Sandeep Dutt’s ‘My Good School’ Is a Dull Read on an Important Subject

An author must keep things interesting for his readers. When the subject of his book is as important as ‘how a good school should run’ and ‘how our education system needs to change to provide better learning’, this responsibility increases a thousandfold. My latest read was a short book titled ‘My Good School – Where Passion Meets Education’, authored by Sandeep Dutt who is a school coach, bookseller, runner, mountaineer, and social entrepreneur. The book is another step towards his mission to ‘help schools deliver better’. As much as I tried to keep myself interested, I kept asking myself more than once – “Must I continue or should I stop?”

School education is a matter close to my heart and for that reason, I picked this book from my TBR stack to see what the author has to say on this subject. Our media, politicians, and leaders from different sectors keep talking about a lot of issues that need fixing in our country. However, school education is something that is not spoken about a lot. Hence, I am appreciative of the fact that Mr. Sandeep Dutt has tried to use his practical experience to bring out this book. This book aims to cater to two sets of readers. Firstly, parents who want to select the best school for their child. It talks about the qualities a good school must possess to enable an atmosphere for the holistic development of a child. Secondly, it speaks to the educators and school administrators who want to create such efficient schooling systems. The book is 165 pages long and is published by Rupa Publications. The cover illustration by Prenita Dutt is beautifully designed and evokes nostalgia.

The book is divided into four sections. The first part discusses the importance of schools, understanding quality in education, the role of good parenting, how learning can be fun, the choice of curriculum, and why teachers are averse to change. The author also lays stress on his mantra for a good school: Education = Service + Skill + Sport + Study. These are the four S’s which have been discussed several times in the book. The second section discusses the significance of reading, writing, innovation, and liberal arts. Section 3 discusses the real-world life lessons that schools should and good schools do provide. The fourth and the last section is aimed at the school leadership and deals with the duties of the Principal, Student Leader, and Teacher.

When I was on the Contents page, it looked like the book was very well organized and had elements that parents and educators needed to know, understand, and implement. Although that is true to an extent, as I went through the inside pages, I found a lot of repetitions, too many quotes and citations for a book this short, generic treatment of subjects that needed more depth and action points for the readers, and almost no anecdotal or statistical evidence for the observations made. As I reached the Conclusion page, I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways this book could have been one of its kind in the genre, with a little more churning of the rich experience of the author.

Of all the things I could think of, the first and foremost is that My Good School deserved more of Mr. Sandeep Dutt’s personal stories and anecdotes of experiential learning from the projects he has undertaken with different schools. This change would have made the book more booklike than a prosy and preachy presentation in an already dull seminar. Going by the structure and the topics discussed in the book, I believe we have a lot more to learn from the author than he has tried to teach in the book.

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It’s a Wonderful Life: Reading Ruskin Bond’s Collection of Vignettes, Essays and Lockdown Journals

Almost a year ago, I wrote “I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.” Looking back at the days that went by, I am still grateful to be alive and sound of mind. Just like every year, a fair share of heartbreaks, griefs and sorrows were duly delivered at my doorsteps. There were a handful of blessings too. One such blessing came titled ‘It’s a wonderful life’. “How ironic !”, I thought, especially since the book was written during the pandemic lockdowns. But how can you disagree when it comes from an 86 year old young man who has seen quite a few disasters during his lifetime. So, I moved on from the title and landed at Landour for a ‘Breakfast with Ruskin’.

Every time I read Ruskin Bond, the first emotion that comes to me is envy. How can you not envy the man who has managed to live most of his adulthood with all the pleasures of childhood? He still chases around the bees, collects chestnuts for luck and negotiates food and pyjamas with the monkeys. His world looks so beautiful that sometimes I want to exchange places with the ladybird that walked across the papers on his desk.

The book is a memoir of sorts with a collection of vignettes, essays and lockdown journals. Some of them take you to the days before you while others will remind you of a parent/grandparent trying to cope up with the technoclad era. As always, there is no dearth of nature inside the book. From the blossoming mango trees to the missing flowers, parrots to the smiling crocodiles, Ruskin brings the jungle into your room. But the naughty little man child who sounds excited learning about the sexuality of earthworms, and cheek to cheek selfies make me grin.

The book is only 138 pages but it carries so much joy and warmth bundled carefully between the words. You are also taught to paddle your own canoe, make your own bed and read a poem before bedtime. But what stands out for me is the wit. There is never a dull moment in the book. Be it Gurbachan’s horn, or the monkey’s fashion show or sharpening his friend’s false incisors for a vampire role, every page was a laugh riot. I kept reading out snippets to my husband because it felt so wrong to not share something that could give one a hearty laugh.

In the introduction to the book, Ruskin writes – “Have it with your breakfast or use it as a bedside book. If nothing else, it will put you to sleep and banish all thoughts of dwindling bank balances, taxes falling due, COVID-19 concerns, and a polluted planet”. I used it as my bedside book. Not only did it put my worries to bed, but also brightened up my days. Sometimes amid chores, I would recollect the incidents from the book and laugh out loud. So if you are looking for something cheerful to get you through the rough times, do read ‘It’s is a wonderful life’.

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BLF2020 | New Age Archer – Jeffrey Archer with Nirmala Govindarajan

Jeffrey misses being in India – this was the note with which he opened this very lively session. He was in conversation with Nirmala Govindarajan, whose new novel, Taboo, has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize and nominated for the Atta Galatta Awards 2020.

