Malathi Ramachandran’s Mandu is a poetic justice to the love of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur

He was a poet, a musician and an artist before life adorned him with a blood-smeared crown. She was the purest of the souls that walked the earth. She breathed music and poetry with her very existence. He was looking for redemption, but he instead found love. Life gave him her and together they went on to live forever in the songs and folklores of Malwa. Malathi Ramachandran drew inspiration from these folklores for her new book ‘Mandu’, that speaks of the romance of Sultan Baz Bahadur and his love Roopmati.

My greatest fear while reading any historical fiction is that a writer’s poor imagination might destroy my fascination for the original story. However, with time, I have learnt to acknowledge that writing a historical novel isn’t as easy as it might seem.  One of the many challenges in writing historical fiction is that many a time the readers already are familiar with the plot and the climax. Especially for stories of the likes of Baz and Roopmati, it is more than challenging because of its popularity among the audience. Such books can be lost on the readers without an engaging narration and skilful story-telling. That way, Malathi needs to be lauded for her courage and conviction with the subject that she chose for this book.

In her prologue, Malathi offers to “whisk the readers away to another era and love other lives between the covers of a book” and I must say she did well on that offer of hers. Even before Baz and Roopmati fell in love with each other, I had fallen in love with Mandu and Malwa, thanks to Malathi. She paints beautiful imageries of the valleys, the plains, the city that it was and of course, the Holy Narmada, who is almost another character in the lives of the star-crossed lovers. Her splendid narration not only transports you to different lifetimes but also lets you bring back the fragrance of those bygone days into your current timeline, the sweetness of which lasts even after the book is done. I am now convinced that when I visit Mandu, I will see more than just the ruins.

I loved how Malathi doesn’t just rush through the romance. Instead, she lets you soak up even the finest details of loving, longing, enduring, embracing and eventually surrendering unto the bliss. She does rush through the conspiracy that changes the lives of our protagonist. Even the climax is rushed, but I am not complaining. Malathi gives you so much of Baz and Roopmati, which makes you feel like it’s a life well-lived and you are no longer afraid of the end. I also loved how the writer gave a life to Begum Hiba, instead of letting her rot in bitterness.

Baz and Roopmati hailed from different faiths and societal statures. So, the readers get a glimpse of these different cultures and how the lovers crossed over when some of them became hurdles. The book in strewn with phrases/words borrowed from Urdu, which only makes it more beautiful to read. The book also generously indulges the readers with some of the poems written by Baz and Roopmati.

The book is a poetic justice to the love of Baz and Roopmati.  I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction/romance genres. It’s a breezy read. Pick it on a rainy day. I promise you it will only make it more enjoyable.

Buy the book here.

Here is another historical fiction that we reviewed.

Racism Should Not Subsume Any and Every Form of Discrimination, This Lexical Reference Should Be Kept Handy

RACISM… the word in vogue right now, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. What is even more astounding is that racism is being used to describe all sorts of discrimination. There might be critics of overt cultural appropriation, but the subversive dilution of racial discrimination means that the blunt force trauma that racially discriminated individuals encounter will become as common an occurrence as eve teasing in India (which could end up in an acid attack by the spurned lover), or just another instance that hordes are facing globally and too big to deal with. A lexical reference for discrimination is necessary, not just for those being discriminated against because of race, but for others who face discrimination everyday because of gender, caste, religion, sexual preference, economic status, or any multitude of discriminatory reasons.

DISCRIMINATION
Oxford: the practice of treating someone or a particular group in society less fairly than
others
MW:     a: prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment racial discrimination
b: the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than
individually
Urban a: When YouTube doesn’t allow you watch a video because you don’t live in the
U.S.
b: “Action based on prejudice or racist beliefs that results in unfair treatment of
individuals or groups; unjust conditions in areas such as employment, housing
and education.” – Museum of Tolerance
Law:     n. unequal treatment of persons, for a reason which has nothing to do with legal rights or ability.

Discrimination ranges from microaggressions of prejudice and bias to the killing of a train passenger due to religious reasons or parading a woman naked around the village because of her caste. These people face discrimination too, and they too do not deserve that the apathy towards their experiences with discrimination be diluted further. While societal constructs of discrimination might have changed on the policy level, the implementation leaves much to be desired for.

Among the many isms one might encounter in daily life, discrimination presents itself in many forms. Racism, casteism, elitism, sexism, and cronyism with its derivatives, crony capitalism and nepotism, are rarely happenstances, but a pervading prejudice that extends beyond geographical boundaries. The most recent example is the Cisco lawsuit “for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer”, also called CASTEISM.

…ISM
Oxford:            a set of ideas or system of beliefs or behaviour
MW:                 a: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory
b: an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief
Urban:             a: Someone who does a distinctive specified thing so much, that they are
now notorious for it. They are generally referred as a “their name”-ism.
b: In a fraternity or sorority of the ethnic persuasion, an ism is defined as
an individual that has the same position in line
Marine Law: Known as the International Safety Management Code, the ISM Code is
one of the required regulations in the marine industry

And what might be the difference between elitism and cronyism? The consideration of being among the privileged few and receiving favours for being among the privileged few… The pseudo-intellectual Bengali who hijacks cultural authority is likely exhibiting elitism.

