Sunday, November 3, 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson

From the back of the book:

Major Ernest Pettigrew is perfectly content to lead a quiet life in the sleepy village of Edgecombe St Mary, away from the meddling neighbours and his overbearing son. But when his brother dies, the Major finds his companionship deepening with the village shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. Drawn together by a love of books and the loss of their partners, they are soon forced to contend with irate relatives and gossiping villagers. The perfect gentleman, but the most unlikely hero, the Major must ask himself what matters most: family obligation, tradition or love? 

One fine morning in the fictitious village of Edgecombe St Mary, we learn that the Major's younger brother has passed away. Is it providence that brings Mrs. Ali at that very moment to the Major's door because her newspaper boy has fallen sick? 

The Major is a sixty-eight year old widower who is caught in the unenviable state of having to experience the passing of a younger sibling. The book opens with great poignancy, because as you witness the poor man's grief and his attempts to gather himself in front of Mrs. Ali, the inevitability of life and old age strike you. To the Major, struggling to come to terms with the changes around him, Mrs. Ali, a fifty-two year old widow of Pakistani origin is a much needed gust of something fresh; an oasis of calm in troubled waters. As the two gradually fall in love, they have to contend with all the shock and judgement of a close-knit community. 

The Major is the quintessential English Gentleman; he is courteous, a little crusty, sarcastic and a firm believer of the "stiff upper lip". He shares a somewhat troubled relationship with his son Roger, whom he sees an obtuse young man, thoughtless in his interactions and encroaching upon the Major's good manners quite often. Consider this line: "Oh, it's simple pragmatism, Dad. It's called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?" said Roger. "On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?" suggested the Major. This exchange is a typical example of the kind of relationship the Major and his son share. It's rather telling on Roger's part that most of time, he is not aware of having offended the people around him with his crudity.

The book is full of such small plots; stories in themselves. There's Mrs. Ali's nephew who comes back from a religious school in his homeland full of piety and changed beliefs and yet, hesitates to take responsibility for his old girlfriend and the child he fathered before he left England. The Major also shares conflicted relationship with his brother's widow, Marjorie and struggles to reunite a pair of Churchills bequeathed by his father to both his sons upon his death.

The Major, though he might come across as a tad prejudiced (he initially dislikes Roger's girlfriend Sandy just because she is American), is impossible to dislike. You're left with a lingering sense of pity even as you read about him, because he is just an ordinary man, approaching his twilight years and trying hard to hold on to the only way of life he understands. Mrs. Ali with her tensile grace and quiet ways, her loosely packed teas and a shared love of everything from Kipling to Johnson is independent and dignified. Their hesitant friendship quickly deepens into a deeper bond that causes the overthrow of the rigid lines of protocol in a prejudiced society.

"A couple may have nothing in common but the colour of their skin and the country of their ancestors, but the whole world would see them as compatible." Indeed, one would wonder what a retired English Major and the widowed Mrs. Ali with her colourful headscarves would have in common: the answer is elusive, it isn't written in stone and therein lies the charm of this book.

In my opinion, one of the most important themes of this book is death and old age. Death not in the form of a gloomy Reaper but as a part of every human's life; the coming to terms with it, the making the most of one's life as a consequence, the mourning of a loved one or a treasured memory or a way of life. 

"It surprised him that his grief was sharper than in the past few days. He had forgotten that grief does not decline in a straight line or along a slow curve like a graph in a child's math book. Instead, it was almost as if his body contained a big pile of garden rubbish full both of heavy lumps of dirt and of sharp thorny brush that would stab him when he least expected it." - the major's sense of loss at his brother's death.

For a first time novelist, Helen Simonson treats her prose with aplomb. The various cultural and racial issues that come up are dealt with wit and delicacy and the result is a sumptuous read that will not fail to delight you. 

"You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care--and humility." Abdul Wahid finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. "But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?"

"My dear boy," said the Major. "Is there really any other kind?"

