Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reflections: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

This is Mohsin Hamid's most recent book. Similar to his debut novel, this story is a sarcastic and honest commentary on what it takes to survive and make a good living in rapidly growing Asia, particularly Pakistan.

The novel has a different narrative style. The book begins like a manual, a witty and sarcastic one at that, with the author relating a hypothetical, prototypical story of a man that rises from rags to riches. He makes you, the reader, wear the shoes of the hypothetical young man born to a poor family, and he makes you walk every mile of the journey taken by the brave yet naive man in his desperate quest to make a decent living for himself in a corrupt society.

Perhaps because I'd read The White Tiger a few weeks before this book, I was reminded of the book while reading this; the themes are similar and the writing styles of both authors are quite similar too (according to me, at least). However, the protagonist and the characters are different. The protagonist (the "hypothetical" one) is far more naive and sympathetic than Balram Halwai. And his story is not nearly as shocking or brutal as The White Tiger's. In that sense, this story is far less harsh and a lot more realistic of how the average man survives and adapts when he finds himself in the unavoidable tangles of corruption in a rapidly developing society. He is forced to make choices that are devastatingly dangerous and unethical, but in the dog-eat-dog world of survival, he better go with the tide or be swallowed by it. There is nothing extraordinary in the protagonist's story and that's what makes this story all the more realistic and understandable.

The writing is good in this book as well. Mohsin Hamid can write engaging stories that combine social commentary with poignant emotions. There is actually a sentimental thread of old-fashioned romance that runs through the narrative. It balances the sourness of the themes and adds an additional dimension of how a woman, a poor one at that, survives in the same society. The man's journey and the woman's divergent journey provide an unsaid commentary on gender inequalities in a developing country. The contrast was subtly woven into the context of the story. I was impressed that the characters were so well developed despite the unique narration. 

Towards the end of the book, Hamid focuses on human relationships rather than the social themes that dominate the first half of the book. While I really liked his treatment of the topic and the nuances that dominate human relationships, it doesn't fit in with the title or theme of the book. In that regard, the story does drift into a whole new genre after a certain point, which some readers may not like. 

I really liked the book. I am always amazed at authors who write a short and crisp book that effortlessly pack a gamut of themes. This is a well-written book that is worth reading. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reflections: Moth Smoke

Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a book that I really liked. So I checked out his other two books to read. This is his debut book.

Darashikoh Shezad is a disillusioned, frustrated banker living a dissatisfied middle-class life in Lahore, Pakistan. Family and social circumstances have restricted his opportunities in life and this embitters him, turning him into a sour, jaded young man. Frustration slowly mounts and one day he vents out on a sleazy client and ends up losing his job. Due to rampant nepotism and other corrupt practices, he struggles to find another job to support himself. At this time, he reconnects with his best friend from school - a man half as smart and capable as him and with less-than-stellar character - who now has a western education, and a luxurious life complete with a beautiful, intelligent wife, and an adorable son. The two friends have such divergent paths, thanks to one major difference in their lives - a wealthy father. His friend was privileged enough to have one, and he did not. When Darashikoh sees the contrast between their two lives, the unfairness of the situation hits him hard and he begins to have conflicting emotions of jealousy and guilt towards his friend’s life. With bills piling, he tries to escape reality by living a heedless life of drugs and adultery. He starts making questionable choices, and slowly, one thing leads to another, and his poor choices quickly escalate to small crimes. Mired in complications, he gradually loses control of his life and gets trampled by the brutal social system in which the upper class always has sway over the lives of those beneath them. This story is about the stifling social & political structures of a corrupt city that lead to the gradual spiraling descent of Darashikoh into hopeless, helpless, self-destruction.

As with his other book, I really liked the writing. Most of the characters, except for the only woman in the story were convincing and well developed. The woman read like a man… the way she thought and acted was unconvincing to me. As for the story, it really captures Darashikoh’s intense resentment towards the way his life has meandered. There were so many things he could have done with his life, but he gives up pursuing anything because of his intense repulsion and dissatisfaction with the corrupt ways of his society. Darashikoh’s resignation over life and his total loss of motivation to redeem his life was frustrating. I could sympathize with him for sure, but only to a certain extent. I didn’t agree or sympathize with him completely shrugging off responsibility for his life and making incrementally poor choices. He could have turned around his life if he was willing to take responsibility and work for it, but his inner spirit had wilted. However, I understand that his story is one of the many ways in which a young man’s life can veer off course due to the untamed consequences of social and economic disparity in a developing country. Obviously, Pakistan and India share almost the same socio-economic issues. One can easily substitute Lahore with any Indian city or town, and the story and characters would still fit in perfectly. In this regard, the book hits a familiar note.

