In the second week of October 2021, just 3 months after my radical hysterectomy and a month after I started chemotherapy, one late night, my sister and I booked a cab and set off for a 12-hour journey to Dharamshala, a wonderous Himalayan town, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the home of my heart. It was the place where I found peace, rejuvenation and healing and this impromptu trip which was planned and executed under 3 hours was rooted in the deep need for healing from everything life had thrown at me over nearly two decades.
I never had it easy. I know many claim the copyright to similar sentences and feelings, but I truly did not. My very very rich parents became bankrupt when I was 13 and never recovered. My adolescent and teen years were spent in halfway houses, sometimes maybe with one meal a day and spending all hours listening to the threats and recriminations of debtors and relations alike. I left my academic ambitions to help my parents pay off their debts and just when things were starting to improve, they both died in quick succession leaving me rootless at a very young age. But the best was yet to come, the diagnosis of stage 3 Ovarian and Endometrial cancer, just when my career was starting to look bright, my life was stable and I was surrounded by some great friends, who replaced the need of relations who had disappeared very early.
The thing that I did not know about Cancer when I was initially diagnosed was how much more encompassing and destructive this disease was, and not just physically. My very successful career came to a grinding halt, because my then leader decided I was a lost cause and it was better to look after others than invest in a probable here today, gone tomorrow employee. This after 16 years of top tier performance. But this alone would not have broken me as the desertion of my so-called friends. People whom I thought of as family, never had time for me. They never visited, and never called. Taking me to the hospital became an onerous task, though the initial offer was made by them. After telling me I was family and not a friend, they always found reasons to not be around me. The ones who stuck around a little longer, turned out to be grief tourists, who would find “glamor” and “feel good” factors in their occasional visits/phone calls. But that October day it had been one too many – I host a Dinner every year, after Durga Puja. I had planned for this event this year as well and told everyone to keep that Sunday free, two months in advance. A week before this event I sent out reminder invites to 23 odd people. They were all who had acknowledged that they would be available and be free to join. And every single one of them refused – there was family visits, family events and lives to be led that did not include attending a Cancer patient’s dinner party.
I was emotionally exhausted, physically drained and I needed to go away, where I could lick my wounds in peace. To Dharamshala we would go. We checked into the town by mid-morning and were ensconced in our favorite room, at our favorite hotel by afternoon. Under shadow of snow peaked mountains with the gentle sounds of Buddhist monks chanting at the nearby temple, I felt my soul reviving, a calm settling, but the healing was not complete yet; the process of transformation was still not over.
Later in the day when I logged into work, (we were all work from home then and I worked evening supporting my US market clients) I discovered two pieces of news that spiraled me into ultimate breakdown. One of those deserting friends, had been given a promotion and called my sister to share the news, without asking once of how I was, had I recovered etc. The second was the promotion itself; I was a prime candidate for the role and I had not taken any off except the three weeks of surgery and was working through chemotherapy with best possible results and my leader had not bothered to tell about the role or recommend me, the leader whom I had thought the world off. There was too much of hurt, too much pain, too many excuses of why something could not happen.
The next day, my sister and I booked a car and went further north, deeper into the mountains. After a point, the road was inaccessible by car and we started walking. Neither my sister or I were sure how far I would be able to walk in my current physical condition. But I needed to get away from the crowd, to breathe easy and shake off my frustration and anger.
We started walking. It was hard, very hard, especially the initial distance. I was out of breath and there were too many people on the trail and selfie seekers and hawkers crowded the path. But after a point, my breathing adjusted and I started walking slowly to ease the discomfort of my back and legs. We made slow progress and had several pit stops, both for me to recover and for my sister to take pictures. But we kept walking and suddenly, we had outstripped the tourists and the hawkers and the more trafficked paths. The air became even more cleaner, crisper, and even sweeter. Coniferous trees swayed gently to the breeze, sometimes scattering pine cones on the path. The mountains around me grew larger, more magnificent with a mosaic of colors, each of a different hue. The grey merged into green and the green merged further into dark green, almost black like texture as only the mountains of Himalayas can.
As the sun reached it’s summit, the peaks glittered like diamonds atop huge canvases of colors. It was quiet, so very quiet; the only sound was the sound of our feet, hitting the trail and there was no one except, the blue sky, the huge mountains, the spirit of something larger than life and us. It was beautiful, it was tranquil and it was healing and I had reached the final stop. And the one thing that seemed to encompass that moment , was a poem by Mary Oliver.
Every day I see or hear something that more or less
kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for -- to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world -- to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant -- but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
but grow wise with such teachings as these -- the untrimmable light
of the world, the ocean's shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?
It was here, at this point, where I finally found calmness in the acceptance of the rage inside me for all the unfair things, I had been subjected too for all my life. I made peace with the fact that things change, and sometimes they change inevitably. But also, somethings did not; like the mountains did not, nor my own agency through which I could do, be and accomplish whatever I want, just like completing the hike. And I was free!
We returned to a grand meal at a restaurant back in the town and that night when I had logged in, I was transformed. I understood that for the final time the job that I had was what I do and not who I was. That I will find new companionships and learn to thrive in my own company. And that there was still so much beauty in life, poetry in life, and that made everything a joy. I would go back and start advocacy work for Cancer, I would write more, travel more. Cancer would come back to me again less than 6 months after I completed my chemo, and I would have to be put on chemo for the rest of my life. I would lose other promotions and more friends. But I would also find new friends, good projects at work with some great colleagues. I would fall down , but I also would pick up the pieces again and forge forward. And I did not forget , that I am what I choose to be and as long as there were mountains, books and my sister, life was as wonderful as it could be!
This post was written in response to a prompt from The Isolation Journals by Suleika Jaoud. This week’s prompt was contributed by Kate Bowler – “Think of a time when you felt especially unlucky. The opposite of #blessed—the “anti-blessing,” if you will—but then you noticed something beautiful, funny, anything that sparkled. Write about holding the tension of both the deep terrible and the fairy dust feeling“. You can read the full article on The Isolation Journal
It’s been difficult to talk books lately, though they continue to do an incredible job in helping me retain my sense of sanity and balance; but life keeps throwing out unexpected challenges and this one time I am just exhausted. Exhausted to do what seems normal, when nothing, not one element in my life is normal. I do love life and want to live it every minute, but I do want to ask the Universe, why am I denied a boring albeit peaceful life. For those seeking excitement and action, tired of their everyday jobs and other social responsibility, know that there are others who who would trade that simple everyday life in a heartbeat. Why is boring a bad thing? It is a worthy existence and much better that the constant curve balls that comes your way. Maybe boring is what we all need to aspire for instead of wealth and adventure. There is such joy in everyday routine; in the small tasks that bring comfort and add to the overall well being of our existence.
But boring is one adjective that I am denied, since I was 13. If there is a problem, life will make sure it hits me in the face and in case I still refuse to see, rub my face on it, till, I get the point. For instance, back in late August, I was set for a wonderful vacation with my sister and cousin to the southern most state of India, Kerala, a magical land of culture, beach, mountain , wildlife, all together. This was a my first full length vacation since my diagnosis last year and the north star of my life for the last few months. Physically I was feeling much better than I had in months ( re – my last post ), the chemotherapy side effects were finally in control and I was leading as a normal life as possible.
I went for my routine follow up that happens every three months with my oncologist. My blood tests were all clean and as a standard medical protocol, she advised an MRI. I went for the MRI but something kept bothering me – the what if scenario. I tried dismissing them, believing that my mind always sought out the worst, after years of trauma. But there may be science to such things like “gut instinct” etc, because turns out they were correct. In subsequent tests that followed, it was discovered that my endometrial cancer has metastasized (spread) and I have lesions in my lungs and lymph nodes. The cancer is back ( or maybe it never gone away, just hid somewhere until the chemotherapy stopped ) in less than 7 months after I finished my treatment. My second round of chemotherapy started as of September 30th and this time we really do not know much; how many rounds, how long and if it needs to be combined with such advanced medicine like immunotherapy. It’s living from one session to another, dependent on test results, that may or may not say something.
