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 the month of March was a blur to say the least! As I had mentioned in the last post, there was just too much going on and the tempo did not ease through the last weeks either; but all of it was good, so all well worth the time spent! On top of continuing to support the local community with mentoring women entrepreneurs with limited education in business and strategy, I have also been collaborating a lot lately on my cancer awareness page ( you can find it here )and while it gives me new learning everyday, it also takes away a lot of what is essentially limited time. Besides this, my family came visiting and we all went for a small break to the Himalayas (Yes! Again!) and then there was parties and social evenings! I continued to be Chemo sick for several days and that did put a spanner on all the good things, but like someone told me lately, one’s simply got to roll with the punches!
The first thing that took take a hit because of all my whirlwind activities this month was my reading. With a full time job and all these side hustles and getting the apartment back in shape and getting the family settled, well, there was simply no time! Also some days the sickness got so bad, that words and sentences made no sense and every concept was foggy and illusive. Those days I could do nothing except read Tintin and Asterix comic books and I thank the powers that be for this simple and undiluted pleasure which saw me through those painful hours! In the end, a very dismal month from a reading perspective, though qualitatively speaking I thoroughly and completely loved reading these 4 books! I hope to read a bit more in April and have a few chunksters lined up!
March brings a very brief spring in India but while these two -three weeks last, the trees burst into colors and it’s seems like someone took a bucket of paint and splashed it all over them! It is a sight of unmatched beauty and a swansong before the burning summer overtakes the plains!
A dear friend of mine is spending a few months with his parents in the southern most state of India, Kerala and in March they have a week long celebration in honor of the local deities . It is a sight to behold and I am sharing some pictures and videos from one of the events , with his permission. The stately pachyderms are the highlight of the festival, respected, cared for and revered as symbol of good fortune !
With our family visiting, a trip to the hills is a mandate and Kasuali is a lovely sight to behold! This small Himalayan town is quaint and eccentric and is one of the oldest military cantonments of India. This is a place for leisurely walks and stopping for coffee and soaking in the sun, all the things we did and had great fun doing it! The highlight of the trip was the resort we were staying in; nestled among the woods it’s USP was the fact that the entire hotel was built around the trees, without cutting them down. That meant we had a full grown Himalayan Oak tree right inside our bedroom!!!
It was also my sister’s birthday month, so there was flowers, food, cake and many celebrations! Perhaps the best ever way to end a month!
It has been a crazy month, but a good month with new learnings and perspectives! I end with what I think is a very apt poem by my most favorite Ms. Emily Dickenson –
Dear March—Come in— How glad I am— I hoped for you before— Put down your Hat— You must have walked— How out of Breath you are— Dear March, how are you, and the Rest— Did you leave Nature well— Oh March, Come right upstairs with me— I have so much to tell—
I got your Letter, and the Birds— The Maples never knew that you were coming— I declare – how Red their Faces grew— But March, forgive me— And all those Hills you left for me to Hue— There was no Purple suitable— You took it all with you—
Who knocks? That April— Lock the Door— I will not be pursued— He stayed away a Year to call When I am occupied— But trifles look so trivial As soon as you have come
That blame is just as dear as Praise And Praise as mere as Blame—
When I was young, I used to choose books expressly based on whatever seemed to have a good story. From Enid Blytons ( Yes I know she is many ist things now ! ) and Anne of GG to all my Nancy Drews to so many other books that I cannot even recollect. The ultimate reason for picking up a book was to be told a good story, a yarn that would entertain me, take me away from the mundane and would allow me to fanaticize about time and places and people, that had no bearing on reality! I was the 4th friend with George and Bess with Nancy in River Heights or going on picnics with Ann of GG at King Edwards Island. Good stories and interesting characters were the mainstays of what I chose to read and it led me eventually as a young adult to To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, East of Eden, War and Peace and Tagore’s novels. And they blew my mind away! I discovered Literature and life would never be the same; this is what art and writing was about – ideas and expressions and mankind! But I also discovered that which was not “Literature”, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robins, James Hadley Chase and Jeffrey Archer! And oh! yes, Mills and Boon romances.
