Life in the conflict zone. Illustrated memoir. | MUNNU by Malik Sajad


4.5 STARS!!

I really enjoy reading memoirs that are written as graphic novels. That added visual feature is such a great way to develop an instant picture of the time, place and feel being described, the details and character expressions conveying more than words sometimes do.

Munnu is the third and probably last book I will be reading on the Kashmir issue, at least this year. But it marks a perfect conclusion to my attempt at trying to understand the human side of the Kashmir situation more deeply. The book is a semi-autographical coming-of-age story of a young boy growing up in Kashmir through the peak of the armed conflict. What I found very interesting was that the author depicts all Kashmiris as the Hangul Deer, or the Kashmir Red Stag, which is now an endangered species, due to the destruction of most of their habitat and poaching, and everyone else is shown as human. It is a clever metaphor and the symbolism is completely on point.

The chapters covering Munnu’s younger years were the most enjoyable, which is nearly half the book, with some really sweet laugh out loud moments interspersed in the tense lives of the artisan family. These two pages in the picture below are probably my favourite. Its a hilariously innocent conversation between Munnu and his older classmate after they see two dogs mating.

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But there is no shying away from death, loss and tragedy and how it affected the psyche of parents or gave young children episodes of PTSD. As Munnu grows up and becomes an adult, innocence is lost and “life” takes over, which is essentially a day to day struggle to remain out of trouble while navigating through numerous check posts and curfews. And that is where the story loses its charm… and why I couldn’t rate it a full 5.

A must read for sure.

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A chick-lit with substance | WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Liane Moriarty


4 STARS!!!

Just the book I needed to read, after all the heavy and intense non-fiction I’ve been burying myself in lately 🙂 Sometimes you just need a book that isn’t hard work but has a satisfying experience. I literally googled “unputdownable books” to rescue myself and found it listed on one of my go-to book blogs – ModernMrsDarcy by Anne Bogel, who also runs the addictive “What Should I Read Next” podcast.

I realise this is my third encounter with Liane Moriarty. I’ve read The Husband’s Secret, which was ok, but I really enjoyed watching Big Little Lies, based on her novel of the same name, and now this one. The premise was super interesting and it really kept me glued till the end. And while this isn’t what I would call a mystery or a suspense novel, there is still a sustained element of uncertainty about how the story will unfold, which the author maintains till the very end of the book – and really that is what made it impossible for me to tear myself away for too long!

This is not a short book though, at nearly 500 pages in the paperback edition, but I breezed through it. The writing is fluid and simple and made the reading effortless, which is one quality I really appreciate in a book. It is not taxing and it doesn’t drain you.

But even though the book reads like a chick-lit, it isn’t superficial at all and in the most subtle ways one realises that the story has a lot of depth. Also, parts of the narrative are written as journal entries and letters – which are again a big sell for me. I find those to be one of the best ways of understanding the personality of a character and really connect with them. I especially enjoyed Elizabeth’s snarky but witty and funny journal entries to her therapist. You can feel her pain but you also see her individuality and that was a lot of fun.

I’d recommend it for anyone who’s looking for a a light read, but still wants the story to have substance.

I am so ready for a few more of the kind now 🙂 Happy to get some suggestions!

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Bitter realities | BLOOD ON MY HANDS by Kishalay Bhattacharjee


2 STARS

I found this book through a string of articles I was reading on the Kashmir issue and the Indian Army’s role therein, which was in continuation to reading Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children a few months ago. While browsing these articles I came across one that referred to this book, detailing a disturbing confession by an unnamed army officer about staged encounters and extra-judicial killings by the Indian Army in disturbed areas like Kashmir and the North East.

Having grown up as an army kid myself, the details in the article were not only disturbing, but also unbelievable, and I certainly wanted to know more.
The book succeeds in making the reader understand the reality and existence of these staged encounters, and also explains why they take place. It describes how the “system” is wired to compel some individuals to resort to desperate measures to justify their existence or demonstrate their effectiveness. In shocking detail it relates how promotions, citations and awards are linked to body counts for those serving in these delicate areas, and how numerous innocent and unsuspecting lives have been lost in a bid to have the numbers add up.
Most do not succumb to this pressure, but some have and do, and this book is about those few…

The book also delivers perspective on the grey areas of military presence in Kashmir and the North East and why the conflict never seems to end. The army isn’t the lone perpetrator here – there is a well oiled organised mafia involving the local police and militant groups that traffic human lives for money, creating win-win situations for everyone but the victim, who is declared to be a gunned down terrorist. This quote from the confession makes the situation chillingly clear –


Militancy at any cost must be kept alive, even if it is on life support. You see the entire architecture of corruption and promotion will collapse if there is peace.

It is a bitter and dismal realisation to arrive at, since the army has always been lauded to be the most honourable and upright institution in the country, and more so when one has been a part of the institution, even if in a small way.

