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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Children's Books, February Reads and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt*

*Not in that order.


Tuck Everlasting: I had always thought that a film whose crowning glory is its beautiful narration must have been a really good book. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt has been on my to-read list for a long time, ever since happy afternoons spent watching the feel-good movie. (I will never get over how pretty Alexis Bledel looks in the movie.) Tuck Everlasting is a strange tale about immortality and its consequences.

The Foster House is a towering structure that lies at the edge of a forest, and the beginnings of a small village. The only important family in the village, the Fosters own the forest. It's a mysterious wood that people would rather stay away from, anyway. The Fosters are a very proper family, and Winifred Foster is a lonely child. A ten-year-old who is not even allowed to play in peace in her own front yard, Winnie decides one day to run away from home. 

In the forest, Winnie meets a handsome young boy. He's sitting beside a spring drinking water, when she comes across him. Thirsty herself, Winnie tries to drink from the spring. But he forbids her. His mother arrives after him, and before she knows it, Winnie finds herself kidnapped by the strangest family - who call themselves the Tucks.

The Tucks tell Winnie a story - about a spring that gives eternal life to the drinker and a curse that entraps those who drink from it. The Tucks claim to be over a hundred years old. And now that Winifred knows their secret, they refuse to let her go. And as strange as this story is, here's the oddest part of the affair - it is with the Tucks that Winnie feels the most comforted, and she has no wish to return home. But the Tucks don't know that they are being followed and Winnie has no clue what life has in store for her if she's found.

Like the movie, it is a feel-good story, quite easy to devour in a single sitting. It is a neatly wrapped story, with a tidy bow atop. Thing resolve marvellously at  the end, so much so that you almost wonder, was there any conflict at all?

On Children's Book Choices - Children these days have a much more vibrant choice of books to read than I did. Now I don't know if this is city-, country- or simply individual-specific; but I have a feeling there did not use to be quite as many books about rat-burgers or underpants back in the day. When I recommend books to children, I try to find a balance between the whimsy and the "life lesson" for lack of a better word. Recommendations that have worked wonders so far include Lemony Snicket, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling (need I even say?) And as a teacher, trying to justify my choices, I think that what ties these together that each of these books, though child-like and playful and fun, introduce a new string of thought to the reader's mind - have a deeper theme, a message, an idea, a perspective.

And Tuck Everlasting does that beautifully. The other day, I was discussing with a few of my classes whether it makes sense to them that books like Harry Potter are banned in certain schools either because they promote witchcraft (which, not being Christians ourselves, we can be coolly objective about) or because they have themes a bit too adult for a young age. The responses were varied - one child said there was no need to expose children to things beyond their understanding as misunderstanding are worse than naivete. Another was convinced that anything that will be discovered eventually, may be discovered from a safe source right now.

The conversation - stemming from our read of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - took a turn to the topic of death, and consequently, immortality. When did my dear children first become aware of the concept of death? I made it a point not to come out and say this in so many words, of course, because there are still some faces in the class with that touch of rare innocence that can be so easily lost. And yet, it was a discussion worth the effort, for it brought out precious perspectives... is there a right age to find out about death? Would you tell your kid sister about it? Can you imagine what Dumbledore meant when he said... "To a well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."?

The kids discussed the pros and cons of immortality and that is when I found myself talking about Tuck Everlasting. I think books are the perfect window to the unknown, or to that which cannot be well grappled with. They do not rush you into anything, like a movie, which can surprise you and cannot be unseen. You can set your own pace with a book and choose your takeaway. Tuck Everlasting would be a beautiful book to recommend a child who has just discovered mortality. I want to try and procure the book for our school library. Here's an excerpt:

"Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”

One adorable response to the question of the desirability of immortality - maybe if you're a vampire, it will be cool, because then you won't be so depressed that everyone you used to know is now dead. Because you will be evil. (Well, if only it were that simple, said Spike, Angel, Stefan, Bill and what's-his-shiny-face.)

February Reads: I did not read the planned four books, but have still somehow had an eventful two months of the new year. Apart from Americanah, which I reviewed, I have read Tuck Everlasting, Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket and came across and fell in love with The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Currently immersed in two books - Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Many reviews coming up, soon I hope. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


This post will go into great detail about some of the characters in the book, their motives and such, but not any plot developments. I wouldn't call any of my observations spoilers as such; but the post would probably be more interesting to someone who has read the book.

