John D. Batten illustrator

12 Folktale Collections to Read from India!

For thousands of years, folktales have been a medium for communities to narrate their stories and preserve their wisdom, their culture, values and traditions. We must have all heard of random stories and folk tales from our elders. If not heard, then definitely read tales and fables popular in India.

A.K. Ramanujan’s Folktales of India was a definitive collection of 110 folktales collected from all corners of the country and translated from different languages by an Indian. But if you are the one who wants to explore more folktales, the list below will come in handy!

The Seer presents 12 folktale collections to read from all across India. These collections will take you travelling from deep seas to the jungles of Central India and from the majestic peaks of the Himalayas to the dense forests of the North East.

 

Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar by Nalin Verma

Published this year in October, this collection of stories brings together intriguing animal and human characters that narrate the age old wisdom of the villages of Bihar. Buy the book here.

 

Seven blind men and an elephant is a parable found in Indian traditions. It is particularly used in Jainism to explain the doctrine of multi-sidedness (anekantavada) of Ultimate Reality, Absolute Truth. It is also called the theory of non-onesidedness, non-absolutism, manifoldness, many pointedness by scholars.
Romana Klee | Seven blind men and an elephant is a parable found in Indian traditions. It is particularly used in Jainism to explain the doctrine of multi-sidedness (anekantavada) of Ultimate Reality, Absolute Truth. It is also called the theory of non-onesidedness, non-absolutism, manifoldness, many pointedness by scholars.

 


Folk Tales from the Nilgiri Hills
compiled and edited by Madhavi Ravindranath

Folk Tales from the Nilgiri Hills came about as a result of All India Radio’s Ooty’s program head, Madhavi Ravindranath’s labour of love to collect folktales from the various tribes residing in the Nilgiris. They were first recorded and then broadcast as part of the radio show, ‘Malai Makkal Maanaadu’ (Gathering of the hill people). The book was published by Tamil Nadu’s Hill Area Development Programme.

 


First there was Woman and Other Stories: Folktales of the Dungri Garasiya Bhils
retold by Marija Sres

Dungri Garasiya Bhils live in northern Gujarat, southern Rajasthan and some parts of Madhya Pradesh as well. Marija Sres (originally from former Yugoslavia) came to India in 1974 and studied Gujarati in Ahmedabad, eventually completing her B.A. in Gujarati. This collection, published by Zubaan Books, presents folktales she has collected and translated over the years. The titular creation myth is a unique narrative of how the woman was created first by Kudrat (or Nature). The other stories also similarly capture the values and customs intrinsic to the Dungri Garasiya way of life. Get your copy here!

 


Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends by Kynpham Sing Nongkyrih

For centuries, Khasis have preserved their language by telling stories and passing them onto their younger generations. In this book, Nongkyrih brings alive the legends and tales that are part of the ethos of Khasi contemporary life till today. Buy the copy here.

 


Tales from the Kathasaritsagara
by Somdeva, translated from Sanskrit by Arshia Sattar

Originally written in Sanskrit, Kathasaritsagara was compiled by the Kashmiri Shaivite Brahmin, Somdev, in about 1070 C.E. Kathasaritsagara means “Ocean of a Stream of Stories.” Katha means stories, sarit means river or stream and sagara means the ocean. The frame story of King Naravahanadatta forms the outer narrative while including several stories within stories much like The Arabian Nights and Panchtantra. Yet, unlike many ancient fables, these stories do not preach moral lessons. Rather they portray lives lived through pleasure and experience.

Get your copy here or read an online version of a different translation here.

A literary tidbit: This style of using a frame narrative is often used by contemporary fabulists and writers too! For example, Salman Rushdie in his book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, not only pays tribute to the title of Kathasaritsagara but also creates a whole new magical realist world that gives insights into the creation of stories and their purpose!

 


Konkani Folktales
retold by Olivinho J.E. Gomes

Konkani is one of the languages included in the 8th Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In 1992, with the 71st Amendment, three languages, Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali were included. Published by National Book Trust of India, Konkani Folktales is a rollicking collection of stories that depicts peculiar habits of Konkani speaking communities from their food to clothing to dances. Buy your copy here.

 


Speaking to an Elephant and Other Tales from the Kadars
by Manish Chandi

This is a must read for its interweaving of gorgeous illustrations and line drawings with the forest stories of the Kadars. Kadars are an indigenous people living in different parts of South India namely Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The stories in this collection narrate their utmost reverence to the forests they call home and emphasize their belief systems that revolve around forests and the spirits that reside therein. Grab this beautiful copy here.

 

The woman and the mongoose Panchatantra fable is engraved in many historic Hindu temples such as at the 8th-century Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal (the middle panel).
Ms_Sarah_Welch | The woman and the mongoose Panchatantra fable is engraved in many historic Hindu temples such as at the 8th-century Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal (the middle panel).

 


Where Gods Dwell
by Kusum Budhwar

From forests of the south, let us now move to the valleys of Kumaon. Kusum Budhwar brings together the folk stories that dwell in the mountains of Kumaon and Garwhal regions. Where Gods Dwell is divided into different sections based on varied themes. One unique aspect of this book is its inclusion of folk songs and romantic ballads of the region. This puts the spotlight on the role of folk music and songs in preserving our values and culture. Each story is also accompanied by detailed explanations given by the author. This helps us readers to know more about the context of each story. Buy your copy here.

