Harry Potter Reunion

‘Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts’ Is the Nostalgia Ride All Potterheads Deserved

“Mysterious thing, Time”– Albus Dumbledore. It really is! And that’s what you realize when you are invited to revisit the wondrous wizarding world you had left behind 10 years ago. That’s how “Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts” begins and if there’s one word that could describe the whole 1 hour and 42 minutes retrospective special (streaming on HBO Max and Amazon Prime), it would definitely be “Nostalgia”! It is true that some of the books from J.K. Rowling’s debut novel series had released much earlier than the movies, but it was not till 2001 that most of us, who had been living in different parts of the world, got a chance to experience the amazing and unbelievable Wizarding World of The Boy Who Lived. The movies made the novel popular; they allowed the story to reach out to children even in the remotest corners of the world. And thus, started a journey for every Potterhead out there, which would change their lives forever!

As John Williams’ “Harry’s Wondrous World” plays in the background and the Hogwarts Castle comes into view once again from across the Black Lake, with all its lighted turrets and windows, and Emma Watson opens the doors to the Great Hall, we are ushered into that world once again, which happens to be our “healthy form of escapism” even now, as so rightly quoted by Matthew Lewis aka Neville Longbottom.  I feel the best part of being a 90s kid and a Potterhead simultaneously, is that you sort of grew up with the actors. Seeing them who had brought the young characters alive onscreen, who had given colors to our imaginations, like Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Evanna Lynch, James and Oliver Phelps, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright and so many others, all grown up and in their late 20s or early 30s now, getting married or having kids just like our friends are, all around us, made me realize how much time has passed. Even then, it feels like yesterday that we were watching the films with utmost awe and wonder in the movie theaters.  

As I delve deeper into the reunion special episode, which has been divided into 4 chapters, each representing two movies at a time, showing glimpses of the shots and the sets and also the actors’ experiences while shooting for each of them, I can’t help but wonder at how beautifully they have recreated the aura of the wizarding world throughout the entire duration of the episode. Starting from the actors receiving their Hogwarts’ letters, addressed to them in their specific locations at the time, like “The Coffee Shop, Chelsea” or “The Black Cab” reminds us of Harry’s shocking expression, when he receives his first Hogwarts Letter with the specific address “The Cupboard Under the Stairs”. It also reminds us strangely of how as children, when we had turned 11 years old, we actually prayed to God for sending us that letter, so that we could journey from our ridiculously boring Muggle world into the amazing world of Harry Potter. It reminds us of the innocence we once had, and how we seem to have lost that along the way.

Each of the four chapters begins with the narrator reading out a line from J.K Rowling’s books and as we move into the first one, The Boy Who Lived, we are reminded of some of the amazing actors who had contributed as much to the series, as the child actors. The twinkling eyes of Richard Harris could not have been more apt for the long-bearded, white-haired Albus Dumbledore, drawn at the back of the first ever book cover of the Harry Potter series. Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane’s Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman’s Professor Snape and Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Vernon, seemed to have jumped out of the pages of J.K. Rowling’s book. Stuart Craig, who was the Production Designer for the entire Harry Potter movie franchise, had created the impossible world of the wizards with utmost ease and grandeur. Thousands of lighted candles were hung from the end of fishing lines to recreate the floating candles adorning the ceiling of the Great Hall, as mentioned in the books. The scenes where we witness the Burrow for the first time and see how a wizarding family washes their dishes or knits their sweaters, the comparison between good and bad wizarding families so drastically portrayed with the entry of Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, brings the first chapter to an end.

The second chapter, Coming of Age, portrays the third and fourth movies of the series and was indeed the time when we too were in limbo between our childhood and adulthood, just like Harry, Ron and Hermione. These books or movies ushered in the era of crushes, infatuations and the pangs of teenage love along with the introduction of deep and dark concepts of dementors sucking out your joy and happiness, of overcoming your deepest fears and darkness, of standing at the threshold of adulthood. New actors like Gary Oldman, David Thewlis and Timothy Spall were introduced into the series. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the entire universe shifts suddenly and the series which was popular as a childrens’ book, soon became something more sinister with the introduction of Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort. The death of Cedric Diggory marks that moment when Harry has his first reality check and so does the audience, as we are prepared to face the perils of adulthood. 

In The Light and Dark Within, Mathew Lewis as Neville and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood, bring forth the world of “misfits” and “oddbots”, where children who are shy or introvert or different from those around them, children who have been bullied in schools or in playgrounds, relate themselves to popular and famous characters for the first time, and find that they can belong in the society too. The two-dimensional, complex character of Draco Malfoy, torn between what is right and what is not, reflects so many of us who had once made all the wrong choices in the wrong company and had later learnt from our regrets and mistakes. Helena Bonham Carter, who had played the role of the psychopathic, evil, and most devoted Death-Eater, Bellatrix Lestrange, talks about the impact the series has had on generations of children who failed to get good marks in exams, or who weren’t the best when it came to sports. The world of Harry Potter showed with immense humanity, depth, and vulnerability that being different makes us special as we fall in love with the characters of Luna and Neville.

Before they move onto the last and final chapter though, they remind us of the fact that these were the movies in which Harry encounters grief for the first time in his life as he loses Sirius and Dumbledore, the two adults who had been closest to what the orphaned boy could claim as “parents”. As the reunion special takes us inside the pensieve, into the memories of some of the great actors who have passed away in the 10 years since the last movie of the franchise released, we raise our wands along with so many other witches and wizards, all watching the reunion from the comforts of their homes, to remember and honor all those amazing actors like Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Helena McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy), Richard Harris(Albus Dumbledore in first two movies), John Hurt (Ollivander the wandmaker), Richard Griffiths (Uncle Vernon) and Robert Hardy(Cornelius Fudge).

In the final chapter, Something Worth Fighting For, scenes from the last two movies are reminisced by the actors, as the trio leaves the comfort of their school for the first time and faces the struggles of the real world, as we all do, when we leave school or college. Mathew Lewis talks about the last speech of Neville in front of Lord Voldemort, the speech which sealed Neville’s character forever as one of the bravest Gryffindors we knew and as the true son of his brave Auror parents, and how that speech had impacted him both as a human being and as an actor. For fans like us, who had read all the books by then and already knew how the series would end, held onto these two movies as our last thread of connection to the world we had loved and craved to belong to, the last thread of connection to our childhood which was slowly slipping away. Potterheads would often claim this series to be more than just a children’s book, because the magical world which J.K Rowling wove around Harry Potter had lots of stories within stories, had individual character curves, had concepts so philosophical and deep that it often had a transformative effect on people’s lives!

As the last day of the shoot is shown and the actors are seen crying and hugging each other, we realize that even though they might not live on, the characters they portrayed will do and the legacy of Harry Potter and the masterpiece which J.K.Rowling has created, will continue to inspire generations to come. Emma Watson echoes the very thoughts of my heart and soul when she says, “There’s something about Harry Potter that makes life richer. Like, when things get really dark and times are really hard, stories give us places we can go, where we can rest and feel held”. The wizarding world of Harry Potter has been that story and that place for me, my source of happiness and inspiration in times of grief, loss and desperation. As I therefore, see the last scene of the special episode unfold before my eyes, and Dumbledore looks at Snape’s patronus, uttering one of the most epic dialogues of the series, I realize that every time someone would judge or question my devotion towards Harry Potter and the Wizarding World and ask, “After all this time?”, I would probably utter the same words Snape did – “ALWAYS!”

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Photos of JJ Goodwin and Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda’s Most Faithful Friend Who Rests at India’s Ooty

Swami Vivekananda said of J.J. Goodwin, “Those who think they have been helped by any thought of mine, ought to know that almost every word of it was published through the untiring and most unselfish exertions of Mr. Goodwin…a disciple of never-failing devotion, a worker who knew not what tiring was….”

