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.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

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.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

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.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

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

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

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.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

“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.

The Unreliable Narrator: Exploring Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World

How many voices can an author create? How evolved can craft be that there comes the point when the creator ceases to exist, and all that is left is the immersed reader, intruding in another world? The answer is Kazuo Ishiguro, the man who, for me, has taken first-person narration and a compromised narrative to the point of no return. Choose a character, and he will get into its skin like an invisible cellular organism with no home of its own. He will do so in so fantastic a way that it leaves you questioning the truth, like speaking to someone you aren’t too sure about. After he or she departs, you think, “What are they hiding? Am I in the dark?” 

An Artist of the Floating World is a masterpiece that glides in out and of many dimensions. On the one hand, it is a story of generations separated by a massive ideological gulf. On the other, it is about an older man attempting to come to terms with his mistaken philosophies. It is also a historical fiction set in the Japan of limbos; Japan, which has suffered because of its misplaced imperialism, been shattered by bombings and is now critical of the past and every person representing it. At the heart of it is an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. Once an acclaimed painter, Ono is our guide through post-World War II Japan and its sociopolitical and emotional trauma; felt in extremities like the once-vibrant pleasure districts destroyed by bombings and kids who loved Popeye and Godzilla.

The book is a contemplative journey, spread across four time frames: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949 and June 1950. We are introduced to a retired artist of great acclaim, Masuji Ono. Ono lives with his youngest daughter Noriko, and his attempts to secure a good match for her is a central theme. In the past, Noriko’s engagement had been called off. While Ono likes to believe that his family was more powerful than the boy’s, Noriko’s often belligerent behaviour suggests the unsuccessful engagement has more to do with Ono’s past. His older daughter Setsuko asks Ono to meet his acquaintances and rectify his errors should Noriko’s prospects inquire about the family’s history. This simple task is the starting point of his recollections, opening twisted alleys of memory.

We seek to understand concepts like Ono’s rise as an artist, his relationship with his students and peers, the moral chasm that exists between him, his sons-in-law and his grandson, and the politicisation of art. I have reasons to say that we seek to understand Ono’s life – the untrustworthy memory and what he is telling us. Ono’s narration is not dependable, and there is not a second perspective to corroborate what he is saying. This is displayed continually; Ono never completes an anecdote in one go, one recollection invariably gives rise to another or how he thinks he knows someone only for us to find that the person has no memory of him. What Ono thinks of himself does not resonate with people in that world. For his disillusioned son-in-law, Ono is one of the many traitors who led the country awry with grand plans of Japanese Imperialism that caused only pain and loss. Ono himself lost his son to the Manchurian War and his wife to a freak raid. The reader might assume these topics to be of particular importance to him. Still, Ono avoids speaking about any issue that exposes his emotional vulnerability and delves too much into his past affairs. Mentions of these deaths come and go, as little remarks stuffed into the larger scheme.  

Why our narrator is unreliable is a debatable topic. At first go, it can be age. After all, Ono is well-retired with two daughters and grandchildren. However, the irregularity in information can be attributed much more to more unpleasant circumstances than memory failing. As the novel progresses, Ono is revealed to have been a man of controversial associations. During World War II, Japan was an Allied Power alongside Germany and Italy. A considerable section of the population was pro-War, viewing any opposition to the war effort with great scepticism. Ono, a pro-government imperialist, broke away from his master and drawings of the floating world (a phrase used to describe Japan’s pleasure districts) to begin painting subjects that depicted military might. At the beginning of the war, he becomes a part of a state committee clamping down on unpatriotic art. Ono reports Karudo, once his protégé. As a result, Karudo’s paintings are burnt, and the police harass him. Ono tells us that he tried to step in and convince the authority to go easy on Karudo. However, whether it is the truth or just another way to hide his betrayal and cruelty, we don’t know.

