Book Review: Dozakhnama :- “Go to Heaven for the climate & Hell for the company…Indeed!”

Dozakhnama4/5 Stars,

“Anyone can write history. All it needs is memory. But to write a story you must have the power to dream.” ~ Rabisankar BalDozakhnama: Conversation in Hell

And this one particular dream I would love to have some day. Seriously, if hypothetically speaking I could be given a chance to drink with any two people in history, ‘Mirza Ghalib‘ and ‘Saadat Hassan Manto‘, would definitely make my top five. The attitude of these men, was something to aspire to, and that is not even speaking about the unbridled art that raged in their hearts and the experiences they have had. Ahh…the conversation would be intoxicating and the stories marvelous. Just to give you a taste, Mirza Ghalib : –

“Ham ko ma.alūm hai jannat kī haqīqat lekin

Dil ke ḳhush rakhne ko ‘ġhālib’ ye ḳhayāl achchhā hai”   ~Mirza Ghalib

And Manto Sahab  : –

“Agar aap meri kahaniyo ko bardasht nahi kar sakte to iska matlab ye hai ki ye zamana hi na-qabil-e-bardasht hai.”  ~Saadat Hassan Manto

Before starting the novel, I had humongous expectations from it, to cover these two people in any comprehensive way was impossible I knew. So, I was delighted to see that the author didn’t even go that way, he just assumed the voices of both and let them tell us what they please. Well played Mr bal, well played indeed sir.

The thing I regret, and I so wished I had known this before starting this, is that I read this in English, which lacks somewhat. I should have gone with the Hindi translation, as a non Bangla speaker experiencing it in it’s original text was not an option. The many gazals and poems, included in the text, are either in urdu script or english translated versions, no hindi or urdu converted in roman script available, so you keep gnashing your teeth and try to recall which particular sher of Ghalib or Mir Taki Mir could possibly mean this. That! was irritating. Extremely irritating.

Goodreads Blurb :- Who tells the greatest story — God or Manto? Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell is an extraordinary novel, a biography of Manto and Ghalib and a history of Indian culture rolled into one. Exhumed from dust, Manto’s unpublished novel surfaces in Lucknow. Is it real or is it a fake? In this dastan, Manto and Ghalib converse, entwining their lives in shared dreams. The result is an intellectual journey that takes us into the people and events that shape us as a culture…..

But I couldn’t fault the story in any way. It is fiction and it is not too,  as Ghalib says in the novel ~When have stories been anything but lies? Our lives themselves are full of lies, and we ourselves created our stories. Or when Manto admits to us ~The truth doesn’t sound entertaining unless lies are added to it. So, we take the many roads Mr. Bal’s Manto takes us to, this was stories in a story in a story itself, an ‘Inception‘ of books so to speak. To experience it in it’s glory, you do have to be familiar with both these gentleman and their works however. The many anecdotes or references to their work, the ghazals will be more meaningful this way. Both of these artists, converse from their graves, telling each other and us their lives. Both were witness to a spectre of events in their lifetimes, Ghalib the mutiny of 1857 and Manto the partition of 1947. They have seen darkness and struggle in their personal lives as well, going against the stream, handling their demons like no other. To bear witness to all that is a treat indeed and in addition to that you get the philosophical musings of two thoroughly upbeat philosophers, with all their side stories. To know that time, to know their stories, to know them , to know us ….this is a pretty useful tool.

To any admirer of Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani literature I will say go for it (try the Hindi version if you could perhaps). This is definitely a must read, you will have to slog through initially perhaps, go off book and read some of Manto’s stories, some of Mirza’s Ghazals , but isn’t that the whole damn fun of it. Poetry, plots, passion, pain, woman and wine this book posses it all. So have a go at it, share the grave with these two because as Mark Twain so sagely suggested ~”Go to Heaven for the climate & Hell for the company“.

