Monday, June 22, 2015

Han Suyin - The Four Faces

@Panthar Publications
.bought @Blossoms, Bangalore (2015)

Books also follow fashion. Just like a wide leg or a low-rise pair of jeans, a certain author becomes fashionable and all the book reading public must read him.  At such times, book shops and libraries are flooded with titles by the author.  Once the craze subsides, just like shopkeepers who would not stock bell bottoms on their shelves, the once popular books vanish off the book shelves and readers wanting to get their hands on such books are left looking for them in vain.

Somewhere in the 60's Han Suyin became very popular.  She wrote candidly about her experiences as a half Belgian half Chinese girl growing up in China. I was lucky that my stepmother, who came from USA, brought several books by Han Suyin along with her.  I read several books by her during the 70's and 80's.   I even owned a copy of And the rain my drink, an excellent, fictionalized account of the time Suyin spent in Malaysia. 

Despite the merit of her works, Suyin has gone out of fashion, and her books are no longer readily available.  Some old copies are up for sale in USA via Amazon, but that is it.  Such is the tragedy of the publishing world, and of most businesses. They are so driven by pre-configuration of profits that they sometimes kill ventures that could be profitable in the long run.  I was lucky to procure some of her books from Blossoms, the celebrated second-hand bookstore in Bangalore.

This book by Han Suyin was published in 1963. It is not the best book by her.  Yet it is full of her signature themes. The tussle between Capitalists and Communists.  A small Asian country reeling under the war between these two that is taking place at their cost.

This time the country is Cambodia. A group of authors have gathered here to take part in a conference that examines the merits of being 'neutral'.  Cambodia has no intention of being aligned with either the Communists or  the Capitalists.  Ulong Serap, a venerable Buddhist monk and a Prince is organising this conference. He is also famed for predicting the past.

The conference is full of a cast of varied characters, Gion, who is returning to Cambodia to get another look at Angkor Vat and also attend the conference.  His cousin, Sumipoon, is attending with her husband and a brood of children.  She is related to Ulong Serap.  She is a writer of several successful romance novels.

Sheila Manley is a there with her father and stepmother.  Her father is an economist, come to conduct a study in Cambodia.  Her stepmother Eliza is a famous model and is being photographed against the monuments.

Gion and Sheila fall in love with each other but carry too much baggage to admit it.  Gion is too wrapped up in himself to try and understand Sheila.  He finds himself becoming aloof and jealous every time she talks to another man.  When the real test comes, he finds himself treating her like an object, just like the other men around him.

There is a rich cast of characters in the novel.  Mary Faust is an aggressive activist who likes riding roughshod over others.  Chandra Das is an erudite Indian who is in the thrall of Mary.  Mary's mousy secretary, Mabel Despair who must come into her own if she has to survive. Apart from them there are several others, the Frenchmen, Lederer, Paulet and Jean Deroulede. some Pakistani and American authors that make the gathering international.

In this heavily intellectual backdrop, the characters often pontificate on the merits of being communist or not. "Meeting at such porridgy places as congresses are philocide," exclaims a character in the book.

Sheila becomes involved in passing drugs unwittingly.  It puts her life in danger at the hands of drug dealers. There is a threat of a coup as well. Then there is a stolen artifact. On top of all this there are some mysterious disappearances and some deaths. These are the four plots running parallel to each other. Suddenly an innocent conference turns sombre when all this things start happening.

Gion, who has long been inactive and passive to things around him, finds he has to pull his weight and act if he has to save his beloved Sheila.

This is not the perfect murder mystery.  It is too bottom heavy.  There is a surfeit of action in the last few chapters.  The early chapters are full of explanations about the many characters.  Despite these flaws, it is a unique look at the world of Intellectuals who talk much and act less. Han Suyin has satirized some existing intellectuals of the time.  If the murders that take place in the book were not so grim and tragic it could be seen as a light-hearted satire.

"The only constant is change" says Han Suyin at a point in the book.  I feel, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  The drug dealing that fuels wars and coup in this book now fuels terrorism. Drugs destroy the place it is sourced from. The growers and locals are ruined by its use and trading.  No one seems to benefit by such things but some well-muscled big countries.

Shiela stands for all that is innocent in this world, she is merely looking for laughter and love. Gion stands for the youth of the world, apathetic and useless. He refuses to act even though he understands how the world works.  His apathy causes more damage than the machinations of the evil.