Despite my few frustrations with the protagonist’s choices, I found the book engaging and well-written for an absorbing read. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reflections: The White Tiger

This popular novel has garnered strong opinions from readers on either sides of the love/hate fence. As always, I had no inclination to read this book when it was at its peak. Now that everyone has read, raved, ranted, and forgotten, I picked it up.

I listened to the audio-book, so here’s my brief comment on the audio version narrated by John Lee. It was really good. I was skeptical of how a story rooted in Indian society with Indian names and unique social references would sound through a non-Indian narrator, but on the whole, barring a few (and slight) understandable mispronunciations, the book is narrated really well. Since it’s a short book, the narration was tight paced and absorbing.

Balram Halwai hails from a small village that is tightly controlled by a family of wealthy and ruthless overlords. Survival and bread-winning being a dire necessity, he forgoes education and works as a chauffeur for one of the sons of the overlords in the city of New Delhi. As a chauffeur, or a driver, his place in the social ladder is even below that of the family dog. The pangs of survival and competition constantly gnaw at him as he is forced to accept sub-par treatment every day. Then one day, a tragic incident alters everything for him. Something in him snaps, and his rebellious, survival spirit rears itself menacingly. He commits a murder and escapes to Bangalore to reinvent himself as a successful entrepreneur.

The themes covering the book - caste and social inequality, poverty, corruption, oppression, displaced wealth and the effects of globalization in a developing country - are, for the most part, not eye-opening in anyway for an Indian like me. I know, I’ve seen, I am frustrated. To me, what stands out about this book is the characterization and writing. Despite this being a short book, the story is compelling, and no words are wasted in shaping the characters and setting the scene. The breadth of social themes mentioned are quite complicated to address through a short story, but Adiga’s strength lies in the simplicity and clarity through which he describes and states things as is - he doesn’t flinch, look around for metaphors, or build a sentimental wrap to cover the harsh glare of the themes. As difficult it is (especially for Indians) to face the bitter facts of our society, I have to agree that this story does capture the essence and extent of corruption as seen through the prism of caste and economic inequalities plaguing the nation.

Most Indian readers fret that this book shines the spotlight on unappealing aspects of India and worry that readers from the West would rashly add another stereotype to the several other stereotypes that Indians already face. I understand the concern, but I think in this age of information, if someone chooses to jump to conclusions and stereotypes a country based on a novel, you cannot help them in any which way. It’s not the books fault. The book tells an honest story, albeit a single story.  Do I think some parts/incidents are exaggerated? Not really. I have seen drivers and maids and guards and other sundry men and women being treated with disdain and total disregard. Not all the time, and not by everyone, of course, and this should be kept in mind before rashly generalizing. I have also seen and know of touching relationships between drivers and employers, maids and women of the household etc. And Adiga does bring this out (albeit subtly) through his characters. Ashok (the “master”) and his wife begrudge the unfair treatment and begin to form a good relationship with Balram. However, they do little when circumstances change and they slowly settle into the ways of things by choosing to ignore and not dwell on certain aspects. Eventually, no matter where you are on the social ladder, one’s instinct to survive always overrules every other moral or ethical belief. That is the crux of this book. Those privileged to be at the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder wouldn’t mind trampling on the those on the lower rungs to save themselves - this is universally true regardless of a developing or developed society, especially in corporate and political environments. That an underdog managed to survive and climb the social ladder by overthrowing some on the top is a rare occurrence, as rare as spotting a white tiger.

The only thing that didn’t line up against the bristling honesty and reality of the book is the premise for the narration. Balram writes about his life-story and India’s socio-economic state to the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Why would he want to confess his deeds to anybody, let alone the Chinese Premier? When he’s fought so hard to get to where he is, why would he want to sabotage that through a written admission of his crimes? Does he think he has reached such a powerful state that he believes he can blatantly confess with impunity? Perhaps, but I didn’t find it convincing.

This is an interesting read, especially from the standpoint of the characters and writing. This is a short, but crisp and powerful read. 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Reflections: Bossypants

American Television's widely adored funny woman, Tina Fey, writes about her professional ascent in a male-dominated world while maintaining a fulfilling and meaningful personal life.

I began reading this book on a whim. After my steep descent into depression upon reading this book, I needed something light and witty to lift my spirits. This book caught my eye in the library and I picked it up.
Many people call this book hilarious and ROTFL-funny. It was not. But it was witty, sarcastic, and yes, funny. You will chuckle now and then, too.

What I liked about this collection of essays is Tina Fey's prudence to not share everything, especially details of her personal life. Whatever she does share, she is honest and open. I really liked this approach to writing a memoir. When authors share a lot of intimate details about their private life, I think it mainly serves as fodder for the readers' general (and sometimes perverse) curiosity and nothing else. I commend them for their open-mindedness to share, but I am not sure what I, the reader, a stranger, gets out of reading all that. In that sense, Tina Fey's memoir has my respect and appreciation. She shares what needs to be, in the right doses, so that women (in specific) can get something out of it.

The book mostly encourages women (of all professions) to doggedly pursue and shape their career, no matter how impossible the prospects seem. Fey pushes women to not give up, and she does so by giving instances of her own escapades - ups and downs. She is self-effacing and self-deprecating in her stories, and through this approach, she conveys the message that she is not a super-woman and anyone can break through in a male dominated world if they worked hard, grabbed every opportunity, and made the best of everything that came their way.

While her self-deprecating humor is witty and even endearing, it becomes too much after a while. For if Tina Fey repeatedly alludes to herself as a wide-hipped, ugly troll with "shark" eyes and bad skin, I run out of adjectives for myself... not a "feel good" path you want to go down. She tries hard to set a realistic balance between the media's portrayal and expectation of beauty and real beauty, and I appreciate it, but when she tries hard to not be vain, she begins sounding all the more vain and insecure. Yet, women can relate to this contradiction and insecurity.

Along those lines, she also shares her vulnerabilities as a woman, her anxiety regarding her biological clock, her fumbles and challenges with motherhood, and the ultimate challenge of juggling her professional and personal life without letting either of them suffer. Most women can relate to her, empathize with her, and find comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.. they also learn interesting strategies to manage family and work. Tina Fey's stress levels seem really really high, though. So, one can also find comfort in the knowledge that one rarely gets to do the things she has to do, and that our lives are in many ways manageable.
This is a feminist's perspective of having it all, and Tina Fey delivers with wit and intelligence. This is a light and easy read for some quick inspiration.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Reflections: The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a poignant story of a German girl coping with the loss of her family as she gradually grows to love her foster family during the bitter and terrible times of World War II. Even before she blossoms into a woman, Liesel witnesses far too much brutality and pain. One of her first coping instincts is to pick up a book, a memorabilia of sorts, to remind her of her family. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to read, she still carries the book with her like a treasured and comforting teddy bear. Her kind foster father realizes this and he teaches her to read. Reading is her blessing, her ultimate coping mechanism to make sense of the world around her and to lose herself in other beautiful worlds. The power of words is her savior - to express, to understand, to create, and to hold onto thoughts far away from her crushing reality. And so, she begins collecting, and then “stealing” books, as meticulously and cautiously as a bird gathers twigs to build its nest. As Liesel wades through the muddled waters of her adolescence, she builds relationships with her foster family and neighbors, particularly a young boy her age, and most notably, a battered Jew hiding in her foster family’s basement. Books and a handful of people are all she has left, but the war threatens to take it all from yet another innocent soul.

One of the most memorable aspects of this book is the narrator. The narrator is Death himself. But this version of Death has a soul, a penchant for colors, wit, humor, and even compassion. An irony. Death’s perspectives on war, and his “duty” and attachment towards mortals feel good to read, but he’s personified like a “guardian angel” without wings; he seems like an angel in disguise recruited for the wrong job. Despite the fairy tale nature of how Death is portrayed, the irony is not lost and he is a great narrator. After the initial few chapters you forget who the narrator is because the ominousness that initially gripped you fades away.

