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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Short Story Gone Long: Kafka on the Floor

Note: Before you start to read this story, let me say what follows is an act of self-indulgence. Like my previous attempt at writing fiction, this is long. As in, looooooooonnnnnnng. Some of it is autobiographical, some of it is made up & some of it is a mix of both. That being said, the idea behind it was deliberately given free rein & so maybe the length got a bit out of hand. But I've tried to put a bit of heart into this & I hope you find it too.

First there was just me. And then there was Kafka.

Maa has never been much of an animal lover, but she does love birds. I know that for a fact because since the time I was a kid, I was used to hearing my name called out from the balcony just when I was about to lose myself in a book. Now it so happens that this banyan tree right across the yard was the abode of many birds, such as black and white cormorants (two different species of the same bird, mind you), cranes, the common ones like crows, magpies, nightingales and mynahs as also the occasional screeching-but-never-too-visible parrot. At first, it felt irritating to be made to rush from one end of the flat to another just to 'appreciate the gifts of nature' but over time I have come to develop a grudging affection for the flying species.

This balcony is also the site of another of Maa's passions - gardening. Incidentally, this was exactly where we made the acquaintance of Kafka.

To water her plants everyday, she filled this small bucket and poured water onto those green beings and whatever was left of it after they had had their fill, she poured it into this small plastic bowl which was occasionally used to keep those tiny crystals of manure she bought from the nursery.

So one fine day, I remember hearing the sound of footsteps getting louder as if coming towards my room (the kind when someone's walking quickly and trying not to make a lot of noise) and before I could turn my head to see who or what it was, Maa comes rushing in & says, "Get up, quick! I have something to show you. The other balcony, now!"

I hurry behind her and just when I'm about to walk into the balcony past her standing near the doorway,, she grabbed my hand and pulled me back before whispering into my ears, "Look at the bowl!"

And then I saw it. A crow perched on the marble slab of the balcony wall with its back towards us, plucking some water out of the bowl with a quick nip (or dip, whatever it did with its beak) and then raising its head as if looking at the sky, as the water slipped down its throat into his bowels.

Now imagine my predicament at that very moment - I had been made to get up to come watch a crow quenching its thirst just as Jane Eyre was about to go on that walk with Mr. Rochester and romantic tensions between the two were simmering like anything. Disappointed big time, I walked back to my book without offering any comment, fearing saying what I really felt would provoke an unnecessary argument and hurt her feelings. Unaware of this, she followed me into my room and said, "It would be quite nice if birds come to our balcony like that, wouldn't it? Like people feeding the pigeons." I nodded of sorts and eager to get back to Jane Eyre I remarked, "Maybe he could be your version of Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey or my version of Speedy."

Before I proceed with the story, a bit of digression into the lives of Kakeshwar and Speedy. Both happen to be fictional characters and unconsciously the reason for the affection Maa and I have for crows. Kakeshwar Kuchkuchey, in Maa's words, is the "clever, calcutating and cunning crow" from the Bengali short story "Hajabarala", Sukumar Ray's classic tale filled with absurdist humour. (Maa always seemed to used those three adjectives to describe KK. I learnt much later in school it was a figure of speech. Which one? Go figure.) And Speedy is the protagonist of Ruskin Bond's short story "A Crow For All Seasons", a hilarious one about a crow who lives on a tree at the edge of an Anglo-Indian family's house.

Getting back to the story, Maa decided to keep two bowls filled with water instead of one, perhaps to attract more crows to our balcony. The next day, however, we had no crows in our balcony. Unfortunately for Maa, I thought, she might have overestimated the crow's intellect based on her experiences with fiction.

But the day after, it was there again. I was going to the balcony when I saw it standing on the marble slab, having a drink. And the crow is a pretty fearless creature - it was aware of my presence (it seemed to look at me, so) and it didn't even blink an eye and fly (atleast I thought so) through the grill until I had gotten really close to it.

I went into the kitchen to find Maa and tell her about the crow. Her face seemed to light up as she heard this and she replied, "Well, we better choose a name for him now that he's started to come regularly." Seriously? It had not been two days in a row that the crow had been coming and here we are, deciding to have a name for him. Maa relented a bit but was in no way affected by what I felt. She said, "Well, if he comes tomorrow to drink water from the bowl, we will do the naamkaran. What say?" Fine, I said. So be it.

