Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Caretaker by A.X.Ahmad

Title : The Caretaker - A Novel
Author : A. X. Ahmad
Genre : Fiction / Thriller
Publisher : Harper Collins India
Pages : 304
My Rating : 8.5/10
Reviewed For :
Publisher / First Reads Challenge 2013 / South Asian Challenge 2013 / IQRC 2013


A compelling thriller that introduces a new hero for our times: Ranjit Singh, former captain in the Indian Army, illegal immigrant in the heart of white America and caretaker to the rich and famous.

One harsh winter, Ranjit illegally moves his family into an empty, luxurious vacation home belonging to an African-American Senator. Ensconced in the house, he tries to forget his brief affair with Anna, the Senators wife, and focuses on providing for his family. But one night, their idyll is shattered when mysterious armed men break into the house, searching for an antique porcelain doll. Forced to flee, Ranjit is hunted by unknown forces and gets drawn into the Senators shadowy world. To save his family and solve the mystery of the doll, he must join forces with Anna, who has her own dark secrets. As he battles to save his family, Ranjit’s painful past resurfaces and he must finally confront the hidden event that destroyed his career in the Army and forced him to leave India.

Tightly plotted, action-packed, smart and surprisingly moving, The Caretaker takes us from the desperate world of migrant workers to the elite African-American community of Martha’s Vineyard and a secret high-altitude war between India and Pakistan.

My Review:

The Caretaker by A.X.Ahmad is a compelling read about a man who is trying to run away from the ghosts of his past but they keep following him, no matter how far he runs. In his debut work, the author has given us our very own desi yet exotic hero in the form of Ranjit Singh, who is – a Sikh, a respected and brave former captain in the Indian Army, a fallen soldier, an illegal immigrant & a landscaper trying to pass off as a common brown man in America, in exactly that order.

Ranjit Singh is a tormented man, tormented by the demons of his past. A former captain in the Indian Army, an awry mission forces him to flee from his motherland and settle down in the quiet confines of an island of Martha’s Vineyards in America. The narrative runs in two parallel tracks - one in the present where running away from a past, Ranjit is trying his best to create a comfortable life for his wife and daughter in the unknown land. However, deep down he knows that all his attempts at normalcy are failing as miserably as his relationship with his wife. The other narrative takes us in the past to Ranjit Singh’s glorious military career days where he was appointed as the commander of a squad in the Indian Army for a Top-Secret Mission. However, the mission goes horribly wrong & since then Ranjit is on the run with his family.  Fading away into anonymity, he becomes a part-time landscape worker on Martha’s Vineyard. Opportunity comes knocking to Ranjit in the form of a caretaker’s job for the house of a famous senator one winter. But what seems to be like a boon at first glance turns out to be a horrible nightmare in disguise as Ranjit realizes that there are dark secrets hidden in the Senator’s house and when he uncovers them, all that he has ever believed in his life will change forever.

If I list down the reasons to read this novel, then the first and foremost factor for me will be the protagonist – Ranjit Singh. Unlike the perfect caricatures that we come across in works of fiction, Ranjit is every bit of a flawed & complex hero as you or I can be. Tangled up in the past & taunted by the ghosts of his previous life in army, he seems to be apathetic at first glances. But as the read progresses, the author slowly chips away his hard exterior, one layer at a time, & exposes his vulnerabilities, his fears, his love, his regrets, his guilt & his emotional dependence. It is very easy to sympathize with him and keep rooting for him as the ground beneath his feet keeps slipping just when he thinks he is firm footed. Also, the flashback scenes provide a glimpse into his past and the reason for how he has shaped up today. Being in army, it is expected of him to adapt himself in any environment but even then, we see him struggling as a turban-clad Sikh in post-9/11 America who draws as much as attention as flak and suspicion for his turban & beard. Yet even in the face of these humiliating circumstances, he never loses his sense of identity as an Indian and a Sikh. He has his own flaws but underneath all of the mess that he is in, he makes some choices which define who he is & gains the reader’s appreciation. Needless to say, the author has done an excellent job of sketching and developing the character in a realistic manner.

