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Read Your Friends Close And Your Enemies Closer

While he was still a student, Swami Vivekananda had already read Herbert Spencer, John Richard Green, Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer, John Stuart Mill, August Comte, Aristotle, Wordsworth, David Hume, Percy Shelley, and Charles Dickens among other writers. Dr. Ambedkar, during his lifetime, had collected more than 50,000 books at Rajgruha (his house in Mumbai). On being asked to furnish a list of books that influenced him, Leo Tolstoy sent an age-wise list of 50 books that influenced him through his lifetime. We can make a list of the most original thinkers and leaders in the world and barring a few exceptions, we will invariably find that they were and are the most avid readers you can find. They never shied away from reading ideas that challenged their own perceptions of the world. Now, in a world where our habits are defined by the ways of the internet, thanks to the algorithms that track our preferences and reading history, we keep reading what we keep reading. As a result, forget the ideas we do not like, we don’t even understand the ideas we actually like.

 

Reading is a different space in the mind, a battleground where ideas meet. Some ideas mingle and sign treaties while some meet only to fight and decimate each other. Now, if this open field keeps hosting only one particular kind of idea and never lets other ideas anywhere near the battleground, the mind becomes a complacent place. It forgets how treaties are signed, it forgets how battles are fought and won, and most importantly, it forgets how a battle of ideas is lost. It is therefore, the duty of a reader to keep the battlefield alive and bloody, so that the ideas may sweat more during peace and bleed less during the war. If that duty is not taken care of, a stronger idea keeps coming at you until you are annihilated and you surrender without putting up a fight! It is at this point that you make a choice between – getting co-opted by the stronger force or remain exiled till you prepare for the battle anew. Sadly, most of us get co-opted.

 

Apart from their personal struggle, a lot many change-makers of this planet took their own sweet time to understand their own self better. They read ideas from different corners of human development. They examined them first hand and reached their own conclusions. They sieved out things and kept what they needed. They strengthened their ideas by putting them to rigorous tests and only then, came out to talk about them to people. These people had minds of their own. It was impossible to co-opt them. It was impossible to overshadow them. It was impossible to disagree with them in totality. This happened because they were sincere in their efforts and they all found one or more element of truth for themselves. An easy identifier to mark such people is that you will find otherwise completely divergent groups trying to appropriate their ideas after they are gone. That happens because of several reasons. One, these men and women were not afraid of revising their ideas from time to time, so one group cites from one phase of their lives and another from another without understanding the context. Two, these people have already done the hard work of reading and filtering of ideas, so the appropriating groups have it easier if they just accept them as their Heroes and follow whatever they like in their repertoire.

 

Now, things would have been still better if people just did not want to read about ideas they disagreed with. However, we have people who do not even want to read ideas they like, ideas that appeal to them, and people they adore otherwise. This is partly their own laziness and partly peer pressure.

 

“Ambedkar was a great man”
“…yes, Ambedkar was a great man”
“why?”
“because he drafted the constitution?”
“ok, so have you read the constitution?”
“What? No! How can one read the constitution?”

 

This population bifurcates at the point ‘action’ comes into the picture. Case in point, a protest march in the name of Ambedkar. One set will stay at home and the other will join the march with all their zeal. The ones staying at home are more or less a harmless set. The one on the street is capable of burning buses and hurling stones at trains in peer pressure or on the command of the leader who has studied Ambedkar but knows what to conceal and what to reveal to effect a nihilistic vandalism. That’s why I wonder why people are so surprised to find protestors in Anti-CAA and Pro-CAA marches not knowing what CAA even stands for. The lot that doesn’t want to read but is eager to burn is the injurious one and the growth of such set should be a cause for worry for all of us. People who have read 2 more books or a few more wiki links than these gullible people are able to preach to them and drive them according to their own fancy. The gullible warrior is too lazy to do his own background work and hence, walks behind people who do it or at least pretend to do it.

 

This is one reason for the widespread reach of fake news. Any influencer puts out a piece of news that might be fake (intended or otherwise) and his followers start sharing the piece without a care for its authenticity or consequences. The followers do not like the idea of reading, they do not like the idea of fact-finding, they do not like the idea of getting corrected – what they like is – does that shared statement help them ascertain their own beliefs? If it does, click retweet. If not, hurl insults. The reading and the contemplative population remain a minority. It is  common to see someone who has not read Ambedkar swearing in his name, someone who has not read Gandhi speak about Satyagraha all the time, someone who doesn’t know Sanskrit talk of protecting it with all their might, someone who has never read Karl Marx dismiss him nonchalantly or fight for him tooth and nail.

 

If you have read this piece till here and if you know you belong to this set, there is nothing to be ashamed about. The systems of our world make it easier for you to fall prey to a bigger fish and get co-opted. We like people who agree with us. Online bookstores suggest you books on the basis of your reading history, streaming channels show you show suggestions based on your viewing history, news aggregators show you news according to what you have clicked before on their site, and friends gift you books according to your taste. It is a difficult arrangement. The battleground of mind is a difficult place by itself and that space should not be up for co-option by anyone anywhere. Start making the change today. Dust your armoury, sharpen your swords, and if you want to bring about a revolution of ideas outside, bring it inside your head first. To begin with, read. Then, come out of your ideological silos and read some more.

 

The Seer Reading List for 2020

1 Book A Week For 2020 – The Seer Reading List

Congratulations to the readers who were able to meet their target of 1 book a week for the year 2019. Now, if you haven’t been able to do that or if you are planning to do it again in the year 2020, The Seer has come up with a list of books, one for each week, to help you select your books without breaking your heads. These books have figured in our list because we believe that they have something excellent to offer to their readers. This list is also a product of a personal need for the team as we have seen it first hand that the resolution to read 52 or 53 books a year hits a dead end when we have to handpick each book ourselves. A friend you can trust on this road, is a great help and that is what we have tried to do – be of some help in your reading journey for the year 2020. Please let us know of your To-Be-Read lists in the comment section so that we can add more books to our personal lists.

