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Showing posts from 2014

Fishy Tales

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Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast By Samanth Subramanian
You read a book like this and you are reminded once more that there is little as compelling as truly good travel writing - delving into the idiosyncrasies of people and places with genuine curiosity and empathy, working with journalistic rigor yet bringing in a subjective viewpoint, combining good writing with unexpected insight.Subramanian’s first attempt at a book is an extremely interesting one. He works his way around the long Indian coastline - Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, moving to the west, to Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat. Every state has a story to tell Subramanian, unique yet strangely connected, interesting tales, bringing to life both the diversity of the Indian subcontinent and the commonality of the life on a coast. In Bengal, he writes about the Bengali obsession with hilsa (“If Bengali cuisine were Wimbledon, the hilsa would always play on Centre Court”) - the right way to chew it,…

A Civil War Tragedy

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This Divided Island Stories from the Sri Lankan War
By Samanth Subramanian
“In its most hackneyed perception, the island of Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop. But it also looks like the cross section of a hand grenade, with the tapering Jaffna peninsula, up north, forming the top of its safety clip.”
We know the history. A beautiful island in our neighbourhood, torn apart by civil war. Years of festering resentment against discriminatory policies lead the Tamils into a violent struggle for self-determination, for an Eelam, a promised land. Prabhakaran and his band of Tigers develop into one of the most feared revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on where your sympathies lie) organisations in the world, assassinating prime ministers,taking control of the north and east of the island, fighting a guerilla war with the Sri Lankan army for decades. Until the tide turns, with a newly elected President Rajapkse, who takes the war to Prabhakaran, in a ruthless exhibition of military might. T…

Breakdown

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The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath


I read this first when I was a completely happy-go-lucky teenager. When my heroes were Rhett Butler and Howard Roark. When I took feminism for granted, when there were no niggling doubts in my head about career or marriage or the future. So of course, I couldn’t quite get my head around The Bell Jar. Esther was a strange heroine, much too melancholic, not liking anyone much, not particularly likeable either. She was the demographic I wanted to be - the independent working girl in the big, bad city. But she showed me a side to this that I just wasn’t prepared to see. So I gave up on the book.
Decades later, I re-visit this. And understand why it resonated so much with so many. Esther is so tangible you can almost reach out and touch her. Her sense of being alone in the midst of the whirlwind that is New York, of the futility of living a life that must ultimately lead to death, of wanting to end the whole rigmarole once and for all… all this delineated so pains…

The Paris Diaries

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A Moveable Feast
By Ernest Hemingway

It is a magical time and place - Paris in the twenties. Hemingway is a struggling young writer. There is little money and he has a wife and baby to support. But he is part of a set of writers and artists who are or will be household names. It’s literary voyeurism at its best. A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death. A set of sketches of his time in Paris during his first marriage with Hadley, it shows us a Hemingway trying to become the Hemingway the world knows today, crafting his literary style, making and discarding friends, building up to the nastiness and the greatness he became known for later. The title is taken from something he said about Paris - “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” In a lot of ways, Paris is the hero of the book. It’s a Paris that has probably all but disappeared a long time ago - a pla…

The Last Days of Summer

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You are not a beach person. You hate the sand in your clothes and salt on your skin. And never having learnt to swim well, you are afraid of the sea. So the weekend getaway to a beach one hopes will be an exception to the general feeling a beach evokes. The Blue Matsya is a lovely little house right on Kaup beach, about an hour away from Mangalore airport. It has blue slatted french windows that lead to a porch on the ground floor and a balcony on the first. Both of which look out into the sea, less than a 100 m away. Awesome location and you are quite smitten at first sight. And then, even you, who have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the water, realize the magic of close proximity to the sea. The sound of the waves, the rhythmic beat of it, the infinite stretch into the horizon. And if you happen to be sitting on The Blue Matsya’s balcony at night, with the lights of the house switched off, the intoxicant of your choice in your hand, the waves sounding a symphony in the backg…

Adulthood Imperatives

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Brightness Falls
By Jay McInerney

Russel and Corrine Calloway are ‘America’s sweethearts’, a couple seen as model among their friends, acquaintances and even by themselves - beautiful, young, on their way to success. “Like Scandinavians, they inhabited a hygienic welfare state the laws of which didn’t necessarily apply outside the realm, and sometimes, when one of them expressed an opinion, an outsider wanted to say, Sure, that might be true for you two, but the rest of us, we’re still trying to find a warm body.” Jeff is their best friend, a writer with a successful first book. The scene is ‘80s New York, a time and place that has its own peculiar zeitgeist - of excessive ambition and greed, designer drugs, of a belief in entitlement, all coupled with soup kitchens and homelessness and street corner crime. Russel and Corrine and Jeff are products of the time; college mates and best friends, winging it through big city life. Russel is an up and coming editor in a well-known publishing h…

