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Archive for October, 2019

This is my second book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. This is the slim 150-page book which launched Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant literary career and made him one of the twentieth century’s important writers.

The story told in ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘ goes like this. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is serving a ten year sentence in a Russian gulag. There is no reason that he should be in a prison camp, but the government has put him there for an imagined offence. Like the other millions of people that it has put there. The story describes how one typical day goes for him in the camp – how he and his campmates are woken up early in the morning, how it is freezing outside (not freezing but probably -40 degrees Celsius, which is beyond freezing, way beyond freezing), how the food they are given is a thin soupy gruel, how one has to fight and cheat and do all kinds of things to get a little extra food, how there are rules like one can wear only so many layers of clothes while going out to work, how the prisoners are expected to work in the biting cold but are not provided the tools for it, how the whole system is geared to crush one’s spirit but it doesn’t kill a person – there is more, but I’ll stop here. We see things through the eyes of Shukhov (or Ivan Denisovich – the author likes calling him Shukhov) – we go through highs and lows and our heart beats faster when we feel that he might be getting into trouble with the authorities and we pray for him, we rejoice when he is able to get an extra portion of soup or is able to hide his bread successfully or is able to find tar paper and use it to block the windows of the building he is working in so that it keeps the room warm. We become a part of the prison camp and we suffer agony and experience little joys as Shukhov and the other characters in the story go about their day. We look at our own lives, at the luxuries we have, at the food and the clothes we take for granted and which we complain about and we wonder how infinitely more privileged we are (yes, even the poorest of us is more privileged than the prisoner in the gulag). It makes us look at the world with new eyes – how totalitarian governments can give hell to innocent people, how those of us who have never gone through this are incredibly lucky. When I read the last passage in the book –

“Shukhov felt pleased with life as he went to sleep. A lot of good things had happened that day. He hadn’t been thrown in the hole. The gang hadn’t been dragged off to Sotsgorodok. He’d swiped the extra gruel at dinner time. The foreman had got a good rate for the job. He’d enjoyed working on the wall. He hadn’t been caught with the blade at the searchpoint. He’d earned a bit from Tsezar that evening. And he’d bought his tobacco.
The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one.

Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.
The extra three were for leap years.”

– when I read that, I cried.

It is so hard to believe that someone can be positive at the end of a day like this. But Shukhov is. And so are many of his fellow campmates. My heart went out to Ivan Denisovich. And to the millions of Ivan Denisoviches who have suffered. And my heart went out to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered himself, and came out on the other side to tell the tale. It is so hard to believe that this book was inspired by real events and all this really happened to Solzhenitsyn and his campmates.

I am glad I finally read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘. This is my first Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn book. And what a book it is. I thought the book would be too heavy and heartbreaking for me and so I have been sitting on it for years. While reading it, I thought that if things got too hard and tough to read, I will push through and read fast and get through the book. But I am glad I didn’t do that. I gave the book the time and space that it deserved and the book opened its heart and sang its song. It was a beautiful song, an unforgettable song, but it was a heartbreaking song too.

Have you read ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘? What do you think about it?

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It was time to read my first book for #RedOctoberRussianReads. I decided to read the slimmest book I had in my Russian reading list – ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ by Leo Tolstoy.

The story told in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘ goes like this. There are a few people travelling in a train. They are mostly strangers and don’t know each other. The discussion turns to equal rights for women and marrying for love. People have different opinions on the subject. Then one of the quieter passengers asks the others what they mean by love and whether it is possible for someone to love another for their whole life. There is some passionate conversation which happens here, and then this man, who feels that love cannot last long, tells his story to prove his point. What happens after that – you have to read the book to find that.

In ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘, Leo Tolstoy takes aim at romantic love and the institution of marriage and fires his cannon. When it is all over, the building has collapsed and is in ruins, there is smoke all around and it is scary, heartbreaking and depressing. The love that Tolstoy talks about in the book is far removed from the beautiful love that Pierre and Natasha have for each other in ‘War and Peace‘ – this love looks more real and is filled with jealousy, anger, hurt, darkness. It is scary to read. The book is a frank portrayal of a marriage, with all the light and the darkness – mostly darkness – thrown in. When this story was first published, it created a lot of controversy, and it was censored. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya went and met the czar and pleaded with him and only after the czar acquiesced, was this story included in Tolstoy’s collected works. After we read the book, we understand why it created so much controversy.

I loved ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘. It is a small, slim book with big font, with deep amazing insights in every page. It is a late start for me for #RedOctoberRussianReads, but I think it is a great start.

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

“A terrible thing is that sonata, especially the presto! And a terrible thing is music in general. What is it? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully, but not in an ennobling way. It acts neither in an ennobling nor a debasing way, but in an irritating way. How shall I say it? Music makes me forget my real situation. It transports me into a state which is not my own. Under the influence of music I really seem to feel what I do not feel, to understand what I do not understand, to have powers which I cannot have. Music seems to me to act like yawning or laughter; I have no desire to sleep, but I yawn when I see others yawn; with no reason to laugh, I laugh when I hear others laugh. And music transports me immediately into the condition of soul in which he who wrote the music found himself at that time. I become confounded with his soul, and with him I pass from one condition to another. But why that? I know nothing about it? But he who wrote Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ knew well why he found himself in a certain condition. That condition led him to certain actions, and for that reason to him had a meaning, but to me none, none whatsoever. And that is why music provokes an excitement which it does not bring to a conclusion…and that is why music is so dangerous, and sometimes acts so frightfully.”

Have you read ‘The Kreutzer Sonata‘? What do you think about it?

