Book Review: May Perumal Murugan’s Pyre Singe Some Sense Into You

This article was first published in The News Minute on 18 March 2017.

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Perumal Murugan’s fiction has the enchanting ability to fill you with dread.

To all appearances, his stories are straightforward and simple. But a couple of pages in, you start feeling the robust muscle of society coiling around your neck in a chokehold. Over the next hundred or so pages you find yourself sitting upright in your chair, bed or floor, willing yourself to read as fast you can while simultaneously hoping never to get to the end of the story.

What makes his writing even more chilling is the knowledge that this story could be true in thousands of villages in India, however removed you are from them. Why villages alone? These stories of caste brutalities could be true in a majority of families in India.

Originally written in Tamil as Pookkuzhi (2013), and translated into English in 2016 by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Pyre is Kumaresan and Saroja’s love story laced with the poison of caste.

Saroja, the darling of her motherless household, meets Kumaresan in her town Tholur, where he works. They are neighbours. The young lovers get married and move back to Kumaresan’s house on the rock, in the village of Kattuppatti.

From her complexion, the villagers doubt that she is from a caste higher than their own. Kumaresan’s mother, Marayi, who single-handedly raised him after being widowed at a young age is not happy about her son’s hypergamy. She reacts with an endless litany of laments mostly aimed at Saroja.

On the other hand, Kumaresan reassures an inconsolable Saroja, “Whatever I say, Amma will listen… She will worry about what others will say, but it will be all right soon. Don’t be afraid.”

The tremors of their decision to get married ripple outwards from the hammock on the rock and soon his uncles and grandparents disown him. Finally, on the pretext of the local temple festival, the village decries to isolate the family by not interacting with them. In a terrifying twist, we get to know that the village, including Marayi, shall not rest without exacting bone-chilling vengeance.

One of the central themes of the plot is the difference in culture between Kumaresan and Saroja’s people, marked by the significant difference in their dialects.

I don’t begrudge Aniruddhan Vasudevan his role as translator because English has a way of smoothing over all vernacular nuances. It is incredible how he has managed to retain the sense of their cultural differences without the trope of dialogues at his disposal.

With this translation, he has managed to create a novel with a personality as fiery as its heart is delicate. It retains the essence of Perumal Murugan’s works, but carries itself with élan dressed in English.

Written based on a real life incident of the death of a youth who married outside his caste, Pyre is a reminder of the profound symbiosis of self and society that we are not always conscious of.

Kumaresan is a courageous and confident young man with a positive outlook and an entrepreneurial streak. A hard worker, he is committed to his work, never looking for shortcuts to success. He is also sincere in his love for Saroja. He is incapable of duplicity and grossly underestimates the extent people, including his own mother, will go to for the sake of saving face in the community.

He is defeated by his own naive faith in the goodness of people. As if in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the hollow, irrational arguments of belonging rise high and bright from the pyre of young love.

‘He was welcome through the neighbourhood; wherever he went people offered him a cot to sleep on’. Bhai Anna, the Muslim egg trader from Tholur is the most interesting character in the novel.

“Kumaresan’s mother often said to him, ‘Bhai Anna, you don’t feel like a person from another place at all. You are just like one of us in this village. The only difference is that you go down on your knees every now and then to pray to Allah.’”

This gracious benevolence that the village extends to Bhai Anna, who is from another religion altogether, comes as a shocker when juxtaposed against their hatred for Saroja, a young woman whose only ‘crime’ is not being from their caste.

Later in the narrative, Kumaresan thinks in anger, “Caste! Which caste is Soda Shop Bhai [a relative of Bhai Anna] from? Wasn’t he the one who offered me the job? If he hadn’t done that, how could I have made some money? Which man from my caste came to my aid?” In his inimitably simplistic style, Murugan shows us the intensity of the caste sentiment. It’s not based on logic. Neither do its laws apply equally to everyone.

“Have I done such a terrible thing, he [Kumaresan] wondered. Was it such a sin to get married? Can’t I marry the woman I love? In what way have I wronged anyone by doing that? She loves me with all her life. I love her the same way, I have not gone to anyone asking for money. Why is everyone chasing us away?…I will be a good husband no matter who I marry. What’s the harm in marrying the woman I love?”

