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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Boating On the River, With Lemonade and The Wind in the Willows!

In 1906, the charismatic 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace between Japan and Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. It is difficult to imagine that such a politician who was once a kingpin of global politics read, re-read and fell in love with a so-called “children’s” story about talking animals living by an English River. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest admirers of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. In 1908, while still in office, he wrote to Grahame how Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad had become his companions. He loved it so much that he convinced a publishing house to take on the book, whereas England’s initial response to this endearing book had been rather dismal.

From the mid-19th century to the 1920s, the concept of childhood and its portrayal in literature underwent a significant change. The socio-political milieu contributed. Labour laws were rectified, more children began to attend school, literacy improved, and reading material became cheaper to print. In such a time in history, corresponding to the Golden Age of Children’s Literature and the Edwardian Era in England (1901-1910), The Wind in the Willows was a landmark publication in the literary tradition of anthropomorphic animal characters. They compete with AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh universe to be the most famous human-like animals in literature. During this time, children’s fiction moved away from its instructional, pedagogic leanings. Narratives became about compassion, fun and frolic, domesticity, subtly expressed ideas of morality, and a romantic way of British living. For children, this is an adorable tale of four animals enjoying each other’s eccentric and warm company while exploring life as it passes them by, like the gleaming River around which space grows and blossoms.

For an adult in their 20s, what can The Wind in the Willows possibly signify? If one is to overcome the infantile nostalgia attached to Mole, Rat, Badger and Mr. Toad, what literary merit does this spectacular piece of animal fantasy contain within itself? As a child learning the art of finishing a book and understanding complex sentences, The Wind in the Willows was fantastical living at its best. It offered young minds the dual stimulation of thrill escape. As children, it makes us wonder, “Can animals talk?”, “Where is the hidden world where they have picnics with sardines and beer?” and “How do animals drive cars, paddle boats and dispense justice?” As children, books such as The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book imbue animals with charm and authority. So, when kids notice a rabbit lounging lazily in a pet store, there’s a chance that in the parallel reality of children, that hare is wearing a waistcoat.

Last week, I had the privilege (yes, I believe that is the term) to read the unabridged version of The Wind in the Willows for this article, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. Before, I had only read the Ladybird Classics version. Remember their graceful illustrations, soft fonts and smooth pages? The complete version is exactly 200 pages. It is a story of four friends; their species’ names becoming the names of their characters: Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad.

They live around a River, which is the centre of their lives and the focus of the surrounding landscape. Each is different from the other; their personalities, preferences, backgrounds, role in the group and yes, even financial standing! It is incredible how Grahame has built a world of animals where a Rat and a Mole sit by the fire and discuss how the latter gathered the funds to purchase his burrow. When the book is adapted for children, such aspects are left out because they are not too relevant. However, when you read it as an adult, these little details about wealth, inheritance, and Animal Etiquette add such a loveable layer of realism to the narrative.

A fascinating feature that I enjoyed reading was Grahame’s conversion of the geographical setting into full-scale characters. In the book, the English countryside is more than just a descriptive element, its purpose goes beyond beautification. Grahame injects each location with a distinct personality, mirroring its owner. The primary destinations are the River, The Wild Woods, Toad’s Hall, Rat’s Home, Mole’s Home and Badger’s Underground Burrow. While Toad Hall is large and showy, Badger has a hidden, functional, and practical burrow reflecting his paternal and reserved personality. One of the most unforgettable parts is The Wild Wood, where Mole loses his way in the fabled woods that Rat had forbidden him from entering alone. Grahame conveys the terror of the space through the gleaming eyes of unknown animals, the rustle of trees and the pitter-patter of footsteps. We don’t know who is following Mole or what those eyes are that shine at him through the dark stillness of a winter night. It is the sharp acoustic quality of the words that does the trick. It is a reminder of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky, where we never get a perfect visual image, but its idea is terrifying enough. The way Grahame expresses the terror hidden in The Wild Wood is both frightening and amazing. 

Grahame’s writing echoes his love for the countryside. He exhibits a clear bias towards nature and living in a rustic setting than in industrial cities. The detailed, idyllic descriptions of the River, meadows, woods, and every little berry and bush convey the soothing rural atmosphere. The possibilities of thrills and fun are much more in a pastoral setting. So, we have charming anecdotes of boat rides, walks, carol singers, picnics and road trips. Grahame’s disdain towards the uglier side of industrialisation is evident in how he writes about motor cars, a common motif for trouble and the source of unfortunate happenings in the story.

Two recurrent cultural symbols are food and home. Both are interconnected and important to the narrative, especially home. While adventure is important, Grahame believes that there is always unbound joy returning to the place you belong. The essential contribution of an animal/person’s home to their happiness is highlighted, connecting it to virtues like domesticity. Food is a part of that setup. So, the author spends a lot of time laying out an elaborate table for his animals and readers. Quintessential English treats function both as a connecting device and a symbol of stability after a distressing episode. Beer, lemonade, sardine, sandwiches, ham, cold tongue, gherkins and French Rolls are passed around to initiate friendship. In fact, I came across a blog by a lady who created an entire picnic menu inspired by the Rat and Mole’s picnic!

Today, I can see why it is such a popular book amongst children. It is a very different book. It has no human characters but a variety of animals that behave exactly like them. Moreover, they are not regular domestic animals like kittens, puppies or farm animals you find in nursery rhymes or television shows. Every aspect of the book is novel. For parents, Grahame’s inclination towards teaching children etiquettes, camaraderie, and acceptance is a benefit. Something that comes up repeatedly is Animal Etiquette, which talks about things like the correct time to visit someone or how to judge the situation before asking a favour. We are taught to be accepting of differences and make one another feel included. Badger’s character, who appears to be stern and anti-social, is a loveable paternal figure who is always around to mentor and help. It’s an invaluable lesson; do not judge someone at the first go.

