fiction or fact

What Shilpa Shetty taught us about the art of reading novels is revealed in these 35 mini-reviews

It’s the context, stupid.

I write here some short reviews of novels I have read over the years. As a student of literature, history and politics, and as a disgruntled self-reflexive Bengali, readers may find this list narrow, parochial and bitter. In which case, my foray into literary criticism will be justified and vindicated.

One disclaimer: no offence is meant to the actress named Shilpa Shetty who has been subject to merciless internet trolling. In fact, the misplaced elitist intellectual rage directed against her for her blithe reading of Animal Farm leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. As a teacher of mine once told me, we are not what we read but how we read. Part of being an ethical reader is respecting (even if differing from) the interpretations given by others.

And so:

Books about class

A House for Mr Biswas: Muslim middle-class professional has to assume a Hindu name to rent an apartment in Indian metropolis.

Love in the Time of Cholera: Indian coolie discovers that he has found true love in missionary woman who cleans the overflowing faeces.

Midnight’s Children: Immigrant elite South Asians discover that partying is over for the night as the last tube in London left at 11.57pm.

This Side of Paradise: Facebook activists based in mainland India discover that physically travelling to Kashmir is hazardous.

For Whom the Bells Toll: Dalit is thrown out of temple.

Crime and Punishment: In India, upper-caste people commit crimes and Muslims and Dalits face punishment.

L’Étranger: Variously translated as The Stranger and The Outsider, the novel is a compelling read about a privileged existentialist who recently lost his mother and killed a Muslim. Why did he kill the Muslim? Because he can. The death of the Muslim is a mildly shocking digression in the narrative of self-development and discovery.

The Lord of the Rings: Astrologer realises that Indians (despite such various ideological bents as Communism, Physics, Medicine, Government and Engineering) will buy rings because a ruby or emerald will truly channel all the energy floating about between Mars and Jupiter.

Books about politics

My Name is Red: CPI(M) Politburo shout themselves hoarse trying to convince others that they are Communist, and, furiously sobbing, drive away in a limousine, glaring at the proletariat.

The Godfather: Bal Thackeray dies, only to receive a state funeral.

Howl: The prime minister cries when reprimanded for the suffering of the poor, blames the Reserve Bank of India.

Brave New World: Bhakts find their utopia, a cashless society, in the wake of demonetisation in India.

Swing Time: Non-Bhakts swing from poles and trees, to the beats of Coldplay, in this cashless society (see above).

The Home and the World: JNU graduate student suddenly becomes all-India leader. But a dissertation lies in the balance. Which to do first? Meanwhile, a riot breaks out...

Invisible Man: We had a very good prime minister once.

The Red Badge of Courage: Award for the valiant Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for forceful land acquisition in 2007, despite being a true Mayakovsky in heart and soul, if not in the quality of poetry produced.

Beloved: They say that Priyanka Gandhi will return to revive the Indian National Congress.

Disgrace: What Nitish Kumar secretly told Laloo Prasad Yadav behind closed doors in the last Bihar election, while also being relieved that Manjhi was out of it all.

One Hundred Years of Solitude: Mahatma Gandhi’s face breaks into an unnatural and forlorn smile on a Rs 2,000 currency note. They say he looks tacky. Maybe he shouldn’t have been so racist in South Africa....karma is such a bitch.

The Trial: Bereaved mother of missing son goes to court, to police, to politician. Is beaten up. It has been two months since the boy is missing. In India, it is the victim who is ashamed, not the perpetrator.

Waiting for the Mahatma: At the ATM, the queues mount, and the old man becomes a guerrilla fighter waiting for a glimpse of the Rs 2,000 currency note.

Around the World in Eighty Days: Travel itinerary of Prime Minister.

The Man Without Qualities: Disgruntled supporter barks at Kejriwal.

Books about Bengalis

Lolita: A coy 17-year-old Bengali bride learns how to love despite property disputes, in an (un)happy family comprising mother-in-law, aunt-in-law 1, aunt-in-law 2, brothers-in-law x 3, sisters-in-law x 2, nephews x 6, nieces x 12, uncle-in-law 1, uncle-in-law 2, and ineffectual middle-aged husband who is a lawyer.

Emma: Bengali laments over the state of his digestion and the conditions of public toilets in the subcontinent.

The Sound and the Fury: How the Bengali suffered after drinking too much laxative.

The Tale of Genji: Bengali discovers that wearing a shirt without an inner vest leads to uncomfortable sweat patches. However, wearing genji means you can’t unbutton the top chest button to attract a woman. Who wants to see your genji? Miserable Bengali reads relevant literature to find out that genji absorbs sweat and keeps you cool.

The Big Sleep: Bengali has had mutton curry on a Sunday. Matinee show or siesta time? Haha, syar, rhetorical question.

The Inheritance of Loss: Bengali goes to Kalimpong and discovers that ethnic communities in North Bengal are more than one – is flabbergasted and sings Rabindrasangeet.

Sea of Poppies: Bengali dies from an overdose of posto one Sunday afternoon lunch.

Books about non-Bengalis

River of Smoke: Delhi-ite discovers that visibility is zero after Diwali, bursts a firecracker in despair.

Flood of Fire: Bored housewives discover that it is okay to hook up with your sister-in-law if your husband is cheating on you, circa 1996. The LQBTQI community is outraged at the trivialisation of same sex love.

Catch-22: IIT engineer is faced with the impossible choice of settling in the West. His options are Trump’s US and May’s UK. Spoilt for choice, he moves to Cuba.

The Circle of Reason: Tam-Brahm tries to explain that caste is reasonable, because prejudice can be perfectly explained with mathematical logic.

Point Counter Point: Arnab Goswami makes a point. Then he counters himself. Then he makes another point. Then he pats himself on the back. The interviewee goes home, silently sobbing.

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