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.”

Ties – Domenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

I became aware of Domenico Starnone a few years ago when I heard that his novels were being translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri whose short stories I had loved many years ago, and whose latest novel Whereabouts is most likely to feature among my favourite novels this year. Wanting to finally read him, I picked out Ties, a novel which I thought was brutal but also impressive.

In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes.

Thus begins 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.

We learn that Aldo, the husband, has given vague reasons for suddenly leaving for another woman – he feels trapped, desires freedom and the option of living life on his own terms. The defined boundaries of marriage and fatherhood are tying him down leaving no room to breathe. Vanda, however, is buying none of this nonsense, and rants at him in her writings. She accuses him of being a weak and confused man, insensitive and superficial. Aldo, meanwhile, vehemently describes his relationship with Lidia as purely physical, but Vanda believes he is lying. Deeply hurt and struggling to come to terms with her sense of abandonment, Vanda makes it clear to him that she is cutting off his access to their children.

In Section Two, several years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are now an old couple, they are together but it’s a delicately balanced existence – the fissure in their marriage hasn’t entirely disappeared, and a nudge in the wrong direction, can cause their relations to crack. Their children, Sandro and Anna, are grown up individuals living their own lives away from them. We learn that Aldo has achieved some success as a TV producer and writer but his fame has now dimmed. The couple is comfortable financially, a large part of which is due to Vanda’s obsession with money and finding ways of not indulging in wasteful expenditure.

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. The house is a complete mess with objects strewn everywhere, although strangely no valuables have been stolen.

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.  The second section is from Aldo’s point of view and he tells us how Vanda’s disintegration disturbed him, how his love for Lidia revived him, giving him a sense of purpose. Ironically, while deep in his relationship with Lidia, he is plagued by the same set of insecurities – that Lidia is likely to abandon him in the same manner that he left Vanda. Aldo eventually does crawl back to his family, but he finds the home atmosphere completely altered.

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. In her fascinating introduction, Jhumpa Lahiri makes an illuminating point about how boundaries, structures, containers are symbols depicted in this novel both literally and figuratively. Structures provide a safe space but can also heighten feelings of entrapment. Boundaries limit chaos, but things can keep breaking down anyway.

Interestingly, the multiple perspectives give a sense of how there is never only one guilty party, of how in a marriage there are always two sides to the story. When we read the first section, we feel for Vanda because of the terrible treatment meted out to her, the insensitiveness and cowardice of Aldo. But as the book progresses, we realize that while Vanda is the wronged woman, she is no saint. She puts Aldo on a tight leash with the result that their relationship transforms into one of tyrant and slave. She is the one calling all the shots, and his opinions don’t matter. Even though Aldo’s actions have set their marriage on a downward spiral, one can’t help but sympathize with him for the way he is punished by Vanda.

And what of the children? In the third section, we are privy to their points of view…they are now middle-aged adults but the kind of lives they have chosen to lead gives a perspective of how damaged they have become thanks to the bitterness of their parents’ marriage.

He’d given up me, you, Mom. And I quickly realized he’d done the right thing. Away, away, away. Our mother, to him, was the negation of the joy of living, and us too, you and me. Don’t fool yourself, that’s what we were, the negation, the negation. His real mistake was being unable to give us up for good. His mistake was that once you’ve taken action to hurt people profoundly, to kill or, in any case, permanently devastate other human beings, you can’t go back. You have to accept responsibility for the crime through and through. You can’t commit a half-crime.

This excellent novella, finally, ends on a satisfying note and while the mystery of their parents’ ransacked home is resolved, there is a sense that the future will always be in a state of flux.

I must mention that I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading Vanda’s section and realized there are striking similarities with Elena Ferrante’s novel, The Days of Abandonment – the wife ditched by the husband for another woman, the rage seething within her, the burden she bears of caring for the children and the household singlehandedly and her gradual descent into despair. But Ties for me was the more interesting and therefore better novel because we are also presented with Aldo and the children’s points of view, which was the not the case with the Ferrante novel where we were only inside Olga’s head.

Ties, then, is an excellent reminder of how love, trust and respect are the foundations of a good marriage, and the complications that can arise from the lack of any of these attributes. Children, especially, are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Divorce is one option, but often frowned upon because of its negative consequences for children. But the logic of “sticking together for the sake of the kids” is deeply flawed too. Children in their own ways are perceptive and can sense the discord between their parents. They become subconsciously aware of the need to tread carefully so as to maintain that delicate balance in their homes. Sadly, this unbearable burden and the underlying guilt can often affect them too. There are no easy answers!

A Month of Reading – May 2021

These are the books I read in May, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, golden age crime, and 20th century women’s literature. All were very good, but my favourites were the Barbara Comyns, Jhumpa Lahiri and Muriel Spark. Here is a brief look at the books…

IF YOU KEPT A RECORD OF SINSAndrea Bajani (tr. Elizabeth Harris)

When as a young boy, Lorenzo’s mother abandons him and his stepfather and relocates to Bucharest (Romania) to make the most of a career opportunity there, Lorenzo is left feeling unmoored. Having completely lost contact with her since then, Lorenzo is a young adult now, and travels to Bucharest for the first time to attend his mother’s funeral. Through a series of conversations with the people there who were close to his mom, he gleans information on the tragic fate she suffered – despite all the promise in the beginning, the last few years of her life were spent in squalor, and her business partner-cum-lover ditches her for a younger woman. In a second person narrative (the ‘you’ is his dead mother) and taking the reader through a series of flashbacks, Bajani throws light on the themes of grief, loss, a fractured mother-son bond, and a portrayal of Romania emerging from the shadows of a dictator. Tenderly written, the book aches intensely with loneliness, and is a tale of a son trying to understand a mother who was largely absent in his life.


