Reading Plans and 2020

I know it is almost 15 days in the year for this post to go up. But I am guessing better late than never and if nothing else, these kind of posts inspire me to have some kind of a reading map to guide me through, instead of all kinds of crazies. Having said that, I must also say, that this reading plan is not really a plan, but some guidelines that I want to adhere to while making reading selections through this year. These are not exhaustive reading plans or list. I love those detailed plans I used to make at the start of the month and at end the month assess of how I fared. I also used to love participating in various reading events and read alongs; many books and genre’s that I would never read would become my absolute favorites thanks to these events. However life has been totally out of control for the last two years and if that should be the trend this year as well, then it is better to be selective and chose or not, wisely so that there is no sense of I-really-have-not-read-much-this-year at the end of the year!

Therefore moving on, here are my very basic rules for reading anything this year –

  1. Read two chunksters – I have several and there was a time when reading chunksters was BAU and did not need to be called out. However, life is throwing me spinners and I need to manage accordingly, so I am calling it out and restricting the number to two; if I end up with a miracle and read more than two, that would be even more awesome. But for now two. I started on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I bought this book nearly 5 years ago but never really got around to reading it, so now I am pacing myself with a couple of chapters every week and trotting along. I have no idea what the second chunkster will be.
  2. Read more classics – Again, something that would not have been called out in the past but lately I have skipped reading the more richer works, unless one counts, re-reads of Austen. I need to get back into the groove of reading Classics again and I will consciously try and read a few more, maybe 5 through this year.
  3. Read Non Fiction – Lately I have been reading significant amount of Non Fiction beyond my usual trope of Travelogues and History. And I must say, that it has been quite an enriching and significantly transforming experience. I have read and learnt and observed and it definitely challenged my mind and forced me to think in ways I do not do and overall, it has been a learning that I would want to continue on.
  4. Read Books already Bought – I think this is a common issue of all Bibliophiles. We see books, we buy books and then we go back re-read Austen or Harry Potter. I have nothing against re-reading Austen or Harry Potter; in fact most of you know, those are my go-to comfort books. However, I have over the years bought several 100 books and my house is filled to excess with unread books, I want to try and read some of those this year, I cannot commit to never buying new books; I have yet to reach that stage of Nirvana, but atleast control by spending spree, I have developed a simple rule – I will add books to my cart and keep them for 24 hrs; if post that I still am itching to buy them, then I will. I have trying this since December and the only book I have bought since then is a Strategic Management book which is part of the coursework I am doing for a certification. I hope, super hope, I can stick to this one critical resolution.
  5. Have Fun!

That is my reading plan for the year. The only read alongs I have so far signed up for is to re-read Pather Dabi by Sarat Chandra and Bleak House by Charles Dickens with Cleo, whenever she takes those two on. The other event I want to participate is The 1920’S Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I love that era and inherently gravitate towards that time period and therefore being part of this event is only a natural progression!

This then is the plan for 2020! I am hoping in the last week of December this year, to be able to show case a relatively favorable report than those I have shared or not over the last few years! But that will be when, it will be! Until then, here’s to all the good things in life in 2020, including and especially Books and Readings!

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to People

I know I have completely gone MIA after all those heavy words on being diligent and regular in my posts! I even bailed out on Cleo’s House of Mirth Read Along; a totally unheard of action. But life often gets in the way of our plans and despite laying them out well and meticulously, a gust of wind is all it takes to make the towers go crumbling. And that is what happened with me. While work continued to be what it is; a tight rope walk. balancing and managing people and relationships instead of focusing on the work, things in my personal life took a turn for worse! There were much drama both in my sister’s life and mine, breaking the rhythm and pushing us into turbulence, from which we barely emerged. And then what as everyone knows is my favorite month December dawned, my father had to be hospitalized, not once but twice. The emotional, physical and financial exhaustion of this last year is enough to make one pack one’s bag and head to the mountains for a life of a hermit! However , as I have been told, and I know from experience, that you cannot run away from your problems. You have to stand tall and face it and face it I shall and live to fight another day!

So here is to good will, hope and happiness for all of us from everything that worries us, bogs us down or just saddens us! To good times and good vibes in 2020!

