Written on the Wind Is a Breezy but Touching Tale of Women Defining Their Lives during Indian Independence and Partition

I was angry when I finished reading Anuradha Kumar-Jain’s Written on the Wind. I wanted to know more about what happened to the protagonists. I had so many questions to ask. But the book was over and I knew I must live with this reader’s curse unless Anuradha plans to write a sequel. So, I couldn’t help but be angry. A part of me suggested that my anger probably is triggered by the ‘series-watching symptom’ of this generation. Except there was more to my anger.

Anuradha Kumar-Jain is a writer and an astrologer. Written on the wind is her debut novel. Set in the pre-independence era, this is the story of two women whose fates are entwined to each other and with the partition of India. Born and raised elsewhere, life brings Harjeet and Amiya to  Lahore, setting in motion a steady string of complicated events. With the freedom struggle and partition in the backdrop, we get to watch these two women fight the hardships of being a woman.

The characters of these protagonists are so intricately set that you almost want to complain about not making it easier for you to decide the right and the wrong. Both having suffered a difficult childhood, deserved all the love in the world. Yet, life picks the toughest of ordeals for them and that makes me angry. Even if there are a handful of conveniently-progressive men around, their reluctant efforts to empower these women, get nullified thanks to the sea of women who act as flag-bearers of patriarchy. Every time these women break a wall, there comes a new form of internalized misogyny imprisoning them once again. How can I not be angry?

I am also grateful that these women are strong. Despite all the pain, they do not crumble and wither away. Instead, they thrive and find love in the most unexpected of places. Even if their happiness wasn’t as long-lasting as I would have asked for, I loved watching them fall in love and burn in their desires. Although it is difficult to believe that someone could keep up an affair for so many years without being found out, I might have secretly rooted for them to stay in love. After all, they deserved to be loved and respected for the individual that they are.

The book is also full of ironies, thanks to the complexity of the characters. You have a man who was progressive enough to marry a widow and raise her son as his own. Yet he would betray another innocent woman for his selfish reasons. There is the other man who tells his female friend her husband was foolish to leave her and yet he denies his wife the attention that she rightfully deserves. And then there is this betrayed woman who comes dangerously close to infidelity for a second time.

The book serves as a refresher to some of the historical events of the freedom struggle. The author aptly captures the political mood of individuals and various communities as the movement progresses. The book touches upon the many sacrifices and the turmoil that followed the partition.  We also get a little peek into the culture of the various faiths and households in Lahore that shaped the social constructs of the country.

It is a breezy read thanks to the lucid and gripping narrative. The biggest surprise for me though was Lahore itself. The Lahore, in Anuradha’s Written on the wind, is incredibly beautiful and lively. She surely did make me fall in love with Lahore and I am almost aching to visit Pakistan for the first time in life. I am also secretly hoping for a literary happenstance to meet Anuradha so I can cajole her into telling me more about Harjeet and Amiya. So dear readers, I say go for it if you are up for an engaging tale of love and longing.

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

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.

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

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.  

Rumble in a Village Underlines Several Unsolved Problems of Indian Villages Through a Murder Mystery

Indian villages are treasure troves of tales. There are a million stories buried within them, that are waiting to be unearthed. But, it is unbelievable that two foreign research scholars who spent only a year in one of those unrecognizable villages of India could spin such a brilliant tale about it. Palanpur, in the words of Jean Dreze, is a “nondescript village” in Moradabad district in Uttar Pradesh. Jean is one of the two authors of the book, ‘Rumble in a Village’, published recently by Aleph Book Company. He along with Luc Leruth documents life as it was in the 1900s in the village of Palanpur where Jean stayed as a part of his research work. Both Jean and Luc are former scholars from the Indian Statistical Institute (New Delhi) and continue to be associated with India in many ways.

The story begins as a murder mystery which compels Anil Singh, a banker in London to return to his father’s village – Palanpur. The murder is only a premise to take the readers to Palanpur. The main plot unravels after you arrive in the village. The story jumps across different timelines as it traces the history of four families over three generations and the dynamics of three castes – the Thakurs, the Muraos, and the Dalits. What is more interesting is most of the characters lived and some still continue to live in Palanpur. The book retained the original name for some of the characters and even has a photograph featuring a few. 

