“Cyberabad Days” by Ian McDonald

CyberabadDaysCyberabad Days is a book of short stories set in McDonald’s River of Gods universe – I’ve had an eye on it for a while, but finally had the opportunity to read it. I love speculative fiction and I’m from India (which really needs more sci-fi/fantasy representation), so these books are a natural fit for me.

First, a note about the world. As with River of Gods, this is the part of the book I have the most trouble with; otherwise McDonald’s writing and concepts are excellent. He captures the chaos and the contradictions of India very well, but there’s no core holding it all together. Every Indian I know has a strong sense of community – to their family, friends or other networks; there is none of this in McDonald’s India. Everyone is too eager to be individualistic, to be virtual – it’s a hard leap to make, considering quite a few of my high school classmates don’t even use e-mail. Maybe that’s just McDonald’s writing style (I haven’t read any of his other books); but in that case, India isn’t a good fit for it.

The way that India has evolved also feels somewhat off to me – it’s like McDonald has taken all the most “exotic” things in India and made those India’s defining features, even if they’re currently in decline – the soap operas, child marriages, female foeticide, the hijras, even royalty (which doesn’t really exist anymore). Some of the terms used would be archaic now (although I suppose it is possible that nostalgia would make a comeback). It’s not that any one of the things he describes is impossible, but the whole picture combined just doesn’t feel right. Also, I have no idea why this book is called Cyberabad Days – Cyberabad is an area of Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh (my home state!), and neither state nor city is barely even mentioned in the book.

Don’t get me wrong, though – this is a very good book! I just feel obligated to talk about the world since I’m from there and feel oddly protective about it.

There are seven stories in this book, and they’re a nice mix of lengths and styles. The protagonists run the gamut from a poor village boy to a rich, genetically superior “Brahmin”, and the stories span decades.

Since there are only seven stories, I’ll write a bit about each:

Sanjeev and RobotwallahThis is the classic story of the kid that wants to be cool but then discovers that the cool kids really aren’t that cool. It’s classic because it’s satisfying no matter how many times it’s done, and that definitely holds true here. It was also interesting to learn more about how warfare in India has evolved, and how the villages have stayed pretty much the same.

Kyle Meets the River: The only one of the stories with a non-Indian protagonist – a young American boy that’s curious about the real India. This story was depressingly real, right down to the parenting decision made at the end. I also liked seeing how the relationship between the US and India had evolved.

The Dust Assassin: One of my two favourite stories, this features a young water heiress who has been told her entire life that she is a weapon to be used against their rivals. When she finally finds out what that means, it has tragic consequences. This story was almost told like a myth, and I loved the sheer romance of it.

An Eligible Boy: A story that explores the consequences of female foeticide leading to a very warped gender ratio. Jasbir, a young middle-class professional, is desperate to find himself a city wife, and of course, hilarity ensues. When he does snare a girl, he finds out that it isn’t quite because of his charms. Probably the weakest story, but that’s only because it doesn’t stand out in any way – it’s still pretty good.

The Little Goddess: The adventures of a former living goddess from Nepal, and her search to find meaning in the new world. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by the Kumaris of Nepal, so I really enjoyed this story. It’s told from the first person perspective, and that adds a lot of authenticity to the telling. What does a former vessel for the divine do, when the divine have left her and the AIs are now gods?

The Djinn’s Wife: A famous Awadhi Kathak dancer falls in love and marries her biggest fan – a Charati diplomat AI trying to make peace between their two nations.  However, the looming ratification of the Hamilton Acts (which ban high level AIs), and the sheer differences between the couple (think Laurie Jupiter and Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen) make it a hard time for the first human-AI marriage in history. I could’ve done without the framing story; I don’t think it added much, but otherwise, it was poignant.

Vishnu at the Cat Circus: This is the longest and most expansive story, and the only one that hasn’t been published elsewhere. The protagonist is a Brahmin (I was glad about this; they’re so often demonised by characters from other stories), and happens to be involved in (or know of) events throughout River of Gods as well as after. I don’t want to spoil much, since this was very plot-intensive. This is also a case where I could’ve done without the framing story, though.

