Keep Calm And Read A Book (or two)

You might wonder why suddenly I am fixated on reading for children, the answer to this is quite simple. Reading opens up a world of magic and imagination; the fact that comprehension, vocabulary, sentence structure, spellings are also helped is icing on the cake. This post is about my perspective as a parent as to what books, will entertain children as well as instill in them a love of reading.My only qualification for writing this post is that I have been in love with books all my life. So in order to get some credibility, I decided to take some help and advice from Ms.Richa Prakash, an academician. She gladly recommended some books and also shared her viewpoints to solve some of my doubts.

So here goes……

Tinkle/Amar Chitra Katha (Ages 5 onwards): Tinkle was one of the first names Ms.Richa recommended. Tinkle is something which almost all of us have grown up with. The characters are endearing (Shikari Shambu anyone??), there is humour and they teach us good morals as well. Amar Chitra Katha or ACK is one of the easiest ways to introduce children to Indian mythology and Indian heroes. The fact that Kush has rated Great Freedom Fighters as one of his top ten books and Rishabh is reading Paramvir Chakra drives home the universal appeal of these books. As both of them are comic books they are colourful and easy to read. (Trivia: For Bahubali fans, even the director was inspired by ACK in designing his city)

Abridged Classics (Ages 7 onwards): Abridged classics are highly recommended by Ms.Richa and I agree. Abridged classics are a great way to introduce great works in an easier format to the children.  I had specifically asked Ms.Richa why these books are important and her answer was pretty clear, good vocabulary and great stories. Even in this day and age, when English has become the main language for communication, these books help in showing children the beauty of the written language as well as in making them more confident readers. Some of my favourite abridged classics include Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and Oliver Twist (we bought a lovely abridged one for Kush last year making it easier for him to read).

I will add a note of caution here, there are too many cheap imitations of the abridged classics in the market you even get them in the dollar stores, so do go through it once before handing it over to the child, else you might do more harm than good. Another point to take care is that the print is easy for the child to read plus please do not rush the child, if the child is not understanding the book or finding it a difficult read, let the child give up and come back to it later.

Harry Potter (Ages 10 upwards): To quote Stephen King “Books are a uniquely portable magic”. No other series comes even closer to Harry Potter books in opening up a world of magic for children. According to Ms.Richa, this book opens up a world of imagination as well teaches them about empathy and acceptance of something which is not the norm. J.K.Rowling has created a believable, alternate magical world, which co-exists with our world. Her descriptions of Hogwarts/Quidditch are so enthralling that the child actually wants to attend Hogwarts, even though the child might be a muggle!

You must be wondering why I have kept the age group for this book as ten upwards. My reasoning for this is that once a child reads the first book in the series, the child wants to keep reading the series. While there is nothing wrong in that, with Harry Potter each progressive book is darker, making books 6 and 7, in my opinion, unsuitable for children younger than 12.

Geronimo Stilton (Ages 6 upwards): Another series highly recommended by Ms.Richa is  Geronimo/Thea Stilton which is quite popular with children. The main reason for recommending is that these books introduce the children to the world as well as entertain them.

Indian Authors (Ages 8 onwards):  As an expat parent one of the worries I face is how my children will learn more about Indian history and culture( and love India the way I do). Thankfully there are excellent books written by Indian writers which bring India alive for children.  Authors like Sudha Murthy, Ruskin Bond and R.K.Narayan bring alive the small villages and towns of India for children. Another favourite Subhadra Sen Gupta’s “Let’s Go Time Travelling” is one of the best books I have come across about Indian History written in a very breezy manner. Some more books on my favourite list include Fun In Devlok- Devdutt Pattanaik(about Indian Mythology);We, The People of India -Leila Seth ( about the constitution of  India); A Flag , A Song and A Pinch Of Salt – Subhadra Sen Gupta ( About the freedom heroes of India);The Gita For Children – Roopa Pai ( highly recommended to introduce The Gita to children,click on the link for my review  https://undecidedindubai.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/the-conversation/)

Enid Blyton (Ages 5 upwards): One might think that the simple stories of Enid Blyton might be obsolete in this day and age of digital media, however, I beg to differ. The stories have a timeless appeal and teach children imagination (Enchanted Woods), teamwork (Five Find-Outers) as well as getting along in whatever the circumstances (Mallory Towers, St.Clares).

David Walliams/Andy Griffiths (Ages 7 onwards): These books resonate with children as they have loads of humour and are illustrated making the books more approachable. In Andy Griffith’s books, the boys build and keep expanding the tree house, opening up a world of imagination for children. David Walliams, on the other hand, introduces seemingly mundane topics, like a boring granny, but there is the wisdom of life in his books. The children get exposed to the facts of life, for example in Billionaire Boy, children in a subtle way realise that money can buy you everything but a friend.

Roald Dahl (Ages 7 upwards): BFG anyone?? Roald Dahl is one of the most endearing children’s author and my personal favourite as well. His books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, BFG, Fantastic Mr.Fox have all been made into a movie, which does not mean that the child should watch the movie instead of reading the book. Better do both, read the book and watch the movie, and then compare! The characters introduced by Mr.Dahl are timeless, Oompa Loompa’s, Willy Wonka, BFG are all oddballs who enthrall the children. The stories have a timeless appeal, BFG’s story of being a misfit who overcomes the odds with Sophie’s help can be in any year or any place.

