Baaz- Anuja Chauhan

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Strange how this is my first Anuja Chauhan book. I have all her books, but for some reason, I have never got down to reading them. So I started reading this book without any pre-concieved opinions or expectations. But then, reading about an airforce officer fresh after Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai did help me picture Ishaan the way I wanted to. And I subconsciously somehow drew similarities between the two. Anyway. That’s not what this is about.

A village boy who got his adrenaline rush baiting trains as a child baits bigger things as an adult, things that give him a rush from higher up, starting from the diving board and then literally reaching for the skies. And then the war breaks out and love happens. After Kartography, this is the next fiction set during the Bangladesh war that I’m reading. I have strong opinions on war myself, and so I was able to relate quite easily with Tehimina and the conflicts in their relationship. Makes me wonder if it is actually ever possible for two people with ideologies at two extremes to ever make a relationship work.

The book is extremely well researched, but the armed forces is somehow not my thing (sorry, I’m on *that* side) and I must admit that I skimmed a lot through the war details. But the romance and the undeniable filmy aspects made the book an enjoyable read. But then again, being a, well, you know, the hinglish got on my nerves. But hey, this isn’t a work of literature, so if it works for some people, who am I to complain.

There’s something in this book for everyone, (let me stereotype here and say romance for the ladies, war for the boys) but I wonder if this book will actually make it out of the chicklit genre into the regular world.

Having expected it to be classic chicklit and then mistaking the picture on the cover to have been a female IAF pilot and expecting it to be about a badass woman pilot and then actually reading the book for what it was, I must say that it was a bit of a letdown. But then again, this is my first Anuja Chauhan book and I would recommend that any newbie wanting to start reading her, start with this one.

As an aside, as a note to myself, I should pick up The Blood Telegram and finish it from where I left off. I need a dose of the real Bangladesh war stuff after this.

And oh, the next best thing about this is that when you hear the word Baaz, you would automatically think of this book and not the Salman Khan movie.

You can get your copy of this book from here 

 

(The book was sent to me as part of a book review program)

Kerala’s Naxalbari

Anger

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‘What is a Naxalite pa?’ ‘They are people who don’t like rich people. They cut off the heads of rich men at night and leave them on their doorsteps the next morning’
What on earth were my parents thinking when they explained Naxalism to child this way?!

I was grounded enough to know that we were not rich, but I still remember being terrified for my neighbour uncle, whom I considered to be a richman,and having nightmares of his beheaded head on his doorstep. This was in the early 80s and Naxalism and Ajitha were still part of newspaper articles that my dad used to read out loud from the Malayala Manorama. This is my first memory of the name Ajitha, the Naxalite. It was several years later, I heard her name again when we were trying to get help for a friend in an abusive marriage and she was asked to contact Anweshi. Anweshi? Yeah, run by ex-Naxalite Ajitha, they said. Ah.

I’m not that child anymore. And I know who Naxalites really are.

The problem with reading on the Kindle is that you don’t give too much importance to the book covers. So when the incident related to the photograph on the book’s cover happens, it punched me in the gut like nothing else. It unleashed a wave of anger in me, and I realized that it is such anger that creates people like her. I hope she has never, ever forgiven the police and the system for this.

The book is a translation and as most translations go, it drones on and on, painfully. But if you look beyond the language and the style of narration, you will read about a fiery young girl who became the face of the Naxal movement in Kerala. The way she continues to loom large as ‘Naxalite Ajitha’ one would think that she participated in several attacks and was some kind of fearsome terrorist. But no, she was just an idealistic young girl who went on one, just one, mission. A mission that failed. Not yet an adult, she went as the only woman in a group of men, with the blessings of her parents.  Admirable. Though in her later interviews she does talk about the sexual harassment she faced within the group while in the forests. I still don’t understand the splits, the ideology of each faction, the internal politics, the Soviet-China divide or anything. The book mentions a lot of ‘betrayals’, but I have no clue what they are.