The Inside Story of Creating William Warwick

Nirmala started by probing Jeffrey on how he created William Warwick. Jeffrey referred to Harry Clifton, the character in Clifton Chronicles who is a famous writer and wrote about William Warwick. Jeffrey envisions this as a five-part series through Warwick’s career trajectory:

  1. A young constable on beat (Nothing Ventured)
  2. A Detective Sergeant who investigates the doings of a drug lord (Hidden in Plain Sight)
  3. Detective Inspector who unravels police corruption (Turn a Blind eye – releasing in 2021)
  4. Chief Inspector who investigates murder and
  5. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

Jeffrey hopes he will survive to complete the series.

The Art of Staying Young as a Writer

“Energy and youth are God-given”, said Jeffrey who remarked that he enjoys every single day of his writing. He remarked that age is not a barrier and revealed that his wife is also busy as the Chairman of the Science museum of Great Britain.

Children’s Books

Nirmala showed some of the children’s books that Jeffrey had written and was curious to know when he had written those. Jeffrey narrated the story of how he wrote those for his children, who were 6 and 8; his publishers in India published them with remarkable illustrations. He is delighted with the popularity; however, does not plan to write more of those.

What He is Proud of

Jeffrey mentioned that he is proud to have run for Great Britain and that around 320 million of his books have been sold. He loves being a charity auctioneer; he has raised around sixty million.

Writing about India

Nirmala mentioned that Jeffrey has referred to Bombay in some of his books, asked whether he would like to write more about India. Jeffrey responded that he is circumspect about writing on India since he is afraid of getting it wrong.

Jeffrey’s Favourite Writer 

Jeffrey lauded R. K. Narayan as a genius, a great storyteller who writes about something simple and makes us want to turn the page. He told a story of one day when he was in the Tower Hotel at Bangalore, sitting with the literary editor of the Times of India. Jeffrey asked her who he should be reading. She immediately said, “Forget the sacred cows of India and read R. K. Narayan”.

How does his plot evolve?

Nirmala was curious to know if he has a secret sauce for forming his plot. Jeffrey just said that he gets up every morning, prays, takes up the pen and it moves across the paper every single day. He does not plan the plot. He said he was lucky to have this God-given gift.

His Message Based on Lockdown Experience

Jeffrey feels privileged that, locked down for 144 days at Cambridge, he was able to write a lot of Warwick. He feels saddened that his friends (one who owns a restaurant industry, an owner of a cruise liner, a conference organizer) have become nearly bankrupt during this time. He also feels sorry for young people who are locked in a room and cannot go out.

Questions from the Audience

The audience wanted to know about the many letters he gets from readers. Jeffrey replied that he gets hundreds of letters, goes through them all since he is flattered that anybody reads his books.

“Will Warwick find out the source of the Coronavirus”, was the next interesting question. Jeffrey replied in the negative, declaring that he is not a scientist. However, he did imagine a start for a story thus: a race decided the way to rule the world was to create Covid, distribute it around the world while isolating themselves…

In response to a question on whether he paints a picture in storytelling, Jeffrey said that he tries not to pontificate and tell the reader what to do; he focuses on taking the story forward.

“What keeps you 80 years young?”. In response to this question, Jeffrey reminisced on his early days when his first book, ‘Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less’, was turned down by 16 publishers. His breakthrough came only in his third book, ‘Kane and Abel’. His message was to keep going.

Jeffrey spoke about his routine, a day in his life: he writes from 6 to 8 am, takes a two-hour break, again writes from 10 am to 12 noon and so on, till 8 pm. He writes by hand, then his secretary types it out. He hands in his 14th or 15th draft to his publisher!

His favourite cricketers? Jeffrey spoke of the late Nawab Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar with great regard. He also spoke about great friendships with V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble.

Has Jeffrey faced a writer’s block? On a lighter note, Jeffrey said that, though his home is named ‘Writer’s Block’; he has not experienced a block; however, he has got stuck in a storyline without knowing the best way to take it to a conclusion. He referred to the storyline of ‘As the Crow flies’ and said that it took three days to get the solution.

“Awards don’t matter, it matters to be Jeffrey Archer, the most loved author in India”, was the concluding note from Nirmala. Jeffrey had the last word by saying, “I love India, look forward to when I can get back to coming to you and you to me”.

About the Author: Usha Ramaswamy craves to get more creative in addition to being an avid reader, traveller, vlogger, marketer of events, mobile photographer. One day, she wants to write a book but for now, she pens her reflections at her blog, talks about her experiences in her YouTube channel Usha’s LENS and puts up photos on Instagram. She is also a software professional and a mother of two. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | Calcutta Chronicles – Nandita Bose and Tony V Francis with Maitreyee B Chowdhury

All of them revealed that their works are always entrenched in Calcutta, whether in terms of the place, the people, or the experience. Bose discussed the elements she deeply enjoys and loves about Calcutta and its usage in her works like ‘Tread Softly’ and ‘Everglow’. Further, she gave us more insight about the lens through which she looked at Calcutta – as an outsider, yet deeply attached. Coming from a cosmopolitan city, she observed so many contrasts and changes. She shared her thoughts about some bad aspects of Calcutta with us, as well as celebrated the beautiful and warm aspects of it. Bose also talked about the way in which she captured and weaved together rock music and classical music in her work ‘Everglow’, just like the way Calcutta captured these two genres of music. She read out an excerpt from this romance novel for us.

