On Books & Reviews

An unputdownable novel painting Bombay of 1935 and 2019

A deceitfully daunting read, ‘Zen’ by Shabnam Minwalla is best picked during a restful weekend. Once you start reading the book, there is no option but to finish it.

Beginning with a late night flight landing in Bombay, it takes you through the city with its sounds, smell and colour, transporting you to right into the setting. Not knowing where the book would lead you, what sets the tone and mood for each chapter are the colourful captions and the occasional song shared right before the chapter begins. On the surface, ‘Zen’ is a love story, running in parallel, of two young women in different times, but as the plot uncovers we find ourselves engrossed in the politics of the time, forming opinions in our head and yet rooting for the couples.

Besides the engaging plot, what really draws you in is Shabnam’s use of words and colours.

Whether it’s her use of exaggerated words for modern-day Zainab Currimji a.k.a Zen’s reactions like goggled, harrumphed or juddered or her Wodehouse-like similes such as ‘a look as sharp as a board pin’ or ‘wisps of sadness that were stickier than cotton candy’, the choice of words almost gives a physical dimension to the narrative.

Colours are freely used to depict all kinds of things from clothes to emotions, to coded messages to even the chapter headers. Whether it’s Yash’s rust-colour kurta when he first meets Zen, Zen’s watermelon-red kohlapuri slippers which propels their story forward, or Zen’s mood which is ‘as grey as the charcoal scrub in her bathroom cabinet’, the use of colour brightens the reading experience.

In the older Zainab’s case, colour is integral to the plot. Set in 1935, at the wake of the Independence movement, Zainab Essaji yearns to play her part in the freedom movement. When her handsome new neighbour asks her to pass on the colour-coded messages to her brother, little does she know that she is doing just that.

Besides the lucid language, interesting use of words and colours to pepper the narrative, what makes Zen a must-read is the realistic portrayal of its characters — there is love, but not the kind where you ignore your individuality, there is the question of mixed identity and standing by it and there is agency for women despite which age they belonged to. The book reads like a classic when Zainab’s relationship with the mysterious K is being scripted and switches track to ‘Normal People’ when it comes to Zen and Yash’s relationship. Zen has a mixed identity of being half Hindu and half Muslim but she stands by her identity even if it meant having deep ideological differences with the only man she ever felt herself with. Both the Zainabs lived within the boundaries of their familial setup but their free-spirit and individuality were never undermined.

How do the lives of the two Zainabs intertwine? Who is the mysterious person that ties all the loose ends? Read the novel for all the answers and read it for the Bombay it describes, for the beauty of language, for making you fall in love again and again and again.

Book Zen by Shabnam Minwalla
Publisher Duckbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House India
Will be published on 29 May 2023

On Books & Reviews

The truth about history…

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person…’
—Kurt Vonnegut
History is written by the victors. Whether be it in ancient history or World War II. Dresden, the ‘Florence of the Elbe’ was raised to dust by the Allied Forces and was not even recorded in the Air Force history?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been on ‘to be read’ list since forever…since the time I didn’t even know it’s about the Dresden bombing. I started reading the graphic novel since I thought it’s the best way to decide whether I would land up reading the actual book or not. The above introduction was enough for me to rush through the novel only to turn back and pause on pages, again and again, to see its richness in detail.
Illustrated by Spanish graphic novelist and illustrator, Albert Monteys and written by Ryan North for the graphic adaptation, this book is a keeper for World War II readers. The Dresden illustrated before and post the bombing were the two stark images I kept going back to and the one in which Billy Pilgrim is sitting on the horse carriage while going through the ruins. Hauntingly beautiful, it just makes me want to read the novel all that more.
Book: Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan Norths and Albert Monteys (Graphic Adaptation)
Publisher: Archaia
Will be published in: 15 September 2020
I received an advance copy on #NetGalley from #BOOMStudios

On Books & Reviews

If you can’t find the words to describe what you feel…


‘I’m putting my youth, health, job, colleagues, social network, career plans and future on the line. No wonder all I can think about are things I’m giving up. But what about you? What do you lose by gaining a child?’

A power-packed, 162-page novel, ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born in 1982’ questions the patriarchal value system which creates gender inequality. Peppered with statistics of gender inequality in Korea, the novel might have been about any Indian girl in her 30’s as well. ‘Normalising compromise’ as not ok has found a voice in Cho’s narrative. From sharing her room with her sister while her younger brother gets a room of his own to being publicly humiliated for having a cup of coffee in the afternoon with her child, Kim Jiyoung represents every woman who has been shushed for speaking their mind. For me, the book verbalises the feelings I’ve grown up. It gives me the words with which I can hold conversations without getting angry or bursting into tears.

If you do want to read the novel after reading this, I just suggest you keep stickies, a ruler and a pen/pencil handy. You might want to keep coming back to re-read portions.