Reading this book in 2017, after several trips to ‘communist’ China, I am not able to relate to how Mao inspired and kicked off such a violent revolution in India in the 60s. Or how books of translated Mao quotes sold like hot cakes. The only Mao quote that I am familiar with are the ones from the souvenirs about him being a ‘Very Gelievable’. Or how they sought validation from Peking. While I am on their side to a large extent, I am extremely uncomfortable about the fact that they chose a foreign country and the leader of a foreign country over their own.

Makes me sad that some of those heroes (yeah) from the movement have changed, changed to the extent of having a godman’s picture on his table :/ Anyway.

She

The emotions had been building up for the past three months. Nothing was the same since she had come into his team. He stayed back in the conference rooms long after she left, just breathing in her perfume. He stole secret glances over his laptop to grab a glimpse of her. He caressed her chair with secret longing each evening after she tossed her handbag on her shoulder and walked out of the office. It was an emotion beyond his control. It was pure lust at times, and sometimes he wondered if it could even be love.

She knew. She caught him staring at her often. She could feel his deep breaths taking in her scent as she passed his seat.  She woke up each morning, excited at the thought of being in the same room as him in a few hours. That thing he was feeling, it was contagious.

Hormones went berserk in that little office every day. She teased him with her seductive clothes and heady perfume. He drew her closer to him with his power and position. It was a game they were playing without saying a word to each other, a secret game that everyone else in the office was oblivious to. Or were they?

******

She held out the box of chocolates in front of him and he picked one, hands shaking, he looked into her eyes and smiled. She looked extra beautiful that day. His throat fel dry, he couldn’t even utter the words ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. All that came out of him was a mumble.

An email popped up in his inbox. ‘Can you come to my house tonight for my birthday party’? He replied immediately. ’ Yes’. They didn’t say another word to each other for the rest of the day.

*****

There was no party.

The bedroom was where they wanted to go, and that was where they went.  Those lust filled moments  in parking lots, lifts, conference rooms and glass cabins sought nirvana in that bedroom. Three months of terror unleashed by raging pheromones and frenzied emotions were about to get closure. And continuity? They fell on the cool sheets, greedy and ready to be consumed by whatever monster it was that had taken over their senses all these days.

As he rolled over, his arm hit the nightstand and his cellphone that was carelessly placed on the edge fell down. His heart skipped a beat and he reached down to pick it up. The display had lit up, spreading a soft white glow all over the darkened room. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw the screen, it was undamaged. And then his heart skipped a beat again. His wife was smiling up at him from his wallpaper.

He looked at the woman on the bed. He looked at the woman in his phone.

He picked up his clothes and walked out of the bedroom without looking back.

This too was a prompt based story. Why is it that almost every single story that I wrote back then had this kind of theme?  No, I’m not looking for that answer.

Platform

All those months of hard work were finally going to pay off.

He got off from the train into the crowded platform. It was nine o’clock in the morning. He moved the laptop bag from his right shoulder to the left.  I should have put it into a backpack, he thought to himself. He swung his right arm and rotated it to ease the pain off his shoulder, almost striking a woman hurrying past. ‘Sorry ma’am’, he muttered. The woman gave him a nasty look and rushed toward the oncoming train.

The trains came and went almost at the speed of light in that station. Where are all these people coming from and where are they going, he wondered. He had to walk a while before he found a place to rest.  He bought a cup of coffee and sat down and rested the bag against the paan stained legs of the stone bench. His phone rang.  Startled, he spilled a little coffee on his shirt. He placed the cup on the bench and fumbled into his shirt pocket to retrieve the phone.

‘Haan, tell me’, he barked , his voice tinged  with irritation, one hand rubbing the coffee stain on his shirt, trying to get it off with a handkerchief.

The voice on the other side asked him if all was ok.

‘If it is not ok, I’ll call you. Now please stop calling me’, he replied angrily and hung up.

One more train stopped, loaded and unloaded its passengers and left the station.

He looked at his watch. It was almost nine twenty now. He crushed his coffee cup and threw it on the platform aimlessly. The train was approaching. He got up and walked towards it. The crowds thronged towards the door. He quickened his pace and rushed in, grabbing the rod. The coffee stain was bugging him. He needed to get some some water at when he got off to see if he could wash it before the stain set. The train started moving and he glanced towards the bench where he had been sitting. Between the sea of legs he could see the laptop bag still leaning against the dirty stone legs of the bench.