The writing is the best part of this story. It is beautiful, poetic and touching. The characters begin to have a life of their own and their pain and anguish become palpable. Every character is memorable and distinct. This is also the first book I have read that recounts the sufferings undergone by non-Jewish Germans. I thought the author was sensitive and insightful about the ways in which war spreads its tentacles (sorry for the horrible metaphor).

This is a book that is well worth reading for the beautiful writing and interesting characters.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Reflections: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This is a documentation of the poverty ridden lives of real Bombay slum dwellers who were residing near the Bombay Airport that was undergoing a beautiful and glamorous renovation a couple of years ago.  

Another book on Bombay slum dwellers, because there are so very few books and movies on them, right? That must have been my first warning. But, I truly expected something different. The title and the image on the cover gave me an irrational instinct that the book would be different, that it would somehow portray some aspects that have never been touched before - perhaps something uplifting about the human spirit, it’s tenacity and optimism even in the face of hopelessness. In hindsight, it was foolish of me to expect such things. And rightfully, all my expectations were brutally murdered and put to rest.

Remember the debate that photojournalists face on whether or not to interfere with nature and circumstances while reporting a story or an event? Which side are you on? In support of not interfering or interfering? Or perhaps like many, you sit on the fence and argue that it depends on the circumstances. For the most part, I understand that it’s not wise to interfere with nature’s course and to observe and record events for the benefit of awareness, education, and science. But when I see videos of upturned baby turtles struggling to right themselves up to swim away before a predator snares them, something in me just does not agree. I think it’s cruel to exploit the tragic plight of the turtle, and it’s even more inhumane of the photographer to not help it. It’s okay, every creature deserves to get a few random lucky chances… that’s also part of how Nature works… your small act of kindness is not going to disrupt the ecosystem. Isn’t it part of your innate humanity to want to rescue something that’s in pain and struggling in front of you? That too when all it takes is just a flick of your finger? You can report the truth, but why not stop the camera at some point to help instead of choosing to film the slow agonizing death of the animal? However, when a documentary captures how a predator hunts a prey, it’s disturbing, but as my husband reminds me, the lion also needs to survive, and it’s tricky to take sides, because no matter what, one of the two animals suffers in the end… so I sort of understand that interfering isn’t wise in such situations.  So, I do understand both sides of this debate and I often switch sides based on the footage and the circumstances.

That said, reading this book made me feel like watching a dozen writhing baby turtles struggling to right themselves up, but never do. And I got to read a few hundred pages of their slow torturous misery. Needless to say, this is the most depressing, excruciatingly painful book I have ever read, and will possibly ever read. I made the dumb mistake of reading this book on a vacation, and it ruined my mood. I was sleepless, guilt-ridden for everything I was blessed with, shocked, and terribly upset for days. It’s taken me quite a bit of will to revisit this book to write about it.

The author researches on the strategies that people in low-income communities employ in order to survive and rise above poverty. So this is her unbiased, honest, methodical research document. She states how rigorously research protocols were followed, how each “subject” was thoroughly interviewed more than 120 times in relation to some events, and how she left no stone unturned in her quest to report the truth of the stories. Commendable from a purely research standpoint, but there’s something unethical and inhumane when a researcher decides to objectively write about the rat bites that babies routinely endure than intervene in some little way. I understand that it’s beyond the capability of the researcher to help everyone in the slum or go out of her way to change their lives - that’s not her line of work, but some of the incidents in this book are clearly too much for anyone to just observe and record. These people are not subjects behind some one-way mirror… their lives are not open to research scrutiny and analysis. To me, it is an exploitation of tragic lives. What do the participants get in return for sharing their life stories? Advertisement and awareness? Forgive my ignorance, aren’t people already aware of tragic lives that slum dwellers lead? Especially those in Bombay? Do the graphic details and individual stories matter? I can understand if certain specific themes or social topics hitherto unknown are brought to light. But,  that's not the case. It doesn’t help much to regurgitate on the same themes concerning poverty and corruption in a developing country - it’s one more document stacked against thousands.  It’s one thing if reporting these stories would help the individuals in any way to get justice, charitable aid, or guidance, but I don’t think any of their lives have changed, or changed much. Maybe some of the readers have decided to help the individuals, or perhaps the politicians and policy makers in India will take notice, if at all. And if these benefits outweigh my irrational emotional outburst, I am sincerely relieved and happy.

