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.

IMG_20180528_200742

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.

View all my reviews

Advertisements

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!

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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:

img_20180510_234920_227-e1526557422522.jpg

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.

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 🙂

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Book Review – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh Eleanor Eleanor Eleanor, can I give you a hug and then a few more!

My reading luck seems to peak at the end of the year, every year, because the most enjoyable book somehow happens to be the last one I squeeze in before the year wraps up, usually after the obligatory reading target has been met.

I’d been waiting to get my hands on this book since July and when I finally did I was afraid of being left disappointed because of all the wanting and expectations I had built up over the months. Luckily though, I absolutely loved the book and Eleanor’s character and I loved the voice that the author created for her; she is so unusual and endearing. Also, the vocabulary in this book is enough to get you half way through your GRE preparations! But thats just Eleanor being Eleanor, you’ll see.

There were so many passages I highlighted and saved through the book. Some of them deadpan but hilarious, like this one where Eleanor talks about fast food,

I wondered why humans would willingly queue at a counter to request processed food, then carry it to a table which was not even set, and then eat it from the paper?

and others which were heart breaking but so well put, like the one where she describes ‘loneliness’

These days loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.

This is just a great debut novel and I’m gonna be watching out for Gail Honeyman’s next one. If you want to close the year on a meaningful, funny, easy to read and uplifting book, then I highly recommend this one.

View all my reviews

Book Review – The Assassinations: A Novel of 1984 by Vikram Kapoor


4/5 STARS

The Assassinations: A Novel of 1984, is a historical fiction novel based on the 1984 Sikh riots that took place in India after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. The story takes place in Delhi, the centre of the riots, and follows the lives of two families who are unwittingly drawn into and deeply affected by the event, turning their lives in directions they could never have imagined.

Most non-fiction books on the subject capture stories from the worst affected areas in Delhi – Trilokpuri, Kalyanpuri, Sultanpuri, Seemapuri, Nangloi. In The Assassinations, Vikram Kapur brings the most prime and affluent localities of New Delhi into focus, portraying the immense vulnerability of even those who thought they were, or tried to remain, distant from the worst of the violence in East Delhi and the events that led up to it. The author has weaved key historical facts and events well into the narrative, creating a synchronism in how our story develops and how the characters blend into these events. There is one particular moment in the plot that took me by surprise and is extremely tragic, but it also binds the events happening in Delhi around that time very well.

I enjoyed this book for its simple and fluid expression, and because the story is completely believable and relatable. The characterisations are well done, their emotions and inner turmoils well conveyed. It is not difficult to sympathise with how they feel and why they feel so. I also really enjoyed the descriptive depiction of the Delhi of 1984; it really added to the feel of the period this book covers. There are other small details that add to the picture the author is trying to create in the reader’s mind about how bad the atmosphere in the country had become during that time. For example, there is a passage that describes how a short feature on national integration on television had been modified to include a Sikh boy, though in the past it had only been a Hindu boy and  Muslim boy. To me, this was a really interesting insight.

This is a heartbreaking story of what 1984 did to 8 people, amongst thousands, what they gained and what they lost – and what this one haunting story represents of the pain, loss and tragedy that so many continue to live with even today.

Book Review – Madhavi by Bhisham Sahni


MadhaviMadhavi by Bhisham Sahni

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A play I read on the insistent recommendation of a colleague at work, Madhavi is the story of one woman’s sacrifices in the face of the duty bound  men in her life. The play is based on the story of Madhavi, King Yayati’s daughter from the Mahabharata.

Munikumar Galav is an accomplished disciple of Rishi Vishwamitra, who stubbornly insists on giving him gurudakshina*, even though Vishwamitra does not want any. Galav’s relentless insistence angers the sage and he demands 800 Ashwamedha horses as his gurudakshina. And so begins Galav’s quest to perform his duty and fulfil his teacher’s wish – it becomes a matter of pride that he fulfil the nearly impossible task and won’t give up till it is done.

His search takes him to King Yayati, who is known for his generosity, and now lives in an ashram after renouncing his title and the material life. Upon hearing what Galav seeks from him, he is dismayed, but at the same time not willing to give up his reputation of being the most generous king in the land. His pride takes over and he resolves not to send the man empty handed; he gives Galav the only thing of value that he has left – his daughter, Madhavi.

Madhavi is a gifted being, blessed with the ability to produce sons for kings and magically renew her virginity and youth. She becomes the perfect bargain for Galav to offer to a king in exchange for the 800 Ashwamedha horses. The catch however is that only 600 such horses exist, with three kings owning 200 each.
As Madhavi changes hands from her father to Galav, to the first king, the second and so on, she becomes the sacrificial lamb, fulfilling her duty towards her father’s command and her love for Galav. She is tormented and torn, but her resilience and sacrifices go unrecognised and unconsidered, obscure in the pride and vanity that each man feels – albeit on her account, because without her they could never have fulfilled their respective duties.

In the end, everyone has fulfilled his duty, but what does this mean for Madhavi? Is she rewarded for her patience and suffering? What does she settle for? Who does she settle for, in this world of proud and conceited men?
Read to find out.

