Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Megha Majumdar, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 304 pages; 2020.

This was my first book of 2021 and what a great start to a new year of reading it proved to be!

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is the kind of literary fiction I really admire. It’s got great characters, a suspenseful plot and focuses on some of the key issues of our time — freedom of speech, social justice, social mobility and corruption — without being heavy-handed about it.

And it has an interesting structure that interleaves different points of view into a single multi-layered story.

UK Edition

The dangers of social media

Set in modern-day India, it tells the story of a young woman living in a slum who is trying to make something of herself as a sales clerk in a clothing store.

But when she expresses a provocative opinion on Facebook it lands her in trouble with the law. From one careless, throwaway line — “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write” — Jivan is accused of helping to blow up a train, a terrorist act that she witnessed but had no part in organising.

And yet, thanks to the court of public opinion and a forced confession, she is arrested, charged and detained. Her lawyer, inadequate and inexperienced, is really in no position to help her.

But there are two people she knows who may be able to come to her rescue: PT Sir, her former gym teacher who has become swept up in right-wing politics and now makes his living being paid as a dubious witness in court cases he knows absolutely nothing about; and Lovely, a hijra (intersex) actress who learnt English from Jivan and  knows that the “explosives” Jivan was accused of carrying were actually books meant for her lessons.

Both characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters (in gorgeously distinctive voices), are expected to come to Jivan’s defence, but to do so carries a serious risk, for it will call their own reputations into question. Meanwhile, they must dice with a media hungry for sensation, a public eager to condemn the terrorists and a succession of fame-seeking politicians looking to exploit the situation for their own benefit.

Compelling page-turner

A Burning is a propulsive, compelling story, easily read in a sitting or two. It has all the feel of a suspense novel and yet it doesn’t sacrifice detail (or literary merit, for want of a better description) in the pursuit of a page-turning read.

There are big issues here, not least the ways in which social media gives the false illusion that you can say what you want without repercussions. But it also shines a light on social justice in impoverished places where life is cheap, and how ambition and greed can cause collateral damage (and violence) to communities with no means to fight back.

Majumdar presents the justice system, the media and politics in the worst possible light. The setting may be India, but the Dickensian tale told here could apply almost anywhere in the Western world right now. It’s brilliant food for thought.

Lisa from ANZLitlovers has also reviewed it and so has Tony at Tony’s Book World.

This is my 1st book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. It’s also my 1st book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Meena Kandasamy, Publisher, Setting

‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy

When I hit you

Fiction – hardcover; Atlantic Books; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Shocking. Disturbing. Oppressive. But not without hope. These are the first words that spring to mind to describe Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2018, and longlisted for both the Jhalak Prize 2018 and the Dylan Thomas Prize 2018, this short novel is a ferociously powerful story about a young woman who endures an abusive marriage but manages to escape it in what appears to be the nick of time.

A brief, tumultuous marriage

When the book opens, the unnamed narrator has fled her unhappy marriage which lasted just four months. It’s five years after the fact, and her mother, with whom she now lives, “has not stopped talking about it”.

But the “writer is the one who controls the narrative” and so, by chapter two, we are thrust into the young woman’s past life as a new bride, living in an unfamiliar city in a small house where, within the space of two months, she has already learned to escape her husband’s wrath by dressing as dowdily as possible:

I should be blank. With everything that reflects my personality cleared out. Like a house after a robbery. Like a mannequin stripped of its little black dress and dragged away from the store window, covered in a bedsheet and locked off in the godown.

The book charts the disintegration of this mismatched pairing between a vibrant, worldly-wise middle-class woman, who is a writer, and a dashing university lecturer, who is abusive and controlling. It begins with small things — he forbids her from using Facebook, for instance, and then deletes her email account — and then, once he’s totally isolated her from family, friends and colleagues, slides into more damaging psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Thematic chapters

Kandasamy doesn’t tell the story in a straightforward narrative arc. Yes, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, but the book is structured around thematic chapters: there’s the one about the narrator mourning all the lost lovers she never had; another about the two-year long love affair she had with a politician who was 20 years her senior; another looking at what prevents a woman from walking out of an abusive relationship; another about her husband’s slide into paranoia and delusion. But it’s the entire chapter devoted to rape within marriage, which makes for particularly uncomfortable (and sickening) reading.

