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When I discovered that Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s first novel ‘Stuck Like Lint‘ had come out, I was excited and couldn’t wait to read it. The story told in the book goes like this. Debika receives a package one day. There is a book in it, which is a collection of short stories. It is written by her friend Trisha. Debika used to edit Trisha’s books. Then one day Trisha disappears from her life. And many months later, this book suddenly lands on her doorstep. Debika feels betrayed, because her friend told her that she was suffering from writer’s block, and then disappeared from her life, and then published a book a year later, taking the help of another editor. But Debika is unable to resist reading the book. The rest of the book contains the short stories from Trisha’s book, interspersed by Debika’s observations about her friendship with Trisha.

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I loved the structure of ‘Stuck Like Lint‘. I didn’t realize that Trisha’s book was a collection of short stories. I thought it was a novel, told from multiple viewpoints. But when the characters didn’t repeat, I looked at the stories more closely, and discovered that Trisha’s book was a collection of short stories. I loved the way Debika’s observations and reminiscences between two stories moved the main plot forward, before we enter into the next story from Trisha’s collection. I wondered what the connection was between the main plot and Trisha’s stories, and that question is answered in the final story, which weaves all the strands together and brings out a surprising revelation.

I liked all the stories in the book. Most of them had surprising endings which I didn’t see coming. Most stories were about women who were in tough or challenging situations which they were trying to cope with and overcome, sometimes by fighting things head-on, sometimes by doing something unexpected, sometimes by trying to escape to a safer place. Though I liked all the stories, l loved some stories more. Some of my favourites were these :

Sheela’s Escape – it was about a woman who works in a bank and takes care of her family and her life is routine, when one day she makes an unexpected friend in the bus she commutes.

Lakshmi – it is about a woman who is a maid in a rich person’s home and her love for her child.

Status Quo – a beautiful love story which made me cry.

City Girl – it is about life in the city and the countryside, and family and relationships and friendship and love. This was the longest story in the book and I loved it.

Gul – a beautiful story about love and family and friendship which made me cry.

The Trade Off – the final story which had all kinds of surprises in it.

Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s prose is soft and gentle and flows beautifully like a serene river. When we read some of the beautiful sentences, we can feel that the author has taken them and shaped them and sculpted them carefully and polished them softly till they shone brilliantly. Sentences like this –

“There is this dent on her shin, as if she had walked into something while her flesh was fresh cement, impressionable”

– and this –

“as they turned westward, the road ahead shone like a stream of gold with the first rays from the east falling on it”

– and this –

“The night spread out a sequined sky before her as she lay on the bed, sleepless.”

Reading those sentences was like being enveloped by the warmth of a cozy room during winter.

I loved the beautiful cover of the book. It is exquisite, gorgeous, even surrealistic. It is such a brilliant riot of colour. Niyogi Books have come out with beautiful covers in recent times and this cover showcases exactly that.

I loved ‘Stuck in Lint‘ – its unusual structure, the beautiful story, the gentle prose, the surprising endings, the brilliant vivid cover. It is a beautiful book. It is hard to believe that it is the author’s first book. Such a brilliant debut. I can’t wait to find out what Shefali Tripathi Mehta comes up with next.

Have you read Shefali Tripathi Mehta’sStuck Like Lint‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Tonke Dragt’sThe Letter for the King‘ by accident while browsing in the bookshop a few weeks back. The storyline was wonderful and the potted biography of the author was fascinating and I couldn’t resist it.

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The story told in ‘The Letter for the King‘ happens in the imaginary kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen. In the first scene, we are taken inside a chapel where a few young men are meditating. Their swords and shields are there in front of them. These men are going to be knighted the next day by the King of Dagonaut. On the day before the knighting ceremony, they are supposed to lock themselves inside the chapel, light candles and keep it in front of themselves, and keep a vigil throughout the night, meditating and contemplating on what it means to be a knight. They can’t talk, they can’t open the door of the chapel, they can’t eat, they can’t go out. If they break any of these rules, they won’t be knighted the next day. Tiuri is the youngest of the five young men. On this night of the vigil, suddenly there is a knock on the door. Our five young men ignore it. But then Tiuri hears someone speak, asking for help. He is torn between following the rules and helping someone in need – a tussle between the mind and the heart. His heart prevails. He goes and opens the door. One rule broken. He finds an old man outside. Tiuri asks this old man what he wants. Second rule broken. This old man gives him a letter and asks him to deliver it to a particular knight who is staying in an inn, which is a few hours away by horseback. The old man says it is a matter of life and death. Tiuri leaves the chapel and borrows a neighbour’s horse and leaves for the inn. Third rule broken. Many things happen after that and before long Tiuri finds himself riding across a forest with bad guys chasing him, trying to kill him and prevent him from delivering the letter. What follows is a fascinating and gripping adventure across forests, cities, rivers and snow-clad mountains, which entertains readers of all ages.

