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!

Life with Big C

Life takes an interesting turn everyday and when the community is inflicted with Plague ( COVID 19 is again rising in India ) & you have been diagnosed with a cantankerous illness, aka Cancer, the experience becomes even more “colorful”. So here I stand, a little over a month since my surgery and still wonder, by which turns & unexpected paths, did I manage to reach this stage of life & how come I have this disease? But reality as always sets in & I have just have to look at my hands, marked with all kinds of intravenous & canula insertions, and know well, this is a fact & I have to not only live with it, but also learn to thrive with it.

Thriving of course involves medication to keep this ridiculous sickness at bay & that includes the “fun” thing called Chemotherapy. My first session of Chemo happened exactly a week ago. Again I am fortunate to have found an amazing set of doctors and a great hospital where the aim is to not only make the patient well, but also comfortable through the journey of getting well. The Chemo room is a day care center and maybe the hospital administration consciously put in charge nurses who are gregarious, bursting with life & enthusiasm. The whole mood of the room feels like a picnic more than a sick bay & there is Alexa playing upbeat music, a huge Television displaying the latest game of Cricket ( India runs on Cricket ) & my funny, crazy & extremely competent nurse convincing me to have the Pasta in the menu along with a chocolate brownie because they are the chef’s specialty! I was there for 8 hours and it did not feel long or painful. My doctors are all chatty, sharing funny stories but also always attentive to my condition with great advise on managing the side effects of Chemo. My awesome nurses ensured that I never felt any pain during the process, while keeping entertained with hilarious anecdotes. And my wonderful, elder sister never left my side, keeping me company, making me laugh & taking care of all hospital logistics, so that I do not need to worry about them. Needless to say, not only did I have a smooth & comfortable session, but actually a fun one.

However Chemo even when dispensed with utmost care is Chemo. It shall make it’s presence felt loud & clear to all & sundry & ensure everyone is aware of it’s “magnificence”. The initial two days after Chemo, thanks to a 500 ml Iron intravenous that was given at the hospital, I felt absolutely glorious, living, breathing as never before. Then on Monday, the side effects kicked in; Monday was nausea, bouts & bouts of it, but thankfully I had been proactively prescribed medication to combat this if & when needed and by evening things were good. Then I had a happy, comfortable & uneventful Tuesday but Wednesday brought more developments. I woke up with an wrecking back pain; walking , sitting, eating, any & every movement became painful & despite taking painkillers to address this, the relief was temporary. But I crawled through Wednesday & Thursday was an improvement. Finally I sit here on Friday & today is a good day, where again, all my body parts feel like they belong to me & are not hosting a rebellion. The simple joy of having a body free of aches & pains; I never really appreciated the blessing until lately! Compared to many my pain is nothing & I am extremely grateful to the doctors & the forces that might be for ensuring that while I face my trials, I am given enough strength & support to make it a comfortable effort. I have resumed work for more than a week now, I am meeting friends ( those who come over, my travel is still limited ) , cooking a bit, taking walks ( my doctors tell me that the more active I stay, the lesser the side effects ) & writing. Slowly the pieces are coming together; though the big picture has changed very much!

I now understand that life for a while will be made of good & bad days. Good days when everything will feel right & I can touch the sky & bad days when I just have to be patient & bear out the day until it passes. More patience & the need to make most of the moment are the guidelines which would define my life as I know it & hopefully ensure that I continue to live & thrive! I know I am getting well & these discomforts are temporary & I am being cured of the actual disease. I am much better, physically, intellectually & spiritually than I was even 6 weeks ago & I have much to be grateful for!

Among the many things that has helped me heal, is the constant texts, messages, pictures & outpouring of affection & support that I received from my blogging family. I call all of you my family because, though we may have never met in person, your standing by my side & cheering me on is nothing short of what a family does. My days are made so much better, when I wake up to messages & emails from all of you, bringing me hope & giving me infinite courage, to battle this demon out! I cannot even begin to express my gratitude for all your efforts & can only humbly say thank you! I am so blessed to have this tribe in my life!

9 Years Ago,

So here we are – February 14th 2021 and it is a BIG day! Atleast for me it is a BIG day. 9 years ago, without a clue as to what Blogging entailed or even why I was trying to do this, I started this page; I had no idea if I would write about books or other things or even if I would last out a month. But now standing here after 9 years, I am immensely glad that I started on this journey. I have so much to be grateful for and they are all linked to this blog – I have read books I never thought were my genre, I have opened up to new ideas and became aware of a bigger world and I have developed a strong network of friends, who come from varied parts of the world and I have never met them personally and maybe do not know their dog’s name. But they have stood by me through some rough times, shared experiences which helped understand life a little better and made me smile when there was really nothing much to feel cheerful about.