Tony Francis then gave us insight into his experience with Calcutta. As an impressionable young boy whose education took place in Calcutta, he revealed that the city became something of an extended family for him. Nostalgia took hold of Francis for a while when he poured his emotions about Calcutta, its roads, the sidewalks, and other little things. He briefly traced a trajectory of Calcutta from his youth to the present-day city which has changed, just like its name. He discussed his book The Autograph Seeker which is based in Calcutta. He beautifully described Calcutta as a city so passionate that it became a character of its own in his novel. His work draws from the Sans Souci Theatre built during the colonial period (the 1800s) which was then turned into an institution. Francis discussed how this led him to explore this place and much of Calcutta’s history. He too read out an excerpt from his work.

Chowdhury briefly discussed her experience with Calcutta and its influence on her book The Hungryalists. In the discussion, she delved into her love for an era she was never a part of – the 1960s. She discussed this work of hers which was set in that era and revolves around the poetry revolution that Calcutta experienced. She also talks about her engagement with the locals of Calcutta which was an essential part of her research for the book. All in all, this session wrapped together humor, love, truth, experience in a wholesome way.

About the Author: Immersed in the process of unlearning and relearning different values and ideas, Nanditha Murali chooses writing as her medium to approach the world. She is currently pursuing her English (Honours) degree at Christ University, Bangalore.

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BLF2020 | Modern Perspectives on the Mahabharata – Krishna Udayasankar and Madhavi Mahadevan

Mahabharata, the Indian epic, has us all intrigued for ages with various questions about life, karma, dharma, and bhakti. The writers on the stage, Krishna Udayasankar and Madhavi Mahadevan were so intrigued that they have written books about certain characters on their journey to unleash the answers about the Mahabharata.

On the first day of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2020, we had two writers on the stage, Krishna, a renowned author of the ‘Chronicles of Aryavarta,’ and several other books; and Madhavi, a book critic and writer of children’s stories and short stories. She has written two books based on the characters of the Mahabharata. These ladies spoke about their take on modern perspectives on the Mahabharata, that is, how is the 2000 year old epic relevant now?

To this, Krishna answered that people don’t change throughout ages. She further explained that the socio-technical perspectives change, times change, resources change, but people remain the same. Like the canvas of the painting changes, colours change, but the characters stay the same. To which Madhavi agreed. Madhavi further added that because Mahabharata is so honest and presented the way it is, it is widely accepted. It is not like the characters are entirely right or entirely devil. There are greyed characters too, neither black nor white. Madhavi feels that Mahabharata is an aid to questions like, Who am I? What is my purpose? And what is the right thing to do?

Krishna now asked Madhavi what drew her towards writing on the mythical tales around Mahabharata? Madhavi graciously answered that she came across women characters that stood their ground in a man’s world who did not give up on their self-worth and fought for what is right. These women characters, often called ‘Pancha Kanya’, inspired her and drew her towards writing about Mahabharata. The five women referred to as Pancha Kanya are Kunti, Draupadi, Ahalya, Tara, and Mandodari.

Krishna now answered why she was driven towards writing Mahabharata. She says that she first attempted poetry in her starting days of writing, and it turned out that she was terrible at it. Later, she tried to write a satire on the Mahabharata and stumbled on the character Govinda (Krishna/Vasudev). She said that the personality of Govinda wasn’t easy to decipher and write about. This is where she pushed her boundaries, explored more, and wrote the chronicles on Govinda.

Madhavi asked how it was to explore a male character and write about a divine persona. Krishna elaborated that in her books, Govinda is not divine and is a normal human being. The books are a narrative of how an average person turns out to be so extraordinary. Also, gender hadn’t got anything to do with her style of writing.

Madhavi presented her take on it as it was somewhat challenging to write about women characters because it was an age of patriarchy. She was overwhelmed with the Pancha Kanya that they had so much endurance and perseverance towards achieving what they believed in.

They concluded their discussion that the Pancha Kanya and the men of Mahabharat are relevant even today. Not just the characters but the acts of violence against women, injustice, and many other things are relevant today. Amongst this, it is paramount to draw one lesson: to look at the larger picture always, just like Govinda looked at the revolution of justice that they were creating even at the cost of blood spillage.

About the Author: Puja Ambalgekar is an IT employee who finds writing, reading, and books in general as an outer space experience. She believes that words have the power to make the difference you intend to. She likes writing poetry, mythology, and technology. You can find her here. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Neena Gopal, former editor of the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Chronicle, interviewed Declan Walsh, a foreign correspondent reporter who was formerly the Pakistan bureau chief for the New York Times. His book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan, is based on the people he had interacted with while reporting from Pakistan.

Neena Gopal begins by asking Declan Walsh about how he felt when he was ordered to leave Pakistan.

“The story started just before the elections in Islamabad” began Walsh, as he explained how he received a letter at midnight, that ordered him to leave the country. His visa was cancelled, and he was given just 12 hours to leave. Later, when he went to London, he attempted to come back to Pakistan. His inability to come back was the starting point of his book. He asked himself how he could narrate the story of what he’d seen- and came upon the inspiration of writing the book.

Neena went on to ask, “Did you feel like you’ve crossed a line?” in reference to his exile from Pakistan

Journalism, Walsh stated, had always been restricted in Pakistan. He reflected, in a detailed manner, on his adventures at Balochistan, and what he learnt about the culture of journalism there. Sensitive topics are often not covered by the local press and the publication of stories in world-renowned newspapers such as The Guardian, where Walsh previously worked, helped break the stigma surrounding these stories. He had never seen the expulsion coming. “They felt I’d overstayed my welcome.”

Neena proceeded to ask him about one of the chapters she’d found interesting- that of Azma Jahangir.

“Azma was undoubtedly impressive”. Azma Jahangir was one of the leading women in Pakistan, to raise her voice against the discriminations they faced. She led the resistance against the Pakistani restrictions. Walsh goes on to explain how Azma was particularly impressive as she used her privilege as a weapon. People viewed Azma as a traitor of her class and her place as a woman in society. Walsh chose to focus an entire chapter on Azma as he has considered her to be the best example. Azma Jahangir stood for diagnosing a problem when the state doesn’t act as neutral territory.

Neena Gopal, particularly interested in the relationship shared between Benazir Bhutto and Azma Jahangir, asked Walsh what his thoughts were about the same.

“Benazir and Azma had so much in common”, reflected Walsh very enthusiastically. Before Benazir Bhutto passed away, Azma Jahangir had a talk on a public forum, where she spoke about her relationship with Bhutto. Both Bhutto, as well as Azma, have criticised each other publicly and privately too. They shared a strange relationship that was bound by a common belief- a belief about what Pakistan would become. In the broader fight against the Pakistani military, Benazir had prepared to contest Musharraf. Azma, at the same time, was put behind bars by Musharraf. Their mutual relationship almost reached a full circle towards the end of their lives. The death of Bhutto, said Walsh in sombre tone, marked Azma very deeply. She used that moment to talk about the militants and called them “useless duffers”, laughed Walsh.

Neena Gopal brought the attention of the audience to another chapter she found interesting- to the one about Salman Wazir. She asked Walsh a very specific question- “Will the elite ever have a say in Pakistan?”

The debate is really between the ‘Progressive’ Pakistanis and the Extremists. The battle was about bringing a balance between these two approaches, and it was a battle that the likes of Azma Jahangir fought. “Blasphemy is an important problem and has gotten worse”, argued Walsh. He described the ‘institutionalization’ of blasphemy. In a rather hopeful attempt, Walsh felt that the youth of the Pakistani state have a very important role to play in voicing what the country should be like. Imran Khan, Walsh remembers, had based his election on young people, and has tried to tap into their ‘modern’ identity.

Walsh spoke about his interaction with Nawab Bakhtiyar. He was very impressed with the way the Nawab presented himself. He remembered how Nawab Bakhtiyar, or “Nawab Bakti”, as Walsh likes to call him, had even quoted Rabindranath Tagore’s prose to him. Walsh situated Baktiyar as a huge figure who had significant connections with the military. Baktiyar had come to Baluchistan due to a gas dispute but went on to become a part of a wider dispute. Walsh had found Baktiyar in exile, at Geneva. Even there, Baktiyar was leading armed groups in Pakistan. As a foreign correspondent journalist, Walsh thinks about the alarming ways and methods in which the Pakistanis prosecute their people.

When asked about the ISI and the Taliban. Walsh gave a brief history of the ISI and their growth since the 1980s. He thinks they are very good at manipulating the politics in Pakistan. Their involvement is strategic- and happens by supporting Islamist guerrilla organisations. He, however, finds many faults and criticisms concerning the ISI and points to their various disastrous attacks- “When you point to the failures of this spy agency, you see that at the strategic level, the chickens were coming home to roost at that point.”

Talking of Pakistan’s relationship with India, Declan said he knew a lot of people who came to India for business. With the cricket diplomacy that Musharraf and Manmohan Singh tried to establish, the relationship between Indians and Pakistanis were becoming better. The cultural desires of the people, however, had become hostage to politics. He sees how on both sides of the border, there is a yearning and desire for cultural linkages. He added, “To respond to your question on my relationship with the country, I think it would be cliché of me to say that it was warm. But what drew me to Pakistan were the people, and how they were open, to be frank about their lives, in terms of what was going on with them. As a reporter, that was incredibly gratifying”

Neena found it wonderful that, despite being thrown out of the country, Walsh went on to write a book about his journey in Pakistan. The session ended with Neena Gopal congratulating Declan Walsh on his fabulous book, and recommended it to everyone to read.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | Food and Faith – Shoba Narayan with Mani Rao

Mani Rao started off the session by giving an introduction about Shoba Narayan and her writing techniques. Upon discussing her versatile writing style, her various interests, and her works, she prompted the discussion further. Shoba Narayan, aided by Mani Rao’s questions and thoughts, explored the connection between food and faith, just as she has in her book with the same name. In today’s session, Narayan talked about Prasadam (sacred food) that is served all over the country in different temples. She made it clear that she covered many places of worship, not just Hindu temples, but also other sacred places like Churches.

Narayan narrated her experience in deciding on these particular places that she would visit and write about. She looked for places wherever there was a deep connection between religion/faith and food. Through an intense discussion, she conveyed her thoughts on how the connection between faith and food, regardless of which religion, is intimate and powerful.

Narayan took us on a journey across various regions all over India, each and every direction. Engaging with her, we traveled from Bangalore to all these different places like Madurai, Udupi, Kashi, Ajmer, Goa, Puri, Amritsar and so many more.

Later, the discussion steered towards the method and technique she had adopted to make this book a reality. She gave insight into the style of the book which is similar to a travel memoir, along with intense research work. As a writer and a columnist about everyday topics like food, travel, fashion, etc., she revealed that she adopted a similar method by drawing many ideas and research from her articles.

She talked about how in the book, she draws from her experiences with a lot of countries that she has visited which carry the remains of old civilizations, like Greece, Egypt, and China. She compared and contrasted these different cultures with India. She talked about how India has sustained older civilizations and religious practices, which acted as a catalyst when she was trying to decide on the content of this book.

Rao commented on Narayan’s belief that she is a “skeptical seeker on a pilgrimage.” This fueled an intense discussion about her religious beliefs and how this journey shaped that belief system. Narayan also shared many anecdotes about her numerous experiences as a part of this journey. These tales gave us an insight into the working of these temples and how they produce Prasadam, how they perceive it, and their beliefs. These experiences, we could clearly see, changed her entire thought process about faith. She also talked about how she learned to respect the different places and their working, but also critique problematic approaches without being offensive.

Later, she revealed to us that she was driven to go on this journey and explore this connection because she was interested in finding the inner truth far more than focusing on different doctrines prevalent in India. Towards the end, she also briefly covered the working of these different places of worship through a feminist lens. The session concluded with a very interactive question-answer session.

About the Author: Immersed in the process of unlearning and relearning different values and ideas, Nanditha Murali chooses writing as her medium to approach the world. She is currently pursuing her English (Honours) degree at Christ University, Bangalore. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | A Tale of Two Spies – Asad Durrani and AS Dulat with Anand Arni

If there were to be a recollection of long-standing political issues through the last few decades in India, the Indo-Pak relationship is one that’s impossible to miss. The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace is a book that looks at the very same, in the eyes of two experts on the topic.

The session was moderated by Anand Arni, a former Special Secretary at the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), currently a Distinguished Fellow of the Geostrategy Programme at the Takshashila Institution, Bangalore. The two guests at the session were the voices in the book as well; Lt. Gen Mohammad Asad Durrani is a retired Three-Star rank General in the Pakistan Army, and currently is a commentator, speaker, and author. The conversation also had the co-author of the book, AS Dulat, a former Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau, and former Chief of the R&AW, and former advisor on Kashmir to the Prime Minister between 2000 and 2004.

The session’s first few pointers were on the pursuit of peace between the two countries, and how the former Chiefs viewed the prospects of it, and how it could be achieved. Durrani went back in time to when he was in office and his perception of how India’s stand was strictly status quo, and any movement on the same could spiral a situation out of control. However, he suggested his counterpart, AS Dulat, seemed far more optimistic, a tone that could be sensed throughout the session. Dulat believed and still does, that the situation between the neighbours could certainly improve, and how this could be incremental. Dulat stood by his stand of how the prospect of peace is dependent on engagement and that both countries should keep trying. The case has been so, through the tenures of past leadership within the country. Dulat’s reiteration was strong on the lines of moving past a stalemate, of a status quo that may favour one nation over the other. He acknowledged that both countries have had their fair share of issues, but must be ready to negotiate and get “something moving”.

The second topic of discussion brought forth by Anand Arni was that of Pakistan’s perception of India as a threat, and how Pakistan’s army plays a role in controlling the narratives in context with the Indo-Pak relations. Durrani acknowledges that the main threat or the most imminent ones are mostly internal, irrespective of the country. India may not be the biggest of the lot, given that multiple other facets of a political situation and the dynamics of that country with others in the World could be bigger, also sighting the example of Afghanistan’s dynamics with Pakistan. The threats have also been managed over the last few decades as well, and this certainly is not new. He also brought in the context of why or how the army could even have the power of Vetoing. He insisted that the army would have stepped in at a point when they had to because something was amiss, and certainly would not have been the only one wielding power, and banks on a combined effort.

The conversation steered into understanding what India could do, to ease this. Dulat recommended a mindset change. Many frameworks that have come from India, that of a composite dialogue formula or how former governments have been able to address quick wins. He brought back the challenge of moving away from the status quo, and for the country to be magnanimous and generous with its dialogues.

Towards a conversation that focused on the more recent topics around Kashmir, such as that of Article 370, Dulat also shed light on how both countries have had considerable emotions on newer developments. He insisted that conversations and actions to ease situations must be driven top-down, instead of bottom-up. Encouraging governments to have open and friendly conversations, perhaps increase visits and help discover ways to move forward are important, Dulat affirmed.

The last leg of the conversation revolved around how multiple parties, and not just India and Pakistan, understand and are expecting the countries to resolve, and address the issues between the two. Everyone is aware, he says, and there exists an expectation of resolution, not just sympathetic, but also if seen in the context of the book, even as a minuscule example, Durrani and Dulat’s association and coming together have been appreciated.

About the Author: A believer in the subtlety of magic in everyday living, and Shobhana seeks the same from the books she reads, and the poetry she writes. Immerses herself in music, literature, art, and looking out the window with some coffee. She curates her poetry, and occasional verses in her blog Thinking; inking. She currently writes for TheSeer.

