John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns

It is sometimes easy to forget, amid the ramblings on politics and culture, and religion, even cricket, that India is a magical place both literally and figuratively. Magic has always played an important part of the cultural makeup of this country. Much like the storytellers who go from village to village, narrating myths and legends, or the community of ropewalkers and acrobats who entertain in the middle of a busy street with feats of daring, there is also a community of artists whose profession is to shock and awe with the help of the supernatural, and the impossible. They are street magicians.

This then, is the subject of John Zubrzycki’s thoroughly researched epic – Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India. It is an exhaustively entertaining book that takes the reader on a journey from the court of Mughal Emperor Jehangir to the streets of Delhi in modern India.

Zubrzycki drew upon a wealth of narratives and anecdotes for his research. From traditional Greek travel accounts to eyewitness accounts of merchants, traders, courtiers, chroniclers, and even kings, to libraries, newspaper clippings, magic journals, and personal interviews, Zubrzycki used all to write this account. So exhaustively large is the story that the author has chosen to tell, that it will feel largely incomplete despite the depth and extent of the narrative before the reader.

Indian magic has existed for a really long time. According to Zubrzycki’s own reckoning, there seems to be hints, even actual verses, in ancient texts as old as the Atharva Veda. Clearly, Zubrzycki has found a very extensive goldmine to write about. It is probably one of the most fascinating stories to come out of the Indian Subcontinent, and Zubrzycki has taken great pains to ensure that the narrative is flowing, succinct and enjoyable, and has succeeded in his endeavour – something that is will be made aptly clear to anyone who decides to give this book a try.

 

“India’s pantheon of magicians – jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, jadugars, madaris, mayakaris, maslets, qalandars, sanpwallahs, sanperas, katputliwallahs, bahurupis, peepshow-wallahs, the list goes on – ranges across creed and caste. Stronger than religious ties, is their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of twelve, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats. Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth made out of three stones whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India as they have for millennia.” (pg. 10-11)

 

Surprisingly, according to Zubrzycki, there is hardly any scholarship on the subject of Indian Magic. That is how Zubrzycki’s book was conceived. During the course of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the mysticism and grandeur of Indian magic was strange enough that there were many anecdotal accounts written about it by English men and women who witnessed the tricks first hand. “Even Harry Houdini started his career posing as a ‘Hindu Fakir’.” (pg. 19)

These legends and tales of magic from the Land of India had existed since ancient times. The Greek physician Ctesias listed the races of fantastical people living in India as early as 400BCE. There were several such instances. The Greeks wrote extensively about the marvels of India. And they weren’t the only ones. Over time, the feats of magic witnessed by Kings and Queens of India were recorded by courtly scribes and later translated and read by Westerners, increasing the mystery of India. In fact, so unreal and supernatural did these recorded feats of magic feel, that the mystical magical lands of India were living up to their reputation. Afterwards, when they witnessed it first-hand themselves, the western audience was even more enamoured of India and the marvels it had to offer.

 

A chapter that is surely going to take the reader by surprise is the one that Zubrzycki has dedicated to Motilal Nehru, the barrister and father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India. Zubrzycki found a letter during his research written by Nehru to the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay. “I have just learnt that in order to send a party of Indians consisting of performers, musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Protector of Emigrants. As I am about to send such a party, I beg to state the necessary particulars for your information.” (pg. 241) The chapter takes a heavy-handed look at the state of immigration laws imposed on Indians by the British.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the exploration of the most famous of all Indian magic tricks: The Great Indian Rope Trick. The trick was written about in many histories, even in the Jahangirnama, as a feat that was both strange and surprising. It was the subject of much speculation and debate between Indian and Western magicians, with neither being able to successfully accomplish the trick without the use of props. It was a trick that “that was the most marvelous of all and would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured.” Zubrzycki dedicates an entire chapter (13) to the trick and details its further history in the next chapter. Zubrzycki also tells the history of P.C. Sorcar, arguably the greatest Indian magician, in the final chapter of the book.

 

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, Zubrzycki states at the onset that his intention is, quite literally, only to present a history of Indian Magic. in order to do so, he refrains from giving away the secrets of any of the magic tricks he has witnessed. Filled with lavish portraits and full colour photographs, this is the book that will certainly have people talking about the beauty of Indian magic again.

 

Sources:

 

 

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome.

Finding Meaning in Absurd Times with Camus’ The Plague

Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat at his doorstep in the tiny port city of Oran in Algeria. Soon, more dead rats turn up. Even sooner, people are dying of the plague. Authorities order the people to stay indoors. This, in a nutshell is what The Plague by Albert Camus is about. Talking about a plague when we are already going through a pandemic of our own seems counterintuitive.

However, since Coronavirus has taken a firm grip on our minds and our TV news channels since the month of March, Camus’ The Plague has shot to stardom status once again. Many critics would term the book prophetic or call Camus a seer who predicted this virus outbreak. But this is far from the truth. The Plague must be contextualized in terms of his absurdist philosophy that emphasised on an essential meaning that all human lives possess despite the seeming meaninglessness of our lives and condition. He uses the metaphor of the plague to talk about the human condition extensively.

 

Others have also called the novel as a commentary on Nazism (the book was published in 1947, two years after WWII ended) and how Camus has equated the plague to fascism. I believe, however, that the book stays away from any ideological leanings and rather comments on the fragility of the human way of life.

The actions and reactions of the people and the authorities in the novel resonate with how the world is handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well. The novel focuses on four main characters that show us how people are dealing with the outbreak of the plague in the novel both individually and collectively.

A plague or an epidemic forces us to suspend our lives for certain duration and to confront our present, to question and rethink much like one of the characters in the novel, Jean Tarrou. He is a visitor to the city of Oran and records all the events happening in the city during the plague. He is much like a philosopher who thinks, thinks, and over thinks but is unable to find a reasonable moral solution or cause of the plague.

