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The Diary She Wrote….

These have been very stressful weeks and this last week was no different. By the time Friday was done, all I wanted was a good book to steer my mind from professional and personal challenges, smart enough to be meaningful and funny enough to distract me from past events! Now it so happened, in this frame of mind, I embarked on toggling through by favorite bookish blogs and I saw that O had just done a Nostalgia post – books  from which she sought comfort to take her mind off from the recent snow infested disasters around her home! Among the long list, one book, she referred to was Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield and the novel settings seemed like the most perfect read. I also remembered that Jane had couple of years back an enthusiastic review of the book and that kind of sealed the deal. I mean O and Jane are two people with irreproachable bookish taste and if they say its good, chances are it will be good! Oh! the joys of bookish blogs, none but the book obsessed understand – you find readers-in-arms who are completely supportive, empathetic and as added bonus, have the right book recommendation to get you away from the mundane reality!

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Thus began my tryst with the Provincial Lady, living in a country near Plymouth, in between the two wars, probably around 1930s. She is married to a laconic but practical land agent, Robert and has two adorable but handful children, Robin who is away at school for most of the year and six year old Vicky! The household further consists of the Mademoiselle, the sometimes high strung, but always sympathetic governess to Vicky, the Cook who rules the household and itinerant round of parlor maids/menservants. The Lady’s life is of course anything but “leisured” as wonders herself! When involved with managing  the servants, house, husband and children, her time is taken up with the Women’s Institute, writing for the Time and Tied magazine and the social life within the country. Then, there are interludes of visits to London, ostensibly to procure a parlor maid, but primarily spent in shopping, dinner and theater, with her best friend Rose as well trips to South of France and the English coast. Then there are her neighbors like Lady B, the Vicar’s wife and many others whose actions and conversations take up much time and thought in the provincial lady’s already busy life, which trundles along among  home, travel, bank overdrafts,illness and social activities!

I often agree, with my fellow readers, that all books have a time and a place and this book came at the most propitiate moment in my life and rescued me from gloom and doom! Through the eyes of the Provincial Lady, I found much to be satirical about mankind and further more, I found hilarious laugh out loud moments! Ms. Delafield took the everyday life and turns it on its head, to make it look like one gigantic joyride, despite all the challenges. Her struggles in 1930s are as real as now and her relief and enjoyments remains as much fun, nearly 100 years down the line. I loved the brisk pace and crisp writing of even some of the most complicated situations that life presented! The brilliance of Ms. Delafield comes across especially when narrating a wholly embarrassing situation in a self deprecating yet extremely humorous manner! I loved her tongue and cheek take on Orlando and Vita Sackville West as well as her dislike for “cultured recreations” like the Italian exhibition! But for all its witty sparkle, what I loved most about the book was the subtle vein of commentary on women’s equality and classless society, which she superbly weaves into the narrative!

To say I have become a devotee is an understatement; I am a convert, who will now go out to the world to convert more into the Delafieldian clan! Vi Va Ms. Delafield!

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 End of February…..

The New Year is old and for me, time could not have flown fast enough! One of the most stressful months for me both professionally and personally, all I can say, good riddance! For the first time, I am glad to bid adieu to the winter, which brought more unpleasantness than acceptable and look forward to the new chapters of Summers; yes even hot Indian summers! As, always, I thank the powers that be for granting us books, that helped me tide over home-hospitals-sick dad-at-home-nurses-at-home-professional disappointments- home-job-doctor-job paradigm!

Thus, I bring you my February book wrap up, borrowing and combining from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday  –

From The East of Eden by John Steinbeck –

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”

From A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well! “

From Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

If to live in his style is to eccentric, it must be confessed, that this something good in eccentricity

From Harry Heathcote of Gangoil by Anthony Trollope

What does a man live for except to alter things? When a man clear the forest and sows corns, does he not alter things?

From The Dairy of a Nobody by George Grossmith

What’s the good of a home, if you are never in it?

