The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

Even though I enjoyed this story, there were some disjointed scenarios that made me question the intentions of the author. Did this book make a case for or against the poor? The main character of Balram Halwai is able to overcome the odds of abject poverty and becomes a self-professed entrepreneur; does this not objectify poverty as a lifestyle choice? Isn’t this the very stance of plutocratic culture which propagates that destitution is a result of choices an individual makes and is not rooted in prevailing systems of, namely, Capitalism and Consumerism?

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

The Diseased Nation

  • And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs.
  • These are the three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever.
  • The Great Socialist’s enemies would try and steal the election from us, the poor, and take the power away from us, the poor, and put those shackles back on our hands that he, the Great Socialist, had so lovingly taken off our hands. Did we understand?
  • There you have it. That was the positive side of the Great Socialist. He humiliated all our masters—that’s why we kept voting him back in.
  • Of course, a billion servants are secretly fantasizing about strangling their bosses—and that’s why the government of India publishes this magazine and sells it on the streets for just four and a half rupees so that even the poor can buy it.
  • A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.
  • Every big market in Delhi is two markets in one—there is always a smaller, grimier mirror image of the real market, tucked somewhere into a by-lane.

On the Rich & the Privileged

  • The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, at the same time.
  • Those that were the most ferocious, the hungriest, had eaten everyone else up, and grown big bellies. That was all that counted now, the size of your belly.
  • The police searched for me in darkness: but I hid myself in light.

The Perennial Struggle of the Poor

  • No boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school
  • A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope, the kind that women use in villages to pull water from wells; the clavicle curved around his neck in high relief, like a dog’s collar; cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hip bones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.
  • Don’t test your chauffeur with a rupee coin or two—he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny.
  • We are made mysteries to ourselves by the Rooster Coop we are locked in.
  • The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs.
  • When you retain semen in your lower body, it leads to evil movements in the fluids of your upper body. In the Darkness we know this to be a fact.
  • He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this—that was the only way he could tolerate this cage.
  • You see, poor people in the north of this country drink tea, and poor people in the south drink coffee. Who decided that things should be like this, I don’t know, but it’s like this.
  • Maybe once in a hundred years there is a revolution that frees the poor.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • And when I grin, is it true—as you no doubt imagine by now—that my lips widen into a devil’s rictus?
  • The road is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar to get ahead on it.
  • and transferred that money into a bank account in a small, beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money.
  • Coal was taught to make ice, starting the next morning at six. Three hundred rupees, plus a bonus, will do that. We practiced in a taxi.
  • Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia. These are the only three nations I admire.
  • When headlights hit them, the shards glow, and the wall turns into a Technicolored, glass-spined monster.
  • Iqbal, that great poet, was so right. The moment you recognize what is beautiful in this world, you stop being a slave.
  • All I wanted was the chance to be a man—and for that, one murder was enough.
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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome.

This novel is A Man Called Ove meets Forrest Gump meets The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, but with more unlikely circumstances thrown in to increase the length of the novel, maybe. Initially the novel caught my attention but soon became tedious. Multiple unresolved plot threads and insipid characters made it a dull read.

The premise is unassuming. An elderly man decides to walk to an old friend who is dying of cancer. He believes that time, distance and his intentions will delay the inevitable. During the course of his journey, he unravels aspects of his past life, seeking answers and clarification to muddled memories of an abandoned son, an unhappy marriage and a lonely childhood. He meets a myriad of characters on the way and many join him. Thus a simple walk becomes a pilgrimage of sorts.

Sometimes he believed he had become more memory than present. He replayed scenes from his life, like a spectator trapped on the outside. Seeing the mistakes, the inconsistencies, the choices that shouldn’t be made, and yet unable to do anything about them.

Despite a simple plot, the novel is trite in its structure and story. Characters who have no bearing on the plot are introduced aimlessly. Even though Harold’s resolve is admirable, the nature of his walk and overall treatment of elements of surprise are contentious. The overblown spectacle of the pilgrimage comes down to nothing – it just dissipates into Harold and his wife Maureen’s sudden reconciliation.

