Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: Dreams Die Young by C.V.Murali

Title: Dreams Die Young
Author: C.V.Murali
Publisher: Frog Books
Pages: 95
Price: Rs 145
Genre: Fiction / Nostalgia / Naxalite movement
Rating: 8/10 for the basic story and its potential; 2/10 for the editing
Format: Paperback

I am yet to read another book which has such a promising story line but such poor editing. It is always hard for me to look past the glaring mistakes, but this book is an exception.

The book begins at ‘the end’, and the core story is narrated in the flash-back. Rajat Sen is a 50-something, highly successful US-based professor. A chance meeting with an old classmate, Arindam Sanyal, brings back the ghosts of his days of youth and idealism.

The main story is set in the India of 1960s, which saw the emergence of Naxalite movement. Murali’s main protagonist, Rajat Sen, has had a protected, affluent upbringing. The divide between different classes, the sufferings and the dearth of opportunities for the less-fortunate never mattered in his scheme of things. When he joins Engineering, he gets influenced by Arindam and is drawn towards the idealistic beliefs of a classless society. It appeals to his young mind that several well-educated young people with a sound background, like his own, are part of the struggle and taking matters in their hands to create a better future. They are disillusioned enough to believe that their violent means and killing of innocent lives are justified as long as they serve the purpose of achieving the end.

Soon Rajat is also sucked into the vicious circle of violence, plotting the killings of one government official to another minister; until he is asked to kill a prominent government official who was known to be masterminding government action against the Naxalites.

This 95-pages book is a fast-paced story that raises pertinent questions about grim realities of contemporary India in the minds of readers. What instigates the bright, young minds with promising futures to get sucked into the cycle of violence in pursuit of a blurry vision? Is it romantic to be part of the revolution that promises an ideal world? Why choose unrealistic and unreasonable means to achieve a just society? Are they justified? Agreed, the poor have been wronged forever now, but is this the way out?

I admit, there are some unnecessary details in the narrative like the details on the railways or monsoon which go on and on for a while, and yet I loved the book. It could have been significantly better through better editing.

With dramatic twists and turns, it is hard not to notice that this book is a movie waiting to be made. 

The cover page evokes nostalgia and has a certain melancholic appeal; and suits the theme of the book perfectly.  

Do read it if you could lay your hands on it. 

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Title: Room
Author: Emma Donoghue
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 432
Price: Rs 350
Genre: Fiction / literary fiction  
Rating: 10/10
Format: Paperback

I read ‘A Stolen Life’ by Jaycee Dugard some time back. With due respect to what she went through as a captive, the book as a piece of literature did not work for me. It felt gross and repetitive.

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue has a strikingly similar premise. ‘A Stolen Life’ is a true story, while ‘Room’ is a fictitious one. This widely-talked about, much-hyped, award-winning book is essentially about Jack, a 5-year old boy, who lives with his mother - Ma – in eleven feet by eleven feet room. He was born in that room and has been oblivious to the world outside; this ‘room’ is his world. Jack believes that most of the things which he sees on TV are imaginary. His ‘Ma’ has been kept captive by a man (they call Old Nick) for last 7 years. For me, it was Jack’s story all the way - how he rises above his circumstances, makes sense of the things around him and copes with the changing situations.

What differentiates this book from several others like this is the fact that the narration is by the 5-year old Jack. And that transforms the book from a potentially depressing and dark tale to the one of discovery, wonder and courage. Notwithstanding their circumstances, the book is heart-warming, charming and endearing.

Though we don’t know what Ma thinks but what Jack thinks about her mother tells a lot about her. It is amazing how she takes care of a curious and intelligent child in the confines of a small room; giving him enough exercise, mental stimulation, activities and entertainment throughout the day. Jack and Ma follow a routine everyday which includes things like playing pillow fight, Island, Karate, Tracks, screaming at the top of their voice, watching TV, singing, playing parrot, and weekly activities like cleaning and scrubbing, laundry, mattress flipping, washing hair, etc.

As a result, Jack’s vocabulary and thinking abilities are much advanced than an average five-year old.

Despite the fact that Ma has been a victim of forced captivity and abuse for so many years, the book does not focus on that aspect. We hardly get to know any major details even about the Old Nick. We gather some bits and pieces from what Jack puts across matter-of-factly. For example, Old Nick visits their room on several nights, when Jack is supposed to be hidden in the cupboard (Ma does her best to keep Jack away from Old Nick). Ma bears the entire ordeal of sexual abuse (implied) so that she can get food and utilities for Jack’s survival from Old Nick.
When Old Nick creaks Bed, I listen and count fives on my fingers, tonight it’s 217 creaks. I always have to count till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.”

After his fifth birthday, Ma starts telling Jack about the existence of a real world outside, and starts putting together a plan for escape.

