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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lewis-Carroll-Feature

To, But Not Restricted to, Children. Love, Lewis Carroll

There are a handful of books that every child is made to read during their growing-up years. For parents, syllabus committees and English teachers, they are akin to an instruction manual which they hope will instill a love for reading in children and strengthen their grasp over the English language. Popular inclusions in the list include Secret Seven, Famous Five, Chronicles of Narnia, Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s gem, Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the same children grow up to enjoy fiction, one hardly ever returns to these books because they are relegated as writing for kids. So, when I found that January 27th marked the 189th birth anniversary of Lewis Carroll, I tried hard to remember what his writing was about.

Apart from glimpses of Cheshire Cat’s smile and few stray anecdotes from Alice in Wonderland, everything else was a blur. So, while going through Carroll’s Wikipedia page, I was completely caught off-guard by the sheer expanse of his genius that even the most avid reader has ignored because once again “he’s not for grownups”.  Not only was he a master of wordplay, puns, and imagery, but he was also a proof that science and arts can merge beautifully without emitting a pungent smell of discord. His writing floats lightheartedly on the confluence of mathematics and language.  

Born as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll led a fascinating life in which he donned many hats; each contributed to his fine sense of nonsense, rhyme, and lush imagery. Carroll exhibited an immense liking and strong talent for mathematics, cyphers, chess and puzzles, culminating in his lifelong studentship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. His deeply analytical tendencies percolated into his creatives, rhyme scheme, labyrinthine landscapes and highly stylised verses with hidden clues. In short, Lewis Carroll being tied down by the burden of being “a children’s author” is probably one of the worst sins a literary academic could commit.

In fact, when Martin Gardner approached publishing houses for commissioning a version of Alice in Wonderland that contained scholarly notes, they were quick to dismiss his idea. No one does all this for a children’s book. Gardner went on to author The Universe in a Handkerchief, a comprehensive volume delving deep into the works of Lewis Carroll; from his popular fiction down to his puzzles and letters. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly just so that we can acquaint ourselves to the genius we have missed out upon. 

As standard with most fabulous creators, Carroll was mostly associated with one of his many dazzling creations. Of course, its Alice in Wonderland. But many remain blissfully unaware of his pioneering contribution to the criminally underrated world of nonsense verse. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were the earliest proponents of this form of writing. In India, Sukumar Ray’s (father of Satyajit Ray) Abol Tabol is the nonsense poetry handbook for Bengali children. Every child is acquainted with Bombagorer Raja (The King of Bombagor) who did absurd things like frame dried mangoes while his crazy Aunt chased pumpkins with a bat. 

Carroll’s Jabberwocky is one of the most refined examples of nonsense verse appearing in Through the Looking Glass. It is a ballad, a good versus evil story but primarily remembered for its funky language and unique visual and sonic quality. In the poem, a father warns his son of three vicious monsters: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch. It is a concise poem, about 28 lines, and you can see why it is handy to instill dread in children. When we are kids, we are told of many unnamed monsters who are out there. They wait for kids to misbehave or not finish their food, and then they’ll appear. For most of our lives, these monsters remain faceless, just like Jabberwocky and its evil partners. The feeling of fear comes because we don’t know why we have to be scared of the Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch or what they do that makes them vicious. Typical to Carroll’s storytelling, he uses unknown words like galumphing, vorpal, mome raths and borograves

Another favourite, particularly in schools, is Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem is a mix of narrative and nonsense; about a walrus and carpenter who lures oysters into a conversation and then eats them all. It’s a funny, absurd poem full of outlandish settings where the sun and moon are in the sky simultaneously, and oysters wore shoes although they had no feet. The Walrus and the Carpenter hugely inspired culture and wild interpretations. A faction believes that they represent Buddha and Jesus Christ. Others thought that they stood for the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Of course, Martin Gardner rubbishes both sections. The poem did appear in iconic pop culture references. Beatles’ I am the Walrus refers to the poem. Much later, Lennon regretted doing so because he hadn’t realised that the walrus was the antagonist. Lines have been quoted in Dr Who, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Agatha Christie’s The Clocks.

It would not be a complete discussion if we didn’t touch upon Alice in Wonderland, the book that catapulted Carroll into fame that lasted across centuries. This book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are swarming with banter, math, puzzles, and paradoxes. The narrative is full of riddles. Everyone must vaguely recollect the Mad Hatter’s famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”.

Interestingly, Carroll admitted that he too had no answer to the riddle when he wrote it. The puzzle perplexed many, including Aldous Huxley. In the later versions, the answer was included. According to Carroll, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in the front.” Notice how he misspells nevar as a rearrangement of the word raven. His narratives frequently included acrostic poems, a writing style in which every stanza provides clues to a particular word. 

The fact that we know so little about Lewis Carroll stands testament to the systematic marginalisation of children’s fiction as just for children. Several other books suffer the same fate of not being taken seriously because their central readership continues to be kids. Whether its Wind in the Willows or Gulliver’s Travels, we do tend never to revisit the books we’ve read and loved even if fiction, reality, and language were just half-baked concepts in our innocent minds. Somedays, it is imperative that we stop to thank the authors who we’ve perhaps given fame but not enough credit for shaping our imagination. 

Lewis Carroll, thank you for normalising the weird. Thank you for providing children in every house of the world a rabbit hole to jump into and explore in their dreams.

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The February Reading List: Short Stories for a Shorter Month

With the hope that you were able to pick a few books from our January reading list, we bring you a set of recommendations for the month of February. As this month is always a day or two short when it comes to a calendar year, we have dedicated the month to short stories. We are sure you will enjoy all these books and get to know more about Indian people, our habits, and our culture through these stories.

Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories – Janice Pariat

This book brings the northeastern part of India closer to us through stories that touch historical contexts as well as the folklores of the region. Janice Pariat weaves tales that paint pictures from different time periods in this book published by RHI. You can purchase a copy here.

In a Forest, a Deer: Stories by Ambai (English & Tamil)

Originally written in Tamil by Ambai and translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom, the book tells many tales with female protagonists and touches several social subjects of Indian life. Published by Oxford University Press, you will read great prose written in the inimitable style that has come to characterise Ambai’s writing. Get a copy here.

Teresa’s Man and other stories from Goa: Damodar Mauzo (English translation from Konkani)

Damodar Mauzo is one of the most effulgent signatures of contemporary Konkani literature. His collection of Konkani stories boasts of stories that manifest the not so known facets of Goa. The stories are relatable and yet very essentially local. The book has been translated by Xavier Cota and published by Rupa Publications. Buy the book here.

Meri Priya Kahaniyaan – Amrita Pritam

This book is in Hindi and has a collection of legendary writer Amrita Pritam’s favourite stories from her own writings. These stories sketch the love, desire, emotions, and pain in a woman’s life. Published by Rajpal & Sons, pick this book up to read some heartening stories by the author. Get a copy here.

Usha Kiran Khan Ki Lokpriya KahaniyanUsha Kiran Khan

Padma Shri Usha Kiran Khan is a prolific writer in Maithili and Hindi and is also a Sahitya Akademi award winner for her book – Bhamati: Ek Avismarniya Premkatha in Maithili. This book has 24 Hindi stories from the author that deal with questions of female identity, dignity, and the difficult realities of their lives. Published by Prabhat Prakashan, this book consists some of the most loved stories by Usha Kiran Khan. Buy your copy here.

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India’s Freedom, Partition, and the Two Birthdays of Khushwant Singh – A Tribute

The first time I was introduced to the writings of the veteran Khushwant Singh was in the secondary classes of my schooling. The short story that was taught as a chapter of the English text book was ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ It’s a memoir about his grandmother and her last days with him. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by his nuanced portrayal of his grandmother and her eccentricities. It was indeed like a portrait coming alive in a child’s mind. Well, the association ended with writing answers about the text in the class tests but the fact that I remembered it even after the school days can be ascribed to his way of putting the words together so perfectly that they get etched forever in your mind. They generate a sense of belonging whose essence lingers around for long.

The next time I picked up his book was in my college. My roommate had issued this book whose title was the same as the story I had read in school. I recalled it immediately and seized it from her to taste more of his fascinating stories.

It was while reading these stories; I discovered that his stories remain with you for a long time because they have an element of human emotions and follies amalgamated into a lucid plot full of twists. He is funny and bold. He does not hesitate to say what is difficult to say. For instance, stories like ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Riot’ in the book left me startled and numb for a moment, so did his captivating novel Train to Pakistan. It is yet another tale of partition and its aftermath but told with such appalling episodes and gripping description of the most bloated times of Indian history that it makes a unique space for itself in the Indian literature. The story traces the fate of an otherwise silent village which erupts in the flames of hatred among different religious communities after the arrival of a train full of dead bodies in the wake of partition.  The story shivers you with fear and leaves with pity.

His love for his religion and cities he had lived has frequently seeped into his writings. He wrote two volumes on the history of Sikhs which till date remain the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the Sikhs and the evolution of Sikhism. He had been deeply attached to his birthplace, Hadali situation in Punjab of undivided India, now in Pakistan. After partition, he visited Hadali for three times and after he passed away in March 2014, a portion of his ashes was taken by train to Pakistan and buried there, as described in one of his journals collected in the book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. The book is a nostalgic journey to the anecdotes of his life relating to the state of Punjab and its people who had great influence on him. The book starts with a description of the land of Punjab and its beauty in different weathers which teleports you to the land itself. It’s like a vicarious stroll in the fields of Punjab with a light breeze scenting the surroundings with its freshness. He not only wrote about his land and its people but also stood up right as the true son of the soil. His anguish at the storming of the Golden temple by the army during Operation Blue Star was so great that he returned the Padma Bhushan awarded to him by the government.

How much ever one writes about him falls short for what he has given us to chuckle and ponder upon. He was among India’s best-known and most widely read author and an acclaimed journalist. He published six novels among other works. The book, Delhi: A Novel, his magnum opus sold its first edition even before the copy was available in the stores. The novel weaves the city of Delhi and its life over 600 years into his bold and bawdy imaginary characters bound in love, lust, violence, and vendetta.

There is no dearth of his work even if one commits to read all. He has been a treasure house of stories and anecdotes. I cannot end this without sharing an interesting anecdote from his book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. His parents forgot to make a note of his birth date and years later, when his father was filling his school form in Delhi, he put his birthday as February 2nd, 1915 out of imagination. Further, he writes-“Several years later, my grandmother told me that I was born in badroo (roughly in August by Gregorian calendar). I decided to fix it in the middle of the month, to 15 August 1915, and made myself a Leo. Thirty two years later, in 1947, 15 August became the birthday of independent India.” So unknowingly, he even contributed to the diary of coincidences. He indeed deserves two birthdays!

Wishing the master storyteller and a man full of life and laughter a very Happy Birthday. Shall wish him again in August too!

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Walking the Thin Wall Between Death and Freedom in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

Many mornings we find ourselves waking up to thoughts that question the purpose of our existence. The endless monotony of our lives makes us wonder why we do the things we do. I am no different. I have spent years questioning the sufferings of life. I have always wished for someone, anyone who can answer these questions for me and put an end to this agony. I realised I have been looking in the wrong direction, until I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

This classic book comprises two parts. In the first part Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The second part introduces you to the concept of Logotherapy, a school of psychotherapy founded by Viktor Frankl. Although I have read about Holocaust through internet and various articles, this was the first time I was reading a full blown book based on it.

Being aware of the horrors of these camps, I was prepared to drown myself in tears of despair. However, my experience with the book turned out to be quite the opposite. It was empowering to my surprise and I can’t begin to explain the strange strength  that it instilled within me. It could probably be because of the detached, ‘academic’ narrative style of the author. It could also be because of the realization that none of my sufferings are nowhere near to that of Viktor’s.

The book  doesn’t merely chronicle the everyday experiences of a concentration camp. Instead, it examines the human behaviour through each of these events and thereby encourages you to introspect the events in your own life and your reactions to them. That the ‘existential vacuum’, ‘the state of boredom’, and ‘sunday neurosis’ of which Viktor spoke of as early as 1945 is still relatable in 2021 is rather preposterous and yet comforting. When he speaks of   ‘the thought of suicide’ as something that “was entertained by nearly everyone if only for a brief time”, I begin to understand a little of the many suicidal deaths that left me rattled in 2020. He says, “It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others”.

