March End Notes….

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—

To March by Emily Dickenson

February End Notes…..

Its the end of the second month of the New Year and if we are standing on the brink of third month, can it be really be called a new year anymore? Does the newness of time wear off after some time? But is not the start of day, a new day and maybe in terms of time, we never really lose the newness? I would like to think so; there seems to be such possibilities is this kind of belief!

And speaking of possibilities, February was a great month in expanding and exploring new material for reading, very different from January! There were several interesting and thought provoking reads this month, along with a few, what-the-hell-was-the-author thinking bookish mishaps! This is how February reading month finally looked like –

I am glad to have had some some variety in my books this past month, with a few non fiction, one play and an Indian author reads. I really enjoyed Valmiki’s Women and Anna and her Daughters as well as re-reading The Thursday Murder Club. I have a LOT to think about after reading Humankind by Rutger Bergman and will try and post about it soon! March looks to be similarly fulfilling, I have another #ReadIndies 2022 book finishing up for Karen & Lizzy’s event ( so relieved they extended the deadline till March 15th ). I have also finally gotten hold off Amor Towles’s latest book ( not latest anymore, but you know what I mean ) and Lincoln Highway seems to hold on to all the promises of a Amor Towles’s book; history, deep insightful emotions wrapped in a great story! I am also reading an extremely interesting revisionist history, called The Dawn of Everything by Dr. David Graeber and David Wengrow. And I need to also complete my long overdue Classic Club Dare 2.0 reading, The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens!

February has also been kind of sick month ( Yes! Chemo side effects is still rocking & rolling ) but I still managed to have fun and do the things I needed or wannted to do.

February marks the end of winter and the start of spring in our part of the world and naturally, this is a cause for celebration! The festival is called Basant Panchami , Basant meaning Spring, Panchami refers to the 5th day in the lunar fortnight of the Hindu calendar. The day also marks the occasion of Saraswati Pujo; Goddess Saraswati is the patron God of knowledge, wisdom, literature and art. Naturally, she is one of my most favorite among the pantheon of Hindu Gods ( Yes, we have several choices here, God of Power, God Destruction, God of Wealth, God of Success; you name it, we have it! ) and we celebrate this festival every year! Some pictures of the “Pujo” , the worship ceremony and the special food that is cooked on the occasion – Kichudi, it is mixture of Rice and legumes, cooked with spices and clarified butter, some tomato chutney ( Sweet) , a side preparation of a unique vegetable dish made of 5 winter vegetables without onion or garlic and finally, the pièce de résistance  – Hilsa fried fish. The East Indian culture in India, offers fish for all auspicious occasion and Hilsa is consider the queen of the fresh water fish in the Indian Subcontinent, available only for a few months in the year and tasting like heaven! It is offered at this festival and will not be eaten again until the monsoon season sets in!

This year 7th February marked what would have been the 49th marriage anniversary of my parents and their 58 years of being together. They met through my Aunt ( my father’s sister ) who was my mum’s friend. They were complete opposites in everything they did or liked from books to food to travels. They loved music, Hindustani Classical to Jazz ( only people I know who went to all the hip Jazz clubs that were swinging in Kolkata in 70s) and hosting dinner for friends and impulsive travels. They weathered storms and patched up their differences and had their moments. Even death could not keep them apart too long; Baba followed Ma just 5 years after she passed away! The first photo was taken in Sikkim, then an independent Kingdom in 1973, a few months after their wedding. The second was taken in 1993, when we were on a family vacation to the Himalayas.

Food was always, a major love of my parent’s life and though they liked diametrically opposite cuisines, eating was always an occasion to be enjoyed. We celebrated their anniversary with Chicken Kati Rolls. Wikipedia describes this food the best; it says, Kati Rolls s a street-food dish originating from Kolkata, West Bengal. In its original form, it is a skewer roasted kebab wrapped in a paratha bread.

My phone has been given me trouble lately ( like a year!) but I loath to change gadgets, so I have been dragging the poor thing along for a while. I could not hear anything, the apps took forever to open and the display screen gave away and yet I continued using it. Finally it decided commit hara kiri and simply not work and I had to get a new phone. Mandate in the family, that we take one selfie, every time, my sister or I get a new phone and this one marked the start of this gadget journey!

My sister and I have been doing Sunday movie nights religiously these past few months and one of the best films I have seen lately was Harishchandra’s Factory. The film tells the story of the founding father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke and traces the life of his and his wife’s lives during the time they tried to put together, the very first film of India. Beautifully shot, using both voice and non voice narrative, to move the story forward, capturing the life and times of India in that era authentically. The nature of the subject could have made the story telling into a depressing pedagogic film, instead it shimmers with joy and humor and is a treat for the soul!

February despite several hiccups, turned out quite all right, and it is one more month down in the goal calendar! I am super excited about March as its my sister’s birthday and we will have family visiting! But for now leaving you all with one of my most favorite poems for February by Hilaire Belloc –

The winter moon has such a quiet car
That all the winter nights are dumb with rest.
She drives the gradual dark with drooping crest,
And dreams go wandering from her drowsy star.
Because the nights are silent, do not wake:
But there shall tremble through the general earth,
And over you, a quickening and a birth.
The sun is near the hill-tops for your sake.