I wondered if Maa would place a third bowl of water alongside the two already there, as an extra incentive of sorts. It also made me wonder why she was doing all this for the sake of some crow who happened to drop in twice to have a sip. Now that I think about it, I was a bit too young to understand the phenomenon of 'bringing out the child in someone'. How could a child bring out a child in himself, after all? But now that I have grown up a bit, I have learnt is that whenever you see an otherwise perfectly normal adult doing something out of the ordinary, we should not judge them for it and instead just let them be, soaking in some unadulterated happiness in the unusually dull lives they often lead.

Coming back to the crow, I don't know why but I was half-hoping it would come the next day, maybe to liven things up a bit. But the whole day passed, we waited and it didn't seem to come. And then, as the sun was about to set upon this part of the world, surprise - it was back. As if he had heeded what Maa had said earlier and raised the suspense quotient a bit before making his appearance and cawing, "Yo buggers, here I am, eh? Cheerio."

Thanks to the crow's dramatic last-minute cameo that evening, I had to half-heartedly take part in the enticing activity of naming the crow. Maa wanted to name it KK (in short for you-know-what) and I too made a show of being interested, turning down her suggestion out of hand. I didn't want to call him Speedy since the crow obviously had none of Speedy's awesomeness, atleast until that point. I thought of the Thirsty Crow - the one from the age-old fable - but calling it Thirsty seemed inconvenient and I didn't dare to suggest it. Too bad I didn't have an internet connection back then, otherwise I would have just turned to Google. Not that crow names are similar to baby names, anyway.

And the solution was found in - guess what - fiction. At that time, I was reading this really weird book by some Japanese author with a fancy name which had a teenager running away from home, talking cats, fish raining out of the sky and what not. Now there was this bit in which the teenager I mentioned renames himself as Kafka, who I remember reading as some weird European guy who wrote weird stories. All in all, Kafka also means 'crow' in Czech (atleast the book claimed that) and I told Maa about this, who seemed happy enough to see I was interested. So that's how the crow came to be called Kafka.

The odd thing is that both Maa and I here assumed that the crow was male. How does one tell, anyway? And given how things are in today's world, would that be termed sexist?

By the time the crow dropping in for his daily fill everyday, I once found one of those tiny marble balls on the way back from school and not knowing where to put it, I dropped it into one of the water-filled bowls and forgot all about it till that evening, only to discover that the ball had vanished. I asked Maa if she had seen it but she claimed to have no knowledge of it and even admonished me for picking up things off the road just like that. I was about to don Sherlock's hat to investigate the Case of the Missing Marble when Maa suggested, "Maybe the crow took it." How was that possible, I asked. He was there in the afternoon and she saw him, she said. As if she recognized him, I mildly sneered not knowing what to say. But she did, she would tell me some other day when I was not being upset. What nonsense, I thought. But whatever had happened with Kafka so far, everything had felt quite extraordinary.

The following day, I come home from school only to find my marble ball, but in the other bowl - not the one I had dropped it into the day before. I put it back where I had originally put it, thinking if Kafka would be interested in playing games. But nothing actually happened and the ball remained right there. Maa proposed a theory that Kafka might have thought it to be something edible but having found it hard to crack, had been honest enough to return it the next day. She thinks as if I'm still as gullible as a four-year-old, I thought. However, for want of a better theory, the case was closed.

As much as Maa seemed to love Kafka, things were not rosy all the time. Two instances come to mind here when Maa got really pissed at that crow of ours. The first time was when I came home to see Maa sitting, looking a bit sad, a bit angry. I asked her what the matter was and I could see she was seething as she said, "That crow! I give that darned creature enough water to drink and he goes on to destroy another bird's nest." What had actually transpired was that the crow had actually ransacked a tailor bird's nest on the almond tree that grows a few feet away from our balcony in search of eggs and Maa had even tried to stop the crow from doing so by throwing stones at it even as the helpless tailor-bird could only sound a never-ending distress call on a distant branch. I tried to imagine what it would look like Maa stoning a crow she seemed to love only till yesterday when she said, "Enough of that crow. No more water for him from now on." How do you even know it was him, I queried. Pat came the retort, "I don't know how my son turned out to be like this? You see, but you do not observe. Can't you see that streak of grey right at the top of his black head? Like the one Aamir did in that film in which he was bald. See for yourself if that crow comes again. Not that I am gonna be good to him anymore."

