Sunita Dwivedi’s Buddha in Gandhara Is a Relentless Pursuit of the Story and Spread of Buddhism

I spent most of my last two weeks cuddled with a notebook, a pen, and Sunita Dwidevi’s Buddha in Gandhara. I gave up on my favourite reading corner at home and sat at the study desk. It was almost as if it was exam mode on, except I was reading and making notes from Buddha in Gandhara. Even though I wasn’t giving an exam, the book was nothing less than a refresher in history, geography, art, culture and whatnot.

Sunita Dwivedi is a silk road traveller, author, and independent researcher. She has been passionately following the trails of Buddha and has published four books based on her travel and research. Buddha in Gandhara is her fourth and recent book in which she takes the Uttarapath or the Northern Highroad of Buddhaland and ventures into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Sunita calls this book of hers ‘a humble effort towards recreating a journey on the Buddha’s trail along the Lahore – Peshawar and Kabul – Samangan routes to the once-thriving cities of Gandhara’. Having spent more than fifteen days poring over the pages of this book, I can assure it isn’t humble, but it is humongous. Starting with her Pakistani visa to the multiple footnotes that adorn almost every page of this book, this is a work of relentless passion and meticulous dedication. Even though it is called a travelogue, it reads more academic to me. The chapters are so laden with information that those instances where Sunita talks of her experiences as a traveller become a breath of fresh air for lesser readers like me. Nevertheless, the amount of information is awe-inspiring.

I must thank whoever came up with the idea of attaching a map to the book. It came in handy as I tried hard to keep up with Sunita while she kept travelling from monasteries to dheris to heritage sites. She introduces to you the glorious past of these seemingly less significant places and the various historical and cultural treasures unearthed from these places. Not only does she travel to these sites on the Uttarapath, documenting the remnants at these sites in the current times, she also sheds light on the observations made by pilgrims like Xuanzang, Faxian and Hye Ch’o during their travel along the same corridor.

The book talks about the various patrons of Buddhism from Pataliputra to Gandhara, their historical connections to one another as well as these heritage sites and more. Through the stupas, their inscriptions, and the scripts used in these inscriptions, we try and comprehend the politics of the Buddhist era. The nature of the various artworks excavated from these sites and the depictions on these artworks helps you understand the cultural and religious amalgamation that had happened over time in these places.

The book captures some anecdotes from the life of Buddha, his ancestors and some of the bodhisattvas. I loved that Sunita indulged her readers in some Jataka tales too. I for one enjoyed learning about the’ Miracle of Sravasti’, the Festival of Buddha, the relics trade, the culture of story-telling over tea in the caravanserais of Peshawar and more. The book has a handful of beautiful pictures from both Pakistan and Afghanistan tempting you to set out on a journey to witness them all in person.

I found some information repeated across different chapters more than a couple of times. These repetitions can tend to tire readers. In retrospection, those are parts I remember better. Yet, I am convinced that those repetitions could have been avoided. I am also convinced that this is a treasured addition to my home library.

Facts apart, I relate to Sunita’s undamped spirit as she climbed the stepped hilly path of Jaulian in the rain, her childlike excitement about the balakhanas, her pensiveness at the holy site of the great Kanishka Stupa and her disappointments over illegal mining, encroachment and trafficking of precious antiquities. She reminds me of my year in Europe and how overwhelming it was to stand on the same ground that once bore many people who changed the face of history. Time, that way is a great equaliser.

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K.C. Ajayakumar’s Sankaracharya Explains and Summarizes Advaita and Adi Sankara’s Life

Even though it is an arduous task to talk about Adi Sankara’s intellect authoritatively, there is no dearth of books on Adi Sankaracharya. While the historicity of his life and events have been dealt differently by different authors in these books, the best means to understand his darshan (philosophy is the closest word in English) of Advaita (Non-Duality) are his own works, appended by the works of his disciples who wrote commentaries on his creations. However, even with all the available resources, not many tend to go deep into his philosophy while writing a book about him and end up writing a few peripheral and more miraculous details of his life and time. Through time, this has rendered his thoughts more obscure or complex.

K.C. Ajayakumar differentiates his work on this aspect. He does not entirely skip the biographical details but they only work to advance the story that is essentially about Advaita and its chief preceptor. The author has probed deep into Adi Sankara’s life, his experiences and experiments, the inner working of his mind, and his universal philosophy. All this, with the simplicity and clarity of a child, the author brings Sankaracharya (published by Rupa Publications) to us in simple and engaging prose without losing the essence of that ocean of knowledge the great philosopher has left behind for us.

The story begins with the story of Sankara’s birth and his intellectual prowess even as a child. As Sankara learns all that is there to learn with and around him, his longing for a Guru, a teacher who would help him realize the absolute truth grows stronger every passing day. His pleadings with his mother to let him take Sanyaasa and leave home to find a Guru make for an interesting section in the book. Once he leaves his home, the author retraces all the routes he took across the length and breadth of Aryavarta (India) with all the major events taking place during this journey.

The descriptions of all these places come with brilliant imagery and without any compromise on essential details. Hence, many a time, the author is successful in putting the reader right beside Sankara, following him with his disciples. There are a few disputable facts or events, for example – Sankara’s contemporary scholar Mandan Mishra is shown to be living at a place near the river Narmada. There are other accounts that locate Mandan Mishra’s place to be in the Mithila region of India. However, since scholars have differing views on this subject, these conflicts can be safely ignored. The soul of the book remains intact and without a blemish. As it is difficult to ascertain several facts of his life with pinpoint accuracy, there are parts where a few events have to be recreated with imagination and logic. K.C. Ajayakumar does a fine job there as none of these explanations feels out of place. The author also does a great job in explaining a few miraculous elements or events in Sankara’s life with the help of logic and reasoning.

The most evocative part of this book is the author’s deep dive into Adi Sankara’s darshan. He recreates the most prominent debates the great thinker was involved in without shying away from details. Sometimes, the best way to say something is to say it as it is. K.C. Ajayakumar cites from the most notable works of Adi Sankara (Vivek Chudamani, Commentaries on Upanisads, etc.), and provides us with detailed minutes of his meetings with thinkers and influencers of his time. These minutes have a lot of questions, their answers, counter arguments, refutations, and explanations (including his debates with a couple of Buddhist monks).

It would have been easier to keep floating on the surface but that would have made this an ordinary book. On the contrary, because of its deep indulgence with the philosophy itself, this book acts like a primer which you can read before you begin to explore Adi Sankara’s original works.

Special Mention – If you want to know why the head priest of Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand has to be from the southernmost state of India i.e. Kerala, give this book a read!

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BLF2020 | The Story of My Captivity, Survival and Freedom – Hamid Ansari and Geeta Mohan with Chandan Gowda

Chandan Gowda is a professor at Azim Premji University and moderated the session. Geeta Mohan is a foreign affairs editor at India Today TV Network and covers international relations and diplomacy. She met with Hamid Ansari at his house’s basement, to work on the book – The Story of My Captivity, Survival and Freedom. Hamid Ansari has previously worked with the Rotary club and has volunteered at the UN. He is presently a visiting faculty at a Mumbai college and is a motivational speaker.

Hamid Ansari had gone to Pakistan to help out a young girl who was struggling to live in a conservative household. The two had met online and Fiza had revealed to Hamid about her painful life. She had begun to see suicide as her only option to get out of her tragic life and Hamid upon realising this wanted to help her out. After reaching out to various NGOs, he decided to go to Pakistan and help her out in person. It is when he reached Pakistan, that his life completely changed. The Pakistani guards suspected him as an Indian spy and put him in solitary confinement at Peshawar. He was at that solitary confinement for six whole years and later was shifted to civil jail. A long and hard battle was fought for him by his mother, and it was because of her efforts, and a few others that he could return back to India. The book was written when Hamid’s case was brought to light, and Hamid’s lawyers had asked him to start journaling his experience at the Pakistani holding.

When Hamid came to India, he was taken aback by the efforts taken by people back at home. He realised that his capture was only half of the story. There was another narrative critical to the story- that of his mother and Zeenat, who went to great lengths to bring him back. Pakistani officials denied Hamid’s capture and his existence on the Pakistani soil. It was his mother’s relentless efforts to keep finding a way out of this horrific mess that had saved his life.

Geeta talked about how establishing the construct of the book was a tough job. The story wouldn’t strike someone if it had not been written in first person. Reader’s needed to know, how each individual was involved in bringing Hamid Ansari back. Hamid Ansari’s life in the solitary confinement facilities in Pakistan brought up a lot of discussions. Hamid explained what his life was like in the cell. For six years, he was alone and without any communication. Hamid attributed the divine power and faith in God to his motivation to keep going. Every time he prayed; Hamid coincidentally received answers from the officials.

His case took more and more shape as he prayed. It was his faith, Hamid said that helped him stay alive. Writing the book was difficult for him because it constantly brought back repressed memories of his mental health in the holding. He started to fight back with the Pakistani officials, when they told him that his words hurt their sentiments. Geeta was very happy with how their book was received. Journalists who’ve read the book have remarked how it was very nuanced in how Hamid’s case was handled. It also reflected India-Pakistan relationship. Even when Hamid faced tremendous torturous situations, in the book, he is very humble about his interactions with Pakistani civilians. People have cried reading the book, which meant that it touched them. This, Hamid thought, was the mark of a successful narrative.

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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Lewis-Carroll-Feature

To, But Not Restricted to, Children. Love, Lewis Carroll

There are a handful of books that every child is made to read during their growing-up years. For parents, syllabus committees and English teachers, they are akin to an instruction manual which they hope will instill a love for reading in children and strengthen their grasp over the English language. Popular inclusions in the list include Secret Seven, Famous Five, Chronicles of Narnia, Wind in the Willows and Lewis Carroll’s gem, Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the same children grow up to enjoy fiction, one hardly ever returns to these books because they are relegated as writing for kids. So, when I found that January 27th marked the 189th birth anniversary of Lewis Carroll, I tried hard to remember what his writing was about.

Apart from glimpses of Cheshire Cat’s smile and few stray anecdotes from Alice in Wonderland, everything else was a blur. So, while going through Carroll’s Wikipedia page, I was completely caught off-guard by the sheer expanse of his genius that even the most avid reader has ignored because once again “he’s not for grownups”.  Not only was he a master of wordplay, puns, and imagery, but he was also a proof that science and arts can merge beautifully without emitting a pungent smell of discord. His writing floats lightheartedly on the confluence of mathematics and language.  

Born as Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Lewis Carroll led a fascinating life in which he donned many hats; each contributed to his fine sense of nonsense, rhyme, and lush imagery. Carroll exhibited an immense liking and strong talent for mathematics, cyphers, chess and puzzles, culminating in his lifelong studentship in mathematics at Christ Church, Oxford. His deeply analytical tendencies percolated into his creatives, rhyme scheme, labyrinthine landscapes and highly stylised verses with hidden clues. In short, Lewis Carroll being tied down by the burden of being “a children’s author” is probably one of the worst sins a literary academic could commit.

In fact, when Martin Gardner approached publishing houses for commissioning a version of Alice in Wonderland that contained scholarly notes, they were quick to dismiss his idea. No one does all this for a children’s book. Gardner went on to author The Universe in a Handkerchief, a comprehensive volume delving deep into the works of Lewis Carroll; from his popular fiction down to his puzzles and letters. It is an excellent book, and I recommend it highly just so that we can acquaint ourselves to the genius we have missed out upon. 

