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This is my fourth book for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WOCReads. I read ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ (= Murder Season) by Sujatha, for the first time, when I was a teenager. It was one my favourite detective mysteries then. I had forgotten most of the story since, including who was the bad guy πŸ™‚ So I thought it was a good time to read it again.

The story told in ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ goes like this. Lawyer Ganesh and his assistant Vasanth are hired to look at some estate documents and see whether there are any problems with respect to the title and ownership. The owner of the estate is a young woman called Leena, who is going to turn eighteen. Her parents have passed. Her uncle is her guardian now and has been managing the estate on her behalf. On her eighteenth birthday he will be handing over the estate to her. But when the lawyer duo stay at the estate for a couple days, strange things start happening, voices are heard in unoccupied rooms and there seems to be a ghost near the lake. And there is a legend behind the ghost – she seems to an ancestor of Leena, the young woman who owns the estate – and the legend says that the ghost is out to seek revenge. And before long someone is dead. And the dead person’s body disappears. And both our heroes are beaten up by a probable supernatural being. Is it really a ghost which is doing all these bad things? Or is it some good old plain vanilla human beings who are doing these bad things out of greed? Who will benefit by these strange happenings? Is Leena’s life in danger? Are out lawyer-detectives able to find the mystery behind all this? You have to read the story to find out.

Re-reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ was an enjoyable experience. I had forgotten the story completely and so couldn’t guess the revelation in the end. Sujatha does a Hitchcock and kills the main suspect halfway through the story and after that it is a roller coaster ride and it becomes harder to guess the ending. There are many popcultural and literary references throughout the story – like a quote from an O’Henry story, the Bruce Lee movie ‘The Return of the Dragon’, the Frederick Forsyth novel ‘The Devil’s Alternative’, a description of a plot revelation from a Tamilvanan novel (one of my favourite Tamil crime fiction writers), Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agatha Christie – it was fun to spot all these. I don’t think I spotted or appreciated most of these when I read the book the first time, all those years ago.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ again. It didn’t resonate with me as much as it did to my teenage self, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless. After reading the book I wondered whether I had grown out of Sujatha books. But then I remembered that I read the collected plays of Sujatha sometime back and it deeply resonated with me and I loved it. So there is hope yet.

Have you read Sujatha’sKolaiyudhir Kalam‘? 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 πŸ™‚ )

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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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter πŸ˜‚ I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, TlΓΆn, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in IndiaΒ  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil πŸ™‚

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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I got a package on the mail today. When I saw it I couldn’t stop smiling. When I opened it, the object of my affection slowly crept out of the package and looked at me. It was the book ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ by Arno Schmidt.

I discovered ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ through an article I discovered through Twitter. The article said that the book was thick, it was originally written in German, this was the first time it was getting translated into English, it was translated by the old German hand John E. Woods, and the book had influences of Joyce and Poe. I have a soft corner for chunksters and everything about the book gently whispered to me to get it and I ordered it eventhough it cost me a small fortune. I was thrilled when it arrived today. Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers, say that only 2000 copies of the book have been printed. I am thrilled to be one of the lucky 2000 to have a copy! Yay!

The first thing that hits you when you look at ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is its size. There is an article by Scott Esposito which describes the book as a ‘chunkster‘, ‘enormous‘, ‘giant‘. Its dimensions are given as 11Γ—14 inches with 1500 pages. Tolstoy’sWar and Peace‘ is that long and so we expect something of that size. But ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ defies all expectations. ‘Chunkster‘ doesn’t begin to describe it. It is HUGE! Comparing it to other novels in terms of size is meaningless. I have seen some huge books during my time, but none like this one. I have around two thousand books in my collection and this is the biggest of them all. I take out ‘War and Peace‘, ‘Les Miserables‘, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ and put them next to it and ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ towers over them all. It towers over even the huge one volume edition of Arnold Toynbee’sA Study of History‘. To give you an idea, if I take a knife and cut it in the middle into two, each of the resulting two books are as big as ‘War and Peace‘ in terms of dimensions and thickness. It is not a ‘chunkster‘ or a giant. The best way to describe it is this. There is a scene in the TV show ‘Game of Thrones‘, in which Daenerys’ dragon flies and descends and lands next to her. The dragon is huge and Daenerys is tiny next to it. ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is that dragon – it is a book dragon. It dwarfs every other book in sight.

