Friday, September 29, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. This is my first read for the R.I.P. XII event. I'm alone in the house writing this review, and writing this review is scaring me. Yes, it's that kind of book. 

The book begins with a creepy mansion at the edge of town. It's the Blackwood House and it is inhabited by two sisters and their deranged uncle. The Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Connie, have a secret. Six years before the events of the story, the Blackwood family sat down for dinner one night and died of arsenic poisoning. Not only did Connie survive the incident, but waited till everyone was dead, cleaned the utensils, called the police and confessed to the crime. Her younger sister Merricat, who had been punished and sent to her room, also survived, as did Uncle Julian, who lost his mind.

Six years later, Connie has been acquitted of the crime, but refuses to leave the Blackwood House for fear of the townsfolk. The town always hated the Blackwoods for their wealth before, and now wish the sisters would just vacate. Merricat goes to the town to buy groceries every week and gets teased all the way back. They shout at her, point and laugh, even as she thinks of all the ways she would make them shut up, if she could.

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.

This is how the book begins. It seems as though the loss of their family has affected both the sisters quite differently. While in Connie's case, the result is complete forced seclusion from people, Merricat, who seems otherwise normal, has a stunted growth. Extreme superstitions keep her from doing the most basic things, like cooking and gardening. She is fiercely protective of her sister Connie and still thinks like the twelve-year-old she was when her family died. The story takes an unexpected turn when a cousin arrives, Charles Blackwood, who promises to show Connie the outside world, and threatens to interrupt Merricat's neatly arranged life. Little by little, she reveals the mystery surrounding the deaths.

The writing is richly atmospheric, very true to the gothic style. There is a lot going on in the story, it is strewn with details which demand attention, analysis, interpretation; the language then is a distraction, but what a beautiful one. It plays with your senses and the imagery alone can send shivers down your spine. I had to read sections of the book again to fully grasp what was going on, sections which seemed like intriguing descriptions until a reread revealed them to hold so much more. What adds to the gothic aura of the novella is the recurring theme of loneliness, fear of being outcast, the exclusion from the normal, the small-minded Salem-trial-like persecution of those who are "different." The story makes you wonder, what came first - the fear or the monster?

The book is about a madness that stems out of shared trauma. There is a very feminine, possessive, almost motherly quality to the sisters' insanity. The two "get" each other, it's almost as if they are two faces of the same person. The bond shared by Merricat and Connie is unnatural for their age, but very sisterly and impossible to break. Charles Blackwood almost manages to get between the sisters, but even he can never take Merricat's place in Connie's heart. Together they make a deadly pair, each supporting and aggravating the others' faults; until you can't tell apart victim from perpetrator. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is like a ghost story turned inside out. Think of a conventional haunted house. Two kids venture into the grounds, a test of their wits, and encounter unspeakable horrors. We learn the history of the house in flashback. This book does the exact opposite. It completely dismantles your standard introduction-action-climax-resolution structure. The book ends on its climax, that highest most intense point in the story, whereas the resolution has already happened somewhere in the beginning... the "who" done it is one of the first things you discover. It's hard to explain, but amazing to experience. The ending is quite satisfactory, with neither twist nor cliffhanger, yet you read the last line and realize, the story has just begun.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

“...where's the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?”

Un Lun Dun. Say it quickly, in one go. UnLunDun. Does it make sense? That's it. UnLondon. Un-London. Un Lun Dun is a Young Adult Fantasy book by China Mieville, an English writer of weird fantasy.

Un Lun Dun is set in the fantasy world of UnLondon, a city which lies on the brink of London, formed out of the debris of the city, where anything or anyone that is obsolete within London is transported and takes on a life of its own. Every city in the world has one such Un-city or abcity. Paris has Parisn't, Rome has Romeless and Helsinki has Helsunki. An UnSun shaped like a loop shines its light on UnLondon and at night, the white Loon smiles down on the abcity. Cutting the city cleanly in two parts, the Smeath flows through UnLondon, and its skyline is dotted by many iconic structures, the best amongst them perhaps the Webminster Abbey. It's a treat for any London-lover and a testament to the bizarreness of the city.

