23 August 2007


Author: Nikita Lalwani
Published in:2007
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 272
Price: 395
Genre: Fiction

With quite an uninspiring title and zero buzz around it, it wasn't likely that I'd have picked this book up anytime soon. But given that it's in this year's Booker long list (whatever that's worth), and considering my growing fondness for Indian literature, I gave it a shot in the dark.

For most part, the novel’s central theme is a brutal examination of how bright, young minds can emotionally collapse, under the weight of exacting parental pressure and isolation. That the story is set in London in the 80s is relevant to the extent that the family here is among the first generation NRIs, who believe their children, being born in a western world, have a greatly enhanced and realistic chance of making it big. It's another thing that the period feel didn't come across too well for me.

The fact that the intellectually inclined Mahesh grasps the potential of his 10-year-old daughter, Rumi, as a maths protégée and prods her to ‘focus’ at every point, appeals at a certain level. But as he takes over her life completely, breaking up her every free minute into exacting schedules, lowering the room temperature to keep her ‘alert’ and constantly keeping her mind engaged in equations, you know there’s something eerily wrong. Mahesh and Rumi’s relationship has its tender moments but when fatherly hands are raised to desperate wails on one occasion, something snaps here permanently.

While psychotic levels of academic excellence is demanded from Rumi, unfortunately, that's not her only point of crisis. An adherence to strict Indian values is another burden she has to carry.
Rumi’s mother Shreene, while apathetic to the constant number churning in the house, is portrayed as so backward that she comes across as one of the most despicable characters in the book. There’s a scene where 15-year-old Rumi, walks up to her mother firmly telling her that it’s time that she got a bra! Shreene’s reaction to this ‘suggestive’ request is one of shock and disdain! Obviously, the author's choice of period offers such scenes a semblance of rationality but thereby Lalwani ends up putting Rumi through situations that expect inhuman levels of stoicism from her.

Rumi's relief comes when she can finally leave home as a Maths protégée to Oxford at 15! There's a brilliant scene here where she starts making different faces at the mirror, spouting the most obscene expletives. This is her first moment of freedom! It's especially touching to see her unleash her suppressed sexuality through free physical expression of it whenever she gets a chance, only to be misunderstood and spurned by different guys. Also, Rumi's addiction of cumin seeds, indicates her severe depression and rage.

Figures don't make sense to Rumi anymore and she struggles through her Oxford lectures, until she decides to completely release herself from the web of numbers.

The book scores heavily on originality. But more importantly, it possesses a rare emotional power that makes it both a heartbreaking and deeply affective read on several counts. Also, it's quite a mad story really.
Of course, this is not to say that Nikita Lalwani's debut novel is perfect. Besides some of the conversational pieces that have been very ordinarily handled (yet, there are some brilliant ones too), I also had issues with such a lopsided narrative, that offers absolutely no respite to its young protagonist.

The story remains uniformly engaging, with grim family showdowns, and a certain element of suspense running throughout, qualities probably derived from her work as a producer of documentaries for BBC.

All in all, this is a prominent debut by a writer this year and I for one, would be interested in Nikita Lalwani's next offering.

20 August 2007

The Namesake

In nameless conflict

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Price: 395
Pages: 291
Published in: 2003
Publishers: Harper Collins

It would only be fair to mention here that I saw Mira Nair's adaptation of the book before I actually got down to reading this novel recently. Having loved the film, I was keen to see how Lahiri had approached her characters and where its cinematic version stood in comparison.

I'll say two things. First, I feel this is one of the few times when the film more than does justice to the book and second, that the book itself is a deeply involving and affecting experience. In fact, so compassionate and compelling is the writer's understanding of her characters and their complexes, that the novel stays uniformly engaging till the very last page. Also, it helps that this is an extremely easy read and I for one, found myself going through it at a ravenous pace.

Jhumpa Lahiri, being an NRI herself, is adequately at home in tackling the theme of re-location and search for identity. As a reader, one gets instantly drawn into the lives of young Ashima and Ashoke, who are a bundle of nerves in an alien country, far from adoring relatives and friends in Calcutta. The writer's description of how the couple grapples with the ways of a new world yet tightly holding on to their roots is deeply moving and rings true at every point.

When a letter from their grandmother in India, enclosing the name for their first born doesn't arrive in time, Ashoke instinctively and naively (as their son says later in life) names him Gogol- a name, derived from the Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, with whom the latter feels a deep connection. The name comes to embarrass their son as he grows older and is a reminder of his confused being -it's not even a proper Bengali name, he protests!

