The books I read during the IPL

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It’s been a great week for this little project. LINC pens have come on board as a sponsor and we now have half of the money that is needed to fund the library. LINC have also committed to providing stationery to the project to facilitate the learning aspect that this library intends to provides.

GOAL have been great in identifying a specific project and the Khanaberia Free Primary School has been selected as the beneficiary of this first project. This is a school in the Dumping ground situated near our team hotel in Kolkata. I went along with Morgs last year to see what great work was already being done for the kids who live on the dump.

The costing has been done and we have approved the go ahead of equipping the school with a library cum Resource Learning Centre.This centre will help the children from the primary to the secondary level to gain knowledge and upgrade their learning through different books and educational CDs. The children of the secondary section will be able to solve various test papers which are extremely useful before appearing for board exams. The children of the primary section will develop the base of the learning and will be exposed to a world of knowledge.

It’s going to be very exciting to see this all come together. Hopefully it is the first of many such initiatives.  This is a quote from a great author Katherine Boo : “If we can’t have perfect solutions to profoundly complex problems, we can still make incremental, and meaningful, improvements.” I feel that each book that becomes available in this library will be an incremental step in improving someone’s life.

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The Eyes of Venice by Alessandro Barbero

Having been to Venice myself I was excited to see this book on one of my favourite author’s recommended lists. The Eyes of Venice is set in the 16th century, at a time when the Republic is experiencing a famine and living conditions are tough for the poor. Barbero is  exceptional in setting the scene and placing the reader in the city as it would have been 450 years ago. The churches, houses, squares, canals, bridges, markets, ships and gondolas as well as the people of the time are vividly described and have an ancient authenticity to them.

The story starts when a newly arrived Albanian apprentice has a fatal fall from the scaffolding on the site of a stone mason named Matteo. Along with his son Michele, Matteo is doing some building  work for Sir Giralamo Lippomano, a wealthy nobleman. In these tough times labourers seem marginalised and underpaid but Matteo is portrayed as a fair and caring employer and he feels the pain of the young Albanian’s death.

When the scrupulous Lippomano puts a sudden end to the building project and quibbles over paying for the completed work, Matteo is frustrated and vents his anger over the oppression of the state and its wealthy senators over the ordinary citizens of Venice. In a finely poised state, when a class struggle looms ala French Revolution style, the Senate is keen to make an example of anyone threatening the balance of imbalance.

Without work and desperate for money, father and son go off to sell their remaining bricks to another stone mason. Here they are stopped and when an officer tries to search them for weapons, the frustrated Matteo punches one of the men and is subsequently himself assaulted by the police. He ends up falling into one of the city’s canals and after unsuccessfully trying to help his father Michele runs off in an attempt to evade arrest. When cornered, he is forced to board a vessel and pretend to be onboard to take up a job as an oarsmen. Uncertain of his father’s fate and having left a young bride at home without notice, he sets off with the crew of a merchant ship, having no idea about life at sea.

Life on the galley is tough, even for a physically abled bricklayer like Michele. When the ship stops on a small island for restocking, two of the crew try make off with some precious cargo ; a purse of coins which was an absolute fortune at the time. The ship’s officers capture and murder the thieves, burying both the bodies and the treasure, and report falsely that the thieves escaped with the purse. Michele witnesses the whole episode from the cover of darkness. Michele becomes a suspect and is torn between standing up to the officers and reporting what he saw or feigning ignorance with the hope of retrieving the treasure after returning to Venice on completion of the voyage.

Matteo’s death and Michele’s absconding have left his mother and young wife to fend for themselves at home. Barbero gives a great insight into how tough life was for the poorer people of the Republic around this time. From losing their home, to going hungry, to struggling to afford firewood and clothes to keep warm, we see how their desperation is preyed on by some evil people with selfish intentions. Bianca is intent on not becoming a prostitute and ends up doing a variety of jobs, even turning to begging at one point, to keep herself from starving.

