Book Review – “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

My Salinger Year - Joanna Rakoff

Book: My Salinger Year

Author: Joanna Rakoff

Publisher: Knopf

Publication Year: 2008

Number of pages: 252

Price: Rs. 247 (Paperback on Amazon) and Rs. 125.30 (Kindle) on Amazon.in / Rs. 221 on Flipkart.

My rating: 5/5

This book was recommended to me and a friend (the same one who very sweetly sent me a copy of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) by another very dear friend. The latter had highly praised this book, and I was even more intrigued when the former finished reading the book in one sitting and couldn’t stop praising it.

And no wonder. This is easily one of the more lucidly written books that I’ve read this year.

The book journals a year in the author’s life when, in 1996, she takes up an assistant’s job in a New York literary agency which, as she later realises, represents J. D. Salinger. As the year progresses, she gets to know her colleagues better, answers Salinger’s fan mail, helps her manager who is going through a tough time personally, has second thoughts about her current boyfriend and gets involved in a book that Salinger wants to publish.

The time-period and the setting of the book gave me a very post-Mad Men era feel. This is helped not only by the fact that it is set in New York in the late nineties but also by the somewhat puzzling insistence of the agency to not embrace technology: it’s 1996 and yet, they use faxes and Dictaphones instead of computers and e-mail.

Right from the very beginning, there are beautiful descriptions of the city of New York. Be it the fairy tale like day when deserted streets greet our heroine as she determinedly goes to her first day at work, in spite of the entire city being snowed in, or when she occasionally treats herself to walks inside the landmark Waldorf hotel where she breathes in the opulence; this is a very keen observer who is able to transport the reader to a different place and time.

There are also geeky insights into the world of publishing. For instance, how books usually have their names written vertically down the length of their spine. You know, how you need to tilt your head to the right to be able to read the name of the book and the author when books are arranged on a shelf? Yeah. Salinger hated that. He insisted that all his books have their names written horizontally. Which created a curious problem if the book, as is the case of the one which is under discussion to be published, is not voluminous enough to accommodate the length of the title and the author. What does one do? Do you widen the margins? Increase the fonts? (It was while reading this that I realised that I had always sub-consciously preferred book titles to be printed horizontally on the spines.)

And then, there are the Salinger mails. From young and the old, from the frustrated to the angry; they all write in to Salinger. The recluse that he is, he has specifically requested none of it to reach him. And it falls upon the author to write a standard letter back to each mail which comes. But going through the contents of the letter, she can’t help but be moved to write a little personal note to these people who are trying to get through to a great author. The letters and her responses take a life of their own and, I suspect, makes the author see things in a different light by the end of the year.

This is a beautifully written book which completely moved me. Like the author, I too haven’t read any books by J. D. Salinger (she does read his works by the end of the book, though) and this perhaps made me connect with her in a strange way. Her struggles of trying to survive in expensive NYC felt like a reality check on the beauty that she described in other pages. The voice of a young woman, living a tough life in New York City and yet having access to the great American literary scene in the late 90s. Perfect weekend read.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “Oh. That Jerry!”
  • “He was also just afraid. Afraid the way most people become when they get what they’ve long wanted.”
  • Next time I’m in a spot of bother, I too am going to stand in a doorway like Joanna’s boss and shout “HUGH!!”
  • “You can’t go about revealing your goddamn emotions to the world.”

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘My Salinger Year’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or on Flipkart.

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Book Review – “The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories” edited by Ruskin Bond

Book: The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

Edited by: Ruskin Bond

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication Year: 1994

Number of pages: 184

Price: Rs. 200 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 175 (Flipkart) / Rs. 166.25 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

I picked this book up at the bookstore near my house in Calcutta, a couple of days before I left for the Cherra Marathon. I read a few of these stories in Shillong, a couple of them on my way back on the flight (I see the irony here), and then finished the book back here in Calcutta.

