Friday, May 15, 2015


Title: HiFi in Bollywood
Author: Rishi Vohra
Publisher: Jaico Books
Pages: 264

Rayhan Arora dreams of becoming a director in the Hindi film industry, the HiFi of the title. His own life is nothing less than a Hindi potboiler. The only way in which this hero differs from the hero of a film he would have liked to direct is that he keeps getting slapped around by some of the other characters.

Other than this, the other elements of a Hindi film script are all there. There is rebellion against a controlling father, a dream that won’t fizzle out, and a love life that bristles with unpredictability. Along the way, a host of small time characters, at once colourful and entertaining, add their own measure of conflict in his life. To top it all, a stinging case of bad luck ensures that despite his best intentions, he keeps getting into trouble.

While his father wants him to pursue the Great American dream, he would rather make himself a name as a film maker in Bollywood. When his father fixes a marriage alliance for him with Vanita, the daughter of an old friend, he panics and leaves Berkeley for Mumbai, hoping to find a job as an assistant director and work his way up.

In Part II, he moves from Berkeley to Mumbai, where an old college friend finds him PG digs very close to his dad’s home. Despite his best attempts to avoid his father, he is repeatedly sighted by his father’s Friday evening drinking buddies. 

If that much excitement isn’t enough, his life collides headlong with the other characters in the city, including some actors with big egos, a small time goon who dreams of landing a role in a film, a gay film director, a local politician who wants to marry Rayhan’s maid’s daughter, who also yearns for her place in the spotlight, and a mysterious girl called Viola who also joins the film set of Pyaar ki supaari, as an assistant director.

Rishi does a fine job with the characterisation. I must confess that at first I was inclined to agree with Arora Sr and think of Rayhan as a loser who couldn’t get his act together. His penchant for hanging around with the hit-with-the-ladies Dave didn’t do much to change my impression. But then he took the supremely courageous step of leaving his comfort zone America behind to take to the grind in aamchi Mumbai, and the guy began to grow on me.

Since this is a first person account of Rayhan (with the occasional third person viewpoint of other smaller yet significant characters thrown in), we get to see his life inside out, but the author does equal justice to the other bit roles that populate this quirky and fun read. Romesh, his drinking buddies, Laxmibai, the maid, her daughter Mangala, and of course ask-for-Peter, they all come alive in just a few words.

I liked the character of Rayhan. Seen from the viewpoint of his father, he is a loser who hasn’t managed to find a job in spite of completing his degree in Corporate Finance from the University of Berkeley. The only hope he has of redeeming himself in his father’s eyes is if he were to marry Vanita.

Even as Rayhan displays the typical Indian trait of being money conscious, it is clear that he is intent on pursuing his dream and loves his country, and is only biding time in America because of the physical distance it puts between him and his controlling father.

Rayhan has a great sense of humour. His inner monologue especially sizzles with amusement. His interactions with Peter are a case in point.

He is equally amusing when he speaks of his father mastering new forms of communication technologies, or the way he hung up, one order barked out and then a click in the ear of Rayhan.

The humorous streak is particularly on display during his conversations with his father. When Romesh Arora tells Rayhan not to try anything funny with the Indian American Vanita who had once socked him as a child, Rayhan asks,
What if she tries something funny with me?

Above all, Rayhan has a totally desi concept of value for money. He goes to get one ear pierced, but is told that he will be charged for two, so he has two rings put into his left ear.

Author Rishi Vohra highlights his protagonist's sense of ambition well when Rayhan says, I wanted to spend my life behind a film camera, while the world in front of it moved to my directions, personified feelings in accordance to my script and danced to my tunes. That was where I belonged and the only place I ever wanted to be.

But the way to the dream isn't going to be easy, as everyone who comes to this city with stars in their eyes discovers soon enough. For Rayhan, the road to good fortune leads him through red-light areas and police stations to disappointments and heartbreaks. But he doesn't lose sight of his dream. And that's the one message that Rishi Vohra's book leaves you with.

Read this book, if you love Bollywood -- and even if you don't.

