Book Review – The Bachelor of Arts

The second book in A Malgudi Omnibus is compelling, fast, and charged with emotion. However, I have certain issues with the author’s stance on some of the plot elements which, though normal for the time in which the story is set, would definitely be more controversial when viewed in the modern context.

The Bachelor of Arts follows the misadventures of a young man in Malgudi, by the name of Chandran: a graduate student who is stuck between his orthodox upbringing and the progressive, more balanced ideas which his education as well as his exposure to Western ideas have instilled in him. Supporting Chandran is a colourful cast of characters, which serve as Narayan’s commentary on the different aspects of Indian intellectual thought at the time: Chandran crosses paths with an aspiring revolutionary, an upcoming political leader, and a poet, all of whom at one point or another resonate with him; personifications of his own opinions, his views, if you will.

About the controversial elements that I previously mentioned: Chandran’s behaviour towards Malathi, the girl with whom he becomes infatuated, may be interpreted today as stalking and obsession. However, Narayan’s signature humour and his eloquence romanticise these elements, which leaves me confused as to whether he was a product of his time, or if he was merely being ironic in romanticising child marriage and obsession. Certainly these incidents(or problems) have often been seen in many romances in the Indian context, but my hesitation in taking them as such stems from Narayan’s own quick wit and his progressive nature as a writer. There were similar themes explored in another of his novels, The Guide, which I have read but not had the time yet to review: in it, the author explores the morality and harmless deception of sainthood. Even though some of the actions taken by the titular guide, Raju, are not always moral or honourable, there is a great deal of passivity throughout the tale: Narayan is, in essence, without a stance; he is only a storyteller, and the unveiling of his stance he leaves to us. Never condoning or condemning, he leaves to the reader the moral.

Perhaps The Bachelor of Arts, for all it’s seriousness, should be taken in a similar light. Perhaps reading too much into immorality is in itself immoral.

Orthodoxy is similarly explored in the book; Chandran begins his journey as a young student who is simultaneously at odds with orthodox values and yet cannot wholly deny them because of his upbringing; by the end, whether he subscribes to orthodoxy or not, he most certainly finds his happiness because of it. This is the part of the book I have a problem with. As a person who finds orthodox values unreasonable and outdated, I have great difficulty in believing that Narayan gives his characters salvation within it. I choose to believe that he does it ironically.

Do I always agree with Narayan’s portrayal of a young man going through conflict in his life, and finding solace in what I, as someone living in the 20th Century, have come to resent? Not always. Do I think that The Bachelor of Arts reflects something that would otherwise be inconceivable to us as readers, through it’s representations of the angst and dissatisfaction of young people which trancsends time and place? I do, and for that reason alone I’d reread this book.

As Narayan signs off, he says:-

“But then, it is a poet’s business only to ask questions; he cannot always expect an answer.”

Maybe readers are poets too. Maybe we’ve come to recognise that not everything yields answers.

Book Review – Swami and Friends

Even before A Malgudi Omnibus came into my possession, I had read Swami and Friends, in it’s abridged, slightly modified edition: Malgudi Schooldays. As something I’ve read both as a child and as a student of English Literature, I can still feel the idyllic pleasure it inspires, and at the same time read between the lines to delve into the darkness it explores, as part of it’s pre-Independence setting.

You would be forgiven if you felt that Swami and Friends is pure children’s literature, and you would even, in part, be right. It embodies a time that was both simpler and yet more difficult to live in at the same time: blazing heat through the winking leaves of the peepal trees by the banks of the Sarayu, Ebenzar’s fanatical rant on the Hindu pantheon; sweet lemon pickle to suck on, amidst protest meetings declaring the boycott of British cloth. It takes on back to days which are scarcely imaginable now, in some ways quite literally: the anna is no more, schoolmasters do not advocate beating as the best method to ensure improvement, and the hoop, a symbol of delight and freedom that Swami can only dream of, would not be worth a child’s consideration today.

