Category Archives: 5*

‘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 )

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel

(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neQcqyUAhr8

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.

5/5

‘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?

ruskin2

‘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’

 

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

 “With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”

Some people and certain experiences come right out of the blue , gives a kick on your backside and shock you out of your lazy complacence. You are left bewildered for a while before the light slowly starts shining down through the clouds. Certain books are like that. You start reading like you usually do, turning page after page, stopping to catch a phrase or a sentence now and then, skipping a page here and there, expecting to like, love, hate and ignore certain characters and to bring that satisfied smile on your face at the end. You think it would be another affair coming to an end. And then it transforms into a love that would last a lifetime.

To be honest, I was expecting the experience to be a little different from the usual, two of my book group friends just could not stop praising it. A precocious young girl who had decided to burn her apartment and kill herself on her 12th birthday because she was disillusioned with life , a 50 something extra intelligent concierge of a high end apartment complex somewhere in the frequented-by-ultra rich  lanes of Paris, and their profound thoughts – sounds quite pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what my thoughts were as I started with it.

The invasion of senses was slow, but sure and steady. I had to stop after almost each paragraph, sometimes to smile, sometimes to think and sometimes just to have a stupid grin of pure bliss on my face. A book, or should I say an author  was doing this to me after a long time. ‘The Garden of Evening Mists‘ made me dream and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was like seeing my dream come to life. ‘The Book Thief‘ had enchanted me and ‘The Forty Rules of Love‘ was a mystic experience. But this was something else.

At 12, Paloma already knows the futile nature of life. Or so she thinks. And when we consider how most of our lives turn out, you cannot actually blame her,

“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”

Renee`, commonly known as the bland Madame Michel, the concierge of the apartment where Paloma lives, is a connoisseur of art and literature. Unfortunately, she believes that people are expected to behave in a certain manner according to which section of the society one belongs to. So, she takes great pains to act like a typical concierge, hiding her true self.

Both have a penchant for things Zen and Japanese. And to their secret world comes in an old and charming Japanese guy, to shake them out. As the three go through their meetings and discoveries about each other, I was wondering what is it about the Japanese that brings out the sublime in us? Is it because they are constricted for space that they make it an art of silence and emptiness? No, to call it an emptiness would be sacrilege, it’s more like creating space and calm from emptiness.

Even an attempt at doing a review would be pointless. For, this is not about stories and plots, maybe a little bit about characters. The first and only word that I can think of is ‘profound,’ if someone asked me to describe it in one word. More than what the characters say or do, the book is about what the characters think.  And their thoughts are what enamors and encompasses you and your whole mind. Among a lot other things, it made me think about a never ending discussion, questions to which there is no right answers, “What the characters speak for, or in this case, think for, is it how the author would be in real life? Do we or should we judge books by their authors and vice versa ?”

The book talks about life , art , beauty and such sublime matters. Weaving its way through all these is the thread that connects one human being to another, irrespective of where they come from , what they do and where they are going. You might be successful in hiding your true self to most, but kindred souls will always find you out, as Paloma says about Renee`,

“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary–and terrible elegant. ”

Paloma’s ruminations tells us how children are not much different from us, the so called adults. You are left wondering how we lose the sense of wonder and the ability to see things as they are , as we grow up or pretend to do so.  Most of us knew how to find joy in the simplest of things as kids, each experience was as exciting as the earlier one and we welcomed it with open hands.  As adults, many of us find solace in  music and art. Have we ever thought the feeling can exactly be the same for a child as well?

“Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”

I have always found answers to many a question on life in books that I love. This one made me wonder whether  they are true answers or merely what my mind and soul seek for. It reinstated my belief that the most profound truths comes from the mouths of children. It also made me realize that the questions that pop up in my mind from time to time are merely an attempt at re asserting what I already knew, that this is exactly what life is about,

“Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

To put it short and blunt, the Hedgehog made me think, after a long time…for a long time…

 

Verdict – You will either love it to death or purely  hate it. If well developed plots, action and the art of beautiful story telling is what turns you on, this may not be for you. But, if you are someone like me who goes into a trance after reading something profound and which touches the core your soul, this is a must read.