 


A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold
by Nzanmongi Jasmine Patton

Beginning with an insightful introduction to the Lotha Naga way of life, this is a collection of 30 folk tales that tell myriad folk tales from those that explain certain phenomena occurring around us to those that explain the origins of their world. All in all these stories mirror a society and its beliefs. This book is published by Adivaani, a publication house that publishes indigenous literature from all different parts of the country. Know more about their books here.

Get your copy of A Girl Swallowed by a Tree: Lotha Naga Tales Retold here.

Read an extract of the book here.

 

page1-695px-Puran_Bhagat_-_Qadir_Yar.pdf
Puran Bhagat is a Punjabi folktale by Qadir Yar.


Shehzadi Mircha: Folktales from the Punjab (Ruskin Bond Selection)
by Flora Annie Steel

This is an old colonial collection of folktales reminiscent of bygone North Indian cultures and customs, particularly Punjab. Beautifully illustrated by John Lockwood Kipling, the stories were collected in the 19th century by Flora Annie Steel. Read a charming extract here and then if you feel like it, buy it here.

 


Folktales of Odisha
collected by Mahendra Kumar Mishra

Published by National Book Trust of India, Folktales of Odisha comprises of 51 stories that form an integral part of the numerous communities of Odisha be it rural or coastal. All the stories impart useful lessons and morals on conducting one’s behavior and are a celebration of the state’s diversity and cultures. Get your copy here.

 

Illustration in Folk-tales of Bengal by w:Lal Behari Dey
w:Warwick Goble [Public domain] | Illustration in Folk-tales of Bengal by w:Lal Behari Dey


One Hundred and One Folktales from India
by Eunice De Souza

Curiously titled after Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights, this folktale collection is vast and varied and like A.K. Ramanujan’s work, has stories from all across the country. Minimally illustrated, this book forms a comprehensive and magical introduction to the world of folklore. Buy your copy here.

 

Find More Online:

But what if you are not in the mood to spend now, what with the expensive festive season ending or you do not want to unnecessarily add to your ever increasing TBR pile? Yet you are still interested to know more folklore?

Worry not! Because there are several resources online where you could read these short folk tales any time and entertain yourself and along the way, learn a thing or two!

Talking Myths is an online repository of folktales from different states of India. Easy to navigate and the stories are published in big, readable fonts. You can navigate the page through the different categories of folktales or through location too! What’s more is that if you have a folk tale you want to contribute, you can do so by clicking here.

Storyweaver is a wonderful open source platform for stories and is created by Pratham Books. Primarily for children, this site hosts stories in different languages. A fun, interactive way to read and create stories of all kinds!

If you cannot get your hands on his other works, Ramanujan’s , A Flowering Tree and Other Oral Tales from India, is available online here. This collection boasts of beautiful Kannada folktales which were collected as a result of Ramanujan’s tireless work over a period of about 30 years from the 1950s to the 1970s.

 

References:

Albert Camus

Albert Camus was Born this Month!

Albert Camus was born on 7th November 1913 in Algeria. To mention the unnecessary, he would have been 106 years old this year! While he died young, at the age of 46 in 1960, his ideas surrounding the absurd have made him supremely relevant even today. So, in his birth month, let us revisit some of his ideas and question their importance today. 

Contrary to popular belief or rather popular misunderstanding, his works do not celebrate absurdity or worse, nihilism but rather provide meaningful answers to overcome the meaninglessness of life. His two most famous novels, The Stranger or The Outsider and The Plague look at the hopelessness of the situation the protagonists are in but also portray their rebellion against that utter lack of hope. 

In 1942, he published his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus used the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as a metaphor for absurdity.

 

So who is this mythical Sisyphus? 

Sisyphus was the King of Corinth who tricked Death twice but could not do so the third time. 

The first time he was sentenced to death was when Sisyphus helped Aesophus, a river god, find his daughter, Aegina. Zeus had abducted Aegina. Aesophus promised Sisyphus that if he helped him find his daughter, he would create an eternal water spring in Corinth. Sisyphus thus told him about Zeus’ abduction of Aegina. This betrayal enraged Zeus and he banished Sisyphus to the Underworld. Once there, however, he was able to trick Thanatos by pretending to be unaware of how chains would chain him. Thanatos thus chained himself in an attempt to demonstrate to Sisyphus how chains functioned. Sisyphus was thus able to escape while Thanatos remained chained. While the latter was imprisoned, there was utter chaos in the world as no one died. Eventually, Ares, the God of War, found Sisyphus and freed Thanatos.

 

However, this time as well Sisyphus had a trick up his sleeve and before entering the realm of the dead he asked his wife, Merope, to not carry out any funeral rituals and to not give him the coin needed to pay the ferryman, Charon, to cross the river Styx. Using that as an excuse, he pleaded to Hades and Persephone that he be allowed to return to the world of living for three days to ensure that all the rites are carried out properly and then he would return. His wish was granted but he had no plans of returning ever.

 

Zeus was now thoroughly maddened by Sisyphus’ sheer insolence as he had cheated death twice. Eventually, Zeus banished him to Tartarus, the lowest region of the Underworld and punished him to repeatedly roll up a boulder to the top of a hill. Forever. Eternally. No escape. Zeus had finally managed to outwit the trickster with this punishment. Nobody would want to be stuck in such a never ending cycle. It is absurd and that is why it is such a cruel fate for Sisyphus who was always tricking others. Now he would have no time to fool anyone.

