Old-Possums-Book-of-Practical-Cats

Reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ On International Cat Day

A reputation of being indifferent, queenly, and uncaring has been built around cats. Most view cats through this stereotype. However, far from being indifferent, I think of cats as being creatures that value their space and show affection in their own unique ways. Each is endowed with a personality and style.

T.S. Eliot’s poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats celebrates this uniqueness. T.S. Eliot is known for epitomizing the 20th century post World War I disillusion with systems and civilizations. However, in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, he penned light, humorous verses that create some of the most memorable cat characters in English literature. It was these verses that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats. While the musical attempts to create a plot out of the poems, the original poems in the collection are largely stand alone poems that weave whimsical stories about different cats. The poems in a way anoint cats with a glory that the species deserve!

This is seen right at the beginning in the first poem, The Naming of Cats. Naming a cat is a solemn occasion. One must choose the name wisely. No silly riff raff of a name should be given. Instead,

“...a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified.”

Right here, we come across the idea that cats are unique and their names should carry substance. True to this idea, all the cats in the rest of the poems have unique and quite British sounding names. They have strange and peculiar qualities including the stereotypical ones such as being curious or having many lives.

The Old Gumbie Cat is about a house cat Jennyanydots, who takes her work seriously and maintains peace in the house by training all the mice! Deuteronomy in Old Deuteronomy is a well respected and loved neighbourhood cat. He has lived a long life and is accorded the requisite respect by the humans by allowing him to sleep undisturbed anywhere he pleases.

Some of the cat characters even have professions which have made them famous. Gus in Gus: The Theatre Cat has enacted every role there is to play and is particularly proud of playing the part of Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell. Macavity: The Mystery Cat portrays Macavity who is called the “Napoleon of Crime!” He is a master criminal who is always ready with alibis and is never to be found on the scene of the crime, much to the bafflement of the Scotland Yard!

Can you imagine cats as pirates? Growltiger was a terrifying one throughout the Thames until he met his match and “was forced to walk the plank” in Growltiger’s Last Stand.

And what if trains ran under the scrutiny of meticulous cats? Would they run better? Absolutely! Midnight Mail needs the services of these nocturnal creatures in Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat. Skimble’s “glass-green eyes” are enough to give a green signal for the train to depart. Skimbleshanks offers many benefits aboard the train from keeping it mice-free to being awake for keeping watch and supervising humans who could sleep on the job! He is the true “Cat of the Railway Train.”

The last poem in the collection, The Ad-dressing of Cats, addresses the human and cat relationship. T.S. Eliot humorously lists down rules of addressing a cat. The first and foremost rule is that of respecting the cat and allowing it to trust you through first. Only then will the cat deign to consider you your friend so that you may name and keep it. It is precisely this behavior that drives the notion of cats having airs. But, I guess, cats are just like humans. We wouldn’t want to be unnecessarily and without consent be cuddled, right? Unsolicited affection is uncomfortable. So, what is the harm in asking for consent? Think!

You can buy the book here. We have also made a collection of books from Japan about cats. Read more about them here.

Capacity Building for India’s Emerging Economy – Jottings From the FICCI-SRMIST Webinar

A five trillion-dollar dream of the world’s sixth largest economy depends on “over 600 million people under the age of 25 years” (Fig. 1). Among these, 300000 students from 3500 educational institutes in India were found to be only 46% employable by the 2020 India Skills Report, an annual skills assessment conducted by Wheebox in collaboration with Taggd, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Association of Indian Universities (AIU), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

Fig. 1: Addition to Working Age Population
Source: K.P. Kannan & G. Raveendran

According to the India Skills Report, “The pitiable figures of India’s formally trained workforce – which stand at merely 2.3% in comparison to economies like South Korea which has a mammoth share of 96% – indicate that the former will have to rethink, redefine, and repaint the entire talent map of the country to stand a fair chance of participating in global jobs market and hence, play a resourceful role in the growing economy.”  A few days before the National Education Policy 2020 was launched, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) collaborated with the SRM Institute of Science & Technology (SRMIST) to bring together policymakers, industry and academia for a discussion on The Emerging Economies: Identify and Create Competencies. 

Held on July 23rd 2020, the webinar played host to diverse stakeholders such as Piyush Goyal, Union Minister of Commerce and Industry and Railways, OECD’s Andres Schleicher, industry leaders such as Hemal Shah (Dell Technologies), Lokesh Sharma (AWS, Amazon), as well as academic leaders such as Prof. Ramgopal Rao (IIT, Delhi) and as Prof. Tan Eng Chye (President-NUS, Singapore). With Pranjal Sharma and Mohandas Pai moderating panel discussions, the FICCI-SRMIST webinar explored solutions for capacity building through sharing of best practices while considering opportunities for enhanced synthesis between government, industry and academia.

For Piyush Goyal, “Aatmanirbhar Bharat is going to be the defining moment for India’s future.” While the ambition of Aatmanirbhar Bharat remains economic self-reliance, the Covid 19 pandemic has not only thrown global supply chains in disarray, but is altering the way the world works and learns. Ernst and Young’s Workforce Advisor, Anurag Malik said, “Covid has accelerated future trends, and the number one trend is remote working with almost every company” resorting to “95% remote working.” The ‘New Normal’ has altered conventional approaches to employment, and employability (Fig. 2) will increasingly involve each of the “4 skills of business communication, numerical skills, critical thinking skills and computer skills” assessed during the Wheebox National Employability Test survey (WNET) for the 2020 India Skills Report.

Fig. 2: India’s Workforce Employability 2014-2020
Source: India Skills Report 2020 (Wheebox)

The digital economy, which was largely a consumer-driven marketplace, is being formally disrupted by the implications of social distancing caused by Covid 19. According to Amazon’s Lokesh Sharma, “3.7 billion are connected to the internet, 50% of which are Asians, and 24% are Indians. Disruption is happening in work (Gig economy), worker (Type of job), and workplace (Remote Working).” Even as governments and corporates strive towards mitigating the negative impact of Covid 19 worldwide, the dynamics of the global workforce is in flux. According to Gartner’s report, Future of Work Trends Post Covid 19, 32% of organizations are replacing full-time employees with contingent workers as a cost-saving measure.”  Combined with India’s 15 million freelancers currently accounting for USD 1 billion of the USD 2-3 billion global freelancer market,” strategic interventions in the global gig economy require capacity building for “talent liquidity” and a course correction for the “disproportionate value” represented by income inequality worldwide.

