The Endgame by Kunal Basu, Translated by Arunava Sinha

Arunava

The Endgame by Kunal Basu, Translated by Arunava Sinha

Published by: Picador India/Pan Macmillan India

Fiction, 179p

Rating: 3.50/5 stars

Book summary

Saddam Hussein is dead, but there’s no end to war in Iraq. Armed with a reputation for daredevilry, reporter Tejaswini Ray arrives from New York to cover the conflict and is immediately enmeshed in a skirmish with Commander Luke of the US Marine Corps. Bound by Luke’s strict censorship rules, Tejaswini – Tejo – revolts, her coverage of the death of American soldiers killed by landmines draws the world’s attention to a futile war and invites the Commander’s ire. Tejo’s uneasy mission is further troubled by her chance encounter with Shabnam – a young woman trafficked from India and sold into slavery at the Marine camp. Drawn together by an unlikely bond, the two find solace amidst the carnage, but their friendship reveals a secret that links them back to the very beginning of their lives. When the war threatens their camp, Tejo and Shabnam abandon the Marines and embark on an audacious journey. But will they escape the dangers, or will their past invade the present, reversing the wheel of time to hasten the end?

About the author:

Kunal Basu is the author of 6 acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories. He writes in both Bengali and English.

About the translator:

Arunava Sinha is an award-winning translator with his work ranging from classic, modern and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English, and from English into Bengali.

My Review*

 *Thank you Arunava Sinha for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

 The Endgame plunges readers into the world of embedded journalism with the main protagonist Tejaswini, an Indian American hot on the heels of breaking stories while wrestling with egos, fierce competition and strict guidelines imposed by the military with regard to what can be reported and when. A few scenes did remind me of the Hollywood film, ‘The Bang Bang Club’ which captured the lives of four war journalists and the many situations they found themselves in. In fact, there is a scene that is totally similar to the story behind Kevin Carter’s infamous award winning photo of an eagle swooping on a near dead child.

Set against the backdrop of American forces occupying Baghdad seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the narrative of The Endgame holds readers with the thrills of being in a war zone but ties it up with morality and human connections. Overall, the book reads like you are watching it on screen: there are layers being revealed with situations unraveling. While the perils of war journalism plays out on one hand, the entry of a young girl to the military camp brings an emotional slant to the story and plot for it unravels Tejo’s own past. Tejaswini’s back story is as fascinating as her job and when she comes face to face with Shabnam, who she realises is tied to her own roots. Overall, the book reads like you are watching it on screen: there are layers being revealed with situations unraveling. Read this if you like fast reads with a mix of emotions.

Interestingly enough, Kunal Basu writes in English and this is his first Bengali novel that is being translated into English. Arunava Sinha’s deft hand ensures that the reader can easily forget that it is a translated work.

 

 

 

Moustache by S. Hareesh, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Moustache

Moustache by S. Hareesh, Translated by Jayasree Kalathil

Published by: Harper Collins India

Literary Fiction, p328

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

Vavachan is a Pulayan who gets the opportunity to play a policeman with an immense moustache in a musical drama. The character appears in only two scenes and has no dialogue. However, Vavachan’s performance, and his moustache, terrify the mostly upper-caste audience, reviving in them memories of characters of Dalit power, such as Ravanan.

Afterwards, Vavachan, whose people were traditionally banned from growing facial hair, refuses to shave off his moustache. Endless tales invent and reinvent the legend of his magic moustache in which birds roost, which allows its owner to appear simultaneously in different places and disappear in an instant, which grows as high as the sky and as thick as rainclouds—and turn Vavachan into Moustache, a figure of mythic proportions.

Set in Kuttanad, a below-sea-level farming region on the south-west coast of Kerala, the novel is as much a story of this land as it is of Vavachan and its other inhabitants. As they navigate the intricate waterscape, stories unfold in which ecology, power dynamics and politics become key themes.

Originally published in Malayalam as Meesha, S. Hareesh’s Moustache is a contemporary classic mixing magic, myth and metaphor into a tale of far-reaching resonance.

About the author:

Hareesh is the author of three short-story collections of which Adam received the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award. He is also a recipient of the Geetha Hiranyan Endowment, the Thomas Mundassery Prize, and the V.P. Sivakumar Memorial Prize. Moustache (Meesha in the original Malayalam) is his first novel.