Zanna is a young girl living in London. She's been having some weird experiences lately, strange people recognize her on the street, animals seem to be staring at her funny and once, her friend Deeba saw a cloud shaped like Zanna's face. Following her around, whispered in corners and graffiti-ed on walls is a word - "choisi" or "Schwazzy" - French for chosen" as she is called. That's what she is - the chosen one, but chosen for what? Zanna travels to UnLondon to find out what destiny has in store for her, and she takes her friend Deeba along with her on what turns out to be the most twisted adventure ever.

The Smog has started to take over the city of UnLondon. It is a shapeless entity comprising all the smoke and pollution emitted across the twin abcities of London and UnLondon. It's a sentient smog, and it is angry, hidden away after being vanquished from London by what was rumoured to be a band of magicians. The Smog is now secretly planning to overthrow the existing powers in UnLondon and take over the world. A prophecy in UnLondon says that no one can stop the Smog, except the chosen one. But when Zanna reaches UnLondon, the UnLonders hopes wane, because the Chosen One is just a clueless young girl, easily squashed by the mighty Smog. What will happen when the Smog defeats Zanna?

Un Lun Dun is a Young-Adult book through and through. It is fast, it is witty in that dry teenagerey way and it has a lot of excitement without the need for explanation and a healthy dose of puns and wordsmithery. It is a plot-driven book which works because its characters are utterly likeable. The main character, Deeba, initially thought to be a sidekick of the chosen one, comes through to be our hero of the book. The book keeps surprising you at every turn of events - the story is nowhere near linear... halfway through the book, you wonder what could happen next, because the resolution seems right around the corner. And bang, you end up in the middle of an all new adventure before you can bid goodbye to the first. An excellent quick read for the bored you.

It is an emotional ride as well, the book takes on all your typical fantasy tropes - hero, sidekick, destiny, prophecies, Chosen Ones and tasks and treasures - and turns them on their head. He surprises you with a depth that you unfairly would not expect from a children's book. It talks about family also, and friends, and how fickle relationships can be. It shows you the practical problems of being a hero in a fantasy story and in the most fascinating way, shows you how the problems can be done away with. The book knows when not to tug at your heart strings also, and prefers sweet subtleties over maudlin displays. It's quite an experience, one I would rather not spoil with over-analysis. I recommend this book heartily to lovers of fantasy, magic, urban fantasy, alternate worlds..

Un Lun Dun has the most ridiculous cast of characters - a book of prophecies which is quite opinionated indeed, Propheseers who read the book and generally philosophize on people's destinies, a man who can control umbrellas, a half-ghost half-human boy, a milk carton which has a life of its own, and armed dustbins called the Binja who are a security force. Some people populating UnLondon are those who were of no use to London, and slipped through the worlds - they are as M.O.I.L, that is, Mostly Obsolete in London...which is why UnLondon has, among its residents, quite a large population of bus conductors and librarians!

A few months ago, I was on a trip to London and got lost underground on the very first day, stranded at Leicester Square with a suitcase and painfully without my passport, money or travel card. It was one of the craziest nights, I ended up in the control room with a bunch of guards trying to call different stations on the Piccadilly line to find my mother, who happened to be on the tube! It was a very Neverwhere thing to happen. I hadn't read Un Lun Dun at the time, but that night I was pretty much M.O.I.L. myself... mostly obsolete. I just wish I could have ended up in UnLondon. Now that would have been something. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Whispers From The Wild by E.R.C. Davidar (edited by Priya Davidar)

About a couple of months ago, one of my friends lent me this book called Whispers from the Wild which I had been immersed in for a couple of weeks. A beautiful read, just the perfect one to satisfy my newfound interest in memoir-style non-fiction. Written by an expert and activist, it's a love letter to the vibrant wildlife of the Nilgiri forests in Southern India.

E.R.C. Davidar was by profession a lawyer. An avid hunter himself, Davidar was in charge of the Nilgiri Game Association in his early career. In a personal journey, that resonates with that of many shikaris from the British Raj, Davidar realized the natural costs of hunting - the loss of habitat for animals, the endangerment of many species. He gave up game hunting and turned into an ardent campaigner for wildlife conservation in India. Through his effort and struggle, the Nilgiri Game Association morphed into the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association. Some of his major undertakings include the work he put into preserving the elephant migration corridors in Southern India and the extensive census of the Nilgiri tahr. 

