Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Firmin:Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife - Sam Savage

Somehow, I am not a great fan of literature where an animal is the central character and the narrator. But, the initial reports on this book was good enough inspiration for me to buy and read this book. An intelligent rat, born and lived in a bookstore, having to eat the book for survival, develops a taste for literature. Reading classics after classics, Firmin now develops the intelligence of a human , but trapped in a rat's body. Soon, he find himself to be a misfit among his tribe and forced to live a solitary life in the book store, his heaven and the local cinema where the classic movies are shown 24 hrs a day.

The attempt now is to develop a method of correspondence with humans, like whom he started thinking. Norman shine, the owner of of the bookstore has become his initial admiration. Observing Norman and his clientele, Firmin tries to attract his attention. However, his fondness towards Norman turns into a nightmare, after the attempted poisoning by Norman to get rid of him.

Firmin however, manages to get the attention of a solitary, fantacy fiction writer, who frequent the bookstore. Injured and abandoned on the street, he was rescued by the writer and was looked after by him for a long time, before the tragic demise of him.

In the meanwhile, uptown Boston, where he lives is all set to change. The area has been marked out for urban rebuilding and all those shops and establishment including the book store will have to be closed and removed.
Book is pretty unique in his approach and style. Its funny at times. But, beyond the initial curiosity, I did not enjoy the read. Having said that, this book have been appreciated by lot many readers and critics.
Firmin : Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
Sam Savage
Phoenix Paperback
232 Pages
Rs 295/-
More read : Telegraph

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The year of Miracle & Grief - Leonid Borodin

Deep in the Siberia lies the second largest , and the deepest lake on earth, called Lake Baikal. When the 12 year old arrives at the small town on the banks of the great lake, when his parents got transferred to the Railway School there, he was amazed and was taken by the beauty of the lake and surrounding mountains. Once this initial astonishment yielded to the inquisitiveness of the place, he began exploring the area on his own.

His encounter with the grand old witch Sarma at the high mountains, and the imprisoned Prince Baikolla and his beautiful daughter, is all set to change his life for the next one year in a big way. Through the stories of the young girl, whom he falls in love at his first meeting, the legend of lake Baikal and other places in Siberia reveals to the young boy. Sarma, the old witch, a descendent of the Great Sibir ( from where the name Siberia derived) had the prince Baikolla and his daughter captive , avenging the death of her son, killed by Prince Baikolla while attempting to flee with his daughter. Sarma also destroyed the kingdom, flooding the valley resulting in Lake Baikal. According to Sarma, only the weak and who can not revenge the injustice forgive and did not entertain the request of the young boy to set them free. But, the childish innocence and persuasion worked. Sarma was willing to release the girl on a condition, that the sufferings of her will have to be burdened by the young boy. Smitten by adolescent love and the promise to Prince Baikolla that he will look after the girls well being, he agrees to the conditions. The girl is now with him, in the same class as he is, without any traces of her knowing the past. As warned by Sarma, the young boy is tormented and suffer. Loosing focus on studies, on friends and on himself, the days are passed, until the summertime, when they were expected to part for vacation and his eventual transfer to another school.
Like the great Lake Baikal, the people and surrounding goes through the changing fortunes and moods with the changing seasons. The boy and the ageless Sarma goes through the changes. Nature, is the main character of the tale. The expanse of Lake Baikal, the snow covered plains, the mountains, landslide which catches the boy on its way, are part of the story as the others are.

Mixing the real life and the fairy tale fantasy beautifully, Leonid Borodin develops a place which is vivid in the memory of the readers. Use of the myth and legends and the innocence of a small boy, while retaining the fictional elements, Borodin brings out a nice book. Written as the first person narrative of the boy, the initial excitement, the exploration of lake and the mountains, the witch and fairy tale and the myths and legends of Siberia, it gives a freshness to the reading experience.

Leonid Borodin, like many other writers was sentenced by the regime twice and was sent the prison camps at Siberia , from 1967 to 1973 and again from 1982 for 10 years. His works have been smuggled out of Russia for publishing.

The year of Miracle and GriefLeonid Borodin ( Translated by Jennifer Bradshaw)
Quartet Books
185 Pages
Further Read : NY Times Review

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Rape of Sita - Lindsey Collen

'Once upon a time, there was a woman called Sita'
'So why did you say "Once upon a time" then?'
First and foremost, this is a feminist novel. Not that it stand against it. The book had caused a controversy and was banned within three days of publication for insulting religious sentiments in Mauritius. Sita is the central character in the Hindu epic, "Ramayana" and a divine goddess to many. Using Sita as a metaphor for the universal struggle of womankind, Lindsay Collen has brought out a brilliant book. Sita, in the epic was abducted while she was in exile, by Ravana , and was rescued by Rama in an epic war. Sita has to suffer the humiliation and have to come clean through 'baptism by fire" at the end of the victory, to prove herself.