"Each one of us a Bayon, a tower of many faces, eyes staring blindly towards the world, but actually only preoccupied with our own reflection." This quote from the book puts a finger on why our relationships fail.  It is because we are too preoccupied with our own self.

As a thriller, the book may contain flaws, but it scores heavily despite it because it makes you think.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Anuja Chauhan - Those Pricey Thakur Girls

+Kindle Store
+Amazon India

Those Pricey Thakur Girls is about five daughters of Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (retd), who owns a lavish bungalow on Hailey Road in Delhi. They are named in an alphabetical order, Anjini, Binodini, Chandralekha, Debjani and Eshwari.  Anjini, Binodini and Chandralekha are married.  Debjani has just started working as a newsreader in Desh Darpan, the state-sponsored news channel. Eshwari is in the final year in Modern School.

The story is set in the late 1980s. Justice L.N. Thakur is called BJ by his fond daughters.  Their house is flanked by a similar house that belongs to his younger brother Ashok Thakur.  Ashok is deep in debt and has sold his house to a contractor who is planning to pull it down and build multistory apartments in its place.

His wife, Bhudevi is upset about this, and also by the fact that her husband is sleeping with her cook. BJ's wife, Mamta, has to spend her days pacifying her sister-in-law and also dealing with the marital problems of her daughters.

There are plenty of typical family scenes in the novel with ghosts, past grievances, vexed relatives, married daughters with problems, nosey children and mongrel dogs frequently making an appearance. In the midst of everything, there is one Dylan Singh Shekhawat who is wooing BJ's fourth daughter, Debjani.

He is a journalist and is keen on exposing the guilty people involved in the 1984 Sikh Massacre.   Through him, we get to relive our memories of the politics of the day, An attempt by the then government to pass an anti-defamation bill to muzzle the press, and the ongoing case against the guilty in the Sikh massacre are written about.

In fact, the backroom chatter in media about these two cases and some other issues are very convincing. Also very convincing is the picture of a middle-class family in an upmarket area of Delhi.

The characters in the novel practically leap out of the pages, so well etched are they.  The language is firmly Indian English with a lot of vernacular thrown in.  It does not rankle, rather it makes you feel as if you really are listening in to a bunch of people talking.  This is the way we talk these days, with a lot of Hindi peppering our English, or a lot of English peppering our Hindi.

The plot has elements of family drama, romance and a thriller.  The thriller part was so gripping that I was almost sorry when we came back to the romance.  At no point in the book did the proceedings get boring.  This one is a page-turner guaranteed to keep your finger wet.

On the flipside, the author spends a tad bit too much of her time raving about the physical beauty of the hero. There are plenty of graphic curses and talk.  I have not heard such explicit talk among the middle classes. The heroine is a bit of a wimp.  WHY don't we get a spunky heroine who gets the guy?  It merely establishes the stereotype that the sweet girl makes a casanova see reason and think about wedding bells.

These few irritants notwithstanding, this author is certainly in for a long haul and I am certainly going to buy more books by her.  She is never going to bore me, I know.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Perumal Murugan - One Part Woman

Published: +Penguin india
Bought:  +Kindle Store

This is the novel that drew fire from Hindutva outfits. An exasperated Perumal Murugan then declared that he would write no more and decided to withdraw his books. The original Tamil title of the book was Madhurobhagan.

The book was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. He has done a laudable job of it. The book manages to retain a colloquial feel without losing a grip on English language.

Kali and Ponnan have been married to each other for the past twelve years. It was a love match. Kali was friends with Ponnan's brother, Muthu. He had an eye on Ponnan since long. One night, after a bout of drinking and hanging around, Kali asked Muthu if he would like him as a brother-in-law. Muthu agreed instantly and even spoke to his parents and fixed the match.

Kali and Ponnan are blissfully happy together. The only thorn in their side is the lack of children. This lack is not just for themselves, it is an eyesore for the entire community. Anyone feels free to comment upon it, taunt Ponnan about her barrenness, Kali about his impotency. The couple tries to redress the wrong by doing everything in their power. They go to temples, take vows, make offerings, undertake difficult tasks. All their efforts to waste as Ponnan continues to menstruate each month, much to her sorrow.

Ponnan is willing to do everything, but she draws a line at the suggestion that her husband marry again. Luckily for her, Kali is as unwilling to marry again. He is deeply in love with his wife, but there are other factors that are behind this decision as well.