**

He got down at the next stop. Everything had gone as planned. All he had to do was to make one phone call. A cellphone was placed inside the laptop bag. He would call that phone and it would ring. Once. Twice. Thrice.  The device would get activated.  The rest, his employers had told him, would be reported in the news.

The platform he stood on was no different from the previous one. The same thronging crowds. Husbands who had said goodbye to their wives and rushing off to work. Fathers who had dropped off their children in schools and now hurrying to offices on the other side of the city. Wives who had risen at dawn to finish off their household chores and now going to their offices to work . Laughing college students with their dreams ahead of them. Lovers who had exactly five minutes to stop and exchange glimpses between trains.

He stood there and looked at the sea of humanity before him. A sudden wave of remorse swept through his senses. Should he? Shouldn’t he? Should he?

He reached into his pocket and took out his phone. He dialed a number.

He threw the mobile phone on the tracks under the wheels of the train hurtling towards the platform and walked away.

*****

An anonymous tip off, the TV channels said when they hysterically reported how a bomb in a laptop bag was defused that morning. He would be traced soon, he knew it. But he didn’t care anymore.
Yes, done-to-death theme. Maybe there are a million stories with the exact same thing. But hey, recycling posts from years ago. Let me. 

Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet

So much homework

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When I finished reading the Century Trilogy, it took me back to those school days and the 20 marks questions we had to mug up for on the ‘Causes, Course and Results’ of the World Wars. As much as a bore it was back then, the world wars never cease to fascinate me now. I enjoyed the Wikiclicking that I did after I finished those books.

The Pillars of the Earth again took me back to Sister Leema’s history classes where we had to mug up pages of Kings and their tiffs with The Papacy (Oh, how I loved the word papacy). And Charlemagne who’s name she pronounced exactly as it was written and we snobs laughed. And these lines from Ms Judy’s English classes, something that stayed with me all these years. (Yes, Wolf Hall is still in my half-read list, I know)

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies

While the book isn’t exactly about any of these, it just made me Wikiclick through pages and pages of history from the twelfth century, learning about the hierarchy in the church, the dirty politics among the men of god and their overbearing, stifling presence over the State. Interesting how history seems to have now come full circle after all these centuries and the line between the governments and religion is slowly blurring again, but in a part of the world far, far away from England.

Little does Aleina know, that when she rejects her oaf of a suitor William Hameleigh, she has set off a chain of events that will affect the lives of thousands of people across the country, even across the continent, over the next several decades.

Tom the builder’s dream of building a cathedral someday becomes reality when he meets an idealistic monk , Prior Philip of Kingsbridge  who shares the same dream. Over the next several years, this dream cathedral will rise and fall and then rise again, fighting against all odds, battling enemies both known and unknown.

There is a saying that if there’s a devil residing in the roof of a house, there is a devil residing in each tile of a monastery. The politics between the men of God is fascinating. The very human emotions that they force themselves to control, surface over and over again, showing its ugly head in shocking ways. The book is full of strong women, be it Aliena who carries her entitled brother on her shoulders throughout her life or Ellen the ex-novice from a convent, the woman who lived in sin, the witch who’s curses come true. Or even the Regan Hameleigh, the grotesque, who is the real force behind her villainous son William.

Tom the Builder is boringly uncharacteristic and Prior Philip is frustratingly good. Father Sam in Kadal had shades of him. Jack is that hero who is a tad bit too heroic, his travels across Europe and his encounters with the exotic middle eastern  family seemed a bit too contrived. And then there are wimpy men like Richard who lives off his sister all his life while waiting for his earldom to be restored to him. Even the king is a weak man, fickle and clueless. The strongest male character was Waleran, the ambitious bishop, the man of god who thinks he can control the little universe under him like he is god himself.

Spoiler, but I would have preferred it if the book ended with the cathedral being finally built and everyone being happyhappy at last. But it had to drag on so that there could be more bloodshed and mess in an attempt to plug in another real historical character right at the very end of the book. That’s where I began to skim through the book. Mercifully, it ended in the next ten or so pages.

