Books This month at

Following Fish

Samanth Subramanian

Penguin, Rs.250

Readers familiar with Samanth Subramanian's writing will have a lot of expectations about his debut book, and I'm glad to say that it doesn't disappoint. “Following Fish” is a set of nine essays about travels around the Indian coast, on the trail of some famed fish and the complex threads of life around these fish. Thus, in Kolkata, it's the mythical Hilsa, in Hyderabad it's medicinal fish and so on across Goa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, Mangalore.

Subramanian's happy turns of phrase, his acute eye for observation, the ability to analyse and recapture, all make this exercise in narrative, long-form journalism a pleasure to read. Some essays, particularly the ones on Kerala and Tamil Nadu are less full, a bit scattered and incomplete when compared to the best, notably the Kolkata episode. And as another reviewer points out, one would have liked to see the ‘cultural and linguistic negotiations' necessitated by travel across so many different states. Perhaps the Kolkata episode is so good because it was far easier to travel into than say, Kerala or Tamil Nadu, where the vernacular is still much more forcefully at work both on the surface as well as deep inside. However, none of that makes this book less interesting a read, especially since we don't get this kind of thing often: the last good locally-authored similar book was, I think, Vijay Nambisan's “Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder”.

This is certainly a book worth owning.

Beatrice and Virgil

Yann Martel

Penguin, Rs.450

As unlike “The Life of Pi” as you can imagine. This one is about Holocaust – through the lives of animals. The complicated structure of story-within-story-within-story doesn't really hold. The writing is heavy, a bit staid, wavering, and, boring. One is willing to make some effort and stretch out a bit to read what appears to be an unusual book, but after a while it gets all achey and stiff, and obviously not worth the effort. Not to be bought, this one.

Monochrome Madonna

Kalpana Swaminathan

Penguin, Rs.250

Kalpana Swaminathan's third “Lalli” mystery is very disappointing. It begins well: it races along, you don't want to put it down, the mystery is keen and gripping, the writing interesting, the characters intriguing and all of that. The trouble starts with the unravelling of the mystery – the motive is far too abstract and the plot simply comes loose, leaving a mess in your hands. You helplessly begin to skip, hoping to get to a good part, or at least a couple of good lines, but that's not to be: the psychology in this psychological thriller is clumsy, and the thrills deflated. Perhaps “Monochrome Madonna” might have worked better had it been less ambitious, and attempted not a psychology of the Madonna, but that of a mortal.

Seasons of Flight

Manjushree Thapa

Penguin, Rs.399

Manjushree Thapa's “Seasons of Flight” is not a bad read, but it is predictable in the way these stories about Indians in the USA tend to become. And there's really not much more here than an intertwining picture of life in the homeland and homing into the new country. Sometimes the prose is exciting, lyrical in its descriptions of the landscape and the inscape of its heroine Prema; sometimes the insights are sharp and shiny.

But as more books get written and published, one wants less and less to have a comfortable read, and more and more to read something that's challenging and adventurous. I wouldn't buy this unless I was really low on reading options.


Print pickMarch 17, 2010

Against the tyranny of factsMay 6, 2010

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