We have to thank one of the most prolific members of our team – Aakanksha Singh, who helped us in building up this list. If you wish to read her writings, please follow the link – https://theseer.in/author/aakankshatheseer/ . You may also write to us at contact@theseer.in for any feedback, suggestions, new ideas. We wish you and your family a literature laden 2020.

Happy New Year

53 Books To Read in 2020

Week 1

Sprout is a hen who dreamed she could fly and become free. You should read The Hen who Dreamed She Could Fly for that strong dose of inspiration to help you sail across your new year blues.

Buy it here.

Week 2

The winters are creeping up! Cosy up in the cold with a cup of coffee and a heartwarming read, Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawguchi.

Buy it here.

Week 3

Swami Vivekananda built a bridge between India’s past and its future. While he adored the India of the past, he also understood its limitations and took a modern approach to solve the country’s problems. Mr. Hindol Sengupta explores The Modern Monk in his book and brings to you many facets of his life that are not commonly known.

Buy it here.

Week 4

It’s the Republic Day week and who better to read than the maker of the Indian constitution – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Federaton Versus Freedom is a lecture he delivered on 29th January, 1939 at the annual function of the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics held in the Gohale Hall, Poona (now Pune) where he talks about federal form of government and India’s future with it.

Buy it here.

Week 5

The International Holocaust Remembrance Day falls on 27th January. To commemorate and to remember, read Elie Wiesel’s Night where he narrates his own experiences in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Nazi Germany.

Buy it here.

Week 6

4th February 2020 marks Agha Shahid Ali’s 71st birth anniversary. He wrote about his home, Kashmir, extensively to capture the state’s suffering. We recommend you read his haunting poetry book, A Country Without a Post Office.

Buy it here.

Week 7

Even though we are perhaps living through some of the most productive and peaceful decades of recent human history, the variables of internet, social media, insta-gratification, post modern constructs, absence of purpose, and extreme politics have rendered our lives chaotic. It is from this chaos that the author tries to get us out through his 12 Rules For Life. Each chapter comes with a lot of research and examples from Dr. Peterson’s practice in clinical psychology.

Buy it here.

Week 8

Japan and its love for cats is absolutely adorable. The country celebrates National Cat Day on 22nd Feb each year. The Seer recommends reading the heartwarming The Traveling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa. Check out The Seer’s other favourite novels featuring cats from Japan.

Buy it here.

Week 9

Read the book before you watch the movie! A movie adaptation of  Little Women released in December 2019! If you haven’t watched the movie yet, WAIT a little bit more. Go on first and read the book. We promise it will be delightful! Little Women is a feminist classic that transports you to beautiful homes and a very British countryside.

Buy it here.

Week 10

 If you have read Maus by Art Spiegelman and connected with the graphic novel’s use of anthropomorphism, then Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir by Malik Sajad would make for a thoughtful read too. The graphic novel narrates the story of the titular Munnu amidst the political and military strife in Kashmir. The Kashmiris in this story are depicted as deer. 

Buy it here.

Week 11

What can be better than reading a book about books? One such beautiful novel, Paper Moon, by Rehana Munir, was released last year. The story revolves around the protagonist, Fiza, who sets up a bookshop in Bandra, Mumbai.

Buy it here.

Week 12

21st March is UN World Poetry Day.  Sumana Roy’s, Out of Syllabus, would make for a perfect companion this week to rekindle your love for poetry and to revel in the joys of myriad relationships that are etched in her poems.

Buy it here.

Week 13

12th March is World Theatre Day. My Story and My Life as an Actress is a translation of the autobiography of Binodini Dasi who started acting at the age of 12 in 19th century Calcutta. It was a time when theatre had not yet got the Bhadralok approval and women actors were chiefly hired from red light districts of the city. Her struggle, rise to fame, and yet the presence of unending sorrow in her life, makes her autobiography a heartfelt read.

Read it here.

Week 14

We recommend the stunning debut, Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi. It is a searing and caustic tale about a mother and daughter relationship. The story is remarkable for its depiction of a mother who defies any prescriptive conventions associated with being a mother. However, that has repercussions on her own daughter who has felt unloved and now has to take care of her mother.

Buy it here.

Week 15

Rilke in his letters has dug deep inside the human mind and heart and has come out with gems of wisdom that come only through experience and the love for your craft. Letters to a Young Poet is a must keep for every bibliophile. Also, since The Seer began with a short review of this book, we harbour a special attachment and recommend it strongly.

Buy it here.

Week 16

Urvashi Bahuguna’s Terrarium is an absolute delight. The winner of 2019 The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, this collection beautifully portrays the small wonders of the natural and everyday world.

Buy it here.

Week 17

Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry by Arundhathi Subramaniam who has edited the book is a collection of about 200 poems of Bhakti poets of the golden Bhakti period of India. Bhakti poems appealed to every stratum of the society because of lucid language employed without compromising on the deeper ethos of India’s tradition in spiritual devotion.

Buy it here.

Week 18

Kamala Das or ‘Madhavi Kutty’ as she is remembered fondly by some, has carved a special place in Indian literature. Grab her book Selected Poems that explores female sexuality, love, and life.

Buy it here.

Week 19

We think once in a while it is alright to judge a book by its cover! Appreciate the beautiful book cover and also the book within with The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali that tells the tale of love found and lost between Roya and Baman in the Iran of pre and post 1979 Revolution.

Buy it here.

