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.

 

 

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.

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/

A-Country-Without-a-Post-Office Book Cover

Book Review – Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country without a Post Office

Mere words are not enough to capture the sheer brilliance of Agha Shahid Ali’s poems and their plaintive cry for his beloved homeland. 

The poems of The Country Without a Post Office (published in 1997) are complex and allusive, recalling the culturally rich past of Kashmir, linking that to the carnage in the 1990s. This creates a haunting continuum to the idea of Kashmir- of how it used to be a land where religion, culture, folktales merged effortlessly and how now it has turned into a land where, “death flies in.”

Needless to say, the poems in this collection are nostalgic, bemoaning the state of Kashmir of the 90s. Nostalgia comes naturally in Ali’s poetry which the blurb describes as “Agha Shahid Ali’s finest mode, that of longing.”

 

Kashmir Vale
Michael Petersen [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

This longing though is immersed not only in the melancholic but also the political, historic and the literal. Each poem mingles intense pain of various kinds, be it the pain of losing a son or a relative; the distance between families; of the silence in the wake of the aftermath, with the history, culture, and the politics of the decade that pillaged an entire state. All of this pierce the reader’s heart and soul and engulf them in a profound sadness the poet holds for his home.

 

Some remarkable poems that portray this continuum and make the reader engage with Kashmir rather than dismissing it as a mere site of never ending conflict include the beautiful, A History of Paisley that uses the motif of the ubiquitous paisley (often seen embroidered or printed on various fabrics), A Footnote to History, At the Museum that takes a hard factual look at the emblem of our civilization, The Dancing Girl bronze statue from Harappa or the sweeping, I Dream I am the Only Passenger on Flight 42 to Srinagar which in careful couplets and tercets marks the violent culmination of a 1000 year old civilisation. The opening prose poem, The Blessed Word: A Prologue, itself establishes this continuum and the mode of longing by evoking powerful imagery of Srinagar under siege and by invoking the different names the state has had in its past. In doing so, the poet seems to be crying out for the ravaged state and its people. 

 

Kashmiri_people_in_Dale_Lake_kashmir
Dashrathgoyal85 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Rich and decadent metaphors that suffuse his poems such as the Kashmir rose, the famed saffron spice , the paradise like Mughal gardens, the majestic mountain peaks, the stately chinar tree or the floating gardens of the Dal Lake lie uneasily in stark contrast to the conflicted reality of the state. 

A case in point is the pertinent poem, The Floating Post Office. It portrays, in Ali’s typical style of invoking quaintness, a post boat delivering letters on the sly through a network of waterways when the roads are shut.

 

This poem brings to attention the title of the collection itself and how this poem and the title highlight that communication is a lifeline for “the city from where no news can come.” The titular poem also depicts letters unanswered, letters unsent en masse because communication has been blocked. 

Now, think long and deeply about the ramifications of all forms of communication being cut off in today’s highly connected, globalised world. Think then about what happens in Kashmir, where when the rest of the world enjoys high speed internet and India basks in its Jio revolution, an entire state becomes metaphorically a country without a post office. 

Cats and a girl

Five Cat Books from Japanese Literature

Japan loves its cats. They feature in legends and folklore. There are even shrines dedicated to them such as Nekonomiya (Shrine of the Cat) in Yamagata Prefecture or the Nekojinja (Cat Shrine) on the island of Tashirojima in the Miyagi Prefecture. And of course the ubiquitous maneki neko (the beckoning cat) beckons through most shops and restaurants. Unsurprisingly, Japanese literature also boasts of several books that centre on cats or have cats as prominent characters.

 

Japanese woman and cat - Yoshitoshi
Yoshitoshi [CC0] – Japanese woman and cat

 

Let’s take a look at these 5 Japanese novels that are about cats:

 

I am a Cat

This is a classic! Written by Natsume Soseki in 1905-1906, I am a Cat is a satirical work set during the Meiji Era and narrated from the perspective of a cat that belongs to a teacher. This cat spares no one in its critique of the elite and academic circles of the time. Soseki brings out the faults in the society’s actions, particularly the Western traditions that were blindly adopted, through the eyes of a supercilious cat. If you know about certain behavioral traits that have come to typify cats, you should thank this novel!

