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Twilight’s Children: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

My Rating★★★★☆

 

Twilight’s Children

 

He had found the letter under his brother’s bed.

He had not minded the dust that lit up the damp light of the room. He had read it immediately. But now that he was back in his room, he took it out again, wanting to read it one more time, as always.

He remembered all the letters he used to receive from India and of how he could hear his Udayan’s childhood voice as he read it, even when the voice was long changed. In this letter he could not.

This time he picked up from the third page of the letter, glancing at the parts that did not make sense to him.

What defines identity once you are away from your center? What defines the center when you are away from our identity?

He wondered why Udayan would take the trouble to write all this when it must have been such a struggle to write at all. With that hand of his… Is it because he wanted to take comfort in talking with me? Or does he just write whatever comes to mind, arrange them in a semblance of order and mail them across the oceans? He looked back at the page.

Is it anger in the obvious betterment seen all around you? Is it shame that you were never really part of it? That you were not part of building it? And instead of building one you have just taken the easier path? Is it pride, perhaps, in your independence? Is it the blustering of the intolerable journalist when he talks about the better ‘systems’? Is it just a sense of loss of all that is left behind?

He skipped the last few lines and then skipped to the next page. Udayan’s handwriting always used to deteriorate towards the end of a page and now it was almost unreadable. ‘Not that I am missing much’, he said to himself.

Wherein lies the center of the modern man’s existence?

Is it in an imaginary village consisting of all that mattered to him as he was growing up – do they ever break that circle? Or is it constantly expanded as you grow? Or is it constantly redefined?

If you don’t have the less developed multitudes (relatives like me) to look upon you from that left-behind circle, will any achievement truly matter in life? Can your center, your point of reference and your identity, only be defined from a transpositional view from below? Or is It from a patriarchal view from above that leaves you smarting?

He was not sure why Udayan had taken to writing to him as if the roles were reversed – as if he was the one who had never set foot beyond his home city and as if Udayan was the one who had roamed the world and thought about a home that had been left behind with such ease. Of course, Udayan wouldn’t have been able to leave behind anything. He had been able to. ‘With ease’, he repeated doubtfully.

He had skipped ahead again without noticing it but decided to carry on. He knew he would be reading it over later. Again.

What of the constant sense that assaults you of not being part of the ‘real’ world – of the world you inhabit – the ones outside your country, your center being somehow artificial? Is it this artificiality that gives you wings? Soaring in a flight of fancy to heights you wouldn’t have dreamed of back where the real things are?

It is not as if he didn’t know that this was probably Udayan’s way of teasing him into coming back home. And it is not as if he didn’t know why it was never posted. He started skipping across the letter faster, eager to reach where he was addressed directly. Eager to see if could recapture the childhood voice when he read his brother addressing him directly instead of talking platitudes. He uttered a faint hum as he skipped across increasingly badly scribbled lines.

Is it a requirement to step outside the circle to be able to step outside it?

How do you view the real world then? Are they the dream now that you are living the dream?

Can you sleep knowing that the dream is never to be dreamt?

Why wouldn’t you try to dream up some solutions as well then? Why wouldn’t you start believing that your newfound wings would work in that ‘real’ world too? Why wouldn’t you even consider flying back?

Why wouldn’t you attempt to solve all the problems?

Even if you never attempt it, you know that with these wings of yours, any problem is an easy one, especially those – the ones in that ‘real’ world. The shadow world of reality.

He felt a faint irritation with his brother now. What right did he have to lecture? What had he done except read a bunch of books and preach around? Then he checked himself. Udayan had always stopped teasing whenever he got angry. He used to always know why.

It is not necessary, of course, that the circle of identity had to be a country or a village or a society or family – stepping outside your circle, outside our reality gives you wings and solutions – but the solutions and the wings are never to be allowed back in – you may step back in but you step back in as yourself, without the fancy stuff. And then you have to forget the dream. You can only inhabit the twilight or the sunrise. Never both.

Ah, he remembered, now is when he talks about the book he had asked me to send to Anita. Udayan had ended up reading it first. Mostly because one of the main characters in the book shared his name. He tried to recollect the little he had read of the book before wrapping it. He knew that much of Udayan’s ramblings in this letter might have come from the book.

