Friday, June 28, 2013

The City of Devi by Manil Suri - A Review

I was overjoyed to receive my first overseas mail carrying a book for review by Norton publishers. So far, I was aware of this publishing house's name for the critical content it printed on literary classics, and was pleasantly surprised to see Norton publishing contemporary authors with experimental narratives and genres. Taking up with novel with a slightly odd name - "The City of Devi" - was easy, since credibility was established by the very name and packaging of the courier I received. That Manil Suri was a writer who could churn out an epic with an apocalyptal theme turned out to be a pleasant surprise waiting to be unfurled with the turning of pages of this book.

The City of Devi is an innovative, unique and adventurous novel. It dwells on a love triangle with a twist.
There is a woman, and two men. However, contrary to what you might be already thinking, in this book, a woman, Sarita, and a man, Jazz, are both madly in love with a third person, a man - Karun - who is the mysterious, elusive figure in the book. It is Karun, however, who keep the two alternate strands of narrative, that of Sarita and Jazz, find a common ground to develop cohesively from. The rather tumultuous love saga of these three protagonists is set against the backdrop of an apocalypse waiting to happen - a nuclear strike on Mumbai, ready to wipe out the last trace of life from the island. In a classic tale of cross-border communal conflict, humanity is standing vulnerable and on the verge of being sacrificed for what are assumed to be conflicts of supremacy of divine powers. Mumbai only could be saved by its patron Goddess - Mumba Devi, recently resurrected in a Bollywood incarnation - Super Devi - giving more fillip to the blind adoration of gullible multitudes. And amid all this mayhem, two, no three, lovers are eagerly searching for an opportunity to unite with each other, after eliminating the 'other'.

This novel doggedly follows the quest motif - a rather effective one in stories which deal with the pains and ecstasies of love. Love is, it goes without saying, the underlying theme. In addition to it, theme of communalism, humanism, hypocrisy, apocalypse and homosexuality have been adequately dealt with in the book. With sensibility and gusto. Dystopia, towards which the real world too is fast spiralling, is another prominent theme. The novel is rich with explicit content, and for the shy readers out there, I have to mention, Manil Suri does not believe in using innuendoes. A powerful strain of narrative, in fact, is developed around a pomegranate - a perceived aphrodisiac (about the veracity of which claim I have no clue!), and that pomegranate continues to be an inanimate, silent yet pivotal character in the book. Manil Suri also weaves together myths and memories in the story; especially curious is the way he deals with a rare interpretation of the concept of divine trinity.

The City of Devi is a work of passion, and intelligent story telling. It has elements which enthral a reader and keep drawing him deeper and deeper in the fiction which starts assuming dimensions of reality. An intriguing beginning and an out-of-the-box climax add perfection to an already great scripting. A grand cast of characters does not obfuscate a reader, because the main concern - the protagonists - are so well constructed and foregrounded. Witty dialogues and great use of embellished language make the reading experience rich and satisfying. Love and romance always work for the audience; but when supplanted with an element of impending doom, they acquire a texture of passion and urgency - a fact aptly exploited by the author. I could go on writing reams of material on they way this book influenced me, but for now, I will conclude by awarding it, in all humility, 4 stars on five. It is one great adventure to be a part of.

Book Details -
Author - Manil Suri 
Publisher - Norton
Published - 2013
Book Source - Review Copy
Genre - Fiction/Romance/Dystopia
Price - Rs. 499
Pages -  400

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Catharsis or Cyber Bullying? Try Confessing!

(This article had been originally written for, when the trend of 'Confessions' on facebook was still going strong. Thankfully, that madness has abated. However, while going through the contents of this article, I found ideas and issues still pertinent. I am hence sharing it again on Nascent Emissions. Hope you have a nice time reading it) 

Let me begin this article with a caveat. If you are looking for an objective view on the topic, then understand that you are interacting with an author who is struggling with herself to arrive at objective analysis and later deductions on this debate. However, as someone having suffered the negative side of a recent social media phenomenon, it is obvious that bias will be inherent in words that follow – passion just might overrule the possibility of a rational discourse.