In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.


When the narrator Richard Young, at a crossroads in his life, begins consuming an experimental psychedelic drug, he is transported back in time to the 14th century. Mesmerized by what he sees, his addiction to the drug dangerously mounts putting in peril his marriage and family. The House on the Strand is an excellent, absorbing tale of a man literally caught between two worlds where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the narrator.


The beauty of Muriel Spark’s books lies in the fact they when you pick one up, you are never quite sure where it’s going to take you. The focal point in Symposium is a dinner hosted by the elegant couple Chris Donovan (a sophisticated, wealthy woman) and her partner Hurley Reed (a painter). With a guest list that comprises eight interesting people, various layers of their personalities and circumstances are revealed to us gradually through expertly woven flashbacks. Throw in a series of unexplained deaths, an active burglary ring, and a convent of Marxist nuns who believe in Lenin more than in God, and you have all the ingredients for a typical ‘Spark’ian fare. This cleverly told tale with its pitch perfect character sketches packs quite a punch, and is a wonderful reminder of how Spark whets the reader’s appetite for the unexpected.


Two excellent books featuring her wonderful creation Miss Marple. In A Pocket Full of Rye, when a wealthy man is found dead with grain in his pocket, the focus shifts to the famous nursery rhyme, and a sumptously described afternoon tea. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple is summoned by her good friends Colonel and Mrs Bantry when they wake up one morning and discover a body in their library, of a person they have never seen before. In both these mysteries, Miss Marple displays a flair for making astute observations on human nature drawing on parallels from village life.

MR FOXBarbara Comyns

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny. When Caroline is unable to find a way out of her predicament and is left with no choice, she moves in with the dubious schemer Mr Fox for financial support. One of the most unique features of this novel is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life. Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

Mr Fox – Barbara Comyns

My Barbara Comyns journey began with The Vet’s Daughter, a strange, off-kilter, brilliant book and I have not looked back after that. Since then I have read and loved The Juniper Tree and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (both reissued by NYRB Classics), but I’ll admit that seeking the rest of the Comyns catalogue has been an uphill task because many of them are out of print. Luckily, she has seen something of a revival in recent times with both Turnpike Books and Daunt Books reissuing some of her titles. I hope that trend continues. Meanwhile, Mr Fox was reissued last year by Turnpike, and as ever it was another excellent Comyns novel.

In terms of tone and style, Barbara Comyns’ Mr Fox is in many ways similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, one of my favourite books in 2020. Both books feature an inexperienced, young woman struggling to break away from the shackles of a bleak existence that makes for fascinating and absorbing reading.

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny.

She lives in an apartment in a building whose lease was handed down to her by her mother. Caroline sublets rooms in the building to an assortment of tenants to maintain a steady flow of income that can support them both. But with the spectre of war looming large, an increasingly uncertain environment compels these tenants to vacate the premises of their own accord.

From thereon, Caroline’s problems only heighten. Government officials and debt collectors come knocking at her door. Having nowhere to go and no one to turn to, in a fit of fright and desperation, Caroline approaches Mr Fox to escape from her predicament.

Mr Fox offers her and Jenny a refuge in his home with the agreement that she take charge of the cooking and other domestic duties. Left with no choice, Caroline accepts his offer, and although they don’t share a bed, Caroline keeps up her end of the bargain as far as housekeeping is concerned.

Mr Fox, meanwhile, keeps the monetary tap flowing by engaging in a slew of dubious projects and black market activities. Characteristic of the men of his ilk, Mr Fox is always dabbling in what he perceives are grand schemes with big payoffs, and yet when it comes to doling out money, he remains a miser. Personality-wise, Mr Fox oscillates between moments of generosity and kindness on one hand and flashes of anger and moody behaviour on the other. This begins to take its toll on Caroline and Jenny.

When air raids erupt in London with rising velocity, Mr Fox takes up a job in a factory located on the outskirts, a place called Straws, and the three of them relocate there, away from the dangerous environs in London.

In Straws, Caroline’s unhappiness only deepens. The house and the neighbourhood are dingy, shabby and dismal, and the dreariness of their existence eats into her spirit. Caroline begins to feel sad and homesick, although she has no place she can truly call her home.

Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.

These are the bare bones of the story and without dwelling too much on the plot, the rest of the novel charts how Caroline and Jenny grapple with their shaky circumstances and navigate a world that is in continuous flux given the dominance of war. Sometimes the two barely manage on their own, sometimes they are compelled to rely on Mr Fox.

One of the most unique features of Mr Fox is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life.

Some of the underlying themes covered in the novel are abject poverty, homelessness, and a woman with no prospects having to depend on the generosity of a man. War is as ever palpable, and is vividly captured by Comyns, particularly the air-raids, blackouts, food rationing, profiteering, and an overall sense of fear, dread and uncertainty.

There was Tantivy (their dog) sitting with his ears back looking perplexed and men were strewn about in tin hats, all blowing away and shouting, “Take cover!” I couldn’t take cover so I started to run, and as I ran I heard aeroplanes; the sky seemed to be full of them, but I dared not look and the wailing sirens were still going. “Take cover! Take cover!” they shouted and I ran so fast my shoes fell off; but I couldn’t stop and the pavements were scorching my bare feet. A woman was opening some garage doors and people seemed to think it was a safe place because they were going in, but they wouldn’t let me because of Tantivy, and I had to go on running even faster on my burning feet, and I thought I could hear machine-guns, or perhaps it was aeroplanes backfiring.

Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.