weak that it doesn't really take any of the characters much effort to shatter them. Payal easily manages to gull and "seduce" Xerxus. Danielle makes some appropriate noises about girls and sex and society and even mentions Raja Ramohan Roy and Sati in one breath. But all of that remains at the level of a throwaway sentence or two. Usually, we read a feminist story and say, "There's a truckload of feminism in this, but where's the story?" In Skid Marks of Logic, we wonder where is the assertion of women's voice and rights. Whatever little is there is steam rolled by the romantic (and often, semi-erotic) fantasy. The characters and protagonists never "struggle.” Any snapping of the society's chains hence fails to make an impression.

Divya's Skid Marks of Logic is felled by its own ambition. Looked upon as straightforward romantic fantasy, it is not a bad book. If, however, the words on the book's back cover are a declaration of intent, then Skid Marks of Logic needs to be more forceful and assertive to claim itself as a narrative that indeed shows women shattering the chains of society.


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Divya responded to the review via an e-mail: 

"One chance that I was taking with writing it this way was that I wanted to bring across the breaking of chains in a more 'sex and the city-ish' kind of way, but I guess now that I think of it there were loads more ways in which I could have made the chains stronger without making it feminist heavy. There could have been more fun incidents and getting into trouble and narrowly escaping things. I loved the characters but I guess that they and the story could have been pushed a lot more."
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Note: Thanks to Divya Diana Dias for a review copy of Skid Marks of Logic.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Book Review: Haunted by Douglas Misquita


Plot Points:
  • Fight staged in darkness in a scrap yard in a thunder shower - check
  • Theft from a top security lab of a nerve agent that could potentially kill millions - check
  • No-holds barred gunfight in a warehouse - check
  • High-speed car chase on a freeway - check
  • Assassins turning up at residential complexes and shooting random people - check
  • Underwater action scenes - check
  • Yachts and ships blown up - check
Background:
  • Organized crime - check
  • Drugs - check
  • Terrorism - check
  • Conspiracies - check
  • Double-crossing - check
  • Multiple nations and locations - check
Characters:
  • Psychologically scarred special agent relentlessly pursuing crime - check
  • Intrepid police detective with plucky rookie partner - check
  • Attractive daughter of a victim trying to find her father's killers - check
  • Multiple friends/colleagues of the above who get killed - check
  • Megalomaniac business tycoon who is actually a criminal mastermind and who feeds his enemies/out-of-favor acolytes to his pet shark - check
  • Smooth, dangerous, cold-blooded terrorist - check
  • Scientist who has been blackmailed into helping the terrorist - check
Take some staple Hollywood action movies. From these take the most typical high-octane action scenes, provide the usual crime + drugs + terrorism background. Populate this with the stereotypical characters and character tics. String them together into some sort of a plot  and now instead of making it into yet another movie script, write it all into a book.

That should summarize Douglas Misquita's Haunted for you.

FBI Special Agent Kirk Ingram's life is shot to smithereens when his wife and daughter are brutally murdered before his eyes (in a scrap yard, in darkness with rain pouring down relentlessly). Psychologically devastated, Ingram seeks redemption from that horror night by relentlessly pursuing and destroying any organized crime. Meanwhile an international business partners itself with organized crime and terror networks - forming a lethal mix that would threaten nations. Ingram, while waging his personal war with the demons of his past, finds himself involved in this global terror war.

That is the bare bones story/plot of Misquita's action thriller. One doesn't pick-up an action-thriller expecting a great or new storyline. Nor does one expect to be moved. The action-thriller aims to take the readers on an exciting ride and uses action and guns, fights and explosions to provide the thrill. We piggy-back on Ingram, and a few other characters, while they fight or become victims of the latest threat to "our way of life." If you look upon Haunted as yet another typical representative of the action-thriller genre, Misquita manages to check against all the right boxes. It is when you realize that the author is an Indian that you realize what Misquita has achieved (or based on your perspective, "derived" from the movies). Haunted is "global" in terms of setting and locales. Most of the action happens in Los Angeles and the characters are all Americans, Europeans, and from the Middle-East. The descriptions and the "ethos" of the book are western. Nothing of India seeps into the book  and I don't view that as necessarily a bad thing. The author has probably stayed true to all his influences (and most of us have grown up consuming American culture and media) and was able to re-imagine them sufficiently to string a novel together.

However when you look at the above, you also realize the limitations of Douglas Misquita's Haunted. Everything in the story feels derived and twice removed from both the author's and thus the readers' experience. When you look at the derivative nature of Haunted, you realize why the book is populated with so many Hollywood/American clichés and stereotypes. Everything   right from the plot to the characters, from the locations to the set pieces, feels as if it is from second-hand experience. All of it born from watching many a Hollywood movie and reading many a Maclean, or a Lee Child, or a Patterson. Remember how at different stages of growing up you thought you could do another Enid Blyton story or write like Wodehouse? Misquita's Haunted, filled with its stock scenes and stock characters and stock plot points, gives you a similar feeling   of an author who tried a genre exercise based on what he consumed second-hand. It is perhaps the reason why you feel no emotional connect or investment in any of the characters. For an action thriller to be successful, it is necessary that the readers care about what happens to the protagonists.

Which is a pity.

Misquita comes across as a capable story-teller (and going by the average stuff you see on shelves these days) with a fairly competent command over the language. I would even say that derivative as Haunted might be, it still showcases a writer who can skillfully mix the ingredients to achieve a story he desires. It will be interesting to speculate and see what Douglas Misquita could achieve if he were to channelize his influences to write a story that is more rooted in his experiences and his reality. I wouldn't mind reading another book from this author if he manages to do that.

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Note: Thanks to Douglas Misquita for a review copy of Haunted.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Marginalia #2: It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose, Translated from the Bengali by Clinton B. Seely



If you have studied English Literature in an Indian college or university, there is no escaping the great debate and divide: Native Writings Vs. Indian Writings in English (IWE). While there are many points of argument between the two it essentially boils down to these: the "Nativists" largely contend that literatures in Indian languages are far superior and "Indian" than the ones written in English in India. The debate between the two sides of this argument can be so heated and full of academic invective that I am surprised that the two sides don't settle it with blows. I don't belong to either side. As long as the literature is readable I don't really care if some people consider the "vernacular" writings to be better to those written in English or if another group of people contends that it is IWE that is currently India's face in the literary world and encompasses a sufficiently strong body of work to be considered a world literature. I do think that while the literary merits of the different books in various languages and cultures can be a matter of debate, debating the "Indianness" of a particular literature is too narrow minded a focus. I also consider Indian Writings in English to be sufficiently "Indian".

A bigger issue while debating the literary merit of any book is to ensure that it is widely accessible and available to as many readers as possible. Given the huge diversity of our peoples, most Indians know at least two or three languages. However usually the proficiency is "functional" and a person would prefer reading in a single language (or perhaps can manage in another as well). That does mean that a goodish bit of the native Indian literatures are not accessible to people who don't speak that language. Similarly IWE is not read by people who don't know English. This is where translations play such a big role. I am surprised and dismayed that India doesn't have a strong publishing in translated works.

Penguin Books since many years has tried stepping into this space. For more than a decade now Penguin has been translating and publishing classics of Indian literatures into English. From the few translations that I have read, they are doing a far better job of promoting and making Indian literatures more accessible than the rabid academics.

