October 30, 2020

Book review: 'Anxious people' by Fredrik Backman

Title: "Anxious People"

Author: Fredrik Backman

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (September 2020)

Available in :Paperback and Kindle format

This is a story about 'idiots', relatable to the core because each one of us at some point in life has been one.

It is a story about how we adults are actually children in disguise, unaware of where we are going, forced to accept responsibilities we are not always ready for, but trying to fulfil them to the best of our abilities anyway.

It is a story about a bank robbery gone wrong, about an ensuing hostage drama, and a bunch of strangers each with their own eccentricities, finding a common thread.

Narrated in a light and riveting style, Fredrik Backman frequently employs the ‘Rashomon effect’. It alternates between sarcastic but humorous interviews with the hostages and a tongue in cheek account of what ‘actually’ happened.

A few pages down, and you are almost tempted into believing it is a comedy (of errors), until you read on and discover the profundity of interwoven wisdom.

‘Anxious people’, I’d love to classify, as a community read. It is self-help disguised in a refreshingly non-patronising manner...something you’d want to pick especially during a pandemic like the one we are going through, when empathy is the need of the hour.

However, there were a few instances in the book that felt larger than life. What I didn’t particularly enjoy is that Backman has taken care to explain (repeatedly at times) and tie all the ends together, leaving very little to the readers imagination. While I do appreciate a well rounded-up story, I also respect authors who respect their readers intelligence and leave a few instances open ended. But then again, perhaps reconfirmation is a strategy to suit the theme (‘anxiety’) of the book.

The realization how our life can be affected by the life of strangers we may have momentarily crossed paths with, the decisions that don’t always make sense but we are forced to take for the ones we love, and last but not the least, a reminder that it is not always our fault...Backman explores these themes in this wonderfully spontaneous and witty NewYork Times Bestseller.

I rate this one 4 on 5.

October 21, 2020

Book review: 'Caste: The origins of our discontent'

Title: 'Caste: The origins of our discontent'

Author: Isabel Wilkerson

Publisher: Allen Lane (15 September 2020)

Available in: Kindle edition, audio book, hard cover, and audio CD

“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly."

But somewhere down the line, we seem to have forgotten just that. 

Isabel Wilkerson ‘Caste...the origin of our discontent’ is a hard-hitting eye opener to all those who have allowed themselves to be blinded by the repetitive prejudiced tellings of a caste based culture. 

The book tries to break down the complexities of caste and race workings into simpler building blocks, to help us understand from where it all started. 

Written in an easy-to-understand and interesting way, the narrative is a combination of a terrifying history, a grotesque reality, and tiny reminders that hit us hard and wake us up. 

At the very outset, Isabel draws parallels between the three major caste hierarchies in the world—-the chilling, officially vanquished caste system of Nazi Germany, the shapeshifting, unspoken race divide in America, and the lingering, millennia old and more insidious caste hierarchy in India. 

Of course, the author being African American, has grown up hearing, seeing, and feeling the ramifications of a racist society in her everyday life and personal interactions and this has placed her at a vantage point while explaining to us the situation in America than that in the other two countries. 

I, however, being Indian, could easily imagine the same incidents rolling out in almost exactly the same way here in India. The only difference being, here we are divided on the basis of ‘caste’ and there on the basis of ‘race’.

“Caste is the bones. Race is the skin.”

For all those who thought the two forms (of prejudice) were different from each other, Isabel aptly puts across the correct relationship between the two. Caste, she explains, is fixed, a more rigid concept while race is more fluid. However, both are interdependent. Both have wreaked terror and continue to do so even today despite there being existing laws against the discrimination they trigger. 

If one has read Ambedkar’s ‘Annihilation of the caste system’, it is easy to notice how similar the discrimination faced by the Dalits in medieval India was to the horror endured by the blacks in the U.S before the American civil war. 

The Jim Crow laws, the subjugation that the non-whites suffered at the hands of the whites, the humiliation, the flogging, the slavery, the rapes have all been happening with the marginalised in India as well. Likewise with the Jews who were assigned the status ‘Untermensch’ in the period that led to the third Reich.

In the segment on the eight pillars of caste, Isabel explores various prejudices, the myths and facades that were built to keep them in place, the laws against miscegenation, endogamy, and mind numbing horrors that one cannot even imagine inflicted on human or animal. 

The subservience of the subordinate castes made me squirm with discomfort. The cruelty they were made to suffer made me gasp. The illogical hatred, the senseless narcissism, the abuse (physical and mental) by the so-called ‘higher’ castes left me infuriated. 

The gory real life stories of ‘Negro’ slaves in America, the denigration of ‘untouchables’ in India are so painfully grotesque and dehumanising that I was tempted to abandon reading midway...but then it hit me—-that is exactly the problem with our society. We often want to live in denial of that which is not palatable, no matter how real. Refusing to acknowledge the atrocities, the bias, the prejudice of caste will not make it go away. 

It is pretty much like the monster under your bed...you don’t want to look because you are too afraid you may actually find it. Only, in this case, the ‘monster’ called caste is real. 

And that is what the book felt like—-harsh, painful, but authentic. 

The narrative is interspersed with anecdotes from the author’s own personal encounters and the criticism she faces only adds to the ‘real’ voice of the book. 

"Jaat naahi ti jaat,” is a popular Marathi saying that is reflective of the nature of the caste system. 