After all, there were some parallels. It was the eternal afterlife of the exile that Jhumpa Lahiri was always expert at dissecting. ‘Maybe it was all a build up towards telling me why I should read it too’, he mused, ‘maybe he was not taunting me at all’. Or maybe he felt the book could do that job much better.

There are some books which once read you have a compulsion to make others read – as if the enjoyment is not complete until it is shared. Until you can see the expression of amazement in the other’s face when they have read too – your enjoyment growing in the realization of theirs.

This book is not like that – it is a quiet pleasure to read but there is no expectation of pleasure from the sharing of it – there is no compulsion to talk about it – there is nothing much to talk about really. It is boring in its own way: a beautiful and boring stream that you saw on your way – you paused to see it but you don’t run home to get your wife to stare at it together.

I was excited to read it, to see how it would capture the times that we have lived through. Times that held so much meaning for us. But, it was not meant to be of the masses and the loudness of the massed struggle – just of the individuals and of the quietness of their desperation — it requires no knowledge of our complicated history or the nuances of our anger that ignited the streets. It was not even remotely concerned about all that…

He started searching for the book among the shelves. Then under the bed. His brother loved to sleep with a book and let it slide under his bed as one arm arced and drooped. There it was. Almost brand new. Only two pages bent to mark places to return to. He turned back to the letter.

We are Twilight’s Children, brother, the Midnight’s Children was still some way ahead of us – we are the ones without definition. We were born before the darkness set in, and the day too far off.

After reading The Namesake (the one that you had sent me years ago – ordering me to read it and that you wanted me to get a sense of your University student life), I searched for something new in this one… trying to find what excited the author, trying to get a glimpse into your life – the intimacy with the characters was there – that was expected, that was known; the reality of private lives was there – again known, again expected. What set this apart from the other one? Is it the suffering? But what is suffering? Where was it? I couldn’t see it? Is it necessary that your own anguish has to be less than that of a character’s for you to be able to feel empathy?

But, when I read about this one (in an editorial review), I half thought I could get you to read it… to understand me – another book from the same author. There seemed to be a symmetry to that. But it was not to be. It was not about Bengal, at least not the Bengal that I lived through… it was not to be.

I am told the author grew up in Rhode island – that intimacy is visible. Rhode island becomes more of a home to the reader than his own Bengal. Again, my purposes were not being served by the author.

He looked at the marked pages of the book again and noticed that both seemed to be underlined faintly on lines that described their city. The language was exquisite. Maybe the time away from his expected times and places put him off the book. Udayan was never one for relishing language. He always wanted meanings and words to speak loud and bold.

You had told that you would try to read this before sending it to me. If you managed to complete the book, you must have realized that the book is not very atypical of Lahiri. I am afraid she will find it hard to win another Booker until she breaks out of her own mould or a Booker Committee comes along that doesn’t take the trouble to have read the previous winners.

He smiled at his brother’s silly mistake and continued reading. But he found that he was skipping through the lines now, without reading much. Soon he had reached the end of the letter. It did not end with the usual wishes and he knew that it had not been finished. He quietly flipped back to the beginning again. He could hear the milkman cycling outside on his early morning rounds.

Their relationship had been stretched – stretched halfway across the world – refusing to break, no matter how much he tried.

He walked slowly to the window-sill and lit the candle he had placed here. He watched as the ashes settled nearby and turned away as the breeze started to carry them away.

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Posted by on November 1, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts

 

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The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

The Idea of IndiaThe Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani

My Rating★★★★★

Wow, It took me 13 months to read this book. I knew very little about the book’s context and about the ideas explored when I started reading the book (partly because of the allure of the title and partly because It was among the 25 Popular Penguins). During the first 12 months I read the first half of the book, plodding slowly, 2-3 pages once in a while, with a deliberate exercise of will-power, littering the book with marginalia and exclamation marks – amazed at the language and the torrent of ideas and information.

Then, unintentionally, the book was gradually put aside and lost among a growing tide of must-read books. Meanwhile, I read many other books dealing with the same subject matter and discussing many of the same questions, familiarizing myself to some extent with the numerous arguments. Today I picked up Khilnani again to read a few more pages to get a move on (I hate half-completed books on my shelf) and to my surprise, all the plodding was gone and I breezed through the rest of the book.

