Author Archives: wanderlustathome

How they find me

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The name of the movie came up time and again as I flipped through Netflix. A lazy Sunday evening seemed the perfect time to watch it, finally. I had found the book quite underwhelming, so did not expect much from the movie. It was a pleasant surprise to have been absolutely delighted. Meryl Streep, as phenomenal as always. The movie, you ask? Well, ‘Julia & Julie’ 🙂

The reminiscing mode switched on afterwards. If I had to take up a project for a year, what would it be? Not ready to kill myself by experimenting with a new recipe everyday when these days cooking is done in between the short intervals from work, what would be the next best option, I wondered. Maybe a recipe a week, from books I’ve read or that I will? Patting my back, I told myself, “brilliant idea!” Try it out, it’s easy. Patting yourself on the back 😉

‘Swimming Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor was a book I was looking for, but was not willing enough to buy. The library messaged, “we’ve put in hold for you, come get it.” Two birds in one shot and I was off. With Tharoor’s book in hand, I started typing the key words on the library computer – ‘food books,’ ‘books with food theme,’ ‘books on food’ and so on. Trust it to come up with this, ‘Browsings – A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books,’ by Michael Dirda. The cover said, ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.’ How could I not grab it?

While at the shelf, my hands went to the othe nearby, but of course! Books on books, can any book lover resist them, ever? So jumped the next one winking at me, ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’ in large print and ‘and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts,’ in small print. That went right into the bag, no prizes for guessing that.

No, I was not done yet. The ‘food’ had to be taken care of. The name M.F.K Fisher caught my eyes. I had read about her sometime ago, she was said to be a legendary food writer. Her books had eluded me and it continues to be so even now. The next best thing , I hope. ‘The Arrangemnt’ by Ashley Warlick, a novel based on Fisher’s life.

Finally, a challenge to myself for the Thanksgiving weekend, at least a couple of recipes from ‘Appetites, A Coobook,’ by none other than the Anthony Bourdain. Ambitious, aren’t I? Who knows, where it might lead me to? 😉

How do your books find you, my friends?

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‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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An 18 year old Australian girl goes to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange program, hears of an execution which incidentally is the last one there, then spends ten years in research and converts it into a spellbinding story – that is Hannah Kent and her debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for you.

Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend. The story is set in early 19th century. The execution is to happen in the area where it happened, but there are no prisons there. Jon Jonson, a regional official is forced to take her into his household for safekeeping until the deed is done. His wife Margaret and their two daughters have mixed reactions to Agnes being with them. The story unfolds mostly through Agnes narrating it to Toti, the young priest who is assigned to make her repent before her death.

Margaret has heard bits and pieces of Agnes’s story and she is rightly uncomfortable with having to put up with a murderess in her life that is already fraught with enough pain and challenges. But her innate goodness comes through right from the beginning. The background that is set is already stark with the unbearable cold and the dilapidated, grimy state of their surroundings. Even that seems mild in comparison to the state that Agnes is in. Margaret cannot ignore it even though she had decided not to have too much to do with the fallen woman.

Agnes slowly settles herself into the household silently, and she turns into a support that Margaret desperately needed. The two daughters are a contrast in characters and the way they treat Agnes. As her story unfolds, along with the reader, the family also comes to know of the why and how of what happened that night.

The maturity of the writing and the understanding of the psyche of the characters is truly commendable. What held my attention was the nuances of the underlying emotions between the women. The connect that only women seem to have, the subtle ways in which Margaret shows her support for someone who has no one else in the world and how she defends Agnes against her nosy neighbours tugs at your heart.

Agnes, like any other woman longs for stability and validation that has been denied her right from childhood when her mother leaves her when she was six. The manner in which her life turns out shows us how circumstances and people’s opinions can make or mar us. It underlines how nothing ever is stark black or white, and it is in the gray areas that we live and love.

The characters are drawn out so well that we can almost touch and feel them. It is as though you are lying in one of the beds in the room and listening to Agnes pouring her heart out to the young priest. You cry for her as she refuses to taint anyone, especially the baby that she saved the life of. And the despair and futility of it all, when finally the inevitable happens.

I don’t know why we are so amazed reading a brilliant debut novel, especially by someone young. How can one write about such emotions without going through something similar, we wonder. Then you realize, that is what brilliance is all about. That one can write so deeply about something they might not have experienced.

