The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

Girl on the Train

27th April,2015

Consensus : a very well written novel; unputdownable said Shakun; good characterization said the others. The psyche of an alcoholic is authentic somebody said.  The story is told in the first person by three women, and their narratives are characteristic, sharp and immediate in effect. The language is clear ,precise and uncluttered. Just right for the fast pace and leads through the twist and turns of the plot without confusion and obscurity. becomes nailbiting as it gathers final momentum and culminates in a dramatic finale.Very well plotted, with surprises and thrills all the way , yet events perfectly consistent with characterization and personality. The significance of events and conversations keep changing and newer patterns of meaning emerge as if an onion is slowly being peeled.

I wouldn’t like to go into detail here because that would be a spoiler ( this blog is  actually followed by some outsiders!!!) But a very well conceived thriller. Not surprising that it has become the rage and I am sure will be made into a movie very soon . Appears to be written for that medium and has all the hallmarks of a modern suspense thriller movie.

It wouldn’t be a spoiler to talk about Rachel, the girl on the train. And here I will express my very personal reaction to her . Rachel is an alcoholic unable to get over her divorce and feelings for her ex husband. She is quite intelligent and smart which is why the rest of the story sort of develops at all and she is the catalytic force of the plot. But I got fed up with her wallowing in self pity and misery . I understood that this  is why she became an alcoholic in the first place but  I was wondering why she had to  be such a loser  over an errant husband  in this day and age when changing partners in her society appears commonplace. Isn’t the possibility of betrayal a constant undercurrent in their lives ?  And when it happens people grieve and move on don’t they ? Unless they are very fragile mentally.

Wait a moment, is that a clue ?  And some more little things revealed in Rachel’s ramblings, her inexplicable amnesiac black outs etc etc.I was pleased to see  in due course , that I was on the right track . ( sounding mysterious because don’t want to be a spoiler but yes guessed ‘who dunnit’) .

Discussing her character and her disintegration as a person post divorce put all of us to discussing our favourite topic , the position of women in a patriarchal world. The Indian legal view of marital rape ( it doesnt exist) and how women are themselves their own worst enemies etc. The thing is , its all very well for us strong minded, educated and empowered ladies to say that women don’t have to put up with physical and mental abuse if they don’t want to. What we need to recognise , and Gurinder the sociologist was categorical on this, is that mental abuse is more insidious and hard to fight  and ultimately more damaging all round. Physical violence is a easy first recourse in subjugation. Deviously evil people can skip this step. People indulging in mental abuse  it are actually hitting at the very soul of a person. They are like vampires sucking  their prey of their self esteem , their will, their very self worth, the very essence of their spirit till the victims not only believe in their own worthlessness but actually become so. And its a horrific thing to see happening . And some people manipulate others coldly, calculatingly. Thats what the villain did to Rachel and you realise this with a rush at the revelation. Its what happened to Rachel to make her such a whining miserable character wallowing in her own humiliation… Imagine having to live with the knowledge that you have zero credibility with everyone that you know. Its a complete negation of personality.  To me that was the horror of the whole story and I felt sick to the core  and angry as well. As I confessed to the others, its a good book , but, nowadays I dont have the resilience to  witness one human   dehumanising  another  and not feel  sickened. Even if its fiction. Because it is there all around us, and its true and real. We cant say that it only happens in books.

To answer the question why are women  also ranged on the side of patriarchy and so hard on members of their own  sex :because they have been conditioned to take themselves at the devalued level believed in by diehard patriarchs.

If humans can descend to the pits they are also capable of the most divine and I think I would like to dwell on the more hopeful and inspiring aspects of humanity when I am reading fiction. Must be a sign of old age. I wont’t be seeing the film.

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The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

   The Pearl that Broke Its Shell   By Nadia Hashimi

The Pearl that Broke its Shell









March 16th, 2015

The Club met after a really long time. Not that we hadnt all been in touch or convened before. But we seriously considered a book  after a long while. Admittedly,  all hadn’t completed reading it.   Gurinder however had not only read and analysed the book, she had come with a write up as well which she made the basis for her presentation.