 

Sisyphus
Sisyphus | Credit – akrockefeller.com

Camus used this apt image, this myth to highlight Sisyphus’ constant rebellion against the world. He called him an absurd hero: “You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”

 

But what is so heroic about Sisyphus’ eternal struggle? 

For Camus, it was Sisyphus’ scorn to be overcome by this struggle. He explains how Sisyphus’ walk downhill to push the stone up again is his “breathing space… hour of consciousness.” It is in those moments that he receives a respite, albeit short, from his arduous task. It is also in those moments that he is very much aware of that very task, yet he still moves towards it.

 

For Camus, being conscious of your own absurd condition helps you to contemplate about it and thus aids in surmounting it at the end. It may be tragic as well but Camus believes that it is better to know the full extent of your actions rather than being disillusioned by false hope. Sisyphus for him symbolises that strength to be aware and be willing to be able to overcome the nothingness of the situation by your own thoughts. Because Sisyphus refused to be bowed down by the task and instead chose to revel in his routine, Camus believed him to be “superior to his fate… stronger than his rock.”

 

The myth had become a well-known metaphor for futility, for nothingness in our lives. Yet Camus subverts this very myth and lets us know that you can overcome the absurdity present in your lives, we can each surmount our own boulders and routines: “The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”

 

Camus does admit later that we are all at times overwhelmed by melancholy, grief and absurdity; when our boulders become too much to bear. Yet acknowledging that grief or the truth of the absurdity is the first step in acknowledging that there is meaning in life and that we can master the futility in our lives: “the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols.”

 

At the end of the essay, Camus imagines Sisyphus to be happy.  And why not? Because, we all have our burdens to bear, yet not succumbing to them is surely a means to be happy, a means to infuse meaning in our lives. Let us all, therefore, not be overcome by our routines or the mundaneness of life but rather know that we all, each one of us, can do something constructive about it! 

You can read the essay here

Check out this School of Life video to know more about Camus’s life and philosophies. 

Here is a great conceptualisation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus by TedEd

 

 

References:

 

 

Takeaways from Tata Literature Live-2019

TATA Literature Live!: The Mumbai LitFest, 2019 concluded its 10th edition on 17th November 2019 (Sunday). It took place across in 3 locations across the city: Title Waves bookstore and the St. Paul’s Media Institute, Prithvi Theatre, and NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts).

The literary festival began on 14th November and concluded with the presentation of Tata Literature Live! 2019 Awards on 17th evening at the NCPA, with the Lifetime Achievement Award being presented to Shanta Gokhale. TATA Literature Live! Book of The Year Award-Fiction was given to Raj Kamal Jha for his novel, The City and the Sea whereas TATA Literature Live! Book of The Year Award-Non Fiction was awarded to Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From by Tony Joseph.
This year’s literary event hosted numerous sessions that were grouped by subject matter from literary discussions to history, from current affairs to environment and much more. We present them here under three broad themes –

Comics and Graphic Novels

A History of Women and Gender in Comics

The talk was jointly presented by Aarthi Parthasarthy and Arun Prasad. Aarthi is the creator of the web comic, Royal Existentials and is also part of the South Asian feminist collective, Kadak that creates graphic stories. Arun is a comic book archivist who began his career as a journalist but now is involved in collecting Indian comics and has created an unparalleled comics archive.

This informative talk began with Aarthi presenting the history of comics by women in the Western world, beginning from how women used comics during the Suffrage Movement. She ended with chronicling of Indian comic artists, their work and contribution. Arun talked about how he collected comics from all over India and also spoke widely about the varied and rare comics in his vast collection.

Their research which looks at the history of comics in India is based on this archive. As part of the research, they are going through the archive to find connections between the content of the comics and socio-political context of the country. It was indeed a knowledgeable session that also highlighted the need to uncover female comic artists in India as well.

The Graphic Novelist as a Satirist

The speakers for this talk were Appupen, David McKean and Aarthi Parthasarthy. Each spoke about the need to satirise through their work and emphasised on the role of satire as a critique of the powers that be. It was truly a visual feast as the speakers gave a glimpse into their work as well.

Both the talks were held at Title Waves which was absolutely perfect as the bookshop boasts of having a good collection of comics, graphic novels and manga.

 

Language and Writing

Double Speak

Double Speak was a panel discussion chaired by Annie Zaidi and on the panel were Shanta Gokhale and Andrey Kurkov. The discussion revolved around writing in more than one language and what it feels like to be able to think, read, and produce literary works in many different languages. The session was quite lively as both the speakers regaled the audience with entertaining anecdotes about their work. Kurkov speaks six languages and he emphasised how the tone of his writing is dependent on the language he uses. Shanta Gokhale, on the other hand, spoke of how she received encouragement from Nissim Ezekiel, no less, to write in Marathi and to pursue prose rather than poetry! Several such engaging tidbits had the audience in splits while also throwing light on their writing bilingual and multi lingual works.

 

Miscellaneous

The Little Festival

For the first time, Tata Literature Live! introduced something special for the kids called The Little Festival. Its aim was to inculcate the habit of reading among children and included several workshops conducted on various interesting topics such as creating cartoons, writing poems, writing mysterious characters etc. The Little Festival also hosted retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for children.


You Cheeky Devil

Who says literature and reading has to be an individual pursuit alone? Banishing the notion of reading as being boring, the festival also had a literary quiz to bring out the literary nerd in all of us!

