Best Reads of 2017 – Chennai SRRs speak

So, I am a part of a readers group on Facebook. We exchanged our lists of favorite five books that we had read in 2017. Do take a look at this amazing list, and add them to your TBR. Wish you all have an amazing 2018, with more books and more time.

Thanks to Seemita Pooja Das, for compiling this list. She blogs about books here and has some great book recommendations.

Ciao!

SEEMITA DAS

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So, I found a splendid group of bibliophiles during 2017 which brought a hemisphere of positive energy into my life. I wrote about them at length yesterday. And because we are readers, books always wafted over our discussions like saffron in the kahwa chai.

Now that a new year has walked in and we are looking at the various books we might read or gift or add to our collection, here is a compilation – the  top 5 reads of (some) SRRs in Chennai.

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Serious Men – Manu Joseph

Title: Serious Men

Author: Manu Joseph

Published: 2011

Pages: 326   

Genre: Fiction- Humour

The book gives, in a nutshell, what the two extremes of the Indian social sector think of each other, of the world around it and the media. Caste has always been a touchy topic in India. Votes are fought on the basis of caste and hence nobody really bothers to address the underlying issues. For centuries there have been the oppressed and the oppressors. Though the identities behind the titles might have undergone a slight change, the larger picture remains the same.

I had heard a lot about Manu Joseph, the author, and hence was curious when I saw his name on the library bookshelf. Equipped with patience and time, this one was a good book.

Ayyan Mani is the sole breadwinner of a family of three, living in a chawl in Mumbai. The initial pages of the book give a good description of Ayyan and the way his mind works. He works in a premier research institute in the country and his boss is Arvind Acharya, a brahmin, who is also the head of the institute.

Ayyan’s eleven-year-old son has hearing difficulty in one ear and asks weird questions to his teachers in his class. Ayyan stimulates his son’s thinking by encouraging this behaviour and buying him books.

A newcomer to the institute, Oparna, becomes the centre of Arvind’s attraction. This is followed by power struggles between different sections of brahmins within the institute, which tests Ayyan’s loyalties. The story revolves around the lives of Ayyan’s family, Arvind’s family, the institute and the politics within and the role of the media in this entire maze.

I loved the descriptions in the book. They are vivid and detailed, making me picturise as the story flows. The tale gets a push in its rear only after page 285 though. Till then one gotta be patient. It felt like I was peeling a coconut off its rough exterior to find the sweet water inside. Patience is the key here. After page 285, the story becomes fast and sees to it that all the loose ends are firmly tied.

One thing that I liked was that the author hasn’t minced words when it came to the prejudices that come with the character. He also has incorporated some of the laughable notions that resonate more with us now, given the present political climate in the country. Snapshots of some of my favorite lines are given below.

I would give portions of this book numerous re-reads since I loved the mind-voices of the characters in it. I would also seek Manu Joseph’s other titles for his witty jibes and sarcasm.

Pro tip- Don’t miss those “Thought for the day” jibes from Ayyan.

Waterboarding- Bragadeesh Prasanna

Title: Waterboarding

Author: Bragadeesh Prasanna

Published: 2017

Pages: 201

Genre: Fiction

What’s in words?

Forgetfulness is one thing. Forgetting a phase of one’s life is another. How would it feel, if there existed a love story in those erased pages? Tricky and scary, right? That is what the book is about.

The story revolves around Ved, Sara and Maya. It swings between the past and the present and ends in the threshold of the future.

“A little pain is always nice. It helps us appreciate the normalcy when it returns”- Ved

Ved meets with a gory accident, which leaves him plastered. He is immobile and as a result frustrated. Worse, he seems to have forgotten his pre-accident life due to trauma. He takes the help of two of his trusted friends- Ramesh and Sara to figure out the missing details and to get back to normalcy. Ramesh, Robin, Sai and Neena are the other named characters in this story, who play their own significant part.

Who is Maya? What is her role? Where is she now? What about Menaka? Guru?

“Darkness has that capacity to coerce the truth”- Guru

Answers to these questions form the remaining part of the story.

Woven along an intricate maze, the author keeps the story moving. There is no dull moment anywhere in the 201 pages.

“One can only drink so much from a mirage” –Sara

The story has been written in a ‘Peter Swanson’ style. Three people narrate the story to the reader, giving three unique perspectives. While Ved and Maya say the story themselves, Sara records it in her diary. It is nice to have a change of narrative once in a while.

One thing that I liked the most about this book is the selection of verbs. I have been learning this for a short while- A strong verb gives the sentence its punch and helps improve any description. It is true. The change in the quality of description is extreme, when compared to the author’s previous book, 300 days.