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Book Review: Into the Water : – “The real-life river Styx”

Into the Water

2.5/5 stars,  hmm…too many women,

“The things I want to remember I can’t, and the things I try so hard to forget just keep coming.”
― Paula Hawkins, Into the Water

Yeah well, that about sums up what I felt about this book. To be completely honest, I did not read ‘The girl on the train’ (I watched the movie…Yeah, sue me), it seemed an intriguing enough story, enough to warrant the reading of the second book by the same author. Should have gone for the second one on it’s individual merits, which unfortunately are not many.

Goodreads Blrurb : – In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.
Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.
But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.
And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . . .

Mystery, was what worked for the first 55% of the book, if after those pages the story would have taken a turn and even a 5 year old child was found to be the culprit then I would not have batted an eye, that would have been totally believable. Everyone, and I do mean everyone that was introduced in the story was a potential suspect. The story so thoroughly intertwined, that you keep asking what the fudge is going on here.  But that doesn’t last. More is the pity. The story line though initially intriguing looses its appeal. You pretty much figure out where it is or could go, but the thing that really takes the sheen away is that you just couldn’t care enough. That is what sucks.

The character development was really poor I thought. I wasn’t connected or even remotely invested in any of them. Even though the story stays somewhat tragic, it never really makes you emotionally invest. The teen rage seemed stupid, the adult self pity seemed stupider (really, I don’t want to sound bitter, but there could have been a better way to make the reader connect). The characters lacked proper fleshing out, when you feel the same indifference for both the bad guy and the good guy then something is wrong. And although the setting was appropriate for a smoke and mirror story, they just couldn’t pull it off. And too many female character, all the heady thoughts of all these women, I felt that I was sitting in a kitty or tea party, with people who just had too much to say.

For a second book by a new author, the attempt is not bad but I had many expectations, and most of them weren’t fulfilled so I am disappointed. The 2.5 stars are for the first 55 % of the book. To the readers, this is okayish in my opinion, you won’t miss much if you decide not to try it but you are free to make your own judgement.

Book Review: – The Bastard of Istanbul : -“An under-cooked likable mess”

Bastard-of-Istanbul

3/5 Stars,

“Imagination was a dangerously captivating magic for those compelled to be realistic in life, and words could be poisonous for those destined always to be silenced.” ~Elif Shafak

Once there was, once there wasn’t…….indeed. This book is just like the Turkish dessert ‘Ashure’, a congee made with themes like ‘Humor’, ‘History’, ‘Identity crisis’ & ‘Self discovery’, ‘Nationalism’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Depredations of the Past’, ‘Armenian- Turkish conflict’, ‘Present day reality’, ‘Family drama’, ‘Magic-realism’ and finally sprinkled with ‘the chaotic beauty of Istanbul’. All mixed together, promising a wonderful flavor, but surprisingly under-cooked, leaving you with a strange longing in the end. Back in 2006, Elif Shafak was still finding her voice in the literary world, this book is full of her probes in different directions, but in her zeal to do justice to all the issues, she fell short of doing it to many.

Goodreads Blurb :-  A novel about the tangled histories of two families. At its center is the “bastard” of the title, Asya, a nineteen-year-old woman who loves Johnny Cash and the French Existentialists, and the four sisters of the Kazanci family who all live together in an extended household in Istanbul: Zehila, the zestful, headstrong youngest sister who runs a tattoo parlor and is Asya’s mother; Banu, who has newly discovered herself as a clairvoyant; Cevriye, a widowed high school teacher; and Feride, a hypochondriac obsessed with impending disaster. Their one estranged brother lives in Arizona with his wife and her Armenian daughter, Armanoush. When Armanoush secretly flies to Istanbul in search of her identity, she finds the Kazanci sisters and becomes fast friends with Asya. A secret is uncovered that links the two families and ties them to the 1915 Armenian deportations and massacres.