You Cheeky Devil was hosted by 94.3 RadioOne host, Hrishi K. The participants were an eclectic mix: famed Sanskrit scholar, Arshia Sattar; the quirky Historian, Manu S. Pillai; Journalist, Peter Griffin and Senior Commissioning Editor at Penguin Random House India, Manasi Subramaniam. The four participants fought each other over literary quotes, literary dumb charades and even a bout of Pictionary!

 

We also attended this year’s Bangalore Literature Festival. Take a look here – BLF2019. If you want to jump to specific sessions, we have picked 3 for you to start- 

Wanjiru Koinange from Kenya, on her book The Havoc of Choice‘ .
Prasanna on his book Moola Ramayana.
Lisa Ray talks about her literary journey in Close to the Bone.

 

 

Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel-Amruta Patil

Junoon was established in Mumbai in 2012 by Sameera Iyengar and Sanjna Kapoor in order to celebrate the arts, its diversity, and to bring to the fore the artists associated with various artistic projects and engagements. 

 

While Junoon conducts a plethora of activities under its umbrella, it also strives toward greater engagement with the people. Mumbai Local is one such initiative that brings together artists and scientists three times a month at three different venues to deliver informative talks about their work. Their sessions are also video recorded and uploaded online. So in case you miss them, you are sure to catch them online. 

 

Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel by Amruta Patil was one of the sessions for November conducted on 10th November, 2019 at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai as part of the Mumbai Local series, initiated by Junoon. Amruta Patil’s talk centred on themes underlining her works, her graphic novels and speaking about her latest work, Aranyaka, which was created in collaboration with Devdutt Pattanaik. 

 

Her presentation was divided into Six Layers as she called them. Through each layer, she explored personal and thematic aspects of her work which provided greater insights into what went into the making of her graphic novels. It was quite eye opening for fans of her work and would have definitely compelled others in the audience to read her works. 

 

Before going into the details of the talk, let us look at her books to get a better sense of her work. Her first graphic novel was Kari which chronicled the life of the eponymous heroine and delved into her relationship with Ruth and her city, Mumbai; though the city is not referred by its name.

 

After this initial book, she turned her attention to mythology and retelling stories. Her second graphic novel, Adi Parva: Churning of the Ocean, is a beautiful retelling of the Mahabharata. Her third book, Sauptik: Blood and Flowers is a sequel to Adi Parva. On the other hand, her latest book, Aranyaka, is a tribute to the Indian forests and Indian rishikas or female hermits. 

 

She began her talk with her first layer, describing the form of graphic novels and calling the medium itself queer. Her definition of this medium is an attempt to address the debate between highbrow and lowbrow literature. Graphic novels are forever stuck somewhere in between the categories of comics and literature. Hence, making the medium itself queer.

 

Her second layer spoke of the use of “Outlier Sutradhars” in her books as a means to “fill the missing gaps in who gets to tell the story.” In the first graphic novel, Kari, the protagonist, Kari, is an outlier in all senses because she is dreamy, hare brained and a lesbian. Her other graphic novels similarly engage with outlier narrators or sutradhars. The only difference is that they are mythic outlier narrators. This brings to focus the need to retell stories and interrogate ideas of who narrates the stories. It is also a part of the very contemporary interest among literary and other scholars to engage with different strands of Indian mythology. Her latter works are similarly involved in such a pursuit. Patil explained how her refashioning of stories not only involved choosing alternate sutradhars but also changing visual representations of characters commonly seen in Indian comics. Through this, she challenges the norms of our imagination and visuality that reflect our deeply embedded stereotypes and prejudices as well. For example, the dichotomy of fair and dark skin is ever present in our comics, advertisements, and movies. Dark skin is equated with evil and fair with goodness. She challenged such representation in her work. She gave the example of the representation of Hidimba in her work and how it was markedly different from how Hidimba has usually been portrayed in comics.

 

Her third layer focused on Prakriti or nature, stating the need to be in sync with the world around you and not to look at nature as something apart, as something to be experienced somewhere far away on a trek in the middle of the Himalayas. She detailed how all of her characters are deeply aware of the surrounding they belong to. She gave an example of Kari who documents the city through her senses and is deeply perceptive of it. 

 

Her fourth layer was a beautiful personal anecdote about how Patil has been bereft of any patronage and lineage in the arts and since there are very few people in India creating graphic novels, there is no literary or artistic heritage that you can look up to or pay tribute to. Thus, she went on her own journey in search of masterpieces and works she could connect and relate with. Through her presentation visuals, she showed the audience examples of how varied her artistic inspiration and tributes have been in her works from Frieda Kahlo to Nicholas Roerich to Indian miniature painting. 

 

Layers five and six described how her characters and artworks merged seamlessly with the world or ecosystem around them in her novels. She draws her visuals in such a way that the characters assert their connection with the ecosystem they are intrinsically part of. 

 

She also spoke at length about other artistic techniques in the talk such as the icon of the prominent elongated eyes (much like the ones painted on Buddhist stupas) used frequently in her novels. Through the emphasis on the eyes, she tries to focus on the idea of “darshan” or really “seeing” someone in totality. 

 

The talk was accompanied by stunning visuals from her graphic novels and their rough drafts, peppered with personal anecdotes and tidbits about the effort that goes into the making of these graphic narratives. Layers Upon Layers: The Art of the Graphic Novel was indeed a well layered session, much like a “baklava”1.