I am here to confess – no, I will desist from using that word unless absolutely necessary, because for me, it has come to acquire irksome connotations. Confessions are the latest fad to have announced their grand arrival on the virtual stage and to have caught the attention of all – the old, the young, the teenaged and the infant-minded. These confessions, which opulently display themselves out on dedicated pages, identified by school, college, department or organizations, are being pursued – whether secretly or in open – by all and sundry. In very little time, they have come to be characterized by the idiom – love them or hate them, but you cannot ignore them. These confession pages are capable of giving you all entertainment you seek in the world – they excite you, they intrigue you, they might make you feel elevated, or they may cause your spirits to plummet. They are increasingly acquiring a weed-like tendency – you uproot (ban) a few of these pages, and a few more than before will sprout instantaneously in its place. So ubiquitous is their presence, that I felt no need to introduce the dynamics and mechanics of this page anywhere in the beginning of this article. These pages, in fact, are not just confined to their virtual domains, but have come to be the ultimate spring of normal day gossip and discussions among students and office-mates. The speed and ease of posting, and then the skill of facebook at spreading the written word have lent these, if I may say, unscrupulous ramblings, the power to make and break images – a sad reality in our world which thrives by feeding on gossip.

My introduction to a confession page was, interestingly, not on Facebook, but via a leading national daily. In an article, a reporter had sought the opinion of a leading psychologist about the then new trend of confessions which involve a large mass of teens and young adults. The psychologist, even more interestingly, was very positive about this whole phenomenon. According to him, the frustrations which are a natural by-product of urban lifestyles, compulsions and tensions, find a helpful and healthy vent through these anonymous online confessions. So far so good. I was happy to read about something which is working to add comfort, optimism and calm to the lives of thousands of youngsters out there. A month later, I am not so sure. If anything, I reckon that anyone who still holds this phenomenon to be positive is perhaps talking without laying on eye on the content which these so-called confessions entail.

As per my understanding, the concept of confessions finds it origin in the Catholic culture, wherein, a man, conscious of his wrongdoings, guilt-ridden, walks into a confession chamber to unburden his heart and purge his soul. It is one aspect of Christianity which I have always admired. Not only does it make one confront his weak moments, where wantonly or unwantonly, he might have indulged in a sinful act, but this one act of confession also strengthens the faith of that man in the infinite mercy of Almighty, in whose forgiveness lies his salvation. Now, one can always trust social media to cash on something so pure and noble, and transform it into a crass and cacophonous nonsense. I might be strong and extremely prejudiced in terms of my expressions, but I have peers who have spent days layered in anxiety and low self-esteem only because of some expletives directed at them from anonymous mouths. I, despite maintaining a steadfast and deliberate distance from any page with ‘confessions’ in its title, have also been embroiled in invectives reeking of misogyny and hurtful envy, if not more insidious tendencies.

Anything said above is not to discard altogether the cathartic aspects of nameless online confessions. Not in my vicinity, but on some confession pages of distant universities, students have posted genuine problems which are difficult to verbalise and have met with encouraging comments and helpful links from their peers. There are youngsters sharing their insecurities and even honest angst against institutional policies, which have led to fruitful discussions and understanding of multiple opinions. However, these instances are exceptions rather than being the rule. Most often, the confessions pages I have seen invariably contain the following – a deluge of expletives, proposals of ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’ kind, misogynistic diatribes, demeaning explicit comments and obtuse tales of bravado. Now, which one of them can you remotely associate with the word confession? Most will agree on the fact that confessions are meant to purge or unburden oneself, and not to malign someone else. I would never even be able to understand a statement like ‘I made out in the college library’ as a confession. What is the confessioner trying to achieve by posting this? He, clearly, is not guilty of his act, rather proud in fact. What goes down in the process in the name of the institution and often necessitates a disciplinary action by authorities, especially where defamatory comments are concerned. I have personally known an admin threatened of legal action, and another relieved of his professional duties because of careless posts on his confessions page.