I loved ‘The Letter to the King‘. It is gripping from the first page, the story moves at a roller coaster pace and there are surprises at many places. It is an old-fashioned adventure yarn and it is beautifully written. Tonke Dragt’s prose is simple and spare and complements the gripping narrative. The simplicity of the prose somehow aids the blooming of an occasional beautiful passage like an exotic flower. The book is also filled with illustrations by the author which are done using points – I think this style is called ‘stippling’ – and they are very beautiful. You can see one of the illustrations in the cover image below. The novel was originally written in Dutch nearly fifty years back. It is hard to believe that it has taken so long for it to be discovered by English readers.

Tonke Dragt’s life is fascinating – she was born in Indonesia, she was a prisoner in a Japanese prisoner camp during the Second World War, during which time, as a teenager, she wrote her first book on paper she got by begging and borrowing. After the war, her family moved to the Netherlands and in her thirties, she published this book. As they say, the rest is history. Today she is regarded as one of the greatest writers of children’s books from the Netherlands, and she has been knighted for her services. It is a fascinating, inspiring fairytale. I can’t wait to read more books by Tonke Dragt. If you have children at home or you have young nieces / nephews, this book would make a great Christmas / holiday gift for them.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“There was once a man who saw a rainbow, a beautiful rainbow. It stood in the sky like a high, arched bridge, with its ends touching the earth. The man said to himself, ‘I shall journey to the end of the rainbow. And then I can follow the bridge to the other side of the world. He set off on his journey and he travelled for a long time. He passed through cities and villages, through fields and deserts, over rushing rivers and through thick forests. And, all that time, he kept looking forward to what he was going to see. He knew the place where the rainbow ended must be magnificent, beautiful…The closer he came to his goal, the more he longed to see it. But when he got there, the rainbow had vanished, and the place where it had touched the earth looked just like anywhere else. And the man was very sad. But then he thought of how many beautiful things he had seen on his journey, how much he had experienced and learnt. And he realized that what mattered was not the rainbow itself, but the search. And he returned home, with a happy heart, and he said to himself that there would be plenty of other rainbows in his future. And indeed, when he got home, there was a rainbow right above his house.”

Have you read Tonke Dragt’sThe Letter for the King‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered ‘Spring Garden‘ by Tomoka Shibasaki when I was browsing in the bookshop a couple of weeks back. It was published by Pushkin Press. I love Pushkin Press. I also love Japanese literature. When the two of them came together, it was hard to resist!

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Taro lives in an apartment complex in Tokyo. Most of the apartments there are empty because the landlord who owns them is planning to demolish them and so whenever a rental agreement’s time is up, he asks the tenants to leave. Finally, there are four tenants left. Taro is one of them. One day Taro notices that the woman who lives upstairs is looking at the house opposite to their apartment complex. When she notices that he is looking at her, she goes inside. Taro starts wondering why she is looking at the opposite house. At some point Taro bumps into the woman, they get acquainted and become friends, and one day they catch up for dinner. Taro discovers that her name is Nishi. Nishi tells him the story of why she is interested in the house opposite. It is a fascinating story. Taro also gets to know more about Nishi and her life. Soon, new tenants move into that opposite house and Nishi becomes friends with them. What happens between these three – Nishi, Taro and the blue house – that forms the rest of the story.

Spring Garden‘ is an interesting book. There is not much in it in terms of plot. Yes, there is a plot which describes the lives of Taro, Nishi and other characters. But it doesn’t have the typical structure and events that novels have had for ages. The main character in the novel is probably that blue house. How Nishi discovered it, how she became obsessed with it, how she experienced it from the outside and from the inside and how she took Taro along for the adventure – this is the crux of the book. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking for action, dialogue, mysteries and revelations, this is not the book for you. However, though this book is not about plot, it is about some beautiful things. This book is a love letter to houses – as living spaces, as showcases of beautiful architecture, as places filled with aesthetic beauty. This book is about how houses can be living characters in stories and in real life, how they evolve and change across time, how they embrace their dwellers and grow with them, and how when they are empty they grow in different ways. It is a beautiful ode to our everyday house from a perspective that we rarely think about. I loved it. This book also made me think of Brian Selznick’sThe Marvels‘. Last, but not the least, I adore that cover!