Apart from the gripping story, the book has some nice lines to mark and cherish.

“When someone says something bad about us, we are ready with piles of justifications and incidental sequences to defend ourselves. But compliments always work the other way round” – Ved

There are few editing issues with the book which could confuse the reader. But ignore that and proceed with the core idea, one can still relish the book. I am sure all of us will relate to at least a couple of parts in this book. Waterboarding is NOT torture. Not here at least.

Ghachar Ghochar- Vivek Shanbhag

Title- Ghachar Ghochar

Author- Vivek Shanbhag

Published- 2017

Pages- 128

Genre- Fiction

A simple tale of a Kannada household narrated in style. The tale is about a man and his family, their lives and habits.

We have fond memories of spending our vacations with a large number of family members. Big houses, shared responsibilities and rights to admonish the pesky kids, eternal supply of snacks and beverages, timely food and never-ending playtime. That’s how I spent my vacations when I was a child. Ghachar Ghochar is extremely relatable in that sense. It tells the story of us. It could be yours and mine.

It starts with the scene of a coffee house which is a local favorite. An adda for people living in the vicinity, it hosts a wide variety of people. Coffee house is the Indian version of clubs and bars in the western world, with brisk barmen listening to the qualms of the tired visitor, while wiping the counter with a cloth. In the place of the barmen, we have Vincent.

The way the author writes about Vincent makes him come alive. The uniform, the physique etc. It took me to the phase when premium hotels of the olden times, like Palmgrove in Nungambakkam, had crisply dressed waiters, who could pass off as a band-member from the R-day parade.

Slowly as I progress through the pages, I saw myself in those houses that resembled a set of train compartments. The lives of the family revolving around stringent budget, with a father who goes paranoid when his accounts doesn’t get tallied is just a slice of my own life.

The story says a lot about the behaviour in most Indian families. The maximum respect in the house is reserved to the member who earns the most. The entire family strives to make that member comfortable, ignoring the teeny-tiny discomfort they have to go through in that pursuit. The silence of that member is always greeted with fear or anxiety, unquestioned. Let me give another such instance through a sentence in the book-

A man in our society is supposed to fulfil his wife’s financial needs, true, but who knew he was expected to earn the money through his own toil?

There were other profound lines in the story too. They seemed to convey more than their literal meanings, at times with humour, like this one-

Had Vincent taken on a grand name and grown a long shimmering beard, he’d have had lakhs of people falling at his feet

or this-

Sir- one story, many sides

or this-

The last strands of a relationship can snap from a single glance or a moment of silence

Towards the end, the story has a subtle twist, giving it a psychological shade. I was expecting some sort of closure, to be honest. But, this was a great idea. It leaves the rest to my imagination. May be, I could write an epilogue to this or a spin-off.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it for anyone who needs a light read.

Emergency Retold- Kuldip Nayar

Title- Emergency Retold

Author- Kuldip Nayar

Published- 2013

Pages- 320

Genre- Non-Fiction

The book is an account, a live third person account of the Emergency. Kuldip Nayar was a journalist, who was imprisoned during the Emergency and had to undergo the injustice inflicted upon the masses.

We all know that the Emergency was one of the darkest phases India had to go through post-independence. The sufferings of the people at large, the motives and selfishness of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the multiple reasons that were given to justify the action etc are fascinating to think about and to read.

The narrative is apt and the facts presented are amazing. The book has been written with a lot of background research and interviews with stakeholders and the affected parties. It critically examines the effect and the impact of Emergency in shaping up of the political destiny of the country. It does not mince words when describing the tyranny of Sanjay Gandhi during the phase or of the inability of Indira Gandhi to accept the truth of Sanjay.

I have read a similar book authored by Shri.P.N.Dhar, who was Indira Gandhi’s secretary during Emergency. The review of that book can be read here. I had the feeling that Dhar was sympathetical and too soft towards the Gandhis and was in denial to see what really happened during the Emergency. This book by Kuldip Nayar does not do that mistake and gives us a neutral and blunt view of what is what.

Another book that I would love to read on this subject is the one written by Coomi Kapoor. She was also a journalist back then and had lived through Emergency. It must be an interesting read.

Despite a few editing errors here and there, the book is good. Readers craving masala, stay away, for this one is dry and boring if you are expecting drama.