Fig. 3: Gender-Wise Workforce Participation and Employability in India 2014-2020
Source: India Skills Report 2020 (Wheebox)

For Reliance’s Bijoy Sahoo, “In 1980, China and India GDP were same. But in 2020, China’s GDP is 3 times of India’s GDP.” According to the Economic Survey 2019-20, “80% of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganised sector, and only 23% of India’s 48.1% population (women)” participate in country’s workforce (Fig. 3) in 2018. Although 20th century’stalent migration with value migration” has caused the Indo-China GDP difference, capacity building of India’s working age population will require increased gender parity and apposite skill development. While the Government of India’s Skill India Mission aims to impart employable skills to a minimum of 300 million by 2022,  Sahoo questioned the difference in the “capacity building of the SRM graduate and the migrant worker?” As K.P. Kannan suggests, the “informality of employment of the majority of the Indian workers characterised by insecurity and low earnings is closely linked to their levels of education, initial conditions of poverty, and rural residence (Fig. 4).”

Fig. 4: Percentage of Workers with Secondary Level and Above Education
Source: K.P. Kannan & G. Raveendran

Arun Jain of Intellect Design suggests “design thinking for sharp identification of opportunities…to harness the potential of 900 remote working million farmers” or the unorganized workforce. Jain expounded on the elements of the design thinking framework which includes “a system of knowledge cataloguing; a system of dialoguing (Circle time is an example of dialoguing); and a system for asking questions (instead of the hierarchical parent-child relationship that exists in India).” However, as Sharma suggests, “the value of skills is a 5-year threshold.” Andres Schleicher, Director, Directorate of Education and Skills, OECD, stresses that it is important to “extract value from skills,” citing the example that despite “Japan having a very strong skill distribution system, few people get the opportunity to use their skills to productive use.” As Goyal asserts, “With 1 in 4 graduating in 2030 expected to be from Indian educational institutes, the future of mankind is going to look to you (educationists).”

For Prof. Ramagopal Rao, IIT, Delhi, “Bringing industry brings relevance in research and delivery gets strengthened.” As Director of India’s “oldest incubation platform,” Rao suggests “generating patent portfolio and start up culture in Higher Educational Institutes (HEIs), with HEI equity for incubation” similar to Stanford’s investment in Google. Of course, the fact that “11 of 21 unicorns (Fig. 5) founded in India or by Indians abroad, are founded by IIT Delhi alumni” is evidence of “inception to impact.” However, IIM’s business-minded Rishikesha Krishnan urges that, “If industry can absorb at TRL level (Technology Readiness Level), then academic research and institutional start-ups will make a greater difference to industry.”

Fig. 5: Indian Start-ups
Source: Tracxn (Mint)

Prof. Tan Eng Chye (NUS Singapore) agrees that strengths of education include internships/industry practise and promoting entrepreneurship. Prof. Chye provides the example of “corporate labs with 1/3 cost share between government, industry and HEI with IP (Intellectual Property) shared between the company and educational institute” with NUS students participating in these corporate labs “in 14 cities around the world including in Silicon Vallay, Tel Aviv, Jakarta, Europe and China.” Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and “after the program, 100 companies by graduates raised approx. USD 600 million in funds.” As Dell’s Hemal Shah says, “Don’t just embrace change, lead it with passion.” With Covid 19 changing the dynamics of the global economy, technological adoption is increasingly influencing the world’s way of life including workforce management and knowledge acquisition. Ajit Ranade, Aditya Birla, asserts that “What Covid 19 has achieved for Digital India, even demonetization couldn’t manage.” Goyal agrees that while “industry may have to be re-oriented, production centres may shift,”… it is important to “democratise development, progress and prosperity.”

Racism Should Not Subsume Any and Every Form of Discrimination, This Lexical Reference Should Be Kept Handy

RACISM… the word in vogue right now, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. What is even more astounding is that racism is being used to describe all sorts of discrimination. There might be critics of overt cultural appropriation, but the subversive dilution of racial discrimination means that the blunt force trauma that racially discriminated individuals encounter will become as common an occurrence as eve teasing in India (which could end up in an acid attack by the spurned lover), or just another instance that hordes are facing globally and too big to deal with. A lexical reference for discrimination is necessary, not just for those being discriminated against because of race, but for others who face discrimination everyday because of gender, caste, religion, sexual preference, economic status, or any multitude of discriminatory reasons.

DISCRIMINATION
Oxford: the practice of treating someone or a particular group in society less fairly than
others
MW:     a: prejudiced or prejudicial outlook, action, or treatment racial discrimination
b: the act, practice, or an instance of discriminating categorically rather than
individually
Urban a: When YouTube doesn’t allow you watch a video because you don’t live in the
U.S.
b: “Action based on prejudice or racist beliefs that results in unfair treatment of
individuals or groups; unjust conditions in areas such as employment, housing
and education.” – Museum of Tolerance
Law:     n. unequal treatment of persons, for a reason which has nothing to do with legal rights or ability.

Discrimination ranges from microaggressions of prejudice and bias to the killing of a train passenger due to religious reasons or parading a woman naked around the village because of her caste. These people face discrimination too, and they too do not deserve that the apathy towards their experiences with discrimination be diluted further. While societal constructs of discrimination might have changed on the policy level, the implementation leaves much to be desired for.

Among the many isms one might encounter in daily life, discrimination presents itself in many forms. Racism, casteism, elitism, sexism, and cronyism with its derivatives, crony capitalism and nepotism, are rarely happenstances, but a pervading prejudice that extends beyond geographical boundaries. The most recent example is the Cisco lawsuit “for caste discrimination toward an Indian American engineer”, also called CASTEISM.

…ISM
Oxford:            a set of ideas or system of beliefs or behaviour
MW:                 a: a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory
b: an oppressive and especially discriminatory attitude or belief
Urban:             a: Someone who does a distinctive specified thing so much, that they are
now notorious for it. They are generally referred as a “their name”-ism.
b: In a fraternity or sorority of the ethnic persuasion, an ism is defined as
an individual that has the same position in line
Marine Law: Known as the International Safety Management Code, the ISM Code is
one of the required regulations in the marine industry

And what might be the difference between elitism and cronyism? The consideration of being among the privileged few and receiving favours for being among the privileged few… The pseudo-intellectual Bengali who hijacks cultural authority is likely exhibiting elitism.

