2000 - 2007 Chunkster Classics Memoirs Recommended books

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram Source: Personal copy

Five words from the blurb: India, slum, fugitive, prison, redemption

Shantaram is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is an amazing story and the fact that most of it actually happened makes it even more incredible. It may be long, but every single page is a joy to read and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Mountain Shadow, when it is released in October.

In 1980 Gregory David Roberts escaped from a high security prison in Australia. He travelled to India using a fake passport and hid from authorities in a Mumbai slum. Shantaram chronicles his adventures as he integrates with the local criminal community; learning how to make money and protect himself in this dangerous environment. He commits many crimes, but the most interesting aspects of the book were the good things he did – setting up a health clinic in the slum and going to extreme lengths to help those around him. This book will make you question the boundaries between right and wrong and to admire the strength of the human spirit.

When all the guilt and shame for the bad we have done have run their course, it is the good we did that can save us. But then, when salvation speaks, the secrets we kept, and the motives we concealed, creep from their shadows. They cling to us, those dark motives for our good deeds. Redemption’s climb is steepest if the good we did is soiled with secret shame.

Shantaram contains everything I like to see in a book – fantastic writing, a cast of well-rounded characters, a compelling plot, and thought-provoking moments of deeper contemplation.  I was gripped throughout and found myself feeling sympathy for even the most notorious criminals. I loved the way everyone was deeply flawed, but most managed to conquer their problems and live a happy life, even when faced with unimaginable hardship.

This book explained a way of life that was unfamiliar to me, but by the end of the novel I felt as though I understood exactly what it would be like to live in this lawless society. The vivid writing created an atmospheric picture of their unconventional lives. Everything was described in unflinching detail, occasionally making the reader feel uncomfortable, but writing with a honesty that can only be admired. 

This is one of those rare books that is almost impossible to criticise. It is a modern classic and should be read by everyone. Highly recommended!


2013 Book Prizes

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

The Skinning Tree Winner of the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia Prize

Five words from the blurb: India, boy, school, tragedy, regime

The Skinning Tree is set in India during the 1940s. It tells the story of nine-year-old Sabby, a boy who is sent to a boarding school in Northern India. Being away from Calcutta is meant to protect him from advancing Japanese troops, but life away from home is hard as the teachers are strict and abusive. The boys take their frustrations out on animals; killing them and hanging their skins out to dry. The book does a fantastic job of showing how British culture has influenced Indian life, but I found many sections of the book a bit flat and lifeless.

The Skinning Tree was a strange reading experience. It contained two writing styles; so different they could almost to be written by two separate people. Some sections were beautifully written, with atmospheric descriptions that compelled the reader to continue. The opening paragraph, for example, was fantastic:

Murder was the plaything of us kids. We fooled with the idea of killing like some kids fool with fire. We stood around in free time on the far side of the pitch, leaning against the wall or sitting on it, kicking our boot heels against it, talking — talking about killing, killing someone, someone we didn’t like, how we would do it: killing was easy, no one would tell on you, because they wouldn’t. Talking and bragging. Then one day it happened. Sister Man was found on the rocks below the school.

But then other parts seemed very poorly written. The dialogue was especially clunky and the repetition of  “said Sabby” drove me nuts! I found that the sections written in the first person were generally well done, but the third person narrative didn’t work. It was weird, distant and read like the simple books children have when they first learn to read. Things improved as the book progressed, but the wonderful final chapter only seemed to reinforce my thoughts about what had been lacking at other moments.

The title and description of this book may make some people wary, but the scenes of violence aren’t particularly graphic and should be tolerated by all but the most sensitive reader.

Overall this was an odd book. I recommend it to people who are interested in studying different styles of writing!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…life changing and unforgettable. Julia’s Blog

…occasionally the narration is jarring and confusing Moni’s Nook

 ….it was the 81 year old author’s evocative descriptions of an Anglicised Indian life, of afternoon whist parties, of lengthy train journeys that will long remain with me. Pen and Paper

1990s Chunkster Classics

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

A SUITABLE BOY [A Suitable Boy ] BY Seth, Vikram(Author)Paperback 01-Oct-2005

Five words from the blurb: love, India, independent, struggle, destiny

After 10 months I’ve finally finished A Suitable Boy! It has been a strange reading experience as half the time I loved it and the rest of the time I was battling the urge to abandon it. 

