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

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

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

The Joker Meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can buy the book here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home & Humanity in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West

Published in 2017, Exit West contains themes of emigration and political refugees. This book was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 2018 among the many other accolades that it has received.  

Saeed and Nadia are a young couple in a city bordering on conservativeness and modernity. They nurture a relationship on texting and largely avoid talking about their futures together. In their unnamed city, militants take over and residents are forced into curfew and locked down houses where death lurks at every corner.

Looking for a way out, the two tragedy-stricken individuals hear about (magical) doors that prove to be escape routes. With the foreseeable future being both uncertain and dangerous, Saeed and Nadia leave their city behind with a heavy heart that is felt to the reader as well in order to save their lives.

In this manner, they leave their homes, Saeed leaves his father and the city that will house his mother’s grave, Nadia leaves to dust her hard-earned freedom. Two people who never bargained for this destiny leave a territory that with its given unrest was once their safe abode.

We only realize the sweetness of safety when we are miles away from it. Safety shouldn’t be earned but should be everyone’s right. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, such is not the case. Through Exit West, Hamid with his eloquent words and the ability to weave unrelated stories together tells the reader that the human spirit may move through various territories in a given lifetime but the experience of being uprooted is destabilizing.

We don’t just read about Saeed and Nadia, we comes across many other parallel stories where we see stories of both forced and willed migration and a lifelong search for home. These stories lack closure and I was left wanting for more, which isn’t a bad thing. The book raises more questions about human survival in a state of refuge than it provides answers for. 

For Saeed and Nadia, there’s no such thing as finding a base or finding a cozy spot to create a home in. Their only motive is to move through various cities to survive better. Just as I felt that maybe the city they have now arrived in will serve them better, they find another door and don’t think twice before making the move.

Hamid’s decision to build up doors in various junctures of his story, these doors that appear overnight in people’s hallways and elsewhere make the story border on magical realism. These passages can be the cause of great discomfort or delight for the reader. I mean, who doesn’t like secret doorways that can transport you to new destinations within minutes?

Hamid’s decision to do away with a refugee’s actual journey from a volatile city to a relatively safe one by propping up these doors is rather questionable. I was left to wonder whether this decision was made solely to shorten the length of the story or to not let the plot slip away from exploring the experience of finding oneself in strange and often hostile geography.

Gender politics in the book is skillfully explored by Hamid who has reversed normative qualities in our main characters. Saeed is grounded by his morals, attached to his parents, devoted to their care and Nadia is more restrained in emotional expression and denies being shackled by domestic dullness. Despite his brilliant decision of characterizing Saeed and Nadia in this way, these two who hold the pillar of the story fell emotionally flat for me.

In certain points of the story, they become mere bodies moving through doors and I wouldn’t hold it as a hindrance as one understands that living for mere survival can do that to people. Saeed and Nadia go through an unimaginable set of difficulties throughout the book and the picture of their character development is blurry at best. They are not hard to empathise with yet much is left to read between the lines of the characters suffering.

A silence grows between Saeed and Nadia because of the broken world they find themselves in. We see them drifting apart even when we see them trying their best yet deciding that their happiness lies away from one another. It was heartbreaking to encounter this disconnect. I was then led to think that maybe for once, both Saeed and Nadia got to choose their paths and they didn’t even need a door for this.

Exit West is a short 130-page read that showcases Hamid’s skill as a storyteller and the universal experience of displacement. The politics of power that destroy homes creates situations where the common humanity of people is truly put to test. Driving one to ask that unsettling question – Is there even such a thing as common humanity when it comes to survival? Even though the book left me with a feeling equivalent to that of being parched, Hamid’s use of language requires as much appreciation as it can get.

This book is best suited for people who crave heavy reads and find it easy to navigate through the genre of literary fiction challenging the reader’s imagination.

Pankaj Dubey’s Debut Novel ‘What a Loser!’ is the Story of Every Stereotyped Human Soul Around Us

The world around us is so full of stereotypes. Some claim to be good whereas most of them turn out to be disastrous. There is also an army of well-intentioned people who work to break these stereotypes. Yet it seems almost impossible to wipe out these stereotypes. The world likes to thrive in these patterns irrespective of whether you like it or not. So, what happens when one chooses to tell the stories of these stereotyped human souls around us? It turns out to be a laugh riot and that is what Pankaj Dubey’s debut novel What a Loser! is. The book is published by Penguin Random House India.

