Book Review: The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns (Manreet Sodhi Someshwar)

“History was alive and entangled in everyday stories of India, and it needed to be coaxed onto the pages of a book”.

The Radiance of a Thousand Suns” is the story of Niki Nalwa who undertakes to finish her father’s lifelong work of writing a book. A book about the oral stories of Partition of India and the riots of 1984. The Nalwa family’s history is intertwined with the history of the country, starting from the Partition of the country to the days of emergency to the riots of 1984 to the turbulent years of militancy in Punjab to 9/11 to modern-day racism in New York. Also intertwined is the story of Mahabharat, the story of brothers at war, of Draupadi and of reminding us, that violence begets violence.

This book is like Nooran’s bagh, a colourful tapestry of stories, of Nooran’s fearlessness, Zohra Nalwa’s desire to get justice for riot victims, Niki’s feminism and the desire to complete her father’s work, Meher’s innocent adolescence and Jyot’s sacrifice and suffering. It might feel very simple, but sometimes even simple has the power to move you, raise gooseflesh, draw tears in your eyes and break your heart. Nooran, Zohra, Niki, Meher and Jyot are not only characters in the book, but they are a part of us all. They are amongst us when we love our children, scold them, motivate them, teach them to be good humans.

The author evokes memories of simpler times when she mentions “choori” or “karah prasad”, you smile as you read as it brings back comforting memories of your own childhood. However, like in Niki’s childhood, there are wisps of dark in your childhood too, you remember the hushed whispers of massacres in 1984, of the curfew and the soldier keeping guard on your street. With Jyot’s story, the generic becomes personal, you are horrified by the violence in Jyot’s life. Jyot’s life becomes a metaphor for all the women in conflict areas, the ones who face violence and destruction over and over again, all because of the games that men play, the games of war and power.

In the book, Niki mentions that while there have been countless books/movies about the Holocaust, the Partition of India ( which was no less catastrophic) has been relegated to the footnotes of History, even Indian history. A deeply disturbing , yet a true fact. Quite a few of us also forget that so many people who had to bear the horrors of Partition had to again face the horrors of 1984 as well. It is almost as if the violence followed them irrespective of where they were, they couldn’t escape its bloody clutches.  Partition on the surface may have affected Punjab and Bengal the most, however, it’s repercussions are felt even now, not in the least in the instinctive acrimony between India and Pakistan.

Even though this is a Punjab/Sikh centric book its appeal is not limited to that region as this book, at its heart, is about women. Women who give birth and are yet relegated to the shadows; women whose bodies are to be conquered to show-off manhood; women whose bodies become battlefields when brothers fight wars over land; women who are made to follow rules and archaic customs in the name of religion.

There are certain books for which writing a review is very difficult. The book might have touched you, moved you to tears, left you heartbroken, stayed with you constantly. You want people to discover the beauty of the book, but as you sit down to write, you struggle to find words that would do justice to the author and to your emotions on reading the book. Yet you somehow persevere as you know such books are required in current times of mistrust when humans are against one another. When once again, the price will be paid by women. I hope I have done justice to the book and can motivate people to read this beautiful book, a book which will make you pause and think, about your actions and how they affect us all.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

World War II was one of the darkest periods of the world’s history with the sheer scale of destruction around the world. It was also a period where the so-called common men showed sheer courage and grit to inspire future generations. There have been countless movies, books, documentaries about this dark period. “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”  written by Heather Morris joins the list of books about this dark period which succeeds in touching you.

Lale Sokolov was a Jew who along with countless others, was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He ended up becoming the “Tattooweir” or the tattooist who engraved numbers on countless Jewish wrists entering the camp. The numbers which became the identity and symbol of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Lale Sokolov by his sheer courage and intelligence managed to not only survive but also find his love in the hell-hole. Lale lived with the motto “If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day”. Everyday Lale walked a tightrope, being a tattooist, trying to survive and in his own way impacting lives around him positively. Lale and Gita were ordinary people on the street, with their dreams and life, but fate brought them together in a concentration camp and thrust them into history. They faced inhuman conditions, reduced to a number, incarcerated for more than two years, facing death each day and yet, they survived. They proved that being a hero doesn’t always mean to fight and resist always, sometimes it just means to survive each day, however possible.

The book is based on a concentration camp, with death all around, with moments that are bleak, moments that make you question the darkness of the human race, moments where you wonder if the tattooist will ever survive. The book, however, uplifts you, the book makes you believe the good even a single human can do. Gita and Lale make us realise the power of hope, the courage to believe that the bleakest of times have to, sooner or later, end.

It makes you believe “To save one is to save the world“.

