Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What I've been reading lately...

Have been a lazy blogger this year so haven't blogged at all about the several wonderful books I read this year. A quick summary of recently read and thus top of mind books:

Basharat Peer - Curfewed Night - a memoir set in Kashmir of the '80s onwards. The book is a series of anecdotes from various people in Kashmir impacted by the militancy and the army crackdown, following along Basharat's own life from his school days to his studing at college in Aligarh, his career as a journalist in Delhi and his eventual return to Kashmir. I read this for the book club and found myself quite emotional by the end of it. I couldn't decide whether he wanted this to be a journalistic account or whether he wanted to make a point. In fact, I couldn't figure out what he himself felt about the events in Kashmir, whether he sympathized with the militants or the Indian army...At one point in the book his parents are almost killed by a bomb thrown by the miliants and while he is shocked and grieved at the fact, he doesn't really express any anger against them. In a way, I felt his lack of a point of view, either way, robbed the book of depth for me. At the same time, possibly he and most others like him, are highly ambiguous in what they feel towards the militants, the Indian army( well, maybe less ambiguity there), the dream of a free Kashmir and the help/ threat from Pakistan. It's so much easier for those of us who can have black and white views on the major events, possibly because we have not been caught up in them, willy nilly.

Alexander McCall Smith - the entire Mma Ramotswe series, set around a detective agency in Botswana. Again a gently ruminative series, like his Isabel Dalhousie books, pondering on the many small conundrums of life rather than the big 'mystery' as the genre typically pursues. Interesting, gentle characters lead the stories and their ltitle quirks and foibles just make them the more endearing - could certainly relate to Grace's love of shoes!

Indu Sundaresan - The Feast of Roses. Beautifully written, like The Twentieth Wife, and highly evocative of royal life in the Mughal period. Intricately detailed and beguiling, it was a great peek into the mind and life of Noor Jehan, the way that her life panned out, the great love that she and Jahangir shared, her struggle for power in the palace, and how she ended up competing against her own niece, Mumtaz Mahal, for power and ascendancy. The Mughal court was reconstructed in fabulous detail and it took me a while to come out from there and back into the real world. Now looking forward to reading The Shadow Princess...

Alex Rutherford - A Kingdom Divided, Brothers at War and Ruler of the World. I really enjoyed the first two books - again a great peek into Indian history and some of its rulers. The story of Humayun was interesting - a mystic, opium-addict, who frittered away his father's legacy for several years, caught in fratricidal wars and his own weird beliefs - like different colours for different days of the week, or different days of the week for trasacting different kinds of business. It was also a very detailed look at the life and times that prevailed, and great follow-ups to raiders of the North which detailed Babur's life. However, Ruler of the World was a real letdown. Akbar has always been known as one of the greatest Mughal kings, if not Kings in general, for a variety of reasons, ranging from his ability to temper aggression with justice to his skilful compromising which led to a vast network of allies and put a halt to internecine warfare. His domestic administration was as well thought out and wise as his foreign policy, and of course his broad outlook on religion was highly unusual. However, in this book, almost the entire focus was on Akbar's poor relationship with his sons, especially Jahangir, and his lack of empathy as a father and his fractured relationship with Salim's mother. It was a real let down for the reader and a let down of Akbar himself, who surely deserved a broader framework. In despair, I turned to Abraham Eraly's Emperors of the Peacock Throne, where I found a much more well-rounded picture of Akbar and his reign.

Walter Isaacson - Steve Jobs. I had never been a big user of Apple products, having acquired an iPod just last year, but somehow when Steve Jobs died, it really hit me hard. I felt like a hugely brilliant mind and a truly intelligent innovator had been extinguished, so we were very happy to get this book as a prize at the Pub Quiz. Let me say at the outset that it was painstakingly researched - unfortunately, the pain shows in the writing. I wish the book had been a little more peppy and zesty as befitting Steve Jobs. But it was a very thorough biography and painted a true picture of the man, warts and all. There were so many angles to him that left me thinking hard, from his reaction to having been adopted to his own relationship with his kids, the way he befriended people and yet stayed detached, almost ruthlessly so...Clearly a very complex genius, whose real strength lay in his ability to visualize what people wanted to be able to do and then connect the dots with technology.

Philippa Gregory - various...highly detailed, and yet emotional and evocative accounts of women who stayed behind the scenes and yet played major roles in English and European politics in the middle ages.

