The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi: My Thoughts

A beautiful book cover, the promise of a traditional setting with a courageous woman protagonist and rave reviews from readers – Alka Joshi’s The Henna Artist ticks all the right boxes. However I picked the book because it was the choice of my book club and everyone was absolutely excited about this one.

A group of people reading the book with me, followed by a book discussion is just a very exciting proposition. So while I wait for the discussion, I must write what I think about the book.

The book is set in Jaipur in the mid 1950s and 30-year old Lakshmi is a much sought-after henna artist catering to the rich of the city and being privy to not just the secrets of the ladies but of the men as well. When Hari, the husband she had left years ago, turns up at her doorstep with a young girl who claims to be her sister, her life turns upside down. Soon she’s struggling to hold on to the financial independence she has carved for herself and her very reputation.

The storyline is captivating and has many twists and turns before it hurtles towards a conclusion, open enough for a sequel.

I liked the story but I had a few issues with the writing and the themes that were explored.

For one, I could not picturise the protagonist in my mind. There was not much physical description and Lakshmi just did not seem to fit into my idea of a woman in Jaipur, of that particular social strata and in that time period.

Lakshmi was also created to be unlikeable by the author I think. While I could understand her life story, her abusive marriage and an escape, her rise through sheer hard work and the taking of opportunities as they arose, I could not fathom her self-talk. She was guilty at every turn, thinking of her life choices and yet she’s manipulative and happy about it. Those two emotions seemed at loggerheads most of the time.

Radha, her younger sister too changes into an unlikeable character as the book progresses. From a timid girl she becomes a classist in just a few months, which is a little unbelievable. The kind of grudge she carries in her heart is also inexplicable after she’s lost all her family and comes to Jaipur to seek her only sister out.

Hari, Lakshmi’s husband is another character, whose transformation from an abusive, illiterate person to an empathetic healer is hard to fathom.

Many events in the story sound contrived. Things fall into place just too easily. It’s not the bigger, life-changing things but the smaller ones like the gift of the parrot from the palace to unlikely reconciliation between sisters to adoption of a child born out of wedlock to a loving family who had lost their own, that sound easy.

The setting didn’t work for me at all. It didn’t evoke the Jaipur of 1950s to me. Nor did it capture the spirit of Shimla in the few pages it was described. It felt too modern, even though it is just a few years after India achieved independence. Girls from remote villages in UP are well versed in the English classics with book keeping talents. It’s not just Lakshmi and Radha who are even more educated than the middle class but also Malik, the Muslim boy from an impoverished background who runs errands and buys things from market based on a list. All this feels very incongruous.

The thoughts that run in the minds of the characters are just too persistent. Every few pages we revisit Lakshmi’s guilt at abandoning her husband and bringing a bad name to her parents. For a woman who’s very sure of what she wants to do with her life, Lakshmi seems rather steeped in her past. The dialogues are repetitive as well. I had figured out how the book would end much before I reached the final chapters. The final nails in the coffin of her life in Jaipur were driven rather slow. Rather than feeling her pain, I only felt that the trope was overdone.

However, the book has its beauty. The henna description, the herbs and the potions, the life and times of the palace and the aristocracy come alive very well. The cruelty of the rich towards the poor is very believable. The story line is captivating and it’s a lovely portrayal of Indian culture to a foreign eye.

My Top Tips to Writing More

As I close this round of posts for Blogchatter Half Marathon on reading, I realised that I haven’t talked about writing much. I believe that reading and writing are part of the same experience, just different ways of expression.

Here are some of the ways I ensure that I am on track where my writing is concerned.

1. Create time and space
This is a pet topic and a pet peeve with me. All I want is unlimited time to write, where I can brew ideas in my mind, let them mature and when they are ready, put them on paper. I also need a quiet space, in fact lots of quiet spaces where I can move through them, deepening the solitude so that the best words come pouring out.
This however, is very difficult to achieve in our busy lives. And if I keep waiting for the right time, I may never write.
I have a few workarounds for this. I subscribe to the concept of deep work. If I can take out 2-3 hours of uninterrupted, unhurried time when all is quiet, I am good. I also keep taking notes through the day, mining ideas in a way, so that I can get back to them at leisure.

2. Leverage the power of internet
Internet is indispensable when it comes to researching. It’s also very distracting when it comes to the actual writing. Rather than hate the internet, I just switch it off at certain times. I also see it as a friend. In these times, when internet has been the only place we could venture out to and the only place that had a stimulating environment, I noted down all the inspiring and motivating thoughts I got while browsing. I actually have a collection of screenshots, web urls, voice notes, images all in a day.