I really wonder how and why this novel was longlisted for Man Booker prize in 2012. The writing is neither poetic nor does the story hold much gravitas.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • ‘Does anyone work here?’ shouted a man in a pinstripe suit from the counter. He rapped his car keys on the hard surface, beating out wasted time.
  • Harold Fry was a tall man who moved through life with a stoop, as if expecting a low beam, or a screwed-up paper missile, to appear out of nowhere.
  • It surprised him that he was remembering all this. Maybe it was the walking. Maybe you saw even more than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.
  • He hoped there wouldn’t be a row. He hoped they weren’t one of those couples who said in public the dangerous things they could not voice at home.
  • Small words were exchanged and they were safe. They hovered over the surface of what could never be said, because that was unfathomable and would never be bridged.
  • As a passer-by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went.
  • You could never describe Joan as affectionate, but at least she stood between her son and the clouds.
  • The reason she had stayed with Harold all these years was not David. It wasn’t even because she felt sorry for her husband. She had stayed because, however lonely she was with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate.
  • In accepting he had learned something new. It was as much of a gift to receive as it was to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility.
  • If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.
  • If you had the wherewithal, you could even follow his journey on Twitter. Maureen hadn’t the wherewithal.
  • They chose a coffee outlet on the ground floor of a department store because she said you could always trust the things you knew.
  • We hang on by so little, he thought, and felt the full despair of knowing that.
  • Once she had been a woman called Queenie Hennessy. She did sums, and wrote with an impeccable hand. She had loved a few times, and she had lost, and that was all as it should be. She had touched life, played with it a little, but it is a slippery bugger, and finally we must close the door, and leave it behind. A frightening thought for all these years. But now? Not frightening. Not anything. She was so tired. She dropped her face against her pillow, and felt something opening like a flower in her head, as it grew heavy.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was.

This was a gorgeous, heartrending read. John Ames, an ailing pastor in Iowa, writes missives to his young son which are meant to be read after his death. In these beautiful and run-on letters, he pens down intricate details of his own life as well as of his father and grandfather, and of a fellow pastor, friend and neighbor who goes by the name of Boughton and his son who is a namesake of John Ames.

This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more. But hope deferred is still hope. I love this town.

The main thematic concern of the letters revolve around John’s theological queries, of what he deems as faith, as belief and as doctrine. The yet unfulfilled quest he is on only cements his belief as his life and the life of his ancestors unfold. He struggles with his grandfather’s role in the Civil War and his father’s disillusionment with religion. Consequently, he deliberates upon the people of his parish, their misfortunes and hardships. Within the realm of his curiosity, he also tends to find answers to the most pertinent questions regarding existence and his relationship with others – particularly his own son and the young Boughton. His mistrust of the latter is resolved when Boughton himself discloses the secrets of his terrible journey.

If I were to put deciding not to act at one end of a continuum of possibility and deciding to act at the other end, the whole intervening space would be given over to not deciding, which would mean not acting.

Even though a thread of loneliness runs throughout his letters, John Ames also practices forgiveness, grace and humility. In his understanding of his relation with fellow beings and with nature, he extends utmost thought and prudence to matters that may be complex for human comprehension. Which is why he deals with religious belief in an objective yet sagacious way. The spiritual dimension of his letters is neither self-serving nor didactic. It is self-effacing and unpresuming. The core of the novel is all heart for all ways good and pure.

Doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief

I found many similarities of Christian belief with that of Islamic belief system. Primarily both being a lifestyle rather than being a set of some myopic doctrines. Certain elements have rendered religions around the world as insular and provincial and such novels are truly a breath of fresh air – where life consolidates with faith to bring about a transcendental and authentic experience.

The structure and style of this memoir is very well crafted, where information is divulged but only within certain limits, leaving many questions in the reader’s mind. Only later on does John Ames expound on a previous detail. This makes for a remarkably engaging read. I look forward to reading Housekeeping by the same author now.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Faith & Spirituality

  • It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
  • It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.
  • It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.
  • And I know, too, that my own experience of the church has been, in many senses, sheltered and parochial. In every sense, unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances.
  • One is that religion and religious experience are illusions of some sort, and the other is that religion itself is real, but your belief that you participate in it is an illusion. I think the second of these is the more insidious, because it is religious experience above all that authenticates religion, for the purposes of the individual believer.
  • And they are attracted to it by the very books that tell them what a misery it is. And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.
  • In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.
  • It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

On Solitude

  • I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, and people respected me for all those hours I was up here working away in the study, and for the books that used to come in the mail for me—not so many, really, but more than I could afford.
  • You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human
  • “It don’t matter.” It was as if she were renouncing the world itself just in order to make nothing of some offense to her.

On Relationships

  • A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty
  • I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.
  • Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant.
  • He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.

On Understanding the World Around You

  • I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.
  • I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and the sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, and I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out my door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend.
  • It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire. Another reason why you must be careful of your health.

