Category Archives: Reading Challenge

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small ThingsAfter plodding through the last few books, “The God of Small Things” was a refreshing change. It drew me in, into the lives of Estha and Rahel, into Kerala, Ayemenem, onto love and its fragile boundaries, easily crushed by blind traditions, by selfish, hypocritical motives.

What Arundhati Roy achieves in her debut novel, her only work to date, is quite remarkable. She has the Booker (1997) to show for that, though an award is not always well deserved, as I recently discovered. In this case though, it is. One hundred percent. May be one hundred fifty. The lyrical quality of the prose, the evocative locales, passionate, intriguing moments reaped to the fullest, all belie the fact that this was only a first work. What a first! One that masters would be proud of and imitators love to worship.

The story, strongly influenced by the writer’s own life, is set in a Kerala village, Ayemenem, where the twins Estha and Rahel, return after twenty three years. Reliving a past that had separated them and split a family terminally apart. A past where their mother, Ammu, had loved an untouchable. An affair they paid dearly for. Estha and Rahel return to the present, to a “hideous grief”, to be haunted by death. Like their mother, they break “the Love Laws. That laid down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

 

Why a writer of such talent would forsake writing after her first work is baffling. Maybe political activism is more alluring. Maybe that was all she had to say. Maybe she is destined to be another Harper Lee. Whatever the reason, I hope she is able to repeat her tour de force. At least once, for the sake of literature.

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

The Conservationist by Nadine GordimerMehring, a shrewd, successful business tycoon based in South Africa and a sexually prolific if slightly depraved man, buys a farm, somewhat on a whim. It becomes a sanctuary for him, where he escapes on weekends to get away from his stereotyped world and also supervise its functioning, Jacobus and the rest of the black workers in the farm. There’s no story as such but incidents pieced together of Mehing’s life, the farm and its workers and a small time Indian family that runs a nearby shop. Mehring wants a vent from the drudgery of his life of business meetings and social commitments, seeks something missing in his personal relationships torn by a failed marriage, an estranged son, and a left winged girlfriend who has had to flee the country for getting politically entangled. The solitude of the farm, the river running beside it, the outdoor camping, drinking, the joy of defecating in the open, is satisfying. Jacobus, and the rest of the farm boys try to please him. Poor black people. Crafty Indians. We see glimpses of their lives as well.

There is little drama in the book, but wonderful perspectives, of lives from different angles of the South African social strata. The white man, wary of the black, keeping them on a leash, always circumspect of their intent. The black, trying to hold on to the land, trying to gratify its owner, bereft of education or wealth, but not short of compassion or merriment. The Indians, cunning, instinctive, somewhere in between the white and black (brown, yes, but also in a social sense), surviving political turmoils and biased laws.

It is a hard-to-read book, requiring substantial effort to plod through the probing, frequently diverting, interrogative narrative. But patience pays. Artifacts and faculties are sharply exposed, often caustic, intense scenes captured brilliantly, like the flood and its aftereffects, the dead body that comes floating in the end (“one of them”), Mehring’s surreptitious fingering of a teenager in the plane. Draws out a lot, then draws you in. Enjoy the ride, but don’t expect a conventional resolution or climax.

So why is Mehring a Conservationist? For becoming a part time farmer from pig iron seller, for his trying to preserve the farm, not letting it grow wild and waste(as his girlfriend suggests)? Or is it because he tries to conserve pieces of his life, that though materially successful, appear to him meaningless at times?

Winner of the 1974 Booker Prize.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

Paddy ClarkePaddy Clarke is not a funny story. The overwhelming feeling is one of palpable sadness, despite several humourous episodes, especially towards the earlier parts of the book. Ten year old Paddy, the eldest son of a large Irish family in fictitious(?) Barrytown of the sixties, thoroughly enjoys the company of his friends – Kevin, Liam, Aidan, Ian McEvoy and James O’Keefe – playing football, stealing magazines, knocking on doors to pester unsuspecting neighbours, writing names in wet cement, tussles among each other, and even the cruel Zentoga cult ritual. He also loves his younger brother, whom he endearingly calls Sinbad, though he is mostly a bully to him, giving him dead legs and showing him who’s the eldest, more out of habit, because little brothers are to be hated. There are numerous amusing incidents, one where an inspired Paddy plays Father Damien, and gets Sinbad to play a leper.

–Do it again.

Sinbad grabbed my legs.

–No, no, Kam – Kam

—Kamiano!

—I can’t remember it.

—Kamiano.

—Can I not just say Patrick?

—No, I said. Do it again and you’d better get it right.

—I don’t want to.

I gave him half a Chinese torture. He grabbed my legs.

—Lower down.

—How?

—Lower.

—You’ll kick me.

—I won’t. I will if you don’t.

Sinbad grabbed me around the ankles. He held me tight so my feet were stuck.

—No, no Kamiano! We want to stay as long as you are here.

—Okay my children, I said. —You can stay.

—Thanks very much, Kamiano, said Sinbad.

He wouldn’t let go of my feet.

 

As Paddy’s Ma and Da begin to drift apart, he becomes increasingly aware of their rift, the raised voices, slamming doors, the tense moods. He tries to reason: “Why didn’t Da like Ma?” His Ma was fine, much nicer than others’. It must be Da. “It was all him against her”. But in the end, he decides “it took two to Tango”.

There must have been a reason why he hated Ma. There must be something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn’t see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. He was my da.

In the wake of the separation, Paddy’s own world begins to change. He picks a fight with his best friend Kevin, falls out of his group, finds himself isolated. But he has grown up, starting to see himself as the “man of the house”, for his father would leave. “They were only kids” — he forgives the teasing of his erstwhile friends.

Roddy Doyle’s prose is sparse, his minimalistic style revealing Paddy’s world in an unsentimental manner. He retains a narrative that is inchoate and jumbled, very appropriate for the perspective of a ten year old. The combination turns out to be a very effective one, making us powerfully aware of the cruelties we are capable of and how the bitterness of parents can cloud the lives of their children.

Book Awards Reading Challenge

Here’s motivation for the coming days.

bookawardsfinal.jpg

The ones finished have links to review pages.

Commonwealth Writers’

1992 – Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey

1994 – Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

1996 – Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance

 

Booker

1974 The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

1981 Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1989 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

1993 Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

1997 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

1998 Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan

1999 Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

2006 The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

 

Pulitzer

2000 – Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri