June End Notes

And just like that, 6 months of 2022 are over! I am quite undecided if I like the fact that I am moving forward in time or I regret the passing of time. The pre 2021 me, would have loved the fact that Summers were finally receding and soon Autumn will be here. The post 2021 me also is really excited about Autumn and Winters as always; but since being diagnosed with Cancer, I know that every additional day, a day when I am healthy , as in not Cancer sick, is a gift. And I want to hold this time in my hand and stretch it out as long as possible, because I still have so much to do and so many things to experience and I want to do it all.

Speaking of doing it all, June was a tad bit more managed despite 2 solid weeks of being Chemo sick. I got a lot more done – read more, wrote more and worked on Insta page a lot more. Also managed to socialize and get a huge work project off the ground. Getting things done has always been a thing with me and with all the sickness and low energy that comes from all the funky medicines, I feel especially chuffed for the months, when I am able to get more than my new usual done!

I completed 4 books in June and started off on a few others which I hope to complete in July. My TBR lists keeps growing, but that’s not new and let’s be honest – there is something infinitely joyous in speculating about what book to read next. It’s like being served all the best desserts in a platter and then you pick and choose per your mood and taste! Absolute bonanza!

Reading in June was very rewarding! Re-reading The Book Thief is always such a perfect joy! I really enjoyed the very cleverly crafted murder mystery of The Appeal. And non fiction reading for the the month was beyond brilliant with the travel memoirs of Dervla Murphy and her daughter spending the Winter of 1972 in the desolate mountains deserts of Baltistan in Himalayas. The Scared Geography was a very well written scholarly book on Hindu mythology and the history and culture of pilgrimage of India and how this forms the core identity of India, well before British imposed a western concept. The reading good fortune continues early in July and am in-between several good books with a few more planned over the next few weeks!

June was a also a month of a LOT of socializing. There were book buying expeditions, birthdays of friends and then I was very fortunate to be invited for a book launch of an author, who has since become a friend and whose book I reviewed in my last post.

June was primarily very very hot (it is every year but this was exceptionally so) but I survived thanks to a drink called Aam Panna. Its a cooling drink made out of raw mangoes that are roasted and then the pulp mixed with water and spices. My sister and aunt also cooked a lot of typical Bengali delicacies over the month. My sister cooked what is called Dry mutton and my aunt cooked Egg Devils, which are very different from the Scottish version and made out of eggs and potatoes stuffing and deep fried. ( Yes, once in a while its ok! ) So the eating this month was especially GOOD!

The month was busy and there was of course constant illness to deal with; but despite all the sickness and all the petty annoyances as I near my 1 year anniversary since the diagnosis and surgery, I can say from the very bottom of my heart, that I am supremely grateful to have made it here! And I leave you with these July thoughts –

This is the place that I love the best,
A little brown house, like a ground-bird's nest,
Hid among grasses, and vines, and trees,
Summer retreat of the birds and bees.

The tenderest light that ever was seen
Sifts through the vine-made window screen--
Sifts and quivers, and flits and falls
On home-made carpets and gray-hung walls.

All through June the west wind free
The breath of clover brings to me.
All through the languid July day
I catch the scent of new-mown hay.

The morning-glories and scarlet vine
Over the doorway twist and twine;
And every day, when the house is still,
The humming-bird comes to the window-sill.

In the cunningest chamber under the sun
I sink to sleep when the day is done;
And am waked at morn, in my snow-white bed,
By a singing bird on the roof o'erhead.

Better than treasures brought from Rome,
Are the living pictures I see at home--
My aged father, with frosted hair,
And mother's face, like a painting rare.

Far from the city's dust and heat,
I get but sounds and odors sweet.
Who can wonder I love to stay,
Week after week, here hidden away,
In this sly nook that I love the best--
This little brown house like a ground-bird's nest?

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Once Upon a Time in India….

This week Karen and Simon are hosting another one of their amazing reading events – the 1954 Club. I love these  events as they force me to read outside my genre and explore more literary styles and authors. However with frequent Chemo side effects days ( where each part of my body felt like it belonged to someone else ) and work being ridiculously crazy again, I was not sure if I would be able to read, let alone finish something in a week. But I did manage and here I am posting a review only one day late!!

I went through the list of all books published in 1954 and after much deliberation ( there were many great publications that year ) I decided to pick up Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. The book blurb did not appeal to – another story about poverty in India but something about the book felt that this was an important read. Also I had been curious to read Kamala Markandaya for years. She was the first Indian author to write in English and one of the most premier writers of modern India. Therefore with the idea of now or never, I plunged ahead with this book which her first novel.

The story is narrated by an old woman called Rukmani, the youngest and educated daughter of the village headsman and follows her life after her marriage to Nathan , a tenant farmer. Nathan is very clearly lower in the social ladder than Rukmani but he proves to be a kind and thoughtful husband and together the couple start building a life together. A daughter named Ira, is soon born to the couple but the much desired male offsprings until years later when Dr. Kensington, a British doctor who had treated Rukmani’s mother gives her medication. Soon Rukmani has 6 sons but providing for the children becomes a struggle but Nathan and Rukmani make do until a new tannery factory is set up near their village and things begin to turn.

The plot is exactly the reason why I was not initially interested in reading this novel. Set somewhere between 1930s to 1950s India, the novel pivots on the beaten track of the struggles of farming community in India. In fact there were slew of novels that were published during this time that focused on this theme , some considered modern classics of Indian literature. There is no doubt that this was an important subject; until the Land Reform laws and the Green Revolution, farmers struggled between debt and starvation thanks to the gratuitous commercialization of land to produce only profitable crops like indigo by the British colonizers. Most these British colonizers and traders were more interested in making a quick profit, forcing farmers to grow crops that will not feed the populace and then sell them at pittance. This kind of brutal exploitation lasted for a few hundred years until India gained her independence and along with it a horrifying legacy from those years – huge fiscal deficits with majority of her people living below the poverty line. This was important theme for us to understand our past but I had read enough of this plot line and was not keen to take up another harrowing read especially when ill and irritated. But this where I made a mistake in underestimating the power and ability of Ms. Markandaya. The story does follow the struggles of Rukmani and her husband but the book is filled with hope and simple joys. Even when things are at the lowest, there is an effort to live and live to the best one can and to plan for a better tomorrow. The genius of Ms. Markandaya comes out strongest in her ability to portray this philosophy without sentimentality or dramatics; there are no miracles or swooping rescues from a knight in white armor, rather like real life if things can go bad, they do! But she weaves her story through the small everyday actions that actually adds value to life and the strength of character that resolves on never giving up. She captures the struggle between the old world and the new rising industrial world accurately; the change in societal order and mores are depicted subtly without getting pedantic or going into any ism. There is a nostalgia for the older more simpler way of life, but that is all it is and also a realistic acceptance of what the future would be like  The characters are superbly etched out – Rukmani , not a loud character or even markedly extraordinary, shines bright through her quiet courage, her ability to love and the complete lack of judgement when choices are forced on the family. She is way ahead of her years in understanding the value of education and more importantly, in accepting that sometimes life happens and a straight jacketed black and white is not the correct lens to see things. Her husband Nathan is a perfect foil, dignified and self reliant. He goes through his life with wisdom and kindness. The thing that makes his character stand out is his constant display of emotional intelligence; not only in accepting and respecting a wife who is a social superior in every way but also the ways of his children, who carve out lives very differently from his own life and beliefs. The supporting cast and crew  also are brilliantly drawn with each character standing independently, a remarkable achievement, considering the novel is action packed and is only 200 pages. The narrative is simple and linear but never for a moment does the pace flag; while I understood the plot arch, it was written so well and so tightly, that I finished the book in one sitting. And finally there is gorgeous prose of Ms. Markandaya , both sparse and lyrical, capturing the country and it’s culture vividly, bringing it alive in all its beauty and beliefs.

I am so immensely glad that I read this novel. Beautiful, enriching and memorable, one of the best books I have read lately! Exactly why despite everything I make it a point to be part of these reading events!

