Cuckold: A Review

Could you imagine Game of Thrones in a Indian setting?

Okay, so maybe that opener is a little clickbaity but you wouldn’t believe just how much I want people to read this book. I’ll start with a confession. Every time I pass by the Indian writing section at a bookstore my hair stands on end. It seems that there has been an abundance of Indian authors whose ability to write in English was enough justification for publishers to let them unleash their horrendous mediocrity on an unsuspecting public. Often these would be Chetan Bhagat’s look to Indian history and mythology and manage to rewrite them with less sophistication and thought than Wikipedia articles on said history or mythology.

It was a month ago at Blossoms that I was nodding my head pretending I understood what my friend was saying about some ideology. I picked up a book to avoid having to respond when I got hooked to the second page. It saw that it was 700 pages and 500 RS and decided to put it away. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the dam book.

There’s an interesting paragraph on a money lender of my religion that manages to expose the cynical way Jainism ends up begin practiced. It read-

“You give alms you earn merit. You feed the poor or the Digambaras , you collect some more merit. Pacifism is a capital investment of the highest order. It’s a kind of super-compound interest scheme with an eye on both heaven and earth. Extend the metaphor and it has a foot in the here and now, and the ever after. Let’s look at the latter first. The more merit your earn, the more likely you are to abridge the number of reincarnations you have to go through to reach the kind of enlightened state which gets you to moksha. In the meanwhile, just see how profitable the fruits of non-violence are in this life. You stay white and pure while someone else, someone like me and my Rajput clan does the sinning and the killing.” 

In 4 pages I had come across a damming indictment of Jainism’s flaws that even I would struggle to articulate. Maybe this means nothing to you but it sure got me hooked. Don’t worry there’s a lot more to the book than cynicism. That’s probably why I was able to blow through its 700 pages in 3 days.

The story is set in a Rajput kingdom right before the invasion of Babur. We follow a would be king who’s wife has made him a cuckold; she is in love with a god. This is based on actual history but since there is little we know about it, history is just the background on which Kiran Nagarkar paints a fascinating tale. What makes the novel interesting for all 700 pages is the main character, who is surprisingly modern, intelligent and very rational. Unfortunately the reality of court politics, tradition, scheming etc. smacks him around all the time. He struggles to come to terms with his own ambition, his love and frustration towards his family and traditions, his unorthodox thinking in a honor bound society, his eccentric wife and ultimately his own mind which he learns is doomed to be irrational.

Since this isn’t a book series like a Song of Ice and Fire you get a proper literary study of this man. The book works not just as a story about wars and politics, it’s also a struggle to come to terms with modern, or maybe ancient anxieties. Unlike other historical fiction the book isn’t slavishly dedicated to accuracy, like say Wolfhall. It feels all the better for it. There are many interesting characters and insights like into people like Babur and his excellent writing, homosexual desires etc.

The only criticism I would offer is that sometimes the language is too modern; hearing about school bells in the 14th century might take you out of the book . I saw a review on Goodreads that said the reviewer couldn’t make it past the 23rd page because of it but I think that’s a terrible reason to miss out on so good a story (and why did the idiot review a book he hadn’t read?). As the author himself says he wanted the language to work to make the novel readable and not historical and that definitely makes the 700 pages seem brief.

The book feels Indian and I doubt if it has reached foreign shores, which is a great tragedy. There is a German translation interestingly enough. Kiran Nagarkar even won the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 2000. It’s a great and interesting read and a kind of book you only come across rarely in Indian literature.

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Habibi Review

Habibi is a graphic novel by Craig Thompson set in a fantasy oriental landscape. Habibi is Thompson’s attempts to humanize the people and the traditions of the middle east.

You can clearly see the similarities with his excellent previous work- Blankets. The similarity can also help you decide if you will like Habibi or not. Thompson writes from a very personal perspective. One that doesn’t really care to censor anything a general audience might find gross or unpalatable.

This is very important if you’re reading Habibi because Thompson mixes in brutality, suffering, violence etc. even when talking about the beauty of particular story or belief. Orthodox Muslims and Christians might find his rewriting of Biblical and Islamic tales heretical or even offensive.