The latest born of all the days shall creep
To kiss the tender eyelids of the year;
And you shall wake, grown young with perfect sleep,
And smile at the new world, and make it dear
With living murmurs more than dreams are deep.
Silence is dead, my Dawn; the morning’s here.

The Epic Other Women…..

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.

An Old Lake…..

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.

Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

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Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

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Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!

 

The End of January

The first month of the now not so new year is over and with it, some of newness of 2019. One month into the year, work is as crazy as ever, like I never went away and the usual cycle of Dad in the hospital made me realize the more things change, the more the remain the same! But the key is not to give into the doom-gloom but believe and hang on and with some good friends and great books, life is not all that unmanageable!

So what did I read this first month of 2019?

Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 by Joyce Dennys (Thank You Cleo for the great recommendation!)

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How happy we were, and how little we realized how nice it was to be lazy and happy, without fear and anxiety and horror knocking at the back of one’s brain like a little gnome with a hammer.

Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise

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I’m gonna have to get my eyes checked. I can’t see crap until it’s right in front of me

The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’ Neil

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“I am as flawed as any” he said

“I know, I see you, you know!”

Early Indians by Tony Joseph

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When the first group of modern humans walked into India, perhaps no more than a few hundred people in groups of twenty or twenty-five, trekking all the way from the Arabian peninsula over hundreds of years or perhaps even a thousand or more years, did they have a cosmology of their own that tried to explain the inexplicable? And did they have any inkling that they were entering a special place that more than a billion of their descendants would one day call their home

So I read, one classic, two popular fiction and one non fiction! I can unequivocally state, of all the 4, Joyce Dunning’s book was the best and maybe for the month of February, I should stick to tried and tested, aka, Classics.

Speaking of Classics, I am reading, Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope as part of and Jane and Cleo have joined me for a read along! This book was a personal favorite of Trollope himself and is considered to be one of the best introductions to his work! It is a chunkster at 700 pages, but we take it slow and easy through February and if need be March! So join us for this Victorian sojourn and together, we can enrich our minds and have some fun while doing it!

 

 

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!

SD

Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

And In September….

September is here, which means, October and by that extension, Fall is around the corner and atleast for next couple of months, Winter, lovely Winter is in season!! Yay!! Another Summer gone and another year is coming round! Time does fly , but I honestly cannot say that I want to go back to January 2017 and would much rather move to December 2017! But there are still some months to go and some more books to read!

As I have repeated time and time again, this is has been an overworked year where work pressure and studying for a certain certification has taken away a number of reading hours from me and therefore once again my reading plans are limited and I am leaving options to read basis my mood and level of tiredness, to make some real time reading plans. Having said that there are some books, that I am already in the middle of or read alongs that need to be completed and at the very least those, I can list down to make some sort of sketchy plans!

To begin with, there is the marvelous The Pickwick Paper Read Along hosted by O, heading for its conclusion soon! When I had first read this wonderful novel by Charles Dickens, I had not liked it much; but this re-read, maybe because of the timing or whatever, I really really loved and now look forward to the last few chapters! I also continue with Yasmin Khan’s The Raj at Work  – A People’s History of India’s Second World War. Just to make things a bit more interesting, I have decided to pair it with The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara. I also recently stated reading the much appreciated and  applauded history of mankind, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and am finding it a very interesting read,with some very interesting and unique hypothesis. Finally, Jane as usual got me interested in some little known works and I have downloaded Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith and The Rector by the brilliant Margaret Oliphant. That is all I have mapped out as reading plans for the month.

This is the month of many Hindu festivals, so I am hoping for a little more of time off and a little more reading progress than what the previous months have shown, but knowing how things go, I am keeping this optimistic prognosis as a prognosis and we will see how things pan out as they pan out. I the meanwhile, I leave you with some shots of monsoon in India, specifically, of the grey skies and the blue black ocean, along the western coast of India, where I spent glorious, 10 days road tripping through last week!

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The Shadow Of The Moon Read Along

Hello! Hello! Its been some time since I last posted, but as many of you already know I was traveling all over the western coast of the country and once I came back, which was only Monday, it took some time to settle in to the everyday! Anyhow I am back and I now share my long overdue post on the one of my most favorite books of all time, The Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye!

A year back I remember reading this novel as I always do as a ritual in the month of May and having a discussion with Cleo, hard-selling the book to her as a must read! A year later, May was again round the corner, I popped in to check with her if she was still interested in a Read Along and Cleo, being the awesome enthusiast she is, agreed, with the only stipulation that we begin in June as she had way too much to do in the month of May. Very soon the word got around and Helen and Yvonne also joined in the for the Read Along and we were all set to go back in time to 1857 India.

The novel is set in the events leading upto the Indian Revolt of 1857 against the British. Winter de Ballesteros, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman Marcos de Ballesteros and Sabrina, the granddaughter of Earl of Ware, is born in the house of her aunt, Juanita, the sister of Marcos who had married a Indian nobleman, the son one of the oldest friends of her father, who had settled in Oudh, the North Eastern royal state of India, as an adviser to the Nawab or the ruler of the state. Sabrina on a visit to India with her aunt and uncle had fallen in love with the dashing Marcos and married him against the wish of her doting grandfather. Sabrina however dies post giving birth to her daughter, named Winter after the winter season in her beloved Ware, and a grieving Marcos, after handing over the affairs to his sister and Winter’s uncle sets off for the ill fated Afghan campaign and is one of the many casualties. Juanita grieving for her dead brother sets about sending letters to the now very old Earl of Ware who was appointed guardian to little Winter by both her parents.  The death of his beloved granddaughter had softened the Earl and he sends for his little great granddaughter from India, but letters across oceans take time and Winter spends her formative years in India, in Gulab Mahal, Juanita’s house and only reaches the shores of England as a child of 7. Homesick and lonely, she pines for the home she ever knew, and the unkind treatment she receives from everybody except her Grandfather retreat more and more into the world she thought she truly belongs to. When she is 11, she meets Conway Barton, a distant relation who is one is way to India to take up a position in the Commissioner of Lunjore.  Conway Barton, is a unprincipled man who seeks to make his fortune in any way possible. Realizing that Winter was an heiress, he sets about trying to be pleasant to her, speaking of India, a country he detests, in the most colorful way. He approaches the now very old Earl seeking a betrothal with Winter, followed by marriage when she is older. The Earl worried about having no one to care for Winter after him and impressed by the display of affection showed by Barton, consents to the engagement. Conway Barton thus leaves for India secure in his knowledge of early wealth and Winter passes her years hoping the years would fly until she could be married to the kind man who would take her back to her true home. The years did pass, but Conway now fat, debauched drunkard feels unable to face his fiance and her august relations, for the fear that they may break of the engagement after looking at him, instead sends his assistant, Captain Alex Randall, to fetch Winter to India, so that he could coerce her into marrying him, in the absence of her friends and relations. Captain Alex Randall, a man of immense talent and integrity has very little respect for the commissioner whom he considers a fool and is irritated to be saddled with the task during his furlong. He arrives at Ware to realize that the Earl is dead and Winter’s relatives do not care for the kind of man she is marrying as long as she is out of their way. Winter herself seemed to have a glorified image of Conway Barton and refuses to listen to any description of the kind of man he truly is , that Ale wants to convey. They set off for India and thus start of a chain of events, unexpected by both, especially as the cloud of rebellion gathers on the horizon of the Indian plains, long held together by John Company.

What can I say about this wonderful book that I have not said before? Being biased, I always found the plot to be tight, with deep insights into Indian culture and traditions which is woven well with the suspenseful unfolding of the drama of the rebellion. The history is constantly and subtly interlaced with the story to give the reader an understanding of the events that led to the rebellion. The characters drawn by Kaye are very life like and real. Again being biased and having been  in love with Captain Alex Randall, since I was introduced to him at the age of 15 and all these almost 14 years, he remains to be one of the most enduring fictional heroes of all times. I love the complexity of his character, his ability to look at both sides of the arguments as well the way he was torn by what was his duty and what was his abiding love. His character showed off the very best of British India administrators, men who loved the country wholly with all her faults and worked hard to improve the condition of her people. I used to like Winter a lot more at the age of 15 than at 34, and now see her a little obsessed -India,  Conway , Alex; but she is still an insightful and gracious character and is a good predecessor to Anjuli Bai, the heroine of Kaye’s The Far Pavilions. As always, I love the supporting cast of Kaye’s books, for the complete and utter devotion of Niaz to the torn loyalties of Ameera, the daughter of Juanita, cousin to Winter and daughter of two worlds, to the fast living Lou Cotter who lives through harshest of conditions and fights off bravely, for the love of a child, not her own, by birth, but by heart! But the greatest of all characters is the character of India. MM Kaye, born and brought up in this land, brings all her knowledge understanding and love for the land into her book and India comes live in the pages as we are taken through the crowded and colorful bazaars of Lunjore, the never ending plains and jungles of North India and the glamorous balls of Calcutta,the imperial capital of British India. The country comes alive from the pages of the book and dances in all her majesty for the reader to soak in a time long gone by!

Needless to say, I LOVE this book! Several re-reading and much abused paperback has not diminished by joy of once again revisiting the people and times of Lunjore in 1857. However, the Read Along introduced me to a whole new appreciation of the book as I tried to provide some insight into the actual history of the country for my reading buddies to find references and better understanding of things, which I, an Indian, take for granted. I had some wonderful discussions along the way, which opened me to prospective I was not aware off and if possible, made the experience of reading this book even richer.  A big hearty thank you to Cleo, Helen and Yvonne for not only coming with me on a leap of faith for a ride down uncertain premises but also for bearing through not one but two of boring history lessons and the joining in for a fantastic and brilliant discussion. You read there review, here and here!