3. The perfect place to write
I like the lawn, near the bushes, underneath the trees, when I write. This place also has a helluva lot of mosquitoes. So I swap it for indoors. On the couch, or the easy chair. After a few minutes it doesn’t really matter. Once you are in the groove, you don’t notice anything around you. I once sat on the window sill in the kitchen for a few hours and wrote the best scene I had ever written. It was so far back in the recesses of my imagination that the cold marble didn’t matter. I wouldn’t mind a cabin tucked away in the mountains for a few weeks but I have lived in the metaphorical cabin and it makes a difference to your mindset, yes, but very little. The difference is as much as you allow your mind to feel.

4. Keep at it
Push yourself to write more often, even if you are sure it’s crap. It builds your writing muscle. I have had many doubts around this and I still baulk at putting out substandard stuff out there but writing more helps you to ease back to writing even after long breaks.
There would always be setbacks, rejections, disappointments. Life would suddenly get busy and your time to write might shrink. Keep at it anyway.

5. Don’t take yourself seriously
Writing may be more than your vocation. I sometimes feel writing is the way to live fully; it’s the perfect opportunity to live sincerely and search out the truth. When you write from the heart, about things that are true and right and fair, it’s shining light on a part of you that would have remained unexplored.
And yet, to go forward, take writing as something you are experimenting with. Change things around, whether it’s your writing routine, your writing voice, the format – change from long to short, from essays to poetry. You are given the gift of the word, not just a genre and a way of writing. There are more things you are capable of. Find joy in the process of writing rather than saying I Must.

I would love to hear about your experiences. What’s your best tip to a writer out there?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

My Top Tricks to Reading More

I have been reading much more than last year and that alone gives me the qualification to giving gyaan on how to get more reading done.

Here are the top things that work for me, when it comes to reading.

1. Don’t make reading a chore. Read more because you want to, not because you have to or because you have set an arbitrary goal for yourself. If you need to, change your goal 😛

2. Or change the books you are reading. May be you are reading a book that you don’t particularly enjoy. Or maybe you have just chosen a new genre and it’s not clicking. No matter what it is, don’t drag it on for very long.

3. Put reading in your schedule. Make it part of your day, just like your walk or that show on TV. Choose a time when you are not rushed or have a lot of things on your mind.

4. If you don’t have the time, take time away from something else in your day. Ditch that show, or the gossipy phone call. Heck, just a few minutes and you could have covered a few pages or even a chapter!

5. Always have a book on hand
I have always liked what and how Stephen King is rumoured to be reading – everywhere, a book always with him. Imagine the bliss of tuning out the noise of the commute, the panic of a dentist’s waiting room or the emotionally draining TV dramas and just read. Of couse if I am that consistent at reading, ultimately I get more reading done.

6. Get a community
Be part of a bookish community, people who are as passionate about reading as you are. You can share recommendations, rant and rave about your recent reads and if nothing else be reassured that there are people just as weird as you in this world.

How do you manage to read a lot?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef by Vibha Batra: Book Review

Title: Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef
Author: Vibha Batra
Format: Paperback
Genre: Children (8-12)
Publisher: Scholastic India

Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef is funny and entertaining while also nudging out gender stereotyping. It’s an endearing book for children with lovable characters, laugh-out-loud situations and ‘fantasmazing’  language.

Pinkoo, the boy born with impossibly pink cheeks, prodded to become a shooting champion to fulfil his grandfather’s dream, has his heart set on baking scrumptious desserts.

The book is about his mission to avoid shooting and prove himself to be a MasterChef. He’s helped along by his loyal and talkative cousin Tutu, who is also the perfect side-kick. His friend Manu provides help and moral support and Nimrat clears Pinkoo’s path to success and glory.

Chocolate nougat cake, almond mocha cookies, motichoor ladoo white chocolate brownie, gulab jamun cheesecake – these mouthwatering are the real stars of the book with every page and dessert description getting you drooling.

Papaji, the strict dad, Beeji, the benevolent matriarch, Chachiji, the phone-peering aunt, shooting coach Aloo…Walia, Daljeet, the school bully, Chef Khanna and loads of other characters are drawn to perfection.

A special mention to the fantastic words coined by the author that kids I am sure, love everywhere. Wowmazing, tremenderously, yummysome are just some of them, capitalised in the text, catching the attention and delight of young readers.

Also refreshing is the way gender roles are confronted and demolished for the shams they are. Baking is considered girlie by Papaji who comes around by the end of the book. The school bullies would be silenced because of Pinkoo’s baking prowess. And Tikki, Tutu’s little sister is the next shooting star, a sport usually considered masculine.