All that about Indian literatures, IWE, and translations was prompted after recently reading It Rained All Night by Buddhadeva Bose. This slim novel was first published as Rat Bhore Bhrishti in Bengali 1967. I picked up the translation by Clinton B. Seely. Some random marginalia about the book:
  • Buddhadeva Bose's It Rained All Night has all the ingredients of a juicy, salacious scandal. There's a lovely protagonist, their's the lack of satisfaction or contentment in a marriage, their's a "weak" and intellectual husband Vs. a gruff "doer", and there is infidelity set against the genteel backdrop of middle-class Kolkata of the sixties. There is little wonder that some idiot back then charged the book with obscenity and had it banned. It Rained All Night, is however not prurient but rather a deep exposition of marriage, the expectations from a marriage and how two people who so want to be happy and love can be apart because their notions of love are different. This is something that was probably recognized by the Kolkata High Court which overturned Buddhadeva Bose's conviction and the ban on It Rained All Night.
  • Many would consider looking at It Rained All Night as a strongly feminist work or at least a work that has a strong feminist undertone to it. The book at one level seems to justify Maloti's infidelity, for all purposes and means, as a married woman's need for love — just love, pure and simple. A feminist reading is not invalid but reading the book purely as a feminist text would be unfortunately limiting. Considering the broad social context of the genteel class of Kolkata of the sixties — a time when women were not granted their sexual rights (not that the situation has changed drastically even now),  and the heavy taboo associated with infidelity in Indian culture it is tempting to read an assertion of female rights into Maloti's infidelity. That, I think, would however be a very simplistic and reductive reading of the book. For me the story is more of an analysis and exposition of how two fundamentally different people in a marriage are unable to bridge the gap between them and make their relationship work. It is to me a story about how a sensitive and yet prideful Nayonangshu, the husband, is unable to reach out to his wife in spite of realizing that the marriage is falling apart. It is a story about how a clear-headed and sharp Maloti is unable to communicate her desires and longings to her husband. It Rained All Night does an excellent job of showing how communication breaks down in a marriage and how a lack of communication and an unwillingness to understand and bridge differences will eventually would tear a married couple asunder.
  • Having said that, it has to be admitted that It Rained All Night does show a wife whose need for love and passion breaks the commonly held views of the "sanctity" of marriage. The emphasis on a woman's right to herself, her body and the unabashed exercise of her sexual rights is very strong. At a fundamental level, Maloti is attracted to Jayanto, because she craves for passion and a love that is actual and not some idealized notion (held by her husband). This unapologetic depiction of a woman's need for passion must have been very brave, especially in the sixties. 
  • The book does a fine job of showing two different kinds of love — Nayonangshu's idea of an "ideal" and "pure" love is shown as the "intellectualization" of love. Maloti is shown to believe in a more earthy and physical idea of love. Nayonangshu thinks so much about love that in a way he looks down upon the physical aspect of it (not that he denies it, he wants to possess Maloti entirely). His love is a distillation of all the ideal love that he has read in literature. Maloti tries to understand what Nayonangshu desires but ultimately finds it limiting and incomplete. She understands to some extent the "intellectualization" that her husband brings to his notions of love but is unable to subscribe to it. Nayonangshu loses Maloti because he over thinks love and is unable to move beyond thought. Maloti drifts away from Nayonangshu as she feels his world of thoughts has no room for her and is unable to relate to it.
  • There is little or no action in the novel. The narrative of It Rained All Night comprises alternate chapters that show the thoughts of the two protagonists — Maloti and Nayonangshu. The first and the third chapter's are Maloti's, the second and the fourth bare the thoughts of Nayonangshu. In a way one could look at each alternate chapter as the two protagonists justifying their position and actions in an "argument." The first-person narrative chapters enable the author to bring out not only their thought and feelings but also the extensive mental turmoil of both Maloti and Nayonangshu. There is a final chapter that is in third-person that sort of serves as a summation. This final chapter to me was the weakest part of the book — though I do realize that Basu needed the third-person chapter as a device to bring the novel to a "physical" closure. As you would expect for such a novel, there is no closure to the story. We just see the two sides and know that the story will continue. How it will end is not told or perhaps left to our own inclinations.
  • While there is little action in the book, It Rained All Night starts dramatically and explosively with Maloti defiantly proclaiming her infidelity: "It’s over— it happened — there’s nothing more to say. I, Maloti Mukherji, someone’s wife, and someone’s mother—I did it. Did it with Jayanto. Jayanto wanted me, and I him … How did it happen? Easy. In fact I don't know why it didn't happen before—I’m surprised at my self-restraint, at Jayanto’s patience." The novel then moves largely backwards in time to apprise us of the facts, events, thoughts that led to Maloti sleeping with Jayanto. The dramatic start belies the measured delineation and the interiority of the characters' turmoil and thoughts to follow.
  • Apart from Nayonangshu and Maloti there are no other characters in the novel. Their daughter, Bunni, and Jayanto — Nayonangshu's friend and ultimately Maloti's lover, are the only two other characters of some note. Both Bunni and Jayanto and any other character are always seen through the prism of either Nayonangshu's or Maloti's perspectives. This device in a way also helps readers understand how the two look at the same people and events differently and serves to underline their differences.
  • Nayonangshu, comes across as a tortured man, inert to some extent with low self-esteem (or rather a self-esteem bubble that is easily pricked) and jealous. He also comes across as extremely sensitive, intellectual and conflicted. In some ways the new assertive Maloti is his creation. He thinks he wants a wife who will be his intellectual and emotional equal and he pushes Maloti to change her ways and to conform to his ideas. Maloti, perhaps otherwise would have been happy to stay in the comforting confines of a joint family and manage the traditional "womanly" duties. However once Maloti is recognized by his friends as a person in her own right and when he realizes that many of his friends visit their home not to converse with him but to listen to and see Maloti, Nayonangshu's insecurity flares up. It is notable (as compared to traditional or typical notions of Indian husbands)  that in spite of his insecurities he never bans Maloti from interacting with his friends. Even when he realizes what is happening between Jayanto and Maloti he is extremely reluctant to ban Jayanto from visiting their home. His idealization of the idea of love and his ambivalence to physical love is also very well brought out. In spite of all his intellect and sensitivity he however is unable to unbend and bridge the widening gap between him and his wife.
  • Maloti comes across as a passionate woman who on the nudging of her husband tries to change herself to fit into his notions of how she should be. This to her is how she shows her love for him. However she is also assertive enough to resent (perhaps passively) Nayonangshu's insistence that she conform to his ideas of a woman and love. This translates into an inflammable anger and a torn self where she would like to preserve her marriage but is angered by her realization that to Nayonangshu only wants her to believe and follow his ideas. She resents the realization that her husband wants to be seen as a liberal and her "emancipator" but in reality doesn't want to offer her true emancipation or recognize her as an individual with her own beliefs and needs: "I am just a means to satisfy his physical appetite, some sort of machine to provide him his comforts — and once I became convinced of this, was I still supposed to remain his gentle Sita-like wife? No, I want love — love in every sense of the word. I want to be flattered, worshipped. I want devotion, I want to see myself as larger than I am... How can I reject someone who is madly in love with me? Why should such strength be expected from me alone? I am human, I am a woman. I have a body of flesh and blood." As she increasingly and "dangerously" gets attracted to Jayanto she is irritated that Nayonangshu is unable to climb down is intellectual ivory tower, assert himself as her husband and throw out Jayanto.
  • Maloti is at times practical or realistic enough to realize the social expectations of matrimony: "The main thing is the family. You married me. We ’re husband and wife — we still are... why not just let our entire lives pass like this, like the lives of countless others." She perhaps would have accepted life/fate if Nayonangshu had banned Jayanto from their home and would have continued in the construct of their marriage. It is Nayonangshu who is unable to accept a hollow marriage and continue in it. As a translator and a husband in love with his wife, he understands "there are some things one just can’t say in Bengali". He confesses: "In a country where even now countless people go for arranged marriages and accept these marriages as permanent, the occasion for asking such an absurd question as ‘Do you love me?’ presents itself to only a handful of ill-fated individuals. I am one of those unlucky ones." He refuses to ban Jayanto as he knows that it will make Maloti a husk of her former self and that it will also make Jayanto unhappy. Rather than making three people unhappy, he feels that it is alright if he stays unhappy while Jayanto and Maloti find happiness in each other.
  • A beautiful piece of writing in the novel is (and one that serves to show Nayonangshu to be kind of person he is)  when Nayonangshu finds a notepaper on which Maloti has scribbled "Jayanto, please come back" over and over again. For a short while Nayonangshu is morbidly gleeful — he has evidence and he can use it against his wife the next time they quarrel. But soon his nature asserts itself and he begins to wonder what would presenting the evidence achieve. He can't make Maloti love him and would end up making three people unhappy. Over a period of time he forgets where he has hidden that piece of paper.
  • The novel is wonderful and explosive in its candor and the rejection of middle-class thoughts and values. For a novel about infidelity, there is very little physical love or lust in the novel. The readers realize that while Jayanto and Maloti come together it is because in their own way they are similar — people who can never say "I love you" but actually believe in showing love  —  and that the two genuinely love each other. For whatever little passion that Buddhadeva Bose writes into the novel it is written with much sensuousness. Nayonangshu's contemplation of a semi-clad sleeping Maloti after she has just slept with Jayanto is beautiful. Even more wonderful is how Nayonangshu, covers up Maloti, before waking her up to save her any embarrassment.
  • Perhaps the only thing to kvetch about is the translation itself. Clinton B. Seely's translation gives very little of the ethos in which the story is rooted. The Bengali backdrop of the story or the fact that it was originally written in Bengali is hardly noticed in the translation. Apart from a few Bengali words and mentions of places in Kolkata and the a single mention that Jayanto always prefers calling Maloti by her "daak naam", "Lotan"  , there is no Bengali flavor to the the tale (tellingly, Nayonangshu is unable to ever bring himself to call Maloti by her nickname because it doesn't fit into his ideas about her). Now there is no judging if this is a drawback on the part of the translator or of the original leaves little scope to bring in the local flavor. I suspect the latter is true because the novel largely plays out has the thoughts of the two protagonists. Having said that it would have been nice if the translation too had managed to capture the Bengali flavor of the story more strongly. A case in point is the excellent translation of the Marathi Kosala by Bhalchandra Nemade into the English Cocoon. The translation captures the cadences of Marathi perfectly.
  • To me the greatest reason for recommending the novel is how beautifully it balances between the thoughts and actions of Maloti and Nayonangshu. To bring back a point that I had raised earlier, if one were to read this story as two sides presenting their arguments, it will be difficult to make up our minds about who is correct or who is to blame. When either Maloti or Nayonangshu are baring their thoughts and conflict you do feel they are right but it is always tempered with the perspective of the another. Buddhadeva Bose's triumph in It Rained All Night is to show how neither Maloti nor Nayonangshu are solely to blame but how both are responsible for what happens. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: The Wednesday Soul by Sorabh Pant


The Wednesday Soul by Sorabh Pant is a bit better than most of the "mass-market" publishing that is  so much in vogue currently in India. The book ostensibly is a funny and sarcastic look at life after death or as the tag line puts it "the afterlife, with sunglasses."

The Wednesday Soul tells us about the afterlife of Nyra Dubey. Nyra Dubey is an urban vigilante who roams around Delhi in the night avenging any crimes against women. Nyra is overweight, has a slight chip on her shoulder about it but is spunky enough to not really care a damn. She meets the love of her life, Chitr Gupta, who is apparently invulnerable to any physical harm. Just when she is fantasizing about life with Chitr Gupta, Nyra is bumped off by Kutsa, the villain of the story. Nyra is not amused to be separated from Chitr and wishes to be with him. So soon Chitr and Kutsa clash and end up in afterlife. And from here on the story moves largely in two parallel lanes - the afterlife and the mortal "real" world - with the events in one impacting the other.

It is also from this point that the book loses its plot. Sorabh Pant is a stand-up comic of some reputation. The book is written and "delivered" in a similar style. There are a few parts of the book that, when take alone, are really funny. There are elements that have been weaved in purely for their potential for humor and which do not have any bearing on the story. So you have a Lenin who spews Russian Comedy to people standing in the afterlife's many queues, there's Agatha Christie who functions as a sort of a psychic detective and some extremely bad puns. There is also a half-hearted attempt to "play" with mythology and mythological characters. And there is an attempt to mix this all with current lifestyles and concepts. So Nyra is a "Wednesday Soul" -- the mid day of the work week that is so frustrating that it makes people suicidal. Wednesday Souls are thus people whose subconscious drives them to harm themselves by either putting themselves in the path of danger (like Nyra) or by something like binge eating or overworking - malaises of the current urban lifestyles. Sundays are sacred for such folks. Chitr is a Sunday Soul.

The book thus tries to mix in anything and everything in an attempt to elicit a joke or a laugh out of it. While that may be a good strategy for a stand-up comedy act, this free-wheeling does no wonders to a novel's story line. The Wednesday Soul's story, plot and narration are largely incoherent. The story is also full of inconsistencies (For example, Agatha Christie first communicates with Harithi in English and later only in Sanskrit) including some really crucial ones like the “Thinkers” viewing and knowing what is happening in the world, but being unable to locate the Third missing Sunday Soul. Such inconsistencies amplify the holes and shortcomings in the story's "plot" and  narration. The book is halos littered with significant editing and publishing errors. The book rarely engages the reader as it tries to entertain. The result is a book like an average comedy act. The audience will laugh and applaud once in a while, but the act as a whole falls flat and has got nothing that is memorable.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Book Review: Tritcheon Hash by Sue Lange



About a millennium into the future, the universe is a lot different. Many generations ago from 3011, the year in which Sue Lange's Tritcheon Hash opens, women decide they have had enough of the testosterone fueled violence and messiness of males. They pack up and over the next decade or so, leave the men behind on the polluted and resource-depleted Earth and board starships to Coney Island. Coney Island is named after the amusement park-turned woman's penal colony-turned back to amusement park on Earth. Coney Island, light years away, is the all-human female planet, a refuge from and in many ways a complete opposite of, the now completely-male Earth. Here on Coney Island, women indulge in vegetarianism, aromatherapy, and a whole lot of peaceful and "womanly" activities that are the antithesis of the aggressive male-dominated culture they left behind. The women prosper and over the generations evolve a culture and society that epitomizes everything that is the opposite of war-mongering, unhygienic, and "un-cultured" males. In fact, ever since the absolute separation of the sexes, Coney Island has over the centuries even developed technology that surpasses that of the men back on earth.

The women in Tritcheon Hash have adapted and learned to live in a world devoid of the male species. The human females on Coney Island are highly paranoid and wary of Earth. Contact with Earth is extremely limited — confined to once a year when they swap male babies for enough frozen sperm to last their planet for another year. Men, since the separation, have mucked up Earth even more — a perpetual belt of garbage now encircles the planet. This sea of crud blots out the sun, making the human males fight their petty, and numerous, wars in artificial daylight. Plant life is thus highly limited on Earth, and circumscribed to a few areas which have been painstaking reclaimed from radiation fallout.

