A night with a black spider: Stories by Ambai

20180228_131113.jpg

A night with a black spider: Stories by Ambai (Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)

 Published by: Speaking Tiger, Paperback Edition

 Fiction: Short story, 220p

 My Rating: 4/5

 Book Jacket summary:

Setting the stage with the Asura Mahishan’s doomed love for the beautiful Devi, Ambai deftly combines myth and tradition with contemporary situations. In the title story, the woman who is mother, daughter, solver of all problems for her family, finds that it is only a black spider on a wall in a deserted guesthouse with whom she can share her own pain and suffering; in Burdensome Days, Bhramara enters a world of politics that turns her music into a commodity; while in A Moon to Devour, it is through her lover’s mother that Sagu learns that marriage is not a necessity for motherhood.

Like the strains of the veena that play again and again in this masterful concert of stories, journeys too weave in and out. By train or bus or autorickshaws, each journey takes one into a different facet of human nature: the power of caste over the most basic of bodily needs like thirst; the simple generosity of a mentally afflicted child who loves the colour blue; the loneliness of dying amongst strangers, and the final journey of a veena whose owner herself had gone before it into another world. As in most of her writing, women are central to Ambai’s stories, but so too is her deep understanding of, as she puts it, ‘the pulls and tensions’ between the many different things that make up life and ultimately, create a story.

 My Review:

 For me, short stories mean quick readings but ‘A night with a black spider: stories’ by Ambai (pseudonym of Dr. C.S. Lakshmi, a writer of Tamil fiction) wove quite a spell over me that I ended up taking more time in re reading portions or to simply pause and take in the beauty of words strung together. The 17 short stories in this collection have the motifs of music, art, journeys and musings over social and cultural practices threading through them. The characters and their ethos pulls in the reader into the vivid world that the author literally paints in evocative words and feelings.

The first story in the collection: ‘A love story with a sad ending’ is sensuously written even as the whole Asura-Deva conflict is given another connotation with the Asura Mahishan desiring Devi/Chandi. The story culminates in the death of Mahishan but not before he has raised the question of why Asuras are always feared and shunned while Devas are worshipped despite doing ill.

Many of the stories in the collection feature journeys and Journey 12 is about a girl travelling in a train who is requested to aid an elderly fellow passenger who dies during the course of a night. The girl stays with the dead body keeping a lonely vigil over a stranger she does not know but with whom she feels a connection. This theme of connections and journeys are repeated through many of the stories in the collection. ‘Dawn’ tells a story of grieving while reliving the memories of a relative whose death is relayed over a telegram across continents. In Journey 14 which is again set in a train compartment, the dynamics of caste where people from the upper castes won’t have anything to do with people from lower castes is brought out through a sense of seething anger through a protagonist even as another accepts the status quo with graceful submission. Journey 15 about a family travelling for a wedding losing a suitcase filled with the entire life savings kept for wedding costs leaves the reader with a smile with the way things play out after despairing over the loss.

 I can quite go on about many other stories from this book but will leave it up to each one of you to read this collection of short stories. Not so long ago, I had decided that I would not read short stories as they leave me with the disquiet of not being able to engage with the story or the characters. But the beauty and depth of Indian literature is such that I have found myself taking up short stories from writers across the country time and again. Do read up this gem of a collection.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

blogphoto.jpg

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Published by Orion Books UK, Paperback Edition

Fiction, 504p

My Rating: 3 and a half/5

Book Jacket summary:

In an abandoned mansion at the heart of Barcelona, a young man, David Martín, makes his living by writing sensationalist novels under a pseudonym. The survivor of a troubled childhood, he has taken refuge in the world of books and spends his nights spinning baroque tales about the city’s underworld. But perhaps his dark imaginings are not as strange as they seem, for in a locked room deep within the house lie photographs and letters hinting at the mysterious death of the previous owner.

Like a slow poison, the history of the place seeps into his bones as he struggles with an impossible love. Close to despair, David receives a letter from a reclusive French editor, Andreas Corelli, who makes him the offer of a lifetime. He is to write a book unlike anything that has ever existed—a book with the power to change hearts and minds. In return, he will receive a fortune, and perhaps more. But as David begins the work, he realizes that there is a connection between his haunting book and the shadows that surround his home.

