Saturday, March 04, 2017

A Charming Collection of Pure Unadulterated Brilliance: Ken Liu's THE PAPER MENAGERIE AND OTHER STORIES

Ken Liu has an enviable author biography with a slew of major awards to his name and with good reason. He is scarily good at what he does, writing with confidence, vision and enough flair to swim in. In other words, those who care deeply about beautifully written stories would do well to grab 'The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories'. There simply isn't a dud in this magnificent collection of gems which can be enjoyed by the head as well as the heart. 

These are stories that linger - deeply entertaining, educational, poignant and profound. Straggling the realms of science fiction and fantasy, while dipping into the sea of Asian mythology, legends and folklore, Ken Liu's work is suffused with the magical and mystical even when it is mired in the mundane. Irrespective of whether his tale is sci-fi at its most inventive like 'The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species' , 'The Waves' and 'An Advanced Readers' Picture Book of Comparitive Cognition' or a crime procedural featuring cybernetically enhanced law enforcers in 'The Regular', at its heart they are all intensely compelling narratives replete with colourful, flawed and endearing characters. This allows the reader to be willingly pulled into Liu's world where it is possible to float on tingling sensation buoyed with good, old - fashioned emotional heft.

It is hard to pick a favourite from this collection but it is easy to see why 'The Paper Menagerie' gets pride of place having been the only short story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. As a child, Jack who is also the narrator finds himself having to deal with the fact that his American father had picked his Chinese mother out of a catalogue and the ramifications of this unconventional choice, which aren't pretty for a young boy in whose mind not fitting in is the equivalent of a death sentence. Driven by a terror of being stigmatized, he makes the irrevocable choice to reject his Chinese heritage, and in doing almost manages to destroy the things that are the most precious and magical in his life. This bittersweet story packs a wallop, dissecting the human heart and laying bare it's ability to love unconditionally as well as it's cruel capacity for rejecting even those who deserve better. It should come with a warning for this is soul searing stuff.

'Mono No Aware', truly deserving of its Hugo award is achingly beautiful, and to use the words of its hero, Hiroto feels like a kitten's tongue tickling the inside of my heart.
'All the Flavors' and 'The Litigation Master and the Monkey King' are particular favourites and thoroughly drool worthy. The former which is about the journey of the Chinese God of War in America is a  page - turner and finger - licking good. The latter like so many others in this collection will charm the pants off you and leave a lump in your throat.

'The Perfect Match',  'Simulacrum' and even 'Good Hunting' grapple with a very contemporary issue and explores humankind's scary willingness to be enslaved by technology. It is chilling, morbidly fascinating and all too relatable in today's world where most suffer from an incurable addiction to the gadgets in their lives.
At the onset Liu thanks the reader claiming that 'It is the possibility of our minds touching that makes writing a worthwhile endeavor at all.' This reviewer would like to thank him for making her so enamoured with this book, she would gladly marry it and have its babies.

An edited version of this review appeared in THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Celebrating Diwali without the Crap

There was a time when celebrating Diwali was simpler. It meant wearing new clothes, and sitting restlessly through pujas, the duration of which depended entirely on the austerity levels of the households one belonged to. The next step was listening to the tale of Narakasura’s violent life which came to an inevitably grisly conclusion at the hand of Krishna, which of course was the cause for centuries of celebration in honour of good triumphing over evil which in later years we cynically realized is history’s way of telling us that losers usually have their mistakes rubbed in their faces over and over again. Forever.
 Then the fun and games would begin. We got to stuff ourselves silly with sweets most of which were supersaturated with sugar before being deep fried in ghee, bursting too many crackers with gay abandon, and rushing off to crowded theatres to catch the Diwali releases. Mostly though it was a day of glorious celebration suffused with an unalloyed joy that would rejuvenate our tired souls, filling us with renewed vigour for whatever lay ahead.
Whatever has happened to the wonderful sense of wellbeing that nothing but an old – fashioned celebration can provide? How come we no longer believe that evil will be vanquished and good will shine through? Why have we allowed our faith as well as the lustre of the festival of lights to dim? 
Nowadays we see monsters everywhere and everyone is the enemy. Sugar and fat have both been declared as the real demons in a world where one of the greatest evils is love handles. Never mind that even science has decreed that a balanced diet means including everything in moderation. As for crackers, they are the devil’s toys contributing to pollution and must be avoided at all cost if you believe the celebs on social media who favour top of the line, high – priced gas guzzling automobiles  to get their bony behinds from one place to the other. Taking off to the theatres to forget our troubles over caramel popcorn and the turbulent drama in the lives of gorgeous people is no longer a relaxing pastime. Instead it is a political minefield where extremists flex their extortionist muscles forcing their hate – filled ideologies on us, effectively ruining the festive season. Enough is enough!  

