Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Book Review : Life of Pi

Title : Life of Pi
Author : Yann Martel
Publisher : Canongate/Random House
ISBN : 978-1-84195-392-2

There are some stories, I consider fortunate enough to enjoy the spotlight of the center stage more than once in their life times. Life of Pi happens to be one of them. Published in 2001 after being rejected by at least five publishing houses in London, Life of Pi won Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the following year. Later it got translated to a couple of other languages too. The story has managed to create hysteria once again after a decade when it has been adapted into a movie by an ace director - Ang Lee.

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel written by Yann Martel. The protagonist of the story is Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel, an Indian boy hailing from Pondicherry, who happens to get his unusual name courtesy a famous swimming pool in Paris. His not so regular name makes him subject of a lot of ridicule, teasing and some funny incidents though it brings a lot of distress for the owner of the name himself.

Majoring in religious studies and zoology, Pi's quest to learn more about the divine power leads him to be a Muslim-Christian-Hindu, a rare combination indeed. The family (his parents, elder brother Ravi and he)decides to make the alien lands of Canada their home when his father, a zoo owner decides to call it quits in India. But that was not destined to be and the cargo ship tragically sinks in the rough waters of ocean leaving just a few survivors on the solitary lifeboat - newly orphaned sixteen year old Pi, a hyena, a monkey, a crippled zebra and a royal Bengal tiger who accidentally got the name Richard Parker. And hence the stage is set for a perfectly adventurous, nerve wrecking tale of fiction.

Life of Pi turns out to be a coming of age story of a boy who is caught in a strangely precarious situation where it is unimaginable to be sharing a lifeboat with a tiger while it is equally important for him to keep the tiger alive.  "A part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. "

His experiences, understanding, grit, patience, suffering and much more equip him to churn the same into fine pearls of wisdom. Situations which demand all possible and many times impossible faculties of an individual make the highlight of the book and it is wonderful to read how the survival instincts kick in at the right time. 'When your life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival'.

After struggling with many menacing foes, learning a lot more than regular routine offers, graduating from being a simple vegetarian to eating anything for survival, realizing the desperation that threat to survival poses, confronting the power of fear from close quarters, witnessing the magical presence of God on many occasions, riding the waves of hope and despair continuously, striking a symbiotic relationship with a creature with whom it is most unlikely, Pi, in the company of Richard Parker reaches the shores of Mexico after 227 days. 

The commendable part of Martels's writing is the life like portrayal of Pi, every mood, every feeling and every scene. Pi's questioning and analyzing mind goads the readers to introspect on many issues including the one that stays in the thinking minds always - presence of God. Overall an extremely well written, engaging account of adventurous life of Pi indeed. The story is power packed with action, philosophy, spirituality and introspection - all in one.

Some excerpts from the book worth copying here:

"Fear is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for our weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in the mind always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with a little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapon technology. But to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread. "

"Ataman seeks to realize Brahman, to be united with the Absolute, and it travels in this life on a pilgrimage where it is born and dies, and is born again, and again and again, until it manages to shed the sheaths that imprison it here below."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Book Review : Manto

Title : Manto
Author : Sadan Hasan Manto (Translated by Aatish Taseer)
Publisher : Random House India
ISBN : 978-8-184-00144-0

The author Sadan Hasan Manto born in undivided India donned many hats ranging from being a radio and film scriptwriter, journalist to a short-story writer. Though his short stories created many controversies yet he is acclaimed as one of the greatest story tellers of his times. In Manto's words, "If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth." Originally written in Urdu, his short-stories have been translated by none other than an accomplished writer himself - Aatish Taseer. Perhaps this is the reason that while reading this translation I never felt the missing link which usually the regular translations suffer from. The language is great and even though I have not read the original Urdu stories, I still could enjoy the details and nuances as would be done while reading classics of seasoned authors. So my compliments to Aatish Taseer that he brought the works of Manto to wider audience.

After reading these short stories, the most significant thing that could be said about the writing is that - his stories carry much more beyond the written text and understanding what is written between the lines make the stories and the story teller tower higher than the crowd.

Manto's stories introduce the readers to the realities of life and there are times when the reality is not very pleasing for the eyes and otherwise. Since his writings are around the time of partition, they do carry a somber mood and pessimism to a certain extent. This book brought back the memories of the writings of Khushwant Singh, Gurcharan Das, Gulzar and likes of them. Manto's writing has similar sensitivity and emotional aspect to them whether it is about : 'Toba Tek Singh' - a lunatic caught in no man's land, 'The Last Salute' which depicts friends turning into foes, child prostitute in 'Ten Rupees', cultural boundaries in 'The Mice of Shah Daulah' or the plight of a father after seeing her lost daughter in 'Khol Do'. Every tale stirs many deep seated strings within the hearts of the readers and I consider that an achievement of the storyteller.

