Writings From The East….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Year….

What a year 2020 has been!! Truly a watershed year, an epoch-making year, a year about which future generations would say, “during the year of the COVID -19 my mum/dad/grandpa/grandma”, etc. etc. Needless to say, this has been an unprecedented year, quite unlike anything we have seen in recent history and from what I read in the papers, with the new UK and South African strain, it’s far from over. For me personally, it was a year, where I developed more resilience, faced more realities and understood that things are not always what they seem, but that need not necessarily be all bad! I also learnt, that despite losing both my parents, I am surrounded by a lot of love and affection and few people can claim to be as fortunate as I am in such matters! Yet another great aspect of this year for me was that after a very very long while, I was able to not only complete the GoodReads reading challenge but exceed it! It was indeed a great year in terms of reading and writing and that is another factor I am very grateful for in this year! Despite the exhausting emotional and then professional requirements, I was able to read some brilliant literature and as a parting note for the year, I decided to list 10 of my most favored reads this year. So here we go –

  1. Delight by J.B. Priestly – This book was without doubt my “find” of the year! Thanks to Karen, I had the joy of reading this wonderful piece of non-fiction writing by Priestley (not his usual genre) about simple everyday joys of life!
  2. Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit – I have no idea why I waited so long to read this brilliant work by Ms. Solnit tackling the conversations of between men and women and other amazing essays like one on Virginia Wolfe and violence against women.
  3. A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa – Yet another book that I came across thanks to Karen. This 1948 publication by the two giants of modern art & literature, tries to capture what life of the common man in Soviet Union looks like – what do they eat, how do they party, what do their farmers do before the iron curtain fell remains one of the most humorous and insightful reading of mankind beyond politics!
  4. Travels with Charley; In Search of America by John Steinbeck – This was my Steinbeck year and this book came up in my Classic Club Spin. In 1960, Steinbeck set off to re-discover America again in a exhaustive road trip covering coast to coast, and finding the bitter sweet travesty of a country trying to find it’s identity, in the shadow of it’s troubling past!
  5. Provincial Daughters by RM Dashwood – Written by the daughter of EM Delafield of the Provincial Ladies series, Ms. Dashwood takes a look at the sometimes silly, sometimes tragi-comic life of an educated young English woman trying to be an expert homemaker and efficient mother in 1950’s England
  6. The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo, Louise Heal Kawai (Translator) – A wonderful review by Helen made me try this Japanese classic murder mystery & and to say it blew my breathe away is an understatement! Set in 1937, a tragedy is visited on the night of the wedding of the eldest son of the Ichyanagi family and only detective Kosuke Kindaichi is able to find the why’s and how’s leading up the tragedy!
  7. Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold – Many many moon’s ago, Jane had reviewed this Golden Age Mystery and based on her high praise, I had added it to my TBR. However, until recently I had not read it and after reading, I kept wondering, why did I wait for so long??? A cycling holiday that is disrupted by a murder of a comrade and an amateur detective, a chance stranger, John Christmas is drawn into the events that lead to a surprising discovery.
  8. Not at Home by Doris Langley – At the end of World War II, to improve her financial position, Elinor MacFarren—middle-aged botanical writer rents part of her beautiful home to American Anotonia Banks which leads to complete mayhem and now Ms. Mcfarren must seek help of her nephew and his friends to solve for the confusion, with some unexpected assistance from her rival! Shout Out to Ali for helping me find this little-known gem!
  9. Reveries of a Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Russell Goulbourne (Translator) – I always need support when tacking what can be considered a “difficult” or “Challenging” read! This being one of them, I had infinite support and read along help from my soul sister Cleo (Where would I be without, thou??!) Written in exile a few months before his death, Rousseau reflects on his life and abandonment by his friends and supporters and how he draws strength from nature and solitude and draws contentment from self-awareness and knowledge.
  10. The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – This sensitive, insightful and important work of history looked at the tragic events in wake of partition of India in 1947 from the perspective of those whose voices are often neglected by History like women, children and backward classes. This book remains a modern historical classic for all those interested in India and her troubled past.

These are my best books of the year! These do not include my re-reads which always bring me such infinite joy like Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye, The Dairy of the Provincial Lady by EM Delafield, High Rising by Angela Thirkell and of course, Pride and Prejudice by one and only Ms. Austen! As always, my reading year has been enriched by the suggestions, recommendations and discussions with many of my blogging friends and yet again it is brought home to me that I would never have read so widely had I not stumbled upon this wonderful community of fellow readers/bloggers and most importantly friends!