Meanwhile, an order of banishment with Michele’s name on it arrives on the ship. The parone of the ship takes a liking to Michele and plans his escape and hiding, aswell as finding a new ship to take him on. Without knowing it, he also saves Michele from being murdered so that any knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the missing treasure do not cause problems down the line. Michele’s new vessel of employment is a pirate ship where the majority of rowers are convicts and all rowers are chained to the benches. The author gives a vivid account of the brutality of pirate life as raids and murders are carried out with the least care of though for the victims.

Barbero uses many peripheral characters to add variety to the story. Turks, Jews and Christians work alongside each other. Villainous characters that rape, pillage and murder during raids on ships and villages are balanced with more caring beings. There is a constant undertone of the fight for national supremacy between the Italians, the Greeks, the Venetians and the Turks. When a raid on a Turkish village goes wrong it is all but the Muslim and Jewish oarsmen and sailors who are spared. Michele is at the mercy of the two  oarsmen with whom he shared a bench on the ship and with some help from some Jewish merchants they escape slavery and head to Nicosia as free men.

Illness, starvation, disease and violence are daily challenges that face the poor. But Bianca has a change in fortune when she is placed in the service of Lady Clarice, the wife of a wealthy and influential member of Venetian nobility. Lady Clarice takes a liking to Bianca who in time becomes her chambermaid. It is ironically Bianca’s peasant knowledge of childbirth that helps The Lady to finally give birth to a family heir after an excruciatingly difficult labor.In the meantime Bianca has fallen into the desires of a controlling and deceitful spice merchant who has managed to scare her into moving in with him. Lady Clarice not only comes to her rescue but when she hears Bianca and Michele’s full story she also promises to use her husband’s influence to gain a pardon for Michele.

In a game of political chess,Sir Lorenzo (Lady Clarice’s husband) is sent to Constantinople where a  Senator of the Republic is cheating the books and profiting from the export of grain to Venice. This thief is none other than the heartless Sir Lippomano who unjustly dismissed and refused to pay Matteo, starting the family’s fall into despair. Barbero, after using so many characters and taking the story from port to port across the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, is a master at bringing the story together in a way that is easy to follow. The subtle link between all the characters is easily understandable and he maintains the reader’s interest throughout the book.

News of the secret mission to arrest and return Sir Lippomamo to Venice had reached his people and an envoy was hurriedly sent to intercept Sir Lorenzo’s party and to make sure that Lippomano avoids arrest. The progress of the  respective voyages are played out in a cat and mouse chase through the interaction with various leaders and merchants to secure a safe passage to Constantinople . I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to see if the kind-hearted Michele would be spared and the villainous Lippomano would get what he deserved.  The land of the Turks is as vividly depicted as Venice. Walled cities with fortified castles, minarets, markets and camels are all used to give an authentic feel to the trading ports of the time. The journey by land is slow and arduous and the constant threat of ambush adds to the tension.

On arrival in Constantinople Sir Lorenzo replaces Lippomano as the bailo or ambassador to the region. Lippomano is unsure of whether his grain profiting scam is known to the Venetian authorities and reluctantly agrees to go back to try clear his name. Michele has also made his way to Constantinople and approaches Sir Lorenzo to explain his story and to tell him of the lost treasure that belongs to the Republic. To his amazement Sir Lorenzo realises that Michele is the husband of his wife’s chambermaid and that he knows of this story and has already obtained a pardon. As fate would have it Michele and Lippomamo are bound for Venice on the same ship.

But the emerging of the truth is an inconvenience to certain members of the senate and Michele is arrested upon returning to Venice. An investigation is launched and when the police search the island there is no sign of the hidden treasure. The corpses of the two oarsmen were however found to lend some credibility to Michele’s Story. Family reputations, political interests and the owing of favours make it difficult for Michele to clear his name and the Council of decision makers are intent on covering up the scandal to protect the nephew of one of it’s members. In a male dominated society it is Lady Clarice who has the courage to insist on the truth overcoming convenience and it is by her persuasion that Michele is freed and the guilty nephew and his accomplice are sent to Constantinople for punishment.