If I were to wax poetic about the aesthetic of the novel, I would say it makes one nostalgic for a time which one has never even experienced. The memory of colonial India lives on in this book, with both it’s delights and it’s horrors: felt, breathed, and sometimes closely examined, through the eyes of a child. Swami and Friends is an exercise in capturing paradox.

However, as I previously stated, a reader would only be partially correct in placing this book in the genre of children’s literature. It becomes very, very dark in places, as it explores themes of colonial subjugation, cultural and religious intolerance(Ebenzar, the Scripture master at Swami’s school, is quite vocal about what he perceives as Sri Krishna’s “gallivanting”), police brutality, seen first-hand by Swami, the book’s protagonist. However, the fact that R.K. Narayan’s effortless style in writing, and his lighthearted humour, always balance out these incidents with amusement and a child’s dreamy perception and forgetfulness, make for a read that is not depressing, but both pleasurable and grounded in reality. It is not the seriousness of the novel which mars the child’s vision, but rather the child’s vision which softens the seriousness.

Characters in this novel reflect people, the people of that time: their attitudes, idiosyncracies, nuances; however, sometimes(though I never faced this myself) their close resemblance to stereotypical representations of pre-Independence citizens causes them to be interpreted as such. Sometimes, Swami’s father, owing to his strictness, and his mother, due to her constant fussing, feel no different than the archetypes of the traditional father and mother which we, as a generation, have become accustomed to, and feel inclined to rebel against. My submission is this: the same way we accept colonial atrocities as a fact of history, we must accept these characters as real people, in the flesh, rather than lashing out at what our modern consciousness compels us to perceive as cliches.

All in all, Swami and Friends is, for me, an even better read than it was in Class 8; a mature reading of the text gives one the same childish pleasure as that of a younger reader, along with a deeper understanding of the time it is set in, not as a critique, but as an aspect that was, and forever will be.

Update – A Malgudi Omnibus

Dear readers, this is just a small notice to tell you that I’ve recently bought 3 of R.K. Narayan’s novels bound in a lovely Vintage volume, titled A Malgudi Omnibus. In the days that follow, you can expect my reviews on all three of the novels: Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, and The English Teacher. After I finish with individual reviews, I will post a small article on how the omnibus feels, as a collection. Stay tuned, and happy reading!

Book Review – Dracula

The horror novel Dracula is often quoted to be a stunning example of the gothic genre, and while I have never been able to distinguish the gothic genre’s unique characteristics as an aesthetic, I can see why the novel would be described as being an example of it. It’s unconventional approach to storytelling through the epistolary format, and the unique characterisation that is evident through their distinct narration make for some of the most claustrophobic reading experiences I have had.

It is quite surprising, however, that a reading of Dracula does not feel in place with that of a typical horror story, or at least like a horror story that I, as an inhabitant of, and consumer of, 21st Century popular culture, have come to expect. While the claustrophobia I mentioned does come into play at several points through the perspectives of the four or five principal narrators, Dracula has elements of the adventure novel within it as well, which I feel somehow distort the eerie atmosphere of foggy London. For example, the claustrophobia is at it’s best within the first four or five chapters of the novel, told in the form of a journal kept by Jonathan Harker, one of the primary protagonists. The setting is Dracula’s castle, an obscure, remote fortress hidden behind veils of fog and forests, as well as dark sorcery. It is here that I found the weirdness and foreboding to be at their strongest, for the reader of the journal feels every echo in the psyche of Harker, as he struggles to find the gaps in the net that has closed around him. The fear that Dracula inspires, it does through holding back information about the nature and history of it’s antagonist. Sadly, the novel does not, or rather cannot, hold back information, because the ending of Dracula requires the party, and the reader, to be informed of the backstory as fully as possible. H.P. Lovecraft, personally my favourite horror writer, once wrote:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

When the cold, dark depths of fear in Dracula do emerge, they emerge fleetingly. The best effect is achieved in segments, perfectly placed bits of certain chapters, where something seemingly isolated and freakish is observed and disregarded as a coincidence, whereas the reader knows that it has some unknown connection to the bigger picture.

