Wednesday, 3 June 2020

The Far Field - Madhuri Vijay

A debut that richly deserves the acclaim it received.

One of the reviews said this was about Kashmir that goes beyond the picturesque beauty that camouflages its grim reality.  That is what drew me to it. The novel cleverly highlights political issues against the backdrop of a sort of coming of age novel. I couldn't get a hard copy and had to make do with an ecopy...not a great thing for an old school hard copy fan. I had failed with e-versions before not this time. The story had me from the start and I found myself finishing its 400-odd pages in a couple of days.


Shalini travels to Bangalore after her learns of her mother's death. As she drifts through life coping with the loss, she finds something tucked away in her mother's wardrobe that triggers childhood memories. She decides to leave the comforts of Bangalore and travels to Kashmir in search of that childhood connection.

What works:
  • Right from the first page, we find the narrator in a confesssional mode and settle in to learn what is it all about.
  • It is apparent in the first chapter that there is something odd about this modern Indian family. As the father and daughter deal with the loss of the mother - the persona of an unconventional Indian woman floats to surface. It has just the right level of unease and curiosity to urge the reader to keep going.
  • This sense of disquiet is a constant throughout the novel. I revisted the first chapter and it made more sense now that I knew that the narrator was hinting about.  
  • Life in Kashmir is very different from the shikaras and the beautiful views that we associate with it and Vijay's novel touches upon it well. Also the portrayal of the army presence and what it means for the residents opens questions that go beyond the popular patriotic version circulated in the rest of the country.
  • Plus I was interested by the family on the whole. This setup of the modern nuclear Indian family with no baggage of the extended family is a departure from stereotypes. I remember reading an interview where Vijay said the story was set it in the 90s, an era of liberalisation and the Indian nuclear families. It also offers a better foundation for the story, the privacy and the loneliness that comes with that setup.
  • This is not a feel good novel with the ends neatly tied in, Vijay's craft is evident in the way she creates some loaded scenes, such as the dinner party. 
  • It brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend. The friend was upset about the fact that her son was tracing a map of India quite different to what she had known as a child - a whole of chunk of Kashmir was missing. She was in favour of the revoking of article 370 and what it meant for India. I could understand her sentiment and yet it felt somehow selfish. As mentioned earlier, reading this novel gave me perspective about asserting our authority as Indians outside the state while it is a completely different scenario for the Kashmiri residents out there.

This is definitely a novel that gets you thinking about Kashmir and about journeys of self discovery. Vijay is a writer who layers her story on many levels. It would be interesting to see what she comes up with next.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Snegurochka - Judith Heneghan

This one will be always be a memorable one. My first lockdown read.

Since March, this bookworm who zipped through titles found it hard to read a page. I had not anticipated this when I was scrambling to stock up library books (before they closed) with the same urgency as I had stocked my kitchen cupboards. 

But with lockdown, I found it hard to to get through few pages of a novel. It was comforting to hear from the online reading community that they had it too. But for a stay-at-home mum who sought liberation in school hours, homeschooling and a lack of routine hit hard. It led to a restlessness that refused to shift.

This copy with its arresting cover came as a hopeful, welcome recourse. However, reading about a mother stuck with a baby in the city of Kiev did not seem like a great idea at the time. The sense of claustrophia felt unusually familiar. It will be like seeing myself on the pages, was the fear. I was wrong. It snapped me out of the slump.


This is Kiev in the 90s and Rachel a young mother has joined her journalist husband with her baby, Ivan. She struggles to cope with her situation, in a foreign city where everything from language to way of life feels different. She socialises with her husband's work colleagues, but they are not her friends. And then a much needed gift turns up. But it doesn't feel right and brings consequences with it. Rachel turns to unlikely acquaintances for help. She questions whether this is the right while oscillating between the present and the past...

