Sunday, November 9, 2014


I had been part of the Book Club at Trichy since my college days. But I got around to reviewing books only recently, that is- on the 27th of August., 2014. All thanks goes to Smt Prema Nandakumar, Shri Diljit Shah, Brigadier B Narayanaswamy and other organisers of the Trichy Book Club. I was not sure about doing it- but at the end of the day- I thought it went quite well. But most of all- it was seeing my name printed in "The Hindu" (even though only on the "engagements" column)- that turned out to be the best part about the whole Book Review affair! 

Text from the book review and some of the photographs of my review- finally make it to my blog!


When the available titles were told to me- I picked out this book for it was on my reading list and I had known that it had won the Booker Prize in 2006. I had tried my hand at “writing” book/movie reviews in my blog. But while doing that- I write a “disclaimer” on the top that reads “This is not a book/movie review”. And I manage to include my personal “rants”/comments/ life stories in between. But this is the first time where I am actually talking about a book on a formal occasion.  What I understand is that a book review is essentially personal- a commentary on what the reader feels about the book. All my childhood and adulthood years spent in reading books- I have found that what attracts me in a book are the characters in it. I need not necessarily like them Yet- if the characters are worth remembering- then it’s fine with me. The book has 5 main characters. What I thought for today was that- instead of going for a page by page summary of the book- I can give an overall summary. The book has no “story” as such. But there is a “plot”. I know that’s a bit confusing but they are two different words and must obviously be a bit different from each other.
Sai- is a teenager and an orphan. She is sent to stay with her grandfather at Kalimpong (near Darjeeling) after her parents pass away in an accident in Russia. Bt the time the news of her parents death reach her- she’s almost a stranger to her parents, having grown up and studying in a convent- so her transition to life at Kalimpong from the life at the Convent is that of a transition from one state of loneliness to another. What a convent educated Sai learns from the nuns is that- “cake was better then laddoos, fork spoon knife better than hands” and that “English was better than Hindi”. Her only fellow Indian in her “Western-oriented” neighbourhood is the cook. He teaches her the Indian way of life- and they grow pretty fond of each other- though deep inside being aware of the difference between them. 

Jemubhai Patel or the judge- as the book refers to him- is Sai’s grandfather. He’s this interesting character. He is sent to Cambridge to study. He faces a certain degree of racism which makes him feel inferior. His inferiority complex turns into self loathing. He hates anything that’s remotely Indian. Lives a life of solitude- a prisoner of his own thoughts and actions. His only love in life- apparently is his dog, Mutt.
The cook. I had to read the entire book on depth once and read it fast the second time just to make sure if I missed his name somewhere. For his name appears only once- towards the end- Panna Lal. The judge and the cook had remained together at Kalimpong- for such a long time- a time they have not spent together even with their wives. Still- they never converse. The judge hates the cook and the cook keeps himself happy by making up stories about the judge and recounting them to other employees like himself- eventually believing himself to be one of the most important beings in the judge’s household.
Biju is the cook’s son. The cook’s only achievement in his life- a son who lives in America. Someday the cook hopes that his son will take him along. While Biju is an illegal migrant in the US who jumps from one job to the other- escaping authorities. Like a fugitive. He constantly faces the fear of losing job as he struggles to realise his “American Dream”- which is to get a secure future for himself and his father. As the author mentions- he is a “shadow class” in the society. There is a clear case of “racial discrimination” with illegal immigrants that is elaborated in the book. At one Italian restaurant- the Italian owners wife says that she prefers immigrants from poorer parts  of Europe than any other continent. “With European workers she feels she has something in common, like religion and
skin-colour. The only problem is that “they weren’t coming in numbers great enough or they
weren’t coming desperate enough”. In the huge “land of opportunities”- Biju was still a “servant” just like his father.

Gyan- a ethnic Nepalese-indian student whom the judge hires to tutor Sai. Gyan’s ancestors have all been soldiers fighting first for the british then for India. While Gyan feels betrayed that after having served the nation for generations- the country is still unwilling to give the Gorkhas their right. He’s unable to get a decent job. For a brief moment- may be because of the scenic beauty of the Himalayas- or because of the age- or perhaps some inexplicable force of nature that begins to work in a mysterious fashion when a male and female members of a species come close for the first time- a romance blooms between Sai and Gyan. But the romance fades as soon as it begins to gain some focus. Initially Gyan is embarrassed by their romance. Sai being westernised- definitely from a better class than to which he belongs to. Then by rejecting Sai- Gyan feels that he has rejected her “westernized and bourgeois lifestyle”- an act of revenge perhaps that his ethnicity faces in the hands of the “westernised” “Bongs” (Bengalis).