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A page from Habibi

But Thompson isn’t trying to offend he’s attempting to translate. Thompson is working against the general trend of vilifying Islamic peoples or art. He build on the shared traditions and beliefs of all Abrahamic religions explaining why people believe them or why they are beautiful.

His use of violence and disturbing themes might put off a lot of people but it’s necessary to what he’s trying to do. He uses a modern sort of story telling that involves conflict, sex and crudeness to translate what these ideas and stories mean in a style that is understandable to a modern audience. It is meant not for believers or racists but for people who have been exposed to and are concerned by the growing Islamophobic narrative over the years.

The art style remains similar to blankets but adapts a from that is clearly inspired by Arabic calligraphy. Images from all Abrahamic faith are used repeatedly while we follow the story of the two main protagonists caught in a cruel and filthy world that is a mix of history and modernity.

Their story is full of suffering and brutality, much like the rest of the world in the story. Prospects are always bleak and the fact that the characters can survive their ordeals with some shred of hope is the closest thing to a happy ending the book has. One might find the characterizations and the depiction of the region, which involves a lot of violence, offensive or problematic but there is little else to complain about.

Some have also complained about the length of the novel but I found that it only takes a few hours to finish. Thompson creates a violent, beautiful world in his attempt to translate the experiences and traditions of the middle east which is well worth the read.

A School for Scandle

A School for Scandal, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s’ comedy of manners, is a surprisingly fast and entertaining read despite being about as old as the United States.

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A School for scandal

A Comedy of Manner

A comedy of manner is a form of entertainment that satirizes a social class using  witty dialogue and stereotypical characters.  It’s like most sitcoms we have today, except intelligent. Staying true to the characteristics of comedies of manner, you often know quite a bit about a character with just their names. All the Moses’s, Sneerwells, Snakes, and Surfaces induce giggle with every appearance. Things get serious soon enough though.

The story might not be rather original, or very important in a comedy of manners for that matter, but it is rather engaging. It took me about 2 hours to read the entire text; I’d wager that watching the play would be a much shorter and more entertaining affair. The language wasn’t very archaic either.

Now for the most important aspect of all comedies of manner- the wit. This play certainly has a lot of it. Sharp comment fly at characters with every plot point and keep the play humorous. The plays’ main concerns are integrity, libel, and of course scandal. The story and wit revolve around these matter and the nice people have happy ending and the bad ones have bad endings. It might sound simple but the wit is plentiful and the values delivered. This was unusual for that time; most comedies of manner had the ill-doers get away.

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A 1937 production of the play

Themes, Motifs, Plot

The message about scandal, libel, and rumor are still relevant in a world where Rupert Murdoch still publishes about a million tabloids a day.

Sheridan might have been writing a comedy whose humor may not translate too well with modern audiences with society being a lot more progressive and diverse. But if you know a little history about the rigid, wealth and decadent upper class of the 1800’s you’ll find the play very entertaining. If humor doesn’t seem to reveal itself, remember this is a satire and look for the wit and parody among the prudes on stage. There isn’t any central character to drive the play, because the upper class and their scandalous ways and disregard of propriety is the main focus. This is something that’ll either make the play a chore or refreshing.

There is a lot of antisemitism in the play. Although Moses is shown to be a kind man, that seems to be played as a aberration. This is something audiences should expect from plays of that era and from R.B Sheridan who has a reputation for making choice comments about women authors and the Irish. Audiences may also be surprised by the amount of affairs and sexual escapades that are hinted at in the play.

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Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Why should you care?

R.B Sheridan is a man worth know about. Any man who went from class dunce to dueler to play write is worth reading about.

If that doesn’t interest you the fact that Sheridan makes a scathing critic of the hypocrisy and prudishness of the upper class at a time when it was solidifying, and managed to be funny about it makes the play worth a watch or read.

Rebecca

Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier, is an engrossing tale told through the eyes of an imaginative young woman as she marries a wealthy English man, and discovers many sinister truths at his beautiful country estate of Manderly.

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A copy of Rebecca

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again”

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again” a simply but haunting line that sets the tone for the narrators recollections. The novel is also teeming with  quotable lines by the way. We never learn her first or maiden name, she is simply called Mrs. De winter after she is married. Even while her narration has just begun, and she still serves as companion to the tactless Mrs. Van Hooper, her tendency to present herself as a very naive, doubtful and imaginative girl is apparent. Well, she never really calls herself imaginative but hardly a chapter goes by where the narrator does not stop to immerse herself in fantasy. If these things irritate you, I doubt you’ll enjoy the novel.

