Heidi in the Alps

Wanderlust: Lockdown Hiking in the Alps With Heidi

The lockdown has apparently crippled many people’s social lives. I am not one for going out every week, so I am not someone who sorely misses dining out or partying. But once in a while, yes, I do miss doing the simple things: reading a newspaper or taking a walk in the park or simply having my favourite street food one fine evening.

Instead for me, this searing summer heat is far more crippling. I cannot escape it, except in the mind. Therefore, often in the past few days, I have vaguely dreamt of being back in the mountains.  No, I am not one who feels an inner calling to the mountains or anything of the sort that seems to be afflicting a lot of people. But yes, whenever someone asks me where I prefer to travel: beaches or mountains? I promptly answer: mountains.

So, off late, I have been thinking about why this promptness and why I have this deep love for the mountains. It is not like I am the best of hikers that I can go climbing up any mountain. After a bit of introspection I found my answer: it was because of a lovely book I read when I was 10 years old: Heidi by Johanna Spyri.

It was also the first complete novel I ever read! Before that I used to read short stories, Champak, Tinkle, Amar Chitra Katha, and the abridged versions of full length novels. One fine day, however, I think I realized that I need to ‘grow up,’ (how innocent that thought was then!) by reading a complete novel and not these shortened versions!

I was thrilled to have come across a copy of Heidi at a book fair. I still have that copy with me. I found it when reorganizing my book cupboard last year.

What has also stayed with me till today is Heidi’s rollicking fun in the mountains and the insurmountable problems she faces. I feel a close connection to her to the extent that whenever I reread the book, I feel I am reading about a friend. While for many children, Alice from Alice in Wonderland was the gateway to more reading, for me it was Heidi’s adventures that created an insatiable appetite for reading.

The novel starts with Heidi, an orphan, being sent by her aunt, Dete to live with her paternal grandfather in the Swiss mountains. Her aunt had got a new job in Frankfurt and was unable to take Heidi with her. Heidi’s grandfather lived away from the nearest village in a small house among the tall mountains. He was known for being tough and gruff. Most villagers were afraid of him and did not understand how he would live with a 5-year-old child.

Slowly, Heidi’s cheerfulness and innocence melted his heart. She soon also became friends with Peter, the goatherd, who lived nearby with his blind grandmother. Heidi began to cherish her new surroundings, rejoicing in her bed of hay in the hay loft that gave her a beautiful view of the valley; the fresh goat’s milk her grandfather gave her every morning or her leisurely trips to the pastures with Peter.

The simple meals she had of bread, cheese, and milk are so vividly etched in my mind that my mouth still waters when thinking or reading about it.

The descriptions of Heidi’s simple yet full life created an idyllic image of the Swiss Alps in my mind. It was not a Bollywood movie of the 90s that made me long to go to Switzerland, but rather this five-year-old child’s daily life with her grandfather.

Another personal connection to the novel was also developed because I could see my own maternal grandfather in Heidi’s. While mine did not live in the mountains, he was stern and strict yet loving and caring in his own little ways.

I also tried to inculcate the same wonder that Heidi had for nature. I did not grow up in the mountains but I always used to, and still do, marvel at small delights found in nature whether it is the red blooms of the gulmohar, the smell of the mango blossoms, eating jamun from the tree or birds chirping in the morning or taking a dip in the water dish. I love taking pleasure from the minutest of nature’s wonders.

The writer, Johanna Spyri, captured the spirit and soul of a child in Heidi. We may think that children have nothing to worry about or nothing that they truly understand but Heidi was able to discern the human in her grandfather much better than all the villagers who shied away from him. Her sheer delight and appreciation for all the birds and plants around her make her a far better observer than any adult.

Heidi’s deep love for the mountains and the attachment to her grandfather was what she sorely missed when she was taken to Frankfurt to be a companion for the invalid child, Clara. Heidi’s change in behavior because of being away from the mountains is described in great detail such that it lends to a good psychological understanding of the effects of a cruel separation on a child.

Thus, as we find ourselves slowly unraveling from the lockdown, knowing still that travelling and hiking the mountains will remain a distant dream for some time, I think we could all pick up Heidi and take a visual and literary trip to the fresh, invigorating environs of the Swiss Alps and also learn a thing or two about appreciating nature’s beauty.

Do not dismiss it as a children’s novel, but view it as one where you can take two trips: one to the mountains and one back to your own childhood when things were much simpler and easier.

The book is easily available in different formats on Project Gutenberg!

Happy reading! Happy Wanderlusting through books!

 

Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

COVID-19, Lockdowns, and Our ‘Typical Indian Problems’

We have now crossed the 100,000 mark. Every new day is beating the previous record of one day spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The numbers refuse to budge. Lockdowns have gotten feebler every passing phase. The state leaderships which were collecting adulatory coins till now on social media from film stars, seem to be giving up in a very trumpesque manner. One look at different state governments tells you what they are keeping busy with. Fighting litigations to open Tasmac shops, fudging the numbers on coronavirus, choosing to deliberately get oblivious of the violations of social distancing and lockdown norms by the high and mighty, and cancelling emergency trains because the builders can decide the rights of a poor Indian in a closed door meeting with the Chief Minister, we have seen everything.

Considering the difficulty of our time, the socio-economic diversity of our country, and of course our population, the chinks we are developing are inevitable. In spite of these misdemeanours, the government and bureaucracy have been toiling to contain the pandemic. The pressure to do better than other affected countries is palpable on the face of our leaders. The inconsistencies that we have seen in our political class and bureaucracy is a reminder for us to notice similar patterns in citizens too. While many have cooperated with the law enforcement agencies and the local administration, a huge number for some reason, is determined to dilute all the efforts and our national discipline, assuming it exists.

Back in my hometown, I remember something distinctly from my childhood. I would watch these individuals boarding a bus and on being asked for the ticket charge, they would just utter the word ‘staff’. That was the magic word. Some conductors did not dig deeper than this. A few would ask for an identity card. This would invariably turn into some sort of argument. The word – staff, was just one word from the freeloader (tu jaanta nahi main kaun hoon) vocabulary. This is still common in many parts of our country. I am sure you have seen words like ‘Army’, ‘Police’ on motorbikes and cars. Those are declarations of authority. Even when these vehicles are not being driven by the original owners, these signs have the same power. The point is, once we are made aware of this sort of vocabulary, we use these words whenever we are bending the system for our benefit. In effect, most of the people on the streets are either powerful in some way or are pretending to be. Ask any dhaabawala how many policemen pay their bills.

