Author Archives: wanderlustathome

Of kids, books and magic

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I paid a fortune for this set, 12 years ago. In fact, it was in about fifteen months of installments that the payment was done. By far, the best investment in money till date.

There was a set of 10 step by step ‘ learning to read ‘ books that came long with this. Both the kids started their affair with the written word with those. Have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it out to both of them. The first word that they could read, the wonder filled joy on their faces, is still the most priceless feeling in the world.

People ask how do you make kids read? The only way I know, read out to them, day after day, the same pages again and again. With the first born, there was more time, I have to admit with a twinge of guilt. We would read diligently, morning after morning. That was the easiest way to wake him up, “get up, let’s read.” We would lean on the temple wall, waiting for the school bus, reading whatever he picked up for the day. At random, continued from the previous day, or something that piqued his interest. There was no method, nor any plan, we just read.

He was on to serious reading by the time he turned eight. Enid Blyton never interested him, to my chagrin. Thank God, I was sensible enough to stop pushing after a couple of Famous Fives.  Hardy Boys met with the same fate, he couldn’t complete even one. A pattern emerged slowly and surely. Biorgraphies and sports. Don’t take me wrong, he was still a boy, thankfully. Greg Heffley* was his constant companion. That ‘Wimpy Kid’ was with him as he ate meal after meal was devoured with that skinny kid by his side, the boy even fed the kid. The almost adult still devours the series. As I shout at him for bringing it to the dining table the fiftieth time, he retaliates, “but it was you bought me the first one. I never asked for it.”

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Then came life. He took to Lance Armstrong like a Kuttanadan to duck. Between school and play, he finished the autobiography in two days flat. Barely a week later, the news broke. Of  cheating, there is no other word to describe it. I will never forget the disbelief in my boy’s eyes and the catch in his throats as he said, “it wouldn’t be true, alle Amma?”

The next round belonged to a contraption I hate with all my heart – the X-box.  The day it came into our lives, sounded like the death knell of books. The silly thing never knew the power of a miffed mother, though. As the addiction grew, so did my resolve to fight back. We reached a compromise , Monday to Thursday turned to no screen days. Voila, the lovers were back together, again. Life is like the tides now. It ebbs and flows, when the son’s eyes turn red, the mother’s decibel levels rise. But we’ve learned to live together, the books, a few screens, the son and his mother. For, now I know he has a friend for life. When he seems lost, I can see his hands stretching out to his bedside table and a light shining under the door long after the midnight clock has struck twelve. He is in safe hands.

Now, the daughter is another story by herself. She lives in another universe altogether. Of elves and fairies and all things bright and shiny. Having escaped the world of making night into a work day, I started reading to her while making her sleep. “One more page” was like music except on some days that was particularly exhausting. But again, read we did. Whenever and wherever we could. To my utter horror again, she followed her brother’s footsteps. No Enid Blyton! How could my very own turn traitors? By then, I was too old and weary to fight losing battles. I should have known where she was headed the moment she started picking up fairy tales. The Pottermaniac is growing up I know when I see her stacking up Archie’s during our monthly ritual of visiting Blossoms. Her books are filled with colours, just like her soul – Thea Stilton, Tinkle, Archie’s, Fairy Tales and of course, Harry Potter.

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That first set of English reading books went to my nephew an year ago. While on a cleaning spree today, I realize it’s time. For the next set to find a new home. To entice another little one to the magical world that words are.

Dear Ouseph, it’s not mere books that are coming your way. It’s the keys to magical kingdom, that was guarded lovingly by your chettan and Chechi , protected fiercely by your ammai and looked upon with indulgence by your uncle. Drink from it, satiate your hunger for knowledge and guard it with your life. Until you pass it on to your little brother.

And I send you this wish, “May the word be your legacy!”

But then I know it cannot be otherwise, for it is your grandfather that took a young girl by her hands and led her to the bright and enticing world that was hiding behind the dark shelves of the long forgotten ‘The English Bookhouse’ .

Being Vulnerable

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“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”

Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.

https://backchannel.com/sheryl-sandbergs-accidental-revolution-9fadfcf90d6d?mbid=social_cp_fb_tny

I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.

Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”

Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.