CRONYISM
Oxford:           the situation in which people in power give jobs to their friends
MW:                 partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political
hangers-on to office without regard to their qualifications
Urban:            partiality to friends, expressed by appointment of them to positions of
authority, regardless of their qualifications
Business:       the act of showing partiality to one’s close friends, typically by appointing
them to a position in a company or organization despite the individual not
necessarily being the best person for the position. Although this is favoritism
is frowned upon in many cases, it is often hard to determine what is or is not
cronyism…Although accusations of cronyism are prevalent, they very rarely
amount to any disciplinary action or removals from power.

Cronyism, on the other hand, has existed for as long as societal favoritism has. The influence of social networks in the world extends from panelinhas in Brazil to guanxi in China. According to an Oxfam India report, India Inequality Report 2018, “the total wealth of Indian billionaires is 15% of the GDP of the country, and the richest in India have made their money through crony capitalism rather than through innovation or the fair rules of the market.” The impact of crony capitalism is subversive in its obscure influence on the global political economy.

Even the Covid 19 pandemic has not deterred cronyism (Fig 1.), with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which provides loans backed by the Small Business Administration, displaying hints of crony capitalism which are often well within legal bounds. According to ForbesManeet Ahuja and Antoine Gara, “In a fresh twist on ‘relationship’ banking, personal connections were key to landing PPP cash whether the intermediary was a big bank, or a small one.” When the PPP application of Families First Pediatrics’ owner, Dallen Ormond, was refused by JPMorgan Chase which had “dished out $20 million in PPP money to two subsidiaries of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, the steakhouse chain parent that has a separate credit line with the bank, Ormond fumed in an email to Forbes, “Please tell the powers that be when this is all over I hope they can find someone to save their newborn baby’s life as they enjoy their $50 steak“”.

Of course, the Trump administration has already encountered flak for its nepotistic latitude as was evident with Ivanka Trump during the G20 summit in Japan. So, another cronyism derivative, nepotism, which favors family seems par for the course. In India, Kangana Ranaut’s outburst on Koffee with Karan against nepotism is infamous for the can of worms it splattered across the tabloids with eugenics being bandied about for good measure.

Of course, a lexical reference for discrimination would be incomplete without elucidation of the pervasive endemic of RACISM and SEXISM. One of the definitions of race is, “distinct evolutionary lineages within a species,” according to Alan Templeton. The “inventor of modern racial classification” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his analysis of human taxonomy, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind) in 1795. According to Nature magazine, Blumenbach’s comparative analysis of cranial shapes “divided the human race into five great families: the Caucasian or white race, the Mongolian or yellow, the Malayan or brown, the Negro or black, and the American or red.”

Race and Genetic Variation
Source: Daniel Utter

Scientists in the 21st century refuse to ascribe race as a biological attribute for human classification, and “prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity since race is a social construct.” Ancestry provides an intersectional approach to biocultural adaptation in diverse geographical conditions. Of course, colonialists’ attempts to civilize savages of Asia and Africa added to Blumenbach’s paradoxical authority and continued its subversive influence around the world… Not unlike casteist discrimination in India, which is based on the varna classification originating more than two millennia ago, and continues to be the basis of social identity for many. And let’s not forget the derivatives of discrimination based on gender and sexual preference which include:

  • Sexism: Prejudicial stereotyping based on biological gender attributes with discrimination generally directed towards women and transgenders
  • Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Prejudicial stereotyping based on sexual preference with discrimination generally directed towards those interested in same sex or non-binary sexual orientation

Obviously, while there may be enough reasons to discriminate, the question you need to ask yourself is, whether you should. While social categorization may be necessary for affirmative action or reservations for the disadvantaged in society, human nature has evolved through social constructs of identity and its dark underbelly will continue to resurface until discriminatory actions are considered unacceptable and insupportable not only on a policy level, but also within the layers of human existence.

The-Bones-Of-Grace-Tahmima-Anam Cover

Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace is a Haunting Tale of Incompleteness of Our Being

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam carries a deeply profound sadness that is difficult to escape. It speaks of such absolute raw and bare emotions that it is hard to keep yourself distanced from it. The second person point of view used in the novel adds to this devastating feeling of the inescapable. The narrative pulls the reader deeper, forcing to confront some of the inevitable realities of human life.

One such reality that shapes the novel as well as human relationships is a sense that we are incomplete and we will not be able to overcome it. We just have to live with it.

As Elijah Strong says at the very start of the novel, “Loneliness is just part of being a person. We long for togetherness, for connection, and yet we’re trapped in our own bodies. We want to know the other fully, but we can’t. We can only stretch out our hands and reach.” This crushing truth permeates The Bones of Grace from the very beginning. Each character is endowed with different shades of incompleteness or a loneliness that haunts all human existence.

Elijah Strong is the character to whom the entire novel is addressed. Zubaida Haque is the narrator. She is from Bangladesh and is a paleontologist studying at Harvard University. Zubaida met Elijah because of a serendipitous coincidence at a concert at Sanders Theatre. Their conversation started on an odd note that is perhaps possible only among complete strangers. Zubaida, submerged in Shostakovich’s Symphony 5, recalls a vivid childhood memory she had suppressed and reveals to Elijah, the complete stranger, about her being adopted. This strange introduction led to the two getting to slowly know and understand each other.

