Lucifer's Lungi - Book Review

Having given me the first opportunity to see myself in print in their anthology ‘Ten Shades of Life’, Fablery Publications shall always remain close to my heart. So naturally I was keen on tracking their progress and I was keen to pick up their books but unfortunately my hectic schedule at work kept me from it. Though I did read a lot the past few days, I generally prefer tried and tested authors when under stress. Finally however I decided to pick up this book when it was put up as part of the book tour program of the Book Club group that I have associated myself with. 

To start with the title is quite intriguing. But at the same time I feel it works as a double edged sword. For a book touted as a psychological or paranormal thriller, this kind of title has some kind of flippancy to it that gives away the direction the story is likely to take. The title straight away sets an expectation of humor or spoof and takes away some of the surprise element the writer might have hoped to achieve. Of course this could have turned to be a red herring if the story indeed had real ghosts and demons in it. But it doesn’t and I guess I am not giving away a spoiler by stating that as the blurb talks about superstitions etc. which tells you there is unlikely to be any paranormal element.

The overall premise is quite interesting. A North Indian IT Professional working in Chennai travels around the Tamil hinterland to de-stress during the weekends. One of his journeys takes him to a totally remote village steeped in superstitions. The story goes on to describe the rational minded protagonist’s interactions with the superstitious villagers and how their strong beliefs ends up swaying an educated person like him as well. This tale comes as a breath of fresh air amidst the oft repeated themes that keep surfacing in the Indian book market all the time.

The thing I liked most about this story was the tone of the narrative. The writer has such a unique and engaging voice that keeps the reader engaged even though hardly anything happens through the first half of the book. Most people can relate to the stress and boredom the modern corporate life creates and the desire to break away into the wilderness. I liked how the author keeps taking the reader into the mind of the protagonist and shows us his experience in rural Tamil Nadu through the lens of a city bred IT professional. Talking of rural Tamil Nadu, I must say the village and its people have been portrayed very well and I could immediately visualize the scenes from some of the village based Tamil movies.

One think I must say is that for a short book of 100 pages, the author has tried to do too many things. As I mentioned earlier the title and blurb blunted the edge of the horror element. Moreover the sequence of narrative also does not really work on the mind of the reader. I would have liked the story to start with the protagonist stranded in the jungle in the middle of the night and cut back and forth revealing to the reader snippets of his journey to the village and interactions with the villagers. The chronological sequencing leaves the reader clueless as to the direction the story is heading till reader is half way through. After that I had no expectation of any major surprises to come as there were only 30-40 pages remaining. 

Also the author has fallen into a trap which Bollywood comedy often falls into – he tends to mix humor with being preachy. I understand that the author had a message to convey about shunning superstitions which is a laudable objective indeed. However I feel it would have been more appealing if the author had taken a more tangential approach conveying it through the ludicrous situations rather than having the protagonist spell it out directly in the face of the reader. In my opinion the book would have been much more impactful if the reader had chosen one of the two – horror or humor and stuck to it. Message oriented is a third choice I would not prefer. I am not particularly fond of preachy books as such though I myself tend to get preachy at times in my stories. 

Overall I must say for a first time author it is a commendable effort. Some of the things I have pointed out are actually easier said than done. However as an aspiring author myself, I was thinking of this story from the point of view of how I would have liked to write it. The book has quite a juicy premise that I would have loved to get my teeth into and I must appreciate Nethra for identifying such gems. On a closing note, I would say I definitely recommend everyone to give this book a try. It stands up very well in comparison to most of the contemporary Indian books. It is not heavily taxing on your wallet or your clock as such and definitely worth every penny and second you invest on it.

The Stamp Collector - 2

Click here to read from the beginning.

He proceeded to explain. "Do you remember the second week after you had come back?"

"Yes. What about that?"

"Do you remember a conversation you had with Kazim?"

"Not really? What was it about?"

"You went and told him I had called Muslims crocodiles."

