The life of a goat

The topmost review for Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi: Or the story of a goat is just one line: “I’ll write the review when I stop crying”. When I picked up ಮಲೆಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ಮದುಮಗಳು I knew I was going to be on it for more than a month. It’s 712 pages long, and I can’t get through more than 20-25 pages per hour. At that rate, I’d be at it for between 5-7 weeks. After close to 2 weeks, I am almost at the 40% mark. Given this, and that the neck might allow some metro reading, I picked up Poonachi’s kindle version to read on the commute. Bad idea.

You don’t notice it, but you feel the emotions when reading, and they show on your face. At times you glow, at times you well up. There is that beauty in it. In the simpleness of it. The name itself is odd. Poonachi is what you’d call a cat, not a goat. But the old woman sees the tiny goat kid which looks like a kitten and is reminded of her cat that passed away some time back. There seemingly is nothing here: A goat that lands up with an old couple and grows up with them. The goat’s story is part of the world where she grows up, where the rains are failing every year, where no vehicles seem to exist – the Govt officer comes riding a horse, a rich man owns a bullock cart. But there are terrorists, there are procedures and there are number tags for livestock. It’s an interesting world where when they have to travel to their daughter’s village they have to walk through the countryside dragging their goats along. At many points it reminds you of Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. There’s so much looking into the past. But that’s when you see it from the old couple’s perspective. But the story isn’t that.

There is so much of “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. I wonder if the story will lend itself to an artistic interpretation a la Kaguya. But we don’t have much of an artistic film industry that can think beyond songs and dances. I digress.

A buck goes into heat, goes around sniffing the tails of the does. The herds watch, amused. They untie him the next day. He has his day of fun. At the end of the day he goes home with the doe to her herd’s pen. The next day a man, a boatman, turns up, carrying his tool. He castrates the bucks while they have no idea what’s happening, cries about the sin he’s committing, taking liquor as payment to drown his guilt in. The bucks go through their short lives wondering what happened that day, having their spirits completely broken. Later, in their daughter’s village, Poonachi meets Poovan, a billy goat and falls in love with him, only to be dragged back home by the laughing humans.

The book is very allegorical, and always the best allegories are those that can stand on their own if you forget that characters and situations are stand-ins for something else. And this is where Poonachi works. You feel for the goat, you understand her life, you get the idea of lack of agency, you get the idea of hierarchical authority, that the life of the goat reflects that of women at so many levels. This is also Perumal Murugan’s protest and survival story against the current environment where everything you say or write is fodder for an outrage industry. And still, you can’t help crying for the goat, laughing with it as it grows up and finds love first with the old woman, and then with Poovan, the billy. And this is what eventually makes you love the book.

As the translator says in the end, this is an animal story for adults, something that is rare and has books like Animal Farm as the shibboleth.  The translation is spot on, and this should be the standard for how translations should work. It isn’t that the language is kept simple, it’s that you can feel the Tamizh in the translation, in the adas, the ayahs, the Mesagarans and the general flow of conversations. Kudos to N Kalyan Raman for that. I wish I could read Murugan in Tamizh, but apart from the speed issues I have with the script, having no formal schooling in the language I expect I would struggle with the meaning of words. But this is something I want to try once. It should be far easier reading a 150 page novella set in current times than a 1000-page பொன்னியின் செல்வன்.

Personally, this reminded me of Em and The Big Hoom and The Shadow Lines in how deeply I felt about the story. There are those books that you love, and then those that you live and feel through. This was easily among the latter, not something you come across too often. Read, laugh, and cry with it. Not for public reading, unless you don’t mind looking silly and misty-eyed in the open.


Neat little cubbyholes for your realities

I approached Nandini Sundar’s “The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar” with a fair degree of triumphalism. Here I was, in the comforts of my home in Bangalore willing to read about and, eventually, hold an opinion on a conflict in far away Chhattisgarh.

For most of the duration the conflict raged there, through the latter part of the noughties, I was living in the US and any reports came in through the media. There were the pro-Naxalites, in the form of Gauri Lankesh (when Naxalism was trying to rear its head in Karnataka), and Arundathi Roy, who people were convinced was loose a few screws. Having read her “God of small things” I held that she probably knew what she was talking about. My opinion was along what Sundar describes as the standard urbanite view of sympathising with the Maoists’ cause but not agreeing with their violence. Which is kind of a standard stand to take with most rebel causes. “What do you think of the LTTE?” “Well, they exist because of what the Sinhalese did, but I don’t agree with the violence they are wreaking”. Fair enough.img_4380 Continue reading “Neat little cubbyholes for your realities”

Books list from 2017

I was about to search for Books list from 2017 to put up the list for 2018. Thankful that there’s one more year for that! As mentioned in an earlier post, I was looking at finishing 34 for the year. And 34 is where I ended up.