This book is “insightful” and “fascinating” and “beautiful” mostly to readers in the West, or if you support photojournalists taping footage of helpless, dying animals. If you are from India, please do not inflict misery onto yourself by reading this book… you do not learn anything new.

Many will argue against my contention and harsh review of this award-winning book, and I can understand their points of view, but not agree with them, for this is how I feel - as emotional, irrational and silly as it might be. I may not have been able to eloquently articulate and put my finger on exactly what bothers me so much about this research document, but my instincts strongly rebel against it. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Reflections: A Personal Matter

Oe Kenzaburo is the 1994 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I find most books of well acclaimed authors a mystery. Perhaps I’m just a philistine, but I go into these books with expectations and trepidations, and I either come out of the experience extremely intimidated and feeling inadequate or just wanting for more. A Personal Matter made me want for more.

The central plot of the novel is both simple and complex. It is the story of a man coming to terms with the birth of his first son, born with a rare medical complication. The protagonist, referred simply as the “Bird” (due to his fragile physical and mental frame), is firstly unprepared to become a dad. He’s in complete denial and is vexed with anxiety. He hates his work, is unhappy in his marriage, dreads the prospect of being a dad, and generally hates everything about himself and his life. Pretty bleak. His self worth is little to none and his anxiety and fear towards facing anything in life is crippling. It is precisely in the midst of this troublesome period that he gets a call from the hospital saying that there is something terribly wrong with his son. His mother-in-law hints at getting rid of the “monster” child and the doctors try to hint at something similar. His wife desperately banks on him to save their child. What is fragile Bird to do when all he wants to really do is flee away from everything and turn back time?

Reading the “synopsis” of the story, you would appreciate why the novel is both simple and complex. There is only one simple, honorable answer to the question plaguing Bird - He needs to try and save his child. But given Bird’s frame of mind, it isn’t so simple. The short and taut novel is about Bird’s journey towards accepting the realities of what is happening around him and trying to face his responsibilities. There is never a boring, dragging moment in the story. Bird is caught in a whirlpool of time and emotions, and events unfold fast. The anxiety that Bird throbs with is so palpable. He goes to the very extreme of cowardice and irresponsibility and then as if he is incapable of anymore denial, takes a sharp turn. This is where I found myself wanting for more. There are so many interesting themes to this novel but Kenzaburo focuses all his attention on Bird’s plagued inner journey and tunes out the rest. Even Bird’s journey seems to be preemptive and rushed, although I appreciate how Bird connected with his conscience and changed himself.

I was expecting more on the role of Choice in a man’s life when he would rather do without choice or responsibility. I wanted Kenzaburo to take the reader through a realistic journey of acceptance - one that takes time, internal angst, and even mistakes and realizations along the way. Bird goes through angst, makes mistakes and fumbles, but the “realization” part was lacking. I guess Bird’s rapid journey makes sense, given the time pressure involving a sick infant. But,  there was more time dedicated to how Bird tries to run away from the problem itself and very little focus on how he actually comes around - which is the meaty piece, according to me. Perhaps that is the elusive mystery… maybe people do come around in a flash in such emotionally draining and time sensitive situations.

The social thread in this story - of how not just society, but even doctors and grandparents look at an ill child as being unwanted and “abnormal” had a lot of potential waiting to be developed. I can imagine so many unwritten pages dealing with the intersection of Japanese culture, society, and consequently, the moral as well as social implications that go with one’s choice.

All that said, this is a well written novella with a starkly drawn protagonist. I read this book in May of this year, but I still vividly remember Bird and all the emotions he goes through. It explains why Kenzaburo is so revered in the literary world. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Reflections: Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is a difficult novel to write about. It is a dystopian science-fiction story involving a subject matter that is grave and disturbing. It is a good thought experiment on the ethics of scientific practices that affect humanity - in both positive and negative ways. Ishiguro builds the story in a nonchalantly reserved manner, and you don’t realize when things hit you. It doesn’t hit you all at once, and it isn’t dramatic in any way, but the story washes over you only after you have read it, and it haunts you. This is a powerful novel that unequivocally makes the case that humans are humans, no matter how they come into being, and they should be treated with equal rights to freedom of will, respect, and dignity.

