Thursday, October 11, 2012

Book Review - Urban Shots - Bright Lights Ed. Paritosh Uttam

This is a short story collection edited by Paritosh Uttam. Now I am an admitted fan of the short story genre ever since I read the first O. Henry story in school. That was one of the reasons I decided to take up this review in the first place. Also adding to the allure was that this was going to be the first "Indian" collection of short stories I would be reading and reviewing. I also expected to be objective because I had never read any of the authors ever before.

Given the expectations, overall the experience was disappointing. While there were a coup of nice ones, most of the 28 stories in the book left me dissatisfied, and in some cases thinking why the story existed in the first place. A case in point is the first story, 
Amul by Arvind Chandrashekhar. It is supposed to be a bittersweet story of a broken family, told from the perspective of a young girl who loves Math. As the sordid story progresses, you learn that her drunkard dad killed her unfaithful mother, who had been carrying on with the cable techie, her dog had died, she kicked a cat, and finally, in a brutal denoument, she has cancer. Basically sadness all around. Not sure what Math had to do with it though.

Silk by Salil Chaturvedi is a nicer story about crumbling marriages laden with some overwrought imagery of blood which was quite unnecessary because it added nothing to the story. The theme of an affair as self actualization is interesting though. Across the Seas by Ahmed Faiyaz is a  slice of life snapshot of a Muslim family with one son abroad and how the family both misses him and is proud in equal measure. It is probably set in the early '80s when getting a telephone connection involved long waiting periods and bribes. Alabama to Wyoming, written by the editor, Paritosh Uttam mocks Indians' USA obsession, as well as our presumed right to cheat Americans of their money, all in the backdrop of a visit to the Taj.

Double Mixed by Namita V Nair is a contrived schlocky story of cheating spouses who discover they have been cheating with people who are also spouses. Totally filmy stuff. This is followed by another Ahmad Faiyaz story, 
Good Morning Nikhil. Faiyaz seems to be a complete family person because this is another small scene from a family where nothing happens. And ends with a dedication to his son! Fortunately Maami Menace by Pradeep Raj strikes a lighter note, being a funny story about a overly familiar old woman who tends to take advantage of a nice family's politeness. The next one Peacock Cut by R Chandrasekhar is a very mildly amusing froth about an American wrestler/basketball player wanting a weird haircut in India. 

In Father of my Son by Roshan Radhakrishnan, I found the first really interesting story in the collection. It's a delightful little story of a little boy's naughtiness and repercussions told in a funny, matter of fact manner from the father's perspective. The strict mom and the lenient dad might be cliches but still fun to read nonetheless, especially as an example of familial love. The Bengal Tigress by Malathi Jaikumar also deals with family but in a far more trite manner and purports to show a single act of defiance by a submissive wife as some sort of emancipation for her. In true Hindi movie style earns the respect of her husband by that one line of dialogue she utters. It does not help that the author gets the Bengali milieu and name wrong.

Mr. Koshi's Daily Routine by John Mathew is a touching and plaintive portrait of a sad, bitter man forced to conform and compromise all his life because of the demands of family and expectations. The story comes to a head with a final act of symbolic defiance that is his plaintive cry against all that is wrong in his world - his old boss, his dim colleagues and his supercilious but successful neighbor, Waghmare. In contrast, the next story Mr. Perierra by Ahmed Faiyaz strikes a sadder note, with a story of an expat visiting India and getting to meet an old terminally ill teacher who had influenced him a lot as a child.

The Wall by Saurabh Katiyal is an evocatively written description of ennui that strikes a young corporate executive of 31. The same corporate sales environment is covered in the next, mildly diverting story Jo Dikhta Hai Woh Bikta Hai by Sneh Thakur which is a portrait of a sales based FMCG company where rookie salespeople are being inducted.