 

Footnote:

  1. https://www.bdlmuseum.org/explore/performances.html

References:

 

 

8 Books to Read When You are Feeling Low

Diwali 2019 is well and truly done now. Post festive blues are bound to set in. In a world where even the tiniest thing we do winds its way online that creates an online image, comparing ourselves to other people’s lives on social media platforms becomes second nature to all of us. Studies have shown a correlation between anxiety, self esteem, and social media.

 

As a whole, mental health issues are not very often talked about in India. Depression is often simply shrugged off as a mood and not recognized as a prolonged state of mind that needs to be addressed. There are many ways in which anxiety and issues associated with depression can manifest themselves. Anxieties over festivities or self image issues due to long social media exposure are only two examples.

Seeking help should not be considered a taboo or looked down upon. One more way to feel better is to engage yourself in reading relevant books; books that can motivate you and help you tackle your situation. The Seer presents a list of eight such meaningful books that can help you get through the worst of times.

 

 

The Hen who Dreamed She could Fly by Sun Mi-Hang

 

That’s all there is to it. We look different, so we don’t understand each other’s inner thoughts, but we cherish each other in our own way. I respect you.


This short South Korean novella possesses a beautiful fable like quality and narrates the gutsy story of a hen, Sprout, who refuses to do what she is forced to do – lay eggs for humans – and dares to set her own path. For once, she wants to be able to hatch the egg and not let it be snatched away. She decides to break free from her coop and face the world which is full of uncertainty. The novella cum fable deals with several relevant abstract issues of our times with the utmost simplicity. One important theme of the story is the need to be comfortable with your own identity and not try to fit in constantly with the majority. This is an important lesson in our world of idealized social media presence that we may or may not live up to. Read the first 20 pages of the book here. You can also read a short interview of the author here.

 

 

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

 

The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.


This bestseller memoir proffers heartwarming life lessons through a true narrative of Mitch’s own interactions with his college professor Morrie Schwartz, who is now suffering from ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mitch gets a second chance to meet his professor who shares with him words of advice and thought provoking wisdom. Read excerpts here or listen to audio samples here.

 

 

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.


In 1903, when a 19 year old military cadet, Frank Kappus, asked Rilke for advice on his poems, it created a correspondence between the two, resulting in ten letters being written by Rilke where he gives honest advice on creativity and work of arts. This is a great series to read if you are facing a mental block or harboring any doubts toward your creative work. This series has some of the best advice on being creative and a range of other topics such as loneliness, love, and the role of criticism in art. You can read more about the book here. Also, you can find all the 10 letters online here.

 

 

What Makes you Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

 

Most of the time we are trying to make the good things last, or we are thinking about replacing them with something even better in the future, or we are sunk in the past, reminiscing about happier times. Ironically, we never truly appreciated the experience for which we are nostalgic because we were too busy clinging to our hopes and fears at the time.


Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is a well known Buddhist practitioner from Bhutan who has devoted his life to making Buddhism more suited to today’s modern world. He always has refreshing and new takes on how to follow Buddhist practices which is what this book is essentially about. It covers many well known facts about Buddhist principles (one common assumption or myth being that Buddhists should not eat meat) and challenges them with his signature witty and straightforward style. You may not be a Buddhist but this book will be an eye opener and one that will help you examine your own religious beliefs. Get a glimpse into his views by reading his essay here.

 

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

 

Here is why I will be a good person. Because I listen. I cannot speak so I listen very well. I never interrupt, I never deflect the course of the conversation with a comment of my own.

…I beg of you, pretend you are a dog like me and LISTEN to other people rather than steal their stories.


This one is a definite tearjerker that is sure to make you fall in love with dogs (if you weren’t already).  The narrator is the dog, Enzo, who tells us about his life from the time he was a pup to his adoption by Denny, a rising race car driver. The manner, in which he narrates his story, lets us know that Enzo is an old dog. He wishes to die but believes after hearing it on a NatGeo program that dogs can be reincarnated as humans, which is what he wants once he passes away. Read the author’s interview here.

 

 

Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

 

Holding anger is a poison…It eats you from inside…We think that by hating someone we hurt them…But hatred is a curved blade…and the harm we do to others…we also do to ourselves.


Another Mitch Albom title finds its way here. This novel is a little different from Tuesdays with Morrie but equally packed with profound observations that will linger on long after you have finished reading it. When Eddie’s 83rd birthday joyride goes awry and he dies, he finds himself in heaven meeting five people who have had a long lasting impact on his life and thoughts. This inspirational and poignant story will make you appreciate the important people in your life who stick by your side and are always there for you. Read an excerpt here.

 

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

 

All grown-ups were once children… but only few of them remember it.


The Little Prince is a timeless and eternal gem of a book. Originally written in French, this novella has been translated into several languages. Thus, we must never judge a book by its size! It may be small but like The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, it describes numerous complex, intense ideas and thoughts with utter simplicity. It is told through the eyes of the pilot narrator who has crashed in the middle of Sahara and who meets a strange little boy, called as ‘the little prince.’ This young boy or prince gives the narrator ample of straightforward and childlike ideas which are more believable than the strict, realistic world of adults. You can read the novel here.

 

 

The Restful Mind by Gyalwa Dokhampa

 

If you can let things come and go without being ruffled you will soon begin to ease a restless mind.


Written by the great saint or rimpoche from Bhutan, The Restful Mind is a succinct guide to a very modern problem of lack of concentration and a restless mind. The book provides easy to apply techniques of meditation and other habits in order to counter this 21st century problem and helps one attain a restful mind. The book is easy to read, comprehensive and very practical.  You can read it online here.

 

Hope this list brings in some good cheer and hope into all your lives! Let us know in the comments sections other books that have helped you go through tough times!

 

 

Disclaimer:
This article in no way seeks to promote these books as the ONLY solution to mental health issues. It is merely trying to get together a few titles that can boost one’s positivity.

 

References:
https://www.asianage.com/life/more-features/080919/beat-the-festive-blues.html
https://newyorkbehavioralhealth.com/social-media-use-and-self-esteem
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22165917
https://www.garthstein.com/works/the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain/

A-Country-Without-a-Post-Office Book Cover

Book Review – Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country without a Post Office

Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland. 

The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”

Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”

 

Kashmir Vale
Michael Petersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture, and the politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home.

 

Some remarkable poems that portray this continuum and make the reader engage with Kashmir rather than dismissing it as a mere site of never ending conflict include the beautiful, A History of Paisley that uses the motif of the ubiquitous paisley (often seen embroidered or printed on various fabrics), A Footnote to History, At the Museum that takes a hard factual look at the emblem of our civilization, The Dancing Girl bronze statue from Harappa or the sweeping, I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 42 to Srinagar which in careful couplets and tercets marks the violent culmination of a 1000 year old civilisation. The opening prose poem, The Blessed Word: A Prologue, itself establishes this continuum and the mode of longing by evoking powerful imagery of Srinagar under siege and by invoking the different names the state has had in its past. In doing so, the poet seems to be crying out for the ravaged state and its people. 

 

Kashmiri_people_in_Dale_Lake_kashmir
Dashrathgoyal85 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Rich and decadent metaphors that suffuse his poems such as the Kashmir rose, the famed saffron spice , the paradise like Mughal gardens, the majestic mountain peaks, the stately chinar tree or the floating gardens of the Dal Lake lie uneasily in stark contrast to the conflicted reality of the state. 

A case in point is the pertinent poem, The Floating Post Office. It portrays, in Ali’s typical style of invoking quaintness, a post boat delivering letters on the sly through a network of waterways when the roads are shut.

 

This poem brings to attention the title of the collection itself and how this poem and the title highlight that communication is a lifeline for “the city from where no news can come.” The titular poem also depicts letters unanswered, letters unsent en masse because communication has been blocked. 

Now, think long and deeply about the ramifications of all forms of communication being cut off in today’s highly connected, globalised world. Think then about what happens in Kashmir, where when the rest of the world enjoys high speed internet and India basks in its Jio revolution, an entire state becomes metaphorically a country without a post office. 

Cats and a girl

Five Cat Books from Japanese Literature

Japan loves its cats. They feature in legends and folklore. There are even shrines dedicated to them such as Nekonomiya (Shrine of the Cat) in Yamagata Prefecture or the Nekojinja (Cat Shrine) on the island of Tashirojima in the Miyagi Prefecture. And of course the ubiquitous maneki neko (the beckoning cat) beckons through most shops and restaurants. Unsurprisingly, Japanese literature also boasts of several books that centre on cats or have cats as prominent characters.

 

Japanese woman and cat - Yoshitoshi
Yoshitoshi [CC0] – Japanese woman and cat

 

Let’s take a look at these 5 Japanese novels that are about cats:

 

I am a Cat

This is a classic! Written by Natsume Soseki in 1905-1906, I am a Cat is a satirical work set during the Meiji Era and narrated from the perspective of a cat that belongs to a teacher. This cat spares no one in its critique of the elite and academic circles of the time. Soseki brings out the faults in the society’s actions, particularly the Western traditions that were blindly adopted, through the eyes of a supercilious cat. If you know about certain behavioral traits that have come to typify cats, you should thank this novel!

Cats
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

 

Kafka on the Shore:

Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most globally renowned and famous author. His love for cats is no secret. In a beautiful memoir like essay published recently on The New Yorker, Murakami recollects, among several other things about his father, his sensitivity to a cat that they had just abandoned. Murakami’s fictional works also portray unique cat characters. Kafka on the Shore is a case in point. One of the plot lines in the story is about an old man, Nagata, who can miraculously speak to cats and is the go-to person to find missing cats. He is on a search for one such cat, Goma, when he stumbles across a sinister person who absolutely detests cats.

 

The Cat Witch Art - Okabe
Okabe – The Cat Witch, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Okabe, c. 1844.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles:

Written by Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a feel good book. It is one of those books that are riding high on the recent and growing interest in Japanese translated works that are not by Murakami and has a wide readership outside of Japan. The story is a rambling one, telling a touching tale of a Japanese man, Satoru, and how he came across a stray cat, Nana. Not being able to take care of it, they both go on a road trip across Japan to find a suitable owner for it. Told mostly from the point of view of Nana, the novel is a touching and emotional tribute to the bond between humans and their feline loves.

 

Cat Art by Utagawa Sadakage
Utagawa Sadakage; Utagawa Sadakage; Rôgetsuan Umekage; Shakuyakutei died 1845 [Public domain]

The Guest Cat:

Similar to The Travelling Cat Chronicles, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is also a popular choice in the translated section and a beautiful tale of a cat, Chibi, who quietly becomes a visiting member in a couple’s new home. The novel has an understated tone that takes a sweeping yet subtle view of Japan’s growth and change and its beautiful seasons along with the couple’s own relationship with Chibi.

 

Japanese Woman Writing Welcome
Nishikawa Sukenobu [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

If Cats Disappeared from the World:

This is a rather philosophical book that features a devil who is willing to give to strike a bargain (rather devilish, don’t you think?) with the protagonist, who is diagnosed with brain tumour: he can extend his life by a day each, if he allows the devil to remove a particular thing from this world, forever. This Faustian story by Genki Kawamura is replete with musings about loss and life.

 

Gotokuji_Temple
Laika ac from UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

 

Postscript: If five books are not enough to whet your appetite for cat books, we have a few more titles up our sleeve such as The Wind up Bird Chronicle by Murakami again where the cat goes missing and the owner goes on a journey to search for it; Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu is a humourous memoir manga from the horror specialist himself who, lo behold, is scared of cats himself. The manga is about how he and his wife adopt two cats and how he slowly grows to love them. Lastly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella, A Cat, A Man, and Two Women centres on the cat, Lily, who is used as a tool for manipulation by the human beings she is attached to.

References:

 

Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head

Lunatic in My Head is one of a kind story written by Anjum Hasan. It is set in Shillong of the 1990s. The novel is an interwoven story of three main characters: an English college lecturer, Firdaus Ansari; an IAS aspirant Aman Moondy, and an eight year old, Sophie Das.

Firdaus is caught between her teaching and her wish to pursue an MPhil to safeguard her teaching post at the convent she teaches in. She is also caught between her colleagues’ personal affair dramas and her very unhelpful, lecherous potential supervisor, Thakur.

 

The novel begins with Firdaus on an April afternoon when “pine trees dripped slow tears,’ (a line that hooked me to the book immediately for its visuals) and as she walks down a street, the opening page itself gives a sweeping view of the multicultural composition of the city, from the Khasis, to Bengalis, to Goans, and to Firdaus herself, who is from Bihar but born and brought up in Shillong. Her sense of being rooted there in Shillong yet being seen as a dkhar, which is the Khasi word for non tribal or foreigner, is another of the conflicts she is entangled in.

 

Aman Moondy is studying for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams for the second time, having failed on his first attempt. His first love, however, is Pink Floyd. He and his friends, Ibomcha and Ribor, even formed a band, ProtoDreamers and played Pink Floyd’s covers for several small occasions. Aman lives and breathes music. He compares everything around him to music, including his infatuation for Concordella. He is also on the other hand, someone who dislikes the smallness of Shillong and wants to leave. This is also why he decided to give the IAS exam a shot or two. For him, it meant a window to the outside world.

 

When we first read about Sophie, she is sitting in class and wondering how the baby in her mother’s belly will come out. Sophie herself is a product of an intercultural marriage, her father, Mr. Das, being a Bengali whereas her mother a northerner. Sophie loves to read and is fascinated by her neighbour, Elsa Lyngdoh, and her house, which was the only place she was allowed to go by herself. She has strange conversations with Elsa and even stranger ones (and perhaps a touch too creepy) with her son, Jason as well. Elsa, an old Khasi woman, and an eight year old, Sophie, made for an odd couple whenever they went together for an excursion outside the house.

 

Interspersed through these main characters are stories of other eclectic characters too such as Aman’s friend, Ribor, whose brother is a thug or Mr. Das’ struggles to get a job; or Nivedita, Firdaus’ colleague, who is dealing with her husband having an affair; or the strict Mother Gertrude, the principal of the convent and the eccentric beauty parlour owner, Sharon, who is ‘a quarter-British, a quarter-Assamese of the tea planter variety and half-Khasi.’

The set of characters the novel explores itself portrays the ethnic composition of the city and one of the themes the story portrays is the tribal versus non tribal issue that still rages on. The spotlight on it is subtle, something that lurks behind seemingly routine things of life such as when a migrant, Sarak Singh, an aloo muri vendor, was threatened by three boys in leather jacket or when Sophie felt utterly ashamed of herself amidst a Khasi gathering with Elsa or even Aman who always feels the duality of belonging and not belonging.

 

Anjum Hasan gives no straightforward answers because there are none. The novel ends from where it began – Firdaus teaching Hemingway. The closing is not grandiose but an affirmation of change (even if unremarkable) and making peace (however tenuous) with your own sense of identity.

 

Although first published in 2007, Lunatic in my Head is still relevant to today’s India, as it is riddled by extremism and hatred for the other, for the outsider and where your identity is increasingly being attached to fixed, political categories, leaving no space for any fluidity and understanding of those who do not fit in into neat compartments.

 

A final literary tidbit: The title of the novel comes from Pink Floyd’s song, Brain Damage, which makes one wonder whether similar lunatics, having an identity crisis, run through all our heads as well!

Amrita Sher-Gil's Village-Scene-1938

Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard 

The Women’s Courtyard, by Khadija Mastur, translated into English from Urdu, by Daisy Rockwell, begins with the protagonist, Aliya, having a sleepless night at her Uncle’s place, recalling and pondering on how her life will be from now onwards. In the next few chapters, she recalls how she as a child, had shifted to a newer place that was bereft of any life, community or togetherness and how her previous home was filled with love, friends, and endless entertaining stories that her Khansaman Bua used to regale her with.

The book then jumps into the present and narrative speaks of the events that lead up to that point where Aliya is now restless and pondering over an uncertain future in her Uncle’s house.


Titled,
Aangan, in the original Urdu, the novel is set in pre-Independence India (somewhere in North India) and narrates how the Independence movement affects the men and women of the house. It is the women who are the main characters and the house or the courtyard (angan in Hindi/Urdu) is their stage.