No more was it an incomprehensible lecture which I should try and capture as much of as I can, it was now a pleasant conversation with enough interesting back-and-forths from both sides that notes and such became unnecessary. The book became more memorable and the reading experience actually improved with this loss of awe.

This is the first mid-book transition like this for me in which the tone and texture of the book, along with my entire attitude towards it shifts so rapidly. Makes me wonder how much is missed by reading a well written and popular book first without taking the trouble to study the subject first – most of the richness that informed the author in his writing is lost on the reader by the author’s attempt to make the book more readable. It is a necessary tragedy. (Unless the reader takes it on himself to alleviate the collateral damage). Is it?

 

 

P.S. About the book itself, it is a very poetic and well written exploration of the question of Indian Identity. While Khilnani doesn’t offer much in the form of new theories on what this definition should be, he very evocatively sets forth the many identities that have and continue to define the vast nation. The discussion on Nehru and Gandhi is exceptional in their clarity and the unreserved take on Hindutva deserves to be read with great attention. The last chapter rises to a poetic crescendo with Khilnani offering his own conceptions on how these various identities should be interpreted and accepted. The stunning bibliographic essay which lists close to 200 odd books is a treasure trove and has given me an enormous and intimidating list of books that should be explored.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Books

 

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India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

India: The Emerging GiantIndia: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

My Rating★★★★☆

After having read Sen (Development as Freedom) and having been greatly influenced by his ideas, it was only fair to Bhagwati that I read one of his books next. But I decided to start with his collaborator’s work before moving into his own. Having read Dasgupta‘s views on this recently helped in this decision.

Am planning to be reading the two new works by the contending clans next…

In this book Panagariya offers an analytic account and interpretation of the major economic developments in postindependence India along with a detailed discussion of where the policies currently stand and a road map of the future reforms necessary to accelerate and sustain growth.

The principal problem with such a specific and policy oriented book that is grounded on empirical data than on any purely ideological or theoretical grounds is that the stats need to be updated every two years or so to maintain relevance, not just of the recommendations but of the argumentative underpinnings as well.

I am tempted to write a detailed review on the policy recommendations and the outlines provided by Panagariya but I have to refrain till I catch hold of a decent book with a more recent treatment.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Nabokov’s Lolita: An Appreciation

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov

My Rating★★★★★

Qualifier:

Here is the review I had planned in my earlier rambling. I had half-hoped that I would brood over it, and in due time, some blazingly original understanding of the book would shine through in a review (as it usually does!). Now enough time has passed and I have even given the book a second go-over. I am still lost. So here, for your reading pleasure, is the second-hand review, the old mish-mash of familiar thoughts, the dusty talk about beauty and about confused morality and vague hints at some hidden depth. It is just table-talk as far as Lolita is concerned. Do you really want to read it? Why don’t you read a more intelligent counter-analysis here? I warned you —

Review:

Lolita should probably be read with a french dictionary in one hand and a glass of wine on the table side and even that doesn’t guarantee that you will understand the full beauty of the prose.

Only the beauty of the language distracts one enough to get through the head-over-heals atrocities that litter the pages. At times I felt strongly that it is more of a study in beauty and aesthetics than is it about morality or on examining the pathos of society – as we want every literary book to be.

The fact that it doubles as a weird post-apocalyptic parent-daughter road-trip, where they cruise on against the dark landscape of a morally devastated world was for me only a backdrop to the exquisite ode to beauty that the book was. But, the road-trip nevertheless occupies a central position in the narrative. The Appalachian roads are the witness to the worst of the perversions – the dark moral descent. And then the tide reverses and the same roads are traversed again in a mad descent of the intellect into madness. But somehow, in that second journey Humbert gains a surer knowledge of what the relationship between beauty and innocence is and about what appreciation should be tolerated and what terminated.

The most disturbing factor about the whole reading experience was the dawning sense that the poor Lolita whom you are to pity is not so innocent after all. She represents the modern youth – who knows all the worst secrets of earth and indulges them without any sense of the absurd or evil. The innocence lost is regained due to a lack of angst at what an earlier generation considered morally base. What is not acceptable in this post-apocalyptic moral world? Apparently nothing, the worst transgressions are treated as matter of fact and the two interlopers are never discovered and even murder is committed in the midst of mad jocularity. It’s a comedy roiling in depravity, masquerading as a confession. It is as darkly-funny as ‘darkly-funny’ can get. Post-modernism marries Absurdist literature in Nabokov’s Lolita.