My biggest mistake while reading the book was to attempt to watch the series in parallel. Big, big mistake. The very first episode gave away the suspense that was created in the very first pages of the book, something that was revealed in the book only several hundreds of pages later. I attempted to watch the series again after finishing the book, but the differences between the two were too many. I preferred the version that ran in my head while reading and so I stopped.

While I actively sought out and read the two sequels after reading The Fall of Giants, I am not too keen on reading The World Without End right now. I got all the closure I needed with all the characters in this book, so I’ll give the sequel a wait. Maybe I’ll pick it up in another few months.

All My Yesterdays

 

My dearest Shiva,

I saw the pictures on Facebook yesterday. The baby has your eyes.

Remember that cold December day when we sat on our rock and spoke about how our babies would be? You said that you wanted our babies to have my eyes and your hair, my nose and your forehead. Remember how mad I got when you said that you wanted them to have my heart and your brain? That day, that last day that you and I spoke for hours, living out the rest of our lives in our imagination. The day we then decided what needs to be done. That day is still so fresh in my memory.

When I close my eyes and think of that day, I can feel the cold mist enveloping us and the smell of the tea bushes around us as we sat there. I can still feel the warmth of your hand in mine, the smell of your leather jacket and your musky aftershave. I can still hear the sound of your beating heart, the one that said my name. And then I feel the warm tears flowing down my cheeks and a lone teardrop rolls down and falls into my chest. That is when I get back to reality. The memories are from yesterday, but the tears are from today. Everyday.

It is such a wonder, how I am able to cry even now. I thought that all my tears would have dried up that last day. We watched the sunset across the mountains and then we broke ourselves away from the fantasy world we were living in. You took me back home, openly this time. There was no need to be surreptitious because tomorrow we would announce to our families that we were no longer a couple. We would no longer the stubborn pair who chose love and refused to consider family honor. We would go back into the good books of our respective families and once the initial buzz died down, we would agree to marry someone our families chose, someone of the same religion, caste, sub caste. Someone whose horoscope matched perfectly. Someone who would not bring the curse of dishonor to the generations to come.

 

Maybe it was the right thing we did, but Shiva, you know, nowadays men marry men and women marry women! Society has changed so much. When I read such stories, I feel such a sad clutch in my heart.  Maybe, I think, maybe we could have held on a little longer. Maybe we could have been a little more stubborn. Maybe we could have fought a bit harder.  But then, maybe it would have just caused more pain.

 

My father threatened to kill himself and my sister because she would never get a proper husband if I brought such shame to the family, he said. Shame. That’s what they called our love. Shame. And your family was no different, worse, if I may say so now. They used such harsh words about me, Shiva. I heard what they called me. Anandi told me everything after you left India. She told me about what actually happened in your house that made you want us to break up. I understand. I don’t think I would have been able to spend a single moment with your family after they used such words. How could your father have used such horrible words about me when he hadn’t even met me? I did not seduce you, Shiva. I was not after your family money. Of course, I know you knew that, but why didn’t you fight harder for me? I wish, I wish you had.

 

But anyway, all water under the bridge now.

 

Yes, I would have been the millstone around your neck. How smoothly everything happened after we broke up. It was like I was the biggest obstacle in your life, holding you back from reaching the great heights you reached today. All you had to do was to marry the girl your parents chose. Maybe there is something in those horoscopes that they gave so much importance to. She was the perfect match for you. With me, you would have had to take up the teaching job in St. Antony’s school to make ends meet. We would have had to fight society, the stigma, our families and difficult finances every single day had we gone ahead and got married against their wishes. I’m sure your father, the influential person he was, would have sabotaged every chance we got, just to make a point.

 

But today, look where you are. Harvard. A professor at Harvard. Not in our wildest dreams would we have imagined that back then, would we? We would have been content with a small life in our small town. But look where she took you. The woman you married was your key to the First World. It is not that easy to go to the US these days, so many formalities, so many questions at the embassy. My nephew had to come back to India because they refused to extend his visa. But for you, it was smooth sailing. Because I wasn’t there blocking the path? Probably. My love, our love, didn’t stand like a mountain you had to scale before you reached your future.  I read somewhere that you are even likely to win a Nobel Prize someday. Imagine. How my heart swells up with pride when I read such things about you. Of course, I saw the star in you way back then.