Dr.Suess (Ages 4 upwards): You cannot write a blog post about children’s authors and not write about Dr.Suess. When my younger one was not interested in books, it was “There’s a Wocket in my pocket” which came to the rescue. If you read any of his books on the thing which stands out is the ridiculous rhyming of words that he uses. So there is jertain rhyming with curtain, wocket with pocket …..This is what the children, especially the beginner readers love.  In this particular book if you want to go to a deeper level you would realise it is celebrating the imagination of a child, what all creatures the child thinks are hidden around the house.

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These are just suggestions based on my personal preferences, what the child finally reads depends on the child’s taste and reading capability.  This list also does not include series like Percy Jackson /Lord Of the Rings/ Narnia/Lemony Snickets etc, the reason being I have tried to keep the list for years ten and younger. I would like to, however, emphasize the point to take the children to a bookstore/library.  When children handle and pick out books for themselves they are much more likely to read the book.

I would like to express my gratitude to Ms.Richa Prakash for taking out time and recommending books to me and for clarifying my doubts. It is always gratifying when your choices as a mother are validated by someone with so many years of experience in the educational field.

On World Book Day 2017, Khaled Hosseini wrote: “ Books always have been and always will be our most effective devices of empathy- a virtue urgently needed nowadays”.

Let’s make our children more empathetic.

 

For The Love Of Reading

It is not a state secret that I love to read books. It is a wonderful solitary pursuit which gives immense satisfaction to me. Recently, however, parents have been asking me to recommend books for their children. While one reads according to personal interests when you ask the same person to recommend a book you are laying a huge responsibility on the person’s shoulder, even more so when you have to recommend a book for a child. The book that you suggest should be interesting enough for the child to finish reading and not scare the child away from reading for a lifetime. Ideally, it should also be informative enough to keep the parents happy. The good part about people asking me to recommend books for their children (apart from me puffing up with pride) was that it gave me the idea for this blog post.

I am planning to write two parts to this post. I decided to do find out as to what the children really liked reading nowadays (we are just not up to date as to what is “in” these days). For the second part of the blog post, I will be writing more from a parent’s point of view. My helpers were my two adorable boys and I decided to take their viewpoint as to what they really liked to read and why ( I am a homemaker, don’t have time to ask too many children, I have loads of laundry to do!!!).

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My first subject was my younger son, Rishabh, who is a few months shy of his eighth birthday. Contrary to fifty-percent of his genetic makeup, he does not like to read. Still on being asked he did come up with a list of ten books that he had read plus he liked them a lot. Since some of the books were part of the series so I decided to cull them down to five.

So here are top five favorite books of Rishabh.

Dinosaurs (Miles Kelley):

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Well no surprises here, the boy has been fascinated by dinosaurs ever since he was a baby. According to Rishabh, there are lots of interesting facts about dinosaurs in the book and his favorite chapter in the book is all about T-Rex.

Tree House Series (Andy Griffith):

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For a boy who doesn’t like to read Rishabh has finished all the five books in the series and is now waiting for the next one to be published. I guess that is recommendation enough.

Knowledge Bank:

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Again a book read cover to cover by my boy. According to Rishabh, it gives loads of cool facts about a variety of topics, the chapter on the universe being his favorite.

Geronimo Stilton(Elisabetta Dami):

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He had included The Haunted Castle, Giant Diamond Robbery and The Gold Medal Mystery in his top ten books. The series are his favorite as the books are funny, the characters have great adventures around the world plus solve mysteries. In all, a very interesting read.

Sheikhchilli:

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We have to give the boy’s father credit for introducing this character in the boy’s literary world. Rishabh finds all the stories very funny and his favorite one is “Painting The Town Red”.

Currently, Rishabh is reading ParamVir Chakra (Amar Chitra Katha).

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Kush is my elder son, just about ten and has taken after me, which in other words means he is an avid reader. For him to pick out ten of his favorite books was a slightly tougher task but he did manage to whittle them down.

So here are top ten favorite books of  Kush.

Harry Potter(J.K.Rowling):

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Well, no surprises there right? I was pretty strict about him not reading them till he turned ten and luckily he received the first two as gifts just a month shy of his birthday. Kush likes the character of Harry best, even more than Ron, as Harry has glasses (just like Kush!). Hagrid is another favorite character as he loves Harry unconditionally.

Gangsta Granny(David Williams):

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Kush likes this book about a boy who discovers new things about his grandmother. It is a funny book but also sad as the granny has cancer!

Geronimo Stilton(Elisabetta Dami):

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So this series seems like a winner as it pops up on the list of both the boys. Kush was more forthcoming about what he really likes about these series. Again the common point with both of them being lots of solving mysteries in these books.

Wimpy Kid(Jeff Kinney):

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Ok, confession time, I used to absolutely dislike the sight of Kush reading these books. He, however, has read almost all of them, so I guess I was wrong somewhere. Kush’s reason for liking these books is the relatability with the character. So the wimpy kid likes video games, sleeping in late etc…..all the stuff that Kush loves too!

Treehouse Series (Andy Griffiths):

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Another series which pops up in both the lists. Kush’s reasons for liking these series is Andy and Terry’s imagination in building the tree house. They also get to meet new people and have adventures…..plus the books are really funny.

Great Freedom Fighters (Amar Chitra Katha):

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This ACK tells about five freedom fighters from India: Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, Veer Savarkar, Subhash Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. Bhagat Singh’s story was the most inspiring for Kush.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl):

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This story is about a young poor boy Charlie who gets lucky on his birthday. He then manages to win over Mr.Wonka with his honesty and compassion.

