‘Burnt Sugar’ by Avni Doshi

As a young woman, Tara was rebellious. Now, in this tale of memory and forgetfulness, as she slips towards dementia, Tara moves into the comfortable Pune apartment of her married daughter, Antara. Only the younger woman, recalling her own memories, is faced with the task of caring for a mother who never seemed to care for her.

Doshi’s debut novel is a caustic tale of mothers and daughters. Over the years, Antara has pieced together the life of Tara, a beautiful woman who abandoned her arranged marriage and fled, young child in tow, to an ashram. There she became the lover of the guru, leaving Antara in the care of the camp matriarch. It was to set a pattern as parent dipped in and out of the life of the young girl – whether during the four years at the ashram or later, when Antara was once again abandoned and left in the hands of grandparents. Tara simply followed her own path, her own needs and brooked no barriers that stood in the way. If it meant a period of homelessness for both mother and daughter having left the ashram rather than make contact with an ex-husband or parent, then a period of homelessness it was.

Now married herself, artist Antara struggles with her mother. Lies and evasions are part of their everyday as Tara’s memory fades more and more, forcing the decision to leave independent living and rely on her daughter.

Sadly, like mother, like daughter, both women are self-centred, lacking in generosity of spirit or love. Carrying that sense of abandonment along with an overly critical and judgemental parent leaves Antara unempathic: it’s her American-Indian husband, Dilip, who appears to show greater concern for Tara. Narrated by the unlikeable Antara, the result is a surprisingly cold, distant first novel lacking a compelling voice.

I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize but lost out to Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain.

‘To Whom She Will’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Amrita is in love with Hari’s smooth, oiled hair and gleaming smile.

Set in early 1950s Bombay, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s first novel is a tale of young love and an India changing post-independence. A young Amrita Charkravarty dares challenge tradition – not only working part-time at the local radio station as an announcer, but also the expected marriage arrangements to be made by her family.

Told in a series of short chapters, To Whom She Will is a pleasant distraction into aspects of a certain aspect of Indian society in the 1950s and the clash of cultures. Daughter of now-widowed Radha, who is herself one of three daughters of the aristocratic, Anglicised barrister Rai Bahadur Tara Chand, Amrita has met Hari at the radio station. Charming, popular, good-looking, Hari is a spoilt eldest son revelling in the romantic concept of being in love with Amrita. But easily distracted, with little awareness of the emotions of others and the world around him if it does not directly affect him, Hari is weak-willed who simply goes with the flow. He doesn’t even tell Amrita that his own family is making plans for their eldest son.

It’s all something of a soap opera marred slightly by the sheer foolishness of Hari. But, like all soap operas, favourite characters emerge. A bigger-than-life Radha, having herself ill-conceivably married for love, is impoverished (by the family standards) – cotton saris as opposed to silk – and vents her frustrations through bullying the servants and her privileged sisters. From a lower middle-class family, Prema, Hari’s sister, is now wealthy yet unhappily married. She is generous to family members but, like all the older women portrayed in the novel, competitive and judgemental of outsiders. Lodger at the home of the Charkravartys, the academic Krishna Sen Gupta, educated in India and England, is secretly in love with Amrita.

East and west meet in Bombay with To Whom She Will and where tradition and culture interact. Jhabvala herself was born in Germany of Polish Jewish parents who fled to England in the late 1930s. There she met and married Cyrus Jhabvala and moved to India in 1951, a country and its traditions she constantly struggled with. The themes of arranged marriages and Indian nostalgia for the colonial past are prevalent throughout her books, with To Whom She Will an early exploration. The UK-educated patriarch Rai Bahadur Tara Chand looks to freedom of choice for Amrita in terms of her marriage – but still, as the patriarch, rules his family, in spite of all three daughters with husbands of their own and no longer living under his roof. Those three daughters (and the charitable societies they belong to) all represent women Jhabvala would have met in her early days in India. Even inert Hari recognises (if subconsciously) that tradition and the system, as the eldest male child, benefits him.