In life as well as in death, some people stay young. These people take up one thing and pour the last drop of blood coursing through their veins over it. Their life becomes a relentless pursuit of that one object. Nothing can distract them. No force can deter them from their chosen path. They keep at it until one day life stops and death gives them their much deserved rest. Irrespective of their age, at work and in rest, they stay young.

I got introduced to Josiah John Goodwin as a child when I was introduced to Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature. If not for this man, most of Swami Vivekananda’s talks and lectures might have become the food of oblivion. I have known that this man of only 23 was noting down some of the most vital messages ever passed on to humanity. I have known that he refused to take payments in just about a week’s time at work with Swami Vivekananda. I have known all along that Mr. J.J. Goodwin came to India with Swami Vivekananda as the most faithful devotee and friend. He recorded in shorthand, Swamiji’s lectures from Colombo to Almora which became the bedrock of Indian nationalism, socialism, humanism, and most importantly a reinvigorated ignition switch for the Indian freedom struggle. I have known that he was only 28 when he died due to fever in the year 1898 in Ootacamund (Ooty). I have known that his death was perhaps the dearest of losses for Swami Vivekananda. I knew that he rests somewhere in Ooty listening to the poem his Master dedicated to him on learning of his demise.

In the book, The Life of Swami Vivekananda by His Eastern and Western Disciples, a passage on Mr. Goodwin explains, “Mr. Goodwin would take down a lengthy address in the evening, work through the night in typewriting off his stenographic reports, and then hasten towards midnight to the newspaper offices, the conductors of which were anxious to print the Swami’s lectures, and this continued day after day, The Guru loved his disciple with infinite tenderness and initiated him into the practices and ideals of the Vedanta philosophy, so that he became an expert in grasping its contents and faithfully reporting them. It is needless to say that the Swami was grateful beyond words to his disciple. He could not speak too highly of him ; he saw in him a great Karma Yogin, one who could unselfishly perform work for the sake of work and who could live the life of ideals. Mr. Goodwin,  of course, refused any remuneration as soon as he understood the Swami and had been with him for a fortnight. Though he came from the ordinary classes of society and his education was not of a scholarly type, he exhibited remarkable intellectual adaptabilities with reference to the Swami’s work. His youth and his enthusiasm proved valuable stimuli. The Swami often spoke of him, saying, “He is chosen for my work. What would I do without him ! If I have a mission, he is indeed a part of it.””

Goodwin was born on 20 September 1870 at Batheaston, England. His father Josiah Goodwin was a stenographer and an editor of the Birmingham Advertiser, the Wilts Country Mirror and the Exeter Gazette. Goodwin worked as a journalist from the age of fourteen, and had an unsuccessful journalistic venture in Bath in 1893. He left Bath and travelled to Australia, and later on, to America.

As I stood before his memorial in the cemetery of CSI St. Church in Ooty on 3rd March, 2021, I was overwhelmed with emotions not much of surprise or disbelief but of the familiarity of the moment. It was as if I was there to see someone specially dear to me. I felt I was standing before a man whose absence I had been mourning ever since I read about his death at a tender 28. Whether you know it or not, J.J. Goodwin is the guide who is always by your side when you are reading Swami Vivekananda’s words. His words are here for us to read because there was a young British stenographer who was skilled enough to take down those extempore outpourings of the great teacher verbatim when others failed as well as dedicated enough to work tirelessly to produce printable copies night after night and lecture after lecture.

I sat there looking at the tombstone and all the things written on it and I felt that my mourning was complete. It was as if I was preordained to be there to pay my respects to him. I sat there as I would sit for the dearest of my kin and friends. As he rested in a corner in the cemetery, I kept wondering if he died so young only because it was time for him to rest. I don’t know many people who deserve to rest more than he did. I hope that when I and you rest, our rest too will be equally well deserved.

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Partition Horrors Remembrance Day – 75 Years Too Late?

The government has notified 14th August as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’. Citizens have expressed their views about the declaration. While many have thanked the government for the decision, there are a few who do not like the idea. We will go to the most commonly cited reasons for the apparent dislike in a while. I have a few other things to mention at the outset.

For most of us in our 40s, 30s, and 20s, partition has been a non-event. Thanks to the ideologically sold-out historians in charge of our textbooks, the partition seemed like a clerical routine, a formality to be completed before we could get our freedom. If you didn’t look for it, you wouldn’t find it. Why was it so? Was it to let our wounds heal or to shut our eyes on them while they festered across our body for the want of good nursing? These can be difficult questions but they have answers, no matter how inconvenient!

Long ago, I met with an accident while riding my bike. My foot was badly hurt with deep cuts which couldn’t be stitched in the hospital. The only way out was regular disinfection of the wounds, application of ointments, and a bandage dressing that needed to be changed every day. I hated the routine but there was no other way. This went on for about two weeks. After two weeks, the nurse noticed some dry tissues on top of the wound. I thought the wound was healing. Before I could feel any comfort at the development, in a blink of an eye, the nurse tore off the tissue. The insides had very little improvement and he went back to cleaning and dressing the wounds. This was the longest I had nursed a wound. I was not allowed much movement for about a month. Now, if this wound were to be wrapped in a bandage, never to be opened again without any sterilization, cleansing, or nursing, the inevitable consequences would have been either amputation or death! 

Separate land for the Muslim population was demanded. Mohammad Ali Jinnah launched the Direct Action Day to insist on a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. Jinnah’s supporters and all the people who wanted a separate country for Muslims came on the streets. Riots between Muslims and Hindus broke out. More than 4000 people lost their lives and 100,000 were left homeless in just 72 hours in Kolkata. In the months of October-November of the same year, in the Noakhali district (now in Bangladesh), the Hindu population was massacred in an organized attack by the Muslim rioters. More than 5000 people were killed, thousands looted, raped, and forcefully converted to Islam. Around 50,000 to 70,000 refugees were sheltered in the refugee camps at different places. This was not during the partition and happened in 1946. The cycle of bloodbath kept running without rest. There were no gods on earth or in the heavens. This land was drenched in the blood of her people. I am not even going into what happened to the minorities in Pakistan (both eastern and western) after the partition. 

The wound had been festering since Syed Ahmed Khan’s insistence that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations in a nation of many nations. There were a few good doctors who tried to limit the damage, contain the infection but most of them looked the other way. The idea was brought to fruition in the form of a tragic amputation of the Indian land and its people. So, next time you hear your well-meaning friend telling you that India is a nation of many nations, prod a little more for his rhyme and reason. Scratch the surface and you will find a secessionist or separatist hidden beneath.

A lot has been written about the number of people affected. I will not go there as the most modest numbers pale the most inhuman tragedies in other parts of the world. I will be concerned with the makings of the partition and their fading memories. Why has partition been allowed to become a mere blip in our history books or popular retellings of our country’s history? When millions of people were looted, raped, and killed, why did the partition become an event sanitized off its blood-stink of sectarian fanaticism and identity politics so quickly and so easily? Our doctors who were trusted with the healing process wrapped a piece of rag on it and left the nation to keep the amputation operation alive, to inflict on us a slow and painful death from our festered wounds, to forget that once upon a time Pakistan was India, to legitimize the demand for an independent Kashmir, to uproot the Indian people from their fertile and well-cultivated land physically, mentally, as well as spiritually so that one day, a so-called history buff from the Bollywood would nonchalantly tell us that India was born in 1947!

The court historians of the congress party were tasked with two jobs: 

1. Establish that India won her freedom without spilling a drop of blood. 

2. Establish that there were only two people chiefly responsible for India’s freedom. 

3. Erase all such instances of violence from the minds and hearts of the Indian public where the perpetrators identified themselves as Muslims. 

