Dasuram’s Script: New Writing from Odisha

This is a collection of 16 short stories written in Odia and translated into English by Mona Lisa Jena. All of the stories vividly bring out varied aspects of society. They merge the modern with traditional, the mystical with scientific, folklore with technology. The titular story is about a Kui folk singer, Dasuram, who sings of freedom from the shackles of poverty and oppression. He gets arrested on charges of being a Naxal and while in prison, invents a script for the Kui language.

 

The Goddess of Kara Dongri is about how Sudhansu is caught up in the fight about naming a temple in a village that he visited as a child during his vacation. He remembers a mountain made of white flint but cannot find it when he returns. He sees that the village has transformed from an idyllic haven into a busy one. Yet the folklore remains intact. The mountain of white flint may have been sacrificed to modernization but the stories of a deity residing there still float around, and to appease that goddess, a temple was built by the villagers themselves. The story succinctly captures the tenuous flux many places in India are caught between because of relentlessly moving towards modernization at the cost of environment and culture.

 

That House is a simple, almost fable like story about the follies of coveting perfection. Aruna and her husband scrape through and struggle to build a modest house in Brundabanur colony. Close by was a house that was never completed because the owner was a mistress who wanted to create a dream house which was not fulfilled because the house was empty and not occupied by a husband and a child. The story reiterates quite a lot of stereotypes associated with motherhood and role of a woman in a society especially the idea that a woman can attain happiness only when she marries and has a legitimate family. In the story, the woman is a mistress and hence is devoid of any true love which is the reason given to explain her imperfect house which though grand and complex, can never give her true happiness.

 

This Story Should not be Remembered by Manoj Kumar Panda pays homage to the timelessness of time itself through the character of Kandha Budha, who has become a living legend of his village. He has worked for two kings, Dalaganjana and Pruthwiraj; he has killed tigers with his bare hands, and had even caught the dacoit Bakharia Binjhal for the British government. The story remarks upon the continuity of time and of stories and the ironic existence of anything through these very stories.

 

This collection of stories often relies on motifs from folklore to create rich thematic narratives. For example, A Pitcher Full of Fish blurs the real and surreal when Sunei contemplates suicide out of frustration with her daily struggles and an abusive husband. But instead she finds in the mud pond so many varieties of fish that she catches them and dreams of making a delicious feast for her daughter. Sunei jumps in, catches as many fishes as she can. Her family comes looking for her but a pall of sorrow greets them. Was Sunei in the throes of happiness when catching the fish? Was she only day dreaming about them? Or was she so devoured by hunger that she was hallucinating and eventually fell into the mud?

Death by drowning is also reflected in two other stories, The Genius and The Shy Bride.

 

Sephania’s Ghastly Makar by Dipti Ranjan Pattnaik is a well nuanced story portraying the many confusions faced by Sephania due to his conversion to a new religion and the ensuing breakage of family ties.

 

The Adventure of a Little Kau Fish is a beautiful fable that portrays a brave kau fish who desires to see the world and so climbs up a tree determinedly, only to be defeated by pain and exhaustion and be horrifically devoured by the very fish in the pond that were, a minute ago, applauding his audacity. It is a grim comment on a dog-eat-dog world of ours.

Quite a few of the stories also speak of problems faced by women. Because the stories included in this collection traverse a large span of time, starting from mid 20th century to the current one, the reader can see the development in the representation of the female character. A few of the stories portray women as being victims of rigid social practices such as in Shiora Tree, but the modern stories depict them as independent thinkers who boldly take their own decisions when it comes to love such as presented in The Chemistry by Paramita Satapathy.

 

This collection gives a glimpse into the various complex facets of Odia society, delving into its rich tribal history and folklore and how that is precariously balanced against a mode modern background. The translator’s own essay at the end – The Odia Short Story, enables the reader to understand these representations even further, providing the reader deeper insights into the stories and their subject matter as well the growth and development of the Odia short story.

 

“I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters” – Rehana Munir

Rehana Munir ran a bookshop in Bombay in the mid 2000s, a few years after graduating with top honours in English literature from St. Xavier’s College. An independent writer on culture and lifestyle, she has a weekly humour column in HT Brunch, and a cinema column in Arts Illustrated magazine. She is also an occasional copywriter. Rehana lives in Bombay among food-obsessed family and friends. She is a local expert on migraines, 1990s nostalgia and Old Monk. We wrote about her debut novel Paper Moon here and had a little chat over her book and writings.

 

What is the most satisfying part of writing ‘Paper Moon’ for you?

The sense of having translated an actual experience into a work of fiction. Of crafting Fiza’s coming-of-age story out of my memories, but more importantly, my imagination.

 

What does it feel like when you finally finish writing a book?

An overpowering urge to share it with the world! At least that was how it was with my debut novel.

 

How much of yourself is in the characters you write about?

From personality traits to philosophical leanings, I think I’m reflected in bits in several characters. But more than them being literary stand-ins for me, I think I’m in dialogue with them.

 

Did you read all the books and authors who find a mention in ‘Paper Moon’?

One of the pleasures of writing the book was to squeeze in my favourite authors and their works. But there are way too many references, and not all of them appeal to me. They were names that suited the narrative.

 

How much research and travel did Paper Moon take?

A lot of time travel, since the book takes place in the early 2000s. I did visit some of the haunts that the book mentions, but mostly to check up on a name or a detail. A few of the pillars of the book still hold up my life in Bombay. As for the bits in London and Edinburgh, they too were etched in my mind but needed some research for reasons of accuracy.

 

How does it feel to have gone from a reader to bookstore owner to an award-winning author? 

Very fortunate. (Though, unlike Fiza in the book, I ran a bookshop but did not own it. It belonged to a friend of my father’s.) There’s so much to learn. As a bookseller, I largely interacted with book distributors. As a writer, I’m learning about the publishing industry. Paper Moon seems like such a quaint world in the era of digital marketing.

 

Who is your first reader?

My two sisters, Kausar and Mariam.

 

Did you have a “When I become a writer, I will…” list?

Not really, but one thing comes to mind, now that you’ve asked the question: Not to write prescriptive lists for other writers.

 

Is there going to be a second part to ‘Paper Moon’?

I have been asked this question on a few occasions, which is very encouraging. It’s certainly an exciting idea, a sequel. Or maybe even a prequel.

 

What is the best criticism that you received for ‘Paper Moon’?

One reader likened my book to a jazz progression. I found that analogy to be very satisfying, especially since the book borrows its name from a jazz song.

 

Do you feel pressure that your next book must be better than ‘Paper Moon’, especially after all the love that it’s been receiving?

I’m currently savouring the appreciation from readers. If anything, it’s encouraging me while I work on my next.

 

What are you reading currently?

Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran Khan. I read it a couple of months ago but I’m already drawn back to it. It’s a deeply thoughtful exploration of a city’s troubled history, through a personal lens. Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is next on my list. I love the energy and optimism in her writing.