The Interview by Manisha Lakhe shows two faces of a famous and legendary film star, the accidental knowledge of which shakes the beliefs of an adoring reporter covering him for a profile. Paisley Printed Memories by Sneh Thakur describes a happy wedding in the memories of the bride, ending with a wrench that forces one to question how reliable or transient those memories are. Heaven & Hell by Shachi Mail shows how a short encounter with a mehendiwalla causes a woman to reevaluate her entire existence.

Cats & Sponges by Meena Bhatnagar is an interesting little amorality tale of interpersonal intrigues set in a hotel, while 
You Eternal Beauty by Naman Saraiya is a story that begins with promise but loses itself in a litany of Calcutta cliches. Wrong Bangla to boot - "Amar ke jete hobe", anyone?

The Window Seat by Salil Chaturvedi is perhaps among the best of the lot. Deals with a chance meeting between a laid off, divorced pilot and a girl who has just broken off a relationship with a married man, and how they help each other. The fourth Ahmed Faiyaz story in the collection, It's All Good does nothing to redeem his impression on me, being a silly little morality tale on spending beyond your limit set in a sales dept in an organization.

The Pig in a Poke by Mydhili Verma is based on the Nigerian scams, and starts off promisingly when a teenager responds to the con email in a funny manner, but disappointingly loses steam when we realize the response was not being sarcastic! Bummer! Ready, Jet, Set, Go - another one by Uttam's favourite writer Ahmed Faiyaz. There seems to be a clear pattern here. Ahmed seems to have a chip in his shoulder about new India. This time he takes on chick lit and Indian bestsellers and the kind of gauche people who publish and read them. Another trite storyis the next one, called Things That Can Happen In A Park by Gagan Narula. A pointless vignette of an interaction between a young research scientist and an old geezer in the park.

Also set in a park, but more interesting is Hot Masala by Jhangir Kerawala, where he describes a set of morning walkers and their encounter with a mugger who might be one of them! The Raincoat by Rashmi Sahi is a nice, touching story of a family bonding together in penury via a hand stitched raincoat. This is followed by The Weeping Girl by Kunal Dhabalia which is the story of a guy being trying to help a girl seemingly in distress. The problem is, you can see the conclusion coming a mile away. The final story in the book is Hot Pants by Arefa Tehsin. It's an
amusing story of a young girl suddenly free of her mother's strict supervision for a night.

In a collection of 28 stories I can hardly count 4-5 that I genuinely liked. Most of them were either boring, pointless, or just plain bad. This is supposed to be the 2nd collection in the Urban Shots "series". The most benefit of doubt I can give the editor is that maybe he has used up all the good ones in the first part. But that being true, I wouldn't hold my breath for Part 3.

This was originally published in The Book Lovers blog. 

Book Review: The Wreckage by Michael Robotham

Thrillers are forever. They are the comfort food for many readers like me - the dal chawal or hakka noodles that many of us crave when we are tired of having the rogan joshes and steak tartares of literary writing. We know what to expect, the plot twists, the heroic characters, the devious villains, the urgency of saving the world/person, and successful denoument. We know all this and that makes us happy. Enough to go back to the thrillers repeatedly, whenever we need some respite and comfort in our reading. All we thriller-loving readers ask for is a potentially plausible plot, and in the absence of that, a cracking pace and cathartic conclusion. 

By this yardstick Michael Robotham does a middling job in The Wreckage. Other than the fact that the title has no real relevance to the plot, the story is eminently plausible, dealing with international financial wheeling dealing and chicanery in the backdrop of the Iraq war and subsequent occupation by US and British forces.

Two stories progress in tandem. One set in Iraq, initially stars the Pulitzer winning journalist Luca Terracini who is apparently daring and resourceful enough to be living outside the Green Zone with Iraqi people, being half Iraqi himself. The other story involves a washed out, retired cop (aren't they all?), Vincent Ruiz, who is first mugged, then transfixed by a young girl with some extraordinary resources and powers. 

