Thursday, September 27, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns

After reading The Kite Runner, there was no way i was going to miss reading khaled hosseini's second book.. but i was kinda apprehensive too. the kite runner was sooo good.. would this be able to match it?? well, i worried needlessly.. i thought the kite runner was as good..and in some ways, way better than the kite runner..
firstly, it was AS gripping as the kite runner was. i couldn't do anything else once i picked this book up. everything about the book completely held my attention from the beginning to the end..
The story line was awesome..i remember reading a few days ago, a review that said that this book was similar to the kite runner in many ways..that kinda put me off.. i didnt want to read the female version of kite runner.. i enjoyed the book..yes..but wasn't going to read another book just like it.. luckily for me, hosseini gave a completely new story.. i mean, if you wanted, you could pick out similarities between the two books but i don't really want to do that. this book is dear to me in its own special way.
One thing i am amazed about is his ability to write about women and their emotions and do a great job out of it. I usually am very skeptical about male authors who try to revolve their stories around female protagonists. They some home give them a very male attitude in life..but hosseini did a beautiful job of keeping his women women.
the story, in a typical Hosseini way, was entertaining and at the same time heart wrenching. I found myself laughing with them, crying with them, hoping and praying with them, practically living with them for the one day that i spent reading the book.
There's one thing i really like about both his books. He makes you think about the people from Afganisthan as people..just like you and me..people with emotions, thoughts and feelings.. not just victims of a war ravaged countries.. Individuals, not just a group of people. Set against the stormy political background, you get a perfect mix of the two - the reality about the situation in Afganisthan and at the same time, a fictional story that keeps you gripped from the first page to the last!
In the middle of the REALLY interesting story line, there is still no way you can turn a blind eye to the atrocities of the taliban rule. Pregnant women being turned away from a hospital because it was a hospital for men. so women, in their pregnant states had to travel to get to a hospital for women!! how crazy was that!!
well, as though tyranny was not enough on a national scale, we encounter a pig of a man, the villian of the story. His treatment of women is totally despicable and you can't help but feel sorry for the women who had to face his brutality. His narrow mindedness irritates you but it makes you face the fact that this is a reality..there are still a few people in this world who havent caught up with modernization...people who still believe strongly in traditional values..not just in Afganisthan but in many countries around the world.
Anyways, as expected, A Thousand Splendid Suns was a fabulous read.. can't wait for his next book!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Anil's Ghost

Michael Ondaatje. Anil's ghost. Sri Lanka. Forensic Anthropology. Archaeology. Political killings.

These were the first few clues i had about what the book had i store for me.. and i definitely HAD to read the book. It was well worth it. Anil Tissera, a forensic anthropologist is basically from Sri Lanka. Left it when she was 18 and never had any need to return to it.. until now.. to take up a job assigned by the human rights commission in Geneva. A job to investigate numerous disappearances and murders happening under suspicious circumstances. The government has approved her entry into the country with the knowledge of the work she is about to do and is watching her secretly recording every move of hers..
She comes out of the airport unaware of everything she is about to face in the days to come. We see Sri Lanka in its rawest form.. and something in all the cruelty endears us to the place and to the characters we meet in the book -
Sarath - The archaeologist she is assigned to work with. A mysterious person and she is unable to trust him from the beginning. She is unsure whether he is against her and the work she is about to do. In spite of the tension, they develop a bond..a bond that can only come out of surviving gruesome stories and witnessing grossness in its crudest form. He has a life of his own. A wife. A teacher. A brother. A responsibility to society. And he never shows out even one emotion.

Gamini - Someone who is introduced to us as a near psychopath. A doctor who lives in the hospital. Someone with no life apart from saving others lives. A shabby man with a black bloodstained overcoat, bloodshot eyes with the look of death in them..someone mad. And then, suddenly he is reintroduced..and this time, we see him in a completely different light.. a mouse, a shadow, a lover, a husband..One line he says stays with us as a line that defines his private life..
" dance at my wedding. A romantic moment. It was a wedding after all and you could embrace each other. I was getting married. She was married already. But I was the one she should have loved.."
Of course, these more to him than just what these lines say. To many he becomes God..a saviour..someone worth naming their child after..