Week 20

Memoirs made it big in 2019! The success of Becoming by Michelle Obama set the trend perhaps. If you still haven’t jumped on the memoir bandwagon, read Shanta Gokhale’s memoir, One Foot on the Ground. She was awarded the Tata Literature Live! Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

Buy it here.

Week 21

Beat the sweltering heat by diving into the cool depths of Ruskin Bond’s Roads to Mussoorie where he pays homage to the lovely town of Mussoorie. Celebrate his birthday on the 19th of May as the lovable author turns 87!

Buy it here.

Week 22

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is celebrated worldwide for his surreal landscapes and story narratives. But we think, one should also read some other lesser known magical realist authors. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is a delicious novel portraying the fabulist through the protagonist’s Tita’s love for cooking.

Buy it here.

Week 23

Having a midyear crisis? Tide over it by reading Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus and learning how to embrace the banal!

Buy it here.

Week 24

June is celebrated as Pride Month the world over! Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sarkar is an imaginative and sensitive YA novel that brings out the reality of homosexuality and bullying in schools.

Buy it here.

Week 25

20th June is UN World Refugee Day.  Reading always enables individuals to see the humane side of any crisis rather than through the prism of hard and cold statistics often bombarded on us. Learn more about the Rohingya refugee crisis by reading First They Erased our Name: A Rohingya Speaks by Habiburahman, Sophie Ansel.

Buy it here.

Week 26

Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s personal account of his experiences and observations fighting for the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War. It make for an extremely interesting read and takes you into details of how a war from a foot soldier’s perspective is entirely different from the politician’s view.

Buy it here.

Week 27

Bohemian Rhapsody might have enthralled you with its brilliant portrayal of Freddie Mercury himself thanks to the sheer effort and power of Rami Malek’s acting, but if you are still hungering for more Queen related books, Goodbye Freddie Mercury by Nadia Akbar is the book for you! One of the characters, Bugsy, worships the iconic singer and all Queen Fans will relate!

Buy it here.


Week 28

Read engaging stories in verse, Circus Folks and Village Freaks by Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal. There are 18 twisted tales of very peculiar characters that are sure to keep you reading all night! 

Buy it here.

Week 29

Pick up a light, breezy folklore collection, Greatest Folktales from Bihar. Interested in folk literature? Read The Seer’s 12 Folktale Collection Recommendations from India.

Buy it here.

Week 30

Stuck home because of constant flooding and pouring rain? Shaya Tales by Bulbul Sharma will transport you to a tiny hamlet in the Himalayas and into a tiny cottage in the mountains away from the grey of the monsoon blues!

Buy it here.

Week 31

Compare the Book and the Movie with the touching story of Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is the story of August, who has a facial difference and only wants to be treated as a normal kid. The book was made into a movie in 2017. Let us know which is better? 

Buy it here.

Week 32

August is Women in Translation Month! Female writing is slowly getting its due, but translations not so much. Ah, we can change that too one month at a time. 


Khadija Mastur’s portrayal of an inquisitive and questioning protagonist Aliya in her novel, The Women’s Courtyard is laudable, making it one of our favourite books in recent times. It is translated from Urdu by Daisy Rockwell.

Buy it here.

Week 33

India’s Independence Day cannot be viewed insularly, without taking into account the horrifying after-effects of the Partition. One must therefore read and learn more before falling for raging rhetorical arguments. Qurratlain Hyder’s River of Fire or Aag Ka Darya in Urdu is a novel of epic proportions which portrays the seemingly impossible task of showing three countries’ history to the point of the Partition’s chaos.

Buy it here.

Week 34

The Roof Beneath Their Feet by Geetanjali Shree has been translated into English from Hindi by Rahul Soni. The novel beautifully chronicles the friendship and more between Chacho and Lalna who live in a cluster of houses that share a common roof. The roof becomes their escape. 

Buy it here.

Week 35

Hangwoman by K.R. Meera was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2016. It is written in Malayalam and translated into English by J. Devika. The novel centers on Chetna Grddha Mullick who is appointed as the first female executioner in India. 

Buy it here.

Week 36

Celebrate Teacher’s Day on 5th September by reading the Freedom Writers’ Diary by the Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell to see how an inspiring teacher can bring out change in students by encouraging them to write.

Buy it here.

Week 37

6th September is the day that 2 years ago in 2018, the SC ruled on Section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality. Read Amruta Patil’s graphic novel, Kari, to experience both Bombay and Kari and Ruth’s relationship.

Buy it here.

Week 38

13th September is Roald Dahl’s birthday. It is called the Roald Dahl Day. We would suggest to read Matilda. Matilda has a great understanding teacher who also appreciates her love for books!

Buy it here.

Week 39

The last week of September in the literary world is called Banned Books Week. Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman or Madhorubhagan in Malayalam was banned after a petition was filed against it alleging that the novel hurt sentiments of a community and of women. The Madras High Court dismissed the petition in 2016.

Buy it here.

Week 40

Immigration is usually in the news for all the wrong reasons. Immigrants become an easy “other” for politicians to blame for the woes of a country that they refuse to solve. Nonetheless, in this globalised world, immigrants form an essential part of many countries’ cultures. Read a beautiful diaspora work, Americanah by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. The novel traverses three countries, Nigeria, the UK and the US.

Buy it here.

Week 41

Agatha Christie published her first Hercule Poirot novel, Mysterious Affairs at the Styles in October 1920! Celebrate a hundred years by revisiting this classic whodunnit!

Buy it here.

Week 42

16th October is World Food Day, celebrated by Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN. Revel in an epicurean delight and read Andaleeb Wajid’s More than Just Biryani. Perhaps the novel will lead you to introspect your lovely memories with food and family too!

Buy it here.


Week 43

Enjoy the growing chill and the changing seasons by indulging in a children’s classic, Heidi. The story is perfect when you want to vicariously visit the mountains while being tucked inside the depths of a warm quilt.