These are the most prominent characters in the novel. There is parallel narration- it jumps from Jemubhai’s recollections of the past- his days preparing to be in ICS during the colonial era- to GNLF or the Gorkha National Liberation Front- the backdrop on which the story is set. The story happens in the 80s and we can find the frequent conversations about the “news”- “the khalistan movement”, “Mrs Gandhi”, “Reagen and Gorbachev”-etc.
Though title itself is negative- the book ends with a hope. The characters in the book might not have realised their dreams. Yet they gain something else. Something that they come to accept eventually. Though their realisations cannot be summed up in this book review although i can give a hint that it happens somewhere in the last 3 chapters of the book. But to appreciate their realisations- one needs to read the entire book and internalise their characteristics.
I had wanted to start this review by saying that “No- I did not like this book”. But that was before I edited this write-up. I realised that when it is books- we cannot say “I like” or “don’t like” about books. Except for Chetan bhagat books perhaps- which i don’t like.  Generally- all books have certain qualities in them that comes up at times- when you have your eyes closed- thinking about things. Its these- the ability to be remembered- that makes a book worth reading. The book has style.
An irony was that- Jemubhai’s or the judge’s  father was someone who gave training to false witnesses. The judge’s reminiscences are the most elaborate in the book. Or at least I thought so. There is no justification for the way he is. But throughout his character is emphasised and re emphasised. 

But shadows, after all, create their own unease, and despite his attempts to
hide, he merely emphasized something that unsettled others. For entire days
nobody spoke to him at all, his throat jammed with  words unuttered, his heart
and mind turned into blunt aching things, and elderly ladies, even the hapless—
blue-haired, spotted, faces like collapsing pumpkins—moved over when he sat
next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in
their conviction that it wasn’t even remotely as bad as what  he  had. The young
and beautiful were no kinder; girls held their noses and giggled, "Phew, he stinks
of curry!"

Thus Jemubhai’s mind had begun to warp; he grew stranger to himself than he
was to those around him, found his own skin odd-colored, his own accent
peculiar. He forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile,
and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn’t bear
anyone to see his gums, his teeth. They seemed too  private. In fact, he could
barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He
began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling, and each
morning he scrubbed off the thick milky scent of sleep, the barnyard smell that
wreathed him when he woke and impregnated the fabric of his pajamas. To the
end of his life, he would never be seen without socks and shoes and would prefer
shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might
reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly.

The judge clears his ICS by a stroke of luck for attempts to indianise the service were in progress.
There is this interesting incident that’s narrated- which happens right after the judge clears his ICS.

Not the first position, nor the second. But there he was. He sent a telegram
"Result unequivocal."
"What," asked everyone, "does that mean?" It sounded as if there was a
problem, because "un" words were negative words, those basically competent in
English agreed. But then, Jemubhai’s father consulted the assistant magistrate
and they exploded with joy, his father transformed  into a king holding court, as
neighbors, acquaintances, even strangers, streamed by to eat syrup-soaked sweets
and offer congratulations in envy-soaked voices.

Also- the judge’s coming back to India too is described in an interesting manner. A noticeable change in him since the time he left for Cambridge:

On board the  Strathnaver  on his way back, the judge sipped beef tea and
read How to Speak Hindustani, since he had been posted to a part of India where
he did not speak the language. He sat alone because he still felt ill at ease in the
company of the English.

When he’s back- he is totally “Angrez”. The author describes the judge eating his parathas, chapattis, puris with knife and fork. He is intolerant to anything that is Indian. His admiration for the British begins- as described in the book- when he first sees a portrait of the Queen in his school. “Someone so simple looking could be so powerful”- this thought kindles his love for the British.

His wife- Nimi Patel- once with whom he rode on a bicycle- now seemed someone unlikable- Indian. He contantly abuses her. Tries hiring a “companion” for her to bring some “refinement” in her manners. But his  loathing stops him from accepting her. He sends her back to her parents for she participates in an event organised outside cantonment railway station as part of the Nehru Welcoming committee. The reality is that- she’s dragged along by a Congress woman- as some sort of prank- or naughtiness- but the character “Mrs Singh” calls it an act of kindness. Nimi does not even realise that she was seeing Pt Nehru himself. She has no clue. Naturally- there’s a black mark in Judge’s career. Hence he abuses her. All the while- she had been tolerating his abusing with silence. But she manages to muster all the courage she had left and says to him- “You are the one who is stupid”.
This- his arrogance is unable to accept and the judge sends her back to her father. The birth of the daughter doesn’t change the judge’s heart either.
“. Nimi ends her life in the house of a brother-in-law where she
“accidentally” catches fire over a stove. Like many other women in India she is killed
“without a witness, without a case” (307), in a country “where human life was cheap, where
standards were shoddy, where stoves were badly made and cheap saris caught fire as easily-“

