“My Policeman” by Bethan Roberts

It’s been a while since I read a book I savored so much that I didn’t want it to end.

I get a lot of book recommendations from Bookmarks magazine, some of which are contributed by other readers, and while I don’t exactly recall which recommendation led me to checking out My Policeman from the library, it certainly hit the mark. Not only for the depth of the story, but also for how beautifully it was written.

Set in Brighton, a seaside town in England, the story alternates between two time periods, the 1950s and the 1990s. It tells the story of Marion, who is desperately in love with Tom, the brother of her best friend. It also tells the story of Patrick, a gay man who falls desperately in love with the same Tom that Marion loves. And Tom, it turns out, is also gay, and this is something he comes to realize because of his intense attraction to Patrick and the consummation of their relationship.

This love triangle is set in the 1950s, which was a time when homosexuality was considered both immoral as well as illegal, so most gay men (and women) were extremely careful not to publicize their sexual preferences. In the case of Patrick, while he couldn’t help writing about the object of his love in his journal, he referred to him as “my policeman,” which is what Tom did for a living. Tom, on his part, strove to maintain the veneer of respectability by marrying Marion, whom he was fond of, while still meeting Patrick in secret. And Marion was so much in love with Tom that she was thrilled to be marrying him, even though there were signs that Tom was not completely like the other men her friends were marrying. And she sticks with the marriage even after realizing that Tom is a homosexual and is having a relationship with Patrick.

Forty or so odd years later in the 1990s, Marion and Tom are still married, but Patrick has had a severe stroke and Marion, against Tom’s wishes, brings him home and nurses him, almost devotedly. Why she does this and why she has stuck with Tom despite knowing of his homosexuality is something we get to know only towards the end of the book.

Overall, it is a very sad story, very poignantly told. The blurb on the cover of the book called it “an exquisitely told, tragic tale of thwarted love,” and while I usually find such blurbs to be quite unbelievable and over-the-top, I found it accurate to the tee for My Policeman.  I can’t think of a better word than “exquisite” for this book and how it is written.

My Policeman
Author: Bethan Roberts
UK Publisher: Chatto Windus
UK Publication Date: August 2012
US Publisher: Penguin Books
US Publication Date: August 2021

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Kingdom” by Jo Nesbø

Jo Nesbø is a well-known and very popular writer of crime thrillers, and while his name was familiar to me, I had never read any of his books. On a recent visit to the library, I checked out several current bestsellers that were vaguely familiar to me, in the hope that I might at least like one of them sufficiently enough to read through. (This is something I have been doing a lot lately.) Of the five or so bestsellers I picked up this time around, The Kingdom by Jo Nesbø was the last one I attempted to read, after giving up on the others. At over 550 pages, the length of the book was daunting, but a thriller is usually easy to read, and I was prepared to give up on the book the moment it started to get uninteresting.

Surprisingly, that never happened with The Kingdom – it held my attention all the way through. While I would not call it “unputdownable” – which is understandable given that it is not a mystery thriller – it did get quite addictive towards the end, and I actually went back to re-read the last few chapters again to soak in the atmosphere. And really, “soaking up the atmosphere” is a very apt way of describing the book as it provides such a vivid feel of the location where it is set – which is a quiet mountain town in Norway. The Kingdom is the story of two brothers, Roy and Carl, and the series of tragedies and deaths that they are associated with, starting from when they were in their teens up to the present moment, where they are in their mid-thirties. Twenty or so odd years ago, their parents were killed when driving a car that went out of control on a sharp bend and plunged down a mountainside close to where they lived. They still live there (it is “the kingdom” of the book title), and during the course of the story, there are two more accidents of exactly the same kind, causing others related to the brothers to also get killed. Were these accidents, or suicides, or had the cars been tampered with? And if so, then why?

Caught up in the intrigue are also several people in the town where they live, including ex-girlfriends, the sheriff, the mayor, the editor of the local paper, the doctor, and others who have a fraught relationship with the brothers. Also central to the story is Carl’s wife, Shannon, who is the architect of the hotel project he has come back to his hometown (after many years in the US and Canada) to pitch to the townsfolk, and she is very Howard-Roark-like towards her creation. (Howard Roark is the eponymous hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, an architect who is so obsessed with the purity of his architectural designs that he would rather destroy projects that are not true to his vision than let them be built.) An additional complication arises when Roy falls in love with Shannon, throwing a wrench in the close relationship between the brothers.

While it might seem like a lot is happening in The Kingdom, I actually found that the novel did not seem rushed in the least; rather, it was able to get into events in great depth and describe them in minute detail. It is also beautifully written, with lush descriptions of the Norwegian countryside and of the depth and complexity of Roy’s feelings, from whose point of view the story is narrated. Above all, I was blown away by the fact that I was reading an English translation of the book from its Norwegian original. I did not realize this originally and had to go back and recheck the cover page to determine that it was indeed a translation.

Reading The Kingdom does not want to make me rush out to read all the booksJo Nesbø has written so far, but it’s good to know that if I am ever in the mood for a beautifully written crime thriller, I know where to look.

The Kingdom
Author: Jo Nesbø
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: November 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V. E. Schwab

I did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. It falls squarely in the Fantasy genre, which I have found is very difficult to pull off without seeming implausible, if not downright ludicrous. But in the case of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, the book was so well written and so masterfully put together that I almost forgot that what I was reading was purely a figment of the author’s imagination and could not happen in real life.

And what an imagination! A young girl, Adeline (she prefers the name, Addie), makes a deal with the devil to get out of a life situation abhorrent to her in exchange for living without ever being remembered. And she never gets old and never dies. It might not seem to be such a bad deal – after all, she is not actually invisible and all her human faculties are intact, so she can still enjoy all the things we humans enjoy. However, while she can be seen by other people, they forget her the moment she is out of their sight, which means that she has to keep getting acquainted with them over and over again and can never build any kind of relationship with anyone. She can also never have a home or a job or anything permanent for that very reason – all of these require some recognition, some continuity, something to build on. While the ability to not be remembered allows her to get enough of the basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter to survive every day – she still has these human needs – she has to repeat this every single day. For eternity.