Murugan’s male protagonists are typically good, kind men. I love that. But in Pyre, Saroja is devoid of any agency at all. Other than falling in love with Kumaresan and going away with him, she never asserts herself.

While I understand that this serves in underlining the fact that it is often difficult for individuals especially women to get out of the deadly clutch of caste, I would have loved for Saroja to be feisty, standing up for herself instead of curling up in her bed shivering, regardless of how the novel proceeds.

Marayi on the other hand, is a more rounded character, presumably from being a single mother and having had to face dire straits. In the beginning, the venom she spews on her son and daugther-in-law can be justified as the anger of a mother whose dreams for her son are thwarted. But her willingness to work against the well being and happiness of her only child, the one she spent her entire adult life caring for, is yet another example of how deep-seated caste feelings are within most of us.

Most often, I catch myself thinking back in hope of what became of the couple. The optimist in me fights hard with the pessimist who thinks that you cannot reason with the inherent mob mentality of caste. If you have set views on the superiority of ‘your people’, however you might define them, this book is definitely for you. May the heat of the pyre singe some sense into you!

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Book Review: Meera’s Writing Is Magic That Makes Everyday Stories Into Extraordinary Ones

This article was first published in The News Minute on 02 March 2017.

Book: Yellow is the Colour of Longing
Author: K.R. Meera
Publisher: Penguin Books
Translator: J. Devika
Pages: 228

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How do women experience the world? KR Meera’s Yellow is the Colour of Longing is perhaps the answer to that question. Each of the fifteen stories in the book shows how differently different women understand the world and respond to it. While some women respond with tolerance, empathy and sacrifice, others engage with love, lust and longing and yet others with anger and vengeance.

Translated by feminist scholar J. Devika, this collection holds its own in emotion, social commentary and wit. She does a fine job of placing these stories on a common ground of emotions and experiences where the English readers too can enjoy them. I especially liked the translation of The Heart Attacks Us, a humourous story of a doting housewife whose only prayer is to have a heart attack since it’s a fashionable way to die. She points out the absurdity of praying to a misogynist god, the complacency inherent in patriarchy and the generational suffering of women, with considerable ease.

In the eponymous story, two patients meet in a hospital ward and are instantly attracted to each other. You meet Meera’s dry, satirical sense of humour on page 2, “They had infected each other at the Kottayam Medical College. Who is not infected by lust in hospitals?” Her sense of humour while tickling you will also make you think hard about the ghoulish aspects of our society. Meera uses everyday settings and everyday people to create extraordinary situations to phenomenal effect. In another tale styled like the stories of Arabian Nights where the stories stretch over thousand and one nights, she takes a dig at the mega-serial industry with Scheherazade, the scriptwriter, writing an endless plot. In a dream-like fantasy story, Meera makes a study of what souls do at night.

The Saga of Krishna is the story of a helpless father whose young daughter, Krishna, has been lured into a sex racket by her tuition teacher. He watches helplessly as the media has a go at her with their piercing questions. Kerala is the God’s Own Country where beginning in the nineties, newspapers routinely carried the story of little girls being raped by neighbours, bus conductors, policemen and even ministers. Most of them were known by where the girl was from or where the scandal took place. And one of those cases even had a rom-com name of sorts, the ice cream parlour case. When you peel away the laurels of Kerala state– highest sex ratio, highest literacy, highest life expectancy–you will find its core ridden with crime; especially against women.

Though I grew up bubble-wrapped in Kerala in the nineties and noughties, my family believed that I had to be further covered in layers of plastic wrap like luggage for “extra-protection”. Everyone around me wanted to make sure I wasn’t raped by 42 men and then some like the teenager in the infamous Suryanelli case. My teenage years were spent with a male-bodyguard-member of the family by my side at all times. Even if I were stepping out only to lock the gate. Even if the male bodyguard happened to be only ten years old.