Summary: Cyberabad Days makes a great companion book to River of Gods – we learn more about the history of India, what the events of River of Gods meant to the population that wasn’t involved in it, and how India and the world fared afterwards. (I wouldn’t recommend reading Cyberabad Days first, though, unless you’re not planning to read River of Gods).

Cyberabad Days by Ian McDonald (River of Gods, #2)
Pyr, 2009 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“India Becoming” by Akash Kapur

Note: I won this book on LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India is a book about India in transition, especially after the economy was liberalised in 1991. It’s written by Akash Kapur, who grew up in India, spent his early adulthood in the United States, and then returned to live in India. His hometown and the surrounding areas and cities have changed a lot, and he talks to a bunch of different people to figure out how their lives have changed. Sathy is a landowner in a village, which was formerly a position of power, but is quickly becoming irrelevant. Banu, his wife, is struggling to balance her career and her family. Hari and Selvi are recent college graduates from small villages, finding their place in a Westernised corporate world. Veena is an ambitious career woman that is flouting tradition by divorcing her husband and living with a boyfriend. There are a few more people interviewed, like Jayevel the cow-broker and Das the Dalit businessman.

The book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on the good; the burgeoning middle class, the proliferation of women in the workplace, the new businesses and construction and culture. The second part talks about the destruction and disarray that accompanied them – for instance, people’s livelihoods and homes getting destroyed, people that are unsure of their place in the new world.

The stories made interesting reading, but I don’t think they were more than a series of vignettes. It’s true that India is rapidly changing. This means that people can aspire to much more than the government jobs that used to be the only recourse in socialist India, and that Western culture is pervasively affecting Indian youth. India’s economic development is completely ignoring sustainability and damage to the environment. There is still enormous poverty, despite more and more people being successful. I think that’s what Kapur aims to show us with all these stories.

I’m not entirely sure why this book left me so ambivalent. I did enjoy reading about the people. I guess I was hoping for more insight or theories about how India might evolve in the future. I already know that there is a lot of change in India, both constructive and destructive, so I didn’t really learn much from the book. I know that we are neglecting our poor, but that we’re also becoming more individualistic and free, all because of globalisation. Kapur didn’t offer any analysis of this – just platitudes about how nothing is what it seems to be like on the surface. He doesn’t offer any answers or suggestions as to how India might achieve a better balance, he just points out the flaws.

The blurb for this book says:

India Becoming is essential reading for anyone interested in our changing world and the newly emerging global order. It is a riveting narrative that puts the personal into a broad, relevant and revelational context.

I don’t think I’d take it quite so far, but it’s a decent portait of a few lives coping with a country that is rapidly changing.

India Becoming by Akash Kapur
Riverhead Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

“River of Gods” by Ian McDonald

River of Gods coverI had been looking forward to reading River of Gods for a long time; science-fiction set in a future India is certainly a novelty, but it also got rave reviews. I was really excited to get it for my birthday, and it jumped to the top of my reading queue.

The book is set in India of 2047, around the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence from the British. India has split into a number of countries (I believe the term is “Balkanisation”), including Awadh, Bharat and Bangla. There has been a drought in all three countries for years, and they are ready to resort to desperate measures for water. We follow nine different viewpoints – a cop and his wife, a civil servant, a gangster, a set designer, two foreign scientists, a journalist and a stand up comedian. Their stories start off very differently (the first 100 pages or so are pretty confusing), but eventually converge in a story that decides the fate of India.

River of Gods is primarily two things – a science fiction story and a book set in India. I think it is a pretty amazing science fiction book, but the setting of India did not feel authentic to me – the details were all somewhat off-kilter. I’ll address these two things separately.

First, the science fiction story: The plot was really well-developed and came together well. The AIs (“aeais”) were fascinating, and reminded me a bit of the AIs in Neuromancer. I was really swept up in the quest to find out what was really going on and how all the characters and their lives fit together, and the conclusion was satisfying and packed an emotional punch. The world was well-realised and consistent. A lot of the fun came from not knowing what lay ahead, so I don’t want to reveal any plot points.

