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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

The End of February

February has come and gone and it seems like just yesterday we were ringing in 2019 and now we are already in the 3rd month; something about time flies when one is having fun! And while I would not really describe February as fun, it was atleast, interesting, as usual busy and since the sky did not fall on my head, almost kind! I did get some reading done, though not as much as I would have wanted and I am woe fully behind in both my 2019Official TBR Pile and GoodReads reading challenges! Oh! Well! It is what it is and atleast, I am reading, which for a part of last year, had practically been non existent (an unheard of event in my adult life) and am grateful for these small mercies! So what did I read in February? Here goes –

The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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Even if we love them with our entire being, even if we’re willing to commit the most heinous sin for their well-being. We must understand and respect the values that drive them. We must want what they want, not what we want for them

The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki

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I can remember a menu long after I’ve forgotten the hostess that accompanied it

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

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Recollect that we have been acquainted for less than a month! You cannot, cousin, have fallen – formed an attachment in so short a time!’
‘Nay, love, don’t be so daft!’ he expostulated. ‘There’s no sense in saying I can’t do what I *have* done

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

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I am not in a heat at all,’ Léonie said with great precision. ‘I am of a coolness quite remarkable, and I would like to kill that woman.

So that was all my February reading! One look and you can see, it was primarily what can be only described as Comfort reading, but it was good comfort reading so cannot complain! The high point of the month, however, was getting selected as the Clubber of the Month, by The Classical Club! I am honored and totally pumped at this recognition! We will now see what March unfolds!

And speaking of March, while I gave making reading plans for the month more than a year ago, I did make a small resolution for the month – I will only read women authors, in honor of International Woman’s Day! That then is the plan and I am off to get head start on this by reading Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridges!

India Through The Ink….

It cannot be easy to write about a country or a people, not your own. It becomes even more challenging if you have not lived in the country you are writing about or not interacted with the indigenous population of the same country. Even when you belong to the country, it is becomes difficult to capture the all encompassing details of the land and its people; therefore for someone not belonging to the same land, it remains an arduous and difficult task. And should that country be India, with it melting pot culture, checkered history going back to 7000 BCE and more than 100 languages, this task becomes infinitely more complex, difficult and challenging! And yet, authors, scholars and travelers around the world insist on writing about this country.

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If they have the brilliance of a William Dalrymple then, they settle down in the country and write prodigiously about it. Scholars like John Keay and the late AL Basham study the country for years before penning something so profound as India – A History and Michel Palin treks all over Himalayas before writing a book with the same name! I may not always agree with what they put forth, but I do respect the amount of love, patience and sheer effort into putting together, factually and not fictionally, that is not intrinsically their own. And this is key to the appreciation of these works; these authors do not have the luxury of editing something that they do not understand or cannot explain, into a “creative license”. The nature of their genres makes this impossible and hence my love and respect for these authors increase manifolds, especially for those writing non fiction, even if some of them, get the picture completely wrong!

Fiction however is whole different story; for years, now, India and her people have continued to fire the imagination of the world and especially the West. We have had many authors writing about India for a while, but with the British Colonial empire, India literally exploded into English literature like never before. Rudyard Kipling with all his love-hate for the the country, gave the world Jungle Book and Kim, both novels rooted in every essence to what this country is and stood for. EM Forster brought forth the racial divide, and the mounting tensions in the early 20th century India, in his polemic A Passage to India and Paul Scott captured the pain and the violence that tore apart a nation in the wake of partition of India, in his seminal, A Jewel in the Crown. And then, there stands, my personal favorite and the one author who despite her hereditary, truly was an Indian at heart, for she wrote of this land and her people, like she was one and her books resonate with the very feel and smell of India, as the country comes alive and grabs the reader – the inimitable Ms. MM Kaye. Not all her predecessors or even successors could write like Ms. Kaye wrote nor feel the power of her love, that made her stories authentic and Indian in spirit. But most of these authors belonged to an era where the understanding of the world and all her people was still limited; race and color still made a difference and there was significant paucity of information, which makes one more tolerant on the misses or the misinterpretation, and in case of Mr. Kipling, appreciate the story, without delving too much; not quite easy, but can be done!