 

Reading in the Time of Corona

We had a Janta Curfew this Sunday. We are going to be facing more stringent lockdowns soon. Working professionals are learning work from home techniques while a large section of the population in the unorganised sector also faces job insecurity. The rest of India and the world grapple with the prospect of having too much free time on their hands and dealing with ultimate boredom.

This could be a great time to inculcate or reignite/restart the reading habit.

The world over, organisations, libraries, and universities are providing free access to their courses or book catalogues. For example, Scribd is offering all its resources free for a 20 day period due to the Covid Pandemic. Similarly in a surprise move, JSTOR opened up its Open Access to the public without registering with an account. Audible launched Audible Stories, a free service that provides educational and reading material for kids.

Closer home, Amar Chitra Katha has offered free access to its Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha books for a month. For kids stuck at home or even adults who want to enjoy some light reading, this is an exciting deal.

These are excellent options especially for the tech savvy readers! But what books should we read? What books to choose? Since the country is facing partial lockdown as part of the measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus, we at The Seer have brought together a list of titles that you could enjoy reading in these uncertain and strange times.

 

 

Books to Help You Travel Vicariously

The coronavirus spread because of our globalised world and our interconnected travels. Consequently, our travel plans have now gone haywire with most countries suspending their overseas flights and sealing their borders. This is where books come to your rescue! Don’t fret over cancelled plans or that your travel goals may not be coming true just yet. Perhaps reading the right book is all you need that helps you travel to distant lands.

 

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

From Heaven Lake is a travelogue with a twist. Vikram Seth was 29 when he was studying at Nanjing University. He undertook a madcap journey overland on foot from China, into Tibet to reach Delhi, his home town. Through his journey, we get to view the socio-economic conditions of the country and especially see the ways in which Tibet was controlled and cut off.

You not only get a chance to be part of this crazy travel but also learn more about the country rather than forming half baked ideas based on some ridiculous Whatsapp forwards.

 

Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir pays homage to Pamuk’s home, Istanbul. He has always lived in Istanbul and in this memoir, he pens down his love for the city by evocatively describing the city’s soul. Pamuk also speaks of his own struggles with choosing this profession of being a writer. The novel does dip into nostalgic reminisces recalling the city’s erstwhile architecture, its changing demography along with politics and diplomatic ties. But the tone is nostalgic, rather than wallowing in it.

Reading Istanbul: Memories of a City is bound to feel as if you were walking through the lanes of the city itself and exploring its colourful past and present.

You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Most public spaces in India are shut including public parks and gardens. This is quite hard for those used to morning walks. Solnit’s wonderful portrait of the evolution around the ideas of walking for meditation and exercise provides a refreshing insight. It is a stimulating read which makes us relook at the reasons and joys behind our walks. Buy the book here.

 

Reading Feel Good Books

Ideas of quarantine, lockdown, curfew, and social distancing are alien and scary. They bring in a host of problems such as loneliness and anxiety.

It is best to choose to curl up with books that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling because as Szymborska puts it in her poem, Consolation, that Darwin read books to relax, with a happy ending because he had seen enough of survival of the fittest and dying species. Hence, let us look for “the indispensable silver lining/the lovers reunited, the families reconciled/the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded/fortunes regained….. hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation/general merriment and celebration.”

 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading this book might feel a bit of a meta-narrative in this article. But Matilda never fails to warm my heart. A young girl, shunned by her own family for her so-called strange habits, finds solace in her school teacher and devouring books. In these trying times, we could all learn a lesson from Matilda and perhaps read up as many books as we can while we have the time. Buy the book here.

 

The Rapture by Liz Jensen

Many people on social media warn us that the coronavirus pandemic is only a trailer to the actual crisis that will ensue once ice melts and global warming unleashes its wrath. While any apocalyptic novel cannot actually be a feel good book, The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a psychological thriller with a differently abled protagonist, Gabrielle, who is intrigued by a teenager, Bethany because she can foretell natural disasters. This book’s central theme of the resoluteness of human faith and determination is meaningful.

 

A Mango Shaped Mass by Wendy Mass

This is a beautiful coming of age story of Mia Wenchell and her acceptance of her unique way of experiencing life around her because of synaesthesia wherein sees numbers, hears sounds and says words in colours!

 

 

Books on Migration

Coronavirus’ deadly power and spread was a shocking reality that dawned slowly on everyone and it brought out the worse in many of us such as fighting for toilet paper or panic buying. Hoarding on sanitisers will not necessarily save the world since fighting the virus is dependent on the well being of the next person we meet as well. Next time we blame immigrants for our own problems, we should also think back on how we fought over groceries even when there was no scarcity.

It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

In this time when we all feel threatened by an unknown, it is perhaps best to be kind and humane and also sharpen our sensitivity to problems that others’ face.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

This heart wrenching novel speaks of the constant conflict and displacement that three generations of the Yacoub family face because of the Palestinian Israel war. All the members have seen some form of war and are refugees living in different parts of the world.

 

The Brink of Freedom by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

People migrating on rickety, unsafe, overcrowded boats was a disturbing narrative shown through media channels and photographs. The title, The Brink of Freedom, itself captures the ephemerality of stability that haunts these refugees, whether they are on boats or shored safely to the country they were migrating to. The novel describes the trials of one such refugee boy. Read an excerpt of the novel here.

 

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is one of my favourite novels because of its use of a unique innocence, point of view and the style to tell a story of a refugee family. It is told from the point of view of a 10 year old Vietnamese girl, Kim Ha living in Saigon. Due to Vietnam War, she is forced to flee, leaving her beloved land and friends. The novel is narrated entirely through poems. You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

 

Read that Classic that’s been on to-do list forever

We all have at some point or the other been guilty of not finishing a classic novel and worse, pretending to have read them. Now that we are all laying low and taking a break from other social activities, it is perhaps time to pick up that dusty novel you postponed reading or kept down, daunted by its sheer size.

 

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ah Leo Tolstoy! The doyen of Russian literature but also one whose books shine bright as beacons on the lists of books we have pretended to have read. It is definitely one that is tedious to read and quite a handful to keep track of five family stories at once. Yet, no other novel has captured the Russian landscape as realistically as this one.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is not as lengthy as War and Peace. It is still quite a task especially if you have lost the habit of reading Victorian English. Yet, it is an intricately written novel about Pip and his coming of age experiences, particularly his time with Miss Havisham and his love for Estella.

 

Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

This panoramic novel shows us Istanbul’s progress as a city through the eyes of the quaint yoghurt and boza seller, Mevlut. Spanning more than 50 years and about 500 pages, Strangeness in My Mind takes you through the underbelly of Istanbul and gives you a glimpse of the subalterns who create and expand the city.

Other daunting lengthy classics include Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

The heavyweights in modern literature that you could give a shot during lockdown are 1Q84 trilogy by Murakami or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea or even A.S Byatt’s Possession and last but not the least, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

So, I hope this list helps in the tough days ahead! May you stay safe, wash your hands, and may you not fall prey to any false rumours or fake news!

 

Cover Image: By Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Reading Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column

Titles of novels fascinate me. I always try to find out in the course of reading the book, what the title relates to or why the novel is named so. 