This book is set in a forest, quite a beautiful one at that. Possessing what can only be described as the eccentricity of a genius, Davidar, wife and children tagging along, had built himself a house in the forest at the foot of the Nilgiri hills. They christened this place Cheetal Walk, cheetal being the local name for the spotter deer found in these parts, the Indian Bambis if you will. The stories in this book are primarily from his time at Cheetal Walk. 

Throughout the book, Davidar is a combination of naturalist and nature-lover. The scientific aspect of his writing is most evident in the precision of his observations, especially of the elephants, their most frequent guest at Cheetal Walk. Every visit of an elephant is described in detail, every move, each contour on the creature's face, its colour, its gait, how it fed - Davidar lists everything like a dispassionate observer. Then he tells you the name they have given the elephant, how they have grown to like his frequent visits, how they all stare out the window when he comes plodding along - and the warmth rushes back into his writing. 

This impersonal interest in his subjects which complements Davidar's deep love for them makes the book most fascinating to read - it provides you information, while still hooking you into his life and stories on a sentimental level. You begin to care about that great brute of an elephant called Bumpty, just as you learn more about the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris and how they have been threatened through encroachment and poaching. Brain and heart, always, both brain and heart. 

"Nature is evocative, provided it finds a response. Responsiveness is born out of love. Once you find the right chord, you are never lonely in nature's company. Sitting in a jungle environment, you begin to realize you are privileged. The realization rouses your awareness and sharpens your power of observation. You begin to notice little details you had not registered before, and delight in them. And there are a hundred and one simple but evocative things to observe - leaf patterns, the play of light at different angles, the changing facets of nature with the change in seasons, reflections in the pool below and smaller and less glamorous fauna - small animals, birds and reptiles that appear larger than life when you observe them closely. The visuals are accompanied by sound effects - wind playing among the leaves, the stream chattering among the rocks before entering the pool, birdsong (identifying the owners, especially the rarer ones becomes a game) and animal sounds. Your other senses also participate in the experience - especially your sense of smell. Some aromas are subtle and tease you to explore them, and others are raw. Altogether, sitting in nature is a rewarding experience, and soon becomes an addiction."

Just last month, I taught a poem to my Grade 8 class - The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling. It's the haunting story of a man who lives on the edge of a forest and has grown old there. There used to be a way through the forest, he says, which is gone now. But he can't help but still hear the swish of a skirt and the trot of a horse's feet as though there is someone moving along that long-gone road. And that keeps him company, though there is no road through the forest.

The children all declared that they would love to live in a forest, away from the city and did so with such confidence that I asked them to reconsider. Imagine there being no sound of whirring fans and fridges, even the lights make soft sounds; imagine not hearing the constant drumming of cars, and trucks, and bikes on the road, the honking. And not a single whisper of a person. That kind of silence will take some getting used to. It could really show you your place in the world.

We have adapted ourselves to the city so well, that being in a forest and being safe in one requires a drastic unlearning and reeducation. Davidar talks about the very same thing. When he describes any romp in the forest, he uses all his senses to produce such evocative descriptions. The taste, smell, the sound of the forest, his descriptions put you right in his worn-down shoes, and make you feel his world a million times more acutely. That perhaps is the best part of reading this book.

"Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty, clear, musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune his imagination to the read the music. When in full flow after a series of downpours, the stream roared like an angry tiger and could indeed kill the unwary. When the level fell somewhat, it growled. As the flow fell further, it would moan like a bear, coo like a turtle dove, whistle like a green pigeon, sing like a shama, hiss like a python, gurgle like a happy child of the wilderness. Sometimes, it was like a whole orchestra playing, if you had the imagination of a composer to supply the stops and pauses. We would never have believed that a that would come and that too so soon, when the Sigurhalla would be singing mournful dirges when it sang at all."

Friday, July 7, 2017

On comfort needs, comfort reads and reading Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

For an entire month, I've found myself writing posts and deleting them, because they did not sound right enough or because they revealed too much or too little. I have never suffered this kind of writer's block in all these years, something that led me to avoid the blog not for lack of things to write, but just because of this nagging feeling that I wasn't being honest to myself. Things are going all kinds of crazy this year, but that has never affected my blog before. The blog has always been a comfort zone; a safe place to turn to; somewhere I can be me. Maybe I've just lost my sense of me-ness.

