TheSeer Interviews: Author Rajesh Talwar

Rajesh Talwar has written thirty-two books, which include novels, children’s books, plays, self-help books and non-fiction books covering issues in social justice, culture and law. He has practiced law, taught at university, and also worked in senior positions with the United Nations in various countries across three different continents in a career spanning two decades. He is a British Chevening scholar and the recipient of an Honorary Citizenship Certificate from the Mayor of Tulsa (Oklahoma). He has been interviewed by The New York Times on the state of law and justice in India. He has studied for shorter and longer durations at various universities including Delhi University, Nottingham, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

In many of his books he has tried to spread awareness about globally significant issues. For instance, in a children’s story book The Three Greens and a play The Killings in November he has written about environmental issues. He took up the cause of sexual minorities in his book The Third Sex and Human Rights and the play Inside Gayland. He has written about the dangers of a nuclear holocaust in his play A Nuclear Matricide. Crimes against women are discussed in his play The Bride Who Would Not Burn and his book Courting Injustice: The Nirbhaya Case and Its Aftermath.

Within the world of fiction, he has written in different styles and genres. His novel The Sentimental Terrorist is a literary novel that explores the theme of terrorism. On the other hand, An Afghan Winter also based in Afghanistan is written out like a thriller. Most recently Talwar has described his novel How to Kill a Billionaire as a literary thriller that reveals the workings of the Indian justice system. Rajesh works as Deputy Legal Adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. 

TheSeer recently spoke with the author and discussed his childhood, love for books, and his journey so far.

You have had a stellar career and your body of work is still expanding. Do you consider yourself successful?

As I write in my book, for anyone to consider himself successful there should be a merger of the objective and the subjective criteria. Take the case of the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh. Judging by today’s standards he is immensely successful, with each of his paintings being sold for millions of dollars, but while he lived and painted, he was unrecognised and a great failure. It was painful for him then, and it painful for his fans today when they think of how the artist suffered. I do therefore believe that you need a degree of public endorsement, that is to say, objective success in addition to subjective satisfaction.

Success cannot be purely subjective, as the singer and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan suggests. When I think of myself, yes, I do consider myself successful. It would be ungrateful and falsely modest of me to state otherwise. I also believe that it would have been unfair to pen a book on the meaning and mantra of success if I did not myself have at least a certain level of success. Having said that, you know, for a true artist, which I imagine myself to be, perhaps misguidedly, all his works ultimately fall short of the perfection he aspires to. Rabindranath Tagore said very profoundly, and I believe with great honesty and insight, that although he had written thousands of poems, all his life he had been trying to write just a single poem which always remained elusive. Alas!

What was your childhood like?

I am from a fauji family, an ‘army brat’ so to speak. Dad being in the army, we were transferred every few years. This was both good and bad. It was good for me because I had a sort of mini-Bharat Darshan during my growing up years. There was a downside to it as well though for by the time you made friends at school, it was time to go to another town or city, and change schools. Although we didn’t have any writers in the family as such, I would not say that my family did not have a literary inclination. My mother, for instance, was and remains a great reader and she imbued in me and my two brothers, through very subtle influencing a passion to read. That habit continues till this day. We keep checking what each of us is reading and recommend books to each other. My father was not a great reader, but I believe he may have been reading quite a lot in his younger years, for every now and then at the dinner table he would surprise us with some Urdu shayari or an esoteric Persian couplet.

Why did you decide to write the book – The Mantra and Meaning of Success?

Unfortunately, I believe that very many self-improvement books are fake in nature, and prey on people’s insecurities. Most books on success do not even consider that success can mean different things for different people. They simply assume that everyone knows what success means. I wanted to write an honest book, which asked the reader what it was that he personally wanted out of life before going on to examine the route and methods to achieve success. So, I hope that my book will create some inner questioning in the reader, and there will be readers who will realise what it is that they really want, before chasing a success that may end up as a mirage and not mean much to them even after they attain it. The second thing is that most books on success, barring a few, are written from a Western perspective, giving Western examples. I wanted to write a book keeping the Indian audience at the centre, while it could remain useful to non-Indians as well.

When you define success, how much of it do you think is subjective in nature?

It is difficult to put a percentage on it, but I do agree with Dylan to the extent that the subjective element is possibly the more important. If what you really want to do in life is sing songs or write books, but you end up making soap and selling huge quantities of it, even if you end up as a billionaire, you will find great dissatisfaction gnawing away at you. Selling soaps was not what you were meant to do with your life. On the other hand, if you write books and get only a bit of recognition and little or no money, even if it gives you great creative satisfaction, without a sense of validation from the outside world, you could also end up feeling a great sense of frustration. In my book, I give the example of Mario Puzo who wrote a few critically acclaimed books with one even being described as a minor classic by The New York Times. However, after some years Mario started to feel unhappy at being in a situation where he was always having to be borrowing money from his brother. One day, he told himself: ‘Mario, you need to grow up and sell out!’ In other words, stop with the literary fiction and think mass market. That’s how eventually The Godfather was born.

You have chosen to focus on Fame, Money, and Power while defining success. Why?

Although I focus on fame, money and power, I explain how often when you attain success in one domain you start to thirst for success in another area. Smriti Irani was a famous actress but decided to leave the world of acting to enter politics. She had fame but she wanted something more enduring, let us say. Mr Kapil Sybil is a successful lawyer and politician but decided to write poetry, to gain a different kind of acclaim and popularity – unfortunately his experiment was far less successful than Ms Irani’s. I speak also of IAS officers who have enjoyed status, and a degree of power, but feel bad about not having enough money, compared to their friends in the corporate sector. But yes, fame, money and power are the three magnets that drive most people’s quest for success, and I felt it was logical to focus on them.

You have picked a lot of stories from the pop culture and information that is readily available in the public domain for your book. How did you come to select these stories while writing the book?

I wanted my book to be both relatable and readable. Selecting stories from pop culture was one way of drawing the reader in. The writing of this book had been an idea in my mind for many years, and certain stories concerning celebrities stuck in my mind. Writers do this – they tuck away something that could be useful in a corner of the mind. The other thing is that I believe wisdom can be found all around us. It’s not necessary to go to the top of a mountain in search of a white bearded man who will impart words of wisdom. Insights and lessons can be gleaned from the lives of many people. 

What are your current reads? Who are some of your favourite writers?