Compared to a child’s imagination, The Wind in the Willows offers something entirely different for adult readers. It represents a charmed, simple life sprinkled with adventures, food, friends and coming back to cosy fireplaces and well-made beds for a good night’s sleep. It is a book you can read on days when the commute is too noisy, the traffic unbearable, and monotony raises its ugly head. The language has an elegant, transportive quality that practically airlifts one to the countryside. Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad’s realm is devoid of things that weigh us down; competition, complexes, and even romantic challenges. It is interesting to note how all the characters are bachelors, living a very standalone life with only their dearest friends!

If you are looking for comfort, The Wind in the Willows is a reliable choice. Remember when Mary Poppins, Michael and Jane jumped into Burt’s paintings and enjoyed a day in the country? The Wind in the Willows is its literary equivalent! 

Take a trip down the River. Smell the sandwiches and lemonade.

The Unreliable Narrator: Exploring Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

How many voices can an author create? How evolved can craft be that there comes the point when the creator ceases to exist, and all that is left is the immersed reader, intruding in another world? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, the man who, for me, has taken first-person narration and a compromised narrative to the point of no return. Choose a character, and he will get into its skin like an invisible cellular organism with no home of its own. He will do so in so fantastic a way that it leaves you questioning the truth, like speaking to someone you aren’t too sure about. After he or she departs, you think, “What are they hiding? Am I in the dark?” 

An Artist of the Floating World is a masterpiece that glides in out and of many dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of generations separated by a massive ideological gulf. On the other, it is about an older man attempting to come to terms with his mistaken philosophies. It is also a historical fiction set in the Japan of limbos; Japan, which has suffered because of its misplaced imperialism, been shattered by bombings and is now critical of the past and every person representing it. At the heart of it is an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. Once an acclaimed painter, Ono is our guide through post-World War II Japan and its sociopolitical and emotional trauma; felt in extremities like the once-vibrant pleasure districts destroyed by bombings and kids who loved Popeye and Godzilla.

The book is a contemplative journey, spread across four time frames: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950. We are introduced to a retired artist of great acclaim, Masuji Ono. Ono lives with his youngest daughter Noriko, and his attempts to secure a good match for her is a central theme. In the past, Noriko’s engagement had been called off. While Ono likes to believe that his family was more powerful than the boy’s, Noriko’s often belligerent behaviour suggests the unsuccessful engagement has more to do with Ono’s past. His older daughter Setsuko asks Ono to meet his acquaintances and rectify his errors should Noriko’s prospects inquire about the family’s history. This simple task is the starting point of his recollections, opening twisted alleys of memory.

We seek to understand concepts like Ono’s rise as an artist, his relationship with his students and peers, the moral chasm that exists between him, his sons-in-law and his grandson, and the politicisation of art. I have reasons to say that we seek to understand Ono’s life – the untrustworthy memory and what he is telling us. Ono’s narration is not dependable, and there is not a second perspective to corroborate what he is saying. This is displayed continually; Ono never completes an anecdote in one go, one recollection invariably gives rise to another or how he thinks he knows someone only for us to find that the person has no memory of him. What Ono thinks of himself does not resonate with people in that world. For his disillusioned son-in-law, Ono is one of the many traitors who led the country awry with grand plans of Japanese Imperialism that caused only pain and loss. Ono himself lost his son to the Manchurian War and his wife to a freak raid. The reader might assume these topics to be of particular importance to him. Still, Ono avoids speaking about any issue that exposes his emotional vulnerability and delves too much into his past affairs. Mentions of these deaths come and go, as little remarks stuffed into the larger scheme.  

Why our narrator is unreliable is a debatable topic. At first go, it can be age. After all, Ono is well-retired with two daughters and grandchildren. However, the irregularity in information can be attributed much more to more unpleasant circumstances than memory failing. As the novel progresses, Ono is revealed to have been a man of controversial associations. During World War II, Japan was an Allied Power alongside Germany and Italy. A considerable section of the population was pro-War, viewing any opposition to the war effort with great scepticism. Ono, a pro-government imperialist, broke away from his master and drawings of the floating world (a phrase used to describe Japan’s pleasure districts) to begin painting subjects that depicted military might. At the beginning of the war, he becomes a part of a state committee clamping down on unpatriotic art. Ono reports Karudo, once his protégé. As a result, Karudo’s paintings are burnt, and the police harass him. Ono tells us that he tried to step in and convince the authority to go easy on Karudo. However, whether it is the truth or just another way to hide his betrayal and cruelty, we don’t know.

The ideological tussle between Ono and his family members is an essential thread in the novel. To some extent, Ono realises that he was vastly mistaken during the war and the younger generation, like daughters and his son-in-law’s look at him with a degree of suspicion and contempt. The latter want men like Ono to take accountability for steering Japan on the wrong path. They now live in a post-war society where America is the centre of culture and politics. This is not a phenomenon that has gone down well with Ono, who would rather have his grandson enjoy samurais than behave like a cowboy. Although he claims to be unaware of his importance in society, we understand that Ono likes to think of himself as someone who has been quite influential, a part of the crème of the art world. Towards the end, when Setsuko (his older daughter) consoles him that his pro-militancy paintings weren’t influential enough to have caused massive harm, it is a very hurtful thought for him.

Like Ishiguro’s celebrated The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful lesson in restraint. The former is the story of an English butler whose commitment to service caused such emotional limitation that he could not pursue the woman he loved. In the latter, we have an ageing man whose convictions are failing him as he grapples with guilt and ethical tussles. War is an important occurrence in both, and more than war, the sides one chooses. In The Remains of the Day, the protagonist reflects on how the reputed British manorial lord he served sided with Nazi Germany because he did not know better. In such scenarios, as both age and regret become strong, exuberant or verbose writing would not be relatable. Ishiguro’s writing is fluid, hard-hitting, but not raw. His style is refined, elegant prose at its best, entirely moulded according to the narrator’s realities.  