The ideological tussle between Ono and his family members is an essential thread in the novel. To some extent, Ono realises that he was vastly mistaken during the war and the younger generation, like daughters and his son-in-law’s look at him with a degree of suspicion and contempt. The latter want men like Ono to take accountability for steering Japan on the wrong path. They now live in a post-war society where America is the centre of culture and politics. This is not a phenomenon that has gone down well with Ono, who would rather have his grandson enjoy samurais than behave like a cowboy. Although he claims to be unaware of his importance in society, we understand that Ono likes to think of himself as someone who has been quite influential, a part of the crème of the art world. Towards the end, when Setsuko (his older daughter) consoles him that his pro-militancy paintings weren’t influential enough to have caused massive harm, it is a very hurtful thought for him.

Like Ishiguro’s celebrated The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful lesson in restraint. The former is the story of an English butler whose commitment to service caused such emotional limitation that he could not pursue the woman he loved. In the latter, we have an ageing man whose convictions are failing him as he grapples with guilt and ethical tussles. War is an important occurrence in both, and more than war, the sides one chooses. In The Remains of the Day, the protagonist reflects on how the reputed British manorial lord he served sided with Nazi Germany because he did not know better. In such scenarios, as both age and regret become strong, exuberant or verbose writing would not be relatable. Ishiguro’s writing is fluid, hard-hitting, but not raw. His style is refined, elegant prose at its best, entirely moulded according to the narrator’s realities.  

An Artist of the Floating World was a delightful, very enlightening experience about a unique world that conventional reading may not expose one to. Despite being a history student, I was surprised at the nuance of ideology and radicalisation in post-War Japan that the author highlighted so brilliantly. The writing flows; through former pleasure districts, reception rooms in Japanese homes, the villas of master painters and pubs where artists gathered with pupils. Each of these spaces stands for a different ideology and a different time in Ono’s life. Ishiguro’s most outstanding merit is shaping his style in a way that changes with age. A young Ono is much more aggressive, while Ono as a grandfather is loving and almost endearing. The tonality changes beautifully, and this requires immense, almost God-gifted skill.

Ishiguro gifts his readers a story that is almost the truth but has enough cracks for falsities to creep in.

7 Delightful Reads to Help You Overcome a Reader’s Block!

Sometimes, it is not easy to be a reader. We are expected to read all the time, and somewhere down the line, it creates a certain pressure to finish a certain number of books every year. While a utopia for a reader will be a corner overlooking the mountains and Ruskin Bond’s romanticism in the air, real-life is more complex and a lot more demanding. The space that childhood, school, and college allowed an individual to pursue reading contracts as one enters the hurried world.

There are days when you cannot read beyond two pages. There are days when you think you will read on your way to work, but you doze off in the cab. Then comes the worst predicament; prolonged periods of poor concentration. You’re stuck on one page. Finding another book might make things better, but unfortunately, it is the same struggle. Even if you do get to Page 20, you cannot recollect much. People do not talk about it enough, but a Reader’s Block is as real as a Writers Block. It is a phenomenon where you cannot finish a book or retain much of what you have read, no matter how much you try.

Why it happens is an elusive question. Reader’s Block is a frequent struggle for children and adults with ADD. It is also a side-effect faced by students of literature who have done so much reading for coursework that the idea of reading for pleasure becomes challenging. It may arise because you have not been experimenting with content. Alternatively, it can be the outcome of personal distress occupying your mind and leaving you with little time to think about anything else. This is real. This is fine.

What is the best way to get back into the groove of enjoying stories? At the core of the process is taking it easy and finding something exciting and new you can appreciate without feeling burdened. So, here’s a little list of lovely books that may help you to return to reading, gradually nourish the reader in you before you jump back into full force and finish Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

While several websites will list this as a children’s book, I vehemently oppose simplifying this masterpiece. While the exterior packaging is like a fairy tale, the book is beautifully written to address censorship and storytellers’ plight (especially relevant after the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s issued by Ayatollah Khomeini). Even if one does not delve much into symbolism, there is no way you won’t enjoy the delightful wordplay and puns that are liberally sprinkled on the story. Almost every name is related to silence or speech. So, you’ll find a Princess Batcheet, and the antagonist’s army is called Chupwalas. The story flows like fine wine, and you will be hooked before you know it, flying across the Sea of Stories.

Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry

I’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and it is spectacular. However, to say that Tales from Firozsha Baag is any less enjoyable is incorrect. Of course, the former is a more diverse picture of India, spanning a considerable period and involving characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum. On the other hand, Tales of Firozsha Baag is a collection of eleven short stories about the residents of a Parsi-dominated complex in Bombay. The stories are endearing and beautifully written. Their exceptional quality is Mistry’s manner of conveying the setting’s spatial characteristics. It is so detailed that you feel you are an intruder. Residents grapple with grief, sexuality, superiority and the happiness of living life on their terms. You will be pulled into the endearing whirlwind before you know it.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is a recent obsession, and I recommend this brilliant author for his elegant writing. In 1989, The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and was later adopted as a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Ishiguro’s writing style is peaceful. Nonetheless, it is incredible how he conveys emotional and political disruption through peace. The book is about an English butler who takes a road trip across the countryside and ponders over his life. I haven’t come across an author who can mould the narrative to the extent that you forget the author and begin to think of the book as a diary. It is a heartwrenching story, but one that flows very easily.

Chowringhee by Shankar

Shankar’s Chowringhee is a tale of love and loss as it unfolds in Shahjahan, a fictional hotel in the 1950s attracting Calcutta’s crème. An excellent translation has been done by Arunava Sinha, who perfectly captures the essence. Chowringhee is often overshadowed by Shankar’s two other books, which were made into films by Satyajit Ray. However, I recommend Chownrighee because of its simplicity and the author’s ability to fuse many stories into one exciting book. This is a skill somewhat absent in today’s storytellers who have come to enjoy multiple loose ends. Although Chowringhee was published in 1962, it is a delightful story whose emotions and themes transcend time. In 2019, Srijit Mukherjee adapted the book into a film, and that is best avoided. Read the book. It is unpretentious and unique.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is a reliable favourite. Not only is it one of her most thrilling works, but it is the setting of the novel that truly sets it apart. Hercule Poirot is aboard the luxury Orient Express which gets stuck in a snowbank. A murder happens, and the killer is amongst the passengers as the thick snow made it impossible for anyone to escape. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the narrative as the train is stuck in an icy landscape with a killer on the loose. The fact that there is nowhere to go and nothing can be done makes Murder on the Orient Express a compelling read. It is also an interesting commentary about morality; when is murder justified? The book will keep you on your edge even after you know what has transpired.

Travelogues by Ruskin Bond

I have been told that I am biased towards Ruskin Bond, but I have hardly seen a reader who does not adore Rusty. Alongside his short stories and novellas, I would heartily recommend his travel writing like A Book of Simple Living: Brief Notes from the Hills, Hop On, All Roads Lead to Ganga, Roads to Mussoorie and Rain in the Mountains: Notes from the Himalayas. I cannot pinpoint why his writing is so unique. Maybe it is the old-charm of his humour, the inherent sense of adventure and the endearing mischief in his stories. 

Make time for these jewels, and you’ll find the mountain air of Dehra wafting into your room as the Himalayan rain pitter-patters on your city windowsill.If there is something about reading that is important to remember is that reading cannot be forced. Some of us enjoy books while others have entirely different pursuits. Even as children, some of us take to reading while others are not too keen on books. But if literature is your escape, then it is only sensible that you give yourself the time and space to appreciate it. Reading for pleasure must be a meaningful pursuit that makes you content. It is about the joy of stepping into another world and finding its secrets. It is not about how many books you finish in a month as much as it is about enjoying what you read. Take your time and savour the story. After all, reading is about happiness.

Uncomfortable Truths of a Cloud-Capped Star in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara

Of late, a particular word is being used so often that perhaps out of discomfort, most people like to ignore its existence entirely. The term is privilege. Perhaps because of the intense negative connotations attached to it, we, as the more advantaged members of the society, would not like to agree that we possess any of it in the first place. Recently, Tillotama Shome, after the success of her phenomenal film Sir, Is Love Enough? where she portrayed a domestic help, spoke about this exact phenomenon. She says that she has made a career out of playing characters who are the poorest of the poor, while in real life, she comes from a position of privilege and entitlement. She belonged to a middle-class family and has pursued an education in excellent institutions across the globe. She admits to the journey being difficult. However, one must not confuse that with being disadvantaged. The fact that I am sitting and typing this article on my state-of-the-art laptop is nothing but a privilege. Is the process difficult? Yes, most things are. However, to deny that we relish ownership is criminal.

