Ruskin Bond Photo

On Ruskin Bond’s Birthday, Revisiting His Writings and Their Impact

Ruskin Bond’s writing has always been a constant in my life since reading his stories in my English school textbooks. While the world only recently is going gaga over cherry blossoms, I still vividly remember reading in school about the quiet innocence and perseverance of Rakesh from the short story, The Cherry Tree, and how he planted the seed and despite all odds, was rewarded with the pink blossoms.

The depiction of the utmost simplicity in the characters’ actions and the vastness and joy that nature provides them has made Ruskin Bond’s writing endearing and lovable.

Most of his novels are set in the hills. The stories profess the writer’s close bond with the mountains and its people. His stories will always have characters that also, like the author, share a close bond with the nature that surrounds them. The closer they are to nature, the fuller and better their lives are. These characters will cherish the tiniest of miracles that nature offers to them like Rakesh’s delight at seeing the cherry tree blossom. These innocent delights, bereft of any greed, make Bond’s characters memorable. They enable the reader to take a break from the rat race and appreciate the simple pleasures of nature.

Ruskin Bond was born on this day in Kasauli in 1934 and after living in different cities in India and outside, he decided to make Mussoorie his home. He continues to live there in the Ivy cottage and regularly haunts the bookshops of the famous hill station.

Bond blithely intertwines his own experiences in his stories too so that on reading them, one  might feel one knows the author better and along the way, can also take a trip down memory lane of how things used to be before in the towns and hills. Several of his stories therefore are coloured with an autobiographical tint, revealing the tidbits of the author’s many journeys in life.

The other literal journey that Bond often depicts in his stories is the railway journey. Trains are an indispensable mode of transport even today, despite the boom in the airline industry. Back then, when Bond was younger, trains were perhaps the only affordable means of travelling across the country. Railway journeys with all its delights and discomforts are another portrayal of India in his stories. These portrayals will make one feel nostalgic about one’s own past journeys on the train.  The Night Train At Deoli and Time Stops at Shamli are two such short stories that feature a rail journey and the autobiographical element. Both are stories that I fondly remember. Who can forget the little girl selling baskets at the station at Deoli that mesmerized the author protagonist in the former story? The latter story is about the adventures that lay for the author when he got off at Shamli station on an impulse, instead of going to his destination, Dehradun.

Delhi Is Not Far is one of Bond’s rare novels that are not set in the mountains. Instead, it takes place in the fictional small town, Pipalnagar, in the plains. All the characters have small jobs and dream of moving to the big city, Delhi. It is only the narrator, Arun, an aspiring Urdu writer of detective novels, who takes the leap and boards a train for Delhi. What makes the novel special is the portrayal of the idea of Delhi or the big city as well as the lucidity of each character’s aspirations and the empathy the writing evokes in the reader for them. At a time when migrants have become homeless in their own country, this novel remains relevant for its moving portrait of the common man.

The Kitemaker is another short story set in a city, possibly Delhi again but that is not mentioned outright. What the story projects clearly instead is the inevitability of change and how the relentless march of time has transformed the city and the profession of the kite maker, Mehmood. He reminisces fondly the days when he was well-known for his majestic kites throughout the city, when children and men alike had time enough to fly them and how his masterpiece, Dragon Kite, had created a stir and attracted crowds. The story not only describes briefly the kite maker’s life but also allows the reader to pause and understand the ephemeral nature of time and the disappearance of the joys in the simple things, ‘like kites and daydreams.’

Thus, in an increasingly busy world, where we are caught up with our own races and demons, we must reread and revisit Ruskin Bond’s writing. His writing is an indulgence that allows us to stop, reminisce, and remember the simpler and older ways of life that gave everyone moments to rest, reflect, and appreciate the little things and people around us.

Cover Image by Jim Ankan Deka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Digital Publishing Startups are Redefining the Industry as Amazon Maintains Lead

The pursuit of hygge during COVID-19 social distancing has forced the Tsundoko-afflicted to dust off the books in their homes, and prompted busy readers to boost e-book sales worldwide. With Amazon shifting its attention to ‘essential goods and services’ and independent bookstores suffering due to reduced footfall, digital publishing platforms and reading services are flourishing globally. According to Emma Charlton, fiction sales in the United Kingdom have had a 30% increase while sales of children’s non-fiction titles surged by 66% in the United States. Even as digital libraries such as Internet Archive and JSTOR have provided access to millions of books and journals, Seagull Books is offering a book a day to readers worldwide. The million-plus subscribed Scribd has also pitched in with free access to its library.

JSTOR - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books - E-Book Offer
Seagull Books – E-Book Offer

Although the COVID-19 lockdown has positively impacted the global e-book industry, publishing startups have been re-drawing the boundaries of the traditional printing press and conventional publishing houses for years.

BlondePlotters
The Blonde Plotters

My VLF, winner of Bookseller’s FutureBook Booktech Startup of the Year, is the global online literary festival. Launched in 2019 by The Blonde Plotters, Gwyn GB, Kelly Clayton, Deborah Carr, who found travelling to literary festivals expensive from their residence in Jersey in the Channel Islands near France, My VLF provides free access to thousands of books and author interviews, similar to a venue-based literary festival. Co-founder of My VLF, Gwyn GB says, “Although the award has not made much difference in registered users since it’s an industry award, the recognition has prompted new publishers and authors to get in touch with us.” The Covid 19 lockdown has also brought collaborations with publishers who had scheduled book launches, and cancelled British book festivals coming together for My VLF’s Big Book Weekend.

Lee Constantine (Publishizer)
Lee Constantine (Publishizer)

As with most startups, gaps in industry paradigms often precipitate identification of technological solutions. My VLF is similar to Notion Press which was established when engineers, Naveen Valsakumar and Bhargava Adepalley were unable to find a publisher despite friend Jana Pillay’s father owning a publishing house. According to Publishizer’s Lee Constantine, “96% of book proposals get rejected by agents and publishers… And many authors are left to navigate this process on their own… So Publishizer started as a way for authors to crowdfund their own advance by selling pre-order copies… All of these happens before the book is written, so it’s a very lean approach to publishing a book.”

Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)
Jasleen Khurana (Qwerty Thoughts)

Among start-ups taking the unconventional route in the publishing industry is Qwerty Thoughts. The social book-reading platform’s discussable format of a book enables readers to simultaneously interact with the text and other readers. Co-Founder of Qwerty Thoughts, says, “Every book is a virtual reading room. We have incorporated chat rooms plus live reading. So while you are reading, you can see who all are reading a book at that particular time. You can directly chat with them inside the book; and if you’re reading the same chapter, you can directly have a live chat on that particular chapter or that particular paragraph even which you are reading together”.

Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)
Richard Nash (Red Lemonade)

The range of publishing startups include publishing start-up veteran, Pothi.com, crowdfunding publisher Unbound, and photobook printer Binder. Co-Founder of Canelo, Michael Bhaskar’s list of publishing startups includes more than 500 companies worldwide. While many companies on Bhaskar’s original 2014 list have remained active, companies like Red Lemonade found it difficult to continue operations. Richard Nash of Red Lemonade, who was unable to raise the capital necessary for business development, explains that “One of the biggest challenges that publishing start-ups face in the East and the West is adoption cycles. It takes a very long time for publishing start-ups to scale… Any investor, they want to see activity on the platform.”

Shubhojit Chatterjee
Shubhojit Chatterjee (Binder)

B2B publisher and founder of photobook publisher, Binder, Shubhojit Chatterjee agrees that it is more difficult to retain consumer clients than business clients. Citing Pothi.com as an example of how long it takes to establish a publishing start-up, Shubhojit says, “customer relationship management is really important. Whenever a customer has an issue, we ensure we respond immediately to address their concern… And customers remember that we went the extra mile to resolve their issue.” 

 

Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)
Abhaya Agarwal (Pothi)

Among the first Print-on-Demand companies in India, Pothi.com, has come a long way since it was established in 2008, with nearly 12000 print titles and 8000 e-books presently. Co-founder Abhaya Agarwal attributes the platform’s success to “word-of-mouth publicity. We have always prided ourselves on our customer service and transparency. Because self-publishing can be a very scammy thing… There are tons of companies making huge promises and charging large amounts. So we have always been very careful. we can under-promise and over-deliver but never the other way around.” Abhaya is also proud of being able to provide opportunities to unconventional authors including graphic novel illustrators through the Comix India collaboration.

Of course, Amazon, the tech behemoth that started the publishing disruption, is still going strong with “authors earning more than USD 300 million from the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select Global Fund in 2019, totalling more than USD 1.1 billion since the launch of Kindle Unlimited.” As Brian Heater & Anthony Ha assert, “Kindle can take credit for doing the lion’s share in changing our perception of what a book is.” As more publishing start-ups try to re-define the reading and publishing experience worldwide, the modern printing press of digital libraries and independent publishing is expected to incorporate more technological solutions that blend existing printing standards with innovations for the narrative of digital humanities.


 

Cover Image - A writer writing on her laptop with books beside her.

How to Write a Book Review – Take Your First Steps

Some reviewers end up writing a book report while writing a book review. Some even don’t read the book before writing a book review (yes, it’s a scam!). Some write it to prove that they are Shakespeare incarnate and just one book away from churning out bestsellers like Stephen King.

Well, some reviewers just miss the point of reviewing a book. So, we are releasing a few-pointer guideline to write a book review that is nothing else but a Book Review. Let’s dig in.

There are two stages of writing a book review. One is written in your head while you are reading it and the second is written when you pick your pen or the writing device to actually write it down. So, we have divided our guide into two sections –

  • The Reading Part
  • The Writing Part

The Reading Part

  • Read the book. Yes, that’s the most essential part. If you review a book without reading or after partial reading of the book, you are being dishonest. If there were licenses for book reviewers, yours would be revoked in no time.
  • Make notes, create highlights, and mark quoteworthy parts. This will help you avoid a re-reading of the book while writing the review.
  • Check for difficulty or ease of reading. Define a benchmark according to your journey as a reader. What books have you found to be good and easy to read, bad and easy to read, good and difficult to read, bad and difficult to read? Place your current book in the permutations appropriately.
  • Determine if the book is a pageturner – 10% rule. Read atleast 10% of the book to decide if it is pageturner. Remember to mention your finding to your readers.
  • Determine if the beginning and the end are done well. They are important for all kinds of writing, including your review.
  • Understand who does the book relate to. Are you able to relate to the book? If not, who is the right reader for the book?
  • Take note of the editing quality. Editors can be lazy and because they have the power to spoil a book, they sometimes do it. Make sure you take note of the editor’s performance.
  • Don’t mind the author’s reputation. It is not your job to please or displease the author. Remember you are not judging the author, you are judging the book. A few touchy authors don’t understand the difference and that’s okay.
  • Most importantly, be honest to your feelings.

THE Writing PART

  • Start with a bait, something that intrigues your readers. This bait should make your readers dive right into your review. For example – “Fans of Paulo Coelho will find The Spy unlike his more prosaic narratives such as The Alchemist.” Also, a bait doesn’t have to be a lie.
  • Introduce the book, author, theme, and publisher.
  • Give a short introduction of the plot without spoilers. Again, no spoilers.
  • Discuss the parts that appealed to you the most. Use the quoteworthy parts you noted while reading. Discuss other findings from your reading such as ‘if it’s a pageturner’, ‘how difficult or easy was the read’ etc.
  • Discuss things that are unique about the book. If you don’t find anything unique, we are sorry that you’ve to review this book.
  • Discuss the parts you didn’t like but do not act mean. Book writing is hard work and even if you are reviewing the most boring book of the world, the effort alone deserves a round of applause.
  • Whether you are recommending a read or suggesting abstinence, provide reasons. Use stars if you use stars for rating.
  • Most importantly, be honest to your feelings.