The deal that she has made with the devil – who was a god that she had been warned not to pray to after dark, but which she did out of desperation – gives her the choice to opt at any time by surrendering her soul to him. But she is stubborn and refuses to do that. So she soldiers on, becoming more adept at figuring out how to handle her “curse” in order to be able to continue to have, at least, a decent, livable life. And given that it was 1714 when she made the deal and that it is 2014 when we meet her in the present, she has had three hundred years of experience and practice in living like this, and she has perfected it to almost an art. Along the way, she has taught herself to read, learnt multiple languages, traveled all over Europe and the US, lived through the French Revolution (she was born in France) and the World Wars, and met in person many of the greatest writers and artists of the last three centuries. Of course, no one remember hers, and her curse does not even allow a painting or a photograph of her to be captured.

Then something changes – because, of course, if it wouldn’t, there would be no story. In the present, in 2014, she unexpectedly meets one person, after three hundred years, who can remember her! Like everyone else who comes into contact with her, he does not forget her the moment she is out of sight. She can’t believe it — who is the person and how is it that he is immune to her curse?

This, then, is the plot of the story, and it is told by going back and forth between the past and the present. The past here is not just the time in 1714 when Addie made the Faustian bargain with the devil, but it traces her life across all the pivotal times in the three hundred years since then, showing not just how she was living with the curse at that time but also providing a window into what life was like in that era. The writing is so good that it never seems too fantastical or unbelievable. And despite the seeming impossibility of it given Addie’s curse, there is a rather haunting love story in the book as well. The devil, it turns out, is not as evil as he seemed.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. It’s been a while since I read something that transported me to another world that I know is impossible but was still so believable.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
Author: V. E. Schwab
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: October 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“She’s Come Undone” by Wally Lamb

This was such a good book! It was published all the way back in 1992 and was highly acclaimed at that time — in addition to becoming a bestseller, it was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Given how well-known it was, it is surprising to me that I hadn’t read it until now. It is exactly the kind of novel I best appreciate — where the focus is on the story, told without any literary flourishes. And the story is so powerful that the storytelling does not get in the way of the story. This book may not have won any literary awards for the masterful use of language, but boy, does it pack a punch.

The book is narrated in first person by the protagonist, Dolores Price, and charts her life all the way from adolescence to when she is an older adult. She comes from a broken home, and in addition to that trauma, she is raped as an adolescent. She turns to eating (a lot) as a coping mechanism, and by the time she reaches high school, she is over 250 pounds. Bullying in high school is pernicious even for regular kids, and with her weight, it is aggravated to the point of being unbearable. The situation only gets worse in college, which her mother forces her to enroll in and attend. Dolores almost ends up committing suicide next to a whale that has washed up on shore in Cape Code to die. (She feels a strange kinship with whales, and not just because of her size.)

As it turns out, she is saved and sent to a mental health facility, where she spends several years getting psychiatric treatment that turns out to be actually effective. She even loses all the extra weight that had defined her for so long. But it’s not that she’s completely cured of all her neuroses. Her psyche is still badly damaged and even though she is able to live a somewhat normal life — she finds a job, rents an apartment, and even gets married (for a while) — the scars of her trauma are still there, and drive her to do things and make decisions that are questionable. She continues to struggle, and so do we with her, thanks to the power of the writing. She does eventually persevere and find some peace and happiness, but it is a long ride. And throughout it all, what really sustains her are the strong bonds she makes with a few people in her life, most poignantly her friendship with a gay teacher she had in high school who she reconnects with as an adult, and whom she nurses when he is ill with AIDS.

She’s Come Undone is so beautifully written that you can viscerally feel every painful moment, every slight, every feeling of despair, every kindness, and every small triumph that Dolores experiences as if it were your own. It is so detailed that you feel like you have gone on the long journey of her life with her, every step of the way. And is so authentic that it is hard to believe that this is a work of fiction and not a memoir. In that respect, it reminded me of A Little Life, another book that I love. I am almost afraid to read another book by Wally Lamb, so that it doesn’t spoil She’s Come Undone for me.

She’s Come Undone
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: August 1992

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Squeeze Me” by Carl Hiaasen

It’s been a while since I read a book that was just plain laugh-out-loud funny. Which is why once I started reading “Squeeze Me,” I was having such a fun time that there was no question of not reading it all the way through. Set in Florida and published in 2020, the book is a thinly veiled parody of the Trump administration, Trump himself, the First Lady, his strident anti-immigration rhetoric and the resulting anti-immigration policies of his administration, and his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Throw in a sudden infestation of a large number of pythons who are capable of eating human beings and a fearless wildlife wrangler called in to deal with them – who also has a strong sense of justice – and we have the makings of a hilarious plot, which is further enhanced by Hiaasen’s witty, satirical, writing style.

The plot in brief without giving too much away – a rich, old lady, one of a posse of rich old ladies who are ardent supporters of the President (they call themselves POTUSSIES) has gone missing at a high-society gala. At the same time, a humungous python with a huge lump in its stomach is found on the property. Angie is the wildlife wrangler summoned to deal with the python, and putting two and two together, she knows what has happened to the missing lady. But as luck would have it, an illegal immigrant, Diego, who has just landed in Florida by boat, ends up being implicated in the death of the lady and lands in prison, with the anti-immigration frenzy being whipped up by the President at its peak. Angie knows that Diego is innocent and wants him to be freed. How she manages to do this forms the main plot of the book.

But along the way, we meet a large number of characters, including a police detective, several Secret Service agents, the other POTUSSIES, the rich lady’s grown sons, the petty criminals sent to recover her body from the python, Angie’s stepson, Diego’s fellow inmates in the prison, the workers at the property where the python is found, and of course, the President and the First Lady. Hiaasen has cleverly skirted libel laws by referring to the President and the First Lady by their Secret Service “code names” rather than their actual names, but everything else – their entire personas – are clearly Trump and Melania. If anything, Hiaasen has made the President even more laughable than he is in real life, and there is a hilarious subplot involving his tanning room and the people who keep it up and running.

