Author, Book review, Fiction, general, India, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Sudha Murty, USA

‘Dollar Bahu’ by Sudha Murty


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 142 pages; 2007.

Sudha Murty’s Dollar Bahu is a rather sweet, if overly moralistic, novella that explores the age-old notion that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Written in basic, simplified prose, it reads very much like a fable about what happens if you value money above all else.

An Indian way of life

It tells the story of a middle-class Indian family: Shamanna and Gouramma and their (spoilt) daughter, Surabhi, and two sons, Chandru, a software engineer, and Girish, a bank clerk.

When the company that Chandru works for posts him to the United States on a two-year secondment, all the family’s dreams, it appears, have been answered. Not only will Chandru be able to send money home that can be used to add an upper storey extension to their modest house and finance Surabhi’s marriage, it will also elevate Gouramma’s social profile, because having a son in America is something to boast about.

She [Gouramma] would dream about the Dollar, that magic green currency, which could change her house and fulfil her dreams. It was the Dollar, not Indian rupees, which could elevate her into the elite circle at social gatherings and marriage halls. The Dollar was like the Goddess Lakshmi, with a magic wand.

While Chandru is in America, Girish marries a teacher, Vinuta, whose dreams to become a singer have been thwarted by lack of opportunity and finances (she was orphaned as a young girl). As tradition dictates, the couple lives with Girish’s parents. Vinuta, keen to make a good impression, works tirelessly to keep the family home in order, but she is soon taken advantage of by her mother-in-law. She’s ground down by a heavy workload, treated badly and never spoken to warmly.

Yet when Chandru, having secured a green card, returns to India for just three weeks  to marry an Indian girl, his new wife, Jamuna, is feigned over and treated as if she’s a goddess. That’s because she comes from a rich, respectable family, whom the social-climbing Gouramma views favourably. Gouramma adores her new daughter-in-law — the “Dollar bahu” of the title — but the feeling is not mutual. This does not become clear until Gouramma visits Chandru and Jamuna in Florida, many years later, where her eyes are opened up to the ways of the world…

A morality tale about greed

At its heart this is a book that explores greed, prejudice and respect (or lack thereof) for other people. It dissects the differences in values and customs of both America and India, albeit rather simplistically. But this is not a novella that is interested in nuance or shades of grey: it’s completely black and white and as blunt as a spoon.

At its most basic it paints America as a rich but soulless country, where family ties and personal connections are not important; and India as impoverished and slightly backward but where the traditional values of family and marriage are sacrosanct.

Yet the message of the story, neatly summarised by Shamanna (who has never left India), does ring true:

“… nothing is absolute in life. America has a set of advantages and disadvantages. Similarly, India has its own. You cannot have the best of both worlds. If you have a choice, choose a country and accept it with its pluses and minuses and live happily there. Staying in America and dreaming of an Indian way of life, or living in India and expecting an American way of life — both are roads to grief.”

Dollar Bahu is wholly predictable, the characterisation is poor and one-dimensional (the nasty mother-in-law, the greedy daughter, the stuck up daughter-in-law, the wise father and so on)  and a little too reliant on cultural stereotypes to be anything other than a light read. It feels like it’s aimed at uneducated Indians, warning them that America is not the paradise they might expect it to be — or perhaps I’m simply reading too much into it.

Ultimately, I found it quick-moving, easy to read and enjoyable in that frothy I-don’t-want-to-think-too-much-about-it mood that occasionally strikes my reading life. I devoured it on a three-hour round train trip and liked the way it dropped me into an unfamiliar — and colourful — world of fixed marriages, saris and religious festivals…

Akhil Sharma, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Setting, USA

‘Family Life’ by Akhil Sharma


Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 224 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I recently watched a documentary by British journalist Louis Theroux about patients in a Los Angeles hospital fighting for their lives.

One young man was in a coma and his prognosis was bleak: doctors said it was highly unlikely he’d ever recover and that he’d spend the rest of his life in a vegetative state. But his family had other ideas: they refused to believe he would not recover. And, lo and behold, against impossible odds, he eventually came around and could walk and talk again. Hope, it seems, can sometimes have the power to work magic.

In Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, an immigrant Indian family living in suburban America face a similar situation: their eldest son Birju, a promising young scholar, survives a tragic accident that leaves him brain damaged, blind and unable to walk or talk. He requires constant care around the clock, but his family never give up hope that he will eventually emerge unscathed from the condition that has so destroyed his life and irrevocably altered theirs.