I am currently reading three books. I have with me ‘Bastar Dispatches: A Passage Through the Wilds,’ written by Narendra, a friend, which I never found time to read earlier, but which I am now thoroughly enjoying. Narendra actually spent many years living with tribals in Abujhamad and it is great to read about his experiences and what he learnt from living there. The second book was released this year on International Women’s Day by Deepti Mehrotra titled ‘Her-Stories: Indian Women Down the Ages’.  Finally, I have just started reading Gitanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’. Perhaps it will inspire me to write my own novel on Partition for there are many painful memories within my own family of what is often referred to as the greatest migration in human history. Our family came from Pakistan in 1947. My mother hailed from Bhaun, and father from Chakwal, both small villages in District Jhelum (at the time) that were fairly close to each other.

My favourite writers? Let me just mention a few at the very top of the list. Among the French, I love Guy de Maupassant and Marcel Proust and among the Russians I love Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Anton Chekov. I also love Oscar Wilde, Rabindranath Tagore, Manto, James Hadley Chase and Shakespeare.

What’s the next book about?

I like to stretch myself as a writer. Although I have written very many books in multiple genres, including non-fiction, novels, plays and children’s stories, I still don’t have a collection of short stories to my credit, which I hope to remedy next year. Moving in that direction the next book is a collection of two novellas, which I look forward to eventually being reviewed by The Seer and other magazines and newspapers. The first novella is titled How I Became a Taliban Assassin which is based on my time spent in Afghanistan working for the United Nations. The second one is titled The Murder that Wasn’t which is partially based on my time spent in the courts before I joined the United Nations. Both novellas speak of injustice in the world, and in both novellas innocent people die, so there are common themes that justified bringing them together in a collection. The book should be out in early October, which is hardly a few weeks away. Right now the cover is in the process of being finalised and I am very excited about this imminent publication.

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Reading Measure What Matters by John Doerr

About a couple of months back, on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi, after the take-off formalities were completed, I took out my Kindle and began to read. After about 30 minutes of reading, I noticed a fellow passenger coming and sitting on the seat next to me.

Fellow Passenger — “I see you’ve been reading a book for quite some time? It’s rare to see people reading on flights these days. What’s the book about?”
I — “Hi. It’s a book about OKRs.”
FP — “Oh, is it the one by John Doerr?”
I — “Yes, Measure What Matters by John Doerr”
FP — “Oh, great, I read the book when I was trying to implement OKRs for my startup. Are you liking it?”

And thus, a conversation ensued on OKRs on a flight from Bangalore to Ranchi between two strangers. It’s a highly probable event when your flight is taking off from Bangalore. Remember the old joke — “when you throw a stone in Bangalore, chances are, it will hit a dog or a software engineer.”? The new one goes like — “… it will hit a startup founder or a product manager!”

Jokes aside, while there are several resources available to understand and dig through OKRs, there is no better way than to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. To be more precise, straight from the horse’s protégé’s mouth!

About the horse and his protégé?

Andy Grove. The OKR methodology was created by Andy Grove at Intel who was influenced by Peter Drucker’s MBOs (Management by Objectives). Andy became Intel’s President in 1979, CEO in 1987, and Chairman and CEO in 1997. A few lines from Andy Grove straight out from the book — Measure What Matters: OKRs — the Simple Idea That Drives 10x Growth is perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of OKRs you will ever read –

“Now, the two key phrases … are objectives and the key results. And they match the two purposes. The objective is the direction: “We want to dominate the mid-range microcomputer component business.” That’s an objective. That’s where we’re going to go. Key results for this quarter: “Win ten new designs for the 8085” is one key result. It’s a milestone. The two are not the same … The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments: Did I do that or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple. No judgments in it. Now, did we dominate the mid-range microcomputer business? That’s for us to argue in the years to come, but over the next quarter we’ll know whether we’ve won ten new designs or not.”

OKR expands to Objective and Key Results

Source: https://www.whatmatters.com/

Let’s try to understand this by an example most of us can relate to –

Objective: Get nominated for the best outgoing student award at the school.

Key Result 1: Score more than 90% in academics.
Key Result 2: Win the annual debate and quiz competitions.
Key Result 3: Win at least one medal in the annual sports event of the school.

At a first glance, it sounds simple. Objectives are the time-bound objectives that you or team set for yourselves, and Key Results are the time-bound results that will tell you if you have met those objectives. However, as you start to think about applying it to a product team or a company, it begins to get a little complicated. These complications may originate from changing priorities, lack of/ambiguous vision, lack of defined business goals, unwillingness to change, spoon-feeding from top leadership and so on.

John Doerr learnt OKRs from Andy Grove and went on to become its strongest proponent. John convinced Google in 1999 to adopt the OKR method to measure their progress. Interestingly, John also had a set of OKRs for his presentation to Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Source: https://www.whatmatters.com/

One after another, John Doerr chronicles the stories of OKR adoption, struggle, and eventual success at several organisations. He hands a few chapters in the book to early OKR adopters and lets them tell their own story of using OKRs for their growth. You will find names you’ve heard about and people who you have admired at some point in your life — YouTube, Google Chrome, Gates Foundation, MyFitnessPal, Intuit and a few more. The author lives by the dictum — “Your user is your greatest brand ambassador” and lets people like Larry Page, Susan Wojcicki, Sundar Pichai, Bill Gates, Atticus Tysen do most of the talking about their journey with OKRs. When others are not talking, the author chips in with his own take on these stories, how he got people onboarded and helped them with OKRs, and attempts to further refine OKRs to make them easily understandable. The book gives a structure to your thoughts on OKR and is a great place to start your journey with OKRs.

Towards the end of the book, there is a touching tribute to “Coach” Bill Campbell who coached Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, and several other leaders from the Silicon Valley. It is a beautifully written dedication and a must read section of the book.

In ‘Measure What Matters’, understanding and articulating ‘what matters’ happens to be the more difficult part. Not knowing what matters can quickly put us on top of a pile of vanity metrics at the end of the quarter. While we may take off nice and easy with OKRs by our side, if we do not know our destination, there is a whole sky available to lose our way. I’m not sure if John Doerr had a set of OKRs while writing the book; nevertheless, I’m sure it is going to help the reader make substantial gains on their understanding of what matters and how to measure things that matter with OKRs.

Helpful Resources
Measure What Matters: https://www.whatmatters.com/
Andy Grove explains OKRs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ht_1VAF6ik
John Doerr on OKRs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HiQ3Ofcmo50

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Cover image

Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success Looks at Success From Multiple Perspectives

Over the last one week, I read Rajesh Talwar’s The Mantra and Meaning of Success. Currently working as Deputy Legal Adviser to the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan, the author’s resume is a thing of envy. He has penned 31 books and regularly writes for some of the most popular publications in India and outside, viz. The Economic Times, The Guardian (UK), The Pioneer, The Times of India, The Patriot, Manushi, The Sunday Mail, and The New Indian Express. The book in my hand falls in the Self-Help category and has been published by Bridging Borders publishing house.

