5 Books Everyone Must Read to Understand Swami Vivekananda, His Work and Message | National Youth Day Special

Swami Vivekananda was born today i.e. 12th January in the year 1863. As he went on to become the extraordinary man the world knows now, he influenced several men and women, directly as well as indirectly in his lifetime and beyond. From Alasinga Perumal to Subhash Chandra Bose, we find for many great lives, the deep impression Swami Vivekananda left on them. His work and message inspired people from all walks of life, from Indian revolutionaries and key political figures in the struggle freedom struggle like Bagha Jatin, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jawaharlal Nehru, Hemchandra Ghosh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C. Rajagopalachari to industrialists like Jamshetji Tata and John D. Rockefeller, philosophers and scholars like William James, John Henry Wright, S. Radhakrishnan.

Fortunately, for our generation and the generations to come, we have his literature that we can pore over ourselves to understand this phenomenon. His speeches, letters, poems, and writings are in print, in demand, and easily available for us to find out his message first hand. Apart from these, there are also hundreds of biographies, commentaries, and articles across magazines and internet. To help you create an easy To-Read list on Swami Vivekananda, we are presenting 5 books that you can read to go deeper into his philosophy and understand the man who was hailed as the ‘cyclonic monk’ by the western world and the ‘spiritual father of the modern nationalist movement ‘ by Subhash Chandra Bose.

Life of Swami Vivekananda – His Eastern & Western Disciples

Published by Advaita Ashrama, this book is one of the most authentic and exhaustive biographies of Swami Vivekananda with details that earlier biographies do not cover. The book is available in two volumes and is a required reading on the life of Swami Vivekananda. You can purchase both the volumes here.

The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel – Romain Rolland

This book is one of the very first biographies of Swami Vivekananda and was penned by the French Nobel Laureate Romain Rolland of the Jean-Christophe fame. A lucid account of Swamiji’s life told in beautiful prose makes this book a literary masterpiece and a joy to read. Buy here.

Swami Vivekananda: A Historical Review – R.C. Majumdar

This book by the great historian R.C. Majumdar takes a look at Swamiji’s life with a historical perspective. A great attempt to underline the siginifance of Swamiji’s life and message from the vantage point of history, this one deserves a place in your shelf if you want to understand how Swami Vivekananda influenced not only his time but also the future course of history. Buy here.

Josephine MacLeod and Vivekananda’s Mission – Linda Prugh

Although this book is a biography of Josephine MacLeod, also lovingly called Tantine by Swami Vivekananda, her life is invariably conjoined with Swami Vivekananda’s as she was one of his first friends in the west and helped his mission both in the US and India. This book is a treasure trove for people who are looking for accounts related to Swamiji’s life hitherto not well-known in popular culture. You can read a review here and order a copy of the book here.

The Master as I Saw Him – Sister Nivedita

Sister Nivedita, earlier known as Margaret Noble left her country and adopted India as her motherland on the clarion call of Swamiji. She went on to influence Indian politics, sciences, arts, and literature in a very short span of time and remains arguably the most well known disciples of Swami Vivekananda. This book contains Sister Nivedita’s writings on Swamiji and gives out siginificant insights into his life and message, as seen by Sister Nivedita. You can purchase the book here.

We hope you will like these books. If you have read more books on Swami Vivekananda or have more suggestions on book related to him, please write to us in the comments section.

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BLF2020 | Jeena Yahaan, Marna Yahaan – Padmavati Rao, MK Raghavendra and Vidyashankar N With Samantak Bhadra

This session felt like a cinematic experience! When the veterans of cinema come together a very insightful discussion ensues. Samantak opened the session with the question if over time Indian cinema was trying to glorify an ideal life to help the masses get out of the drudgery of life? While doing this does it compromise on the realities?

Padmavati Rao, a renowned actor and writer, quoted her personal experience of what Nazir Husain, a famous actor during Indian independence days, said. He said that art cinema is very good to talk about, but people do not want to see their lives on screen. Thus, we need to create cinema that entertains them. Nazir’s films Jewel Thief, Carvaan etc. depicted what people wanted. She said that she feels it was a matter of choice then, but might be a compromise today.

Vidyashankar N, the founder member of Bengaluru International Film Festival, brought about a very interesting comparison between politics and cinema. He said that while for all other countries, cinema acted as a tool for political propagation, for India that was never the case. He spoke about how Gandhi was very against Indian cinema from the onset. This gives a picture of why Indian cinema was not used as a tool for political discourses.

He also added that the purpose of Indian cinema is not art but to serve as a tool of evolution of the capitalist mode of market economists. He thought that cinema is a cultural expression rather than an artistic expression. He brought about an important observation about villains before and after the 70s. Before the 70s, they were the smugglers, feudal lords, underworld dons, who also got unintentionally legitimized over the years. After the 70s, it changed to politicians, bureaucrats, and executives, where the idea is not evil, but the villains are.

MK Raghavendra, a writer on culture and international cinema, had such amazing knowledge and anecdotes to share about innumerable movies of all times. His view was that Indian cinema cannot avoid politics. The common factor that binds the public is politics. The messaging might not be explicit, but it has ingrained general political messaging. He quoted an example of 1948 movie Anokhi Ada and compared the plot and characters to the then political scene, with Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Gandhi. Another example of the movie Anmol Ghadi by Mehboob khan and explained the underlying message.

He said that always dominant politics is followed in all cinemas. He took examples of Duniya Na Mane and Queen movies, to bring his point on how women are celebrated for performing their celebrated role in society. He also quoted examples of movies like Deewar and Johny Mera Naam that depicted Indira Gandhi’s anti-western agenda.

Samantak then moved the discussion to the next key topic related to gender issues. He asked in women-centric films is it the perpetuation of stereotypes or is it the reality?

Vidyashankar’s view on this was that one must look at the common denominator to sell for the audience. Cultural expressions, including music, dialogues, relationships are used because they are received very well by audiences. Basic instincts like sexuality, violence etc., the dominant ideologies, sell more. By doing this, the moviemakers get the cinematic dividends they are looking for.

