Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo Has All the Sunshine You Need to Kickstart Your New-Year

At least in India, our entertainers still have some time to go before they can get rid of their obsession for pessimistic realism. From the millions of episodes of reality television shows to creating gloomy pieces of art and cinema, we are being served hopelessness and negativity every day in the name of realism. Add to the mix, the pandemic of news media, the common man is forced to feel vulnerable and powerless with every primetime broadcast. Not to forget, our own magnetic attraction to all things negative makes us the perfect guinea pig in the laboratory of so-called ‘realism’.

Naturally, it always takes much more force and motivation to stay positive and hopeful in today’s age. With business models created to make us lazier and more worthless every passing day, people have begun to lose control of their lives as early as their toddler phase. Contrast this to our parents and their parents, things were more complicated than they are now. They didn’t have access to google to look up for ‘how to make myself dumber’ every time they had to do something. However, they perhaps lived a more complete life than many of us are living now. They knew how to fix things. Even if they didn’t, they didn’t tap on a screen to get things done. They tried and learned. This is where Marie Forleo’s wonderful book ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ begins with a chapter on her mother who could figure out just about anything. Here’s how she begins – 

“My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver. She grew up the daughter of two alcoholic parents in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. She learned, by necessity, how to stretch a dollar bill around the block and is one of the most resourceful and industrious people you could ever meet. She once told me she rarely felt valued, loved, or beautiful, but she held tight to the promise she made to herself that, once she was old enough, she’d find a way to a better life.”

It makes sense. When I observe the lives of people who are now in their late 50s and beyond, each one appears to me as if they were books to be read cover to cover and as they pass away without telling their story, it feels like a library getting ransacked in a siege laid by time and the modern man’s self-obsession. Enter COVID-19, and the entire process gets fast-forwarded. It is indeed depressing to be an audience to this pandemonium.

With all the bad things happening around us, I was looking to read something that shines some sunlight towards the end of the year. This is when I found Marie Forleo’s ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ – a phrase she has loaned from her mother and inspirer-in-chief. Guess what, this book was exactly what I was looking for. Marie Forleo is a ‘multi-passionate’ entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. She was named by Oprah Winfrey as the ‘thought-leader for the next generation’. The introduction will take up the whole page if I go on about her achievements and how she inspires millions around the world. Coming back to the book, Marie draws from her own life experience, her personal as well professional journey, her hits and misses to compose a transformative book for her readers.

There are chapters on the magic of belief, befriending fear, the suicidal road to perfectionism, the myth of ‘I’m not ready’ or waiting for the right time. These chapters are full of practical suggestions and instructions laced with homour and anecdotes to keep you engaged. As a result, you gain something from every page of this book. There is not a dull moment, thanks to Marie’s conversational style of writing. It feels more like a personal session with the author herself. One of my favourite sections of the book is about how the modern day products have turned ‘us’ from being consumers to becoming products. She underlines the damage social media and all the insta-gratification tools and apps are doing to us. That is only the first half though, she also comes up with exercises and activities to help the reader fix this problem. And these are very doable if you want to put your mind to self-improvement. I am writing this review more from the perspective of a beneficiary of Marie’s ability to stay positive and spread it around her than merely jotting down a plain-old book review. The book is also interspersed with testimonials (field-notes) from her readers who have benefitted from the book and are so powerful that a collection of those stories can make a great book in its own right.

2020 was a year of harsh realities for most of us. People died, plans stalled, and businesses shut shops. But was it all as dark and negative as we want to think it was? Well, many got a chance to reconnect with their family. Many people I know went on an online certification spree to upskill themselves. Some of us learned a new language. Many came out fitter physically, mentally, and spiritually out of these serial lockdowns. There are certainly a few positives to count, no matter how sparse they are. Marie’s life and her book tell us exactly that without the ‘preacher mode’ on. This definitely makes the book a recommended read to begin your year with some more light around you.

Tales from the Himalayas by Priyanka Pradhan Takes You on a Nostalgia Date With Your Childhood

Someone pushed gently at our gate and my husband rushed to check. I saw his face light up with a smile and he was wishing our visitor a happy new year. Our visitor was hardly bothered and babbled away in her merriment. She and my husband have been trying to befriend each other for a while now. I played the observer. The only part of the conversation that I understood was when she said ‘Oh My God’, although I have no idea what made her say that. “Children – theirs is a world of bliss. Won’t it be wonderful to be a child all again?”, I thought to myself. So, the universe conspired later in the day to grant me the wish. Except there was a twist. The wish came true in the form of Priyanka Pradhan’s ‘Tales from the Himalayas’.

As an adult, we tend to oversee the various emotions that fill the world of a child and paint them all in the colours of carefree joy and playful innocence. The book reminded me of how wrong I was. While their world is a lot simpler than ours, they too experience a whirlwind of emotions. Priyanka Pradhan makes us relive at least some of those different emotions, joy included, in her book ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. 

The book, published by Rupa Publications, is a collection of 17 short stories based mostly out of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. Some stories like ‘Kafal’ are inspired from age-old folklore. However, some of them do sound contemporary, especially the ones that touch upon social issues. The story ‘The Villain’ for instance reassures the dark-skinned Kisna to be comfortable in her own skin. In ‘The Bagpiper’ Priyanka encourages little Paru to defy the tradition that doesn’t allow girls to play the masak-been from the bottom of her heart.

Stories like the ‘Daak Ghar’ and ‘The Village Monster’ remind me of those days when I would be terrified to go alone into the kitchen at night for the fear of ghosts. 

