Category Archives: 4*

‘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

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‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian

islandThe abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.

For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.

Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.

“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”

As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a  community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.

Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,

“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.

Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.

What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations  like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as  he leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.

4/5

(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)

 

‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’ by RM Rajgopal

emptyBooks signed by authors, I have a few. But a book launch? Never.

So when V, a good friend, sent out an invite, I was excited. For more than one reason. V is a born raconteur and his sense of humor is truly out of this world. So by law of genesis or whatever, his brother had to be a chip off the young block, I presumed. And rightly so, I was to find out.

RM Rajgopal, the author wrote these stories ‘while pursuing a hectic career,’ says the introduction in the book. And the author corroborates it when he says tongue-in-cheek that he has a lot to thank Indian Airlines for the number of delayed flights, most of these stories were written either while waiting at the airport or while on a flight. Apparently he used to carry and notebook and pen with him, always. That he must have observed a lot, not just in the course of flying, is evident from each of the story that he has penned in this debut collection.

‘The Empty Pedestal’, the title story, and the first one in the book is about how times change and the labor leaders along with it – from being idealistic to realistic . The tone was a little sombre and I was more than a little disappointed. I had an inkling of the next one, ‘They Listened’, this was one of the stories from which an excerpt was read out at the launch. An old musician’s yearning for at least one discerning ear and how a few choice requests change his whole life, albeit for a few days, is told so well.

The true meaning of that twinkle of mischief in the author’s eyes starts getting visible from the third story, ‘A Genuine Blonde’. The climax is brilliant, I wouldn’t dare to add any spoilers here. That he is still a boy at heart is brought out in the following stories about a nursery interview, the swaggering senior in a boarding school, and a boy who has lost his mother.

Humor turns into satire as he goes on to regale us about the God-man in ‘All the people all of the time.’ Life’s strange twists and turns are what the next few stories are about. ‘The Bombay Edition’,  is set in a typical corporate office, and was something that I could totally relate to – how the news of a promotion can bring out the attitude of a typical Indian male mind, even today. I was nodding vigorously through the story, reading the archetypal comments about Finance departments and women working there 🙂

The brash Punjabi graduate in ‘A B-Class Abode,’ the hapless Krishnaswamy who is caught between the eternal tangles of principles and an avaricious wife in ‘Principles and the Price Line,’ the ill fated Umesh in ‘Sharing a Berth,’ – all of them are characters taken straight out from life. We would have encountered them sometime in our lives, their stories are heartening and tinged with the pathos of middle class life as it truly is.

The author’s pen turns political in the next four stories. You cannot help but chuckle as you read ‘The Hand’ . There was a time when his words might have been truly prophetic ,

“The irony of what has happened cannot be forgotten. That fifty years after the last Englishman who ruled us left our shores, a daughter of Europe was sworn in as Prime Minister last evening….”

That Mr. Rajgopal decided to have ‘A Guffaw in the End’ is so apt. It is the changing face of today’s woman, practical, clear of what they want, they knowing exactly where they stand and how they will walk their life.

The charm of this collection is how true to life each story is. That the author is a keen observer of what happens around him need not be stated, his tales speak for themselves. What is also evident throughout is his zest for life and the eyes of a naughty boy that looks at life through his sparkling eyes, hiding his seriousness behind resounding laughter.

However, what enamored me totally is the exquisite language, there is that unmistakable charm of old world. You feel as though you are sitting at the end of a long dining table, the dinner is done, you are picking at morsels now and then, the tinkle of crystal and the muffled sound of silver on porcelain somewhere in the background.  Your eyes and ears are keenly attuned to this sixty something charismatic, worldly wise guy, churning out tale after tale amidst loud bursts of laughter, with a few guffaws thrown in here and there and the inevitable anecdotes by others around the table, adding to the spice. The kind of night that you wished never ended.

Verdict : If you are one who loves tales that smell of life as we know it, told in an exquisitely elegant manner and impeccable language, a must read. You will love it.

4/5

p.s. somehow I could not connect to the title story, it seemed to stand apart from the rest. Maybe that explains why it is the title 🙂

When Dreams Wake You Up – ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

kateWhen I was carrying our first born, husband used to see pregnant women everywhere. It happens all the time doesn’t it? When the mind is focused on something, consciously or sub consciously, it seem to attract relevant experiences, thoughts and people. Or is it that we become more mindful and aware that we actually start making sense of what is around us? Stories, real life and made up, discussions, real and virtual, all tend to rekindle those once burning embers. As if that was not enough, this  book found its way and added fuel to the already smouldering ashes.