The indisputable strength of Dracula lies in it’s characters. Their journals, phonograph entries, memorandums are all placed in a chronological order, in the form of a chronicle that records their experience with the King Vampire. What is unique about them is how each character’s entries are distinctly separate from others, how each little turn of phrase and idiosyncrasy comes into light, and is easily recognizable, in subsequent entries. Even Dr. Van Helsing’s tense, quick speech, as narrated by other characters, is apparent in the sparse entries that he makes.

The major issue that I have with the book is it’s climax, it’s ending. The ending feels rushed, incomplete, and while there is no ambiguity in the resolution of the plot, it feels poorly concluded. Dracula, too, is not given sufficient depth; while the author does make it clear that his deeds are repulsive and his motive deadly, one nevertheless wishes for some of the moral conflict and reversal of perspectives that the character has received through his later incarnations, in modern media.

Interestingly enough, Dracula contains within it some social commentary as well, most notably in the form of it’s allusions to the “New Woman”, as referred to by Mina Harker. It’s surprising how one can marvel at Stoker’s appraisal and criticism of the new, insightful female authors who were his contemporaries: he never makes it clear whether he considers that “New Woman” a hideous reversal of the natural order, or is in fact trying to mock the subservient, devoted housewife that Mina Harker represents.

Overall, Dracula has some issues regarding it’s pace of action, it’s presentation, and it’s portrayal of the antagonist. Nevertheless, it’s not a bad read; one can easily enjoy the characters’ distinct personalities, as well as the cramped, inhospitable atmosphere.

Book Review – A Christmas Carol

I read A Christmas Carol a day or two after Christmas, interestingly enough. The chill of winter had not dissipated, and even though I was snug under my blanket, I could feel both unease and warmth alternately entering the folds of my mind and twisting and turning it’s holiday spirit.

A Christmas Carol is, as it is subtitled aptly enough on the title page, A Ghost Story of Christmas. It is a short novella, and it’s events take place entirely in the timeframe of a single night, that of Christmas Eve. It is a deeply personal tale, one that describes the moral corruption of a miserly old man by the name of Ebenzer Scrooge, his reminisence of his past self and his penitence at his decay, and, ultimately, his redemption.

I wish I could tell you, reader, just how pleasant and homely a tale this tale is to read, sitting on your bed in the evening, curtains drawn to keep out the grim cold winter evening as one sees the entire life of Scrooge unfold before their eyes; I wish I could describe to you the beautiful, warm language in which Dickens paints the humanity, fall, and revival of a single man, a microcosm of both British society(similar to many other of Dickens’ characters, notably Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist) and familiar Christian themes; I wish I could tell you how sweet, happy and humble all people are seen to be in the Season of Giving, joyful in poverty as in wealth. Reading A Christmas Carol is not merely recognizing Dickens’ vision of social reform; indeed, one can see it in many other works as well, both by him and other writers. What makes A Christmas Carol so heartwarming is that it is, I believe, I hope, a symbol of nostalgia and fond remembrance as universal as Christmas itself.

Why, you may ask? I would tell you to take a close look at the journey Scrooge is taken on by the three Spirits who come to warn Scrooge of the doom that awaits him if he does not mend his misanthropic, miserly ways. His journey takes him to witness Christmas of Past, Present, and Future: a journey that fills him with nostalgia, love, horror, and repentance, and wrings a profound change in his character.

A Christmas Carol brings with it the desire for being, in very simple, humble words, a brother to one’s fellow men. It brings to it’s reader, through it’s imagery and it’s touching characters, a deep feeling for family and generosity to mankind in general. You will laugh, you will cry, and, by the time the last page has been turned and a crisp Christmas morning greets your eyes, perhaps you too shall smell the fresh scent of holly and the delicious aroma of pudding, wholesome not only because it is delicious, but because you share it with those you love.

