Category Archives: Life

Being Vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

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

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

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

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

Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Two Ladies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The yard lay silent that year.

( picture courtesy – google images)

‘Mrs. Funnybones’ by Twinkle Khanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

That picture in your mind

Some books leave a lasting imprint on your soul. You might forget most parts of the story , the characters must have long receded into some obscure part of your amnesiac brain, even the author would have been long forgotten. But, the moment someone mentions the name, or you see it referred to somewhere, a picture pops up in your mind. It takes you right back into that place and mood you had escaped to  and sets you off on a dream, again.

I read Heidi first in school. Johanna Spyri’s spirited little girl who was dumped unceremoniously on a grandfather who never wanted her in the first heidiplace. Was it the first time I heard of a far off country called Switzerland? A few years before the book, I had fallen in love with hills and mountains. It was but natural that the love extended to the enchanting story of a lost little girl, running around freely among the meadows of the Swiss Alps. And the picture, a cute chubby girl in a red gingham dress with white frills and a hat to match, with a milk pail in one hand that went up in perfect balance to the sprightly feet that was dancing its way in the green grasslands. The background always looked like those ‘hills that are alive with the Sound of Music.’

Some books leave a colour on the palette that your mind is. One that immediately pops up – ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruis Zaffon.’ Sepia tones, bronze lighted up with sunlight and dreary brown in between . The dark mood of the story commingled with the eternal eagerness in the young boy’s mind. The colour of a classic movie.

The picture takes the form of a person in some others. Esteban Trueba, the ageing patriarch in Isabel Allende’s ‘The House of Spirits,’ with a forlorn look on his age withered face, loose trousers and a shirt that is too large for him, billowing in the wind, an antique walking stick in his right hand and the left hand slightly lifting the faded hat of his half bald head. As I move to her ‘Paula,’ it is the author herself that catches me by the throat. In fact, there are two pictures that keep coming back to mind. A self assured young woman running up and down the streets of a slowly disintegrating capital citu. Neither does she have the time nor the inclination to even think about others or what they might say. The focus is on the next interview and the safety of her children. The determined look hasn’t changed a bit as we meet her again, years later, by her daughter’s sick bed. A mixture of emotions on her face, from hope, to despair, to sadness and finally, of peace. The book left me with a feeling of contentment, the kind that comes only with pain and acceptance.

‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is the cantankerous Renee`, seated in front of her TV that is tuned low, a voluminous book in her lap and eyes darting surreptitiously to the door every time there is the slightest of movements. Paloma is a sophisticated version of Heidi, her mischievous eyes hidden behind a philosophical demeanour.

tuscanySome pictures light you up from within. It’s your own dream in another’s words. As if the author sneaked into your head and spirited away your deepest yearnings , only to give it back to you, as a gift of love, in the form of ink on paper. The house keeps changing. Today it is a tall, white colonial structure with large French windows, stately wooden chairs placed in just the perfect manner. White silk curtains fluttering in and out in the breeze on a bright sunny day and the chairs adorned with fluffy cushions in raw silk with most delicate of embroideries in red, green, pink and blue. Tomorrow it will be a low roofed building of red bricks, wide stone paved veranda with lush green plants in planters of all odd shapes and sizes. Bougainvilleas creeping up the sun beaten stone pillars, arm chairs in cane and rattan that speak of morning coffee and scones, afternoon siesta, the heady aroma of evening tea and long hours of exciting reads. I step out with an apron in pastel green tied around my waist, a tray of freshly baked muffins and garlic bread in hand. The table is huge, seating more than a dozen at a time. Faded white linen cover and mats in natural fibre, the serving plates are in white with a thin silver line around the edges. A large pitcher of ginger lemonade, a bottle or two of wine in ice, the clinking sound of crystal, baritone voices, musical notes , reminiscing chuckles, a sigh that escapes now and then, baby laughter, the rustle of silk, the comfort of cotton and the mountain breeze bringing in a whiff of the centuries old olives. Those who know me well, would know the book in an instant. ‘Under the Tuscan Sun.’ One day, soon.