They did their job well but paper boats don’t sail too far. 

Some of the opposers of the move have said that a lot has already been written over the partition. This essentially means that they want the partition to be their pet project so that they can keep collecting grants and funds from the world in the name of governmental apathy.

The neo-Marxists want to forget the partition. This is the group that is hypocrisy redefined and underlined. They want to remember the upper caste atrocities through books, movies, and every literature festival and subway graffiti of the world. Personal becomes political and political becomes personal. They want to keep reminding you of your savarna privilege at the most innocuous of your expressions. However, ‘reminiscing the partition’ becomes the Van de Graaff generator leaving their hair strands all shocked and alarmed!

A few intellectual roleplayers wrote while defending Holocaust Memorial as well as International Holocaust Remembrance Day and protesting Partition Horrors Remembrance Day that in the holocaust, there was just horror and that there were no positive stories. However, the partition also had positive stories of help and support. They also added that the holocaust had one clear villain but during the partition, both the communities suffered equally. This is the most juvenile and the most insecure argument put forth. The suggestion that both the communities suffered is true but clearly, there was only one villain – the group which wanted to see a ‘divided India or a destroyed India’. There are no two ways about it. Holocaust too had stories of hope and help, but these folks have spent too much of their time using government vouchers in 7-star hotels and holiday vacations outside India to find time to read anything on that. 

I maintain that the announcement has come 75 years too late. My celebration of Independence Day has been a chequered experience since the time I learnt about partition and its horrors. I think it will remain so for the general people of our country. You can’t unsee, un-remember, unlive partition – or the horrors of it. It will be remembered no matter how inconvenient it may be for some people who are too thin-skinned for truth and have their sense of entitlement under threat with the announcement. For any healing to commence, it must not be a product of lies and cover-ups. A truth and reconciliation commission on the lines of the South African initiative will be a positive second step in this direction.

References: Halfway to freedom: a report on the new India in the words and photographs of Margaret Bourke-White
Photograph: Margaret Bourke-White

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Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Afghanistan – The Land Next Door

Afghanistan first entered my immediate realm of awareness on Christmas day 1999. “Switch on the news, an Indian Airlines flight has been hijacked,” someone had informed over the phone. For almost a week, the drama unfolded on the news. At the time, the size of Afghanistan for me was a strip of a runway, and when news cameras panned out, brown mountains in the backdrop. Political negotiations were carried out. Prisoners were exchanged for hostages. And Afghanistan retreated to the 1/2-inch border it had shared with India on the map in my school syllabus.

About a year and nine months later, I was in the computer cluster at University. My fingers tapped away at the keyboard as I cleaned up my dissertation to get it ready for submission — the final step in my MA degree. Autumn was around the corner, and there was a nip in the air, but the computer-lab was warm. Body heat from overcrowding combined with heat from printers running non-stop had given the room its own ecosphere.

I don’t remember how the news came in. But, within seconds, all the 50-odd computer screens were tuned in to the same video – a plane crashing into one of the NY twin towers. My first thought was, “This is some elaborate prank.” That illusion shattered as a second plane crashed into the other tower. It came crumbling down on live television. Those images replayed many times over the next few days, and the 9/11 attack was the centre of all conversation. Amidst all that, I submitted my dissertation and returned home. My image of Afghanistan was now the size of a computer screen, but it had moved. It sat atop the rubble of what had been two iconic buildings in New York.

For the next few years, it peeked out from newspapers. Dusty brown streets and countryside. American soldiers in army fatigues. Afghans in kurtas and paghdis. Children with dried streaks of snot and tears across their faces. Kidnapped journalists. Hostage videos of masked men toting guns. I relegated the montage to the ‘Irrelevant – Ignore’ cubbyhole of my conscience.

The year was 2015.

“I am reading In A Land far From Home,” my friend Yash told me. “It is hilarious. You should check it out.” I Googled it and found an excerpt. Meh! But then the whole title caught my eye, ‘In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan’. Some catchphrases in the blurb had me hitting buy on Kindle tab: An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali …spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929…he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour…first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history.

Set in 1927-1929, the story is a memoir of Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali. Armed with a BA degree, Mujtaba Ali takes up a job in the education department of Kabul. Afghanistan is an unknown territory at the time, and it appeals to the young graduate’s appetite for adventure. The first third of the story describes the author-protagonist’s journey to Kabul. Travel delays, breakdowns, red tape in procuring documentation and crossing the ‘biggest test in the world – the Khyber pass’ as per his Kabuli bus driver threaten to throw him off track. But, he perseveres. He distracts himself with observations of his fellow travellers who amuse him and confound him in turns. After weeks of travel, he reaches Kabul and settles down in a rented house.

The second third of the book details Mujtaba Ali’s first year in Kabul. A year without incident. When he is not teaching classes at the university, he spends days picnicking in Gulbagh amidst apple and pear trees and nargis plants. Abdur Rahman, his Harlan-Moula, aka man Friday, plays mother hen. He fussed over him, treats his palate to local delicacies and his mind to folklore and homegrown customs. As the story progresses, the lush Tulbagh and the snowy peaks of Paghman visible from Mujtaba Ali’s window fill my head. The aromatics from Abdur’s feasts tantalize my tastebuds. The sights, the food, and the people invoke my travel-lust. Pangs of FOMO strike as realization hits. A trip to Afghanistan in this lifetime? Unlikely.

The last third of the story forebodes why.

The year 1929 sets in — Mujtaba Ali’s second year in Kabul. Signs of trouble have been brewing, yet, when it strikes, it appears out of nowhere. Ali’s description of shops pulling down shutters, people running in panic and screams of ‘Bacha-e-Saqao is coming’ filling creates images from the dacoit movies from 70’s Bollywood. But neither the 70s nor Bollywood had arrived then. This is real. The king abdicates, and Kabul falls. It is under the reign of Bacha-e-Saqao, who had already captured vast parts of the country. Over the next few months, thievery and rioting are rampant in the streets. Diplomats, ambassadors and ex-pats are evacuated by the embassies as the situation spirals. But, it is not that simple for our protagonist. India is under British rule, and a poor Bengali teacher is at the bottom of the priority evacuee list. Money and food are in short supply, and Mujtaba Ali is driven to the brink of death by starvation. He survives on the kindness of local friends and the loyal Abdur. Finally, it is his turn to leave. He describes his last view of Kabul as the airplane takes off:

I saw white snow covering the horizon. Standing in the middle of the airfield was a figure who could only have been Abdur Rahman, bidding goodbye to me by waving the tail of his turban.

His turban was dirty, as we did not have any soap for such a long time. But I felt Abdur Rahman’s turban was whiter than the snow, and whitest of all was Abdur Rahman’s heart.

The time when I read the book, I was surprised by the end. It seemed abrupt like the author had run out of ink, and not the proverbial kind. But, when I read it today, it appears apt. Perhaps, it is that picture of Afghanistan he wanted to carry home?

In 2021, it is challenging to ignore images. They follow you. They pop up in your palm unsolicited. They get lodged in caches and cookies and other things with innocuous names. The videos of people running through streets. Shouting at family members to hurry along. Clambering over the airport fence. Running alongside taxiing aircrafts. Clinging to the sides of planes. With every second, these images multiply.

I sort through the cubby-holes in my head, looking for one in the farthest corner. But, it is in vain. The exploding montage refuses to budge and settles in a pile marked – I am here. Deal with it. 

