Saturday, June 21, 2014

C.S.Lewis - The Magician's Nephew

The Magician's Nephew (Chronicles of Narnia, #6)The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Digory Kirke has been sent to live in London. His mother is on her deathbed. His father is away fighting a war in India. Diggory lived in the times when Sherlock Holmes still lived in Baker's Street. His neighbour, Polly, befriends him. Diggory lives with his Aunt Letty and her brother, Andrew.

Uncle Andrew is up to no good. He is always holed up in his attic and is said to be strange. Aunt Letty forbids Digory from having anything to do with him. As Uncle Andrew does look mad, Digory is content to give him wide berth and spend his time playing with Polly.

One wet, cold day in June, the children are prevented from going outdoors. Polly has this idea of walking along the rafters in the roof and going down into an abandoned house in their neighbourhood. The kids want to explore the house. They miscalculate the number of rafters they have to cross and come down in Uncle Andrew's attic instead.

This is providential for Andrew Ketterly. He has been looking for a boy to try out some magic rings that he has devised. He is sure that the rings send people out of this world into another, he has sent a guinea pig away. But he wants someone to go and come back so he can hear about the travel. He is too cowardly to make the trip himself. Hence, he is very happy to suddenly see the children in his attic.

He tricks the children into using his magic rings. They do go out and discover other worlds. In their first trip, they discover the dead world of Charn, where everyone is in eternal sleep. Digory's curious nature gets better of him and he makes the dreadful mistake of awakening the White Witch of Charn, Queen Jadis. When the children try to flee the Witch, and return to London, they find that Jadis has hitched a ride on their ring, and has returned to London with them.

This is the prequel to the wonderful C.S. Lewis book, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe. In fact, here we discover how the Wardrobe came about, and the Lamppost. And why Lucy was able open the wardrobe and go into Narnia.

I love the Narnia Chronicles. I read them when I was a pre-teen. At the time, the whole symbolism of Aslan as God escaped me. For me, it was just a great fantasy tale of Kings and wars and talking animals and the wonderful, pure land of Narnia. It was good to re-read this story full of bright colored magic rings, magic apples and horses that fly and funny talking animals.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Krishna Sobti - Surajmukhi Andhere Ke

Surajmukhi Andhere KeSurajmukhi Andhere Ke by Krishna Sobti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I re-read Mitro Marjani a few days ago and fell in love with it all over again. It is a classic and will live forever. This time round, I noticed what a taut story it was. I loved the way it was told. It was obvious that Krishna Sobti was a born storyteller.

I wanted to read some more of her works, and ordered Zindaginama and Surajmukhi Andhere ke from Home Shop 18, which has a good stock of Hindi books. I started on Surajmukhi Andhere Ke first, as was a slim book.

Ratti is a young woman who is damaged by an event in her past. Because of it, she finds it hard to allow love back into her life. After spending a lifetime of letting men come close to her and rejecting them, she finds herself getting old and lonely.

She spends some time in Shimla with her soul-sister Reema. She is charmed by the pretty picture of domesticity that Reema's family presents, with her devoted husband, Keshi and her little son, Kumu. It awakens memories and yearnings in Ratti's heart.

The slim book is divided into 3 chapters or parts, Pul (Bridges), Surangen (tunnels) and Akash (Sky). The three parts are reminiscent of a train journey from Shimla to Kalka. In the first part, Ratti stands on a bridge between her old way of life and new. In the second part, she relives her past. In the third, she makes an effort to come out from the shackles of her past.

Despite her scars, Ratti is a strong woman. She does not allow herself the luxury of domesticity just for its own sake. She has spent her life trampling on the feelings of men who have tried to get close to her, without falling prey to sentimentality.

I am still in love with her as a novelist. Her language is terse and sparse and she is not afraid of expressing the innermost feelings of her characters. This novel is not as awesome as Mitro Marjani, but it is very good.

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Saturday, June 14, 2014

Amrita Pritam - Raseedi Ticket

Raseedi TicketRaseedi Ticket by Amrita Pritam
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Raseedi Ticket is a sort of an autobiography of Amrita Pritam. She keeps to the chronology of events more or less. Her story is laid out in a series of episodes that she feels were important in her life. So we hear about how her mother married her father, the genesis of her name, her mother's death, her disillusionment with
God at that moment, why she took to writing, when she first met Sahir etc.

Although it does not read like a cohesive story, we do get an idea of what her life was like. She speaks about her relationship with Sahir, her relationship with the Pakistani writer Sajjad Haider and of course, her dream companion, Imroz. She recounts episodes in her life featuring these men. She is completely honest about how she feels about them, and gives out no sleazy details, just as it should be.

She recounts an incident about Haider. One day at a party Haider was offered a plate of Imarti rather pointedly. His hostess was obviously trying to make a joke about his relationship with Amrita, playing on the similarity between 'Imarti' and 'Amrita'. When the hostess offered the plate of Imarti again, Haider said 'The one you are trying to refer to here, I love her and adore her.' That shut the hostess up.