Mystery Of The Strange Messages (Enid Blyton):

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Well, Enid Blyton had to come in the list somewhere. The five find outers seem to have a lot of fun in solving mysteries and finding clues. Fatty seems to be most intelligent of the lot according to Kush.

Rusty And The Misty Mountains(Ruskin Bond):

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As a Ruskin Bond fan myself, I was very happy to find one of his books on my son’s list too. He likes the story as it is about the adventures of a boy who climbs up the mountain.

Grandma’s Bag Of Stories(Sudha Murthy):

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This is a book of stories narrated by a grandmother when the children visit their grandparents in holidays (brings back memories doesn’t it?). Kush likes this book as the stories are simple to understand and teach good morals too.

Currently, Kush is reading Chamber of Secrets by J.K.Rowling.

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Now as you can see the lists are varied and different, suiting to each of the boy’s personality. In my next post, I will give you my take on their choices as well as some book recommendations which I think the children would like, plus keep their parents happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Review of Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

When one thinks of Indian Ocean one imagines the golden beaches of Maldives being kissed by the sun-warmed water of Indian Ocean. One rarely (if ever) thinks of how this body of water could have shaped human history. Mr.Sanyal has, in fact, taken the said body of water as his subject and written a full book on its influence on human history. The basic premise of the book is how Indian Ocean region was in a constant state of flux and the movement of people around this region influenced human history.  A couple of things need to be clarified before I start with the review. The word in the title is “human history”, not the history of a country or continent, but of the human race as a whole.Second, when Mr.Sanyal is talking about the Indian Ocean, he includes the large body of water stretching from the coast of Africa to Australia and even includes the Persian Gulf and South China Seas. So all of us who are used to coloring the Indian Ocean as a thin strip of blue at the bottom of India map might have to do some mental re-labeling.

The introductory chapter of the book lays down the reason why the author decided to undertake this massive work. There are also two underlying principles in this book. First the emphasis on matrilineal heritage (surprising, especially in a country like India where women come at the bottom of the ladder) and second is looking at history from a coastal perspective rather than from an inland, big city point of view.

The author then takes us right to the beginning of the human race( well the title does say human history), the migration from Africa and even dips into genetics to show how we are all inter-related (a sad fact for those who believe in racial superiority!). The book follows the merchants of Meluha, who left their mark as far as Rome, till Kharavela who carved out a huge empire in Orissa and took revenge on Pataliputra. It then delves into the history of Sri Lanka; the importance and influence of Kalinga all the way into South East Asia. Other highlights of the book include the settlement of Madagascar by Indonesians (something I was unaware of), the spread of Islam, the importance of Temple guilds of South India for trade with South-East Asia and the rise of Chinese naval might under Zheng He. It finally reaches the modern age with the advent of Europeans in the region when they turned the Indian Ocean into their personal playground for dominance. The last chapter of the book is aptly named “From dusk to new dawn” which deals with the geographical and political relevance of Indian Ocean today.

It is an exhaustive piece of work spanning the full course of human history and a major chunk of the world, yet the author has managed to keep the book under three hundred pages without losing any of the pertinent facts or skipping of eras.The Indian Ocean is the main hero of the book, it is shown as a complex eco-system where each country influences the other and there is a constant intermingling of people and culture. Therefore, on one hand, you have the Indic influence on Khmer script and on the other the import of areca (supari) into India from South-East Asia until it became a  ubiquitous part of Indian society. Similarly Sri Lanka can claim one of their oldest rulers to be from Kalinga while Nandi Varman II, the great Pallava King, was of South –East Asia, possibly Kadaram.

It is an extremely well-researched book with an exhaustive list of sources should you want to double check some fact. One thing which I love about Sanjeev Sanyal’s writing is his engaging narrative style usually for subjects which are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even in this book, he has used anecdotes and characters which keep the reader engrossed throughout. One might say that oral history is not really the backbone of research, but I think that oral history forms the backbone plus adds flavor to research. Oral history, backed by facts, is used by Mr.Sanyal, which is what makes this book such an interesting read. He has also not hesitated to point out the feet of clay of some of our historical heroes (with facts of course)! The other plus point is the tongue-in-cheek remarks in between the narrative, so you have to look out for them. If I have to be nit-picking then I would say that I would have preferred a few more maps and diagrams to break up the narrative in certain places. Plus more reference to the coast of Gujerat (though that area really stands out in the Harrapa age) during 5th to 10th century.

Indian History is vast and complex, going back thousands of years. Most of the history taught to us in schools is from the great kingdoms point of view, so while we have a good knowledge about the Guptas, Chauhan’s and the rise and fall of Delhi, hardly anyone of us knows about Vasco Da Gama’s tactics to spread Portugal’s tentacles into India or about Kharavela’s revenge from Pataliputra. Marthanda Verma and Kharavela are heroes brought into the limelight by this book.

I can give credit to Mr.Sanyal for helping me learn more about my country and my region’s history.

Stand Up! Speak Out!!

When I was a bookish fourteen-year old I had a very interesting conversation with one of my friends. She asked me if I had been “proposed” by any boy. Nerd, that I was, I got confused. I asked her if she meant if I had been “teased” by any boy, to which she rather innocently replied, “Oh no!That happens to everybody!”. When I think back on this rather bizarre conversation between two fourteen-year-old girls standing in the school corridor, I am amazed by the nonchalance with which my friend accepted the fact of “eve-teasing”. She, however, was absolutely correct, it happens to everyone and it happens everywhere!