Jean Plaidy - The Queen's Husband. A fictional biography of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, and their life together. He came from a small principality in Germany, and yet was brought up to be very correct and had a huge sense of noblesse oblige. In contrast, though Victoria was the only heir in England, she was brought up in a much more haphazard manner. The relationship between the two was deep and loving, and her image to the contrary, Victoria was a highly passionate and emotional young women. Under Albert's influence, she learned to put country above her own emotions. Yet they had a fascinating relationship as he was never crowned King and was just a consort, while she had grown up knowing she would rule. Jean Plaidy does her usual excellent justice to both characters and their milieu including the ups and downs of English politics of the time.

Elif Shafak - 40 Rules of Love. My first by this author and am going to head for more. A lovely juxtaposition of the modern-day humdrum and safe life of a housewife in the US with the lively and exciting love of Rumi the poet and Shams Tabriz, a sufi dervish, in the 13th century. Brilliantly written, it took me right to the heart of Rumi's household in the middle east and the whole cast of characters who populate his and Shams' story. Told from the points of view of the various characters who inhabit the stories, it's a great insight into sufism as well as a thought provoking read.

Julian Barnes - The sense of an Ending. Not quite sure where I am with this book. On the one hand, I found the concept of looking back at life fascinating - it's almost like you never know who you are because your own history eventually becomes a story you told yourself and others. So when you go back and confront multiple perspectives or find other people's parts of your story, suddenly the narrative gets deconstructed and you're back to square one. On the other hand, I didn't understand the fuss and the Man Booker part of it...

Currently reading and loving Kunal Basu - The Yellow Emperor's Cure

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What I've been reading

I've been doing a lot of good reading since this year began. Henning Mankell was one such new discovery. I'm also enjoying India by Patrick French and Jaya, an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik. For my bookclub, I read The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal. A had very mixed feelings about it and I typically have similar reactions so I began it hesitantly, but soon found myself drawn in by the story, the characters and the writing. The way that the author wrote about the stage of a relationship where one partner has lost interest but still cares for the other, and wants the other person to read their mind so they don't have to do the bad job of actually breaking up was beautifully and poignantly described. The story of the American woman was intriguing, and overall the quality of the writing was beautiful. I have to confess I skipped several passages of purple prose but I loved reading the book, and I loved the conclusions about the nature of desire and relationships.

I read Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser. He is someone who has always fascinated me, because we know such superficial things about him, like his long reign and the Sun King who built Versailles. The book brought him alive as a person, the many women he loved, his attitude towards the duties of kings, the fact that he was deeply religious, the reasons behind the pomp and splendour, his strategising in terms of foreign policy and much more.

I also read Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser, and found it a compelling and revealing read, despite the fact that I have read several books about her and am quite well-versed with her story. The book brought home the fact that she was much more sinned against than sinning; even that famously fatuous 'let them eat cake' remark attributed to her had also been attributed to Louis XIV's mother a hundred years before. She was neglected in terms of upbringing and education by her ambitious mother, and taught conflicting things. on the one hand, her mother wanted her to be a true 'daughter of France' after marriage, on the other, she wanted marie Antoinette to influence French policy in a way beneficial for Austria. With an unhappy marriage to a boorish, suspicious, sullen and self-conscious husband who didn't consummate the marriage for 7.5 years, in an age when princesses were only valued or their ability to give the country royal heirs, she turned to all kinds of amusements, from the Trianon to Opera and gambling.

The famous extravagance that is cited against her was a royal habit, with none of the French royals ever sticking to their allowances. Her chief desire was to be a good wife and especially a good mother but the ceremoniousness of the French court at Versailles prevented even that. In the end, after her husband's vacillation had caused their escape efforts to come to nothing, after his execution, her infant son (8) was forced to turn against her and accuse her of all kinds of indecent behaviour so she could be found guilty and executed. The book brilliantly brings all this to light, and her to life as a character. I found myself in tears by the end of it.

Another series that I am reading and enjoying tremendously is the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. Set in Edinburgh, the books bring the city vibrantly to life with its contrasts of a rich cultural city life and the boon of amazing views and countryside within easy reach. The key character is a 40-ish female philosopher who thinks deeply about everyday decisions and leads a reflective life, even while she hooks up with a boyfriend 15 years younger, who also happens to be her niece's ex-boyfriend, and has a baby at over 40.

I love the way that McCall Smith shows such deep insight into the female mind, and it's a suspension of disbelief to realise it's a he who wrote the books. The books have an investigative problem at the heart, though nothing as gruesome as violent crime, and their resolution is always rooted in philosophy, the simple art of courtesy which seems to be disappearing from modern life, and John Donne's famous poem, 'Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee'.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jaipur Litfest

We had been hearing about JLF for the past 6 years, and it always sounded interesting, but somehow not like something we could do. Partly, we thought it'd be one of those fearfully intellectual events that always numb my brain. I guess somewhere we were also busy having babies 2 and 3 and bringing up baby # 1, and working…all that jazz that one uses as reasons and then when you stop using those excuses and decide to go, you wondered why you didn't go earlier. So sometime last year, the idea of planning to go to Litfest germinated, and finally during the IIMC reunion, my BFF/ soulsis and another dear friend said they would both go this year. Another dear friend has been going to JLF the past two years, so it seemed like a no-brainer – literature in the company of good friends. A unfortunately was stuck holding the fort/ kids as my parents were out of town, though I have told him we have to plan so we can both go together next year.

I couldn't stay for 5 whole days, so we went from Friday to Sunday evening…and it was blissful. From the very first event, where Dr. Karan Singh and Stephen Pollock spoke about the need to preserve Indian culture and literature through creating avenues where people could access and enjoy it, to further sessions, where you sat on dusty floors, cheek by jowl with David Godwin or Vikram Seth, or had a brush with greatness ( Coetzee brushed past me on his walk to the stage ), or made a blithering idiot of yourself in front of Javed Akhtar, it was such a joyous celebration of the power of literature, to move a diverse set of people, both physically, since everyone had travelled some distance to be there, and emotionally. What made it special was the diversity of the writers, and the fact that most of us growing up in the India of the '70s and '80s could never have imagined them traveling to India and speaking to a crowd of us, rather than going off on intensely guarded private holidays. I was also immensely pleased with the democratic nature of the festival – attendance is free, and there's no special seating for anyone apart from the speakers. Even the organizers, if not in action at a particular event, have to find squatting space wherever they can, there's none of that obsequiousness and obligatory bows to the famous/ notorious (i.e. politicians) and 'people in power' that marks a typical Indian event of any kind.

Some of my takeaways:

Javed Akhtar speaking as eloquently as only he can about the Urdu Zubaan and how the two-nation theory has given it a religious context due to which it is dying. How Urdu was never the language spoken by Mughals, and actually was spoken by the common people, more Hindus than Muslims. He spoke a simple sentence in daily-speak Hindi which he then broke down etymologically into Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Sanskrit and a few other languages. And he mentioned that Akbar in fact was born in Multan and never travelled outside of India, so how could one call him a foreigner. And that Akbar actually spoke Punjabi and a couple of other languages but not Urdu/ Persian. I came away with this mental image of a short, portly Akbar, wearing a white lungi and safa, which apparently was his preferred mode of dressing, calling out to Salim of Dilip Kumar/ Devdas vintage in the popular imagination, "Oh Salim! Itthe aa. Us laundi wich ki karr riya 'ai?"

Rita Chaudhury's book Makaam. She is an Assamese novelist and her novel is based on a real and shameful incident in India's modern history. Many Chinese people had migrated to India after Communists took over China, and some of them had settled in Assam, married the locals and thought of themselves as Indians of Chinese origin. Suddenly in 1962, on the penultimate day of the Indo-Chinese War, the Indian Government rounded them all up from this village, Makaam in Assam, and transported them in subhuman conditions to Rajasthan. The Government had decided that all Chinese were spies, but they had no way of telling in this group who was of Chinese origin and who was not, so they picked the ones they thought were the most Chinese looking ( how's that for racism?), and shipped them off to China. Husbands and wives were torn apart, siblings, parents and children were all rendered bereft. When those left in Rajasthan went back to Assam, they found that al their hard-earned property had been sequestered by the State as 'enemy property'. The people shipped off to China had no family, no money, no contacts there, many didn't even know the language, they spoke only Assamese. Some were even of purely Indian origin. Their life plans of becoming doctors or engineers, marriage and children were all put on hold as they struggled to survive. Even today, they live scattered all over the globe including mainland China and Hongkong, speak Assamese and remember the old days with fondness. But they still carry the fear they felt then and are scared to come back. Rita Chaudhury went and met many of them and their video-taped interviews had me in tears. They sing old Hindi songs from the 50s and 60s, have cultural festivals where they all sing and dance to Indian songs and yet carry these scars and fears deep within. Rita Chaudhury read out one passage from her book translated into English, and it was beautifully written. I am just waiting for the English version to come out.

Orhan Pamuk was merciless in dismissing his interviewers, on-stage and off, pithily asking them to keep their questions short. He was also extremely funny, especially when asked at length by an elderly gentleman, as to whether philosophical love was better or physical love. His brief response: "I can't resist saying this – that depends on the depth of penetration!"

A 6-member panel moderated by Barkha Dutt on the AfPak issue. The one Afghanistani represented on the panel, Atif, lives in France, and had a translator as he said his English was very poor. When asked about the Afghanistan issue, he replied, "It makes me laugh when people talk about this, because always, when it comes to Afghanistan, everyone else decides what is to be done, Afghanistanis never get to decide." Barkha underlined his point when, for the rest of the discussion, she never gave the gentleman the floor. Later that day, I happened to catch the tail-end of a session with him, in which he was speaking eloquently and fluently in English, so I guess he gave Barkha hers, in spades!

A session on Gaata Rahe Mera Dil by Javed Akhtar, Gulzar and Prasoon Joshi was packed to the rafters – it was very hard for the speakers to get in. In fact, the organizers had to organize a second session of the same at a larger venue, and even that was packed out. The three of them discussed what's happening to the songs in Indian cinema. Javed felt that it seemed as if filmmakers in India had become ashamed of our Indian idiom of including songs in the movies, so they were turning to movies without songs, to impress the West, whereas the whole world loves our colourful and melodious cinema. Another point made by all three was that there seemed to be a 'jhijak' or shrinking away from deeper emotions in today's songs, so there were no soulful sad songs or songs of yearning, lullabies. A crudity was creeping into the language and the stories told. Earlier, producers used to have a wholesome fear of the 'public' and hesitated to do anything they feared would offend the public, but today the new God was youth, and everyone followed what they thought youth would lap up. A young girl in the audience made a thoughtful comment about how youth loved the wholesome and thought-provoking lyrics of Taare Zameen Par and Rang de basanti etc, so it was more a matter of a lack of better choice available to them than that their standards had fallen.

A wonderful debate on Why Books Matter – how they help take us out of our own setting and miniscule problems which nevertheless loom large, and place us in a different context. One elderly gentleman in the audience deplored the poor reading tastes of the modern-day public, where cookbooks and film-books sold more copies than literary works. Javed Akhtar, also in the audience, was called in as an ad-hoc member of the panel and he replied in his inclusivist style that he was not a puritan or a purist and he would be the last to advocate that the public read only literary masterpieces, but that they should read everything. In the same vein, the previous day, he had said that he loved songs like Beedi Jalaile or Munni Badnaam. His only issue was that they should have all types of songs, not just 'item songs'. (Are you getting the feeling I have fallen in love with Javed Akhtar? I certainly am!)

A session on 1857, which was supposed to feature William Dalymple and Mahmood Farrouqui had an added bonus of Mrinal Pande. She has recently translated a Marathi first-person account of 1857 from the Hindi to English, and it was hot off the presses. The story is fascinating – a couple of Marathi Brahmin priests decide to do a pilgrimage and set off for the holy places in the north just before the stirring events of that year. Somehow, each place they wind up in is a hotbed of insurgency/ rebellion against the British – they land in Gwalior and report on Scindia, in Kanpur where Nana Sahib has to decide what to do with a party of English women and children trying to find their way to safe territory, in Jhansi, where they find that Lakshmibai is incensed with the Company usurping regal powers and fights back…After safely making their way back, one of the Brahmins wrote down a record of the events, with instructions that it be published after his death. He dies in 1904, and two versions of the book came out in 1907 from different publishers, so that in case the British confiscated the work of one, the other would at least survive. It sounds like a fascinating story, and Mrinal Pande narrated it like a grandmother telling her grandchildren a bedtime story, with humour and affection. Again, a book I am dying to get my hands on.

cross-posted at We are like this only