Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

Ajay Chowdhury – The Waiter

His former life a total mess, detective Kamil Rahman quite unexpectedly finds himself waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in London. Her literally had to flee from Kolkata since he totally messed up a high profile case. Now, an old friend of his father’s boards and employs him. When they cater a party at the multi-millionaire Rakesh, Kamil senses a lot of hatred coming from that man towards him even though he has never met him before. A couple of hours later, Rakesh is found dead in his mansion’s swimming-pool and his current wife Neha, three decades his junior and close friend of Kamil’s hosts’ daughter Anjoli, is accused of murder. Immediately, Kamil’s instincts jump in and he tries to figure out what has happened. But with the start of his investigation, also the memories of what drove him from his home town comes back.

Ajay Chowdhury’s novel is a very cleverly constructed mystery which links two seemingly unconnected crimes and events on two continents in a skilful way. By telling bits of both stories alternatingly, you advance and yet, for quite a long time, do not really get the whole picture which keeps suspense high at all times. At the same time, the story lives on the characters and their live between two cultures which are not always easy to bring together.

Without any doubt, the protagonist and his conviction of law and order and fighting for the right is the most striking feature of the novel. Seeing how his world view, which was more or less just black and white, slowly becomes blurred and he starts to question all he has ever believed in, is a great character development, especially for a mystery novel.

Both murder cases are highly complex and can only be sorted out by a very sharp mind – yet, knowing the truth does not mean that it will also win ultimately. A lesson which Kamil learns the hard way.

An intriguing read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Padma and Lalli, inseparable cousins and friends, were only 16 and 14 when they were killed. As their small village in Uttar Pradesh was rather underdeveloped in hygienic and housing terms, the girls needed to go to the nearby fields to relieve themselves. One night in 2014, they went missing and were found hanging in the orchard a couple of hours later. Rumours spread fast about what might have happened and who could be responsible for their deaths, however, even though national media became interested in the case, investigations took their time and the police only reluctantly tried to solve the case. Girls from lower classes have never been high priority and their death seemed to cause more nuisance than alarm.

“This negligence contributed to an epidemic of missing and exploited children, many of them trafficked within and outside the country.”

Sonia Faleiro’s book is a true crime account of how the girls’ lives might have looked like in their last hours, the immediate reaction of the families and villagers and also a lot of facts which help to understand the circumstances in which this crime could take place. The subheading “An Ordinary Killing” already gives away a lot: the murder of girls and women had become to ordinary in India that people didn’t bat an eyelid anymore. However, the events of 2012, when a student was violated in a bus, made worldwide headlines and stirred protests which finally made people aware of the hostile and misogynist climate they were living in.

“Although Delhi was notoriously unsafe, stories about sexual assault didn’t often make the news.”

There are a lot of factors which enabled the murder of Padma and Lalli, their status as girls, their belonging to an inferior class, the remoteness and backwardness of their village – many standards and rights we in the western world take for granted simply do not apply there. But it is not only the crime itself which is abhorrent, also the situation of the police – understaffed, ill-equipped, prone to bribery – and even more of the medical examiner – without any training, just doing the job because nobody else would do it with the logical result of a post-mortem which is simply absurd – are just incredible. What I found most interesting was actually not the girls’ story and the dynamics in the village afterwards but the background information. Sonia Faleiro convincingly integrates them into the narrative which thus becomes informative while being appealing to read. I’d rather call it a journalistic piece of work than  fiction and it is surely a noteworthy contribution to the global discussion on women’s rights.

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Megha Majumdar – A Burning

Jivan has seized her chances in life. Having grown up in one of Kolkata’s slums, there was not much to expect, but an NGO enabled her to go to school, learn proper English and see how the middle classes live. Yet, after grade ten, she decides to get a job to support her old and ill parents. The newly earned money also offers luxuries she has never known, cigarettes and even a smartphone. One evening, she witnesses an attack at her local train station and soon after, leaves a comment on Facebook which is widely ignored. Yet, when the culprits cannot be traced, somebody else is needed to pay for the victims and thus, Jivan suddenly finds herself in prison. This can only be a mistake, she is innocent and will soon be free again. But she is totally mistaken there.

