A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. ~Oscar Wilde

Posts tagged ‘book review’

Sands of Struggle

Dune – Frank Herbert – first published – 1966 FIVE minus TWO stars. (different to THREE stars )

DUNE book cover

Dune has been labelled by many as the best science fiction book ever, has a starry eyed fan following, and was first recommended to me by a primary school teacher who has an intense interest in science, science fiction and teaching. In spite of that, and the fact that the book has been on my bookshelf for around ten years, I never read it. For one thing, I am wary of reading books which have an indiscriminate fandom. Fans who seem to like things because they are “just so great!” Or “amazing!” or any other things that define a following but not the followed. Other than the long ago met teacher, those who recommended Dune to me seemed to me to be more of the starry eyed kind rather than the nerd. Nerds are great because they can defend and discuss their background research and solidify their appreciation in a way I understand.

I started reading Dune without any expectations, just curious. My on-his-way-out-of-adolescence son recommended (insisted) that I read it as he wishes us to continue our family tradition of watching science fiction movies together when the new Dune movie comes out in 2020. He said it would be better to read the book before we saw the movie. I am glad I did. I did end up giving it four stars. A better rating would be 5 stars minus 2 for the anti feminist shades. It is surprising, because in the 1960s feminism was a surging heard all around the world. More on this in the spoiler alerted section.

The story works within the parameters of young adult fiction, which is how I would categorise it. There are strong elements of mysticism threaded with scientific imagination, interwoven within superstition which makes the premise seem like real life. Intelligent, rebellious youth trained in martial arts, the sciences, mind and body control meets destiny to become a religious leader. It is an old story (no shame there) retold with an endeavour to unify the various arms of knowledge and wisdom mankind may gather. It is easy to fall in love with young Paul and follow his growth into a religious leader who is also a political head of government with a fanatical following. It is easy to recognise his wisdom, and understand how difficult it is for his followers to see the glitz and not the conniving and the heartbreak behind the life which Paul must lead. It is easy for the reader to root for the young, wise one who sees his own glamour and his pitfalls equally clearly, but eventually makes decisions based on what would be good for All.

The “Litany Against Fear” – perhaps holds the strongest appeal for today’s young adult reading this book. Standing on the brink of adulthood, faced with an uncertain and unseen future, expected to make choices about education and career about a life yet unseen, this would be a strong mantra to draw strength from –
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This is not a new concept. Anyone who is familiar with ancient philosophies, has seen meditations about overcoming fear in some form or the other. It is placed perfectly in a story about an adolescent trying to bring sense to an adult world, therefore, it grips the imagination. It may even be helpful to memorise, for the so inclined.

Another quote – nothing new in itself, but good to be found in a story which grips popular imagination.
“When religion and politics travel in the same cart, the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster and faster and faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it’s too late.”


I have taken two stars away from the perfect rating for the two following reasons.

1. According to the Bene Gesserit legend, the saviour of mankind would be “Kwisatz Haderach”. He – note the pronoun – would have powers that no woman could ever have because a woman could look into the Truth everywhere but one place. The Kwisatz Haderach would see the whole truth because he would see where woman could and more. This is a not so subtle acceptance that a man is capable of more than a woman because a woman has limitations which a man does not. I have no idea whether Frank Herbert intended to convey this message. If it is unintentional, it is worse, because it reveals a hidden belief, and thus the more dangerous.

The story has many powerful women who are pivotal to the plot, but they are secondary to the Kwisatz Haderach, by decree – of the author. The mother, without whose training Paul would not have been ready when the need arose, the lover who stood by him through the wars, the sister who was more formidable than an adult in her knowledge, understanding, and skills, the wife whom he accepted and who immortalised his story with her gift of the pen. They all exist but to advance the job and fame of the Kwisatz Haderach, not for their own brilliant space in the legend.

2. The last paragraph of the book-
“Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she’ll live as less than a concubine—never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she’s bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives.”

Paul marries Irulan to ensure his position in the Imperium. He promises Chani that Irulan will never know a moment of tenderness from him, and she will be his only love. I do not know what the future books will bring, but Jessica’s comment makes my blood run cold. The idea of Jessica and Chani to be remembered as wives, not as the Reverend Mother or the woman who fought an equal battle at the side of Paul seems repugnant. The implication that Irulan is less than Chani, or Jessica, the concubines who were more beloved than wives, because she is a pawn, albeit willing, in a political game, and because she is never going to feel her man’s tenderness is so outrageous, that I nearly rated this book a zero star.

There is a subtle undercurrent of, if not precisely of misogyny, an insidious undertone of men and women being not quite equal, that is unsettling.