An Artist of the Floating World was a delightful, very enlightening experience about a unique world that conventional reading may not expose one to. Despite being a history student, I was surprised at the nuance of ideology and radicalisation in post-War Japan that the author highlighted so brilliantly. The writing flows; through former pleasure districts, reception rooms in Japanese homes, the villas of master painters and pubs where artists gathered with pupils. Each of these spaces stands for a different ideology and a different time in Ono’s life. Ishiguro’s most outstanding merit is shaping his style in a way that changes with age. A young Ono is much more aggressive, while Ono as a grandfather is loving and almost endearing. The tonality changes beautifully, and this requires immense, almost God-gifted skill.

Ishiguro gifts his readers a story that is almost the truth but has enough cracks for falsities to creep in.

7 Delightful Reads to Help You Overcome a Reader’s Block!

Sometimes, it is not easy to be a reader. We are expected to read all the time, and somewhere down the line, it creates a certain pressure to finish a certain number of books every year. While a utopia for a reader will be a corner overlooking the mountains and Ruskin Bond’s romanticism in the air, real-life is more complex and a lot more demanding. The space that childhood, school, and college allowed an individual to pursue reading contracts as one enters the hurried world.

There are days when you cannot read beyond two pages. There are days when you think you will read on your way to work, but you doze off in the cab. Then comes the worst predicament; prolonged periods of poor concentration. You’re stuck on one page. Finding another book might make things better, but unfortunately, it is the same struggle. Even if you do get to Page 20, you cannot recollect much. People do not talk about it enough, but a Reader’s Block is as real as a Writers Block. It is a phenomenon where you cannot finish a book or retain much of what you have read, no matter how much you try.

Why it happens is an elusive question. Reader’s Block is a frequent struggle for children and adults with ADD. It is also a side-effect faced by students of literature who have done so much reading for coursework that the idea of reading for pleasure becomes challenging. It may arise because you have not been experimenting with content. Alternatively, it can be the outcome of personal distress occupying your mind and leaving you with little time to think about anything else. This is real. This is fine.

What is the best way to get back into the groove of enjoying stories? At the core of the process is taking it easy and finding something exciting and new you can appreciate without feeling burdened. So, here’s a little list of lovely books that may help you to return to reading, gradually nourish the reader in you before you jump back into full force and finish Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

While several websites will list this as a children’s book, I vehemently oppose simplifying this masterpiece. While the exterior packaging is like a fairy tale, the book is beautifully written to address censorship and storytellers’ plight (especially relevant after the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s issued by Ayatollah Khomeini). Even if one does not delve much into symbolism, there is no way you won’t enjoy the delightful wordplay and puns that are liberally sprinkled on the story. Almost every name is related to silence or speech. So, you’ll find a Princess Batcheet, and the antagonist’s army is called Chupwalas. The story flows like fine wine, and you will be hooked before you know it, flying across the Sea of Stories.

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

I’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and it is spectacular. However, to say that Tales from Firozsha Baag is any less enjoyable is incorrect. Of course, the former is a more diverse picture of India, spanning a considerable period and involving characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. On the other hand, Tales of Firozsha Baag is a collection of eleven short stories about the residents of a Parsi-dominated complex in Bombay. The stories are endearing and beautifully written. Their exceptional quality is Mistry’s manner of conveying the setting’s spatial characteristics. It is so detailed that you feel you are an intruder. Residents grapple with grief, sexuality, superiority and the happiness of living life on their terms. You will be pulled into the endearing whirlwind before you know it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a recent obsession, and I recommend this brilliant author for his elegant writing. In 1989, The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and was later adopted as a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Ishiguro’s writing style is peaceful. Nonetheless, it is incredible how he conveys emotional and political disruption through peace. The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip across the countryside and ponders over his life. I haven’t come across an author who can mould the narrative to the extent that you forget the author and begin to think of the book as a diary. It is a heartwrenching story, but one that flows very easily.

Chowringhee by Shankar

Shankar’s Chowringhee is a tale of love and loss as it unfolds in Shahjahan, a fictional hotel in the 1950s attracting Calcutta’s crème. An excellent translation has been done by Arunava Sinha, who perfectly captures the essence. Chowringhee is often overshadowed by Shankar’s two other books, which were made into films by Satyajit Ray. However, I recommend Chownrighee because of its simplicity and the author’s ability to fuse many stories into one exciting book. This is a skill somewhat absent in today’s storytellers who have come to enjoy multiple loose ends. Although Chowringhee was published in 1962, it is a delightful story whose emotions and themes transcend time. In 2019, Srijit Mukherjee adapted the book into a film, and that is best avoided. Read the book. It is unpretentious and unique.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliable favourite. Not only is it one of her most thrilling works, but it is the setting of the novel that truly sets it apart. Hercule Poirot is aboard the luxury Orient Express which gets stuck in a snowbank. A murder happens, and the killer is amongst the passengers as the thick snow made it impossible for anyone to escape. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the narrative as the train is stuck in an icy landscape with a killer on the loose. The fact that there is nowhere to go and nothing can be done makes Murder on the Orient Express a compelling read. It is also an interesting commentary about morality; when is murder justified? The book will keep you on your edge even after you know what has transpired.

Travelogues by Ruskin Bond

I have been told that I am biased towards Ruskin Bond, but I have hardly seen a reader who does not adore Rusty. Alongside his short stories and novellas, I would heartily recommend his travel writing like A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Hop On, All Roads Lead to Ganga, Roads to Mussoorie and Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas. I cannot pinpoint why his writing is so unique. Maybe it is the old-charm of his humour, the inherent sense of adventure and the endearing mischief in his stories. 

Make time for these jewels, and you’ll find the mountain air of Dehra wafting into your room as the Himalayan rain pitter-patters on your city windowsill.If there is something about reading that is important to remember is that reading cannot be forced. Some of us enjoy books while others have entirely different pursuits. Even as children, some of us take to reading while others are not too keen on books. But if literature is your escape, then it is only sensible that you give yourself the time and space to appreciate it. Reading for pleasure must be a meaningful pursuit that makes you content. It is about the joy of stepping into another world and finding its secrets. It is not about how many books you finish in a month as much as it is about enjoying what you read. Take your time and savour the story. After all, reading is about happiness.