So, catharsis or cyber-bullying? My vote is with the latter. At the core of the appeal of such pages lies their anonymity. You can post whatever you wish. The more outrageous the content of your post, the more reactions it elicits. Responses – in the form of likes and comments – isn’t it because of them that we are all so hooked onto Facebook? Earlier, the debate was around the perils of leaving your privacy at the mercy of social platforms like Facebook. Now, via phenomena like confessions, unscrupulous elements go one step further to jeopardize the privacy, as well as the public image of others and not just themselves. With an increasing number of parents and teachers becoming a part of their ward/student’s social network, the harm caused by hurtful and malicious confessions increases manifold. I recently read on a blog that Facebook is being pressurized from many corners to shut the confession pages. I hope earnestly that the concerned people pay heed. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Virgins by Siddharth Tripathi - A Review

Out in the market, there are many coming of age stories which are waiting to entertain and excite you; which are eager to lay in front of you fables of shedding naiveties and acquiring of a wise character. Most of them will serve you the regular fair - a carefree life, a deep, unassailable crisis, and then, what the Greeks will call, peripeteia and anagnorisis. For novels catering to young-adults, this is the staple diet. But then, you will come across that one novel, which will take you traipsing through the adventures of young boys, and make you feast on those events and incidents which turn those just-out-of-adolescence-kids into men-of-substance, and entertain you beyond your expectations. By the very cover of this book - The Virgins - I knew I was in for a treat. So glad am I for the fact that author Siddharth Tripathi made my gut feeling come true, in a manner of writing so colourful and crude, that it engages without effort and entertains till the very last page. 

To give a synopsis of the story of The Virgins is not easy, because this book does not bank on a storyline. Rather, it banks on a very strong plot, which extends into episodic narrative. It is these episodes (or adventures) which build the grand story. Very roughly put, The Virgins is the story of three boys - Pinku, Bhandu and Guggi - all born and nurtured in the sacred soil of Benaras. All three have interesting backgrounds to them, which they are consistently negotiating with, so as to find their own foothold in life. One is a school drop-out, innocent at first, sly later kind-of-guy, who is smitten with a plump girl responsible for his first trip to prison. Another is the product of a wrecked marriage, perhaps seeking solace in a 'firang' woman who is scarce aware of his presence. A third is the eternal troublemaker - whose only purpose of living is to invent impossible adventures, and then drag his friends into it. These three diverse characters - and a host of others are united in this unique book, which thrives on irreverence and an eclectic mix of characters. 

For me, the biggest strength of this book are, indeed, its characters. They are all known by nick-names, a mandatory tradition of Indian households; and they come in typical hues in lands of UP and Bihar. While most monikers are just the instinct of a doting parent, many others arise out of an urgent need to put a shameful label on a peer to highlight to the world his most embarrassing detail - the gift of friends who see you through years of puberty. The characters in this book are amusing, and teeming with life - they are created so deftly that they might even become unforgettable for you. The book comprises of several parallel narratives, and different characters peak at different points in the book. The best deal - no loose ends. All individual strands of the story are complete. You might want to keep this book away from kids, because of a very liberal sprinkling of expletives, though I have to admit, I did not find the cuss-words getting very creative, which is quite the norm in youth-novels these days. 

What was extremely creative was the opening of each chapter - with a quote or a verse, which was a strand of the story itself. The amusement begins at these tiny epigraphs, and continues till the last word of the chapter. Many of these epigraphs are clever, many are outright preposterous, but each has been placed with care, and blends seamlessly, but importantly with the storyline. The language is witty - sometimes simply funny, and you may catch yourself guffaw at places (I did!)

All in all, entertainment, expletives, adventures, and masala - you will find it all here - and what more do you need from a book which promises to give you a welcome break from the routine of life. Traverse the terrain of Benaras with an author who has seen the landscape from really close quarters. See Benaras beyond the sacred halo which centuries of fables have ascribed to it. Experience how the Ganga is not just a holy river, but a meaningful part of the lives of the locals. This, and much more - The Virgins is a complete package! A 3 on 5 star book for me!