Joy and Luck

A pursuit of joy and wish to harness luck inspired Suyuan Woo top create the The Joy LuckJoy luck Club cover Club. In her novel of the same name(published in 1989, and made into a movie in 1993) ,  author Amy Tan explores the relationship between a mother and a daughter, that most fragile of tenacious bonds. It is a tale of failures and triumphs,  of sorrow and joy, of misunderstandings and love.


Each generation grows up questioning the previous, even if the questions are silent in one’s head,and there is an outward kowtowing to the demands of a deep rooted culture. This outward complaisance often leads to the roots settling in and the person becoming part of the culture. Or is the other way around? Or does it not happen often?

When mothers having been uprooted from their own pasts, raise their daughters in a far away land, they find a tension in holding on to the land of their birth, and allowing themselves to be free of the bitterness that uprooted them in the first place. Bitterness there always seems to be. In being abandoned by their family, or by their husbands, in the shame of loving a mother who brought shame into the family, in the trauma of having to leave babies behind and trusting that strangers would save them.

Youthful America can hold out lures to these women who come from ancient cultures, whether it is the glittering life visible from across the seas, or the seduction of breaking free from the entwining, centuries old bonds, or getting away from a past that has become unbearable, and starting afresh. The pride in one’s heritage jostles with the battles of one’s youth. There is an uneasy breakdown of the conviction that their upbringing is the only one true path, which drives cracks into their assuredness of the right and the wrong. Daughters grow up with a reluctant foot in a land they do not know, in roots that they cannot see, and a wavering foot in a land they live and breathe in, desperate to belong. In the end, the delicate balance between love and understanding, of hope and a desire to build bridges, builds a new system of roots. 

Not understanding Mah Jong, seemed to be a bit of a hindrance as there was a vague feeling of missing the point.  There was also a need to refer back multiple times between chapters and story lines. It was a little confusing. However, in the end, it was well worth the read. 

Who does the Bhagavad Gita belong to?

DP and MG

It has taken me the better part of two years to complete my first reading of Devdatta Pattanaik’s “My Gita”. I am sure that I will go back to it time and time again, for it is a treatise on the Bhagavad Gita, that ultimate “lifestyle” manual. The current remarkable obsession with “self-exploration, self-examination, self-actualization”, and, apparently, “selfies”, may have had its beginnings in the “self-realization” discussed in the book, through the millenia spanning the composition of the “Bhagavad Gita”.

I have often picked up a “Gita” I purchased while still a fledgling in the thoughtful world, (I still am), but have not got beyond the first verses. It’s heavy Sanskrit text and lumbering translation kept the book on my bedside stack, always as a to-be-read.

Devdutta Pattanaiks’s “My Gita” is not a translation or transliteration of the Bhagavad Gita. Instead it is series of 18 essays on what Pattanaik considers to be the 18 themes of the Gita. It does not cover the Gita sequentially, as the themes he has identified are not isolated by chapter, but rather sprinkled within multiple discourses through the whole collection or “song”. It is important to remember this while reading the book, as it gives it a very different experience to reading the Gita.

To my mind, this book has been about understanding the value of the Gita in my 21st century hectic, and often seemingly rudderless existence. On days I have felt the buzzing of restlessness, the pages have soothed me. On days I felt calm, I have had moments of eye opening wonder.

I am delighted that I can come back to this book time and again in order to calm myself, and experience more moments of blinding understanding. I might even attempt the Sanskrit version again, one day. I just need to understand that I do not need to read either in a linear, consecutive manner. I can open them to any page, and attempt to absorb the wisdom they contain.

Ultimately, while this book is Pattanaik’s take on the Bhagavad Gita, the original, as seen in these essays belongs to all.

Hopefully the few editing oversights have been corrected in future editions of the book.


pictures from the friendly World Wide Web –

  1. Scroll.In
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita


Reading “The Casual Vacancy”

Two Positive reviews. Sort of.



And a negative one:  Sort of.

Caution: All of the above reviews, especially the last, contain some Spoilers. So please peruse only if you feel Spoilers will not affect your reading of The Casual Vacancy. Also, if you do, Parminder is not Pakistani. She is Sikh, of Indian descent.

By now, anyone who is interested in Harry Potter, J K Rowling, Modern Literature, anything under the Sun, knows that The Casual Vacancy, or TCV as it is lovingly called, is a novel written for adults, and not really “as good as” Harry Potter. Of course, there are those who would not be seen dead with a Harry Potter book, but even they know that TCV is not really that good (See multiple reviews on multiple websites, if you want, after the ones above). So, while they were too adult to read a “book about magic” they are too literary minded to read TCV. Yes, I know, the Harry Potter books were not really about magic. But, in spite of all of that TCV has been sold a few million times over. Not too bad.