I must credit the authors for their keen eyes which makes the book a very entertaining read starting from Anil’s train journey to Palanpur. Anil’s experience with the Indian railways will stir quite a bit of nostalgia in the readers. The unusual camaraderie, the unnerving questions from fellow travellers, the droplets of spit that hit your face from the window next are just too familiar. I was amused to learn how the railway station in Palanpur came to be named as Jargaon. The book brilliantly chronicles the arrival of the railways and how it changed the lives of the Palanpuris in some unfathomable ways.

The caste politics and the poverty that the book brings out will not surprise you if you are one of those who were raised in an Indian village. But you will be intrigued to learn what changed and what remained unaltered in this ugly game. While the Palanpuris evolved a little when it came to agriculture, they still preferred to have a temple built before fixing the dilapidated school. I can assure you, this mindset hasn’t changed even in 2020 in many of our villages. The worst part, however, was that the Palanpuris seemed to have remained immovable about educating and empowering their women. Like the authors’ rightly point out through Pat’s research, financial independence for women meant a degradation of their stature.

The book effortlessly documents the many little things that truly captures the spirit of Palanpur. The Thakurs and their love for guns, the obsession and the pride that came with becoming a soldier, their marriages and illicit affairs, the village council meetings and corruption that happens at various levels, child mortality and more. The story doesn’t do much about solving a murder mystery but it does in educating you about Indian bureaucracy. While the truth is rather disturbing, Jean and Luc get us through with a little humour. The whole episode of ADO, BDO, CDO, DDO, EDO and more is absolutely hilarious. And then there is Babu and his goat. The innocence and ignorance of these villagers offer you a hearty laugh, but you know that they aren’t as meek as you imagine them to be. Given the opportunity, they are quite capable of crime and treachery.

After a few chapters, I was confused with who is who thanks to the non-linear narration and characters from three different generations. I also did not see any value in the character of the Captain who is shrouded with mystery. But I didn’t need to bother too much about these difficulties because they didn’t matter. What mattered was Luc and Jean transported you to Palanpur and let you live among the Palanpuris and witness it all for real. I didn’t feel the urge to rush through the pages as one would do with murder stories. Instead, I soaked myself in every page, with every detail and the experience that the book had to offer. To me, it felt and read like a bright morning in a beautiful village.

A Millionaire Assassin, Dense Conspiracies, and Slick Writing Make Operation Prometheus a Thrilling Read

2020 has been a brutal year. Of course, the year itself can’t be blamed as it is becoming quite indisputable that the bad omen is going to travel with us well into the year 2021. So, all the mayhem effectuated in 2020 are not going to get gulped down with a few drinks on the new year eve. While the Coronavirus claimed many lives, the mildly luckier ones ended up spending days in self or state imposed quarantines. In a year when a routine body-temperature increase was suspected to be a symptom of COVID-19, reaching the year without dying has already become a sort of achievement. However, like always, there is one set of people who couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to get back to their To-Do list and tick those boxes with a flair for ‘toofani’, aka thrill. This year, some of these people finished their first novel.

Aryaman Chakraborty, a young boy of 17 has come up with this first novel – Operation Prometheus with a promise of bringing up more books in the series of Paine Books. Operation Prometheus is a slick thriller with Delbak Cath as its protagonist. Delbak is the CEO of a multimillion-dollar conglomerate tech company called ‘D-tech’ and also works as a dangerous assassin. The story revolves around the joint hunt of the CIA and the FBI for the perpetrator of a series of high profile assassinations around the world, the latest ones being in Bangalore and Mumbai (India). This is a tale where Bruce Wayne gets really shady and doesn’t need the Batman cape to carry out his missions.

Aryaman’s attention to details is remarkable. From the cars used by the characters to the guns owned by them, the author has got all the names there for you to imagine the scenes with the kind of clarity only motion pictures offer. Although the book begins slow, it catches pace without much of a trouble once the author is convinced that his readers have understood the premise. Once the story picks pace, there is something happening in every sentence. We are taken through action packed sequences one after another with a deftness that will make you wonder whether this is the first book by the author or there is a twist to that fact as well.

However, the book is not without its foibles. There are unnecessary details and repetitions at a few points without which the story could have become grippier. The editing has a lot of room to improve and must become a focal point for the author for the next book in the series. Apart from these, there are certain tropes which have now become cliches for developing leading characters and should be ditched by the new authors. To be more specific, the crutch of parents-dying-in-a-car-crash can perhaps be left alone now.

The book has more strengths than weaknesses. One of the major accomplishments of Aryaman as a first-time author is the distinctive sketches of all his characters. They have distinguishing voices, different reactions to circumstances, and carry out different functions in the larger context of the story movement. The author gets the timing of his twist-reveals perfect and makes this an amazingly engaging book that must be read in one straight sitting. 

The book is published by Notion Press and is available for purchase on Amazon. Get your hands on this wonderful debut by Aryaman Chakraborty to finish 2020 on a high with adrenaline gushing from the pages of Operation Prometheus.

Neighbours and Other Sweet Inconveniences in A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove was originally published in 2012 and later made into a movie in 2017. Written by Frederik Backman, the book bagged the New York Times Bestseller within a few months of being published.

Right off the bat I’m going to declare that you need to read this book. A Man Called Ove has the odd power of thawing a frozen heart, its story is filled with delicate emotions that you are bound to give into fully. It indicates that we all need a little bit of uncalled chaos in the strict order of our lives to feel completely and utterly human. 

The book revolves around Ove, an aloof widower living in a small town of Sweden. He keeps to himself and you’ll find him similar to that principled authoritarian male relative in your family that everyone tries to steer clear off. Other characters that feature in this book are a goofy Iranian-American family, intrusive neighbours, estranged friends, and a cat.

Ove is a stand up guy who doesn’t necessarily understand the niceties of the world. He tends to find everyone incompetent of living up to his standards but there are more layers to him than you would think. And this is what makes the book such a warm and funny read. This is inclusive of the fact that throughout the book, Ove is trying to kill himself in order to be freed from his loneliness. He doesn’t succeed in his attempts as unknowingly, the people (and the cat) around him decide that there are many beautiful years he is yet to see. 

Backman uses a remarkable technique of memories through which Ove recalls his late wife Sonja – who was one of the main reasons for Ove’s will to live. The author describes all the life events that make Ove the man that he is today. The man who has faced insurmountable loss in his life and the final one of his beloved wife acts as the very last leaf. Ove is prepared to end his life and then he runs into a pregnant Iranian woman called Parvaneh, his sweet neighbour Jimmy, and two young teenage boys at the brink of finding themselves. These characters from around the neighbourhood keep interfering with Ove’s plans of ending it all and this makes up to be very hilarious. These friendships pour into the gaps of Ove’s lives and simply provide for him that which was missing: meaning.

The story of the book is beautiful in both its characters and writing. However, as I scratched the surface of the book, a thought clung throughout the time of my reading. This was regarding the social hierarchy that separates the geriatric from the younger individuals and what it does to the former. Ove constantly runs into his ‘irrelevance’ in the workplace, his resentment towards the casual younger generation, the indifference of the healthcare system towards the infirm, and his remembrance of the days gone by where people had more integrity. A Man Called Ove’s cultural distance from that of my own doesn’t stand as a hindrance to the fact that we do live in a society where old age is just as good as invisibility. 

The book was made into a movie in 2017 starring Rolf Lassgård and this doesn’t come as a surprise when I read the book. Backman’s writing can be extremely visual and one may almost question whether the book was written with the goal of screen adaptation in mind. Each circumstance faced by Ove from his youngest years to the present play out like a movie. These events may even seem a little dragged out at certain points but assuredly add to the intensity of Ove’s transformation. 

The book is a slice of life story that showcases how unlikely relationships can sometimes be life giving and a source of undying hope. This book restores the faith that amongst all the hardness that humans have to put up with, authentic relationships always have a way of grounding people.  

I recommend this book to everyone who has faced unforgiving loneliness during the pandemic. Ove’s story is both a reminder and proof that we all need community in our life to just help us get by. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janice Pariat’s Seahorse Is a Literary Love Affair in Its Entirety

Seahorse by Janice Pariat is about the relationship and love that the alliterative protagonists, Nem and Nicholas shared. Rather the novel is about Nem’s memory of Nicholas and the void that Nicholas’ leaving created.

Nem’s aching for Nicholas is not one of bitterness or surfeit weeping but one of a thoughtful and sharp reverie.

