Murder, Opium and other holiday themes

It’s been a long time since I wrote something about anything. That’s mostly because I’m a lazy person but also because it’s been a long time since I read something. Almost 3 long months. However, Christmas came early this year, and I get to have the perfect vacation; lots of good food, lots of good books and nothing else to occupy my time. I’ve read three amazing novels so far: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami,Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh andCareer of Evil by Robert Galbraith(that’s JK Rowling’s pen name). I have one more book by Murakami, so I thought I’ll maybe write about them both once I’m done with it.

Career of Evil is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series, who is a ex-SIB private detective with an unlikely past. This book is by far the grisliest one by her and very unsettling at places. I’m usually not a fan of murder mysteries, especially ones with scary psychopaths, but this one more than made up for it with the tight narration and the chemistry between Strike and his assistant, Robin Elacott. But then again it’s JKR, I can’t really say much except squeal like a fan girl and declare my eternal and undying love for her and her characters.

Flood of Fire is a book I’ve been waiting to get my hands on for a really long time now. And it was well worth the wait. It’s the final book in the Ibis trilogy set mostly in and around China just before the start of the first opium war. The trilogy weaves through the lives of various characters; Indian, English, American, half-Chinese to give us a very comprehensive portrayal of life in those times. It touches on many topics including modernisation, sovereignty, globalisation, business, war, the cost of war, love and even caste and class at various points. I loved the book. It is everything I expect a good book to be. It has a great setting, very neat characterization and plot, and at the end it gives you that wonderful sense of satisfaction. That magical feeling not much different from the one you have after returning from a very beautiful place you visited. But what makes the book truly magnificent is how it interleaves fact and fiction, how it captures the spirit of those times and paints a near perfect picture of the general situation there. You could see the amount of meticulous and painstaking research that has gone into the book. And most importantly, it makes you care. Care for all the little cogs in the giant machinery of globalisation.

Before I started the book, I hadn’t even heard about the opium wars. Which seems fair, after all, countless wars have happened over time, and we can barely remember the ones that involve our country. And why would people fight for opium of all things? Sounds as stupid as grown men fighting over candy. Turns out, it was grown men fighting to sell candy. In a nutshell, Britain was spending loads of money buying tea, silk and so on from china, while china was largely a self sufficient country. In an effort to get some of the silver back, they started smuggling opium that was grown in India into China illegally. Initially, the government didn’t seem to mind because, well, most of them were greedy people who had a lot of bribes coming their way. But as the number of addicts rose, China tried to put an abrupt end to the trade. When negotiations failed, Britain launched an attack in the name of promoting free trade and globalisation. China, failing to recognise the strength of the British military, refused to concede to their demands and prolonged the conflict as a result of which, the war, which started in 1839 went on till 1842, during which time the British took hold of Hong Kong among other places and turned it into the business centre it is today. And it turns out, India had a lot to do with this war. In addition to being the source of all the opium, a number of Indian merchants had stakes in the war, and a good amount of the actual fighting was done by the Indian sepoys employed by the East India Company. The books does a wonderful job at presenting this scenario from different viewpoints on both sides of the fence and from a few caught up unwillingly. Even more interestingly, this book throws light on the faults in our system. It shows why we were so easily ruled by outsiders who understood our caste and religious divides and exploited them to their advantage. All the rajahs and nawabs were blind to everything but their own immediate gains thanks to the friendly Englishman, until we all got screwed over, including the rajahs and nawabs.

Of course, there is a lot more that goes on in the book than history lessons, but that is the only aspect I’ve mentioned here. There’s more drama in the books than in a whole collection of Bollywood movies. The evil in-laws, the star crossed lovers, the illicit affair, the oppressed guy rising against his oppressor, you name it, you have it. So if you’ve managed to stay awake through this mini lesson, I highly recommend you pick up Sea of Poppies which is the first book in the trilogy.

P.S A big thank you to those who got me the books as a birthday present! (There, I said it)

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La Poderosa

motorcycle-diaries-notes-on-latin-american-journey-ernesto-guevara-paperback-cover-artA few days ago, I was watching the movie The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Rodrigo de la Serna. The movie was based on a memoir of the same name, written by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Now, for the uninitiated, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was  a Marxist revolutionary and played a major role in the Cuban revolution. He is, however, more commonly known from the many t-shirts and posters printed with his face on them. He is simultaneously a symbol of rebellion and pop culture. At his best, he is an inspiring individual, a practitioner of medicine and an idealistic intellectual. At his worst, a cold blooded guerrilla who didn’t hesitate to shoot his enemies and detractors, who probably even enjoyed the killing, blood and war. But that isn’t the subject of the movie or the book. The book chronicles the travels of 23-year old Che and his friend Alberto Granado, a 29-year old biochemist through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela on the back of ‘la poderosa’ the powerful one, a 500cc Norton.