(I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for an honest review)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


Title: Prayers for the Stolen
Author: Jennifer Clement
Publisher: Hogarth
Pages: 224

Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement is a fictional account of a mountain village in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico, through the eyes of Ladydi Garcia Martinez. 

Her village has the unfortunate reputation of having no men around to protect its young girls, who are kidnapped or ‘stolen’ by drug traffickers. It is a village where only boys are born, and then some of the boys morph into ugly girls at puberty to prevent them from getting stolen. The best thing you can be in Mexico is an ugly girl.

Young Ladydi grows up under the influence and in the care of her beer loving, kleptomaniac mother. Her father, like all the other men, has long since left the village, crossing over illegally into the paradise that is the USA to begin a new life.

Much of the story takes us into the lives of Ladydi, and her three best friends: Paula, who is more beautiful than Jennifer Lopez and is the only one of the ‘stolen’ girls to return home, besides Maria who is born with a harelip and need never fear being stolen, and Estefani, taller and gawkier than any of the girls.

The author pulls us into the searing heat and heart of the story. The setting is stark and bereft of any colour. The writing is un-pretty, like the girls here are made to be, steering clear of embellishments to tell it like it is. It invokes the hot land of rubber plants, snakes, iguanas, and scorpions. It is this very sense of emptiness that gives the prose its own peculiar beauty. 

The heat is such that it made iguanas and lizards sleep with their eyes at half mast. The climactic conditions, coupled with the desertion of the women by the menfolk, and the danger of living with the fear of the drug lords and the marijuana killing pesticide infestations, makes the people of Guerrero as dangerous as a white, transparent scorpion that’s hidden in bed, under a pillow.

The pesticide spraying causes a number of children to be born with deformities as a result of the liberal spraying of poisons to kill the crop of marijuana and poppies. The hurt, damage and brokenness become the reality of the people. The troubles of the people are bound in governmental apathy and corruption. The poppy growers shoot at the helicopters that dare to come too close in their attempts to spray pesticide on the crops. So the army sprays the poison on the houses, giving the villagers one more reasons to deplore their lives.

In such a scenario, Ruth’s beauty parlour becomes the place of temporary rebellion where, at least for a while, girls could get themselves to look pretty and imagine a normal world, before taking off the nail polish and the make up and heading home, striving to appear ugly.

In spite of the lack of colour around the writing, it still retains its own brand of flavour. Much like the hexes that the mountain people employ. May a gigantic termite grow in his navel, or an ant in his ear.

When the book begins, the four friends are around 8-9 years of age. Their lives revolve around deliberately blackening their teeth to appear ugly and hiding in rabbit holes whenever they hear the drug traffickers’ black SUVs in the distance.

When they find a corpse close to their house, Ladydi’s mother digs a hold to bury the boy for fear of drawing attention towards Ladydi.

The story moves on, not in a linear fashion, but in bits and spurts, as we piece together the shreds of information that Jennifer gives us. You don’t know what to make of Ladydi’s mother. She is selfish sometimes, but the love is unmistakably there as seen in her efforts to hide and protect her daughter.

We see an assortment of characters through the filter of Ladydi’s perspective, friends Paula, Estefani and Maria, teacher Jose Rosa, and the mothers. In spite of being little, Ladydi is exposed to grown up truths, the fact that her father is a lying cheat who has slept with all the women on their mountain, that Estefani’s father gave her mother the AIDS virus. There was no sense in sugarcoating these truths because living in a place where there were no men was like living where there were no trees or like being asleep without dreams.

The descriptions are all figurative, rather than factual. Ladydi’s mother slithered with her feet slipping too far forward in her plastic flip-flops so that her toes curled over the front of the sandals like talons. People stay indoors at night because the night belongs to the drug traffickers, the army, and the police just like it belongs to the scorpions

The descriptions of the insects are so intense that you can actually feel them crawling up your back. It is a place where scorpions might show you mercy but drug traffickers would not.

The slow lethargy of things hits us, holding us firmly in its grasp. A missing woman is just another another leaf that goes down the gutter in a rainstorm. Ruth is stolen and then Paula. One year later, Paula stumbles back home, a wreck of her former self, having to be babied by her mother. 