To end, I would like to leave you all with this short poem! Wishing you and all your loved ones a Happy, joyous, healthy and bookish 2021! Cheers Everyone!

Wilhelm Gause – Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=984078

Poem for a New Year

-By Matt Goodfellow

Something’s moving in,
I hear the weather in the wind,
sense the tension of a sheep-field
and the pilgrimage of fins. 
Something’s not the same,
I taste the sap and feel the grain,
hear the rolling of the rowan
ringing, singing in a change.
Something’s set to start,
there’s meadow-music in the dark
and the clouds that shroud the mountain
slowly, softly start to part.

On December

Oh! Glorious December! This is month I thrive in; I rejoice and I celebrate! As cold winter comes down on the plains of North India, suddenly everything looks beautiful in the afternoon sun, with all the roses in bloom. It is cold, very cold, but it brings with it a stark beauty of merry making and joy and smell of woodsmoke and delicious foods like Sarson ka Saag (a puree of mustard leaves), home made white butter and gajar ka halwa (a pudding made of Ghee, milk, jaggery, dry fruits and carrots) all served hot! This is a month of such wonder and here are some pieces that illustrate the unstinted beauty of the month!

May and October, the best-smelling months? I’ll make a case for December: evergreen, frost, wood smoke, cinnamon.

― Lisa Kleypas, Love in the Afternoon

Claude Monet, The Magpie, 1868; Source – Google Art Project

December is a bewitching month.
The grey of cold teases
to explode into something worthwhile,
into a dream of cold,
a starlight shower you can taste,
a cold that does not chill.

I’ve lost my memory
of my first snow–
did I gasp at a field of white?
Or scream at the freeze
untill my cheeks reddened?

The crunch underfoot is satisfying
and the thrill of virgin snow
near leaves
.”

― Joseph Coelho, A Year of Nature Poem

 Alfred Sisley, A Village Street in Winter, 1893 ; Source – The Creative Business.com

In December ring Every day the chimes; Loud the gleemen sing In the streets their merry rhymes. Let us by the fire Ever higher Sing them till the night expire!     

―Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Of all the months of the year there is not a month one half so welcome to the young, or so full of happy associations, as the last month of the year.

– Charles Dickens

And finally, one of my personal favorites, originally shared with me by the wonderful people at Daak (they are treasure trove of sub continent’s culture, art and literature. You must check their website or Instagram handle for some hidden gems) describing the beauty and the daily life of winter in Kashmir with lyricism, simplicity and great humor. This was penned by Mulla Muhammad Tahir Ghani, known as Ghani Kashmiri, who lived in Srinagar, around 17th century,

Masnavi Shita’iyah 

In this season where the water is frozen

Every bubble has become a glasshouse.

The stream flowing across the garden

Looks like a line drawn on the page.

The minstrel’s hand is without a drum.

It seems the dewy song has frozen too. 

Cold has turned water into ice.

Etching it is like etching a stone.

In all this, the duck in the water croons

‘Lucky the bird that’s become a kebab.’

The spark too has been struck by the chill

And has hid itself back in the flint. 

The spark and flame are together no more.

The chilly drought has torn them apart.

No sooner does a spark rise from the fire

Than it turns into a hailstone.

Such is the nip in the biting air

That the moist eye resembles a stony glass. 

Scared to their bones now men are of water

Like the mirror they hide it under the earth.

The means of living are in the hands of Chinar

Which in autumn has provided for fire.

The fish offers itself to the hook

In the hope that it might see fire

So cold has the oven of the sky become

No longer visible is the bread-like sun

Can a stream flow on the face of the earth

When the sun’s eye itself is frozen?

Release from the stinging cold does the fish find

When it slits itself with the icicle’s sword

No fear of water does the snow show.

It floats on its surface like foam.

The ember glowing in the brazier

Looks like a gem in the casket.

He who relaxes his hold on the chair

Finds himself skating on the ice.

And he who breaks his leg on the ice

Is plastered there on the wooden plank.

His joy knows no bounds if a sad soul

Gets hold of a few flint stones.

How could one walk on the murky earth

If it were not covered with planks of ice?

Agonized such is the fish by the chill

It seeks to flee from all that is wet.

Every sigh that soars up to the sky

Becomes a snowflake and falls to the ground.

Behold the game that the winter plays

Fashioning myriad mirrors from water plain.