This fascination with India in fiction, seems to found new resurgence in the 21st century and suddenly, I am astounded by the number of books based on India, has Indian protagonist or has roots in some way or form to this country. I was presently surprised by East of the Sun by Julia Gregson , tracing the lives of three young memsahibs to India as they set out as part of the “Fishing Fleet” to find suitable husbands. While historically, the book did not always jive, it did capture the society and morals of 1920s India beautifully, but the number of Indians were limited in this novel and I am not sure how the author would have fared with India and Indians as the main theme instead of a backdrop! Let me illustrate my point –  Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, despite their astounding commercial success, left me cold in so many ways! And herein lies my irritation with modern authors; in these days of easy travel and access to all kinds of information, to constantly cater and pander to what is obvious crass commercialization of the traditional stereotypes of India is just astoundingly disappointing, if not downright infuriating! The first one has Spirituality and Tigers and a peace loving protagonist (gosh! what surprise!) and the second one goes to the other extreme of spirituality and slums and poverty! I am not even getting into books like The Art of Inheriting Secrets, by Barbra O’ Neil that has a Indian woman following her Aristocratic English noblewoman lover to England and then marrying an Indian man in a remote English countryside in 1940s England. In a country where woman are struggling to get their basic rights of education and independence established in 2019, that flight of fancy in 1940s is really taking the “poetic license” to fantasy. I am not denying the existence of strong women in 1940s, several existed including my grandmothers, nor am I denying the existence of homosexuality or marrying a man to keep up appearances, but all of that together in that time and age; that is way far out even for the West, but for the East, that is an impossibility of infinite proportions! Then of course we have the male modern Indian protagonist, who of course has curly hair, as Indian men never have straight hair and his brown ageless skin…what?? Also conveniently, the protagonist sprouts Rabindranath Tagore and his most cliche poems at the drop of a hat, because, of course our author never bothered to find a poet beyond the only one known in outside of India or even his other famous poems, besides the first one that comes up in Google. And just to add more spice, (of course its India so it has to have spice!) we have Indian restaurant and India food popping up every two pages! What really gets me is that even established and justly popular authors like Lucinda Riley fall into this trap of taking on a shallow understanding and wrapping up the story in all the trappings of exotic India. So in her, The Midnight Rose, where we of course have princesses and a handmaiden who has an affair and an illegitimate child and whose grandson again falls into the cliched curly haired brown skin hero. Ms. Riley took the lives of two real life Indian princesses, Princess Indira and her daughter, Princess Gayatri Devi and mercilessly intermixes and changes their lives, which in reality would have changed a very strong fabric of Indian history and Indian feminist movement. Again her protagonist while strong and strong Indian women were a reality but illegitimacy in 1920s India was not something that would have dealt with aplomb that Ms. Riley deals with, especially if the child has mixed parentage. In India where caste and affinity to your ethnic heritage, still form a large part of every day lives, a child of foreign parentage, in the early years of 1920s would have caused a havoc,  no matter which remote hilly village you hide in; infact more so there than in the bigger cities. These nuances, which are critical to understand and then portray the socio-cultural-historical narrative based out of this country is unfortunately getting more and more trampled in the competition to build a intriguing plot line with an exotic enough setting to seduce the reader. These books continue to impress upon the audience of the world, what has been stereotyped a thousand times about this country – tea estates, princesses, animals, slums, spirituality and such like! These books at then end of the day fail to bring forth, the actual India, which is a mix of all these things and so much more – there are good and bad people, there swaths of deserts and snow capped mountains, there is spirituality but there are also scholars, and while we love animals, we also can be kind and mean in equal measures and this has nothing to do with any of us being related to royal ancestry or not!!! To end, if you really want to read to about India, stick to non fiction or Indian authors or English authors circa 1850-1950s!

