Friday, April 5, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini

Books are powerful things. They can wield immense power over readers and keep us immersed in experiences that surround us a fine mist of joy or despair (depending on the book.) Then there are books that transport you to a different world altogether, a world that is full of characters & places that come alive for you & slowly become part of you. And even though you might never see those places or actually meet the people; you feel a kinship that is truly binding.

This book is about being from Afghanistan. The characters are in turn from either a remote Afghani village, from a refugee camp in Pakistan, or from Kabul or even from Paris after running away from Afghanistan. At the end of the book, you will be left feeling that being Afghani is something you can understand & relate with. In my case, I found myself being moved to tears about any news of Afghanistan on the news. It is almost like 

I feel personally involved now; they feel like my people, those are my stories. Just imagine the power of a writer to be able evoke that kind of strong empathy for a place I have never visited – truly extraordinary.

At the heart of the story is Pari, a little girl born in a small village in Afghanistan. She has an older brother with whom she shares a beautiful relationship. After the death of their mother, he steps in as her quasi-parent, taking care of her & anticipating her every need. In the hope of giving her & his other children a better future, their father decides to sell her to a wealthy childless couple. All these broken hearts & intense feelings bring to life an ensemble of characters that are so well-drawn that you can almost feel them.

It is Pari’s story that you learn about through the words of their uncle Nabi who started off as a driver for the family that Pari becomes a part of; then there is Nila, Pari’s adoptive mother who is looking for love in all the wrong places & who moves to France to escape Afghanistan. There is also Idris and Timur, cousins, whose families left Afghanistan & went to the USA. They come back to Kabul saying they want to help in the rebuilding of the country in the aftermath of the many wars. Their motives may be questionable but their draw to their country is undeniably felt through the pages.

This beautiful & heart wrenching story spans generations & continents but never lets you go. I fell in love with the stoic, strong, dark, brooding father who was ready to do anything for his family even if that meant never seeing his daughter again – a daughter who was his muse; a daughter for whom he loved making up beautiful stories & fables. I completely empathized with the step mother who grew up with a terrible guilt that translated into something deeper as life kept dealing her lemon after lemon. But her marriage to Pari & Abdullah’s father must have lit up her world for a while. That is atleast my fervent hope.

It is also Nabi who captured my imagination by its throat. His story of how a small town boy did good in the big city is a perfect example of how small town India works & thinks. His earnestness endeared him to me & his love for his employer just made him more real. His non-judgmental recounting of how a loveless marriage fell apart is a near-perfect autopsy of the death of a family. His description of an Afghanistan under Russian attack, the repercussions, the rule of the Taliban & the American war is a searing portrayal of everyday life in Afghanistan, life that is never talked about in the news but is important nonetheless. Life tests his loyalties but he holds strong, only to come to face to face with a world he doesn’t understand but wants to change so that the future may have a chance.

Nabi’s story brings us to another character that I fell in love with gradually, Nila the poetess. The privileged spoilt brat who spent her life straining against the system & the things she was supposed to do. Her fight to be independent, to discover her reality & to discover the truth about herself is an incredible journey to be a part of. We get to see a woman growing up from being an insecure teenager into a poet who embraces her sexuality and then into a woman who is fumbling along motherhood. Through her story we also get a direct view of a country regressing into the dark ages by men who didn’t know better. Her insatiable search for love & acceptance is something most of us can relate to on some level.

But this review has to end with the characters it began with – much like the book. Pari & Abdullah’s story ends on a note that will not fail to tug at the proverbial heartstrings. There will be no spoilers here but suffice to say that when all these characters tell their stories & move away so this brother & sister can take centre stage; you will feel a sense of relief & closure that you had no idea you needed.

The TL;DR version : Read And the Mountains Echoed to feel a sense of belonging. Amazingly enough this book will make you feel right at home though it talks about places you might never know. Read it also just to marvel at how much Hosseini understands people, emotions & language. I am sure you will find atleast one character who reminds you of someone so clearly that you smile to yourself. I did.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia – Mohsin Hamid

After masterpieces like The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which is on its way to movie theatres soon); Mohsin Hamid brings another amazing piece of fiction our way. HTGFRIRA is a gritty & real look at small-town India/Pakistan/any similar country & how the multitudes there are fighting just to survive.

First of all, the best part of this book is that it is written as a self-help book. The way Mr Hamid plays with words is an inspiration to any of us with a love for language. He starts off every chapter with titles like “Don’t fall in love” or “Avoid Idealists” and then goes on to explain it in such a witty & engaging way that you cannot but want to know more.

