Thursday, 24 July 2014

Book Review – Lucifer’s Lungi by Nitin Sawant

I begin this review of Nitin Sawant’s novella ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ with my least favourite quote from the book: 

Different regions here (in Southern India) had a different word for it – veshti, mundu, panche and so on. But for us non-South Indians who can’t fathom the subtle differences, every flowing waist-cloth around a male loin was just a lungi.

Least favourite because it takes me to that sari shop in Ernakulum where, for lack of any knowledge about this piece of clothing, I carelessly called a mundu a lungi, much to the chagrin of three, yes three, floor boys who held the beautiful cream and golden piece high up like a palanquin and declared, with a pinch of pride, that this is a mundu. They pointed to a blue checkered pile, called it lungi and went away to cater to more discerning customers. Whether I regained my courage enough to buy a sari is a story not to be told. But the quirky title of the book took me back to that evening, where I was the very Lucifer raising Lungis to Godhead. Thankfully for Nitin, the book is doing no such thing. Or is it? 

The protagonist of this sparsely populated novella is an urban man whose ‘life has gotten so dull that on a silent night I could hear my soul rust’. Someone suggests weekend travel to relax that corporate neck of his and ‘a series of enchanted escapades’ begin. This book is about one such trip to an unpronounceable village so un-touristy that even the bus conductor cannot understand why ‘saar’ is going there, if not to buy flowers or start a temple! To tell you more about what unfolds between the city-slicker, a priest’s boy, lotuses in the middle of the pond, Luganar’s smell, a black thread and the holy mound in the jungle would be telling too much. So, no more about it!

Let's see what I liked and did not about this novella.

The Story – A Pocket-sized Rocket

'Lucifer’s Lungi’ is only 100 pages of a tiny sized book (okay, give or take five pages). And what a punch it packs! I usually don’t overdo talk of pace of a novel/novella, for each reader reads at his own comfortable speed – defined by eye-sight, time of day, number of children at home, degree of exploitative bosses, electricity office’s mercy, etc, and with such external factors bearing upon our minds, the story’s speed can often be misjudged as our own. But ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ amazed me with how fast it flew, not just because it is short but also because Nitin seems to have put in exactly the amount of incidences and words around those incidences as would make for a tight, speedy yet unhurried read. I began at gear four and ended my journey at five, and at no point was I over-speeding.

Apart from the pace, the story itself is interesting and a very creative way of making Atheism “meet” Theism at a crossroad, literally! The intrigue is on when the bus conductor pronounces ‘Don’t see people like you going down there, saar …’ for a village which is as much hidden from the readers’ view as revealed at this point in the beginning of the book. (Sue the North Indian in me, but I found the setting of the book exotic.) A stinking mystery is created around this lake-centered temple town producing flowers by the truck-loads and we are left wondering if a murder too is following close behind the heels of this ‘coughing misery’ roadways bus. 

Further, stray vernacular words like ‘Apattu’ (hazardous) to ‘Tondaravu’ (trouble) are murmured around the English-speaking narrator at points which keep our ears attentive, imaging anything from angry Gods to ghosts, or even a left-over lungi at the border of the town a page later, or even sooner. Most chapters end with vague statements like ‘This stinking thing can kill you, saar’ and keep the readers’ imagination working over-time, till and even beyond the grand finale night; for nights after all are 'the first mind-altering drug that ever got made’. 

If I could, I would delete the last but final sentence from this book. That’s all! 

The Idea behind the Story – inviting Tondaravu, no doubt!

Nitin Sawant’s narrator carries a ‘No Entry sign on my spiritual street’ and likes to believe he is a man of reason and rationality over religion. Little wonder then, that taking shelter in a temple and making friends with the priest, Sarvana his boy (who is ‘going to defend the shining honour of his entire upbringing’) and other villagers comes with a pre-set rider. It is through various such God-no God discussions (and encounters!) that Nitin pours into the novel scenes of Atheism versus Theism in shades ranging from horror to comic, and then their revisions too. Picture this, in a most holy setting:

I looked up at the deity. My God, was he angry or what? If only looks could kill, then he was already armed enough … the scowl on his face was indeed carved in stone' was said for Luganar and a little later in the book the good God hears this from him – 'I could imagine why well-educated guys like Sarvana still believed more in Palayar than science. This Big Guy could evoke that kind of confidence. I guess that’s what deity idols in most temples do – give us confidence. It I had a favour to ask, this is exactly the kind of idol that I would ask from.' This self-talk continues throughout to culminate in a better understanding of the phenomenon of belief, for it is ‘always easier to hang on to some convenient make-believe truth than to search for an absolute one.