I have been “teased”, verbally as well as physically. I have been “teased” when I was a ten year old riding my cycle back from grocery store, on a train, on a bus, on the road and once even in the laboratory of my college. The time of the day, the dress you were wearing, your location and whether you were or weren’t alone…..nothing mattered. It happened and it happens.

You must be wondering why I am suddenly revealing so much and that too on such a public platform. There are two reasons for it.

The first, the horrific incident in Bangalore during New Year’s eve, which brought back all the ugly memories (yes been “teased” on Brigade Road too).

The second incident happened a few days back while I was traveling by Dubai metro. I came across a trio of Indian ladies giggling and pointing at a westerner lady in the other compartment. The said lady was wearing a sun dress over a swimsuit obviously on the way to the beach. I was appalled by the reaction of the Indian ladies. For them to be educated, living in a cosmopolitan city and well-dressed to be so judgmental about another lady’s dress was absolutely unacceptable to me. I was left wondering if educated women can behave like this, how can we have any hope of leaving a safer country for our daughters.

When you are “teased” you feel violated and for some like me, you even feel a sense of shame. It is almost as if it were your fault that the “incident” happened. How much ever you might move on in life these incidents leave a deep imprint on your psyche. Do you know what the saddest part is? Most of us do not even speak about it, either because they lack the courage (like me) or even worse, they themselves are blamed for going through that.Their dress, the time of the day they were out, with whom they were out, all are the reasons given for them to be “teased”. I would like to ask all those how a girl walking on the road wearing salwar kameez is to be blamed for a person who comes from behind, gropes her breast and walks on, leaving the girl humiliated and mortified!

To quote Elif Shafak, when women are divided into categories it is the status quo- the patriarchy- that benefits. It is us, the women, who have to band together to be non-judgmental about other women. It is only then we will have the courage to hold on to our strength. The sad thing is the Victorian puritanism is so deeply ingrained in the collective Indian mentality that to accept anything other than the norm becomes difficult. Short dresses, sleeveless tops or heaven forbid a swimsuit for swimming, suddenly become clothes that brand you as “easy” or maybe “sexy”(of course said with a wink, giggle and nudge). Pleasure, weather or practicalities, of course, have no say in this matter. It is very easy to say “She was to blame”, but what if that “she” was YOU???

This post is for the women who have been “teased” and kept quiet. It is for women who have been “teased” and told to be quiet sometimes even by their own mother. It is for the news about molestation cases every day.It is for women who judge other women, and the women who have been judged. It is even for men who do not realise there is a fine line between appreciating a woman and making her feel unsafe.

Which is why we first need to get together as women, speak out when something wrong is happening. If someone has the courage to open about molestation, listen to them, support them, just don’t judge them.

The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad

Twinkle Khanna started her literary career as a weekly celebrity blogger for Time of India. Her first book Mrs.Funnybones raced to the bestseller list in no time and this is her second book. With rather a simple cover page consisting of mangoes and a girl reaching out to them, it hides the complexity of the book.This book is a collection of four short stories, simple on the surface, but with deeper depths, if you look for them.

The first story is about Lakshmi Prasad, a young village girl surrounded by the despondencies of everyday rural life. The simple farmer, his poverty and the need to provide dowries for his daughters. The stark ugly truth about India, of why the girl child is so unwanted for and the Lakshmi Prasad’s revolt against this. The story drives home the need for the empowerment of girls so that we can rise above the ills of dowry system and girl infanticide. The lesson is simple to learn, empower the girl to change the society.

The second story is Salaam, Noni Appa. Noni Appa is a simple soul, who has led an exemplary life. She likes the respect with which people on the street would say to her “Salaam, Noni Appa”. Her relationship with her sister Binni can only be understood by someone who has siblings.The pushing, prodding, teasing, commenting and the underlying layer of love and affection for each other. The incident where Noni, matter-of-factly tells Binni to eat Kayam Churan as Binni had eaten mutton patties underlines their relationship so well.  There is, however, a loneliness in Noni’s life. Her dressing up for her departed husband on what would have been their forty-eighth wedding anniversary had a subliminal poignancy; you could feel Noni’s sadness and love for her husband. Anandji, on the other hand, is as alone as Noni, even though his wife is alive and kicking ( or screaming in this case).  Both of them finding companionship and affection for each other comes as no surprise. There is courage needed to understand and accept the fact that you have limited days on this planet (even less if you are on the wrong side of sixty) and to take a conscious decision to spend those days with the person making you happy.  Anandji and Noni had that courage to accept that they were happier together and this is what made it such an endearing love story.

“If The Weather Permits” is the darkest story amongst the four, where the weather on the wedding day is the barometer of whether Elisa Thomas’s wedding will last or not. Elisa Thomas’s story is about a young woman who refuses to be boxed in and thus baffles her Malayali Christian parents. Her parents have one and only goal of seeing her married off to a good Christian boy of their community. In the words of her father “Deaf and dumb, but a man is a man is a man”. Therein lies the problem, the urge of Indian parents to marry their daughters to a man whom they, the parents, rather than the girl, think is suitable. Failing to get a man from their community they are ready for any man, but the girl needs to be married. Even a girl as free spirited and independent as Elisa succumbs to marry Chacko if only to get her parents off her back for some time. Of course that she repented it almost instantaneously comes as no surprise. The story challenges the conventional mindset of the need for marriage for women to make them complete.