The second best part of this read, perhaps for me, is
that this novel explores many difficult issues. The most apparent was immigration issues which might strike a chord with many of us. The unsettling idea of settling down in an entirely new country with a totally different culture, the general desperation that stems from trying your best to blend with others and yet standing out amongst them because of your colour, and in spite of that retaining your heritage, traditions and religion because that is what identifies you - are some of the cultural aspects that the author has beautifully drawn out in this novel. Ahmad’s narrative has a distinct and beautiful poetic style to it. The descriptions he offers are vivid and transport you to the different worlds described in the book. Thus, in spite of being a fast-paced thriller, the read has a unhurried tone to it. Also, Ahmad has given the readers a rare glimpse into the Sikh religion and weaving the teachings from the Guru Granth Sahib into the read. For the unawares like me, this was a rare learning experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. Another highlight of this read was the development of the secondary characters & the various sub-plots. The author has done an amazing job at  carefully constructing & seamlessly interweaving the sub-plots which might seem like a jumble at first but at the end fit together perfectly like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. The political history between India, Pakistan & the US, familial relationships, emotional vulnerability and some good plot twists are the other factors that make this an enjoyable read.

It has its own highs and lows but all in all, this is a very well-written debut with beautiful descriptions, engaging characters and a taut plot. If you are looking for an excellent page-turning thriller, then this might be just the one.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Other Side Of The Table by Madhumita Mukherjee

Title : The Other Side Of The Table
Author : Madhumita Mukherjee
Genre : Fiction
Publisher : Prakash Books / Fingerprint
Pages : 240
My Rating : 8.5/10
Reviewed For : Shoppingwish.in /
First Reads Challenge 2013 / South Asian Challenge 2013 / IQRC 2013


Circa 1990.
A world drawn and woven with words.
A bond punctuated by absence and distance . . .
Two continents. Two cities. Two people.
And letters. Hundreds of them.
Over years. Across oceans. Between hearts.
Between Abhi, who is training to be a neurosurgeon in London, and Uma, who is just stepping into the world of medicine in Kolkata.
As they ink their emotions onto paper, their lives get chronicled in this subtly nuanced conversation through letters . . . letters about dreams, desires, heartbreaks, and longings . . . about a proverbial good life falling apart, about a failed marriage, a visceral loss, and about a dream that threatens social expectations . . .
Letters that talk. And don’t. Letters about this and that. Letters about everything . . .
Letters with a story you would never expect.

My Review:

The Other Side Of The Table by debutante author Madhumita Mukherjee is a simple yet incredible piece of epistolary work that tugs something in your heart and slowly works its magic on you. It is a collection of letters exchanged between the two childhood friends who are separated by distance but choose to stay connected to each other with these letters. The letters move to and fro for almost a decade & act as their reservoir of inspiration, source of joy, reliever of pain and a lot more. There is a certain amount of candidness in reading the letters between two unknown individuals and that’s what makes this read an engrossing one.

As the book begins, we are introduced to Abhi & Uma who are close childhood friends. Abhi has moved over to London (without any intentions of returning back to India) and is training to become a neurosurgeon. Uma, on the other hand, who is 10 years younger to Abhi has just joined a medical college in Kolkata. Abhi is a mature, level-headed guy while Uma is a feisty girl who dreams about the unconventional & isn’t afraid to achieve it. It is said that friendships forged in childhood are the ones that last the longest & it is just that for Abhi & Uma. They stay in touch with each other through these regular, uninterrupting letters that chronicle the various happenings of their lives. They share every little detail of their lives with each other, be it as significant as a heartbreak or a failed marriage or a fatal malady or as trivial as most recent crush or an anecdote or an amusing family member. They lean on each other in times of sorrow, share their dreams & longings, understand the said as well as the unsaid alike, ask for advice, argue and tease each other, and laugh with each other – and everything of this through letters. For Abhi, who is in London, there is nothing at all that appeals him or binds him to India, except his friendship with Uma. For Uma, who is in India, Abhi is the only confidant with whom she shares her true desires without the fear of being judged. And as their life happens, one letter at a time, the reader gets a glimpse into their worlds – through their eyes.

I am sure everyone will agree that there is something about handwritten letters – a certain old world charm that is associated with it, makes them something special, something tantalizingly personal. They ooze of intimacy and provide the warmth even without the physical presence of the person writing it. And writing a novel that consists of only letters is an elusive job, the book might end up being impersonal where the readers cannot just relate with it. However, this read is quite the contrary, it is a heart-warming blend of emotions that keep you hooked till the very end. Madhumita has taken two characters with strong albeit different personalities & has developed them through their respective letters. They both gain a fresh perspective from each other & grow with each other. The writing is extremely simple and lovely that makes each and every letter wonderful in its own way. The editing doesn’t disappoint as well, which is really required these days.

If you’re looking for a unique read that will really please you, then The Other Side Of The Table is a great choice. A decade worth of letters, a poignant narration and a subtle romance make this novel a riveting read. Pick it up over the weekend and I assure you that you will breeze through it and will be left wanting for some more.