This virtual family is my biggest gain and today, I want to share a shoutout to all these people who enriched my life in so many ways –

Stefanie – In India, we end up tagging those close to us with a relationship, like an extended family; going by that tradition, I think of you as a wiser sister, showing me how life can be made better. Thank You for introducing me to Science Fiction and Carrot Ginger soup, gardening and inspiring me to adopt a more sustainable living lifestyle

Brona – Thank You for introducing me to Australia all over again, thank you for some amazing books and most importantly for sharing your life and insights and giving me the confidence always, that I am doing ok!

Mudpuddle – When I grow up, I want to be you. Erudite, generous, thoughtful and an expert of rare old books, I look upon you as my virtual mentor, sharing your wisdom and experience that helps me navigate life a lot better!

Jane – Thank You for introducing for the English Literature beyond Victorian era. Many troubled times have been smoothed over because you told me to go make friends with EM Delafield, Margaret Kennedy and Margery Sharp. I would have had a very incomplete reading of England and her writings in the absence of these women!

Karen – My TBR over the years has lost all semblance of control or sanity thanks so much to your wonderful reviews. But you have opened me up to a world of books, outside of mainstream publication and fiction and made me aware of the bigger world and global history and heritage.

Helen – My historical fiction reading would have been so tame had I not known all the good stuff from different periods and genres that you showed me. From obscure to more well known, you opened up a vista of books for me and I am so grateful for your companionship in this adventure

Marian – My inspiration to read classics, my cheerleader when I take on a book, I am not entirely sure about and my tag team for all insta fun. Social media is a happy place for me largely thanks to you!

Ruth – There are so many many things I can say about you and still not do you justice, so I will keep it simple, you inspire me every day with your courage and your belief. Also, I love your perseverance; for those uninitiated, just take a look at her Educated Mind Project, you will know what I mean

The Classic Club – How would I have known literature with you all???? Thanks to your spins and letterheads and so many other activities! The best club ever!

Cleo – I think some things are fated and I was supposed to join the blogging world because I was supposed to find my soul sister all the way across an ocean and 13000 km (we of the commonwealth shall use kms!) Thank You for all the bookish adventures, all the recipes, all the candid discussions and for holding my hand virtually through some of my darkest days! Who says you need someone in person to form a bond; we defy that and shall continue to do that!

Thank You you all, for making these 9 years brighter and better!

January Notes….

There was a time when I would bemoan the onset of January because that meant, all festivals and holidays were over and we would have to wait atleast another 9 months for the next set of celebrations. However with time comes perspective and January, I realize need not necessarily equate to end of joy; for joy is where you find it and you do not need much to to find it either! So here we are, on the first day of the year, celebrating January

“January is here, with eyes that keenly glow,
A frost-mailed warrior
striding a shadowy steed of snow.”
―  Edgar Fawcett

“Bare branches of each tree
on this chilly January morn
look so cold so forlorn.
Gray skies dip ever so low
left from yesterday’s dusting of snow.
Yet in the heart of each tree
waiting for each who wait to see
new life as warm sun and breeze will blow,
like magic, unlock springs sap to flow,
buds, new leaves, then blooms will grow.”
―  Nelda Hartmann, January Morn  

Hendrick Averkamp, Winter Landscape with Skaters (1608)

“To read a poem in January is as lovely as to go for a walk in June.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

“The first day of January always presents to my mind a train of very solemn and important reflections and a question more easily asked than answered frequently occurs viz: How have I improved the past year and with [what] good intentions do I view the dawn of its successor?” ―Charlotte Brontë

“I love beginnings. If I were in charge of calendars, every day would be January 1.” ―Jerry Spinelli

“Leaving any bookstore is hard . . . especially on a day in January, when the wind is blowing, the ice is treacherous, and the books inside seem to gather together in colorful warmth.” ―Jane Smiley

 Paul Gauguin, Breton Village in the Snow (1894)

“Little January
Tapped at my door today.
And said, “Put on your winter wraps,
And come outdoors to play.”
Little January
Is always full of fun;
Until the set of sun.
Little January
Will stay a month with me
And we will have such jolly times –
Just come along and see.”
–  Winifred C. Marshall, January

Janus am I; oldest of potentates;
  Forward I look, and backward, and below
I count, as god of avenues and gates,
  The years that through my portals come and go.
I block the roads, and drift the fields with snow;
  I chase the wild-fowl from the frozen fen;
My frosts congeal the rivers in their flow,
  My fires light up the hearths and hearts of me

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Poet’s Calendar

So what does January mean to you?