For the next couple of days, Kafka came, Kafka saw, but Kafka did not conquer. But I did manage to see what I wanted to - Kafka did have a bit of the Ghajini-hairstyle on his head. The lonely marble ball lay in the middle of the empty bowl, as if it were the only remains of a dried-up oasis. On the third day, however, I saw Maa filling those two bowls, pouring water from the bucket. So you do have a heart, I attempted a wise crack at the situation. She turned towards me and her grim face instantly made me want to take my words back, but all she said was "Nature is harsh. Doesn't mean we have to be as well all the time." It took me some time to register what she had said that day.

The other time didn't escalate to proportions like the time before, but Kafka had probably decided he felt at home enough to shit on the floor of the balcony. The first time he did it, Maa grudgingly let it pass. But when Kafka emptied his bowels again on the floor in a couple of days, Maa went back to her boycott of the water bowl. This time, it lasted just one day. Kafka never shit on the floor again for what seemed a long time.

Days passed. And then arrived that one time, which was the defining moment of my relation with Kafka. He was perched on the balcony grill - half his body inside, half of it outside - and having his fill when I decided to have some fun. I had this bottle of water fitted with a spray on top of it, the kind you see on Colin Spray bottles. As he was absorbed in his drink, I appeared suddenly in the doorway (like those good ol' Bollywood villains) and sprayed water right into his face. And what played out in the next few seconds still seem as if it were right out of some movie scene, everything in slow motion.

Startled, Kafka tried to escape but in his bid to do so, he struck the back of his head against a part of the metal grill and I thought I heard something crack and he fell straight down into the ground. For a few moments, I stood right where I was, dumbstruck. Then the real world came rushing back to me and I rushed to the grill, trying to see the fallen crow. Nothing. Maa not being at home, I rushed down from our first floor flat to the spot where his fall should've been broken by the concrete surface. No sign was visible, it being a hard surface.

I was never much of a biology person but as I stood there below, I remembered studying that birds did not have anything in their bodies that resembled a vertebrae. Or did they? No, they didn't. And then when I looked up at my balcony, I saw a crow on a branch of the almond tree out of the corner of my eye. Surely that was not Kafka? There was only one way to find out. And so to get a better view of that head, I ran back to my balcony.

But it was gone by the time I got up there. Had I really heard that cracking noise, or had it been a figment of my imagination, thanks to pop culture? Was Kafka really gone?

A week passed and there had been no sign of Kafka yet. I had not dared to tell her what I had done fearing her reaction wouldn't exactly help matters, but she didn't really look that upset when I asked her about him a couple of days after the incident. "It's a bird after all, it might have gone off somewhere," was all she said.

I was reading in the room adjoining the balcony when I thought I heard something hit the grill - a flap of wings perhaps? I went into the balcony and everything seemed in its place except...the marble ball. It was no longer in the bowl it had been for an eternity. It was instead in the other bowl. And then I heard him.

It had come from the upper echelons of the almond tree, I was sure. I went up to the balcony wall and craned my neck as much as I could to see the top when I realised there was something beneath my right foot. Looking down, I saw thin strands of a sticky white liquid with a black not-so-solid substance clinging to my heel. That goddamned bird, I thought.

As I walked to the bathroom on mostly one leg trying to avoid leaving footprints of bird shit on the clean floor, I couldn't help but allow myself a big, wide, foolish grin on my face. Had it really been Kafka's call? Or had I imagined it all? I didn't care anymore.

For that one moment, there was just me. And there was Kafka on the Floor.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - The Year in Reading and the Best Books I've Read this Year

Alright, it's the festive season and this is the time of the year I assume this air of self-importance & write about the best books I read in the year, just like what I did in the dying hours of New Year's Eve, 2012. If you were kind enough to read my list from last year, thank you. For those who didn't, well, please do & note that the books in the list were not exactly published in 2012 but they were read by yours truly in that year, so they made their way onto it. I'll be doing the same for this year's list as well, but since I accomplished my best-ever yearly haul till date (90 to be exact), I will feel criminal if I had to restrict the list to just 10 books. So to make it a bit poetic, the list will comprise the 13 best books I read in 2013. (13 - 2013, see?)

