Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Eka Kurniawan: Man Tiger.

This striking novel set in the lush hinterlands of Indonesia was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Kurniawan draws readers into a richly complex tale with the very first sentence. “On the evening Margio killed Anwar Sadat...” The killer and the victim are identified beyond doubt, yet a riveting mystery is deftly built up.

 Why would a good-natured and popular young man kill his harmless middle-aged neighbour, that too in an unimaginably gruesome manner, by biting through his neck?

Yet there are eye-witnesses, and the victim’s mauled body stands testimony to the brutal attack. When the story begins, Margio has already admitted to the killing and surrendered.

The killer, Margio, is a popular 20-year-old who drank, smoked weed and made out in shacks in the cocoa planation along with other village boys. Like a helpful son to his neighbour Anwar Sadat, Margio was much in demand for his prowess during wild boar hunts. “While some of his friends got into fights, he wouldn’t lay a finger on anyone.”

Just before killing Anwar Sadat, Margio gave clear, ominous signals of his intentions. “Right now, I’m afraid I’m really going to kill someone,” he told a friend over drinks, shortly before attacking his victim. “But of course nobody who hadn’t been there would believe these words came from Margio. He was the sweetest and most polite of his peers.” When Margio went to Anwar Sadat’s house on that fateful day, he didn’t even carry a knife or a cleaver or a rope with which to commit the murder.

“Who could predict he might end a man’s life with a bite?” Colourful and bustling rural Indonesia is brought to vivid life by the author. Cacao plantations are criss-crossed by paddy fields, ponds, and peanut gardens. Clouds of mosquitoes take charge over the swamps and ponds, and Major Sadra’s ancient motorcycle loudly traverses the mud roads of the villages. An old Panasonic radio is the greatest asset in Agus Sofyan’s tea shack, where the villagers enjoy listening to soccer commentary or dangdut or other types of pop music. This half-dead machine with its insides hanging out in a messy tangle from an open top “could make enough noise to be heard booming at half the soccer field’s distance.”

Soon, darker and mysterious facets of this cheerfully chaotic world emerge. Margio’s abused mother Nuraeni expresses her stifled sorrows and desires through her lush garden, which soon overwhelms the house itself with brilliant flowers of every hue.

Margio’s Grandpa “would take the boy to a rivulet he called the Kingdom of Genies” and talk of spirits, and of tigresses, whom many men in the hamlet called their own.

“Some married one, while others inherited a tigress, passed down through the generations.” Little Margio wonders when their family tigress, which has belonged to them from the times of distant ancestors, will choose to belong to him.

Deftly sketched minor characters with their own quirks further enliven the setting. Occasionally they lighten the mood as the mystery builds up. They also add to the mounting tension by casually dropping significant clues. The worst these easy-going and peaceful villagers do is gamble on pigeon races and cock fights, or hunt down wild boar. Margio’s harsh private world is a stark contrast. As the story inexorably flows in a flashback towards Anwar Sadat’s killing, we learn that Margio did, after all, have this latent murderous streak. He ran away from home because, as he confessed to his sister Mameh, he was afraid that he might really kill his father someday. The news of his father’s death brought him back home at last. Everyone noticed how happy Margio was, but they thought it natural, for his father was well known to have been very harsh with Margio and his gentle mother, Nuraeni.

From their conversations we learn early on that Margio took Anwar Sadat’s daughter Maharani to a film show the night before he killed her father. Maharani cut short her vacation and suddenly left next morning for her college in the city without giving any reason, refusing to talk to her father.

The mystery revolves around the strange and terrible, yet protective tigress ruling Margio’s inner world. “It was bigger than a clouded leopard, bigger than the ones people saw at the zoo or circus or in schoolbooks. If a man couldn’t control his beast, it could turn so violent that nothing could restrain it once enraged... The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”

A heady and memorable blend of magic realism, murder mystery and a deeply sensitive and sympathetic exploration of what drives a gentle soul to kill, this is a beautifully crafted and memorable read.
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer  
Viet Thanh Nguyen  
2016, pp 371, Rs. 499
When tinged with humour, the gravest of subjects like war acquires an interesting and profound colour, writes Monideepa Sahu about ‘The Sympathizer’
This engrossing tragi-comic novel set in the final days of the Vietnam War richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2016. The story and its style and rendering are striking, to say the least. The novel startles with the vastness of its scope; the clash of civilisations, cultures and ideologies; war where no party is right, and its futile aftermath; art as insight or propaganda; the many faces of racism in America and in Vietnam; the flaws in the dazzling American Dream, and in the egalitarian Communist dream. The narrative negotiates complex ideas with a flawless touch, showing how everything has multiple contradictory facets.