5/5

 

‘The House of the Spirits’ by Isabel Allende

spiritsI had brought back a long list of books to read from our vacation at Capella, Goa.  Ayesha, our lovely hostess is mad about books and I had the time of my life combing through her bookshelves, finding new authors and discovering some titles that I had never heard of, from my favorite authors. One author that was present in almost all her shelves was Isabel Allende and during our chat one evening, she recommended ‘The House of the Spirits’ as a must read. I finally got hold of a copy from the library last week.

A few pages in, the wonder started creeping in. What is it about Latin America and its authors that enchants us so much, it is as if the word magical realism was invented by them. Maybe it is indeed.

The del Valle women has something different about them. Nivea , the mother comes from a  madcap family, while her daughters have their own peculiarities. Rosa, the eldest, is so beautiful and perfect, men are even scared of talking to her. Clara, the clairvoyant and the youngest in the family is the true heroine of the story. The spirits that are around her all the time, helps her predict the future of her loved ones, not that it is sufficient to help them when it is needed. Rosa is betrothed to Esteban Trueba, whose father squandered the family wealth and who is now working day and night in the mines so that he can provide his love Rosa, a life that is truly worth her. However, Rosa’s untimely and accidental death, sends him to his family estate that is in ruins. And this is where I feel the real story begins.

Within a year, Esteban has not only revived his estate, but also established himself as a true lord and master of the people who work for him. What we see next is the rise of the classic feudal land lord, ruling with an iron fist, squeezing out the last bit from the land and his tenants, his eyes and arms never missing a young girl and leaving behind him a spew of progeny that he choses to first ignore and then forget. In the background is his dying mother and sister Ferula with whom he has a volatile relationship. He goes onto marry Clara who, even with her spirit wandering in another world, ensnares him so much that he doesn’t feel like even looking at another woman.

In the true passionate manner that we attribute to people from that continent, Blanca, Esteban and Clara’s daughter,  befriends their plebian manager’s son, who turns out to be a revolutionary and people’s musician. Esteban’s twin sons are as different as chalk and cheese – Jaime, the altruistic and empathetic one and Nicolas , whose only interest is in making money without any effort. The author takes us through the turbulent lives of these characters , shuttling between Esteban’s hacienda, Tres Marias in the village and the ‘big house in the corner’ in the city, both of which are ruled by Clara and her spirits.

The narration is from the eyes of Esteban and his granddaughter Alba, Blanca’s daughter. The story is a true epic, it is as much about the tale of a country as it is about four generations of women, who influence and support each other, whether dead or alive. As the spirits wander around the houses, the country goes through the natural cycle of the rich land owners and the submissive , dirt poor workers who depend on their masters for their existence. The second generation turns against their fathers in both classes, one against the injustices and the other fighting for justice. The third generation tries to settle scores. The government moves from the hands of the rich  and elite, to the socialists who comes into power with the intangible support of communists. In their blind scramble to get power back by hook or by brook, the rich hands over the country in a platter to a set of dictators.

There are a lot many other characters, each having their own place and space in the story. The multitude does not confuse you but adds to the intrigue and strength of the story. The narrative style is so vivid, you feel as though you are actually living in that era, as a part of the Trueba family in a house that is enchanting and intimidating at the same time. The scope of the story is so vast, however hard I try, it is impossible to do justice and summarize it in a brief review.

Though set in Chile, a country that is far off,the similarities are many. The rich land lords, the sons and daughters who rebel against the iron fists, revolution that is spread through songs, the illicit and torrid affairs between the haves and have nots, the very settings itself, reminded me of Kerala a few decades ago. Even the life cycle of Esteban,  is so similar to the many patriarchs that we see even today in some of the hamlets. Like lions in their heydays, terrorizing whole villages, they slowly turn  into indulgent and placid grandfathers as they grow old. The metamorphosis of land and man are intertwined with each other, one cannot exist without the other.

Verdict – Must read, specially if you are one who loves passion, intrigue, revenge, affairs and love  coupled with the history of  a nation.

5/5

Trivia – This is Isabel Allende’s debut novel. Rejected by several Spanish publishers , this was finally published in Barcelona in 1982.

‘The Glass Castle’ by Jeanette Walls

glassImagine having a brilliant father who allows you to experiment with anything, lets you run around in the wild, explain the moon, the stars and the universe, tells you how things work, brings you hoards of books, and encourages you again and again that you are the best in this whole world and there is nothing you cannot do. And then a mother who paints all day, is a book worm and is of the belief that children should be independent and learn their way about the world as early as possible. Sounds like paragons of parenthood, isn’t it?

Now imagine living in the worst possible dump, where the very same parents do not seem to care whether water is dripping on to you as you sleep on a makeshift bed in freezing winter, steals the hard earned money that you saved for college to get drunk and are not just willing to take responsibility for even putting food in their children’s mouth? Well, that is how shocking this story is. Mind you , it is a real life story.

Born to a brilliant father who dreams big and a free spirited mother, Jeannette and her siblings find their childhood to be a long adventure, moving from one place to another, living out in the wild and doing things other kids cannot even imagine. But as you read about a three year old frying sausages by herself and getting burnt, you know instinctively that something is amiss. The flights from one job to another, the running out of money, the grand dreams and the like brings out the gruesome reality that their irresponsible parenting is.

Rex Walls is in eternal search for gold and his grandiose plans to build a glass castle is something that he shares with his second daughter Jeannette, while his wife is in search for success as an artist and believes it is just around the corner. In between, what both of them seem to conveniently forget is that they are parents to four kids. Once they are forced to settle in one place finally, is when the kids start realizing that they are parenting their father and mother instead of the natural way around.

The tale is deeply disturbing, you often wonder how could such a well read , intelligent couple be so irresponsible. It could be the sense of security that they somehow imbibed in their childhood or the effect of all kinds of books they have been lucky enough to read right from when they were two and three year olds, that sustain the kids through all kind of trials and tribulations. It is heartening to read about how the siblings fight to protect each other from common enemies, how they refuse to give up and how they are willing to go to any length to help themselves.  The father seem to be a callous addict whereas the mother comes across as an insensitive and outright selfish woman. it is nothing short of a miracle that the kids feel any love for them at all.

What catches you by the throat is the sheer grit and determination of the elder three kids, how they fight for each other and their thankless parents and their perseverance to get out of the hellhole. The younger two pushes the eldest one Lori out to New York first and  she in turn pulls them out. That they could not rescue the youngest one Maureen, remains  a constant cause of sadness for the author.

Apart from reiterating as to how resilient and steadfast in their dreams children can be, it was also an eye opener for me  to the fact that the ragged, crazy looking guy that I turn my face away from, on the street, could be one of the most brilliant persons I could ever meet in my life.

Last but definitely not the least, the story underlines the immense power that books can have on your life and your outlook to it. That, in fact they could be your salvation.

Verdict :  A must read, especially for young adults and those who crib about how their childhood affected them so much that they couldn’t help but being failures.  And kids who complain their parents do not buy them the latest gadget that comes out into the market, should be made to read this book at least once a week.

5/5

‘Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad’ by Bee Rowlatt and May Witwit

baghdadThe title is what caught my attention, but the content is hardly about Jane Austen or for that matter even about books. What unfolds is the harsh reality of a life under siege, the helplessness and frustration of living under occupation and a stigma that has been imposed on ordinary people for no fault of their own.

Bee, a London mother of three and a producer for BBC World Service Radio, sends an email to May, an English lecturer in American occupied Baghdad, for an interview. What follows is how amazing relationship grows, nurtured through mails and an occasional phone call over a period of three years. While Bee’s letters are more often about her life , husband, kids, her extended family and her work, May’s correspondence opens up a world of hopelessness, frustration , sadness , disappointment and anger at a life that has been thrust on her.

As they correspond with each other, slowly a plan emerges to get May and her husband Ali out of Baghdad and the two become more than just friends. For Bee, it becomes almost a mission, it is as if her own sister is caught in a country from where escape seems almost impossible. The real eye opener is the reality of a normal citizen’s life in what was once a peaceful country. May writes about how one day they woke up suddenly to find their country at war with Iran, a war that continued for eight years. They heaved a sigh of relief as it ended only to find themselves at war again soon, this time with Kuwait. What happened to Iraq after that is known to all, but what many of us may not have realized is how the lives of common people changed. The irony is in the fact that the West raised an embargo on Saddam Hussein to teach him a lesson and his life was the least affected by it.