Uncomfortable Truths of a Cloud-Capped Star in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara

Of late, a particular word is being used so often that perhaps out of discomfort, most people like to ignore its existence entirely. The term is privilege. Perhaps because of the intense negative connotations attached to it, we, as the more advantaged members of the society, would not like to agree that we possess any of it in the first place. Recently, Tillotama Shome, after the success of her phenomenal film Sir, Is Love Enough? where she portrayed a domestic help, spoke about this exact phenomenon. She says that she has made a career out of playing characters who are the poorest of the poor, while in real life, she comes from a position of privilege and entitlement. She belonged to a middle-class family and has pursued an education in excellent institutions across the globe. She admits to the journey being difficult. However, one must not confuse that with being disadvantaged. The fact that I am sitting and typing this article on my state-of-the-art laptop is nothing but a privilege. Is the process difficult? Yes, most things are. However, to deny that we relish ownership is criminal.

A film that will make you realise the same to the point of it being downright uncomfortable and acutely sensitive is Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). I remember watching it for the first time in my Film Studies class, and in the end, when the lights came on, our professor, who was an ex-army man, had burst into tears and asked for a 10-minute break to compose himself. The film is world-famous on more than one account. It is noted for its radical political statement and feminine narrative. Still, cinematically it is a work of art because of the sound design, mise-en-scene, and framing of shots that mirror the character’s psyche and the tumult of post-Partition identities. Throughout his films, Ghatak’s primary complaint remained the brutal division of Bengal that caused disenfranchisement of unimaginable magnitude.

Based on a story written by Shaktipada Rajguru, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a part of Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy. The remaining two films are Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. Like Mani Ratnam’s Terror Trilogy (Dil Se, Roja and Bombay), the three films are connected by a singular thread of post-Partition trauma and the frantic scramble for individualities and income by families caught in a limbo; neither here, nor there, or anywhere. Meghe Dhaka Tara particularly stands out of the larger corpus of Partition-centric cinema because of the privilege it accrues to the experience of female refugees and working-class members. It exposes the dark underbelly of “empowerment”; women forced to abandon personal development for the betterment of their families. Such is the devouring of her existence: they become unidimensional grains of sand, thrown about by winds of oppression and utter lack of support from community members.

Meghe Dhaka Tara follows Nita (Supriya Chaudhury), an extraordinarily hardworking and profoundly caring woman who struggles to alleviate her family from crippling poverty. She is the sole breadwinner in a family of six, where each member is dependent on her. Her father is a helpless schoolteacher. Her mother, embittered by scarcity, always scolds her for not earning enough. For her, Nita is wage-earner first and woman second. So terrified is she of losing control over Nita’s income that she even connives to have Nita’s love interest marry her youngest, more beautiful daughter. Nita has three siblings, each selfish in their cruel way. Her youngest sister Gita is only interested in pursuing a good life, and Nita’s meagre earnings are her way out. Montu, their brother, is a bright man who refuses to contribute financially. When he meets with a terrible accident, Nita borrows money and fends for his expenses. Finally comes Shankar, the oldest son. He is a talented singer but lacks direction and accountability. He is the centre of all taunts, for he represents the weakened male authority. However, as opposed to Gita and Montu, he is deeply attached to Nita and loves her dearly. Nita’s life is the function of her family members’ demands, as she hurries from one financial setback to another, from one emotional blow to the next, until what remains is a beaten body and a wounded soul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara is often described as the best in Partition cinema, next to MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Like the latter, Meghe Dhaka Tara uses the Partition to highlight several social biases that hold till this very moment. Garam Hawa was about the exclusion of religious minorities. Meghe Dhaka Tara leverages a fractured family’s symbolism to highlight patriarchal subjugation, prejudices against working-class women, and the burdens they face as the sole emotional and financial force accountable for rebuilding the family from scratch. Simultaneously, Ghatak routinely draws imagery from religion by harshly commenting on the deification of women. A phenomenon painfully still existent, worship goes a long way in elevating women but rarely uplifts them. Recently, the Netflix special Bulbul resonated a similar sentiment, depicting the story of a young bride flitting amongst being a Devi, Chudail, Gudiya and Choti Bahu but never becoming Bulbul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara skillfully represents women as different forms of the Goddess Incarnate. Nita, the sole provider of the family, is likened to Goddess Jagadhatri or the eternal giver. On the other end is the fierce Chandi, who feeds on the living to sustain herself. For Ghatak, that is Nita’s mother. Nita’s mother is a tremendous parasitic force. She doesn’t bat an eyelid before encouraging Gita to pursue Nita’s love interest Sannat. Her argument is simple. She’d willingly force her daughter into a life of labour and sterility than let go of the only member who earns and, above all, is willing to sacrifice her financial, sexual and intellectual freedom to sustain the family’s consumerist tendencies. In fact, reputed film scholar Ira Bhaskar has observed how Ghatak sets up the home’s courtyard like a venue of a ritualistic yagna. In that courtyard, demands are made to Nita, who, as the Divine Provider, must fulfil.

While Partition’s trauma, the axis on which the film rotates, is an experience lost with those who faced it and their immediate generations, in the 21st-century, Megha Dhaka Tara exists as a strong narrative on the cyclical nature of domination. It is also a reminder that as women, we are equally capable of debilitating another woman. That patriarchy is a struggle for power that can be executed by a woman as much as by a man. In a distressing scene of the film, Nita confesses it is her fault that she allowed her family to exploit her continually. For years, her silence fanned the flames of the symbolic yagna. But as a person, ask yourself how often you have faced injustice and conjured the strength to protest? Easier said than done.

Coming back to where we started, from privilege. A few months ago, while casually discussing the Meghe Dhaka Tara with a friend, I was shaken to find that as a 23-year-old woman in 2021, my friend strongly related to Nita’s life and character. It made me acutely aware that capitalising on a woman’s financial and emotional labour is a reality not just restricted to society’s lowest socioeconomic rung. It happens everywhere. In your home. In your friend’s house. In your domestic help’s house. In your professor’s house. Of course, the magnitude will vary, from a simple act of not being consulted in financial decisions to greater and more dangerous formats of abuse. Meghe Dhaka Tara tells us that subjugation starts small. In simple denials. In little and invisible acts of prejudice. In small favours. It is supported by men and women because who doesn’t enjoy power? Look around. We are in a crowd of Nitas.