Last week, I ventured out after about 10 days to get some vegetables and while I was picking my veggies, a woman appeared out from a car without a mask towards the shop. When I asked her about her mask, she went back reluctantly towards the car but came back empowered with the male company who was on the wheels. On being asked again, they went into an argument overkill to defend their choice – “you don’t tell me, who are you?”. All that did not surprise me. In fact, when I answered with – “I am a citizen of this country, and I have a right to point it out if you are doing something so wrong for public health”, she dug into her freeloader vocabulary and retorted – “I’m a doctor. So I know. You don’t tell me!” If only irony were an academic discipline, this lady would win a Nobel.

Delhi customs has confiscated illegal export consignment of PPE kits. Karnataka government has already received requests for opening up mosques for prayers from MLC C.M. Ibrahim. People are coming out in large numbers for religious congregations, Maharashtra is doing everything that could be seen as opposite of a lockdown. It is almost as if people are volunteering for herd immunity by infection. All my visits to the bazaar have brought me face to face with people who don’t care about following social distancing norms or wearing a mask. Closer home, a house had some religious ceremony and entertained guests over a period of 3 days. A neighbour has carried out a complete makeover of his house using around 5-7 workers every day of the lockdown. These workers took the masks from their pockets only when I happened to request them. At all other times, they stayed inside the pockets. Interestingly, the homeowners used masks for themselves. After initial prohibitions from the governments on spitting in public places, I had hoped for some change. I didn’t realise spitting is something that completes our Indianness.

I’m sure you must have come across such situations in your own outings during these lockdowns. Of course, I am assuming you are not the one violating these norms in the first place. Now that the governments have given up on the lockdown restrictions and we are on our own, it is perhaps time to look into our behaviour as individuals during the last couple of months. Our attitude, both at the beginning and now, can finally explain the ‘typical Indian’ problems. I list a few of them here –

  1. Why do we indulge in rash driving and honk like we are composing some Bollywood ‘item number’?
  2. Why does our saliva keep asking for ‘aazadi’ from us every time we come out in public spaces?
  3. Why do our public hospitals spread more diseases than they cure? 
  4. Why does corruption fit so well under ‘essential services’ for us? 
  5. Why have our ponds, lakes, and rivers shapeshifted into exaggerated drains?
  6. Why do we smoke, pee everywhere apart from the places designated for them?  
  7. Why queues are synonymous with waterboarding for Indians?
  8. Why do Indian women get the definition of women-empowerment wrong so often? 
  9. Why do Indian men deny the existence of condoms?

When I met these defaulters during my lockdown outings, most of the responses betrayed a sense of invincibility, like ‘it’s nothing, it won’t happen to me’. Another response tried to tell me that since I was safe by following the rules, I should keep shut and not bother others. It is not innocence. It is not any sort of self-sacrifice. It is just a refusal to fall in line, a refusal of responsibility. We do not care. We are great at throwing the blame on someone else. It’s not that we don’t care at all, we do. In fact, as Manu Joseph puts it, we have ‘immense stamina for useless issues’. For example, we care enough to slap a film-maker because his film hurts our group-pride. However, no amount of gutkha spitting hurts our group pride because we haven’t yet identified with any group that takes offence for gutkha spitting. Of course, Maharana Pratap didn’t sacrifice his life fighting the gutkha spewers, how can we take offence for that then?

 

The group that is still largely unrealized and unknown in our land is called ‘enlightened citizenry’, a concept discussed in detail by Swami Ranganathananda in his lecture and now book on Enlightened Citizenship and our Democracy. An individual’s awareness of his social responsibility is at the centre of such a citizenship. Since we have not yet understood this difference between an ordinary ‘adult citizenship’ and an ‘enlightened’ one, our other group associations dominate enlightened citizenry for much of our lifetime. It is up to us then to step back every time our pride is wounded and identify the group we are associating with to inflict this wound upon ourselves. If we find that this group is anything other than ‘enlightened citizenry’, we have our answer to most of the problems that begin with ‘a typical Indian..’.

 

Cover Image: Policemen force two men to do sit ups for flouting the lockdown rules, at Dharampura Bazar in Patiala on 24 March 2020 | PTI

 

Dr. Nonita Mittal - Interview with The Seer

In Conversation with a COVID-19 Warrior and Survivor

Dr. Nonita Mittal pursued her medical education from Armed Forces Medical College in Pune, India. After graduation, she worked as a research scholar with the pediatric hematology-oncology team at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for a year. She was involved in development of a decision aid website for patients and caregivers with Sickle Cell Disease. She went on to pursue residency in general pediatrics at SUNY Downstate Health University Center in Brooklyn, New York. 

Brooklyn was one of the worst affected areas by COVID-19 pandemic. The positive test rates for COVID-19 in central Brooklyn have averaged from 63%-78% with a disproportionately higher mortality rate amongst its population as per preliminary data from NY DOH. Dr. Nonita Mittal is currently in her final year of residency and was closely involved in taking care of COVID-19 patients in this area. She got infected with COVID-19 while taking care of one of such patients early in the epidemic and recovered from it successfully. We spoke with her about her time during self-quarantine, her work, and other matters related to COVID-19 with twin intentions of expressing our gratitude to her and making our readers more aware.

DisclaimerPlease note that the medical details discussed in this interview are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

 
Healthcare professionals face a bigger risk of getting infected by COVID-19 because they are active on duty while many of us can work from home. We are so relieved to hear that you have recovered from COVID-19. We would like to hear from you some details of your own journey to recovery. 

For the first seven days, I mainly had severe headaches and sore throat that evolved into fever and chest congestion. I took Tylenol round the clock for fever and muscle aches. For my sore throat and congestion, I drank lots of water with hot lemon ginger tea 3-4 times a day. On the 8th day, I started having difficulty breathing. I was in touch with the physician over the phone who recommended monitoring oxygen saturation using a portable pulse oximeter and albuterol inhalation every 4 hours. I was instructed to come to the emergency if my saturations dropped below 92% or my difficulty while breathing was not relieved even with the albuterol. Thankfully, I responded well, and by day 10 most of my symptoms resolved. I monitored my temperature closely throughout, and once I stopped having fevers, I returned back to work. COVID testing at the time was only approved for hospitalized patients, and hence, I was not able to get it.

 

You are back to work. When this disease is evoking such great fears and shock in even unaffected people, what makes you go back to work after having seen it so closely?

Being affected from COVID-19 made me realize how scary it can be to go through something you have no clue about. It actually strengthened my resolve to go back to work and help those inflicted from COVID-19 as much as I could. In addition, when I was quarantined, my colleagues were covering my shifts and putting their lives at risk, so it was only fair that as soon as I recovered, I did the same for them. I became a physician to help those in need and now when the situation demands it, I felt I had to step up to my cause. 

