Archive | January 2015

Go Ask Alice- Anonymous Beatrice Sparks : 6/52 ( High School)

There’s so much worse now that things have gotten better.

I’m not an American teenager nor am I a parent of one. And this is not the seventies. So I’m not moved by this. And there seems to be a lot of cynicism about the whole ‘true story’ part of it. I just picked it up to meet my ‘Book set in high school’ part of my 2015 reading challenge.

Anne Frank wrote a diary that made the whole world cry. Bridgette Jones wrote a diary that made 30 something women feel hopeful. This unnamed teenager wrote this diary that was supposed to shock the hell out of you and make the world stay away from drugs. I hope it did have some kind of effect back then and saved atleast a handful of teenagers from the addiction.

She’s just another fifteen year old schoolgirl with all the problems of a fifteen year old schoolgirl. An imagined weight problem, a crush who doesn’t reciprocate, nagging parents, irritating younger siblings. The works. And then one day at a party, someone slips her a drug laced drink. And the downward spiral begins. There’s drugs, sex, more drugs, rape, and more drugs. She runs away from home and lives the most disgusting life that a fifteen year old could ever live. But then she also starts a mildly successful business which sounded very filmy impossible. And then she reforms, gets pushed again, runs away again, does disgusting things again,  reforms again and is pushed again . And this time, she reaches breaking point. That part was disturbing, the one in the rehab center where she meets fellow teenage drug addicts.

Since it was supposed to be a ‘true story’ from an actual diary, it was written exactly how a fifteen year old high school dropout would write: Very badly.

The drug menace even today is real. And more dangerous. But I don’t think society is as ‘free’ as it was in the seventies when this book was written. So I’ll give it the benefit of the era, and let it go.





The Colour Purple- Alice Walker : 5/52 (Colour)

Such a feel good book.

Whaat? Yes. To me, it was a feel good book. Because, read it to know why.

Celie. Young, traumatized, lost, helpless Celie writes letters to god because she has no one else to write to. She tells god about how she got big after her Pa visited her at night. She tells god about the babies she gave birth to, the babies that disappeared, the baby she saw again with the pastor’s wife. About how she was made to marry Mister___ just to look after him and his horrid kids because her father refused to let her younger and prettier sister Nettie marry him. Through these letters,she tells god the story of her life. She doesn’t complain, she doesn’t ask him for anything. She just tells him.

Her closest relative is her sister Nettie who suddenly leaves her life, and then Shug enters. Shug, her husband Mister____’s mistress. Shug who had children with Mister_____.But again, Celie just takes it in as what was meant to be. She nurses Shug back to health and the two women form a bond that is so tender, so beautiful and oh so disturbingly twisted. All the relationships in the book are so strong and beautiful. Celie and Sophia, two women at the opposite ends of the spectrum. While Celie submits to fate, Sophia punches fate in the nose, be it her husband Harpo or his new girlfriend Squeak or the mayor’s wife. The women and men are so different, but so much the same. They love, they live, they laugh, they bond. And inspite of everything, they stay together as one big happy family. There are round houses, there are pink houses and there are pretty pants. Yes, it is a happy book because not once did I lose hope. There was always something that kept telling me that things will change for everyone, and it did. Maybe it was the way Celie looked at life with no expectations. Such and attitude shames god and he feels guilty and so, he gives.

I usually don’t highlight much, but in this book, I highlighted almost an entire chapter. The one where Shug and Celie talk about god. It was such a stimulating discussion and it gave me an answer that no one has been able to give me all these years. That is god to me.

The book moves to Africa and gives you a glimpse of life in an African village through the eyes of a black American woman. Something quite the opposite of Americanah. Much of that reminded me of Things Fall Apart. How the white man makes inroads into the continent in the name of civilizing the heathen natives, bringing progress and development and taking away the little bit of life that they have.

There’s graphic sex and violence, there’s deep racism, there’s capitalism, there’s chauvinism, there’s a wide gender divide. But it also overcomes. Everything.

I really don’t understand why this book was so controversial. Maybe those who outraged about it didn’t read it till the very end.