This second round of battle is making me very unwell. Far more than I was the first time, as the dosage is stronger and also my immunity is already compromised from the first session that ended last year. I am tired of the never ending triage of doctors, tests and medicines. And I want nothing more than a boring life where I do my work, read some books , write about them and go traveling every now and then. I have no ambitions of conquering the Corporate world or finding the one true love of my or being “inspiring” . I just want to be left alone to lead a simple life, but there I guess I ask too much and am being totally brazen in my greed !
However I am determined to grasp whatever I can get of my life. After my biopsy, I did take the vacation with my sister and cousin. And now prepare for another beach holiday in November. I will continue reading as much as I can and am planning to enroll for a second masters next year. I will continue raising awareness about Cancer in a society that pretends that this illness does not exist (see https://www.instagram.com/candidcancerconversation/ ). And in my own small sphere try and be as “boring” as possible, finding joy in everyday routines and tasks that enrich life – the smell of woodfire as the autumn turns to spring, a well cooked meal ( very important as most things taste like mud to me these days ) buying new books, an afternoon spent chatting with an old friend, 18000 kms away about everything and nothing and just breathing, one moment in time.
Sharing some pictures from the Kerala Vacation. It’s gorgeous country with nature and history and I am so glad I did this journey, cancer or no cancer.
Well it’s August finally and I am glad that the end of the year is finally here. As most of my old readers are aware, I always have an affinity for the Autumn – Winter part of the year than the Spring – Summer months! Onwards, I say!
July was a much more productive month than most. The month infact saw two whole weeks of being chemo side effect free and I was able to get a lot more reading and writing done as well as socializing as always!
The reading this month was very good after some of the dry spells, the previous months. White Spines was an amazing read that only bookworms can appreciate; the joy of collecting and finding small treasures within the pages, especially if they are bought second hand. Greenwood made me think a lot, about the environment and you can read my thoughts here. Tomb of Sand blew me away; 3 weeks after having finished the book, I am still processing it to be able to write a full length review. Animal Farm is always a thought provoking book to read, as relevant today as when it was originally published. All in all a great reading month; I have a few reading in progress that is spilling over in August; Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, On Writing by Margaret Atwood and Conversations on Love by Natasha Lunn. I am also excited about doing an in depth reading of Persuasions and Mansfield Park as part of Austen in August , hosted by Adam Burgess.
There was a lot of eating and merry making this month as well long walks in the evenings and here are some glimpses of all the fun that was had!
July finally saw the onset of the monsoons in this part of the world. I wrote a post about it on my Insta page, and I cannot help but duplicate some of that here, considering how vital this season is to the Indian sub continent. Monsoon brings many things to people of the Indian subcontinent besides of course relief from unceasing heat, that storms down from the heaven and rises from the earth, suffocating all living things in-between! It has many socio economic benefits – it is one the primary source of fresh water. It has a major impact on the crop cycle which in turn has a major impacts on the economy of an agricultural intensive country like India. And naturally Indian culture is replete with songs, poems and prose about this natural gift. Raag Malhar is a collections of Raags that is supposed to induce rains. Meghdoot, meaning the cloud messenger is the play of plays written by Kalidas in 5th century AD where a banished nature spirit asks a cloud to take his message to his wife. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore has written profusely about rains and monsoons in this region. Bollywood has films after films that showcased the importance of these rains in the life of an Indian farmer, besides of several rain song numbers. Every home in the region has a special menu associated with Monsoons, fried fritters, tea and many local delicacies. Monsoons are not simply a season in the subcontinent, it is an emotion, it is an expression and it is integral to the identity of this region and her people.
I spent most of July listening to Jazz and more Jazz . I love the old Jazz classics and rediscovered my love for Glenn Miller and have been playing his albums in loop these past few weeks.
July then was truly a wonderous month, but I am so glad its August. I leave you with a poem for August called August by Mary Oliver –
When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.
How was your July? Do you have any special plans for August?
Reading contemporary literature, especially fiction is a tricky thing. There is either some frivolous angst related plot for characters who have no reason to be angst, or they try and say profound things, which all just gets articulated as someone trying very hard to be stream of consciousness or they are written solely to propagate an ism; regardless of the narrative arc etc. No wonder like my friend Cleo says, one feels the constant urge to stick to classics. But sometimes you do have to venture out to the modern world and find out what are the current going ons.
I have been reading some very good reviews about Greenwood by Michael Christie; the plot appealed to me; it was a an interesting mix of historical fiction with some futuristic apocalyptic overtones. But mostly, what really intrigued me was the personality of the author. Mr. Christie seemed to be a very hands on environmentalist. He is a former carpenter and a social worker and now lives in Galiano Island, with his family in a timber house he built for himself. Mr. Christie seemed to know about tress and I had a feeling if nothing else I will learn about trees.
The book begins in 2034 in an apocalyptic world where all trees have died out due to an event called The Withering, a fungal infestation, that has killed all plants and green things. Most of the population is reduced to living in slums with extreme pollution and air filled with noxious gas and other poisonous substances. This causes various illness and diseases including a cough that kills children’s by breaking their ribcage and has shattered the global economy. However the rich continue to be rich and live in huge climate controlled buildings and take vacations to some of last remaining forests and clusters of green acres with fresh air. Jake Greenwood is a guides in one the last bastions of nature, a small island in British Columbia. She has Ph.D but the Withering has wiped out her future as a probable professor of Botany along with her savings, leaving her riddles with a student debt and a pitiful existence. The fact that she shares her last name with the island name is nothing but a coincidence. Until an ex-boyfriend, arrives with a fantastic tale of a timber tycoon Grandfather, who once owned this land and a story of a family, that started a tryst with wood and forests that went back generations.
This is not a perfect book. Some of characters and their actions seemed to have no correlation whatsoever. The plot at times, was slow and I had thoughts of abandoning it. While not a linear narrative, some of the threads did not always tie in very clearly. Having said all of that, it is an important book and a must be read. It made me think deeply about trees and our environment much more deeply than I had ever thought, though I am someone who is very conscious about sustainability and the quality of life of our planet. It made me more than ever appreciate the green planet that we had the privilege to be born into and are now wantonly destroying! It made me uncomfortable about my present and worry about the future. It is that kind of powerful book! There are many good things about the novel from a purely work of fiction perspective as well. While I could not understand the motivation of some of the key characters, others like that of Temple and Liam Feeney, left me moved and touched and amazed at the ability of human kindness and honor, both qualities in short supply in real life! The plot did drag a bit and then suddenly it picked up midway and had me running through the pages as fast as I could. Finally the prose is beautiful and Mr. Christie has an absolutely awe inspiring ability to write about tress without being poetic in the traditional sense. The book is filled with, as I expected, a lot information about trees, but it never reads like dry history and in fact brings humans closer to these marvelous giving creatures, whom we have destroyed with a vengeance. And while the main theme is our environment, there is beautiful sub theme of what it means to be a family, of relations through blood or otherwise and loyalty. This aspect of the book especially resonated with me and added a complex and enriching layer to narrative . I strongly recommend this book, both for its storytelling and the message it tries to drive home. A wonderful wonderful book.
And just like that, 6 months of 2022 are over! I am quite undecided if I like the fact that I am moving forward in time or I regret the passing of time. The pre 2021 me, would have loved the fact that Summers were finally receding and soon Autumn will be here. The post 2021 me also is really excited about Autumn and Winters as always; but since being diagnosed with Cancer, I know that every additional day, a day when I am healthy , as in not Cancer sick, is a gift. And I want to hold this time in my hand and stretch it out as long as possible, because I still have so much to do and so many things to experience and I want to do it all.
Speaking of doing it all, June was a tad bit more managed despite 2 solid weeks of being Chemo sick. I got a lot more done – read more, wrote more and worked on Insta page a lot more. Also managed to socialize and get a huge work project off the ground. Getting things done has always been a thing with me and with all the sickness and low energy that comes from all the funky medicines, I feel especially chuffed for the months, when I am able to get more than my new usual done!
I completed 4 books in June and started off on a few others which I hope to complete in July. My TBR lists keeps growing, but that’s not new and let’s be honest – there is something infinitely joyous in speculating about what book to read next. It’s like being served all the best desserts in a platter and then you pick and choose per your mood and taste! Absolute bonanza!