You feel as though the judge is a rock. But when his dog mutt goes missing- something unique happens.
The judge got down on his knees,  and he prayed to God, he, Jemubhai Popatlal
the agnostic, who had made a long hard journey to jettison his family’s prayers;
he who had refused to throw the coconut into the water and bless his own voyage
all those years ago on the deck of the SS Strath-naver.
"If you return Mutt, I will acknowledge you in public,  I  will never deny you
again, I will tell the world that I believe in you—you—if you return Mutt—"
Then he got up. He was undoing his education, retreating to the superstitious
man making bargains, offering sacrifices, gambling  with fate, cajoling, daring
whatever was out there—
Show me if you exist!
Or else I will know you are nothing.
Nothing! Nothing!—taunting it.
But by night, the thought reentered his mind—
Was this faith that he had turned away, was it paying him back?
For sins he had committed that no court in the world could take on. But that
fact, he knew, didn’t lessen the weight they placed on the scale,
didn’t render them nothing. . . . But who could be  paying him back? He didn’t
believe in angered divinity, in a scale of balance. Of course not. The universe
wasn’t in the business of justice. That had simply been his own human conceit—
until he learned better.
Yet he thought of his family that he had abandoned.
He thought of his father, whose strength and hope and love he had fed on,
only to turn around to spit in his face. Then he thought of how he had returned
his wife, Nimi.

These are pretty serious characters in the book. But what kept me going were some the ladies in the book- Noni, Lola and Mrs Sen.
From terrorism to poverty in third world countries- these ladies can find solutions to anything over scones and tea. They have opinions on almost everything.
Who are these ladies?
And finally there was Noni (Nonita), who lived withher sister Lola (Lalita) in a
rose-covered cottage named Mon Ami. When Lola’s husband had died of a heart
attack, Noni, the spinster, had moved in with her
sister, the widow. They lived on his pension, but still they needed more money,
what with endless repairs being done to the house, the price of everything rising
in the bazaar, and the wages of their maid, sweeper , watchman, and gardener.
So, in order to make her contribution to household  finances, Noni had
accepted the judge’s request that she tutor Sai. Science to Shakespeare. It was
only when Noni’s abilities in mathematics and science began to falter when Sai
was sixteen, that the judge was forced to hire Gyan to take over these subjects.

When they find out that Sai’s parents died in Russia:

They had regarded her sadly, orphan child of India’s failing romance with
the Soviets.
"Stupidest thing India ever did, snuggling up to the wrong side. Do you
remember when Chotu and Motu went to Russia? They said they had not seen
the like," remarked Lola to Noni, "even in India. Inefficient beyond belief."
"And do you recall," said Noni back to Lola, "thoseRussians who lived next
door to us in Calcutta? They’d go running out everymorning and come back
with mountains of food, remember? There they’d be,  slicing, boiling, frying
mountains  of potatoes and onions. And then, by evening, they’d go running to
the bazaar  again, hair flying, coming back crazy with excitement and even more
onions and potatoes for dinner. To them India was aland of plenty. They’d never
seen anything like our markets."
But despite their opinion of Russia and Sai’s parents, over the years they
grew very fond of Sai.

They have this Cat- Mustafa. He reminded me of own cat- Bushy.
‘...a sooty hirsute fellow demonstrating a
perfection of containment no amount of love or science could penetrate. He was,
at this moment, starting up like a lorry on Sai’s lap, but his eye’s looked blankly
right into hers, warning her against mistaking this for intimacy.

They comment about V S Naipaul and the book “ A Bend in the river”...

"Superb writer," said Noni. "First-class. One of the best books I’ve ever
"Oh, I don’t know," Lola said, "I think he’s strange. Stuck in the past. . . . He
has not progressed. Colonial neurosis, he’s never freed himself from it. Quite a
different thing now. In fact," she said, "chicken tikka masala has replaced fish
and chips as the number one take-out dinner in Britain. It was just reported in the
Indian Express.
"Tikka masala," she repeated. "Can you believe it?"She imagined the
English countryside, castles, hedgerows, hedgehogs,etc., and tikka masala
whizzing by on buses, bicycles, Rolls-Royces. Then she imagined a scene in  To
the Manor Born:  "Oh Audrey. How perfectly lovely! Chicken tikka masala! Yes,
and I got us some basmati as well. I do think it’s the best rice, don’t you?"
"Well, I don’t like to agree with you, but maybe you have a point," Noni
conceded. "After all, why isn’t he writing of wherehe lives now? Why isn’t he
taking up, say, race riots in Manchester?"
"Also the new England, Noni. A completely cosmopolitan society. Pixie, for
example, doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder."