A must read, I would say. And totally deserving all the awards that it garnered.

 

 

The latest from my favorite author

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Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.

The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’   the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’

We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability  after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.

There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark.  The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.

What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.

The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.

And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going  on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.

The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.

 

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life

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A white orphan boy adopted by a Mexican ‘faggot’, another Mexican girl with a now here then not birth mother whose way of communicating is through messages in lipstick on the bathroom mirror and another boy whose whole family are addicts and who seems to be a mutation – weird, even gory isn’t it?

I have no clue where I heard of this book and why I decided to download it. But then, I’ve ceased looking for reasons , of the how and when books open themselves out to me. They drop into my lap when the time is just right. This is a genre that I would have kept afar in the normal course – Young Adult, they call it. Let me say, many of these books are more so for us parents, specially those of teenagers. It’s a rare parent that remembers their own years of angst, trying to find a foothold between the innocence of childhood, the raging hormones of the teen years and the underlying maturity of adulthood. You meet one of those here, to remind us what parenthood is all about, should be about.

The story revolves around a year in the life of seveteen year old Salvador, his best friend Samantha and their classmate Fito. It covers the whole gamut of challenges they face – bullying, drug abuse, alcoholism, love life or the lack of it, the need for validation, the struggle between standing up and being ridiculed, death of loved ones, unexplained anger, parental pressure, finding confidence and ultimately love. It’s also a story of how one mature and loving adult can change the life of many a kid.

Sounds too much and too confusing? Not at all. The narrative is so beautiful and in a language that kids and adults alike can relate to, that I just couldn’t put it down. Literally. After years, I almost bunked a day’s work. Yes, it’s been a very long time since I finished a book in a day. It sure did touch a very raw spot in this mother’s heart, for I’d had another one of those heated fights with the resident teenager the day before. It’s tough admitting that you are wrong, maybe that’s why I had tears streaming down my face towards the end.

I’ve stopped reviewing books in the conventional sense. Whether it’s good or bad, how good the writing style is, if the storyline is plausible or not etc., etc. What I do instead is to wait for those snapshots that connect, those that makes you set the book down and make you think, or better still, dream. This one provided more than enough of such,

“I told you that there were only two things you needed to learn in life. You needed to learn how to forgive. And you needed to learn how to be happy.”
“I am happy, Mima.” I was lying to her, but not all lies were bad.
“That means you’ve learned to forgive.”

But the best of all was some memories of childhood. Of family dinners and tables filled with food. How uncles and aunts and cousins get together, conversations in the kitchen, in the living room, in the bed room. How the kids fought with each other and then made up among themselves. How lucky was it to have grandparents who loved you to the moon and back, at the same time giving you a piece of their mind or the sharp edges of a cane on your bottom if the situation warranted it. Of how your family could break you to pieces and another one could mend it all. How everything everything has a reason , a logic that we may not understand then.

“I finally understood something about life and its inexplicable logic. I’d wanted to be certain of everything, and life was never going to give me any certitude.”

Most of all the book reminded me of the good that is there in this world. Fiction, you say? But isn’t fiction itself borne out of reality?

 

The Goddess of Utmost Feelings

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She has been loved to bits, ridiculed to the limits, hated with a vengeance, questioned till there was nothing left, labeled an anti-national, called a pseudo intellectual, her life has been dissected thread bare and her psyche explored like a Phd thesis.  Ever since her Booker Prize, each aspect of her has been ripped apart. Her non- fictional books and articles have been derided by academicians and lay people alike. Her patriotism has been questioned as if she was the most dangerous terrorist this country has ever seen. Yet, she seem to go on stoically, doing exactly what she wants, saying exactly what she feels, not caring even a wee bit about what the world feels about her, or her writing.

This is a book that was looked forward to by many, for almost twenty years. Her second book of fiction, they say. As her first one, how much is fiction and how much is fact, I wonder. But then, isn’t fiction itself a fact, a piece of life sliced away from a lifetime of experiences? A way of looking at life in a detached manner, the luxury of which we are denied in our realities?

At first, it’s the story of Aftab, a girl caught in the body of a boy. Sacrilege in the family that she was born into and the society that she is forced to live in. But she is defiant, the raging fires could not be restrained. She gains acceptance as she embraces her reality and turns into Anjum, the famous queen of the graveyard. As her story unfolds, what tugs at your heart and stays there long after is the riots, and her silence after that. A silence that speaks much louder than any gunshot or cry could ever be.

Then comes Tilo. The dark and skinny ‘orphan’ girl from the South. And the three men whose lives are twisted around her for years, maybe for ever. When you read, there are certain images that you weave around each character. If Anjum is a tall, manly creature dressed in neon coloured, sequined flowing dresses with a loud and slightly nasal voice, Musa a stout and fair Kashmiri with eyes like that of the famed Pakistani chai wallah, Naga the quintessential loud voice in a party with a swag, and ‘Garson Hobart’ a pot bellied, bloody eyed semi drunkard who still longs for a love that could never be his, Tilo is so much the author, you just cannot imagine a fictitious form that character. The shaved head, the sharp collar bones, the deep and pained unfathomable eyes that speak of generations of feeling too much, it is only her that you can ever think of.

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And it is Tilo and her Kashmir that has stayed with me even after days of finishing the book. And as story after story comes in from the valley, I realize she has written no fiction. Stark reality, as seen by someone who has felt it, to the core. Snippets of how life has changed for an ordinary Kashmiri,

We Kashmiris do not need to speak to each other any more in order to understand each other. We do terrible things to each other, we wound and betray and kill each other, but we understand each other.

Theories abound, rhetoric aplenty, opinions innumerable and stories written and rewritten on the why, how and when of a ‘heaven on earth’ slowly turning into the valley of death. I can see the deep ache in those eyes and feel the pain of her emotions as she wrote these words,

“Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the Line of Control, through moonlit mountain passes manned by soldiers. Night after night it walked on narrow, stony paths wrapped like thread around blue cliffs of ice, across vast glaciers and high meadows of waist-deep snow. It trudged past young boys shot down in snowdrifts, their bodies arranged in eerie, frozen tableaux under the pitiless gaze of the pale moon in the cold night sky, and stars that hung so low you felt you could almost touch them.

When it arrived in the Valley it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, the saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and labourers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully, and then put down their books and implements, their needles, their chisels, their staffs, their ploughs, their cleavers and their spangled clown costumes. They stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen, and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new Pied Pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give, ever so slightly, after they had weighed the odds and decided it was a viable option, only then did they allow the rage and shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The mist swirled on, on an indiscriminate recruitment drive.”

Once again, I wonder. Why is she hated so much? Is it because she dares to speak out exactly what she feels? Why do people seem to be so scared of her opinions? Because she says what we know in the heart of our hearts? She is no terrorist, we know. What she does is try to find reasons for certain behaviors. Isn’t that what a true artist is supposed to do? Bring out the truth when others are petrified? How does one become an anti national for this? Doesn’t each story has multiple sides? Each character a reason to be? Who decides what is right and wrong? She instigates no gunning down, she doesn’t call for massacres, neither does she side with mob fury. What she does, again and again, fiction after non-fiction, is to bring some sense to her angsts, the anxieties of a nation, the disappointments of a generation.

Oh yes, she warns us, lest we forget. While being glad that there are others, especially like her, who reflects one’s own thoughts, it’s not comforting. For, the adults in us are borne of the children we once were.

They would be more likely to win any war they fought, because they belonged to a generation that had known nothing but war.

And for an undecided youth begotten by a paranoid parent, all it takes is the collateral death of a loved one to cross the line. Literally and figuratively. We’ve seen this happening time and again.

For me, this is a book on Kashmir. She has tried to include Gujarat riots, the Narmada mess, Maoists, Bastar, the agonies of the genderless, in fact, everything that she stands for in a single story, and tries to connect it all together. Does she feel there might not be another story that she will write, or was she trying to purge herself of all that she has been holding in?

There are people who might call her crazy, like they would brand Anjum and her ilk. But, isn’t the crazy ones that has always called out the truth?

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The story might feel disjointed and meandering as many a reader has called out. The chapter around Jantar Mantar where you meet Miss Jebeen the Second is too long winded, I agree. That is besides the point, though. The author’s victory lies in making the reader feel. Irrespective of what that feeling is. And then those two or three lines that stays with you long after you leave the story behind,

Her heart felt like a grey pebble in a mountain stream –something icy rushed over it.

I’m biased, you say? But then I’ve always loved gutsy women. Especially those who care two hoots about what the world says. They are all heart, and when they pour it out, you better listen.

 

(pictures courtesy – penguin.com and vagabomb.com)

 

 

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.

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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 )