Buy it here.

Week 44

October is also LGBTQ History Month in the US and Canada (while in the UK it is celebrated in February). So why not also think about LGBTQ history from an Indian perspective this month? We recommend reading Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai which analyses at length the literary representations of same-sex love in Indian writing since ancient times. 

Buy it here.


Week 45

On 2nd November 2019, the JCB Prize for literature for 2019 went to Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field. If you haven’t picked it up yet, you must, as it is a powerful, emotive read about Shalini, based in Bangalore, who sets out to uncover her connections to Kashmir by finding out about how a Kasmiri salesman, Bashir Ahmed, is linked with her mother. So, immerse in this previous year’s winner while you wait for the 2020 JCB winner to be announced.

Buy it here.

Week 46

26th Session of Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCC will take place in Glasgow in 2020 from 9th to 19th November: Climate change is undeniably a major threat to our very existence on Planet Earth. We are already seeing its effects as is evident by the freak weather incidents and the climatic changes all across India. Yet it is also the one threat that we all conveniently ignore. In one of his few non fiction works, The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh takes this threat and hauntingly makes it real by looking at the consequences that will befall us because of our present ‘derangement’ in denying this climate crisis.

Buy it here.

Week 47

India’s Most Fearless by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh chronicles 14 stories of modern military Heroes of India. This book is a great addition to the military literature of India and makes for a gripping read.

Buy it here.

Week 48

The Seer celebrated 100 years of Amrita Pritam last year in 2019.  Celebrate the love between her and her longtime companion, Imroz through the touching collection of letters collated in In The Time Of Love And Longing by Amrita Pritam And Imroz. Read a detailed review here.

Buy it here.

Week 49

December is the Read a New Book Month. The idea behind this is to encourage readers to read something new they wouldn’t otherwise.

If you haven’t already started reading more LGBTQ stories, we suggest you pick up the coming of age, The Carpet Weaver, by Nemat Sadat. It portrays a gay relationship amidst the political upheavals in Afghanistan.

Buy it here.

Week 50

As the year draws towards the end, if you are wondering about your exaggerated optimism while making your 2020 resolution list, stop and pick up Manu Joseph’s Illicit Happiness of Other People to drown yourself in some dark humour.

Buy it here.

Week 51

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie is an absolute gem for all ages. Though it is stylised as a children’s fable with the protagonist, Haroun, going on several adventures to the places in the novel’s universe, Haroun and the Sea of Stories also comments on the power of stories and criticises the clampdown on freedom of expression and its censoring. Read a detailed review here.

Buy it here.

Week 52

While you fortify your resolution to join the swankiest of the gyms in your neighbourhood, don’t forget the food part of it. The Indian Pantry: The Very Best of Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi takes you on an amusing journey of the Indian pantry and leaves you much more informed about the food you eat.

Buy it here.

Week 53

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to her previously acclaimed novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel takes place 15 years after the events in The Handmaid’s Tale and has three prominent narratives: of Aunt Lydia and two women who are the first generations of the dystopian country, Gilead.

Buy it here.

Amrita Pritam

100 Years of Amrita Pritam and Her Feminism

As the year 2019 draws to a close, we at The Seer would like to pay a small tribute to Amrita Pritam’s stories in the hundredth year of her birth anniversary. Amrita Pritam was born on 31st August in 1919 in Gujranwala, Punjab (which is in present day Pakistan). Earlier in August, Google commemorated her 100th birth anniversary with a beautiful doodle

She wrote several poems, short stories and novels in her lifetime. Amrita is most famous for her melancholic poem, Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I Invoke Waris Shah). The poem addresses the 18th century Sufi poet, Waris Shah, to look at Punjab that was bleeding due to Partition. 

Her other works include Pinjar, which was her first novel. The story portrays Partition’s aftermath. Her autobiography, Raseedi Ticket (1976) recounts her experiences of the Partition and also her relationship with poet, Sudhir Ludhianvi, among other things.  In the Times of Love and Longing is a collection of soulful love letters exchanged between Amrita Pritam and Imroz. One of her other famous poems is Main Tenun Phir Milangi (I Will Meet You Again), a beautiful love letter to Imroz. 

A rare photograph of Amrita Pritam and her partner, Imroz, in 1969.(Photo by Ravinder Ravi )
A rare photograph of Amrita Pritam and her partner, Imroz, in 1969.(Photo by Ravinder Ravi )

 

Female desire and thoughts are integral to Amrita’s works. She was unabashedly a rebellious writer and was unafraid of writing on taboo topics. Her short stories show women’s perspectives on love and art as well as their plight in a constraining society. She also did not shy away from writing about masculinity and its constructions in an age when ideas around toxic masculinity had not yet gained traction. 

Amrita-Pritam (1)

The Stench of Kerosene or Bu in Hindi is striking in its symbolism that haunts Guleri’s husband, Manek. Guleri is a carefree girl but one who is unable to bear any children. Children have and continue to be a goal that a married Indian woman is expected to achieve. Because Guleri is unable to do so, her mother-in-law pushes Manek to have a second marriage. Manek seems reluctant to do that. Later, he becomes numb after hearing about Guleri’s death. Guleri sets herself on fire with kerosene when she heard about Manek’s second wedding. The story ends with a son being born but the sight of his son ironically reminds Manek of the kerosene’s stench. Through this story, Pritam does not implicate anyone directly but brings together various ways of thinking that create boundaries for a woman and even lead to her death. Manek is trapped between his love for Guleri and his mother and the obedience to social norms. Guleri’s mother-in-law is blinded by the idea of the necessity of children in a marriage. 