I hope to do more this year. But then I also hope to do a lot of other things this year. Not sure how I can stack everything up together. Compared to 2016, I loved a lot of the books I read this year, so in a way it was a better year for reading than 2016 I guess. There were no books that I struggled to finish. Yes, maybe some that I wished I had chucked aside earlier, but finishing wasn’t an issue.

A chronological order makes no sense, except making it a lot easier for me to jot them down. I guess a better approach is to split them up as Fiction/Non-Fiction/Language and then order them alphabetically. So here goes. Continue reading “Books list from 2017”

Of books and reading in 2017

Is it too early to call it a year? There are more than 3 weeks still to go, over 5% of the year still left. But how much do I expect to achieve in that period that I haven’t in the preceding 94%?

Compared to previous years where I was logging books in the mid 40s at least, this year has been underwhelming. Am staring at 31 at the moment. I expect to take it to 33 or 34. Not entirely unexpected as before the year started, I set myself a target of 30 books for the year.

I knew I was going into the year with a fair degree of book fatigue. And it showed in more ways than just the number of books. It hasn’t just been the time that has been available to read, but also the speed at which am reading, and the amount of time am able to spend on a book in one sitting. I have been easier to distract, been finding other things to do than read. The commute has also been not too friendly on reading. Compared to more than an hour of reading or audio books, the metro offers around 30 minutes of reading per day. But that does not explain it completely. I took the metro for more than half of last year and managed 20+ books during that time.

Continue reading “Of books and reading in 2017”

Speaking of books

As always, waiting for Anush to put up his list before I work through mine. But like last year, some cud chewing on the books I read.

I managed 45 last year. As against 47 in 2015. In terms of number of pages read, I was some 2000 pages short of 2015. That’s almost 6 decent length books short! How did that happen? I can only point fingers at the months of June and July. It was a pretty torrid time at home, and reading wasn’t on top of my list those months. It is a considerable achievement that I actually managed 45 when I look back.

And I also felt a lot more friction from some books. I went into Philip Ball’s Life’s Matrix: A biography of water, expecting a typical well-written non-fiction book. It was only non-fiction with a lot of chemistry thrown in. I worked my way through it for the most part. James Gleick’s “Chaos: Making a New Science” was somewhat similar, but he somehow salvages it. I just could not get in too deep into it.

But in terms of Non-Fiction, the number kept increasing and I managed a decent 15 of them, exactly a third of all the books read! Of course, they weren’t all “science”, but included a biography, memoirs, people’s real life stories about mental health issues, and some travel writing too. But still, it wasn’t someone weaving stories.

I really wish I had discovered more new authors though. It was the same beat as the previous years more or less. I wasn’t too impressed. Yes, I discovered Jorge Borges, but reading him isn’t easy. It takes a hell of a lot of concentration! There were the usuals – Murakami, Barnes, McCall-Smith, and a Terry Pratchett. I read Paul Kalanithi, the book. The tragedy of it being the only one he would ever write.

I missed Kawabata, and did not find any other works of Mishima. But I did discover Anjum Hasan. Sadly, only Cosmopolitans is left and it hasn’t reviewed as well. I finished the trilogies I started in 2014. The Alexander trilogy of Mary Renault, and the Gormenghast trilogy of Mervyn Peake were done and dusted.

When I look back, it wasn’t as great a year for reading, as 2015 was. I loved 2015 in terms of the books I read. So many of them have stayed with me – Kawabata, Ondaatje, Gordimer, Dalrymple, Gawande, Mishima, Munro, and oh, Salinger! Each one something to immerse myself in. It was a great year for reading!

I guess am being a bit uncharitable on myself. This was the year I went exploring. Whitaker’s work on psychiatric medicines was very enlightening. Burkeman’s book on “happiness” was extremely timely. Borges was hard work, but necessary. So many other works talk of his works, or refer to that. Siddhartha Mukherjee and Josy Joseph were among the best reads this year. Glad Mukherjee was writing again! Amitav Ghosh’s Derangement was an excellent and necessary take on the biggest crisis we are facing.

Yes, it wasn’t as enjoyable as 2015, but it was a good set nonetheless. Would I be gifting any books from this lot? Not too likely. They aren’t things people would really enjoy.