I hadn’t read any books by Carl Hiaasen before this, and it good to add another name to the list of authors whose books I like.

Squeeze Me
Author: Carl Hiaansen
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi

I started reading The Death of Vivek Oji with very few expectations. It had been widely acclaimed by critics and had been on several “Best Books of 2020” lists, and this had actually diminished my expectations of it — I hadn’t had much luck with many critically acclaimed fiction books lately. To my surprise, I was immediately caught up in the story, and now that I have finished reading it, I would have to rate it as one of the better books I have read recently.

I also have to admit being intrigued by the name of the book as the main reason for picking up the book to begin with. The name “Vivek” is a decidedly Indian name, whereas I knew that the book was set in Nigeria. Were they using Indian names there? That mystery was solved pretty quickly — it turns out that the protagonist, Vivek Oji, is half-Indian and half-Nigerian. His mother is from India, and this made the novel very relatable to me — there was so many references and colloquialisms I was familiar with. At the same time, I also enjoyed learning about Nigerian culture — the customs, the food, and the manner in which their English is punctuated with Nigerian words (just like in India).

Cultural assimilation aside, the story of the novel is very somber, which, given the name of the book, should come as no surprise. The book starts with Vivek’s death, and a death that is especially gruesome at that — he is left outside his house without any clothes on, in a pool of blood, with his head bashed in. This is how his mother finds him. There are so many questions — How did he die? Who killed him? Why did they take off his clothes? Who brought the body to the house? How did they know where he lived? In addition to his parents being devastated with grief and arranging for his burial, his mother wants to find the answers to these questions and pursues them obsessively, returning over and over to his friends to find out what they knew.

What actually happened to Vivek unfolds over the course of the book, so it is, in part, a mystery — you don’t exactly know what happened until the very end. However, the story is told in flashback and from the perspective of many characters, including Vivek’s mother, his cousin whom he was very close to, and some of his close friends. The writing is brilliant, sparse yet gut-punching. From that perspective, it is not a book one would read in order to be “entertained” as such. However, it provided me with a keener understanding of not just life in Nigeria, but also some broader social issues that are universal, across all countries and cultures.

The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: August 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“That Kind of Mother” by Rumaan Alam

I did not expect to like this book as much as I did. I had never heard of it or of its author until I recently heard him on a podcast, talking about his upcoming book. While That Kind of Mother is one of his earlier books, I found his interview intriguing enough to get a copy to read. I was prepared to abandon it after a few pages if it did not grab my interest, just like the many, many books I have similarly abandoned of late. (As I grow older, I no longer want to spend the time plowing through books I “should” read and am focusing on finding and reading books that I “want” to read.)

That Kind of Mother was definitely in the latter category. The story in short — when Caroline, a young woman, gives birth to her first-born, Jacob, she is overwhelmed, especially with breast-feeding and just can’t get the baby to latch on. A lactation consultant at the hospital, Priscilla, helps her out and she is so warm and nurturing that Caroline can’t let her go — she urges her to come and work for her as Jacob’s nanny, and Priscilla accepts. Caroline’s life as a young mother seems unimaginable without Priscilla, and when Priscilla gets pregnant and dies unexpectedly of complications during childbirth — she is over 40 — Caroline ends up adopting Priscilla’s baby, Andrew.  It was something she simply had to do — she had a deep connection with Priscilla, and she feels the same for Andrew. (The adoption is enabled by Priscilla’s grown-up daughter, who has just had a baby of her own and is overwhelmed by her newborn as well as the grief over her mother’s death.)

Caroline and her husband, Christopher, do not have any more children, and their family seems complete with their two sons, Jacob and Andrew. There is nothing remarkable about this, except for the fact that Andrew is black. (Priscilla was black, and while she never disclosed who the father of her baby was, he was presumably black as well.) While this fact does not mean anything to Caroline — she has adopted Andrew, he is her son, and she is the only mother he has ever known since he was born — it is hard for others to ignore, including her parents, siblings, colleagues at work, and once the boys grow older, their school teachers as well.

In addition to being beautifully written, what I really liked about That Kind of Mother is that it was so understated, completely devoid of any melodrama. With a story focused on a white woman adopting a black child, none of the awful things you would expect to happen actually happen. While Caroline does encounter some racist comments throughout, her family does manage, by and large, to live a normal life. Christopher is supportive of the adoption, and even though he did not feel the same sense of connection that Caroline felt, first with Priscilla and then with Andrew, he soon comes to love Andrew as a son. While Caroline and Christopher do eventually divorce after many years of marriage this has more to do with them growing apart than anything to do with Andrew. Also, their separation is far from acrimonious — they even go on family vacations together. Their biological child, Jacob, is very much the big brother to Andrew, and their dynamics are what they would be for siblings — they fight like normal brothers and also bond like normal brothers. Caroline goes though the usual trials and tribulations of mothering kids and eventually manages to get back to her career as a poet, even winning some awards along the way.

There is no climax to the story as such (which is probably why it is relatively unknown). You keep waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, for something bad to happen to the black son, or to the family for being white and having a black son. But at the time the book was set — from 1985 to 1999 — perhaps there was less overt racism of the kind there is now. I can’t imagine a book like this being set in the current times, where the chances of something terrible happening are much higher. Yet, the book ends, at the cusp of 1999, with Caroline’s belief that the new century will bring a better world, one in which her black son and her white son “will be judged equals.”

If only she knew!

That Kind of Mother
Author: Rumaan Alam
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“Broken People” by Sam Lansky

The recently published book, Broken People, is, at its essence, a study in depression. It provides an inside look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed, which is manifested in extreme anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, and a sense of “unbelonging.”

