Book Reviews

Book Review: Haroun And The Sea Of Stories

Haroun And The Sea Of StoriesHaroun And The Sea Of Stories by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

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“What starts with stories ends with spying ,” says Khattam-Shud. ” Stories make trouble.”

Haroun and the Sea of stories is a children’s book by Salman Rushdie. It was preceded by The Satanic Verses. Like all his other works, Salman Rushdie use magic realism and real events & persons to create his characters and weave this wonderful story. The only difference here is that Rushdie uses the incidents that were taking place in his own life to create the story or at least the moral of the story.

Haroun & the sea of stories was published in 1990, 2 years after the publication & subsequent controversy of The Satanic Verses.

Even after growing up I’ve often enjoyed reading children’s books & watching children’s films. They’re so concise & have a beautiful & simple good vs bad theme. But after reading this book, I remembered the main reason I’ve loved works primarily created for kids even after becoming an adult. It’s the metaphors. As adults we try to find logic & meaning in everything, even in whimsy. The protagonist, the antagonist, every action, every situation in a story becomes something else. And this book definitely is a proof of that.

The story is about a boy named Haroun Khalifa, the son of Rashid Khailfa, a story-teller who lives in the city of Alif Bay; a city so sad that it has forgotten its own name. Rashid is also known as the Shah of Blah and the Ocean of Notions for his ability to create fascinating stories impromptu. One day Haroun returns home and discovers that his mother, Soraya has run off with their upstairs neighbour, Mr. Sengupta; who was always critical of Rashid’s profession. Haroun is crushed by this and in his anger, asks his father “Whats the point of stories if they aren’t even real ?”

These words crush Rashid & he discovers that he has lost his talent of storytelling. Rashid is hired by a political party to tell a story at their campaign. He opens his mouth, but no words come out. Rashid is then to appear at the next campaign at the valley of K. Haroun and Rashid board a bus to the alley. But, Haroun is worried about his father, whether he will be able to tell stories again? He becomes more worried when they arrive in the Valley of K and meet the politician, Mr. Buttoo.

At night, Haroun is woken up by a sound & discovers a creature with an onion shaped head in the bathroom who’s come to turn off Rashid’s Story supply. Haroun protests & the creature reluctantly agrees to take him to meet his boss.  And thus, the journey begins; to a world as bizarre as Alice’s Wonderland, as magical as Dorothy’s Oz. Haroun embarks upon a journey to the Gup city, Kahani. The city ruled by King Chattergy. The city of Prince BoloPrincess Batcheat. The city of General Kitab, the commander of the Guppee Army, called the Library which consists of may soldiers who’re called Pages. The city where our hero meets Blabbermouth. Most of the names in this book for characters & places are derived from hindustani & a glossary is provided at the end of the book.

Our hero also encounters an evil ruler Khattam-Shud “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech”, the ruler of Chup, who has founded a religion whose fundamental principle is abstinence from speech.

“But why do you hate stories so much?” Haroun asks when he finally confronts the tyrant. “Stories are fun.”

“The world, however, is not for Fun. . . . The world is for Controlling,” replies Khattam-Shud (who, though he will not allow anyone else to speak, talks continually in a flat, monotonous voice.) “And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all.”

The book is a tale which showcases the enormous power of stories-a power that scares dictators. I believe that this story is the silver lining of the whole Satanic Verses controversy. And it is our good fortune that “Khattam-Shud” or any of his followers have been successful in silencing Mr. Rushdie, our own “Sea of Notions”.

I hope Salman Rushdie’s story-water supply keeps on flowing for a long time.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: English August

English, August: An Indian StoryEnglish, August: An Indian Story by Upamanyu Chatterjee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.”

“The mind is indeed restless, Arjuna: it is indeed hard to train. But by constant practice & freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained.”

As far as I remember, the first time I heard about English August was in some article about the birth of the indie-cinema in India. 4-5 years back I read a book titled Keep off the Grass by Karan Bajaj. The author talked about Agastya fondly quite a few times in a way which made me want to read the book. And after reading Weight Loss by the same author I grew more curious.

English August tells the story of 24 year old Agastya Sen, August to his friends; who belongs to an affluent family living in urban India who passes the IAS examination is posted to a remote town called Madna for his 1 year traning period.

The novel starts with Agastya sharing a joint with Dhrubo while driving around in Delhi, when Dhrubo predicts he’s going to be hazaar fucked in Madna. From there the story moves to the town of Madna,a town full of paradoxes like every Indian town, a town where Agastya neither speaks nor understands  the main language, a place where he’s an outsider.

Upamanyu Chatterjee brilliantly writes about the feeling when you go to sleep knowing that you have nothing to look forward to apart from going to sleep the next night at the same time & on & on. What you do in between doesn’t matter much, whether it’s getting stoned while listening to Jazz, jerking off, going running or reading Bhagavad Gita or Marcus Aurelius.

