If You Love Literature, Travel, and History Alike, Read Juliet’s Answer

We desire love. A love that seeps through our bones and lights up our very being.Some of us get lucky and find it right outside our doors. But for the rest of us, it is an achingly longer journey. It makes us wander across oceans and do crazier things before we find our true home. Glenn Dixon too went down the same road except Shakespeare kept him company guiding him all the way to “Fair” Verona, in Italy. His book, ‘Juliet’s Answer’ is a memoir of that journey towards love.

Glenn was a teacher for more than twenty years before he became a full time writer. During his time as a teacher, he taught Romeo and Juliet to high schoolers. So, when his love story turned tragic, he held on to this epic tale for comfort. His heartache and longing for answers brought him to the doors of Juliet’s house in Verona. Once in Verona, he volunteered to be one of the “secretaries of Juliet”, answering thousands of letters that are addressed to Juliet.

Love is a madness beyond measure. It can make you do unbelievably irrational things. So, it is not surprising that Juliet serves as a symbol of love for some of these heartbroken souls . However, the sheer volume of letters written to Juliet year after year and in so many languages, can take your breath away. As if that is not enough, someone thought that these letters needed to be replied to. What an amazing and equally outrageous idea! But such wild ideas keep the world going and bring comfort to many that are lost.

The book talks about the author’s life as a teacher, the events that led to his arrival in Verona and his experiences being Juliet’s secretary. So, one moment you are in Glenn’s classroom waiting for your turn to play a Shakespearean character and next, you are sitting in an office full of letters waiting to be replied to. While Glenn’s own story is heartbreaking enough, the excerpts from the letters he replied to makes you sob silently.

One might think that the subject of the book is quite the cliche. A heartbreak, followed by a trip to a foreign land sounds like a day in the life of a millennial but Glenn’s writing makes all the difference. The narration is so intimate and sincere that it becomes impossible to deny the instant connection. His interesting findings from his research on love keeps you hooked for more. However, what enthused me more as a reader was his passionate pursuit for everything that’s Shakespeare.

I was as overwhelmed as Glenn was when he eventually got to touch and feel the very old manuscript (printed in 1599) of Romeo and Juliet, in the British Library, London. I jumped in joy every time Glenn discovered something in Verona that indicated that Juliet and Romeo were probably real people. It reminded me of my days in Europe walking from churches to graveyards to museums to bookstores, because those places were once walked upon by some people who inspired me greatly. Although I regret missing Verona during my visit to Italy, I am grateful for the insights this book has given me.If you are looking for a heart-warming story to keep you hopeful during these stressful times, I recommend Glenn Dixon’s Juliet’s Answer. The book also serves as a guide to the city of Verona. So, if you love literature, travel, and history alike, pick this up. You might even end up adding Verona to your travel bucket list.

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Our Education System: From Mean Girl to Something More

Life is stranger than fiction, which is why a fluffy teen comedy about American high school
students became a cultural milestone, spreading its influence down to fashion, cooking, music, philanthropy, and politics. When Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei compared Israel to a malignant growth, the Twitter handle of the Israeli Embassy responded with a Mean Girls GIF saying, “Why are you so obsessed with me?”

Mean Girls was a watershed moment in depicting high school cliques. The film was akin to watching reality television about your day-to-day school life. Of course, American high schools have a different social fabric from Indian institutions. However, I believe that in any school, such groups remain; the popular kids, the bullied kids whose vulnerability is the foundation of the former’s popularity, the ignored misfits, and the controversial ones who primarily functioned as school gossip. Any school you go to, you will find them. Any school you go to has the same fight for being in the best circle.

Without an iota of doubt, I was a prejudiced popular kid. In an English-medium school in West Bengal, you are a popular kid if you exhibit some or all of the following “qualities”: 

  1. Possessed excellent academic records.
  2. Demonstrated a skill that teachers can cash upon.
  3. Participated in inter-school competitions and returned with certificates.
  4. Looked down upon “weak” students.
  5. Had equally illusioned “friends” who thought this was power.

I wish I didn’t have to admit it, but this was me in school. Illusioned and enjoying a brittle power that now seems downright silly. However, as I was pushed into the real world, I began to see how myopic Indian schools can be and the long-lasting impact of their short-sightedness on students. I was fortunate to have broken through that mould. It took precisely one semester in Miranda House to show me how blind I had been and the real world that lies behind a shining mark sheet. As I spent more time in that world, I realised how unfair we are to those who cannot seize power in school. Because that is what school is, right? A long-drawn battle where teachers and a group of star students run behind the newspaper front page showcasing board toppers while the “rest” gasp for identity and attention.

An optimist would like to believe that with India’s exciting New Education Policy (2020) and the powerful global conversation on mental health, mainstream educational institutions are waking up to the non-negotiable importance of fostering talent rather than mindlessly pushing for higher grades. However, as a realist and the elder sibling of a Class 11 student, the truth is far from progressive. While schools are still armed with butterfly nets that restrain independent thinking, a more dangerous problem threatens quality education. That problem is the absence of empathy. I do not wish to paint a grim picture but only express the emotional pressures that terrorize children who have a comparatively more challenging time making it to the top 10 or 15 students in a class of 60. If you are reading this as an adult, ask yourself. How significant are such achievements? How important was 98 out of 100 in chemistry as you attempted to file tax returns? If, as adults, we can see through these fragile ideals, why do we force them on students?

I have a brilliant 16-year-old sister. She is a fantastic cook, a wizard with kids of all ages, and a compassionate human with exceptional emotional intelligence. On the contrary, I am an under-confident and mediocre 24-year-old whose finest skill was rote learning. Trust me; I know very little beyond that. Unfortunately, rote learning is the one thing my sister could not master. Thus began my family’s fight with the system. A battle with outdated curriculum, poor learning practices, a lack of counselling facilities, and the rampant encouragement of an environment where test scores are directly proportional to the resources and care received from the teaching staff.