There are several reasons to like the book. I love the fact that Mr. Talwar keeps no pretence about the target audience of this book. The author sets a clear context while doing the Introduction and explains the need of such a book for the Indian readers set against an Indian backdrop. The author believes that most of the acclaimed and widely read books in the genre have been written with a western lens and targeted at the western reader. That’s true to a good extent and reading a book that probes the Indian pop-culture and well-known stories from India to cite examples adds to the relatability of the book. It’s not that the book doesn’t have cases from outside India. In fact, the book is heavily reliant on global icons like Bill Gates, Bob Dylan, Mario Puzo and others in order to explain success, failure and related themes. Even if you are a reader from outside India, it shouldn’t be very difficult to connect.

The book is also a far cry from other books in the genre that promise to give you a magic pill of success. More than telling how to become successful, this book tackles the question ‘What is Success?’. The author tries to look at success from multiple perspectives. Success can have diverse colours and so the book begins with those three things people generally relate success with – Fame, Money, and Power.

On a different note, the strength of this book also ends up becoming its disadvantage after a point. Too many simplistic conclusions are drawn from stories that seem to present multiple layers for inspection and rumination. The way these conclusions are drawn may leave readers looking for nuance a bit disappointed. A sense of rush to pack as many tales as possible in one book is palpable throughout and this creates a few problems. Firstly, many of these stories are in public domain and provided that the author doesn’t have an inside view of individuals mentioned in these stories, it’s hard to ascertain the accuracy or correctness of the inferences made. Secondly, page time for author’s own views and thoughts is considerably reduced. Even though we are reading a book about a concept that should draw a lot more from the respected author’s own life and struggles, by the end of the book, we don’t really get to know the author or his ideas well enough. I would have liked the book better if it had more focus and had dug deeper into the subject. Additionally, even though art is subjective, the book cover borders on bland and has scope for improvement to grab more eyeballs.

An individual like Mr. Rajesh Talwar surely knows what success looks like and it is only natural that the book is filled with anecdotes from Mr. Talwar’s surroundings. The book stresses on the importance of balancing between fame, money, power and suggests ways to do it, and narrates several examples to underline the correlation. If you are looking for a quick, crisp read with stories of success and failure that inspire without bothering to get into details, this is definitely a one-time read.

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cover imag of the book

Dan Olsen’s The Lean Product Playbook Answers the ‘How?’ and ‘When?’ of Lean

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – R.M. Rilke

I was reminded of these lines excerpted above when I reached the second chapter of my latest read. German poet R.M. Rilke wrote thus in one of his letters to a young aspiring poet who was looking for writing advice from Rilke. While the lines definitely apply if you are looking to compose poetry but I’m sure they also apply for anyone chasing any creative pursuit. Product Management is as much an art as it is a science. As such, Rilke’s advice also applies to folks who want to compose products — products that are beautiful as well as highly functional, products that are wanted and are used when they are launched, products that can develop a new market if one doesn’t exist, products that keep improving with time and usage, and products that don’t meekly surrender in death but achieve martyrdom in the battlefield aka marketplace when they exit. The second chapter of The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen talks about Problem Space versus Solution Space and underlines the importance of separating the two. With that separation, also comes the criticality of spending enough time in the problem space before getting into the solution space.

Book as a Product

Dan Olsen puts his book through the same rigorous processes and tests that he would like any product to go through. The book is treated as a product itself and at the outset, he pins its objective as neatly as possible. The title happens to be ‘The Lean Product Playbook’ and if you are a little confused about what to expect from the book, the subtitle makes it easier to calibrate your expectations — “How to Innovate with Minimum Viable Product and Rapid Customer Feedback.” At this point, you get to know that this book gives a lot of page-time to MVPs and the process of getting usable customer feedback. The book has been published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey and I read it on Kindle.

Perils of not heeding to Rilke’s advice (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

From Lean Startup to Lean Playbook

In many ways, this book is a worthy successor of another popular book amongst product people — The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. While ‘The Lean Startup’ explained the foundations of the Lean concept, this book goes deeper into the execution phase and spends more time helping you figure out How-To-Do-Lean. In short, The Lean Startup answers the ‘What? and Why?’, and Dan Olsen’s book answers the ‘How? and When?’. The point is, if you have not read Eric’s book, it’s a good idea to do so before coming to Dan Olsen’s work. In his own words, “I wrote The Lean Product Playbook to fill the knowledge gaps faced by many people who want to create a product using Lean Startup principles.”

The book is divided into 3 parts–

1. Core concepts to understand the concept of Product-Market Fit

Product-Market Fit Pyramid (https://leanproductplaybook.com/book/)

2. Following the Lean Product Process (six steps) to achieve Product-Market Fit.

3. Building/Optimizing your product after establishing Product-Market Fit.

You need Oprah as well as Spock on your product journey (https://leanproductplaybook.com/resources/)

The author describes all these six steps in point 2 in detail with real world examples from his experience at Intuit where he worked on Quicken as well as from his time helping other companies of the world apply Lean principles.

More Observations

There are several scenarios which can be directly lifted from the book and plugged into any product development team’s workstyle with minor modifications to drive better outcomes for their products. For the number of examples, and step-by-step processes this book comes with, it definitely fills a vacuum between the concepts of Lean product development and the execution part of it. Target Market Segmentation, Technology Adoption Life Cycle, Personas, Underserved Customer Needs, Customer Discovery Interviews, Customer Benefit Ladders, Satisfaction Framework, Customer Value, MVP Feature Set Specification, Prototyping, MVP tests, UX Design — the book covers all these and many more arms of Lean product development in detail with practical examples to learn from.

Over the last decade, Lean has become the ‘Meditation’ of the product world. Most people keep talking about its benefits, few practise it, and fewer still practise it right. You truly understand the benefits of Lean only when you practise it effectively. At the same time, you get to understand its use cases better when you keep at it iteratively for a longer duration of time. Keeping that in mind, I’m sure that this book is going to help product folks get better at developing solutions to real problems instead of fishing for problems their self-attested product solves. A lot of startups today are trapped in the loop of solving the same problem over and over. If it’s not by choice to ride the wave for making quick money, this book may help such companies break that loop as well.