CRONYISM
Oxford:           the situation in which people in power give jobs to their friends
MW:                 partiality to cronies especially as evidenced in the appointment of political
hangers-on to office without regard to their qualifications
Urban:            partiality to friends, expressed by appointment of them to positions of
authority, regardless of their qualifications
Business:       the act of showing partiality to one’s close friends, typically by appointing
them to a position in a company or organization despite the individual not
necessarily being the best person for the position. Although this is favoritism
is frowned upon in many cases, it is often hard to determine what is or is not
cronyism…Although accusations of cronyism are prevalent, they very rarely
amount to any disciplinary action or removals from power.

Cronyism, on the other hand, has existed for as long as societal favoritism has. The influence of social networks in the world extends from panelinhas in Brazil to guanxi in China. According to an Oxfam India report, India Inequality Report 2018, “the total wealth of Indian billionaires is 15% of the GDP of the country, and the richest in India have made their money through crony capitalism rather than through innovation or the fair rules of the market.” The impact of crony capitalism is subversive in its obscure influence on the global political economy.

Even the Covid 19 pandemic has not deterred cronyism (Fig 1.), with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which provides loans backed by the Small Business Administration, displaying hints of crony capitalism which are often well within legal bounds. According to ForbesManeet Ahuja and Antoine Gara, “In a fresh twist on ‘relationship’ banking, personal connections were key to landing PPP cash whether the intermediary was a big bank, or a small one.” When the PPP application of Families First Pediatrics’ owner, Dallen Ormond, was refused by JPMorgan Chase which had “dished out $20 million in PPP money to two subsidiaries of Ruth’s Hospitality Group, the steakhouse chain parent that has a separate credit line with the bank, Ormond fumed in an email to Forbes, “Please tell the powers that be when this is all over I hope they can find someone to save their newborn baby’s life as they enjoy their $50 steak“”.

Of course, the Trump administration has already encountered flak for its nepotistic latitude as was evident with Ivanka Trump during the G20 summit in Japan. So, another cronyism derivative, nepotism, which favors family seems par for the course. In India, Kangana Ranaut’s outburst on Koffee with Karan against nepotism is infamous for the can of worms it splattered across the tabloids with eugenics being bandied about for good measure.

Of course, a lexical reference for discrimination would be incomplete without elucidation of the pervasive endemic of RACISM and SEXISM. One of the definitions of race is, “distinct evolutionary lineages within a species,” according to Alan Templeton. The “inventor of modern racial classification” Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published his analysis of human taxonomy, De Generis Humani Varietate Nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind) in 1795. According to Nature magazine, Blumenbach’s comparative analysis of cranial shapes “divided the human race into five great families: the Caucasian or white race, the Mongolian or yellow, the Malayan or brown, the Negro or black, and the American or red.”

Race and Genetic Variation
Source: Daniel Utter

Scientists in the 21st century refuse to ascribe race as a biological attribute for human classification, and “prefer to use the term “ancestry” to describe human diversity since race is a social construct.” Ancestry provides an intersectional approach to biocultural adaptation in diverse geographical conditions. Of course, colonialists’ attempts to civilize savages of Asia and Africa added to Blumenbach’s paradoxical authority and continued its subversive influence around the world… Not unlike casteist discrimination in India, which is based on the varna classification originating more than two millennia ago, and continues to be the basis of social identity for many. And let’s not forget the derivatives of discrimination based on gender and sexual preference which include:

  • Sexism: Prejudicial stereotyping based on biological gender attributes with discrimination generally directed towards women and transgenders
  • Sexual Orientation Discrimination: Prejudicial stereotyping based on sexual preference with discrimination generally directed towards those interested in same sex or non-binary sexual orientation

Obviously, while there may be enough reasons to discriminate, the question you need to ask yourself is, whether you should. While social categorization may be necessary for affirmative action or reservations for the disadvantaged in society, human nature has evolved through social constructs of identity and its dark underbelly will continue to resurface until discriminatory actions are considered unacceptable and insupportable not only on a policy level, but also within the layers of human existence.

Beat the Noise of Negativity, Plug Into These Happy Books to Stay Motivated

“Your book is dispatched and would be delivered soon. Happy Reading!” would read an automated mail from the E-commerce company when you order a book. “Happy Reading” says the cashier at the book store, the librarian, even the book marks. You pick up the book; you are intrigued, puzzled, sad, angry or frustrated but happy. When I say happy, I mean the story takes you into a free, lighter world, away from the vicissitudes of life for a while, leaving a smile at the end of it. How about a few reads that to pick before going to bed that calm your mind and take you away from the constant blue light of your mobile/laptop screen while you are gorging on the latest comedy clips on YouTube in a constant effort to keep away the day’s blues? Here are a few recommendations to keep you happy and motivated.

Ruskin Bond-The Room on the Roof
The Room on the Roof | Ruskin Bond

ROOM ON THE ROOF | RUSKIN BOND

The novel takes you in the world of four adolescent friends and their adventures. Set up in a hilly Indian town, the story is all about friendship, love, and longing. Written in simple language, it’s an apt read for young adults; but it would do no harm to grownups if they read it. It would certainly make you nostalgic and chuckle up at times. Just a note: Ruskin Bond’s most of the books have mountains as the backdrop and human emotions as the front runner effortlessly weaved in words. You can pick up any of his books with a blend of nature, friends, kids, adventure and I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Buy the book.

ZEN PENCILS- DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM | GAVIN AUNG THAN
ZEN PENCILS- DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM | GAVIN AUNG THAN

Zen pencils – Dream the impossible Dream | Gavin Aung Than

Pick it up for the gush of sunshine and motivation. It has inspirational quotes from popular personalities beautifully illustrated in the form of stories. The graphics stay with you even when you tend to forget the words. This book is second part of Zen Pencil blog series. If you finish the book too quickly and demand for more, visit the blog www.zenpencils.com to dive more into the world of graphical stories.

Buy the book.

THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY
THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY


THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY

As the tag line of the book says, “Ordinary People and Extraordinary Lives”, the book is a collection of author’s personal experience around people she comes across and how they inspire her to be happy and contended in what life has to offer while we all are working to make it better every day. The stories are diversified from her experience of being the only girl in the engineering college, travelling to various countries to wondering about the fruits and vegetables grown in kitchen garden and their origin. The stories inspire, surprise, teach, and leave you with many experiences.

Buy the book.

GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS | ELENA FAVILLI & FRANCESCA CAVELLO
GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS | ELENA FAVILLI & FRANCESCA CAVELLO

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls | Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavello

The book has 100 motivational stories about the women around the globe who made a significant impact in society fighting against all the odds- the stories of girls who wanted to be swimmer, scientist, or social activists when the society had defined boundaries for them. The title though says that the stories are for rebel girls but I would say it should be read by all irrespective of gender to break out from anything that stops them, as the first page of the book reads- “Dream bigger, Aim higher, Fight harder And when in doubt, remember you are right.” Not just the stories but you would also be taken by the colorful picture illustration of the women in stories.