The reader will question himself or herself, "How would I react if this happened in my village, to my neighbour, to someone in my family? Would I be able to treat the matter with the fairness it deserves if it weren't happening inside the pages of the book but in MY life?"

So, will the Major prevail and win the hand of the charming Mrs. Ali amidst mounting opposition? That's for you to find out :)

Helen Simonson
You can find the author's website here and and an interview of hers here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Karna's Wife, The Outcast's Queen - Kavita Kané

The Mahabharata captures the reader's imagination perhaps in a way that is almost impossible for any other epic or work of literature to do so. One day, when I have read Homer's great works I could attempt to compare and draw parallels. For now, I claim nothing but a deep and abiding love for this story that I have in some form or the other, come into contact with since I was a toddler. There was Amar Chitra Katha, there was B.R Chopra's magnum opus dubbed into Tamil and then there was mom. Today, whatever hotchpotch of information and understanding that I have on the Mahabharata has come principally from my mother. 

What really happens when you demystify the Mahabharata or the Ramayana? What happens when you take away the mountains giving way to Parashuram, when you take away the river parting for Krishna, what if there is no sea of divine milk, if Brahma was a figment of a long ago poet's imagination? What are you left with if you look at these men not as Gods, not as Vishnu, but as flesh and blood people who lived, loved and made mistakes just like the rest of us? The Mahabharata is every man's contemporary, it is every man's story and that is why it has stood the test of millennia and will continue to do so.

From the back of the book: 

Born out of wedlock to Kunti and Surya, the Sun God, Karna is abandoned by his mother at birth. He deserves the fate of princes, but is adopted by a lowly charioteer and becomes one himself. 

Uruvi, a Kshatriya princess, chooses him over Arjun at her Swayamvar, and theirs is a marriage of great social contrast. Uruvi must bring to bear all her love for Karna, and her formidable intelligence, to be accepted by his family. She eventually becomes Karna's mainstay, counselling and guiding him. However his blind allegiance to Duryodhana, the eventual cause of his downfall, is beyond her power to change.

Karna's Wife, told from Uruvi's point of view, unfolds against the backdrop of the epic struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Lyrical and inventive, it is a moving story of love against all odds.

There really is nothing for me to write here about the Mahabharata itself; Indians who happen to read this blogpost will undoubtedly know at least the basic outline and for the uninitiated, I will provide the wikipedia link at the end of my write up. 

The novel opens with the archery tournament in Hastinapur and continues until after the battle of Kurukshetra and Karna's death. Among those present who witness Karna's humiliation at the hands of Guru Dhronacharya and Duryodhana's subsequent offer of friendship to Karna, is Uruvi, the princess of Pukeya and the much loved only child of King Vahusha, who falls in love with Karna on the spot. 

There are two women in love with Karna; two princesses of royal households that are powerful and would mutually benefit through an alliance with the house of Kuru. Draupadi, the fire-born daughter of King Drupada of Panchala has seen little love in her father's household. She has been dubbed as the woman who will change the course of history. Then there's Uruvi, the princess of Pukeya, as loved and protected as Draupadi was neglected. Draupadi chooses to wed Arjuna as is expected of her and goes so far as to humiliate Karna at her Swayamvara, the repercussions of which shall resonate throughout her life and indeed, throughout Karna's. Uruvi on the other hand, also expected to wed Arjuna, chooses to defy all for love and picks Karna as her choice of groom. It is not for us to decide if Draupadi was right or wrong; one can only speculate if Uruvi would have done the same thing if she hadn't grown up secure in the knowledge of her parents' love for her and that no matter what decision she took, her parents would have ultimately given her their wholehearted support.

After her marriage to Karna, Uruvi finds herself not just an outcast's queen but an outcast herself, without and within Karna's household. Vrushali, Karna's first wife, treats her with polite detachment while keeping a reserved distance; Karna's brother Shona is openly skeptical about how well Uruvi, a Kshatriyan princess would settle into a Suta-putra household while Karna's parents don't quite know what to make of her and hold her in awe. The early days of Uruvi's life with Karna are checkered with pockets of happiness and despair as she struggles to find acceptance in a society where to marry "beneath" oneself is to commit "pratiloma", the practice of marrying a man of a lower caste and which is supposed to have been prohibited by the Shastras. In spite of their obvious differences, Uruvi and Karna come to hold each other with an abundance of love and regard which would be sorely tested as the events of the Mahabharata unfold. 

