Adichie provides a glimpse of that half of a yellow sun

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Year of Publication: 2006

“Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafran flag: swaths of red, black, and green and, at the centre, a luminous half of a yellow sun. “Biafra is born! We will lead Black Africa! We will live in security! Nobody will ever again attack us! Never again!””

So begins the tale of the short-lived nation of Biafra, traced and remembered in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel that takes its name from that Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a personal book for Adichie who was born seven years after the Biafran war, and she bases it on interviews with family members and the pain that still flares up in the complicated Nigerian geo-polity. It delves into the lives and stories of people from different strata of society in the backdrop of the independence of Nigeria in 1960, the dual military coups, the secession of the Igbo-majority Biafra, and the subsequent war and starvation that shocked the world.

Odenigbo, a professor at the Nsukka University, lives with his partner, Olanna — a sociologist from an elite business family in Lagos, and house-servant, Ugwu, in relative bliss, with a horde of friends that visit on evenings, talking of revolutionary ideas and the impact of colonialism and politics in Africa. Their lives intersect with that of Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene, and her boyfriend, Richard, a British expatriate writing a book on the Igbo culture.

Their bubble is burst when Olanna encounters the massacre of the Igbo population (more prosperous and a majority in the Southwest region) in the Northern parts of the country.

“Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl’s head with the ashy-grey skin and the plaited hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed. The woman closed the calabash. “Do you know,” she said, “It took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.”

By humanising the lives of people and their sufferings and their hopes in an instrumental decade in the history of Nigeria, Adichie takes back the narrative of the beginning of Biafra and its eventual defeat. This narrative was for long colonised by the white people who marvelled at the kind of starvation and death seen in that period, which came to govern perceptions about Africa worldwide.

Focusing on the daily life of the refugees as they fled into the internal parts of the region as more cities fell, we get to feel the squalid places where they lived and the ways they survived, when food was scarce and no medical help available, with her careful tone and vivid language. Adichie provides a real picture of the depravity of war, sectarian tensions, politics of power, violence and brutality, and its impact on gender and family relations while remaining true to the emotional and physical state of these people.

The book lags in pace in between, especially with the finer details of the opulence of Olanna’s family, Richard’s tryst with writing, and the gatherings at Odenigbo’s house. Some of these trite descriptions interrupt the flow of reading, but at the same time, it sharpens the contrast in relation to the parts that focus on life during the war.

Her decision to stick to the narratives of three characters — Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard — provides further depth to the story, with its many facets sifted through distinct perspectives. Its foray into familial, romantic, and sexual relationships is honest and beautiful as well. Through side characters like Odenigbo’s mother, Harrison, and Okeoma among others, the author draws you deeper into the story and the setting.

It is one of the most important reads in the successful repertoire of Adichie’s writings, taking further the legacy of authors like Chinua Achebe. It is a must-read for the “ignoramuses”, who have an oblique view of Africa, to understand the complex histories of different regions and countries, and focus on Nigeria and Biafra in this case.

Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Let’s begin with what is to be said at the end. There is a certain bewildering sense of acknowledgement that this book can’t be reviewed in terms of common nuances related to plot lines and character development, which are usual in case of a novel. One can see that Roy has an exceptional craftsmanship but its resulting art is something you would gawk at with a scrunched up face, because there are elements which would leave you emotionally drained and then there are others which are plain awkward.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has one of the most beautiful beginnings, with allusions and metaphors and motifs and motives, clearly etched in every single word. It sets a certain mood which unfortunately doesn’t last. The poetic prose is something to cherish all through the book indeed, just that it comes heavy handed sometimes.

The storyline follows the trajectory of contemporary India, from the streets of old Delhi and activism hub of Jantar Mantar to war-torn and militarized Kashmir valley and the lush tribal forests of Central India. It seems to work out an interwoven tale of characters who are seeped in the political ideology of the author. Emotions are parlayed in favor of politics and politics is parlayed in favor of preaching in its exploration.

