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Part 1/4: Short book reviews of the 20 odd books I read in the last three months.

The Fatal RumourThe Fatal Rumour: A Nineteenth-century Indian Novel

Author: B.R. Rajam Aiyar. Translated from the Tamil by Stuart H. Blackburn
Written between 1893 and 1895
Published in English by OUP in 1998
Fiction

I found this at United Books in Thamel (one of the better bookstores in Thamel). Two things that drew me to this book: first, that it was written originally in Tamil, which is my mother tongue; and second, that it was written more than 100 years ago (first published in English in 1998). This is said to be one of the earliest Tamil novels; sadly B R Rajam Aiyar, the author, died at a young age of 26 in 1898. As one can guess from the title; it is a rumour that smashes to smithereens the life of Muttuswami Aiyar and his wife Kamalambal. The friendly banter of Muttuswami and the young Kamalambal is endearing, and something I have rarely seen in modern novels. I have seen similar depictions in some old Tamil movies, though.
The novel is lauded as one of the finest examples of modern Tamil fiction for its keen observation of the folk culture, speech and a portrait of late nineteenth-century India, and rightly so.

In the AftermathIn the Aftermath

Author: Meena Arora Nayak
First published in 1992
Fiction

Mythology, especially Hindu mythology is one of my favourite reading subjects. Narrated by the eighth Angiras, a minor godling, this is a story about his journey with his companion Shrivatsa, a bewitching beauty. A story of their exile on earth, where as a pair their journey lasts upwards of 420 million years, through the civilization of Mohenjodaro, the Mughal era, the reign of Chandragupta. In today’s era, they cannot live in one place for too long as they never show any signs of aging; and need to keep moving from one place to the next. Shrivatsa has liaisons with several men – a wanton woman – she jokingly calls herself. Angiras accepts this as an irrefutable law of nature but starts feeling jealous and when he asks her to go back to being in purdah as she used to in the Mughal era, she says, ‘I’m not just a wife. Besides, haven’t you heard that women today have a liberation movement?’ Angiras’ meetings with people in today’s era, often bring forth the memories and visions of those very people from the past eras.
This book is a very clever mix of immortality, mortality, morality and immorality.

Admiring SilenceAdmiring Silence

Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
First published in 1996
Fiction

The map of Africa in my head is one big blur. So when the protagonist, (an unnamed narrator, a native of Zanzibar) says to himself, ‘ … I did not have the heart to tell him that I was not Afro-Caribbean or any kind of Caribbean, not even anything to do with the Atlantic – strictly an Indian Ocean lad, Muslim, orthodox Sunni by upbringing …’, I had to ask google uncle where Zanzibar was and who an Afro-Caribbean was.  It tells three stories: one of the narrator, his wife, Emma and life in UK as it is; two, of the imaginary family he created for Emma; and three, his real family, who Emma doesn’t know anything about. His conversations with Emma’s father, Mr. Willoughby, are amusing as Mr. Willoughby’s eyes always light up at the mention of an Empire story and our hero gives him exactly that.
It is not a fun or light read, but creates inroads into the life of a dark lad who escapes from Zanzibar to UK; has a daughter with Emma, who is of white middle-class roots; the stories he spins for Emma, Mr. Willoughby; and the reality of what is when he returns to Zanzibar after twenty years.

MirageMirage

Author: Bandula Chandraratna
First published in 1998
Fiction

This is one of the disappointing books I’ve read in recent times. When I bought this book, I was really excited and looking forward to it. Set in the closed desert kingdom, it tells the story of Sayeed, and his acceptance of a widow and her daughter as his wife, and child. Sayeed works in city hospital and after marriage, his wife, Latifa and the child move in with him from the village home. They live in a shanty in an area of the desert away from the city. At first, Latifa hates the shanty, finding it not even big enough for animals. She slowly gets used to it. One day, when she goes deep into the desert looking for her goats, a chance encounter with Hussain, a young lad from the neighbourhood, leads to a tragic end. It is a very slow read but I kept my hopes up until this chance encounter led to crumbling tragic end that is too rushed and leaves several things unanswered. Like who lets the goats out of the cage, why is she happy when Hussain dresses her wounds (she seems out of character), and why Hussain suddenly gets up as she tries to grab him (he was obviously very interested in her). Two other friends, who also read this book, share the same doubts and disappointments.

The Good Women of ChinaThe Good Women of China: Hidden Voices

Author: Xue Xinran. Translated into English by Esther Tyldesley
First published in 2002
Non-fiction

This book is touted to be one of the most powerful, intimate accounts of women in modern China. Xinran, a radio broadcaster in the 1980s, presented a radio-programme (for eight years) where she invited women to call in and talk about themselves. This programme became very famous throughout the country for its portrayal of what it meant to be a woman in modern China. This book includes interviews she conducted in those years and some of her own experiences as a woman in China. One of the most poignant stories is of Jingyi and Gu Da, her father’s former classmates. Jingyi and Gu Da had been in love as students but were posted to different parts of China to ‘fulfil the needs of the Revolution’ and eventually lost touch during the nightmarish ‘Cultural Revolution’. Life in the forty-five years that Jingyi and Gu Da spend apart – duty to the Party, outbreak of the Korean War, the rise of anti-Soviet campaign – is almost surreal. At the university reunion 45 years later, Jingyi meets Gu Da again for the first time, and before she could call out to him, he introduces his wife to her, leaving her visibly shaken. Gu Da’s wife tells Jingyi that Gu Da had only married when he heard that Jingyi was dead. In short, it is a long story but symbolic of how innumerable lives were upturned during the revolution.
I was born in the 80s and know very little of what China was like in 80s or how life was for women in modern China, so this book has a lot for someone like me. But, all the same, it feels like the book has suffered some losses due to translation as parts of it are dry.

Coming up next week: Sam’s Story; Taxi; The Godfather of Kathmandu; The hour past midnight; and Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North

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