Padmavati’s take was that women have been portrayed as victims because that was reality. She quoted an example of the movie English Vinglish where the protagonist is patronized to do housework. She also confessed that movies like Thappad are bringing a change in this direction in small measures. But the challenge still is that a liberated feminine audience too will be tempted to take side with men. It is so ingrained in our DNA, that we don’t allow ourselves to think otherwise. She said that she feels that women are contributing in a constructive way, saying we all need to coexist. She continued with her view that over years access to art has become less. It has become spectatorship now, while earlier it was participative.

She strongly brought out the point that cinema has been a culture keeper and has kept alive folk.

Raghavendra said that Indian cinema is constructed like a fable and thus every film has a message, and every character has to have only one meaning. The victim is also one of the parts and is essentialized.  He said that if someone is perceived as a victim, then one cannot bear to see them rise. Based on the essence of being, the rich are always rich and the romantic are always romantic.

Vidyashankar shared his challenges on taking Indian cinema to International Festivals. He spoke about the notions that are internationally carried about Indian cinema which makes it difficult to take many good ones to that level until it is truly representational of universal cinema.

He also spoke about an important aspect of social and natural orders in context with gender issues depicted in films. He said that natural order is the dominant aspect, to do with people’s attitude, which is unfortunately not changing. This makes it difficult to make a film where natural order is questioned.

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.

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.

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COVID-19, EPL, and the Evolution of Socially Conscious Advertising

Mesut Özil’s Tweet on Xinjiang 
Source: Mothership

Let’s solve water’… Like it’s a problem to be solved, which it is. The brilliance of the copywriting simplicity can be witnessed during the currently underway, English Premier League (EPL). In the aftermath of COVID-19 and necessary health and safety precautions, the uncertainties of potential revenues and absent audiences has the Premier League grappling with reworking the broadcast environment. Additionally, with the recent moratorium on unbridled advertising by the EPL’s advisory group, league clubs and associate brands have been given food for advertising thought. In June 2020, the “Premier League’s broadcast enhancement advisory group capped advertising at 25% of the branding at each club’s ground, with 65% reserved for images of fans and 10% for the Premier League’s imagery and logos.” Even as the EPL’s “500 million pound (USD 665 million) deal with PPTV” has been terminated due to acrimony over Mesut Özil taking on China about its Uighur Muslim camps, the global movement against discrimination and racism is expanding its influence in the golden game of advertising.

The Most-Watched Football League – English Premier League
Source: Project 11

Billion-Euro Covid Hit to Premiere League Revenue
Source: Deloitte & Bloomberg
Mesut Özil
Source: football.london

According to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance 2020’, “the Premier League continues to generate the highest revenues across the ‘big five’ of EUR 5.9 billion IN 2018-2019.” Considering COVID-19 has prompted the richest domestic soccer competition in the world to ask for “80% prepayment of broadcast rights fees,”  the EPL revenue is likely to be hit further after losing access to China’s 1.4 billion market. In early 2020, CSM Live was commissioned to print ‘stadium wraps’ for the expectedly empty stands of the club stadiums. Based on the advertising guidelines issued by the Premier League, club designs began veering towards positive brand associations such as Manchester United Against Racism. 

No Room For Racism
Source: Sky Sports

While the No Room for Racism campaign was launched by the English Premier League in March 2019, furthering the efforts of the Kick It Out initiative against discrimination; the EPL’s history with racism and discrimination continues with the recent racial abuse directed at Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha by a 12-year old from Solihull.

In response to the offender’s arrest, Zaha tweeted, “People need to understand that whatever your age, that your behaviour and your words come with consequences and you cannot hide behind social media…It is important social media platforms do as they did yesterday and seek out these individuals and remove them… It isn’t enough to just say #notoracism. We need action, we need education, things need to change.

According to Stop Funding Hate’s Alex Murray, “there’s the ability for football to come together to demand action. I think that the influence clubs have, as well as their massive spending power, means there’s a real opportunity to get behind a campaign like this and add to the impact it’s already having.” Even as campaigns such as Stop Funding Hate and ‘No Room for Racism’ promote initiatives against hate and discrimination, the Conscious Advertising Network is pressuring advertisers to be more conscious of branding associations. Launched in June 2019, the Conscious Advertising Network (CAN) was formed by co-founders Jake Dubbins and Harriet Kingaby as a response to media industry reports such as by The Times which demonstrated that big brands were inadvertently advertising next to content by extremists, pornographers, and white supremacists.’ According to Kingaby, “CAN feels strongly that all parts of the industry – brands, agencies, media owners, ad tech, regulators and civil society – should come together to fix the significant problems in the system… and now has over 70 members who are committed to ensuring industry ethics keeps pace with the technology of modern advertising.”

As the golden game of EPL advertising undergoes a makeover, one of the most loved and profitable exercises in global sporting collaboration will have to keep up with a more socially-conscious audience in its brand imagery as television/digital audiences worldwide stare at their screens for their favourite team’s next goal-making move.

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On Maps, Borders, and Nationality: Reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

In writing The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh has penned an eventful narrative of a young boy who stays in Calcutta and yet his world includes many parts of the globe. These are not places he has visited, but places he has read and heard about from his uncle Tridib and cousin Ila. One can easily relate to his longing for travel and his fascination with Ila’s luxurious life, who has moved across a number of foreign cities over the years. We learn of his family’s friendship with the English Price family, a bond born during the British Raj and spanning generations. We follow him as he visits London as an adult, meets the same people he met as a child, revisits the places he visited in Tridib’s stories and eventually gains an agonizing closure over a childhood trauma.

Beyond this personal story is a rich historical backdrop, we hear Tha’mma passionately recount her memories of the Swadeshi movement, we follow Tridib to London where he meets intellectuals during the Second World War and even explores a bomb site, the story of the Partition of British India is retold through the partition of Tha’mma’s childhood home, and the Communal riots of 1963-64 (Dhaka and Calcutta) are the setting for the novel’s climax. The Shadow Lines asks us to delve a bit deeper in history, understand how human lives have been affected, often tragically, by nationalist politics and the creation of borders. 

