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Posts from the ‘Poetry’ Category

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!

Tis That Time of the Year…..

Here we are, on the very last day of 2018 and it’s time to reflect and wonder, where did the year go? Of course, you may have already done this and that shows you are more practical, attuned to the demands as well value of time and over all circumspect in your approach. If that is so, then I hold you in admiration, if not, well, you have my company in the last minute reflections!

I cannot quite say I will miss 2018; I have always held the belief that even years are better for me, however 2014 and 2018, seem to really challenge this hypothesis. 2018, was in every possible way a horrid year, filled with all kinds of disagreeable happenings. In fact it was so bad, I went headlong and rushed an event, just so I can get it over and done with it this year, rather than let it fester in what I would like thinks is a brand new page. With an exception of one desperately sought professional movement, this year been blackest of black, with not even a tinge of grey to break the blackness. Thankfully, there were friends and books to see me through, yet again!

And this brings me to what is actually at the heart of this post, the 18 best books that I have read in the year! As is my tradition, based of the year number, I select that many books from my reading repertoire, in what can only be termed as one of the bestest reflections of the year. Therefore without further ado, here we go, in no particular order-

  1. Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva – This 11th century collection of Indian short stories was a significant departure from the traditional scholarly/spiritual texts of Sanskrit. In this earthly collections of tales, Kings and Courtiers, Queens and Maids, Priests and Merchants, Lions and Jackals, all battle it out for material gains of love, money, power, without managing to sound didactic or moralizing
  2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – I cannot, simply cannot enumerate the brilliance of John Steinbeck or how wonderfully he translated it all in this book – the saga of the Hamilton and Task families in the turn of the century Salinas Valley, where the most vile is redeemed, by the sheer power of choice.
  3. The Diary of Nobody by George Grossmith – My second re-read and what is there not to love about this middle aged bumbling man in his new house and old wife and friends, as he meanders through his own life, while trying to steer the lives of his loved ones, in a most hilarious, uproariously funny writing ever!
  4. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – In this now celebrated and seminal writing, Ms. Woolf put down the very basic needs that remain unfulfilled for women, making them economically dependent and thus weaker, among the sexes.
  5. Scenes of Clerical Life by George Elliot – I have never been a fan of Ms. Elliot and though her novel, Middlemarch is considered by many the best possible English Novel; she is one author, I just could not get through and constantly struggled with. Until on a whim, I picked up The Scenes of Clerical Life and fell in love with the three short novellas that constitute this novel. The prose, the plot and the characters, all wove together, to create one of my best reads of the year. This book was powerful enough to goad me to try another Elliot – Daniel Deronda, through which I am still plodding!
  6. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield – This funny, ironic and downright crazy narrative of a Lady living in Provincial England in between the two wars, is an absolute delight! While our narrator battles the various requirements of the Lady of the house, to various persons, including her laconic but practical Land Agent husband,the Cook who rules the household and itinerant round of parlor maids/menservants, not to mention her demands at the Woman’s Institute, as a reader, your are swept away by the  everyday life  and challenges which are as real now, as they were in 1930s and cannot help but appreciate Ms. Delafield’s ability to them on their head, and make it all look like one gigantic joyride. This was such a wonderful read that I ended up reading this twice in the year! 

