Thursday, March 13, 2014

3 books

I read three wonderful books in the last two weeks. Well, read is only two-thirds true. I listened to one, Aman Sethi’s A Free Man, narrated by Vikas Adam. And what a relentless experience it's been. The story of a few friends- footpath dwellers, people who escaped from their homes at a fairly early age, exactly the kind of people we see lying drunk on roads and grimace, is told with uncharted intimacy and careful nuance by Sethi. The lead is a painter ( not of canvases, but of walls yours and mine ), mostly when he is out of money for drinks, called Ashraf who recounts his life with the flair of a thespian, ventures into philosophy much too often and directly answers only when he knows his circuitous story-telling has no patient takers, makes for a rather unlikely hero for a story talking about the ‘other’ India. And the characters that come and go into the narrative are equally, if not more, interesting while describing their travails in Bara Tooti, their need to get out of the stringent society they were born in, how their relationships with people they virtually spend their whole days are still tinged with aloofness and practicality. In that kind of a world, where people are robbed of money and footwear while dead drunk on footpaths, it is understandable.

Sethi constructs the world so powerfully that within minutes we are lost in the gulleys of Bara Tooti, feeling the stench of illegal liquor bars, echoing the belief of Ashraf or Lalu or Rehaan when they talk about a lack of comprehensive meaning to their existence, lapping up on the inside jokes soon and eventually understanding their lives like we’ve seen them live right infront of our eyes. Sethi’s voice is firm but understated, his serious narrative sprinkled with humour so much so that I burst out laughing a few times, his use of colloquial language brings to the proceedings a very earthy feel  and most importantly, his observant eye doesn’t miss anything interesting. The structure is anecdotal, which is probably why even without concretely knowing the entire story in a traditional arc, we still get to know our characters very deeply. True, there is some repetition in parts and Sethi’s structure could have been a little more traditional, but these are just ruses to critic on an outstanding achievement. The only books I’ve read that are similar to A Free Man are Gregory David Robert’s Shantaram and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. Though the first one can be, at best, described an engrossing tale, I loved the breadth of its scope and its buccaneering hero, and I rate the second one as of the finest books I’ve ever read. A Free Man deserves a space on that shelf. Read it to understand the staggering spirit of human endeavor in the face of utter absurdity, for the language and the control with which Sethi steers us through a very alien world but mostly read it for A Free Man teaches us to empathize with those we share our cities with.

Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan covers a topic almost as phenomenal in scope as Aman Sethi’s. The things the two books deal with are worlds apart- one is about the destitute flocking into Delhi, the other is about one of the world’s most glittering sports events, the India’s historic of Pakistan in 2004. One is largely set in the confines of Bara tooti, a bazaar in Delhi; The other travels in and around the entirety of Pakistan. And while one is almost microcosmic in its breadth, the other tries to capture the political, cultural and historical similarities between two of the world’s most populous nations. Nevertheless, by and far, both achieve what they set out to. Both are amazing reading experiences, I was practically skimming through pages, both are first books by erudite, globe-trotting, charismatic young writers and both, no matter how rooted in earthiness, are ambitious enough to try and capture the phenomenal depth of human spirit. Rahul Bhattacharya has been compared to VS Naipaul for his second book, The Sly Company of People who Care, and though I am yet to read it, I could find traces of Naipaul in this one. The book is most emphatic when it adheres to the cricket ground;  Bhattacharya’s careful exaggeration of lives of sportsmen and the arena of sport finds the right tone to elevate them to the planes of heroism, his deep insight into cricket history provides hilarious comparisons and his very enviable ability to strip a long innings into its essence is used to great effect. But when he moves out of confines of the grounds, the narrative slips up and it does not help that his rather oblique writing style calls attention to the author’s cleverness a few times. Don’t get me wrong, it is indeed a great book, but I thought it would have been so much better if it didn’t contain that tone of intellectual arrogance, the author’s need to look down upon everything that did not confirm to his tastes ( quintessential Naipaul ). Bhattacharya is at his most exquisite, fittingly, when he is describing VVS Laxman bat. Despite the series being not one of his greatest, infact both Sehwag and Dravid played better parts, it is the memory of his glances and cuts that stays vividly in memory long after the book is completed.   If you want to get a taste of Bhattacharya, check out his essay on the 281 era and the masterfully built eulogy to Indian cricket’s most exciting and enigmatic pair, Dravid and VVS. Its craftily nuanced architecture with flashes of brilliance is befitting both the wonderful humans, who also happen to be outstanding batsmen. This book is also very funny, but where Sethi’s was hilarious because of the amalgamation of characters in a scene ( the one in train with Ashraf and the bangle-seller is a gem ) and their unexpected behaviour, Bhattacharya’s is more because of his wry, deadpan humor. It was especially in moments of humor that I was reminded inadvertently of Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, because of the similar way in which Bhattacharya drops a bombshell of a line and had me go back, re-read it and double up with laughter. The only other instance of me laughing so hard while reading was probably when I read that Sardars-Traffic Constable-Traffic Jam episode in Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire. I must have read it six times back to back and still couldn’t stop laughing.

Talking of cricket books, I am in the middle of another thoroughly entertaining and insightful book, It takes all sorts, written by that master of Sports prose Peter Roebuck. Roebuck, with Rohit Brijanth, is my favourite sportswriter on the planet. Following them are wacky and witty Ahmer Naqvi, prosaic and robust Ed Smith, and erudite and romantic Jonathan Wilson. Having grownup on a steady diet of Roebuck and Brijnath, thanks to Sportsstar and Thatha who subscribed for it, and of late Cricinfo and The Straits Times, I fell in love with sports in all its shapes and sizes thanks to their passion and knowledge. But it took me a long time to realize the difference in their approaches to sport. While describing an emphatic cover drive, both of them would be equally tantalizing with their description, but where Brijnath induced that feeling of Godhood descending onto Earth, Roebuck talked of mortals rising briefly to the status of Gods. For one, a Federer forehand was like the baton in the hands of an orchestrator; for the other, it was more like a whip stirring up slumbering horses. For one, sport showcased the pinnacle of human imagination and acumen. For the other, sport was so compelling because of the normalcy and mortality of those pursuing it. Brijnath’s pieces on Nadal and Messi  give impression of superhumans; Roebuck’s pieces on Sangakkara and Dravid marvel at men behind those helmets. The former composed sonnets, the latter constructed brilliant prose. It is indeed my great fortune to have access to both their work.


The third book I read recently was Albert Camus’ The Stranger ( the Matthew Ward translation ). Ever since I discovered Existentialism, mostly from Wikipedia pages and sometimes from quotes of writers, I’d been meaning to read Sartre and Camus. So, one day, during a particularly dull afternoon at work, I downloaded the book, came back home and finished it in one sitting. Not much of an achievement because the novella’s pretty slim and also is an immensely compelling read. I loved the vivid description in part one and thought part two was too philosophically inclined without a compelling narrative but I think it is a testimony to the work’s greatness that it is still being read and discussed about seventy-five years after its publication. And for some reason, probably because I'd read Camus was French-Algerian or because the description was evocative, I kept picturising the work of French New Wave masters, especially Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s 400 Blows. And oh, I also read this beautiful Sci-Fi story by Kin Liu called Mono no aware, which is eponymous with the beautiful Japanese concept I learnt about while reading Roger Ebert’s review of The Moonrise Kingdom.

And now, I’m rearing to go start UR Ananthamurthy’s Samskara , the AK Ramanujan translation. What a wonderful fortnight it’s been.