Reading in June was very rewarding! Re-reading The Book Thief is always such a perfect joy! I really enjoyed the very cleverly crafted murder mystery of The Appeal. And non fiction reading for the the month was beyond brilliant with the travel memoirs of Dervla Murphy and her daughter spending the Winter of 1972 in the desolate mountains deserts of Baltistan in Himalayas. The Scared Geography was a very well written scholarly book on Hindu mythology and the history and culture of pilgrimage of India and how this forms the core identity of India, well before British imposed a western concept. The reading good fortune continues early in July and am in-between several good books with a few more planned over the next few weeks!
June was a also a month of a LOT of socializing. There were book buying expeditions, birthdays of friends and then I was very fortunate to be invited for a book launch of an author, who has since become a friend and whose book I reviewed in my last post.
June was primarily very very hot (it is every year but this was exceptionally so) but I survived thanks to a drink called Aam Panna. Its a cooling drink made out of raw mangoes that are roasted and then the pulp mixed with water and spices. My sister and aunt also cooked a lot of typical Bengali delicacies over the month. My sister cooked what is called Dry mutton and my aunt cooked Egg Devils, which are very different from the Scottish version and made out of eggs and potatoes stuffing and deep fried. ( Yes, once in a while its ok! ) So the eating this month was especially GOOD!
The month was busy and there was of course constant illness to deal with; but despite all the sickness and all the petty annoyances as I near my 1 year anniversary since the diagnosis and surgery, I can say from the very bottom of my heart, that I am supremely grateful to have made it here! And I leave you with these July thoughts –
This is the place that I love the best,
A little brown house, like a ground-bird's nest,
Hid among grasses, and vines, and trees,
Summer retreat of the birds and bees.
The tenderest light that ever was seen
Sifts through the vine-made window screen--
Sifts and quivers, and flits and falls
On home-made carpets and gray-hung walls.
All through June the west wind free
The breath of clover brings to me.
All through the languid July day
I catch the scent of new-mown hay.
The morning-glories and scarlet vine
Over the doorway twist and twine;
And every day, when the house is still,
The humming-bird comes to the window-sill.
In the cunningest chamber under the sun
I sink to sleep when the day is done;
And am waked at morn, in my snow-white bed,
By a singing bird on the roof o'erhead.
Better than treasures brought from Rome,
Are the living pictures I see at home--
My aged father, with frosted hair,
And mother's face, like a painting rare.
Far from the city's dust and heat,
I get but sounds and odors sweet.
Who can wonder I love to stay,
Week after week, here hidden away,
In this sly nook that I love the best--
This little brown house like a ground-bird's nest?
Ella Wheeler Wilcox
In everyday, urban saying sort of thing, a frequently used saying is your vibe attracts your tribe. Now I know this to be wholly true because , look at this book tribe I have !! And this holds true for my non bookish world as well. At a recent professional women’s event , I met a tribe member, who loved food ( so me! ), travel ( me again ) but more pertinently, shared my abiding love for the mountains, especially the Himalayas. As we bonded over the treks and the lesser known pathways to the Himalayas , it came about that Saachi Dhillon had written a book on her trek to Everest Base Camp. Naturally the book now needed to be read!
Everest for the non initiated is the highest peak of Himalayas and also the highest point on earth. The route to this peak is challenging and downright dangerous and many have lost their lives in the quest of the Everest (George Mallory of course comes first to one’s mind). The trek usually happens in many stages , the first being reaching the Everest Base Camp. And though it’s called the base camp, the trek is nothing but difficult and not recommended for first time high altitude hikers. However Saachi believes in living on the edge and the Everest Base Camp was the initiation right she chose to kickstart her high altitude trekking adventure.
Dreaming of Everest is an account of this adventure. Saachi’s journey starts off from the small Ramechhap Airport in Nepal and with the ultimate destination being the Everest Base Camp. It follows her journey as she meets her hiking group, walks through pit stops where everything is available for an exorbitant costs to small hole in the place where only few basics are available. She would watch the film Everest at the sitting at base of the the peak and be almost thrown off by a yak. She would lose things and find many insights about herself including the courage to continue when her body was ready to give up. And through of all this, the Everest beckoned and kept her company!
