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.

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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.

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”

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”

Books and choices

After noting the rate at which I was finishing books the past few years, I decided to set myself a challenge on GR. I kept it at a modest 40 for this year. 40 would be easier, and the main idea was not to set a goal that I had to huff and puff to reach in the end – that would mean tilting more towards smaller books to get to the quota. I know, that’s not the actual point of such goal setting, but am kind of wired differently. Targets and schedules are meant to be reached well in advance.

Somewhere around the middle of the year I figured I’d be reaching 44-45 this year, not ending at the whopper 51 as last year. For starters, the cab does not offer the same luxury for reading as BMTC Volvos. I do compensate with Audiobooks, but I manage around 30 pages per day with it. In the equivalent Volvo-time, that would be around 50 pages. And I also end up with a headache at home, so I don’t read much on getting back home either.

Doing 5 audiobooks over 5 months, and the rest of them proper reads, I finished 40 yesterday.(Yay!) Given that there’s only some 40 days left, I think am looking at around 45-46 this year. Which sounds pretty good! Last year at this stage I was at 44, and ended up with 51.

It has been an interesting set of books this year, and I somehow ended up missing out on a lot of old favourites. RKN, McCall-Smith and Pratchett were given a miss. There’s still some time left, and I’ve put them on the unread list (real books sitting on my shelf giving me that look). The McCall-Smith is done, just the RKN and Pratchett to do.

This year there’s been a lot of reading of short stories. Munro, Gordimer, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, KP Tejaswi. They help in a way that you can stretch your reading for a while, doing one story once in a while. But it doesn’t work like that with me. I tried that with Gordimer, stretching the book over 3 months for 31 stories. I finished the last 5 over a few days. The reading was also pretty bursty. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it, and let things go the way they are meant to be.

Either way, it’s a bit of a relief that the ‘challenge’ is done. I can now go about the business of reading as I want to do it.

***

Some people get everything wrong. How can I explain? I mean, there are those who can have everything against them – three strikes, twenty strikes, for that matter – and they turn out fine. Make mistakes early on – dirty their pants in grade two, for instance – and then live out their lives in a town like ours where nothing is forgotten (any town, that is, any town is a place like that) and they manage, they prove themselves hearty and jovial, claiming and meaning that they would not for the world want to live in any place but this.

With other people, it’s different. They don’t move away but you wish they had. For their own sake, you could say. Whatever hole they started digging for themselves when they were young – not by any means as obvious as the dirty pants either – they keep right on at it, digging away, even exaggerating if there is a chance that it might not be noticed.

Things have changed, of course.There are counsellors at the ready. Kindness and understanding. Life is harder for some, we’re told. Not their fault, even if the blows are purely imaginary. Felt just as keenly by the recipient, or the non-recipient, as the case may be.

This was Alice Munro in ‘Pride’. And the rest of the story goes on about two people who go about making bad choices all along. Every time you think “okay dude, take this and run, here’s your ‘happily every after’!” they go the other way. Right till the end.

The other day, on Twitter someone was asking: “If you could go back and do your life differently, would you?”

Now would I? Yes, why not? It’s always tempting to go back and wish for different things, or wish to be face to face with the same choices and wish to choose differently. We all have our paths that were not taken. Those greener pastures that were shunned. If not, it’s just that you’re content, not that you think you’ve chosen correctly all your life.

To wish so, is also not a sense of a deeply unhappy life. We all have our ideas of ideal lifes, and there is always the fantasy that if we’d chosen that path at that time, we’d be there.

The thing I fear most is what if given the same choices again, we realise that we’re still making the same choices as before – in fact, forced to make the same choices. What if we realise that nothing was ever in our hands and we were just playing the hand we were dealt, all along? It’s like Groundhog Day, except that he doesn’t get to choose what to do, and is on an endless repeat of the same day everyday, trying to get out, but not able to find the way out as time is on a relentless march each day.

What if you think you’ve fucked up big time, and just can’t stop fucking it up? And given a choice to go back, realise you still can’t help it. Or what if that’s exactly what you want, what makes you happy, to constantly fuck up your life? It’s a bit like Ka, having to constantly chase happiness, and right when it is at hand, to turn away and run in the opposite direction. Just because you think being Happy is wrong and vulgar.

Rising up inside him was that sensation he had always felt as a child and as a young man at moments of extraordinary happiness: the prospect of future misery and hopelessness. In a panic, he tried to bring this happy moment to a close. This, he hoped, would lessen the impact of the unhappiness he knew would follow. The surest way to calm himself, he thought, would be simply to accept the inevitable: that the love he felt for İpek –the source of his anxiety –would be his undoing; that any intimacy he might enjoy with her would undo him, as salt dissolves ice; that he didn’t deserve this happiness but rather the disgrace and denigration that would result. He braced himself.

-Orhan Pamuk, “Snow”

Oh well, I don’t know where I stand. I don’t know where my forks and turns were, and on facing them again if I’d choose a different path. I do believe that your choices weren’t objective “eeny-meeny-moos” and they were a result of what you were at that time, just as those choices define what you are now. Your choices were as much a product of your past, as your future is a product of your choices. Pretty much, you never really had a choice.

 

For the love of used books

The thing I love most about Blossom’s is the ability to find used books. Usually this is necessary in some cases where the book would have gone out of print for a long while. Sometimes it also helps when the “new” copies are crazy expensive. (Anything above ₹400 falls into that category)

Some of the really good books that I’ve found, which belong to the difficult to find category include:

  1. T. S. Satyan’s ‘Alive and Clicking’.
  2. Kawabata’s ‘Thousand Cranes’ and ‘Snow Country’. His ‘Sound of the mountain’ I picked up in the library.
  3. Julian Barnes’ ‘The history of the world in 10 1/2 chapters’.
  4. Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy. But these days I do find some new ones of the first book, not of the last two.
  5. Mary Renault’s Alexandar Trilogy.

One of the most fascinating things about these books is finding an inscription with a date and place. As a gift for someone or sometimes the first owner just marking the book with a date and his/her own name.

The best is of course finding the author’s words and hand on a book once:

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Continue reading “For the love of used books”