Lola’s daughter Pixie was a reporter at BBC:

"Good evening . . . this is Piyali Bannerji with the BBC news."
All over India, people hearing the Indian name announced in pucca British
accent laughed and laughed so hard their stomachs hurt.
Disease. War. Famine. Noni exclaimed and was outraged, but Lola purred
with pride and heard nothing but the sanitized elegance of her daughter’s voice,
triumphant over any horrors the world might thrust  upon others.

Their discussions on the demand for Gorkhaland- don’t spare Nehru either:

"This state-making," Lola continued, "biggest mistake that fool Nehru made.
Under his rules any group of idiots can stand up demanding a new state and get
it, too. How many new ones keep appearing? From fifteen we went to sixteen,
sixteen to seventeen, seventeen to twenty-two. . .  ." Lola made a line with a
finger from above her ear and drew noodles in the air to demonstrate her opinion
of such madness.
"And here, if you ask me," she said, "it all started with Sikkim. The Neps
played such a dirty trick and began to get grand ideas—now they think they can
do the same thing again—you know, Sai?"

"But you have to take it from their point of view,"said Noni. "First the Neps
were thrown out of Assam and then Meghalaya, then there’s the king of Bhutan
growling against—"
"Illegal immigration," said Lola.
"Obviously the Nepalis are worried," said Noni. "They’ve been here, most
of them, several generations. Why shouldn’t Nepali be taught in schools?"
"Because on that basis they can start statehood demands. Separatist
movement here, separatist movement there, terrorists, guerillas, insurgents,
rebels, agitators, instigators, and they all learn  from one another, of course—the
Neps have been encouraged by the Sikhs and their Khalis-
tan, by ULFA, NEFA, PLA; Jharkhand, Bodoland, Gorkhaland; Tripura,
Mizoram, Manipur, Kashmir, Punjab, Assam. . . ."
The nasal whine of the gate:
"Hello, hello," said Mrs. Sen, hooking her beaky nose around the open door.
"Hope I’m not disturbing—was just going by, heard your voices—oh look,
pastries and all—" In her happiness she made small bird and mouse sounds.
Lola: "You saw that letter they sent to the queen of England? Gorbachev and
Reagan? Apartheid, genocide, looking after Pakistan, forgetting us, colonial
subjugation, vivisected Nepal. . . . When did Darjeeling and Kalimpong belong
to Nepal? Darjeeling, in fact, was annexed from Sikkim and Kalimpong from
Noni: "Very unskilled at drawing borders, those bloody Brits."
Mrs. Sen, diving right into the conversation: "No practice, na, water all
around them, ha ha."

This Mrs Sen- Whom Lola and Noni considered was beneath their own standards. Especially Since Mrs Sen’s daughter worked for the CNN in America. This put her in a direct contest with Pixie. And also “This was because Mrs. Sen pronounced  potato "POEtatto,"  and
tomato "TOEmatto"