‘In Beautiful Disguises’ by Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Elegant, engaging and deceptively slight, Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s first novel is full of charm crammed with vivid characterisation and occasional humour.

I was born a girl and remained so until I became a woman. Thus begins the narrative of a 16 year-old girl living in South India, third (and last) child of a drunken bully of a father and virtually invisible mother who carries a shadow of disappointment wherever she went. It is she who is to be our narrator – and as a result, written entirely in the first person, we never learn her name.

Living in her own delusional world of Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly fantasy, our narrator is detached from her family. It is only when, not long after the (unnamed) older sister is dispatched as a married woman and her own wedding plans are explored does the girl stir herself and take flight to the (unnamed) big city to the north.

Finding herself working as a maid in the household of Mr Aziz, the day-to-day realities of life slowly dawn on the method actress in training. Cleaning, washing, waiting on tables, navigating the vicious temper of Mrs Marceau (Aziz’s French wife) are real and not roles. But she embraces this new life: in spite of all the chores, our narrator drifts through her days. There’s no real hardships overtly voiced in In Beautiful Disguises. Alluded to, certainly. Directly experienced? Not really. Symbolism aplenty with the ‘colonialism’ of Mrs Marceau and the privileged arrogance of Armand (the son) but Balasubramanyam prefers to touch upon rather than delve: the tone is light, the narrative escapist. The more serious intentions are left below the surface or in the hands of Raju, the rebellious head servant/cook.

Slowly, however, champagne, croissants and visits to the zoo grow tiresome – fantasy can only be a temporary refuge. Now a little wiser, a little more worldly, it is time for our narrator to return home, having identified that, along with her actress in the making, everyone else also assumes a disguise of their own.

‘The Lowland’ by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandCovering a time period from the 1960s to the present day, The Lowland, set in both India and the US, is surprisingly slight, superficial and lacking any real depth considering its subject matter. Its forced narrative suggests it would likely have been more successful as a short story.

Growing up in Calcutta, brothers Subhash and Udayan are close but polar opposites. The older (by 18 months) Subhash is quiet, bookish and straight-laced whilst his brother is a risk-taker who, by the time they reach college age, is a political idealist and activist. He becomes involved in the burgeoning Naxalite movement, the Maoist political organisation fighting for the rights of feudalist farmers in the north of India. As Udayan becomes more and more politicised, Subhash, unpersuaded by the imported ideology, finds solace in academia, eventually moving to Rhode Island to pursue oceanographic studies.

And with the elder brother heading for the US, the dramatic narrative of The Lowland sadly ends and the soap-opera storyline takes over. Subhash settles into a level of lonely domesticity and study, knowing little of what is happening at home in Calcutta, believing his brother is no longer involved in political activism. Thus news of Udayan’s death at the hands of the police comes totally out of the blue, forcing Subhash to return home to see his family for the first time in several years – and meet his brother’s widow, Gauri.

Events unfold that ultimately result in Subhash deciding to rescue Gauri from a grim future in his parents home. Educated, politically astute, the unwelcome Guari is almost ignored – and carrying Udayan’s child (something he was unaware at the time of his death). Against strong parental objection, Subhash marries an initially reluctant Gauri and they return to the US.

What follows is 30 years of uncompelling domestic drama; Bela’s paternity, Gauri’s neglect of her daughter and husband, her rise to academic acclaim, her abandonment of family whilst Subhash and Bela are in Calcutta together for the first time. The father/ daughter relationship is pushed to its (restrained) limit. The Lowland has settled into a conventional migrant saga – but without any significant exploration of integration, grief and its effects, growing older (Bela is suddenly 34!) and lessons learned. Undercurrents of politicisation, in both India and the US, are merely touched upon – Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others and the rise of the Naxalite movement is a far superior fictional exploration – resulting in an all-round disatisfying read.

Shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, The Lowland lost out to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

‘Family Matters’ by Rohinton Mistry

family-mattersSadly, Rohinton Mistry has only written three novels – with Family Matters, written in 2002, the last. All three have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (although none won the coveted award) and garlanded with awards and prizes.