This book is a fine piece of historical fiction. The scenes are authentic for the time period and the author gives a fantastic human account of life from various social perspectives. At the same time it is a great story that flows easily and builds steadily to its climax. The Eyes of Venice is a brilliant mix of the physical battles of men and ships at sea with the less tangible political, social and economic battles for power and influence on land. It is a fantastic book that i would highly recommend.

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Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

In a side alley off a busy road, nestled between fruit sellers, tea counters, street vendors and a collection of brothels is Rashid’s Opium den. Men lie on their backs in the silence of dark rooms, slowly smoking away as life continues on the bustling streets of the metropolis. Narcopolis is a no holds barred look at the drug and prostitution scene of  Bombay from the 70’s to the 90’s.

The central character is Dimple. After being gelded at a young age, she is given away to an unspecified priest by her mother. Still a young ‘girl’ she ends up in a brothel in Mumbai and is put to work. She is introduced to Opium use by Mr Lee, a chines refugee, as a means to dealing with the pains of brothel life. On his death she inherits his family’s magnificent ancient opium pipe with which she secures a job in Rashid’s place. Dimple moves between gender, religion, occupation and even names and is a useful character to explore the diversity of the city.

The story is based around her interactions with a variety of other characters, all connected by their common desire for drugs. I particularly enjoyed Mr Lee, through whom we get to learn of life in Mao’s China and of his experience of being in the army. Mr Lee eventually escapes communist China and ends up living in Bombay.  Ironically after being a source of healing for Dimple, Mr Lee dies in her care, bitter and lonely in a foreign land.

Over time, Dimple lives at Rashid’s house and although he has many wives he uses her for his sexual enjoyment. We also see a shift in the drug scene as Rashid’s and many other opium dens are shut down and the far more potent and dangerous heroin takes root in Bombay. In a bid to avoid the shutting down of the den, a suspected agitator is threatened with a death that could easily be blamed on the Patha Maar or stone killer. This refers to an unsolved case where mainly homeless people were killed by having their heads crushed with a large rock while sleeping. This horrific crime epitomises the struggle of the cities poorest.

Thayil also brings to our attention the frightening memories of the religious riots that gripped the city in the early nineties. The associated fear had left people staying indoors and transformed the city into a ghost town. Fruit and vegetable supplies had been crippled but chemicals were always readily available. The infiltration of heroin into the market and an increase in violence in the story coincide as the author describes some horrific beatings and murders.

The book is a collection of stories, told by a variety of story tellers, all linked together by their addiction to narcotics. Pimps, abusive husbands, drug dealers, tourists, and even a famous poet are infused into this tale of drugs above all else. Strong friendships are developed but this line is quite pertinent: ‘We had once been friends, but I’d never thought of coming to see her or to ask after her. There was always some sort of crisis, a crisis every day, and heroin trumped friendship every time’. Naturally with the topic at hand, many relationships are also inappropriate, false and destructive.

The narration is interspersed by word for word accounts of the drug users thoughts during a ‘hit’. It is a fantasy/reality account of these trips where inanimate objects come to life and the users have conversations with the dead. It is an insightful account of how drugs muddle the mind and why they are a popular source for escaping unpleasant realities.

While possibly being a good reflection of the city of the time, the book didn’t match up to my experiences of this city as I know it today. While its worthy to note that 25 years is a long time, I expected the book to give me more of a sense of the vibrancy and energy that Bombay had back in the day. As much as I enjoyed the controversial subject and the informal style of writing, I have read other books on Mumbai where the authors portray the sights, sounds and even the smells of the city in a way that got me excited about the place. I expected more stories about the city, with possibly less of a focus on just the drug scene.

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The Hungry Tide – Amitav Ghosh

 

Like so many people who have taken interest in this book review project, a Bengali friend was quick to recommend a book when she heard of this blog. The Hungry Tide is the story of human interaction and the interaction of humans with the harshness and beauty of nature. It shows the contrast of opinion and action of a variety of characters from differing backgrounds and in the face of different circumstances . After a pretty slow start the novel gathers pace and becomes the cliched page turner.

