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The mind reads a poem. And then the being grasps the meaning. This is what we perceive as a pause. And thus the relationship between life and poetry moves slowly from one pause to another.  This is one sort of relationship where looking inwards also goes along with phases of looking at everything around you. I mean, poetry is what connects the real with the imaginary… and when I say poetry I do not always means a babble of words hurtling at you in an unending formation. Yes, that is also poetry but so are times when you glance at a picture or lose yourself in the folds of a smile, or simply let a warm cuddle take over. What I mean is poetry comes in short spells. Even longer ones have short spells.

Talking of short spells, one book that I have been going through these past couple of months is ‘she and he’ by Astha Mittal that has these midget emotional treasures going on for well over a hundred and fifty pages. The blurb says that these lines attempt to capture the various hues, shades, and colours of a man-woman relationship. The author of these lines herself calls them quotes voicing ‘love, infatuation, attraction, attachment, detachment, the chase, the falling out of love, hurt, joy, pleasure, contentment, remorse, distance, restlessness, completeness, the incompleteness, the yearning, the memories’ and adds that this series is for ‘the love lost, for the hearts broken, for the hope that is alive, and for the belief in pure unconditional love’. The truth is that these quotes read like short poems carrying loads of meaning enough to bring about any sort of transformation that any sort of poem ever wishes to command:

He saw her dancing one night.
A non-dancer became a dancer
that night.

So I come back to the point that I made in the beginning about short spells mattering more than anything else. Even if I am reading a long poem that goes on for hundreds of lines, my mind would still want to pause after bits that transcend a mortal existence and defy any definition that words are capable of. The bits between these pause-worthy bits are lines that are keeping the entire narrative connected. For an analogy, if each word in a sentence were to be a poem that I call a short spell, then each space between these words allows the mind to appreciate that heavenly caress before the eyes move on.

As a reader scans these shorties and moves from one page to another, the feeling is that of a conversation that seeks to get under the wraps of an enigma. There is within the heart an irrepressible urge to pause and go deeper, to open up to the charged emotion expressed, and to sometimes debate and discuss the validity of a point made. The lines nudge, taunt, explain, pull, act unapproachable sometimes, and at other junctures simply lie down unclothed and willing. They are playful and naughty, hop on to become snooty and stubborn, and then glide along like a snowflake that knows it is going to change the world, for at least a short spell. And, therefore, I insist on calling these quotes, short poems. They are short but the impression lasts for a long time.

I’m still under the spell of these short poems.

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Book details:

Title: she & he
Author: Astha Mittal
Publisher: beckett Books
ISBN: 978-93-5258-179-5
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she and he_Astha Mittal_01

she and he_Astha Mittal_02

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Arvind Passey
28 February 2018

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Twisted games of online predators
Review of ‘The Wildcat’ by Taanya Sarma

Imagine reading three books at the same time where between ‘Why I am a Hindu’ by Shashi Tharoor and ‘Woman to Woman’ by Madhulika Liddle happen to the one that I have decided to review first, that is, ‘The Wildcat’ by Taanya Sarma. I guess one needs more time to review the witty insights of Tharoor as well as the deep dives into emotions that Madhulika’s stories offer… and so here I am quite literally struggling to reach the surface for some oxygen because what I have just finished reading has an overdose of porn websites, dating apps, cam pranks, smoking, snorting, pills being popped, private channels, chat websites, and everything else about the social media platforms that parents have nightmares about.

By the way, if any of you think the book is some kind of a scientific or analytical inquest into evils of this heady mix of sex and online communication that has the word contemporary surrounding it, let me add that with characters like Cobra and Phantom the book steps away from the way an academician would treat this subject. Instead, we have Taanya Sarma who feels that ‘the genesis of The Wildcat trilogy stems from her desire to warn naïve young women about the pitfalls of the online dating world’. The author has definitely done this in her own special way and by the time one has read the book, one is certainly not a stranger anymore to what bots, kinky apps, and pornsites can really do. These naïve young women would then know the devious ways adopted by the villains in the real world and so when they read about the way ‘older men lured young, naïve girls to do things on the internet that they wouldn’t normally do in private, let alone in public’ they are in some ways preparing themselves.

So yes, these are Machiavellian times brimming with online lustful searches for ‘not just one single woman, but rich single women’ who would sooner or later discover what ‘shuddered with delight’ means when probing fingers seek to ‘infiltrate her panties’. The book quite literally has half of it dedicated to couples who hop from one sex position to another until they finally ‘passed out in each other’s arms’. Some readers must be finding such narratives titillating as this is probably why such books are being written. I mean books where even a person like me who has read a lot of books, discovered that something like this: ‘…so the guy and the girl lay down side by side and bend as the guy spoons the girl from behind. It looks like two 7’s. It’s like doggy style on your side, laying down…’ is actually talking about 77, another position to know when you are besieged by all things sensual. So yes, even this book did give me some vital information that I was unaware of. Though let me add here that this bit is not enough to make me wait for the next two books that might follow this one from Taanya’s proposed trilogy.

I did read someone call this novel a thriller, and I must say it isn’t unless you find rather long-winded lascivious sequences of inconsequential chats to be thrilling or be similar to what spies do all the time. They don’t, let me say. Thrillers have a lot to do with racy narratives that are subliminal in nature and not just gonadal giggles. This said, let me also say that the author did mention somewhere in the novel that ‘sex will only take you so far in a relationship’ which simply proves the point that best-sellers aren’t really about some ‘kinky, sex-deprived man who dreams about sleeping with’ all shades of women. So the novel isn’t a thriller but does have multiple walls of eroticism built into and around the plot that ends with the word ‘bang’ written twice!