As events unfold and the story progresses, everything gets funnier. To quote the funny passages would require quoting at least three-quarters of the book.

The quirky illustrations by Shamika Chaves add to the fun factor.

The children are just going to love all the action, friendship, challenges and the special feeling of doing just what they want. Pinkoo Shergill Pastry Chef is a star of a book.

You can order your copy from Amazon.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon powered by the Blogchatter Book Review Program.

What’s to love about a book for children

Word books, comic books, illustrated books, storybooks – children have it good. In my home, the books that we buy for children find readers in adults too. I read most of the books they get and discuss them as well. In many cases, my kids memorise phrases, dialogue and passages and till they have the book fever, it finds a mention in our daily jokes and conversations.

It isn’t just me. Lots of adults confess to love children’s books. I think it’s because of their simplicity, vulnerability and curiosity.

Books for children have simple and direct language which is refreshing for us adults. I don’t mean that they are for people who are challenged, vocabulary-wise but because we are so used to couching experiences in complicated metaphors and explaining things for a purpose that the honest language is a whiff of fresh air.

“Everyone is a bit scared but we are less scared together.” – The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

The unlikely friends in this book share a lot of wisdom through their simple observations about the world and life.

The honesty extends to feelings and experiences. If it’s a bad situation, well, it’s awful and that’s that. There’s no looking at the larger picture; everything is in the moment. Children feel unhappy, disappointed, let-down – they express it. Or at the very least, the feelings are talked about, not swept under the carpet to emerge as a neurosis years later.

“Ma, I want to tell you something. In our yard, there’s a passageway” – Some Days by Maria Wernicke.

It’s a beautiful book, sparse in words, with large illustrations, a lot of emotions expressed and acknowledged in just a few words.

These books are so joyful because everything’s new from the eyes of a child. Children are still exploring the physical world and getting new experiences. Don’t we wish we had the curious eyes and mind of a child all over again?

“The umbrella was like a flower, a great blue flower that had sprung up on the dry brown hillside.” – The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond

I wish I had the pure, unadulterated joy of owning something as simple as an umbrella, even giving it up to someone who has actually tried to harm you. Lovely life lessons from this book.

Click on the book links to read my thoughts on them in detail. Tell me about a book for children that you read recently.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

The Why of Book Reviews

Those who know me know the passion I have for book reviews. It’s not about the judgement or even capturing the essence of the book – it’s the expression of what the book made you feel that most catches my eye.

Every reader has her own interpretation of what she reads about and this feeling is what’s valuable. Let us for a moment cast aside political correctness and what must be and the examples we set through our opinions in book reviews. I want to share the why of book reviews at the most basic gut level.

I follow a lot of blogs and subscribe to newsletters only for book reviews. Mind you, I don’t want to read all those books. Some talk of books in far flung areas or of subjects that wouldn’t elicit a reaction from me. I don’t want a verdict (though I am guilty of writing that in my reviews) of how good or bad it is and whether the pace slackens in the middle or the end has all threads neatly tied.

What I want to read are the bits that stood out for you. The description that made you stop and stare wonderingly out of your window, thinking back to some other time. That same fear, or hatred or guilt or shame you recognise in one of the characters. And suddenly you feel understood and validated.

What we read shapes us, our thoughts, emotions and their expression in real life. When we recognise the patterns of what hits us the most in a book, that’s a teeny weeny step closer to our own selves. Your review of a book may not express that revelation but you have marked the places which felt very real to you.

That’s why I pick quotes from books and add the highlighted passages in my reviews. That’s why I say why a book cover looks endearing, not because of the design elements but because it speaks to a part of me. I don’t want book reviews to be just useful to my readers, in helping them choose what to read next but in letting them decide if this is the book they would open their hearts to.

A review can be as beautiful as the book itself; a piece of art on its own.

When I talk of books I talk of myself too.

Share the link to a favourite book review that you or someone else has written.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Stepping Out of My Reading Comfort Zone

The best conversations are bookish. If you are stuck in a party (uh, what’s that, asks my post-pandemic brain) and know no one there, a good thing to do would be share what you are reading. All readers worth their salt would jump in with their own observations, opinions and recommendations.

Talking of recommendations, they are easy to listen to but difficult to digest. What if the other person recommends a genre that you dislike? What if it’s a book you are sure you wouldn’t like? Worse, you may not even like the cover (of course we judge a book by its cover but that’s another blog post in the making).