That was my reading for the month of February. I am immensely glad that despite all the chaos, I was able to stick to my only Reading Challenge of the year – The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge  and complete A Room of One’s Own as planned for the month, though I still need to post the review. In fact, I need to blog way more! Here’s hoping March brings in that much needed relief to one and all……

 

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!

The End of January…..

As I had mentioned in my first post of the year, life with all it’s arbitrariness, is not allowing much for planned reading; therefore this year I change my tactic of reading summary posts! Piggy backing on Helen’s brilliant idea, where she does a monthly wrap of her reading for the month,  with her Commonplace Book post, I share with you some nuggets from my reading in January! I have embellished this idea a bit more, by borrowing from O’s Wordless Wednesday post on her January Reading. And yes, I am making good from the geniuses of Helen and O. Unfortunately, January this year did not seem to be conducive to too many books, but I got through some and and they were just what I needed to turn my mind away from the stress of hospital, doctors and an ill parent! I did manage to finish the first book of in my The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge series and a post reviewing Tales of Kathasaritasagar is coming up soon!

 

From Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty –

“I mean a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful,” continued Jane. “But it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.” “But you weren’t, you’re not—” began Madeline. “Yes, OK, but so what if I was!” interrupted Jane. “What if I was! That’s my point. What if I was a bit overweight and not especially pretty? Why is that so terrible? So disgusting? Why is that the end of the world?”

From The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows –

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” 

From Tales From Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva –

For it is better to live for one moment, bound by the bonds of righteousness, than to live unrighteously for hundreds of crores of kalpas (immense period of time)

That is the wrap up of my January reading! Here’s to a better and happier Feburary with many more great books!

Wandering Around….

This post has been pending since December; however life got a bit snarky lately, with my father being diagnosed with some neurological complication, third day into the New Year and life since then has been hospitals, Medicines and Doctors! Immediate relief does not seem to be in sight, so we all have to get on with life and make adjustments as we go along. As part of getting along, is to try and do everyday things, including reading, which naturally slowed down and blogging , which for a while has been next to nothing! So we move ahead and I share with you some pictures from my exploring Old Delhi in the Winter of December 2017!

Old Delhi also known as Shahjahanabad, a Walled City was built by Emperor Shahjahan (The same chap who built Taj Mahal) between 1638 to 1649 and was then named the capital of The Mughal Empire! The main buildings of importance were/are the magnificent Red Fort, the Jama Majid  (the royal moaque) and the Chandni Chowk Bazaar (Market)

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We started our tour with a visit to the  Gurdwara Shish Ganj Sahib; Gurdwara is a place of worship for the Sikh Community and this one is one of the oldest and most famous temples. It was constructed in 1783 to commemorate the martyrdom of the nineth Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur who was beheded for refusing to convert to Islam by the then Mughal Emperor Aurganzeb (son of the said Shajahan)

We then wandered around the maze of Old Delhi soaking in the sights and sounds and food of the city including the famous Parathawali Gali and of course posing for lots and lots of pictures! Parathawali Gali started off in 1875, this street is famous for Gourmet Parathas, stuffed fried bread filled various fillings from gramflour and spinach to cauliflower and potatoes to sweet fillings like jaggery and rabri ( a sweet made of milk).

 

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One of the most awesome visits was to the Chunnamal Haveli, a preserved old courtyard style mansion of the bygone India. Said to built around circa 1848, this house belonged to one of the foremost business of 19th century India. Till very recently, the Haveli was completely accessible to all visitors but recently due to safety concerns only part of it is open for view.

 

Our next stop was at the Jama Masjid, or the royal mosque was again built by Shahjahan circa 1650 at the cost of atleast a million rupees per historians. The Imam of Bukhara in modern day Uzbekistan, and said to be the homeland of Mughals, was invited to lead the religious services. Till date the descendants of the same Imam continue to lead the prayers at this mosque. Made of Red Sandstone and marble, it combines some of most symmetrical architecture with aesthetic carvings to make it a beautiful, lovely and peaceful place to visit.

