Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Book Report: India Reading List

I'm visiting India for the first time later this year - its somewhere that has been on my travel list since I was a child but despite clocking up a few air miles, having a gap yah and a half and moving to the same continent I've still not visited. My parents and I will be doing the Golden Triangle in November, visiting Dehli, Agra (home of the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur with an add-on to Amritsar near the Pakistan border. I'm already planning more trips as such a vast and varied country can't be distilled into a ten-day trip nor captured in a novel but my reading choices are currently focused on India and this is my non-exhaustive India reading list (so far!):

1. Shantaram - Gregory David Robers


This is a huge novel, coming in at around 900 pages but it's a fast, relatively easy read and I devoured it in less than two weeks. Ignoring the "is it based on real events or not" speculation and some less favourable reviews that I unfortunately read before delving in (lesson learned to not skimread Goodreads until I've finished a book and formed my own view), I loved Shantaram. In short, the book is written in the first person by "Lin" - an Australian escaped convict who finds his way to Bombay (Mumbai) in the 1980s, setting up a medical clinic in a slum and being inducted into the Bombay underworld along the way. The love affair between Lin and Bombay unfolds throughout the book and his love of the city shines through some slightly unrealistic dialogue and a few clunky metaphors. I was less convinced by Lin's love for Karla - a woman who is a Gone Girl "cool girl" if ever there was one. Shantaram would make a great holiday read where it can be consumed in uninterrupted chunks, preferably with a drink in hand and a large pinch of salt as to whether the events in the novel are based on truth or not (I'm pretty sure JK Rowling did not actually attend Hogwarts). We sometimes need a book that entertains, that gives us (mostly) easily likeable characters and that immerses us in another place and for me, Shantaram did just that while imparting a love for an Indian city and Indian culture through the eyes of an outsider. 

2. Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh


A finalist for the 2008 Man Booker prize, Sea of Poppies was the chosen book for my first Dubai book club meet and so, obviously, I immediately worried that I wouldn't grasp or enjoy it but I really needn't have (it was a great one to discuss!). Set in 1838, we are transported to Calcutta under British rule and the scene is set for the start of the opium wars. This being a period of history which I didn't have much previous knowledge of I felt like I learned a lot about colonialism, the opium trade and the Indian caste system but in a way that didn't feel like Ghosh was trying to lecture me or have his critique of colonialism eclipse his narrative. I'm not usually a historical fiction fan but this story isn't weighed down by the time period and although the first few chapters were heavy with "sailor-speak" dialect it soon became immensely readable. The cast of characters provide a microcosm of society during this period, with a ship, the Ibis, serving as the means of allowing their separate narratives to intertwine. This book is the first in a trilogy and the rather sudden ending had me immediately downloading the next two books, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire to find out where the story (and the ship) take the characters.

3. Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie


A book that had been on my reading list for too long. It's hard to approach anything by Rushdie without the man himself eclipsing his work (I am half-Iranian and can vividly remember not understanding much of an adult conversation about Mr Rushdie's issues in the early 1990s) but the forword reminded me that he wrote Midnight's Children while still in his twenties - something I can now never achieve - and that it won the Booker Prize of the year of its publication and The Best of The Booker twice. It's a long book that demands your time and commitment, save it for when you can give it both. Some paragraphs are a single sentence, the prose is dense and it sometimes feels like a test of your intellect and memory as the narrative jumps around you and while the main character (Saleem, born on the stroke of midnight as on the day India became an independent nation) recounts his tale in the present day and re-visits his past, addressing the reader directly and going off on lengthy tangents at will. Mostly set in Mumbai, it visits some of the landmarks of Shantaram albeit at an earlier stage of history. It took me a few frustrating hours to get into this book but I'm glad I persevered as it turned out to be an immensely enjoyable read (although I'm glad Murakami had already introduced me to magical realism) and a scathing look at Indian politics and cultural life that still feels relevant in 2017.

4. The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy


Winner of the 1997 Booker Prize and the only female author in my round-up, The God of Small Things is set in Kerala - the tropical climate and "immodest greenery" providing a backdrop for an intense tale of lost childhood innocence. Like my favourite novel, The Secret History, The God of Small Things reveals its hand early, the non-sequential narrative starting with the funeral of a child and forewarning us that the unfolding story will not be a happy one and that no one will come out of it unharmed. The third-person narrative is seen through the eyes of a child, seven year-old Rahel and her fraternal twin brother Estha who in 1969 are growing up amid the growth of communism in southern India, the still rigorous caste system and a dysfunctional family. The novel isn't always an easy read (parts are sad, parts uncomfortable) and I sometimes had to pause as single sentences conveyed so much meaning but that is the charm and the genius of Roy's writing, not a single word feels misplaced or unnecessary. A hard book to review or describe (there's nothing to easily compare it to) but one that will stay with me and remind me that "anything can happen to anyone" and "it is best to be prepared".

Have you read any of these? 

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