The Flying Man

It is said that books and people find their way into your lives. A mere meeting or a cursory glance at a blurb might not amount to much, if it is not meant to be. How else could I explain being swept off my feet by Roopa Farooki’s Flying Man? I received the book as a birthday present almost three years ago and never managed to get past the blurb. And here I was, maniacally reading through day and night, finishing it in two days!

The protagonist is very unusual, in that he is a very ordinary man and yet, much larger than life than you and I could ever imagine. It is a story that is as mundane as Life can be and every bit as extraordinary.

“It has always mattered to me, that once upon a time, a long time ago, He loved Her, and that She loved Him back.”

That is the only thing that probably mattered to Maqil, the despicable man who is also the Hero of the story. Just like the ones in his life, the reader also goes through moments of extreme hate, love and helplessness in response to his actions. Strangely enough, you don’t feel anger towards Maqil, no. That’s just who he is. He is just compelled to live life in his head, where he is always larger than life, where it is always eternal sunshine. All dreams have to come to an end, however and in a very unusual fashion, Maqil’s disappointments with reality are yours, too. I guess we all have a Maqil, a Mikhail , a Mike : hiding within the labyrinths of our soul.

I also found the unravelling of his daughter’s character very interesting : she inherits his coldness of character without the flightiness.

The writing provides literary references without any presumptuousness, almost carelessly. The humour is sardonic and witty. One is reminded often of Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ : certain imagery, certain words. Reading the book is like being on a roller coaster ride, tossed mercilessly on the oceans of feeling. Yet, like Maqil, like Life, it is predictable : you do know you are on the ride, after all.

This is a book written like poetry, about a mundane life made extraordinary. It is a performance, like everything else we do in life.

A brilliant performance.

“I’m a child in the womb, once more, buried in ink and blood, waiting to see if there might be darkness, or light, on the other side. Black or Red. I’ve waited too long for this; this time, I’ll take a chance.”

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A Thousand Splendid Suns…

khaled

I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner ten years ago, as a girl. I enjoyed the depth of his writing, but felt that it lacked style. The story was gripping and the writing was brutally honest, but there was a little something that I felt was lacking. It is difficult to explain without coming across as presumptuous. Today, a decade hence, the Afghan born doctor cum writer crawls back into my (grown up) heart all over again, with A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The book touches upon Afghanistan, fresh from its upheaval of monarchy and takes us through its journey of war, Soviet occupation and finally, the dark regime of the Taliban. When Mariam’s mother gives her lesson for life at the beginning of the story, little do we realize how much impact those few words have over not only Mariam’s life, but also Laila’s (the other protagonist) :

“Only one skill. And it’s this : tahamul. Endure.”

Mariam’s life is made up of one difficult situation after another, one pain after another. The reader’s heart feels her pain but just like her, is helpless. You almost endure it all over again. And again. Suddenly I think of these lines from The Kite Runner : When tumblr_mcdbhoF9671riifgzo1_500

You know that what Mariam really wants is to escape it all, like in those lines above, but she is trapped into her life, that husband, that country and her mother’s curse : to endure. When you think of women like her, who are still battling reality in patriarchal societies all over the world, your heart is sure to bleed and suddenly, your own life feels like an enormous luxury.

The descriptions of Herat and Kaboul evoke very strong feelings about the places and country. The Boudhas of Bamiyan, the minarets of Herat and the night life in Kaboul stay etched in your mind long after you have closed the book. It is the city of Kaboul that is behind the title, too.

Kaboul

Beautiful, isn’t it? As a person who gives away her soul to certain places and cities, I could totally identify with it.

If Mariam’s curse was to endure, Laila’s was to wait. Waiting for love, waiting for clouds to pass, waiting for times to change.

“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”

While Laila’s story can retain some hope, Mariam’s is devoid of any. Probably the story of many women in Afghanistan and in many other societies as well. Khaled Hosseini’s might touch upon aspects of politics or history but the central story is always that of these two women, stuck together by kismet, born into a world and a time that was cruel to its women. The book is poetic and poignant, very hard to put down once begun. It is an extremely heart-wrenching tale of life, that goes on, despite all odds.

“Each snowflake was a sigh heard by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. All the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below. As a reminder of how women suffer, how quietly we endure all that falls upon us.” 

The Orange Girl

The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder

Are you sitting comfortably, George? It’s important that you’re at least sitting straight , because I’m about to tell you a nailbiting story…..”

I would not use the word ‘nail biting’ to describe Jostein Gaardner‘s book, The Orange Girl; yet, there is something about the book that you cannot put a finger on. A certain elusiveness, a certain restraint. Philosophy packed in little capsules that take their time to grow on you; that would be lost if you are not attentive enough.

The story starts out with a young father’s letter to his son, unearthed many years later.  Feelings, once well camouflaged, come out into the open, revealing old wounds and healing them at the same time. The father, aware of his short-lived time on earth, writes about his journey in search of the Orange Girl. It’s probably hard to imagine a similar thing happening around us – it would be termed too impractical”, but the magic woven into the story keeps you hooked.