Despite the fact that it is a story about the indifference to the mundanity of a life yet it is brilliantly funny. One particular incident which I found hilarious was the time where Agastya & Bhatia are drinking whiskey & Bhatia stops & simply stares at the glass.

“Do you feel like a writer of ghazals over his empty glass?”, Agastya asks him. Bhatia replies “I think there is something at the bottom of the glass. I think it is rat shit.”

Another incident which had me in splits after reading was Agastya’s introduction with his future colleagues.

‘How old are you, sir?’

‘Twenty-eight.’Agastya was twenty-four, but he was in a lying mood. He also disliked their faces.

‘Are you married, sir?’ Again that demand that he classify himself. Ahmed leaned forward for each question, neck tensed and head angled with politeness.

‘Yes.’ He wondered for a second whether he should add ‘twice’.

‘And your Mrs, sir?’ Agarwal’s voice dropped at ‘Mrs’; in all those months all references to wives were in hushed, almost embarrassed, tones. Agastya never knew why, perhaps because to have a wife meant that one was fucking, which was a dirty thing.

‘She’s in England. She’s English, anyway, but she’s gone there for a cancer operation. She has cancer of the breast.’ He had an almost uncontrollable impulse to spread out his fingers to show the size of the tumour and then the size of the breast, but he decided to save that for later. Later in his training he told the District Inspector of Land Records that his wife was a Norwegian Muslim.

In the book Agastya remembers an essay which he had written on the subject of ‘My ambition in life’ while he was in school,

“In his essay, Agastya had said that his real ambition was to be a domesticated male stray dog because they lived the best life. They were assured of food, and because they were stray they didn’t have to guard a house or beg or shake paws or fetch trifles or be clean or anything similarly meaningless to earn their food. They were servile and sycophantic when hungry; once fed, and before sleep, they wagged their tails perfunctorily whenever their hosts pass, as an investment for future meals. A stray dog was free, he slept a lot, barked unexpectedly and only when he wanted to, and got a lot of sex.”

The story gradually moves forward with the character reluctantly interested in the concepts of renunciation, in Hinduism  in Bhagavad Gita & Marcus Aurelius. It becomes a tale of Agastya’s ‘secret life’, as he calls it, which comprises of contemplating whether or not to smoke a joint in the morning, then whether to smoke one more; of impulsive decisions to stop masturbating, then mechanically masturbating anyway, of walking around the town in the evenings, hoping that you don’t run into somebody so that it would save him the effort of making small talk, but also visiting people, to squeeze dinner invitations from them because that’s the only hope of surviving; ; of insomnia, & consequently staring at the ceiling, exercising at 2 in the morning.

The story is not one about  the protagonist realizing his true calling or a coming of age story of a character finally understanding his purpose in life. Instead it’s the opposite. It’s a story of coming to terms with the lack of a purpose. The lines that could even come close to summing up the book are

I don’t want challenges or responsibility or anything, all I want is to be happy.I don’t want the heaven, or any of the other ephemerals, the power or the glory, I just want this, this moment, this sunlight, the car in the garage, that Music System in my room, these gross material things, I could make these last forever.

“I want to sit in the mild sun& try & escape the iniquity of the restlessness of the mind. Doesn’t anyone understand the absence of ambition, or the simplicity of it?”

All the characters in the story are intelligently created. And I felt that every character was necessary.

For the first few pages I was a little surprised because this happened to be one those rare books where my thoughts happened to be identical at times to that of the author. But I didn’t feel any camaraderie with the author. Instead, my thoughts were again similar to the ones Agastya has when he finds that Bhatia has somewhat similar ways of tackling with boredom in Madna. Bhatia shattered the illusion of any misconceptions of grandeur I had after my many pointless musings.

Bhatia, the college acquaintance is brilliantly used to show Agastya’s analysis of his own secret life. He realizes how ridiculous his ‘secret life’ is. He also understands that the major consolation of the secret life was the possiblity that it was a profound experience; something rare. His last consoling illusions had been that his sense of loneliness was too precious to be shared.But Agastya also realizes that there is no point in sharing any personal thoughts among misfits for the simple reason that- both of them are islands in his own universe, immense only to himself.

Sathe, who’s introduced as the village clown, seems to laugh at everything wholeheartedly surprises as he turns out to be a cartoonist who tries to make political commentary using Bhagavad Gita. After reading some of his dialogues are profoundly funny. Sample the following

“One day, when you turn sensible you’ll stop. You’ll learn the complete unnecessariness of any excess physical exertion. You do it to feel sexy, but sexiness is in the mind. And as an Indian you should live the life of contemplation. Does Kamasutra recommend push-ups ?”

Putlukaku’s character is brilliant. Most of his sarcastic comments on Agastya’s lifestyle are accurate to the last bit. He rightly notes that Agastya’s first instinct to everything around him is to relate it to something western, to something foreign. This statement was true for a part of the generation back then & & is still true 25 years after the book was first published.