A domestic drama, in Family Matters Mistry takes us once more into the realms of Parsi culture and traditions as the Vakeel and Chenoy families struggle to eke out a living in modern-day Bombay/ Mumbai.

Patriarch Nariman Vakeel, already 79 and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, breaks his ankle and finds himself wholly dependent upon his unmarried stepchildren, Coomy and Jal. A spacious apartment aside, the two struggle to tend to his physical needs. Blaming him for the early death of their mother, Coomy in particular is resentful and bitter towards her ageing stepfather. She plots with her brother to move the responsibility of looking after the invalid onto his daughter, Roxanna, and her family.

A former lecturer of English, the irony of his position is not lost on Nariman as he compares his situation to that of King Lear. Cast out by his stepchildren having signed over the property into their names many years previously, he is forced to take solace at the home of his youngest child.

Roxanna and her husband Yezad Chenoy live with their two young sons in a cramped, two-room flat. For Murad and Jehangir, the arrival of their grandfather is an adventure. But his arrival puts a strain, both emotionally and financially, on their parents.

As with his earlier novels, Mistry is a magical storyteller, finding beauty, humour, tension and compassion in the mundane and the everyday. The world of the Chenoys and the streets of Bombay come to life; the decay of the family and those same streets evocatively captured; the tenderness unsentimentally portrayed. And whilst Family Matters does not achieve the dizzy heights of the magnificent A Fine Balance (the italicised backstory of a younger Nariman and his love for the non-Parsi Lucy is surprisingly pedestrian and undermines the impact of Mistry’s third novel), it remains a wonderful accomplishment.

Family Matters was nominated for the 2002 Booker Prize but lost out to Yann Martel and Life of Pi.

Booker Prize Shortlist: 1996


It’s the first year where I have completed reading all novels shortlisted for the prestigious literary prize. The judges selected Graham Swift and Last Orders. Did they, in my opinion, make the right call?


Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace
Beryl Bainbridge, Every Man For Himself
Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark
Shena MacKay, The Orchard of Fire
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance
Graham Swift, Last Orders

 It was, by all accounts, an uncontroversial shortlist (for a change) with two Australians – Kate Jennings (Snake) and Gary Disher (The Sunken Road) – just missing out (these were the days before the shortlist was preceded by the longlist). And it was certainly something of a vintage year – heavyweights Atwood (her third appearance on the list in 10 years) and Bainbridge (her fourth); the poet and literary academic Seamus Deane; the eventual winner Graham Swift, regarded as the favourite to win and responsible for Waterlands, viewed by many as one of the finest English novels of the 1990s; winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Canadian Giller Prize, A Fine Balance was in the running with Shena McKay as the outsider.

You’ll see from my reviews below that I generally felt positive towards all five books although, surprisingly, the weakest was Beryl Bainbridge – a sparely written fairly short novel of a very familiar story – the sinking of the Titanic. And whilst it’s told from a different perspective (a young male first-class passenger), familiarity breeds a little too much contempt.

Two rites-of-passage offer very different perspectives of growing up – the everyday fears, terrors and misapprehensions of a young girl in 1950s rural England as opposed to a young catholic boy in Derry in Northern Ireland during the same time frame. Nothing could be more diametrically opposed!

Atwood’s book is based on a true story and the exploration of just how culpable Grace Marks was in the murder of her employer in a remote Canadian home in 1843. Fascinating but errs on longwinded.

That leaves Last Orders and A Fine Balance. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully penned, deceptively simple story from Swift, I still feel that Rohinton Mistry’s book is one of the finest shortlisted not to have won the Booker. It may have been criticised for condensing all India’s ills of the time into the world of four connected characters, but it is this very humanity that makes A Fine Balance a very fine balance of a novel. So, as far as I am concerned, the judges in 1996 got it wrong. Mistry, Swift and Deane were my books of choice from the shortlist.

‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

71qai7hvu+LAnita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.

A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.

When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.

Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.

Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.

There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.

Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.

‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

61yx2cz9dml-_sl1231_-1In my mind, one of the finest novels ever written – a sensitive, humane yet deeply political commentary on the India of the 1970s during the government-declared State of Emergency along with the accompanying levels of corruption and abuses of power. Sobering, devastating yet deeply haunting, A Fine Balance may be a fiction, but it’s not made up.

Central to Mistry’s narrative are four individuals whose lives become deeply entwined, all poor and surviving (just) on the edges. It is through Dina, Maneck, Ishvar and his nephew, Om, in both their current connected lives and separate backstories that the panoramic sweep of the decade moves forward.

Their histories are all tragic yet seemingly commonplace in a desperately poor country of close on half a billion people.

Having escaped her overbearing and expectant brother and married for love, Dina finds herself widowed after just three years. Only the common sense of retaining the tiny, dingy, rent-controlled apartment in central Bombay prevents her from returning to a life of benevolent slavery to Nawaz, his wife and two young sons.

Struggling financially over the years, she takes to renting out her bedroom to Maneck, a student and son of a former school friend. His family has fallen on hard times. Living in the Himalayan foothills, owning extensive lands, the stroke of a British colonial pen placed the family holdings on the wrong side of a border. Only the General Store remains. The advent of tarmacked new roads, tourism and multinationals are the death-knell for small family-run businesses: his father pushes Maneck into looking beyond the shop for his future.

But the saddest histories belong to Ishvar and Om, victims of a caste system deeply rooted in social inequity and injustice. Untouchables in their village, the two are forced into a life of destitution following the public murder of their extended family at the hands of the local head honcho.

The four become unlikely companions and friends as they eventually find themselves living in the Bombay flat.

Initially, Dina employs Ishvar and Om as tailors. But their frequent unexplained absences make her suspicious of their commitment and motivation: it’s only a quiet word here and there from Maneck that balances her sentiment and prejudice. Yet it is in these moments of ‘absence’ that the true horrors of the State of Emergency are revealed – the rounding up of beggars and enforced slave labour schemes, the demolition of shantytowns through the Beautification Scheme, the rampant corruption at all levels. And it is those at that bottom that suffer every time.

Ishvar and Om are constant victims – they lose their mud and corrugated iron shantytown home: they’re forced to attend a prime ministerial rally with hundreds of thousands of others on the edge of town: they find themselves enslaved in a quarry for ‘food’ and lodging. They have no choices – the two are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re two of the millions born poor and therefore voiceless.

Yet, at times, in spite of the trials and travails, the four also manage to find some happiness. It takes a while in coming – similar in age, Maneck and Om become firm friends: Ishvar is a benevolent, indulgent uncle. A panicked Dina, desperate to avoid turning to her brother, is the thorn in the side. But her loneliness and exposure to others’ sufferings soften Dina’s attitude towards her employees.

But the horrors of injustice are never far away and A Fine Balance is full of apprehension – nothing good lasts forever (or, here, for very long). The narrative continues unabated.

Names may not be named (even Bombay is only ever referred to as the City by the Sea) but the corruption of Indira Gandhi’s power-hungry regime and the inexplicable actions carried out in her name are captured in Mistry’s second novel. It’s 600 plus pages of the ugliness of human behaviour when power is presented or provided. But it’s also 600 pages of a deeply humane story of enduring and surviving, living or dying, of human endurance. A fine balance. And one of the finest novels ever written.

Inexplicably, whilst shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift’s good but not as memorable Last Orders.  

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

the_white_tigerOn first reading a few years ago, I found Adiga’s debut novel informative, well written and immensely entertaining. But sadly, from an entertaining perspective, The White Tiger does not pass the test of time.

An epistolary novel, with self-proclaimed murderer and modern Indian entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, our unreliable narrator, writing long letters to His Excellency, Wen Jiabao, premier of China and soon to be distinguished guest of the Indian government.

Spread over seven nights, Balram describes his rise out of poverty to managing director of his own fleet of taxis in the emerging southern Indian city of Bangalore. His is a story of ambition, corruption, power and murder – a personal story that is also a reflection on contemporary India that remains mired in the traditions of the caste system.