About the Year….

What a year 2020 has been!! Truly a watershed year, an epoch-making year, a year about which future generations would say, “during the year of the COVID -19 my mum/dad/grandpa/grandma”, etc. etc. Needless to say, this has been an unprecedented year, quite unlike anything we have seen in recent history and from what I read in the papers, with the new UK and South African strain, it’s far from over. For me personally, it was a year, where I developed more resilience, faced more realities and understood that things are not always what they seem, but that need not necessarily be all bad! I also learnt, that despite losing both my parents, I am surrounded by a lot of love and affection and few people can claim to be as fortunate as I am in such matters! Yet another great aspect of this year for me was that after a very very long while, I was able to not only complete the GoodReads reading challenge but exceed it! It was indeed a great year in terms of reading and writing and that is another factor I am very grateful for in this year! Despite the exhausting emotional and then professional requirements, I was able to read some brilliant literature and as a parting note for the year, I decided to list 10 of my most favored reads this year. So here we go –

  1. Delight by J.B. Priestly – This book was without doubt my “find” of the year! Thanks to Karen, I had the joy of reading this wonderful piece of non-fiction writing by Priestley (not his usual genre) about simple everyday joys of life!
  2. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit – I have no idea why I waited so long to read this brilliant work by Ms. Solnit tackling the conversations of between men and women and other amazing essays like one on Virginia Wolfe and violence against women.
  3. A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa – Yet another book that I came across thanks to Karen. This 1948 publication by the two giants of modern art & literature, tries to capture what life of the common man in Soviet Union looks like – what do they eat, how do they party, what do their farmers do before the iron curtain fell remains one of the most humorous and insightful reading of mankind beyond politics!
  4. Travels with Charley; In Search of America by John Steinbeck – This was my Steinbeck year and this book came up in my Classic Club Spin. In 1960, Steinbeck set off to re-discover America again in a exhaustive road trip covering coast to coast, and finding the bitter sweet travesty of a country trying to find it’s identity, in the shadow of it’s troubling past!
  5. Provincial Daughters by RM Dashwood – Written by the daughter of EM Delafield of the Provincial Ladies series, Ms. Dashwood takes a look at the sometimes silly, sometimes tragi-comic life of an educated young English woman trying to be an expert homemaker and efficient mother in 1950’s England
  6. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (Translator) – A wonderful review by Helen made me try this Japanese classic murder mystery & and to say it blew my breathe away is an understatement! Set in 1937, a tragedy is visited on the night of the wedding of the eldest son of the Ichyanagi family and only detective Kosuke Kindaichi is able to find the why’s and how’s leading up the tragedy!
  7. Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold – Many many moon’s ago, Jane had reviewed this Golden Age Mystery and based on her high praise, I had added it to my TBR. However, until recently I had not read it and after reading, I kept wondering, why did I wait for so long??? A cycling holiday that is disrupted by a murder of a comrade and an amateur detective, a chance stranger, John Christmas is drawn into the events that lead to a surprising discovery.
  8. Not at Home by Doris Langley – At the end of World War II, to improve her financial position, Elinor MacFarren—middle-aged botanical writer rents part of her beautiful home to American Anotonia Banks which leads to complete mayhem and now Ms. Mcfarren must seek help of her nephew and his friends to solve for the confusion, with some unexpected assistance from her rival! Shout Out to Ali for helping me find this little-known gem!
  9. Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Russell Goulbourne (Translator) – I always need support when tacking what can be considered a “difficult” or “Challenging” read! This being one of them, I had infinite support and read along help from my soul sister Cleo (Where would I be without, thou??!) Written in exile a few months before his death, Rousseau reflects on his life and abandonment by his friends and supporters and how he draws strength from nature and solitude and draws contentment from self-awareness and knowledge.
  10. The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – This sensitive, insightful and important work of history looked at the tragic events in wake of partition of India in 1947 from the perspective of those whose voices are often neglected by History like women, children and backward classes. This book remains a modern historical classic for all those interested in India and her troubled past.

These are my best books of the year! These do not include my re-reads which always bring me such infinite joy like Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye, The Dairy of the Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, High Rising by Angela Thirkell and of course, Pride and Prejudice by one and only Ms. Austen! As always, my reading year has been enriched by the suggestions, recommendations and discussions with many of my blogging friends and yet again it is brought home to me that I would never have read so widely had I not stumbled upon this wonderful community of fellow readers/bloggers and most importantly friends!