Cats
Image by Prawny from Pixabay

 

Kafka on the Shore:

Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most globally renowned and famous author. His love for cats is no secret. In a beautiful memoir like essay published recently on The New Yorker, Murakami recollects, among several other things about his father, his sensitivity to a cat that they had just abandoned. Murakami’s fictional works also portray unique cat characters. Kafka on the Shore is a case in point. One of the plot lines in the story is about an old man, Nagata, who can miraculously speak to cats and is the go-to person to find missing cats. He is on a search for one such cat, Goma, when he stumbles across a sinister person who absolutely detests cats.

 

The Cat Witch Art - Okabe
Okabe – The Cat Witch, Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Okabe, c. 1844.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles:

Written by Hiro Arikawa, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a feel good book. It is one of those books that are riding high on the recent and growing interest in Japanese translated works that are not by Murakami and has a wide readership outside of Japan. The story is a rambling one, telling a touching tale of a Japanese man, Satoru, and how he came across a stray cat, Nana. Not being able to take care of it, they both go on a road trip across Japan to find a suitable owner for it. Told mostly from the point of view of Nana, the novel is a touching and emotional tribute to the bond between humans and their feline loves.

 

Cat Art by Utagawa Sadakage
Utagawa Sadakage; Utagawa Sadakage; Rôgetsuan Umekage; Shakuyakutei died 1845 [Public domain]

The Guest Cat:

Similar to The Travelling Cat Chronicles, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is also a popular choice in the translated section and a beautiful tale of a cat, Chibi, who quietly becomes a visiting member in a couple’s new home. The novel has an understated tone that takes a sweeping yet subtle view of Japan’s growth and change and its beautiful seasons along with the couple’s own relationship with Chibi.

 

Japanese Woman Writing Welcome
Nishikawa Sukenobu [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)]

If Cats Disappeared from the World:

This is a rather philosophical book that features a devil who is willing to give to strike a bargain (rather devilish, don’t you think?) with the protagonist, who is diagnosed with brain tumour: he can extend his life by a day each, if he allows the devil to remove a particular thing from this world, forever. This Faustian story by Genki Kawamura is replete with musings about loss and life.

 

Gotokuji_Temple
Laika ac from UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

 

Postscript: If five books are not enough to whet your appetite for cat books, we have a few more titles up our sleeve such as The Wind up Bird Chronicle by Murakami again where the cat goes missing and the owner goes on a journey to search for it; Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu is a humourous memoir manga from the horror specialist himself who, lo behold, is scared of cats himself. The manga is about how he and his wife adopt two cats and how he slowly grows to love them. Lastly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s novella, A Cat, A Man, and Two Women centres on the cat, Lily, who is used as a tool for manipulation by the human beings she is attached to.

References:

 

Mata-Hari.jpg

Book Review – Paulo Coelho’s The Spy

Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist. Woven around the events of the First World War, The Spy promises to be Mata Hari’s last confessional without as much soul-searching as you might expect of an “innocent” prisoner awaiting the French firing squad. Famous as the seductive dancer who brought the “religiousness” and “disinhibition” from faraway lands to France, The Spy traces Mata Hari’s journey from being Margaretha Zelle of Leeuwarden, Netherlands to her eventual conviction as a spy for the Germans.

Beginning with her departure for Leiden to train as a kindergarten teacher, the dichotomy of Margaretha’s familiar surroundings and the impending turbulence is most represented by her mother’s gift of tulip seeds. “A symbol of the country” and her destiny or perhaps just Calvinist ideals, the sexual assault by her Leiden school’s principal ensures Margaretha’s restlessness in “Calvinist Holland” and propels her to respond to military officer’s Rudolf MacLeod offer for marriage.

While the journey to Indonesia with her husband promises a romantic sojourn in exotic lands, reality only brings her the conventional life of the military wife. Even as she suffers through an occasionally abusive marriage, fate brings her to an event featuring Java dancers and a bloody suicide that causes her to bolt back home. Adopting her nom de scène as she leaves her former life behind for her dreams to shine in the City of Light, she arrives in Paris during the 1900 World Fair.

As Coelho sketches her journey as “a classical dancer to oriental music”, The Spy is peppered with political and cultural references of early 19th century Europe including Freud, Pablo Picasso, and the Émile Zola’s infamous letter J’Accuse. However, despite the occasional emotional insight, Coelho misses the mark in engaging the reader in the life of one of the most famous entertainers in the world.