The story is told from the perspective of Aliya, focusing also on other female members of the house such as Aliya’s mother, her elder sister, Tehmina, her friend Chammi and Kusum. The Independence movement takes place in the background for the women yet the male members’ intense involvement and particularly the rivalry of Jameel (Aliya’s cousin) and her Uncle rip the household. Jameel supports the Muslim League whereas his own father is a staunch Congress supporter. Their bitter rivalry tears them apart so much so that they do not speak to each other. Aliya’s own father’s involvement in the movement is what forces her and her mother to shift into her Uncle’s house which is where the novel begins.  (caution: one cannot simply base their assumptions about the Independence movement through a reading of this novel and dismiss the contribution of women to the movement).

The Women’s Courtyard does proffer a varying perspective on how deeply it affected women of the time and how it makes them adjust and compromise on every level as well. The novel is not a critique of the movement but rather of the patriarchy that is embedded in society and even in the movement. While it is important to fight for one’s country which the men in the Aliya’s family do, they themselves are caught between their roles of being breadwinners and freedom fighters which shows the pressures that they themselves faced from their family and society. On the other hand, the stage of the house in the novel and the Aangan makes the reader view a traditionally female occupied space and how their world is confined to that. While the men are out there fighting for freedom and having discussions about that in the drawing rooms, the women are never privy to that world. The female gaze does not trespass that territory even though it affects them in various other ways such as emotional and financial. Aliya is the only one who is shown reading and learning about the movement from her Uncle and his encouragement to read his books. The novel portrays several gender expectations imposed at that time which are applicable even today where women are not allowed to be part of certain decision making processes in several areas and cultures of the subcontinent.

 

Through her college, her reading and her exposure to her immediate world, Aliya, is the diplomatic yet empathetic voice in the story who is able to recognize the unfairness in the way in which society treats people, especially women. Her understanding and ability to interpret and reason make her absolutely logical with a touch of empathy for everyone around her. For example, her notions around love and marriage is shaped by how her friend, Kusum, was treated unfairly by gossip mongers for eloping and how Tehmina lost her senses because of falling in love. She is cautious herself about falling in love and stays away from something that she considers quite irrational. It is not merely the idea of love she detests but the manner in which it is ingrained into women. Thus she severely critiques this wrong notion of how women are expected to behave when in love which is quite relevant even today.

The Women’s Courtyard, is a thoroughly engaging read that unsparingly critiques all facets of patriarchy from Aliya’s mother’s entrenched beliefs regarding women and need for punishment for transgressive women or her aunt’s own pride in her Master’s degree and her condescending attitude toward one and all. It is a beautifully translated novel that captures the tense atmosphere both at Aliya’s home and outside. The one aspect that would have added to the novel’s charm would have been to include certain phrases and lines in the original Urdu, even if romanized.

Book Review – A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, who comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously into the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha with its own twist, or his being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that it is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

Firstly, the narrative is not a straightforward first person narrative that Mevlut narrates rather different point of views of various colourful characters are interspersed together, giving the reader multiple perspectives.

Curiously, the novel does begin by typically noting Mevlut’s birth but then it jumps right into the middle by narrating the story of Mevlut’s tense elopement. It immediately puts the reader into the thick of things. And then once that is done, Pamuk slows it down and brings you to the present, describing Mevlut’s daily round of selling boza and how he is now a historic curiosity from the past. Then, the narrative whizzes back to his childhood and where his journey to Istanbul all started!

A Strangeness in my Mind is as much about Mevlut as it is about Istanbul. Through Mevlut, we view the city, how it was to his childlike eyes, and how he views it later, when it has mushroomed further into the hills, as more and more people swarm the city. Through his rounds while selling his yoghurt and boza and later only boza, we see the different sections of the city, its past and how people from different nationalities and sects live there or used to live there, now taken over by others. Particularly, the reader sees the magic and menace of Istanbul at night when the ‘strangeness’ in Mevlut’s mind is heightened, allowing him to indulge in his musings and letting his thoughts ramble unbridled. Perhaps this is the reason why he does not give up this fast fading and hence, quaint profession, refusing to (yet at times being attracted to) partake in the wealth and business that his cousins, Suleyman and Korkut, were able to accumulate; but that which always eluded him. Yet, Mevlut is content, happy to live among his own thoughts, with his beautiful Rahiya, his daughters and his beloved city.

The tone of the novel is tinged with unmistakable nostalgia for the days gone by, for the brisk business yoghurt and boza sellers could sustain in the city before the dairy and raki companies gained foothold, and for the city’s beauty itself.

Yet the story is not melancholic or wistful in its nostalgia. The narrative never condemns the city’s growth but merely states it as things that are inevitable since most cities have chosen a very capitalistic, vertical and the suspicious “development” route for their growth.

A Strangeness in my Mind thus captures the ephemerality of the idea of Istanbul and of human stability. The ending itself is a beautiful gift that Mevlut bestows onto the city that has nurtured him.

That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was told through a female perspective, how drastically different would it be? For one, the reader would not be able to see Istanbul’s public side and definitely not its streets at night since Istanbul’s norms would not allow girls to be in the boza selling profession or go out at “odd” hours. Though Mevlut’s eyes provide a subaltern glimpse into the city, which is vastly different to the more elite narrative of one of Pamuk’s other novels, The Museum of Innocence, the story still speaks from a privileged male perspective. We do see a different side of the city but that is very much based on gender and profession; unique as that may be, it makes for an interesting and creative topic of discussion among fellow readers.