Thursday, January 20, 2011

Battle for Bittora - Anuja Chauhan

Rating: 6.5/10

After tackling the first big passion of India - cricket - in her hilarious first book The Zoya Factor, Anuja Chauhan bases her second book on India's second biggest passion - politics. Battle for Bittora is the story of Jinni (Sarojini) Pande and Zain Altaf Khan, friends, childhood sweethearts, and now, Lok Sabha candidates fighting their first election. Against each other. 

If Patrick French would start classifying fictional Indian characters, Jinni would be a hyper-hereditary MP (HHMP) whose grandmother is the incorrigible Pushpa Pande, three time MP from 'Pavit Pradesh' and the scion Zain would be slotted as 'Royal Family'.

The premise is definitely interesting - this is a tale of love and the Lok Sabha. Yes, you read that right. It's easy to draw parallels with Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries where Mia Thermopolis must become Princess of Genovia after her exasperating Grandmere forces her to. But the theme, a light, funny take on Indian politics, is still promising.

Politician Margaret Alva's daughter-in-law Anuja Chauhan has that uncanny ability to make her reader grin, smile widely and even, laugh out loud. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the 'Grand Old' Pragati Party with the Indian tricolour on its flag and the IJP (Indian Janata Party) with the saffron flag and marigold symbol references. Indeed that is the strong point of the book - Chauhan's exquisite popular culture and political culture references that are laden with wit. Nobody is spared - from Rahul Mahajan to Rahul Gandhi, there are enough references to make you chuckle. There are wry remarks about Fab India sarees, white kurtas, the penultimate decision - to ignore or accept a Facebook friend request. Sample some of them:

'Because if my life really had turned into a bad Madhur Bhandarkar film (Called Politics, you know, like Corporate and Fashion and Jail), I had to play this smartly'

'Whichever way you look at it, it can't be denied that, with about three and a half exceptions, Indian pollies are an unbeautiful lot'

'Bitiya, marrying into a minority community is a good idea,' Rocket Singh volunteered. 'It will increase your vote bank and show ki you are a progressive. But be practical, please choose a large, healthy minority! There's no such thing as a Parsi vote bank - they're practically extinct.'
'But they're rich,' interrupted Our Pappu, with a worldly wise air..'

But all the charm, sarcasm and fun falls flat because of mundane, repetitive scenes. This is a problem that I had with The Zoya Factor too. There are several scenes that add little to the story and serve only to dampen its pace and annoy the reader. Also, Chauhan's heroines tend to be similar - Jinni from Battle for Bittora and Zoya from The Zoya Factor - are both chirpy, pretty women who are prone to massive crushes. 

Zain Altaf Khan is  a typical charming, suave, gorgeous hero, the kind women love to read about and the kind a Bollywood hero would look forward to playing. This is a book that is more than 400 pages long and I think crisp editing would have made it better. Nobody is expecting Chauhan to keep us guessing at every stretch, but predictability can be forgiven only when the book captivates you. 

I much prefer The Zoya Factor to Battle for Bittora, despite the fact that I enjoy political fiction more than sport-related fiction. However, I still look forward to reading Chauhan's upcoming books because her wonderful sense of humour (Here's a salute for Shaadi, Khaadi aur Azaadi!) shines through her books.

I wouldn't recommend this book to those who aren't acquainted with India, because the book is at its best with its in-jokes and the Hindi accented words will be tough to understand. But to all others, this is chick lit that is worth a read. It won't be extraordinary, but will almost certainly brighten a dull day.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Dinner Guest List

A couple of days ago, when I was reading Ramachandra Guha's introduction about Rabindranath Tagore in Penguin's new edition of Tagore's book Nationalism, I realized how much India missed him. I also immediately started wondering how much I'd love to meet him and talk with him. And on that not-so-original route, I wondered what were the writers, dead or alive, I'd invite, if I had the chance to have them all over for dinner. I came up with this list:

1. Rabindranath Tagore - Duh, obviously. I'd be shivering and extremely nervous, but it would all be worth it if I could just tell him how much his poems and essays have delighted me. His physical appearance always makes me think of Tagore as Albus Dumbledore. I imagine that he would be wise, excellent at conversation and patient enough to put up with less intelligent mortals like yours truly.

2. J.K Rowling - This is the woman who has made me connect everything I see and everything that happens around me to Harry Potter. Notice the Albus Dumbledore reference above. I grew up with Ms.Rowling's boy wizard, made so many wonderful friends because of Harry Potter and discovered the absolute thrill of reading a good book. I would also ask her the recipe for the perfect Butterbeer.

3. Jane Austen - Granted my manners would probably shock Miss Austen and I would possibly not immediately understand any sarcastic remark she directs at me. But to be in the company of such a glorious writer would be amazing. I promise to not freak her out startle her by being the crazy fangirl that I am. I shall also limit references to Mr.Darcy. He exists. Enough.

4. Nayantara Sahgal - It's getting tougher to not be my fangirlish self because Ms. Sahgal is one of the Indian writers I absolutely adore. I shall interview ask her about all the trivia she can remember related to her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru (who I'd invite as well if I weren't so intimidated), her cousin Indira Gandhi and indeed about how it felt living in the British Raj and later, independent India. I shall also congratulate her for one of my most favourite book titles ever: Prison and Chocolate Cake.