Megha Majumdar’s novel is a story about dreams and a better life. Her three protagonists, whose stories are told alternatingly, all have their respective dreams: Jivan wants to live like the middle classes, be able to afford enough food and offer herself some small luxuries. Her friend Lovely, a hijra, dreams of a career in film business and is willing to do everything to promote her career. Jivan’s former teacher PT Sir dreams of power which is unexpectedly provided to him – at the cost of somebody else, but who wouldn’t look for themselves first?

“All of them are ignoring me. The public is wanting blood. The media is wanting death.”

The novel works on several levels, at one end of the scale, there is the personal point of view, at the other end, the political. Looking at the first, we have Jivan and Lovely from the very bottom of the Indian society. They are both working hard and so do Jivan’s parents, nevertheless, they depend on the mercy of others to advance a bit in life. More often than that, they are hit by injustice and at times, beaten in the very sense of the word. It is a highly divided society in which everybody’s place is fixed, upwards mobility is not something to be achieved easily.

On the political level, we see PT Sir and the next big party who have perfected the election campaign in telling people what they want to hear and framing incidents for their own benefit. The individual does not play a role, only in so far as individual politicians want to gain more power and money. One corrupt party is replaced by the next and the novel does not provide the slightest hope of any improvement of the situation.

For the reader, it is quite obvious from the start where all is heading, nevertheless, it is heart-wrenching to follow the unfairness and injustice which are done to Jivan. A great development of the protagonists who are not fully to blame, their behaviour cannot simply be explained by the flaws of their characters, it is the society they live in and to which they simply have adapted to survive. A strong novel which is surely not to be missed.

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Artist Antara has just been married when her mother Tara shows first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With her mother losing her memory gradually, the daughter starts to remember what they both went through. The time when her father still lived with them, then, the time at an ashram where kids where more or less left to themselves while Tara was deeply in love with a guru, her time at a Christian, yet not so very philanthropic and humane, boarding school. As an adult, Antara learns that there are rules she is not aware of but which are highly important to others e.g. for her mother-in-law and which she better adhered to.

„I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.“

Avni Doshi’s debut novel has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, the first draft was written during a stay India and won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, all in all, it took her seven years to complete the book. The relationship between mother and daughter always remains the main focus of Antara’s thinking and her art since she is under a constant emotional pressure. Even though it is highly toxic, she cannot – of course – get rid of it.

The author’s observation and especially the way she describes the mother’s gradual memory loss are particularly striking. The contrast between tradition and a modern way of life, obviously present everywhere in India, is also powerfully depicted.

Having heard so much praise of the novel I really was looking forward to read it, yet, I struggled with the negativity. The relationship between mother and daughter, the mother’s neglect of her small child, the injustice Antara experiences again and again – it is not easy to endure. Maybe it just wasn’t the best time to read it – 2020 has offered by far enough negative news and after months of pandemic, who doesn’t slowly become depressed?

Salman Rushdie – The Golden House

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Salman Rusdie – The Golden House

When the new neighbours move in, René immediately declares them his object of study and protagonists of the film he is going to make. The Golden family are simply fascinating, the father Nero and his three sons Petya, Apu and D. Interestingly, all carry ancient Roman names even though they obviously come from India. There must be more they are hiding. Their male idyll is threatened when Vasilisa shows up, the father’s new Russian lover. When René’s parents die in an accident, the Goldens become his replacement family and he moves in with them which gives him the opportunity to study them from much closer. The more time he spends with them, the more secrets are revealed and finally, he himself becomes a part of the family secret. Yet, the past the Goldens wanted to flee from catches up and they have to pay for what they thought they could leave behind them.