I reproduce it  verbatim, below :

” The stories of two Afghan women separated by two generations run parallel in the book. Shekiba, the grandmother, lived a life full of hardship and poverty after the passing away of her entire family. Her siblings were taken away by cholera and her parents by old age, sickness and grief. Since her father had broken all relationships with his brother, uncles and other family she hid as long as she could the fact that she was living and eking out a survival all by herself on the poor family farm. Her childhood and adolescence passed in acute poverty but tremendously rich in the loving warmth and kindness of her maternal home. Shekiba’s life was defined by a large and ugly scar covering one entire side of her face….much like the stark life she was to lead when discovered by her uncles who also took away her farm.

What shines throughout the journey of her eventful life, so filled with hardship and cruelty, is her indomitable spirit. Even in her darkest moments she does not accept what life has offered her, and has instead a strong determination to change her circumstances. For a few years she worked as a palace guard, wearing her hair short and dressing in male clothes with thick boots on her feet and adopting a male name, Shekib. But here too her life is marked by betrayal which once again, dramatically changes the course of her life.

The main protagonist, Rahima’s life, two generations later, still seems to echo in many ways the kind of cruel, unequal and unfair life Shekiba led. Through the years of her childhood till she reaches the age of 13, her aunt narrates to her in snatches, big and small, the story of Shekiba. Her gutsy and outspoken aunt is also a living inspiration who does not hesitate to call a spade a spade. Rahima’s family lived in wrenching poverty, her mother managing the household somehow with the money her opium addicted husband brought in sometimes.

Soon enough it is no longer possible to feed everyone and there is no male support for managing shopping and other jobs outside the home. In desperation, Rahima’s mother resorts of the age old and widely accepted practice of turning Rahima into becoming a “bacha posh” or a girl disguised as a boy till she reaches the age of puberty. As Rahima becomes Rahim and lives the life of a boy, even working at a shop to bring in some money, she experiences the exhilaration and freedom that come with her new identity. Quite soon, Rashida’s parents, after marrying off (selling for bride price) all their five daughters to unsuitable suitors succumb to opium addiction.


 The author writes insightfully about the life of Afghan women in a deeply patriarchal society. The book is essentially about:

1)    The quest for independence and freedom;

2)    The role education can play as a first step in the liberation of women;

3)    Sharply contrasting rights and privileges for men and women in Afghan society under the Taliban;

4)    Use of male dressing as a window to the kind of life women long for in Afghan society;

5)    Societal myths and conspiracies for the subjugation of women;

6)    The incredible spirit, fortitude, courage, will to survive and an astonishing love for life of the women stand out at all times. ”

–  Gurinder Kaur

This was a great incentive for me to read the book.


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Dont Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Dont Let Him Know  by Sandip Roy.

Dont Let Him Know








Date : 19th April,2015

This was  our second option to reading The Pearl that Broke its Shell.

Frankly, I was disappointed.

The style is well enough : small idiosyncratic details  bring to life the typical Bengali family of the 70’s contrasted with the  typical life of the expatriate son well settled in USA , married to a native  with a child etc. etc. Observation and portrayal is authentic, and strike a chords of recognition throughout.

Interest is considerably aroused at the opening when the married son discovers  a love letter from a man amongst the flotsam of his paternal household after his father passes away. He assumes it is to his mother and talks to her about it , very kindly, suddenly feeling as if the mother he took for granted had suddenly assumed an interesting and different individuality.  The mother does not reveal any confidences to her son but the story unfolds in a series of back and forth scenes of her wedding, first months,  later years in Kolkatta, eventually the visit of the mysterious lover to their household.

The initial interest is pretty soon dissipated however when we realize that the clandestine love was that of her husband who was a closet homosexual.

It then becomes a very straightforward , though quite sensitive narrative about  the angst of a man unable to acknowledge his true nature.

This is where the chapter-wise back and forth style from present to past, from the perspective of one character to another becomes awkward . I suddenly realised that each chapter was more like a short story and there was no substance in the theme, no sustained plot or story. I  skimmed through the rest of the book without interest.