The story doesn’t matter. The names of the characters is really not significant for books in this genre. But if you’re still waiting for some lead, let me simply copy a part of the blurb here that says: ‘A conman named Sam ensnares Aaron, a handsome investment banker, into his ploy and uses him as a pawn to lure women into doing things they normally wouldn’t do. Sam then exposes their personal information as well as their images, sometimes in the act of cyber-sex, and posts them on a very successful porn website that he owns. Tanya’s encounter with these two men evolves into a long, winding road, with each turn bringing irreparable changes in her life.’

To pick up a sentence written by the author, let me say that the book isn’t really a ‘no charmer, rather a very rough and crude sack of shit’ unless what you are looking for is a book that will give you more than just reading pleasure of a certain explicit sort or alternatively one that will fill your mind with information that may come in handy later. A story based on twisted games played by online predators does have the potential to rip apart the surreptitious intrigues that happen online and remain undetected… but this plot slipped into the easy temptation of using seemingly unending sequences sprayed generously with smutty smudges. The long narratives that lacked verve and literary nerve erroneously assumed that readers would remain busy searching for the next gonad tickler… but hey, this doesn’t really happen. At least not with me.

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Book details:
Title: The Wildcat
Author: Taanya Sarma
Publisher: Invincible Publishers
Price: Rs 299/- (in 2018)
ISBN: 978-93-87328-13-6
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The Wildcat by Taanya Sarma

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Arvind Passey
26 February 2018

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Conversations around art
Review of ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ by Jeet Thayil

Jatin Das hasn’t probably read this book yet but what he said a couple of days back is relevant because he talks of the present having ‘no conversations around art. No one critiques it – there is no space to discuss art, even in publications. Even the government art institutions like NGMA, IGNCA and Lalit Kala academy have no synergy between them. It is sad.’ Though Jatin was focused on art as artists perceive it, the book that I am talking about weaves in writers, thinkers, poets, and of course, artists as they are all, as Jeet says, coming from the same poetry of ‘anarchy and anonymity’ and also because ‘poetry works in mysterious ways but it begins with verbal anarchy.’ ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ by Jeet Thayil easily picks up a reader from the creative inertia of the present and throws him right in the midst of the tumultuous cultural happenings in the India of the Seventies and the Eighties.

Now if you’re wondering why I used the word ‘tumultuous’ where softer definitions could have sufficed, let me just say that a book that has both restrained as well as not so undemonstrative references to the creative world then and where an artist or a poet or a writer is ‘falling into himself, through madness and folly into himself’ only that word fits snugly. What the poet and journalist Dismas Bambai only plans to do in the book is what the author picks up and does and this is nonly a part of the entire action. The book walks through incidents that clearly remind us of creative people like Dom Moraes, Francis Newton Souza, Namdeo Dhasal, Arun Kolatkar and plenty of others who make their appearance either as they are or were or in thinly veiled assumptions. And then there is the bilingual poet Narayan Doss who ‘knows it is audacious to have a name like Doss and want those things, to be so dark and want these things, to want what a Brahmin wants. He knows it is audacious, irresponsible, unrealistic; but this is what he wants and he wants it so badly it is a hole in the pit of his stomach.’ The narrative also brings in the painter and defunct poet Newton Francis Xavier whose life is what Dismas wants to portray in his second book.

The relationship between Dismas, the writer and Doss, the main character in his book leads us on to rather interesting revelations. And these are what creative artists in any period need to be wondering about. For instance, Dismas wonders about too little happening too late when he hears about a Swiss woman translating some of the poems penned by Doss. The questions are real and relevant for anyone at any point and this is what makes the book interesting to a reader who may not have a lasting interest in getting into the literary veins and arteries that anyway abound. At one point Dismas ponders: ‘How did the painter Xavier write two books of poems in such a prolific burst? How did these poems by a neophyte author become an international phenomenon and how did they make their author so much fame and money? Did no one notice that the friendship between Doss and Xavier resulted in oblivion for one and glory for the other?’ In fact, I have read the author’s own explanation of ‘the only poem that matters is the poem that picks up a gun’ and he says that ‘in 2017 in India, literature seems irrelevant. What difference can a poem make in the time of hate, when the criminals are in government and the lunatics are in charge of the asylum?’

I’d also say that the book is some kind of a literary thriller where connections with the relationships that existed between writers and artists of the seventies and the eighties can be traced if one wishes to. And if this is what tires a lay reader, he can always find joy in the mysteries of relationships that characters that are fictional are supposed to present. Jeet does this in a perfect way and as an added bonus, pours in questions that never lose their relevance as time passes. So this is one book that will bring joy to the academicians as well as those who are not well-versed with the literature and art references. By the way, there will also be a third set of readers who are forever looking for clues that will help them reach a conclusion, you know the Dan Brown sort of clues… well, go ahead and discover the real people whose lives and creations were influenced by writers like Baudelaire, James Joyce, Auden and the Hungryalists, and the Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg.

A part of me was certainly fascinated by the way Jeet transported my imagination to the way the artists, the poets, and the writers lived and conducted their affairs in those times and in places like Bombay, Bangalore, Goa, Paris, and New York. This works so well when transposed with our deepest desires that are perpetually driving in ‘a state of no mind, I thought, which she achieves by minimum use of the brake and horn. Instead of slowing down, she speeds into turns even with traffic approaching and then somehow she finds an opening and pushes the small car into it and out the other side.’ The novel is seductive, thrilling, and does not compromise with feelings that real people have.

