The Inkheart trilogy consists of Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath ( Scholastic). This is a fantastic trilogy by author Cornelia Funke, translated by the late Anthea Bell. It is about a man named Mortimer Folchart (or Mo), a bookbinder or a “doctor of books” having these amazing abilities of reading things out of a book. He has a daughter named Meggie who of course has inherited those powers. In the other two books, Meggie, Mo, Resa (Meggie’s long-lost mother), Elinor (Resa’s aunt), Darius (A reader with the same powers as Meggie and Mo) and a few other people find themselves sucked in a book. They have an adventure exploring this new world and its dangers. They discover new kinds of creatures such as the White Women, Night-Mare, Fire Elves, Martins, Giants etc. They also try to escape its horrors and while doing so Mo becomes a little more than a mere bookbinder.
I immensely enjoyed this trilogy because of its characters, it’s suspense and most of all: the plot. I was hooked after reading the first chapter. I could not stop reading the books in quick succession. So much so that in my edition of Inkspell some of the pages were misprinted. I could not wait for another print edition as I had to read the story. So my mother downloaded it on her Kindle. I read the pages that had been messed up on the Kindle and then went back to reading the print edition as soon as the pages were fine. Because I loved reading it so much, I have started to create a board game based on this story.
I saw a trailer of the film Inkheart and was disappointed. The film seemed to have got some parts of the story like when Dustfinger finds out how he dies, Fenoglio tells him whereas in the book, it is Meggie tells him so as to warn him not to return into the story. In the movie, when Meggie had to read a chapter from Inkheart to release a bad creature into the real world, Fenoglio was in the cage with Resa and he gave a piece of paper to the dog and the dog gave it to Meggie. But in the story, it was very clearly mentioned that in the cage, there were Elinor, Resa and Basta and Fenoglio was sitting next to Capricorn. There was no dog in the story. Meggie, actually took a piece of paper, from the sleeve of her dress. In the movie, it tells us when Meggie found out her powers she was at Elinor’s house. But in the book Meggie was imprisoned in one of Capricorn’s rooms in his giant house and then she found some books under the pillow and she read out Tinker Bell. And this is why film adaptations of books are never satisfying!
When I finally finished this trilogy, I was devastated. I still had questions such as what will the boy who is Meggie’s little brother do next? Will he find out that he does not belong to this world of fantasy? Will he go into the real world with cars and planes? Will there be another call of action for the Bluejay? So many questions!
Children’s author and comedian David Walliams released his latest novel Megamonster on 24 June 2021 ( HarperCollins India). It’s about an orphan nicknamed Larker who gets sent to a place where all the naughty children of the world are banished—”The Cruel School”. One night she spotted the silhouettes of the two cruel teachers – Doctor Doktur and Grunt – going into a cave through an invisible door which was hidden inside the castle. Larker and the gardener decide to follow them not knowing what adventures await.
I absolutely loved this book because it cracked me up when I read it. I also think that an idea like this is very unique; because who would have thought in the first place about two teachers literally making children into monsters, or turning the gardener into a bogey man and then squishing them all together to create a megamonster! An author like David Walliams can always pull crazy ideas like these off.
David Walliams stories are comic. He writes of regular people. He tells stories like no one else does. Many begin sadly or are of sad scenarios like a child being orphaned or the elderly people left on their own but then the stories end well. His stories always have a message but he does it so nicely. For instance, in Megamonster it is that if you work together as a team, you can achieve anything. It is hard to believe that some parents do not want their children to read his book or that adults don’t like his books!!
She works as much from memory as from the manuscript, and inside the little stone cottage, something happens: the sick child is in her lap, his forehead sheened with sweat, opens his eyes. When Aethon is accidentally transformed into an ass and the other boys burst into laughter, he smiles. When Aethon reaches the frozen edge of the world, he bites his fingernails. And when Aethon finally reaches the gates of the city in the clouds, tears sprint to his eyes.
The lamp spits, the oil drawing low, and all three boys beg her to go on.
“Please,” they say, and their eyes glitter in the light. “tell us what he saw inside the goddess’s magical book.”
“It sat,” she says, “on a golden pedestal so ornate it looked as if it were made by the smith-god himself. When Aethon peered into it, as though into some magical well, he saw the heavens and the earth and all its lands scattered around the ocean, and all the animals and birds upon it. The cities were full of lanterns and gardens, and he could faintly hear music and singing, and he saw a wedding in one city with girls in bright linen robes, and boys with gold swords on silver belts, jumping through rings, doing handsprings and leaping and dancing in time. But on the next page he saw dark, flaming cities in which men were slaughtered in their fields, their wives enslaved in chains, and their children pitched over the walls onto pikes. He saw demons, and hounds eating corpses, and when he bent his ear low to the pages, he could hear the wailing. And as he looked, turning the leaf over and back, Aethon saw that the cities on both sides of the page, the dark ones and the bright ones, were one and the same, and he was afraid.”
