The Curious Incident of my Mom at daytime….

My love affair with books is a gift from my parents. I cannot remember a time when my dad did not read out to me and when his fingers moving over the alphabets in those large pop out fairy tale books became absorbed in my mind, for me to read on my own. As far as I can remember, all my birthdays, well done in school presents, dad/mom out on office tour returning presents have always been books. One could easily say that my heritage was books and authors handed down from one generation to another.

My father has always been bit of a scholar and a reader. At the university he was involved in a student politics and from old records and tales, I know he was a popular leader, who read voraciously – fiction, history and politics (especially Marx and friends! To this date, Dad and I debate out the Socialism vs. Democratic debate over family dinners. I know communism is dead….China does not count as a socialist state; but what can I say…like daughter like father …eccentricity run in the family!) Even when he joined the foreign services, he kept up his reading habits and read everything from the newspaper to  The New Yorker to Gorky. Considering all this, his marriage to my mum is kind of surprising.  My dad’s family belongs to an old world family, in fact one of the oldest families of the city, that studied hard and believed in doing work for the greater good of mankind. My Mum was the quintessential uptown girl; my great grandfather, i.e. her grandfather was the man who made it big and the family wealth grew from that. There was not much in terms of culture and though everyone aspired for a summa cum laude degree, it was from enabling a status in the society than pursuit of real intellect motive.  My mom was more or less true to her family leanings and though she was and is an extremely strong woman, who has fought off many adversities in her life, when she gets into her comfort zone, she would revert to her family traits of indulgence and acquisitive extravagance.

Given such a background, it was kind of surprising, that my mom encouraged my love of reading, writing and studies so much. (Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we did not have mammoth fights where she resolved never to see me again and I told her that I will ensure that this wish of hers is made possible! You know the whole nine yards. She is a strong opinionated woman who unfortunately has raised a strong opinionated daughter! Woe is hers!) She never read out to me nor did she ever recommend a book I should read or buy. But she always gave me money to buy them and when away on office tours or other outings, she would always take a list of books that I would want her to buy. She encouraged me to apply to some of the best universities and when I actually got through one of them, she was over the moon.  Despite all this, reading was not for her and she would rather spend hours on an end in the malls than browsing through books.

My mom retired from work about 6 years ago. I had already moved out of my parent’s place for some 5 years prior to this time.  My mom suddenly found a lot of time on her hands; sure she could cook and she did try cooking a lot of experimental stuff for which she never had time before. She also went out a lot and I do mean a lot with her sisters – mall hoping and shopping and movie watching. But still she found time on her hands. Then one day cleaning my old books, she started reading the back cover of a novel – think it was Jeffrey Archer’s Where the Crow Flies. Not much in terms of literature but a great book to read on a flight. She read the back cover and then she ventured slowly and might I say a bit nervously into the first few chapters. It took her I think 20+ days to finish the novel. She found it interesting, though tedious to plod through the whole 400 pages, but she was eager to find out what happened in the end. She then picked up a Sidney Sheldon and a master storyteller that he was, he kept her glued on until she found out how does Tracy Whitney finally escapes (If Tomorrow Comes). She ventured into a few more such reading trysts. I was not aware of her forays into reading until she came to visit me next year for a couple of weeks. Like I mentioned in my previous post, I do not have crockeries and I do not have furniture; hell! I do not even have a television. What I do have is books, books and more books. I found her tentatively and hesitantly reaching out to some of them and being unsure if she could read them. On delving into the matter I found out that she had started reading but was kind of concerned that she might not comprehend some of my more supra intellectual books (I do not think I read supra intellectual stuff. I think most supra intellectual stuff ends in tragedies and I do not like tragedies!) Anyhow, I was so floored with my mum’s efforts that I sought out some easy reads like Wilkie Collins and Somerset Maugham (Yes! I know different genres, but she was getting started and I wanted to introduce her to a wide range).

That was 5 years ago! Today my mum reads as much as I do and practically all the authors that I read, from Tolstoy to Iggulden to Bulgakov to Pratchett; the list can go on….she is not overly fond of Pratchetts or Rowlings but she loves Iggulden and Kaye and Peter Carey. She is romance freak, quite unlike me and makes me buy her Gorgette Hyer and others such by the dozen.  Her own collection is rivalling my own and she has recently learnt the art of online shopping, so ordering books is now on her fingertips! She battles with me about the relative merits of one author versus another and has even started suggesting stuff that I should definitely read!

What impresses me the most about all of this is the fact that this woman, who so set in her ways and steeped into her family tendencies had the immense courage and strength to take up something she had never done in her life at the age of 60. Hats off Mum! May your reading be as adventurous and wonderful as your daughter’s!