Zubaida has a seemingly well planned life. She has supportive roommates in America. She is selected to go to Dera Bugti in Pakistan to dig out the fossils of the walking whale, Ambulocetus natans. She is betrothed to her childhood friend and sweetheart, Rashid. However, her world collapses when her dig comes to an abrupt end and she returns to Dhaka. She is tormented with the nagging thought that she has lost an opportunity to make a dent in the world.

Moreover, meeting Elijah makes her imagine infinite possibilities beyond the ones set for her in Dhaka. Despite her sense of unease with the world, Zubaida lets the events unfold as they were expected to in Dhaka.

The one dent Zubaida makes is when she volunteers to help a British researcher, Gabriela, record the precarious lives of the ship breakers at the ironically named, Prosperity Ship Breaking, in Chittagong.

The scenes at the ship breaking company further the total desolateness of the novel. It is this setting or point where all the strands of the novel come together: her life with Rashid, her love for Elijah and her need to know her true origins.

Beautifully interwoven is the metaphor of the walking whale and its ambivalent nature. The walking whale was a mammal living eons ago on land but turned to the sea, unlike all others who were beginning to migrate from sea to the land.

Zubaida associates herself with this ambivalence because she has also been thrown against the tide of the world. Just like she wants to unearth the mysteries of the walking whale, she wants to find the mysteries of her origins too. She wants to give her otherwise fragmented self a sense of tangible, unshakeable identity.

The Bones of Grace is a deeply moving novel that leaves you distraught because it makes you think about your own tenuous link with the past and the wider universe. It makes you feel small, but also provides courage to face an intransigent dichotomy of human life: of being connected to others through myriad identities yet being truly connected only to your own self and body.

Even though this book is the final installment of Tahmima Anam’s Bengal Trilogy, the novel can be read as a standalone. Characters from the previous two novels do come in but are on the margins. The story also portrays cities of Bangladesh, Dhaka and Chittagong, giving the reader a glimpse into the life of the privileged in this country.

If the movie, Lion, moved you with its raw treatment of fated identities, The Bones of Grace will make you similarly introspective and emotional.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan is a must read for parents

The recent events around the death of a young actor have brought to the limelight the stigma around mental health. It is important to start conversations around this to understand each other’s well-being. It is also imperative to acknowledge how society’s own rigid ideas around class, caste, gender and success can mar an individual’s mental state. To begin a conversation, we should also work toward creating equal spaces for everyone.

June is Pride Month and mental health issues around the LGBTQIA+ community must also be heard and voiced. Talking of Muskaan is an insightful YA novel that explores the issue of bullying and homosexuality in high school. In doing so, it also speaks about class, an entitlement that comes with class, the need for better support systems for students to understand and gauge their identities.

The novel begins with Muskaan’s best friends Aaliya, Rashika, Srinjini, Divya and Subhojoy being summoned by their school Principal. They are informed that Muskaan had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. The Principal tries to understand through them, about what could have been troubling Muskaan.

The story then reels back to five months earlier to flesh out the characters of Aaliya, Subhojoy and Prateek, along with unfolding the events that led to Muskaan’s suicide attempt. The rest of the novel is only seen through these three characters. The reader does not hear Muskaan’s viewpoint. The reader only hears about Muskaan and her thoughts through these characters. Aaliya and Muskaan are good friends. Prateek is a rich kid with a rich father who liked Muskaan but she rejected him. Prateek later gets put off by her quiet nature.

Subhojoy is on the opposite end of the class spectrum. He lives in a congested place and knows that studying hard is the only way to make his dreams come true. He wants to come out first in his studies but somehow Muskaan beats him to it by a few marks. They then become friends hoping to learn from each other.  This also helps them to know each other’s circumstances better: Muskaan not being attracted to the opposite gender or Subhojoy feeling out of place because of his class.

Muskaan is mocked at for being friends with Subhojoy simply because he does not come from a well to do family. She is ridiculed for having rejected Prateek, who is wealthy and considered cool in the school. Word slowly gets around about possible rumours about her sexuality.

As we know, teenagers and kids can be vicious to each other when they do not conform. Being in love only equals to heterosexuality is the only thing peddled as being normal, which instantly makes everyone label Muskaan a ‘weirdo’ for liking girls instead of boys.

School can be tough and a hell-hole for those who are misfits, who do not seem to follow the normal.

Talking of Muskaan is a sensitive story that showcases the pitfalls of majority thinking where only one kind of behaviour is deemed correct. The novel also portrays how school children themselves are directly and indirectly taught gender and sexuality norms whether it is through the depiction of the girls shaving their body hair and making a ritual out of that or Prateek’s very Bollywood like thinking that a girl’s ‘no’ can be turned into a ‘yes.’

Through the juxtaposition of Subhojoy and Prateek, Sankar has also shown ideas of privilege prevalent in India. Subhojoy believes in the middle-class dream of working hard to become successful, whereas Prateek uses his wealth as a means to success which he thinks is his birthright.

