A Month of Reading – June 2021

These are the books I read in June, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, classics and memoir. All were very good, but my favourites were the Edith Wharton and Sigrid Nunez. Here is a brief look at the books…

TIESDomenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

 The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. 

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children. 

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time.

OLD NEW YORKEdith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. 

All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

THE FRIENDSigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

The friend’s third wife does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. In a nutshell, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

NO PRESENTS PLEASE: MUMBAI STORIES – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Published by Tilted Axis Press, No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai. These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

THE RED PARTS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A TRIAL – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. Even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. But maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

A MONTH IN SIENAHisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s fascination with the Sienese School of painting can be traced back to when the author was nineteen years old. It was 1990 and he had lost his father that year. Hisham’s father was living in exile in Cairo, and suddenly one afternoon, was kidnapped and flown back to Libya. He never met his father after that.

A year later Hisham started visiting the National Gallery and became absorbed with a slew of Sienese paintings. He could not really figure out why, but one can assume that being lost in these paintings offered some sort of a refuge and a way to think about the world around him.

Decades later, with no idea of his father’s whereabouts or even if he was alive, Hisham decides to finally visit Siena, the birthplace of the paintings that captured his imagination. As he visits art galleries, museums, chapels, and the city square, Hisham reflects on the big questions of loss, grief, faith, violence, the purpose of art and its relationship with life.

He forges new friendships, is touched by the hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, and grapples with the concept of faith and how it was severely tested in the Middle Ages when the Black Death swept across most of Europe and the Middle East, ravaging the countries and reducing their populations by almost half.

Matar’s writing is understated and elegant, as he beautifully articulates his thoughts on a variety of topics. His exploration of Siena evokes nostalgia for what makes Europe so unique – abundance of art museums, pretty squares and the luxury of sitting at a pavement cafe in the summer sun savouring a glass of wine. Reading A Month in Siena really felt like armchair travelling to my favourite continent…at a time when overseas trips seem pretty nigh impossible.

That was it for June. July is turning out to be a tough month because of a personal emergency, and my reading has taken a big hit. But as and when I’m finding the time, I am alternating between Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

In 1969, Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer was found dead in a cemetery in Michigan having reportedly died of two gunshot wounds. A stocking found around her neck was used to strangulate her thereafter. Her body was then dragged to the cemetery and left there, while all her personal belongings were carefully gathered and laid beside her body. Jane was on her way home for spring break, and had advertised for a car ride to her home on the college message board. She was not seen since then until her body was discovered a few miles away from the campus.

Jane’s murderer was never found. At around the same time, there were a slew of young women who were murdered by a serial killer called John Norman Collins – these killings were labeled the Michigan Murders – and it was presumed that Collins had also killed Jane although it could not be effectively proved and Collins himself denied having done so.

Meanwhile, the family moved on, but the spectre of her aunt’s death continued to haunt Maggie, who had never met her aunt. She had just released a book of poems on her called “Jane: A Murder” and goes on to describe how the whole process of trying to make sense of that murder consumed her.

But then a phone call that Maggie’s mother received in November 2004 put a new spin on things and altered their world. The Detective Sergeant on the case – Schroeder – informed them of having uncovered new DNA evidence which led to the arrest of the suspect. Profile-wise, the person charged – Gary Leiterman – was nothing like what Maggie had envisaged as her aunt’s potential murderer. A family man and mild mannered, there was no way of gauging why he would brutally murder Jane…the lack of motive was a mystery, but the science of DNA, which overwhelmingly pointed out to him, could not be ignored.

As far as the DNA samples go, there is one particularly fascinating chapter which ponders on the question of how precise DNA testing is. Besides Leiterman’s DNA on Jane’s clothes, there was a single drop of blood on her body that belonged to a prior convict Ruelas.  In 2004, Ruelas was an adult spending time in prison having murdered his mother, so he seemed like a likely suspect. But there was a problem. When Jane was murdered, Ruelas was a four-year old boy…obviously he can’t have killed Jane at that age, so how did his blood land up on her body?

One of the biggest themes that Nelson explores in this book is society’s relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women. She also touches upon how the murder of white women draws significant media attention, while the women of colour who are exposed to violence go unnoticed, as if all lives don’t equally matter.

While writing about her aunt, Nelson also reflects on her family – her parents’ divorce which bewilders her father, his subsequent death and the void it leaves in their lives, the difficulty of connecting with her then rebellious and wayward elder sister Emily, her love-hate relationship with her mom and last but not the least – the lack of warmth both Emily and she feel towards their stepfather.

Nelson particularly draws parallels between her aunt Jane and her sister Emily – both were rebels but paid a heavy price for not always conforming to societal expectations.

For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be ‘a man of the crowd,’ or, conversely, alone with Nature or your god. To make your claims on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.

It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. 

But more importantly, Nelson wrestles with the fact whether it’s even her right to write about her aunt, to present her story to the world, an aunt she never personally knew, and a story that is not Nelson’s in the first place.

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. Nelson’s grandfather (Jane’s father) particularly feels that he would rather have an un-convicted man look him in the eye and confess he killed Jane rather than have a convicted man spend the rest of his life in jail maintaining his innocence.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. For Nelson’s grandfather it feels like his daughter has died twice. Nelson’s mother recalls her fears when Jane was just murdered, that she might be the next in line. And after so many years, even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

The witnesses and detectives fold and unfold this towel many times, always with a certain solemnity and formality, as if it were a flag. But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their grave, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.

Nelson wonderfully combines elements of psychoanalysis, a personal memoir that is deeply touching and an interesting crime story with a forensic portrayal of all the details that come with it – the grisly photos of Jane’s dead body, the list of items marked as evidence and an analysis of the truly perplexing enigma of the discovery of a 4-year old’s blood on Jane’s body.

The Red Parts, then, is an honest, gripping and moving account of the painful aftermath of a heinous act being committed. Maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

But gradually a persona of the woman’s friend emerges. He was a professor teaching creative writing, and at one point she was his student. They have a brief affair, but their romantic relationship quickly peters out. And yet, they remain the best of friends, very close in fact, much to the envy and chagrin of his wives. We learn that the man was married thrice, but divorced twice. The wives are not named either but are referred to as Wife One, Wife Two, Wife Three. While his marriages, while they lasted, were unions based on love and passion, Wife One and Wife Two were always disturbed by the fact that they were never his confidantes in the way the narrator was.

Meanwhile, when Wife Three requests to meet our narrator, the latter is perturbed but she agrees. It seems that Wife Three has an unusual request. Now that her husband is no more, she does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. With a few failed relationships behind her and now quite alone, our narrator seeks solace in Apollo’s presence. She reads Rilke’s poems to him, takes him for walks to the park, and allows him to sleep on her bed, his huge bulk is a constant source of comfort to her.

It occurs to me that someone used to read to Apollo. Not that I think he was a trained certified therapy dog. But I believe that someone must have read aloud to him – or if not to him at least while he was present – and that his memory of that experience is a happy one.

Or maybe Apollo is a canine genius who has figured something out about me and books. Maybe he understands that, when I’m not feeling so great, losing myself in a book is the best thing I could do.

Our narrator also ponders on the intelligence of dogs, whether they are capable of feelings, and the endless trouble they endure of making themselves understood to a human.

She questions – Does a dog understand betrayal? For instance, she talks about mastiffs and their great size and how they are known for being fiercely protective and loyal to their masters. But let us suppose, the master decides to abandon it one day. Will that mastiff feel betrayed? After some contemplation, Nunez decides probably not. It is more likely that the main thing on the mastiff’s mind will be – Who will protect my master now?

Another point to think about – What do we really know about animal suffering? She cites that there is evidence of dogs and animals having a higher tolerance for pain than humans do. But their true capacity for suffering, like the true measure of their intelligence, must remain a mystery.

The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. Apollo grieves in his own way for his dead master and our narrator tries various tricks to draw him out like music and massage therapies. But it is apparent to us that the narrator is also profoundly affected by the loss of her dear friend.

The friend who is most sympathetic about my situation calls to ask how I am. I tell him about trying music and massage to treat Apollo’s depression, and he asks if I’ve considered a therapist. I tell him I’m skeptical about pet shrinks, and he says, That’s not what I meant.

Maybe, what she felt for him was something deeper, it could be that she was in love with him. She doesn’t readily acknowledge this, but we know that the two of them shared a special bond, which was not sexual, but one of lasting friendship, the kind where they could easily confide and talk to each other. When our narrator wonders why she is looking after his dog, she admits that perhaps on some subconscious level, she is hoping that the love she displays towards Apollo will bring her dead friend back too.

As Apollo gradually becomes an intrinsic part of our narrator’s life, she realizes that she has been shunning her friends and acquaintances and veering more and more towards solitude. She becomes increasingly obsessed with his care to the point that she prefers his company rather than to reach out for any sort of human connection.

He has to forget you. He has to forget you and fall in love with me. That’s what has to happen.

In a way, the novel is akin to a letter that the narrator is writing to her late friend, she addresses him as ‘you’ throughout the book. Nunez’s writing is simple, lucid…and to emphasize her ideas, she relies on anecdotes and interesting references, be it books, films or newspaper articles. She particularly focuses on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip, and the intense love Ackerley felt for his pet, almost as if they were in a serious relationship. That book is new to me but I did read his We Think the World of You many years ago, which I thought was brilliant. The other book frequently mentioned is Coetzee’s Disgrace.

Filled with wry observations and keen insights into friendship, the nature of love, suicide and its implications, the art of writing and whether it is the right medium to process grief and so on, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

No Presents Please – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Tilted Axis Press is a doing a wonderful job of publishing Asian fiction and thanks to them I have discovered the writing of Jayant Kaikini, and more specifically this excellent short story collection penned by him. Jayant Kaikini is a well-known Kannada poet and prose writer, having won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 974. While he is now settled with his family in Bangalore, he worked in Mumbai for two decades and in this collection of stories has perfectly captured the flavor of the city. 

