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The End of March….

Time is flying, sometime I feel too fast and at other times not fast enough. I assume it is dependent on the objective; when we want something badly that is meant to substantiate in future, time cannot move fast enough; on the other hand when we dread something, well, time just seems to fly, until, we are at the eventual collision course! At this point in time, I cannot decide, what I like the most, the fast moving pace or the slow crawl; either way, life is just far too busy and reading and writing, despite best of intentions is slow. But I keep the reading going, in the hope that one day, I will find the precious equilibrium between, reading, writing, socializing and of course working!

In the meanwhile, this is what I read for the month of March –

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Anne Bridges

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I think beautiful mother’s are just a trifle vexed, generally, to have daughters who are not. Mama would have liked me more if I had been something of a beauty! 

Time Pieces: A Whistle-stop Tour of Ancient India by Nayanjot Lahiri

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This great enthusiasm for sarcastic verse in which no one, from the divine to the human, is spared, has a lesson for India today where poking fun at anyone in the public domain, especially gods and goddesses, ruffles all kinds of feathers

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

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I’d benefit too, I thought vaguely; a dog would keep me fit and allow me to meet other dog-walkers. Much better than a book club where there was always the danger that someone would suggest The Girl on the Train!

The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

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Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life–‘ But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie

This then was my reading for March; I wonder what April shall bring? I am only sure that I am reading A Vindication of Rights of a Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft as part of a brilliant read along hosted by Ruth. For everything else, at this point, I can only say “Que Sera Sera”

Living in Ancient India

I am as mostly everyone knows skeptical of writing of India, whether by Indians or non Indians and should that writing be a work non fiction, especially History, I am even more wary! We Indians, as everyone knows have over the past 5000+ years produced a lot of history and sometime, to paraphrase Saki, way more than we can consume! With so much of history therefore lying around ( you walk into the main street of any small/big town and right next to a big snazzy modern condominium will be an 17th century Makhbara  aka a tomb) almost everyone thinks of themselves as Historian, after reading a book or two. Many of the writing is ridiculous and most have nothing new to say, except put together excerpts from primary resources to substantiate a theory, I have already forgotten by chapter 2.  I am sure the author did his best, but really I have no idea as what was the point of this book. At the cost of sounding like an intellectual snob, when you learn from the Doyens of Indian History (read Dr. Romilla Thapar & Dr. Harbans Mukhiya), you do tend to wonder, why does everyone want to write histories! Therefore I dismissed, Nayanjot Lahiri’s – Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, though Dr. Lahiri is an academic of the first order and has been widely published! However a chance reading of a review by Madhulika Liddle, made me look up the book a second time, buy it and then read it!

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Time Pieces is unlike any other history book and it does not talk about the rise and fall of rulers and empires of Ancient India. Instead, Dr. Lahiri takes through a tour of ancient India, through the eyes of things that are everyday. In 10 neat chapters, titled as follows –  Journeys, Art, Hygiene, Food, Environment, Love, Laughter, Identity, Death and Afterlife, she tries to give the readers, a snapshot of how the common people of India lived, what they ate, who they loved, how did they define identities and their beliefs of deaths and afterlife. While she does touch upon a the edicts of the great kings, including Ashoka, she uses them to shed light on the daily lives of the masses, to give the readers some idea of the lives and times of Ancient India instead of the usual focus on the great dynasties and their empires. Instead she tells the readers about the massacre of the local population by Alexander’s forces, when they invaded India, the prehistoric art in the Bhimbetka caves, the yearning of an ancient couple, Sutanuka, a Devadasi and Devadinna, a sculptor and of court jesters who could be dispense caustic judgments on the ruling kings, under the guise of a joke! We come across, poets, painters, court dancers, politicians, merchants and a host of characters that inhabited ancient India and we get a small insight on how they lived and what they loved!