From the start of the novel, the reader realizes that something is eerie with the setting and the characters. And as the mystery thickens and the pieces slowly fall into place, the anticipation grips the reader with a hollow dread. Eventually, when the reader realizes what is happening, it is a sickening feeling. The feeling is even more so, because you have started to invest in the characters. The parallel story of the characters’ lives and their coming of age and maturing is simple and relatable. The more simple, realistic and relatable it is, the more difficult it becomes when the revelation of what is happening to them hits us.

I found this novel interesting from the standpoint of morality. Often times, brutal decisions are made for the common good of humanity. Historians and philosophers have grudgingly admitted that some unfortunate sacrifices are inevitable on the path to achieving something significantly beneficial to a vast majority. It’s a bleary line to determine when the sacrifices are too much and unacceptable, and if the “sacrifices” are incidental versus planned. The fact that the “intentions” are theoretically logical and not “evil”, and the benefits are theoretically as high as the sacrifices, doesn’t matter much in the “equation”. When a system puts together a meticulous plan to sacrifice a set of people to help another set of people, it is much more abhorrent than if the sacrifices were inevitable and random. Besides, the important variable that matters is the victim/s of the sacrifice. If the sacrificial victims were animals and not humans, it shades the issue differently. But with humans as victims, it is an ironical case where one (the system/the person) loses some of their essential humaneness/humanity in their quest to help humanity! 

So, there are many levels of questions on morality, life, survival, and what is acceptable in the light of scientific/medical progress, but Ishiguro leaves all this discussion to the reader. In no place does he bring his opinions to the fore or delve into the two sides of the argument or force them on the story or the characters. The story is related through the perspectives of the characters, and he lets the characters make sense of the situation simply from where they stand. 

Also, if someone like me were to write this story, it would be an emotional-fest, but there is none of that either. It is a really restrained writing style - full of insight and elegance -  that’s difficult for a writer to manage, given the nature of the subject matter. Nothing seems heavy when you are reading the book. You feel the weight only after you have finished reading. But through the simple story and understated yet lucid writing, Ishiguro delivers a strong book.

This is a haunting story that’s worth the read.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Reflections: Corelli's Mandolin

I have not watched the movie adaptation of this book, so I don’t have any reference points.

Stories of War that deal with both human suffering and enduring love strike that perfect formula to churn a human heart. Love and tragedy go so well together in stories.

This is the story surrounding the wars that erupted between Greece and Italy during the time of the second world war. This is the story of Pelagia, a Greek woman who lives through the many wars amidst love and loss. The harsh realities of war teach her to value the most essential elements of life and understand the meaning and depth of love. There are several interesting and strong characters in the book. Captain Corelli is one of them. The Italian Captain takes over Pelagia’s island, but has a rare mix of personality traits - kindness and compassion coupled with wit and bravery. He hates war, but is attached to his duty. So he does his best to minimize harm and create friendship and well-being between the Italians and Greek (at least those on the island). Pelagia and the Captain fall in love and patiently hope for the war to end while nurturing ideas of their future together. And then the Germans invade, and everything is washed away.

This is a simple story. But a powerful one. It’s mostly about the ravages of war, and the coming of age of an innocent and intelligent woman. Pelagia is molded and hardened by the horrors around her, and her immense strength provides a beacon of hope to the men in her life. During times of excruciating difficulties and atrocities, the human psyche changes in one of three ways - 1) it is deeply, irrevocably wounded and scarred, withdrawing into a reclusive shell, 2) it manages to rise to a positive place of strength, compassion, and constructive action despite the scars or 3) it sinks into an abyss of self-destructive cruelty and negativity due to the festering wounds. The author explores all of these changes in the human psyche through his extremely well developed characters. He fleshes them out as sympathetic characters, each driven to their ways due to the circumstances of war and survival.