I wish I could say more. I really can’t, because there’s nothing to say. A Christmas Carol is a beautiful tale.

Book Review – We

Yevgeny Zamyatin published his seminal work in 1924, a time when the regime of his native country, Russia, was still not the totalitarian dictatorship it would soon become: We was written at a time when the U.S.S.R had not yet degenerated into a force of annihilation, gobbling up smaller nations both culturally and spiritually, degrading them into the nightmarish state of social and political solidarity that their overlords considered ideal. Zamyatin’s novel was, in it’s time, a revolutionary work, something that was prophetic in it’s laying of the foundation stones for the modern dystopian genre(Orwell’s 1984 was heavily inspired by it), as well as a mostly accurate depiction of what might happen when ideal societies become rigid in their enforcement.

It is strange, but since I read 1984 first(a while back; I think it was in November of 2017), the world of We feels disquietingly familiar. It uses the signature hallmarks of the dystopian novel: at least, signature now, in a time when the form and aspect of a dystopian society have been clearly established. Some of these include an all-pervasive indoctrination of citizens(referred to as “numbers”; they are not allowed a name to prevent them from the disease of individual identity) to the propaganda of the One State, the world’s only remaining city; a deific and seemingly omnipotent embodiment of the State’s power, the Benefactor; the presence of a highly elusive and suspicious police force( the Bureau of Guardians); and complete regulation and surveillance of every citizen’s every action, straight from sleep to work to leisure to “educational hours”, where every citizen is regularly exposed to lectures exhibiting the frailty and incapability of the “ancient” world, where happiness was restricted by freedom.

We has a rather unique style of narration, in that it is the only dystopian novel I have read which does not have a protagonist disillusioned by the methods of the regime. Every other dystopian novel I have read so far(and it must be kept in mind that the number is quite limited) has at it’s centre characters who have recognized the flaw in the system they live in, who pine for the freshness and mobility of freedom and critical thought, who warn the reader of the disastrous monotony and stagnation that their socities represent…but We is told through the Journal of D-503, a mathematician who believes fully in the artificial “happiness” that the One State gives to all, one who subscribes fully in synthetically produced music, of the beauty of reason and logic, of the infallibility of routine. Our protagonist is NOT a rebel.

But he is not the ideal citizen he would like to be either. The only other people he is surrounded by, the only other people in a “sea of mirrors” as he himself refers to all numbers, are, in one way or another, agents of dissent and insubordination. The feminine beauty of O-90, the sharp smile and cavernous eyes of I-330, the Negroid lips and gushing speech of R-13, the curved shadow of S-: it is with these elusive characters that our protagonist deals with, and it is the illogical, conflicting nature of his interactions with them that slowly begins to shake his faith in the State, and, more importantly, in himself.

To understand the nature of our protagonist, one must keep in mind two key aspects of his character: his knowledge, his belief, and his love. His knowledge is rooted in his logical training, his devotion to rational thought(one journal entry vividly describes his fear of the mathematical root of -1, an irrational number); his belief in the One State springs from his approval of reason, and since the State’s aim is to integrate society into a perfectly logical, unthinking mass of numbers, his support of it is unwavering; and his love of the two female figures in his life, O- and I-, is what confuses and slowly begins to break his reason and sense of duty to the state, splitting him into a frenzied state of anxiety and moral dilemma.

Our perfectly logical protagonist meets I-330 during an abstract admiration of the State’s assimilation of it’s numbers; I- is a rebellious, outspoken “enemy of happiness” as the State refers to all those who do not agree with it’s vision, and thus do not fit into it’s image of the future. I- represents sin, the right to disagree, an ironic fondness for the natural world outside the Green Wall, the glass dome covering the rational pillars of civilization; and she represents something else too: our protagonist’s hidden side, a side of him which he himself alternatively recognizes as the “true” him and loathes as an anomaly, a sickness. He begins to feel like a traitor, a disease, after meeting I-, and his mental degradation and fear of “growing a soul” are fascinating: he begins to love, to walk, to learn to admire the asymnetry and unequal proportions of the Ancient House, a museum dedicated to the lunacy of the ancient order of freedom. His fear of the irrational and his unbridled lust for I-, which he tries to shackle, both exist at the same time, and he sees himself as a hindrance to the duties he is required to perform in service to the State.