Priyanka introduces her readers to the hills, the birds, the berries, the songs, the food and the very culture of this Himalayan state. While ‘Haria’s Kitchen’ made me hungry for all the delicacies of Kumaon, I liked how cleverly she employed the narration to acquaint us with the Choliya dancers with their swords in ‘Holi’ and the famous song of Kumaon in ‘The Spring Song’. She also draws inspiration from history and brings to us the stories of Indian explorer and surveyor, Nain Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi of the famous Chipko movement.

The memories of  our childhood are never complete without our grandparents. So it is only natural that grandmothers and grandfathers make their presence felt in ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. The award-winning ‘Postcard’ especially is quite heartwarming. My favourite, though, is ‘The Long Lost Friends’. It reminds me of how everyone’s childhood is not the same yet most of us have been happiest as a child.

All the stories leave a moral for children and adults alike. Mohit Suneja’s illustrations add colour to this beautiful ride through the mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start the new year with. Go for it, for the nostalgia that it promises. More so if you are a parent because here is a book to bond over with your child.  

Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ Is a Commentary on the Wild Side of Human Behaviour

Animal fiction is an intriguing genre in literature especially the ones that are written for adults. Be it Orwell’s Animal Farm or Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, these works do not merely stay as works of fiction. They, instead, go on to serve as a commentary on society and its ironies. Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is one such commentary on human behaviour. Written originally in Urdu, the book is a collection of short stories and a novella translated by M.Asaduddin and Musharaff Ali Farooqi.  

Syed is one of the most prolific contemporary Urdu writers and also a Sahitya Akademi award winner. His works are known to be a poignant portrayal of the marginalized. ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is no different and bears testimony to the pathos and deep sensitivity that his works carry. Interestingly all the animals in these stories are ‘wild’ and therefore, a sense of impending danger prevails over most of the stories. For instance, in the story title ‘Rogue’, where three men go out to hunt a rogue elephant on a winter night, you can almost feel a chill in your spine.

Happening at the edge of a forest, these stories, on one hand, depicts a day in the lives of people and their encounter with the wild beings. However, the symbolism in most of the stories is too hard to miss, especially the ones with the Hyena. Real horror begins when the difference between man and animal blurs and you can’t say who is who. In the story, ‘ And then laughed The Hyena’ when everyone in the family walks with a ‘chat-chat’ just like the hyenas, you are thrown into a world of eerie surprise and you end up reading it again to ensure you are not delusional.

‘Death of an Antelope’ and ‘The Vulture’ sound more like fables. While the plots of these stories are quite obvious and they lack the usual layers that exist in all the other ones, they are still enjoyable. They give you a break from all allegories and metaphors. Nevertheless, these too keep you brooding. The stories, ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ and ‘The Last Turn’ are intricately layered in their narration and divulge the hypocrisies in human behaviour. However, my favourite one among the short stories is ‘Separated from the Flock’. A heart-wrenching tale based on the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947, it talks about the trauma of separation, the grief of the migrated, their broken wings and homelessness.

The last part of the book is the Novella ‘Beast’ – the story of village administrator Thakur Udal Singh and his wild bull Neela. A critique of the oppression of the marginalized and organized crime, this feels a little too stretched in places. The similarities between Thakur and Neela are anything but uncanny and their end seems befitting. But too much is lost before the end arrives, thanks to the terrorizing duo.

While the animals and more so the humans from the stories instil fear in you, Syed offers you some respite in the form of nature. Since all the stories are based on a rural setup, Syed makes sure you walk through the sugarcane fields, watch the sunset, and wake up to a frozen lake.  While I will never know how the original work in Urdu sounds, the translated prose certainly reads beautifully. If you are ready for some pondering and re-reading until you find all the answers, this is the book for you. And did I mention that I loved the cover of the book too?

Toni Morrison’s Beloved Brings Back the Ghosts of More Than 60 Million Victims of Slavery in America

B-e-l-o-v-e-d, these were the only seven letters Sethe could get engraved on the tombstone of her two year old daughter, letters she thought would be enough. It is the spirit of this dead baby girl that haunts 124, Bluestone Road- a house that had no visitors- colored or white, newspapermen or preachers, speakers or friends. It’s not simply the house they are avoiding but the people in it.

There is little I can write here that can do justice to the experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The horror that resides in its pages is not the vengeance of the ghost living in this house or the inescapable past of its characters. It is the horror of slavery, its routine separation of families, sexual violence and dehumanization. When you read Beloved, words can sting, laid bare before you is pain of the sort real people suffered. It is not an easy read, yet it is a novel you must read.

Being set after the end of the Civil War when slaves were emancipated, Beloved has most of its characters looking back to a time when slavery was not outlawed. The narrative opens in Cincinnati, the town Sethe, a runaway slave had escaped to 18 years ago, from the Garners’ farm in Kentucky- Sweet Home, which was neither sweet nor a home. It is repressed memories of Sweet Home that come back to her like  blood gushing from an open wound, when she finds Paul D, the last of the five male slaves that ‘belonged to’ Sweet Home, waiting for her at her porch.

The ghost that lives in Sethe’s house, leaving hand-prints on cake and shattering mirrors is not an evil ghost but a sad spirit. This spirit comes back in flesh as the ghost Beloved, she is an embodiment of Sethe’s past that haunts her and feeds on her. It is Morrison’s incredible literary genius that has given a mythic dimension to the historical and psychological suffering of slavery. Beloved is a historical novel dealing with slavery at its best and worse: the Garners’ patronizing ‘principled’ slavery, Sethe’s mother being a survivor of the infamous middle passage, the School teacher’s violent and abusive slavery which goes to the extent of studying African American slaves as animals; and Mr. and Miss Bodwin, abolitionists whose attitude to slavery presents an irony.