The characters work well enough – the Hijra, Anjum and the eccentric architect/activist/traitor, Tilottama or Tilo (modeled after the author herself) have gripping tales of pain and coming of age and political maturity, while the secondary characters create the interconnecting web through their identification as a Dalit masquerading as a Muslim, a Kashmiri militant, a civil servant, a charismatic reporter, a military commander, an Imam confidante, et al – it’s still burdensome to encompass the depth of such important issues like military occupancy, tribal rights, caste conflict, religious fundamentalism, third gender struggle in one piece of text even through such myriad characters, so much so that it just comes out hollow.

With such writing devices as letters and random scribbles on pages and manifestos and poetry, all the tropes succeed to some degree in telling a shattered story. But it’s not by slowly becoming everything or even everybody.

It’s a good book but it could have been something so profound – how though – it is hard to tell. That “lack of” though just can’t be overlooked and that undoes wherever it was headed.

Book Review: A Fine Balance

A Fine BalanceA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, takes you on a whirlwind of a ride through some of the most difficult years of independent India, portraying its four main characters and a myriad of secondary ones, who face the problems of caste and communal violence, discrimination, poverty, “gundaraj” and the dreadful Emergency.

Emergency is a controversial period of India’s history. The elected PM, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, was accused of election rigging by the Allahabad High Court, which was followed by demands for her resignation. In order to stay in power, she(with the voice of the President) declared Emergency in 1975, supposedly to protect the country from internal disturbances and thereby suspending all the Fundamental Rights of the citizens. All her rivals, including members of opposition, trade unions, student unions, etc. were put in prison.

The novel begins with a chance meeting of two tailors, Ishwar Darji and his nephew, Omprakash Darji with a student, Maneck Kohlah on the local train in an unnamed city by the sea (Mumbai), who are all going to meet the same person, Mrs. Deena Dayal. The two tailors are to be hired by Mrs. Dayal for sewing clothes for an export company, and Maneck, who is the son of Deena’s childhood friend, is going to be a paying guest at her place.

We are then made aware about the background of the four characters. Deena strives to be an independent widow, the two tailors have come from the bitter experience of losing their family to caste violence, and Maneck has been sent by his parents to study in a college to get a diploma in air conditioning and refrigeration, which they consider to be a safe choice for their son’s future in the technically growing country.

Under the period of Emergency, each faces the perils associated with life. The two tailors are once kidnapped as a member of falsely gathered crowd for PM’s speech, they become prey to the demonic beautification(losing their jhopadpatti house and condemned to forced labor) and forced sterilization programs, brought about by the dictatorial reign. Deena continues to face the possibility of losing her house and Maneck is emotionally disturbed by the horrors he see taking place around him.

At its center, this novel narrates how these people come to live under the same roof, sharing food, and constituting a family like bond. Dina slowly begins to recognize tailors as someone equal, denouncing her prejudice towards their caste.

“In the WC, the tailors’ urine smell that used to flutter like a flag in the air, and in Dina’s nose, grew unnoticeable….Then it struck her: the scent was unobtrusive now because it was the same for everyone.”

The tailors grow fond of Dina and find a haven for themselves, sleeping in her veranda. Maneck gets over his depression over the world around him and life and makes some genuine friends. But everything changes. Such few moments of high turn into the worst fates imaginable. Rohinton Mistry, propagates a creation of a fine balance in life, of despair and hope, of struggle and survival.

“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.’ He paused, considering what he had just said. ‘Yes’, he repeated. ‘In the end, it’s all a question of balance.”

But in the end, everyone loses everything that is vital. Everything decays, the despair wins over the hope and lives are irrevocably changed.

The most striking feature about this work is its true to life scenario and the character sketch and development is impeccable. Rohinton Mistry succeeds in explaining the hardships of the common man of India, through his powerful narrative and story line.

