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.

About Random Things…..

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

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

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

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Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

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Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

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Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!

 

10 Books from Childhood

I was planning to write a post on Indian authors writing in English; something to the effect of sticking to things people understand rather than venturing into uncharted territories and making a hash of thing and yada yada yada! But then I saw Cleo and Helen doing a very interesting post on their favorite childhood books and I realized, something I shared with Cleo, that children in Europe and Asia seemed to have read very different literature from their counterparts in Americas. And as I thought more about it, my own childhood reading was very different from standard English language centric affair because it was rooted in a lot of stories and books from my native language, Bengali, the lingua franca of the eastern state of Bengal in India and the national language of Bangladesh. I read and was read a lot of English books as well, but in those formative years, Bengali literature left an indelible mark on me. Therefore, it made sense to recount some of best books from my childhood days including local literature, rather than dwell on Indians writing in what is essentially not their native language! Without further ado then, I present to you the 10 of my most memorable books from my childhood –

Thakumar Jhuli by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder – This collection of folk tales, which have thrilled generations after generations of Bengali children. Princes, Queens, Witches, Priests and Merchants all came together in these stories illustrating stories of courage, patience and faith. These stories as an adult I realize also depicted a colourful vibrant society of 17th-19th century Bengal, shedding interesting light on some of the more non tangible aspects of life like loyalty, spiritualism and the philosophy of kindness! Fun fact – I used to love this collection so much, that besides have two copies of the book, my dad had brought me an audio cassette version as well; well before the era of “audio books”. The dramatized audio versions were in a form of a musical and the songs are still some of my favorites!

Abol Tabol by Sukumar Roy – Abol Tabol literary means nonsense, and this set of nonsensical rhymes have brought joy not only to many children, but also several adults, including my own father. Pun ridden and satirical, they provided huge entertainment to me while growing up, only once again realizing as an adult, that among the nonsense and word play, there were subtle hidden commentary on the bigotry of early 20th century Bengal society. Continues to endure as an all-time favorite.

Feluda Series by Satyajit Ray – The son of Sukumar Roy and India’s premier film maker, was naturally also an accomplished story teller. The fact that he could write absolutely thrilling detective stories for children and young adults, however took his genius to a whole new level. The world had Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys and so did I; but I also had Feldua – the Bengali detective who along with his nephew Topshe and friend Jatyu, traversed the length and breath of India, cracking some of the most difficult cases using subtle mental analysis and knowledge from a wide range of reading! I cannot even begin to explain the hours of summer school break that were devoted to reading this series again and again!

Chader Pahar by Bhibuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay – Literally meaning the Mountain on the Moon, this timeless adventure remains a classic since it was originally published in 1937. This story of a young Bengali man’s tryst with Africa is an thriller, travelogue and deeply profound narrative on pushing the boundaries of nature, is a tale which I would think everyone must read once, including and especially all adults.

Enid Blyton Books – I know this is the broadest possible category ever, but then I cannot recollect not ever loving any book she wrote. She was the standard fare of in all schools in India, atleast in 1980s and since my parents also loved her writings, our house was filled with her works. I loved her Noddy series, I loved her Secret Seven/Famous Five, I loved her; I know there is a lot of controversy around her and her writings, but all I remember as a child was she gave me companions and think of adventures which no else seem to be able to and she made boiled eggs taste like a delicacy!

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The Fairytale by Walter Firle (1859-1929)

Ann of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery – I love Anna. I was Anna; albeit with parents, but always bursting with energy, emotions and expressions. When I read Anna at the very impressionable age of 13, besides loving this moving story of Ann and her adoptive parents, I realized that it was ok to be the way I was, that it was even funny and someone somewhere nearly 100 years ago could and did believe in girls like me!

Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne – What is not there to like about this story of eternal friendship, romping adventures and some very basic truth about humanity and joy. Even as an adult, I continue to love this book and cannot wait to share my dog eared, battered copy with my god daughters!

Russian Fairy Tales – My father grew up in the swinging 60s and believed that a country like ours had much to learn from Socialist principles of equitable distribution of wealth. He himself read a lot of Russian authors, all of which would eventually he would bequeath to me, including Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov etc. Naturally flowing from this, he brought me this big book of Russian Fairy Tales, which remain incomparable in my imagination, opening up the country and her people and inspiring a deep-rooted love for the country. The Firebird from this selection, remains one of my most favorites reads till date!

The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall – Again a book that came to via my father; for many years he worked and collaborated on several Indo-Australian projects related to immigration laws before it became the “it’ thing. One of his oldest friends, and one of the most erudite men I have had the pleasure of knowing gifted me this book, I believe when I was 6. The adventures of the Koala, Blinky introduced me to Australia, like no one. This book is quintessentially Australian and quintessentially one of the best books ever to be read to a child!

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham – What is there for me to say that is not already been said about this classic? The adventures of Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger as they navigate Toad Hall in an effort to reclaim what is rightfully Toads is a moving story of friendship and kindness!

There are so many that are missing the list, but these are the 10 that come to my mind!

P.S. This is a an incredibly late Top Ten from dated July 02 2019, as part of the Top Ten Tuesday  series, hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl,

The End of March….

Time is flying, sometime I feel too fast and at other times not fast enough. I assume it is dependent on the objective; when we want something badly that is meant to substantiate in future, time cannot move fast enough; on the other hand when we dread something, well, time just seems to fly, until, we are at the eventual collision course! At this point in time, I cannot decide, what I like the most, the fast moving pace or the slow crawl; either way, life is just far too busy and reading and writing, despite best of intentions is slow. But I keep the reading going, in the hope that one day, I will find the precious equilibrium between, reading, writing, socializing and of course working!

In the meanwhile, this is what I read for the month of March –

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Anne Bridges

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I think beautiful mother’s are just a trifle vexed, generally, to have daughters who are not. Mama would have liked me more if I had been something of a beauty! 

Time Pieces: A Whistle-stop Tour of Ancient India by Nayanjot Lahiri

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This great enthusiasm for sarcastic verse in which no one, from the divine to the human, is spared, has a lesson for India today where poking fun at anyone in the public domain, especially gods and goddesses, ruffles all kinds of feathers

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

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I’d benefit too, I thought vaguely; a dog would keep me fit and allow me to meet other dog-walkers. Much better than a book club where there was always the danger that someone would suggest The Girl on the Train!

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

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Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life–‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie

This then was my reading for March; I wonder what April shall bring? I am only sure that I am reading A Vindication of Rights of a Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft as part of a brilliant read along hosted by Ruth. For everything else, at this point, I can only say “Que Sera Sera”