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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A book that is so much more than the sport it is centered on. BEARTOWN by Fredrik Backman


BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say about this book that won’t sound like an understatement.
I would give it 10 stars if that was an option.

I thought I wouldn’t enjoy a book about a sport much, and that too one on ice-hockey, which I know nothing about and have no interest in. But it was so much more than a book about a sport. It took me by surprise. Backman’s writing is beautiful – some of his lines are statements that hit home like a bullet and some are questions that make you pause and think about your own perspectives.
When a story has more than 20 characters and you end up feeling like you completely understand all of those 20 people, and even really start to deeply care about a few, it speaks volumes about the writer’s abilities. I finished the book under an hour ago and I already miss Beartown, I did not want to leave.

This is a ‘human’ story about friendship, loyalty, family, community, ambition, loss and love, about the emotions, and secrets that people carry around in their hearts, about suppressed silences, the things they say and everything they don’t and the extent to which they find themselves go to take a stand when a community’s ethics are tested. I marked endless passages in the book, re-reading them over and over.
There were many wow moments.

Some quotes that gave me pause,

There are damn few things in life that are harder than admitting to yourself that you’re a hypocrite.

Hate can be a a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard, It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty“. It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Having gone through such brilliant writing, I am at a loss of being able to properly articulate what made this book so awesome, but the one thing that really made this book shine was the excellent translation by Neil Smith. Its so good that it feels like it was written in English.
This is not one to miss!

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When a crime novel goes kaput on you – Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi


Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Michel Bussi

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To shuffle things up a bit, I decided to move from Indian regional novels to a French crime novel in translation, written by the most popular crime writer in France, and what a disappointing venture it was! I don’t remember the last time I gave a book two stars, but there was nothing redeeming about this one.
I finished it anyway, only to see where the story was going, and only to find that the eventual “twist” was almost annoying, instead of what may have been a charmingly wow moment for many – going by the ratings.

Three things that I think completely failed this one for me (FYI – there’s a spoiler in the third point):

1. The translation / writing – I’ve always wondered how a translation is judged good or poorly done, and I think this book is where I understood that. I just couldn’t find the flow in the narration. I don’t know which to blame, there’s no way to tell. So it’s Either that, or the writing.

2. All those French names! – this was probably more frustrating than the writing / narration. The book is set in Giverny, a quaint French town famous for its inhabitant, the impressionist painter Claude Monet – and there are innumerable references to its buildings, roads, streams and gardens. I understand that the author was trying to create an ambience but it was tiring to read all these French names which have to be three word phrases instead of a single word name.
I couldn’t keep them straight and after a point just glossed over the text. In the end, the over referencing didn’t lead anywhere, it wasn’t important to the plot.

3. The plot (**spoiler**) – So when I realised the “twist” in the story, my first reaction was irritation at all the hard work I’d put in to get to that point, to understand where all of it was going. And you know what, nothing happens. Everything is a flashback! Done in a way that it intertwines with the present, and you can’t tell the memories apart from the present day reality.
After 3/4th of the book, or maybe more, the plot is still building up, reaching that breaking point when you know that sweet pleasure will come and all the loose ends will tie up – and poof! One of the most deflating endings is served up, And happily ever after if you please!

I feel like the author made a mid-story decision to change it all up and took a completely new direction. I also think The story could have been pared down, edited. There was just too much atmospheric description and too little plot. All those Monet painting references came to nothing in the end, except now I know who Monet is and where Giverny is :-/

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