Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Title: The Liar's Weave
Author: Tashan Mehta
Publisher: Juggernaut Books
Pages: 330

Zahan Merchant is born in 1904 to a Parsi family in Bombay. In this alternate world, the lives of humans are written in the stars, and mapped and charted by powerful astrologers, In-Betweens, who can tell you the year in which you will die and the facts of your life, based on the date, time and place of your birth. In their words, Everything happens, as it should happen, because it has already happened.

But the astrologers are powerless to interpret Zahan’s future, for, it seems, that the gods erred this once and Zahan has been born without one, or more accurately, and confusingly as astrologer Narayan Tarachand discovers, with almost infinite futures.

Tarachand takes the problem to his In-between friends, Krishna and Svasa.

The error of the gods gives Zahan his power: he can alter the weave of the future with his lies, a talent he discovers at age 7. It is a secret that he shares only with older brother, Sorab.

But there is a catch. Sometimes it is a power he has, and sometimes, it’s a power that frightens him. For he cannot see the realities he creates for others. Knowing the truth nullifies the effect of the lie.

There is a forest, Vidroha (Hindi for protest, rebellion), deep in the heart of Bombay, which is home to the hatadaiva, the ill-fated. Here Yaatri, a nomad from the Banjara tribe; Liling, Chinese medicine woman; acrobat Tamarin and his wife, Jia, both from the circus, hold court, inspired by Niyat, half-man, half-legend. They give succour to other ill-fated, while yearning to break the stranglehold of fate.

Yaatri meets Zahan and his best friend, Porthos, both 16, and invites them into Vidroha, hoping Porthos will re-write their fate. Meanwhile, the Sapta Puri, the seven holy universities, are equally interested in Zahan and how he alters the weft and warp of life.

Already new realities are coming about. Fortunates are suffering; the ill-fated have flashes of luck. But can you interfere with reality without suffering the consequences?

Vidroha’s desire to change their destinies will destroy lives. And neither Zahan nor Tarachand, who uses Zahan’s power to his own advantage, will come out of this unscathed.

The novel integrates ancient Indian myths with Hindu mythology, creating characters and locales that are part-truth and part-fiction, interspersing the mundane with the cosmic. It shows us how the lives of human beings pan out, while the astrologers attempt to play god. These are lines for us, lives for them, Tarachand chides himself. And yet, as the omniscient narrator reminds us, No matter what the wisdom of the stars, human imagination is stronger.

As a premise, it is intriguing and frightening. In the wrong hands, a power like Zahan’s could wreck lives. Horoscopes and birth charts are one belief that Parsis take as seriously as Hindus. But in this world, it seems, that everyone is held captive to the birth chart.

The story is written in the present tense, in the third person PoV of the characters. Interspersed with the main narrative are excerpts from Tarachand’s book, The Perspective of an In-between.

The similes used in the writing are earthy. Beard like unspun cotton. The prose is evocative, stylized, not as ordinary people might speak. But this is a fantastic world, and so it feels right.

The novel is set in Hindu Colony, Parsi Colony and in Vidroha, besides Benares. The writing in Vidroha is rich and dense, decadent and lush, while that in the two residential colonies is almost genteel, sparse and succinct, in comparison.

The story is set against the backdrop of the struggle against the British for independence. Zahan initially wants to use his dancing tongue to guide the fate of his country. But the struggle for Independence is merely a placeholder. In this alternate world, the astrologers study individual lives; they will not study the fate of the country, the narrator tells us.

There are a few historical facts that come up. The fact that the British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act, a piece of legislation that threatened the diversity of India and pronounced Yaatri and his people, the Banjaras, and hundreds of other tribes criminal.

Beyond a few cursory mentions, the author tells us nothing about it. And that made me feel cheated. Why not just make it a story about a boy who can lie the truth into existence? Why bring the fate of a country into the mix, if you do not mean to take it to its just conclusion?

The names of the leading characters, Yaatri, Tamarin, Liling, Umaan were unreal, fictional, and yet they seemed relatable. Yaatri signifies the journey, Porthos is a character from The Three Musketeers, while Zahan is as Yaatri describes him, Zzzz-haan. Like a bee and an exhale.

