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!

Much Ado About Siblings….

Today is World Sibling Day and I thought it would be fun to share some of the “fictional siblings” that I think makes for great reading and showcases some of the best brotherhood/sisterhood/siblinghood. So here goes –

‘Piti Teina (Two Sisters)’ by Paul Gauguin, 1892, Hermitage.
Source – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%27Piti_Teina_(Two_Sisters)%27_by_Paul_Gauguin,_1892,_Hermitage.jpg
  • Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood – As a devoted Austinian, I cannot help but start with the incomparable sisterhood of the Dashwood sisters. Simply in terms of descriptions vis a vis the relationship between sisters, I feel the Dashwoods outshine the Bennetts. For years, I have been told and I agree with this assumption, that my older sister was the epitome of Eleanor and I Marianne. Their relationship seems real to me at so many levels; there is love, there is a unique brand of humor which can only exist between sisters, and there are difficult moments where they get on each other’s nerves or fail to see the other’s point of view, all the while standing by each other. I personally feel that Ms. Austen being the younger sister herself, took a slice of her life with Cassandra and wrote about it in this novel.
  • Jane and Elizabeth Bennett – Now that we have accounted for the Dashwood sisters, can the Bennetts be far behind? While the younger three evoke a variety of emotions ( I especially feel bad for nerdy Mary – I really think she had potential ) the fact remains , the elder two are absolutely peerless. I know many people are convinced of the brilliance of Elizabeth’s character, and there is no question that she is brilliant, but I do feel that she shines so bright, because she has a contrast in Jane. I have shared this in the past, but growing up, of course I wanted to be Eliza Bennett but as I came of age from a Marianne, I became more of a Jane, trusting everyone and failing to see the obvious pitfalls. I am still a bit like that, but then my Eleanor is also a bit of an Elizabeth ( Yup! She is BRILLIANT!) and usually is there is to rescue me from fools and mercenaries!
  • The March Sisters – Across the Atlantic, another sisterhood gave us joy and hope and was again a very authentic portrayal of the bond that exists among sisters. Theirs was a real relationship filled with joy, some mean acts, love and support. That act of cutting up Joe’s book, haunted me for days, not because I did that to anyone and my sister would NEVER do that to me, but just the fact that in a moment of anger we can commit such grievous acts where we hurt those nearest to us. Beautiful and heartbreaking ( Like Joey in Friends I want to keep the book in fridge every time I reach the part of Beth’s illness ) Ms. Alcott created one of the most outstanding sibling novel ever!
  • The Finch Siblings – Would we have adored Scout so much if there was no “wiser” older brother Jem who had to think of his younger sister whenever he was scared? Yet another very real portrayal of siblings especially during childhood. We lived through the young adolescents of Jem Finch who would tell Scout Finch to stick to her set in school or break up any fights she got into. And we were Scout Finch when our siblings fell ill or were hurt, mentally or emotionally! To Kill a Mockingbird is as much a story of the brother and the sister as much their father, Atticus Finch.
  • Shanta from Ramayana – I close this piece with a Shanta, the elder sister of Lord Rama, the doyen on Hindu Gods, and a forgotten sibling in the larger narrative of the epic The Ramayan. Mythology says that she was the neglected daughter of the King Dasharath who gave her away to be adopted by another king to save his land from draught. She agreed to the adoption so that her father would be given a boon from the Gods, that would allow him to father sons. She marries Rishyashringa, a sage whose celibacy causes drought in kingdom of her adoptive father and with her marriage, there are rains and an end to the draught in the region. The reason why I wanted to add her to the list is because she was the only one who critiqued her brother, the almighty Rama for abandoning his loyal wife because of street gossip. She is the only character in this mythology that saw the failing in this perfect Man-God and displays a key element of any authentic relationships – the ability to call out what is wrong even if it’s your own blood and even if no one else questions it!

That is my list! What are your most memorable “fictional” sibling relationships?

Between This and That …..

After the brilliant kickstart to the reading year, March so far seems to be an off book radar kind of month. One too many things taking up time and energy, but mostly in the words of Mark Manson, these are good problems.