The best story is of course saved for last “The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land”.  The story is of Bablu Kewat’s crusade to provide low-cost sanitary napkins to the women of India especially in the rural areas. Bablu’s journey started with his need to provide his wife with safe, hygienic and low-cost sanitary napkins which soon developed into a crusade. He was however abandoned by the very people for whom he had sacrificed everything. His invention ultimately becomes a tool for social change and female upliftment. Inspired by a true story Bablu Kewat’s story is inspiring as he kept bouncing back whenever life knocked him down. And always comes back up with a smile. He shows exemplary values and courage in returning to the same village from where he was kicked out off. The irony of the villagers who once vilified him, welcoming him back with open arms after he becomes famous is not lost.

The author takes you through her descriptions to rural Bihar, Ismaili Bombay, Christian Kerela and semi-urban Madhya Pradesh. The descriptions are vivid, you can almost see Noni Appa clinking her glass with the one of her husband’s in her pearls and chiffon sari. The author’s writing is not defined by her metaphors or extensive vocabulary.One might even say that her writing is too simplistic. I will agree, the book cannot be classified as a classic but a vacation read. However to dismiss her out of hand would be unfair to her and her stories. The beauty of her writing I think is simplicity. The stories are straightforward, true, but if you look closely they are all about women and the need for them to be in charge of their own destinies. The characters strong and identifiable. What is exceptional about her writing is the way she infuses humour in the most common occurrences but still, manages to raise pertinent issues.

That is where Ms.Khanna has scored, she has turned the “Aam Admi” and made him/her the HERO!

Jorasanko ~~A Book Review

I eagerly look forward to Sharjah International Book fair every year. A book fair is like Aladdin’s cave for a book nerd like me. The timing of the book fair is also perfect as it comes about three to four months after I have returned from India and am itching to go to a bookstore for new haul. I have picked many books from the fair some very popular, some relative obscure, some which were a chore to read and some which I fell in love with, just like Jorasanko. Jorasanko was an impulse purchase, the cover looked familiar, but the main selling point was author Chitra Banerjee’s (my favourite) appreciation on the tittle page. Turning the book back I realized why the title and cover looked so familiar. The cover design has “Head Study” by Rabindranath Tagore and the book was all about the Tagore’s!!!

The book starts with the author’s note describing the reasons for the start of Pirali Brahmin clan and its customs leading to how the Thakur’s of Kolkata became the Tagore’s of Jorasanko. After laying the groundwork the story starts with Genu (full name Jnanadanandini, a mouthful) coming into the Tagore household in Jorasanko as a child bride of seven years. The story then follows the lives of the huge household from 1859 to almost the turn of the century. The rules of abarodh, their breaking down, the tradition of child marriage, its ills on young girls, the rise of Brahmo Samaj and the Bengal Renaissance. All this is painted through the inhabitants of Jorasanko which was a crucible for the start of new customs, traditions and even fashion.

The main protagonists of the book are the ladies of the house. Sarada Sundari, lazy and indolent, devoted to her husband, entrapped by the rules and customs she was brought up in. She measures her value with her beauty/fairness and her fertility, the two parameters which later become her benchmark for giving or withholding love to her daughter-in-law’s. Jnanadanandini, her second daughter-in-law, who grew up under Sarada Sundari’s critical gaze and was always found wanting. She finally became a trail blazer, breaking the traditions of abarodh and stepping out of the house. Being the wife of the first Indian ICS officer, Satyendranath Tagore, she had an enviable position and influence on the rest of the women of Jorasanko. She is also credited with devising the way saree is worn in the modern times. Kadambari, the fifth daughter-in-law of Sarada Sundari, forgotten by her husband who never realized her true worth and always eclipsed by Jnanadanandini. Mrinalini, the youngest daughter-in-law and wife of Rabindranath Tagore. Quiet, placid Mrinalini who always supported and was extremely devoted to her husband.

Even though the story spans long years, it moves quickly drawing the reader into the world which is alien and yet very familiar. The women of today might have stepped out from their homes but are still bound by the rules of society which values them on their beauty, complexion and  the ability to bear sons (at least in India), just like the women of Jorasanko. The characters are well-etched, not always likeable but yet stay with you even after you have closed your book. The author paints such a vivid picture of life in Bengal of those times that once or twice I actually thought I was in that era. There is a beautiful description of Kadambari making “paant” and I could actually taste the tamarind in it. You can also imagine Sarada Sundari, sitting on her four-poster bed, chewing paan and playing cards.

There is however an underlying sadness/darkness in the book. The women are more liberated and progressive than the rest but still not completely free. They are still constrained by their husband’s or their father-in-law’s rules. If Jnanadanandini was lucky enough to have Satyendranath Tagore, who actively encouraged her to break the taboos and step out to come into her own, there was also Tripura Sundari who was denied her husband’s property for being a childless widow. The pathos and the anguish in Kadambari’s life is heartbreaking. The men even though brilliant in their respective fields are somehow lacking as husbands (like Jyoti or Robi) or even empathy like Debendranath.

However the fact of the matter is all the characters, good, bad and the grey in between ensnare you. You realize how brilliant, talented and powerful the Tagore men and women were. Starting from shipping magnate Dwarkanath Tagore, who had the Midas’s touch with money, till his youngest grandson the great Rabindranath Tagore; they were an exceptional line of people.

The author has managed to create a slice of history disguised as fiction. You see the Bengal renaissance, the breaking down of rules regarding women, new fashion etc. in this book. Since all the characters are entwined in Indian History you sometimes forget that the book is a fictional account.  Even though the incidents might have actually taken place the circumstances or events or even the behavior of characters of that time is unknown. That is where the difficulty for the reader comes in since the book has been so well written that you actually have to keep reminding yourself, its fiction!!!

In fact after reading the book I felt like wanting to go to the mansion in Jorasanko and seeing for myself where the palki of Genu must have been set down.

 

The Written Word (Part II)

There are two questions which I get asked a lot as soon as people hear that I love reading, the first is when do I get the time to read and the second , what types of books do I read (I think the second question is asked to whosoever says that they love reading ).

When do I get the time to read is simple to answer, I read even if I get five minutes free, like waiting for my children’s bus and if I start reading around my bedtime then I usually say good bye to my sleep.

What type of books I read is more complex to answer as there is no particular genre or author that I stick too. I am not a literary snob and do try and read different things( though I doubt I will be reading a  Chetan Bhagat or Ravinder Singh soon). I find sticking to a particular genre very restrictive, though there is usually a pattern in what I pick up to read.  I have been fond of reading from a very young age and this fondness has not diminished over time, though the favorite genres and author keep changing (I am hoping with my maturity level).

There are however a few authors and genres who are evergreen for me and I can read and re-read them umpteen number of times (in fact have done so too). I have made a combined list with both the authors and genres as there a few authors who stand alone like Olympus and even if they write/wrote in any other genres I would still read the book. (Plus to keep the list to a manageable length!)

So here goes my list of my favorite authors/genres. This list in no particular order though Jane Austen will have the top rank in any list made by me.

  • Jane Austen: I think she would be on the list of any convent educated girl from India. There is something about Jane Austen books that are still so relevant today about two hundred years after she wrote them. Maybe it is the simplicity or the universal theme of love in her books. All her books are my favorites (indeed a cherished gift was when I received the hard bound set of all six of her books). Pride and Prejudice has been read so many times that I have actually lost count , although I do remember that the first time I read it, I was in seventh grade.( and yes Colin Firth  is the incarnation of Mr.Darcy ).

 

  • Chitra Banerjee: The first book written by her that I read was “Mistress of Spices” and I can credit her for introducing me to the wonderful world of Indian authors. Up until that point I was more into thrillers and romances, and only after reading her I realized how deep, rich and vibrant Indian writing is. Her “Palace of Illusions” is a stand out book as it forays into the mythological fiction realm but is also strongly feminist.

 

  • Nora Roberts: There was a time when I would devour three to four books written by her in a week! Though they are inherently romance books, her books have humor, magic, family, a full masala book in Bollywood parlance.

 

  • Indian mythological fiction/thriller: This is a genre which has become quite popular recently specially after author Amish burst on the scene with his “Immortals of Meluha”. These books are familiar as their characters are the god and goddesses whom we have grown up revering and suddenly they are much accessible and relocatable in a book. Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi stand out from the crowd, many of whom who just seem to be riding the wave.

 

  • Devdutt Pattanaik/Sanjeev Sanyal: These two authors actually write two very different genres. Devdutt writes about mythology, predominantly Indian, and his interpretation of it (by putting such a disclaimer he also keeps himself safe from the Hindu hardliners!) . He tries to simplify the complex Hindu religious thought so that a layman can understand. Sanjeev Sanyal is an amateur historian who has somehow managed to capture my  imagination. There is an interesting mix of history, geography and humor ( yes its there) in his books. The reason why I clubbed them together is that if I see a book written by either of them I will buy it without hesitation .

 

  • Biographies: Now usually I do not read non-fiction as I find it too dry but have recently started reading biographies. These are usually not the biographies of very well known people, in fact when I start reading about them I usually never finish it (I was never able to finish reading the biography of Jinnah or Benazir Bhutto). I like reading about those people who may not be very well known but have still left their mark on the world. My favorite books in this genre include Fatima Bhutto’s Song of Blood and Sword ( a Biography of her father Mir Murtaza)   , and Ismat Chugtai’s Life in Words.

 

  • Authors from Indian sub-continent: This is a very interesting group as this includes authors from Pakistan ,Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Again, I was unaware that the writing from the sub-continent could be so rich and diverse without following the stereotypes. Somehow the stature of Indian authors hides the gems from the rest of the region. My favorites in this include Kamila Shamsi and Hanif Qureshi.

 

  • Historical fiction: I love history, that was my favorite subject in school and even now anything to do with history is immediately attractive to me. It is not limited to India’s history only, but of the whole wide world. The logic behind including this genre is same as with Mythological fiction, the familiar characters are suddenly more accessible.

 

  • Elif Shafak : A brilliant , brilliant authoress. Even though “Forty Rules of Love” is her most famous book, my personal favorite is “Honor”. There is a Middle Eastern flavor in her writings along with a streak of feminism which strikes a chord.

 

  • Regency Romances: Ah well, don’t we all women secretly love the regency romances. There is something about the description of a waltz that makes you swoon! Georgette Heyer leads the genre with her gentle tongue in cheek humor (remember the devil’s cub?) And Julia Quinn’s Lady Whistledown is an unforgettable character.

 

I had promised myself I would write only ten on the list so had to pick and choose, there are of course many, many more who actually should be on the list like P.G.Woodehouse( stiff upper lip humor), James Herriot ( the travails of a poor country vet), Ruskin Bond ( I am from the hills, he HAS to be on my list) , Ken Follet (story teller extraordinaire) , Anuja Chauhan (goddess of desi chick-lit) ,  Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry. I would however need another list to include all of them!

 

If you have any favorites among these or would like to add some more from your side then please do comment.