And once again, the reason why it took me so long to finish this book is because, like it happened with Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman“,  the stories, at least in the first half of the book, didn’t impress me much.

The book is split into two halves: stories from before and after India’s independence. And although I’d expected the stories in the first half to fascinate me more, this is where disappointment lay. In place of stories which I expected to make me travel back in time, to a place where railway stations were little hubs of activity and filled with interesting stories, I was peddled with stories with weak plots which rather felt like I was sipping tepid and tasteless chai at a railway station.

The only story worth mentioning from the first half is the excerpt from Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days. The story is able to capture some of the romance of early railroad travel made especially challenging in Indian conditions. In it is a description of the opulent city of Bombay, forests to be crossed and unexpected interruptions as Phileas Fogg and Passepartout make their way across the Indian sub-continent.

The rest of the stories in the first half, even though a couple of them are by Kipling, can be skipped over. They did little to catch my attention and much to test my patience.

What impressed me really, was the second half of the book. With stories from writers such as Khushwant Singh, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond himself, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t.

The following is a brief review of each of the stories that appear in the Stories After Independence section:

Loyalty by Jim Corbett – One of the two disappointments in this second half, Loyalty is an autobiographical narration by Corbett about his challenges from the time when he was employed in the Indian Railways. The only aspect of this story that caught my eye was how much responsibility a twenty-one year old was entrusted with back then. My rating: 2/5

Mano Majra Station by Khushwant Singh – An extract from Singh’s Train To Pakistan. The tale, which begins amusingly, is a story set in the Punjab during the time of Partition. It captures the character of a village caught up in forces beyond its reckoning, as the story comes to a chilling end. My rating: 4/5

The Woman on Platform 8 by Ruskin Bond – A vintage Ruskin Bond story. A schoolboy, travelling alone, is waiting at a station for his train. A woman befriends him and offers him a meal. But are things really what they seem or is she a crook? My rating: 4/5

The Intimate Demon by Manoj Das – A beautifully worded little story about a father and daughter’s railway journey. My rating: 4/5

A Stranded Railroad Car by Intizar Husain – A group of men in a village gather round for their evening hookah and narrate tales of this new fangled beast called the railroad car. My rating: 3/5

Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment by Satyajit Ray – The master story-teller that he is, Ray whips up the suspense pretty early in the story and the surprise ending will certainly make you smile. My rating: 4/5

Balbir Arora goes Metric by Bill Aitken – The second and final weak story in the second half. Too long-winded. Might be of some interest to a railway geek. My rating: 3/5

Railway Reverie by R. K. Laxman – An extract from Laxman’s book The Messenger. An ill-chosen extract perhaps, because it was surprisingly short and had a very abrupt ending. My rating: 3/5

The Cherry Choo-Choo by Victor Banerjee – A heartwarming little tale which made me laugh at a number of places. My rating: 4/5

99 UP by Manojit Mitra – “This is the kind of story about railways that I wanted to read,” I told myself when I finished 99 UP. The story captures how a little town on the outskirts of Calcutta gets caught up in a frenzy when a movie star is expected to drop by for a film’s release. The story describes the various people of the village and how the visit captures each one’s imagination. My rating: 5/5

Lingering thoughts:

  • It is a sad sign of the times that in a book of Indian railway stories, I kept reading POW, which was supposed to stand for Palace on Wheels, as Prisoners of War. Sigh.
  • “The blue-eyed, brown-haired and pale-skinned Anglo-Indian engine driver who had rolled the ‘Choo-Choo’ into town, was whisked away by hordes of admirers, laced with rice wine that had fermented for weeks in diurnal anticipation of the arrival of the train and, in the morning, was discovered dead in the local brothel where, introduced as an Apollo from Calcutta, he succumbed to an endless striving to uphold his standard.”
  • “‘An old buddy?’ ‘No,’ murmured Bridges with a slight smile, ‘Half-devil and half-child, but by the living God that made him, he was a better man than I. A funny story; a wonderful memory.'”
  • Two books added to my to-read list from here: Around The World In Eighty days by Jules Verne and 20 Stories by Satyajit Ray.
  • Must read more stuff by Manojit Mitra.
  • I think I’m done with short stories for now. Need to read a novel which will sustain my interest over a longer period of time.