I have to confess, for a long time even after you left, I held on to the hope that by some twist of fate we would get back together. When Anandi told me that your wife was pregnant, I had the most evil thought. I can finally say it now and get the burden off my mind. I had the most evil thought that she should die in childbirth and you would write to me, telling me that you were now free from the family pressure and you are ready to marry me. Of course, God never answers evil prayers. There is not a day that passes when I don’t beg him for forgiveness for that evil thought I had.

 

Why didn’t you keep in touch back then, Shiva? Why didn’t you write to me as you promised? If only we had this email and Facebook back then, would you have kept in touch? But what would we have written to each other? Just sent each other letters filled with regret to make our lives more miserable?  Maybe you did the right thing, to make the clean cut, to break away.

Was it difficult for you? Did you cry into your pillow every night? Did the world go dark for you? Did you have nightmares of running through a maze, a black, smoky maze and finding yourself up against cold mossy walls? Did you wake up screaming my name?

I broke, Shiva. I broke in to little pieces after you left. I know, Anandi didn’t tell you all this. I begged her not to. I feared that my collapse would have hurt you more than it hurt me. But today, I want to ask you, what was your life like after you left? After you left me? Was it easy for you to move on? Please tell me that it wasn’t easy. Please tell me how painful it was for you to live with another woman after all those hopes and dreams of yours were centered around me. I was your everything, Shiva. You were my everything. But do you love her now? I’m sure you do.  But do you love her as much as you loved me? No, don’t answer that.

It wasn’t just a breakdown I had after you left. I went insane. I sat staring at the wall, seeing your face everywhere, calling your name, talking to you. They pumped me with pills, trying to erase your memory from my mind. They took me to bearded men who fanned peacock feathers in my face and tied threads around my wrist.  It was horrible, Shiva. Horrible. But of course, there was nothing more horrible than the thought of a life without you. It took me a long time to learn that that was what my future was now. To accept reality. I was forced to accept it, accept the fact that you had gone. Gone from my life forever. And then when they thought that I was cured (cured? They cured me of you? Like it is even possible) they married me off to a man my father’s age to get me out of the way.

Well, you know how it is, life had to happen. But mercifully, that life lasted less than a year for me. He died. I cannot tell you about those days because I have absolutely no memory of them. He is just a blur somewhere in the back of my mind, just like how my life was during those few months. However hard I try, I am not able to remember that part of my life. Repressed memories. Is that what they call it these days?

*****

I lived with Zohara until last year. You remember my sister Zohara, don’t you? Your sister Anandi’s classmate, the one who used to act as postman for us, passing my letters to Anandi and yours back to me.  She died last September. She was my last link to you in this world. We used to sit up late nights and talk about those good old days. Now I have no one with whom I can talk to about you.

It was the logical step to be moved to this old age home. Zohara’s son Imtiaz refused to let me go at first. He loved me even more than his mother. But I made him. An old aunt is not something you burden your only nephew with. This home is a nice place. There are people I can talk to, books I can read, movies I can watch. Of course, there is no one here with whom I can talk about you. But maybe if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t have learnt to use this Facebook thing. Imtiaz bought me this laptop and set up this account for me. The first thing I searched for was your name, and there you were, looking all handsome and distinguished. A thousand butterflies fluttered in my heart the day I saw you on Facebook. I was that shy 20 year old again, falling in love all over again.  Imagine, feeling that same emotion after all these decades. Forty five years is it? Seems like yesterday.

******

The baby has your eyes, Shiva. Your grandchild looks exactly like you. Send me more pictures of your life. I want to know what has happened to you all these forty five years. I know, a lot has happened in your life, unlike mine. Send them quickly, Shiva. I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’ a couple of months ago. It isn’t bad right now, but you know how it is. It will get worse. Soon. I want to soak up every bit of you that there is left before I fade away.