The reaction I often get when I mention the above line up is usually a wrinkled nose along with a very condescending “Really?” . That inevitable look of surprise on people’s faces when scanning my book shelves, where tucked among Charles Dickens and Umberto Eco, they discover a historical romance novel! The idea is if I read Elizabeth Gaskell and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I cannot really read a Judith McNaught novel and vice versa. It’s almost as if I have some kind of reading disorder and cannot truly be a sensible reader. And this is where I have a problem. I make no superior claims of literature or ideas from these authors; but do we always have to read something superior? Yes, great literature elevates the soul, makes us sensitive and opens our minds to new thoughts! But do we need greatness constantly? Do we not need some fun, now and then? Is not greatness better appreciated when you take a break and come back to it, like all good things, that improve in some temporary absence? Don’t we love our classics a little more, after having read a popular or a modern fiction? And ideas? Is it something that exists in an exclusive commune, available only in certain kind of books by a certain type of author? I personally completely disagree with the thought that ideas can only be absorbed from the so called great works. Sidney Sheldon gave me the the first understanding about Jewish persecution (Bloodline); I was a 13 year old living in India, absorbed in Indian culture with a detour to everything English as part of the colonial hand me down. World War was taught in school and there were chapters on Holocausts, but it was a pulp fiction novel that made me realize what persecutions means in flesh and blood. The Spanish Civil War and the Cold War politics, both came home to me via again Sidney Sheldon novels, Sands of Time and Windmills of Gods respectively. I learnt about South American politics from Harold Robin’s The Adventurer and more facts about turn of the century America from Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel than in my standard school textbooks, getting a regular A in history all through high school. I went on to get a Masters degree in one the most prestigious universities of Asia, that only admitted 40 students across the country every year for their International Politics course. All those pulp fiction novels laid the foundation for my interest in international affairs, introducing me to the larger world, beyond my regular ecosystem and set me up in a path of eventual academic excellence. Yes, I built upon those nascent concepts by reading many classics and thought provoking books, but the path, many a times was lit by such “light reads”. And this is not just about academic success; I first became acquainted with Bach’s music in a Mills and Boons novel, The Shadow Princess; and have been in love with it ever since. My parents were both very musical and Hindustani Classical and Indian popular music along with a lot of 60’s-70’s Pop and Jazz always played on in our home. But the whole world of Western Classical burst upon me , thanks again to my non highbrow reads. My life is infinitely richer because when I looked, I found great ideas in every book. Besides, who am I to judge what someone else reads and vice versa again! I think I can safely say I am literature connoisseur , but some books hailed as masterpieces, still do not make sense to me. (Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary & Middlemarch by George Elliot! Sigh! ) Reading therefore, I firmly believe is a very personal affair between a reader and their book and what works for some, may not and will not work for others. And unless you read all kinds of books, how will you know, what works and does not work; and what entertains and what educates? Finally, at the cost of sounding cynical, in today’s day and age of digital blitz, I feel thrilled to simply see someone pick up a book and read it. Do we really need to make a case of reading casteism now? Is it not simply enough that you are reading a good story that entertains you even if it does nothing else? Is entertainment not important? Does it not refresh us and help us face life and its challenges better? Is it not a fact that many multimillion dollar industries of films and series thrive on the concept of entertainment? Then why do we look down on entertaining books? Why are they a guilty pleasure? A good story that delights you is a value in itself, even if does not add a single additional word to your vocabulary.
To end, read Voltaire, who was a far more erudite and learned man than yours truly and is a “great” writer and a defines classic literature, and you may believe him! He wrote “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” So let people read! Read even if it’s for the sake of amusement, it will not do any harm and by my experience, may end up in fact doing a lot of good!
Karen is always at the forefront of some amazing reading events and all of them have helped me read books out of my comfort zone, open my mind to new ideas and generally learn more. The #readindies event that she hosts along with Lizzy, every year with is one such event. Often in the media blitz of the bigger publishing houses and colossal corporates like Amazon, the Independent publishers and bookstores get lost and with them we lose on unique distinctive narratives that move away from mainstream or popular culture and speak of things not common. Reading fundamentally, more than just being one of the best entertainments, is about living many lives, exploring uncharted places and making you face things, away from your home ground. It is essential for an enriched soul and a thinking mind and a sensitive heart and these aims are fulfilled when we read what is popular but also what is different, and subaltern or alternative. And reading independent publishers who give voice to this section of the society, atleast in my part of world, therefore becomes even more critical.
This brings me to the independent publishing house of Westland Publications and I want to talk about them a bit before I get into the book I read. Westland Publications was one the first and premier Indian publishing houses of independent India wholly owned and run by Indians. It started way back in 1962 as distributer of books before branching into publishing garnering great reputation among Indian authors and Indian readers for several years. In 2013 it was bought by the Tata Group and in 2017 it was sold off to Amazon. While it became part of larger conglomerate, the spirit of being the voice of India continued unstintingly; they kept catering to what was often not part of the popular culture under the prolific and far sighted leadership of Gautam Padmanabhan, son of the founder, KS Padmanabhan, both icons of Indian literary world. However on Friday, February 1, Amazon announced it will be shutting down Westland Publications. I am sure Amazon can back up with data and numbers as to why it makes sense to shut down Westland, and I am sure they all make perfect business sense. But for Indian readers and authors and the literary world, this is a heavy blow. Westland was a unique agency of bringing forth the nascent world of Indian English literature and powering the publication of books in other native languages. While Penguin and other such giants continue to publish the bigger names of Indian authors, for the marginalized, a strong platform has disappeared taking along with it, many unheard voices and stories. I chose Westland because in essence it has always been #indie in every sense of the term and it’s recent ill fortunes make it even more important, that her books be read and her voice continues to be heard, whether they are physically available on shelves or not.