Dear friends, this year was not real great.
There’s no need to enumerate
Just how gloomy it’s appearing.
But Ever-better days are nearing!
Though dark nightmares be distinguished,
Still the light is not extinguished
By the darkness crowding ’round it.
Find hope’s advent by the sound it
Makes somewhere out in the distance:
Bells that ring with soft insistence,
Hoofbeats, voices singing faintly,
Hymns unearthly, almost saintly,
Mailmen’s footsteps, babies’ crying,
Wings of angels quickly flying,
News worth calling from the steeple, “Peace on earth, good will to people.”

– Ian Frazier, The New Yorker

About Finding the “Ikagai”

Dalai Lama in one of his seminal speeches had said that “Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions“. It’s not what you have or who you have but rather what you do, how you act and how you live, that many philosophers and thinkers say is the key to happiness.  The concept of “Ikagai” stems from these principles and in Japanese, means something akin to  “a reason for being” and translated in English it refers to the “reason you wake up in the  morning”.

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This idea of having a reason to wake up in the morning is beautifully explained and illustrated in a brilliant and precise work called Ikagai – Giving Everyday Meaning and Joy by Yukari Mitsuhashi . In this book, Ms. Mitsuhasi , takes the reader to the very root of the Ikagai word, explaining that the Japanese word of “Ikagai” consists of two Japanese characters, “iki” meaning life and “gai” meaning value or worth. The life that the “iki” refers to is not the big life and its meaning, but rather daily life – seikatsu; and about the joy a person finds living day to day , without which their life as a whole would not be a happy one. She further shares that while in West, the concept often leans towards finding happiness through work, in Japan, most people find their “ikagai” from their hobbies or their loved ones and not something they are necessarily paid to do. The concept of Ikagai per Ms. Mitsuhashi is so ingrained in the Japanese culture, that through their art and language, the Japanese people are constantly reminded of the joy that can be found in everyday life and will lead to a fulfilling life. Thus, Ikagai with its features of Everyday life, the act of giving, understanding and accepting emotions and active way of living leads to a stable state of mind, growth and progress and most importantly finding a purpose of life. She illustrates this concept by sharing stories of lives of people, both famous as well everyday man/woman, who have found their ikagai, through a variety of sources, including, hobbies, food, volunteering, or through their work, by getting better at their craft or seeing the impact that their work brings. Through several interviews, the author weaves stories of writers, business men and women and athletes, who have found their Ikagai through their work or by finding something worthwhile, post their retirement and how this finding of Ikgai has helped them succeed and find contentment. She brings the circle to its close, by showing how pursuit of Ikagai is the actions that lead to happiness.

This is a short, but a mighty book! It’s thought provoking and forces the reader to reflect on his or her life and  the directions it is heading towards. The author’s examples are well chosen, in the sense these are successful men and women, but they are like us and their life and pursuit of Ikagai, has helped them succeed, thus providing the reader with role models and inspirations. The author has written with simplicity, which works very well, as the ideas that the author puts through are contemplative and require thinking as the reader navigates through the book.  Furthermore, the concepts are clearly enunciated and the “plot” keeps moving forward. One of the most exemplary things about this work of non fiction, was that Ms. Mitsuhashi does not beat a concept to death, by constant repetition, but manages to find the fine balance of emphasizing on an idea and moving to the next concept.

To end, I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. It is good to sometimes sit and think about our lives and the good things in it and this book helps you value those good things and channelize them into your “Ikagai”

This book was part of my Non Fiction November Reads.

About Random Things…..

I am trying once again to be diligent again about my writing/blogging! In the last one and a half year, which has been tumultuous to say the least, writing in any form and through any channel has taken the last priority on the list and while I have been aware of it and made several attempts to start and restart, it’s not been a wholly successful attempt. But this time I am determined and despite no near easing in site of all the ruckus that has infiltrated my life, I will make sure that I once again go back to the pattern of posting atleast  one post a week !

For more reasons than one, this week has not been conducive to reading, so for today, there can be no literary post. It was Diwali here in this part of the world, and it was a week of deep cleaning, gift buying, cooking traditional food and visits to friends and family! However now that the Diwali dust has settled, I do plan to get down to some serious reading, even though time may be limited. I recently enrolled into a Design Thinking Specialization with IHC Paris and the course work looks murderous; however this is yet another thing that was pending for long, in my list to dos and the sooner I get to it the better. Therefore I continue with the policy of making no serious reading plans. However I did sign up to buddy read with Cleo, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton in November and I am looking forward to it! It’s a re-read but I do love this work by Wharton; in fact I love this novel, more than her highly acclaimed Age of Innocence. Further more the event is hosted by my partner in all reading crimes, my crazy soul sister with a golden heart, Cleo and no way am I letting her do this, without me! There is also Brona who is also hosting AusReading Month and then there is Non Fiction November; if I could combine the two, that would make for another perfect read! (Brona, HELP!) I may also have a short trip planned into the Himalayas later in November, and that for sure is something I really looking forward to!

