Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

First things first, if you have actively followed Arundhati Roy on the political screen recently and felt agitated by her comments like many of the social commentators, then this book will rile you up a lot.

The other end of spectrum, if you have loved her magnificent debut novel from 20 years ago, Booker Prize winning, “The God of Small Things” and was amazed by her incredible skill in narrating the deeper emotions, you will still be disappointed.

But, having said that, the book has its heart at the right place but the place wanders way too much for an average reader be focused​ at one point. However, like the many novels that focus on deep human emotions, the rewards are there to taking but you need immense perseverance.

The book centrally narrates the stories to women or rather say two people- Anjum, a trans who holds the first half of the book together and Tilotthama (Tilo), an architect student who turned an accomplice to a suspected militant, marries three men and steals a child from the protests.

But, the book has many important characters who come as close as to your heart but receedes with almost equal pace if not more. There are many hijras, many doctors, many militants, many journalists, and many police officers. 

Three characters steal the show for me: Singh, Naga and Miss Jehran the Second.

The book dwindles between Delhi and Kashmir, the phase where Arundathi Roy doesn’t hesitate even for a moment to put her political views across.

The greatest takeaway from the book is you could connect to at least one character at at least one point in the book. 

As the quote on the cover says:

“How to tell a shattered story?” 

“By slowly becoming everybody. No. By slowly becoming everything.” 

Overall, Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” is brilliant as long as it holds the fiction part together but is absolutely difficult to persevere when it switches to non-fiction mode, unfortunately which is in every chapter.

Reading Books #4 to #7

Over the past three months, my reading schedule had depleted due to multiple personal commitments. But, I still managed to read four books during the period.

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#4: “The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History” by Sanjeev Sanyal is a very interesting read. It provided insight into the evolution of landscape since the ages but it most importantly talks about the trade, the basic essence of human survival with Indian Ocean acting as a hub and multiple countries around the world its spokes. A must read not just for the economics but for the geographical understanding.

#5: “When Breath becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi. This book had been on my wishlist for way too long but the moment I set myself to read was also the moment I cursed myself to have delayed it so long. The book is excellent in every sense. No discredit to Paul Kalanithi but the foreword by Dr. Abraham Varghese is a masterpiece in itself. Please do read this.

#6: “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a family saga set extended over a period of approx. 60 years where four generations of a family survived, existed, dominated but eventually lost their identity in a land away from home where war is evolved from a daily affair in an outside world to being within one own self.

#7: “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes is written with a strange sense of approval. Set during the time of Stalin’s era and post his time where musicologists and the art is heavily controlled by The Power. The book is very small for a historical but as they say commonly about great books, the message is hidden between the lines. I could strangely explore those messages and each sentence felt magical for me. Read this but most importantly think about it beyond the context of the book.

Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes”

It is not as often that you find authors, either of scholarly or literary schools of thought, tell a story from the perspective of the misunderstood entities. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the voice of the voiceless but it takes efforts in understanding the world from the other side.

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Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes” takes a stance completely opposite to the prevailing perception towards the microbial world. For the generation that defined the sanctity by wiping the hands with a hand sanitizer, the book sets out to change the perspective.

It is technically a non-fiction book that introduces use to the concept of the microbial world and it’s significance in the mere existence of the many species in the world, but Ed Yong makes sure that he puts the things in the right frame of setting up by drawing us back to the evolutionary era.

He uses the evolution as an “imaginary year timelines” and specifies the dominance of microbes in the evolutionary cycle. He provides multiple examples to quote why microbes are essential in every walk of life and the differential value that they bring into various species that’s ever walked on the planet.

For a moment, it would feel that he is trying hard to sell the concept of microbes as he mentions time and again about the positive impact that microbes create rather than the general scary-disease causing entities. But, as you finish the book, you realize why it was such an important thing to do as our perspectives change towards the end.

There is a section in the book that even questions the spiritual side of our existence where he puts in multiple aspects that define “You” as a human being. He highlights the physical, genome, cellular comparisons and makes drives home the point how non-existential we would have been, if not for our interaction with the environment we are surrounded with.

Overall, Ed Yong’s “I Contain Multitudes” definitely changes the perspective towards nature and our interaction with it as you were pulled deeply into the microbial world. A definite read. 