 

Tissue Paper ~Neha Soi

 

I write in borrowed ink.

Borrowed from those

Who have abandoned it somewhere inadvertently

or lost it absent-mindedly.

 

~Tissue paper, Neha Soi

“Tissue Paper” is a slim anthology of Poems by Neha Soi. Covering different facets of life these poems are about finding the words to express the mundane or routine. Even though I was surprised by the title “Tissue Paper”, as I read through I realised how apt the title was for the book. The topics on the surface are mundane, ones that would randomly pop into your head walking down the street. And yet, the poet has framed those topics into words, giving them a life much more than ordinary. The poet is not untouched by the happenings of the world around but rather than pointing directly she writes words which you interpret with your thoughts.

The book is divided into nine sections like divine, alive, parenting etc. The poems in each section do not have a specific title, you can read them as one flowing into another (as the topic holds them together) or you can randomly read each poem on its own. The poems are about the world around us, the one which we try to ignore as it doesn’t concern us directly. The words used are simple day to day words, words which you will not have to look up in the dictionary. These words are beaded together by the poet to make verses which stay with you and make you think about their power. There is an underlying sarcasm in a few of the poems.  My personal favourite poem in the anthology is in the divine section which is about God and of reducing god to a marketing gimmick as a decoration.

The school trained us to read and understand poetry as part of the board curriculum. We were exposed to traditional poetry with rhyming words, poetic devices, interpretation of the verses given by the teacher. After school, I did read some poetry for pleasure but realised I am more of a traditionalist who prefers Keats and Frost to the new age poets. To read a book then, filled with verses which didn’t have a rhyming scheme seemed like an uphill task. I, however, was pleasantly surprised when I did climb that hill. Poetry, at its heart, is about metaphors. The book “Tissue Paper” is an anthology filled with metaphors.

Poetry is languidness of words, softer than stories, poetry meanders and yet leaves an imprint on you. Poetry is an art of speaking, using minimum words, not directly and yet the words convey the meaning. The anthology “Tissue Paper” succeeds in conveying the meaning.

The Fine Print

Early morning, once all the tiffins are packed with the breakfast made, I am usually found reading the newspaper while eating my breakfast. It is a routine that is followed almost all days of the year. It is a routine that I hate to change and even if there were some minor changes to it I feel as if a vital organ is missing! For instance, on Wednesday the newspaper was late, making it very difficult for me to eat my breakfast and consequently triggering the writing of this post. Reading newspaper has become such a vital part of my life that if I go on vacation and do not find the newspaper, I feel as if the world has stopped turning.

I started reading the newspaper during the tumultuous times of L.K.Advani’s Rath Yatra and the Gulf War. Our class teacher “encouraged” class discussions about current affairs. In those pre-liberalisation days, before the blaring twenty-four-hour news channels, the only way to stay abreast was either by the newspapers or the nine o’clock news on Doordarshan. The news on Doordarshan was proficient in making my eyelids heavy, thus the newspaper was the only option left to me to shine in class discussions. Initially, it was tough going, I would read the headlines not understanding a single word. Sports, however, I understood partially better, thus I decided to start reading the newspaper from the sports(easier) section which used to be the last page of the newspaper. Thus my totally bizarre habit of reading the newspaper from back to the front started. After a few initial hiccups ( and little help “The World This Week” made me understand a little bit more about the world) reading the newspaper became second nature to me.

The newspaper reminds me of the wintery days when I used to be the first one to lay my hands on the paper as soon as the paperwallah had flung it on the gate (where it got wet with the dew). It brings back memories of my grandfather who used to spend hours reading the newspaper on his chair in the sun. The chair, the paper, and grandpa moving all over the garden chasing the sun. We moved to Chennai and were introduced to The Hindu, which I personally, at that time, thought was a very boring newspaper(there was no Bollywood gossip in it and thus was very boring to a fifteen-year-old). In college, in Pilani, I used to read The Time of India and used to compare it to The Hindu and found the former generally lacking in substance. Finally, on moving to Dubai I got hooked on to GulfNews. Morning time settled into a routine with me and hubby reading the sections of the newspaper in companionable silence. Vacations in India mean making do with TOI or HT, coming back to Dubai the GulfNews welcomes me with the familiarity of an old friend as we slip back into our routine.

Some might wonder at my attachment with the printed newspaper when all the news is available online on our devices. I know quite a few people who don’t read the newspaper and in fact, some have not even subscribed to one. For me, however, the newspaper is more than a means of getting the news. There is a comfort in reading the newspaper, the rustle of paper as one turns the pages; the charm of seeing different advertisements fighting for space with the news; the reading of the opinion columns and seeing if the opinions match with yours; the chuckle while reading the daily comic strip;reading a news article which affects you and discussing it; reading about far-flung places where you will probably never go. In all, it’s the satisfaction of just reading.

On Growing Older

This year on my Birthday, I not only turn a year but also a decade older. I am now firmly ensconced in the so-called “middle-age” category. This realization set thoughts turning in my head. When you are in the middle-age group you are struck with the fact that the years have suddenly added up to a big enough number. Despite the facials and the expensive face-creams, there are a few lines on your face. You get tired more often than you previously did, maybe now spectacles are needed to read the restaurant menu and the rich gravies of restaurant dinners can lead to severe heartburn. The night about town on stilettos gives way to binge-watching shows on Netflix, sitting on your couch in your jammies.

We suddenly wake up one day, look in the mirror and are suddenly dissatisfied. We are dissatisfied with our appearance, our weight, our hair, and our routine mundane lives. We look at celebrities gracing the covers of tabloids, looking exactly the same as they did twenty years ago, gallivanting off to exotic locations. We look at them and we wonder, “Why not me?” We are bombarded with advertisements of Olay, Nivea, Loreal, all selling youth. They want us to use them, to banish any faint lines that might dare to show on our faces. We color and volumize our hair so that it may look better and not show that we went through pregnancies and childbirth. We go on diets and to Zumba classes, not just because we want to get our cholesterol into range, but mainly so that we can fit into dresses which were bought ten years ago. Some of us manage to do all this and more. Most of us, despite our best efforts, fail. And this failure, further adds to our sense of inadequacies.

We have put unbelievable amounts of pressure on ourselves to look younger than our years. We are so scared of being labeled as the neighborhood “auntie” that we try our level best to be the lissome twenty-five-year old that we were. Whereas once we eagerly wanted to grow older and more independent, we now want to go back to those younger carefree days.”You look younger than your age”  or “You have maintained yourself so well” are the compliments we always aim for. Woe betides if someone guesses our age or the (horror!!!) thinks we are older than what we actually are!!

The beauty industry, celebrity culture, social media, and society, in general, have somehow made getting older a taboo. Despite all the articles on body positivity and acceptance the truth of the matter is we are living in a visual world. We have become so obsessed with our appearances that we, quite often, forget about the person underneath. We forget that the person might have got those frown lines worrying about the health of a parent, those grey hair might be due to the stress of the job and meeting deadlines, the chipped and cracked nails may be due to cooking healthy so that the children get a nutritious meal.

We want to look younger, not realizing that we are not the same people anymore. The person whom we were twenty years ago has been shaped and molded by the experiences of life, the good times, the moments of darkness, the moments of self-doubt and the moments of accomplishment. All these moments have made us the person we are now.

And I guess it is time to accept that fact.

The Vedas And The Upanishads ~Roopa Pai

Hinduism is difficult to understand. Most of us, who call ourselves Hindus do so because we were born in a Hindu household. We follow customs and rituals thinking that it is the way it is supposed to be done, confusing the rituals with religion. Each person has his/her own definition of what Hinduism is, some call it religion, some call it idol worship, some call it a way of life, some, have even confused it with nationalism. It is one of the most complex and yet the simplest concept/religion/philosophy (pick what suits you best). Despite all the variations and plurality in Hinduism, there is however a constant, none can deny that, the Vedas form the bedrock of Hinduism.

Roopa Pai is one of my favorite authors for children, especially those ten years or older. She has written books on Economics, science, and Krishna Deva Raya for the young ones, making complex concepts easy for them. She wrote the brilliant “The Gita, for children” ( read my review here https://undecidedindubai.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/the-conversation/). She has now followed it up with the book “The Vedas and The Upanishads”.Running at almost four hundred pages, this book skims the basic core of Hinduism. It has the Vedas, their introduction, the layers, the meters used for chanting the Vedas, the important Gods mentioned in the Vedas and a few of the important hymns, including my favorite the “Nasadiya Sukta”. The Upanishad section deals with the need and the history of Upanishads, a brief about Adi Shankaracharya and the ten principal Upanishads. Each of the ten Upanishads has been given its own chapter, its Shanti mantra(in English), the back story, the gist, explanation and an after story. The after-story is usually in the form of an example so that the children can relate more easily. Since each Upanishad has its own chapter, if you want to revisit and read only a particular Upanishad, you can pick that.