In this journey, my family has interacted with several others who suffer in silence because schools cannot accommodate realities like attention deficiency disorders, anxiety, situational or long-term depression, dyscalculia, bullying, and adjustment issues. Institutions continue to brush them under the carpet rather than try to create an inclusive environment. This sort of attitude to learning is stressful. The children feel demotivated and belittled. The parents, unable to receive support, are forced into situations where they pressure kids to adhere to a uniform and unrealistic standard. It is a mess that needs rigorous training and awareness. The fear that remains is if schools need so much time and resources to change, what happens to the children caught in the flux? If a massive reformation needs another decade, what happens to the morale of those fighting today? Do we call such students and families collateral damage?

I am not a changemaker. Neither do I exert influence in education and policymaking. However, as a sister and someone who has been both the proverbial excellent in school and the frowned-upon mediocre in college, I think substantial change is simpler than we think. It will take time before large-scale institutional modifications are executed. However, it should not take that long to make school a more enjoyable and accommodative place. So, I have put together four of the simplest ways to make a difference. All of them are things I have experienced and tolerated along the way. So have countless others, and I desperately wish someone listens.

A Vocabulary Change

Recently, the government cancelled CBSE board exams for class 10 students. While it was a massive relief for every family, there was a subsequent conversation wherein the move was being described as being especially beneficial for “weaker” students. Who is a weak student? According to our sensibilities, they are students who will not score above 90%. “Weak student,” “slow learner,” “takes time to catch up with the rest,” “not up to the class average” are some of the age-old phrases that are not going anytime soon. I am not asking teachers to give a false sense of achievement and progress but instead of focussing on the student’s area of improvement, we compare them to an ambiguous bar that has been set most arbitrarily. I understand why this happens. There is no place for holistic evaluation of strengths and weaknesses in a country notoriously famous for its terrible student-teacher ratio. If that cannot be fixed, start by not justifying a student’s lower grades by unabashedly calling them a slow learner in a forum like parent-teacher conferences. Not every kid can get a 95 in mathematics. Frankly, it is not required. By pitting them against their seemingly “superior” friends, you are doing more harm than good.

Take Counselling Seriously

I cannot explain enough the importance and role of compassionate and experienced counsellors in a school. Times are changing, and complexities are increasing. Students are at a greater risk of several roadblocks in areas such as mental health, learning, adaptability, so on and so forth. While it is encouraging to see parents seeking professional help to motivate their children and help them overcome emotional difficulties, it remains a half-baked journey because schools cannot internalise these developments. They do not have full-time counsellors. If they do, most counsellors fail to connect with the students or parents and end up taking substitution. There is no data I can give you for this fact but we know that this is the truth. Schools must wake up to two realisations. First, the world is not the same as it was when the school was founded. Second, students are not a uniform block of clay from which you mould toppers and discard the rest. It sounds harsh, but I have seen the impact of such an approach on bright minds whose greatest “sin” is their inability to reproduce every word written in textbooks. When schools have dedicated counsellors, it makes them aware of diversity. It establishes a better connection with parents and their children who may require additional help to cope with academics or social deliverables. One teacher cannot constantly inform another if a student has particular learning needs. An experienced counsellor can keep a tab of such requirements and ensure a safe milieu. They can successfully address bullying, unhealthy classroom environments, marginalisation of students or practically, any problems that arise.

Prioritise Extracurriculars

Schools in 2021 have marketing budgets. This means professional pamphlets and videos advertising all the exciting activities they have. However, does it necessarily translate into productive offerings? That remains a question. There are practical problems. Extra-curricular teachers never stay beyond a term. The syllabus for such activities is not structured or, in some cases, even existent. Most arrangements are ad-hoc. Especially during the pandemic, extra-curricular subjects were given odd time slots such as 3 PM. Most students don’t attend them. Instead of offering a vast range, schools should evaluate what resources are available. Depending on that, they can provide a range of activities and take each one seriously. It is an excellent opportunity to explore their areas of interest without parents having to look for expensive private classes. It opens avenues that kids can consider as career options but all of this is contingent on extra-curricular activities leaving the glossy pages of pamphlets and become structured pursuits with dedicated teachers, syllabus, and outcomes.

Stop Corporatizing Schools

Schools are not multinationals. Yes, both are organisations with employees with a critical set of deliverables, have families to feed and have human limitations. However, certain professions come with an added sense of responsibility. Teaching is one of them. Therefore, you have to think twice before inserting concepts such as KPIs in an academic environment. A long time back, my mother requested a teacher to pay extra attention to my sister. She denied doing so and cited her KPI as the reason. I understand that as a teacher, she has quantifiable goals to achieve by the end of the academic year. However, to hold them above student support is terrible. A few years ago, I met one of my old school teachers, and she lamented about the growing absence of personal touch. She told me about a new teacher anxious about the roll number allocation because it was too much for him to remember the student’s names. My journey from being a mean girl to someone with more perspective was comfortable. That is because I never faced the brunt of the system. I watched from the outside, making remarks, and philosophizing about a better time. However, I also know someone who is fighting the battle every day. I am proud of her tenacity, but I want to ask every educator, institution, educational board and school out there, “Is this mindless struggle necessary?”. I hope I am not misconstrued as someone opposed to challenges, academic achievements, or pursuit of excellence. I am against the idea that every child’s notion of excellence is identical. This is going to be a long fight. I hope that we all have the power to sustain it. Till then, all I can be is a proud sister.

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The Trials of an Ageing Amateur Aerialist

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with exercise, I know it’s good for me, I know I feel better afterwards, but despite many years and various gym classes for some reason it always feels like a chore. A few years back, in the latest attempt at trying to find something I would enjoy, yet not feel like I was expending too much energy, I found an aerial yoga hammock class at a local dance studio. Yoga, in a brightly coloured hammock that resembled something you might find on a beach, well this sounded like something I could get on board with!