Find the best prices for The Other Side Of The Table by Madhumita Mukherjee at ShoppingWish.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Monsoon Memories by Renita D'Silva

Title : Monsoon Memories
Author : Renita D’Silva
Genre : Fiction
Publisher : Bookouture
Pages : 410
My Rating : 9/10
Reviewed For : Publisher / First Reads Challenge 2013 /
South Asian Challenge 2013 / IQRC 2013



“English rain smelt and tasted of nothing at all. It had none of the fury, the passion of the monsoons. Instead, it was weak; half-hearted.”

Exiled from her family in India for more than a decade, Shirin and her husband lead a comfortable but empty life in London.
Memories of her childhood – exotic fragrances, colours, stifling heat and tropical storms – fill Shirin with a familiar and growing ache for the land and the people that she loves.
With the recollections though, come dark clouds of scandal and secrets. Secrets that forced her to flee her old life and keep her from ever returning.
Thousands of miles away, in Bangalore, the daughter of Shirin’s brother discovers a lost, forgotten photograph. One that has escaped the flames.
Determined to solve the mystery of an aunt she never knew, Reena’s efforts will set in place a chain of events that expose the painful trauma of the past and irrevocably change the path of the future.

An unforgettable journey through a mesmerizing, passionate land of contrasts – and a family whose story will touch your heart.

My Review:

Every once in a while, comes along a newbie author who takes you by absolute surprise and transports you to a place where you stop thinking that you are reading a debut work. Monsoon Memories by Renita D’Silva was one such read for me - it mesmerised me with its poignant narration and heart-warming story and kept me hooked to the book till the last page. The story keeps oscillating between the frosty winters of London and tropical monsoons of India, between the past and the present and is yet seamlessly interwoven by the author.

The plot revolves around Shirin & Reena – Shirin, who is living a life that has crumpled and fallen apart in pieces by demons of her past and Reena, a 11-year old girl, an aspiring detective who idolises Nancy Drew. As the plot moves on we come to know that Shirin has been exiled from her family in India, literally cut out like a vestigial organ forcing her to shift to London with her husband. However, the ghosts of her past follow her around everywhere like a nightmare and her life becomes a mere shadow of her dark past. Meanwhile in Mangalore, Reena who is Shirin’s niece, discovers an old, ancient even, hidden family photo at her grandmother’s house, with a mystery girl whom Reena has never seen before. Inspired by Nancy Drew, Reena embarks on a detective hunt to find out who this woman is but instead unknowingly ends up opening Pandora’s Box.

This read, from the outset, plunges into Shirin’s life which has gone through an upheaval and has left her bereft of the place and people whom she loves the most. The plot progresses through two parallel narratives – one from Shirin’s view point while the other from her 11-year old niece Reena. As a result of this, we get a glimpse of how each & every incident is perceived by both the protagonists without the plot getting repetitive & blasé. As the plot unfolds, the author uncovers each hidden secret, each small fact – layer by layer and the readers get an insight into the Shirin’s painful & troubled past. Another highlight of this read is the way the author has portrayed the secondary characters. Each and every character is given a distinct voice and attribute. The author has done an amazing work at drawing out each of their emotions, their actions as well as inactions, their regrets, vulnerability – each of which has a reason associated to it.

Even though this read followed both Shirin & Reena’s journey to self-discovery, Shirin stood out to me through and through like a star. Although her life lies in broken pieces, she tries to pick up each & every piece and tries to live with them every day. Needless to say, she is easy to sympathize with, the reader’s will feel her pain, her guilt, her sacrifice, her yearning & the self-imposed exile that she throws herself into. Coming to Reena, though she is 11-year old inching towards her teens, she is way more matured & wise for her age. A rebel from the outset, her wit, humour and investigative antics make sure that the readers have a soft spot for her.

The author has based this read around many thought-provoking themes – the changing dynamics in family & relationships, the social demands and obligations, the details surrounding arranged marriages in India and the burden of holding the family name & its esteem. Renita has intricately captured all these issues into the storyline. Another aspect of the narrative was the author’s style of writing. Renita has a way with describing each and every detail and incorporating it into the storyline that the reader is literally transported to the world described in this read. The sensorial details are beautifully written and paint a vivid & exotic impression on the reader.

All in all, this is a captivating read of a journey towards home & self-discovery. An impressive and engrossing work from a debut author. Will definitely recommend this one and also look out for other books from Renita.