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Book Review – “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” by Haruki Murakami

Book: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Vintage Books

Publication Year: 2006

Number of pages: 436

Price: Rs. 303 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 339 (Flipkart) / Rs. 275 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

Looking back, I realised I was gifted this book way back in December last year. It has taken me about 7 months to finish reading it.

Why did it take me so long, you ask?

Well, this book was gifted to me by a very good friend. And I have always liked the writings of Haruki Murakami. These two reasons were good enough for me to soldier on and continue reading beyond the point where I usually would’ve given up.

And I was justly rewarded for my efforts. Some of the stories towards the end of the book are vintage Murakami: slightly weird, lots of fun and handsome amount of soul searching.

The first story in the book which made me feel this way was “Firefly”. I had almost told myself “I’m not going to read any more of this book if this story isn’t worth it.” And then, Murakami gave a glimpse of the kind of stories he can tell. At the end of this one, for example, you feel as if you’ve stopped at the finish line but the answer still lies somewhere in the distance: you’ve reached your destination but can only see the solution from afar.

He follows this up with, in my humble opinion, the best story in the book: The Chance Traveller. The serendipitous meeting between a gay piano tuner and an unhappy wife, along with the two curious incidents from the author’s own life, make for a beautiful story of love and connecting with the strange ways of the Universe.

It would be unfair to say that the next story, Hanalei Bay, is any less beautiful. It narrates the grief of a single mother who has lost her only son and what happens when she comes to the part of the world where he died.

The final two stories in the book, The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day and A Shinagawa Monkey, helped me to finish this book with a smile.

I wish I could say that for the rest of the stories. I was left bewildered by most of them and some of them seemed to end abruptly. Not that this isn’t what Murakami usually does. It felt like an artist had gone just that slight bit overboard and indulged himself in his fancies, leaving us who appreciate his art stranded on a different plane.

To summarise, I still love reading Haruki Murakami’s writings. He creates a world which is absurd and yet it brilliantly connects with the reader within me. Unfortunately, I think he overdid the randomness this time.

P.S. Nenette on Goodreads has done a story-by-story review and rating here. I think she has done a splendid job.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “There are only three ways to get along with a girl: one, shut up and listen to what she has to say; two, tell her you like what she’s wearing; and three, treat her to really good food. Easy, eh?”
  • “Your work should be an act of love, not a marriage of convenience.”
  • This chap Murakami has certainly had some weird sexual experiences. Look at all the ways in which he talks about it. Not judging him. Just an observation.

Update on 6 Aug 2015: I have stumbled upon the The Best Way to Read Haruki Murakami. Those who want to get started with Murakami or want to figure out their way through this man’s works must give this post by Book Oblivion/Jessica a look. Happy navigating!

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in, Fipkart or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” by Oscar Wilde

Book: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (Little Black Classics #59)

Author: Oscar Wilde

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Year: 2015

Number of Pages : 50

Price: Rs. 42 (Amazon) / Rs. 42 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

There is something about Oscar Wilde’s writing which always makes me pause and smile at the wonderfully crafted sentences. I’d felt this way when I’d read the only novel that he’s written, “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, and again when I read the short story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”.

What I’d expected to be a dark tale about one man’s psychological struggle to come to grips with a prediction that he was soon going to commit a murder turned out to be a witty tale; a tongue-in-cheek look at upper class London society with a fun, surprising end.

I read this book one evening in Shillong, and this was the perfect read to compliment the beautiful hill station and the wonderful quiet which is associated with unhurried evenings at such places.

I cannot wait to read more by Wilde. And if you haven’t read anything by him thus far, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is an excellent place to begin.

