A 29 years old Indian, studying at Nanjing University under the aegis of Stanford University decides to take an irksome road homeward. When Vikram Seth leaves China for his summer holidays in 1982, he treads along a journey that years later, proves to be an itinerary for explorers of an obscure land. While China, no doubt is far from being vague- parts travelled by Seth are eccentric with people more than amiable.  His log of a month long journey becomes the base for ‘From Heaven Lake’, a book that can hardly be overrated.

As he carves a path for the readers to hang around, he makes sure to be objective. There is not a single aspect that comes off as questionable, but only a dose of slight dizziness for the reader unaccustomed to geography. Seth criticises both the neighbour countries, and at the same time provides reasonable solutions to problems less thought of. He praises equally the hallmarks of history and the maverick rise of two most powerful developing nations of the world.

The route to Delhi is decidedly hazardous. But the humour with which Seth voices his anguish makes the excruciating track tolerable. He colours a colourless nation, talks about unintelligible tongues and mops a huge mist of distrust from our eyes. Audacious that he is, he ‘hitch-hikes’ dangerously on the steep  of Lhasa, stand ordeals of paper works- both demanding and at times, discouraging. But he seldom falters, seldom exaggerates, and seldom becomes less human.

Not a single person he meets in his way lets him down. They are not only hospitable but they also run the risk of ensuring a foreigner’s safety. Akbar endorses his pass to Lhasa; Sui skirts him around the steeps of Germu to Tangula Range; Norbu ensures he is strong enough to reach Kathmandu healthy and a score others light up his path in similar trails. Coming from what they call as ‘Yindustan’, Seth becomes an object of curiosity and at the same time, a person of reverence among the humble folk.

That it is politics which divides countries and that it is humanity which binds nations is undoubtedly the embossed essence of the book. We, as a race are always suspicious, expecting hypocrisy from people who, according to us, do not share our blood. People die, and the suspicion passes on, unabated, unquestioned as the cudgels of power keep on shifting. It is only by the efforts of a few, neutral, and impartial writers as Vikram Seth that we get a bird’s eye view of the reality beyond reservations.

‘From Heaven Lake’ is more than a travel book- more than a nonfictional narrative. It is, at once, a celebration of humanity and at its zenith, a guidebook for pacification. For, no ‘Chinese’ Seth questioned liked the Indo-Sino war of 1962, for people still awaited the return of the Dalai Lama, for not everyone welcomed Mao’s Red Guards, for there are problems that yet require to be combated. However, in negating xenophobia and promoting goodwill, it is the people who are responsible, not brand ambassadors.

As he writes-

“Here we three, cooped, alone,

Tibetan, Indian, Han,

Against a common dawn

Catch what poor sleep we can,

And sleeping drag the same

Sparse air into our lungs,

And dreaming each of home

Sleeptalk in different tongues.”

If I had to rate this book, I would give it a 9.9 on 5. That much I loved it!

©Anannya Nath (17th July, 2018)



“Turtles All The Way Down” is the latest buzz among Green lovers. All excited, I buy the book as well- a little disappointed in the end. No doubt, Green has tried to write something different by providing a promising conclusion. However, one feels that the book is lacking in many aspects of Green himself. It somehow fails to live up to “Paper Towns” or “Looking for Alaska”, provided that certain sidelines are felt unnecessary. The overtly philosophical strain which Green’s teenagers carry is wayward, a lot baffling.

Aza’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ avatar is somehow felt undesired. In fact, the whole story revolving around Russell Pickett’s disappearance and the futile end to it can be summed up to have little or no significance. Unlike the disappearance of Margo or the ‘unbelievable accident’ of Alaska, the mystery here is stained by the characters’ self-centred motives. They are, in fact, felt to have drawn haphazardly; veering towards unpredictable circumstances- and somehow lack a solid footing. Aza suffers from OCD which, too, gets giddy and slightly unbearable when numerous microorganisms are introduced. Nothing is of help to her. Daisy, likewise, is precarious and at times, becomes undeniably clingy. Her addressing Aza “Holmesy” even during a crisis blotches the seriousness of the situation. Green’s bias of drawing smart and intelligent adolescents against hopeless and stupid adults is only amusing, but not appreciable.