As standard with most fabulous creators, Carroll was mostly associated with one of his many dazzling creations. Of course, its Alice in Wonderland. But many remain blissfully unaware of his pioneering contribution to the criminally underrated world of nonsense verse. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were the earliest proponents of this form of writing. In India, Sukumar Ray’s (father of Satyajit Ray) Abol Tabol is the nonsense poetry handbook for Bengali children. Every child is acquainted with Bombagorer Raja (The King of Bombagor) who did absurd things like frame dried mangoes while his crazy Aunt chased pumpkins with a bat. 

Carroll’s Jabberwocky is one of the most refined examples of nonsense verse appearing in Through the Looking Glass. It is a ballad, a good versus evil story but primarily remembered for its funky language and unique visual and sonic quality. In the poem, a father warns his son of three vicious monsters: the Jabberwock, the Jubjub Bird and the Bandersnatch. It is a concise poem, about 28 lines, and you can see why it is handy to instill dread in children. When we are kids, we are told of many unnamed monsters who are out there. They wait for kids to misbehave or not finish their food, and then they’ll appear. For most of our lives, these monsters remain faceless, just like Jabberwocky and its evil partners. The feeling of fear comes because we don’t know why we have to be scared of the Jabberwocky, Jubjub Bird and Bandersnatch or what they do that makes them vicious. Typical to Carroll’s storytelling, he uses unknown words like galumphing, vorpal, mome raths and borograves

Another favourite, particularly in schools, is Caroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. The poem is a mix of narrative and nonsense; about a walrus and carpenter who lures oysters into a conversation and then eats them all. It’s a funny, absurd poem full of outlandish settings where the sun and moon are in the sky simultaneously, and oysters wore shoes although they had no feet. The Walrus and the Carpenter hugely inspired culture and wild interpretations. A faction believes that they represent Buddha and Jesus Christ. Others thought that they stood for the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Of course, Martin Gardner rubbishes both sections. The poem did appear in iconic pop culture references. Beatles’ I am the Walrus refers to the poem. Much later, Lennon regretted doing so because he hadn’t realised that the walrus was the antagonist. Lines have been quoted in Dr Who, Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Agatha Christie’s The Clocks.

It would not be a complete discussion if we didn’t touch upon Alice in Wonderland, the book that catapulted Carroll into fame that lasted across centuries. This book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass are swarming with banter, math, puzzles, and paradoxes. The narrative is full of riddles. Everyone must vaguely recollect the Mad Hatter’s famous “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”.

Interestingly, Carroll admitted that he too had no answer to the riddle when he wrote it. The puzzle perplexed many, including Aldous Huxley. In the later versions, the answer was included. According to Carroll, “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in the front.” Notice how he misspells nevar as a rearrangement of the word raven. His narratives frequently included acrostic poems, a writing style in which every stanza provides clues to a particular word. 

The fact that we know so little about Lewis Carroll stands testament to the systematic marginalisation of children’s fiction as just for children. Several other books suffer the same fate of not being taken seriously because their central readership continues to be kids. Whether its Wind in the Willows or Gulliver’s Travels, we do tend never to revisit the books we’ve read and loved even if fiction, reality, and language were just half-baked concepts in our innocent minds. Somedays, it is imperative that we stop to thank the authors who we’ve perhaps given fame but not enough credit for shaping our imagination. 

Lewis Carroll, thank you for normalising the weird. Thank you for providing children in every house of the world a rabbit hole to jump into and explore in their dreams.

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Ratan Sharda’s RSS Retraces the Organization’s Footprints on India’s Social and Political Journey in the Last 100 Years

There are ideas that are widely understood and widely disliked, and there are ideas that are hardly understood but widely liked. The phenomenal rise and popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh through the decades that culminated into BJP’s rise and ascent to power for the first time in 1998 and then (on its own) in 2014 have been discussed on several occasions through op-eds and prime time debates. However, most of such deliberations have failed to set the premise properly. As a result, even though the offspring has now come to power for a consecutive second term, the parent organization is not adequately understood. Part of the blame lies with the organization itself as it kept a conscious distance from the media for a long time. Much of the blame though lies with the chroniclers of our time who according to their self-interests, painted the organization either completely black or entirely white whenever they spoke or wrote about it. All such pursuits only resulted in a glacier of misinformation and a contagious borrowing of opinions to ‘fit in’ with the popular opinions.

Noted public intellectual and an RSS member who has also worked with most of the affiliate organizations of the Sangh, Ratan Sharda has authored RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement in his attempt to do a course correction. He has chronicled the history of this massive organization from an interestingly chosen vantage point – Sangh’s Sarsanghchaalaks (Head of the organization). By looking at their lives and their time in the organization, the author successfully encircles the birth and rise of the Sangh.

Starting from Dr. Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who was a Congressman before starting the RSS to its current day chief – Dr. Mohan Bhagwat, Ratan Sharda touches upon the most defining moments of this organization. As this movement began to take shape in the year 1925 and continues from strength to strength till today even in the face of tremendous hostility from the Congress party and the Left, the book also gives us a peek into modern Indian history. The repercussions of Congress’s support to the Khilafat movement, the makings and results of the Quit India movement, the partition and the freedom, China’s expansionism and the 1962 war, the freedom of Bangladesh, the corruption charges on Indira Gandhi, the emergency years, first elections post emergency, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the riots that followed, the liberalization years – the author takes us on a journey through all these events and also RSS’s position as well as response to these milestones of the last 100 years.

A subtle but important element of the book is the detailing of the working style of each of its Sarsanghchaalaks and the Sangh’s policies during their tenure. It is interesting to see how even though the unique personality of each of these chiefs influences and inspires the general working of the Sangh, the underlying vision of the organization as espoused by its founder remains the same. It’s not that there have been no departures in its working style. However, most of these tweaks have only helped the organization reach out to more people with its message and meaning.