The characters have their own compulsions. Porthos wants to know if he is hatadaiva. The others in Vidroha want their ill-fortune transformed.

Tarachand, whose future decrees that he could be Dagdhavasta, head of Sapta Puri, is bothered by the anomaly of Zahan. If the gods have missed him, what else have they missed? If the gods have intended him, what is the purpose of that intention?

The author, young as she is, has a firm grasp of the emotions of the characters, as they struggle in vain to live their lives. The bond between the two brothers, Zahan and Sorab, was poignant, and I felt for Zahan, and the loss of his relationship with Sorab.

The world is being made anew, with every word from a liar’s mouth.

The author treats us to the psychology of the lie. You cannot, absolutely cannot, break eye contact… You must believe your lie, with every ounce of fibre you possess. Love it, nurture it, trust it.

The best lies are the ones between two truths.

What is a lie but a fictional story? And here, stories are described as The currency of your soul.

The novel teases you, confuses you but you bide your time, for as the narrator has told you, Secrets have to ripen before they can be diced; mysteries brew before they clear.

My beloved St Xavier’s College features in this book. Beyond it, it was fascinating to read about Bombay, my favourite city. This city lost so much of its character when its spirit was quelled, and it was asked to keep mum.


Why is it always women who are asked to shut up?

I was sorry to see Zahan go, at the end of the book. There seemed so much more that would happen in his life. Surely the gods would not let him go his peaceful way.

What is that thing they say about a liar? 
Once a liar... always a liar.

(I received a free copy of this book from Juggernaut Books for the purpose of a fair and honest review.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017


Title: When You Disappeared
Author: John Marrs
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pages: 350

The institution of marriage harbours some of the worst manifestations of cruelty. John Marrs’ debut thriller, When you disappeared, is a wonderful example of this harsh truth.

Simon Nicholson, plagued by some inner demon with reference to his marriage, leaves his wife, Catherine, and three young children, James, Robbie and Emily, and quietly walks out of the life that was his for 33 years, taking nothing with him and plunging his family into grief and trauma.

Twenty-five years later, he returns, to offer his wife a meagre apology and to let her know that it was a grave sin that she committed 28 years ago that drove him away. 

The truth, Simon knows, will break her. He hopes it will torture her, as it has tortured him.

Back then, Catherine is badly shaken, afraid that he is hurt or dead, but when police searches reveal nothing, she is forced to pick up the pieces of her life and move on, for the sake of her children. 

But they are broken pieces. On the way to rebuilding their lives, the homebound Catherine nearly loses her home, and is forced to sell all their possessions, in order to save it. She begins to work 18-hour days and takes up three jobs in order to be able to pay the bills, nearly losing herself to a spiraling alcohol addiction.

Why did Simon leave? What pushed him over the edge? 
These are questions that plague Catherine and us.

The only thing we know of that fateful day is that something unforgivable has torn the couple apart. They have also lost a child, Billy, but we don’t know how, only that the death was tragic, and that Catherine still bears the scars of that loss.

As each fills the other in about the events of the 25 years they have spent apart, we see how Catherine suffered while Simon prospered.

We learn how he moved from England, to France and then the US, his moral compass askew, stealing, committing identity theft, implicating an innocent person falsely on a charge of intent to sell narcotics, and setting fire to a hotel that he helped restore to its glory, snorting drugs and sleeping with young girls, and killing, anything to drive his family out of his mind, while Catherine struggles to do the right thing for her family, suffers a miscarriage and copes with her trauma alone, while trying to shield and protect the children.

As the truth about what transpired over the course of the 25 years they spent apart is revealed, their recollections alternate with each other’s, each in a different reality, growing further apart, until they converge on the answers and we come to the fateful truth of what went wrong in their marriage, 28 years ago, and what happened to Billy. Their diametrically opposite understanding of what happened is an eye opener.

