A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

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A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

Published by: Penguin Random House

Fiction, Young Adult 378p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Sixteen-year-old Zarin Wadia is many things: a bright and vivacious student, an orphan, a risk taker. She’s also the kind of girl that parents warn their kids to stay away from: a troublemaker whose many romances are the subject of endless gossip at school.  You don’t want to get involved with a girl like that, they say. So how is it that eighteen-year-old Porus Dumasia has only ever had eyes for her? And how did Zarin and Porus end up dead in a car together, crashed on the side of a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia? When the religious police arrive on the scene, everything everyone thought they knew about Zarin is questioned. And as her story is pieced together, told through multiple perspectives, it becomes clear that she was far more than just a girl like that.

This beautifully written debut novel from Tanaz Bhathena reveals a rich and wonderful new world to readers. It tackles complicated issues of race, identity, class, and religion, and paints a portrait of teenage ambition, angst, and alienation that feels both inventive and universal.

My Review:

Before I come to my review: a huge shout out to Vivek Tejuja for this review copy of Tannaz Bhathena’s novel.

The book summary of  A Girl Like That tells the reader in no uncertain terms that it is going to be about Zarin Wadia who lies dead in a car crash on a highway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Also dead along with her is 18yr old Porus Dumasia. The first chapter of the book not only describes the gory details at the scene of the crash but different reactions of characters that we are to read more of in the pages that follow: Zarin’s maternal aunt and her husband, Porus’s mother and the religious police (referred to as muttawe’en or Hai’a who enforces Sharia law). The religious police play an integral part in the book and in the lives of the young students at Qala Academy with their strict policing on how and when young people venture out and how they dress. The fear that many characters feel about them gives the reader a sense of claustrophobia and dread. But while the religious police do not end up playing the villains of the piece, one grapples with who really are the villains in this book. Is it the abusive and slightly frayed out and neurotic maternal aunt, Zarin’s Masi or is it the silent Masa who will not intervene on Zarin’s behalf? Who is at fault is it when society judges Zarin for the way she is or when it judges her mother for becoming a cabaret dancer and then getting involved with a hit man who is of a different religion?

A Girl Like That is not a regular coming of age Young Adult novel but one that features young people and their self absorbed lives but also questions every bit of societal hypocrisy, prejudices and rules that judge people without ever giving a chance to hear out and understand the ‘other’.  It is a disturbing read but one that is necessary in the times we live in where we all jump at any given chance to judge and other someone who is different. 

As each main protagonist recounts his/her back story in context to Zarin, the reader gets to see just how heavily the odds are stacked against her: a highly competitive Mishal who has her own demons to fight with and who is totally antagonistic to Zarin; two testosterone fuelled and handsome boys who rush into flings with Zarin, one of them going on to harm Zarin, Porus and then himself in later years. These young characters, their interactions and frictions with one another and then the adult world where Zarin is only a misfit, someone to be tagged with ‘a girl like THAT’; is what forms the core of the book.

Tanaz Bhathena’s debut novel packs quite the punch and I will certainly watch out for her writings in the future. I would  certainly recommend A Girl Like That as serious reading and discussions amongst parents and children, teachers and students and for book club discussions.

Race Course Road: A Novel by Seema Goswami

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Race Course Road: A Novel by Seema Goswami

Published by: Aleph Book Company

Fiction, Political Thriller 288p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Set largely in the Prime Minister’s official residence, the Race Course Road complex, Race Course Road revolves around the aftermath of the assassination of a sitting Prime Minister and the battle for succession that ensues within his family, with the elder son and heir, Karan Pratap Singh, trying to fight off the challenge presented by his charismatic half sister, Asha Devi.

As the search for the murderer continues, sex scandals surface, revelations about dodgy arms deals rock India and rival TV anchors shout and spar even as the country undertakes one of its most bitterly contested general elections ever. Who will get to live in Race Course Road once the votes have been counted? Who will get to rule India for the next five years? Who will be the next Prime Minister of India?

My Review:

Seema Goswami, the author of Race Course Road: A Novel has been a political journalist for a long time running and the ring side view that she would have seen when it came to electoral politics is reflected in the setting and plot twists of this political thriller. A lot of contemporary political incidents are sewn into the book: starting from a dodgy arms deal with a firm in France to mention of surgical strikes across the border and the Dokhlam standoff. The assassination of Kim Jong Un, a critic of the North Korean regime by using a poison pen is not just mentioned and referenced in the book but a similar method is used to assassinate Birendra Pratap Singh, the sitting Prime Minister who is in the last one year of his office out of the mandated five years in office.