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain held the same fascination for me. I have now read it thrice: first in undergraduate, then as part of the syllabus during post-graduation and recently last year to compare and contrast it to other similar novels that chronicle female growing up experiences such as The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur and The Hussaini Alam House by Huma R. Kidwai. 

 

The novel is set in Lucknow in pre Independence era and is told from the point of view of Laila, the 15-year-old protagonist born in a wealthy landed taluqdar family which is headed by the patriarch, Baba Jan. Laila is an orphan who lives with her grandfather, Baba Jan, and her aunts, Majida and Abida. The novel begins with the failing health of Baba Jan. It immediately beckons the reader into a realm of sadness and alerts them to a significant change in the making: that of the past and all that is old slowly disappearing.  

While living with Baba Jan and her aunts, Laila’s education is given more importance according to the wishes of her late father, who believed in the cause of women’s education. She grows up in a liberal environment where she is allowed to study yet is also confined to certain spaces and knows that the older female relatives follow a different code of honour and ethics especially purdah

Laila’s life thus straddles a tradition bound world as well as one that is slowly opening up avenues for women. She develops a habit of reading, and later gets involved ideologically with the Independence Movement. She is juxtaposed with Zahra, her cousin and Majida’s daughter. Zahra is brought up to be a ‘good’ woman, to be married and be an ideal wife. Laila struggles with these ideas and is unable to reconcile or compromise with a few traditional expectations especially gendered ones.  

 

Despite being bestowed with an education, Laila is expected to live by certain religious codes of conduct.  Certain codes are not imposed on her very strictly; yet certain other expectations are upheld. The latter is true when it comes to her decision to marry Ameer who is considered as a good match by her family because of his unemployment and lower class status. Her Aunt Abida ostracised Laila after this marriage, despite their strong and loving bond based on mutual respect.  

Marriage and education are crucial themes and debates that shape Laila’s understanding of the world. While some of the debates are dated, many are sadly relevant to any girl’s experiences today as well, particularly the family’s role in choosing a groom for her. 

These debates also show us how education for girls was perceived then and promoted: not a means in itself but an end to developing a sophisticated wife who could match the intelligence of her husband. Education for a girl was dependent on how it would help the spouse too. It had its own terms and conditions and was not seen as fundamental right by itself. 

 

The influence of culture, its fading, and the idea of the now popularised stereotype of tehzeeb of Lucknow is suffused in the narrative. The rich and accurate portrait of a life and culture that Hosain herself was part of is the highlight of Sunlight on a Broken Column. 

So, what does the title mean? 

The title cites the T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men. These are the lines that form part of the epigraph of the novel: 

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

 

The title could suggest therefore that the novel itself casts a glow, a ray of sunlight on this fading way of life be it the joint family, the sense of respect for family members, or even the language and the landed ownership. The broken column represents the fading culture. 

The novel is essentially a tribute to that high class culture that no longer exists. It is steeped in nostalgia. It would not be a farfetched guess to state that the writer herself was engaging in remembrance of her own experiences and past life while writing Sunlight on a Broken Column, which is also the only novel that Hosain ever wrote in her lifetime. 

 

Altman_painting_Akhmatova_by_N.Altman | Aleksandr Evgenievich Bravo / CC BY-SA

Remembering Anna Akhmatova and Her Poetry

Born in 1889 in present day Ukraine, Anna Akhmatova was a prolific poet of her times and became a symbol of resistance during Stalin’s iron rule. Eventually however, she was forgotten, becoming a poet overshadowed by fellow male Russian writers instead. There has been a slow revival of interest in her poetry since the 1990s. Her works have been translated in English several times now and this review will look at the Vintage publication, Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D.M. Thomas. 

 

Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, Evening, in 1912. Many of her earlier poems were well received and had quite a large female readership. They depicted the torturous realities of love from the excitement of clandestine visits to the heartbreak of a parting. One of her poems from Evening, shows her wit and is reminiscent of Wendy Cope’s light hearted love lyrics

 

He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
…….and he had married me. 

 

Feminist Retellings

Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain
Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain

It is not only a humorous poem but also shows her concerns about wifely duties and even makes a jibe at the misconception of hysteria as uniquely female. Many of her poems express her anguish about fitting into roles of a mother and wife. 

One way in which Akhmatova portrays the female point of view is through retellings of folklore, Biblical stories and literary anecdotes. She humanises Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Ophelia in her poems, Cleopatra and Reading Hamlet respectively. She also gives a humorous spin to the Cinderella tale when she ends a poem from her collection Rosary (1914) with Cinderella more worried about her shoe rather than the Prince’s love for her: 

Where can I hide you?
And it’s a bitter thought
That my little white shoe
will be tried by everyone.

 

The two poems that are Biblical retellings are from her collection, Anno Domini (1922). Rachel gives voice to the Biblical character, Rachel, who was betrayed by both her father, Laban, and her suitor, Jacob. Her father denied her to be married to Jacob because the laws stated that the eldest should be married first. Thus, Jacob was married to Leah instead of Rachel. But, the ending shows how both Jacob and Rachel yearn for each other. It is telling that it ends with lines about Rachel’s regrets:

Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved
Me, and called me your black dove? 

 

Lot’s Wife is also from the same collection and highlights the titular character’s point of view. Lot is a character mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Lot, his wife and daughter were fleeing the destruction of the sinful city, Sodom. They were not supposed to look back but Lot’s wife dared to do it. She was punished for her disobedience and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife is used as an example to teach a lesson about the consequences of disobeying God’s word. She has been usually portrayed in poems and literary works on similar lines. However, in her poem, Akhmatova hails the character instead of turning her into a trope or a moral lesson. She believes that Lot’s wife was brave to steal a glance of her home:

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she will never be lost
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 

This subtle rebellion would indeed be relatable to Akhmatova as she experienced her country transforming into an authoritarian society and her home being ideologically destroyed. If it was Akhmatova who was forced to flee her home, she would indeed mimic Lot’s wife, wishing to glance back, see her beloved home one last time and preserve that image in her memory. In the subversive poem, Akhmatova succeeded in portraying Lot’s wife’s emotions when she glanced back rather than only reducing her to an idea of a disobedient wife. She showed the ‘why’ of her actions. 

This is exactly why feminist retellings are important because they reveal an alternate viewpoint that challenges normative perspectives. 

 

The Importance of Art 

Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)
Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)

 

Another theme that runs through her poems is manifesting the importance of art and poetry as well as voicing the struggles of being an artist. 

In Loneliness from her collection White Flock (1914), she writes about a persona (probably herself) sequestered in a high tower with commanding views of the scenes around her which helps her to be inspired to complete her poems. 

Among high towers a high towers….
Here I can see the sun rise earlier
And see the glory of the day’s end….
And the Muse’s sunburnt hand
Divinely light and calm
Finished the unfinished page. 