Luca starts to cover, then investigate, the robbery and disappearance of large amounts of reconstruction money from Iraqi banks. In this he is aided, both in professional and carnal terms by an UN financial auditor, Daniela Garner. Things rapidly escalate, and some bombings and attempts on his life later, Luca has to flee Iraq; but clearly he has stumbled upon something really big. On the other hand, in London, detective Ruiz realizes that his mugger has access some big secret hidden in a notebook she doesn't even remember stealing, that people are willing to kill for, the first victim being her junkie boyfriend.

The rest of the book traces the two storylines and how they merge, exposing multimillion dollar fraudulent banking transactions, helped along with the pregnant wife of a banker who had disappeared with the notebook everyone wants to lay their hands on. Meanwhile MI6 and FBI is also involved somehow - the question being, are the intelligence agencies friends or foes? The story is fairly detailed and the conclusion not completely obvious. 

Micheal Robotham is a competent thriller writer. The language flows smoothly. The characters are well delineated, if a bit one-note. He resists making the protagonists into superheroes - a trap that writers like Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy fall into frequently. Maybe it is the Britishness in him that makes his characters more understated and realistic. However, that also means that personally I felt that the payoff at the conclusion was not as satisfying as I would expect from a thriller that is 500 pages long. I finished the book with a curious feeling of emotional disconnect, not really happy for the characters who survive or sad for those that die. Again, I might have been spoiled by masters of the genre like Ludlum, but the conclusion could definitely have been more forceful.

All in all, a good read, but there definitely are better thrillers out there.

This review was originally posted on The Book Lovers blog. 

Pearson International - Toronto's Artbeat!

“What, in the name of heaven, is THIS?” I wondered when I set eyes on it after my security check at Pearson for the first time. Imagine, if you will, four thick metal sheets curved towards each other in the form of a nested ‘namaste”, but not touching, creating a tunnel like passage between them that people can walk through, as they look upwards and around in wonder, automatically whispering in awe.  Not that it would make any difference. The acoustics of this installation, Tilted Spheres , by Richard Serra ensures that even a whisper carries through audibly from end to end! Oh, and it weighs 120 tonnes!
As it turned out, this was just the beginning. Toronto takes its image as a world city and cosmopolitan centre for arts and culture very seriously and the design of Pearson International Airport reflects this desire. 
Take the spectacular installation situated just before the Security Check at Departure. I remember being gobsmacked as I walked in and saw hundreds of cubes - red cubes, black cubes, transparent cubes – all floating in front of me.  It took me some time to realize that these cubes were inside a massive Plexiglas water tank with internal mechanisms creating jets and currents that carried these cubes upwards and down again, like hundreds of square fish in an aquarium. Really made me ponder, it did. Did the cubes represent workers like me, frozen in office cubicles, buffeted by the currents of corporate life? Maybe the installation was called The Iced Cubes or something? As it turned out, I was wrong. It was not named The Iced Cubes. Instead it turned out to be the work of Ingo Maurer and was named Earthbound…Unbound. Very impressive and arcane, but I still thought my idea had merit.
Paper planes in an airport? Yes, you’ll find that too here. A set of 19 white hanging metal planes resembling paper planes that kids make, set against the white background of the terminal roof, evokes sheer pleasure in the mind, especially if you have a tall beer in your hand to help your thoughts take off. Officially named Flight Song, the artist is Robert Charles Coyle.
One of the boldest statements is made by the literally named Concentric Bands by painter Sol DeWitt. Bright, almost psychedelic in effect, it leaves an impression in your mind long after you have seen it. As does the beautiful ceiling installation Jetstream by the Canadian artists Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes.
These are many other installations. Like the two life-sized bronze tigers that are very popular with the kids, flying fibreglass human figures and some beautiful abstracts on the white walls - all by Canadian artists with mostly unpronounceable names.
As I helped myself to my 3rd beer and ruminated on all the art I saw at Pearson airport, I had to admit that as airports go, Toronto had succeeded in elevating its airport to a higher, um, plane.
Note: This post was originally written for and in published in Time Out Mumbai.