While the arguments used by the narrator or the villagers to support their beliefs are not novel enough to be codified in the next journal on religion and spirituality,  their presentation through discussions or slapstick comedy are wonderfully entertaining, as is the mumbo-jumbo-jumble-up of legends and religions from across the world (you too must be wondering why Lucifer is wearing a lungi!). Eventually, the discussion reaches the dangerous border of the village and 30 minutes of horrific, action-packed, life-changing experiences which leave the narrator facing truth naked and naked before his eyes, as a ‘free man’ but one whose adrenaline had a field day night. But for more, read the book.

Language maketh a writer, and his narrator, alas!

I am no grammar-arian, but I do believe that when you choose a language to write in you need to be very careful about basic grammar. A lot of us get turned off at the first drunken bout of tenses or articles going missing. To err is human, but to err and err again? From the “po-logue” to the last sentence, the narrative carrier mistakes which slipped through the writer's and editor's eyes. Some examples, apart from the persistently strange (though not incorrect) use of ‘I’d’ – 

‘Night after night I would sit in my hotel balcony and stare vacuously in the emptiness of the night.’
‘The place practically grows up on you’
‘The boy … leading me around the temple to the backside.’
‘We do, sometimes. In holidays or when friends come over.’

Then, the narrator uses slang most of the time. While I did think the ‘kinda’ and ‘Gawd’ helped in places to show his mind’s nonchalance towards all things religious and inexplicable and add comic effect to the scenes of action, an over dose made me wonder if it was required at all. Do we who stay in cities talk (and think) in this manner alone? What could have been used as a technique to endear us to this young narrator makes him seem too casual, careless and might I say, shallow in some very significant places. Also, while his mind matures over the day he spends in the village enough to re-examine his ideas once set in stone, his language fails to compliment it.  I think I would have surely fallen in love with this ‘guy’ if only he had not called the bus conductor ‘lowly’ or generalised about ‘we Indians’ in a couple of places and kept his slang in check. As a character, Sarvana came across as my favourite. 

Nitin Sawant’s ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ marks a novel(la) attempt to broach a most controversial issue with such contraries (of ease and tension, humour and horror) that the book does not disappoint despite the shortcomings I speak about. I also think it can be made into a wonderful short story for children, if we adults would like them to read about this man’s journey to a very holy town and hear him say ‘Ironical, isn’t it? Clean stones for dirty souls …’ In the end what is affirmed is the human ability to trust and distrust and the very interesting phenomenon of how, while the Gods themselves may not be doing anything, belief in them is moving mountains, and hearts too. 

Author: Nitin Sawant
Publisher: Fablery

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. All views are my own.]

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Stat Connection is Opinion

I have been actively blogging for just over a year now. It was in the spring of 2013 when weather-happy fingers found a topic a day to pore over and then pour out and onto my online space I call ‘Between Write and Wrong’. I was so regular with writing whatever came to mind that some months down I wonder if it’s age, stage or a combination of both that has made my posts' flow go from a broken barrage to one which is manned and optimized to about two posts a week. Be that as it may, this is my 180th post. And after writing on whatever became visible under the shining Sun, today I sit for the first time to see why the top posts on my blog are the ones which are. Should be quite telling about what readers like to read, or what I am good at.

In descending order of popularity, here they are:

1. Sounding the Red Siren Against Sexual Abuse – this post was written to add my voice to Protsahan and Unicef’s fight against sexual abuse. I had shared a personal experience of meeting a sexually abused girl in a Jhuggi Jhopri Shishu Mandir I taught in while still in college.

2. Oh Chetan Bhagat! Read what you write – A rebuttal post to Bhagat’s published opinions about women, men, work, home, cooking, marriage, children, you get the drift! Yes, I was disagreeing with him.

3. Book Review – Sita’s Curse by Sreemoyee Piu Kundu – This book review of a feminist erotica was written a few weeks back but seems to be grabbing enough eye balls to be the third most popular post. Not just sex, talk of sex sells too, it seems.

4. An Open Letter to Educated Indians – One of my favourite posts from my pen. An opinion editorial as a civil servant’s wife, talking about how the rot is not just in the bureaucratic “system” but within us as citizens seeking services too. As honest as it could get!

5. The Tamasha of Birth and Death – The most spontaneous post on my blog. Ringing true like a personal rant and talking about the circus (of rituals and superstitions, terms and conditions) Indian society surrounds birth and death with.

What is common to all these posts? Opinion. About society hiding faces of sexual abuse or about citizenry bribing the tax collector while cursing corruption at India Gate. About a book which talks of sex or a man who talks about everything cooking in his head and serving it semi-baked. Opinions, all. And they seem to be read the most on my blog. Liked or not is a different matter, but then, that is the power of any opinion – it sells, nonetheless, takers or no takers.