Palipana - Teacher of Sarath. Lover of stones and carvings.. A self proclaimed epigraphist. So invoved in recreating the past, that at one point, he loses distinction between what is actually the past and what he wants the past to be. That is when society called him a mad-man. No one understood him. He withdrew from life and retreated to the woods with a child tormented by a chilling past..his sister's daughter. They provide support for one another. Respected by all in the field of archaeology for his knowledge. And that is what he remains till the end - revered.

Ananda - A prestigious eye carver. A drunkard. A underground miner. Like many around him, he has lost his motive to live. He has lost the love of his life and doesnt know if he will see her ever again. He helps Sarath and Anil in their quest and they help him in ways they would never realize.

Sailor - A nickname given to someone who might help them achieve the truth they are looking for, but not sure they want to know. Through out the book, we get to know more and more about him.. his life being recreated in bits and pieces - until he ceases to be a common "bag-of-bones" as we are frequently used to referring to them. He becomes alive again.. with a name of his own and a story..

Any more than these disconnected sentences will definitely take the joy out of reading this book. IT is amazing how michael ondaatje has brought extremely complex situations together and woven a simple story out of it. The raging political unrest in Sri Lanka is protrayed at its bloodiest and most cruel form. And yet, between all the terror and the bloodshed, we get to see human emotions - friendship, love, passion and separation being the main focus here. It feels like you are caught in two tornadoes at the same time and yet, he manages to bring you safely back to earth by the end of the book - without actually tearing you apart. How he manages to tackle so many issues in one book is amazing. Every character is fully defined. In fact, defined so well that I feel that i know them personally. I feel aas though i can actually recognize Gamini lying on the hospital bed taking his little nap before being woken up to deal with an emergency. I feel that I have known Anil Tissera all her life- from the time she was a mini-celebrity because of her swimming feat through her heart-breaking incidences to her journey back home.
All this accomplished with minimal words. Just 307 pages of large sized lettering. The parsimony of words has totally appealed to me. This could have been narrated in detail covering more than a 1000 pages, conveying the same message and would have been equally successful. What makes it great is the author's ability to be brief and yet tell you everything there is to say..

Anil's Ghost.. a book that has made me want to abandon everything I am doing right now and run to Sri Lanka - time unknown.. to bond with people only in the book.. to cry with them and laugh with them and be a part of everything they go through.. no book has ever touched me the way this has.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Cairo Trilogy

I started this book on the first death anniversary of Naquib Mahfouz - August 30th. What date could be more appropriate than that to read one of the famous books of the famed Nobel laureate.. famous / notorious.. upto us to decide.. Once i began to read the book, i learned a lot more about him. His trysts with Islam fundamentalists because of his controversial writing came as a total surprise to me because in The Cairo Trilogy, religion was omni-present. His different views on religion was brought out beautifully in discussions and arguments between pious and atheist characters of the book. One interesting thing i read was the connection with Salman Rushdie. Ever since i enjoyed Midnight's Children, i have been partial towards Rushdie. It was interesting to note that Naguib Mahfouz defended Rushdie when the Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death. It was not that he supported Rushdie's views. He criticized Rushdie's work about insulting Islam but he just felt that the book did not give the fundamentalists the right to take Rushdie's life. Intersting..

Well, coming to the book.. the Cairo Trilogy was unlike anything i have ever read before. Describing the book would not do justice to Naguib Mahfouz and his efforts (which were not little considering the book has 1315 pages.. yes! Front and Back!!)..
It is definitely a long book and at first sight i hoped i wouldn't be as disappointed with it as i was with "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth.. In many ways, A suitable boy was a stepping stone and i dont think would have this half as much had i not read that book before..

The reason why it is called a trilogy is that, initially, publishers were apprehensive about publishing such a monstrously large piece of, he decided to break it up into three smaller books - Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street. The three books were published and received immense acclaim.. and then publishers started putting the three together again. Though it is still a collection of three books, it is one continuous story.. the second book takes off from where the first book left and its like you've moved to a new chapter. there is no definite end to any of the books.. not even the last one. It is as though he has stopped with a chapter and will be continuing the story soon..