 

This is a disease that is not yet properly understood by people, and perhaps statistics is the last thing a patient wants to understand. The emotions must be running high. So, what are the questions patients are asking their doctors?

Most of the patients and their families want to know about treatment options. There is a lot of curiosity regarding the effectiveness of Hydroxychloroquine and Remdesevir. There are no randomized clinical trials to prove their efficacy, however, the prelim data from certain institutes shows Remdesevir to be promising. Patients do ask regarding outcomes, but the course of COVID is so variable that it is hard to predict the outcome in any one. The only thing we can say with surety is that patients with comorbid conditions like obesity, kidney disease, or diabetes have worse outcomes. 

 

This, of course, is bringing mental trauma to patients and family members alike. What are the steps being taken by medical authorities and governments in the US to provide adequate support to the affected. Is there anything specific you would like to mention?

The government support has been very slow and inadequate. Center and state have been giving mixed messages which makes it difficult for people to follow the quarantine guidelines. In a pandemic, it is vital to build the trust between the leader and the people, and the leader has to walk the walk too. 

At the medical level, despite all the chaos, the healthcare teams have been trying to update the families with the daily progress. Many people who tested positive for COVID antibodies are donating convalescent plasma. Steps have been taken to provide telehealth and remote pastor services for those affected. Many local philanthropic organisations like World Health Kitchen have risen to the occasion to provide food for everyone working at the hospital. And there have been many anonymous donations for PPE for the healthcare worker and family members alike.  

 

How are you protecting your family during the present crisis? What are the precautions or steps you are taking to see that the family members remain untouched by the disease? Also, how are they responding to your decision to go back to work after recovering?

Me and family make sure that we practice social distancing and frequent hand washing. We have also designated a dirty area and clean area at home. Every item from outside is first placed in the dirty area, and only brought inside after being sanitized with bleach/alcohol wipes. After returning from the hospital, I immediately take shower, wash my clothes, and sanitize any article that I carried with me. Wearing a mask is mandatory in New York now, and we abide by it. 

I stay with my husband. Luckily, I don’t  have anyone vulnerable staying with me like our parents or elderly, so I can get by without quarantine at home. My parents and in-laws are in India, so they were worried about me going back to work which is understandable. My husband refused to leave me alone when I got COVID, and he ended up getting it too. So, he has been very supportive of me going back to work as we both agree that it is our responsibility to help others who are dealing with it. 

 

What are a few misconceptions you have come across about this disease through the course of your work with patients? 

We are still learning about the disease ourselves. Some of the few misconceptions are that this disease only affects the old and is limited to lungs, Physicians across US agree that COVID is a systemic disease. Patients have an increased tendency to form clots. These clots can affect any organ of the body including kidney, heart, nervous system or intestines. Both young and old have died due to this disease, and it is hard to say at this point what is the exact cause of the death in these patients. We will have to wait for the results of data analysis across the institutes to get some of these answers. Also, there is no miracle drug and if you do not follow social distancing you will get sick no matter how healthy you are. Hence, it is very important that emphasis is laid on prevention rather than cure.

 

There are already groups on the street demanding the resumption of business as usual. How does it affect the battle against this pandemic and does it hit your morale?

These groups have a good reason to protest. The lockdown has hurt the economy terribly and some groups are affected more than the others. The economic battle is part of the battle against the pandemic and does not affect my morale. However, it does signify lack of awareness regarding the seriousness of this disease. It will be hard to find the right balance between preserving health versus economy, but it is also an opportunity for everyone to come together and support each other to handle this situation in the best possible way.

 

There is news of discrimination against the medical professionals in several countries. India has already introduced an ordinance to prevent such discrimination and violence against the medical staff. Are you seeing such things happening in the US?

Yes, I have witnessed such instances personally too, although not at the same scale as in India. Once in a while a cab driver may refuse to pick you up from hospital or someone in the building may accuse you of putting others at risk by bringing all the bugs from hospital. But mostly, the experience has been appreciative towards the healthcare workers, and everyone has tried to help in whatever way they can. 

 

This pandemic has caught most of the countries unaware. Do you think we are going to be better prepared in the future, if such a thing happens again? What changes have you noticed in the medical fraternity’s own approaches and methods before and after?

Yes, definitely. The medical fraternity is more prepared to handle such crises in future. The resources and staff have been allocated to deal with any surges that may happen in the future. The hospital administrators communicate with the staff on a daily basis to educate regarding COVID management strategies, new developments, and dispel any false information. More funding is being diverted to public health initiatives and research pertaining to understanding and treating COVID-19.

 

What are you looking forward to most once the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us?

Of course, I am looking forward to enjoying the outdoors like I used to before. But this pandemic has also made me appreciate all the little things that I took granted for earlier. I make an effort to keep in touch with my friends and family, and I have learnt to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. So, once this pandemic is behind us, I hope all of us will not forget the precious lessons that it taught us, and bring a change in the way we see and live our lives. I thank God daily for what I have, and intend to live my life with gratitude in years to come. 

Thirty Dates in Thirty Days

Wake up. Wash hands. Cook food. Wash hands. Finish editing the article. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Webstream and chill. Wash hands. Eat. Wash hands. Scroll down the news feed. Read. Wash hands. Off to bed. Wake up. Repeat. One day was rolling into another, an endless loop with nothing except sundown and sunrise to mark the fact that the date had changed. The day I picked up my phone to check whether the day was Sunday or Monday, I realized something had to give. I had to break this infinite loop before it started feeling like a noose tightening around me.

I needed help, and so I turned to my oldest and most trusted friends – stories. Stories have always been my portal to different times, different spaces. They’ve been the most stress-free way to make new acquaintances, some who became lifelong friends with permanent spots on my bookshelves and some from whom I grew apart, and they moved on. Continuing with the next one on my 2020 reading list did not feel right. Nothing in 2020 was going as per plan, so why should my reading plan be spared!

 

The thing with the lockdown and this pandemic is that there is no missing endpoint. No one, not scientists, doctors, experts… no one can do anything more than shrug when asked – when will this end? What we are hoping for is a single word answer, what we get is a thesis filled with data, ifs and buts, and before they get into the appendices, we have tuned off. This lack of an end in sight is unnerving. That’s what my loopy routine needed – a way to mark the end of the day and something new to look forward to the next day. Stories in long-form would not fall in line with this plan. Maybe, short stories? Novellas? And then it struck me – a new acquaintance every day and perhaps to reacquaint with a few who have been sitting around gaining wrinkles.