The story in brief – the protagonist, also named Sam, while being outwardly successful and seemingly “normal,” is internally an emotional wreck who can barely keep it together, and despite badly wanting to be in a long-term committed relationship, he ends up alienating even those he loves. By chance, he happens to hear of a shaman who can ‘fix everything that’s wrong with you in three days.’ It seems outlandish and reeks of a scam, but Sam, driven to desperation, goes for it. What happens during the “treatment” – which is a ceremony led by the shaman over three days — makes up the bulk of the book. We also see a bit of Sam and his changed mindset and lifestyle after the ceremony.

What makes Broken People especially compelling is its authenticity, which comes from the fact that it is almost entirely autobiographical, based on Sam Lansky’s actual personality and experiences. He has not changed even the protagonist’s name, which is also Sam. (I am assuming, however, that the names of all the other characters in the book have been changed to provide them with anonymity.) The book also reveals, within itself, how it came to be. It had started out being written as a memoir, following Lansky’s first memoir called The Gilded Razor, which chronicled his years between the ages of 13 and 19 drinking, getting high on all kinds of drugs, and going in and out of rehab. The idea of a follow-up memoir was nixed by Sam’s agent, who advised him to turn it into a novel instead, and that is how Broken People came to be.

In Broken People, the fictional Sam – who is actually a stand-in for the author, Sam Lansky – reflects a little on his early years of substance abuse and accompanying dissolute behavior, but also marvels that he got a book out of it. At the same time, the stress of writing the book, once it had sold to a major publisher, was the ultimate death knell for his relationship with the man he loved (he is gay). But, of course, as he later realizes, the relationship was doomed from the start because ‘you can’t love anyone if you hate yourself.’

Because Broken People is so autobiographical, it is like reading a personal diary, like getting a searingly honest, no-holds-barred look into the psyche of someone who is deeply depressed. And since everyone, I believe, is at some point on the spectrum of depression ranging from positive-all-the-time to barely-making-it-and-suicidal, it is very insightful to understand what someone who is at the darker end of the spectrum is feeling. I was absolutely riveted and marked up so many pages describing Sam’s depression that my copy of the book is full of Post-Its! Here are some excerpts from what I marked.

Why asked why he didn’t like himself, when he seemed to be a good person, ‘Sam thought maybe there was no why. Maybe some people are just born self-hating and self-destructive and we die that way. And so we go to therapy and twelve-step groups and we take antidepressants and anxiety meds and we journal and we go to yoga and exercise and take baths and drink pressed juices and repeat affirmations to ourselves in the mirror and listen to Brené Brown podcasts. But we’re just swimming against the tide, because the darkness always comes back. All we ever do is learn to manage the symptoms.’

Lying next to his lover, Noah, who was fast asleep, but unable to sleep himself, ‘Sam wondered what it would be like to be Noah instead of himself, to have that loose, fluid comfort. Sam wished that he could make a home in Noah’s body, to live in him like a parasite, to see through his eyes.’ He continues with an insight that I found quite profound. ‘The great curse of being a person in the world [is]—you only ever get to be yourself.’

During an interaction with an older woman, ‘it occurred to Sam that he should appreciate his own youth now, while he still had it,’ followed by the thought that, ‘there was a very real possibility that he would still be pathologically self-conscious and anxious when he was this woman’s age, and that idea, of the years sprawling out before him, of never being able to quiet the chorus of self-obsessed insecurity, of it just going on like this for decades, filled Sam with a dread so black that it was nauseating.’ And then he thinks, ‘It would be better to be dead.’

Despite the dark, despairing thoughts that Sam constantly has, the book also manages to include some moments of levity, mostly in the interaction between Sam and his long-standing close friend, Kat, who has her own share of things that depress her, except that in her case they are external – mostly, the rapidly degrading state of the environment and how little humankind is doing anything about it – rather than internal. She does, however, share some of Sam’s angst, most notably with regard to the size and shape of their bodies.

Here she is, talking to Sam on the phone, “And did I tell you two new stretch marks on my thigh popped overnight? Literally overnight, Sam.”

Sam responds with, “Having a body is the worst.”

Kat heartily agrees. “The worst,” she echoed, like it was a chant.

I found this exchange hilarious — it still makes me laugh.

Further on in this conversation, Sam talks about body-image some more and his struggles with eating and his weight.

And part of me just wants to pull out the rip cord and stop habitually under-eating to maintain a body weight that’s within the bounds of gay-acceptable, but if I do that, will I ever find a husband? But will I ever find a husband anyway? So wouldn’t it be better to just be fat and happy?

Then there were the many insights Sam had after the ceremony with the shaman – which was almost like “spiritual surgery” in how much it changed his outlook. It started with his attitude towards his body, which he had loathed before.

… it suddenly struck him that perhaps this body was worth loving for no other reason than because it was his.’

That was all he was … just another person existing in his body … How had it taken him so long to understand that? … how much energy had he wasted trying to negotiate that insecurity with himself a thousand times a day …What could he do with that energy if he used it for something other than hating himself?

However, it was not as if all was perfect from then on and Sam was completely “cured.” He did, now and again, backslide into his old behaviors, but he was a lot more gentle with himself now, a lot more accepting. When he binged on fast food one night, for example, he felt lousy the next day, but instead of purging it out as he would have done before, he went to a yoga class and made a conscious decision to forgive the lapse.

His interactions with other people – both friends and casual acquaintances – were now a lot less insecure and nerve-wracking, and much more genuine. He was even able to look back on why his relationship with Charles – the man he loved – fell apart. Like most people, Charles understood that ‘bad things happen to you because that is a part of life,’ but when it came to Sam himself, “… I always believed, even if I couldn’t articulate it, that bad things happen to me because I am bad.”