Although the world felt real and believable, it did not seem like a future India. A lot of the words and concepts shown to be in everyday use already seem archaic to me. The caste system is already fading away in common parlance, and it is weird that it plays such a large role in Bharat 2047. It also seems a bit implausible that India would have split into Awadh, Bangla and Bharat – even if India were to split up, I don’t think that’s the configuration it would take. The slang, the choice of names, the way the people acted… it was almost right, but that made the lack of accuracy much more apparent. Although I would have liked the author to do more research, I think I would have even been okay with less research. The India of River of Gods was very unsettling.

I was also a bit disturbed by the portrayal of India as an extremely Hindu nation, where Muslims are hated and a fundamentalist Hindu party is such a giant threat. That doesn’t match up with my experiences in India, although our politicians are always talking about being more Indian (renaming cities from their British names, for instance) and we do have a couple of very Hindu political parties, I don’t think that they have that much influence.

Other nitpicks: the number of sex scenes in this book is totally unnecessary and gratuitous, and pulled me out of the book. Another annoying thing was the sheer number of Hindi words used in the book, a lot of them seemed also totally unnecessary. I am pretty familiar with Hindi, so I was okay, but I imagine it would be pretty annoying for people to have to look up terms in the glossary every couple of paragraphs. Hindi words are used in place of extremely ordinary words, like “alley”, and a lot of English words are Hindi-ised.

In any case, despite all my quibbles about the setting, I think River of Gods is a great science-fiction book, and I would definitely recommend it on that strength.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald (River of Gods, #1)
Pyr, 2006 | Buy the book

“The Wedding Wallah” by Farahad Zama

The Wedding Wallah coverThe Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama is the third book of a series (starting with The Marriage Bureau for Rich People) set in my hometown, Vizag. No one ever writes books set in Vizag, so this fact alone almost guarantees that I’d love these books. However, they’re also actually pretty well-written, have great characters, and more importantly, they have a lot of heart. They remind me a lot of the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith – slow and somewhat sleepy, but not boring.

Anyway, enough about the series. The Wedding Wallah sees all of our favourite characters return: Mr. and Mrs. Ali’s marriage bureau is still doing brisk business, Rehman has still not been cured of his idealism, Pari is still determined to be an independent young woman and Aruna is fully settled into her marriage, although she still helps out at the marriage bureau. We are introduced to a new character, Dilawar, who is from a wealthy and aristocratic family, but hasn’t found a bride yet. His family, for whatever reason, believes that the relatively poor Pari would be a good bride for him, despite her widowed status and adopted son. Meanwhile the Naxalites (terrorists with communist ideologies) are growing increasingly active in the villages surrounding Vizag. Intertwined with these are a few stories from the marriage bureau side of things. And of course, people are falling in love all over the place.

The book is as charming as previous installments, and it left me wanting more, immediately. I’m not sure how much this has to do with my excitement whenever a place I know is mentioned (which happens a lot.) I was especially excited when the bookstore that I bought the book from was mentioned as a place that one of the characters bought books from!

I thought the Naxalite plot was a little too dramatic in comparison with the rest of the book; it was a little jarring. However, it still made sense. I think that these book really do capture Vizag very well. The only flaw that I can find is that the people sometimes seem too idealistic. This book is also slightly more racy than the other books, which was fine, but a tiny bit unexpected. I was also glad that the book addressed a few modern issues – the Naxalites are portrayed fairly, showing both the bad and the good, and I thought that the inclusion of gay rights in India was also a nice touch and a nice nod to the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality.

I’m just frustrated that I don’t live in the UK, since that’s the only way I can pre-order the next book on Amazon!

The Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama (Marriage Bureau for Rich People, #3)
Abacus, 2011 | Buy the book

“Climbing the Stairs” by Padma Venkatraman

I found myself in a bookstore (that had some great bargains) yesterday, and ended up breaking my resolution not to buy any books until I’d read 25 of my old ones. However, in light of recent events, and also in light of today being my birthday, I think that’s okay. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman was one of the books I bought, especially since I was looking for a few easy reads. This book used to be on my wishlist, but then I decided it sounded a bit too chick-lit for my tastes, but I decided that it would be a quick read and it sounded like fun.