This book is one of the most honest books I have read about such endeavours in a long time. There is always glorification of all kinds of extremities in such genre; everything presented through rose tinted glasses of “struggles and triumphs”. Saachi avoids this kind of literary trope completely. She writes about the challenges but there is no romanticising them. The trek is hard. After a point food options are limited. Ill health makes an arduous climb even harder, taking a toll on your health physically and emotionally. There is no shower for days and fear of germs. These are realities that Saachi does not shy away from sharing. But there is no eulogising them nor crying foul. They are things that happen through the course of the travel and that is all there is to it. Her narrative does not digress from the main theme – the trek and the Himalayas. In fact she captures the stunning and startling beauty of these mountains beautifully. While there are valleys of flowers and beautiful sunsets, there is an awe inspiring aspect of Himalayas thats does not allow simplistic idyllic narrative. These mountains are formidable and the author’s writings leaves no room for doubt that this is not a walk in a park. She expertly blends in the cultural aspects of this geography with several insights into interaction with the local populace and adding a colorful flavor to what would otherwise have been a dry retelling of an amazing adventure. I also enjoyed the little interludes of the kind of music she listened to while hiking or the food she ate, and all of this added another layer to the storytelling. Finally the story of her own personal evolution is wonderfully interwoven with the everyday adventures. And in a stroke of good hard common sense , the book is replete with good advise for first time hikers.
To end , for a short book, it packs a powerful punch. To read it is truly start dreaming of Everest or at the very least, the other peaks of this formidable mountain range !
It seems odd to write about April and May end notes when July is only 10 days away. But that means at the very least I will make an effort to put another post for June. So for now its April and June. Needless to say I have been supremely busy, work finally became crazy work and long hours again has become a norm. I am more than ever at it on my Cancer Advocacy page on Instagram. There are mentorships that I have been doing and writing some pieces on the side, include this one. Family has also been visiting as well as friends. And of course, it does not help that I keep getting sick ( overall well; chemo side effects continue ) and that takes away a lot of time in what is already a short pool of time. Even reading was limited for a while and blogging non existent. But I have been close to the edge of the other side and I must say that while I do regret blogging not enough and resolve to manage time better, I am very glad and supremely grateful to be living again and living a full life!
Now about reading, like I said, it has been slow and May was horrible. I seemed to have spent May being in the middle of many books and never finishing anything. And almost nothing seemed to hold my interest.
But I did immensely enjoy The Nectar in the Sieve about which I posted here; and I was absolutely enthralled by The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. The plot could have been a bit more cohesive and the character evolution was patchy in places, but the prose and the writing integrated the Native Indian history and inheritance was brilliant. It is a book I want to go back to and read again and soon!
April was the month when the Bengali ( Eastern India ) new year is celebrated, so instead of cooking, the family, my uncle, aunt, sister and moi, we went out for a grand dinner. The food was magnificent, as was the company and of course, new outfits for the occasion never harms!
And of course despite much promise and self discipline on spending, there were outings to the book store and some coffee shops.
Most importantly after much heartburns and anxiety and several days of dealing with self esteem issues, I finally have hair on my head. While it is short, it is still real and I cannot wait for it to grow long again!!!!
That was then my two months, spent in books, food and family, besides work and more! I end this post with two short poems for April and May!
The moon comes up o'er the deeps of the woods,
And the long, low dingles that hide in the hills,
Where the ancient beeches are moist with buds
Over the pools and the whimpering rills;
And with her the mists, like dryads that creep
From their oaks, or the spirits of pine-hid springs,
Who hold, while the eyes of the world are asleep,
With the wind on the hills their gay revellings.
Down on the marshlands with flicker and glow
Wanders Will-o'-the-Wisp through the night,
Seeking for witch-gold lost long ago
By the glimmer of goblin lantern-light.
The night is a sorceress, dusk-eyed and dear,
Akin to all eerie and elfin things,
Who weaves about us in meadow and mere
The spell of a hundred vanished Springs.
