Saturday, August 19, 2017

Traveling with Che Guevara [1978]

On 29th December 1951, two buddies from Córdoba – 29-year old biochemist Alberto Granado and 23-year old medical student Ernesto Guevara – embarked on a long-planned trip to explore Latin America in the former’s motorcycle La Poderosa II. This iconic journey, which saw them travelling 8000 km over 7½ months across all imaginable geographical terrains through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, using a plethora of modes which included, apart from their 500cc Norton bike, buses, lorries, boats, cars, train, airplane and even raft, using every possible means including as hitchhikers and even stowaways, and with the spectrum of their accommodations including tents on open grounds, police stations, hostels, hospitals, lodges, homestays, abandoned houses and whatnot, was covered in fascinating details by both men in their individual diaries. While Motorcycle Diaries, arguably the more famous of the two accounts, unforgettably portrayed what possibly sparked Ernesto’s transformation into “Che”, Traveling with Che, written by his older compadre, remains an equally absorbing travelogue – their unquenchable spirit of adventure; their natural rebellious streak; their zany trysts with people and places; their love for maté, tango and football; their burning political consciousness; their infinite empathy for the poor and the downtrodden; their snub of authorities; their growing anger at the apathy, exploitation and oppression that they witnessed; their desire to serve through the times they spent at various leprosaria; and their desire to know and see their “own long-suffering continent”. Brimming with verve and vitality despite the numerous odds and setbacks they faced over the course of their grueling and arduous odyssey filled with lucky coincidences and narrow escapades, the book is as much a chronicle of two natural-born beatniks as it is a searing political statement bound to move its readers nearly as much it impacted its two principal protagonists. That, upon completion of this journey, the two comrades would next get to meet nearly 8 years later – a year after the historic Cuban Revolution – added a note of quiet irony to the absolute unpredictability of life itself.

Author: Alberto Granado
Genre: Non Fiction/Memoir/Travelogue/Political History
Language: Spanish
Country: Argentina

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007]

By the time Cold War was in its final leg, the American state’s principal antagonist had started shifting from Soviet “Red Scare” to the Middle-East. Though the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, harrowingly covered in Svetlana Alexievich’s polyphonic non-fiction Zinky Boys, was possibly the inflexion point of this changing world political order, 9/11 unarguably sealed this change and left in no doubt who the West’s arch-enemy now was. Princeton and Harvard Law School educated Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s gripping, delicately balanced and deceptively lucid novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist provided a telling account of what this meant and its repercussion – politically and existentially – on one individual. It starts in an eerily suspenseful manner when a mysterious Pakistani man strikes an unlikely conversation with an American man at a café in Lahore. Chronicled in the form of a dramatic monologue, the story’s enigmatic narrator Changez confides his startling story to the fidgety, suspicious stranger, each potentially with agendas of their own – how he, as a brilliant young man, graduates summa cum laude (much like the author himself) from Princeton, gets hired by a prestigious financial consultancy firm into valuation of ailing organizations, and quickly becomes the hottest rising star there; and, as the final step to his acculturation, he also embarks on a tentative relationship with the beautiful and emotionally fragile WASP daughter of a wealthy New Yorker. Beneath this success, however, everything isn’t hunky-dory, and his glittering American Dream starts crumbling with what follows post the collapse of the World Trade Center. As early evening turns to night, and tea is replaced with kebabs, Changez’s looping, one-sided story gradually reaches a fever pitch in sync with the moody atmosphere and sense of something sinister lurking round the corner. Though one may as well virulently disagree with the book’s political crux as grudgingly agree with it, Hamid’s tackling of a complex, sensitive and provocative subject as this with such candour and in such an engrossing manner certainly merits appreciation.

Author:Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Political Drama/Political Thriller
Language: English
Country: Pakistan

Monday, August 7, 2017

The God of Small Things [1997]

The God of Small Things, the smashing debut novel of Arundhati Roy which won the Man Booker Prize, is a lush, haunting and evocative elegy to memory, loss, broken dreams and growing up, with an overarching sense of deep melancholia, disquietude and fatalism pervading its dream-like narrative, albeit punctuated with irresistible bursts of beauty and playfulness. A work of incredible formal bravado and linguistic prowess, this mesmeric tale of familial disintegration, through its microcosmic setting, provided a powerful mirror to the complex and disconcerting truths about social discriminations in India along multivariate lines of caste, class and gender, and the devastating repercussions of breaching these divides. Set in the small town of Ayemenem in Marxist Kerala, the basic premise is centered on how the tragic death of a young girl provides the final spark to a slow-burning keg, leading to the breakdown of a well-off but barely strung together Syrian Christian family – the adorable, wide-eyed 7-year old fraternal twins Rahel (clearly Roy’s alter-ego) and her brother Estha; their divorced, headstrong mother Ammu who makes the fatal error of falling in love in violation of social taboos; Ammu’s charming, Oxford-educated brother and the dead kid’s father Chacko; the family patriarch Mammachi, and her scheming sister Baby Kochamma. Roy’s storytelling brilliance captured complex socio-political themes with disarming simplicity through the eyes of the two unforgettably etched siblings; through terrific use of kaleidoscopic, non-linear narrative which teasingly revolved around the tale’s mysterious center-piece by moving back and forth in time; and through evocation that was grim yet funny, grand yet intimate, brutal yet tender, stark yet magical, turbulent yet serene, disturbing yet lyrical, ferocious yet bittersweet, exuberant yet brooding, adult yet child-like. This triumphant book, on hindsight, also provided a fascinating peek into Roy’s transition to a firebrand political activism championing social causes on behalf of those at the bad-end of governmental overreach, and it would be 2 volatile decades before she’d publish the stunningly apt follow-up The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Author: Arundhati Roy
Genre: Drama/Coming-of-Age/Family Drama/Political Drama
Language: English
Country: India