Internal Monologues

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Silent House
Orhan Pamuk
It is a narrative of a week in Cenethissar, a small town near Istanbul. A week when Fatma’s 3 grandchildren come visiting her in her old house in a once-a-year ritual. Fatma is old, bitter, cranky, a Miss Havisham-like recluse, lost in her memories. Recep is her Man Friday, living in the basement, a dwarf who is also Fatma’s husband’s bastard child from a maid servant, a secret Fatma is at pains to keep from her grand children. Faruk is the eldest grandchild, a historian, trying to work at a book whose plot and structure keep eluding him, drowning his existential angst in alcohol. Nilgun is his pretty, left-leaning, book-loving sister, a character we don’t quite grasp, almost left as a prop to further the plot along. Metin is the youngest grandchild, ambitious, dreaming of making it big in America, in with a rich, young crowd, chafing against the family’s relative poverty. And finally there is Hasan, Recep’s nephew, with memories of playing with Faruk, Nilgun an…

The Spying Game

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Absolute FriendsBy John Le Carre
It has been a while since I visited Le Carre land. But each time I return, I realize nothing fundamentally changes. The spies still live in a morally ambiguous world and the individual moral compass is often at odds with the official wisdom that defines good and bad. This tension between the individual and the state had its best moments in the Cold War era, though. In his more recent novels, Le Carre tends to be much more didactic with a very definitive point of view on the evil influence of corporations in modern day governments. This point of view still has its good moments - like in his The Constant Gardener, one of my all-time favourite Le Carre novels. Absolute Friends, however falls very short of this standard.
Ted Mundy is the British spy, one of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born in Pakistan to an English army officer. He spends his early years in the subcontinent, is sent to boarding school in England, then goes on to Oxford to learn German, dr…

Wasteland

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Beginners

By Raymond Carver

Alcohol, bad marriages, loneliness, desperation that comes from the loss of dreams… and sometimes, somewhere, a tiny bright ray of  hope. That’s what Carver’s stories are about. There are 17 of them in this collection - the original and previously unpublished version of his stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Each of these 17 is a small gem, shining on tiny slivers of the human condition - rough, ordinary lives with all their attendant miseries and transient joys. There is Max, alone and drinking, with all his household goods out in the driveway, put out for sale. Until a young couple drives up looking for a bargain and ends up drinking and dancing with Max all night. A tiny moment of connection in a life otherwise going to seed. There is Duane and Holly, two people trying to make a life for themselves, trying to get past the drinking and the money problems, trying to grow old together. Until the rug is pulled out from under their feet when …

Explaining India

How do you explain India to a non-Indian?

Here’s how some people did: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/features/brand-equity/creative-thinkers-strategists-doers-on-how-theyd-introduce-india-via-its-cultural-artifacts/articleshow/32242368.cms

And here’s how I would:

1. Read R.K.Narayan’s Swami and Friends. Or watch the television series Malgudi Days. Either is a great way to get to know the innocence of a small town India, now possibly long gone. But it goes some way to explain where we all come from - a resource-poor, imagination-rich culture. 2. Read Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. If Swami and Friends was our past, Sacred Games is our rambunctious, terribly untidy present. It presents contemporary big-city life in all its corrupt unholy mess - with unimaginable wealth on one hand and a lower middle class struggling to keep their head above water on the other. Maximum City could do the same with a less fictionalised version. 3. Watch a few episodes of Amir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate. It ex…

Beauty and the Beast

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The Secret History
By Donna Tartt
You are hooked from the first page. How can you not be? The narrator is confessing to a murder. So you know it’s not a whodunit (you know who the murderer is, don’t you?); yet it has all the thrill and intrigue of one. The dream-like, sensory world absorbs you, leaving you so enthralled that you have to drag yourself away to the real one. And everything there is suddenly a pale shadowy version of the one in the book. It’s like a drug-addled brain is being weaned away from the narcotics it so craves.
Okay, I exaggerate. But just a bit, really.
Richard Papen is a small town California boy who lands up in Hampden College in Vermont. The college is all that he has dreamed of - shockingly pretty, East-coast intellectual, as far removed from his mediocre, middle class Californian hometown as it’s possible to be. Richard is Jay Gatsby - completely smitten by the Ivy league-like glamour.  
He falls into the company of a group of five students who take Greek and cl…

Bollywood romance and Oscar-worthy performances at the movies

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Ram Leela Inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it says. The basic premise is  - the feuding families, the star crossed lovers, the tragic end. But Sanjay Leela Bhansali takes a leaf (or rather a tree) out of Buz Luhrman’s book, and gives it a colourful contemporary spin, setting it in Kutch. Of course it’s a Kutch no one has seen - where guns abound and people go around killing each other with little legal consequence. But then it’s Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and who is looking for realism?
I don’t quite know what to make of SLB - I liked his Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (even though I find Salman Khan pretty much unbearable) and loved his version of Devdas; but I couldn’t sit past the first 10 minutes of Saanwariya or Black or Guzaarish.
I can be quite bewitched by the excess in his films - the saturated colour and the large set pieces of song and  dance, the gorgeous clothes and jewellery, the beautiful women (who do show glimpses of spunk, while remaining doll-like most of the time). It…