The 20 Questions….

I know these posts are taking longer than expected and at this point I am averaging one post a month, which like really really sucks! But things are rather more complicated than resolved and though I am coping better, and it is more minor random things than real big time life changers that seem to be consuming my time, they do consume a LOT of my time and a moment of breathing space is hard won! Be that as it may, I did again want to drop in and drop a note and perhaps do a fun post! Fortunately, I found this very interesting 20 questions post over at wherethereisinkthereispaper and I decided, to follow suit, just for some laughs and bookish memories!

1. How many books are too many books in a book series?

Honestly it depends on the book and the writing. Harry Potter sustained me through all 7 books maybe not with equal intensity but enough interest through each book; Conn Iggulden’s 4 part The Conquer Series based on Genghiz Khan’s life and times is another of my favorites and one of my go to every time I need a book on audacity and courage. Percy Jackson lost me after book 2 as did Deborah Harkness’s All Soul’s Trilogy (Vampire – Witch) Trilogy and I did not even get past page 40 of Twilight! Its story and the writing and no book in a series is one too many for me if it is good!

2. How do you feel about cliffhangers?

Again I think it depends on the writing. I could not really believe that Sirius Black was really dead after Book 5 in the Harry Potter series and kept imagining it as a “cliffhanger” for some reason or the other. Similarly I was left angsty after almost every turn of fortune in Conn Iggulden’s War of Roses series and just when I decided for York, something of the Lancaster House got me and I spent the entire seies being anxious which was not particularly fun! To end, I do understand the need to keep the reader “hooked on” but as a reader I am not very sure I like it! It depends on the book and the type of cliffhanger that it ends on.

3. Hardback or Paperback?

I love the quiet elegance and majesty of a hardback; but economics makes paperback so much for viable , so paperbacks it is!

4. Favourite Book?

I cannot even begin to attempt to answer this one…..the list is too long and I am fortunate to have read books which have enriched my mind and my life. If you are still curious, please visit my GoodReads shelf.

5. Least Favourite Book?

Again I cannot even attempt to list this one. With the good comes the bad and you have to wade through many horrific works to find a book that sears your soul or even remotely makes sense. Again please visit my GoodReads shelf if you are curious!

6. Love Triangle, Yes or No?

No! Nix! Never! Don’t like them in life and don’t like reading them in books. Have not read the Outlander Series because, it smells of Love Triangle!

7. The most recent book you couldn’t finish?

Ms. Treadway and The Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson….it started as something and ended up as something and I gave up almost at the end….just did not have the enthusiasm to carry on! I

8. A book you’re currently reading?

Lack of time is limiting my reading abilities, but still current under Reading, the following –

· Belonging – The Story of Jews (1492-1900) by Simon Schama

· New Forest by Edward Rutherford

· The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & other Foreigners who Became Indian by Jonathan Harris Gill

· The Kings Justice by E.M. Powell

9. Last book you recommended to someone?

I have read some great stuff this year, especially in the first half which was way more prolific than my second half where I practically gave up on all literary activities. However, there are three books which come to my mind, which I feel very strongly about and have practically developed an Evangelical zeal of getting new converts –

· Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

· February: Selected Poetry by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrew Kneller

· The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

10. Oldest book you’ve read? *publication date*

I think it’s from the top of my head and skimming superficially through the top layer shelves, it’s a toss up between Mahabharata (circa. 9th Century BCE) and The Metamorphosis by Ovid (circa.8 AD)

11. Newest book you’ve read? *publication date*

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J.Pearce

12. Favourite Author?

Oh! Man! Another question I cannot answer; but in interest of sustaining the reader’s interest, here are a couple

· Jane Austen

· Rabindranath Tagore

· Boris Pasternak – Poetry Only

· John Steinbeck

· JK Rowling

· Conn Iggulden

· Harper lee

· Charles Dickens

· LM Montgomery

· Fyodor Dostoyevsky

· Author Conan Doyle

· Bakim Chandra

Well….you did ASK!!