While the shamanic healing that Sam went through seems almost fantastical is its ability to cure his neuroses and depression, it was not unlike a religious or mystical experience that people sometimes report having. In Sam’s case, while it jump-started his healing, he realizes that this was just the start. ‘You don’t just get fixed in a weekend. You have to keep making the choice to fix yourself … to be nice to yourself instead of being unkind … to experience life fully in all its shades of joy and sorrow … to participate in the boring drudgery of self-care.’ Sam realizes the shaman just got him “unstuck” – the healing is something he himself would have to continue to do.

It is not surprising that Sam’s continued healing regimen is comprised of a lot of yoga and meditation, which are known for their calming and restorative properties.

I also found it fitting that the book ends with Sam realizing that ‘Everything was connected’ – which is the essence of the world’s greatest mystical and spiritual traditions.

Broken People
Author: Sam Lansky
Publisher: Hanover Square Press
Publication Date: June 2020

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“The 3 Mistakes of My Life” by Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat’s books are, by and large — in what is commonly referred to in literary parlance — “potboilers.” He churns them out with regular frequency, and all them, as far as I know, have been made into (Hindi) movies. (He is an Indian writer writing in English.) The amazing thing about his books is that even though their literary merit is questionable — the writing is very pedestrian, as to be expected from potboilers — they have, by and large, been made into very successful movies. A couple of these movies have, in fact, been not just commercially successful, but excellent, with top-of-the-line directing, acting, screenplay, music, editing … everything that goes into making a great movie. The best example of this is the movie, 3 Idiots, which was based on Chetan Bhagat’s first book, Five Point Someone. Another example is the movie, Kai Po Che, based on his third book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life.

While both the book and the movie are no longer new (the book was published in 2008 and the movie was released in 2013), they returned to the spotlight recently, following the sudden death of the actor, Sushant Singh Rajput, who made his debut in the movie as one of the three leads and whose performance in the movie was widely acclaimed. I had seen the movie when it was released and loved it. I saw the movie again recently following the news of Rajput’s death — it was still so good — and then went back to read the book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, on which it was based. I was mystified as to how such an average book had been made into such a terrific movie. Surely, they must have had to change the story substantially to make it so compelling?

It turned out that this was not the case. Granted, the ending has been changed completely, but the main plotlines, the key ingredients that make up the story, remained the same.

The 3 Mistakes of My Life tells the story of threechildhood friends in their early twenties who start a sports shop together. (While the store sells all kinds of sports equipment, its heart and soul is cricket.) The location is a suburb of the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, which is critical to the plot. Of the three friends, Govind is the businessman, Ishaan is the cricket buff, and Omi does the odds and ends, in addition to being the key to getting the funds for the enterprise, courtesy his family connections in religious and political circles. The other main character in the story is a 12-year-old boy, Ali, a cricketing prodigy, in whom Ishaan sees the potential to go all the way up to the national Indian cricket team. The main tension in the story comes from the fact that Ali is Muslim, and Ishaan’s championing of him does not sit well with Omi’s extremist Hindu uncle to which the shop owes its existence.

While this storyline, in and of itself, is not particularly exceptional, what makes it so is that it ties together four key real-life events that are vital to the plot:

  • The devasting earthquake in Gujarat on January 26, 2001. Although the epicenter was in Bhuj, it caused a lot of destruction in cities such as Ahmedabad. In the book, it destroys the building that was going to be the mall which the friends were planning to relocate the sports shop to. They lose all the money they had made as a down payment on it. Govind, in particular, is distraught.
  • The second Test match in the Australian cricket team’s tour of India in March 2001. The Australian team, rated as the best in the world, had won 16 Tests in a row, including the first match in the series. India’s performance was so dismal in the first innings that they had to follow-on. A loss seemed imminent, with the best-case scenario being a draw. But in what was a historic turnaround, India actually went on to win the match by 171 runs, thanks to an unbroken partnership between the two Indian batsmen on the fourth day. The book referred to it as the batsmen making “eleven Australian cricketers dance to their tune” in public and for the whole day. Ishaan didn’t leave the TV that day “even to pee.” With that win, the fortune of the sports store turned around, and it started to recuperate the losses it had suffered following the earthquake.
  • The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in the US in September 2001. Although this was half the world away, the anti-Islamic sentiments it stoked had reverberations even in India, fueling the simmering Hindi-Muslim tensions even further.
  • And finally, the Godhra train massacre in February 2002, which sparked off full-scale Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat. The train was returning from Ayodhya carrying Hindu “karsevaks” when a mob, allegedly comprising mostly Muslims, set fire to it, killing close to 60 people in Godhra in Gujarat. One of those killed was the son of Omi’s uncle, the Hindu fanatic, and in his despair and rage, he comes to kill Ali, who is being protected from the Hindu mob by Ishaan, with Govind and Omi by his side. (In the movie, Omi is on the side of the Hindu mob, but not in the book.)

I find it sheer genius that a writer can take these four different, but highly significant, real-life events that happened in the course of a year and weave them into such a compelling and completely believable story. Chetan Bhagat’s writing style may be mediocre, but in The 3 Mistakes of My Life, I think he has created a remarkable story. Let us give credit when credit is due.

The 3 Mistakes of my Life
Author: Chetan Bhagat
Publisher: Rupa Publications
Publication Date: January 2008

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani is a fan of the written word.

“A Burnt-Out Case” by Graham Greene

Of all the books I have read by Graham Greene – who was an amazingly prolific writer, often regarded as one of the leading English novelists of the 20th century — I have found A Burnt-Out Case the most poignant. It is about a world-famous architect, Querry, who is “burnt out” emotionally and ends up in a leper colony in Africa, in an attempt to get as far away from his life as he can. I first read this book when I was younger, and it greatly resonated with me at that time because I was also trained as an architect. I recently read it again and found that it is now relatable to any older person going through a mid-life crisis and questioning the worth of anything they have accomplished in their lives. Either way, it is an excellent book, amazingly well-written.

We don’t hear much of leprosy anymore, but at the time the book was written, the disease was much more common with millions of people infected, mostly in poor countries. This was also a time when Christian missionaries were very active, and one of their many charitable works was creating and running leper colonies, where lepers could be treated. Because of the social stigma associated with leprosy, these colonies were typically located in remote and isolated regions, far from cities and towns, and it is to one such colony in Africa that the disillusioned Querry arrives, trying to get as far away from his life in Europe as a plane and then a boat would take him. The term “burnt-out case” has a very specific meaning in leprosy – it refers to leprosy patients who have been cured but have suffered severe mutilations in the course of repeated infections, losing most of their extremities like fingers, toes, nose, etc., rendering them barely recognizable to themselves and to others. The doctor who runs the leprosy clinic diagnoses Querry as being a “burnt-out case” as well; only in Querry’s case the disease is in his mind rather than in his body. He simply can’t feel any emotion anymore, neither joy, nor sorrow, neither pleasure, nor pain.

A Burnt-Out Case is the story of Querry’s time in the leper colony and of his interactions with the people there. There is the doctor, who has his hands full with patients and works tirelessly from morning to night; also, he is a confirmed atheist and is there for no other reason than to use his skills to alleviate pain and suffering. There are the Catholic missionaries who have set up the colony, and who find themselves mostly concerned with the physical well-being of the patients rather than their spiritual upliftment; they have to make sure to keep the hospital facility running, which means they are preoccupied with thinking of things like generators, plumbing, roofing, and so on. And then there are the patients themselves, in particular, the boy assigned to be a helper to Querry, who happens to be an actual “burnt-out case” himself and is severely mutilated.

In the course of time, interacting with all these people and being away from the wealth, fame, and success that had destroyed his “soul,” Querry seems to achieve some measure of peace from the demons that plague him. He even eventually agrees to use his architectural stills to design a functional structure for an extension to the clinic and sets up a drawing board in his room. Sadly however, just when he is starting to heal, starting to feel some emotions, his past life and fame catch up with him. He had tried very hard to stay completely anonymous so he could be left alone, but he is discovered, and the consequences are disastrous.

In addition to being so well written, I found the book so detailed and so vivid that I felt I was actually there at the leper colony, seeing the story unfold before my eyes. Of course, this is in large measure due to the author’s extraordinary talent as a novelist, but I also found out that he had actually visited a number of leper colonies in the course of his extensive travels, which had inspired the book and made it so authentic. We are so fortunate to have authors like this who have traveled to different parts of the world, writing books that viscerally take us to places we would never have a chance to visit, at a different time, and have experiences we would never have in our own lives.

The only quibble I had with the story is that it builds up the myth of the architect as a “creative genius,” somewhat similar to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. While such books are very inspiring, almost heady, to young architects, they are sending the wrong message that architecture is a solitary vocation, when, in fact, it is much more of a collaborative effort than a writer or an artist. A real-life Querry would not be so “burnt-out” because he would be working with a team of people on his architectural designs rather than being completely on his own, and it is much harder to get disillusioned when you are working with others.

A Burnt-Out Case
Author: Graham Greene
Original Publisher and Date: Heinemann, 1950
Reprint Publisher and Date: Penguin Classics, April 1992

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Amrita: Or to Whom She Will” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

This is the debut novel of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, most famous for her 1975 Booker Prize winning novel, Heat and Dust, and for writing the screenplays of several Merchant-Ivory films, two of which she won Oscars for. I love these movies and have also enjoyed her books immensely, including Heat and Dust, so I was delighted to come across a book of hers that I had not read. Born in Germany and raised in England, she moved to India after getting married and chose it as the setting for many of her novels. I have found that she brings a unique sensibility to her writing – a merging of the insider’s and outsider’s perspective that is hard to find in books written by other Indian authors. This was in full display even in her debut novel, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will.

The story is about Amrita and Hari, who are ostensibly in love with each other and want to get married but are thwarted by their respective families as they belong to different socio-economic classes. While the story of star-crossed lovers is as old as the hills, especially in India, this one is distinctly different. It is more of a comedy than a drama or a tragedy. The focus is not so much on the love story of the protagonists, but on the detailed descriptions of each member of their families, delving into their personalities, their relationships with each other, their interactions with other people, and their day to day lives. And all of this is done with so much warmth and humor that you feel an affection for each one of these characters, all the way from Amrita’s stern and stately grandfather, a retired barrister, to Hari’s nieces and nephews, a brood that his sister is continuing to add to because her husband, like so many others, “still thought of nothing but [his] own pleasure.”

In addition to the melee of characters, Amrita: Or to Whom She Will is filled with so many details about life in India at that time – it was published in 1955 — that it serves, I think, as a good record of what newly independent India, still shaking off the vestiges of colonialism, was like. You get the impression that Jhabvala observed every little detail of life in her adopted country, not taking anything for granted as native-born Indians might tend to do, and was able to capture that on paper. The result is a vivid portrayal of life in India, in all its festive messiness, teeming with vignettes on everything from the food that was cooked to wedding celebrations to the abundance of servants in upper-class families to long-distance travel by train with the “shame” of having to be in the third-class carriage. It was so close to my own childhood memories of India that reading the book made me feel extremely nostalgic. This, along with how well-written and easy to read it was, made Amrita: Or to Whom She Will a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Amrita: Or to Whom She Will
Author: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Publisher: Fireside (Simon & Schuster)
Publication Date: June 1955

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes

This book, published in 1966, is regarded as a modern American classic, but I had never read it. It kept coming up so often in discussions and articles related to books that I eventually got hold of a copy from the library. Classics can sometimes be a difficult read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I found it immediately accessible and readable. I have always appreciated books in which the story is so powerful that no literary gimmicks are needed to tell it, and this is very much true of Flowers for Algernon. The writing is so straightforward that it can easily be read even at the school level; however, the story itself is one that can be appreciated at any age. In fact, I think the older are you, the more meaningful it is.