This article is also not a review. It is a reading moment. My reading moment. If you want to really know TCV, read it. Do. The only opinion that matters to you, is yours.

I finished the book in two sittings. On Saturday I read through the afternoon, and made myself put it down at night. I read again next day, from mid morning to mid afternoon. All 503 pages of it.  That in itself, is telling. It is a book that is easy to keep reading.

Contrary to advertisement, I teared up only once, at the end of the first third of the book, and never again. I did not cry at the end, I believe people have been crying then. But I was gripped with strong emotions throughout. I was not expecting to fall in love with any of the characters, as I had already been warned by the Jennifer Byrne interview with JKR. But I did not expect them to be quite so disgusting. Or most of them. Or at least most of the adults.

TCV is a look into the lives of some of the most unlikeable characters in a small English town, and one is left wondering how come they are all concentrated there. The people we meet daily are all a mix of loveable and  not so loveable characteristics. And most of them seem to have something that redeems them. We can find something about each person that we can take note of and say, “See? There, they are not so bad after all”.

But JKR does not allow us that luxury; taking us to peek into each person’s minds she tells us that all is not well, anywhere. Then, there are the adolescents. Each with their own private hell, and each struggling to get the better of it.

I will not go into a dissection of the only character people have bonded to, in the book – Krystal Weedon. JKR mentioned that she was the best character/person, and that, in a way, this story is about her. I can see why she said so, and why people end up loving her. I was not even allowed that luxury, in my mind. Even Krystal with her courage, and her mindfulness and her love failed to make me love her. But I will write about that later.

I liked this book so much that I will read it again. When I am not feeling so raw inside about it. Now that I know what happens, I will pick each sentence apart, and dig into the whys. I will pace myself out, and think about it as I go along. I am sure, I will discover many new things. There, in my mind, lies the excellence of “The Casual Vacancy”. It is a book you can read again.


Chetan Bhagat, Call Centres and Acknowledgements.

(Caution: Contains spoilers. If you have not read “One Night @ the Call Center”, you might want to read it first)

I did not know Chetan Bhagat existed until I was in India last December, and was eagerly planning to go see the now iconic movie “3 Idiots”, picked up the papers one morning, and read a report on how disappointed Mr. Bhagat was that his name was shown “in small print” at the “end of the movie”, in “rolling credits”. I remember thinking “well, this is India after all, since when do people get given credit for anything, unless they are powerful enough to wrest it?” And then did not bother myself about the hoop-la following, of which there seemed to be a fair amount. I had not previously heard of any of his books, or that “3 Idiots” had been adapted from his “5 Point Someone”. It was when I skimmed through the newspaper article that I realised these facts.

After a couple of failed attempts, we finally saw 3 Idiots. I absolutely loved it. I came out of the movie theatre dreamy eyed and in another world. Some chance met friends mentioned that the movie was “different’ and “a lot had been changed” from the original book, but “it is obviously the same story”  as “5 Point Someone” .  It was after a long time that a movie had captured my full attention, and I was eager to read the original book.

So we went hunting for “5 Point Someone”.  Not very surprisingly, the shops were all “sold out” but we did find two other books by the same author. One was “2 States”, and the other was, “One Night @ The Call Center”. Wondering aloud why the spelling of Centre was Americanised, and making disparaging remarks about the confusion of spelling rules, we bought both, determining to order the other one online along with a copy of the DVD of “3 Idiots” when it was released.

By the time I actually opened “One Night @ The Call Center” a few weeks had passed.

The first night I read the “before you begin this book…” pages. And skimmed through the acknowledgements and started reading the prologue. I must say, within a couple of pages I started having a sense of déjà vu. Not like I had read these words before, or that I had been there, but I could predict more or less what was going to happen. The girl who came in to Mr. Bhagat’s compartment after the train had left Kanpur station, turning out to be divine guidance, was the most obvious one.

That in itself is not too bad  – movies, stories, people can all be predictable. Even a very ordinary story can be raised to the heights of superior literature, by talented storytelling, so I was not going to pass judgement, but remain open till the end.

I found that the predictability of the book did not surpass the experience of reading it. I knew as soon as Priyanka announced her engagement, that she would discover something about Ganesh that night and break off the engagement. I knew as soon as Bakshi asked for a soft copy of the website manual, that he would pass it off in his own name,. I did not know exactly when God would call, and kept waiting on tenterhooks for the call. If that was the purpose of the book, the Mr. Bhagat did succeed. For I eagerly kept turning the pages reading trite event after trite emotional drama wondering when God would call.

