Book Review: The Far Field

“Without action there is only waiting for death”

The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay, is narrated by a thirty year old woman living in Bangalore, India. She wishes to share the story of how, six years previously, she undertook an impetuous journey that led her to a tiny mountain village in the Himalayas. Here she befriended her reluctant hosts and then inadvertently contributed to the devastation of their already difficult existence. She has thus far maintained her silence about what happened as she believed her urge to speak would make no difference due to the escalating violence in the region. Her need to unburden now is personal.

“lately the urge has turned into something else, something with sharper edges, which sticks under the ribs and makes it dangerous to breathe.”

All stories require a beginning. For the woman, Shalini, the sequence of events being related starts when her mother, in an out of character gesture, permits a travelling salesman to enter their home to pitch his products. Shalini’s mother regularly behaves unpredictably but is adored, and also feared, by her six year old daughter. The salesman, Bashir Ahmed, can somehow cope with the woman’s erratic outbursts and tells the pair a mesmerising tale. He then leaves them with a promise that he will return. His visits, and stories, become a regular and welcome feature in Shalini and her mother’s lives over several years.

Within a few pages the reader learns that, during Shalini’s final year in college, her mother died. Shalini does not cope well with her grief. Realising that she needs to take some sort of action, to stop drifting and treating those around her badly, she makes a spur of the moment decision to journey to Kashmir. Her plan is to find Bashir Ahmed, for reasons she cannot yet fully articulate.

Shalini’s life growing up in Bangalore is one of comfort and privilege, shadowed by the impact of her mother’s behaviour. She has little knowledge of unfolding events in the north of India until she is living within a small community in Kishtwar. They accept the arrival of strangers who are looking for their missing and offer the lone and naive young woman a wary welcome. Shocked by the stories she hears of atrocities, she wishes to help her new friends. In turn they agree to assist in her quest.

The tale moves back and forth between Shalini’s life in Bangalore and the day to day activities in the remote, northern villages where she stays for a time. Her mother’s unpredictable conduct throughout her formative years have left her with a deep seated yearning to belong within an accepting family circle. She can only view what is happening, within and without, through her limited personal lens.

The action unfolds gradually before gaining pace and tension. The joy of reading, however, is in the vivid language and imagery. As an example, the crows, how they become metaphor, is inspired and chilling. Characterisation is subtle and nuanced with development understated yet balanced to perfection. What is slowly revealed is how the effects of individual actions ripple, and how facts are lost in any retelling that is coloured by prejudice. When hurt or damage results, each perpetrator must still find a way to live with themselves. Culpability is kept hidden or downplayed to protect self and public image.

This is beautifully conveyed, evocative writing that presents a shattering tale with rare humanity. The compassion and regret of the narrator will resonate and linger. A breathtaking, unreservedly impressive, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Grove Press.

Book Review: We that are young

We that are young, by Preti Taneja, is a fabulous reworking of King Lear. Having enjoyed a number of adaptations of this Shakespearean tragedy on stage I was familiar with the direction the arc of the story was likely to take. This did not in any way detract from my enjoyment. The book is big in size, scope and depth. The action is set in modern India and offers a masterclass in the country, its people, and the stubborness and hurt inherent in wider family feuds.

The tale opens with the return of a son, Jivan, banished to America with his mother when he was thirteen years old. Prior to this he had been one of five young playmates, although as the child of his father’s mistress had never been permitted full integration into the privileged lives of his friends. His half brother, Jeet, and he grew up alongside the three daughters of a hugely wealthy businessman, Devraj, who is also Jeet’s godfather. The girls – clever Gargi, beautiful Radha, and baby Sita – have in the intervening years grown into outwardly dutiful and obedient women.

Jivan returns on the cusp of change. The oppulent farm where the family now live is being prepared for Sita’s engagement celebrations. As Jivan is shown around, a lunch is taking place that will be the catalyst to Devraj’s ruination.

Economic growth has enabled India to consider itself a world player and with this has come a clash of cultures. Despite the quality and beauty of local products there is a hankering after western labels. Colour and vibrancy are being toned down, flesh exposed in imported attire. Women desire more freedom and opportunity than tradition permits.

Devraj demands that his daughters regularly demonstrate love and respect for him, in word and deed. When Sita unexpectedly refuses to conform he attempts to punish her by passing on the share of the business he had selected for her, his favourite, to her sisters. Gargi and Radha watch as he reacts to their little sister’s rebellion, envious of her courage but afraid of its effects. They fear their father may be going mad and determine to save the business for themselves.