The book is not academic and is not a tome. It is less than 200 pages and is exactly what the title claims to be – a Whistle Stop. Dr. Lahiri, shares insightful nuggets, on some selected aspects on India and no more and no less. While she sources all kinds of academic first source research, the narrative is more of a raconteur rather than a historian, with wide references from literature to music to drive home her point, without stooping to such weird allegories as India as a pizza base and her people her toppings (I DID read this and I AM rolling my eyes). She makes history come alive and throb with the vibrancy of life, which is a running thread in history of a land more than 5000 years old. And yet, without managing to sound didactic or pedagogic, she forces you to think and open your mind – Alexander’s invasion to India is always a milestone in Indian History as it set the ball rolling for the rise of the first of the mightiest dynasties of India – The Maurayan Empire. It was also a well documented part of Indian history, as one of the Greek ambassador’s to the first Emperor’s court, Selucid left a detailed account of the life and times. However, Dr. Lahiri is the first historian to point the amateur reader, to a lesser known aspect of Alexander’s invasion – massacre of men and women and children in Multan, then northwestern India and now modern Pakistan, on a scale, that would be termed in modern day as genocide.  She speaks about identity and stories of women, often lesser known in such works as Therigatha, where court dancers, mothers and queens come alive with their narratives of loves, lives and deaths. The book is replete with with interesting information as to why Indian Buddha’s do not smile, to descriptions of food, that defined power and largess and things which are often overlooked in more serious tomes, more so because there is just so much to write and also because, the details of daily life of Indian between 5000 BCE to 1000 AD is rather touch to decipher. This brings me to what I consider, the most important feature of the book – this could not have been a easy book to write, even for such an accomplished Historian as Dr. Lahiri simply because narratives about everyday life in India is far and few. We have the Buddhist texts and a lot of religious texts, but to glean out the earthy secular facts from the more metaphysical – philosphical texts cannot be an easy task. Yet it is accomplished and beautifully so! The book is a must read for anyone interested in India, History or both!

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!

Once Upon 7 Years Ago Time…..

Many many moons ago, when the world was still young and so was I, circa. 2012, in a fit of absolute outrage at abundance of everything red and white and fluffy, I took to writing a blog post sharing my disdain at the circus called 14th February, and Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices was born! It seems like yesterday, that I tentatively started figuring out what I should write about, feeling conscious when I began following some of your blogs and commenting on your posts and constantly wondering if I can really do this long term. Ah! well!

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This blog was supposed to encourage me to write and develop a more polished way of communicating through words, which in turn would help me pen my novels, essays and many other literary adventures! I have really not done much in that respect; I have gotten the one odd short story published in some journal or other, but beyond that, while I have sought publishers, nothing has really come of it! But then I have gained so much more, especially in terms of things that are so intangible but so very valuable. I have made friends, across the world, who are so much part of my life without having ever met them in person. Through all my lows and personal challenges, this blog has given me an outlet to share my grief and helped me heal. I have shared and celebrated my triumphs and all my travels, making those moments even more memorable! I have had the extreme good fortune of talking to authors and sharing and exchanging ideas with them about their works, opening my mind to whole new way of thinking! And then, I have read – I have read books, I never would read, I have read works which I never knew existed and I have had the courage to reach out and read those genres which I was sure I will never like, completely thanks to the bookish family that I have developed via this blog over the years!

There is so much for me to be grateful for; this blog which now is an essential part of who I am, is more than just a literary outlet – it is that key part of my life, whose absence  is sorely felt and which is an inherent fabric of my existence. Like every other valuable part of our life, I have not always been consistent to this blog, often sacrificing a post, at the alter of a “more pressing” needs, always to realize later, that the sacrifice was truly not worth it and the “more pressing” need could have been accommodated along with a blog post! But such is life, and despite my carelessness, I cannot help but acknowledge the inevitable,we made it to 7 years now and I think I can safely say, I am here for some more time, to put it mildly! Thank You to all my wonderful readers and friends, who have shared this journey, which has enriched me, empowered me, evolved me and made everything so much better! Cheers to all of us!

The End of January

The first month of the now not so new year is over and with it, some of newness of 2019. One month into the year, work is as crazy as ever, like I never went away and the usual cycle of Dad in the hospital made me realize the more things change, the more the remain the same! But the key is not to give into the doom-gloom but believe and hang on and with some good friends and great books, life is not all that unmanageable!

So what did I read this first month of 2019?

Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front 1939-1942 by Joyce Dennys (Thank You Cleo for the great recommendation!)

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How happy we were, and how little we realized how nice it was to be lazy and happy, without fear and anxiety and horror knocking at the back of one’s brain like a little gnome with a hammer.

Bet Me by Jennifer Cruise

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I’m gonna have to get my eyes checked. I can’t see crap until it’s right in front of me

The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’ Neil

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“I am as flawed as any” he said

“I know, I see you, you know!”