 

The poem questions how writers attain inspiration. In the poem above, Akhmatova affirms that staying cut off from the world and being lonely is a prerequisite for the Muse to appear. Paying a tribute to the Muse is another of her hallmarks. It is unique to see a female poet invoking a Muse, as in canonical British literature the standard has always been a male writer calling on a female, a Muse for inspiration. The dynamics change when Akhmatova indulges in it. 

 

Poetry’s Power

The power of her words is not lost on her as Anna often mentions the power of poetry to record the horrific and to remember. In an untitled poem from her collection, The Seventh Book, she says that she has been spared death to write about those gone by: 

I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!

 

Her most famous work, The Requiem, is prefaced by an incident of why she wrote the poem in the first place. The poem is about the hardship she and others like her faced standing for hours every day outside prison walls in Leningrad for news about their family members. Akhmatova spent about 17 months lining up every day to know about the fate of her son, Lev. One day, a lady recognised her and asked if she could describe all that was around her. And she did. She captured the state of her own torment as well as the country’s in this poem. The Requiem is a brave reminder about poetry’s power in calling out the wrongs of a nation, how poems can help a nation remember its fractured past and never forget; lest people repeat the same mistakes. 

This is an important lesson from her poems that later on lashed out at Stalin’s rule. Her poems grieved for her nation and its people. 

On her death anniversary (5th March), let us once again remember the powerful purpose of poetry. 

Lest we forget.

 

Thank You for the Paper Moon, Rehana

Dear Rehana

I must confess I have never done this earlier. I have been in love with many books and have let them wreak havoc within my little heart. I have written about those books or spoken about them endlessly with friends. I have even wished to hold those authors in a warm, grateful embrace. But, whatever I am about to do is something I have never done before.

Ever since Aakansha wrote about this dramatic reading of your book, Abhishek has been wanting us to meet with you and talk to you. But of course, we wanted to read the book before we could do that. Yet, somehow we kept delaying it, thanks to mundane life. This Sunday morning, I was still waking up, when Abhishek said he wanted to read out something to me. Usually, these requests to read out end up being the latest political controversies from the morning news or half-satirical half-witty statements from a hopeless twitter banter. I mumbled a half-hearted yes and to my surprise, he was reading something about a July afternoon, train, lending library, Kipling, Marlowe, missing a heartbeat and some more. That did wake me up and I was asked to guess the name of the book. Somehow, I knew it was Paper Moon. But everything he read out was just too dreamy and it felt right to listen to it with eyes closed. I guess I was getting myself ported to that monsoon day in Bombay but in reality, I had dozed off. When I woke up, my weekend chores were hanging above my head and Paper Moon had to wait for another day.

 

I didn’t let it wait for too long though. It sounded too good to be left alone. So, I picked it up on Monday after office and began once again from the same July afternoon. That’s when I realized you are this wicked magician who works marvellously with words. Sigh! Trust me when I say, the rest of my Monday evening in an already summer-like Bangalore was feeling like a monsoon night. I couldn’t tell if the breeze under my neck was for real or because of Paper Moon.

During the initial chapters, every time you mentioned an author or a book, or a bookish reference, I tried to keep a note. I tried to keep up with you completely unaware of what a laborious task that was going to be. I remember counting until fifteen such references just in the first chapter. While I was still trying to wrap my head around how you managed to do it, the next realization hit me. Not only did you do this with books, but you also did the same with art, music, food, drinks, eateries and even hangout spots. I could have forgiven you if you did this just with Bombay, but no, you had to talk about Goa, London and even Edinburgh.

 

The next time someone looks for a recommendation for a book, art, music, food, or drink, I’ll give them a copy of Paper Moon.

 

And what’s with the Khan obsession? Generally, I would have complained if the writer didn’t take enough effort to veil the real-life public figures because many times they disrupt the flow of the story. But, you made him blend so well into the narration that I was smiling every time he appeared. I loved almost all the characters you created for this story, even the Australian family and the fact that your characters, their relationships, their emotions- all of it felt very real. Nowhere did I sense a pretence irrespective of how dreamy the whole book was. My only problem with the book was that even though Fiza had her own set of troubles, somewhere it felt like the bookstore just happened too easily for her or even the launch of the new store for that matter. Nevertheless, take it with a pinch of salt, because I guess I might actually be jealous of Fiza Khalid.

After finishing the book, I logged into Goodreads to rate it. I just wanted to be sure if I was the only one who was swept off my feet or if there were others. So, I skimmed through the reviews and I was having a moment of truth. The reviews reminded me of the Tamil movie Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (or in Telugu, Em Maaya Chesavae). For a long time, I hated the movie solely because every other person (be it a friend, family, or stranger) I met during the time, told me how it was exactly their own story. The reviews for Paper Moon looked the same and finally, I am making my peace with Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya fanatics because I now know how it feels. I know it sounds silly, but I couldn’t hold my joy when I found out Fiza’s paper moon and I share the same birthday. It felt so personal. Also what bibliophile hasn’t dreamt of owning a bookstore/cafe someday or even experiencing a drool-worthy geeky-romance as Fiza? I so wanted the book to go on, but even when it ended, the excitement stayed. I hope someday you write a second part to Paper Moon. I am aching to know what happens to Fiza, Iqbal, and even Noor.

 

Thank you for the Paper Moon, Rehana. That was a brilliant brilliant debut. I can’t wait to read your next, but until then, I am going to reread Paper Moon, every time I need a refill of refreshment.

 

Love
Jeeva

 

 

Between Change and Stillness of Time, Mamang Dai Tells the Legends of Pensam

Stories are an intrinsic part of who we are. They define us; they have been with us since times immemorial. The book, Legends of Pensam by Mamang Dai tries to recreate something similar through its story- a timeless, universal tale of human togetherness and struggle. Contrary to the title, the novel is not just a collection of folktales or legends. Rather the legends about common people and their deeds that have been passed down from one generation to the next and therefore have become folklore/legends in themselves. The stories of common people are portrayed and interwoven with folktales which make it seem as if the folktales are living and breathing through the lives of the people. 

 

The unnamed female narrator has gone back to her hometown in Arunachal Pradesh and is a participant in these stories rather than the storyteller. She also invites her friend, Mona and Jules to visit her village and to meet the people there. 

 

The Legends of Pensam is divided into four parts: Diary of the World, Songs of the Rhapsodist, Daughters of the Village, and Matter of Time

 

The first part presents an introduction to this world of forests, folklore, and its people. It sets the stage for the characters: the narrator visiting her village and staying there, her inviting Mona, Hoxo and his family. 

The second part invites the reader to be part of a dance drama that tells the tale of the white man colonizing these forests and about a violent turn of events. The dance drama is staged for a festival, but also for Mona and Jules. As a reader, you too gaze at one aspect of the culture and are one with the story. The rhapsodist also regales the reader and perhaps even Mona and Jules with other such stories – one where the wind howls and dust swirling confused the rhapsodist; one where he narrates how the Migu and Sirum clans were united by bonds of blood and kinship. 