A film that will make you realise the same to the point of it being downright uncomfortable and acutely sensitive is Ritwik Ghatak’s 1960 masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star). I remember watching it for the first time in my Film Studies class, and in the end, when the lights came on, our professor, who was an ex-army man, had burst into tears and asked for a 10-minute break to compose himself. The film is world-famous on more than one account. It is noted for its radical political statement and feminine narrative. Still, cinematically it is a work of art because of the sound design, mise-en-scene, and framing of shots that mirror the character’s psyche and the tumult of post-Partition identities. Throughout his films, Ghatak’s primary complaint remained the brutal division of Bengal that caused disenfranchisement of unimaginable magnitude.

Based on a story written by Shaktipada Rajguru, Meghe Dhaka Tara is a part of Ritwik Ghatak’s Partition Trilogy. The remaining two films are Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha. Like Mani Ratnam’s Terror Trilogy (Dil Se, Roja and Bombay), the three films are connected by a singular thread of post-Partition trauma and the frantic scramble for individualities and income by families caught in a limbo; neither here, nor there, or anywhere. Meghe Dhaka Tara particularly stands out of the larger corpus of Partition-centric cinema because of the privilege it accrues to the experience of female refugees and working-class members. It exposes the dark underbelly of “empowerment”; women forced to abandon personal development for the betterment of their families. Such is the devouring of her existence: they become unidimensional grains of sand, thrown about by winds of oppression and utter lack of support from community members.

Meghe Dhaka Tara follows Nita (Supriya Chaudhury), an extraordinarily hardworking and profoundly caring woman who struggles to alleviate her family from crippling poverty. She is the sole breadwinner in a family of six, where each member is dependent on her. Her father is a helpless schoolteacher. Her mother, embittered by scarcity, always scolds her for not earning enough. For her, Nita is wage-earner first and woman second. So terrified is she of losing control over Nita’s income that she even connives to have Nita’s love interest marry her youngest, more beautiful daughter. Nita has three siblings, each selfish in their cruel way. Her youngest sister Gita is only interested in pursuing a good life, and Nita’s meagre earnings are her way out. Montu, their brother, is a bright man who refuses to contribute financially. When he meets with a terrible accident, Nita borrows money and fends for his expenses. Finally comes Shankar, the oldest son. He is a talented singer but lacks direction and accountability. He is the centre of all taunts, for he represents the weakened male authority. However, as opposed to Gita and Montu, he is deeply attached to Nita and loves her dearly. Nita’s life is the function of her family members’ demands, as she hurries from one financial setback to another, from one emotional blow to the next, until what remains is a beaten body and a wounded soul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara is often described as the best in Partition cinema, next to MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa. Like the latter, Meghe Dhaka Tara uses the Partition to highlight several social biases that hold till this very moment. Garam Hawa was about the exclusion of religious minorities. Meghe Dhaka Tara leverages a fractured family’s symbolism to highlight patriarchal subjugation, prejudices against working-class women, and the burdens they face as the sole emotional and financial force accountable for rebuilding the family from scratch. Simultaneously, Ghatak routinely draws imagery from religion by harshly commenting on the deification of women. A phenomenon painfully still existent, worship goes a long way in elevating women but rarely uplifts them. Recently, the Netflix special Bulbul resonated a similar sentiment, depicting the story of a young bride flitting amongst being a Devi, Chudail, Gudiya and Choti Bahu but never becoming Bulbul.

Meghe Dhaka Tara skillfully represents women as different forms of the Goddess Incarnate. Nita, the sole provider of the family, is likened to Goddess Jagadhatri or the eternal giver. On the other end is the fierce Chandi, who feeds on the living to sustain herself. For Ghatak, that is Nita’s mother. Nita’s mother is a tremendous parasitic force. She doesn’t bat an eyelid before encouraging Gita to pursue Nita’s love interest Sannat. Her argument is simple. She’d willingly force her daughter into a life of labour and sterility than let go of the only member who earns and, above all, is willing to sacrifice her financial, sexual and intellectual freedom to sustain the family’s consumerist tendencies. In fact, reputed film scholar Ira Bhaskar has observed how Ghatak sets up the home’s courtyard like a venue of a ritualistic yagna. In that courtyard, demands are made to Nita, who, as the Divine Provider, must fulfil.