More on History and Story

india calcutta bookstore
india calcutta bookstore (Photo credit: FriskoDude)

Continuing on my previous musings of historical novels, I must own that my very first introduction to the genre of historical novels began with M M Kaye’s The Shadow of the Moon- set in 1857 India, it chronicles the Sepoy Mutiny through the principle characters of Captain Alex Randall and Winter de Ballesteros.  It might not be her most famous book, especially when one compares it to her epic work – The Far Pavilions, the immortal love story of Captain Ashton and Princess Julie, in the backdrop of the third Anglo Afghan War, but maybe I read the former at an impressionable age, it remains a favourite! I know all the high brow’s are lifting thier eye brows at my taste, but I love MM Kaye…so there!

When it comes to historical novels,nothing  beats the genre of James Michener and lately Edward Rutherford. Of all Michener’s writings, The Source remains my all-time favourite and a comfort book. I am obsessed about Israel and a story about this land is told through the multiple layers of its history and the heirs of Ur (the first man), it’s bound to much used in my collection! Then there are what I consider flighty historical novels – Leon Uris and his Mila 18, Exodus and The Haj, all of which I have read and re-read and adore, but cannot be really considered serious body of history, many be excluding Exodus. They are great reads, but thier historcial depth leaves a lot to imagination! Then there is Michelle Moran; she has written exhaustively about Egyptian History – Nefertiti, The Heretic Queen and Cleopatra’s daughter, but I believe the one book that is far better than all of these is her last work – Madam Tussaud. It’s a rich complex tale of young a Marie Tussaud, an artist specializing in wax figurines and forced to make death masks in the background of the French Revolution. Again great stories but no sense of real history. Then there is Lord Jeffery Archer and his Cane and Able and Where the Crow Flies and Only Time will Tell. Great reads set usually during the period of 1890-1950s, documenting the rise and fall of iconic characters and their loves and lives. Read em, enjoy em and forget em! There is Philippa Gregory and her mammoth works on Tudor England, especially The Other Boleyn Girl and it’ sequels, The Queen’s Fools, The Virgin Lovers etc. Not particularly correct history, but then I could be completely mistaken!

In terms of serious classic historical novels, I think Umberto Eco and Hillary Mantel lead the brigade. I took forever to read The Name of the Rose, but once I finished it, I was in awe of the whole work. Not many people like the book and there is enough controversy around the same, but at the end of the day it’s a very good read. Wolf Hall is also a modern classic as Mantel explores the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in a brilliantly researched book, which keeps very close to history. There is Robar Harris and his Imperium, Lustrum and Pompeii and if you cannot guess, they are all based on Ancient Rome and I am not particularly fond of them and find these works tedious! There is John Masters and his series of novels based on Colonial India, The Nightrunners of Bengal, The Ravi Lancers and his most famous Bhowani Junction, though I think his best work is The Nightrunners. Alex Rutherford, the pseudonym for the husband and wife duo of Michael and Diana Preston who have written a very accurate and extremely captivating series on the first five Mughal Emperors of India. A S Byatt is another well-known literary figure requiring little introduction. Her Possessions captures the beauty of Victorian England and merging with lyrical poetry that traces the forbidden love affair of Randolph Henry Ashton and Christobel LaMotte.  I am even more enamoured of her “The Childern’s Book’ which traces the lives of Wellwoods and Cains through 1890’s to 1914, though there are times I do feel the story should “get a move on”. Colleen McCullough and her Master of Rome series is also an exhaustively researched work that traces the end of Roman Republic.

My unmatched picks are Conn Iggulden, and JG Fuller and Peter Carey. Iggulden has written extensively on rise and fall of Julius Cesar in his four part novels – The Empire series. But my personal favourite are his Conqueror series that traces the rise and fall of Chengiz Khan and Mongols during 15th century. Rich in details and customs, it not only presents Chengiz in wholly different light, without any apologies for his deeds. Valerio Massimo Manfredi is another of my favourites. I loved his The Alexander Trilogy, but my real prized possession is The Lost Army, based on the accounts of Xenophon and his Anabasis and the legion of 10,000 that was sent to support Artaxerxes II against his brother, Cyrus of Persia, it is tale that vividly captures the life and times of Ancient Greeks and one of the most remarkable adventures in human history. JG Fuller won his Pulitzer for The Seize of Krishnapur and I must own its one of finest accounts of the Indian mutiny without any unnecessary glorification to the cause of either side and a true account of men and women tested in most trying times. Oscar and Lucinda is Pater Carey’s best. He has written The True History of the Kelly Gang – epic tale of a family through the various stages of Australian history and can be aptly called the great Australian novel. But nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing compares to Oscar and Lucinda, the obsessive compulsive gamblers on a boat to Australia and an incorrigible bet of transporting a glass Church from Sydney to Bellingen, come together to make a classic read!

To end with, I must confess, I have a huge thing for Salman Rushidie’s works, though many a times his writings take me on an intellectual trapeze act where my mind can no longer follow! I know enough has been written and cried about Midnight’s Children, so I’ll let it be and instead talk about The Enchantress of Venice that interplays and alternates between 16th century India and Akbar’s court and the 15th century Florence! It’s filled with images and scenes that bring it to life two magnificent eras of world history with all its caprices!