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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Willows in Winter” – An Ode to Those Long Treasured Books on Our Bookshelves

I came across this page through a friend, and I saw Vidisha Ghosh’s review of the Wind in the Willows and felt compelled to write about my experience with its sequel this winter. I was gifted the sequel The Willows in Winter as a first edition hard back upon its release back in 1993.  At the age of 10, this hard back with thoughtful character illustrations was probably one of the most beautiful books I owned, but in its beauty and huge size, relative to that of a 10 year old, it almost felt too grown up to read and too beautiful to touch. Needless to say, as teen years passed through to adulthood, I did not feel the draw of a book written for children and it remained on the shelf in its pristine condition. The Willows in Winter has since travelled with me to each home I’ve moved to where it has always taken pride of place on my bookshelf, untouched and unread, but certainly not unloved.

I finally got around to reading The Willows in Winter this January, amidst a bit of a reader’s block and the need for something easy and comforting. The UK government had just effectively cancelled Christmas with its no-mixing-of-households rule and announced its third indefinite lockdown. January can be hard enough in a normal year, let alone without the usual things that keep us going and I’ll admit my mood and resolve was starting to wane. I desperately needed something light and as I perused my shelves, I found myself reaching for The Willows in Winter. I picked it up thinking it might be the perfect book to cosy on up with in the dark winter and to get me out of my reading slump. What I wasn’t expecting was for the words on the first page to hit me with such force, that it brought tears to my eyes.

“I must not be uncharitable” said Mole “I have my home, I have my health and I- I must not be unfriendly”. 

I sat down in my cosy reading chair and felt the weight of those words sink in. The words resonated deeply with the lockdown experience and the gradual increase in feelings of unease. During our first lockdown, I gave myself the motto, “don’t be a brat”. Not eloquent I know, but it was short, sweet and easy to berate myself with whenever needed. By this motto, I meant that regardless of how tough things might become, I resolved to remember our blessings, be grateful for what we have and be extra kind and mindful of how we speak with others, who may be facing more difficult challenges. But, I have to admit that in January, after too many zoom calls, and a seemingly endless stream of calls from others looking to offload their own concerns and troubles, I was starting to feel the need to retreat even further and hibernate in my own little world to feel a bit sorry for myself.

So, at the perfect time, after almost 30 years on my bookshelf, along came the wonderful characters of Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger to remind us of some important lessons. Mole’s opening dialogue is referring to his nephew as an unwanted lodger, when Mole craves nothing more than his peaceful home and privacy. What follows is a tale of adventure and friendship as they each go in search of rescuing each other from various escapades. We are reminded of the need to embrace each other’s differences and that friendship does not have to be with those who are like-minded but should span different personality types, and as a result how much we can learn from each other. For example, in contrast to Mole’s introverted nature, is the polar opposite of Toad. Toad can often be perceived as an arrogant and self-centred rich character, often reckless in his pursuits. However, in reading between the lines, we see a character who has had his sense of adventure subdued and so desperately seeks some kind of release through risky pursuits, much like how some would see a few of our rebel entrepreneurs in the real world, who can be revered and disliked in equal measures. The Willows in Winter is written by William Horwood as an homage to Kenneth Grahame’s classic and is faithful to the original in capturing the essence of Grahame’s characters.

Since reading the Willows in Winter several months ago, I’m now ahead on the reading challenge I set myself for the year and so my readers block has been officially cured. Whether I found a cure for my “uncharitable” nature as Mole would call it, is yet to be confirmed, but I vow to keep being mindful of others and provide a listening ear, whilst protecting my own needs as an introvert to retire and recharge in my own space. As social creatures, this lockdown has been hard on introverts and extroverts alike, and if Toad and Mole teach us anything it is that we need all types and all kinds of friendships to get the best from this world.

The experience also made me reflect on what it is to be a bibliophile. Thinking of the books we covet on our shelves for years, from those in pristine condition too beautiful to touch, to the well-thumbed copies of our favourite books.  Those books that remain with us reminds us of who we were when we read them, much as that “to be read pile” is a nod to who we hope to become as our future selves – I’m thinking here of my literature classics section, that I want to be intellectual enough to read, but still feels somewhat of a chore to start! I also think about the journey of those books that we decide not to keep, those that we pass on to friends in the hope that they will bring similar joy or understanding to them as it did for us. The Willows In Winter, will now remain forever cherished on my bookshelf as a reminder of that Winter lockdown and however tough life gets, we must be grateful for our blessings and keep goodwill in our hearts.