Now go ahead, close your eyes. Tell me , which book was that, what is the picture that comes to your mind in an instant and leaves you with a smile, a tender sigh, an inexplicable longing?

 

The Year through the Reads – Part 2

…..continued from here

The year saw few books on food. Quite a surprise, considering the ardent foodie that I am. Maybe it has to do with the amount of baking that I did last year. It might have been an overkill. But, read I did, a few. The aroma of bread baking in your oven must be one of the most heavenly ones that you could ever experience. No wonder then that Barbara O’Neal’s ‘How to Bake a Perfect Life‘ found a place on the list. A simple, heart warming story of a single mother, this is an easy and pleasant read. Perfect for a winter afternoon or a rainy evening.

A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table‘ by Molly Wizenberg was the next on the list. Another one that I would recommend only if you are a foodie. I loved it, by the way.

tuscanyI’ve always been envious of restaurant reviewers and critics. The amount of free and scrumptious dishes that they get to taste and the way they write about it so authoritatively leaves me wondering at the kind of life they lead. The fact that many of them still look fit and lean in spite of all the gourmet food confounds me no end. Frank Bruni’s ‘Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater‘ was an eye opener in many aspects. This was a four star one on my scale.

As each book of 2014 flashes by in my thoughts, I realize this was an year I turned a book infidel. Margaret Atwood is the only author who was lucky enough to pass through the hands more than once. The year also showed me that an author being a favorite is no guarantee for your liking their books. Sue Monk Kidd turned a favourite last year after ‘The Secret Life of Bees‘. Less than 4 months after reading her ‘The Mermaid Chair‘ , I don’t remember a thing about the story. Never take anyone for granted, authors including. Even Atwood let me down, ‘Wilderness Tips‘ left me bewildered. Markus Zusak was the next one in line. While his ‘Book Thief‘ stole my heart the year before, there was no message for me in his ‘I Am the Messenger.

The best part of having book lovers for friends are the new authors and genres that you get introduced to. And when they come in a group, that’s the biggest blessing a wannabe bibliophile could ask for. Some of the best reads of the year reached me through these kindred souls. It was from Maya that I first heard of  ‘Infidel.‘ Promptly bought, the book stayed in the shelf staring at me for more than a few months. But, there was no stopping once it was opened. Some say half of it is made up. Even if the the other half is true, it’s too gruesome a tale to believe, it has to have happened. And I respect the spirit of Ayaan Hirsi Ali to have not only escaped a prison but also to fight for women like her.

Call me a cynic or even an old hag, books with the tag of ‘Young Adult’ are one of the few things that I run miles away from. And I have to thank my business consultant friend who made me pick up ‘The Fault In Our Stars.‘  Yes, it is a typical teenage love story with a Bollywood type illness thrown in for good measure. It also taught me not to be prejudiced, that young does not mean immature. It was again the same friend who prodded me towards another gentle and enchanting story, ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor.‘ A brilliant maths professor with a short memory span of eighty minutes, a single mother who is trying hard to make both ends meet and her bright 10 year old boy, this is one read that will leave you with a feeling of ‘all’s well with the world.’

History and war were anathema to me until I got to know this oil man. Carlotta Gall has written in detail tuscanyabout the war in Afganistan, the origin of Taliban and how Pakistan has abetted it silently and otherwise in her ‘The Wrong Enemy : America in Afghanistan, 2001 – 2014.‘ The war stories continued with Samanth Subramanian’s ‘ This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War.‘ An unbiased view of what happens to normal human beings in a war that may or may not be theirs is written in a down to earth manner. Hope seems too far away as the author 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.”

Some of the much touted ones left the reader in me disappointed. Neither the story nor the style could hold my interest whether it was Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants‘ or Sidin Vadukut’s ‘The Sceptical Patriot‘.