My Review:

The Angel’s Game is the first time I am reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón and I must say it left me wanting to read more of his books now. The opening paragraph of the book gave a bit of a teaser to what would lay in store:

“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember the moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

Right after the opening paragraph, we are taken through the narrator’s memory of being asked to write for The Voices of Industry, a newspaper that he hastens to say has seen better days. His writing assignment is a fictional crime story for the back page of the Sunday edition, which soon becomes a series called ‘The mysteries of Barcelona’, made up of lurid characters and their crime capers. His writings bring in decent money but do not make up for the satisfaction of writing something to be proud of. Over time, Martin’s success brings in envy from his office colleagues and after a good run, Martin gets fired in a rather unconvincing manner that takes him to

He does get a mysterious letter from a gentleman who invites him to a house of certain repute where Martin is seduced by a woman who looks and dresses in the exact manner of the femme fatale in his newspaper story series. Many pages down, Martin discovers that the place he went to was burnt down years later. And it is this and certain other elements that make the reader enthralled in peeling away the layers in this book. But before this realization and others that bring in the ‘how dark is this going to be?’ element, Martin has accepted a commission from the gentleman who promises any price Martin sets in exchange for a book that will be a religion.

Without giving away too much of the story line, suffice to say that what happens to Martin and the people around him make for very interesting moments. I couldn’t help turning the pages trying to work out whether it was a mystery that Martin would solve or a mystery beyond the realms of possibility. I loved the fact that this book talks about the magic of books and the doom and dilemmas that befalls writers.

An old book seller who preserves every first copy of a book ever published is also an important character in Martin’s life who rescues the young man time and again in more ways than one. Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations is one book that ties Martin, the book seller and the mysterious gentleman together. I loved the musings over books and writing, the talk over what makes a great book. As for the story narrative, it was pure thrill and trying to work out which way the story would move ahead. It left me wanting to read more of the author.

 

 

A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition by Salman Rashid

20180215_234219.jpg

A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition by Salman Rashid

Published by: Aleph Book Company; Paperback edition

Memoir, 127p

My Rating: 3 and a half/5

Book jacket summary:

During the chaos of Partition in 1947, something dreadful happened in the city of Jalandhar in Punjab. As a result of this, Salman Rashid’s family fled Jalandhar for Pakistan, the newly created country across the border. They were among the nearly two million people uprooted from their homes in the greatest transmigration in history. Besides those who fled, other members of the family became part of a grimmer statistic: they featured among the more than one million unfortunate souls who paid with their lives for the division of India and creation of Pakistan. After living in the shadow of his family’s tragedy for decades, in 2008, Rashid made the journey back to his ancestral village to uncover the truth. A Time of Madness tells the story of what he discovered with great poignancy and grace. It is a tale of unspeakable brutality but it is also a testament to the uniquely human traits of forgiveness, redemption and the resilience of the human spirit.

“On the twentieth day of March 2008, I headed home for the first time in my life…walking east across the border gates at Wagah, I was on my way to the fulfilment of a family pietas of very long standing. I was going to a home I had never known; a home in a foreign land, a land that state propaganda wanted me to believe was ‘enemy territory’. But I knew it as a country where my ancestors had lived and died over countless generations. That was the home where the hearth kept the warmth of a fire kindled by a matriarch many hundreds of years ago, nay, a few thousand years ago and which, all of a sudden had been extinguished in a cataclysm in 1947’.

My Review:

I had picked this book as the writings touching on historical events fascinate me. At 127 pages, it is a short read but one that makes you stop and process the amount of pain, grief and anger running through the lives of people across both sides of the Radcliffe line (that divides India and Pakistan). A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition by Salman Rashid starts with the author describing how he felt at home in a ‘foreign land’ India when he visited the country for the first time and reflecting on the stoic silence and suppressed grief that his family faced due to the Partition after losing not just their home but family members as well.

Describing the silence on the memories of partition, the author writes:

“I did not understand it as a child, but I now understand that they simply did not wish to recall the loss of parents, sisters, a grandparent and a home. I wonder if it was because my father, his brother and the one surviving sister were afraid that talking of that time would shatter their apparently unbreakable veneer of stoic control.”

When the author does make his way to India, notwithstanding an unsuccessful first attempt to process the required paperwork and then of course, calls for bribe at the Wagah border itself, it is a long haul of identifying places he has only seen in old photographs or heard descriptions of and of trying to piece together the lost connections of his family. There are both heartwarming anecdotes of warm receptions and those filled with cold fury when the author goes to visit the family ancestral house in a small village in Jallandhar, now lived in by other people.