 

I start at a happy place – a childhood favourite, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. Rereading it after almost three decades, I realize that this time around I catch the parable that the writer has whispered between the lines. I sleep happy that night. Next on the cards are short stories by Philip Roth who had left quite an impression on me last year with his Goodbye, Columbus. The short stories I pick focus on the theme of religion and tolerance without being overbearing. Another childhood favourite Astrid Lindgreen’s Pippi Longstocking sweeps me up in nostalgia. Next, I mix things up with reading a play script, something which I usually do with a group of friends. But, hey friends have dehydrated into pings on the phone and boxes on the computer screen! I pick a long overdue read Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, a play layered with social and individual tension.

 

Ibsen’s comment on society nudges me in the direction of Saadat Manto’s short stories. Manto once defended the theme in his writing with these words – “If you cannot bear these stories, then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society which itself is naked.” After a quick hey-ho to Herman Melville in the 19th century, a ping on the phone pulls me back to the present. It is India’s favourite cartoonist R K Laxman’s The Best of Laxman, one of the many freebies that are appearing in our realms to help make the lock-in bearable. Another play, this time British dramatist Willy Russell’s One For the Road drives home the point that tragedy when cloaked with comedy hits hard. As I ponder over my next day’s read, a thin spine catches my eye. The cover is a sage green that time has muted down – Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. A gift, it has sat in the shadows of the tomes around it for half a decade. Yeats, in his introduction, says Tagore’s ‘songs brought out a world that he had always dreamed of.‘ As I read on, I echo this feeling. My tenth date on the tenth day is with British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing. The author’s ability to spot stories in the ordinary through her observation of the vagaries of human behaviour strikes a chord. It’s the kind of writer I hope to become. Ten days of reading a different author each day has added a beat to the hum and drum.

 

 

Next, I pick a modern romance Edan Lepucki’s If You’re Not Yet Like Me. A far cry from the teeth-decaying sweet romances I grew up, the writer’s choice of backing a flawed protagonist makes it relatable. I follow it up with Punch Goes Abroad, a compilation of travel articles that initially featured in Punch Magazine. It is speed dating at its best as Miles Kington, Julian Barnes, and a few others do their best to woo me. Day 13 introduces me to a new name, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose stories lead me to a world I know nothing of and hold me trapped there much after the stories end. From new introductions to the always-and-forever, Ernest Hemingway with A Big two Hearted River and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The next day brings home The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitsgerald, which carries some shades of Gatsby.

 

 

A tweet alerts me to a new author, Norwegian Joe Fosse. His novella And Then My Dog Will Come Back To Me starts with an innocuous event but soon takes hairpin bend twists and turns. Or does it? The doubts persist though the tale ends. The next few days are what become, by chance not decision, my classic phase. I read Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain,  William Faulkner and Jack London. The only interruption is Bernard Pomerance’s brilliantly conceived play The Elephant Man, which is read out loud over a Zoom call with a group of fellow readers and followed by a spirited discussion.  The classic phase is followed by some contemporary geniuses Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes and another eternal love Haruki Murakami’s The Folklore of Our Times.

 

 

A week away from a month of reading a different author every day, and it occurs to me that I have neglected contemporary Indian writers. V S Naipaul‘s Indian origin gets him a foot through the door and his short stories in A Flag on the Island paint a vivid picture of life on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. From the Caribbean, it is a quick flight back home to Mumbai. Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baug acquaints the reader with life in the Parsi colonies that dot the city. Another Indian writer on my list is Satyajit Ray with his short story Bonku Babu’s Friend. True to his style, the writer uses a straightforward narrative to hold a mirror before us that compels us to examine ourselves, uncomfortable as it may be. Another neglected group on my list is women writers, and with month-end looming close, I turn to two celebrated women. Virginia Woolf’s short stories The Mark on the Wall and Kew Gardens are in her characteristic stream of consciousness style. Her ability to stretch and collapse moments is astounding. She is followed by Alice Munro with The Bear That Came Over The Mountain which redefines love when seen through a more pragmatic lens. It’s day 30, and the recommendation has come from the great Murakami, a name that made an appearance in his short story Kenzaburo Oe. His Aghwee, the Sky Monster delves into the theme of mental disorder with a subtlety that is befitting of the point of view character. I am enamoured, and I see the merit in exploring a longer relationship with Oe.

 

 

What next? Perhaps, a new reading goal. For now though I am revelling in the many moments that these stories created in the last thirty days. If it weren’t for them, the days would have connected together in a flatline, and that is no way to live.

Illustrations Himali Kothari


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COVID-19 illustration on World Map

Socio-Economic Distancing and Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of Red Death

As the Wadhawans raced across empty highways to their Mahabaleshwar retreat, media professionals across the country were furious at the flagrant disregard for the national lockdown. Accusations of crony favouritism pointed at elite privilege even as migrant workers trudged across state borders facing the uncertainty of life and livelihood. The socioeconomic distancing caused by the infectious Covid-19 has been evident not just in India but around the world. As Lorena Tacco, an Italian factory worker is quoted in Max Fisher and Emma Bubola report, “Who cares about the workers’ health, while the rich run away”, the rich sit in their high towers, mostly unaffected it seeme, similar to the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death

 

As was true nearly two centuries ago, socioeconomic status has afforded barriers to Covid 19’s indiscriminate spread around the world. According to Irma T. Elo’s analysis of ‘Social Class Differentials in Health and Mortality’, while “educational attainment influences occupational trajectories and earnings…many researchers in public health and sociology interpret the income-health gradient to be causal from income to health,” since a decent income often “facilitates access to health-generating resources.” But Poe, the quintessential twister of tales, had other plans for Prince Prospero in The Masque of the Red Death. Among Poe’s most allegorical works, the mid-19th century tale of social distancing delves into Prospero’s quarantine in a fortified abbey with more than a thousand royal compatriots and the celebratory mood-lifting party after months of isolation against the infection.

 

The Masque of the Red Death.jpegSet against the backdrop of the Red Death, a fictitious plague-like disease ravaging the populace in the kingdoms of Prince Prospero, The Masque of the Red Death explores the ubiquity of disease in the luxurious halls of Prospero’s royal hideout while his dominion outside, battles the burdens of widespread sickness. Describing the opulence of Prospero’s masked ball with its extravagant costumes and eclectic entertainment, Poe details the septuple imperial suite which served as the masquerade’s polychromatic venue. Furnished according to a particular colour theme, each of the seven chambers was lit by the stained glass in the Gothic window adjacent to each room, filtering light from torchfire blazing across the corridor. While the first six rooms corresponded to the colour of the stained glass in blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, the seventh apartment… closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries, and scarlet panes… was ghastly in the extreme. Brett Zimmerman considers the polychromatic symbolism as alluding to the journey of life, from “blue representing Neo-Platonic notion of pre-birth and birth,” to “black as gloom, woe, death, mental degradation, criminality, and red as disease or plague, along with a red-black combination representing infernal love, egotism, and possibly even damnation.”

 

 

Perhaps the seventh room’s ebony clock itself was the allegorical representation, its dreadful hourly chime interrupting the merrymaking as the orchestra paused, the masked dancers squirmed, and it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. Coincidently, Poe’s ironic clock resonates in the apocalyptic Doomsday Clock as it presently contemplates the end of the world at “100 seconds to midnight.” The seemingly prescient Edgar Allan Poe describes the final moments of Prospero’s masquerade when the clock strikes midnight announcing the arrival “of a masked figure (who) had out-Heroded Herod” with accoutrements resembling the countenance of a stiffened corpse… besprinkled with the scarlet horror of the Red Death.” The sight of Red Death personified filled Prospero with rage, and he shouted, “Who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and unmask him — that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise, from the battlements!” Of course, that is not the end of Poe’s twisted tale! 

 

 

World Health Organisation - Coronavirus Tweet
World Health Organisation – Coronavirus Tweet

While the world grapples with Covid-19, it has already realised that although socioeconomic disparities can exacerbate the infectious spread, the virus is indiscriminate in its gong of mortality, as Poe stated a couple of centuries ago, “and now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night”, not unlike the coronavirus infection which had even the World Health Organisation fooled until January this year. There is still hope that the impact of Covid-19 can be curtailed, before reaching the pandemic devastation of the deadly Spanish flu in 1918, which killed more people than World War I at somewhere between 20 and 40 million people. As millions cope with the havoc caused by the latest coronavirus, it must be said again– STAY SAFE! 

The Literature World is Already Adapting to the New Normal

Nothing else seems on everyone’s minds other than the coronavirus pandemic. It has brought entire countries to a standstill. It has brought individual lives to a stop. It has completely changed the way we live, for now. As a result, things have suddenly become more online than physical, from education to office work. The pertinent need for social distancing has brought about this social change.

The world in the pre-corona era saw a resurgence of independent bookstores, but now once again literature has to carve a space in the online sphere and so far, it has embraced this online transformation quite well. Following the lock down rules in India, bookstores and publication houses have been shut down. With that, literary readings, book launches, author sign ups, engaging discussions, and talks have also ceased for the time being.

So where do we go from here?

If one has stable internet and a computer system or a smartphone, for now, a home will suffice. This is because several publication houses, authors, collectives and organisations have turned to the digital medium so that there is not a complete cut off for literature lovers. We can get our dose of literary fun in these trying times too.

 

 

Reading with Kids

Schools and colleges were the first to be shut in March when the coronavirus reared its ugly head in the country. This led to this unexpected scenario where the kids are suddenly home and it is not even summer vacation. The parents were unprepared and so were the schools for this vacuum. The parents had the double task now of working from home themselves as well as keeping the kids engaged.

Some of the initial online literary ventures, thus, focused on kids and getting them to use this spare time to read more since they were forced to be indoors.

An online Facebook Group, Reading Racoons, started #ThodaReadingCorona where till 31st of March everyday at 11am, a video was posted of different children books’ authors reading excerpts from their respective books.

Penguin too launched its series #OnceUponATimeWithPenguin, which lasted till the 1st part of the lockdown.

 

 

Diverse Literary Initiatives

Slowly, as the lockdown got enforced throughout the country, similar events were organised by more publishing houses and literary collectives too. Juggernaut Books in association with the scroll.in perhaps started the first online literary fest, ReadInstead, where celebrities and authors from diverse backgrounds either read book excerpts or discussed them. They post their weekly schedule every Thursday and the videos go live at 1pm. Check out their latest schedule for this week here.

Roli Books has also transformed into Roli Pulse where they conduct panel discussions rather than only having author readings. Zubaan Books joined the bandwagon this week when it began a webinar series discussing myriad perspectives and issues the country faces while battling COVID 19.

 

 

Is It Worth It?

All this begs the question how important and effective are these online ventures? For one, they provide succor to all literature lovers and getting kids to read more is always appreciated. For another, they help literature lovers remain rooted, sane, and well informed even when they cannot physically attend such programmes.

In the age of petty social media distractions and mindless scrolling, such events are a far better alternative. If after three weeks of lockdown, one is thoroughly exasperated by Netflix shows and TV channels, these events are there for you to learn and enjoy.

So, even when and if the lockdown gets eased, these events should continue because of the knowledge they help to disseminate. They do away with physical hurdles of space and are more accessible, albeit with certain technological requirements. You do not have to be in that location or venue to attend the event. You can enjoy all the literary gems from the comfort of your home, sitting on your favourite couch with a pair of headphones. In a way, they could make for the perfect literature festival!

Not to mention they are free of cost and do not carry with them the hustle and bustle of usual literary events or literary festivals. So, if you want to hear your favourite author, you do not have to go through their itinerary or push through hordes of other fans, just sit back and enjoy!

Social distancing might become a norm in the foreseeable future, at least till the pandemic does not recede. Hence, having online literary events and festivals seem an excellent way to keep oneself engaged. They are also innovative models conceptualized by publishing houses or bookstores to remain in business while continuing engagement between readers and writers.

However, in this new world of incessant online communication, the only drawback of the online literary festivals is the online aspect itself. For how many hours can one be attached to a computer? It is one thing to log in and enjoy an insightful online discussion once in a while. But after being constantly logged in, there is a danger of being saturated with it. One would then long for the closeness and human touch of an actual physical event!

Though one possible solution for this is to subscribe to podcasts rather than visual literary festivals, for now, we have in our grasp, well curated talks and readings! Literature now has moved on to greener pastures: the online pastures!

Online Literary Festivals You Should Check Out:

1. The pioneer of literary festivals in India, Jaipur literature Festival, started its digital version which is aptly called, Brave New World.

2. Women’s Web’s #SheReads invites female authors to read and discuss their works. One excellent talk is by Anukrti Upadhyay, author of Daura.

3. Bound India is a great platform to know more about books and budding writers. With the lockdown, they also began a plethora of useful writing workshops and online classes. Their podcasts are a great option for those who are tired of their screens!

4. Harper Collins in collaboration with Algebra: the Arts and Ideas Club initiated RESET that hosts conversations with Harper authors. We recommend checking out their #Lockdown Poetry section where authors read their favourite poems!

5. The Curious Reader’s has two interesting series on its Instagram page: One where authors talk about their work and the other related to staying sane during the lockdown, #StaySafeStaySane

So, spend some quality time brushing up your literary knowledge and exploring its many areas through these and many more such online literary initiatives!

 

We Have No Time to Stand and Stare

It has been a month now since life started slowing down for me, thanks to the pandemic. With the numbers still spiking in my home state where my parents live, I wake up with anxiety and go to bed hoping for the pandemic to come to an end. However, on the other hand, despite all the extreme inconveniences, I am still grateful for things especially this standstill in our days. I now have time to sit outside my door and watch those squirrels playing around. The street dogs who happen to be my husband’s best friends tease me with their yoga stretches. I play cat and mouse with those evil cats in the neighbourhood. Every time I hear the sound of a truck, I go out without fail to check what they are selling. At times, I sit in peace watching the leaves sway, the butterflies flutter while not yielding to those big bees who try to perturb me. I soak in some sun and I keep wondering how this pandemic has taken me back by 25 years at least.

 

Growing up, we didn’t have a television at home. It was our parent’s decision that there won’t be a TV until we finished our education. In the current times, it might sound like a bigger sacrifice, except it wasn’t that big a deal when we grew up. Guests would ask why did we not buy a TV and then they would be impressed with my parents’ answer and that would be it. We did buy our first TV a few years back after me and my brother graduated. But, not having a TV at home meant that I wasn’t able to relate to Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Jungle Book or any such tele/cartoon series that my friends now feel nostalgic about. I did occasionally sneak out and catch a few episodes of Chandrakanta or Shaktimaan from my neighbour’s home, but those experiences barely make me nostalgic.

 

Instead, I followed ant trails trying to find their hidden treasure. Sometimes, I would place my little finger in the trail to see how the ants got back to their trail. Even before I learnt science, I was convinced that they left behind a secret scent for the rest of the group to follow. I would also try straightening our pet dog’s tail and see how it would stay straight before it curled back. I was also convinced that if I did it daily, it would become straight someday. In the evenings, when the koel started calling out, mimicking her used to be my favourite evening activity. But before she was koel, I knew her as “Akka Kuruvi”. Someone told me that the koel had lost her family tragically and she missed her sister dearly. Apparently, since that day she had been calling out to find her sister or Akka. That is how she came to be called the Akka kuruvi. I always responded to her hoping she will come to think of me as her Akka and be at peace someday. I was very convinced of my theory when one evening I found her outside my grandmother’s home where I was spending my summer vacation. But, now I can’t remember when the dear Akka Kuruvi went on to become koel. Anyway, coming back to my younger days, when I was done with the animals and birds, I sat outside our home and watched people who walked by but then, I grew up in a village, which meant most of the times the streets were quiet in the day time, just the way it is right now in the streets of Bangalore. So it’s no wonder that I feel like the world has gone back by 25 years.

 

That is not all. Those days without tv and with not too many friends to play with naturally led me to read. I read newspapers page to page, including the ads and obituaries. Sometimes much to my mother’s annoyance, I even read from bits of papers that came wrapped in groceries. I always finished reading my language textbooks in the first week. I read the Bible from Matthew to Revelation. And then I topped the scripture test in my school and I was given the Old testament. Again, I read from Genesis to the end. I began to borrow books from friends. I read the book their parents read, most of them, spiritual literature. When I discovered that my school had a library and they were ready to lend books to students, I was the happiest. Every Saturday post-lunch, I bugged Indrani Miss who was in charge of the library. I had a partner in crime, Tamilselvi. We always picked the biggest books in the library, two each. Those kept me going through the entire week. That’s how I ended up finishing War and Peace over a weekend in barely a day and a half. I wept through Uncle Tom’s Cabin but waited for the Saturdays to come. Saturdays became the favourite day of my weeks. Even after being introduced to TGIF, Saturdays continue to be my favourite day, and just like those days many years ago, the pandemic has blessed me with the privilege to sit down and drown myself in endless pages of words.

 

In the last few weeks, I caught myself exclaiming how there is so much peace around although my neighbourhood has always been peaceful, except for my husband’s four-legged friends. Now when I think about it, it wasn’t the peace outside. It was truly the peace from within, or should I say the meme-worthy ‘inner-peace’. Even as we continue to work from home, there is an undeniable sense of calm and quiet that has settled in these days. Even though workload continues to be the same and sometimes even worse, I must say there is less to be stressed about. I do miss the fun of being in office. I do miss going out. I do miss those movie halls I had given up on after the advent of Netflix. I do miss the chaos on the street. And there are times I am just too bored that I end up falling asleep. But despite all the inconvenience and anxieties that fill our days, there is an invisible bliss. I might sound insensitive but I am being honest that I have longed for all these running and chasing to stop for a while. I have wanted life to come to standstill and as always life has a weird way of granting your wishes. To call these days a blessing, I know is a privilege especially when the world is paying for it with thousands of lives every day. Nevertheless, I am not sorry for the strange sense of peace it brought to my doors. I shall go when my time comes just like the many others before me, but for today, I can finally “stand and stare” and for that I am grateful.

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome.

Finding Meaning in Absurd Times with Camus’ The Plague


Dr. Rieux finds a dead rat at his doorstep in the tiny port city of Oran in Algeria. Soon, more dead rats turn up. Even sooner, people are dying of the plague. Authorities order the people to stay indoors. This, in a nutshell is what The Plague by Albert Camus is about. Talking about a plague when we are already going through a pandemic of our own seems counterintuitive.

However, since Coronavirus has taken a firm grip on our minds and our TV news channels since the month of March, Camus’ The Plague has shot to stardom status once again. Many critics would term the book prophetic or call Camus a seer who predicted this virus outbreak. But this is far from the truth. The Plague must be contextualized in terms of his absurdist philosophy that emphasised on an essential meaning that all human lives possess despite the seeming meaninglessness of our lives and condition. He uses the metaphor of the plague to talk about the human condition extensively.

 

Others have also called the novel as a commentary on Nazism (the book was published in 1947, two years after WWII ended) and how Camus has equated the plague to fascism. I believe, however, that the book stays away from any ideological leanings and rather comments on the fragility of the human way of life.

The actions and reactions of the people and the authorities in the novel resonate with how the world is handling the COVID-19 outbreak as well. The novel focuses on four main characters that show us how people are dealing with the outbreak of the plague in the novel both individually and collectively.

A plague or an epidemic forces us to suspend our lives for certain duration and to confront our present, to question and rethink much like one of the characters in the novel, Jean Tarrou. He is a visitor to the city of Oran and records all the events happening in the city during the plague. He is much like a philosopher who thinks, thinks, and over thinks but is unable to find a reasonable moral solution or cause of the plague.