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A still from Alfred Hitchcock’s’ 1940 adaptation

Like everything else in the novel, things take quite a while to unfold, but eventually the narrator finishes her tales of how she married Max, or Maxim de Winter as he’s popularly known. She is still very doubtful and cautious, and Max isn’t very open about his emotions. With their large age difference, Max’s’ reserve, her constant worry and the shadow of Rebecca (Max’s’first wife) hanging over them  you’d assume their relationship was doomed to fail.

When the narrative reaches the vast, beautiful estate of Manderly, where Rebeccas’ presence threatens to leap from every corner, every fear that the narrator refuses to forget seems to be justified. This stretch of the story also introduces Mrs. Danvers, a character who instills the fear of propriety like no other. All is not as it seems in Manderly and the people are more sinister than the narrators many flights of fantasy dared imagine.

Mrs. De winter and Mr De Winter seem to develop a real relationship only as things threaten to get worse for them. It isn’t hard to see the major twists coming (I won’t give it away) but reading it is still thrilling. The many characters introduced, their kindness, their love for Rebecca and Manderly all become sources of tension, of a tragedy just waiting to unfurl itself. A friend declared I was reading this part so hard my eyes threatened to pop out.You’ll probably expect the ending and maybe even accuse it of being a conveniently happy one but Daphne du Maurier is able to translate the many quirks of the narrator into an endearing figure who you’ll be rooting for all across the end.

Some might argue that the ending wasn’t all that happy, the fate of Manderly, and the narrators craving for tea might have been the cause of many future worries and flights of fantasy but I disagree. It isn’t as threatening as the other problems the couples faced,it is no ultimatum, and it is nothing they cannot live without. And I have a feeling that the tragic is something the narrator craved deep down. Perhaps that’s why she loved those fantastic day dreams, those long looks back into the past.

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A young Daphne du Maurier

Moonstone

This one’s been a long time coming. The Moonstone is an excellent Victorian detective novel cum thriller with a bit of oriental flavoring.

I was supposed to finish reading this for my course but I never finished it as I heard of the ending before I was halfway done. The fact that I was able to finish Bleak house and Middlemarch in a few days and took months to finish Moonstone had a few of my friends questioning my humanness. Their concern isn’t all that unwarranted.

Wilkie Colins’ The Moonstone could easily be mistaken for something written in the early 20th century. The language is simple, far removed from the intimidating wordplay that puts most people off Victorian writing. The story is narrated through journals written by the characters. This doing away of the omniscient narrator does wonders for the story. The reader often knows little more than the characters and is on his or her toes the entire time. It also helps cut away any flab that might slow own the story. The story and mystery take their time to unravel but this is never really a bother for previously mentioned reason. The unceasing exposure to the characters’ thoughts and deviations fleshes out their personalities and make everything that’s said more relevant and very often- endearing.

The mystery that the story revolves around is engaging and the narration manages to slip you a revelation just before you start to get impatient. The story is undeniably well written and it would be a very pleasant thing to finish on the high note that is Betteredges’ endearing epilogue. There are plenty of memorable lines, characters and quips I doubt anyone is likely to forget. If you ever find someone who has read the moonstone, threaten to quote Robinson Crusoe and I guarantee a laugh.

However, there are the three Indian and the Moonstone that steal attention at the end of the book. It would have been very easy to have just forgotten about them after the epilogue but Collins decides otherwise. In doing so Collins seems to draw attention to the story of the Moonstone, the Indians, Hinduism, faith, caste and list of other things.Stories that had been hidden away under all the drama. Why? I’m not really sure. It work’s beautiful, yes. But why?

This fascination Collins brings to everything from the Moon to Tipu Sultan adds a little something to the book, that just invites you to wonder. Was Collins enamored with the idea of duty and the cycles of time? We can never really be sure, but there’s no denying the Moonstones brilliance.

Hedda Gabler

It isn’t often you enjoy reading about cruel characters who manipulate,cheat and drive people to kill themselves but Henrik Isben pulls it off.