It's kind of weird that I should feel this way; much more so because I clearly seem unable to explain it. But I have been reading quite a bit. And I do have things to rant about. I went on an amazing trip to England in the beginning of May. And the month ended with me starting a book club here in Bangalore, which has been going adorably well also. So loaded with things to say and lacking the right way; here I am trying something out. I feel sort of like a little lamb lost in my own pen, but nevertheless, write I must. And I will write about comfort reads, in the effort to rekindle my blog love. 

Over the years I have noticed, whenever I have a bad spell for whatever reason, there are certain books I keep going back to. Comfort reads, fiction and non-fiction, and even short stories. The one to start this post-writing-spree with is (various translations of and the original) Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

A quick background. Rainer Maria Rilke was an Austrian poet who in a very intense, very mystical style. He was perhaps best known for his Book of Hours (Studenbuch) which was three volumes worth of religious poetry. After the publication of the Book of Hours, Rilke began to earn popularity as a poet, quite early on in his career. 

So there we have him: Rilke, a renowned poet who, once upon a time, received a request from an amateur poet to read and critique his writing. Rilke denied, replying in a letter that a real poet should not care for another's opinion on his works and asked his amateur fan to be true to himself. Frank Kappus, the young poet who sent a letter to Rilke, received a lot more than literary critique, and ended up exchanging a number of letters with Rilke. Rilke wrote back giving Kappus advice on everything from love, sex, loss, art and beauty. These replies Kappus published under the title Letters to a Young Poet. 

There is nothing so beautiful and revealing as a well-written letter. It's like a slice of someone's soul. With every read, I'm stunned by how honest the letters are. The very idea that Rilke took out the time to write these is something to appreciate, but the sincerity of his writing is astonishing. Rilke and Kappus never met, their only correspondence was through these ten letters; and that further lends them this aura of historical fascination. To think that these words might never have been published, were never meant to be published, really makes me thank the stars that they were. What a loss it might have been. See for yourself -

If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge. 
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You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
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If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Remember, it's German. It is German that has been translated into English here. So it has long winding sentences, endless blocks of writing and a very strange formal Queen-sey tone. But if you let that slide, and turn down the scoff, there is a lot to learn from this man. Some of it will be things you already know; but at least for me, having someone tell me things I thought I knew but never could put into words is one of the great magics of reading. Letters to a Young Poet, the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely considered the best, is available to read online for free (not sure how trusted this site is.) Click away, you can read any or all of the letters on the site; though I have to say, the physical book is worth the buy. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Kashmir in two books - Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat

I've been on a non-fiction mission these past two months, catching up, one might say, on history the only way I know how - through books. I have been reading the most about Kashmir and the territorial conflict between Pakistan and India, written from many points of view and dealing with different times in Kashmir's tumultuous history. 

Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer

It all started with a review of a book I'd recently read. The review mentioned Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night, in some context or the other. Basharat Peer is a journalist from a small city in Jammu and Kashmir, the site of much militant and military violence. Basharat comes from an ordinary family, a government-employed father, with no militant sentiments. And yet he grew up hating India with all his might, fearing the constant army presence near his home. He left Kashmir to study journalism in Delhi, and later, returned to his homeland to tells its tragedies and stories.

I was intrigued by the blurb. I took Curfewed Night along on a trip and devoured it in a five-hour stop at Dubai, in the middle of the night.

"Srinagar is a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three book-shops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras and small crowds gathered by the promise of an elusive job or a daily fee of a few hundred rupees. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armored cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated."

Throughout the book, Peer tells numerous stories of Kashmiris, Hindu Pandits and militants and separatist poets and pro-India Muslims and everyone in between, and there are so many in between. He talks about not reducing people down to labels, about a Haryanvi soldier who said to him once, "I was a different man before I joined the force and came to Kashmir." Peer insists - talk not about India, and Pakistan, talk about Kashmir.

The writing is poignant but precise, a journalist's hand. (Okay, with some dramatic flourishes.) Curfewed Night is an incredibly humbling book. Blurbs by Khushwant Singh & Pankaj Mishra, among others, describe it as "brutally honest and deeply hurtful," and a book that "challenges our most cherished beliefs." Peer begins the book with stray incidents from his childhood, to give a glimpse of the world he grew up in, happy incidents, fond memories. But each has offhand references that impress upon you just how different your Indian childhood was from his - how his friends could name the gun from the sound they made, how easily influenced they were as kids and dreamt of carrying around Kalashnikovs and wearing cartridge-studded jewellery even before they knew exactly what the militants were, how in every cricket match, they would cheer for whichever country was playing against India, the loudest if it was Pakistan. 