Buy the book.

LOOKING FOR MISS SARGAM | SHUBHA MUDGAL
LOOKING FOR MISS SARGAM | SHUBHA MUDGAL

Looking for Miss Sargam | Shubha Mudgal

Shubha Mudgal, a renowned singer turns first time writer with this book which she calls is a collection of stories of music and misadventure. The book is a general read for anyone, does not necessarily have to be from music background. It introduces you to the music world without being too technical. The stories are full of fun and frolic halting occasionally to speak about the hypocrisy, rivalries, and eccentricities of the music world. Overall, the book is a pleasant read. 

Buy the book.

Cover Image: Jill Wellington

Five Wonderful Collections of Famous Folktales from Around the World

When you are growing up, you’re misguided into thinking that fairy tales, or folktales, are for children. Only after you’ve grown up and sought these tales again in your adulthood that you realise what you’ve been missing. 

As you delve deeper into the folklore of India, you’ll start to see connections, narrative patterns, even themes. You’ll enjoy finding connections between stories from different ends of India. Our country is not as vast and multitudinous as we think it is. 

Such is the nature of stories. They evolve and spread in ways that defy thought and understanding. Only by broadening our thinking and theory can we find the answers to our past in these stories. When you read folktales from different cultures across the world, much like the stories from India, you’ll begin to notice patterns, repetitions, and cultural exchanges that will tell you how culturally bonded our ancestors used to be. Stories, folktales travel all over the world before they arrived in the form they are today. Here are 5 collections of world folktales that will make you long for simpler times.

The World’s Great Folktales, Retold by James R. Foster.

Over 170 folktales from all over the world are retold in this book with a special focus on the humorous tales that spring up in and around different cultures. Many of these tales have been translated into English for the very first time. These tales are entertaining and witty, funny, fantastical, and highly imaginative. Taken from a variety of sources, chiefly European but also Asian and African, these tales bridge the gap between lore and art. They are meant to be entertaining as well as instructive at all times.

Best-Loved Folktales of the World, Selected by Joanna Cole

Living up to the name it has given itself, this collection gathers famous classics that we are all familiar with. Classics such as “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” are presented here with their counterparts in various cultures. The stories in this collection are arranged by geographical region and present tales of magic, mischief, adventure, humour involving a whole host of characters from damsels, witches, tricksters to grandmothers, fools, and evil stepmothers in all their glory. A must-read for anyone wishing to brush up on the stories they may have already enjoyed in their childhood.

A Harvest of World Folk Tales, Compiled by Milton Rugoff

This compilation strays between myth and folklore and; and simultaneously, between academic and accessible. There are several folktales from various parts of the world, but the book also includes trusted narratives from the epic world. While the fully grown academic might balk at the text, amateur folklorists will consider it to be a delightful stepping stone for field work. Since the focus is on readability and accessibility, the stories in this book can also be read out loud during gatherings or when putting children to bed. Illustrations by Joseph Low are a welcome addition to the book.(This book is now published under the title the Penguin Book of World Folk Tales)

Favorite Folktales from Around the World, Edited by Jane Yolen

When they put the word “Favorite” in the world, they mean it. Jane Yolen’s collection doesn’t include typical stories like “Hansel and Gretel” or other popular folktales that have entered the imagination of children, but these tales are enjoyable and meant for children and adults alike. The printing is definitely something worth talking about; it is designed with flair keeping in mind that the book’s purpose is to be attractive to children. Yolen has also added brief notes for each story at the end of the volume for anyone interested in the scholarly pursuits. (This book is part of the Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library book series, and includes famous folk and fairy tales from the other books in the collection.)

Folktales Told Around the World, Edited by Richard M. Dorson

Here at last we arrive at the peak collection in our list, the must-have book for anyone who wishes to get as close to the original lore and tales as possible with an English translation. In choosing the folktales for this collection, Dorson had one worry: how to represent the geographical areas and cultures of the globe in a single volume? To his credit, he may have largely succeeded. The beauty of the Oral tales present in this collection is that they aren’t your everyday fairy tales or folklore. Instead, they are actual narrations taken down on recorders and transcribed verbatim by folklorist, who are then handed the improbable task of translating the stories without losing their cultural ethos. It is a pleasure to read these stories as they are told by a storyteller, even if the language sometimes feels jaded in places. Along with the stories, there is a wealth of information present at the end of the book that deals with themes, motifs, and tale types of the folktales. A thorough classification of the tale is also included.(The book is part of the Folktales of the World series published by the University of Chicago Press)

Whether you want to read bedtime stories to your kids or study folklore in college or even just read folktales for your own enjoyment, the stories in the collections above have something for everyone.

Read about Indian folktales collections here .

Cover Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter

TheSeer-LGBTQ-BookList_indian-Authors

Video: Five LGBTQ Books to Read by Indian Authors This Pride Month

June is celebrated as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Pride Month to honor the 1969 Stonewall Uprising Movement. We bring to a suggestion list of five books around and about LGBTQ lives to read by Indian authors. For more such videos, please subscribe to the YouTube channel.

To show your support, you can also take part in the #21DaysAllyChallenge being run by Pride Circle.

Music: Bleach
Musician: anatu
URL: https://icons8.com/music/

Amphan-Kolkata-Trees-Uprooted

Super-Cyclone Amphan’s Trail of Destruction: Despatch from Kolkata

Our housing society was a battlefield that day. Our beloved Hercules was up against the fire-breathing Cacus. As per the legend Hercules was supposed to emerge victorious. He had stood the test of time; had been there since our birth, deeply rooted. Every morning his residents would sing beautiful songs to wake us up. He was our saviour, our friend, someone who never asked anything in return for his services. He was our hero in every sense!

Suddenly, the window panes crashed against something hard. Shattered glass was all over the floor. One branch of our beloved ‘Neem gaach’ (Neem tree) had smashed into our living room window. It was an ominous sign. To our horror, the giant tree lay uprooted. Cacus had won this time. Only that it was called – AMPHAN! Imagine an old family member, someone whom you have seen every day of your life since your birth passes away one day, all of a sudden, due to a fatal accident. We felt the same when our beloved Hercules lay felled as good (or bad) as dead!