5. Basharat Peer - I know he's written only one book so far but it was one of the most heart-breaking ones I've ever read. By the end of Curfewed Night, I wanted to tell the author how incredibly emotional it had been to read his book. Plus, to write about such a personal issue with such elegance and brutal honesty is incredible, and I want to thank him for that.

6. Jasper Fforde - Because I adore insanely creative people - emphasis on the creative part. I loved Fforde's Thursday Next series and though I haven't read his latest works, I think he's just too witty to exclude from any list that refers to authors and conversations.

7. Alex Von Tunzelmann - I really liked Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire and though it's not my all-time favourite book or anything, I simply loved Von Tunzelmann's flair for the interesting minor details that makes history so very special. Plus, we have several common interests: India, Partition, pre-Independence drama, the British Raj, Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, the Mughals. Yeah, you get it. Loads to talk about! I also enjoy reading her reviews of period films.

This is such an eclectic guest list. I'm making up for the great disappointment of not being able to go to the Jaipur Literature Festival by dreaming up the list of authors I'd love to talk with. What's your list? :)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Serious Men - Manu Joseph

Rating: 9.5/10

I've been waiting to read Serious Men for ages. I saw nothing but good reviews, and judging from his articles, I knew I would like to read Manu Joseph's book. This is a book that does not get bogged down because of the hype. Serious Men is a fantastic satirical tale of two men: Ayyan Mani, a Dalit who has had enough of being looked down upon and leading an unremarkable life, and his Brahmin boss Arvind Acharya, a remarkable scientist whose power and authority receives a severe blow after a scandal. 

Through them, Joseph sketches a shatteringly realistic portrayal of modern day India, her people and the idiosyncrasies of science. The book is also a blunt reality check of the influence of the 'c' word - caste - on the minds and politics of the people. The two characters upon whom this novel rests are incredibly three dimensional and are developed with several shades of grey. 

Ayyan Mani wants the glory that he feels was denied by the upper caste Brahmins to his ancestors, who were treated as Untouchables. He starts playing a dangerously exciting game by building a web of lies to present his son as a celebrated 'genius'. The more popular his son becomes, the more dangerous the game is. Ayyan Mani is definitely one of the most complex, memorable characters I've ever read. He's an underdog who can stoop to any level to achieve what he wants. There are sudden flashes of sympathy, affection, even compassion, but all of these emotions are secondary to Mani's ambitions of giving his family a good future, no matter what.

Arvind Acharya isn't as original a character as Mani, but is constructed with such skill that you can picturise Acharya sitting across you and pondering about the big questions of the Universe. In the hands of a less talented writer, this book could have been boring. But Joseph is, quite simply, a treat to read. His dark sarcasm, even darker humour and dispassionate assessment of Indian society are bound to stay with the reader for long. Joseph is an amazing observer who describes the little things that we often shrug away, to make the larger point

I would read just about anything he writes because he possesses the rare talent of recreating harsh realities, stripped of the fluff, and doing so without being pretentious. To the very sensitive reader, many parts of this tragic satire could be controversial or shocking. This is not a perfect book - some of the final portions of the book were a little too convenient, there weren't many fully-fleshed female characters. But this is far too important a book to ignore.

Joseph's treatment of Ayyan Mani did remind me of Booker winning writer Aravind Adiga's characterisation of his protagonist Balram Halwai. Both of these characters are underdogs who have been the recipients of the worst of what India has to offer. But Ayyan Mani is more complex, entirely too fascinating - sometimes scary, sometimes saddening.  

There are whole passages of sheer brilliance. I started marking the good quotes and stopped after a while, because I didn't want a book full of dogears. Joseph's exquisite turn of phrase and easy yet vivid writing style makes him an author who is a joy to read. I'm including a couple of my favourite lines from a very quotable writer:

'In the twilight that was now the colour of dust, in the fury of horns that was a national language because honking had telegraphic properties..'

'The dedication of passwords was the new fellowship of marriage. To each other, couples had become furtive asterisks.'

'And one day, very soon in fact, Adi would be an adolescent. An adolescent son of a clerk. A miserable thing to be in this country. He would have to forget all his dreams and tell himself that what he wanted to do was engineering. It's the only hope, everyone would tell him. Engineering, Adi would realize, is every mother's advice to her son, a father's irrevocable decision, a boy's first foreboding of life.'

'On the pavement by the side of the road was planted a banner two storeys high. Even in the blow-up the celebrity appeared stunted. He stood in a safari suit, his palms joined in greeting. His face was a light pink because poster artists did not have the freedom to paint his face black. His little mop of hair was spread thinly over an almost flat scalp. And his thick moustache had sharp edges. Just above his head was an English introduction in large font - DYNAMIC PERSONALITY. A thinner line that followed said he was the honourable Minister S Waman. It seemed appropriate that it was at Waman's black shoes the author took credit, in Marathi and in diplomatically-chosen small font - 'Hoarding Presented by P.Bikaji'. 

'A mysterious character of UFOs is that they are sighted only in the First World,' she said, 'and no alien conquest of Earth begins until the mayor of New York holds an emergency press conference. When Mars attacks, it attacks America.'

Serious Men is a remarkable book. It's not the kind of book that you read, review and forget. It's the kind of book that you yearn to discuss, debate, analyze and always remember. Indian literature will be proud of another amazing new entrant to its ranks, an author who can rip apart the double standards of society to provide the raw and very real picture. 

Needless to say, I'm adding Serious Men to my India - Book Recommendations.

P.S Apologies for the length of the review. I just couldn't resist adding all those great quotes.


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