The book is set in 1950s India and gives a complex picture of what life was like as the country struggled to adapt to its Independence. The main plot revolves around Mrs. Rupa Mehra trying to find a ‘suitable boy’ for her younger daughter, Lata, to marry; but it is much more complex than that. There is a massive cast of characters, each with their own subplot, and the book covers many different aspects of Indian politics, religious conflict, and family life. It is an impressive record of Indian history during this time period, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped.

The book had a frustrating structure:

  1. 30 – 50 pages to become familiar with a set of characters
  2. Enjoy them for about 20 – 30 pages before being thrown straight into the lives of entirely new group of people
  3. Repeat this process about 10 times
  4. After about 750 pages some of the different sets of characters start to come together (but by this point I had forgotten who many of them were and had to do some research!)
  5. Continue to add new characters
  6. After about 1000 pages finally understand what is happening
  7. Finally, after 1500 pages, experience a massive sense of relief that it is all over!

I might have enjoyed the book more if I’d read it quicker, but reading was such a battle that I dreaded the experience. I often fell in love with it 20 pages after picking it up, only to be thrown out of the narrative a few sections later. It was infuriating! I did enjoy the last 500 pages, but that still meant I struggled through 2/3 of the book. 

I normally love epic reads like this, but I think A Suitable Boy reinforced my need for a small cast of characters – I’d prefer to know everything about a few people, rather than a little about lots. Perhaps my struggles were compounded by the fact it reminded me of my favourite book, A Fine Balance. Mistry’s book managed to convey many of the same themes, but within a smaller, more memorable cast of characters. I wonder how many characters readers will remember from A Suitable Boy a few years after finishing? 

Vikram Seth plans to release the sequel, A Suitable Girl, in 2015. I wont be reading it.


Non Fiction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

Five words from the blurb: slum, Mumbai, family, connections, shocking

My favourite book is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry so I am drawn towards other books that are set in Indian slums. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Katherine Boo, after she spent four years living with the residents of Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport. The book is a non-fiction account of their lives, highlighting the terrible situations that they have to endure and the corruption that is a part of their every day life.

The book reminded me of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The journalistic writing style was engaging and all the facts were given in a clear and precise way. The most interesting aspect of the book was learning that corruption was actually useful for some of those living in the slums – being able to manipulate officials was one of the only ways that slum residents were able to improve their lives.

The main focus of the book was the legal trial of one family falsely accused of murdering another slum resident. I liked the fact that the book didn’t simply concentrate of their basic survival and introduced the Indian justice system to the reader. The journalistic style of writing enabled the facts to be given without prejudice, giving the reader an insight into the way slum residents are treated by authorities.

My main problem with the book was that I was familiar with the plight of those living in Indian slums already.

To jumpstart his system, he saw that he’d have to become a better scavenger. This entailed not dwelling on the obvious: that his profession could wreck a body in a very short time. Scrapes from dumpster-diving pocked and became infected. Where skin broke, maggots got in. Lice colonized hair, gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into tree trunks, and Abdul and his younger brothers kept a running wager about which of the scavengers would die next.

Tragically the story of these people isn’t new and I’d read about similar events many times before.

I also thought that too many people were introduced. The writing was clear enough for me to be able to place them all and understand their part in events, but I failed to form an emotional connection to them. Several people died during the course of the book, but I’m afraid that I didn’t care enough to get the tissues out. Perhaps this was intentional:

Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all.

I wish that the book had concentrated on Abdul. As a teenager his perspective on life was the most interesting to me and I think that having one central focus would have given the book a greater depth of emotion.