What I liked:
  • The title creates instant interest, injecting an element of the exotic. Despite being armed with google info, I was curious to find out how it fitted with the story. The connection blends beautifully with the narrative.   
  • The eye catching jacket matches the compelling narrative. The sense of unease, the city with its poverty stricken, wrecked buildings transported me to a different place (a boon at the moment).
  • I found myself accompaning Rachel as she explored the city by road and on foot, something that could be only dreamed of at the moment. Her irrational quirks make sense and the characters feel real and relatable.
  • As Rachel made choices, I found myself reading on furiously, swept along by the narrative.
  • Loved the intricatly weaved personal and the historical strands in the story and how the city has a solid presence throughout the book. Its shortlisting for the Edward Standford travel writing award is richly deserved.
Go for it. Reading it is like stepping out of your doorstep into another world altogether.  

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Paragraph Planet

The pandemic changed my life too like it has for many others in the country and the world. Writing had gone for a toss as routines upturned and home became school/afterclubs/campsites/craft workshops. Days seemed to blend into one another, one looking exactly like the one gone by. 

Just when I was debating if the the writer in me had disappeared into oblivion, this publication by Paragraph Planet came as a validation of sorts where the idea was to write a 75 word story including the title.

Thanks Paragraph Planet, for reaffirming my faith in myself when I really needed it.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Asha and the spirit Bird

Magic, mysticism packaged into a cracking read.

Of late, I have developed a keen interest in children's literature after realising the potential at Onjali Rauf's talk at the Crossroads festival in leicester in autumn last year.

So when I looked for other diverse titles, Costa children's book of the year was announced. Bilan's book Asha and the Spirit Bird came into the spotlight. I enjoye reading it how Bilan's book worked at so many levels. I passed it on to my daughter to see if she was as excited as I was.

She gave back the nearly 300-page book within two days of bedtime reading. I was secretly glad. I was reared on Enid Blytons that offered a mirror to the idyllic English life. I was happy my daughter could read something that will give a glimpse into her own cultural background.

The gist:

Asha lives in the foot of the Himalayas wtih her mother while her father is working out of town. However, they havent heard from their father for a while and her mother is struggling to pay the bills. One day when the menacing debt collector makes an appearance, Asha decides to get on the journey with her trusted friend Jeevan.

What I liked:

  • The opening lines gets straight down to action. The opening scene of the novel where Asha has to make a tough decision decides the course of the book.
  • It has the element of exotic with its Indian setting, food and hint of magic realism and yet it is balanced by reason.  
  • The story is realistic. Children getting caught into child labour is a reality. Harsh living conditions is a fact.
  • Asha is bound by traditions yet she is not blinded by it. For me, that element really worked. It shows how religion can be a good thing rather than all the mumbo jumbo usually associated with it.
This is a story that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. I loved how the different themes layer the story and look forward to more by Bilan!

Good read. Recommended.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

The Almost Mothers - Laura Basley

Celebrating motherhood in its myriad hues.

I first came across Laura Besley's words through a six word challenge called the shortstorysept on Twitter. During the week-long competition, I found myself looking forward to her tweets. I loved how she could make even an "Oh" work in her favour.

When I got down to reviewing this collection, her comfortable grip on the craft quickly came to fore.  As title suggests, The Almost Mothers is a compilation of her pieces on the wonderous, maddening journey called motherhood.  The collection explores its complexity, coloured in emotions and filled with perspective.


Laura Besley writes short (and very short) fiction in the precious moments that her children are asleep. Her fiction has appeared online (Fictive Dream, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine) as well as in print (Flash:The International Short Story magazine) and in various anthologies (Adverbally Challenged, Another Hongkong, Story Cities). The Almost Mothers is her first collection. 

What works:

The Killer First Piece : 
The last line of the very first piece "Mothers Anonymous" felt like being hit in the face and I found myself enjoying it. For me, it set the tone for rest of the collection with punchy pieces clothed in great writing.