The story revolves around a magnificent personality - al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad. It sarts with his life as a young man married to Amina, a submissive obedient lady. they have 3 sons and 2 daughters. From the first few chapters, which are detailed descriptions of their everyday lives, we become familiar with each character and his/her uniqueness. The book is set in the early 1900s in Cario, Egypt. An age where most people were still conservative and women had strict rules to abide by and live with. Not surprisingly, in the male dominated society, no rules bound the husbands to their marriages and homes as it did women!

Amina seems to be the personification of submisiveness and devotion. She has never stepped foot out of her house in the 25 years that she was married to al-Sayyid. as-Sayyid leads a double life. On one side, he is a tyrannical strict father whose strictness at home verges on the border of cruelty. No one dares to talk to him, let alone disobey any of his orders. What his family members have no clue about is his second life.. a life that begins after the sun sets. A life filled with drinking, music and women. Here we see a man respected and loved by his friends. No signs of his strictness. He becomes a very humorous man cracking jokes all the time, flirting with singers, etc..and the minute he enters home after midnight..his strictness comes back to him naturally, even in his drunken state. Amina bears his cruelty to her without an sign of discomfort, anger or complaints.

The story then moves forward slowly and without realizing it, you become a silent member of the al-Sayyid family. you share their joys during weddings, sorrows during deaths. You laugh with them when they joke and you cry with them when they are hurt. IN the most beautiful manner, Naguib Mahfouz covers ALL aspects of life in just this one book. birth, life, death, friendship, love, marriage, separation, divorce, affairs, obedience, revolt, religion, patriotism, fanaticism, communism, aging, senility, health issues, women's liberation, freedom, sibling rivalry, enmity, jealousy, passion, anger, joy, sorrow,..anything you can think of will be covered in this book.. and in the most amazing manner..
Naguib Mahfouz doesnt take a stand in any of his opinions. For every character's strong opinions regarding anything from religion to love to marriage to philosophy.. there would be the views of other characters contradicting this character.

All this is set among major political unrest in Egypt. What starts in the form of occasional news heard when al-sayyid talks to his friends slowly starts seeping into the family. His son Fahmy is killed during a demonstration and this is the first msjor set back for the family. But much to the surprise of everyone in the family, life doesnt end with a death. Though they thought about him frequently ands spoke about ihm.. Fahmy soon became a distant memory and every one moved on in their lives.. marriages happened and girls moved away. Soon the kids have lives of their own - their families to handle, their issues to deal with, their lives to live. al-Sayyid once a formidable character slowly mellows down with age. Seeing him age is as painful to us as it is to him.

Naguib Mahfouz's interest in philosophy surfaces in the middle of the book with the growth of little kamal as we see him when the book begins. Mahfouz explores philosophy through kamal - anything from darwin's theory to latest science and human nature and behavior.

When i started reading the book, i started making notes of things that i particularly enjoyed reading about in the book.. by the time i finished about 100 pages in the book, i realized that it was not going to work coz my notes would be a minor novel in itself!!

From this book, i have learnt so much about Egypt and its people - their religious beliefs, their customs and traditions, their political history and it has been an enriching experience. There are soo many similarities between India and Egypt. Their struggle for freedom from the british reminded me our struggles. The change in their cultures as western habits seeped in reminded me about how india changed due to western influence and is still gradually changing. Family values and so many traditions including fights between mother in law and daughter in law reminded me of india of those days.. the days i have heard about from my grandparents and read about. But of course, there are soo many differences too..too many to list and that was what made this such an interesting read. On the whole, i have had the best couple of weeks comparing and contrasting egypt and india.. it has been fun. I would definitely miss knowing what happened to their lives after the book ended.. i am already missing them..:)

If you notice my blog sidebar, you'll see a quote by Earnest Hemingway that descibes a good book.. This book is a perfect example. You become a part of the book and even when the book is over, it continues to be a part of you.