The Alchemy of Secrets by Priya Balasubramanian

Alchemy

The Alchemy of Secrets by Priya Balasubramanian

Published by: Tranquebar/Westland Publications

Fiction, 299p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary:

‘There is no turning back now. I cannot afford to wonder if I am strong enough. I have to be, and it is time.’

Mira’s beloved grandmother is on her deathbed in Bangalore, a city she fled from seven years ago. She has no choice but to return. But it also means having to face what she has tried to forget all these years. Memories of a lazy summer come flooding back, when she and her best friend Anisa wandered the tree-lined streets in Bangalore. All was not as idyllic as it seemed to them, however: a mosque had recently come down in another part of the country, and its after-effects rippled all around them. As unscrupulous small-time politicians used the rise in religious fervour to grow their own careers, those ripples were soon to engulf these young girls, with tragic consequences.

Back now in Bangalore, in a city even more polarised by religion, Mira untangles the threads—of love, jealousy, political ambition, friendship and family—and finds that they go far back. Not just to when she was a young girl, but further, to the mystery of her mother’s death during the Emergency, and beyond. A vivid, unforgettable story, as relevant today as the time in which it is set, The Alchemy of Secrets explores how the simplest of acts can have the most far-reaching consequences.

 

About the author:

Priya Balasubramanian is an alumna of Christian Medical College, Vellore, and is now a gastroenterologist and hepatologist in Sacramento, California. The Alchemy of Secrets is her first novel.

 

 

My Review*

 

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

 

 

The Alchemy of Secrets is a very assured debut by Priya Balasubramanian who weaves a potent story of a family in the backdrop of political events happening around them. With a narrative that goes back and forth over different time periods, readers are taken through a myriad landscape of emotions and sub contexts: young friendships, a small town that feels the pressure of politics and religion brought upon by events unfolding far yet come near.

 

The narrative follows what happens when Mira returns to Bangalore from the US after being told that her grand mother, her Ajji is on her death-bed. Mira is loath to return, for heading back means coming face to face with painful memories from her childhood. As it turns out, it not just Mira who has to find solace from confronting a fragmented past: there is Ajji who has been bearing burdens too heavy on her conscience.

 

We are taken through Ajji’s life, starting out as a young woman married to an idealist who worshipped a Mahatma and who placed his nationalism over his family and himself then becoming a young widow who brings up her two sons only to see them going on different paths and then her ties to her two daughters in law – Vimla and Radhika.

 

All the female characters are fleshed out well and play integral parts in the plot structures: Ajji’s emphatic rules in the household, strong and resolute in her ways and yet finding it in herself to bend down (literally); Vimla, stoic till the point she uses her silence to cold shoulder her husband whose ways she does not agree with; Celia, the one who gathers Mira when she is lost and broken; Radhika, whose brief but strong presence pushes the plot of the story and many of the characters to react as they do and Sitara, the ‘other’ woman, a has been star who must stay hidden and voiceless but one you clap for when things come to a head. Then of course, there is Mira whose journey brings all these characters (and more) alive with their foibles and dilemmas.

 

Each character has a part in the larger narrative that looks at how personal ties are intertwined with the politics of religion and the quest for power and how it impacts women as targets and victims. When the resolution comes, you will have to try hard not to cry. Strongly recommending this book as much for the story and the characters but also for the way it takes you to a few vignettes of what Bangalore was like in the 70s.

 

 

 

Toby Fleishman by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

A

Toby Fleishman by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Published by: Headline Books

Literary Fiction, 288p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

Recently separated Toby Fleishman is suddenly, somehow–and at age forty-one, short as ever–surrounded by women who want him: women who are self-actualized, women who are smart and interesting, women who don’t mind his height, women who are eager to take him for a test drive with just the swipe of an app. Toby doesn’t mind being used in this way; it’s a welcome change from the thirteen years he spent as a married man, the thirteen years of emotional neglect and contempt he’s just endured. Anthropologically speaking, it’s like nothing he ever experienced before, particularly back in the 1990s, when he first began dating and became used to swimming in the murky waters of rejection.

But Toby’s new life–liver specialist by day, kids every other weekend, rabid somewhat anonymous sex at night–is interrupted when his ex-wife suddenly disappears. Either on a vision quest or a nervous breakdown, Toby doesn’t know–she won’t answer his texts or calls.