These conversations on the anarchy and anonymity of creative output are subtly placed to surround the life and ambitions of Dismas who even gets under the skin of contemporary technology when he mentions that the ‘internet won’t always be confined to a screen. It will be everywhere, in the air, in water, grafted into our skins, which means after I die bits of me will be everywhere too, for ever everywhere.’ These are the kind of thoughts that pull the book from its meandering path in the past to all that is relevant to readers in the present.

This book stays in the mind long after the last word has been read. There are chapters that I know I am going to go back to and re-read… and sometimes it is because I know I may not have understood all that they stood for. The book isn’t one for which I am ever going to say: ‘You’re gone. You’re maroed. It’s the old three-step. Ao. Bajao. Jao.’

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Details of the book:

Title: The Book of Chocolate Saints
Author: Jeet Thayil
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-93-86021-03-8
Price: Rs 799 (Hardback) (In 2017)

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The Book of Chocolate Saints_Jeet Thayil_Aleph Book Company_with quote

The Book of Chocolate Saints_Jeet Thayil_Aleph Book Company

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Arvind Passey
28 November 2017

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Everyone loves to hear this question. And everyone expects some magic mantra to be given away, and I’m reminded of what Sharma ji, our neighbor years back thought writing was all about. Or imagine some Verma ji, if you aren’t comfortable with Sharma ji. Sharma ji had five kids at home and all were born an year apart and each of them yearned to go online and explore all that the internet had to offer. But for this they first had to have a computer. But their father could see nothing beyond saving money for the future. ‘I’m saving for you. This money is going to make sure that you have lavish weddings,’ he said. But the kids thought otherwise.

These five kids hatched a great plan. They convinced their father that a computer would make sure that he increased his earnings. ‘How?’ asked Sharma ji, ‘how can a mere computer help me earn more? I think it is better that I take up more tuitions.’ Sharma ji taught history in a college and couldn’t see why one must invest over a lakh of rupees in a machine that he didn’t know anything about. This was in the late nineties when desktops had started proliferating and terms like desktop publishing had caught the fancy of many looking for gainful employment.

‘The computer writes books,’ said the eldest kid, ‘and books sell. Books earn a lot of money.’ Sharma ji allowed this revolutionary thought to stay in his mind for a few days until he started dreaming of having become a millionaire who has sold a zillion text-books. And this was when he brought home a computer.

But the computer did not write his books for him. He was disheartened when he realized that the book had to be first planned in the mind, lots of research had to be done, and then it also had to be typed out. ‘This is just a type-writer with a screen,’ he said, ‘and anyway, I don’t know anything about typing on this monstrous screen.’ So the computer was shifted to another room where the kids did whatever they wanted to… and learned a lot, but that is a different story.

Writing doesn’t happen magically. Even the latest laptop today or the best software isn’t going to write a story or a book for you, if that is what you expect from technology. You will still need to forget all other things that are waiting to be done and sit in front of a desktop or a laptop or use a tablet or even a smartphone to give words to thoughts and ideas. And this is just the start.

The frustration of people who think writing is an easy job and assuming an entire book can be completed in a single sitting, is understandable. This is almost like a friend who thought buying Scrivener, a writing-aid software, would be enough and that his book would write all by itself. A similar fallacy exists with photo-enthusiasts who assume that Photoshop or Lightroom or one of the myriad photo-apps will convert their mundane clicks into award winning pictures. There are even those who wonder why apps and software like Rebelle, ArtRage, Procreate, or Mischief aren’t helping them draw or sketch masterpieces worth being auctioned for a million dollars. Just as wannabe artists need to realise that buying a Wacom tablet, an iPad Pro, or a Surface Pro4 isn’t going to mysteriously produce great artworks, even wannabe writers need to understand that the first step to writing is to simply sit and write.

Now that I am talking about investments that are not going to do anything if left to themselves, let me also mention blogs. There are tens of people I meet who think blogging is as simple as registering on a portal and creating a blog. Well, this step is easy but then a blog needs to have content. The blog isn’t going to create readable and creative content all by itself. ‘How do I fill my blog,’ asked someone who had created a blog but didn’t know what to do with it. I gave him this plan:

Search for an idea

Research the idea

Plan the layout

Weed out weak areas

Strengthen the strong points

Call for the right words

Write

Re-write

Edit

Time to search for another idea

Repeat this daily… maybe more than once in a day

This wannabe blogger said, ‘I know all this already. I thought you’ll give me some ideas that are ready to be written.’

‘How can I give you an idea that you are comfortable writing about?’

Believe me every piece of writing belongs to you. It is your idea, your layout, your words, and your sentences. These writing ideas can appear even as one is reading a newspaper article or watching a debate on TV. You could be talking to a friend or silently watching the night-sky. Or you might be drowsy and about to fall asleep. You could be in an airplane or struggling with constipation. You could be in a meeting or having lunch at a dhaba. Ideas generally do not wait for you to be holding a pen, ready to jot them down. They appear and then they disappear fast. All a writer can do is to try and catch as many as possible and make a note of them somewhere. I carried a scratch-pad once but now I have OneNote on my smartphone. If this seems difficult, just have one unsent email in your drafts folder where you keeping jotting down ideas. Simple.