Always there is the threat of violence in the air, the feeling that one must tip-toe around the home — no longer a place of sanctuary — to avoid being punished.

My husband is in the kitchen. He is channelling his anger, practising his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

The prose, as you can probably tell from the excerpts I have quoted, is eloquent and heavy with metaphors and similes. I normally shun the clichéd phrase “beautiful writing”, but it’s a perfect description for what Kandasamy does here. She’s also a poet and I think that is very much evident in her narrative style, which feels so effortless to read.

Intellectual rigour

Yet on every page there are lines and entire passages that are ripe with meaning. There’s an intellectual rigour at play too, which may not be a surprise given that the author is also an academic who is outspoken on a range of issues including feminism, violence against women and annihilation of caste. I underlined so much of its contents I fear I may have ruined the book’s pages forever.

And while the contents are dark — boy, are they dark — the reader comes away feeling hopeful that the narrator has the potential to forge a new, happier life for herself, free from the shackles of a man who wanted to destroy her.  Intriguingly, Kandasamy says the book is based on her own brief, violent marriage in 2012. (This interview with her in The Wire explains more.)

When I Hit You was named in the Guardian‘s Best Books of 2017, the Daily Telegraph‘s Best Books of 2017, the Observer Best Books of 2017, and the Financial Times Best Books of 2017. It will probably appear on my best books of 2018 list at the end of the year.

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

‘Dollar Bahu’ by Sudha Murty

Dollar-Bahu

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…

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

‘Witness the Night’ by Kishwar Desai

Witness-the-night

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, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, Venice, Vikram Seth

‘An Equal Music’ by Vikram Seth

AnEqualMusic

Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 496 pages; 2004.

An Equal Music is one of those big, beautiful books best appreciated by kicking off your shoes and curling up on the sofa to devour it in one or two longish sittings. It’s even better if it’s accompanied by a steady supply of coffee and cake, while the rain outside patters on the window. That’s not exactly how I read this book, but I could easily imagine doing so, because the story is so captivating and pleasurable.

Essentially it is an epic romance, set in London (and Venice), involving classical musicians. Now this is where I put up my hands and reveal I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to classical music, so some of the terminology and musical references were completely lost on me. But it certainly did not detract from the story, nor the all-encompassing, occasionally claustrophobic world presented here. I am sure anyone with a love of classical music would absolutely adore this novel.

The story, divided into eight parts, is told through the eyes of Michael, a 30-something violinist, who is the member of a quartet. He makes a little money on the side by teaching music, and has recently fallen into a relationship with one of his students. But it’s clear that Michael is nursing a great hurt. Ten years ago he left the woman he now realises was “the one” and has no idea what happened to her. Then, one day, while on a double-decker bus stuck in Oxford Street traffic, he finds himself eye to eye with his long lost love, Julia, who is sitting in the bus opposite.

It’s difficult to say much more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, so if this all sounds a bit vague, I’m sorry. What I can say is that Michael and Julia do, eventually, get back together, but the course of true love never runs smoothly, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and pain with which to contend — for both characters.

It’s pretty hard to fault the characterisation in this novel, although I have to admit that Michael, did, at times, feel slightly creepy and obsessive to me and there were occasions when I wondered how much of his narrative I could trust. Similarly, Julia’s motivations are often puzzling, and because we are never told her side of the story, there’s no way of knowing why she behaves the way that she does.

The secondary characters, of which there are quite a few, including Michael’s musical partners, the quartet’s agent, his neighbours and his father, all feel like living, breathing people. And the insights into life as a classical musician — rehearsing, negotiating a record deal, touring in Europe and performing on stage — are fascinating, especially the tensions and rivalries between quartet members.

But it’s the setting, too, which really sold this novel to me. How could I not like a book set in an area of London I know fairly well? Hyde Park in winter has never felt more atmospheric to me than Vikram Seth’s evocative descriptions of it. And the parts set in Venice had me itching to revist the watery city I love so much.

An Equal Music was first published in 1999. It’s a hugely passionate novel about passion — passion for others, passion for music, but, most of all, passion for life.