There is a profusion of insects everywhere, on the mountains, in the homes. It is as if the insects have a greater right to the land than even the women, and so Ladydi’s mother seeks to escape her reality by watching the History Channel on TV, escaping into other lands and cultures. Ladydi learns of the world around her, through snippets gleaned from her mother.

Part II sees Ladydi leave with Mark, Maria’s brother, to be a nanny to the son of a very rich family in Acapulco. But it is the beginning of another nightmare. Mark gives Ladydi a brick of heroin to hide until he can take it from her. When police find the body of the young child that he has killed, he names Ladydi as his accomplice. Ladydi goes to jail, where she realises how vulnerable she is. My skin was on the inside and all my veins and bones were on the outside.

The horror of being young and beautiful and poor in Mexico, watching your future destroyed in your present, knowing that you are just one among many who live sordid lives, trying to sneak across the border into the US, knowing that if you are caught, death awaits you. Knowing that you will die a hundred deaths of shame and humiliation in the crossing itself. That is what this book brings out.

The settings where Ladydi finds herself, the jungles, the big house at Acapulco and the jail all have this in common: their impersonalness and their ability to suck your very soul out if you let them.

Read this book and discover just how writing can be stark and intense at the same time.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Book Review: FINDING ME

Title: Finding Me
Author: Kathryn Cushman
Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
Pages: 336

Finding Me by Kathryn Cushman deals with issues of grief, abandonment and trust and the feeling of loss and dejection when one is betrayed by the person one trusts the most. The protagonist here, however, is not the one who was betrayed, but the one who feels someone else’s guilt.

The prologue takes us back 26 years before the present time, and shows how certain events, that were to alter the course of life of many people, were set in motion. David Waters can’t stop thinking of the attractive waitress at the diner he visits every day. His wife is too busy with the children and the demands made on her by their church and the kids’ school and has no time for him. David feels tempted to give in to the attraction posed by the waitress who does not hide her feelings for him.

Twenty-six years later, we meet Kelli Huddleston, a strong character, driven by her sense of ethics and honesty. She does not hesitate to blow the whistle on her unscrupulous employer, and is fired for her pains.

It’s a bad time. Kelli has lost her father and stepmother recently and the mountains of debt are accumulating. Her father and stepmother were the only family she had. Her own mom, and older brother and sister had been killed in a fire that struck their home when Kelli was an infant. That is what her dad, Don Huddlestone, had told her. Even their photographs had been lost in the fire.

While looking through her dad’s safe, out of bounds for her during his lifetime, Kelli is shocked to find photos proving that he had a whole other life as David Waters, and a wife, son and daughter that she knew nothing of. She also learns that David Waters and his one-year-old daughter Darcy had disappeared, and were later presumed dead, in a boat accident.

At first, Kelli wonders if her dad acted as he did because his wife was abusive or of unsound mental health. Her desire to find out more so she can continue with her life lead her to the town of Shoal Creek, Tennessee, where she makes investigations, and finds herself a job with Kenmore, her dad’s old friend. 

Soon she is befriended by Beth, her sister, and Alison, her mother. She is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of her father’s planned disappearance and then leave town before anyone finds out who she really is, but she feels drawn closer to the two women every day. Soon she is consumed by guilt at the realization that she is deceiving them. She looks forward to her reunion with her mother and siblings while fearing it at the same time.

Part of the title involves Kelli’s search for who she really is, the biological family she never knew, as also her struggle to find her way, through the church, to God, the God who is so intimate with her mother and sister, but with whom her father had nothing to do.

Bit by bit, Kelli’s faith increases and she learns bits of her earlier life, and learns of the family and their memories of David and Darcy. After a brief period of antagonism, Kelli and Shane, Kenmore’s son, also become attracted to each other.

Kathryn does a better job when it comes to crafting her female characters than the males here. As a character, Kelli shows her strength by standing up for her values and convictions even at the cost of losing her job. The same honesty is evident in her journal entries which are written in the first person.

Both Beth and Alison come across as wonderful women, fierce in their loyalties and loves. Denice, Kelli’s best friend, is also a pillar of support for Kelli.