Packed with emotion: 
The piece that gave the book its title, "The Almost Mothers" is heartbreaking about a mother's thoughts about her son. "Breaking the Seal" on the hand, tilts the view from the other side. Pain cuts through the cleverly crafted pieces of "That Face" and "The Unmothers" and yet the humour in "Super Mum" and "Hooked" show off Besley's versatility.

Unusual structures:
I also loved how different formats (recipes/contracts/reports) in  "How to Grow Your Baby", "Motherhood Contract", "Down to Earth" were effectively used.
Title extends the life of the story: 
Besley's titles offer as much insight as the pieces themselves. The titles "Mothers Anonymous" "Near and Far" "All the Children" take on a whole new meaning once you get to the end. I found myself going back to the beginning after making the connection, enjoying them even more.

In a Nutshell:

All pieces are centred around the theme and yet each piece can be seen as a standalone. An enjoyable collection indeed.

You can easily dip in and out but.... it is hard. The lingering aftereffect forces you to go back for more.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy in return for an honest review)


Cure for a Crime - Roopa Farooki
A  compelling read for parents and kids alike.

I remember watching Roopa Farooki deliver the keynote address at the short story festival to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Asianwriter way back in 2017. I loved her speech so much that a printout is now pinned to my board, a ready reckoner when the writerly confidence hits a nosedive.

Out of her six literary novels, I have read "Flying man" and enjoyed it, only realising later that it was a true story that had been crafted into literary fiction.

I have been following her articles and admire them for her candour and style. And now writing literary novels published in twenty countries, instead staying put in her comfort zone, she went to a medical school and recently emerged as a qualified junior doctor. What an awe inspiring achievement considering she managed this with four children. If that was not enough, her new children's book was announced early this year, a product of her scribblings during rotations. This woman never stops, I thought.

The Gist:

Tulip and Ali live with their medic mother. But life changed ever since their mother's boyfriend Brian Sturgeon moved in. She is now tired all the time and they suspect Brian of drugging her. They are determined to find out what he is up to and find allies in their grandmother Nan-Nan and school friends, Zac and Jay.

What I liked:
  • The story gets into action straightaway. There is no preamble about setting and laying out the story. Farooki is aware of her readers and their short attention spans.
  • Yet another plus is the acknowledgement in the beginning of the book. My "nearly-10"-year-old daughter read it and was intrigued enough to read the first chapter. She was immediately hooked.
  • The twins are familiar with the hospital environnment, medical basics thanks to their mother. I liked the way it works at various levels. On one hand there is a cracking good story that keeps its readers guessing on the other hand there is a bit of education about simple, basic first aid and also scrubbing in (somethign that is in vogue now!). Mini Medix blog is a novel technique without sounding preachy.  
  • The voice of the children is brilliant. That was one of the reasons, my daughter got hooked right away. The story also reflects contemporary life in its entirety - children of working mothers and dealing with cancer as a child. I felt it was very nicely handled.

  • Plot is paced well, there are twists and turns and although young children are good at inferring (as I learnt from my 10-year-old) Farooki is good at staying one step ahead them.

Overall, a very good read. I enjoyed and passed it on to my daughter wondering if she was old enough to enjoy it. She gave me the book back within few days of bedtime reading.  I now know the reason for her grogginess in the morning.

I wished I had something like this growing up. My daughter and I will be looking forward to more about their twins and their adventures!

Monday, 24 February 2020

Foray into Flash fiction

In June 2019, I got the chance to attend a flash fiction festival in Bristol. Since I was part of the middleway mentoring project, this festival was recommended by my course coordinator.

I was intrigued by the concept - writing 250 or 500 words story. I was amazed to see how many practictioners of flash fiction had turned up. The workshops were amazing, they were well suited to novices like me and also to well versed practitioners who were very subtle about their successes.

Ad hoc fiction also has an ebook where a longlist is published each week and a public vote decides the winner.
Each week there is a prompt word and all pieces must contain the word to be considered. I did a piece on the word "Chill". I was very happy to be included in the longlist for the week of September 25.