Even if the matter-of-fact narrative is considered to portray Mata Hari’s general appearance of divaesque nonchalance, The Spy seems dry given she writes her final letter within the confines of Saint-Lazare prison infested with rats and “used only to break the spirits of those who thought they were strong – women like” Mata Hari. And while liberal France may have allowed her nudist seductions on the stage, the narrative suggests her “high-society” exaggerations resulted in the accusation by Captain Georges Ladoux and arrest on February 13, 1917. Her subsequent confessions elicited by prosecutor of the Third War Council, Captain Pierre Bouchardon ensure her death sentence which was executed on October 15, 1917 – Mata Hari was neither bound nor blindfolded; she stood, gazing steadfastly at her executioners, as the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away.

Considering the Parisian entertainment scene in the early 19th century and the book’s flamboyant protagonist, the glamour seems insipid, and the narrative is uninspiring with Coelho’s literary sparkle experienced only infrequently – “I was an exotic bird traversing an earth ravaged by humanity’s poverty of spirit.” Perhaps the author was so enamored by the mystery that is Mata Hari as to fall short of infusing The Spy with her glittering persona.

Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head

Lunatic in My Head is one of a kind story written by Anjum Hasan. It is set in Shillong of the 1990s. The novel is an interwoven story of three main characters: an English college lecturer, Firdaus Ansari; an IAS aspirant Aman Moondy, and an eight year old, Sophie Das.

Firdaus is caught between her teaching and her wish to pursue an MPhil to safeguard her teaching post at the convent she teaches in. She is also caught between her colleagues’ personal affair dramas and her very unhelpful, lecherous potential supervisor, Thakur.

 

The novel begins with Firdaus on an April afternoon when “pine trees dripped slow tears,’ (a line that hooked me to the book immediately for its visuals) and as she walks down a street, the opening page itself gives a sweeping view of the multicultural composition of the city, from the Khasis, to Bengalis, to Goans, and to Firdaus herself, who is from Bihar but born and brought up in Shillong. Her sense of being rooted there in Shillong yet being seen as a dkhar, which is the Khasi word for non tribal or foreigner, is another of the conflicts she is entangled in.

 

Aman Moondy is studying for the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) exams for the second time, having failed on his first attempt. His first love, however, is Pink Floyd. He and his friends, Ibomcha and Ribor, even formed a band, ProtoDreamers and played Pink Floyd’s covers for several small occasions. Aman lives and breathes music. He compares everything around him to music, including his infatuation for Concordella. He is also on the other hand, someone who dislikes the smallness of Shillong and wants to leave. This is also why he decided to give the IAS exam a shot or two. For him, it meant a window to the outside world.

 

When we first read about Sophie, she is sitting in class and wondering how the baby in her mother’s belly will come out. Sophie herself is a product of an intercultural marriage, her father, Mr. Das, being a Bengali whereas her mother a northerner. Sophie loves to read and is fascinated by her neighbour, Elsa Lyngdoh, and her house, which was the only place she was allowed to go by herself. She has strange conversations with Elsa and even stranger ones (and perhaps a touch too creepy) with her son, Jason as well. Elsa, an old Khasi woman, and an eight year old, Sophie, made for an odd couple whenever they went together for an excursion outside the house.

 

Interspersed through these main characters are stories of other eclectic characters too such as Aman’s friend, Ribor, whose brother is a thug or Mr. Das’ struggles to get a job; or Nivedita, Firdaus’ colleague, who is dealing with her husband having an affair; or the strict Mother Gertrude, the principal of the convent and the eccentric beauty parlour owner, Sharon, who is ‘a quarter-British, a quarter-Assamese of the tea planter variety and half-Khasi.’

The set of characters the novel explores itself portrays the ethnic composition of the city and one of the themes the story portrays is the tribal versus non tribal issue that still rages on. The spotlight on it is subtle, something that lurks behind seemingly routine things of life such as when a migrant, Sarak Singh, an aloo muri vendor, was threatened by three boys in leather jacket or when Sophie felt utterly ashamed of herself amidst a Khasi gathering with Elsa or even Aman who always feels the duality of belonging and not belonging.

 

Anjum Hasan gives no straightforward answers because there are none. The novel ends from where it began – Firdaus teaching Hemingway. The closing is not grandiose but an affirmation of change (even if unremarkable) and making peace (however tenuous) with your own sense of identity.

 

Although first published in 2007, Lunatic in my Head is still relevant to today’s India, as it is riddled by extremism and hatred for the other, for the outsider and where your identity is increasingly being attached to fixed, political categories, leaving no space for any fluidity and understanding of those who do not fit in into neat compartments.

