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

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

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

The Joker Meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The January Harvest – Books to Read This Month for a Festive Start to 2021

2021 Read Along | A Monthly Reading List by TheSeer and Bangalore Reading Club

It’s the new year around the world. Closer home, it is also the harvest season. Harvest season means festivals, and not one but almost as many as the number of states in our country. Not surprisingly, we are dedicating the month of January to reading more about our festivals. After a 2020 everyone wants to forget, we bring you that much needed cheering up. Most of these festivals are celebrated to mark the first day of transit of Sun into Makara rashi (Capricorn), marking the end of the month with the winter solstice and the start of longer days. To name a few, Magh Bihu in Assam, Maghi (preceded by Lohri) in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, popular amongst both the Hindus and Sikhs, Sukarat in central India, Thai Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Ghughuti in Uttarakhand, Makara Sankranti in Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, West Bengal (also called Poush Sankranti) and Uttar Pradesh (also called Khichdi Sankranti) or simply as Sankranthi in Andhra Pradesh (also called as Pedhha Panduga) and Telangana, Tila Sakrait in Mithila (Bihar). While you await the aroma of freshly prepared range of delicacies of til (sesame seeds) and jaggery, here are the books that you can read about our harvest festivals, their origin, and what differentiates them from all the other festivals of the year.


Bihu Songs of Assam – Prafulladatta Goswami

Bihu is a set of 3 festivals of Assam – Rongali or Bohag Bihu, Kongali or Kati Bihu, and Bhogali or Magh Bihu. Rongali Bihu is celebrated in April, Kati Bihu in October, and Magh Bihu in January. Like any other festival in India, songs are an integral part of the celebrations. This book by Prafulladatta Goswami is a collection of 262 Bihu songs collected as early as 1921. These were first printed in 1934. The songs are in English and also presented in the original Assamese text. You can buy the book here. Interestingly, there are several other books from the same author on Assam and its people, if you want to read more about the state.

Vaadivasal – C.S. Chellappa

Thanks to the 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests in the face of a possible ban on the celebration around the festival of Pongal, many more people now know about this unique tradition of Tamil Nadu. However, the news media has only scratched the surface. To understand more about the tradition of bull-taming and finer details of the rituals around it, read this fine piece of literature written by C.S. Chellappa. The book is available in both Tamil and English.

Kumbha: The Traditional Modern Mela – Nityananda Misra

Any mention of India is incomplete without the mention of Kumbh Mela. The festival attracts devotees and tourists from around the world. This festival is celebrated in a cycle of 12 years at four river banks pilgrimage sites – Prayagraj, (Sangam of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati), Haridwar (Ganga), Nashik (Godavari), and Ujjain (Shipra). If you have never been to one, you are missing out on one of the most scintillating visages in the world. To know more about this festival, check this book out Kumbha: The Traditional Modern Mela by Nityananda Misra provides a comprehensive look at the largest human gathering on earth. Some news – the dates for the 2021 Mela have been announced already. Pack your bags and don’t forget to put this book in there.

Kite Journey through IndiaTal Streeter

If you talk about the harvest festivals and you don’t mention the kites, you are having only half the fun. Kites are an intrinsic part of these festivals across India. So how about reading something about the culture of kite-flying in India? American sculptor Tal Streeter delves deep into the kite flying traditions of India and comes up with a lot of interesting tales around kites. For the book, Streeter also visited the kite producing centers as Lucknow, Jodhpur, and Mumbai and also covered Ahmedabad, where each year more than 10 million kites are destroyed in a month-long kite flying festival. Now that should make you pick a copy right away. Buy it here.

Do you have other book recommendations for the festive spirit of January? Tell us in comments. Also, we will be back in February with a new theme and a new set of recommendations.

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

As Real as Real Can Get: Reading James Joyce’s Dubliners

Every avid reader is often consumed by a sense of guilt. Guilt at their inability to finish a seminal piece of literature. This could be due to different situations. Perhaps at that moment, the book was too lengthy. Maybe it needed more patience. Or, you couldn’t comprehend the societal and historical context. This happened when I attempted reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. A milestone whose cultural and linguistic nuances I failed to grasp. Moreover, to keep Googling for the meaning of every second sentence was tedious. It extracted the joy out of reading. So, to go easy but not be deprived of Joyce’s genius, I opted for Dubliners. Equally rich but comparatively more accessible, this collection of short stories describes the Irish life in the early years of the 20th century, chronicling routine existence, love, politics, sexuality and coming-of-age.

Dubliners captured the socio-political and economic zeitgeist, intricately weaving the currents in the experiences, actions and language of the characters. It was published in 1914, a time caught in poverty, Irish nationalism, and Modernism. Oppressive colonial domination by the British government in Westminster had resulted in destitution, widespread squalor, and repression of indigenous culture. The Celtic Renaissance was working towards renewing nation’s cultural identity and brining Irish folklore, authors, and literature to the forefront. Modernism was itching to grow. The style was gathering momentum and ultimately, Ulysses would become its magnum opus. This was the hotbed of change in which the book was embedded.

Every story in Dubliners is a study of society, survival and even grammar! Since it isn’t possible to discuss each, I’ll share certain observations about the ones that for me, made an overwhelming impact in terms of the themes they address, the realities they reflect, the variations in form and the atmosphere they weave around the reader.

The Sisters is about an unnamed boy whose mentor, Reverend James Flynn has died. In the mourning house, the sisters of the deceased describe the priest’s increasingly insane and distorted actions and his involvement in Church scandals. The death kickstarts Dubliners and its consistent commentary on themes such as paralysis, indecision, and demise (both literal and metaphorical). Instead of sadness, the boy feels free. This is an allusion to the suppression of the Irish by the British government and the Roman Catholic church, the latter embodied by Reverend Flynn and his influence over the boy. An interesting aspect is the author’s deft inclusion of ellipses (). This method is used liberally, a powerful way of conveying human distraction and the act of zoning out in midst of a conversation.

Two Gallants reveals the dead-end Irish existence. Lenehan and Corley are scheming men who trick girls into stealing from their employers and giving them money. On a particular evening, they plan to dupe a housekeeper. While Corley is the chief strategist and executor, Lenehan is eager to catch a glimpse of the woman. They are competitive, each fearing that the other will cut them out of the plan. As Corley enjoys his date, Lenehan is left feeling lonely. Eating a meal of beer and peas, he longs for a stable job and a happy home. He is more reflective than Corley but ultimately, both are crude and desperate for easy money. They have little prospects and are worried about betrayal, representing a generation of Irish youth who have been disappointed by delayed Independence. Well, there’s nothing gallant about these two!

According to me, A Little Cloud was the most relatable of the lot. It speaks of a reunion of old friends. Little Chandler is a timid clerk, burdened by his cyclical and deadpan existence. Once an aspiring poet, he has long abandoned his creative persuasions. On the other hand, Gallagher is flamboyant, well-travelled and a powerful man in the London Press. As the evening progresses, Chandler is disheartened listening to his friend’s extravagant (yet superficial) adventures and blames his inability to write on the pathetic condition of Dublin and his claustrophobic marital life. Interestingly, he spends more time thinking about poetry and fame than translating his wild passions into actions. When Chandler returns home, he loses his temper and berates his infant. As his wife soothes the sobbing baby, Chandler is utterly remorseful.

The Clay is fascinating on account of its unassuming nature. At the first go, it appears to be about nothing. It describes an evening in the life of an unmarried maid named Maria. She spends Hallows’ Eve with the family of boys she used to care for as a governess. Maria is docile, compassionate, and loved. They play a game where a blindfolded participant must place their hand in one of the three saucers on the table. Each contained a different element that carries a specific meaning. In her first try, Maria places her hand in the saucer containing clay. She cannot discern what it is and is asked her to choose another plate. This time, she touches the prayer book and they guess that she will soon join the convent. The evening continues. It is only when you delve deeper that you realise in Irish tradition, clay is a symbol of death. The family listens to Maria sing and convinced of her ill-fate, do not interrupt when she repeats the same stanza twice.

Technically, Dubliners is an assemblage of short, seemingly unconnected, tales of survival in Ireland. However, my experience is more complex. This isn’t a novel. But the episodic structure is more interconnected than one would assume. Themes frequently mirror one another. An idea that finds infant expression in one story is taken to its logical conclusion in the next. Let’s observe A Little Cloud and Counterparts. Both are about frustrated men who vent their anger on innocent family members. While Little Chandler shouts at his infant son, Farrington from Counterparts mercilessly hits his boy after a bad day where he is humiliated at work and social circle. They don’t do much to alleviate their position. However, it takes them no time to project their failures onto children who have nothing to do with it. I felt that the final half of Counterparts is the most chilling part of the collection. As Farrington beats his son, the child cries and promises to say a prayer for his father if he stops hitting him.

Death penetrates Dubliners like a sharp knife cutting through the cake. Apart from actual deaths such as those of Reverend Flynn, Charles Parnell, Eveline’s mother and Mrs Sinico, characters suffer spiritual deaths. This is signified by the morally ambiguous ways they make money, ethical corruption and an invisible, endless loop of failure that encircles their life.

An Encounter follows the journey of a young boy who meets an old man whose speech is full of discomforting sexual innuendos. Whether it’s the conmen in Two Gallants or the party workers in Ivy Day in the Committee Room, the broader objective is to make a quick buck san feeling, integrity or passion. Dubliners have no glossy lacquer. The filth, scarcity, and unappealing lives of the characters tend to dampen the reader’s temperament. Was progress so stunted? Were lives that meaningless? Was there nothing to celebrate? 