The most famous picture of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico
The most famous picture of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara,
Guerrillero Heroico

The first time I read the book was around four years ago, when I had a rather unfairly high opinion of the man himself. After watching the movie, however, I decided to read it again, this time with a lot more attention to detail. And as I rediscovered the book, accompanied by the OST of the movie (brilliantly composed by Gustavo Santaolalla), I realized that there is more to the book than two guys fooling around and cleverly talking their way through half the continent. It is a tale of transformation, the transformation of a carefree youngster who thought more about his next meal, his booze and pretty ladies than about ideology and upliftment , into an idealist willing to give his sweat and blood for the revolution. It is also a surprisingly sharp analysis of the political situation in those times. A biased look, but an incisive one, nevertheless.

Some lines startled me while reading the book:

For me, the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it is told and never revealing those secrets; always giving the best advice — its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way you choose. For Alberto, it is a new, strangely perturbing sight, and the intensity with which his eyes follow every wave building, swelling, then dying on the beach, reflects his amazement. Nearing 30, Alberto is seeing the Atlantic for the first time and is overwhelmed by this discovery that signifies an infinite number of paths to all ends of the earth. The fresh wind fills the senses with the power and mood of the sea; everything is transformed by its touch.

As someone who lived in a coastal city for most of my time, this was a new way of seeing things. Reading some lines, I could imagine the wheels inside his brain turning, making astute observations, each one of those changing and shaping his view for the future. But it also left me pondering over the paradox of Che:

On top of her asthma, she had a heart condition. It is at times like this, when a doctor is conscious of his complete powerlessness, that he longs for change: a change to prevent the injustice of a system in which only a month ago this poor woman was still earning her living as a waitress, wheezing and panting but facing life with dignity. In circumstances like this, individuals in poor families who can’t pay their way become surrounded by an atmosphere of barely disguised acrimony; they stop being father, mother, sister or brother and become a purely negative factor in the struggle for life and, consequently, a source of bitterness for the healthy members of the community who resent their illness as if it were a personal insult to those who have to support them.

How can one man be so compassionate and intelligent, and go on to become a cold blooded war machine focused on one and only idea, incapable of seeing the other side of the story?

We Indians have never really paid much attention to South America beyond Brazil. Geographically, culturally and linguistically, it hasn’t been very convenient for us to have a lot of cross-cultural interaction. We want to study in Australia, live in the US of A, work in the middle-east, visit Europe for its beauty and history, and Africa for its wildlife . But South America is almost never a part of our dreams. Brazil, probably, but beyond that? Hardly a dozen things come to my mind when I think of the continent. Football, Machu Picchu, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Amazon, Ervamatin, the list isn’t exactly long. But reading this book made me want to know more, it being the first book I’d ever read from the continent. And the more I read about it, the more I noticed similarities, along with the glaring differences. I saw how much worse, or better it could have been for our country, how different our history could have been. I learnt of banana republics, of benevolent dictators, and not so benevolent ones. I learnt about the perils of depending too much on the Big Brother (read:USA), and of the disadvantages of antagonizing him. I learnt how their socialism prevented them from being robbed blind of their treasures( read: oil), while keeping their countries on the brink of chaos.

The movie was an exhilarating experience. Every frame was a joy to watch. It was one of those very few movies that were as good as the book. The soundtrack alone is enough to raise Goosebumps. And of course, it helps that Gael Garcia Bernal is very easy on the eye.

Although many would probably say the book isn’t awesome enough to be on one’s list of favourites, I disagree. Notwithstanding its many flaws, this is one book I would cherish, and come back to, again and again. And if I ever get to own a bike that warrants the name, I would definitely name it ‘La Poderosa’. To end the post quoting the book:

Along the roads of our daydream we reached remote countries, navigated tropical seas and travelled all through Asia. And suddenly, slipping in as if part of our fantasy, the question arose:

“Why don’t we go to North America?”

“North America? But how?”

“On La Poderosa, man.”