Amphan unleashed its terror in the City of Joy that ill-fated afternoon. The city was already reeling under the pressure of rising COVID-19 cases, Amphan added to the ordeal. The super cyclone was slated to arrive in the afternoon and it did with precision. Thundering winds with rising speeds multiplied the uneasiness, every passing second. We were constantly checking our phones for live updates on the wind speed. The winds soon crossed the century mark, and another half century in a jiffy. By five in the evening the cyclone was at its harshest, taking away anything and everything that blocked its path. One could only hear (didn’t have the audacity to slide the windows and see) glass panes smashing here and there, trees being wrecked and temporary roofs flying like gigantic kites. Let alone a person like me in his early thirties, it was something unseen even by the older generations. Those few hours felt like a live terror attack with guns and explosives blazing outside and we, the common people hiding in our shelters praying for all of it to end.

There is an age-old tradition in Bengal where people blow conches and recite verses praising Goddess Kali in times of deep trouble. There is a strong belief that the Divine Mother will protect her children. That evening was no different. A series of conches blew and Women from every household produced the sacred ‘Ululudhvani’ as if asking the Goddess for mercy. Call it the power of prayer, the Super cyclone diminished into a thunderstorm by eight in the evening and into a nagging drizzle late into the night. We thought it was the end of the battle. However, it was just the beginning, there was more to come!

At around 10pm the power went off. We switched on our mobile phone lights to find the mobile network gone as well. So, we were there disconnected from the rest of the world plunged into darkness. That night we could sleep quite peacefully; the weather was cool and the wind had turned into a breeze. When the power did not restore in the morning, was when the real trouble started. With no power overnight, the water tank was empty. Rest need not be explained! Carrying heavy buckets of water from a community tube-well to the fourth floor of the building with no lift was a pain. Even more annoying was to stand in the long queues there maintaining social distancing. A few people made a business out of this as well. They filled the 20 litres mineral water jars with the underground water and started selling them at Rs. 100 (yes you read it right!) apiece. The days after a cyclone are generally hot and humid and this one was no different. It was a penance to sit in the hot tandoor that our apartment had become by the afternoon. With no retrieve in sight people were cursing their stars! The troubles compounded in the night. People shifted their base to the terrace for some respite and it did work. The mosquitoes had a feast that night; gallons of human blood at their disposal!  

The story went on for almost a week. There was hardly any cash left. The entire contingency cash usually kept aside by every family for such times was about to finish. There was no network for online payments and the cash machines (ATMs) were all out of order. However there was no problem in managing essentials as the local shop owners and vegetable vendors were co-operative. I realised the futility of online shopping and delivery apps that day. In times of trouble, the local shopkeeper and sabjiwallah comes to your rescue. The system was exposed like never before. It seemed the government did not care for its citizens or perhaps it cared but was just not capable enough to deal with the crisis. The electric supply company stopped responding to calls after giving umpteen false hopes. Every morning someone would say the power would be restored by the evening and in the evening, the next evening! Amidst all this we were unaware of the situation outside our housing society. Firstly, there was no Power so all modes of communication were long gone. Secondly, the lockdown; one could not look beyond the boundaries of one’s own home! Finally, after the combined effort of the people the power was restored on the ninth day. We breathed easy. The mobile network was still elusive, but the thought of running water in taps itself was a reliever!

After another two days the mobile and Television were buzzing again. It was then, that we realized the actual impact of Amphan. The plight of the Sunderbans dwarfed our troubles. The videos and images of people dying of hunger and diseases pricked our hearts. The number of destitute rose day by day. We learnt that The Honourable Prime Minister had visited Bengal and promised a hefty relief package as well. Many social organisations are working with the government to help the affected. Here I want to mention my friend Dr. Deb. He along with his team of volunteers visited coastal villages and areas around Sunderbans. They organised many relief camps distributing food, medicines and other essentials to the people. He is not alone in this venture. Many NGOs and other philanthropists have come forward in this time of calamity. The government is also working on rehabilitating the homeless and providing the relief. The pace is slow, given the pandemic engulfing the entire world right now!

Now after almost three weeks life is limping back to normal. However, Amphan has shown us some harsh realities of life, which we often tend to ignore. The only certainty about life is that it is uncertain. One moment you are building castles of happiness; the next moment a wave grief sweeps away all the sand. In the era of technology and automation, one should not forget the humane touch. We should remember technology is secondary, humanity is supreme!

Cover Image – A tree uprooted during heavy rain infront Tipu Sultan Masjid after the landfall of super cyclone ‘Amphan’, in Kolkata (Photo Credit: PTI)

Christopher Hitchens, Photograph by John Dempsie, c. 1978

Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens, and the Art of Exhausting the Limits of the Possible

The ability to change opinions in the face of new facts is a dying skill. I do not know many people who would readily examine a fact or development and let it affect their stance on the matter at hand or political predilections they have been holding sacrosanct so far. In most cases, the opposite is true! The hardened ideological preferences are used to explain changing circumstances and the boat of life remains anchored on the banks of safe hypocrisy. In fact, this is how ideological fanaticism survives and breeds. When it is fed with the potion of power, it metamorphoses into the monster of totalitarianism. When the other boats that sailed to challenge themselves in thoughts and through actions return, there is no place left for them in the depraved lands.

If you want to visualize this more lucidly, imagine the ideologue or the intellectual you adore and follow as the head of your community, captain of your sports team, or the executive head of your country. Now, from their existing body of work, try to deduce what these people would allow and disallow once they are in such positions. This will define the limits of your liberty under them.

If you want an example, please refer to the recently released 7 point guideline from the “leading economists, intellectuals, and activists.” 7.1 gives ample sense of what such groups are capable of doing if they are given executive powers. Although, after a severe backlash from the netizens, the group had to completely replace the point but not before getting their lack of seriousness about the issue entirely exposed.

 

 

In the foreword to his book, Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens quotes Pindar Pythion III – “Do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.” By the time he wrote down the foreword, Hitchens had already been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. So in retrospect, when you look at his work after the diagnosis, you realize how earnestly he took to that utterance. Till the last days of his life, even though he seemed to have lost much of his muscles, he did not part with his astuteness and sense of humour that run through the chapters of his memoir – Hitch 22. Hitchens stood true to Pindar’s tenet and in many ways exhausted more than the limits of the possible.

Hitch 22 begins with a heartfelt chapter on Yvonne – Hitchens’ mother. This and the chapter on his father – Commander, are two of my favourite chapters in the book. In describing his childhood years, the role of his mother in his life, and the personality sketch of his father, he triumphs as a writer who has taken upon himself the daunting task of writing about his parents. He does not judge either of his parents and gives us a glimpse rife with emotions and delectable prose into his formative years. The fact that he never published any fiction, will remain a lamentable loss for the genre.

