March End Notes….

Well the month of March was a blur to say the least! As I had mentioned in the last post, there was just too much going on and the tempo did not ease through the last weeks either; but all of it was good, so all well worth the time spent! On top of continuing to support the local community with mentoring women entrepreneurs with limited education in business and strategy, I have also been collaborating a lot lately on my cancer awareness page ( you can find it here )and while it gives me new learning everyday, it also takes away a lot of what is essentially limited time. Besides this, my family came visiting and we all went for a small break to the Himalayas (Yes! Again!) and then there was parties and social evenings! I continued to be Chemo sick for several days and that did put a spanner on all the good things, but like someone told me lately, one’s simply got to roll with the punches!

The first thing that took take a hit because of all my whirlwind activities this month was my reading. With a full time job and all these side hustles and getting the apartment back in shape and getting the family settled, well, there was simply no time! Also some days the sickness got so bad, that words and sentences made no sense and every concept was foggy and illusive. Those days I could do nothing except read Tintin and Asterix comic books and I thank the powers that be for this simple and undiluted pleasure which saw me through those painful hours! In the end, a very dismal month from a reading perspective, though qualitatively speaking I thoroughly and completely loved reading these 4 books! I hope to read a bit more in April and have a few chunksters lined up!

March brings a very brief spring in India but while these two -three weeks last, the trees burst into colors and it’s seems like someone took a bucket of paint and splashed it all over them! It is a sight of unmatched beauty and a swansong before the burning summer overtakes the plains!

A dear friend of mine is spending a few months with his parents in the southern most state of India, Kerala and in March they have a week long celebration in honor of the local deities . It is a sight to behold and I am sharing some pictures and videos from one of the events , with his permission. The stately pachyderms are the highlight of the festival, respected, cared for and revered as symbol of good fortune !

With our family visiting, a trip to the hills is a mandate and Kasuali is a lovely sight to behold! This small Himalayan town is quaint and eccentric and is one of the oldest military cantonments of India. This is a place for leisurely walks and stopping for coffee and soaking in the sun, all the things we did and had great fun doing it! The highlight of the trip was the resort we were staying in; nestled among the woods it’s USP was the fact that the entire hotel was built around the trees, without cutting them down. That meant we had a full grown Himalayan Oak tree right inside our bedroom!!!

It was also my sister’s birthday month, so there was flowers, food, cake and many celebrations! Perhaps the best ever way to end a month!

It has been a crazy month, but a good month with new learnings and perspectives! I end with what I think is a very apt poem by my most favorite Ms. Emily Dickenson –

Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest—
Did you leave Nature well—
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me—
I have so much to tell—

I got your Letter, and the Birds—
The Maples never knew that you were coming—
I declare – how Red their Faces grew—
But March, forgive me—
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue—
There was no Purple suitable—
You took it all with you—

Who knocks? That April—
Lock the Door—
I will not be pursued—
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied—
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame—

To March by Emily Dickenson

February End Notes…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Guilty Pleasures …..

When I was young, I used to choose books expressly based on whatever seemed to have a good story. From Enid Blytons ( Yes I know she is many ist things now ! ) and Anne of GG to all my Nancy Drews to so many other books that I cannot even recollect. The ultimate reason for picking up a book was to be told a good story, a yarn that would entertain me, take me away from the mundane and would allow me to fanaticize about time and places and people, that had no bearing on reality! I was the 4th friend with George and Bess with Nancy in River Heights or going on picnics with Ann of GG at King Edwards Island. Good stories and interesting characters were the mainstays of what I chose to read and it led me eventually as a young adult to To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, East of Eden, War and Peace and Tagore’s novels. And they blew my mind away! I discovered Literature and life would never be the same; this is what art and writing was about – ideas and expressions and mankind! But I also discovered that which was not “Literature”, Sidney Sheldon, Harold Robins, James Hadley Chase and Jeffrey Archer! And oh! yes, Mills and Boon romances.