Subsequently I read some reviews on the net and discovered that indeed the author had converted a few short stories and notes into a novel. This he has done  by using a common set of characters to tie the whole thing up.

Doesn’t work.



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The Works of Saadat Haasan Manto

large-p-26-a manto14th July2013

Saadat Hassan Manto is famous for his short stories in the Urdu language. But he started his career as  a  radio and then film scriptwriter and a journalist. He spent about twelve years in Bombay working with the top studios and the foremost stars of the time. His essays on the Bollywood of the forties collected under the title ‘The Stars Look Down’ are illuminating.  He describes his friendships and the characters of people like Ashok Kumar and other stars in a gossipy yet astute manner. The humdrum details he reveals humanise these characters. After all they werent  at that time the legends they are today. They were living working people and the intimate portraits we get are priceless. The essays however also reveal the personality of the writer Manto and the picture we get is of quite and exuberant person revelling in his work and the excitement of a burgeoning industry. But we also see someone who can be quite average and mediocre in his assessments and even sometimes petty and superficial. But completely sincere about his thoughts and feelings. One wouldnt however  think of him as the brilliant writer of short stories like, “Bu”, “Khol Do”, “Thanda Gosht”, and his magnum opus, “Toba Tek Singh”.

The thing is Manto chose to shift to Pakistan post the partition, much against his inclination, because he loved Bombay but he felt keenly the anti muslim sentiment  in the industry after the riots. Hindsight indicates that he would have done better to stayed here because certainly his creativity would have enjoyed more freedom. Always  a little controversial, he probably would have found more acceptance in Bombay than he did in Karachi.

His subsequent life in Pakistan was virtually downhill, from a personal and professional point of view because he simply could not subscribe to arbitrary censorship and unreasonable values. Creative freedom was missing he was involved in numerous court cases brought  against him for obscenity  which objectively may simply be called plain speaking .  But, and its a great but, this period saw the best of his short stories. He is a past master at rendering  the poignant horror of peoples lives during partition and the complete futility and meaninglessness of the suffering that accrued. He was unable to see that any bit of the suffering on both sides was justified at all. This view  comes across as vividly  and as relevant today as it was then.

I got a really good historical and social perspective of that period. Pity Manto had to take to drink and die in poverty . His head remained, however,  bloody yet unbowed. Bravo…

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A Bit of Confusion.

May and June 2012  book discussions were  non starters  because many of us either couldnt get hold of the book or couldnt read it. One of the books was ‘ The Secret Children’ by Alison Mcqueen which wasnt readily available.

We only resumed from July when we all read whatever we could find of Manto.

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20th April 2012

This again is  very unusual and layered book . Its is difficult to really write about it at this distance in time , because it is an extremely intellectual and philosophical book.  Some of us liked it more than others, and the best analysis of the book is in  a talk by Robert Adams  and I am giving the Youtube link at the end because its comprehensive. The summary of the novel is  taken from the net because it cant be improved upon :

“We are in the center of Paris, in an elegant apartment building inhabited by bourgeois families. Renée, the concierge, is witness to the lavish but vacuous lives of her numerous employers. Outwardly she conforms to every stereotype of the concierge: fat, cantankerous, addicted to television. Yet, unbeknownst to her employers, Renée is a cultured autodidact who adores art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With humor and intelligence she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants, who for their part are barely aware of her existence.

Then there’s Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius. She is the daughter of a tedious parliamentarian, a talented and startlingly lucid child who has decided to end her life on the sixteenth of June, her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue behaving as everyone expects her to behave: a mediocre pre-teen high on adolescent subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building. Only he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to see through Renée’s timeworn disguise to the secret that haunts her. This is a moving, funny, triumphant novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us. “

Both Renee and Paloma create eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life, Renée with erudition and Paloma with adolescent brio. Neither character realizes they share such similar views, from “the pointlessness of my existence,” as Renée says, to their affection for Japanese culture. Paloma adores reading manga, while Renée goes into raptures over an Ozu scene in which the violet mountains of Kyoto become a soul-saving vision of beauty.