The rest of the process after successfully capturing an idea isn’t as simple. Researching an idea can be fairly stressful because sometimes you may need to drop an idea forever. Deciding on the layout needs a bit of logical thinking that must meander through a lot of subjective likes and dislikes and it is easy to get bogged down by options. Identifying the weak and the strong points is a rather clinical activity and does interfere with the romantic notions of writers dealing with mesmerizing sentences floating down fancy aisles. And then finding the right words is a messy business. Words are dangerous and a lot of them can convince you to employ them permanently and consistently… but they can wreck a strong idea beyond recognition. Beware of words… they are like witches out of a haunted forest and can irreconcilably change the course of an idea that you have finalized. But then it is entirely up to you… digressions and diversions are perfectly fine because no idea has just one path. And who knows, these maverick words could be leading you to a brand new idea not yet discovered by humanity!

One vital clue to writing is that you need to read a lot. I have always believed that ideas are like plants that need a substrate. Reading is what soil is to plants. So reading more can generally awaken writing instincts if they are dozing. And funnily, the more a person writes, the more inclined he will be to reading.

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Secrets of writing

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Arvind Passey
22 May 2017

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Spent. And finished – is it?
Review of ‘One Indian Girl’ written by Chetan Bhagat

Radhika Mehta, who ‘makes a lot of money’, has ‘an opinion on everything’, and has had sex is the sort of person who has no inhibition in saying, ‘Why can’t women get a wife?’ With her as the protagonist of Chetan Bhagat’s novel ‘One Indian Girl’ the reader obviously expects the author to reach out beyond conventionally held thoughts and trample a fair number of traditionally held beliefs. The novel does precisely this and in a rather readable format. Let me admonish the reader that this isn’t a tale where a hen falls in love with a pig and after having their mandatory dive into sex, the pig dies of bird flu and the hen dies of swine flu… let us leave such primordially sex-infested texts to the lesser authors from India writing in English. Chetan Bhagat writes with a flourish that has become his trademark and weaves in issues that are among the topics discussed on the television as well as by columnists in the dailies. He does this a bit differently though.

The book really isn’t about Radhika’s tempestuous relationships with Debashish, Neel, and Brijesh… the book isn’t about the dramatic opening with a Punjabi wedding… and it just isn’t about a successful investment banker tossing her phone into the East River, saying: ‘I had to toss that humiliation device into the river. People with little emotional self-control must take drastic steps. I resumed my walk towards Brooklyn. As I stared at the wooden pathway, a question crossed my mind. Damn, how will I reach the cab driver without my phone?’ The book is all about the right and pragmatic questions and objections popping up exactly when they are supposed to. This is something that almost all reviewers appear to have missed in their hurry to denounce the book simply because it was written by a certain Chetan Bhagat. These are the sort of people (I’m sure they cannot be his readers because one of them admitted that she had read the entire book in less than an hour) who want their own fame for a minute or two on the social media and capture some decibels of ephemeral applause from others like them who may buy books but never get to reading nooks and cozy corners. Throughout the book Radhika questions everything starting from her own assessments and actions to the need for a professional recognition of women in an essentially men’s world. No wonder then that her perspective of a relationship is all about having ‘wonton soup with him. Not wanton sex.’ She is the one screaming out silent questions when Debu says, ‘I think you have a nice figure,’ he said. Which part, which part? I wanted to scream in excitement. Do you like my waist? Boobs? Ass? Be articulate, Debu.

Many reviewers found the novel to be unrepresentative of India, women in India, and even feminism. I guess an articulate woman would make any Indian male feel restless and ill at ease and expressly when the protagonist utters sentences that seem to play with male egos: ‘Why can’t women do it? They are better negotiators.’ Or ‘Too many Indians come to this city and get overwhelmed. Don’t be under-confident. You can do it. You will.’ Annie Lennox wrote that people fight ‘over what the label ‘feminism’ means but for me it’s about empowerment. It’s not about being more powerful than men – it’s about having equal rights with protection, support, justice. It’s about very basic things. It’s not a badge like a fashion item.’ Radhika represents feminism when she takes tough decisions that accelerate her into a world where money, power, influence, and even relationships get a personalized definition. This is why she has the gumption to transform even trivial and mundane observations to look completely original and without a precedence. This why she compares her lovers when she says: ‘If Debu was French fries, this was a gourmet six-course meal. If Debu was beer, this was champagne. If Debu was a boat, this was a luxury cruise.’ Come on, if this isn’t giving lighter wings to power, then what is? After all, she isn’t anywhere near the sort of ‘bullshit men spread. To scare women out of a role or a position. Fact is, men are shit-scared of talented women…’

We live in a world where both men as well as women are looking for the right person to be with. Sometimes knowingly and at times without realizing, Radhika is doing just this. Feminism doesn’t even come near this search. Feminism is simply an easy explanation, sometimes an easy victim, when people wish to sound pompous and over-flowing with things they assume to be important. The book isn’t a doctrine on feminism, nor attempts to epitomize every Indian girl. Radhika is one Indian girl and has her own story that she tells in her own way.

What else does a readable book have? Well, a storyline that is fast-paced, connects well, has sentences that don’t gasp and falter, has characters that don’t appear unreal, has incidents that seem real enough, and where a reader feels happy to invested his time, energy, and money. Isn’t it enough that you learn more about distressed assets from this book than any news-report or television debate will ever communicate? This book connects and is a ‘complete package of qualities’ and the characters, in their weakest and their strongest moments do not appear to be contrived. The work surely isn’t about Chetan Bhagat being spent. And finished.