They are willing to live as they are. They are a loving couple and are happy in their life. But the societal pressures are too much for them. They are made to strive continuously. The constant barrage of insults and taunts threatens to tear apart their peace and harmony.

One day Ponnan's mother decides to spend a night at their place. Instead to sleeping with her daughter, the lady decides to draw her cot over to where Kali's mother sleeps. The ladies spend the entire night whispering to each other. Ponnan's mother has a scheme for making Ponna pregnant. What remains to be seen is whether the couple will agree to it.

The novel is full of a wealth of detail about the life of a young farming couple somewhere in the pre-independence era. We are used to extolling the virtues of our society and how it gives us a sense of security. Here we see its destructive side too. As long as you are going according to the general plan, marry, be productive, have children, everyone is happy. But if your life deviates from the plan, you are lambasted roundly, and anyone can take potshots at you.

This is the mean face of the society. Feuds over property are just around the corner. Your relatives are nice to you only because they have an eye on what you can give them. Even though it is nobody's business, everybody reserves the right to comment on how you conduct yourself. Such interference can not only be annoying, it can be downright destructive.

The story is set in a pre-independence era, but many of these ills are still pervasive.. Women still bear the stigma of being childless. Our neighbors and relatives still think our business is theirs to merrily comment upon.

The novel is not entirely without flaws. The story tackles some parts in a very compartmentalized manner. For instance, the details about the couple's attempts at appeasing the Gods are all put in one long stretch. Later, we are treated to long passages about how the couple deals with the suggestion of a second marriage for Kali. It reads more like a documentary instead of a story.

Towards the end, as the story moves towards a tantalizing climax, we are suddenly diverted by digressions in the story.

These flaws do not hinder the value of the story, however. We are given a very incisive look at how a narrow-minded society does not hesitate in riding roughshod over a happy couple. For this, and for a very detailed look at the way of life in those times, this book excels.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - The King's General

Published: Landmark
Bought: +Kindle Books

The King's General is set in the civil war in England that lasted from 1642-51.  Cornwall was divided between landowners who were either the Royalists, loyal to the King or the Parliamentarians who believed in a democratic rule.

Against this backdrop, Daphne du Maurier sets an unusual love story between a handicapped woman and a brash General.

The story starts 15 years prior to the civil war when Honor Harris, a beautiful debutante, is smitten by Richard Grenville. Their love is not endorsed by Honor's family as Richard is seen as a debt-ridden soldier of fortune.  Her family is forced to agree to their engagement when Honor flees her home to avoid being engaged to another man.  A freak riding accident renders Honor handicapped, and confined to a wheelchair.

She breaks up with Richard and refuses to see him.  He goes away and marries a woman for her money. The civil war of 1642 brings Honor and Richard back together. Richard cares not a whit for her disability.  Honor finds she has to nurse her beloved Richard and listen to him as he rants against  incompetent colleagues who hinder the path to victory.

Richard Grenville is every inch an anti-hero.  He is brash, arrogant, foul-mouthed.  He likes to have his own way and does not care for other people's feelings. He is not above using force to loot and pillage what he believes is his by right.  He is also an excellent soldier, but his high-handed behavior lands him in trouble.  He does not know how to negotiate with his colleagues and it loses the war for the King.  Even worse, because of his behavior, no one is ready to stand by him when he is in trouble.

The book also has another character, Gartred, Richard's sister.  Like Rebecca and Rachel, she is also a wanton woman who cares only for her own appetites, whether for sex or for money. Honor is no wilting lily either.  She speaks her mind, and despite her handicap, is very independent.  She does not allow her crippled state to cripple her mind.  She remains cheerful and a person others can depend upon.  She plays a very active role in the drama that unfolds around during the height of the civil war.

There is a lot of drama here, intrigues, battles, secret rooms, spies, ravages, escape, and arson. The characters are well etched.  Dick, Richard's effeminate son who longs for his father's approval but gets only the sharp edge of his tongue. Honor's brother, Kit who first brings a Grenville into the house by marrying Richard's sister, Gartred.  Robin, another Harris sibling who loves Gartred as well. Jonathon Rashleigh who owns Menabilly where the drama plays out.  He is Honor's brother-in-law and keeper of many secrets.

Here also, as in Rebecca, the house where they live plays a major part. Menabilly, a house that Daphne du Maurier once stayed in, was the inspiration behind this novel and also Manderley, Maxim de Winter's house in Rebecca.