Every dystopian work has at it’s centre a defining point of the society it depicts: 1984 has the subversive use of language to trick citizens into accepting the Party’s version of the truth; The Handmaid’s Tale has the marginalisation and gradation of women into castes, ostensibly for their benefit; Brave New World has the unthinking stupor of soma, and meaningless sex to keep the population quiet and satisfied. Similarly, We has at the heart of it’s society the idea that reason and the restrictive force of cold logic can create Paradise on Earth. It is very, very disturbing to see, in We as in 1984, just how close the creators of these twisted Edens came to describe horrific future regimes; anyone who is familiar with the atrocities of the Soviet Union under Stalin can understand Zamyatin’s distress and worry at what he perceived as an inhuman attempt to boil people down to numbers, to force them to put aside their individual identity, their rights, for the collective.

It is not surprising, then, that We was unavailable to the Russian masses until long after it’s first publication in 1924. Power always fears critical thought, and no regime has ever seen complete and unanimous support: fortunately.

We stands out as one of the earliest forerunners of the dystopian genre as we know it, but it is more than that. It is a look at the deterioration of a man, his beliefs, and his way of looking at the world. It is the death of his innocence, so to speak, a demolition of the barriers of faith by the winds of dissent, uncertainty, and lust. It is the transition of the plural to the singular, the indistinguishable to the unique.

Book Review – Brave New World

My last brush with the dystopian fiction genre took place upon reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; I remember quite liking it, finding parts of it highly relevant, owing to their presence in parts of the real world, thus allowing for the possibility of the existence of such a regime as the Republic of Gilead in the future. The merits of a work of dystopian fiction are judged by how closely they resemble, or evoke the possibility of, similar nightmarish circumstances that may happen, or have already happened, on this Earth. Orwell’s 1984, owing to it’s deep, immersive plot describing a totalitarian regime that has effectively eradicated individual thought, complex language, and privacy, is one of my favourite novels for this very reason: there is no aspect of that work which has not already created a spectacle in several political regimes of the world. Mass surveillance, thoughtcrime, the creation of a cult image around a ruling figure, or rather a figurehead, all these have at one point or another been implemented at various points in world history, notably in Nazi Germany, and, more recently and prominently, in North Korea. However, I digress: it is Huxley’s satirical attempt at looking at a seemingly perfect World State that this review is meant to examine, not Orwell’s Oceania.

The plot of Brave New World takes place in the year known as A.F. 632, which is 632 years after the birth of American inventor and industrialist Henry Ford(precisely this would be the year 2495), revered as a deity by the citizens who inhabit the World State, a unified government under the leadership of ten “Controllers”, supreme leaders who see to the upholding of the general set of ethics and standards that are meant to be the guiding principles for social stability. I say “ethics” isntead of “laws” because Brave New World is fundamentally different from 1984 by the nature of it’s theme: where the latter attempted to envision a totalitarian state that governed by fear and the use of “Newspeak” to eliminate radical thought, Brave New World weaves a world where the population is kept in check by serving them happiness on a plate, quite literally: soma, the government-authorized, and encouraged, drug, is widely available and used; the social institution of family and marriage has been completely done away with, and sex is vigorously encouraged to be performed recreationally and with multiple partners. All these make sure that the population is freely and happily a consumerist one, a body that not only restrains itself from thinking and questioning too much, but finds that activity far too troubling to be worth the effort. After all, why worry when you’re being given the means to be happy?

