A Patchwork Deception

Have you ever felt deceived by a book?

I picked up A Patchwork Family yesterday afternoon and was done with it by night. And while I started the book with a lot of anticipation, 24 hours later I feel completely deceived by it.

Towards the end of 2019 I realized how white my reading was. It comprised only of books by white authors. This fact left a very unsavory feeling in me. On top of it I realised that my knowledge of my country’s literature was almost zero. Double that unsavory feeling. Therefore, I decided to undo this and set a goal to read more Indian literature and more works by Authors of color in 2020.

I came across A Patchwork Family late last year in bookstagram. The book title was my first intrigue and next was that solemn cover picture. The blurb promised me a tale of unrelated characters coming together and forming a family after having lost their own. This premise got all my mind bells tingling. I have always been intrigued by strangers forming bonds that run deeper than the ties of blood. Hence, I immediately added the book to my TBR.

A Patchwork Family is the debut novel by Pune-based lawyer Mukta Sathe and it was longlisted for the JCB Literature Prize in 2019. This is not a bad book. Considering that it is a debut, it is a good book. The themes that the story covers is eye-opening and very relevant. The intent of the author is on point. I so wanted to give this book 1 extra star just for the intent.

Being a lawyer, Sathe has tried to bring out the follies of the Indian Judicial System through the tale in A Patchwork Family. And I think that is a really brave and honest thing to do. Apart from that, she has also tried to broach subjects like patriarchy, feminism, and privilege blended with the life of an Indian middle class family.

The story is told from the point of view of two characters – Ajoba and Janaki. Ajoba (meaning grandfather in Marathi) is Janaki’s grandfather’s best friend. Sathe initiated the book by establishing the fact of how these two characters came to be related. Ajoba is a regular visitor in Janaki’s house and has known the girl right from her birth. Across the course of the story, through stand-alone incidents, Sathe tries her best to convey how deep is the bond between Ajoba and Janaki. And that’s where my qualms with the book begins.

When I started the book, I expected that I will get to see how these two unrelated people will make their patchwork family function. But I did not get that. Infact, after finishing the book I felt that the entire story would have still been the same had Ajoba not been in the scene. Ofcourse the book would have been shorter, but the story would have stood. This redundancy of a main character really made me uncomfortable. In all honesty the relationship between Ajoba and Janaki didn’t make any sense to me and felt very unrealistic given the Indian setting.

Next was Janaki’s character. We are introduced to this headstrong female protagonist who initially seems like a fighter but later succumbs to hypocrisy and self-righteousness. I hate it when that happens. May be the author wanted to show character growth, however the metamorphosis lacked credibility. She seemed like someone who latches on to people and ideals based on her convenience and abandons them when they don’t agree with her mind space. I tried a lot to give her the benefit of the doubt considering all that she goes through, but towards the end she lost all my empathy.

Another complain from the book were underdeveloped characters. The characters of Rahul (Janaki’s brother) and Pratiksha (Janaki’s college friend) showed such great potential. But I was left unquenched by their treatment. Infact, instead of Ajoba, if Rahul would have been the other protagonist, the book would have made more sense. Sandhya was another character that had immense potential but was completely left hollow.

I really wanted to like this book. No doubt writer has put in a lot of heart in it. This book, this storyline could have been easily developed into 300+ pages book had the editor guided the writer. Mukta Sathe has not disappointed me. She gives me hope. But the editing was heartless, and that was the book’s prime folly.

What Should We Read

What should we read? Read that which turns the mundane into extraordinary; that which turns the familiar aroma of the coffee in your mug, a luxurious affair between your senses and your conscious. Read that which makes you extend your fingers in the air and join that index and middle with your thumb to feel the silk and satin described in the text. Read that which not simply mentions the cheese in the sandwich the character devours, but traverses you to the slopes of the Swiss alps where the cheese finds its origins. Read that which makes you believe that it’s not the character, but you who is eating that cheese sandwich. Read Amor Towles.

A Gentleman In Moscow; Amor Towles

This book, along with the interplay of times we live in, brought my reading to a pace where instead of rushing through pages, I was reading and feeling and sighing. Sometimes I lost my mind to it, and in others, my heart to it. I am confused about setting it forth as a recommendation because, while I liked it and enjoyed it (let’s ignore the time here please), I wonder if everyone would.

However, if you do pick up A Gentleman In Moscow, I would recommend that you pair it with its audiobook. Nicholas Guy Smith has given an exemplary narration which complements Towles’s writing exactly the way the Count paired the bottle of the Mukuzani with the serving of the Latvian stew.