Let us get over ourselves already and recapture the essence of Diwali, the whole point of which is to brighten our lives by dispelling the darkness that resides within and without. It is time to light a fire under intolerant backsides everywhere and resolve to respect the choices of others even if that includes gorging on sweets to the point where they risk worms tearing out chunks of a chubby caboose, lighting up a few flower pots, chakras and colourful sparklers with friends and family or watching a film starring artistes from a neighbouring nation (gasp!). Finally let us celebrate a traditional holiday with all our hearts, spreading warmth and happiness around till everyone is infected with the same.

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express 

Book Review: Burhan Sonmez's Istanbul Istanbul

Turkish writer, Burhan Sonmez’s Istanbul Istanbul is about four prisoners who are held without trial and tortured deep in the bowels of the city. Locked away in a windowless cell they are routinely dragged away along a narrow corridor, past an iron gate to where a world of endless torment awaits. When the guards see fit to return them to captivity more dead than alive they pick up the pieces of a broken body with the help of a marginally more resilient spirit and their cellmates to live out another day to the best of their abilities. A chilling detail is tossed in almost as an aside – in the cell opposite a woman is being held and her gender does not exclude her from the exact same brutal treatment meted out to the opposite sex.
            Yet Istanbul Istanbul is about none of these things simply because it refuses to dwell at length on the torture, pain and suffering or the gritty, stomach turning nature of these characters’ misfortune and spares us the graphic details. Instead, the four men choose to distance themselves from the unspeakable horrors they are being forced to endure and wile away the time by telling each other stories, retreating further and deeper into an imaginary realm until the immediacy of their situation acquires dreamlike contours. The reader is drawn in as well and the effect is disembodied and disconcerting to say the least.
            The stories themselves inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron s are varied.  Some are naughty such as the tale of two nuns who discover a certain prosaic truth about exactly how fast a woman with her skirt up and a man with his pants down can run. Another involves fantastical man – eating wolves and some are downright bawdy including the one with a randy soldier and the sexcapade of a runaway Princess. These are funny, thought – provoking, bland or intensely philosophical.
            One thing these stories are not however are revelatory of their narrator’s background or circumstances that led to their current predicament. Early on, the prisoners warn a newcomer not to reveal any incriminatory evidence or reveal telling details about himself. As veterans of ill treatment they are aware that nothing good can come from spilling their guts.
            Despite the best efforts and extreme measures taken by their tormentors, the victims refuse to part with their secrets. The readers are treated roughly the same way. While allowed a free pass into the fantasies conjured by their coping mechanisms, the protagonists hold on to the  best part of themselves which is locked away deep inside leaving the onlookers out in the cold. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends entirely on personal perspective.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Message from a Reader!

It is just too bloody awesome when a reader finishes your book, takes time out of his life to hunt you down on Facebook and  reach out with a long, beautifully worded, delightfully complimentary message. That gooey feeling you get at moments like this is absolutely priceless! Have produced it below with permission:

Hello Mrs Anuja,
This is Rama – I have had the brilliant opportunity of reading your recent book: Yama’s Lieutenant. I was really enthralled by the writing and the tale itself, and thought of writing my appreciation to you directly. I have kept up with all your works, and I have noticed that you have a tendency to take tales of mythology which are hitherto little known in detail, and to spin a beautiful tale around it. I personally enjoyed your Kamadeva book a lot for this reason, for it not only spun an engrossing tale, but rather informed me of many aspects of Kamadeva which I otherwise might not have been able to unearth myself. Coming to Yama’s Lieutenant though, this by far is your best work and one of the finest books I have read. I am a huge mythology fan, and I have always noticed that authors usually tend to succeed when they write stories which are either grounded completely in mythology or in the contemporary, but falter significantly when it comes to combining both worlds. This is your truest success – this is the first and only book I have read as part of the Indian Mythology Pantheon that has made me forget that it is a combination of both contexts, and entirely drew me into the tale. The story itself is very unique and is a brilliant adaptation of the little known fact that Yama had a twin, and intelligently taps on the point of confusion that some consider Yami to be Yama’s wife, while others consider her to be his twin sister. By the time I was done with the book (in 2 days), I was very proud to have read such engaging writing with a very creative spin put on the story. You are one of the finest authors of India I daresay, and I wish you all success in all of your future endeavours, literary and otherwise. Do kindly keep writing, as I foresee that your books might stand as authority for certain little known aspects of Indian mythology in the future, such as the points on Yama and Kama. Finally, assuming that you are Tamil, it makes me extra proud that an author of my own beloved mother tongue has proceeded to writing such fascinating tales that captures the interests of the entire nation. All the best and thank you for your works!

 Really touched and have been grinning from ear to ear ever since I read it.  Aren't my readers the absolute best? I think so :)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


All Indians are proud of their country and treat its citizens as brothers and sisters, their cultural and religious differences notwithstanding (at least in theory). But as long as anybody can remember the North and South Indians have regarded each other as curiosities to be viewed askance through the glass wall that is the Vindhyas. Down South, stereotypical versions of the Northerners include images of Punjabis going ‘balle balle’ and gorging on Tandoori chicken or evil ‘Sethjis’who chew paan and make Shylock seem like the very epitome of compassion. Thanks to Bollywood, it is assumed that South Indians live on noodles flavoured with curd when not stuffing their faces with idly and sambar, smearing their foreheads with liberal amounts of sacred ash and forever running around fluttering their hands to the steady accompaniment of ‘Aiyayo’ or ‘Aiyo’ for short.  
            The same South Indians who took umbrage for this less than accurate or flattering portrayal of their charming quirks are now doing a victory dance (or its Bharathanatyam equivalent to the accompaniment of the Mrithangam) thanks to Oxford Dictionary which has included the term ‘Aiyo’ as a new addition to its venerable lexicon. This newly minted, bona fide English phrase is an exclamation according to the revered Guardian of the world of English words, in Southern India and Sri Lanka, expressing distress, regret, or grief; ‘Oh no!’, ‘Oh dear!’.
            Those from traditional Southern households would tell you that the family elders tend to frown on the casual usage of the term ‘Aiyo’ by callow youngsters (‘Aiyo! I look fat in this selfie!’) because it is essentially a lament and they believe that it could serve as an invitation for calamity to strike. Rather like the much maligned boy who cried ‘Wolf!’ and was grievously and gruesomely punished with temporary accommodation in the belly of the predator for his lapse in judgement. But even those stern, bastions of tradition would no doubt approve of the recognition given this term which conveys pithy emotion so succinctly and will no doubt be less inclined to rap the knuckles of those who use it indiscriminately now that the said term has the blessing of Oxford Dictionary.
            In other good news for South Indians, ‘Ayya’ has also been accommodated by the definitive authorities of the English Language. For the uninformed, ‘Ayya’ is no relative of ‘Aiyo’. It is now defined as a noun, in Sri Lanka: an older brother. Or more generally: any older male relative or acquaintance. Frequently used as a form of address, having its origins in Tamil aiyan, ayyā father, also used to modify the word for ‘brother’ to convey the sense ‘elder’, and as a respectful form of address to male superiors more generally, ultimately from Sanskrit ārya.

            Those who have formerly been pulled up by Anglophiles and stern English teachers who speak pukka English and insist on the same, can relax and feel free to spice up the language with colourful epithets rich in vernacular flavour in the hope that someday even something as provocative as ‘Poda panni!’ (Get lost Pig! in Tamil) will someday win respectability. 