Then she writes about the incident that gave birth of a lovely song. One evening, after her affair with Sahir was long over, she went with Imroz to see him. They sat till long in the evening, drinking whiskey. After they left, Sahir could not sleep and spent the night pouring whiskey into their empty glasses by turn and drinking. That night he wrote this beautiful nazm which was later used in the film "Dooj Ka Chand".

Mehfil se uth jaane walon
tum logon par kya ilzaam
Tum abaad gharon ke wasi
Main awara aur badnaam
mere saathi khali jaam

There are chapters devoted to her dreams and how she believes they are an omen and often a solution to the problems she faced at the time. Her spirituality was eclectic. She believed in Sikhism, sufis of various types, sadhus and sants who were rumoured to have special powers.

She is true to herself as a woman, and believes in telling the truth as she knows it. The few poems and nazms that she showcases in the book are breathtaking. She tells about how she got inspiration to write her famous poem "Ajj Akhan Waris Shah noon". She also talks about the acclaim the poem received all over. In Pakistan, where there is a special festival that takes place on the theme of Waris Shah  Her poem is recited and enacted at this festival.

Another poem of hers, "Mata Tripta Da Sapna", ran afoul of the Sikh clergy. They were mortified that anyone could write so about the mother of Guru Nanak. Amrita says that one winter night, she got a phone call from her son. She had run out of a warm razai to hear the phone. Exchanging a few words with her son made her feel warm all over. She remembered what it was like carrying this child in her womb. She was an ordinary woman bearing an ordinary child.  She tried to imagine what Mata Tripta felt like, carrying a divine baby like Guru Nanak.

She also writes a heartfelt ode to her constant companion Imroz. He gave her space and provided support to her always.

Amrita's prose is poetic and full of metaphors and imagery. I have read some books of hers in the past, but I am afraid I remember little of those. I really need to get a book of her poems and some novels.

It is rather a coincidence that I ordered a book called Women who run with the Wolves, and then read books by authors like Ismat Chugtai, Krishna Sobti and Amrita Pritam. These are women who ran with the wolves. They did not care for the slots that the society had created for women. Their lives and their literature were firmly on the side of women who walked on the wild side.

In their age and times they spoke up for all kinds of women. Most of all, they sympathised with the women who were shunned by the genteel people.

"Within each woman there lives a powerful force, filled with good instincts, passionate creativity, and ageless knowing. She is the Wild Woman, who represents the instinctual nature of women."

The quote is from the Estes' book, Women who run with the Wolves. In my mind, Chugtai, Pritam and Sobti (and other authors who are ranked right up there with them) were those kind of women. Maybe because of the support they got from their socialist ideology, or from the forum of like-minded people, or their natural instincts, these women broke the societal barriers with their writings.

These women deserve to be read over and over again, and no book lover should have to travel too far to find a book written by them.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sue Monk Kidd - The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lily Owens bears a heavy burden. She lost her mother when she was a four year old child. Worse, she was responsible for her mother’s death. Even worse, her father is a bitter abusive man who makes her life living hell.

Their maid, Rosaleen, is a surrogate mother to her and the only bright spot in Lily’s life. A sequence of events leads Lily and Rosaleen to run away from home. Lily had discovered a picture of black Mary in a box that belonged to her mother with the name of a place Tiburon written on the back.

Hungry for some information about her mother, Lily wants to follow this lead. In Tiburon a similar picture on the bottle of honey leads Lily to the house of August Boatwright, who runs a bee farm.

Right then Lily knows that the answers she is looking for are to be found here. She is taken in by August to help with the beekeeping in exchange for a stay.

The novel is set in the year 1964 when the times were tumultuous for people of color. It is in such times that Lily chooses to live with a family of black women.

Despite the number of problems that Lily faces, the novel does not become depressing. It always holds out hope. It also manages to read like a thriller - what will Lily do next? - the question keeps us turning pages. We are charmed by the story of a deeply humane person, August Boatwright, who is fiercely independent, affectionate and inclusive.

This is a novel with a heart that draws the reader in and inspires us to be humane and forgiving.

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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Krishna Sobti - Mitro Marjani

Mitro MarjaniMitro Marjani by Krishna Sobti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Samitravanti alias Mitro is married into a respectable family of traders. Her in-laws are gentle god fearing people. It is a full household of eight people. They are constantly in a spat with each other. Mitro is not the kind of a person to sit coyly behind her ghunghat, doing household chores.

Her wayward ways cause great grief to her in-laws. Her older sister-in-law tries to curb her high spirited behavior. Her husband often beats her up when she refuses to listen to him. He is shocked by her blatant sexuality and feels emasculated by it.

Despite her sharp tongue and constant flightiness, Mitro is an affectionate person and genuinely cares for her mother-in-law and her older sister-in-law. Her problem is her unresponsive husband, who refuses to gratify her deep need for affection and, well, sex.