The stories are set mostly in North western region of India which bore the brunt of partition the most. These 11 sensitively written stories explore those aspects of some lives which usually are left unspoken and un-talked about. In spite of belonging to conservative era, Manto did not hesitate to write about sensitive subjects so his writings were much ahead of his time. Usually women centric, the stories bring out the aspects which go beyond the realm of rationality and logic. These perceptive short stories would surely keep haunting the readers in times of non-activity.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Book Review : Bohemia

Title : Bohemia
Author : Veronika Carnaby

This is the debut novel of Veronika Carnaby and she chose 1960s as backdrop to portray the lives of a bunch of young adults in their twenties, who try to carve a path for themselves in order to satisfy their creative urge. This particular set of youngsters highly influenced by free-spiritedness of the beat generation confront many obstacles, challenges and experience some very pleasant times together while treading this path.

The story is set in England and is narrated by Valerie, a vivacious person who wants to create an identity for herself. Her association with Emm and some other like minded individuals takes her to various places from New York, Chicago to Boston. It is through her eyes and ears that the readers get a flavour of fine music and other forms of fine arts. The author has beautifully dealt with the description of music and how sometimes it becomes such a powerful tool to influence the lives of people who are passionate about it. It is commendable how the author has etched the character of Valerie who comes across an epitome of liberation and exuberance.

The narrative does give a feel of the depth of relationships in that period which seem to run much low on the emotional side. Valerie cared for her friends but not to that extent which could make her committed to a certain thing for any of them.  The story becomes engaging at some points while there are some portions where it appears to be too scattered and jumpy. These are the parts which hinder the natural flow of the story and lessen the impact of the proceedings. The high points of the narration are the parts where the surroundings and people are meticulously described which work perfectly as inviting factor for the readers and a great way to make readers understand the essence of that period of time.

Usually I am open to all genres of books with an exception of suspense thrillers. But after reading Bohemia, I can say that is not my kind of book either. Though all the characters are meticulously carved by the author which I enjoyed reading about, yet, nobody could make an impact on me by the time I finished reading the book. There are overwhelmingly large number of characters with different personalities and there is too much of movement (literally) happening in the book which makes it hard to flow seamlessly with the storyline. It is not the book which stays with you for a long time and it never attempts to be one either. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review : Asura - Tale of the Vanquished

Title : Asura - Tale of the Vanquished
Author : Anand Neelakantan
Publisher : Platinum Press
ISBN : 978-93-81576-05-2

I enjoy reading retellings of our age old epics and do not mind how different authors enthuse their creativity and imagination in the same to bring out different perspectives. I guess I must have read and reviewed close to a dozen such books which are either purely fictional or are reporting of the original story with some twists here and there.

However, 'Asura' is the first book which walks the readers through the situations and circumstances in Ravana's life and how the same made him the person he was. It was indeed interesting to read how author's flight of imagination soars in this book and brings a completely unique angle to the whole story. It would be unfair for the readers if I talk about that unimaginable twist in the review here, it is better left un-revealed.

We all are well conversant with the broad storyline of Ramayana, however the same story appears to be a completely modified version when it is narrated by different characters which are very much a part of the story or when it is being reported by a third person. In Asura, author works on the pretext of what if the opposite side - the Asura side, has its own story to tell. How many of us know about that side of the saga? Throughout the book, the narrative oscillates between Ravana and  another character Bhadra whose life was ruined by Devas. Ravana has some very strong reasons for doing what he did, including being present in the Swayamvara of Sita, followed by her abduction which led him to his own doom.

The story begins with Ravana nearing his death in the battlefield and his whole life flashes past through his eyes. A Shiva devotee, an accomplished veena player, a fine scholar - Ravana opens his heart and shares his inner feelings through the pen of Anand Neelakantan. As is the case with any human, Ravana is not immune to vulnerabilities, inabilities, fears and weaknesses either but it is interesting to read how these frailties do not eclipse the strengths of his character, some of which soar really high. I specifically liked the part where he unconditionally stood by  his wife and that is the part where the author subtly tries to draw parallelism between Rama's way of dealing with his perfection vs Ravana managing with his imperfections.

Asura is not Ramayana, it is Ravanayana. In Ravana words, "For thousands of years I have been vilified and my death is celebrated year after year in every corner of India. Why? Was it because I challenges the Gods? Was it because I freed a race from the yoke of caste-based Deva rule? You have heard the victor's tale, the Ramayana. Now hear the Ravanayana, for I am Ravana and my story is the tale of the vanquished."

Thus Asura becomes the epic tale of the subdued side and another addition to already inundated literary world of mythology in varied makeovers. However the editing needs to be tighter which would have reduced the length of the unnecessary portions in the story. There are many typos too which could have been eliminated with at least one more iteration of editing. The first half deals with a lot of guerilla wars when Ravana tries to establish his kingdom in Lanka and the details become too overwhelmingly drab at some places which readers would want to skip. Though I enjoyed reading Ravana's tale, I found something really amiss. Ravana has been  portrayed as an able ruler who stood by his people but somehow he fails to create the aura which Anand attempted to create in this book. I don't know whether to blame it on my conditioned mind or lack of magic in narration, Asura ends up being just another view point, nothing more nothing less.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bringing in the festivities of Diwali...

by decorating cushion covers with little something and ...

making candles in glass jars...

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