Social unrest and the inconvenience of ambiton has been abolished by the simple process of artificial breeding: babies are now fertilized, bottled, conditioned to their pre-destined castes and made to conform to all norms of the new age in factories, thus making them ideal citizens; propaganda is universally accepted, and the curtailing of literature and radical thought is achieved by the citizens’ refusal to comply to anything which they have not been conditioned to accept. The economy flows steadily owing to the highly consumerist mindset of society at large;citizens are actively encouraged to buy as much as they can, and to reject anything old-fashioned; the word “old”, in fact, is scorned like vermin, for mending prevents spending.

Sometimes, when I was reading the book, I felt confused: was Huxley trying to warn his readers of the dangers of consumerism, promiscuity and the risks of scientific progress as he saw in his visit to America, or was he laying down a blueprint for an ideal society which could be free from the inconstancy of human nature, a stable, self-sustaining paradise which was not out of man’s grasp? The interpretation, as always, is left up to the reader.

Brave New World takes it’s name from Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:-

“O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

And what people there are. Only the few characters that Huxley allows to have an individual self allow us to distinguish the remnants of the individual within this sea of community that is A.F. 632: islands amidst forces so magnanimously unnatural and controlled that they have become the nature of the age; every aspect of society is a cruel, reversed caricature of the society that we have, or Huxley had, in his time. Ironic are the norms of this world, as John, a denizen of one of the Savage Reservations where this new “civilization” has not been implemented, observes: infatuated by Lenina Crowne, a thoroughly beautiful and thoroughly civilized woman of the Other Place, he imagines himself Romeo, as Ferdinand, as Shakespearean heroes of old, forgotten beauty which no longer have a place in modernity, for men have changed, and with them have changed the times. Society does not change; it is men who change it, men who choose their happiness, and what empty, unmeaningful happiness it is, for, as John says to Mond, the World Controller of Western Europe:-

“Nothing costs enough here.”

Where does humanity go when it’s challenges have been eradicated, when war, famine, disease have been removed with surgical precision? To climb to the top of a mountain there must first be a mountain to begin with, a peak to revere, rocks to cut oneself on; without that we are all nothing but ants going about our routine, each living for the community: an admirable goal in itself, but does the ant know anything more than that?

Brave New World gives us these questions to ponder, but whether we choose to live as ants in paradise or as men in a tumultous world of possibilities where instability is the norm, must be left to the reader.

Huxley’s characters are not heroes, not villains; they are men. The few men who still retain their individuality in this time of uniformity and identical ambitions are quite profound and of extraordinary depth, something that is quite stunning against the larger backdrop of the times and society they live in. From the outwardly Herculean, quietly sad, almost masochistic writer Helmholtz Watson, who hungers after actual beauty in a mundane, materialistic world, to Bernard Marx, the outcast who never feels at home with his peers, insecure at his incompatibility with a world he disagrees with and a society he scorns, to John “the Savage”, an old romantic who breathes mysticism and Shakespearean insults, to even the Controller himself, a man who, though inwardly appreciative of beauty, dissent, and even rebellion, still consciously chooses to uphold society with it’s hedonistic practices, chooses to sacrifice art and expression for the sake of peace and health.

“…stability isn’t nearly as spectacular as instability…Happiness is never grand.” – Brave New World

Huxley writes in an intense, descriptive style: one can feel the ironic juxtaposition of perspectives, the elation and stupor of soma, the colours and artificial scents that aim to dampen the mind by pleasuring the senses. I cannot comment on Huxley’s style by one novel alone, but I shall say this: his words are plain and factual until they are not. He shifts between characters’ perspectives in the third-person: Bernard has as distinct a way of speaking to himself, a contemplative, pessimistic drone, as John – bold, noble, dashing, archaic – Shakespearean in it’s form and intensity. Huxley effortlessly changes his language according to the treatment of his characters, and if this does not persuade the reader that his characters are deep, it will at least convince them to devour their speech.

