Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness : An authentic, beautiful mess

It’s untidy. Like the India in which it is set. Characters, each of whom deserves a novel himself/ herself, drift in and out. All the causes worth fighting about, in this strange, beautiful country of ours, find their space - gender, caste, religion, class, Kashmir. All the major political events in the last three decades are there in some form or the other. Like I said before, it’s a complete unholy mess. Like watching the world in Krishna’s mouth.
It works, though. Because somehow, in spite of the overwhelming political backdrop, Arundhati Roy does what she does best. Makes you care about the small people - the boy Aftab who becomes a girl Anjum, my favourite character in the book; the IB officer Biplab Dasgupta, on the wrong side of the war in Kashmir; Gulrez, the old, simple Kashmiri, who is killed and paraded as a dreaded militant; Dayachand, aka Saddam Hussein, the lower caste boy who sees his father lynched by upper caste Hindus as he clears a dead cow’s carcass; Azad Bharathiya Guru, on permanent fast in Jantar Mantar; Maoist Revathy, raped and tortured, and yet writing to the world from her grave.
The small people stand tall amongst the ruins. They make the fight worth fighting. They are the redeemers, the salvation of a world gone horribly wrong. They make the book.
My least favourite character was Tilo - an amalgamation of Rahel and Ammu from GOST and Arundhati herself. It’s a rehashed character and feels like it. But she is the conduit to another beautiful character - Kashmir.
Yes, Kashmir is a character by itself. Roy has some exquisite passages describing its beauty amongst the rubble of a self-destructive war. It’s a long death spiral we cannot look away from - and it forms some of the most powerful parts of the book.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a great read. It is also an important one as it conflates some of our country’s biggest issues into fiction. Is it great fiction? Yes, the agenda could have been better framed. The pulpit could have been better disguised. But then, would it have been an authentic Arundhati Roy? And can anyone ask for anything more than an authentic Arundhati Roy - conscience-keeper, rebel, wordsmith, a god of small things?

Monday, April 17, 2017

Goa, beyond the beaches

The received wisdom of what to do in Goa is find a shack on the beach, and enjoy the sunset with a beer and some seafood, and either chill or party, depending on what floats your boat. Over the years, the restaurant scene has picked up and these days, deciding where you will eat is part of the planning you do before you land in this state.
Goa though, can be different things to different people. And if like me, the beach scene and the food scene are too sybaritic for your taste, it has other pleasures to offer. Here are three of them.

Forts: When I dream of Goa, I dream of forts by the sea. My favourite spot in Goa is atop Chapora fort in Vagator. It’s a short climb up a very small hill. A little effort for some absolutely fabulous views of the shoreline from the top. Fort Aguada is of course the most popular fort in Goa - and if you get there at sunset time, the stone, the sun and the sea can prove magical. There are other forts worth your time as well - Terakhol up north and Reis Magos near Panjim, Corjuem fort in Corjuem and Rachol fort overlooking the Zuari river. One of these days, I will do a fort holiday in Goa, and catch up with all these beauties.  

The view from Chapora fort

The historic district of Fontainhas: A heritage walk through this district was one of the highlights of my last Goa trip. The colourful houses, the dolls on the doorways, the roosters on the roof, the pretty tiled nameplates and the mother-of-pearl on the windows - it might have been a walk through a European small town. A not-to-be-missed experience.

Divar Island: A sleepy little island on the river you can get to, only by taking a ferry. There is hardly anything to see here, except a lovely old church and some paddy fields. It’s quaint and quiet, and if you can get a meal in a local home, you can go back to the mainland replete and completely charmed.

Slow living - a view from Divar island
There are other things to do as well - see the Churches of Old Goa, the prettiest of which in my opinion is the Se Cathedral; experience the backwaters and the waterfalls; go whale watching; and go on a temple tour ( I had just a glimpse of them - and they seemed to made in such a unique style!). So the next time you want to catch up on some susegad in Goa, remember, Goa is more than that shack on the beach or the newest restaurant.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016: My year in reading

54 is the number of books I read this year, says my Goodreads app. That is about a book a week - pretty much what I have averaged most of my adult life. What was a bit different this year, though? My list had more non-fiction than usual. I am a fiction junkie through and through, and when I find myself drifting towards non-fiction, I worry I am growing old.

In any case, I enjoyed some great books here - Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a revelation. Who knew you could turn the story of a foolish young man into a page turner!. Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy was a five rater for me - and led me to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I have resolved to read in a more modern translation soon. Travel was a big theme. Colin Thubron’s In Siberia was a moody, dark study of post Soviet Siberian hinterland; and his Shadow of the Silk Road described his Marco Polo-esque journey through possibly some of the most interesting places in the world today. Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus was another unforgettable book, taking you through some dangerous places with fascinating histories. Chatwin’s In Patagonia was a long overdue read - and now Patagonia has become a bucket-list kind of place in my head. Other notable non-fiction reads were Sidharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History and Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, both managing to illuminate without boring you to death. Mary Oliver’s Upstream was of course another five rater for me - how I love her plush wordsmithing and her simple wisdom!

I had resolved to read more Indian fiction in translation - and I did manage a few, though nowhere enough. Basheer’s Poovan Banana and other stories introduced me to an author I had been meaning to read for a long time. Ashapurna Devi’s story collection The Matchbox was a peek into a middle class Bengali milieu, Austen-esque style.

I did re-read some old favourites - To Kill a Mockingbird felt as fresh as when I read it more than three decades ago. And the set pieces in Goldman’s Marathon Man were as horrific as the ones in my memory.

There were a number of disappointments. Sittenfeld’s re-telling of Pride and Prejudice  in Eligible was pretty terrible. Anne Tyler’s re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl was slightly better - but was definitely not Tyler at her best. Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was not a patch on her Boy, Snow, Bird, one of my favourite books of 2015. Vivek Shanbagh’s Gachar Gochar was a translation I went into with a lot of hope - but was quite let down (a number of my reader friends liked this though - so maybe there was something here I did not see).

And now to my favourite fiction of the year. I finished the Ferrante books, and loved them to bits - Lila has to be one of my most loved fictional characters ever. Julian Barnes did not disappoint with his The Noise of Time, a fictional account of the life of Russian composer Shostakovich. The sense of dread he manages to conjure up in Soviet Russia is riveting. Neither did Ian McEwan with his Nutshell, a cleverly crafted re-telling of Hamlet. My discovery of the year was Elizabeth Strout. I loved Olive Kitteridge, a character that will go into my list of all-time favourites. And her My Name is Lucy Barton is such a study in compressed emotion and spare writing. Ruskin Bond’s Rain in the Mountains made me want to rush to the Himalayas right away. And what can I say about Tove Janson’s Fair Play? That was the book of the year for me - so simple and so profound, I took a day after I finished it to just soak it in!

So all in all, 2016 might have been a forgettable year for the world, but  it was a good year for my reading. Now onto 2017 - and I should start to get some reading resolutions in place, I suppose.