13. Buying books or Borrowing books?

Buying! I like to own the books I read….it’s a relationship!

14. A book you dislike that everyone else seems to love?

I am going to get brickbats for this one, but I have two infact whose fasciantion does not makes sense –

· Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Mad, Obsessive Man and Class Conscious Chick….why is this thing so popular???!!!!)

· Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurer ( Scardy mouse heroine who is forever wandering around in what can only be called ridiculous circumstance moaning about a husband who is older and quieter than her! Go Figure!)

15. Bookmarks or Dog-ears?

Bookmarks only! Thou shall not speak of something as ghastly as Dog-Ears!

16. A book you can always re-read?

Again, sigh! Too many too list!

17. Can you read while hearing music?

Totally – Mostly Western Classical or Jazz instrumental!.

18. One POV or Multiple POV?

Again depends on the writing, but I do feel more than 3 becomes a bit too taxing to follow!

19. Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

I know this is repetitive but depends on the book. Some I finish over one sitting, some take days and diligence to finish, some start off as a one sitting and then linger of multiple days and then some I linger on, because I do not want to finish!

20. A book you’ve read because of the cover?

Many but most recently Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montfort; I am still making up my mind about that book!

There you have it, my twenty questions! This was super fun! Let me know what your bookish quirks are and maybe we can compare more notes!

About Truths From 200 Years Ago – Austen In August

One doesn’t read Jane Austen; one re-reads Jane Austen.” said the very complicated William F. Buckley, Jr, but in this simple sentence he lay bare the absolute truth of Ms. Austen’s brilliance; one is never tired of re-reading her! Recently Brona over at Brona Books decided to pick up the threads of the annual event that Adam used to host “Austen in August” and sent round invitation to anyone interested in joining up! As I read through her page of people signing up for the event, many reflected my sentiments – re-read Jane Austen atleast once a year. All most all of us, who love books, classics and fiction, are devoted to Jane Austen. We may differ in our intensity in our devotion and we may argue about which of her work is the best, but there can be no denying that Ms. Austen rules triumphantly in our reading culture and preferences. And this brings me to the very heart of the matter  – Why does Ms. Austen abide even after 200 years?

I know of hundred thousand papers, books, essays that enumerate and illustrate, the many reasons why Ms. Austen continues to a be literary success inspiring generations of readers and writers alike from Edith Wharton to JK Rowling. The reasons are varied and range from the sheer brilliance of her writing to Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy as a means of reviving interest in her works! I am sure there are another hundred thousands reasons as to why we each prefer Ms. Austen in our unique way and each can be counted as a great motivation. The reason I have loved her work always, since being introduced to her at the age of 13 is many – the plot, the pre-feminist but for sure feminist heroines, the humor and that one telling quality of Austen novel – there is some truths to re-discover no matter how many times one re-reads and this truth is still as pertinent as it was in Regency England. I always loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma but over the years, Persuasions with several re-reads has become equally closer to my heart. Mansfield Park, which I could barely get through the first time round, has now been re-read atleast in double digits, because despite many more socio-economic resources being available, women in many parts of the world struggle to make independent choices with pressure of withdrawal of those material resources to keep body and soul together, until adhered too the norms set by those who control those resources. Ms. Austen keeps telling us many things, and things which still hold true 200 years, each time and this is why she endures!

Therefore to celebrate this season of Austen In August, I sought out some passages from the evergreen Pride and Prejudice which are a dead ringer for the state of today’s society, that also illustrates the genius of Ms. Austen in writing about things that were so remote from her time and social surrounding and yet managed to become a universal tale.