Before I start on the list, let's take stock of what I set out to do in terms of reading at the start of 2013 & what I eventually ended up doing. I read quite a bit of sports literature in 2012 but the focus this year was primarily on fiction, the sports books' count being a meagre 5 out of 90. I have to admit that figure includes short novellas (Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Kafka's The Metamorphosis, Stephen King's Throttle & Nick Hornby's Everyone's Reading Bastard! among others) as well as graphic novels (Herge's Tintin & Mark Millar's Kick-Ass) but everyone needs a break at times from serious literature & if you think I was slacking a bit, I wasn't. Here's the proof -

Yeah, the actual amount exceeds even that since these stats arrived in my mailbox in mid-December & I've continued to read long-form pieces on Pocket. Though I haven't read The Great Gatsby yet. Yeah, shame on me. Next year, definitely.

Thanks to the Goodreads Reading Challenge, I backed myself to pick up writers I'd never read before - some of them being Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Orhan Pamuk & Chuck Palahniuk. My initial target was set at 50, but I completed that in just over six months which induced me to raise it to 75 & that was accomplished by the end of October as well. So thank you Goodreads & everyone present on my friends list there, for you have been very helpful through your recommendations, reviews & discussions.

I also finally bought a tablet computer (which is no big deal though I'll try to make it sound like that) in June & that has given me access to hundreds of books I only imagined I would buy someday. That's right - I perhaps bought around 200 books (from used-book stores) in the period from September 2012 to June 2013 but my crazy buying habits declined considerably after the purchase of a tab. That being said, I still feel the buzz when I walk into a bookstore that I'd probably never feel when I browse through the Aldiko app shelves on my tablet.

Enough of the digression, though 'The Year in Reading' is clearly mentioned before 'The Best Books I've read' in the title of the post itself. Let me proceed with my list of the 13 books I felt were the best ones I've read in 2013. Every book on the list possibly has its merits & limitations, so the order I'm sticking with is chronological i.e. the order in which I read them this year. Here you go -

Animal Farm

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Rupa Classics Library [Paperback]

First Published: 1945

Summary: Manor Farm is like any other English farm, except for a drunken owner, Mr Jones, incompetent workers and oppressed animals. Fed up with the ignorance of their human masters, the animals rise up in rebellion and take over the farm. Led by intellectually superior pigs like Snowball and Napolean, the animals vow to take charge of their destiny and remove the inequities of their lives. But as time passes, they realize that things aren't happening quite as expected...

Animal Farm is, on one level, a simple story about barnyard animals. On a much deeper level, it is a savage political satire on corrupted ideals, misdirected revolutions and class conflict - themes as valid today as they were sixty years ago.

Review: I remember reading it in the college library the day after I returned from our college trip to Hyderabad. I finished it under two hours & by the end, my mind was blown. On the face of it, it looks like one of Aesop's Fables but it's actually a hard-hitting work of political satire in which Orwell criticizes Stalin's highly-flawed Communist philosophy & tears it apart to shreds through dexterous use of allegory. One runs out of words admiring the way Orwell does it. 'Animal Farm' is a masterpiece of English literature & The Economist was not much off the mark in its praise - "Some classics are more equal than others."

The Sense of an Ending

Author: Julian Barnes

Publisher: Jonathan Cape [Hardcover]

First Published: 2011

Summary: Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world's most distinguished writers.

Review: I was bit unhappy with trying to make sense of the ending of this aptly-named Booker Prize-winning novel, but I love how the story unfolds - the now-sixty-something narrator Tony Webster first gives us a version of his side of events (as in whatever he manages to infer from memory) & tells us about his school life, friends - in particular Adrian Finn (the most pivotal character in this book) & his romantic forays during his youth. Just when you start drawing out your conclusions about the characters' personalities, a letter arrives out of nowhere & sets wheels in motion, of which nothing good can ever come out. As the letter manages to refurbish Tony Webster's memories about his relationship with Veronica among other events, the true nature of every character is revealed as the novel progresses there onward.

Where this novel's brilliance is most evident is how it manages to tell a rather long story in 150 odd pages. In fact, you never get the feeling that it's such a short read. All in all, 'The Sense of an Ending' by Julian Barnes is a must read for fans of literary fiction & those who are looking to grab a slice of life's innumerable tragicomedies. Highly recommended.

Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel

Publisher: Canongate [Paperback]

First Published: 2001

Summary: After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbling on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orangutan... and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger.

The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary works of fiction in recent years.

