Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects


Random House India sent me a bunch of books quite some time ago, but what with my novel, the A to Z Challenge  and deaths in the family, I haven’t posted many reviews. I read Six Suspects a few months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details as I browse through the book again.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary stories and novels — so mysteries are not my favorite genre.

——

 Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup Random House India

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The blurb will tell you what the book is about: Seven years ago, Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, the playboy son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, murdered Ruby Gill at a trendy restaurant in New Delhi simply because she refused to serve him a drink. Now Vicky Rai is dead, killed at his farmhouse at a party he had thrown to celebrate his acquittal. The police search each and every guest. Six of them are discovered with guns in their possession, each of them steaming with a secret motive.

The novel looks at these suspects in flashback, elaborating these very motives. The resulting chapters make for easy reading, though the writing is somewhat stilted.

This is from one of the suspects, a mobile thief, who has taken a job as a servant:

I too, have taken my revenge on the Bhusiyas. Mr. S. P. Bhusiya, the adulterator, for instance, has no clue that the chicken curry he has been eating at dinner time is also adulterated. I spit in it liberally before laying it on the table.”

The plot held my interest at the beginning because Swarup tells us how each of the suspects is related to the other through strange and (increasingly) implausible circumstances. He also uses the backdrop of real events that made headlines in India. But the sub-plots soon entangle themselves into a tropical jungle thick with liana, and the only way to make sense of things in the end is to hack through it, which Swarup does, without much subtlety. I had the feeling this book could lose a few plotlines, and make better sense as a story.

The characters are told, not shown, and they’re not only cardboard, but also melodramatic. Couldn’t bring myself to care for them, one way or the other.

But Six Suspects does a good job of exposing the corruption which India continues to suffer from at all levels of bureaucracy, politics, media and business. Swarup does boil a vile cauldron of these, which stinks as much and as ‘authentically’ as India’s pandemic of corruption does in reality.

The book would have done better with a good editor, who could have balanced story and plot– as it is, Swarup fails in the project he seems to have taken up: write a mystery while highlighting the problems facing Indian society.

Why you could read it: It is an ‘easy’ read once you make your peace with the quality of the prose, and if you are interested in the new, ‘shining’ India, you could do worse than read this book. Some of the voices are interesting, and a few facets of this country, especially the difference between the appearance and reality of its ‘progress,’ have emerged rather well.

Why you could give it a miss: If you like your mysteries to be plausible in their telling, this book is not for you. The plot is riddled with twists and turns, but some of the coincidences are too convenient, and they happen to stock characters with no layers or complexity.

My crib: The editing. Not only do the book’s plotlines need better handling, but also the voices. The most inauthentic, (unsurprisingly, coming from an Indian author), is the Texan forklift operator who speaks British English instead of American– using words like air hostess instead of flight attendant, and pavement instead of sidewalk.

Bottomline, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you snag it for free someplace and are interested enough in India to want to trawl through it.

What would you like to see any  changes in the  review format? Was this review helpful? Would you read this book?

 

Manto, and Why Indians and Pakistanis need to read him


I’ve been reading the books sent to me by Random House India, but what with life, and my novel and the A to Z Challenge preparations, I haven’t posted reviews. I read Manto about four months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details as I read some of the stories again.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and love short stories.

——

It is possible to review some books without a mention of the context in which they were written, but it is impossible to do so with the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, a writer born in undivided India, who died in Pakistan.

Had he lived, he would have turned 100 last year, but he drank himself to death at the age of 43, eight years after the Partition that created India and Pakistan, after a series of trials where his writing was charged with obscenity. This was  one of the best periods of his work, but one of the worst in personal and financial terms.

Manto: Selected Short Stories

Manto: Selected Short Stories

As such, a lot of history and context is  (rightly, or wrongly) read into his work, and one of the simplest ways to understand this in a short span of time would be to read the introduction by Aatish Taseer, Manto’s grandson, who has translated the stories curated into this book.

Taseer has taken great care to retain the rhythm of the original Urdu in his translation, and no reader can deny the resonance of Manto’s voice that comes through. The originals might, I imagine, have a certain colloquial touch to them, like this example from the story, “My Name is Radha“, one of my favorites from this book:

The studio owner Harmzji Framji, a fat, red-cheeked bon vivant of sorts, was madly in love with a middle-aged actress who looked like a transvestite. His favourite pastime was sizing up the breasts of every newly-arrived actress. Another Muslim hooker from Calcutta’s Bow Bazaar carried on affairs simultaneously with her director, sound recordist, and scriptwriter. The point of these affairs, of course, was to ensure that all three remained in love with her.”

While this reads clunky in English, I can hear it spoken in Urdu (a language I don’t speak, and understand very little of,  but admire nevertheless) with a sort of cheekiness and a common touch, which is, imho, fairly impossible to translate.

Manto was writing at a time when a preachy morality was important in the entire sub-continent, and frank sexuality was frowned upon. So it is quite obvious why the author’s matter-of-fact emphasis on the body was interpreted by his contemporary society as lewdness.