I can live with the disease, I know I can. They have people to look after me here when things go the way they are bound to. They are paid to.  I will have people who would feed me, bathe me and keep me alive. I’ll be alive, Shiva. Just the way I’ve been alive all these years without you, with you.   But you know what I dread the most?  The day I die. No, not the day I die because my heart has stopped beating or my brain has shut down. The day I die when this disease erases your memory from my mind. The day you are erased from my life. That is the day I dread.

Let me say it Shiva, let me say it to you one last time before you leave me again.

I love you.

 

Always,

 

Zeenath

 

(I know. It does seem to have shades of movies. Not a conscious inspiration, but yes, maybe.  It was something that I wrote long ago for some writing prompt based thingy. I went through my old posts from somewhere and dug this out. Oh, my resolution is to start writing more and I’m warming up by recycling old posts. The new financial year does count as a new year, right?)

The Lovely Bones- Alice Sebold

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I have this habit of Googling ‘similar to’ books whenever I finish reading a book that I like. When I did it after The Virgin Suicides, The Lovely Bones was listed on some forum. So I checked it out on Amazon a few months back and let it be, it didn’t seem too inviting. But last month when this terrible crime happened, I don’t know if it was a coincidence or just creepy internet algorithms being creepy, but this book popped up again on my Recommended Suggestions. Maybe if it hadn’t popped up when it did, it wouldn’t have hit me so hard.

Spoilers ahead.

A fourteen year old girl Susie watches from heaven, helplessly, as her family crumbles apart, unable to come to terms with her death. Her killer, the quiet neighbour who raped and murdered her is still at large, teasing her father into frustration because he is not able to find enough evidence against him. Unable to handle his obsession with finding the truth, her mother drifts apart and finally leaves the family. Her sister joins hands with her father to nail the killer, driving him away from the town to somewhere else where he continues his killing spree. Her baby brother grows up not quite knowing what happened, but well aware of the larger-than-life presence of his dead sister all around the house. Her almost-boyfriend who was initially the key suspect in her murder gets drawn closer to the weird girl in school whom Susie’s spirit touched as she was leaving the earth.
Years roll by and life goes on, and she continues to watch and watch. And the sinkhole in which her body was thrown into continues to fill up, burying the evidence deeper and deeper.The whole story leaves you with a dull ache as you begin to imagine the what-could-have-been versus the what-is.

And then out of nowhere, but quite expectedly, it takes a twist that made me almost throw the book in disgust. I was fine with the narrator being in heaven and even ok with her touching someone as her spirit left earth. But when she comes back after all those years to ‘enter’ that body and tie up all the loose ends, I got annoyed. It undid all the poignant moments and went all stupid and weird. If you could have done this earlier, Susie, the whole book needn’to have even happened :/

Then suddenly it switches back into normal mode with a hurried ending where the killer dies an anonymous death. The icicle killing him was supposed to have some kind of reference to the ‘perfect murder’ setting from a high school camp several years ago, but it felt totally out of place and just left me more frustrated with how everything was wrapped up. I feel the book would have been much better if there was no closure, with the killer still at large somewhere and life continuing to go on as it is supposed to.

Once done with the book, I tried to watch the movie, but it was too meh. The book had dragged on for a tad bit too long and I had no patience left in me to watch the movie too. But maybe this is one of those books where the movie was better? I wouldn’t know now.

And then this. I’m always cynical about ‘missing children’ who pop up on social media and never share those pictures. But then several people asked me to share this saying that the child was someone they knew either directly or indirectly. So I shared the tweets  and was gearing up to tweet to everyone the next day  asking them to delete the pictures once the girl was found. I was sure she would be found. I was hoping for a story the next day with the picture of the smiling child with a couple of police constables. It was such a terrible shock when the worst was confirmed.

There’s nothing that is more terrible than a world where a little child is not safe. Not safe from her neighbour, her teacher, her priest, or even her own father. Her. His. Little boys are as much at risk. This was a very sad and disturbing illustration that I saw today , but it is a reflection of the reality that is hitting us in our faces in a news article every other day.

And then this, my post from long ago about a story I wrote long ago. Still relevant.