In parallel to the above themes, the story explores the nature of different types of love: the one that is dominated by lust, the one that endures after the fire of lust has burned out, the one that is born from loyalty and admiration, the one that is shared between a parent and child, the one that slowly develops between wounded souls that heal each other, the one that is at the heart of friendships etc. At the end of all the destruction and tragedy, the one essential tonic that keeps us humans going is love. It sounds corny when I write it, but the book beautifully brings this out.

There is also a lot of history in this book. It is primarily a historical document. The characters are just used to color the history more vividly. So, the story moves slow. However, the excellent writing makes the reading experience worthwhile. Despite the heavy theme on war, I appreciated the intelligent humour and wit that laces through the story and the characters. I laughed out loud at scenes, smiled through many passages, and loved Pelagia’s dad and the Captain. In many ways, Pelagia’s dad reminded me of my own, and that made it all the more endearing. I was emotionally invested in the characters and lived through their terrors and hopes. I felt Pelagia’s pain and was moved to tears.

With such great things to gush, I did find one thing unsatisfactory - it was the way the story ended. The last hundred pages seemed rushed, and the ending was inconsistent with the raw realism of the rest of the story. With so much beauty and insight that accompanied the rest of the story, I don’t understand why the author ended the story in an over-the-top romantic manner and with the Captain behaving in the most infuriating manner possible. The ending felt flat and deflated. I guess I am too old for romance of this kind.

That aside, this is a book heavy with thoughtful and intelligent commentary on war, survival, and love. The writing reminded me of a serious version of Wodehouse, which has biased me, no doubt.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reflections: And The Mountains Echoed

I’ve seriously hit a block. I can’t call it  a “writer’s” block, because I’m not a “writer”. But all the non-fun writing and work is keeping my brain constantly fogged and tired. I can barely construct an interesting sentence. However, since my pile of “books to reflect on” keeps growing, here comes a series of shoddy articles, written for the sake of it.

Khaled Hosseini’s  And The Mountains Echoed starts beautifully. It is not a single story, but several threads of stories weaved within each other. This keeps the book both interesting and exasperating, especially after the reader passes the mid-point. At a certain point, it crosses the line from being thoughtful and intelligent and becomes a checklist of interpersonal and social themes that usually make books sound intelligent; too much breadth with little depth. The book begins with the estrangement between a brother and sister who complete each other and love each other in a way that only soul mates are often talked about. For the most part, the novel’s trajectory follows the life of the sister and the characters that are associated with her. Almost every character’s story is recounted (even characters that are not directly associated with the primary narrative), and by some wave of a carefully constructed spell, they are all indirectly playing a role in the overarching story.

The stories are engaging, sensitive, and thoughtful. However, there are just too many characters and too many stories that don’t necessarily tie to the “core” of the book. The primary storyline should have been tightened to bring focus to the book. This book could have served well as a collection of short-stories rather than a novel that covers a spectrum of characters and themes that present themselves over a wildly swinging timeline. More than the volume of characters, I was frustrated with the author’s style of narration that shifts between timelines even within a sentence! Every page, and every few paragraphs has a shift in timeline. The  narrative rocks back and forth between past, present, and future in a manner that is pointless! Although this wasn’t making the story difficult to understand, it was just frustrating and tiring. I understand the beauty of narratives that don’t follow a linear structure, but too much of anything takes away its beauty.

And my pet-peeve - almost all the characters have the same “voice”. They all sound the same, say things in the same beautiful manner, and lack definitive personality. Having too many characters makes it challenging to develop them and give them their “voice”. Some characters were expertly fleshed out, though.

The writing faded into the background, because of the breadth of the stories. My focus was on the stories. The writing propelled the story, but didn’t strike me in any way. It was definitely engaging and easy to read, except for the constant shift in timelines (those sentences were infuriating). There are glimmers of really good characters, good writing, and good social commentary.

One of the things that did strike me as a possible unifying “theme” is every character’s search for something elusive and ephemeral. Everybody has a void and is desperately seeking out to fill that void. Love, self-satisfaction, and self-assurance are some of the things that people want to find, but struggle to understand its nature and challenges when they do come near it. The stories also present the strange and bitter dilemmas posed by Love. Many times, Love brings us to crossroads of decision making wherein every option is equally, painfully difficult to take. Having taken a path, we live the rest of our lives trying to reconcile with the loss of a part of us that died at the time of making a decision, and that we never seem to find in us again, leading us to be eternal seekers of something that cannot be named.