 

A final literary tidbit: The title of the novel comes from Pink Floyd’s song, Brain Damage, which makes one wonder whether similar lunatics, having an identity crisis, run through all our heads as well!

Mary-Beard Photo by Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com

Book Review – Mary Beard’s Women and Power

Feminism vs Androboulon… Mansplaining vs Muthos… Minorities vs Herland

Linguists dabbling in irony might consider Mary Beard’s name itself a dichotomy. Mother Mary vs Mary Magdelene is the classic example of the patriarchal narrative between mother and whore. As she writes about Women and Power, Mary Beard draws similarly upon classical narratives as ancient as the Greeks to the Trump era of ‘presidential’ expressions such as “Grabbing the Pussy.” As Telemachus tells Penelope in the Greek classic, Odyssey, “Speech is the business of men.” Muthos or authoritative public speech as opposed to women’s chatting or gossiping requires androboulon (thinking as a man). In the new millennium, “Misogyny in politics or in the workplace” has extended to digital discourse. Even as male dominance is frequently exercised in the world of Wikipedia contributors, the contemporary version of mansplaining is adequately being countered by feminists and female-identifying persons alike.

As Beard examines the dilemma of women’s voice and representation by drawing on allegorical references in historical records and contemporary discourse, the trajectory of patriarchal continuance is highlighted from overt declarations to subliminal disavowal of women’s right to expression or a rightful place in society’s power hierarchies. “Gendered speaking” is probably most obvious in male opposition to Miss Triggs’ suggestion in the corporate boardroom, a fact recently depicted in the Stranger Things as Nancy pitches a story during the local newspaper’s daily briefing. “Do words matter?” Beard asks and replies, “they do because the underpinning idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour of what women have to say… effectively repositions women to the domestic sphere devoid of muthos.”

More relevant is ‘The Public Voice of Women’ in governance with Elizabeth Warren disallowed from reading Coretta Scott King’s letter during the Senatorial debate, and the Afghan government reportedly turning off mics in Parliament when they don’t want to hear the women speak. This despite the fact that women in power frequently seek to subvert expectations of feminine fashion with “regulation trouser suits” in an attempt “similar to lowering the timbre” for that muthos tone.

Based on two lectures by Beard in 2014 and 2017 respectively, Women and Power explores the reasons why “conventional definitions of power, knowledge, expertise, and authority exclude women?” Simultaneously, the authority of women in power are diminished by portrayals such as Thatcher hitting with handbags, or Trump as Perseus holding the Medusa Hillary head.

Of course, the author does consider that in Twitterland, “women are not the only ones who may feel themselves voiceless.” Those who consider intersectionality as crucial to understanding the deeper connections between micro-aggressions and public hostility would argue minorities within minorities combine with shared sociocultural experiences to provide a framework of public discourse and private interactions. Beard argues that, “We should be thinking more about the fault lines and fractures that underlie dominant male discourse.”

“Shared metaphors of women’s access to power represent exteriority – ‘knocking on the door,’ ‘storming the citadel,’ or ‘smashing the glass ceiling.’” Even as UK newspapers announced “Women Prepare for a Power Grab in the Church, Police, and BBC,” the appointment of Cressida Dick as Met Commissioner could be argued as subliminal male acceptance due to the Commissioner’s last name. But that is feminism – questioning hierarchies of power in society, advocating for equal rights and opportunities, and ensuring a paradigm shift in conventional definitions of power and public authority.

Amrita Sher-Gil's Village-Scene-1938

Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard 

The Women’s Courtyard, by Khadija Mastur, translated into English from Urdu, by Daisy Rockwell, begins with the protagonist, Aliya, having a sleepless night at her Uncle’s place, recalling and pondering on how her life will be from now onwards. In the next few chapters, she recalls how she as a child, had shifted to a newer place that was bereft of any life, community or togetherness and how her previous home was filled with love, friends, and endless entertaining stories that her Khansaman Bua used to regale her with.

The book then jumps into the present and narrative speaks of the events that lead up to that point where Aliya is now restless and pondering over an uncertain future in her Uncle’s house.


Titled,
Aangan, in the original Urdu, the novel is set in pre-Independence India (somewhere in North India) and narrates how the Independence movement affects the men and women of the house. It is the women who are the main characters and the house or the courtyard (angan in Hindi/Urdu) is their stage.