Wise Gems

  • I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.
  • This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
  • When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, “I prefer to remember that I have kept one.”
  • To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.
  • Prohibition loses its force if it is invoked too generally.
  • Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay.
  • And I felt, as I have often felt, that my failing the truth could have no bearing at all on the Truth itself, which could never conceivably be in any sense dependent on me or on anyone.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed—when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge.
  • Poor Glory put a chair for me beside Boughton’s bed and I sat with him a good while. I used to crawl in through the window of that room in the dark of the morning to wake him up so we could go fishing. His mother would get cross if we woke her, too, so we were very stealthy.
  • So I said to him in his sleep, I blessed that boy of yours for you.

 

Sorry George.

Every Sunday night Mankind falls prey to luminous screens for an hour, eyes locked, mouths agape. Anticipation runs ravenous, ritualistic. Social media trends become worshipping grounds with millions of followers chanting hymns of praise and memes. A grand proselytizing begins! And somewhere alone in the dark George feels like the loneliest man on earth.

His art has long surpassed him. The biggest show on the planet commands a universal audience while somewhere in a dark corner of George’s room, inked pages rest silently…waiting to be beckoned, to be shuffled, to be seen and heard, to be shared and enjoyed. But most of all…to be read. George let’s out a sigh.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

★★★★☆ (4/5)

This was my first brush with a novel about vampires. It is intense, sensual and full of throbbing energy that makes each page pulse out of the written word into the most fantastical of fancies. Characterization is full of depth, especially of the Vampire Lestat and Claudia. Louis as a first person narrator vividly describes each and every aspect of his ancient life, including the budding life of New Orleans, the pewter landscape of Eastern Europe and the mystical streets of Paris.

Every detail runs its thorough course and Louis’ eloquence in narrating the horrors and beauty of a life lived so long is just indescribably terrible yet beautiful. His meditations on death, evil and goodness, solitude and loneliness, on his purpose of an eternal life marred by a quest to revive his human nature are replete with profundity and have an ingenuous, unaffected quality about them.

Oh and the Vampire Lestat is perhaps one of the most nefarious and scheming of villains I’ve ever read in a novel. One is gravitated towards him despite his obdurate wickedness. He may be evil incarnate! Yet the fiend is able to rally sympathy of some odd sort, especially towards the end of the novel. All in all, this was a great read and I look forward to watching the film, which I’ve heard does complete justice to the story.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Goodness and Evil

  • People who cease to believe in God or goodness altogether still believe in the devil. I don’t know why. No, I do indeed know why. Evil is always possible. And goodness is eternally difficult.
  • Existence, as I’ve said, was possible. There was always the promise behind his mocking smile that he knew great things or terrible things, had commerce with levels of darkness I could not possibly guess at.

  • That the death of an animal yielded such pleasure and experience to me that I had only begun to understand it, and wished to save the experience of human death for my mature understanding. But it was moral. Because all aesthetic decisions are moral, really.
  • ‘Why does that make you as evil as any vampire? Aren’t there gradations of evil? Is evil a great perilous gulf into which one falls with the first sin, plummeting to the depth?’
  • Because you cannot have love and goodness when you do what you know to be evil, what you know to be wrong. You can only have the desperate confusion and longing and the chasing of phantom goodness in its human form.

On the Self and Learning

  • What I mean is, the moment I saw him, saw his extraordinary aura and knew him to be no creature I’d ever known, I was reduced to nothing. That ego which could not accept the presence of an extraordinary human being in its midst was crushed. All my conceptions, even my guilt and wish to die, seemed utterly unimportant. I completely forgot myself!
  • By morning, I realized that I was his complete superior and I had been sadly cheated in having him for a teacher. He must guide me through the necessary lessons, if there were any more real lessons, and I must tolerate in him a frame of mind which was blasphemous to life itself.
  • You do not know your vampire nature. You are like an adult who, looking back on his childhood, realizes that he never appreciated it. You cannot, as a man, go back to the nursery and play with your toys, asking for the love and care to be showered on you again simply because now you know their worth.
  • And all this time I was educating Claudia, whispering in her tiny seashell ear that our eternal life was useless to us if we did not see the beauty around us, the creation of mortals everywhere; I was constantly sounding the depth of her still gaze as she took the books I gave her, whispered the poetry I taught her, and played with a light but confident touch her own strange, coherent songs on the piano. She could fall for hours into the pictures in a book and listen to me read until she sat so still the sight of her jarred me, made me put the book down, and just stare back at her across the lighted room; then she’d move, a doll coming to life, and say in the softest voice that I must read some more.

  • With a bowed head she bore the whole responsibility for defending life, and it was unfair, monstrously unfair that she should have to pit logic against his for what was obvious and sacred and so beautifully embodied in her. But he made her speechless, made her overwhelming instinct seem petty, confused. I could feel her dying inside, weakening, and I hated him.
  • Knowledge would never be withheld by Armand, I knew it. It would pass through him as through a pane of glass so that I might bask in it and absorb it and grow.