The questions are what every woman would have asked herself at least once in her life. Unless of course, she is single and childless. Is it worth it? What about me? My dreams? Do I even have a choice? Are child bearing and rearing my responsibilities alone? What if I reset my priorities? And family and children no longer held a place there, or they were far down on the ladder? More than ten years into the twenty first century, such thoughts are rarely heeded, then imagine the furor that it might have caused when a woman dared to think aloud on similar lines towards the end of the nineteenth century, even if she was fictional?

Edna Pontellier had no right to be unhappy. Rich husband, tastefully furnished house in the suburbs, holidays to sea side every year, happy kids, customary maids and servants – she seemed to have it all, everything that women like her where supposed to want. Reticent by nature, she seem to further withdraw into herself, the holiday crowd and their shenanigans doesn’t charm her anymore and she seem to search for that sense of freedom that she has experienced once, while running through the fields in her childhood. There is this restlessness that seem to settle over her and refuses to let go. She had always thought of herself different from other women in her social circle, the mother-women,

who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels

Edna is at first slightly disturbed by the fawning ways of young Robert, the land lady’s son. No one sees anything amiss in it as he is known for his flirting ways with the rich ladies who come down from the city year after year. Yet, for Edna, that might have been the spark that the fire in her was waiting for. The questions start taking complete shapes as she overcomes her fear of swimming. And that could very well have been a metaphor for getting over her inhibitions. And her friendship with the musician Mademoiselle Reisz, who is not too welcome in her group of friends, helps in showing her a way out to her dreams.

Back in the city, taking up the role of a dutiful wife is something Edna finds difficult to come back to terms with. To give due credit, Mr.Pontellier is not a cruel husband, just an ordinary guy,

“a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife,”

and hence could not understand the changes and the increasingly insolent behavior of his wife. He tries, in his own way, to make her comfortable and to make her see sense. Edna realizes that her relationship with her husband was just that and love was something else entirely that she has just begun to understand. Kids away on a holiday with their grandmother, and husband on a business tour, Edna finally seem to find herself in her art and affairs of heart. It takes her friend Madame Ratignolle’s words to bring her back to earth from the colorful skies that her spirit was roaming around,

“Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”

The mother in her takes over, but the consequences are rather contrary to what we might expect.

The questions continue. I remember a conversation that I once had with a male friend. We were talking about a macho movie actor who was quite well known for his roving eye and abject disregard for his wife and mother of his children. My friend’s response was, “well, he is a great artist. His wife should understand that and respect his life. After all, she is his wife.” There was no clear answer to my counter of what if it was the wife who was a great artist and the husband was just that, her husband. A mumble was the only answer, if that was one.

Society has conditioned us to expect mothers to be the be all and end all of everything related to family with scant respect to what they themselves may really want. She is expected to give up all her comforts and aspirations for the overall happiness of her husband, parents and children whereas men, well, continue to be men. Mr. Pontellier could not have put it better and here he speaks for scores of men and even many women,

“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”

Edna Pontellier, for me is the sound of many a woman that I see and listen to these days. They know their priorities clearly and perched right on top of the list are their children. They nurture their offspring with single minded passion, protect them like a tiger mom and is ready to give anything that it takes to give them the best. Yet, they know where they will stop, even if it is with a regret or two.

“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.”

Normally, I am more of a casual reader who might have read about the author somewhere and is satisfied with the bits and pieces of information that might float in with the wind. This time around, I really wanted to know this brave soul who had shocked many an orthodox soul right out of their shoes and even stockings. How could a woman talk about her sexual desires, and so openly? How could she leave her husband, and God forbid, even her children, just like that?

Kate Chopin is now considered a forerunner of the feminist authors of the twentieth century. She has written two novels and about a hundred short stories. ‘The Awakening’ is her second novel and as expected, was a quite a sensation when it was published in 1899. It was condemned, critics gave it all the choicest labels and the publication of her third collection of short stories was cancelled. The novel started getting recognized for what it was, almost sixty years after her death in 1904.