Is Toby’s ex just angry, like always? Is she punishing him, yet again, for not being the bread winner she was? As he desperately searches for her while juggling his job and parenting their two unraveling children, Toby is forced to reckon with the real reasons his marriage fell apart, and to ask if the story he has been telling himself all this time is true.

About the author:

Taffy Brodesser-Akner is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine. Her work has appeared in GQ, ESPN the Magazine, Matter, Details, Texas Monthly, Outside, Self, Cosmopolitan and many other publications. Fleishman Is In Trouble is her first novel and has been Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2020.

My Review*

*Thank you NetGalley and Headline for the e-copy. All opinions are my own.

 Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel can come across like an upper scale cushy New York couple facing aggravated marital discord in the midst of a mid life crisis but there’s a great deal more unraveling. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a sharp twist into the facades of social and individual expectations from marriage, divorce, parenting, motherhood and women with careers.

The main story has Toby Fleishman, a 41-year-old hepatologist as the narrator taking readers through how he has come to be estranged from his high income, high social connected wife Rachel. For a majority of the book, the picture we have of the marriage and his relationship with Rachel is how the later is emotionally distant and not invested totally into their marriage. The story plays out from their two kids having been dropped off by Rachel, at the home Toby lives in (but paid for by his wife), with a casual text message that she has gone to an upscale retreat. What unfolds from this point on is a whirl of playing victim; how chasms develop in a marriage that bound by children and what is socially expected from a couple; therapy sessions and career battles.

A minor narrator Libby, makes a quiet entry but the twist she brings into the narrative, not so much as a plot turner but an acrid observation of women as mothers, as career women and wives is what eventually turns the narrative beyond a mere story of an estranged couple into a universal elegy into how fissures fester in a marriage and how one’s career takes a toll on relationships and vice versa. The turn around is a writing trope yes but makes you connect to how men often gaslight women. When Rachel goes into a downward spiral, it is no surprise and the same goes with the revelations of Libby’s life. The ending is as real as how things happen in real life.

The writing is unadulterated in its sharp take on new age relationships, internet sex and dating, parenting and the men women dynamics that exist today. One might feel tempted to say, ‘oh well! This one talks about posh people and their problems’ but believe me, the brutal honesty that the author digs into to bring us the man-woman roles and expectations is something that will stay with you.

 

 

 

 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Published by: Viking Books/Penguin Random House UK

Literary Fiction, 308p

Rating: 4/5 stars

Book summary

‘In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…’

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her…

About the author:

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak is an activist for women’s rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech. She also writes and speaks about a range of issues including global and cultural politics, the future of Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, democracy, and pluralism.

My Review

In her latest book (Shortlisted for the Booker), Elif Shafak brings to us the fictional lives of Istanbul’s most unwanted, most stigmatized and least understood. Told in a non linear narrative, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World starts with Leila’s last thoughts that takes readers through the sights and smell of her childhood; growing up with her dysfunctional family; one where there are unspoken secrets and the toll they take on Leila herself; and the socio cultural norms that engulf the small town over time, mirroring the overall political landscape of Turkey.

Shafak captures the beauty of Istanbul but punctures it just as well by taking us to the seedy lanes, its unsavoury characters who prey on the lives of women. Leila as a character is the rebel, the one who questions and the one who gets pushed to the wall and then gets discarded. But she picks herself up, puts up a fight and she also finds five others who are as much living on the fringes as she is. Except for a male character who is her childhood friend and who connects with Leila because his mother is a social outcaste, all five who bond with Leila are women, each grappling with being misfits, because they are not who society wants them to be. It is through the lives of Leila and her friends that we are taken through the political history of Turkey and a bit of how global events have shaped their lives. The writing is quite a sensory experience with the lush descriptions of taste and smells of food that are central to the Turkish palate.

The plot is focused on sexual violence: in the home and outside where women are victims but continue to be vilified and thrown to the margins where they continue to be vulnerable. Leila’s life has a sad trajectory but the ending ensures that she gives something positive to her friends.

Shafak is a writer whose books and characters while being rooted in Istanbul/Turkey ties them to contemporary concerns in the world today – that of being judged, punished, exiled, unwanted, uprooted and pushed away to the margins as nameless entities. Shafak’s characters are simple yet complex, her narrative and plots revealing layers that leave readers thinking and touched.

 

 

 

 

 

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.