On Death and Detachment

  • I was to watch and to approve; that is, to witness the taking of a human life as proof of my commitment and part of my change. This proved without doubt the most difficult part for me. I’ve told you I had no fear regarding my own death, only a squeamishness about taking my life myself. But I had a most high regard for the life of others, and a horror of death most recently developed because of my brother.
  • I was dying fast, which meant that my capacity for fear was diminishing as rapidly. I simply regret I was not more attentive to the process.

  • In any event, he took no pains to remind me now of what I’d felt when I clamped onto his wrist for life itself and wouldn’t let it go; or to pick and choose a place for me where I might experience my first kill with some measure of quiet and dignity. He rushed headlong through the encounter as if it were something to put behind us as quickly as possible, like so many yards of the road.
  • Being a vampire for him meant revenge. Revenge against life itself. Every time he took a life it was revenge. It was no wonder, then, that he appreciated nothing.
  • One of its aspects—detachment with feeling, I should say—is that you can think of two things at the same time. You can think that you are not safe and may die, and you can think of something very abstract and remote.

  • I knew peace only when I killed, only for that minute; and there was no question in my mind that the killing of anything less than a human being brought nothing but a vague longing, the discontent which had brought me close to humans, to watch their lives through glass. I was no vampire.
  • I was almost loath to put an end to it. I needed to let the lust, the excitement blot out all consciousness, and I thought of the kill over and over and over, walking slowly up this street and down the next, moving inexorably towards it, saying, ‘It’s a string which is pulling me through the labyrinth. I am not pulling the string. The string is pulling me….’

  • Who knew that better than I, who had presided over the death of my own body, seeing all I called human wither and die only to form an unbreakable chain which held me fast to this world yet made me forever its exile, a specter with a beating heart?
  • And…it was seldom savored…something acute that was quickly lost. I think that it was the pale shadow of killing.

On the Quest for Reality

  • I had that feeling then which I described before, that the buildings around me—the Cabildo, the cathedral, the apartments along the square—all this was silk and illusion and would ripple suddenly in a horrific wind, and a chasm would open in the earth that was the reality.
  • I had now lived in two centuries, seen the illusions of one utterly shattered by the other, been eternally young and eternally ancient, possessing no illusions, living moment to moment in a way that made me picture a silver clock ticking in a void: the painted face, the delicately carved hands looked upon by no one, looking out at no one, illuminated by a light which was not a light

Potent World Building

  • Remarkable, if for nothing else, because of this, that all of those men and women who stayed for any reason left behind them some monument, some structure of marble and brick and stone that still stands; so that even when the gas lamps went out and the planes came in and the office buildings crowded the blocks of Canal Street, something irreducible of beauty and romance remained.
  • I had found the house now by a blind effort, aware that I had always known where it was and avoided it, always turned before this dark lampless corner, not wishing to pass the low window where I’d first heard Claudia cry.
  • Hurricanes, floods, fevers, the plague—and the damp of the Louisiana climate itself worked tirelessly on every hewn plank or stone facade, so that New Orleans seemed at all times like a dream in the imagination of her striving populace, a dream held intact at every second by a tenacious, though unconscious, collective will.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • The back of his skull had been shattered on the pavement, and his head had the wrong shape on the pillow. I forced myself to stare at it, to study it simply because I could hardly endure the pain and the smell of decay, and I was tempted over and over to try to open his eyes. All these were mad thoughts, mad impulses. The main thought was this: I had laughed at him; I had not believed him; I had not been kind to him. He had fallen because of me.
  • The burden of the past was on him with full force; and the present, which was only death, which he fought with all his will, could do nothing to soften that burden.
  • The ability to see a human life in its entirety, not with any mawkish sorrow but with a thrilling satisfaction in being the end of that life, in having a hand in the divine plan.
  • Yet I have your tongue. Your passion for the truth. Your need to drive the needle of the mind right to the heart of it all, like the beak of the hummingbird, who beats so wild and fast that mortals might think he had no tiny feet, could never set, just go from quest to quest, going again and again for the heart of it. I am your vampire self more than you are. And now the sleep of sixty-five years has ended.

  • I wanted to forget him, and yet it seemed I thought of him always. It was as if the empty nights were made for thinking of him. And sometimes I found myself so vividly aware of him it was as if he had only just left the room and the ring of his voice were still there.
  • I wish I could describe his manner of speaking, how each time he spoke he seemed to arise out of a state of contemplation very like that state into which I felt I was drifting, from which it took so much to wrench myself; and yet he never moved, and seemed at all times alert. This distracted me while at the same time I was powerfully attracted by it
  • Don’t you see that? Everyone else feels as you feel. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of a century.