My favourite is Ave Maria, the story of eight-nine-year-old Maria whose life has been a suffering in the name of her beloved husband’s politics. It lays bare the innocent lives that pay a price of police brutality. Even in her old age, Maria chants “Ingila Sindaba” like a prayer; a phrase her husband taught her to be a novena to call upon good times when no one would be sad. She learned it on the casual pretext of, “if no one will go hungry, what’s the big deal in suffering a few [police] blows?” But she lives to see how that call to the revolution upset her family’s life in ways no one could have imagined. Her tolerance will haunt you with a vile emotion. A loathing for a society that remains silent in the face of unimaginable abuse.

In the story The Scent of News, Santhosh and Anna are editors living by the deadline. Meera uses adorable dialogues to endear us to them. Even for mundane activities like going to the market, Santhosh asks, “Give me a deadline…How late can I be?” She also uses dialogues to make incisive remarks, all in the course of conversation. Ramadas, the deputy general manager caught having an affair with his subordinate Suchitra, in A Cat, Utterly Personal, says the trouble with women is that they have no prudence in relationships. And Suchitra replies, “this is the trouble with men…They are always senior officers–everywhere.”

Meera tackles the entire female experience from the physical–love, lust, longing and abuse, to the cerebral–understanding the politics of things, accepting homosexuality and coming to terms with oneself. Coming Out is the powerful and poignant story of Seba realising that gender of your love matters only in life. In death, you are neither male nor female. The author takes on patriarchy with acerbic insight drawing blood with every word. The popular left-leaning law of the land is not spared either. When she picks up morality and flings it out the door, it seems warranted. With fantasy by her side, she makes sure some of her women have the final say. She juggles sadness, disgust and rage with the same ease as love and happiness.

Aarachar published in 2012 and translated into English as Hangwoman: Everyone Loves a Good Hanging (2014) won her the Kendra Sahitya Akademy Award. With that, she sealed her place as the frontrunner in the contemporary Malayalam literature scene. But what makes this collection of hers a must-read is the spell her stories casts on us. Next time you visit a hospital, you are sure to long for that stranger to meet your eyes. And when you take a night stroll, you will look out for friendly neighbourhood souls flitting about. The exquisite difficulty in tethering her writing down to one slot or another makes it even more delightful. The magic in her stories has me believe that the author sits at her desk with her palette of emotions and paints them on paper, using stinging sarcasm for highlights. Buy this book here.

Why I Love A Man Called Ove

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Amma’s bank, better known as the bank Amma worked for, adopted core banking (CBS) in 2008. This meant customers could access their bank accounts not just from their branch of the bank but from anywhere. Maybe a year or so before that they began digitizing all their records and moving transactions online. Amma must have been in her forties then. A lover of a good challenge, she religiously attended all the training classes the bank organised and even took computer classes privately. But that wasn’t really enough. I really feel for people of her generation. People who have been thrown under the bus by technology.

Here was a branch full of technically illiterate people tasked with the serious business of banking. Previously, if money was by chance transferred to a wrong account, they could simply call up the customer or make a visit and appeal to the goodness of their hearts. Now there were passwords and levels of access. She and many others from this offline generation did not understand technology how digital natives do. They shared logins and passwords and in most cases didn’t bother changing it from the default abc123*. It was common for Amma to receive calls on her days off, asking her how to, say print a passbook or renew a fixed deposit. Pat came the reply. Press Ctrl+P and press enter. Press f12 and hit enter. They got by with keyboard shortcuts they’d memorised. And if the key wasn’t working on that particular computer, well, tough luck because no one knew what else to do.

And that’s why I relate to Ove. He could very well be an elder in my family. He has lived a life of tough physical labour and tougher tragedies. He built his own house from the ground up. He buys the same car every three years and repairs it on his own. He has lived through his share of tragedies with the crutches of discipline and values. He takes great joy in working with his hands. A Man Called Ove is Fredrik Backman’s novel about the lives and times of an emotionally stunted offline man in an online world. Will this old man adapt or perish?

Dark humour has rarely been as delicious and moving as it is in this novel. Ove’s interactions with a world he does not understand makes for immense hilarity. But the elephant in the room is the deep despair of incognizance, of not understanding how things work and why they work a certain way. Ove’s wife is the babblefish who translates the world to him. When the very pregnant Parvaneh and her family move in next door to Ove, he has no idea that his life is in for a slam dunk. There is also a cat whose relationship with Ove is marked by utter disdain for the other. This motley crew tumble along through the story gaining more characters, becoming worldly and always making your heart beam. Oh, did I mention he is the grumpiest man on paper?

A Man Called Ove is like a marble cake; there’s a ripple of immense despair all through this funny book. But you come out the other end beaming, in love in this man called Ove. Must read, even if it’s the only book you read this year.

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What Is It Like To Be Gay In Small Town Karnataka And To Love In Fear?

This article was first published in The News Minute on 20 January 2017.

Book: Mohanaswamy

Author: Vasudhendra; Reshmi Terdal

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Pages: 280

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I am not gay. But I don’t have to be to relate to Mohanaswamy’s heartbreak when he loses his long-time lover to a woman.

Just like Mohana’s sister, as a teenager I have also called someone gay as an abuse without fully understanding what it meant. I have also felt lonely being single. But it’s not the same thing, is it?

Though I can relate to Mohanaswamy – my sexual orientation, my marriage, my children – their very existence will never be questioned. I will never have to think twice before holding hands with my partner in public. What I do in bed will never be on top of anyone’s mind when they meet me. My love will ever be shrouded in fear.

That’s why it stings when the author says, “As a young man, people pestered him to get married, even offered to find him a bride. But when he came out of the closet, nobody had a heart large enough to advise him to find himself a boy and settle down”. He is talking about you and me here.

Vasudhendra’s short story collection, Mohanaswamy, gives glimpses into the life of a gay boy growing up in a small town in Karnataka. Each story is an experience that Mohanaswamy or someone he knows has been through simply by not being heterosexual.

Growing up in ridicule before he could understand why he stood out or what it meant to be gay, his life is a constant struggle to keep his desires and identity under wraps. Mohanaswamy, originally written in Kannada in 2013, was recently translated into English by journalist Rashmi Terdal.

It’s not often that you find an exemplary English translation of regional writing.

Rashmi uses simple language and delivers the sentiment without diluting Mohanaswamy’s diffidence, desolation and despair. By retaining some lines in Kannada, she has packed these stories with the local flavour that brings home the fact that homosexuality is not ‘happening out there to people we don’t know’.

Mohanaswamy believes, “If I learn to ride a bicycle, I will turn from gay to straight”. Reading those lines took me back to my if-onlys: “If only I were thinner, fairer and prettier.” I attributed everything wrong with my world to one of these three things. Growing up was quite baffling for me. I imagine growing up gay can only be doubly so.

While mother had had the ‘becoming a woman’ conversation with me, I guess she assumed I would behave like the ‘well brought up girl’ that I was and not put my parts to use ‘prematurely’. In fact, when the chapter on ‘Gender and Reproduction’ came up for study, our teacher made a fellow classmate ‘take the class as punishment’.

Where do young people get their information from? True that the web has opened up our access to information but hasn’t it also made information highly subjective? In his time, Mohanaswamy devoured magazines like Rathi Vignyana “hoping to find something, anything on gays”. When he found bits and pieces of information it was often seeking a remedy for “this tendency” and the responses were grossly misleading.

I too have read my share of questions in women’s magazines and got my perspective skewed. Recently when a good friend from college came out as a transman, it weighed heavily on my conscience that I didn’t have the slightest idea of his struggle. Even if I knew, I wondered how I’d have supported him then because I knew nothing about transgender persons. And I what I know today is still very little.

Mohanaswamy, a Kannadiga software engineer homosexual protagonist, leaves no more wiggling room to get out of the discussion on a basic human right: to love without fear.

This is an important book for Indian fiction. A coming out for Vasudhendra himself, Mohanaswamy jolted its audience into joining the discussion on gay rights. Here’s a namma huduga, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award winner (Nammamma Andre Nangishta, 2006) talking about homosexuality. How do you sidestep that?

He brought into the fold all the girls and boys and their parents in semi-urban and rural areas who don’t speak English, who don’t have Internet access, whose people don’t have the vocabulary or the agency to discuss these things and who don’t afford the anonymity that cities offer.

Heartwrenching is Mohana’s quest for love in familiar and unfamiliar places alike. His long-term relationship, his one night stands, friends he is attracted to are all covered in a shroud of fear. Fear of being outed. Fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Fear of facing the world alone.