Of course a few of his stories can strike us as sentimental, especially those playing heavily on the drama of the Partition of India (and Pakistan), because our sensibilities are used to the spareness of modern fiction.

But the irony of a stray dog in “The Dog of Tithwal” that befriends both enemy camps (Indian and Pakistani) at a border post and is subsequently shot, is not lost on the reader, nor is the pathos of a madman’s refusal (and subsequent death) in “Toba Tek Singh” when an attempt is made to ‘return’ him to his native town, which, after the Partition, no longer lay in Pakistan, but instead in India. In stories like these, Manto questions the very definitions of ‘country’, ‘borders’ and ‘sanity.’

Why you could read it: It is an easy read, and if you are interested in the Indian sub-continent and its history, you could do worse than read this book.

Why you could give it a miss: If you like your fiction to be spare and unsentimental, this book is not for you. As with most translated fiction, the beauty of the original does not fully translate into English, despite the sincerity of the translator.

My crib:

The typos strewn through the book bothered me (e.g. Pg 28- ‘smoth’  instead of ‘smooth’). The book has some instances of repeated words ( e.g. Pg. 20 “fed fed up”) and other proofreading howlers. If they come up with another edition, they need a better proofreader who would do justice to such an important writer of the Indian sub-continent.

—–

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

I enjoyed this book, and if you happen to pick it up, the least you should do is read the introduction, which is a modern piece of extremely educational writing, and no less poignant for it. You would not be disappointed, I promise you that.

After I read up on Manto, I realized that he has been marginalized in India, to the extent that I had never heard of him growing up, or even as an adult, and had not read him before this book.

All Indian and Pakistani readers deserve to read more of this writer, because the issues that informed Manto’s work continue to be relevant in the society and politics of both these countries.

It is a shame that this author is not better known in India, and kudos to Random House in attempting to change that.

Only, the next time, I wish they would hire a proofreader worth their time.

What would you like to see any  changes in the  review format? Was this review helpful? Would you read this book?

 

Desperate in Dubai


Desperate in Dubai

Desperate in Dubai by Ameera Al Hakawati

I’ve been reading the books sent to me by Random House India (Desperate in Dubai being one of them), but what with the December hiatus and things that kept me worked up and worked out in January, I haven’t posted reviews.

I read Desperate in Dubai about two months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details. You can read an excerpt here.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and only occasionally read Chick Lit. Since Desperate in Dubai is a sort of cross between chick lit and women’s contemporary writing, that might influence my view of it a little.

——

This is the story of four women and their somewhat interconnected lives. Lady Luxe, a Dubai heiress; Leila, an opportunistic social climber; Nadia, a betrayed wife, and Sugar, a victim of tragic circumstances.

Of these, the most interesting is definitely Lady Luxe, who leads a double life, one as burkha-clad traditional daughter of the family; and the other as a hedonist, no stranger to alcohol, men, and high jinks. Her voice is also the most powerful.

The slightly grey character of Leila is also well-sketched with the right amount of details:

Fully aware that a designer ensemble compared to an ordinary outfit is like the difference between Nobu and a filet-o-fish burger at McDonald’s, she unconsciously tugs at her Top-Shop leopard print boob tube dress and runs her fingers through her big blonde hair.

Though, imho, the writing could be better. Does the author mean ‘self-consciously’? Do we need that adverb at all? The author is already showing Leila’s state of mind through the action: ‘tugs at her Top-Shop leopard print boob tube dress and runs her fingers through her big blonde hair.’

In the very next para the author moves into Lady Luxe’s head, which leads to a series of head-hopping passages that could be avoided. Either stick to 3rd person, or omniscient point-of-view, can’t have both. It confuses readers and make them dizzy. (Hope it wasn’t just me.)

Sugar and Nadia, despite their tragic situations, failed to elicit any empathy,  perhaps because of their tired story-lines (which the author has tried to enliven through interconnection). It could also be because I’m a major fan of ‘voice’ and both of these ladies lacked luster.

Why you could read it: It is an easy read, and if you’re fascinated by the Middle East and its culture, the nuances of contemporary life, and the status of women, this might be a fascinating read. This may not be representative of the entire Arab world, but it is a good glimpse.

Why you could give it a miss: I imagine women finding this book interesting, but most men I know steer clear of contemporary women’s writing. And Chick lit. Just saying.

My cribs:

1. The head-hopping annoyed me. The whole book could easily have been edited to avoid this.

2. I didn’t like the use of pseudonyms for Lady Luxe and Sugar, seemed like a deliberate ploy to maintain surprises/ twists. Unnecessary.

3. For a book with feminist undertones/ overtones — the ending disappointed me. Without giving any spoilers, all I can say is that the ending for each character’s story is where I found a conflict between a chick-lit and women’s contemporary writing. The genre-blending did not work at this point.