The story is told from the points of view of each of the five former playmates, with occasional chapters in Devraj’s voice. Their’s is a life of excess, abuse and thwarted desire. When Jeet chooses to leave the farm the reader is offered a snapshot of the lives of India’s untouchables, a contrast that is shocking and telling. Those who grow up in comfort will struggle to understand the psychological effects of poverty, the cost of survival.

Devraj strives for a new India yet fights any attempt by his daughters to embrace change, to relinquish stifling traditions. This generational divide is all too familiar. Elders are eager to force the rules of their upbringing on their children, unappreciative of the differing challenges they must face in an evolving world.

The writing is stunning, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the region, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the corruption and striving for a better way of life at all levels. Turns of phrase deserve to be savoured, imagery basked in. The story is labyrinthian and should not be rushed.

Although a literary feast this is also a highly readable story. It remains engaging, tense and compelling throughout, despite knowing how it must end. I wanted to applaud that last line, the author deserves all the commendations. Recommended without reservation.

 

If you wish to purchase the cool black limited edition of this title, pictured above, buy direct from the publisher here.

The same words, bound in orange, are also available from discerning book retailers, and from Amazon.

 

 

Book Review: The Secret History of The Jungle Book

The Secret History of The Jungle Book, by Swati Singh, is a fresh if brief consideration of Rudyard Kipling and, arguably, his most famous creation. It is divided into three parts which look at: The Jungle Book’s popularity, reach and longevity; the man who wrote it; what his character, Mowgli, can teach us today. It explores the possible inspiration for the work of a hugely successful author – Kipling was the first British writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – who carefully guarded his privacy. Kipling was decried as an imperialist, accused of being a Nazi, yet his personal story is more nuanced than these angry accusations.

Kipling was born in India and raised until he was six years old by his family’s servants. He will have been told myths and stories of the adopted land he loved in these formative years, many of which he wove into his later work. The following six years were a miserable and life altering experience. Sent to Southend to be raised and schooled as an Englishman he was fostered by a couple whose cruelties taught him the harsh realities of abandonment and survival. He returned to India as soon as he could wrest back control, to apprentice as a journalist.

Kipling’s adult life was punctuated by tragedy – two of his children pre-deceased him. His sister suffered a mental breakdown and he had a serious falling out with his brother-in-law which drove him from America. India remained his muse and his daemon, despite only living there sporadically. He described it as ‘the only real home I had yet known.’

Kiplings literary genius was often marred by prejudiced leanings regarding races and nations yet he rarely seems to have felt a part of wherever he lived. Likewise Mowgli, much moreso in his books than in the popular Disney film, struggled with a desire to belong in the jungle despite knowing he was a man, not the wolf he had been raised.

The author mulls how his story may be applied today:

“Mowgli was born in the golden dawn of the era of globalisation, when the progress of science and technology had started opening up the boundaries of the world. In the present scenario, as technology brings the communities of the world into instant contact with the click of a mouse, our world truly becomes a global village. But the flipside of this technology boom is the way in which the diversity of our world is often in an open confrontation which makes our world more of a global jungle than a global village, where the ruthless law of nature gives sustenance only to those ideas that it deems the fittest.”

Manuel Castells says in The Information Age: “Our world and our lives are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity.”

When we read the Law of the Jungle, we realise how the Mowgli stories were not merely an allegory for the empire for Kipling, but more the allegory of life itself.

The author’s arguments are sympathetic to a man who has a tarnished reputation yet wrote stories that still entertain readers and provide pleasure. Having read this discourse I am left pondering: if an artist should be judged for what he is rather than that which he creates; who arbitrates what is acceptable given evolving rules of cultural acceptability; how deeply we should dissect literature rather than simply enjoying a good read.

   

 

Book Review: If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here

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‘If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here’, by Sarayu Srivatsa, brought to mind Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’. Like Okri’s tale, it focuses on a young boy whose life is blighted by his family circumstances and the fractured culture in which he lives. The supernatural aspects of this story are, however, less pronounced. I found it more accessible and incredibly sad, dealing as it does with a child who has no control over the way he is treated by the adults entrusted with his care. It is a story of family and grief interwoven with the influences of religion, superstition and history. It is an exploration of the impact of abandonment, of person and place, and how the abandoned are damaged by a lingering desire for what has gone.

Set in the coastal town of Machilipatnam, in post independence India, it narrates the early life of Siva, who lives with his mother, father, grandmother and their staff in a large, rundown house built by an Englishman, George Gibbs. When Gibbs left the town his name remained on roads, in the research facility and factory he founded, and amongst the belongings he left behind in his home. Siva’s father now runs the research facility and his grandfather the factory.