The Library (1905) by Elizabeth Shippen Green; Source https://www.librarything.com/pic/7275994

The reaction I often get when I mention the above line up is usually a wrinkled nose along with a very condescending “Really?” . That inevitable look of surprise on people’s faces when scanning my book shelves, where tucked among Charles Dickens and Umberto Eco, they discover a historical romance novel! The idea is if I read Elizabeth Gaskell and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I cannot really read a Judith McNaught novel and vice versa. It’s almost as if I have some kind of reading disorder and cannot truly be a sensible reader. And this is where I have a problem. I make no superior claims of literature or ideas from these authors; but do we always have to read something superior? Yes, great literature elevates the soul, makes us sensitive and opens our minds to new thoughts! But do we need greatness constantly? Do we not need some fun, now and then? Is not greatness better appreciated when you take a break and come back to it, like all good things, that improve in some temporary absence? Don’t we love our classics a little more, after having read a popular or a modern fiction? And ideas? Is it something that exists in an exclusive commune, available only in certain kind of books by a certain type of author? I personally completely disagree with the thought that ideas can only be absorbed from the so called great works. Sidney Sheldon gave me the the first understanding about Jewish persecution (Bloodline); I was a 13 year old living in India, absorbed in Indian culture with a detour to everything English as part of the colonial hand me down. World War was taught in school and there were chapters on Holocausts, but it was a pulp fiction novel that made me realize what persecutions means in flesh and blood. The Spanish Civil War and the Cold War politics, both came home to me via again Sidney Sheldon novels, Sands of Time and Windmills of Gods respectively. I learnt about South American politics from Harold Robin’s The Adventurer and more facts about turn of the century America from Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel than in my standard school textbooks, getting a regular A in history all through high school. I went on to get a Masters degree in one the most prestigious universities of Asia, that only admitted 40 students across the country every year for their International Politics course. All those pulp fiction novels laid the foundation for my interest in international affairs, introducing me to the larger world, beyond my regular ecosystem and set me up in a path of eventual academic excellence. Yes, I built upon those nascent concepts by reading many classics and thought provoking books, but the path, many a times was lit by such “light reads”. And this is not just about academic success; I first became acquainted with Bach’s music in a Mills and Boons novel, The Shadow Princess; and have been in love with it ever since. My parents were both very musical and Hindustani Classical and Indian popular music along with a lot of 60’s-70’s Pop and Jazz always played on in our home. But the whole world of Western Classical burst upon me , thanks again to my non highbrow reads. My life is infinitely richer because when I looked, I found great ideas in every book. Besides, who am I to judge what someone else reads and vice versa again! I think I can safely say I am literature connoisseur , but some books hailed as masterpieces, still do not make sense to me. (Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary & Middlemarch by George Elliot! Sigh! ) Reading therefore, I firmly believe is a very personal affair between a reader and their book and what works for some, may not and will not work for others. And unless you read all kinds of books, how will you know, what works and does not work; and what entertains and what educates? Finally, at the cost of sounding cynical, in today’s day and age of digital blitz, I feel thrilled to simply see someone pick up a book and read it. Do we really need to make a case of reading casteism now? Is it not simply enough that you are reading a good story that entertains you even if it does nothing else? Is entertainment not important? Does it not refresh us and help us face life and its challenges better? Is it not a fact that many multimillion dollar industries of films and series thrive on the concept of entertainment? Then why do we look down on entertaining books? Why are they a guilty pleasure? A good story that delights you is a value in itself, even if does not add a single additional word to your vocabulary.

To end, read Voltaire, who was a far more erudite and learned man than yours truly and is a “great” writer and a defines classic literature, and you may believe him! He wrote “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.” So let people read! Read even if it’s for the sake of amusement, it will not do any harm and by my experience, may end up in fact doing a lot of good!

This Day, That Year!

Oh! Joy! Oh! Celebrations!! Tis time to rejoice!!

And no, I couldn’t care less about Valentine’s Day and similar gobblegook shenanigans!

Today, 10 years ago, 14 February, 2012, I started this blog! And today we are all of 10 years old!