A Place To Call Home

July and August are the months when Dubai empties out. With the majority of the population being expatriate and the schools closed , the people head back to their home countries for the summer. I too join the hordes at the Dubai Airport every year (the airport also issues a travel advisory keeping in the mind the sheer number of people who fly at that time).Once a friendly immigration official asked my sons if they were going “home”; my sons were confused, for them “home” was Dubai and they were going for a vacation to India. For me however even though I had been living in Dubai for many years, whenever I fly to India I always think I am going home.

This set me thinking, as an expat what is home?

Is home the country I was born, raised and educated in? Or is it the country I have made a life in, given birth, brought up my children?

The roots spread like tentacles in the soil of my birthplace. Love of family and friends keeps bringing me back, ensnaring me. Similar roots hold me down in Dubai. Whenever the plane touches down in New Delhi the sights, smells and sounds are familiar. More so in Dehradun, I know where the roads will take, if I go walking I might meet a familiar face speaking a familiar tongue. When I touch down in Dubai the same familiarity assails me. “I am home” is the sentence that plays in my head in both the places.  Both the countries hold me close.

Which brings me back to where is home?

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When you are an expat in the gulf one thing that stands out is that life here is very transient. The only thing constant here is that one day we will have to go back to India (no, we don’t get citizenship here). Like my son was explaining to me that we are “residents” of UAE and “citizens” of India.

The transient lifestyle makes everything uncertain. You make friends, good friends and then suddenly out of the blue you or they might have to shift. I have bid adieu to many good friends and I know I will have to do it again, even though I hate good byes. However this also means that we get together more often, celebrate even the miniscule happenings in life. As expats your friends become your support system whom you bank on and call on in times of crisis.  If you are lucky enough to have family as well then you are doubly blessed (Like I am). Thus when your friends move away you feel something missing in your life. A huge chunk is taken away and you start building your support system again.

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As an expat you start giving more precedence to holding on to your religious and cultural identity , Especially if you are the first generation to move out of India. Festivals are specially marked and celebrated. The rituals and the symbolism are explained over and over again to the children. Somehow we try to make sure that they understand and not be an alien to their religion. Similarly the sense of Indianness and Indian identity is instilled in them with the thought that they should retain their Indian identity even though the children themselves think of India as vacation home. We try and teach them all things Indian, sightseeing  becomes a history lesson and mealtimes become a discourse on Indian spices and their uses. We somehow want that the sense of patriotism and pride that we have towards India should also be in them.Or maybe it is our way of holding on to our roots. The children get pulled by the country they know as home and the country their parents belong too. Somehow in trying to hold on to their identities we expats become more religious, more patriotic somehow more fervent than the Indians back home ( see again the word “home” being used for India).

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It is the lure of money that took us away from our motherland. The promise of a safer place, a place filled with opportunities for the deserving, place with an easy life without any struggle for bijli, pani and sadak.

But even though we leave the country, the country retains a hold on us. Our bosoms still swell with pride when we hear the Indian National Anthem, we still feel happy when our sportsmen do well, we still feel ashamed when a horrific act is committed in our country, and we still defend it when someone criticizes it.

What is this hold that India has over us that even though we may try out cuisines from around the world, the pleasure in simple dal, roti and chawal remains unparralled?

 

A Fading Art

Going through my books the other day I found a postcard written by hubby dearest from Dubai to me in Bangalore. The picture on the postcard was of Burj Al Arab and the letter, well it was about how he had gone apartment hunting and maybe had found the one which suited. As letters go, pretty mundane, day-to-day life and routine, no sweet nothings, no words of love. However within his words was hidden his loneliness in a new city, his waiting for me to start a new life together. The postcard became precious as it was something tangible to hold on to, to re-read as I waited to join him. Well, that was the last letter I received , technology then took over as we called, texted, chatted to stay in touch. Re-discovering that postcard however made me nostalgic about the good old days when letters were the main means of communication.

I used to take letter writing very seriously. It was the only means I could get across my point of view to the other person, plus I actually thought that the receiver was genuinely interested in what was happening in my routine life. May be they were, maybe they weren’t but my letters never decreased in frequency and length. Since everything had to be perfect I remember spending lots of time in the newly opened Archie’s Gallery (Ah! Good old ‘90s in a small town) to pick out the letter pads for writing voluminous letters to my sister in far off  Kerala, postal department’s inland letters just weren’t big enough to fit what all I wanted to tell her. Receiving a letter pad as a birthday gift used to be my version of heaven and I was proper Scrooge when I had to use paper from it. My letter writing frequency increased with my family’s  move to Chennai and my subsequent move to college. The only time my letter writing capabilities failed me was when I had to write a letter to my then would be mother-in-law…and in that incident I am blaming the language (I was terrible in written Hindi!).

I always thought letter writing was an art; a well worded letter could be a treasure forever.  Letters could transport you to the place which your friend was describing. A piece of advice written by an elder could inspire you. A funny incident written by your cousin could have you howling with laughter. A few soft words written by a special one could bring a soft smile on your face.

Nothing made me happier than receiving a letter. I used to wait for the postman to deliver the letters and would be disappointed when he left the mailbox empty. Eventually however the empty mail box became the norm rather than an aberration. People became too busy to write and post letters or they used the newly introduced email. Slowly that too faded as fruit named smartphones burst on the scene. Now you have options galore to communicate with people.

Somehow, even though communication has become easier I think the quality and frequency of communication has decreased. If you now ask someone how they are doing you will usually get an “OK” as the answer. Now that “OK” can have a myriad emotions and meanings behind it. It doesn’t tell me what you are thinking, what your plans are, what you are doing (well we do have Facebook to check in when we do something exciting). And the most important thing, you cannot hold on to that OK!