Tritcheon Hash or Tritch is the eponymous protagonist of Sue Lange's novel. She is brash, fearless, tough, and smart . . . a woman in love with speed. She is a test pilot who loves spaceships that are fast. Her job is to test the newly developed faster-than-light spaceships. She is married to the lovely Drannie Cove and has two daughters. Tritch, on the surface, appears to have everything a woman would want from her life. But within her, there's a knot of dissatisfaction that threatens to come undone and unravel her life. Her marriage to Drannie Cove has dwindled into an unsatisfying and unhappy relationship. Drannie has been acting distant and apathetic, devoting her full attention to their two daughters. Tritch's been spending more time sitting on her butt waiting for the ships she tests to actually fly than she's been enjoying the thrill of space flight. She's also increasingly haunted by an experiment that she was a part of when she was training at Coney Island's military academy — a group of women cadets and a visiting male students are tossed together to see what would happen. The experiment is a spectacular failure, thanks to the aggressive and uncouth behavior of Slab Ricknoy and his dust-up with Tritch during an exercise in which they were to partner each other. Tritch could do with a break.

The opportunity comes in the form of a request for reunification from the males. There are enough people on both sides wondering if that may be a good idea. But paranoia of the males has become the second nature for the inhabitants of Coney Island and while there are sufficient people interested in the reunification idea they want to exercise all possible caution. A decision is made to scout the enemy. So, because of her prior dust-up with Slab Ricknoy, her excellent credentials as a pilot, and her "military" training, Tritch is recruited for a clandestine mission to journey alone to earth, make her way through the layer of garbage permanently obscuring and orbiting the old home planet, and to see if men have managed to evolve out of their wicked, meat-eating, leather-wallet-carrying, war-mongering and aggressive ways. Tritch is excited about her mission. Not just because the idea of espionage and flying the fastest spaceship around — equipped with the "Lighterator" sounds thrilling, but also due to the possible chance that she might somehow may manage to again meet the intriguing Bangut Walht — the "forbidden" and "taboo" man — she met during the experimental exercise back in military school.

Tritch's exceptional skills as a pilot see her through the layer of garbage but she damages the ship during the tricky maneuver and crash lands on Earth. The crash-landing leaves her unconscious long enough to be captured by the one man she really hopes not to see — Slab Ricknoy who is now an aggressive and bellicose military leader in charge of one of the many wars on Earth. Somehow, Bangut Walht also finds himself thrown in the mix of circumstances. Ricknoy's aggressive stance against Tritch and her and Bangut's reaction to it threatens to trigger an intergalactic incident.

Will Tritch escape the clutches of Ricknoy? Will she and Bangut "get-together"? Will she be able to escape Earth, now that her spaceship is damaged and in Ricknoy's custody? What about Drannie and the kids? And if she does manage to escape and return to Coney Island, will Tritch recommend reunification or are the sexes destined to stay apart? The answers to these questions occupy the rest of the story of Tritcheon Hash.

Though it is presented as science-fiction, Tritcheon Hash is primarily a satire. The "science-fiction" is merely a wrapper that provides a world, a reason, in which the story can be played out and explored. Sue Lange uses satire in Tritcheon Hash to poke fun of various gender stereotypes prevalent in the current times. Satire, at most times, is tough to pull off. An author can err on the side of the serious, emphasizing the "message" and alienate the audience who would find the heavy-handed treatment boring. An author can also err on the other extreme — trying to explore every incident and opportunity to poke fun, elicit laughs, and come across as silly and frivolous. Sue Lange, for most of Tritcheon Hash, manages to strike a balance between the two. The science fiction wrapper for the story allows Lange to exaggerate stereotypes and then satirize them in interesting ways by making them sound perfectly logical and sound in the fictitious world. The satire and humor is born out of the play between the exaggerated notions of the characters in the fictitious world and similar notions in the real world. For example, everything on Earth is made of meat products. Males on Earth grow plants just to feed animals and then make everything out of meat and leather. Sample Tritch's reaction on entering Bangut's living quarters for the first time:
The place was orderly—surprisingly so, in fact. No socks draped on heat disseminators, no dirty underwear hung on the back of a chair. Last week’s beer-bash flotsam was not floating about in knee-deep water. The room appeared not only neat, but also tastefully decorated: curtains matched throw pillows, furniture covers had been chosen in stylish auxiliary colors, and a big rug tied everything together. No animal heads were mounted anywhere.
Lange also uses language effectively to emphasize the separation between the sexes and further reinforce the satirical intent of the story. Anything to do with male-female relationships and procreation is described in highly technical terms (a penis is always referred to by Tritch and others on Coney Island as the "Penile Apparatus"). Tritch and the females of Coney Island over the long years of separation have created a slang and manner of speaking that is unique to the planet and that produces some very funny misunderstandings when Tritch talks to the men in the book.

While the satire and humor is definitely a strong point of Sue Lange's story, she does lose her way towards the end. For most of the length of the novel, the story is extremely fast-paced. But towards the end Lange seems to lose her grip on the plot — it almost feels like the author knew how to develop the situation and take it to its climax but hadn't given a thought to how she would handle the resolution of the story. Like Tritch, the plot of the book too drifts at the end.

The characterization in this novel is tricky. One would normally consider sketching in finer details make for a better character. Lange paints Tritch and especially her male characters with a very broad brush. The characters largely are representative of various stereotypes. General Anschoss takes on every generic characteristic of any "General" in any book ever written. Slab Ricknoy, is the archetypical swaggering, aggressive man. Bangut is the stereotypical "sensitive" male. But when you understand that the author's purpose is to make fun of various gender stereotypes, you realize that painting the characters in broad brush strokes was the right (it may have been unintentional) decision. These conventional characters make it easy for Sue Lange to satirize male-female gender perceptions about each other.

Where the novel fails to impress is in its "science" part. For a novel that positions itself as science fiction, there is very little science in the story. Most of it is cosmetic and purely used to create atmosphere. In a science fiction story, at least to me, the science (whatever rules it obeys in that world) should be the reason of the story and should be the primary means of taking the story to its climax and resolution. The only science fiction in the novel is the faster-than-light ships powered by the lighterator and a few other similar token nods to science (plants that soak up radiation, gigantic sails that filter and "mine" the air for metals). The notion of the separation of sexes which is the basic premise for the story, could be easily setup without requiring the science fiction part of the story. Tritcheon Hash is a character-driven story in which the science-fiction is merely cosmetic and incidental. To me a book that is classified into the genre and then turning out to be not hard core science fiction is a big disappointment.

Tritcheon Hash is a book with undeniable energy. It is often funny, and but for the end, never dull. The characterization fits the book's purpose perfectly. If only Sue Lange had also paid attention to the science in her book, Tritcheon Hash would have been a unique coming together of satirical intent and science fiction.

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: The Iron Tooth by Prithvin Rajendran



In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams, the Vogons are an alien race from the planet Vogsphere who are responsible for the destruction of the Earth, in order to facilitate an intergalactic highway construction project. They are the writers of "the third worst poetry in the universe." The only way Vogons get other races to hear their poetry is by capturing them and torturing them with readings. Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz captures Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent when they hitch a ride in his spaceship and reads out his poetry to them. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy issues a terse warning: On no account should you allow a Vogon to read poetry at you.

People of the earth beware! The Vogons are here on Earth. And they are publishing novels.

I was reminded of Vogon poetry repeatedly as I read Prithvin Rajendran's, The Iron Tooth. I would have been immensely grateful if the book had not been published. Or at least if it had been published with a warning: On no account should you read this book. The only way I thought I could survive The Iron Tooth was if I could later slice open my head and scrub my brains in a vat of vinegar.