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Book details:
Title: One Indian Girl
Author: Chetan Bhagat
Publisher: Rupa
ISBN: 978-81-291-4214-6
Price: Rs 176/- (in 2017)

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One Indian Girl – Chetan Bhagat

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Arvind Passey
22 April 2017

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Verzeih mir! This book isn’t just a thriller
Review of ‘The Trail of Four’ by Manjiri Prabhu

When you read a book where ‘shadowy shapes splashed with twilight orange’, interiors ‘scintillate under the stucco ceilings’, the banks of the lake has ‘lit torches perched like sentinels’, and one of the characters realises that ‘jealousy seemed just a fragment of the tenfold fear and anxiety that seemed to rip him apart’ you know in your heart that you are reading a thriller. No amount of baroque dreams and cathedral squares can diminish the adrenalin rush that slowly builds up. You read and turn the pages impatiently as if waiting for the first murder, an ‘ugly mass of mutilated skin and bones’… or the first clue that will eventually pervade your senses until the mystery has been cleared.

The moment I read that it was the prevention of the destruction of the Four Pillars of Salzburg that would be connected to clues, I knew that besides a thriller following the Dan Brown legacy, there will also be a fair sprinkling of history moistening the instincts of a travelogue. So yes, Manjiri Prabhu isn’t just India’s Agatha Christie but has effectively proven that she is even our desi Dan Brown now.

The characters also have a few surprises as we have Re Parker, a French-Indian photography enthusiast and an investigative journalist for whom ‘every case was a journey… meeting new people… discovering friends… and then parting and moving on’ making sure that one travels through mystery and intrigue with a camera poised. We have delighted angels and envious demons posing as the words in clues that befuddle Dan, another character. Isabel, the historian who is ‘different’ from the conventional characters in many ways, and Stefan, the police chief are just two of the characters that dominate the pages besides quite a large handful of others who probably fulfill the role leading the reader along lines that aren’t leading anywhere. But listen, these characters also help in completing the picture, so we mustn’t complain of an overdose of them.

We do need to wait for quite a while before we know if Salzburg was truly wiped out or not… at least not before murderous threats and pointless deaths dot the pages. Not before we, as readers, irrevocably fall in love with the place where the story has been conceptualized. And certainly not before explosions happen and drones spew gas and urgency propelling action to move faster as the mystery needs to be solved in forty-eight hours.

As I turned the pages through charming cerebral connections to ‘the four cardinal points – north, south, east, and west; four seasons; four basic mathematical functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; four elements: earth, wind, fire and water’ I knew that solving the clues was entirely dependent on where the author is going to lead me to. This is interesting because instead of wild guesses, a reader is tempted to read on and follow the incredible sequencing that Max Reinhardt must have done in the past… or the sort of plot that Manjiri has devised. This plot, let me add, is complex at times as it twists and turns into a virtual retelling of the history of the arts as it exists in the region. The clues and the cues go back and forth from a physical description of the surroundings to the library until the protagonists realise that they need to ‘think like Max Reinhardt’.

Thrillers, let me say, can be killers and chillers and as Mohammed Ali said, be ‘like a gorilla in Manila’ but this one doesn’t go for outright blood spills and crazy shoot-outs but coaxes the reader to enter a cauldron of systematic ideation through a path that has everything existing in a readable travelogue. This is precisely why I loved reading the book at my own pace that took many weeks of slow and attentive understanding. There may be others who may wish to rush through even such a book, but then they are certainly going to miss the heavenly whiff of having read a book that isn’t just a thriller.

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Details of the book:

Title: The Trail of Four
Author: Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-93-86349-00-2
Price: Rs 399/- (in 2017)

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‘The Trail of Four’ by Manjiri Prabhu. Bloomsbury

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Arvind Passey
19 September 2017

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Even obesity needs management principles
Review of ‘The Rich Labourer’ by Parthajeet Sarma & Sibani Sarma

There are books that tell you how to do something and there are those that attempt to show how things can be done effectively. And if a book goes on to show and demonstrate management principles through a story, the learning, I guess, gets sharper and sustainable. ‘The Rich Labourer’ by Parthaeet Sarma and co-authored by Siban Sarma reads like a tale and yet manages to hold a lay reader’s attention. I mean it is so easy to just give a list of principles and then elaborate them but to weave a story around them is nothing short of genius. This comes only when a writer has experienced everything mentioned and believes in the way obstacles were tackled.

One of the chapters is on aiming for a better self and focuses on losing weight… and this is what, I mused, will make readers gravitate to this book. Well, you see, solving problems that face manufacturers or service providers, searching for better ways to achieve targets of a Swachh Bharat, or tackling issues in CSR are what the protagonists in this story dive into… but the one chapter on losing weight made me read it twice. I am grappling with this issue for quite a while now and loved the way the intricacies of problem defining and problem solving were clearly laid out even for someone who has been out of touch with all that was taught when I was in FMS, Delhi University.

Pankaj and Riya, the protagonists in this management tale, go around the three Ps that are Probe-Ponder-Prove until a reader actually mutters that ‘once the real problems are identified, ideas to address them will emerge’. Yes, that’s true. By the time I finished reading this chapter I was really friendly even with management pomposity that goes on and on about a life beyond data, or end-user’s standpoint, or experience journey map. Even sequences like awareness, discovery, purchase, use of product or service, bonding sound easy enough to grasp. And so I must say again that only someone who has mastered this art can talk about things as complex as design thinking principles in ways that will attract even those who are primarily interested in reading pulp fiction!

