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Posts tagged ‘History’

The Spinning Story

I know, I know, the path to hell is paved with good intentions! 2019 was supposed to be the year, I read more and post more! In fact in spirit of unrivaled ambition and complete disassociation from reality, I chose a 100 books as a Reading Goal on my Good Reads. Half a year has since passed by and I am so behind, that the word “catch -up” is something that can only tickle my funny bone!

In a year of dismal reading record, the one thing that I am proud of is that I was able to participate in the 20th Classic Club Spin Read and what’s more, surprise, surprise, I was able to complete my spin book well within the timelines; though the blog post, as usual is late! I had a very “Quixotic” list this year and I cannot honestly say, I was looking forward with enthusiasm. However, the spin number turned out to be a good number and I got James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning classic – Tales of the South Pacific as my Spin book.

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Tales of South Pacific is a series of short stories or novellas, related with a character or an event and was published in 1947. The stories were based on Michener’s own World War II experience in the South Pacific and the stories are all fiction, steeped in real life events, based on the author’s observation and experience during his stay there. The stories deal with a variety of aspects that the US armed forces stationed in the island had to deal with – from the harsh realities of war, where death is inevitable and expected to the emotional aspects, of loves found and lost and friendships that survive the worst possible tests! The Cave , is a description of an action that happened in islands and where US Navy triumphed with of an English informer who infiltrated into the heart of Japanese military base and was later caught and killed. Mutiny traces the lives of the descendants of the infamous, Mutiny on HMS Bounty and their effort to save the natural habitat of the islands from the US Navy as the latter try and build a landing strip for the aircrafts that was vital for the success of the war in the region. An Officer and a Gentleman, looks at the loneliness and emotional desert that some of the officers felt and the many ways that they tried to conquer it, not always in the best manner or conduct. Stories like The Heroine, Fo’ Dolla, and Those Who Fraternize are all love stories that takes on the questions of color, acceptance and challenging the set norm, in times when old prejudices were slowly being dismantled by a world that had gone of the hinge. There poignant tales of courage and valour like The Aristrip at Konora and the happy memories that help keep sailors hold on to reality, like Frisco.

I can understand, why the book won a Pulitzer. It gave a brutal, honest and somewhat emotional narrative of a war, from which the US and the World was just recovering. It challenged the set status quo of class and color and privileges and sang the songs of a new World Order, which the Dumbarton Oaks Conference was supposed to achieve in the form of United Nations.  This book is all of that and then some! This was Michener’s first book and the unique narrative style that he would pioneer over other novels, like The Source, Alaska and Texas, was put down in paper for the first time. Short stories linked with one event or character came into being in the Tales of South Pacific. But it is not just the narrative style and the subject which makes this book a great read, it is the characters whom he brings to life, with all their nobleness and frailty that captures the readers imagination and makes them relate to them, admire them and sometimes, disparage them as well. The author’s thorough understanding of the Military affairs and conduct, comes through in every story, bringing authenticity and history to act as strong pillars to the stories. The  author captures the tiny detail of the people, the heat, the lack of facilities and the make do efforts to bring some semblance of comfort in the harshest conditions, and makes for the very heart of the book! While not all stories are all at par, most are and the last few tales especially bring out the brilliance of the author as he captures, in a moving and heart-breaking style, the unnecessary loss of lives of good men and women, in a war that makes little sense! 

To end, I believe in later years, James Michener produced a much higher degree of fiction, especially in novels like Caravan and The Source. However, the Tales of South Pacific is a must read for an honest, authentic and powerful story of World War II

 

And The Spin # is …..

The Classic’s Club has spun the number and it is 19! 19 seems like an odd number; excuse the pun, but we get #1, #8 or even #20 but never #19. So it’s very interesting to get a 19! This per my list, makes me read Tales of South Pacific by James Michener.