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Read more about ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Book: The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Random House India

Publication Year: 2013

Number of Pages (Kindle): 352

Price: Rs. 329 (Flipkart) / Rs. 240 (Amazon) / Rs. 190 (Kindle)

My rating: 5/5

“I think I’ll be gutted and emotionally drained by the time I’m finished with this book,” I messaged my friend who had insisted that I read The Lowland immediately. I gather that she’d recently read it herself and wished to discuss it with someone while the memories of the book were still fresh in her mind. “Yeah. You’ll take a few days to get over it,” she replied.

It’s been a few days since I finished reading the book. I’m still not over it.

The Lowland begins with the tale of two little boys, Subhash and Udayan. They live with their parents in a humble house in the Tollygunge area of Calcutta.  Close to their house is a low lying patch of land where water accumulates during the monsoon.

Subhash is the ‘boring’ of the two brothers. Although both of them are equally gifted at academics, Subhash looks to take the safer and more conventional route in life; he pursues his studies to get himself to Rhode Island in America. Udayan, however, has a different path ahead of him.

This is the late 1960s. The word ‘revolution’ is casually bandied about the streets of Calcutta. Naxalbari is a flashpoint to gather all the students who are disillusioned with the way India is governing herself. Udayan gets caught up in the heady swirl of the Naxalite movement and becomes actively involved in it and soon, tragedy and violence catches up with him.

But by now, another life is inolved. Nay, two lives. Gauri, the girl whom Udayan secretly marries, and Bela, the  daughter who grows up in a distant land, unaware of who her biological father is and painfully aware of her mother’s absence.

The story spans the lives of these main characters and their attempts to make best of the circumstances that the incident on the lowland throws them all into. Subhash tries to unravel what happened to his brother and then attempts to cobble together what he thinks will be as good a life as that of an Indian expat in America could be. Udayan, the risk-taker and doer by nature, mind filled and committed with the ideologies of Mao does what he thinks is right. Gauri, a keen student of philosophy, eloping to marry a charismatic, rogue-like figure, and then left to deal with a life full of remorse and a nagging sense of guilt. And finally Bela, a child without a mother and later a strong, independent woman.

Jhumpa Lahiri makes this book so damn personal! As a resident of this city and one who grew up in the Calcutta of the 80s and 90s, I could really identify with a lot of this book. Both, College Street and Tollygunge come alive. Not that you need to have lived here for this book to resonate within you (the friend who recommended this book to me is from Delhi and has herself never lived here). The very idea that life has various shades of grey rather than the distinct black and white is this book’s universal appeal.

A must read. Especially for the beautiful, if imperfect, end.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘The Lowland’ on Goodreads. Buy it on FlipkartAmazon.in or for your Kindle.

Selected Shorts – Donna Tartt, Etgar Keret and Evelyn Waugh

Selected Shorts is one among the handful of podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly of late.

“It’s story time for adults,” says their website, “with PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. Recorded live at Peter Norton Symphony Space in NYC and on tour. A co-production of Symphony Space and WNYC Radio.”

I’m not quite sure where I picked up on it, but the programming has been good enough to encourage me to set aside an hour every week to sit and listen to it.

The first episode which caught my attention was one where Patricia Kalember, a regular reader at Selected Shorts, read Donna Tartt’s short story Ambush. The story, a bittersweet tale about the friendship of a little boy and girl in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, had been featured in the 2006 Best American Short Stories. Although a stranger to the various accents, I was engrossed at the remarkable ease with which Ms. Kalember switched between them and narrated this beautiful tale. You can hear the episode here. (Needless to add, I have since added Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch to my to-read list)

But the episode which really nailed the deal for me was the one featuring none other than Mr. Spock himself! Leonard Nimoy, in an episode titled An Alien and a Gentleman, reads Etgar Keret’s Good Intentions, followed by Evelyn Waugh’s The Man Who Liked Dickens. In the former, Nimoy speaks in the voice of the narrator, a hitman who has been contracted to kill the only man who was ever kind to him. In the latter, he is chilling as the tribal chief who wishes to keep reading Dickens’ works over and over again. I won’t spoil the fun for you; listen to the episode here.