The story is told from the perspective of Aliya, focusing also on other female members of the house such as Aliya’s mother, her elder sister, Tehmina, her friend Chammi and Kusum. The Independence movement takes place in the background for the women yet the male members’ intense involvement and particularly the rivalry of Jameel (Aliya’s cousin) and her Uncle rip the household. Jameel supports the Muslim League whereas his own father is a staunch Congress supporter. Their bitter rivalry tears them apart so much so that they do not speak to each other. Aliya’s own father’s involvement in the movement is what forces her and her mother to shift into her Uncle’s house which is where the novel begins.  (caution: one cannot simply base their assumptions about the Independence movement through a reading of this novel and dismiss the contribution of women to the movement).

The Women’s Courtyard does proffer a varying perspective on how deeply it affected women of the time and how it makes them adjust and compromise on every level as well. The novel is not a critique of the movement but rather of the patriarchy that is embedded in society and even in the movement. While it is important to fight for one’s country which the men in the Aliya’s family do, they themselves are caught between their roles of being breadwinners and freedom fighters which shows the pressures that they themselves faced from their family and society. On the other hand, the stage of the house in the novel and the Aangan makes the reader view a traditionally female occupied space and how their world is confined to that. While the men are out there fighting for freedom and having discussions about that in the drawing rooms, the women are never privy to that world. The female gaze does not trespass that territory even though it affects them in various other ways such as emotional and financial. Aliya is the only one who is shown reading and learning about the movement from her Uncle and his encouragement to read his books. The novel portrays several gender expectations imposed at that time which are applicable even today where women are not allowed to be part of certain decision making processes in several areas and cultures of the subcontinent.

 

Through her college, her reading and her exposure to her immediate world, Aliya, is the diplomatic yet empathetic voice in the story who is able to recognize the unfairness in the way in which society treats people, especially women. Her understanding and ability to interpret and reason make her absolutely logical with a touch of empathy for everyone around her. For example, her notions around love and marriage is shaped by how her friend, Kusum, was treated unfairly by gossip mongers for eloping and how Tehmina lost her senses because of falling in love. She is cautious herself about falling in love and stays away from something that she considers quite irrational. It is not merely the idea of love she detests but the manner in which it is ingrained into women. Thus she severely critiques this wrong notion of how women are expected to behave when in love which is quite relevant even today.

The Women’s Courtyard, is a thoroughly engaging read that unsparingly critiques all facets of patriarchy from Aliya’s mother’s entrenched beliefs regarding women and need for punishment for transgressive women or her aunt’s own pride in her Master’s degree and her condescending attitude toward one and all. It is a beautifully translated novel that captures the tense atmosphere both at Aliya’s home and outside. The one aspect that would have added to the novel’s charm would have been to include certain phrases and lines in the original Urdu, even if romanized.

Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child

Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child has been under the knife enough to not need any more dissections but speculations sometimes seem to make sense or worse no sense of the book. Fifth Child is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David who found another, just like them. They knew they meant it, and that they had to have a big family. A big family with a mansion outside town, full of guests who stayed even after the holidays and children through its halls filling everyone’s hearts with joy. The fifth child changed everything for the couple, their family cracked, the house was empty and deserted.

“It’s either him or us,” David said. Harriet had her life going the way she’d hoped even when they found it difficult to make ends meet. Harriet got pregnant too quickly and after the fourth, the doctor had advised her to rest before she planned on having another child. And then she was pregnant again with their fifth child, Ben. Harriet grew suspicious about the foetus and was sure something was wrong with it, “She imagined pathetic botched creatures, horribly real to her, the products of a Great Dane or a borzoi with a little spaniel; a lion and a dog; a great cart house and a little donkey; a tiger and a goat”.

“I don’t want to kill the nasty little brute,” Harriet said to Dr Brett after telling how Ben was suffering from a milk infection and needed something for the diarrhoea. It surprised Dr Brett that Harriet was not breastfeeding her child. She showed him her bruised nipples, and he went silent only to say, “Naughty baby” that made Harriot laugh in astonishment. Lessing offers us an alternative perspective of what if Harriot is imagining her struggles? What if Ben isn’t a troll or a goblin but just an ugly baby? Dr Brett tells her it’s not abnormal to dislike the child, and he says that he sees it too often. In the binary of a good and bad mother, Lessing lets the reader decide if Harriet is a good or bad mother. Her four children were perfect, and the house was bustling with joy and happiness till Ben was born and she gave it all up to be Ben’s mother.