Summer is here

Summer is here. And with it, the heat, the stickiness,  the humidity, and the ever existent urge to tear up my dupatta, and run all the way to Switzerland.  Or better yet, Antarctica.  Nope, summer is definitely not my season of joy.

And meanwhile, Frodo Baggins and friends have  just reached the ford of Rivendell, after an excruciatingly long journey that lasted god knows how long. I’ve just reached the end of the 1st book of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I’ve never felt this proud of myself. I don’t know about those guys but that journey tested every ounce of patience I had. I mean, I’ve heard  people tell me that the beginning is kind of slow, but slow doesn’t even begin to describe it. Since I promised myself I wouldn’t watch the movies until I read the books, I happen to be one of those few unfortunate souls that still have no idea about any kind of LOTR funda. But that’s good in a way, because the plot is the only kind of encouragement I have to continue reading the book. But I’ve got my exams coming up (and I feel like I’m falling into a bottomless pit), which means a feeling of hopelessness and no novels until mid -may.

But summer is here (and I’m repeating myself),and that means it’s time for a summer reading list. Now, when I say summer reading list, I don’t mean breezy reads set in sunny beaches ( I don’t even want to read about any place sunny right now). Rather it’s a list of books that require a certain amount of patience and devotion. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m always devoted to my reading, but the rest of the year, I get to read books only in noisy hostels or under the bench in classes at the risk of getting my book confiscated. But in summer, I get to read in air conditioned rooms (AC!!) with a seemingly endless supply of food from mom, and I intend to make full use of that luxury. So here goes:

    1. Something by Hemmingway. Hopefully The Sun also Rises, but I’m not making any promises here, because I’ve already tried climbing that mountain, and failed. But did you know, his style of writing is called the iceberg theory, cos’ he only describes the surface elements without explicitly discussing the underlying themes, pretty much like an iceberg. Apparently it was because he was a journalist and the minimalist style just continued onto his fiction writing. Anyway, it would be the first modern classic I’d be reading.
    2. Wuthering heights by Emily Bronte. I’m usually not into tragic romances (I think that’s what the book is) but there’s a movie adaptation by Andrea Arnold that’s supposed to be really good, but I don’t want to watch it until I read the book, so..
    3. The entire LOTR series. Now that’s aiming high.
    4. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Well I don’t know much about the book, but it’s supposed to be good and it’s supposed to be humorous. And it better not have a sad ending. I hate funny books with sad endings.
    5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I’ve lost all hope on ever finishing that book, but I’m going to try again, and again, and again….

So that’s my list, and I just realised most of it is about depressing stuff. War, failed romance, war (I think?), war again, and some complicated story I have no idea about. But I read enough of sappy happy stories during the rest of the year, so this should do.

Have a not-so-hot summer,

Manasa Hariharan

So it begins….

So I was bored, and I decided to start a blog. I have a boring, bordering on pathetic life, and figured there isn’t anything exciting to write about in my life. And then I thought about reading, which is the one good thing I do in my life. And then I realize I do live an exciting life, through books. I’m a witch, a fairy, a mass murderer, a little kid making her first friend, an athlete winning a medal, a husband losing his wife, an actor waiting for his break, a wife being abused, a teenager falling in love, and out of love. I am in New York, Amsterdam, Diagon Alley, Lagos, St. Petersburg, Sikkim, Nanga Parbat, the moon and anywhere and everywhere I want to go . And I realize if this isn’t worth writing about, nothing else is. So this is my blog, on my obsession, my love affair and my relationship with reading, books, and anything and everything related to it.

I will be writing about all the books I read, re-read and attempt to read. And before I go any further, here’s a disclaimer: Harry Potter is the best book on earth. If you think that’s cliched, well, go ahead and think so, but if you think the book is bad, I suggest you never voice that opinion to me, especially in person(you have been warned). Any other book I read, no matter how well written or intellectually stimulating, will always be second to HP.

My entries won’t be reviews cos I’m too emotionally involved with the book to write a dispassionate review. Rather, they’ll be about how the book affected me, so it will almost always sound biased. If you love reading(and by reading, I do not mean Chetan Bhagat), I hope this gives you ideas on what to read next. If you don’t care for reading, and I make you pick a book and start the habit, I will be the happiest person on earth. If the blog is so bad that you lose all desire to read anything, then I am truly sorry.

have a not-so-boring day,

Manasa Hariharan.