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Harry Potter Reunion

‘Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts’ Is the Nostalgia Ride All Potterheads Deserved

“Mysterious thing, Time”– Albus Dumbledore. It really is! And that’s what you realize when you are invited to revisit the wondrous wizarding world you had left behind 10 years ago. That’s how “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” begins and if there’s one word that could describe the whole 1 hour and 42 minutes retrospective special (streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime), it would definitely be “Nostalgia”! It is true that some of the books from J.K. Rowling’s debut novel series had released much earlier than the movies, but it was not till 2001 that most of us, who had been living in different parts of the world, got a chance to experience the amazing and unbelievable Wizarding World of The Boy Who Lived. The movies made the novel popular; they allowed the story to reach out to children even in the remotest corners of the world. And thus, started a journey for every Potterhead out there, which would change their lives forever!

As John Williams’ “Harry’s Wondrous World” plays in the background and the Hogwarts Castle comes into view once again from across the Black Lake, with all its lighted turrets and windows, and Emma Watson opens the doors to the Great Hall, we are ushered into that world once again, which happens to be our “healthy form of escapism” even now, as so rightly quoted by Matthew Lewis aka Neville Longbottom.  I feel the best part of being a 90s kid and a Potterhead simultaneously, is that you sort of grew up with the actors. Seeing them who had brought the young characters alive onscreen, who had given colors to our imaginations, like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Evanna Lynch, James and Oliver Phelps, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright and so many others, all grown up and in their late 20s or early 30s now, getting married or having kids just like our friends are, all around us, made me realize how much time has passed. Even then, it feels like yesterday that we were watching the films with utmost awe and wonder in the movie theaters.  

As I delve deeper into the reunion special episode, which has been divided into 4 chapters, each representing two movies at a time, showing glimpses of the shots and the sets and also the actors’ experiences while shooting for each of them, I can’t help but wonder at how beautifully they have recreated the aura of the wizarding world throughout the entire duration of the episode. Starting from the actors receiving their Hogwarts’ letters, addressed to them in their specific locations at the time, like “The Coffee Shop, Chelsea” or “The Black Cab” reminds us of Harry’s shocking expression, when he receives his first Hogwarts Letter with the specific address “The Cupboard Under the Stairs”. It also reminds us strangely of how as children, when we had turned 11 years old, we actually prayed to God for sending us that letter, so that we could journey from our ridiculously boring Muggle world into the amazing world of Harry Potter. It reminds us of the innocence we once had, and how we seem to have lost that along the way.

Each of the four chapters begins with the narrator reading out a line from J.K Rowling’s books and as we move into the first one, The Boy Who Lived, we are reminded of some of the amazing actors who had contributed as much to the series, as the child actors. The twinkling eyes of Richard Harris could not have been more apt for the long-bearded, white-haired Albus Dumbledore, drawn at the back of the first ever book cover of the Harry Potter series. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane’s Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Vernon, seemed to have jumped out of the pages of J.K. Rowling’s book. Stuart Craig, who was the Production Designer for the entire Harry Potter movie franchise, had created the impossible world of the wizards with utmost ease and grandeur. Thousands of lighted candles were hung from the end of fishing lines to recreate the floating candles adorning the ceiling of the Great Hall, as mentioned in the books. The scenes where we witness the Burrow for the first time and see how a wizarding family washes their dishes or knits their sweaters, the comparison between good and bad wizarding families so drastically portrayed with the entry of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, brings the first chapter to an end.

The second chapter, Coming of Age, portrays the third and fourth movies of the series and was indeed the time when we too were in limbo between our childhood and adulthood, just like Harry, Ron and Hermione. These books or movies ushered in the era of crushes, infatuations and the pangs of teenage love along with the introduction of deep and dark concepts of dementors sucking out your joy and happiness, of overcoming your deepest fears and darkness, of standing at the threshold of adulthood. New actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Timothy Spall were introduced into the series. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the entire universe shifts suddenly and the series which was popular as a childrens’ book, soon became something more sinister with the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort. The death of Cedric Diggory marks that moment when Harry has his first reality check and so does the audience, as we are prepared to face the perils of adulthood. 

In The Light and Dark Within, Mathew Lewis as Neville and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, bring forth the world of “misfits” and “oddbots”, where children who are shy or introvert or different from those around them, children who have been bullied in schools or in playgrounds, relate themselves to popular and famous characters for the first time, and find that they can belong in the society too. The two-dimensional, complex character of Draco Malfoy, torn between what is right and what is not, reflects so many of us who had once made all the wrong choices in the wrong company and had later learnt from our regrets and mistakes. Helena Bonham Carter, who had played the role of the psychopathic, evil, and most devoted Death-Eater, Bellatrix Lestrange, talks about the impact the series has had on generations of children who failed to get good marks in exams, or who weren’t the best when it came to sports. The world of Harry Potter showed with immense humanity, depth, and vulnerability that being different makes us special as we fall in love with the characters of Luna and Neville.

Before they move onto the last and final chapter though, they remind us of the fact that these were the movies in which Harry encounters grief for the first time in his life as he loses Sirius and Dumbledore, the two adults who had been closest to what the orphaned boy could claim as “parents”. As the reunion special takes us inside the pensieve, into the memories of some of the great actors who have passed away in the 10 years since the last movie of the franchise released, we raise our wands along with so many other witches and wizards, all watching the reunion from the comforts of their homes, to remember and honor all those amazing actors like Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Helena McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Richard Harris(Albus Dumbledore in first two movies), John Hurt (Ollivander the wandmaker), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon) and Robert Hardy(Cornelius Fudge).

In the final chapter, Something Worth Fighting For, scenes from the last two movies are reminisced by the actors, as the trio leaves the comfort of their school for the first time and faces the struggles of the real world, as we all do, when we leave school or college. Mathew Lewis talks about the last speech of Neville in front of Lord Voldemort, the speech which sealed Neville’s character forever as one of the bravest Gryffindors we knew and as the true son of his brave Auror parents, and how that speech had impacted him both as a human being and as an actor. For fans like us, who had read all the books by then and already knew how the series would end, held onto these two movies as our last thread of connection to the world we had loved and craved to belong to, the last thread of connection to our childhood which was slowly slipping away. Potterheads would often claim this series to be more than just a children’s book, because the magical world which J.K Rowling wove around Harry Potter had lots of stories within stories, had individual character curves, had concepts so philosophical and deep that it often had a transformative effect on people’s lives!

