Thursday, August 18, 2016

INTERVIEW: Indra Das on his debut novel The Devourers

Indrapramit (Indra) Das is an author from Kolkata, India who writes in the fantasy/science fiction genres. I reviewed his debut novel The Devourers when it came out in India last year. Indra is now working as the Speculative Fiction editor for Juggernaut Books, a new publishing company focused on mobile content. I caught up with him after his publicity tour for the US version of The Devourers, published last month by Del Rey.

I know you just finished your US publicity tour for The Devourers. How did it go? 

It went very well indeed, thank you for asking! I went to New York City for the launch, and met my American editor, Mike Braff, along with the entire team behind the book’s publication, promotion, etc. at the Del Rey / Penguin Random House offices. I had a lovely time with them all, and they held a gathering for me at a bar with free copies of the book for the launch. Then I joined them at San Diego Comic-Con, where I was on a couple of panels, and had three signings, and generally promoted the book at the Del Rey booth on the Con floor along with other writers published under the imprint. From there, I went to Seattle for a couple of readings at the University Bookstore and the Two Hour Transport reading series at Café Racer. And finally, Vancouver for one night for a reading at my favourite bookstore there, Pulpfiction Books. It all went so well (thanks greatly to the heroic efforts of the Del Rey team, and the generosity of my friends in all three cities), Comic-Con was as marvelously brain-frazzling as reputed (we sold out all copies of The Devourers at the Del Rey booth), and the panels and signings went better than I could have hoped. None of which necessarily says anything about the future of the book’s long-term cultural impact or sales, but it was a lovely start.

Have you noticed any differences between the novel’s reception in India and the US? 

Absolutely. The book is doing decently for a debut in India, but it’s not had much of a cultural impact, with not many writers or publications talking about it or writing about it (I am of course eternally grateful to the writers and publications who did). It got good reviews, certainly, but I didn’t get the impression that cultural gatekeepers were very interested in looking past the pitch - ‘werewolves in India’— to talk about it as a cross-genre novel rather than declare ‘oh hey, another Indian fantasy novel, those are pretty rare, right?’ and leave it at that.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu

The Three-Body Problem
Cixin Liu
Translated by Ken Liu (Chinese)
Originally 2006, I read 2014 translation
415 pages, hard science fiction
Found: Barnes and Noble, West Chester, Ohio, USA

Caught up in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, astrophysicist Ye Wenjie finds herself working for a secret government project after her father is brutally murdered for being an "intellectual." What should she do when she discovers the first sign of intelligent alien life?

In the present, Wang Miao is a researcher working on nanomaterials who is pulled into a secret government investigation of an international organization called the Frontiers of Science. Strange things begin happening - things that seemingly break the laws of physics. His one major lead is the online virtual reality game called Three Body, which seems to hold some of the answers he is searching for.

The scientific problem and the virtual world

Probably the most unique part of this book is the integration of virtual reality with the main storyline. While Wang Miao initially plays as part of the investigation, he soon becomes fascinated by the game for its own sake: it poses a complicated physics puzzle that appeals to his scientific mind.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves

The Shadow of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Translated by Lucia Graves (Spanish)
First published 2002, I read 2005 Phoenix paperback
510 pages, gothic romance, mystery, adventure
Found: super cheap at the Kochi Book Fair 2015

A bookseller takes his 11-year-old son Daniel to a very special place: a hidden building in Barcelona where there is a collection of lost, neglected, or forgotten books. As a privilege of visiting for the first time, Daniel is allowed to choose one book to take with him. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, which quickly becomes his favorite novel.

But when he tries to find out more about this author, mystery arises. Julian Carax is unknown, and it is believed that he died shortly after the War. And then there is the faceless man who is searching for Daniel’s prized copy with the intention of burning it and any other copy of Carax’s work that appears - and who has taken on the name of a character from The Shadow of the Wind who is the Devil incarnate.

Master storytelling in the vein of nineteenth-century novels

Zafón’s work is quite obviously inspired by the best of 1800s literature. He combines an incredible feel for gothic-style literary tension with a gorgeous, poetic writing style that left me enthralled. While leisurely at first, the pace quickly picks up and drags the reader along, wondering what will happen next.