Image Courtesy: US MARINE CORPS/REUTERS

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Loving and Learning in the City: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar Is a Bittersweet Ode to Survival

Empowerment is a capricious temptress. When served in the desired amount, it is a reasonably enjoyable experience for all. However, when one develops a fondness for it, it may mutate into a disruptive force. Mahanagar (The Big City), set in the Dickensian Calcutta of the 1960s, is an ode to the untold tales of survival bubbling in the veins of middle-class families as they struggle to find their place in the larger picture. Such families aren’t impoverished. But, as Subrata (Anil Chatterjee) tells his loving wife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee), People become millionaires making cigarettes, yet a common BA-pass bank clerk struggles to make ends meet. His remark is in jest. Yet, there is a tinge of sadness in his voice; anguish at the endless list of requirements a man must fulfil to sustain his family in the metropolis.

Akin to several of Ray’s masterpieces whose core is the complicated relationship Calcuttans have with Calcutta, Mahanagar is about the quest for respectable existence. The film is based on two short stories by Narendra Mitra. It follows the journey of Arati and Subrata. Theirs is an endearing marriage, complete with a little boy and a sweet family that may suffer from want but never falls prey to the wanton bitterness born from scarcity. Considering the exponentially mounting expenses of living a fulfilled life, Arati decides to join the workforce to help her overburdened husband and contribute to the family’s financial well-being. Of course, it doesn’t please her father-in-law, Priyogopal (Haren Chatterjee). He is a conservative schoolteacher and loathes the idea of his daughter-in-law stepping out of the house. So deep runs his unyielding machismo that later in the film, Priyogopal begs for free assistance from his successful students by foul-mouthing his son but refuses to accept glasses made from Arati’s salary. Eventually, his way of thinking causes immense strains in the family. 

In contrast to his father, Subrata is a kind and witty husband. He is happy with the idea of his wife pitching in and understands the urgent need to overlook his father’s traditionalism. One of the sweetest scenes in the film is when Arati expresses her apprehension about her clothes not being fancy enough for the job. A door-to-door salesperson must look good. So Subrata takes an advance from his office for his wife to purchase befitting attire. It is a sensitively written moment, and Anil Chatterjee’s innocence with Madhabi Mukherjee’s expressive eyes makes it unforgettable. This is the starting point; Arati landing a job as a saleswoman. What follows is a discourse on unemployment, gender dynamics, class, and ingrained attitudes stretched thin between an archaic past and uncertain future.

Mahanagar is about a lower-middle-class family’s experience in Calcutta. But the lens of the film solely belongs to Arati. Through her eyes, we see the confusing times. We witness how rampant want and the changing ideas of domestic responsibility impact familial bonds. We understand the aspirations and inhibitions of working women and the growing fluidity in their movement between the private and public spheres. Using the larger canvas of Arati’s life, Ray explores how differences in religious and economic backgrounds temper the female reality. For this, we have the character of Edith Simmons. Edith is a feisty Anglo-Indian girl who has been conceptualized to represent the moral antithesis to Arati’s old-fashioned ideals. The two women, disparate in the way they dress, speak and live, become close friends. She gifts Arati a red lipstick saying that if Hindu women wear vermillion in their parting and a red bindi on the forehead, there is no harm in red lips.

Edith is honest, hardworking and efficient. Exactly like Ararti. The only difference is in the realisation of self-worth. Edith is aware of how much she deserves as an employee. Therefore, she protests when the executive plans to reduce commissions and successfully negotiates a 5% share for her colleagues. To the management, this attitude is belligerent. Not only because she is a female worker demanding to be compensated according to an industry standard but more so because of her ethnic background. Edith is scathingly referred to as the “firingee.” Their supervisor at the firm is appreciative of Arati’s work and supports her growth. Yet, he looks down upon Edith. In the end, Edith is fired. A prolonged illness prevents her from working. Upon return, she is humiliated, and her character is deemed questionable. She is accused of lying, and the manager claims that Edith was partying instead.

Edith’s narrative reflects how diverse life is for women living in the same city and working in the same office. When Arati is on the field, she is invited into plush living rooms belonging to wealthy homemakers dressed in modern saris and sleeveless blouses. The vast houses with guards at the front gate are in stark contrast to her cramped quarters, which cost Ray and his art director only Rs 2000 to build. In such a scenario, Arati is the disadvantaged one. However, when pitted against Edith, the “modern” woman dressed in skirts, wearing lipstick and belonging to an Anglicized background, Arati is privileged. At the workplace, she is taken seriously because irrespective of her employment in a corporate office, she resembles the conscientious Bengali housewife dressed in modest saris and hair tied in a simple bun. Aarti earns more respect and opportunities not only because she is efficient, but her larger identity is Mrs. Mukherjee. Edith is just Edith Simmons. Not married. Not Hindu. Not modest.

Arati’s relationship with her husband is the second important pillar of Mahanagar. We become a part of a very tender relationship, both blemished and eventually reunited by circumstances. Initially, Subrata is quick to ease into his role as the husband of a working woman. However, when Arati begins to discover her pride and self-worth as an earning member of the household, things falter. Arati’s professional rise and her increasing interactions with more powerful male authorities cause tension and insecurity. Subrata is never cruel. He has a sweet disposition and cares deeply for his wife and family. However, he is only a man, caught between moving on with new ideas and maintaining peace with the conservative past. He needs Arati’s support. Simultaneously, he is distraught with the situation at home. His father has not spoken to him in months. When the latter collapses in an ex-student’s clinic (while on another round of seeking free treatment), the student embarrasses Subrata by insinuating he doesn’t care for his father. It is an interesting commentary on aggressive masculinity and its power to make emotionally vulnerable men absorb its toxic juices. Things collapse further when a bank crash costs Subrata his job. Arati is the man of the house. He feels like a burden, distanced from his affectionate partner. 

Narendra Mitra’s stories ended pessimistically. However, the optimist in Ray didn’t want Mahanagar to conclude on such a note. He wished to grant Arati and Subrata a new lease of life, hoping for a perfect balance of sweet and realistic. In the end, Arati quits her job to protest against the harsh treatment meted to Edith. She apologizes to Subrata, scared that her impulsive decision has jeopardized their future but she is pleasantly surprised when Subrata admires her courage. Now a more evolved man, Subrata consoles her by saying that they will soon find work and together run the family. They walk out of the building as equals, holding hands and blending into the crowd of nameless thousands hoping to find employment.For me, Mahanagar is like a coming-of-age story. Yes, the characters are not teenagers. Yet, it is a remarkable story of a woman, her husband, and Calcutta –  all coming to terms with the fact that life is changing. Ray’s writing is sentimental, haunting, and full of passion and moments of happiness. It is a poetic film that relies on simplicity, subtlety, and observation to make a mark. It does not let you stay sad for long. But, neither is it stuffing the audience with false hope. Mahanagar tells us that life is tough. The city is tough. However, human relationships are tougher. One hundred years of Ray, and it still feels like Mahanagar could be our story.

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MAHE & MANO- An Extraordinary Tale of Hope, Courage, and Love

The first time I heard of Manohar Devadoss was at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2017. I listened to him speak about his adventure with books in his life. His childlike candour and wit made him an instant hit with his audience. I was looking forward to interacting personally with him later that day. However, that didn’t materialize and that’s a regret I continue to carry. I was thrilled when he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2020 for his contribution to art. However, Manohar did more than just art. He is also a scientist and an author. His achievements in various fields are not merely his own but they are also his wife Mahema’s. Mahema is omnipresent not just in Manohar’s life but also in his art, his books, and all his conversations. So, when I picked his latest book – ‘Mahe and Mano’, published by Aleph Book company, I was excited at the idea of getting to know more about the duo.

A simple search on the internet titled ‘Manohar Devadoss’ will tell you about Mahema’s quadriplegia and Manohar’s retinitis pigmentosa. However, it is almost impossible to comprehend how challenging every day can be to live with these adversities. In the book, Manohar talks about their extraordinary journey together and how they won over these extreme inconveniences that came bundled together with their physical conditions.

