Nothing Behind Me, Everything Ahead of Me: Why ‘On the Road’ Is the Perfect Book for 2020!

To describe 2020 as difficult would be a gross understatement. It’s not just the constant struggle of having to unlearn and learn how to live our lives. The year has been plagued with infinite battles fought in our heads and hearts. A stifling stagnancy contaminates dreams and realities. Such tumultuous times call for a gust of crisp, fresh air. For me, it came as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That unforgettable piece of Beat Generation literature that redefined rebellion, inspired generations of youthful madness, changed Bob Dylan’s life and birthed a sparkling, anti-mainstream régime by stitching together ‘deviant’ subcultures.

Before delving into On the Road, it would be helpful to clarify that no Beat poet, writer or artist was perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Stark-raving insanity was the alternative they concocted to challenge the American humdrum and this philosophy had hysterical manifestations. However, this isn’t about their controversial lifestyle. Everyone knows of the psychotic episodes, multiple addictions, use of chemical stimulants, rampant affairs, promiscuity and irreverence. Frequently and unfortunately, this becomes the start and the end of most conversations on this period. My current concern isn’t discussing Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs’ way of life. Nor is it sensationalising their excesses. It’s only to initiate a dialogue on a particular book that was the literary milestone of the 1950s and why it needs your attention in 2020 more than ever.

On the Road is the logical culmination of Jack Kerouac’s love for travelling. The story follows Sal Paradise (the author’s alter ego) and his journey across America through which he attempts to break through life’s inertia, discover the meaning of manana (an indefinite future) and experience love, freedom and self-assertion. With Sal, we travel to Chicago, Iowa, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sabinal, New York and countless, nameless towns that dot the landscape. We are thrown into the arms of bustling cities, impoverished mining settlements, lively carnivals, snow-capped mountains, apple pie and ice-cream trucks and fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries. It’s like the textual rendition of an exhilarating and intricate dream.

So, why do I speak highly of the book as an antidote to the emotional turbulence of 2020? Because seldom will you come across an experience that is soothing, immersive, contemplative and breathtaking at the same time. On the Road is about flawed individuals who are clawing to make ends meet, failing miserably, not being able to decide for themselves or decipher who they are. There is no privilege. The existential crisis is real. The fear of missing out on the best years is real. At a hard-hitting juncture, a depressed Sal is alone in Los Angeles. Surrounded by glitz and glamour, he uses his only dollar to buy a loaf of bread and laments spending his last night in the crazy gold-coast city making sandwiches in a parking lot. As a 23-year-old always distressed about not having achieved or experienced enough, this little paragraph deeply resonated with me, as it will with the countless others who grapple with the anxiety of their lives passing them by. We’ve all suffered moments where like Sal, we thought, “I had nothing to offer anybody, apart from my own confusion.”

Yet (and thankfully), On the Road is brimming with promise. Kerouac acknowledges the bubbling restlessness, disillusionment, and frustration. He shows you the way, describing the path through language that is unimaginably decadent. So, don’t be surprised when you find pages after pages talking about one night or a cobbled alley. But, here’s the catch. The writing is rich, picturesque, and easy-going. You’ll never realise the breakneck speed at which you’re living Sal’s life. Nor can you enumerate the sheer number of towns and freeways you’ve traversed with him. Kerouac’s writing is both transportive and transformative. The dense imagery is bewitching, flowing like intoxicated thoughts. The result is mesmerising, flashing before your eyes like postcards. Imagine a red rose floating down the Hudson River, burning Roman candles, cherry blossom mornings of springtime in the Rockies and purple dusks over tangerine groves. 

On the Road is equally harrowing. A feeling of breathlessness pervades the aesthetic. While reading long, winding paragraphs about waking up alone in a hotel room, it isn’t uncommon to experience dissociation and sadness. When Sal remarks, “Things are so hard to figure out when you live from day to day in this feverish, silly world”, you understand his dejection and naiveté. We all have a Sal within us- immature, compassionate, and clumsy.  