Salman Rushdie is well known for his politically loaded novels which never go unnoticed. Again, his latest novel puts the finger in a wound, this time the American and the question which played a major role in the 2016 presidential election: who is a true American and what makes you and American? Apart from this, in “The Golden House” the supervillain The Joker wins the election which is not very promising for the nation.

Even though there is an obvious political message, this hides behind the family story of the Goldens. Here, unfortunately, I had expected much more. Admittedly, the four men are drawn with noteworthy features and fates and to follow their struggles after settling in the USA is far from uninteresting, but it also is not as fascinating and remarkable as I had expected. It is the chronicles of an immigration family, not less, but also not more. Their numerous secrets can create some suspense, however, much of it is too obvious to really excite.

Where Salman Rushdie can definitely score is in the side notes:

True is such a twentieth-century concept. The question is, can I get you to believe it, can I get it repeated enough times to make it as good as true. The question is, can I lie better than the truth.“ (Pos. 3380) and

“You need to become post-factual. – Is that the same as fictional? – Fiction is élite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information-age, troll generated. It’s what people want. “(Pos. 3390)

These are the times we are living in. Truth is created by the ruling classes and repeated as often as necessary until the people believe it. It is even better than fiction. This should definitely make us think about our consumption of media and question the producers of the news.

I appreciate Rushdie’s capacity of formulating to the point, the masses of references to novels and films are also quite enticing, at least they show that Rushdie himself in fully immersed in the western culture, but, nevertheless, I missed something really captivating in the novel. It was somehow pleasant to read, but not as remarkable as expected.

Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

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Arundhati Roy – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

In Old Delhi, the hijra Anjum sets up her life in a graveyard. She is joined by a former mortuary worker who calls himself Saddam Hussein. Another outcast joins them, Tilottama, and there is a baby who seems to have appeared from nowhere and belong to nobody. This group’s fates are narrated through time and in different places of India and Kashmir. All of the characters face struggles due to the political situation, either protest in Delhi or the long-lasting conflict in the Kashmir region and thus portray India in a very special way – India of the people at the fringe of society.

Arundhati Roy’s second novel might be the most awaited book of 2017. It took her twenty years to write it after her debut success “The God of Small Things” and the yardstick has been set very high for the successor. Admittedly, I struggled with the novel which is mainly caused by the plot’s structure. The story is only in party narrated in a chronological way, other sections are meandering and at times the different characters and setting were not always easy to link with each other for me. Second, the novel is highly political and if you are not familiar with India’s recent history and political struggles, a lot might be lost for you as a reader of this novel (at least I assume so).

Nevertheless, there were also a lot of aspects that I really liked. Arundhati Roy definitely is a master of words. In subtle ways she finds possibilities of expressing what happens and thus adding second or even third meanings. When Anjum has set up her small guest house in the graveyard, she is regularly inspected by municipal officers who are not “man enough” to chase her away. Considering Anjum’s situation as hermaphrodite, this is quite interesting to observe. Then her permanent resident who calls himself “Saddam Hussein”, another outcast who chose this name in admiration for the former leader’s courage in the face of death. Or when Tilo ponders about some men killed in a car accident and their fate and whom this actually concerns since they would have died anyway and wonders about “how to unknow certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know” (pos. 3095). Summarising the stat’s situation in political upeheal best are the following two quotes:

“There were rumours and couterrumours. There were rumours that might have been true, and truths that ought to have been just rumours”. (pos. 3681) and “Life went on. Death went on. The war went on.” (pos. 3835)

How can one survive in this situation, especially as an outcast? You have to fight for yourself and accordingly, it is the two women who become strong and leaders – quite a surprise in the country’s strict caste system.

The insight in how India’s society works is for me the most remarkable aspect of the novel. Not considering it as a whole, there are many stories within the novel which give you an understanding of the country’s culture and are thought-provoking.