Times are strange for us. We all are in voluntary house arrest for no crime. But we live with a hope of being released. Unlike us, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov doesn’t enjoy this luxury. This gentleman has been imprisoned for life in one of the most luxurious hotels ever – The Metropol.

As a book, A Gentleman In Moscow, starts with all the fanfare of a beautiful read. I was smoothly floating into its layers, unhurried, the way a boatman rows his boat into a silent lake. I wasn’t hooked to the book. There were times when I left it altogether contemplating whether I need to go forward reading it. It is slow and long drawn, with descriptions that mostly enamored me and at times frustrated me. That is the book’s character. It mirrors the life of its protagonist. It is slow because that is how life is for Count Rostov. And as the Count lives through each day, celebrating his imprisonment, the reader too must persevere with him.

You will feel the passage of time through the book, and while the Count’s life is standstill inside the Metropol, the world outside is changing; and you will feel that too. The book divides itself harmoniously in time increments, going up and down in perfect waves, with the best of the Count’s adventures chronicled in the beginning and towards the end and the middle being, well just the middle. I pretty much decided to give up there as it was nothing but a compendium of vignettes from the Count’s life (and some of other characters) which turned extraordinary because of the Count’s affinity with goodness and propriety with a hint of classy wit and sarcasm. But I did not. Alas! I could not. I kept returning to the Metropol. I kept returning to Towles’s writing.

Towles’s writing reflects the times his characters live in. His characters are not other-worldly, but they are not mundane. His prose is eloquent, smooth and shines like the fresh coat of varnish on a expansive, evened mahogany desk. Exquisite – the single word I have used everytime I have described this book to anyone. A Gentleman In Moscow is a tribute to an era of classical writing that has lost its footing in the SMS lingo of the internet age.

The book is definitely a treat for the lovers of prose, classics, and those who love historical fiction. It is a quilt of images of Russia through the early 20th century. And even though, the Count and other characters are not active participants in Russian polity, their actions seldom remain unhindered by the events taking place on the world stage. But if you are someone who likes to down a shot of vodka instead of savouring the finely-aged rosé, you can steer away from this one.

What Reading Does

Reading is the manure of a person’s growth. And meaningful reading is the best quality of manure you can get out there. But what is meaningful reading?
  • Being open to books that make you uncomfortable
  • Being open to critics of books and authors you love.
  • Being open to others loving the books you didn’t
  • Being open to listening to the thoughts of other readers about the books you collectively read
  • Being open to listening to other readers’ thoughts on books you don’t intend to pick.
And perhaps for all the reasons above, I love being on bookstagram. If reading is what makes the plants in us grow, bookstagram is the forest of well-built trees who provide us with the bounty that enables us to grow in the best possible manner. This realization has hit me most in those times when I was enabled to view the good things about the books I despised and the flaws of those I loved.
My recent read, Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig is one of the latter, thanks to the incredible thinker and observer @painted.verses_ Monika. (Please read her review of this book to understand why I say this, also her other reviews. She’s just too good).
Reasons To Stay Alive is a much-celebrated book in which Haig has bravely chronicled his experiences of dealing with anxiety and depression. The book was relatable at a lot of fronts, so much so, that I ended up weeping hard.
Reading this book by Matt Haig provided me a sense of solidarity that I hadn’t felt before. Depression is not a one size fits all thing. We all experience it in our own ways and none is smaller or insignificant than the other.
Although I could not relate to a lot of things that Haig expressed in the book, not that they are other-worldly, I found this book a meaningful and heartfelt read. The fact that Haig braved it all and then bared it all is a big plus for me. Celebrities, especially men, expressing their trauma, I feel, will go a long way in breaking the stigma around mental health.
The world is still waking up to the fact of the realness of the existence of mental illnesses. The stigma is still strong, especially among men, that hinders them to seek help. At times I wonder why is that? Do people not see those visible signs? What makes them ignore those signs? Why do they think that accepting the fact that they or their close one is a depressive so bad? I have enabled these stigmas myself for a very long time. I wanted to reach out, yet something held me back. I used to look at my family with vacant eyes, while my insides used to be screaming for help.
Read this book if you are someone who is not able to figure out why your friend is always sad and unresponsive and moody, read this book to get a glimpse into how a depressive feels. What is the cause behind the actions they effect? And if you are someone who is battling it out, read it to know that you are not alone and that your tribe is rooting for you to stay alive.

The Obscure, The Average, The Plain Jane

There are books that I love and then there are those that I love and then go on asking everyone I meet to read it. The Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is the latter.

Keiko Furukura is an obscure employee in a convenience store. She has worked in the store for 18 years and yet she has stayed at the same position. The sounds and rhythm of the convenience store is what keeps her going. It is her happy place. It is the anchor of her life. And that is what Murata has described in simple yet beautiful detail in this book.

We all know this book is a #Bookstagram favourite. I picked it up because it was highly praised from so many of my favourites here. But there was something else too that drew me to the book – the fact that this was the story of an obscure, middle-aged woman who loves her dead-end job to the core. Everyone writes stories about the extraordinary – people dig the extraordinary. But rarely we get to read about ordinary lives, rather the obscure ones, the plain average ones. The Convenience Store Woman is a book that undoes this.

It resonated with me because for a large part of my life I had felt like that obscure, hazy human being. Although, things have changed, but I can never forget the days when I would go on for days without being contacted by or speaking a word to people around. I felt like a unnoticeable smidge on the world’s canvas. Those days built me, and therefore I can never undermine them.

Keiko is an odd brick in the society’s wall. Although a lot of the readers found her quirky and funny, I largely felt an empathy towards her. Throughout the book, based on her actions and reactions to various situations, I kept thinking whether Keiko is autistic. Did anyone else feel that? There surely is a mention of people around her seeking a cure for her ‘condition’ but Murata has not made it clear.

Keiko has sharp observation skills. The way she could fathom the needs of the store just by looking at its surroundings and the weather in general blew my mind away. It might seem trivial to an outsider, but the world of a convenience store is a throbbing phenomenon, especially for Keiko.

Keiko was drawn to the world of convenience store when she was just 18. She did not just work at the store, she assimilated its cogs and bearings into her muscles and blended herself into its machinery. Just this adaptability made me wonder that had she been introduced to some high level government security agency, she would have turned out to be a world class spy, even a badass assassin. The fact that she can adapt to the tones and speaking styles of people around her just by observing them tells us that she is no less than a chameleon, and I say this with high regard.

Her one handicap is that she is extremely self-conscious, low on self-esteem. Keiko will do everything to live upto the expectations of the world. Early in her life she realized that the world does not think the way she does, and since then she has bent herself in every way possible to hide her real self from the world and show them the one they expect to see. This does reminds me of my old self. Although I could never go to the lengths of changing myself the way Keiko did.

Another aspect that I was enthralled by was Keiko’s love for her work. She is well aware that she is in a dead pan job, that there’s no real scope for gathering accolades or wealth in the role she performs. Even though everyone around her is always shocked at her living situation and job status, she defends it with all the might she has. Now here’s a message that I dearly loved – in a world where everyone is talking about hustling, here we have someone who is not rushing through life. She is in love with her job and she would have it no other way.

I had a really good time meeting Keiko and getting to know her. If I ever met her, I would probably want to hug her. But I doubt she would like it so much. May be I will just look at her from a little distance, smile and move on.

A Question of Choices

We all experience moments in life when we wonder how our lives would have panned out had we not made the choices that we made. Do you ever crave to get a glimpse of that alternate life? Given a chance, would you like to witness it?

In Ramayana, Sita’s story pretty much stems from her association with Lord Rama. It’s not wrong to say that her identity is one of Rama’s consort. Unless you take an effort to delve into her story, you won’t be served with one the way Rama’s is done. Here’s a significant female character of Indian mythology, but we rarely get to hear her voice. Even Ravana has been given a better voice than her. However, things are changing now, times are changing now, and people are shifting their focus to Sita too. And just for her silent resilience to stand with her husband and uphold his wishes throughout her life, she is deserving of it all.

Retelling stories closely bound with the faith of the masses is always a double-edged sword. These stories are close to the heart of people, often forming the foundation of their values and ideals. Bhumika is Aditya Iyengar’s retelling of Sita’s story, and I am just floored by the way he has balanced the original with his. Iyengar’s Sita is Bhumika, and Bhumika, even though is Sita, but she is not.

The story…

It has been a long time since Sita left Ayodhya. She has reached the final stage of her life and is quietly spending her days in Rishi Valmiki’s ashrama. A visit from a wandering troupe of performers makes her wonder about how her life had been had she not married Rama, had she not accompanied him into exile, had she not been kidnapped by Ravana. These questions gnaw her but she has no answers, until one day Rishi Vishwamitra arrives and introduces her to Bhumika.