Review: I'm not an atheist. I'm not agnostic. I'm not deeply religious. And I'm not much of a spiritual person either. But when I consider this book as a work of literature, I'm lost for words. This book is essentially a fantasy novel, but there are so many other elements in this novel. There's science fiction. There is magical realism. There's fable & there's allegory. There is spiritualism & there is religion too - two concepts which are separated from one another by a marginally thin line. When all these elements are combined together - you either get an incredible mess of philosophical shit that would be hardly understood by anyone, or you get an extraordinary tale of adventure, survival & courage in the face of adversity. And the latter is what Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel 'Life of Pi' exactly is.

It doesn't matter whether you've watched Ang Lee's excellent movie adaptation. It's not very dissimilar, but I still reckon you read this book just because it's such a fantastic story on so many levels. Highly recommended & a must read for readers across all genres.

Look at the Birdie

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Publisher: Vintage Originals [Paperback]

First Published: 2009

Summary: Look at the Birdie is a surprising and often hilarious collection of stories set in post-war America, a world of squabbling couples, high school geniuses, misfit office workers, and small-town Lotharios.

Though written early in his career and never published before, these stories showcase all Vonnegut's trademark skills - a deep sense of humanity, a sharp eye for the absurd and humour in the most unlikely of places.

Review: The stories in this compilation dabble in a variety of genres - ranging from sci-fi to romance to whodunit to allegory to Depression-era coming-of-age tales to life's tragicomedies. There is a maverick inventor who creates a billion-dollar talking machine that delves into the darkest recesses of one's mind ('Confido') & then they are tiny beings who fly around in a spaceship that looks like a paper knife ('The Nice Little People'). You have a dull, boring PR officer whose bright new assistant gives him love & his life back ('FUBAR'), a squabbling couple who have lost love on account of one spouse finding fame ('Shout About It from the Housetops') & then you see two naive rich love birds having their first brush against poverty in the Depression era ('King and Queen of the Universe').

There are two tales of crime & mystery too - 'Ed Luby's Key Club' moves at the blistering pace of a thriller while 'The Honor of the Newsboy' is a classic whodunit. And let's not forget the one from which the compilation gets its title, where a once-upon-a-time quack finds a new way to make his living. My personal favourite, however, has to be 'The Petrified Ants' - all I can say that for me, it's somewhat of a crossover short story equivalent of George Orwell's two greatest works. I'm not kidding.

In each of the stories here, you find that touch of humanity in the narrative, the raw emotions, the deep understanding of how people react to different situations & Vonnegut's uncanny ability to find humour in the unlikeliest of places. The storytelling is simplistic & straightforward but yet so good & pleasant to read. Highly recommended for those who enjoy short stories & fans of the author, for it does provide valuable insight into the making of one of America's greatest post-war writers.

City of Thieves

Author: David Benioff

Publisher: Sceptre [Paperback]

First Published: 2008

Summary: In the coldest winter in history, in a starving city under siege, two prisoners are thrown together on a desperate adventure.

Lev, a shy, chess-loving teenager and Kolya, a charismatic chancer.

They are given one week to complete an extraordinary mission: to scout the ravaged countryside and find a dozen eggs.

Or come back empty-handed, and die.

Review: I really didn't think I could be shocked by anything in Stalinist Russia after 'Child 44', but I was wrong. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible. A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing Lothario with the gifts of a conman.

Set in the backdrop of the siege of Leningrad during WWII, 'City of Thieves' is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men. It is a mix of all the right ingredients in just the right amounts & you're never bored or distracted once you're into it. A terrific & brilliant book - an absolute page-turner from start to end.

Norwegian Wood

Author: Haruki Murakami [translated by Jay Rubin]

Publisher: The Harvill Press [eBook]

First Published: 1987

Summary: Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.

Review: Perhaps the novel that I connected with the most on an intimate & extremely personal level. That perhaps explains why I failed to write a review for the book on Goodreads at the time & am still unable to. Laced with Murakami's beautiful & surrealistic writing, this is a heartwarming tale of love, loss & life. If you're looking to pick up Murakami for the first time in 2014, this is probably the best place to start.

Em and The Big Hoom

Author: Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Aleph [Paperback]

First Published: 2012

Summary: In a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen in Mahim, Bombay, Imelda Mendes – Em to her children – holds her family in thrall with her flamboyance, her compelling imagination, her unspoken love, her sometimes cruel candour. Through this, her husband, to whom she was once ‘buttercup’, her son and daughter learn to cope with her mania and her frequent wish to die.

A searing, and at times darkly funny, study of mental illness, Jerry Pinto's first novel is also a deeply moving story about love and family relationships.