 

The third part is my favourite as it shifts the perspective from a storyteller/rhapsodist to women and their lives; how their stories percolate generations as well. For example, Hoxo’s wife is Losi. Losi’s mother, Nenem, was rumoured to have had an affair with a British Officer, David, who was posted in her village, Pigo town. All that Losi knows about that relationship comes from stories and from a photograph she has of David and Nenem. This incident shows us family history as being a part of their collective history/understanding of place and time. The narrator also speaks in this part of her own relationship with the village, of her mother’s death, and how the village called out to her to visit and settle there once again.

 

The final part mixes a tenuous sense of timeless with the ever increasing modern sensibilities that are now inseparable to life in the towns and villages of Arunachal. One example the book uses is film-making and music and how both are used for preserving one’s culture. It captures the notions of inevitable change yet also how things remain unchanged. 

That is the hallmark of this novel: it conveys both these paradoxical elements – of relentless change and of the immutable lingering on. The novel does not lament change but marvels at it. It marvels at the persistence of human dreams and desires of joy and happiness, that co-exist under the vastness of the limitless blue sky. 

Perhaps, this is why we are always living in “Pensam” which among the Adi tribe of Arunachal means “in-between.” We are always in between a world that is fast changing and a world that is frozen in time. 

 

What If Ram Were a Startup Founder? Prachi Garg’s Book Answers

Reinterpretation of mythology or mythological fiction isn’t my favourite genre. In my opinion, many of these are an attempt at fan fiction and most of them do fail terribly. I talked about it here. So, when I picked up Prachi Garg’s Startup Secrets from the Ramayana, I was reluctant. Nevertheless, I was intrigued because the blurb said it is the story of Ram’s struggle of setting up his business empire from scratch in fourteen years. Prachi, who is also the founder of ghoomophiro.com has authored a few books in the genre of business fiction including the ‘Super’ series. So obviously she seems to know her trade well enough to put my anxiety to ease from the beginning.

The tale opens with a scene of Ram standing at the brink of victory against Ravan and flashes back into his struggle of fourteen years. Prachi’s Ram doesn’t carry a quiver full of arrows but business strategies and solutions for any business-related problem. Yet, he loses his business empire and is forced to move out of Ayodhya to start fresh along with his closest aide Sita and loving brother Lakshman. So, the lessons start from there. As the tale progresses, you will also meet many characters from Ramayana, when the trio work hard to establish a collaborative business Platform, called Kutumb, In Chitrakoot, that functions as a co-working space for small and large scale entrepreneurs. Then arrives Shurpanakha, followed by Ravan and his company HeadHunters from Lanka who pursues an aggressive business strategy to establish a monopoly over the Indian market. So the tale goes.

For those readers, who are familiar with the tale of Ramayana, it will be interesting to note how Prachi has picked a handful of characters and events from this epic and has successfully woven into a business fiction. I understand it isn’t as simple as a mythological fiction, to tell a tale with the same sequence of events but in a business language. I for one was constantly curious to know how each character has been recreated and how Prachi fit them into a modern-day business world. I liked Prachi’s diligence on how she tried to bring some of the finest details of the epic like the golden deer that lures Sita, the Nine-Sister’s alliance, Hanuman bringing the entire tech-hub because he couldn’t find the correct router. While some of these reinterpretations might come-across like force-fit, a lot of them do bring a smile.

There are occasional slip-ups in the plot which is barely noticeable, thanks to Prachi’s skillful narration. The best part of the book for me is the end of every chapter, where Prachi summarizes the learning from those episodes. In only 126 pages, Prachi covers a lot of ground from ‘The Value of Disruption’ to ‘Financial Stability’. The choice of language is simple and spiced up in moderation with business jargon, which makes it an easy read even for beginners.

 

I must also warn the readers to not expect a thorough reinterpretation of Ramayana in Prachi’s book, especially those readers who have studied Ramayana extensively. I would say read this because it is a fun read with some insightful secrets for the startup-enthusiasts.

Book Review – Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

Salma Yacoub looked at the coffee cup and knew that something is amiss about the fate of her youngest daughter, Alia. She never read the coffee dregs of her own kin but made an exception here because it was Alia’s wedding day. So what did she do? She decided to tell a lie, to give away only the positive foretelling. 

This paraphrasing is how the novel, Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, begins. With a lie.

It is also her decision to tell this lie that captivates the reader immediately. As Salma waited for her daughter, she reminisced about her life, about how she ended up in Nablus, fleeing from Jaffa; about her husband’s death and about her three children, Widad, Mustafa, and Alia. Widad was already married and settled in Kuwait and now the youngest was getting married to Atef. Salma spared no expenses. Interestingly, the wedding itself is not described in the story but only the events leading up to it.

The entire novel is narrated through the perspectives of Salma’s family. Initially, it is her children’s viewpoints that are portrayed and later on her grandchildren and great grandchildren as well.

The novel begins in the 1960s and ends in around 2014. It narrates the history and growth of Salma’s family over 60 years. The one constant in all their perspectives is war, the act of fleeing and resettling. Movement is constant. Each generation has seen war. Salma was the first. Her children were victims of The Six Day War in 1967 which forced Atef and Alia to settle in Kuwait along with her sister, Widad. They had to flee again from Kuwait, when it was invaded by Iraq in August 1990.

The characters are perpetually settling and resettling; be it in Kuwait, Ammam in Jordan or Beirut in Lebanon. A few characters such as two of Alia’s children, Souad and Karam, also move to Boston and Paris for some time. However, Palestine is never called home again.

In portraying one family’s dispersal across the world, Salt Houses lays bare the human cost of conflict: the trauma of war and displacement that generations carry. 

The novel makes that pain ever so palpable through the characters’ memories and lived experiences. Yet, despite the sadness, their stories uphold the value of relationships and of family. There is deep warmth in the family’s get togethers. The young ones move in and out, they go looking for greener pastures but still maintain a sense of attachment with their family despite the fraught situations and tenuous nature of their relationships.

This is not to say that Hala Alyan has romanticised Palestine or the idea of the homeland and family. Yes, the past is a prominent aspect of certain characters’ lives; it is where one longs to go back to. But such narratives are set against very realistic goals of survival and staying safe, and having stability. When one of Alia’s granddaughters, Manar, visits Palestine (particularly Nablus and the home Alia grew up in), she attains no jubilation because the place has transformed. It is no longer the lust green land of orange trees that her grandmother remembers. Manar’s visit acknowledges that change has occurred. In such ways, the story steers clear of surfeit nostalgic sentimentality. The memories of older generation of Palestine are different than the realities in 2014. “Nostalgia is an affliction”, Alia remarks. Certainly, characters such as Alia live off nostalgia but that is not the only narrative employed in the novel. It does not suffer from overindulging in the oft-used connections of nostalgia and memory.

Even the fragmented identities that they have, especially Alia’s grandchildren, highlight the unrealistic idea of nationality based on borders. Alia and Atef are Palestinian and have lived in Palestine till they fled to Kuwait but none of their children or grandchildren have lived there or were even born there. They are Palestinian by nationality but also partly Kuwaiti and Lebanese. They have seen Jordan and the U.S. Alia’s grandchildren have grown up in the U.S. and are ‘ajnabi’ or strangers because of their Americanised ways. How does one explain such criss-crossings of identity to any person? The characters are constantly marked by their difference and even their friend circle includes people who are similarly anomalies from what is considered ‘normal’ identity.