Also, remember George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Image by expresswriters from Pixabay

Agni Sreedhar’s The Gangster’s Gita Evokes a Whirlwind of Emotions


The first time I heard the name Agni Sreedhar I was sitting in one of the conference rooms of the Hotel Lalit Ashok, Bengaluru, editing a blog for the Bangalore Literature Festival. Mr. Sreedhar was one of the guest speakers for the festival and was in conversation with renowned Kannada writer Prathibha Nandakumar about his new book The Gangster’s Gita (published by Eka). Like many others before me, I too was intrigued reading about his life and one of our team members filled me in with more details about this so-called gangster turned writer, which only piqued me further. His story has been so unlike the usual that it wasn’t too difficult for me to register his name in the memory amidst the long list of speakers who came to the festival. From then till today, there had been many occasions when I had serendipitously crossed paths with Gangster’s Gita. As lame as it may sound, I have always believed that a good book will always find you when the time is just right.

 

Last night I was window shopping on Kindle and once again found The Gangster’s Gita sitting there asking to be read. I instinctively downloaded it but it was almost midnight. I told myself I will have a look at the ‘Translator’s Note’ and read the rest of the book the next morning. The translation is done by Prathibha Nandakumar and the original title in Kannada is Edegarike. In her note, she talks about the author and his love of literature. She also talks about how translating his book hasn’t been an easier task given Sreedhar’s distinct style of writing along with the need to retain the nuances of the original narration in Kannada. However, all the hard work and the multiple drafts of translation seems to have paid off, because I couldn’t just stop with the translator’s note. Before I knew it, I was already reading the last lines of the book and I must credit the translator as much as the author for the scintillating read. Personally for me, one of the best things that happened to the book is Prathibha’s translation along with her note.

 

The publisher’s note claims that this is a work of fiction and the usual that follows. However, the book begins with words of Erik Erikson – ‘A novel is not necessarily a work of fiction’. The narrator is our very Sreedhar Anna who entered the criminal world under the strangest of circumstances. However, the real protagonist of this stirring story seems to be Sona. Sona belonged with the mafia of the Mumbai underworld and was sent to Bangalore on an assignment that involved Sreedhar Anna and his boss. The sudden turn of events leads to Sreedhar Anna meeting Sona. The duo is then compelled by circumstances to leave Bangalore to Sakleshpur along with Sreedhar Anna’s boss and some of their boys. During their adventurous trip and their stay in Sakleshpur, Sreedhar Anna and Sona get acquainted with each other.

 

The book follows the life of Sona through conversations with Sreedhar Anna. Sona, who is barely thirty years old, intrigues Sreedhar Anna with his calm and poise. Their conversations and Sona’s demeanour unleash a storm within Sreedhar Anna and stirs up the readers too without fail. In her note earlier, Prathibha talked about how they arrived at the title of the book and it can’t be any more apt than this. The book stands on the shoulders of two men who have killed and questions the concepts of strength and weakness, heroism and cowardice. It wretches open the seemingly cold-hearts of these men and drench you in the blood of warmth that flows inside them. The choices that they made, the choices that are made for them, their regrets, their gracefulness demolishes all pre-established ideas of good- bad and right-wrong.

 

Orwell says “Good prose should be transparent, like a windowpane.”, and that is exactly how our author writes. He forgoes the decorative language and sticks with straight yet evocative narration. It is a thin book with only 103 pages yet with its powerful, thought-provoking narration it invoked a whirlwind of emotions within me that I could barely fall asleep. It has been one of the very fulfilling reads for this year and I am grateful for all the happenstances that led me to the discovery of this book.

 

COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

The Literature World is Already Adapting to the New Normal

Nothing else seems on everyone’s minds other than the coronavirus pandemic. It has brought entire countries to a standstill. It has brought individual lives to a stop. It has completely changed the way we live, for now. As a result, things have suddenly become more online than physical, from education to office work. The pertinent need for social distancing has brought about this social change.

The world in the pre-corona era saw a resurgence of independent bookstores, but now once again literature has to carve a space in the online sphere and so far, it has embraced this online transformation quite well. Following the lock down rules in India, bookstores and publication houses have been shut down. With that, literary readings, book launches, author sign ups, engaging discussions, and talks have also ceased for the time being.

So where do we go from here?

If one has stable internet and a computer system or a smartphone, for now, a home will suffice. This is because several publication houses, authors, collectives and organisations have turned to the digital medium so that there is not a complete cut off for literature lovers. We can get our dose of literary fun in these trying times too.

 

 

Reading with Kids

Schools and colleges were the first to be shut in March when the coronavirus reared its ugly head in the country. This led to this unexpected scenario where the kids are suddenly home and it is not even summer vacation. The parents were unprepared and so were the schools for this vacuum. The parents had the double task now of working from home themselves as well as keeping the kids engaged.

Some of the initial online literary ventures, thus, focused on kids and getting them to use this spare time to read more since they were forced to be indoors.

An online Facebook Group, Reading Racoons, started #ThodaReadingCorona where till 31st of March everyday at 11am, a video was posted of different children books’ authors reading excerpts from their respective books.

Penguin too launched its series #OnceUponATimeWithPenguin, which lasted till the 1st part of the lockdown.

 

 

Diverse Literary Initiatives

Slowly, as the lockdown got enforced throughout the country, similar events were organised by more publishing houses and literary collectives too. Juggernaut Books in association with the scroll.in perhaps started the first online literary fest, ReadInstead, where celebrities and authors from diverse backgrounds either read book excerpts or discussed them. They post their weekly schedule every Thursday and the videos go live at 1pm. Check out their latest schedule for this week here.

Roli Books has also transformed into Roli Pulse where they conduct panel discussions rather than only having author readings. Zubaan Books joined the bandwagon this week when it began a webinar series discussing myriad perspectives and issues the country faces while battling COVID 19.

 

 

Is It Worth It?

All this begs the question how important and effective are these online ventures? For one, they provide succor to all literature lovers and getting kids to read more is always appreciated. For another, they help literature lovers remain rooted, sane, and well informed even when they cannot physically attend such programmes.

In the age of petty social media distractions and mindless scrolling, such events are a far better alternative. If after three weeks of lockdown, one is thoroughly exasperated by Netflix shows and TV channels, these events are there for you to learn and enjoy.

So, even when and if the lockdown gets eased, these events should continue because of the knowledge they help to disseminate. They do away with physical hurdles of space and are more accessible, albeit with certain technological requirements. You do not have to be in that location or venue to attend the event. You can enjoy all the literary gems from the comfort of your home, sitting on your favourite couch with a pair of headphones. In a way, they could make for the perfect literature festival!

Not to mention they are free of cost and do not carry with them the hustle and bustle of usual literary events or literary festivals. So, if you want to hear your favourite author, you do not have to go through their itinerary or push through hordes of other fans, just sit back and enjoy!

Social distancing might become a norm in the foreseeable future, at least till the pandemic does not recede. Hence, having online literary events and festivals seem an excellent way to keep oneself engaged. They are also innovative models conceptualized by publishing houses or bookstores to remain in business while continuing engagement between readers and writers.

However, in this new world of incessant online communication, the only drawback of the online literary festivals is the online aspect itself. For how many hours can one be attached to a computer? It is one thing to log in and enjoy an insightful online discussion once in a while. But after being constantly logged in, there is a danger of being saturated with it. One would then long for the closeness and human touch of an actual physical event!

Though one possible solution for this is to subscribe to podcasts rather than visual literary festivals, for now, we have in our grasp, well curated talks and readings! Literature now has moved on to greener pastures: the online pastures!

Online Literary Festivals You Should Check Out:

1. The pioneer of literary festivals in India, Jaipur literature Festival, started its digital version which is aptly called, Brave New World.

2. Women’s Web’s #SheReads invites female authors to read and discuss their works. One excellent talk is by Anukrti Upadhyay, author of Daura.

3. Bound India is a great platform to know more about books and budding writers. With the lockdown, they also began a plethora of useful writing workshops and online classes. Their podcasts are a great option for those who are tired of their screens!

4. Harper Collins in collaboration with Algebra: the Arts and Ideas Club initiated RESET that hosts conversations with Harper authors. We recommend checking out their #Lockdown Poetry section where authors read their favourite poems!

5. The Curious Reader’s has two interesting series on its Instagram page: One where authors talk about their work and the other related to staying sane during the lockdown, #StaySafeStaySane

So, spend some quality time brushing up your literary knowledge and exploring its many areas through these and many more such online literary initiatives!

 

John Zubrzycki’s Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns


It is sometimes easy to forget, amid the ramblings on politics and culture, and religion, even cricket, that India is a magical place both literally and figuratively. Magic has always played an important part of the cultural makeup of this country. Much like the storytellers who go from village to village, narrating myths and legends, or the community of ropewalkers and acrobats who entertain in the middle of a busy street with feats of daring, there is also a community of artists whose profession is to shock and awe with the help of the supernatural, and the impossible. They are street magicians.

This then, is the subject of John Zubrzycki’s thoroughly researched epic – Jadoowallahs, Jugglers and Jinns: A Magical History of India. It is an exhaustively entertaining book that takes the reader on a journey from the court of Mughal Emperor Jehangir to the streets of Delhi in modern India.

Zubrzycki drew upon a wealth of narratives and anecdotes for his research. From traditional Greek travel accounts to eyewitness accounts of merchants, traders, courtiers, chroniclers, and even kings, to libraries, newspaper clippings, magic journals, and personal interviews, Zubrzycki used all to write this account. So exhaustively large is the story that the author has chosen to tell, that it will feel largely incomplete despite the depth and extent of the narrative before the reader.

Indian magic has existed for a really long time. According to Zubrzycki’s own reckoning, there seems to be hints, even actual verses, in ancient texts as old as the Atharva Veda. Clearly, Zubrzycki has found a very extensive goldmine to write about. It is probably one of the most fascinating stories to come out of the Indian Subcontinent, and Zubrzycki has taken great pains to ensure that the narrative is flowing, succinct and enjoyable, and has succeeded in his endeavour – something that is will be made aptly clear to anyone who decides to give this book a try.

 

“India’s pantheon of magicians – jadoowallahs, tamashawallahs, jadugars, madaris, mayakaris, maslets, qalandars, sanpwallahs, sanperas, katputliwallahs, bahurupis, peepshow-wallahs, the list goes on – ranges across creed and caste. Stronger than religious ties, is their association with the barah pal, the brotherhood of twelve, an ancient collective of strolling players that includes jugglers, snake charmers, animal handlers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, storytellers, impersonators and acrobats. Regardless of their backgrounds, members of this peripatetic brotherhood can share a cooking hearth made out of three stones whenever their wanderings bring them together. Economic changes are breaking down what were once strong bonds between these communities. But their arts of legerdemain live on as an integral part of the social, cultural and religious fabric of India as they have for millennia.” (pg. 10-11)

 

Surprisingly, according to Zubrzycki, there is hardly any scholarship on the subject of Indian Magic. That is how Zubrzycki’s book was conceived. During the course of the 19th Century and early 20th Century, the mysticism and grandeur of Indian magic was strange enough that there were many anecdotal accounts written about it by English men and women who witnessed the tricks first hand. “Even Harry Houdini started his career posing as a ‘Hindu Fakir’.” (pg. 19)

These legends and tales of magic from the Land of India had existed since ancient times. The Greek physician Ctesias listed the races of fantastical people living in India as early as 400BCE. There were several such instances. The Greeks wrote extensively about the marvels of India. And they weren’t the only ones. Over time, the feats of magic witnessed by Kings and Queens of India were recorded by courtly scribes and later translated and read by Westerners, increasing the mystery of India. In fact, so unreal and supernatural did these recorded feats of magic feel, that the mystical magical lands of India were living up to their reputation. Afterwards, when they witnessed it first-hand themselves, the western audience was even more enamoured of India and the marvels it had to offer.