Hangwoman- K.R.Meera

Title-  Hangwoman

Author- K.R.Meera (Malayalam) Translated by J.Devika 

Published- 2014

Pages- 432

Genre- Fiction

There are so many people out there, whose existence we take for granted. It could be someone close to us, or someone who is essential for us carrying on our day to day activities without a glitch. This book is about one such essential cog in the wheel of the Judicial system in India, the hangmen. A hangman is a person who carries out the death penalty by executing the criminal in the gallows.

This book, originally written in Malayalam, is about a family of hangmen. Set in the state of Bengal, the book delves into the lives and lineage of hangmen. The story revolves around Grddha Mullick,a greedy and manipulative hangman, his daughter Chetna Mullick, who is touted to be the first hang-woman of India and Mitra, an opportunist journalist who manipulates them for his benefit.

The death sentence awarded to Jatindra Banerjee for having murdered children forms the backdrop of the story. The emotions that run inside Chetna, the rich legacy that she is expected to carry forward, the state of her freedom over her choices in life, the pressure on her on the symbolism that involves hope for women all over the world etc form the crux of the story.

The book explores, in detail, the emotional crisis that Chetna undergoes due to all the above issues. It is not easy for an author to convey the feelings and emotions of the character to the reader, which I felt was superbly done here. It was intense at a few places, especially where the pressure of the media is portrayed and the point where Chetna’s brother dies. In fact, I felt the book was quite intense for me and hence I took a long time to finish reading this book. I took multiple breaks in between to come to terms with what I was reading. The book slowly absorbs us into the story and makes us look at various aspects of the world with revulsion and disgust.

The portions where the process involved in hanging a convict in the gallows is explained is informative. Honestly, I never knew that there was so much behind every death sentence executed. It made me look at certain things in a whole new light, like how it happens to people sometimes.

I liked how Chetna was stubborn in her decisions without giving into her father’s manipulation. But even then, her heart yearned for a love which will always remain unrequited. That part felt real. Her conversations with Mitra’s mother, a beshya, also were noteworthy.

The narrative is quite long for the substance of the story. There are numerous anecdotes which form a part of the legacy of the family of Grddha Mullick described during the course of the story. A thread of love, grit, determination, patriarchy and abuse is also woven intricately along the lines of the story, so as to give it more flavour.

The translation of the book has been done with great care, such that it feels original. Kudos to that. I would love to read the original one for there is every possibility that something was missed out in translation. The book is a lengthy read, which will be liked by people who love reading historical anecdotes along with the main story.

Ananta Shesha Naga- Sanjeev K. Sharma

Title-  Ananta Shesha Naga

Author- Sanjeev K.Sharma

Published- 2017

Pages- 279

Genre- Mythology- Fiction

An abysmal combination of words and grammar.

This book is a classic example of how a story can be layered unnecessarily and packaged to the unassuming readers as a “book”. Poor writing, pathetic editing and copious amount of cringe-worthy content find their places in this book.

This book is basically about an enchantress who is assigned the task of getting five powerful snake kings laid and stealing their power weapon from them. The resultant war between the three worlds of the Devas, Asuras and the Nagas (serpents) and who wins and who dies at the end, form the remaining part of the story.

The story begins only after a good 90 pages. Till then, its all about sex, written in a very poor way. Post that, bad editing makes up for the absence of sex in the story. By the end, I cursed myself for picking this up to read.

Erotica is different and writing crass content is different. For quite some time, all I was seeing was page after page of a sex scene, THE SAME SEX SCENE, explained in bad language.

Although the book showed a tiny ray of promise somewhere in the later half, it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

All I could think about, after reading the book was that THE EDITORS HAD ONE JOB TO DO! Misplaced prepositions, different spellings for the same word on the same page, ridiculous usage of words, some non-existent, some out of context and some bad-sounding.

Here are some examples of what I would call the total absence of ‘editing’ (Click on each image to find what is wrong with them). I swear these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

This book does sheer injustice to the cover page and also to the reader’s expectations.

Story Mirror should seriously do a quality check within the organisation to stop this massacre on the English language. Their editors must undergo training in ‘editing’ before calling themselves one.

Would I be re-reading this? Heck No!
Would I recommend this? Not even to my worst enemy.

Disappointed.

Indira Gandhi, the Emergency, and Indian Democracy- P.N.Dhar

Title-  Indira Gandhi, the Emergency and Indian Democracy

Author- P.N.Dhar

Published- 2001

Pages- 440

Genre- Non-Fiction-Politics

Indira Gandhi is remembered for the Emergency more than anything else. This book, written by P.N.Dhar, who spent almost seven years working under her, tries to give the backstory and details about the event. A lot is written about the East Pakistan crisis, the denial of the economic aid to India by the United States, her relationships with the leaders of the neighbouring countries, the Emergency, her equations with Indian leaders, her relationship with Sanjay Gandhi and the Simla Agreement.