To end, I would like to leave you all with this short poem! Wishing you and all your loved ones a Happy, joyous, healthy and bookish 2021! Cheers Everyone!

Wilhelm Gause – Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=984078

Poem for a New Year

-By Matt Goodfellow

Something’s moving in,
I hear the weather in the wind,
sense the tension of a sheep-field
and the pilgrimage of fins. 
Something’s not the same,
I taste the sap and feel the grain,
hear the rolling of the rowan
ringing, singing in a change.
Something’s set to start,
there’s meadow-music in the dark
and the clouds that shroud the mountain
slowly, softly start to part.

On December

Oh! Glorious December! This is month I thrive in; I rejoice and I celebrate! As cold winter comes down on the plains of North India, suddenly everything looks beautiful in the afternoon sun, with all the roses in bloom. It is cold, very cold, but it brings with it a stark beauty of merry making and joy and smell of woodsmoke and delicious foods like Sarson ka Saag (a puree of mustard leaves), home made white butter and gajar ka halwa (a pudding made of Ghee, milk, jaggery, dry fruits and carrots) all served hot! This is a month of such wonder and here are some pieces that illustrate the unstinted beauty of the month!

May and October, the best-smelling months? I’ll make a case for December: evergreen, frost, wood smoke, cinnamon.

― Lisa Kleypas, Love in the Afternoon

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868; Source – Google Art Project

December is a bewitching month.
The grey of cold teases
to explode into something worthwhile,
into a dream of cold,
a starlight shower you can taste,
a cold that does not chill.

I’ve lost my memory
of my first snow–
did I gasp at a field of white?
Or scream at the freeze
untill my cheeks reddened?

The crunch underfoot is satisfying
and the thrill of virgin snow
near leaves
.”

― Joseph Coelho, A Year of Nature Poem

 Alfred Sisley, A Village Street in Winter, 1893 ; Source – The Creative Business.com

In December ring Every day the chimes; Loud the gleemen sing In the streets their merry rhymes. Let us by the fire Ever higher Sing them till the night expire!     

―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Of all the months of the year there is not a month one half so welcome to the young, or so full of happy associations, as the last month of the year.

– Charles Dickens

And finally, one of my personal favorites, originally shared with me by the wonderful people at Daak (they are treasure trove of sub continent’s culture, art and literature. You must check their website or Instagram handle for some hidden gems) describing the beauty and the daily life of winter in Kashmir with lyricism, simplicity and great humor. This was penned by Mulla Muhammad Tahir Ghani, known as Ghani Kashmiri, who lived in Srinagar, around 17th century,

Masnavi Shita’iyah 

In this season where the water is frozen

Every bubble has become a glasshouse.

The stream flowing across the garden

Looks like a line drawn on the page.

The minstrel’s hand is without a drum.

It seems the dewy song has frozen too. 

Cold has turned water into ice.

Etching it is like etching a stone.

In all this, the duck in the water croons

‘Lucky the bird that’s become a kebab.’

The spark too has been struck by the chill

And has hid itself back in the flint. 

The spark and flame are together no more.

The chilly drought has torn them apart.

No sooner does a spark rise from the fire

Than it turns into a hailstone.

Such is the nip in the biting air

That the moist eye resembles a stony glass. 

Scared to their bones now men are of water

Like the mirror they hide it under the earth.

The means of living are in the hands of Chinar

Which in autumn has provided for fire.

The fish offers itself to the hook

In the hope that it might see fire

So cold has the oven of the sky become

No longer visible is the bread-like sun

Can a stream flow on the face of the earth

When the sun’s eye itself is frozen?

Release from the stinging cold does the fish find

When it slits itself with the icicle’s sword

No fear of water does the snow show.

It floats on its surface like foam.

The ember glowing in the brazier

Looks like a gem in the casket.

He who relaxes his hold on the chair

Finds himself skating on the ice.

And he who breaks his leg on the ice

Is plastered there on the wooden plank.

His joy knows no bounds if a sad soul

Gets hold of a few flint stones.

How could one walk on the murky earth

If it were not covered with planks of ice?

Agonized such is the fish by the chill

It seeks to flee from all that is wet.

Every sigh that soars up to the sky

Becomes a snowflake and falls to the ground.

Behold the game that the winter plays

Fashioning myriad mirrors from water plain.