But my favorite secondary character remains Shankar, who happens to be Agastya’s neighbour. The singer who sings amazing thumris & smells of whiskey all day long. There’s one dialogue that I will not forget,

“We are men without ambition, and all we want is to be left alone, in peace so that we can try and be happy. So few people will understand this simplicity.”

With great difficulty I am refraining myself from posting the letters from Agastya’s father & especially the one from Renu.

The book has some brilliant lines from the Bhagavad Gita & Marcus Aurelius.

“In the dark night of my soul I feel desolation. In my self-pity I see not the way of righteousness.”

“But many branched & endless are the thoughts of the man who lacks determination.”

The book ends with a beautiful quote by Marcus Aurelius

“Today I got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather, I have got the perplexities out of myself-for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlook.”

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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone


The Elephant, The Tiger, and the Cellphone: India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power

The Elephant, The Tiger, and the Cellphone: India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

 

 

The Elephant tiger cellphone.eps

 

The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone: Reflections on India – The Emerging 21st-Century Power is a collection of 69 essays authored by Shashi Tharoor, which have previously appeared in his own columns in The Hindu, The Indian Express & the Times of India, & in many other publications which include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the International Herald Tribune, India Today Plus, Time & Global Asia.

The book consists of 6 sections:

1. The Transformation of India

2. Ideas of Indianness

3. India at Work & Play

4. Indians Who Helped My India

5. Experiences of India

6. The A to Z of Being Indian

Most of the Essay topics are wisely chosen in keeping with the ‘Reflections on India’ theme. But the problem is the fact that the average length of each chapter/article is 4-5 pages, which is a desirable length & depth for a magazine article or an op-ed column but not enough for a book which promises to explore what India means to the outside world in the 21st century. That Shashi Tharoor comes across as a knowledgeable, well-informed, intelligent & an insightful man most of the time shouldn’t be a surprise given his diplomatic & politic career & the fact that he remains the youngest ever Under-Secretory General at the UN.

I particularly loved reading ‘Being Bangaloorued’, an essay about the Indian obsession of renaming our cities. The story about the goof-up around the renaming of Madras was fun to read. Here’s an excerpt that I particularly liked.

“In some parts of India it is customary for a bride, upon marriage, to take on a new name- not just a surname, but a first name-chosen by her husband’s family. It’s a signal that her old life is over, & that she now belongs completely to another. This is the kind of thinking that underlies India’s renaming mania. It is if the rulers of Bombay & Madras, men of dubious credentials & modest achievement, wanted to show that they are now the lords and masters of these cities- and to demonstrate the change by conferring a new name upon them. For what these aggressive nativists are doing is to demonstrate that they are now in charge, that the old days are now over. They are asserting their power, the power to decide what a thing will be, the power to name-for if one does not have the ability to create, one must at least claim the right to define.”

I was glad that I came across the articles such as ‘Hinduism and Hindutva: Caste and credo’ & ‘Of Secularisms and Conversions’ because I am glad to know that there is at least one man in the Parliament who agrees that religion/spiritual life should not be mixed with public & absolutletly never with political life. It is also good to know that he calls Babri Mosque demolition & the Gujarat riots of 2002 wrong not because of the reason that another party was responsible allegedly, but because it was-wrong.

Mr. Tharoor also brilliantly uses some anecdotes which show India as it is- a mosaic of many cultures, religions, languages & practices. He compares India’s ‘thali’ to the American ‘melting pot’:

“If America is a melting pot, then to me India is a thali – a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

“No one identity can ever triumph in India; both the country’s chronic plurality and the logic of the electoral market place make this impossible. India is never truer to itself than while celebrating its own diversity.”

In an essay he writes ‘I am normally allergic, both as a reader and as a reviewer, to collections of official speeches.’ Ironic, because that is exactly what the book starts to feel like at times: A collection of Official Speeches. The essays sometimes get emotionless, & starts reading like a collection of statistics to prove India Shining/Not-shining or sometimes highlighting the paradoxical nature of things. Also because it is a collection of articles published in different publications over a period of time, some of the points feel repetitive & irritating at times.
But what bothered me about the most was the fact that in many essays the author gets into South India vs. North India comparisons, which I felt was a little hypocritical when the author himself mentions(boasts) about his cosmopolitan nature of  growing up- in Mumbai Bombay, Kolkata Calcutta & Delhi. On numerous occasions he starts comparing what I think is the stereotypical Kereliate (all South-Indians on some occasions) to a stereotypical North-Indian. If this could’ve been once or twice, it could’ve been passed as a sign or affection & thereby a possesiveness for one’s roots. But as I mentioned earlier, many points are repetitive, & so it creates an impression that the author is trying very hard to prove the superiority of Dravidian over the Rest.

Overall, the book makes for a okay-ish read, but isn’t as interesting as you’d expect after looking at the brilliant cover page. It becomes monotonous at times. I thought the book was a little over-hyped. Now I am trying to get my hands on one of Shashi Tharoor’s novels before I say something about him as an author.

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