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.

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

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

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

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

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

The novel begins with the most straightforward sentence: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heidi in the Alps

Wanderlust: Lockdown Hiking in the Alps With Heidi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading! Happy Wanderlusting through books!

 

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!