This was my second book by Elif Shafak, the first one ‘Forty Rules..‘ post dates this by 3 years. Mrs.Shafak’s propensity to distill down day-to-day life’s philosophies into rules, which took the center stage in “Forty rules of love”, can be seen in this novel too, where some of the characters make up their own little check lists to deal with the world, be it Zeliha’s ‘Rules of Prudence for an Istanbulite woman’, or Asya’s ‘Personal Manifesto of Nihilism’ or the tit-bits of survival Armanoush’s grandmother tried to instill in her. These philosophical dives into the character’s thinking should have resulted in our deep understanding and/or bonding with them, finding common ground perhaps, and although not totally unsuccessful, it lacked the effect it had in ‘Forty rules..’. The problem with character development was (one.) there are a lot of them (two.) despite her tries, she failed to sketch them all in enough detail, within the right time, even at the end of the novel I was discovering new dimensions to them (Specially Aunty Banu).

The book works because it never shies away from the fact that it’s an undecided mess. Never conceding any one theme full control of the plot, and the end chapters were a rush tying it all in a sweet little bow, achieving what exactly? I was left to wonder. This makes it confusing sometimes, one moment you are dealing with the serious issue of Armenian suffering and their search for closure for the 1915 atrocities, the next a rebellious teenager trying to scratch her identity in defiance of her past, in the third you appreciate Istanbul’s complex place in the world and its paradoxical society,  western values with eastern culture, agnostics and believers sharing the same roof, truly the mixture of all the world. I once read a quote somewhere, that if you had just one glance to give the world, gaze on Istanbul. The book though not primarily advocating this, hints heavily on it all the same.

And ahh the food, this was one quirk I enjoyed, all through the novel Turkish and Armenian cuisines have been described in all their glory. Making my stomach growl from time to time, thankfully I had a box of Lokum(Turkish delight) handy, which I popped in my mouth, pretending I was tasting all the dishes mentioned. From watching one of the author’s Ted Talks, I realized that the family dynamics of the Kazanci clan in the book is influenced from her personal experiences, which makes the novel more interesting.

Despite having its faults, I liked reading it. The story is fast paced, and though not satisfactorily resolving the central ‘Conflict’ issue, her advice to the Turks to shed their amnesia and to Armenians their victim-hood is a sound one. An enjoyable little read, which though trying to do much, ultimately fails in some. But its humor was on point, making me chuckle in the right places. So, read this, keeping your expectations in check,  and playing Johnny cash’s songs in the background, something that I am currently engaged in.

Book Review: – Fahrenheit 451 : -“Everything Burns!”

Fahrenheit451

3.5/5 Stars, Knowledge vs Ignorance ‘El Clásico’

“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.'” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

It is an exercise in futility to ‘judge’ or ‘review’ a piece of classic literature. It is much more satisfying to just discuss it. The idea that forms the corner stone of this novel is a nightmare for any bibliophile, “reading of Books is a capital offence”, your books along with your house, with you possibly still in it, will be soaked in kerosene and burned to ashes if you are caught. Just imagine that! A future where that might be the law.

The dystopian world of  ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is a profound comment on a great many things, on censorship, free thinking, equality, misuse of technology, pressure of conformity, importance of empathy & of creativity, war, peace, corruption of ideologies, FREEDOM!…. and perhaps many many more. Neil Gaiman in the introduction to the book states that :-

“If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right, if they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are probably wrong,”

And I concur, each of us would take an extra lesson from this book, based on us, our experience, our environment and our biases, along with the common ones that are explicitly stated in the book. That’s what classics do don’t they? make you think, sort out confusing thoughts in your head, agree, disagree, like, hate, but they provoke your brain cells to churn out those extra moments pondering, precisely the thing Ray Bradbury preaches about reading I imagine.