"If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding."
- an extract from the blog "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black", featured in this book.

It is impossible to start this post without linking to the Danger of A Single Story TED Talk by Adichie which, even after watching it a zillion times over, doesn't fail to amaze/inspire me. This TED talk is the reason I wanted to read Americanah and part of the reason I was convinced I would love it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria, the fifth of six children. In the talk, she describes having spent her childhood in a typical middle class Nigerian family. She grew up on a university campus where her parents worked and was an early voracious reader. She studied medicine at the University of Nigeria and moved to the U.S. at the age of nineteen. After spending four years in the States alone, she went back to Nigeria, and has since split her time between both the places. I tell you all this because Americanah, at a first glance, seems like a semi-autobiographical story.

Ifemelu has lived in America for thirteen years and is making plans now to return to her home country. But she has been away too long and a lot has changed. As a young girl, Ifemelu had not been attracted to the idea of America. Her fascination with it developed as a teenager in a Lagos school, through her friend and lover, Obinze - a professor's son who thrived on American books, movies and music. When Ifemelu had moved to the US to study, Obinze planned to join her. But he never made it.

And, throttled by cultural shock, Ifemelu lost touch with her earlier self, and her true love. Now, Ifemelu is a successful blogger, dating a Black American professor. She writes about race and identity politics in America from the perspective of a non-American Black. A Princeton graduate, she has no apparent reason to leave the States. Yet, after more than a decade's disconnect from home, Ifemelu's heart still plays with the possibility of a reunion with Obinze, and a future in Nigeria. If, only if...

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves a seamless saga, a book that is not limited by one topic or intended audience. No emotion is diluted, there is no forced subtlety. It is a story steeped in culture and were I asked to grind its theme down to one thing, I would say it is about human interaction. 

Over and over, it deals with our constant, often unconscious, attempts to redefine our identity to suit the cultural context we are cocooned in. Ifemelu is an eminently unlikable character, because she is un-rooted. She tries on identities like clothes and casts them aside with apparent ease, without noticing and for the longest while, letting us notice, the toll it takes on her. With a white boyfriend, she plays the role of the exotic black woman. With her black American professor friends, she attempts to be an intellectual. Even her carefully constructed online persona is just that - constructed. For Ifemelu, it was only with Obinze that she never bothered to be anything, and just was. And in the midst of every great upheaval of her life, she finds herself craving that comfort of being true to herself.

The story is peppered with an amazing array of characters. One of my favourite people in Ifemelu's American life was her cousin, Dike, the product of her Aunty's affair with a rich officer back in Nigeria. Ifemelu is often shown to be puzzled by, even a little derisive of, the change her aunt undergoes after moving to America, where she adopts what Ifemelu and Obinze term an exaggerated sense of gratitude.

"“Dike, put it back,” Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. Pooh-reet-back. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing. Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place."

But the exact effect that immigration has on Dike, a baby at the time of his arrival, is lost on Ifemelu. She is a child of Africa, raised without the concept of race. Dike, on the other hand, has race and colour woven into his identity. In spite of being an easygoing and altogether popular boy in his school, Dike does face bits of unfair aggression. But he trains himself to laugh it off - a camp teacher who assumes he wouldn't need sunscreen, for instance. What I love about the character of Dike is the interesting juxtaposition of his relation with Ifemelu versus her interaction with the rest of her American mates.

For all the superior conviction with which Ifemelu blogs her mini theses on racial identity, interactions with Dike leave her puzzled and helpless. Her failing lies perhaps in considering him more Nigerian than American, like herself. Throughout the book, her African Americans friends call out her ability to write about race successfully as a luxury that she can afford because she was not born on the receiving end of racial prejudice. If she were a black American and wrote what she wrote, she would naturally, they say, be called dramatic and shunned. Ifemelu often bristles at such pronouncements, but her repeated inability to understand Dike's point of view, his inner struggle, shows that such judgments are truer than she would care to accept.

Race is a complex issue and there does not exist a singular definition of oppression or racial identity. Through endless examples, Ifemelu stresses on this. There is no united league of the oppressed, but it is somehow worse to be black. Popular media tries to serve us a single story of racism; and popular opinion tries to convince itself that that story no longer exists - that 'proper' racism is mostly gone.

“In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. 

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.”