Subramanian Swamy’s Book Himalayan Challenge Has Critical Lessons for Both Indian and Chinese Policymakers

China, for a long time, has been considered a black box around the world. Particularly in the Indian context, China evokes images of competition, low quality goods, limited freedom of speech, expansionism, and several other uncharitable feelings. On the other hand, there is the entire film industry in the west as well as in India that would like us to believe that everyone in China can fight with their toes on sticks and all they do is meditate all day. The common perception of China is caricaturish at best and devoid of any real understanding of the place and its people.

We can’t blame the common people for nurturing such perceptions since we believe in what we are fed by our media and politicians. You wouldn’t however, be pleased to discover that people sitting at the top of policy making towers have on multiple occasions betrayed their shallow discernment of China and its communist regimes. This has resulted in several strategic blunders by India when it comes to its China policy. The 1962 war, India’s flip-flops on Tibet, Nehru’s dilatoriness on India’s military modernisation while following a rather vacuous Forward Policy with China, and the failure of successive governments to hold a strong hand on the negotiation table have resulted in massive clouds of suspicion and confusion on both sides of the border.

These and a lot more have been discussed with the precision that has come to characterize Mr. Subramanian Swamy over the years in his recent book – Himalayan Challenge – India, China, and the Quest for Peace (published by Rupa Publications). He has travelled to China on the invitation of Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs as an envoy of the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai in September 1978. Later in 1981, Mr. Swamy was invited to meet China’s Supreme leader, Chairman Deng Xiaoping where he convinced the Chinese government to reopen the Kailash Mansarovar route for Hindu pilgrims. His keen interest in Chinese studies and his first-hand experience with the Chinese government have helped Mr. Swamy understand multiple perspectives on Indo-China relationship. These perspectives make this book a seamless read with intriguing pieces of information on every page.  

The book starts with a historical context of the India-China relationship with a quick but penetrating glance over the great impact India has had on Chinese culture, religion, and society. The author establishes important timelines related to the export and acceptance of Buddhism, the modifications wrought upon the religion to make it more  suited to Chinese symbolism, Megasthenes’ account of his travel in India, and the claims of Confucius and Buddha being contemporaries. Mr. Swamy then goes into the  details of the borders that India and China share with affiliated events through the annals of time.

The book is concise and never deviates from the point it has to make. That is because the author doesn’t give more than the necessary time and space to the background details and swiftly comes to the makings of the conflicts between India and China. Starting from the policy confusions on Tibet between the two countries, the origin and making of the McMahon line to the 1962 war and points in time when the two countries dumped their thousands of years old unblemished bond into cold storage of mistrust and deceit, Mr. Swamy discusses in detail the doublespeak of Mr Nehru while dealing with China against the suggestions of Mr. Patel, the complacency that had crept into the Indian side due to the era of sycophants in ministry as well as bureaucracy in the 50s, China’s lack of sincerity when dealing with Mr. Nehru and the India of his time, and China’s limitations when it comes to military combats with India. Mr. Swamy is equally critical of parties on both the sides of our contentious border and doesn’t pull any punches while doing so.

Thankfully though, this book is not about military combat and who will survive longer in the event of a nuclear war. Although Mr. Swamy touches upon those subjects, he also explains that India and China do not have anything apart from the border issue in the way of a long lasting friendship and peace. The two superpowers must find ways to trust each other and sincerely look for ways to increase cooperation. This is not to suggest that India should give in to Chinese threats on the borders. On the contrary, Mr Swamy hopes for transparency in communication and expects more assertiveness while dealing with Chinese incursions from the present day government.

The book also has an interesting appendix section consisting of some declassified files, transcript of Mr. Swamy’s conversation with Chairman Deng, Mr. Patel’s letter to Pandit Nehru and Nehru’s note on China and Tibet, a verbatim record of a discussion in Beijing between Khrushchev and Mao Zedong over India-China relationship and Soviet Russia’s role in it. These make for interesting reading.

India has a vast Himalayan challenge in front of it. With Pakistan playing in China’s lap, and a few neighbours finding their voice against India at China’s spurring, India has to define its diplomatic path with maturity minus the naivete displayed by our forefathers. The problem is not going to disappear if we bury our heads in sand. Hence, the future leaders of our country would do better to get a primer on what has transpired between these two great nations so far and why. That way, this book should be a required reading for politicians, bureaucrats, as well as the common citizens on both sides of the border.

Subramanian Swamy’s Himalayan Challenge is an honest assessment of India’s unsettled questions in the North and thus hints at the potential good that could come out for both China and India if these questions were settled. I wonder then, if only these two countries could trust each other more and cooperate with confidence, perhaps both  could have used each other’s help in managing the COVID-19 pandemic with greater effect.