I am trying to diversify my interests and while it is enriching, it is also time consuming. I am exploring a few different opportunities within the local community, supporting local women entrepreneurs who do not have formal education through mentoring in management and helping them developing business models that are sustainable. I have also been involved in some Rising Cancer Awareness initiatives and that has also been keeping me busy. All of this along with BAU day job! 24 hours is really not enough!!!

There have have also been several mini home renovation projects, which are also eating into my non existent time. The water pipes of our apartment needed fixing as did the smaller bathroom and many such non glamorous home improvements that will never feature on architectural digest, but are critical for a comfortable living.

The Chinese Robe by Richard Emil Miller
Source http://www.artistsandart.org/2010/05/richard-emil-miller-american.html

Between these projects and the fact that I had several doctor appointments and tests lined up this month, reading has been really slow. I am trying to read In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated by Sasha Dugdale and there are parts I really like, but it is book that needs focus and focus is currently in short supply! I am also struggling to complete The Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; I think the violence of the real world is making me shy away from a narrative set in similar conflictual backdrop! But I will get to it, sooner rather than later. I did manage to complete, The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles and I hope to share a review soon. Every other reading is between this and that and the only thing I have been reading consistently and eagerly are Tintin comic books! I hope to find my reading groove soon and must at times remind myself, I read because that is my “thing” and do not need to stress about so called “lack of progress”. I am sure I will soon find “the book” to shake me out of my reading slump.

The highlight of these last 12 odd days has been that I had my first full body scans and extensive blood works done since I completed my Chemo cycles in Nov 2021. And the great thing is, it all came clean!! I have fatigue – sick days as side effects still, but overall I am doing very very well. This alone makes me so grateful and count my blessings.

So here’s to good health and good problems and good books!

About Guilty Pleasures …..

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

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

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

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

This Day, That Year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Epic Other Women…..

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

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

Now back to regular programing!

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

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

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

The Choices We Make…..

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year That Was …..

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once Upon a Time in Russia…..

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

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

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

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

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

So I Have Been Reading …..

September is here and thank goodness the cooler weather has began to set in my part of the world! Things are so much better in Autumn and Winter, atleast in northern Indian plains. September also means that the RIP ( Reader’s Imbibing Peril) reading event is underway with RIPVII hosted by Heather @capriousreader and Andi Miller-Dunn @estellasrevenge, taking over from Carl V Anderson at Stainless Steel Droppings, the original mastermind of this event. The idea is get in the groove of the fall season & all ghosty, witchy spirit by reading/listening/watching everything that is scary, gothic, mystery, thrilling, horrific and ghostly. The event is running from September 1st to October 31st with some amazing channel discussions on Discord, a Bingo event and a Shirley Jackson’s (The Sundial) read along in October.

I have always participated in this event, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But this year, despite everything, has been a great reading year and I have great hopes of reading quite a bit through this event. In this month so far, I have managed to read the following –

Sovereign by CJ Sansome – A Matthew Shardlake mystery, from an author and series that I totally love. Set in Tudor England, after the suppression of the Pilgrim of Grace rebellion, Henry VIII is visiting Yorkshire, the center of the revolt, to seek submission from the people. Among his vast retinue, is Master Shardlake with Jack Barak by the request of Archbishop Crammer to support petitions to the King and other legal matters that are being put forward by Yorkshire people for King’s review. He is also expected to undertake a secret mission of ensuring the safe transportation of a prisoner from Yorkshire to the Tower in London. Things however do not go as planned and a murder leads to revelation of certain documents that may plunge the country again in civil unrest as it questions the very legitimacy of the Tudor rulers and their birth. This book is as always with all the books in the series, replete with details of history that are either overlooked or widely unknown. The author captures the the 16th century England will all it’s luxury and all its poverty beautifully. Despite being a 600 plus page novel, the narrative keeps the reader engaged with knotty plot twists and interesting characters. An excellent read from beginning to end.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke – I guess with Fairies and magic, this book is a bit stretch into the RIP collection, but I went with it anyway. There has already been so much said about this novel, about the conflict between two magicians in 19th century England that traverses through Napoleonic Wars and other such historic events, that I will only share my views. The plot while simplistic, has been wedded with a lot of imagination and creative writing to make the reading complex and rich. There is a lot of wit and the old world charm that comes alive in the presentation style. The slightly academic way of writing with footnotes and stand alone stories of magical past in England brings an additional depth to reading and reflects the love of the artist for the art. However for all the details and crafty telling of the story, I still felt that it did not merit 1000 pages; the characters were thin and it was difficult to understand some of their motivation. There seems to be on the part of the author an effort to leave some sub plot & character futures unanswered ( in hope of sequel?) but they just do not bring that effect & does not make one intrigued about what happened next. It is a good read, but hardly one which would merit a re-read

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights , Museo del Prado, Madrid (Public Domain)

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu – This was my second reading of this novella and I must say that this time I enjoyed it far more than my first attempt. Young Laura, the daughter of an Englishman and an Austrian lady, leads a happy but lonely life in the remote village in Austria. Their peaceful everyday existence is interrupted when a carriage meets with an accident, and Laura’s father is left in charge of a young woman, Carmilla, who seems to be hurt, while her “mother” continues the journey in the carriage. Soon there are people dying in the village and Laura becomes aware of certain strange and embarrassing emotions that Carmilla beings to express. The original vampire story ( Bram Stoker’s Dracula was more than 2 decades away) the narrative is unconventional, filled with eerie scenes and tensions with an element of feminine sexuality, which must have made for an adventurous creative writing in early 19th century. Its a brilliant piece of fiction, gripping and unnerving.

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell – This is my very first reading of a Ruth Rendell and it also happens to be the first book in the Inspector Wexford series. An ordinary housewife Margaret Parson is reported missing by her husband and a day later, her dead body near the woods around a farm, someway from the town where she lives. Inspector Wexford and his team start investigating the crime which seems to have no motivation until, he discovers some expensive edition of classical poetry in the attic of the dead woman, all signed by a person named Doon. After all the swinging adventures of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, this very British, very practical, very classical detective story made for wonderful read with interesting changes in the plot and a sharp, edgy narrative. My book carried an afterword by Ms. Rendell herself, and the key to enjoying this mystery written in 1964 is like the author herself says, to read it as a historical fictions instead of a contemporary writing. A completely enjoyable book!

White Magic – Russian Emigre Tales of Mystery and Terror edited & translated by Muireann Maguire. The book contains a wide variety of tales from the first three decades of 20th century, capturing the urban as well rural stories set in the backdrop of both the pre revolution and post revolution Russia. The short stories are eerie, gothic and some extremely strange. The Russian landscape that brings with it not only awe inspiring magnificence, along with deep fore brooding and sad beauty is wonderfully captured through all the short stories all while retaining a certain sentimentality and sensitivity despite the running theme of horror.

This is what I have been reading lately! I have a few more CJ Sansom’s lined up for this event, as well a re-reading of the brilliantly written The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I found this amazing anthology (thanks to a great review by Ali) of Murder Mysteries with the theme of books, Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edward that is also in my next reading queue. Outside of the RIP books, I am reading a powerful novel, based on true events in 1940s Germany, Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Also based on an excellent review by Karen, I am reading the gorgeously written, part biography, part travelogue, Footsteps by Richard Holmes. In October I plan to participate in the 1976 Club hosted by Karen & Simon (yet to decide a book), besides reading And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov as part of Classical Club’s October reading event ( scary books or books that you are scared to read; I went with the latter). In November, among other things I will join Brona’s AusReading Month, though again I am not yet sure of what I will read,

This year so far has been a year of reading through everything that comes my way – fiction, history, travelogues, politics and I have enjoyed the journey immensely. As the holiday season comes closer, I hope to make the reading journey more interesting, reading more variety and more unusual voices, atleast that is the plan! What are your reading plans for the remaining year?