The fabricated foreword too gives tantalizing clues on how to decipher the novel and the protagonist – but as you finish the novel you realize that the foreword was an example of how someone who just doesn’t “get it” would view the novel. It is a negative signpost to guide you where not to go. The afterword is very factual and gives a better understanding of the book.

As the B&N site says, Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written… that is, ecstatically. The novel is indeed too perfectly crafted, you want to scream at it in disgust and you want to coo at it in adoration. It is like one of those abhorrent but so-perfect marble statues – it is beautiful enough to be feared but your eyes can never look away once fixed on its perfect form. As a fellow goodreader has said, you may not enjoy reading this book but you might enjoy having read it. Reading it is worth the time, just to marvel at what our mundane, every-day language can become in the hands of a true artist. Forget what it describes, go with the music, dance a little.

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Posted by on January 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It

Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About ItReadicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher

My Rating: ★★★★☆

The subtitle pretty much sums the book up. Some interesting remedies are suggested but nothing radical. The premise of the book is WYTIWYG – What You Test is What You Get – If you implement shallow tests and metrics to measure the young generation, they will evolve into that and beat you at the same game, in the worst ways imaginable.

Introduce deep reading and a love for learning instead of artificial measures; test for understanding, not for mere retention of facts – facts change and when they do, it is the ability to understand and process them that will count above mere retention. We need to teach the right things in schools but more important we should test for the right things. To repeat again, WYTIWYG.

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Posted by on September 17, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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A Skimmable Note on Slow Reading

Slow ReadingSlow Reading by John Miedema

My Rating★★★☆☆

It is a pity that for a book that celebrates books that deserve, no demand the investment of time and all our mental and emotional faculties, it is itself barely so.

Despite its bite-sized length and lack of depth, it is still important. I would recommend potential readers to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business if you want a deeper understanding of the issues that Miedema touches on in this book.

By the way, the book is not so much about slowing down in how much you read than in reading in a more engaged way. It is against the redefinition of reading that is brought forth by the change in the mediums of reading and in the nature of the readings available as a result. It is not against readers who read a lot because they find tv boring and find intellectual stimulation more arresting. So ‘right back at you!’ to all of my friends who suggested this book to me in all sweet irony. Thanks too, of course!

For a more comprehensive review, see Richard’s review.

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Posted by on August 27, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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On Writing: A Memoir of the Book

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The book is great and if you like writing, it is probably a must read.

I could write a summary of the book, it is easy enough to summarize and there are only a few important points that King presents, but then I dont want you to get it for free. 🙂 Go and read the book yourself, it is worth it.

Rude? As King says, “…if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

Here is are a few excerpts from the book that might inspire you to take my advice –

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.

Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening(or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic. That goes for reading and writing as well as for playing a musical instrument, hitting a baseball, or running the four-forty. The sort of strenuous reading and writing program I advocate—four to six hours a day, every day—will not seem strenuous if you really enjoy doing these things and have an aptitude for them; in fact, you may be following such a program already.

If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your little heart desires, however, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.

I love this book because it agrees with all my preconceptions. Feels nice to be on the right track. It is also quite inspiring when it comes to kicking you into putting on your writing cap.

I couldn’t resist putting in this anecdote about James Joyce as well:

One of my favorite stories on the subject—probably more myth than truth—concerns James Joyce. According to the story, a friend came to visit him one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

“James, what’s wrong?” the friend asked. “Is it the work?”

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at the friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

“How many words did you get today?” the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk):

“Seven.”

“Seven? But James . . . that’s good, at least for you!”

Yes,” Joyce said, finally looking up. “I suppose it is . . . but I don’t know what order they go in!”

Of course, the book is not intended just as a writing manual. Even if you never intend to write, the memoir is a wonderful graphic tale on King’s life and like all his stories, it does not lack in imagination or entertainment.

Meanwhile, let me get down to some actual writing…

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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Book Reviews, Books, Creative, Thoughts

 

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