Both skewer the class-conscious people in the building: Paloma observes the inanity of her politician father and Flaubert-quoting mother, while Renée knows that such supposedly bright lights never see past the net shopping bag she carries, its epicurean food hidden beneath turnips. Both appreciate beauty in Proustian moments of elongated time. What Renée calls “a suspension of time that is the sign of a great illumination,” Paloma experiences while watching a rosebud fall. “It’s something to do with time, not space,” she says. “Beauty consists of its own passing, just as we reach for it.”

The sharp-eyed Paloma guesses that Renée has “the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” quills on the outside but “fiercely solitary — and terribly elegant” within.In Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy  (beloved of Renee) “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” he gives his famous definition of two kinds of thinkers — foxes gather multiple unrelated ideas, while hedgehogs subsume everything into a controlling vision — Renée, intellectually eclectic yet determined to cram her thoughts into a self-abnegating theory of life, resembles Berlin’s description of Tolstoy, who was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.
The Japanese gentleman Mr. Ozu is the key to the book. He ties the two narrators together and he is the only person who sees them for what they really are, Probably because he has been able to reconcile the contradictions of life within himself philosophically… in other words  and enlightened person.. ?  I like this a lot… ties in with my view on spiritual development. It is this encounter after all, that makes Paloma  decide that life may be worth living after all. 
I find now that a movie also has been made , link of the trailer given below
Robert Adams talk  link given below
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imagesFriday 16th,March 2013

This is a beautifully written book, almost lyrical in its approach to the subject which of course is love. It  is about  a  mature housewife who has been content to  live a life of predictable consequences  – a life that for forty years “consisted of still waters”.  For the last twenty years she has seen things through  the  prism   of her marriage with her children topping the list of her priorities. But she unconsciously senses an emptiness in her life. Then she  is given a manuscript to read for a publisher which is the story of Shams of Tabriz and Rumi. The script strikes such a chord in her that halfway through it she starts a correspondence with the unknown author.  And her life changes forever ” as if a stone had been hurled out of nowhere into the tranquil pond of her life”.

The book then follows two parallel stories , one, about Ella  who faces upto the sense of unfulfilment in her life. Her correspondence with  the author evolves into a journey of  self discovery and a strangely warm emotional relationship. The other is the story of Rumi  a 13th century muslim cleric  and Shams of Tabriz Sufi mystic and how their relationship brought fulfilment and realisation to Rumi and turned him   into a Sufi poet.

The book explores the transfiguring effect of love , the kind of love which transcends our earth bound limitations and brings us to an experience which allows us to sense the infinite.   The depiction of the friendship  between  Rumi and Shams  is vividly done , told from the point of view of the major players in the story. At appropriate turns in the story  Shams  ennunciates the  forty rules of love. I have to quote some because they are the essence of the book :

“Only in anothe rperson’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you

There is no seeker among those who search for Love  who has not matured on the way.The moment you start looking for Love , you start to change within and without.

Hell is in the here and now. So is Heaven…. Every  time we fall in love we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate,envy or fight someone we straight away tumble into the fires of hell.

What matters is to find the soul that will complete yours. .. Like a mirror that reflects what is absent rather than present, he shows you the void in your soul.

Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Love cannot be explained ,yet it explains all.

Such a companionship is like a fourth reading of the Q’uran: A journey that can only be experienced from within but never grasped from the outside. “

These rules speak the language of all mystics and seers( people who have experienced these truths) irrespective of religion. I find the sayings to be completely non denominational.  Also the response and reactions of all conventional, so called pious people to also be identical again irrespective of religion. Really people and societies are much the same everywhere, the differences are only of degree.

This book is a wonderful way to learn about Sufism , its place in history  and in Islam. What a wonderful message of universal love and tolerance. The language put into the mouth of Shams is really fantastic. The counterpoint is the modern story where   Ella also finds her own emotional and  spiritual transfiguration… a pale reflection of the Rumi- Shams story, but interestingly plotted otherwise wouldnt have held much interest for modern readers.

Shakun was deeply affected and said  it has made me  question myself on my life….. If a book can do that   even for a moment its great.

I am writing this after a few months and I want to visit it again. It has a message which makes you think that there is more to life.

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