Through this character, Camus tells the readers about both the naturalness and unnaturalness of the plague. It feels unnatural and strange for the people of Oran to have the plague affecting so many of them. This is also similar to how we today feel about coronavirus and its powerful spread. However, throughout the novel, Camus also emphasises that it is natural for diseases to spread, natural to be part of human suffering, and that in fact the disease is what is the normal in this and not the other way round. It is as he says at the end of the novel, “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.”

 

This is not to say that Camus was a nihilist and that he believed that there is no meaning other than humans suffering. Rather, he asserts that because this is a constant in our lives and that such diseases and other problems are bound to ravage us, we must respond to them through kindness and decency and not through fear mongering or hatred. This is why Tarrou’s search for a moral causation to this plague is futile. One must not look for causes to find meaning but rather look at our own behavior to find meaning amidst this new normal.

Dr. Rieux counterbalances Tarrou as the former believes that there is no such moral voice/cause or meaning to the epidemic. Rieux does at the beginning also think of the plague as unnatural but then once it progresses, he believes in taking immediate action. He does not think in abstract terms. He does not glorify human suffering or his own tireless efforts. He continues to do his duty as a doctor. He is at the forefront of the efforts of curing the increasing number of plague patients. But he sees his efforts as part of a common decency one must have in such situations: “However, there’s one thing I must tell you: there’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of righting a plague is, common decency.”

 

I think we must learn from Dr. Rieux a vital lesson. While we are in lockdown, we must ruminate over our own actions as individuals and as a nation as well. Are we being decent to others? Are we actually lending out any helping hands to others or are we busy hoarding and cribbing over a privileged bored Netflix binge holiday? We must ask ourselves why we continue to hold racist ideas and prejudices toward people of our own country. And as more and more cases come up, especially in certain areas of Delhi, we must question why our religious prejudices are being pandered to even during such a crisis when we must be fighting the pandemic together, without any divisions or fault lines.

 

Cover Image: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. [wikimedia]

 

A Sailor’s Tips to Survive the Corona Lockdown/Isolation

It is day 4 of the government enforced 21 day lockdown. It is being touted as a self quarantine of sorts but we don’t really have a choice here. So, what our approach to this unprecedented event is, will decide how healthy and wise we come out of it. I belong to a profession where social distancing is an undeniable part of my job profile. For upto 9 months a year, I am secluded from the rest of the physical world. I live and work on a merchant ship.

 

The first few days are difficult. Adapting to a new environment and circumstance takes up most of the time and energy. In the case of this 21 day lockdown, that time is now. The first and foremost step in doing that is acceptance. Once we have accepted the new reality, the adapting part becomes easier. Sticking to a dynamic but stable schedule helps. A structured and well thought out routine goes a long way in avoiding burnouts. Judicious use of the internet should be the only use of the internet. There is a reason why the internet is restricted onboard most of the merchant ships. Take the cue. 

 

  • Start your day early, day after day, and you will understand the significance of it.

 

  • Guided Yoga or mild exercise helps in rejuvenating your mind and body, and prepares you well for the day ahead. If not handled correctly, these 21 days can prove to be a lot more stressful than your average working day.

 

  • Prepare an early and moderately heavy breakfast to start the engines. Cut back on oil, spices, and meat. My personal favourite is the Indian cuisine from the south for breakfast viz. Idly, Dosa, Upma etc. They are healthy and easy to cook; to each his own though.

 

  • Pick up a labor intensive physical activity. Cleaning the house, washing clothes, gardening etc. are great examples. Try to enjoy the process. 

 

  • Take a bath daily. Personal hygiene can’t be stressed upon more in these pandemic times. Also wash your hands as many times as necessary. 

 

  • Cook up. Don’t be afraid to try if you are new to this. It’s therapeutic and not that difficult. We have cooks onboard but here you don’t have that luxury, given the quarantine. So, make the best use of it. Experiment, adapt to the scarcity of certain ingredients, preserve the nutrients. You take care of the nutrition and the nutrition will take care of you.

 

  • Eat moderate. Remember the engines are already started, you just have to keep them running now. Eating healthy is the defining mantra for these days.

 

  • Take up a book, if you are a reader. If not, watch TV. If the 24×7 dissemination of garbage over cable is too much to handle for you, then if not already, subscribe to any of the streaming services. Thankfully, we don’t have televisions onboard ships but at the same time the internet is too slow. You have it better here. Beware of binging on anything though. It guarantees burnout and is a breeding ground for unhealthy habits. Yes, binge-reading, binge-watching, binge-eating, all are equally bad for you. Stop it now if you want to last these 21 days unscathed. We last for a lot more than that just by avoiding binging on anything. 

 

  • Stay hydrated and keep busy. Important thing is to keep switching between activities to avoid boredom. Remember you are in it for the long haul. Make it count.

 

  • Take time out for meditation and pranayam. De-stress. Meditation has many forms. Find out what works for you. Listen to your favorite songs. Develop a taste in a music form you are not familiar with. Watch sports.

 

  • Talk to your loved ones if they are with you, call them if not. Have gratitude and be thankful for the life that you have. Make it better.

 

 

With all the prayers and hope, we do not know when this is going to get over. Have we seen the worst already? We don’t know yet. However, some of us have the option to play a Hero in this battle against Coronavirus by just staying indoors while the other heroes sort it out outside with their exceptional work. As we stand in gratitude to the medical community and usually ignored denominators of the society who keep us going every day with their work for sanitation, daily wage workers, police departments, NGOs, and other volunteers, let us also spare a thought for the entire seafaring community who are out there in the high seas facing adversities from all sides, but still keeping the supply lines operational so that the oil, coal, and grains keep on reaching where they are needed in these trying times. 

 

About the Author : Ambikesh Kumar Jha is a social writer and a sailor, presently ashore.

 

Reading in the Time of Corona


We had a Janta Curfew this Sunday. We are going to be facing more stringent lockdowns soon. Working professionals are learning work from home techniques while a large section of the population in the unorganised sector also faces job insecurity. The rest of India and the world grapple with the prospect of having too much free time on their hands and dealing with ultimate boredom.

This could be a great time to inculcate or reignite/restart the reading habit.

The world over, organisations, libraries, and universities are providing free access to their courses or book catalogues. For example, Scribd is offering all its resources free for a 20 day period due to the Covid Pandemic. Similarly in a surprise move, JSTOR opened up its Open Access to the public without registering with an account. Audible launched Audible Stories, a free service that provides educational and reading material for kids.