The lamp sputters out; the chimney moans; the children draw closer around her. Omeir rewraps the book, and Anna holds their youngest son against her breast, and dreams of bright clean light falling on the pale walls of the city, and when they wake, late into the morning, the boy’s fever is gone.
Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land ( HarperCollins India) is his first novel in seven years. It flits between three periods of history — past is 1450s Constantinople, the clash between Christianity and Islam and is a story of young Anna and Omeir; the present is in the twenty-first century and is primarily about Zeno Ninis, an eighty-six-year-old veteran of the Korean war who has made it his life’s mission to translate Diogenes’s book on Aethon and later help a bunch of fifth graders stage a dramatised version of it at their local library; and the future is of young Konstance who believes she is many millions of miles away from Earth, on a starship, in a community of modified humans. Time is measured in terms of “Mission Years”. The common thread running through these three stories is Aethon’s story.
Anna first discovers the Greek manuscript in an abandoned monastery in Thessaly and steals it, hoping to sell it to a bunch of men who have come from Urbino. Their lord and Count dreams of “erecting a library to surpass the pope’s, a library to contain every text ever written, a library to last until the end of time, and his books will be free to anyone who can read them.” Anna steals it but then discovers that the men from Urbino have fled upon hearing news of impending war. So, she keeps the book. Over time, she discovers the power of storytelling as she reads out the ancient Greek script to her sons and illiterate husband, Omeir. The family is convinced it has a healing power especially after seeing the positive effect it has on the sick children as their mother reads out aloud from the text. After Anna’s death, Omeir decides to take the book to Urbino as a gift to the Count. He remains clueless to its import but realises that it must be special enough for Anna to have treasured it for so long.
Zeno Ninis, on the other hand, while a prisoner of war befriends a British soldier, Rex, who is a scholar of the Classics. Rex teaches Greek to Zeno by scribbling in the sand or in the frost in their prison camp. Over time, once they have returned to their respective homes, Zeno finds refuge in the library at Lakeport, Idaho. He associates it with comfort and security ever since the two sisters who were the librarians too, welcomed him as a child. Zeno returns to it as an adult, a veteran, and begins to translate. All the while Rex’s words haunt Zeno: “I know why those librarians read the old stories to you. Because if it’s told well enough, for as long as the story lasts, you get to slip the trap.” While involved in the task of translating Aethon’s story, the current librarian requests Zeno to help manage the kids by narrating the story of his book. The kids are enthralled. So much so that they decide to stage a play based on the script. They are undeterred by the fact that large chunks of the original text are missing or are faded. Zeno has to use his imagination to supply the bridges in the narrative. In this he is ably supported by the kids who happily scribble in the margins, offering Aethon the explorer, new lines such as “The world as it is is enough.” Perceptive comment out of the mouth of babes!
Konstance is a young girl, living on the ship, Argos. She is not permitted to access the library on board unless she reaches a certain age. When she does, she goes through an initiation ceremony witnessed by many aboard the ship. Ultimately, she is given access using VR technology that enables her to browse through shelf after shelf of books, most of which come flying to her. If she wishes to “read” any, the characters pop out like a pop-up book but are holograms that are as wispish and transparent as air. The only book that seems to fascinate Konstance is the Atlas for which she is mocked by her peers. They say it is old fashioned but Konstance is charmed by the fact that by walking into its pages she discovers new parts of the world, cultures, its histories and geographies. Her curiosity is also kindled by the blue and gold hardback on her father’s night table. It is a copy of Zeno Ninis’s transslation. Slowly, she begins reading it and transcribing it for herself. It influences the way she thinks. Unlike her community, Konstance and to some extent, her father, are the only two who query or have independent thoughts. They do not necessarily follow the herd mentality. Even the super computer Sybil dissuades Konstance from spending too much time in the library. But she is curious and wants to investigate the events of February, 20, 2020. “Who were the five children in the Lakeport Public Library saved by Zero Ninis?”
An incident had occurred at the library when a young man, probably autistic, Seymour, walked into the library with the intention of blowing it up. He had a bag full of crude homemade bombs. He was extremely distressed at the destruction to Nature, especially habitats of owls, whom he felt close to. He understood the intricacies of climate change and was convinced that man and his destructive sensibilities were destroying Earth. By blowing up the library Seymour hoped to make a statement. But he had not reckoned with Zeno being at the library.
In Cloud Cuckoo Land, a story that has survived centuries about Aethon continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even via translations. In fact, the three storylines are interspersed with excerpts of Zeno Nini’s translation of the text. The length varies from a few broken sentences to paragraphs. Doerr makes a sly comment on the art of translation too when Konstance is browsing through the library:
The translations…mostly bewilder: either they’re boring and laborious, spangled with footnotes, or they’re too fragmented to many any sense of.
Even Doerr becomes more and more adept at telling Aethon’s story with every passing page. Almost as if he is practising what he feels, stories have the capacity to live beyond their original tellers.
Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land is a term borrowed from Aristophanes The Birds written in 414 B.C., almost 2500 years ago. It describes a mythical city based in the clouds. But more than the referencing by a modern storyteller to an ancient storyteller, it is the testimony to the astonishing staying power of storytelling. The ability to stick. The ability to be retold. The ability to be shared and become one with the narrator. The tenacity of stories is evident in how they intermingle with the memories of the person. More importantly, the stories become a repository of hope and goodwill. It reminds the listeners that as time moves on, life goes on too. Destruction of nature, communal wars, and marauding armies happen. But at the same time, stories record moments of joy, happiness, beauty and splendour. Books like men die. They need nurturing. Yet, books have the uncanny ability of outliving their creators if they are left with those who respect the printed books. It is possible. It is this insistence of Doerr upon the tangible object rather than the excitement at having millions of books at our fingertips in a digital library that is so comforting, given that we ourselves live in a time where digital formats are being peddled as superior to print. But it is not always the case, is it? With digital rights management and other requirements of upgrading hardware and software to access a digital format, and the recurring cost involved in keeping the information accessible, it is the print format that reigns supreme — it is a one-time cost, it is inherited, it develops a sentimental value that is precious to the owners as it the physical book offers a connect to their ancestors, and finally, as it is passed on from generation to generation, it influences the hearts and minds of others. Digital formats, in comparison, are sterile. Books transmit ideas. They make us think for ourselves.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is a triumph. It is definitely an ode to libraries and books, the printed format vs digital. But it is also a prayer, a belief in the nourishing power of storytelling. It is Anthony Doerr’s first novel in seven years, his first since winning the Pulitzer Prize (2015) for the exquisite All the Light We Cannot See (published, 2014). His critically-acclaimed 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See sold 1.8 million copies across editions in British Commonwealth and 9.3 million copies worldwide. The publishers will be selling many copies of Cloud Cuckoo Land despite its bulk as the story is so rejuvenating and astonishingly relevant at the same time. Many will buy the book as it is the first novel since Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize but this book will attract many new readers. It is to be released on 28 Sept 2021.
Ma and Bappu are liberal intellectuals teaching at the local university. Their fourteen-year-old daughter — precocious, headstrong Alma — is soon to be married: Alma is mostly interested in the wedding shoes and in spinning wild stories for her beloved younger sister Roop, a restless child obsessed with death.
Times are bad for girls in India. The long-awaited independence from British rule is heralding a new era of hope, but also of anger and distrust. Political unrest is brewing, threatening to unravel the rich tapestry of Delhi – a city where different cultures, religions and traditions have co-existed for centuries.
When Partition happens and the British Raj is fractured overnight, this wonderful family is violently torn apart, and its members are forced to find increasingly desperate ways to survive.
Moth by debut author, Melody Razak ( Orion Books), has been a surprisingly slow read for me. Usually, I manage to zip through fiction pretty quickly. More so when it is historical fiction as I have a soft spot for this genre. But this one was slow for many reasons. These ranged from false starts in attempting to read it to the many times my mind wandered after reading a section of the story. Let me explain.
Melody Razak credits Urvashi Butalia’s seminal book The Other Side of Silence for having inspired her debut novel. I can absolutely understand and recognise that sentiment. I worked with Urvashi for many years. I joined her team the day she split from Kali for Women to establish Zubaan. So, I was privy to a lot of Urvashi Butalia’s work for many years and also helped brand Zubaan. I, like Melody, and many others, had been in awe of Urvashi Butalia’s work for years. She did something fundamentally new. Of capturing the oral histories of women and families after the British left India in 1947. We gained our Independence but the people from the newly created nations suffered tremendously.