One Part Woman- Perumal Murugan : 4/52 (Translation)

tl;dr : Vyasa- Ambika-Ambalika.

What better way to make a book popular than to demand a ban on it. This isn’t a book that I would have picked up if it hadn’t been for the whole controversy around it. I’m not sure whether I got the sanitised version or the original ‘scandalous’ version of the book. I would have loved to read it in Tamil, but it would have taken me much longer to finish the book and my curiosity got the better of me. But the translation is quite good. And since those of us from Tamilnadu can relate to the overall setup, it worked for me. (Note to self: Stop picturing every book you read as a movie these days)

Kali and Ponnayi are a childless couple living in a society where the taunts, insults and innuendos are free flowing. Help and advice come in many forms to them, some well intentioned, some plain sadistic. Ponna is made to drink bitter infusions made with neem leaves that are handed to her by an ‘auspicious’ widow. (Isn’t neem a contraceptive?) She has men making not-so-subtle suggestions offering their services. She does a Fear Factor level walk on a dangerous rock near a temple to bribe the gods. She is deemed unfit for motherhood because she found the stink of a baby’s feces repulsive. Surprisingly, she isn’t the only one to be ‘blamed’ here. Though Kali is constantly under the pressure to take a second wife, he is also equally taunted for his ‘impotence’. He has everyone from cousins to random neighbours hoping to dip their fingers into his heirless property after his death. More than his love for Ponna, it is the fear of confirming this impotence that doesn’t allow him to marry again. Afterall, it was his ancestors who raped a tribal girl and incurred her curse. Yes. It is a difficult life being childless in such a society in that era. Any society in any era actually.

So what does one do when the gods want more than rooster blood and arrack? What does one do when the gods want more than a dangerous walk around their temple? What does one do when the gods want more than your prayers? You have to look beyond god. You have to look at man. Another man. Do it with him thinking of him as god. Kunti did that, Madri did that. Oh wait. That was vice versa. But anyway. Apparently, the results are guaranteed here. And this is what Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law finally suggest.

Does she do it? On the fourteenth day of the temple festival, that day when all married women above thirty get the sanction of the gods to lay with random strangers and bring forth ‘god’s children’ into the world. Does she do it? Does she manage to look beyond the face of her husband, look beyond her fears, look beyond society’s taunts and find a god to do it with?

Since I was waiting for the ‘controversial’ part, I did not take the time to savour the book as much I should have. The narration went back and forth a lot, sometimes confusing. Characters like the bachelor uncle Nallupayyan who gave the whole drama the much needed sane voice and Muthu, Ponna’s brother, who took Kali to the same temple festival years ago to ‘offer their services’ give you an insight into the hypocrisy of it all. Small but sharp references to the caste equations in that society add a dash of sting. During the build up to the climax, when Ponna sits in the cart looking at the Chakkli man’s baby with so much longing, I hoped that the story would take a more ‘scandalous’ twist. But I was disappointed.

A good book. Not a great book, and in my opinion it was not a shocking book.  But a good book, so read it. If not for anything else, atleast  for the sake of supporting freedom of expression. Because is a thing these days.

‘Whenever I pass a temple, I touch my throat and then touch my lips with my index and middle finger. That is how my two babies were born’ I just remembered someone tweeting that long ago.

And whenever a topic about childlessness comes up, I can’t help but remember We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unrelated to this book, but the thought just crossed my mind.

There are two sequels to this book. Would love to read them soon. Someone please translate.




The Feast of Roses- Indu Sundaresan : 3/52 ( A Trilogy)

And the soap continues…

Actually, this book ran in my head as a Rajnikanth movie. Rajni is Prince Khurram and Mehrunissa is the classic arrogant female antagonist who stands up against him. And in the end, Khurram wins the story and mouths a punch dialogue ‘Adhigama aasai padra pombalai nalla irundhadha sarithram illai’ and rides away into the sunset on a white horse, with Arjumand clinging onto him. But Mehrunissa has the last laugh anyway. Read the book to know why.