 Momentous concepts do not weigh down the narrative, but are turned inside out to expose their inherent absurdities. Even torture need not necessarily be gloomy, but can ironically be laughable. Even American military muscle flexing can be incongruously self-contradictory. “After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” All this is deftly woven into an exciting, action-packed plot, with espionage, bombings, executions, military evacuations, movie shootings and musical extravaganzas, and romantic interludes.

The novel opens with the nameless narrator writing his confession in a prison interrogation cell. He is addressed as ‘Captain’ by his commanding officer, while others never think of referring to him by any name at all. After all, he is “a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, (he is) also a man of two minds.” This spy hides “where everyone can see him and where he can see everything. “We cannot help but admire his intelligence and talent for seeing every issue from both sides, unveiling the comic and ironic aspects of the dangerous situations he negotiates. He is a rare man capable of laughing at himself.

As he writes and rewrites lengthy confessions as a prisoner of the same communists for whom he had been spying, the narrator reveals many conflicting identities. He is a socially ostracised racial-hybrid illegitimate son of a French priest and a Vietnamese girl; too tall and fair to blend in with the native Vietnamese, and too oriental in appearance and upbringing to be accepted as a Westerner. As a Captain in the vanquished army of South Vietnam, he is a mole passing information to the Communist ‘enemy’ northerners. He is a communist sympathiser who studied in a US university to understand Americans through their perception of the Vietnamese. This education and exposure to a decadent culture makes the narrator see too clearly how a war “that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world” could mean “nothing to most people in the rest of the world.” It also makes him a reactionary sullied by American ideas to the hard-core communists into whose fold he wishes to return.

His political choices and his secret police service eventually force the narrator to cultivate his violent side. But his saving grace is his sense of humour and irony. He is “not just any mole” or spy, as his friend Man tells him. He is “the mole that is the beauty spot on the nose of power itself.” He is “more lover than fighter.” With quirky insights, he can turn traditional morality upside down, sometimes with hilarious effects. “Torture is obscene. Three million dead is obscene. Masturbation, even with an admittedly non-consensual squid? Not so much.”

We feel for the narrator’s inner struggles when he is commanded to plot the killing of the probably innocent Crapulent Major. He even shares with the Crapulent Major’s widow his compensation money for a grievous accident or murder attempt (depending on your perspective) he suffered on the sets of a Hollywood movie. Memories of his execution victim Sonny the journalist, the Crapulent Major, and the tortured Communist woman agent, whom he failed to protect, haunt him throughout the narrative. This reluctant killer is capable of deep lifelong loyalties and love, towards his mother, and his childhood friends Man and Bon. We grow to love him for his intelligence and insightfulness, his sense of self-criticism and his ability to see the absurdity of it all. We feel his pain as he undergoes torture to become what he cannot; transformation from an American into not just an anti-American, but one hundred percent Vietnamese.

We share his inner struggle as he powerlessly watched and did nothing, while a beautiful young female communist agent was tortured and gang raped. She defiantly says to her tormentors that her surname is Viet and given name, Nam. Her torture symbolises the ravaging of Vietnam itself, not just by foreigners but also by her own people. If only “we forgot our resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play...” The narrator’s ironic insightfulness turns upon revolution itself as revolutionaries metamorphose into reactionary imperialists. “How our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power... Hadn’t the French and Americans done exactly the same?” He urges us to question along with him, “Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others?”
Packed with exciting action and undercurrents of deep ideas, this is a brilliantly executed and deliciously memorable read. 
This review is published in Deccan Herald

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni: Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess
Chitra Banerjee
Simon & Schuster
2016, pp 208, Rs 499

This is a sensitive and delicately rendered tale of love and longing, of pain, misunderstandings, exile, self-inflicted isolation and of reaching out for affection.