Early Indians by Tony Joseph

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When the first group of modern humans walked into India, perhaps no more than a few hundred people in groups of twenty or twenty-five, trekking all the way from the Arabian peninsula over hundreds of years or perhaps even a thousand or more years, did they have a cosmology of their own that tried to explain the inexplicable? And did they have any inkling that they were entering a special place that more than a billion of their descendants would one day call their home

So I read, one classic, two popular fiction and one non fiction! I can unequivocally state, of all the 4, Joyce Dunning’s book was the best and maybe for the month of February, I should stick to tried and tested, aka, Classics.

Speaking of Classics, I am reading, Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope as part of and Jane and Cleo have joined me for a read along! This book was a personal favorite of Trollope himself and is considered to be one of the best introductions to his work! It is a chunkster at 700 pages, but we take it slow and easy through February and if need be March! So join us for this Victorian sojourn and together, we can enrich our minds and have some fun while doing it!

 

 

India Through The Ink….

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

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

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

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

The 7 Views of the Death

Mary Robert Rienhart defined the genre of detective/mystery novels as  two stories, saying – “The mystery story is two stories in one: the story of what happened and the story of what appeared to happen.” As I read through the Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, over the Christmas weekend, I could feel all the truism of this statement and more. It seemed to be a regular whodunnit from the era of Golden age of mystery; the very usual setting of several guests, visiting over the weekend, in a English Country House in the initial decades of 20th century where a murder happens and there are the usual suspects, with a plausible back story, linking each guest to the victim in one way or another, until the protagonist finds the actual murder. Usual stuff, except Mr. Turton, takes all of these ingredients, and turns everything on its head an to write, what I can unequivocally say is one of the best mystery novels of modern times!

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Lord and Lady Hardcastle, the owners of Blackheath, an estate, in England, have invited several guests, over a weekend, to celebrate the return of their daughter, Evelyn Hardcastle, to England after her 19 years stay in Paris. The guests are all friends of the family and the only unusual fact of the celebrations is it’s dated on the 19th anniversary of the death of Lord and Lady Hardcastle’s elder son, who was killed as a boy of 7, by the then gamekeeper of the Estate, after he was fired by Lord Hardcastle. The other strange fact, is that all the guests invited are the one who were present 19 years ago, on that fated day and while the then children have now become adults, and the adults, now senior citizen, in essence most seem to stay the same. There is also one uninvited guest at the gathering, unrelated wholly from the family who, is also seeking a closure on an injustice. Then there are maids, butlers, gamekeepers and host of other who live in the premises and who all are in some way connected to the murder that is going to happen.This then is the background of the event, which will see the death of Evelyn Hardcastle, and the quest to find the killer.

My friend Helen, when reviewing this book, wrote that she could not even begin imagine how much time and effort must have gone in writing this book! I not only agree with her, but add that as an aspiring writer, I cannot even begin to fathom, how I will keep track of the times, the threads and the characters. Very often, we find novels, with great style but no real plot or a great plot, but a dull narrative, that it simply does not come together! It is a testimony of the incredible brilliance of the author, that not only could he manage to create a narrative, that is absolutely unique and totally untested until now, but somehow hold on and make all the voices come together, all the while, sticking to the basic ethos of writing a cracking good thriller! At the core, there is a murder, but whose murder and how do we find the killer and the journey with author through the eyes of several characters and their own histories, makes for a fast paced read, where, each page gradually unfolds and adds anew new layer to the story. This plot as it evolves is anything but normal, and makes the mind do all kinds of gymnastics, without slowing for even a minute, and each chapter closes with one shocker after another, each exceeding and heightening the excitement from the previous chapter! In fact, the reader from the very beginning joins the journey in the middle of the events and therefore is able to join in the narrator’s confusion and agony, as they try to piece together, the full picture. The scope of the novel, the richness in the details and how the details, integrated further and further to become one new whole, is simply scintillating. Even in mapping out the characters, nothing was left to the chance. They are all full flesh and blood creatures, who while not being all good, have their own redeeming qualities and despite not liking them, you cannot help but feel empathy and even respect for many of their qualities. This ability of the author to be able to build a connection with not wholly positive characters with the readers, in yet another point, in praise of this work! There is so much, simply so much I can write about this book, but one must read it, to actually understand what I am talking about. It seems like a chunkster, but once you start, there is no way, you cannot finish it in the earliest possible manner, in the way it draws you in!

I had read somewhere, that all stories are the same after a point; on on surface, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle does seem like that,  but with it’s narrative style, the fine tuning the nuances of the usual Golden Age mysteries and a wholly innovative perspective, Mr Turton has taken a “same story” and made it into a masterful, ingenious, novel.

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