"Ah! That one? I mean you did mention that the Kannada word for crocodile sounded like Muslim, didn't you? I just mentioned it to Kazim for fun."

"It might have been fun for you. But Kazim did not take it that way. He told all his Muslim friends and they ganged up and thrashed me that day."

"But why didn't you tell me?"

"I was angry with you. I wanted revenge."

"And so you decided to cheat me?"

"And you are no longer angry with me?"

"We are even."

I thought for a while. I found his argument fair enough. "Ok, tell me how you cheated me."

"The first time was not much. You made a fool of yourself giving away that valuable stamp for that useless stamp I bought from the store attracted by the colorful pictures.  I was just testing waters and I realized you were a total sucker who went by impulse. So I had to somehow catch your fancy. So I subtly dangled Zanzibar before you and chewed the bait."

"But Zanzibar stamps are rare, aren't they?"

"Yes. Zanzibar stamps are." He seemed to emphasize the word stamps.

"The stamp you gave me was not attractive. So it must be a valuable rare one, right?"

Vikas laughed. "Goodness, no! That was not even a stamp. That was something I had forged specially for you."

I was caught by surprise. "You can forge stamps?"

"Yes. It is very easy once you know how to do it. All you need is some pictures of exotic stamps, lots of Indian stamps for the edges, black paint, a brush and some overseas postal envelopes."

My interest was stirred. "Will you teach me how to do it?"

He was surprised. "You want to learn to be a fraud like me?"

"Why not? We are friends, aren't we?"

After a few bad attempts finally I had made a passable imitation of New Falkland Islands stamp. Now was the time to test it on the ground. The school had a thriving stamp exchange going on during the breaks between classes. Each class had 5 sections with 60 students each and students from sixth to eighth were actively into stamp trade. That was a total of 1200 students of which at least 10% collected stamps which meant 120 people to trade with, many of who were strangers - the best people to pass on forgeries to. We soon located a victim. Vikas seemed as much an expert on stamp collectors as he was on stamps. He pointed out to me a stout North Indian chap flaunting a large stamp album and asked me to approach him alone. I went up to him with my stamps.

He looked derisively at the stamps in my hand. "Do you have something worthy of exchange with me? What country stamps are those?"

"New Falkland Islands," I replied hesitantly.

"Here. Let me have a look at them," he said carelessly.

But before he could take them, Vikas appeared out of nowhere. "What? Did you say New Falkland Island? Really? What do you want for it?"

I was surpised but decided to play along. "What will you give for it?"

"Will a Hungarian triangle do?"

Before I could answer the other boy spoke up, "I will give a Burkino Faso Triangle"

Vikas replied immedeately, " A Hungarian traingle and a Mongolian diamond."

The other boy was not to be outdone. "A complete Bhutanese Jungle Book set with a Hungarian Triangle thrown in as well."

Before I knew what happened, my forged stamp was whisked away from my hand and I found myself with 7 Bhutanese and 1 Hungarian stamp as the school bell rang and we rushed to the class.

"Beginner's Luck," Vikas whispered in my ear.

The Stamp Collector

The summer of '89 had come and gone. The monsoon had begun and that year the rain Gods were unleashing their full fury. It was my first day at the new school - a full two months after the beginning of the term. An unfortunate accident had me hospitalized for 2 months and my foot was still in bandage as I went to school. The only vacant seat was in the last row next to a tall boy in a blue sweater, tousled hair and teeth sticking out. That was when I met Vikas for the first time.

I was not sure what to say to him. But you had to talk to the boy who sat next to you in class though the teacher did not want you to of course. Went through the customery drill. All the usual stuff - where we lived, what our parents did, our siblings. Things that are so important and at the same time so incosequential. Now that I knew that both his parents were docors, he lived in Basaweshwaranagar, had no siblings, was I wiser in any regard? The fact that he too was a new boy to the school made me feel some kind of kinship with him. Other than that he still felt as much a stranger after 2 months as he did the first day. But then to strike gold, one has to keep digging through drivel. Patience is the key. We perserved on uninterestedly till finally we found common ground - stamp collection!