With the tale of intertwining fates and separation, this book pictures how it was and how it still is in some parts of India. The author must further be praised for such secondary characters like the Monkey Man, the hair collector, the Beggarmaster, the Rent collector, the Inspector, etc.

I would recommend this book to anyone willing to read something of significance and something that would make you empathize with the people around you in a new way. It must be taken into account though that it is a sensitive and depressing read.

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I have been left in tears by only a few books. This is one of those books, which stirred such emotions like despair and helplessness in me. I thus wept for all that happens in the world and all that is brought forth by the interminable tide of time.

“What an unreliable thing is time–when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair. …. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.”

Book Review: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is a much talked about book, narrating a teenage love story, where the two central characters are portrayed as misfits in their high school. The book tries to focus on certain issues related to race, gender roles and identity, with a certain focus on abusive and disruptive families.

In a few words, my views do not correspond with that of Mr. John Green (an author I admire) in his New York Times review of the book.

The book is set in 1986 in Omaha, Nebraska. To summarize, the book begins promisingly with a half-Korean teen boy, Park, who is fed up of the “morons” at the back of his school bus, when a new girl (dressed in some ways like a guy or rather as someone seeking attention), Eleanor, boards the bus. She fails to find a seat for herself and ends up sitting along side that “stupid Asian kid”. Sharing seats soon transforms into a friendship, and furthermore into a romantic relationship, as Park begins lending his books and starts making mix tapes for her.

Eleanor comes from a troubled family, living in fear in the shadow of her abusive stepfather. And thus, she begins a relationship with Park in private, with all her insecurities bound within. Thus begins long monologues which are supposed to make teenagers teary eyed and make them feel warm and fuzzy. With anecdotes like, “I want to eat his face”, “He is so pretty”, “She has freckles even on her lips”, etc., the book, without any attainable pace, moves on, until Eleanor finds out something terrible that she makes a decision to run away. Park comes to her rescue.

To add into the mysterious note (which this book is not supposed to create, but I would, so as to make the review a tad bit more interesting), what would happen next? Will her stepfather catch her? What would happen to the relationship? Will hearts be broken?

This book is appealing to the fans of authors like John Green and Sarah Dessen.

What I liked about the Book?

1. It is an easy read, and thus, I found it alright to read, paying only half my attention to what was going on.

What I didn’t like about the Book?

1. The entire setting and development is flawed. The narration, whether of school life or Park’s internal discord, whether of Eleanor’s tragic home or of the romantic development, never becomes concrete. An attribution to reality is what this book lacks in. And that is something important for YA and coming of age books. I would put this book in the category overflowing with Nicholas Sparks’ works.

2. The book fails in addressing social issues which it only strives to achieve. The racism is only referred to in sidelines. There is no difficulty faced by Park as such on being half-Korean. Bullying and abusive parents are the issues that might evoke a small response on the part of the reader.

3. The intimate scenes/passages in the book are quite cheesy. The writing is only half good. The back and forth point of view is distracting.

4. The ending is a little abrupt but that is alright. The problem is that it is done in such a way to make the readers swoon and eager to know what happens next. If the author actually wanted to keep the ending abstract, the book could have finished a few pages short of the actual ending. It was deliberately done to evoke discussions on social forums and to add into the charm that teenagers find in such books.

I would recommend fans of YA only, to read this book. This book is not for the readers, seeking a coming of age tale or an adult romance. This book is only good as long as you want a peaceful, simple and uncomplicated reading experience. This book just won’t make you think. And so, if you want a distraction from your thoughts, you might want to give it a try.

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(My review might sound a little blunt but that is how I felt about the book. I failed to empathize with the characters. Many would call me heartless, to which I would reply that my heart works in correspondence with my mind.)

Book Review: Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

Sons and LoversSons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sons and Lovers by David Herbert Lawrence is a profound novel about love if explained in a few words. And yet, you can’t limit it to that. Published in 1913, it received a lukewarm response but today, it is considered a classic masterpiece by many. How the book discusses the complexity of love and relationships and draws a contrast between nature and industry is, according to me, quite exceptional!