The romantic Mehrunissa from The Twentieth Wife becomes the power hungry Empress of Hindustan in this book. She has Jahangir under her thumb and is the Sonia to Jahangir’s MMS now. She rules the empire from behind the veil. I’m not sure if I should like such a woman though. I liked her competitiveness at first, the way she was determined to become an expert hunter after that failed hunting trip where she lost to Jagat Gosni in shooting a drugged lion ( ugh. *that* was how those people hunted? What bravery ) I even liked that junta she formed, clever woman. And the way she got her way with the Portugese and sided with the English too. But when she pimped her daughter out to marry Khurram, Khusrau and finally Sharyar, she crashed from that pedestal I had put her on. Woman, is power that important to you? Ok. Maybe such relationships were allowed in that era, but your daughter marrying your husband’s son , the one who is the husband of your own niece? Ewwww. I felt sorry for Ladli, such a gentle thing , resigned to her fate. Who in the end just wants her baby to be a girl so that it will not be involved in the ugly game to the throne. And when Mehrunissa expressed such resentment when the baby turned out to be a girl, a fresh wave of anger swept over me. I hated her a little more.

Two scenes in the book that were so big budget that I would love to see them on the big screen. The live chess scene with baby elephants where she checkmates a nervous Mahabat Khan had so much attitude. Whatte woman, I thought. And the Feast of Roses scene where she walks on a bed of rose petals and allows Jahangir to forgive her ( apologise). That reminded me so much of a certain politician who had the roads paved with flower petals when she visited the Nilgiris in 1993, bringing traffic to a halt. I saw the same ego, arrogance and god complex in Mehrunissa in that scene.

The book got a little draggy when the Portugese and English came in. It took away the beauty of the Mughal empire and became dry and political. (Would history have been different if Nur Jahan hadn’t supported the English like she did?) Same with the wars, I rushed through those parts. But it got back on track again with the unintended coup and the final chase to the throne. Survival of the fittest. Who would have thunk that the romantic Shah Jahan could execute his competitors in such cold blood. But hey, all’s fair in love and war.

I’ll give it a short break before I start the third book, The Shadow Princess. I don’t want to OD. But I’m ready for a Darlymple again now. Mughal history has me hooked.

Pygmalion- George Bernard Shaw :2/52 (A Play)

Hear yourself read

It took me back to school where we had the Interhouse Dramatics every year. The winning play used to get staged for Parents Day. Ofcourse I never got to act in one. It was one of those things that were dominated by the boarders and maybe a few Anglo Indian dayscholars. But this weekend, I got to ‘act’ in a play. I was both Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle.

It is difficult to read a play without doing the voices. Having watched My Fair Lady, I think I did a great Eliza in my head. But other than the bad grammar, the Garns and the Aaa woo oo oh sound, there wasn’t much of an accent. No Rain in Spain or Just you wait ‘Enry ‘Iggins. Still, it was a delightful read. Henry Higgins’ unapologetic rudeness was shocking and totally unacceptable, but it was so much fun. I was supposed to get angry at the way he treated the poor girl, calling her names, talking about her like a used gumboot at times, but I just couldn’t. I wanted more insults, innocent insults that as rude as the were, weren’t intended to hurt. And Mrs. Pearce getting worked up about his ‘swearing’ was adorable. Asking him not to use a swear word that begins with the letter B was bloody hilarious. I imagined a modern day adaptation where Professor Higgins uses the F word and Mrs Pearce dies of shock.

I’m not sure what I feel about the ending. The ending of the actual play, I liked. It ended on a hopeful note and the reader/ viewer gets to decide whatever they want. The ending of the movie, I loved. It was what we all wanted. But the afterword in the book where the reader is given the what-happened-next story was a downer. Like those modern day after- everafter endings of fairy tales where Cinderella and the Prince get married and then divorced.

But I’m glad I read this book. It was part of my 2015 Reading Challenge where I have a play on the list. I should read this again sometime. And this time, I’ll do the voices out loud.

2015 Reading Challenge

Ok. So let’s see how this works out. @iashcn shared this challenge on Twitter and I found it on Goodreads too. I managed my 2014 challenge comfortably, but this seems a little more difficult because I’m listing specific books here.  But no pressure. This is just a list. Of placeholders.