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.

The Choices We Make…..

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.

January End Notes…

And just like that the first month of 2022 is at it’s end. This is what I love about time, it passes; it is also what I abhor about time, it passes. But I am glad to see the end of this month; I have some personal aspirations that are targeted to happen in March 2023, and now I am literally counting months and days! Besides January has never been a favorite of mine, but it usually treats me better than February , March and the lot until atleast August. So I am happy it is over and saddened that it is over!

Regardless of my sentiments, the fact remains that on ground, I did have a practical and productive month, despite being sick ( Chemo side effects now kicking in right and proper and expected to last until the end of the year!) where I accomplished plenty of reading and writing and cooking and managed to stay afloat at a work place increasingly going crazy! Thus, I thought it would be a good idea to note some of these things down, to remember the good instead of everything that is mundane or even irritating.

As I had mentioned in one my previous posts, I am not doing any kind of GoodReads Goal set reading, but I did think it was kind of important to track what genre I am writing, what century, language etc. so I started maintaining a simple everyday Excel tracker ( Yes! The Project Managers never die, they just find new use for MS Excel! ) And this is what January reading adventures looks like –

It is so evident that I am reading only English and mostly fiction, that I need to branch out more and soon. Good part is that I have few non-fiction which are all work in progress, including Humankind by Rutger Bergman, Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard (though I do not think I will finish this soon or at times ever!) and Bullshit Jobs – A Theory by David Graeber. Hopefully February should look a bit more varied! Of all the books I read this month, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy easily my most outstanding reads of January; though I will always love this little known but wonderful novel called Welcome To The Great Mysterious by Lorna Landvik that always makes me cry in a good way! Which Way by Theodora Benson was also a very interesting read, especially considering it was written in 1931 and I should write a review soon. As is obvious, I had very good reading month and that I hope that sets the tone of my reading for rest of the year!

After all the torpedoes I have been dodging the last few years, I am also eternally grateful for my simple, everyday things that give me joy even if they are nothing to write home about. Below I share some of those moments, that gave me great comfort and pleasure, all through this month!

The new JBL Speaker that my Sister bought & on which we have been listening to Hindustani Classical, Jazz and good old Bollywood songs through the day!
This calendar which consists of selection of hand painted pictures by my very talented Cousin, depicting scenes from the places she visited, including our combined trips! This first one is of Nako Village in Spiti, India, in the deep Himalayas, which she, my sister and I spent exploring a few years ago over 2 long glorious weeks!
My best meals this month have all been home cooked and all incredibly delicious and many shared with friends and family making them even more special
The Winter Sun in my part of India is just wonderful – healing and warming! Soaking up the sun while reading some of my favorites has been one of the most memorable moments of this month!

In terms of viewing, I am not much of Netflixing type of an individual. But one Sunday evening, I had great fun binge watching “Kaun Banega Shikharawati” with my sister. A 10 part series exploring the relationship between 4 royal sisters and their father, set in modern day India was funny, sensitive and thoroughly zany! It included some of the best actors of the country with a laugh out loud script and some memorable characters!

That then is how my January looked like; and while work continues to be WORK and health indifferent, some good food, some good books and things like the sun and the music has seen me through it all! So to end, a short poem on the month –

For January I give you vests of skins,

And mighty fires in hall, and torches lit;

Chambers and happy beds with all things fit;

Smooth silken sheets, rough furry counterpanes;

And sweetmeats baked; and one that deftly spins

Warm arras; and Douay cloth, and store of it;

And on this merry manner still to twit

The wind, when most his mastery the wind wins.

Or issuing forth at seasons in the day,

Ye’ll fling soft handfuls of the fair white snow

Among the damsels standing round, in play:

And when you all are tired and all aglow,

Indoors again the court shall hold its sway,

And the free Fellowship continue so.

January by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Once Upon a Time in Russia…..

It was a cold December Saturday afternoon, and I was hunting around for a substantial read. I wanted to read something in-depth, something fulfilling with layered narrative but could not find the right book. I was reaching for a Austen but then changed my mind and tried reading Selected Letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and though this was a book I had been really looking forward to, it was not working for me. So I was sitting blankly and gazing at my Black Penguin Classics shelf and for no reason I suddenly picked up and started re-reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The idea was that it will not work for me either and I can probably stop in a while. But somehow I kept turning page after page and yes, there were days when I would not pick it up because I needed time to process it all. But every time I went back to it, I was again turning page after page!

The tale is too well known for me to add anything new. But for those may not have read it, here is brief synopsis. The story opens with chaos reigning supreme in the Oblonsky household; Dolly Oblonksy has discovered the affairs of her husband Stepan Oblonsky and is preparing to go back to her parent’s household. Stepan is apologetic but incapable of doing anything else and is greatly relieved when his sister Anna, married to Alexei Karenin, a senior and a powerful statesman to help mend the rift. Anna is a beautiful, graceful, intelligent and a glittering star in the St. Petersburg society, has traveled to Moscow in the company of Countess Vronskaya, a rich old lady, whose son Count Alexei Vronsky, a friend of Stepan Oblonksy is at the station to receive his mother and meets Stepan and Anna, the latter for the first time. Count Vronksy is a cavalry officer and the star of the Moscow society who many think will go far. He is currently a favorite in the Shcherbatskaya household, especially with the youngest daughter Kitty who is also Dolly Oblonksy’s sister and their mother. It is hoped that Count Vronksy will make a proposal to Kitty who believes herself to be in love with him and turns down the proposal of Konstantin “Kostya” Levin, an old friend of Stepan Oblonsky and a landowner and farmer and a radical thinker. Anna in the meanwhile is able to convince Dolly to stay on and give Stepan a chance and having restored the equilibrium of the household attends a fashionable ball where she meets Count Vronsky again which leads to a tumultuous results.

I had read Anna Karenina the summer before I started college. I was all of 17 and very sure of everything and a mistress in understanding of one and all. I read the book and all I remember at the end of it was wondering why is it considered such a literary masterpiece? I did not like Anna and could not find sufficient reasons to dislike her husband and was irritated by Levin. This was one book I was not going back to and I stuck to that resolution for over 20 years, until the December afternoon. I still do not like Anna, I get that she in a loveless marriage but I did not and still do not understand why she married Karenina in the first place. And while he was not the love of her life, he was still a good husband, a good provider and I could find no reason to dislike him. But now I am less judgmental, I can understand her anguish and insecurities about Vronksy , though I am still not fully reconciled with her act of vengeance. But what this re-reading brought me was the understanding that this novel is so much more than Anna and there are so many complex layers to this narrative and an very immersive but non romanticized but gentle telling of the the then Russian society and state.

I loved the story of Kitty and Levin and felt sad for Dolly. I rejoiced in the humor of Prince  Shcherbatskaya and found much to appreciate in the nuanced characters of the secondary actors like Varvara Andreevna, who becomes Kitty’s friend at the German Spa and Agafya Mikhailovna, Levin’s former nurse. I was caught up in their tales and felt myself restlessly turning the page to know what finally happens to Varvara at the mushroom picking. Most of all I loved the rich socio-politico narrative of Russia that is presented. There are no high flown virtues attributed the newly freed serfs; they like every human being are a mix of good and bad, resistant to new changes but opening their homes and hearts. The same could be said about the noblemen, especially the new ones growing up in the light of European enlightenment, who want to bring modern education and farming to their former serfs, thinking of these actions as a moral obligation on their part, without wholly understanding their people or their customs. There are no black villains or white heroes; just people in grey who are trying to do their best per their understanding or even despite their understanding. This is especially evident in the way Tolstoy describes Anna’s downward spiral and final breakdown. While I still did not like her, I found sympathy for the way a charming and confident woman devolved into despair and irrationality. This kind of narrative is the testimony of the brilliance of Tolstoy; you don’t like her but you cannot help feeling sad about her. And woven into all of this is the gentle telling of some basic human values – of love, of camaraderie, of human happiness and perhaps its ephemeral constantly changing nature and finally that happiness cannot really be built on grounds made of other’s sufferings.