At the end of it all, I was not moved. Not by a power that is beyond me to make more of my life. Nor by the plight of any of the characters. I did not like any of the characters, or hate them, I felt no passion for them. I did not find I had any more sympathy for  the 300,000 odd call centre operatives in India who work through the night taking calls from overseas and resolving issues that are trivial than I had been before I read the book. I was left wondering what the purpose of the book was, if it was not the one(s) discussed in the prologue and the epilogue.

If Mr. Bhagat’s aim is to “entertain” as has been quoted in many circumstances, I am sorry to say I was not. I did not identify with any of the characters, the resolution was too pat. And I found the style of writing very plain and uninteresting. I have read a couple of columns written by Mr Bhagat, and in this book he seems to have used the kind of language and style that he would expect a lay person at a call centre would. But Shyam is not so ordinary after all, is he? He is, by all evidence a talented web designer, and in spite of the encomium of “loser”  embellishing him, would be able to speak  / write better. Shyam starts of with a disclaimer that he knows no “big words” – he does not have to. He seems a resourceful young man with plenty of ideas and talents though his plunging self esteem has caused his life to fall in a rut, and I feel he would have had more idiomatic language at his command. As would any Indian young person. I am not talking of expletives.

Of course it can be argued that I am not an Indian youth wallowing in the throes of extreme despair, trying to find love and make my career all in the time span of one night. It can also be argued that I do not live in India any more, and hence cannot have any proper supportive feelings for what the Indian youth is challenged by on a day to day basis. If this is true, then this book could have been Mr. Bhagat’s chance to make me feel thus.

The radiant being in the train tells Mr. Bhagat that he cannot claim to be a “youth writer” because IIT youth do not constitute the entirety of the youth of the country. This is correct. So I guess we can expect more groups of youth will get attention from the prolific pen of Mr. Bhagat, since the youth at the Call Centres also do not constitute the entirety of India’s youth.  Considering Indian’s diversity and the size of young India, I guess that there will be many, many books.

One hallmark of a good read is that one should feel glued to it.  It is true that I kept turning the pages  – I was awaiting God, and I wanted the book to be a meaningful experience. I believed that if this same author has inspired a movie like “3 idiots”, then there must be some aha! moment in this book. I was very disappointed to find God make a tiny appearance right at the end, and even though the six people were shaken out of their lethargy into action, what followed was extremely incredible.

The 6 clever employees of the Call Centre leave their conspiratorial meeting at 5:10 am, and send off a letter from Bakshi’s computer to Esha which has a time stamp of 5:04 am. How? Did Vroom have privileged access to the network so that he could change the time stamp? And how come this cannot be followed up by the systems guys? It is a relatively simple task to investigate the true time stamp of any movement on the network. It would be very easy for Bakshi to prove that he was out of the office, at the time, and that would land our heroes into so much trouble that Divine Intervention would definitely be needed to rescue them. Then they get the operatives to call up the American customers, and ask them to call back every so many hours on a trumped up cause  and the Americans fall for it completely. Of course no reporter,  or the management in Boston gets whiff of this breach in security. God Forbid! Not a single customer panics at the mention of terrorism and security, and no one contacts the American emergency system. The American public calmly eat their Thanksgiving turkeys and call back every now and then reporting their status.

If this had been a book I had picked up at random, and read, I would not have spared it a second thought. But Mr. Bhagat is purportedly the highest selling English author in India. This moves me to wonder whether I  am out of touch. I do sympathise with the call centre operatives.  But not because I have read this book, it is because I have seen how they are treated by the customers from overseas, and their own management. The book did not make me think any deeper or longer, but made me lose all patience with the main characters.

In addition, I wonder if it is true that when call centre operatives are trained in India, that they are actually told “Americans are stupid”. Are they? I hope not. I would hate to belong to a race that makes such a racist remark in an official capacity.

I will read “2 States”, and of course I eagerly await laying my hands on “Five Point Someone”, if only to complete my experience of watching the movie it inspired.

But, I will end with this. I believe that injustice was done to Mr. Bhagat, by acknowledging him at the end of the movie “3 Idiots”. Regardless of how closely or not the script/screenplay  followed the original story, all film makers make sure to pay respects where it is due. Has anyone seen “She’s The Man”? Even that movie declared up front that the plot was lifted from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or “What You Will”, though it takes some serious head scratching to figure out the connection, it is so remote.




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