While the Yacoub family is definitely a privileged one as they are moneyed and were probably landowners in Palestine, they are still refugees. They live drifting lives; lives that are unsettled by the whims and fancies of dictators and so called democratic regimes.

This privilege is acknowledged right at the beginning in Salma’s narrative when she feels grateful for having a house in Nablus and not having to languish in refugee camps, grateful that she can protect her children at least in that way from war. Alia has similar thoughts about her own children and her privilege is also set in stark contrast when she randomly meets a Kurdish refugee woman in Kuwait who tells her about what hunger really means. Yet, in no way does Alyan diminish any kind of suffering. Instead, she juxtaposes this disparity often and keeps the characters’ privilege in check.

The narrative is intimate and will tear you apart with its mixture of joy, longing, nostalgia, death and birth. The reader glimpses their lives, thoughts, and gets involved in their interweaving strands of family stories. It feels melancholic to read this novel, especially when reading about the constant political turmoil the characters are confronted with. How does one settle in life when war is always at one’s doorstep? But the multiple voices in the novel do exactly that –take brave steps, even risky ones, to carry on with their lives even though they are often ruptured by bombs and battles.

Salt Houses is a must read as it reveals layers of intertwining history and displacement through a portrait of this one family. It triumphs as a literary work as it does what literature does best: show the humane behind the cold statistical headlines. The writing is tender, delicately depicting the characters’ lives through such heart wrenching metaphors of beauty that are jarring to the reader.

“Within days the groves were mangled, soil impaled with wooden stakes, oranges scattered, pulp leaking from battered flesh.” This vivid image is as haunting as describing a morgue; it tells a different tale of the destruction yet it is still talking about war. Her writing often portrays the beauty vis a vis destruction. This is exactly what hurts the reader when reading this novel.

The novel’s take on extremist tendencies remarks bravely on its flaws. When Alia’s grandchild, Abdullah, is influenced by these Fascist thoughts, Alia speaks up against them and calls out the inherent evil in such ideologies. Alia had seen how her own brother Mustafa was lost because of this. Abdullah is Riham’s son; Riham is Alia’s eldest child. Riham transformed into a devout person after her adolescent years and in a scene, after Alia confronted Abdullah, Riham is also shown reflecting on how the religion peddled by these extremists is suffused not with faith but with anger and misinformed ideas of lost identity. It was heartening to read about characters who themselves disowned these ideas. This is very different from mainstream depiction of Muslim characters which relishes on showing them as fanatics. Here is Riham who loves her faith because of how it is, and not because someone is shouting at her to assert her religion. She truly believes in it rather than only using her religious identity as a way to channelize her anger and injustice, which is what she thinks the fascists indulge in.  This rational dissection of extremism is important in the face of constant stereotyping against an entire religion.

Salt Houses is a gut wrenching novel that leaves you hollow and sorrowful because of the sweeping history and trauma that pervades the story. Yet, it hails the sheer strength of hope amidst the barrenness of war.

Cover Image: Beowulf Sheehan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Book Review – Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire

It would be an understatement to say that the British Empire in its heyday was an engine of gluttony. But that is the story that Lizzie Collingham wants to tell in her book, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. The Empire changed the world. There are arguments to both sides of the Empire’s deeds, that it did good is commendable, but the bad it did against the good is even more reproachable. 

Trade was the first area through which the Empire propelled its power. A small trading company that went on to rule more than half the world and engineered the largest empire in history. From the 16th and 18th centuries, trading became the driving force behind innovation, both political and economic. This trade disrupted the life-cycles of many cultures and countries that eventually became part of the Empire. 

This is what Collingham depicts in her enchanting history. The subject of this history is food. Food that drove trade and “helped to turn the wheels of commerce” (pg. xvi). Food that bolstered progress. However, with such progress, destruction went hand in hand. British traders settled in far off corners of the world for food, disrupting local cultures, and the people, even going so far as to annihilate entire native populations.

 

The food web that was woven by … [these developments] … created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet.

 

In this way, Britain changed the way the world tasted food. And yet, it should be noted that food was still just one aspect of commerce that British merchants were concentrating on. Indeed, with most histories “focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices” (pg. 5). Among other things, Britain also traded in textiles, spices, tin, rubber, wood, dyes, etc. But food was important simply because it was a basic necessity that superseded all others; and trade thrived around food. 

The book starts with “fish day on the Mary Rose.” Salt cod was never popular in English cuisine, but it lasted long and could be used for long sea journeys. It laid the foundation of English expansion. The ship Mary Rose itself became a shipwreck that, upon its rediscovery, became one of the best artefacts for historians. There was evidence in the shipwreck of the presence of beef, pork, and salt cod, and other things that could last for long without spoiling and becoming inedible.

“Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market (pg. 79).” It was rare and expensive, and came to London through the Dutch East India Company. As Collingham writes, sugar was popular with the English and led to the sweetening of tea overtime. 

 

Collingham writes fluidly, without breaking her tone. Her main prerogative is getting the facts straight and putting them down in front of the reader. The pieces fall into place themselves. It is a fairly straightforward narrative that she has established. The author also supplies actual illustrations and colour plates depicting the history of food-making in the world. These illustrations complement the narrative easily.

Another thing of note is the recipes peppered throughout the book. These range from archaic recipes taken from old books that are still used in the kitchen today to authentic recipes passed down through families and friends across generations. 

 

Even from the start, despite all the history provided in abundance, there really ever was only one topic of focus under discussion in this book: food. There are nuggets of information, both fascinating and unheard of at the same time. For example, the medieval cosmic view was that black was the colour of melancholy so it was not used in food. A combination of ginger and saffron was used because it was yellowish in colour and that meant the nourishing energy of the sun. But, this world view changed with the arrival of black pepper. Collingham helps the reader wade through this sea of history without any problems whatsoever. 

Collingham is clearly fascinated by the effect the British Empire has had on the culinary arts and trade across the world. Sometimes, this fascination seems a bit laudatory, as if she can’t help admiring it. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Empire encouraged slavery or colonized countries like India, or that it appropriated cultures, even destroyed them. But she doesn’t openly criticize the actions of the Empire to a large extent. Since the topic is food, Collingham concentrates on that; sometimes to the detriment of any timely criticism.

The book is highly readable as an introduction to the past based on what is on your dinner plate.

 

 

Cover Image: AshPrad

Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life are Not Meant to be Broken!

