In quiet, measured tones that put a hushed calm over the cacophony that is India, Amit Chaudhuri gifts the reader with a philosophical morning raga that lasts through the day into the peaceful evening. This novel resists irony and verbal gymnastics, rejoicing instead in the virtues of literary storytelling, and in the process making spare, elegant prose seem quite novel.
There is no hot jazz in The Immortals—no smug, omnipotent outlook that condescendingly privileges the writer (and, by extension, his artistic siblings—the painter, the sculptor, and the musician) over common folk. Chaudhuri and his characters suggest, with a mix of sadness and celebration, that we live in an “age of democracy [that has seemingly done] away with the very line that separated artist and ordinary human being.” He has written a lovely argument for the artist’s life without devolving into a didactic criticism of other ways of being in the world.
SHADOW PRINCESS by Indu Sundaresan. Atria Books, A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.: New York. March 2010. $25. 352 pages.
Indu Sundaresan completes her Taj Trilogy with a heavily-researched and expertly-written account of the life of Jahanara, the oldest of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz’s daughters. Spanning 35 years from 1631 to 1666, the novel provides adventure and conspiracy (sibling rivalries, the thirst for power, and the quest for greatness) in highly-enjoyable, absorbing, regal language.
Shadow Princess is a picture of 17th century Hindustan that sparkles with gems, gleams with marble, and tantalizes with the colors of rich fabrics and precious metals. Every character breathes, feels, and moves across the page, capturing the reader’s heart without reservation. This novel and its companions (The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses) are about the strength, cleverness, and determination of women wielding hidden influences in a patriarchal society. Showcasing the Taj Mahal, Shadow Princess is an exhilarating mixture of character and event, emotion and intrigue, extravagance and architecture.
—Jeanne E. Fredriksen
CUTTING FOR STONE by Abraham Verghese. Knopf, 2009. Paperback. 541 pages. $15.95.
From his work with AIDS patients to teaching medical students to be more compassionate, Abraham Verghese has done much in his professional life. He has also found time to write books that are required reading in the curricula of pre-med and medical students; Cutting for Stone is a welcome addition to what is now a physician’s literary triptych.
But even if you are not a doctor or planning a career in the caring profession, as a consumer of medicine you may be intrigued by the following question: what treatment in an emergency is administered by ear? The question was asked by one of Verghese’s eponymous characters (Dr. Thomas Stone) and answered by another Stone (his son). The response—“words of comfort”—echoes the answer to this book reviewer’s question: What does a gentle, empathetic novel such as Cutting for Stone consist of?
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.
CHEF by Jaspreet Singh. Bloomsbury USA. Paperback. 256 pages. $14.00.
Kirpal “Kip” Singh, a former military chef, is summoned to Kashmir to prepare a perfect, politically-correct wedding feast that he hopes will save his life. Having left service there 14 years earlier, Kip now embarks on a return journey filled with the painful baggage of his past and the pressing burden of his newly-diagnosed brain tumor.
As Kip’s slow train ride carries him from Delhi to his destination, he is held captive by the memories of his years in Kashmir: the kitchen and life instruction of his fiery mentor; the failed attempts to lose his virginity; and the intimidating presence of the Siachen Glacier where his father’s body lies frozen. Told primarily in flashback, this mesmerizing coming-of-age retrospect contrasts the harshness of war in a place of beauty with the fragility of life in a world of complex people and ideologies. Chef by Jaspreet Singh is simply told and gracefully illustrates that we are one despite our differences.
—Jeanne E. Fredriksen
CHURCHILL’S SECRET WAR by Madhusree Mukerjee. Basic Books, New York. August, 2010. Hardcover. 368 pages. $28.95
Madhusree Mukerjee presents a side of Winston Churchill that is little known in the West. He was one of the principal architects of the “divide and rule policy” that led to the partition of the Indian sub-continent. He was both an imperialist and a racist. Success in his brilliant war strategy in World War II came at the expense of exploiting India’s natural resources for the war industry. He was responsible, according to Mukerjee, for one of the worst famines in undivided Bengal in 1943 as food supplies were diverted to European theaters of war. Mukerjee’s book is a significant contribution to Indian history, shedding light on Churchill’s crimes against humanity when he forced Indians to participate in World War II while denying them political freedom.
THE PLEASURE SEEKERS by Tishani Doshi. Bloomsbury, 2010. 314 pages. $15.