The novel spans 3 generations of women protagonists. Grandmother Sabitri flounders in search of love, blaming her daughter Bela for driving a wedge between her and her husband. Finally, she finds her true calling as the creator of delicious sweets, just like her own mother before her. Bela, the truant daughter, elopes to the US with a man who ultimately fails her. Bela’s daughter Tara turns out to be another rebel without a cause.

Flawed, rebellious and often inconsistent, they make mistakes and suffer, and irreparably wound the ones who love them most. They “appear so ordinary”. Yet their lives are “filled with violence and mystery”. Proud and stubborn, these women are so like each other. If they had had anyone else to turn to, they would never have called their mothers for help. Yet they are also eminently capable of giving and receiving love.

The characters are memorable, and finely etched. “Why, you could be acquainted with a person for years, thinking you knew them. Then suddenly they’d do something that showed you there were layers to them you hadn’t ever suspected.” Minor characters like Mrs Mehta, whom Tara helps to transform from a frumpy, lonely old woman to a lively person, who happily fits herself into the American way of life, add interesting touches to the story. However, Bela’s gay friend Kenneth crops up as more of a detour from the main path of the story.

Sabitri grows up in poverty in a village in Bengal, helping her mother Durga make delectable sweets in order to eke out a living. Her dream of going to college appears to be coming true. A wealthy client is impressed with the sweets and the girl who delivers them. She offers to support Sabitri if she does well in her exams and gets admission in a college in Kolkata. Sabitri succeeds. But once in Kolkata, she becomes infatuated with the wrong man, and cannot wholeheartedly reciprocate the right man’s love. From being the good daughter and fortunate lamp brightening her family’s name, Sabitri strays into becoming the firebrand, who blackens the family’s fame.

The novel opens with the ageing Sabitri receiving a desperate phone call from her wayward and estranged daughter Bela, from the distant US. Bela pleads with Sabitri to persuade her granddaughter Tara against dropping out of college and ruining her life. “What can she write in her rusty English to change Tara’s mind? She cannot even imagine her granddaughter’s life, the whirlwind foreign world she lives in.” The only link Sabitri has to a granddaughter she has never seen, is a handful of photos. They remind her of the pang she felt when she received them, “because she had so wanted to be present at Tara’s birth. But she hadn’t been invited.” The author deftly uses clear, simple yet powerful images to bring home the character’s deepest and most aching emotions. Everyday things like photographs and photo albums capture life’s turning points, and show new facets to those we think we knew and understood.

Elsewhere, the author uses beautiful, poetic descriptions to evoke deep feelings. When little Bela goes to Assam with her parents, she misses her friend Leena, and realises early on how physical distance can pull the dearest friends apart. “Bela tried to write back, but she was struck by a strange paralysis. How to describe the riot around her: the night-blooming flowers with their intoxicating odor, the safeda tree with its hairy brown fruit, the oleanders with their poisonous red hearts? She wanted Leena to be here, to run hand in hand with her across a lawn so large it was like a green ocean. But what was the point of wanting the impossible? She never answered the letters... But inside loss, there can be gain too. Like the small silver spider Bela had discovered one dewy morning, curled asleep in the centre of a rose.”

The plot is aesthetically structured around Tara’s life-changing visit to the temple of an accepting Hindu goddess. “The goddess doesn’t care how many minutes you spend in front of her... Only how much you want to be here... The goddess does not care about what we are wearing, only what is in our hearts.” Throughout the novel, small and apparently ordinary incidents change lives. “How she got back at her one-time hosts but learned that revenge extracts its price. How the problems between (Sabitri) and (Bela) began, with words of deadly innocence spoken in a car, and a slap that echoed through the years.”

The persistent and frequent shifts to and fro in time can distract and confuse the reader, however.Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable, memorable read rife with insights.

This review is published in Deccan Herald

Friday, October 14, 2016

Usha K R: 10 questions

It's always a pleasure to meet author Usha K R. Warm and welcoming, a lively conversationalist and an empathetic listener, this lady is as modest as she is outstanding in her achievements. I took this photo at her home, during a chat over home made cake and snacks. Her warmth added the perfect touch to the evening.
This interview is published in Kitaab

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
To make sense of the world; to explore and order to my thoughts and feelings and understanding of it. Or to quote Flannery O’ Connor who said fiction is concerned ‘with that is lived; ultimate mystery as we find it embodied in the concrete world of sense experience’.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
It’s still gestating 20151215_185901

Describe your writing aesthetic.
Lots of idle thinking time to allow thoughts to gather and connections to form. Then, when I am ready, a disciplined writing schedule.