What happens on the political landscape after this assassination is the crux of Race Course Road. The death of the Prime Minister brings his older son Karan Pratap Singh as the stand in Prime Minister a la real life situation when Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister right after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Karan advances the General Elections to ride on the sympathy card but Madan Mohan Prajapati, the Defense Minister has more cards held tight to his chest. His machinations bring Asha Devi, the half sister of Karan Pratap into the picture and she reaps political dividends through her election campaigns for the party with her innate flair to reach out to people but is unaware of what lies ahead as the price for being the face of a political party.

Covering the political happenings are the media and two players – Manisha Patel a no nonsense reporter turned editor (who has to be in the face of breaking news) and Gaurav Agnihotri, Editor in Chief of a rival news channel add to the plot. The histrionics of Gaurav during his TV panel discussions and his overstepping of limits for an edge in the TRP game makes you chuckle away while you try to blank out a very familiar voice that comes unbidden to your mind every time he is mentioned in the book! I say this bit because real life people across the political and media spectrum have surely shaped many of the fictional characters in the book. The political machinations and many political characters and their brief backgrounds are familiar too.

Race Course Road: A Novel also takes you on the electoral landscape of the country: the polling and numbers game, the grind of electoral campaigning, the pollsters and trend analysis, the kingmakers, the necessary evils of keeping one’s political enemy close and the massaging of fragile egos to stitch political alliances. It was particularly interesting to read about the history behind the formation of the SPG (Special Protection Group) that looks after the security of the Prime Minister of the country and to take a peek at what happens behind the security walls at Race Course Road. Anyone who enjoyed Season 1 of the Hindi Television series adaptation of 24 would be happy to read this book. I enjoyed both and how : I finished the book in three sittings and by the time I was halfway through the book, I was tempted to read the last pages!

From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story by Reena Nanda

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From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story by Reena Nanda

Published by: Bloomsbury

Memoir, 170p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Disclaimer: I asked for this book from Bloomsbury as a review copy since Partition history is a genre that I am deeply interested in. 

Book summary: The invisible cost of the Partition of the Punjab in 1947 – besides the violence, loss of life and property – was that it destroyed the psychic equilibrium of the displaced population. This is the story of one such woman, Shakunt, who rebuilt her life but could never get over the trauma of losing her homes in Quetta and Jhang – not just the loss of a physical space but of the language, culture and ethos that it had embodied. A syncretic culture of multilingualism – Urdu, Persian and Punjabi – and of multiple identities of caste, mohalla and religion.

Shakunt coped with her mental distress by escaping into the past, reliving the memories of her life in Quette and Jhang. Hers was a feminine recall of the perhaps insignificant yet poignant details of daily lives, which hinged on the drama of the trivial – on food, rituals and neighbourhood bonding. This is Shakunt’s story as recorded by her daughter.

My Review:

My only complaint about this book is that I just wanted more of it. From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story by Reena Nanda is not just a book that takes readers through the trials and tribulations that people in undivided British India faced once the Partition came into effect, but one that looks at the social and cultural fabric that bound people to one another and the way it leaves scars on the psyche. The chapter ‘A note on Baluchistan’ which is the prelude to the rest of the book reflects Reena Nanda’s interest in history (she was one of the founding members of the Conservation Society of Delhi) as she takes us through the political and cultural background of Balochistan.

From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story has its share of anecdotes and reflections around Partition but also dwells on the larger picture of the life and times of the author’s mother Shakunt and her immediate family. The author takes the reader back and forth from the immediate Partition period that brings its own confusion and angst of forced migration to an earlier migration of Shakunt’s maternal family from Jhang in the central Rechna Doab of Punjab to what Kwatta (mispronounced by the British as Quetta). Reena Nanda also highlights the deep psychological scars that leaves its imprint on people by focusing on the experiences of her mother Shakunt, as she goes through a sea change in her personality when she is confronted by the fact that they are to be homeless in Delhi.

In an earlier chapter, the author writes about how her maternal grand mother is traumatized by the death of a son during the Quetta earthquake that leaves her in a more enhanced state of neurosis. I had gooseflesh reading about how siapewallis (mourning women) circle the author’s maternal grandmother and work up a dirge of lament, calling upon her to grieve over her dead son, something that she has been unable to…and then she does break down leading her to a gradual catharsis. One only has to read about the feisty women and their bonding with one another, the way they would dare men to look at them or how they build social practices like the saanjha chula or joint cooking system where women assemble with their share of firewood at the house of a well off family which would provide the flour and cook together, thus ensuring that everyone ate and everyone felt they had contributed and then see the changes that befall them when Partition shatters their life.