Amitav Ghosh’s metaphorical retelling of the partition is a divided house, a recipe by two brothers to avoid constant quarrels that in reality creates a sense of bitterness and hostility. The children who cannot recollect what lives on the other side can only imagine what the other half of the house looks like. They conceive the people on the other side of the border to be completely different from theirs, when in reality they are not so different, being their extended family. A seemingly quirky section, it does more than add a touch of humour to the story, it tells us the story of nation formation as Ghosh sees it. As India became a country, Pakistan became its ‘other’, its complete opposite. For Ghosh, the differences between the people of the two countries is imagined, a result of the bitterness that partition has created. 

The Shadow Lines explicitly defines the borders that mark territory as  artificial divisions created by politicians, calling them ‘shadow lines’, and implying that the nation itself is a social construct. The arbitrariness of borders is perhaps best conveyed in the journey undertaken by Tha’mma, the narrator’s grandmother, to bring her uncle, Jethamoshai, from Bangladesh to India. To Tha’mma, a Hindu man’s home is in India, but for Ghosh, the sense of belongingness, of having grown up somewhere creates ‘home’ and the Partition cannot change that. Travelling from Calcutta to Dhaka she expects to see a physical border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. To Amitav Ghosh, the drawing of borders on a political map cannot distance two nations that have a shared history and culture.  In fact, by showing different characters stuck in the same riot, the narrator in Calcutta and the others in Dhaka, The Shadow Lines gives us two cities, in two different countries that are as closely bound to each other as images in a mirror, one reflects the other. 

The ‘shadow lines’ that divide people can be overcome, by understanding each other. The narrator is able to connect with England when Tridib tells him stories about his travels. When Tridib points out places in the Bartholomew’s Atlas, the young boy gets a chance to relive Tridib’s experiences. He creates detailed image-maps of these places he has never visited. So much so that when he arrives in London, he astonishes the others by his knowledge of the city’s geography. He looks for the places Tridib described, recollects the stories Tridib told. He is capable of finding Mrs. Price’s house without a map, owing to his memory of an A to Z street atlas of London that his father had brought him as a child. As Yusuf Mehdi says in his critical analysis of Ghosh’s book, the ‘shadow lines’ between nations can be surpassed only through emotional bonding between people.
We often tend to see the political as distant from the personal, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines is a reminder that very real people are affected by what we read in the news. It has the potential to build sensitivity in its readers and offers a critique of the mainstream understanding of nationalism.

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As Kerala’s Palm-Lined Beaches and Backwaters Call You Again, Stop by My Panamanna

The much-needed COVID vaccine is almost within reach for the masses. In a few months, the roads, seas, and skies will open, providing the lifeline that the global tourism industry, decimated by COVID 19 and sputtering on life support, desperately needs. This is also one instance where patience does not fall under virtues. The industry, understandably, is impatient to welcome customers with open arms, and with little to no restrictions. Their wish is about to be granted. The demand for business and leisure travel has never been higher. While the pandemic has destroyed the livelihoods of millions, there are several sectors that have been relatively left unharmed, and people associated with those sectors have not really seen a dip in their earnings. Add in the wanderlust that is encoded in human DNA, the proverbial floodgates are about to open. There is no time like now to start planning for the next adventure, and with that, comes the biggest question: What should be my first travel destination in 2021? For me, it is a small village in Kerala.

Panamanna – My Home in Kerala

The decision, quite frankly, surprised me. Until ten months ago, I was a proud member of the frequent flier community, thanks to my profession. My job allowed me to fly on a weekly basis, to some of the world’s most popular cities. Then COVID19 happened, and like everyone else, I was grounded. Since the news of an approved vaccine broke out last month, my excitement to fly again has been building up. I vividly remember the giddiness during my maiden flight from Delhi to Chennai 21 years ago. Something tells me, my first flight of 2021 will invoke similar emotions. Since last week, I have been making a mental list of all the places that I want to fly back to, once normalcy resumes. Some have the best food and breweries. Others are known for their architecture, skyline, or beaches. As I was making this list, one place kept pulling me harder than any other. My village of Panamanna under Ottapalam Taluk in Palakkad district of Kerala.   The reasons are amazingly simple. Pure nostalgia, being frozen in time, and a sense of being one with mother nature. I guess, one must be from Panamanna to get these feelings. If I add the number of days that I have spent in Panamanna, from the time I started remembering things. it still would not be enough to make two full years. Even then, I am unable to resist that strong pull. Not that I want to try.

A view from author’s front gate. A wide stairway built with laterite stones, and lined by coconut and betelnut trees, leads to a narrow pathway to the rice fields. A similar stairway on the opposite side leads to the pathway to the village.

How the Gods Designed Kerala

Kerala has over 600 kilometers of shoreline with many famous beaches and backwaters. Panamanna, however, is inland. It is a part of Palakkad District, which is known as the Rice Bowl of Kerala. The entire district is full of lush green rice fields and family-owned plantations that grow rubber, coconut, betelnut, mango, spices and Teak among other things. There is no shortage of water bodies, or rain for that matter, to meet the needs of this farmland, and Panamanna is no exception. A Thodu (local word for a river tributary) slithers across this village, like a gigantic snake, eager to merge with the Bhartappuzha river. In the dry summer months, this thodu is a harmless stream with ankle deep water that is pristine and clear. Most villagers now have a two-wheeler or a car but just until recently, the entire village used to walk through the rice fields and cross the thodu to get to Ottapalam, the nearest town which is a few kilometers away. This shortcut shaved off over five kilometers between the village and the town, so it was a well-travelled route during day or night. The only other option for the residents was to wait for one of the three private buses that came at specific times during the day. If you missed one, you had to wait a few hours for the next. Another option was to hop on an occasional autorickshaw that was heading back to town after dropping a passenger. Those were also rare back in those days. Most people just walked. As teenagers, my cousin and I used this shortcut to sneak into the town, to buy and smoke cigarettes since smoking in the village where everyone knows everyone would be foolhardy!

The wet months create a whole different set of challenges. Monsoon lasts for almost six months in Kerala. It gradually builds up before tapering off. During the first couple of months, the stream is still shallow enough to cross. I remember, all someone had to do, was fold their Lungi or Mundu (reserved for formal occasions), lift their Saree or Pavada (worn by younger girls), hold their leather sandals in one hand, umbrella in the other, and walk across! It was a true skill to be able to do all this while crossing the stream and trying to stay dry! As I type this, I can picture the cold muddy water running past my legs, the undercurrent trying to trip me, as I attempt to cross. Growing up in the north, I was used to shorts and jeans. Wearing mundu was a novelty, one that I truly embraced. Even today, when I fly to Kerala, I only pack two pairs of Jeans. Mundu is my outfit of choice for the duration of my stay. The first few years, I struggled with the whole process of folding my mundu, holding my sandals and umbrella while trying to cross that stream. As the years went by, I became skilled at this whole process.

Floods and Floodgates of Emotions

Some years, as the rains continue to pummel the region, this once shallow stream, suddenly and with no warning, transforms into a nasty raging force that breaks its banks and floods the entire village. Acres of crops are destroyed. The whole valley looks like a giant muddy lake. Thankfully, most of the houses in the village are built on hills that surround the rice fields, or on elevation, so the damage from flood to the houses is minimal. It is usually the incessant rains that destroy the tiled roofs. Animals and even humans sometimes, do not understand the deceptive forces of nature. The narrow embankments and even the main road that was visible to human eyes just a few minutes ago, become blurrier or worse invisible during sudden flash floods. Next thing you know, you are being swept away. There is not a single family among the original settlers in Panamanna, that has not lost a bovine, a pet, or a human, to this deception in the past few hundred years.

My mother, as the only kid in the family who could not swim, was one of the lucky ones who survived and lived to tell the tale. An infamous village drunk, who by sheer luck, happened to see her getting swept away, quickly dove in to pull her out and saved her from a certain death. I never met him, and he had been dead for decades, when I first heard this story, but the legend had lived on in the village. Every now and then, someone in the extended family would bring the story up during our stay, and my mother would laugh it off. I do know that she is grateful to that old drunk to this day, and probably says a silent prayer for him each morning.

Kolams and the Feudal Era

When I think of water bodies, I cannot skip mentioning the Kolam. Kolam, the Malayalam word for pond, is a staple of rural Kerala. Every major temple has one for the devotees to bathe before the Darshanam, and so do most of the older Nallukettu Veedu (traditional Nair and Namboodiri Brahmin homes built with Laterite stone and wood, with a courtyard in the middle). The oldest properties have two ponds. One built indoors, was usually well maintained for the family’s private use, and the second one was built closer to the fields for use by the farm animals and farmhands, a reminder of the feudal era when the Nairs and Namboodiris controlled every aspect of social life in Kerala. This was also used for washing clothes. I distinctly remember, waking up as a lazy teenager, to the sound of wet clothes being banged against one of the rocks installed next to the pond and specifically flattened out for washing clothes. Many of these ponds, now largely unused since the introduction of farm machinery and washing machines, have been run over by an overgrowth of water lilies and lotuses. Surrounded by tall and slender coconut and betel nut trees, these ponds with their flowers in full blossom, further enhance the already beautiful landscape. The entire Palakkad district is abundant with these beautiful properties. Therefore, so many Malayalam movies from the eighties and nineties were shot in these villages. These movies focused on Natumpuram Jeevitham (life in the countryside) and Pazhankalam (medieval glory days), and these properties offered the perfect setting for the story that the director wished to capture through his lenses. The annual maintenance cost of these houses, some of which are now hundreds of years old, is not cheap. The current homeowners, descendants of the feudal lords who had been stripped of their vast lands, wealth and status during the Sixties’ Land Reform acts enacted by the first Communist government of Kerala, were only happy to lease these houses to movie producers for what was considered as lucrative sums in those days. Some of these houses have now been permanently rented out to movie studios.

Food and Alliances

Panamanna is certainly not a melting pot of global cultures or cuisine. The place, however, has the best food in my humble opinion. There is no shortage of family recipes that are unique to the village and passed down the generations. Most of the original families living here, have been neighbors for over a century, perhaps more! Nairs of Kerala and the Khasis of Meghalaya are the only two matriarchal societies in India. Traditionally, in the Nair community, a woman inherited her family’s wealth and lands, and became the landlady. Additionally, Nairs also practiced the now almost extinct custom of Morapennu (wherein a Nair boy married his maternal uncle’s daughter and the couple lived and raised their family in her ancestral house). There are many theories proposed by modern historians and anthropologists regarding the traditional Nair society. One theory is that the custom of women inheriting her ancestral property, was practiced because the Nairs were a warrior clan, where the men were always fighting or waging wars with other kingdoms, and women needed to not only run the household but also supervise the domestic staff and farmhands that either worked as free, or indentured labour.

With regards to the practice of Morapennu, the theory proposed suggests that this custom of marrying first cousins was established simply to ensure that the family wealth and assets stayed intact in the family, and that the bloodline stayed pure. Whatever the reasons may have been, these customs contributed to women empowerment and women camaraderie that has been fostered over centuries in the Nair community. I tend to believe that this bond shared between women across the village is what has led to the creation of a few dishes and recipes that are utterly unique to this village. As someone who has traveled a lot, and has tried authentic cuisine from every continent, I can confidently say that a simple dish like Karapara (a crepe made from left over rice battered and mixed with various lentils and spices and served with onion chutney)tastes better than any dosa that I have ever eaten. These dishes always, without fail, get me to gastronomical heaven. What makes it even better is that these recipes are so uniform across the village, that I could try the same dish prepared by my mother, an aunt, or a neighbor living on the other side of the village, and still could not tell the difference!

Speaking of differences, something that I am absolutely craving, is a bottle of Nadan Kallu which loosely translates to country liquor. Yup, as the connoisseurs of adult beverages reading this would attest, the best destinations are those that have good alcohol! I am a lover of scotch. Single malt scotch from the Highlands to be specific. I will drink anything in a social setting but when I am by myself, and wish to unwind, it is always a glass of scotch that gets the job done. That being said, I am a sucker for a good nadan kallu, or Toddy to be precise. The kallu is unlike any alcohol that you will ever drink. I credit my grandfather for getting me hooked on this, even though the poor guy had no idea that he unknowingly introduced me to Toddy. He was the only man who has left indelible impressions on me, and one of those impressions was his habit of drinking toddy. Making toddy from palm tree sap, is a centuries old skill that is a dying art. When I was a kid, I used to watch this local farmer sell fresh toddy to my grandpa. I always emulated him and wanted to be like him when I grew up. One day, when he was not around, I got my chance to take a sip from his toddy pot. Let me tell you, it is an acquired taste. The initial disgust at that moment has turned into a lifelong love for the taste. While some licensed liquor stores do serve toddy, the real deal is found only in the village, and I cannot wait to get my hands on a bottle!

I have so many fond memories of my summers spent in Panamanna. Living in a town where coal was abundantly available to generate power, I was spoilt. We rarely lost power where I grew up. On the other hand, electricity had not reached Panamanna in the early nineties, even though the electric poles had been installed on all streets, and wiring was completed to all houses in the early eighties. They just “forgot to turn the power on” for over ten years. There is a shining (pun intended) example of corrupt and careless governance for you! Folks in the village relied on Vallakku, which in Malayalam means lantern. There are many types of vallakku. Petromax was the most popular and trendy brand of pressurized paraffin lanterns. Some families also used the regular vallakku, which was a kerosene wick lamp. Then there was the original Vellakku. These have been used in Kerala for centuries to illuminate homes as well as temples. Fueled by sesame seed oil, called Nella Enna which means good oil in Malayalam, this vallakku is considered Shudham (pure).

Lack of streetlights meant that while walking through the fields and plantations, villagers used either a battery-operated flashlight or a homemade Choottu, a type of torch made from burning dried coconut leaves tied together like a broom and soaked in oil, another one of the many uses of the coconut tree. Like the Neem tree in the north, the coconut tree is a gift of nature that keeps on giving! The mud embankments that separate the fields, and used as walkways, are also a fertile ecosystem for snails, crabs, frogs, and their predators, the snakes, many of whom are highly venomous. People back then, traveled with both a torch, and a stick, that they used to tap on the embankments to scare away any unwanted reptiles. On moonless nights when it was pitch dark outside, I could see these traveling lights from a distance. Looking back, I wonder if the local ghost stories about flying lanterns suddenly disappearing in the farms, were simply the product of someone’s imagination!

Memories and an Invitation that Never Expires

Summer nights can be brutal in Kerala even though the temperature cools down a little. It can still be unbearable at times. I somehow became immune to the heat because of the people I got to spend time with. Back in the nineties, joint families were the norm in Panamanna. There was no shortage of cousins to fight and play with. An icing on the cake was neighbors showing up for dinner and drinks with my grandfather. There was always extra food for an unexpected visitor or two. The village was going through a spike in crimes those days due to rising unemployment. Burglaries were common, so all the men slept outside, armed with Vadi, a type of homemade baton and Arivalu, a sickle used in farming, Sometimes, the neighbors joined us, which turned into one big sleepover. Occasionally, we would hear a loud whistle, almost like a howling, a unique sound invented by the villagers called Olli. This was everyone’s cue to quickly get out of the beds and pick up their vadi and arivalu and run towards the sound! The hills surrounding the fields in Panamanna create a natural echo chamber which acts as a sound amplifier. Someone who thought their house was being robbed, or someone who feared that they had heard unwanted footsteps or noise in their yard, would make those howling sounds and everyone else from the neighborhood would run towards that sound. Most times, it was a false alarm but at least on three separate occasions during my stay, we hit the jackpot! While no one dared used the sickle, villagers did not mind meting out their own form of justice to the robbers with the vadi. The person(s) caught was tied to a tree or a pillar and was given a good beating. The elders ensured that the mob did not get out of control before the authorities showed up. Imagine my excitement as a teenager running with my cousins and uncles to catch a robber! Where else could I find that thrill?

Every house in Panamanna now has power, modern facilities, electronic gadgets, smartphones and vehicles. All the streets are now well lit. Numerous new families have moved in, so each time I go back, I see new faces and make new acquaintances. A lot has changed over the years, but some things have stayed the same, the most important one being my love for the characters and stories that shaped my early years and youth. I spent most of those years in the east, and consider myself a proud product of that environment, but sprinkled, somewhere in there, are a few traits, that I acquired during my short stays each year in Panamanna. 

I think of it as a short documentary that still leaves a lasting mark on you. Most of the live characters from my documentary have either gotten old or passed away, but their memories and my time spent with them, will forever be etched in my heart. I get to go to Panamanna every few years, sometimes every couple of years if I am lucky. The last time I was there, was in 2018. A trip is long overdue! Usually, someone is there to pick me at the airport, but sometimes I arrive at odd hours and just get a cab. The ride from the airport to Panamanna is over three hours and on roads that take no pity on your back. It does not matter if I am exhausted from the long journey, or if am in a stranger’s vehicle, or driving with my folks sitting next to me, the moment the vehicle makes its first turn towards the road that leads to my village, there is this inexplicable feeling of bliss that washes over me. All the fond memories come bubbling out to the surface. My heart rate goes up, and a smile comes to my face that stays for days, and only fades when it is time to say goodbye. I honestly do not know if it’s just separation anxiety, or the child within me, trying to relive the glory days. I do hope that I never find out the answer. Why ruin magic?

Cover Image: Image by ejakob from Pixabay
Article Images: Shashi Nair

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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.

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Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo Has All the Sunshine You Need to Kickstart Your New-Year

At least in India, our entertainers still have some time to go before they can get rid of their obsession for pessimistic realism. From the millions of episodes of reality television shows to creating gloomy pieces of art and cinema, we are being served hopelessness and negativity every day in the name of realism. Add to the mix, the pandemic of news media, the common man is forced to feel vulnerable and powerless with every primetime broadcast. Not to forget, our own magnetic attraction to all things negative makes us the perfect guinea pig in the laboratory of so-called ‘realism’.