We all have an opinion about anything that can be opined about, which in turn means everything. And why not! Free speech, free thoughts, freedom to express and free air time are some of the molecules that complete the structure of free will. It is good to have an opinion. It means, primarily, that we can think, we can reason, we can look in all eight directions, raise the grass in pincer clasp and release it to know which direction the wind is blowing from. And then, tell the world that it is blowing from the right or blowing totally wrong. Our opinion is like our gold star on a popular pavement, not as unique as our fingerprint, but ours.  

However, is it that easy to be pregnant with exclusive opinion? To be able to turn down the volume of screaming masses around or disconnect the social headphones altogether and think on your own? In an ivory tower, or at your desk, reading-researching-recording the real stories and our thoughts removed from the voices spoon feeding our heads?  Feeding – in the name of fashion or populism, conformism or revolution, nurture or membership, rebellion or discipline? It’s not easy, perhaps almost unnatural to even expect so from our own selves. They say nothing in this world is original and also that man is a social animal and …

… and a complete animal sometimes in how he dispenses with these opinions, some formed mostly borrowed – in words or through action. Over drinks in a drawing room with body language going down the flush or discussions on Twitter with Arnab in the background and 80-120 threatening to burst open the aorta, while the art of “gathering” an opinion has been honed to perfection the artistry (also called civility) of speaking it out is fast receding into loud chaos. Almost as if we cannot let another speak, because we do not want to hear a different point of view or even our own point of view from a different mouth, for how dare he echo me! It is becoming increasingly difficult to be challenged in our thoughts, because we think "we opine, and therefore we are". That opinions make us, form our complete identity. But then, doesn't how we spread them seem important too, as does the intent behind the cussing? Such a strange thought comes to mind and says the ‘how you say it’ is the shoe and the ‘what you say’ the man standing inside it. And the whole arrangement needs to be polished. Know what I mean? 

And look how I opine, about opinions. I am no less. So now, laying the blame on the top 5 posts on my blog and the yarn of thoughts they spun, off I go to switch on the television and see who slapped whom, and who all are slapping each other in celebration of it. I promise to sit through it and try to chew my own cud. Sometimes, I too cannot swallow it and call it 'opinion-I-ate-it' but itch to spit it out in the form of another opinion post and a tiara we all proudly wear - called 'opinionated'!

Maybe it will make it to the top slot too, one day?

[WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts. The prompt for today was - The stat connection - Go to your Stats page and check your top three-five posts. Why do you think they’ve been successful? Find the connection between them, and write about it.]  

Friday, 18 July 2014

Book Review – And We Remained by Asad Ali Junaid

What a lovely title to a book ‘And We Remained’ is. There is a sense of contented incompleteness to it, like ellipses leading to an invisible forever-after. Yet, it may signify a conclusion; a three-letter full stop with the finality that only Fate can bring with it. A finality that could be a happy one, or one coloured with nostalgia, or even pathos. I liked it, for the curiosity that it created. But the very next moment I read the sub-title ‘An absorbing story told differently …’ and a hmm escaped my lips. I wish the author, Asad Ali Junaid, had not included this phrase, that too on the cover. By being fed thus, the reviewer’s eye was instantly trained on these two aspects – story and narration, as were her heightened expectations.

And We Remained’ is set in Bangalore in the late 1990s, in an India seeing socio-economic changes and on the precipice of another century walking in. The book circles around five friends – Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David – and the women in their lives, especially Wardha. The story is told in two ways – as first person narratives by the main characters and alternatively, through email exchanges between them when they are out of their Engineering colleges and spread across India, USA and UK, working or hunting for work. And women. You will receive this book like you do the regular cup of coffee from college canteens – with love, heartbreak, prison, politics, drinking and strip clubs all in the same bean, written in a language that is simple, young, conversational, often slangy, definitely lacking lyricism but certainly not correctness. But when you read, you will also find that little something which keeps the book different from the ones published around this theme. I found two such things. 

A story ‘told differently’

I liked the narrative technique Asad attempted in his novel. Two parallels – of life in two different phases of time – run from cover to cover. The account of the engineering college days is in first person, with each main character speaking directly to us readers in alternate chapters. These narrations bring forth each character’s individual voice as well as portray the friendship that keeps them as one. While there is no heavy duty drama or deep streams of consciousness surrounding these peeps into their minds, you will find an occasional dose of philosophy – on love, women and even on Philosophy itself; a very raw and young version to my old mind, but one I could relate to from my much younger days. I liked what Sandeep says at a difficult turn in their job placement days – ‘I had come across a quote by Dr. Wayne Dyer: Your life is but a parenthesis in eternity. We felt smaller than these parenthesis then …’ 

The other parallel is of their working life’s experience, some years hence, and through a series of short mails with the date and time in place; much like quick conversations but which not just propel the story forward but also give the book an ample dose of humour through their back-slapping camaraderie. Anand is advising Sandeep on women, their favourite topic – ‘Look at your age, and your tummy too. There is a difference between making things happen and things happening on their own. You will otherwise have to start trusting your mom to initiate things…also, when nothing works, PRAY. There is immeasurable power in it. I will pray for you, and you please pray for yourself and, for a change, everybody pray for our good old Sandeep to find one for himself. After that we can pray for each other’. The humour is simple, unpretentious and sans effort.  