Climbing the Stairs is about fifteen year old Vidya, a member of an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, who does not want to get married, but instead wants to attend college and make something of herself. It is the early 1940s, and India’s independence movement is in full swing, even as World War II rages across the world. Vidya has a liberal family, but when tragedy strikes, she has to move to Madras to her grandfather’s home, which is a traditional joint family home. (And of course, she meets a boy there that dashes all her dreams of spinsterhood.)

This story resonated with me more than I thought it would because my grandmother was part of a joint family in Madras (albeit not Brahmin.) The relationships between the various family members (the grandfather being the supreme authority, the older sister in laws being bossy, the family hierarchy) really seemed to ring true. I don’t think my grandmother’s family was as strict as this one, but I’m not sure.

Vidya is a likeable protagonist (although it’s hard to go wrong with a girl that likes books), she knew what she wanted and tried her best to get it. She didn’t complain too much, though, or stoop to the petty level of the other women she was surrounded by. I loved the turn that her relationship with Raman took (to say any more would be a spoiler, but I was glad that she didn’t have to be “rescued.”) I think that her voice and opinions were also very well portrayed – she was a very believable sheltered fifteen year old girl.

I also liked the setting a lot, despite being a fairly lighthearted and simple book, the various factions in India during this very volatile time period were portrayed pretty well. The non-violent Gandhians that believed in ahimsa, the people that believed that independence required violence, the sycophants to the British. There were British police that wanted to stop protests with violence, but there was also a kindly British man.

Overall, a pretty enjoyable and easy read.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman
Putnam Juvenile, 2008 | Buy the book

“Two Lives” by Vikram Seth

Cover for "Two Lives"Two Lives: A Memoir is the first Vikram Seth book I’ve read (I seem to be making a habit of introducing myself to authors who primarily write fiction by reading their non-fiction work; the only Barbara Kingsolver book I’ve read is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and On Writing is the only Stephen King book in the house, although I haven’t read that one yet.) I found the title of the book slightly misleading – while the book is certainly about Seth’s uncle Shanti and aunt Henny, it’s also very much about his relationship with them.

The book is divided into five independent parts, each approaching different facet of the story. It starts off with the young Vikram Seth arriving to live with his aunt and uncle while he attends school in England, and his perceptions of them. Then, we learn about Shanti’s life, then Henny’s, then their life together. I was expecting the book to be more narrative than it was; a large portion of it quotes various interviews and letters. Much of the narration that accompanies the quotes seems more like annotation or clarification of context. At first, I found this annoying, but I got used to it.

The story of Shanti and Henny is certainly makes fascinating reading. Shanti is a Hindu from India who studies dentistry in Germany, and Henny is the daughter of the Jewish family he boards with while doing so. However, their love story blossoms in England. Both of them are remarkable people in their own right – Shanti is a much-loved practising dentist, even though he lost one of his arms in World War II. Henny’s story is quite tragic; her mother and sister do not make it out of Germany, and she has to face many truths about her family and friends after the war is over. I think her correspondences were the most interesting part of the book – we got an intimate look at how she coped with a tragedy of the magnitude of the Holocaust. She always remained incredibly dignified and restrained, though.

At times, I found myself wishing that the book was a little more focused. It seemed like Seth structured the book around trying to present every bit of information that he had (especially about Henny), rather than build a cohesive narrative. At other times, I appreciated the tangents and extra details about the couple’s family and friends.

I also had mixed feelings about the author talking about his own feelings at various points in the book. On the one hand, they made it feel more intimate – he is in fact, writing about the aunt and uncle that he loves and respects, so it’s nice to see that come through. On the other hand, some of the things he said seemed superfluous and distracting; for instance, he talks about the different areas of the world and technologies that Germany has had an impact on (including some thoughts on the future.)