In spite of being an academic who has spent her initial years in the UK, the stigma of being from Saddam’s country follows May and she shares the depth of helplessness and anger as she writes,

“To be honest, Bee, I’d rather be killed in Baghdad than become a beggar on the doorsteps of other countries. Especially when these countries are the ones who have shattered our lives, exploited our national wealth and put us through all this misery.”

Bee is unwilling to give up and at the same time, exhorts May not too raise her hopes too much. At times, she comes across as a little harsh, but then you realize she is right in doing so, May has to be prepared for the realities and the tough path ahead before she can  , if at all emigrate to the UK.

Another aspect that comes out in May’s letters is her relationship with her second husband Ali. But for him, May would have been able to get out of the country relatively easier. But she is sure that Ali’s love is something that she would not be willing to give up , even for the unthinkable freedom she could have out of her home country.

The part where May writes about her students and what she has to teach about is as ironical as the rest of her life. She is met with blank faces as she lectures about human rights and democracy and it takes her some time to understand the reason.

“I realized that it was impossible for these oppressed young females to comprehend that there are freedoms granted to humanity in general. It was like describing colors to the color-blind, I thought to myself.”

May has to face several unforeseen and totally unexpected setbacks before she and Ali can make it to UK, several times she reaches a point of complete breakdown and disappointment. One of her notes to Bee at this stage would be an echo of any ordinary citizen in a ravaged country like Iraq,

“Do you remember, Bee, when in my ‘Apology to Hemingway’ I said that they keep defeating you until you’ll gladly want to destroy yourself? We have never ceased to struggle. It is as if we are living under constant punishment, lasting from the cradle to the grave. Is such a life really worth living? Where are our rights as individuals? Why do other countries assume that we have no feelings?”

The book reiterates some of the questions that even you might have had, “Who or what gives the right to certain countries to decide what is good for others? What makes them think that they are the only ones who know what is right for the world? ”

Verdict : A must read, makes you thankful for even the little things in life that you so take for granted.

5/5

‘The Google Guys’ by Richard L. Brandt

googleNext to the air that we breathe, if we take anything for granted today, it has to be Google, at least to a lay person  like me. It has become the single destination for anything that we need, in fact, the name itself has become a verb. You want any information, just google it.

‘The Google Guys’ , originally published as ‘Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain’ gives more than a glimpse into who the two brilliant young guys are and how they think. Written in a simple, straightforward style, it gives insights into how the organization came into being, what makes its founders tick, their people, their vision, the key people who support them and most importantly their vision  and the seemingly improbable things that you could expect from them in future .

The book starts with an analogy of the world’s first great library – the Great Library of Alexandria that was created by Ptolemy I, the childhood friend of Alexander the Great. The similarities are uncanny and aptly presented in the first few chapters. The author introduces you to a typical employee of Google and you no longer wonder why the organization seem to be at the forefront of any new age thought that you could think of. Alan Eustace, the senior VP of engineering and lead person on engineering hiring puts it very clearly,

“The key element we’re trying to find is smart people, productive people, people with a slight disdain for the impossible, people who have good leadership shills who we find interesting. We try to avoid people that have incredibly large egos that are inconsistent with their abilities or are not good at working in teams.”

In a world that was dominated by Yahoo and Microsoft, if one wonders how Google outsmarted them all, the answer is simple – to keep things simple for the end user – the most basic and important principle that organizations tend to forget as they grow. They are almost fanatical about simplicity , whether it is the look of the home page or the ads that run there. That brings us to another area where Google clearly scored over others. their own advertising spend.

“We’ve resisted the temptation to have big advertising campaigns,” Sergey said in 2000. “I’m not sure it is the right thing to do. I am concerned about long-term profitability.”

Instead, they knew their target audience, met them in person and showed them what they could do. The instinct sure did pay off in the long run. In further chapters, Brandt narrates the story of the infamous IPO where Larry and Sergey almost botched it up because of their apparent apathy towards the so called norms. The controversial entry into China that seemed to go against their much heralded policy on censoring is also dealt with in detail.

The chapter that I loved the most is ‘The Ruthless Librarians’ that talks at length about their attempt to digitize all the books that are available somewhere in the world today. The stories bring out the passion that the duo has towards preserving something that is so priceless.

The last three chapters takes you through Google’s plans for Cloud, Android and the like. Some of the information may seem outdated, but it is interesting, nevertheless. Reading through the last chapter you are left thinking whether there is nothing that these brilliant guys have not thought about. Their future plans include among others, renewable sources of power, eco friendly cars, a trip to Mars and the like.

The ever threatening question of privacy and the potential risk of one entity having this humongous information in their hands is referred to throughout the book. As the author says, most of the controversies are about what could happen and not what has happened.

The author says rightly,

There’s one thing that’s certain: they are going to be breaking rules, pissing people off, and trying to make the world a better place for decades to come. Love them or despise them, everyone must contend with them. They are having greater impacts on the business world and on people’s lifestyles than any other business executives in the world.

World’s information and energy controlled by a corporate behemoth, it sure is a scary prospect. Countries would lose significance, Google could easily be taking up the place of erstwhile United States , the Big Brother or even the Patriarch of the Universe. At the same time, the control wielded by the duo in practically all the decisions including even recruitment of key resources, leaves us with the billion dollar question , what after Larry and Sergey?

Almost serendipitous, this news came out yesterday as I finished reading the book

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international-business/google-stock-hits-1000-cash-pile-at-56-billion-how-the-internet-giant-is-making-money/articleshow/24382807.cms

Verdict – An absolute must read for anyone who  Googles 🙂

5/5

‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ by Richard P. Feynman

feynmanPeople are normally surprised when and if they learn I graduated in Physics. What I learnt later and what I have been doing ever since is not even remotely related to Physics or even the Sciences in the conventional sense. Who knows where I would have ended up if we had professors even remotely like Richard P. Feynman ? Anyway, that has nothing to do with this book or the review , so lets get going.

The official Feynman website introduces him as  a,

 “scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician.  He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, and cut to the heart of the Challenger disaster.  But beyond all of that, Richard Feynman was a unique and multi-faceted individual”

Those who have read his books or listened to his lectures online would vouch for the fact that he is indeed a raconteur at par with the best of your favorite authors. The fact is proved yet again in this book.

The first part is more of his personal memories – childhood, his first wife Arlene, some his travels, a few letters to his family, some other letters about him that his family received after he passed away and similar anecdotes from his life.  I found the first chapter quite fascinating in the way his father answered his questions. You are left with a feeling of ‘no wonder he turned out to be like this.’

Once a friend ridiculed him that his father didn’t teach him anything because he didn’t know the name of a particular bird. While, Feynman knew it was the opposite. This is what his father told him,

“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. “

Feynman goes on to say,

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

I was ready to complete this as a random memoir kind of book when the second part started.  This is where he takes us into the shocking labyrinth of the Challenger investigation . His never ending curiosity, ability to get down to the root of a problem by asking the right questions to the right people and his unwavering sense of ethics is very well brought out in this part.  I am someone who believes that the solution to any problem almost always would lie with those who are handling things at the ground level. You change the name ‘NASA’ to any other organization where anything has gone wrong, the scenario would be the same.

“management reducing criteria and accepting more and more errors that weren’t designed into the device, while the engineers are screaming from below, “HELP!” and “This is a RED ALERT!”

Feynman, in his own quintessential style, brings out how some critical decisions that may affect the lives of many and millions of tax payer’s money are made based on certain factors , that might even be whimsical and which has no relevance whatsoever to the actual event. The chapter ‘ Afterthoughts’ is particularly interesting. Whether it is a NASA or an ISRO, the way the system works are not too different. The only difference could be someone as unique as Richard P. Feynman and what a difference it made!

Verdict : Was prepared to give this a 3.5 or at the most 4 while reading the first part. Halfway through the second part I knew it had to be nothing less than 5. Do read it for the interesting bits of life of a brilliant mind and the great lessons that a major disaster imparts to us as human beings and cogs of  organizations.

5/5