Review: Jerry Pinto took twenty-five odd years to write his debut novel but when he finally managed to finish it, you can only stare in amazement (after you've read it, of course) at his marvellous achievement. Writing a book about mental illness is pretty much equivalent to walking a tightrope, but Pinto infuses this story with just the right doses of humour, love, frustration, sorrow & nostalgia. Winner of the Hindu Literary Prize & the Crossword Book Award for Fiction, this is a gem of a book & I highly recommend it for its sensitive handling of a difficult subject.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Pocket Books [Paperback]

First Published: 2000

Summary: "Long live the King" hailed Entertainment Weekly upon the publication of Stephen King's On Writing. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer's craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King's advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported near-fatal accident in 1999 -- and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly and inspiring, "On Writing" will empower and entertain everyone who reads it -- fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told.

Review: Part memoir & part writing manual, Stephen King gives us a modern classic of sorts in 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft'. Having been touted by fans & critics alike as the undisputed king of storytelling, King starts off by explaining the reason behind writing this book in the first place. He then moves on to telling us about his journey towards becoming the writer he is today - his childhood, inspirations from pop culture in his adolescent years & the struggling phase of his career as he barely managed to make ends meet. In 'Toolbox' & 'On Writing', King lists down the essentials one would require to become a successful writer as far as popular fiction is concerned. He covers aspects like vocabulary, grammar, dialogue, narrative pace among others while illustrating the points he makes with the help of numerous excerpts from his own works as well as those of others. In the final third of this book (On Living), King narrates the near-fatal road accident he suffered in agonizing detail & how writing eventually helped him recover both physically & mentally.

Recommended for those who love to read, highly recommended for those who intend to pursue a career in writing & a must read for those who wish to discover the love of doing both.

Shalimar the Clown

Author: Salman Rushdie

Publisher: Vintage [Paperback]

First Published: 2005

Summary: Los Angeles, 1991. Maximilian Ophuls ius knifed to death on the doorstep of his illegitimate daughter India, slaughtered by his Kashmiri driver, a mysterious figure who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. The dead man is a World War II resistance hero, a man of formidable intellectual ability and much erotic appeal, a former United States ambassador to India, and subsequently America's counter-terrorism chief. The murder looks at first like a political assassination but turns out to be passionately personal.

This is the story of Max, his killer, and his daughter - and of a fourth character, the woman who links them all. The story of a deep love gone fatally wrong, destroyed by a shallow affair, it is an epic narrative that moves from California to France, England, and above all, Kashmir: a ruined paradise, not so much lost as smashed.

Review: I've been a reader for some time now & I've read a few good books but none of them have made me realise the power of fiction. Until I picked up 'Shalimar the Clown'. By all means, Salman Rushdie is no mean writer. What he does is that he weaves an epic narrative that transcends time, space as well as continents as we follow the lives & fortunes of the major players of this tale.

We see ourselves transported back in the past, to a time when Kashmir was still what the Great Mughal emperor Jehangir pronounced as 'Paradise on Earth'. We're then whooshed away to Europe, where bloodshed & strife is rife in the midst of World War II, as a young Max Ophuls establishes his reputation as a master forger in the Resistance against the Nazi forces & through his acts of daring and espionage, he is elevated to hero-like status. There is Shalimar the Clown, who ditches his vocation of a public performer & turns to terrorism to avenge the betrayal of the love of his life. And there is that woman - the Woman - a free-thinking spirit feeling trapped in a closely-knit community, who wishes to fly away to distant lands & like the legendary Anarkali who desires the forbidden love of a prince. Finally, an integral part of the story despite technically being a sub-plot in itself - Kashmir. Being of Kashmiri descent himself, the issue of Kashmir is obviously close to Rushdie's heart & as we watch the paradise turn into living hell for its residents as Kashmir is hammered & smashed by militants as well as that uniformed military force that calls itself the Indian Army, whose actions are no less questionable than those of the extremist groups.

'Shalimar the Clown' by Salman Rushdie is undoubtedly an important book & I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to understand the Kashmir issue. A must read for fans of literary fiction & should you decide to read this, be prepared to be mesmerized by one of the most sublime storytellers of our times.

The Lowland

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Knopf [eBook]

First Published: 2013

Summary: Born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other in the Calcutta neighborhood where they grow up.  But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead. It is the 1960s, and Udayan—charismatic and impulsive—finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty; he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother’s political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family’s home, he goes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind—including those seared in the heart of his brother’s wife.