During the first class, I looked on as the regulars easily inverted into a headstand, whilst I sat terrified of even the thought of going upside down. But there was no getting away from it, I was flipped over by the class instructor in a split-second and I spent the next few minutes trying to stop myself feeling sick as the blood rushed to my head. “Help”, I murmured, “How do I get back out?!” As the class continued and people did various death-defying drops into their hammock, I wondered what I had signed up for, but I had an immense sense of satisfaction as I performed some basic tricks. As the class ended, we were allowed to cocoon ourselves in the hammock and listen to music for the final few minutes. In a world where we are so often preoccupied with notifications, multi-tasking or thinking about the next thing, this glorious five minutes of being alone with my thoughts, in a darkened room swinging from a hammock, gave me the peace I craved and if I’m honest was the bit of the class I craved most in the coming weeks.

As the class finished, the instructors quickly transformed the room for the next class, hanging circus hoops from the ceiling. “Oooh what’s that I said,” “Aerial hoop, and its brutal,” the instructor replied. Well, how could I resist? I bought myself a pair of leggings (I don’t think I’d owned leggings since childhood) and signed myself up. Oh that first class! I could barely get into the hoop, let alone even hang in a basic pose and came away so deflated and bruised that I decided it wasn’t for me.

So what masochistic tendency compelled me to return several weeks later, I’ll never know. Let’s give this some context. I was mid 30s at the time, I had zero background in gymnastics, nor dance, I’m certainly not the strongest, nor coordinated, nor do I have any sense of balance. I was faced with a class of people, many of whom half my age and half my size, with backgrounds with the aforementioned skills. My classmates could jump into splits and hurl themselves at moves with that confidence that comes with youth but erodes with age and feelings of inadequacy were fierce. The instructors and fellow students are extremely supportive but as with most of our perceived limitations all of the barriers are in our own heads.

Flash forward three or four years and I now spend as many hours a week as I can at the studio trying to pull off tricks and routines. Most weeks, I’ll have a crisis of confidence, beat myself up about not being flexible enough, not being strong enough or generally “not getting it” as my uncoordinated and usually fried from work mind struggles to piece it all together. Looking at others in the class, all of those childhood anxieties about not being good enough at sport come back and I think to myself “Claire you’re nearly 40, who are you trying to kid?”

But when I’m kind to myself, I think about how far I’ve come since those days of not even being able to get into the hoop, I’m proud of the journey and what my body does allow me to do.

At my age, I’m often so injury prone that I’ll find myself clutching a bag of frozen peas to swell an injury pre-class. To then go to class and apologise that I’m not sure how much I’ll manage, to then seem to forget about my injuries whilst in the hoop, back flipping and throwing myself around with gusto,  only to walk always like Yoda limping with his walking stick post epic fight scene.

They say comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s so true. We spend so long scrolling social media of these picture perfect images, forgetting the individual stories behind that one perfect image or video. We don’t see the years of hard work that person may have put in and the injuries they have endured, which is true of most sports. Comparisons are not healthy, yet we seem programmed to do this consistently in so many areas of life. This is also true of comparisons with our past selves, as well as our “future selves” who we hope to become.

So, it was with this in mind that I returned to my first class post lockdown after four months off. I knew my strength would have gone but I told myself “Don’t compare yourself to past you, go easy on yourself, appreciate the journey and the rewards will follow”. I strung together some basic moves and felt proud of my body’s muscle memory and surprised myself with what came back. They’ve added some new fun classes post lockdown, such as trapeze, so stay tuned for stories of someone who seems to have taken the idea of running away to join the circus a little too seriously!

Image Courtesy: Claire Hatcher/Marco Mendez

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An Uneven Song: Mistress of Melodies Has Its Moments and Flaws

Sometimes, we come across creations that make an impact primarily because of their subject’s natural allure. As a standalone piece, they falter because of loopholes in structure, presentation or language. For example, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet or adaptations like Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. By themselves, they come with a fair share of faults and areas of improvement. However, they flourish because the foundation is so exciting that the audience cannot help but be drawn to the vision. Written by the legendary screenwriter and author Nabendu Ghosh and edited by his daughter, curator and film journalist Ratnottama Sengupta, Mistress of Melodies is a book I believe resides in this category. It has its structural and linguistic flaws but offers an enticing narrative about a subject that has always been of interest to people; the lives of women employed in one of the world’s oldest professions.

Nabendu Ghosh was a man whose talent and philosophy percolated several creative industries. From working extensively with Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to writing evocative stories on almost every social upheaval, he donned many hats with a characteristic humanism. The legendary Soumitro Chatterjee has praised his inclination towards creating raw characters. The actor was a great admirer of Ghosh’s Daak Diye Jaai, a powerful piece of writing set against the Quit India Movement for which he lost his job with the IG Police. At that time, his 18-year-old wife Kanaklata encouraged him to pursue writing as a full-time profession. Compassion for those who struggle, who live their lives gasping for security and identity, is a fine thread connecting his multi-medium work. He is the screenwriter of masterpieces like Parineeta, Devdas, Lal Pathhaar, Sujata, and Abhimaan. They are celebrated films, remembered for their music, performances, and female characters internalising and fighting many forms of injustice. His keen eye for the varied manifestations of suffering and every person’s eternal struggle to overcome suppression finds its way into Mistress of Melodies, an anthology of courtesans and prostituted women in Calcutta.

