Tales from the land of Maharajahs, tigers and spices: the books I read in India

By Emma.

India has a space programme. Its defence budget for 2014 is 2.24 trillion rupees (that’s EUR 26.1 billion or US $36 billion). Yet, in India, the level of female illiteracy is heartbreaking. The literacy rate for the lower caste women in rural Rajasthan is less than 5%, the lowest in India.  It’s  something I just can’t understand. The figures rob the room of oxygen. Feeling powerless, I began the search for a charity to support. I chose Educate Girls ( learn more and contribute to change here).

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These are the books I was privileged enough to read as I wandered through India:

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

A Suitable Boy My rating: 4/5. A feast of a novel!

Editor’s Blurb: Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multi ethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.

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The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things My rating: 5/5. One of my favourite books of all time. 

Editor’s Blurb: “They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much.” 

The year is 1969. In the state of Kerala, on the southernmost tip of India, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel fashion a childhood for themselves in the shade of the wreck that is their family. Their lonely, lovely mother, Ammu, (who loves by night the man her children love by day), fled an abusive marriage to live with their blind grandmother, Mammachi (who plays Handel on her violin), their beloved uncle Chacko (Rhodes scholar, pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher), and their enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun and incumbent grandaunt).
When Chacko’s English ex-wife brings their daughter for a Christmas visit, the twins learn that Things Can Change in a Day. That lives can twist into new, ugly shapes, even cease forever, beside their river….

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A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

A Fine Balance My rating: 4/5. I took away a point because it was so upsetting – a small revenge on the author!

Editor’s Blurb: With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake My rating: 4/5

Editor’s Blurb: The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of their arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle together in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An engineer by training, Ashoke adapts far less warily than his wife, who resists all things American and pines for her family. When their son is born, the task of naming him betrays the vexed results of bringing old ways to the new world. Named for a Russian writer by his Indian parents in memory of a catastrophe years before, Gogol Ganguli knows only that he suffers the burden of his heritage as well as his odd, antic name. Lahiri brings great empathy to Gogol as he stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With penetrating insight, she reveals not only the defining power of the names and expectations bestowed upon us by our parents, but also the means by which we slowly, sometimes painfully, come to define ourselves.

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Mahashweta by Sudha Murty

Mahashweta My rating: 1/5. A really interesting premise bbut a novel that fails completely. Cardboard dialogues and one-dimensional characters. More so a fable than a novel. 

Editor’s Blurb: Anupama looked into the mirror and shivered with shock. A small white patch had now appeared on her arm.’ Anupama’s fairytale marriage to Anand falls apart when she discovers a white patch on her foot and learns that she has leukoderma. Abandoned by her uncaring in-laws and insensitive husband, she is forced to return to her father’s home in the village. The social stigma of a married woman living with her parents, her steother’s continual barbs and the ostracism that accompanies her skin condition force her to contemplate suicide. Determined to rebuild her life against all odds, Anupama goes to Bombay where she finds success, respect and the promise of an enduring friendship. Mahashweta is an inspiring story of courage and resilience in a world marred by illusions and betrayals. This poignant tale offers hope and solace to the victims of the prejudices that govern society even today.

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The Interpreter of Maladies by  by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter of Maladies My rating: 4/5. A wonderful set of moving short stories.

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The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Jungle Book My rating: 3/5.

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Rereads and old reads set in India

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi My rating: 4/5 

Editor’s Blurb: Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel published in 2001. The protagonist, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality and practicality from an early age. He survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger My rating: 4/5

Editor’s Blurb: Set in a raw and unromanticized India, The White Tiger—the first-person confession of a murderer—is as compelling for its subject matter as it is for the voice of its narrator: amoral, cynical, unrepentant, yet deeply endearing.

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Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram My rating: 3/5. If only it ended when he left India …

Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear.

Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, the two enter Bombay’s hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries, who seek in this remarkable place what they cannot find elsewhere.

As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city’s poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia.

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Q & A by Vikas Swarup

Q & A My rating: 5/5

Editor’s Blurb: Vikas Swarup’s spectacular debut novel opens in a jail cell in Mumbai, India, where Ram Mohammad Thomas is being held after correctly answering all twelve questions on India’s biggest quiz show, Who Will Win a Billion? It is hard to believe that a poor orphan who has never read a newspaper or gone to school could win such a contest. But through a series of exhilarating tales Ram explains to his lawyer how episodes in his life gave him the answer to each question.
Ram takes us on an amazing review of his own history – from the day he was found as a baby in the clothes donation box of a Delhi church to his employment by a faded Bollywood star to his adventure with a security-crazed Australian army colonel to his career as an overly creative tour guide at the Taj Mahal.
Vikas Swarup’s Q & A is a beguiling blend of high comedy, drama, and romance that reveals how we know what we know – not just about trivia, but about life itself. Cutting across humanity in all its squalor and glory,Vikas Swarup presents a kaleidoscopic vision of the struggle between good and evil – and what happens when one boy has no other choice in life but to survive.

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Foreign reads read in India

We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves My rating: 5/5

Editor’s Blurb: Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret HistoryMy rating: 3.5/5

Editor’s Blurb:

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…

A stack of book in a Jaisalmer marketplace

A stack of book in a Jaisalmer marketplace

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