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.