If you have followed Dr. Jordan Peterson’s trajectory closely, you would agree that if nothing, he has at the least gotten under the skin of the shallow, lazy intellectuals who have been enjoying an extended honeymoon in the marketplace of intellectuals. Right from their stranglehold on the academia to their presumption of privilege to be heard first on all matters significant or otherwise, the foundations have been shaken. Now, some of them have gone to their study to revise the fundamentals of their worldview and the ones who were there only by the virtue of intellectual nepotism have unwittingly come out in open with their lack of depth and understanding about matters Dr. Peterson speaks of. Faced with such a situation, I have seen them doing, one of these two things – either they keep talking to the straw-man their professors had created for them back in their schools or they keep throwing off meaningless personal allegations against the man. This is such a common streak in Dr. Peterson’s interviews (mostly, the ones that have been taken by the flag-bearers of lazy intellectualism) that most of the time, he is not being heard. What we see instead is some sort of passive listening while their active brain is busy stitching its next net to trap him. On the other hand, Dr. Peterson doesn’t shy away from taking his own sweet time to listen so as to draft better responses and throw in an honest question at the end of it which even though seemingly honest, pops up only by design . In a few minutes, aware or unaware, the interviewer is choked for space and starts following Dr. Peterson’s streak. So, while the interviewer is already zoned out, Dr. Peterson is still in the ring, ready to land his knockout punch.

 

 

I heard of the book 12 Rules for Life in one of his talks on YouTube. Since, the subjects and delivery of his YouTube lectures had me hooked on to them already, I didn’t have much questions about going ahead and buying his book. Typically, you would place this book on the self-help shelf in a bookstore but even if the book is kept in the autobiographies section, it would make equal sense, if not more. This is because Jordan Peterson is not into empty lecturing and tall tales. He draws heavily from his own life, his struggles, and his attempts to understand the ever-elusive meaning of life to explain his rules. This works in favour of the book because a book that is meant to help you should have at least helped the author before taking birth as a book.

 

 

One must increase one’s strength by sadhana; otherwise one cannot preach. As the proverb goes: ‘You have no room to sleep yourself and you invite a friend to sleep with you.’ There is no place for you to lie down and you say: ‘Come, friend! Come and lie down with me.’  – Sri Ramakrishna (Gospel/Vol2/34.html)

 

 

Jordan presents the book as an antidote to chaos. What chaos is he actually talking about? Before he starts explaining the rules, while telling us about the title, he says, “Perhaps if we lived properly, we would be able to tolerate the weight of our own self-consciousness. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our insufficiency and ignorance. Perhaps we could come to avoid those pathways to Hell-and we have seen in the terrible twentieth century just how real Hell can be.”

 

Now, if I had to count the attributes of today’s individual that contribute to the chaos Mr. Peterson is talking about, they would be the following –

 

  • Loss of Self-Esteem

    Too many in this world are being brought up with a sense of criminality about the human race. While a bunch of people keep working to make this world a better place, there are so many individuals who really believe that humans are not good enough for this planet. Add to this, the deliberate divorce from one’s own history, culture, and heritage being effected by the academia and popular media, our youngsters grow up without any self-esteem. They only know to loathe themselves and others with increasing intensity every day.

 

  • Playing the Victim Card

    We have become too touchy, we like flashing the victim card all the time to outshout others and make ourselves heard. We play the victim card when we are on the wrong, we play it when we have wronged someone else. This has far reaching consequences. One, nobody is ready to take responsibility for their actions. Two, the real victims are almost never heard or ignored and they keep suffering. Three, we end up living a life based on lies and deceit. We reduce ourselves to mere actors and manipulate our own worldview to see the world as a stage and everyone else as fellow actors.

 

  • Loss of Purpose

    This point in part is connected to the first point. Our world is more connected than it has ever been. With 24/7 internet life, online profiles, avatars, the need to flaunt or fake your happiness and success has migrated from our neighbourhoods to the World Wide Web. That world is naturally more fierce, less forgiving, and changing at a breakneck speed. So, individuals end up making stories and exaggerating their experiences instead of living a truly meaningful life with any sense of purpose.

 

  • Envy

    This is one aspect of our chaos that is not always addressed openly. This feeling is not unnatural but what we let it do to us is very much our own choice. While some people let it drive them to lead a meaningful life, most of the people let it destroy them one sad day at a time.

 

  • No Respect for the Other Person

    This other person can be your friend, family, parents, sibling, teacher, colleague, or somebody you don’t agree with on political issues. The lack of respect has made all our exchanges a zero sum game where either you are with me or against me. If you are with me, good. If you are against me, you are a fascist. The middle ground of mutual respect has perished. What am I talking about? Check this piece by Dr. Shashi Tharoor – am-i-a-closet-sanghi-for-mourning-demise-of-an-rss-man-somethings-terribly-wrong-tharoor

 

  • Handling Grief

    For all the interconnectedness chatter in the world, we are not really doing ourselves proud when it comes to making real connections. More families are going nuclear, people have fewer friends, we seldom know who our neighbour is, and trusting colleagues has become an impossible thing at work. While solitude can be empowering when exercised by choice of time and place, compelled loneliness leaves us terribly vulnerable in times of grief. When something happens to somebody close to us, we are caught helpless while trying to deal with our grief.

 

Now, this is of course not an exhaustive list, so you may add to it whatever you feel brings chaos to our life. Just one word of caution, when you start adding to the list, do not begin by thinking of the society at large. Instead, begin by thinking about yourself and your own life. Start by including the chaotic aspects of your own life. Human beings are not too different from each other. What you find in 1, you fill find in n. It is for this reason Dr. Peterson highlights the importance of changing the world by changing the self. In his Rule No. 6, Mr. Peterson says, “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your own enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you…”

 

 Be the change you want to see in the world. – Mahatma Gandhi

 

Mr. Peterson has addressed all the points mentioned here and more through his 12 rules. Every rule picks on one thing that he wants you to start doing. For each of his rule, starting from ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ to the last one – ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’, Mr. Peterson explains the fundamentals, his reason for framing such a rule, the positioning of the rule in his own life, and the biological, psychological, and historical context to the rule. All these rules are an attempt to help an individual live a meaningful life. It’s not that all of these rules will sound new to you. On the contrary, you must have heard most of them at different points in your life. Many of the points Mr. Peterson identifies are in fact ancient wisdom of our sages. However, Mr. Peterson with this book lends a new seriousness to these rules that they deserve in modern times. A new teacher is good only if he helps you understand things that the previous teacher could not. So, if you have heard about these rules before and could not understand their import or function in your life, Mr. Jordan Peterson makes an excellent new teacher.

 

 

The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong. – Swami Vivekananda

 

 

The book doesn’t end where the 12 rules end. The author adds a beautiful chapter titled ‘CODA’ to conclude the book. The chapter features a ‘Pen of Light’. Mr. Peterson received it as a gift from his friend. I would leave out the details of this pen for you to read in the book. However, I must tell you that this book seems to have been written with the help of this pen of light, metaphorically if not literally. This book is an attempt of the most sincere kind to help individuals become stronger. Our popular culture values victimhood more than strength but it is your strength that helps you escape victimhood. By strength, one doesn’t refer only to the kind you use to thrash your enemies. Strength means something far deeper than that. Strength of character, of conviction, of intellect, of emotions, and of spirit is what today’s individuals need and the book, through stories of our author’s own struggles in his life, is an attempt at leaving you stronger that way.