Through this character, Camus tells the readers about both the naturalness and unnaturalness of the plague. It feels unnatural and strange for the people of Oran to have the plague affecting so many of them. This is also similar to how we today feel about coronavirus and its powerful spread. However, throughout the novel, Camus also emphasises that it is natural for diseases to spread, natural to be part of human suffering, and that in fact the disease is what is the normal in this and not the other way round. It is as he says at the end of the novel, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”

 

This is not to say that Camus was a nihilist and that he believed that there is no meaning other than humans suffering. Rather, he asserts that because this is a constant in our lives and that such diseases and other problems are bound to ravage us, we must respond to them through kindness and decency and not through fear mongering or hatred. This is why Tarrou’s search for a moral causation to this plague is futile. One must not look for causes to find meaning but rather look at our own behavior to find meaning amidst this new normal.

Dr. Rieux counterbalances Tarrou as the former believes that there is no such moral voice/cause or meaning to the epidemic. Rieux does at the beginning also think of the plague as unnatural but then once it progresses, he believes in taking immediate action. He does not think in abstract terms. He does not glorify human suffering or his own tireless efforts. He continues to do his duty as a doctor. He is at the forefront of the efforts of curing the increasing number of plague patients. But he sees his efforts as part of a common decency one must have in such situations: “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”

 

I think we must learn from Dr. Rieux a vital lesson. While we are in lockdown, we must ruminate over our own actions as individuals and as a nation as well. Are we being decent to others? Are we actually lending out any helping hands to others or are we busy hoarding and cribbing over a privileged bored Netflix binge holiday? We must ask ourselves why we continue to hold racist ideas and prejudices toward people of our own country. And as more and more cases come up, especially in certain areas of Delhi, we must question why our religious prejudices are being pandered to even during such a crisis when we must be fighting the pandemic together, without any divisions or fault lines.

 

Cover Image: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. [wikimedia]

 

Reading in the Time of Corona

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Books to Help You Travel Vicariously

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

 

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

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

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

 

Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

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

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

You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

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

 

Reading Feel Good Books

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

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

 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

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

 

The Rapture by Liz Jensen

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

 

A Mango Shaped Mass by Wendy Mass

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

 

 

Books on Migration

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

It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

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

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

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

 

The Brink of Freedom by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

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

 

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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

 

 

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

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

 

War and Peace by Tolstoy

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

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

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

 

Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

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

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

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

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

 

Cover Image: By Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Reading Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

So, what does the title mean? 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Remembering Anna Akhmatova and Her Poetry

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

 

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

 

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

 

Feminist Retellings

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

The Importance of Art 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Poetry’s Power

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

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

 

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

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

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

Lest we forget.

 

Thank You for the Paper Moon, Rehana

Dear Rehana

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Love
Jeeva

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Book Review – 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. 

The Seer Reading List for 2020

1 Book A Week For 2020 – The Seer Reading List

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

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

Happy New Year

53 Books To Read in 2020

Week 1

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

Buy it here.

Week 2

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

Buy it here.

Week 3

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

Buy it here.

Week 4

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

Buy it here.

Week 5

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

Buy it here.

Week 6

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

Read the Seer’s review of the book here. Buy it here.

Week 7

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

Read the Seer’s review of the book here. Buy it here.

Week 8

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

Buy it here.

Week 9

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

Buy it here.

Week 10

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

Buy it here.

Week 11

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

Read the Seer’s review of the book here. Buy it here.

Week 12

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

Buy it here.

Week 13

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

Read it here.

Week 14

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

Buy it here.

Week 15

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

Buy it here.

Week 16

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

Buy it here.

Week 17

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

Buy it here.

Week 18

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

Buy it here.

Week 19

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

Buy it here.

Week 20

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

Buy it here.

Week 21

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

Buy it here.

Week 22

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

Buy it here.

Week 23

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

Buy it here.

Week 24

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

Buy it here.

Week 25

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

Buy it here.

Week 26

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

Buy it here.

Week 27

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

Buy it here.


Week 28

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

Read the Seer’s review of the book here. Buy it here.

Week 29

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

Buy it here.

Week 30

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

Buy it here.

Week 31

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

Buy it here.

Week 32

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


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

Buy it here.

Week 33

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

Buy it here.

Week 34

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

Buy it here.

Week 35

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

Buy it here.

Week 36

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

Buy it here.

Week 37

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

Buy it here.

Week 38

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

Buy it here.

Week 39

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

Buy it here.

Week 40

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

Buy it here.

Week 41

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

Buy it here.

Week 42

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

Buy it here.


Week 43

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

Read the Seer’s review of the book here. Buy it here.

Week 44

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

Buy it here.


Week 45

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

Buy it here.

Week 46

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

Buy it here.

Week 47

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

Buy it here.

Week 48

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

Buy it here.

Week 49

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

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

Buy it here.

Week 50

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

Buy it here.

Week 51

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

Buy it here.

Week 52

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

Buy it here.

Week 53

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

Buy it here.

Mumbai

Independent Bookstores in Mumbai

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

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

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

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

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

The Seer presents the top 5 independent bookstores in Mumbai:

 

The Trilogy Library and Bookstore

The Trilogy Bookstore
The Trilogy Bookstore

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

 

Kitab Khana

Kitaab Khana
Kitaab Khana

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


Title Waves

Titlewaves Bookstore
Title Waves Bookstore

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

 


Wayword and Wise

Wayword & Wise
Wayword & Wise

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

 


Granth Bookstore

Granth
Granth

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

 

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

 

 

Roquiah Sakhawat

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Enduring Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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