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  • if she had not happened to see Mr. Jones’s shop-boy in the street, who had told her that they were not to send any more draughts to Netherfield because the Miss Bennets were come away – Mrs. Phillips explaining how she heard of the elder Bennet sisters returning from Netherfield, is a perfect and outstanding example of the grapevine network which continues to flourish till date and whose authenticity actually can be trusted upon more than official channels many a times!
  • Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.”  – Mr, Collins remarks when Elizabeth tries to stop him from putting himself forward through a self introduction to Mr. Darcy at the Netherfield Ball. Sigh! What can I say except Mansplaining seems to be a generational and sometime incurable phenomena!
  • I know it to be the established custom of your sex to reject a man on the first application, and perhaps you have even now said as much to encourage my suit as would be consistent with the true delicacy of the female character.”  Mr. Collins again, when Elizabeth rejects her marriage proposal. Consent as we see in many ways and forms are “interpreted” for the woman and the whole baloney of a No being a Yes…..seriously! Where did that come from?
  • Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible. Elizabeth on reflecting on her father’s conduct post the letter from Darcy. This was one those very interesting and though provoking passages in the novel. Mr. Bennet’ s marriage was not the happiest; he had simply put married a woman who looked good and did not have any other abilities. There are many things here – in the best partnerships, a partner should elevate each other and bring out the best in other. In many cases I know this does not happen but how does one some around that and make the lesser partner more acceptable in the larger world. I think this is one place where Ms. Austen attributes too much influence on the partnership of spouses. True, while it is one of the highest forms of relationship but there is only so much one an do? Or is it? Either way, I do think the truth of the last statement is key – exposing your partner’s weakness in front of the children, does not brood well for the family overall.
  • There was now an interest, however, in believing the housekeeper; and they soon became sensible that the authority of a servant who had known him since he was four years old, and whose own manners indicated respectability, was not to be hastily rejected. Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner’s reaction when realizing that Mr. Darcy was interested in their niece, when previously, they thought the Pemberly housekeeper had given an over the top opinion of Mr. Darcy simply because he was good Master.  I love this one – how often we change our own interpretation of narratives when we wish to believe something, especially if it is something good!
  • All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light. The social reaction when Wickham’s elopement with Lydia came to light. But obviously, hindsight always becomes foresight after the destruction has happened!
  • Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy than felt herself to be so – Elizabeth feelings after accepting Mr. Darcy. One of the deep and most honest insight to human sentiments; when the longed for event finally happens, the initial feeling is more knowing the happiness than actual overflowing cheerful garrulousness!

There are so many more things that I can talk about and continue to talk about, but time and other duties all. So I end this post with something Brona mentioned in our Twitter conversation and that seemed apt with what I have been trying to say through this post  – It is a truth universally acknowledged that p&p is quite simply perfect.

The Archbishop of New Mexico

Yet another late post; a book that should have been read & reviewed in April, finally trundles into mid May and I go with the philosophy, that truly, some things are better late than never! As part of The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge, an event hosted by Adam, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, was my TBR book for April, and though I managed to finish the novel within the month, but just never got to posting a book review!

Death Comes

Death Comes for the Archbishop chronicles the life and works of Archbishop Bishop Jean Marie Latour and his Vicar, Joseph Vaillant , as they attempt to establish a Catholic Diocese, in the newly captured New Mexico territory of United States. The novel begins with the Bishop and the Priest travelling from Ohio though difficult terrain to establish their Diocese in New Mexico. After some initial setbacks, including a trip that took a year and on arriving, realizing that the local Mexican Clergy, refuse to recognize the authority of Jean Marie Latour, the two worthy settle down to tame the wild elements of the Church which so far had been in lackadaisical fashion managed by the Mexican priests, and bring true piety and relief to the inhabitants, whether European or American or Indians. Over the years, they develop friendships with the local Indian leaders as well the American Businessman and Mexican Ranchers; they rescue an abused woman from the tyranny of a violent husband and convince yet another, to give up on her pride and declare her true age, so that she does not lose her wealth. They try and overcome the acrimony that exists between the local Mexican Priests and the new wave of leaders that Vatican was sending forth and enable the building of  a Romanesque Church. Finally they both end their days, in this land, Father Valliant pre-deceasing Father Latur, as the Bishop of Colorado. Father Latur now retired chooses to stay in New Mexico instead of returning to his homeland in France, dying in the company and service of the people with whom he worked and whose devotion to him till the end was unstinting and complete.

Ms. Cather remains as usual her brilliant self. The dry, difficult land of New Mexico, with its parallel institutions of the Indians, Mexicans and Americans cultures and politics comes alive in this slim novel. In sparse, but succinct prose, Ms. Cather manages to convey, not just the atmosphere, but also the depth of the characters and their past history, all the while, moving the plot along, in such magnificent manner, that leaves you in awe both as a reader and a writer. The lives of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Wikipedia, advises is based on the life and times of Jean-Baptiste Lamy & Joseph Projectus Machebeuf respectively and I am not sufficiently well read to comment on how true to life the portrayals are; however in the characters of Father Latur & Father Valliant, Ms. Cather, created the epitome of spiritual leaders, who like all humans were beset with doubts and weaknesses, but still lead their people, providing comfort, support and spiritual guidance as and when needed, with minimum interference and with a lot of respect for different cultures and practices. The ensemble cast is equally good, providing much needed “materialistic” and “earthy” props to the religious/spiritual narrative of the main protagonists. The thing that really stands about Ms. Cather’s writings is her sense of humanity; writing in 1927, she made it clear in her quiet writing style that the government’s practices against the Navajos, who were exiled to the Bosque Redondo, killing many of its population was unacceptable and defined the very principles of humanity! To end, I can only say, this is a beautiful, lyrical book, that seems to sings songs of the land and lives of the New Mexico Deserts!

The Eternal Question –

On this 23rd year celebration of the World Book Day, I want revisit an old question, a question which has been asked to me and to many other readers, more times than I can recollect and a question, which till date, I struggle to find an apt answer for! For every reader, convinced of the sacrosanct nature of words and their power, nothing is more difficult to answer than to explain, Why do we read? Why do we read so much? Why do we read so many books? Why do we read the same books so many times? Why do we read?

Neil Gaiman, in his remarkable essay on “Why our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” describes reading as “getaway drug”. The urge to know what happened next keeps the reader going and in the process forces them to read new words and exposes them to new worlds and new thoughts! He further says that reading builds empathy in the world. The reader is forced to create a world of his/her own out of the prose and that investment in building this world and characters creates a connection and thus empathy, something which does not exist in a cinematic medium. L.M. Montgomery, writing several years before Gaiman, made the same succinct observation about books being kind of a addiction. She wrote about being “book drunkard” and about books having the same temptation to her that alcohol has to a drunkard and further, a temptation that cannot be resisted! Rebecca Solnit said reading allowed her to build and then disappear into her imaginative world, in her essay “Flight” in the book The Faraway Nearby. William Nicholson in Shadowland, took a bit of a different route when he called out that “We read to know we’re not alone”. And Kafka of course took it to a whole new reasoning when he wrote to a friend that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Fragonard,_The_Reader

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770

There are many others who say many of these things and more and wiser minds than mine have tried to better understand the “addiction” to books and reading! So when I am asked, why do I read? I feel stumped, ill qualified and overawed at thought of explaining something that is fundamentally inexplicable until experienced by self! I have observed and I could be absolutely in the wrong here, that most deep readers, have had a childhood which was had limited or completely devoid of companionship. Children need companions, people their age or atleast people who understand them to keep loneliness and confusion at bay! In the absence of that, if you are lucky, you may get books handed to you by a sensitive and intuitive adult, and after that, you find a world which is really no comparison for the everyday dull life. You never need friends, because your mind is populated with a host of them and this circle is ever enlarging! You find that your emotions and your vulnerabilities are not unique and you are not a freak, but just someone going through the motions of “growing up”. You may also find yourself doing better at school, or at minimum knowing more than most around you, giving you a bit of early edge!  All of this may happen if you are fortunate enough to discover books, via an adult or school library or a friend or some other means! Once you are hooked as child to reading, then of course, the “addiction” comes in easily. Though to be fair, I have had friends who have taken to books as an adult and become equally obsessed converts to power of books, but when you start early, like all arts, it’s easier and you do not realize that this has become a “habit” or a “hobby” or how much words mean to you; as Scout Finch recounted “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”. Either way, once the “addiction” develops, you can, as reader never really rest, your imagination is far too much of an exciting place and you keep adding on to it, because, real life just cannot keep pace and you need sustenance for your intellect.

Child Reading

Mother & Child Reading a Story by Carlton Alfred Smith

You also discover reading widely without actually realizing until much later, that this has had a significant impact on developing your “skill sets”. More than a decade ago, in an attempt to get through to one of best Graduate School of this geography, I discovered the blessing of the power of reading. Having graduated with Honors in English Literature, I was convinced that if I wanted to keep reading, I needed to stop pursuing Literature, academically. In a 180 degree career switch, I decided to go for a graduate degree in International Politics and to get through to the said Graduate School, one had to write an admission test, of 5 essay answers on various questions of International Politics and pass it with a rank among the top 50. The entrance examination is held countrywide and at any given moment, more than 20,000 student attempt to crack the code! That day in the the examination hall, surrounded by the most brilliant peers who had first class undergraduate degrees in Politics and Economics, I felt out of depth, like never before. However the question paper seemed simple enough and the question which to me cinched my attempt was to compare the Western Allied powers war against the Taliban regime’s with the Anglo Afghanistan wars of 19th century. Everyone knew enough about Taliban and the Allied forces. CNN and BBC had brought the war inside our houses. But what of the Anglo-Afghanistan wars? Unlike my peers, I had read “The Far Pavilions” by MM Kaye, an author whose family had served the British Raj and the Afghan wars with distinction and whose authentic accounts can be relied upon. I had not only read it once but several time and I could fill the examination pages with copious reference to Dost Mohammad and the shameful British retreat of 1842 and so forth! Needless to say, I not only got the admission, but thrived in my double Masters! My peers with all their first class degrees in relevant subject did not and I discovered many of my classmates, some who have been my best friends for years now, too did not have the requisite subject undergraduate degrees, but had spent their young lives, reading and reading voraciously! Later when I entered the corporate world, I found much to my amazement, my colleagues struggling to find the right words for the right emails/presentation, while I could easily find the right word to sound, enthusiastic, assertive or diplomatic all over emails as the situation desired! So much so at one point, one of the senior leaders, used to call me in to review his really important emails for better presentation! Finally the more I read, the more I find myself becoming a more sensitive, more tolerant and more humane person! This is I know is sweeping generalization, but I find people who read to relatively kinder than their peers. Of course there are a number of exceptions, and I must mention as footnote, that one of most selfish person, I have the unfortunate honor of calling a relative, is also a voracious reader. However, despite this, I do feel that reading liberates the mind and the soul!

But all of this does not really answer to why we read? For as a child starting out with Corduroy by Don Freeman and then slowing graduating to other books, I did not know, that I was seeking companionship or a liberal mind or even skills which will enable me later in life.  As a child the only thing, I understood was when I looked at my illustrated book and then looked out of the window, the illustrated world, seemed exactly what it was meant to show me – a bright, colored, happy world; a world that drew me in and kept my company and made everything so much more merry!  By the time, I realized consciously the power of the books and words; I knew that this is some secret, joyous habit that cannot be let go, at any cost! So like many I kept on and today, cannot even begin imagine a life devoid of books! But these are thing which a non-reading “Muggle” can hardly understand, so every time when I am asked why do you read, the answer that actually comes to me is “how can you not read?”

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!

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Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

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