Saturday, January 30, 2010

Four mini-reviews (mews?)

Quick notes on some books I've read recently: I’m doing full-length reviews of a couple of them but will only be able to post those once they’re out in print.

- H M Naqvi’s Home Boy is a very energetic debut novel about three Pakistani men in New York coming to terms with a changed, post-9/11 world – a world where “everybody is busy parceling myths and prejudice as analysis and reportage, and everyone has become an expert on different varieties of turbans”. I thought it was similar in some ways to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which I wrote about here) but in form it reminded me equally of Gautam Malkani’s very ambitious Londonstani. The narrator, Shehzad (nicknamed Chuck), and his “metrostani” friends Ali Chaudhry (AC) and Jamshed Khan (Jimbo) exude “coolth” and speak a language that mixes gangsta-rap with Punjabi slang, but underlying their hipness is cultural unease, and Naqvi brings this out really well. Lots of droll humour too.

(Longer review coming soon)

- Tranquebar has a very good-looking “short fiction” series out – novellas between 100-150 pages in length – and Kalpish Ratna’s The Nalanda Chronicles is the perfect book for this format: richly comic, written with surgical precision and hardly an extraneous sentence. (As it happens Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, who jointly write under the “Kalpish Ratna” pseudonym, are surgeons. I can’t work out how they manage to be such prolific writers too.) There are many sharp character sketches here, including Mr Thomas the wisdom-dispenser; Maya and Arun, who “belong to a generation that is powerless to be anything but polite in public” and who must therefore content themselves with seething quietly rather than quarrelling openly; Farheen, whose long, white and solid legs set her apart from “the dowdy company of shins squamous or hispid, lurking within saris or salwars”; and Francis Figueredo, a spy who worries a great deal. These people and others are members of the Nalanda housing society and they travel to Nariman Point in a red-and-cream minibus, which, as the story move into fourth gear, is hijacked. Much chaos ensues.

(Also in this series: Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s fine translation of Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s Urdu novella “Numberdaar ka Neela”. More on that later.)

- The Pakistani writer Aamer Hussein is something of an anomaly in a world where every major fiction writer is expected to produce at least one mammoth novel (or “baggy monster”, as Amit Chaudhuri once called it). Hussein is more the miniaturist, specialising in short stories and delicate narratives. His new book, Another Gulmohar Tree, runs a mere 150 pages, and in the first 40 of those it’s common to find only a few sentences on a page (this is a standalone section containing fragments of fables, the purpose of which we learn later in the book). But less is more in this case. At the heart of Another Gulmohar Tree is the unlikely romance – culminating in marriage – between a Pakistani man named Usman and an Englishwoman named Lydia. This is a moving, elegantly told story about the trajectory of a relationship and how people come to find meaning and personal fulfillment in their lives.

- I liked the first 50 or so pages of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, but slowly the book wore me down. I thought it struggled to find the right balance between being an investigative thriller and a commentary on one of the ugliest aspects of Indian society: female infanticide and the treatment of girl children in small-town India. Desai, who has worked as a journalist for many years, examines the nexus between wealthy families and policemen who cover up their crimes, gives us statistics and no-holds-barred descriptions of how baby girls are killed (or otherwise treated, if they happen to survive infancy), but this is sometimes too heavy-handed for the thriller format; it reminded me of the weaker stretches of Stieg Larsson's Millennium books, where the real-world information weighed down the narrative. However, Witness the Night has a winning protagonist – a 45-year-old social worker named Simran Singh – and Desai intends to do a series of books featuring her, which is worth looking forward to.

And with that, I’m off to Kerala for a week – a work-related trip but hopefully with spots of fun. Back on the 8th.

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