[ARC Review] A Distant Heart – By Sonali Dev

A Distant Heart by Sonali Dev Rating: 

Synopsis2 Born to her parents in Mumbai as a result of prayer, pilgrimage, and every fertility treatment known to modern medicine, Kimaya is the first of her mother’s babies to survive after seven miscarriages. Needless to say, her parents treat her like the miracle she is, and short of putting her in a bubble they protect her from anything outside their mansion at the top of Pali Hill in Mumbai overlooking the ocean. But she develops a rare form or aplastic anemia at the age of ten that severely compromises her immune system and requires her to be isolated in a Laminar airflow room.

Trapped in her ivory tower with nothing more than the Arabian Sea churning outside her window for company, she befriends the boy who shows up to wash her windows when he makes the math homework that befuddles her magically easy to understand with his brilliant mind.

Rahul Savant was thirteen when his father died in his arms after taking a bullet for Kimi’s politician father. Rahul was left to take care of two younger siblings and his mother. He accepts Kimi’s father’s mentorship on the condition that he works off the charity by being a servant in his home. As he struggles to take care of his family in his poverty-ridden, crime-ridden neighborhood he loses his beloved younger sister to illness and learns that blocking out his emotions is the only way to survive loss. He believes staying detached is staying strong and it’s the only way he can be focused enough to keep his loved ones safe. But his friendship with Kimi is something he can restrict to the few hours he spends with her across the plastic curtain of her isolation room.

As the years go by Rahul and Kimi develop a unique and deep friendship. He becomes her eyes to the outside world and she becomes his refuge in a cruel world. With Kimi’s encouragement, Rahul makes his way into the extremely selective Indian Civil Services Police Cadre. When Kimi is given a new lease on life via a life-saving procedure, she and Rahul must navigate their undeniable attraction, their lost friendship, complicated family dynamics, and a web of lies that cut too close to home to learn the real meaning of courage, loss and love.

My reviewI hate it when books with an Indian backdrop promise an “authentic Indian rep” and it ends up being a bad imitation of cheesy bollywood song-and-dance romance.

But I loved A Distant Heart for being so unabashedly Bollywoodsy in terms of setting up the world of its two main characters.

Rich Girl meets Poor Boy – CHECK
Poor Boy follows his father’s footsteps by joining the city police force – CHECK
Rich Girl’s father is a politician – CHECK
The infamous Mumbai mafia are the menacing villians in the story – CHECK
The Poor Boy is the sole bread-winner of his family who live in the Mumbai chawls – CHECK

and so on.

Yet, what makes this book rise above the cliches and the simple two-line plot are the two main characters. When Rahul stays away from Kimi, you understand. You understand Kimi’s stubbornness. Her sporadic desperation to cling onto Rahul not because she started considering him as her lover, but because he was just about the only friend she could make during her forced exile from the outside world. And if you know something about how the classic Indian stories have characters reacting to and believing in luck and superstition, you sort of get where Rahul is coming from too.

I quite liked some of the secondary characters too, especially Kimi’s parents. If there is a spin-off to this book that is a love story of Kimi’s parents (who are former bollywood stars), I would definitely read it.

The book has some really good quotable passages, my favorite ones being about making peace with circumstances and losing control of circumstances and your body when you have an illness. If there is something that could have been better, it is probably some of the dialogues. It felt clunky at times.. and well.. read too much like.. quotes? I mean, there were times it didn’t feel casual or authentic in a way you would expect people to actually converse. I also would have liked if the author had gone the whole hog with the mystery plot (instead of making it really predictable)

This plot is something that was introduced in the previous book. But, there is enough background information given, so the book worked perfectly fine as a standalone for me (since I havent read the previous book). However, I feel that I would have related to a couple of characters more if I had read the previous book (when they were first introduced)

I would recommend this book for its bittersweet romance lilting in from the mansions and chawls dotting the Mumbai landscape. Do check it out when it hits the stores this December!

(I was lucky to get an ARC of this book from Shenwei@readingasiam/wordpress. Thank you!)

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The House that Spoke – by Zuni Chopra

The House that Spoke Rating:

Synopsis2Fourteen-year-old Zoon Razdan is witty, intelligent and deeply perceptive. She also has a deep connection with magic. She was born into it.

The house that she lives in is fantastical—life thrums through its wooden walls—and she can talk to everything in it, from the armchair and the fireplace to the books, pipes and portraits!

But Zoon doesn’t know that her beloved house once contained a terrible force of darkness that was accidentally let out by one of its previous owners. And when the darkness returns, more powerful and malevolent than ever, it is up to her to take her rightful place as the Guardian of the house and subsequently, Kashmir.

My reviewIn her debut novel, the author, Zuni Chopra, doesn’t just make a house speak, she makes the Kashmir valley sing with ferocity – of yearning for its glorious past and longing for a present that stills its beauty as an untarnished snapshot. The prose in this book is absolutely gorgeous. The author infuses magic and personality into everything around Zoon, be it the house she has grown up in (which, quite literally, holds magic) or the valley that makes up her entire world. So whether it is a fireplace being possessive about his fresh stock of logs, or a wise-sounding armchair maintaining order among bickering bookshelves, you just buy into her imagination of the house and what it stands for.

I loved the fact that the author didn’t write this book from any political standpoint. She also steers clear of demonizing any country, religion or military institution. The book is deeply allegorical, and through the idea of Zoon being a “Guardian” of her house, the author explores what it means to call a geographical area your home, and to what extent is it your duty to guard it. The “villain” of this story is basically the manifestation of all things vile and sinister plaguing the valley, and I loved how the book conveys the idea of securing your home, purging or keeping “evil” at bay, before expanding the same to your town or city.

This was magical realism at its whimsical best, the kind where even “non-magical” mundane moments are elevated to something else. There is humor in everyday observations; my favorite was probably the one where walking across a floor of people in sleeping bags was likened to navigating through fat bed bugs. The only criticism I can make is this – there were times when I felt the writing was too wordy. It got better as the book progressed but I did struggle with the initial chapters – especially with too many sentences like this:

“Instantly, every man on the doorstep felt suffused with a cosy, quiet calm – not a heated, eerie sort of silence, but the calm that wafts like pure cotton around one’s healing heart”

There are a few passages that are set in 16th/18th century to give some context about the history of the house and its magical origins. However, such parts are kept to a minimal in the book, thereby avoiding info-dump and slowing down the present-day plot. Moreover, the theme of this book is such that it doesn’t really need a fleshed out background to convey ideas effectively. However, I did feel that we didn’t get to know Zoon’s mom as much as we should have. I wasn’t sure about how much she was privy to regarding the house’s history. I didn’t connect to her and to her and Zoon’s relationship as much as I should have through most of the book. The last few pages did make up a bit for it though..

In contrast, Zoon’s grandma had a much more compelling presence and relevance to the story, and with Zoon’s new-found friend Altaf, and some neighboring families completing the secondary cast of characters, there are enough human stories to keep us invested in their lives.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough; especially since this is a recently released book with not much buzz in the blogging community… Do check it out, it is a precious little gem of a novel!

 

A House for Happy Mothers – By Amulya Malladi

A House for Happy MothersRating:

Buy Links:

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Synopsis2A stunning new novel—full of wit and warmth—from the bestselling author of The Mango Season.

In trendy Silicon Valley, Priya has everything she needs—a loving husband, a career, and a home—but the one thing she wants most is the child she’s unable to have. In a Southern Indian village, Asha doesn’t have much—raising two children in a tiny hut, she and her husband can barely keep a tin roof over their heads—but she wants a better education for her gifted son. Pressured by her family, Asha reluctantly checks into the Happy Mothers House: a baby farm where she can rent her only asset—her womb—to a childless couple overseas. To the dismay of friends and family, Priya places her faith in a woman she’s never met to make her dreams of motherhood come true.

Together, the two women discover the best and the worst that India’s rising surrogacy industry has to offer, bridging continents and cultures to bring a new life into the world—and renewed hope to each other.

My review (contains some spoilers)

Told in alternating POVs, this story lets you into two starkly different lives of the women – Priya and Asha. Spanning nine months, we see their ups and downs, their moral dilemma and them assuaging their own guilt.