While Partition’s trauma, the axis on which the film rotates, is an experience lost with those who faced it and their immediate generations, in the 21st-century, Megha Dhaka Tara exists as a strong narrative on the cyclical nature of domination. It is also a reminder that as women, we are equally capable of debilitating another woman. That patriarchy is a struggle for power that can be executed by a woman as much as by a man. In a distressing scene of the film, Nita confesses it is her fault that she allowed her family to exploit her continually. For years, her silence fanned the flames of the symbolic yagna. But as a person, ask yourself how often you have faced injustice and conjured the strength to protest? Easier said than done.

Coming back to where we started, from privilege. A few months ago, while casually discussing the Meghe Dhaka Tara with a friend, I was shaken to find that as a 23-year-old woman in 2021, my friend strongly related to Nita’s life and character. It made me acutely aware that capitalising on a woman’s financial and emotional labour is a reality not just restricted to society’s lowest socioeconomic rung. It happens everywhere. In your home. In your friend’s house. In your domestic help’s house. In your professor’s house. Of course, the magnitude will vary, from a simple act of not being consulted in financial decisions to greater and more dangerous formats of abuse. Meghe Dhaka Tara tells us that subjugation starts small. In simple denials. In little and invisible acts of prejudice. In small favours. It is supported by men and women because who doesn’t enjoy power? Look around. We are in a crowd of Nitas.

Women Who Won the Sahitya Akademi – TheSeer’s March Reading List

8th March was International Women’s Day. Among several other important events that occured in March, there is one date that we don’t usually remember or talk about. On 12th March, 1954, Sahitya Akademi was inaugurated by the Government of India. The Government of India Resolution, which set forth the constitution of the Akademi, described it as a national organisation to work actively for the development of Indian letters and to set high literary standards, to foster and co-ordinate literary activities in all the Indian languages and to promote through them all the cultural unity of the country. Though set up by the Government, the Akademi functions as an autonomous organisation. It was registered as a society on 7 January 1956, under the Societies Registration Act, 1860.

For March, we were torn between reading books by women authors and books that have won the Sahitya Akademi award. And then we decided, why not get and give you the best of both worlds! TheSeer presents a list of books authored by women which have also won the Sahitya Akademi awards. You can’t get wrong with such filters.

Book of Rachel – Esther David

This book won the award in the year 2010. The story revolves around a lone Jewish woman who fights against the land sharks to keep her community thriving. The writing is graceful and the story is captivating. The book will also enrich your understanding of the Jewish life in India. Buy the book here.

Inside the Haveli – Rama Mehta

What happens when an educated, independent girl gets married into a conservative family where she has to hide herself behind purdah and follow the traditions that limit her identity. This book is a tale of a girl’s struggle towards claiming her own space and preserve her independent identity through all the challenges the conservative Haveli throws at her. The book won the award in the year 1979. You can get a copy for yourself here.

Kadachit Ajoonahi – Anuradha Patil

Anuradha Patil won the Sahitya Akademi for this collection of poetry in Marathi. Her poems take us into the lives of women, their pain, desires, love, happiness, and their quest for knowing themselves. The boook has a collection of 51 poems. You can order a copy here.

Hrudaya Netri – Malathi Chandur

This novel in Telugu presents a fictional account of the Indian freedom struggle in Andhra Pradesh. Through the story of the protagonist Gopalan, the novel brings forth the case of social justice through the years of the freedom struggle. The book received the award in the year 1992 and can be purchased here. An English translation by Parvathy B is also available.

Deou Langkhui – Rita Choudhury

Rita Choudhary won the Sahitya Akademi for her Assamese novel on the Tiwa community in the year 2008. Apart from informing its readers about the ways and culture of the community, the novel also boasts of other elements like romance, conflict, betrayal, loyalty that make it an interesting book to read. You can purchase your copy here.

We hope you will find these reads interesting as well as informative. If you have read any of these books, please let us know about it in the comments section.