I do want to find more books that I’ll enjoy and remember. I want something like “H is for Hawk”, like “Em and the big hoom”, like “Levels of the game”, like “The Devourers”. Books that leave you with a tinge of regret, that you’re now done with them, and won’t read them for the first time ever again.

I want that feeling for 2017.

Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe

At the very beginning, in a 3 page preface, KP Poornachandra Tejaswi starts with a methodical takedown of the Navya school of literature. Among the reasons, the main ones are that it has become stale, dominated by academicians and professors with no scope for others to enter, and that it has failed to address the life of the common man living in villages. With that, he starts off marking a separate territory that he calls ‘protest literature’ along the lines of Ram Manohar Lohia.

The ones I’ve read by him tend to be light, even while addressing critical environmental issues. I expected satire, dark humour. There is very little of that.


Abachurina Post Office, the first story, starts off about Bobanna who’s a ‘temporary’ post master for a temporary post office. He doesn’t maintain much discretion with the mail, conducting open sit-togethers to write and read letters for the illiterate. Other posts are put in a kind of bulletin board where anyone can take a look and pass on the message to the intended. Things turn bad when he sneaks off a post card with a nude picture meant for his boss and he just can’t resist doing the wrong thing, read perverted thing, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Things turn really bad when a letter to someone about his daughter makes it to the ‘bulletin board’ and becomes the talk of the town. There’s so much to see here – Bobanna’s desperation, his mother-in-law’s control, the gradual breakdown of his family. This is almost RKN territory, but a lot darker, about how these innocent small town/village guys aren’t that innocent after all. Continue reading “Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe”

A conveyor belt of books

I signed up, yet again, for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The goal is to get to 40 books this year. The goal is set by you, so you can set 100 if you want. 40 is a good number that I set because I know I can get past it. And I’ll also be able to do some decent reading. A 500 pager that takes 3 weeks won’t daunt me as much as if I had set the goal to, say, 60.

As we enter the second half of the year, I noticed that I had gotten to 21, in a canter. I took more than 3 weeks reading ‘The Cunning Man’, working my way back to time reading a book after bouts of illness all across the house. But I buttressed that with smaller books like a short story collection by Kalki and finishing off the last few pages of A.K. Ramanujan’s “Folktalkes from India”. The number is the goal.

I sit down and try to remember what all I read, and it isn’t easy. Books seem to come one after the other, making their marks while being read, but getting finished, and then you move on to the next one. It feels like a conveyor belt. But that is one risk that you do run when you read quite a bit, no? Some will stick longer, some not so much even if you really enjoyed reading them.

Continue reading “A conveyor belt of books”

When Breath Becomes Air


I had been avoiding reviews of this book, as they tend to go all hyperbolic. And it can do bad things to expectations. They probably had already when I picked this up.

Paul Kalanithi was a literature major, he was then a neurosurgeon, and then he contracted lung cancer and died in 2 years and wrote a book in the meanwhile. It felt almost miraculous, all these things coming together. And I use the word miraculous in a crass way. I refused to believe. I still expected a book about the grandioseness of life, meaning, a lot of philosophy, deep insights on mortality. I expected to be swept away by the sheer enlightenment and perspective it would give me. Continue reading “When Breath Becomes Air”

List from 2015

Anush’s list is now out. Have written enough on another post. Am not going to come up with a to-read list at the end this time. Most of the time I fill it up with those waiting to be read without really a plan. And when did I ever look like a guy with a plan?

Without much further ado, here’s the list. As always, linked ones point to my review. Continue reading “List from 2015”

Before the books list

Am still waiting for Anush to put up his list. It’s only tradition. This is mostly some cud chewing on reading and books before the list.

I managed 47 books the last year. A pretty reasonable number. Around the end of November I reached 40 books for the year and blogged about it. Going by past history I had predicted 46. I did one better and ended up with 47. In fact the last one was finished on Dec 31st.

The strange part is the number of pages. 2014 saw me reading 14711, while I finished 2015  with 14700, 11 pages short. Pretty freakish when I realised that. And no, I did not count the number of pages, Goodreads does it for you in the “Stats” link. And yes, pages aren’t an accurate number as the kind of print varies. Neither is time an accurate marker as some books can be run through, while some will just hold you in one place, and make you work your way through. If you have any doubts read Salinger’s “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters & Seymour: An Introduction“. It’s a short book and the second half which is “Seymour: An Introduction” is only 70 pages. Now work your way through it, and you’ll come out feeling like you’ve done 300. And he doesn’t give you paragraphs to rest either. But the point remains, statistics aren’t accurate. I quoted statistics because the numbers seemed interesting, and that’s about all there is to it.

Continue reading “Before the books list”