What is it like to love in fear, to live in fear? “Why should we be so scared? Have we murdered anybody? We just love each other,” says one of the characters.

Effortlessly, Vasudhendra manages to dispel the impression that homosexual people are lawless, faithless heathens. Mohanaswamy is a devout follower of Krishna. In times of struggle, he always relies on faith to pull himself together.

Once, he is even in a relationship with a priestly yoga-doer. One of his dates, described as dark-skinned like Krishna, asks him, “Are you a Brahmin?”, and Mohanaswamy answers: “A gay belongs to no caste. People from no caste or community will accept him within their fold”.

Prejudice, caste-based or otherwise runs deep. I believe the key to dispelling these prejudices lies in conversations. When I shared the news of my friend’s coming out with mother, she used a Malayalam slur for gay that I was surprised to hear her use. But she also said, “It must be very tough. I hope he is happy”. And that’s why I live in hope.

Add Mohanaswamy to your must-read pile in 2017 because not only is it relatable, heartbreaking and very well translated, but it is also one those seminal books in Indian fiction that you want to have read because it will be talked about for a long time to come. My wish for this book is to be prescribed reading in our otherwise useless Moral Science classes. Buy this book here.

Book Review: The Travelogue Which Is Not About Destinations

There Are No Gods In North Korea by Anjaly Thomas

This article was first published in The News Minute on 12 January 2017.

Book: There Are No Gods in North Korea

Author: Anjaly Thomas

Publisher: Niyogi Books

Pages: 235

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I have been in heaven. It’s just as the Mahabharata teleseries had me believe. It’s pure white. You can’t see where the snow ends and the sky begins. Before I become the next trending topic, let me clarify. I was on a tram (technically a funicular railway), on the way down from the Cairngorm mountains, the highest mountain range in the British Isles. Let me back up a little to give you a better understanding. I was born and raised by the sea in tropical Kerala and the coldest place I had been in before that was Bangalore. The grand plan was to save up enough money to see my first snow in Scotland. 2009 turned out to be the coldest European winter in two decades and the Cairngorms the snowiest mountain in the region.

Anyway, the tram was bringing me down from the 3500 ft view point. We came up and over a slope and I saw it. A white space. It was not a blanket of white. This was a white with depth, a white where you knew that one was snow and the other, sky, but you didn’t know where one ended and the other began. And that’s why I travel. To experience the atmosphere. To take in what it feels like to walk into the shallow, friendly ocean in the Sri Lankan south. To be humbled by the sheer volume of water that is Niagara. And to be surprised on the WC by a seat warmer on a wintery day in South Korea.

There are No Gods in North Korea by Anjaly Thomas is a travellogue of her experiences across Asia and Africa. Interestingly, this travellogue is not about destinations; it’s about the meaning of travel and how travel transforms you. She travels in North Korea under the guise of a school teacher, she almost gets married to a Masai man in Kenya, she has a run-in with a Hippo in Uganda, she underestimates the Turkish winter and freezes and her adventures are exhilarating and endless. But for the author, travel means change, freedom and giving back to society. While she travels through exotic locations, she carries with her the will to contribute to those societies. She wasn’t always as thoughtful. And then she met Safak Deniz who changed the course of her travel. And her.

Predictably, the most forbidden destination on the itinerary is of course the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The North Korea Anjaly sees is a strictly scripted guided tour with no room for error. It’s a country riddled with poverty where the guests are served lavish meals while the tour guides eat rice and kimchi in a separate room. Pyongyong, the capital city, has no street lights for lack of electricity. And only beautiful people get permits to live in Pyongyong. All guests are warned to toe the line for their own safety. Here, a simple act like dancing in the rain could get you arrested but for Anjaly that’s a moment to feel alive. Anjaly’s “first love as a traveller” however, has always been Africa. It’s indifference, it’s acceptance and it’s magic have cast a spell on her so much so that she has returned many times over for hiking, camping, pub-crawling and volunteering.