It is a novel dedicated to the sixty million and more who died because of slavery. It tells you about the personal experience of slaves, their lives, something the history of an institution won’t say. At the heart of Morrisson’s novel are separated families, it is the knowledge of Sethe’s separation from her husband that embitters the sweetness of her love for Halle, a devoted son who worked on Sundays for five years straight to free his mother. Baby Suggs’ eight children are reduced to memory. To Paul D and Sethe, whose loved ones are always vulnerable to slavery, freedom is “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire.” Sethe’s fierce love for her children  gives a new weight to the idea of maternal love. As an enslaved woman, she is willing to go to any extent to protect her children from the inhumanity of slavery.

Slavery is an experience that is different for men and women in a patriarchal society and Morrison represents both in all their complexities. The slavery that devalues maternal care in enslaved women by taking away children, degrades men by denying masculinity. Mr. Garner can call his male slaves ‘my men.’ By presenting both male and female survivors of rape, she foregrounds sexual assault as an act of both gendered and racial domination. To Paul D, his not being a ‘man’ is a source of trauma, his memory of feeling less of a man than a farm rooster is both dehumanizing and emasculating. He is a man whose trauma has forced his memories into a tobacco tin heart. Beloved narrates suffering that no one wants to remember.

However, it is also a novel of resistance laced with a glimmer of hope. Sixo is an embodiment absolute resistance to slavery. He fights the white men even when his hands are tied. An old and drained woman, Baby Suggs, who gives up on living life, still continues to look for colour in the house- blue, yellow, and green. She shows little fear of the ghost living in her house. As she says, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby…” Beloved is representative of this collective experience. The act of recording this experience is in itself an act of resistance, an attempt to restore the historical record, revealing history to be incomplete if not distorted. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Nobel prize in Literature later, the significance of Morrison’s writings and its impact on American literature cannot be overstated.

Cover Image: Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Rumble in a Village Underlines Several Unsolved Problems of Indian Villages Through a Murder Mystery

Indian villages are treasure troves of tales. There are a million stories buried within them, that are waiting to be unearthed. But, it is unbelievable that two foreign research scholars who spent only a year in one of those unrecognizable villages of India could spin such a brilliant tale about it. Palanpur, in the words of Jean Dreze, is a “nondescript village” in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Jean is one of the two authors of the book, ‘Rumble in a Village’, published recently by Aleph Book Company. He along with Luc Leruth documents life as it was in the 1900s in the village of Palanpur where Jean stayed as a part of his research work. Both Jean and Luc are former scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute (New Delhi) and continue to be associated with India in many ways.

The story begins as a murder mystery which compels Anil Singh, a banker in London to return to his father’s village – Palanpur. The murder is only a premise to take the readers to Palanpur. The main plot unravels after you arrive in the village. The story jumps across different timelines as it traces the history of four families over three generations and the dynamics of three castes – the Thakurs, the Muraos, and the Dalits. What is more interesting is most of the characters lived and some still continue to live in Palanpur. The book retained the original name for some of the characters and even has a photograph featuring a few. 

I must credit the authors for their keen eyes which makes the book a very entertaining read starting from Anil’s train journey to Palanpur. Anil’s experience with the Indian railways will stir quite a bit of nostalgia in the readers. The unusual camaraderie, the unnerving questions from fellow travellers, the droplets of spit that hit your face from the window next are just too familiar. I was amused to learn how the railway station in Palanpur came to be named as Jargaon. The book brilliantly chronicles the arrival of the railways and how it changed the lives of the Palanpuris in some unfathomable ways.

The caste politics and the poverty that the book brings out will not surprise you if you are one of those who were raised in an Indian village. But you will be intrigued to learn what changed and what remained unaltered in this ugly game. While the Palanpuris evolved a little when it came to agriculture, they still preferred to have a temple built before fixing the dilapidated school. I can assure you, this mindset hasn’t changed even in 2020 in many of our villages. The worst part, however, was that the Palanpuris seemed to have remained immovable about educating and empowering their women. Like the authors’ rightly point out through Pat’s research, financial independence for women meant a degradation of their stature.

The book effortlessly documents the many little things that truly captures the spirit of Palanpur. The Thakurs and their love for guns, the obsession and the pride that came with becoming a soldier, their marriages and illicit affairs, the village council meetings and corruption that happens at various levels, child mortality and more. The story doesn’t do much about solving a murder mystery but it does in educating you about Indian bureaucracy. While the truth is rather disturbing, Jean and Luc get us through with a little humour. The whole episode of ADO, BDO, CDO, DDO, EDO and more is absolutely hilarious. And then there is Babu and his goat. The innocence and ignorance of these villagers offer you a hearty laugh, but you know that they aren’t as meek as you imagine them to be. Given the opportunity, they are quite capable of crime and treachery.

After a few chapters, I was confused with who is who thanks to the non-linear narration and characters from three different generations. I also did not see any value in the character of the Captain who is shrouded with mystery. But I didn’t need to bother too much about these difficulties because they didn’t matter. What mattered was Luc and Jean transported you to Palanpur and let you live among the Palanpuris and witness it all for real. I didn’t feel the urge to rush through the pages as one would do with murder stories. Instead, I soaked myself in every page, with every detail and the experience that the book had to offer. To me, it felt and read like a bright morning in a beautiful village.