The book’s merit is the power it vests in the human capacity to sustain. No matter how cold it is or how penniless you are, there’s always a mason jar of hope. Sal has been heartbroken, confused, and stranded. His intense sorrow, set against the backdrop of rain in the mountains and lonely highways, is nerve-wracking. It reminds us of our hidden insecurities and the dread of being lost. But the despondency is never absolute. Sooner or later, a jalopy comes along and Sal is on the go again, ready for his next destination. There will be a kind soul who’ll share a smoke or pay for coffee. Or a good night’s sleep in a comfortable inn. To put it simply, Sal survives. His actions aren’t heroic. There are dark bends and slippery slopes and like anybody else, he improvises and finds joy in the nooks and crannies of life. Nonetheless, the adventures don’t cease. It assures his readers that they too will make it out of any mess.

Those familiar with On the Road can criticise my article on many accounts. I’ll list them. First, I haven’t commented on the Beat values, their post-war context or impact on literary traditions. Second, I haven’t detailed other characters and their bearing on Sal’s life. Finally, the most searing disapproval is, “Where the hell is Dean Moriarty?” Dean Moriarty, the speed-loving, selfish, indulgent and reckless man whose arrival set the entire book in motion. While I accept the shortcomings, my aim was to primarily talk about the philosophies in the book and how they can help overcome the 2020 blues. On the Road provides what has been hugely absent in our lives in the past months- a sense of movement. It does so in the most relatable manner possible, by telling us about clueless people who have their coming-of-age journeys. It takes time, tears, laughter and belief. The book is messy, beautiful, and too much about everything to be about anything in particular. Just like life.

Of Chocolates, Leg of Lambs and Giant Peaches: Remembering Roald Dahl

When Willy Wonka, Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the group of obnoxious children and their parents float down the Chocolate River whilst seated in a pink boat made of boiled sweets, they pass by a door labelled “STOREROOM NUMBER 71. WHIPS- ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.” Veruca Salt, described by the Oompa Loompas as a bratty child who is pampered and spoilt like a Siamese Cat, confronts the chocolatier, “What on earth do you use whips for?”. Willy Wonka answers with absurd confidence and sardonic wit that perfectly exemplifies his creator’s downright strange and incredible imagination. He says, “Whipped cream isn’t whipped cream at all if it hasn’t been whipped with whips, just like poached eggs isn’t poached eggs unless it’s been stolen in the dead of the night.”

That’s Roald Dahl. Eccentric, hilarious, magical and frightening! His could beautifully synthesize diverse sensibilities and conjure stories that shaped generations of children and adult consciousness. And as September celebrated his 104th birth anniversary, it’s time we reflect upon his works and discern what makes them distinct from his predecessors and contemporaries in fiction.

Dahl normalised the ridiculous, seamlessly imbibing magical fantasy into the humdrum of everyday life. His characters were odd, nasty and nice and he invented bizarre ways of dispensing justice. Recollect the Twits? Undoubtedly, the Twits are the most ludicrous married couple to exist in literature. Retired circus trainers, they spent their days plotting repulsive pranks. While Mrs. Twit lovingly fed her husband spaghetti with worms, Mr. Twit tied her to balloons, hoping she would fly away and never return. Together, they tortured the Muggle-Wump family of monkeys by training them to do everything while standing upside-down. Yes, they were foul. And they met with a ghastly end. The Muggle-Wumps, assisted by a group of birds which the duo had planned to trap and bake, glued all the furniture to the ceiling. Under the impression that they were upturned, the Twits stood on their heads and finally, vanished into a heap of clothes. Critics disapprove of the harsh treatment Dahl meted out to adults. To this accusation, the author said, “Beastly people must be punished.”

Dahl’s greatest strength was never infantilising his young readers. His sarcastic, anti-establishmentarian tone does not attempt to sugarcoat concepts of death, institutional violence and evils of character. He explicitly details Ms. Trunchbull’s barbaric methods to civilize students, how James’s parents are eaten alive by a rhinoceros and Augustus Gloop’s nauseating gluttony. Now, the question that arises is why kids devour his work despite the morbid inclinations? Simply, it’s because they adore Dahl’s unconditional support. He indulges their fantasies, penalises adults and allows the children to triumph. So, in the end, Charlie Bucket gets to live in Willy Wonka’s factory and the insufferable others return with permanent disfigurements. And James, who had an awful childhood with his abusive aunts, befriends the children of New York City while his guardians are squashed to death under the peach. Coming to Matilda and Miss Honey, they live happily while the school improves under a kind headmaster.

The complexity of Dahl’s writing reveals to kids a spectrum of sentiment. Suddenly, they could experience what adults are wary of them knowing. It mirrors their powerlessness when faced with authoritarian figures like parents and teachers. But simultaneously, children are told (and convinced) that it is perfectly possible to overcome odds, rebel against autocratic influences and be the master of their lives. At the core, is always a tale of fulfilling dreams. 

Dahl’s relationship with adults is just as intriguing. He once said, “Grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.” Funnily, this becomes the current permeating his short stories. He doesn’t shy from experimenting with gore and macabre deaths. Ordinary men and women perform haunting actions. The mundane is elevated to the horrific.

The protagonist of Lamb to the Slaughter, the pregnant Mary Maloney, clubs her disloyal husband to death using a leg of lamb and then cooks it. She hoodwinks the officers and as they enjoy that very lamb, the policemen discuss the possibility of the murder weapon being right under their nose. In the next room, Mary giggles and we are left unnerved. In Man from the South, an old man and young naval cadet participate in a preposterous bet. If the latter can ignite his lighter ten times in a row, he gets the former’s Cadillac. But if he fails, the man will chop his finger using a butcher’s knife. As the cadet prepares to test his lighter for the tenth time, a woman bursts into the room. To reveal what unfolded would be a sin. Dahl truly masters the art of building tension. He neatly arranges every element, constructing a house of cards balanced on intrigue, horror and humorous repartee. 

This discussion is incomplete without talking about the more controversial elements of his life and writing. Grown-ups don’t enjoy certain aspects of Dahl’s storytelling. He’s been accused of misogyny, teaching children all the wrong things and pandering to violent fantasies. His controversial personal life (his wife named him Roald the Rotten) and anti-Semitic views constantly come under the scanner. Interestingly, even his closest competitor in children’s fiction, Enid Blyton, has been often accused of racism and sexism.

However, to deny Dahl’s genius is criminal. Having never written a mega-series (like Blyton’s Secret Seven or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia), he continues to be the most widely-read children’s author across decades. The subversive and uncomfortable plotlines are a grave reminder for adults that all is not rosy in a child’s life. A little boy or girl’s reality is frequently plagued by shadows, a sense of powerlessness and fear. And for children, he fashioned unbelievable spaces that are the perfect balance of light and dark. Here, they weren’t looked down upon. Dahl wanted them to be playful, true to themselves and wild and save the day utilising such unruly qualities. Never before was disruption packaged so deliciously.

One may conclude that Roald Dahl is not everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly not his English teacher’s. When Dahl was 15, his report card read “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.” Now, that’s quite horrigust. What’s horrigust? That’s the word he invented for something that is both horrible and disgusting. But in the end, we must admit that a Roald Dahl book will never cease to be zozimus…the stuff that dreams are made of.

Cover Image: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / CC0

More Than Just the Partition: Comprehending Manto in His Entirety

It is a pungent truth that the tremendous burden of the Partition was borne entirely by the unnamed men, women and children of the subcontinent. As they boarded overcrowded trains, watched relatives being slaughtered, fled from burning homes, and struggled to rebuild their lives with nothing but loss, they were pushed into oblivion by History. Fortunately, a handful of artists have documented the more mundane and animalistic side of human grief. Saadat Hasan Manto, who wondered in a self-written epitaph that who amongst God and himself was the better short-story writer, is a sparkling mind renowned for his audacious portrayal of trauma, displacement, sexuality and sorrow. 

While Manto is our most precious looking-glass into the widespread torment set free by the Partition, to generalise his works as revolving around a single element is a reductionist approach to his art. What must be celebrated is his powerful eye for human nature in its most unpolished manifestations. Plunging into the twisted corridors of the human psyche which till date remains the most ostracized victim of decolonization, Manto explores complex relationships, pathos, liberation, domination, murder, the struggle for survival and a romantic search for residual goodness. 

In 1934, Manto moved to Mumbai where he wrote scripts for Hindi cinema. And set in the bustling, gossip-loving milieu of film sets is My Name is Radha. The story follows three individuals: a famous actor called Raj Kishore known for his moral righteousness, Radha who is playing the vamp in his film and an observant narrator. Although Raj Kishore is adulated for his chivalry, Radha sees through his conceited frontier and recognizes a vain, controlling sadist. Through a journey riddled with sexual tension and redemption, Manto makes profound observations on voyeurism in filmmaking, the vilification of women and the all-encompassing subjugation threatening gendered minorities.

When Radha stops Raj Kishore from addressing her as Sister, everyone feels entitled to abuse her for this supposed display of arrogance and audacity. Even the owner of the tea stall calls her filthy names while admiring Raj Kishore’s gallantry. Finally, after they indulge in a violent sexual encounter, Radha is disgusted and seeks solace in the narrator. While consoling her, he mistakenly calls her Neelam (the screen-name she uses as she feels that Radha is too pure for the talkies). She interrupts him saying, “My name is Radha.” Her parting words tell us that she will always be a misfit. Simultaneously, it reinstates her virtue, bright intellect and inner strength. 

My Name is Radha bears striking resemblance to Alankrita Shrivastava’s Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. Both are stories of women who don’t confer to standards. In the film, Kitty works as a companion on a romance app and Dolly routinely fudges office accounts to pay off loans.

However, underlying Radha, Dolly and Kitty’s questionable decisions are resolute individuals fighting for survival. They assume multiple identities, are prone to imperfections and errors but remain true to themselves. When Dolly chides Kitty for the nature of her job, the latter says that she is proud of making an honest living. It resonates deeply with one of Manto’s most famous sayings, “To those men who say that women from good families must come into the world of cinema, I have this question: What is it that you mean by “good?” A woman, who honestly puts her wares on display, and sells them without an intention to cheat, is such a woman not virtuous?”

Manto’s women are complicated people who delicately toe the line of imposed morality. But his strength lies in upholding their innate goodness and honest intentions. They are self-assured, well-meaning and flawed. Consider A Woman’s Life, a poignant tale of asserting of one’s identity. Saugandhi, a kind-hearted prostitute, is slighted by a rich merchant who mocks her appearance. Humiliated, she questions her worth. Reflecting upon her life, she realises that even her lover is a selfish, avaricious man. When he arrives asking for money, Saugandhi smashes his photograph and throws him out. Here, Manto doesn’t wish to discuss the poverty-stricken condition of marginalised women. Saugandhi’s story is about achieving dignity in despair. 

A similar spirit is seen in Mozel, about a brazen Jewish girl and her relationship with Tarlochan Singh, a devout Sikh. Despite her digs at his religion and multiple affairs, Tarlochan indulges Mozel and even shaves his hair and beard to please her. But after Mozel leaves, he falls in love with Kirpal. When rioters’ attack her neighbourhood, it is Mozel who convinces Tarlochan to overcome his fear and they set out to rescue her. Sadly, she is killed while attempting to save Kirpal. When Tarlochan rushes to cover her naked body with his turban, Mozel refuses. She is defiant even in death, rejecting both sympathy and the so-called sense of shame. These stories highlight the existentialist efforts at self-assertion by women across class, caste and religion. 

Frequently, Manto takes us into the dingy world of riots, mobs and refugee camps. The Assignment is a haunting account of the transactional nature of death. Sughra, a young girl is trapped in her house with her brother and bed-ridden father, Mian Abdul Hai. As the riots gain momentum, her neighbours relocate to Muslim-majority localities. One evening, a Sikh man whose father was greatly indebted to Mian Abdul Hai for saving him from legal trouble, visits them with sweets. As he returns, turbaned men carrying explosives corner him in the streets. They ask if he has fulfilled his assignment and if they were free to proceed with theirs. The man replies, “If you like” and walks away. Sweets, a symbol of warmth and hope, becomes a cold harbinger of doom.

A gruesome picture of brutality is found in The Return. Sirajuddin wakes up in a migrant camp, unable to find his daughter Sakina. He desperately searches for her, pleading to the officials and running from one site to another. Days later, she is brought to the camp infirmary on a stretcher. Cruelly assaulted, her only reaction is to loosen the strings of her salwar and pull down the garment. Sirajuddin is overjoyed at the sight of his daughter but the vicious violation she has endured makes the reader squirm. Such narratives strongly compete with the more diluted, mathematical version of the Partition recorded in official archives. Unnerving and nauseating, they create a space for public mourning. 

Above all, Manto is our guide through a labyrinthine society. He unearths realities of existence, identity, sexuality and suffering. Such themes counter the purist notion that postulates how he is solely interested in Partition and prostitutes. Breaking through such cursory reading of his texts, we understand that Manto is concerned with people; complex, careless, cruel, compassionate and capricious as they are. He is a storyteller and commentator in equal measure and boiling down his corpus to its overtly visible themes is akin to reading with blinkers. 

Falling in Love With a Young Adult Novel – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Eleanor & Park was originally published in 2012 and has won over 20 literary awards including the Goodreads Choice Awards: Best Young Adult Fiction in 2013.

What you’re about to read is less of a review and more of a fangirl gush about falling in love with a book in all its entirety and feeling the emptiness of parting away when it’s all over.

Eleanor & Park is well, about Eleanor and Park- two intense and naive 16 year olds who end up falling for one another even though the association seems unlikely to both of them. Eleanor is the aloof new kid in the town of Omaha and Park is an existing resident. While facing all the strangeness that a new kid does, we are also taken through Eleanor’s unstable household situation, one she dreams of escaping. Park comes across as a reserved loner kid who belongs to a close knit half Korean-half white family. It seems completely justified that Eleanor and Park end up together as they are presented as misfits of sorts in the book, separated from the rest of the kids and their coming together seems organic.

For both these kids going through transformative periods in their lives, it all starts with exchanging comic books and playlists. It all leads to secret meetups and finding a home in one another in a world that might not always be kind to them. Rowell has a brilliant skill to use the simplest of language and yet keep the reader engaged thoroughly. In showing both Eleanor and Park as intense characters, it’s remarkable that the author didn’t forget that they are after all teenagers. She has also portrayed them as sexual creatures who are confused by all the newfound feelings of self discovery. If I am being very honest, I thought myself to be over and above the teenage puppy love that populates stupid Netflix movies and monotone romcoms but this one is completely different. Both Eleanor and Park are their own people as well. They have their insecurities and showcase fragility for falling in love for the first time which is bound to remind the reader of an age gone by. 

The romance genre definitely caters to a certain readership and I do not consider myself to be one of them. I am also aware that the heady nostalgia that romance novels usually provide to its reader isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Eleanor and Park isn’t just a romance novel, categorizing it as such would be a disservice to its characters who come alive through Rowell. This book showcases a love story of two young adults with a lot of nuance and sensitivity, cutting through all that would normally overshadow each character’s journey when they are in love. Eleanor and Park stands as a testament to the true potential that the young adult genre possesses for readers of all kinds. There is a certain raw emotion to the delicate characters that gripped me through the novel, I kid you not, I finished it in 3 hours. This was a first for me. 

The climax of the book took me by heartbreaking surprise. It even drove me a tiny bit mad for how Rowell decided to end things for both the characters. The conclusion of the book is not completely unforeseen as the reader senses the perilous situation in which Eleanor finds herself.

Apart from the end that might stand as an impediment, there is some racial tension in the book that seems out of place. Park is a mixed race kid whose race seems to have been characterised deliberately yet not treated nearly enough by the author. In the current context, it becomes difficult to not investigate race if it’s a part of anything related to pop culture. I would warn the readers to take this angle of the story with a pinch of salt. 

Eleanor and Park is your regular boy meets girl, meet-cute love story, but it will steal your heart and jolt it. If you’re not in full blown tears at the end of the book, I’d consider myself a pathetic softy. This book is a brilliant gateway into the young adult genre for anyone looking to explore. It is neither a long nor a very heavy read and can be your new relaxing weekend companion.

The Romance Novel in India and Those Pricey Thakur Girls

“That’s so filmi,” I’ve often remarked on being told about an especially thrilling romantic experience. In India, romance can feel synonymous with film. Much of our imagination and enactment of love comes from the movies. Mainstream Hindi cinema, in particular, strongly influences how we express love, construct fantasies, and our expectations from romantic trysts. This comes from no little effort on its part. A romantic plot feels requisite for most Hindi cinema: songs and subplots are shoehorned into all kinds of movies. And so a hero with outstretched arms, a woman bumping into a love interest and dropping a sheaf of papers that fly everywhere, or yearning eyes meeting across a crowded room, become visual shorthands for love itself.

This is why, when it comes to cultural depictions of romance in India, we rarely think of literature, specifically Indian writing in English. After all, no romantic story I’ve ever heard has elicited the response, “that’s so contemporary Indian novel in English!” Contradictory to global literary trends–Mills and Boons, Harlequin romances, Fifty Shades of Grey–romance novels in India are relatively unestablished, especially those written by women. This is a genre that tends to draw criticisms that are both gendered and elitist, perhaps dissuading female authors from pursuing it: postcolonial literary studies, for instance, has never quite known what to do with popular literature.

In this context, reading Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls was a strong reminder of what the novel part of a romance novel can give us, especially when written by a woman. The novel has been a wildly successful genre for romance because of the interiority it affords its characters. Knowing what the characters are thinking and being told precisely what they are feeling is a powerful addition to a genre that thrives on appealing to imaginations. So when Dylan Singh Shekawat meets Debjani Thakur for the first time, the author is able to give us a sense of exactly how he is affected: “the last rays of the setting sun hit her face and he discovers that her thickly lashed eyes are the exact colour and shape as Pears soap.”  These glimpses into Dylan’s thoughts are powerful because they articulate how desire feels for him, and conversely, what it is to be desired by him.

As Emily Davis points out in Rethinking the Romance Genre, for critics, the genres of romance and political writing, the private and the public, have often been seen as mutually exclusive. This, of course, amounts to both a denial of female perspectives, and the tensions and structural fissures the process of love demonstrates. Also, yet romance is deeply contextual, both in terms of function and effect. Like many Indian women, I grew up on a diet of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. These books continue to resonate emotionally, but romance provides a space–especially for women–to reimagine and consider dynamics of gender and sexuality, and there is something to be said for love rooted in our specific context, that Pemberley and Lockwood cannot provide.

Though romance is perceived as primarily character-driven, much of its strength comes from its focus on the atmosphere and setting. An Indian romance novel, therefore, doesn’t necessarily entail only a romance featuring Indian characters, and Those Pricey Thakur Girls delights in its own setting. One of the jokes running through the book is Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur’s obsession with what alphabets portend. So when D-for-Debjani meets D-for-Dylan, readers know what to expect. However, this is a story in which the city is the protagonist, its people, trees, dogs, and localities meticulously sketched out. It’s hard to miss: D for Delhi.

Moreover, Delhi offers a lot. The Emergency looms over the story, set a year after the Anti-Sikh pogrom incited and enabled by a politician Dylan, a journalist, sets out to expose. The central ideological tension between Dylan and Debjani is their respective attitudes towards the role of media during times of political conflict. The resolution of the romantic plot entails a realisation on Debjani’s part about her own complicity in furthering proto-fake news as the anchor of a channel modelled on Doordarshan. Though the book features characters who are upper-caste and upper-class, Chauhan’s engagement with this context and its centrality to her plot shows that the romance–mostly associated with escapist pleasure and accused of enabling political apathy–can be a narrative vehicle for political expression.

Chauhan also mines hilarity from the lives of her characters, using an idiom of writing that is imbued in local contexts, drawing on movies, Hinglish, and popular culture. Dylan’s wooing is rudely interrupted by Debjani’s brother Gulgul, upset about being cheated of a belly-button viewing in a song and Debjani, “by the grace of god”, has a meeting with a self-obsessed prospective suitor. In one of my favourite lines, Debjani accuses Dylan of dipping his proboscis into multiple flowers: the characters Chauhan creates are clearly catering to a female perspective. While much has been made of Dylan Singh Shekhawat, now the gold standard for romantic heroes, Chauhan’s characterisation of Debjani is equally interesting. Her narrative arc depicts her struggles to differentiate herself from her sisters, build her own life, find a career that appeals to her, and come into her own, makes. Everything that makes Debjani attractive–her commitment to bravery and kindness, her affinity for those in hard luck, and her signature way of dressing–ignores the conventional male gaze.

In Those Pricey Thakur Girls, Chuhan creates a template for romantic imagination. The chaotic denouement, featuring the reunion of Dylan and Debjani, a family gathering, and a chachi possessed by the ghost of her mother-in-law, shows that love and reason might keep little company together nowadays, but love and community-building do.

Reading Divya Prakash Dubey and His Stories That Live Next-Door

Having studied in an English medium school and brought up in a household with Hindi as the native language, I have always been confused when to use one particular language, like I am right now, as I am writing this. Though I would be talking about a very well-known Hindi author who rekindled the Hindi fiction reading among the youth (yours truly falls in the same bracket), I am more comfortable in expressing my thoughts in English when it comes to a formal delivery like writing an article or a speech or even a facebook post. Why so?

Cut to eight years back, I was attending a Hindi lecture in my initial days of college. It was my first class in language for that semester. The teacher entered and said, “All this while you must be talking to each other in English- the introductions, the orientations, and even a friendly chit chat. What if your school friend who you have been knowing for so many years was a part of your batch in college? What language would you use?” The class unanimously answered their own native language which in my case was Hindi.

Talking in your mother tongue generates a sense of bonding while every other language remains a formal language – a language for work and career. Still when I ask a lot of my friends that while you would watch movies in Hindi and go crazy on the songs and slangs used, why don’t you read Hindi fiction then? Most of them answer, “Hindi upar se jaati hai!” (It’s a bit difficult to read Hindi!) The major reason behind their hesitation to pick up a Hindi novel is the stark difference between the Hindi they use to communicate in everyday life and the one used in literature.

Breaking this tradition, Divya Prakash Dubey ventured into the world of storytelling in the language of youth, a colloquial language that anybody could relate to; which he fondly calls ‘Nayi wali Hindi’.

His first two books namely Terms and conditions Apply and Masala Chai, a collection of short stories became instant hit and were bestsellers and still continue to be read widely. As he himself asserts in the introduction of the book Masala Chai, these stories are like talks on the tea table, easy to say and lovely to hear. The stories are from our own world, our next door. These tales range from college life to job scenarios, from small town to the hustle of metro cities, vividly bringing out the emotions of the characters.

Next was the most loved Musafir Cafe, his first novel catching up on modern day love and its conundrum. The main characters Sudha and Chandar find each other in the fast paced life of Mumbai and fall in love but there is more to add for a perfect life – their own wish list which will come at the cost of their love. Some of the lines will stay with you to keep reminding you to seek answers to the dilemma of your own life. DP has brought a fresh wave of Hindi fiction with contemporary stories having profound and palatable prose.

His second novel, October Junction is again about a young ambitious couple, a millionaire boy and a successful writer who in a race of fame and money find it difficult to converge their path of love but meet on 10th of October every year for 10 years in a hope to live a life they had planned when they were young.

DP is not just an author but also an on-stage storyteller with a knack for catching the audience’s attention with his presentation of plot. Recently, Audible has posted his story series Piya Milan Chowk where one can listen to the narration of the stories by the author himself.

“Hindi is cool, yaar!” is his style statement and he has delivered TEDx Talks in Hindi, paving way for many who wanted to talk in Hindi. He has been an eminent face at literature festivals reaching out to readers in person and inspiring many to read and write in Hindi. He has been generously sharing his journey about writing and publishing on his blog http://divyaprakash.in/ giving out useful insights into the writing world. Sunday Wali Chitthi is one of my favorite sections where he talks about life and living in general.

Ibnebatuti, fifth in the row is his latest book. It’s a story about a single mother hopping in her past to reinvent her future. A difficult to digest truth is presented with a fast moving flavored plot. It is a necessary story to be told where his readership is not just the city dwelling people but the youngsters residing in the hinterland trying to bring about a change around the perceived notion about a middle-aged single lady. This book starts a conversation around a much hushed topic through a lighter take. With a badge of ‘Lakhprati Lekhak‘ (sold over a lakh copies), DP has certainly been successful in bringing up a change in the readership for Hindi fiction.

Ismat Chughtai Birth Anniversary: Remembering Her Through Her Stories

Ismat Chughtai’s stories and characters cut through time and remain relevant even in the 21st century. She wrote in Urdu and was part of the Progressive Writer’s Movement. The movement focused on how art can contribute to the betterment of society by commenting on its evils and hypocrisy.

Ismat Chughtai is well known for etching out female characters that did not fit any mould society cast for them. The characters are rebellious by their very nature or paradoxically through subverting the restrictions imposed on them. They dare to question. They dare to be themselves. Through such bold characters, Chughtai also sheds light on the barriers of gender, class, and caste prevalent in society during her lifetime, which unfortunately clog minds in India till today.  

One of Chughtai’s most well known stories is Lihaaf or The Quilt as translated in English. She had to go to Lahore to face obscenity charges for this short story. Lihaaf is a curious mix of understatement and being out there. It does not explicitly mention sexual acts except obliquely. Yet what was unsettling for readers then and perhaps even now is the portrayal of same-sex love. It showed women not only in control of their sexuality but also boldly expressing it. Chughtai’s manner of unsettling the reader gives her stories an unparalleled power that still holds sway.  Her stories prick at the norms and restrictions accepted as a status quo. It lays bare the faults in many of our beliefs, thus shocking the reader.

For example, in her short story, Mole or Til, she depicts a village woman, Rani, who poses as a model for the painter, Ganeshchand Choudhry. Rani is fully aware of her beauty and knows how to sway the people to do her bidding. Choudhry expects her to be grateful for letting her stay at his home. But Rani is not one to submit to feelings of pitiful charity. She is vocal about her desires and never lets Choudhry dictate her whether it is in posing as a model or otherwise.

Similarly and perhaps even bolder is her story, The Homemaker or Gharwali. The story portrays Mirza, a shop owner who lets Lajo be a maid in his house. Lajo is another carefree personality that Chughtai has created. She does not want to be shackled by marriage to one man. She is perfectly happy to love Mirza and take care of his house. But she would prefer giving her love to a lot of people rather than being tied to one man. The Homemaker shows how passion and love are supposed to be regulated and kept under control for the sake of decency. To escape this garb of decency, men court courtesans while women are expected to be pure. Lajo cannot succumb to these restrictions of being ‘good woman or wife.’ Chughtai thus portrays a society’s hypocrisy about marriage and its gendered double standards over a person’s desires.

The short story, All Alone, briefly traces Shahzad’s growth from college to adulthood. She finished her BA and ‘was inundated with marriage proposals.’ She loved someone else, Dilshad Mirza, and not the proposals that came pouring in. Instead, she enrolled in a course for painting and becomes absolutely immersed in it. So much so that she does not realise the passage of time. Many things happened in between, notably India’s Independence and Partition. The story shows Shahzad choosing her own path and rejecting marriage. In today’s modern times as well, women are pressured into believing that marriage is the ultimate goal in their life. In Chughtai’s story, Shahzad showed how opting for a profession does not mean she was incomplete or discontented with her life; or that she longed for a soul mate. She chose to embrace her art and puts to rest any rumours about her being a lonely sad woman. She refuses to be an object of self-pity because the society believes that a woman cannot be happy alone.  This story was way ahead of its time and is a brilliant portrayal of women as artists and their connection with their creation.

Chughtai’s short stories expressed different facets of female thought and desire in a witty yet detailed manner. The stories feel relatable hundred years later as they continue to call out hollow societal ideas and practices prevalent today.

Old-Possums-Book-of-Practical-Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROOM ON THE ROOF | RUSKIN BOND

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

Buy the book.

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

Zen pencils – Dream the impossible Dream | Gavin Aung Than

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

Buy the book.

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


THREE THOUSAND STITCHES | SUDHA MURTHY

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

Buy the book.

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

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls | Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavello

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

Buy the book.

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

Looking for Miss Sargam | Shubha Mudgal

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

Buy the book.

Cover Image: Jill Wellington

Five Wonderful Collections of Famous Folktales from Around the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Harvest of World Folk Tales, Compiled by Milton Rugoff

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

Favorite Folktales from Around the World, Edited by Jane Yolen

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

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

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

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

Read about Indian folktales collections here .

Cover Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter

Christopher Hitchens, Photograph by John Dempsie, c. 1978

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Hitch-22: A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens

 

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

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

You can purchase the book here.

 

Fernando Pessoa-TheSeer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indifferent to all.
I silence them: I speak.

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

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

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