An April Night by LM Montgomery
There is May in books forever;
May will part from Spenser never;
May’s in Milton, May’s in Prior,
May’s in Chaucer, Thomson, Dyer;
May’s in all the Italian books:—
She has old and modern nooks,
Where she sleeps with nymphs and elves,
In happy places they call shelves,
And will rise and dress your rooms
With a drapery thick with blooms.
Come, ye rains, then if ye will,
May’s at home, and with me still;
But come rather, thou, good weather,
And find us in the fields together.
May and the Poets by Leigh Hunt
And that is about it! What all have you all been up to, while I was away?
This week Karen and Simon are hosting another one of their amazing reading events – the 1954 Club. I love these events as they force me to read outside my genre and explore more literary styles and authors. However with frequent Chemo side effects days ( where each part of my body felt like it belonged to someone else ) and work being ridiculously crazy again, I was not sure if I would be able to read, let alone finish something in a week. But I did manage and here I am posting a review only one day late!!
I went through the list of all books published in 1954 and after much deliberation ( there were many great publications that year ) I decided to pick up Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. The book blurb did not appeal to – another story about poverty in India but something about the book felt that this was an important read. Also I had been curious to read Kamala Markandaya for years. She was the first Indian author to write in English and one of the most premier writers of modern India. Therefore with the idea of now or never, I plunged ahead with this book which her first novel.
The story is narrated by an old woman called Rukmani, the youngest and educated daughter of the village headsman and follows her life after her marriage to Nathan , a tenant farmer. Nathan is very clearly lower in the social ladder than Rukmani but he proves to be a kind and thoughtful husband and together the couple start building a life together. A daughter named Ira, is soon born to the couple but the much desired male offsprings until years later when Dr. Kensington, a British doctor who had treated Rukmani’s mother gives her medication. Soon Rukmani has 6 sons but providing for the children becomes a struggle but Nathan and Rukmani make do until a new tannery factory is set up near their village and things begin to turn.
The plot is exactly the reason why I was not initially interested in reading this novel. Set somewhere between 1930s to 1950s India, the novel pivots on the beaten track of the struggles of farming community in India. In fact there were slew of novels that were published during this time that focused on this theme , some considered modern classics of Indian literature. There is no doubt that this was an important subject; until the Land Reform laws and the Green Revolution, farmers struggled between debt and starvation thanks to the gratuitous commercialization of land to produce only profitable crops like indigo by the British colonizers. Most these British colonizers and traders were more interested in making a quick profit, forcing farmers to grow crops that will not feed the populace and then sell them at pittance. This kind of brutal exploitation lasted for a few hundred years until India gained her independence and along with it a horrifying legacy from those years – huge fiscal deficits with majority of her people living below the poverty line. This was important theme for us to understand our past but I had read enough of this plot line and was not keen to take up another harrowing read especially when ill and irritated. But this where I made a mistake in underestimating the power and ability of Ms. Markandaya. The story does follow the struggles of Rukmani and her husband but the book is filled with hope and simple joys. Even when things are at the lowest, there is an effort to live and live to the best one can and to plan for a better tomorrow. The genius of Ms. Markandaya comes out strongest in her ability to portray this philosophy without sentimentality or dramatics; there are no miracles or swooping rescues from a knight in white armor, rather like real life if things can go bad, they do! But she weaves her story through the small everyday actions that actually adds value to life and the strength of character that resolves on never giving up. She captures the struggle between the old world and the new rising industrial world accurately; the change in societal order and mores are depicted subtly without getting pedantic or going into any ism. There is a nostalgia for the older more simpler way of life, but that is all it is and also a realistic acceptance of what the future would be like The characters are superbly etched out – Rukmani , not a loud character or even markedly extraordinary, shines bright through her quiet courage, her ability to love and the complete lack of judgement when choices are forced on the family. She is way ahead of her years in understanding the value of education and more importantly, in accepting that sometimes life happens and a straight jacketed black and white is not the correct lens to see things. Her husband Nathan is a perfect foil, dignified and self reliant. He goes through his life with wisdom and kindness. The thing that makes his character stand out is his constant display of emotional intelligence; not only in accepting and respecting a wife who is a social superior in every way but also the ways of his children, who carve out lives very differently from his own life and beliefs. The supporting cast and crew also are brilliantly drawn with each character standing independently, a remarkable achievement, considering the novel is action packed and is only 200 pages. The narrative is simple and linear but never for a moment does the pace flag; while I understood the plot arch, it was written so well and so tightly, that I finished the book in one sitting. And finally there is gorgeous prose of Ms. Markandaya , both sparse and lyrical, capturing the country and it’s culture vividly, bringing it alive in all its beauty and beliefs.