Book Palsip Yi Nyeon Saeng Kim Jiyeong / Kim Jiyoung, Born in 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo translated by Jamie Chang
Language Originally written in Korean/ Read in English
Publisher Scribner Books

On Books & Reviews

When you want to feel slightly ‘uncomfortable’

The Discomfort of EveningThe Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘I’ll even dare to take off my coat. Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while, but according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.’

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s debut novel ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ will have you shifting around your seat right from the word go. Narrated from the eyes of Jas, a 12-year-old girl, the book shares the pain of grieving and the darkness your soul can descend to, if not helped in time.

Jas loses her elder brother Matties in a skating incident and what follows after is the family’s coping mechanism with this loss. Each one reacts to the incident differently and tries to find their way out. While the children are left rudderless as their parents are consumed in grief over the loss of their son, the children band together trying to move out, both of their emotional and physical space.

What keeps you turning page after age is the lyrical descriptions of remembrance, grief, darkness and death. There is nothing pleasant about the book, so don’t go into it thinking it would make you feel any better. But if you are finding a hard time to put words to the loss, emptiness and utter despair you feel, go right ahead.

It is said, that the translator becomes invisible when you don’t feel like the work you are reading was written in another language. So kudos to Michele Hutchison for bringing this unsettling piece of work to English readers.

Note: If sexual exploration is a trigger for you, you might want to tread cautiously.

On Books & Reviews

When the loss is so great that you can’t help but feel depressed

The Memory PoliceThe Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s an island where things start disappearing one after the other. After every disappearance, it’s inhabitants sharply feel a sense of loss but it lasts for all of a day and then they don’t even remember what they have lost. All that is left is a hole in their soul. Pretty much like what we feel now. Never has the feeling of a blowing breeze felt so pleasant, never has the sound of your loved ones far away felt so reassuring, never has having food on your table felt so gratifying or the fact that you still remember what it feels like to drive or take a long walk or for that matter have a roof over your head. What happens if you begin to forget how those things feel, what happens when you can’t remember any of those things ever existed. Here’s a story of the ultimate loss – forgetting that it ever existed. But what happens to those who remember? Read The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa to know.

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Fiction, Random thoughts

The New Normal

I’m beginning to lose hope that things will ever get better.
I’m beginning to think this is the new normal
That dystopian novels predicted.
The separation along the lines of religion.
The harassment of those who want to earn a living.
Of those who are saving lives.
The inability to do anything that would make a difference
And the constant noise that doesn’t let anything else sink in.

The chatter of the free birds saying,
‘Now you know how it feels to live inside cages’.
The women in harems telling
The more ‘cultured’ ones, ‘Welcome to our world.’
The oppressive heat saying ‘I fooled you’.
The constant buzz on the telephone
With relatives long forgotten.
Misinformation on state of affairs being shared.
And again religion comes to play.

And I’m beginning to think that this the new normal.
And I don’t think I can get out this whirlpool yet again.
And I’m longing to go home again.
But this is the new normal
And I need to get used to it all over again.
On Books & Reviews

Reading resources to calm your restless mind

blaz-photo-zMRLZh40kms-unsplashPhoto by Blaz Photo on Unsplash
While we all go about taking to our new lifestyles, work timings and mentally preparing ourselves for uncertainty in the near future, here’s a list of resources that could help you reorient your thinking:


On Sunday, Juggernaut has made its extensive library free for all to read. They are also collaborating with Scroll.in to create India’s first online literary festival. The #Readinstead Fest will be launched on Friday, 27 March at 12 noon.


Scribd has opened its resources for thirty days. However, it’s only for new users and not existing members or members who have used Scribd earlier.


Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha comic apps are giving free access to their entire catalogue till 31 March, 2020.


DK Books has a whole host of activity sheets for kids, on their website. You’re blessed if you have a printer at home! The kids could also see live storytelling sessions of authors from across the world.


The best of the lot, however, is the curated Audible library which requires no sign in or log in. Some of the interesting books are the second and third book of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged among a diverse selection of children’s and teen books in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese.


Besides these resources, The Curious Reader has shared a comprehensive guide on working from home. There are online book clubs and even open mics that are mushrooming. One Point Six One Eight is holding a virtual open mic – Aurea 3.0 – on 29 March, 2020 between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Kitab Khana is putting together an online poetry festival for these uncertain times while lists of resources for free online reading are being shared on book club groups like Nothing in the Rulebook .


If there are other resources that you could share, do leave links in the comments below. Most importantly, stay home and stay safe.
On Books & Reviews

Darkness: Contemplating on Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas

 Bhisham Sahni's TamasThis was supposed to be the second book I read for the New Book Readathon in September. With tight deadlines and life spiralling out of control, reading time was limited to a sentence here and there each day.

But I’m glad I could finally get down to completing this book.  Over though, its after-effects aren’t. I have just been constantly thinking about the title of the book – Tamas – which means darkness. There couldn’t be a more beautiful title to sum up this book.