An additional clincher is that these episodes are recorded live, and you can hear the audience ‘participate’ in the reading through their reactions. Close your eyes as you listen to the podcast, and you are transported as an audience member of the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York.

Prior to Selected Shorts, I hadn’t read any of these stories and also hadn’t heard about these authors. As I subscribed to the podcast, I smiled as I realised that books were reinventing themselves in the digital age. Survival of the fittest, as they say.

Book Review – “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Book: Gooseberries (Little Black Classics #34)

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 2015

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Rs. 34 (Flipkart) / Rs. 46 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

I was in a bookstore the other day, browsing for a gift for a friend. I chanced upon a shelf which displayed some of the books from Penguins’ recently published Little Black Classics compilation. What a fantastic selection of books it seems to be! At 50 bucks a piece, each of these seemed like a perfect companion for the monsoon season along with a cuppa of cappuccino.

Within these, I spotted one which was a collection of three short stories by Anton Chekhov. Curious, because I hadn’t read any stuff by him thus far, I picked this one up.

The three stories in this book are The Kiss, The Two Volodyas and Gooseberries.

The Kiss is a beautiful little short story about a meek man, who almost seems a non-entity to his companions, experiencing uncommon joie de vivre when he is the recipient of an unlikely kiss. Although with a tricky ending, I liked the idea of the “little guy” finding some joy in his life and all the emotions, thoughts and doubts that he goes through, almost thoroughly unmindful of the world around him.

The Two Volodyas was a story I would’ve loved to have heard as a radio dramatisation. It tells us of Sofya, who has recently married an older man named Vladimir, in spite of having been madly in love with her childhood friend, also named Vladimir. The two gentlemen, nicknamed Big Volodya and Little Volodya respectively, even share a somewhat notorious reputation when it comes to women. The story is about the misgivings of Sofya about her marriage and how she tries to make sense of her situation as she looks at the lives of two other women who have, so to speak, chosen diametrically opposite lives in a similar condition.

Gooseberries, from which this collection gets it’s name, is a story of two brothers and how differently they choose to define happiness. Although, I didn’t quite get why this needed to be a story within a story. But it was a nice little tale all the same.

A quick, fun read and there’s little more that I can ask of a book of short stories.

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Read more about Gooseberries on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “The Woman In White” by Wilkie Collins

Book: The Woman In White

Author: Wilkie Collins

Publisher: Penguin

First published: 1860

Number of Pages: 736

Price: Rs. 194 (Flipkart) / Rs. 224 (Amazon) / FREE (Kindle)*

My rating: 5/5

There is a certain happiness in ‘discovering’ a good book. Have you ever stumbled across a book on a shelf at a bookstore and picked it up on a whim and hours later, having read a couple of pages, you realise what good luck it was to have taken the bet?

This is precisely what I’d felt a couple of years ago when I’d stumbled across The Moonstone while browsing through Project Gutenberg. A cracking good plot set in Victorian England, mysterious characters from halfway across the world, a whodunit; The Moonstone had kept me hooked till the very last page. Add to this the fact that the book was written and first published in 1868, and I was even more impressed.

And so, when a couple of weeks ago, I picked up The Woman In White, I did so with great interest. I am pleased to report the book has exceeded all my expectations.

The book begins one late evening when one Mr. Walter Hartright is returning home to his place of lodgings in London from meeting his mother and sister who live on the outskirts of the city. The road is dark and lonely as it is close to the midnight hour when suddenly, he feels a hand upon his shoulder. He whirls around to see a beautiful young woman, dressed completely in white, looking at him. She asks him if he can point her to some place from where she can get a cab. He volunteers to walk with her till she can find one. They have a short conversation during their walk together which only mystifies young Hartright further. Soon after she gets a cab and leaves for a destination she does not reveal to him, he overhears a couple of men looking for her, saying that she had escaped from an asylum!