Five Sisters or Paanch Behene in Hindi describes different experiences of women. The story reads like an allegory or a fable. It is as if she is depicting the problems of all women, creating an everywoman. Two characters Life and Wind visit the five sisters of the 20th century. The first one is trapped within the walls of the house and so are all her fellow women. The second sister belongs to a subaltern section and has consequently faced many hardships. The third is compared to a statue and her marriage has forced her into undergoing an operation that turns her heart into a rock. The metaphor of an operation is apt to describe how marriages steal women’s identity. The fourth one cries out that she has lost hope in life because of her rape during the Partition. The last sister that Life visits seems to be a young singer and writer. Although she seems successful and talented, she is not spared from gendered criticisms. One could also interpret the last sister as a reflection of Amrita Pritam herself when the society was quick to criticise her unorthodox choices. 

 

Amrita Pritam, 1970
Amrita Pritam, 1970

The Wild Flower or Jangli Booti in Hindi speaks of Angoori’s conversations with the narrator. Angoori is the wife of one of the servants in the narrator’s neighbour’s neighbour’s house. Angoori is a simple, innocent girl who believes that falling in love is a sin and that those girls who eat a kind of wild herb are the ones who fall in love. Like many of her other short stories, The Wild Flower emphasises on how women’s right to love and have a desire are controlled by moral and righteous forces which deny them any voice.  The story can be read online in English on The Little Magazine website

 

 

References:

 

Mumbai

Independent Bookstores in Mumbai

Given all the loud voices and rhetorical shouting that goes on in India these days, be it in Parliament, on Whatsapp and even worse, on TV news channels, there are hardly any spaces left that allow one to be heard calmly and even fewer that allow one to have a chance to be well informed about topical matters. 

Independent bookstores in the city are some of the few places that can provide people with such spaces. They are akin to the heroes that we need today. They symbolize a piece of hope against the burgeoning franchise economies in any sphere whether it is bookstores or restaurants. These stores go against this one grave fallout of globalisation that haunts each country. 

Mumbai has always been home to several independent bookstores such as the Strand Book Stall (which unfortunately had to shut down), Sterling Book House (which is any student’s savior when it comes to textbooks), the erstwhile Granth Bookstore and Horizon Book Shop in the suburbs. 

Each of these older bookstores has had to contend with the growth of retail bookstore chains most prominently, Crossword and even Landmark to some extent. A few have not survived the ordeal. Most of the bookstores that were my childhood haunts have disappeared. Who wouldn’t miss the enviable Strand Book Stall’s brilliant sales? 

However, independent bookstores in this decade have slowly and surely made a steady comeback, making waves and establishing a place in the city’s literary heart. 

The Seer presents the top 5 independent bookstores in Mumbai:

 

The Trilogy Library and Bookstore

The Trilogy Bookstore
The Trilogy Bookstore

Though it is located in one of the best known localities in Mumbai – close to Jogger’s Park in Bandra, you would easily miss the board of Trilogy Bookstore if you were not looking closely. Tucked away in a lane that also houses a caterer, this two storied bookshop is a paradise. They have an eclectic collection of books on the ground floor from a well curated children’s section to a brilliant section just for poetry. One highlight is the separate sections devoted to indie publishers and also feminist writing. If the high price of the books deters you, they also run a library upstairs which also boasts of an extensive collection from bestsellers to niche titles. Trilogy also hosts several events on its cosy premises such as the dramatic reading of the Paper Moon by Rehana Munir. You can enjoy these events over some cookies while also savouring the wafting smell of books intermingling with a biryani that is slow cooking outside. Look up the details about their library membership here.

 

Kitab Khana

Kitaab Khana
Kitaab Khana

The moment you step into this bookshop that is hidden behind several street vendors you know you have entered a haven. The shelves are choc a bloc with a variety of books. Cute little post-its with staff recommendations scribbled on them adorn the shelves. A café is another plus of the store. The bookshop’s old world charm encourages one to just plomp down on its many cosily placed seats and chairs and read through the books (they do allow customers to sit and read on for hours or until the store closes). The books here are also not limited to only English authors. They have a large collection of Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati novels, short stories and poetry. Two unique things about Kitab Khana are that it houses myriad religious and spiritual texts and poetry selections from several indie publications in India. The staff is also quite helpful and prompt in assisting you to get the book you desire!


Title Waves

Titlewaves Bookstore
Title Waves Bookstore

Title Waves has been making waves ever since it was launched thanks to its marketing and also the many engaging events and book launches it is always part of. Title Waves was also one of the partner bookstores and venues for TATA Literature Live Festival in 2019. A selection of handpicked novels greets one as you enter the store. But venture further to find other great sections of books particularly its graphic novels and manga section which is one of the best in the city. They have Indian graphic novels sitting side by side the most popular Japanese manga. If browsing through books and sipping on coffee is your poison, then a visit to Title Waves is a must.

 


Wayword and Wise

Wayword & Wise
Wayword & Wise

Wayword and Wise believes in doing things differently. Very differently. The books it houses inside its front columned facade store are not easily available in the city. The titles are very vast, varied, and niche. They have authors from Yuko Tawada (The Memory Police) to Hisham Matar, from Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar to Hiromi Kawakami. Their sections are also equally varied ranging from literary essays and criticism (no independent bookstore in the city possibly has this as a separate section!) to poetry, science fiction, and graphic novels. Their eclectic fiction shelves run along the huge wall parallel to the other sections of the store. The poetry and graphic novels section stand out for having excellent titles that are otherwise extremely hard to find!

 


Granth Bookstore

Granth
Granth

The recently renovated Granth Bookstore has quirky décor that would light up your soul, jazz music to keep you company, and loads of natural lighting that would keep you feeling fresh. If you are close to the Juhu beach, this is a great bookstore to drop by in. You can read a book and gaze at the beach while also drinking your cappuccino. The store has two floors. The first floor is dedicated to children’s books and cookbooks. Apart from the neat sections and doodles, the bookstore also has a range of coffee table books that are a dying genre in itself. 