Does Brave New World hold up? Is it relevant? I’d say it is, although in the present scenario I would say that the danger of such a society as it describes is not as great as that of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of IngSoc. We do not yet live in an age where individual thought is voluntarily sacrificed owing to the easy alternative of state-distributed drugs and recreational sex, although the threat of a predominantly consumerist society has been accelerated by globalisation and the hegemonic power of the West, specifically the U.S. The danger exists, it hovers above our minds, closer than it was in 1932, the time of Huxley’s writing. Shall we one day live in a seemingly perfect paradise where happiness shall be the orgasmic norm? If that day ever comes, a day when babies are bottled in factories and the word “mother” is an obscenity, we shall know that, in Orwell’s words:-

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” – 1984

A Glimpse of the Past – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I remember my first time reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; it was a dog-eared, slightly old edition from my school library. I don’t remember which class I was in – probably in the 7th or 8th – and the pages were the colour of coffee. I remember lovely details which the film glossed over (Snape’s brief stint as a Quidditch referee) and I remember small instances of humour which often smoothed over the small, not unexpected horrors of a typical wizarding education.

Fast forward to 2019, and I’m a two-time dropout, a man with a slight understanding of Big Brother and Dickens, and more free time than I know what to do with. I am at my wit’s end – nothing seems enjoyable, time seems endless, and work seems non-existent. I pick up my Bloomsbury Signature edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A rush of wind and a fluttering heartbeat later, I drop down the rabbit hole into – the world of Hogwarts, flying broomsticks and Chocolate Frogs.

Harry Potter is timeless. I remember my first brush with the story back when I was a kid in Haldwani, Uttarakhand. The first film was out on Pogo, and my mother had decided to make me watch it with her. After the first few scenes, I remember leaving to take a bath, and I can still hear, see, and feel the moments that followed. I was in the middle of the soaping stage when Ma yelled,”Babu! Come quick, he let the python loose!”

I digress. To come back to the point…

There isn’t a point. Nostalgia and warmth and friendship and adventure HAVE no point. What they do have is the charm of memory, of recollection. In 2019, a full-blown reading of the first book is every bit as emotional and funny as whenever you last read it, complete with the swooping giddiness of swallowing your first Golden Snitch. It’s good-old fashioned warmth, the kind of warmth that Butterbeer would bring. The characters are as well-drawn as they were when they first shook Harry’s hand before walking away, banging down front doors to give him his acceptance letter, or trying out dud spells to turn rats yellow. Hermione is still endearing, Draco Malfoy is still arrogant, and Hagrid is still adorable. None of them have aged a day; in fact, you can guess their lines of dialogue before they actually say them. I don’t need to pay attention in the Charms classroom; I already remember the swish and flick, and the wizard Baruffio, who ended up with a buffalo on his chest. Everything is forged in steel; nothing is diminished by age; in fact, I would say that it’s almost improved by it. To my generation, who grew up with the books and films and would give their left arms for a Hogwarts acceptance letter, and who have found how tough it is to grow up in a cynical, selfish world where nearly everyone preaches altruism but practices first-come-first-serve, Harry Potter is a radiant lamp of hope, a shining ray of goodness and faith in an otherwise bleak and uncertain future. Like Harry himself, the book stands as a symbol of endurance, love, and friendship.

Book Review – Death on the Nile

How Agatha Christie contrived to dream up her brilliant masterpieces of passion and violence and cold-blooded calculation and deceit is beyond me. My last foray into her wild plot of murder and confusion amidst the hot sands of Egypt has left me questioning my own judgement of human beings, and the lengths of cunning and deception that they may stoop to in their greed, desire, and sense of authority.

I shall not give away the plot, or even the descriptions of the huge cast of characters; suffice it to say that each player has something to hide, a role to play, a quirk to display, and a personality that is magnanimous and startling to see in a work of detective fiction. As I write this, I can’t help but draw comparisons between a Sherlock Holmes story and this one: a typical Holmes story, while sufficiently engrossing in it’s small details, Holmes’ infallible methods of observation and deduction, is unfortunately deficient in painting it’s antagonists as two-dimensional archetypes. Contrary to this, an Agatha Christie story is often brimming with characters more magnanimous than the crime itself.