Now back to regular programing!
Ramayan along with Mahabharat are two of the epics of Indian subcontinent and East Asia. They are the Iliad and Odyssey of the East and every household has atleast one copy of each. They provide religious counsel, philosophy, political insight and entertainment. They have been translated in innumerable languages and been made into films and series and even animation. However what usually get’s narrated is the one of the standing theme of the epics, the battles, and often the other stories which actually give a far more comprehensive picture of the life and times and the philosophy of life, gets left out, providing a very skewed narrative. Ramayan is ostensibly a linear tale of a great virtuous Prince, Ram, who is exiled from his kingdom due to family politics; his stepmother wants her son to be the crown prince and the new ruler of Ayodhya. Ram goes into exile with his beautiful and loyal wife Sita and his youngest half brother Lakshman. In the jungle, a female “giant” becomes enamored of the two Princes and proposes to first Ram and when he spurns her, to Lakshman. Lakshman, the angry young man, is affronted at the audacity of this female giant in making such a suggestion, and chops off her eyes and ears ( A simple No would have sufficed!) The insulted woman, goes back to her brother, who is the King of the powerful state of Lanka, Ravan, who promises to seek revenge. He then plots to get Ram and Lakshman away from their cottage and kidnaps Sita. A battle ensures between the two forces and naturally the “good” forces , i.e. Ram and friends win and return to Ayodhya to take their rightful place. This is the broad outline of the mainstay of the epic , but there are several other associate stories that led to this final plot development, many other voices and several other characters, who were pivotal to this story. And this is what Anand Neelkantan tries to do, in his book Valmiki’s Women.
Valmiki was a dacoit and an anti social element, who had a change of heart and became a hermit. One day, he decided to write an epic that would become Ramayan. Mr. Neelkanthan’ first story reimagines the circumstances that led to Valmiki writing this epic, with the running themes of women, land and sacrifice. His next story explores the life of Shanta, the little known and often ignored older sister to Ram and his brothers. Their father King Dashratha is obsessed with the idea of having a son and in that quest, he ignores his only child, his daughter Shanta. The story traces Shanta’s life, highlighting her relationships with her father, her step mother Kaykei, who trains her to be a warrior princess and the final act of obedience, that she is called on to display, to help her father realize his ambitions. The second story focuses on the life of Manthara, lady in waiting to the second Queen of Ayodhya, Kaykei. It is said that it was the constant brain washing by Manthara, that led to Kaykei, demanding that King Dashratha keep his long given blank promised to her, to give her whatever she wants, that led to exile of Ram. In this re-telling, the reader gets an insight into the distressing circumstances Manthara was born into; she was a hunchback and that has traditionally been a subject of derision or suspicion alternatively. The story follows as Manathara is selected to become a governess cum lady in waiting for the young princess, Kaykei and her life as she follows the princess to her married home, the exile of Ram and her last years. The third story is told from the point of view of another “giant” Maricha, who narrates the story of his mother, Tataka, a “giant” princess who had married a man of the forest and with the advance of the Aryan or Ram’s civilization into the natural habitat of northern India, died protecting the flora and fauna. The story follows Maricha’s plan of avenging the death of his parents and how his “disguise” lured first Ram and the Lakshman from their cottage, leaving Sita alone to be kidnapped. The book closes with the final story of Meenakshi, the female “giant” who was besotted by Ram and had to pay the price by becoming disfigured. The story follows her life as she meets Sita who is now about to be exiled alone ( This is the epilogue of Ramayan; where local gossip imputes that Sita was not loyal to Ram when kidnapped, though it is beyond question that she has been so. Embarrassed Ram disowns her and sends her to exile where she bears him two sons and would ultimately be called back. Only she refuses and instead is “gives herself to be enfolded in the earth.”) This interaction between Meenakshi and Sita and a woman from one of Indian tribes closes the narrative, again bringing it back to the theme of land, women and sacrifice.
This is already a long post so I do not want to eulogies on how well written this book was. While there has been a recent trend of re-telling of Indian mythologies and epic, most are sensationalist without any real insight to offer. Mr. Neelkantan does a fabulous job in managing to narrate complex tales in lucid and sparse prose, while making it gripping and wholly absorbing. He is not afraid to break away from the mainstream narrative and give voices and provide perspectives to the marginalized and often demonized characters of the epic. He subtly makes the political point on how Aryans coming from North, i.e. Iran would have viewed the indigenous population of India and branded them as monsters and giants. (India had a flourishing civilization, called the Indus Valley Civilization circa. 5000 BCE. Aryans were actually Iranians came in hordes to India and settled here around 1500 BCE and from them emerged the two epics) He beautifully illustrates the conflict of two different civilizations, without losing his grip on the main story. Most importantly, his compassion for all the overlooked elements of the society, that continues to live on its fringes even in the present day, through the iteration of an age old epic, makes the reader aware of how much still needs to be done for their fellow humans. Simple yet gorgeous, this book is must for anyone interested in India.
A few weeks ago I read this wonderful review at Heavenali about a novel called “Which Way?” by Theodora Benson. The review was as always brilliant, like all of Ali’s reviews and it was available on Amazon Kindle without costing me a kidney and the central theme of “sliding door moments” i.e. of of inconsequential or unimportant choices result in momentous effect on the future path of life was intriguing. I was deeply impressed to know that this book was written, well before 1998 film of the same name, i.e. in 1931. On further research I found that it even preceded, J. B. Priestley’s 1932 play, Dangerous Corner, where apparently this concept more popularly explored. The final clincher was that this very innovative piece was written by the author when only 25 years old; this novel I needed to read!
Theodora Benson was born in England in 1905 and had published over a span of 30 years. She was a prolific writer and wrote everything from short stories, to novels, to essays and humor pieces, to writing speeches for the Government during World War II, where novelist Elizabeth Jenkins was her assistant. She spent her later life writing several books in partnership with her childhood friend Betty Askwith including travel writing about Europe and Asia, where she travelled with Askwith. She was never married and died at the age of 62 in 1968.
Which Way was Ms. Benson’s fourth novel and traces the parallel narrative of the novel’s protagonist, of Claudia Heseltine’s future, returning to the same moment with three different actions of Claudia, that would chart her life. Till this moment, Claudia is a bright young 20 something girl of her times (late 1920s?) she has doting parents, has been well educated in terms of intellectual as well as social needs , like attending a finishing school in Paris and has a host of amazing friends with enough money and a good life. She then reaches this moment, where she has three invitations – conflicting invitations, a stay at her good friend’s house over his birthday, another from a society friend, to meet an actress and her husband, both of whom Claudia finds very interesting and yet another from one of her highly intellectual friend to a weekend at the latter’s house where she was hosting some people including a popular polo player whom also, our heroine wanted to meet. The novel then follows her life as it unfolds driven by the which of the invitation she chooses, three times over. We meet Claudia, in a different setting each time, with different choices and a wholly different life from the other. There is no happy or sad ending per se, only life as is, bittersweet , simple and extremely complex, all at once.
There was so much to like about this novel; to begin with the main protagonist, Claudia Heseltine. She is neither a ravishing beauty nor an intellectual giant nor is an angel of mercy. She is a bit of everything, just like all of us in everyday life and just like all of us makes decisions based on what she feels best at that point in time and learns to live with its consequences, which may be whatever. She comes across as real and the brilliance of Ms. Benson lies in making it all seem so possible; we as readers may know what other choices Claudia could have had, but Claudia at that moment, choosing to accept one invitation over the other, seems as clueless and as innocent we are before we realize what the result of that choice is. Other characters in the book do equal justice, and again, the brilliance of Ms. Benson comes forth in being able to beautifully articulate, how a certain person may act when placed in the same circumstance, but with a different context. One of the outstanding qualities of the novel, among many others, is the absolutely authentic depiction of female friendships; there is strength and there is support but there no romanticism in them. They may change when life circumstances change or they may continue to be the very mainstay of your existence, but regardless of how they alter, they are always present in your life, always something for you to consider and sometime even seek permission from. The plot slowly unravels without any tense moment or “climax”. There is strong sense of irony at play through the book, but especially at the end of the first part, where Claudia wonders, how different her life would have been if she had made a different choice. On the face of it, this may seem a simplistic light novel about love and romance and marriage, but it is deeper than that; it is to great extent a feminist novel; where our protagonist, uses the herself, her inner happiness, her everyday cares and concerns to live a fulfilled rich life, no matter what curve ball life throws at her. She finds her worth and her value in simple everyday things despite off and inspite of the roads her life leads her onto. Personally to me, her first narrative felt the most real, though the other fates, were equally possible, in the social context of 1920’s-1930’s. It felt more heartfelt, more real and more simpler than the other narratives and I could not help but feel, there was a touch of personal history in there. Of course, I could be over imagining everything, and no such thing ever occurred except in my highly imaginative mind!
On my own personal note, I was super excited to read a thoughtful and insightful afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book and who is the series consultant for these reprints. Simon’s essay gave me a lot of additional details to think about and helped in making the whole reading more enriching. Chuffed to know a celebrity, even remotely, as in really remotely!