A Millionaire Assassin, Dense Conspiracies, and Slick Writing Make Operation Prometheus a Thrilling Read

2020 has been a brutal year. Of course, the year itself can’t be blamed as it is becoming quite indisputable that the bad omen is going to travel with us well into the year 2021. So, all the mayhem effectuated in 2020 are not going to get gulped down with a few drinks on the new year eve. While the Coronavirus claimed many lives, the mildly luckier ones ended up spending days in self or state imposed quarantines. In a year when a routine body-temperature increase was suspected to be a symptom of COVID-19, reaching the year without dying has already become a sort of achievement. However, like always, there is one set of people who couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to get back to their To-Do list and tick those boxes with a flair for ‘toofani’, aka thrill. This year, some of these people finished their first novel.

Aryaman Chakraborty, a young boy of 17 has come up with this first novel – Operation Prometheus with a promise of bringing up more books in the series of Paine Books. Operation Prometheus is a slick thriller with Delbak Cath as its protagonist. Delbak is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar conglomerate tech company called ‘D-tech’ and also works as a dangerous assassin. The story revolves around the joint hunt of the CIA and the FBI for the perpetrator of a series of high profile assassinations around the world, the latest ones being in Bangalore and Mumbai (India). This is a tale where Bruce Wayne gets really shady and doesn’t need the Batman cape to carry out his missions.

Aryaman’s attention to details is remarkable. From the cars used by the characters to the guns owned by them, the author has got all the names there for you to imagine the scenes with the kind of clarity only motion pictures offer. Although the book begins slow, it catches pace without much of a trouble once the author is convinced that his readers have understood the premise. Once the story picks pace, there is something happening in every sentence. We are taken through action packed sequences one after another with a deftness that will make you wonder whether this is the first book by the author or there is a twist to that fact as well.

However, the book is not without its foibles. There are unnecessary details and repetitions at a few points without which the story could have become grippier. The editing has a lot of room to improve and must become a focal point for the author for the next book in the series. Apart from these, there are certain tropes which have now become cliches for developing leading characters and should be ditched by the new authors. To be more specific, the crutch of parents-dying-in-a-car-crash can perhaps be left alone now.

The book has more strengths than weaknesses. One of the major accomplishments of Aryaman as a first-time author is the distinctive sketches of all his characters. They have distinguishing voices, different reactions to circumstances, and carry out different functions in the larger context of the story movement. The author gets the timing of his twist-reveals perfect and makes this an amazingly engaging book that must be read in one straight sitting. 

The book is published by Notion Press and is available for purchase on Amazon. Get your hands on this wonderful debut by Aryaman Chakraborty to finish 2020 on a high with adrenaline gushing from the pages of Operation Prometheus.

Neighbours and Other Sweet Inconveniences in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove was originally published in 2012 and later made into a movie in 2017. Written by Frederik Backman, the book bagged the New York Times Bestseller within a few months of being published.

Right off the bat I’m going to declare that you need to read this book. A Man Called Ove has the odd power of thawing a frozen heart, its story is filled with delicate emotions that you are bound to give into fully. It indicates that we all need a little bit of uncalled chaos in the strict order of our lives to feel completely and utterly human. 

The book revolves around Ove, an aloof widower living in a small town of Sweden. He keeps to himself and you’ll find him similar to that principled authoritarian male relative in your family that everyone tries to steer clear off. Other characters that feature in this book are a goofy Iranian-American family, intrusive neighbours, estranged friends, and a cat.

Ove is a stand up guy who doesn’t necessarily understand the niceties of the world. He tends to find everyone incompetent of living up to his standards but there are more layers to him than you would think. And this is what makes the book such a warm and funny read. This is inclusive of the fact that throughout the book, Ove is trying to kill himself in order to be freed from his loneliness. He doesn’t succeed in his attempts as unknowingly, the people (and the cat) around him decide that there are many beautiful years he is yet to see. 

Backman uses a remarkable technique of memories through which Ove recalls his late wife Sonja – who was one of the main reasons for Ove’s will to live. The author describes all the life events that make Ove the man that he is today. The man who has faced insurmountable loss in his life and the final one of his beloved wife acts as the very last leaf. Ove is prepared to end his life and then he runs into a pregnant Iranian woman called Parvaneh, his sweet neighbour Jimmy, and two young teenage boys at the brink of finding themselves. These characters from around the neighbourhood keep interfering with Ove’s plans of ending it all and this makes up to be very hilarious. These friendships pour into the gaps of Ove’s lives and simply provide for him that which was missing: meaning.

The story of the book is beautiful in both its characters and writing. However, as I scratched the surface of the book, a thought clung throughout the time of my reading. This was regarding the social hierarchy that separates the geriatric from the younger individuals and what it does to the former. Ove constantly runs into his ‘irrelevance’ in the workplace, his resentment towards the casual younger generation, the indifference of the healthcare system towards the infirm, and his remembrance of the days gone by where people had more integrity. A Man Called Ove’s cultural distance from that of my own doesn’t stand as a hindrance to the fact that we do live in a society where old age is just as good as invisibility. 

The book was made into a movie in 2017 starring Rolf Lassgård and this doesn’t come as a surprise when I read the book. Backman’s writing can be extremely visual and one may almost question whether the book was written with the goal of screen adaptation in mind. Each circumstance faced by Ove from his youngest years to the present play out like a movie. These events may even seem a little dragged out at certain points but assuredly add to the intensity of Ove’s transformation. 

The book is a slice of life story that showcases how unlikely relationships can sometimes be life giving and a source of undying hope. This book restores the faith that amongst all the hardness that humans have to put up with, authentic relationships always have a way of grounding people.  