All in all, a busy month beckons as Autumn, gives way to Winter in this part of the world and I hope, this change of season, brings good things to all our lives! I leave you with some sights of Diwali, in and around my world!

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The Russian Nobleman

Vladamir Nabokov called this book “the first and fundamental Russian Novel”; in fact he was so frustrated by the what he considered the lack of qualitative translation of this critical piece of work of Russian Literature, when he started to teach at Wellesley College in 1944, that nearly 20 years later, he would produce his own attempt, which would as always create a furor, like everything Nabokov did; but that is another story! This “novel: which he considered key to Russian literature is not even a novel, but rather a work of poetry, describing the life and times of one Russian nobleman in the early 19th century Russia; it’s called Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. This work which has spawned an Opera, several films and more translation that one can count was published in Russia in a completed form in 1833 and was to change the very nature of Russian prose!

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This novel in the poetry form follows the lives of Eugene Onegin, Vladamir Lensky and the narrator, a fictionalized Pushkin from the early days in the glittering society of St. Petersburg, to the estates of the Russian country, where all three meet and become friends. Eugene is a dandy, cynical and selfish who is easily bored, does not find any creature or object interesting beyond a short stipulated time and who comes to the country after inheriting an estate from an uncle, to overcome the boredom he had begun experiencing in the glittering society circles. He becomes great friends with the narrator and Vladamir Lensky, a young, naive poet of 18; and it is Lensky who takes Eugene to the home of Olga, his finance and the younger daughter of a fellow landowner. There Eugene meets Tatyana, Olga’s elder sister, a quiet romantic girl, who is drawn to Eugene and goes on to confess her emotions to him eventually. However, Eugene rebuffs all attempts and states that he will become bored with marriage and Tatayana should be careful of baring her soul in such a manner. In an effort to reconcile a listless Tatayana, Lensky invites Eugene to her name day, stating it will be a small gathering with only the girls, their parents and two of them; however on reaching Eugene realizes that the entire country is there and to get even with Lensky for what he considers his “traitorous” act, starts  off a chain of events, that will alter the lives all four!

I read the translation by James E. Falen, and words fail me to say enough and more about this work that would do justice to its brilliance. The characters, to begin with, are masterfully etched out, standing independently and distinctly, sometimes, white, sometimes grey, sometimes, a unique hue of its own! I have read the Eugene Onegin was considered an anti-hero by many but this seems to be a simplistic definition; the protagonist is a brilliant, creative individual lacking enough outlets to use his brilliance in the limited occupations and social restrictions of early 19th century Russia. He is capable of considerable goodness, but can also be mean and caught up in pettiness. Lensky is a perfect foil to cynical and bored Eugene; he is optimistic, full of vigor and constantly eager to see life with all its beauty and perfection. Finally, in Tatayana, Pushkin created a memorable heroine,  innocent and untouched by worldly requirements, her heart burns with a certain purity, which establishes itself a strong moral character as life experiences are forced on her and then tempt her! She is the one solid ethical character around whom the rest of the amoral characters revolve, bringing out her contrast as an ideal and worthy! Even the minor characters are wonderfully drawn and support the main cast ably. The conversation between a love-struck Tatyana and the wise old Nanny is an illustrative example of such interactions. As a narrative, this poem is faultless; it brilliantly combines worldly with the ethereal, practical with the spiritual; the fictionalized Pushkin at several instances breaks away from the main plot to digress into some deeper questions of life including what is art? But he is not only able to skillfully bring the audience back to the main narrative, but also create several instances of suspense when the reader rushes through stanza in an effort to understand what happens next! This in itself would have been enough to make this outstanding example of poetry in a narrative form, however, the brilliance of Puskin takes it into a whole new level by the wonderful and deeply moving lyricism of the language, that manages to convey the strongest and most powerful emotions without for a moment sounding maudlin. I am quoting the translation and can only wonder, how beautiful the original will be –

“Another! No! In all creations, there is no one else whom I’d adore,

The heavens chose my destination and made me thine for evermore,

My life till now has been a token in pledge of meeting you, my friend,

And in your coming, God has spoken

You will be my guardian until the end.”