Strongly recommend atleast one reading of this book, for its novel approach, for its very illuminating description of the life and times of this era and I would add, the woman’s movement. I for sure will be looking up her other works and also read Priestley’s play on the similar theme.
It is a Sunday afternoon; we, as in, my sister and I have no plans of entertaining in the evening and all is quiet around the house. The lunch is all done and my sister in the very traditional a la Bengal meets Spain style is indulging in a luxurious siesta. I am pottering around the apartment aimlessly, sometimes in the sitting room or sometimes in my bed room. I am reading, making coffee and in between randomly surfing the internet. I feel bored but not really; the books I am currently reading – Humankind by Rutger Bergman and Which Way by Theodora Benson are wholly absorbing and thoughtful reads in their own way. Humankind makes me re-think and revisit some commonly held historical beliefs and Which Way, a brilliant piece of inventive fiction makes me both nostalgic as well as wonder about the many what ifs in life. I have plenty food for thought between the two reads, so boredom it is not. Yet I am at odds and ends; like I should be doing something or not whiling away this time; not meandering around. And then realization dawns, that because I am, we are, constantly attuned to completing a task, achieving something, this restless feeling, was/is actually an anxiety that this nothing to do will prove costly later. I and we as a species, have been guilted down from generation to generation that we must do something, constantly and incessantly to make life fruitful.
There is something to that argument; if as a species we would have not been active and accomplished things, we would have never invented fire or the wheel or vaccines to stop small pox or the internet. It is this very hyper productivity of mankind, that had led to it’s success and greatness. Where we stand today is the effort of hundreds and thousands of our ancestors who have strived and done their bit to bring in a better life for the progenies of the future. And now we reap the harvest of their hard work, so maybe it behooves us to do the same; in fact it obligates us to do the same; to work hard so that we can bequeath a better future to still unborn generations.
But when I think a little more closely, I wonder about this “progress”; true we have vaccines and the internet. But it all started so many 100,000 years ago by first invention of fire, then agriculture, wheel that stimulated trade and then as Yuval Noah Harari said, the greatest invention of all times, God. This naturally let to authority and then ours versus theirs and through centuries of wars and strives, into a seemingly modicum of peace and sanity that we have today, though not wholly and we have many newer problems to deal with as well. We may have created answers to solve older problems that we created ourselves and but new answers are creating new problems and we are constantly spiraling down a path of “progress”, without perhaps stopping to think what is this progress? What does it mean to me or my family? And personally at a microcosm level, is what I am doing really helping “progress” or am I like myself, just helping a rich company become richer and becoming caught up in a never ending cycle of chasing one goal after another and trying to fill the gaps with incessant consumption of things I do not need and does not make give me any long lasting happiness or comfort. If this be the case, then I am really not doing any good to the future generations; in fact I may be downright ruining their future with my consumerism which is killing the planet. Instead, would it not be better, if I appreciate quietly the joy of doing nothing one lazy Sunday afternoon. Yes, I may not achieve anything if I go on like this, but then what am I trying to achieve – some comfort and some happiness. A long race to millions in the bank does not guarantee either. Rather in the mad dash to achieve nothing, I may instead lose the present joy and this blessing, for blessing it is; how many can claim to have a dull Sunday afternoon?
This then is what I bequeath to the unborn of the future – the ability in the words of William Henry Davis, the time to stand and stare. To not be in a constant rush to do something and be some place; I absolve them from the guilt of all these expectations. I hope they have a fulfilling life, where they can go for a walk among green trees, have the ability to enjoy a cup of coffee under the blue sky lit by the orange haze of a rising sun and a lazy quiet Sunday afternoon, with absolutely nothing to do!
In celebration of having finished Chemotherapy, I decided to throw caution to the wind and do some impromptu traveling. I just returned for one such trip and I have another one planned next week; the trip planned next week is to the home of my heart – Himalayas and about which I think I have bored one and all enough, but for today the agenda is to talk about this small town in the north west of India, near the great Thar Desert called Pushkar and share a bit about it!
Pushkar located in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is an old, old town, older than the memory of mankind. Legend has it that it was created when Lord Brahma’s ( one of the many Gods of the Hindu pantheon and one of the top 3 in the hierarchy ) lotus slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground, creating the Pushkar Lake. This lake has been mentioned in the epics like Mahabharat and the depiction of this lake has been found in coins dating back 400 BC ( which compared to the whole breadth of Indian history is like day before yesterday but still!) Needless to say this is an ancient town with many myths and legends. In the days of yore this town was famous for its annual festival called the Pushkar mela or Pushkar fair, where the highlighted event was camel trading but various other crafts and entertainments were also at display. The fair fortunately continues till today though in reduced capacity as these ancient tribes, take on more “modern professions” and leave their traditional nomadic lives behind.