I read this book out of curiosity and I must confess that I was not entirely disappointed. Though about 40% of the book is filled with assumptions which aim to validate or justify Mrs.Gandhi’s actions that led to the declaration of Emergency.

Mrs.Gandhi had to come into the larger picture of Indian Politics after the death of her father, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru. She was initially dismissed as a powerless puppet (gunghi gudiya) by her own colleagues in the party and also her political opponents. How she rose to power within and outside her party, how she consolidates power in the country and how she asserts herself in the middle of the dominant patriarchy in the Indian political scene is described in this book.

Her relationship with Jay Prakash Narayan who was another prominent person during her days as the Prime Minister is also recorded in detail.

The Emergency was a very dark period in Indian history, there are no two ways about it. The way the author has tried to take a softer stand regarding that era made me a little uncomfortable. P.N.Dhar has tried to give a variety of reasons ranging from the ‘need to discipline the country’ to ‘ her decision being inevitable given the situation in the country in relation to neighbors, political opponents, and the judiciary’ for the imposition of the Emergency. If I may add, I understood then that that was the precise phase when Indian Judiciary lost much of its teeth. I did wonder how it would have been now, had the Judiciary been as powerful as it was back then.

Her perception and apprehension about her own son, Sanjay Gandhi is also covered quite in detail, especially his tyranny and waywardness. That portion is very interesting to read, to be honest.

I found this book to be heavily biased in favour of Mrs.Gandhi and her rule. Something that I had expected, but this was a bit beyond what I had imagined. I would suggest reading this book if you don’t have better books in stock to give information about the dark era.

Promises of a Firefly

Title- Promises of a Firefly

Author- Anupam Patra

Published- 2017

Pages- 209

Genre- Fiction- Short Stories

While on a Non-fiction reading spree, I received this book for a review. Honestly, I was expecting fiction, after reading the short description that was provided. To my surprise, the book was a collection of short stories.

I had given up on short stories long back. Reason being, I was getting repeated stories, all in the same stale approach. In short, they were all old wine served in an old, tattered bottle. The few, rare stories that I read would be those written by a couple of my blogger-friends.

This book is a collection of 11 short stories. Each deals with some emotion that a human being goes through. It could be the loss of a loved one, bereavement, hope, unrequited love or anything. The stories are all short and crisp.

I would not claim the crux of the stories to be novel or special. Most of them are cliched. But the treatment given to the outline is very good. For any story to be appreciated, it is not enough if the plot is good, the narration, the setting, the approach etc must be equally good.

Seeing that this was the debut work of the author Anupam Patra, I loved the effort and the language in it. I am a sucker for lovely narratives. So yes, this passes the test.

You know sometimes we grow so tired of our lives and would just want a trigger to cry it out? This book helps you do that.

Although, I do not appreciate the order in which the stories are printed. I personally feel the emotions could have been analysed more and then spread out through the book so that the reader actually goes through a roller-coaster ride when reading this one.

In short, I liked it. It felt like a whiff of fresh air, which was not too long or boring.

The Kind Worth Killing- Peter Swanson

 

Title- The Kind Worth Killing

Author- Peter Swanson

Published- 2015

Pages- 322

Genre- Thriller

The title seeks attention and promises suspense. This book is set in the quiet suburbs of Boston and Connecticut and revolves around the lives of four people. How destiny interweaves the lives of these four strange souls (I am leaving out Kimball) is what forms the crux of the story.

What struck me through the narrative is the way the story has been told. It is in perspectives and not in chapters, which is unusual. I quite liked this style, which actually gives a beautiful pendulum-like feeling as we progress through the plot.  It is these overlaps that make the story intriguing and gives a very nice continuation feeling in between events.

The character-building is good and the description of the history behind each character and their relationships is detailed. It also feels like unwanted layers, impeding the flow of the book at times. Safe to skip those pages, I would say.

Destinies have been made to intersect and the manner in which the author has tied the loose ends by the time we come to the conclusion is nice. To me, the masterstroke would be the final few lines about the meadow next door.

This was brilliance and I personally feel, the author has actually built a story just in order to throw this at the reader’s face, leaving things open and left to their vivid imagination. It is very much movie-like.

This book is an engaging read, especially during travels and when one is not looking for anything intense.

Special thanks to Gils who introduced me to the author. Two more titles pending to be read.