The book begins with two notes; one by filmmaker Muzzaffar Ali and the other by Ratnottama Sengupta. Both speak of the enormous cultural influence asserted by courtesans and prostitutes and how their lives are a never-ending source of inspiration for writers, poets, dancers, musicians, photographers, and artists. Sengupta calls them “the custodians and conveyors of India’s classical arts” and thinks of the book as a salutation to their talents and ability to survive in a man’s world. However, she vehemently rejects the notion that such professions could be “innocuous or even wholesome work.” They result from desperation for stable livelihoods, deception of loved ones, and obliviousness to the inherent abuse.

Mistress of Melodies has six stories; Market Price, Dregs, Songs of a Sarangi, It Happened One Night, Anchor, and Mistress of Melodies. Five of them are translations; the load is shared among Ratnottama Sengupta, Padmaja Punde, and Mitali Chakravarty. Mistress of Melodies was a screenplay written by Nabendu Ghosh. He wrote all his scripts in English.

The stories revolve around women engaged in sex work or work as courtesans, spread across a protracted timeline. Some are prostitutes just before Independence, in the Calcutta of tram strikes. Others are famed courtesans flourishing in the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny. Each inhabits a fascinating world which is one of the best parts of the collection. The geographical spaces are beautifully set up and help gauge the visual quality of Ghosh’s writing. Whether it’s a widow’s rundown hut by the river or an elaborate two-storeyed makaan owned by Chitpore’s Hasina Baiji, each area has been intricately designed. From the sparsely decorated rooms of brothels with Ma Kali’s image on the wall to the wealthy rooms of courtesans adorned with photographs of Radha, Krishna, and the Kaba, one can feel the influence of cinema in Ghosh’s writings. He writes extravagant word pictures like an art director designs a set, detailing every corner. This is one of the most vital aspects of his storytelling and something you will genuinely enjoy.

Customs are crucial to Ghosh. In Songs of a Sarangi (my favourite story of the lot), he describes rituals like the Nath-utarna and a three-month nikah prevalent in the world of courtesans. The former is an elaborate celebration in which a young baiji is made to wear a beautiful Nath (nose ring) by her mother or madame. An auction is organised where her virginity is sold to the highest bidder. The man is treated like the affectionate jamai (son-in-law) of the courtesan’s household. He is permitted to deflower the girl and spend three months with her. This ritual marks her entry into the world of performing arts. Once her Nath has been removed, she is ready to entertain an audience and perform mujras (dance recitals). While it may sound vile to the evolved reader, Nath-utarna used to be a huge celebration where courtesans from across the city would participate in the festivities.

The pressures of the economic milieu on forcing women into the flesh trade have been brought out in quite a few stories. In Market Price, Dregs, and Anchor, we are shown different points in the historical timeline of urban and rural Bengal where realities like the Bengal famine, debt trap, loss of land, and exploitative landlords severely impacted the social standing of women. Poverty, maltreatment, and malnourishment took a severe toll on their health and stability, causing unwanted pregnancies, sexual abuse, and untimely deaths. Alongside such issues was the prevalence of con artists who tricked young windows and prostitutes into selling their jewellery, taking away whatever little money they possessed and then leaving them stranded. There are insights into security concerns faced by courtesans. Disgruntled clients disturbed courtesan households and sent lathiyals when their demands weren’t met. Baijis and their musicians kept a constant lookout for dangerous men. One such vengeful babu brings the downfall of Hasina Baiji’s business in Songs of a Sarangi.

One of the most appropriate things said about Nabendu Ghosh and his storytelling is illustrious filmmaker Mrinal Sen’s praise for the author. According to Sen, “As a writer and creative individual, Nabendu Ghosh has never believed that evil is a mans natural state. Along with his characters, he has been confronting it, as always, fighting and surviving on tension and hope.” Ghosh’s belief in a fresh chance at survival is evident in several instances. Characters like Tagar, Chhaya, Hasina Baiji, and Gauhar Jaan crave compassion and normalcy. Sometimes it works out; Tagar elopes with Shashi, her souteneur yet faithful beloved, while Hasina Baiji runs away with Uday, her sarangi player, at the very end of her career. Sometimes, this chance at a new life is unsuccessful, like for Chhaya and Basana. A fascinating story is Anchor, in which Ghosh follows the journey of a man who has lost his family to the famine. After years working on a ship, he jumps off the deck, desperate to swim towards a new start.

Unfortunately, Mistress of Melodies weakens on the translation front. In multiple places, the words are so literally expressed that the reader becomes excruciatingly aware that these stories were not written in English. It disrupts the flow of the paragraphs and makes many places awkward to read. The language does not possess the fluidity of translators like Arunava Sinha and Khalid Hasan. When you read the latter’s translation of Manto’s Kingdom’s End, you do not feel that you are reading something initially written in Urdu. However, this becomes an issue for Mistress of Melodies. The verbatim dialogues have a jarring quality to them that takes away from the emotional essence of the stories. So many times, I read the sentence in English, but I knew the authentic Bengali dialogue in my mind. Overall, I would say that Mistress of Melodies has an exciting canvas but stumbles on account of its uneven colours. However, I think it deserves our time because of its humbling intention; to remind us of the rich influence of these women who otherwise are shown in unidimensional and garish ways by commercial cinema and pop culture. The book humanises courtesans and prostitutes, presenting them as flesh-and-blood characters with hopes and journeys.

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Sandeep Dutt’s ‘My Good School’ Is a Dull Read on an Important Subject

An author must keep things interesting for his readers. When the subject of his book is as important as ‘how a good school should run’ and ‘how our education system needs to change to provide better learning’, this responsibility increases a thousandfold. My latest read was a short book titled ‘My Good School – Where Passion Meets Education’, authored by Sandeep Dutt who is a school coach, bookseller, runner, mountaineer, and social entrepreneur. The book is another step towards his mission to ‘help schools deliver better’. As much as I tried to keep myself interested, I kept asking myself more than once – “Must I continue or should I stop?”