Lewis-Carroll-Feature

To, But Not Restricted to, Children. Love, Lewis Carroll

There are a handful of books that every child is made to read during their growing-up years. For parents, syllabus committees and English teachers, they are akin to an instruction manual which they hope will instill a love for reading in children and strengthen their grasp over the English language. Popular inclusions in the list include Secret Seven, Famous Five, Chronicles of Narnia, Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s gem, Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the same children grow up to enjoy fiction, one hardly ever returns to these books because they are relegated as writing for kids. So, when I found that January 27th marked the 189th birth anniversary of Lewis Carroll, I tried hard to remember what his writing was about.

Apart from glimpses of Cheshire Cat’s smile and few stray anecdotes from Alice in Wonderland, everything else was a blur. So, while going through Carroll’s Wikipedia page, I was completely caught off-guard by the sheer expanse of his genius that even the most avid reader has ignored because once again “he’s not for grownups”.  Not only was he a master of wordplay, puns, and imagery, but he was also a proof that science and arts can merge beautifully without emitting a pungent smell of discord. His writing floats lightheartedly on the confluence of mathematics and language.  

Born as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll led a fascinating life in which he donned many hats; each contributed to his fine sense of nonsense, rhyme, and lush imagery. Carroll exhibited an immense liking and strong talent for mathematics, cyphers, chess and puzzles, culminating in his lifelong studentship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. His deeply analytical tendencies percolated into his creatives, rhyme scheme, labyrinthine landscapes and highly stylised verses with hidden clues. In short, Lewis Carroll being tied down by the burden of being “a children’s author” is probably one of the worst sins a literary academic could commit.

In fact, when Martin Gardner approached publishing houses for commissioning a version of Alice in Wonderland that contained scholarly notes, they were quick to dismiss his idea. No one does all this for a children’s book. Gardner went on to author The Universe in a Handkerchief, a comprehensive volume delving deep into the works of Lewis Carroll; from his popular fiction down to his puzzles and letters. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly just so that we can acquaint ourselves to the genius we have missed out upon. 

As standard with most fabulous creators, Carroll was mostly associated with one of his many dazzling creations. Of course, its Alice in Wonderland. But many remain blissfully unaware of his pioneering contribution to the criminally underrated world of nonsense verse. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were the earliest proponents of this form of writing. In India, Sukumar Ray’s (father of Satyajit Ray) Abol Tabol is the nonsense poetry handbook for Bengali children. Every child is acquainted with Bombagorer Raja (The King of Bombagor) who did absurd things like frame dried mangoes while his crazy Aunt chased pumpkins with a bat. 

Carroll’s Jabberwocky is one of the most refined examples of nonsense verse appearing in Through the Looking Glass. It is a ballad, a good versus evil story but primarily remembered for its funky language and unique visual and sonic quality. In the poem, a father warns his son of three vicious monsters: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch. It is a concise poem, about 28 lines, and you can see why it is handy to instill dread in children. When we are kids, we are told of many unnamed monsters who are out there. They wait for kids to misbehave or not finish their food, and then they’ll appear. For most of our lives, these monsters remain faceless, just like Jabberwocky and its evil partners. The feeling of fear comes because we don’t know why we have to be scared of the Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch or what they do that makes them vicious. Typical to Carroll’s storytelling, he uses unknown words like galumphing, vorpal, mome raths and borograves

Another favourite, particularly in schools, is Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem is a mix of narrative and nonsense; about a walrus and carpenter who lures oysters into a conversation and then eats them all. It’s a funny, absurd poem full of outlandish settings where the sun and moon are in the sky simultaneously, and oysters wore shoes although they had no feet. The Walrus and the Carpenter hugely inspired culture and wild interpretations. A faction believes that they represent Buddha and Jesus Christ. Others thought that they stood for the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Of course, Martin Gardner rubbishes both sections. The poem did appear in iconic pop culture references. Beatles’ I am the Walrus refers to the poem. Much later, Lennon regretted doing so because he hadn’t realised that the walrus was the antagonist. Lines have been quoted in Dr Who, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Agatha Christie’s The Clocks.

It would not be a complete discussion if we didn’t touch upon Alice in Wonderland, the book that catapulted Carroll into fame that lasted across centuries. This book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are swarming with banter, math, puzzles, and paradoxes. The narrative is full of riddles. Everyone must vaguely recollect the Mad Hatter’s famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”.

Interestingly, Carroll admitted that he too had no answer to the riddle when he wrote it. The puzzle perplexed many, including Aldous Huxley. In the later versions, the answer was included. According to Carroll, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in the front.” Notice how he misspells nevar as a rearrangement of the word raven. His narratives frequently included acrostic poems, a writing style in which every stanza provides clues to a particular word. 

The fact that we know so little about Lewis Carroll stands testament to the systematic marginalisation of children’s fiction as just for children. Several other books suffer the same fate of not being taken seriously because their central readership continues to be kids. Whether its Wind in the Willows or Gulliver’s Travels, we do tend never to revisit the books we’ve read and loved even if fiction, reality, and language were just half-baked concepts in our innocent minds. Somedays, it is imperative that we stop to thank the authors who we’ve perhaps given fame but not enough credit for shaping our imagination. 

Lewis Carroll, thank you for normalising the weird. Thank you for providing children in every house of the world a rabbit hole to jump into and explore in their dreams.

Tinted, Foggy, Sparkling in Parts: Maugham’s Ideas on China Is a Confusing Concoction.