While this novel has no direct reference to Sita of the epic, some of the characters have names resembling to the epic. Sita's husband in the novel is Dharma ( for Rama) , his brother is Lutchman ( for Lakshman) and the villain of the story ( the accused, is Rowan - for Ravan) and Dharma's father is 'Dasharatha' as in the case of Ramayana. To me, this novel is as appealing without these references to the Ramayana.

Sita, in this tale is tormented by an incident that occurred 9 years ago. She had buried the memories for all the years after deliberating over it for a while. But, all of a sudden, there are sprouts at the buried land. She recounts the time and events that leads to the eventful day and her internal reaction to the same during and after that incident. Though she was able to bury the bad feelings and been able to continue her life, it come back strongly after all these years. Sita is no common woman. She is a political activist (along with her husband), and the leader of the Women's Movement of Mauritius. So has the moral responsibility to be the spokeperson of all the women in Mauritius , in Africa and for the world. As she construct the article, pertaining to rape and humiliation of women, going through case by case, she looks at the philosophical and psychological and social aspects of rape.
Very interestingly, the narrator here, is a man ( Iqbal, the umpire - Iqbal was a man who thought he was a woman) who re-tell the story for Sita. Towards the end, Iqbal himself, is asking the question..
And I once again, intervene. How did they come to this decision, this group of ordinary men and boys? And how did they perform? Did they stand in a queue beforehand? And what did they do afterwards? These are the questions we all have to answer, dear reader, for what if we were one of those men? Would we be among them? Would we be like them? Would we be them? Are we, by any chance, them?

This book brings the novel of Virginie Despentes to mind ( which was published in 1999, 6 years later). Virginie Despentes book is a porno-fiction to me with no substance. Rape of Sita, on the other hand deal the issue at a higher intellectual level. Though at times, these discussions tends to be monotonous and superficial, which is one of the short coming of the novel.
The initial part of the novel before it gets serious on the aspect of rape, is extremely well written. The tales and legends of the people of Mauritius, the various characters of the novel, the history of their ancestors, the freedom struggle and the story of the narrator himself provides a good build up.

A very well 'constructed' book, with some interesting take from the feminist angle.
The Rape of Sita
Lindsey Collen
The Feminist Press @ the City University of New York
232 Pages
Here is an interview with the author discussing the book :

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, a hugely acclaimed novel by Jean Rhys was eluding my list for a long time. Now that I found the new Penguin Classic copy, it was time to pick this up and read. Now, this book is supposed to be a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This novel is an attempt to fill the character viod of Bertha Mason, the mad wife of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Here is a comparitive study..

This book was published in 1966, after a very very long gap by Jean Rhys. Her previous works, written between two world wars, are out of circulation. Publishing of 'Wide Sargasso Sea' has lifted her sagging literary career to greater heights.

The novel starts with the childhood days of Antoinette. Slavery was banned in the British Empire, recently. The life of erstwhile slave-owners, predominantly the whilte planters are in disarray. They are looked upon with contempt and distaste. Most of them have left the caribbean and returned to the homeland. Those remained had to cop with the changing social order. They are isolated from the rest of the society and live under pitiable condition. Antoniette's widowed mother, struggle to bring up the kid and accepts to marry a wealthy planter. Soon, she succumbs to mental disarray and was confined to an isolated stay supported by a couple of servants.

Antoniette was married off to a young British, Rochester, for a large sum of dowry. The second part of the novel, set in her ancient estate, goes through the systematic alienation of Antoniette, with Rochester, and the rest of the world. Her attempt to get back with the world , to reconcile, is not yielding any result. This add to the suspicion of Rochester about her mental imbalance, prompted by her so called co-brother in a letter and subsequent meeting with him. Soon, she was taken back to England and was forced to lead a life similar to that of her mother.

Antoniette, who is a creol, is equally unacceptable to the black community ( who call her white cockroach ) and to the whites ( called her a white negro). Her trouble upbringing, with the servents, especially Chrisophine, who believed to be practising obeah (similar to woodoo) and whom Anotoniette approaches towards the end to help her to come out of her current state of affairs, are all lead to the degradation of her mental illness.
Jean Rhys, uses the method of alternating between Antoinette and Rochester. The book has been heralded as one of the first post modern - post colonial novel. While the book is superbly written and the new penguin classic edition is with a 27 page introduction and a detailed afterword, I was missing something. May be I need to read Jane Eyre to fully appreciate this book.
Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

Penguin Books
151 Pages ( plus 27 pages of introduction and notes)
Rs 299

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Golden Age - Tahmima Anam

Dear Husband,
I lost our children today

Rehana tells her husband at his grave stone, when she looses the possession of her children, on a court rule. She has been widowed recently, and court and her brother-in-law (who is childless) decides that she does not have the means to look after the kids. They are flown out of Dhaka to Karachi to be with Faiz and Parveen until she has enough money to bribe the judge and for the tickets.