Hitchens was a brilliant storyteller and the book contains stories from around the world – the jocular ones as well as the grave tales of human suffering. He takes the reader on a ride through some of the major political developments of his time across the globe. The Vietnam war, Salazar’s regime in Portugal, expedition to Cuba as a young leftist a few months after Guevara’s demise, the Gulf wars, the 9/11 attack, Saddam Hussein’s fall, American war in Afghanistan, and the question of Anti-Semitism – Hitchens speaks about all of them, never hiding his opinions or the side he took.

In many of these narrations, even though he identifies himself as a Trotskyist, he keeps noticing the doublespeak of the Left or the waning of the ideology itself.

As 1968 began to ebb into 1969, however, and as “anticlimax” began to become a real word in my lexicon, another term began to obtrude itself. People began to intone the words “The Personal Is Political.” At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was – cliche is arguably forgivable here – very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic “preference,” to qualify as a revolutionary. In order to begin a speech or to ask a question from the floor, all that would be necessary by way of preface would be the words: “Speaking as a . . .” Then could follow any self-loving description. I will have to say this much for the old “hard” Left: we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work. It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves. There are many ways of dating the moment when the Left lost or – I would prefer to say – discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time that I was to see the sellout conducted so cheaply.”

Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

 

In the chapter ‘Mesopotamia from Both Sides’, Hitchens gives a detailed account of events that turned him into an Iraq war supporter from his previous anti-war stands. This was also the time when most of the Left was positing against the war and naturally attacked Hitchens for his views. The chapter ends with an affecting account of a young man named Mark Jennings Daily who was inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens on the moral cause for the Iraq war and had signed up as a soldier for the war. All these are towards the end of the book, including his fallout with Noam Chomsky whom he found to be on the opposite side about the American response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

So much of our life is lived beyond the commonly used crutches of left-wing and the right-wing that an honestly-lived life will have to fly without any wings many times. Individual honesty offends the group-think and Hitchens’ life is a true testimony before us. His was the boat that was not meant to anchor on fanaticism in the garb of unflinching loyalty to the ideology. Christopher Hitchens greatly admired George Orwell and you will read Orwell finding a place in the book at several instances. It is not surprising then to see Hitchens questioning his own opinions and re-examining them many times over in his one lifetime. Quite naturally, Hitch-22 stands as an intellectually honest work that must feature in the ‘Read’ list of any serious reader of world politics.

You can purchase the book here.

 

Fernando Pessoa-TheSeer

“I Have More Souls Than One” – On Portuguese Poet Fernando Pessoa’s Birthday

The Portuguese modernist poet, Fernando Pessoa, had not published many poetry collections during his lifetime (1888-1934). Though he wrote prolifically and was involved in literary ventures, several of his poems only came to light with the publication of The Book of Disquiet that brought together all his unpublished writings in one place. You might have seen the book crop up frequently in Amazon India recommendations as well. It has become quite popular in India too, similar to the fame that writers like Murakami and Marquez seem to enjoy among Indian readers.

Tiny and pastel green Penguin Moderns brought out a collection of Pessoa’s 29 poems, I Have More Souls Than One. For those daunted by the size of The Book of Disquiet, this mini collection is a good way to introduce yourself to Pessoa’s style of writing.

It is indeed his unique writing style that sheds light on his musings and philosophies of life. Pessoa wrote poetry not only under his own name but also under names of other personalities he created. Each personality appears to have a distinct style and personal history. The paths of different personalities even crisscross each other in Pessoa’s oeuvre. It then feels like an ultimate crossover of the many selves that Pessoa wrote about. This creation of various literary selves is known as heteronyms. Pessoa created almost close to 70 such heteronyms!

Heteronyms are not the same as a nom de plume or pseudonym. The latter is simply a name one adopts but a heteronym is adopting not just a name but a creating a completely separate personality.

I Have More Souls Than One focuses on three such heteronyms: Alberto Caeiro, Alvaro de Campos and Richard Reis. At the end of the collection, Pessoa speaks as himself. Caeiro’s poems are interlinked with nature and his existence and thoughts are inseparable from it. Whether it is describing his life’s impermanence as a bubble or the evenings as perpetually a brooding and melancholic time, Caeiro proclaims himself as ‘the only Nature poet.’

Richard Reis has a more Classical bent of mind, recalling in his poems Greek and Roman Gods to drive a metaphor. Alvaro de Campos, on the other hand, seems to be filled with the need to be everything yet nothing. He is more contradictory in his ideas and thoughts. Scholars have also noted the influence of Walt Whitman on Campos’ poetic style.

Campos’ most famous poem, Tobacconist’s begins with:

I am nothing.
Never shall be anything.
Cannot will to be anything.
This apart, I have in me all the dreams of the world.

These lines manifest the curious contradiction that Pessoa embodied in his work. His poetry asserts this idea that existence is nothingness or that there is nothing other than the self. Yet, this idea is opposite to how Pessoa expressed himself: through myriad personas or heteronyms.

As Adam Kirsch states, for all of Pessoa’s heteronyms “nullity was a muse.” This is not to say that Pessoa reveled in the nihilistic erasure of self. Instead, if one reads his work, they speak of nourishment of the self, of the need to care for it. For example, in Beyond the Bend in the Road, Pessoa exhorts us to think about only where we are, rather than chasing or worrying about what comes next.

The title of this Penguin Modern collection is derived from, ‘Legion Live in Us.‘ The poem contradicts the opening of Tobacconist’s as instead of being nothing, here the persona shows,

I have more souls than one.
There are more I’s than myself.
And still I exist

Indifferent to all.
I silence them: I speak.

In Legion Live in Us, Pessoa, through the persona of Reis, speaks of nothingness and also of multitudes existing side by side, “where thinking or feeling is.”

In the poems presented under Pessoa’s name in the Penguin Modern Collections, the poet speaks at length about an idealized love. This is again opposite to his actual life, where he only had one fleeting relationship. It is also a prevalent European subject among male poets since times immemorial. Pessoa’s other personalities speak of much more diverse viewpoints. Pessoa seeks to escape his usual, conditioned self through them. He plays with the idea that in multiplication can one find and understand oneself.