I am rather wary of others telling me what to read. Somehow, somewhere I feel that the other reader Must be my exact personality type for me to even think of listening to them. However, sometimes I let my judgement slip and do pick up books that others recommend and surprise, I like the book!

Midnight’s Library by Matt Haig is one such book. Left to my devices, I wouldn’t have picked it for a read even though I really like the author, his balanced and positive approach to all things life and universe. Alas, a lot of people on my TL had read it and done the requisite raving. In a soft moment, I started reading this story of infinite possibilities and infinite choices available to us through other lifetimes. And the best part? It’s all through a huge library, a sympathetic librarian and shelves of books that rush past you in a blur. It’s a lovely book, and now I am sure I wouldn’t want any other life than my own.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka was another such book. I wouldn’t have read it, but for the prodding of The Creative Soul Club. Upon reading it, I was baffled. Why was a person changing to a bug? Why was I reading about a maybe cockroach lying flat beneath the sofa? What was the point of it all? Also, what’s life? I also happened to like the book very much, in all honesty. It has stayed with me all this time and while every weird and repulsive bug brings the name Gregor Samsa to my mind, I can appreciate, even if a teeny bit, and mostly because of my book discussion gang, the ahem, underlying themes.

Coming up next is The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond. I am aware he’s much loved and I have read a few of his short stories but that’s about it. I did like to stare at the gate of the school he was supposed to have attended for a few years. It was on my short route to the market, hidden away and accessible on one side by a mud track. Anyway, I liked to know about his life but not his books. Till I was stuck on letter ‘U’ for Blogchatter A2Z and anyone who’s participated in it knows what a pain the last few letters of the alphabet are. So, my kids had the book and all I had to do was to flip through the pages and write a blog post. Simple? Yes, the book is endearing in its simplicity. And having lived in the hills I know the innocence of the hill folks, their slow partaking of life and the contentment of a simple world. Boy, was I glad I read the book! The story feels like a comforting hug.

And the last one so far this year (again, I know which year it is because of the TBR Challenge, talking of which, have you checked it out yet?) Ok, the last book was a bunch of beautiful illustrations of The Horse, the Fox and the Mole. Wait, there’s a boy in it too. All the wisdom of the animals who mysteriously seem to talk, comfort, encourage the little boy is endearing. If you like to look at bold lines, both in drawings and in writing, this is the book for you.

Do you step out of your reading comfort zone often?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Translated Literature: a Window to Other Cultures

Till a few years back I was reading literature mainly by Western authors. I never made a distinction of authors belonging to a particular geographical region. I read what was around me, what was easily accessible.

In my childhood, the school libraries were full of delicious books but all Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Carolyn Keene, Arthur Conan Doyle. As I graduated to reading the classics, again I got hold of masters whose stories were of lands far from my own. I don’t regret reading them, in fact my life was the richer because of them but looking back, I wonder where were the Indian authors? The libraries certainly had very few of them; the bookstores even fewer.

In recent times, I saw people talking about reading indigenous literature, minority literature, translated works and at a point, I was proud of not making such distinctions. I read what catches my fancy; I don’t proscribe any genre or format (I still enjoy children’s books very much, but more on that in another blog post).

It’s only in the past couple of years that I have happened to appreciate books set in India, and even more importantly, books belonging to different regions of India and the joy of translated works. Right now I want to go on a reading spree picking books from all regions of India, but other books keep happening along the way.

I have been fortunate to read some real gems this year. And how do I know it’s this year? Thanks to Blogchatter’s TBR Challenge, I am much more organised and mindful of my reads.

Purists might argue that translation loses some part of the true essence of the book but frankly I am happy to get whatever it gives me. My world and understanding is richer for all the books I have read from different parts of the country, knowing their culture, mannerisms, unique names (I found so many in Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa by Damodar Mauzo and translated from Konkani by Xavier Cota), places and turns of phrases that sometimes the English translations keep. Or mention in an afterword. I particularly remember the use, rather the omission of the word ‘re’ in the book Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar in Marathi, translated by Jerry Pinto to English, because Jerry felt that the intensity and intimacy of the word did not have an English equivalent. Considering that the book is about the emotional baggage of forbidden relationships, it makes the reader wonder how much more beautiful the prose must be in Marathi.

Another book, Meesha by S. Hareesh, originally in Malayalam and Moustache in English, translated by Jayasree Kalathil (here’s a wonderful session in which she converses with Jenny Bhatt on the bigger picture of translated works) gave me a glimpse into the oral storytelling traditions.