From his feudal village, where landlords control everything and every wage earner pays his dues, Balram uses his wits and cunning to rise above the ordure. A chance appointment as a driver to Ashok, a landlord’s son newly returned from the States, leads him to the corrupting influence of the country’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a very different world to Balram with its exclusive shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and clubs out-of-bounds to most Indians.

Whilst his brother and father continue to run the family business in their village, Ashok is the trusted family delivery-boy, paying out millions of rupees to politicians and government workers in bribes and donations. But a few too many conversations take place inside the car and within earshot of the ‘trusted’ Balram. And gradually, as Balram becomes more and more angry about his servitude and his treatment by his employers, so a plan unfolds.

Mordant satire abounds in Adiga’s novel – Balram can be cutting with his views on Indian politics, the caste system and his extended family, controlled as they are by the paternal grandmother and living in penury. His other ‘family’, the landlords, also come under the proverbial hammer.

But it’s also Balram who is the problem in The White Tiger. Or, more specifically, Balram is essentially the only character in the story who is, in anyway, fleshed out. Thus we are fed a limited, two-dimensional perspective as events unfold, events that have already been revealed early in the novel. The result is there’s no sense of depth, no sense of suspense to Balram’s confession (if, indeed, it is a confession).

The White Tiger is an easy read (it’s seemingly effortlessly written – certainly a point in Adiga’s favour). And the early half of the novel, set in Balram’s village, is incisive and humorous. But as the narrative unfolds, so it loses something and, ultimately, becomes a disappointment. The White Tiger was awarded the 2008 Booker Prize, beating out Sebastian Barry’s exquisite literary magic that is The Secret Scripture.

‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry

15sena3Eloquent and assured, after a slow start Such a Long Journey develops into a riveting narrative set in 1971 Bombay on the eve of the Indian-Pakistan war and the birth of an independent Bangladesh.

A gifted storyteller, Mistry focuses on ordinary people, introducing a gamut of characters centred round the Noble family and residents of the down-at-heel Khododad Building.

Patriarch Gustad, as his surname suggests, is a respected, upright, devoted father of three working at a local bank as a clerk. From a family of bankrupted wealth, educated Gustad is the man of reason amidst his neighbours and work colleagues. But he unwittingly becomes involved in fraud and dangerous political machinations when he receives a letter from an old friend.

Layers of story and symbolism, philosophy and political gossip, theology and superstition are woven together as Gustad works to keep his family out of the poverty trap and understand the potential repercussions of helping Major Jimmy ‘Billiboy’ Billimoria. But he is also dealing with the everyday politics of living in the compound, the unexplained illness of his 8 year-old daughter, Roshan, and the refusal by his eldest, Sohrab, to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. As the rift between father and son widens, so Gustad’s wife Dilvanez turns to the help of old Miss Kutpitia and her remedies of lizards’ tails, toe nails and chillis.

Rich in detail, Such a Long Journey dwells momentarily on the poverty of Bombay neighbourhoods – the overcrowding, open sewers, fetid garbage, a chronic shortage of freshwater – before moving on to the corruption of the Indira Gandhi government or the cost of visiting a local GP. And always seen from the perspective of ‘everyman’ – primarily Gustad or his friend and bank colleague, Dinshawji: Such a Long Journey is a commentary, not an overtly political preach or exposition.

It’s a beautifully written amble of a journey, compelling in its telling, intricate in its composition. Like Gustad’s overnight train journey from Bombay to New Delhi, Such a Long Journey is crowded, full of energy with unexpected twists and turns which, quite simply, need to be dealt with.

There is an air of overhanging melancholia, a sense of powerlessness for the ordinary person in the street – whether it be a damning indictment of the Indira government and American foreign policy or the demolition of the wall protecting the Khododad compound by the local Municipality. But there’s also a sense of hope – the independence of Bangladesh, Miss Kutpitia finally free of her past.

Yet, ultimately, Such a Long Journey is Gustad’s journey. He loses Billimoria and Dinshawji, but he learns a great deal about himself and his family becomes stronger. And as a result, he becomes stronger.

His debut novel, Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize but Such a Long Journey lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.