 

A chapter that is surely going to take the reader by surprise is the one that Zubrzycki has dedicated to Motilal Nehru, the barrister and father of Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India. Zubrzycki found a letter during his research written by Nehru to the Protector of Emigrants in Bombay. “I have just learnt that in order to send a party of Indians consisting of performers, musicians, acrobats and artisans to the ensuing Paris Exhibition it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Protector of Emigrants. As I am about to send such a party, I beg to state the necessary particulars for your information.” (pg. 241) The chapter takes a heavy-handed look at the state of immigration laws imposed on Indians by the British.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the exploration of the most famous of all Indian magic tricks: The Great Indian Rope Trick. The trick was written about in many histories, even in the Jahangirnama, as a feat that was both strange and surprising. It was the subject of much speculation and debate between Indian and Western magicians, with neither being able to successfully accomplish the trick without the use of props. It was a trick that “that was the most marvelous of all and would become the benchmark against which all feats of Indian magic would be measured.” Zubrzycki dedicates an entire chapter (13) to the trick and details its further history in the next chapter. Zubrzycki also tells the history of P.C. Sorcar, arguably the greatest Indian magician, in the final chapter of the book.

 

As a self-proclaimed skeptic, Zubrzycki states at the onset that his intention is, quite literally, only to present a history of Indian Magic. in order to do so, he refrains from giving away the secrets of any of the magic tricks he has witnessed. Filled with lavish portraits and full colour photographs, this is the book that will certainly have people talking about the beauty of Indian magic again.

 

Sources:

 

 

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome.

Finding Meaning in Absurd Times with Camus’ The Plague


Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat at his doorstep in the tiny port city of Oran in Algeria. Soon, more dead rats turn up. Even sooner, people are dying of the plague. Authorities order the people to stay indoors. This, in a nutshell is what The Plague by Albert Camus is about. Talking about a plague when we are already going through a pandemic of our own seems counterintuitive.

However, since Coronavirus has taken a firm grip on our minds and our TV news channels since the month of March, Camus’ The Plague has shot to stardom status once again. Many critics would term the book prophetic or call Camus a seer who predicted this virus outbreak. But this is far from the truth. The Plague must be contextualized in terms of his absurdist philosophy that emphasised on an essential meaning that all human lives possess despite the seeming meaninglessness of our lives and condition. He uses the metaphor of the plague to talk about the human condition extensively.

 

Others have also called the novel as a commentary on Nazism (the book was published in 1947, two years after WWII ended) and how Camus has equated the plague to fascism. I believe, however, that the book stays away from any ideological leanings and rather comments on the fragility of the human way of life.

The actions and reactions of the people and the authorities in the novel resonate with how the world is handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well. The novel focuses on four main characters that show us how people are dealing with the outbreak of the plague in the novel both individually and collectively.

A plague or an epidemic forces us to suspend our lives for certain duration and to confront our present, to question and rethink much like one of the characters in the novel, Jean Tarrou. He is a visitor to the city of Oran and records all the events happening in the city during the plague. He is much like a philosopher who thinks, thinks, and over thinks but is unable to find a reasonable moral solution or cause of the plague.

Through this character, Camus tells the readers about both the naturalness and unnaturalness of the plague. It feels unnatural and strange for the people of Oran to have the plague affecting so many of them. This is also similar to how we today feel about coronavirus and its powerful spread. However, throughout the novel, Camus also emphasises that it is natural for diseases to spread, natural to be part of human suffering, and that in fact the disease is what is the normal in this and not the other way round. It is as he says at the end of the novel, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”

 

This is not to say that Camus was a nihilist and that he believed that there is no meaning other than humans suffering. Rather, he asserts that because this is a constant in our lives and that such diseases and other problems are bound to ravage us, we must respond to them through kindness and decency and not through fear mongering or hatred. This is why Tarrou’s search for a moral causation to this plague is futile. One must not look for causes to find meaning but rather look at our own behavior to find meaning amidst this new normal.

Dr. Rieux counterbalances Tarrou as the former believes that there is no such moral voice/cause or meaning to the epidemic. Rieux does at the beginning also think of the plague as unnatural but then once it progresses, he believes in taking immediate action. He does not think in abstract terms. He does not glorify human suffering or his own tireless efforts. He continues to do his duty as a doctor. He is at the forefront of the efforts of curing the increasing number of plague patients. But he sees his efforts as part of a common decency one must have in such situations: “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”

 

I think we must learn from Dr. Rieux a vital lesson. While we are in lockdown, we must ruminate over our own actions as individuals and as a nation as well. Are we being decent to others? Are we actually lending out any helping hands to others or are we busy hoarding and cribbing over a privileged bored Netflix binge holiday? We must ask ourselves why we continue to hold racist ideas and prejudices toward people of our own country. And as more and more cases come up, especially in certain areas of Delhi, we must question why our religious prejudices are being pandered to even during such a crisis when we must be fighting the pandemic together, without any divisions or fault lines.

 

Cover Image: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. [wikimedia]

 

Reading in the Time of Corona


We had a Janta Curfew this Sunday. We are going to be facing more stringent lockdowns soon. Working professionals are learning work from home techniques while a large section of the population in the unorganised sector also faces job insecurity. The rest of India and the world grapple with the prospect of having too much free time on their hands and dealing with ultimate boredom.

This could be a great time to inculcate or reignite/restart the reading habit.

The world over, organisations, libraries, and universities are providing free access to their courses or book catalogues. For example, Scribd is offering all its resources free for a 20 day period due to the Covid Pandemic. Similarly in a surprise move, JSTOR opened up its Open Access to the public without registering with an account. Audible launched Audible Stories, a free service that provides educational and reading material for kids.

Closer home, Amar Chitra Katha has offered free access to its Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha books for a month. For kids stuck at home or even adults who want to enjoy some light reading, this is an exciting deal.

These are excellent options especially for the tech savvy readers! But what books should we read? What books to choose? Since the country is facing partial lockdown as part of the measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus, we at The Seer have brought together a list of titles that you could enjoy reading in these uncertain and strange times.

 

 

Books to Help You Travel Vicariously

The coronavirus spread because of our globalised world and our interconnected travels. Consequently, our travel plans have now gone haywire with most countries suspending their overseas flights and sealing their borders. This is where books come to your rescue! Don’t fret over cancelled plans or that your travel goals may not be coming true just yet. Perhaps reading the right book is all you need that helps you travel to distant lands.

 

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

From Heaven Lake is a travelogue with a twist. Vikram Seth was 29 when he was studying at Nanjing University. He undertook a madcap journey overland on foot from China, into Tibet to reach Delhi, his home town. Through his journey, we get to view the socio-economic conditions of the country and especially see the ways in which Tibet was controlled and cut off.

You not only get a chance to be part of this crazy travel but also learn more about the country rather than forming half baked ideas based on some ridiculous Whatsapp forwards.

 

Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir pays homage to Pamuk’s home, Istanbul. He has always lived in Istanbul and in this memoir, he pens down his love for the city by evocatively describing the city’s soul. Pamuk also speaks of his own struggles with choosing this profession of being a writer. The novel does dip into nostalgic reminisces recalling the city’s erstwhile architecture, its changing demography along with politics and diplomatic ties. But the tone is nostalgic, rather than wallowing in it.

Reading Istanbul: Memories of a City is bound to feel as if you were walking through the lanes of the city itself and exploring its colourful past and present.

You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Most public spaces in India are shut including public parks and gardens. This is quite hard for those used to morning walks. Solnit’s wonderful portrait of the evolution around the ideas of walking for meditation and exercise provides a refreshing insight. It is a stimulating read which makes us relook at the reasons and joys behind our walks. Buy the book here.

 

Reading Feel Good Books

Ideas of quarantine, lockdown, curfew, and social distancing are alien and scary. They bring in a host of problems such as loneliness and anxiety.

It is best to choose to curl up with books that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling because as Szymborska puts it in her poem, Consolation, that Darwin read books to relax, with a happy ending because he had seen enough of survival of the fittest and dying species. Hence, let us look for “the indispensable silver lining/the lovers reunited, the families reconciled/the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded/fortunes regained….. hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation/general merriment and celebration.”

 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading this book might feel a bit of a meta-narrative in this article. But Matilda never fails to warm my heart. A young girl, shunned by her own family for her so-called strange habits, finds solace in her school teacher and devouring books. In these trying times, we could all learn a lesson from Matilda and perhaps read up as many books as we can while we have the time. Buy the book here.

 

The Rapture by Liz Jensen

Many people on social media warn us that the coronavirus pandemic is only a trailer to the actual crisis that will ensue once ice melts and global warming unleashes its wrath. While any apocalyptic novel cannot actually be a feel good book, The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a psychological thriller with a differently abled protagonist, Gabrielle, who is intrigued by a teenager, Bethany because she can foretell natural disasters. This book’s central theme of the resoluteness of human faith and determination is meaningful.

 

A Mango Shaped Mass by Wendy Mass

This is a beautiful coming of age story of Mia Wenchell and her acceptance of her unique way of experiencing life around her because of synaesthesia wherein sees numbers, hears sounds and says words in colours!

 

 

Books on Migration

Coronavirus’ deadly power and spread was a shocking reality that dawned slowly on everyone and it brought out the worse in many of us such as fighting for toilet paper or panic buying. Hoarding on sanitisers will not necessarily save the world since fighting the virus is dependent on the well being of the next person we meet as well. Next time we blame immigrants for our own problems, we should also think back on how we fought over groceries even when there was no scarcity.

It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

In this time when we all feel threatened by an unknown, it is perhaps best to be kind and humane and also sharpen our sensitivity to problems that others’ face.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

This heart wrenching novel speaks of the constant conflict and displacement that three generations of the Yacoub family face because of the Palestinian Israel war. All the members have seen some form of war and are refugees living in different parts of the world.

 

The Brink of Freedom by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

People migrating on rickety, unsafe, overcrowded boats was a disturbing narrative shown through media channels and photographs. The title, The Brink of Freedom, itself captures the ephemerality of stability that haunts these refugees, whether they are on boats or shored safely to the country they were migrating to. The novel describes the trials of one such refugee boy. Read an excerpt of the novel here.

 

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is one of my favourite novels because of its use of a unique innocence, point of view and the style to tell a story of a refugee family. It is told from the point of view of a 10 year old Vietnamese girl, Kim Ha living in Saigon. Due to Vietnam War, she is forced to flee, leaving her beloved land and friends. The novel is narrated entirely through poems. You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

 

Read that Classic that’s been on to-do list forever

We all have at some point or the other been guilty of not finishing a classic novel and worse, pretending to have read them. Now that we are all laying low and taking a break from other social activities, it is perhaps time to pick up that dusty novel you postponed reading or kept down, daunted by its sheer size.

 

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ah Leo Tolstoy! The doyen of Russian literature but also one whose books shine bright as beacons on the lists of books we have pretended to have read. It is definitely one that is tedious to read and quite a handful to keep track of five family stories at once. Yet, no other novel has captured the Russian landscape as realistically as this one.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is not as lengthy as War and Peace. It is still quite a task especially if you have lost the habit of reading Victorian English. Yet, it is an intricately written novel about Pip and his coming of age experiences, particularly his time with Miss Havisham and his love for Estella.

 

Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

This panoramic novel shows us Istanbul’s progress as a city through the eyes of the quaint yoghurt and boza seller, Mevlut. Spanning more than 50 years and about 500 pages, Strangeness in My Mind takes you through the underbelly of Istanbul and gives you a glimpse of the subalterns who create and expand the city.

Other daunting lengthy classics include Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

The heavyweights in modern literature that you could give a shot during lockdown are 1Q84 trilogy by Murakami or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea or even A.S Byatt’s Possession and last but not the least, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

So, I hope this list helps in the tough days ahead! May you stay safe, wash your hands, and may you not fall prey to any false rumours or fake news!

 

Cover Image: By Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Reading Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column

Titles of novels fascinate me. I always try to find out in the course of reading the book, what the title relates to or why the novel is named so. 

Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain held the same fascination for me. I have now read it thrice: first in undergraduate, then as part of the syllabus during post-graduation and recently last year to compare and contrast it to other similar novels that chronicle female growing up experiences such as The Women’s Courtyard by Khadija Mastur and The Hussaini Alam House by Huma R. Kidwai. 

 

The novel is set in Lucknow in pre Independence era and is told from the point of view of Laila, the 15-year-old protagonist born in a wealthy landed taluqdar family which is headed by the patriarch, Baba Jan. Laila is an orphan who lives with her grandfather, Baba Jan, and her aunts, Majida and Abida. The novel begins with the failing health of Baba Jan. It immediately beckons the reader into a realm of sadness and alerts them to a significant change in the making: that of the past and all that is old slowly disappearing.  

While living with Baba Jan and her aunts, Laila’s education is given more importance according to the wishes of her late father, who believed in the cause of women’s education. She grows up in a liberal environment where she is allowed to study yet is also confined to certain spaces and knows that the older female relatives follow a different code of honour and ethics especially purdah

Laila’s life thus straddles a tradition bound world as well as one that is slowly opening up avenues for women. She develops a habit of reading, and later gets involved ideologically with the Independence Movement. She is juxtaposed with Zahra, her cousin and Majida’s daughter. Zahra is brought up to be a ‘good’ woman, to be married and be an ideal wife. Laila struggles with these ideas and is unable to reconcile or compromise with a few traditional expectations especially gendered ones.  

 

Despite being bestowed with an education, Laila is expected to live by certain religious codes of conduct.  Certain codes are not imposed on her very strictly; yet certain other expectations are upheld. The latter is true when it comes to her decision to marry Ameer who is considered as a good match by her family because of his unemployment and lower class status. Her Aunt Abida ostracised Laila after this marriage, despite their strong and loving bond based on mutual respect.  

Marriage and education are crucial themes and debates that shape Laila’s understanding of the world. While some of the debates are dated, many are sadly relevant to any girl’s experiences today as well, particularly the family’s role in choosing a groom for her. 

These debates also show us how education for girls was perceived then and promoted: not a means in itself but an end to developing a sophisticated wife who could match the intelligence of her husband. Education for a girl was dependent on how it would help the spouse too. It had its own terms and conditions and was not seen as fundamental right by itself. 

 

The influence of culture, its fading, and the idea of the now popularised stereotype of tehzeeb of Lucknow is suffused in the narrative. The rich and accurate portrait of a life and culture that Hosain herself was part of is the highlight of Sunlight on a Broken Column. 

So, what does the title mean? 

The title cites the T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men. These are the lines that form part of the epigraph of the novel: 

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

 

The title could suggest therefore that the novel itself casts a glow, a ray of sunlight on this fading way of life be it the joint family, the sense of respect for family members, or even the language and the landed ownership. The broken column represents the fading culture. 

The novel is essentially a tribute to that high class culture that no longer exists. It is steeped in nostalgia. It would not be a farfetched guess to state that the writer herself was engaging in remembrance of her own experiences and past life while writing Sunlight on a Broken Column, which is also the only novel that Hosain ever wrote in her lifetime. 

 

Altman_painting_Akhmatova_by_N.Altman | Aleksandr Evgenievich Bravo / CC BY-SA

Remembering Anna Akhmatova and Her Poetry

Born in 1889 in present day Ukraine, Anna Akhmatova was a prolific poet of her times and became a symbol of resistance during Stalin’s iron rule. Eventually however, she was forgotten, becoming a poet overshadowed by fellow male Russian writers instead. There has been a slow revival of interest in her poetry since the 1990s. Her works have been translated in English several times now and this review will look at the Vintage publication, Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D.M. Thomas. 

 

Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, Evening, in 1912. Many of her earlier poems were well received and had quite a large female readership. They depicted the torturous realities of love from the excitement of clandestine visits to the heartbreak of a parting. One of her poems from Evening, shows her wit and is reminiscent of Wendy Cope’s light hearted love lyrics

 

He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
…….and he had married me. 

 

Feminist Retellings

Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain
Akhmatova by Nathan Altman / Public domain

It is not only a humorous poem but also shows her concerns about wifely duties and even makes a jibe at the misconception of hysteria as uniquely female. Many of her poems express her anguish about fitting into roles of a mother and wife. 

One way in which Akhmatova portrays the female point of view is through retellings of folklore, Biblical stories and literary anecdotes. She humanises Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Ophelia in her poems, Cleopatra and Reading Hamlet respectively. She also gives a humorous spin to the Cinderella tale when she ends a poem from her collection Rosary (1914) with Cinderella more worried about her shoe rather than the Prince’s love for her: 

Where can I hide you?
And it’s a bitter thought
That my little white shoe
will be tried by everyone.

 

The two poems that are Biblical retellings are from her collection, Anno Domini (1922). Rachel gives voice to the Biblical character, Rachel, who was betrayed by both her father, Laban, and her suitor, Jacob. Her father denied her to be married to Jacob because the laws stated that the eldest should be married first. Thus, Jacob was married to Leah instead of Rachel. But, the ending shows how both Jacob and Rachel yearn for each other. It is telling that it ends with lines about Rachel’s regrets:

Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved
Me, and called me your black dove? 

 

Lot’s Wife is also from the same collection and highlights the titular character’s point of view. Lot is a character mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Lot, his wife and daughter were fleeing the destruction of the sinful city, Sodom. They were not supposed to look back but Lot’s wife dared to do it. She was punished for her disobedience and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife is used as an example to teach a lesson about the consequences of disobeying God’s word. She has been usually portrayed in poems and literary works on similar lines. However, in her poem, Akhmatova hails the character instead of turning her into a trope or a moral lesson. She believes that Lot’s wife was brave to steal a glance of her home:

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she will never be lost
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 

This subtle rebellion would indeed be relatable to Akhmatova as she experienced her country transforming into an authoritarian society and her home being ideologically destroyed. If it was Akhmatova who was forced to flee her home, she would indeed mimic Lot’s wife, wishing to glance back, see her beloved home one last time and preserve that image in her memory. In the subversive poem, Akhmatova succeeded in portraying Lot’s wife’s emotions when she glanced back rather than only reducing her to an idea of a disobedient wife. She showed the ‘why’ of her actions. 

This is exactly why feminist retellings are important because they reveal an alternate viewpoint that challenges normative perspectives. 