About the translator:

Jayasree Kalathil is an award winning translator and author. Her translation of N. Prabhakaran’s novella ‘Diary of a Malayali Madman’ was awarded the Crossword Book Award for Indian language translation (2019)

My Review*

 *Thank you Harper Collins India for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Reading S. Harreesh’s ‘Mustache’, I was struck with its various layers slowly peeling away in bits and pieces until at last, there lay bare the author’s brilliant writing style. The main ‘story’ set in Kuttanad in Kerala is about what happens to and around Vavachan/Moustache, a Pulayan (a class that the reader knows belongs to the lower social caste order) after he ends up wearing a moustache for a play. The larger context of course is that keeping moustaches is deemed a privilege as a status symbol for the higher caste and the most upper social class (which hold true till date in certain parts of the country) When Vavachan takes to the stage, the sight leaves the audience gasping in fear and awe. When he decides to grow his moustache further, the life and exploits of Vavachan takes on a turn of events that keeps him on the run even as many stories sprout up about him.

So then, is the book about the social and caste system? Or is it about the socio cultural history of the Kuttanad region? Is it more about the hardships faced by people in a region faced by yearly floods and hard labour? Is it about the lack of agency for women given they hardly occupy a meaningful position or place in the story or narrative except being the victim of sexual exploitation and violence? Moustache is all of these and more: the tone of writing is extremely conversational and makes reader to pause and think, to engage with the narrative. There is humour and satire, magical realism and stark scathing commentaries throughout the stories that flow like a wide water expanse that seems placid at first sight but which leads to various bends and streams with identities and whims of their own. The author pays an ode to the old traditions of story telling with a character whose name mirrors that of Sita in the Ramayana who has been carried off by men against her wishes. The probing on art, culture, literature and how they are perceived by the audience, the dynamics of class, caste and the abuse of women as sexual objects, the historical asides will have you enthralled.

There are two endings to the story of Vavachan or rather, there are two strands to the story but both leave his final condition to the same end and therein, lies the sheer beauty of the writing by S. Hareesh who makes a point about the power of story telling: is it the story or is it how it is told?

I would recommend this book to those who love Indian literature and to lovers of clever writing. This is MUST read.

 

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Published by: Faber & Faber

Fiction, 269p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.

 

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

 

Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.

 

This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

About the author:

Sally Rooney is an Irish author. Her debut novel, ‘Conversations with Friends’

was nominated for the 2018 Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize and the 2018 Folio Prize. Her second novel, ‘Normal People’ was Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction and won the Costa Book Award for the Novel category.

 

 

 

 

My Review

 

Sally Rooney’s debut ‘Conversations with Friends’ looked at the underlying currents of what it means to be privileged, how intellectual thoughts and beliefs can be so contrary to one’s standing in society. It lay bare how young people grapple with the idea and contours of fidelity, love, sex and intimacy.

 

‘Normal People’ might well be seen as a story of two young people in their journey to near adulthood and beyond but Rooney makes it a whole lot more than that in the way she writes about the push and pull that happens between people in relationships, what factors or non factors matter or don’t matter to the people involved. So we have Connel and Marianne who start out in the same school – the former’s single mother works as the help at Marianne’s house. The two are on unequal footings throughout the course of the story: one is popular in school, the other seen as weird and then in later course of events, the situation turns after school. One thing remains constant: the bond between the two which grows and fades, resurrects and mutate over time, place, misunderstandings and situations they find themselves in.

 

The spotlight remains firmly on Connel and Marianne in a way that the two seem to be marooned away together from other people and when they do engage and interact with other characters, it is mostly in a way that leaves at bitter, at times painful, other times a traumatic tint on their relationship to one another. It’s only Connel’s mother who brings a warm and embracing presence on the two main protagonists.

 

The writing is contemporary in the way it is about the angst that drives young people today: societal expectations and role stereotypes, the pressure to keep up appearances, the way social media appears to keep everyone connected even as individuals suffer alone and unsure of themselves. Rooney’s writing effortlessly plumbs the space and the thoughts between two people in a relationship stripping away the layers of romance and peeling out the platitudes. Rather, it pins down the dynamics of how ties are formed or dissolved and why under the weight of small little things that becomes big in the long run.

 

Go for this if you love to read beyond what happens in the story and if you are prepared to ponder over the many contours that takes shape and form once you allow yourself to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories by Bijoya Sawain

SpeakingTiger

Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories by Bijoya Sawain

Published by: Speaking Tiger

Fiction, 159p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

At Shadow Men – A thick mist envelops an isolated house and a cottage atop a hill. Raseel, looking out from her window, hears the sound of shots. Suddenly the mist parts, and three men come into view, furtive, quick. Then they are gone, and there is silence.

Raseel, visiting her old school friend Aila in Shillong, is determined to get to the truth behind the strange death of a ‘dkhar’, an outsider, in the grounds of her hosts’ house. Why was he killed? Who are the killers?

As she begins to unravel the mystery, Raseel finds herself caught in a tale of intrigue and violence that mirrors the world of insurgency around her.