 

It is set in the Sundarbans, a mystic area of natural beauty right on the doorstep of Kolkata. The area has been mentioned to me on many occasions and I thought a story set in this place would be insightful. It turned out to be an incredibly written story that is both complex and easy to follow. The mixture of the islands physical make up , it’s wildlife, it’s culture and the waters that surround it provide the perfect setting for the unravelling of this story.

 

The story is told through the visits of Kanai and Piyali to the Sunderbans. They have a chance meeting in Kolkata before going their separate ways. Piyali (of Bengali descent) is an American post grad student who has travelled to the Sunderbans to research it’s dolphin population. She is thrown into the path of a local fisherman who saves her life and despite the lack of sharing a common language these two have a connection that transcends the communication of tongues. Trust, equality, respect and understanding are played out in this speechless relationship.

 

Kanai is a linguist and owner of a translation agency. He is in the area to review the writings of his late uncle. These writings are in themselves a separate story of a people’s struggle against the Indian government for settlement in a previously uninhabited island of the area. It is a heartening tale of displacement and the triumph of the human spirit in the search for belonging. It is a factual account of the establishment of a society based on the utopian principles of an English Humanist, Sir Daniel Hamilton . These papers end up revealing the story of Kusum and her young son Fokir, the very same boatman who later saves Piya’s life. Languages, translations, and understanding are a common theme throughout the book and Kanai’s vocation adds an ironic element to the story. 

 

Piya and Kanai, after going there seperate ways are reunited in Lusabari. Fokir is also enlisted to help with Piya’s research and an air of tension arises on the trip.Kanai is arrogant, Fokir although illiterate is soulful and genuine. The contrast is revealing of the differences in human nature. While Kanai’s education and sophistication are revered in the city, it is the people of the islands who are the masters of the tide country.

 

The book is a compilation of short chapters. The chapters jump back and forth in time and  place, constantly keeping you on edge as to how each story is developing. I really like this use of style as you also progressively see how the the different stories are linked. I was constantly trying to put it all together, with more or less succes at different times, like putting a puzzle together. It keeps the mind guessing as to the direction in which the story is headed and the author reveals more and more like a regulating valve. It keeps the plot interesting throughout.

 

The Hungry Tide is factual and informative. Ghosh is a celebrated academic and his research is meticulous. Information about the partition, war, politics, gender and class struggle, nature conservation, the make up and flaura of the islands, it’s animals , the working of the tides, and Indian folklore are richly interwoven with the telling of this story. The descriptive writing appeals to the senses and this makes the reader feel that they are in the thick of the story. I would highly recommend this book. 

The Kite Runner

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The Kite Runner

“It’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws it’s way out.” The Kite Runner is the story of the search for atonement by a middle aged man who is smacked by the realization of his errors and the constant reminder that the past catches up with you until you have made amends for your mistakes. Like an evangelist I get the urge to want to distribute this book to everyone I know (and don’t know) every time I read it.

The story unfolds in pre war Afghanistan and is centred around the relationship between Amir, the son of a wealthy businessman, and his servants son Hassan. It takes some vivid imagining to comprehend how Afghanistan once was. The images we see today and it’s recent troubled history make it almost impossible to imagine the idyllic upbringing that Amir and Hassan initially share. Hosseini paints a romantic picture of childhood before taking us through Afghanistan’s transition from a Monarch to a Republic to the destructive rule of the Taliban. The juxtaposition of Hosseini’s original depiction of childhood is made all the more poignant by the fact that this is now lost. “There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.”

The story is narrated by Amir. Despite his evil ways and him being an unlikeable character, this method of narration not only gives a very personal account of what it is like to experience war first hand, but also adds to the anguish one feels when reading about the destruction and devastation which war brings to an individual. It is however far more than a story about one boy’s experience in the war.

It is a richly descriptive story of contrasts: of the rich and the poor, of the master and the servant; of the educated and the illiterate; of the weak and the brave; but ultimately of loyalty and betrayal. The book will reach into the heart of even the hardest of men and is full of lessons on humanity and of the requirements needed for the most basic respect of others.