Though a flame hides within its breast

The leaf of chinar breathes no warmth.

And he whose life leaves him in this chill

Prefers hell to escape the cold.

As children make their way to school

They practice skating on the planks of ice 

He is wise who in this season

Clings to the stove like a madman.

Narrating this, my tongue is coated with ice.

My breath, it seems, has frozen to make another tongue.

And when the chill turns chillier still

Like the ear, even the mouth turns still.

The tear which drops from the crying eye

Freezes like the wax dripping down the candle.

All this is known to the wise ant

Which entombs itself when alive.

This winter’s tale I can no longer narrate 

For the tongue is now an icicle in my mouth. 

I leave you with some beautiful illustrations from Kashmir, Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, Illustrated by E. Molyneux, which captured the beauty of this land in some wonderful watercolor imagery. Circa 1887.

Painting 1 – Lotus Lilies at Dal Lake

Painting 2 – Shalimar Gardens

Painting 3 – The Temple, Chenar Bagh

Painting 4 – Sunset on Jhelum

Source – http://www.hellenicaworld.com/India/Literature/FEdwardYounghusband/en/Kashmir.html

The Unspoken Voices of Partition……

One of the often-overlooked aspects especially by the Western Historians and even some India scholars is the Partition of India. With the exception of Israel, no other state in modern history was created on religious grounds and there is no precedent in history to such mass scale killing, migration of population and loss of property that happened with the announcement of division of India in 1947, into two nations, Pakistan (created for the Muslims) and India. This artificial drawing of boundaries separating peoples and communities that have resided in the same way for a thousand years led to not only economic and political upheaval, but also lives lost, including rapes and abductions marred the joy of India finally “gaining” its freedom from British rule on August of 1947 and continues to echo till date.

Lately there have been some scholars from the subcontinent who have started looking at this epoch moment of history, The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan and Partition, The Story of India’s Independence and Creation of Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White – Spunner to name a few; most of these books focused on “what happened” at the political level that led to division of India in two parts. While it is important to understand these politico-economics dynamics, it is also critical to understand people’s history and the story of the common folks who had to leave everything they knew as a way of life and with nothing except the clothes on their back and start a journey of 100 miles to a new unknown but apparently safe future. Among these narratives, however there are certain voices missing, like those of the partition Women, who were perhaps the biggest victims of the mass rioting that broke out in Punjab and Bengal, the two impacted states of the partition; losing not only family, but also subjected to some of the most brutal violence and heinous sex crimes in the recent history and then silenced either through death or forced conversion and marriage.

Urvashi Butalia, now one of the most respected scholars and publishers of India, began her work by trying to fill this gap by writing about these silenced voices, in her brilliant book, The Other Side of Silence – Voices of Partition of India published 1998. In 8 chapters, Ms. Butalia captures some of the most intense oral histories of men, woman, children to bring together a people’s history of what partition did to everyday men and women. She begins the book with by sharing how while helping some friends film a documentary about Partition, she became interested in the subject. This subject became even more personal as she takes us into her own family and how it split her mother’s family in two – her mother and her siblings choosing to make a dangerous journey to India on the eve of some of the worst violence and her mother’s younger brother who chose to stay back in Pakistan, convert and marry and settle there. In subsequent chapters, she explores narratives of women – women who tried to commit suicide rather than be raped and violated or “honour” killings, where girls and women were killed by the families to prevent them from being abducted and sexually exploited by fathers and brothers. She also talks about the children of the partition, those orphans of the conflict or those who were product of rape and kidnappings. Finally, she looks at the “Untouchables” the lowest in the Hindu Caste system and their stories during this time of history.