Here is a picture of the book. I have put it on top of today’s newspaper, so that you can see the relative size.

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I took the book out of its slipcase and opened it. It was so heavy that I couldn’t hold it in my hand for long. I put it on my lap. It weighs a little more than six kilograms (thirteen pounds) and I could feel every ounce of it. This is definitely not a book you read when you commute by the subway. It is too big to carry. It is not even a restaurant book, because of its size. This is a book that you can only read in the library or at home after putting it on the table. 

After opening the book, I flipped through the first few pages. Every page had three columns – the main text ran through the middle column, while the left and right columns had notes and comments. The prose was hard to read – it looked like a combination of surrealistic Joycean prose and Burgess’ nadsat. I looked at the last pages of the book and read the afterword by the translator, James E. Woods. Woods describes how he got into translating the book and shares his thoughts on it. It is brief and to-the-point. It is just two pages long. I smiled when I read that, because a 1500-page book might have benefited by a longer afterword. Or maybe a fifty page introduction. But the publisher and the translator had decided not to have any unnecessary words – Arno Schmidt is what you want, Arno Schmidt is what you will get.

Thanks to James E. Woods for taking twelve years of his life to translate this book. Translating epic length books is a labour of love and one can’t pursue it unless one loves the book in question very deeply. There is not much money to be made here. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press for publishing this work. Bottom’s Dream, Arno Schmidt, thanks for coming to live in my home. I hope you like it here. I am normally bad at taking care of my books, but I will keep you wrapped in plastic sheets, keep you in a dust-free environment and take care of you well. And hopefully, I will read you one day soon. German Literature Month is around the corner and so that day is not as far as you think.

Bottom’s Dream‘ has been sighted in a few other places. Here is an article about it.

Here is an article comparing ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ to other big chunksters which can’t be read in the subway.

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I have been spending some time at the bookshop recently and discovering interesting treasures there. Though I want to implement a book-buying ban on myself, I find it extremely difficult to do that, whenever I visit the bookshop. As soon as I enter the bookshop, it lifts my spirits and takes me to a different world. And, uncannily, every time I go there, I discover a few treasures which are impossible to ignore. I saw these treasures when I went to my favourite place (=bookshop) recently and inspite of trying to talk myself out of it, I couldn’t resist buying them. So, here are the treasures and what I think about them.

(1) A Single Swallow : Following the Migration from South Africa to South Wales by Horatio Clare : The book is what the subtitle says. I read snippets here and there and it looks quite fascinating. While touching on the swallow’s migration, Clare also touches on the history and geography of the region through which he is travelling. It reminds me of Simon Winchester’s The River at the Centre of the World : A Journey up the Yangtze and back in Chinese Time’ which attempts to do the same thing, but in a more serious tone. The lighter tone of the book reminds me of other classic travelogues set in Africa – Paul Theroux’s ‘Dark Star Safari’ and Tim Butcher’s ‘Blood River’. I am also intrigued by the author’s name – how many people have we heard of, whose first name is Horatio? πŸ™‚ I can think of just two – Hamlet’s friend Horatio and Horatio Alger, the American author. Can you think of any? The author’s parents must be really interesting people!

(2) We by John Dickinson : It is from the genre of science / dystopian fiction. I haven’t heard of this writer before. I read the blurb on the back cover and the first page of the book and after that I couldn’t take my mind of it. I don’t read much of science / dystopian fiction and maybe this will remedy that.