No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

The stories “Interval” and “Crescent Moon” both depict individuals who feel constrained by their present circumstances and yearn to escape, and one day very suddenly actually do so. In “Interval”, twenty-year old Manjari Sawant and her beau Nandkishore Jagtap alias Nandu decide to secretly elope. Manjari stays in a chawl next to the ice factory in Thane, while Nandu is an attendant at Malhar Cinema. Manjari is fed up of a life that revolves around endless cooking, cleaning and washing and dreams of a better life, a view shared by Nandu who is bored of his daily routine too. On the day they elope, both put into motion their dreams of starting a new life but in unexpected ways.

In “Crescent Moon”, Pandurang Khot is a bus conductor stationed at Ghatkopar Depot. Every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, Pandurang travels to his village to participate in the festivities and to immerse himself in the revelries and the bonhomie of the villagers. But when his superior refuses to grant him leave this year, Pandurang is beside himself with rage. He starts the bus seemingly giving the impression that he is on his everyday rounds but then on the spur of the moment makes a detour and drives the bus all the way to his village.

“Dagadu Parab’s Wedding Horse”, one of my favourites in the collection, brims with absurd comic elements. The action begins on Mulund’s LBS Road where Dagadu, the bridegroom, in all his wedding finery is perched on a starved-looking brown horse, moving along with the procession. We learn that the horse has been stolen from one of the stables and when they reach the Shivaji Maharaj statue all hell breaks loose. The sound of a motorcycle screeching frightens the horse and he gallops away furiously taking Dagadu along with him, while all the members of the procession begin hunting for the horse and the bridegroom, but in vain.

The best of the lot is “Mogri’s World”, a story delving into the life of Mogri, a feisty, street smart woman who finds a sense of purpose in the unlikeliest of places – an Irani café. Mogri’s parents are construction labourers in Mumbai living a hand to mouth existence. Not believing in sticking to a family, Mogri’s father has another wife and children residing faraway in their village, as well as a mistress in another part of the city. Like her mother, Mogri grows up with this knowledge without really questioning it. But Mogri is unlike other women in many aspects. She does not care for marriage which she defines as nothing more than moving from one dingy room to another and decides to take up a job instead. Beginning as a waitress in a bar serving drinks to men who disgust her, Mogri moves on to an Irani restaurant in Town, where her work and the genteel ambience instill in her sense of peace and contentment.

In the four hundred square feet of the Light of India (the Irani café), the light played hide and seek. The knots in Mogri’s mind loosened. She felt her anxieties melting away in spite of not talking to anybody about them.

The people who came to the restaurant seemed to be there for the open air and the light. Some would sit for hours, with a bottle of beer and a book. Sometimes friends, and lovers, would sit there in silence, also for a long time, sipping endless cups of tea…There was a sort of peace here beyond the bustle of the street, so much so that the few who came in intent on making a racket were taken aback at the quiet atmosphere and left as quickly as they could, to look for another restaurant.

In “Tick Tock Friend”, Madhubani is participating in a TV quiz show which is being filmed in the studios located in a hospital. Winning the prize would lead to circumstances considerably improving for her and her father, but the prospect of the relentless barrage of questions daunts her. She experiences some solace in the hospital environs where despite people’s endless worries about health, there is also a display of compassion not found in a competitive environment.

Hospital canteens have a uniquely mellow atmosphere, the kind of greedy anticipation found in regular restaurants and canteens, the subconscious smile with which an expectant customer greets the waiter bearing a tray on which rests a dosa or a large puri – you didn’t see that here. What you saw were people filling thermoses for the patients under their care, grabbing a quick bite while wondering anxiously whether the duty doctor might come around when they were away in the canteen.

“A Truckful of Chrysanthemums” is a heartbreakingly chilling look at the mistreatment meted out to a maid who has worked at a family home for most of her life, while the story “Water” takes place during the feverish Mumbai rains, a time when roads are flooded, people abandon trains to wade in knee-length water, and traffic comes to a standstill, but there’s still an air of camaraderie all around.

In No Presents Please, then, Mumbai is not depicted as a city or a place defined by its iconic landmarks – Gateway of India, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Jehangir Art Gallery and so on. Rather, what we see before us is Mumbai as an idea, its undying spirit and what it can enable its inhabitants to dream of and aspire towards. There are several moments when they grapple with existential anxiety, but during other times also discover kinship with strangers. It’s a city where the surreal meets the everyday and possibilities open up unexpectedly.

We find ourselves in the milieu of chawls, kholis, Irani cafes, bars, old cinema halls, local trains…the posh and affluent areas of South Bombay and Bandra find no place here. A lot of the objects depicted spur a feeling of nostalgia for the 90s era – Gold Spot bottles, Pan Parag, video cassettes, kala khatta sherbet and so on.

The torch of No Presents Please burns brightly on people living on the margins of society or ordinary people going about their day to day lives – stunt artists, bus drivers, mujra dancers, nine to five office goers to name a few. We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai.

These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

“Whatever you might think, sir, once one has stayed in Mumbai for a while, and one comes back after a journey, there’s a strange sense of security. Look at the taxi and auto chaps here, they always return your change, however little it is. There’s something that welds us all together here.”