Though Talking of Muskaan is a YA novel, it is one to be read by both parents and teenagers. Parents can reflect on how their own prejudices and attitudes can creep into a child’s point of view. For example, Prateek’s father’s entitled views seep into Prateek in the novel. It is an excellent way for parents to learn to be sensitive to the workings of a child’s mind. Lastly, the novel paves the way for sensitizing adults and children towards issues of homosexuality and its decriminalization in India. It is only when we engage in conversations, can we hope to create equal spaces where people are not burdened by the thought of being ostracized for who they like and are not mocked or bullied so much so that they contemplate or even attempt suicide.

Buy the book.

Here is a list of other books you can read this Pride Month

Here is another YA book recommendation for you.

Video: BookSpeak Series by Jeevanayagi – Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa (Konkani Literature)

Sahitya Akademi-awardee Damodar Mauzo is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Konkani literature. We discuss his book Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa in this episode of BookSpeak. For more such videos on Indian literature and books, subscribe to our YouTube channel and our website.

TheSeer’s BookSpeak

Buy the book here.

Ishqiyapa-To-Hell-with-Love-TheSeer-Book-Review

Pankaj Dubey’s ‘Ishqiyapa – To Hell with Love’ Succeeds from Cover to Cover as a Commercial Fiction

The story pulls you in with a make-out-gone-wrong scene between two lovers. Then, it cuts to flashback to set the context of the opening scene. This context with all its characters of different shades, political rivalry, an underdog boy, a privileged but unhappy girl, and a faithful henchman creates a story of love and deceit interchanging places throughout the book Ishqiyapa -To Hell with Love. The book has been published by Penguin Metro Reads.

The premise is familiar and to a certain extent cliched. The kingpin of Bihar converts to a politician and has a few secrets under his belly. His daughter, Sweety is a free soul who wants to go out and explore the world. The protective father is not ready to let go of his daughter. Enters Lallan, an ambitious young man in love with Philip Kotler who aspires to become a successful entrepreneur in the mould of Ambani after completing his MBA course. Lallan is the variable who changes the trajectory of every character in the story and soon we find ourselves in the world of uncertainties. The thrill of this uncertainty reaches a crescendo towards the end of the book.

The author through his characters also displays his passion for the Hindi film industry. This becomes a double-edged sword for the book as you will be able to recall many moments from various movies while reading this book. Whether it works for the book or not, is for the readers to decide. If you are a reader who enjoys such references, you are going to enjoy this breezy read filled with typical Bollywood twists and turns.

Whether it is the caste rigidity in marriages or the notoriety of criminal politicians, Pankaj gets clear and clever references in the book. There are interesting episodes which tell you more about the time when kidnapping had become an industry in the state with the involvement of top politicians and mafia. Irrespective of these plot-crutches, the author has been successful in not turning it into a depressing tale of criminals and their crimes. Love stands as the backbone of the story and everything else happens to be accentuating the spirit of love. The author surprises you occasionally with his attention to details. What he chooses to tell and what he leaves to imagination give you hints aplenty that this book was written with the motion-picture adaptation in mind.

In retrospect, I believe this book lost an opportunity to dig deeper into Bihar and bring out the sides that are otherwise left unexplored in the hunt for a pop-fiction. Readers and movie-goers are already jaded with all the stereotyping and negativity around Bihar. So, when an author belonging to the state comes out to tell us a story from there, it is only fair to expect a little more than what the lazy Bollywood has done enough of, thanks to its prejudices and ignorance about the region and its people.

The genre this books falls in is known as Commercial Fiction. Books in this genre are high on mass appeal and are targeted at the average reader who is looking for a light read to spend a few hours in books that are easy on language and high on entertainment. On that front, Ishqiyapa – To Hell with Love succeeds, from cover to cover. Pankaj Dubey weaves a fast paced tale with no room for the ‘boring’ literary stuff the average reader runs away from.

Buy the book here.

Beat the Noise of Negativity, Plug Into These Happy Books to Stay Motivated

“Your book is dispatched and would be delivered soon. Happy Reading!” would read an automated mail from the E-commerce company when you order a book. “Happy Reading” says the cashier at the book store, the librarian, even the book marks. You pick up the book; you are intrigued, puzzled, sad, angry or frustrated but happy. When I say happy, I mean the story takes you into a free, lighter world, away from the vicissitudes of life for a while, leaving a smile at the end of it. How about a few reads that to pick before going to bed that calm your mind and take you away from the constant blue light of your mobile/laptop screen while you are gorging on the latest comedy clips on YouTube in a constant effort to keep away the day’s blues? Here are a few recommendations to keep you happy and motivated.

Ruskin Bond-The Room on the Roof
The Room on the Roof | Ruskin Bond

ROOM ON THE ROOF | RUSKIN BOND

The novel takes you in the world of four adolescent friends and their adventures. Set up in a hilly Indian town, the story is all about friendship, love, and longing. Written in simple language, it’s an apt read for young adults; but it would do no harm to grownups if they read it. It would certainly make you nostalgic and chuckle up at times. Just a note: Ruskin Bond’s most of the books have mountains as the backdrop and human emotions as the front runner effortlessly weaved in words. You can pick up any of his books with a blend of nature, friends, kids, adventure and I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Buy the book.