Even Kelli’s stepmother manages to gain a bit of our sympathy, as we see her through the letters she wrote to her mother.

The men, however, have to try harder to gain our understanding. David’s own selfishness and willingness to turn his back on his family in order to deviously work out a new life for himself wins him no votes from any reader. Poor Max, Kelli’s brother, suffers because he is absent through the course of the book and is brought in, as an afterthought, in the Epilogue.

Kenmore is the only man who has Kelli’s confidence, and he fares marginally better as a result. Shane’s romance with Kelli, however, comes across as insipid and banal. He seems force-fit to give Kelli the mandatory romance that her life lacked.

The only exceptions to this trend are Rand, Beth’s husband, and Jones, Denice’s husband, who come across as likeable, probably because they are redeemed by their closeness with their wives.

Cushman’s writing is easy. You find yourself settling into this world of her creation very quickly.

The book talks about faith, about believing that God is in control even in difficult times. It is a belief that is tested when Kelli’s pregnant sister, Beth, begins to get dreams about hurting her own baby, and later when she miscarries.

Much as Kelli tries to make amends for her father’s sins, Kenmore who suspected her from the beginning tells her that
“There’s only one person who can pay for someone else’s sins, and you’re not Him. He died on a cross a couple thousand years ago.” Kenmore also explains the difference between doing the easy thing and the right thing through the example of Joseph from the Old Testament.

Unlike most Christian fiction, the lead character is not particularly religious. In fact, Kelli is most uncomfortable with ‘church’ people.

Despite the deviousness of the planned disappearance upon which the plot hinges, this book is no thriller. Its concern is with those left behind and how they cope with their feelings of betrayal and with the turn their lives take.

I must confess that towards the end of the book, I just couldn’t stop the tears from free-falling. I’m a total crybaby, of course. But the book is sweet too.

(I received a free e-copy of this book from Bethany House. I read it through NetGalley.)

Monday, May 04, 2015

Reflection on completing the A to Z Challenge 2015

It’s been a pleasant month of renewing my friendship (and acquaintanceship - who among us would call Iago our friend, or Richard Parker, for that matter, and live to tell the tale?).

This has my third successful challenge, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

This year’s challenge was rendered more difficult on account of certain self-determined conditions. I decided that given the plethora of characters that are close to my heart, I would ensure that each author or character creator would have only one character on the list. The rule was necessary. Shakespeare alone would have contributed so many to this list.

While I was at it, I tried to ensure that at least a third of the characters were women. With Big Ethel, Hermione Granger, Little Mermaid, Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, Queen Scheherazade, Lt Uhura, and of course, some of the Yahoos and X-men were bound to have been women, I achieved my goal.

Also, I decided that each letter would be exactly 500 words. No more, no less. Given the intensity of the challenge, brevity was essential, as a favour to me and to any readers who might happen to stop by. After a while, I began to enjoy clipping my thoughts, feelings and words to fit the magic number.

The exercise of writing letters to these characters helped me understand the strange alchemy through which a character that is outlined by the author in a few words, or in the case of an illustrator, in a few strokes, begins to take shape and life. And how these characters touch us, appealing to something within us that calls to them, clinging on and never letting go.

I understood why these characters had stayed with me. It was because they were real, three-dimensional people, and occasionally animals, with real motivations and desires.

Many of these characters were people from my childhood, and it was lovely to know that although we don’t meet so often any more, they’re still there in my heart and mind, waiting to pick up from where we left off.

Beyond the 26 I’ve chosen to grace my blog, there are so many other characters that might be holding their breath, waiting for a missive for me. I shall get to you at my leisure, dear friends, in the course of this year. Free of the constraints of the alphabet, you will all have your turn. You have all played a very special role in my life, and my reading and my life has been enhanced, thanks to you.

If there is any regret I have, it is this: that I am never quite prepared with my posts beforehand. This year was no different. I struggled to give voice to my feelings and emotions vis-à-vis these characters, and the struggle took its toll. I couldn’t visit as many blogs as I would have liked to. Next year, I shall remedy that. And that means, thinking of a theme right now. 

Dear Muse, strike me now please.

PS. Incidentally, this post, not including this line, is 500 words short too.


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