I think I have never mentioned about my hobby of collecting stamps. It was actually not a naturally developed but an acquired hobby. My uncle had been an ardent collector who had managed to build a huge collection and had passed it on to me. It was such a vast collection with so many stamps that only thing I needed to do was to calalog and maintain the stamps. There was no need for me to acquire any more new ones as such. But I felt a feeling of restlessness and desire to contribute my bit. I guess that was the closest I ever came to feeling what these scions of the rich business familes feel when they have everything handed to them on a platter.

Coming back to Vikas - he had no generous uncle. He was a self made man who had built his collection from scratch. He had saved up his pocket money to buy some stamps from the store and then been developing his collection through exchange with other collectors and further purchases whenever he saved up enough. I liked this whole idea of exchanging stamps and immedeately wanted to get into this business of exchanging stamps. I did not know how that would help in enhancing the stamp collection but it just sounded like a cool idea and I too wanted to do it.

The first exchange was an old Polish stamp from my uncle's collection for a brand new Cambodian stamp. It was a nice looking stamp and I was very happy with the deal. There was also this added excitement of sneaking the stamp out of my home without my parent's knowledge. My parents never approved of me taking anything to school other than my school books and they would never dream of me exchanging any of the valuable stamps given by my uncle.

We continued to talk about stamps. While Vikas was a dunce as far as academics went, he was a master on the topic of stamps. He knew so much about stamps, how to determine their value, how to distinguish real ones from fakes. I just drunk in whatever he said. Among the rare countries he had listed one caught my attention - Zanzibar. I was suddenly overcome by desire to possess a stamp of this nation. I began to badger Vikas to get me one of them. He said he knew someone who had it but a suitable exchange would be needed. He rejected most of my offerings till I came up with something that caught his interest - a triangular Hungarian stamp. Yes. That would do the trick, he had said. He would now carry my proposal to his friend.

The next day he told me I would have to first give him my stamp so that he could take it and exchange with his friend near his home. Having had nasty experiences with a boy few years earlier in the matter of coins, I was a bit suspicious. But Vikas was nothing like the vile Nagaraj. So I decided to give him my stamp.

One day passed. Another passed and then a third. Still I had not got my Zanzibar stamp. Vikas had some excuse everyday. On the fourth day my stamp arrived. I was so disappointed. It was a dull faded stamp with picture of some berries. Evern the writing of the country name and denomination was not very clear. But Vikas assured me that this was because it was an old rare stamp. I convinced myself and took the stamp.

I kept looking at the stamp for the next three to four days. But something did not feel good about it. So one day I went back to Vikas and asked him to take back this stamp and give me my original stamp back. The expression on his face changed immedeately as if I had said something blasphemous.

"An exchange is an exchange. Once done it can't be reversed. That is the rule of exchanges," he declared emphatically. There was a sense of finality in his tone. I was stuck with the Zanzibar stamp. I tried to like it. But somehow could not.

A few weeks passed and the event was forgotten. I wanted to again go in for an exchange and broached the topic with Vikas. He somehow did not seem interested and kept evading. When I continued to be persistent, he said he did not want to exchange with me. When I pestered him for the reason, he said, "Because you are my friend."

I did not get it. I looked at him surprised. He also looked a bit confused. He had blurted out something he had not wanted to say. But now it was done. So he had to explain.

"You have often asked me how does exchange help in growing a stamp collection. Let me give you the answer. Because exchanges are never fair. Exchanges are always meant to give you an advantage. At least that is what exchanges are to me."

It took me a few minutes to absorb what he was saying. Vikas was a cheat - Nagaraj all over again!

"But you did exchange with me few months back."

"Yes. Then you were not my friend. In fact I hated you then and wanted revenge."

Revenge? What was all this melodrama? Where did revenge come into the picture? What did I do to him that he wanted revenge on me?

Click here to read on.

For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces