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.

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!

Writings From The East….

Karen over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life are celebrating February as Reading Independent Publishers Month. There are of course several reasons to join this event, especially in a COVID 19 world, in which most such organizations are just keeping their head above water. My reasons for joining this event besides the usual support small organizations is that these publishers allow me to read a lot of Indian as well as other language literature, the ones that usually get overlooked in the more mainstream selections which are of course advertised more, available more easily and maybe easier on the budget. But reading events like these allow us to focus on alternatives and help us in inching along to becoming a little more wholistic in our approach and maybe consequently a little more aware and empathetic.

My selection for this month are two women authored books, writing under the shadow of two very different literary cultures and history, focusing of two different eras, yet managing to convey the same message.

The Many that I am is an edited anthology by Anungla Zoe Longkumer  and is a collection of fiction, non-fiction, paintings, graphic art and poems from Nagaland, one of the eastern most states of India. Published by the independent publishers Zubaan (literally meaning tongue or voice), it is spear headed by the iconic scholar and historian Urvashi Butalia, whose work I reviewed a few months back and seeks to tell the stories of the woman in this easternmost wing of India. The uniqueness of this book and the Naga culture generally is that it has always been an oral culture; there was no script until the Baptist missionaries came along in 20th century, and introduced to the tribes of this region Christianity and the alphabet. The writing therefore is a relatively new phenomenon and these authors/ poets are perhaps the earliest forerunner of the written art in their geography, slowly building a history from a language not their own, trying to discover words, that describe their lives and reflect their feelings.

The book consists of several short stories and a few essays and several poems, some of them are English renditions of traditional songs passed down from one generation to another. The stories are mostly set in the present time, reflecting the difficult integration into global world, where some things simply may get lost or makes no sense. The narratives are primarily woven around the Naga women and the many facets of their lives. Among this hill tribe, in a traditionally patriarchal society, women are subjected to many kinds of torture, including rape and domestic violence. Yet, what comes across in most of the stories is the rebellion, resilience and the sheer audacity of the women in these tribes, to live, thrive and build a life of their own. Cut Off by Vishu Rita Krocha succinctly captures the history of the land and how intervention by women always leads to a more peaceful, amicable resolution. Old Man’s Story by Jungmayangla Longkumer describes the life of an unorthodox village woman who married a man 5 years younger to her and dedicated her life to making clay pots that would enable them to pay for the expensive education for their children. The stories of Martha’s Mother by Hekali Zhimomi and Vili’s Runaway Son by Abokali Jimomi, bring to the front the ingenuity and sheer unwavering faith of mothers, with limited resources, trying to map out better and safer lives for their children. The essay When Doors Open by Eyinbeni Humtsoe -Nienu talks about the small rebellion by the grandmother of the author, who would let her daughter, sneak out in the middle of the night to attend night school. This in turn allowed, the daughter, the author’s mother to get a clerical job with the government which paid for the author and her sibling’s education. Today the author is prolific writer as well a professor at one of the Indian universities. There are some wonderful poems that focus on identity and meaning of being a woman in a Naga society, like a No No No Woman by Rozumari Samsara and Self Portrait by Beni Sumer Yanthan.

British Survey Party in Naga Hills by R.G. Woodthorpe , 1874-75
Source -Royal Anthropological Institute archives

The book needless to say was an eyeopener to me even though I belong the same country as the writers; but India is such a vast melting pot that we sometimes miss the very thing which is our own and such an integral part of the Indian identity and heritage. For this fact alone, I am so glad that works like these are being published by these spirited independent organizations.  The glimpse of the culture and history that this collection brought of this remote eastern region of my country was both intriguing, increasing my curiosity to learn more and also more importantly, a reality check on how isolated is my understanding of my own land, living in urban metro with all the comforts of life home delivered. Infact among the many wonderful things about the book, the deep insights into the culture of the tribes that make up Nagaland is one of the strongest features of this book. All the writers have in their own way conveyed the cultural heritage that has been part of the fabric of this land, the coming of Christianity which after initial conflict with local tribal practises was integrated into the Naga society and the lure of modern city life that is taking people away from the traditional structures are poignantly brought out through this book. The selection is very comprehensive, covering a host of genres from fiction to poetry to essay to graphic art and explores a vast range of subjects from World War II, the separatist movement, the Christian missionary work and the domestic lives of the people. Each tale is very different from the other and yet held together by the running theme that underlies this collection – women narratives and their perspectives. What stood out to me more than anything else, is how these authors have taken the English language and crafted it into their own style; so, the writings are all in excellent comprehensible English, and yet it brings the flavour of Nagaland and her people; making it a very unique reading experience.

This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand cultures and conflict among cultures and the role women play in such a society, despite the patriarchal roots. It’s a brilliant and bold attempt by Zuban Publishers & Anungala Zoe Longkumer

I will follow up on the second book as part of this project in my next post.

Those Women….