 

Being faithful to his roots, Pankaj picked a protagonist close to home. The interesting aspect of his protagonist is that he is strangely familiar and popular among the rest of the countrymen. But only Pankaj could bring out the finer aspects of this innocent yet dreamy PAKS. PAKS arrives in Mukherjee Nagar carrying some seemingly lofty goals and loads of Sattu and achaar from Begusarai. From the significance of the colour red, be it in the gamchha, the name embroidered in the pillow covers to the terracotta-coloured shirt pieces and the information on the ‘penties’, our author’s attention to details is just spot on. Even if you are not from Begusarai or the cow-belt, you still might relate to PAKS especially if you were raised in a village or small town and migrated to the cities to pursue some sort of a career. Feel free to blame the author if you become all nostalgic and secretly wish for PAKS to succeed in his journey. But he is not even my favourite character.

 

While the author was cheering for his protagonist, I was rooting for the self-proclaimed Badshah of 440, Mukherjee Nagar, New Delhi. Haven’t we all had such wonderful characters in our lives, who are so full of their insecurities, vulnerabilities, false pride and fear of failures? Putting up a brave, proud face even during unfortunate times while making life miserable for others the rest of the time, Subodh Singh only makes this comedy ride of the story more entertaining. His character touches the epitome when PAKS’s Babuji arrives in 440.

 

None of the characters seems fictional even if the author claims so. From the north-easterners Ronnie and Amilie to the Jats who form the opposite gang, each one looks handpicked from one or other’s real life. So are the events in the plot. The secrets of evening colleges, the university politics, the obsession with ‘cool’ English and British Council, the fascination for ‘milky white’ skin and the Punjaban girls are all inimitable truths of a small-town guy in Delhi. The book knits together these urban legends and takes you through a hilarious ‘Dilli Darshan’.

 

I find it hard to ignore that the author doesn’t have much kindness left for his female characters. They are either cold and vicious or come across as eye-candies. I wonder what grudge does the author have against the beautiful girls of Delhi.

 

Even as the book gives a comic touch to the many miseries of these super commoners, the author also manages to poke your eye occasionally while you are busy laughing. Some of us might not even notice the poke, for instance when Subodh Singh asserts his ‘caste superiority’, or when a shootout happens in a University classroom. You realize these are matters of greater concern, in retrospection. But to brood is against the spirit of the book. So pick this book, when you want to leave out your cares for a while and have a peal of hearty laughter.

You can buy the book here.

Creator's-Image-ShwethaHS

Creator’s Image by Shwetha H S Looks for the Interesting in the Mundanities of Life

The difference between a full-blown novel and a short story is perhaps similar to that of a long term relationship and a one-night stand. A reader reads a short story without the expectation of a long term commitment but this very aspect of a short story compounds the pressure on the writer. The margin for error is nil. The author cannot make mistakes in the first page to compensate for them in the subsequent pages. What comes about in those few thousand words lasts as the first and the final impression of the encounter on the reader’s mind.

Shwetha H S begins her short stories collection with the title-story Creator’s Image which is a deeply reflective metaphorical tale about the human civilization. With multi-layers of deliberation presented with intelligent twists and turns, this story holds the book together. There are ten other stories which tell us the tales of extraordinary moments of our ordinary lives. In fact, the selection of subjects and plot betray Shwetha’s love for the fleeting moments of life, her attempts to hold them for a little longer in her gaze and pluck a story out from those moments.

Most of the stories are relatable and you will find parts of yourself in one or the other tale. The stage is most often a snapshot of the routine life. Through the course of the story, her pen closes in on one character who can be considered the protagonist. She deals with the character in greater details and the suspense hangs around this character’s action or inaction. While this method works for a few of the stories, it also makes a few of them predictable. As a result, they end up short of making a lasting impact. The stories that hit the mark linger with you for sometime and keep you invested in the plot even after they have ended.

The book also deals with moments of dilemma humans face while making decisions in life, no matter how significant or insignificant. This pits the reader’s choices against those of the characters time and again and makes for a very fluid vantage point which does not distance itself too much away from the characters and the stories. You will find yourself in situations where your vantage point gets flooded away with helplessness and there remains hardly any difference between you as a reader and the characters sketched in the stories.

The language is lucid and mature. The author has constructed her stories with not a word extra or unnecessary. There is no needless rhetoric or the microscopic background details. She balances the ‘told’ and the ‘untold’ deftly in all her stories and the reader is neither dumbed down nor is left to stray too far in the dark at any point.

My favourite stories in the book are Tears of the Goddess, To Each His Own, and Creator’s Image. The book is available on Amazon Kindle and if you are looking for a quick-read without having to commit to the rigours of reading a big fat novel in the already ominous season of lockdowns and unlocks, Creator’s Image is the one night stand you are looking for.

You can buy the book here.

The Circle of Karma Is a Moving Depiction of Individuality and Self Reflection From Bhutan

Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma was the first English novel to be published in Bhutan by a woman.

Set in approximately, 1950s and 1960s Bhutan, the novel is written in a chronological order and narrated from a third person point of view. The protagonist in The Circle of Karma is Tsomo. The novel portrays the various events and experiences that Tsomo goes through in her life right from being a child in Tang Valley in Bumthang District in Bhutan to her old age in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. The central theme of Tsomo’s journey and her self-development shows the importance of individuality and self-reflection as a way to always improve oneself.

The novel moves from giving a general glimpse of Bhutan’s cultural and social aspects from a child’s (Tsomo’s) perspective at the beginning to the more specific events of Tsomo’s life and journey.

Through her family, Tsomo learns several gender roles (doing household chores, gardening, and weaving, to name a few) and gender myths namely that of female suffering and endurance. From her father, she learns the cruel truth that girls, because of their gender, are not supposed to get educated and learn to read and write.

Tsomo suffers a terrible loss during her childhood and consequently, she runs away from her home to free herself from the restrictions of belonging and relationships. Her bold decision is a major turning point of the novel. It puts her on a bumpy path of severe trials and tribulations. However, those very trials also give her the independence to grow and stand on her own two feet. To sustain herself during her days of struggle, Tsomo becomes a road construction worker. The reconstruction of the Thimphu Dzong and the construction of the roads provide a sense of the setting, which is around the time when Bhutan had chosen to modernize and open up to the world, slowly but surely.

Tsomo meets many women sharing the same dreams and struggles. She finds a new sister in another fellow worker, Dechen Choki. She also embarks on many pilgrimages which broaden her way of thinking by giving her exposure to several other cultures and peoples. At the same time, these travels also force her to face a pressing conflict that has consumed her since she ran away: whether to have a ‘normal’ life (with a husband and children) and be a good wife and a good woman as her parents had taught her or to pursue a life of religion.

The next set of events takes her away from her religious desires at the end of which she learns how the patriarchal society has taught women to always have hatred and suspicion towards each other and not to hold the men accountable. She realizes that she must relearn everything that society has taught her about gender roles. This is the other major turning point that portrays an epiphany and self-realization on Tsomo’s part.

By tracing Tsomo’s growth from childhood to adulthood and finally old age, The Circle of Karma, can be called a female bildungsroman as it depicts both Tsomo’s physical and psychological journey. The story highlights girls’ experiences of the world and how from an early age itself, both boys and girls internalize gender roles and expectations. In making Tsomo, someone who has chosen to not be defined by relationships that burden a women’s identity, the author has deftly questioned those gender roles. She has depicted the conflict that Tsomo faces in wanting to fit in to society’s expectations from a woman, yet at the same time trying to carve her own identity.

The novel showcases female friendships and solidarity and how women can support each other in times of need and deed which is the exact opposite of the internalization of the predominant idea about women being enemies to each other.  

The other important themes are religion and the idea of karma. The latter permeates the story and is reflected in the title of the novel. The idea of karma is present in everyone’s thoughts. This religious concept is used to rationalize one’s fortunes or misfortunes, but karma as a journey is what stands out as Tsomo’s life comes to full circle at the end of the novel.

The Circle of Karma employs several nuanced interpretations of travel as a motif – be it in Tsomo’s actual physical journey, or her spiritual and mental growth, or in the abstract concept of karma itself which travels and walks together with you in the present and in the afterlife.

You can buy the book here.

Urvashi Bahuguna’s Terrarium Touches Upon the Momentary Motions of Everyday Life

Terrarium by Urvashi Bahuguna is her debut poetry collection published by The Great Indian Poetry Collective. Her verses possess a singular and almost unnerving style of unraveling the magical from within the everyday. Terrarium’s poems touch upon the momentary motions of everyday life. Those motions may seem ephemeral but leave an immeasurable mark on all of us. For instance, the first part of the collection portrays how Bahuguna’s childhood experiences especially of moving to and living in Goa, shaped her perspectives.

In doing so, Bahuguna, vividly depicts her surroundings such that they come alive and remain etched in our minds. In The Heart of a Mango, she conjures up a much followed and cherished summer tradition in many parts of India: of devouring mangoes of all kinds. She evokes the feeling of richness a mango brought to her family particularly to her father.