Ms. Butalia manages the remarkable feet of keeping the narrative empathetic and soulful, while remaining factual and scientific in her approach ensures that her book never descends into high drama story telling. Her voice is clear and concise and her honesty in acknowledging her own emotional turmoil, especially the story of her family adds another layer of depth to the book. Non judgemental and deeply human, she never blames any religion or the people, instead she subtly directs the readers to think about the political mechanizations that went on that time and the “leaders” who were could be seen as “responsible” for this catastrophe. She is not afraid of calling spade a spade, but instead she focuses on the main principals of the books, the overlooked others. Her nuanced and sensitive story telling picks on so many unspoken actions that speak not only of Partition but all marginalized groups across history. She speaks about how women who survived Partition were never allowed to speak to her alone and was always surrounded by family, to the extent, that at times even answers were given by family members who may not have actually witnessed the conflict. She gives voices to things left unsaid, the old man, who does not mention his mother, because she could commit suicide  ( the wells were filled up and women could not drown anymore) and of the lack of choices for the woman – when they were honour killed  or abducted and forced to marry or when after being settled with the new family for more than 10 years, they were forced to go back to their old families where they were disrespected on account of having lost their “purity” by the flick of signatures of the governments of two countries that embarked on a repatriation program. She speaks of little acknowledged facts of history  – of the amazing middle class women who came together to set up camps and provide shelter and occupation for their lesser fortunate sisters and their children; these women from well to do families had their own griefs to deal with of lost and murdered families but they put their own personal tragedies aside for greater good and till date remain the unsung heroes of the country. She speaks about the “Untouchables” who were stranded in Sindh and Pakistan would not let them go to India because they formed the complete sanitation workforce and, in their absence, the already struggling hygiene of the city would totally breakdown and the lack of initiative by the political leaders of India which allowed this population to be lost in annals of history. The book is not a complete history of the “other” voices, the author herself acknowledges, that she has not captured the stories of Bengal focusing instead of the impact of Partition of Punjab. But in her limited scope, she is able to convey many things and provide a profoundly deep and disturbing chapter in the tumultuous history of this 5000-year-old nation.

This is a difficult book to read but it is an important book to read. The stories of what women were subjected to is harrowing and heart-breaking. The fates of the abandoned children are beyond distressing. But it is book that needs to be read so that we do not forget and we do not repeat!

The July Round Up

I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!

La-Lecture by Berthe Morisot, 1873

So what all did I read in July?

Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.

That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!

So how was your July reading?

The First Multinational & The Conquest of a Sovereign Nation

In a globalized world of free markets and open economy, the idea of a multinational subverting the national interest of a country where they are expected to only conduct business is not new. Infact these days, they hardly seem to make news, after the initial furor. It’s almost an expectation that a large for profit organization almost always, may indulge practices that cannot be accounted for in the books and which will propel the interest of certain few in power, while subjecting the larger populace to many inequities and struggle. However despite such organizations being larger than ever in 21st century, not one of them can quite match the sheer greed and treacherous conduct, that led to the subjugation of a nation for nearly 200 years, all to enrich another nation and the company stockholders – The Honorable East India Company!

The Anarchy – The East India Company, Corporate Violence and The Pillage of an Empire by William Dalrymple looks at this very phenomena that led to the rise of a group of merchants who had to work long hard years to simply be allowed a trading outpost in India to becoming the very rulers of that nation, in less than 100 years. The story of East India Company, and those of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings and the Nawab of Bengal and Oudh are well known to every child in India; drilled in from grade 6 history books, with the Battle of Plassey as the day of infamy; a nation conquered through bribe and betrayal. But Mr. Dalrymple goes much beyond this epoch making time of Indian history, to bring to the readers, the very events that led to the creation of East India company; her initial and mostly unsuccessful forays into India. It traces in parallel the history of the Mughal dynasty as the Emperors inter-played with merchants, starting from grant that led to creation of a trading outpost, to being defeated and expelled from the country by Aurangzeb and finally the fall of the House of Timur that led the great grandson of Aurangzeb, the very talented but ill fated Shah Alam to become a pensioner and a puppet ruler of the Company. The book also sheds light to the rise of local powers like the legendary Marathas and the valorous Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, the sultans of Mysore as they fought each other and the company is a gallant effort to keep their states sovereign and were defeated each time by conduct of bribes and other underhand means by the Company. It showcases the economic and aesthetic prosperity of almost all parts of India under these local rulers, through the 18th century and the consequences, of Company conquest leading to famine, destruction of native art and trades and displacement of the local populations. Further the book delves deeply into the kind of administration that the company set up from taxation to justice under the name of the Mughal Emperor but really running an independent nation state with the help of a private army. The books also looks at the rise and fall of such iconic British statesman like Lord Clive, Warren Hastings, Lord Cornwallis and Lord Wellesley and spin to the conquests and settlement that each of these Governors brought to the country, until it became a suzerainty of a multinational corporation. Finally, in a succinct manner, the author also manages to illustrate, how as a multinational corporation, East India Company set a precedent for all such companies in future, from corporate lobbying, to the unholy government – company nexus for military action to government bailouts; all well before, any of these terms were actually invented. In the usual style of the author, the book is filled with nuggets of wonderful information, that historical books usually do not contain, including some wonderful Urdu couplets and Ragas now all lost. It also has some rare paintings drawn from a wide variety of sources, once again shedding light on the fact that the so called “dark age” of India was anything but dark and it was the really the interpretation of few westerners who did not understand the country or its history that led to such a narrative.

Let me start by stating the obvious, Mr. Dalrymple never is never disappointing. Filled with quotations and citing, the book is a work of meticulous and thorough research. The author has exhaustively used both primary and secondary resources to tell a story that needed to be told, in the most interesting, easy and lucid manner. The Bibliography and Notes alone stands at nearly 100 pages and talks of the extensive reading done by the author to present this work. It shows in the almost neutral tone of the book; I say neutral, because I have always felt that Mr. Dalrymple like the very Warren Hastings he quotes in the book, loves his adopted country, i.e. India a little more than his birth country. He writes with all the fairness that must be accorded to historical events, balancing good with the bad; but his righteous indignation at the way India was exploited and complete destruction of her trade, commerce and art, for the enrichment of few merchants several thousand kilometres away, speaks volumes about his sense of justice as well as his love for his adopted nation! The language is easy and free flowing and for a chunkster history book, it is also remarkably a page turner. The battle scenes which I usually skip, are described flawlessly, with suspense and thrill, without being long winded or boring. Like always, Mr. Darlymple introduces us to books, long forgotten; in his Age of Kali, he re-introduced many of us with a remarkable and now almost forgotten novel called Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali. Similarly, in this books, he re-introduces us to historian Ghulam Hussain Khan and his remarkable Seir Mutaqherin or the Review of Modern Times, a book that is first hand account of the last years of Aurangzeb to the Battle of Buxar. In the end, the author states, that the “story of East India has never been more current“; one has to agree and only add that this is a must read for anyone who wants to understand India, England or multinational companies.

This book is also part of my 2020 Big Book Summer Challenges.

The Challenge….

The two things among many things, that I realize in the hindsight I missed the most during my blogging hiatus were good book recommendations and reading challenges! After blogging for 8 years I can proclaim to all and sundry that Blogging besides helping me become part of tribe, called readers; forced me to read books that I would not have usually read and find favorites that I did not know could be a favorite. Virginia Woolf’s To The Light House and Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin to name a few! In the absence of book discussion, I found myself drifting in deeper in the reading slump and I was running out of ideas and definitely motivation! But two weeks back into this familiar comforting world, I have added more book’s to the TBR (as Kagssy recently mentioned in her post, Ahem! and then went ahead and introduced me to a author whom I have never read; I really missed this!) and there are enough challenges to push one into action!

I am aware that I am slowly returning to form, so I am being sensible and not signing up for everything! However I am supremely tempted aka as in given in to join the Big Book Summer Reading Challenge, hosted by Sue Jackson over at Book by Book! There are no rocket science rules and it’s easy and flexible and I quote them directly from the blog page –

  • Anything 400 pages or more qualifies as a big book.
  • The challenge will run from Memorial Day weekend (starting May 22 this year) through Labor Day weekend (Labor Day is September 7 this year).
  • Choose one or two or however many big books you want as your goal. Wait, did you get that?  You only need to read 1 book with 400+ pages this summer to participate! (though you are welcome to read more, if you want).
  • Sign up on the first links list on Book by Book.
  • Write a post to kick things off: you can list the exact big books you plan to read or just publish your intent to participate, but be sure to include the Big Book Summer Challenge pic, with a link back to Book by Book. It’s fine to kick-off your Big Book Summer as part of another post.
  • Write a post to wrap up at the end, listing the big books you read during the summer.
  • You can write progress posts if you want to and/or reviews of the big books you’ve read … but you don’t have to! There is a separate links list at Book by Book for big book reviews, progress update posts, and wrap-up posts.

This challenge works beautifully for me – I have just started a chunkster The Anarchy by William Dalrymple and am also in the middle of The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. After a book slump that lasted so very long, I could do with the additional impetus this challenge brings and the timelines are generous enough to allow me some room for distraction if I desperately need it! A shout out to the wonderful Classic’s Club for always keeping me posted on what is happening in the bookish world!

Outside of this, the only other read along that I may jump in is with Cleo and if and when she reads, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. All folks who have been following me know Cleo is my soul sister and our reading adventures have been far and sometimes totally wild (we never did finish Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol despite all our enthusiasm!Yikes!)and reading with her is both insightful and funny! It’s been ages since I read anything with her and to read a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that defined my character, just makes it doubly wonderful!

So that’s my Summer reading plan! The idea is to keep it simple and tread with care, but move forward neverthless! What then is your reading plan?

Reading Plans and 2020

I know it is almost 15 days in the year for this post to go up. But I am guessing better late than never and if nothing else, these kind of posts inspire me to have some kind of a reading map to guide me through, instead of all kinds of crazies. Having said that, I must also say, that this reading plan is not really a plan, but some guidelines that I want to adhere to while making reading selections through this year. These are not exhaustive reading plans or list. I love those detailed plans I used to make at the start of the month and at end the month assess of how I fared. I also used to love participating in various reading events and read alongs; many books and genre’s that I would never read would become my absolute favorites thanks to these events. However life has been totally out of control for the last two years and if that should be the trend this year as well, then it is better to be selective and chose or not, wisely so that there is no sense of I-really-have-not-read-much-this-year at the end of the year!

Therefore moving on, here are my very basic rules for reading anything this year –

  1. Read two chunksters – I have several and there was a time when reading chunksters was BAU and did not need to be called out. However, life is throwing me spinners and I need to manage accordingly, so I am calling it out and restricting the number to two; if I end up with a miracle and read more than two, that would be even more awesome. But for now two. I started on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I bought this book nearly 5 years ago but never really got around to reading it, so now I am pacing myself with a couple of chapters every week and trotting along. I have no idea what the second chunkster will be.
  2. Read more classics – Again, something that would not have been called out in the past but lately I have skipped reading the more richer works, unless one counts, re-reads of Austen. I need to get back into the groove of reading Classics again and I will consciously try and read a few more, maybe 5 through this year.
  3. Read Non Fiction – Lately I have been reading significant amount of Non Fiction beyond my usual trope of Travelogues and History. And I must say, that it has been quite an enriching and significantly transforming experience. I have read and learnt and observed and it definitely challenged my mind and forced me to think in ways I do not do and overall, it has been a learning that I would want to continue on.
  4. Read Books already Bought – I think this is a common issue of all Bibliophiles. We see books, we buy books and then we go back re-read Austen or Harry Potter. I have nothing against re-reading Austen or Harry Potter; in fact most of you know, those are my go-to comfort books. However, I have over the years bought several 100 books and my house is filled to excess with unread books, I want to try and read some of those this year, I cannot commit to never buying new books; I have yet to reach that stage of Nirvana, but atleast control by spending spree, I have developed a simple rule – I will add books to my cart and keep them for 24 hrs; if post that I still am itching to buy them, then I will. I have trying this since December and the only book I have bought since then is a Strategic Management book which is part of the coursework I am doing for a certification. I hope, super hope, I can stick to this one critical resolution.
  5. Have Fun!

That is my reading plan for the year. The only read alongs I have so far signed up for is to re-read Pather Dabi by Sarat Chandra and Bleak House by Charles Dickens with Cleo, whenever she takes those two on. The other event I want to participate is The 1920’S Club hosted by Kaggsy and Simon. I love that era and inherently gravitate towards that time period and therefore being part of this event is only a natural progression!

This then is the plan for 2020! I am hoping in the last week of December this year, to be able to show case a relatively favorable report than those I have shared or not over the last few years! But that will be when, it will be! Until then, here’s to all the good things in life in 2020, including and especially Books and Readings!

The Russian Nobleman

Vladamir Nabokov called this book “the first and fundamental Russian Novel”; in fact he was so frustrated by the what he considered the lack of qualitative translation of this critical piece of work of Russian Literature, when he started to teach at Wellesley College in 1944, that nearly 20 years later, he would produce his own attempt, which would as always create a furor, like everything Nabokov did; but that is another story! This “novel: which he considered key to Russian literature is not even a novel, but rather a work of poetry, describing the life and times of one Russian nobleman in the early 19th century Russia; it’s called Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. This work which has spawned an Opera, several films and more translation that one can count was published in Russia in a completed form in 1833 and was to change the very nature of Russian prose!

