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There aren’t many Indian authors who step out of India, figuratively speaking, to write about people in other countries, let alone other time zones. Kunal Basu, whose most famous work is a collection of short stories titled ‘The Japanese Wife’, transcends space and time to tell us the story of a Portuguese doctor who travels to China to search a cure for syphilis in 1898.

Dr Antonio Maria, or Tino as he is fondly called by those close to him, is the typical alpha male with a roving eye. On the night of St Anthony’s feast, as he is looking forward to enjoying smoked sardines with his best friend Ricardo, and hunt for some pretty female company, he learns that his father is deadly ill.

Rushing to his side, Antonio discovers that his father is suffering from syphilis. The graphic descriptions are enough to turn one’s stomach over, but also makes the reader feel sympathy for both the victims, the one suffering from syphilis and the other from heartache.

Desperate to do something, anything, to save his father, or maybe to save himself from the misery of seeing his father die, he sets off to China to look for the cure, in the hope that traditional Chinese medicine has the answer that had eluded the West so far. His godmother Don Elvira, arranges his stay in the Summer Palace, where the Empress of China resides. He is kept company by two eunuch servants, who soon become his friends.

The renowned Dr Xu and his mysterious assistant Fumi take it upon themselves to teach Antonio ‘The Yellow Emperor’s Canon’, or Nei Ching, the skill of diagnosing a disease by reading the pulse. Thus begin his lessons, where different rates of the pulse denote illnesses in different parts of the body, and the free flow of twelve channels is essential for the body to be healthy.

Even as he falls in love with the beautiful Fumi who has a dark past, Antonio starts getting impatient to know the cure for syphilis. “Man is born with health and sickness. To help him, we must know the reasons for both,” Dr Xu tells him, while asking him to be patient.

His plans, however, go awry when the Boxer rebellion threatens to cause havoc in China. According to Wikipedia,

 The Boxer Rebellion, also known as Boxer Uprising or Yihetuan Movement, was a proto-nationalist movement by the “Righteous Harmony Society” in China between 1898 and 1901, opposing foreign imperialism and Christianity. The uprising took place in response to foreign  “spheres of influence” in China, with grievances ranging from opium traders, political invasion, economic manipulation, to missionary evangelism.

Will Tino’s cure for syphilis and love for Fumi remain unattainable? With 325 pages and a hard cover, this is not a small book you can pick up at the airport and finish on a flight. To read this book is a journey in itself, much as Dr Maria sets out to find the cure for syphilis in the Yellow Emperor’s cure, and learns about Chinese customs and values they live by.

Polished language makes this book a pleasure to read, and those who love historical fiction will enjoy the facts interspersed with fiction. It doesn’t follow a traditional pattern of building up to a climax, but has its periods of high activity, followed by linkers. In this book, the destination is unimportant, it’s the journey that matters.

Colourful characters like the eunuchs servants, beautiful Fumi, motherly Don Elvira and boisterous best friend Ricardo give colour to Antonio’s life. His transition from a philandering, proud surgeon who hates to treat “dumb” people, to a deeply romantic, compassionate person willing to carry out even a nurse’s work in the dark dingy camps formed due to the Boxer’s rebellion also give a subtext to the ‘Cure’.

Immensely readable, the book shows the author’s research about Portugal, China, Chinese medicine and the state of health at the time. His descriptions, though not exhaustive, succeed in giving a feel of the times. A must read for history and adventure lovers.

Check this link to read my interaction with the author.

Snow

“How much can we ever know about love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known?” These are some of the questions that haunt the narrator in Orhan Pamuk’s book, Snow.

The story begins as Ka, who has been living in exile in Frankfurt, travels to a Turkish border town called Kars to cover the municipal elections for a newspaper and to write a story about the reason why so many Muslim girls have been committing suicide after a ban forbidding them to wear head-scarves. But his real motive is to court and marry beautiful Ipek, his classmate from school who, he has heard recently separated from her husband.

Once he reaches there, a blizzard shuts off the roads leading up to the town. Cut off from escape by snow, Ka wanders wanders through the city reminiscing about the old days. The snow never quite stops falling and becomes the core of the novel. ‘Snow’ is the title of the collection of poems that start ‘coming’ to Ka after his arrival in Kars. The snow, at times takes the form of a blizzard and at others, represents a gentle white blanket covering the architectural remnants of this decaying city.

While trying to find out more about the suicides of the ‘headscarf girls’ he has fascinating encounters with the women’s families, the editor of the newspaper, the police, stage actors, fundamentalists, extremists, kurdish nationalists and the westernized turkish exiles. During a performance in the National Theatre in Kars, there is a military coup staged by an actor Sunay, in which many pupils from the Islamic religious high school are killed. It sets off a ghastly chain of events: the arrest of religious leaders, the murder of fundamentalists and those against “progress”. All through this, Ka looks for happiness with Ipek, with almost like an obsession.