The author critiques Mountbatten and other leaders of the Partition period who either by action or inaction led matters to escalate. Also interesting for me were the notes of comparison over socio-cultural norms: like pointing out how women in Pakistan would still be leered at despite being all covered up while in India, nobody bothered to even look at women in public places on their own (Aside: this was India in 2008 and unfortunately, a lot has changed for women in India now).

Since this book was in my area of interest, I liked it but I would be cautious of saying that every other reader will find it engaging. It felt more like a political and socio cultural commentary rather than a memoir and a rather short one at that. Also, the use of uncommon and complicated words was a bit jarring. Thankfully, there were only a few such words. It would also have been interesting if the author note were put on the book jacket as I felt a bit clueless trying to work out the background of the author.

 

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell

neil.jpgNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell (Hardback)

Published by: Headline Publishing Group, a Hachette UK company

P435

My rating: 4 and a half/5

Book Jacket summary:

Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. When Richard Mayhew helps a mysterious girl he finds bleeding on the pavement, his boring life changes in an instant. Her name is Door, she’s on the run from two assassins in black suits and she comes from London Below. His act of kindness leads him to a place filled with monsters and angels, a Beast in a labyrinth and an Earl who holds Court in a Tube train. It is strangely familiar yet utterly bizarre.

My review:

So every reader and their relatives have either read Neil Gaiman or heard of him and I happen to fall in the second category till I read this book which comes with a ‘The Author’s preferred text’ no less. It also marks the first time I read an illustrated book and I must say, it was quite something to see characters and moods of the narrative being depicted on the pages as I read along. There are full page illustrations and beautiful etchings and drawings through pages and texts that add to the story.

To come back to the book, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere starts with a prologue where Richard Mayhew, a young businessman is at his farewell party before he moves to London. He gets drunk and runs into a strange woman who tells his fortune: “You got a long way to go…It starts with doors…I’d watch out for doors if I were you…”. By the first chapter, three years have passed by since Richard has settled down in London and headed for marriage with Jessica, who really is not the one for him. But Richard being the good bloke that he is cannot take much of a stand and it becomes clear that Jessica has her way with him.

Heading out to dinner with Jessica and her boss after a brief summary of the nice guy at the work place that Richard is, Richard sees a wounded stranger on the streets and rush to help, taking her to his flat. It is this one act that throws Richard’s world in total disarray, in ways that he has never imagined but which the readers have an inkling of when the girl says her name is Door. Very soon, he comes face to face with strange and sinister characters: a Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup who come asking for the girl and are really assassins who have killed the girl’s family earlier; a Marquis who goes by the name of Marquis de Carabas, besides rats that talk and convey messages, a brotherhood of monks, a beast and an angel. He also realises that there are two worlds: London Above where he was earlier and London Below, which is the place where people land after falling through the cracks.

Neverwhere is a story of adventure that lurches ahead with no time for sentimentality except the parts where Door remembers her family being killed brutally or where she is confronted with the circumstances around that tragic incident. For most part, Richard is someone who tags along for once he gets to London Below, he finds that no one even sees him in the London Above. There is no bravery except his presence but he comes on his own at a very important point and when he is confronted with having to face his fear of heights. By the end of his adventures in London Below, Richard gets back to London Above where people now see him in a better light. His meeting with Jessica is graceful and satisfying and I love the way the book ends with the air of more adventures ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

The Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai

pensam.jpg

 

The Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai

Published by: Penguin India; 192p

Fiction

My Rating: 4 and a half/5

Book jacket summary:

We are not here without a purpose,’ the shaman explained. Our purpose is to fulfil our destiny. All life is light and shadow.’ Like any other place on earth, the territory of the Adis in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh is ‘Pensam’ “the in-between” place. Anything can happen here, and everything can be lived, and the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather’. A mysterious boy who fell from the sky is accepted as a son of the village and grows up to become a respected elder. A young woman wounded in love is healed by a marriage of which she expected little. A mother battles fate and the law for a son she has not seen since she lost him as an infant. A remote hamlet gets a road, but the new world that comes with it threatens upheaval. And as villages become small towns and towns, approximate cities, the brave and patient few guard the old ways, negotiating change with memory and remembrance. An intricate web of stories, images and the history of a tribe, The Legends of Pensam is a lyrical and moving tribute to the human spirit. With a poet’s sense for incident and language, Mamang Dai paints a memorable portrait of a land that is at once particular and universal.