Book Details -
Author - Siddharth Tripathi
Publisher - Fingerprint
Published - 2013
Book Source - Review Copy
Genre - Fiction
Price - Rs. 250
Pages -  320

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Smart Phones, Dumb People? by Parthajeet Sarma - A Review

'I like my new cellphone, my laptop works just fine,
My iPod is perfect, but Lord! I miss my mind!'

We could call our era the information age or the technology age, but beneath that jazzy veneer of words lies a dull flipside, or so the sceptics would have us believe. Some say that to information overload we have lost our brains. Some more will tell you that technology is aiding the advancement of machines and the backwardness of humans. Is it really true that with each passing moment, technology, which was meant to serve mankind, is actually enslaving us? This is the premise at which Parthajeet Sarma begins his confabulations with 21st century technology, though his investigations do not remain confined to this realm.

In a very promising prologue, which is what essentially encouraged me to pick up this book called 'Smart Phones Dumb People?', Sarma gives a glimpse into how computer programmes are now responsible for programming the human brain, which in certain situations loses its receptiveness, spontaneity and ingenuity. This prologue is where Sarma begins his foray into a world of opportunities, which is also a world of great paradoxes, because while for many of us, upgrading cell-phones is like buying the new, latest, attention-catching toy on the shelf, multitudes languish without basic amenities for sustenance.

Sarma structures his book well. He has divided his analysis into five parts, laconically and effectively titled - Innovation, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Priorities and Corruption. It is kind of a serial build-up of thought, through which Sarma leads his readers, so that they well understand the challenges of contemporary times, and are also acquainted with the best tools and procedures at hand to combat them. Sarma himself is an award winning innovator and entrepreneur, so his insights are those of an insider, and not a mere observer. He doesn't follow a very lofty trajectory in the book, because the issues and concepts he is dealing with a very basic - in consonance with the bottoms-up approach he seems to be a staunch believer in.

"Smart phones, dumb people? As gadgets take over our lives, have we become less intelligent?" - this is the problem Sarma lays down, and who would not begin at smart phones and social networking to postulate how greater advancements have led to greater decline in personal relationships, emotional stability and mental capacity. However, Sarma is quick to counter his own statement by asserting that the human brain has not lost its capacity in the past decade - if anything, it has become smarter. And this is evident in the number of innovations that are being churned out by enterprising young individuals. The issues across ages have retained some common features, only now, we have better tools and a better set of minds, which combine innovation, entrepreneurship and technology, to address them.

In a crisp and rather brief commentary then, Sarma gives few case studies and statistics to elucidate his stand. In the chapter on priorities, Sarma foregrounds all the challenges a country like India faces, and to what extend they can be resolved by extensive and comprehensive use of technology. He throws light on existing government policies, as well as the desired ones which can facilitate a more salubrious climate for entrepreneurial ventures to raise their heads. In the final chapter on corruption, Sarma takes up the greatest impediment which a large and diverse country like India has to fight at so many levels to come up with a credible growth momentum and strategy. You might just be motivated to build business models as a plausible answer to address governance issues after reading this one.

The book is an elementary reader into all the five sections mentioned earlier on. If you are someone who has even been remotely associated with start-ups in your professional or college life, there is nothing this book will tell you that you do not already know of. What it will do, however, is that it will string together strands of thought which otherwise lie scattered. Its a rather short book; will not take more than a day to complete. Do not buy too much into the title, which is a little deceptive, if I might say. The book does not come across as a criticism of technology, but rather as one which problematizes the halo around technological inventions, and then takes a stand before the argument is suitably built up. For readers with not much knowledge, but certainly an aptitude in this direction - especially those looking to construct their own start-ups and indulge in a bit of entrepreneurship (social, or otherwise), this book might be a good place to start at. Despite not containing any path-breaking, or enlightening thoughts to illuminate my mind, I think time on this book was well spent for the way it channelled my thought. A 2.5 star read for me.