The story begins with a landscape of a mining town, urging the readers to see everything as it is. The third party omniscient narration first talks about Mrs. Gertrude Morel, who has married a miner, someone who is downward in caste to her people. Morel is an illiterate, an alcoholic and a simple-minded man, with violent outbursts towards his wife and kids. Taking it fast forward, Mrs. Morel has three sons(William, Paul, and Arthur) and a daughter(Annie), all of whom despise their father in their own ways, with a slight exception of the youngest boy, Arthur.

The mother who has never found happiness from her husband strives to look for it in her sons. In some way, she takes first the eldest, William, and then, the second eldest, Paul, as her lovers. (The story is not about incest, but rather about deep-rooted feelings of companionship and adoration)

But her love for them makes all their lives crumble. The two sons could never love any woman through and through and that is what makes them miserable and suicidal. Paul (a character envisaged in similarity to the author himself) derives a bond of spiritual love with a farmer’s daughter, Miriam, who worships him. They have a relationship of mind, intellect and spirit. Paul also begins a passionate affair with a married woman, Mrs. Clare Dawes, who stays away from her husband. The harder they may try, they could never have Paul as a whole person.

Paul’s relationship with his mother is mingled with love and its produce, hatred. Sometimes, they are lovers enjoying a visit to different places and sometimes, they are distant to each other, brooding in their own worlds. Mrs. Morel could not approve of her sons’ lovers, her sons can’t devote themselves to their lovers, the lovers can never have enough of the sons, and everyone suffers in this overwhelming propinquity.

In the nexus of these characters, Lawrence brings forth a story of coming of age, of family, of love and hate, of relationships that are indefinable.

Some thoughts about the book:

1. The book was quite scandalous on its release, with its open portrayal of sex and related symbolic imagery. Lawrence has a knack for depicting the sensual moments in the form of colors, textures, and flowers, depicted in the scene.

2. The three lady characters: Mrs. Morel, Miriam, and Clara, form a circle around the male protagonist, Paul.
Mrs. Morel is the conscientious mother who has devoted her life and love to her sons. She derives happiness from Paul’s successes in painting. Paul succeeds for his mother. They have a bond deeply rooted in their need for each other. They make a whole, which no one is allowed to penetrate and if one does, one can’t stay for long. This relationship is naturally attributed to The Oedipean complex.

3. Miriam is my favorite character in the novel, and the most intricately structured, according to me. She is shy, introvert and deeply religious and finds first intellect and then, a love that goes beyond the realms of the world, in Paul. She is someone who lives for the afterlife much more than the life itself. Paul describes her love as, “You don’t want to love-your eternal and abnormal craving is to be loved. You aren’t positive, you’re negative. You absorb, absorb, as if you must fill yourself up with love, because you’ve got a shortage somewhere.”

4. Clara is a feminist, and yet, she is confused in her resolve. She is stuck between her husband and her lover, Paul. Paul’s relationship with Clara is that of passion, which withers with time. Clara is not the main character, but you can’t ignore her either.

5. The writing is impeccable; the sentences are short and poetic. The words weave living and breathing images and the complexity of love is so finely articulated in these pages. This is a book which tends to get boring in between due to repetition, but that repetition is also necessary. It is quite long and is intended to be read patiently. It took me about 8-9 days for reading it.
Quoting an excerpt from the novel,
“To know their own nothingness, to know the tremendous living flood which carried them always, gave them rest within themselves. If so great a magnificent power could overwhelm them, identify them altogether with itself, so that they knew they were only grains in the tremendous heave that lifted every grass blade, its little height, and every tree, and living thing, then why fret about themselves?”

Why indeed!

I would recommend this book to patient readers, who love the art of language and the need for the understanding of love and relationships. It is quite a depressing read, and that must be taken into account before you decide to hurl yourself into this story.

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