From Quetta to Delhi: A Partition Story by Reena Nanda is earthy in its narrative that will take readers to the rhythm of Punjabi songs and music that resonate with joy and lamentation, spiritualism and humour in parts, a world apart from the loud and garrulous Punjabi identity that has been heaped on us by the Hindi film industry. It is a book to be read and savoured.

When I hit you: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

 

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When I hit you: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

Published by: Juggernaut

Fiction, 249p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Seduced by politics and poetry, the unnamed narrator falls in love with a university professor and agrees to be his wife, but what for her is a contract of love is for him a contract of ownership. As he sets about reducing her to his idealized version of a kept woman, bullying her out of her life as an academic and writer in the process, she attempts to push back – a resistance he resolves to break with violence and rape.

Smart, fierce and courageous When I Hit You is a dissection of what love meant, means and will come to mean when trust is undermined by violence; a brilliant, throat-tightening feminist discourse on battered faces and bruised male egos; and a scathing portrait of traditional wedlock in modern India.

My Review:

Those who have never read Meena Kandasamy’s earlier works (I fall into this category) will nevertheless be aware of the social media outburst over her disclosure of an abusive marriage a few years earlier. Her ‘When I hit you: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’, which is in the Longlist for the Women’s prize for fiction for 2018 escapes the ‘memoir/autobiography’ category with the narrative set around an unnamed narrator who is a writer, poet and activist; her relationships and an abusive marriage that hinges on violence. The ‘story’ that unfolds in the 249 pages of the book hits the reader in the face with the full force of its imagery and almost poetic nature.

The opening chapter talks about how the unnamed narrator looks at her mother when she narrate the story that led to her running away from her marriage to people around them. Her closing lines ‘I must take responsibility over my own life’ ‘I must write my story’ reminded me of the social media frenzy that erupted when the author went public about the abusive husband with many questioning/blaming/disbelieving her and calling it a publicity stunt. Each chapter starts with quotes from poems, books and essays by other women who have written on abuse and relationships: from Kamala Das to Sandra Crisneros to Zora Neale Hurston but there’s also Gabriel Garcia Marquez sneaking in on the prelude to chapter VIII with a sentence from ‘Love in the time of Cholera’. These quotes are preludes to the chapters that follow the life of the narrator: from her college to her relationships with men who leave her wanting for intellectual, emotional and sexual stimulation, her eventual relationship with an older man who is also a bachelor politician (more on this term) and then her marriage and the dark path it took. The dark satirical tone in Meena Kandasamy’s description of ‘bachelor politicians’ is the only point in the book where I could chuckle and smile as she says, ‘A man free of a visible woman would be free of visible progeny who would lay claim to his legacy.’ It is the word ‘visible’ that is entirely the focal point here.

The chapters that describe the narrator’s marriage are not only harrowing but also, an important critique of power play in relationships when the male ego begins to doubt his intellectual capabilities and hence starts a process of dehumanising the woman he must control and suppress so he can feel better off. The process starts with verbal abuse: words to attack, words to strip away one’s dignity, words to lash out. This is followed by curtailing her movement, who she talks to, who she meets, all of which gradually maroons her and keep the narrator at the mercy of the husband who critiques everything about her. At the end of it all is the physical abuse and the one thing that is still to be recognised in this country: marital rape. The narrator manages to run away (literally) but there are the obvious questions from people, the blame game that is played out, and the uncertainty of what happens next. It is a story of a silent battle that is waged by many women in abusive relationships.

Meena Kandasamy’s writing does not waver at any point and neither does it make it about victimhood. Poetic and lyrical in parts, the tone of the book is one of dignity. I would recommend this for young people to read and engage with. I would recommend that parents read this book too so they do not bring up boys as the lord and master and girls as eternal servile beings.