The story itself is very unique, and I don’t recall reading another story remotely similar to this. It is almost science fiction but not quite. It is about a mentally disabled young man — in those days, the term “retarded” was still being used — on whom an experimental surgical procedure (on the brain) is done to try and “cure” his mental condition. The experiment was first done on a mouse named Algernon and the results were very promising. So, as the next step, the scientists who had come up with the procedure wanted to try it on a human, and Charlie was selected as the subject.

At first, all goes well, and Charlie becomes very smart, with an IQ in the genius range. In fact, he becomes much smarter than everybody around him, including the scientists who devised the procedure and performed the surgery on him. However, this does not last, and it is the erratic behavior of the mouse, Algernon, and his subsequent death, which provides a clue into the fate that awaits Charlie. He eventually loses the surgically induced mental boost that he had received and goes back to his original mental state.

The story is told through the progress reports that Charlie has been asked to maintain throughout the experiment, and we can see his initial reports written like a child and riddled with spelling and punctuation errors, slowly progressing to where they are normal — written by an adult with their full mental faculties — and finally back again to where they are simplistic and child-like. It is so sad to see Charlie regress, even though you know that not only is this a fictional story, but also, that it is fiction which is not rooted in reality. Even in the present time, over 50 years after the publication of this book, we do not have any kind of surgical procedure to cure “intellectual disabilities” in the people who have them.

However, what we do have now is a much better understanding of the relationship between the biology of a brain (nodes, lobes, cortex, etc.) and behavior and ability. And what I especially liked about this book, apart from it being a good read, is how starkly it makes the connection between the two. As human beings, we don’t like to admit this, but most, if not all, of our abilities and behavior comes from the wiring of our brains. It is this which determines whether we are geniuses or slow or somewhere in between, and this is something we are born with, and therefore have little control over. (The memoir, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening, that I wrote about a couple of years ago is another book that highlights the connection between our brains and who/how we are.)

I think this understanding leads to an entirely different take on life, where you have much less “awe” of geniuses and much more empathy towards those who are at the “slow” end of the spectrum.

I am not sure if the author set out to write a meaningful story, one with an underlying philosophy. But even if he did not, I’m glad to find a book that highlights such an important issue. It’s not something I come across often in the realm of fiction.

Flowers for Algernon
Author: Daniel Keyes    
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: March 1966  

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt

The author of The Secret History, Donna Tartt, is best known for her book, The Goldfinch, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 and which was recently made into a movie. Even though the movie was almost universally panned by critics, I loved it, which made me want to read more of Donna Tartt’s work. The Secret History is her first book, published in 1992, and like The Goldfinch, it is extremely long (592 pages) and amazingly detailed. In fact, given the length of her books (The Goldfinch was 784 pages), I was not surprised to find that she publishes a book only every 10 years or so — The Goldfinch, published in 2013, was her third book, following her second one, The Little Friend, which was published in 2002. 

The Secret History came to me so highly recommended that I didn’t bother with knowing what it was about — my copy of the book from the library was missing the blurb — and I plunged right into it, prepared to stop reading as soon as it got uninteresting. And for such a long book, this seemed more likely than not. But much to my surprise, I found it fascinating and while it did lose a bit of momentum towards the end, I was so invested in the story by this time that I had no trouble finishing it — I had to know what happens in the end.

The book is set in a small liberal arts college in Vermont and the protagonist is a new student, Richard, who has transferred to it from a local college in California that he attended after high school. He is not close to his parents and they do not care much about him either, and with no siblings as well, there is no real family that he is close to. This makes it believable that he would be strongly attracted to a small group of students who keep to themselves and choose to be isolated from the other students. In fact, not only do they distance themselves socially, they are academically separated as well, as they study Greek exclusively under the tutelage of a brilliant, charismatic, and eccentric professor, who seems to have the kind of leverage with the college that is needed to create such a closed classroom.

Richard manages to break through and get inducted in the group, and at first all goes well — he loves the closeness and the camaraderie as well as getting deeper into Greek and the classics. But then, there is an accidental murder during one of the Greek rituals being performed by the group (it is called “Bacchanalia” — there is actually such a thing, as I found when I looked it up), and this murder is then followed by a deliberate murder of a student in the group who was blackmailing the others to keep quiet about it. As a reader, you know this is coming, since the book starts with a prologue about the murder — so it is not a “murder mystery” as such — but you don’t know the “how” and the “why,” which keeps you hooked. Then there is the whole aftermath of the second murder, how it plays out with the family of the dead student, and what effect it has on the group.

While the basic premise of The Secret History — that a professor can form an exclusive club of students within a college and dictate their academic requirements, that some students would actually want to be part of such a club that won’t really give them a usable degree, and that anyone would want to get so knee-deep into Greek that they don’t care about learning anything else — is downright unbelievable, it is to the author’s credit that she can take something so implausible and craft a story around it that seems so believable, so authentic. And the book was so vivid, so full of details about the lives of these students and about life in a college town, not to mention the extensive discourse on Greek mythology and Greek philosophy, that I was completely hooked.

And rather than being intimidated by the length of the book, it was so nice to have a good long book to sink my teeth into!

The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt   
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: September 1992 

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Island of a Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

I was entranced by this book. Not only was it such a gripping story, the quality of the writing was so lyrical that I actually read the book slowly to savor it, which is not something I normally do. Also, the story is set against the backdrop of the civil war in Sri Lanka, which, being from neighboring India, was something I knew a little about — but not a whole lot. Any reference to war in India usually brings to mind its long-standing conflict with Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, its conflict with China in the 1960s. Most Indians don’t pay much attention to this relatively small island nation, just south of India’s border, except when the conflict comes to our doors, as with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber from the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Also known as the “Tamil Tigers,” this is the same militant organization that is on one side of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with the other being the Sinhalese, who make up the largest ethnic group in the country.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors follows the lives of two women, one Sinhalese and the other Tamil, growing up in different parts of the country. They never meet, but their lives intersect towards the end in an unexpectedly brutal way. The Sinhalese woman, Yasodhara, grows up in the capital city, Colombo, in the years before the conflict, and has what can best be described as an idyllic childhood, with a loving extended family. When the civil war escalates and the brutality of it comes too close to home, Yasodhara’s parents immigrate to the US and she lives there, shielded from the conflict, until she returns to Sri Lanka for a visit — urged by her sister who has returned before her — to heal from a broken marriage.