By the author’s own admission this is not an exhaustive work. It, however, is a great way to introduce children (and even adults) to the complexities of one of the world’s oldest religion. The book introduces the basic concepts in an easy way so that children can understand it. Written in an easy narrative style you can almost imagine the author talking to you while you read. What saves the book from becoming too preachy or “Satsangi” is the language and the references to the current world. She gives examples to illustrate the main points, the examples are such that the children can identify with. She has tried (maybe sometimes too hard) to sound appropriately “teenagery”, making the book more relatable.

There is lots of fun trivia amidst the heavy duty concepts. Do look out for the connection with T.S.Eliot, the topic, “How West Was Won” ( which in it’s sub-context, also points out to the syncretism in India) and the ultimately cool one, about the movie Matrix! Such trivia and popular fiction references make the book more unique. The book does not stand aloof and isolated but co-relates to issues being faced in the world today, like fake news for instance.

One of the drawbacks of this book (in fact, it is true for almost all recent books I have read on Hinduism) is the fact that the Sanskrit shlokas are in English. Sanskrit is hard enough, to read a shloka in English is even more difficult. The shlokas might be in English to make the books more approachable to people who cannot read Sanskrit and thus have a more global reach. However, I would prefer if the shlokas were printed in Devanagari script as well as in English. It will make it easier for people like us who can read Sanskrit and I do think it will add a musical cadence in reading the book. To be fair to the author she has translated the shlokas in English and given their meanings. In some instances, she has even given the pronunciation of the word.

Would I recommend this book? My answer will be an emphatic yes!!

This book is not a definitive guide, but it makes an excellent starting point, for both children and adults. The book doesn’t try to influence or enforce any belief. Even though it is the author’s interpretation the readers are free to make up their mind about the concepts introduced in the book. Do be aware that the concepts, even though told through stories, are quite complex. If in your enthusiasm you are handing the book to a ten-year-old, the child might not understand or may not want to read it as they might find the book heavy going. In fact, even as an adult, you need to be in an open frame of mind to understand and absorb the words.I, myself, took frequent breaks while reading so as to appreciate what the author had written. I would recommend the book for ages thirteen upwards (though good luck with convincing them to read what you recommended!).

The Gentle Breeze

Some of my most cherished memories of Dehradun are from the spring of 1995. It was the year of my grade ten boards, I used to wake up early in the morning so that I could get more done while the world slept. To avoid the temptation of crawling back in the warm razai, I used to go and study in the verandah. This verandah was an ideal spot to see the world wake up. The dark starry chilly night sky used to turn grey, pink and then pale orange as the sun started peeking out from behind the trees. The dawn used to the best time for observing the plants. The flowers of myriad varieties and colors, geraniums, begonias, phlox and my favorites the roses, shimmering with pearly dew. The rosebud drenched in the morning dew would slowly dry off as the sun rose, one by one the petals would unfurl until by ten in the morning it would be a full-blown rose. The transformation used to leave me mesmerized and in awe of the power of nature. The garden would become noisy, full of birds, parrots, mynahs, sparrows, hopping, chirping creating a din that reached a crescendo at dawn. They seemed to be chattering, eager to go on ahead with their day.

Afternoons were spent on the roof, where I used to sit in the shade of the overhanging branches of the litchi tree. The mild breeze and the swaying green leaves would make the afternoon sun a little more gentle. The birds now had softer chirps, as if they too felt drowsy with the heat. The trees, the chirps, the breeze, all conspired to create an atmosphere most conducive for teenage daydreaming, the books open but their words not really registering.

The sunsets were a marvelous show put up by nature, the shades of orange, grey, pink and all in between, bleeding into one another, creating a new painting every day. The pigeons and parrots, cooing and squawking, almost as if they, too, were singing praises to the Lord. The colors stayed for a long time in the sky after the sun slipped behind the mountains, till the stars started twinkling and the sky was covered with millions of them, covering the deep dark sky.

Alas, the year I became aware of the beauty of nature in spring was also my last spring in Dehradun. The magical mornings, drowsy afternoons and glorious sunsets are now lost. The lack of time and rampant construction all around means that we hardly get to breath fresh air, let alone see the blue sky. Even when we go on vacations it is now hard to just sit still and observe, the brain refuses to switch off the to-do list in the mind.

Sometimes, however, these elusive gifts of nature seem tangible. The smell of neem flowers in the summers of Dubai, the bees hovering over flowers in my mother’s garden , a single butterfly coming out of no where , asking you to follow her, or like today, when I am sitting under a tree with the wind caressing its leaves and cooling me in this heat, the birds are chirping merrily, the woodpecker flitting close by, the deep red of the flowers a deep contrast with the green of the leaves.

If I close my eyes, I can almost imagine myself back on the roof in Doon.

