Tag Archives: Fiction

The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh

Some 200 pages into this 547-page-book, someone asked me what the book is about. I had no idea. And that’s my biggest complaint. But then, let’s begin with page 1 ?

Rajkumar lost his family as a little boy and now, all alone in the world, he fends for himself in Mandalay. Mandalay, the site of Burma’s Golden Palace, ruled by King Thebaw and Queen Supayalat is in awe of its monarchy. But the inevitable happens and soon the King and Queen are sent into exile and Burma, like India, becomes a British colony. Fate, however, leaves a delicate string hanging between Burma and India when Dolly, the first princess’s maid must leave an infatuated Rajkumar behind to do her duty in exile.

Rajkumar’s journey thereafter into the heartland of the timber trade is narrated in wonderful detail. We learn of the oo-sis and their elephants. We read of the British Assistants sitting miles away from home in their teak Tais. We are awed by the technique of transporting the logs by the Chaungs. We imagine in our mind’s eye Saya John in his ill-fitting English clothes mentoring Rajkumar on the tricks of the trade. We grow with Rajkumar and watch him become a confident young man ready to venture into the world by himself.

Meanwhile, the Burmese Royalty have been left to themselves in Ratnagiri, a sleepy little town in Maharashtra, India. King Thebaw is resigned to his fate, Queen Supayalat continues to despise the British and the princesses are growing with the servants as their play mates. Young and beautiful Dolly only has the collector’s wife, Uma Dey, as her confidante and friend in this journey of unending loneliness.

The Glass Palace at the outset seems to be a story on and about the characters mentioned. We have talked about the Invasion of Burma, the monarchy, the intertwined lives of Dolly, Rajkumar and Uma. What more could there be, right? But Amitav Ghosh has other plans in mind. Confined in those 547 pages are life stories spanning a period of 111 years!!! He takes us through a myriad journey of relationships…the main protagonists, their children, their children’s spouses & children..the story grows like an Indian joint family! And always, just always, there is a political undercurrent running through. Be it the worries of a revolt in Burma against the colonial masters, or the Indian Independence League in the US, one is always reminded of the political situations that push the characters into the decisions they make. At one point in the novel, I was almost convinced that the entire story was a build-up to the realization of a romance, beautiful and almost spiritual, that Ghosh was narrating. It made sense…giving the reader the complete background so one could understand the nuances of this relationship. And then just when one thinks This is a love story with the backdrop of colonialism, Amitav Ghosh springs a surprise and the reader is found falling headlong into the Second World War, the Indian National Army, and the throng of thousands of refugees from Burma! What could be a love story suddenly becomes a story of life in a war engulfed region.

And that’s exactly my complaint against the book.  The author has so much to tell, so many stories to share, that none is allowed enough time to grow roots in the depths of the reader’s mind, leaving behind a feeling almost of longing. Given a chance, Amitav Ghosh’s beautifully detailed narration could have left strong imprints on the readers. The last 70 pages of the book are particularly disappointing, almost as if hurriedly thrown in to close all the loose ends and give the readers some closure, even explain the reason behind the title! If only the author had left some things unsaid, allowing the reader to take over with the way the story ended, the book could have left a better after-taste.

In conlusion, I think I finally understand what the book is about. Adding to Wikipedia’s explanation that it is a Historic Novel, this is a novel about three countries and 3 people(plus family)and how their lives are irrevocably intertwined. It is a story of love, found and lost. It is a story of dreams, realised and shattered like a glass palace. Amitav Ghosh doesn’t fail to impress with his style and I am already looking forward to reading another of his books. But this book in particular, did not live up to my expectations.

The Magical World of Enid Blyton!

A little girl, all of 9 years old, had locked herself up in her room. Her parents had been warned not to disturb her. Afterall, she had a few important meets lined up. First she had to visit Janet and her brother Peter and their 5 friends in their shed again. Their mother had promised there would be hot scones, ginger biscuits, sardine & potted meat sandwiches and huge jars of jam & cream for the high tea. Scamper was already present, tail thumping away, eyes drawn every now and then to the laden table! Then, she would have to visit George, Anne, Julian & Dick as they set out on their cycles up the hill to the little shop that sold lemonade, grape-fruit juice, ginger-beer, and delicious ice creams. Timmy would chase their cycles, as always, distracted every now and then by the rabbits scurrying down their holes at his sight!

