Thursday, June 28, 2012

Two States, The story of my marriage - Chetan Bhagat

Book Title Two States
ISBN: 8129115301
First Published: 2009

The story of a North Indian boy falling for a South Indian girl and his struggles in convincing both sides of the family into accepting this relationship.

Simple, Funny

Romance, Drama

The couples live-in together and have sex before marriage. The language, however, is not very profane.

Favorite Quote:
Forgiving doesn’t make the person who hurt you feel better, it makes you feel better.

Two States is the story of a Punjabi boy and a Tamilian girl falling in love, and instead of taking the usual route of eloping to get married, believe in convincing their parents for their union. The book is funny in a simple sort of a way and packs some lessons too – like being Indian instead of being North or South Indian and the importance of forgiving.

The book can be divided into three sections, and these sections evoked different emotions from me: Tolerant, Incredulous and Annoyed.

The language is juvenile. That in itself is not a reason to dislike a book – I loved the writing style of Twilight, Percy Jackson and Harry Potter. I was not expecting a Salman Rushdie from a Chetan Bhagat. However, when a juvenile style of writing is combined with cheesy lines and shallow emotions, more than losing its edge, the book becomes a caricature of bad writing. Consider, for example, the dedications page:
This may be the first time in the history of books, but here goes: 
Dedicated to My In-Laws.* 
*Which does not mean I am henpecked, under her thumb or not man enough.

Ever since the movie Lives of Others, I give a lot of importance to the Dedications page. Considering that this book is inspired from his own marriage, and also that the book makes ample fun of the in-laws (to be), whose positive traits have been conveniently ignored, I found this page to be a very poor joke.
Or maybe not. I am a Tamilian, and as Bhagat mentions in his book:
The Tamil sense of humor, if any, is really an acquired taste.

The book is full of stereotypes. Punjabi and Tamilian stereotypes to be precise. Of course, Bhagat has added this disclaimer in the beginning:
I would also like to tell all South Indians I love them. My better half will vouch for that. I have taken the liberty to have some fun with you just like I have with Punjabis – only because I see you as my own. You only make digs at people you care for.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the stereotypes now:
  • Primarily concerned about food.
  • Usually on the heavy side.
  • Overdressed and with a preference for bling and gaudy jewellery.
  • Love showing off their wealth.
  • Usually outspoken, loud and dramatic.
  • Believe South Indians have a complexion complex.
  • Love to shop.
  • Education is not exactly a priority, especially for a girl.
  • Love the IIT tag and foreign degrees.
  • Eat only Idlis.
  • Almost all of them are black (not dark), and most of them use generous doses of talcum powder.
  • Listen to horrible Carnatic music.
  • Docile, repressed and the only sign of rebellion is talking in Tamil to non-Tamilians.
  • Tamilian men usually have thick glasses and oiled hair, and since they cannot get girlfriends themselves, prefer arranged marriages.
  • Tamilians don’t like to have fun and like to follow the rules. Fun, for them, is usually associated with guilt.
  • They like reading The Hindu, and are comfortable with silences. The dinner is a quiet affair with everyone exchanging dead looks.

To sum it up:
Marble flooring is to a Punjabi what a foreign degree is to a Tamilian. 
When people land at Chennai airport, they exchange smiles and proceed gently to the car park. At Delhi, there is traffic jam of people trying to hug each other to death.
In the beginning of the book, Bhagat through the protagonist Krish, mentions the following reason for wanting to be a writer:
Someone who tells stories that are fun but bring about change too.
Now, what does the author do to serve the bigger cause – vis-à-vis, make inter - state marriages acceptable?
  • Does he finally understand the city and its people or his girlfriend (or vice versa)? No.
  • Does he show the positives of the stereotyped parents and South-Indian (and North-Indian) bosses? No.
  • Does he show some exceptions to the stereotypes – like an educated Punjabi girl, a non-blingy Punjabi parent, a non-gossipy relative, a cool south Indian friend, a drinking and meat-eating Tamilian? No.
  • Does he lie his way through to the girl’s parents' hearts? Yes.
  • Does he expect the girl to lie to his parents and do the household work to impress his mother? Yes.
  • Does he manipulate the brother, the girl’s parents and his mother into accepting for the marriage? Yes.
  • Despite the lofty talks of wanting to bring about change, and constantly putting down a multinational bank like Citi, does he, in the end, resort to the traditional method of flattery to get his job done? Yes.

After all, in his own words:
No matter how accomplished people get, they don’t stop fishing for compliments.
When the parents of the boy and the girl finally meet, the protagonist tells the girl to make her parents buy a lot of gifts for his mother and not let him pay or do any work. He convinces his mother that the girl will be docile and submissive after marriage. The boy’s only defense is that he was lying and trying to get both the sides to like each other. Of course, how a girl's side will like a boy or his mother for forcing them to buy "gifts" is debatable.
Forget the feminist angle, but this looks like a life full of lies and a lot more gifts from the girl’s parents just to let the parents get along. Again, the ever eloquent author, provides this conversation between the boy and a girl as a gist of the issue: 
Girl: “No I want to marry where my parents are treated as equals”
Boy: “You should have been born a boy”.
Girl: “That’s so sexist, I would have hung up if I didn’t care for you”.
To be fair, the girl ought to be smacked too. She assents to marry the guy who didn’t like her wearing shorts, asked her parents to buy gifts and thinks that only a boy can demand equal rights for parents.  
This is not the first book with a manipulative or a non-likeable protagonist. There is Gone with the wind with a raunchy heroine and Fifty Shades of Grey with a sex-starved lead, not to mention all the unreliable narrators. The reason why this was as glaring as it is was because of the promise that the book is about change. If the change in inter-state marriages can be achieved only through lies and manipulations, then the marriage is not worth it.

It is an easy read - the language is simple and easy to follow. Of course, it is light on the pockets. But please read the book with minimal expectations. Bhagat does not disappoint, at least in terms of mediocre writing and shallowness that is expected out of him.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Fifty Shades Trilogy - E.L.James

Book Title: Fifty Shades Trilogy

ISBN: 0099580578
First Published in: May 2011, September 2011 and 
January 2012 respectively
Synopsis:A fictional insight into a highly successful man’s leanings towards Bondage, Dominance, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) relationships will all his female counterparts.

Serious, Witty

Romance, Drama

Very adult language.

Favorite Quote:
Fair Point well Made, Ms.Steele.
(Not one of the best lines, but it was used so many times that I couldn’t get it off my head!)

Fifty Shades of Grey is a three-part book into the enigmatic personality of a business tycoon Christian Grey through the eyes of a college graduate, Anastasia Steele. The initially stifling dominant characteristics of Grey are slowly unravelled to show their more turbulent roots. Steele embarks on an unlikely and unexpected journey to discover, and unintentionally, heal him.
There are many drawbacks in the writing, but one cannot fault the story line – it is dark, disturbing and frankly, unforgettable. Depending on one’s perspectives, there are three way of reviewing this book:
  • Twilight fan book
  • BDSM
  • Language.

The Twilight Fan-Book Perspective
As most of the readers know, the story initially started off as a twilight fan fiction, and later spun off to form a standalone series. For those who didn’t (like me), the connection was not difficult to make. I was incredulous while reading it, and was planning on shouting “plagiarised” before I did a Google.
Take this line from "Fifty Shades of Grey" for example:
“…last to be picked for basketball or volleyball – but I understood that – running and doing something else at the same time like bouncing or throwing a ball is not my thing. I am a serious liability in any sporting field. Romantically, though, I’ve never put myself out there, ever. A lifetime of insecurity – I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults goes on.”
Compare that with this line from Twilight:
“Instead, I was ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair, despite the constant sunshine. I had always been slender, but soft somehow, obviously not an athlete; I didn't have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself — and harming both myself and anyone else who stood too close.”
This is just one example – of one character. To summarise:

Character Comparison - Fifty Shades Trilogy and Twilight Series
Source: ReadingAftermath 

I believe it is a crime to copy “characters” from another book and use similar names (Come on lady, don’t be so lazy!). This is even more disturbing than usual because of the first-person narrative.  
However, by the second and third book, Ana has been given more character. more spunk and definitely, more weaknesses ( She is nagging to the point of being irritating). She is witty, strong-minded, independent and career-focussed, while Bella remained monochromatic – Paranoid and obsessed with Edward.  To put it in perspective, Ana grew while Bella wanted to be “17 forever”.

The BDSM perspective
I didn’t find the book bold, shocking or more erotic than a normal Sidney Sheldon novel. It may have to do with the fact that I skipped a few of the descriptions –when 70% of the first book is on sex, it gets boring – be it for pleasure, for punishment or for teaching.
The book is borderline clinical in the descriptions and James took an interesting approach to introduce the concept novel to most of us – through a detailed agreement document.  Though I couldn't garner enough interest to google some of the terminologies, I found the approach different and informative! 

The language Perspective:
If you can get past the twilight-similarity (and that can ONLY happen if you haven’t read Twilight before) and the BDSM over-load, the language could be a potential deal breaker. James literally ran short of phrases and ended up using the same ones again.. and again. The few I found particularly irritating have been listed below, with the frequency of their usage in all three books (absolute numbers):
Common phrases Used in Fifty Shades Trilogy              
Source: ReadingAftermath

There were many more, but these were all that I could remember of the top of my head.
The language did have a redeeming quality: an almost effortless flow. Though it is no way on par with the breezy style of twilight and Percy Jackson series (I refer only to the style of writing), and though I wish Ana Steele’s vocabulary was not so limited, the punch lines and dialogue deliveries were smooth.

Little credit has been given to the story which packs a solid punch. That is the only way that a novel with so many sex scenes, plagiarised characters and an average style of writing could have such a deep impact. For every reader who is either OK with BDSM or is willing to skip a few pages, this book is strongly recommended.