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  7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith – I discovered Arkady Renko very late in my life but having discovered him, I wasted no time in falling in love with this fictional hero. Set in 1980’s Soviet Union, the story follows the investigation by Renko, an investigator in Moscow’s Prosecutor’s office as he hunts for the identity of the three murdered victims, whose bodies are found in a cold April afternoon in Gorky Part and their killer, taking him across USSR and US, and changing the very complexion of his life so far!
  8. February by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrey Kneller – Boris Pasternak was another non favorite. I could not, simply could not make myself like Dr. Zhivago or his unending whining about Lara. But while reading Gorky Park, I realized that Pasternak was appreciated in Russia more as poet than a novelist and that prompted me to try and read some of his poetry. This turned out to be one the best literary decisions of my life as I can now understand, why Russians love Pasternak. I quote directly from my post on this collection, as I simply have no other way to describe the sheer power of these poems – “Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!”
  9. Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. PearceHelen has introduced me to great many books and Dear Mrs. Bird is one such book for which I will be eternally indebted to her. This novel about a plucky, funny and sometimes clumsy heroine, who dreams of a job as a Lady War Correspondent only to end up working for a woman’s self help column, that brings her success, challenges and one of the ultimate tests of life, is one the best new books of the year, according to yours truly.
  10. The Murder of my Aunt by Richard Hull – This little gem is something I stumbled upon sheer chance and what a find it was! The author in a reverse narrative, actually let’s the reader on who is going to murder whom and then leads us on a merry ride of adventure, fun and a unique take on English life and times in early part of 20th century! An absolute marvel.
  11. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittian – If I had to pick one book which elevated me, made me cry and enriched me as a human being, teaching me some important lessons, it would be this absolutely scintillating memoir by Ms. Brittian tracing her youth, her struggle for education and finally the heartbreak of war. This book is a lesson of things we must NOT do as people and as responsible adults, who should bequeath a better world to the younger generation. This book forces one to think and challenge one’s belief system and then no matter how hard, work to better the world, in whatever small way we can!
  12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – Another book which came very close to Testament of Youth and enriched me as a being! This story of coming of age of Francine Nolan, her struggle for education, the constant challenges of poverty and an incapable, albeit bright father and a fierce mother, to her final tryst to college on the eve of US joining the Second World War, is more than a story of young adult. It is about determination, it is about dreaming and of never letting go what you truly want, no matter how daunting the obstacles.
  13. I, Claudius by Robert Graves – Yet another author I was wary of reading, but I finally managed to read and of course love. I, Claudius traces the early years of Claudius, the future Emperor of Rome, nephew to one Ceaser and brother to another is hardly a typical hero but Robert Graves with his deep research and brilliant writing, makes him a memorable character, with kindness and intellect, who could be a straight arrow or a diplomat as the situation demanded and whose these very skills, and not one of physical poweress will make him survive one of the most difficult and suspicious history of Roman History, to become one of the longest ruling Ceasers.
  14. The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – There are books, that really do not have a nail biting plot or a sensational character or an epoch making historical event to serve as a background. Yet, in the setting, the characters and in the narrative, things come to together so well, that they are just right and tug at your heartstrings! The Flowering Thorn is one such book.  Lesley , the young woman about town, has everything that she wants, but is somehow unhappy. On a whim, she adopts an orphan and begins life in the country with all the challenges of keeping a cook, managing a house, not becoming and then becoming friends with the Vicar’s wife and of course taking care of young being, leading to a life that comes in an enriched full circle. Beautiful, poignant, and just lovely, I will forever be grateful to Jane for introducing me to this book!
  15. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – One of those highly cried up books of 2017, that I meant to read, but did not want to, because mostly such books are such disappointments. However I am glad I sloughed on this one.This story of Count Rostov an unrepentant aristocrat, who is punished by the Socialist Government in 1917 Russia to be confided in an attic room of the Grand Hotel overlooking Kremlin as the most volatile era of modern Russia evolve, is more than just another historical fiction. It is a deep insight into the Russian society, the changing of the guards and love that comes from the heart, without any blood bonds. I do not have enough words to describe this intellectually and emotionally illuminating book. You have to read to experience it!
  16. Final Meeting by Anna Akhmatova; translated by Andrey Kneller – Yet another book of poetry picked from the reading of Arkady Renko series. Anna Akhmatova’s poetry shines and glitters through the desolation and heartbreak, both at what happens to her personally and to her beloved Russia. It is often said, that the best poets experience pain, to write the very best poetry. I cannot even begin to fathom, the amount of pain, Ms. Akhmatova must have gone through, for such amazing works like Final Meeting, Epilogue etc. Mr. Kneller’s translation as always is appreciable in keeping the integrity and the essence of these poems very close to the originals in Russian
  17. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Torton – All stories after a point are more or less similar, and there can only be so much one can do with a murder mystery….right? Wrong. You need to read this absolutely shocker for I have no other word to describe this completely mind blowing work of Mr. Torton’s. Innovative, twisted, with a punch at the end of each chapter, only a book as this roller coaster could have helped keep me doom and gloom at bay, and help me get perspective back. Very rarely do I use this sentiment, but this book definitely calls out – Vi Va Mr. Torton!
  18. High Rising by Angela Thirkell  – I usually love most of the woman authors and their works who published some of the best pieces of fictions between 1870-1950 and am greatly indebted to many of my blogging friends for introducing me to their work. But Angela Thirkell despite all the commendations, I held back, because of what appears to be slight class consciousness in her writings. However on seeing this book listed by Cleo as a Christmas read, I decided to take the plunge. And am I glad that I did. Laura Moorland is a successful author of paperbacks for woman readers which has enabled her to raise her 4 sons, the youngest of whom, Tony is now the only one in school. Her work has also enabled her to get a flat in London and a cottage in the country, where she is headed with her son, this Christmas, to get some rest, write her book and meet old friends in High Rising. But there is a newcomer who is upsetting the serene settings of this countryside and Ms. Moorland must gather her wits, to ensure, peace continues to reign. In this she is ablely aided by many of her friends, including the village doctor, her publisher, her secretary and her formidable housekeeper Mrs. Stokes.  Unique character, uproariously funny dialogues and a plot that without being outstandingly different, neverthless holds your attention and flows smoothly! Great book to end the year with.

These then are my 18 favorites of 2018. A special shout out to Adam whose challenge,  The Official 2018 TBR Challenge, helped me read a lot of books that have been lying in my TBR forever, but from one reason or another, I did not venture forth. While I was not able to finish the entire planned 12 books, 5 of the 18 books listed stem from this challenge, which goes to show you need a friend to give you a push, always!

I cannot think of better ending for this long post and and even longer year than this piece by Ian Frazier, published a couple of years back in New Yorker  –

Dear friends, this year was not real great.
There’s no need to enumerate
Just how gloomy it’s appearing.
But Ever-better days are nearing!
Though dark nightmares be distinguished,
Still the light is not extinguished
By the darkness crowding ’round it.
Find hope’s advent by the sound it
Makes somewhere out in the distance:
Bells that ring with soft insistence,
Hoofbeats, voices singing faintly,
Hymns unearthly, almost saintly,
Mailmen’s footsteps, babies’ crying,
Wings of angels quickly flying,
News worth calling from the steeple, “Peace on earth, good will to people.” 

A peaceful, happy and bookish or whatever ish makes you happy 2019 to everyone!

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!

The End of July

Yet another super late post! I wish I was bit more regular and diligent but crazy work hours and super hectic weekends, have slowed the pace of reading and blogging severely! I barely got any reading done in July and did very little in terms of leisure activity besides watching the Wimbledon semi final and final round matches. Yet looking back, I must say, that it was not so bad, if I managed to watch all the semi-finals including the Men’s Singles each of which was 5+hours long! Oh! Well! Hindsight is an interesting thing!

Moving on, like I said, between work, Wimbledon and socially busy weekend, reading really took a back seat! However, if we were to claim quality and never quantity matters, then, I had a wonderful reading month, because, despite the limited number, the sheer  brilliance of the works, made the reading a truly enriching experience! My reading for the month went something like this –

I Claudius by Robert Graves

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There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth”

Final Meeting : Selected Poetry by Anna Akhmatova; Translated by Andrey Kneller

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Faced with this grief, the mountains bend,

The mighty river stops its flow,

But iron bolts won’t even dent,

Behind them – “the convicts’ den”

And somber deathly woe.

Some people feel the soothing breeze,

For some the sun shines red –

For us these wonders long have ceased,

We only hear the grinding keys

And soldiers’ heavy tread.

We rose as though to early mass

And crossed the capital in throngs,

More breathless than the ones who’ve passed,

The Neva’s hazy, overcast,

But hope continues with its song.

There’s the verdict… Tears burst loud,

She’s singled out, on her own,

As if her life has been ripped out,

As if she’s thrown onto the ground…

She’s staggers… stumbling… alone…

Where are the friends with whom I’ve shared

Two years of living in that hell?

What blizzards do they have to bear?

What visions in the lunar glare?

To them I’m sending this farewell

Augustus Carp, Esq. By Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Henry Howarth Bashford

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“For the first time, I was in the presence of the greatest human vice. Nor have I ever, perhaps, entirely recovered from the enormous shock of that discovery. For though I had been aware, of course, from my studies on Holy Scripture, that such things had occurred in the Middle East, and had even deduced from contemporary newspapers their occasional survival in the British Islands, I had never dreamed it possible that here, in a public park in the Xtian London of my experience, a married man could thus openly sit with his arm round a female who was not his wife.”

That is all for now folks! Like I said, not too many readings, but some very qualitative and interesting ones! Hopefully August will bring many more Reading Hours!

The End of April

Summer is here and while these are not the months to be rejoiced in my part of the world, I cannot help but feel, that Winter this year was, well, troublesome! In a sharp departure from the pleasantness that usually surrounds my Winters, this Winter was quite literally terrible and I am very very glad to see the end of it! I think this may be a first for me, where I am happy to see Winter go and almost, key word almost, overjoyed to welcome Summer!

April, unlike her predecessors was actually a very good reading month, and though I did not cover much ground during the Readathon, overall, the month was quiet enough to allow me some solid reading time! And not only that, seems like the most of the books I picked for April also turned to be a winner! So then, here’s to April’s recollection –

(P.S. I think, by now everyone is conversant that this snapshot is not my idea, but borrowed and is a combination from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday )

From A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George
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He had never thought of himself as much of a praying man, but as he sat in the car in the growing darkness and the minutes passed, he knew what it was to pray. It was to will goodness out of evil, hope out of despair, life out of death. It was to will dreams into existence and spectres into reality. It was to will an end to anguish and a beginning to joy.

From Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

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Your of two mind Sergei. Please tell me, because criticism is constructive.It defines our purpose and leads to unanimity of efforts.”

From Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

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Why are you doing this?”Arkady asked. “It keeps the mind alive.”

From February – Selected Poems by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrew Kneller

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Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

From Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith

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“Who is right?” asked Polina. Now that, Arkady thought, was question only asked by the very young

From Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

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A week after the newspaper advertisement, I was trying terrifically hard to remain calm!

From Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather

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“Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer”

That’s it for my April reading! It was a good months, and here’s to May and more books!

Of Seasons, Longings & Despair in Soviet Russia

Allen Ginsberg, in his biography, Ginsburg : A Biography by Barry Mills had explained poetry as something which was “not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”  This meaning of poetry and the work of the poet comes out in all its vivid forms in a collection of Boris Pasternak’s poems, February, translated by Andrey Kneller. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner who declined the honor under pressure from the Soviet Government, and whose work, Doctor Zhivago has been immortalized in every possible form of media,  was born in a well to do Jewish family (though the Pasternaks had assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church for years) and had lived through the most turbulent years of Russian History – World War I, Russian Revolution, World War II and the Great Purge, had captured all this changing history of the land and her people and thought about it and then poured it into words of great beauty and resonance, in an act of making a private world, public!

BORIS_BESIDE_THE_BALTIC_AT_MEREKULE,_1910_by_L.Pasternak

Boris Besides the Baltic Sea, by Leonard Pasternak, 1910

February is a slim volume of only 110 pages but within it, are 27 pieces of powerful poetry, that touch upon a variety of subjects ranging from politics, the faith of Pasternak’s beloved Russia, Nature, Christianity and Love! The compilation begins with the said poem February, first published in 1912, and in sparse, terse words, Pasternak manages to blend in the pathos of the last dregs of winter, with mankind and poetry. I fell in love with the simple but powerful opening lines of the poem –

Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

One poem that especially was singed into my imagination, is apparently nameless, and powerfully captures the rule of Stalin and its destructive forces on a person and his soul!

The cult of personality is stained,

But after forty years, the cult

Of gray monotony and disdain

Persists like the day of old

Each coming day appears lackluster

Until, it’s truly hard to bear

It brings but photographic clusters,

Of pig like and inhuman stares.

The cult of narrow minded thinking

Is likewise cherished and extolled.

Men shoot themselves from over drinking,

unable to sustain it all.

There is a soul searing piece called Noble Prize, written, after he declined the honor which captures the raw anguish and pain of Pasternak on the stands he was being forced to take, by the very same country and government, he did not choose to abandon or flee, while all his family and friends left, believing in the ultimate good of Lenin led Socialist society! And here in lies the greatness of the poet, that despite all the angst and heartbreak, he ended the poem in hope and faith –

Even now as I am nearing the tomb

I believe in the virtuous fate

And the spirit of goodness will soon

Overcame all the malice and hate

Yet another poem titled Hamlet, captures the need to walk away from a predestined plot, to address something more urgent and ephemeral!There are lovely play of words in his poems about nature, from White Nights to the one called Spring Flood, to yet another work called Easter. His love for Olga Ivinskaya comes through in all the glory of meeting, falling in love and then when Ivinskaya was sentenced to Siberia, of longing, guilt and memories, in the poems titled as Meeting  and then, Parting. The fact that Pasternak was a student of philosophy is a fact that is never really far off in his poetry and in many of his writings,  he touches upon ideas of what is tangible and what is transcendental, especially in his poetry of nature. In Autumn, he says, 

The Lodge’s wooden walls now gaze

At us with grief and hopelessness.

We never vowed to break the restrains’

We will decline with openness. 

There are many powerful and moving things in this collection that shines like a beacon of what poetry is all about! Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!

 

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?”

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