Friday, December 1, 2017

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

"I'm not saying the kids were doing this in a mean way. They were just being normal dumb kids. I know that. I kind of wanted to tell them that. Like, it's okay, I know I'm weird looking, take a look, I don't bite. Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to the school all of a sudden, I'd be curious, I'd probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I'd probably whisper to them: Hey, there's the Wookiee. And if the Wookiee caught me saying that, he'd know I wasn't trying to be mean. I was just pointing out the fact that he's a Wookiee. It took about one week for the kids in my class to get used to my face."
- August Pullman, age 10. 

You know, it's not easy being a high school teacher. It's nightmarish to be an adult in a child's world - the gossip, the bullying, the high school politics, the raging hormones, the insecurities and ego surges; when you're a kid, you think the adults just don't "get it." But that's not it. I get it, I just know that there's little I can do about it. It's all so sensitive and difficult. Wonder by R.J. Palacio taught me a lot about teenagers, in fact I borrowed it from one of my students. The book, and the fact that a bunch of teens in my class love it, has made me delve deeper into the teen psyche than ever before. You see, this book is not about a single experience, not about one child having a series of problems, or another creating a series. It's told from the points of view of many children, different perspectives on the same experience, and it's about how they all come together to weave that web of nastiness that is any school.

It all begins with August Pullman, a boy born with a facial malformation, called a "mandibulofacial dysostosis" and described as much more drastic in appearance than a cleft palate. August opens the book with narration of his life story with a chilling matter-of-factly tone. Auggie is used to people being frightened of his face, he describes that reaction that people have, of shock and derision, often leading to pity, when people see him for the first time. He knows that some people can never look him in the eye, ever. He knows it, and he says it like he's accepted it... almost.

August has been home-schooled till Grade 4, when his parents decide it's time for him to get a taste of the real world, with all its joys and difficulties. They enrol him into a private school, much to August's dismay. The director of the school, a nice ol' man comically named Mr. Tushman arranges for a visit to the school for August during the summer holidays. He recruits three prospective classmates to show him around the school. This is where August gets his first nasty surprise. The boys, who are absolutely sweet in the presence of the adults, commence casual snide remarks when alone with August - sample: referring to him as Darth Sidious with his burnt face. 

August is stunned, hurt. But he decides to go to school anyhow, because he likes it, and perhaps because he wants to face that challenge. The first day is no different from what you'd expect. August makes no friends, and the few he does make seem to be talking to him out of some sort of obligation. The meanest of the boys is this popular kid who should have no reason to pick on anyone, seeing as he is already on the highest rung of the social ladder. But somehow, he takes the keenest interest in making Auggie's life miserable. Come lunch break, when Auggie feels he is about to spend all of the school year alone, one girl, one of the "popular" ones comes up to his table and sits with him. And that makes him survive school for just that much longer.

As August settles in, we take departure from his perspective and flit to his sister, Olivia. Olivia adores August, he is her everything. But it's hard having a younger sibling who has always been so sick, always been in and out of surgeries. Olivia has had to give up on her childhood quite young, and there is a certain apprehension caused by this, if not resentment. But her relationship with Auggie exudes warmth and she's fiercely protective of him, sometimes a little too motherly in her worry. You see, for all of August's troubles, he is not a special needs kid. He is just like a normal child, and quite a bright one at that, so he doesn't always need the coddling that Olivia imposes on him. Throughout the book, the brother-sister relationship develops in the most natural and beautiful of ways.

We see other points of view as well. We see the story from Summer's point of view, that one popular girl who befriends August. And Jack, another of his friends. We meet Olivia's friends and her boyfriend. And in a special chapter at the end of the book, Palacio offers us a glimpse into the deep recesses of Julian's brain, August's greatest bully. Why do teenagers act the way they do - enough with the angst, damn it! Why do kids "hate"? How do children perceive loss - how do kids grieve? Can we focus on how deeply rooted peer pressure is? Do you become a bully by accident? Are bullies really also victims - as simple as that? Is it all hormones or do kids have problems as real as ours? If school is a test run for life, does that mean people never change - are we just a bunch of over-sized teenagers, just as mean, forever - no? ever met an angry gossipy parent? 

Now, the book doesn't give you answers to all these questions. But it damn well comes close. It provides much needed insight into the inner workings of different minds - many rights and wrongs. It readjusts your view on life, by giving you ten others. It tells you somehow that it's okay to not always be right, and not always be good, but we must keep trying to be both. No one is perfect, but that shouldn't be our cue to give up on ourselves. It's GUTTING but it's also heart-warming. So, after all the struggle and perseverance and the trials and tribunals of school, August, his friends and his enemies do make it through to the light at the end of the tunnel. As we all eventually do. So you might ask, that's it? Happy ending schmappy ending? Well, it's not a the-end-will-shock-you type of book, not some mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It's the journey that matters. And the book takes us on a hell of a ride. 

Can we set aside a moment to appreciate how every teenage coming-of-age story has a teacher figure who majorly influences the main characters? Can I bask in how it's almost always the English teacher? I guess it's because we're not burdened with actual content to teach and can basically just come up with our own. It's also probably because writers tend to temp as English teachers and that could be where the bias forms. Anyhow, August has an interesting, if a little eccentric, character for an English teacher - Mr. Browne, who, among other things, makes it a point to start every month with a "precept" that he gives the students. Words to live by... These make for some interesting quotes. But what's more is, he asks the students to write their own precepts and as a finishing touch to this book, Palacio has given us the different precepts handed in by our characters at the end of the year. Yummy.

I don't know what my students took away from the story. I don't know how much seeped in. I don't know if the story will change how they look at someone just a little more timid, a little more whimsical, a little more different. I can only hope that they will try on the boots of the August or Jack or Miranda or Olivia of their class and walk a mile. I can only hope that tomorrow, they will be a little less selfish, a little less ignorant, a little less resentful, a little less impatient - and the world will be a kinder place. 

“But in another book by J. M. Barrie called The Little White Bird … he writes …” He started flipping through a small book on the podium until he found the page he was looking for, and then he put on his reading glasses. “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Updates and Plans

The year is almost over which is something I really cannot wrap my head around. What a weird year 2017 was, and I had gone in imagining it would be one of the bests. I scrolled down to January, which was fairly quick since I have hardly blogged this year. Eleven months and nine posts, quite a pathetic performance I might add. 

Life got in the way, as it usually does, but wasn't really lived very well either. You know, when a tragedy hits you and you wade through it, you're left with a false sense of security that anything else that life may throw your way would be a piece of cake in comparison. But I couldn't have been more wrong. The mundane problems, the adult realities of life, are so much worse to tackle. Dying friendships, money struggles, job politics, each one a small bite, until one day you wake up and realize a large chunk of you is missing. 

I planned to read 48 books this year and Goodreads has ingratiatingly informed me that I can still do it! Except, I'm 15 books behind. Of course it's not about the numbers, but I can feel it in my bones - I haven't been reading, or worse writing, like I used to, and it's affected my curiosity and creativity. I feel drained all the time and the worst is this: I have lost that bubbling enthusiasm in my teaching, I hardly go to class with a crazy smile anymore and no longer pore over children's books with the eagerness of a ten-year-old avoiding studies. 

There isn't a lot of time left to fix this year's numbers, but I have done it before. So I'm going on a personal readathon (without a goal in numbers) and planning to bookworm my way into the new year, feeling much happier than I am right now. And of course, blogging must go hand in hand with reading, as it has for the past (how many would you say) seven years! 

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.