 

Have you visited any of the bookstores above? Do you know of other bookstores in Mumbai that are your absolute favourites? Let us know in the comments below. 

 

 

Roquiah Sakhawat

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Enduring Legacy

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a leading feminist writer who wrote from Bengal in the early half of the 20th century. Her works were almost exclusively on the identity and crisis based on social issues that plagued women during her time. She is remembered for her efforts to describe the plight of women and their issues in her works. Among her most important works is Sultana’s Dream.

Rokeya was born in an upper-class Muslim family and she was not allowed to attend school or learn Bengali because her family did not want her thoughts to be “contaminated” by non-Muslim ideas. Instead, at her family’s insistence, she learned Arabic and Urdu and various other texts written to enhance a woman’s understanding of what she was meant to do in the family household; what her duties were. Indeed, witnessing the role of women in society and their limitations first-hand inspired her views and these views are visible in her writings. In fact, in 1926, at the Bengal Women’s Education Conference, Rokeya went so far as to strongly condemn men for withholding education from women in the name of religion. As she addressed the conference, she said,

“The opponents of the female education say that women will be unruly … fie! They call themselves Muslims and yet go against the basic tenet of Islam which gives equal right to education. If men are not led astray once educated, why should women?”

She studied from her home in secret where her brother taught her English. She had by then, already begun to write in Urdu and Bengali and was a published poet. In 1905, she wrote her seminal work, Sultana’s Dream. Her husband urged her to publish it and she sent it to the English Language periodical, The Indian Ladies Magazine. The story, about a feminist utopia where the women of a country have taken over the reins of governance from the martial, patriarchal regime of men, was well-received.

The story is unusually simplistic in its time and place. There is no sense of grandeur to it but rather a comical touch to it. The cruel but hilarious portrayal of men in the story is a matter to think about as it directly approaches the attitude towards women that it is built upon.

 

Written about a land where there is no semblance of weather, it serves as a metaphor for the emotions of both men and women. Men being temperate and uncontrollable as the weather while women being in control of themselves and therefore being able to control the weather. This delineation of the roles of women in society is a marked departure from previous writings about women and a major motif of Rokeya’s writings.

There is also an element of role reversal in the story which deals with the depiction of men in “mardanas” as opposed to the usual practice of women in their zenanas. Indeed, the idea of a zenana is frowned upon quite clearly in the story with the Queen of Ladyland stating that “no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us.” (Hossain, 11)

Thus, sultana’s dream not only represents the ideal for women, but also exhibits a place of hope and seclusion if not inclusion, a place where women are free and finally, come into their own.

 

Just like the story, Rokeya’s vision was no less idealistic. Her impact was powerful back then; it is even more impactful today. Her argument, that a society swimming in patriarchy truly needs the liberating hands of empowered women, will find many takers today.

In a century of women’s liberation movements, her achievements stand out in brick and mortar, in the form of a girl’s school in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Rokeya’s husband was enthusiastic about his wife’s work and was particularly pleased with her desire to educate girls and to empower them. In order to facilitate this, he left Rokeya Rs 10,000 to set up a school for girls after his death. She soon started the school in 1909 in Bhagalpur in the memory of her husband. That school was short-lived. Due to some family problems, she had to move to Calcutta, where she re-opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in 1910. This institution expanded slowly, but surely. In fact, by the time she died in 1932, the school had evolved to such an extent that it was a fully-realized high school offering education upto matriculation and even taught courses in English and Bengali. Today, this same school is a thriving government-funded institution.

Many believe that Rokeya’s influence is more prevalent in Bangladesh. “Although Calcutta was the centre of [Rokeya’s] literary, educational and political activism, she is regarded as an iconic figure in what is now Bangladesh, where she is best recognised and indisputably exerts a posthumous public influence. All subsequent feminist writers and literary practitioners of the country owe an enormous debt to her relentless and pioneering intellectual work and leadership.” (Hasan 179)

 

Despite this, it is easy to argue that Rokeya, like her vision, did not belong to one sphere of life but had succeeded in reaching a broad spectrum of cultural spaces. Rokeya’s life has been an astonishing one in many ways. She was a Muslim woman, raised to toe the lines of patriarchy, to acclimatise to the norm, and yet, she ventured forth and tread her own path. Not just that, she even managed to bring other people into the fold with her.

 

 

References:

Dramatic Reading of Paper Moon by Rehana Munir


The best way to unwind on a Sunday evening is to be part of a cosy gathering in an even cosier bookstore involved in reading and conversations that revolve around books!

 

Trilogy is a beautiful bookstore tucked away in one of the lanes in Bandra, a neighbourhood in Mumbai. On Sunday, 9th December, it hosted a dramatic reading from Rehana Munir’s Paper Moon that was launched at the Tata Literature Live! this year in Title Waves bookstore in Mumbai. After the reading, the author and the owners of Trilogy engaged in an eye opening conversation about the nitty-gritty of running an independent bookstore.

Rehana Munir had also run a bookstore in Santacruz, The Reader’s Shop, in the mid 2000s. She was also part of the small yet rich bookshop, Paperback@Prithvi. Her debut novel is similarly based on opening and managing of a bookstore. The protagonist, Fiza, receives an inheritance to open a bookshop in Bandra which she christens as Paper Moon.

 

The dramatic reading was done by actors Mukul Chadda and Sheena Khalid. They read beautiful excerpts from the novel and brought the setting and characters to life. The excerpts that were read included the ones that describe why Fiza chose the name Paper Moon for the bookstore, about her relationship with the suave literary Iqbal who drops by her shop often and about Fiza’s own practical struggles with setting up a bookstore such as being overwhelmed in a book warehouse.