There is a lot to say and it is packed tight in a slim book. The Mint blurb on the back cover says, "it represents the anger and loss of a whole generation." Checking out other reviews, I notice this book has been called 'biased.' I didn't see anything of an unfair agenda-pushing, perhaps only in the insistence of looking at the Kashmiri point of view​, yet nowhere does he say that he means his own separatist view. I don't know who reserves the popular "sympathy" but this book is not a plea for pity. I feel it is a memoir everyone should read. How better to understand history than to start by understanding the people immersed in it, with their biases and other human "failings"?

Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by Amarjit Singh Dulat

Written by A.S. Dulat, ex-special director of the Intelligence Bureau and ex-chief of the Research & Analysis Wing, whose main focus of work had been Kashmir, who is considered the go-to man on everything about the Kashmir conflict; Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years was the book I read right after Curfewed Night.

Okay, first of all, A.S. Dulat is eminently unlikable, a callous man with a big ego. Not surprising from a seasoned politician, but it did get in the way of reading this book quickly. It's a useful book for someone like me who doesn't know a lot about the Kashmir conflict, or even otherwise, has big gaps in their knowledge. Dulat sort of gives a summary of what happened in Kashmir in the fifteen or so years that he worked with it, from the 1990s to 2004. Since this was during Vajpayee's first thirteen-day tenure as the Prime Minister following Narasimha Rao and his second time in office for obviously much longer, Dulat may be right to title the book - The Vajpayee Years. 

Dulat characterises Vajpayee as not just another politician or worse, military man, but a Chanakya-figure. An intelligent man who thinks a lot and reveals little. The more significant reason for this title is Dulat's claim that Vajpayee has been the Kashmiri populations's favourite PM yet. Dulat credits him for assigning the intelligence agencies the task of talking continuously with the Kashmiris. Vajpayee was the only one who recognized the importance of dialogue with the Kashmiris to cut the Gordian knot that was the India-Kashmir-Pakistan struggle. And who, in his time, made significant progress in achieving this goal. Dulat spends plenty of time explaining just how. And even so, perhaps twenty percent of the book talks about Vajpayee. 

A big chunk, nearly half the book, deals with the Abdullah family. Dulat particularly stresses on the senior Sheikh Abdullah, Sher-e-Kashmir as he was called, and his son Farooq Abdullah, the on-and-off CM of J&K. A long chapter towards the end is dedicated to how Vajpayee and his principal secretary supposedly betrayed Farooq by promising and failing to make him Vice President. Whereas he openly idolizes Vajpayee, Dulat tries very hard to exonerate Farooq of the flak he received from his critics over the years. 

Dulat switches back and forth in time a lot, so it is actually not easy to get a straightforward timeline of events from the book, which is what I was looking for. (Foreshadowing has no place in non-fiction, and Dulat needs to learn about footnotes.) He talks about various kidnapping cases including Jammu and Kashmir CM Mufti's daughter's kidnapping, about the hijacking of, among others, Indian Airlines flight IC-814, breezes over the effects of 9/11 on India-Pak, and describes his conversations and "friendships" with a number of Kashmiri militants and separatists. Of course, sworn to secrecy in his position, there is no big revelation (other than Dulat's utterly odious personality) but there are quite a few surprises. 

What is most interesting to see is how the Indian intelligence agencies work, both the Intelligence Bureau and our spy agency, the Research & Analysis Wing. Dulat, who has headed both in his time, is perfect to talk about either. My takeaway from Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night was the need to engage with and understand the ordinary Kashmiri, which Peer says is not done by the Indian government. Dulat's book brought out the impracticability of Peer's solution.