 

My Maa passed away on 31st January, 2019 after hoping for about 14 months that she would be able to defeat pancreatic cancer. I have not been able to come to terms with her absence in my life. Perhaps, that will never happen. However, I wanted to look at other people and their grief in order to understand mine better. I began to read a lot of personal blogs of people to understand how other people have handled grief and how do they see the helplessness that comes along with it. Thereafter, I stumbled upon C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Jordan’s 12 Rules for Life reached me after that.

 

In the last chapter, Jordan narrates the story of his daughter Mikhaila who was diagnosed with polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) when she was about 6 years of age. He writes, “…it begins with a question, structured like a Zen koan. Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation… If you are already everything, everywhere, always there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen has already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitation, no story. No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being. It helped my client, too. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this. I don’t want to claim that somehow this makes it all OK. She (talking about his client) still faced the cancer afflicting her husband, just as I still faced my daughter’s terrible illness. But there’s something to be said for recognizing that existence and limitation are inextricably linked….”

 

Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations-in the depths-it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations.  – Jordan Peterson

 

The healing perhaps never happens, or maybe it does. I’m not so sure about it at this point of my life. However, to ‘notice’ that there are many others trying to understand life and its ways just like I am, gives a meaning to my own struggle. Mr. Jordan Peterson, like many other teachers of the past, reassures my belief that my struggle is not irrelevant, it is not insignificant. That belief according to me is ‘strength’ and that’s what 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos is about.

 

Book Review – Anukrti Upadhyay’s Daura

An enigmatic sarangiya player sweeps a district collector/officer off his feet with his magical tunes in a distant desert region of Rajasthan state in India. 

 

Sarangiyathe person who plays the sarangi (a rectangular string instrument).

 

No, Daura by Anukrti Upadhyay isn’t a romantic tale set in the twilight of the dusky dunes but the novel is steeped in different ideas of romance – romancing nature, the romance present in the state’s folktales and folksongs, romance of the music, and the most prevalent of all: the romance of the mysterious and the magical. 

 

Daura is Anukrti Upadhyay’s one of the first books in English. She also writes in Hindi. A District Collector or DC (a government officer who governs a division of the state called a district). He is unnamed and very enthusiastic about exploring the culture and tradition of the desert folks which is why he is often touring the district he governs (much to the dismay of his orderly, who is happy to be ensconced in his town life and engaging in urban activities rather than rural pastimes). The collector, on the other hand, shows kindness to their way of life, is happy to partake in it, and happier even to be regaled by their music and dance at the dak bangla (a bungalow) in the remote desert of the district. 

 

He is just and not a slave to his power. He does away with all forms of red tape to give back to the tribes people the land that is rightfully theirs. He is mesmerized by a sarangiya’s skill at playing his sarangi. But the sarangiya is a nomad, not one to be at the beck and call of superior government officials. Though, when he can, he does fascinate the DC with folk tales particularly one about a princess who turned into a tree to be freed from her ungracious suitors. The tree that has trapped the princess bears an eerie similarity to the one and only lush tree close to the bungalow. This tree’s origins itself are unknown, and no one can explain this green anomaly in the middle of barrenness. Except the sarangiya who not only is skilled at playing his sarangi but is also knowledgeable in the folklore of the desert. The sarangiya reveals how he had a vision of the princess through his music. The DC also got a glimpse, not once, but twice and the sarangiya attributed these visions to the DC’s strong faith. The DC then descends into a state suffused with these visions. He cuts himself off from the real world, from his work and inhabits the mythic to eventually become a myth himself. 

 

While the central character is the DC, his voice and thoughts come much later in the novel. Daura is told through the perspectives of several other characters on the margins. Their narratives are in the form of an interview. The interviews are part of the larger investigation being carried out by the state government to find out what happened to the DC. Thus, the voices of his orderly, of the tehsildar (the district is divided further into many talukas, which are further divided into tehsils and the officer responsible for a tehsil is the tehsildar), of the Nat girls (who belong to the local tribes who used to perform folk songs and dances close to the DC’s bungalow), the security guard, the camel herder come before the DC’s point of view. Their stories have a conversational tone because they are part of an investigation where the individuals are answering questions. 

 

The DC’s voice is seen through his journal entries.  After the journal entries, the novel depicts various persons conducting this investigation and presenting a plethora of reports. These include the medical officer, the Chief Secretary and the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP). It is the SSP’s report that finally concludes the novel and sheds a bureaucratic light on a very mythic occurrence in the dak bangla: the merging of the DC into the tree and his transformation into a folk God of sorts. The people thereafter call him, Dev, meaning a male God. 

 

Anukrti Upadhyay has thus merged two disparate worlds of the rural people and their world of myths and beliefs with the rational, cold and calculating world of the government. This merger is possible by the unique form of this novel: a government report, but one which still retains its fable like tone (at least in the first half) because of its interview format that is able to bring out the features and views of each character. For example, the orderly is condescending toward the tribes and their way of life. He does not appreciate their friendly attitude with his sahib. He also detests the distant desert and its vast empty space he does not know how to fill. He supports the idea of status and believes that propriety befitting a person’s position must be followed strictly. The tehsildar is obsequious, yet hard working. However, like the orderly, he also believes that things should go according to a certain process and not in haphazard or arbitrary manner that the DC employed by bypassing the bureaucracy in doing his official work.  The security guard has a completely opposite outlook. He seems averse to facts and to rigid ideas of wrong and right. His unwillingness to admit anything as true or false perturbs the logical mindset of the investigator. He speaks in riddles and in a roundabout manner. His understanding of the world is subjective and not based on hard facts. 

 

The camel herder’s interview holds more concrete information about the sarangiya and talks of his own relation with the musician. Interestingly, the novel does not have a section dedicated to the sarangiya himself. He speaks in no interviews and writes no journals from which his own views can be gleaned. He is constructed out of the others’ voices and opinions and not his own thoughts. This element is also what heightens his aura of mystery which makes him illusory and imaginary akin to the many folktales he spins and weaves with his music. 

 

The narratives of the latter part of the novel are very matter of fact in tone as they stick to the point and do not reveal anything about the person other than the facts of their position or findings. The exception is the SSP’s report that includes verbatim (as possibly close to the original as it can be) conversations that he had with different characters in the book about events that led to the DC’s disappearance. The narratives also depict how the two worlds are as separate as can be. One is old worldly, superstitious yet vivacious and passionate and the other, though run by a modern democratic government, is more impersonal and factual. Yet they meet together and clash in this tale of two worlds.   

 

The ending of the novel is also an ending of the SSP’s report. He categorically states that all protocols have been followed in dealing with this strange matter and have been accordingly dealt with in keeping with prior permission and approvals granted by the officers involved. And with that one dull thud, the magical journey comes to an end. We see the crux of the story unfolding through myriad colourful characters which is then taken over by the soulless state machinery. The form of the novel also satirises the red tape and its lack of imagination and empathy in dealing with the public and the marginalised. It brings to focus the idea that the government may be replete with status, positions, and protocols but is bereft of any humanity.