July’s books

My reading had become extremely sparse after the second lock down started in April. Finally, in July I decided to change things. I set aside every weekend for reading. The first book I finished was an interesting example of what is being called counter-Lovecraft. I can never manage to plod my way through any of Lovecraft’s writings, but this movement produces good things out of that turgid mess of racist text. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle was well-written, quick moving, and worked by itself as a horror story, without missing the more mundane horrors of a racist place. I’m ready for more LaValle.

Kazuo Ishiguro keeps getting better. Some people have compared Klara and the Sun to his earlier book Never Let Me Go. It is comparable in some ways: both are about constructed individuals who are meant to serve people. But this explores more ground in that clean uncluttered way that Ishiguro has. So much goes on under the surface. Ishiguro leaves you clues; you have to begin to read the boxes, to see how stressful certain situations become for Klara. The ending, specially, was beautifully constructed. If I’d skipped ahead I would have missed its emotional content.

The humanitarian cost of the first lockdown was explored by Vinod Kapri in a movie with the same title, 1232 Km: The Long Journey Home. He writes in the preface why the movie left him unsatisfied, and he felt that the story had to be written up. The result is a book unlike anything else that will be written. Very few journalists, perhaps no one else, did what Kapri managed: build trust with a group of migrant labourers who cycled home, and follow them in their journey. This is an unique document about how people do not panic in the face of dire adversity, but just do what they think they need to in order to live. Perhaps in the years to come the memory of the migrants’ return will be erased from mass memory, but a book like this gives one hope that it won’t be completely forgotten.

I chose a much lighter book next. I’d read a couple of short stories written by Marko Kloos, and found them good fun. When I found Hugo winner Jo Walton recommending this series of novels, I decided to pick the first of them. Terms of Enlistment falls in the little niche which calls itself Military-SF, and is not something I usually enjoy. But Walton is right. This builds a recognizable future to the present, one in which things go downhill for most, but others, like Musk and Bezos, fund hugely expensive space programs. I’m not sure I’ll read the rest of this series, but Kloos is an author I’ll take a look at now and then.

Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s early books read like the older generation of Bengali novels which must have influenced her parents. With Whereabouts she reinvents herself by writing in Italian. I don’t read that language, and had to read the translation (from her own book Dove mi trovo). The most fascinating aspect of the novel is the listless movement of a person without connections in a city. It feels more like a movie than a novel: a camera moving around some people, following their lives at a distance. The city is Italian, but nothing seems very Italian about the novel. I could recognize part of this distancing, that of a foreigner who knows they are never going to put down roots, that they will move on. But that’s not who the fictional narrator is. With all that, it is very much a book by Lahiri, and quite in keeping with the views she expresses about otherness in a recent interview.

Short, brilliant, dense with meaning waiting to unfold. Ghachar ghochar was written in Kannada by Vivek Shanbhag. I read the translation by Srinath Perur. It was a completely modern story about India in the twenty first century, but it reminded me of Turgenev’s nineteenth century novel Fathers and Sons, delightfully turned on its head. Every review I read compared it to yet another classic. The book moves easily through the narrator’s family history, ending in the location that it began. I read the six chapters-long book, with its allusions to off-scene violence, in a breathless two hour sitting, and have spent days unpacking it in my head. It is right up there with Ishiguro in my July’s reading list: the same clear prose, a similar disquieting flow in the story, the same density of ideas.

Survivors

Downtown Mumbai is a mess of memories right now. Many of our favourite old restaurants are shut. Some lanes are completely shuttered. Walking aimlessly through them I noticed a restaurant in a lane I seldom pass. It is a survivor. It had created a pleasant space in the middle of a crowded street with a forest of potted plants. They are still green and watered. It had to give up an upper floor, apparently. An empty facade looks out on the street with open shutters on windows which are now a mere windbreak. But below that they still advertise tea and cakes. The Family inspected the menu and said “We have to come here.” She wants to support the businesses which are still open.

Bollywood has barely responded to the ongoing crisis. We streamed the anthology film Unpaused, which is perhaps the only take on the ongoing crisis till now. I liked all five stories in their own ways. None of the stories had any stars, but many fine actors. Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Abhishek Banerjee, and Shardul Bhardwaj are among the newer actors whom I would like to see again. Vishaanu, written by Shubham, was the best of the segments: sensitive, and not a false moment. Avinash Arun Dhaware, known for the series Paatal Lok, directs this segment.

The anthology reminded me of how it is hard to break out of middle class solipsism in this epidemic. Only one of the five stories was about migrant labourers. Looking for books to read, I lingered over The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (I’m afraid I never bothered to read it) but an algorithm directed me to 1232 km, The Long Journey Home by Vinod Kapri, converted from his documentary. That’s what I’m reading now, a book of reportage which follows a group of migrant labourers walking home during the first lockdown.