As the last day of the shoot is shown and the actors are seen crying and hugging each other, we realize that even though they might not live on, the characters they portrayed will do and the legacy of Harry Potter and the masterpiece which J.K.Rowling has created, will continue to inspire generations to come. Emma Watson echoes the very thoughts of my heart and soul when she says, “There’s something about Harry Potter that makes life richer. Like, when things get really dark and times are really hard, stories give us places we can go, where we can rest and feel held”. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has been that story and that place for me, my source of happiness and inspiration in times of grief, loss and desperation. As I therefore, see the last scene of the special episode unfold before my eyes, and Dumbledore looks at Snape’s patronus, uttering one of the most epic dialogues of the series, I realize that every time someone would judge or question my devotion towards Harry Potter and the Wizarding World and ask, “After all this time?”, I would probably utter the same words Snape did – “ALWAYS!”

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Photos of JJ Goodwin and Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda’s Most Faithful Friend Who Rests at India’s Ooty

Swami Vivekananda said of J.J. Goodwin, “Those who think they have been helped by any thought of mine, ought to know that almost every word of it was published through the untiring and most unselfish exertions of Mr. Goodwin…a disciple of never-failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was….”

In life as well as in death, some people stay young. These people take up one thing and pour the last drop of blood coursing through their veins over it. Their life becomes a relentless pursuit of that one object. Nothing can distract them. No force can deter them from their chosen path. They keep at it until one day life stops and death gives them their much deserved rest. Irrespective of their age, at work and in rest, they stay young.

I got introduced to Josiah John Goodwin as a child when I was introduced to Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature. If not for this man, most of Swami Vivekananda’s talks and lectures might have become the food of oblivion. I have known that this man of only 23 was noting down some of the most vital messages ever passed on to humanity. I have known that he refused to take payments in just about a week’s time at work with Swami Vivekananda. I have known all along that Mr. J.J. Goodwin came to India with Swami Vivekananda as the most faithful devotee and friend. He recorded in shorthand, Swamiji’s lectures from Colombo to Almora which became the bedrock of Indian nationalism, socialism, humanism, and most importantly a reinvigorated ignition switch for the Indian freedom struggle. I have known that he was only 28 when he died due to fever in the year 1898 in Ootacamund (Ooty). I have known that his death was perhaps the dearest of losses for Swami Vivekananda. I knew that he rests somewhere in Ooty listening to the poem his Master dedicated to him on learning of his demise.

In the book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, a passage on Mr. Goodwin explains, “Mr. Goodwin would take down a lengthy address in the evening, work through the night in typewriting off his stenographic reports, and then hasten towards midnight to the newspaper offices, the conductors of which were anxious to print the Swami’s lectures, and this continued day after day, The Guru loved his disciple with infinite tenderness and initiated him into the practices and ideals of the Vedanta philosophy, so that he became an expert in grasping its contents and faithfully reporting them. It is needless to say that the Swami was grateful beyond words to his disciple. He could not speak too highly of him ; he saw in him a great Karma Yogin, one who could unselfishly perform work for the sake of work and who could live the life of ideals. Mr. Goodwin,  of course, refused any remuneration as soon as he understood the Swami and had been with him for a fortnight. Though he came from the ordinary classes of society and his education was not of a scholarly type, he exhibited remarkable intellectual adaptabilities with reference to the Swami’s work. His youth and his enthusiasm proved valuable stimuli. The Swami often spoke of him, saying, “He is chosen for my work. What would I do without him ! If I have a mission, he is indeed a part of it.””

Goodwin was born on 20 September 1870 at Batheaston, England. His father Josiah Goodwin was a stenographer and an editor of the Birmingham Advertiser, the Wilts Country Mirror and the Exeter Gazette. Goodwin worked as a journalist from the age of fourteen, and had an unsuccessful journalistic venture in Bath in 1893. He left Bath and travelled to Australia, and later on, to America.

As I stood before his memorial in the cemetery of CSI St. Church in Ooty on 3rd March, 2021, I was overwhelmed with emotions not much of surprise or disbelief but of the familiarity of the moment. It was as if I was there to see someone specially dear to me. I felt I was standing before a man whose absence I had been mourning ever since I read about his death at a tender 28. Whether you know it or not, J.J. Goodwin is the guide who is always by your side when you are reading Swami Vivekananda’s words. His words are here for us to read because there was a young British stenographer who was skilled enough to take down those extempore outpourings of the great teacher verbatim when others failed as well as dedicated enough to work tirelessly to produce printable copies night after night and lecture after lecture.

I sat there looking at the tombstone and all the things written on it and I felt that my mourning was complete. It was as if I was preordained to be there to pay my respects to him. I sat there as I would sit for the dearest of my kin and friends. As he rested in a corner in the cemetery, I kept wondering if he died so young only because it was time for him to rest. I don’t know many people who deserve to rest more than he did. I hope that when I and you rest, our rest too will be equally well deserved.

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Partition Horrors Remembrance Day – 75 Years Too Late?

The government has notified 14th August as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Citizens have expressed their views about the declaration. While many have thanked the government for the decision, there are a few who do not like the idea. We will go to the most commonly cited reasons for the apparent dislike in a while. I have a few other things to mention at the outset.

For most of us in our 40s, 30s, and 20s, partition has been a non-event. Thanks to the ideologically sold-out historians in charge of our textbooks, the partition seemed like a clerical routine, a formality to be completed before we could get our freedom. If you didn’t look for it, you wouldn’t find it. Why was it so? Was it to let our wounds heal or to shut our eyes on them while they festered across our body for the want of good nursing? These can be difficult questions but they have answers, no matter how inconvenient!

Long ago, I met with an accident while riding my bike. My foot was badly hurt with deep cuts which couldn’t be stitched in the hospital. The only way out was regular disinfection of the wounds, application of ointments, and a bandage dressing that needed to be changed every day. I hated the routine but there was no other way. This went on for about two weeks. After two weeks, the nurse noticed some dry tissues on top of the wound. I thought the wound was healing. Before I could feel any comfort at the development, in a blink of an eye, the nurse tore off the tissue. The insides had very little improvement and he went back to cleaning and dressing the wounds. This was the longest I had nursed a wound. I was not allowed much movement for about a month. Now, if this wound were to be wrapped in a bandage, never to be opened again without any sterilization, cleansing, or nursing, the inevitable consequences would have been either amputation or death! 

