Virat Chandhok, the well-informed curator of books at Bombay’s Wayword and Wise reads between 10-12 titles a month. The standalone bookstore, of which Chandhok is co-owner, threw open its doors in late 2015, and has gradually and quietly earned its spot as the place where one chances upon authors ― both familiar and atypical ― and their exceptional works. Here, Chandhok shares with us a quick list of five must-read books ― from a side-splitting novel set in post-war Britain to a set of short stories with terse endings, and beyond.
‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery; translated from the French by Alison Anderson; Europa Editions (2006)
At the centre of the story ― or the essay-like narrative, if you will ― is Renée Michel, a frumpy 54-year-old concierge at a swish Parisian apartment block, and Paloma Josse, a 12-year-old resident, who with much profound thought, decides to commit suicide as soon as she turns thirteen. Renée, who has just her cat for company, is far from her otherwise dowdy self ― she reads Tolstoy, is well-versed in music, and dwells upon the superfluous lives of the rich. It is Renée who is the archetype of a ‘hedgehog-like’ character, as opined by Paloma: “…on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.’’ Both, however, have their seemingly vacuous lives overhauled by the arrival of a Japanese tenant.
‘Upstate’ by James Wood; Jonathan Cape Publishers (2018)
This book by James Wood ― the literary critic for The New Yorker and The New Republic, and professor of literary criticism at the Harvard University ― was perhaps one of the best novels Chandhok has read in recent times. Weaving in the complexities revolving around family, mental health, shared pasts and strained relationships, Wood tells the novel from the perspective of 68-year-old Alan Querry, a property developer and an over-thinker residing in northern England. Set over five days in 2007, the narrator dwells upon his personal crisis, his daughter’s precipitating depression, and the nature of parting and grief.
‘Asymmetry’ by Lisa Halliday; Granta Books (2017)
This is a title Chandhok has mentioned several times to people who walk into the bookstore looking for recommendations. Halliday’s debut novel, it comprises two key parts, strung by a short addendum. The first part, titled ‘Folly’, is centred upon Alice, a young editor in New York, who has an affair with a much older, distinguished writer, Ezra Razer ― modelled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was in a relationship with at one point. The second part called ‘Madness’ is a first-person account of an Iraqi-American economist who is detained at immigration at Heathrow Airport, and then begins to reminisce about his growing-up years. There is a third part to the book; the construction of this taut narrative ― an interview with Razer in the form of a transcript ― reminds one of the programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Exploring the asymmetries in age, power, love, and loneliness, the reader is expected to decipher the association between the first and second parts through the third.
‘Fresh Complaint’ by Jeffrey Eugenides; 4th Estate (2017)
This is the debut collection of short stories by a contemporary American novelist where the characters are sketched out with empathy, rigid gender constrictions are overlooked, and the title story is largely an impassioned, dramatic exchange over text message. The common thread through the stories is the fact that most of them, as Chandhok says, “end with disaster”. There is no pat ending ― instead, they reach a point where there is no resolution at all. These are open-ended stories; imagine an old-fashioned storyteller telling you a tale.
‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis; New York Review of Books (1954)
This is a title Chandhok re-read, and strongly recommends. Set in post-war Britain in the 1950s, this almost-classic English satire, in all its comically misanthropic tenor, is premised upon the shenanigans of James (Jim) Dixon, a junior lecturer of medieval history at a rather nondescript English university. It brims with petty yet viscerally amusing accounts wherein Jim tries to get himself out of trouble. For instance, a chucklesome account of a hangover following a serious bout of drinking describes the protagonist as “too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning”.