If you go just by the back cover of the book, Prithvin Rajendran's, The Iron Tooth, is yet another addition to Indian fantasy fiction. The book is set in the magical world of Goodbaiya. A young girl mysteriously becomes pregnant (in what seems like Rajendran's version of the Immaculate Conception), and is thrown out by her family and the city. She is makes a new home for herself at the foothills of the Mala Mountains. On a dark stormy night, she delivers two babies – one human and one troll. From the girl’s story, which functions as the prologue, the book then jumps to various other events. It then links back to the events in the prologue at the end. The first Chapter opens with the story of the great and mighty Dashtum, the good king of the kingdom of Dashter. His adventures cover about a page and a half and we move on to reading about his evil son, Darum, who takes over the kingdom after Dashtum's death. Darum is hated by his people who rebel against him repeatedly but without success. The beautiful princess Nova, Darum's eldest child is like her father – selfish, arrogant, and extremely rude. When she insults the master magician, Faerum, he takes the help of six other powerful magicians and the Custodian of First Light to avenge his insult. The Custodian of First Light curses the entire kingdom of Dashter so that it is perpetually covered with darkness. Princess Nova is imprisoned in a tower, which is guarded among other things by zombies wielding battleaxes. Here she waits to be rescued, forever regretting the grave mistake she had made.

The book then jumps to the kingdom of Greatix where a young man by the name of Princix, after acquiring magical weapons, sets out to become the champion warrior of the king of Greatix, Grantum. Using his weapons, he succeeds in completing all the tasks set out for him and so impressed is Grantum that Princix is made the Champion General of the kingdom. After becoming the Champion General, Princix is tasked by Grantum to find out what is wrong with Dashter. Along with Candlebre and Hammil, members of the imperial guard of bodyguards Princix sets out to remove the curse from Dashter. How Princix fulfills his quest, acquires the iron tooth, (from which the novel gets its title), wins Princess Nova's love and then goes on to rule the kingdom of Princeum forms the rest of the story.

Into this boiling and bubbling cauldron of a plot, Prithvin Rajendran throws in ingredients by the fistful: there's a sort of a magical mystic who foretells the destruction of the kingdom of Dashter and its resurrection by a stranger, there's a couple of envious brothers (who serve no other purpose than accompanying Princix on his first quest and then destroying his magical gifts later out of jealousy), a cabal of powerful magicians, a "duke" who is actually the ringleader of a band of thieves, grateful strangers who bestow magical gifts and weapons in gratitude for help, and medusas and vampires and zombies and trolls and giants, and the Baks (who are like Orcs) and the Massive Body Octopus and the Extra Large Locusts, massive owls and even two swords — one called the "Bastard Sword" and the other "Skull Killer".

Rajendran seems to go by the principle that if he adds all possible tropes from fantasy stories and fairy tales, stirring and stewing them together, the resultant tale would be something worth telling. He however forgets one important ingredient that makes even the most outlandish and outrageous fantasy tales such interesting stories to read and listen — the skill of the story-teller.

I remember being told in my school days the golden rule of writing: one main idea per paragraph with supporting details to aid and carry the weight of the central idea. It is amazing how impossible it is to err too much if you follow this simplest of rules while writing. Prithvin Rajendran tries doing something different. Sample this from the early pages of The Iron Tooth:
Elnix assisted the king in the administration of the kingdom. King Dashtum was pleased with Elnix's wise decisions and appointed Elnix as the head of the legal department. Soon, Dashtun married a beautiful commoner named Frisix. She begat him a son in C90 and they named him Darum. Dashtun and his family were loved by the people. Dashtum denounced corrupt courtiers and punished them. He was impartial in his judgments and allowed the people to play a vital part in the governing of the kingdom. His wealth grew beyond imagination and the kingdom was at peace.
While having even a single paragraph like the above is unforgiveable, Prithvin Rajendran writes the entire The Iron Tooth in the same fashion. Ideas, sentences, and paragraphs ramble and run helter-skelter. One never quite gets used to Rajendran's writing style and you struggle to hit some sort of a reading "rhythm or pace" while reading The Iron Tooth. I suppose I am being charitable to call it a style when it could be the acme of Rajendran's writing skill and abilities. So bad is the writing that it affects the story and the telling. I almost gave up reading the book in the initial few pages and had to summon great will power and gnaw my arm to continue. I often wondered if the entire harum-scarum story and plot reflected Rajendran's writing skills or did his writing reflect his scatter-gun imagination.

Sometimes, Rajendran turns into Wikipedia while describing beasts:
The Massive Body Octopus was a cephalopod of the order of Octopoda and had lengthy tentacles with suction cups in them and a soft body with no internal skeleton; it had neither a protective outer shell nor bones. The defensive mechanisms were its inks sacs and camouflage.
When he returns to Greatix after rescuing Princess Nova, Princix tell Ushix, his mother, about his adventures and laments the loss of Hammil's life. Ushix consoles him:
"Life is a constant struggle. Many times, we lose what we love. I know that is difficult to let go but it is best if we forget the past and move forward. Please go and take some rest."
If you felt that the prose itself didn't merit me invoking the Vogons at the beginning of this review, there's poetry as well. Prithvin Rajendran's The Iron Tooth labors under the belief that characters in "epic" fantasy (increasingly this term denotes a breadth of imagination and influences without any corresponding depth to give the story some substance) regularly break into song and verse. He fails to note that the verse has to be of impeccable quality. When Rajendran describes the various towns of the Kingdom of Greatix, we come to the towns of Aeros and Ratne. He tells us:

As the rivers provided fresh water, fishing was a major activity in the towns of Aeros and Ratne. The fish was a good source of protein for the people's diets. The people chanted,

"O, water, O, water!
Everywhere around us water is present
Fresh water is in plenty
It is savoury
And excellent for digestion in the body
Water provides fish
Fish is enriching
O, water, O, water!"
During one of his early adventures, Rajendran tells us how Princix takes out three chunks of fish and places them on fire to cook them. And then he chants:
"O, what a smell!
I cannot wait to eat this fish
What weather!
The wind is serene
There is no worry
What calm!"
And later, while on his quest to Dashter, Princix comes across a pheasant and waxes lyrical:
"O, What a pretty bird!
Its feathers dry all our burdens
But what do we do?
We have to satisfy our hunger!
We have to kill this bird."
When such songs and poems occur on every other page of the book, you would be forgiven if you were to revise your opinion and declare the Vogons as high priests of excellent poetry and prose.

The Iron Tooth is a hotchpotch tale that seems to have a vague idea about the direction in which it is heading. Otherwise the story rambles, events are put down on paper as they occurred to the author with no thought to their relevance or the plotline. Prithvin Rajendran seems more bent upon cramming every influence and fantasy trope into his story rather than worry about the coherence of his tale. I have mentioned earlier that virtually every well-known trope and character from fantasy fiction and fairy tales seems to have found its way in The Iron Tooth. Would personal experiences and incidents be left out? In the Acknowledgements section of the book, Prithvin Rajendran tells us:
I also applied some of my personal incidents to the story. I cite one of them as follows: in January 2006, due to a minor fall, I got hairline cracks on two of my upper teeth and my lower lip was swollen. I applied similar injuries to Candelbre when he was attacked by trolls near the marshes of Troyae in Chapter 12.
That in a way sums up what to me The Iron Tooth is all about — a personal indulgence of the author. Books are, of course, personal and many a writer has channeled the personal into the fictional. Considering Rajendran's craftsmanship and his writing skills, I would have been happy if he had kept his story and experiences to himself and let The Iron Tooth stay unpublished.