Naturally, it always takes much more force and motivation to stay positive and hopeful in today’s age. With business models created to make us lazier and more worthless every passing day, people have begun to lose control of their lives as early as their toddler phase. Contrast this to our parents and their parents, things were more complicated than they are now. They didn’t have access to google to look up for ‘how to make myself dumber’ every time they had to do something. However, they perhaps lived a more complete life than many of us are living now. They knew how to fix things. Even if they didn’t, they didn’t tap on a screen to get things done. They tried and learned. This is where Marie Forleo’s wonderful book ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ begins with a chapter on her mother who could figure out just about anything. Here’s how she begins – 

“My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver. She grew up the daughter of two alcoholic parents in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. She learned, by necessity, how to stretch a dollar bill around the block and is one of the most resourceful and industrious people you could ever meet. She once told me she rarely felt valued, loved, or beautiful, but she held tight to the promise she made to herself that, once she was old enough, she’d find a way to a better life.”

It makes sense. When I observe the lives of people who are now in their late 50s and beyond, each one appears to me as if they were books to be read cover to cover and as they pass away without telling their story, it feels like a library getting ransacked in a siege laid by time and the modern man’s self-obsession. Enter COVID-19, and the entire process gets fast-forwarded. It is indeed depressing to be an audience to this pandemonium.

With all the bad things happening around us, I was looking to read something that shines some sunlight towards the end of the year. This is when I found Marie Forleo’s ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ – a phrase she has loaned from her mother and inspirer-in-chief. Guess what, this book was exactly what I was looking for. Marie Forleo is a ‘multi-passionate’ entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. She was named by Oprah Winfrey as the ‘thought-leader for the next generation’. The introduction will take up the whole page if I go on about her achievements and how she inspires millions around the world. Coming back to the book, Marie draws from her own life experience, her personal as well professional journey, her hits and misses to compose a transformative book for her readers.

There are chapters on the magic of belief, befriending fear, the suicidal road to perfectionism, the myth of ‘I’m not ready’ or waiting for the right time. These chapters are full of practical suggestions and instructions laced with homour and anecdotes to keep you engaged. As a result, you gain something from every page of this book. There is not a dull moment, thanks to Marie’s conversational style of writing. It feels more like a personal session with the author herself. One of my favourite sections of the book is about how the modern day products have turned ‘us’ from being consumers to becoming products. She underlines the damage social media and all the insta-gratification tools and apps are doing to us. That is only the first half though, she also comes up with exercises and activities to help the reader fix this problem. And these are very doable if you want to put your mind to self-improvement. I am writing this review more from the perspective of a beneficiary of Marie’s ability to stay positive and spread it around her than merely jotting down a plain-old book review. The book is also interspersed with testimonials (field-notes) from her readers who have benefitted from the book and are so powerful that a collection of those stories can make a great book in its own right.

2020 was a year of harsh realities for most of us. People died, plans stalled, and businesses shut shops. But was it all as dark and negative as we want to think it was? Well, many got a chance to reconnect with their family. Many people I know went on an online certification spree to upskill themselves. Some of us learned a new language. Many came out fitter physically, mentally, and spiritually out of these serial lockdowns. There are certainly a few positives to count, no matter how sparse they are. Marie’s life and her book tell us exactly that without the ‘preacher mode’ on. This definitely makes the book a recommended read to begin your year with some more light around you.

Tales from the Himalayas by Priyanka Pradhan Takes You on a Nostalgia Date With Your Childhood

Someone pushed gently at our gate and my husband rushed to check. I saw his face light up with a smile and he was wishing our visitor a happy new year. Our visitor was hardly bothered and babbled away in her merriment. She and my husband have been trying to befriend each other for a while now. I played the observer. The only part of the conversation that I understood was when she said ‘Oh My God’, although I have no idea what made her say that. “Children – theirs is a world of bliss. Won’t it be wonderful to be a child all again?”, I thought to myself. So, the universe conspired later in the day to grant me the wish. Except there was a twist. The wish came true in the form of Priyanka Pradhan’s ‘Tales from the Himalayas’.

As an adult, we tend to oversee the various emotions that fill the world of a child and paint them all in the colours of carefree joy and playful innocence. The book reminded me of how wrong I was. While their world is a lot simpler than ours, they too experience a whirlwind of emotions. Priyanka Pradhan makes us relive at least some of those different emotions, joy included, in her book ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. 

The book, published by Rupa Publications, is a collection of 17 short stories based mostly out of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. Some stories like ‘Kafal’ are inspired from age-old folklore. However, some of them do sound contemporary, especially the ones that touch upon social issues. The story ‘The Villain’ for instance reassures the dark-skinned Kisna to be comfortable in her own skin. In ‘The Bagpiper’ Priyanka encourages little Paru to defy the tradition that doesn’t allow girls to play the masak-been from the bottom of her heart.

Stories like the ‘Daak Ghar’ and ‘The Village Monster’ remind me of those days when I would be terrified to go alone into the kitchen at night for the fear of ghosts. 

Priyanka introduces her readers to the hills, the birds, the berries, the songs, the food and the very culture of this Himalayan state. While ‘Haria’s Kitchen’ made me hungry for all the delicacies of Kumaon, I liked how cleverly she employed the narration to acquaint us with the Choliya dancers with their swords in ‘Holi’ and the famous song of Kumaon in ‘The Spring Song’. She also draws inspiration from history and brings to us the stories of Indian explorer and surveyor, Nain Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi of the famous Chipko movement.

The memories of  our childhood are never complete without our grandparents. So it is only natural that grandmothers and grandfathers make their presence felt in ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. The award-winning ‘Postcard’ especially is quite heartwarming. My favourite, though, is ‘The Long Lost Friends’. It reminds me of how everyone’s childhood is not the same yet most of us have been happiest as a child.

All the stories leave a moral for children and adults alike. Mohit Suneja’s illustrations add colour to this beautiful ride through the mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start the new year with. Go for it, for the nostalgia that it promises. More so if you are a parent because here is a book to bond over with your child.  

Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ Is a Commentary on the Wild Side of Human Behaviour

Animal fiction is an intriguing genre in literature especially the ones that are written for adults. Be it Orwell’s Animal Farm or Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, these works do not merely stay as works of fiction. They, instead, go on to serve as a commentary on society and its ironies. Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is one such commentary on human behaviour. Written originally in Urdu, the book is a collection of short stories and a novella translated by M.Asaduddin and Musharaff Ali Farooqi.  

Syed is one of the most prolific contemporary Urdu writers and also a Sahitya Akademi award winner. His works are known to be a poignant portrayal of the marginalized. ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is no different and bears testimony to the pathos and deep sensitivity that his works carry. Interestingly all the animals in these stories are ‘wild’ and therefore, a sense of impending danger prevails over most of the stories. For instance, in the story title ‘Rogue’, where three men go out to hunt a rogue elephant on a winter night, you can almost feel a chill in your spine.

Happening at the edge of a forest, these stories, on one hand, depicts a day in the lives of people and their encounter with the wild beings. However, the symbolism in most of the stories is too hard to miss, especially the ones with the Hyena. Real horror begins when the difference between man and animal blurs and you can’t say who is who. In the story, ‘ And then laughed The Hyena’ when everyone in the family walks with a ‘chat-chat’ just like the hyenas, you are thrown into a world of eerie surprise and you end up reading it again to ensure you are not delusional.

‘Death of an Antelope’ and ‘The Vulture’ sound more like fables. While the plots of these stories are quite obvious and they lack the usual layers that exist in all the other ones, they are still enjoyable. They give you a break from all allegories and metaphors. Nevertheless, these too keep you brooding. The stories, ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ and ‘The Last Turn’ are intricately layered in their narration and divulge the hypocrisies in human behaviour. However, my favourite one among the short stories is ‘Separated from the Flock’. A heart-wrenching tale based on the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947, it talks about the trauma of separation, the grief of the migrated, their broken wings and homelessness.

The last part of the book is the Novella ‘Beast’ – the story of village administrator Thakur Udal Singh and his wild bull Neela. A critique of the oppression of the marginalized and organized crime, this feels a little too stretched in places. The similarities between Thakur and Neela are anything but uncanny and their end seems befitting. But too much is lost before the end arrives, thanks to the terrorizing duo.

While the animals and more so the humans from the stories instil fear in you, Syed offers you some respite in the form of nature. Since all the stories are based on a rural setup, Syed makes sure you walk through the sugarcane fields, watch the sunset, and wake up to a frozen lake.  While I will never know how the original work in Urdu sounds, the translated prose certainly reads beautifully. If you are ready for some pondering and re-reading until you find all the answers, this is the book for you. And did I mention that I loved the cover of the book too?

BLF2020 | When the Headline Is the Story – Amandeep Sandhu, Neena Gopal and Nirmala Govindrajan With Aruna Nambiar

Writer and editor, Aruna Nambiar was in conversation with Neena Gopal, Amandeep Sahu and Nirmala Govindraj. A journalist for thirty-seven years, Neena Gopal is also the author of ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’. Amandeep Sahu has authored two novels, of which ‘Roll of Honour’ was nominated for The Hindu Prize 2013. Journalist and social sector documentarian Nirmala Govindarajan’s new novel ‘Taboo’ has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize, 2020. As Aruna pointed out, the one common thing among these three authors was that their books were all inspired from their real life experiences and the subject of their books have been burning the headlines for months together. 

The three authors then spoke of their experiences that shaped their lives and writing.

Neena Gopal went on to talk about the persona of Rajiv Gandhi, his last interview with her and the happenings of the day when he was assassinated. She also briefed on consequences that followed. Aruna also asked her of the various conspiracy theories around Rajiv’s assassination. Neena thought that although the blame was pinned on the LTTE there was more to it than what met the eye. She spoke of how Rajiv overturned every decision that was made by Indira Gandhi and how it was a grave mistake to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. She also opined that Rajiv was probably tricked by Jayewardene who used Indian forces for his own political ambitions. She mentioned how all information about LTTE’s role in the assassination of Rajiv came from Ranasinghe Premadasa and SITs mess up with Sivanesan’s arrest in Bangalore. She also spoke of Rajiv’s meeting with General Zia, the back-channeled peace talk with Pakistan and that Mossad and CIA did not see India as a friendly nation. Speaking of Rahul Gandhi, she said he has a long way to go and agrees with Aruna that he shouldn’t be referred to as a ‘young’ leader anymore. 

Amandeep Sahu spoke of Punjab, his family, his personal experiences as a boy in the midst of a political hellfire.When asked about how some paint him as a supporter of the Khalistani movement, Amandeep explained that it’s the work of trolls. Amandeep has been very vocal in his support for the ongoing farmers protest and that has irked some right wing supporters who call him pro-Khalistani. However, the translation of his novel ‘Roll of Honour’ in Punjabi titled ‘Gwah De Fanah Hon Ton Pehlan’ has been received well by all factions of Punjab. This is despite the fact that  the book is critical of the political machinery and various religious institutions of that state. Speaking of the farmers’ protest, Amandeep says that it has brought Haryana and Punjab along with the various ideologies within Punjab. He also went on to explain how the centre cannot arbitrate on a state subject. Amandeep insisted how with his writings he wanted to change the current political narrative that demonizes Punjab.

Nirmala then spoke of how she first came across child labour, sex trafficking in Odisha and rural Jharkhand and how that changed her life for ever. She also spoke of her experience with young women in Ooty and Kolkata who were rescued from sex trade, the developmental work being done by various NGOs in these region and how the individuals she met in these places inspired  her work. According to her no political party stepped into these areas and the plight of the tribal people she worked with had changed her opinion about reservation.

Aruna who had recently read Nirmala’s Taboo said she expected the book to be sombre and bleak given the seriousness of the subject. She was surprised to find it rather whimsical and that it made her smile. Nirmala in response said that the idea of writing fiction is to move away from reality to create the alternate reality. Also in her opinion, these girls and women, despite being survivors exude so much positivity that one can write nothing but a whimsical tale of them. When asked about how some of her characters seemed to have been inspired from the current political landscape, Nirmala said that her writings and creations are reflections of what she sees across the country. So her work is a satire on the political state of the country and not merely on sex trafficking. Nirmala also mentioned that her next  book is also a women-centric subject.Her advice for anyone who aspires to write such sensitive subjects is that they must feel strongly about it to be able to talk about it.