Imagine feeling like the only person in the world. My favourite part of the book is when Anjaly goes in search of space. She transports you into the vastness that is Mongolia. In her words, “So big, so much, so far, so huge and till the end of the horizon there were only blue skies kissing the earth erupting in a colourful fusion of wild flowers. Edelweiss grew everywhere and so did buttercups and wild geranium, and to say that horses galloped among them in a big happy group is the ultimate compliment to the uniqueness of the place. We drove up the hills, through rivers, across fields filled with wildflowers. And oh, the wildflowers! I had been told it was wildflower season but I still wasn’t prepared for meadows full of yellow, white, blue and purple.”

My  trips are usually planned for around two weeks. The first week is exhilarating. I am eating, hiking, experiencing, picture-taking. Being a creature of habit and a homebody, by the middle of week two I begin to miss my bed, my curd rice and all things familiar. By the last day, I am dragging my feet, ready to watch TV in the hotel room, missing the predictability of the daily grind. After all like Robert Frost says in Birches,

“I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.”

Similarly, halfway through this book, the writing begins to shuffle its feet. The narrative becomes sluggish and repetitive. The author’s call to backpackers to give back to communities in the countries they travel to is definitely noble. But it’s impact is lost in ghastly editing, a charge that rests squarely on the shoulders of the publisher, Niyogi Books. They even have my pet peeve, confusing “lead” the metal for “led”, the past tense of lead (as in lead the way). Towards the end of the book, it begins to read like a hurried journal entry made at the end of the day by a tired traveller.

Read There are No Gods in North Korea for how the author beautifully captures the unmoored life of a traveller and the occasional need for a buoy: “And again, I missed something I did not have. Something, to hold me to one place, any place on earth”, she says. But if bad editing bothers you as much as it bothers me, stop and think twice about all your bad decisions before picking up this book to read. About travel, she repeatedly says, “visit without expecting anything”. I couldn’t agree more. Be flexible in your travel plans, be open to experiences, accept challenges and be ready for change because you will not be the same person on the other side of your journey. Buy this book here.

Book Review: On Masterchef Australia They’d Say, This Soup Lacks Depth of Flavour

This article was first published in The News Minute on 1 Aug 2016.

Alphabet Soup for Lovers by Anita Nair

Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers India

Pages: 204 pages

“Masterchef Australia”—where amateurs battle against time for the love of food. The show charms me with its friendly contestants, kind judges and the perceived yumminess of its dishes. It also happens to be one of India’s favourite TV shows. When I picked up Anita Nair’s “Alphabet Soup for Lovers”, I was hoping to savour in food fiction format, the same delicious bisque of imagined tastes and romantic decadence.  Buy this book.

I remember the first time I tasted buttered scones. It was in Liverpool in the winter of 2009. Growing up in the nineties, Enid Blyton had brought into my rice-and- sambhar world, the unattainably tasty buttered scone! For years, I had dreamt of their melt-in- the-mouth feel. I imagined they would smell like warm buttered toast on steroids. The actual tasting was of course underwhelming, but that’s not the point! It was the grand culmination of an unknown taste I had nursed for over a dozen years of my childhood.

Though my constitution is built on F for Filter Kapi, M for Murungakai and R for Rava, I live in a world made better by “Masterchef Australia’s” lobster crudo and pan-fried gnocchi. As one of the biggest voyeurs of food porn in the Deccan Plateau, I was hoping Anita Nair would recreate for me the magic of K for Karuveppilai (curry leaves) in an N for Nande (crab) curry. I was, however, left with a watered down soup coating my palate with few high notes.

Nair’s recent work sets out to reaffirm the power of love in all our lives. Lena Abraham believes that love can only end in disappointment. She lives with her husband KK in a perfectly loveless marriage set in their tea plantation in the Western Ghats. They don’t argue and their interactions are all matter-of- fact; just how they like it. But love does find Lena when Shoola Pani, a South Indian superstar rents out their homestay in an attempt to outrun his fame. Before they know it, Lena becomes his “Lee” and Shoola Pani her “Ship”. And the quiet of the hills will not be enough to calm the rising storm.