1.   Book with 500+ pages- Wolf Hall. It needs to be removed from On Hold and be done with.
2.  Classic romance – Pride and Prejudice. Yeah. The real thing.
3.  Book that became a movie – Twelve Years a Slave. Caught the movie. Now I have to read the        book.
4.  Book published this year (2015) – I’m waiting for Arundhati Roy’s next. Hope it comes out in              2015
5.  Book with a number in the title – Ok. I’m doing the 3 Mistakes of my Life. High time.
6.  Book written by someone under 30 – Nowadays, aren’t they all?
7.  Book with nonhuman characters- Maybe Animal Farm again. No. Then what else? Hmmm?
8.  Funny book- I don’t get those H2G2 references that are considered so mainstream cool. I                   hope the book also gives me some laughs.
9.  Book by female author- Huh? Why? What’s so what about that? : The Dove’s Lament-Kirthi Jayakumar
10. Mystery or thriller- Two more in the Dublin Murder Squad series to go. Oh wait. There was         one more published last year.
11. Book with one-word title – Out. Been on my list for too long
12. Book of short stories – The Book of Other People. I’ve read that first story four times                     already.
13. Book set in a different country – In an Antique Land. Because just like that.
14. Nonfiction – Rajdeep’s Book. 2014 – The Election that Changed India. Been trolling the             guy too much on Twitter. I owe him this.
15. Popular author’s first book- Can’t think of any. Thinking. Thinking…
16. Book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet- Why is this so difficult to list?
17. Book a friend recommended –The Fountainhead. Let me see what makes Roark so loveable  Coraline- Neil Gaiman 
18. Pulitzer Prize-winning book –The Poisonwood Bible. Heard good things about it
19. Book based on true story- Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Been on my to read           list for very long. Maybe the Japanese will get some sympathy from me again.
20.Book at bottom of your to-read list –Ponniyn Selvan. Got a Kindle compatible version. 21.               Hopefully, the bigger font will help me finish it
21. Book your mom loves – Can’t promise Ponniyin Selvan. So I’ll settle for The Old Man and the       Sea. 
22. Book that scares you – Should dare to pick up The Shining again. Or Salem’s Lot.
23. Book more than 100 years old- Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Really really need to finish it. My            tribute to Anastasia Steele
24. Book based on its cover- What is that proverb again?
25. Book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t – Lorna Doone. Someone drew a heart            and wrote Lorna Doone loves John Ridd in the school library book. The entire 9th standard                class was banned from the library that year and I never got to reading the book after that.
26. A memoir – I don’t like memoirs. So something. Anything.   Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II
27. Book you can finish in a day – Andaleeb’s next two. Back in Time and Only Time will Tell. Salvation of a Saint-Keigo Higashino
28. Book with antonyms in the title – Err… Let me think.
29. Book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit – The Orphan Master’s Son. Maybe                    someday we’ll get a client in Kim Jong Land and I’ll get a chance to visit.
30. Book that came out the year you were born-  I’ll do something from the era. Nice try.
31. Book with bad reviews – Could do Half Girlfriend, but one C-book a year is my target.
32. A trilogy – The Taj Trilogy. On it, loving it.
33. Book from your childhood – Malory Towers. I have a few, will be nice to go to boarding                    school.
34. Book with a love triangle –  Should pick one at random. Maybe something where all three will            finally end up with three different persons.
35. Book set in the future – The Road. Reddit loves it. Let me see if I love it too.
36. Book set in high school- The Fault in our Stars or Twilight. (Are they set in high school?) Go Ask Alice
37. Book with color in the title – The Color Purple
38. Book that made you cry – That’s a toughie. Because I’m not sure if I’m capable of that anymore.
39. Book with magic- Err.. Harry Potter? Well, gotto deal with it sometime in my life
40. Graphic novel – Ugh. But why not.
41. Book by an author you’ve never read before – Amit Chaudhri. Though A Strange and Sublime             Address was highly recommended, I’ll read Freedom Song because I have it
42. Book you own but have never read – Plenty. I should do an inkypinkyponky and pick one.
43. Book that takes place in your hometown – Must get my hands on that Coonoor book. Or get                 down to writing my own.  Maybe not hometown, but place where I’ve lived. Fair enough. Aarushi by Avirook Sen
44. Book that was originally written in different language- Long time no Murakami. I’ll pick a                    random one. After Dark maybe. Lots of backlog to clear before I try his latest ( Checking off this item with One Part Woman)
45. Book set during Christmas –The Gift. But if it is something like PS I Love You, I’ll probably                hate it.
46. Book written by an author with your same initials- Gaaah. This is boring.
47. A play – I could dig out Julius Caesar from my schoolbook pile and read it again. That is the only        play I have ever read. But since I know My Fair Lady, I’ll try Pygmalion
48. A banned book – Will reattempt The Satanic Verses. Again.
49. Book based on or turned into a TV show – That Game of Thrones thingy? Wait. Maybe that’s too        ambitious. I think I’ll settle for Roots. Done with two GoT books. Huge. 
50. Book you started but never finished
 -That’s Atlas Shrugged. I’m doing it this year. I am I am I       am.