There is grand adventure around every corner in this novel. Haunted houses, magical libraries of forgotten books, and blind love interests - anyone who loves The Count of Monte Cristo or other large-hearted adventure novels will love this book as well.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Goat Days by Benyamin, translated by Joseph Koyippally

Goat Days
Translated by Joseph Koyippally
First published 2008, I read 2012 translation
255 pages, fictional memoir

Thank you to Penguin India for providing a review copy of this book. 

When I first moved to Kerala last year, I wrote to my contact at Penguin India asking for review copies of novels written by Malayali authors, especially ones that were translated from Malayalam. I expected that reading these novels would help me to understand the culture that I was now immersed in.

In fact, the opposite happened: my experience of living in Kerala, and especially my husband’s experiences of working closely with Keralites, has made me intimately familiar with Malayali attitudes and society, even without knowing the language at all. So instead of this novel helping to understand the society, my knowledge of the society will help me to discuss the deeper social implications of this novel.

In this novel, a poor Malayali man named Najeeb gets the opportunity to go to one of the countries in the Persian Gulf – probably Saudi Arabia – to take up a relatively lucrative job. However, when he arrives he discovers that his dreams have led him to the exact opposite of what he expected: instead of a comfortable, air-conditioned flat and a job in construction, he finds himself working as a slave in the middle of the desert, herding goats, sheep, and camels, and living without even a shelter to protect him from the sun’s heat. Set in 1991, this shows the flip side of Malayali migration to the better-paying jobs on the Arabian peninsula.

Opportunities Abroad

Going to another country to make money seems like it would be a big decision that would require planning. However, Najeeb displays an astonishing lack of forethought regarding this move. In his own words,

How long have I been here, diving for a living? How about going abroad for once? Not for long. I am not greedy. Only long enough to settle a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis…. Can one go hungry? I have, in the past. But things are different now. Now, at [my Mom]’s insistence, I am married. My wife is four months pregnant. Expenditure will now mount up like sand.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ontorjatra, directed by Tareque and Catherine Masud

Bangladesh (Bengali and English), 2006
84 min, slice-of-life, drama
Directed by Tareque and Catherine Masud
Starring Sara Zaker and Rifakat Rashid

After 15 years abroad, Shireen and her son Sohel return to Bangladesh to attend the memorial service for Sohel’s father. After getting a divorce when Sohel was five years old, Shireen had fled to the UK and cut off any communication with her ex-husband. This included allowing Sohel to visit Bangladesh or communicate with his father in any way.

Bangladesh is not like Shireen remembers, and Sohel is experiencing it for the first time. As Sohel discovers the family that he never knew, Shireen is forced to confront her past and the decisions she made all those years before.

This is a major, well-known Bangladeshi movie. I wouldn’t call it a good movie, necessarily: the acting, in particular, leaves a lot to be desired, and there are far too many voiceovers. However, it does a very good job of showing what life in Bangladesh is actually like – and that is what I want to focus on.


I have told my husband many stories about Dhaka and Bangladesh, but he’s never been there. I was surprised when he started exclaiming about things that he noticed in this film. “The airport is so 1970s!” “The buses are so beat up, they look terrible!” “God, this is what the traffic really looks like???” I guess my descriptions didn’t convey as much as this video did.

This movie gives a good sense of what it feels like to be walking around in Bangladesh and interacting with Bangladeshi people there. Dhaka is full of too many people, too much traffic and too much pollution, and it’s constructed out of new high-rise buildings, with older buildings few and far between. But if you go outside of Dhaka, the countryside is beautiful – green rice fields stretching into the distance and the tea gardens in Sylhet.

Read the rest at The Asian Cinema Blog

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cinemawala by Kaushik Ganguly

India (Bengali), 2016
105 min, drama, dysfunctional family
Directed by Kaushik Ganguly
Starring Paran Banerjee, Parambrata Chatterjee, and Sohini Sarkar

Pranabendu Das was the proud owner of a single-screen theater in one of the rural suburbs of Kolkata until it went out of business upon the advent of digitalization. Now, with his trusty employee Hori, Pranabendu constantly laments the downfall of old-style theater and his son Prokash’s abhorrent trade of selling pirated DVDs.