This novel is not as popular as Rebecca.  The story here is more complex, as it involves a lot of intrigues apart from the main story of the love between Honor and Richard.  I would rank it as one of the best by Daphne du Maurier.

This novel seems to have something in common with The House on the Strand, a later novel by du Maurier.  I will have to re-read the book to find it out, which is not a bad prospect. I have probably read The House on the Strand as often has I have read Rebecca.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Colette - Claudine in Paris

Claudine lives in Montigny and is planning to appear for her higher certificate in school when her father decides to move to Paris.  You see, he is in the middle of writing a book and needs to communicate frequently with his Publishers.  He cannot abide the slow postal system and declares that moving to Paris was the only solution.  Claudine is initially excited by the idea of moving

She declares slyly to her friends that they will not be able to bore her for long as she is moving away.  Her best friend, Luce is distraught.  Just before the actual moving takes place, Claudette has misgivings about leaving her beloved Montigny with its beautiful woods and flowers. There is nothing to be done now, the things are packed, their home let to a tenant, quarters taken up at Paris.  So Claudette packs her cat, Fanchette and sets off to Paris.

She hates the dark, shabby flat in Rue Jacob on sight. She takes ill on arrival and has to spend a long time in bed.  She is bedridden for months and her lovely long hair is cut off as it had matted and could not be combed.  She recovers her health gradually and takes stock of her surrounding.  

Her father takes her to visit his sister, Madame Coeur.  It is there that she meet Marcel, her Aunt's grandson.  Marcel is just a little bit older than Claudette and delighted to find a playmate.  Claudette is also delighted to have a companion at last.  

She also meets Renaud, Marcel's father.  He is a merry widower and does not really get along with his son.  However, he tries to be friends with him and takes him and Claudette to dinners and concerts and plays.

Claudette is settling down in Paris now, having discovered friends and dressmakers.

On the face of it, the book is a simple tale of a young girl, rather in the style of a diary.  Yet, Colette paints a charming and an intimate picture of all things around her.  She describes the doings of her father, her cat, her housekeeper Melie, her Aunt Coeur, Renaud, and Marcel.  We are drawn into her little world, and it is engaging. 

Here is what she says when she meets Marcel for the first time, "I gave him my hand without saying a word, I was staring at him so much. I'd never seen anything so charming! But he was a girl! A slip of a girl in breeches! Fair hair, rather long, parted on the right, a complexion like Luce's, blue eyes like a little English girl's and no more moustache than I had." 

It is Colette's uninhibited and a lyrical style of writing that is the best part of this book.  The book contains references to homosexual preferences of Marcel, who is involved with a schoolfellow of his, called Charlie.  Luce also makes many sexual advances towards Claudette, which are firmly repulsed.  The novel was published in 1901 and at that time these may be shocking revelations.  In the preface, Colette talks about her husband asking her to put more 'naughty' stuff into her writing.

We have come a long way, and whatever Colette writes is pretty tame by current standards.  What is still extraordinary is her beautiful descriptions of everyday things.

Published: Vintage
Bought @kindle_store

Monday, May 18, 2015

Daphne du Maurier - My Cousin Rachel

Philip Ashley lives with his cousin in a large house with farms in Cornwall.  Philip was orphaned at an early age and was taken under the wing of his cousin, Ambrose.  They live together as two happy bachelors.  Good times rarely last, as we know.  Ill health forces Ambrose to spend his winters in Italy.  On one of his visits, he meets his cousin Rachel there.

Philip soon learns through letters sent by Ambrose that they have married.  Soon, the letters cease to happy and speak of illness and treachery. Philip is alarmed and rushes to Florence.  Alas, he is too late.  His cousin has died and he suspects Rachel poisoned him.  He returns home to find that Rachel has asked to visit him to return Ambrose's things. He is quite prepared to have a showdown with her.

He does not reckon with meeting a beautiful, sad widow.  Philip begins to doubt his suspicions about Rachel. She seems like a kind, charming person who just wants to do good deeds for people.  But there are some  reminders of the past that make him doubtful once more.

Daphne Du Maurier gripping story has our interest right at the start and keeps us turning pages.  The story has been told from the point of view of Philip Ashley who is a callow youth smitten by his cousin's widow. The reader is also left wondering about the innocence of the enigmatic Rachel, and the fate she meets.

This has been made into a film starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland.  Usually, Hollywood likes to distort the original story in its film adaptations.  I do not think this story can be distorted much.  I am in the process of the watching the film and will write about it on my film blog soon.

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