ZEN PENCILS- DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM | GAVIN AUNG THAN
ZEN PENCILS- DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM | GAVIN AUNG THAN

Zen pencils – Dream the impossible Dream | Gavin Aung Than

Pick it up for the gush of sunshine and motivation. It has inspirational quotes from popular personalities beautifully illustrated in the form of stories. The graphics stay with you even when you tend to forget the words. This book is second part of Zen Pencil blog series. If you finish the book too quickly and demand for more, visit the blog www.zenpencils.com to dive more into the world of graphical stories.

Buy the book.

THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY
THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY


THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY

As the tag line of the book says, “Ordinary People and Extraordinary Lives”, the book is a collection of author’s personal experience around people she comes across and how they inspire her to be happy and contended in what life has to offer while we all are working to make it better every day. The stories are diversified from her experience of being the only girl in the engineering college, travelling to various countries to wondering about the fruits and vegetables grown in kitchen garden and their origin. The stories inspire, surprise, teach, and leave you with many experiences.

Buy the book.

GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS | ELENA FAVILLI & FRANCESCA CAVELLO
GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS | ELENA FAVILLI & FRANCESCA CAVELLO

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls | Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavello

The book has 100 motivational stories about the women around the globe who made a significant impact in society fighting against all the odds- the stories of girls who wanted to be swimmer, scientist, or social activists when the society had defined boundaries for them. The title though says that the stories are for rebel girls but I would say it should be read by all irrespective of gender to break out from anything that stops them, as the first page of the book reads- “Dream bigger, Aim higher, Fight harder And when in doubt, remember you are right.” Not just the stories but you would also be taken by the colorful picture illustration of the women in stories.

Buy the book.

LOOKING FOR MISS SARGAM | SHUBHA MUDGAL
LOOKING FOR MISS SARGAM | SHUBHA MUDGAL

Looking for Miss Sargam | Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal, a renowned singer turns first time writer with this book which she calls is a collection of stories of music and misadventure. The book is a general read for anyone, does not necessarily have to be from music background. It introduces you to the music world without being too technical. The stories are full of fun and frolic halting occasionally to speak about the hypocrisy, rivalries, and eccentricities of the music world. Overall, the book is a pleasant read. 

Buy the book.

Cover Image: Jill Wellington

Five Wonderful Collections of Famous Folktales from Around the World

When you are growing up, you’re misguided into thinking that fairy tales, or folktales, are for children. Only after you’ve grown up and sought these tales again in your adulthood that you realise what you’ve been missing. 

As you delve deeper into the folklore of India, you’ll start to see connections, narrative patterns, even themes. You’ll enjoy finding connections between stories from different ends of India. Our country is not as vast and multitudinous as we think it is. 

Such is the nature of stories. They evolve and spread in ways that defy thought and understanding. Only by broadening our thinking and theory can we find the answers to our past in these stories. When you read folktales from different cultures across the world, much like the stories from India, you’ll begin to notice patterns, repetitions, and cultural exchanges that will tell you how culturally bonded our ancestors used to be. Stories, folktales travel all over the world before they arrived in the form they are today. Here are 5 collections of world folktales that will make you long for simpler times.

The World’s Great Folktales, Retold by James R. Foster.

Over 170 folktales from all over the world are retold in this book with a special focus on the humorous tales that spring up in and around different cultures. Many of these tales have been translated into English for the very first time. These tales are entertaining and witty, funny, fantastical, and highly imaginative. Taken from a variety of sources, chiefly European but also Asian and African, these tales bridge the gap between lore and art. They are meant to be entertaining as well as instructive at all times.

Best-Loved Folktales of the World, Selected by Joanna Cole

Living up to the name it has given itself, this collection gathers famous classics that we are all familiar with. Classics such as “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” are presented here with their counterparts in various cultures. The stories in this collection are arranged by geographical region and present tales of magic, mischief, adventure, humour involving a whole host of characters from damsels, witches, tricksters to grandmothers, fools, and evil stepmothers in all their glory. A must-read for anyone wishing to brush up on the stories they may have already enjoyed in their childhood.

A Harvest of World Folk Tales, Compiled by Milton Rugoff

This compilation strays between myth and folklore and; and simultaneously, between academic and accessible. There are several folktales from various parts of the world, but the book also includes trusted narratives from the epic world. While the fully grown academic might balk at the text, amateur folklorists will consider it to be a delightful stepping stone for field work. Since the focus is on readability and accessibility, the stories in this book can also be read out loud during gatherings or when putting children to bed. Illustrations by Joseph Low are a welcome addition to the book.(This book is now published under the title the Penguin Book of World Folk Tales)

Favorite Folktales from Around the World, Edited by Jane Yolen

When they put the word “Favorite” in the world, they mean it. Jane Yolen’s collection doesn’t include typical stories like “Hansel and Gretel” or other popular folktales that have entered the imagination of children, but these tales are enjoyable and meant for children and adults alike. The printing is definitely something worth talking about; it is designed with flair keeping in mind that the book’s purpose is to be attractive to children. Yolen has also added brief notes for each story at the end of the volume for anyone interested in the scholarly pursuits. (This book is part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library book series, and includes famous folk and fairy tales from the other books in the collection.)