Babo, heir to his father’s paint factory in Madras, owes his poet’s soul to the one and only night of reckless passion between his parents, months after his mother had sat with vegetables on her lap in hopes of igniting her fertility. So it is no wonder that Babo wants a life that baffles his family—”a life that would be like lightening, striking the surface of water—joyous and ethereal.”
This debut novel, by the young and enormously talented Tishani Doshi, is based on the love story between her romantic Gujarati father and her beautiful Welsh mother, who followed him halfway across the world, learning to tame her individualism, heal from her homesickness, be accepted by her in-laws, and discover both solitude and friendship amidst the incessant bustle of life in a joint Indian family. All for the sake of love.
Doshi writes with the unerring skill of a master storyteller. Her characters inhibit a familiar space that exists within all of us—a primal longing to dream, to love, and to live.
FOLLOWING FISH: TRAVELS AROUND THE INDIAN COAST by Samanth Subramanian. Penguin India. Paperback. 184 pages. $23.
There are good travelogues, and good food memoirs. Then there are those works that combine the author’s love for both food and travel. If crafted well, the food-travel memoir should give the reader both an appetite and an itch to get on a plane and fly somewhere to whet that appetite. In Following Fish, Samanth does both admirably well. Following Fish is Subramanian’s account of his travels and experiences along the Indian coast, from West Bengal to Gujarat, to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, AP, Karnataka, Goa and Mumbai spread over the course of two years. But the account is not just about consuming fish. It is as much a quasi-anthropological account of the changing nature of fishing and sea-faring communities as it is about fish as food. Subramanian’s portrait of a wind-swept village in Tamil Nadu with its white stucco walls and lone church evoked a sense of yearning, nostalgia and a craving for fish podi, whose flavors are almost palpable in his writing: “They were mackerel with character, bursting out of their envelope of spice like strong actors out of a crowded script.”
AS IT WAS WRITTEN by Sujatha Hampton. Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010. 384 pages. $25.99
Sujatha Hampton’s debut novel deals with the stock theme of Indian writers, the generational conflict between the preservation of cultural purity and the iconoclasm of the younger generation. The novel centers around the family of Raman Nair, a member of the model minority, who has realized the Indian version of the American Dream: a good job, a house in upscale Maclean, Virginia, an admiring family, and a dog.
By the end of the novel, life is turned topsy-turvy, and “Indian values” are challenged and flouted by the younger generation. Though this is an old theme, the novel is refreshing in presenting anew equilibrium towards which immigrant cultures should work in American society.
THE IMMORTALS OF MELUHA by Amish Tripathi. India Research Press, 2010. Paperback. 398 pages. $18.
In the fantasy novel Immortals of Meluha, first of the Shiva trilogy set in 1900 BC east of the Indus Valley, Amish Tripathi explores a deep longing to transcend human limitations and attain god consciousness. His protagonist, leader of the rugged and fierce tribe of Gunas from Mount Kailash, is an uncommon man elevated to godhood by those who are desperately in need of a savior.
Tripathi’s Shiva is not the Shiva in Adi Shankara’s Shivananda Lahari—one beyond birth and death, and all pervading. In contrast, Tripathi’s Shiva represents the possibility of divinity manifested within fallible mortals. His interpretation of the cry “har har Mahadev” as “har ek Mahadev”—there is a Shiva within each one of us—is a powerful, compelling concept, which gives this story its timelessness and universality.
NINE LIVES-IN SEARCH OF THE SACRED IN MODERN INDIA by William Dalrymple. Knopf. June 2010. Hardcover. 304 pages. $26.95
William Dalrymple has proved himself as an accomplished historian with his tomes on Mughal history, Delhi and other themes on India. In Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, Dalrymple makes a deliberate and successful attempt at taking a step back as the historian and chronicling soon-to-be-forgotten stories of subaltern lives.
Nine Lives walks the reader through faith: belief systems and practices that lie outside of the mainstream in modern India. Set as separate stories from various parts of India, the book walks us through the life histories of people observing various religious and spiritual practices that exemplify not only the complexity of religion in India but also how these practices are evolving. Through the stories and masterful storytelling, Dalrymple is able to capture the push and pull of tradition, faith and modernity. The writing style gracefully straddles both travel writing and chronicling, making the book at once accessible and engaging
. —Girija Sankar