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Monday, October 03, 2016

How much Mythology is too much Mythology?

In recent times, the tidal wave of interest in mythology has become something of a publishing phenomenon. Thanks to the extraordinary success of the likes of Ashwin Sanghi, Anand Neelakantan, Devdutt Pattnaik and Amish Tripathi among others, the supposedly 33 crore deities from the Hindu pantheon have been retrieved from the musty passageways of memory and legend, dusted off, polished, retrofitted and propelled into the collective consciousness with gleaming, often  glamourous avatars. And the reading populace can’t get enough, it seems. Mythology appears to have become a safe bet as far as the publishers are concerned and hence, an endless stream of myth – based fiction is making its way to the marketplace. But is this surfeit of a good thing really a good thing? 
            On the one hand, one wishes that aspiring authors would quit it with the mythology obsession which if it continues at the present rate is surely going to make the taste of the flavour of the season cloying in the extreme and effectively kill the market. It is the hope that the scribblers write about something else or take up another career if it means making the field less competitive. But that would be indicative of selfish self – interest as this writer has a finger in the mythology pie and it would behove her to look at this question from an objective angle.
            While those with a religious frame of mind or an appreciation for our glorious culture and heritage are no doubt thrilled that youngsters have taken to Puranic lore in such a big way the more conservative among the populace are frothing at the mouth with some of the artistic liberties taken with the sacrosanct material that most first heard, while seated on the laps of their grandmothers who told the edifying stories just so, the way they heard it while sitting cross – legged on the earthen floor from their elders. In this brave new world though, the Gods are no longer all powerful entities who leave the pious quaking with love, awe or fear but they have been brought to the level of the mortals where one may get up close and personal with them and I daresay find a wart or two and even grey hairs, sorry, shades.
            This brand new relationship that has been forged with the supreme consciousness, appalling as it may be to some is nevertheless a wonderful thing. And before extremists grab their weapons of sweeping condemnation and moral outrage, allow me to elaborate. Indian culture with its grandiose, sweeping range and a major chunk of traditions, religious and otherwise that have been handed down over the millennia has survived despite repeated attacks by invaders who made short work of entire civilizations. And no, it is not a fluke.
The powerful Gods from Roman and Greek mythology rule only in the pages of charming fiction but are otherwise forgotten and certainly not worshipped. Youngsters hardly know the Norse Gods, excepting Thor and Loki, the mighty God of Thunder and his nemesis, who many believe to be the work of Stan Lee at his most creative. Have the Egyptian Gods or the way of life that came into being with the magnificent Nile – valley civilization retained their relevance?  What about the Incans, Maya or Aztecs? What spared India from a similar fate? 
While it has not been worked down to a science, the general consensus is that Indians have always had the ability to assimilate the best from other religions, cultures and traditions even if it belongs to a hated conqueror in order to incorporate the best others have to offer with the vastness of the precious knowledge that was no doubt accumulated in the same way and make it their own. It is through this remarkably symbiotic process that the gifts of our predecessors in the fields of art, science, philosophy etc. have been preserved and we ensure that the presents of the past survives the merciless sands of time. If that is not a beautiful thing I don’t know what is!
Likewise, if the modern era demands that we re-examine the way we choose to connect with our Gods and Goddesses, treating them as friends, adversaries or intriguing puzzles that need to be scrutinized every which way, surely there is nothing wrong with it? Because for the most part, readers pick up these new – fangled books not merely because they are a fad or an amusing curiosity but out of an underlying sense of love and deep respect for a culture and heritage that is exclusively our own and one we can take rightful pride in.
This abiding affinity for all things Indian be it myth, pickles or item numbers allows us to stay connected to our roots and feel the sanctuary of a grandmother’s lap even as we find ourselves barrelling across the highway of life, heading for strange shores to make our homes, embracing cutting – edge technology and contributing to it or wrapping our heads around ideas and notions that are entirely foreign but have been accepted as the norm. Why then should we disparage authors for taking the mythology that is common to all of us and doing with it what they will if it means that our children and their children will keep the treasure trove of the best of our ancient beliefs close to their hearts and value it forever? 