Hamid doesn’t ever name his protagonist but keeps using the pronoun ‘You’ to describe the name character in the book – in one shot involving the reader & making the book completely representative of the everyman.
The book starts with detailing the nuances of a just-above-the-poverty-line family in a small town who get to relocate to a bigger town nearby. The older son has to start working; the daughter gets married but ‘you’ (the second son get to have an education; that’s where you start off your journey.

From almost losing his life as a kid to his road through school & college; this self-motivated & extremely self-aware young boy is completely focused on being able to build a financially secure life for himself. His mother’s death due to insufficient care only exacerbates this resolve.

But then he falls in love inspite of the chapter marked “Don’t Fall in Love”; this character of the ‘pretty girl’ is a beautiful & welcome respite from the constant ambition of the book. This is not to say that the girl isn’t ambitious, she has her own career path, going from being a d-list starlet to becoming an eclectic furniture boutique owner. While the hero has to forget about his romance; he manages to hang on to the last vestiges of his love & is haunted by these memories. It is almost like his personal cross to bear.

How the main character navigates through love, loss, shady businesses, unhelpful political & bureaucratic hurdles is a story worth reading; the examples given are reminiscent of experiences that I have either experienced personally or seen happening. I love how, for example, the protagonist starts off a mineral water business by putting boiled water in tampered bottles. At one point, when he is given a choice of bringing down costs by not boiling the water, he refuses to do it because he doesn’t want to compromise on quality. Because, of course, there are some lines that should not be crossed.

This hilarious & often uncomfortable style of writing is a great introduction to the Indian sub-continent & the way it works. It reminds me of Q&A before it became the godawful Slumdog Millionaire especially the nuanced dialogue. It is a welcome departure from books either bashing that part of the world or weirdly deifying it.

However, it is the last few chapters that truly ties together all of these messages & stories culminating in a weirdly satisfying yet not truly happy ending. I may be guilty of heaping way too much praise on this book but experiencing this author playing with words is truly a pleasure.

The tl;dr version: Read this book to get an amazing insight into the new & improved Indian sub-continent. This rags-to-riches story is written in a really cool self-help style that is both funny & brilliantly written. 

Sethji by Shobhaa De

We all think we know Shobhaa De, she’s been around the block, she knows where it’s at & we assume she’s seen it all. So when she comes out with a book talking about politicians & corruption we all automatically think ‘this must be real’ or atleast I did. I really hope this isn’t the real thing though.

Sethji is the title of the new novel by this extraordinary woman; it follows the story of the titular character, his two useless sons & his daughter-in-law. But along the way, she takes her own sweet time explaining, detailing & drawing out the idiosyncrasies of a multitude of minor characters. Suffice to say that the story is long, drawn out & as complicated as an Ekta Kapoor soap which is running in its fourth year.

Sethji's character is loosely based on an amalgamation of many UP-based ‘Netajis’ with a loose morality; a loose understanding of hygiene & with a loose & colorful tongue. He is on the edge of losing all his political clout when his younger son  is caught up in a rape scandal but a clever tactic by his bahu takes the heat off for a bit. This starts off the story that is followed by the family being kidnapped in order to influence the awarding of a highways contract; which is then followed by a twist & turn of events that lead to murder, dramatic car chases & intense political shenanigans. One of these shenanigans includes a Thackeray-like character (Bhau) who with his sons & associates makes up the political & economic hierarchy in Mumbai.
It is Bhabhiji’s character that is the most well-defined after Sethji’s. She is the bahu that is the perfect Indian wife with a few glitches; her marriage is not a happy one & she is used & abused by all the men in her life. The true unhappy heroine.

The main characters are very well etched but that’s not saying much because she seems to give as much importance to the legion of side characters. They all are given back-stories, definite personalities & idiosyncrasies; which leads you to then start empathizing with them.  After all this, it was so surreal  that they only have small appearances & are never seen again after their character is explained; it is almost as if they were all dressed up with nowhere to go. A good example is Suresh; Bhau’s security head whose background is drawn impeccably alongwith his wife’s; whose battles of conscience & guilt are well documented & then he just disappears… never to return again.

There is also a lot of Hindi peppered throughout the dialogue; which is a bit jarring considering this is an English-language book. Being a Mumbaiite, I understand the Marathi dialogue but couldn’t come to understand the reason or the reasoning behind the dirty words that seem to be scattered throughout the book.

The sheer variety of subjects she covers is astounding; almost as if she had a to-do list of sorts that she was working her way through. De is an amazing story teller & really has a lot of things to say about a lot of things & this book was her perfect vehicle. I just don’t think if she was all that successful or maybe she just couldn’t build up the story or any empathy for the characters.

The TL;DR version: Sethji by Shobhaa De is a rather dirty, Bollywood-ised story about politics based in Delhi, Mumbai & Dubai. The multitude of characters & the incredible twists & turns in the storyline make sure that it will be a quick & fun read.