Separate land for the Muslim population was demanded. Mohammad Ali Jinnah launched the Direct Action Day to insist on a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. Jinnah’s supporters and all the people who wanted a separate country for Muslims came on the streets. Riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out. More than 4000 people lost their lives and 100,000 were left homeless in just 72 hours in Kolkata. In the months of October-November of the same year, in the Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), the Hindu population was massacred in an organized attack by the Muslim rioters. More than 5000 people were killed, thousands looted, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam. Around 50,000 to 70,000 refugees were sheltered in the refugee camps at different places. This was not during the partition and happened in 1946. The cycle of bloodbath kept running without rest. There were no gods on earth or in the heavens. This land was drenched in the blood of her people. I am not even going into what happened to the minorities in Pakistan (both eastern and western) after the partition. 

The wound had been festering since Syed Ahmed Khan’s insistence that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations in a nation of many nations. There were a few good doctors who tried to limit the damage, contain the infection but most of them looked the other way. The idea was brought to fruition in the form of a tragic amputation of the Indian land and its people. So, next time you hear your well-meaning friend telling you that India is a nation of many nations, prod a little more for his rhyme and reason. Scratch the surface and you will find a secessionist or separatist hidden beneath.

A lot has been written about the number of people affected. I will not go there as the most modest numbers pale the most inhuman tragedies in other parts of the world. I will be concerned with the makings of the partition and their fading memories. Why has partition been allowed to become a mere blip in our history books or popular retellings of our country’s history? When millions of people were looted, raped, and killed, why did the partition become an event sanitized off its blood-stink of sectarian fanaticism and identity politics so quickly and so easily? Our doctors who were trusted with the healing process wrapped a piece of rag on it and left the nation to keep the amputation operation alive, to inflict on us a slow and painful death from our festered wounds, to forget that once upon a time Pakistan was India, to legitimize the demand for an independent Kashmir, to uproot the Indian people from their fertile and well-cultivated land physically, mentally, as well as spiritually so that one day, a so-called history buff from the Bollywood would nonchalantly tell us that India was born in 1947!

The court historians of the congress party were tasked with two jobs: 

1. Establish that India won her freedom without spilling a drop of blood. 

2. Establish that there were only two people chiefly responsible for India’s freedom. 

3. Erase all such instances of violence from the minds and hearts of the Indian public where the perpetrators identified themselves as Muslims. 

They did their job well but paper boats don’t sail too far. 

Some of the opposers of the move have said that a lot has already been written over the partition. This essentially means that they want the partition to be their pet project so that they can keep collecting grants and funds from the world in the name of governmental apathy.

The neo-Marxists want to forget the partition. This is the group that is hypocrisy redefined and underlined. They want to remember the upper caste atrocities through books, movies, and every literature festival and subway graffiti of the world. Personal becomes political and political becomes personal. They want to keep reminding you of your savarna privilege at the most innocuous of your expressions. However, ‘reminiscing the partition’ becomes the Van de Graaff generator leaving their hair strands all shocked and alarmed!

A few intellectual roleplayers wrote while defending Holocaust Memorial as well as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and protesting Partition Horrors Remembrance Day that in the holocaust, there was just horror and that there were no positive stories. However, the partition also had positive stories of help and support. They also added that the holocaust had one clear villain but during the partition, both the communities suffered equally. This is the most juvenile and the most insecure argument put forth. The suggestion that both the communities suffered is true but clearly, there was only one villain – the group which wanted to see a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. There are no two ways about it. Holocaust too had stories of hope and help, but these folks have spent too much of their time using government vouchers in 7-star hotels and holiday vacations outside India to find time to read anything on that. 

I maintain that the announcement has come 75 years too late. My celebration of Independence Day has been a chequered experience since the time I learnt about partition and its horrors. I think it will remain so for the general people of our country. You can’t unsee, un-remember, unlive partition – or the horrors of it. It will be remembered no matter how inconvenient it may be for some people who are too thin-skinned for truth and have their sense of entitlement under threat with the announcement. For any healing to commence, it must not be a product of lies and cover-ups. A truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the South African initiative will be a positive second step in this direction.

References: Halfway to freedom: a report on the new India in the words and photographs of Margaret Bourke-White
Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White

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Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Afghanistan – The Land Next Door

Afghanistan first entered my immediate realm of awareness on Christmas day 1999. “Switch on the news, an Indian Airlines flight has been hijacked,” someone had informed over the phone. For almost a week, the drama unfolded on the news. At the time, the size of Afghanistan for me was a strip of a runway, and when news cameras panned out, brown mountains in the backdrop. Political negotiations were carried out. Prisoners were exchanged for hostages. And Afghanistan retreated to the 1/2-inch border it had shared with India on the map in my school syllabus.

About a year and nine months later, I was in the computer cluster at University. My fingers tapped away at the keyboard as I cleaned up my dissertation to get it ready for submission — the final step in my MA degree. Autumn was around the corner, and there was a nip in the air, but the computer-lab was warm. Body heat from overcrowding combined with heat from printers running non-stop had given the room its own ecosphere.

I don’t remember how the news came in. But, within seconds, all the 50-odd computer screens were tuned in to the same video – a plane crashing into one of the NY twin towers. My first thought was, “This is some elaborate prank.” That illusion shattered as a second plane crashed into the other tower. It came crumbling down on live television. Those images replayed many times over the next few days, and the 9/11 attack was the centre of all conversation. Amidst all that, I submitted my dissertation and returned home. My image of Afghanistan was now the size of a computer screen, but it had moved. It sat atop the rubble of what had been two iconic buildings in New York.

For the next few years, it peeked out from newspapers. Dusty brown streets and countryside. American soldiers in army fatigues. Afghans in kurtas and paghdis. Children with dried streaks of snot and tears across their faces. Kidnapped journalists. Hostage videos of masked men toting guns. I relegated the montage to the ‘Irrelevant – Ignore’ cubbyhole of my conscience.

The year was 2015.

“I am reading In A Land far From Home,” my friend Yash told me. “It is hilarious. You should check it out.” I Googled it and found an excerpt. Meh! But then the whole title caught my eye, ‘In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan’. Some catchphrases in the blurb had me hitting buy on Kindle tab: An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali …spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929…he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour…first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history.

Set in 1927-1929, the story is a memoir of Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali. Armed with a BA degree, Mujtaba Ali takes up a job in the education department of Kabul. Afghanistan is an unknown territory at the time, and it appeals to the young graduate’s appetite for adventure. The first third of the story describes the author-protagonist’s journey to Kabul. Travel delays, breakdowns, red tape in procuring documentation and crossing the ‘biggest test in the world – the Khyber pass’ as per his Kabuli bus driver threaten to throw him off track. But, he perseveres. He distracts himself with observations of his fellow travellers who amuse him and confound him in turns. After weeks of travel, he reaches Kabul and settles down in a rented house.