So, all things said, I think the author overdid a few things - his frustrating narrative style of constantly shifting time periods, too many characters with the same voice/style of narration, and  too many themes (from homosexuality in Afghanistan to adoption to parenting to immigrant experience in the US). If the book had focused on just a few core themes central to the primary storyline, it would have worked really well. It is still an engaging read that is hard to put down. But it doesn't stay with you for long.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Theory on Relationships

* I originally wanted to post two sentences on this and call it a brief passing thought. But how little do I know about myself *

They say “Opposites attract”. It makes sense at some abstract level, but it also raises this question of how people can sustain relationships when they are different. From a common-sense point of view, compatibility also rests on a shared ground of similarity. It seems, compatibility requires some delicate balance between differences and similarities. I recently stumbled upon a small realization about this elusive balance.

From observations, interactions and experience, I think couples in successful relationships have certain core personality traits that are completely different. Differences in personality traits seem to work. These opposites attract and seem to sustain.

However, there are also similarities, and these are in the shared ideologies. Couples who share similar ideologies and belief systems are obviously more compatible. I think someone with liberal views and someone with hardcore conservative views are going to be battling each other for several decisions and ways of living. A difficult relationship.

Here’s why I think different personality traits work to the relationship’s advantage. People who are very similar in terms of their personality struggle to get through tough spots - even in day to day living. When the going is good, things are great. But when something happens that weighs down a certain personality type, both people get affected and struggle to move forward. For example, when both people in a relationship are quite sensitive, or prone to anxiety, or are high-strung, their combined anxiety can be disastrous. A balancing personality type would be really beneficial to the individuals and their relationship. On a more philosophical level, such relationships enrich the individuals because they grow and imbibe certain opposite traits for their betterment as the relationship matures. They truly complete and complement each other because they have different things to offer to each other. Taken together, the different  repertoire of characteristic traits come handy while handling life’s varied situations. For example, some situations require sensitivity, while some situations can do with some nonchalance.

The converse - similar personality traits and different ideologies is not going to be helpful. Can you imagine two stubborn personalities with different ways of thinking living under the same roof? I have seen the results ;). But these people at least understand or empathize with each other’s characteristics and motivations.  

At this point in time, I am inclined to rank the combinations thusly:
  1. Most successful - different personality, same ideologies
  2. Hits rough patches when their personality cannot handle life’s curveballs - same personality, same ideologies
  3. Difficult - same personality, different ideologies
  4. Unhappy? Disastrous? - different personality, different ideologies

Another crucial factor is perhaps shared interest. It can sometimes be that vital factor that holds a relationship afloat even when other variables aren’t that favorable. But, I do think that interests relate to ideologies, and to some extent get influenced by personality. Interests primarily flow from ideologies, ways of thinking etc., and gets honed by personality. I know people in very successful relationships (different personality, same ideologies) who don’t share any common interests or activities, but they are happy to engage in their separate interests and find a way to collaborate. Time away from each other is precious too. The husband is a man’s man - loves sports, building things, problem-solving. Wife loves cooking, crafting, painting. And they built their house together - from scratch. Husband was the contractor, architect, engineer, builder. Wife was the painter, decorator, planner, provider of nourishment. You would think this example is a pre-feminist stereotype, but people like this exist today as well and they are doing great. As I mentioned earlier, these two people are bringing in many different skill sets to the game and are figuring out a way to use their interests to complement a common goal. Common goals arise from common ways of thinking.  So, I am not including shared interest as a third variable to the matrix. It is more of a “weight” that influences the compatibility score within each category.

However, there is another equilibrium to consider. How similar should the similarities be and how different should the differences be to balance two people? What are the threshold values? Is there an optimum ratio of similarities : differences. This is when compatibility becomes unique and subjective to each couple! I kind of understand where astrology is coming from. They start with similar theories, but they ruthlessly pattern-match, extrapolate, and predict without accounting for the range of uniqueness that we humans manifest. We are too unique to be boxed in. When there are two people involved, it becomes even more of a unique situation. A parallel thought - maybe that’s why polygamy is simply impractical and too complicated for most (in addition to the other hairy reasons).

That’s my brain dump for now.