Nem was a student of English Literature in Delhi University when he met Nicholas, who taught art history. He happened to drift into one of Nicholas’ classes and was immediately taken in by his suave mannerisms. What follows in the wake of this serendipitous meeting is a warm romance and a blossoming of a relationship; one in which not only love but also ideas about art, poetry and literature are mutually exchanged. That is, until Nicholas disappears, taking with him every trace of his existence.

The novel is suffused with an immeasurable ache and an indolent melancholy. This is brought out clearly through Nem, who carries his pain around. Yet, he still holds on to his love, a love that takes him all the way to London. He does not do it intentionally but only because subconsciously his search to fill this inexplicable absence becomes slowly a part of him, a part of whom he is.

Seahorse takes you, through Nim’s memories, to the physical spaces that the pair inhabited, shared and loved particularly the corridors of Delhi University and its surrounding areas. The leisurely walks and moments intermingled with the overpowering stench of decay in the neighbouring Hudson Lines described in the first part of the novel will evoke your own college days; especially for those who studied in Delhi University.

Reminiscent of the Greek myth of the love between Poseidon and Pelops, the narrative of Seahorse is abundantly dripping with the motif of water: the marine creature seahorse lends itself to endless interpretation and the existence of a curious aquarium heralds an infinite stock of memories and connections within Nem.

Seahorse brings out both the fragility and fluidity of love; of sexualities that stop, surrender, absorb and move on as well. The tenderness of Pariat’s writing is palpable: you feel and hear the protagonist so intensely as if nothing other than that exists. The literary references are etched out so beautifully that they linger on in your thoughts for long. They do not feel erudite or cumbersome. The novel is thus not only about the love affair of Nem and Nicholas but a literary love affair in its entirety.

You will fall in love with the writing, the atmosphere, and the pace of the story; slowly and surely.

It is as if the entire novel is one surreal and beautiful water colour, where lives, destinies, love, thoughts and literary metaphors fuse so seamlessly and smoothly into one another.

The House That Spoke by Zuni Chopra Is Different From Your Usual YA Fantasy Novel


Imagine living in a house as old as time, with a living and breathing library at your disposal, an ornate fireplace, and an armchair to sit back for hours and read. No, I am not talking about the library from Beauty and the Beast. But yes, this could easily be a dream for all book lovers, especially when cooped up indoors during the pandemic. Who would not want a beautiful house where you could while away hours on an end, as time passes slowly by?

Soon to turn 15, Zoon Razdan, luckily has exactly that in Zuni Chopra’s YA novel, The House That Spoke. She lives with her mother, Shanti, in Srinagar in their ancestral house. Her grandma lives close by, down the street. Zoon loves her home. Her favourite place in the house is the library where she loves spending her mornings and having some noon chai. Thus, when one day Zoon finds a realtor, Mr. Qureishi in her house, all hell breaks loose and strains her relationship with her mother. Zoon then embarks on an adventure to stop her mother from selling the house. To help out, she has a bunch of curious and unlikely friends along with her shy and newly found friend, Altaf. Altaf is Shanti’s friend, Lameeya’s son.

The House That Spoke is suffused with a fairy tale atmosphere that is a cross between Beauty and the Beast and the Chronicles of Narnia because her own historic house is a portal to both adventure and danger. Despite this magical element, Zoon’s adventures and life are tangled with the dangers that anyone living in Srinagar might face from acts of terrorism to government and army excesses. Chopra portrays the ‘normal’ in Kashmir through Zoon’s eyes: from stray shooting to a bomb blast. The fact that even a 15 year old knows how to navigate through this terror and thinks of it every time she crosses the street to see her grandma, her tathi, manifests the way in which the state has been paralysed with violence and how successive governments have failed it. Hence, the magic evoked in The House That Spoke is fraught with the realities of everyday life, of the darkness that engulfs the state and how Zoon, in trying to save her house, must also save her home from this inexplicable darkness.

This makes The House That Spoke different from your usual YA fantasy novel. It is one that allows teenagers to not just read a fast paced, fun adventure tale but also learn about the different facets of Kashmir: from its syncretic culture to its beauty of passing seasons. The fact that a 15 year old girl is the protagonist makes the story even more delightful. For a change, it is not a male protagonist venturing out to save the world.