Following years of miscarriages and failed IVF treatments, Priya opts for surrogacy. After a lot of research and a trip to India with her husband Madhu, she finds a good, affordable clinic and a surrogate – Asha.  Priya then returns to the US and spends the next many months waiting, worrying, sending care packages to Asha and gifts for her and her entire family. During this time, we also see more of her life with her husband, their social circle and also Priya’s niggling doubts of whether she will be able to land a good job if she does take a break from her career. Since Priya has been brought up and raised in the US, all her reactions during her India trips – such as the traffic and beggars is understandable. It is something that I have seen and read too many times; so I almost expected it. But where I couldn’t understand Priya is that though she mentions a couple of times that she has always wanted to find her “roots” and so she was happy that by marrying an Indian, she is somewhere closer to discovering herself; she doesn’t seem to be too fond of anything “Indian” – I mean, she can’t stand her husband’s Indian friends, has pretty condescending thoughts towards their wives, doesn’t watch any Indian movies (well, okay she doesn’t watch Bollywood, and Bollywood is not equal to all Indian movies, but it is just something I inferred not just because of this but also some other things in the book), learnt to cook Indian food by going to Indian cooking classes only after feeling that slight twinge of jealousy on seeing her husband relish the kind of food his mom makes on their Indian trips. I just felt she was too judgmental and snarky and well, it didn’t help that some of the Indian characters she was acquainted with felt like exaggerations of “behaviors” that is already associated with Indians. Take, for example – “Indians don’t respect personal space”. How is this proved in the book?  Well, in the dinner party at Madhu’s friends’ place, one of the wives casually mentions the surrogacy (which Madhu had shared only with her husband who is his best friend) in front of everyone; thereby outing their secret (because they didn’t want to really let everyone know yet) and also providing everyone the opportunity to join in the conversation. Everyone start asking Priya and Madhu for more details and one of them even cracks a funny (not!) joke about it. Honestly, I cringed.

But, what about the other Indian characters? I felt Priya saw every Indian stay-at-home wife as someone dumb and just happy to live off her husband’s money. Heck, she even described one of the wives as “dim”. Umm.. why? We don’t get any reason. So, I am assuming it is because she doesn’t work. She continues to leap into judgments about all the stay-at-home Indian wives she knew throughout the book. Both in US and India.  Funnily enough, Priya’s condescension doesn’t extend to her non-Indian friends.

Okay, I will stop with ranting about it and proceed with the rest of my review. I really liked Priya and Madhu as a couple. We just got the right amount of romance, history and glimpse into the daily couple-y things they do. Priya and Madhu have been together for quite a few years and so it is just nice to read the “routine” they have fallen into after years of living together – all the small habits and things you do every day. The way they deal with the whole surrogacy process is also interesting. Priya is just very vocal about everything she feels, all the stress and anticipation as she calls Asha as frequently as possible, to talk to her, and keep asking about the well-being of the mother and the unborn child. Madhu just internalizes everything and asks Priya to back off or calm down sometimes.

While there is a lot about Priya’s side of the story that I thought was sketched well, I personally felt Asha’s was better. She is sort of manipulated into becoming a surrogate as her sister-in-law had done it once. She is never fully convinced about it, and finds it unnatural but seeing how her brother-in-law managed to buy a new flat with the money they received, she agrees to do it too. Not for a flat, but to pay for son’s admission to a better school – one that is equipped to hone his exceptional intelligence. As the weeks go by, she slowly sees the Happy Mothers House for what it is – just a shady business. We also meet other surrogates in the house, and as Asha spends time talking to the others, she gets more apprehensive as time passes by, wondering whether she will find the strength to give up the baby. She wonders whether the scales are truly balanced – Just how much money can really be a worthy price for a womb? She also slowly realizes that the amount she is going to get is nowhere near what is required to pay for her son’s entire education and is terrified that she might have to go through this again after a few years. Gosh, I felt so bad for her when I saw how hard it is for her to even voice out any opinion to her husband regarding financial decisions. She has been raised in a small village where patriarchy rules and where women don’t really have the final say in such decisions. She has also grown up seeing men shout at and beat their wives. So she idolizes her husband Pratap who is “unlike” the other men she has grown up seeing because hey, Pratap is gentle with words, doesn’t beat her and spends time with the kids after work. Considering where she has come from and the life she has seen around her, she considers herself lucky to be married to him. He works outside, and she cooks at home and takes care of the kids, and earns a bit by sewing whenever possible. It was upsetting to her Pratap feeling entitled about the money and entertaining the plans of a flat even though Asha is against it. He brings up the topic more than once. The story resolves in a way that they might have money for the flat without compromising on their son’s studies, but honestly neither Pratap nor his brother inspire much confidence when it comes to sensing their wives’ apprehensions and respecting their wishes. I was left with the queasy feeling that Asha will end up being a surrogate again after a few years.