For all his time conversing with Kashmiris, for all his expertise, Dulat has no empathy, and mocks those who show any (i.e.: Rajesh Pilot, who according to Dulat has the rare patience "to listen to the Kashmiri bitching") Dulat is simply doing his job, and his job requires him to be pro-India, to simply "humour" the Kashmiri sentiment. Every time he makes sweeping observations of the Kashmiri psyche (a Kashmiri never looks you in the eye, a Kashmiri can't tell the truth, Kashmiris exaggerate everything) he negates his own aim to understand them. He is single-mindedly pro-India, and goes so far as to breeze casually over serious allegations which put the country in a negative light. These include the government bribing the militants, and certain officers in the army using their extensive power in Kashmir to torture or rape civilians, along with the authorities' reluctance in dealing with such cases. When Dulat proposes what he thinks is the only solution to Kashmir - hard-nosed common sense - it seems like another brushing under the carpet of bigger considerations.

There is a sort of 'Chalta hai,' 'Kya karein' tone when he talks about India's mistakes, which is despicable, but seriously, kya karein? Reviews on Goodreads say that this book offers insight into possible solutions for the Kashmir conflict. What it does show very well is what has been tried so far. And it tells us how immensely complicated the issue is, how difficult it is to find a singular solution. Even a book about Kashmir, which claims to put the Kashmiri interests center-stage ends up doing quite the opposite. Dulat quotes someone (can't remember or find) saying that Kashmir is like a courtesan surrounded by vile spectators who are enjoying her dance, laughing at her.

It's an interesting phrase that Vajpayee apparently used to describe Kashmir, the Gordian knot. Cutting the Gordian knot means finding a bold and creative solution to an impossible problem. But there's a myth attached to it. According to Greek mythology, when the peasant Gordius became the ruler of Phrygia, he tied his chariot to a pole with a tight knot and dedicated it to Zeus, the king of the gods. Gordius's knot seemed impossible to untie. It was predicted that whoever unraveled the knot would be the future King of Asia. Many tried, and many failed. Finally, Alexander the Great arrived in Phrygia. He was a man of action. After a few tries, Alexander was overcome with impatience. In one swift move, his took out his sword and simply cut off the knot. He then set out to conquer Asia, leaving defeat and bloodshed in his wake. So, in a way, the phrase does make sense. Kashmir is indeed our Gordian knot, and we are cutting it to shreds.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On ageing in fantasy and reading The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

(Oh, sweet fantasy, how I have missed you.)

"She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free. What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveller may never reach the end of it."

Having taken a long hiatus from this blog, it's weird to jump back into book-blogging, but a lot has happened that I want to write about, and a lot of reading has filled me with reviewer-ly inspiration. Before I begin, I have yet to read the final installment of the Earthsea books, the one titled The Other Wind, and I would appreciate staying spoiler-free. The Earthsea Cycle is a series of four (actually, six) books set in an alternate universe called Earthsea. It consists of a vast archipelago and the boundless sea surrounding it, is culturally quite unlike our world and is filled with magic.

Each of the four main books is a coming-of-age tale and the creation story of its hero. The first book is entitled The Wizard of Earthsea and it tells us about the tumultuous childhood of one of the greatest wizards of all time, a boy named Ged. The second book follows Ged on an adventure which introduces us to Le Guin's second hero, a woman named Tenar. In what is perhaps the greatest fantasy book I have read, Le Guin brings out the darker sides of magic and the role women and witches play in fantasy through the character of Tenar. The third book is a prince's journey, a story which deals with death, the history of war and chivalry. And the fourth book, a rather more mature tale, follows a young abused child and is an examination of feminism and patriarchy. The Earthsea books taken together are brilliant for many reasons - the extent of racial diversity, an entire cast of coloured characters is the most significantly noticeable. Over the course of the series, Le Guin also consciously makes feminism one of the prominent themes, scrutinizes gender roles and identities, and creates brilliant women characters. But my favourite thing in her books is something I had mentioned in initial musings in a Goodreads review - how gracefully all her characters age. Woven into all the books in the Earthsea cycle is the theme of age. 

Ageing is something I find sorely missing in fantasy tales. Nearly all of my favourite fantasy comprises coming of age stories - be it series like Harry Potter, the Bartimaeus trilogy, His Dark Materials, and even standalone books like Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. However, very few of them follow the main characters through into their adulthood. Some take a big leap into the future, like the Harry Potter series, but fail to show the many little middles which make up a life. We have immortality, and with it, characters opting out of immortality in order to live their short lives, but we don't see them in action. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ends not with a wizened old slayer, but a sprightly twenty-something with a whole future ahead of her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the older children just disappear. Even Peter Pan, which is about (not) growing up, doesn't really do more than bring out the contrasts between youth and adulthood. 