Cowardice and bravery are recurring themes. At a border checkpoint an exchange between a Russian soldier and Baba, Amir’s father, leaves my heart in my mouth. Baba comes to the rescue of a woman whom the soldier wishes to rape as the price for passing. It is an intense exchange in the most uncomfortable of positions.  On the soldier’s theory that war has no shame Baba replies: “War doesn’t negate decency.It demands it, even more than in times of peace”. Moments later in a hopeless position of despair and weakness and at the threat at being shot for intervening Baba says: ‘Tell him I’ll take a thousand of his bullets before I let this indecency take place’

The book is littered with such exquisitely written passages with profound life lessons. A subtle sense of irony pervades the story. But rather than conveying these lessons in a Shakesperean or Dickensian way, Hosseini brings a fresh approach to prose, while maintaining the literary beauty for which his predecessors are so well known. I cannot think of another writer to compare this piece of work with.

It is also easy to relate to the story. We all have situations which we wish we had handled better and its often easier to will them away by filing rather than confronting them. Bullying is a topical issue in many countries and the book addresses the kind of situations that divide people into bullies and victims. We fail to see it as kids, to paraphrase Kanye West: The people highest up have the lowest self esteem, the most beautiful people do the ugliest things. This book would serve a great purpose in school curriculums the world over.

Hosseini gives Amir a voice that suggests he is truly sorry for what he did. Amir also shows an awareness of just how loyal a friend Hassan was by the stories he recalls and the tone he uses in unveiling what happened. Despite this I still felt anger rather than sorrow for this Amir, right up till the end of the book. The author makes you confront the emotions he evokes.

I generally like books for a variety of three reasons: the story line; the style of writing and use of vocabulary; or the knowledge the author imparts to the reader. You will invariably find one, and its not uncommon to find a combination of two of these traits in a book,but in The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini has managed to master all three departments. This is why I consider this to be my favourite book.

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When I decided to undertake this fund raising I turned to a trusted friend and colleague at KKR. He not only threw himself into helping me, he also suggested and presented me with this first book. He’s got to know my reading preferences and particularly my strong like for non fiction books. I was excited when he briefed me on its content and even more excited when I saw my hard copy was a bright pink colour.

Calcutta is a personal account of two years in the Capital city of West Bengal.  Although born in Calcutta Amit Chaudhuri grew up in Bombay and later moved to the UK. On returning to Calcutta in 1999 he felt the city had lost the charm he remembered when holidaying there as a boy. “It wasn’t just that the relentless departure of capital, of its intelligentsia and middle class, had left it hollowed from inside; it was also the way local politics had territorialised it. ” But in 2009, on the verge of political change and the hope  that comes with it, Chaudhuri felt the time was right to explore the city and the reasons for him becoming a ‘reluctant citizen’ in the city that once enchanted him. The book is written in real time, noting the changes as they happen.

It is a personal memoir in which the author uses the City of Joy as his vehicle. I only really get to see small parts of the city from my seat on the team bus, but I can agree with the statement ‘You feel that something happened here’. You get the feeling that Calcutta failed to progress from it’s once greatness.The authors mood changes from upbeat excitement to disappointment and nostalgia as he ventures from the Calcutta of his youth to the  Kolkata he returns too as an adult.

I grew up in Port Elizabeth, and on returning to that city as an adult (after a 10 year absence) also felt disappointed. I can relate to Mr Chaudhuri’s feelings but am wondering if this is not more a reflection of the changing expectations of the individual rather than the decline of the city. After experiencing the diverse atmospheres, cultures, architecture and cuisine of other cities, surely a return to your city of birth could seem disappointing?

Mr Chaudhuri does give plausible causes for the perceived decline of the cities fortunes. Political beuracracy and political decision making are regularly visited topics in the book. ‘It was the usual story of the time: this gradual emptying of the city of commerce; the absolute reign over it of what it had always harboured – politics. ‘ It is however far more than a political history of the city.’

