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The Surveyor – A journey across generations

The SurveyorTitle: The Surveyor
Author: Ira Singh
Publisher: Picador India (Pan Macmillan)
Published on: September 10, 2014
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 288
ISBN: 978-9382616276
Rating: 4/5

With beautifully-crafted prose, Ira Singh in her debut book The Surveyor (Picador India), brings to life the story of Ravinder on his years in the Survey of India, albeit through eyes of his child, Natasha. The narrative is a journey in itself — it straddles several decades and generations, starting with Natasha, moving to Ravinder and then back to Natasha again, travelling back and forth through memories and conversations. There are also individual stories of Ravinder’s wife Jennifer Robbins and two children, through which Ira examines the perplexity of their identities using historical events as frames. The vein of the book, however, is the cultural commentary of various generations, capturing the zeitgeist of the Loralai community and Anglo-Indians through 1947 to 1991, the pain of separation and belonging and of freedom and accomplishment.

Speaking about the book, Ira notes, “I wanted to write a story about a father and daughter — their separate stories and the story of this family, of the sisters and the peculiar position the family occupies, as well as writing about particular, cataclysmic historical moments in this country.”

Each sentence in the book is written with literary precision, layered with elegiac prose and poetic semblance, each instance, well crafted and each character, well etched. The evocative beauty of the country’s topography are also given their due — her characters travel far and wide exploring various aspects of the subcontinent and beyond. Ira says that, for the purposes of the book, she read the historical records of the survey and other related material. This and her interviews of her father and his colleague gave her a deep understanding of cartography. She says, “My father was in the Survey of India, but he was not, like Ravinder, passionate about it. Talking to him and his colleague helped me get a sense of the lives they lived when they joined the Survey.”

Ira Singh For Ira, who now teaches English Literature at Delhi University’s Miranda House, her literary journey started when she was in the twenties, writing short stories. Soon after, she started working on a novel which bore resemblance to The Surveyor. But it was not something that she pursued. She confesses, “It was Ravinder’s story, but told in a very different voice. I couldn’t persevere, it felt wrong.”

Around the same time she also started to pen Natasha’s story, but it too was a futile attempt. In her words: “It was a random, disconnected fragmentary form.” She adds, “In order to keep writing something — and also to make a quick buck! — I wrote book reviews, many of them. I found reviewing very pleasurable, for a variety of reasons. Writing articles, too, interested me, as specific responses to issues, some of which I dealt with all the time in the classroom, with students of Literature in the University.” She discovered a voice for the novel later, in what has now become The Surveyor.

One of the authors Ira admires the most is Javier Marias, essentially for his style of writing. “His sentences, they’re very long, with clauses studding them, but he exhibits absolute and perfect control over them,” she expresses. In the last few years, she has been smitten by a diverse mix of writers, all of whom have had a bearing on her psyche. “At this point, I devour Coetzee, Carver, Bellow, McGahern, Bolano. But at other times, there were Anita Brookner, Lessing, Morrison, Delillo, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Mishima, to name a few. I also consumed biographies, gulped them down. I read a lot of detective fiction, particularly Nordic crime. And then in recent Indian writing in English: Jeet Thayil and Jaspreet Singh. As a writer all you have loved and read stays with you and shapes you.”

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 14, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Fiction, Pan Macmillan | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crime visits the corporate corridors

FraudsterTitle: Fraudster
Author: RV Raman
Publisher: Hachette India
Published on: July 2014
Genre: Fiction, Crime fiction, Thriller, Financial thriller
Pages: 272
ISBN: 9789350098004
Rating: 4/5

Fraudster is an amusing work by first-time author, RV Raman, challenging some of the stereotypes in the genre of thrillers. It is a crime fiction but does not revolve around knife-wielding killers or mere hapless victims. It is a financial thriller set in the corporate world, but doesn’t include credit card frauds and account hacking. At the centre of the book is a scam pertaining to dubious loans issued by corrupt bank practices to spurious real estate companies. “When we think of banking fraud, what usually comes to mind are things like credit card fraud, phishing, account hacking. But the real elephant in the room that few talk about is loan-related fraud. I looked around and realised that not many had written a novel about that.Things fell into place, and out came Fraudster,” says the author who was formerly the head of KPMG’s consulting practice.

