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Paperback Pickings

Reveries and fleeting images

Bengal, the cold weather, 1873 (Tranquebar, Rs 195) by Joe Roberts is a fictional travelogue. It details the experiences of the British artist and poet, Edward Lear, in Bengal. Lear has been known more for his nonsense lyrics than as a travel writer, and Roberts seeks to work on that gap. An ageing Lear, accompanied by his Man Friday, Giorgio, travels through Bengal to Calcutta, to spend Christmas with the viceroy. The landscape he witnesses is a chimera and the people he meets are even more fantastical — a gigantic baul, a “phool-babu” anglophile, a feverish hotelier and his wife, whose tongue has been cut off. Lear’s crowded perception of this new world is compounded by his epilepsy — known then as a demonic possession. It is through a haze of his “demon” and his bouts of depression that he views the otherworldly plethora of images. These images might have been the inspiration for Lear’s works: Hathi Baul’s ditty about an owl’s desire for the cat. “He serenades her, playing a veena”; Lear’s hero worship of Byron (“I sat in the passage and cried, when Byron died”) and Toru Dutt’s response to it (“That is verse, surely”); Lear’s drawing of birds with bonnets on; his letter that reads “thrippsy pillivinx...” This is a book of images — from Lear’s vision of the pineal gland as a “half-inflated balloon... a suitcase flung open”, to dictionaries turned into lace by white ants. For the lovers of Nonsense — “a particular humour to be found among the British... a little embarrassing, not something he enjoys” — this book is a treat.

The daughters of joy (Hay House, Rs 299) by Deepak Chopra reads like a spiritual guide to love. If one can look beyond the fact that any modern-day soul searching seems to start with a break-up, this novel makes for a pleasant — albeit slightly soporific — read. Jess Conover is an aspiring writer who has just broken up with his girlfriend. The world seems to have its sights set on having him keep his faith in love. One morning, he finds a classified ad in a newspaper, “Love has found you. Tell no one, just come”. He is, subsequently, led to a “mystery school” of women who insist that Jess is “someone who wants the message to be for him… and someone who’s also afraid that the message is for him”. They take it upon themselves to teach Jess the power of love, which “makes the world possible. It is the essence of what is”. Of course, one would need to forget that one has heard this said about love in more than one ‘inspirational’ piece of writing. The book sounds more like a philosophy pamphlet than a novel and “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine” would do better to stick to alternative medicine.

Once upon the tracks of Mumbai (Jaico, Rs 175) by Rishi Vohra contains, predictably, all the elements needed to live up to the city’s name — the ubiquitous local train routes, the bandhs, the chikkis the villains. The first page puts one off, with Babloo’s tirade against “experts with the upper hand” who are guilty of the done-to-death ‘crime’ of labelling him autistic. The plot is nothing extraordinary; it speaks of the travails of love in a world where sex is described as going “for the kill”.

The Vicks Mango tree (HarperCollins, Rs 399) by Anees Salim tells the story of Mangobaag, a fictional town that has hobbled through months of curfew and suspended liberties during the Emergency. Salim’s storytelling boasts of a snarky irreverence that unveils the pathos of middle-class yearnings. In this world, only news seems to matter. Fame speaks in daydreams and a certain Mrs Gandhi is “as much mine as yours”. Salim’s descriptions are detailed, emphatic, and contain that rare wholesomeness brought about by the effortless use of adjectives.