After the wonderful reading session, the owners of Trilogy, Ahalya and Meethil, were in conversation with Rehana about the trials and tribulations of running independent bookstores. They spoke about the practical matters of searching through thousands of books and catalogues to buy them for the store, of getting the right space and furniture, and of maintaining the space as well.

The big elephant in the room was of course the big franchise stores and e-commerce sites that provide a different kind of book buying experience. Ahalya was clear about putting the idea that of course an independent bookstore is also a business but one which is deeply involved with bringing personal experiences to the reader. She mentioned about how she loves to recommend books to people who drop by and how she has to step into the shoes of an FBI profiler to figure out what books to recommend. She also was quick to point out that appearances do not mean a thing when it comes to recommending a book to a customer. People surprise her and that’s one of the things that make her realise why she is in this profession. I guess, just like books, we cannot judge someone by the cover!

While it was a “meta moment” for Rehana, as she put it, to have written a book about a bookstore and to be discussing the same book in an independent bookstore itself, both Ahalya and Rehana also cautioned against thinking of opening a bookstore with a romanticised spirit. It definitely has its own challenges but has its own satisfying moments too. Readers fill them with those satisfying moments.

Additionally, you do get to read a lot as well and to broaden your reading habits because when it comes to stocking the shelves with books, you also have to think about a variety of books that different kinds of readers might enjoy!

And the thoughtfulness, detail, and variety on display on Trilogy’s bookshelves are a proof of the investment and time lovingly put into the store.

 

Follow Rehana Munir on Twitter!

Read the book excerpt here.

Buy the book here.

Follow Trilogy on Facebook for their latest events!

 

Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Book Review – Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie’s reputation as a writer is popularly defined by two books – The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The Midnight’s Children fetched him the Booker Prize in the year of its release and later, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker. The Satanic Verses, apart from accolades and awards, fetched him a fatwa calling for his assassination. This brought him fame that extended far beyond the literary circles. For an evolved reader, a Rushdie novel features as a must-read. The fainthearted reader is likely to be overwhelmed by his literary reputation and move on to a less daunting author on the bookshelf. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the bait to reel in that hesitant reader.

 

Twelve-year old Haroun is leading a pretty nondescript existence in his hometown with his mother and his storyteller father Rashid. When his mother is seduced by the neighbour and leaves them, his father loses his gift of the gab. A storyteller who can say nothing more than ark, ark, ark is a storyteller without a job. An unexpected turn of events leads father and son to the Sea of Stories. Khattam-Shud, the evil ruler of the Kingdom of Chup is planning to plug the Story Source at the bottom of the Sea of Stories. If he succeeds, the sea will be silenced forever. Haroun and his new friends Iff, Mali – the gardener of stories, Butt the Hoopoe, and others must find a way to foil his evil plot. On the other hand, the neighbouring Kingdom of Gup is preparing to declare war against Chup to recapture Princess Batcheat, the betrothed of Prince Bolo of Gup. Haroun and his friends join forces with the Gup army led by General Kitab and storm the fortress of Chup. Will Haroun be able to help his friends in this mystical land? And what about his own life? Will he return home and have a happy end to his story?

 

While the story has a dark undertone the author uses a comic vibe to make his point. Rushdie is at his witty best with the dialogue. He liberally layers the said with the unsaid forcing the reader to stop, wonder, discover, and chuckle at the discovery. It is evident that the writer spent considerate amount of time and thought on selecting the names of all his characters. They are not merely names, they are loaded with the intent they carry to the writer. Also, they are a clever play on words. Set under the theme of good vs. evil, the names of the ‘good’ characters are all things speech (Chattergy, Gup, Bolo, Kitab) whereas their nemesis represent oppressed silence (Khattam-shud, Chup).

The premise of good vs. evil and a seemingly simplistic plot may fool a Rushdie fan into relegating Haroun… to the bottom of his reading list. It would be a grave mistake. Like all of Rushdie’s works, it is replete with symbols that draw attention to societal issues. The philosophical commentary and puns are subtle and demand a pause if they are to be truly savoured. With Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the author manages to present a story that works on two levels. One, a simple adventurous tale of a young boy in a fantastical land and two, an allegory on the power of stories. It is upon the reader to determine which one to read.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, two years after Satanic Verses, a book which forced him to retreat into silence for a short while. This book appears to have been born out of that forced silence. In the story, when Haroun finally confronts Khattam-shud, he asks, “But why do you hate stories so much? Stories are fun.” A question which must have surely plagued the author himself when he was threatened with death. Perhaps, the book is a ploy by the author to convey his angst over the extreme reactions for the story he wrote. If so, it was a clever ploy for the author to write it in an accessible form, a form which would appeal to a far larger audience than his previous books. And, his appeal to the reader – don’t hate stories – gets through to the reader in this whimsical garb.

 

 

John D. Batten illustrator

12 Folktale Collections to Read from India!


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

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

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

 

Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar by Nalin Verma

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

 

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

 


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

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

 


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

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

 


Around the Hearth: Khasi Legends by Kynpham Sing Nongkyrih

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

 


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

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

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

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

 


Konkani Folktales
retold by Olivinho J.E. Gomes

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

 


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

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

 

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

 


Where Gods Dwell
by Kusum Budhwar

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

 


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

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

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

Read an extract of the book here.

 

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


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

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

 


Folktales of Odisha
collected by Mahendra Kumar Mishra

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

 

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


One Hundred and One Folktales from India
by Eunice De Souza

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

 

Find More Online:

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

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

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

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

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

 

References:

Albert Camus

Albert Camus was Born this Month!