 Verdict – The easy going manner of writing belies the brevity of thoughts. You can finish the book in a day or even less, but it is sure to disturb your thoughts for a few days, especially if you are a woman and a mother, who had and still have some dreams, and whose life is an eternal list of priorities that keeps changing by the minute. Read it.

4/5

 

 

 

 

On Eulogies and ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

faultWhat you heard is true, this is a cliched story. A star crossed pair of teenagers, both of them terminally ill, wishes coming true, devoted parents, adoring sisters, video games of guns and gore, precocious dialogues,  the story has all the ingredients of a block buster young adult movie. No surprises here, a movie is indeed slated for release.

Hazel Grace, or ‘Just’ Hazel as she calls herself, is terminally ill. Her cancer seem to be temporarily stalled by a new medication, but she knows her days are numbered. As expected, she meets the gorgeous, precocious, tongue in cheek Augustus Waters in a support group meeting. Once a talented basketball player, the dreaded illness has left him with a prosthetic leg in place of a real one. And he falls in love, not the least because she resembles his girl friend who, no surprises here again, died of cancer. Too much cancer, you think? Wait, there is Isaac, who is waiting to lose his eye so that he can be certified NEC – No Evidence of Cancer.

Ready to run off? Not so fast. If you are still wondering what the hype and hoopla is all about, open that copy of yours and read.  We tend to dismiss such books saying the kids sound smart beyond their years, they speak words far suited to people much older, if not wiser and so on and so forth. Think for a minute, though. Aren’t our kids exactly the same? And we listen to them with a proud smile and an indulgent look. It is quite obvious as you read that the author knows young adults and ill ones at that. He seem to read their minds quite well and can really relate to the insecurities that rage their hearts. So it came as no surprise when I read somewhere that at twenty two, he worked as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital.

If the strength of the story is the realistic manner in which it is portrayed, its huge success among the young ones could very well be the ideal love that  they long for at that very impressionable age. The growth hormones on overdrive, peer pressure on one side, parental do’s , don’ts and expectations on the other side, it is a period of conflict for them – of emotions, soul and body. It is only natural that they yearn for that one true love, who understands you inside out, who stands by you come what may and who is ready to lay down even his life for you. And that is the connect that the author is able to tap effortlessly. For, here is someone who is willing to give up his last wish for his love. What more could an idealistic teenage heart ask for?

The parents are mostly in the background, especially Gus’s. Both sets of parents seem to be similar, maybe because of the almost identical backgrounds all three characters seem to come from. Hazel’s parents are a little more deeply etched – the mother who stays strong and the father who breaks – again seem to follow an expected pattern. What I loved here is Hazel’s concerns for her parents. She has read up on how a kid’s death might affect the parents , ‘studies say more than 50% end up in divorce.’ She has overheard her mother ‘cannot be a mother’ anymore. We give kids far less credit than they actually deserve and Green has beautifully brought out this point. Their fears are as real as a grown up’s and it is much more similar to ours that we would actually admit.

I will leave the details of the wish, what happens in between and how it all ends for the reader in you to find out for yourself. As I moved the book into the ‘read’ folder, two thoughts refused to leave me. The first one was Hazel’s thoughts on how illness defines her life and the person that she is now. As parents and elders, we tend to treat children with kid’s gloves many a time, more so when they are ill. It might be fine with them when it is an occasional illness. But it could be shattering to them when the illness is something that they are forced to be reminded of whether they want to or not, like Hazel’s oxygen tank. The ultimate fear of a young girl or boy is to be different from their peers. It is so well brought out when Hazel’s father tries to force a curfew on her. The teenager in her wants to act like a typical one, but she is almost always restricted by the thought of how she might hurt them. For a typical girl her age, that might very well be the last of concerns. You can only try to imagine the emotional trauma she must be going through, understanding and acting accordingly would be an impossible task for a parent.

The second is something that has been in my mind ever since I read a Reader’s Digest article years ago. There was this story about a terminally ill guy who decides to celebrate his own wake. Along with his wife, he plans it elaborately, with his favorite food and drinks, all his close friends and family present and each one reading out their eulogy for him. What a beautiful way to go, isn’t it? I am all for this. Why are we so reluctant to say good things about people directly to them when they are alive and then eulogize about them when they are no more? A simple ‘I love you’ said with feeling fills our hearts with joy, imagine the abundance of happiness it would mean to us if our loved ones took time out to really say what we mean to them. Isn’t that what is so charming about kids? They live for the moment and tell us what they feel in that instant. So, why not eulogize someone each day, while they are still in your life?

