book review

Gift in Green- I’m Confused

So I really like India. I live here, I’m mostly from here, but I really don’t read many books about it. With that in mind, I picked up Gift in Green at the library. It was good, but totally ruined by my constant confusion. Still, it was about the environment, in a depressing way, which is important, I guess? -Shanti

Simultaneously published in English and Malayalam, the language in which it was first written, Gift in Green is an unconventional novel about the relationship between a people and the land they inhabit.Kumaran is a young man when he leaves Aathi, serene island of water bodies and mangroves, for the ‘modernity’ and ‘exposure’ of the big city.Many years later, his return to Aathi signals the beginning of the end, as roads and bridges choke the water-life, birds and butterflies flee the dying mangrove forests, and chemicals seep into the paddy fields that have fed generations over several hundreds of years.Will the idealism of Dinakaran, the fury of Ponmani and the pragmatic perseverance of Karthiayani and her companions be able to stop the relentless progress of the behemoth? Or will the concrete city with its daily expulsions of tonnes of sewage take over the backwaters that give life to Aathi?A delightfully romantic vision of the world as it once was — and perhaps still can be — as well as a searing delineation of the dystopia that awaits us, Gift in Green shows us a new way to read our times, powered by the imagination of a writer who is known to touch a raw nerve every time she puts words on a page.

Fun Fact: I’ve actually met the translator of this novel due to a series of random events, but I didn’t know it at the time.
There were a lot of things that I liked about Gift in Green- the environmental message, the way the setting in the backwaters of Kerala is described so well, and the way that stories were used- it’s almost metafiction in that sense. My main complaint, however, is that I am confused.
The environment matters a lot. In this country, of rapid ‘development’ and concretification, it’s easy to see how little people don’t care. As the beautiful, lush backwaters of Aathi were transformed into a fetid development, the people lost touch with nature and that was terrible for them. The natural rhythms of life were gradually destroyed, and the people’s attitude towards the land changed. I liked how the book showed that the people are, at least to some extent, innocents- they have a lot of need, and the developer increased that, forcing them to work in his landfill of the greenbangle just to survive.
The setting is beautiful. I could see the fragrant, sparkling water- and then the stinking grey sludge. I could see the way of life that Aathi had. There were a few times that the translation (from the language of Kerala, Malayalam) felt awkward, like key words repeated in sentence, rather than synonyms. I have been to Kerala, if not that area, and I could practically taste it. I found that the scene with the poisoned water was particularly, though terribly, evocative.

gift in green 1 gift in green 2
I liked how the stories were used. The story of Thampuran a local saint, is used as a symbol through the story, and the storytelling nights with diverse stories from the Bible/Koran, local myths and plays are used. The element of speech and communication, and how the steel behemoth eclipses that, is well used. I liked the poetry, and that was translated pretty well.

So what is there to complain about? Basically, I was confused the entire time. I had no idea what was going on. A non-linear time structure is used, and there is no clear protagonist. In addition to this, the plot sort of doesn’t exist. It’s more like scenes from a changing lifestyle. There aren’t even any indicators of time- the level of pollution seems to indicate that it’s been years, but the storytelling nights seem to happen over days. I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it. Some of the characters were interesting, but because viewpoints kept switching, no one was developed. I couldn’t understand the characters and the plot flew straight over my head, and that made it hard to read- I wasn’t gripped to the page Also, there were heaps of names. I kept forgetting who people were. There were like 20 ‘main characters’ with equal importance to the plot.

Have you ever read a really confusing non linear book? what did you think about it? Does this sound good or confusing to you?

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