The Strange Case of Billy Biswas (A Novel)

“The most futile cry of man is his wish to be understood”

First thing first- The novel has been very nicely written. The language is simple and the articulation is neat. I admired the vocabulary and sentence forms the author used in his narration.

Synopsis

The narrator meets a person called Billy and becomes friends with him instantly. Both of them were students in America when they first meet. Billy is an affable guy with an aura of charm, delighting every one with his quick wits and engaging conversations. Soon, destiny brings them back to India, and Billy slowly begins to lose his glamour as he starts brooding upon his identity in a philosophical sense. He feels dejected by the excessive materialism he sees around him-people hankering for money, unnecessary showoffs and extravagant lifestyles. I can explain his dismay in the words of Dave Ramsey — ‘We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.’

He decides to marry and expects life to become cheerful again but it does not help.(I agree with this fact) He only becomes more irritable and quarrelsome. Being an anthropologist, he often goes to expeditions to remote villages to study the lifestyle of tribal people. During one such visit, to a village in central India something remarkable happens and he disappears.

The Author

When I was reading the reviews of this book, I found many reviewers pointing out that the author has unjustly remained an obscure figure despite being such a fine writer. His caliber can be appreciated from the fact that he has already been honoured with India’s one of the most notable literary awards (Sahitya Academy Award) in 1982 for his novel The Last Labyrinth. He earned his MS degree from MIT, USA and hence his novels always carry some reminiscence from those days. His family lived in the holy city of Varanasi, which influenced his philosophical cravings.

In Quest for a Meaningful Life

What I loved in the novel was this theme, where a smart, educated guy is driven by his longing to find a meaningful life. I believe in simplicity and find verbose lifestyle quite obnoxious.Therefore, I was quite compassionate towards the character, Billy , who held a strong determination to go against the crowd, the conventional life, because he knew his inner being, his soul will not be satisfied unless he followed his heart. In course, he commits mistakes, learns his lessons when it is too late and conducts acts which only aggrandizes his perils, but it is all these imperfections which gives a more human touch to his character. The portrayal of the fact that the society suppresses such people is also an important part of the theme.

The strange case of Billy Biswal had at last been disposed of. It had been disposed of in the only manner that a human society knows of disposing its rebels, its seers, its true lovers.

I liked the mystical touch the author has given to the whole episode. Billy’s encounter with the tribe rituals, the ancient ruins and the folklores the tribal people live by, makes an intriguing read. You will like the character of the narrator, who tries his best to do everything for his friend Billy, but just one little mistake by him jeopardizes Billy’s extraordinary endeavour. The only element I felt missing was the final conclusion. There is no conclusive idea in the novel, just a narration of the state of affairs which anyways is, thought provoking.

Conclusion

This book is a quick read (240 pages). I finished it in two days in 3 sessions. I will recommend it to anyone who likes such topics as following one’s heart and also who likes philosophical themed stories.The novel is rich in imparting a feeling of adventure, suspense and curiosity. It will surely make an interesting read under the cozy winter sun.

“This is where I belong. This is what I have always dreamt of”

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Recycled Book Reading Challenge: Easter Island (A Novel)

Easter Island

I read about this mysterious island in a book titled ‘World Famous Unsolved Mysteries’ several years ago. Since then it has always arrested my interest even at the slightest mention of it. Therefore, when I stumbled upon this book titled “Easter Island: A Novel” at the old book store, I bought it instantly. The highlight on the back cover suggested a tale of mystery where two stories, belonging to two different eras begin to unfold in this mystical island and finds an interesting conclusion as the stories intersect each other.

Synopsis

There are two stories which we get to hear in this book. The first is the story of Elsa Beazely ,her troubled sister Alice, and her second husband Edward, whom she has recently married. This story is set in 1913, when they visit Easter Island for a scientific expedition. Elsa feels that such a trip would help her move on with her past despondencies and also make her sister feel good with a change of atmosphere. The second story, set in 1970s, is that of Greer Farraday, an American botanist who recently lost her husband (her husband was alleged to have stolen her research works to attain fame for himself.) She too has come to Easter island to get rid from her past and complete her research work on flowering plants, for which the secluded ecosystem of Easter Island provides a perfect research ground.

Both these stories progress at a slow pace. Nothing surprising happens. A reader only relishes the experience of staying in a remote, mystery laden Easter Island, with its sparse population, simple lifestyle and unexplained historical folklores. The claim made that the two stories intersect each other in interesting way is misleading. They don’t connect in any significant manner. Perhaps there is no thrill in both the stories; the only delight of the novel is the experience of living in the quiet and esoteric Easter Island.

The Author

Jennifer Vanderbes has been quite earnestly lauded for this debut novel of hers. It also won her Washington Post Book World and Christian Science Monitor Best Book of 2003. I gathered she has written quite a lot of non-fiction on the subject of botany. Undoubtedly it reflects in this novel too. The character Greer, the botanist, goes at length to explain about her research on angiosperms (seed-bearing vascular plants) The whole of the second last chapter in this novel is the research paper published by the character Greer at the end of her research. This chapter was quite obtrusive as it broke the flow of what I was reading.

Experiencing the Isolation

The only good thing about this book, as I have stated, was to get a feeling of life in Easter Island. The population is sparse and in the novel it is depicted that everyone knows each other. There are no big factories or industry. Every such good is transported from Chile, once in a month. People place their orders and after a month the supplies arrive on ships. People line up to collect their orders.

The island’s past is shrouded in mystery and people don’t seem to have a clear account of its history. The gigantic statues, called moai, have many versions of folklores as to why and how they were created, although the scientists are unable to agree on any of those theories. Explorers and Voyagers have been bumping upon this island and writing accounts, expressing perplexity over its variety of flora and fauna despite being cut-off from any landmass by thousands of miles. The author invokes commentary from such famous explorers like Captain James Cook, Charles Darwin etc. Additionally she introduces us to rongorongo, an unsolved mystery of Easter Island. Rongorongo is a system of glyphs which appears to be writing or proto-writing and it has not been deciphered yet.

With such a mystical backdrop, the endeavor of Greer, to try to move on with her past seems a fair plot. I liked few lines where the sense of isolation and peace is evoked.

“She became aware of the silence all around her, broken only by the slight slap of water against her boots. Here I am, she thought. In the middle of a crater on the most remote island in the world. Reeds rising all around me; all I can see is sky. Not a voice, not a rustle to be heard.”

“On the rocks, about twenty yards from her, she spotted a plate covered with a metal lid, a halo of steam curling from its edges. It was odd, this abandoned meal, but then again, the island seemed governed by its own rules and rituals”

“She takes a deep breath. There is a moment of silence between them as they watch the port chandlers pack up their goods for the evening, as these last signs of familiar civilization rumble their carts into the distance.”

Conclusion

This story is interesting only if you like Easter Island and a little bit of reading about plants(since we have a botanist character here). The story, in itself is not quite gripping. The pace of story is slow and it is only the mystical feeling of the islands that is appealing. It makes for a fine reading on a sluggish rainy day.

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(I am glad to post my review for the Recycled Book Reading Challenge, an interesting initiative by a curios reader and explorer, Mliae! Do visit her blog and learn lots about her life experiemnts! PS- Its snowing on her blog these days! 😀 )

 

Sweeney Todd- The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

So, it turns out that 221 B Baker Street is not the only fabled address that has acquired a cult status, today I discovered another- Todd’s barber shop at 186 Fleet Street, London.

Today, while at a Library, I was looking forward to some light casual reading and so was drawn towards the shelf containing graphic novels. I flipped through some Batman, some Shakespeare, and some World War themed graphic novels but at last got hypnotized with the cover of this book.

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I think the memories of my college days came back which prompted me to  pause at it. In those days, I had some friends who were great fans of manga and through them I had got to watch some interesting animated series like Hellsing, which I had found strangely amusing. This book cover with such a vicious guy,  having tainted fonts below him and the label of ‘classic’  at the top made me believe this would be an interesting read.

And it was! I was engrossed throughout! I was so eager to know the ending of this tantalizing suspense story that I didn’t take a break the whole time.

After finishing I started doing my research. It turned out the story was written as a serial and published in a London periodical between 1846-47 with the title ‘Strings of Pearls’ Now that I had read the tale, I could relate why it had such a title. The mysterious barber in the story is a wicked and greedy man and it so happens that some people who visit him disappear in strange ways, never to appear again. It is only when a particular person goes missing , who is carrying a  ‘String of Pearls’ to be delivered to a young lady as a token of remembrance from her  past lover, that a series of events get triggered leading to the uncovering of mystery.

Wikipedia told me that this story belongs to the category of ‘penny dreadful’

Penny dreadfuls were often written carelessly and contained themes of gore and violence. The ‘String of Pearls’ is no different. Its style of writing makes it a perfect example of a penny dreadful, having a sensational, violent subject matter that plays off of the public’s real fears.

I remembered James Hadley Chase whose stories too, somewhat felt like this. Anyways, I think it was a graphic novel so such a theme appealed to me. I couldn’t have read it if it was a normal novel. Since it was in a comics form, my expectations were well aligned to what is expected from a comic book- a sensational story with thrill and suspense. I was amused to know that this story was hugely popular even before its last chapters were published. Subsequently, over the years it got adapted into novels, plays, Broadway musical, and movie.