My review:

From the name of the book, I assumed (very wrongly) that The Legends of Pensam would be a collection of short stories set in a place called Pensam. To my pleasant surprise, Mamang Dai’s book turned to be a magical tapestry of short story like anecdotes and incidents strung together by common characters weaving tales of the unknown, of shamans, remote bountiful nature cut off from the outside world, community ties and how they cope with deaths and murders and violence and love.

The beauty of the book unfolds right from the author’s note that says:

In our language, the language of the Adis, the word ‘pensam’ means ‘in-between’. It suggests the middle, or middle ground, but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. It is the small world where anything can happen here, and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song.

 The book starts with the story of Hoxo who many belief, has fallen from the sky and who is brought up by Lutor, chief of the Ida clan and his wife Losa. Other stories soon unfolds and one finds that there are stories within stories, all magical than the first one that goes back and forth between the present with the author relating the charms and hardships of life in a remote place stitched together by shared grief and memories and legends and then having characters relating stories that they had heard from older generations: about hunting expeditions, about forest and river spirits that calls out to humans to put a spell on them; about the times when the people in the remote area are face to face with members of the Allied Forces and the Japanese Army (Arunachal Pradesh and many parts of the North Eastern region were not just a part of the global phenomenon of the 2nd World War but also played a very critical role in the way things turned for the Allies and the fall of the Japanese).

There is a great love story too: one where a young girl falls in love with a British officer creating an uproar in a community that wants nothing to do with outsiders and fears the unknown. The British officer has to leave once his assignment gets over but he knows that his love will not leave her world for him. There is a lot of grace and beauty in this story of love that stays with the reader.

Towards the end of the book, the excitement and doubt and uncertainty over a new big road linking the village to the outside world that is pegged at bringing progress and development to the region has died down and there are palpable changes with vehicles and TVs making their appearance. And yet, as someone says: “I want the old days back: the days when I was poor and unknown. It was the time my soul sang at its loudest and saddest…”

If you like magical tales, if you want to discover a part of the country that you didn’t know exist, go for The Legends of Pensam. You HAVE to…

 

 

 

 

Three daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Eve

 

Three daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak

Published by Viking, Penguin Random House

Paperback, 367p

Rating: 4 and a half/5

Book Jacket Summary:

Peri, a married, wealthy, beautiful Turkish woman, is on her way to a dinner party at a seaside mansion in Istanbul when a beggar snatches her handbag. As she wrestles to get it back, a photograph falls to the ground — an old polaroid of three young women and their university professor. A relic from a past — and a love — Peri had tried desperately to forget.

The photograph takes Peri back to Oxford University, as a nineteen year old sent abroad for the first time. To her dazzling, rebellious professor and his life changing course on God. To the house she shared with her two best friends, Shirin and Mona, and their arguments about identity, Islam and feminism. And finally, to the scandal that tore them all apart.

Shirin, Peri and Mona: they were the most unlikely of friends. They were the Sinner, the Believer and the Confused.

My Review:

Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve is more than just a story of Peri and the back-story of what transpired between her and her two friends Shirin and Mona. The narrative goes back and forth between Istanbul in 2016 with a bit of the 90s thrown in and Oxford University in 2000-2002. From the chapters set in Istanbul we get a broader essence of what Turkey was as a country, what it meant to its people and what it has become through the thought processes of Peri and the conversations that play out between her, Peri’s secular and liberal father and her mother whose descent into religious zeal puts Peri right in the middle. Peri’s father hope and belief in knowledge and education leads Peri to Oxford but not before she sees the crumbling socio cultural and political fabric of Turkey which are woven in the story through the arrest of her brother and his subsequent imprisonment, an event that further fractures the relation between his parents with Peri’s mother blaming the lack of faith leading to the family misfortune and her father blaming religious zeal and the crackdown on knowledge and ideals. Peri is of course, the confused one between the divergent ideas of her parents.

Things are no better at Oxford where Peri soaks in education and knowledge and the spaces for divergent beliefs and cultures but also gets caught in the dynamics between Shirin, a rebel against all things and hence is the sinner and Mona who wears her faith and religion passionately and hence is the believer. Peri gets caught in between as she sees truths in both sides but is unable to take a stand, something that will eventually ruin the teacher who challenges her to address her own confusion and her questions over divinity, beliefs and taking a stand.