We spent three very happy days exploring the city, it’s culture and it’s food. The township is really small compared to the other places in India. Nestled in the valley of the granite mountains of Aravalli range, the best way to explore this place is on foot. Dotted around the lake are several temples of greater or lesser importance. The most heartening sight is to see a temple, situated adjacent to a mosque and facing a Gurudwara ( place of worship for the Sikh religion ); people forget that everyday people just want to live their lives peacefully and quietly and this is the essence of mankind and my country specifically. We took a wrong route to the lake ( thank you Google ) but that led us to a more secluded part of the lake with a grand vista and none of the craziness of people and business, that are a feature in other banks of the lake. We spent some hours on this quiet spot and then began a leisurely and glorious walk through the lesser known temples, admiring the architecture as we made our way to the commercial part of the town. The Bazaar is filled with some gorgeous handicrafts of metal and leather, the latter being a specialty of this town. The most spectacular feature of this is place is as you keep walking, among modern building and commercial outfits, there is a wide door, and as you peek inside, a magnificent, awe inspiring temple structure greets, you, totally unexpected and completely taking your breathe away! Another memorable item of this trip was the food; we were fortunate enough to have a found an amazing hotel with a wonderful warm staff and a brilliant chef ( Must stay a Hotel Brahma Horizon if here! ) and while all our meals were remarkably delicious, one particular lunch where we had the traditional food of this region was wow! The Rajasthani Thali ( literally meaning plate) that was served to us had 7-8 dishes, displaying the best that this place had to offer! Rajasthan is an arid zone unlike the rest of the more fertile areas of the country and agriculture products are mainly millets and legumes; yet out of these sparse resources, the people of this region have been able to develop a delicious, nutritious and a varied cuisine which we got to sample as part of this thali. We ate Dal Batti ( wheat dumplings with legume curry ) soaked in Ghee ( clarified butter) with Churma (made of flour, sugar and dry fruits ) , Bajra roti ( pearl millet flatbread ) , gatta curry ( steamed dumplings made from chickpea cooked in a spiced yoghurt sauce), Mangodi curry ( deep friend moong bean dumpling curry made with ginger, asafetida and other spices) , panchmel subzi ( mixed vegetable curry ) were some of the items in this meal. One of the best I have ever eaten!
Needless to say, this was an amazing way to close out my chemo affair! I absolutely loved this city and I leave you with some pictures of my adventures.
“March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight which gradually lost itself in an elfland of moonshine.”
“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”
March days return with their covert light, and huge fish swim through the sky, vague earthly vapours progress in secret, things slip to silence one by one. Through fortuity, at this crisis of errant skies, you reunite the lives of the sea to that of fire, grey lurchings of the ship of winter to the form that love carved in the guitar. O love, O rose soaked by mermaids and spume, dancing flame that climbs the invisible stairway, to waken the blood in insomnia’s labyrinth, so that the waves can complete themselves in the sky, the sea forget its cargoes and rages, and the world fall into darkness’s nets
“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.”
Let the old snow be covered with the new: The trampled snow, so soiled, and stained, and sodden. Let it be hidden wholly from our view By pure white flakes, all trackless and untrodden. When Winter dies, low at the sweet Spring’s feet Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.
Let the old life be covered by the new: The old past life so full of sad mistakes, Let it be wholly hidden from the view By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.
Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring Let the white mantle of repentance fling Soft drapery about it, fold on fold, Even as the new snow covers up the old.
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox
The sun is hotter than the top ledge in a steam bath; The ravine, crazed, is rampaging below. Spring — that corn-fed, husky milkmaid — Is busy at her chores with never a letup.
The snow is wasting (pernicious anemia — See those branching veinlets of impotent blue?) Yet in the cowbarn life is burbling, steaming, And the tines of pitchforks simply glow with health.
These days — these days, and these nights also! With eavesdrop thrumming its tattoos at noon, With icicles (cachectic!) hanging on to gables, And with the chattering of rills that never sleep!
All doors are flung open — in stable and in cowbarn; Pigeons peck at oats fallen in the snow; And the culprit of all this and its life-begetter– The pile of manure — is pungent with ozone.
To end with, I am sharing this song; actually a poem by India’s literary giant, polymath, educationist, humanitarian Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written in late 19th century – early 20th century , it has since been adapted into many plays and films. I share this version for several reasons; the singer has done a beautiful rendition of the original, it has subtitles in English for some of my readers & finally since this has excerpt is from a film and gives a glimpse of an Indian village setting.