While this book had a significant impact on me, I give it 2 stars because I felt it could have been better written and documented. The writing felt rushed and amateur, especially in the confession chapters which read like direct transcriptions of the conversations, and which I feel could have been more nuanced and better written. The confessional narrative sort of digresses into various anecdotes and incidents and the author could have structured those better instead of just putting them down like they were told. References to certain incidents are easily traceable online and it would have been good if those were substantiated with evidence that is publicly available, and also lend credibility to the officer’s claims.

In any case, it is still a book worth reading once, to be mindful of some of the bitter realities of one of the most celebrated institutions of the country.

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Punctuated Much? : EXIT WEST by Mohsin Hamid


My Man Booker meter is broken I think, because I cannot understand the hype around this book. So much hype that I was over the moon to be gifted a print copy and started reading it immediately.  Everything was fine until the doors arrived…. and then I just wanted to EXIT, in any direction – east, WEST, north, south.

One of the most annoying things about this book was the way it was written, in super long never ending sentences, that went on and on, punctuated with endless commas and ‘ands’, which just did not lend well to easy reading and really put me off, and I don’t think it did justice to the dialogue or helped connect with the characters, and I think the only reason the book is so popular is because of the premise of the story about civil war, displacement and migration, about being forced to give up your life and land to make something of a life somewhere else, which is the reality for so many people in the world today, and all of that mixed up with some magical realism, which I would have been fine with if the writing had been easier to read, and not sounded like an unceasing drone, because there were sentences that were longer than a page at times and its such a distracting thing, and this premise had so much potential to draw out the complexities of the main protagonists, and also of all those stray snippets of lives that appear and disappear, and would have just given the book much more depth and clarity.

Consider this paragraph:

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See what I’m saying?

There was also this typical contradictory way of describing things, like saying this book was not good, but it was also not bad or that it wasn’t lengthy, but it was also not short or that the language was simple, but it was also complicated. Cmon! It makes the writing sound quite trite and dull.
An finally, after trudging through all that to finish the book, I took nothing away from the story and feel frustrated for not being even a little persuaded or inspired by it 😦

So all in all, a thumbs down for this Man Booker shortlisted title.
I seem to be making a record now.

Sadly missing the mark – EROTIC STORIES FOR PUNJABI WIDOWS by Balli Kaur Jaswal


Erotic Stories for Punjabi WidowsErotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An eye catching title and an intriguing blurb, but the expectations they raise are far from met. This book got super lucky getting picked for Reese Witherspoon’s book club in March and for me, there was an extra appeal being punjabi myself n all.

BUT had it not been for the giant push that Witherspoon’s bookclub gives it, with all those Instagram posts and stories (and possibly similar promotions on other social media channels) – I don’t think this book would have gained the popularity it has, simply on the basis of its plot and character development.

The author had a great idea and premise but has trouble sticking to it and really using the opportunity to give the story more depth and direction. The main plot strays into other threads that overtake the central theme, eventually sidelining the widows and their erotic stories, and losing out on a narrative that could have helped the reader connect with these women and every other character on a deeper level.

There was so much potential to unpack how the stories were ruffling feathers in the South Hall community, especially with the Brothers – a sort of local moral police, and becoming a movement of sorts, giving the women from the most conservative backgrounds a voice and a space to freely express themselves.
Ultimately, it came across as one big gossiping group of women trying but failing to keep the scandals in their community under wraps. It also gave me strange notions about the Punjabi community in South Hall, which I fear might become a very flawed reference point for western readers who aren’t familiar with Punjabi / Indian / South Asian cultures and communities.

Though it should have felt like a quick read, there was something about the writing that made my reading really slow and jerky, and I struggled to feel “interested” all the time. I missed the “laugh out loud” moments that everyone is talk about 😦
The only thing that kept me going was the bit of suspense that’s been built into the story.

I really wanted to like this book, but it just didn’t cut it for me.
I thought it was a 3.5, but now I’m feeling closer to a 2.5.

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Gendered aspects of the Kashmir conflict. BEHOLD, I SHINE by Freny Maneksha


Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir's Women and ChildrenBehold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish this book was more well known and more widely read than it appears to be, even though it is written by a well established journalist who has a significant body of work.
So, I am glad to have chanced upon it during one of my browsing binges on Amazon.

The author seeks to explore the assumption that women in Kashmir have not suffered the brunt of direct violence as much as men have, and in doing so brings out stories and experiences from Kashmiri women, old and young, which tend to be more difficult to access not only due to the prevailing ‘haalat‘ or circumstances but also the deeply entrenched patriarchal social structures that they live within.