It is interesting the way the author has put across the relevance of “the room” for Jack. Ma and Jack look at the room differently. For Ma, it epitomizes her plight, while for Jack it has been the world for five years of his life. The ‘room’ is his cocoon, where he wants to crawl back for comfort.  

The author, in her interview at the end of the book, says she has used ‘classic errors and grammatical oddities that would not seriously confuse readers” and yet keep the essence of the voice of a 5-year old.

I kept wondering about the closure of the book, and prayed that it should not be disappointing. Though it was not a dramatic closure, it was certainly the most apt.

Beautiful characterization and excellent story-telling make this book worthy of all the attention and praise it is getting all over the world.

Never mind the 400 pages. Read it. Period.

Image source: Goodreads

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Book Review: Nobody Can Love You More by Mayank Austen Soofi

Title: Nobody Can Love You More
Author: Mayank Austen Soofi
Publisher: Penguin Viking (Penguin India)
Pages: 240
Price: Rs 399
Genre: Non Fiction / Society / Anthropology
Rating: 10/10
Format: Hardbound

‘Nobody Can Love You More’ by Mayank Austen Soofi is an attempt to bring out the ordinariness in the extraordinary lives of the women of GB Road, the notorious red light area of Delhi. The author is gently probing, deeply observant and extremely patient in following the lives of sex workers of kotha (brothel) number teen sau (300) for three years. The best thing about this book is that though it keenly observes, it never judges; neither does it seeks pity for those women. It never interferes in your own inferences as a reader.
The author started going to GB Road to teach English to Sabir Bhai’s (a brothel owner) children. The children lost interest in English after a couple of months but Soofi found himself “fascinated by the ordinary aspects of the lives of people who, I think, have been shepherded by circumstances into living extraordinary lives.”

Kotha (brothel) number teen sau houses the malik, Sabir Bhai and five women – Sushma, Fatima, Phalak, Nighat and Sumaira (and Mamta and Roopa for some time). Soofi finds it easy to talk to the elderly Sushma who talks about her experiences, her distant past and her dreaded future, her ‘working hours’; and even cooks for him.

In the stories of these women, are the reflections of several others who are cooped up in the dingy brothels (80 of them) in 42 buildings of GB Road. There are chapters on the lives of sex workers, their children, the brothel owners, pimps, people connected to the sex workers or GB Road like shopkeepers below their brothels, priests and caretakers of a temple and a Sufi shrine, people who knew about the evolution of these brothels over the years, and so on. Each chapter starts with a black and white picture that sums it up.

Although the author is repulsed by the idea of eating food, drinking water or sharing meals there, because of the filth and lack of hygiene; yet he understands that he cannot expect them to open their hearts to him if he does not even agrees to share food. He admits that sometimes it was suffocating and depressing to be part of lives of those people; his own life was in complete contrast to their’s. 

The lives of sex workers are surprisingly ordinary. They cook, pray, raise children, fight among themselves, earn money and have ‘working’ hours. They do not behave differently anywhere except at the place of their trade and during their ‘business hours’. They are modest in places of worship, and like any other customer when in a shop.

It is interesting to find out about the evolution of kothas over the years. Earlier rich and royalty used to be their patrons. The nautch girls were associated with courtesy, etiquettes and sophistication. Things took a dramatic turn after independence, and more importantly after Emergency. Over the years, the condition of kothas deteriorated. Now the red-light districts are full of dingy, dirty, tiny cells where women sleep with strangers for a measly sum of Rs 100-200 and a constant fear of losing youth. Their mannerisms are crude and in-your-face.

What stood out for me was how their daily routines were effortlessly entangled with the conversations with Soofi. On one hand Sushma talks about her past, while she cooks dal for him and also wonders how he can have just boiled dal. Also, in the scene where Soofi is conversing with Roopa and Nighat, they behave like any other ‘shopkeeper’. When they get customers, they go with them, return in a couple of minutes, take the money, ask the customers to come back again, and join back the conversation with Soofi – all with matter-of-factness. 

It is also ironical how this section of society generates intense curiosity and yet behaved as if they do not exist. For example, the shopkeepers below these brothels say pointedly that they have nothing to do with those women; they never talk or wish each other on any occasion. Also, as Hasan Khurshid, the ‘legal’ journalist points out that they were told to never look up while crossing GB Road because it brought shame to be found looking at those women.

The cover page is impressive; and it suitably teases you with the hints of what lay inside the book. The image of cheap cosmetics and ornaments with the blurred image of a woman on the cover page, and a green locked door with jasmine gajra on the handle reeks of a brothel.  

Nobody Can Love You More is a remarkable work of non fiction that handles a sensitive subject delicately, while at the same time offers an intimate commentary about the lives of women of kotha number teen sau and their surroundings. 

Review Book courtesy: MySmartPrice Books - Get the Best Deal on Books!
Image source: Penguin India