“..after that brief meeting the café, my search for the Orange Girl began in its systematic and logical phase, for again there were many long days when I didn’t even catch a glimpse of her..”

Before you know it, you are caught up in the search as well; though at times you do not know what you are searching for.. the orange girl? Or the truth of Life? Or maybe, both?

“…but many people live their entire lives without realising that they’re floating through empty space. There’s too much going down here. It’s hard enough thinking about your looks. “

True.. The myriad trivial things we worry about.. our looks, our work.. rather than just living in the moment, taking in the world as it comes. At places, the book just silences with questions that seem innocent but can scare the living daylights out of you. See this :”

“….how much is a person worth? Are we nothing but dust whipped up and spread to the winds? “

Woven into the story are phrases that just so exquisitely beautiful, that you read them over and over again, feeling the words on your tongue, tasting every syllable like a refreshing sip of cold coffee, or the rich aroma of dark chocolate. 

“…the world was just one sparkling fairytale…[..] a roe deer suddenly leaps from a thicket, stares intently at you for a second- and is gone. What kind of soul gives motion to that animal? What sort of unfathomable power decorates the earth with flowers in every colour of the rainbow and adorns the night sky with a sumptuous lacework of twinkling stars? [….] Look at the world, Georg, look at the world before you’ve filled yourself with too much physics and chemistry..[…] Don’t tell me that nature isn’t a miracle.

The most important question that the book poses.. something that probably does not have an answer.. even if we send our lifetime looking for an answer.. is this :

“…What would you have chosen, Georg, if there had been some higher power that gave you the choice? […] Would you have chosen to live a life on earth at some point, whether short or long, in a hundred thousand or a hundred million years? […] Or would you have refused to join in the game because you didn’t like the rules? “

So, what would YOU choose? Whatever your answer might be, it sure is an interesting journey, through the pages of the Orange Girl.

Lucky you! 🙂 

Arranged Marriage, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

And a word comes to you out of the opening sky. The word ‘love’. You see that you had never understood it before. It is like rain, and when you lift your face to it, like rain it washes away inessentials, leaving you hollow, clean, ready to begin. (From The Word Love, ARRANGED MARRIAGE, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.)

The first thing that impressed me with Arranged Marriage, was this feeling that she beautifully describes, the feeling of being, ‘ready to begin’. I had read her other book, The Mistress of Spices, a well-written book sans dispute, yet, this debut collection seemed to be more put-together, more graceful, like many first attempts are. Perhaps the desire to be seen, appreciated and read plagues our writing with an unseen passion. Writing that is yet to create an identity. Writing, like a gypsy’s skirt, colourful and free.

Will I marry a prince from a far-off magic land
where the pavements are silver and the roofs all gold?

All the stories in the collection are based on Indian women, living in the United States, the land of dreams, the land where anything is impossible. Traditional values that threaten to impede their foray into unknown waters. New-fangled ideologies that questions their values, reducing them to creatures of guilt. Something that we all can identify with. Living in a strange land where memories of home bring more pain than joy. Yet, could one be sure of Love waiting at the other end of the world, Love draped in a cotton saree, replete with a bindi and an all-forgiving hug? There is no way to know. A sense of loss, a life of waiting, that’s what the author has tried to depict in these stories, at once real and fairy-tale like.

While I enjoyed the references to India and Indian cultures, traditions and the like, I did wonder at certain points during the read, Perhaps these images would appeal more to a non-indian, for their sheer exotic nature? It could also be because of the enormous number of Indian authors I read, that I feel this monotone.

Each story dabbles with a different theme, ranging from abortion to prostitution, from racism to affairs. A winning recipe, that keeps you enthralled from the word go. Some of my personal favourites would include Clothes, The Word Love, The disappearance, Doors and The Ultrasound.

All the stories deal with women protagonists, so one would assume a little empowerment is in order. And that is precisely where I feel the book falls short. Most of the characters lack the strength of character to follow through on their dreams, the strength to live, the strength to love. Perhaps it is a depiction of things as they are (or were), but if we do not alter endings in a story, then where? There were a number of jarring stereotypes, peppered all over the stories, taking away from the overall experience. Personally, I do not like the concept of “women’s writing” as well, so that was another thing I had to tackle with : the extremely lopsided perspective, entirely through a woman’s eyes.

That said, the book has a haunting appeal, and certain stories make your heart skip a beat. A tear or two would not be unusual. There are not as many smiles as there are tears, but hey, isn’t this a women’s book?!

So make yourself a cup of something warm and curl up on the couch with your dog to read this debut short-story collection, for tales narrated by a wonderful raconteur, with an eye for magic, pixie dust and all that jazz.

The glasses glitter like hope. We raise them to each other solemnly, my son and I, and drink to our precious, imperfect lives.

Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’

That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

I remember hot, summer days spent on the attic leading to the terrace in my grandma’s house, making kites, preparing ‘manja’. I was the ‘official helper’ to my cousin, who was an ‘expert’ in making kites. Hours and hours spent on the terrace, flying those kites, until our throats were sore from all the screaming we’d do.
Afaaaaaaaaa.
That childhood memory flashed across my ‘inner eye’ (as they call it), when I first heard of ‘ The Kite Runner’. And knew, once again, I’d be making a tryst with a book, despite all my efforts to not get too attached.

Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills [….] And suddenly, Hassan’s voice whispered in my head: For you, a thousand times over. Hassan, the harelipped kite runner.

Right from page one, the book has you hooked. Not so much in terms of style, but definitely with its honesty.What amazed me the most was the remarkable ease with which the author changes tone and mood. Sometimes there is a total change in feel with just one line. While describing Hassan and Amir’s childhood together, there is a distinct childishness to the emotions felt and expressed. And then you see a very conspicuous shift in values, thoughts; as they grow older.

To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say. […..]. And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.

While you start out hating the protaganist for his ‘cowardice’, you later realise how strong his conscience is, to remember it all his life and make amends for it, however small. I identified the most with him, though. The same selfishness, the same cowardice, the same emotionality. The book is speckled with beautiful insights like the one above, which I’d call nothing short of awesome.

Make morning into a key and throw it into the well,
go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.
Let the morning sun forget to rise in the east,
go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.

As you read, you get a glimpse into how life was in Afghanistan, but it is not overly dramatised or exaggerated. It is a perception, a genuine one, of life then, and perceptions can never be dramatic or ugly. It is this refreshing honesty which keeps you hooked till the last page. Not a single line is out of place. Not a single emotion overplayed. It is what I would call a ‘clean’ style. No unnecessary adornments, no extra frills.

Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.

The Kite Runner has tantalising amounts of exoticism and sensousness woven into it. You can actually see Hassan running the kite, and feel the sand on his feet. You can hear their voices and taste the pomegranates they eat. It is all alive, vibrant. Not just words, but a whole life stitched along with them. It brought back my past, of kites and Sankranthi, of guilt and happiness. It is probably not great literature, but a very honest story.

“Do you want me to run that kite for you?”
“For you, a thousand times over.”

For you, a thousand times over.

KHALED HOSSEINI 

Such a long journey.

Short-listed for the 1991 Booker Prize and Winner of the 1992 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Rohinton Mistry’s ‘Such a long journey’ makes a wonderful read. Surprisingly, (or maybe not?) it is also his first novel.

Set in the late sixties and early seventies, it portrays the life of Gustad Noble, a Parsi settled in Mumbai. His closest friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria gets caught in a political ploy, and Noble, unwittingly, falls into it too. How he deals with it forms the rest of the story.

Mistry’s characterization is impeccable: Gustad Noble as the ambitious, tradition-loving father is very well portrayed. His colleague, Dinshawji, appears to be a prankster, his conversation spiced with sexual innuendos, but it is he who turns out to be Noble’s strongest ally. Another interesting character is Tehmul, Noble’s ‘crazy’neighbour, A child’s mind and a man’s urges, he says while talking about him. All his characters fall into place neatly like the pieces of a jigsaw, not one out of place or unnecessary.

The plot is gripping and there is no condescension when he talks about India. It is all very matter of fact. Yet at places, Mistry seems to revel in the joy of things Indian. He comes across as a person who is not ashamed of his past, yet can see the loopholes, the traps. His writing flows from one page to another, keeping you engrossed. His depictions of family life, the homes and the settings are perfect. For a moment, I felt I was lost in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee film.

The strength of the plot laced with Mistry’s innate talent for beautiful writing, makes it a truly good book. I especially loved the last few scenes, where Noble prays for all his dead friends, for all the ways their lives had touched his. For Major Bilimoria, for Dinshawji, for Tehmul.

Here’s an excerpt:

With covered head he sat, placing his right hand upon Tehmul’s head. Tehmul’s hair felt stiff under his fingers, matted where the blood had dried. He closed his eyes and began to pray softly. He recited the Yathu Ahu Varyo, five times, and Ashem Vahoo, three times, his bloodstained hand resting light as a leaf on Tehmul’s head. Flies buzzed around the room, drawn by the smell, but they did not distract him. He kept his eyes closed and started a second cycle of prayer. Tears began to well in his closed eyes. […] Five times Yathu Ahu Varyo, and three times Ashem Vahoo. Over and over. Five and three, recited repeatedly, with his right hand covering Tehmul’s head. […] As much for Tehmul as for Jimmy. And for Dinshawji, for Pappa and Mamma, for Grandpa and Grandma, all who had had to wait for so long…

It comes with no frill of hidden meanings or underplayed sorrow. Just a great story, superbly narrated.

I loved the book. 🙂

ROHINTON MISTRY