Karen over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life are celebrating February as Reading Independent Publishers Month. There are of course several reasons to join this event, especially in a COVID 19 world, in which most such organizations are just keeping their head above water. My reasons for joining this event besides the usual support small organizations is that these publishers allow me to read a lot of Indian as well as other language literature, the ones that usually get overlooked in the more mainstream selections which are of course advertised more, available more easily and maybe easier on the budget. But reading events like these allow us to focus on alternatives and help us in inching along to becoming a little more wholistic in our approach and maybe consequently a little more aware and empathetic.
My selection for this month are two women authored books, writing under the shadow of two very different literary cultures and history, focusing of two different eras, yet managing to convey the same message.
The Many that I am is an edited anthology by Anungla Zoe Longkumer and is a collection of fiction, non-fiction, paintings, graphic art and poems from Nagaland, one of the eastern most states of India. Published by the independent publishers Zubaan (literally meaning tongue or voice), it is spear headed by the iconic scholar and historian Urvashi Butalia, whose work I reviewed a few months back and seeks to tell the stories of the woman in this easternmost wing of India. The uniqueness of this book and the Naga culture generally is that it has always been an oral culture; there was no script until the Baptist missionaries came along in 20th century, and introduced to the tribes of this region Christianity and the alphabet. The writing therefore is a relatively new phenomenon and these authors/ poets are perhaps the earliest forerunner of the written art in their geography, slowly building a history from a language not their own, trying to discover words, that describe their lives and reflect their feelings.
The book consists of several short stories and a few essays and several poems, some of them are English renditions of traditional songs passed down from one generation to another. The stories are mostly set in the present time, reflecting the difficult integration into global world, where some things simply may get lost or makes no sense. The narratives are primarily woven around the Naga women and the many facets of their lives. Among this hill tribe, in a traditionally patriarchal society, women are subjected to many kinds of torture, including rape and domestic violence. Yet, what comes across in most of the stories is the rebellion, resilience and the sheer audacity of the women in these tribes, to live, thrive and build a life of their own. Cut Off by Vishu Rita Krocha succinctly captures the history of the land and how intervention by women always leads to a more peaceful, amicable resolution. Old Man’s Story by Jungmayangla Longkumer describes the life of an unorthodox village woman who married a man 5 years younger to her and dedicated her life to making clay pots that would enable them to pay for the expensive education for their children. The stories of Martha’s Mother by Hekali Zhimomi and Vili’s Runaway Son by Abokali Jimomi, bring to the front the ingenuity and sheer unwavering faith of mothers, with limited resources, trying to map out better and safer lives for their children. The essay When Doors Open by Eyinbeni Humtsoe -Nienu talks about the small rebellion by the grandmother of the author, who would let her daughter, sneak out in the middle of the night to attend night school. This in turn allowed, the daughter, the author’s mother to get a clerical job with the government which paid for the author and her sibling’s education. Today the author is prolific writer as well a professor at one of the Indian universities. There are some wonderful poems that focus on identity and meaning of being a woman in a Naga society, like a No No No Woman by Rozumari Samsara and Self Portrait by Beni Sumer Yanthan.
The book needless to say was an eyeopener to me even though I belong the same country as the writers; but India is such a vast melting pot that we sometimes miss the very thing which is our own and such an integral part of the Indian identity and heritage. For this fact alone, I am so glad that works like these are being published by these spirited independent organizations. The glimpse of the culture and history that this collection brought of this remote eastern region of my country was both intriguing, increasing my curiosity to learn more and also more importantly, a reality check on how isolated is my understanding of my own land, living in urban metro with all the comforts of life home delivered. Infact among the many wonderful things about the book, the deep insights into the culture of the tribes that make up Nagaland is one of the strongest features of this book. All the writers have in their own way conveyed the cultural heritage that has been part of the fabric of this land, the coming of Christianity which after initial conflict with local tribal practises was integrated into the Naga society and the lure of modern city life that is taking people away from the traditional structures are poignantly brought out through this book. The selection is very comprehensive, covering a host of genres from fiction to poetry to essay to graphic art and explores a vast range of subjects from World War II, the separatist movement, the Christian missionary work and the domestic lives of the people. Each tale is very different from the other and yet held together by the running theme that underlies this collection – women narratives and their perspectives. What stood out to me more than anything else, is how these authors have taken the English language and crafted it into their own style; so, the writings are all in excellent comprehensible English, and yet it brings the flavour of Nagaland and her people; making it a very unique reading experience.
This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand cultures and conflict among cultures and the role women play in such a society, despite the patriarchal roots. It’s a brilliant and bold attempt by Zuban Publishers & Anungala Zoe Longkumer
I will follow up on the second book as part of this project in my next post.