Those of you who are waiting for me to talk about countering obesity through the principles mentioned in this book will already know that fancy quick-fix diets have an ephemeral effect. The first question that you need to ask yourself is: What will I gain by losing weight? This is because you need to feel good about yourself that seems lost, socialise with friends who remember you as the athletic Pankaj, so to say, and would love to feel less tired. According to the book, you need to probe whatever it is that is troubling you and preventing you from getting near your goal. This is so true because all that we need to do is to reframe the questions we often ask ourselves… and the solution/s will gradually emerge. The protagonist in the book does this and realises ‘that the problem was not about losing weight, but about connecting with friends, about getting enough sleep and eating right’. The charming fact is that the protagonist was able to get to his target ‘by doing ‘nothing’ about weight loss’. He also realised that in place of brute will power what was essential was the advantage of habit formation. The habit of sleeping and getting up early, going out for walks, eliminating sugar and processed carbohydrates by getting all his meals from home than eating out all the time were just a few of the strategies that he followed. For instance, the protagonist ‘began to head instinctively to the salad bar and fill a bowl with salad. He would still have his favourite chicken, but would place it on top of the salad. This way he was filling in less of the greasy stuff than he would if the bowl or plate was empty. He replaced aerated drinks with water.’ Thus ponder in the book is always about behavioural change, different actions, experimenting, and immediacy of adoption. There may always be areas that need to be reformulated or restructured… and this is what is done in the prove stage. Even in the case of obesity, there will be steps or experiments that may need a re-evaluation and a change in thought.

The book clearly say that ‘design is not about aesthetics but about problem solving’ and that the methods are human-centric which means that for any problem we need to ‘deeply understand the hopes and aspirations of people. Only when this is done, will sustainable solutions emerge’. Innovation is at the heart of any sort of solution and the book ends by talking about understanding myopia, group thinking, and psychological inertia. We need to see beyond the present, stay away from blindly following a leader, and remain open to competition popping up from unexpected directions.

‘The Rich Labourer’ isn’t just a book, nor is it one that is meant only for managers, the corporates, the bureaucrats, and the thinkers… structured methods to being innovative are vital even for those who plan to lose weight, if I may say so.

Book details:

Title: The Rich Labourer
Author: Parthaeet Sarma and Sibani Sarma
Publisher: iDream Publications
Connect with the author here:
Email: parthajeet@parthajeet.com
http://www.parthajeet.com
http://www.idream.com

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The Rich Labourer_Parthajeet Sarma

The Rich Labourer_Parthaeet Sarma_Sibani Sarma

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Arvind Passey
17 February 2017

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Curfew is never over
Review of ‘The tree with a thousand apples’ by Sanchit Gupta

Who would contest the idea of the ‘beautiful but tormented valley of Kashmir’ not being a part of India? But when Safeena, one of the prime characters in the book talks ‘about the people’ and asks if ‘the land is ours or are the people ours?’, the very premise brings in a new perspective. In its own special way, this book raises questions because sometimes in certain circumstances ‘they won’t even ask any more questions, because questions may not have the answers they want to believe. Questions terrify us, they bring us closer to the truth’. ‘The tree with a thousand apples’ by Sanchit Gupta, let me hurriedly add, isn’t just asking questions but telling a tale and a lot of questions pop-up in the reader’s mind. Fiction today, at least the kind of fiction that is written by most Indians writing in English, has become a series of frivolous plots and sub-plots where neither history meanders nor are paths for the future envisioned. But this story, for a change, weaves in curfews, killings, torture and romance in a setting that travels from Lal Chowk to Lohagad and demolishes one boundary after another.

The book is quite literally a Molotov cocktail as it redraws ‘a hero amidst tragedy’ and targets truths to bring them to the fore because ‘no matter how much you try, you won’t find truth among marinated pieces of zafrani kokur’. The fact of the matter is that ‘truth is what we make of it, not what exists’… and what exists or what has managed to exist is ‘cancer everywhere, cancer of the mind’. And curfews. And Machil. And Papa-II. And torture… because ‘remember if you torture a man who has a secret to hide or is aware of his sins, he won’t tell you anything. A criminal or a terrorist is that kind of a person. He has already decided to forsake a life of dignity. He has nothing to lose. But if you fill his head and heart with the fear of losing his innocent loved ones, he will break.’ And innumerable eyes that dream of all things good but first need to extricate themselves from the dark intrigue that surrounds both the terrorists and the martyrs.

There is something fascinating about every tale that has adopted Kashmir as the base but Sanchit Gupta has seamlessly connected ties, friendships, rivalries, animosities, emotions, and revenge that binds Deewan Bhat, Safeena Malik and Bilal Ahanagar in a way that makes it easier for a reader to go a few steps deeper into the real issues. And it is done in readable prose and not the language of a researcher. It appears that the author has seen everything almost agreeing with what a minor character in the book means when he says that ‘the heart dies first. The eyes die last. They see everything else pass away. They know everything, what the mind and the heart don’t. The eyes know.’ Yes, the eyes know it well and understand it all and we know than that ‘evil exists when good men fail to act’. Acts. Actions. Perceptions. They are all in the same basket and it is the way they interact with the reality that we see what we see. This book is certainly about the reality that not many have seen. For instance, only those who sit huddled inside a room with all the curtains drawn would know that there ‘is a thing about curfew in this town. It doesn’t matter what the loudspeaker says, the curfew is never over. This town is a prison, a prison with lakes and flowers…’ and only a select few will realise what it is to go on living when ‘the lights in the homes are switched off, the streets never had any. Crows caw on the defunct poles, rats scurry around the cobbled road. Dead leaves fall off the sleepy trees; his torn shoes crumple them with their hasty steps.’