Masterly suspenseful, sweeping, piercingly intimate, The Lowland is a work of great beauty and complex emotion; an engrossing family saga and a story steeped in history that spans generations and geographies with seamless authenticity. It is Jhumpa Lahiri at the height of her considerable powers.

Review: 'The Lowland' resonated with me far more than some works of fiction I've rated five out of five stars before. Maybe because I'm a Probashi Bengali (expatriate Bong) myself & I can empathise with the kind of emotions some of the main characters of this book go through as the plot progresses. Like 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami, I was able to relate to the characters much better because of the phases of life they happen to be in, which perhaps struck a chord.

'The Lowland' by Jhumpa Lahiri certainly makes for a compelling read. Highly recommended if you wish to experience the work of a writer unafraid of exploring complex relationships of blood & bond, creating difficult situations & indulging in moral dilemmas.

The Great Indian Novel

Author: Shashi Tharoor

Publisher: Penguin [Paperback]

First Published: 1989

Summary: In his award-winning, internationally acclaimed debut novel, Shashi Tharoor has masterfully recast the 2,000 year-old epic, The Mahabharata, with fictional but highly recognizable events and characters from twentieth-century Indian politics. Chronicling the Indian struggle for freedom and independence from Great Britain, Tharoor directs his hilarious satire as much against Indian foibles as the bumbling of the British rulers.

Review: Shashi Tharoor's debut work of fiction is essentially a retelling of the Indian epic Mahabharata, but it falls in the realm of political satire by drawing parallels with major events in India's political history during the freedom movement as well as in the post-independence era.

The author deserves to be applauded for deciding to reinterpret & present Indian history in a different light and his courage (yes, in a country where many people seem to lack a sense of humour when it comes to 'culture') in assuming an irreverent attitude towards some of India's greatest political leaders throughout the narrative. Also, credit must go to Tharoor for making brilliant use of prose as well as verse as a literary device, which pays homage to the epic itself. Tharoor also indulges in exploring the relevance of the Hindu concepts of dharma & karma in today's world, questions the writing of our official history books & leaves the small matter of the motto 'Satyamev Jayate' (Truth Alone Triumphs) open to discussion.

'The Great Indian Novel' is without doubt a great Indian novel & I'm certainly in agreement with those critics who have hailed this book as arguably one of the finest works of fiction as far as post-modern Indian literature is concerned. A must read for every Indian who doesn’t mind having a laugh at those we usually revere.

A Most Wanted Man

Author: John le Carre

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton [Paperback]

First Published: 2008

Summary: A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse around his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa.

Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client's survival becomes more important to her than her own career. In pursuit of Issa's mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Freres, a failing British bank based in Hamburg.

A triangle of impossible loves is born.

Meanwhile, scenting a pure kill in the so-called War on Terror, the spies of three nations converge upon the innocents.

Poignant, compassionate, peopled with characters the reader never wants to let go, A Most Wanted Man is alive with humour, yet prickles with tension until the last heart-stopping page. It is also a work of deep humanity, and uncommon relevance to our times.

Review: I still haven't figured out what it is that makes me like John le Carre's works. I mean, he's the only one among my favourite authors whose books are more than often overflowing with excruciating & tireless amount of detail & the writing verging on being boring & tedious at times. And yet, when I get to the end of it, it all seems worth the effort. And then Le Carre surprises me by something like 'A Most Wanted Man', that seems to carry none of the aforementioned traits.

'A Most Wanted Man' is in line with the trend of Le Carre's pessimism & sense of doom regarding the West (esp. the Bush-Blair era) that has been ongoing since the brilliant 'The Constant Gardener' & continued in the tragicomic 'Absolute Friends'. In fact, one could say it surpasses both works on that count, for one feels engulfed by this sense of sadness on finishing this book. Brimming with tension till the final page, this is a book that only reaffirms that even in the post-Cold War era, John le Carre's ability to write books that are deeply relevant with the times is unparalleled.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow

Author: Eduardo Galeano [translated by Mark Fried]

Publisher: Byliner Classics [eBook]

First Published: 1995 [updated in 2013]

Summary: Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow has established itself over the last decade as one of the most celebrated books on the world’s greatest and most popular game. Readers all over the world have been drawn to the hundreds of magical stories that Galeano conjures and to his confession, "Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: 'A pretty move, for the love of God.' And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