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.

Wild Gujarat Prods You to Plan Your Next Trip to Gujarat’s Rich Biodiversity

Co-created by Biswajit Roy Chowdhury and Shiladitya Chaudhury, supported by Gujarat Tourism, and published by Rupa Publications, Wild Gujarat takes you on a jungle safari through the rich biodiversity of Gujarat. The book covers the Gir National Park, Blackbuck National Park, Little Rann of Kutch, Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, Marine National Park, Khijadiya Bird Sanctuary, and finally the Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary. There is special focus on the Gir and quite deservingly, lions get the lion’s share of the book.

The book has been composed in the coffee table style and boasts of breathtaking pictures of the wildlife of Gujarat. The pages and prints are lavishly done and the brief notes that go with these pictures provide ample context without losing focus of the subjects. While it is a must have collection for the wildlife enthusiasts, for people new to the study of wildlife, it introduces several new species not commonly known or spoken about.

From the pages of the book – Wild Gujarat

An important aspect of the book is how the authors have provided the details of how several of these species have been endangered for a long time, how their population came to paltry figures due to poaching and game shooting, and how a preservation and protection movement was effected over time. When we get to read that the number of Asiatic lions grew up to 674 last year from 287 in 1936, a realization that while a region’s biodiversity can be destroyed in no time due to our callousness, the recovery can take up to several centuries, hits us.

While the book begins with Gir, it does not limit itself to Gir and takes us to several other hotspots of biodiversity in the state. The visages of the majestic Gir Lion, richly produced images of the leopards and endangered blackbucks, strikingly captured pictures of the innumerable birds, both native and migratory, the vast stretches of forests and wetlands, the expansive salt wasteland of Rann of Kutch are put in front of the readers as an open invitation to pack their bags and explore all the biodiversity Gujarat has to offer. I am about to do just that.

Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.

Sunita Dwivedi’s Buddha in Gandhara Is a Relentless Pursuit of the Story and Spread of Buddhism

I spent most of my last two weeks cuddled with a notebook, a pen, and Sunita Dwidevi’s Buddha in Gandhara. I gave up on my favourite reading corner at home and sat at the study desk. It was almost as if it was exam mode on, except I was reading and making notes from Buddha in Gandhara. Even though I wasn’t giving an exam, the book was nothing less than a refresher in history, geography, art, culture and whatnot.

Sunita Dwivedi is a silk road traveller, author, and independent researcher. She has been passionately following the trails of Buddha and has published four books based on her travel and research. Buddha in Gandhara is her fourth and recent book in which she takes the Uttarapath or the Northern Highroad of Buddhaland and ventures into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sunita calls this book of hers ‘a humble effort towards recreating a journey on the Buddha’s trail along the Lahore – Peshawar and Kabul – Samangan routes to the once-thriving cities of Gandhara’. Having spent more than fifteen days poring over the pages of this book, I can assure it isn’t humble, but it is humongous. Starting with her Pakistani visa to the multiple footnotes that adorn almost every page of this book, this is a work of relentless passion and meticulous dedication. Even though it is called a travelogue, it reads more academic to me. The chapters are so laden with information that those instances where Sunita talks of her experiences as a traveller become a breath of fresh air for lesser readers like me. Nevertheless, the amount of information is awe-inspiring.

I must thank whoever came up with the idea of attaching a map to the book. It came in handy as I tried hard to keep up with Sunita while she kept travelling from monasteries to dheris to heritage sites. She introduces to you the glorious past of these seemingly less significant places and the various historical and cultural treasures unearthed from these places. Not only does she travel to these sites on the Uttarapath, documenting the remnants at these sites in the current times, she also sheds light on the observations made by pilgrims like Xuanzang, Faxian and Hye Ch’o during their travel along the same corridor.

The book talks about the various patrons of Buddhism from Pataliputra to Gandhara, their historical connections to one another as well as these heritage sites and more. Through the stupas, their inscriptions, and the scripts used in these inscriptions, we try and comprehend the politics of the Buddhist era. The nature of the various artworks excavated from these sites and the depictions on these artworks helps you understand the cultural and religious amalgamation that had happened over time in these places.

The book captures some anecdotes from the life of Buddha, his ancestors and some of the bodhisattvas. I loved that Sunita indulged her readers in some Jataka tales too. I for one enjoyed learning about the’ Miracle of Sravasti’, the Festival of Buddha, the relics trade, the culture of story-telling over tea in the caravanserais of Peshawar and more. The book has a handful of beautiful pictures from both Pakistan and Afghanistan tempting you to set out on a journey to witness them all in person.

I found some information repeated across different chapters more than a couple of times. These repetitions can tend to tire readers. In retrospection, those are parts I remember better. Yet, I am convinced that those repetitions could have been avoided. I am also convinced that this is a treasured addition to my home library.

Facts apart, I relate to Sunita’s undamped spirit as she climbed the stepped hilly path of Jaulian in the rain, her childlike excitement about the balakhanas, her pensiveness at the holy site of the great Kanishka Stupa and her disappointments over illegal mining, encroachment and trafficking of precious antiquities. She reminds me of my year in Europe and how overwhelming it was to stand on the same ground that once bore many people who changed the face of history. Time, that way is a great equaliser.

K.C. Ajayakumar’s Sankaracharya Explains and Summarizes Advaita and Adi Sankara’s Life

Even though it is an arduous task to talk about Adi Sankara’s intellect authoritatively, there is no dearth of books on Adi Sankaracharya. While the historicity of his life and events have been dealt differently by different authors in these books, the best means to understand his darshan (philosophy is the closest word in English) of Advaita (Non-Duality) are his own works, appended by the works of his disciples who wrote commentaries on his creations. However, even with all the available resources, not many tend to go deep into his philosophy while writing a book about him and end up writing a few peripheral and more miraculous details of his life and time. Through time, this has rendered his thoughts more obscure or complex.

K.C. Ajayakumar differentiates his work on this aspect. He does not entirely skip the biographical details but they only work to advance the story that is essentially about Advaita and its chief preceptor. The author has probed deep into Adi Sankara’s life, his experiences and experiments, the inner working of his mind, and his universal philosophy. All this, with the simplicity and clarity of a child, the author brings Sankaracharya (published by Rupa Publications) to us in simple and engaging prose without losing the essence of that ocean of knowledge the great philosopher has left behind for us.

The story begins with the story of Sankara’s birth and his intellectual prowess even as a child. As Sankara learns all that is there to learn with and around him, his longing for a Guru, a teacher who would help him realize the absolute truth grows stronger every passing day. His pleadings with his mother to let him take Sanyaasa and leave home to find a Guru make for an interesting section in the book. Once he leaves his home, the author retraces all the routes he took across the length and breadth of Aryavarta (India) with all the major events taking place during this journey.

The descriptions of all these places come with brilliant imagery and without any compromise on essential details. Hence, many a time, the author is successful in putting the reader right beside Sankara, following him with his disciples. There are a few disputable facts or events, for example – Sankara’s contemporary scholar Mandan Mishra is shown to be living at a place near the river Narmada. There are other accounts that locate Mandan Mishra’s place to be in the Mithila region of India. However, since scholars have differing views on this subject, these conflicts can be safely ignored. The soul of the book remains intact and without a blemish. As it is difficult to ascertain several facts of his life with pinpoint accuracy, there are parts where a few events have to be recreated with imagination and logic. K.C. Ajayakumar does a fine job there as none of these explanations feels out of place. The author also does a great job in explaining a few miraculous elements or events in Sankara’s life with the help of logic and reasoning.

The most evocative part of this book is the author’s deep dive into Adi Sankara’s darshan. He recreates the most prominent debates the great thinker was involved in without shying away from details. Sometimes, the best way to say something is to say it as it is. K.C. Ajayakumar cites from the most notable works of Adi Sankara (Vivek Chudamani, Commentaries on Upanisads, etc.), and provides us with detailed minutes of his meetings with thinkers and influencers of his time. These minutes have a lot of questions, their answers, counter arguments, refutations, and explanations (including his debates with a couple of Buddhist monks).

It would have been easier to keep floating on the surface but that would have made this an ordinary book. On the contrary, because of its deep indulgence with the philosophy itself, this book acts like a primer which you can read before you begin to explore Adi Sankara’s original works.

Special Mention – If you want to know why the head priest of Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand has to be from the southernmost state of India i.e. Kerala, give this book a read!

Ratan Sharda’s RSS Retraces the Organization’s Footprints on India’s Social and Political Journey in the Last 100 Years

There are ideas that are widely understood and widely disliked, and there are ideas that are hardly understood but widely liked. The phenomenal rise and popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the decades that culminated into BJP’s rise and ascent to power for the first time in 1998 and then (on its own) in 2014 have been discussed on several occasions through op-eds and prime time debates. However, most of such deliberations have failed to set the premise properly. As a result, even though the offspring has now come to power for a consecutive second term, the parent organization is not adequately understood. Part of the blame lies with the organization itself as it kept a conscious distance from the media for a long time. Much of the blame though lies with the chroniclers of our time who according to their self-interests, painted the organization either completely black or entirely white whenever they spoke or wrote about it. All such pursuits only resulted in a glacier of misinformation and a contagious borrowing of opinions to ‘fit in’ with the popular opinions.