I am exceedingly aware of my immense good fortune in being born into an erudite and liberal Hindu family that not only did not believe in discriminating between a boy and girl, but were positively feminists, even before the term became mainstream. I know just how easily I could have been born into a traditional Hindu household where the woman is deprived of basic Human Rights and lacks even elementary empowerment; however, growing up as a young girl and an adolescent, I did not think in those lines. I was aware of my entitlement but my peers and I all had an idea of how our lives were mapped out – education (graduate school being the very minimum), career, and then inevitably marriage and its addendums. What however happened was that woman of my generation or slightly older and a younger age groups, got that primer education, powerful jobs in corporate, government and other key areas and ended up NOT getting married. Many did of course, but many did not. In my graduate school class, we were a student body of 60 students in our particular degree; of which about 35 were women, of which 7 or so remain unmarried in the age bracket of 37 -39. It may not seem a lot, but seen from the lens of a traditional Indian society where marriage and motherhood are considered the epitome of womanhood, this figure is startling and interesting. And it’s just not my graduate school class; I have colleagues, friends, acquaintances, very educated, very successful, either remining to chose single or even becoming mother via adoption rather than embrace marriage. It is a unique phenomenon among the urban educated high middle-class population of India and someone somewhere needs to look into socio-economic moorings of this development.
It was thus an interesting surprise when I stumbled upon a work of non-fiction that seemed to address this, albeit in United States. All the Single Ladies – Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Ms. Traister is a well-known writer for New York magazine besides being a published author on several books about feminism and politics. Also Ms. Traister herself married later than her peers, I believe at the age of 35 and therefore from my perspective, she should know what she is talking about and with greatest curiosity I began to read this work. The book is divided into 10 Chapters along with a prologue and a conclusion. The author begins with explaining how her own experience and those of her friends coming of age as young adults in the shadow of Sex and the City and their subsequent lives, led her to study this group of young to middle age educated working women, who have not married and chosen to lead lives free of any such long term civil or religious commitment, with or without a child. She begins by introducing the powerful phenomena that is the new age single unmarried woman. She then takes a look at history including events like Civil war and works of such feminists like Susan B Anthony that set the ball rolling for creating environments that fostered the growth of this group of women. She then studied this group through comprehensive lenses as urban single woman with financial independence as we well as women who came from economically weaker sections. She studied the process of female friendships as one of strongest support system among this group as well the support structures like grocery delivery, take out food and help from neighbors that is not only allowing this group to thrive but also take up single parenthood. She delves into the issues of violence and security as well as the emotion turmoil that these women face as single women in a culture that is still wary, suspicious and not completely bought in to this choice. She does not shy away from mentioning the positives that come from healthy happy partnerships including better home environments for kids as well as more secure economic status; but she also provides comprehensive data to show that such partnerships are not common and many make a compromise that ends in more unhappiness in the expectation of better lives.
There are simply not enough good things that I can say about this book! To start with the research is meticulous and deep; it is hard to believe that Ms. Traister is not a trained academic but a journalist and a writer. And yet despite all this research, the language is crisp and succinct and the message is clear! The balanced approach is yet another factor that is to be appreciated in the book – she celebrates the rise of single women, their success and empowerment; however, the author does not shy away from factors like security or even better home conditions for children when both parents are available. Even in the vast range of people she interviews, her epilogue comments, clearly call out that while many are doing well, some are not and that is life. There is no unrealistic expectation of happily ever after, only a promise that there are opportunities more than ever of a better life. The inclusiveness of the book makes it a major departure from books of other such genre; Ms. Traister tries to include all spectrum of women in her study and interviews – financially independent, those living on some state support, single women, single women with kids, Asians, African Americans, Whites, academics, clerks, writers – they are all there. Her narrative tries to include every kind of single woman and largely succeeds. The most interesting thing about the book is though it focuses on the rise of Single Women in US, barring certain regulations and political events, her story can be replicated to almost all single women across the world, who have some modicum of independence. Her story telling is universal and resonates across many cultures, with some caveats of course. Finally, despite being a serious study on women, the book is replete with wry humor, which makes for wonderful change of pace from a very thoughtful reading. For instance, while speaking of financial independence of women, she quotes Susan B Anthony, to make a point of why women who earn their own money and buy things with that money, signals an epoch moment of liberation and empowerment – “When Susan B. Anthony began earning a salary as an elementary school teacher, at twenty-six, she had already turned down two marriage proposals in her quest to remain unmarried. She purchased for herself a fox-fur muff, a white silk hat, and a purple wool dress and wrote home, wondering if her peers might not “feel rather sad because they are married and cannot have nice clothes.” To end the book, nowhere is an anti-marriage or anti -men; the only thing Ms. Traister tries to do is de-stigmatize the notion of single women who in Mitt Rommey’s words “miss out on so much of life” and instead not missing out on life; she tries to showcase that such women with independent finances and support structures are making for good life for themselves, throwing over the yokel of the term of “spinsters”.