Monday, July 31, 2017

Ways of Escape [1980]

Graham Greene lived an extraordinary life; he travelled to a series of exotic and troubled locations around the world – courting risks and even grave danger, and collecting compelling experiences along the way – through a mix of professional requirements (as a writer, an on-off journalist and, for a brief period, a member of the MI6) and of his own volition (some got translated into novels and non-fictions, while others didn’t); or, as he made it abundantly clear in Ways of Escape, courtesy his life-long desire for and attempts at escape. Though, on paper, this was a follow-up to his 1st autobiographical book A Sort of Life, he positioned this as more of an account of Greene the writer rather than Greene the person; however, given how integral writing was in the life of this incredibly prolific writer, it became, in effect, a gripping and fascinating look into Greene the person as well – his mind and inner working, foibles and personal failings, idiosyncrasies and addictions, varied opinions on religion and politics, and, most importantly, fascinating insights and sneak peaks into his bibliography that any Greene aficionado would preserve in gold. And this is a terrific travelogue too as one joins him in his engrossing journeys – Liberia (which led to Journey without Maps), Mexico (The Lawless Roads and The Power and the Glory), Kenya (The Heart of the Matter), Malaya, Vietnam (The Quiet American), Cuba (Our Man in Havana), Belgian Congo (A Burnt-Out Case), Haiti (The Comedians), Argentina and Paraguay (The Honorary Consul), War-time and post-War Europe. Along the road one gets to know about his disdain for critics classifying some of his books as ‘Catholic novels’, his many trysts with drugs (Benzedrine, marijuana, cocaine) and depression, his enduring friendships with Albert Corda (for whom he wrote many screenplays, including the text for The Third Man) and Evelyn Waugh, his late-career attempts at plays, the innumerable near-misses of his life, and how real people and experiences got so irresistibly imbued into his many tales and myriad characters.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Autobiography/Memoir/Travelogue
Language: English
Country: UK

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness [2017]

Arundhati Roy became a darling of the literary circuit with her Man Booker Prize-winning debut novel The God of Small Things; who would have thought that the world would have to wait 20 long years for her next novel! Angry, melancholic, heartbreaking, provocative, darkly funny, ironic, lyrical, magical, confrontational, sassy, freewheeling – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a dizzyingly brilliant book, an enthralling read, and, like a heady cocktail, both uplifting and debilitating. Sprawling in scope, formally audacious, politically daring and achingly personal, one gets an immediate sense that her long and deep association with political activism – protesting against governmental overreach and rampaging capitalism, and fighting for the faceless and the voiceless – crystallized into this unapologetically polemical and undeniably powerful work. Though populated with an incredible array of idiosyncratic people residing largely outside the mainstream, the book was centered on 2 marvelous characters – Anjum, a transgender woman (referred to in India by the pejorative, gender-fluid term ‘hijra’) who, after residing for many years in a boarding-house for those who do not fall within heteronormative confines, shifts base to a derelict graveyard; and Tilottama, the author’s bewitching and unpredictable alter-ego, who shares a fascinating on-off love affair with Musa, a Kashmiri separatist who was radicalized when his wife and daughter were killed by an Army bullet. Though the crazy contradictions of Delhi and the tragic turbulence in Kashmir provided backdrops for most of the book, various episodes from the country’s troubled contemporary history featured – 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, 2001 Gujarat pogrom, forced acquisition of tribal land in Bastar and elsewhere, the ugly rise of Hindutva nationalism. Roy, in this rambling intertwining of the personal and the political, painted a beautiful elegy on the elusive quest for freedom through a wild flurry of third-person narrative, shifting POV, matter-of-fact diary entries, unfinished letters, whimsical Urdu poetry, and in a moment of dazzling virtuosity, like a camera in an uninterrupted single-take roving through the carnivalesque Jantar Mantar protests of 2014.

Author: Arundhati Roy
Genre: Political Drama/Political Satire/Black Comedy/Romance/Modernist Literature
Language: English
Country: India