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

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

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

 

So who is this mythical Sisyphus? 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sisyphus
Sisyphus | Credit – akrockefeller.com

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

 

But what is so heroic about Sisyphus’ eternal struggle? 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

You can read the essay here

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

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

 

 

References:

 

 

Book Review – Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly, noted author and historian, first began his history of the Indian subcontinent in 2000. The first book, Gem in the Lotus, begins in pre-Vedic India and ends with the Mauryan Empire. By all accounts, Gem in the Lotus is your typical history book. A plethora of information bundled together from fragments of Proto-Indo-History and a mix of reliable sources from later time; the book is a hefty tome, to say the least.

An Unusual Poetic History of Ancient India

The history of the Indian subcontinent is a puzzling, muddled affair. A quagmire of half-understood facts largely interpreted through the eyes of the many foreigners who have visited it through millennia. Even now, the country’s history is pursued further and further into the past with conclusive evidence stretching back at least six thousand years. But despite being contemporaneous with the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, even the Greeks, knowledge of Indian history is only partially complete. Since written history is largely missing from Ancient India, the works of foreigners who visited Ancient India like Megasthenes, Scylax, and Fa Hsien (Faxian) are important to our understanding of our past.

Efforts to map and catalogue the history of India has been a constant endeavour. Partly successful, largely unsuccessful, this effort has nevertheless created a somewhat loose picture of our past. It is fragmented in many places, but quite focused in others. This fragmentation is a huge problem when it comes to history. People lose interest in such a history. But efforts have been made over the last few decades to reconstruct a history of India that is coherent and can be understood.

Gem in the Lotus is one such reconstruction. Here, Abraham Eraly has taken the help of the various travelers who had visited and written about the country and compiled their stories into one veritable whole thus presenting a very respectable, and largely complete ancient history of the subcontinent. Where the book shines is in its accessibility. There are no footnotes. All the information (or history) that the reader will enjoy, or seek, is placed in the text itself. There is a substantial bibliography that will help academic folk or readers who want to inquire further.

Following its somewhat biblical opening line, Eraly plunges deep into India’s geological history, rushing hurriedly through the glacial movement of the tectonic plates, establishing India’s geography while also referring to the origins of the island of Mauritius. Eraly also talks about the imaginative cosmographies of Ancient Indians (where Mount Meru is shown to be the Earth’s Axis) and then moves on to use scientific data to present the modern depiction of India’s geography more accurately. Here, the narrative focuses on early man and his rise towards civilization. Methodical in his approach, Eraly sometimes deviates in such instances from a straightforward telling of history to a more speculative, almost lyrical, storytelling of history.

Now, that the narrative is firmly established in the book, and India has been fully formed, Eraly takes on each aspect of the subcontinent’s history that was available to him and depicts their story. He doesn’t shy away from criticizing those who did not show regard for history, even commenting on Indians who (even now) didn’t care enough about their own history to preserve it, or even attempt it.

Eraly uses the Rig-Veda as an important argumentative tool to talk about the Aryan colonization of North India. But even in the Rig-Veda, the past is a forgotten memory because not even the Aryans remember what happened. The rise of Jainism and Buddhism proves such a challenge that even the most powerful gods of the Aryans, like Indra and Agni, later become lower entities against more powerful successors like Shiva and Vishnu.

Without a doubt, the most interesting section for the reader will be about Emperor Ashoka. Aptly named “The Forgotten Emperor,” it covers brilliantly the career of one of India’s most renowned Kings. Although well-known, Ashoka’s reign isn’t as exciting to read about now, after so much of his life has been unearthed. But Eraly is largely unapologetic and dedicated in his depiction of the Emperor, never swaying or becoming emotional even when stating that Ashoka “killed ninety-nine of his brother, sparing only Vitasoka, who later retired to a religious life, perhaps as the best way to save his head,” though he does maintain that, in all fairness, this information may have been a fanciful exaggeration presented in Buddhist texts. Unlike mythical accounts of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism following the Kalinga War, Eraly presents a more relatable Ashoka who converted to another religion to find answers to the questions within. The Kalinga War did impact Ashoka, but he was already a Buddhist when the war happened; the War simply instilled in him the resolve to never wage any more wars.

On the subject of Greek Travelers who wrote about India, Eraly is largely appreciative of their efforts. Greek travelers like Megasthenes are revered for their contributions to our understanding of Indian history, but equally teased for their fanciful picturization of the land as seen through their eyes. Eraly doesn’t rely solely on the work of historians to create a picture of India. He even takes the help of varied literature from the hymns of Rig-Veda to the plays of Vishakhadatta. The book is littered with the poetry and songs of such works.

One of the highlights of the book is the Incidental Data. At the end of the book, there is a small section of “incidental” information that the author came across during research, and was not made part of the book due to its anecdotal nature. Among these incidental facts, the reader will find many tidbits of information like the fact that the word ‘Om!’ may have been originally nothing more than a spoken word that meant approval; or that the Buddha believed that birth does not make a brahmin, effort does, self-restraint does, and so does temperament.

The book does suffer occasionally due to Eraly’s extensive use of vocabulary. Leisurely readers will definitely find the 600-page tome daunting, even more so considering that it only covers Indian history till the Mauryan Empire. Eraly writes fluidly, never losing the reader’s attention, but some passages, where his fluidity is strained, require a second read. Thankfully, in the overall scheme of things, it is a minor inconvenience. Gem in the Lotus has stood the test of time so far. It is still an excellent book with which one can introduce oneself to the larger nuances of Indian history with ease.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Footnote:

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

References:

 

 

8 Books to Read When You are Feeling Low

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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


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

 

 

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

 

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


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

 

 

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

 

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


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

 

 

What Makes you Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

 

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


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

 

 

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

 

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

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


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

 

 

Five People you Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

 

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


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

 

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

 

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


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

 

 

The Restful Mind by Gyalwa Dokhampa

 

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


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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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