These days publishing houses seem deem editors unnecessary, the least they could do is print the book with an appropriate and prominent hazard warning. I, for one, would be full of gratitude.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review: Satin - A Stitch in Time by Payal Dhar



I have always wondered why Payal Dhar and her Shadow in Eternity series are not famous enough. For the large number of authors that seem to have their 15 minutes under the limelight these days, the lack of excitement around Payal Dhar's Shadow in Eternity trilogy feels like a betrayal by us readers. Those three books, to me, are amongst some of the best fantasy fiction written in India and I always thought that the story should get its due. After her interesting and enjoyable Shadow in Eternity trilogy, I had marked Payal Dhar as an author to follow and waited for her next with much anticipation and expectation. It is the sort of feeling that one probably gets after seeing a highly remarkable debut by a young cricketer. For the next match or series, you have your fingers crossed — will he live up to his promise? Or was that just one good innings? There are so many writers who have nothing better to tell than their first story, that the idea of a second book (in this case, a second series) fills the reader with both anticipation and dread. You want to read more from the author, but you so ardently wish, with both your fingers and toes crossed, that she lives up to the expectations. You know it is so unfair to the writer that she has to live up to your expectations but can't keep wishing for it. When Payal Dhar's next book was announced and published, I tried my best to quell my expectations and hoped that it will be a well-told story.

Payal Dhar's latest, Satin - A Stitch in Time, is the first book of her new fantasy trilogy, Satin. Satin - A Stitch in Time is weaved around Marik Yavi, a young magician, from the family that rules the Prefecture of Marik. The Prefecture of Marik is a small matrilineal province in the Union of Nizrah that depends on its reputation as a tourist destination to make money. The Union of Nizrah practices something called the Flame Magic — its magic comes from the eternal flame and all the mages train at the Academy of the Flame at Koda. Politics, alliances, and enmities between the various provinces and prefectures of Nizrah are common and the various ruling families and their "officials" navigate the treacherous waters of Nizrah politics regularly.

Marik Yavi is the second son of the House of Marik and an accomplished word mage. Yavi finds himself to be the heir to his grandfather's, Marik Avin’s, belongings after Avin's death. This is surprising because when he was alive, Avin never lost an opportunity to belittle Yavi and point out that he was but an adopted son of the family. Even more surprising is Avin's legacy to Yavi — several bound volumes of what appear to be cloth samples of satin, and some diaries that chronicle routine, everyday affairs. And a cryptic note to Yavi which simply says: "The key is in Satin." Is this an elaborate prank by Avin on his grandson whom he disliked? Or is it something more that Avin expects Yavi, with his word magic and fondness for puzzles, to solve?

Yavi then undertakes a quest to unravel this mystery. The quest takes him to Kuzerazi in the north and to the estate of Fezar. Magic is frowned upon in Kuzerazi; Kuzerazans shun magic completely and treat mages with suspicion. Fezar is a mysterious place, in this province that is hostile to practitoners and believers of the Flame Magic. Fezar has suddenly dropped from all news a few decades back and its occupants keep minimal or no contact with the outside world. Outsiders are unwelcome. But Yavi must visit Fezar and find its Lakehouse if he has to solve the mystery of the satin samples for his grandfather had spent much of the time detailed in his diaries on the estate. A number of Avin's diary entries are about the construction of Fezar's Lakehouse. Joining him on this quest to unravel his grandfather's legacy are Marik’s sister, the rebellious Fahe, and a young Kuzerazan runaway, Keas. Fahe is the future Prefect of Marik — she's an adolescent, full of angst, one who is yet to learn how to control her magic and is confused with the happenings in her home and family. Keas, is the son of a renowned, almost legendary, Kuzerazan herbalist called Win. He has rejected the apprenticeship of his father and has defied him to pursue his dream of becoming a mage. Accompanying them are Yavi's and Fahe's bodyguards: Rindan and Zurel. Their quest, the three soon find out is dangerous — there are strangers about who clearly mean them harm and who want Yavi's cloth samples. And along the way, the group discovers things about their Flame magic and the nature of magic that challenges the notions they had held sacred. What they discover turns their world, and their time, upside down.

Payal Dhar's great skill at building alternative worlds is on display in Satin - A Stitch in Time. Like the Shadow in Eternity trilogy, Satin's world is a world very like ours in many ways and yet unlike ours. The world is full of technology and Dhar clearly channels her inner geek when she details the technological marvels of this world: the "Infonet," computers, touchscreen tablets, the comm handsets and especially the wonderful machinery and technology that Yavi, Fahe, and Keas encounter in their quest. This world is also magical with mages using pentasters to channel their magic — whether it is elemental or like Yavi's, of words. Some of the technology is in fact powered by Flame Magic. It's a world where Flame Magic dominates and other kinds of magic are non-existent and the notions of any other magic considered pagan. It is also a world that is balanced on an uneasy truce between the mages and the common folk without magic. The world itself thus sets up different tensions in this fictional land. There's the political tension between the ruling families. There's the tension between the rigid (almost "fundamentalist") adherers of the Flame and the others who question and seek to undermine these beliefs, there's the hostility of the Flame mages and the academy against considering any other kind of magic and conveniently labels them as pagan and rebellious. There's the suspicion of Kuzerazi towards magic and mages. And there is Fezar, which has secluded itself from the world and treats any trespass with extreme hostility. All of this is packaged in a geeky world that follows the decimal system of time with each hour having 100 minutes and each minute having hundred seconds. A day is divided into twenty hours and the calendar has five months of 70 days. Time is a crucial concept in Satin.

Satin - A Stitch in Time is clearly a more mature work compared to the Shadow in Eternity series. Action is used in small effective bursts to keep the story moving. For a greater part of the story, it is dialogue and descriptions that keep the narrative moving and the reader engaged. The convoluted politics between the different provinces is well laid out and I expect it will have a major bearing on how the other two books unfold. Dhar, in the Shadow of Eternity trilogy, had shown herself to be especially capable of delineating human relationships and intrigues. We see perhaps a greater emphasis on the same in Satin. Having Fahe as an adolescent perhaps is a masterstroke in this context. Her confusion and angst at the relationship equations in her matrilineal home mirror the reader's feelings. Her angst at growing up and belief that perhaps she no longer has a first claim on her elder brother, Yanik's (who is now expecting a child with his wife, Sera), affections is very well brought out. Yavi's mixed feelings about meeting his onetime mentor the Academy and later a lover, Disciple Kariad, too are portrayed extremely well. Fahe's discomfort with Zurel who is now expected to shadow her 24x7 and Keas' uneasiness at running away and then adjusting to a new life, culture, and people detailed nicely. It is these relationships and the delineation of the unique magic of this world that occupies most of the book. This book clearly demands patience and indulgence from the readers as the author sets her pieces on the board and explains the rules. There are detailed descriptions of the nature of magic (at times, with supporting diagrams).

For readers who are familiar with Dhar's earlier work, there is much in Satin - A Stitch in Time that will feel different and yet familiar. Payal Dhar's obsession with "Time" is a common thread between the two. The nature of magic in Satin may be different from the "Spirit" in the Shadow of Eternity but the blend of technology and magic is something that is familiar. Payal Dhar's fondness for the outdoors and hiking and trekking is something that will echo in the new series too. To a certain extent, some of the characters too are recognizable. One wonders if Disciple Kariad will be the Nira of Satin or if Jurel is not Chiyo from Dhar's other trilogy. I suspect there are elements and character types from the Shadow of Eternity which have served as seeds for their "equivalents" in Satin - A Stitch in Time. In interests of Satin, I do hope these are only seeds and that the characters here develop in a way that is unique to Satin's world.

Did Payal Dhar's Satin - A Stitch in Time meet my expectations? In many ways, it didn't. I suppose I was expecting another Noah and Maya from the Shadow of Eternity trilogy to hook me into the story. And while there may be characters in Satin that remind you of those in her other books, there is neither Noah nor Maya in Satin. In some ways, this is a drawback of Satin - A Stitch in Time. Noah and the wonderful Maya were two characters that I cared about and Maya's spunky shenanigans were what kept me hooked into the Shadow of Eternity books. Satin -A Stitch in Time has no characters, yet, about whom I really care. While the book is low on action and is more interested in laying out the lie of Satin's fictional land, it does result in a book where readers feel aloof from the characters of the story. The engagement with their fates and their quest is missing. But that is a personal take on the book. Satin, otherwise is a very well-told story. Dhar's strengths at creating alternate worlds have clearly triumphed in Satin - A Stitch in Time. I may not care much about the characters yet, but the plot has me hooked. I want to know what happens next and especially I am looking forward to how Dhar handles "faith" in the next two books of the series — I do hope the theme of "faith" in Flame Magic and its institutions is integral to the story that follows — it will be interesting to apply Dhar's take to our world. I am curious to know more about the "Pagan" magic and how it will question the dominant discourse of Flame Magic. And for a book that is about Time, there are many events and things in Satin - A Stitch in Time that make you wonder how exactly it all will happen in the future. Dhar, in a manner of speaking, has told her readers about some of the destinations that they can expect to reach in the forthcoming books in the series. The intrigue and the interest is not in knowing the destinations beforehand, but in wondering how exactly will the story-teller journey her readers to these milestones. Satin - A Stitch in Time is a sufficiently  intelligent fantasy that is engrossing and engaging enough to look forward to making the journey into Payal Dhar's new world again.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review: Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat



Chetan quit his international investment banking career in 2009, to devote his entire time to writing and make change happen in the country.
That is from the short (but extremely eulogistic) bio that appears as soon as you get past the cover of Chetan Bhagat's Revolution 2020 — Love. Corruption. Ambition. So, does this book measure up to that praise? That is a rhetorical question. For a Chetan Bhagat book, people will tell us, is not to be critiqued by literary standards. Chetan Bhagat's books sell and presumably, they have got people back to reading. It is a tad depressing though, going purely by what's in Revolution 2020, that Chetan Bhagat is India's literary star. It is even more worrying, going by numerous Chetan Bhagat interviews and what not, that his books are apparently making "change happen in the country."

Chetan Bhagat is increasingly à la Salman Khan in the Indian book industry — like the Bollywood actor, the author believes that anything he dishes out, will sell. His persona and the hype around his books ensure that his works make money despite what discerning readers and many reviewers think of the books' literary merits. Like Salman Khan's movies off late, Chetan Bhagat's books follow a tried and tested template. Structurally, Revolution 2020 is like any other Chetan Bhagat book — it kicks-off with a prologue which sets up the author as a sort of an amanuensis for someone's story, the story follows, then there's an epilogue in which the author comes back in the tale and ties or concludes something in the story. Somewhere in all this, Chetan Bhagat also puts in a couple of love-making scenes mandatory in his books.

The book's blurb asks: "Are you ready for the Revolution?" Revolution 2020 is supposedly about the current hot topic — corruption. More specifically, it is supposed to be an exposé of the corruption in the education system. Presumably, it is about a revolution that is to come and sweep away the Augean stables that is present day India. Is the book really all of that?

The prologue of Revolution 2020 has Chetan Bhagat delivering a motivational speech at GangaTech college in Varanasi. It is at this event that the author meets the protagonist of his story — Gopal. Gopal, it turns out, is the young director of GangaTech who wants, Chetanji to come to his home for a drink so that, "I can tell people I had a drink with ‘the’ Chetan Bhagat." Chetanji obliges and is witness to Gopal downing so much Glenfiddich that he passes out and the author ends up taking him to a hospital. Gopal of course survives and recounts to Chetan Bhagat his story — the story that is Revolution 2020. Not surprisingly, there's little of the revolution in Gopal's story. Predictably, Gopal's tale is a love story — an awkward love triangle between three childhood friends — Gopal, Aarti, and Raghav. Gopal is poor — the son of a debt-ridden, suffering retired teacher, whose land is under litigation and who has a mysterious ailment for which he needs an operation. Raghav is middle class, but exceptionally intelligent and is expected to crack the All India Engineering Entrance Examination (AIEEE) and the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) examinations. Aarti is the pretty daughter of a well-off District Magistrate and she has a grandfather who was once a Chief Minister of the state. Each character, like in a movie, neatly represents a particular background and type. As is expected, Gopal falls in love with Aarti who actually loves the idealistic Raghav.

As the story progresses, Raghav cracks JEE, Gopal is unable to get through in spite of two attempts (including a one year stint at Kota's fabled coaching centers — allowing Chetan Bhagat to give his two bits on how the coaching class industry operates) and carries a chip on his shoulder about his failure and Raghav's success. To add to Gopal's misery, Aarti and Raghav get together after Gopal moves to Kota to prepare for his second attempt at JEE. Aarti relegates Gopal to the role of her best friend. Soon, Gopal in a quest to show Aarti that he is worthy and a success, partners and becomes involved in the machinations of the local corrupt MLA. With the blessings, the clout, muscle, and the money of the MLA, Gopal embarks on a road that leads to the building of GangaTech — a private engineering college. The college is actually a means for the politician and his associates to whitewash their black money while catering to and making money off the many students who don't get into the IITs or who haven't scored enough to win a government seat in an engineering college. So like the Kota episode in Gopal's life earlier, the GangaTech episode enables Chetan Bhagat to write about the corruption in the educational system and the unethical way in which engineering colleges are set up and operated.

Raghav, who graduates as an engineer from BHU, takes up a job as a reporter for a newspaper. Gopal by now is the director of GangaTech. Already vengeful for having lost Aarti to Raghav, Gopal's corruption is now pitted against Raghav's idealism — an idealism that wants to bring about a social revolution by the year 2020. And this is where Bhagat's decision to firmly entrench himself in Gopal's shoes and perspective backfires. So firmly is the story Gopal's that there is very little of Raghav’s life in the book. Beyond numerous references to Raghav's scrupulousness, idealism, and his hankering to usher change in society there is nothing else. There are no worthwhile clashes between the two — only Gopal's grudge against Raghav for stealing his girl and for cracking JEE and Raghav's insufferable and naive faith that a people's revolution will set the country straight. The story suffers, and there is no revolution in the book.

Even as a love story, Revolution 2020 offers nothing unusual or novel in the rivalry between two friends vying for the affection of one girl. A love story is memorable primarily due to its characters and their chemistry. Gopal, Raghav, and Aarti are caricatures. I have already pointed out how the three represent different economic backgrounds and types. Gopal is meant to be the poor boy who wants to achieve big and wants the beautiful girl. Sadly, he lacks the money to help him prepare or the talent and tenacity needed to crack a tough entrance exam. Nor does he have the looks and the spirit to impress the girl. Raghav is meant to be the talented one who gets the girl. Aarti is the pretty girl, who is an inspiration to both Gopal and Raghav. She falls for Raghav and when she realizes that she will be always second to his revolution, decides that she afterall did actually love the corrupt engineering college director who is also her best friend. Unfortunately, the way Chetan Bhagat writes about them, Gopal comes across as a self-indulgent and self-obsessed idiot. Raghav comes across as an incredibly naive journalist who writes worse than Chetan Bhagat does. And Aarti, well it is not clear why either of the guys love her for she comes across as having nothing more than air in between her ears and pretty looks. The characters don't develop or change at all, unless you want to consider Gopal and sacrificing his love after finally winning Aarti's affections (through a much contrived and corny ploy that would do Bollywood proud), so that Raghav can continue to be inspired by Aarti and have a chance at bringing about his social revolution.