I now want to re-read War and Peace again; I had loved it everytime I read it and now feel will do so even more!

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.

So I Have Been Reading …..

September is here and thank goodness the cooler weather has began to set in my part of the world! Things are so much better in Autumn and Winter, atleast in northern Indian plains. September also means that the RIP ( Reader’s Imbibing Peril) reading event is underway with RIPVII hosted by Heather @capriousreader and Andi Miller-Dunn @estellasrevenge, taking over from Carl V Anderson at Stainless Steel Droppings, the original mastermind of this event. The idea is get in the groove of the fall season & all ghosty, witchy spirit by reading/listening/watching everything that is scary, gothic, mystery, thrilling, horrific and ghostly. The event is running from September 1st to October 31st with some amazing channel discussions on Discord, a Bingo event and a Shirley Jackson’s (The Sundial) read along in October.

I have always participated in this event, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But this year, despite everything, has been a great reading year and I have great hopes of reading quite a bit through this event. In this month so far, I have managed to read the following –

Sovereign by CJ Sansome – A Matthew Shardlake mystery, from an author and series that I totally love. Set in Tudor England, after the suppression of the Pilgrim of Grace rebellion, Henry VIII is visiting Yorkshire, the center of the revolt, to seek submission from the people. Among his vast retinue, is Master Shardlake with Jack Barak by the request of Archbishop Crammer to support petitions to the King and other legal matters that are being put forward by Yorkshire people for King’s review. He is also expected to undertake a secret mission of ensuring the safe transportation of a prisoner from Yorkshire to the Tower in London. Things however do not go as planned and a murder leads to revelation of certain documents that may plunge the country again in civil unrest as it questions the very legitimacy of the Tudor rulers and their birth. This book is as always with all the books in the series, replete with details of history that are either overlooked or widely unknown. The author captures the the 16th century England will all it’s luxury and all its poverty beautifully. Despite being a 600 plus page novel, the narrative keeps the reader engaged with knotty plot twists and interesting characters. An excellent read from beginning to end.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I guess with Fairies and magic, this book is a bit stretch into the RIP collection, but I went with it anyway. There has already been so much said about this novel, about the conflict between two magicians in 19th century England that traverses through Napoleonic Wars and other such historic events, that I will only share my views. The plot while simplistic, has been wedded with a lot of imagination and creative writing to make the reading complex and rich. There is a lot of wit and the old world charm that comes alive in the presentation style. The slightly academic way of writing with footnotes and stand alone stories of magical past in England brings an additional depth to reading and reflects the love of the artist for the art. However for all the details and crafty telling of the story, I still felt that it did not merit 1000 pages; the characters were thin and it was difficult to understand some of their motivation. There seems to be on the part of the author an effort to leave some sub plot & character futures unanswered ( in hope of sequel?) but they just do not bring that effect & does not make one intrigued about what happened next. It is a good read, but hardly one which would merit a re-read

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights , Museo del Prado, Madrid (Public Domain)

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu – This was my second reading of this novella and I must say that this time I enjoyed it far more than my first attempt. Young Laura, the daughter of an Englishman and an Austrian lady, leads a happy but lonely life in the remote village in Austria. Their peaceful everyday existence is interrupted when a carriage meets with an accident, and Laura’s father is left in charge of a young woman, Carmilla, who seems to be hurt, while her “mother” continues the journey in the carriage. Soon there are people dying in the village and Laura becomes aware of certain strange and embarrassing emotions that Carmilla beings to express. The original vampire story ( Bram Stoker’s Dracula was more than 2 decades away) the narrative is unconventional, filled with eerie scenes and tensions with an element of feminine sexuality, which must have made for an adventurous creative writing in early 19th century. Its a brilliant piece of fiction, gripping and unnerving.