To be honest, yes. These are tales of domination, exploitation, and futility. Neither are they adventurous. No story promises glorious adventures or unimaginable twists. These are the most accurate geographical and emotional description of the city from those turbulent times. Down to the pubs visited by the characters and the songs they sing, they are real. The sadness, politics, planning and plotting, marriages and affairs – hauntingly accurate.

Weaving Together Magic Realism and Detective Fiction: Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

If critical acclaim and a Nobel winning author don’t successfully draw you to The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then let me tell you that it backtracks a murder enveloped in mystery, and yet there is no ‘solving the crime’. An entire town knows that Santiago Nasar is going to be killed by the Vicario twins. The death is so ‘foretold’ that the first line of the novella tells its readers that this is the day ‘they’ were going to kill Santiago Nasar, raising the traditional question of a Whodunnit- Who killed Santiago Nasar and why? What follows this curious statement is a skillful shift to mundane details. We are told that  Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty that morning to wait for the boat that the bishop was coming on. Busy wondering about the relevance of the mundane, we slip into the magical- a world where Santiago’s dreams about timber trees could carry death omens. Therein lies Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s well-known talent of integrating fantasy into otherwise realistic settings.

Magical realism is an untangling of reality, an attempt to discover what is mysterious in real human acts. Marquez was once quoted saying “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” The use of the surreal, makes the Chronicle an extraordinary murder mystery in many ways. It is not a Sherlockian demonstration of scientific reasoning.  ‘Logically’ speaking, Santiago Nasar’s murder is essentially an act of honour killing. The magical realism of the text however goes beyond this logical explanation.

An incredible number of chance occurrences create the perfect conditions for Santiago Nasar’s murder, I will only mention a few. As the plot unfolds, it seems clear that the Vicario twins, who knew Santiago Nasar well, don’t really want to kill him. Why else would they announce their murder intentions to anyone who would hear it? They want someone to warn him.  As a result, almost anyone in the town could have warned Santiago Nasar but they simply fail to take the situation seriously. They are occupied with the bishop’s visit, who does not even step out of his boat.

The text tells us “No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t”. Cristo Bedoya, the one friend who does try to warn him, fails to find him on time. Santiago Nasar also fails to notice an anonymous note of warning that has been slipped into his house. How can these be explained by mere chance? His mother fails to find anything odd about Santiago Nasar’s repetitive dreams of trees. She is a very well reputed interpreter of dreams, how could she then miss omens about her own son’s death? Was his death ‘fated’? Could nothing stop Santiago’s murder?

These fatal coincidences lend a sense of cosmic inevitability to the murder. It becomes the stuff of local legend. It is noteworthy that these coincidences baffle the investigative judge, a figure representative of western ideas of justice and governance. In using magic realism, Marquez is shaping an indigenous culture and in playing with the detective fiction genre, he is subverting western literary norms. We do not get a simple investigator but a journalistic figure attempting to ‘chronicle’ the events after they occur. He describes his task to the readers: “… I returned to this forgotten village to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.”

Memories are indeed scattered in the chronicle, the townsfolk cannot even tell us ‘the truth’ about what the weather was like on the day of the murder. Some are convinced that it was a ‘radiant’ morning while others remember it to be ‘funereal’, foreshadowing Santiago’s death. How can we trust then the rest we hear about the murder? Tarnished memories mean that we may never know the truth. This is in stark contrast to Golden age crime fiction which was particularly obsessed with the idea of the ‘whole truth’ which is bound to come out in the end. 

The Chronicle is not about a simple revelation of the murderer, it is about taking a critical look at society, specifically at the insensitivity of honour killing.  The guilt of this murder is not upon the Vicario brothers alone. The Vicario brothers never feel guilty, they accept that they committed the murder, but maintain that they are ‘innocent’. Their belief that they had to murder Santiago Nasar to protect their family’s honour never wavers. The entire town claims that Santiago Nasar’s death was a tragedy, but all of them fail to warn him. Why? Perhaps, it was an act of social discrimination, they were all jealous of the wealthy, young, and handsome man; especially because he was an Arab, an outsider. Maybe the town also believed that the medieval code of honour had to be upheld. It is magic realism of this murder mystery that allows the guilt of Santiago Nasar’s death to be placed upon all the townsfolk as a whole and the code of honour that reigns in society. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Image: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo / CC0

More Than Just the Partition: Comprehending Manto in His Entirety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Romance Novel in India and Those Pricey Thakur Girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismat Chughtai Birth Anniversary: Remembering Her Through Her Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old-Possums-Book-of-Practical-Cats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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