Who are your favorite authors?
All of Jane Austen, some of Edith Wharton, Henry James, E M Forster …

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
That which is to come

What’s your idea of bliss?
A morning that begins with a cup of filter coffee, a good spell of writing where the words on paper are a close approximation of my thoughts – an exact match would make me wonder, and no calls or visits for the rest of the day.

What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Lots of crime fiction — literary fiction is meaningless if you aren’t in the thick of things.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
The longer I live the more I realise how little I know.

Usha K R writes fiction in English. Her novels are ‘Monkey-man’ (2010/ Penguin India), ‘A Girl and a River’ (2007/Penguin India), ‘The Chosen’ (2003/Penguin India) and ‘Sojourn’ (1998/EastWest Books). Her novels have been listed for several awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Crossword Award, the Man Asia and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. ‘A Girl and a River’ won the Vodafone Crossword Award, 2007. ‘Monkey-man’ was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012.

Payal Dhar: Interview

Payal is an old friend, and I took this photo some years ago on a picnic. This interview is published in Kitaab
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
This is a deceptively difficult question. I’ve thought about it for days, wondering how to answer it without sounding hackneyed. (And does the fact that I don’t have a deep, clever answer mean I have no good reason to be writing?!) The main reason is I write, I suppose, is because I like it. There are the beginnings of all these stories inside my head and the only to find out what happens next is to write them down and see where they go. This process of a story unfolding and then coming together is very exciting. It’s almost as much fun as reading a book.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I have a few works in progress at the moment. One of them is a fantasy novel I’ve been stuck on for more than half a decade. Some people say I should abandon it, but I feel it has a life still. Another falls somewhere between a school story and mystery story, and also between MG and YA. The third is a standalone YA fantasy where we find out that a deja vu is actually a time jump (!); and the fourth is a secret!
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I like to keep it simple. The best writing advice I got was from a journalism teacher who told us that the kind of writing we should be aiming for was “Famous Five” (of Enid Blyton fame). At that time I thought that was ridiculous — why should you write like you’re writing for ten-year-olds? Only later I realized the wisdom behind that thought. That rather than showing off how many big words you know, write so that even a child could understand it. And it is harder than it looks, even when you *are* writing for children.

Who are your favorite authors?
Jonathan Stroud, Neil Gaiman, Sarah Waters, Astrid Lindgren (for Pippi Longstocking), Ian Rankin… for now. They keep changing depending on what I’m reading or have recently read.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
My last novel, Slightly Burnt. Not just because I was writing about sexuality for a teenage audience, but also because it was the first time I was moving out of my comfort zone: fantasy. In fantasy, since you have the luxury of world-building, the realities of what you’re setting your story in are manipulatable. But in this book, for the first time, I was dealing with, for want of a better word, “real” reality.
What’s your idea of bliss?
Anything that involves cool weather, chocolate, books, games and a computer with an internet connection — preferably altogether.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Wow. I’d fill my e-reader with as many books I could cram into it! It would have to be a mix — of crime/mystery, fantasy, YA and MG, and anything that catches the eye — so that I have options.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
There was a time when I’d have said my laptop without hesitation, but that’s no longer the case because of the wonderful technology called cloud back-up.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Bill Watterson, a cartoonist’s advice.

Payal Dhar writes fiction for children and young adults, and has several books under her belt. For almost two decades, Payal has been an academic copy-editor and a freelance writer on technology, games, sport, books, writing and travel. She has been published in a variety of print and online publications, and also done live online coverage of cricket and football. Payal has written six young adult novels and co-edited a unique Indo-Australian collaborative anthology of feminist speculative fiction for young adults. Payal was on the jury of the 2014 Crossword Award for Children’s Writing. Her interests include reading, writing, gaming, web development, tinkering with her gadgets, photography and crochet. She lives in Delhi, but often mysteriously pops up in Bangalore.
Payal Dhar’s website |