In Last Ride before the Monsoon, she forges a primordial connection with water and how a part of us is lost to its infiniteness:

Listening to the weeping on the water,
some piece of us is lost too.
And for being unknown it slips
silvertailed below the still boat.

The complete primitive and hence pristine aura of the poems is possible because she weaves in imagery of nature as we never imagined it before. She has an eye for the minutest detail and recreates it in extraordinarily surreal metaphors. This is best exemplified in the poem Waiting for Movement. It begins with a strikingly colourful description:

The laburnum is late
with its lightening yolk.
An abundance of mulberries
stains bowls.

Thereafter, the tiniest movements that paradoxically encapsulate stillness, are described. Through this, she creates an apprehension that something is about to happen, only to end it with an anti climactic shattering of that tense stillness with a much-needed breeze.

Bahuguna’s attention to the physical uniqueness and elements of the environment around her possibly comes from Miss Fatima’s Geography class where, as she says in her poem, Ms. Fatima she learnt, “to love this bruised and bumpy earth.” It was there in class she traced the country’s physical features and “know the map of India like people supposed we knew the cuts and flat moles on our hands.”

The second part of the collection talks of love, growing apart, and trying to come to terms with the end of a relationship.  Here too, metaphors of geography seep in along with her beautiful skill of turning anything mundane into magic. For example, sleeping next to her lover like a child drooling is described as:

My mouth leaves a trail of moon drool,
tooth whisked, quiet as sugar melting off the tongue.

Such ordinariness and profundity of her verses create an intimacy between the reader and the writer. The rest of the book also captures the author’s various viewpoints and experiences. Terrarium can be called a slant autobiography. However, it is also one that speaks as much about the author as about the world around us from the societal fears a girl is taught to the greater environmental problems haunting the world that are blithely ignored.

It absorbs so much of the invisible things we miss out because of how we dismiss it as ordinary. Yet, they are a pulsating world of their own. Perhaps this is why the collection is titled Terrarium. A terrarium is a miniature garden enclosed in a glass container. It is minuscule but nurtures so much. Similarly, it is the quotidian living of our lives and experiencing the beating of our emotions that nurtures us and leaves such a deep impact on who we are. The theme of Identity is explored, not overtly, but subtly in the poems by mingling the little invisible influences of people, places, news and societal mores.

Terrarium is the perfect cosy read on a rainy day. It allows you to lose yourself to the leafy monsoon foliage of the verses. The lines leave you contemplating your role, connection, and identity with yourself and the world around you.

You can buy the book here.

Abdullah Khan’s Debut Novel Patna Blues Is More Than Just a Political Statement

In India, we attach a plethora of stereotypes to one’s identity. Judging the person by his/her name, religion and home-state is a common practice. Some words like Bihari, Momdan, Chinky, Madrasi among others are used loosely and are often meant to be derogatory. Abdullah Khan in his debut novel Patna Blues traces the life of one such identity which is both a Bihari and a Muslim. The book talks about the desire, dreams, and destiny of a young boy Arif Khan based in Patna. Arif khan in his early 20s preparing to be an Indian Administration Officer, falls in love with a married Hindu woman much older than him. With so much to handle in a large family of three younger sisters and a brother, his miseries increase with this sweet distraction. He consistently finds himself at the crossroads- struggling to choose between his dreams and desire.

The book is a page turner with a lot of drama unfolding with each chapter, line by line. It is set up in early 80s spanning over 20 years against the backdrop of political events of the time. The political events are so intricately woven and meticulously placed in the story that for a moment you forget that it was a reality of a time- The times of VCR, PCOs, Mandal commission, fall of Babri Masjid, 1993 Mumbai attacks, Bihar’s Chara Ghotala, and many more.

The book does not sympathize with the struggles the identity brings him rather makes a strong point on what is and what ought to be. It smoothly ventures into the life of his family members and their aspirations. Many a time, it cuts open the wounds to show bare the prejudices of a majority of society towards a few. Arif’s father, a police officer in Patna is not handed over confidential documents just because of his religion despite his clean records. Younger brother, an aspiring actor faces mockery and rejection owing to his accent despite being talented. The family has to deal with the pressure of ill practices and beliefs of society like arranging dowry for his sisters. However, the author does not delve much into the lives of sisters and they are just to add more ‘blues’ to their life and story. Their portrayal is typical- with suppressed dreams and forced acceptance for their destiny- with everything culminating into marriage.