I recommend this book to everyone who has faced unforgiving loneliness during the pandemic. Ove’s story is both a reminder and proof that we all need community in our life to just help us get by. 

Moscow, Mania, the Master and His Margarita!

In the literary circles of erstwhile Soviet Union, a famous proverb postulated, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”  The phrase celebrates the permanency of art and the defiance of Russian authors when faced with institutionalised censorship. Writers memorised material, refrained from penning down their ideas, printed secret carbon copies and sent microfilm versions of their work to foreign publishers. The powerful maxim can be traced to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of the 20th century’s unforgettable lessons in magical realism. Simultaneously, the novel stands testament to the condition of Soviet writers, courtesy of the systematic oppression executed by Glavlit, the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press.

The Master and Margarita was born and disseminated through endless struggles. Bulgakov started writing in 1928. Two years later, disillusioned with being a storyteller in such a repressive regime, he burnt the manuscript. His apartment had been raided, diaries confiscated and repeated requests for emigration stalled by Stalin. In 1931, he resumed work and rewrote the initial portion from memory. Four weeks before his death in 1940, Bulgakov stopped writing. From 1968 to several decades after, only a highly censored copy was available in print. Fortunately, the process called samizdat was also underway. Considered dissident activity, controversial publications were manually reproduced. Bulgakov’s original text, containing all omitted sections, was circulated among trusted circles. Finally, the text dating to 1940 saw the light of the day in 1973. Another edition, that compiled all previous versions, was published only after 1989. Therefore, the fact that we are able to read and appreciate this book is a deeply humbling realisation in itself.

So, what does it take to enjoy The Master and Margarita? Here’s a checklist:

  • Sense of humour (You must be able to recognise and enjoy a good laugh)
  • Sensitivity (To understand the pain of those consistently marginalised)
  • Strangeness (Quite a lot of this; preferably all the eccentricity available)

These are the central emotional experiences that control Bulgakov’s masterpiece. The narrative is an intoxicating potion, prepared in a cauldron bubbling with unhinged humans, the Devil and his minions, detectives, nosy tenants, bustling cities, Jewish feasts, asylums, literary committees, historical events, counterfeit money, housing shortage and every little thing that surpasses the limitations of “This can’t possibly be happening.”  The Master and Margarita straddle three, interconnected plotlines that transcend time and recklessly play with the human notions of redemption, good, evil and life on earth. Each story is nested within the other. Each opens the gate to another world.

In the first section, the Devil visits Moscow. Satan comes as Professor Woland, a black magic enthusiast. Accompanying him are his notorious crew: a colossal black cat called Behemoth, the vampire Hella, the valet Koroviev-Faggot and a trickster named Azazello. Together, they stage a theatrical performance that makes a mockery of the Russian elite. They instigate disappearances, arrests and ridiculous situations that cause a feverish collapse of the social fabric and law enforcement. Through their antics, Bulgakov exposes the most spiteful features of Soviet society; uncontrollable consumerism, the clampdown on the production of literature, unnecessary enthusiasm about private lives, corruption and autocratic bureaucracy.

The second storyline is set in Jerusalem, the time during which Pontius Pilate served as the Procurator of Judea. History best remembers Pilate as the official who oversaw the proceedings against Jesus Christ and ordered his Crucifixion. In this book, Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Hebrew equivalent of Jesus the Nazarene) is brought to Pilate after he is accused of inciting rebellion. Pilate is immediately drawn to his compassionate philosophies but cannot allow a man who has challenged Caesar to be freed. Overcome by guilt at his inability to save Yeshua from the gallows, Pilate is condemned to a painful life. For 2000 years, his dog Banga and he occupy a hilltop, waiting for forgiveness.

Finally, we come to the people who lend the book its name. The Master wins a lottery and moves to the countryside where he spends his days writing his novel about Pontius Pilate. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. She is not only devoted to the Master but is deeply connected to his writing. Tragedy strikes when influential critics refuse to publish the Master’s book and subject it to scathing criticism. Tormented by failure, he turns himself over to a psychiatric clinic. Margarita is left hurt and dazed, frantically searching for her lover and desperate for revenge.

The Master and Margarita is a masterclass in magical realism. Injecting the Moscow cityscape with supernatural elements, Bulgakov lets the madness run berserk. And he does so unapologetically, without explaining the why of things. Behemoth is a sarcastic cat who enjoys vodka with pickled mushrooms. Neighbors turn into flying pigs. An accountant disappears, leaving behind his empty suit who sits at the desk and diligently finishes work. Cramped apartments can acquire the fifth dimension for the Devil to host a grand feast.  These things happen. Deal with it.

One of the novel’s most famous episodes is Professor Woland’s Midnight’s Ball where he invites Margarita to be the hostess. She is bathed in blood, rose oil and prepared for the event. The venue of the grand feast consists of several fantastical spaces and things; a tropical forest, a fountain of champagne and a grand choir of orangutans. The ball is for the Dead; specifically, those who committed heinous crimes when they were alive. Coffins and gallows tumble out of the fireplace and the remains of the invitees transform themselves into well-dressed, charismatic guests.

It is widely believed that Bulgakov designed this celebration as an ode to the deep-rooted, cyclical nature of evil. The guests represent historical figures. In 1935, he was invited to a magnificent ball hosted by the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The extravagance was unimaginable, including Finnish tulips, a recreated forest and a menagerie including zebras, bears, parakeets, pheasants and goats. The 400 attendees included the likes of Nikolai Bukharin (Bolshevik revolutionary), Maxim Litvinov (Foreign Minister), Karl Radek (Communist Leader) and renowned members of the political circles. Stalin was absent. Interestingly, Bulgakov never openly mentioned Stalinism. Instead, he conjured mystical ideas to symbolise the strange happenings in totalitarian regimes.