Komathi, the couple’s omniscient domestic help, is the real protagonist holding the novel together with her history lessons, life lessons and cooking lessons. We meet her as she is taking English lessons from Selvi, her granddaughter, by relating a kitchen staple to each alphabet. So it’s A for Arisi Appalam and B for Badam. This narrative style is the highlight of the novel. But some of the associations are rather a force fit like Z for Zigarthanda. The character (and perhaps the author through her) justifies, “I know the Zigarthanda should start with a J. But this is my alphabet book. What is right for the world may not be right for me. I have always called it Zigarthanda and this shall be my Z.” Things left out of this soup are questions like: What are Komathi’s motivations? What are KK’s impressions of his loveless marriage? Why is Lena’s the only perspective? We meet Muthu, the local drunk for no reason. We meet Selvi, her only purpose—to help her grandmother with the alphabets. The storyline is thin as a crisp and the characters are pale like undercooked prawns. This rather shaky skeleton of a book is propped up only by the author’s command over the language.

The way she weaves phrases to form her lines in the novel makes for delightful reading, making one forget momentarily all its pitfalls and shortcomings. I read recently that she writes her books using a fountain pen in a hardbound notebook. And the inherent romance and thoughtfulness of putting pen to paper does reveal itself in the carefully chosen use of words in the novel. There is, for sure, magic in her fingertips. However, coincidence or not, her debut novel “The Better Man” had similar problems. Set in the imaginary land of Kaikurussi, “The Better Man” reflected beautifully all the tropes of small-town Kerala, a universe I assume was Nair’s own, growing up in Shornur in Palakkad district of Kerala. However, its storyline and character development were its undoing just like the “Alphabet Soup”. Both leave an uneasy sense of longing for an opportunity lost; an almost-there piece of literature.

Like the damp that settles in homes in the monsoon months, there is an unshakable dampness that’s making the plot structure, the relationships and the characters in the novel mouldy. It’s all there, but in “Masterchef Australia” lingo, this soup fails to develop a beautiful depth of flavour! Read it only to learn a new desi ABC! Buy this book.

Book Review: Pain Of The Parallelogram And Other Distractions

“Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story”, begins Manu Joseph’s second novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People (buy this book). Ousep, Mariamma and their son Thoma live in a limbo since the unexplained demise of their eldest son, 17-year-old Unni, three years ago. Ousep, a journalist and writer whose genius has stalled, is on a mission to decipher his son’s anarchist comic strips and solve the puzzle of his death. Ever-practical Mariamma, who runs the Chacko household mostly on faith and very little income, is in the habit of talking to the walls of her house and plotting to kill her husband. But she also knows that “Ousep Chacko is not a man who can be killed by oil. He does not eat much.” Meanwhile, Thoma, all of 12 years, “is distracted by the pain of the parallelogram, which is slanted forever”. In his fantasies, his beautiful neighbour, Mythili Subramaniam, asks him the two questions he knows the answers to: What does KGB stand for and what’s Pele’s real name?

Of Unni’s cartoon strips, “Enlightenment” is my favourite. In it, a saint meditating for ages, begins to glow in enlightenment until he wakes up and screams, “Shit, i am cartoon!”. The book is full of charming observations. Thoma Chacko learning to grow out of his deceased brother’s shadow is my favourite plot in the book. As the years go by, it’s dawning on Thoma that Unni was a prankster who had him believe things like, “Maths was about to get a lot easier…the home minister, who is responsible for happy homes, would soon pass a law changing the value of pi from 3.14159 to just 3, making it easier for all Indian children to calculate the area of a circle”. I can see my brother fooling me thus, if only he had such an imagination! His coming of age is a bitter-sweet moment that Thoma negotiates with courage and clarity, all by himself.

My main criticism of Manu Joseph’s debut, Serious Men, was its lack of admirable women characters. By contrast, this story does justice to its women characters. Mariamma Chacko is strong, decisive, vulnerable and wild in equal parts. The author’s craft shines through in the well-told relationship between Ousep and Mariamma. They take one another seriously but cannot stand each other mainly because of years of cohabiting. Joseph captures the delicate rope walk of their relationship with superlative finesse.

In most parts, this novel delves into the workings of the human mind rather beautifully. But at some point the details of mental illness become tiring. My theory is that 2012, when this book was published, was the year of books on mental illness of a family member. Another brilliant creation that supports my theory is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto.

I highly recommend this book for a sense of what it was like growing up in the early nineties and some hilarious accounts on how our unstable lead regular lives.

Buy this book here