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This novel in the poetry form follows the lives of Eugene Onegin, Vladamir Lensky and the narrator, a fictionalized Pushkin from the early days in the glittering society of St. Petersburg, to the estates of the Russian country, where all three meet and become friends. Eugene is a dandy, cynical and selfish who is easily bored, does not find any creature or object interesting beyond a short stipulated time and who comes to the country after inheriting an estate from an uncle, to overcome the boredom he had begun experiencing in the glittering society circles. He becomes great friends with the narrator and Vladamir Lensky, a young, naive poet of 18; and it is Lensky who takes Eugene to the home of Olga, his finance and the younger daughter of a fellow landowner. There Eugene meets Tatyana, Olga’s elder sister, a quiet romantic girl, who is drawn to Eugene and goes on to confess her emotions to him eventually. However, Eugene rebuffs all attempts and states that he will become bored with marriage and Tatayana should be careful of baring her soul in such a manner. In an effort to reconcile a listless Tatayana, Lensky invites Eugene to her name day, stating it will be a small gathering with only the girls, their parents and two of them; however on reaching Eugene realizes that the entire country is there and to get even with Lensky for what he considers his “traitorous” act, starts  off a chain of events, that will alter the lives all four!

I read the translation by James E. Falen, and words fail me to say enough and more about this work that would do justice to its brilliance. The characters, to begin with, are masterfully etched out, standing independently and distinctly, sometimes, white, sometimes grey, sometimes, a unique hue of its own! I have read the Eugene Onegin was considered an anti-hero by many but this seems to be a simplistic definition; the protagonist is a brilliant, creative individual lacking enough outlets to use his brilliance in the limited occupations and social restrictions of early 19th century Russia. He is capable of considerable goodness, but can also be mean and caught up in pettiness. Lensky is a perfect foil to cynical and bored Eugene; he is optimistic, full of vigor and constantly eager to see life with all its beauty and perfection. Finally, in Tatayana, Pushkin created a memorable heroine,  innocent and untouched by worldly requirements, her heart burns with a certain purity, which establishes itself a strong moral character as life experiences are forced on her and then tempt her! She is the one solid ethical character around whom the rest of the amoral characters revolve, bringing out her contrast as an ideal and worthy! Even the minor characters are wonderfully drawn and support the main cast ably. The conversation between a love-struck Tatyana and the wise old Nanny is an illustrative example of such interactions. As a narrative, this poem is faultless; it brilliantly combines worldly with the ethereal, practical with the spiritual; the fictionalized Pushkin at several instances breaks away from the main plot to digress into some deeper questions of life including what is art? But he is not only able to skillfully bring the audience back to the main narrative, but also create several instances of suspense when the reader rushes through stanza in an effort to understand what happens next! This in itself would have been enough to make this outstanding example of poetry in a narrative form, however, the brilliance of Puskin takes it into a whole new level by the wonderful and deeply moving lyricism of the language, that manages to convey the strongest and most powerful emotions without for a moment sounding maudlin. I am quoting the translation and can only wonder, how beautiful the original will be –

“Another! No! In all creations, there is no one else whom I’d adore,

The heavens chose my destination and made me thine for evermore,

My life till now has been a token in pledge of meeting you, my friend,

And in your coming, God has spoken

You will be my guardian until the end.”

Vissarion Belinsky wrote that in Eugene Onegin one could find “an Encyclopedia of Russian life” and I felt this through the novel. From the glittering ballrooms of 19th century Moscow to the quiet and haunting landscapes of the large and unending estates of the countryside, this work covers it all. There are travels by coaches and name day celebrations; there are landowners and peasants and relatives and army men; there is a range of amalgamation of items and details which all beautifully come together to present a vivid and lively picture of Russia. Once again, the sheer magnificence of this effort leaves one breathless.

Finally, a word on the translation; translating this work cannot be easy and it took a genius of Nabokov also 20 years to come with a manuscript that does justice to the original. James Falen did a wonderful job in keeping things simple and I believe as close as possible to the original narrative and yet make it easy for the reader to read and absorb what is essentially a vast body of information in poetry in a different language which is actually a story! Though there is the use of some words like “awesome”  which cannot have in vogue in the period this work is set, they are far and few, and do not take anything away from the brilliance of this work!

To end, this profoundly beautiful piece needs to be read by anyone who considers themselves Connoisseur of literature!

Snake Gods and Migrants

I have been planning to write this review, literally for weeks. I had read the book more the a month back and these days, I only post a review if I really enjoyed the book or it exasperated me beyond my patience! This one for sure met that criterion and it’s just life as a always became to busy for me to find time and space to write about this book. After all of this, it is time to introduce the book I am referring to – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh!