This is A-Class literature. The story runs smooth and taut. Although the focus of the story is Mitro, it is also a sharp glimpse into a small joint family unit which threatens to fall apart. The language is superb. It is Punjabi as spoken by people, blended into Hindi and Urdu. Krishna Sobti gets every emotion, every reaction, every bit of dialogue just right.

There is a glorious chapter in here where vengeful sisters-in-law(bhabhis) taunt their sister-in-law (Nanad) who has left her husband's home on flimsy grounds. Their taunting is subtle and couched in solicitousness. It is family politics at its best.

Although Mitro Marjani is famous for its portrayal of female sexuality, I found it just as useful for its portrayal of a Punjabi family and a way of life that is no more now.

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Saturday, June 07, 2014

Ismat Chugtai - Masooma

MasoomaMasooma by Ismat Chughtai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The misfortunes of Masooma began when her father made off to an undisclosed location (Pakistan?) with all the money and property of the family, and three older sons. Her father was supposed to send for the rest of the family once he settled down. But this never happened. Masooma's mother, along with 3 girls and a baby boy was left to fend for herself.

Women of high birth are cloistered and completely dependent on their men. They are not expected to step out into the world and fend for themselves. Begam Sahiba, Masooma's mother, was such a woman. Men had lined up to marry her when was of age. Her parents had picked among the grooms available. They wanted her to be married to a professional man who was khandani to boot. She lived like a queen all her life. Till one fine day when her husband disappeared.

She sold whatever she could to make ends meet. When all failed, she came to Bombay(as it was known then) and becomes a film producer's mistress. The film producer, Ehsaan, was more of a hustler, ran out of money. His eye fell on the beautiful teenage daughter of the Begam, Masooma.

Masooma, who was slated for a comfortable life, whose name was selected out of Quran Sharif, who was the much feted daughter after 3 sons, suddenly found her life take a nasty turn. She was passed on from one man to another and took on the exotic name of Nilofer for this alternate life that she had.

In the early chapters, Masooma remains a shadowy figure. She is seen as an emotionally high strung girl who beats up Ahmed, the first man chosen for her. At this stage in her life, it is her mother and Ehsaan who control her. Later, she learns the importance of her lovers, the money and gifts they bestow upon her.

Despite being perceived as a woman who sucks the menfolk dry of their money, we see that it is Masooma/Nilofer who is being ruthlessly used by men to further their greed and satisfy their lust. She holds no importance to them as a person. She is the convenient receptacle of their ill-repute. Being men, her lovers come out smelling of roses and prosper, while she is seen as a dirty woman.

Ismat Chugtai has a formidable reputation in literary circles. To write a novel like this in the early part of the past century was indeed daring. Her works did not pop up in my school syllabus like the stories of Munshi Premchand, Mohan Rakesh, Upendranath Ashq etc. It is only in reading extra-curricular literature that I got to know of her.

The picture that Ismat Chugtai paints is not pretty. Her socialist sensibilities make her depict the world of the Capitalists who use dirty tricks to evade taxes, ruin the lives of the proletariat to further their businesses. They even use charity work as a mask to further their ends. These are people Masooma has to depend upon to keep her body and soul together.

I do not think this book is the best work of Ismat Chugtai. It has a hurried feel to it. And often Masooma (poor girl) seems just a vehicle for the author to vent her ire against Capitalists. Like I said earlier, Masooma seems a shadowy figure at the start. She comes into her own towards the end, but even so, her personality is not really rounded. All other characters in the novel fade into the background or are brought to the forefront as per the need of the moment. The presence of the author is very evident in the book.

But there is no denying the power of Ismat Chugtai. It is her unforgiving depiction of the underbelly of the society that is very valuable.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Chetan Bhagat - 2 States

2 States: The Story of My Marriage2 States: The Story of My Marriage by Chetan Bhagat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not a huge fan of Chetan Bhagat. If I can help it, I do not read his books. I picked this one up as I had already seen the movie. This is odd in itself as I did not particularly like the movie.

Now, after having read the book, I lay the blame for the slightly lackluster movie at the door of the director. He underplayed the humor in the book, I see now. I also blame the dull looking Arjun Kapoor, he does not bring out the passion the hero feels for his girl.

The book, as most people know already,(as Chetan Bhagat is one of the most read authors of these times)is about a North-Indian Krish meeting a South-Indian Ananya at IIMA and falling headlong in love with. They find to their consternation that their parents do not see things their way. They are forced to make a serious effort to make their parents agree to their point of view.

Also thrown into the plot is a trouble-maker father that Krish has. On top of everything else, Krish has to sort out the issues he faces with his father.

Despite all these problems floating around, the book is not depressing or heavy. It is a light read and quite funny in places.

The language is passable. We have to admit that despite the widespread usage of English in our country, we are not experts at it.

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