I think it is time to tell the readers of this review that the book isn’t just a poetic rendering of reality but has a gripping tale that pulls in a gamut of human emotions, walks in and out of turbulence that comes alive on its pages, and gives both sides of an argument a patient hearing. The book is a terrorist for those who strike terror in other’s lives for no other reason than personal greed and tells them in no uncertain terms that ‘they shall die, and be forgotten’ because their life is never ever going to inspire anyone. But there is also a poetic charm in the sort of prose that Sanchit has the power to write and it is obvious in small doses all over but as a reader one zooms into it, as was the time when a terror-accused in a make-shift prison, talks about tears: ‘…there is water, there is salt. It tastes nice. Like lemonade. You remember? We do not get that here. Sometimes water is finished. So we make up with these. You don’t even need to ask. Preserve them.’ And it is images such as the ones that such lines invoke that stay on with a reader for long.

Sometimes readers write to me to ask if they must look into some sort of takeaway from a book that they are reading and I always tell them that if the pages compelled you to go on reading, you have anyway got far more than what you have spent. But then, talking of takeaways, I must quote from the book when it tells me that ‘one can’t win anything by force, ever. It will only delude us, for some time maybe, but that victory, that idea of achievement will not last forever. Because it’s not real, not genuine, not true, not civil.’ A book cannot force you to like it… but this one simply spreads all over you – sometimes like a lover pleading and sometimes like a shadow of gloom that wouldn’t let you think of anything else. And as you travel on with uniformed men, terrorists, and innocents who must necessarily have an opinion even when all they want to is to live their own life, one pauses to think about all that has been happening in Kashmir with a wish that life normalizes in the region and doesn’t remain in the quagmire of conclusions of those who are ‘lost, illiterate, ready to kill or get killed’ because when the cause is unknown, only terror survives.

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Details of the book:
Title of book: The tree with a thousand apples
Author: Sanchit Gupta
Publisher: Niyogi Books
ISBN: 978-93-85285-51-6
Price: Rs 350/- (in 2017)

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The tree with a thousand apples_Sanchit Gupta – book review

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Buy the book here:
On Amazon:
The Tree with a thousand Apples: A thriller on three childhood friends from Kashmir, inspired by true events

On Flipkart:
The Tree with a Thousand Apples
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Arvind Passey
24 August 2017

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A world beyond words
Review of 31 Miles written by Vinita Bakshi

Is it a mere coincidence that I have begun writing the review of this book on the 6th of February which isn’t too far from the National Mathematics Day? Let me first explain the connection. This book began as a new-age version of a forgettable romance but half-way through I realised that it had transformed into a karmic connection of ‘two souls over the distance and over time’ and that there was possibly some complex mathematical logic meandering between the subtle nuances of word play that the author had employed. The story is for sure a chromosomal link between life and freedom. And, to lay credence to my theory, the word ‘freedom’ is used 31 times in the Bible. There are romantic juicy bits interspersed throughout the pages and so I link them also to the 31 flavours of Baskin-Robbins ice-cream… by the way, the shops are called ‘31 Ice Cream’ in Japan. The number is also one that supposedly brings together the ordered universe and its individualized part: ‘it is the individuality conferred to a part of the cosmic organization’. I can go on and on about 31 and add that this is also the number of letters used in the Macedonian alphabet… but hey, I will then not be doing justice to the review of a book that brings a light-hearted romance to converse effortlessly with sentiments that only transmigrating souls would understand.

So here we have a book where Vinita Bakshi, the author, decides to have Mansa as her female protagonist who is ‘secure at home under her husband’s wings, had missed growing up in more ways than one. She had very little idea of the kind of suffering and problems people encountered in their daily lives’ and is forever wondering why her husband isn’t murmuring sweet nothings in her ear. Abhijit, her husband, we’re informed, is a successful executive with ‘enormous knowledge and his analytical skills regarding the Indian as well as the world economy’ and is brimming with ‘unquestioned love for her even though he had never said those three tender words to her. Even when she had asked him to say them in their most intimate moments, he had refused, calling them dramatic and hollow.’ Well, not even when ‘she wore a chic new black, lacy nightie with spaghetti straps, which showed off her swelte figure’. I guess this is what makes Mansa get into a virtual relationship with Rajan, a friend from the past, and the reader has to literally sift through pages of chat-text with a liberal dose of all the new-age acronyms that one can think of. Mansa, I notice, is definitely gliding towards Rajan but without really sliding away from her husband… and all this makes me think of a thousand reasons why the editors at Rupa should have politely returned the manuscript. I mean, like most readers, I too am prone to making hasty judgements. I write this because no sooner had this thought reached my mind that the tone of the book takes a rather dramatic and thrilling turn. And I read on.

It is at this point that the book reaches the shore of a world beyond words and gets us right in the middle of a dizzying whirlpool that transforms a simple and sometimes heady romance into a karmic thriller. Mansa, who had earlier transcended hesitation to jump into the voodoo of modern day communication that the internet has unleashed made me think if the ‘morality of Indian marriages had gone for a toss’ but then I realised soon enough that the journey of her ‘half-indulgent, half-hesitant, attracted and entrapped in the magic weaver’s web, she began with hesitant half-smiles and her hushed yeses soon became full smiles, and then grins and giggles’ was an essential part of the karmic mystery that was unfolding.