No coincidence

Gosh! Almost two years since I reminisced on my reads? Sacrilege!

Not that I have not been reading. Or writing. Both became a lot more private, more of reflections than reviews. And I’ve not considered myself a reviewer, anyway. Over the past two years there have been some personal enlightenments, a few revelations that has forced me to open parts of my senses and close out more than a few sensibilities as well. All through, it has been books that provided a let out, that lent a shoulder to rest a head that my tired neck was finding difficult to hold. More about those books later.

More than the stories, it is the feeling of empathy and the style of writing that entices and keeps me hooked now. The flow of thoughts, of the feeling of the much cliched deja vu, and recognition of the kindred spirits in authors is what makes me alive these days. Why not write what I feel as I smile at a passage, as I wallow in self pity at times and then come alive as I absorb the positive vibes that the author sends ? So here goes the first one.

 

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. There are signs everywhere, that connects you to kindred spirits. It could be someone you meet, a story that you love, an author who resonates your thoughts that you feel you’ve known them for ages.

The name Grace Paley came up in Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage,’ a compendium of her articles from various publications over a period of time. In the delightful ‘The Getaway Car’ from Byliner, September 2011, she talks about her writing experiences, right from when she was six years old. Patchett writes of Paley,

“She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist and artist was all the same person”

That tingling sense of finding a kindred soul…and Patchett exhorts,

“Interested in being a better writer? Go buy yourself a copy of ‘The Collected Stories’ by Grace Paley.”

So I did. Download a copy. And this is what welcomed me. Yes, I am close to being home 🙂

“It seems right to dedicate this collection to my friend Sybil Claiborne, my colleague in the Writing and Mother Trade. I visited her fifth-floor apartment on Barrow Street one day in 1957. There before my very eyes were her two husbands disappointed by the eggs. After that we talked and talked for nearly forty years. Then she died. Three days before that, she said slowly, with the delicacy of an unsatisfied person with only a dozen words left, Grace, the real question is—how are we to live our lives?”

Excerpt From: Grace, Paley. “The Collected Stories.”

 

 

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

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Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.

Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.

“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”

In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,

“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.

‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “

Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.

The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.

Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.

“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.

The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,

“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”

The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,

“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “

You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?

To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.

Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.

5/5 

Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

imageThe name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.

I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.

Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.

A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound  volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’

The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab  Sahib.’

As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room,  she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.

And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,

” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”

The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read.  Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.

Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.

Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?

As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.

( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )

Portrait of Two Ladies

imageSome stories are like that. You can read it again and again and then some more. You start smiling in anticipation, the feelings remain the same irrespective of the number of times you have read and relished it. And the end, that is why you go back. To relive some memories. The kind that make you feel this world is after all a good place. If not humans, there are sparrows and mango trees that care for you.

I read it again, today. After an year or so. And the wistful smile in my eyes is still the same, I know. And the ever so gentle tug in my heart, hasn’t changed. Even a teeny weeny bit. If someone asks me how many times I’ve read this story, the only answer would be, ‘a lot.’

A grandson remembers his grandmother. Khushwant Singh’s ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ His memories of an old lady, one who hasn’t changed a bit in the twenty odd years he has known her,

“we were certain she had always been as we had known her. Old, so terribly old that she could not have  grown older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.”

Back in the village , they were good friends. The boy and the old lady. The tie began to fray as the family moved to the city and the boy’s horizon grew beyond the walls of their room and the road to the village temple. He got his own room and later moved abroad for higher studies. He didn’t expect his grandmother to be alive at the end of five years, when he came home. Yet, she was still there. The only change was she had started feeding sparrows instead of the stray dogs back in the village pathways. The prayer beads still continued to turn in her hand as her lips moved in prayers that only she could hear.

Her demeanor changed one evening. Instead of her prayers, she started singing to the tunes of an old drum that she thumped along with the women of neighborhood whom she had collected. She was a wise woman. She knew her time was up and leave she did, peacefully as she prayed. The ending of the  story leaves me with bittersweet memories. Every single time. Without fail.

“We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for the funeral.

In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped halfway in the courtyard. All over the verandah and in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff, wrapped in the red shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirping. We felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the breadcrumbs into the dustbin.”