"Pakistan! There is the problem," said Mrs. Sen, jumping to one of her
favorite topics, her thoughts and opinions ready-made, polished over the years,
rolled out wherever they might be stuffed somehow into a conversation. "First
heart attack to our country, no, that has never been healed—"
Lola: "It’s an issue of a porous border is what. You can’t tell one from the
other, Indian Nepali from Nepali Nepali. And then,  baba,  the way these Neps
Mrs. Sen: "Like Muslims."
Lola: "Not the Muslims here"
Mrs. Sen: "No self-control, those people. Disgusting."
Noni: "Everyone is multiplying. Everywhere. You cannot blame one group
over another."
Lola: "Lepchas are not multiplying, they are disappearing. In fact, they have
the first right to this land and nobody is even mentioning
them." Then, reconsidering her support for Lepchas,she said, "Not that they are
so wonderful either, of course. Look at those government loans to Lepchas to
start piggeries—"Traditional Occupation Resurrection Plan"—and not a single
piggery to be seen, although, of course, they all handed in beautifully written
petitions, showing trough measurements and the costof pig feed and
antibiotics—collected the money all right, smart and prompt. . . ."
Mrs. Sen: "More Muslims in India than in Pakistan. They prefer to multiply
over here. You know, that Jinnah, he ate bacon and  eggs for breakfast every
morning and drank whiskey every evening. What sort  of Muslim nation they
have? And five times a day bums up to God. Mind you," she put her sticky finger
in her mouth and then pulled it out with a pop, "With that Koran, who can be
surprised? They have no option but to be two-faced."
The reasoning, they all knew from having heard thisbefore, formed a central
pillar of Hindu belief and it went like this: so strict was the Koran that its
teachings were beyond human capability. Therefore Muslims were forced to
pretend one thing, do another; they drank, smoked,  ate pork, visited prostitutes,
and then denied it.
Unlike Hindus, who needn’t deny.
Lola was uneasy and drank her tea too hot. This complaining about Muslim
birth rates was vulgar and incorrect among the class that reads Jane Austen, and
she sensed Mrs. Sen’s talk revealed her own position on Nepalis, where there
was not so easy a stereotype, to be not so very different a prejudice.
"It’s quite another matter with Muslims," she said stiffly. "They were already
here. The Nepalis have come and taken over and it’snot a religious issue."
Mrs. Sen: "Same thing with the Muslim cultural issue. . . . They also came
from somewhere else, Babar and all. . . . And stayed here to breed. Not that it’s
the fault of the women—poor things—it’s the men—marrying three, four
wives—no shame." She began to giggle. "They have nothing better to do, you
know. Without TV and electricity, there will alwaysbe this problem—"
Lola: "Oh, Mrs. Sen, again you are derailing the conversation. We aren’t
talking about that!"

All their arguments somehow ends with the debate on which was the better country- the US or Britain?

Perhaps England and America didn’t know they were in a fight to the death,
but it was being fought on their behalf, anyway, bythese two spirited widows of

Also there’s Biju and his constant struggle with values he’s been taught.

But here there were Indians eating beef. Indian bankers. Chomp chomp. He
fixed them with a concentrated look of meaning as he cleared the plates. They
saw it. They knew. He knew. They knew he knew. Theypretended they didn’t
know he knew. They looked away. He took on a sneering look. But they could
afford not to notice.
"I’ll have the steak," they said with practiced nonchalance, with an ease like
a signature that’s a thoughtless scribble that you  know  has been practiced page
after page.
Holy cow unholy cow.
Job no job.
One should not give up one’s religion, the principles of one’s parents and
their parents before them. No, no matter what.
You had to live according to something. You had to  find your dignity. The
meat charred on the grill, the blood beaded on the  surface, and then the blood
also began to bubble and boil.
Those who could see a difference between a holy cowand an unholy cow
would win.
Those who couldn’t see it would lose.

Throughout the book- I felt that there was a constant clatter about something else which was not written. There were these narrations at times that remind you why you fell in love with “reading” in the first place.

She felt grateful for the greatness of this landscape, walked on
trying to recover the horizon—for it felt as if the space bequeathed her at the end
of a romance that had promised a wide vista—well, it was nonexistent. Sadness
was so claustrophobic.

While all the discussions about demand for new state can be nullifies and sneered upon- here was something which made me think of it as something else- completely.

Gyan remembered the stirring stories of when citizens had risen up in their
millions and demanded that the British leave. Therewas the nobility of it, the
daring of it, the glorious fire of it—"India for Indians. No taxation without
representation. No help for the wars. Not a man, not a rupee. British Raj
Murdabad!" If a nation had such a climax in its history, its heart, would it not
hunger for it again?

Though set in the 80s- the book seemed to be happening today. But all that were discussed in the book- could be happening at any point of time in history and would still sound relevant.

I wish to add this- that romance between sai and gyan—this is not a new plot at all. Love during turbulent times- war, rebellion, mutiny etc. The plot had a lot of scope. Neither of the characters was convincing. It began and it ended. The plot could not be empathised with. Yet there was so much potential. Ayn Rand in “We the living” did a wonderful job with a love story set in the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. It just felt empty. Not that I’m a fan of romance- I havn’t had patience with it. But it felt bad seeing a plot go waste.

The book was not ‘entertaining’. It did not make me ‘think’. The characters (except for the ladies) did not ‘inspire’ me. Still- I would recommend this book. For – you could remember this book. And that’s all that matters in a book...


indrajit said...

nice. :)

Ardra said...

Hi Matangi! Had missed your review then. Glad to find it here on your blog.
Nice work.

Maddy said...


Good to see You keep writing still. I was browsing my old blogs and checking if any of the commenters in my blog still writes. And here I am.

Good to read your review. Keep writing.

Sangeetha Swarangal said...

Thanks for sharing the post. Keep up the good work...Sangeetha Swarangal