BLF2020 | The Masked Intruder: Pandemic and You

What could be a more relevant discussion during these pandemic times than having three versatile panelists discuss at length about it!

Amandeep Sandhu opened the conversation with his view on how in the last 9 months, as a nation, we had a strange emotional graph from denial, bravado, to freezing and then abandonment. His first question to Anna Chandy, a psychology counsellor, was on her recollection of advances made as a nation before the pandemic. Anna said that she views the world as pre, and post-March 2020 and feels that good progress was made in mental health. She also elaborated on 3 types of mental health – public, societal, and self-stigma. Because of uncertainty since post-March 2020, mental health conversations were hijacked by people who do not have the competence and thus the progress was reversed. This resulted in the cornering of suffers and their families.

Amandeep asked Dr. Farah, a family physician in Narayana and an author, to tell more on her book “Newborns and New Moms”. Dr. Farah explained how despite being a doctor, no professional education prepared her for the life of motherhood.  She said that her book was a step by step guide for mothers. Especially during pandemic times where the work boundaries are not respected and mothers have suffered more, the book has helped many mothers.

The conversation then moved onto drawing parallels between mental health and COVID. How both sneak up to us without realizing and both cause short- and long-term damage.

Anna put across that depression and anxiety are pandemic too, but without a lockdown. Stigma and society exclusion are the commonality between them, thus punishing the patients for something that is beyond their control. She also compared the seriousness of the entire situation to World War II. The next generations will have an impact on the psychological construct, and it will play out differently when they are adults. She said that this is not being spoken about as much as it should be.

Amandeep steered the conversation to Dr. Farah on whether there was a change in statistics related to infant mortality, TB patients, diabetics etc. He wondered aloud on how are they managing post-COVID?

Dr. Farah gave insights from her experiences. She said that doctors racked their brains to understand why there was a decline in heart attack patients coming in emergencies. Is it fear to report or have the incidences reduced due to less pollution and commuting? Narrating a few stories of her patients, she brought about the aspect of psychological effects on all ages. It was heartening to hear her story about her son who is under the autism spectrum, progressed in his speech in the last few months. She accounted for this change to the attention and time children are receiving from parents. She said that a lot depended on how patient parents are with their kids.

Continuing the conversation, Anna spoke about the changes going on inside the counselling circles. She said that people from age groups 25-30 are reaching out and openly seeking support.

The discussion proceeded to serious impacts on women and their monthly cycles. Dr. Farah had many examples to share in this regard. She strongly sent out the message that most problems are psychological where the body is manifesting itself and reaching out for help. Anna aptly made a strong recommendation to the book “The body keeps a score” by Bessel van der Kolk.

When Amandeep asked her views on collectivism, she said that most Asian countries are collectivist society, where the needs of the groups take priority and are thus governed by group laws. These laws are mostly unsaid, covert, and transmitted silently on how to be or not to be.

She brought about the advantage of such societies and pandemics is an opportunity to work in groups to our advantage. She also said that different communities are dealing with pandemic differently. In smaller towns, community support is higher.

Anna had an interesting take on dealing with pandemics and quoted the ABC concept. A – Accounting for your feelings, B – managing anxiety through breathing, C – care and communication. She also suggested that this is the time to ask fundamental existential questions if one has faced job loss.

The last leg of this discussion turned very exciting as Dr. Farah stood up, removed her mask and performed a rap sporting demo of one of her parodies on “Apna time aayega”. The parody was a take on how messed up every mother’s Sunday is. Her intent of these parodies is to send across feminist messaging through a lighter medium.

With that delightful performance, the last question was, who is actually the masked intruder?

Anna, Dr. Farah and Amandeep had variations but primarily the same answers – “ourselves”, “the selective versions of ourselves”, “our fearful selves” are the mask intruders.

Amandeep gave a heartfelt dedication of this session to all the front-line staff who seamlessly work for the safety of all of us during these thought times!

About the Author: Neha Agrawal carries a spirit of positivism and a smile that emanates from the heart and wants to reach out to the world. She dreams to make this world an inclusive one. She works as a strategic leader heading multiple areas like inclusion & diversity, corporate social responsibility and organization culture. She is a public speaker and an influencer. She loves travelling, especially to the mountains. She writes poetry under the handle #fursatkealfaaz on Instagram, enjoys reading and having conversations. She currently writes for TheSeer.

BLF2020 | India Love Project – Samar Halarnkar

The session started with the context of the ‘Love Jihad’. Two couples- Natasha and Ashraf, and Sadaf and Yatin, were being interviewed by Samar Halarnkar. Samar Halarnkar began the session by asking Natasha and Ashraf about how their relationship changed- from the time that it had begun, until today.

Afzal responded first. Change, he said, was more personal. There was no government involvement. You could take support from the administration. They were not the enemy of the social figure back then. At the time the relationship began, Ashraf and Natasha were scared of their parents first, before they began fearing the government.

Ashraf’s parents were not concerned about his marriage. Ashraf kept delaying getting married, and his parents had given up on him. As long as Ashraf got married, they were okay with anyone marrying him. He faced no resistance from them. Natasha, on the other hand, faced a different response from her parents. Her father was very adamant in what he thought- she could marry anyone, but not a Muslim. When the two had started dating, Natasha was concerned if they were doing the right thing.

Samar referred to a picture on the page of India Love Project- a picture of Sadaf and Yatin’s mothers holding each other’s hands had become very popular.

Sadaf continued to tell the story about their relationship. Her family is from Lucknow. “My mom told me it’s important to find love.” It was easier for Sadaf to talk to her mom. Her father, however, was against the marriage and only wanted a Muslim husband for Sadaf. She described her father as soft-spoken, but still his “no” was quite affirmative. He understood the differences in opinion between him and Sadaf, so he suggested Sadaf and her father to “part ways”. Sadaf thought of it as nonsense- she kept trying to convince him for a year.

Refering to the popular picture, a Sadaf added how the couple’s mothers had become very close. Yatin’s family members were okay with the marriage, and their mothers had started to bond. The photo had been taken last year. Samar then inquired about Natasha’s daughters, and how she introduced them to topics like religion.

For the longest time, Natasha and Ashraf hadn’t spoken about religion with their three children. Their children’s first question about their identity was if they were Pakistanis. Being a Pakistani, Natasha argued, had become a slur, that was the result of all the discriminatory depictions of Muslims. The children began to engage with politics due to the mainstream media and their depictions. Natasha and Ashraf have three children, who all dwell on their mixed identity of being having a Hindu parent as well as a Muslim one. Their two children, Natasha says with pride, have recently started getting curious about their father’s religious prayers. They have started to fast, and even pray with him. Natasha and Ashraf would like them to have an identity that is reflective of both the religions.

Both the couples discussed their opinion on Love Jihad. Sadaf commented on how, while it’s not openly practised by her family, there was always the little ways in which her religion would be hidden away. Her surname itself- Chowdhary, did not bring in any religious connotations, and kept her Hindu in-laws happy.

Love Jihad, and its entire concept is not funny anymore, both parties agree. They discussed about how the government’s involvement in their relationship has become very problematic. However, it was a fun, filled session with inter-religious anecdotes and personal reflections on marriage, and gave an interesting insight towards the India Love Project.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

“The Willows in Winter” – An Ode to Those Long Treasured Books on Our Bookshelves

I came across this page through a friend, and I saw Vidisha Ghosh’s review of the Wind in the Willows and felt compelled to write about my experience with its sequel this winter. I was gifted the sequel The Willows in Winter as a first edition hard back upon its release back in 1993.  At the age of 10, this hard back with thoughtful character illustrations was probably one of the most beautiful books I owned, but in its beauty and huge size, relative to that of a 10 year old, it almost felt too grown up to read and too beautiful to touch. Needless to say, as teen years passed through to adulthood, I did not feel the draw of a book written for children and it remained on the shelf in its pristine condition. The Willows in Winter has since travelled with me to each home I’ve moved to where it has always taken pride of place on my bookshelf, untouched and unread, but certainly not unloved.

I finally got around to reading The Willows in Winter this January, amidst a bit of a reader’s block and the need for something easy and comforting. The UK government had just effectively cancelled Christmas with its no-mixing-of-households rule and announced its third indefinite lockdown. January can be hard enough in a normal year, let alone without the usual things that keep us going and I’ll admit my mood and resolve was starting to wane. I desperately needed something light and as I perused my shelves, I found myself reaching for The Willows in Winter. I picked it up thinking it might be the perfect book to cosy on up with in the dark winter and to get me out of my reading slump. What I wasn’t expecting was for the words on the first page to hit me with such force, that it brought tears to my eyes.

“I must not be uncharitable” said Mole “I have my home, I have my health and I- I must not be unfriendly”. 

I sat down in my cosy reading chair and felt the weight of those words sink in. The words resonated deeply with the lockdown experience and the gradual increase in feelings of unease. During our first lockdown, I gave myself the motto, “don’t be a brat”. Not eloquent I know, but it was short, sweet and easy to berate myself with whenever needed. By this motto, I meant that regardless of how tough things might become, I resolved to remember our blessings, be grateful for what we have and be extra kind and mindful of how we speak with others, who may be facing more difficult challenges. But, I have to admit that in January, after too many zoom calls, and a seemingly endless stream of calls from others looking to offload their own concerns and troubles, I was starting to feel the need to retreat even further and hibernate in my own little world to feel a bit sorry for myself.

So, at the perfect time, after almost 30 years on my bookshelf, along came the wonderful characters of Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger to remind us of some important lessons. Mole’s opening dialogue is referring to his nephew as an unwanted lodger, when Mole craves nothing more than his peaceful home and privacy. What follows is a tale of adventure and friendship as they each go in search of rescuing each other from various escapades. We are reminded of the need to embrace each other’s differences and that friendship does not have to be with those who are like-minded but should span different personality types, and as a result how much we can learn from each other. For example, in contrast to Mole’s introverted nature, is the polar opposite of Toad. Toad can often be perceived as an arrogant and self-centred rich character, often reckless in his pursuits. However, in reading between the lines, we see a character who has had his sense of adventure subdued and so desperately seeks some kind of release through risky pursuits, much like how some would see a few of our rebel entrepreneurs in the real world, who can be revered and disliked in equal measures. The Willows in Winter is written by William Horwood as an homage to Kenneth Grahame’s classic and is faithful to the original in capturing the essence of Grahame’s characters.

Since reading the Willows in Winter several months ago, I’m now ahead on the reading challenge I set myself for the year and so my readers block has been officially cured. Whether I found a cure for my “uncharitable” nature as Mole would call it, is yet to be confirmed, but I vow to keep being mindful of others and provide a listening ear, whilst protecting my own needs as an introvert to retire and recharge in my own space. As social creatures, this lockdown has been hard on introverts and extroverts alike, and if Toad and Mole teach us anything it is that we need all types and all kinds of friendships to get the best from this world.

The experience also made me reflect on what it is to be a bibliophile. Thinking of the books we covet on our shelves for years, from those in pristine condition too beautiful to touch, to the well-thumbed copies of our favourite books.  Those books that remain with us reminds us of who we were when we read them, much as that “to be read pile” is a nod to who we hope to become as our future selves – I’m thinking here of my literature classics section, that I want to be intellectual enough to read, but still feels somewhat of a chore to start! I also think about the journey of those books that we decide not to keep, those that we pass on to friends in the hope that they will bring similar joy or understanding to them as it did for us. The Willows In Winter, will now remain forever cherished on my bookshelf as a reminder of that Winter lockdown and however tough life gets, we must be grateful for our blessings and keep goodwill in our hearts.

BLF2020 | Poetry Pickings – Mani Rao, Mamta Sagar, Maitreyee B Chowdhury, Nandita Bose and Prathibha Nandakumar

The stage was decked up with five wonderful ladies, all of them poets, and were there to read out selective pieces of their poems themselves. It was the first day of the Bangalore Literature Festival 2020, and these ladies just pushed the radar with an all-woman panel of poets.

Up first, we had author Mani Rao; she got featured in the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry. She has poems and essays published in journals like the poetry magazine, Fulcrum, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, West Coast Line, and Tinfish. She reads out her poem titled, ‘2020’. She expressed her concerns about how this year has been a roller coaster of feelings—a mixture of fear and gratitude simultaneously. A sense of community and sharing, at the same time, a tinge of self-centeredness is how Mani expressed the strangeness of the year 2020. Here are a few lines of the poem 2020 she recited:

There’s nobody I know in the ten thousand dead on the front page of New York times.
Give us this day our daily spread; don’t read the news before going to bed.

Her poem spoke of the uncertainty that this year has been.

Next, we had author Maitreyee Chowdhury; she has four books to her credit “Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen: Bengali Cinema’s First Couple,” “The Hungryalists: The Poets Who Sparked a Revolution,” “Where Even the Present Is Ancient: Benaras,” and “Reflections on My India: An Indian Insight.” She teaches poetry and design at NIFT Bangalore. Maitreyee read out her first poem, which speaks to lengths about an ancient farmers’ life. She described the spirit of the farmers to keep their mother nature always nurtured and alive. The next poem she read was about her father, which mainly revolves around the woes of partition. She said that even if it has been decades since the partition, she carries the pain that her father felt even now, and that lot of her work is directed towards immigration and borders that separate people. Here are a few lines from her poem:

Both brother and sister laugh and cry at once
Their stories last all night in me; they last forever.

Next, we had author Mamta Sagar; she is a noted poet, writer, and translator. She is an active participant in various art and literature-oriented workshops and exhibits. She teaches at the Srishti Institute of art, design, and technology. Mamta reads out Kannada poems and their translations. However, ‘reads-out’ is quite an undertone because she literally enacted her poems! One such verse goes like this:

When words are picked up, carefully splattered, the poem floats out of reach.
Does a poem need order in this chaotic world?

Here she explained how words can have a free fall in a poem and do not necessarily need an orderly arrangement.

Next, we had author Nandita Bose; she is a fiction writer, poet, and book reviewer. She occasionally indulges in writing about films, politics, and current events. She opened up by saying that her poems are usually short and meaningful. She read out beautiful poems about how we should take care of mother earth and nature. Here are a few lines:

On a long hollow night of no ounce
It is up to the stars to sing of emptiness.

Next, we had author Prathibha Nandakumar; she is a bi-lingual author, poet, journalist, film maker, columnist, and translator. She has various publications to her credit: autobiographies, poems, short stories, columns in Kannada, and English. She is also honoured with several awards, including the Karnataka Sahitya academy book award, Bangalore Literature Festival Literary Achievement award. Pratibha mainly read out her Kannada poems, and most of them had a socio-political edge to them. But interestingly, she presented them in a very humorous way, which was quite engaging! Here’s one of the translations titled ‘The Mad Monkey and the Master Act’:

Sanity and insanity are not equal and opposite in my case
And hence measure your words carefully.
Eccentric maybe, but I’m condemned by my master
To obey and perform all things different and dangerous
Normal is boring.

Reading a book is a joyous feeling, but hearing the same from the writer is blissful. That is the experience here; you know what the writer means by the expressions, voice modulation, and body language. Moreover, as far as poetry is concerned, it has great meanings to it in the few verses that they have! This panel was indeed a sight to watch, with the authors being so animate with every line of poetry they read. It thoroughly took me to different worlds and left me meandering with the words.

About the Author: Puja Ambalgekar is an IT employee who finds writing, reading, and books in general as an outer space experience. She believes that words have the power to make the difference you intend to. She likes writing poetry, mythology, and technology. You can find her here. She currently writes for TheSeer.