The other end of the country, another wrinkled face. The hands were as hard as a man’s. Calluses left behind by a lifetime of garden tools. Hues of green fell on her hair that was now white. Seventeen trees that dropped mangoes in the night rain and daytime breeze. Then the others, each had their own season. Jack Fruit, Bambloos Naaranga, Cinnamon, Kokum, Guava, even Oranges. But it was for the mangoes that her eyes shined the brightest. Neelam, Salem, Moovandan, Chandrika and a host of other nameless ones. The ones that stained her grandchildren’s dresses as it oozed down in thick yellow down the young chins that quivered with mirth.

It was a monsoon evening that she fell ill. She had a pact, with Mother Mary. To call her on a Saturday, that she could go directly to heaven. No purgatory in between. A straight pass. And Mary kept her promise. She went, on a Saturday evening. In style, thunder beating the drums and lightning showing the path. Straight, to heaven.

December came, cold and dry. The leaves turned tender everywhere. And then burst out in dull green flowers. Like stars in the sky.

But the seventeen that she left behind, they didn’t cry. Even a single teardrop.

The yard lay silent that year.

( picture courtesy – google images)

‘Mrs. Funnybones’ by Twinkle Khanna

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Are you one of those who have always believed Rajesh Khanna’s and Dimple Kapadia’s first off spring could not act even if her life depended on it? Let me admit, I was one of those. To add insult to injury I even thought she was one of those dumb star kids. And then, she disappeared from the silver screen into the arms of a chef turned action hero from Hong Kong (originally from Punjab). The next we heard she was busy spreading the aroma of scented candles and ornate furniture. Until one fine day, she started writing. Or, to put it in the right perspective, her writings start getting published. The stereotype that I am, again typecast her as one of those over rated star wives. Mea culpa.

It’s been more than one year since I’ve started reading her columns and I’ve only grown to like her writing more and more. Contemporary topics talked about in the tone of a light banter and with an impeccable sense of tongue in cheek humor has become her trademark. She doesn’t spare anyone, most of all, her family and herself. The book is no different.

The best part about the book is the fact that she writes about things that she is most comfortable with and those she can relate to. No pontification from the roof, nor is it malicious. The characters are very familiar, after all  many of them are stars in their own right. Her mother, the charming Dimple is portrayed as someone whose only purpose in life is to rededorate her daughter’s home, every day, if possible. The husband, lovingly referred to as ‘the man of the house’ is this food loving, macho Punjabi who lives this funnily dangerous life. One is left chuckling on remembering it is in fact the action hero, Akshay Kumar, that she is talking about.

What connected with me is the sheer simplicity of her language and the down to earth approach she seems to have towards life. We also realize there is a sharp brain that is churning out these words. And this is corroborated as she mentions a certified IQ of 145. The manner in which she presents her achievements takes the ‘brag’ element out of it. ’97 marks in Maths and 97 kilos in weight,’ as she puts it.

Theirs is one of the long standing marriages in Bollywood. And it appears to be going strong after more than 15 years. No wonder. The guy knew a good thing when he saw her. Well done, AK. She Is totally worth it. A girl with super brains and a kiackass sense of humor. Can’t beat that combination.

And I sincerely apologize for judging people based on almost nothing. Twinkle, may your stars turn brighter. (bad joke, I know 😛 )

Verdict : Ignore that vada paav and have her for chai today. Seriously. 

4/5

‘An Unnecessary Woman’ by Rabih Alameddine

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We like to believe that it is us who chose the books we read. If that is so, what draws us to certain books? The ones that we have never seen on bookstore shelves before, authors never heard of even in the most popular book review columns, how do they find their way to us? Among hundreds of others on the shelves, and within a few minutes, how do our eyes catch hold of those covers, our hands grab it as if our life depended on it and before we know, we are walking away with that satisfied smile in our eyes. Our soul sings, this is one of those. The kind you get lost in.

Five thirty in the morning, to catch a flight at fifteen minutes past six is not one of the best times to browse a book shelf. But then, the habit of a lifetime is hard to break. The choice was between this and Antonia Fraser’s ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’ Having met an interesting person from Lebanon a few months ago, the setting was a definite pull. However, it was the blurb that clinched it.

“Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage.’ Every year, she translates a new favorite work into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty seven books that she has translated over her lifetime has never been read or touched by anyone but her.”

Can there be a character more interesting than her? She is a creature of ritual as far as her translations are concerned. Every single translation of hers has started on a New Year’s Day. At seventy two, contemplating on the next work to be taken up, she is all alone. No friends to talk to, no family whom she feels close to, she has been staying in the same apartment since the day she was married, at sixteen. Four years later, her husband leaves her. Yet, remorse is not for her,

“I did not wait for the smell of him to dissipate on its own. I expunged it.”

Her friend gets her a job in a bookshop. The owner just wanted the prestige of owning a bookshop and she ruled the shop single handed till it closes down almost fifty years later. And that is how she built her own private collection – by ordering an extra copy here and there, not bothering to return a few borrowed ones and then laying claim to the ones that were left as the shop closed down. No regrets about that, either.

The story moves up and down between the present and past, the characters keep coming and going. The three witches who stay in the same building provide a constant background- Marie Therese and Joumana, both teaching at the American University and Fadia, her land lady. Her crazy mother and the elderly brother and his family is at a distance, though their ominous presence is felt throughout.

The story progresses through Aaliya’s thoughts on the books she has read. She has a literary reference for each character and every incident in her life. And that is exactly what makes this book such a pleasure to read. Talking about her impotent husband, she refers to Kant,

“In ‘The Science of Right,’ Kant wrote, ‘Marriage is the Union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of each other’s sexual organs.’
Kant obviously hadn’t met my husband.”

On the changing faces of her city , she quotes from ‘Sepharad’ by Antonio Munoz Molina,’

“Only those of us who,have left the city know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones that remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.”

The profusion of quotes doesn’t mean the authors has no words of his own. The subtle sense of humor is so delightful. Again, on her city, Aaliya comments,

“Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.”

Being a translator herself, even though a closet one, it is but natural that she lays bare her thoughts on the art of translation. One of the best books that she remembers reading is ‘Crime and Punishment,’ in French. She was so impressed by the book that she took up the English translation by Constance Garnett and was duly disappointed. Again, it is through another author that she speaks her mind,

“As Joseph Brodsky said, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.’

The author Hits the nail right on the head. Literal translations have no soul. The original need to be transformed and renewed to have any meaning and to speak to the reader.

The pace slows down a bit when Aaliya goes to see her mother. Was it the dearth of references or the pace of life of an old woman, I wonder. The catastrophe at the end and its aftermath brought the story back to life again.

Off late, I’ve been veering towards books from others languages. The insights these stories provide to the culture, be it Chile, Spain, China or Beirut attracts me no end. The pleasure is almost sinful when you compare it to the characters who seem to be shallow and their drab background that is either English or American.

The picture of a war torn area that we tend to have in our mind, especially in the Middle East is that of destitution and hopelessness. As we read, realization dawns that people and what makes them tick are more less the same. Women, especially. The antidote to anything that goes wrong – a visit to the spa, a new shade of nail polish, gossip over a cup of tea. And the sexual adventures are matter of fact. Of women. And we think theirs is the permissive society.

What charmed me the most are the women characters. Men are incidental. It is the ladies who rule . They do judge, but in a time of crisis, the sisterhood never lets you down. At every juncture in her life, good are bad, it is the women in her life that supports or tortures her. Their thoughts , the ones which only a woman could think of, are so well brought out that I was literally shocked to learn the author is a man. At last, here is one who understands a woman.

Verdict – Must read, if you love books and strong women characters

4/5

(Rabih Alameddine is a Lebanese-American painter and writer. He was born in Amman, Jordan to Lebanese Druze parents. He grew up in Kuwait and Lebanon, which he left at age 17 to live first in England and then in California.

– source , Wikipedia)

‘Everything I Never Told You,’ by Celeste Ng

imageLydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so starts Celeste Ng’s disturbing story. There is no other word to describe it.

Lydia, the second child of Marilyn and James Lee is late for breakfast that day. It would be a couple of days before they find her body in the lake nearby. Whether it was a murder or a suicide is just incidental in the story that follows, or precedes, as you may look at it. Marilyn is the regular American girl, who was brought up by a single mom who pushed her to do well in studies and get into Harvard because, “You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.” James, on the other hand, is second generation Chinese, and the subject he teaches seem to be quite contrary to his nature and upbringing, ” The Cowboy in American Culture.” Whether they fall in love is a moot point. Rather, for James it is blending into the American culture and for Marilyn, maybe a matter of rebelling against her mother.

As the police conduct their routine enquiries and finally concludes it is not a murder, the family seem to unravel as the story goes back on forth from the present to past and back. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and was doggedly pursuing her dreams when she gets married to James. As she gets pregnant with Nath, the dream is kept on the back burner. She doesn’t lose hope even as Lydia follows. Her mother’s death and her cookbook shakes her out of her reverie and makes her do something drastic. But she is forced to return to her life with James and the kids as their child, Hannah arrives.

For James, life had always been a struggle to fit into a society that saw him as an outsider. By virtue of his parents being a janitor and a kitchen helper in an exclusive private school, he gets a free education of the best kind. He never feels accepted though, because of his looks and totally different background. And that tunes out to be his bane throughout his life.

Lydia, who was always ready to please, naturally gets burdened by the unfulfilled dreams of her parents. She dare not disagree to their expectations in fear of disappointing or even losing them. The brilliant Nath and the quiet Hannah gets sidelined in their parent’s lives as Lydia is bombarded with medical books right from her childhood. For James, she is the chosen one who can blend in an otherwise all American school, for hasn’t she inherited her mother’s blue eyes?

Nath is the only one who understands Lydia’s helplessness. She grows despondent as Nath prepares to leave for college. Hannah seems to blend into the background, even as she is the one who absorbs everything. They are on the periphery of their parent’s attention almost always. Yet, there is no ran our in their behavior towards Lydia. In fact, they seem to be the only ones who can really understand her feeling of hopelessness.

The story is a reminder of what parents inadvertently do to their kids by superimposing their dreams on to them, taking them for granted, without even caring to think for a moment what the kids themselves want or are capable of. We transfer our frustrations to them, unknowingly. The poor things continue to try to please us, till one day, they reach a breaking point. Even the gifts we get for them, isn’t it guided by our notion of what is good rather than what they would enjoy?

It is also about adult relationships. Over the years, couples tend to take each other for granted, their focus getting diverted into careers, children and other routine matters. Certain remarks could stay with you for life and affect your relationship so deeply, that it can impact the existence of your family, even. There is hope as well, that it may never be too late to mend broken hearts. What is heartening is the fact that many a time it is those very kids who were taken for granted, who holds the family together, in the end. What I really loved is how none of the characters are black or white. Everyone is human, with their share of flaws and imperfections.

Celeste Ng has brought out the thoughts and emotions of her characters so well. It is wonderful how she gets into the mind of young adults, each fighting a battle of their own. Especially touching was Jack. The ones that we label as rebels, if only someone took out some time to get to know the real them.

Being parents is no trivial matter, the story reminded me yet again.

Verdict – If you love family stories with shadows of psychological analysis , you will love it. Well written  with a gripping narration.

4/5

‘Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee

Warning – Proceed with caution. A few spoilers ahead

imageThis has to be the most awaited book of the year, probably one of the most discussed too. An author and the one book that she had written. Much has been said, analyzed and admired about Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ Jem was the quintessential elder brother, an annoying, teasing teenager, but always there for his tom boyish imp of a sister , Scout. She was what many an adventurous young girl wanted to be. Mischievous and endearng, she brought a smile on your face every time you thought of her. And Atticus, who hasn’t yearned for a father like him, even if you had a perfect one at home? The epitome of righteousness, a true free spirit who believed even children had the right to know everything. He had an answer to all the questions. And you were confident that he would stand by what was right. Always.

The news spread like wildfire. There was another book. An older Scout, a dead Jim and an Atticus who had fallen off the pedestal. No, never, Atticus cannot be anything but perfect, was my first reaction. And it was the same for many others, the social media told me. I didn’t want to touch the book, even with a barge pole. A friend of mine was braver. He went ahead, bought the book and read it. As if that wasn’t enough, he had the gall to write a review as well. Atticus is fine, he said. Ok, I might make an attempt, I thought. And then I meet another dear friend, who gifted me the book. Some things in life are like Jean Louis Finch. They meet you head on. There is just no escape.

Curiosity and a brief illness, pages started turning as if almost by itself. A twenty six year old Scout is on her way back home to Maycombe for her yearly holiday. Jem is no more, we realize. Atticus is old and arthritic, Calpurnia has retired, Henry has stepped in for Jem in Atticus’ work and life and aunt Alexndria is tending the hearth at Scout’s childhood home. And cranky old Dr. Finch, with whom Scout has grown closer to, over the years is in the neighborhood as well. Some  childhood reminiscences, a scandal inducing midnight dip with Henry in the village pond and then Scout realizes all is not as she thought it to be. That there are colours in this world which she had never noticed. Because she was never taught to do so.

There is a killing, of a white man, by a black. The killer is Calpurnia’s grandson. Atticus wants to defend him. For a different reason this time. As Scout realizes the reason, she is rightfully indignant and as is her character, flares up at everyone . She feels totally alienated , as she seems to be the only one who thinks differently. For everyone else, there is white and then black. Nothing in between.

Now, the burning question. Has Atticus turned into a bigot? Were we living in a bubble and about to find out that even Gods have feet of clay? As is the case with everything in life, there is no clear and straight answer. He has his own reasons and he is convinced that is the right path. So do most others , along with him. The white people of the South are scared the ‘niggers’ might overcome them, by sheer numbers, if not anything else. People like Atticus has a seemingly logical reasoning for opposing this. These others do not know what is good for the town and the country. They are not educated enough, they can’t think in a logical manner.

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run’em? “

Aren’t those thoughts so similar the world over? How the oppressed gather strength  over a period of time, protests start in feeble voices and then gain momentum. The rich think the poor will be clueless, left to themselves, and that the society will be in anarchy soon. As for the down trodden, it is a matter of ‘my sweat , my wealth.’ There is no middle path, unfortunately. Revolutions simmer for a while and then lights up with a bang, burning down many a belief and system in its wake. It takes more than a generation before some sort of balance is restored. And each one does what he or she thinks is right.

Coming back to the story, Scout, as is her true nature, decides to take the bull by its horns. It is to her uncle that she turns to, first. And when the expected ally is not found in him, she confronts her father, head on. I would say the soul of the book lies in this conversation between father and daughter. You see the old, beloved Atticus. Never shutting her down, at the same time standing his own ground, convinced that he is doing what is right. To her accusations, all he says is , “Well, I love you.” And then as to his six year old, “That’ll do, Jean Louise.” In spite of all the rants of Atticus lovers, I feel he remains the same soul that he was twenty six years ago. His actions and reactions might have changed , which had to, according to the times. But, the person that he was, remains the same at the core. He lets his daughter be, in spite of what anyone else, including his sister has to say. He doesn’t care about where someone has come from, what is valued is where and what he has made of himself. Henry might be considered ‘trash’ by all when it comes to things that matter, for Atticus he is the dependable young man who has made a  mark by himself and whom he now considers his son and heir. And he shows who he is and what he believes in as he says,

“Well, I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”

Isn’t that what he was all about and what we really admired in him? The book is not about Atticus, in my opinion. It is Scout all the way. Her coming of age and learning to accept people and things as they are. Her coming down to ground. She echoes many a girl who has hit her head against the wall at some point in her life,

“Why in the name of God didn’t you marry again? Marry some nice dim-witted Southern lady who would have raised me right? Turned me into a simpering mealy-mouthed magnolia type who bats her eyelashes and crosses her hands and lives for nothing but her lil’ole hus-band. At least I would have been blissful.”

I did laugh out at that. Loud.

Verdict – If you have read and loved the mocking bird, definitely a must read. Not too sure whether I’d have enjoyed it as much without the background story in mind. Thinking of it as a standalone book, the story does not seem to have a context. I could be biased, though. I loved Atticus. Still do. And there is more than a little of Scout in me, you see.  Hence, 4/5