The tense and dramatic undercurrents that emerge in Shadow Men continue in the stories that follow. In ‘The Flight’, eighteen-year-old Mawii has to make a difficult decision between her ‘own people’ and her one true love—when that love involves a ‘vai’—yet another word for ‘outsider’. And in ‘The Limp’, octogenarian Nipendro Roy finally feels he ‘belongs’ in this hill state to which he came as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Bengal.

Shillong remains the true hero in these stories, as Bijoya Sawian draws the reader into a world where the downside of a matrilineal society, the scourge of drugs, alcohol and corrupt politicians, the disconnect with mainstream India, and above all, the fight for identity and belonging, threaten to rock this idyllic hill state that was once a paradise and, perhaps, no longer is.

About the author:

Sally Bijoya Sawian is a translator and writer who lives in Shillong and Dehradun. Her works essentially deal with the life and culture of the Khasi community of North East India. The Teachings of Elders, Khasi Myths, Legends and Folktales and About One God are three of several books that she has translated from Khasi into English.

My Review*

 *Thank you Speaking Tiger for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

As someone who grew up in insurgency torn Manipur, reading Bijoya Sawian’s Shadow Men: A Novel and Two Stories set in Shillong (one short story set in Aizawl) is familiar territory for me: the uncertain atmosphere of not knowing whom to trust, the fear of something bad about to happen and the manner in which people push unwanted thoughts/actions under the carpet just to make it through another day. This is not to say that this book is only about issues relevant to North East India for given the current climate of xenophobia, the three stories in this book are prime examples of how the suspicion of the ‘other’ brings out the worst in people and lead to violence that tears apart fragile ties and leaving behind scars.

The writing is atmospheric and when you read the tittle story, you can feel the cold and damp air of Shillong along with a sense of dread that unravels soon enough with the sound of a bullet being fired. The characters are well fleshed and balance out the outsider-insider narrative that was at its peak in Shillong in the early 80s. Shadow Men also places its main protagonist who has sought treatment from a psychiatrist for her depression and anxiety and uses this track brilliantly to mirror the malaise that suspicion of the other brings out in people.

The other two stories in the book: The Flight and The Limp takes further the same themes as the main story. The Flight looks at young love and passion that comes undone when confronted with the harsh realities of life while The Limp makes for a much needed positive note with the turn that the story takes.

I would recommend this book to readers who are keen to know more of the people and their concerns in North East India.

Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

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Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy

Published by: Context/ Westland Publications

Literary Fiction, 336p

Rating: 4.50/5 stars

Book summary

From Karim and Maya are lovers. They share a home, they worry about money, and then Maya falls pregnant. But Karim is still finishing his film degree, pushing against his tutors’ insistence that his art must be Arab like him. And Maya, working a zero-hours job and fretting about her family, can’t find the time to quit smoking, let alone have a child.

Framed with fragments and peppered with footnotes Exquisite Cadavers is at once a bricolage of influence, and a love story that knows no borders.

About the author:

Meena Kandasamy is an Indian poet, fiction writer, translator and activist. Most of her works are centered on feminism and the anti-caste Caste Annihilation Movement of the contemporary Indian milieu. Exquisite Cadavers is her third fiction novel.

My Review*

 

*Thank you Westland Publications for the review copy. All opinions are my own.

How much of an author is in a book? Does literature and art take shape from and form from the realities around the writer/artiste? How much does an author’s real life experiences or belief systems influence her book? Can an author writing literature walk away from it all?

Meena Kandasamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is a demanding book: it asks you to be attuned to the socio political situation of the country, it asks if you to question literary forms and structure. If you are willing to give in to the demands, this intense rumination over where an artistic creator hovers around his/her work is addressed in two tracks: the story of Karim, an Arab film maker and his wife Maya, who is caught in between an unstable job being one track and the author’s freewheeling or is it selective thoughts? written on the margins of the story telling the reader a bit of her world and why she has structured her characters and settings in the milieu they are set. Are the two tracks parallel or do they meet at some point or wait, are they entirely separate? Are Karim and Maya the way they are because of the author’s own life and beliefs? Meena Kandasamy throws these questions as sharp gauntlets to the reader and literary critics and in the process weaves a spell.

The writing is sharp and cleaves at you with clinical precision and poetic elegance even as the author teases the reader with the way the main characters have been fashioned out – as outsiders with the baggage of their roots sometimes questioned, sometimes judged and sometimes made exotic. And then in the margin, you read about the author being asked by a white woman whether her son (born to a white man) is indeed her child. Karim’s character set in the mould of a film maker who must put in applications for film grants and the author’s thoughts asking how she is expected to write only about the many ills that the country of her roots (India) ails from is all sorts of astute commentary on the expectations of consumers of art.

Reading Exquisite Cadavers is like being pulled into the soul of a painting and seeing what colours and forms on the canvas has come with which thought from the painter. Read it if you are prepared to be rattled.