In the wider context of the ‘Kashmir issue’, the author tries to answer questions like:
– does militarisation harden patriarchal structures?
– what happens to a woman when her husband ‘disappears’? does it change her status in the home?
– does she have the right to accept or refuse remarriage?
– how has the conflict impacted their freedom to safely move in open spaces?
– how does a male dominated society view women who have been assaulted and seen to have brought ‘dishonour’ to their family or community treated?
– how do women deal with and under these situations?

Through first hand accounts of tragedy and resilience, one begins to understand how deeply the conflict has impacted lives of women and children, who are left behind to fight for information, justice and closure – many of whom have been doing it for decades.

As someone who wasn’t too familiar with the history of the Kashmir conflict and why it continues to persist, I feel the book provides a fairly objective understanding and historical context. It also helps one understand why Kashmiris view India’s presence there as an ‘occupation’ and why they continue to fight for ‘azadi‘. I learnt about ‘Ikhwanis‘ for the first time through this book too – captured/surrendered militants turned into pro-government gunmen, nursed by the State and turned on civilians to extract information, often savage in their methods. This created a severe atmosphere of distrust and suspicion amongst Kashmiris, who no longer knew who they could trust or confide into.

As I read these stories, one thing that stood out for me in almost each one, and which is summed up in the very last chapters is the gender divide – that despite all the voilence and the loss of loved ones that families endure, instead of coming together to support the women (especially daughters in law), who are either victims of sexual assault or half-widows (whose husbands have ‘disappeared’), archaic patriarchal norms kick in stronger at such times and many women are abandoned or asked to leave, as they now bring dishonour to their families. Women who refused to back down from investigating the disappearances of their husbands or sons are also seen as trouble makers and asked to leave.

The book does well in disclosing and highlighting the gendered aspects of the Kashmir Conflict. It also makes one aware of how removed we are from the Valley’s struggles even though we have been hearing about them for over two decades, and how despite the political narrative and the means of maintaining control, we must consciously ‘humanise’ our awareness about the conflict and the people who bear the brunt of being the collateral damage in the proverbial crossfire.

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Strange, creative and a little eerie, NAOKO by Keigo Higashino keeps you guessing, literally!


NaokoNaoko by Keigo Higashino

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an absolutely odd and strange story. A little silly, a little tragic, a little dark, a little haunting and in the end a little ruthless – but overall creative and completely unpredictable.

More than two thirds into the book, I was still wondering where the plot was going and what conclusion the story was moving to, so in that way it really is mysterious and kept me guessing up to the very literal end. Perplexed is what I felt going through most of the book. I guess that is why they gave it the Japan Mystery Writers Award.

I’m a Higashino fan, I’ve enjoyed all his other books, and loved two especially (Journey Under the Midnight Sun and Malice – both of which are brilliant in their own right). He really is a master story teller.

This one, though, is not a quick read (the reason I give it 3 stars and not 4).

It moves slowly, but pulls you in wanting to understand where things are going and what is going to happen in the seemingly mundane lives of the Sugita family of three. But really, what a strange story it was, until of course it all became clear, near the very end.

After 3 years of having it on my shelf, I’m glad I have finally read it.

The mystery is finally finally over 🙂

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If you have nothing else to read NEED TO KNOW by Karen Cleveland is passable


Need to KnowNeed to Know by Karen Cleveland

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard this book recommended on the Just the Right Book Podcast: Episode 61 and it sounded really interesting and promising. But it falls quite far from that description and review.

I would call this a page turner yes, a good book to read when you’re travelling
OR
if you don’t have anything else at hand
OR
if you’re looking to break your reading slump.

Reminds me of the Twilight series, not great but keeps you hooked till the end.

Entertainer – can totally see this being turned into a film.

I didn’t connect with the protagonist at all, story and characters not memorable, and I really wish Vivian’s character learnt to be less naive because CIA analysts like her would be the nightmare of the American intelligence machinery.

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A life trapped in the fetters of India’s social structures and prejudices. BALUTA by Daya Pawar


BalutaBaluta by Daya Pawar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Baluta is a collection of memories. Memories of a life trapped in the fetters of India’s social structures. The frustration and helplessness of being born a Dalit, and the inner conflict that roils in the writer’s mind as a result of his education, something he thought would be the means to an escape from his downtrodden life, but ends up being the agent of his lifelong distress. At one point, feeling ashamed of living off his old mother’s earnings despite being educated, he says

“What was her work? The hardscrabble of collecting and selling paper? What dignity did society offer her for her labour? The question of dignity had been put into my head by my education. no one around me seemed much concerned by it. When you don’t know that you’re supposed to be unhappy, you can chug along quite well; only I was being hollowed out from within, as a tree by termites.”

The blurb on the book’s back cover describes how the book, when it was first published in 1978, hit upper caste readers and critics between the eyes, with its graphic and candid narrative, holding nothing back. But as I read the book, I realised that even though I sympathised with Pawar’s condition, the details of his plight did not “hit me hard”, and his story did not emotionally move me.