The Twentieth Wife- Indu Sundaresan :1/52 ( A Trilogy)

16th century Soap Opera

But I mean it in a good way.

The book came highly recommended by @_viju and since I usually like his taste, I started the book without any pre-Googling. Somewhere in the book, Salim smells roses on Mehrunissa and she says that her mother adds rose petals to the bath water. And then it hit me. This is the story of Noor Jahan, the Mughal queen whose mother discovered attar. It wasn’t pure fiction anymore and it just got even more interesting. Of course, it was highly embellished and glossy and I knew how it would end. It had all the elements of a big budget Bollywood movie and I could close my eyes and picture a zenana dance scene if I wanted to. But it was a story that flowed so smoothly, like a bolt of silk that was unrolled in the bazaar, that I finished it in three sittings. The first day of the year well spent.

A child born to a refugee, abandoned in the desert, finds herself back in her mother’s arms through some twists of fate. At eight, she looks at Emperor Akbar’s son on his wedding day and dreams of becoming a princess herself. Seventeen years, nineteen wives, innumerable concubines, a husband and a daughter later, she finally marries that  man she flirted with in the zenana corridor while she was a teenager betrothed to someone else. Mehrunissa. The sun among women. The light of the world.

As a woman, I am expected to outrage about many things. How the woman is considered as the property of men, be it the father, the husband or the emperor himself. Mehrunissa has no say in whom she marries, she has no say in whom her husband sleeps with. She has no say when the emperor orders her father to request her husband to invoke some Turkish law and divorce her so that the emperor can make her his. The emperor who already has a harem full of wives and concubines, an emperor who lusted after his father’s woman and had her buried alive. (Looks like Salim-Anarkali isn’t all Mughal-e-azam as much as it is a Greek tragedy).

But the romantic in me overlooked all that and rooted for love. Love that blossomed at the age of eight ( Meera-Krishna type) and stayed buried deep down somewhere in both those hearts, not giving up hope even when there was no hope. Stalking, noting, spying, watching. Secret smiles, private fantasies and skipped heartbeats. And anyway, towards the end Mehrunissa redeemed herself when she refused the Indecent Proposal and stood up for what she believed was rightfully due to her. More power to women like her. But the truth is, the women back then were much cleverer than the ones today. We cry feminism and take to the streets at the drop of a hat these days, but those 16th century women seemed to have wielded so much power from behind veils and latticed marble walls, all the time allowing the men to believe that they were superior and the actual decision makers. Right from Akbar’s queen Ruqayaa to Salim’s second wife Jagat Gosini and Mehrunissa herself, they seem to be a group of awesomely cunning, shrewd, clever and highly manipulative women; smug and truly powerful. And like the standard fixture in every romcom these days, the gay best friend, you have the important eunuch who calls the shots in the harems. And the men? The men are mostly bumbling idiots, getting drunk on wine, women and power and  going to war for no bigger reason than an ego trip.

Oh well. Nothing much has changed over the centuries.