 

Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese daughter by Adeline Yen Mah

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Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese daughter by Adeline Yen Mah

Published by: Penguin Books

Autobiography/Memoir, 278p

Rating: 3 and a half/5 stars

Book summary:

Adeline Yen Mah’s childhood in Chin during the civil war was a time of fear, isolation and humiliation. The cause of this was not political upheaval but systematic emotional and physical abuse by her step mother and siblings and rejection by her father. Falling Leaves is the story of a ‘Fifth younger daughter’ and her determination to survive the pain of a lonely childhood. The author’s memoir of life in mainland China and after the 1949 revolution–Hong Kong is a gruesome chronicle of nonstop emotional abuse from her wealthy father and his beautiful, cruel second wife. This book is a look at a culture, a country, a family and relationships that just didn’t work for any of the children.

My Review:

I had picked up Falling Leaves since I love to read about different countries and cultures and because this book looked like it had quite a story to tell. And what a story it tells in its 278 pages! With Chinese proverbs as chapter names, Adeline Yen Mah’s autobiography is an unwavering account of growing up in a very well to do family fraught with distrust and discord. The book opens with the reading of the first page of Adeline’s father’s will and the disbelief that builds up amongst her siblings when it is announced that the entire estate of Joseph Yen has been left to Jeanne, his second wife who declares that nothing is left of her husband’s properties. The family is instructed not to read or discuss any further of the will and everyone quietly hands back their copies of the will, thereby setting the tone of the story that unravels further.

Adeline then takes us back to the world of Shanghai in the context of the Opium War and the women in her family who rebelled and made their own path : how her grand aunt rejected all food and drink for days at the age of 3 until her feet ‘were rescued and set free’ and another aunt whose business acumen leads her to start a successful women’s bank. Her accounts of her grandfather setting up a flourishing business in Shanghai that is made more successful and enterprising by her father makes for a gripping read for its takes us to the global place that Shanghai occupied with foreign traders making a beeline for trade prospects.

Adeline’s narration of the way marriage alliances are fixed and then carried out in China were not new for me as I have read many other books set in China but what did stood out for me was the way women were still being treated as lesser than the men even in the well to do families where the family elders are educated. The narration gets stark by the time the author is born for her mother dies just days after her birth and soon her father who has been widowed at the age of 30 gets married to Jeanne a strikingly and beautiful woman whose father is French and mother, Chinese. Her addition to the family leads to division of loyalties amongst her four siblings, which Jeane uses to control the children and she soon has total control of the family in terms of who gets to say what, when and how much. Jeane also sidelines her father in law and her husband’s aunt, the later who brought up the children while foregoing her own marriage. Her preferential treatment towards her two children later gets lop sided when her son dies and her only daughter ends up as persona non grata.

I had difficulty controlling my tears reading Adeline’s account of her stay in the Sacred Heart School and Orphanage once her family moves to Hong Kong while the anecdotes that she describes how she is treated by her own siblings in keeping with the way she is treated with disdain are gut wrenching. It is only when Adeline wins a prestigious writing competition that her father ultimately agrees to send her to England for further studies where she is an exotic outsider who is supposed to speak pidgin English. The nature of abuse and trauma she has faced in her earlier years contribute to Adeline reconciling to suffering and lack of affection by people towards her and this manifests in the way she gets into an emotionally abusive relationship with an older Professor who has schizophrenia and then a hasty marriage to a man she hardly knows who physically abuses here. What I liked about Falling Leaves is in the way it is written: as an account of what happened: emotionally fraught at times but there is no victimhood, no crying out loud in misery, no blame. I particularly liked it for the way it not only took me on a journey of a dysfunctional family but also for the way it captures the socio political and cultural history of Shanghai, Hong Kong and China.

Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

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Kartography by Kamila Shamsie

Published by: Bloomsbury

Fiction, 343p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

Soul mates from birth, Karim and Raheen finish one another’s sentences. Speak in anagrams and lie spine to spine. They are irrevocably bound to one another and to Karachi, Pakistan, a city that is violent, polluted, corrupt, vibrant, brave and ultimately, home.

As the years go by, they let a barrier of silence build between them until they are brought together during a summer of strikes and ethnic violence and their relationship stands poised between strained friendship and fated love.