 

The Importance of Art 

Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)
Anna Akhmatova-1912 (Anonymous photographer from Russian Empire (before 1917)Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) / Public domain)

 

Another theme that runs through her poems is manifesting the importance of art and poetry as well as voicing the struggles of being an artist. 

In Loneliness from her collection White Flock (1914), she writes about a persona (probably herself) sequestered in a high tower with commanding views of the scenes around her which helps her to be inspired to complete her poems. 

Among high towers a high towers….
Here I can see the sun rise earlier
And see the glory of the day’s end….
And the Muse’s sunburnt hand
Divinely light and calm
Finished the unfinished page. 

 

The poem questions how writers attain inspiration. In the poem above, Akhmatova affirms that staying cut off from the world and being lonely is a prerequisite for the Muse to appear. Paying a tribute to the Muse is another of her hallmarks. It is unique to see a female poet invoking a Muse, as in canonical British literature the standard has always been a male writer calling on a female, a Muse for inspiration. The dynamics change when Akhmatova indulges in it. 

 

Poetry’s Power

The power of her words is not lost on her as Anna often mentions the power of poetry to record the horrific and to remember. In an untitled poem from her collection, The Seventh Book, she says that she has been spared death to write about those gone by: 

I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!

 

Her most famous work, The Requiem, is prefaced by an incident of why she wrote the poem in the first place. The poem is about the hardship she and others like her faced standing for hours every day outside prison walls in Leningrad for news about their family members. Akhmatova spent about 17 months lining up every day to know about the fate of her son, Lev. One day, a lady recognised her and asked if she could describe all that was around her. And she did. She captured the state of her own torment as well as the country’s in this poem. The Requiem is a brave reminder about poetry’s power in calling out the wrongs of a nation, how poems can help a nation remember its fractured past and never forget; lest people repeat the same mistakes. 

This is an important lesson from her poems that later on lashed out at Stalin’s rule. Her poems grieved for her nation and its people. 

On her death anniversary (5th March), let us once again remember the powerful purpose of poetry. 

Lest we forget.

 

Thank You for the Paper Moon, Rehana


Dear Rehana

I must confess I have never done this earlier. I have been in love with many books and have let them wreak havoc within my little heart. I have written about those books or spoken about them endlessly with friends. I have even wished to hold those authors in a warm, grateful embrace. But, whatever I am about to do is something I have never done before.

Ever since Aakansha wrote about this dramatic reading of your book, Abhishek has been wanting us to meet with you and talk to you. But of course, we wanted to read the book before we could do that. Yet, somehow we kept delaying it, thanks to mundane life. This Sunday morning, I was still waking up, when Abhishek said he wanted to read out something to me. Usually, these requests to read out end up being the latest political controversies from the morning news or half-satirical half-witty statements from a hopeless twitter banter. I mumbled a half-hearted yes and to my surprise, he was reading something about a July afternoon, train, lending library, Kipling, Marlowe, missing a heartbeat and some more. That did wake me up and I was asked to guess the name of the book. Somehow, I knew it was Paper Moon. But everything he read out was just too dreamy and it felt right to listen to it with eyes closed. I guess I was getting myself ported to that monsoon day in Bombay but in reality, I had dozed off. When I woke up, my weekend chores were hanging above my head and Paper Moon had to wait for another day.

 

I didn’t let it wait for too long though. It sounded too good to be left alone. So, I picked it up on Monday after office and began once again from the same July afternoon. That’s when I realized you are this wicked magician who works marvellously with words. Sigh! Trust me when I say, the rest of my Monday evening in an already summer-like Bangalore was feeling like a monsoon night. I couldn’t tell if the breeze under my neck was for real or because of Paper Moon.

During the initial chapters, every time you mentioned an author or a book, or a bookish reference, I tried to keep a note. I tried to keep up with you completely unaware of what a laborious task that was going to be. I remember counting until fifteen such references just in the first chapter. While I was still trying to wrap my head around how you managed to do it, the next realization hit me. Not only did you do this with books, but you also did the same with art, music, food, drinks, eateries and even hangout spots. I could have forgiven you if you did this just with Bombay, but no, you had to talk about Goa, London and even Edinburgh.

 

The next time someone looks for a recommendation for a book, art, music, food, or drink, I’ll give them a copy of Paper Moon.

 

And what’s with the Khan obsession? Generally, I would have complained if the writer didn’t take enough effort to veil the real-life public figures because many times they disrupt the flow of the story. But, you made him blend so well into the narration that I was smiling every time he appeared. I loved almost all the characters you created for this story, even the Australian family and the fact that your characters, their relationships, their emotions- all of it felt very real. Nowhere did I sense a pretence irrespective of how dreamy the whole book was. My only problem with the book was that even though Fiza had her own set of troubles, somewhere it felt like the bookstore just happened too easily for her or even the launch of the new store for that matter. Nevertheless, take it with a pinch of salt, because I guess I might actually be jealous of Fiza Khalid.

After finishing the book, I logged into Goodreads to rate it. I just wanted to be sure if I was the only one who was swept off my feet or if there were others. So, I skimmed through the reviews and I was having a moment of truth. The reviews reminded me of the Tamil movie Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya (or in Telugu, Em Maaya Chesavae). For a long time, I hated the movie solely because every other person (be it a friend, family, or stranger) I met during the time, told me how it was exactly their own story. The reviews for Paper Moon looked the same and finally, I am making my peace with Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaya fanatics because I now know how it feels. I know it sounds silly, but I couldn’t hold my joy when I found out Fiza’s paper moon and I share the same birthday. It felt so personal. Also what bibliophile hasn’t dreamt of owning a bookstore/cafe someday or even experiencing a drool-worthy geeky-romance as Fiza? I so wanted the book to go on, but even when it ended, the excitement stayed. I hope someday you write a second part to Paper Moon. I am aching to know what happens to Fiza, Iqbal, and even Noor.

 

Thank you for the Paper Moon, Rehana. That was a brilliant brilliant debut. I can’t wait to read your next, but until then, I am going to reread Paper Moon, every time I need a refill of refreshment.

 

Love
Jeeva