School education is a matter close to my heart and for that reason, I picked this book from my TBR stack to see what the author has to say on this subject. Our media, politicians, and leaders from different sectors keep talking about a lot of issues that need fixing in our country. However, school education is something that is not spoken about a lot. Hence, I am appreciative of the fact that Mr. Sandeep Dutt has tried to use his practical experience to bring out this book. This book aims to cater to two sets of readers. Firstly, parents who want to select the best school for their child. It talks about the qualities a good school must possess to enable an atmosphere for the holistic development of a child. Secondly, it speaks to the educators and school administrators who want to create such efficient schooling systems. The book is 165 pages long and is published by Rupa Publications. The cover illustration by Prenita Dutt is beautifully designed and evokes nostalgia.

The book is divided into four sections. The first part discusses the importance of schools, understanding quality in education, the role of good parenting, how learning can be fun, the choice of curriculum, and why teachers are averse to change. The author also lays stress on his mantra for a good school: Education = Service + Skill + Sport + Study. These are the four S’s which have been discussed several times in the book. The second section discusses the significance of reading, writing, innovation, and liberal arts. Section 3 discusses the real-world life lessons that schools should and good schools do provide. The fourth and the last section is aimed at the school leadership and deals with the duties of the Principal, Student Leader, and Teacher.

When I was on the Contents page, it looked like the book was very well organized and had elements that parents and educators needed to know, understand, and implement. Although that is true to an extent, as I went through the inside pages, I found a lot of repetitions, too many quotes and citations for a book this short, generic treatment of subjects that needed more depth and action points for the readers, and almost no anecdotal or statistical evidence for the observations made. As I reached the Conclusion page, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways this book could have been one of its kind in the genre, with a little more churning of the rich experience of the author.

Of all the things I could think of, the first and foremost is that My Good School deserved more of Mr. Sandeep Dutt’s personal stories and anecdotes of experiential learning from the projects he has undertaken with different schools. This change would have made the book more booklike than a prosy and preachy presentation in an already dull seminar. Going by the structure and the topics discussed in the book, I believe we have a lot more to learn from the author than he has tried to teach in the book.

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It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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BLF2020 | New Age Archer – Jeffrey Archer with Nirmala Govindarajan

Jeffrey misses being in India – this was the note with which he opened this very lively session. He was in conversation with Nirmala Govindarajan, whose new novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize and nominated for the Atta Galatta Awards 2020.

The Inside Story of Creating William Warwick

Nirmala started by probing Jeffrey on how he created William Warwick. Jeffrey referred to Harry Clifton, the character in Clifton Chronicles who is a famous writer and wrote about William Warwick. Jeffrey envisions this as a five-part series through Warwick’s career trajectory:

  1. A young constable on beat (Nothing Ventured)
  2. A Detective Sergeant who investigates the doings of a drug lord (Hidden in Plain Sight)
  3. Detective Inspector who unravels police corruption (Turn a Blind eye – releasing in 2021)
  4. Chief Inspector who investigates murder and
  5. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Jeffrey hopes he will survive to complete the series.

The Art of Staying Young as a Writer

“Energy and youth are God-given”, said Jeffrey who remarked that he enjoys every single day of his writing. He remarked that age is not a barrier and revealed that his wife is also busy as the Chairman of the Science museum of Great Britain.

Children’s Books

Nirmala showed some of the children’s books that Jeffrey had written and was curious to know when he had written those. Jeffrey narrated the story of how he wrote those for his children, who were 6 and 8; his publishers in India published them with remarkable illustrations. He is delighted with the popularity; however, does not plan to write more of those.

What He is Proud of

Jeffrey mentioned that he is proud to have run for Great Britain and that around 320 million of his books have been sold. He loves being a charity auctioneer; he has raised around sixty million.

Writing about India

Nirmala mentioned that Jeffrey has referred to Bombay in some of his books, asked whether he would like to write more about India. Jeffrey responded that he is circumspect about writing on India since he is afraid of getting it wrong.

Jeffrey’s Favourite Writer 

Jeffrey lauded R. K. Narayan as a genius, a great storyteller who writes about something simple and makes us want to turn the page. He told a story of one day when he was in the Tower Hotel at Bangalore, sitting with the literary editor of the Times of India. Jeffrey asked her who he should be reading. She immediately said, “Forget the sacred cows of India and read R. K. Narayan”.

How does his plot evolve?

Nirmala was curious to know if he has a secret sauce for forming his plot. Jeffrey just said that he gets up every morning, prays, takes up the pen and it moves across the paper every single day. He does not plan the plot. He said he was lucky to have this God-given gift.

His Message Based on Lockdown Experience

Jeffrey feels privileged that, locked down for 144 days at Cambridge, he was able to write a lot of Warwick. He feels saddened that his friends (one who owns a restaurant industry, an owner of a cruise liner, a conference organizer) have become nearly bankrupt during this time. He also feels sorry for young people who are locked in a room and cannot go out.

Questions from the Audience

The audience wanted to know about the many letters he gets from readers. Jeffrey replied that he gets hundreds of letters, goes through them all since he is flattered that anybody reads his books.

“Will Warwick find out the source of the Coronavirus”, was the next interesting question. Jeffrey replied in the negative, declaring that he is not a scientist. However, he did imagine a start for a story thus: a race decided the way to rule the world was to create Covid, distribute it around the world while isolating themselves…

In response to a question on whether he paints a picture in storytelling, Jeffrey said that he tries not to pontificate and tell the reader what to do; he focuses on taking the story forward.

“What keeps you 80 years young?”. In response to this question, Jeffrey reminisced on his early days when his first book, ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, was turned down by 16 publishers. His breakthrough came only in his third book, ‘Kane and Abel’. His message was to keep going.

Jeffrey spoke about his routine, a day in his life: he writes from 6 to 8 am, takes a two-hour break, again writes from 10 am to 12 noon and so on, till 8 pm. He writes by hand, then his secretary types it out. He hands in his 14th or 15th draft to his publisher!