Perhaps for Pessoa, his self meant nothing other than the norm of multitudes. Self was not one, but many; or perhaps, it was his imagination or dreams as he puts it in Tobacconist’s that constituted his entire self. And through dreams, we can find one’s self. We can continue to ponder over such paradoxical prepositions. In doing so, we must also immerse and elicit our own understanding of our complicated self or selves.

Aarogya Setu App Has Brought Privacy Laws Under Public Surveillance Yet Again

On 25th May 2018, the European Union (EU) took the reins of data protection in the global digital economy with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Internet users worldwide were faced with a brand new umbrella of terms and conditions that global technological giants scrambled together for GDPR compliance. A month earlier, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg had already apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with “…I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time…”

Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica
Facebook Apology for Cambridge Analytica | Source: Jenny Kane, Associated Press (ABC News)
App-Based Contact Tracing
Fig. 1 App-Based Contact Tracing | Source: Nature

Before the world was burdened with the Covid 19 pandemic and the surveillance of contact-tracing apps (Fig. 1), the maze of global data mining ensured a large percentage among digital consumers worldwide was happily unaware of the technological possibilities of location tracking and data protection. Simultaneously, there has been ample evidence globally of the vulnerability of technological information systems. As recently as April 2020, Zoom had photobombed meetings by uninvited intruders, Google is being sued for illegally collecting children’s biometric data, and multiple Android apps are obscuring malware and spyware distribution. With the uncertainty of Covid 19’s one-week incubation period, governments worldwide faced the issue of weighing public safety against individual privacy in trying to contain an unknown infectious spread. As a result, privacy concerns have entered the mainstream, and the possible ubiquity of Covid-19 surveillance has finally dawned on the global digital consumer.

 

According to MIT Technology Review’s Covid Tracing Tracker (Fig. 2), 4 countries among 22 which have launched contact-tracing apps have made installation mandatory for its citizens. Although India’s Aarogya Setu installation is a mandatory requirement only for travellers, Qatar has made it compulsory for all its citizens and Turkey requires installation for only those citizens testing positive for Covid 19. Among these 4 countries, China’s “health code” system on Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s Wechat has been ‘rolled out in more than 100 cities across the country’, and is ubiquitous for its extensive surveillance of citizens. The resultant worldwide privacy concerns have caused many social activists to question data protection and retention policies.

MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker (Flourish)
Fig. 2 Covid Tracing Tracker | Source: MIT Technology Review

 

Aarogya Setu - Bug Bounty

Despite the United Kingdom’s ambiguous response to Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings’ 419 KM excursion to County Durham, the government is quite clear about the necessity of Covid 19 contact-tracing. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has announced that its ‘test and trace system’ will maintain records regarding “personal data about people with coronavirus” for 20 years, with their contacts’ information stored for five years. In India, Mr. Robot-aliased French Ethical Hacker, Elliot Alderson’s exposé of security concerns about Aarogya Setu prompted the Indian government to announce its Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol . Recently, Aarogya Setu’s source code has been released on GitHub, and a bug bounty was announced.

Of course, the vulnerability of global data information systems was confirmed recently by CyberNews’ security analysts when they discovered “800 gigabytes of 200 million detailed user records on a publicly accessible server” including data files ostensibly attributed to the United States Census Bureau. According to the CyberNews Team, “Certain codes used in the database were either specific to the Bureau or used in the Bureau’s classifications.” Unprotected databases are not the only global privacy concern. Data mining is often hidden among unnecessary app permissions or the terms and conditions of registration that generally users do not pay attention to. For example, on 27th May 2020, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the United States filed a lawsuit against Google for its “willfully deceptive and unfair acts and practices” regarding collection of users’ location information despite “Location History disabled” and “Web and App Activity.”

As governments join the global data surveillance for Covid-19 tracking, privacy concerns are no longer the limited purview of the individual consumer. The MIT Technology Review team which is “watching the Watchmen” considers Singapore’s Trace Together at the forefront of contact tracing apps with its decentralized approach, open-source license, and ‘opt-in’ feature. For the Senior Editor of the MIT Technology Review, Patrick Howell O’Neill, “The way forward is to ensure transparency in contact tracing apps in terms of data collection and retention. With the Chinese health codes determining movement in public spaces as well as private establishments such as offices and restaurants, contact tracing apps and Covid-19 surveillance is likely to remain a glaring reality in our daily lives for a few years to come.

Cover Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Read Kyung Sook Shin’s ‘Please Look After Mom’ Before You Celebrate the Next Mother’s Day

We celebrated another Mother’s Day earlier this month. Mothers are celebrated grandly across the world on this day.  Motherhood is idealized as something pure and blissful.  It might be that, but hardly does one get to see a different side of this ideal. This is the case in almost all societies. 

Patriarchy’s continuing firm grip on our lives is manifested when we only acknowledge her existence to celebrate; never acknowledge her existence to help or understand the role of a mother thrust upon many women. There lies the danger in hollow celebrations: it does not bring about any change in the rut or routine and daily hardships of countless mothers.  

To help you understand this analogy, think about the recent hailing of doctors and nurses as heroes in the COVID 19 pandemic.  No doubt, it is important to boost their morale and confidence and to show moral support. However, if this celebration of our heroes does not extend to anything concrete such as better protective gear for them or increase in their remunerations, it becomes empty and superficial. 

Similar is the praise heaped on mothers. If one praises her but does nothing to help out, she continues to be a sacrificial goat for the entire family. Unfortunately, then, the celebration comes to naught. The 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize winner, Please Look After Mon, by Kyung-Sook Shin looks at this dichotomy in the importance and negligence of our mothers. 

The novel begins with the most straightforward sentence: 

“It’s been one week since Mom went missing.”

It is a factual statement that hits you hard. Slowly the story unravels the emotional ramifications of this one incident through the different perspectives of a daughter, son and husband. 

Sixty-nine-year old Park So-nyo goes missing in the crowds of the Seoul Subway Station. Only when she goes missing, do the various family members of the house begin to search both their recent and deepest memories of her to feel her presence once again. 

So-nyo’s youngest daughter, Chihon, reconstructs her memories of her mother, piecing her life for the reader. Chihon revisits the memories of that fateful day as well when So-nyo went missing- assailed by the usual idea that ‘what if I had not done this, this would not have happened.’

Through Chihon’s perspective we see her Mom’s various interconnections with her and her family and how she spent her whole life making amends and being resourceful to earn enough money for the family’s well being. Chihon’s conversations with her sister also reveal how her sister has now become a mother but still cannot resign to a life where she is always giving up herself for others like her own mother, So-nyo had done. 