This is a huge milestone for at so many different levels. I made it past 10 years when I honestly had no idea what I would post the next day or next week or next year, when I began in 2012.

Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry Blossoms by Katsushika Hokusai, 1834, Public Domain. The bullfinch is used in ceremonies conducted at the New Year all over Japan to protect against misfortune in the coming year (Source – https://learnodo-newtonic.com/famous-flower-paintings )

10 years ago, I had very different expectations from life, most of which did not come through (though that is not necessarily a bad thing! ) What I did not expect was to see Mockingbird, Looking Glasses and Prejudice complete 10 grand years, gather a loyal following and help me learn and survive all the curve balls of life! But here we are and still going strong and I am so gleeful to have reached this moment! I should really do a thank you speech, but these days, I am always in a reflective mood, so instead am sharing some things that happened to me over the years thanks to this blog –

  1. I learnt to read outside my comfort zone. And how!! Before I started this blog I stuck to English and maybe some Russian fiction and some travel writings. But since I started this page, I have read Non Fiction copiously and loved it; I have read poetry and developed a deep liking for it. I have read about all other countries of the world and learnt a bit more about this great community of Homo Sapiens and how we are all very same in so many different ways!
  2. The blogging and the interactions with everyone has made me more aware and more curious about my own country and culture. Every time I did any event like AusReadingMonth or saw any posts on NordicFinds events, I grew curious about similar literature I had in my part of the world and I wondered at parallels and the inputs from everyone made me think more deeply about my own history. In a way, as I learnt about the world, I discovered more about my own world.
  3. My mind opened to new ideas and I believe I became more compassionate and more tolerant. I do not agree with everybody on every book and everybody does not agree with me on my thoughts. But we all exchange our ideas freely and agree to disagree respectfully and share a laugh at the absurdities. This for me personally has been an important growth both emotionally and intellectually and I could not have done this without this blog.
  4. This blog is my stress release zone, my safe place, my zone out corner. I have always had this piece of world to share my angst, my heartbreaks, my fears without any fear of judgement or wondering how it will be interpreted. I have often found my sanity, and my ability to face another day through this world.
  5. My booklish blogging tribe, you are my biggest gift of this 10 year journey. You all live in different parts of the world, work in different places and have different lives, but every time I had a crisis, you found time to send me a kind word, share a sensible advice and a virtual hug. Thank You for sharing your personal histories, for the recipes and book recommendations and the virtual flowers! You have stood by me through my heartbreaks, my parent’s deaths and last year through my Cancer. You have cheered me on and lifted me up and did everything you could to make my world better. You all are part of one of the best things in my life and if for nothing else, these 10 years have been so worth it, because I have found you! Thank You Stefanie, Brona, Karen, Mudpuddle, Marian and Cleo! You all enrich my life everyday

I have read more, written more, became more aware; all thanks to this wonderful journey, started a decade ago! I have evolved in so many ways that I cannot even begin to articulate. This blog truly has been a gift that keeps giving! So here’s to 10 years and more! To new reading adventures and more writing expeditions. And to blogs, that unites us and holds us all together!

Update – Shout out to my another blogging friend and mentor Jane, who along with Stefanie, guided my initial blogging adventures. Jane is taking a break from Blogging world and I thought she may need some time out but she commented and I thought, I must atleast share with the world, how awesome she has been, supporting me through all my life adventures and introducing me to some of my favorite authors like Margaret Kennedy and Margery Sharp.

The Epic Other Women…..

Karen is always at the forefront of some amazing reading events and all of them have helped me read books out of my comfort zone, open my mind to new ideas and generally learn more. The #readindies event that she hosts along with Lizzy, every year with is one such event. Often in the media blitz of the bigger publishing houses and colossal corporates like Amazon, the Independent publishers and bookstores get lost and with them we lose on unique distinctive narratives that move away from mainstream or popular culture and speak of things not common. Reading fundamentally, more than just being one of the best entertainments, is about living many lives, exploring uncharted places and making you face things, away from your home ground. It is essential for an enriched soul and a thinking mind and a sensitive heart and these aims are fulfilled when we read what is popular but also what is different, and subaltern or alternative. And reading independent publishers who give voice to this section of the society, atleast in my part of world, therefore becomes even more critical.

This brings me to the independent publishing house of Westland Publications and I want to talk about them a bit before I get into the book I read. Westland Publications was one the first and premier Indian publishing houses of independent India wholly owned and run by Indians. It started way back in 1962 as distributer of books before branching into publishing garnering great reputation among Indian authors and Indian readers for several years. In 2013 it was bought by the Tata Group and in 2017 it was sold off to Amazon. While it became part of larger conglomerate, the spirit of being the voice of India continued unstintingly; they kept catering to what was often not part of the popular culture under the prolific and far sighted leadership of Gautam Padmanabhan, son of the founder, KS Padmanabhan, both icons of Indian literary world. However on Friday, February 1, Amazon announced it will be shutting down Westland Publications. I am sure Amazon can back up with data and numbers as to why it makes sense to shut down Westland, and I am sure they all make perfect business sense. But for Indian readers and authors and the literary world, this is a heavy blow. Westland was a unique agency of bringing forth the nascent world of Indian English literature and powering the publication of books in other native languages. While Penguin and other such giants continue to publish the bigger names of Indian authors, for the marginalized, a strong platform has disappeared taking along with it, many unheard voices and stories. I chose Westland because in essence it has always been #indie in every sense of the term and it’s recent ill fortunes make it even more important, that her books be read and her voice continues to be heard, whether they are physically available on shelves or not.

Now back to regular programing!

Ramayan along with Mahabharat are two of the epics of Indian subcontinent and East Asia. They are the Iliad and Odyssey of the East and every household has atleast one copy of each. They provide religious counsel, philosophy, political insight and entertainment. They have been translated in innumerable languages and been made into films and series and even animation. However what usually get’s narrated is the one of the standing theme of the epics, the battles, and often the other stories which actually give a far more comprehensive picture of the life and times and the philosophy of life, gets left out, providing a very skewed narrative. Ramayan is ostensibly a linear tale of a great virtuous Prince, Ram, who is exiled from his kingdom due to family politics; his stepmother wants her son to be the crown prince and the new ruler of Ayodhya. Ram goes into exile with his beautiful and loyal wife Sita and his youngest half brother Lakshman. In the jungle, a female “giant” becomes enamored of the two Princes and proposes to first Ram and when he spurns her, to Lakshman. Lakshman, the angry young man, is affronted at the audacity of this female giant in making such a suggestion, and chops off her eyes and ears ( A simple No would have sufficed!) The insulted woman, goes back to her brother, who is the King of the powerful state of Lanka, Ravan, who promises to seek revenge. He then plots to get Ram and Lakshman away from their cottage and kidnaps Sita. A battle ensures between the two forces and naturally the “good” forces , i.e. Ram and friends win and return to Ayodhya to take their rightful place. This is the broad outline of the mainstay of the epic , but there are several other associate stories that led to this final plot development, many other voices and several other characters, who were pivotal to this story. And this is what Anand Neelkantan tries to do, in his book Valmiki’s Women.

Valmiki was a dacoit and an anti social element, who had a change of heart and became a hermit. One day, he decided to write an epic that would become Ramayan. Mr. Neelkanthan’ first story reimagines the circumstances that led to Valmiki writing this epic, with the running themes of women, land and sacrifice. His next story explores the life of Shanta, the little known and often ignored older sister to Ram and his brothers. Their father King Dashratha is obsessed with the idea of having a son and in that quest, he ignores his only child, his daughter Shanta. The story traces Shanta’s life, highlighting her relationships with her father, her step mother Kaykei, who trains her to be a warrior princess and the final act of obedience, that she is called on to display, to help her father realize his ambitions. The second story focuses on the life of Manthara, lady in waiting to the second Queen of Ayodhya, Kaykei. It is said that it was the constant brain washing by Manthara, that led to Kaykei, demanding that King Dashratha keep his long given blank promised to her, to give her whatever she wants, that led to exile of Ram. In this re-telling, the reader gets an insight into the distressing circumstances Manthara was born into; she was a hunchback and that has traditionally been a subject of derision or suspicion alternatively. The story follows as Manathara is selected to become a governess cum lady in waiting for the young princess, Kaykei and her life as she follows the princess to her married home, the exile of Ram and her last years. The third story is told from the point of view of another “giant” Maricha, who narrates the story of his mother, Tataka, a “giant” princess who had married a man of the forest and with the advance of the Aryan or Ram’s civilization into the natural habitat of northern India, died protecting the flora and fauna. The story follows Maricha’s plan of avenging the death of his parents and how his “disguise” lured first Ram and the Lakshman from their cottage, leaving Sita alone to be kidnapped. The book closes with the final story of Meenakshi, the female “giant” who was besotted by Ram and had to pay the price by becoming disfigured. The story follows her life as she meets Sita who is now about to be exiled alone ( This is the epilogue of Ramayan; where local gossip imputes that Sita was not loyal to Ram when kidnapped, though it is beyond question that she has been so. Embarrassed Ram disowns her and sends her to exile where she bears him two sons and would ultimately be called back. Only she refuses and instead is “gives herself to be enfolded in the earth.”) This interaction between Meenakshi and Sita and a woman from one of Indian tribes closes the narrative, again bringing it back to the theme of land, women and sacrifice.

This is already a long post so I do not want to eulogies on how well written this book was. While there has been a recent trend of re-telling of Indian mythologies and epic, most are sensationalist without any real insight to offer. Mr. Neelkantan does a fabulous job in managing to narrate complex tales in lucid and sparse prose, while making it gripping and wholly absorbing. He is not afraid to break away from the mainstream narrative and give voices and provide perspectives to the marginalized and often demonized characters of the epic. He subtly makes the political point on how Aryans coming from North, i.e. Iran would have viewed the indigenous population of India and branded them as monsters and giants. (India had a flourishing civilization, called the Indus Valley Civilization circa. 5000 BCE. Aryans were actually Iranians came in hordes to India and settled here around 1500 BCE and from them emerged the two epics) He beautifully illustrates the conflict of two different civilizations, without losing his grip on the main story. Most importantly, his compassion for all the overlooked elements of the society, that continues to live on its fringes even in the present day, through the iteration of an age old epic, makes the reader aware of how much still needs to be done for their fellow humans. Simple yet gorgeous, this book is must for anyone interested in India.

The Choices We Make…..

A few weeks ago I read this wonderful review at Heavenali about a novel called “Which Way?” by Theodora Benson. The review was as always brilliant, like all of Ali’s reviews and it was available on Amazon Kindle without costing me a kidney and the central theme of “sliding door moments” i.e. of of inconsequential or unimportant choices result in momentous effect on the future path of life was intriguing. I was deeply impressed to know that this book was written, well before 1998 film of the same name, i.e. in 1931. On further research I found that it even preceded, J. B. Priestley’s 1932 play, Dangerous Corner, where apparently this concept more popularly explored. The final clincher was that this very innovative piece was written by the author when only 25 years old; this novel I needed to read!

Theodora Benson was born in England in 1905 and had published over a span of 30 years. She was a prolific writer and wrote everything from short stories, to novels, to essays and humor pieces, to writing speeches for the Government during World War II, where novelist Elizabeth Jenkins was her assistant. She spent her later life writing several books in partnership with her childhood friend Betty Askwith including travel writing about Europe and Asia, where she travelled with Askwith. She was never married and died at the age of 62 in 1968.

Which Way was Ms. Benson’s fourth novel and traces the parallel narrative of the novel’s protagonist, of Claudia Heseltine’s future, returning to the same moment with three different actions of Claudia, that would chart her life. Till this moment, Claudia is a bright young 20 something girl of her times (late 1920s?) she has doting parents, has been well educated in terms of intellectual as well as social needs , like attending a finishing school in Paris and has a host of amazing friends with enough money and a good life. She then reaches this moment, where she has three invitations – conflicting invitations, a stay at her good friend’s house over his birthday, another from a society friend, to meet an actress and her husband, both of whom Claudia finds very interesting and yet another from one of her highly intellectual friend to a weekend at the latter’s house where she was hosting some people including a popular polo player whom also, our heroine wanted to meet. The novel then follows her life as it unfolds driven by the which of the invitation she chooses, three times over. We meet Claudia, in a different setting each time, with different choices and a wholly different life from the other. There is no happy or sad ending per se, only life as is, bittersweet , simple and extremely complex, all at once.

There was so much to like about this novel; to begin with the main protagonist, Claudia Heseltine. She is neither a ravishing beauty nor an intellectual giant nor is an angel of mercy. She is a bit of everything, just like all of us in everyday life and just like all of us makes decisions based on what she feels best at that point in time and learns to live with its consequences, which may be whatever. She comes across as real and the brilliance of Ms. Benson lies in making it all seem so possible; we as readers may know what other choices Claudia could have had, but Claudia at that moment, choosing to accept one invitation over the other, seems as clueless and as innocent we are before we realize what the result of that choice is. Other characters in the book do equal justice, and again, the brilliance of Ms. Benson comes forth in being able to beautifully articulate, how a certain person may act when placed in the same circumstance, but with a different context. One of the outstanding qualities of the novel, among many others, is the absolutely authentic depiction of female friendships; there is strength and there is support but there no romanticism in them. They may change when life circumstances change or they may continue to be the very mainstay of your existence, but regardless of how they alter, they are always present in your life, always something for you to consider and sometime even seek permission from. The plot slowly unravels without any tense moment or “climax”. There is strong sense of irony at play through the book, but especially at the end of the first part, where Claudia wonders, how different her life would have been if she had made a different choice. On the face of it, this may seem a simplistic light novel about love and romance and marriage, but it is deeper than that; it is to great extent a feminist novel; where our protagonist, uses the herself, her inner happiness, her everyday cares and concerns to live a fulfilled rich life, no matter what curve ball life throws at her. She finds her worth and her value in simple everyday things despite off and inspite of the roads her life leads her onto. Personally to me, her first narrative felt the most real, though the other fates, were equally possible, in the social context of 1920’s-1930’s. It felt more heartfelt, more real and more simpler than the other narratives and I could not help but feel, there was a touch of personal history in there. Of course, I could be over imagining everything, and no such thing ever occurred except in my highly imaginative mind!

On my own personal note, I was super excited to read a thoughtful and insightful afterword by Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book and who is the series consultant for these reprints. Simon’s essay gave me a lot of additional details to think about and helped in making the whole reading more enriching. Chuffed to know a celebrity, even remotely, as in really remotely!

Strongly recommend atleast one reading of this book, for its novel approach, for its very illuminating description of the life and times of this era and I would add, the woman’s movement. I for sure will be looking up her other works and also read Priestley’s play on the similar theme.

The Year That Was …..

I had made my mind that I was not posting any 2021 year end, bookish notes; I am trying to after all be footloose and fancy free in my reading and writing ( hence no reading challenges and goals) But the very inherent nature of being fancy free is to do what you want to do, when you want to do. And today, when I stumbled on Diana’s blog, I knew this was one FUN 2021 wrap up post I wanted to; nevermind we are all most one month over in 2022.

Woman Reading in a Forest, (1875) Gyula Benczúr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The rule is very simple; we must complete the sentences below using the titles of the books only read in 2022. Diana tells me that this was originally started by Adam (Roof Beam Reader) who I know is the at helm of may such innovative and joyful reading ideas.

Therefore without further ado, I present My Life in Books : 2021 –

  • In high school I was Kissing Toads (by Jemma Harvey)
  • People might be surprised by The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (by Jonas Jonasson)
  • I will never be The Foolish Gentlewoman (by Margery Sharp)
  • My fantasy job is White Magic (by Muireann Maguire)
  • At the end of a long day I need Small Pleasures (by Clare Chambers)
  • I hate The Wrecking Storm (by Michael Ward)
  • I wish I had A House in the Country (by Ruth Adams)
  • My family reunions are Whirlwinds (Ponniyin Selvan 2 by Kalki)
  • At a party you’d find me with All The Single Ladies (by Rebecca Traister) planning to become Women Travelers (by Mary Morris Ed.)
  • I’ve never been to By the Banks of Tungabadra (by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay)
  • A happy day includes The Feast (by Margaret Kennedy)
  • Motto I live by There is no Place like Hope (by Vickie Girard)
  • On my bucket list is The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (By Mark Manson)
  • In my next life, I want to have Vittoria Cottage (by DE Stevenson)

I had such an amazing time making this list! I do hope some of you will share your life in books and spread the joy!

The Joy of Doing Nothing….

It is a Sunday afternoon; we, as in, my sister and I have no plans of entertaining in the evening and all is quiet around the house. The lunch is all done and my sister in the very traditional a la Bengal meets Spain style is indulging in a luxurious siesta. I am pottering around the apartment aimlessly, sometimes in the sitting room or sometimes in my bed room. I am reading, making coffee and in between randomly surfing the internet. I feel bored but not really; the books I am currently reading – Humankind by Rutger Bergman and Which Way by Theodora Benson are wholly absorbing and thoughtful reads in their own way. Humankind makes me re-think and revisit some commonly held historical beliefs and Which Way, a brilliant piece of inventive fiction makes me both nostalgic as well as wonder about the many what ifs in life. I have plenty food for thought between the two reads, so boredom it is not. Yet I am at odds and ends; like I should be doing something or not whiling away this time; not meandering around. And then realization dawns, that because I am, we are, constantly attuned to completing a task, achieving something, this restless feeling, was/is actually an anxiety that this nothing to do will prove costly later. I and we as a species, have been guilted down from generation to generation that we must do something, constantly and incessantly to make life fruitful.

There is something to that argument; if as a species we would have not been active and accomplished things, we would have never invented fire or the wheel or vaccines to stop small pox or the internet. It is this very hyper productivity of mankind, that had led to it’s success and greatness. Where we stand today is the effort of hundreds and thousands of our ancestors who have strived and done their bit to bring in a better life for the progenies of the future. And now we reap the harvest of their hard work, so maybe it behooves us to do the same; in fact it obligates us to do the same; to work hard so that we can bequeath a better future to still unborn generations.

The Swing (La balançoire), 1876, oil on canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30518325

But when I think a little more closely, I wonder about this “progress”; true we have vaccines and the internet. But it all started so many 100,000 years ago by first invention of fire, then agriculture, wheel that stimulated trade and then as Yuval Noah Harari said, the greatest invention of all times, God. This naturally let to authority and then ours versus theirs and through centuries of wars and strives, into a seemingly modicum of peace and sanity that we have today, though not wholly and we have many newer problems to deal with as well. We may have created answers to solve older problems that we created ourselves and but new answers are creating new problems and we are constantly spiraling down a path of “progress”, without perhaps stopping to think what is this progress? What does it mean to me or my family? And personally at a microcosm level, is what I am doing really helping “progress” or am I like myself, just helping a rich company become richer and becoming caught up in a never ending cycle of chasing one goal after another and trying to fill the gaps with incessant consumption of things I do not need and does not make give me any long lasting happiness or comfort. If this be the case, then I am really not doing any good to the future generations; in fact I may be downright ruining their future with my consumerism which is killing the planet. Instead, would it not be better, if I appreciate quietly the joy of doing nothing one lazy Sunday afternoon. Yes, I may not achieve anything if I go on like this, but then what am I trying to achieve – some comfort and some happiness. A long race to millions in the bank does not guarantee either. Rather in the mad dash to achieve nothing, I may instead lose the present joy and this blessing, for blessing it is; how many can claim to have a dull Sunday afternoon?

This then is what I bequeath to the unborn of the future – the ability in the words of William Henry Davis, the time to stand and stare. To not be in a constant rush to do something and be some place; I absolve them from the guilt of all these expectations. I hope they have a fulfilling life, where they can go for a walk among green trees, have the ability to enjoy a cup of coffee under the blue sky lit by the orange haze of a rising sun and a lazy quiet Sunday afternoon, with absolutely nothing to do!

Once Upon a Time in Russia…..

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

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

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

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

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

An Old Lake…..

In celebration of having finished Chemotherapy, I decided to throw caution to the wind and do some impromptu traveling. I just returned for one such trip and I have another one planned next week; the trip planned next week is to the home of my heart – Himalayas and about which I think I have bored one and all enough, but for today the agenda is to talk about this small town in the north west of India, near the great Thar Desert called Pushkar and share a bit about it!

Pushkar located in the Indian state of Rajasthan, is an old, old town, older than the memory of mankind. Legend has it that it was created when Lord Brahma’s ( one of the many Gods of the Hindu pantheon and one of the top 3 in the hierarchy ) lotus slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground, creating the Pushkar Lake. This lake has been mentioned in the epics like Mahabharat and the depiction of this lake has been found in coins dating back 400 BC ( which compared to the whole breadth of Indian history is like day before yesterday but still!) Needless to say this is an ancient town with many myths and legends. In the days of yore this town was famous for its annual festival called the Pushkar mela or Pushkar fair, where the highlighted event was camel trading but various other crafts and entertainments were also at display. The fair fortunately continues till today though in reduced capacity as these ancient tribes, take on more “modern professions” and leave their traditional nomadic lives behind.

We spent three very happy days exploring the city, it’s culture and it’s food. The township is really small compared to the other places in India. Nestled in the valley of the granite mountains of Aravalli range, the best way to explore this place is on foot. Dotted around the lake are several temples of greater or lesser importance. The most heartening sight is to see a temple, situated adjacent to a mosque and facing a Gurudwara ( place of worship for the Sikh religion ); people forget that everyday people just want to live their lives peacefully and quietly and this is the essence of mankind and my country specifically. We took a wrong route to the lake ( thank you Google ) but that led us to a more secluded part of the lake with a grand vista and none of the craziness of people and business, that are a feature in other banks of the lake. We spent some hours on this quiet spot and then began a leisurely and glorious walk through the lesser known temples, admiring the architecture as we made our way to the commercial part of the town. The Bazaar is filled with some gorgeous handicrafts of metal and leather, the latter being a specialty of this town. The most spectacular feature of this is place is as you keep walking, among modern building and commercial outfits, there is a wide door, and as you peek inside, a magnificent, awe inspiring temple structure greets, you, totally unexpected and completely taking your breathe away! Another memorable item of this trip was the food; we were fortunate enough to have a found an amazing hotel with a wonderful warm staff and a brilliant chef ( Must stay a Hotel Brahma Horizon if here! ) and while all our meals were remarkably delicious, one particular lunch where we had the traditional food of this region was wow! The Rajasthani Thali ( literally meaning plate) that was served to us had 7-8 dishes, displaying the best that this place had to offer! Rajasthan is an arid zone unlike the rest of the more fertile areas of the country and agriculture products are mainly millets and legumes; yet out of these sparse resources, the people of this region have been able to develop a delicious, nutritious and a varied cuisine which we got to sample as part of this thali. We ate Dal Batti ( wheat dumplings with legume curry ) soaked in Ghee ( clarified butter) with Churma (made of flour, sugar and dry fruits ) , Bajra roti ( pearl millet flatbread ) , gatta curry ( steamed dumplings made from chickpea cooked in a spiced yoghurt sauce), Mangodi curry ( deep friend moong bean dumpling curry made with ginger, asafetida and other spices) , panchmel subzi ( mixed vegetable curry ) were some of the items in this meal. One of the best I have ever eaten!

Needless to say, this was an amazing way to close out my chemo affair! I absolutely loved this city and I leave you with some pictures of my adventures.