There is no second guessing just what prompted Simon to leave. The author gives us no clues, revealing the truth so slowly, we can barely see the layers being prised apart.

The flashbacks, covering their lives over the course of the 25 years since Simon left, as well as the years of their childhood and other events in their past, are written in the first person past tense point of view of both Simon and Catherine. 

On the other hand, the revelation of the truth today is in third person past tense. All the accounts are preceded by qualifiers detailing time- and datelines.

The changes in the PoV helped me understand whether the narrative was in the past or the present. It felt as if the author had given them the first person in the flashback so they could be honest, hiding nothing, while in the present comes the reckoning in the third person.

Through the course of the decisions and the actions the characters take, we become aware of just who they are. 

When Simon tells us about his mother who walked in and out of their lives, we are better able to understand him. His fascination with the absent parent, his desire to run away from his responsibilities, to chase the wrong choices.

It is amazing how quickly Simon learns to be different from what he is. He is willing to put every moral code aside in his quest for self'ish'-fulfillment, including committing murder several times, to punish Catherine. At the core of this attitude is his belief that If you scratch the surface of something perfect, you’ll always find something rotten hidden beneath. Through his account, Simon showed himself to be so fickle and remorseless, I wondered what he found so unforgivable in Catherine.

I found it easier to relate to Catherine. I rejoiced in her success, and felt sorry for the children who, afraid their daddy had vanished, worried their mommy would too. I felt her pain at not having closure. In Catherine’s words, My husband’s disappearance still had a curiosity factor attached to it, like the village had its own Bermuda Triangle.

Years later, Catherine is in a good place, personally and professionally, but I ached at the thought of all that Simon had put her through. I wanted to reach into the pages and slap him hard.

The mainstay of this book are Simon and Catherine, but Marrs paints a strong picture of Steven and Baishali, Roger and Paula, Douglas, Simon’s mother, Doreen, and the other characters whose lives coincide with theirs.

The author must be commended for holding our interest and keeping us anxious to know more, even as the revelations slowly tumble out. I also appreciate Marrs’ keen grasp of a woman’s emotions, how Catherine must feel to know herself, at first widowed, and then cruelly abandoned by the only boy to whom she gave her heart.

The book was a pointed indicator of how parents define their children, and how while some like Catherine are hurt, yet don't inflict their hurt upon others, many are like Simon, choosing to do as they were done by, hurting twice as much as they were hurt.

Both Simon and Catherine were rejected by their mothers, and yet Catherine emerges as the greater among the two. She mothers her kids with love, despite suffering at the hands of parents who didn't care about her. 

On the other hand, Simon's father, though not his own, loves him. That still doesn't stop Simon from projecting his hurt on to others.

The lesson in it is that old adage about whether we let circumstances make us bitter or better. Catherine chose to be a far better mother to her kids than she ever had. Simon, on the other hand, persisted in the delusion that he had no choice but to act the way he did.

Although grownup stories aren’t supposed to carry morals, this one reminded me of the need for communication within relationships, and especially within marriage. 

How much trouble could have been eliminated if only Simon and Catherine had sought answers and solace from each other. Simon would not have disappeared and we would not have the emotion- and nerve-wracking novel that is When you disappeared.

(I read a Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Book Review: MODERN GODS

Title: Modern Gods
Author: Nick Laird
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 336

Reading Modern Gods helped me realise the human tendency to make gods out of our beliefs and how disillusioned we feel at their breakdown.

The novel begins with two men opening fire mindlessly in a pub called The Day’s End, unleashing death and mayhem.

Part I – Six Nothings introduces us to married couple Judith and Kenneth Donnelley. They have three children, Liz, Alison and Spencer. Judith suffers from a tumour, that the kids don’t know about.

Liz, never-married, is invited by the British Broadcasting Corporation to be a presenter for an episode of a documentary, The Latest of the Gods, to be featured on a religious movement in New Ulster, Papua New Guinea (PNG). A woman called Belef has combined Christianity with the local myths it has displaced to found a new movement called the Story.