Cut to the present where Peri after escaping from a mugging and a possible rape is at a dinner hosted by an elite couple of Istanbul where other guests stack up the misery of people while boasting of their own privileges. The chat around dinner is superficial even while touching on contemporary politics like the refugee crisis, Turkey’s stand in the EU, the growing Islamophobia wherein the elite guests can hardly only make a pretence of even grasping the situation the growing Islamophobia. Peri’s discomfort at the dinner and the talk while silently going through the notions of social obligations and cultural restrictions that keeps the women to themselves is again a reminder of her innate nature of not sticking her neck out but as the story progresses back and forth between the dinner and the memories triggered by the sight of a picture from her Oxford days, we see how Peri does find her voice and expresses it to the utter shock of people around her.

The questions posed during the story narrative are voiced by different characters at different points: by Peri, by her parents, by Shirin and Mona and by Professor Azur but these very questions and conflict over the questions and answers are true of the world we are in today. For me, I can relate to the confusion that Peri stays in perpetually while the world gets split into the left and the right; between the East and the West; between tradition and modern; between beliefs and questioning…

The character of the charismatic Professor Azur as the knowledgeable enfant terrible at Oxford University who teaches in unorthodox ways I believe is the tipping point for Peri’s character graph and her position taking. Interestingly enough, there is a 1979 novel called Daughters of Eve written by Lois Duncan, which while incorporating feminist themes, follows a group of young women who become convinced to punish their fathers by a charismatic teacher. I think the title of this book and the three young women and charismatic teacher connection lies with the said book. Of course, in this book, there is no murder involved but Azur does play a part in shaping the lives and belief systems of not just Peri, Shirin and Mona but his other students who take his class.

The beauty of this book lies in the fact that different readers will have different takeaways after reading it. Profoundly engaging, I found it very relevant and a telling commentary not just about Turkey and its people but of the world as we know it today which is often split down the middle between the far left and the far right. It gives voice to the majority who are caught between the two and makes the point that it is indeed time to express those confusions. A must read.

Tape by Steven Camden

2.jpg

Tape by Steven Camden

Published by Harper Collins UK

Paperback, 364p
My Rating: 3 and half/5
Book jacket summary:
2013
Things happen for a reason. That’s what Ameliah tells herself. The universe has a plan, right? Why else would it take her parents? Then she finds an old tape, with a boy’s voice on it – a voice that seems to be speaking to her.
1993
Ryan is lost. Mum gone, new step mum, evil stepbrother. Why would this happen? He records a diary on a tape, for his mum, about a girl he just met who he can’t get out of his head.
 Ameliah and Ryan are linked by more than just a tape. This is their story.
My Review:
Tape by Steven Camden has two main protagonists who are both 13 yrs of age: Ryan and Ameliah. When the story sets out across the two different time settings of 1993 and 2013, it soon becomes clear that both are coping with loss and alien settings. For Ryan, it means having to cope with the memories of his mother even as his father brings in two new additions to the family: a stepmother and an intimidating step brother. For Ameliah, it means carrying the memories of her mother who died in a car crash 3 years earlier and then losing her father to cancer a mere 6 months before the story unfolds in the book. Both are trying to be in the scheme of things with regard to life around them with their respective solo good friends helping them go through the motions. For Ryan, it is Liam and for Ameliah, it is Heather. Ryan’s uneasy relation with his step brother Nathan is forged over the course of a forced family vacation and the two slowly bond. Over the years, the bond breaks and there are amends but that comes in only later. Ryan records a tape for his mother over which he re records his feelings about a girl who is moving away. It is this tape that Ameliah finds which helps her work out the fog of memories that she is not able to see through after the trauma of the death of her parents.
Tape is essentially a simple enough story of two 13 yr olds who are trying to deal with life…about things that are meant to be. The narrative goes back and forth between Ryan and Ameliah with no hurry to force plot twists. There is a charm in this but it also means having to struggle through the first 100 pages as the reader can get impatient. The different fonts used for the two protagonists is a bit distracting considering that the chapters are very brief. But overall, if one can stick with it, Tape is a sweet story that gives you a warm nice feeling by the time it ends.
I got this book copy as a giveaway win from #HaperCollinsIndia