But the most interesting bit was how these conversations, happening from within different continents, become cross-country nuggets documenting cultures which these 20-somethings in their salad days of working have come to occupy.

In the ‘Synopsis’ of the book that the book carries, I had pencilled the portion which mentioned that their intertwined stories are told in the backdrop of ‘a fast changing society’ and a ‘nation in flux’. I wanted to see how, if at all, this is brought forth by Asad. It is, and that is the second good point about this book.

Foreign shores and a ‘Nation in Flux’

From the advent of emails to the crowning of Facebook, from the Twin Towers falling to the education system in India, from South India’s freestyle dance ‘dappan koothu’ to Bollywood in the UK and from an India where sex is dirty to a USA where strip clubs are just free expression, the email interactions between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David chronicle and document a context not just children from the 90s but those living today would nod their heads in agreement to. 

We come to know of an India where ‘examples (for anti-ragging) were needed and we were made into examples’, falsely, and post 9/11 paranoia in the US where ‘everyone in law enforcement … had become very touchy’. We see how ‘being treated like aliens’ is as common in another country as it is in our own, and while finding friends is easy, finding work not so. While a sleeveless top on girls in their engineering college is a blue moon and mothers still keep a tab on their sons' phone calls, Sahir’s experience at “Mardi Gras” with women lifting their shirts for a bead necklace in return contrasts the societies for us, as it impresses upon these young minds how different the world outside of their own is. We see repressed an Indian psychology itching to shed the tag of virginity with none the courage to, except to discuss it over mails, and to no avail. We are told of education in different countries, with most people in India (where ‘we were “trained” and never “taught”) never understanding why Sahir is ‘studying philosophy (in the US), especially after I have finished BE in Electrical Engineering’ and with a mother who declares to the world that ‘If you are thinking of studying any further I will jump off the second floor of our house’. And then, a hint of winds of change, from Valentine’s Day to job opportunities, crossing the seven seas to enter our country which was taking baby steps out of the box. 

And amidst all this emailing over a decade, what is also chronicled is age - ‘the most telling sign of receding youth is not balding or a paunch, it is when you do not feel like laughing as much any more.

I do remain a little disappointed …

Notice how I am yet to mention Wardha and love and love story? While ‘And We Remained’ is a story told differently, the story itself is not so ‘absorbing’. On the third page of the book we hear Sahir musing ‘Stories about love did not end like this … Or did they?’, almost asking us to keep our pens and papers ready to note down if this story ends as any different from the usual college romances. 

Like a song on repeat it runs from freshers to elections to fests to freshers to elections again. Wardha fails to attain the significance that is promised her at the end of the book, especially since the group of friends have ample other women to talk about. While the picture presented is real, the love angle of the story is damp and could have been done away with completely, especially since the ‘seriousness’ of the relationship between Wardha and Sahir does not come across successfully. If I were to talk of endearing relationship portrayals, I would say that nothing beats the camaraderie between Sahir, Sandeep, Gopal, Anand and David or the beauty of the relationship between Sahir and Sandeep. While it is true that ‘the line of trouble brewing … was common across all our hands, a part of our kismet’, pretty Wardha fails to make place in the reader’s mind. My question at the end of the story is one which David asks Sahir too – ‘Why have you given Wardha such importance in the book?’ Except, I would ask why have Wardha here at all? 

Another aspect that could have been done better is characterization. Despite unique ways of expression and language through their mails and narrations, the characters seem to merge into one another and not stand out as unique individuals beyond a point. Perhaps because the characters lack depth. (Or maybe, I was much deeper even as a college kid.) Was this done in keeping with the mood of the book, which mostly hovers around the happy-go-lucky? Also, the author’s idea of referring to so many students and teachers as ‘types’ and shoe-boxing them did not help. Yes, they are real but how would you as a creator shape them beyond typical if you yourself call them ‘types’ multiple times in the book? And that is why the aim of the story to show ‘four different points of view on something that happened in our lives’ partially failed. 

And We Remained’ remains a light and entertaining read ending on a sweet note and affirming the bonds of college friendship, exactly what its author intended it to be. That there was never any ambition to make it anything other than what it is is apparent. I connected with the book not because it is a masterpiece in the world of writing and Literature but only because I have been through it all when I was in college. So in that sense, it is a fun way to re-visit days of your own freshers’ party and college elections, breaking hearts and finding new ones. I do have to give it to its author for being the one-man army behind the book – writing it, designing the cover and then publishing it too. 

I wonder what he eats for breakfast! 

Publisher: Asad Ali Junaid

[This review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]

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