At first unsure about whether she wants to do the job, Liz decides to go ahead when she learns that her much-younger boyfriend is two-timing her with a man. 

Meanwhile, Alison, divorced from her first husband, the verbally abusive Bill, is now marrying the gentle Stephen.

In Part – II, In the Way that Fire Wanders, we see how things get out of hand.

On the morning after the wedding, the family learns that Stephen is one of the ruthless killers of the pub massacre. Now that her marriage is another sham, Alison begins to feel complicit in her husband’s crime.

In PNG, Liz, her producer Margo and cameraman Paolo are caught up in the conflict arising out of the pull that that both Belef and Josh and Jess Werner, the missionaries trying to bring Christianity to the locals, exert.

Even as both gods appear false, the god that is Stephen, as well as the god of Belef’s Story, Judith too realizes that her marriage is not as stable as she thinks it is.

The chapters alternate between Stephen and Alison on their honeymoon and Liz and party in PNG with Belef. Alison is playing make-believe with her husband. Liz is doing it as a TV presenter.

Additionally, in PNG, the rise of Belef’s The Story is juxtaposed against the New Truth Mission of the Werners.

The story of the Donnelleys is interspersed with short third person accounts of those who were killed at the pub. There was something touchingly sad about those lives cut short, just as you are getting to know them.

Slowly the intricacies and instabilities of the family relationships come to the fore.

Judith’s diagnosis brings her into the spotlight like an ornament gathering dust in the back of a cabinet now unexpectedly appraised at some fantastic value, and brought out to the light of the mantelpiece… But here too the dust alighted.

Liz has always felt outside the family circle, an adult in a scale model. Returning home for the wedding, she feels uncomfortable with her place in the family unit. Everything is the same, and yet not. Home was like climbing into a suit that was made of your own body, and it looked like you, and it smelled like you, and it moved its hand when you told it to, but it wasn’t you, not now.

The sisters’ relationships is a strange one. Each pities the other, but in her smug self-satisfaction of having two children and a husband, even if he is the second, Alison pities Liz harder, longer, louder.

Some lines demanded that you re-read and savour them.

The broadband in the Donnelley home is too slow. It is not feasible to download photos, not in human time. In geological time, maybe, or if you experienced the world as an oak tree did.

The description of TV producer Margo: The trick was to keep her on a casual level of intimacy, at a friendly arm’s length. If you wandered off the main road with her, you faced the real risk of being lost for some time in the outskirts of her complicated backstory… You wanted to keep her star in your orbit, but not so close as to get burned up, not so distant as to lose all light and heat.

Liz’s theory about the origin of religion is fascinating. It was no surprise that the deserts of the Middle East had given birth to the three big monotheisms. A landscape’s character directed the minds of those born in it, their imagination, their interactions with the seen and unseen. Out there in the Kansan prairies – or the wilderness of sand where Jesus fasted forty days and nights – it was just you and God under the sky, staring down the huge horizon. It was unilinear. It was strict. It was personal. The jungle spoke a different tongue. It talked of fertility, the immanence of objects, the many spirits lurking in the trees and ferns and rocks and rivers. There was constant activity, displacement. It reminded one of mortality, the endless simmer of rot and renewal. And where was her own Ireland in the system? A tidal zone. A recurrence of eternal folds. Early mist rising up like all the ghosts in the hollows of the fields.

It was interesting to have whataboutery described as Northern Ireland’s favorite form of rhetoric. I thought that was India’s invention in our current political and social climate.

Returning from PNG to Ireland, Liz tries to put the intensity of pain she has experienced behind her. How small the body felt for what it had to hold; memory and experience and pain. How continually one must fold and trim the soul.

Alison must do likewise. Her happiness is now forever clouded over by her pain. Outside the large sky was full of stars – exit wounds or promises of some greater light behind the black.

The sisters finally have something in common, the compromise that is their mother’s life. In the end, they all accept their gods, even when they turn out to be broken, because as Liz says, What fetish gods the Donnellys were! They’d stay in a marriage so as not to waste the cargo of a fondue set.

(I got a free ARC from FirstToRead).


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