Closer home, Amar Chitra Katha has offered free access to its Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha books for a month. For kids stuck at home or even adults who want to enjoy some light reading, this is an exciting deal.

These are excellent options especially for the tech savvy readers! But what books should we read? What books to choose? Since the country is facing partial lockdown as part of the measures taken to stop the spread of coronavirus, we at The Seer have brought together a list of titles that you could enjoy reading in these uncertain and strange times.

 

 

Books to Help You Travel Vicariously

The coronavirus spread because of our globalised world and our interconnected travels. Consequently, our travel plans have now gone haywire with most countries suspending their overseas flights and sealing their borders. This is where books come to your rescue! Don’t fret over cancelled plans or that your travel goals may not be coming true just yet. Perhaps reading the right book is all you need that helps you travel to distant lands.

 

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

From Heaven Lake is a travelogue with a twist. Vikram Seth was 29 when he was studying at Nanjing University. He undertook a madcap journey overland on foot from China, into Tibet to reach Delhi, his home town. Through his journey, we get to view the socio-economic conditions of the country and especially see the ways in which Tibet was controlled and cut off.

You not only get a chance to be part of this crazy travel but also learn more about the country rather than forming half baked ideas based on some ridiculous Whatsapp forwards.

 

Istanbul: Memories of a City by Orhan Pamuk

This memoir pays homage to Pamuk’s home, Istanbul. He has always lived in Istanbul and in this memoir, he pens down his love for the city by evocatively describing the city’s soul. Pamuk also speaks of his own struggles with choosing this profession of being a writer. The novel does dip into nostalgic reminisces recalling the city’s erstwhile architecture, its changing demography along with politics and diplomatic ties. But the tone is nostalgic, rather than wallowing in it.

Reading Istanbul: Memories of a City is bound to feel as if you were walking through the lanes of the city itself and exploring its colourful past and present.

You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit

Most public spaces in India are shut including public parks and gardens. This is quite hard for those used to morning walks. Solnit’s wonderful portrait of the evolution around the ideas of walking for meditation and exercise provides a refreshing insight. It is a stimulating read which makes us relook at the reasons and joys behind our walks. Buy the book here.

 

Reading Feel Good Books

Ideas of quarantine, lockdown, curfew, and social distancing are alien and scary. They bring in a host of problems such as loneliness and anxiety.

It is best to choose to curl up with books that give you a warm, fuzzy feeling because as Szymborska puts it in her poem, Consolation, that Darwin read books to relax, with a happy ending because he had seen enough of survival of the fittest and dying species. Hence, let us look for “the indispensable silver lining/the lovers reunited, the families reconciled/the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded/fortunes regained….. hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation/general merriment and celebration.”

 

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Reading this book might feel a bit of a meta-narrative in this article. But Matilda never fails to warm my heart. A young girl, shunned by her own family for her so-called strange habits, finds solace in her school teacher and devouring books. In these trying times, we could all learn a lesson from Matilda and perhaps read up as many books as we can while we have the time. Buy the book here.

 

The Rapture by Liz Jensen

Many people on social media warn us that the coronavirus pandemic is only a trailer to the actual crisis that will ensue once ice melts and global warming unleashes its wrath. While any apocalyptic novel cannot actually be a feel good book, The Rapture by Liz Jensen is a psychological thriller with a differently abled protagonist, Gabrielle, who is intrigued by a teenager, Bethany because she can foretell natural disasters. This book’s central theme of the resoluteness of human faith and determination is meaningful.

 

A Mango Shaped Mass by Wendy Mass

This is a beautiful coming of age story of Mia Wenchell and her acceptance of her unique way of experiencing life around her because of synaesthesia wherein sees numbers, hears sounds and says words in colours!

 

 

Books on Migration

Coronavirus’ deadly power and spread was a shocking reality that dawned slowly on everyone and it brought out the worse in many of us such as fighting for toilet paper or panic buying. Hoarding on sanitisers will not necessarily save the world since fighting the virus is dependent on the well being of the next person we meet as well. Next time we blame immigrants for our own problems, we should also think back on how we fought over groceries even when there was no scarcity.

It puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

In this time when we all feel threatened by an unknown, it is perhaps best to be kind and humane and also sharpen our sensitivity to problems that others’ face.

 

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

This heart wrenching novel speaks of the constant conflict and displacement that three generations of the Yacoub family face because of the Palestinian Israel war. All the members have seen some form of war and are refugees living in different parts of the world.

 

The Brink of Freedom by Stella Leventoyannis Harvey

People migrating on rickety, unsafe, overcrowded boats was a disturbing narrative shown through media channels and photographs. The title, The Brink of Freedom, itself captures the ephemerality of stability that haunts these refugees, whether they are on boats or shored safely to the country they were migrating to. The novel describes the trials of one such refugee boy. Read an excerpt of the novel here.

 

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is one of my favourite novels because of its use of a unique innocence, point of view and the style to tell a story of a refugee family. It is told from the point of view of a 10 year old Vietnamese girl, Kim Ha living in Saigon. Due to Vietnam War, she is forced to flee, leaving her beloved land and friends. The novel is narrated entirely through poems. You can download the PDF of the novel here.

 

 

Read that Classic that’s been on to-do list forever

We all have at some point or the other been guilty of not finishing a classic novel and worse, pretending to have read them. Now that we are all laying low and taking a break from other social activities, it is perhaps time to pick up that dusty novel you postponed reading or kept down, daunted by its sheer size.

 

War and Peace by Tolstoy

Ah Leo Tolstoy! The doyen of Russian literature but also one whose books shine bright as beacons on the lists of books we have pretended to have read. It is definitely one that is tedious to read and quite a handful to keep track of five family stories at once. Yet, no other novel has captured the Russian landscape as realistically as this one.

 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is not as lengthy as War and Peace. It is still quite a task especially if you have lost the habit of reading Victorian English. Yet, it is an intricately written novel about Pip and his coming of age experiences, particularly his time with Miss Havisham and his love for Estella.

 

Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

This panoramic novel shows us Istanbul’s progress as a city through the eyes of the quaint yoghurt and boza seller, Mevlut. Spanning more than 50 years and about 500 pages, Strangeness in My Mind takes you through the underbelly of Istanbul and gives you a glimpse of the subalterns who create and expand the city.

Other daunting lengthy classics include Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

The heavyweights in modern literature that you could give a shot during lockdown are 1Q84 trilogy by Murakami or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea or even A.S Byatt’s Possession and last but not the least, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

So, I hope this list helps in the tough days ahead! May you stay safe, wash your hands, and may you not fall prey to any false rumours or fake news!

 

Cover Image: By Jan Steiner from Pixabay