A trip last week to the Isle of Wight & Dorset here in the United Kingdom, presented before me a moment of intense nostalgia. In a quaint little English restaurant, we tried the Cream Tea. Alongside the steaming tea were 2 scones, warm and fresh from the oven. A slice in the middle and dollops of clotted cream and jam later, this little piece of heaven melted in my mouth and transported me back to the little room, with my friends Peter, Janet & George from Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven & The Famous Five. The little girl in me had come home ?

Cream Tea @ Isle Of Wight, UK

Enid Blyton wasn’t just a British author. She was a magician. A children’s writer, she enthralled many, many young adolescents like me. The world through her eyes was an exciting place! She brought home to me my teenaged friends and amateur detectives who enjoyed adventure. Their little escapades…complete with their secret codes and hide-outs and mini picnics fascinated me beyond measure! Her plots felt nail-bitingly interesting to my young mind…who could the culprit be?! I would open her book and read her detailed descriptions and lose myself completely in her world. There, in the confines of my room, I ran alongside her characters and their dogs as they chased thieves and solved cases for the police, I sat beside them as they enjoyed delicious meals prepared by their mothers, I laughed with them as they chatted over ice creams and I cried with them when their dogs got kidnapped. In short, Enid Blyton showed me that there’s a huge vast world outside, and I could see all of it if I wanted, right from my room, as long as I had a book by my side. While I had started reading much before her books, I think it was she who truly instilled this passion for words in me. It was through her that I realized the power a book had in shaping my mind. Afterall, imagine a little girl having seen and felt in her mind’s eye the things that she would only be experiencing for real 18 years later!

The Secret Seven by Enid Blyton

As I grew up, I realized how many facets of my personality have been shaped around what I read as a child. My love for the written word was just a tiny reflection of how Enid Blyton had touched my life. When she had said “Dear, silky old Scamper, his ears flopping up and down as he rushed into the hall, his tail wagging nineteen to the dozen. He flung himself on the children, barking loudly in joy”, it was me that Scamper had been running to and I knew I would love dogs all my life. She had made my mouth water with “The high tea that awaited them was truly magnificent. Lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, mustard and cress, carrot grated up..lashings of hard boiled eggs. There was an enormous tureen of new potatoes , all gleaming with melted butter, scattered with parsley…Look at that cream cheese too. And fruit cake. And are those drop-scones?..And there’s cherry tart made with our own cherries and our own cream in it”! She spoke of jam tarts and ginger cake with black treacle and I fell in love with food. She would have been a fantabulous food blogger in today’s world. Her characters went boating to islands or cycling atop hills or swam in the beaches…and I grew up loving to travel.

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

I have always believed that a fantastic fiction writer is one who, with their words, can stimulate your mind enough for you to create your own movie in your head. That’s usually why most movies on classics fall short of their original books, something is always lacking, because the movie that had played in your head had been wayyy more detailed & descriptive than the one playing out on the screen. Enid Blyton is one such writer. While there have been many more books from my childhood, if there is one book I pick even today when I’m craving for comfort, it is definitely hers. My personal favourites are The Secret Seven and the Famous Five series. I also enjoyed her The Five Find-Outers and Dog and The Naughtiest Girl series. Much later, I realized she was the one to have written Noddy as well. So my association with Enid Blyton goes back even further than I had realized!!

The Five Find Outers & Dog by Enid Blyton

My Father gifted me my first book when I was in class 1. In a gesture as simple as that, he had made sure that he had given me a companion for life. If you have youngsters at home, do pick one of her books for them, you could be giving them a gift for life! If not, it’s never too late to read her yourself….she just might bring back the child in you!! ?

Candies In Her Palm – A Short Story #NostalgiaSeries

“They walked in the sweltering heat, the two sisters and Namita, the elder one’s best friend. Backs bent with the weight of the khaki coloured bags..the rectangular ones with two shiny clips that had to go ‘tak’ and ‘tak’ again, so you knew they were properly closed. Feet clumsily covered in battered chappals, dragging on the dusty road. Hair that had been carefully oiled and plaited by their mothers in the morning, complete with the red ribbon on both sides, now stuck to their scalps as sweat trickled down their faces. Little Rano walked ahead with a steadfast determination, her sister’s hand in hers. Pulling her, goading her to walk faster, they were almost there. Sunaina sighed and carried on, she could never refuse her baby sister. They finally reached and Rano looked at her big sister expectantly. Sunaina dug out her treasure from her bag, 20p that she had managed to save that week. She placed a 10p coin into the wrinkly hand of the shopkeeper and received a grunt in approval. Carefully she lowered the big glass jar and held it tight against her chest. With her free hand she twisted the cap open and counted out 10 candies, some red, some green, some orange and some purple. 1,2,3…9,10, placing each one gently into Rano’s cupped palms. Rano’s round face broke into a smile and her eyes gleamed with joy. Sunaina laughed as her sister struggled to wipe the drool off her mouth, her hands full of candies. With Rano satisfied, she went on to buy sweetmeats for Namita and her four other siblings waiting back home. That was the norm, all 6 brothers and sisters would sit down in a circle and Sunaina split the candies among them all. Happiness was to be shared, their mother had told her eldest daughter and Sunaina intended to take that very seriously. Rano skipped ahead, eager to reach home and gobble up her share. Come fast Sunaina, walk fast Sunaina…”