The book is not intended for the followers or the converts who know everything there is to know about the Sangh. On the contrary, this book is intended for the readers who predominantly read in English and have a ton of questions in their minds about the Sangh while forming their opinions on any debate of national, religious, or social importance. It is also for the people who have always taken a tinted view of the organization, thanks to the negative press it has been given over the decades. When you read about how many congress leaders took RSS’s help or cooperated with the Sangh in different times, you also realize how much politics goes into winning the perception war in public view. The book is also a counter-attack on this perception war being waged by one faction within the Congress party that was once spearheaded by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and his blind followers.

I would like to congratulate Mr. Ratan Sharda for leaving a few debates open ended. For example, there is a constant reference to the question of Hindu versus Bharat for the nomenclature purposes in RSS’s vision. The author conveys that the word Hindu is not antithetical to the word Bharat and they are, in fact, interchangeable because of the meaning and origin of the two words. He also weighs in on the possibility of the word Bharat getting adopted by the Sangh instead of Hindutva in future for greater reach and acceptability but puts it on time to answer the question in future.

The book is not without its flaws. First and foremost, the book needs better editing. There are spelling typos as well as several repetitions. Although these repetitions are perhaps placed to reinforce the message, at times, they sound like a resume desperately trying to impress. These repetitions could have been avoided. There is one more error that this book makes. While the book sets out to clear misconceptions about the RSS, it ends up creating a few of its own for other organizations that are doing some great work and have empowered millions of individuals and thousands of smaller organizations in the social and spiritual domains. While the author takes Swami Vivekananda’s and the Ramakrishna Mission’s help to explain a few misgivings about the Sangh as well as explaining its core concepts, it also makes some sweeping observations about the Mission (page-340, RSS: Evolution from an Organization to a Movement). While there is a scarcity of books in English about the Sangh from the Sangh, the Ramakrishna Mission has plenty of books, reports, and journals in the language for readers to understand their vision or scale of their activities. So, a bit of due diligence there would have helped the author avoid the mistake he doesn’t want others to commit while assessing the Sangh.

When we are discussing the RSS, it is important to remember that we are talking about a group of people who are some of the firsts to reach any part of the country needing support in the face of any calamity. It is the ideology that gave birth to a viable alternative to the Indian polity after the Congress. It is an organization that has constantly shunned caste divisions and discrimination in the Hindu community. They have also consciously evolved their position on matters of social importance, the latest one being on Homosexuality.

For us to understand the social and political path our country has taken in all these years before and after independence, and the RSS’s deep footprints on it, this book is an indispensable read for all Indians irrespective of their religious, social, or political beliefs. RSS has been an idea widely popular in one section of the society and largely misunderstood in other sections of the same society. Mr. Ratan Sharda hopes to change that and this book is a successful attempt at setting the context right. I’m sure there are more books coming up.

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The February Reading List: Short Stories for a Shorter Month

With the hope that you were able to pick a few books from our January reading list, we bring you a set of recommendations for the month of February. As this month is always a day or two short when it comes to a calendar year, we have dedicated the month to short stories. We are sure you will enjoy all these books and get to know more about Indian people, our habits, and our culture through these stories.

Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories – Janice Pariat

This book brings the northeastern part of India closer to us through stories that touch historical contexts as well as the folklores of the region. Janice Pariat weaves tales that paint pictures from different time periods in this book published by RHI. You can purchase a copy here.

In a Forest, a Deer: Stories by Ambai (English & Tamil)

Originally written in Tamil by Ambai and translated into English by Lakshmi Holmstrom, the book tells many tales with female protagonists and touches several social subjects of Indian life. Published by Oxford University Press, you will read great prose written in the inimitable style that has come to characterise Ambai’s writing. Get a copy here.

Teresa’s Man and other stories from Goa: Damodar Mauzo (English translation from Konkani)

Damodar Mauzo is one of the most effulgent signatures of contemporary Konkani literature. His collection of Konkani stories boasts of stories that manifest the not so known facets of Goa. The stories are relatable and yet very essentially local. The book has been translated by Xavier Cota and published by Rupa Publications. Buy the book here.

Meri Priya Kahaniyaan – Amrita Pritam

This book is in Hindi and has a collection of legendary writer Amrita Pritam’s favourite stories from her own writings. These stories sketch the love, desire, emotions, and pain in a woman’s life. Published by Rajpal & Sons, pick this book up to read some heartening stories by the author. Get a copy here.

Usha Kiran Khan Ki Lokpriya KahaniyanUsha Kiran Khan

Padma Shri Usha Kiran Khan is a prolific writer in Maithili and Hindi and is also a Sahitya Akademi award winner for her book – Bhamati: Ek Avismarniya Premkatha in Maithili. This book has 24 Hindi stories from the author that deal with questions of female identity, dignity, and the difficult realities of their lives. Published by Prabhat Prakashan, this book consists some of the most loved stories by Usha Kiran Khan. Buy your copy here.

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Tinted, Foggy, Sparkling in Parts: Maugham’s Ideas on China Is a Confusing Concoction.

Compared to the Great Mughals or the European Wars for nation-states, Chinese history is often relegated to one semester of a central university’s syllabus. The other is devoted to the Japanese. Together, they adjust themselves into a single module titled History of Modern Asia. As academic papers, students even face a significant adjustment period because of the complicated names, the utterly alien culture of the regions and the general lack of knowledge about their societies. In this scenario, Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen is a part-foggy and part-pretty mirror reflecting European nationals’ lives vis-a-vis the native Chinese population. It is a fascinating yet flawed account – a peek into the frustrations, lifestyle, and emotional ethos of foreign nationals in China.

In 1919, immediately after the First World War, Maugham spent his winter travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Along this journey, he met a motley of people – missionaries, ex-pats, managers, government officials, and bankers, who were culturally and philosophically out of their depths in China. He also brushed shoulders with the more impoverished Chinese population sections such as steersmen, farmers, coolies and rickshaw-pullers.  

However, for most of this journal-like collection of 58 vignettes, we see China through the eyes of majorly European (British and French) characters. They are people who have not visited their home countries in a long time, up to nearly 50 years. Do they love China? Do they hate China? Do they want to return or have their lives been moulded in the quaint Chinese urns till the day they die? Have they managed to adapt themselves or still live under a garb of being the better ones in an outlandish civilization? Maugham’s astute observations attempt to shed light on each kind of outsider who has supposedly made their homes and fortune in China. An unmistakable tinge of superiority tints the narrative.

For me, On a Chinese Screen is an inconsistent experience. Just like any other anthology of short works, I thoroughly enjoyed select stories. Whether it was Maugham’s descriptions of the rain in the countryside or his notes on traits like hypocrisy, adjustment, and longing, they create a lasting impact. However, some others felt tepid. Sadly, a few did not elicit a reaction at all and felt out of place. The book was a mixed experience, and my thoughts remain divided. First, I’ll describe the pieces that I admired the most.

Servants of God is a conversation between an old French missionary and a younger English one. While they are not similar, the author describes them as sharing a common attribute of goodness. They speak for a while and prepare to leave. The Englishman and Frenchmen are both heading home. However, each is unaware of what home means for the other. The Frenchman, living in China for half a century, is leaving for his town that he never plans to leave. The British missionary is thinking about his home in Cheshire, where his family have dwelled for three centuries.

Henderson is a commentary on western hypocrisy in China. Henderson is a pompous junior partner who upon his arrival in China was revolted by the rickshaws. As a socialist, it aggravated his sense of personal dignity that another human would be carrying him around in a vehicle. But as he began to encounter the scorching Shanghai heat, Henderson frequently uses the rickshaw. However, he maintains that the puller is like his brother and friend. On a particular ride, when the author accompanied Henderson, the latter remarked how their rickshaw-puller was sweating profusely and they ought to let him go for the heat will only get worse. Henderson answered that one must not pay attention to the Chinese for the British were the ruling race. As the rickshaw-puller missed the turn he ought to have taken, Henderson kicked him and called him a bloody fool. All while discussing Bertrand Russell’s Road to Freedom.

The Opium Den is a unique take on the nature of opium addiction in the country. China had been in the midst of massive and illegal opium trade that destroyed vast segments of their population and caused two major wars in the 17th and 18th century. The author always imagined opium dens to be dingy, squalid places. His idea is like a set from a play where young men driven by addiction behave like frenzied lunatics while the poorer lot begs the evil owner to let them enjoy a smoke for free. Finally, when he is taken to an opium den, the real picture is entirely different. The property was neat, brightly-lit and divided into cubicles where people were experiencing a quiet time with their long pipes, chessboards and newspapers. The den was like a Berlin bar that men visited after work. Studying the scenario, Maugham remarks, “Fiction is stranger than fact.” 

The Nun is a short conversation between a nun and the author. Mother Superior has been in China for 20 years and dearly misses watching the Pyrenes mountains from her window. However, she is fond of the Chinese whom she believes to be hardworking and understanding. She remembers when a few soldiers she nursed to health transported her heavy bags in their car. The author asks why the men did not give her a lift instead of only carrying her bags. The nun’s reply is poignant. She says, “A nun in their eyes is only a woman. You must not ask people more than they are capable of giving.”

The Consul is the funniest of the lot. It’s about Mr. Pete, a man who is employed in the consular service. In his long career, the only case that eluded a solution was Mrs Yu. A British citizen who married a Chinese man against her mother’s wishes, Mrs Yu arrived in China only to find out that her husband has a wife, and she was his second. Since the revelation, she regularly harasses Mr Pete by seeking legal remedies but disregards his suggestion to return to England. In a fit of rage at her stubbornness, he asks her why she refuses to leave her husband. Mrs Yu answers, “Theres something in his way his hair grows on his forehead that I cant help liking.”

Maugham’s writing has a strangely mixed quality. He can make searing statements but simultaneously, dazzle the reader with his fluid and poetical descriptions of the smallest moments. The latter is evident in Night has Fallen, Arabesque, The Painting and A Game of Billiard. They are not rich in material. Only wonderfully writte, a drawback shared by many more stories in the collection.

On a Chinese Screen is not a compassionate account of Maugham’s travel in China. Neither is it harsh. It is a cross between matter-of-fact observations and free-flowing ruminations. Moreover, the stories do betray a considerable white man’s lens. There is casual racism. Maugham is more interested in the life of Europeans and how they battle or adjust to China. The indigenous population works as the backdrop, but that backdrop is rather dull in itself. He paints a much brighter picture in front of the grey curtain. It is incredible how the same man can paint a sensitive word-picture of a plum-blossom (The Picture) and in another story, describe a Chinese woman as a “little yellow wife” (Sullivan).

Maugham is part aggressive, part beautiful. However, to his credit, Maugham sufficiently reveals European ignorance. He remarks how high-ranking officials can barely understand a Chinese word for they consider the language to be beneath them. In fact, Maugham’s idea of China is best received by readers who share the same socio-economic background. For example, the Los Angeles Times described the book as “Evokes a nostalgic China replete with rickshaws and sing sing girls.” This is a simplistic statement, borderline cliched. It is like Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video where India was represented with peacocks and Holi.

Coming to the principal question: Do I recommend On a Chinese Screen? There are two ways to look at it. I will not suggest the book to be a reader’s first brush with Somerset Maugham. He has far more powerful and memorable works. However, if you are a seasoned Maugham admirer, you will enjoy the travelogue as “another Maugham down.” As a reader in the first category, I think of my experience as a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a specific niche of the population in a far-off land. But I read On a Chinese Screen knowing that it is imperfect.

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Si. Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal Takes You on a Guided Tour of Jallikattu

One night, during January 2017, I woke up with a nightmare and wrote this- The Rights & Wrongs around Jallikattu. The endless debates on social media and all the restlessness in the whole of Marina and TamilNadu wouldn’t let me sleep until I wrote about all that I had to say. One of the oft-repeated suggestions during those times was to pick up and read Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. Strangely these recommendations came from both the pro and anti-Jallikattu activists. After four years, I have finally heeded their advice and I am beginning to wonder if they ever read it before recommending.

I, for one, have never witnessed a Jallikattu in person. However, I have seen and known the pampering the bulls receive as they prepare for their big day. I always looked forward to the newspapers, the mornings after Jallikattu. Even as the stories carried the details of the number of people dead or injured, I loved looking at the pictures of these beautiful bulls in the middle of the arena. It was all magnificent and fascinating until I graduated to live telecast in later years. On live television, all I saw was madness.

Imagine being picked from the comforts of your home and dropped in the middle of one such maddening crowd on a sultry afternoon. That was what was done to me when I began reading Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. The book was a short read. Yet, the whole hour I spent with the book was the most adventurous I have ever felt while reading a book. You are convinced not to move a limb, bat an eye, or even take a breath because anything could happen in the arena in a flash of a second.

Picchi and Maruthan arrive at Chellayi Jallikattu hoping to avenge the death of Picchi’s father, Ambuli. Ambuli is killed in the arena by one ‘Kaari’ and Picchi believes only the defeat of Kaari in the arena would comfort his father’s brave soul. As he awaits his moment of truth, the duo finds themselves in the entertaining company of ‘Pattaya‘, the grand old man. Just like Picchi and Maruthan, I too have my Pattaya – Si. Su. Chellappa, who takes me on a detour while we wait for the contest to begin.

He shows me around the village, the long train of men walking towards the arena, the sheds brimming with the best of the bulls from all over and the festive spirit that fills the air. He introduces me to the various kinds of bulls and educates me in the nuances of Jallikattu. And together we eavesdrop into the conversations in the crowd.

My heart brimmed with emotions as Picchi’s Pattaya talked about the bravery of Ambuli. I felt it all over again when Picchi and Maruthan came face to face with Kaari. The familiarity of the language, the merriment all around, and the nostalgia in the whole set-up gave me a moment of respite. I then watched the whole village follow Kaari to the river and my heart sank. Once again I felt torn between the rights and wrongs of Jallikattu. I felt like that shepherd who voluntarily sacrificed his dearest goat to honour his traditions and then wailed in grief holding its lifeless body.

There at the arena, all conflicts converge into a strange sense of equality. It did not matter where you came from or who your ancestors were. It did not matter if you are rich or poor. It did not even matter if you were a man or an animal. All that mattered was if you had it in you to face the ordeal and survive it. It is also a field of transformation. You see a man become the beast that he was trying to tame and the beast display a human-like intelligence. And whoever emerges victorious shall have the privilege of being the Zamindar’s decorated plaything.

As I looked around, I painfully realized that except for me and the all-powerful Chellayi, who protects the village and its people, there is not a single female in and around the ‘Vaadivaasal’. So much for what began as a sport to impress one’s lady love.  I am not going to hold Si. Su. Chellappa responsible for this. He only mirrored the society of his times which isn’t much different even today. I must also tell you this. If you ever want to know about Vaadivaasal and Jallikattu, there is no one better than him to tell you all about it. And if you don’t read Tamil, you can pick N. Kalyan Raman’s translation of it. Even after the Jallikattu was over, here is one thought from the book that stayed with me and I want to leave it with you too. “The men in the Vaadivaasal might think of this as a sport. However, that’s not true for the bulls.

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India’s Freedom, Partition, and the Two Birthdays of Khushwant Singh – A Tribute

The first time I was introduced to the writings of the veteran Khushwant Singh was in the secondary classes of my schooling. The short story that was taught as a chapter of the English text book was ‘The Portrait of a Lady.’ It’s a memoir about his grandmother and her last days with him. Even as a child, I was mesmerized by his nuanced portrayal of his grandmother and her eccentricities. It was indeed like a portrait coming alive in a child’s mind. Well, the association ended with writing answers about the text in the class tests but the fact that I remembered it even after the school days can be ascribed to his way of putting the words together so perfectly that they get etched forever in your mind. They generate a sense of belonging whose essence lingers around for long.

The next time I picked up his book was in my college. My roommate had issued this book whose title was the same as the story I had read in school. I recalled it immediately and seized it from her to taste more of his fascinating stories.

It was while reading these stories; I discovered that his stories remain with you for a long time because they have an element of human emotions and follies amalgamated into a lucid plot full of twists. He is funny and bold. He does not hesitate to say what is difficult to say. For instance, stories like ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Riot’ in the book left me startled and numb for a moment, so did his captivating novel Train to Pakistan. It is yet another tale of partition and its aftermath but told with such appalling episodes and gripping description of the most bloated times of Indian history that it makes a unique space for itself in the Indian literature. The story traces the fate of an otherwise silent village which erupts in the flames of hatred among different religious communities after the arrival of a train full of dead bodies in the wake of partition.  The story shivers you with fear and leaves with pity.

His love for his religion and cities he had lived has frequently seeped into his writings. He wrote two volumes on the history of Sikhs which till date remain the most comprehensive and authoritative books on the Sikhs and the evolution of Sikhism. He had been deeply attached to his birthplace, Hadali situation in Punjab of undivided India, now in Pakistan. After partition, he visited Hadali for three times and after he passed away in March 2014, a portion of his ashes was taken by train to Pakistan and buried there, as described in one of his journals collected in the book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. The book is a nostalgic journey to the anecdotes of his life relating to the state of Punjab and its people who had great influence on him. The book starts with a description of the land of Punjab and its beauty in different weathers which teleports you to the land itself. It’s like a vicarious stroll in the fields of Punjab with a light breeze scenting the surroundings with its freshness. He not only wrote about his land and its people but also stood up right as the true son of the soil. His anguish at the storming of the Golden temple by the army during Operation Blue Star was so great that he returned the Padma Bhushan awarded to him by the government.

How much ever one writes about him falls short for what he has given us to chuckle and ponder upon. He was among India’s best-known and most widely read author and an acclaimed journalist. He published six novels among other works. The book, Delhi: A Novel, his magnum opus sold its first edition even before the copy was available in the stores. The novel weaves the city of Delhi and its life over 600 years into his bold and bawdy imaginary characters bound in love, lust, violence, and vendetta.

There is no dearth of his work even if one commits to read all. He has been a treasure house of stories and anecdotes. I cannot end this without sharing an interesting anecdote from his book Punjab, Punjabiyat and Punjabis. His parents forgot to make a note of his birth date and years later, when his father was filling his school form in Delhi, he put his birthday as February 2nd, 1915 out of imagination. Further, he writes-“Several years later, my grandmother told me that I was born in badroo (roughly in August by Gregorian calendar). I decided to fix it in the middle of the month, to 15 August 1915, and made myself a Leo. Thirty two years later, in 1947, 15 August became the birthday of independent India.” So unknowingly, he even contributed to the diary of coincidences. He indeed deserves two birthdays!

Wishing the master storyteller and a man full of life and laughter a very Happy Birthday. Shall wish him again in August too!

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BLF2020 | Writing Satire – Moni Mohsin with Milan Vohra

This Day 2 session between the two authors was filled with lighter moments and narratives. Moni Mohsin, one of the wittiest Pakistani writers, currently in London, joined remotely. Milan Vohra, known as India’s first Mills & Boon author, was the moderator.

Milan asked Moni if there is a lot of pressure to be funny in real life? Moni confessed that sometimes there is. She quoted a funny incidence and said that she does disappoint people some time and is taken aback too with their candour.

Milan asked about her journey from the early writings of the satirical column “The Diary of a Social Butterfly” in The Friday times to the book by the same name. Moni explained that earlier the column was her own journey. Later she wanted to write about women’s issues on a lighter note. Her inspiration came by another daily life instance when she heard two women talking. That was how the butterfly was born.

Moni then narrated a piece she had written recently regarding the second spite of COVID. This was about a woman who is stuck at home and goes on with a monologue. The way Moni narrated the entire piece was hysterical and fun to hear. Milan asked if Moni’s humour affects her real-life relationships. Moni said that it does not. She also confirmed that most people do not place themselves in her satire.

The next question was if westerners identify with the characters in Moni’s book. To this, Moni said that while the language and cadences are specific to India and Pakistan, the overall essence of the butterfly character is universal. Her publisher’s view is that living in a bubble of entitlement and privileged is the theme of the butterfly. One finds butterflies in all parts of the world where there are inequality and injustice.

Milan also raised her doubts on the difficulties of using humour in written words without phonetics. But in Moni’s writing, they are enunciated very beautifully. Moni said that her inspiration is fellow Lahoris and Indians she even now meets in London. She spoke about how her mind records everything she observes and sees around.

Milan’s next question was on how Moni knows if her readers will get it since satire is one of the toughest genres. Moni confessed that sometimes writing satire is difficult as readers don’t get it. She quoted Animal Farm as an example. She said that it was an easy journey to convert it into a book, as she already had characters, the plot, the world they operated in, so finding a story was not difficult.

Milan’s next set of questions were on whether being an outsider helped? Did it juxtapose bringing insider view of the character? Moni confirmed that in contrast, it gave a greater perspective when one is removed from a situation. It emboldens and permeates your own consciousness enabling you to write with free stance.

When asked on how does Moni balance the zoomed-in and out perspective, she confessed that she herself is the butterfly. This brought some laughter. She went on explaining that she is an outsider because she is sitting outside. But an insider because she was born and brought up in that class. The class where everyone is worried about their image and appearances.  She tries to bring all of that in the butterfly. She can access their interiorities and see them from outside.

Milan asked if it was a struggle to explain too much to westerners sometimes. Moni agreed on this aspect. She elaborated that westerners mostly want books on deeper topics about terrorism, war, etc. from our subcontinents. They do not want humour. She also said that to carry this responsibility of explaining your society is huge and difficult.

Milan then asked if satire could be non-political. Moni’s views on this were that while there is a social satire, she thought everything in life is political in nature, whether with the capital ‘P’ or not.

Milan also questioned Moni’s view on satire involving betrayal. To this Moni explained that to write satire successfully, one must expose hypocrisy or injustice or something that you know of and that comes from a place of your close experience. In that way, one betrays one’s circle. But most authors write composite characters that are not recognizable. Moni also said that most successful satires are cruel. She quoted an example of her favourite book Handful of Dust.

Milan then asked about differences in satire, sarcasm, and parody. Moni explained that sarcasm is a cheap shot. It does not require imaginative feat. Parody is a take on book or film. Milan asked about the new book The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R. Moni said the new book was a racy mix of love and politics.

The session ended on a lighter note with Moni mimicking while answering Milan’s lighter questions.

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.

Fifty Shades of Feminism in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

In newspapers, news channels, magazines, and social media – we have met these three kinds of people. One is the avowed feminist, as Roxane Gay would have it – the one who sits on the pedestal waiting to be dislodged at the first sign of betrayal of the idea of ‘perfect’ feminism. Second is the anti-feminism who is a self-proclaimed feminist-hunter waiting for the decimation of the ideology itself. Third is the Bad Feminist. This one doesn’t hide the fact that she loves listening to those sexist hit numbers or shaves her legs or that pink is her favourite colour and at the same time, believes in equal opportunity for women and wants them to be represented on par with men in publications, board-room meetings, or the parliament. This one comes with all the little imperfections that we human beings come with. Roxane Gay, the author of a collection of essays, primarily on ‘Feminism’ as well as several other intersectional subjects, is a Bad Feminist.

Roxane Gay is an American writer and professor who has also written Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Ayiti, An Untamed State among other works. She is a New York Times best selling author and is vocal with her pen and speech on issues of feminism, race, sexual violence (rape), immigration, and LGBTQ rights to name a few. Her personal brush with most of these issues lends her an air of sincerity, authenticity, and seriousness that these subjects deserve. This does not mean she is divorced from humour. In fact, Bad Feminist is laden with a wry sense of humour throughout.

