Writings From The East….

Karen over at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life are celebrating February as Reading Independent Publishers Month. There are of course several reasons to join this event, especially in a COVID 19 world, in which most such organizations are just keeping their head above water. My reasons for joining this event besides the usual support small organizations is that these publishers allow me to read a lot of Indian as well as other language literature, the ones that usually get overlooked in the more mainstream selections which are of course advertised more, available more easily and maybe easier on the budget. But reading events like these allow us to focus on alternatives and help us in inching along to becoming a little more wholistic in our approach and maybe consequently a little more aware and empathetic.

My selection for this month are two women authored books, writing under the shadow of two very different literary cultures and history, focusing of two different eras, yet managing to convey the same message.

The Many that I am is an edited anthology by Anungla Zoe Longkumer  and is a collection of fiction, non-fiction, paintings, graphic art and poems from Nagaland, one of the eastern most states of India. Published by the independent publishers Zubaan (literally meaning tongue or voice), it is spear headed by the iconic scholar and historian Urvashi Butalia, whose work I reviewed a few months back and seeks to tell the stories of the woman in this easternmost wing of India. The uniqueness of this book and the Naga culture generally is that it has always been an oral culture; there was no script until the Baptist missionaries came along in 20th century, and introduced to the tribes of this region Christianity and the alphabet. The writing therefore is a relatively new phenomenon and these authors/ poets are perhaps the earliest forerunner of the written art in their geography, slowly building a history from a language not their own, trying to discover words, that describe their lives and reflect their feelings.

The book consists of several short stories and a few essays and several poems, some of them are English renditions of traditional songs passed down from one generation to another. The stories are mostly set in the present time, reflecting the difficult integration into global world, where some things simply may get lost or makes no sense. The narratives are primarily woven around the Naga women and the many facets of their lives. Among this hill tribe, in a traditionally patriarchal society, women are subjected to many kinds of torture, including rape and domestic violence. Yet, what comes across in most of the stories is the rebellion, resilience and the sheer audacity of the women in these tribes, to live, thrive and build a life of their own. Cut Off by Vishu Rita Krocha succinctly captures the history of the land and how intervention by women always leads to a more peaceful, amicable resolution. Old Man’s Story by Jungmayangla Longkumer describes the life of an unorthodox village woman who married a man 5 years younger to her and dedicated her life to making clay pots that would enable them to pay for the expensive education for their children. The stories of Martha’s Mother by Hekali Zhimomi and Vili’s Runaway Son by Abokali Jimomi, bring to the front the ingenuity and sheer unwavering faith of mothers, with limited resources, trying to map out better and safer lives for their children. The essay When Doors Open by Eyinbeni Humtsoe -Nienu talks about the small rebellion by the grandmother of the author, who would let her daughter, sneak out in the middle of the night to attend night school. This in turn allowed, the daughter, the author’s mother to get a clerical job with the government which paid for the author and her sibling’s education. Today the author is prolific writer as well a professor at one of the Indian universities. There are some wonderful poems that focus on identity and meaning of being a woman in a Naga society, like a No No No Woman by Rozumari Samsara and Self Portrait by Beni Sumer Yanthan.

British Survey Party in Naga Hills by R.G. Woodthorpe , 1874-75
Source -Royal Anthropological Institute archives

The book needless to say was an eyeopener to me even though I belong the same country as the writers; but India is such a vast melting pot that we sometimes miss the very thing which is our own and such an integral part of the Indian identity and heritage. For this fact alone, I am so glad that works like these are being published by these spirited independent organizations.  The glimpse of the culture and history that this collection brought of this remote eastern region of my country was both intriguing, increasing my curiosity to learn more and also more importantly, a reality check on how isolated is my understanding of my own land, living in urban metro with all the comforts of life home delivered. Infact among the many wonderful things about the book, the deep insights into the culture of the tribes that make up Nagaland is one of the strongest features of this book. All the writers have in their own way conveyed the cultural heritage that has been part of the fabric of this land, the coming of Christianity which after initial conflict with local tribal practises was integrated into the Naga society and the lure of modern city life that is taking people away from the traditional structures are poignantly brought out through this book. The selection is very comprehensive, covering a host of genres from fiction to poetry to essay to graphic art and explores a vast range of subjects from World War II, the separatist movement, the Christian missionary work and the domestic lives of the people. Each tale is very different from the other and yet held together by the running theme that underlies this collection – women narratives and their perspectives. What stood out to me more than anything else, is how these authors have taken the English language and crafted it into their own style; so, the writings are all in excellent comprehensible English, and yet it brings the flavour of Nagaland and her people; making it a very unique reading experience.