The Master and Margarita is like an indulgent, baked delicacy. When you hold up the glass dish, you can ascertain the distinct layers of meat, vegetables, and cheese. But it is only when the spoon cracks through the hot surface and scoops up a delicious bite, can the complexity of flavours be truly appreciated. The layers merge into a single, delicious whole, and the juices begin to flow. If this thought makes you hungry, then The Master and Margarita will surely satiate that appetite.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_Margarita

Did Nehru Reject Permanent Membership of the UN Security Council? Rajiv Dogra’s India’s World Answers Many Such Questions

I had never read any of Rajiv Dogra’s works until last week, not even his critically acclaimed Durand’s Curse. However, a few days ago, when I began reading his latest book, India’s World, published by Rupa Publications. I only regret having not read him until then. My reasons are many. I will start with the thing that struck me first – the language. Even for non-fiction, the words are mellifluous. One might as well call the book a ‘poetic’ account of the foreign policy choices of India’s prime ministers. How can one ever put down something that is written so beautifully? I cannot wait to read his other books.

Coming back to ‘India’s World’, Rajiv Dogra talks about how eight out of the fourteen Indian Prime Ministers shaped the foreign policy of India. In the prologue of the book, Rajiv states that his book doesn’t intend “to airbrush the warts of these eight leaders or to exaggerate their abilities. It is to present the leaders as they were and to reflect on their policies as they affected the country.” That is precisely what he does in the chapters that follow. Starting from India’s first prime minister Nehru to the current Prime Minister Modi, he discusses the successes and failures of each of these leaders and their policies with much candour. He credits Nehru for his statesmanship that guided India towards a secular democratic set up, unlike Pakistan. However, he doesn’t mince his words when he explains how Nehru ignored the advice of Vallabhbhai Patel and Ambedkar to only complicate the Kashmir issue for decades to come.

Rajiv acknowledges that all these leaders were handed over a country that had a plethora of socio-economic problems. Add to it the unstable power dynamics across the various groups of countries and the mistakes of their predecessors. While some learnt from the mistakes of their predecessor and tried to fix it, they then made mistakes of their own. Each one had their distinguished style when it came to foreign policy. While Nehru was a man of ideals, Shashtri was a more practical leader. Indira was the Goddess and Modi, the Rule Maker. This also meant that India lacked a “well-drafted long term approach” towards foreign policy which leads to the next question. Did our leaders ever have a shared vision of India’s role in the world’s affairs?

Rajiv picks some of the most commonly debated decisions of these leaders and critiques them. This is not merely based on his rich experience and expert opinion, but is also supported with archival documents, quotes from direct sources, books, articles and more.

The book traces the foreign policy decisions of India from the time of Independence to date. That way the book is a good starter to anyone who wants to understand the history and evolution of some of the most significant topics like the Kashmir Issue, India’s relationship with the USA, China and Russia, Non-alignment movement, Bangladesh war, India’s relationship with South-East Asia and more.

The book ends with an unusual epilogue featuring Narendra Modi as its protagonist. The title of the epilogue says it all – The More it changes the more it remains the same. Rajiv warns us of the grim realities like the never-ending Pakistan troubles and the increasing Chinese aggression in our neighbourhood. He adds that India must set its internal affairs in order if it aspires to be a stabilising power in world affairs.

While the earlier chapters of the books are very exhaustive, I find the latter ones rushed and lacking specifics in comparison. Yet, the book answers many questions and busts many myths with factual evidence. The books also feature several interesting tidbits like how P.V. Narasimha Rao was packing for a life of retirement when he was called on to become the Prime Minister and why Atal Bihari Vajpayee called him the true father of Shakti Nuclear Test. So if you are wondering if India rejected a permanent seat in the UNSC, or why Indira did not attack West Pakistan while our troops were already winning, or if the many international trips that our current Prime Minister undertook strengthened India’s place in the world, pick this book up.  

Falling in Love With a Young Adult Novel – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor & Park was originally published in 2012 and has won over 20 literary awards including the Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013.

What you’re about to read is less of a review and more of a fangirl gush about falling in love with a book in all its entirety and feeling the emptiness of parting away when it’s all over.

Eleanor & Park is well, about Eleanor and Park- two intense and naive 16 year olds who end up falling for one another even though the association seems unlikely to both of them. Eleanor is the aloof new kid in the town of Omaha and Park is an existing resident. While facing all the strangeness that a new kid does, we are also taken through Eleanor’s unstable household situation, one she dreams of escaping. Park comes across as a reserved loner kid who belongs to a close knit half Korean-half white family. It seems completely justified that Eleanor and Park end up together as they are presented as misfits of sorts in the book, separated from the rest of the kids and their coming together seems organic.

For both these kids going through transformative periods in their lives, it all starts with exchanging comic books and playlists. It all leads to secret meetups and finding a home in one another in a world that might not always be kind to them. Rowell has a brilliant skill to use the simplest of language and yet keep the reader engaged thoroughly. In showing both Eleanor and Park as intense characters, it’s remarkable that the author didn’t forget that they are after all teenagers. She has also portrayed them as sexual creatures who are confused by all the newfound feelings of self discovery. If I am being very honest, I thought myself to be over and above the teenage puppy love that populates stupid Netflix movies and monotone romcoms but this one is completely different. Both Eleanor and Park are their own people as well. They have their insecurities and showcase fragility for falling in love for the first time which is bound to remind the reader of an age gone by. 