This heartbreaking story is told from the point of view of Birju’s younger brother, Ajay, whose voice is delightfully naive and filled with petty jealousies, hopeless romanticism and a deep and abiding love for the sibling he once admired but now pities and, occasionally, despises. “After the accident, I was glad I might become an only child,” he confesses to God at one point.

Inspired by real events

I heard the author discuss this book very briefly at a Faber fiction showcase earlier in the year. He was smartly dressed and softly spoken, but little did I realise that before he’d finished his five-minute “promo” I’d have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

He started off rather jolly, telling us about how his family moved from Delhi to the USA in the late 1970s, and how everything was new, exciting and filled with perplexing mod-cons — nothing like India.

But then the mood of the room changed as he quietly revealed how his elder brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool one day and never fully recovered. Their new American life, so filled with hope and promise, had changed forever. Family Life is a fictionalised account of that experience.

Family faith

The book largely charts the lengths Birju’s family go to ensure he gets every opportunity to recover. If that means dealing with a long line of charlatans, religious “freaks” and dodgy “quacks”, then so be it.

But when exorbitant medical costs force the family to nurse him at home, it brings new tensions and stresses to bear. Burji’s mother never loses focus on her son — indeed, she becomes rather one-eyed about it, with unforeseen consequences — while his father loses himself in drink. Meanwhile, Ajay tries to get on with his life as best he can, often by burying his head in a book, so he can avoid thinking about his estranged parents and a brother who gets older but never better.

When an insurance pay out means Birju can be installed in a nursing home, it doesn’t neccessarily makes things easier. When Birju’s mother is introduced at a party as “the woman whose son is in a nursing home” you can practically feel the awkwardness of the situation resonate off the page:

“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. My son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”

Despite the subject matter, the story is not maudlin. It’s completely free of sentiment and often filled with laugh-out-loud witticisms. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Burji for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. It might be gallows humour, but it does show the lighter side of human nature and the methods people use to cope at times of great sadness.

As well as being a devastating account of a family plunged into a never-ending crisis, the novel is also a wonderful portrait of immigrant life, American culture and what it is to be an outsider — in all senses of the word.

It is hugely perceptive about so many different issues — dramatic change, unconditional love, friendship, sibling rivalry, marriage and grief, to name but a few — and does it with such a lightness of touch that it’s difficult not to emerge unaltered from such an intelligent and inspiring read. If nothing else, Family Life is a book about hope — of chasing it, holding it and never letting go — even if it might not work its magic in the same way it did for that family in the Louis Theroux documentary.

Family Life will be published in the UK on 1 May.

UPDATE: A couple of hours after posting this review, the London Review Bookshop tweeted a link to it. When I thanked them for doing so, I discovered that the shop is hosting an event with Akhil Sharmer and David Sedaris at the end of this month.  To find out more, or to book tickets, please visit the LRB website.

Author, Book review, India, Kindle Singles, New York, Non-fiction, Oliver Broudy, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Saint’ by Oliver Broudy


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Kindle Singles; 85 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the author.

One of the added benefits of electronic books is the ability to publish work that would normally fall through the cracks. For instance, what magazine would take the risk — or have the required space — to publish a 30,000 word article?

When Amazon launched Kindle Singles earlier this year for one-off pieces of non-fiction, Wired heralded it as the saviour of long-form journalism.

According to Amazon: “Each Kindle Single presents a compelling idea — well researched, well argued, and well illustrated — expressed at its natural length.” This length is between 5,000 and 30,000 words, so shorter than a novel, but longer than a typical magazine article.

The Saint, published in mid-March, is an example of a Kindle Single. It was written by Oliver Broudy, the former managing editor of the Paris Review, who now concentrates on freelance journalism.

The piece is structured around the idea that everyone gets stuck in a rut, and even if you live in the most exciting city in the world it can sometimes feel like life is passing you by. So what would you do if you were given the chance to leave your comfort zone and do something really crazy? New Yorked-based Broudy calls the moment you make these decisions “the lunge”.

The lunge may remind you of its cousin, the leap of faith, but the leap is a far nobler tactic, inspired by high ideals, whereas the lunge is driven more by desperation, recklessness and self-disgust.