As for the ringing line- “You can’t ever know someone else’s hurt, not really-” makes one wonder if it is really pointless to be supportive. Being emphatic is ridiculed with great emphasis. To Aza, she is surreal and so she forever questions the concept of “self”; the answer to which is inconclusive. With Green, it always is. A lot of readers do find the book relatable, which springs from their connection of having mild OCD tendencies (sometimes ‘actually’ having it), but to me the characters cease to become themselves and so the cord is snapped.

Nevertheless, Green still remains one of my most loved writers for the very reason that he never fails to evoke laughter. His attempt is worth praising, the structure of his story never out-of-place. He is and will continue to remain a brilliant product of the twenty-first century. His mastery is enviable and although at times faulty, the messages are spine-chilling.




file-15144-media“I become my words, and the words become me”- Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words.

To her, writing is just a wild leap of a cliff- there’s none to support the writer and he has to create something out of nothing. She never thought of making a name in writing and yet, ended up being a Pulitzer recipient. Born to Bengali Indian emigrant parents, Nilanjana Sudeshna had a deep void of belonging “nowhere” inside her. Writing had always been “a very private form of consolation” for her and she feels her stories come out of a “deep place of isolation” within her.

Nilanjana spent her childhood and most of her teenage years in Rhode Island, America, where in a university, her father was the librarian. As a kindergarten student, her teacher called her ‘Jhumpa’ (pet name) which, according to the latter was easier to pronounce than her “actual name”. When Jhumpa recalls her past, she feels ambivalence towards her identity which embarrasses her of troubling somebody by being who she is. This incongruity of personality because of her name finds concrete shape in her character Gogol-the protagonist of her novel ‘The Namesake’.  Jhumpa, a lover of tradition, Calcutta, Rabindranath Tagore, Classical Indian music, Midnight’s Children and Ashapurna Devi has been scorned mostly by Indian critics for writing about a “stereotypical India”. In spite of being hurt and equally shocked by their responses, she has never given up on writing about the India which she has known and where her roots lie.

After her early short stories had faced rejection for many years, Jhumpa published her debut short story collection ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ in 1999 and grabbed the Pulitzer Prize for it, the following year. Ever since, there has been no looking back. In 2003, she published her first novel, ‘The Namesake’, which was made into a film of the same name. A second collection of short stories, dealing with second generation Indian immigrants titled “Unaccustomed Earth” was published in 2008. Upon its publication, it achieved the rare distinction of topping ‘The New York Times’ best seller list. Also, in September 2013, her novel “The Lowland” was shortlisted for the Booker’s Prize which eventually went to Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”. Moreover, in 2014, the US President Barack Obama presented the National Medals of Arts and Humanities to Dr. Lahiri, along with 20 other distinguished persons. She joined the Princeton University faculty as a professor of creative writing in the Lewis Centre for the Arts in 2015 and has been serving as such so far.

A braver outcome was her non-fictional book, “In Other Words”, originally written in Italian and later translated to English by Ann Goldstein. The book is confessional in character where Jhumpa Lahiri, as she is known, professes her love for the Italian language, her scepticism of never being able to achieve perfection and later admitting that imperfection keeps her alive. Lahiri considers Italian to be her toddler and English as her ‘“hairy, smelly teenager”. Either because of her divided identity or disposition, Lahiri considers herself to be an incomplete person, particularly the lack of language to identify with. Born with a Bengali mother tongue and yet never being able to either read or write it properly, squirms her, and she feels ashamed of feeling ashamed.

Lahiri received the guidance of Leslie Epstein- an American writer-whom she considers as a ‘wonderful teacher’.  According to her, he taught her that the key to a successful writing is to find out the reasons which are failing it and why. Once found, the writer should move on to the next draft with a little bit more clarity. “Because of that when I do write a draft, when I write 949 trashed drafts that lead to the 950th successful one”, says Lahiri.

In a world which centres on multiculturalism and where a single identity is a mere façade, Lahiri looms large as an epitome of what diasporic writing is. The most commonplace of issues find place in her works and yet she brings froth unnerving and sometimes, surprising conclusions. She sinks deeper into her characters’ minds and presents what upsetting feelings a common person can endure. She has a “one of a kind” identity- as she once labelled herself- ‘ABCD’ meaning “American Born Confused Desi”. She believes that “all of us are limited” and as such, “are graced by our own paradise” and it is that individuality which makes creative work look ‘beautiful’.

(P.S. This is a very succinct description about Lahiri and there’s a lot more to her credit. I’ve raked information from various sources, and personally reading her books- some of my favourite, of course. Hope this is helpful.)

Anannya Nath.