Years passed. For the past 10 years, Rehana celebrates the day of their return among her close circle of friends. Little did she know that the 10th year is going to be the one that change their lives for ever. Within few days, the tanks roll into Dhaka and the 9 month long ordeal of war, separation and suffering begin.

The long struggle for the independence of Bangladesh has begun. Mujibur Rahman has been elected as the prime minister, but the powerful West Pakistan rulers refuses to accept the victory. Mujibur Rahman declares the independence of Bangladesh, and thus the war begin.
'to have a country in two halves, poised on either side of India like a pair of horns?' East and West spoke different languages, followed different religions, lived different lives. West enjoyed political and economic supremacy; East was a poor relation, neglected even during the cyclones and floods that plagued its delta planes. Some kind of fissure was almost inevitable."
The ruling army is on a rampage. Tanks on the streets of Dhaka, destroying and damaging civilians and properties. Her children ( Sohail 19, and Maya 18 ) could not keep themselves away from the happening. The University where they study is the nerve centre of the resistance. There was widespread attack and hindus , especially was targetted ( operation searchlight ). Rehena's tenants ( her only income) Sengupta's decides to leave Dhaka and take refuge in their ancestral village. The vacated house, now become the place of revelutionary activities. Sohail declares his intention to join the resistance, and leave house with his friends to join 'Mukthibahini'. Rehana, too get pulled into the midst of activities in a small way by stitching clothes for the people , storing medicine, providing shelter to the rebels. Sohail comes back one night and let his mother know about his plan to bomb one of the International Hotel, to get the global attention to their struggle. After an unsuccessful attempt, the team return with an injured 'major' whom they leave under Rehana's care. Reluctant at first, Rehana soon develop a bond with the silent 'major' , turning into mutual affection and love. Rehana has some one with whom she can reveals her most hidden secret.
Maya leave for Calcutta to write article and participate in refugee relief. Rehana was also involved in getting the release of the neighbors son-in-law ( a defected military man), to the praise and accolade of the resistance force. All these activities cast shadow on her life and there was constant threat looming over her. He had to flee Dhaka and join her daughter at Calcutta ( returning to her birthplace and to her childhood memories). Spending two months with her daughter in near poverty with a comfort of a refugee, she was actively participated in the relief efforts of the Bangladeshi refugees, where she meets her old tenant Mrs.Sengupta.

The family return to Dhaka as India declares support to the Independent Bangladesh and engaged in a fully blown war with Pakistan, defeating it ending the 9 month long struggle.
"The war will end today. Niazi will sign the treaty and I will walk into the streets. Your daughter will hold my hand. There will be a pressing crowd on the pavement but Maya will elbow us to the front. A boy will sell flags for two taka and every one will wave and crane their necks to see the road. Coloured paper will sail from buildings; fists will wave in the air ; there will be dancing, a man on flute , a woman beating the dhol slung across her shoulder. Someone will think to plug a megaphone to the radio. The roads are flat and dusty ; we are spellbound , love-bound , home-bound , singing 'How I love you , my golden Bengal'. The sky is pale and iridescent and today the war has ended, and today I clutch my flag, hold my breath and wait for our son."
Often, the human side of any struggle are brought out by the fiction. What we hear in the news and what we read written by the historians are only the political truth. There are truths beyond these letters which are often misrepresented or ignored. It is through the literary works one get acquainted with the real issues. To me, this is one of the few literary works I have come across on the independence of Bangladesh ( There might be many written in the local language, which I am not aware of). To her credit, Tahmima Anam, manages to bring the human side of the struggle during the war without getting carried away with historical facts and the war itself.
This is the story of a mother trying to retain her children against all odds. She had lost them once (even if it is for two years) , and she carry the hurt in her for not being able to protect her children. But this time she is not going to let that happen. She had sacrificed many of her personal needs for her children. She has committed many unforgivable deeds for the sake of her children. Her participation in the struggle was also for her children. Her acts of heroics, were driven by the love of her children that the war and independence.
"The war that has taken so many sons has spared mine. This age that has burned so many daughters has not burned mine. I have not let it."

Impressively written book, despite getting carried away on the emotional side occasionally. I haven't read any book by a Bangladesh author, and this may not be the best representation of Bengali Literary tradition. However, this book is worth reading for its attempt to bring about the human side of the war, through the eyes of a mother.

A Golden Age
Tahmima Anam
John Murray Publishers
276 Pages
Rs 295
Further read : Guardian