The book is not at all about making a political statement but shows the effort of a Muslim family to live a comfortable and respectful life despite all odds. Intermittently, the story line is showered with Urdu shayari and old Bollywood song lines which make it refreshing. The story written in simple words is entertaining. It also captures the popular places of Patna like Gandhi Maidan, Dak bunglow Square making it vivid and close to reality. This story of love, aspiration, failure, and grief travels places from Patna to the interiors of Bihar, to some of the metro cities and captures the sentiments of society about one’s identity.

Pick the book for a journey back in time, for a journey from expectations to reality, dreams to destiny, and above all from grief to hope. You can buy the book here.

The-Bones-Of-Grace-Tahmima-Anam Cover

Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace is a Haunting Tale of Incompleteness of Our Being

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam carries a deeply profound sadness that is difficult to escape. It speaks of such absolute raw and bare emotions that it is hard to keep yourself distanced from it. The second person point of view used in the novel adds to this devastating feeling of the inescapable. The narrative pulls the reader deeper, forcing to confront some of the inevitable realities of human life.

One such reality that shapes the novel as well as human relationships is a sense that we are incomplete and we will not be able to overcome it. We just have to live with it.

As Elijah Strong says at the very start of the novel, “Loneliness is just part of being a person. We long for togetherness, for connection, and yet we’re trapped in our own bodies. We want to know the other fully, but we can’t. We can only stretch out our hands and reach.” This crushing truth permeates The Bones of Grace from the very beginning. Each character is endowed with different shades of incompleteness or a loneliness that haunts all human existence.

Elijah Strong is the character to whom the entire novel is addressed. Zubaida Haque is the narrator. She is from Bangladesh and is a paleontologist studying at Harvard University. Zubaida met Elijah because of a serendipitous coincidence at a concert at Sanders Theatre. Their conversation started on an odd note that is perhaps possible only among complete strangers. Zubaida, submerged in Shostakovich’s Symphony 5, recalls a vivid childhood memory she had suppressed and reveals to Elijah, the complete stranger, about her being adopted. This strange introduction led to the two getting to slowly know and understand each other.

Zubaida has a seemingly well planned life. She has supportive roommates in America. She is selected to go to Dera Bugti in Pakistan to dig out the fossils of the walking whale, Ambulocetus natans. She is betrothed to her childhood friend and sweetheart, Rashid. However, her world collapses when her dig comes to an abrupt end and she returns to Dhaka. She is tormented with the nagging thought that she has lost an opportunity to make a dent in the world.

Moreover, meeting Elijah makes her imagine infinite possibilities beyond the ones set for her in Dhaka. Despite her sense of unease with the world, Zubaida lets the events unfold as they were expected to in Dhaka.

The one dent Zubaida makes is when she volunteers to help a British researcher, Gabriela, record the precarious lives of the ship breakers at the ironically named, Prosperity Ship Breaking, in Chittagong.

The scenes at the ship breaking company further the total desolateness of the novel. It is this setting or point where all the strands of the novel come together: her life with Rashid, her love for Elijah and her need to know her true origins.

Beautifully interwoven is the metaphor of the walking whale and its ambivalent nature. The walking whale was a mammal living eons ago on land but turned to the sea, unlike all others who were beginning to migrate from sea to the land.

Zubaida associates herself with this ambivalence because she has also been thrown against the tide of the world. Just like she wants to unearth the mysteries of the walking whale, she wants to find the mysteries of her origins too. She wants to give her otherwise fragmented self a sense of tangible, unshakeable identity.

The Bones of Grace is a deeply moving novel that leaves you distraught because it makes you think about your own tenuous link with the past and the wider universe. It makes you feel small, but also provides courage to face an intransigent dichotomy of human life: of being connected to others through myriad identities yet being truly connected only to your own self and body.

Even though this book is the final installment of Tahmima Anam’s Bengal Trilogy, the novel can be read as a standalone. Characters from the previous two novels do come in but are on the margins. The story also portrays cities of Bangladesh, Dhaka and Chittagong, giving the reader a glimpse into the life of the privileged in this country.

If the movie, Lion, moved you with its raw treatment of fated identities, The Bones of Grace will make you similarly introspective and emotional.

Video: BookSpeak Series by Jeevanayagi – Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa (Konkani Literature)

Sahitya Akademi-awardee Damodar Mauzo is one of the most prominent figures in contemporary Konkani literature. We discuss his book Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa in this episode of BookSpeak. For more such videos on Indian literature and books, subscribe to our YouTube channel and our website.

TheSeer’s BookSpeak

Buy the book here.