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell – This is my very first reading of a Ruth Rendell and it also happens to be the first book in the Inspector Wexford series. An ordinary housewife Margaret Parson is reported missing by her husband and a day later, her dead body near the woods around a farm, someway from the town where she lives. Inspector Wexford and his team start investigating the crime which seems to have no motivation until, he discovers some expensive edition of classical poetry in the attic of the dead woman, all signed by a person named Doon. After all the swinging adventures of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this very British, very practical, very classical detective story made for wonderful read with interesting changes in the plot and a sharp, edgy narrative. My book carried an afterword by Ms. Rendell herself, and the key to enjoying this mystery written in 1964 is like the author herself says, to read it as a historical fictions instead of a contemporary writing. A completely enjoyable book!

White Magic – Russian Emigre Tales of Mystery and Terror edited & translated by Muireann Maguire. The book contains a wide variety of tales from the first three decades of 20th century, capturing the urban as well rural stories set in the backdrop of both the pre revolution and post revolution Russia. The short stories are eerie, gothic and some extremely strange. The Russian landscape that brings with it not only awe inspiring magnificence, along with deep fore brooding and sad beauty is wonderfully captured through all the short stories all while retaining a certain sentimentality and sensitivity despite the running theme of horror.

This is what I have been reading lately! I have a few more CJ Sansom’s lined up for this event, as well a re-reading of the brilliantly written The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I found this amazing anthology (thanks to a great review by Ali) of Murder Mysteries with the theme of books, Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edward that is also in my next reading queue. Outside of the RIP books, I am reading a powerful novel, based on true events in 1940s Germany, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Also based on an excellent review by Karen, I am reading the gorgeously written, part biography, part travelogue, Footsteps by Richard Holmes. In October I plan to participate in the 1976 Club hosted by Karen & Simon (yet to decide a book), besides reading And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov as part of Classical Club’s October reading event ( scary books or books that you are scared to read; I went with the latter). In November, among other things I will join Brona’s AusReading Month, though again I am not yet sure of what I will read,

This year so far has been a year of reading through everything that comes my way – fiction, history, travelogues, politics and I have enjoyed the journey immensely. As the holiday season comes closer, I hope to make the reading journey more interesting, reading more variety and more unusual voices, atleast that is the plan! What are your reading plans for the remaining year?

Some Thoughts on Books….

It seems strange that grief or illness makes one read more! Till 2019 I was struggling to find time to read books, though I was participating in a lot of Reading Events and was generally in good place emotionally and physically! Cut to 2020, there was Dad’s passing away and not to mention this small event called COVID-19 and I was reading like I used to, like pre 2015. And now in 2021 with so much of lying down quietly because there are days when I simply cannot do anything, I am reading like I always wanted and have never been able once I started adulting with a job! Cancer brought some unexpected pleasures, like time to read!

I wonder what people, who are diagnosed with such kind of prolonged aliments do, if they do not read? I understand there is television and now several OTT platforms; but can you really watch as much as you can read? Can your mind be really sustained with the sameness that sets in after a point when it comes to audio-visual entertainment? Can you make your mind cogitate through some of the inane stuff that is there on these shows ( that is not to say books cannot be inane; as we know there are several such written material out there ) while already struggling with a slow working chemo addled brain? How does one spend time without books? How does one keep oneself occupied and engaged when physically, everything is falling apart, without the golden words, written by someone, which takes you away atleast for a while , some place else? I know of some extremely hardy patients who knit or crochet during the time of covalence; I do admire their ability to make something good out of the forced time away from everyday life, but this population I know is far and few and most turn to either viewing or gaming to while away the time, that has been granted to us, but which really does stand still.

I have always maintained that books have rescued me from all circumstances which have been painful & beyond my control. As an adolescent when my father became bankrupt and we lived out our lives in halfway homes & sometimes without meals, Sir Author Conon Doyle, Saki and Sir Terry Pratchet, along with Jane Austen and John Steinbeck, made everyday bearable. It took me away from the harsher facts of life that the glories of being the daughter of a very successful man were now over and the struggle of a single meal was an everyday occurrence, to places and people which continued to serve as not only an escape but also showed a way of how one should act, no matter what the circumstances. While we lost everything, I am grateful that we could hold on to those precious volumes and they helped me get through those formidable days. Through career challenges and heartbreaks, Amor Towles, MM Kaye, Katherine Mansfield, EM Delafield, Margaret Kennedy helped me cope, gave me inspirations and made me get up , get dressed and show up. Through my parent’s death, EM Foster, Margery Sharpe, Mikhail Bulgakov & Freydor Dostoyevsky ( the last two being my parent’s favorites ) took the edge off the pain as I immersed myself in complex , bittersweet narratives, that were so far away from my own reality and still spoke to me in some quiet imperceptible way. Now with this fun diseases, I have reading haphazardly through everything and anything I can lay my hands own – British Library Crime Classics, Virago Collections, Modern Fiction, Political and Social Commentaries. Essays and poetry. I have not yet reached the place where I can stand back and elucidate on the exact or nuanced nature of support these books are giving me, however I do know that without them, at this point in my life I would be lost.

How do people live without the written word? How does anyone exist being immune to the absolute & all encompassing love, for what is it but love, of books? I would have been bereft of such unmitigated joy, had I not had this one “superpower” ie, the ability to read and appreciate the written word. In lives with so many things spinning madly out of control, how does one find comfort, some sense of sanity and hope without books. Books gave me solace, comfort and in the words of William Nicholson, they made me feel that I am not alone. They sat up with me when I could not sleep, they gave me courage when I thought I was done, they entertained me when I was bored and just generally kept me going! And while Cancer is not something to be desired in anyway, I would want to say, that it did give me the time to just put my legs up, with a cup of tea and read to my heart’s content, without guilt, without interruptions and with complete and utter pleasure!

The Big C

I know another huge disappearing act; but what can I say? Life just keeps throwing lemons and I am trying to make the best lemonade I can. To start with the months of March and April left India reeling with a devastating second wave of COVID 19. While I and my my immediate family were saved from direct impact, I have lost too many friends and relatives and sound of the ambulance through all hours on the main road next to my apartment block still makes me break into cold sweat. Things are better now but we have a long way to go and experts warn of a Third Wave in the country and I cannot even begin to fathom what that will bring.

While I was not impacted by COVID, I have been very unwell for more than 2 months. I have intermittent fever, severe weakness and a feeling of bloating and something not right inside me. I went through a round robin of doctors and pointless tests and I was told I am suffering from Calcium deficiency to IBS. But no medicines that prescribed worked and I continue to grow week, losing 12 kgs in 2 months. Finally in a fit of inspiration I reached out my gynecologist who recommended an Ultrasound test and then life began to unravel.

I am 38 years old and I have been diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer.

It took me a few days to let that sink in. I have never smoked in my life, never drank, let alone smoking up other substances. I ate good home cooked food, did hikes and generally faced life head on and with a lot of optimism, and this is my reward for playing by the rules No one in my family has a history of the big C. This was one curve ball I just did not see coming my way!

But life is what it is and we have to fight what comes our way. Good part is Ovarian Cancer treatment is highly advanced and this was caught well in time . My doctors are convinced of my full recovery and it still very much contained. Most importantly, like everything else in my life I shall fight and conquer this, come what may. This shall not destroy me; I shall conquer. I am blessed to have an older sister who has rolled up her sleeves and decided to throw it all to get me through this and friends who take up my fight on those days that I cannot bother to get out of bed. They have left no stone unturned; they are getting doctor appointments, ferrying me to and fro from tests and hospitals, getting second opinion. All I do no is rest and read; while everyone takes care of me with their own lives on hold. With so much love, how can I not come through this? How can I not win. I will win!

One help that I do seek from you is book recommendation – I have long hospital hours mapped out infront of me and I really need good engrossing reads . I am not picky – Classics, History, Non Fiction, Virago Collection, British Mysteries, Historical Fiction; anything will do as long as you all feel, they are good reads. So please humble request, please please share book recco!

I promise to stay in touch and keep you all posted.