Coming to the overall storyline, it was nothing murky or complicated. But, I just felt like the author toyed with a couple of ideas to make a “shady surrogacy scam” storyline but didn’t really expand on it much. And I think that was okay as it was easy to understand what the author implied anyways. But I felt a couple of other scenes that were unnecessary and could have easily been edited out. For example, there were two dinner parties, and I felt one was completely unnecessary and didn’t add anything new. I also have a feeling there were some other ideas, like confrontation scenes between two families which never made it to the book. So yea, some awkward editing.

While we are on the subject of editing, I wish the last paragraph of the book was completely edited out. It tried to summarize everything as some sort of HEA for both the ladies and that despite their differences, they were “equal”. Uh, no.  Priya’s challenge will be “How to raise a baby while balancing a six-figure paying job”. Asha’s challenge is going to be “How to send my kids to a city school for the next fifteen years without becoming a surrogate again”.

Your Dreams Are Mine Now – By Ravinder Singh

  Rating:

First, a li’l bit of background: Over the past decade, there has been a surge of debutant Indian authors whose books have made the bestseller list and landed them lucrative book deals. Some of them come from engineering or management backgrounds; some have left their cushy 9 to 5 jobs to pursue writing full-time. What they lack in highbrow literary skills, they make it up by writing stories in simplistic prose and set in backgrounds very relatable to the middle class Indian youth – about colleges, jobs, money crunches and first love. It has clicked with the crowds in a big way despite critics dismissing the books, and people who have stayed away from fiction because the likes of Jeffrey Archer intimidated them, picked up Chetan Bhagat paperbacks from bookstores. Unfortunately Bhagat’s later books turned out increasingly trite and aimed at landing contracts for movie adaptations. Thankfully, Ravinder Singh’s storytelling still has that inherent honesty which I remember from reading his first book I too had a love story. His debut novel was based on his real life and though I didn’t know at the time of reading it, I wasn’t too surprised when I learnt of it later. Was that a “good” book? Not really. But there was something charming and personal about the love story.

Your Dreams Are Mine Now follows an eventful year in the lives of Rupali and Arjun as they meet and fall in love. Born and raised in Bihar, Rupali’s dream comes true when she gets admission into the Delhi University. She has simple goals: to study well, get a good job, provide for her family and take them on a Euro trip. With a vibrant university campus, friendly roommate and a music club taking in new vocalists, she is looking forward to sing along the next few years in college. However, things don’t go as planned, when she is witness to aggressive youth politics and student union vandalism. It is in these circumstances that she meets Arjun, a second-year student who is heavily involved in the student union and election campaigns. Her unflattering opinion of him changes when he helps her out in a sticky situation involving a corrupt professor and what follows is a budding romance. Long bike rides, phone calls, messages, sharing their dreams for the future and their first kiss. And mutual respect for each other’s work. She helps out in his party’s campaign and he smoothens out his party’s frayed equation with the music club. It seemed like nothing could go wrong… until it did.. when what brought them together in the past turns their present into a nightmare.