I have been a Ghosh fan well before his Commonwealth winning and withdrawing of The Glass Palace which also I loved. I was first blown away by his Shadowlands, a beautiful, lyrical story of Bengal, partition, riots and coming of age. Till date it remains, one of most sensitive pieces of prose I ever read and the end, still takes my breath away. The Glass Palace, though I feel falling short of the brilliant prose, was a wonderfully crafted story; the history resonating very closely to me (my great grandfather was a Teak Merchant, settled in Myanmar, and saw the history of the land unfold through his own eyes). However, The Hungry Tide put me off Ghosh; I could not relate to the characters, of people who fall in love without any communication, or even the vast range of issues that Ghosh seemed to try and tackle which did not truly integrate into the main plot. I was put off enough to skip the entire Ibis Trilogy and only to pick up Gun Merchant, when this came my way as a gift!

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Gun Island is narrated from a the perspective of Deen Dutta, a 50 something erudite, cultured and well traveled man and dealer in rare books, based in New York. A chance meeting with his extended Bengali family, during a vacation, gets him involved with the legend of the Gun Merchant, a Ulysses like character, who traveled along with his companion a ship captain, all over the world, in a bid to escape a curse of the Indian Snake Goddess, Mansa Devi. In his effort  to dig the truth about this myth and Deen comes across and interacts with a host of characters, all of whom are on their own journey of self discovery and have parallel stories of strife and success. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali American Professor, who sets this journey in motion, there is Rafi, the illiterate Muslim Fisherman, whose grandfather was the keeper of the temple of Mansa Devi in the Sunderbans and Cinta, his old friend and mentor, who helps him reach out to the unknown to find the truth.

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Hindu-Goddess Manasa,  in a hut made of mud in a village in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India by Durga (Source – Wikipedia)

The premises of the book is excellent! India and especially Bengal is rich in myths and folklore all of which are somewhere grounded in a reality that happened in the past. The made up legend of the Gun Merchant, is actually a take off on the the legend of Chand Saudagar whose hide and seek games to escape the wrath of Mansa Devi is something most Bengali children can recite, handed down from generation to generation. It was interesting to go with Ghosh’s exploratory journey to understand the roots of this myth as well the rich travel history of Bengal, when it traded with Venice and many other European nations, especially as it took the readers into some wonderful description of Sunderbans, the now fast disappearing mangrove forests, east of India.  But this is where I guess my admiration ends. I am beyond sick of Ghosh’s polarization of Indian society – in his world lately,  there are only Americanized erudite but still holding on to Bengali roots figures or uneducated, impoverished characters. There is nothing in between, there are no small time shopkeepers, there are educated middle classes, there are not rich Indian industrialists, there are no artists, there is no one except these two extreme worlds. Even if I would allow for such polarized characters, I could not like them – i could not warm up to Piya in the Hungry Tide and when I saw her enter this book, I was ready to give it up. I cannot understand her hauteur or while I understand her reserve, I feel her to be totally and completely insensitive to other’s emotional needs. I did not like Deen – I felt he was too bumbling, too self doubting, too everything for a man of the world. The only character I could like was Cinta, who came across with depth, emotions and sensitivity and was the only rescue device of the novel. The plot while originally intriguing should have stuck to discovering the roots of the myth, instead of taking on world problems. I understand and am concerned about the environmental disaster that we seem to hurtling into. I am appalled at the intolerance of the world at large to the migrant’s issue; my grandparents were refugees, fleeing the violence of 1947, East Pakistan now Bangladesh, leaving behind homes, lives and security. I know the trauma of such displacement, which continued to haunt my grandfather till his death and was inherited by my father and my uncles to great extent. I cannot even begin to fathom the conditions if besides the trauma, my grandparents also were refused entry in what they considered a safe home, a newly independent India. But I do not think as plot devise adding the migrant issue along with environmental concerns into a novel tracing the history of a myth is a very good idea. We end biting more than we can chew and say nothing which has not been said and do not shed light on anything new. In fact, it smacks of borderline commercialization – a sort of piggy backing on the world wide uproar on the migrant issue by not only writing about it, but picking up the “boat incident” to a T. This was not well done and from somebody of great intellectual and sensitive abilities like Ghosh, it is definitely unacceptable! The language and even the division of the novel into section seems contrived and does not flow! All in all, by pass this book if you have toppling TBR; there are better books on Bengal and partition and migrants than this one, including Shadowland, by the same author!