I don’t really read a lot of plays, but Hedda Gabler makes me reconsider my indifference towards them. You’re thrown straight into the thick of the story. Huge revelations, twists and explanations float by, unnoticeable to all but the most observant viewers. To the outsiders in the play, the characters must seem like happy, well off and respectable people. But we the view see gratuitous amounts of dissatisfaction. Unhappy meaningless marriages, deception, affairs, manipulation, jealousy. These aren’t happy, well adjusted characters we’re dealing with.

Hedda Gabler and all the other characters are bound by their past, by their genders, by their failings and try desperately to find a little happiness or at least escape boredom. Hedda despite being cruel, manipulative, exploitative remains a likable character. It feels wrong to call her an anti-hero. There only a few lines about her past, but that’s all you need to know about her struggles to stick to gender norms. She is her fathers’ daughter, Hedda Gabler, and not Hedda Tesman, Tesmans’ wife.

Tesman is a kind soul, an ambitious and dedicated scholar and husband but without great talent. He’s naive, spoilt and oblivious to the many many times he’s been hoodwinked. His rival Lovbog tarnishes his reputation (along with that of his lover) and wastes his talent and Hedda aids his destruction. Thea, restricted to the sidelines, can only watch silently as her life is ruined and her work destroyed.

When boredom, rebellion and independence are no longer an option, death becomes Heddas’ solace. When all the other characters are able to put aside their own frustrations and realize Hedda has shot herself, it is said “People don’t do such things”. Even in death the characters are bound by the need to be respectable  and polite.

A medium length play that might annoy quite a few with its dark, bleak approach and cruel characters, Hedda Gabler manages to be an engrossing look into the minds of people desperately trying to deal with the boring world polite society tries to create.

House On Mango Street

In English spoken as Spanish, Sandra Cineros tells us all about her life at Mango street, in this short and excellent novella.

Through her tiny tales about Mango streets Cineros talks about nothing in particular, but still manages to effortlessly say so much. Every chapter takes, at most, 5 minutes to finish. Everything from the names for snow, clouds, race, sex, adolescence and culture gushes out from the writing. When you finish the book, you’ll know this living breathing street full of Latin American immigrants. You’ll probably know the juiciest gossip in and around Mango street too.

I’ve read the book twice in 3 hours. The re-reading value is ludicrous. Every entry is so varied, diverse and filled with this exotic reality that keeps you hooked. The tiny length of the stories makes it extremely easy to pick up and read casually.

Latin American culture and the Spanish Language are major sources of influence but it isn’t limited to that. Stories can feature Spanish phrases rolling of tongues and little girls hurling abuses at each other. Cieros makes no attempt to rant about serious issues, discuss the treatment of Latin Americans in America, talk about the usual jazz about life in poverty.

Cieros grapples with her sense of belonging and her futile longing to escape, to not belong, all while narrating terribly tiny tales that fascinate, engross and ooze beauty.

Collected Stories:Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Where do I start with Marquez? The first story is about a corpse[?] describing his long draw out decomposition.

Nearly 300 pages of bizarre, strange stories that baffle you with ever line. When Marquez had a normal story halfway through the book I was certain I was reading the wrong book.The book will be really hard to follow for the uninitiated but if you stick with it and try to figure out what Marquez is doing with every line, story and idea that he throws at you, you’ll be amazed. You’ll still be a little dazed and lost but it’s worth the effort.

The reading experience is mystical. The various sections of the book  seem disconnected, like surreal images from forgotten dreams. Now and then a few… ideas [not characters, ideas] in earlier stories, within a section, make a cameo in the most random places in another story and you are left wondering what just happened. Once you’ve picked yourself off the floor and try to figure out what happened, you realize everything makes sense even if you can never explain it with words.

I worry that this little write up isn’t long enough but in my defense Marquez needs to read to be understood, it’s hard to describe the  sort of  literary wizardry Marques puts on display. Describing a ghost ship that makes no sound the first time it  crashes and hides for half a life time is like a lamp. Functional but not crafted with passion. Reading about Marquez just isn’t as reading Marquez.  If you don’t mind having your brain tossed around like salad the book is definitely worth picking up.

1Q84-Book 3

One of the worst things I’ve done this semester is call Murakami the Japanese Paulo Coelho. It took me a long time to get around to finishing the last part of the trilogy. Partly because I had a lot of other things to finish reading and partly because I was afraid the trilogy would end up being disappointment.