This book is full of fascinating and detailed characters from Ka himself to Blue, a much celebrated Islamic terrorist, Sunay and his wife who tour small towns staging revolutionary plays, Kadife – Ipek’s headscarf wearing stubborn sister and Serdar Bey, a local newspaper editor, who writes about events even before they have occurred. Maureen Freely’s translation is lucid and fluent throughout the book, capturing the beauty of the snow and the city in a way that is almost breathtaking.

More than anything, Snow is a political novel. It tackles the issues of conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and secular Turkey, poverty, unemployment and suicide. There is no right or wrong side here. The author has tried to take in the views of all – fundamentalists, exiles, ex-communists and the nationalists. It is a fascinating novel that provides a view into varied perspectives and conflicts in the lives of the people in that part of the world. This is a book that reads like a dream.

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is a story of a group of British boys who have crash landed on an island and must learn how to survive till the time someone comes and rescues them. William Golding does a sensational job of portraying the human nature and psyche of the little boys, their fragile sense of order and how reason and instinct battle with each other within them as they try to survive.

What initially starts out with a simple story line, turns into much more. An island, idyllic setting, innocent schoolboys and no adults to oversee them. A boy with fair hair, Ralph, assumes leadership of the group and starts putting in some semblance into the group, to channelize their efforts in making sure that they survive. At his side is compassionate, intelligent Piggy, who acts as Ralph’s conscience. Ralph’s election is contested by Jack, a headstrong guy who believes in living in the moment and doesn’t think of how they will get rescued.

Everything goes on in a downward spiral. The boys’ initial efforts of establishing a successful, happy group and Ralph’s idea of keeping a fire burning at all times (so someone sees it and rescues them) start going wayward. Jack thinks that hunting is more important than keeping a fire alive and forms another group. Jack’s group is a “tribe” of hunters and savages with painted faces. The enmity between the two groups grows as the savages try to kill the boys from the “civilized” group.

The characters are brilliant and comparisons are drawn between the group of boys and the civilization or the society. A group of boys, playful and scared of the unknowns on the island at the same time, lose their innocence, kill off reason and play at being savages. I liked the way this book takes the banal story of a person trapped on a tropical island and slaps it with terrifying realism. A book you should definitely read.

The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth tells the story of some folks in California living their lives and relationships, and of their quest in finding answers to questions.

There’s John, an engineer, successful and lonely. His one time girlfriend, Janet, places a “personals” ad in the newspaper to seek a girlfriend for him and thus he meets Liz, a lawyer. Love at first sight ! They move in together, but bliss doesn’t last for long partly because of their opposing views on social and political issues, and in part because of Liz’s cat Charmalegene.  John’s friend, Phil, after a divorce from his wife, hooks up with Liz’s brother – Ed, but it doesn’t work out because of Ed’s Catholic guilt – “I have to trust my faith’s decisions, / Not batten on my own volitions”. In some twisted turn of events,  Phil and Liz get married and John tries to swallow his pride by frequenting night clubs and the story goes on and ends with a sad and sentimental finish.

But there’s more to this book. It’s a novel written entirely in verses – even the preface and the acknowledgment – cover to cover ! The idea of reading a book that packs several hundred sonnets in 307 pages to tell a story may seem daunting at first but it’s the way the author has used the words to tell the characters and their dilemmas that keeps hold of the attention. There’s wordplay, rhyme and rhythm, wit and charm, allusions peppered throughout. And, then there is an iguana too named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rhythm, rhyme and the story held my attention and it was both engrossing and endearing.

This is one of my favorite book for so many reasons. And, just so you know –

Number of times I’ve missed my bus to office while reading this book – 2

Number of times I’ve missed my bus to office ever – 4

I’ve read it and re-read it and it keeps getting better.

Right Ho, Jeeves!

This is my first P. G. Wodehouse. Well, technically, not my first, since I had picked it up at the age of 15. At that time though, I put it down with a shudder and refused to believe that humour is its USP. I am glad to say, I think differently now.

The book is written in first person as narrated by Bertram Wooster. Jeeves is his trustworthy, albeit slightly snobbish butler who has much better taste in clothes and much better sense while solving problems. Unable to digest this fact, Bertram vows to help his newt-loving friend Fink-Nottle get the girl of his dreams (and of Bertram’s nightmares) Madeline Basset, and also to re-engage his cousin Angela and her fiance Tuppy, who have broken off their engagement over an argument about a shark. Add to that, Aunt Dahlia’s problem of procuring money for her newspaper from her husband while also confiding in him that she lost the last installment while playing roulette and we have a lovely pot pourri of problems where Bertram gleefully sets about to solve everyone’s problems and become the ultimate savior.