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Time which had stopped while the house was empty, was moving again. The structure itself was exactly the same as it had been a week ago when nobody was in it, and yet its colours, the feel of the place, where now wholly different. It wasn’t just that people were living in it – it was that the house itself had suddenly come back to life. The house which Nishi had been convinced that she could carry on looking at forever, in the same way as she could the house in the photos, felt now as if it had taken on a mind of its own, and begun moving. As dramatic as it sounded, it honestly seemed that the house has taken on the same quality as a doll that had suddenly become human. Every time she passed by the house, every time she saw the envelopes poking out of the letterbox or the sheets hanging out to dry on the balcony, she had the physical sensation like something rubbing at her body from the inside.”

Have you read Tomoka Shibasaki’sSpring Garden‘? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read a Satyajit Ray book for a long time. I wanted to start with the Feluda stories. But someone mentioned the Professor Shonku stories, and because I have never heard of Professor Shonku before, I thought I will try his stories first. There are three volumes of Professor Shonku stories available in English translation, and ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller‘ is the first one.

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The Diary of a Space Traveller‘ has twelve stories. The first one is the title story. In this story, the narrator’s neighbour comes and gives a diary to him. It looks like some kind of meteorite has crashed nearby and this diary was found in that site. This diary is written by Professor Shonku, in which he writes about his attempts to build a rocket to reach Mars and what happens during that trip. It looks like the Professor hasn’t come back to Earth but his diary somehow has. The narrator then finds more diaries in Professor Shonku’s house which detail his past adventures. These comprise the rest of the stories in the book.

I loved every story in ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller‘. The title story is science fiction and most of it happens in outer space and other planets. There are other stories in the book about dinosaur bones, ghosts, Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, hypnotism, the mysteries of the human brain, robots, intelligent birds, miniature planets and miniature living beings. In these very different stories, Satyajit Ray explores many fascinating mysteries which have haunted the human imagination. The stories feel like classical science fiction / fantasy – the kind of stories which came out in the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, that Jules Verne, H.G.Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle used to write, the kind of stories which came out before science fiction writers moved their stories to other planets and galaxies with alien civilizations, which sounded the death knell of classical science fiction. Satyajit Ray’s stories hark back to that innocent era of classical science fiction and I felt nostalgic while reading them. Many of the stories are open ended with no clear cut resolution in the end. It adds to the beauty of the story. The prose flows smoothly, there is enough information to make the reader understand the story, there is the right amount of humour. The translation by Gopa Majumdar is beautiful – I can only imagine how much more beautiful the original Bengali version must be. I loved the main characters – Professor Shonku, our eccentric scientist, his assistant Prahlad, his cat Newton, his neighbour Avinash Babu, who is always taking potshots at the professor’s research. Then there are characters who come only in specific stories, who are all fascinating. The book has an introduction by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, in which she describes how Bengali children loved Professor Shonku’s adventures when they first came out. The book also has an afterword by the translator which makes for interesting reading.

I loved ‘The Diary of a Space Traveller and other stories‘. The stories in it were fascinating, gripping and entertaining. I loved the classical feel of the stories. I can’t wait to read more Professor Shonku adventures.

I have to say one last thing. Bengali friends, I am so jealous of you. I am so jealous that you got to read Satyajit Ray’s stories when you were young. I am so jealous that you got to read them in Bengali. I am happy I discovered them finally, but I wish I had read them when I was young.

Have you read this book or other Professor Shonku adventures? What do you think about them?

This is my second book for this year’s German Literature Month and this is my second Stefan Zweig book in a row.  ‘Journey into the Past‘ was highly recommended by Seemita from Fleeting Brook.

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The story told in ‘Journey into the Past‘ goes like this. A man and a woman meet after many years. There is warmth and friendliness and even sparks between them. They board a train and travel together. Their minds go back to the past. Once upon a time the man was poor. After working hard and getting himself an education, he ends up working in a company. He works hard there and catches the eye of the director who takes him under his wing and promotes him. At some point, as the director is keeping in poor health, he requests our hero to move into his spacious villa as a guest, so that it is easy for them to work together. Our young man, after some initial resistance, agrees. He is sceptical about the move, because he hates rich people, in principle, because they make him feel poor, even more. But then he meets the director’s wife who treats him with respect and removes all such negative thoughts from his mind. Before long a beautiful friendship develops between our young man and the director’s wife which later blossoms into love. But suddenly one day, the director recommends the young man for a new project in Mexico and the lovers are parted. He hopes to come back after two years and she waits for him. But then as they say, the best laid plans go awry. When our young man tries to return back, news breaks out that a big war has started. How things pan out after that and how this man and woman end up meeting again and what happens between them form the rest of the story.