The second third of the book details Mujtaba Ali’s first year in Kabul. A year without incident. When he is not teaching classes at the university, he spends days picnicking in Gulbagh amidst apple and pear trees and nargis plants. Abdur Rahman, his Harlan-Moula, aka man Friday, plays mother hen. He fussed over him, treats his palate to local delicacies and his mind to folklore and homegrown customs. As the story progresses, the lush Tulbagh and the snowy peaks of Paghman visible from Mujtaba Ali’s window fill my head. The aromatics from Abdur’s feasts tantalize my tastebuds. The sights, the food, and the people invoke my travel-lust. Pangs of FOMO strike as realization hits. A trip to Afghanistan in this lifetime? Unlikely.

The last third of the story forebodes why.

The year 1929 sets in — Mujtaba Ali’s second year in Kabul. Signs of trouble have been brewing, yet, when it strikes, it appears out of nowhere. Ali’s description of shops pulling down shutters, people running in panic and screams of ‘Bacha-e-Saqao is coming’ filling creates images from the dacoit movies from 70’s Bollywood. But neither the 70s nor Bollywood had arrived then. This is real. The king abdicates, and Kabul falls. It is under the reign of Bacha-e-Saqao, who had already captured vast parts of the country. Over the next few months, thievery and rioting are rampant in the streets. Diplomats, ambassadors and ex-pats are evacuated by the embassies as the situation spirals. But, it is not that simple for our protagonist. India is under British rule, and a poor Bengali teacher is at the bottom of the priority evacuee list. Money and food are in short supply, and Mujtaba Ali is driven to the brink of death by starvation. He survives on the kindness of local friends and the loyal Abdur. Finally, it is his turn to leave. He describes his last view of Kabul as the airplane takes off:

I saw white snow covering the horizon. Standing in the middle of the airfield was a figure who could only have been Abdur Rahman, bidding goodbye to me by waving the tail of his turban.

His turban was dirty, as we did not have any soap for such a long time. But I felt Abdur Rahman’s turban was whiter than the snow, and whitest of all was Abdur Rahman’s heart.

The time when I read the book, I was surprised by the end. It seemed abrupt like the author had run out of ink, and not the proverbial kind. But, when I read it today, it appears apt. Perhaps, it is that picture of Afghanistan he wanted to carry home?

In 2021, it is challenging to ignore images. They follow you. They pop up in your palm unsolicited. They get lodged in caches and cookies and other things with innocuous names. The videos of people running through streets. Shouting at family members to hurry along. Clambering over the airport fence. Running alongside taxiing aircrafts. Clinging to the sides of planes. With every second, these images multiply.

I sort through the cubby-holes in my head, looking for one in the farthest corner. But, it is in vain. The exploding montage refuses to budge and settles in a pile marked – I am here. Deal with it. 

Image Courtesy: US MARINE CORPS/REUTERS

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Loving and Learning in the City: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar Is a Bittersweet Ode to Survival

Empowerment is a capricious temptress. When served in the desired amount, it is a reasonably enjoyable experience for all. However, when one develops a fondness for it, it may mutate into a disruptive force. Mahanagar (The Big City), set in the Dickensian Calcutta of the 1960s, is an ode to the untold tales of survival bubbling in the veins of middle-class families as they struggle to find their place in the larger picture. Such families aren’t impoverished. But, as Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) tells his loving wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), People become millionaires making cigarettes, yet a common BA-pass bank clerk struggles to make ends meet. His remark is in jest. Yet, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice; anguish at the endless list of requirements a man must fulfil to sustain his family in the metropolis.

Akin to several of Ray’s masterpieces whose core is the complicated relationship Calcuttans have with Calcutta, Mahanagar is about the quest for respectable existence. The film is based on two short stories by Narendra Mitra. It follows the journey of Arati and Subrata. Theirs is an endearing marriage, complete with a little boy and a sweet family that may suffer from want but never falls prey to the wanton bitterness born from scarcity. Considering the exponentially mounting expenses of living a fulfilled life, Arati decides to join the workforce to help her overburdened husband and contribute to the family’s financial well-being. Of course, it doesn’t please her father-in-law, Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee). He is a conservative schoolteacher and loathes the idea of his daughter-in-law stepping out of the house. So deep runs his unyielding machismo that later in the film, Priyogopal begs for free assistance from his successful students by foul-mouthing his son but refuses to accept glasses made from Arati’s salary. Eventually, his way of thinking causes immense strains in the family. 

In contrast to his father, Subrata is a kind and witty husband. He is happy with the idea of his wife pitching in and understands the urgent need to overlook his father’s traditionalism. One of the sweetest scenes in the film is when Arati expresses her apprehension about her clothes not being fancy enough for the job. A door-to-door salesperson must look good. So Subrata takes an advance from his office for his wife to purchase befitting attire. It is a sensitively written moment, and Anil Chatterjee’s innocence with Madhabi Mukherjee’s expressive eyes makes it unforgettable. This is the starting point; Arati landing a job as a saleswoman. What follows is a discourse on unemployment, gender dynamics, class, and ingrained attitudes stretched thin between an archaic past and uncertain future.

Mahanagar is about a lower-middle-class family’s experience in Calcutta. But the lens of the film solely belongs to Arati. Through her eyes, we see the confusing times. We witness how rampant want and the changing ideas of domestic responsibility impact familial bonds. We understand the aspirations and inhibitions of working women and the growing fluidity in their movement between the private and public spheres. Using the larger canvas of Arati’s life, Ray explores how differences in religious and economic backgrounds temper the female reality. For this, we have the character of Edith Simmons. Edith is a feisty Anglo-Indian girl who has been conceptualized to represent the moral antithesis to Arati’s old-fashioned ideals. The two women, disparate in the way they dress, speak and live, become close friends. She gifts Arati a red lipstick saying that if Hindu women wear vermillion in their parting and a red bindi on the forehead, there is no harm in red lips.

Edith is honest, hardworking and efficient. Exactly like Ararti. The only difference is in the realisation of self-worth. Edith is aware of how much she deserves as an employee. Therefore, she protests when the executive plans to reduce commissions and successfully negotiates a 5% share for her colleagues. To the management, this attitude is belligerent. Not only because she is a female worker demanding to be compensated according to an industry standard but more so because of her ethnic background. Edith is scathingly referred to as the “firingee.” Their supervisor at the firm is appreciative of Arati’s work and supports her growth. Yet, he looks down upon Edith. In the end, Edith is fired. A prolonged illness prevents her from working. Upon return, she is humiliated, and her character is deemed questionable. She is accused of lying, and the manager claims that Edith was partying instead.