The catalyst for Broudy’s “lunge” comes when he is covering a story for an online magazine about a controversial auction of Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia. There are five personal items on offer: Gandhi’s pocket watch, his sandals, an eating bowl, a plate and a pair of glasses.

The man offering the items for sale is James Otis, a 45-year-old collector who deals largely in memorabilia associated with Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and Dr Suess. By all accounts Otis is an intriguing character — with eccentric overtones.

His Gandhi auction caused an outcry, particularly with Indians — the government, the media, the public — who were outraged by a rich American trying to profit off the man they revered as the leader of the independence movement against British rule. Otis received death threats and thousands of angry emails, and had to call a press conference to explain that the money would go to “Gandhian causes”.

When Broudy attends the auction and sees Otis’s vulnerability and hears him read a statement fighting back tears, he realises that Otis has noble aims.

And then to my surprise he went on to announce that he was commencing a twenty-three-day fast (the longest Gandhi had ever attempted) to reflect on his actions. This was beyond unusual. As far as I could tell, all parties in the affair had sunk to their respective lows. The press: sensationalism; the auction-house: greed; and the Indian politicians: a self-serving indignation grotesquely at odds with the teachings of the one whose legacy they claimed to defend. Only James had tried to adhere to Gandhian principles throughout.

What follows is an extraordinary adventure in which Broudy accompanies Otis on a trip to India and Tibet. You get the very real sense that Broudy truly admires Otis — indeed, he regards him as saintly, hence the title of the piece — but before long the cracks begin to appear in their lopsided relationship.

Is Otis really as noble as he appears? Or is he merely a naive man with money to burn? And how does Broudy reconcile his need to escape the narcissistic bubble of New York life with a life on the road alongside a narcissist?

Like most good first-person journalism, The Saint takes you on an absorbing journey into a world few of us would ever visit. Broudy has an effortless writing style and his eye for detail makes the characters, the places and the events come alive.

It’s worth a read if you’re fascinated by the sometimes extreme measures people will take to find personal fulfillment. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to do something totally crazy, just to escape the rat race for a bit, then you’ll also find plenty to admire here…

Author, Beautiful Books, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, India, Kishwar Desai, Publisher, Setting

‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai


Fiction – Kindle edition; Beautiful Books; 352 pages; 2010.

Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night recently won the 2010 Costa First Novel Award. I was intrigued by the novel’s exploration of the hidden world of female infanticide in India, so downloaded it to my Kindle shortly after the announcement was made.

The story opens with the diary entry of a 14-year-old girl that feels like a candid, if somewhat confused, confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are hazy, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.

The narrative then shifts to the social worker, Simran Singh, who has been assigned the case. It turns out that the girl, Durga, is now in a remand home, charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt.

Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Singh is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved.

What follows is Singh’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the convoluted Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire culture intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that Singh begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.

Singh’s narrative is bookmarked at the beginning and end of each chapter with two others: Durga’s diary entries, which provide an insight into her thought processes and painful family history, and  Durga’s London-based sister-in-law, Binny, who corresponds with Singh via email, offering further clues to Durga’s complicated background.

While the story is easy to read and Singh is an intriguing, well-drawn and unconventional character — 45 years old, single and still trying to escape her mother’s emotional blackmail regarding the need to settle down and produce children — the structure of the book doesn’t quite work.

Binny’s emails might give the story a contemporary feel and offer some clues to Durga’s plight, but they come across as forced and interrupt the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. By comparison, Durga’s diary entries lack authenticity on the basis they just seem too well written for a traumatised teenager to have compiled. (They also offer way too many obvious clues as to what happened on the night of the murders.)

In her “Author’s Note” Desai claims that while the characters in her book are fictional, the events are true. I suspect she is referring to infanticide as “events” or perhaps it’s the actual crime? She doesn’t specify. She adds: “There is a complicity of corruption between the police, the judicial system, politicians, media and the uncivil society […] gender issues are still treated with contempt.”

If that is truly the case, then hopefully Desai’s novel may bring this problem to the attention of a wider audience. But despite the worthy aims of Witness the Night, I’m not sure that the story comes up with quite the same impact as, say, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (about the Rwandan genocide), which I read shortly before it.

That said, Witness the Night is a refreshing take on the psychological crime novel. If you can forgive the author’s tendency to editorialise (Desai tends to cram her normally effortless prose with chunky passages of facts and news-like observations), then this new series featuring Simran Singh is one that promises to be worth following.