I miss writing and receiving letters. I still have a few letters saved which I take out from time to time to re-read. They remind me of simpler times, when expressing oneself was easier though time-consuming. The eager wait for the postman to bring the much-anticipated letter, to try to identify the sender by their handwriting. Reading the letter, re-reading it. Trying to understand the emotion behind the words, taking time to admire someone’s penmanship (another dying art, alas!).The plain and simple fact that someone took the time and patience to write.

Or maybe I am just a sentimental fool who longs for the postman to bring me letters from my loved ones again, so that I can cherish the words they wrote.

 

Sita – An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana

 

I was first introduced to Ramayana when my grandfather told us post dinner stories from it. The second introduction was of course the serial Ramayana on television on Sunday mornings ( something not to be missed at that time). The first book on Ramayana that I read was C. Rajagopalchari’s Ramayana. This book is a must have on the reading list if you want to know the story without any religious baggage that comes with this story. Being a practicing Hindu, Ramayana is a big part of my life and I have read Tulsidas’ ShriRamcharitamanas too, but  more as an extension of my faith  rather than for any literary pursuit. So one wonders what is new about this book Sita written by Mr.Devdutt Pattnaik. The author has picked a topic about which almost all the Indians know something about and a few have very strong opinion on it too. So what new dimension can the author add to the topic??

Ramayana’s story is not new; it is about a young Prince Ram, beloved of his parents and his countrymen of Ayodhya. The prince is exiled to the forest for fourteen years on the orders of his step mother Kaikeyi who wants her son Bharat as the King. The loyal brother Lakshman and Ram’s loving wife Sita accompany Lord Ram in his exile. The lovely Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana and taken to Lanka. Lord Ram then raises an army of monkeys helped by Sugriva and the ever faithful Hanuman. The traitor Vibhishana tells the secret of Ravana’s long life and thus helps Lord Ram in defeating Ravana. Lord Ram returns victorious to Ayodhya to be crowned as King. Sita however is cast out of Ayodhya later by the Lord Ram after aspersions were cast on her reputation. Sita finally returns to the bosom of Earth leaving her two sons Luv and Kush with Lord Ram. It is a tale of love, of brotherhood when one brother gives up the throne for the other brother and he also refuses to accept it. It is a tale of loyalty, of following the elder brother, come what may. It is a tale of the victory of good over evil. Above all it is a story of Dharma. Dharma must be followed irrespective of  the circumstances or personal feelings. Ram as a son followed his Dharma by accepting Kaikeyi’s demand to go to exile. After the war Ram, the King, following Dharma asked his wife to prove her chastity even though Ram, the husband, loved her. Ram , the King, cast out Queen Sita , as he understood that his Queen had to be unblemished, even though the husband Ram was always faithful and true to his wife Sita.

This is book is an illustrated book (Mr.Devdutt is quite well-known for adding them to his books). There are small drawings on almost all the pages, almost like folk art. These depict scenes from the narrative in a rather simplistic manner. Even though it doesn’t add anything more to the narrative it does make it visually quite appealing.

The language used in the book is simple and easy to understand without losing any of the complexities of the characters or the situations. Rather than black or white, the characters are portrayed as humans with human emotions. Even though the core story is the same with a few new sub plots the end of each chapter has a few notes giving the source from where the author has taken a particular incident or situation from. Some personal observations are also included which gives the author’s perspective and interpretation. Some readers might find these notes a bit distracting and might break the flow of narration but since they are given in a bullet-ed box my recommendation is to skip if you don’t like the interruptions. These notes make you realize how many times this simple tale has been told and re-told; each region and narrator adding their nuances to the story. I found the idea of notes really good as they are not as cumbersome as foot notes. We already do know the story but now you know the source of a particular story. Mr.Pattanaik’s interpretation to some of the situations also gives a fresh perspective to some incidents.

The author has done a commendable job by narrating the story in a matter of fact manner. He has shown Lord Ram to be a morally upright man for whom upholding the dharma is very important. Even when Lord Ram was cruel in casting out his wife he somehow does not come across as a villain. Sita on the other hand, contrary to the weepy, wailing lass shown on television, is shown as a strong protagonist. Considering Sita is the embodiment of Shri, the female goddess, this avatar is more palatable to me.

The book had many incidents and sub-plots taken from folk sources or regional re-telling and not only Valmiki Ramayana. These added a different flavor to the book. Especially Sita’s imprisonment in Lanka, rather than being morbid and weepy has been shown in a more positive way. So even though Ravana is trying to woo and seduce Sita, Sita on the other hand is visited by the ladies of the royal household and taken care off. The story of Shanta lord Ram’s sister was also new to me (in fact Shanta has more than a passing reference in the book). Even when Sita is cast out by King Ram, she is not portrayed as weak and helpless. Rather she is shown as a strong woman who understands the actions of her husband and even chooses to forgive him.

There are many incidents when this book picks the regional retelling than Valmiki’s version and hence it is more comprehensive. This is not a religious book but just a re-telling of a story which is now a divine epic for the Hindus. (The book actually has lots of references from the Jain re-telling too). Lord Ram is not portrayed as god per-se in the book, but the book does talk about dharma and the difference in the approaches of Bhrahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (that theme is recurrent in Mr.Devdutt Pattanaik’s books).

Final verdict?  Read it if you want a different perspective to the tale, specially if you have never read the Ramayana this is a good book to start. It is also a good read for those who want to know the sources behind some of the stories in Ramayana .