Television and Feminism

I have always been addicted to Television, from the days of Doordarshan when the hours of telecast were few, to the days of unlimited cable service to the days of Internet TV with choices like Netflix and Amazon Prime. When all the household chores are done and I am in no mood to tax my brain to do some reading, I vegetate in front of the TV. In the days of Doordarshan, there was no choice, you watched what was on, that too it was available only for a few hours a day.  Whether it was “Udaan”, a series about a brave woman IPS officer, or poor Lady Sita crying buckets of tears, waiting for Lord Ram to come to rescue her, I lapped it up! With the advent of cable TV in India, Ekta Kapoor, burst into our homes. Her serials with the mother-in-laws, daughter-in-laws, sarees, palatial homes, big bindis, joint families all were in vogue. Most of these serials were regressive, to put it mildly, but the Indian public was quite enamoured of them. The serials soon descended into bizarre territory with the “dayans”, “nagins” et all.

I was almost cured of my affliction to watch Television by such programs when Netflix burst on the screen. There was suddenly this huge volume of series and movies from all across the world at the click of a button. The genres varied from comedies to drama to action to lifestyle to reality TV. After the initial heady days, when I couldn’t figure out what to pick and watch, I realised that Netflix was a treasure trove of series from across the world, documentaries and independent movies. One particular series which acted as a catalyst for this post was “Working Moms”. This series is about a group of young mothers, who are about to re-join the workforce after their maternity leaves are over. The series shows issues from post-partum depression to giving full attention to your job without neglecting your child to finding yourself again as a woman, to not look at yourself as a mom or a wife, but as a woman. The series is light-hearted but touches the topics which most of us mothers have had to deal with. These are the issues which usually get over-looked or swept under the carpet, which is why most of us would empathize with the characters; you have been in their shoes, some point in your life.

This series made me realise that there is a lot of content on Netflix/Amazon Prime which can be labelled feminist, some direct while others might be a little subtle. The documentary, “Period, End of Sentence”, shows patriarchy in rural Haryana and how the installation of sanitary napkin machine chips away at the same patriarchy. “Soni” is a movie about two female police officers working for Delhi Police. Even though the protagonists are police officers, they are still shackled because they are women. It shows the struggle is not only with the outside world but also within our homes.

“Made In Heaven” and “One Day At a Time” are series which have a strong feminist core but belong to the mainstream commercial stream. “One Day at a Time” is about a Latina single mother of two who is an ex-army nurse. So the main character is a Latina, divorced, suffering from PTSD and a woman, all the odds definitely seem to be stacked against her! The series however never becomes morbid or depressing even though the topics it touches are very pertinent in today’s world.

“Made In Heaven” is this season’s favourite. It is about Indian society viewed through the lens of weddings. It shows hypocrisy, patriarchy, adultery, superstition and the inherent bias (of even educated Indian people)to homosexuality. By first look, it seems that the series is a fluffy take on the high society weddings of Delhi, with protagonists wearing designer wear, looking extremely polished and talking impeccable English. You delve deeper however and the world turns darker, behind the glitter is the grime of our society, dowry, superstition, exploitation of the weaker sections, the abuse of power. The fascinating part is that it is a mainstream show, produced by a  leading commercial team, yet the topics are not safe, they will make you uncomfortable and push you out of your zone.

Television and movies are mainstream mediums. they reach and influence a large number of people. They have the ability to bore into the minds of the people watching, which is why content is very important,you cannot negate the fact that Ekta Kapoor’s serials, howsoever regressive, influenced the popular culture and to a certain measure even the thought process of the individuals watching them. We cannot generalise and say that there have not been any feminist shows on Television, there was “Udaan” way back on Doordarshan, even “Balika Badhu” started off with a strong feminist core. It is equally not correct to assume that all the content on the web has feminism at its core or is non-regressive. One advantage which the web series do have over regular cable television is the freedom from certain regulations which in turn leads to better content on Netflix/Prime as compared to regular cable tv.  I am quite sure if there was no Netflix/Prime we wouldn’t have had outstanding series like “Sacred Games” or “Inside Edge” or the more recent one “Delhi Crime”. Since the web platform is more content based, lots of small documentaries and independent movies now have a place where they can be seen. A movie like “Soni” or “Manto” has no chance of getting a commercial release, even though they have done brilliantly in the festival circuit. Netflix/Prime give them a chance, that they can be viewed at least by some people who might be interested in such topics. People might argue that India is not ready for such programs, but does that mean we should be exposed to the mind-numbing, logic-defying content, rather than something which echoes what real life is?

The basic reason why we watch Television is entertainment, but if the same entertainment also ignites a spark in us, makes us introspect or be more empathetic then it’s double the value, no?