The book’s prologue hints at a horrifying real-life incident that took place in the country’s capital and as I read the rest of the book, I almost didn’t mind the comforting stereotypes: rich ‘n generous roommate, affable n’ plump Punjabi bestie, studious and righteous heroine, rugged and “I don’t believe in God” hero. But some other things feel so convenient and unreal too .. especially regarding the youth politics of Delhi.. I mean, the scope and breadth of the problem the author is trying to convey seems huge (reservations, caste politics, quotas..) , and Arjun’s party is shown to be failing because the opposition has influential higher support. But once Rupali enters the party narrative and starts offering ideas, the party’s fortunes change.. It made the party of the “pre-Rupali era” look tactless and stupid. The book is short and maybe the author didn’t want to complicate things and take the focus off the love story… but it does come across as a gaping deficiency because though it is used mostly as a platform for the love story, politics DOES take up a lot of space in the book.

So why am I not being harsher on the book? I don’t know.. maybe it is because I anticipated the ending throughout the time I was reading book which made the experience of reading everything so bittersweet, maybe it is because I read all their moments together knowing how precious it was.. and how it is just so unfair… and maybe because it was partly derived from real life, though it is something that can happen with anyone . And that is so scary to think about…

You can buy the paperback at: Your Dreams are Mine Now by Ravinder Singh (1-Nov-2014) Paperback

Buy the kindle edition at: Your Dreams Are Mine Now – Kindle

 

The Dowry Bride

Rating:

The Dowry Bride, Shobhan Bantwal’s debut novel, throws light on the tradition of the dowry, an age-old custom that is still prevalent in India, in spite of being outlawed decades ago.  Megha, the eponymous protagonist, is married off to Suresh Ramnath immediately after completing her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. Unhappy with her father’s decision and choice of groom, she tries her best to convince him about letting her pursue her education further….. and fails. She quickly accepts her marriage as fate, stops dreaming about a career in journalism, and settles into the routine of domesticity. But it turns out to be harder than she bargained for – long hours of cooking, cleaning, washing and other chores, a mother-in-law determined to make her life miserable, and a cold and insensitive husband. Her father-in-law is the only person in the Ramnath family who is kind and respectful towards her, but too weak-willed to stand up to his wife, Chandramma.

More than a year passes by, and to her rude shock and horror, she overhears her mother-in-law and husband planning to kill because her father is unable to pay the dowry instalments. With no one else to reach out for help, she seeks refuge at her husband’s cousin, Kiran’s apartment. Kiran, who has nursed a crush since the first time he met her, protects and takes care of her. Touched by his affection, Megha reciprocates his love , thereby convoluting an already messed up situation.

I tried really hard to like this book, but this book reads so much like a desi soap opera from the previous decade that I found the similarities unintentionally amusing – A newly-wed bride.  A mother-in-law from hell.  A father-in-law without a voice in the house. A husband tied to his mother’s apron strings. And a knight-in-shining-armor brother-in-law.

We are repeatedly told that Megha is fair and beautiful, the Ramnaths are dark and plain. Kiran is tall and well-built. Suresh is short and puny. Chandramma is evil and ugly.. very ugly. And we are reminded of that very frequently. Hence, everyone is reduced to caricatures, both in terms of physicality and personalities. The writing is too wordy and descriptive, even when not required. It honestly felt like an overkill at times.. and a bit silly:

Sample this :

Taking a deep breath, Megha braced herself to run for it. Her only hope for escape would be to dart quickly past the unsuspecting stranger, fly down the stairs at lightning speed and disappear into the night before he knew what hit him. She’d have to count on the element of surprise to help her along. With any luck the person would be too stunned to react instantly. Clenching her fists, she readied herself for escape.

Or this:

Her large, dark eyes opened wide with alarm. She was going to be killed! Realization struck her like a punch in the stomach. Terror replaced numbing shock, sending her heartbeat soaring.

I found the turn that the story took and its conclusion quite unsatisfying. The author spent most of the pages in establishing Megha and Kiran’s love story. Occasionally, we see Megha fuming about the injustices heaped on her and swearing revenge on the mother-son Ramnath duo. But she doesn’t actively make any decisions and go beyond just words. Her reliance on Kiran for everything got a bit cumbersome to read.  I wish we got to see more of her personal growth, career aspirations and new-found independence. But all we get is a hint of everything wrapped up in a rush in the last few pages; almost as a footnote.  I loved the title and cover of the book, but sadly the rest of the pages just didn’t live upto the expectations I had. A book addressing the issue of dowry system deserved better storytelling.