In this new edition, which encompasses Galeano’s reflections on the 2010 World Cup, tragedy spins a continuous thread through these pages - remember Andres Escobar, the Colombian defender, whose own goal lost his country a game in the 1994 World Cup and was subsequently gunned down in Medellin? - but where there is shadow there is also the bright sunlight of joy and beauty, of the Italian striker whose shorts in the run up to a penalty kick in the 1938 World Cup fell down around his knees   he pulled them back up, and with the goalkeeper and stadium in pleats of laughter, scored the goal that saw Italy to the final. Galeano concludes that "soccer is a pleasure that hurts, and the music of a victory that gets the dead dancing is akin to the clamorous silence of an empty stadium, where one defeated fan, unable to move, sits in the middle of the immense stands, alone."

Review: I'm still to write a review for this on Goodreads, but I can safely say this is arguably one of the most compelling books ever written on the Beautiful Game. Eduardo Galeano's riveting commentary on the history and politics of soccer discusses everything from the leveling of the Twin Towers to the death of the sole survivor of that extraordinary match between British and German soldiers in 1915, robotic soccer in Japan, the mass-production of the game as a sign of the decline of civilization, the amazing success of Senegal and Turkey in recent World Cups, and how Nike beat Adidas.

And there we are done with CJ's Thirteen, but that cannot be all, can it? I would feel criminal if some more were not given their due, for they too did not fail to delight me. Here are some more worthy of a mention -

Complicity by Iain Banks

A roller-coaster ride involving murder, sex & dark secrets buried in a forgettable past.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

If anyone can make suicide a laughing matter, it's got to be Hornby.

Enigma by Robert Harris

A WWII spy thriller set in the backdrop of Bletchley Park, the hub of English code-breakers.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Not your classical whodunit murder mystery.

One Day by David Nicholls

The most heartwarming romantic novel I've read this year.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Transcends genre & time in the most surrealistic manner literature could have imagined.

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

Entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. A Bollywood-ish masala thriller with high-tension courtroom drama.

Provided You Don't Kiss Me by Duncan Hamilton

A extremely enjoyable & insightful memoir of the legendary Brian Clough by his one-time closest media-confidante.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

A fun-filled, rollicking time-travel saga in which the protagonist attempts to prevent the JFK assassination.

My Autobiography by Alex Ferguson

Come on, it's Sir Alex Ferguson. How can he be not on the list?

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

For the sheer magnitude & extra-ordinariness of it. A profound tribute to human willpower.

And finally, we come to the books I reviewed on request this year & the best book would be anointed as the 'Discovery of the Year' (we're getting used to fancy names by now). There were three serious contenders for the prize - A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, The Hangman's Replacement by Taona Dumisani & The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman. And the winner is -

Yes, it's Aroon Raman's debut novel that takes the honours!

And that's it for this super-long post. Pray forgive yours truly for being a bit cocky & probably irritating the heck out of you (in case you sincerely read the whole of it instead of just skimming over the titles) coz you don't carry along any grudges into the New Year, do you?

That's all Folks!

Here's wishing you, dear Reader, a very Happy New Year 2014. Happy Reading!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Van Persie hungry for success

Robin van Persie says Manchester United are hungrier than ever to win silverware ahead of the new season.
The Dutchman moved to Old Trafford last summer and made an immediate impact, firing a total of 35 goals in all competitions as the Red Devils reclaimed the Premier League title from local rivals Manchester City.

Although the Manchester clubs have largely dominated English football over the last two years, the latest Premier league  betting suggests the upcoming campaign promises to be one of the most intriguing of recent times following the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from the United hotseat and the return of Jose Mourinho to Chelsea.

David Moyes has been handed the task of replacing Ferguson and it’s been suggested by some punters who bet on football  that the Scot’s failure to win a major trophy during his time at Everton could see United lack the killer instinct that they always had under his compatriot.

Despite being yet to do any real business, the Red Devils are expected to bring in a number of new stars to Old Trafford in the next few weeks in a bid to build a side capable of competing in Europe.

Van Persie is likely to be at the forefront of their challenge this season and says he and his team-mates are hungrier than ever to win yet more silverware for the club.

“I still have more years left and it's not like I'm saying, 'Yes, we won the league so that's me done'. I want more now. It makes me hungrier,” he told the Sun. "I was hungry last year but now I'm more hungry. We have a great bunch of players so we can win more and do better.

"Last season we won the league and that was great but this time we want to win the league and more as well."