You would think his encounter with the lady ended here, but the mysterious presence continues to haunt him a couple of days later when Walter travels to north of England in his professional capacity. How Walter unravels the truth about the woman in white and their collective experiences forms the rest of the novel.

What impressed me most about this book was its suspense. I later discovered that this was a natural thing to happen, since the novel originally appeared in serialised form in Charles Dickens’ magazine All The Year Round. If a book written over 150 years ago still manages to keep an entirely different generation’s reader hooked on to every chapter, I say ‘Job well done’.

The language used in this book is beautiful. The descriptions of Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick’s beauty, the charming country houses and their estates and even of some vast expanses of land often transport you to England as it would have been over a century ago. Add to that Walter Hartright’s beautiful confession of being in love and you wish he would go on just that little bit longer.

And how can I forget what made this book’s latter half the most enjoyable to me. In Count Fosco lives one of the most cunning and powerful villains I have come across in literature. The climactic scene, set in one long night at the Italian Count’s London residence, is full of tension. One can almost hear menace dripping whenever he speaks. The Count is very high on my list of favourite villains.

If I can fault this book at all, then it would be it’s length, which does seem too long towards the end. But this is a minor irritant compared to the joys over the couple of hours I spent reading this book.

A fantastic book, which I highly recommend. Read it alone at home on a stormy night at your own peril!

*Although the book is available as a free download, I highly recommend buying a copy of the Penguin classic which has a beautiful cover and seems well worth the price tag.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about The Woman In White on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Arjun: Without a Doubt” by Dr. Sweety Shinde

Book: Arjun: Without a Doubt

Author: Dr. Sweety Shinde

Publisher: Leadstart Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

Publication year: 2015

Number of pages: 306

Price: Rs. 156 (Flipkart) / Rs. 195 (Amazon) / Rs. 171.95 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

“Arjun: Without A Doubt” picks up the Mahabharat tale with Draupadi wondering who exactly this Arjun is. Of course, she has heard of Pandu’s illustrious son, the man who defeated her father, Drupad, in battle as gurudakshina for his guru, Dronacharya. But she has never set her sights on him. And her father tells her Arjun is the most deserving husband for her. Even Krishn is all praise for him. She wonders if Arjun, and his family, have survived the burning palace and whether he will be able to win her hand at the swayamvar her father is organising.

Thus, once more, begins this grand old tale. The reason I love reading the Mahabharat is because, like a true literary classic, it seems to change every time I read it. My perception of most characters in this epic have undergone a sea change from how I perceived them initially. Almost every intelligent author brings a new perspective to this epic and challenges me to think of questions about various events that take place in the Mahabharat.

“Arjun: Without A Doubt” is one such book. Simply put, I loved it. On more than one occasion, I found myself pausing to think “Hey, this is a fresh way of looking at these events.”

The book is written from the points of view of Arjun and Draupadi, each of them taking up the narration in alternate chapters. Arjun is pretty much what we expect him to be: a champion warrior. His dedication to his craft is commendable. We get a glimpse of the hardships he had to undertake to achieve what he did. We realise that it wasn’t always a walk in the park for him.

And yet, he is more than just a soldier who is very good at lifting up a bow and shooting arrows. He dearly loves Draupadi and is heartbroken every time he has to leave her behind. He also has his moments of doubts about the nature of his duty towards his family, especially towards his eldest brother Yudhisthir. As war approaches, we can see these doubts surfacing, which eventually leads Krishna to answer his queries about why the war must be fought. Arjun’s shockingly rude and direct dialogue with Kunti when she mourns Karna’s death shows how much he has changed from when we met him at the beginning: indeed, Arjun is without any doubts now.