Precisely the thing that happens to Guy Montag ‘The fireman’ in the book, the very guy who’s job is to destroy books and fight against all they represent, turns to love and adore them & the ideas and ability they stand for, and is plunged into self doubt by reflecting on his actions and the state of the world for the first time in his life, all because of a chance encounter with a Girl ‘Clarisse’ who walks for pleasure in a world where no one does, who smells the flowers in a world where no one does, who stares at the moon, enjoys an actual conversation, delights in ideas, Cares! in a world WHERE NO ONE DOES.

Each character is a lesson in itself, ( Montag, Mildred, Clarrise, Captain Beatty, Faber ) each lesson an important edict to be passed on to the next generation with a warning tag “Beware!”. Will we ever Get them all I wonder?  Even if we do, will that be enough? It would be a start anyhow, a start is important, very important.

The writing is marvelous though not easy, the story though linear not plain, this book despite being only 180 or so pages ( My version has 249, 70 pages worth of commentaries and essays on its genesis, which add extremely interesting tit-bits to the whole book) packs a lot of punch and demands a lot of your attention, you can’t skim through this, can’t miss the subtle hints, perhaps on rereading it you would find something new altogether. So, it is one of those mind boggling books, that in the first read might almost defeat you, you can sense the brilliance yet you can’t shake off the bafflement. As ‘Beatty’ quotes ‘Alexander Pope’ in the book : –

“A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring; There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.”

So drink deep, even if you have to drink again and again from this book, because the sobriety that it promises in the end is worth all the drunken stupor and hangover that you could possibly have to endure.

 

 

Book Review:- A Prophet Without Honor: A Novel of Alternative History by Joseph Wurtenbaugh

A Prpphet Without Honor

4/5 Stars, Surprisingly Good!

“Heil Schicklgruber!”  ~Joseph Wurtenbaugh, A Prophet Without Honor

Ahh History and the world of ‘Might-have beens’, The ‘What-if’s’ always hold us don’t they, If only a small thing would have changed, if only! ,the butterfly effect on the world as we know it would have been immense.

Goodreads Blurb :- ……The plot focuses on the one great, unrealized opportunity of the Twentieth Century. 
In the first months of 1936, Adolf Hitler risked everything by ordering his untrained military to reoccupy the Rhineland. It was a bluff. The Germans would have been forced to retreat if the French or British had offered the slightest opposition. But the bluff succeeded. History changed decisively. Hitler quieted the opposition at home, and marched the world relentlessly on, to the edge of destruction and beyond.The story examines that lost chance in detail. The result is a compelling story full of intrigue, danger, romance, and action, culminating in the reckoning that Hitler might have faced, had events taken a different course…….

The novel is written as a collection of letters, telegraphs, extracts from journals, memoirs & history books(of the might-have been world). We are exposed to each character through this epistolary form. And despite the limitations that one would think this would pose on the story and it’s narration, it was surprisingly engaging, entertaining, absolutely believable and absolutely fantastically written.

We follow the “Haydenreich” family from Bavaria, through the years, from 1910’s to the 1940’s, through WW1, the rise of National socialism in Germany and ultimately to Hitler, the characters are sketched well enough, as well as they could be given the restrictions of the style but that’s what added to the intrigue of it all, with many real characters whose lives would have taken different turns had the events of the novel could come to pass. The story itself was interesting, though sometimes the book seemed too long, but no detail was redundant I found, every letter had to be read, every interjection adds to the flavor, so despite it being a little too long it is amazingly composed.

To compare it to other Alternate History novels won’t be fair, though it could stand it’s ground if it comes to that, but “The Man in the high Castle“, “Fatherland” and others mostly talk about what if ‘Hitler’ NEVER lost, compared to that this gives a lot more hope, and the perspective of the various characters gives insight about the split in that world that the others could not. Though the gore content (the horrors we generally relate to the Third Reich) in the novel is surprisingly low, the moral conundrums are more highlighted, the politics of it all takes more of the center stage, this could be again due to the way the book is primarily written and due to the fact that the whole premise is that Hitler be stopped before he could unleash the full extent of his mania on the world. So, in the novel, the people who could have done something and didn’t, DO what they could, they realize what they face and despite the consequences to themselves deliver the world from evil, to know How and Why is profoundly satisfying.