The part where Viktor talks of his wife and how “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved”, is achingly beautiful. Despite the knowledge that he survived the camp, your heart skips a beat when you learn of those days when he was walking a thin wall between death and freedom. From the young woman who talks to the tree to those men who walk through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread, the book brings to you many inspiring tales. As Frankl puts it, “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

The greatest comfort that the book gave me, however, was the opportunity to realign my attitude to the circumstances of life. I remember writing in the beginning of 2020, that I would ditch ‘forced positivity’. However, Frankl’s inspiring inferences have got me thinking again. According to him, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Not the answer I was expecting, but this changes the way I look at life and its purposefulness. I am only grateful that this is one of the books I started the year with because it fills me with such hope and vigor.

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Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

The Color Purple: Understanding Alice Walker’s Womanism

Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.

The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.

The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.

It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)

Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.

Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”

Reference: WHAT’S IN A NAME? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond by Patricia Hill Collins

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5 Books Everyone Must Read to Understand Swami Vivekananda, His Work and Message | National Youth Day Special

Swami Vivekananda was born today i.e. 12th January in the year 1863. As he went on to become the extraordinary man the world knows now, he influenced several men and women, directly as well as indirectly in his lifetime and beyond. From Alasinga Perumal to Subhash Chandra Bose, we find for many great lives, the deep impression Swami Vivekananda left on them. His work and message inspired people from all walks of life, from Indian revolutionaries and key political figures in the struggle freedom struggle like Bagha Jatin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jawaharlal Nehru, Hemchandra Ghosh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C. Rajagopalachari to industrialists like Jamshetji Tata and John D. Rockefeller, philosophers and scholars like William James, John Henry Wright, S. Radhakrishnan.

Fortunately, for our generation and the generations to come, we have his literature that we can pore over ourselves to understand this phenomenon. His speeches, letters, poems, and writings are in print, in demand, and easily available for us to find out his message first hand. Apart from these, there are also hundreds of biographies, commentaries, and articles across magazines and internet. To help you create an easy To-Read list on Swami Vivekananda, we are presenting 5 books that you can read to go deeper into his philosophy and understand the man who was hailed as the ‘cyclonic monk’ by the western world and the ‘spiritual father of the modern nationalist movement ‘ by Subhash Chandra Bose.

Life of Swami Vivekananda – His Eastern & Western Disciples

Published by Advaita Ashrama, this book is one of the most authentic and exhaustive biographies of Swami Vivekananda with details that earlier biographies do not cover. The book is available in two volumes and is a required reading on the life of Swami Vivekananda. You can purchase both the volumes here.

The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel – Romain Rolland

This book is one of the very first biographies of Swami Vivekananda and was penned by the French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland of the Jean-Christophe fame. A lucid account of Swamiji’s life told in beautiful prose makes this book a literary masterpiece and a joy to read. Buy here.

Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review – R.C. Majumdar

This book by the great historian R.C. Majumdar takes a look at Swamiji’s life with a historical perspective. A great attempt to underline the siginifance of Swamiji’s life and message from the vantage point of history, this one deserves a place in your shelf if you want to understand how Swami Vivekananda influenced not only his time but also the future course of history. Buy here.

Josephine MacLeod and Vivekananda’s Mission – Linda Prugh

Although this book is a biography of Josephine MacLeod, also lovingly called Tantine by Swami Vivekananda, her life is invariably conjoined with Swami Vivekananda’s as she was one of his first friends in the west and helped his mission both in the US and India. This book is a treasure trove for people who are looking for accounts related to Swamiji’s life hitherto not well-known in popular culture. You can read a review here and order a copy of the book here.

The Master as I Saw Him – Sister Nivedita

Sister Nivedita, earlier known as Margaret Noble left her country and adopted India as her motherland on the clarion call of Swamiji. She went on to influence Indian politics, sciences, arts, and literature in a very short span of time and remains arguably the most well known disciples of Swami Vivekananda. This book contains Sister Nivedita’s writings on Swamiji and gives out siginificant insights into his life and message, as seen by Sister Nivedita. You can purchase the book here.

We hope you will like these books. If you have read more books on Swami Vivekananda or have more suggestions on book related to him, please write to us in the comments section.

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Rutger Bregman’s Humankind Amplifies the Voice of Hope in Human Nature

How many times have you come across a really disturbing piece of news or development where humans have indulged in the most inhumane acts possible and wondered if humans are after all terrible creatures who stay civilized only because they are regulated by law? How many times has someone tried to convince you that a law abiding citizen is abiding only because he has never got an opportunity to become a terrorist, that if the circumstances allowed, people would resort to their primal instincts and eat each other alive?

Remember the much celebrated movie – The Dark Knight? Joker puts his philosophy thus – “They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other...” Throughout the story, Joker is trying to establish that when humans get into the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, they choose themselves over others. He devises a social experiment with the passengers of two boats – one has the civilians, other has the prisoners. He proclaims – “Tonight you’re all gonna be part of a social experiment. Through the magic of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, I’m ready right now to blow you all sky high. Anyone attempts to get off their boat, you all die. Each of you has a remote… to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I blow you all up. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So, who’s it going to be: Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection, or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose… oh, and you might want to decide quickly, because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.” How many times have you found yourself in agreement with Joker?

The Joker Meme

Recently, a Gangetic Dolphin was hacked to death by a group of men in Uttar Pradesh, India. It looked like they were killing for fun, out of a compulsive thirst to do something outrageous. Of course, such incidents make us want to believe in that seductive philosophy of Joker. A meme keeps roaming around in the social media space and must have at some point appeared on your timeline/inbox too.

What if I told you that several pioneering psychologists and scholars of our world would stand by Joker’s side when it came to the nature of human behaviour. Not only that, they also created different experiments to establish that humans are inherently evil. One of the most famous experimenters of the kind was Philip Zimbardo who is attributed for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Such experiments have been repeated in different time periods with minor modifications time and again by different people to theorize the same piece of ‘fact’ – that we are bad people! (Note: If you like watching Big Boss or other reality shows like Big Brother, you should read the book right away!)

In such a dark and depressing universe, what then remains of ‘Hope’? That and then some more are answered in Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History‘. Bregman begins with the contrasting models of human behaviour propounded by Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau, and argues that we would be better off with the goodness of Rousseau than the cynicism of Hobbes. It is a difficult side to pick in a debate on human nature and that makes the book a riveting read from cover to cover. By the time I got done with the prologue, I had already put this book on my ‘few good things to come out of 2020’ list.

In order to bolster his argument, Bregman takes up the most famous episodes of human history and evaluates the conclusions drawn from each one of them. Some of the cases selected for investigation in the book are Stanford Prison Experiment, Death of Catherine Susan Genovese, Holocaust, and the novel Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding. Even though the author seems to have indulged reams of research papers on the matter, the book has been brilliantly composed to not overburden its readers with the routine of an academic journal. In fact, you will be surprised by the writing style, the tone of narration, and the impeccable transitions between themes. The book keeps you hooked on till its very last word.

A very touching tale unfolds in the chapter ‘When the Soldiers Came Out of the Trenches’ when the trenches on opposing sides celebrated Christmas together during the first world war. While the author draws several lessons from this episode, we as readers are given a reality check on how the social media, originally meant for connecting with people, use the same tool to judge, hurt, and stereotype people according to our prejudices. In this context, Bregman’s unconventional arguments on empathy & compassion shape the heart of the book around which all the remaining narratives flow.

It is tempting to like the Joker meme. However, I have never personally been a fan of such overarching generalization and could never bring myself up to like this theory that when the situation arises, we are going to eat each other. This was also the reason I could not convince myself to like the ending of an otherwise outstanding movie ‘Jallikattu’ which also happens to be India’s official entry to the 93rd Academy Awards. The ‘pessimistic’ view of reality sells like wildfire. In the video of the murder of this gangetic dolphin, even though I knew how it would end, I kept waiting for someone to stop the killers. And then I heard a voice in the video pleading with them not to kill. It sounded like hope. But like the men in the act, we have either ignored or silenced that voice at several turning points of our history. With Humankind, Rutger Bregman tries to amplify that voice to a decibel where it cannot be ignored or unheard anymore. I want to see him succeed.

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