From relearning her mother’s actual year of birth, to realizing how her mom could not read or how she needed to take a secluded walk just to take a break from the drudgery, Chihon comprehends the various facets of her mother’s being rather than only viewing her as a role. 

Similarly, So-nyo’s husband’s relationship with his wife also throws up facets of her life and her thoughts that he never bothered trying to understand or gauge. The use of the second person point of view makes the husband’s position even more damning, as if listing out things that the husband failed to do – paying attention to her increasing headaches or her recent tendency to forget things. Despite So-nyo’s age and failing health, it was she who was there for him and not the other way around. Now that she has gone missing, her husband feels the ache of the empty house. 

So-nyo’s eldest son, Hyong chul also reminisces about his mother and contemplates how he could have become an even better son for his mother. Closer to the end, we hear So-nyo’s voice and her true emotions and thoughts about herself and her children. Finding their missing mother is the task that brings back all these emotions and memories among the family members. In their search they keep hearing about her being sighted. But these are only whiffs of her presence, never her in complete actuality, as if she has now become a ghost. 

But in a way, she was always a ghost. She took the weight of the entire family, of her world, on her shoulders, like Atlas had, without the family even seeing that burden. Reading Please Look After Mom is deeply emotional and it will make anyone introspect their own relationship dynamics with their mothers. 

The invisibility of So-nyo is glaring and through the novel, is ironically there for all to see. Though the narrative is set in contemporary South Korea, it is relevant even in India. Here too, we similarly place our entire worlds on one person, without acknowledging that burden. Women themselves are conditioned to sacrifice for their children, for their family as they are told that only motherhood can give them complete happiness. This is seen even in So-nyo’s plain acceptance of her responsibilities without ever questioning them. 

Yet for all mothers, like for So-nyo as well, this idea of complete happiness can itself be a strain, where to break out of it seems impossible with little or no options. The mental agony and disconnect between the reality and the ideal that it creates goes largely unseen in India till today. 

We need to as societies, not just clap our hands for our mothers or make her a breakfast for Mother’s Day but really help out and understand the various intersectional forces at play that restrict her to a role of never ending responsible emotional and physical labour that is infinitely tiresome. 

Heidi in the Alps

Wanderlust: Lockdown Hiking in the Alps With Heidi

The lockdown has apparently crippled many people’s social lives. I am not one for going out every week, so I am not someone who sorely misses dining out or partying. But once in a while, yes, I do miss doing the simple things: reading a newspaper or taking a walk in the park or simply having my favourite street food one fine evening.

Instead for me, this searing summer heat is far more crippling. I cannot escape it, except in the mind. Therefore, often in the past few days, I have vaguely dreamt of being back in the mountains.  No, I am not one who feels an inner calling to the mountains or anything of the sort that seems to be afflicting a lot of people. But yes, whenever someone asks me where I prefer to travel: beaches or mountains? I promptly answer: mountains.

So, off late, I have been thinking about why this promptness and why I have this deep love for the mountains. It is not like I am the best of hikers that I can go climbing up any mountain. After a bit of introspection I found my answer: it was because of a lovely book I read when I was 10 years old: Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

It was also the first complete novel I ever read! Before that I used to read short stories, Champak, Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, and the abridged versions of full length novels. One fine day, however, I think I realized that I need to ‘grow up,’ (how innocent that thought was then!) by reading a complete novel and not these shortened versions!

I was thrilled to have come across a copy of Heidi at a book fair. I still have that copy with me. I found it when reorganizing my book cupboard last year.

What has also stayed with me till today is Heidi’s rollicking fun in the mountains and the insurmountable problems she faces. I feel a close connection to her to the extent that whenever I reread the book, I feel I am reading about a friend. While for many children, Alice from Alice in Wonderland was the gateway to more reading, for me it was Heidi’s adventures that created an insatiable appetite for reading.

The novel starts with Heidi, an orphan, being sent by her aunt, Dete to live with her paternal grandfather in the Swiss mountains. Her aunt had got a new job in Frankfurt and was unable to take Heidi with her. Heidi’s grandfather lived away from the nearest village in a small house among the tall mountains. He was known for being tough and gruff. Most villagers were afraid of him and did not understand how he would live with a 5-year-old child.

Slowly, Heidi’s cheerfulness and innocence melted his heart. She soon also became friends with Peter, the goatherd, who lived nearby with his blind grandmother. Heidi began to cherish her new surroundings, rejoicing in her bed of hay in the hay loft that gave her a beautiful view of the valley; the fresh goat’s milk her grandfather gave her every morning or her leisurely trips to the pastures with Peter.

The simple meals she had of bread, cheese, and milk are so vividly etched in my mind that my mouth still waters when thinking or reading about it.

The descriptions of Heidi’s simple yet full life created an idyllic image of the Swiss Alps in my mind. It was not a Bollywood movie of the 90s that made me long to go to Switzerland, but rather this five-year-old child’s daily life with her grandfather.

Another personal connection to the novel was also developed because I could see my own maternal grandfather in Heidi’s. While mine did not live in the mountains, he was stern and strict yet loving and caring in his own little ways.

I also tried to inculcate the same wonder that Heidi had for nature. I did not grow up in the mountains but I always used to, and still do, marvel at small delights found in nature whether it is the red blooms of the gulmohar, the smell of the mango blossoms, eating jamun from the tree or birds chirping in the morning or taking a dip in the water dish. I love taking pleasure from the minutest of nature’s wonders.

The writer, Johanna Spyri, captured the spirit and soul of a child in Heidi. We may think that children have nothing to worry about or nothing that they truly understand but Heidi was able to discern the human in her grandfather much better than all the villagers who shied away from him. Her sheer delight and appreciation for all the birds and plants around her make her a far better observer than any adult.

Heidi’s deep love for the mountains and the attachment to her grandfather was what she sorely missed when she was taken to Frankfurt to be a companion for the invalid child, Clara. Heidi’s change in behavior because of being away from the mountains is described in great detail such that it lends to a good psychological understanding of the effects of a cruel separation on a child.

Thus, as we find ourselves slowly unraveling from the lockdown, knowing still that travelling and hiking the mountains will remain a distant dream for some time, I think we could all pick up Heidi and take a visual and literary trip to the fresh, invigorating environs of the Swiss Alps and also learn a thing or two about appreciating nature’s beauty.

Do not dismiss it as a children’s novel, but view it as one where you can take two trips: one to the mountains and one back to your own childhood when things were much simpler and easier.

The book is easily available in different formats on Project Gutenberg!

Happy reading! Happy Wanderlusting through books!