Compared to the Great Mughals or the European Wars for nation-states, Chinese history is often relegated to one semester of a central university’s syllabus. The other is devoted to the Japanese. Together, they adjust themselves into a single module titled History of Modern Asia. As academic papers, students even face a significant adjustment period because of the complicated names, the utterly alien culture of the regions and the general lack of knowledge about their societies. In this scenario, Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen is a part-foggy and part-pretty mirror reflecting European nationals’ lives vis-a-vis the native Chinese population. It is a fascinating yet flawed account – a peek into the frustrations, lifestyle, and emotional ethos of foreign nationals in China.

In 1919, immediately after the First World War, Maugham spent his winter travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Along this journey, he met a motley of people – missionaries, ex-pats, managers, government officials, and bankers, who were culturally and philosophically out of their depths in China. He also brushed shoulders with the more impoverished Chinese population sections such as steersmen, farmers, coolies and rickshaw-pullers.  

However, for most of this journal-like collection of 58 vignettes, we see China through the eyes of majorly European (British and French) characters. They are people who have not visited their home countries in a long time, up to nearly 50 years. Do they love China? Do they hate China? Do they want to return or have their lives been moulded in the quaint Chinese urns till the day they die? Have they managed to adapt themselves or still live under a garb of being the better ones in an outlandish civilization? Maugham’s astute observations attempt to shed light on each kind of outsider who has supposedly made their homes and fortune in China. An unmistakable tinge of superiority tints the narrative.

For me, On a Chinese Screen is an inconsistent experience. Just like any other anthology of short works, I thoroughly enjoyed select stories. Whether it was Maugham’s descriptions of the rain in the countryside or his notes on traits like hypocrisy, adjustment, and longing, they create a lasting impact. However, some others felt tepid. Sadly, a few did not elicit a reaction at all and felt out of place. The book was a mixed experience, and my thoughts remain divided. First, I’ll describe the pieces that I admired the most.

Servants of God is a conversation between an old French missionary and a younger English one. While they are not similar, the author describes them as sharing a common attribute of goodness. They speak for a while and prepare to leave. The Englishman and Frenchmen are both heading home. However, each is unaware of what home means for the other. The Frenchman, living in China for half a century, is leaving for his town that he never plans to leave. The British missionary is thinking about his home in Cheshire, where his family have dwelled for three centuries.

Henderson is a commentary on western hypocrisy in China. Henderson is a pompous junior partner who upon his arrival in China was revolted by the rickshaws. As a socialist, it aggravated his sense of personal dignity that another human would be carrying him around in a vehicle. But as he began to encounter the scorching Shanghai heat, Henderson frequently uses the rickshaw. However, he maintains that the puller is like his brother and friend. On a particular ride, when the author accompanied Henderson, the latter remarked how their rickshaw-puller was sweating profusely and they ought to let him go for the heat will only get worse. Henderson answered that one must not pay attention to the Chinese for the British were the ruling race. As the rickshaw-puller missed the turn he ought to have taken, Henderson kicked him and called him a bloody fool. All while discussing Bertrand Russell’s Road to Freedom.

The Opium Den is a unique take on the nature of opium addiction in the country. China had been in the midst of massive and illegal opium trade that destroyed vast segments of their population and caused two major wars in the 17th and 18th century. The author always imagined opium dens to be dingy, squalid places. His idea is like a set from a play where young men driven by addiction behave like frenzied lunatics while the poorer lot begs the evil owner to let them enjoy a smoke for free. Finally, when he is taken to an opium den, the real picture is entirely different. The property was neat, brightly-lit and divided into cubicles where people were experiencing a quiet time with their long pipes, chessboards and newspapers. The den was like a Berlin bar that men visited after work. Studying the scenario, Maugham remarks, “Fiction is stranger than fact.” 

The Nun is a short conversation between a nun and the author. Mother Superior has been in China for 20 years and dearly misses watching the Pyrenes mountains from her window. However, she is fond of the Chinese whom she believes to be hardworking and understanding. She remembers when a few soldiers she nursed to health transported her heavy bags in their car. The author asks why the men did not give her a lift instead of only carrying her bags. The nun’s reply is poignant. She says, “A nun in their eyes is only a woman. You must not ask people more than they are capable of giving.”

The Consul is the funniest of the lot. It’s about Mr. Pete, a man who is employed in the consular service. In his long career, the only case that eluded a solution was Mrs Yu. A British citizen who married a Chinese man against her mother’s wishes, Mrs Yu arrived in China only to find out that her husband has a wife, and she was his second. Since the revelation, she regularly harasses Mr Pete by seeking legal remedies but disregards his suggestion to return to England. In a fit of rage at her stubbornness, he asks her why she refuses to leave her husband. Mrs Yu answers, “Theres something in his way his hair grows on his forehead that I cant help liking.”

Maugham’s writing has a strangely mixed quality. He can make searing statements but simultaneously, dazzle the reader with his fluid and poetical descriptions of the smallest moments. The latter is evident in Night has Fallen, Arabesque, The Painting and A Game of Billiard. They are not rich in material. Only wonderfully writte, a drawback shared by many more stories in the collection.

On a Chinese Screen is not a compassionate account of Maugham’s travel in China. Neither is it harsh. It is a cross between matter-of-fact observations and free-flowing ruminations. Moreover, the stories do betray a considerable white man’s lens. There is casual racism. Maugham is more interested in the life of Europeans and how they battle or adjust to China. The indigenous population works as the backdrop, but that backdrop is rather dull in itself. He paints a much brighter picture in front of the grey curtain. It is incredible how the same man can paint a sensitive word-picture of a plum-blossom (The Picture) and in another story, describe a Chinese woman as a “little yellow wife” (Sullivan).

Maugham is part aggressive, part beautiful. However, to his credit, Maugham sufficiently reveals European ignorance. He remarks how high-ranking officials can barely understand a Chinese word for they consider the language to be beneath them. In fact, Maugham’s idea of China is best received by readers who share the same socio-economic background. For example, the Los Angeles Times described the book as “Evokes a nostalgic China replete with rickshaws and sing sing girls.” This is a simplistic statement, borderline cliched. It is like Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video where India was represented with peacocks and Holi.