Edith’s narrative reflects how diverse life is for women living in the same city and working in the same office. When Arati is on the field, she is invited into plush living rooms belonging to wealthy homemakers dressed in modern saris and sleeveless blouses. The vast houses with guards at the front gate are in stark contrast to her cramped quarters, which cost Ray and his art director only Rs 2000 to build. In such a scenario, Arati is the disadvantaged one. However, when pitted against Edith, the “modern” woman dressed in skirts, wearing lipstick and belonging to an Anglicized background, Arati is privileged. At the workplace, she is taken seriously because irrespective of her employment in a corporate office, she resembles the conscientious Bengali housewife dressed in modest saris and hair tied in a simple bun. Aarti earns more respect and opportunities not only because she is efficient, but her larger identity is Mrs. Mukherjee. Edith is just Edith Simmons. Not married. Not Hindu. Not modest.

Arati’s relationship with her husband is the second important pillar of Mahanagar. We become a part of a very tender relationship, both blemished and eventually reunited by circumstances. Initially, Subrata is quick to ease into his role as the husband of a working woman. However, when Arati begins to discover her pride and self-worth as an earning member of the household, things falter. Arati’s professional rise and her increasing interactions with more powerful male authorities cause tension and insecurity. Subrata is never cruel. He has a sweet disposition and cares deeply for his wife and family. However, he is only a man, caught between moving on with new ideas and maintaining peace with the conservative past. He needs Arati’s support. Simultaneously, he is distraught with the situation at home. His father has not spoken to him in months. When the latter collapses in an ex-student’s clinic (while on another round of seeking free treatment), the student embarrasses Subrata by insinuating he doesn’t care for his father. It is an interesting commentary on aggressive masculinity and its power to make emotionally vulnerable men absorb its toxic juices. Things collapse further when a bank crash costs Subrata his job. Arati is the man of the house. He feels like a burden, distanced from his affectionate partner. 

Narendra Mitra’s stories ended pessimistically. However, the optimist in Ray didn’t want Mahanagar to conclude on such a note. He wished to grant Arati and Subrata a new lease of life, hoping for a perfect balance of sweet and realistic. In the end, Arati quits her job to protest against the harsh treatment meted to Edith. She apologizes to Subrata, scared that her impulsive decision has jeopardized their future but she is pleasantly surprised when Subrata admires her courage. Now a more evolved man, Subrata consoles her by saying that they will soon find work and together run the family. They walk out of the building as equals, holding hands and blending into the crowd of nameless thousands hoping to find employment.For me, Mahanagar is like a coming-of-age story. Yes, the characters are not teenagers. Yet, it is a remarkable story of a woman, her husband, and Calcutta –  all coming to terms with the fact that life is changing. Ray’s writing is sentimental, haunting, and full of passion and moments of happiness. It is a poetic film that relies on simplicity, subtlety, and observation to make a mark. It does not let you stay sad for long. But, neither is it stuffing the audience with false hope. Mahanagar tells us that life is tough. The city is tough. However, human relationships are tougher. One hundred years of Ray, and it still feels like Mahanagar could be our story.

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MAHE & MANO- An Extraordinary Tale of Hope, Courage, and Love

The first time I heard of Manohar Devadoss was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2017. I listened to him speak about his adventure with books in his life. His childlike candour and wit made him an instant hit with his audience. I was looking forward to interacting personally with him later that day. However, that didn’t materialize and that’s a regret I continue to carry. I was thrilled when he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for his contribution to art. However, Manohar did more than just art. He is also a scientist and an author. His achievements in various fields are not merely his own but they are also his wife Mahema’s. Mahema is omnipresent not just in Manohar’s life but also in his art, his books, and all his conversations. So, when I picked his latest book – ‘Mahe and Mano’, published by Aleph Book company, I was excited at the idea of getting to know more about the duo.

A simple search on the internet titled ‘Manohar Devadoss’ will tell you about Mahema’s quadriplegia and Manohar’s retinitis pigmentosa. However, it is almost impossible to comprehend how challenging every day can be to live with these adversities. In the book, Manohar talks about their extraordinary journey together and how they won over these extreme inconveniences that came bundled together with their physical conditions.

A young foreign return Manohar was smitten by the bold, beautiful, and jubilant Mahema in their first meeting. Their courtship, marriage, and romance is quite dreamy and makes me envy them. It is also heartbreaking to read about how life turned upside down for this couple in only a matter of a few minutes. Manohar talks about the moments before the accident, their days in JIPMER and CMC, the kindness of doctors, friends, family, and strangers and the desperation he felt during those ten months in hospital. The efforts that Manohar took to entertain his wife who was clamped to the bed, his slide shows for other patients in the hospital, his outburst at the insensitivity of a doctor welled my eyes up. However, that was just the beginning of an arduous uphill journey for them.

Few years after Mahe returned home in a wheelchair and became completely dependent on Mano and the helpers for everything, Mano started losing his eyesight due to degenerative retinal disorder. Even with all the help from renowned ophthalmologists, this only kept getting worse. It was now Mahema’s turn to be Mano’s knight and keep him going. It was Mahema who pushed Manohar to write a book and find a way to continue with his paintings. They carried each other’s dreams, in their own hearts. And this they did for more than three decades.

Manohar’s father was a doctor. So, he was aware that the life of a quadriplegic is short-lived and tumultuous. However, he promised himself that he would never ever let his wife get a bedsore. It is unbelievable that not only did Mahema thrive for 35 years but also never had a bedsore despite being bound to a wheelchair. That speaks of the kind of devotion that Mano had for Mahe. Mano and Mahe were brave, strong, kind, and resilient as individuals. They were both warm, bright, intelligent, charming, and creative. These individual traits and their timeless devotion towards each other turned them into an extraordinary couple. Together, they were a force to reckon with and touched many lives in unbelievable ways.

Most of their best creations happened during their three decades of endless battles against these adversities. Even today, Manohar remains extremely busy and keeps up with another promise he made to his wife. While their courage as individuals is inspiring enough, I must agree with Nagalakshmi Kumaraswamy that  Mahe and Mano will serve as inspiration for any couple and will provide a fascinating story for marriage counsellors to tell.

The book does hold a couple of their pictures and one illustration of Mano, I would have loved to see more of them. The poems, the love letters, the scribblings, the songs, the books, the flowers, the butterflies, and their love makes this book a light and engaging read. Every page of this story is inspiring and that is reason enough to pick this book.

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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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