Though a flame hides within its breast

The leaf of chinar breathes no warmth.

And he whose life leaves him in this chill

Prefers hell to escape the cold.

As children make their way to school

They practice skating on the planks of ice 

He is wise who in this season

Clings to the stove like a madman.

Narrating this, my tongue is coated with ice.

My breath, it seems, has frozen to make another tongue.

And when the chill turns chillier still

Like the ear, even the mouth turns still.

The tear which drops from the crying eye

Freezes like the wax dripping down the candle.

All this is known to the wise ant

Which entombs itself when alive.

This winter’s tale I can no longer narrate 

For the tongue is now an icicle in my mouth. 

I leave you with some beautiful illustrations from Kashmir, Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, Illustrated by E. Molyneux, which captured the beauty of this land in some wonderful watercolor imagery. Circa 1887.

Painting 1 – Lotus Lilies at Dal Lake

Painting 2 – Shalimar Gardens

Painting 3 – The Temple, Chenar Bagh

Painting 4 – Sunset on Jhelum

Source – http://www.hellenicaworld.com/India/Literature/FEdwardYounghusband/en/Kashmir.html

While I was Away…….

I know it’s been some time while I posted…..yet again! I even read two books for Karen’s 1956 Club, but never got around to posting anything, because, something called Life kept happening. Nothing major, no ah-ha moments, no life stage changes; just the usual, sick aunts, working for a international financial conglomerate during a Credit crisis stirred by pandemic, plumbing disasters at home and other inconsequential and minor irritants, topped by the realization that it is the festival season in India, and my Dad who loved all the festivities (not the religious bruhaha) the eating and partying and gifting is no longer around to enjoy it! It’s kind of shifts the ground beneath one’s feet and I am still trying to figure out, why when Mom passed away, 5 years ago, I was much more stoic while now, I am falling apart every alternate day! I was equally close to both my parents so kind of weird all this emotional upheaval!

Anyhow I have complained long enough and while yes, all of these events consumed a lot of energy, there were other happy adventures at play as well. I have been lately cooking with a vengeance, expanding my repertoire for all kinds of Indian cuisines. There is no national cuisine in this country, though many people do think it’s Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala, neither are truly representative of the food cooked in this country for hundred thousand years. The other thing most people do not realize is whole breath of food available in this country. What you eat in North, is way different from what you get in South and they have nothing in common with either the cuisines of East or West. So I have trying out a lot of flavorful lentil dishes from West, cooking fish in the traditional Eastern style like my grandmothers and chicken like southern India. I have also mastered the art of making a Chappati (see here); this staple has been my albatross for years and finally I was able to crack the code of making them soft (easier) and round (IMPOSSIBLE!) This by far has been one of the few personal best of what can effectively call a miserable year!

Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine at Argenteuil, 1873

I also started training for hiking again! Many many moons ago , I had taken this with the serious intentions of losing weight as well getting in shape for some treks I wanted to accomplish. But crazy work hours and sick parents often disrupted the training. The only good thing for this year is this Work from Home environment which saves me commute time and allows me to do a lot more and accomplish a lot more and I am happy to report that I have been on track for 3 months now and lost 9kgs and have considerably added on to my stamina

Finally, Marian like a true friend directed me to the launch of a amazing online journal specializing in fictions, essays and histories. You have to check out Post Modern Journal if you have not already. I have loved their posts and discovered that they are open to accepting submission from general public. I did send of a short story and they have accepted and I promise to inflict the link on all and everyone of you once it is published. Lol

What else, Fall is finally here and I cannot get enough of this season followed by Winter. We in North India have a short window to actually enjoy these seasons but we try and make the most of it. The smell of woodfire smoke, the chilling breeze and all the gur patties (see here )to gorge on. Is there a better way to describe perfection than this?

I leave you with this short piece in honor of November –

November Night

BY ADELAIDE CRAPSEY

Listen. .
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp’d, break from the trees
And fall.

Traveling Through America

September is coming to an end and it’s time to discuss the book that was spun for me through The Classic Club Spin #24

I was very fortunate to get to read one of the books that had been on my TBR for a very long time by an author whom I admired and whose books had defined my formative years. I speak of none other than John Steinbeck and one of his last books, Travels with Charley.