David and Harriet had given Ben up to an institute where he would have been cared for and they wouldn’t have to worry. Harriet found Ben in a straitjacket locked in a room, wearing soiled clothes and any longer there, he would have died. Harriet had the choice of saving Ben or letting him die and giving her family back the normalcy they’d lost. Harriet brought Ben back and dealt with his antics and ways, trained him to get by in the real world and successfully arrive into adulthood. Harriet’s struggle with Ben took most of her time and she slowly disappeared from the lives of all her other children. All the children ended up leaving home to stay with other relatives to get some distance from Ben. David had moved out of their room the night she brought him back. Something broke in their relationship that day.

We could classify fifth Child as horror fiction, a gothic novella and a newer classification, more popular among films “Gynaecological Gothic”. An experiential account of gestation, the horror of carrying an alien or goblin or monster as a child. A dark and grim experience of violence experienced by the mother, a victim and the world’s denial to see Ben for what he truly is in Harriet’s eyes, an ugly troll that she couldn’t have birthed. The popular short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman can arguably be a Gynaecological gothic.

Lessing is the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and Margaret Atwood in her tribute writes “If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it.” Lessing left two children behind in the care of their father, her husband in Zimbabwe and moved to London to chase her literary prospects. Harriet’s experience with Ben and bringing him back from the institute seems to lie deeper in Lessing abandoning her children but these speculations have no footing. “It was an upsetting thing to write, it goes very deep into me somewhere,” said Lessing when talking about writing the Fifth Child.

Book Review – A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, who comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously into the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha with its own twist, or his being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that it is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

Firstly, the narrative is not a straightforward first person narrative that Mevlut narrates rather different point of views of various colourful characters are interspersed together, giving the reader multiple perspectives.

Curiously, the novel does begin by typically noting Mevlut’s birth but then it jumps right into the middle by narrating the story of Mevlut’s tense elopement. It immediately puts the reader into the thick of things. And then once that is done, Pamuk slows it down and brings you to the present, describing Mevlut’s daily round of selling boza and how he is now a historic curiosity from the past. Then, the narrative whizzes back to his childhood and where his journey to Istanbul all started!

A Strangeness in my Mind is as much about Mevlut as it is about Istanbul. Through Mevlut, we view the city, how it was to his childlike eyes, and how he views it later, when it has mushroomed further into the hills, as more and more people swarm the city. Through his rounds while selling his yoghurt and boza and later only boza, we see the different sections of the city, its past and how people from different nationalities and sects live there or used to live there, now taken over by others. Particularly, the reader sees the magic and menace of Istanbul at night when the ‘strangeness’ in Mevlut’s mind is heightened, allowing him to indulge in his musings and letting his thoughts ramble unbridled. Perhaps this is the reason why he does not give up this fast fading and hence, quaint profession, refusing to (yet at times being attracted to) partake in the wealth and business that his cousins, Suleyman and Korkut, were able to accumulate; but that which always eluded him. Yet, Mevlut is content, happy to live among his own thoughts, with his beautiful Rahiya, his daughters and his beloved city.

The tone of the novel is tinged with unmistakable nostalgia for the days gone by, for the brisk business yoghurt and boza sellers could sustain in the city before the dairy and raki companies gained foothold, and for the city’s beauty itself.

Yet the story is not melancholic or wistful in its nostalgia. The narrative never condemns the city’s growth but merely states it as things that are inevitable since most cities have chosen a very capitalistic, vertical and the suspicious “development” route for their growth.

A Strangeness in my Mind thus captures the ephemerality of the idea of Istanbul and of human stability. The ending itself is a beautiful gift that Mevlut bestows onto the city that has nurtured him.

That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was told through a female perspective, how drastically different would it be? For one, the reader would not be able to see Istanbul’s public side and definitely not its streets at night since Istanbul’s norms would not allow girls to be in the boza selling profession or go out at “odd” hours. Though Mevlut’s eyes provide a subaltern glimpse into the city, which is vastly different to the more elite narrative of one of Pamuk’s other novels, The Museum of Innocence, the story still speaks from a privileged male perspective. We do see a different side of the city but that is very much based on gender and profession; unique as that may be, it makes for an interesting and creative topic of discussion among fellow readers.

Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco

For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.

 

In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.

 

This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.

 

The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.

 

While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.

 

The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.

A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.

 

At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.

 

Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.

 

The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.

 

‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.

Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine