I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.
This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.
Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.
While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.
An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.
Novel set in India about a boy believed to be an incarnation of Vishnu
Content warning: suicide, family violence
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Blue-Skinned Gods” by SJ Sindu is a novel about a young boy called Kalki who lives in an ashram with his parents and his aunt, uncle and cousin Lakshman who is also his best friend. Kalki was born with blue skin and his father trains him as a spiritual healer. People come from far and wide to receive blessings from Kalki, believing he is the 10th human incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. To prove his divinity, Kalki must past three tests. However, as Lakshman begins to doubt his authenticity, and his home life begins to deteriorate, Kalki finds himself asking whether he is truly a god, and if he isn’t, then who is he?
This was a fascinating book about power, belief and control in the context of a family. Sindu takes the real phenomenon of children with facial differences and genetic diversity being worshipped as gods by their communities and explores what the reality of such a life might be like. This is at times a very challenging book thematically, because the power Kalki’s father (‘Ayya’) has over the household is almost unshakeable. Sindu provides a realistic insight into how family violence can gradually escalate, how dangerous coercive control and emotional abuse can be and how difficult it can be to escape. Tied into this is the ashram itself as not only a place for locals to pay respects and seek blessings from Kalki as Vishnu’s avatar, but as a commercial spiritual retreat attracting international visitors and generating income as a result.
Kalki is an innocent, open-hearted character who, despite living in such a restrictive environment, demonstrates a huge capacity to love and accept people for who they are. Sindu introduces lots of diverse characters including the lovely Kalyani, a transgender girl, and later the many types of people Kalki meets in New York. I really liked how Sindu explores Kalki’s sexuality without ever pinning him down to a single label. Kalki’s relative innocence and lack of worldliness leaves him vulnerable to exploitation, and his attempts to understand more about his identity and make sense of his past are underwhelming as a result. Going back to Sindu’s focus on spirituality, I really liked that she examines the human desire to believe in different contexts and how tied belief can be to a tangible personality. Without giving too much away, one of my favourite parts of the book was Sindu turning an adoption stereotype on its head.
While I liked almost everything about this book, I think the ending was the only part where I felt a little let down. For almost the entire book, Sindu had left the reader with a measure of uncertainty about Kalki’s identity, and I think I would have found a slightly more ambiguous ending more satisfying.
A creative and surprising story that tackles some difficult issues and challenges preconceptions about identity, faith and family.
This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.
“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.
This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.
However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.
Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.
A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.
I had been eyeing off the long-awaited sequel to Gregory David Roberts’ epic novel “Shantaram” for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to buying it yet. It was just before Christmas, and I’d mentioned the book to my partner’s mum and her eyes widened in horror. “Don’t buy it!” she told me, “I already bought it for you for Christmas! You’ll have to act surprised!”
Anyway, I ended up saving “The Mountain Shadow” by Gregory David Roberts for my trip to Indonesia earlier this year. Though not quite India, there’s something about hot, tropical nights that make for ideal reading conditions for this kind of book. The hardcover is gorgeous as well, with a textured jacket and the look of a slightly smudged print.
“The Mountain Shadow” picks up a couple of years after “Shantaram” left off. Australian jail-break Lin is out of the slums and living with his blonde bombshell girlfriend and, though he’s still working with the same gang he was in the previous novel, he’s off the streets and working in a cramped office doing forgeries. Everything is easier, but everything is different and with alliances shifting and Lin’s home life not as certain as he thought, Lin finds himself searching for answers to much bigger questions.
“The Mountain Shadow” is not the same kind of book as “Shantaram”. Where “Shantaram” is an action-packed slice of Mumbai street life, brimming with culture and memorable characters, “The Mountain Shadow” is a much slower, more contemplative read that is part murder-mystery, part spiritual awakening.
I must admit, I was a bit disappointed. Roberts is an incredibly evocative reader, and he has some lovely prose, but I did feel like this book was more of a series of profound statements he’d kept track of in a notebook and then jammed together rather than an actual story. There just wasn’t any of the tension or the same kind of cultural insights there had been in “Shantaram”. It was kind of like a flower slowly blooming, full of promise, only to reveal that it wasn’t necessarily worth the wait after all.
A fine holiday read, but more shadow than mountain.