 

Come evening, we decided to go for the wonderful with a light and sound show at the Red Fort, which beautifully portrays the history of the city of Old Delhi. Red Fort was built as the imperial fort of the Mughal dynasty when Shahjahan decided to move his capital from Agra to Delhi. Built in Red Sandstone, it became operational around 1639 and is today considered a part of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The evening finally ended with dinner in one of the oldest restaurants of that part of the town with more Mughal Cuisine than can be humanly consumer (but was consumed neverthless) and some more sights of an old city now lying serenely, but somehow still majestic.

 

To end, I would just want to quote, Mir Taqi Mir, one of the foremost poets of Shahjahanabad and one of my personal favorites –

Dilli ke na koonche the, aura kn musafir the,

Jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aaye 

(Delhi’s streets were not alleys but parchment of a painting, Every face that appeared seemed like a masterpiece)

Photo Curtsey, the incredible talented Saahil Kapoor 

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Murder and Mayhem in London

Many many moons ago, when I was wee little kid (comparatively speaking, as in I was about 20 years old) I was wondering through the shelves of the local British Council library for something interesting to read. I picked up a murder mystery set in 13th century England; I recollect I really enjoyed it. I recollect that the main protagonists were a Priest and a Knight and that is all I had to go on,  for I do not recall the character’s name, I do not recall the series name and worst, I do not recall the author’s name! Cut to the present, I am browsing NetGalley for a a good historical fiction to read during the holidays and I come across a Brother Athelstan’s mystery set in 1300’s England called The Mansions of Murders by Paul Doherty and considering the genre, I immediately request for it, and as I start reading, I suddenly find, what I had been looking for since last 15 years!!

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The novel is set in 1381 England, John of Gaunt is the Regent and with young Richard II as the King; the Great Revolt has been completely crushed and the Lords of the land, like Beaumont, Arundel and John of Gaunt rule with an iron fist. London is completely under the sway of underworld gangs, the riflers who ran the law around the slums of Thames, who were in turn used by Lords, in keeping control of London. The most powerful of these gangs are the Sycamores, led by Simon Makepeace aka, The Flesher. They are vilest, cruelest, and the most influential gang of London, running a host of businesses, from taverns to murder for hire to prostitution. They manage a Mansion of Murder, as is commonly known; a former Church now owned by The Flesher, with high walls and brutal dogs, let loose on people who become a problem for the former. In this background, where no one dares to raise their voice against The Flesher, a crime is committed against him – his mother’s who had recently died and whose body was kept in the Church for mourning, prior to the burial, is snatched away with demand for ransom. Furthermore,  Parson Reynaud of the same Church and Daventry, Arundel’s go between, are both found murdered inside the church! Meanwhile, Fat Margo, the embalmer in Brother Athelstan’s parish, dies, bequeathing all her possessions to the Parish. However, Brother Athelstan soon discovers, that the possession includes the unexpected but well preserved body of Margo’s husband and son, who were believed to have died in a battle 18 years ago. Thus, Brother Athelstan and Sir Jack Cranston, the Lord High Corner for London, try to solve for two unrelated mysteries, and find truths, closer home!

As I read through the novel, I remembered why I wanted to find this series again – simply because it is such a good thriller. 14th century London comes alive in Mr. Doherty’s hands, with its slums, and gangs and dirt. You can feel the stink, the sweat and the ugliness of London as it rises, very different from its current modern avatar! The history is impeccably researched and all details and nuances of 14th century, wonderfully crafted in the main narrative of the novel. The characters are all well rounded and without getting into too much off background, the motivations and actions of all, both primary and secondary easily understood and come across as extremely plausible. The plot moves along smoothly, though sometimes, Brother Athelstan’s mediations seems to slow down the narrative a bit, it does not really hamper the overall flow. The end was, while not wholly surprising was presented in a very innovative manner and tied in all the lose ends, extremely well! The only thing, which left me a bit bemused was the title of the novel, as the actual Mansion, has very little to do with the actual mystery and seems in hindsight, a bit sensational, which may take away, the actual good solid storytelling of the book! To end, this is a very enjoyable, thoroughly gripping book, well written and a good read for all Historical Fiction cum Murder Mystery aficionados!

Thanks to Severn House and NetGalley for providing a copy of this book for review.

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