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I like the way the story moves between the past and the present. We know that the two main characters are sitting next to each other in a train and they are travelling towards a potentially happy ending (are they?), but it is fascinating to find out how they parted and how they got back on that train, and what happened in between. I also loved the part of the story which talks about the young man’s poverty and how he works hard to get out of it and how he hates rich people for treating him like an inferior and how he guards his freedom fiercely. All these are beautifully portrayed. I loved the character of the director’s wife. She was my favourite character in the book – kind, beautiful, elegant, strong.

The war that the book talks about is probably the Second World War. This is interesting, because towards the end of the book, we are shown that the war is over, but interestingly, the Nazi party has survived. This is interesting because Stefan Zweig didn’t survive the war. He died in 1942 when the war was still in full swing. He imagined an end to the war which was very different from what actually happened. That pessimistic imagination is probably what most people believed would happen, during those dark days of the war. It is hard to imagine the bleak atmosphere that must have prevailed at that time.

The ending of the story was interesting – it was open-ended with things unsaid and what happens is left to the reader’s imagination. I can’t imagine what happened, because every ending I think of, has some unhappiness for one of the characters.

I loved ‘Journey into the Past‘. It is a beautiful love story set during an interesting time. It is vintage Zweig. I can’t wait to read my next Zweig story now.

I will leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“And the dense silence of the years, lying heavily as if slumped in the room, took alarm at their human presence and now assumed powerful proportions, settling on their lungs and troubled hearts like the blast of an explosion. Something had to be said, something must overcome that silence to keep it from overwhelming them – they both felt it.”

Have you read ‘Journey into the Past‘ by Stefan Zweig? What do you think about it?

This is my first post for this year’s German Literature Month. I am late, but I will console myself by saying that I am the latest 🙂

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I read my first Stefan Zweig book last year. It was called ‘A Game of Chess and other stories’. I fell in love with it – with the stories and with Zweig’s prose. So I decided to read my second Zweig book, ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘. This book has four stories, the title story and three others – ‘A Story Told in Twilight‘, ‘A Debt Paid Late‘ and ‘Forgotten Dreams‘. The first three are the length of a long short story or a short novella – somewhere between forty and fifty pages. The last one is a short story.

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In the title story ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman‘, a writer comes home after a walk and when he checks his mail, he finds a letter written in a woman’s handwriting. There is no name on it and no sender’s address. He takes it out and reads it. In that letter a woman tells the writer that she loves him, has always loved him from the time she was a girl, describes how they have met many times and how he didn’t recognize her each time. She then describes the details of her life and their interactions across the years. It is a beautiful, poignant story. I loved this passage from the story very much.

“…for there is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes unnoticed in the dark because she has no hope : her love is so submissive, so much a servant’s love, passionate and lying in wait, in a way that the avid yet unconsciously demanding love of a grown woman can never be. Only lonely children can keep a passion entirely to themselves; others talk about their feelings in company, wear them away in intimacy with friends, they have heard and read a great deal about love, and know that it is a common fate. They play with it as if it were a toy, they show it off like boys smoking their first cigarette. But as for me, I had no one I could take into my confidence,  I was not taught or warned by anyone, I was inexperienced and naive; I flung myself into my fate as if into an abyss. Everything growing and emerging in me knew of nothing but you, the dream of you was my familiar friend.”

The second story ‘A Story told in Twilight’ starts as a story told by one person to another as twilight sets in, in the evening. It looks like an imaginary story set in a castle in Scotland where a boy in his middle / late teens – an age which has been described by some writers as too old to be a boy but too young to be a man – this boy meets a woman in the night when he is taking a stroll. They have a passionate time together. The next day at breakfast time, all the women in the house are there in the dining room and everything is quiet like it has always been. The boy tries to find out which of these women he met in the previous evening. He devises ways to discover that. And then he makes a surprising discovery. And then he does something silly, like all love-smitten people do, and makes another shattering discovery which breaks his heart. I won’t tell you more. You have to read the story to find out what happened. I loved this passage from the story. It showcases the beautiful, evocative descriptions that Stefan Zweig frequently gives.

“In an hour’s time it will be night. That will be a wonderful hour, for there is no lovelier sight than the slow fading of sunset colour into shadow, to be followed by darkness rising from the ground below, until finally its black tide engulfs the walls, carrying us away into its obscurity. If we sit opposite one another, looking at each other without a word, it will seem at that hour, as if our familiar faces in the shadow were older and stranger and farther away, as if we had never known them like that, and each of us was seeing the other across a wide space and over many years.”