I am exceedingly aware of my immense good fortune in being born into an erudite and liberal Hindu family that not only did not believe in discriminating between a boy and girl, but were positively feminists, even before the term became mainstream. I know just how easily I could have been born into a traditional Hindu household where the woman is deprived of basic Human Rights and lacks even elementary empowerment; however, growing up as a young girl and an adolescent, I did not think in those lines. I was aware of my entitlement but my peers and I all had an idea of how our lives were mapped out – education (graduate school being the very minimum), career, and then inevitably marriage and its addendums. What however happened was that woman of my generation or slightly older and a younger age groups, got that primer education, powerful jobs in corporate, government and other key areas and ended up NOT getting married. Many did of course, but many did not. In my graduate school class, we were a student body of 60 students in our particular degree; of which about 35 were women, of which 7 or so remain unmarried in the age bracket of 37 -39. It may not seem a lot, but seen from the lens of a traditional Indian society where marriage and motherhood are considered the epitome of womanhood, this figure is startling and interesting. And it’s just not my graduate school class; I have colleagues, friends, acquaintances, very educated, very successful, either remining to chose single or even becoming mother via adoption rather than embrace marriage. It is a unique phenomenon among the urban educated high middle-class population of India and someone somewhere needs to look into socio-economic moorings of this development.

The Letter by Haynes King

It was thus an interesting surprise when I stumbled upon a work of non-fiction that seemed to address this, albeit in United States.  All the Single Ladies – Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Ms. Traister is a well-known writer for New York magazine besides being a published author on several books about feminism and politics. Also Ms. Traister herself married later than her peers, I believe at the age of 35 and therefore from my perspective, she should know what she is talking about and with greatest curiosity I began to read this work. The book is divided into 10 Chapters along with a prologue and a conclusion. The author begins with explaining how her own experience and those of her friends coming of age as young adults in the shadow of Sex and the City and their subsequent lives, led her to study this group of young to middle age educated working women, who have not married and chosen to lead lives free of any such long term civil  or religious commitment, with or without a child. She begins by introducing the powerful phenomena that is the new age single unmarried woman. She then takes a look at history including events like Civil war and works of such feminists like Susan B Anthony that set the ball rolling for creating environments that fostered the growth of this group of women. She then studied this group through comprehensive lenses as urban single woman with financial independence as we well as women who came from economically weaker sections. She studied the process of female friendships as one of strongest support system among this group as well the support structures like grocery delivery, take out food and help from neighbors that is not only allowing this group to thrive but also take up single parenthood. She delves into the issues of violence and security as well as the emotion turmoil that these women face as single women in a culture that is still wary, suspicious and not completely bought in to this choice. She does not shy away from mentioning the positives that come from healthy happy partnerships including better home environments for kids as well as more secure economic status; but she also provides comprehensive data to show that such partnerships are not common and many make a compromise that ends in more unhappiness in the expectation of better lives.

Woman, Reading by Albert Bartholomew, 1883

There are simply not enough good things that I can say about this book! To start with the research is meticulous and deep; it is hard to believe that Ms. Traister is not a trained academic but a journalist and a writer. And yet despite all this research, the language is crisp and succinct and the message is clear! The balanced approach is yet another factor that is to be appreciated in the book – she celebrates the rise of single women, their success and empowerment; however, the author does not shy away from factors like security or even better home conditions for children when both parents are available. Even in the vast range of people she interviews, her epilogue comments, clearly call out that while many are doing well, some are not and that is life. There is no unrealistic expectation of happily ever after, only a promise that there are opportunities more than ever of a better life. The inclusiveness of the book makes it a major departure from books of other such genre; Ms. Traister tries to include all spectrum of women in her study and interviews – financially independent, those living on some state support, single women, single women with kids, Asians, African Americans, Whites, academics, clerks, writers – they are all there. Her narrative tries to include every kind of single woman and largely succeeds. The most interesting thing about the book is though it focuses on the rise of Single Women in US, barring certain regulations and political events, her story can be replicated to almost all single women across the world, who have some modicum of independence. Her story telling is universal and resonates across many cultures, with some caveats of course. Finally, despite being a serious study on women, the book is replete with wry humor, which makes for wonderful change of pace from a very thoughtful reading.  For instance, while speaking of financial independence of women, she quotes Susan B Anthony, to make a point of why women who earn their own money and buy things with that money, signals an epoch moment of liberation and empowerment – “When Susan B. Anthony began earning a salary as an elementary school teacher, at twenty-six, she had already turned down two marriage proposals in her quest to remain unmarried. She purchased for herself a fox-fur muff, a white silk hat, and a purple wool dress and wrote home, wondering if her peers might not “feel rather sad because they are married and cannot have nice clothes.” To end the book, nowhere is an anti-marriage or anti -men; the only thing Ms. Traister tries to do is de-stigmatize the notion of single women who in Mitt Rommey’s words “miss out on so much of life” and instead not missing out on life; she tries to showcase that such women with independent finances and support structures are making for good life for themselves, throwing over the yokel of the term of “spinsters”.

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.

The Unspoken Voices of Partition……

One of the often-overlooked aspects especially by the Western Historians and even some India scholars is the Partition of India. With the exception of Israel, no other state in modern history was created on religious grounds and there is no precedent in history to such mass scale killing, migration of population and loss of property that happened with the announcement of division of India in 1947, into two nations, Pakistan (created for the Muslims) and India. This artificial drawing of boundaries separating peoples and communities that have resided in the same way for a thousand years led to not only economic and political upheaval, but also lives lost, including rapes and abductions marred the joy of India finally “gaining” its freedom from British rule on August of 1947 and continues to echo till date.

Lately there have been some scholars from the subcontinent who have started looking at this epoch moment of history, The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan and Partition, The Story of India’s Independence and Creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White – Spunner to name a few; most of these books focused on “what happened” at the political level that led to division of India in two parts. While it is important to understand these politico-economics dynamics, it is also critical to understand people’s history and the story of the common folks who had to leave everything they knew as a way of life and with nothing except the clothes on their back and start a journey of 100 miles to a new unknown but apparently safe future. Among these narratives, however there are certain voices missing, like those of the partition Women, who were perhaps the biggest victims of the mass rioting that broke out in Punjab and Bengal, the two impacted states of the partition; losing not only family, but also subjected to some of the most brutal violence and heinous sex crimes in the recent history and then silenced either through death or forced conversion and marriage.

Urvashi Butalia, now one of the most respected scholars and publishers of India, began her work by trying to fill this gap by writing about these silenced voices, in her brilliant book, The Other Side of Silence – Voices of Partition of India published 1998. In 8 chapters, Ms. Butalia captures some of the most intense oral histories of men, woman, children to bring together a people’s history of what partition did to everyday men and women. She begins the book with by sharing how while helping some friends film a documentary about Partition, she became interested in the subject. This subject became even more personal as she takes us into her own family and how it split her mother’s family in two – her mother and her siblings choosing to make a dangerous journey to India on the eve of some of the worst violence and her mother’s younger brother who chose to stay back in Pakistan, convert and marry and settle there. In subsequent chapters, she explores narratives of women – women who tried to commit suicide rather than be raped and violated or “honour” killings, where girls and women were killed by the families to prevent them from being abducted and sexually exploited by fathers and brothers. She also talks about the children of the partition, those orphans of the conflict or those who were product of rape and kidnappings. Finally, she looks at the “Untouchables” the lowest in the Hindu Caste system and their stories during this time of history.

Ms. Butalia manages the remarkable feet of keeping the narrative empathetic and soulful, while remaining factual and scientific in her approach ensures that her book never descends into high drama story telling. Her voice is clear and concise and her honesty in acknowledging her own emotional turmoil, especially the story of her family adds another layer of depth to the book. Non judgemental and deeply human, she never blames any religion or the people, instead she subtly directs the readers to think about the political mechanizations that went on that time and the “leaders” who were could be seen as “responsible” for this catastrophe. She is not afraid of calling spade a spade, but instead she focuses on the main principals of the books, the overlooked others. Her nuanced and sensitive story telling picks on so many unspoken actions that speak not only of Partition but all marginalized groups across history. She speaks about how women who survived Partition were never allowed to speak to her alone and was always surrounded by family, to the extent, that at times even answers were given by family members who may not have actually witnessed the conflict. She gives voices to things left unsaid, the old man, who does not mention his mother, because she could commit suicide  ( the wells were filled up and women could not drown anymore) and of the lack of choices for the woman – when they were honour killed  or abducted and forced to marry or when after being settled with the new family for more than 10 years, they were forced to go back to their old families where they were disrespected on account of having lost their “purity” by the flick of signatures of the governments of two countries that embarked on a repatriation program. She speaks of little acknowledged facts of history  – of the amazing middle class women who came together to set up camps and provide shelter and occupation for their lesser fortunate sisters and their children; these women from well to do families had their own griefs to deal with of lost and murdered families but they put their own personal tragedies aside for greater good and till date remain the unsung heroes of the country. She speaks about the “Untouchables” who were stranded in Sindh and Pakistan would not let them go to India because they formed the complete sanitation workforce and, in their absence, the already struggling hygiene of the city would totally breakdown and the lack of initiative by the political leaders of India which allowed this population to be lost in annals of history. The book is not a complete history of the “other” voices, the author herself acknowledges, that she has not captured the stories of Bengal focusing instead of the impact of Partition of Punjab. But in her limited scope, she is able to convey many things and provide a profoundly deep and disturbing chapter in the tumultuous history of this 5000-year-old nation.

This is a difficult book to read but it is an important book to read. The stories of what women were subjected to is harrowing and heart-breaking. The fates of the abandoned children are beyond distressing. But it is book that needs to be read so that we do not forget and we do not repeat!

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!  

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?

The July Round Up

I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!

La-Lecture by Berthe Morisot, 1873

So what all did I read in July?

Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.

That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!

So how was your July reading?