Revolution 2020 is a below average, clichéd love story that strives to pretend more than what it is by weaving in the themes of corruption and revolution in it. Unfortunately it is too self-indulgent to realize its numerous plot holes, cardboard characters, or its vain "amanuensis" — you really have to read the prologue and the epilogue of the book to see how astoundingly conceited Chetan Bhagat comes across as. In the prologue, Chetanji pats himself as "the" Chetan Bhagat when he agrees to join Gopal for a drink and dinner. In the epilogue, Chetan, perhaps to return his character's favor of revering his celebrity status, tells Gopal that he is a good person. Presumably, the Chetan Bhagat in the story intends to validate Gopal's decision to sacrifice his love without realizing that in a way he is also pointing out to his readers that it is okay to be average as long as you make money. In whatever way you can. Perhaps, Chetan Bhagat is unconsciously seeking affirmation from his readers for making money with his middling talent. Perhaps Revolution 2020 is all about justifying that it is okay to write mediocre and clueless books as long as you intend them to make change happen in the country.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: Conversations by Rajeev Nanda


When I wrote about  Lucy and Stephen Hawking's attempt to bring theoretical physics to kids through George's Secret Key to the Universe, I had pontificated a bit on e-learning — on the process of using stories and scenarios to convey information, to teach. Much of what I had said then about e-learning can be reiterated again while discussing Rajeev Nanda's attempt to fuse literature and philosophy in Conversations.

When we design e-learning programs (I work as an e-learning developer), often the "teach" is masked within a "wrapper." This wrapper is an interesting scenario or a story, sometimes a generic theme, and nowadays, often a game, that aims to hook the learners and engage them enough to provide them the learning content. A good wrapper engages the learners and weaves in the "teach" in a way that it doesn't drown the "fun" elements brought in by scenario or the game. A good wrapper shouldn't overwhelm the teach lest the primary objective, the transfer of information, is lost.  Nor should the wrapper be so weak that the teach smothers the story. It is the wrapper that keeps the learner moving forward and is the impetus to complete the training. A good wrapper, as you must have realized, is difficult to conceive and execute — getting that perfect balance between fun and teach is a tough ask.

Now, if I haven't lost you and you are still around and reading this, you must be wondering how all this applies to Rajeev Nanda's Conversations. Rajeev's work is perhaps easier to understand if you view it through the simplistic lens of a wrapper. His stories and poems are but excuses, wrappers that provide a framework to philosophize on various aspects and dilemmas of life. For example, Soldier is a "story" that wonders about war and the boundaries between nations. GD, a soldier guarding a nation's borders expresses surprise that he doesn't see anything physical (like a wall) to separate one nation from another. So how do leaders know exactly which geo-political boundaries to protect? Why are the boundaries necessary? Why is it that the political leaders who don't fight are so eager to declare war? The Taxi Ride is a conversation between a customer and a taxi driver who is a reformed sandalwood thief and a full-time philosopher. The taxi driver's philosophical perspectives on illegal mining, men-women relations, marriage are juxtaposed against those commonly held by people like us personified in the story by the customer. Snowstorm, which starts off as a chance interaction between two passengers stranded at an airport due to a snowstorm, soon transforms into a psychoanalysis of marriage, expectations, and the choices that people make in marriage. Four Eulogies is vaguely Ayn Rand-esque in tone and intent. It attempts to explore the theme of "Living life passionately (and damn the world that doesn't understand your actions)." The Truth Club is about a group of friends who form a club that is a forum to provide brutal feedback — the truth — to each other. The story is an umbrella wrapper for each character's story and tries to point out how facing the truth about ourselves is perhaps the most difficult thing to do in life. Conversations has eleven such stories collected together, all of them attempting, as one of the book's blurbs puts it,  to "treat philosophy literarily and literature philosophically."

Hmm. . . . does Rajeev Nanda succeed in his attempt? Remember all that I had said earlier about finding the right balance between the story and the information when discussing wrappers. Conversations, failed to engage me on both counts — as "stories" as well as "philosophy". The problem with Rajeev Nanda's stories and story-telling is easy to identify — the wrappers just don't work. The story element in all stories is smothered, nay, steam-rolled, by the author's heavy-handed intent to cram it with his musings and philosophizing. None of the stories succeed or engage the reader as tales. If you are attracted to stories because of the fictional element — the tales themselves, you will be disappointed. The story-telling itself is not of high quality. Most "stories" are propelled by an author eager to create situations that enable him to share his perspectives and thoughts on various things. The story and story-telling consequently feels secondary, like an after-thought. To me, it felt like the author thought to himself: "Here's a perspective that I want to pontificate on, now what would be a story in which I can wrap this?" The philosophy seems to come first, the story follows later and is made to fit something for which it is inadequate. The stories are the weakest part of the two ingredients that the author has attempted to combine — literature and philosophy. The "hook" is just not good enough to bait and engage the readers.

The story-telling inadequate in another way. When you think of stories as constructs of words, it is immediately evident that Rajeev Nanda is no wordsmith. Nor does he have any hang of characterization and hasn't given much thought to his use of language. Therefore, a taxi driver spouts philosophy (which is not implausible) and talks about various social mores in words and with a sophistication that would be used by a highly-educated person (which is far fetched). Kids in college talk about precluding and anterograde amnesia. All characters talk as if they are reading out of an encyclopaedia. Rajeev is no master at conversations (pun unintended) and most of the interactions in his stories are like the ones we come across in badly written English plays performed by actors who are not natural speakers of the language — heavy, stiff and too formal.  The problem is that the minute Rajeev moves into his "philosophizing" mode in a story, the language switches too — and it switches from that which is natural to something out of a textbook. The effect is jarring and it makes the story a poorer experience. The author's awkward use of words and language leave behind an impression that a writer hasn't practiced his craft enough.

Let’s look at the second ingredient in the book, the "philosophy". Now this, to me, is the prime reason why these stories were written and published. I have used the word "pontificate" quite a few times in this post. That is deliberate. That is how Conversations comes across. It could be due to the author's use of language. The heavy-handed, formal register does give an impression of someone lecturing about his insights into life and living. There's nothing in the "philosophy" that is new nor is there a unique perspective on anything. Most of the thoughts and perspectives in the stories are something that I feel (and I am aware that I am generalizing) that any liberal, libertarian or a reasonably mature individual would have. Sometimes, in fact, the philosophizing is vaguely irritating. Snowstorm and The Truth Club are two examples of basic, commonplace psychological analysis masquerading as deep philosophy. Four Eulogies has an Ayn Rand hangover. All that pondering on vague boundaries between nations in Soldier has been said so much better by Amitav Ghosh in his The Shadow Lines. In none of the stories do you come across anything that provides a new insight into a situation. Some of it feels derivative. For a book that takes its philosophy so seriously (and for a book, which to me was written because the author felt that he had some insights to share) that is a big letdown.

The six poems in the collection are in the same vein as the prose. There is neither any good poetry, nor deep thought. The poems in fact come across as amateurish, the kind you see published in school and college annual magazines that rhyme and try to convey some profound thought.

Rajeev Nanda's Conversations, tries to occupy the space created out by the intersection of stories and philosophy. Sadly, neither the story-teller nor the philosopher have the ability to carry the book on their individual shoulders. This attempt at a three-legged race is then doomed to be just that — an attempt. It is earnest, yes, but then earnestness doesn't ensure a good story or a worthwhile insight into life.
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