Author, Book review, India, Justine Hardy, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Summersdale, travel

‘Scoop-Wallah’ by Justine Hardy


Non fiction – paperback; Summersdale; 320 pages; 2009.

Justine Hardy’s Scoop-Wallah has just been republished after a 10-year break.

The book recounts Hardy’s year-long experience as a journalist on The Indian Express, an English-language newspaper based in New Delhi. She had gone there after a chance conversation with her local greengrocer, an expat from the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir which straddles the India-Pakistan border. Hardy wanted to buy half a cabbage; he wanted her to go to India because he felt she’d do a better job of reporting on the state of his former home than the world’s press.

Hardy, up for a challenge, went for it. She leaves London and winds up living in one of the more fashionable areas of New Delhi.

Through family connections — her cousin married an Indian and one of their great friends had become her best friend in India — she finds a room in an apartment block overseen by a former Rajput prince. While her accommodation is far from luxurious — “two beds, a suffering sofa, a view over a dusty garden, the roar of an old air cooler” — she settles in well, travels to work courtesy of her own rickshaw driver and gets assigned quite a lot of “fluffy” articles. Her life seems very far removed from the slums and the grim poverty one might expect.

A nose for a good story

But she’s desperate to cover the serious stories instead of the society weddings and polo matches. Through sheer tenacity and badgering of her editor she eventually gets to see some of the more seedier and dangerous aspects of India.

Her journey to Assam, in the country’s north-east, is particularly telling. The main tea-growing state has an endemic terrorism problem caused by separatists who seek to rid the area of “foreigners”. Here she learns that every garden pays protection money, that the separatists get large sums under the guise of a land tax on every kilo of tea produced, and that if the company does not pay, people go missing.

She also sees the terrible working conditions of the largely female employees, while the estate manager lives a very comfortable existence in a lovely house, thank-you-very-much.

Later she gets to cover other “important” stories, such as the former high-flying journalist who’s swapped reporting for teaching children in the slums, and the middle-class belief that “education and a good salary buy immunity from AIDS”. She even goes on a side-trip to meet the Dalia Lama.

A love letter to India

At all times, Hardy generates an infectious enthusiasm and passion, not only for the immediate topic at hand, but for India as a whole.

Her book is a refreshing take on what it is like to live and work in a country that is constantly striving to reconcile its wish to modernise without losing its rich traditions so deeply rooted in the past. She peoples it with a cast of entertaining and quirky characters — her gay, alcoholic, spoilt rich-man prince is a hoot, and her jolly editor, who’s had his own hard-hitting journalistic career thwarted but never lets on, livens up the page whenever he’s mentioned. Indeed, the dialogue throughout is often hilarious.

I found Scoop-Wallah a quick, enjoyable read, one that provided an inside glimpse of the “real” India that you’d never gain from the normal run-of-the-mill travelogue. But, for personal reasons, I particularly enjoyed reading about the Indian newspaper industry and the ways in which it differs from the British press.

Please note that the book also features some of Hardy’s wonderful black and white photographs. These are scattered throughout the text rather than being sandwiched in the middle, lending the book a more personal quality.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, India, Katy Gardner, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘Losing Gemma’ by Katy Gardner


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 307 pages; 2002.

As much as I know I overuse this phrase to describe books I like, I’m going to use it again anyhow; Katy Gardner’s Losing Gemma is a page-turning read that you can’t put down.

It’s a gripping story about two young English 20-something backpackers who journey to India on an “adventure of a lifetime” yet only one comes back alive.

The two female travellers have been friends since childhood: Gemma lacks confidence and is somewhat frumpy and bookish; while Esther, the main narrator of the story, is headstrong, pretty and successful. Unfortunately, during their travels the cracks in their friendship begin to appear, and both wrestle with the unexpected emotions this causes.

This is by no means an “intellectual” read but it has an intriguing undercurrent of menace which propels the plot along at a cracking pace. As one strange thing after another occurs to the girls on their trip, it’s hard not to wonder what will happen next. Of course, we are told right at the beginning that Gemma dies and despite the fact that you know this, Gardner holds your attention by not revealing the means of death until the very last moment.

The book also has an interesting twist at the end (although I guessed it fairly early on), while the descriptions of India and the intricacies of the backpacking lifestyle add an exotic flavour. And if you can bear the often whiny, self-obsessed voice of the narrator, this is a book to enjoy in just one or two sittings.