The novel has mad ambition. It raises expectations and suspense like crazy. Halfway through the last part of the trilogy I worried that Murakami could not help but disappoint. The world and stakes keep intensifying at such a terrifying rate that you assume the only way a conclusion can be reached is through some conventional cop out ending. A few of my friends had read some short stories and novels by Murakami which they found rather disappointing which ruined my confidence in Murakami’s ability to tell a story. I wondered if I had been taken for a ride.

In 1Q84 Murakmai proves himself an excellent storyteller able to keep the reader hooked and create interesting characters. But I never felt confident enough to pass judgement until I got to the ending. There is so much going on that your just dying for a conclusive end to tie up everything- miracle births, tiny spirit men, miracle ejaculations, chapters where one of the main characters is a corpse, all the fantastic elements introduced in the previous novel mixed up in a world where death is very real, and very thing runs according to the girding rules of reality. The reality bit is very important, even works that revolve around “believable” settings tend to exaggerate and take things further than things would go in the real world. Here things are extremely realistic, something like buying a gun, disposing a body,surveillance aren’t things that are very easy to do. Even the pros need to extremely cautious and aren’t super efficient archetypes. There are two scenes where characters need to take taxis on  a busy freeway. In any other book this would barely get a line.Here this gets stares, questions, this is a risky, unusual step, that has people commenting on their odd behavior and people citing regulations, very few books would bother to depict this.

You’d be surprised that this extreme painstaking realism that does not ever take any liberties exists in a world with two moons in the sky, air chrysalises,phantom cable fee collectors etc. There is also a very elaborate play going hidden behind the plot. This might be Murakami playing with the story telling, what is called real in stories,how much the characters know about the stories they are in etc in general. Even if he took away the fantastic element in the story and the world he creates, the story or the romantic plot would still be fantastic and never happen in the real world. But you can be sure that this is what we’d call believable in any other book. The fantastic elements in the book, they exist and they  are extremely beautiful and very symbolic. I half  a mind to go through the book reading only the fantasy bits.It’s easy to lose yourself and start day dreaming about the sky as described in the book. I’ve been looking at the moon every day since I began reading the books.

There isn’t much that the reader discovers about Japanese culture. You learn about Japanese law but not culture. I don’t know if this is due to translation, if Murakami writes for an international audience. But this is not a bad thing. I can’t come up with any thing else I’d call bad about the book. A few chapters in I forgot ever doubt I had, blazed through the remaining chapters and went out to look at the moon.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for Murakami and I know a lot of people who think he’s overrated. I can’t comment on his other works but the 1Q84 trilogy is simply amazing and well worth the read.

Chronicles Of A Death Foretold

The blurb tells you he will die.

It tells you why and it tells you who does it. So why read what Marques writes? Maybe its the how. Maybe it’s just the desire for a little closure. Why should a story tell you everything anyway?

Back when I was a kid I had a dog, Zoolfy, he was white the untouched parts of a new unruled notebook. I don’t remember much about him, I was six at the time and my father killed him before I got to know him better. What I do remember is a story about him that my family repeats every time that start reminiscing about the pets they had. On seeing one of the many uncles that haunt the family for the first time, Zoofly hopped up on his lap and looked him in the eye. Man and dog stared at each other for sometime,I don’t know how much time but it was enough time for the family to decide that this stare lasted so long, that it was a story meant to be retold. What passed between man and dog on that ruined,decrepit chair?

I don’t know much about Zoofly or what went on his mind or who the uncle was or what he though or why neither of them made a sound. It’s interesting. It happened. People remembered it. It had no plot no great moral lesson. It just happened. It makes you think.

The murder happens. You might like the narrator and the man who is going to die or you may not. It doesn’t matter. You might hate the people who let the killings happen, the people who kill, the man who is killed- it doesn’t matter. Curiosity will keep you going.

Find your own morals and villains if you want to. The death happens weather you like it or not. You like everyone else in the story may never truly know if the wrong man was accused. The truth might never decide to reveal itself. You don’t even know why the narrator lists out all these little stories to you. You can never be sure if that fact that several people could have saved him is important.

Marques takes you for a ride. All you can do is sit back and wonder at everything you hear and everything you don’t.