Hopefully future generations will take the old stories, add a little something new in keeping with their times and infuse it with a delicious irreverence that will make the most sacrilegious and contentious authors of the present day puke blood or roll in their graves. That would be fine too, because ultimately we cannot have too much of a good thing when it is our good thing.   

An edited version of this piece was published in Creative India

Sunday, September 25, 2016


It has been a lovely Sunday. I made awesome Mughal Biriyani for one of my fave people in the world who came home for lunch. She is one of those people who brightens up the place by just showing up. Got the loveliest present ever from her too!

It had the cutest ear - rings inside in my fave color!
The day got better from there! I found this sweet email from a reader with the subject line: "Thank you for your Shakti." What followed had to be among the most heartwarming feedback, I have ever received. Do check it out :) I have produced it below with permission:

 Hey this is Hariny from Madurai. To be clear I am in class 12(Lakshmi School).. not the respectable age where you ought to forsake your textbooks for anything else! I randomly picked up Shakti- The Divine Feminine and I think that moment had such  a momentous effect on my thoughts later. It has been very long since any book entranced me like this. Not just any normal urge to finish the book...but a huge addiction where even when I wasn't reading it , my thoughts were swirling round and round Shakti. It’s been so long since I read anything that didn't consist of physics , chemistry and maths. Somehow despite what everybody said I clung on to the book everywhere...during class hours(sneakily reading under the desk) , bus journeys , hospital waiting areas be honest even in the loo.I am typing this just having finished the book and I am very sure that the book is rarely going to be out of my thoughts for the next few weeks at least. The language was so vintage and rich cascading right off the book to my brain making me lie awake all night , haunted and deep in thought. This mail is to thank this amazing woman for such a classic novel that provided a highly vivid languorous experience. Thank you so much! are wonderful!  
And this after Archit Ojha, CEO of A Million Minds, had this to say about Yama's Lieutenant:  "'Yama's Lieutenant' has everything that I could have asked for in a book." You can check out the rest of the review here. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


'Thank you for a wonderful book' These simple yet seriously sweet words emailed by Prathibha after reading Shakti: The Divine Feminine made me feel so good! Her email has been produced below with her permission.

Shakti, the novel you wrote is power packed! and I loved it to bits. Being a girl who grew up listening to stories of Gods and Goddesses, Shakti gave me a new perscpective.

The friendship between Shakti and Vishnu was heart warming, the love between Shiva and Shakti was so heart wrenching (i have mixed feelings here, as in I have no particular word to say what I feel..the pain, the love is so..)

Indra, one of the Antagonist resonates with us, humans in a way where we deny to see/accept the truth..
Mahisha who eventually felt guilt and accepted his misdeeds but Indra couldn't! And him being revered as Grama devi! It is quite fantastic (but is it true?? :P)

Reading through the book, you mentioned about Chinnamasta! I wish there was much more about it, I was intrigued the first time I came across a photo in a temple here(i was a mere 11 yr girl by then) but after many years with help of google I came to know a little of the Goddess, it is a wonderful representation of life, nourishment and death!

I loved Kali, the freedom, the wilderness and everything about her. in your words, Well Kali is just..Kali :)

Shakti and her forms! talks with Dugra and Kali, envy towards Parvathi. Each one a personification of her. 

And the problems of contemporary world is written well, Manusmriti and its effects, the dominance in the name of protection, auspiciousness and inauspiciousness, rape, power, insecurity everything is handled well.

Thank you for a wonderful book

If that does not make you want to pick up a copy asap I don't know what will!
Now available with a 33% discount on Amazon India. and Flipkart.

Pic courtesy: Bookish Thoughts

Another reader tweeted that her weekend indulgence is a copy of Yama's Lieutenant and strawberry cheesecake ice cream. That has to be the yummiest combo ever! Have you got your copy yet? If not it is available on Amazon India and Flipkart for a 35% discount.