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 – 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. 

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.