I wondered what that said about me or us as a society living with the privilege of not being born Dalit. Are we so far removed from the oppression of the caste system that we fail to acknowledge or recognise the realities of those who never had a choice in the matter? Or are we so overexposed to these inequalities that it has taken on a normalcy to the extent that we have become numb to its existence? Or is it just an inconvenient truth that we’d rather not deal with until it affects us directly.

I don’t think there is any foreseeable solution to the deeply entrenched and prevailing caste system in India anytime soon; there are too many vested interests and power dynamics that won’t allow it to end. But I do think that books like these have an important role to play, because they force us to see what we’d rather not and compel us to ask ourselves some difficult questions that might in some small way change how we operate in our more privileged lives and contexts, and not contribute to the existing caste divisions and prejudices.

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Just another reading game to entertain myself… The GOODREADS TOP 3 CHALLENGE: FICTION Complete!


One of the things I’d planned to do this year as part of my Reading Framework was to read the GoodReads top 3 voted Best Books of  2017 in the Fiction, Mystery, Sci-Fi and Debut categories. The idea was to diversify my genres (in this case moving towards more Sci-Fi and Debut), get a chance to catch up with the most popular titles from the year and at the same time also do my own ranking to see if the order of the top 3 changed for me and why.

I love GoodReads and the peer reading community that it supports. So the results of the GoodReads Choice Awards are always something I look forward to (even though there is a small glitch in the voting system that needs sorting, which I talked about here).

Though I’d set this challenge for myself quite eagerly, eventually I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be able to finish even one category, what with my wildly untamed reading moods and my thirst for new titles that throw me off-track all the time. But 10 books and two months into 2018, I’ve managed to achieve 25% of my GoodReads Top 3 target and I’m so glad because it made for some really great reading. 

So, the GoodReads top 3 voted books in the Fiction category in 2017 were:

I LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng with 39,077 votes

IBEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman with 38,268 votes

IIELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman with 32,156 votes

As you can see, the top two come really close and the third is behind by quite a margin, so there’s a clear popularity choice coming through. All three books are extremely well written and have very unique plot lines, which is refreshing. I was particularly enamoured by both Beartown and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but something about Little Fires Everywhere fell short for me.

So here’s why I think they should have been ranked as follows:

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1. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman

BEARTOWN is a brilliantly translated Swedish novel about an obscure town whose culture and identity is tied to its local ice-hockey team, its only ticket for recognition and validation. When a crucial incident occurs, it threatens to destroy everything the community has worked for – years of sacrifice and dedication, and brings age old loyalties, friendships and ethics into question. The atmospheric characteristics of this remote, freezing town form the backdrop for a really introspective narrative for all the characters in the story.

Though it is not meant to be a mystery, the story is quite unpredictable and has many compelling plot developments that keep you hooked and thinking about what decisions a character is going make. Backman writes with a lot of wisdom, developing extremely complex but relatable personalities for his characters, in a way that you understand the psyche of each one. There are no black or white / good or bad people, everyone has a perspective that they operate from. He captures and expresses some of the most common and obvious though unmindful behaviours that we all practice or observe in our lives but seldom take the time to deeply think about. This is a great piece of contemporary fiction that I would recommend everyone to read.

2. ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

A story about a misfit, a socially awkward woman who finds a new lease to life when she opens up to an unlikely friendship. This book gave me a fuzzy, warm feeling in the nicest most un-cliched way. I am not one for mushy romances, and this is exactly not that kinda book. Even though it deals with themes of loneliness and depression, it does it with so much sensitivity, and a whole lot of wit, humour and heart. This is a book about emotions, relationships and the importance of being accepted for who you are. Its a wonderful,  meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book that must be read sooner than later 🙂

3. LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng

I am not sure how I feel about this book anymore, even though I rated it 4/5 on GR. The story revolves around the themes of identity, belonging and rebellion, pitching the perfectly planned lives of native American residents into sharp contrast with the lives of Chinese-American immigrants, who struggle to make ends meet but fiercely protect what is theirs. When I think about it now, I am left with a sense of the story being dark and heavy.

Celeste Ng writes extremely well and I’ve been a fan since I read her first book Everything I Never Told You, which was brilliant, but I think with this one, I wasn’t able to form a connection with any of the characters. I also feel that the context was “too American” or “too suburban American” and somehow as more time has passed since having read it, its turned out to be less and less memorable. That said, it has been voted the most popular fiction in 2017 and has also got many rave reviews in America – but for me, it wasn’t better than the other two.

So those were my thoughts on the Best Fiction from 2017. I now look forward to getting on with the other categories. Until next time, happy reading!