A great (albeit a bit long) read, full marks on creativity, research, plausibility and narration. Any history enthusiast would enjoy this extremely, I recommend it wholeheartedly, And thank Netgalley for providing me with an advance copy. To the world of alternative and speculative history this is a welcome addition.

 

Book Review: – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness :- “Its not! trust me it’s really not”

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

1.5/5 Stars, Don’t Judge a Book by its cover, Seriously, don’t.

“Nietzsche believed that if Pity were to become the core of ethics, misery would become contagious and happiness an object of suspicion.” ~Arundhati Roy

And so it has, for Mrs.Roy at-least. She has followed Nietzsche beliefs to the T. This book is so full of pity invoking misery that you would choke on the lines, words, syllables and ..will…find…it…hard…to…turn…the…page, as it is so full of biased political nonsense! It was a mistake picking this up before reading ‘God of Small things’, by what I have gathered (just by reading reviews and such, not read the actual book yet) her first book is much better and more objective, than the pure bias that has oozed out of her and stained every page of this 464 page lengthy tome.

Goodreads Blurb :- The Ministry of Utmost Happiness takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian subcontinent – from the cramped neighborhoods of Old Delhi and the roads of the new city to the mountains and valleys of Kashmir and beyond, where war is peace and peace is war.
The tale begins with Anjum – who used to be Aftab – unrolling a threadbare Persian carpet in a city graveyard she calls home. We encounter the odd, unforgettable Tilo and the men who loved her – including Musa, sweetheart and ex-sweetheart, lover and ex-lover; their fates are as entwined as their arms used to be and always will be. We meet Tilo’s landlord, a former suitor, now an intelligence officer posted to Kabul. And then we meet the two Miss Jebeens: the first a child born in Srinagar and buried in its overcrowded Martyrs’ Graveyard; the second found at midnight, abandoned on a concrete sidewalk in the heart of New Delhi.

It was a hell of a coincidence that I finished George Orwell’s ‘1984’ just before this. The novel’s name “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is a reference to George Orwell’s world where ‘Ministry of love’ tortures people and ‘Ministry of Peace’ conducts wars. Similarly Mrs.Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness talks about utmost despair, also this is perhaps what she thinks of the Indian government, an institute that is guilty of extreme cases of ‘Doublethink‘ in her opinion.

The two main characters ‘Anjum’ and ‘Tilo’ , I found were her (‘Mrs.Roy’, the hater of Modi, the champion of insurgents, the comrade of Maoists, the self declared expert on what a hateful and shitty institute the government and society of India is, the very woman who any anti-India clown can use & say ‘HAH! she is one of you so she ‘knows’ things, you guys are really shit‘, herein referred to as ‘her’ now and later in the review) own two sides, or perhaps her one side divided into two people, because how can so much hate, misery, bias and venom be contained in only one person, people would just not believe it! So, two people, Anjum ‘the hizra’ to lay bare the total hypocrisy of the Indian society, of our communal frenzy and caste misuse, the bourgeois pigs all of us. And Tilo ‘the eccentric’ for Kashmir of-course, to showcase Indian atrocities and oh the evil designs and completely unjustified behavior of the army towards terrorists (ahh sorry, ‘Freedom fighters’ in her views, ‘Azaadi ka matlab kya ‘la ilaha illallah’, Seriously? Mrs.Roy? I have many Muslim friends who would be completely disgusted by what you consider ‘a just cause’). The characters main purpose is to show, point by point how unfair everything is in their world, and how they have become used to it, that the cradle of civilization, is anything but civilized.

I really wish I could review this book on purely literary basis, just the story (Which I can’t as there is no story, ..lives, ..two miserable lives, but no story) but I can’t. Her views are what stayed with me, and they are so nihilistic that despite my love for cynics, I was just plainly irritated through out the book. Yes, there is a lot wrong with us, there really is! but this!..this was just over the top plain old nonsense.