But it is for Draupadi’s voice for which you should read this book. From the moment when Kunti says that Draupadi must be shared by the five Pandava brothers is when we start seeing injustice served to her. And what makes this even more insulting is that Draupadi comes across right away as a strong, independent woman. What stopped her, I asked myself, from walking away from the Pandavas right then and there?

Then we have the famous dice game where Yudhisthir “loses” everything, including his brothers and his wife. Were they his to “lose” in the first place? And why didn’t any of the brothers step up and fight for Draupadi when Dushasana was attempting to forcibly undress her, Kshatriya rules be damned?! It is a testimonial to the author that she makes us feel this ashamed and enraged.

And yet, there are a couple of glitches. The construction of paragraphs is at times confusing: I lost track at a couple of places and had to retrace my steps in order to clarify whose speech it is that I was reading.

Yet, this is a minor flaw in a book which is effective in it’s larger purpose of drawing our attention to various aspects of the Mahabharat. I would love to write further and point out more such instances, but then, this review would be filled with spoilers and longer than what it already is. 🙂

In conclusion, if you’re a Mahabharat fan, I would highly recommend you read this book.

(Disclaimer: The author sent me a copy of “Arjun: Without A Doubt” to review.)

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Book Review: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

Book: One Part Woman

Author: Perumal Murugan (translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication year: 2015 (first published 2010)

Number of pages: 256

Price: Rs. 239 (Amazon/Flipkart)

My rating: 3.5/5

Little over a month ago, I heard on the news that the Tamil author Perumal Murugan was being harassed because of “objectionable content” in his book ‘One Part Woman’. Hitherto, I hadn’t even heard of the author, let alone the book. I decided to read it for myself. Luckily, the book was still available on Amazon as a Kindle download and I purchased it right away. So much for silencing the voice of the author.

The book is set in a village in pre-Independence southern India. The story traces the lives of Kali and Ponna, a childless couple who’re regularly taunted by their relatives and village-folk for not having any children. They are constantly at the receiving end of jibes which often leave the wife, Ponna, hurting, although she doesn’t shy away from retorting to these glib remarks herself.

We are told how difficult it becomes for this couple to not worry about being childless as they are constantly humiliated by almost everyone around them. They are kept reminded of this also as people try and come up with various theories as to why they haven’t been blessed with a child; theories ranging from having displeased the Gods to ancestral wrongdoings.

As the story progresses, we are told about a local village festival in which all rules of matrimony and loyalty are relaxed for one night; a night when any two consenting adults can decide to be with each other. Some of Kali and Ponna’s relatives are of the view that Ponna should go to the festival and try to conceive a child. It is this event which tests this couple’s wish to have a child to the limit: should Kali make the difficult decision of allowing his wife to be with another man for one night to probably get the child that both he and his wife desire so eagerly?

The narrative picks up various threads from the past to help us give insights into the decisions that the couple makes. As the night of the festival approaches, there is rising tension as suspense grows over how the various individuals in the book will react.

Although this was the English translation that I was reading (wherein I did stumble a couple of times in the narrative), I could easily imagine the fondness that the author has for the countryside. His descriptions of the farmer’s daily lives, their homes and their fields provides a beautiful glimpse into village life. The book also shows how religion has been woven into the very fabric of these people’s lives as Kali and Ponna try to appease almost every God and pray at every temple they come across.

I loved the dynamics of Kali and Ponna’s relationship. This is a young, loving couple who are going through what is clearly a very testing time for both of them. And yet, both seem to have a different approach. Ponna dearly wishes to be a mother, not only because it will mean an end to the constant barbs from others but because she is genuinely fond of children. She is slowly becoming bitter at her condition and isn’t the one to not speak her mind out loud, even to her husband. Kali, though equally disgruntled about not being a father, seems to have made his peace with the current reality. By the end of the book, you’re left sympathizing both of them.

Update on 6th Aug 2015: My good friend Sudha G. has written an excellent review (much better than my own humble effort above) of the book here.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘One Part Woman’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.