To sum it up, this book is good as an in-flight read, or if you’re in the mood for light reading. I enjoyed the glimpses into Dubai society, and duly hated all the men as I was meant to — excellent portrait of a patriarchal setup. The only truly sympathetic man in the whole book is Lady Luxe’s step-brother.

Overall, this is an auspicious debut, with excellent premise. I only hope the author finds herself a better editor for her next book.

———-

My second review here is just as unvarnished as the first, but I realized I was also reading like a writer, and not merely a reader.  As a result, I’m not sure the review format worked.

What would you like to see changed in the format? Was this review helpful?

  Inspired by the fascinating lives of the women who dominated the glamorous city, Ameera Al Hakawati put pen to paper and created Desperate in Dubai, a blog that soon became an internet sensation among the expatriate community in Dubai. Desperate in Dubai is Ameera’s first novel published by Random House India. You can buy the book here.

Lion and Panther in London


Aerogrammes by Tania James
Source: Random House India

In recent weeks, I’ve been talking about books sent to me by Random House India, for review on Daily (w)rite.

Today, I’ll talk about  Aerogrammes and Other Stories, by Tania James. As I said in my earlier posts, this would be my entirely subjective take.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and I love short stories.

——

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you I didn’t read this collection at a go. Not because I couldn’t make the time, but because of two things:

1. The stories are all set in different (real) worlds, and each so transports you to its setting, you don’t immediately feel like entering another one.

2. The stories are rather sad (poignantly so), and I could only take so much of it each time.

The first story, a retelling of the history of India’s Gama pehelwan was so steeped in a kind of honor and strength and courage that we don’t see any more, that it made me tear up at times. The second one, a story set in Sierra Leone and the US, of how a chimpanzee completes a human family, had me thinking about Bruno Littlemore. I wish this one were a book of its own, because it felt like a novel cramped in the body of a short story.

My absolute favorite was “The Gulf”, told from the point-of-view of a little girl, not just for subtext between a child and adult world (something James does very well in the other stories like “Ethnic Ken”, a story of a girl’s love for the Ken from Barbie dolls, and how she outgrows it) but also because of the writing:

“After my mother leaves, my father puts his elbows on his knees and leans forward, his eyes closed. I wonder if he is dozing off. The song in the radio softens and slows, at which point my father takes an imaginary violin in his left arm, pointing it downward, and tilts his chin against it. He draws his invisible bow along with the single, smooth note from the radio’s violin, his face perfectly still, as if listening for his own pulse. The slipper with the exposed toe begins to tap against the orange carpet. The melody gathers force, and he dives into his performance, elbowing the air, rocking back and forth as he inscribes the space between us with song. The music climbs inside his body, takes possession of him like a long charge of electricity.”

James, like Jhumpa Lahiri, talks of the immigrant experience, but her assessment is less clinical, more given to emotion, in stories like “Light and Luminous” where a talented, middle-aged Indian dance teacher falls prey to the very thing she’s fought all her life, the temptation to bleach her dark skin, or a delusional old man who thinks his grand-daughter is his wife reincarnated, and wonders “Why am I here?”

I smiled at James’ tart commentary on contemporary life (in America):

“The most popular magazines at Foodfest are the ones that offer help. The experts grin from every corner, beaming with the relief that anyone can drop fifty pounds or build their own patio or achieve a positive outlook.”

Why you could read it: If you like literary stories, by the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri or Yiyun Li, you’ll love it. If you read more genre than literary, this book could be a good bridge: some of the stories have an other-worldly quality to them, and unlike most literary stories, satisfy the reader who wants to know ‘what happened in the end’.

Why you might avoid it: This isn’t light reading, so pick it up if you want to be entertained, but be prepared to be moved to sadness at the same time.

My cribs: My only crib was the the juxtaposition of the stories: “Girl Marries Ghost” felt like the weakest , added in as an afterthought at the end. It did not come across as subtle and spare as the rest of them. Personally, I liked “Lion and Panther in London” better than “Aerogrammes”, for its combination of humor, irony and pathos, and thought it might have made a better title story.

Over all, I enjoyed the book, and though I took my time reading this collection, it felt like time well-spent.

———-

I played this first review by ear, giving you my unvarnished thoughts as a reader, and letting the format emerge on its own . What would you like to see changed in the format? Was this review helpful?

Tuesday Teaser from Desperate in Dubai


As I said in my recent posts here and here, Random House India has shipped me a few books that I’m going to talk about on Daily (w)rite, mouthing off my straight-up and very subjective opinions as a reader.

Part of that reading journey has led me to today’s Tuesday Teaser. (The review would be up once I finish the once-banned book, a sort of chick-lit cum contemporary women’s fiction in an Arabic setting full of hoor-paris with hourglass figures.)

Desperate in Dubai

Desperate in Dubai by Ameera Al Hakawati

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read

• Open to a random page

• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)

• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:

Sorry Humaid, but I’ve never given my number to a guy before.” You already have it, you nerd.

~ p.270, Desperate in Dubai” by Ameera Al Hakawati

Please leave a comment with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in the comment itself.