The romance genre definitely caters to a certain readership and I do not consider myself to be one of them. I am also aware that the heady nostalgia that romance novels usually provide to its reader isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Eleanor and Park isn’t just a romance novel, categorizing it as such would be a disservice to its characters who come alive through Rowell. This book showcases a love story of two young adults with a lot of nuance and sensitivity, cutting through all that would normally overshadow each character’s journey when they are in love. Eleanor and Park stands as a testament to the true potential that the young adult genre possesses for readers of all kinds. There is a certain raw emotion to the delicate characters that gripped me through the novel, I kid you not, I finished it in 3 hours. This was a first for me. 

The climax of the book took me by heartbreaking surprise. It even drove me a tiny bit mad for how Rowell decided to end things for both the characters. The conclusion of the book is not completely unforeseen as the reader senses the perilous situation in which Eleanor finds herself.

Apart from the end that might stand as an impediment, there is some racial tension in the book that seems out of place. Park is a mixed race kid whose race seems to have been characterised deliberately yet not treated nearly enough by the author. In the current context, it becomes difficult to not investigate race if it’s a part of anything related to pop culture. I would warn the readers to take this angle of the story with a pinch of salt. 

Eleanor and Park is your regular boy meets girl, meet-cute love story, but it will steal your heart and jolt it. If you’re not in full blown tears at the end of the book, I’d consider myself a pathetic softy. This book is a brilliant gateway into the young adult genre for anyone looking to explore. It is neither a long nor a very heavy read and can be your new relaxing weekend companion.

The Romance Novel in India and Those Pricey Thakur Girls

“That’s so filmi,” I’ve often remarked on being told about an especially thrilling romantic experience. In India, romance can feel synonymous with film. Much of our imagination and enactment of love comes from the movies. Mainstream Hindi cinema, in particular, strongly influences how we express love, construct fantasies, and our expectations from romantic trysts. This comes from no little effort on its part. A romantic plot feels requisite for most Hindi cinema: songs and subplots are shoehorned into all kinds of movies. And so a hero with outstretched arms, a woman bumping into a love interest and dropping a sheaf of papers that fly everywhere, or yearning eyes meeting across a crowded room, become visual shorthands for love itself.

This is why, when it comes to cultural depictions of romance in India, we rarely think of literature, specifically Indian writing in English. After all, no romantic story I’ve ever heard has elicited the response, “that’s so contemporary Indian novel in English!” Contradictory to global literary trends–Mills and Boons, Harlequin romances, Fifty Shades of Grey–romance novels in India are relatively unestablished, especially those written by women. This is a genre that tends to draw criticisms that are both gendered and elitist, perhaps dissuading female authors from pursuing it: postcolonial literary studies, for instance, has never quite known what to do with popular literature.

In this context, reading Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls was a strong reminder of what the novel part of a romance novel can give us, especially when written by a woman. The novel has been a wildly successful genre for romance because of the interiority it affords its characters. Knowing what the characters are thinking and being told precisely what they are feeling is a powerful addition to a genre that thrives on appealing to imaginations. So when Dylan Singh Shekawat meets Debjani Thakur for the first time, the author is able to give us a sense of exactly how he is affected: “the last rays of the setting sun hit her face and he discovers that her thickly lashed eyes are the exact colour and shape as Pears soap.”  These glimpses into Dylan’s thoughts are powerful because they articulate how desire feels for him, and conversely, what it is to be desired by him.

As Emily Davis points out in Rethinking the Romance Genre, for critics, the genres of romance and political writing, the private and the public, have often been seen as mutually exclusive. This, of course, amounts to both a denial of female perspectives, and the tensions and structural fissures the process of love demonstrates. Also, yet romance is deeply contextual, both in terms of function and effect. Like many Indian women, I grew up on a diet of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. These books continue to resonate emotionally, but romance provides a space–especially for women–to reimagine and consider dynamics of gender and sexuality, and there is something to be said for love rooted in our specific context, that Pemberley and Lockwood cannot provide.

Though romance is perceived as primarily character-driven, much of its strength comes from its focus on the atmosphere and setting. An Indian romance novel, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail only a romance featuring Indian characters, and Those Pricey Thakur Girls delights in its own setting. One of the jokes running through the book is Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur’s obsession with what alphabets portend. So when D-for-Debjani meets D-for-Dylan, readers know what to expect. However, this is a story in which the city is the protagonist, its people, trees, dogs, and localities meticulously sketched out. It’s hard to miss: D for Delhi.

Moreover, Delhi offers a lot. The Emergency looms over the story, set a year after the Anti-Sikh pogrom incited and enabled by a politician Dylan, a journalist, sets out to expose. The central ideological tension between Dylan and Debjani is their respective attitudes towards the role of media during times of political conflict. The resolution of the romantic plot entails a realisation on Debjani’s part about her own complicity in furthering proto-fake news as the anchor of a channel modelled on Doordarshan. Though the book features characters who are upper-caste and upper-class, Chauhan’s engagement with this context and its centrality to her plot shows that the romance–mostly associated with escapist pleasure and accused of enabling political apathy–can be a narrative vehicle for political expression.