Now Pranabendu and Prokash barely speak to each other, and Prokash’s wife Moumita is stuck in the middle. When Prokash gets a brilliant idea to make more money illegally, how will his principled father react?

I saw this movie in a traditional single-screen theater in Kolkata with Tintin and his 80-year-old aunt. This was the perfect place to see this movie, both because of the theme and because some of the shots of the theater in the film lined up perfectly with the seating arrangement in front of us. However, I found little to like in the film itself.

The Ultimate Dysfunctional Family

If you like depressing movies about incredibly dysfunctional families, this one might be up your alley. Prokash and Pranabendu hate each other. They never speak to each other, despite living in the same house. Prokash is resentful about having to provide food for his aged father, especially because his father hates how he makes the money. He also thinks his father is stupid because he did not upgrade the theater as Prokash recommended and considers it his father’s fault that he had to take up selling pirated DVDs.

Pranabendu not only hates his son, but also gets drunk every night and reminisces about the glory days of the theater. He is definitely out of touch with reality, and this has apparently caused his wife, Prokash’s mother, to abandon him and move to Kolkata. Prokash’s mother is currently taking care of her own father, who is senile and partially paralyzed because of a stroke. Prokash apparently only visits his mother when there is some big news; otherwise, she never hears from him.

And then there is Moumita, Prokash’s wife, who takes good care of her father-in-law. They have a good relationship, but it is constantly sabotaged by the ongoing row between the father and son.

Piracy and Paying the Creators

One good thing that this movie does is point out the problems with piracy. Not only is Prokash doing something illegal but, as his dad points out, it also takes away any profit that the creators may have received. This is an important message in India today, where piracy, plagiarism, and other kinds of intellectual theft are commonplace.

I did not see anything likable about this movie, but if the description I have given above seems attractive, go ahead and watch it. And, just out of curiosity, I would be interested in hearing your opinion of the film.

Further Reading: 

"10 Awesome Single Screen Cinema Halls of Calcutta" from The Calcutta Girl
"Fading Lights" by Subhro Niyogi from The Times of India (2011)

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sardaarji by Rohit Jugraj

India (Punjabi), 2015
140 min, comedy, fantasy, romance
Directed by Rohit Jugraj
Starring Diljit Dosanjh, Neeru Bajwa, and Mandy Takhar

Jaggi, or “Sardaarji,” is a talented ghost hunter from rural Punjab, India. Emotionally immature, he is waiting to find his “queen witch:” the prettiest and most wonderful female ghost, who he will add to his bottled collection.

When he gets a call for help from a rich expat family living in the UK, he flies to London to exorcise a ghost from a castle. The ghost turns out to be a Punjabi named Pinky, and Jaggi decides that she will be his queen ghost.

There’s only one small problem: before Pinky will leave the castle, Jaggi must romance Jasmine, a real, human girl – something that terrifies the intrepid ghost hunter.

Emotional Immaturity

I had great suspicions about Jaggi (and the writers) at the beginning of the movie. It seemed like the women were being treated in a very patriarchal way: the female ghosts are literally kept in bottles in a cabinet while Jaggi flirts with them and makes sexual innuendos. This is incredibly problematic, but it turns out that most of this can be chalked up to his emotional immaturity: emotionally, Jaggi is about as mature as a 13-year-old, if that.

This becomes most obvious when Pinky’s plan requires him to learn salsa dancing from Jasmine. She takes his hand and places it on her back in the correct position for ballroom dancing. Jaggi nearly faints and runs away. The reason? He has apparently never touched a girl before – well, except for the she-ghosts, who are ghosts so it doesn’t count – so he is terrified when Jasmine touches him.

This emotional immaturity is indicated in several more minor ways throughout the film. For example, Jaggi’s outfits swing radically between a full suit-and-tie and footie pajamas. He constantly has to ask ghosts for advice, especially about relationships, and only realizes that he is in love when a random ghost tells him so.

Read the rest on The Asian Cinema Blog

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