The plot is set in a village near Taxila, in undivided India, just before Independence. The British are on their way out but the Indians haven’t stopped revering them. It’s easy to instigate a fight between age-old relationships when everything is simmered with religion. It’s easy to make the damage permanent when political parties are divided on religion and not merit. It’s easy to force one’s point of view down someone’s throat when their life depends on it. Has this changed? Have situations changed? For certainty not. Our country is still divided on religion politics. The Congress is accused of being pro-Muslim whereas the Muslim League can simply be replaced by our own right-wing fanatics now.

The darkness that was cast with the British – divide and rule – is so sharp in our nation’s history that even after so many year’s of independence it still looms in the shadows questioning every decision we make. I always thought was there a time when people co-existed in the same space rather than have little pockets of similar communities in the same city. When I read Indian language literature, I know that there was a time when they did live together and I sort of begin to understand why these little pockets exist. Not because of mistrust but because of fear. Fear for one’s life in my mind is the worst fear to live with. I sometimes wonder how our previous generation faced it.

Coming back to the book, it’s lengthy and has many layers. As the ‘riot’ progresses and the way the book ends, you are left to wonder who really instigated it and for what? What did they get by destabilising an entire generation of people? As the Babri Masjid verdict will be announced tomorrow at 10.30 AM, I hope our nation has grown slightly more sensible…


On Books & Reviews

The cause and effect of a revolution

Jasmine Days by Benyamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I just finished reading ‘Jasmine Days’ by Benyamin and was surprised to see that last year’s JCB Prize Winner was actually a translation of an Arabic novel by Sameera Parvin originally titled ‘A Spring without Fragrance’. I know people who have read the book would know this but those of you like me would be taken aback at the power of a good story. For this one moment, I actually took a step back and wanted to thank God for creating such deft translators. And then my surprise was corrected by this article where Benyamin clarifies that the ‘Arabic translation’ was a literary device he used where the reader entered his fictional world right from the cover page and remained enthralled till the translator’s note.

Coming back to the novel, having read Cairo by Ahdaf Soueif, I sort of felt I had a hang of where this was going but I was so, so wrong. Despite all that was televised and all that you heard and read about the role of social media, there are certain images and phrases about the book that you can’t take out. Who is the oppressor, who are oppressed? Who is right, who is wrong? An entire generation is silenced and yet another grows older with anger. When will there be peace and tolerance or forbearance and forgiveness? There are so many questions that plague your mind as you go through Sameera’s journey. All she wanted to be was a radio jockey in a foreign country her father adopted to ensure they lived a better life in Faisalabad. All she ever wanted to be was honest, and the saddest part is that her honesty is not expressed to the people who matter most. She was quelled before she could raise her voice.

I’m eagerly waiting for the translation of his latest novel – Al-Arabian Novel Factory – which is a twin novel or we can say a continuation of where Jasmine Days ended. An excerpt is available in the hardcover copy and online and it’s almost torturous; the wait!

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The desert stories

IMG_20190620_152555_Bokeh__01__01__01Reviewing Anukrti Upadhyay’s twin novellas – Bhaunri & Daura

In June at my favourite bookstore, Nirav Mehta of Broke Bibliophile comes up to me and asks if I have read ‘her’ books? These are translations of Rajasthani folktales he said. My interest piqued, I took the books from his hand and started reading the back cover. After a few minutes, I went searching for him to tell him that these were definitely not translations but interesting nonetheless. Seeing the books in my hand, the bookstore staff also mentioned that she is a new author and a must-read. That kind of sealed the deal for me.

Touted as twin novellas – Bhaunri and Daura couldn’t be more different than each other in style and treatment. Reimagined tales of the desert is the only commonality between the two.

Bhaunri is a raw love story. Something you would expect coming from the Thar. A gypsy woman is married to an unfaithful husband. Despite trying to get him to care for, accept her and be monogamous he refuses to surrender. He falls for her charms and does accept her as his wife in all aspects but refuses to be monogamous. Will Bhaunri accept his behaviour? If not, till what lengths is she ready to go to make him comply. Find your answers in this short novella which will keep you gripped right till the last word.

Having read KR Meera’s Poison of Love just a few weeks before this, I can’t help but compare how the two women, when faced with similar situations, dealt with it so differently. One by afflicting pain on themselves the other by ensuring she got her way even if she had to destroy the one she loved. The last few lines of Bhaunri is extremely haunting, “Now he will stay at home always, now he belongs to me…”

Daura, on the other hand, is magical, mystical and carries secrets of the desert. Secrets which unravel themselves bit by bit as you read each narrator’s version and connect the dots. Daura is the journey of a District Collector who comes to survey his area and apparently has a bout of madness and then suddenly disappears. As the search continues and the stories are heard, you get transported from the real world into one where anything could be true if you had faith. There is no explanation for unwavering belief and Daura captures the sentiment gracefully.

If your roots are somewhere in the desert and you want to feel connected to it or want the Indian taste of magic realism, these two should be under your consideration list – more Daura than Bhaunri. I would certainly keep Anukrti Upadhyay on my watch list too and love to see what’s the next story she weaves. Interestingly, these two are not her first published work. She is a bilingual writer and her first book, Japani Sarai, is in Hindi. Do check that out as well.