Needless to say, matters get more and more complicated as unforeseen complications arise with every solution that Bertram provides. Fink-Nottle proposes to Angela, nightmare girl proposes to Bertram, chef Anatole (the greatest chef in the whole world) resigns and Aunt Dahlia has still found no way to tell Uncle Tom about the money she lost. Tragedy upon tragedy ensues and we have everybody ready to murder Bertram for all the mischief he has caused. Aunt Dahlia’s particularly scathing remarks about her bumbling nephew left me laughing out loud.

Ultimate question, as usual is, will Jeeves save the day? P G Wodehouse’s round about humour make it fun and interesting to read this book. While Bertram Wooster has infinite trust in his problem-solving capabilities, Aunt Dahlia has resigned herself to the fact that her nephew is incorrigible and might just burn down the whole house one day. Exceptionally funny stuff, and I can’t wait to get my hands on another Jeeves comedy!

Little Men

Little Men by Louisa May Alcott is a heart-warming story of 14 little boys and the amazing experiences they share on their journey to adulthood. There is no central character in this book and the first chapter helpfully informs us that the sole purpose of the book is to describe lively events that take place when people of such young age are involved.

The story starts off with shy, timid Nat (recently orphaned), arriving at a boarding school with a letter of recommendation from Mr. Lawrence. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer, who run the boarding school, enthusiastically accept Nat into the school. Warm, well fed and medicated for his terrible cough, Nat finds a sharp contrast to his earlier lifestyle and feels that he has come to heaven. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer observe that his soul has retained its innocence despite such harsh circumstances and make every effort possible to make him feel loved, wanted and useful.

Naughty Tommy befriends Nat on the first day of school and Nat takes an instant liking to him. Looking up respectfully to the bookish Demi and finding a confidante in Demi’s twin sister Daisy, Nat starts settling in and looking forward to studies as well as making new friends. Trouble brews when he invites his friend Dan to the boarding school and asks Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer to allow him to stay. Dan is elder than Nat and in contrast to Nat’s sweet and harmless nature, Dan seems rough and hell bent on mischief. Mr. Bhaer, though worried about the influence of this rough, insolent lad on his well mannered boys, gets swayed by Nat’s earnesty and agrees to take Dan in.

Thus begin bull fights with cows, smoking, gambling and many such vices that shake up Mr. Bhaer and make him regret his decision of accepting Dan into the school. Every time Mr. Bhaer feels like giving up on Dan and sending him away, his patience and love is tested a little more. Along similar lines is Nan, a highly intelligent spirited girl who doesn’t believing in abiding by the rules. Will Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer be able to change Dan and Nan with their love and make them understand the meaning of society and its rules? Most importantly, will all the little men turn into useful men with good manners and a good place in society?

What I really love about this book is that moral lessons have been taught so well in it. They don’t seem preachy but at the same time they convince you to tell the truth more often, be polite, considerate, take care of others and most importantly about the power of love and patience. Every boy has some special talent which sets him apart from the rest and that’s the reason why the characters stay with you long after you’ve finished reading the book.

Till date this remains one of my favorite books and I’ve read it at least a dozen times. Every time I’ve fallen in love with bad boy Dan, hated stingy Jack, found Tommy adorable, got jealous of pretty Bess and felt like Nan who wanted to be gentle like Daisy. This is NOT a children’s book. It is just disguised as one to trick adults into reading it as a light novel while sub consciously reminding them of all the goodness that lies within them.

The Catcher in the Rye

In the year 1980, after Mark Chapman shot John Lennon dead, he sat on the sidewalk, took out a book from the pocket of his overcoat and started reading it until the police arrived. The book was “Catcher in the Rye” written by J.D. Salinger. This book has always been the subject of controversies since it was first published in the US. So, being the way I am, I absolutely had to buy this book.

The book is about a 16 yr old boy – Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from his school for non-achievement. Understandably, he is no particular hurry to meet his parents. So he takes all the money he has and departs for New York, where he decides to spend a small vacation before going home to face his parents’ inevitable wrath, and thus ensues a series of events where he – spends an evening dancing with three tourist girls, has a clumsy encounter with a prostitute, and runs away from the house of a former teacher when he makes a flitty move for him. But this book is not about these events. It’s more about the character, what he says, thinks and how he extrapolates. Uninterested in the fake nature of the world, Holden is a teller of what is real.

The book is all about the perception of a boy of all events around him. He is lonely, confused, observant, perceptive, angry and frustrated at the way people act the way they do. He hates phonies. He would rather live all alone in a cabin on a mountain than being around the phonies. Holden is smart, intelligent but he wants something that the environment around him cannot supply. He wants to be able to protect children from falling off the cliff – prevent them from losing their innocence and become a part of this fake world. The best thing about the book – it is written in the form of Holden’s first person narrative – that kind of lends a distinct appeal to the way his reminiscences and perceptions have been presented and, the language has a good mixture of the underlying humor, slang, profanity, repetitions and moral reflections.

This is one of those books, if you start reading it, it kind of gets a grip on you, blocks out your peripheral vision – you know you can predict the end but you want to be able read every word of every page.

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