The tale became a staple of Victorian melodrama and London urban legend, and has been retold many times since

I was glad I got to know about this urban legend, and as I stated earlier, this vicious barber’s place of dwelling, 186 Fleet Street (which was the center of suspense in the graphic novel) made me consider it with as much curiosity as I consider 221B Baker Street.

 

Yayati: A Fine Classic

A few days back, I read the novel ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Somerset Maugham. In that, was a character named Philip, representing a man with unbridled emotions, craving to fathom the meaning of life and in the process succumbing to objects of sense gratification and equating it to be the purpose of life.

Coincidentally the next book I finished today, also dealt with a similar theme. The void I had felt in Maugham’s story seemed to be addressed eloquently in this book.

Synopsis

Yayati is born in a King’s family and since childhood tries to understand what the purpose of life is.

..I was dissatisfied with life and thirsty for something undefined

His mother, afraid that he may leave home to become an ascetic like his elder brother makes him take a vow that he will never accept asceticism. But this intensifies his curiosity even more as he wonders what does a renunciate gain, what pleasure they acquire while sacrificing a life of wealth, comfort, and aristocratic pleasures.

The story becomes dramatic when the characters Devyani and Sharmishtha enter the scene. Both of them are beautiful young women and dream of aristocratic lives. They are friends but Devyani is jealous of Sharmishtha. Devyani by virtue of a coincidence convinces Yayati to marry her and by a clever ploy, traps Sharmistha into a  pact to become her maid servant.The story becomes quite interesting after that as we see the character’s nature unfolding. Yayati seems to succumb to Devyani’s demands just to please her, and she starts drawing full benefit of his infatuation.

Devyani was smiling now. It was not the smile of a lover only, it was obviously tinged with pride. It was the smile of a pretty woman, who in her arrogance thought she could reduce a man to utter subjection

Yayati, who is trying to find happiness through Devyani, soon  realizes she doesn’t love him and so feels drawn towards her servant Sharmishtha. He keeps trying to figure out what will bring him happiness but keeps equating fickle enjoyments as eternal joys. Consequently, he goes on submitting more and more to his carnal impulses and feels perplexed that despite all these he is feeling further deteriorated, dissatisfied.Meanwhile, the drama between Devyani and Sharmishtha intensifies as Devyani begins to see Sharmishtha as a threat between her and Yayati.

Kacha, an enlightened ascetic, and a friend to all these three characters makes appearances at times and his dialogues help a reader feel pacified while contemplating the desperate plight of these three characters. The presence of such a character was what I had found missing in Maugham’s novel. Someone who soothes the reader with some words of wisdom. While in Philip’s case, it had always felt pessimistic, here the presence of Kacha filled that pessimistic void.

..If in the eyes of the world you are a maid, to me you are a gracious queen. The slave is Devyani. She is slave to her splendour, dignity and ego.The man whose soul is prey to selfishness, desire and enjoyment is forever slave in this world.

The Author

The author, V S Khandekar in the preface says that he was inspired to write this tale from Mahabharata(one of  the major Sanskrit epics of ancient India) The story of Yayati forms a subsidiary part of Mahabharata and not its central theme.  Although Khanderkar molded the story somewhat to portray the characters as they ‘appeared to him’ rather than how they had  originally been portrayed. He originally wrote this book in Marathi (the language spoken in the Indian state of Maharashtra) and the book was published in 1959. It won him the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award(1960) and the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, in 1974.

Creative Narration

One interesting thing about this book was its creative narration. The tale progresses with changing perspectives. In first chapter Yayati is the narrator, in the next Devyani and in the next to that, Sharmishtha.In this way, it keeps changing. The same scene which unfolds from the eyes of Yayati is unfolded with a wholly different perspective from the eyes of Devyani in the next chapter. It renders a fascinating effect in the mind of readers. Every subsequent chapter feels like a revelation as one gets to see the ways different characters are interpreting the same flow of events.

A Classic Tale of Lust

The tagline of this book had made me a bit skeptical in the beginning but I soon realized that this book carries no obscenity of language. Having been inspired from a classical poetry, it uses poetic language in its narration. Furthermore, lust has been addressed here not only in terms of Yayati’s carnal indulgences but also in terms of an individual’s unbridled thirst to satisfy such dark desires as jealousy, hatred  and, sense of superiority. Every character becomes a representative of one of these malignant yearnings which make them slaves of what Maugham had called ‘Human Bondage’ in his book.

Conclusion

All in all, I found the book quite gripping, interesting , thoughtful and enlightening. After a long time, I got hold of a book that was balanced in every aspect- drawing the plot, sketching the characters, and delivering a message while maintaining the standard of language. I would highly recommend this book to any keen reader who likes books with philosophical themes.

“Oh man, desire is never satisfied by indulgence.

Like the sacrificial fire, it ever grows with every offering.”

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