Gogol's agony is not so much about being born to Indian parents, as much as being saddled with a name that seems to convey nothing, in a way accentuating his feeling of "not really belonging to anything"
After much internal struggle, he changes his name to a more acceptable Indian name, Nikhil and feels it would enable him to face the world more confidently.

In all this, Gogol has started seeing the narrowness of the world that his parents inhabit, their fear of adventure, their lack of 'openness' --qualities which are in complete contrast to some other Amercian couples he's come to know --in this case his girlfriend, Maxine's parents, who live life king size on their own terms. Gogol sees before him a whole new way of living, which he starts aspiring for.

The fact that he is no longer 'Gogol'- the name his parents gave him---enables him to distance himself from them more easily than he ever did in the past.
The writer captures all these parts brilliantly and it's fairly easy to relate with Gogol's confusion and predicament.
Nevertheless, a total surrender to an Americanized life, nullifying any attachment to his roots, is also not acceptable to him, as we see later.

But for me personally, the best part of the novel was Gogol's marriage to his childhood family friend Maushami Muzumdar. The latter is far from a conventional Bengali girl and Gogol is attracted to her individualitic streak and high living. In many ways, Maushami bridges a certain important gap in his mind and presents to him the best of both worlds --- she's Bengali like him, so in a strange way that's a comforting feeling. At the same time, she displays the same excessive, broadminded living of the Americans.

However, the fact that this relationship collapses and leaves no mark in their individual lives whatsoever, is also a telling statement about how, ultimately, coming from a similar background provides no guarantee for marital success. On the other hand, his sister Sonia's marriage to an American proves to be quite blissful.
The ending, which shows Gogol browsing through the pages of the book on Nikolai Gogol that his father had presented to him before he died, does appear a bit simplistic in its symbolism. Is he finally coming to terms with his dual identity? Is he finally growing to be comfortable in his own skin? These are answers to questions that can only be guessed.

08 August 2007

Cinnamon Gardens

Author: Shyam Selvadurai
Peguin: Peguin
Price: Rs 325
Pages: 389
Genre: Fiction

 Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy remains my most favourite book, and it naturally stoked an interest in me to read his second book, Cinnamon Gardens. Which I did recently. It did not disappoint me, but it lacks the spontaneous and emotional appeal of Funny Boy.

But I love the period that Selvadurai chooses for his second. The book is set in a rich suburb of Sri Lanka in the 1920s. The country is still under British rule, but stirrings for independence have begun. The author captures a lot of the politics of the period, but he is essentially interested in creating a novel of manners.  So greatly influenced is Selvadurai by Jane Austen, that he not only borrows  the central theme of Pride And Prejudice but also makes the novel resemble an 18th century British family drama.

Selvadurai has done his research on this Sri Lankan period and specifically about families who stayed in Cinnamon Gardens (a locality that actually existed) to 'get a sense of what went on beneath the polished veneer'

The novel has two parallel threads, one is about Annalukshmi, a 20 something feisty, independent girl who resists the idea of conventional marriage. 
Her sisters (Kumudini and Manohari) don’t share her ‘odd’ ideas. There's a high-strung, critical aunt by the name of Phelomena who constantly adds fuel to fire. Her mother Louisa, herself a victim of a tumultuous marriage tries hard to protect the interests of her daughters even as she has to constantly worry about getting them the ‘right’ husbands.

 A Victorian propriety runs through the proceedings.  Here reputation is a fragile commodity and even mild gossip can harm matrimonial prospects.

The other parallel story is about Balendran (Bala), the son of a wealthy patriarch, Mudaliar. The latter is a self-important, hypocritical sort of man, who believes in exerting his power and having his way each time. His elder son Arul rebels against his double standards and marries a low cast girl, resulting in him being banished by the father. Mudaliar’s second son, Balendran is much more plaint and remains loyal and abiding, much to chagrin of his wife Sonia.
In his days as a student in London, Bala carried on a relationship which his partner Richard. When it was discovered, all hell broke loose and Mudaliar made sure the 'filth' ended.

Both stories move in an alternating fashion and it's interesting to read about the Sri Lankan politics of the time. The elite Cylonese claimed right of self-rule from the British, even though they were opposed to universal franchise, that would allow women and low castes the right to vote. Similarly, the Tamil Cylonese among the elite were worried that they had a disadvantage with numbers and if they went for public voting, their powers would be largely reduced. Naturally, men like Mudaliar wanted the Britishers to rule, giving Tamils like him all the patronage they needed.

The two stories are not naturally connected and the gay love story doesn’t fit in at all. Also, it’s not quite clear what the novel is trying to say. I mean, with Funny Boy, every character held an important thread to tie the novel thematically. Here you're not so sure.

Yet, the novel stays engaging enough and Selvadurai's greatest quality is the ease and elegance of his prose.