Coming to the principal question: Do I recommend On a Chinese Screen? There are two ways to look at it. I will not suggest the book to be a reader’s first brush with Somerset Maugham. He has far more powerful and memorable works. However, if you are a seasoned Maugham admirer, you will enjoy the travelogue as “another Maugham down.” As a reader in the first category, I think of my experience as a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a specific niche of the population in a far-off land. But I read On a Chinese Screen knowing that it is imperfect.

Edgy, Brilliant, and Complex: Salman Rushdie’s Shame Injects a Fairytale Into Politics

Can you live somewhere without knowing its name? Can you breathe its polity and travel its landscape only relying on letters? Can you grow up in a sealed fortress, watching snow capped mountains and discovering new rooms every night? Can you accept a narrative of a woman so ashamed that it stunts her mental growth until she becomes a monster, ripping apart men and turkeys? It all sounds gibberish until you allow Salman Rushdie’s Shame to consume you. Just like the crippling embarrassment that consumes the life of every tragic character in the novel, Rushdie swallows the reader into an abyss of words, history, allusions, illusions and magic. Open your mind, and Rushdie’s genius will engulf you exactly how Harry fell into the Pensieve and experienced memories that didn’t belong to him.

Shame is about many things that constitute life. Families. Marriages. Children. Affairs. Religion. Politics. Dictators. Governments. Rebellions. Scandals. It is about interconnected families against the backdrop of an unnamed, phantasmagoric country and the upheavals in its polity. The book’s family tree will immediately remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. In fact, Rushdie and Marquez share substantial similarities in writing style and elaborate imagination. The worlds they create are brimming with strangeness. Even the tiniest thing is ornate. Whether it is the bitter almonds in Love in the Time of Cholera or the elevator in Shame built to transport goods and commit murder, nothing is ordinary. Yet, all of it is true.

Shame is tough to summarise, but for protocol’s sake, it must be done. Who started Shame? Omar Khayyam Shakil. His matrilineal lineage is questionable. He was born to three mothers, who replicated a pregnancy. Apart from Rushdie, no one knows who among the three Shakil sisters was Omar’s mother. After spending his childhood in a suffocating fortress designed to prohibit human interaction, Omar leaves his home at 12. Eventually, he becomes a debauch but famed doctor before marrying a ridiculously young patient called Sufiya Zinobia.

Sufiya is a symbol of purity and the axis on which shame and shamelessness revolve. Born to a mother who craved a son, she embodied the book’s central philosophy: Shame begets Violence and Violence begets Shame. Suffering from stunted mental growth, Sufiya grows up unloved and prone to constant blushing on account of internalising her family’s dishonour. Her parents are General Raza Hyder and Bilquis Hyder. Raza is a politician par excellence, masking his shrewd barbarism under the well-pressed suits. The second bloc in Shame is General Raza’s political opponent, Iskander Harappa. Once known for his indulgent personality and many affairs, he marries the simple Rani Harappa whose quiet tolerance of her husband’s ways finds expression in the delicate shawls she embroiders. His daughter is Arjumand. Known as Virgin Ironpants for her attempts to suppress her sexuality and reject potential suitors, she is Iskander’s secret weapon. A political mastermind, Arjumand stands by her father throughout his career and even after his execution. Many more characters are crucial. They come and go as per the story’s requirements. 

Shame reads like a secret. It is whispered so often that everyone has a vague idea of what it is hinting at but cannot be brash and say it aloud. A significant portion of Shame’s geographical and psychological landscape may go unnamed, but it has been broadly agreed that Shame is Pakistan’s story. As a writer, the Indian Independence, Partition and Pakistan are very close to Rushdie. Whether he is exploring them full throttle like in Midnights Children or incorporating the zeitgeist of the time in The Ground Beneath her Feet, the two nations’ political health always had a bearing on his characters. With Shame, he delves into the political class of Pakistan and gives us a fairytale.

Scholars (and readers who are tempted to explore the history of Pakistan even at a tertiary level after reading Shame) have found the following, significant allusions:

  • The unnamed city of Q – Quetta
  • Raza Hyder – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
  • Iskandar Harappa – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
  • Arjumand Harappa – Benazir Bhutto

Shame is so layered that you will find hundreds of papers and dissertations, so many different themes explored in the novel; such as nationalism, violence, religion, marriage, motherhood, magical realism, political identity, post-colonialist writing and modernism. Which one will I address? The question puts me in a pickle.

Salman Rushdie’s vision for Shame is far ahead of his times. The observations he made in 1983 through dark humour and fictional situations hold their ground in 2021. For example, Maulana Dawood’s character. He is a fanatic and General Raza’s advisor. His influence steadily draws Raza towards establishing a theocracy. The narrative about faith being rammed into politics and those poisonous politics being forced down people’s throats will resonate today. Shame even answers why the rhetoric of faith is such a fit in governance. It’s because faith as a language is too complicated to oppose. It comes with respect. So much of it that it hushes everybody.

Shame does a great job of reminding us that no matter how much despotism is shrouded with sweet words and mysticism, the masses will rise. In the end, General Raza, his wife and Omar flee the city and take shelter in Omar’s childhood home. The intimidating fortress, a symbol of tyranny, is where they are brutally murdered. Ultimately, commoners storm the house. What can be more symbolic than that?

One of the most poignant and famous lines in Shame is, Beauty and the Beast is simply the tale of arranged marriage. This sentence alone captures the sadness that permeates every marriage in the book, making the reader acutely aware of the feminist discourse underlying the outwardly masculine narrative of men fighting it for power, women, and legitimacy. On the surface, it is all about men. Hyder, Harappa, Omar, Maulana, Babar and Talvar Ulhaq claw and scratch to climb society’s ladders. By the time it ends, the women stand out.

Shame is often overshadowed by the sparkle of The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. However, it must not be missed. Even if one doesn’t enjoy political critique, it can be appreciated as a fairytale about warring families. The book does have drawbacks. For example, those who are not aware of Pakistan’s history may initially miss some of its flavours. It is quite detailed, so you forget portions of initial happenings when the author revisits in the middle of the book. Some amount of going back and forth and googling may be essential.