(3) Rip Kirby : The first modern detective – Complete comic strips 1946-1948 by Alex Raymond: I have read Rip Kirby comics when I was in school. They were good, but at that age I preferred more action in comic books and so the sophistication of Rip Kirby’s detection wasn’t very attractive to me. But in later years I learnt to love Rip Kirby. I didn’t know that Rip Kirby comics were so old. I also didn’t know that the creator and illustrator of Rip Kirby comics, Alex Raymond, was American – I was under the impression that most American comics of that era involved superheroes. I need to do some research into the history of comics now. The book also cost me a bomb – I must be one of those idiots who spends a fortune in comics and graphic novels – if you want to know more about it, you are welcome to write to me πŸ™‚

(4) Days and Nights in the Forest by Sunil Gangopadhyay : One of the early classics by one of India’s famous literary icons, who wrote the original in Bengali. The blurb says that this is the first time it is translated into English, which is a shame. There are so many Indian writers, who write in their own language, who are so brilliant, and it is a shame that most of them are not translated into English. A few of them should have won Nobel prizes – shame on the Nobel committee! Also, irrespective of what Salman Rushdie says (he was quoted as saying that Indian fiction in Indian languages is not good or is irrelevant and the only fiction from India of good quality was that written in English – this from a chap who doesn’t know any Indian language!), I will stick my neck out and say that fiction from India written in regional languages is way more superior to Indian fiction in English (can these ‘Indian’ writers in English write anything other than the ‘immigration experience’ these days? Where are the ‘English writing’ equivalents of S.L.Bhyrappa, Girish Karnad, Kalki, L.S.Ramamirtham, Pudumai Pithan, Jeyakantan, Sundara Ramasamy, V.S.Khandekar, Thakazhi Sivasankaran Pillai, Qurratulain Haider, Vaikkom Muhammad Bashir, Rabindranath Tagore, Sunil Gangopadhyay and Premchand?). I am really looking forward to reading this one. The title in English looks long-winded, but the Bengali title is lovely and beautiful – ‘Aranyer Dinratri’. It is so true that translation kills the music of a language.

(5) Modernism : The Lure of Heresy from Baudelaire to Beckett and beyond by Peter Gay : This is the kind of book which I avoid – because it is nonfiction, because it is interesting, because it is tempting to buy, but also because it might end up on my shelf for quite a few years without me reading it. But just one look at the first page, a bit of browsing between the covers and I couldn’t resist it. It talks about modernism in the arts and literature and in other spheres of life. I suspect that it might end up on my list of favourites.

(6) Twilight : the graphic novel – Vol 1 by Stephanie Meyer (adapted and illustrated by Young Kim) : I thought that I would never read the ‘Twilight’ series by Stephanie Meyer. Because the size of the four volumes put together was intimidating. But also because I have heard different readers saying that the prose is not tight and needs a lot of editing (that is a damning condemnation for a published book) and some readers and fans of vampire novels complaining that the character of Bella, the heroine, is not great. I saw the first part of the movie version and I liked it. So, when I saw the graphic novel version, I couldn’t resist it. The illustrations are excellent and they are closer to a Manga comic rather than to a regular graphic novel. I also liked the fact that the illustrator, Young Kim (pun unintended – her first name is Young), is a Korean living in Korea, and so this graphic novel is a collaboration between two people living and working in different countries. Way to go, Kim! I suspect that Stephanie Meyer fans and ‘Twilight’ readers – both those who love it and those who complain about it everyday but continue reading it many times – will love the graphic novel version. I also suspect that aspiring readers of ‘Twilight’ who are intimidated by its size might want to dip into the graphic novel version like I am hoping to. Looking forward to reading it.

(7) Dancing Image by Arvind Appadourai : It is a slim novel by a writer I haven’t heard of before. The thing which attracted me to this book is an interesting and exciting place near my home which is a manifestation of an interesting idea, which was way ahead of its time – there is a artists’ village a few kilometres away from my place, on the seashore, where forty years back, people who didn’t want to pursue conventional careers and a conventional life and thought that art in its myriad forms was their calling, bought some land and settled down and painted and sketched and sculpted and made pottery and did all the things that most of us only dream of. They still do. This novel is set in this artists’ village (it is called Cholamandalam) and it is about a fictional character who discovers his calling in the arts and abandons a safe and secure life for the bewitching attractions and uncertainties of art. It reminds me of Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Six Pence’ where the main character, who is based on Paul Gauguin, does the same thing. I am really looking forward to reading this book. I got the book both in Tamil (the language in which it was written) and English (translation) and it will be fun to compare and see which one reads better. The shameful thing from my side – I have to really kick myself for that –Β  is that I have never been to Cholamandalam – it is one of the things I keep postponing to tomorrow. I will have to remedy that soon.

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