Chauhan also mines hilarity from the lives of her characters, using an idiom of writing that is imbued in local contexts, drawing on movies, Hinglish, and popular culture. Dylan’s wooing is rudely interrupted by Debjani’s brother Gulgul, upset about being cheated of a belly-button viewing in a song and Debjani, “by the grace of god”, has a meeting with a self-obsessed prospective suitor. In one of my favourite lines, Debjani accuses Dylan of dipping his proboscis into multiple flowers: the characters Chauhan creates are clearly catering to a female perspective. While much has been made of Dylan Singh Shekhawat, now the gold standard for romantic heroes, Chauhan’s characterisation of Debjani is equally interesting. Her narrative arc depicts her struggles to differentiate herself from her sisters, build her own life, find a career that appeals to her, and come into her own, makes. Everything that makes Debjani attractive–her commitment to bravery and kindness, her affinity for those in hard luck, and her signature way of dressing–ignores the conventional male gaze.

In Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Chuhan creates a template for romantic imagination. The chaotic denouement, featuring the reunion of Dylan and Debjani, a family gathering, and a chachi possessed by the ghost of her mother-in-law, shows that love and reason might keep little company together nowadays, but love and community-building do.

Jihyun Yun’s ‘Some Are Always Hungry’ Cooks Multiple Paradoxical Flavours of Identity, Existence, and Civilization Through Poetry

As the title of Jihyun Yun’s poetry volume, Some Are Always Hungry suggests, the poems feature food and hunger in all its forms: the decadent, the delicious, the heartwarming, the sparse and the ravaged. Food is at the center of existence in this collection. Its role in shaping one’s identity, memories and family ties are subtly depicted through the majority of her poems.

Jihyun Yun being a second generation Korean American, the other themes of Some Are Always Hungry revolve around ideas of immigration, feminism, Korean history and her family’s own stories. However, all these themes, like planets, revolve around the sun, food.

The descriptions of food in the poems are always indulgent, even when she speaks of the unimaginable hunger the poems’ persona faced during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Yun brings out both the visceral as well as the subtleties of making and enjoying any meal. She minces no words when it comes to vividly describing the preparation of the meat for the meals. Yet, she can easily and gently introduce the delicateness of enjoying all the ingredients of any dish. For Yun, food was the one crucial link to her past and to her present immigrant identity. This is brought out right at the beginning of the second poem, My Grandmother Thinks of Love While Steeping Tea.

“Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey
pull the thumb of ginger in to your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste
your inheritance. The gunpowder,
our soil.”

Food is political and not new to the idea of ‘othering.’ This is seen in India as well where food of certain states is considered strange or barbaric. Worldwide as well, the distaste for food consumed by East Asian people, especially China in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, has increased. Although it is alright not to be used to a particular food or having only a set food as one’s comfort food, it is rather narrow-minded to mock cuisines of other countries or cultures merely because they are different from one’s own.

Perhaps as a result of such a constant othering of her own Korean cuisine, in the poem, Benediction as Disdained Cuisine, Yun reclaims all the food items the persona or the poet has forgone. What is powerful about the poem is how it reiterates the phrase, ‘give me’ before listing out the food item the poet has avoided for far too long. Two words repeated are all it takes in a way to make a culinary heritage worthy again. It shows an assertive persona, one who is unwilling to erase her identity.

Food is one sure way to remain true to one’s own culture and identity. This is even truer in Diaspora literature. For Jihyun and her family, food was a way to show affection to each other. This perhaps explains why food is central in her poems. Jihyun Yun explores all facets of food and how it can speak volumes about a person.

Jihyun Yun’s family history and memories are irreversibly linked with the home country, Korea. Her poems throw light on these three aspects through an interplay with food. The poems pull you in with all their tempting aromas, and then throw in the most painful remnants of her family’s history.

For example, the poem, Recipe, reads like a recipe. But Yun also narrates the disquieting experience of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Her grandmother prepares the dish and still confuses the Japanese and Korean words for the food items. Under the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were not allowed to speak their language and were often forced to adopt Japanese names. The fact that the poet’s grandmother still confuses the words and “cannot discard Japanese” shows “a slim silhouette of occupation tethered to our language like a haunting.” Yun smoothly merges the act of cleaving the ingredients to the idea of a cleaved mother tongue or language.

Since preparation of the food is considered largely a womanly task, Yun also explores the notion of female labour and sacrifice. In the opening poem of Some Are Always Hungry, All Female, Yun describes the act of buying food from the market and her grandmother or halmeoni dismantling a crab for a meal. Through the metaphor of women being confined to cook even meat that is female, Yun hopes for freedom. It is a decidedly intrepid poem but one whose boldness and power sneak up on the reader slowly but surely.

Since this is the opening poem, the unexpected juxtaposition of the gendered food and gendered tasks immediately pulls you in and you know at once this book is going to be a remarkable read.

And oh what a treat it is to perceive and absorb all the paradoxical flavours of Yun’s poems in Some Are Always Hungry! From being no holds barred in their directness one moment to scaling back and bringing forth the most insidious of all metaphors in the very next, the poems in Some Are Always Hungry pack a powerful punch. They explore elements of hidden Korean history as well as the current realities of immigrants and assimilation. Yun also audaciously explores feminist topics such as in Menstruation Triptych, she speaks about three different perspectives to the monthly cycle. In Caught, Yun portrays the point of view of a rape victim questioning herself after the crime. It lays bare the constant victim shaming girls are subjected to. The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon is a retelling of the eponymous Korean folktale. It is a painful reminder of the many taboos that society still imposes on women.

All in all, Some Are Always Hungry includes a strikingly diverse collection of poems that captivate with both the personal and the historical.

*Disclaimer: A free PDF copy of the book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.