“Sunaina?…Sunaina?” She broke out of her reverie. The doctor was talking to her. “You can see her now”. Sunaina nodded at the others and they headed for the room. The same round face, she thought with a smile. But the eyes glistened with tears of pain now and the smile was forced. She looked at Rano lying on the bed, with its white covers, tubes coming out of the bedsheets, recovering after the 4th surgery that year. The disease was catching up and Sunaina knew in her heart that no candy could make her sister’s eyes gleam now. They all sat down in that hospital room. Sunaina and her 4 siblings, around Rano. All 6 of them. All they knew was to share…candies, tears, stories, fears…all they could do, was share.

//This story is dedicated to my Late Aunt Smt. Suchitra Ray…you are forever in our hearts Ranu Mausi 🙂

The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Sahota

Poverty & hope often go hand in hand. Humans, I believe, are programmed to fight till their last breath, and what drives them is the possibility of a better future, a miracle that could turn their lives around. So when the possibilities start seeming limited, we move on to what we believe are wider horizons, with the conviction that a fresh start is all it takes to reach out for our dreams. While sometimes the dreams come true, at other times, we move from dream to dream, each new one easier to achieve than the last.

Tarlochan, or Tochi, is a Chamaar, a caste treated as lowly untouchables back home in India. With much struggle he finds himself a job as an auto-rickshaw driver. Just as he finds the way to provide his family all the little joys they had been deprived of and get himself the dignity he craves, fate cruelly pulls him back and slams a mountain of sorrow and pain for life. Siblings Randeep & Lakhpreet Sanghera should have had a comfortable lifestyle with their father employed with the government. But with their father slowly losing his mind, young Randeep must now bear the burden of supporting his entire family. Avtar has big dreams for his life with his girlfriend and he is working hard towards that goal. But he must pay the price for his straying friend, the boss’s son, and is left job-less.

All of them set out for England, in search of a better life, and end up in a house shared by 13 in Sheffield. With each passing day the sheen is lost bit by bit and soon the grim realities of life as an immigrant are laid bare. Meals become fights for scraps. Jobs are scarce and the competition breeds mistrust among the occupants of the house and more often than not, even homesickness in a foreign land or the understanding of common fears,  cannot make them leave behind the prejudices from back home. Dark secrets are hidden, confided in and exploited as the characters grow meaner and meaner in their struggle to reach for the goals, that once seemingly achievable, are now increasingly out of reach. Narinder, meanwhile, a pious Sikh woman trying to do good, gets unrevokably intertwined with the lives of these men and slowly her once simple life gets more and more complicated as she tries to understand her duties to herself and God. The character’s lives are soon spiraling out of control and drawn into their worlds, all we can do is watch.

Sunjeev Sahota is simply brilliant as he moves you back and forth between time and characters. So compelling is the writing that, as the desperation of the character grows, so does the helplessness of the reader..if only one could reach out and stop a character from taking a step in a glaringly wrong direction! No compromise is made in the portrayal of the characters’ backgrounds, the dreams of their youth crushed at no fault of theirs, their endless struggle to fulfill familial obligations while always trying to making it big in life..so much so that the reader begins empathizing with their actions, no matter how wrong. Sahota’s work is a big reality check of the lives immigrants have to face, very different from the hunky-dory picture we paint of life outside. A powerfully engrossing read that keeps you hooked for more, there is no questioning its shortlisting for the ‘2015 Man Booker prize’. The only complaint I have is the epilogue, hastily thrown in to show us life many years later, which left a bad aftertaste. Some things are better left unsaid. For all other reasons, this book is a great read, both for the intriguing story and the impeccable style!

My Rating : 4/5