His favourite cricketers? Jeffrey spoke of the late Nawab Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar with great regard. He also spoke about great friendships with V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble.

Has Jeffrey faced a writer’s block? On a lighter note, Jeffrey said that, though his home is named ‘Writer’s Block’; he has not experienced a block; however, he has got stuck in a storyline without knowing the best way to take it to a conclusion. He referred to the storyline of ‘As the Crow flies’ and said that it took three days to get the solution.

“Awards don’t matter, it matters to be Jeffrey Archer, the most loved author in India”, was the concluding note from Nirmala. Jeffrey had the last word by saying, “I love India, look forward to when I can get back to coming to you and you to me”.

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog, talks about her experiences in her YouTube channel Usha’s LENS and puts up photos on Instagram. She is also a software professional and a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | Calcutta Chronicles – Nandita Bose and Tony V Francis with Maitreyee B Chowdhury

All of them revealed that their works are always entrenched in Calcutta, whether in terms of the place, the people, or the experience. Bose discussed the elements she deeply enjoys and loves about Calcutta and its usage in her works like ‘Tread Softly’ and ‘Everglow’. Further, she gave us more insight about the lens through which she looked at Calcutta – as an outsider, yet deeply attached. Coming from a cosmopolitan city, she observed so many contrasts and changes. She shared her thoughts about some bad aspects of Calcutta with us, as well as celebrated the beautiful and warm aspects of it. Bose also talked about the way in which she captured and weaved together rock music and classical music in her work ‘Everglow’, just like the way Calcutta captured these two genres of music. She read out an excerpt from this romance novel for us.

Tony Francis then gave us insight into his experience with Calcutta. As an impressionable young boy whose education took place in Calcutta, he revealed that the city became something of an extended family for him. Nostalgia took hold of Francis for a while when he poured his emotions about Calcutta, its roads, the sidewalks, and other little things. He briefly traced a trajectory of Calcutta from his youth to the present-day city which has changed, just like its name. He discussed his book The Autograph Seeker which is based in Calcutta. He beautifully described Calcutta as a city so passionate that it became a character of its own in his novel. His work draws from the Sans Souci Theatre built during the colonial period (the 1800s) which was then turned into an institution. Francis discussed how this led him to explore this place and much of Calcutta’s history. He too read out an excerpt from his work.

Chowdhury briefly discussed her experience with Calcutta and its influence on her book The Hungryalists. In the discussion, she delved into her love for an era she was never a part of – the 1960s. She discussed this work of hers which was set in that era and revolves around the poetry revolution that Calcutta experienced. She also talks about her engagement with the locals of Calcutta which was an essential part of her research for the book. All in all, this session wrapped together humor, love, truth, experience in a wholesome way.

About the Author: Immersed in the process of unlearning and relearning different values and ideas, Nanditha Murali chooses writing as her medium to approach the world. She is currently pursuing her English (Honours) degree at Christ University, Bangalore.

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BLF2020 | Modern Perspectives on the Mahabharata – Krishna Udayasankar and Madhavi Mahadevan

Mahabharata, the Indian epic, has us all intrigued for ages with various questions about life, karma, dharma, and bhakti. The writers on the stage, Krishna Udayasankar and Madhavi Mahadevan were so intrigued that they have written books about certain characters on their journey to unleash the answers about the Mahabharata.

On the first day of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2020, we had two writers on the stage, Krishna, a renowned author of the ‘Chronicles of Aryavarta,’ and several other books; and Madhavi, a book critic and writer of children’s stories and short stories. She has written two books based on the characters of the Mahabharata. These ladies spoke about their take on modern perspectives on the Mahabharata, that is, how is the 2000 year old epic relevant now?

To this, Krishna answered that people don’t change throughout ages. She further explained that the socio-technical perspectives change, times change, resources change, but people remain the same. Like the canvas of the painting changes, colours change, but the characters stay the same. To which Madhavi agreed. Madhavi further added that because Mahabharata is so honest and presented the way it is, it is widely accepted. It is not like the characters are entirely right or entirely devil. There are greyed characters too, neither black nor white. Madhavi feels that Mahabharata is an aid to questions like, Who am I? What is my purpose? And what is the right thing to do?

Krishna now asked Madhavi what drew her towards writing on the mythical tales around Mahabharata? Madhavi graciously answered that she came across women characters that stood their ground in a man’s world who did not give up on their self-worth and fought for what is right. These women characters, often called ‘Pancha Kanya’, inspired her and drew her towards writing about Mahabharata. The five women referred to as Pancha Kanya are Kunti, Draupadi, Ahalya, Tara, and Mandodari.

Krishna now answered why she was driven towards writing Mahabharata. She says that she first attempted poetry in her starting days of writing, and it turned out that she was terrible at it. Later, she tried to write a satire on the Mahabharata and stumbled on the character Govinda (Krishna/Vasudev). She said that the personality of Govinda wasn’t easy to decipher and write about. This is where she pushed her boundaries, explored more, and wrote the chronicles on Govinda.

Madhavi asked how it was to explore a male character and write about a divine persona. Krishna elaborated that in her books, Govinda is not divine and is a normal human being. The books are a narrative of how an average person turns out to be so extraordinary. Also, gender hadn’t got anything to do with her style of writing.

Madhavi presented her take on it as it was somewhat challenging to write about women characters because it was an age of patriarchy. She was overwhelmed with the Pancha Kanya that they had so much endurance and perseverance towards achieving what they believed in.

They concluded their discussion that the Pancha Kanya and the men of Mahabharat are relevant even today. Not just the characters but the acts of violence against women, injustice, and many other things are relevant today. Amongst this, it is paramount to draw one lesson: to look at the larger picture always, just like Govinda looked at the revolution of justice that they were creating even at the cost of blood spillage.

About the Author: Puja Ambalgekar is an IT employee who finds writing, reading, and books in general as an outer space experience. She believes that words have the power to make the difference you intend to. She likes writing poetry, mythology, and technology. You can find her here. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Neena Gopal, former editor of the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Chronicle, interviewed Declan Walsh, a foreign correspondent reporter who was formerly the Pakistan bureau chief for the New York Times. His book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan, is based on the people he had interacted with while reporting from Pakistan.

Neena Gopal begins by asking Declan Walsh about how he felt when he was ordered to leave Pakistan.

“The story started just before the elections in Islamabad” began Walsh, as he explained how he received a letter at midnight, that ordered him to leave the country. His visa was cancelled, and he was given just 12 hours to leave. Later, when he went to London, he attempted to come back to Pakistan. His inability to come back was the starting point of his book. He asked himself how he could narrate the story of what he’d seen- and came upon the inspiration of writing the book.

Neena went on to ask, “Did you feel like you’ve crossed a line?” in reference to his exile from Pakistan

Journalism, Walsh stated, had always been restricted in Pakistan. He reflected, in a detailed manner, on his adventures at Balochistan, and what he learnt about the culture of journalism there. Sensitive topics are often not covered by the local press and the publication of stories in world-renowned newspapers such as The Guardian, where Walsh previously worked, helped break the stigma surrounding these stories. He had never seen the expulsion coming. “They felt I’d overstayed my welcome.”

Neena proceeded to ask him about one of the chapters she’d found interesting- that of Azma Jahangir.

“Azma was undoubtedly impressive”. Azma Jahangir was one of the leading women in Pakistan, to raise her voice against the discriminations they faced. She led the resistance against the Pakistani restrictions. Walsh goes on to explain how Azma was particularly impressive as she used her privilege as a weapon. People viewed Azma as a traitor of her class and her place as a woman in society. Walsh chose to focus an entire chapter on Azma as he has considered her to be the best example. Azma Jahangir stood for diagnosing a problem when the state doesn’t act as neutral territory.

Neena Gopal, particularly interested in the relationship shared between Benazir Bhutto and Azma Jahangir, asked Walsh what his thoughts were about the same.

“Benazir and Azma had so much in common”, reflected Walsh very enthusiastically. Before Benazir Bhutto passed away, Azma Jahangir had a talk on a public forum, where she spoke about her relationship with Bhutto. Both Bhutto, as well as Azma, have criticised each other publicly and privately too. They shared a strange relationship that was bound by a common belief- a belief about what Pakistan would become. In the broader fight against the Pakistani military, Benazir had prepared to contest Musharraf. Azma, at the same time, was put behind bars by Musharraf. Their mutual relationship almost reached a full circle towards the end of their lives. The death of Bhutto, said Walsh in sombre tone, marked Azma very deeply. She used that moment to talk about the militants and called them “useless duffers”, laughed Walsh.

Neena Gopal brought the attention of the audience to another chapter she found interesting- to the one about Salman Wazir. She asked Walsh a very specific question- “Will the elite ever have a say in Pakistan?”

The debate is really between the ‘Progressive’ Pakistanis and the Extremists. The battle was about bringing a balance between these two approaches, and it was a battle that the likes of Azma Jahangir fought. “Blasphemy is an important problem and has gotten worse”, argued Walsh. He described the ‘institutionalization’ of blasphemy. In a rather hopeful attempt, Walsh felt that the youth of the Pakistani state have a very important role to play in voicing what the country should be like. Imran Khan, Walsh remembers, had based his election on young people, and has tried to tap into their ‘modern’ identity.

Walsh spoke about his interaction with Nawab Bakhtiyar. He was very impressed with the way the Nawab presented himself. He remembered how Nawab Bakhtiyar, or “Nawab Bakti”, as Walsh likes to call him, had even quoted Rabindranath Tagore’s prose to him. Walsh situated Baktiyar as a huge figure who had significant connections with the military. Baktiyar had come to Baluchistan due to a gas dispute but went on to become a part of a wider dispute. Walsh had found Baktiyar in exile, at Geneva. Even there, Baktiyar was leading armed groups in Pakistan. As a foreign correspondent journalist, Walsh thinks about the alarming ways and methods in which the Pakistanis prosecute their people.

When asked about the ISI and the Taliban. Walsh gave a brief history of the ISI and their growth since the 1980s. He thinks they are very good at manipulating the politics in Pakistan. Their involvement is strategic- and happens by supporting Islamist guerrilla organisations. He, however, finds many faults and criticisms concerning the ISI and points to their various disastrous attacks- “When you point to the failures of this spy agency, you see that at the strategic level, the chickens were coming home to roost at that point.”

Talking of Pakistan’s relationship with India, Declan said he knew a lot of people who came to India for business. With the cricket diplomacy that Musharraf and Manmohan Singh tried to establish, the relationship between Indians and Pakistanis were becoming better. The cultural desires of the people, however, had become hostage to politics. He sees how on both sides of the border, there is a yearning and desire for cultural linkages. He added, “To respond to your question on my relationship with the country, I think it would be cliché of me to say that it was warm. But what drew me to Pakistan were the people, and how they were open, to be frank about their lives, in terms of what was going on with them. As a reporter, that was incredibly gratifying”

Neena found it wonderful that, despite being thrown out of the country, Walsh went on to write a book about his journey in Pakistan. The session ended with Neena Gopal congratulating Declan Walsh on his fabulous book, and recommended it to everyone to read.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | Food and Faith – Shoba Narayan with Mani Rao

Mani Rao started off the session by giving an introduction about Shoba Narayan and her writing techniques. Upon discussing her versatile writing style, her various interests, and her works, she prompted the discussion further. Shoba Narayan, aided by Mani Rao’s questions and thoughts, explored the connection between food and faith, just as she has in her book with the same name. In today’s session, Narayan talked about Prasadam (sacred food) that is served all over the country in different temples. She made it clear that she covered many places of worship, not just Hindu temples, but also other sacred places like Churches.

Narayan narrated her experience in deciding on these particular places that she would visit and write about. She looked for places wherever there was a deep connection between religion/faith and food. Through an intense discussion, she conveyed her thoughts on how the connection between faith and food, regardless of which religion, is intimate and powerful.

Narayan took us on a journey across various regions all over India, each and every direction. Engaging with her, we traveled from Bangalore to all these different places like Madurai, Udupi, Kashi, Ajmer, Goa, Puri, Amritsar and so many more.

Later, the discussion steered towards the method and technique she had adopted to make this book a reality. She gave insight into the style of the book which is similar to a travel memoir, along with intense research work. As a writer and a columnist about everyday topics like food, travel, fashion, etc., she revealed that she adopted a similar method by drawing many ideas and research from her articles.

She talked about how in the book, she draws from her experiences with a lot of countries that she has visited which carry the remains of old civilizations, like Greece, Egypt, and China. She compared and contrasted these different cultures with India. She talked about how India has sustained older civilizations and religious practices, which acted as a catalyst when she was trying to decide on the content of this book.

Rao commented on Narayan’s belief that she is a “skeptical seeker on a pilgrimage.” This fueled an intense discussion about her religious beliefs and how this journey shaped that belief system. Narayan also shared many anecdotes about her numerous experiences as a part of this journey. These tales gave us an insight into the working of these temples and how they produce Prasadam, how they perceive it, and their beliefs. These experiences, we could clearly see, changed her entire thought process about faith. She also talked about how she learned to respect the different places and their working, but also critique problematic approaches without being offensive.

Later, she revealed to us that she was driven to go on this journey and explore this connection because she was interested in finding the inner truth far more than focusing on different doctrines prevalent in India. Towards the end, she also briefly covered the working of these different places of worship through a feminist lens. The session concluded with a very interactive question-answer session.

About the Author: Immersed in the process of unlearning and relearning different values and ideas, Nanditha Murali chooses writing as her medium to approach the world. She is currently pursuing her English (Honours) degree at Christ University, Bangalore. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | A Tale of Two Spies – Asad Durrani and AS Dulat with Anand Arni

If there were to be a recollection of long-standing political issues through the last few decades in India, the Indo-Pak relationship is one that’s impossible to miss. The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace is a book that looks at the very same, in the eyes of two experts on the topic.

The session was moderated by Anand Arni, a former Special Secretary at the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), currently a Distinguished Fellow of the Geostrategy Programme at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore. The two guests at the session were the voices in the book as well; Lt. Gen Mohammad Asad Durrani is a retired Three-Star rank General in the Pakistan Army, and currently is a commentator, speaker, and author. The conversation also had the co-author of the book, AS Dulat, a former Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau, and former Chief of the R&AW, and former advisor on Kashmir to the Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004.

The session’s first few pointers were on the pursuit of peace between the two countries, and how the former Chiefs viewed the prospects of it, and how it could be achieved. Durrani went back in time to when he was in office and his perception of how India’s stand was strictly status quo, and any movement on the same could spiral a situation out of control. However, he suggested his counterpart, AS Dulat, seemed far more optimistic, a tone that could be sensed throughout the session. Dulat believed and still does, that the situation between the neighbours could certainly improve, and how this could be incremental. Dulat stood by his stand of how the prospect of peace is dependent on engagement and that both countries should keep trying. The case has been so, through the tenures of past leadership within the country. Dulat’s reiteration was strong on the lines of moving past a stalemate, of a status quo that may favour one nation over the other. He acknowledged that both countries have had their fair share of issues, but must be ready to negotiate and get “something moving”.

The second topic of discussion brought forth by Anand Arni was that of Pakistan’s perception of India as a threat, and how Pakistan’s army plays a role in controlling the narratives in context with the Indo-Pak relations. Durrani acknowledges that the main threat or the most imminent ones are mostly internal, irrespective of the country. India may not be the biggest of the lot, given that multiple other facets of a political situation and the dynamics of that country with others in the World could be bigger, also sighting the example of Afghanistan’s dynamics with Pakistan. The threats have also been managed over the last few decades as well, and this certainly is not new. He also brought in the context of why or how the army could even have the power of Vetoing. He insisted that the army would have stepped in at a point when they had to because something was amiss, and certainly would not have been the only one wielding power, and banks on a combined effort.

The conversation steered into understanding what India could do, to ease this. Dulat recommended a mindset change. Many frameworks that have come from India, that of a composite dialogue formula or how former governments have been able to address quick wins. He brought back the challenge of moving away from the status quo, and for the country to be magnanimous and generous with its dialogues.

Towards a conversation that focused on the more recent topics around Kashmir, such as that of Article 370, Dulat also shed light on how both countries have had considerable emotions on newer developments. He insisted that conversations and actions to ease situations must be driven top-down, instead of bottom-up. Encouraging governments to have open and friendly conversations, perhaps increase visits and help discover ways to move forward are important, Dulat affirmed.

The last leg of the conversation revolved around how multiple parties, and not just India and Pakistan, understand and are expecting the countries to resolve, and address the issues between the two. Everyone is aware, he says, and there exists an expectation of resolution, not just sympathetic, but also if seen in the context of the book, even as a minuscule example, Durrani and Dulat’s association and coming together have been appreciated.

About the Author: A believer in the subtlety of magic in everyday living, and Shobhana seeks the same from the books she reads, and the poetry she writes. Immerses herself in music, literature, art, and looking out the window with some coffee. She curates her poetry, and occasional verses in her blog Thinking; inking. She currently writes for TheSeer.