To all the people who think that their knowing about India a little better, would perhaps improve their reading experience of this book, It Won’t. It would just make you sigh with exasperation and wish to God that this book was shorter or written with some sense. So, yeah, despite some profound text in the book, I did not like it. And coming from a ‘Booker prize’ awarded author this was a great disappointment (and this was nominated this Year for Booker’s! what were they thinking?) .

In my opinion, you could do without this book, it’s just a lady being bitter about everything she disapproves of in her world, whether right or wrong she doesn’t care, I could have definitely done without it. All that glitters is not gold my friends, spare yourselves.

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell:- “Holy sh@%snacks Mr. Orwell!”

wp-image-2101789662

5/5 Stars, Hands Down

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” ~George Orwell, 1984

“Big Brother is watching you”, this statement is everywhere. The scholars & political pundits use it, the anarchists use it, the revolutionaries use it, the eccentric paranoid conspiracy theorists use it. You, me every second person on the TV uses it. And here I was having no idea where the reference came from. Every ruling regime which imposes some unpopular restriction on its people by default gets the title of THE BIG BROTHER. Even the bloody realty shows that have sprouted all across the globe have used this all seeing all hearing omnipresent idea that Mr.Orwell introduced in this book. This amount of impact on the world is a testament to what a marvelous piece of literature this book was, gory, depressing and utterly crushing, Yes, but marvelous.

Big Brother

The year is 1984, the great ideological struggle of the early 20th century is over, Socialism won, Capitalism is completely eradicated from the face of the earth. And now the world is divided into 3 great superstates, each with their own brand of socialist or communist ruling regimes, ‘Oceania’ ruled by IngSoc(English Socialism), Eurasia by Neo-Bolshevism & Eastasia by the political ideology of Death-worship,or more correctly ‘Obliteration of the Self’. And all these states are in a state of perpetual war with each other, trying to claim the disputed territories of the world.

The world Mr.Orwell creates is a truly horrifying and haunting place. Not because of Socialist regimes, Mr.Orwell as I understand was a leftist himself, but the corruption and complete mutation of the ideology by the ones in power just to attain absolute subjugation of the masses. I mean wow. When your party slogan is

“WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.”

You can very well imagine what such a regime would do. Think (Stalin’s USSR + Hitler’s Third Reich + Mao’s PRC) * 100, and you get IngSoc. This book was a profound comment on the sociopolitical nature of the world. Written in 1948, this is as much relevant now as it was back then, maybe more so now, our generation has never really paid anything for the freedoms we enjoy, we have taken all that we have for granted and have always grumbled about wanting more. Then, imagining a world where there is no concept of freedom of any kind, where every which way you turn the passive face of BIG BROTHER greets you with a promise of pain, if you so much as twitch the wrong way, is nothing short of an eye opener.

This book has inspired so much of today’s world. The extremes that the book tried to educate us about, the brain washing that it showed and warned us about, “2+2=5” is something that each of us should appreciate. The whole concept of “Doublethink“, “Thoughtcrime“,’Psychological Conditioning’ through The Two Minutes Hate are truly mind boggling. And whats more, is that, these very concepts ARE being used today, not in the extreme way of the book, but subtly, the masses, it seems, were not the only one to take lessons from this book, the higher ups learned as well.

A true masterpiece indeed, this book forces you to think, there’s no page in the book which doesn’t make you reflect on your current condition, what was and what could have been. And I think that was the true purpose of the book, to make people realize that as long as they hold on to their individuality as long as they don’t let go of their inner consciousness they would somehow make it through. “Sanity isn’t Statistical” after all.

This book needs no recommendation, it is a classic, already embedded in the curriculum of a great many education institutes, and with good reason. One great book, and a welcome addition to my favorites list.