Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Grand Delusions: A Short Biography of Kolkata


I happened to pick up this book purely by accident while browsing one of the online websites. And I am glad I did. Kolkata is one of those old, charming cities which its inhabitants seem to adore completely, despite the traffic & the pollution. To me, Kolkata conjures up images of the Hooghly bridge and Durga Puja, of the underground metro and the tram, of sandesh and puchkas.

Indrajit Hazra has captured all this and more beautifully in his ode to the lovely city. Hazra discusses the intricacies of the geographical spread of the city (North vs. South), the political scenario – past & present [including the Naxalbari movement], the movie industry, the bookstores & eateries on Park Street and the different communities co-existing peacefully in the city [prominently, the Marwaris who migrated from Rajasthan to Bengal in the 17th century to trade in cotton, opium, salt, cloth and indigo].

Hazra has lived away from Kolkata for the last 15 years. He says he is one of the best people to write a book on the city because “After all, you don't see the Mona Lisa from inside the frame; you have to stand in front of it.”

There are quite a few nuggets of information liberally spread out across the book. For instance, I learnt that the Calcutta Club on Lower Circular Road changed its rules to allow women members only in 2007.

The book is an easy read and, at 145 pages, a quick one. The author's writing style is free-flowing & informal. Since the book speaks about different topics, it is not necessary for one to read it from start to end. Read the book for a different take on the city – a take of an insider, who's now an outsider. And the cover of the book (by Turmeric Design) is stunning - really captures the essence of the city.

On my first, and so far only, visit to Kolkata in March-2010, I took time out to visit the Victoria Memorial, the Howrah Bridge and Flury's – all of which find mention in the book. I also took a tram ride and visited the oldest banyan tree in the world. Though the book may not be intended as one but you can also use it as a travel guide, bookmarking sights & activities that you may wish to tick off when you visit the city.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City


I picked up this book quite by accident; was browsing through Goodreads and came across this title. The book highlights the role women played in helping to end World War II; it is a story of a township set up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, where the workers did not know the true nature of their tasks till the end of the war. The name of the book is a giveaway and I would not want to include any spoilers in this review.

The premise of the book is quite interesting; while most men were away at war (World War II), the book brings forth the untold story of the women – most of them working as chemists, laboratory assistants, administration executives, secretaries, etc. who played quite an important role. These women were recruited from all across USA, made to work in a new town which was supposed to be a temporary arrangement but which ended up becoming permanent, and basically sworn to secrecy about the work they were doing there.

Most of these women were quite young and fresh out of college who were quite excited at this prospect since the pay was good and they were hoping that the war would end since most of them had family members aware at war. This motivation was quite essential for them since the living conditions at Oak Ridge were not exactly ideal. They still made the best of their situation and many of them went to marry on their colleagues and settled down with their families there.

The author Denise Kiernan has done a lot of research for writing this book, including interviews with some of the women, who are in their 80s and 90s currently, who worked on the project. She is able to bring out the detailed lives of the women at Oak Ridge, including their work schedules, their homes, their socializing and the lack of avenues for doing that, the tribulations that they had to undergo owing to the secrecy, etc. It is quite shocking to read some of the things that we take for granted at our workplace – exchanging gossip about work, for instance – was absolutely not an option for these women. They could also never know whether or not to trust somebody for they never knew what would get reported back to the authorities.

The book also intersperses the chemical details of the project in between the personal lives of the women including the contribution of German scientists, primary of who were women as well. This was a real eye-opener for me to read about how the women’s role was sidelined and the men took the credit for all of it.

Some parts of the book do feel like repetition which could have been avoided by better editing. And there are some grammatical errors as well. However, all in all, I enjoyed reading the book and going behind the scenes of that one huge, secretive project that changed the world, as it existed before then, forever.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: The Book Thief

I might possibly be one of the last few to read this book so late in the day considering the book has been released in 2005. And with a movie release in 2013, the book's popularity has only soared with the author winning most of the major awards.

To me, what was interesting about the book was the fact that the story offered absolutely nothing new. It centres around World War II in Germany. We all know what that entails.  The rise of the Fuhrer. And the humiliation & persecution of Jews. What the book does, however, is takes this as a base and using Death as a narrator, tells us a love story. The love a girl develops for words & books. The love two pre-teens develop for each other. The love a father has for his daughter. These again, mind you, are not novel themes. But the way Zusak handles them is what makes this book what it is.

The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, is someone who will stay with you for a long time after you have read the book. She is like any other pre-teen would be except for a tiny detail: she is living in Germany during WW-II and placed with a foster family by her mother. A large part of the book deals with the relationships Liesel forges with the various characters in the book: her foster parents, her best friend Rudy, the mayor's wife, and my favourite of all, Max (the Jew her family takes into hiding). Each of them have been narrated in great detail and it is very easy to visualize them as you read along the book.

Zusak's writing is different and unlike any other I have read so far. He writes long sentences. And short ones. There are highlighted & bold sentences in some chapters. And since he uses Death as a narrator, the conversational tone becomes even more interesting. I did get a bit bored with some of the descriptions but that could be because I was keen to reach the end of the book.

The book, in addition to the personal relationships, also handles certain other themes such as death (which is the narrator & thus omnipresent), the travails & hardships of German citizens during the War in terms of lack of jobs & income, how the War was responsible for forming certain relationships & destroying others, guilt (at escaping death, getting some food, etc.)

The book does not purport to be a report or guide on the Holocaust. As I mentioned in the earlier part of the review, it is essentially a love story. And though it is fiction, it could very well be fact. At least, that's what Zusak's narrative made me believe. Go read the book & discover for yourself.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Happy Mother's Day: Famous Mothers in Bollywood

As most of the world celebrates Mother's Day tomorrow, it is perhaps opportune that I pen down some of my favourite mothers from Bollywood :) When I think of Bollywood mothers, I think of 'aloo ke paranthe' & 'gajar ka halwa'. And the most famous line ever to have been uttered mentioning a mother - 'Mere paas maa hain'.

Reema Lagoo:
Reema Lagoo for our generation is probably what Nirupa Roy was for the previous generation :) I mean, she has been playing mother since forever; she probably played mother for the first time to Juhi Chawla in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988) and has never looked back since then. From Aashiqui to Vaastav and from Hum Saath Saath Hain to Kal Ho Naa Ho. She has played Salman Khan's mother the maximum number of times. The only thing probably remaining for her now is to play Aamir Khan's mother as well :) My favourite role of hers is in Maine Pyaar Kiya & Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.

Farida Jalal:
Farida Jalal is to Shah Rukh Khan what Reema Lagoo is to Salman Khan; it's as if she has to play a mother in SRK's movies be it Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil Toh Pagal Hain or Kuch Kuch Hota Hain (in which she played SRK's mother while Reema played Kajol's who is engaged to Salman - gotta love Bollywood :)) My favourite role of hers is, of course, in KKHH where she laments that since she doesn't have a daughter-in-law, she cannot exchange gossip with her other friends and accompanies her grand-daughter on a summer camp to ensure her son gets married a second time.

Jaya Bachchan:
True, Jaya Bachchan has not played a mother in as many movies as the first two but I especially enjoyed her role in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham where she played mother to SRK & Hrithik. She also played mother to Preity Zinta in Kal Ho Naa Ho (in which Reema played SRK's mother - told you Reema is the omnipotent mother :))

Dina Pathak, Ratna Pathak Shah & Supriya Pathak:

This mother-daughters trio may not have played mothers in many movies but they appear in my list solely based on that one movie which has struck a chord with me:

Dina - Golmaal (1979) - As Mrs. Srivastava who played Amol Palekar's fake mother & her twin sister as well, she was hilarious in the movie. The way she matched Utpal Dutt's acting prowess in the movie is worth appreciating. Her contribution to Golmaal's popularity cannot be under-estimated.

Ratna - Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na (2008) - As the mother who wanted to protect her only son from his fate as determined by her in-laws' family, Ratna Pathak Shah really stood out in this movie. She was as mad as the role demanded her to be and friendly with her son at the same time.

Supriya - Wake Up Sid (2009) - As the mother of a spoiled brat who didn't respect his parents or want to spend any time with them, I felt Supriya Pathak did a fabulous role. She wanted to learn English so that she could be friends with her only son & was willing to let her son remain with a strange woman so that he could remain happy.

Happy Mother's Day: Famous Mothers In Literature

As most of the world celebrates Mother's Day tomorrow (second Sunday in May), I thought it worthwhile to pen down some of the famous mothers from my favourite novels  :)

Mrs. Bennet - Pride & Prejudice (1813)
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen remains one of my favourite novels till date. And, I would like to believe that, in addition to Elizabeth & Mr. Darcy, Mrs. Bennet (Elizabeth's mother) is partially responsible for the popularity. She is like any other mother, more specifically, Indian mother, whose sole aim in life is to get her daughters married off to wealthy men. She does not like the jokes/witty comments her husband Mr. Bennet makes especially when it comes to pairing off her daughters with suitable men.

Mrs. Rupa Mehra - A Suitable Boy (1993)
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth remains one of the longest novels ever published at ~ 1,400 pages. Mrs. Rupa Mehra is portrayed to be a typical Indian mother interested in marrying off her youngest daughter to 'a suitable boy'. Mrs. Mehra is often nagging & resorts to emotional blackmail throughout the novel to get people to do what she wants them to. At heart, however, she only wants the best for everybody.

In that respect, both Mrs. Bennet & Mrs. Mehra seem to be similar - both wanting the best for their children and nagging them towards it. I wonder sometimes if Vikram Seth modeled the latter on the former but in an Indian context :)

Mrs. Margaret March - Little Women (1868)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott remains another of my favourite novels. And the mother Mrs. March is an epitome of goodness - always wanting to help out others in need, sometimes at the cost of her own family; trusting her daughters' sense over that which society demands; being a good moral example to all those at home.

Which are your favourite mothers in literature? Leave a comment and let me know.

I would like to end with this quote by Erma Bombeck (which is so apt and so very true): When your mother asks, 'Do you want a piece of advice?' it's a mere formality. It doesn't matter if you answer yes or no. You're going to get it anyway.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Review: Kya Dilli Kya Lahore

They Met As Enemies, They Parted As Friends

Let me admit at the outset. This is not a movie I would have normally watched. Surfing the channels the other day I came across the trailer of the movie. As the name suggests, I instantly knew it would be a movie on the India-Pakistan partition. But what really got my attention was when the trailer said 'Gulzar presents'. Surely, I thought to myself, this must be a different kind of movie for Gulzar to have been associated with it.

Well, I am glad I didn't skip the movie. Sure, it is a movie about the India-Pakistan partition but narrated in a very different & hard-hitting way. The movie has only four characters and is centred, almost entirely, around only two - Vijay Raaz (Rehmat Ali - a Pakistani soldier of Indian origin) and Manu Rishi (Samarth Pratap Shastri - an Indian soldier of Pakistani origin). The movie looks at the Partition from the eyes of these two soldiers - people who have reluctantly shifted their nations but are not entirely happy about it; people who reminisce about their time back home even in front of an enemy soldier; people who question the very idea of Partition.

Their conversations with each other reveal some interesting facets: Essentially, politicians take decisions and the soldiers need to execute these on the ground. The politicians take these decisions based on their hunger for power ('Siyasat ka khel hain saara'). Most times, as in the case of Partition, it may not be a right or humane decision. It seems as if in the greed for power, people forget that there are human beings posted at the borders. The human cost is sadly sacrificed at the altar of politics.

The film is quite topical considering even after 67 years, we are still not able to reconcile with Pakistan and our soldiers die almost daily on the borders. Such loss of life in times of peace is quite cruel. It's easy to empathize with both the soldiers in the movie when they exchange notes on their family and their childhood. Vijay Raaz grows almost misty-eyed describing his home in Chandni Chowk; Manu Rishi becomes nostalgic talking about his Lahore residence.

To say that Vijay Raaz & Manu Rishi have acted brilliantly would be doing injustice to both of them - because they are known to be such wonderful actors. Also, this is Vijay Raaz's directorial debut. Both carry off the film quite well with equal parts light-heartedness & seriousness.

It is a slow film yes and may appear a little bit long to some. But it is well worth it. When we spend hours each weekend on watching mindless movies, surely we can spend ~ 100 minutes to watch this movie. The movie will make you think about the uselessness of war & conflict; it will make you realize the insanity of asking people to change their nations overnight leaving almost everything behind; it will bring home the point that even lonely enemy soldiers need a friendly soul to talk to at the borders.

Go watch the movie. And come back home and say a silent prayer for the thousands of soldiers bravely guarding our borders. They lie awake so that we may sleep peacefully. In some small way, I believe this movie is a dedication to all of them.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kya Dilli Kya Lahore

They Met As Enemies, They Parted As Friends
While surfing channels the other day, I came across the trailer of Kya Dilli Kya Lahore. [You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oy96lq-Nhx4].

My first reaction was that it will be another movie on the India-Pakistan partition saga. The partition which took place in 1947 left behind a lot of unpleasant memories on both sides of the border. Till date, families of those affected by the partition are said to be suffering. Almost overnight, people had to leave their homes & their entire belongings and escape so that they could continue living. Needless to say, any movie based on this event will evoke either sadness or strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism.

Kya Dilli Kya Lahore, however, promises to be a different movie. Caught in a border cross-fire in 1948, only two soldiers remain alive. As luck would have it, one is an Indian soldier of Pakistani origin while the other is a Pakistani soldier of Indian origin. The film is about their interactions and their attempt at trying to remain alive. It also seeks to emphasize how a single day suddenly made sworn enemies of people who were, till then, leaving peacefully with each other. It stars Vijay Raaz, Manu Rishi & Raj Zutshi.

What specifically caught my eye was the fact that Gulzar had composed lyrics for the movie and was also presenting it. Readers of this blog are well acquainted with my admiration & adoration for Gulzar Saab. Go read my posts http://pallosworld.blogspot.in/2013/08/happy-birthday-gulzar-saab.htmlhttp://pallosworld.blogspot.in/2013/08/book-review-in-company-of-poet-gulzar.html.

Bollywood fans are well aware of how often Gulzar writes about partition and how passionate he is about it. One of the shayaris from the film heard in the trailer is:
Lakeerein hain to rehne do, kisi ne rooth kar gusse main shayad kheech di thi.
Unhi ko ab banao paala aur aao kabaddi khelte hain, lakeerein hain to rehne do.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtcHuGezr5Y - Sung by Papon (one of my favourite singers) & composed by Sandesh Shandilya

I am looking forward to catch this movie as it releases this weekend. Await my review of it soon.