Listen to his reading session at “Politics & Prose”:

Gollapudi Maruti Rao “Saayankalamaindi” (It’s Evening Time)

Gollapudi Maruti Rao renowned for his association with Telugu film industry but made significant contributions towards Telugu literature and theater. His “Saayankalamaindi” first appeared as a weekly serial in Andhra Jyothy and later released as a novel.

“Saayankalamaindi” which translates to “It’s evening time” is a metaphorical reference to the phase of a human being. Per Hindu tradition, even human had to experience four stages in his life: Brahmacharya (Student/Bachelor), Grihastha (Householder), Vanaprastha (Retired) and Sannyasa (Renunciation). “Saayankalamaindi” is a reference to the ‘Vanaprastha’ phase of an orthodox Hindu Brahmin ‘Subhadracharyulu’.

The book is a social commentary set in the olden days where the foreign education is still a distant reality. That is the phase where western influences started to penetrate Indian households. The era where still caste based separatism was considered not only as a normalcy but as the way that the society operated.

Gollapudi Maruti Rao introduces many characters in this novel that are distinguished either by their caste, physical appearance, education, wealth or profession. Each character is written with a peculiarity that not only reflected their behavior but is also as representative of the community that has the traits associated with the system personified.

Central to this story is a family – Subhadaracharylu who is an orthodox religious Brahmin whose definition of activity is praying to the deity ‘Kunthi Madhava Swamy”, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. He is accompanied by his wife ‘Varadamma’, who knows no world other than her husband and Lord Vishnu. They are blessed with two children – ‘China Tirumalacharyulu’ (Tirumala) and ‘Andaallu”. As the years pass by, Tirumala leaves the country to work for General Electric and Andaallu is banished from the house for loving and marrying a person from the lower caste. The years pass by and a day comes when Subhadracharylu passes away almost two years after the death of his wife Varadamma.

The book treats you through some of the brilliant characters you might have read in the Indian literature – a rich kshatriya who is a dear friend to Acharyulu, a trickster who identifies the genius in Tirumula, an illicit wife, and her daughter dedicated their lives to the well-being of others, another youngster from a lower caste who believed in the education system and an orphan lawyer who helped Tirumala.

As the page’s flip, there is social commentary about the system existence in the society in those days. There are many moments where your eyes moistened by the expression of gratitude everyone lived with, by the sacrifices made and by the lifestyle one believed in. There are some moments in the novel where Mr. Maruti Rao gets carried away with the social commentary as the story progresses slowly. But, it is never out of life, sometimes it is stretched a bit too far that is all.

322 pages novel puts the principles of Karma and Dharma through the eyes of many individuals living in a co-existing society that messes up and purifies itself in its own ways. There is purity in many of the relations that exist in the book – Husband and wife, Son and Mother, Friends, Lawyer and Client, much more importantly Human and his God.

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Overall, Gollapudi Maruti Rao’s “Saayankalamaindi” resurrects the nostalgia about the rural societies and makes a strong social commentary about the transformation that intimately tangled many social relations. It is a brilliant novel that needs much more self-analysis and deep dive into questioning our beliefs and practices narrated through the lives of excellent characters.

“All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

This is not the first story that we have read/heard about the World War II and it is not the last. Almost 75 years since the end of the great war, we still have stories to tell, emotions to curb, thoughts to ponder and tributes to pay. Millions of lives were lost during the war which would mean a million stories prevail.

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 “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr narrates the story of two such lives who are on the either side of the war but not actively participating in it. Marie-Laurie, a visually challenged girl is only Twelve when they had to leave Paris and set foot into Saint- Malo. The Germans are on the other side attacking the city to capture the French. On the other side of this war is Werner Pfennig, who is charmingly intellectual but forced to be a part as a technical expert with radios and communications.

Over the next 532 pages, the story flip-flops in two dimensions: a) from the point of view of Werner and Marie-Laurie and b)

a) from the point of view of Werner and Marie-Laurie and b)

b) time starting 1940 leading up to 1944.

Anthony Doerr follows a technique that is not so commonly used in Historical fictions- the short chapters. Generally, historical fictions demand extensive attention to detail by loading off an intense amount of information to the reader. It is not a bad thing given the fact that someone is reading  a historical because they are interested in the setting as much as the story. Anthony Doerr does that too. He feeds you with loads of detailed information but ensures the focus is not on a single object.