Karna, misfortune's child, is a tormented soul, at once seeking acceptance from and deriding an unforgiving and capricious world. All around him tell him that he is certain to be doomed if he continues his friendship with Duryodhana but to Karna, he owes Duryodhana his dignity and therefore, his loyalty unto death. Strangely, I wouldn't call Karna's opinions of Durydhana blind; only his loyalty is blind and unreserved. He seems to know very well his friend's drawbacks; Duryodhana is another who grew up without a mother's love and one who was brought up to view the world with mistrust and his Pandava cousins with hatred by his maternal uncle Shakuni. Karna almost pities Duryodhana his lack of moral uprightness, his coarseness and his penchant for cruelty and revenge. Throughout the book one finds oneself identifying more and more with Uruvi in her frustration and despair from failing to pry Karna away from Duryodhana's clutches. From the moment of Draupadi's disrobing by Dushasana at the fateful dice game, Karna knows that he a doomed man. A man ready to die, a man who knows he is on the side of wrong or adharma, a side that cannot win, yet all he tells Uruvi is that he is willing to and will die by Duryodhana's side. A dialogue from a 1964 tamil movie called Karnan best exemplifies Karna's feels towards Duryodhana: "Ulagathirkku avan eppadiyo, enakku avan dhaane kadavul" (Whoever he might be to the world, to me, he is God).

This is a book of love and for love, one that could stand up to any other this world has seen since it's creation, fictional or otherwise. Karna's and Uruvi's plight is pathetic to behold and you leave the book, frankly, wanting to punch Kunti's face. 

Kavita Kané can be proud  of a wonderful first attempt. The flow of writing is natural and it is easy to forget that this novel is her first; not a mean feat, especially considering the subject matter. The book juxtaposes wonderfully, the failings of the Kauravas against that of the Pandavas and indeed that of Kunti, the queen mother whose moral responsibility it was to put many wrongs right. Could Karna's life have been different if his mother had willed otherwise? Undoubtedly so, instead fate took its course. I am tempted to write more, but I will let you discover this book for yourself.

I have tagged the wikipedia link for The Mahabharata here and for Karna here. In addition there's a wonderful write up on Suvro Sir's blog on the Mahabharata and you can access it here.

Kavita Kané is a senior journalist and theatre aficionado based out of Pune. This is her first novel.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee

First of all, many thanks to my friend Gayathri for gifting me this book.

From the back of the book: Agastya Sen is a young Indian civil servant whose imagination is dominated by women, literature and soft drugs.

The novel opens with Agastya getting stoned in a car with his friend Dhrubo at one in the morning; it is the eve of his journey to Madna, a small town in what could be called Nowhere, India where Agastya, a newly recruited IAS officer is to spend one year as a trainee. Agastya, called August by his friends is perhaps at this moment, unconcerned about his adjustment to life in a small town in India's vast belly; the urbanite in him mocks at it, shares a few laughs with his friend. "What'll you do for sex and marijuana in Madna?"

As I followed Agastya's life for the next one year in the district of Madna, I was conscious of a vague sense of familiarity with both his surroundings and with his many personal ruminations about the world he finds himself in. He goes through the motions of his life as a trainee IAS officer almost mechanically; he is intensely bored with his choice of profession, unsure of his place in Madna and at twenty four doesn't really know what to do with his life.

This novel is almost a parody of the bureaucrat's life in our country. Through Agastya's satirical and at times wry observations about Srivastav, the Collector of Madna or Kumar, the Superintendent of Police, his old college mate Bhatia who is in the forest service and who feels as displaced as Agastya himself and many others, the reader is able to get a sense of the ridiculous that inevitably goes hand in hand with the superior attitude that officers tend to adopt.

What is Agastya doing here? In a place where he feels no sense of belonging, in a job whose responsibility he almost chooses to be oblivious to? He spends hours looking at the ceiling of his room in the Madna rest house, he shows up stoned to work more often than not and lusts after the unlikeliest of women in the unlikeliest of places. He keeps a volume of Marcus Aurelius and a gray green frog whom he names Dadru, for company.

The author handles Agastya's story sublimely; the descriptions (no wonder, Mr. Chatterjee being an IAS officer himself could not have described the small town life of a bureaucrat with better accuracy) are superb and you are in turn accosted with the funny, the despairing, the shameful, the noble and the grotesque. Upamanyu Chatterjee raises questions which the reader would do well to contemplate. Who is better? A catatonic Agastya who for all his seeming intellectual superiority, spends the major portion of his time rolling a joint and wavering between decision and indecision simply because he is too disinterested, too apathetic to his surroundings or a Srivastav, who for all his bluster and an engorged sense of his own eminence, nevertheless makes an attempt to work and to do it properly? It is up to the reader to decide. Having my father in the civil services has meant that I have come across a lot of Agastyas, Srivastavs, Kumars, Mohans......I have also come across real people much better than them all and much worse as well. The Indian Civil Services is a wonderful vehicle to affect change but I have often wondered how many really have the grit for it, as will many readers of this book.

One could argue that Agastya's apathy is a product of his upbringing but at times this deplorable young man redeems himself by feeling something akin to guilt and shame. Yes he is unhappy yet he feels guilty for being so when his job juxtaposes his life with that of India's hinterland.

Upamanyu Chatterjee's debut novel is a fine piece of penmanship that manages to get to the heart of the issue: the wide spread apathy of independent India and the consequences thereof.

According to wikipedia, Mr. Chatterjee currently serves as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. Do read it; it is a very different book. It plonks a confused urbanite bang in the middle of rural India and makes his journey an unforgettable one to read about.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Complete Adventures of Feluda (Volumes 1 & 2) - Satyajit Ray

I fell in love with Feluda the way I fell in love with The Five Find Outers or even Paddington, when he took it into his head to solve a mystery or two: completely and without reservation.

Feluda's real name is Pradosh C. Mitter, a private investigator, who, along with his cousin Topshe and crony Lalmohan Babu a.k.a Jatayu, the famous crime fiction writer, solves a number of mysteries and cases. The trio travel to places far and wide, from Gangtok to Darjeeling, Bombay to the Rajputana and bring to justice, hardened villains. Written by celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the first Feluda story appeared in the children's magazine Sandesh in 1965; in total Ray wrote thirty-five Feluda stories, all of which appear in chronological order in two volumes from Penguin.

This is my first brush with (translated) Bengali fiction and it has left me thirsting for more. Do not mistakenly suppose that these tomes are for children only. Feluda might employ simple means of deduction but his brilliance of mind a la Sherlock Holmes is a pleasure to read about. There is a simplicity in the narrative and a lack of gore that will resonate with anyone who has ever wondered why people in Sidney Sheldon novels must always meet such gruesome ends. Satyajit Ray's Feluda mysteries are a delight to people of all ages; the older generation might want to read of a simpler time when good always triumphed over evil in the books and with the minimum fuss possible, and people my own age or younger will delight in the fact that these stories will take them back to their Enid Blyton days and also make them wish to careen across a desert in Rajasthan in search of fugitives or visit an old patriarchal home deep in the Indian heartland in search of a precious heirloom gone missing, or solve a murder case in snowy Darjeeling.

Full credit goes to Gopa Majumdar whose translation has ensured that these stories will reach non Bengali speakers as well. Get yourself a copy, tuck into bed on a foggy night: you will still have those for winter is not over yet, and visit with Feluda, Topshe and Jatayu. They will take you on a merry ride and you will realise like I did, the potency of the simply written story. I would write in detail about the stories themselves but where is the fun in that? Find out for yourself!

Note - Anyone who can direct me to more translated Bengali works would find me a very grateful blogger :-)