As the story unfolds, the reader travels deeper into mysterious layers where Mansa, Abhijit, and Rajan are transposed on to Vinya, Ram, and Jai who are characters from another birth and we’re told through the words of Guru Ma that ‘sometimes, when we don’t find solutions or answers to our problems in the present life, we may find them in our past lives. We may sometimes have to alter or mend our karmic cycle to heal ourselves.’ No, the book isn’t a discourse on tantra nor are there over-doses of spiritual messages. No moral lessons are sprinkled and no sermons are preached… in fact, the book moves at a pretty clipping pace with this part of the tale having ‘a mighty surge of water’ pulling Mansa ‘into its depths, in a final fatal embrace.’ The intrigue remains. The kaal-chakra continues. The reader is left to decide if it is a murder, a suicide, or an accident… and left wondering about Mansa because throughout the book a strange inexplicable ‘alchemy triggered unknown reactions in her system.’ The author has declared that there would be a sequel… to probably let us know if her sequence of unnatural deaths would continue.

More than any other facet, I loved the easy flow of the language that is neither obfuscating nor totters like a simpleton. The strong soul connect isn’t about logic that is failing but about mysteries that the mind doesn’t comprehend easily. Maybe Vinita is right when she writes that ‘one has to constantly seek forgiveness from people whom one might have hurt during the present or any past lives’ to finally win against ourselves. I will certainly wait for her next book.

Book details

Title: 31 Miles
Author: Vinita Bakshi
Publisher: Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd
ISBN: 978-81-291-4229-0
Price: Rs 295/- (in 2017)

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31 Miles – Vinita Bakshi. Rupa Publications. Book Review

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Arvind Passey
06 February 2017

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O my luve is like a red, red rose
And earthquakes can be read
Because technology leads to hand-held devices where it is all
Sweetly played in tune…

…and this is what life is for non-readers. Robert Burns, seismologists, and tech gurus (and many more) create indecipherable concoctions when reading has not been fine-tuned. It is true that if life were a radio station then we’re all permanently connected to it. But then, like any channel on the radio, we are listening to a lot of static and over-lapping of stations which sometimes end up being nothing but gibberish leaving us struggling with even simple words of a simple composition.

So the first rule to understanding life is to fine-tune your own radio-station by reading more. Choosing between fiction and non-fiction comes much later. And anyway, our newspapers and TV debates have a lot of both.

I remember years back as I stood in the library of the Indian Military Academy I held two books in my hands. One was ‘War as I knew it’ by Patton and the other was a slim book by Ernest Hemingway that was titled ‘The old man and the sea’. ‘Which of these must I get issued to read in my cabin?’ I thought aloud.

I hadn’t noticed but my Battalion Commander was standing right behind me and smiling. I looked at him and he simply said, ‘Both’, and walked away. So which of these two books did I choose that day? None. This is because I allowed the static in my mind to raise its decibels and drown me in my own perceptual indecision. I simply opted to walk out to the reading room and browse through the day’s newspapers instead.

The above incident happened years back and now once I have read both books in question, I can say that fiction does have the logical sagacity of non-fiction and non-fiction can have the lyrical wisdom that we associate with well-written stories. Had a different format been opted by Hemingway and Patton, both books could easily have changed places.

Lots of writers believe that fiction connects better by disengaging the mind from the present, helps with communication skills, pushes imagination to seek new boundaries, opens up a reader’s mind, or even simulates life to improve relationships. Come on, this is precisely what any work of non-fiction too does. Non-fiction isn’t simply a dull representation of facts and statistics but aims to use all this information to communicate ideas and the birth of ideas. Well, sometimes it is about the evolution of ideals. Fiction too, by the way, records trends and all that happened in the guise of characters in a story. Doesn’t a fictional story lead a reader right into the heart of a character and move with him as he (or she) steps in and out of incidents to tell a wee bit more about the way things were during the period where the story has been set? Well, non-fiction does almost the same thing. A reader quite literally shadows the writer and thus we move with Rishi Kapoor, Naseeruddin Shah, or Dev Anand and get a ring-side view of Bollywood in their non-fiction accounts. We go along with R K Somany, Pranab Mukherji, Rajdeep Sardesai, Shashi Tharoor, and Subroto Roy to meander through the business and political arenas of an era. I find Jim Corbett, Hussain Haqqani and Saeed Naqvi as engaging as Orhan Pamuk, Mario Puzo, and Mohsin Hamid… and I have deliberately chosen varying genres in both fiction as well as non-fiction to elaborate.

What matters is how well a book has been written. But then sometimes even reading books not so well-written is essential as this helps the mind to understand the subtle and the not-so-subtle differences between good and mundane writing styles.

There are times when I find even feature articles in newspapers full of energy that even full-length books might lack… read the short articles of Vir Sanghvi, Chetan Bhagat, Khushwant Singh, and Cyrus Merchant. There is a long list of other columnists who are equally engaging and informative as well. There are those who have a witty style of expression and then those who rely a lot on factual information… but they are as readable as any story one reads in an anthology. Go ahead and explore the world of blogging and discover the hundreds of bloggers who write with passion and fall in love with their writing style.

The important thing to understand is to spend less time in sifting fiction from non-fiction and to focus more on reading. Reading matters. Reading is an analog fine-tuner, as I have said earlier and helps us explore life between the lines, so to say.

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Fiction vs non-fiction. Reading scores over all else

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Arvind Passey
22 May 2017

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