The book is a waffle, but a good flowing waffle. His writing is full of unexpected digressions, full of surprises and constantly changes direction in ways you don’t expect. By choosing to write in this way Chaudhuri has the freedom to cover a wide range of topics. He uses a mixture of rich text and quirky commentary to make the most mundane objects, personal interactions, and routine occurrences seem fascinating. The digression away from Calcutta-specific topics keeps the writing fresh and the reader interested. It also satisfies the appetite for knowledge over a wide area of interests.

Chaudhuri’s book is populated by a rich cast of characters, varying across social strata, religious beliefs and heritage , reflecting his depiction of Calcutta as a melting pot of cultures. Relating anecdotes about individuals he has encountered allows the author to use Calcutta’s wide range of inhabitants as different platforms from which to explore the city.

My most enjoyable part of the book was Chapter 2, Chandan Hotel.  The author vividly describes a part of the city that I am very familiar with; “The stalls are squalid, a small universe of cooking pots, potato peels, benches, and a few people absently lolling under the shelter of a tarpaulin” and ” even now, when its supposed to have been phased out of the city’s traffic, the hand-pulled rickshaw rolls onward, with an imperious shopper afloat.” By interviewing and observing the ‘citizens’ of Park Street and the adjoining Free School Road he brings the area with its narrow alleys and it’s informal economy to life.  I felt and fulfilled the urge to jump in a cab and get down there after reading this chapter.

The contrast between the local informal eateries of free school street ( “tiny cauliflower florets,their tips rusted like dry blood. This snack costs a paltry two rupees a plate “) and the refurbished restaurants of Park Street where tourists, much like myself, watch people toing and froing through the large modern glass windows of restaurants that charge London prices for a meal. ” Park Street is neither Oxford Street nor the Champs-Élysées, but here, in the stretch between Chowringhee and the junction of Free School Street and Middleton Row, it has an energy comparable to no other downtown district that I know. ”

One negative is the constant use of complicated vocabulary which I think would scare off readers with a less than excellent handle of the English language. (Chaudhuri studied at Cambridge). I had to look up the meaning of many words and while I personally found the exercise interesting and insightful I feel that it will prevent many readers from enjoying this unique account of this fascinating city.

If you don’t mind consulting a dictionary, or preferably have an extensive vocabulary, then I have no doubt that you will enjoy the book’s mixture of facts and excellently written opinions.It could even captivate the imagination enough to  make you want to explore the places that are the centre of this story of the City of Joy.

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Welcome to my book review blog.

I’m undertaking to read and review one book a week during the course of the IPL. I don’t profess to be a literary genius or of having any standout intellectual qualities  and I’m sure my style of review will portray this. I want to give my interpretation, my opinion, and my personal connections to the books I read.

I always enjoyed reading as a child. I guess a crowded sports schedule (and maybe – if im tough enough to admit- some peer pressure) took me away from this pastime from about the age of 13.  I suddenly rediscovered the passion about 5 years ago and have made up for lost time. I’ve also undergone a personal enlightenment and my thirst for knowledge and for exploring new spheres increases with my age. To paraphrase Hitchins, this thirst has led me to realise that I know less and less- but I at least know less and less about more and more.

To the meat of the matter- I’m using this platform to raise awareness for reading, and more importantly for the need for education in underprivileged areas. My plan is – with the help of some selfless people- to raise money to build a library or two in India. I have little experience so we’ll start with small expectations but we do have a reachable figure in mind.

I got introduced to Room to Read when I went along to the opening of a library at a school in Delhi through my association with the ICC as I was playing in the 2011 Cricket World Cup in India.

That day was an eye opener and after reading up on the organisation and its work I wanted to get involved. I also read Leaving Microsoft to Change the World! The inspiring story of the charity’s founder and his process to grow the charity into the respected organisation it has become. Please check out www.roomtoread.org

I hope you enjoy this blog and look forward to comments, suggestions, questions and most importantly to spreading the joy of reading.