A death opens the story, only to be followed by more bodies — a renowned bank chairman and an employee of an accounting firm among the few who are killed. Then there is an attempt to hack into one of the accounting firm’s servers, again suggesting foul play. All along the narrative are references to loan frauds and devious stratagems and thrown amidst the complex financial manipulation are some red herrings which make the climax slightly dramatic.

However, it does involve elements which are not entirely new, the book itself wrapped in layers of non-fiction. Raman admits that readers might have seen parallels in some aspects with their own experience in the corporate world. But as far as the characters are concerned, he has taken particular care not to base them on real people, instead just referencing real attitudes. “I didn’t want that to happen even inadvertently. I’ve gone to the extent of googling combinations of names, designations and occupations to eliminate any parallels to real-life. However, I will say that the character attitudes and outlooks you see in Fraudster are very much based on reality,” he says.

The way the book is pieced together is remarkable, in that it looks nicely webbed, though a non-chronological handling of the narrative would have suited it better. The book meanders through characters working in banks, private equity firms, accounting firms and corporate entities and even has a bunch of corrupt politicians, all of whom have their own stories to tell. But Raman has interconnected them in a manner that does not leave any loose ends.

Writing crime fiction is not always easy. It is de rigueur for writers to follow a set of compelling characters and cite a plot-line that is realistic but not entirely mundane. RV Raman, in his first attempt at being an author, has taken life in the corporate corridors he has known only too well, and has turned it into something teeming with compelling stories.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 7, 2014

Categories: Books, Crime Fiction, Fiction, Hachette | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stone Mattress: The queen of dark yarn shows her best yet again

Stone MattressTitle: Stone Mattress: Nine Tales
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: September
Pages: 288
ISBN: 9780385539128
Rating: 5/5

Good short stories are rare to come by. Not all novelists are adept at writing short stories, for such works do not have the luxury of a whole book to capture the reader’s interest. In my mind, very few have achieved this feat. I love Alice Munro for her captivating short takes, or Tanith Lee, who, some say, writes better short stories than novels or James Joyce, for his wonderful book, Dubliners. And then there’s Margaret Atwood, who is an accomplished novelist as she is a short story writer.

Stone Mattress, her latest book is one such masterpieces she has produced in her 50 years in the publishing industry. A missive with nine stories, some written or narrated by her in the course of her career, these stories are nothing short of exquisite. Her characters are old but feisty, callow but bold, self-aware but bohemian, lonely but free-spirited and her stories question the rules of gender, genre and age.

One may say, the collection has a theme, the theme of the transcending power of the story itself, as Atwood alludes in the afterword. It is no surprise, that those of who have devoured Atwood in the past, will find the stories imaginative and compelling, where her writing makes something magical out of the mundane.

The first story, Alphinland forms part of a (loosely put) trilogy. The subsequent stories are Revenant and Dark Lady which delve into the lives of a fantasy fiction writer, a dying poet and a muse/ex-lover.

This is followed by Lusus Naturae or ‘freak of nature’, which is one of the works which was previously published.  The other stories in the book The Dead Hand Loves You, The Freeze-Dried Groom, Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth and Torching the Dusties are equally laden with affliction. But the best, perhaps, is the ‘Stone Mattress’ which lends the book its title. Originally published in the New Yorker, the story about Verna who is raped at 14 and who now tries to avenge the brutality caused to her, is sharp and gritty and hits you with brute humour.

In her book Negotiating With the Dead, Atwood pondered: “Writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.” This book, which is her 55th, illuminates themes that are dark and heavy, where the characters are plagued by inner demons and a desire to avenge the deeds done to them when they were young; the book satisfies you in a way that only Atwood can.

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