The book opens with the circumstances surrounding Siva’s birth. His mother, Mallika, had longed for a daughter that she may be the mother she had always craved, her own mother having died giving birth. Mallika’s mother-in-law, the pious widow, Patti, calls on all her Hindu gods to grant her a grandson, that three generations of the family may cross over from heaven into eternal bliss rather than being reborn again and again into this cruel world.

Mallika is unmoved by Patti’s desires. She prepares pretty dresses for her longed for daughter. When she goes into labour a daughter is indeed delivered, who she names Tara, and who minutes later dies in her father’s arms. Mallika is distraught, rejecting the twin who follows his sister from the womb. The only way the family can get her to care for her newborn son is to allow her to pretend that Siva is Tara, a charade that is played out until the boy starts school.

Siva believes that Tara lives inside him. He longs for his mother’s love but is rejected time and again if Mallika is forced to confront the fact that it was the boy who lived. The rest of the household, although uncomfortable with Mallika’s unstable behaviour, tolerates her foibles in order to maintain the uneasy status quo.

Siva befriends Rebecca, a motherless young girl two years his senior who lives with her father and grandmother in the local town. Siva feels more comfortable with Rebecca and her friends than with the boys at his school. He is intrigued by another town resident, Sweetie-Cutie, who was born a man but now dresses as a woman following castration. Siva questions his own gender, longing to be a girl that he may regain his mother’s love.

Siva’s father encourages his son’s interest in science. When Siva goes to his father with heartfelt questions he is given factual answers. These offer him more comfort than the life lessons he is given at school which are skewed by Christian beliefs, or the teaching he is offered by his grandmother with her Hindu faith and superstitions. However, Siva’s father is devoted to his work and has little time for his son.

The interweaving of George Gibbs and his story with the contemporary tale seemed a little surreal but added to the underlying exploration of identity, a struggle for both Siva and his country. The writing is, in places, beautiful and profound.

As Siva approaches puberty he finds himself further alienated and contemplates drastic action. It is heartbreaking to read of his pain. The parallels between Siva’s struggle and that of his country are understated but skillfully portrayed.

This book was rewarding to read and a lesson in a culture that can be challenging for a western mind to understand. The reader is left to wonder how a child can ever recover from such a skewed upbringing, how a country will have been damaged by forced transition and then abandonment.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose Books.

 

Book Review: The Weightless World

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“I turn my face back to the screen of the window, with its high definition, its retina resolution of the streaming world.”

The Weightless World, by Anthony Trevelyan, tells the story of a business trip to India to purchase an anti-gravity machine. It has a slightly surreal quality. It is never quite clear how reliable the narrator may be, how much his view of the world is skewed by his mildly psychotic perceptions. That said, everyone views the world through their own, personal filters. Perhaps this is merely a more honest account of how behaviour changes depending on circumstances.

The scene is set from the opening line: “Raymond Ess is going to kill me.”

The narrator, Steven Strauss, is Ess’s Personal Assistant. He is loyal to his boss but is now keeping secrets from him. Ess had a breakdown when a business deal went catastrophically wrong. He took six months off work, traveled to India, and returned with a bizarre tale of an inventor hiding out in a secret location with a prototype anti-gravity machine. Steven does not believe that such a device exists except in Ess’s troubled mind.

Ess co-founded Resolute Aviation which is in serious financial trouble. A co-director has persuaded Steven to travel to India with Ess as a means of getting him out of the way. Ess has been told that he has access to company funds to purchase the rights to the anti-gravity machine which he believes will turn the company’s fortunes around. The funds do not exist.

The backdrop of India is beautifully evoked with its heat, colour, economic contrasts and the duplicity of the multi national business community as it tries to capture the wealth potential for themselves. Ess hires a driver, Asha Jarwal, a highly educated woman who despises the attitudes of the westerners with their assumptions that they may profit from other’s endeavours. She despises her fellow Indians even more for allowing this to happen.

Steven and Ess meet up with an American, Harry Altman, who has settled in Mumbai and has many, unspecified business interests. Steven does not trust him. Steven does not seem to trust any of the people he meets and it is unclear why. Is he being overly protective of a boss he believes is unhinged or is Steven the one with the problems? Each evening he talks with his girlfriend back home over Skype and it is as if this contact is needed to keep him grounded. The reader feels his discomfort as he is plunged into the unknown, forever questioning who he can trust whilst carrying the burden of his own role in the greed and deception.

Throughout the tale there are suggestions between the lines, doubts tantalising on the side. The writing remains taut and captivating. I wanted the machine to exist as an exciting step forward for science, then feared for the consequences if it did seeing how the West would choose to use it.

A story of love, friendship and loyalty, not lengthy yet gets under the skin presenting complex emotions with the lightest of touches. Both the premise and evolution are distinct and original. This book is a fabulous read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Galley Beggar Press.