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.

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