My review:

Kartography is about ties and bindings in relationships: between friends, between spouses and between a city and its people. As is wont to happen when you read books by the same author, I started comparing Kartography with Homefire and Burnt Shadows. Thankfully, I stopped myself in time to enjoy Shamsie’s poignant writings about Karachi and its people, the turbulence and tension that is eating away its soul…and I found a lot of resonance in the way Karachi affects its people and the way Imphal where I live affects me and many others…

Kartography starts with two 13 yr olds Raheen who is the narrator and Karim, her childhood friend, doing what precocious soon to be teenage children do: wonder aloud on a hundred myriad things, wary of the outer world around them and mindless of what is coming their ways. Of course, the year is 1986 and Raheen and Karim both belong to the privileged upper class of Karachi thereby cocooning them initially from the strife and the unease that has set in Pakistan but gradually enough, the two are exposed to how their lives can be touched by violence and ethnic tensions erupting around them. As events unfold, the parents of Raheen and Karim impose restrictions on their movements and incomplete personal histories come tumbling out: that their parents were once engaged to each other’s eventual spouses. Raheen is at times curious to know what happened to her as well as Karim’s parents but wary to pursue her curiosity, which in turn affects the course of her relationship with Karim as well as her parents.

Even as the narrative traces the friendships in the present and the past (the two sets of parents), Kamila Shamsie takes us through the political and social landscape of Karachi, the familiarity of home and the tensions that creep in when larger events and incidents shape how people think, feel, act and react. The use of the parallel narrative that goes back and forth between the main protagonists Karim and Raheem and to some extent, their friends Zia and Sonia in 1986 and then subsequent years on one hand and 1971 where the protagonists are their parents makes us contemplate about the nature of friendship, ties, loyalty and what it means to belong. Who is a Karachiite? Who is the Mohajir/immigrant? Where does the carving away of a nation (Bangladesh) leave its people and their loyalties? These and other questions are part of heated discussions over time and Raheem’s voice questions it all: “Who amongst us have never been moved to tears, by mention of the word ‘home’? Is there any other word that can feel as heavy as you hold it in your mouth.”

Every one of the protagonists has deep feelings about Karachi and the way that life in the city has changed for the worse making each one to resort to different ways and means of coping: some do it by running away, some give in, some turn away.

This is my third book by Kamila Shamsie and I could not help but naturally compare it with the books that I have read by her earlier. I felt just a bit of frustration that neither Raheem nor Karim gets a proper conversation about their emotions of things past and present (that would have solved a lot of issues for both characters) but that might have only been a plot tool. This bit was more than made up by the way Karachi has a hold over all the protagonists as only the place we call home can. If you are looking for a light love story, this is not the book for you but if you are looking for a book that looks at relationships: between friends, between potential spouses, between spouses, between people and their roots…this is just the book for you.

 

 

 

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Published by: Penguin Random House, UK

Paperback, 305p (Fiction)

Rating: 3 and half/5 stars

Book Summary:
Effia and Esi: two sisters with two different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.

My Review:

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing came to me on a wave of ‘must read’ ‘great writing’ and such hype on social media. Yes, it is a best seller by a debut writer who is all of 26 yrs but is it just a good read or a great read, the kind that you don’t want to put down and can’t stop talking about?

The scope is grand with the narratives following generations and across continents with historical references to the Anglo Ashante war, the colonial history, slavery, segregation in America, the world of music and drugs in Harlem with even a bit of the ‘war on drugs’ (that came in during the Bush presidency) and then to the present world. Homegoing starts in Fanteland in Ghana where Maame, an Ashante slave in a Fante house flees into the unknown during a fire leaving her new born daughter who is raised by another woman. Effia becomes the ‘wife’ of a British official who is involved in the slave trade. Maame’s marriage to an Asante “Big Man” leads to the birth of Esi who is sold to the British, and brought to America. The rest of the book follows one character each from these two families with historical settings and socio cultural references strewn in the writing: the dynamics of life amidst tribe rivalries, villages and tribes colluding with the British to keep the slave trade alive and thriving as a means of sustenance and their own protection, the drudgery and exploitation of slaves as workers in coal mines…these, and more are described but not so as to be overburdened with emotions or the weight of history. It is this very lack of emotions that I had an issue with in the way Homegoing is written for at the end of reading the book, all I had with me was the historical sweep. None of the characters could stay in my head for they simply had not been allowed to.

Having said all of the above, Homegoing is still a relevant read for it does not go into any moralistic sphere where colonial forces are only questioned while remaining silent of other players. Amongst the travails faced by people of colour: all of the segregation, exploitation, violence, racism; there is a point where one asks the other, “Are you Muslim?” which says a lot about the prejudices that still prevail today despite everything. It is certainly an interesting book but fails a bit short of being a great book, the type that will take your breath away. But it is a book that you will enjoy for taking you to on the journey of the trails and tribulations faced by people based on their skin colour that kept them on the lowest social rung and how individuals try to make lives better, one generation at a time…despite the lows that life and society places in their paths.