‘Everything I Never Told You,’ by Celeste Ng

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

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‘Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee

Warning – Proceed with caution. A few spoilers ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did laugh out at that. Loud.

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

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.

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 The Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin

(continued here…)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

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

 

‘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

‘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

 

‘The Empty Pedestal and other stories’ by RM Rajgopal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5

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