A young foreign return Manohar was smitten by the bold, beautiful, and jubilant Mahema in their first meeting. Their courtship, marriage, and romance is quite dreamy and makes me envy them. It is also heartbreaking to read about how life turned upside down for this couple in only a matter of a few minutes. Manohar talks about the moments before the accident, their days in JIPMER and CMC, the kindness of doctors, friends, family, and strangers and the desperation he felt during those ten months in hospital. The efforts that Manohar took to entertain his wife who was clamped to the bed, his slide shows for other patients in the hospital, his outburst at the insensitivity of a doctor welled my eyes up. However, that was just the beginning of an arduous uphill journey for them.

Few years after Mahe returned home in a wheelchair and became completely dependent on Mano and the helpers for everything, Mano started losing his eyesight due to degenerative retinal disorder. Even with all the help from renowned ophthalmologists, this only kept getting worse. It was now Mahema’s turn to be Mano’s knight and keep him going. It was Mahema who pushed Manohar to write a book and find a way to continue with his paintings. They carried each other’s dreams, in their own hearts. And this they did for more than three decades.

Manohar’s father was a doctor. So, he was aware that the life of a quadriplegic is short-lived and tumultuous. However, he promised himself that he would never ever let his wife get a bedsore. It is unbelievable that not only did Mahema thrive for 35 years but also never had a bedsore despite being bound to a wheelchair. That speaks of the kind of devotion that Mano had for Mahe. Mano and Mahe were brave, strong, kind, and resilient as individuals. They were both warm, bright, intelligent, charming, and creative. These individual traits and their timeless devotion towards each other turned them into an extraordinary couple. Together, they were a force to reckon with and touched many lives in unbelievable ways.

Most of their best creations happened during their three decades of endless battles against these adversities. Even today, Manohar remains extremely busy and keeps up with another promise he made to his wife. While their courage as individuals is inspiring enough, I must agree with Nagalakshmi Kumaraswamy that  Mahe and Mano will serve as inspiration for any couple and will provide a fascinating story for marriage counsellors to tell.

The book does hold a couple of their pictures and one illustration of Mano, I would have loved to see more of them. The poems, the love letters, the scribblings, the songs, the books, the flowers, the butterflies, and their love makes this book a light and engaging read. Every page of this story is inspiring and that is reason enough to pick this book.

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Our Education System: From Mean Girl to Something More

Life is stranger than fiction, which is why a fluffy teen comedy about American high school
students became a cultural milestone, spreading its influence down to fashion, cooking, music, philanthropy, and politics. When Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei compared Israel to a malignant growth, the Twitter handle of the Israeli Embassy responded with a Mean Girls GIF saying, “Why are you so obsessed with me?”

Mean Girls was a watershed moment in depicting high school cliques. The film was akin to watching reality television about your day-to-day school life. Of course, American high schools have a different social fabric from Indian institutions. However, I believe that in any school, such groups remain; the popular kids, the bullied kids whose vulnerability is the foundation of the former’s popularity, the ignored misfits, and the controversial ones who primarily functioned as school gossip. Any school you go to, you will find them. Any school you go to has the same fight for being in the best circle.

Without an iota of doubt, I was a prejudiced popular kid. In an English-medium school in West Bengal, you are a popular kid if you exhibit some or all of the following “qualities”: 

  1. Possessed excellent academic records.
  2. Demonstrated a skill that teachers can cash upon.
  3. Participated in inter-school competitions and returned with certificates.
  4. Looked down upon “weak” students.
  5. Had equally illusioned “friends” who thought this was power.

I wish I didn’t have to admit it, but this was me in school. Illusioned and enjoying a brittle power that now seems downright silly. However, as I was pushed into the real world, I began to see how myopic Indian schools can be and the long-lasting impact of their short-sightedness on students. I was fortunate to have broken through that mould. It took precisely one semester in Miranda House to show me how blind I had been and the real world that lies behind a shining mark sheet. As I spent more time in that world, I realised how unfair we are to those who cannot seize power in school. Because that is what school is, right? A long-drawn battle where teachers and a group of star students run behind the newspaper front page showcasing board toppers while the “rest” gasp for identity and attention.

An optimist would like to believe that with India’s exciting New Education Policy (2020) and the powerful global conversation on mental health, mainstream educational institutions are waking up to the non-negotiable importance of fostering talent rather than mindlessly pushing for higher grades. However, as a realist and the elder sibling of a Class 11 student, the truth is far from progressive. While schools are still armed with butterfly nets that restrain independent thinking, a more dangerous problem threatens quality education. That problem is the absence of empathy. I do not wish to paint a grim picture but only express the emotional pressures that terrorize children who have a comparatively more challenging time making it to the top 10 or 15 students in a class of 60. If you are reading this as an adult, ask yourself. How significant are such achievements? How important was 98 out of 100 in chemistry as you attempted to file tax returns? If, as adults, we can see through these fragile ideals, why do we force them on students?

I have a brilliant 16-year-old sister. She is a fantastic cook, a wizard with kids of all ages, and a compassionate human with exceptional emotional intelligence. On the contrary, I am an under-confident and mediocre 24-year-old whose finest skill was rote learning. Trust me; I know very little beyond that. Unfortunately, rote learning is the one thing my sister could not master. Thus began my family’s fight with the system. A battle with outdated curriculum, poor learning practices, a lack of counselling facilities, and the rampant encouragement of an environment where test scores are directly proportional to the resources and care received from the teaching staff.

In this journey, my family has interacted with several others who suffer in silence because schools cannot accommodate realities like attention deficiency disorders, anxiety, situational or long-term depression, dyscalculia, bullying, and adjustment issues. Institutions continue to brush them under the carpet rather than try to create an inclusive environment. This sort of attitude to learning is stressful. The children feel demotivated and belittled. The parents, unable to receive support, are forced into situations where they pressure kids to adhere to a uniform and unrealistic standard. It is a mess that needs rigorous training and awareness. The fear that remains is if schools need so much time and resources to change, what happens to the children caught in the flux? If a massive reformation needs another decade, what happens to the morale of those fighting today? Do we call such students and families collateral damage?

I am not a changemaker. Neither do I exert influence in education and policymaking. However, as a sister and someone who has been both the proverbial excellent in school and the frowned-upon mediocre in college, I think substantial change is simpler than we think. It will take time before large-scale institutional modifications are executed. However, it should not take that long to make school a more enjoyable and accommodative place. So, I have put together four of the simplest ways to make a difference. All of them are things I have experienced and tolerated along the way. So have countless others, and I desperately wish someone listens.

A Vocabulary Change

Recently, the government cancelled CBSE board exams for class 10 students. While it was a massive relief for every family, there was a subsequent conversation wherein the move was being described as being especially beneficial for “weaker” students. Who is a weak student? According to our sensibilities, they are students who will not score above 90%. “Weak student,” “slow learner,” “takes time to catch up with the rest,” “not up to the class average” are some of the age-old phrases that are not going anytime soon. I am not asking teachers to give a false sense of achievement and progress but instead of focussing on the student’s area of improvement, we compare them to an ambiguous bar that has been set most arbitrarily. I understand why this happens. There is no place for holistic evaluation of strengths and weaknesses in a country notoriously famous for its terrible student-teacher ratio. If that cannot be fixed, start by not justifying a student’s lower grades by unabashedly calling them a slow learner in a forum like parent-teacher conferences. Not every kid can get a 95 in mathematics. Frankly, it is not required. By pitting them against their seemingly “superior” friends, you are doing more harm than good.

Take Counselling Seriously

I cannot explain enough the importance and role of compassionate and experienced counsellors in a school. Times are changing, and complexities are increasing. Students are at a greater risk of several roadblocks in areas such as mental health, learning, adaptability, so on and so forth. While it is encouraging to see parents seeking professional help to motivate their children and help them overcome emotional difficulties, it remains a half-baked journey because schools cannot internalise these developments. They do not have full-time counsellors. If they do, most counsellors fail to connect with the students or parents and end up taking substitution. There is no data I can give you for this fact but we know that this is the truth. Schools must wake up to two realisations. First, the world is not the same as it was when the school was founded. Second, students are not a uniform block of clay from which you mould toppers and discard the rest. It sounds harsh, but I have seen the impact of such an approach on bright minds whose greatest “sin” is their inability to reproduce every word written in textbooks. When schools have dedicated counsellors, it makes them aware of diversity. It establishes a better connection with parents and their children who may require additional help to cope with academics or social deliverables. One teacher cannot constantly inform another if a student has particular learning needs. An experienced counsellor can keep a tab of such requirements and ensure a safe milieu. They can successfully address bullying, unhealthy classroom environments, marginalisation of students or practically, any problems that arise.

Prioritise Extracurriculars

Schools in 2021 have marketing budgets. This means professional pamphlets and videos advertising all the exciting activities they have. However, does it necessarily translate into productive offerings? That remains a question. There are practical problems. Extra-curricular teachers never stay beyond a term. The syllabus for such activities is not structured or, in some cases, even existent. Most arrangements are ad-hoc. Especially during the pandemic, extra-curricular subjects were given odd time slots such as 3 PM. Most students don’t attend them. Instead of offering a vast range, schools should evaluate what resources are available. Depending on that, they can provide a range of activities and take each one seriously. It is an excellent opportunity to explore their areas of interest without parents having to look for expensive private classes. It opens avenues that kids can consider as career options but all of this is contingent on extra-curricular activities leaving the glossy pages of pamphlets and become structured pursuits with dedicated teachers, syllabus, and outcomes.

Stop Corporatizing Schools

Schools are not multinationals. Yes, both are organisations with employees with a critical set of deliverables, have families to feed and have human limitations. However, certain professions come with an added sense of responsibility. Teaching is one of them. Therefore, you have to think twice before inserting concepts such as KPIs in an academic environment. A long time back, my mother requested a teacher to pay extra attention to my sister. She denied doing so and cited her KPI as the reason. I understand that as a teacher, she has quantifiable goals to achieve by the end of the academic year. However, to hold them above student support is terrible. A few years ago, I met one of my old school teachers, and she lamented about the growing absence of personal touch. She told me about a new teacher anxious about the roll number allocation because it was too much for him to remember the student’s names. My journey from being a mean girl to someone with more perspective was comfortable. That is because I never faced the brunt of the system. I watched from the outside, making remarks, and philosophizing about a better time. However, I also know someone who is fighting the battle every day. I am proud of her tenacity, but I want to ask every educator, institution, educational board and school out there, “Is this mindless struggle necessary?”. I hope I am not misconstrued as someone opposed to challenges, academic achievements, or pursuit of excellence. I am against the idea that every child’s notion of excellence is identical. This is going to be a long fight. I hope that we all have the power to sustain it. Till then, all I can be is a proud sister.

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The Trials of an Ageing Amateur Aerialist

I’ve always had a love hate relationship with exercise, I know it’s good for me, I know I feel better afterwards, but despite many years and various gym classes for some reason it always feels like a chore. A few years back, in the latest attempt at trying to find something I would enjoy, yet not feel like I was expending too much energy, I found an aerial yoga hammock class at a local dance studio. Yoga, in a brightly coloured hammock that resembled something you might find on a beach, well this sounded like something I could get on board with!

During the first class, I looked on as the regulars easily inverted into a headstand, whilst I sat terrified of even the thought of going upside down. But there was no getting away from it, I was flipped over by the class instructor in a split-second and I spent the next few minutes trying to stop myself feeling sick as the blood rushed to my head. “Help”, I murmured, “How do I get back out?!” As the class continued and people did various death-defying drops into their hammock, I wondered what I had signed up for, but I had an immense sense of satisfaction as I performed some basic tricks. As the class ended, we were allowed to cocoon ourselves in the hammock and listen to music for the final few minutes. In a world where we are so often preoccupied with notifications, multi-tasking or thinking about the next thing, this glorious five minutes of being alone with my thoughts, in a darkened room swinging from a hammock, gave me the peace I craved and if I’m honest was the bit of the class I craved most in the coming weeks.

As the class finished, the instructors quickly transformed the room for the next class, hanging circus hoops from the ceiling. “Oooh what’s that I said,” “Aerial hoop, and its brutal,” the instructor replied. Well, how could I resist? I bought myself a pair of leggings (I don’t think I’d owned leggings since childhood) and signed myself up. Oh that first class! I could barely get into the hoop, let alone even hang in a basic pose and came away so deflated and bruised that I decided it wasn’t for me.

So what masochistic tendency compelled me to return several weeks later, I’ll never know. Let’s give this some context. I was mid 30s at the time, I had zero background in gymnastics, nor dance, I’m certainly not the strongest, nor coordinated, nor do I have any sense of balance. I was faced with a class of people, many of whom half my age and half my size, with backgrounds with the aforementioned skills. My classmates could jump into splits and hurl themselves at moves with that confidence that comes with youth but erodes with age and feelings of inadequacy were fierce. The instructors and fellow students are extremely supportive but as with most of our perceived limitations all of the barriers are in our own heads.

Flash forward three or four years and I now spend as many hours a week as I can at the studio trying to pull off tricks and routines. Most weeks, I’ll have a crisis of confidence, beat myself up about not being flexible enough, not being strong enough or generally “not getting it” as my uncoordinated and usually fried from work mind struggles to piece it all together. Looking at others in the class, all of those childhood anxieties about not being good enough at sport come back and I think to myself “Claire you’re nearly 40, who are you trying to kid?”

But when I’m kind to myself, I think about how far I’ve come since those days of not even being able to get into the hoop, I’m proud of the journey and what my body does allow me to do.

At my age, I’m often so injury prone that I’ll find myself clutching a bag of frozen peas to swell an injury pre-class. To then go to class and apologise that I’m not sure how much I’ll manage, to then seem to forget about my injuries whilst in the hoop, back flipping and throwing myself around with gusto,  only to walk always like Yoda limping with his walking stick post epic fight scene.

They say comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s so true. We spend so long scrolling social media of these picture perfect images, forgetting the individual stories behind that one perfect image or video. We don’t see the years of hard work that person may have put in and the injuries they have endured, which is true of most sports. Comparisons are not healthy, yet we seem programmed to do this consistently in so many areas of life. This is also true of comparisons with our past selves, as well as our “future selves” who we hope to become.

So, it was with this in mind that I returned to my first class post lockdown after four months off. I knew my strength would have gone but I told myself “Don’t compare yourself to past you, go easy on yourself, appreciate the journey and the rewards will follow”. I strung together some basic moves and felt proud of my body’s muscle memory and surprised myself with what came back. They’ve added some new fun classes post lockdown, such as trapeze, so stay tuned for stories of someone who seems to have taken the idea of running away to join the circus a little too seriously!

Image Courtesy: Claire Hatcher/Marco Mendez

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BLF2020 | New Age Archer – Jeffrey Archer with Nirmala Govindarajan

Jeffrey misses being in India – this was the note with which he opened this very lively session. He was in conversation with Nirmala Govindarajan, whose new novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize and nominated for the Atta Galatta Awards 2020.