Vissarion Belinsky wrote that in Eugene Onegin one could find “an Encyclopedia of Russian life” and I felt this through the novel. From the glittering ballrooms of 19th century Moscow to the quiet and haunting landscapes of the large and unending estates of the countryside, this work covers it all. There are travels by coaches and name day celebrations; there are landowners and peasants and relatives and army men; there is a range of amalgamation of items and details which all beautifully come together to present a vivid and lively picture of Russia. Once again, the sheer magnificence of this effort leaves one breathless.

Finally, a word on the translation; translating this work cannot be easy and it took a genius of Nabokov also 20 years to come with a manuscript that does justice to the original. James Falen did a wonderful job in keeping things simple and I believe as close as possible to the original narrative and yet make it easy for the reader to read and absorb what is essentially a vast body of information in poetry in a different language which is actually a story! Though there is the use of some words like “awesome”  which cannot have in vogue in the period this work is set, they are far and few, and do not take anything away from the brilliance of this work!

To end, this profoundly beautiful piece needs to be read by anyone who considers themselves Connoisseur of literature!

Living in Ancient India

I am as mostly everyone knows skeptical of writing of India, whether by Indians or non Indians and should that writing be a work non fiction, especially History, I am even more wary! We Indians, as everyone knows have over the past 5000+ years produced a lot of history and sometime, to paraphrase Saki, way more than we can consume! With so much of history therefore lying around ( you walk into the main street of any small/big town and right next to a big snazzy modern condominium will be an 17th century Makhbara  aka a tomb) almost everyone thinks of themselves as Historian, after reading a book or two. Many of the writing is ridiculous and most have nothing new to say, except put together excerpts from primary resources to substantiate a theory, I have already forgotten by chapter 2.  I am sure the author did his best, but really I have no idea as what was the point of this book. At the cost of sounding like an intellectual snob, when you learn from the Doyens of Indian History (read Dr. Romilla Thapar & Dr. Harbans Mukhiya), you do tend to wonder, why does everyone want to write histories! Therefore I dismissed, Nayanjot Lahiri’s – Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, though Dr. Lahiri is an academic of the first order and has been widely published! However a chance reading of a review by Madhulika Liddle, made me look up the book a second time, buy it and then read it!

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Time Pieces is unlike any other history book and it does not talk about the rise and fall of rulers and empires of Ancient India. Instead, Dr. Lahiri takes through a tour of ancient India, through the eyes of things that are everyday. In 10 neat chapters, titled as follows –  Journeys, Art, Hygiene, Food, Environment, Love, Laughter, Identity, Death and Afterlife, she tries to give the readers, a snapshot of how the common people of India lived, what they ate, who they loved, how did they define identities and their beliefs of deaths and afterlife. While she does touch upon a the edicts of the great kings, including Ashoka, she uses them to shed light on the daily lives of the masses, to give the readers some idea of the lives and times of Ancient India instead of the usual focus on the great dynasties and their empires. Instead she tells the readers about the massacre of the local population by Alexander’s forces, when they invaded India, the prehistoric art in the Bhimbetka caves, the yearning of an ancient couple, Sutanuka, a Devadasi and Devadinna, a sculptor and of court jesters who could be dispense caustic judgments on the ruling kings, under the guise of a joke! We come across, poets, painters, court dancers, politicians, merchants and a host of characters that inhabited ancient India and we get a small insight on how they lived and what they loved!