The book begins with the author’s constantly evolving understanding of feminism, her struggles to acknowledge the feminist inside her even at the cost of offending the ‘sisterhood’ that wants you to play by the inviolable playbook of feminism. So, even if she does and likes a lot of things that the feminism police would absolutely abhor, she comes to terms with the idea that she can still be a feminist, maybe a bad one at that, but still a feminist! The imperfections of the practitioners doesn’t imply that the idea itself is a dispensable one.

With feminism as the centre point, she moves about the circumference and speaks on a range of issues through her essays. You will find thought provoking critiques of several best selling books, popular films and television shows. As I read through, I realized that a lot of content in the book is focused on American pop culture and its icons. She tells us about the misogyny that comes with most of the Hip Hop lyrics, inadequate or misrepresentation of people of colour in the book as well as the movie The Help, criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, Django Unchained, her likes and dislikes about The Hunger Games in straight-from-the-heart prose without carrying any burden of formal writing. 

“Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal — entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave,”…. “I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.” – Roxane Gay

It’s not that Roxane Gay doesn’t contradict herself in the book but she is acutely aware of these contradictions as well as her personal flaws. At times she can be too harsh and sometimes more forgiving than you would expect her to be. Also, since she is an ardent follower of pop culture, the book is full of examples that readers from other countries may not appreciate. However, because her contexts are well explained, it should not be difficult for a reader in India to replace Yin Yang twins with Honey Singh and understand what the author means. But for someone entirely disinterested in pop culture, a few essays can get weary.

For me, one of the defining parts of the book is when Roxane talks about sexual violence and crimes. Starting from her own horrific experience to reflecting on the way ‘rape culture’ as a phrase is frequently used in media, she explores several facets of the subject. Her own experience is heartbreaking and her deliberations on how popular icons rarely get adequately punished for their sexual crimes are piercing. The essay will remind you of how in our own backyard, a rape joke by Salman Khan could not make a single dent on his box office collections or how Mulayam Singh Yadav remains an Honourable Member of Parliament even after saying something as shameful as “Ladkiyan pehle dosti karti hain. Ladke-ladki mein matbhed ho jata hai. Matbhed hone key baad usey rape ka naam dey deti hain. Ladko sey galti ho jati hai. Kya rape case mein phasi di jayegi?” (First girls develop friendship with boys. Then when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape). He is not alone. Several people have contributed to the cause of defending or glorifying rape at different times.

Roxane Gay’s book is as inward looking as it is outward looking. She keeps creating bridges between the two worlds to draw her observations. She is candid in her narrations, and talks about a lot from her own life and struggles through its different phases. If you are someone who is conflicted between the three types of people I mentioned in the beginning and would like to have some clarity on matters related to feminism, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist makes it easier for you. She is there with her essays sitting right beside you telling, it’s okay not to tick all the mandatory boxes of feminism, you can be a feminist even without applying to the sisterhood.

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BLF2020 | Art at Stages, Salons, Streets and Stories – Bruce Guthrie, Lynne Fernandez, Tim Brinkman and Varun Gupta with Sadhana Rao

In the times of Covid-19, the new “normal” has found an evolving meaning. Earlier, one could very easily find themselves at any theatre, enjoying live performances and consuming art. Today, these performances have found a platform away from the usual theatres. They are digitalized, and anybody can attend them from their phones, or an electronic device. The panel for this discussion deliberated on just that- the nuances of art finding a path on a digital platform.

The session had three segments and began with the speakers introducing themselves. Tim Brinkman joined the panel from Mumbai, where he is working on a project to establish an art centre. This project is under the banner of the Ambani industries.

Lynne Fernandez has been leading Nrityagram, situated in Bangalore, for the past 20 to 30 years. Nrityagram offers dance programs, to both professional and for non-professional dancers.

Bruce introduced himself by reflecting on all the odd jobs he did at the start of his career. He has been living in Mumbai for 15 months, and has been engaged with the art sector for several years.

Varun Gupta showed his work to the audience through slides of different exhibitions he had conducted. The styles of his art exhibitions were especially interesting. His exhibitions were physical art installations, set up at public places. The placement of these exhibitions is what caught the eye of the audience- they were put up at places which a common person would usually walk past. They were set up in unique positions, and were filled with meaning.

The second segment of the discussion went into a more detailed conversation about each of the panelist’s work and how they manage their respective artistic inclinations.

Lynne spoke about her involvement with Nrityagram. She was brought into Nrityagram by Protima, who was the main head behind the project. Nostalgically, she spoke about Vasanta Hubba, a free festival, that was used to invite a big audience from all kinds of backgrounds. Nrityagram developed in three ways- through community building, by teaching courses in dance, and by having an ensemble that performs around the town to help earn money.

Bruce worked with the National Institute of the Performing Arts and talked about the corner stones of his involvement. Art, Bruce said, should be inclusive for all. Currently, he is working to help enable people to be a part of artistic platforms in the best way possible.

Varun explained how he got into his artistic endeavours and distinctive exhibitions. He started playing with his ideas in 2010, when he took over train stations and exhibited art there. Inclusivity in art, Varun said, was through the eyes of children and their perception.

Tim spoke about digital relationships. Artists cannot be kept in a box, and the pandemic has proved just that. Artists have started to perform digitally. Art will definitely see more growth in this platform.

In the final segment, Sadhana asked the panelists about the future mapping of art. It was surprising how every speaker agreed with Tim when he made an argument about theatres and the live experience of performances. Art may have shifted online, but it does not become a performance without a live audience getting moved by it. When people finally come back to the theatres, it is going to be great. Lynne was grateful that the pandemic happened at a time when we can afford to be digitalized.

It might be safe to say, that after attending a virtual session, everyone is extremely nostalgic about live theatre!

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.