After reading this book and realising how global this phenomenon is, I was left speechless. 

Here we are in the 21st century, a so called modern and evolved era still trying to come to terms with the idiocy of the caste system, still dealing with the assumed superiority of some groups over others that they consider inferior based on immutable factors, like colour of skin, origin of birth, and ancestry. 

We have been handed down a regressive social construct, the disasters of which have been either perpetuated or suffered by our ancestors, and instead of destroying it, we continue to treasure it, respect it, revere it...as part of our heritage. This abominable heritage of hate.

Call it ‘varna’, ‘race’,  or ‘jaati’, caste by any other name is just as evil. 

The resurgence of the caste system, maybe in less obvious, more insidious ways, has made us forget the struggle of Martin Luther King, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule. 

We have become silent witnesses of communal mobs, of Dalits being lynched, of surnames being asked, of marriages being broken, of lovers being torn apart, of temples barring access...all evidence of the resurgence. 

But we choose to stay silent. We do not act. 

A line I read in this book springs to mind...

Something Bonhoeffer once said to bystanders, 

“God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Detailing the grim and the gory is not an easy task. And a book like this must have taken a whole lot of research.  Wilkerson has done a commendable job in piecing together ‘The origin of our discontent’, with need for special mention of how in the end, she ties it all up with glimmering threads of hope. Of the non-bias of white friends who stand up for her. Of the radicalisation of the dominant caste. Of people shedding their prejudices. Of realisation. Of equality. Of acceptance.

The chapter ‘The Heart is the last frontier’ is a beautiful reminder that the world can still be beautiful. 

I end here with the concluding line of the book. A line we all need to ponder upon, long before and after reading...

“A world without caste would set everyone free.”

I urge you to read this book and draw your own conclusions. I rate it a 5 on 5. A must read!

October 13, 2020

Book review: “The family upstairs” by Lisa Jewell

This one was recommended to me by a friend who for some reason (unknown to me) thought  I’d enjoy it very much. Anyway...

It’s not like I hated the book. In fact, I did enjoy it in parts. 

The story is fast paced, the writing is crisp and easy. And it has that ‘page turner’ quality (at least in the first 3/4th of the book). The narrative is split into three different POV’s, each with a distinctive style and course.

25 year old Libby aka ‘the baby’ has just inherited a mansion in the heart of Chelsea from a family she lost as a baby. 

While researching on this surprise inheritance, there are a few other discoveries that come to light, the prime among which is that as a baby she had been found by authorities in the midst of a crime scene, gurgling away in her crib with three dead people in the house (her parents and their friend in an alleged suicide pact), and that she has two other siblings she never got to see/know growing up. 

It is these three; Libby, Henry, and Lucy around which the narrative is structured. 

Thus unravels the story of the mansion, at the centre of which lie these three families whose lives become closely intertwined in sinister ways...ways that the reader will find himself piecing together as he becomes part of the journey. A journey rife with emotional upheaval, a troubled childhood, bizarre cultic traditions, and some deep dark secrets that once breathed in the mansion, waiting for 25 years to be uncovered. 

Jewell has managed to successfully arouse and maintain the intrigue of the reader with each person’s narrative alternating between their horrifying past replete with cloistered cultic traditions and incestuous relationships, and their tumultuous present that is filled with confusion, fear, anxiety, and yet a common yearning...to meet each other, especially ‘the baby’. 

There are moments of surprise and incredulity that will leave the reader open mouthed but turning pages nevertheless.

Some instances that require suspension of disbelief include: 

A murder happening (too easily executed and concealed) in broad daylight and the cops never following up on it. 

Henry (at age 12 or 13) learning the entire expansive science of herbs and potions from Justin and then practicing it all alone with equal finesse almost felt like a retelling of ‘the sorcerers apprentice’.

Also couldn’t help feeling all the kids in the book must have been precocious, with them the little geniuses mastering sciences and culinary arts, or understanding the nuances of mature adult relationships or even plotting the almost-perfect escape and getting away with murder. 

All this, with not even as much as basic formal schooling (Couldn’t help feeling it may have been education that ruined us).

Cut to the last 1/4th of the book, and the plot starts feeling a little stodgy or probably this is because your expectations have risen by then, when suddenly the big reveal...the sibling is not the sibling (which is a good twist nonetheless). 

You devour the next few pages at break neck speed and just when you think the plot is getting sinister, PHAATT! It falls flat! 

Yes, the way the story ended left me feeling let down because by then I was rooting for pure evil, what with a cultic plot like that. Instead it gave me a happily ever after with almost negligible traces of ominousness (a major roll-eye moment).

It was as if the quota of dark psychology had outdone itself during their childhood and not wanting to creep them out anymore suddenly decided to quit the family reunion. 

Jewell leaves a lot to the readers imagination, with her touch-and-go style of cause and effect. 

Well, I do acknowledge the fact that a nice little open ending exercises the brain cells, but experimenting with these kind of open loops a tad too frequently in the story can make it seem like the author may have not known how best to end what she had started. 

To sum up, ‘The Family Upstairs’ is a racy, chilling, psychological read that includes multiple story lines, scarred lives, a lot of mystery, several murders, a deranged cult, a malevolent obsession, and a happy ending, that will leave you with some jaw drops and a whole lot of roll eye moments.

I rate it 3 out of 5