The book is not academic and is not a tome. It is less than 200 pages and is exactly what the title claims to be – a Whistle Stop. Dr. Lahiri, shares insightful nuggets, on some selected aspects on India and no more and no less. While she sources all kinds of academic first source research, the narrative is more of a raconteur rather than a historian, with wide references from literature to music to drive home her point, without stooping to such weird allegories as India as a pizza base and her people her toppings (I DID read this and I AM rolling my eyes). She makes history come alive and throb with the vibrancy of life, which is a running thread in history of a land more than 5000 years old. And yet, without managing to sound didactic or pedagogic, she forces you to think and open your mind – Alexander’s invasion to India is always a milestone in Indian History as it set the ball rolling for the rise of the first of the mightiest dynasties of India – The Maurayan Empire. It was also a well documented part of Indian history, as one of the Greek ambassador’s to the first Emperor’s court, Selucid left a detailed account of the life and times. However, Dr. Lahiri is the first historian to point the amateur reader, to a lesser known aspect of Alexander’s invasion – massacre of men and women and children in Multan, then northwestern India and now modern Pakistan, on a scale, that would be termed in modern day as genocide.  She speaks about identity and stories of women, often lesser known in such works as Therigatha, where court dancers, mothers and queens come alive with their narratives of loves, lives and deaths. The book is replete with with interesting information as to why Indian Buddha’s do not smile, to descriptions of food, that defined power and largess and things which are often overlooked in more serious tomes, more so because there is just so much to write and also because, the details of daily life of Indian between 5000 BCE to 1000 AD is rather touch to decipher. This brings me to what I consider, the most important feature of the book – this could not have been a easy book to write, even for such an accomplished Historian as Dr. Lahiri simply because narratives about everyday life in India is far and few. We have the Buddhist texts and a lot of religious texts, but to glean out the earthy secular facts from the more metaphysical – philosphical texts cannot be an easy task. Yet it is accomplished and beautifully so! The book is a must read for anyone interested in India, History or both!

The End of February

February has come and gone and it seems like just yesterday we were ringing in 2019 and now we are already in the 3rd month; something about time flies when one is having fun! And while I would not really describe February as fun, it was atleast, interesting, as usual busy and since the sky did not fall on my head, almost kind! I did get some reading done, though not as much as I would have wanted and I am woe fully behind in both my 2019Official TBR Pile and GoodReads reading challenges! Oh! Well! It is what it is and atleast, I am reading, which for a part of last year, had practically been non existent (an unheard of event in my adult life) and am grateful for these small mercies! So what did I read in February? Here goes –

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Even if we love them with our entire being, even if we’re willing to commit the most heinous sin for their well-being. We must understand and respect the values that drive them. We must want what they want, not what we want for them

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

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I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

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Recollect that we have been acquainted for less than a month! You cannot, cousin, have fallen – formed an attachment in so short a time!’
‘Nay, love, don’t be so daft!’ he expostulated. ‘There’s no sense in saying I can’t do what I *have* done

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

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I am not in a heat at all,’ Léonie said with great precision. ‘I am of a coolness quite remarkable, and I would like to kill that woman.

So that was all my February reading! One look and you can see, it was primarily what can be only described as Comfort reading, but it was good comfort reading so cannot complain! The high point of the month, however, was getting selected as the Clubber of the Month, by The Classical Club! I am honored and totally pumped at this recognition! We will now see what March unfolds!

And speaking of March, while I gave making reading plans for the month more than a year ago, I did make a small resolution for the month – I will only read women authors, in honor of International Woman’s Day! That then is the plan and I am off to get head start on this by reading Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridges!

Once Upon 7 Years Ago Time…..

Many many moons ago, when the world was still young and so was I, circa. 2012, in a fit of absolute outrage at abundance of everything red and white and fluffy, I took to writing a blog post sharing my disdain at the circus called 14th February, and Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices was born! It seems like yesterday, that I tentatively started figuring out what I should write about, feeling conscious when I began following some of your blogs and commenting on your posts and constantly wondering if I can really do this long term. Ah! well!

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This blog was supposed to encourage me to write and develop a more polished way of communicating through words, which in turn would help me pen my novels, essays and many other literary adventures! I have really not done much in that respect; I have gotten the one odd short story published in some journal or other, but beyond that, while I have sought publishers, nothing has really come of it! But then I have gained so much more, especially in terms of things that are so intangible but so very valuable. I have made friends, across the world, who are so much part of my life without having ever met them in person. Through all my lows and personal challenges, this blog has given me an outlet to share my grief and helped me heal. I have shared and celebrated my triumphs and all my travels, making those moments even more memorable! I have had the extreme good fortune of talking to authors and sharing and exchanging ideas with them about their works, opening my mind to whole new way of thinking! And then, I have read – I have read books, I never would read, I have read works which I never knew existed and I have had the courage to reach out and read those genres which I was sure I will never like, completely thanks to the bookish family that I have developed via this blog over the years!

There is so much for me to be grateful for; this blog which now is an essential part of who I am, is more than just a literary outlet – it is that key part of my life, whose absence  is sorely felt and which is an inherent fabric of my existence. Like every other valuable part of our life, I have not always been consistent to this blog, often sacrificing a post, at the alter of a “more pressing” needs, always to realize later, that the sacrifice was truly not worth it and the “more pressing” need could have been accommodated along with a blog post! But such is life, and despite my carelessness, I cannot help but acknowledge the inevitable,we made it to 7 years now and I think I can safely say, I am here for some more time, to put it mildly! Thank You to all my wonderful readers and friends, who have shared this journey, which has enriched me, empowered me, evolved me and made everything so much better! Cheers to all of us!

India Through The Ink….

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

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

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

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

The 7 Views of the Death

Mary Robert Rienhart defined the genre of detective/mystery novels as  two stories, saying – “The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” As I read through the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, over the Christmas weekend, I could feel all the truism of this statement and more. It seemed to be a regular whodunnit from the era of Golden age of mystery; the very usual setting of several guests, visiting over the weekend, in a English Country House in the initial decades of 20th century where a murder happens and there are the usual suspects, with a plausible back story, linking each guest to the victim in one way or another, until the protagonist finds the actual murder. Usual stuff, except Mr. Turton, takes all of these ingredients, and turns everything on its head an to write, what I can unequivocally say is one of the best mystery novels of modern times!

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Lord and Lady Hardcastle, the owners of Blackheath, an estate, in England, have invited several guests, over a weekend, to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn Hardcastle, to England after her 19 years stay in Paris. The guests are all friends of the family and the only unusual fact of the celebrations is it’s dated on the 19th anniversary of the death of Lord and Lady Hardcastle’s elder son, who was killed as a boy of 7, by the then gamekeeper of the Estate, after he was fired by Lord Hardcastle. The other strange fact, is that all the guests invited are the one who were present 19 years ago, on that fated day and while the then children have now become adults, and the adults, now senior citizen, in essence most seem to stay the same. There is also one uninvited guest at the gathering, unrelated wholly from the family who, is also seeking a closure on an injustice. Then there are maids, butlers, gamekeepers and host of other who live in the premises and who all are in some way connected to the murder that is going to happen.This then is the background of the event, which will see the death of Evelyn Hardcastle, and the quest to find the killer.

My friend Helen, when reviewing this book, wrote that she could not even begin imagine how much time and effort must have gone in writing this book! I not only agree with her, but add that as an aspiring writer, I cannot even begin to fathom, how I will keep track of the times, the threads and the characters. Very often, we find novels, with great style but no real plot or a great plot, but a dull narrative, that it simply does not come together! It is a testimony of the incredible brilliance of the author, that not only could he manage to create a narrative, that is absolutely unique and totally untested until now, but somehow hold on and make all the voices come together, all the while, sticking to the basic ethos of writing a cracking good thriller! At the core, there is a murder, but whose murder and how do we find the killer and the journey with author through the eyes of several characters and their own histories, makes for a fast paced read, where, each page gradually unfolds and adds anew new layer to the story. This plot as it evolves is anything but normal, and makes the mind do all kinds of gymnastics, without slowing for even a minute, and each chapter closes with one shocker after another, each exceeding and heightening the excitement from the previous chapter! In fact, the reader from the very beginning joins the journey in the middle of the events and therefore is able to join in the narrator’s confusion and agony, as they try to piece together, the full picture. The scope of the novel, the richness in the details and how the details, integrated further and further to become one new whole, is simply scintillating. Even in mapping out the characters, nothing was left to the chance. They are all full flesh and blood creatures, who while not being all good, have their own redeeming qualities and despite not liking them, you cannot help but feel empathy and even respect for many of their qualities. This ability of the author to be able to build a connection with not wholly positive characters with the readers, in yet another point, in praise of this work! There is so much, simply so much I can write about this book, but one must read it, to actually understand what I am talking about. It seems like a chunkster, but once you start, there is no way, you cannot finish it in the earliest possible manner, in the way it draws you in!

I had read somewhere, that all stories are the same after a point; on on surface, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle does seem like that,  but with it’s narrative style, the fine tuning the nuances of the usual Golden Age mysteries and a wholly innovative perspective, Mr Turton has taken a “same story” and made it into a masterful, ingenious, novel.