As in food, I turn adventurous with books also. Sometimes, it is the title that calls out to me, while at other times it could be the blurb. This habit has led me to some treasures and to some disappointments as well. The one that I loved in this group is Jonas Jonasson’s ‘ The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared‘. The story is as outrageous as the title. A sprightly centenarian who was instrumental in inventing the atom bomb, was friends with Truman, Franco, Mao and Nixon, not to mention some higher ups in KGB, and then decides to run away from the old age home on his hundredth birthday. What follows is equally hilarious. A suitcase full of money, a dead body and an elephant. This one was a riot. One that totally disappointed in spite of a promising start was ‘The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman‘ by Denis Theriault.

I finally read an Anees Salim book in the last month of the year, ‘Vanity Bagh‘. Maybe the expectation was so high, that it had to be a disappointment. Loved the language and the images, especially of Vanity Bagh which in itself is a character, but there was this nagging feeling of missing that special something. Shashi Tharoor did not disappoint with his short essays on reading, writing, books and authors with his ‘Bookless in Baghdad: Reflections on Writings and Writers‘, though I have to admit a few chapters were beyond my comprehension.

tuscanyAnd now, for the book of the year. If I were asked to choose one from the eighty plus that were covered during the year, without a second thought it has to be ‘Aarachar‘ by K.R.Meera. Set in Kolkata, this is the story of Chetna Mallick, last in the line of a family of  hangmen, with a lineage of more than 400 years. Meera’s women were always a class apart. Chetna is no different. Courageously moving into a role that was till then reserved for men who were strong in character and build, she is fearless and practical. Interspersed with history, Kolkata comes to life in front of your eyes as does its characters. The story also brings out the shallow world of media, of which the author herself was a part of. Meera is easily one of the best writers in India today. It is indeed a pity that she and her works are rarely known out of Kerala. ‘Hang Woman,’ an English translation by J. Devika is now available.

2014 has also been an year in which the reader in me slowly started shifting focus to non-fiction. The New Year has also started with the same genre. As I wander through Psyche Abraham’s ‘From Kippers to Karimeen‘ I realize again, life is indeed far more interesting than fiction. But then, doesn’t fiction grow out of life?

The Year through the Reads – Part 1

Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books  against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others that started well, and well, lay somewhere between the beginning and the end.

tuscanyThe year started slow. Work was low key, books were aplenty and I had all the time in the world. Chin propped on a few pillows, body spread languidly on my bed, I would read a few paragraphs and then gaze out into the horizon, lost in a world that was far away, yet so familiar. A dilapidated stone villa somewhere in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, pathways covered with bright bougainvilleas,  olive trees all around and an ancient kitchen, it was as if the writer had got into mind and stolen my dreams. It took me almost a week to finish the book, it was like drinking vintage wine, sip, swirl and savour, at leisure. Her memories of restoring a run down Tuscan villa, Frances Mayes’ ‘Under the Tuscan Sun‘ is definitely one of my favorites this year.

The next one couldn’t have been a wilder contrast. Life is not just stranger, it is much more starker than fiction. This was one story that proved it, yet again. A much talked about one, this was on the reading list for quite sometime. The Middle East is a land of honey and gold, for those who have never been there. To each who has made his millions there, there are hundreds who have burnt themselves, caught in a life that you could never even imagine. Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham‘ (translated as ‘Goat Days’) leaves you disturbed for days after you have finished reading it. The taste  that it leaves behind in your mouth is something that you would find difficult to swallow.

Authors are a breed that I normally know through their books and they inspire awe more than love and affection. This was a year that I learned the reverse could be true as well. When someone whom you love like a little sister publishes her first novella, one doesn’t need another reason to celebrate. When the story turns out to be as lyrical as a poem, it is like the proverbial cherry on the cake. Intermingling myth and love, Neelima Vinod has woven a story that is as beautiful as the yakshi in the old palace. ‘Unsettled: The Search for Love and Meaning‘ was a short and delightful read.

The year also saw a passionate book lover turn into an e reader. It is a blessing to have someone in your life who notices  what you do and thentuscany tries to ease your burdens that extra bit. The husband must have been noticing the weight of books that I lug around wherever I go, that he decided to gift me an iPad for my birthday. The transition was not easy, I admit. And I have to admire his optimism, a Kindle that was gifted two years ago lay long forgotten in the dark recesses of a cupboard. What they say about first impressions must be true about first reads as well. ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tart, which had won more than a few awards was the first e book of the year. To say that I was hooked would not be an exaggeration, by the book as well as the device.

