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.

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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How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – INFERIOR by Angela Saini


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the StoryInferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As far as we’ve come into the ultra-modern 21st century, we are still women living in a man’s world.

Inferior is a well timed book that explores why the gender dynamic works the way it does, across cultures, generations and professions.
How did women come to be in the social positions they currently live in?
Who decided what roles men and women must have? And what were these based on?
Why are women believed to be inferior to men?
Are we biologically built to be lesser humans?
Do our brains have lower intelligence capacities?

Through really extensive research spanning neuroscience, psychology, medicine, anthropology and evolutionary biology, Angela Saini delves deeply into the question about women’s position in society, revealing hard scientific evidence that somehow never gets the limelight, but definitely questions the one-sided superiority argument that has favoured men in areas dominated by men.

The book lends a lot of perspective to the historical and social constructs, where “women have been systematically suppressed over the course of human history by men and their power structures“. It take a critical look at how we came to develop these traditional gender stereotypes of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother, and if these are really part of our biological makeup. I think it’s a really interesting and important study into our evolution as the “social animals” we so like to label ourselves.

My favourite chapters in the book were Chapters 1 and 7 because they present such interesting insights into the patriarchy led socio-cultural control system that confines women within a desirable boundary of acceptable behaviour. These are norms that define our “character” or “characterlessness” for that matter, and we all still live by them today.

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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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