Going back to  the book, these lines from ‘Desiderata’ keeps playing in my mind,

“Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.”

 

Verdict – If you are a parent to a teenager, read it. If you are a parent of a teenager who swears by this book, read it, now. If you are not a parent to a teenager, but is someone who believes in and tries to live by the above quoted lines, read it.

4/5

 

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

travelThe title was misleading. I was expecting to read about how to travel in an artistic manner or the science of artistic travel , whatever that would have been. As for the author, the only relationship till now were a few quotes, mostly from his ‘On Love’. The first few pages were more less on the expected lines – the anticipation that is mostly colored by a travel agency brochure. Palm fringed beaches, multi hued sea in shades of green , blue or a more sexy sounding aquamarine, the ubiquitous ‘hotel bungalow with a view through French doors into a room decorated with wooden floors and white bedlinen‘ and an almost always ‘azure sky.’

You think you know it all when the author comments on , how in the course of anticipation of a travel, mortal human beings like us tend to forget the details of what happens between the time that we get into a car on the way to airport and reach the hotel at your dream destination. We get an almost bleak picture of however exotic the destination maybe, how we experience it depends to a large extent, on a lot of other factors, beyond our control. The bliss cannot be permanent, and therein lies the beauty or the reality, as the case maybe.

The book is neatly divided into five parts – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return – two chapters each, except the last, that has one. Enlightenment struck in the second chapter of ‘Departure’ where Botton talks about a remote service station somewhere between London and Manchester and connects his thoughts to the French poet Charles Baudelaire and how his poems borne out of yearning for places afar inspired the American painter Edward Hopper. This was much more than what I had hoped for. Poets and artists I’d never heard of, why they did what they did, how their travels and what they noticed in details en route affected their art and their views on people and life….literary bliss indeed.

In the first chapter  ‘Motives’ of travel, Botton talks about how the very term ‘Exotic’ was synonymous with Middle East at one point of time. Did you know Gustave Flaubert hated his homeland with a passion and was obsessed with the Orient? As the author observes, “What we find exotic abroad maybe what we hunger for in vain at home,” you can’t help nodding in agreement. You also wonder whether the places that you call home are really that , or as the cliche goes, ‘isn’t home where your heart is?’

Curiosity could be another factor that prompts one to take up travel. He talks of the extreme levels of curiosity that one can go to citing the example of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who went on an expedition to South America and came back with details as diverse and detailed as to cover biology, geology, physics, chemistry and whatever else you could think of. (His biography is aptly sub titled ‘What May Be Accomplished in a Lifetime‘). If you are overwhelmed with this super human’s endeavors, Botton leaves us with a consoling thought,

“Instead of bringing back sixteen thousand new plant species, we might return from our journeys with a collection of small, unfeted but life-enhancing thoughts.”

‘Landscape’ and ‘Art’ are what really captured my heart. Serendipity strikes when you listen to Wordsworth echoing your thoughts on living in the city as against the country. It was on a visit to Red Hills in Ooty a few years ago that the fact of how your surroundings  can actually affect the kind of person you are, first came into mind as a conscious thought. Every morning, Vijay, the owner of the serene home stay could be seen sitting on the green wrought iron bench in the front garden, staring at the emerald lake below. He was a man of gentle manners and I wondered whether it was the lake and its surroundings that passed on its sage like qualities to him. Over the years, I’ve noticed the changes that come over people based on where they lived and who their constant companions were at any point of time. Some places leave a lasting impression on one’s mind that you are found going back to it time and again, especially when the mind is in turmoil and longs for peace. Isn’t this what the great poet meant when he said,

“For oft on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye….

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the Daffodils.”

The two chapters that follow goes on to tell us about what sublime is all about and how art influences our appreciation of certain things and places, which we might not have otherwise. At some time or other, most of us are influenced by the various reviews and historical significance of places and people. It is as if we are some idiots if we fail to find the same awe and wonder as others mostly pretend to. ‘On Eye-Opening Art’ tells us a different story. Botton , who is totally not impressed by the much appreciated Provence with its quintessential olive and cypress trees and wheat fields. It took aVincent van Gogh to make him appreciate the beauty of the place and its colours.

He saved the best for the last. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ is about John Ruskin, who I must admit, was someone whom I’d never heard of before. He gave a kick on my backside and how. Do we really see what we are looking at, and if at all we do, how much? According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. (That explains our hoarding mentality , I guess. The definition of what is beautiful may vary, though. ) And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?

“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”

The catchword is of course, ‘irrespective.’ We are so worried about what others think and say of our work, all the while forgetting the real essence of art. For, isn’t art something that should give you absolute joy? Irrespective of definition, of what others term as good or bad, if it is something that gives you joy, without harming anyone else, isn’t that the ultimate aim of art? In Ruskin’s words again,

“Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.”

Art can never be separated from life. And when someone links one of the deepest longings – travel – to an object of beauty and makes you think of how you can never be really away from life and its twists and turns, with the added pleasure of finding new artists to enjoy and new authors to be read, you realize you have found a treasure, and a true one at that.

Botton says,

“I had seen many oak trees in my life, but only after an hour spent drawing one in the Langdale Valley (the result would have shamed an infant) did I begin to appreciate, and remember, their identity.”

True of people in our life as well, isn’t it?

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‘The Small Brick Bridge’ by John Ruskin

 

Verdict : You love travel ? Art ? Poetry? Go read!

4/5 for the book and 5/5 for ‘On Possessing Beauty’

 

‘One Life to Ride – A Motorcycle Journey to the High Himalayas’ by Ajit Harisinghani

rideAfter ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’, I went on a downloading spree of biking books. Started with this one, the main reason was the ‘Himalayas’ in the name. Mountains have always fascinated me. Coming from a place where the land is flat and below sea level to boot, the first sight of mountains was pure awe. The hills of Idukki paled in comparison to the Snow Lord’s abode is something that I realized a few years later. Since then, Leh, Ladakh and The Valley of Flowers have been beckoning from far.

Coming back to the book, the author, in his mid fifties, decides to go on a trip of his dreams, all alone. Based out of Pune, he first makes a trip to Goa, to attune himself and his bike to the long and arduous trip later.

The book goes in a somewhat documentary style, describing places and people that he meets on the way, adding his thoughts to it. A couple of incidents, or rather people caught my heart. The first one was a fakir , a true one, cycling his way to Mecca from Mumbai. At times, profound thoughts turn into words and comes from least expected sources. To the author’s question of how long it takes to reach Mecca, the wise man replies,

“Sirf badan ko wahan le jaana hai.

Rooh to wahin rahtee hai.” *

The part that  stays with me is his meeting with the jawans in Kashmir. There is one incident where the author is frightened by a group of young men rushing at him, only to realize they were soldiers from the Maratha regiment and they had run to him seeing the MH number plate on his bike. They take him to their barracks and he realizes as he talks to them,

“The moment to moment stress is taking its toll. They try to camouflage it by an outward show of bravado but these young men, so far away from their homes, standing around me, look like lonely children marooned in a dangerous world.”

The longing for home, the need to talk to someone, the catch in their throats, the knowledge that this might be their last day, and the feeling of not knowing whom you can trust keep resonating in your heart long after you’re done reading . I was left with a feeling of guilt and despair at the world that we so take for granted.

Otherwise, the narration seemed quite ordinary in most places. Not one that tugged at my heart.

Verdict – A light read, may delight if you are interested in travel, not so much for a bike enthusiast.

3/5 for the story and narration and 5/5 for those encounters with the jawans.

 

(* He was merely transporting his body to where his soul already lived)

 

‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’ by P.G. Tenzing

blokeMany of us go through the existential pangs of life from time to time, especially when we are in a place that we don’t want to be or working with people whom we hate. Rarely does anyone show the courage to say out loud, “to hell with it” and walk the talk. Here is one guy who did just that and if that was not enough, went on a 25,000 km bike ride across the country.

P.G. Tenzing, an IAS officer from Sikkim, who spent almost 20 years in Kerala did just that when he was 43. This is his account of that journey, told in a no nonsense manner, in an inimitable style. Along with observations about his friends and people whom he meets along the way, he also writes about his disillusionment about the system and his helplessness about many a thing political as well.

His sense of humor is brilliant and is evident throughout the narration. Particularly enticing to me was his love for food,

” Food in Kerala is to die for. Fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever, all cooked in delectable coconut oil. Except ‘putte’ – a rice based cylindrical piece of poison which can choke you during breakfast.”

Starting from Varkala beach near Trivandrum, he rides up north, spending a minimum of 6-7 hours on the bike as he traverses the length and breadth of the country.

What makes his story more interesting in retrospect is his thoughts on death. Having survived it twice – once from an illness and the from an accident, he seems almost casual in his observation,

” my father tried to prepare us for death. He used to talk about its certainty, it’s inevitability. So when I started my search for life’s meaning, death was a significant part of the equation. I am nowhere near understanding anything, but am nowhere near understanding anything, but am at this point comfortable with the idea of death. It happens. Shit happens. Be prepared. Prepare your family, friends and all who will listen.”

Premonition? Definitely so. Not much later after his book was published, he passes on after a brief illness.

The story makes you want to just go and do whatever it is that you have always wanted to. It reminds us that life can sometimes to be too short. The friends along the way, in almost every town and village, give us glimpses of a man who was loved by many. And that makes us realize what a life well lived means. The tale ends with a thought that is so relevant to all of us ,

“I may have issues with my life, and I have been buffeted about a bit, but those are nothing compared to the daily battering taken by Mohan and his ilk. Living with them has made me rethink many established idiocies and realize that all those high-sounding spiritual, psychological and emotional arguments we have the luxury to engage in, in our temperature-controlled drawing rooms, take a very low backseat indeed when you are existing – subsisting- day to day.”

Verdict – A must read, I would say.

4/5

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

donna

Disclaimer – a long post. But then, how can you expect anything less when the book itself is close to 800 pages?

‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin was one of the first books that I would have read about art. Then came Susan Vreeland’s ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue‘ that taught me the subtle nuances that made a classic,

“Look at the direction of the brush’s stroke, those tiny grooves of the brush hairs. They have their lighted and their shaded side. Look elsewhere. You’ll find overlapping layers of paint no thicker than silk thread that give a minute difference in shade. That’s what makes it a Vermeer.”

‘The Goldfinch’ reminded me of the second one in that a single painting is at the core of the story. Young Theo Decker is scared that he is going to be suspended from school, the headmaster has asked for a meeting with his mother.  A shifty father, who has walked in and out of their lives, seem to have abandoned them for good finally. On that fateful morning his mother, who is ardent lover of art, decides to talk a look at one of her favorite paintings in the museum. Something in the painting catches Theo’s eyes as well, as small as the painting is. While dragging behind his mother , he notices a lovely girl with a violin, accompanied by a man who might be her grandfather. All hell breaks lose as there is an explosion, that almost shatters the whole place. Theo finds himself holding the hands of the old man, who utters some cryptic sounding words and thrusts an antique ring into his hand and urges him to get out. Something pulls the little boy back and makes him take the small painting off the hook as he walks out of the rubble. To repeat a cliche – life is never going to be the same for him again.

His mother killed in the explosion, a father who cannot be traced and a pair of indifferent grandparents, Theo finds himself in his friend Andy Barbour’s home – a typical high end New York house. The ring and an address that the old man had given him, leads him to the dusty but awe inspiring antique shop, to Hobie the genial owner and the girl in the museum, Pippa. He is drawn back to the place day after day, slowly starts helping out Hobie in restoring antique furniture and one gets a feeling he might find solace there. The feelings lasts until his father turns up at a most inopportune moment with his girl friend.

What follows is years of drugs, decadence,  a new friend who seem to be a little more than crazy, coincidences, connections, more drugs and decadence, the high and low of New York and the underbelly of Amsterdam.  The painting remains at the core of it all. I will leave the rest of the story for you to read, be surprised, turn sad and happy and  finally to ponder over some thoughts in the end.

It is said that the author took more than ten years to complete this book and I am not surprised. The canvas is vast and filled with details. And therein lies the beauty. The language is exquisite, mostly. The little boy’s angst and insecurities and his dilemma over what could have been and should have been, and his longing for his mother is transferred to the reader subtly and surely. Sample this,

“I dreamed of her constantly, only as absence, not presence: a breeze blowing through a just-vacated house,her handwriting on a notepad, the smell of her perfume, streets in strange lost towns where I knew she’d been walking only a moment before but had just vanished, a shadow moving away against a sunstruck wall.”

Are you someone who has ever wondered what is it that attracts people to a masterpiece, make some to go to any lengths to own one and to hold on to it? You might understand the feeling,

“The painting made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that had held the whole cathedral up.”

I loved how the characters were portrayed, there is no one who is absolutely good or bad, the author doesn’t pass judgement on any of them and as a reader you are also gently persuaded to follow suit. There is a reason to what each of them says and does, there is an underlying resignation to life in each of them. The message, if that is so, of the whole story is captured in Theo’s words in the last chapter as he philosophizes about life as he has known it and in general. It does provoke some strong thoughts in your mind as well, at least, it did for me.

“Isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster ?”

The book also left me with a feeling that in the ten years that it took to bring it out, some editing could have been done. But then, it could also be that, the author did it on purpose. I skipped more than a few pages where it felt like long ramblings. Thinking back, maybe it makes sense, because the long-winding verses happen when at least one of the characters were in a delirious mood. The last chapter also seemed to go on and on, without any end in sight.

Verdict – Characters with depth, and excellent story line that does not let you keep it down despite the length, language that captures you in most parts and an endearing protagonist who asks some piercing questions – you love the sound of this? Go ahead, pick it up. If it is the paper version, you might develop some muscles also in the bargain.

4/5

‘The Goldfinch’ is an oil painting by the 17th century Dutch master Carel Fabritius. It is one of the few of his works that has survived en explosion that killed the artist.

‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

catOff late, the reader in me has been veering more towards real life stories and memoirs than plain fiction. Life definitely seem to be more interesting and stranger than fiction. The third book of an author whom I have come to love immensely seem to confirm the fact. There is something that pulls you in , when stories contain an autobiographical taste to it. Maybe I’m wrong here, but Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’ sounds like the author’s own childhood. The details are so vivid, the emotions so raw that one feels she has to have gone through this, it sounds too honest to be fiction. But then , maybe that’s why she is a revered author.

Elaine Risley has returned to the city of her childhood, Toronto, for a retrospective of her paintings. As she wanders around the street, long suppressed memories and emotions  burst out onto the surface. Everything about Elaine was different, her parents would have seemed strange to other children, her father an entomologist, making home wherever the bugs where, and a mother who was unusual compared to other ‘normal’ mothers.

After years of wandering around and no formal schooling, Elaine’s parents decide to settle in Toronto. The school is something that is quite unfamiliar for the new girl. For one who has been wandering aimlessly with her elder brother, the segregation between boys and girls is something that is hard to fathom as is her anxiety in dealing with girls her own age.

“I’m not used to girls, or familiar with their customs. I feel awkward around them, I don’t know what to say. I know the unspoken rules of boys, but with girls I sense that I am always on the verge of some unforeseen, calamitous blunder.”

With the advent of Cordelia in the neighborhood, starts a series of events that leaves an indelible mark on Elaine. Bullying among boys is more physical and visible. Girls seem to be made of a different mettle as far as this is concerned, it is more by insinuations, shrewdly phrased words and more often than not, ignoring and belittling the victims. It is so ingenious, the bullied are made to believe they are lacking in something so essential, without which they just cannot be a part of the most sought after group. The effect of this is so far reaching that Cordelia is like a fearful shadow looming over Elaine all through her life. The angst and essence of a bullied one is brought out in the words

“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.”

Elaine grows up to be a famous painter, gets married twice, has two daughters, one with each husband. Her angst as a woman, daughter , wife and mother is brought out in a humorous manner that I love about the author. The author’s language is a delight, as always. Written from a woman’s angle – feminist is a much maligned phrase – you are left wondering where the author ends and Elaine begins, you cannot imagine anyone else as the protagonist.

A confrontation with Cordelia, so that she could come to terms with her life is what Elaine seem to be looking for. In that sense, the ending was very mild in my opinion. That is the only grouse I have against the author here.

Verdict – It is in and out a woman’s story. Those of who have grown up in a pre – FB and Harry Potter era would be able to relate to it totally, so if you are one, go get it. Others, who are interested in a story that abounds in acerbic wit and tongue in cheek sarcasm, all from a woman’s point of view, would love it as well.

4/5