In the third story, ‘The Debt Paid Late‘, a woman who is a homemaker takes a break from her routine to re-energize herself and goes to a small village in the mountains and stays in an inn. Her plan is to stay there for two weeks, walk in the meadow, read a book, not talk to anyone and spend time in tranquility. But there she meets a man whom she recognizes from her childhood. What happens after that is the rest of the story. The whole story is in the form of a letter that this woman writes to her friend, after the events happened.

The fourth story, ‘Forgotten Dreams‘, is about two people, a woman and a man, who meet years later and remember their attraction for each other during their younger days, and talk about what has happened in their lives and what might have been. I loved this passage from this story.

“The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.”

I liked all the four stories in the book. The first three seemed to have some kind of theme in common – there is a question of identity in each of them. In the first, the identity of the narrator is never discovered though the writer tries to, in the second the identity of the woman is a big surprise, and in the third one, the discovery of the identity of the man brings back old memories. The book is vintage Zweig, with beautiful, flowing prose, beautiful passages and a perfect balance between story-telling and aesthetic beauty. I loved it. I can’t wait to read my next Zweig story now.

Have you read Stefan Zweig’sLetter from an Unknown Woman‘? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read Ushasi Sen Basu’sKathputli‘ for a while now. I took it out yesterday and I finished reading it today. The story told in ‘Kathputli‘ goes like this. Chitrangda is not happy with her job and with her life. So one day she leaves her job, takes a break, and goes back to Kolkata to spend time with her family and relatives. She hopes to talk to them, learn about family history and hope to use those stories and anecdotes to write a novel, something she has always wanted to do. She first meets her grandmother. Her grandmother tells her that her life is nothing special but she points her out to a cousin of hers, Puti. Her grandmother says that there is an annual family gathering at their hometown where most relatives would come and she tells Chitrangda that she would be able to meet Puti there. So Chitrangda, who is introverted and avoids people, goes to this family gathering. People are surprised at her arrival there, but receive her with warmth and affection and include her in their conversations. Chitrangda also gets to talk to Puti there. And before long Puti starts telling her about a dark, deep secret in the family which was buried deep a couple of generations back. As Chitrangda hears more, she gets more and more intrigued, as a forgotten woman, a lost woman, a mysterious figure arises like a ghostly apparition out of old family legends and starts looking more and more concrete, with every moment. Who is this woman? What is her secret? Why does nobody talk about her? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

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The story is told in two interleaving strands. One is set in the current period in which we follow Chitrangda and her adventures and another set in the past, nearly eighty years back, and these look like excerpts from Chitrangda’s novel which she is currently writing, probably based on old family stories that she gathers. The time period shifts between the present and the past and at some point of time they merge into one. I loved this structure. Ushasi Sen Basu’s prose flows smoothly like a serene river – there is light-hearted humour there, there are beautiful contemplative passages (there is one which contemplates on the nature of truth, which is very beautiful), there is ample description of mouth-watering Bengali food – I loved that. I also loved the description of Bengal of the pre-independence era, the wide gap between the haves and the have-nots, the good and not-so-good things about the joint family, the position of women and the challenges they faced everyday – these were all beautifully depicted. I also loved the way the book depicted how things changed in big ways after independence and the way it contrasted life then and and life now through the voices of some of the characters. I also loved the names of some of the characters – Chitrangda, Debabrata – so beautifully classical. There is also a whiff of romance in the story, and in case you are wondering, it is totally children-friendly. There are interesting revelations in the second part of the book and the surprise which is revealed in the end – it is big and knocks the reader off.

I also loved the way the book has been lovingly produced – the beautiful cover art, the perfect spine, the charming font in which the blurb is written. The book also has colourplates painted brilliantly in watercolour depicting scenes from the story. I loved them.

Back cover with charming font

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Perfect spine

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Beautiful watercolour painting

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Kathputli‘ is about family – relationships, secrets, the good and the bad times. It is also about love, loss, the past and how it affects the future, and the many versions of truth and the true nature of reality. I loved it. I can’t wait to find out what Ushasi Sen Basu comes up with next.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Chitrangda didn’t believe in “feelings” and “gut instinct”. They had not served her well the few times she’d tried to be guided by them, and had thus developed a healthy distrust and cynicism for them. She believed people only claimed to have these to make themselves important; like their purported powers of clairvoyance raised them above the run-of-the-mill person.”

“…truth is as slippery as a little fish in a pond. Even if you think you’ve closed your fingers on it, out it’ll slip through the gaps of your fingers, giving you a tantalising tickle to tell you “I was here, but you missed me.” It is the wise person who understands that, instead of the person who insists he understands the whole truth and proceeds to bludgeon it into as many people he can get his hands on.”

Have you read Ushasi Sen Basu’s ‘Kathputli‘? What do you think about it?