Fantasy tends to deal with the big facts of life - birth, death, love, evil; it's quite surprising then that it neglects to write about growing old. But the process is important. It's a fact of matter. People age. Wizards grow old, as do witches, and the growth changes them, like it changes us. The boy is not the wobbly old man he grew up into, and though knowing the boy will help you understand the man, there is so much more to him. It is when you're growing up that life reveals to you just how wily it can be; which maybe why teenagers are so difficult, and the twenties are depressing times. 

People around me are always telling me how they don't recognize themselves anymore, or how choices made three years ago fail to make sense now. Or how you'd never imagined growing up that you'd end up this way but it's so obvious now that you are. I wish more stories evoked that feeling, and brought out the sheer normalcy of change. And the change only accelerates with time. I'm nothing like the girl who started this blog six years ago, I'm unimaginably altered. I lose interest in many book characters because they have failed to alter in that way, because they seem a little too similar. I mean, is reality always as neat as Rowling writes it. Does a boy good at Herbology become a professor of Herbology? And all those high school couples make it, and all their children are good friends, and life is wrapped up in glitter-paper with a big fat pink bow on it. 

It often wonder about all the young adult heroes from stories I have liked, whatever happened to Lyra Belaqua after the events of His Dark Materials? Can I have a new book with her all grown up? And one with her as an old woman too? I can think of only one other example of such an ageing main character, and that is Christopher Chant from the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones. Yet no one has done it quite so substantially as Le Guin. I feel this theme might have been explored a lot more with superheroes. (Edit: I found a song and a kind of review of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in the first two seconds of Googling, so there ought to be more.) In the Earthsea books, life, real bloody fleshy life, happens between two books. In every consecutive book, Ged has grown years older. And through the series, we learn about the years between the books only through how different he has become.

It's a hook, a big beautiful hook. Once you get a taste of her style, wanting to find out what the characters will be like later becomes a very good reason to read the next book in the series. I went on an Earthsea spree, buying Kindle editions to save delivery time, though I don't actually own a Kindle, and hence had to read on the cloud reader. Couple the maturity of her writing (the pet themes of sex and feminism, identity and bravery) with her vivid wordsmithery, add into the mix this trick, and you have a very clever set of books. Do read the series, especially if you love fantasy, but even otherwise. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Why you must read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

The very title of this book will have a polarizing effect; people passionate about the "cause" so to speak will read it with annoying vehemence, the happy meat-gobblers among us will quite possibly smirk/scoff/shake their heads and walk away. This is a problem. Because, this is a book for both the aforementioned extremes, and all the middles. Eating Animals should be required reading for every adult.

I simply wanted to know - for myself and my family - what meat is. Where does it come from? How is it produced? What are the economic, social and environmental effects? Are there animals that it is straightforwardly right to eat? Are there situations in which not eating animals is wrong?

WHY IS THIS BOOK NOT WHAT YOU THINK?: The book features interviews of animal rights workers, farmers, owners of slaughterhouses and chicken farms, workers in these places, and government animal rights officers. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat-lovers, and undecided half-and-halfs. It's not simply a recitation of statistics and facts. It presents the whole picture from the points of view of all the arguing sides.

It must be truly difficult to write an unbiased book on a topic which you have strong opinions on. Foer achieved that in Eating Animals to an impressive extent. Most articles or documentries on non-vegetarianism and vegetarianism have been created explicitly to convert people to one side, or to defend another. The objective of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is to start an open, non-defensive, unoffensive discourse on our diet.

Food in our society has far greater significance than as the means to survival - food is built into tradition and custom, food is family and emotion, and so, food is important. Aren't your childhood memories generously sprinkled with grandma's recipes and home-cooked meals? Its societal significance is part of the reason we are so reluctant to consider whether what we eat is actually what we should be eating. But chew on this, less than a hundred years ago, the "necessary evil" tag was also given to slavery. 