I read the play in Hindi (a rare occurence), the language it was originally written in. But I believe the translated version (in English) is also very well done. Definitely worth a read.

*Gurudakshina – the teacher’s fee

View all my reviews

Podcasts – Probably my most favourite modern day invention


2017 has been the year of podcasts for me. I don’t know what took me so long to give them a shot but I am so glad I finally did and I haven’t stopped listening since. India still hasn’t developed a culture of listening to podcasts, even though we are a nation of radio listeners, and I don’t think I personally know even five people who live in India and are avid listeners; I can think of only two infact. While I’ve been trying to get some of my friends to at least try it once, I haven’t been successful. The most common thing I hear is that they can’t concentrate on people talking on audio and lose track of the conversation. Most people are only open to listening to music on audio, and I feel so sorry for what they are missing out on.

Podcasts are such a convenient medium to expand knowledge, to be entertained, to get new ideas and learn about things you may never encounter in the course of your normal life. Its like reading many different types of books in a very short time, and in a very effective way. Its an opportunity to use every free minute of your day to learn something new, to be inspired, to grow.

But I was a late bloomer too, and there are two primary reasons my perception about podcasts was a bit askew. First, because in India, I only ever saw podcast options on tech websites, news websites or entertainment websites, none of which interested me enough to try. And second, because mobile internet in India was still evolving – using data was not cheap and I wasn’t sure it was strong enough to buffer the audio; so again, I never tried. Its only since last year that 4G connections have gotten stronger and data much cheaper.

So earlier this year, as I was exchanging stories with a friend about true crime shows (mostly OJ Simpson: Made in America, which is such a brilliant documentary and a must-watch), he made some recommendations of podcasts with similar themes that I might enjoy too. Till then, I had no idea about the nature of content being produced on podcasts around the world!

And this brought me to my first ever podcast Serial , which tells a true story, over the course of one season – 12 episodes. Oh what a start it was! The research was amazing, the narration was awesome – the whole production was brilliant. I don’t think I would have loved a visual version as much as I loved it on audio. If you’re a podcast sceptic, this is where you should start. It even won the Pea Body Award for journalism in 2014! I was hooked, I was consumed and I never looked back since. I started listening on a Saturday and I think I finished the entire first season (12+ hours of audio) by the end of Sunday. And then I finished the second season, which was another amazing story, before the week was over. Binge listening is a thing!

As I frantically looked for more content, I discovered this whole new universe of some of the most interesting and well produced podcasts. There is rarely a silent moment in my apartment now, whether I’m washing the dishes, cooking, cleaning or getting dressed for work, something is always playing. And you know what, I am super productive and efficient when I work as I listen. I’m even motivated to exercise if I can do it listening to a podcast.

While true crime stories are awesome, there are also some super interesting podcasts that cover otherwise heavy subjects like economics, politics, analytics, human behaviour, self improvement, motivation, history and psychology, and much more, that I’m sure I haven’t even discovered yet. And you know what the best part is? Its completely FREE! You do not have to pay to listen! Imagine getting to listen to all this amazing stuff at zero cost! The only thing you pay for is your internet / data use, which works just like any other streaming service, like Youtube. Just download an app (I use Podcast Addict – I feel like it was made for me :-)), search your podcast by title, hit subscribe and listen to your heart’s content! OR got to the podcast website and stream from there.

The only thing that I wish I would find more of are Indian podcasts, as well produced and as well narrated as the (mostly) American ones. Because while I absolutely love those, the context is completely American (obviously), and not always relevant for an Indian listener – especially when it is historical or legal in nature. I would absolutely love to hear similar stories from India’s rich legal and social history, I’d do anything to be a part of the research!

So before I close, here’s a list of some podcasts and their genres that I’ve heard extensively, loved and highly highly recommend (in no particular order):

  • Serial – True crime / investigative journalism
  • Freakonomics Radio – Economics / analysis – exploring the hidden side of everyday life
  • RadioLab – Curiosity / science / philosophy / history / human experience
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno – humour – if you don’t want to start with something serious, then this is the perfect way to start your podcast journey. Its British and its hilarious! Imagine if your dad wrote a dirty book. Most people would try to ignore it – but not Jamie Morton. Instead, he decided to read it to the world in this groundbreaking comedy podcast. With the help of his best mates, James Cooper and Alice Levine, Jamie reads a chapter a week and discovers more about his father than he ever bargained for. It was my favourite podcast to listen on my way home from work, sadly I’ve finished the third book and the next one comes out next year.
  • TED Radio Hour – TED talks repurposed for audio

Though I’ve listened to a lot more than this (including several from India), there have been a fair share of hits and misses. Of the Indian ones, I only liked The Intersection podcast recommended to me by RadioLab on twitter. But their episodes, though interesting, are just 15 minutes each and I haven’t seen them update feed since April this year.

Some new ones I’m looking forward to include Invisibilia, CRIMINAL, The WIRED podcast and The Anthill. I think I’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg here, so I’d love to hear suggestions on other interesting podcasts that you think I should try!

Happy listening!