Book Details -
Author - Parthajeet Sarma
Publisher - Good Times Books
Published - 2013
Book Source - Review Copy
Genre - Fantasy- Non-fiction
Price - Rs. 195
Pages -  164

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Age of Hibilisk by Sumukh Naik - A Review

I grew up with a generation which was drunk on the fantasy fiction genre. Quizzes and competitions on Harry Potter were common, and so was the desire of many of my friends to acquire the 'Ring' and get it engraved. I, somehow, steered clear of the popular craze. My only tryst with fantasy-adventure genre was Chrisopher Paolini's Inheritance Trilogy, that too, restricted to first two books - Eragon and Eldest. I have to admit, I remember nothing of the two books. With The Age of Hibilisk, I found the first proper opportunity to read, absorb, and write about a book which falls markedly under this fantasy umbrella, but is different in the sense that it is indigenously produced. I hoped to understand the thought of the writer better, as well as the terrain he traverses. At some points, I feel I succeeded in decoding the messages contained within the text. At other points, well, lets come to that after a synopsis of the storyline.

From what I understood, The Age of Hibilisk, is essentially the adventure tale of Prince William and Princess Sara, through the mystical lands of Pantolis, Hibilisk and Ikra. They, respectively, are the rulers of the Kingdom of Jaguar and the Kingdom of Ivory, both involved in a conflict engineered by some dark force. Their world is beginning to be engulfed by a mysterious evil force, which is turning the once lush forests black and is unleashing inscrutable misfortunes on the hapless inhabitants on the land of Pantolis. This mystical and spiritual place is under the protection of Ten Masters, each to take care of ten directions. There is an Eleventh Master, who sits at the throne above the ten Masters, summoned when they need advice. He manifests as the Sage throughout the narrative, one who guides William and Sara on their voyage towards allaying the dark forces from completely annihilating their beloved land.

There are many reasons for why I stuck with this book till the end despite finding it a little dull towards the initial passages. Author Sumukh Naik did not disappoint me for my perseverance, because the book has few of the brightest and most stimulating episodes towards the end. You should not read this story as a mere fantastic novel, because the script has been set in a rich fabric of thoughts and philosophy. Two philosophies emerge very prominently out of the book. First is the balance between good and evil. Each element around us has both, the forces of good and evil contained in equal measure within in. Humans have been blessed with the faculty of making a choice between them. Second, there is a magic far stronger and more potent than all the magic in the world, and that is the magic of love and compassion, which all human beings are capable of harnessing. These two strains of thought are fundamental to the journey motif exploited expertly by Sumukh in his debut work.

The author has done a fine job in his detailing, which is indispensable for any work belonging to the fantasy fiction genre, since you are attempting to take the reader into a land which does not exist anywhere on the map of the world. Oh, cartographic presentation attached at the end of the book do help, and the illustrations are simple enough to let the reader follow up without hassles or confusions. The pace of the story dips at points, but catches up fast. It takes a little long to set the premise, but once it does that, incidents follow each other at a decent speed. Characters are painted with concrete, identifiable and consistent traits - which is excellent - but they falter at something basic, and that is in their naming. Nomenclature is one field which out author needed to pay more heed to, since names have been drawn from various cultural traditions. This may not have been so much of a problem if all the names chosen were obscure. However, when you have a Samantha, a Philip, a Sara and a William coexisting with a Sharma, it gets problematic, and to be completely honest, tad hilarious even.

I found the book a little repetitive in initial parts, as if the author did not trust his readers enough to follow even his very basic statements in the text. The language is colloquial, understandable, but has editing glitches which could have and should have been taken care of. At a little above 350 pages, the book, for its genre is neither too thin, nor too bulky. I wish some imagination had been spared on the cover of the book as well, which does not look very inviting or promising; quite contrary to the content. All in all, I think this is a two on five star book for me.

Book Details - 
Author - Sumukh Nail
Publisher - APK Publishers
Published - June 2012
Book Source - Review Copy
Genre - Fantasy-Adventure
Price - Rs. 295
Pages - 372