Zuni Chopra’s prose is rich and evocative, perfectly mirroring Zoon’s opulent house and her surreal natural surroundings. Each sentence is laden with beautiful and layered descriptions that bring Zoon’s house and Kashmir alive in the minds of the readers. Zuni’s writing makes the novel superbly visual and lets our imagination paint vivid pictures from her words.

The House That Spoke is a great novel to get the kids to read after the usual TV and internet simulations reach a saturation point. The novel can also pave the way to start conversations with youngsters about Kashmir and its condition, particularly given that it is always in the news. Also, you get to support some homegrown YA genre novels that are only now getting the praise and support they need. Cheers to that, always!

You can buy this book here.

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

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

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

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

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

The novel begins with the most straightforward sentence: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Mughal Zenana With Ira Mukhoty

In the art of storytelling, be it the bedtime stories for children or the written records of history, women have existed but behind the veils, as the shadows of their male counterparts. Often it’s the king who comes before the queen; there have been superheroes and not superheroines. In the Indian context, of both the Hindu and the Muslim rulers, it was not considered dignified and at times even rude, to write or talk about the royal women who kept a decorous distance from the outer world, thus leaving us with the obscure account of their identities.

 

However, the book ‘Daughters of the Sun’ by Ira Mukhoty takes an exceptional path to look beyond the fine Muslin pardahs of the great Mughal Empire and rediscover its women – ‘Haramam’ or ‘Zenana’. The book takes us through a 200 years long journey dating back to the times of Babur in 1500 till the reign of Aurangzeb, uniquely focusing on the lives of the mothers, wives and daughters of the dynasty and their influence.

 

We are more familiar with the valor, ferocity and prudence of the Mughal kings but the book introduces us to the immense respect they had for their women not just for the sake of it but they were indeed worthy enough to be treated at par. They were as empowered as the kings themselves.

 

All the emperors looked up to them and sought their advices in the matters of diplomacy and administration. Khanzada Begum, Babar’s elder sister readily sacrificed herself to marry their rival to pacify the wrath befallen on the kingdom. Jahanara Begum, Shah Jahan’s daughter was designated as the Padshah Begum of Hindostan (the highest position for a woman at that time) at the age of 17 after the death of her mother. She dedicated her entire life to build the empire like never before. Not only did she assist her father in the administration but built a new capital known as Shahjahanabad, now part of the present day capital of India. Though the city bears the name of the king, but it was the princess or Sahiba as she was fondly called who took initiative to build the famous Red Fort, Chandni Chowk and many more monuments under her supervision.

 

When we think of monuments, many in the present day India can be credited to their diligent effort to leave the mark of their opulence, authority and love. Humayun’s first wife Bega Begum built a magnificent mausoleum in his remembrance, known as the Humayun’s Tomb to all of us. Noor Jahan regarded as the most wealthy woman in her times, built I’timād-ud-Daulah tomb in honour of her father who was a respectable courtier in Jahangir’s court. This piece of art turned out to be the inspiration for Shah Jahan to build the world renowned, Taj Mahal. The women were not just spending to build these extraordinary architecture but were also very active in trade. Most of them had ships in their names and the English and the Portuguese had to take permission from these powerful women to trade in India. Noor Jahan even had a seal of her name on the coins. Involvement of women in trade and decision portrays their ability to share power equally to run a huge kingdom.

 

The Mughal daughters since their childhood were well schooled and taught in different languages like Persian, Turki and later on Hindostani; thus producing erudite daughters like Gulbadan, Jahanara who grew up to write the memoirs of their empire. Not just the blood relations, but the milk mothers nurturing the royal kids were given special importance in the Zenana, sometimes even treated above the mothers themselves.

 

The Mughals since their inception have always been peripatetic. It was the women of the clan who always kept the Timurid culture alive in the foreign lands. They were home to these warriors. The women have also travelled alone without their husbands crossing oceans and taking the arduous journey to Mecca, hence creating an undeterred identity for themselves. They were beyond the boundaries separating men and women.

 

The book filled with such remarkable stories also elegantly takes care of the preceding circumstances, so the reader gets acquainted of the environment that the women were living and thus, is able to better understand their decision making. In other words, reading it would be no less than sitting in a Mughal tent full of timurid shahzadis and listening to the stories of their opulent and peripatetic lives – their role in shaping the Mughal era-of what they won, lost and brought to this land to make it the great Hindostan.