Folktales Told Around the World, Edited by Richard M. Dorson

Here at last we arrive at the peak collection in our list, the must-have book for anyone who wishes to get as close to the original lore and tales as possible with an English translation. In choosing the folktales for this collection, Dorson had one worry: how to represent the geographical areas and cultures of the globe in a single volume? To his credit, he may have largely succeeded. The beauty of the Oral tales present in this collection is that they aren’t your everyday fairy tales or folklore. Instead, they are actual narrations taken down on recorders and transcribed verbatim by folklorist, who are then handed the improbable task of translating the stories without losing their cultural ethos. It is a pleasure to read these stories as they are told by a storyteller, even if the language sometimes feels jaded in places. Along with the stories, there is a wealth of information present at the end of the book that deals with themes, motifs, and tale types of the folktales. A thorough classification of the tale is also included.(The book is part of the Folktales of the World series published by the University of Chicago Press)

Whether you want to read bedtime stories to your kids or study folklore in college or even just read folktales for your own enjoyment, the stories in the collections above have something for everyone.

Read about Indian folktales collections here .

Cover Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter

TheSeer-LGBTQ-BookList_indian-Authors

Video: Five LGBTQ Books to Read by Indian Authors This Pride Month

June is celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising Movement. We bring to a suggestion list of five books around and about LGBTQ lives to read by Indian authors. For more such videos, please subscribe to the YouTube channel.

To show your support, you can also take part in the #21DaysAllyChallenge being run by Pride Circle.

Music: Bleach
Musician: anatu
URL: https://icons8.com/music/

Amphan-Kolkata-Trees-Uprooted

Super-Cyclone Amphan’s Trail of Destruction: Despatch from Kolkata

Our housing society was a battlefield that day. Our beloved Hercules was up against the fire-breathing Cacus. As per the legend Hercules was supposed to emerge victorious. He had stood the test of time; had been there since our birth, deeply rooted. Every morning his residents would sing beautiful songs to wake us up. He was our saviour, our friend, someone who never asked anything in return for his services. He was our hero in every sense!

Suddenly, the window panes crashed against something hard. Shattered glass was all over the floor. One branch of our beloved ‘Neem gaach’ (Neem tree) had smashed into our living room window. It was an ominous sign. To our horror, the giant tree lay uprooted. Cacus had won this time. Only that it was called – AMPHAN! Imagine an old family member, someone whom you have seen every day of your life since your birth passes away one day, all of a sudden, due to a fatal accident. We felt the same when our beloved Hercules lay felled as good (or bad) as dead!

Amphan unleashed its terror in the City of Joy that ill-fated afternoon. The city was already reeling under the pressure of rising COVID-19 cases, Amphan added to the ordeal. The super cyclone was slated to arrive in the afternoon and it did with precision. Thundering winds with rising speeds multiplied the uneasiness, every passing second. We were constantly checking our phones for live updates on the wind speed. The winds soon crossed the century mark, and another half century in a jiffy. By five in the evening the cyclone was at its harshest, taking away anything and everything that blocked its path. One could only hear (didn’t have the audacity to slide the windows and see) glass panes smashing here and there, trees being wrecked and temporary roofs flying like gigantic kites. Let alone a person like me in his early thirties, it was something unseen even by the older generations. Those few hours felt like a live terror attack with guns and explosives blazing outside and we, the common people hiding in our shelters praying for all of it to end.

There is an age-old tradition in Bengal where people blow conches and recite verses praising Goddess Kali in times of deep trouble. There is a strong belief that the Divine Mother will protect her children. That evening was no different. A series of conches blew and Women from every household produced the sacred ‘Ululudhvani’ as if asking the Goddess for mercy. Call it the power of prayer, the Super cyclone diminished into a thunderstorm by eight in the evening and into a nagging drizzle late into the night. We thought it was the end of the battle. However, it was just the beginning, there was more to come!

At around 10pm the power went off. We switched on our mobile phone lights to find the mobile network gone as well. So, we were there disconnected from the rest of the world plunged into darkness. That night we could sleep quite peacefully; the weather was cool and the wind had turned into a breeze. When the power did not restore in the morning, was when the real trouble started. With no power overnight, the water tank was empty. Rest need not be explained! Carrying heavy buckets of water from a community tube-well to the fourth floor of the building with no lift was a pain. Even more annoying was to stand in the long queues there maintaining social distancing. A few people made a business out of this as well. They filled the 20 litres mineral water jars with the underground water and started selling them at Rs. 100 (yes you read it right!) apiece. The days after a cyclone are generally hot and humid and this one was no different. It was a penance to sit in the hot tandoor that our apartment had become by the afternoon. With no retrieve in sight people were cursing their stars! The troubles compounded in the night. People shifted their base to the terrace for some respite and it did work. The mosquitoes had a feast that night; gallons of human blood at their disposal!  