This book is a must read for anyone trying to understand cultures and conflict among cultures and the role women play in such a society, despite the patriarchal roots. It’s a brilliant and bold attempt by Zuban Publishers & Anungala Zoe Longkumer

I will follow up on the second book as part of this project in my next post.

Those Women….

I am exceedingly aware of my immense good fortune in being born into an erudite and liberal Hindu family that not only did not believe in discriminating between a boy and girl, but were positively feminists, even before the term became mainstream. I know just how easily I could have been born into a traditional Hindu household where the woman is deprived of basic Human Rights and lacks even elementary empowerment; however, growing up as a young girl and an adolescent, I did not think in those lines. I was aware of my entitlement but my peers and I all had an idea of how our lives were mapped out – education (graduate school being the very minimum), career, and then inevitably marriage and its addendums. What however happened was that woman of my generation or slightly older and a younger age groups, got that primer education, powerful jobs in corporate, government and other key areas and ended up NOT getting married. Many did of course, but many did not. In my graduate school class, we were a student body of 60 students in our particular degree; of which about 35 were women, of which 7 or so remain unmarried in the age bracket of 37 -39. It may not seem a lot, but seen from the lens of a traditional Indian society where marriage and motherhood are considered the epitome of womanhood, this figure is startling and interesting. And it’s just not my graduate school class; I have colleagues, friends, acquaintances, very educated, very successful, either remining to chose single or even becoming mother via adoption rather than embrace marriage. It is a unique phenomenon among the urban educated high middle-class population of India and someone somewhere needs to look into socio-economic moorings of this development.

The Letter by Haynes King

It was thus an interesting surprise when I stumbled upon a work of non-fiction that seemed to address this, albeit in United States.  All the Single Ladies – Unmarried Women and The Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister. Ms. Traister is a well-known writer for New York magazine besides being a published author on several books about feminism and politics. Also Ms. Traister herself married later than her peers, I believe at the age of 35 and therefore from my perspective, she should know what she is talking about and with greatest curiosity I began to read this work. The book is divided into 10 Chapters along with a prologue and a conclusion. The author begins with explaining how her own experience and those of her friends coming of age as young adults in the shadow of Sex and the City and their subsequent lives, led her to study this group of young to middle age educated working women, who have not married and chosen to lead lives free of any such long term civil  or religious commitment, with or without a child. She begins by introducing the powerful phenomena that is the new age single unmarried woman. She then takes a look at history including events like Civil war and works of such feminists like Susan B Anthony that set the ball rolling for creating environments that fostered the growth of this group of women. She then studied this group through comprehensive lenses as urban single woman with financial independence as we well as women who came from economically weaker sections. She studied the process of female friendships as one of strongest support system among this group as well the support structures like grocery delivery, take out food and help from neighbors that is not only allowing this group to thrive but also take up single parenthood. She delves into the issues of violence and security as well as the emotion turmoil that these women face as single women in a culture that is still wary, suspicious and not completely bought in to this choice. She does not shy away from mentioning the positives that come from healthy happy partnerships including better home environments for kids as well as more secure economic status; but she also provides comprehensive data to show that such partnerships are not common and many make a compromise that ends in more unhappiness in the expectation of better lives.

Woman, Reading by Albert Bartholomew, 1883

There are simply not enough good things that I can say about this book! To start with the research is meticulous and deep; it is hard to believe that Ms. Traister is not a trained academic but a journalist and a writer. And yet despite all this research, the language is crisp and succinct and the message is clear! The balanced approach is yet another factor that is to be appreciated in the book – she celebrates the rise of single women, their success and empowerment; however, the author does not shy away from factors like security or even better home conditions for children when both parents are available. Even in the vast range of people she interviews, her epilogue comments, clearly call out that while many are doing well, some are not and that is life. There is no unrealistic expectation of happily ever after, only a promise that there are opportunities more than ever of a better life. The inclusiveness of the book makes it a major departure from books of other such genre; Ms. Traister tries to include all spectrum of women in her study and interviews – financially independent, those living on some state support, single women, single women with kids, Asians, African Americans, Whites, academics, clerks, writers – they are all there. Her narrative tries to include every kind of single woman and largely succeeds. The most interesting thing about the book is though it focuses on the rise of Single Women in US, barring certain regulations and political events, her story can be replicated to almost all single women across the world, who have some modicum of independence. Her story telling is universal and resonates across many cultures, with some caveats of course. Finally, despite being a serious study on women, the book is replete with wry humor, which makes for wonderful change of pace from a very thoughtful reading.  For instance, while speaking of financial independence of women, she quotes Susan B Anthony, to make a point of why women who earn their own money and buy things with that money, signals an epoch moment of liberation and empowerment – “When Susan B. Anthony began earning a salary as an elementary school teacher, at twenty-six, she had already turned down two marriage proposals in her quest to remain unmarried. She purchased for herself a fox-fur muff, a white silk hat, and a purple wool dress and wrote home, wondering if her peers might not “feel rather sad because they are married and cannot have nice clothes.” To end the book, nowhere is an anti-marriage or anti -men; the only thing Ms. Traister tries to do is de-stigmatize the notion of single women who in Mitt Rommey’s words “miss out on so much of life” and instead not missing out on life; she tries to showcase that such women with independent finances and support structures are making for good life for themselves, throwing over the yokel of the term of “spinsters”.

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!

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.

All About a Film….

Wener Herzog in his masterful book on art and filmmaking, A Guide for the Perplexed, referring to the filmmaker’s broader cultural responsibility said that, “We need images in accordance with our civilization and innermost conditioning, which is why I appreciate a film that searches for novelty, no matter what direction it moves and what story it tells….”  In an era of increased flash and dash and superimposed imagery, regularly churned from the mills of Hollywood or even from the shores of Bollywood, films which captures such ideals of reflections of civilizations and its conditioning are far and few to come by. If they do, they are often slotted under the broad category of” Cinema” or “Parallel Films” making one wonder, what is the true difference between “Cinema” and a “Movie” and what is parallel to the this parallel films. Rarely, does one come across, a film that combines the reflections of societal norms with a narrative, comparable to the plot lines of the more popular and what is termed as “Commercial Cinema”.

Panchaali, a film made under the flagship  of Pumpkin Entertainment, produced by Shweta Saraf and directed by Saurabh Bali, seems to fulfill this balanced nuance of reflecting the masochist tribal norms that still inflict, the Indian society in many parts as well a gripping narrative, that leaves the viewers breathless with a “what-happens-next” feeling. The film opens with 5 men waiting, for someone, on road, just off the main thoroughfare, of the big metropolis. Through their banter, it unfolds that they are all brothers and deal in land and politics. A white vehicle is then spotted by one of them and within a few minutes, all its passengers’ albeit one are killed due to non-payment of an old debt. This one survivor, the daughter of the family killed is taken hostage by the brothers and taken to their home. There the mother of the five brothers decides the faith of this girl, setting off a chain of events that would forever change this family and its history!

For those familiar, with Indian mythology, the resonance of the Draupadi’s tale from Mahabharata is very clear from the onset; however, that is where the parallel ends! The story then takes on a life of its own, wonderfully combining the details of an ancient myth and the modern day settings and reaction of both society and individual. It conveys the still traditional society of northern India, where a woman count for little and guns and violence still rules the day and makes for what is deemed as powerful.  At the same time, the film smartly in less than 40 minutes takes the viewers through a cataclysmic narrative, all the while clearly delineating the characters of plot, something many fail to achieve even in full length cinema! It is to the credit of the magnificent cast that this nearly impossible feat is achieved and despite an exceptionally talented ensemble, that competes for the viewers’ attention, by turns, outshining one another, with their talent, some callouts are necessary! Manav Mehra, who plays the eldest of the 5 brothers, is an experienced theater actor, who brings all his mastery of the craft to the screen; one cannot quite describe the eerie feeling, every time he looks into the camera. Bhanu Rana is yet another worthy talent and in his portrayal as the second brother, displays such strong raw raging emotions that come through palpably and the viewer feels both sympathy and irritation with him in turns. Nitin Rao as third of brother gives a strong controlled performance as the man, who knows he is better than his brothers and destined to be the king, but cannot quite bring himself to unhinge from the filial binds, though, he knows he stands to gain the most! However, the star of the film remains Nishtha Paliwal Tomar, conveying all the range of emotions that a woman torn from her moorings can convey. She is an absolute genius using  who is able to express a range of powerful feelings sharing with her the viewer her fear, angst and anger, making them cheer her on to survive, as she navigates through the most traumatic experience, that a woman can be forced into. The settings of the film convey exactly what it is meant to convey – vastness, desolation and captivity. The sights and sounds of a semi-rural culture in India, not too far from the metropolis, caught between ancient traditions and modern greed, assaults your senses, in every fine twist of the plot. While, there is much to appreciate in the film, there are some weak chinks in what can be seen as solid armor; most of the cast is tenured and bring all their expertise to camera, but some of the actors fail to emote anything and one wonders, that except for the one standard sly grin, which is expected to showcase everything from anger to lust, what does this particular character want to say to the audience. Also due to the duration of the film, some of the transition and changes of sentiments are not given enough time and the viewers expected to adapt to the changing psychological landscape of the character within minutes, which may make it slightly difficult to follow. But, despite some these minor shortcomings, the film is a brilliant effort, which is a testimony to the fact that with creativity, vision and a talented crew, an old story can be reinvented into a gripping modern tale.

A Room of One’s Own…..

My February’s selection for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge was, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I know I have mentioned this previously, but here is one author who actually intimidates me and as a result, I have not read one of the foremost, literary geniuses of 20th century! Back in 2016, I finally mustered up the courage to read To The Lighthouse which blew me away and I vowed to read more of Ms. Woolf’s works but it took me two more years to finally get to her writing again and this time as I went with one her most sought after non-fiction writings!

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I am not sure how other folks have written a synopsis of this amazing work, which says so much and yet cannot be captured in a 4 line summary! The essay kicks off as Ms. Woolf explores the subject on which she has been asked to provide a lecture on – Woman in Fiction! She asks what the title in itself means – women and what they like? Women and fiction they write or the fiction that is written about them or how all these three elements are intrinsically linked to each other! From here on, she goes to explore the writings by men on women and why women have not left money for their daughters to help them find a room of their own where they pursue their art? She draws out parallel’s in form of fictive sister of William Shakespeare who despite being equally imaginative and gifted may not have ever had a chance like her brother because of financial and social limitations which would have either driven her to an early death or confined her to the borderlines of society condemned as a mad woman! She then moves on to examine the history of Women writing from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen to Bronte Sisters to George Sand and her own contemporaries like Rebecca West who are often cast as undesirable beings because of their abilities and intellect! She show how small this history is and yet how one generation of women are indebted to her previous generation for the relative creative freedom, that she has received, because of the efforts of her predecessor! She also visits the fact that men authors often neglect the relationship between two women themselves unless it is in relation to a man! She closes her essay with asking more women to take up writing so that they are able to bequeath a better inheritance on their daughters than the one they received themselves!

To begin with, once again, I am not sure why I waited for ages, literally, to read this work. It would have been great to have appreciated the brilliance of the prose and deep and sometimes disquieting thoughts of this book much sooner than 2018! Anyhow, I am glad I finally did read this work and needless to say, have found so much to like about it! I know this has often be slotted under a feminist work, but I cannot help but think this is so much more. This book tells women, what they know but in way forcing them to see it in the glaring sunlight. It brings consciousness and awareness to women about their plight and the kind of legacy we have been handed down to what will hand down. What really stuck me is that while Ms. Woolf was very optimistic about the future of her daughter’s in a 100 years’ time; today, 100 years later, her essay is still relevant as ever. While we really do have more options, things have not changed much  – West was decried as an errant feminist because of her abilities. Today in our much evolved language a woman is called “bossy” if she displays initiative and ambition; while the very same qualities are applauded in man and shows him to be “hungry for success!” Goes to show the more things change, the more they remain the same. But more importantly, something that really spoke to me in contrast with other gender politics writing was its ending – there is no “down with men” war cry, but rather a strong push to women, to pull their lives up so that they can better their and their daughter’s lot!

100 years ago, Ms. Woolf exploded to give us so many things, and I know I will revisit again and again to take up one kernel and explore it end to end before moving on to another idea. One of best thought provoking books I have read in a very long time!

A big shout to Adam for hosting this great event, which finally giving a chance to read authors and books that I should have read long back and without this challenge would not have gotten to even now!

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!

Help Needed…

I know I have been more often than not missing in action lately and I know many of you are wondering what the hell happened here…let me just start by saying, NOTHING even remotely exciting. As I had predicted at the beginning of the year, it is a BRUTAL work year and while I am extremely blessed to have an awesome team and a wonderful leader, it is still work and it’s getting crazier by the minute! Therefore when I finally get some time, which is far and few, I am too busy playing reading catch up and then there is simply no time left to post about what I have read! However I am trying to find a balance and hope that I will back to my normal weekly posting self soon!

Anyhow some urgent help is required which brought be trotting back to this post. I have always wondered if there was anyway I could do a little more than, you know make a rich company richer and in recent years I have been very fortunate to not only be led by some amazing woman, but with promotions, I have started the process of mentoring some wonderful talents. Many of them also happen to be women and as I mentor more and try and help them, I realize that despite all their advanced degrees and relatively successful positions, many of these extremely talented woman struggle with self confidence and putting themselves out their and just simply  knowing their self worth. As I try to help navigate this journey of self confidence and leadership development I often naturally quote books and authors as illustrations. As the process grew, many of them expressed an interest in reading books again (Yes…some of them have not read anything remotely intellectual since college and some, HAVE NOT read anything at all!) Thus evolved the idea of small book club focusing on women and gender issues and corporate leadership. Naturally because I spoke the most I was tasked with the honor of compiling a list and here is where I am stumped!

There are many many books of leadership and women in leadership and coaching women for leadership and yada yada yada! But I do not think that focusing on leadership or the management aspect alone will lead to a whole rounded and a more deep level development, so I am trying to find books between that and you know hard core Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, for which I know these readers are not ready yet. So what I want is an intelligent, relatively deep insight into women and leadership. Do you know how many books I could find? NONE!! And no while I think Ms. Sandberg had many valid things to say, her book is epitome of deep thoughts!

So help….tell me what all would you read or ask your peers to read in similar circumstances? I need all your suggestions and I am open to modern/historical/fiction/nonfiction….all genres! So tell me and tell me all!

The Great Day…

As many know, on 8th March diligently I do a post dedicated to Women’s Day. Mostly I review fictional characters who are the very role model of strong women and so forth! However today I wanted to take a bit of a different route and instead share a factual tale. It is a true blessing when you have a sisterhood of women, supporting and cheering you through the journey called life! This becomes even more precious, when your boss and peers are women, who also are part of you sisterhood. And all of this becomes exceptional when they sit nearly 28000 km away from you.

I know I have been raving about my long hours recently as well some personal stuff that I am working through. Recently another friend and peer, of mine. CM, visited our US headquarter on a business trip, where she met my boss , AB and my peer, AG. They sent a whole truck of gifts for me, but what was perhaps the most wonderful gift, was a handmade mascot that they created for me for”the project” that is taking 28 hours of my 24 hours . Knowing how stressed out I was, they spent a lot of time in this cheer-me-up mascot, so that when I feel down, I have a pick me near me. CM on returning told me of the kind of hard work that AB and AG had put in to make that mascot and after a bit of nagging, AG put down the story for me. I present the same, deleting out the specifics.

Here’s to the two brilliant woman, who truly inspire and uplift other women!! Thank You for being such an awesome cheering squad!

CM arrived in sunny state of _ US, to spend some time in the  _ Center. Little did she know, she would be a part of a grand plan to transport the Mascot back to its PMO Owner India. On the morning of March 3rd, 2016; AB and AG thought of a genius plan to give life to the Mascot of “the project”. Before they set out to collect the materials needed, they assessed if the fuzzy cactus was the optimal platform for the mascot. AB said, “I like the concept of the fuzzy cactus because it is a true representation of the tool itself.” AG replied, “I agree! But what should we make it out of?” They both thought about it for 23.4982 seconds and all of a sudden you could see the invisible lightbulb appear over their heads.

Off they went, down the stairs, past the cafeteria, through the turnstiles in the breeze way, out through the perimeter gate and across the street to Ml’s Craft Store. There they collected all the necessary materials and scurried back to their desk to begin the operation.

Gloves, check. Paper as a barrier, check. They were ready to rock and roll. AB began applying the green coats of paint to the wooden body until the optimal coverage was reached.  Next came the full assembly process. AB yelled, “Green Body!” AG handed it to her. AB yelled, “Flower Pot!” AG handled it to her. AB yelled again, “Super Glue!” AG handed it to her.

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Next came the facial recognition of the mascot. AG asked, “Is this a happy mascot or a sad mascot?” AB confirmed, “Definitely a happy but goofy mascot.” So they continued the assembly operations with an image in mind.

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AB and AG stood back and reviewed the mascot so far. Scratching their heads they said in unison, “Time for the fuzzy part?” Turning towards each other they yelled, “Yes!” and high fived. So off they went, adding more and more fuzzies all over using clear nail polish until the desired amount was added.

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After adding the final touch of a mouth, they both looked at the mascot, tilted their heads to the side until AG said, “He is cute. He has a weird resemblance of George Washington, but I like it!”

AB probed, “Well do you think it is time to name him? What shall we call him?” AG thought a moment before speaking, “What about Prometheus?” AB replied, “What the heck! Does that have anything to do with “the project”?” AG advised, “I don’t know…I guess Prometheus was the protector of mankind so isn’t that like “the project” and it starts with ‘Pro’?” They both went back to thinking of a name. Then it came to them, “let’s call him ‘H’ they agreed.” AG started on the letters and started from the center to ensure perfect symmetry was achieved while moving to the right. AG thought to herself, Wow this looks great! She continued now from the center to the left. AG pulled the marker away from the flower pot to admire her perfect penmanship. Frightened, she said, “OMG AB I messed up!” Instead of writing there was no H and she instead had created a whole new word! AB busted into laughter. Tears ran down her face as AG began to laugh as well. After a full 60 seconds of laughter they both said, “Well! this will be his name since we cannot erase marker.”

So, ZZZZZ was born instead of “the project”.

AB said, “I love how cool he looks”, touching his fury little head. And then with a blink of an eye, Mascot was accidentally bummed and was falling slowly, rotating over and over until he made contact with the carpeted floor. There he lay with his body separated from his flower pot and his flower pot cracked in 3 different areas. In slow motion, AB reached down and picked him up and they both had gears turning in their head thinking What are we going to do? AG said, “We do have some super glue, I think that will work! Engineering at its finest, we fix things!” Within 28.76501 seconds, it was back in full form.

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AB said, “You know, his pot actually looks like it has some real character now!” They both sat back and admired Mascot. Then something crazy happened! Mascot came to life!!! He said, “Hey AB! Hey AG! Can I borrow your cell phone? I would like to take a selfie of myself to send to my friends.” AB and AG looked at each other timidly and handed Mascot the phone.

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Next, AB and AG packaged Mascot up for his trip to India and they said their goodbyes as they wiped away a few tears.

Remember, when things get tough with “the project”, just look at the mascot. He also had some struggles along the way but with a little super glue and ingenuity, he still was ok and made it to his final destination. Which will be the same for our project journey.

I have no words to describe how touched I am. The kindness and their support is beyond comparison and they both truly represent the strength and the generosity of women!

I would like to end with a big shout out to all my women readers/blogging gang and all those brilliant, and wonderful men, who enrich our lives every day!’

Happy Women’s Day you all!

Something Old & Something New

And no, I am not getting married and anyway in a Hindu wedding, there would nothing old and all new! But at the very onset, I digress! The plan originally was to post about The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, but something has been brewing in my mind for sometime and it finally being put into motion!

Many of you may be aware from my About page, that outside of Reading like no tomorrow and writing constantly, the other ruling passion of my life has been Traveling. I was travelling since I was 3 months old and have always been wanderlusting as far back as I can recollect. The prize for doing well in school was books and a new place to visit. Money for meagre paychecks were added/deleted/divided in an effort to buy all the books in the world and explore some new part of the world!Planning vacations, besides adding to the To Read list in my GoodReads has been and is a major way to de-stress. However despite all the energy and efforts spent in traveling I rarely if ever posted on my adventures, and what I did was a cursory overview more to give everyone a chance to see why I was away . Somehow I could not seem to bring in the very personal touch in my travel writings as I did on my book reviews. So I held on and then recently, an idea stuck me – I wanted to start website on Women and their Travels.

Now, I think most of you would agree with Mark Twain when he wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.” But in the context of women traveling, it becomes especially important – it provides  a time for the woman to discover herself , her true identity and instills in her the confidence that if she can do travel to a new place without the patriarchs of her life, she can do practically anything. Women traveling on their own or with a bunch of other women is one of the most empowering experiences and it is these experiences and adventures I wanted to share. I have the extreme privileged and honor of travelling with some of these amazing women over the last couple of years and their stories of being caught all alone in the middle of nowhere in Columbia or traveling alone to the heart of Iran with a 3 year old in tow is not only an exciting adventure, but truly liberating and empowering!

Therefore, I seek an extension  your patronage and ask you to join me in these adventures, which my friends and I share at A Smooth Round Stone! You have always, always supported me in not only visiting my blog, but sharing your thoughts and ideas and showing me a whole new world, I hope you will do the same in this new adventure of mine. Furthermore, I hope you will also share with me your stories – stories of your travel or when you played host to travelers and enrich this humble motley collection of travel tales!

And, thus without any further ado, let’s us travel!