In 1960, after recuperating from a heart attack, against the explicit instructions of his Doctors, John Steinbeck set off to explore America again. As a writer of people, he felt that he had lately lost touch with his own country and its people, about whom he had written prolifically at one time and he set out to correct this miss! He started with meticulously organizing for the road trip, which included a customized Camper which he named Rocinante , furnishing it with all the books and maps he could not possibly need, stocking up food and other essential supplies and then choosing a traveling partner, his 10 year old, extremely pragmatic French Poodle – Charley. The trip started from a ferry at Long Island which was to take Charley, Rocinante and him to Connecticut from where he would start his actual “road” trip. He drove through Maine, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, then onto Montana, through Seattle and Oregon and California, Salinas where he grew up. He then headed back home via Texas and Virginia and then New Orleans where heart sickened, he proclaimed that his journey was technically over and he was just now heading home. He saw Niagara Falls and drove through Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast and the Yellowstone Park. He met small store clerks and motel owners who yearned to take off like he did and he spoke to migrant farmers who came over from Canada to help out during the autumn pickings and the supervisor of a ranch who would be seduced away from the wild beauties of the land to a secure albeit boring job in the city, at the behest of his young wife who wanted luxuries.  He wrote of the “plastic” culture that decorated each motel and of the upwardly mobile aspirations of the people he met. He drank coffee and whiskey with strangers in a trailer park and spoke to them about the country, the upcoming elections and their aspirations. He was saddened by the people at Sauk Centre, the home town of Sinclair Lewis who failed to appreciate his genius and at one time had treated him as pariah until his death, made the town a lucrative tourist destination. And finally, he was completely heartbroken by the hatred and venom he witnessed from people opposing a newly integrated school. He felt that his journey ended with this episode and he drove home to New York summarizing that the country and it’s people had changed dramatically, moving directionless, away from all that which was real and good into an industrialized and material living frenzy, that did not brood well for the future.

John Steinbeck as always is deeply observant of human nature and the book is replete with many insightful and in some ways prophetic remarks. On watching migrant farmers from Mexico, India , Philippines work on the crops, he is reminded of the lessons in history where Carthaginians hired mercenaries to fight their wars; Americans bring in migrant laborers to do the hard work and he hopes that one day, they are not overwhelmed by the hardier race, in mighty foretelling of the future. He captures narratives from people who are comfortable living in mobile homes and not worried about not having roots, for they are convinced that obsession with building roots stops progress and moving forward. He muses “Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else  The wonderful thing about the author is his ability to see two sides of the story; while he misses the more personalized way of doing things prior to the industrial boom, he also acknowledges that “I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days.” and therefore nostalgia is presented with a pinch of salt. The rediscovery of America is always sombre, but there is much humour that only a master craftsman like Steinbeck can bring to a book, that is a difficult narrative – his conversations with Charley are downright hilarious, filled with laugh out loud moments. Charley is an intelligent dog and Steinbeck never forgets this fact in his 4-month long journey and the intellectual parley’s he engages in with him. His sense of irony is equally powerful when describing a quiet and enjoyable Thanksgiving, at a Texas millionaire’s place, talking a dig that the incorrect representation of Texas as loud and ostentatious. The language is flowing and despite being a travelogue, not once is the reader exhausted wondering when this journey will end. In fact, his description of the landscapes he covers is vivid and lyrical that brings alive the places and the reader is swept away with them! There is so much I can say about this book, that to end, I would only say that I read some essays which state that Steinbeck took several artistic liberties in writing this book, and this work is more fictional in nature. Be that as it may, his insights about life and humanity holds good now as it did 60 years ago and his deep heartbreak at people not being able to internalize respect for fellow creatures and the mad race of consumerism holds true today more than ever!  

Travelling Through Soviet Union

In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.

 Andrei Mylniko, In Peaceful Fields (1950)

The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?

Konstantin Shurupov,  Azov Steel Mill (1957)

The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”

If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!

Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!

The Spinning Number

Following up from my last post, the Classic Club has declared the number for Spin #24 and it is – ta da – 18!! What does that mean? It means I am overly joyed, completely excited and for a change not dreading reading the book that has been spun out – I get Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck ( Drum Roll Please!)

Steinbeck is one of those authors who was critical in my formative years and along with Jane Austen and Harper Lee has left an indelible mark on my character, giving me a set of values and creating my belief system. East of Eden is my most favorite and it’s closing lines of “Timshel” – you may overcome is one of my guiding principles in life, where the choice to overcome is yours and it’s is your action that drives your life. However despite this abiding love and admiration for Steinbeck, there are some books which I still have to read (the old problem of so many books and so little time ) and therefore I am over the moon that this one time I have a Classic that I do want to read!

I just ordered my copy today and hope to post a review of the book soon! So what was your Spin number?