This is book 9 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Harper Perennial, 2006 | Buy the book

“Malgudi Days” by R. K. Narayan

Malgudi Days cover.I really should have read Malgudi Days a long time ago – I’m not sure why I never got around to it. R. K. Narayan is one of India’s most famous writers, and this is a collection of his short stories, set in and around the fictional south Indian town of Malgudi. Most of the stories are slice-of-life, set from the perspective of a variety of people, from poor beggars and food vendors to schoolboys to rich nonagenarians. Some of them are touching, some are humourous, some are ironic, and some just are. They work really well together to describe the various kinds of people that make up a small town in India.

R. K. Narayan’s style of writing is really simple and unpretentious, but every word he writes conveys so much. His characters are all really approachable, and they might even seem simple, but it is my opinion that it’s really hard to do simplicity well, and no one is better at it than Narayan.

Pretty much all of the stories are about a single minor incident that occurs in the protagonist’s life, and how they react to it. A retired security guard receives a letter in the mail and is driven almost insane by the thought of what it might contain. An old gardener has to say goodbye to the house he has worked in for decades. A man takes temporary responsibility for a lost child and dreams about the family he might have had.

One of the most amazing things about Narayan’s writing is how much sympathy he can arouse for almost any character in a couple of paragraphs. His stories are often about very different people, often flawed or annoying, but they’re inevitably lovable, no matter what stupid decisions they make. I often get unreasonably frustrated with characters that have lapses of judgement, so this is truly a remarkable feat.

The last thing that I wanted to mention was that I recognised one of the stories (“The Missing Mail”) from one of my English textbooks from school. I remember really liking the story back then, and was delighted to rediscover it.

This is book 7 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan
Indian Thought Publications, 1943 | Buy the book

“Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors” by Lizzie Collingham

Cover of "Curry" by Lizzie CollinghamA lot of the non-fiction that I’ve been reading lately has been about food and Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham is the latest in that trend. It describes the history of Indian food and how it was influenced by various invaders and immigrants. Collingham makes the argument that “authentic” Indian food has never really existed and shows the evolution of various Indian cuisines, both in cooking styles and use of ingredients.

I thought that this book would have a lot of speculation and conjecture, but it is actually meticulously researched – almost every paragraph contains a citation or two. Consequently, the book is a little bit prosaic, although it flows quite well and the wealth of information that it contains certainly makes the dryness excusable. The book starts off with a description of Indian cooking as described in early Ayurvedic texts, and then talks about how the Mughals, Portuguese and British, in particular, changed these methods.

It’s amazing to think about how many common Indian foods (potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, corn, custard apples, pineapples, chillies) are from the New World or Europe and were introduced to India in the seventeenth century or even later. I was especially surprised that chillies weren’t always part of Indian cuisine (although apparently chillies were adopted by Indians so quickly, that by the time they spread to some parts of Europe – Germany, Hungary etc. – they were believed to be indigenous to India.)

Another thing I found astonishing that the British had to set up a marketing campaign to get Indians to drink tea, given that India is currently the world’s largest producer and consumer of tea. They set up an Indian Tea Association, that among other things, went door-to-door demonstrating the proper preparation of tea, and during the Second World War, had “tea-vans” that provided Indian soldiers with tea and letter writers to keep in touch with their families while at war.

The book also details the culinary lives of the British living in India (“Anglo-Indians”) and to a lesser extent, other cultures. I found the change in British fashions absolutely fascinating – from authentically prepared curry, to the excesses of burra khana, to tinned salmon. The influence of Indian food all over the world (the West Indies, Pacific Islands, Japan) was also something I didn’t know much about, and I am glad it was included.

A couple of minor nitpicks – the notion of not eating food prepared by (or even come into contact with) an “impure” person (i.e. of a lower caste/different religion) seems incredibly archaic to me, but seems to have been pretty prevalent, according to Collingham. As an Indian, I would’ve liked it if she had been clearer that it is a relic of the past. Perhaps I’m just being too touchy, considering that this is a book dealing with history.

I also found the mention of the British divide-and-rule policy annoying, since it was only talked about in one paragraph, and I would have liked to hear more about the “apparently benign acts of cultural accommodation” by the British with regards to segregating food service by religion.

This is book 3 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham
Oxford University Press, 2006 | Buy the book