Of course, while the characters are in a class by themselves, a detective story is only as engaging as it’s mystery and the solution to it. In this case, the mystery is profound, and the answer is even more so. I will say nothing more of it; it is so mind-numbingly shocking that even the most astute reader will have difficulty in guessing the answer by himself, if he be able to keep up with all the numerous leads in the first place.

Go pick up this book. In fact, pick up anything by Christie. It’s better than sitting at home, waiting for something to happen.

Book Review – Bestseller

Bestseller is one of the best books of 2019 I’ve read so far – period. It has been a long time since I bought a book that wasn’t written by a classic, well-known author. This novel by contemporary novelist Ahmad Faiyaz is funny, relentless and brilliantly satirical in it’s crisp prose and critical view of the Indian publishing industry.

The novel follows the arrival in India of one Akshay Mathur, former London-based magazine editor, whose loss of a job brings him back to India with a mission: revive Kalim Publishing, a fading publication house, within a year. So the time span is over a year, and the time jumps between the different events that unfold serve to give the novel a fast pace and an unbelievably tense atmosphere, but not in the way one would expect in a thriller. This novel is not tense and fast the way one would expect a James Bond movie to be; it’s tense and fast in the same way as The Wolf of Wall Street.

There are some characters in this book who are archetypes of what one would expect in an Indian office: the experienced sales head with a paunch and his leering smile; the tired old uncle who is adamant yet wise in his own way; and the receptionist with traditional values but a heart of gold. There are also characters we know from the news, painted with vibrant colours and overly exaggerated to depict their excess. Over the course of some 200 pages, readers will meet an actor with a drug problem and a narcissistic love for his own hedonism and publicity; a benevolent politician out for revenge; and ancient, experienced author with decades of experience and pleasure; and the curvy attractive novelist with a penchant for publicity and drama. The only thing all these characters have in common is that they never fail to amuse, impress, and sadden the reader in their own turn.

In fact, it is the characters who make this book such a memorable read: every minute detail of their appearance and speech is believable and familiar, especially to an Indian reader. The familiar use of colloquial Hindi slang and swearing will appeal to any Indian: it’s illuminating, fresh and a complete page-turning experience.

There are also some inconsistencies in this book that I’d like to address, but of them I would first say that they in no way diminish any of the book’s charm. That being said, they do confuse you just a little bit; at least, they did me.

The first thing that I have an issue with is that it’s never exactly made clear WHEN the events of the novel take place – there are a few details that are conflicting in their consistency; it’s the way they’re put together. A few chapters in, we’re told by Akshay that Facebook is the next new place to be after Twitter; yet there are other details which make it clear that the story is unfolding much after the social network came about. It’s confusing and if someone can tell me what it’s about, feel free. It may just be that I wasn’t paying attention.

And, finally, about the protagonist, our hero, Akshay Mathur. He’s every bit as beautifully crafted as the rest of the characters, and he goes through a beautiful transition from a jaded, cynical editor, one who is skeptical of Indian literature and can’t wait to return to London, to an Indian who truly cares about the world of Premchand and Ruskin Bond. Through his eyes we see and through his touch we feel the little idiosyncrasies of the people around him, their little feats of ignorance, their passion for their beliefs, their rowdiness, their ambition and their obsession. It’s also by their views that the author of Bestseller delves into the current atmosphere in Indian literature; I won’t spoil details, but I will say this: if you have wondered at the current literary scene in India, there are inside jokes which can and will make you laugh aloud.

Bestseller is fast, beautiful, heartbreaking sometimes, but above all – it’s funny and mesmerizing: a deep but touching glimpse into the frequent mistakes, highs and lows, and also the artifice of the publishing world. It’s a memorable book, and you won’t forget your first time. Go pick it up!