Obinze's character and his story add an honest charm to the book. His perspective is most interesting in contrast to hers because he is as grounded in his identity as she is not. His suffering, his struggle comes not from inside as hers, but from his inability to fit in with those around him, to be what he is expected to be in changing surrounding, to construct himself a fitting persona. His straightforward simplicity reminded me absurdly, randomly, of Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina - though why they should seem similar I haven't given a thought. Obinze's was the character that really propelled me to keep on reading the book, whom I was invested in... I wanted to know what would happen with him. Even his experience with class prejudice somehow hit closer home that many of Ifemelu's experiences.

There were times when the story lines felt a little maudlin, somewhat prone to cliches. And it perhaps could have been a shorter book, but finding faults in the book has proved to be a needles-in-a-haystack task for me. I loved it. I cannot imagine anyone not loving it.
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You know, I'm technically brown-skinned, but I'd find it funny to call myself a person of colour. I've never lived outside India, that may be why (which is not to say we don't have any racism within)... even so, I understand, at least in part, the absence of the idea of race in the mind of a person of colour. I kind of liked how unapologetic-ally African the names of the characters were, and that they came with no directions on how they were to be pronounced. I learnt a great many new things about African culture. There is something that I forgot to mention in the rest of the review that deserves to be here, so I will add it to this paragraph of miscellaneous unsorted final thoughts - the language, the language, the language! Adichie's lines are precise, cutting and just divine. My sister, who raced through the book in the span of a day probably, said the book was impactful (not verbatim), that she did love it, but it did not not make any groundbreaking observation. This is true. But it did have dollops of wisdom delivered in a way that made me think - I have always known this, I just didn't know that I knew it. And one of the great pleasures of reading, to me, is to find instinctive convictions and passing observations of mine put rather gloriously into words.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip Dick


Warning - Minor spoilers: but none for the plot. I am very glad to have heard of this book only through Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls, though this should have given me a clue of its cult status. But I don't suppose watching Blade Runner would have pushed me to read the book, so I am quite happy I hadn't.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick reminds me of a Terry Pratchett quote... "What would humans be without love? Rare."

The story begins far into the future when most of the life on our planet has been wiped out by a plague of dust. Man has colonized Mars and nearly everyone has left the planet Earth to live on the colonies. Many people in the world have been contaminated by the dust, altered to become something not quite human, not quite right. These are called 'specials'. Still on Earth with the specials are certain people like our protagonist whose jobs have kept them back.

Technology has advanced to such an extent now that it is impossible to tell the difference between man and machine by simple physical appearance. The only thing that androids lack and humans have is the power of empathy. The colonies are run with the help of android-slaves, who have a habit of disappearing and running off. The Earth police are equipped with a technology that can determine humanity and android-ness based on reactions to certain psychological stimuli. Very simply put, this device measures how many seconds it takes one to wince when someone gorily describes murder or animal slaughter.

Rick Deckard is an Earthling and a bounty-hunter, whose job it is to catch and terminate any androids which have illegally alighted on the planet by escaping from the colonies on Mars. When a new type of android arrives which may fool the police technology, Rick begins to wonder what empathy really is. The androids he meets in his hunt test the limits and possibilities of his sense of empathy, and he wonders how well a judge it can be of humanity. Could a robot feel empathy? Could a human love a robot? Must a human possess empathy?

Through the book, introducing us to newer concepts and characters of this world along the way, the author asks and explores these questions. A world where electric animals are bred as pets, because most live species are extinct. A 'special' who cannot tell a live animal from a fake. A man who decides to help out a band of escaped androids. A robot who believes it is human. A machine to control and assign moods. Whatever does it mean to be human?

This is an excellent read. What Dick lacks in poetry of language, he makes up for in linguistic inventiveness. One of the non-living monsters of Dick's world is "kibble" which is the word for odds and ends accumulated over time, any useless 'stuff.' He says our lives are full of it and it wreaks degradation in our lives. When no one is around, he says, kibble reproduces itself. It's material chaos. This is just one example of the words that he has derived for this world. An elaborate "diktionary" of his terms is available online - a must read to get a taste of his writing.

The major theme is life and survival, and it also focuses of religion, popular culture and marginalization. Unlike most dystopian fiction, this does not have a 'hero against  the system' plot. Even so, I am a little tired of bleak futures, and would like recommendations of science fiction books with brighter todays and tomorrows. Or something that is set in the future but has a different immediate conflict, like Asimov's initial Robots mysteries. I'd like something of that sort to be the next book I read for the Science Fiction Experience 2017