I am so immensely glad that I read this novel. Beautiful, enriching and memorable, one of the best books I have read lately! Exactly why despite everything I make it a point to be part of these reading events!
Today is World Sibling Day and I thought it would be fun to share some of the “fictional siblings” that I think makes for great reading and showcases some of the best brotherhood/sisterhood/siblinghood. So here goes –
Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood – As a devoted Austinian, I cannot help but start with the incomparable sisterhood of the Dashwood sisters. Simply in terms of descriptions vis a vis the relationship between sisters, I feel the Dashwoods outshine the Bennetts. For years, I have been told and I agree with this assumption, that my older sister was the epitome of Eleanor and I Marianne. Their relationship seems real to me at so many levels; there is love, there is a unique brand of humor which can only exist between sisters, and there are difficult moments where they get on each other’s nerves or fail to see the other’s point of view, all the while standing by each other. I personally feel that Ms. Austen being the younger sister herself, took a slice of her life with Cassandra and wrote about it in this novel.
Jane and Elizabeth Bennett – Now that we have accounted for the Dashwood sisters, can the Bennetts be far behind? While the younger three evoke a variety of emotions ( I especially feel bad for nerdy Mary – I really think she had potential ) the fact remains , the elder two are absolutely peerless. I know many people are convinced of the brilliance of Elizabeth’s character, and there is no question that she is brilliant, but I do feel that she shines so bright, because she has a contrast in Jane. I have shared this in the past, but growing up, of course I wanted to be Eliza Bennett but as I came of age from a Marianne, I became more of a Jane, trusting everyone and failing to see the obvious pitfalls. I am still a bit like that, but then my Eleanor is also a bit of an Elizabeth ( Yup! She is BRILLIANT!) and usually is there is to rescue me from fools and mercenaries!
The March Sisters – Across the Atlantic, another sisterhood gave us joy and hope and was again a very authentic portrayal of the bond that exists among sisters. Theirs was a real relationship filled with joy, some mean acts, love and support. That act of cutting up Joe’s book, haunted me for days, not because I did that to anyone and my sister would NEVER do that to me, but just the fact that in a moment of anger we can commit such grievous acts where we hurt those nearest to us. Beautiful and heartbreaking ( Like Joey in Friends I want to keep the book in fridge every time I reach the part of Beth’s illness ) Ms. Alcott created one of the most outstanding sibling novel ever!
The Finch Siblings – Would we have adored Scout so much if there was no “wiser” older brother Jem who had to think of his younger sister whenever he was scared? Yet another very real portrayal of siblings especially during childhood. We lived through the young adolescents of Jem Finch who would tell Scout Finch to stick to her set in school or break up any fights she got into. And we were Scout Finch when our siblings fell ill or were hurt, mentally or emotionally! To Kill a Mockingbird is as much a story of the brother and the sister as much their father, Atticus Finch.
Shanta from Ramayana – I close this piece with a Shanta, the elder sister of Lord Rama, the doyen on Hindu Gods, and a forgotten sibling in the larger narrative of the epic The Ramayan. Mythology says that she was the neglected daughter of the King Dasharath who gave her away to be adopted by another king to save his land from draught. She agreed to the adoption so that her father would be given a boon from the Gods, that would allow him to father sons. She marries Rishyashringa, a sage whose celibacy causes drought in kingdom of her adoptive father and with her marriage, there are rains and an end to the draught in the region. The reason why I wanted to add her to the list is because she was the only one who critiqued her brother, the almighty Rama for abandoning his loyal wife because of street gossip. She is the only character in this mythology that saw the failing in this perfect Man-God and displays a key element of any authentic relationships – the ability to call out what is wrong even if it’s your own blood and even if no one else questions it!
That is my list! What are your most memorable “fictional” sibling relationships?