The Inside Story of Creating William Warwick

Nirmala started by probing Jeffrey on how he created William Warwick. Jeffrey referred to Harry Clifton, the character in Clifton Chronicles who is a famous writer and wrote about William Warwick. Jeffrey envisions this as a five-part series through Warwick’s career trajectory:

  1. A young constable on beat (Nothing Ventured)
  2. A Detective Sergeant who investigates the doings of a drug lord (Hidden in Plain Sight)
  3. Detective Inspector who unravels police corruption (Turn a Blind eye – releasing in 2021)
  4. Chief Inspector who investigates murder and
  5. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Jeffrey hopes he will survive to complete the series.

The Art of Staying Young as a Writer

“Energy and youth are God-given”, said Jeffrey who remarked that he enjoys every single day of his writing. He remarked that age is not a barrier and revealed that his wife is also busy as the Chairman of the Science museum of Great Britain.

Children’s Books

Nirmala showed some of the children’s books that Jeffrey had written and was curious to know when he had written those. Jeffrey narrated the story of how he wrote those for his children, who were 6 and 8; his publishers in India published them with remarkable illustrations. He is delighted with the popularity; however, does not plan to write more of those.

What He is Proud of

Jeffrey mentioned that he is proud to have run for Great Britain and that around 320 million of his books have been sold. He loves being a charity auctioneer; he has raised around sixty million.

Writing about India

Nirmala mentioned that Jeffrey has referred to Bombay in some of his books, asked whether he would like to write more about India. Jeffrey responded that he is circumspect about writing on India since he is afraid of getting it wrong.

Jeffrey’s Favourite Writer 

Jeffrey lauded R. K. Narayan as a genius, a great storyteller who writes about something simple and makes us want to turn the page. He told a story of one day when he was in the Tower Hotel at Bangalore, sitting with the literary editor of the Times of India. Jeffrey asked her who he should be reading. She immediately said, “Forget the sacred cows of India and read R. K. Narayan”.

How does his plot evolve?

Nirmala was curious to know if he has a secret sauce for forming his plot. Jeffrey just said that he gets up every morning, prays, takes up the pen and it moves across the paper every single day. He does not plan the plot. He said he was lucky to have this God-given gift.

His Message Based on Lockdown Experience

Jeffrey feels privileged that, locked down for 144 days at Cambridge, he was able to write a lot of Warwick. He feels saddened that his friends (one who owns a restaurant industry, an owner of a cruise liner, a conference organizer) have become nearly bankrupt during this time. He also feels sorry for young people who are locked in a room and cannot go out.

Questions from the Audience

The audience wanted to know about the many letters he gets from readers. Jeffrey replied that he gets hundreds of letters, goes through them all since he is flattered that anybody reads his books.

“Will Warwick find out the source of the Coronavirus”, was the next interesting question. Jeffrey replied in the negative, declaring that he is not a scientist. However, he did imagine a start for a story thus: a race decided the way to rule the world was to create Covid, distribute it around the world while isolating themselves…

In response to a question on whether he paints a picture in storytelling, Jeffrey said that he tries not to pontificate and tell the reader what to do; he focuses on taking the story forward.

“What keeps you 80 years young?”. In response to this question, Jeffrey reminisced on his early days when his first book, ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, was turned down by 16 publishers. His breakthrough came only in his third book, ‘Kane and Abel’. His message was to keep going.

Jeffrey spoke about his routine, a day in his life: he writes from 6 to 8 am, takes a two-hour break, again writes from 10 am to 12 noon and so on, till 8 pm. He writes by hand, then his secretary types it out. He hands in his 14th or 15th draft to his publisher!

His favourite cricketers? Jeffrey spoke of the late Nawab Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar with great regard. He also spoke about great friendships with V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble.

Has Jeffrey faced a writer’s block? On a lighter note, Jeffrey said that, though his home is named ‘Writer’s Block’; he has not experienced a block; however, he has got stuck in a storyline without knowing the best way to take it to a conclusion. He referred to the storyline of ‘As the Crow flies’ and said that it took three days to get the solution.

“Awards don’t matter, it matters to be Jeffrey Archer, the most loved author in India”, was the concluding note from Nirmala. Jeffrey had the last word by saying, “I love India, look forward to when I can get back to coming to you and you to me”.

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog, talks about her experiences in her YouTube channel Usha’s LENS and puts up photos on Instagram. She is also a software professional and a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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“The Willows in Winter” – An Ode to Those Long Treasured Books on Our Bookshelves

I came across this page through a friend, and I saw Vidisha Ghosh’s review of the Wind in the Willows and felt compelled to write about my experience with its sequel this winter. I was gifted the sequel The Willows in Winter as a first edition hard back upon its release back in 1993.  At the age of 10, this hard back with thoughtful character illustrations was probably one of the most beautiful books I owned, but in its beauty and huge size, relative to that of a 10 year old, it almost felt too grown up to read and too beautiful to touch. Needless to say, as teen years passed through to adulthood, I did not feel the draw of a book written for children and it remained on the shelf in its pristine condition. The Willows in Winter has since travelled with me to each home I’ve moved to where it has always taken pride of place on my bookshelf, untouched and unread, but certainly not unloved.

I finally got around to reading The Willows in Winter this January, amidst a bit of a reader’s block and the need for something easy and comforting. The UK government had just effectively cancelled Christmas with its no-mixing-of-households rule and announced its third indefinite lockdown. January can be hard enough in a normal year, let alone without the usual things that keep us going and I’ll admit my mood and resolve was starting to wane. I desperately needed something light and as I perused my shelves, I found myself reaching for The Willows in Winter. I picked it up thinking it might be the perfect book to cosy on up with in the dark winter and to get me out of my reading slump. What I wasn’t expecting was for the words on the first page to hit me with such force, that it brought tears to my eyes.

“I must not be uncharitable” said Mole “I have my home, I have my health and I- I must not be unfriendly”. 

I sat down in my cosy reading chair and felt the weight of those words sink in. The words resonated deeply with the lockdown experience and the gradual increase in feelings of unease. During our first lockdown, I gave myself the motto, “don’t be a brat”. Not eloquent I know, but it was short, sweet and easy to berate myself with whenever needed. By this motto, I meant that regardless of how tough things might become, I resolved to remember our blessings, be grateful for what we have and be extra kind and mindful of how we speak with others, who may be facing more difficult challenges. But, I have to admit that in January, after too many zoom calls, and a seemingly endless stream of calls from others looking to offload their own concerns and troubles, I was starting to feel the need to retreat even further and hibernate in my own little world to feel a bit sorry for myself.

So, at the perfect time, after almost 30 years on my bookshelf, along came the wonderful characters of Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger to remind us of some important lessons. Mole’s opening dialogue is referring to his nephew as an unwanted lodger, when Mole craves nothing more than his peaceful home and privacy. What follows is a tale of adventure and friendship as they each go in search of rescuing each other from various escapades. We are reminded of the need to embrace each other’s differences and that friendship does not have to be with those who are like-minded but should span different personality types, and as a result how much we can learn from each other. For example, in contrast to Mole’s introverted nature, is the polar opposite of Toad. Toad can often be perceived as an arrogant and self-centred rich character, often reckless in his pursuits. However, in reading between the lines, we see a character who has had his sense of adventure subdued and so desperately seeks some kind of release through risky pursuits, much like how some would see a few of our rebel entrepreneurs in the real world, who can be revered and disliked in equal measures. The Willows in Winter is written by William Horwood as an homage to Kenneth Grahame’s classic and is faithful to the original in capturing the essence of Grahame’s characters.

Since reading the Willows in Winter several months ago, I’m now ahead on the reading challenge I set myself for the year and so my readers block has been officially cured. Whether I found a cure for my “uncharitable” nature as Mole would call it, is yet to be confirmed, but I vow to keep being mindful of others and provide a listening ear, whilst protecting my own needs as an introvert to retire and recharge in my own space. As social creatures, this lockdown has been hard on introverts and extroverts alike, and if Toad and Mole teach us anything it is that we need all types and all kinds of friendships to get the best from this world.

The experience also made me reflect on what it is to be a bibliophile. Thinking of the books we covet on our shelves for years, from those in pristine condition too beautiful to touch, to the well-thumbed copies of our favourite books.  Those books that remain with us reminds us of who we were when we read them, much as that “to be read pile” is a nod to who we hope to become as our future selves – I’m thinking here of my literature classics section, that I want to be intellectual enough to read, but still feels somewhat of a chore to start! I also think about the journey of those books that we decide not to keep, those that we pass on to friends in the hope that they will bring similar joy or understanding to them as it did for us. The Willows In Winter, will now remain forever cherished on my bookshelf as a reminder of that Winter lockdown and however tough life gets, we must be grateful for our blessings and keep goodwill in our hearts.

April Reads to Start Your Indian New Year With a Healthy Dose of Literature

April is a busy month. Around the world, this month is dotted with some of the most significant events in the pages of history. Particulary in India, the month holds a special place as most of the Indian calendars have the new year marked in the month of April. While we celebrate the new year with a hope that the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a thing of the past, here is a list of book recommendation from us to keep you busy, informed, and well fed on literature in these trying times.

Pakistan or The Partition of India by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

One of the most important figures who gave shape to the Indian constitution and the way our nation functions today has been Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. He was born on 14th April, 1891 and has left a huge body of work behind him for us to understand his ideas and thoughts on multiple subjects. One of the most important books written on the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan is Dr. Ambedkar’s ‘Pakistan or The Partition of India’. In his inimitable style, Dr. Ambedkar goes to the roots of several untackled questions behind the idea of Pakistan and enlightens the readers with finer details of the path India took to be standing face to face to the tragedy that was partition. Buy the book here.

Khooni Vaisakhi by Nanak Singh

On 13th April, 1919, India saw one of the worst crimes under the British rule. Following the orders of Gen. Dyer, the police opened fire on an unarmed assembly gathered to protest against the Rowlatt Act at Jallianwala Bagh. Hundreds were killed and thousands were injured in this shameful act. Punjabi writer Nanak Singh who at the time was all of 22 years at the time, was present in the gathering and lived the trauma. Later, he penned down his pain in long form poetry, known as Khooni Vaisakhi. The book has also been translated into English by Navdeep Suri. Buy the book here.

Novellas Exemplares by Miguel de Cervantes

April 23 is celebrated as World Book Day in several countries and by UNESCO. The date was chosen because it coincided with the death anniversary of several authors, including the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes who is more popular for his book Don Quixote. The date also marks the death anniversary of William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, and David Halberstam. Coming to the book, this is a series of 12 novellas by the author written between 1590 and 1612. The story series are categorized by two main characteristics – one characterized by an idealized nature and others that are of realistic nature. Buy the book here.

Honourabe Mentions: Apart from these books, you can also pick Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Democratic Administration in the Light of Practical Vedanta by Swami Ranganathananda, and Himalayan Challenge – India, China and the Quest for Peace by Subramanian Swamy.

Death by a Thousand Rallies, Modiji’s Surgical Strike On India’s Population Explosion

I am not sure how many feel insulted by all the election rallies happening around us these days. I certainly do. When COVID-19 patients continue to suffer and die in thousands for the lack of adequate medical care and facilities, our politicians have once more proved that we are nothing more than  a single vote – a step in their ladder to power. On other days, one vote could be a powerful identity but as things stand out now, it is nothing more than a mockery of our democratic functions, values, and commonsense.

All the states that went or are going through elections – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala, Assam, and the union territory of Puducherry saw politicians from all shades and hues. The campaign rallies by their star campaigners drew huge crowds at every occasion in complete disregard of the healthcare bloodbath our country is going through. When you know that for most of these rallies, people are enticed to attend using money, liquor, and other kinds of allurements, two sets of voters can be distinctly seen in this reality. The first one is the poor voter who knows that the offered money can help him fend off for a few days. The second set is that of the greedy voters who have consciously put a price tag on their attendance as well as their votes, and in this case, also their lives. While you may feel that we can’t do much about the first set, the second set is not going to disappear anytime soon either.

Under the given circumstances, who must take the blame for such gross violations of COVID-19 protocols laid out by the Election Commission (EC) of India? Of course, the political class. But before we go there, the EC itself must be held accountable. The fact that this body has not been able to do anything about these huge rallies has shown us again that it lacks the teeth it wants us to believe it has. Even with all the reforms, the commission has remained a tiger that can only roar after its hunt has been robbed away by the hyenas, hyenas being the political class of our country. Our vote is their meat. 

Since the BJP is in power and Mr. Modi is our Prime Minister, a huge part of the blame of such a vulgar joke on us must lie with them. It is not that they did not know. We have had similar rallies during the Bihar elections. Most states in India have pathetic numbers on all kinds of healthcare charts, and still by not doing anything to prevent these rallies or not exploring other options for campaigning, they have put our healthcare infrastructure under extreme stress. The doctors and medical staff find themselves in the same situation they were in a year ago. So, while the common citizenry is told to ring bells and sound plates to applaud and encourage the corona warriors, our supreme leader is hitting record numbers rally after rally to insult the very same people.

Come to think of it, hasn’t our democracy been always this way? I feel insulted but not surprised by this apathy displayed by the most important people of our political system. Right from our Prime Minister to candidates fighting for a seat, no one has had the strength to lead by example. BJP, DMK, AIADMK, TMC, CPI – there is no party that has not made a joke out of the pandemic. The surprising part is that most of these people have experienced the pandemic first hand. Even then, they have conducted themselves in a way that has proved that selective amnesia is a more dangerous disease. For example, our Home Minister Amit Shah has himself recovered from the virus but can still go on from one state to another in search of vote count. Amit Shah is one example but there are several politicians who have suffered or are suffering due to COVID-19, including the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. How is it possible then that they can treat the pandemic with such callousness?

Are we then taking these people more seriously than they deserve to be? Are they mere instruments of the electoral institutions and processes of our country? If electoral victory is the only deity these political parties have, are we all just being pushed into the sacrificial fire as offerings to this deity? If decades of politically engineered Hindu-Muslim faultlines, caste based seat allocations, minority appeasement, cash for votes have not adequately underlined this fact, the pandemic has settled the debate. At present, we are not more than a single vote that can fetch victory for a political ambition. Our lifespan starts at the ‘massive rally’ claim tweet of our politicians and ends at the button press on the EVM. After that, even if we get infected by the virus and die, it will be for the good of the polity of our country.

When they say, we must be prepared to die for our country, they actually mean ‘die for the polity’, and perhaps nothing else. We refuse to believe this for a good night’s sleep. The first thing they did was to coin the term ‘corona warrior’ so as to attach a sense of pride in dying at work while our politicians keep at their criminal election campaigns. Second thing they did was to bring out the thaalis and diyas to pay pompous respects to these corona warriors. Then they organized political rallies and offered 200 bucks and alcohol to the attendees in order to create noble causes for our corona warriors to die. There is not one missing link, no loose ends in this political drama.

If you are more religious than political, not that there has remained much of a difference between the two, you can also visit the Kumbha Mela. They have made state-of-the-art arrangements for you to get infected. In any case, going by the popular saying , “Modi ji kar rahe hain toh kuchh soch kar hi kar rahe honge”, it could very well be ‘Modiji’s Surgical Strike’ on one of our lingering problems since Chacha Nehru’s time – India’s population explosion.

Note: The image used in the article has no scientific basis and is purely based on political hearsay. For more accurate data and charts, please refer here.