Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: Imaginary Homelands by Salman Rushdie

This is a non-fiction work by Salman Rushdie. It is a collection of around 70 essays published during 1981-1991 in various periodicals put together in the form of a book. Most of them are critics on many subjects ranging from the subject of the books and their authors, movies, political leaders and situations, racism in Europe and so on.

The first essay “Imaginary Homelands” deals with the dilemma faced by those writers who left their homelands (emigrated from their home country) like Rushdie himself and cannot reclaim precisely what is lost but instead take the route of creating fictions of imaginary homelands. This theme and the related topic of emigrant writers in English not being considered on par with the native writers are present in many of the essays and critics of this book.

In one of the essays, Rushdie writes about Kipling that “There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in his stories to ignore”. I suppose the readers of Rushdie would form a similar opinion about him. Either you will love him or hate him but cannot ignore.

Though in most essays Rushdie appears to be complaining, taking digs at fellow writers, not praising anyone without ifs and buts, there are few exceptions too. In “The painter and the pest”, author points out how an Indian discovered a western painter and struggled to promote his work and helped him gain recognition and global acceptance. That is a delightful read, if the reader happens to be an Indian.

Regarding India, its religious integration, politics and the future, the author is deeply opinionated. But we can see that India did not run into troubles the author expected and wrote about two decades ago. It is jot just Rushdie who got it wrong. Many authors and political leaders in the 1980's believed India will disintegrate given the the outburst of communal violence. But I believe India has emerged out stronger and current generation does not see the issue in the same lens of their predecessors. 

This is a must read for those who like Salman Rushdie though the many of the essays on politics have lost relevance in current times (These essays were written 20 years ago). Writer’s intelligence, research skills are striking and admirable provided one can tolerate sarcasm and arrogance along with it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The colonel and his ailing wife are living in poverty and monotony after their only son is killed in a political repression. The Colonel has no income; his house is mortgaged and he is counting the last pennies left which need to be spent for the daily expenses. For the last fifteen years he has been waiting for the pension cheque, but the postmaster always has one thing to say “No one writes to the Colonel”. But the Colonel, the hardened optimist he is, does not want to give up; he changes his lawyer in anticipation of things getting better. But yet he does not get his long due pension, the postmaster says the only thing certain to come is death. The colonel makes a failed attempt to sell the rooster which his son had trained for cockfight. The colonel has two other things to sell, a clock not in working condition and a picture which have no buyers. The Colonel still hopes either the rooster will win the cockfight and fetch him good money or he receives his pension payment. His wife says neither the hope nor dignity can be eaten so she asks the way to keep them alive. It does not seem to affect optimism of the Colonel.

This is a quick read (69 pages long). It is one of the earlier works (published in 1961) of the celebrated author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

This novel is a fine blend of historical fiction and magical realism, the two genres which seem to be Rushdie’s favorite ways to present his work. Author brings the contemporary towns from the history of east and west together and the historical characters brought to life to tell this tale.

A yellow-haired traveler from Italy visits the court of the Mughal king Akbar and he has a secret to reveal to the king. He claims that he is a blood relative and the son of a sister of Babur (Akbar’s grandfather). While the ministers of Akbar ask the king to ignore the visitor, the king checks this matter with his mother who confirms that Babur  had a sister who was long forgotten and erased from family history for a reason. Akbar lets the visitor to tell the story for which he had come from far away land.

There begins the story of the enchantress, a younger sister of Babur, Qara Koz, the beautiful princess. King Babur had two sisters and the younger one was Qara Koz. Babur after losing a battle at Samarkhand to Shaibani Khan loses his sisters in exchange for his safe return. When Shaibani Khan loses the battle to the King of Persia, Babur’s sisters find a new shelter and thus become a subject of the war and prized possessions of the war's victor. When the King of Persia offers to release the sisters, elder one returns to Babur but Qara Koz remains with the Persian king. When Persian king is defeated by Ottoman Sultan in another war, she follows an Italian army major who was part of the winning side. Then she is led to the fascinating town of Florence. Qara Koz, the enchantress puts her occult skills to good use and mesmerizes the whole town and commands a respect from all the occupants of the town. But that too comes to an end. In a dream, she foresees that a descendant of Babur will become a king of great power the history has not seen yet. She knew she is destined to go back to her family. She ends her life, a symbolic death, only to come back alive after decades.

Image Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
While Akbar listens through the story, he puts his best painter in the kingdom to create the portraits of the forgotten princess and installs them in his palace. As the Italian visitor who has already become a confidant of Akbar (and is no more a visitor) reaches the end of this story, the enchantress comes alive to become a lover of Akbar.

Since this is a work of fiction, Salman Rushdie has created many characters in this novel out of his pen, few incidents may not be historically accurate but that is not the objective of this book anyway. It does not intend to capture the history and describe the persons and places but to see the historical characters as they lived their life, dilemma they went through and make it dramatic to entertain the readers.

I was not convinced with how the novel ends and disapprove the family incest of Akbar with Qara Koz. But the author justifies this saying family incest is common among Camels. That does not explain the matter satisfactorily. My belief is, Akbar was a stronger person than this novel describes, he did not suffer from Oedipus complex either and he would not have said “Until you are not” to Qara Koz like his character in the novel does.

While I am not sure if the enchantress of Florence existed but I find that author is an enchanter for sure. He does not need occult skills but the words he puts together are capable of binding the reader with his books and the story he tells them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: Such a long journey by Rohinton Mistry

The novel is set in Mumbai during 1971 in the background of India’s war with Pakistan during liberation of Bangladesh. That incident caused migration of a huge population from Bangladesh to India and Mumbai too witnessed a fair share of refugees in the town. Even though the novel touches upon many sensitive subjects (and was withdrawn from Mumbai University's syllabus), it is mainly the story of Gustad Noble, a member of Parsi community living in Mumbai, his family, friends and other residents of Khodadad Building.

Gustad Noble, is a hard working bank clerk, a devoted family man, had gone through the hardships of life in his upbringing. He wishes that the life of his children will be better than his. But his promising son who got admission into a IIT refuses to join there instead expresses interests in the Arts course. His loving daughter falls ill. These developments make Gustad sad. A letter puts into him motion again which was sent by his friend, Major Jimmy Billimoria, an ex-army man who had joined RAW, a secret service reporting to Prime Minister of India. The letter asks to collect money from one of the RAW agents and put it into the hands of rebels fighting for separation of Bangladesh. He initially finds it interesting to do the task but when he tries to back out at the second thought, he receives a threat note. He feels he is deceived by his friend who he considered as elder brother. Being drawn into this dangerous plot, with the help of an associate at Bank, he puts Major Jimmy’s money transfer plan. But the fear of getting caught burns him and it takes out the peace and calm out of his life.

Top Right: Rohinton Mistry; Bottom Right: A still from movie adoption of the book

It turns out that Major Jimmy had had a different plan of diverting some of the funds from the operation he is working on for personal objectives. He is not happy working for the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi who had used RAW for her personal motives, to keep a check on her political enemies. (This novel describes the functioning style of Indira Gandhi without naming her). Government officials discover the plan of Major Jimmy, take him into custody and torture him to recover the funds. Gustad meets his friend Jimmy on his deathbed and is asked to forgive him for his inability to be transparent in what happened. Gustad realizes how things turned out and later reads in a newspaper that his friend, Major Jimmy is no more. An associate of Major Billy at RAW vows to avenge this accusing the son of PM Sanjay for what had happened. Gustad wonders about the impermanence of the life.

Such a long journey is indeed a long journey for the reader too (and boring in between as well). It is very rich in the details of characters and the places and effectively transfers the sad feeling to its readers. Though all the pages of this lengthy novel were not required for central plot of the novel, they provide literary dimensions to the book and make it long lasting.

This is the second book of Rohinton Mistry, first published in 1991. It was shortlisted for Booker prize and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the author.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review: Tales of Fosterganj by Ruskin Bond

This book is about the early years of author attempting to be a writer, finding home at Fosterganj, a hamlet on the outskirts of Mussoorie. Tiny population lives there, little happens in a day and for an outsider life appears to have come to a standstill. But the author gets drawn into a series of unusual adventures, a close encounter with a leopard, getting locked inside a haunted place, expedition into the mountains in search of lizards and so on. Though he calls this book a work of fiction, it is his reminiscences as a struggling writer during 1960’s. He lived his memories again and produced this compelling short book with his usual light touch.

Ruskin Bond at Mussoorie

When I had read Ruskin Bond last time (Book: Roads to Mussoorie), I was sure of reading Bond again and also of visiting Mussorie when the opportunity arrived and it did last week. When I was set to go to Mussoorie, I picked this book. It was a lifetime experience, reading Bond and watching the sunset at Mussoorie amid the fascinating clouds trapped in the mountains standing tall at an altitude of 6500 feet.

If you enjoy solitude, you are sure to love Ruskin Bond and you will be drawn to mountains and non-materialistic side of life.

An evening at Mussoorie