Anthony Doerr does that too. He feeds you with loads of detailed information but ensures the focus is not on a single object.

He feeds you with loads of detailed information but ensures the focus is not on a single object. The chapters are occasionally just one page long and sometimes goes to seven to eight pages. The good thing about short chapters is you do not get tired of being in the same setting for way too long and the downside is keeping track of what’s happening at each setting.

He counters it with another technique – the sections. The sections and titles were marked eloquently such that you can separate out 1940s sections and 1944s sections and just read the story in a linear narration rather than the flip flops mentioned above.

The attention to detail and the empathy for the lives that were stuck amid the battle for power of politicians/ stories makes the book a wonderful read. If only it was easy to plug in information from a third, fourth and some other sources, it would be a great historical compilation of Saint Malo.

A Year in Reading – 2016

A year ago, I decided to actively pursue my reading interest. To consciously follow that interest, I set up myself a challenge to read a book every week which accounted for 52 books. One year later, I am happy that I could come close to the target – finished reading 50 books, two short of my target.

I didn’t exactly follow the reading list that I decided at the start of this challenge. The list grew as time progressed and the desire to read from diverse subjects helped me to pick books on subjects that I wouldn’t have otherwise chosen.

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In 2016, I read books from across the continents, across the genres and across the subjects.

I read books from a mortician, a geobotanist, and a film critic.

I read books on the evolution of human species, how the genes were created and manipulated, how the societies evolve and collapse.

I read books from Noble prize winners, Man Booker shortlisted and winners, Pulitzer prize winners.

I read classics that stood the test of time – involved explaining philosophy, describing a dystopian world, and magical realism.

I read books that involved conflicts from within societies and from external sources in Japan, Syria, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and China.

I read books about medical circumstances of being mortal and autism.

I read books that taught the art of motorcycle maintenance, raising a pet hawk, hunting a man-eater and writing stories about them.

50 Books and 18,078 Pages made me wander through the world of fantasy, pulled me back to harsh reality, taught me the skills that would be handy in the times of adversary and finally deeply understand myself as an individual, as a part of society and as a part of species.

 

Best Books I Read in 2016: (in no particular order)

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1984 by George Orwell

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Thomas Avila Laurel

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The Morning they came for Us by Janine Di Giovanni

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Diaries by Robert M. Pirsig

 

Books that surprised me in 2016: (in no particular order)

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Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian

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A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randell

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code by Michael Lewis

 

Complete List of 50 Books.

Let me know your thoughts on the books, if this list or thoughts shared for each book was helpful in anyway possible. Kindly support and follow the blog for latest blog posts on books and many more topics.

A Book A Week Challenge – Week 50

Svetlana Alexievich who won Nobel Prize in Literature in the year 2015 referred to her work as “novels in voices”, a term that would translate in reference to the works of history that passed through the generations, not in written form but orally. During her Nobel speech, she dedicated the prize to her native Belarus calling it “a small country caught in a grinder throughout the history.”

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Book #: 50

Title: Second Hand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Pages: 584

It might seem ironic to talk about Russia or a nation part of earlier Soviet Union in the terms of “sleeping with tanks outside the walls”, wherein the present day the same country is being held responsible for making other country feel the same. It is definitely not a good thing to happen. No, it isn’t. It is not a good thing for what is happening in Aleppo as much as it occurred in a Soviet nation.

Svetlana Alexievich in her book that narrates the lives of individuals from various corners of life who believed in the promises of peace and survival and were utterly shattered. The stories move across the country both in terms of times and virtual reality, with references made into Red Interior and out of Red Interior.

As we come to end of another year, as we humans progress in terms of technology way beyond limits, it is something feels only superficial with an emotion that says there are people out there who are struggling for mere existence. That was supposed to be the phase of our evolution when our species started out. The applicability of this book set in the times more than a century apart tells us the little progress that we falsely believe we achieved.

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Overall, Svetlana Alexievich makes you experience various emotions that the war-ridden Soviet nation common lives had to survive with. More than a century apart asks the same set of questions as she puts it “And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place. Our time comes to us second-hand”