Ruskin Bond’s How to Be a Writer Is the Ideal Comfort Book to Sign off 2020!

Humour. Compassion. Perseverance. A zest for life. Choose anything written by Ruskin Bond and you’ll find enchanting themes interwoven in his musings on love, survival, nature, childhood and adolescence, romance and even the ghosts that quietly haunt the hills of Mussoorie. Bond is the master of conveying complexity through simplicity, his writings liberally seasoned with dry wit and tossed in a wok of comfort. The emotions that one experiences after reading a piece written by the author are feelings otherwise experienced only in the purest of circumstances; like a cosy nap on a winter afternoon, your favourite food, a lover’s embrace, laughter with friends, mountain trails fragrant with fallen flowers and the smell of old bookstores.

How to be a Writer is a chip off the old block; another loveable addition to Bond’s corpus of heart-warming novellas. Although topical in its approach, the book is a delight! From the beautiful language and distinctive jocularity and down to the adorable illustrations (courtesy of the supremely talented team of Shamika Chavez and Chaaya Prabhat), every little detail is perfect. The aesthetics and interplay of word and drawing will remind you of Roald Dahl’s collaborations with Quentin Blake. Even if you are not interested in writing but have a soft corner for Ruskin Bond, this deserves to be on your bookshelf solely because of the familiarity and warmth it oozes.

Before delving into the nuances of the book, it’s important to know that the book has been marketed as a guide for young readers (some websites have labelled it as a book for children) who want to write and need a few pearls of wisdom on where to start and how to sustain. However, as a 23-year-old, I thoroughly enjoyed the content and learnt quite a bit about the trade and how to keep afloat if one is considering earning a living solely through words. So, don’t be dissuaded by the “childish” appearance or the big font and drawings. It is deeply insightful! Plus, there can never be a Ruskin Bond book that doesn’t teach you a thing or two.

How To Be A Writer takes the reader through the entire spectrum of writing; the qualities that a budding author must inculcate and exhibit, understanding what to write, how to improve that writing, popular themes, building memorable characters and finally, how to approach publishers and commercialize your work. According to Ruskin Bond, there are four building blocks of the process:

  1. To keep writing
  2. Observing
  3. Listening
  4. Paying attention to the beauty of words and their arrangement.

To sit down at your desk and pen your thoughts must be a daily activity. The key is to strike a balance between disciplining your mind to write and knowing when you are done. Bond himself does not write for more than an hour or two daily for any duration beyond that and words tend to lose their freshness. He likens the movement of words to “a stream of clear water-preferably a mountain stream.” The source of the brook is where thoughts are in their purest form and as they flow, one must learn to move around the boulders.

The tonality of the book is graceful yet informal. It isn’t a Do-It-Yourself manual where a leading author shares precise pointers on how to achieve big success. Think of How To Be Writer as an intelligent conversation with a kind individual who has beautiful experiences to share and does so in the friendliest manner possible. At no point does it feel that Ruskin Bond is there to deliver a sermon where he is the higher authority and the readers are supposed to look up to him with dewy-eyes and make furious notes (although he constantly stresses on the importance of jotting notes in a designated notepad when writing a story). He only discusses the insights he has accumulated in an illustrious career spanning seven decades and multiple accolades.

Ruskin Bond shares multiple lessons. Some minor, tucked away in a little sentence; some major – being the focus of an entire chapter. I will attempt to touch upon the latter.

A love for books is imperative. Every renowned author is greatly influenced by the books he/she has enjoyed. Bond says, “Books are essential for the creative mind, and good readers become good writers.” If you are new to extensive reading and not a seasoned bookworm, the author’s recommendations at the end are the perfect start.

Finding a familiar setting is the cornerstone of establishing authenticity. One of the most oft-repeated mistakes that beginners tend to commit is being carried away by the glitz and glamour of places they don’t know and basing their story in an unfamiliar destination. Ruskin Bond believes that one must write about the places you are intimately connected with. Like London for Dickens, rural Bengal for Tagore and the Yorkshire Moors for Emily Bronte. Even fantasy worlds are contextualized in the culture and language of the countries in which they are conceived. For example, Wonderland is very British and Pinocchio is very Italian.

Bond’s take on creating memorable characters is especially interesting. Create immortal characters. Does this mean that characters must defy death? No! What Bond implies is that “some of the most successful characters in fiction are ageless, unchanging.” Think about Poirot, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Byomkesh Bakshi and of course, Rusty himself! Year after year, volume after volume, they have remained the same! To be able to keep the essence intact is a duty that needs to be upheld at all costs.

To remain committed to your writing is a difficult task. There is nothing as exasperating as stumbling upon the ill-fated Writer’s Block. Bond admits to not having faced this issue too often because most of his works are on the shorter side. This honesty is comforting. But he does share guidance on the matter. For Ruskin Bond, some of his most famed stories such as The Night Train at Deoli and The Eyes Have It was written in his head and then transferred to the paper. Certainly, this process is difficult to replicate for a lengthier novel. In that case, he suggests taking a break and writing something else to revitalize the grey cells- “A fresh mind will do wonders for a stalled masterpiece.” Finally, if that doesn’t work and you’re sure that your work is useless, choose the dustbin. In his distinctive humour, Bond concludes by saying, “Waste-paper baskets were invented by frustrated authors. And I use one too.

Writing is about expressing your originality, developing a distinct style, telling the right stories and in the end, keeping the faith alive. Patience is a mandatory virtue for people who plan to rely on words to get them through life. Ruskin Bond cautions us about multiple rejections. They will come and don’t signify the end of the world. However, his greater warning is for the lack of persistence and giving up on the very act of writing. The idea is simple, “If you are any good, you will meet with success sooner or later.” How To Be A Writer is old-school, elegant, and mischievous. In other words, worth every second of the holidays, irrespective of whether you’re a writer or just a good ol’ Rusty fan!

You can buy the book here.