While a lot of people bemoaned that it did not have a linear narrative, nor a clear timeline, these very things fascinated me. Here was a story told for the sake of the story. It’s also a narrative that talks about the history, cultural traditions, the standing of women in the society and even social evils all entwined in the story of a mythical being with a huge moustache, a story that reached mythical proportions through the workers in the rice fields who sang of these things while harvesting. Isn’t that what happens in real life too? I have written about what I thought of the book here.

Tell me about a translated work you have read recently and that left a deep impact on you.

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

What Makes Writing Good

There are certain conventions when it comes to judging a written piece. Show, don’t tell, don’t use adverbs, have uniform pacing, don’t vary the narrative voices too much, a linear narrative works best etc.

We also place too much importance on genres. We tend to categorise books as per genre and expect the storyline and tropes to be representative. When I read book reviews, I often come across book bloggers trying to slot the book, to argue in which genre it belongs, talk about plot, pacing and characterisation with respect to the genre.

Many of us hawkishly skim the works of other writers looking for adverbs, pointing out how the author has used them liberally and we feel superior for having recognised that.

However, many a times, I read a book that sort of turned the conventions on its head, those of show not tell, using adverbs etc and yet as a reader I loved the book. What was wrong? My experience as a reader or my experience as a writer?

I recently read a book that had a non linear narrative and that drew heavily from oral storytelling aspects and it worked so well. I talk of S. Hareesh’s ‘Moustache‘ in a blog post.

Reading and writing are the double helix of literary pursuits but we cannot ignore the importance of influences like other art forms, that are indigenous to us, namely oral storytelling, folk forms that are a window to our culture exposing the beliefs that have shaped us.

I often find a wealth of meaning in the folk songs. The choice of words, the wit, the themes, are all very indicative of the culture. Why then should we not draw from these forms and write.

What, as per you, makes a story beautiful, moving, or good?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.

Curmudgeon Avenue: The House that Talks – to the readers

I don’t like to hoard books too much; I would rather buy them when I have the time and inclination to read.

Alas, digital reading has led me to download a large number of books. I suddenly feel that I have to get this book now, right now and what if the book is not available at this price in a few day’s time. My library is now bulging (the way something digital bulges, is all I can say in defence of this description).

There’s a book that I set my heart on, nearly a year ago. It had a house on the cover (always a pull for me) and best of all, the narrator of the book was the house! It had some weird residents with lots of stories of their lives and misdemeanors.

Also, the author of the book Samantha Henthorn told me (yes, I am bragging about knowing authors ;)) that the characters speak in a Manchester accent! This got me really excited because it sounded so different,though I had no idea of the unique words or sounds of the accent. Well, at least it would have a local sound and flavour.

I started reading Curmudgeon Avenue (Book One of the Terraced House Diaries). For many reasons, after reading a few pages about an elephant and a lorry driver, I had to let the book rest for a long while.

Sometimes you go through conflicting emotions. You so want to do something or read something and at the same time, you are sure you won’t be able to do justice by giving it your complete attention.

A few days ago, I finally found I wanted to pick it again and lo and behold, finished the book in 2 days flat!

What did I think about the book? Well, it’s sarcastic, funny and entertaining!

The book is a laugh riot, each character more outrageous than the other.
The sisters, Edna and Edith, in their seventies but with plenty of spunk, are funny, right from their clothes, to mannerisms to their beliefs. The sponging son, Ricky Ricketts is unbelievably thinking of his own self, the ex of one of the sisters and their present tenant Harold is ridiculous, Maurice, the would-be-murderer who puts anti-freeze in mint chocolate (that incidentally the cat eats) because he had been stood up once in his youth by one of the sisters is silly, and the policemen (they act more like hooligans) Sleeveless Steve and Psycho Steve are crazy. Mrs. Ali is the best of them all, the neighborhood busybody, swilling buckets of dirty mop water onto the street, just because it was a scene from a movie that had caught her fancy.

And of course, the situations are very funny to suit the characters. Edith constantly gets wooed by men Edna had dated when she was a young girl. The elder sister’s bossiness, the younger one’s docility, the cheekiness of the men in the book are just hilarious.

I did wish there was more from the house’s pov, because it’s very interesting to have the story narrated thus. Also I wanted some of the characters to have more of a story. Georgine Foote, the bossy woman dominated by her elderly and seemingly frail mother and Patchouli, the mom to the exotic girls could have had many more misadventures.

All in all, it turned out to be a fantastic read that is laugh-out-loud funny, with eccentric characters and outrageous situations that entertain you completely. The clever language that’s sometimes deadpan is a bonus.

And now I wish I had read it last year!

Have you read a book that had an inanimate narrator?

This post is part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.