 

About the Author: Bhumika Soni is a literature enthusiast working in the field of data analytics, she has always found words more charming and powerful than numbers. Still searching for The Enchanted Tree created by Enid Blyton to travel to various magical worlds. She loves spy thrillers and Ruskin Bond stories.

 

 

In Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal’s Circus Folk and Village Freaks, Imperfection is the New Perfection

The idea of perfection or of being perfect engulfs us all in its suffocating grip. Our bodies, our work, our dress, our hair, and our everything must be somehow perfect in this deeply flawed society. Such are the contradictory expectations that society foists on us all, egged on particularly by the mass media and mass popular culture. Protagonists in movies, pop culture idols, and even politicians are projected as embodying the perfect. The ideal to achieve, then, is only perfection in all spheres of life.

Ancient Greek playwrights were perhaps one of the first to talk about characters with a deep flaw through the concept of hamartia which means ‘to err.’ Shakespeare’s tragic plays feature protagonists that are wholly defined by flaws such as Hamlet and his indecisiveness, Othello with his jealousy, or Macbeth and his greed. Even popular culture has slowly embraced imperfection, often treating its characters through a more nuanced lens rather than just the dichotomous notion of perfect versus imperfect.

Aparna Upadhyaya Sanyal in her prose poetry novel, Circus Folk and Village Freaks, wholly rejects these superficial notions of the perfect ideal and instead portrays 18 different tales of characters who are misunderstood and rejected by society as being out of the ordinary, who we would also label ignorantly as ‘freaks.’

When society rejects these freaks in the novel, they all find solace and space in a village circus, whose circus master is more than happy to accommodate and make a spectacle out of them.

From Siva, the Snake Man who finds an affinity to reptiles rather than humans, to Miss Rita with her chin full of hair because of hirsutism, from the Siamese twins, Sita and Gita to Miss Luxmi whose passion was throwing darts; all kinds of people could make it big and feel accepted among the peculiar circus folk.

These are the two threads that bind the story together. All of the characters are portrayed as being different from the so called normal. All face some kind of rejection from family and then society until they stumble upon the all embracing arms of the circus shows where their talents are showcased and appreciated.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his short story, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, depicted a man with wings who mysteriously dropped from the sky into the house of a couple. The couple uses this man to make more money by displaying him for the townsfolk to gleefully stare and poke at. Much like how we would behave unethically in a zoo. While Marquez clearly makes a comment on the spectators’ rude behavior, that is not the case in Sanyal’s tales. The spectator is missing. Only the spectacle is there. So we as readers are left to speculate on the former.

Do the characters become a mere curiosity when they perform in front of the spectators? Undoubtedly, the circus crowds cheer them, are thrilled by their acts but do they understand what the characters go through? Or is it merely something novel and delightful to their eyes for one night, only to be forgotten the next morning? How much agency does the circus actually give to these so called freaks?

Apart from these questions, Sanyal’s 18 tales also mirror the ills of our own society whether it is the complete hatred toward same sex love in our society as depicted in ‘The Sad Tale of Vishu, The Village Exterminatory,’ or the deep rooted patriarchal scorn for the girl child as shown in ‘The Tale of the Organ Sisters.’

Yet, ironically, it is this very flawed society that fails to accept people who are different and will leave no stone unturned to see that such ‘specials’ are objectified for entertainment. This contrast comes through in Sanyal’s verses as well which are written in a unique style of the rhyming couplet.

“In a country where a trunk is revered with a smile,
Lived a man with a trunk, universally reviled.”

Thus begins the tale of Jeeva, The Elephant Man who is born with an elephant’s head. Using the idea of how the majority worships the elephant, Sanyal juxtaposes the irony in Jeeva’s life. Despite the odds though, Jeeva manages to triumph and love himself in the face of society’s revulsion. His character shows the meaning of self-love.

All in all, Circus Folk and Village Freaks is an engaging, quick, and thoughtful read. It will make any reader retrospect on ideas of how we view difference and otherness in people through prejudiced eyes. All the tales also have a folksy quality to them which is heightened by the skillful use of rhymes. Reading each of the 18 tales feels like sitting for a story telling session, where a lively tale of human dreams and depravity is being animatedly narrated and sung.

You can buy the book here.