The story went on for almost a week. There was hardly any cash left. The entire contingency cash usually kept aside by every family for such times was about to finish. There was no network for online payments and the cash machines (ATMs) were all out of order. However there was no problem in managing essentials as the local shop owners and vegetable vendors were co-operative. I realised the futility of online shopping and delivery apps that day. In times of trouble, the local shopkeeper and sabjiwallah comes to your rescue. The system was exposed like never before. It seemed the government did not care for its citizens or perhaps it cared but was just not capable enough to deal with the crisis. The electric supply company stopped responding to calls after giving umpteen false hopes. Every morning someone would say the power would be restored by the evening and in the evening, the next evening! Amidst all this we were unaware of the situation outside our housing society. Firstly, there was no Power so all modes of communication were long gone. Secondly, the lockdown; one could not look beyond the boundaries of one’s own home! Finally, after the combined effort of the people the power was restored on the ninth day. We breathed easy. The mobile network was still elusive, but the thought of running water in taps itself was a reliever!

After another two days the mobile and Television were buzzing again. It was then, that we realized the actual impact of Amphan. The plight of the Sunderbans dwarfed our troubles. The videos and images of people dying of hunger and diseases pricked our hearts. The number of destitute rose day by day. We learnt that The Honourable Prime Minister had visited Bengal and promised a hefty relief package as well. Many social organisations are working with the government to help the affected. Here I want to mention my friend Dr. Deb. He along with his team of volunteers visited coastal villages and areas around Sunderbans. They organised many relief camps distributing food, medicines and other essentials to the people. He is not alone in this venture. Many NGOs and other philanthropists have come forward in this time of calamity. The government is also working on rehabilitating the homeless and providing the relief. The pace is slow, given the pandemic engulfing the entire world right now!

Now after almost three weeks life is limping back to normal. However, Amphan has shown us some harsh realities of life, which we often tend to ignore. The only certainty about life is that it is uncertain. One moment you are building castles of happiness; the next moment a wave grief sweeps away all the sand. In the era of technology and automation, one should not forget the humane touch. We should remember technology is secondary, humanity is supreme!

Cover Image – A tree uprooted during heavy rain infront Tipu Sultan Masjid after the landfall of super cyclone ‘Amphan’, in Kolkata (Photo Credit: PTI)

Christopher Hitchens, Photograph by John Dempsie, c. 1978

Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens, and the Art of Exhausting the Limits of the Possible

The ability to change opinions in the face of new facts is a dying skill. I do not know many people who would readily examine a fact or development and let it affect their stance on the matter at hand or political predilections they have been holding sacrosanct so far. In most cases, the opposite is true! The hardened ideological preferences are used to explain changing circumstances and the boat of life remains anchored on the banks of safe hypocrisy. In fact, this is how ideological fanaticism survives and breeds. When it is fed with the potion of power, it metamorphoses into the monster of totalitarianism. When the other boats that sailed to challenge themselves in thoughts and through actions return, there is no place left for them in the depraved lands.

If you want to visualize this more lucidly, imagine the ideologue or the intellectual you adore and follow as the head of your community, captain of your sports team, or the executive head of your country. Now, from their existing body of work, try to deduce what these people would allow and disallow once they are in such positions. This will define the limits of your liberty under them.

If you want an example, please refer to the recently released 7 point guideline from the “leading economists, intellectuals, and activists.” 7.1 gives ample sense of what such groups are capable of doing if they are given executive powers. Although, after a severe backlash from the netizens, the group had to completely replace the point but not before getting their lack of seriousness about the issue entirely exposed.

 

 

In the foreword to his book, Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens quotes Pindar Pythion III – “Do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.” By the time he wrote down the foreword, Hitchens had already been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. So in retrospect, when you look at his work after the diagnosis, you realize how earnestly he took to that utterance. Till the last days of his life, even though he seemed to have lost much of his muscles, he did not part with his astuteness and sense of humour that run through the chapters of his memoir – Hitch 22. Hitchens stood true to Pindar’s tenet and in many ways exhausted more than the limits of the possible.

Hitch 22 begins with a heartfelt chapter on Yvonne – Hitchens’ mother. This and the chapter on his father – Commander, are two of my favourite chapters in the book. In describing his childhood years, the role of his mother in his life, and the personality sketch of his father, he triumphs as a writer who has taken upon himself the daunting task of writing about his parents. He does not judge either of his parents and gives us a glimpse rife with emotions and delectable prose into his formative years. The fact that he never published any fiction, will remain a lamentable loss for the genre.

Hitchens was a brilliant storyteller and the book contains stories from around the world – the jocular ones as well as the grave tales of human suffering. He takes the reader on a ride through some of the major political developments of his time across the globe. The Vietnam war, Salazar’s regime in Portugal, expedition to Cuba as a young leftist a few months after Guevara’s demise, the Gulf wars, the 9/11 attack, Saddam Hussein’s fall, American war in Afghanistan, and the question of Anti-Semitism – Hitchens speaks about all of them, never hiding his opinions or the side he took.

In many of these narrations, even though he identifies himself as a Trotskyist, he keeps noticing the doublespeak of the Left or the waning of the ideology itself.

As 1968 began to ebb into 1969, however, and as “anticlimax” began to become a real word in my lexicon, another term began to obtrude itself. People began to intone the words “The Personal Is Political.” At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was – cliche is arguably forgivable here – very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic “preference,” to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: “Speaking as a . . .” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this much for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment when the Left lost or – I would prefer to say – discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time that I was to see the sellout conducted so cheaply.”

Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

 

In the chapter ‘Mesopotamia from Both Sides’, Hitchens gives a detailed account of events that turned him into an Iraq war supporter from his previous anti-war stands. This was also the time when most of the Left was positing against the war and naturally attacked Hitchens for his views. The chapter ends with an affecting account of a young man named Mark Jennings Daily who was inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens on the moral cause for the Iraq war and had signed up as a soldier for the war. All these are towards the end of the book, including his fallout with Noam Chomsky whom he found to be on the opposite side about the American response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So much of our life is lived beyond the commonly used crutches of left-wing and the right-wing that an honestly-lived life will have to fly without any wings many times. Individual honesty offends the group-think and Hitchens’ life is a true testimony before us. His was the boat that was not meant to anchor on fanaticism in the garb of unflinching loyalty to the ideology. Christopher Hitchens greatly admired George Orwell and you will read Orwell finding a place in the book at several instances. It is not surprising then to see Hitchens questioning his own opinions and re-examining them many times over in his one lifetime. Quite naturally, Hitch-22 stands as an intellectually honest work that must feature in the ‘Read’ list of any serious reader of world politics.

You can purchase the book here.

 

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“I Have More Souls Than One” – On Portuguese Poet Fernando Pessoa’s Birthday

The Portuguese modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa, had not published many poetry collections during his lifetime (1888-1934). Though he wrote prolifically and was involved in literary ventures, several of his poems only came to light with the publication of The Book of Disquiet that brought together all his unpublished writings in one place. You might have seen the book crop up frequently in Amazon India recommendations as well. It has become quite popular in India too, similar to the fame that writers like Murakami and Marquez seem to enjoy among Indian readers.

Tiny and pastel green Penguin Moderns brought out a collection of Pessoa’s 29 poems, I Have More Souls Than One. For those daunted by the size of The Book of Disquiet, this mini collection is a good way to introduce yourself to Pessoa’s style of writing.

It is indeed his unique writing style that sheds light on his musings and philosophies of life. Pessoa wrote poetry not only under his own name but also under names of other personalities he created. Each personality appears to have a distinct style and personal history. The paths of different personalities even crisscross each other in Pessoa’s oeuvre. It then feels like an ultimate crossover of the many selves that Pessoa wrote about. This creation of various literary selves is known as heteronyms. Pessoa created almost close to 70 such heteronyms!

Heteronyms are not the same as a nom de plume or pseudonym. The latter is simply a name one adopts but a heteronym is adopting not just a name but a creating a completely separate personality.

I Have More Souls Than One focuses on three such heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Richard Reis. At the end of the collection, Pessoa speaks as himself. Caeiro’s poems are interlinked with nature and his existence and thoughts are inseparable from it. Whether it is describing his life’s impermanence as a bubble or the evenings as perpetually a brooding and melancholic time, Caeiro proclaims himself as ‘the only Nature poet.’

Richard Reis has a more Classical bent of mind, recalling in his poems Greek and Roman Gods to drive a metaphor. Alvaro de Campos, on the other hand, seems to be filled with the need to be everything yet nothing. He is more contradictory in his ideas and thoughts. Scholars have also noted the influence of Walt Whitman on Campos’ poetic style.

Campos’ most famous poem, Tobacconist’s begins with:

I am nothing.
Never shall be anything.
Cannot will to be anything.
This apart, I have in me all the dreams of the world.

These lines manifest the curious contradiction that Pessoa embodied in his work. His poetry asserts this idea that existence is nothingness or that there is nothing other than the self. Yet, this idea is opposite to how Pessoa expressed himself: through myriad personas or heteronyms.

As Adam Kirsch states, for all of Pessoa’s heteronyms “nullity was a muse.” This is not to say that Pessoa reveled in the nihilistic erasure of self. Instead, if one reads his work, they speak of nourishment of the self, of the need to care for it. For example, in Beyond the Bend in the Road, Pessoa exhorts us to think about only where we are, rather than chasing or worrying about what comes next.

The title of this Penguin Modern collection is derived from, ‘Legion Live in Us.‘ The poem contradicts the opening of Tobacconist’s as instead of being nothing, here the persona shows,

I have more souls than one.
There are more I’s than myself.
And still I exist

Indifferent to all.
I silence them: I speak.

In Legion Live in Us, Pessoa, through the persona of Reis, speaks of nothingness and also of multitudes existing side by side, “where thinking or feeling is.”

In the poems presented under Pessoa’s name in the Penguin Modern Collections, the poet speaks at length about an idealized love. This is again opposite to his actual life, where he only had one fleeting relationship. It is also a prevalent European subject among male poets since times immemorial. Pessoa’s other personalities speak of much more diverse viewpoints. Pessoa seeks to escape his usual, conditioned self through them. He plays with the idea that in multiplication can one find and understand oneself.

Perhaps for Pessoa, his self meant nothing other than the norm of multitudes. Self was not one, but many; or perhaps, it was his imagination or dreams as he puts it in Tobacconist’s that constituted his entire self. And through dreams, we can find one’s self. We can continue to ponder over such paradoxical prepositions. In doing so, we must also immerse and elicit our own understanding of our complicated self or selves.