Books I liked in 2014

Just like last year, 2014 too was an atrocious year in books for me. Some of the blame for this sad state of affairs rests with the long-form articles that I regularly read on Pocket. In the future, I am thinking of sharing the best of those on a monthly or yearly basis. But mostly, the blame lies with my laziness. I had set a ridiculously low target of 12 books on GoodReads this year and barely managed to reach that. Most of the reading happened in the latter half of the year, when I restarted visiting libraries and reading regularly at bedtime.

I think 24 books per year, at 2 books a month, is a far more realistic and healthy goal that I should aspire to. I will try to do that in 2015. Thanks to a erudite circle of friends (especially the doctor) and websites like GoodReads, I am discovering more quality books and finding the motivation to finish them. The low number of books that turned out to be duds this year was due to this process.

Here are the few books I liked in 2014, linked to my reviews of them:

English, August: An Indian Story

The first time I heard about English, August was a trailer for its movie adaptation (starring Rahul Bose) on some TV channel, like a decade ago. I could not catch the movie, but I loved the few fragments of utter bizarreness that I witnessed. In the years since then, I had kept reminding myself to get hold of this 1988 book by Upamanyu Chatterjee and this year I finally did.

This is a novel about an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) trainee on his one year training stint in a small town trying to find himself while understanding the people and world around him. The protagonist Agasthya (nicknamed August) is posted to Madna, a fictional town set in the hinterlands of Madhya Pradesh or Orissa (my guess). Having studied in elite schools in India and a prestigious UK university, it is not clear why he had to take the IAS route. He is a thinker, lies like there is no tomorrow to see how it affects his supplicants and his superiors, but he is not sure what he must do in life. Life in Delhi or Calcutta is too set for his taste and as he lives through his days in Madna, he does not find the government service appealing either. Through his eyes the reader sees the world of small town India, the ridiculous (yet strangely functioning) government machinery and their officials, minions and families.

Having spent many summers in the 80s and 90s (before cable and internet) with a government official parent posted in towns who no one has heard of, I loved this novel and the rich, detailed picture it offers of its world. Through the eyes of August, we see how much of this India is totally bonkers and yet it strangely plods on, like it has for centuries. The characters, sights, smells, texture, places and people of Madna rival that of RK Narayan’s Malgudi and will be sure to stay with the reader for life. From first hand experience, I can say that Chatterjee’s depiction of the entire government-police-politician hierarchy (from Collector down to the peons) is 100% accurate and so are all the nonsensical settings and characters. Yes, the badly made Gandhi statues, the cows that flick dung at you with their tail, the Rest House cook who cooks like shit, the glassy eyed people sitting on haunches outside government offices for some justice and all the thousands more of these in the novel are all real. To someone who has lived only in Indian cities or an outsider, the world of this novel might seem totally absurd, but believe me this is how it is (or maybe was) in small town India. The writing is brilliant and through August’s OxBridge view of Madna the novel generates enormous satire. English, August is a superbly entertaining view of the comical existence of India and it is a story that can only be Indian. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9781590171790

Excerpts:

Gandhi Hall stood beside the city police station, a three-storeyed building. For a moment he thought that it had been bombed, something out of a TV news clip on Beirut, broken window panes, old walls, an uncertain air, a kind of wonder at not having collapsed yet. A red banner over the door, and outside, a statue of a short fat bespectacled man with a rod coming out of his arse. He asked in wonder, ‘Is that a statue of Gandhi?’
Srivastav laughed shrilly. ‘Yes. Who did you think?’
‘Phew. What’s the rod, sir?’
Srivastav laughed even more. ‘That’s to prop up the statue. It fell off a few weeks after it was installed. Madna will have many more surprises, Sen.’

ooo

In his essay Agastya had said that his real ambition was to be a domesticated male stray dog because they lived the best life. They were assured of food, and because they were stray they didn’t have to guard a house or beg or shake paws or fetch trifles or be clean or anything similarly meaningless to earn their food. They were servile and sycophantic when hungry; once fed, and before sleep, they wagged their tails perfunctorily whenever their hosts passed, as an investment for future meals. A stray dog was free; he slept a lot, barked unexpectedly and only when he wanted to, and got a lot of sex.

ooo

The contract was implicit but clear. The Collectors and their wives believed vehemently in the indignity of labour (so did most of Madna believe that one’s social standing was in inverse proportion to the amount of one’s own work that one did oneself), and it is easier to believe these things when one’s domestic servants are being paid by the Government. The other party to the contract, the peons, believed in the indignity of labour too, it is part of the Indian story. But they also knew that the goodwill and help of superiors are much more important than beliefs.

ooo

Bhatia picked up the book like an illiterate, or like a pragmatic government servant who disliked any printed word that did not further his career in any form; just because his hands were fidgety and the book was close by. The book could just as well have been a cricket ball, or Rubik’s Cube.

ooo

The lights had dimmed, and the first song had begun, a Hindi film disco song. The crooner seemed lost in his gyrations and leers, but sang well. Agastya noticed then that the men and women were sitting separately, separated by a central aisle and a few vacant chairs. Later Sathe tried to explain, ‘That’s been the tradition in Madna. In other small towns too. The men sit apart from the women and children. I really don’t know why. Maybe because no one wants to see a man and a woman enjoying anything together.’
‘But why?’ Agastya said. ‘They aren’t fucking in public. This happens even at movies?’
‘No, not at movies, not anywhere where they have to buy tickets.’

ooo

But something was odd, and he realized in a moment that it was the muteness of the village, there seemed to be no laughter and no conversation. The village did have children, but they were all busy. Women were tying them to ropes and letting them into the well. After a while the ropes were bringing up buckets. He went closer. The buckets were half-full of some thin mud. The only sounds were the echoing clang of the buckets against the walls of the well, and the tired snivelling of a few children on the side. He looked at them. Gashed elbows and knees from the well walls, one child had a wound like a flower on his forehead. The woman who had come to the office was looking at him in a kind of triumph. He looked into the well. He couldn’t see any water, but the children were blurred wraiths forty feet below, scouring the mud of the well floor for water, like sinners serving some mythic punishment.

Movies I enjoyed in 2014

2014 was quite a disappointing year with the movies. I saw about 70 movies this year, about one or two every weekend. Though I avoided the obvious duds, still only a handful turned out to be truly enjoyable. I did not call this a Top or Best list since those add unnecessary connotations to the listed items. Instead, these are the movies that I thoroughly enjoyed and can see myself watching again in the future. The list is way shorter compared to last year, since I felt that a lot of the supposed best of Hollywood/Bollywood were quite average.

Last Train Home (归途列车)

Director Lixin Fan follows one migrant worker family in China over several years during their Chinese New Year vacation. The viewer gets to see firsthand the social pressures, rapidly evolving cultures and changing aspirations of the couple and their growing children. I love the work of Lixin Fan and his earlier Up The Yangtze was one of the best movies I saw in 2012. (See my review of that.)

Mahanagar (মহানগর)

My first Satyajit Ray movie and I am impressed. 50 years after its release, the movie is watchable and its issues are still pertinent. Observe how a family and the personality of its members evolves when the husband loses his job and his wife gets a job to support them. Every aspect is done to perfection.

Only Yesterday (おもひでぽろぽろ)

Another gem from Studio Ghibli. Guaranteed to bring back memories of simpler times, simpler places, childhood innocence and all that we lost in becoming adults.

Gangs of Wasseypur: Part 1

Anurag Kashyap’s cinematic gem set in the badlands of UP and Bihar. The characters, the settings, the swears, the crimes, everything stays with you long after the movie is gone. Part 2 was a bit disappointing though since it rehashed a similar story.

Delhi Belly

Nothing like any Hindi movie I’ve seen before. Ridiculous, brilliant and filled with in-jokes. Hope I get to see more of these from Bollywood.

Queen

Kangana is honest, innocent and terribly funny in this European caper. Several of the songs from this movie are on my playlist.

Goodbye, First Love (Un amour de jeunesse)

The protagonist comes to terms with her first love across many years of her life. Beautifully acted and the French countryside is gorgeous through the seasons. Loved Lola Créton in this.

Bangalore Days

I know it is cheesy and quite obviously I am heavily biased since it is my city. But there is a spark, sensitivity and modernity in Anjali Menon’s work that is sorely missing in similar movies.

Master and Commander

To great joy, I recently discovered that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World one of my favorite movies was based on a series of historical novels by Patrick O’Brian. In these books, the fictional characters Captain Jack Aubrey and physician-naturalist Stephen Maturin are set amid the actual naval battles, natural discoveries and scientific inventions of the early 19th century in Europe. The series came highly recommended and I picked up the first book in the series: Master and Commander.

This book is set in 1800 in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars being waged between England and the French-Spanish alliance. Aubrey has been given command of a Royal Navy sloop named Sophie and he signs up Maturin as the ship’s doctor-surgeon. Aubrey has the unenviable task of bringing together a new crew on his ship, teaching them their roles and forming a cohesive fighting unit. Using the British-controlled Spanish island of Mahon as their supply base, they patrol the shipping routes in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea, protecting British merchant ships and fighting (or capturing) Spanish merchant/military ships. Aubrey has some great tricks under his sleeve using which he initially trumps over many warships, some of which are more powerful than the Sophie. Towards the end, his luck runs out when Sophie faces a formidable set of French frigates near Gibraltar from whom it is unable to escape.

I found Aubrey-Maturin to be a great set of characters and it is a delight to witness their philosophical arguments and friendship develop along the book. The era of ships that were powered by the wind was centuries before my time. The book goes into intricate detail about the various masts, sails and parts of such a ship, the crew and their daily roles aboard such a ship. All of this is seamlessly integrated in an intriguing manner into the plot. Every page creaks with the weight of sailing-ship nautical terms that are used. I highly advise keeping this wiki page open on your smartphone. This is not a downer because it is such intricate details in a book that make it worthwhile to read.

Except for the folks aboard Sophie, every ship they encounter and the world they inhabit is supposedly historically accurate. Though published in 1970, O’Brian uses the language, narration and dictionary that would’ve been employed had this been written in 1800. It genuinely feels like an unabridged Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. This means that it took me about 50 pages before I started to get comfortable. Also, I had to use the dictionary and Google Image Search on almost every page, since most words and objects that appear are from that time period. There is a ton of humour and puns hidden in the text which I started to discover only after I got used to the Dickens’ English.

Aubrey undertakes many journeys along the Spanish coastline, visiting various ports along the way for war and restocking. These journeys and places are so interesting that I found it useful to track them using Google Maps on my phone. Only later I discovered that Aubrey-Maturin fans have a website where you can check out these routes and places on Google Maps as you read the books! This is a great resource that makes the reading all the more interesting.

Master and Commander was a fantastic read! When a fictional thread is enmeshed in terribly interesting historical periods by a great author, the books are a double-whammy: un-put-downable and enriching at the same time. (Another example of this is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, set in the middle of WWII.) I now look forward to many more dreamy days chomping down on this series.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0006499155

Excerpt:

Maturin is musing about Aubrey, himself and friend Dillon and how the character of a human develops over time: Is this the cause for James Dillon’s agitated state of mind? Yes, I think so. Some strong pressure is certainly at work. What is more, it appears to me that this is a critical time for him, a lesser climacteric—a time that will settle him in that particular course he will never leave again, but will persevere in for the rest of his life. It has often seemed to me that towards this period (in which we all three lie, more or less) men strike out their permanent characters; or have those characters struck into them. Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working through, and the man is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to this character. James Dillon was a delightful being. Now he is closing in.