If you have no idea what life in the slums is like then I suspect this book will shock you. I can see why many people are naming it as their book of the year, but without that emotional connection to the characters I was unable to fall in love with it.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 Touching, informative, observant, and irresistably readable, I cannot recommend this fine book enough. BookeyWookey

 …an eye-opening read that introduced us to the extremes of a rapidly prospering city. Take Me Away

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, informative, and an important piece of investigative journalism. Between the Covers

2010 Book Prizes Commonwealth Writer's Prize Other Prizes

Serious Men – Manu Joseph


Shortlisted for 2011 Commonwealth Prize South Asia & Europe Best First Book
Shortlisted for 2010 the Man Asian Literary Prize
Winner of 2010 Hindu Best Fiction Award

Five words from the blurb: Mumbai, slums, son, genius, comic

Serious Men had a controversial reception in India because it depicts a Dalit (someone of a lower caste) as being a victim of circumstance instead of having an inferior intelligence to the Brahmin (upper-caste people). This attitude offends many people in India who like to see that these social barriers remain unquestioned.

The book centres on Ayyan, a man so fed up of life in the slums that he decides to hatch a plan to elevate his position. He claims that his 10-year-old son is a mathematical genius, but whilst this gains the attention he was looking for, the lie quickly gets out of hand.

The book is quick and easy to read, but unfortunately the humour wasn’t to my taste and although I could spot the jokes they barely raised a smile in me.

Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours.

The book did a fantastic job of showing the differences between the Indian castes and the unjust way in which a person’s position at birth determines their outcome in life, but as a novel I found it unsatisfying. The story had little forward momentum and I was frequently bored by their trivial discussions.

Ayyan Mani surveyed the room with his back to the wall, as he had done many times, and tried to understand how it came to be that truth was now in the hands of these unreal men. They were in the middle of debating the perfect way to cut a cake and were concluding that carving triangular pieces, as everyone does, was inefficient. 

I also failed to connect with the characters on an emotional level.

I know that a lot of people will love this book and I did find a lot to like, but I’m afraid it just didn’t contain my kind of humour.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It’s the kind of book that you yearn to discuss, debate, analyze and always remember. At Pemberley

Joseph, a former editor of The Times of India, tries to weave a funny and clever novel about the ridiculousness of academia, and for the most part, he succeeds. Mumbai Boss

….this is an amazing book and follows in the league of White Tiger in terms of satire by Indian authors on society. Sandeepinlife’s Weblog

2010 Other Prizes

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee

I have a soft spot for Indian literature and so when I saw the phrase ‘Winner of India’s Premier Literary Prize, The Vodafone Crossword Award 2009’ on the back of this book I picked it up straight away.

A Life Apart is essentially a coming-of-age novel focusing on Ritwik, an Indian homosexual. The story begins in 1980s India with the death of Ritwik’s mother. I was treated to a vivid Indian atmosphere and an instant sense of empathy for Ritwik. Unfortunately everything went downhill after the first chapter, but there were enough interesting passages to keep me reading through the remaining 300 pages.

After the death of his mother Ritwik decides to leave India to study in England. All that wonderful Indian atmosphere was lost and I found myself reading the type of immigration tale that I have read countless times before. Ritwik then exercised his new-found freedom by having sex with numerous strangers. These graphic encounters held no interest for me and there were several points where I considered giving up on the book entirely. I was occasionally treated to flashbacks of Ritwik’s troubled childhood in India, but these were too brief for me. I wish the whole book had concentrated on these instead of his modern, British life.

Intertwined with this narrative was Ritwik’s attempts at fiction writing. This story-within-a-story was set in 1900 and followed Miss Gilby, an English woman teaching a Bengali family:

…the most Beautiful & Useful English Language & the ways of Ladies of your Progressive Nation.

This story was well researched and I learnt a few interesting facts about Colonial life, but the characters failed to connect with me and so overall this narrative didn’t leave much impression on me either.

A Life Apart is a beautifully written piece of literary fiction, but I felt it tried to combine too many elements, leaving me unable to develop an emotional attachment to the characters.

Recommended to those with a passion for immigration stories who have a high tolerance for graphic sex scenes.

Other bloggers seemed to enjoy it much more than I did:

A must read, a full ten out of ten from me. Savidge Reads

Mukherjee’s poetically sublime prose is a real beauty to behold… Rob Around Books