Noted public intellectual and an RSS member who has also worked with most of the affiliate organizations of the Sangh, Ratan Sharda has authored RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement in his attempt to do a course correction. He has chronicled the history of this massive organization from an interestingly chosen vantage point – Sangh’s Sarsanghchaalaks (Head of the organization). By looking at their lives and their time in the organization, the author successfully encircles the birth and rise of the Sangh.

Starting from Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who was a Congressman before starting the RSS to its current day chief – Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, Ratan Sharda touches upon the most defining moments of this organization. As this movement began to take shape in the year 1925 and continues from strength to strength till today even in the face of tremendous hostility from the Congress party and the Left, the book also gives us a peek into modern Indian history. The repercussions of Congress’s support to the Khilafat movement, the makings and results of the Quit India movement, the partition and the freedom, China’s expansionism and the 1962 war, the freedom of Bangladesh, the corruption charges on Indira Gandhi, the emergency years, first elections post emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the riots that followed, the liberalization years – the author takes us on a journey through all these events and also RSS’s position as well as response to these milestones of the last 100 years.

A subtle but important element of the book is the detailing of the working style of each of its Sarsanghchaalaks and the Sangh’s policies during their tenure. It is interesting to see how even though the unique personality of each of these chiefs influences and inspires the general working of the Sangh, the underlying vision of the organization as espoused by its founder remains the same. It’s not that there have been no departures in its working style. However, most of these tweaks have only helped the organization reach out to more people with its message and meaning.

The book is not intended for the followers or the converts who know everything there is to know about the Sangh. On the contrary, this book is intended for the readers who predominantly read in English and have a ton of questions in their minds about the Sangh while forming their opinions on any debate of national, religious, or social importance. It is also for the people who have always taken a tinted view of the organization, thanks to the negative press it has been given over the decades. When you read about how many congress leaders took RSS’s help or cooperated with the Sangh in different times, you also realize how much politics goes into winning the perception war in public view. The book is also a counter-attack on this perception war being waged by one faction within the Congress party that was once spearheaded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and his blind followers.

I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratan Sharda for leaving a few debates open ended. For example, there is a constant reference to the question of Hindu versus Bharat for the nomenclature purposes in RSS’s vision. The author conveys that the word Hindu is not antithetical to the word Bharat and they are, in fact, interchangeable because of the meaning and origin of the two words. He also weighs in on the possibility of the word Bharat getting adopted by the Sangh instead of Hindutva in future for greater reach and acceptability but puts it on time to answer the question in future.

The book is not without its flaws. First and foremost, the book needs better editing. There are spelling typos as well as several repetitions. Although these repetitions are perhaps placed to reinforce the message, at times, they sound like a resume desperately trying to impress. These repetitions could have been avoided. There is one more error that this book makes. While the book sets out to clear misconceptions about the RSS, it ends up creating a few of its own for other organizations that are doing some great work and have empowered millions of individuals and thousands of smaller organizations in the social and spiritual domains. While the author takes Swami Vivekananda’s and the Ramakrishna Mission’s help to explain a few misgivings about the Sangh as well as explaining its core concepts, it also makes some sweeping observations about the Mission (page-340, RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement). While there is a scarcity of books in English about the Sangh from the Sangh, the Ramakrishna Mission has plenty of books, reports, and journals in the language for readers to understand their vision or scale of their activities. So, a bit of due diligence there would have helped the author avoid the mistake he doesn’t want others to commit while assessing the Sangh.

When we are discussing the RSS, it is important to remember that we are talking about a group of people who are some of the firsts to reach any part of the country needing support in the face of any calamity. It is the ideology that gave birth to a viable alternative to the Indian polity after the Congress. It is an organization that has constantly shunned caste divisions and discrimination in the Hindu community. They have also consciously evolved their position on matters of social importance, the latest one being on Homosexuality.

For us to understand the social and political path our country has taken in all these years before and after independence, and the RSS’s deep footprints on it, this book is an indispensable read for all Indians irrespective of their religious, social, or political beliefs. RSS has been an idea widely popular in one section of the society and largely misunderstood in other sections of the same society. Mr. Ratan Sharda hopes to change that and this book is a successful attempt at setting the context right. I’m sure there are more books coming up.