Shame, just like the emotion itself, is warped and multifaceted. It is about disgrace and as well as its antithesis: shamelessness. Together, they form the basis of violence. As Rushdie says, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

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Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

Ruskin Bond’s How to Be a Writer Is the Ideal Comfort Book to Sign off 2020!

Humour. Compassion. Perseverance. A zest for life. Choose anything written by Ruskin Bond and you’ll find enchanting themes interwoven in his musings on love, survival, nature, childhood and adolescence, romance and even the ghosts that quietly haunt the hills of Mussoorie. Bond is the master of conveying complexity through simplicity, his writings liberally seasoned with dry wit and tossed in a wok of comfort. The emotions that one experiences after reading a piece written by the author are feelings otherwise experienced only in the purest of circumstances; like a cosy nap on a winter afternoon, your favourite food, a lover’s embrace, laughter with friends, mountain trails fragrant with fallen flowers and the smell of old bookstores.

How to be a Writer is a chip off the old block; another loveable addition to Bond’s corpus of heart-warming novellas. Although topical in its approach, the book is a delight! From the beautiful language and distinctive jocularity and down to the adorable illustrations (courtesy of the supremely talented team of Shamika Chavez and Chaaya Prabhat), every little detail is perfect. The aesthetics and interplay of word and drawing will remind you of Roald Dahl’s collaborations with Quentin Blake. Even if you are not interested in writing but have a soft corner for Ruskin Bond, this deserves to be on your bookshelf solely because of the familiarity and warmth it oozes.

Before delving into the nuances of the book, it’s important to know that the book has been marketed as a guide for young readers (some websites have labelled it as a book for children) who want to write and need a few pearls of wisdom on where to start and how to sustain. However, as a 23-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed the content and learnt quite a bit about the trade and how to keep afloat if one is considering earning a living solely through words. So, don’t be dissuaded by the “childish” appearance or the big font and drawings. It is deeply insightful! Plus, there can never be a Ruskin Bond book that doesn’t teach you a thing or two.

How To Be A Writer takes the reader through the entire spectrum of writing; the qualities that a budding author must inculcate and exhibit, understanding what to write, how to improve that writing, popular themes, building memorable characters and finally, how to approach publishers and commercialize your work. According to Ruskin Bond, there are four building blocks of the process:

  1. To keep writing
  2. Observing
  3. Listening
  4. Paying attention to the beauty of words and their arrangement.

To sit down at your desk and pen your thoughts must be a daily activity. The key is to strike a balance between disciplining your mind to write and knowing when you are done. Bond himself does not write for more than an hour or two daily for any duration beyond that and words tend to lose their freshness. He likens the movement of words to “a stream of clear water-preferably a mountain stream.” The source of the brook is where thoughts are in their purest form and as they flow, one must learn to move around the boulders.

The tonality of the book is graceful yet informal. It isn’t a Do-It-Yourself manual where a leading author shares precise pointers on how to achieve big success. Think of How To Be Writer as an intelligent conversation with a kind individual who has beautiful experiences to share and does so in the friendliest manner possible. At no point does it feel that Ruskin Bond is there to deliver a sermon where he is the higher authority and the readers are supposed to look up to him with dewy-eyes and make furious notes (although he constantly stresses on the importance of jotting notes in a designated notepad when writing a story). He only discusses the insights he has accumulated in an illustrious career spanning seven decades and multiple accolades.

Ruskin Bond shares multiple lessons. Some minor, tucked away in a little sentence; some major – being the focus of an entire chapter. I will attempt to touch upon the latter.

A love for books is imperative. Every renowned author is greatly influenced by the books he/she has enjoyed. Bond says, “Books are essential for the creative mind, and good readers become good writers.” If you are new to extensive reading and not a seasoned bookworm, the author’s recommendations at the end are the perfect start.

Finding a familiar setting is the cornerstone of establishing authenticity. One of the most oft-repeated mistakes that beginners tend to commit is being carried away by the glitz and glamour of places they don’t know and basing their story in an unfamiliar destination. Ruskin Bond believes that one must write about the places you are intimately connected with. Like London for Dickens, rural Bengal for Tagore and the Yorkshire Moors for Emily Bronte. Even fantasy worlds are contextualized in the culture and language of the countries in which they are conceived. For example, Wonderland is very British and Pinocchio is very Italian.

Bond’s take on creating memorable characters is especially interesting. Create immortal characters. Does this mean that characters must defy death? No! What Bond implies is that “some of the most successful characters in fiction are ageless, unchanging.” Think about Poirot, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Byomkesh Bakshi and of course, Rusty himself! Year after year, volume after volume, they have remained the same! To be able to keep the essence intact is a duty that needs to be upheld at all costs.

To remain committed to your writing is a difficult task. There is nothing as exasperating as stumbling upon the ill-fated Writer’s Block. Bond admits to not having faced this issue too often because most of his works are on the shorter side. This honesty is comforting. But he does share guidance on the matter. For Ruskin Bond, some of his most famed stories such as The Night Train at Deoli and The Eyes Have It was written in his head and then transferred to the paper. Certainly, this process is difficult to replicate for a lengthier novel. In that case, he suggests taking a break and writing something else to revitalize the grey cells- “A fresh mind will do wonders for a stalled masterpiece.” Finally, if that doesn’t work and you’re sure that your work is useless, choose the dustbin. In his distinctive humour, Bond concludes by saying, “Waste-paper baskets were invented by frustrated authors. And I use one too.

Writing is about expressing your originality, developing a distinct style, telling the right stories and in the end, keeping the faith alive. Patience is a mandatory virtue for people who plan to rely on words to get them through life. Ruskin Bond cautions us about multiple rejections. They will come and don’t signify the end of the world. However, his greater warning is for the lack of persistence and giving up on the very act of writing. The idea is simple, “If you are any good, you will meet with success sooner or later.” How To Be A Writer is old-school, elegant, and mischievous. In other words, worth every second of the holidays, irrespective of whether you’re a writer or just a good ol’ Rusty fan!

You can buy the book here.