In parallel, we also follow the life of Saraswathi, who grows up in the north of the island in a Tamil enclave, and despite the best efforts of her parents to keep her away from the conflict, she ends up being recruited by the Tamil Tigers to join the war for “Eelam,” the independent Tamil state they want. Saraswathi had dreamt of being a teacher growing up, but then she was captured by Sinhalese soldiers and suffered such horrific sexual violence that the only two options she could see before her were suicide — like some of her other friends who had been subjected to the same violence — or joining the Tamil Tigers. She ends up choosing the latter, and the memory of the abuse she suffered makes her a particularly brutal soldier, one who has no problem with wielding a machete and slashing even women and children to death. Her ferocity, cold-bloodedness, and fearlessness make her rise quickly through the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and lead her to become what is perceived as the highest honor for a soldier in the movement — a suicide bomber.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors is beautifully written, capturing the magical quality of the island, its tranquility, and its lushness in the years before the conflict, as well as the horrors of the civil war once it starts, the brutality, the riots, the senseless slaughter of people, the atrocities committed on both sides. Seeing the war through the personal lives of the two protagonists who are from the opposite sides of the ethnic conflict, and who get embroiled in it without wanting to, shows that there no winners in a war — everyone loses.

Despite the war being the central thread running through the book — and it is to the credit of the writing that I approached these parts with a sense of dread and foreboding — a good part of first half is devoted to describing Yasodhara’s extended family, starting with both sets of grandparents and going as far back as when the British departed the island in 1948.  This made Island of a Thousand Mirrors a truly multi-generational saga, with details about the lives of the different family members, their houses, their food, their day-to-day activities, family dynamics, family traditions, childhood friendships, first loves, and marriages. Not only was it fascinating to see how life and customs evolved in Sri Lanka — and in my case, to see the parallels with life in India — but also to see it captured in such beautiful, evocative prose. Here is an example, describing an interior courtyard in the childhood home of Visaka, Yasodhara’s mother:

The queen of this domain, an enormous trailing jasmine, impervious to pruning, spreads a fragrant carpet of white. When the sea breeze whispers, a  snowing flurry of flowers sweeps into the house so that Visaka’s earliest and most tender memory is the combined scent of jasmine and sea salt.

Another example, this one describing a dip in the ocean by Yasodhara’s father, Nishan, when he, as “the last British ships slip over the horizon,” is cavorting on beaches he does not yet know are pristine:

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain time of day, a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

With prose that is so poetic through the book, reading it was sheer delight. I was sorry when it came to an end.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors
Author: Nayomi Munaweera              
Publisher and Date, US Edition: St. Martin’s Press, September 2014        
First published in Sri Lanka in 2012 by Perara Hussein Publishing House

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Searching for Sylvie Lee” by Jean Kwok

What made me pick up this book from the many displayed in the ‘New’ section of my local library was the quote by Paula Hawkins on the cover, calling it a “twisting tale of love, loss, and dark family secrets.” I loved Paula Hawkins’ debut novel, The Girl on the Train, which was also a huge bestseller, and an endorsement from her seemed very promising. If it was even one-tenth as good as The Girl on the Train, that would be good enough for me.

Having finished it, I can say that it was — just about. I was at least able to finish it without forcing myself to — it did manage to sustain my interest right up to the end, which is no mean feat, given the number of books I started recently that I was forced to abandon after a few chapters because they just didn’t grip me. As the title of the book suggests — Searching for Sylvie Lee — there is a mystery at the heart of it, which makes you want to go on reading until it is solved. Over and above that, however, I also found the book well written, with a cast of characters in a setting that was unusual, to say the least. The majority of the book is set in the Netherlands, and most of the main characters are Chinese, either immigrants or, in the case of the younger generation, either Chinese Americans or Chinese Dutch. Here in the US, we are surrounded by Chinese Americans, so there is not much novelty, but in the Netherlands, people of Chinese origin are still a rarity, and it was very interesting to read about their experiences.

The basic plot of the book is that a young Chinese American woman, Sylvie — Ivy-league educated, smart, and successful — goes to the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother — and then just disappears. She was supposed to have travelled back to the US, but never shows up. Her family is panic-stricken, and her younger sister, Amy, travels to the Netherlands to try and find her. The reason their grandmother was there to begin with was that she had been living permanently with her well-to-do niece, Helena, helping her with raising her son, Lukas. In fact, Sylvie was sent to stay with them for most of her childhood, as her immigrant parents were struggling to make ends meet in the US. Thus, Sylvie and Lukas grew up together, and she had a strong maternal bond with her grandmother, which she was never able to cultivate with her own mother even after she was brought back to the US.

The story is alternately told from the points of view of Amy, her mother (who, in turns out, has a critical role to play in how the plot unfolds), and Sylvie herself. Also, it is told in staggered timelines, with Sylvie’s chapters set about a month before Amy’s, so we are seeing their experiences in parallel, but without really knowing what happens to Sylvie until closer to the end of the book. It was an interesting plot device, one that I haven’t come across very often, and it was effective in sustaining the momentum of the story while progressively inching towards the mystery of what happened to Sylvie.

While I did find the end a little anticlimactic — it started out seeming like a murder mystery but wasn’t really — I enjoyed the overall storyline, the writing, and especially the details about life in the Netherlands as well as the Chinese Dutch experience of it. Those were very authentic and seemed to come from the author’s own experience of being of Chinese descent and currently living in the Netherlands. Searching for Sylvie Lee is by no means a work of literature, but it was overall, a good read.

Searching for Sylvie Lee
Author: Jean Kwok                               
Publisher: William Morrow               
Publication Date: June 2019       

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.