More thoughts

While Ramayana talks about Rama Rajya, Iyengar’s Bhumika talks about Bhumika-Rajya. Bhumika is the queen of Mithila and the bearer of the divine bow, Pinaka. She’s fierce, independent, and one with her own mind. She’s flawed too. She dreams of a land that treats everyone ¬¬– women and men – equally, but is well aware of the hurdles that lie in the path of establishing one. And in Iyengar’s Bhumika, it is Rama who goes through Agnipariksha – trial by fire.

Iyengar took Sita, who always stood behind Rama, and brought her to the fore as Bhumika. He tells a story that could have been without maligning the one that exists. And that is the beauty of this book. Sita is still the bearer of the story – Iyengar does not discard her values and choices but leaves us with a profound message about freedom of choices and respecting what each chooses for themselves.

“There are many different ways for a woman to live her life. None is superior or inferior.”

I am glad that I got to conclude this powerful book so close to International Women’s Day. The universe is resounding with the thought of empowering choices made by women, and it’s a blessing to have got the opportunity to widen my horizon with this brilliant tale.

Educated by Tara Westover

This past weekend I finished reading Educated by Tara Westover. After that I wrote a short review about it. Usually, I am never hungover a book. But this time Tara’s story has been playing inside me like an unending tape. Educated is a remarkable, fierce story of a girl’s ascend to the zenith of her capabilities from astoundingly challenging circumstances. It is also a testimony to the price she has had to pay for the kind of education most of us take for granted and for the confidence to live in a normal world. I rarely read non-fiction, and this story was so shocking and gripping that I had to constantly remind myself that this is a real story, all of whose characters are alive and kicking. Educated is not just the story of how Tara, without any formal schooling, went and achieved education from Cambridge and Harvard. It is a story about her struggle between the rationality provided by her education and the radical beliefs that had been the foundation of her formative years.

In one of the initial episodes of the famous sitcom FRIENDS, Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) is heard telling her father, “All my life people have told me you’re a shoe, but daddy what if I don’t want to be a shoe? What if I want to be a hat?”. Tara’s story is something similar yet murkier and dark.

Born to Mormon fundamentalist parents, Tara had not entered a formal classroom till the age of 17. Her dad is a religious fanatic who believes that the government, the education system, and the healthcare system are members of Illuminati and are there to brainwash people. Thus he keeps his family out of grid, without filing for their birth certificates, without providing them adequate medical assistance when required, and keeping them off formal education. Her mother is a herbalist who treats the family of everything (severe gasoline burns, explosion, head injuries) using her herbs and essential oils. There are times when Tara’s mother seemed sympathetic toward what her children were being subjected to. However, being a submissive wife, when confronted she always chose to side with her husband’s beliefs and proclamations instead of protecting her children.

There are no perfect families. The experiences we have at our homes, especially during childhood, are the foundation of our understanding about the reality and the world. That is how a human grows. That is how a young mind makes sense of and interprets its relationships and surroundings. If you are brought up with liberal thoughts and ideologies, your life and adulthood are inclined in that direction. And same is true if you are born in a conservative family. Tara’s childhood was one that belonged to the extremely radical end of the spectrum. And this was ‘normal’ for her because she had not witnessed any other.

Kids in the Westover family have been fed certain extremely polarized thoughts. The word of the father is the final word; girls can have no other ambition apart from getting married and bearing children; a woman’s place is in the kitchen; and it is OK to physically abuse sisters when they cross their limitations. Throughout the book there are instances of the same. Tara and her sister have been time and again physically abused by one of her brothers.

What is shocking is, even though Tara knows that what is happening is wrong, she chooses to cover up those brutalities as normal sibling fights. And what happens when she decides to speak to her parents about it is even more shocking. Initially her father asks her for proof and her mother sides her brother saying he was doing it for her good. Later they deny the entire subject stating that Tara is taken over by the devil and it was all her imagination. How the brother reacts on knowing that Tara has told about his behavior to her parents is cringing to the core.

This gaslighting led Tara toward severe mental breakdown jeopardizing her education for which she had already fought so much. It takes years to understand and accept the brutal experiences, especially those that take place in one’s childhood. This processing becomes further difficult when your own parents are a party to the brutalities, directly or indirectly. Immense mental effort is involved just to remember the incidents, and despite that you are not sure about whether those events actually occurred. That is what happened with Tara. She almost ended up believing her parents’ narrative.

Another infuriating thing that I came across was Tara’s constant efforts to reconcile with her family. And I am sure, the way she keeps on going back to her family even after all the abuse, a reader might feel why is she doing this. But a little thought and further reading allowed me to witness her struggle between her love for her family and rationality.

We all are well aware how family ties are. Estrangement from ones family, however bad, is not an easy experience. None of us want to severe ties with our family. All of us, in some or the other way, are making efforts, overlooking and tolerating quite a lot of conflict just to maintain the relationships. When I look back now, I do not feel shocked anymore that it took Tara quite a long time to walk away from her family. I feel she was right to first make all the efforts to reconcile with her family. And I feel she did the right thing when ultimately she walked away.

This book is a hope for those who are struggling with similar circumstances. The control of one’s family has over them, in conjunction with extreme and radical religious beliefs and severe mental illnesses, is most exhausting and agonizing. Though Tara finally managed to escape, the scars, I believe shall forever remain.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is a social misfit who leads an extremely routined life between her office and home and nowhere in between. Naive to the ways of the world, she lacks the knack to pretend and speaks exactly what she thinks. This often makes her the topic of gossip in her office, but she doesn’t care. Her life is all good and fine with zero friends or family, except Mummy.

If you pick up this book then keep your favorite stuffed animal or pillow around and also a box of tissues because Honeyman’s characters are so humane, warm, and vulnerable that you would want to pluck them from the pages and hug them and cry. This beautiful story has every possible hue and color of emotion. Eleanor’s story made me laugh and smile. It punched me in my gut and made me bawl and weep. It made me angry, scared, and worried too. And there were times, when just like Eleanor, I was completely fine.

The prose is simple and elegant and peppered with Eleanor’s gallant vocabulary to provide the readers with just the perfect taste of her character. The book is aptly divided into three parts – Good Days, Bad Days, and Better Days and each part is exactly what it is titled. This stands as a fair warning for the part where the writer has dealt with the darker shades of abuse, depression, and dealing with toxic people.

Notwithstanding, the story seamlessly transitions from darkness to shades of positivity and strength and beautifully portrays the importance of kindness, friendships, self-love, and self-esteem in life.

Gail Honeyman has delivered a treasure trove as her debut novel. This is an alleviating and brave story of Eleanor’s struggle to let go of old wounds and insecurities and make space for self-acceptance and friends. Pick EOICF any day. But be ready to be undone and done all over again.

George Orwell’s 1984 

It has been 3 days and I am still not able to gather appropriate words to describe this book. Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949. And it baffles me how he imagined such a world. Was he in cahoots with Nostradamus? If he were alive today he would have looked at the trends of the world and smirked at us and said, “I told you so.” The man’s a pure genius to have imagined a dystopia which almost seems real today.

1984 is a story of an extremely totalitarian society the signs of which terrifyingly matches with what is going on around the world presently. Orwell has created a world where people are being watched and heard constantly by the ‘Big Brother’. This is a world scarier than the one created by Hitler or Stalin.

Orwell’s concepts of thoughtcrime, doublethink, newspeak, sexcrime, the thought police, and his portrayal of propaganda and obliteration and re-composition of news and history is all just so brilliantly designed and executed.

In Orwell’s dystopia, the world is ruled by the ‘Big Brother’ and the ‘Party’. The Party wants power for its own sake. It is constantly monitoring everyone’s behaviour. It has a set routine for everybody which is mandatory to be upheld, starting from the morning exercise. It succeeds in admonishing any or all resistance; one can survive only with absolute, unquestioning, blind allegiance to the Party. Sex is condemned and people are brainwashed right from childhood. There is no concept of  ‘family’, and kids are on a constant lookout to report any deviations from their parents to the Party. The Party controls everything – the past, the present, and the future – by controlling historical records, language (yeah, they have developed a whole new language – Newspeak), and even thought. And those who of think of rebelling are ‘vaporized’. Citizens live in dilapidated conditions, eating bland rationed food, and wearing drab uniforms commissioned by the Party.  But they do not know better.  No one is ever alone. ‘They’re listening. There is no place for love or freedom.

I can only hope that the politicians are not reading this book. And if they have, then I can only hope for them to be less intelligent to comprehend what powerplay is given in the book. Another thought that doesn’t leave me is ‘what if we are already living this dystopia and don’t know it yet.’ It definitely scares me.

This book is powerful and terrifying. It is a testimony to the hunger for power. Not wealth, but pure power. To close, just want to leave with these lines from the book.

“But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.”