Foer tells us in no uncertain terms that it is immaterial whether we like animals, whether we eat meat, whether we are vegetarian for health or for moral reasons, whether our religion goes against the practice of meat-eating. There is something wrong in the existing system of animal farming, something that is more important than beliefs and choices. And factory farmers and animal slaughterhouses profit on our willing ignorance, our neglectful silence on the topic of cruelty in the animal husbandry.

So, as a first step in a long process, in his book, Foer has started a conversation about eating animals. He hopes that the information he has brought to light in this book will help us unite, vegetarians and meat-eaters, in changing the worst parts of the animal farming process. Eating animals may be correct, or it may be wrong, but animal farms are undoubtedly wrong. Foe shows us that we cannot ignore what is on our plates any longer, just to protect each other's egos and feelings, just in the name of tradition.

WHY IS FOER DIFFERENT FROM THE AVERAGE PRO-VEGAN-PREACHER?: For the longest time, Foer did not like animals. He found them to be a nuisance. It was when he got a pet dog that he first bonded with a vapid non-human beast. Even so, he often found the creature inexplicable and absurd. It was when he discovered that he was going to be a father that Foer first considered the possibility of being a vegetarian, as he began to wonder which tradition he would pass on to his child, as he considered the responsibility of parenthood and whether he knew enough of his own culture to educate another being in it. 

"Nothing inspires as much shame as being a parent. Children confront us with our paradoxes and hypocrisies, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why - Why do we do this? Why don't we do this? - and often there isn't a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story you know isn't true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood - which is a good shame - is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My son not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but shamed me into reconsideration."

HOW IS THE SYSTEM CRUEL? WHAT IS 'CRUEL'? Now, 'cruelty' might be a subjective term. So here are facts; straight-up, indiscriminately chosen by opening the book to random pages. Will you read or will you turn away?

1. Chickens are widely genetically manipulated to produce more flesh faster. The average weight of these birds increased by 65% from 1935 to 1995, while their time-to-market dropped by 60% - to understand better, imagine human children growing to be 300 pounds in ten years by eating only Granola bars. KFC chickens are almost always killed in 39 days. They're babies, that's how quickly they have grown. 

2. In cattle slaughter, the cows are first stunned with a "knocker" which hits  them right between the eyes. If knocked out too effectively, animals bleed out slower because the heart stops pumping when they die. So factories ensure that the animals remain conscious after the first hit and bleed out quickly while still alive. Such meat tastes better. The side effect is that cows often wake up during the process of slowly killing them.

3. Four out of five times a female pig will spend sixteen weeks of her pregnancy confined in a crate, where she won't be able to move. Her bone density will drop. She will be covered in multiple sores. Normally, a mother pig gives birth to only one piglet, however in factory farming, they are 'intensively bred' to produce as many as nine babies at a time. 15% of these mothers go insane. Piglets in these confinements are born with deformities. The need for the crates? Cost-effective management.

4. Did you know? Roughly 35 classified species of sea horses worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are "unintentionally" killed in seafood production? And sea horses are only one of the over hundred sea animal species which are the "by catch" in the modern tuna industry.

5. According to a report published in Consumer Reports, 83 percent of all chicken meat is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. The conditions of factory farmed animals, the filth of the factory farm, affects what ends up on our plates more than we know. An estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur in America each year.

Cruelty is not that the animals are killed. They die natural deaths too. Cruelty is how they are killed, the extended suffering before the actual death, the sadistic treatment of animals so commonly witnessed in any factory farm (people who kill on a daily basis need to demonize their victims - many accounts in this book from workers themselves attest to the sadistic torture of animals by factory workers - urinating on chicken, beating pigs senseless, raping the cattle.) It's a lawless industry.

Cruelty is not knowing where and how our food has been. Cruelty is turning a blind eye to all of this, all of this which is done only to make that burger five dollars cheaper. 

LET'S BE HONEST, YOU'D RATHER SKIP THROUGH ALL THE GORE. All of this may be wholly unpalatable. But do it. Read the book. Because by turning a blind eye, we're not protecting out right to make our own dietary choice. We are ignoring the possibility of creating a world where we could have our cake and eat it too - a world where farming animals won't be as cruel because the consumers demanded animal protection over reduced prices. Where factory farms will be open to public viewing, monitored by cameras, because they won't dare have a hundred dead birds to hide. Read the book. Skip the bad parts if you want, read and accept and discuss and recommend the essence of it.