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I must own I am very very relieved to get this book and not something like The Rigveda, which is tremendously difficult to understand and takes a lot of time and concentrated focus, or so people who have read the book tell me. However, Michener can be a bit of a unpredictable read as well. I loved his  The Source and Caravan, both go into my all time favorite and not be missed lists; he has also written Sayonara, which is the most ridiculous piece of writing to come from an author as brilliant as him. I also have his Alaska, which with all my heartfelt sincere attempts have still not been able to finish and it lies next to my bed side table, with a bookmark accusingly sticking out from page 237. Also as I was discussing with Brona, all his books are chunksters, so tackling them anyway, is a challenge. Having said all of this, the fact still remains that when Michener gets it right, he writes what can only be described as deep, insightful and heart rendering books! I am hoping Tales of the South Pacific will be one of them. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 and there is that la-de-da musical as well, but neither is a guarantee of the novel’s actual power. Many Pulitzer’s have failed to actually keep their promise, atleast to me and I often wonder, why they were rated so high. As far as the musical is concerned, well, the lesser said the better! I guess, I will find out soon enough! The book arrives today and I have per the rules till May 31st to finish it and I am hoping to do that sooner than that, as I have as always, bitten more than I can chew.

Cleo, my soul sister and my friend, who inspires me to do all great and crazy things is also participating in the Spin and her #19 is like va-va-voom interesting. It’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. This is an outstanding classic and our lives are replete with quotes and phrases from Johnson and Boswell. No way, could I pass this up. It’s too complicated for me to read alone and I would have needed some proding. Well, someone heard my prayers, and now I am buddy reading with Cleo on this. I need help!

To end, the die is now cast and I have books to be read! I am super excited to be part of the Spin again and realize now, how much I missed it! Without further ado, then, let’s read! Happy Spinning all!

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 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!

New Year & New Challenges ….

Happy New Year World! Here’s wishing everyone a joyous, prosperous & peaceful 2019!

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I do not want to go yada-yada-yada about first blank page on the book of 365 days and such like, but I do think that trying to constantly improve and evolve oneself is a journey and whether, we embark on it on Day 1 of the year or or Day 198, really does matter, as long as we move forward with the journey! Now as most of you are aware, moving forward with a evolutionary journey for me especially involves reading and reading good books, that open the world to me, makes me think and generally and hopefully makes me become better! Thus, it is only natural that one of the things that I have planned for 2019, is to read more and read better and as a consequence write more and write better!

However, I am also aware that we should not aim so high that a fall is inevitable; dreaming is good, but it is equally important, to plan the steps to that will help you achieve the dream! Long and short of this meandering monologue is that while I really would want to read and read a lot more (in fact, I have set myself the target of 100 books this year, after spectacularly failing to meet the Reading Goal of 60 Books this year and in 2017 in GoodReads!) I also am expecting a continued heavy work load and now being a year older and wiser, unexpected thunderbolts from powers that be, that suddenly and completely disrupt life! Therefore, in the spirit of being ambitious, with a modicum of sense, I am signing up for only one challenge – The 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, hosted by Adam, over at Roof Beam Reader.

This challenge helped me immensely last year and while I was not able to read all the 12 books I had planned and listed, I still managed to read quite a lot and some of them were absolutely marvelous and enriching! Therefore, I continue the pursuit of excellence again this year and share with you the 12 Books for this challenge with the alternates –

  • January – The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart
  • February – Orely Farm by Anthony Trollope
  • March – Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
  • April – The End of History and The Last Man Standing by Francis Fuokuyama (I had this in last year’s challenge as well, but then gave up!)
  • May – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (Cleo, NEED HELP!!)
  • June –  A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  • July – Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • August – Kim by Rudyard Kipling
  • September – Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
  • October – Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
  • November – Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy
  • December – Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Alternates –

  1. And Quiet Flows The Don –  Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov
  2. Alaska by James Michener

So that’s my list! I am hoping for a better record than last year, for sure, but even more importantly, I hope to read some enriching and engaging literature. What are your reading plans for this year or any other plans for that matter?

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