Once Upon a Time in India….

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

In March …..

 “March came in that winter like the meekest and mildest of lambs, bringing days that were crisp and golden and tingling, each followed by a frosty pink twilight which gradually lost itself in an elfland of moonshine.”

-L.M. Montgomery

“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

-Charles Dickens

March days return with their covert light,
and huge fish swim through the sky,
vague earthly vapours progress in secret,
things slip to silence one by one.
Through fortuity, at this crisis of errant skies,
you reunite the lives of the sea to that of fire,
grey lurchings of the ship of winter
to the form that love carved in the guitar.
O love, O rose soaked by mermaids and spume,
dancing flame that climbs the invisible stairway,
to waken the blood in insomnia’s labyrinth,
so that the waves can complete themselves in the sky,
the sea forget its cargoes and rages,
and the world fall into darkness’s nets

-Pablo Neruda

“The almond blossom from the tree has gone, to be replaced by new green shoots. It smells of spring, and mown grass, and tilled earth from the fields beyond. Now is the month of Germinal in the Republican calendar: the month of hyacinth, and bees, and violet, and primrose. It is also the windy month; the month of new beginnings, and I have never felt it so strongly as I feel it now: that sense of possibility; that irresistible lightness.”

-Joanne Harris

Let the old snow be covered with the new:
The trampled snow, so soiled, and stained, and sodden.
Let it be hidden wholly from our view
By pure white flakes, all trackless and untrodden.
When Winter dies, low at the sweet Spring’s feet
Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.

Let the old life be covered by the new:
The old past life so full of sad mistakes,
Let it be wholly hidden from the view
By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.

Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring
Let the white mantle of repentance fling
Soft drapery about it, fold on fold,
Even as the new snow covers up the old.

-Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Artist Unknown; Creation Date: ca. 1840 Collection: The San Diego Museum of Art

The sun is hotter than the top ledge in a steam bath;
The ravine, crazed, is rampaging below.
Spring — that corn-fed, husky milkmaid —
Is busy at her chores with never a letup.

The snow is wasting (pernicious anemia —
See those branching veinlets of impotent blue?)
Yet in the cowbarn life is burbling, steaming,
And the tines of pitchforks simply glow with health.

These days — these days, and these nights also!
With eavesdrop thrumming its tattoos at noon,
With icicles (cachectic!) hanging on to gables,
And with the chattering of rills that never sleep!

All doors are flung open — in stable and in cowbarn;
Pigeons peck at oats fallen in the snow;
And the culprit of all this and its life-begetter–
The pile of manure — is pungent with ozone.

-Boris Pasternak

To end with, I am sharing this song; actually a poem by India’s literary giant, polymath, educationist, humanitarian Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written in late 19th century – early 20th century , it has since been adapted into many plays and films. I share this version for several reasons; the singer has done a beautiful rendition of the original, it has subtitles in English for some of my readers & finally since this has excerpt is from a film and gives a glimpse of an Indian village setting.

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.

On December

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

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

― Lisa Kleypas, Love in the Afternoon

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

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

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

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

― Joseph Coelho, A Year of Nature Poem

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

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

―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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

– Charles Dickens

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

Masnavi Shita’iyah 

In this season where the water is frozen

Every bubble has become a glasshouse.

The stream flowing across the garden

Looks like a line drawn on the page.

The minstrel’s hand is without a drum.

It seems the dewy song has frozen too. 

Cold has turned water into ice.

Etching it is like etching a stone.

In all this, the duck in the water croons

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

The spark too has been struck by the chill

And has hid itself back in the flint. 

The spark and flame are together no more.

The chilly drought has torn them apart.

No sooner does a spark rise from the fire

Than it turns into a hailstone.

Such is the nip in the biting air

That the moist eye resembles a stony glass. 

Scared to their bones now men are of water

Like the mirror they hide it under the earth.

The means of living are in the hands of Chinar

Which in autumn has provided for fire.

The fish offers itself to the hook

In the hope that it might see fire

So cold has the oven of the sky become

No longer visible is the bread-like sun

Can a stream flow on the face of the earth

When the sun’s eye itself is frozen?

Release from the stinging cold does the fish find

When it slits itself with the icicle’s sword

No fear of water does the snow show.

It floats on its surface like foam.

The ember glowing in the brazier

Looks like a gem in the casket.

He who relaxes his hold on the chair

Finds himself skating on the ice.

And he who breaks his leg on the ice

Is plastered there on the wooden plank.

His joy knows no bounds if a sad soul

Gets hold of a few flint stones.

How could one walk on the murky earth

If it were not covered with planks of ice?

Agonized such is the fish by the chill

It seeks to flee from all that is wet.

Every sigh that soars up to the sky

Becomes a snowflake and falls to the ground.

Behold the game that the winter plays

Fashioning myriad mirrors from water plain.

Though a flame hides within its breast

The leaf of chinar breathes no warmth.

And he whose life leaves him in this chill

Prefers hell to escape the cold.

As children make their way to school

They practice skating on the planks of ice 

He is wise who in this season

Clings to the stove like a madman.

Narrating this, my tongue is coated with ice.

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

And when the chill turns chillier still

Like the ear, even the mouth turns still.

The tear which drops from the crying eye

Freezes like the wax dripping down the candle.

All this is known to the wise ant

Which entombs itself when alive.

This winter’s tale I can no longer narrate 

For the tongue is now an icicle in my mouth. 

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

Painting 1 – Lotus Lilies at Dal Lake

Painting 2 – Shalimar Gardens

Painting 3 – The Temple, Chenar Bagh

Painting 4 – Sunset on Jhelum

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

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!

While I was Away…….

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

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

Claude Monet, Autumn on the Seine at Argenteuil, 1873

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

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

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

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

November Night

BY ADELAIDE CRAPSEY

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

The First Multinational & The Conquest of a Sovereign Nation

In a globalized world of free markets and open economy, the idea of a multinational subverting the national interest of a country where they are expected to only conduct business is not new. Infact these days, they hardly seem to make news, after the initial furor. It’s almost an expectation that a large for profit organization almost always, may indulge practices that cannot be accounted for in the books and which will propel the interest of certain few in power, while subjecting the larger populace to many inequities and struggle. However despite such organizations being larger than ever in 21st century, not one of them can quite match the sheer greed and treacherous conduct, that led to the subjugation of a nation for nearly 200 years, all to enrich another nation and the company stockholders – The Honorable East India Company!

The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence and The Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple looks at this very phenomena that led to the rise of a group of merchants who had to work long hard years to simply be allowed a trading outpost in India to becoming the very rulers of that nation, in less than 100 years. The story of East India Company, and those of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Bengal and Oudh are well known to every child in India; drilled in from grade 6 history books, with the Battle of Plassey as the day of infamy; a nation conquered through bribe and betrayal. But Mr. Dalrymple goes much beyond this epoch making time of Indian history, to bring to the readers, the very events that led to the creation of East India company; her initial and mostly unsuccessful forays into India. It traces in parallel the history of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperors inter-played with merchants, starting from grant that led to creation of a trading outpost, to being defeated and expelled from the country by Aurangzeb and finally the fall of the House of Timur that led the great grandson of Aurangzeb, the very talented but ill fated Shah Alam to become a pensioner and a puppet ruler of the Company. The book also sheds light to the rise of local powers like the legendary Marathas and the valorous Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the sultans of Mysore as they fought each other and the company is a gallant effort to keep their states sovereign and were defeated each time by conduct of bribes and other underhand means by the Company. It showcases the economic and aesthetic prosperity of almost all parts of India under these local rulers, through the 18th century and the consequences, of Company conquest leading to famine, destruction of native art and trades and displacement of the local populations. Further the book delves deeply into the kind of administration that the company set up from taxation to justice under the name of the Mughal Emperor but really running an independent nation state with the help of a private army. The books also looks at the rise and fall of such iconic British statesman like Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley and spin to the conquests and settlement that each of these Governors brought to the country, until it became a suzerainty of a multinational corporation. Finally, in a succinct manner, the author also manages to illustrate, how as a multinational corporation, East India Company set a precedent for all such companies in future, from corporate lobbying, to the unholy government – company nexus for military action to government bailouts; all well before, any of these terms were actually invented. In the usual style of the author, the book is filled with nuggets of wonderful information, that historical books usually do not contain, including some wonderful Urdu couplets and Ragas now all lost. It also has some rare paintings drawn from a wide variety of sources, once again shedding light on the fact that the so called “dark age” of India was anything but dark and it was the really the interpretation of few westerners who did not understand the country or its history that led to such a narrative.

Let me start by stating the obvious, Mr. Dalrymple never is never disappointing. Filled with quotations and citing, the book is a work of meticulous and thorough research. The author has exhaustively used both primary and secondary resources to tell a story that needed to be told, in the most interesting, easy and lucid manner. The Bibliography and Notes alone stands at nearly 100 pages and talks of the extensive reading done by the author to present this work. It shows in the almost neutral tone of the book; I say neutral, because I have always felt that Mr. Dalrymple like the very Warren Hastings he quotes in the book, loves his adopted country, i.e. India a little more than his birth country. He writes with all the fairness that must be accorded to historical events, balancing good with the bad; but his righteous indignation at the way India was exploited and complete destruction of her trade, commerce and art, for the enrichment of few merchants several thousand kilometres away, speaks volumes about his sense of justice as well as his love for his adopted nation! The language is easy and free flowing and for a chunkster history book, it is also remarkably a page turner. The battle scenes which I usually skip, are described flawlessly, with suspense and thrill, without being long winded or boring. Like always, Mr. Darlymple introduces us to books, long forgotten; in his Age of Kali, he re-introduced many of us with a remarkable and now almost forgotten novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. Similarly, in this books, he re-introduces us to historian Ghulam Hussain Khan and his remarkable Seir Mutaqherin or the Review of Modern Times, a book that is first hand account of the last years of Aurangzeb to the Battle of Buxar. In the end, the author states, that the “story of East India has never been more current“; one has to agree and only add that this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand India, England or multinational companies.

This book is also part of my 2020 Big Book Summer Challenges.