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This is the first book I am reading for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WoCReads. (Or rather the first three books 🙂 )

I decided to start with a book which had a collection of Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries. After finishing one book, I decided to read another and then another. I think there are only three translated collections of Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries in English. Now I have read them all. The three books I read were ‘Picture Imperfect‘, ‘The Menagerie‘ and ‘The Rhythm of Riddles‘. The first two were translated by Sreejata Guha, who was probably the first to translate Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries into English twenty years back, and then continued translating other Bengali classics into English. The third book was translated by Arunava Sinha, who is the current doyen of Bengali-English translators. The first book had seven stories, the second one four, and the third one three – that is fourteen stories in all. The first collection mostly had stories from the first part of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s career, from 1932 to 1937. The second collection had stories from the second part of his career, from 1952 onwards. The last story in the second collection was written in 1967.

Byomkesh Bakshi was one of the first Indian fictional detectives. The first Byomkesh Bakshi mystery appeared in 1932 and the last one in 1969. There was a break of fifteen years between 1937 and 1952, when Saradindu Bandyopadhyay went to write screenplays for Bollywood, but he came back and continued from where he left off. While reading the stories, it is hard not to spot similarities between Byomkesh and Sherlock Holmes – the way the character gets introduced first, the way the narrator Ajit and Byomkesh become roommates. There is even a police officer similar to Lestrade who creates problems for Byomkesh. Sometimes, Byomkesh wakes up Ajit in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, to go out on a mission. He doesn’t say, “Wake up, Ajit! The game is afoot!” though. However, as we read more stories, we discover that the two series diverge, because Byomkesh and his friend Ajit are quintessentially Indian and Bengali. In many stories, at some point we can make a list of suspects, and typically the culprit is one of them. But it is hard to guess who. Saradindu Bandyopadhyay almost never cheats, by bringing an unknown character from outside the main cast, and declaring him / her as the culprit. Which is a wonderful thing. There are beautiful, humorous passages in many of the stories, and though things get lost in translation (which is one of the essential aspects of humour, that it gets lost in translation), the humour typically peeps out through the translated English sentences and is a pleasure to read.

Some of the stories in the book are short, but others are long, while some approach the length of a novella. I liked the stories from both the time periods, but I think I liked the longer stories more than the shorter ones. In one story, which runs to more than a hundred pages, called ‘The Quills of the Porcupine‘, Byomkesh Bakshi and Ajit come only in the beginning and in the end. The middle, which is the biggest part of the story, features a young couple who are newly married, and describes how their relationship evolves. If we remove the mystery aspect of the story, it almost reads like the story told in one of my favourite Tamil movies, ‘Mouna Ragam‘. I wonder whether Maniratnam just lifted Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s story (maybe from its film adaptation), made some changes to it and called it ‘Mouna Ragam’. If that is true, then it will be one more case of a famous Tamil movie being a copycat of another. I feel sad just contemplating on it. The longest story in the book is ‘The Menagerie‘, which runs to more than 150 pages. It has a complex plot with many murders and suspects and an ending which is hard to guess. It was made into a famous movie by Satyajit Ray, and I want to watch that sometime.

I enjoyed reading these three Byomkesh Bakshi mystery collections. It was interesting to read about India of a different time, and about this famous detective, or truth-seeker as he called himself, and how he discovered the truth about strange happenings, and how he brought bad guys to book, with a little help from friends. There is an acclaimed TV adaptation of the Byomkesh Bakshi stories starring Rajat Kapoor. I think I have watched one or two episodes of it. I hope to watch it properly one of these days.

Have you read Byomkesh Bakshi stories? What do you think about them? Which ones are your favourites?

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It is October. And it is time for #RedOctoberRussianReads. This is the first time I am participating, and I am so excited! I love Russian literature, and books on Russia, and it is wonderful to take out the books I have on this theme, dust them and make a book stack. These are the books I have on my stack.

In the picture

(1) We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

(2) The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

(3) Ruslan and Ludmila by Alexander Pushkin

(4) First Love and other stories by Ivan Turgenev

(5) Notes from Underground and The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky

(6) The Shooting Party by Anton Chekhov

(7) Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

(8) Natasha’s Dance : A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes

(9) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

(10) Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia edited by Mikhail Lossel and Jeff Parker

(11) Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

Not in the picture

(1) The Anna Karenina Fix : Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

(2) Olesya by Alexander Kuprin

(3) A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov

The big five – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pushkin, Turgenev – are all featured on the list. There is also contemporary fiction and nonfiction. There is even science fiction. So, I am quite happy 🙂 The only problem I have with this list is that there are only two women writers in it. I will have to do something about that. Hoping to get started soon on this list, by doing what I do normally – reading the slim books first 🙂 So excited!

Are you participating in #RedOctoberRussianReads? What are you reading?

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It is October. And Diverse Detectives Fiction Month hosted by WocReads is starting today. So, I thought it was time to plan my reading and make a book stack 🙂

These are the books currently on the planned reading list.

In the picture

(1) Shadow in the Mirror by Deepti Menon

(2) The Walter Mosley Omnibus (includes Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly)

(3) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

(4) Kolayudhir Kalam (The Murder Season) by Sujatha

(5) Deadlier : 100 of the Best Crime Stories Written by Women edited by Sophie Hannah

Not in the picture

(1) Byomkesh Bakshi stories by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (Three Books – Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles)

(2) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

(3) A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge : Sudha Gupta Investigates by Ambai

Can’t wait to get started! Are you participating in Diverse Detectives Fiction Month? What are you reading?

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