Given a choice, travelling is something that I would do for a living, second only to reading. The motto is, if not in real life, vicarious at least. No surprise then that stories of travel turn favorites. I have to admit women travelling alone is something that fascinates me no end. And this was an year that I got to do a much longed for solo trip. Let me not digress. So, it was with great expectations that I started with ‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman‘ by Alice Steinbach. It didn’t take long to realize that what each of us expects out of travel and life could be as varied as chalk and cheese.
tuscanyIt was not all bad for travel, though. I first heard of P.G. Tenzing through his obituary. Someone who went before his time, to borrow a clichéd phrase, he might have had a foreboding as to what was waiting for him. For, he chucked his Civil Services job and went on a ride of his life on his Enfield Bullet. ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions‘ is a celebration of friends and life.

Husband says he is thankful I don’t ride a bike. He knows me well, I should say. Else, who knows where I would have taken off to. Having resigned to the fact that there are some things in life that you may not get to do, this book has rekindled my hopes. ‘The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle‘ by Diana Bletter may not be great literature, but it did remind me again that you are never too old for anything, even to get on a bike and ride all the way across to Alaska.

‘Things that your heart yearns for come searching for you’ is something that I live by. Life has proved it to me time and again, especially in the case of books. Serendipity it is then, when you find one of the best travel books of the year while travelling. The first thing that the eyes search for in a new place are the books that adorn the shelves. I have to be honest here and admit the expectation level was pretty low as I picked this book up from one of the old wooden shelves of a home stay in Himachal Pradesh. Alone, but not feeling lonely at all in the mountains, I was prepared to read through a documentary kind of book. The evidently Malayali name of the author had also piqued my interest. To say that Vivek Menon had me by hook right from page one would be an understatement. Tales about nine animals that were on the verge of disappearing from the face of the earth, in a style that has no parallels, the book had me in splits several times. Sparing no one including himself, he regales us with tales of rogues as well as honest to the core forest officers thanks to whom we still have semblance of forests across the country and animals in them. From Eravikulam to Ranthambore to lesser known national parks like Laokhawa in Assam, the author takes us to places we may never get to see otherwise. The sad part is that we may also never get to see the animals that he talks about, thanks to the roaring underground trade in exotic animals and birds. ‘On the Brink: Travels in the Wilds of India‘ is one of those rare finds for me this year. Especially because it has kindled my interest in a genre that I rarely venture into. A must read, for wildlife enthusiasts and those who love a good read.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” observed Jhumpa Lahiri in ‘The Namesake.’ If not for books, how could you traverse the paths followed by those famed travellers of the past? Marco Polo was just a name in school history text books and some passing references on travel. Until I read ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu‘ by Laurence Bergreen. An expedition that ran over twenty four years, from Venice through Constantinople, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China , Tibet, India and back to Venice. It is a treasure trove of customs that sound strange to us, of people whom we consider barbarians yet seem to have been far more progressive than us and of lands and paths that the wanderlust in our souls yearns for. Marco spent seventeen of the twenty  four years serving the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, son of the great Genghis Khan. This is again another book that a lover of history and travel should not miss.

It would have been no coincidence that two of the best books of the year were on travel and I got to read it during one of the best travels in my life. I cannot but mention another one that I read before my travel. It was a few quotes from his ‘On Love’ that made me go exploring the books of Alain de Botton. However,the first book of his that caught my attention was ‘The Art of Travel‘. The title was misleading, I was expecting to get some glimpses of the author’s thoughts on how to take travel as an art. Sometimes, not meeting your expectations can be a huge blessing. The last chapter of the book was the best and will stay with me for life. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ as it is called, talks about John Ruskin, an artist whom I’d never heard of before. According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. 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.”

This had set the tone to how I experienced the places and people on that trip. Look and observe, think of the minutest details, listen to the leaves rustling around you, feel the wind and its myriad forms on your face, in the water, see how the mountains change colours, in short be still and know the nature. When the hustle and bustle of daily life frays my nerves too much, I go back to Botton and Ruskin. Absolute serenity, it is.

tuscany

 The Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin

(continued here…)

‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman’ by Alice Steinbach

aliceDo you remember that exhilarating feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel connected? Your thoughts seem to be similar, you react to things the same way, you even seem to complete each other’s sentences and you decide, at last, I’ve found someone who totally gets me. Then, you get to know more of each other and a sense of foreboding starts creeping up, the sixth sense that seldom goes wrong tries to warn you that what you see may not be what you get. And ultimately, a sense of resignation, a foreboding feeling of being fooled does you in. That’s exactly what happened to me with this book.

Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist had always dreamed about chucking it all and seeking out an unencumbered life free of plans and schedules, at least temporarily. And she does just that, her sons having moved out and she herself having reached a phase in life where she could afford to do it. The book is a chronicle of her journey through Paris, London, Oxford and Italy over a period of six to seven months.

The connect was instant. The yearnings and the apprehensions were very familiar. On one side were the years of longing to go out on one’s own, be just who you are sans any limiting definitions of being a daughter, wife, sister, mother, professional and all hundreds of labels by which one is defined. On the other side, the thoughts of whether one could actually do it, that nagging feeling of what would the family and friends say, however sure you are they would encourage you. These were the exact thoughts that seemed to have gone through the author’s mind as well. The beginning was quite exciting. The flutter in your heart as you anticipate the unknown, interspersed with the excitement of finally doing something that you have always wanted to. Adding to the lure was the thought that here is a woman who seemed to have transcended the need for a man in her life, one who could stand on her own and enjoy  life on her own terms.

The fascination started waning even before Paris was done. It was probably a mismatch in expectations. Here I was on one side, with an audacity to think that a prize winning Baltimore Sun columnist’s journey would be similar to a nobody’s week long solo trip to an unknown place. The fault is entirely mine. Instead of on a shoe string budget sojourn across Europe that was expected, what I got was exquisitely beautiful people, exotic shopping and dining in gourmet restaurants. And of course, an adoring and understanding, rich Japanese man who falls in love with you at first sight. Yes, the fault is entirely mine, what right did I have to expect anything different?

Paris is detailed and charming as expected, London a little less so, Oxford is fine and Italy is a rush. More than the places, it is the people and the author’s reminiscences that stayed with me and that is what I loved about the book. I was amazed at the manner in which she strikes conversations people and how she is able to get their stories out so easily. But then, that’s what she’s been doing for a living is a consoling thought. The one thread that runs through is the bonding between women, wherever you go and whatever you do. After a certain age, the rivalry for men is long gone, women gets to know and is comfortable in their own space and they realize that other women are their best allies. The liberated feeling is so well brought out in Jeanne Moreau‘s words as narrated by the author,

She told me that at twenty she was considered ‘unphotogenic’ and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped – and this is the way she put it – “looking into the mirror that others hold up to me”

What I found quite unsettling is the fact that in spite of portraying herself as the quintessential woman of today, she still seemed to feel incomplete without a man in her life. Even while writing about the places she traveled to and the people she met on the way, it was as if her mind was revolving around her Japanese love. Everything else felt incidental.

 

Verdict – Loved the language and her insights on places, relationships and life in general. Passing through a similar phase of trying to seek and find who I really am, I could relate to her thoughts. She failed to impress  as an independent woman, though. As mentioned earlier, could be a mismatch of what I wanted and what I got 🙂
An easy read, for a lazy afternoon. You will love it , if you love Danielle Steele novels.

3.5/5

‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng

rainThese days it is a rare miracle to get the time, temperament and the right kind of book to read for hours at a stretch and finish it in one go. As you get to explore more and more authors and genres, you realize, with some sadness, that it is getting increasingly difficult to satisfy the growing soul that is you. So you flit from one book to another, trying to find that magic that once was there in every story that you read. You long for that time when each author was fairy god mother  or father as the case maybe, with a bottom less hat from which tale after enchanted tale was pulled out.

Then, out of the blue, like a long lost rainbow, you meet authors like Tan Twan Eng, who ensnare you with the lyrical quality of their writing, sears you to the core with the stories they have to tell and leaves you with an ache that saddens you and a pain that turns into the joy of something essentially good. My first meeting with him was more than an year ago and quite accidental. The cover caught my eye and the blurb gave a go ahead to the heart (yes, some books have to be read with your heart and soul). It took me a while to come out of ‘The Garden of  Evening Mists’, in fact, each time I read a mention of it, a cool and gentle breeze descends on my soul.

‘The Gift of Rain’ is Tan’s debut novel and it has been calling out to me for quite some time. The fear of being disappointed was pulling me back, till a few Saturdays ago I decided to get drenched. The opening lines were more than enough to hook me

“I was born with the gift of rain, an ancient soothsayer in an even more ancient temple once told me.”

The Penang Historical Society was planning to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second World War as Philip Hutton receives a visitor who would take him back to his youth and force him to open some wounds that he had kept hidden, somewhere deep inside, never opening it out to anyone, leaving it to fester and killing him slowly and painfully.

Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, young Philip feels he belongs neither here nor there. He feels alien to his elder, all British siblings – two brothers and a sister. His mother had passed away when he was young, and the only contact he has with the mother’s side of family is an aunt. At sixteen, he finds himself alone in their large bungalow by the sea, his father and siblings in England on their annual sojourn. And to his life appears Endo san,  a Japanese aikijutsu master. As the cliche goes, Philip’s life will never be the same again.

There is an unspoken closeness between the master and his student right from the beginning, as if they have known each other for more than a lifetime. As the bond grows stronger each day, it is also evident to the reader that there is more to Endo san than what meets the eye. It is not that Philip is not aware of this as well, but he chooses to ignore the obvious as many a young one is wont to. As Japan prepares for war overtly in other places and covertly in Malaya, the natives and British continue to go about their lives as though they are invincible. Philip is innocently pulled into the quagmire and inadvertently paves the way for setting the base for a Japanese invasion.

At the same time, there is a transformation that is happening silently within Philip. He comes to terms with his parentage, his families on both sides, and finally he is at peace with who he is. The tragedy begins at this point, unfortunately. Soon as he finds his space, the very root of his love and convictions are tested, to a limit that seems almost beyond endurance.

If Part One of the story is about Philip’s coming of age and of being a family, the real soul of the story is in Part Two. The war is in earnest, Philip is seen as an enemy by many and as a closest ally by others. The fact that he is working for the Japanese is enough for many to condemn him. Even the ones that he helps, seem to question his motives. With almost all whom he loved turning against him, his biggest pain is the knowledge of betrayal by his trusted master and love, Endo san.

The eternal tug of war between duty and love, fate and choice, family and friends is brought out beautifully in the second part. It takes more than a strong will to stand firm when everything that you believed in and everyone whom you loved turns against you. And then comes the feeling that would shatter even the strongest ones,

“And I realized then that there was an emotion worse even than the sharpest fear; it was the dull feeling of hopelessness, the inability to do anything.”

It takes Philip almost half a century to come to terms with the war and his part in it. There is a multitude of nuances that run beneath the story and which holds it together, threads that are as fine as silk and unbreakable at the same time. The relationship between the master and student, the soft undercurrents of sexuality, the unequivocal love between an English man and a Chinese woman, the common love for someone who is no more that brings together conflicting cultures and transcends pride and finally, the acceptance,

“Accept that there are things in this world we can never explain and life will be understandable. That is the irony of life. It is also the beauty of it.”

In short, a tale so well told that after ages, all I did on a Saturday was just read. Everything else was incidental.

Verdict – I was ready to judge it  a little above a  customary okay, till Part Two happened. Read it if you love stories that question your ideals, makes you think about coincidences, choices, duty, love and a little bit about what this life is all about.

4.5/5

 

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