Urvashi wrote this book after she volunteered to help the riot victims of 1984. It was a watershed year for many of us living in Delhi at the time. The Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her bodyguards while she was en route to meet filmmaker and actor, Peter Ustinov. It unleashed the most horrific communal violence we had witnessed at that time in newly Independent India. We were still a young nation at that time. (Now, communalism seems to be a way of life.) Many, many folks were horrified at what had occurred in the capital city. It was unheard of. We had curfew imposed. The army conducted flag marches. The silence was unbearable. No one should ever have to experience the silence of living in violent times. It is very still and still very disturbing. In the far distance, we could hear mobs. We could hear sounds. We would see smoke spires in the sky. And one of the most frightening memories was to see the ashes of paper flutter down on our terraces. When my twin brother and I returned to school after those two terrible two weeks, we noticed kids in our bus who were looking dishevelled and reduced to a cloth bag carrying a few books. They had been affected by the riots for being Sikhs and had lost property and family. It was earth shattering. But we were young. It was our first experience of such violence. But for my maternal grandfather it brought back a flood of memories. Stuff we had not realised he had kept suppressed for decades.
My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was the last ICS officer in India. The Indian Civil Service was the administrative service established by the British. He joined as a very young man and was allocated the Punjab cadre. This was before 1947, so as a government servant he was posted in and around the then undivided Punjab. He later recalled that as a young man, he would sit with the other officers, many of whom were British, dividing the assets of the Punjab state between India and Pakistan. Many times, the lists drawn seemed arbitrary but he would meticulously minute the meetings. I am sure somewhere documents exist with his neat signature. He also used to tell us about the migrant camps that were set up. For many years, the refugees of 1947 were considered to be the largest mass migration ever recorded in human history. It was unprecedented. There were no rules or policies governing or guiding the officers on how to manage this massive influx of people. He used to tell us of how his signature was forged and converted into stamps. These forgeries were then used to stamp documents of the refugees so that they could use them as valid papers to migrate. Some left overseas too. My grandfather was well aware of these forgeries but the administration was so overwhelmed by the number of people that needed looking after that he turned a blind eye. And if you ever knew him, he was such an upright officer that this act upon his part was so unlike him. He and his colleagues worried about the spread of disease. Cholera and typhoid that still plague large refugee settlements were the bane of their existence even in the 1940s. The only difference being that there were no UN forces or other humanitarian aid organisations to help manage the healthcare of the refugees. There was no organised camp. So, the relief of the onset of the monsoon, literally washed the camp, is something that I still recollect in Nana’s voice. He has been gone for more than two decades but his relief, as if it was a God sent gesture, is something I will never forget. So, the descriptions of the refugee camps in Moth brought back memories of these stories. I could not help but think that the perception of the refugee camps of today that are to a fair degree “organised” because of the aid agencies, was not the case at that time. And this was one of the depictions in Moth that bothered me, the pell mell in the settlement. Instead, the description seems to suggest that it is fairly orderly. It was as if the image had been created from the modern images of refugee camps.
Just as these memories came flooding back for my grandfather, so did it happen with many victims of the 1984 riots. The victims were Sikhs. The community to whom the PM’s assassins belonged. Urvashi too is a Sikh. She too had family in Lahore and in India. In fact, when I went to Lahore in Nov 2003, I went in search of the house that belonged to Urvashi’s family and discovered that it was in the process of being pulled down. So, I brought back pictures of it for her.
There were many, many reasons why Urvashi was affected by the 1984 riots. But working in the refugee camps of Delhi, listening to stories, being a feminist, she realised the importance of recording these stories. Oral history testimonies were being done in our country even then but not necessarily by individuals at this level. Urvashi’s work is pioneering for many reasons. She explored her family’s history and unearthed many more stories in the process. It has had a huge impact on the way Partition stories are read.
Melody Razak picks on a few of the stories such as the women jumping into the well, the abduction of girls/women and taking them away to the other side (since then established as a regular form of persecution of women at times of conflict), the problems of documentation etc. I found it particularly interesting that while Melody Razak has been deeply moved by the incidents recounted in The Other Side of Silence and of course, for this novel, may have done some independent research, Melody has been unable to describe the traumatic incidents. I found that curious as that it is often noticed in the victims that they are unable to recount the actual event. There are mechanisms by which they protect themselves, one of them is to talk about the act in the third person or distance themselves in the plot. Melody does exactly that — distancing herself. It indicates how deeply moved she has been by the testimonies/stories of the events of 1947.
By the way, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi whom Melody mentions, Nathuram Godse, was sentenced to death a few years later by Justice G. D. Khosla. Again, another upright officer who opted to join the judiciary once India became an independent nation. He wrote about the trial of Godse. It is freely available as a booklet online. I met Justice Khosla. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. But by these acts, I feel as if I have been close to history. (Does that statement even make any sense?)
Melody Razak gets the grief at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi very well. I recall meeting people who remembered that day very clearly. This and later, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Everyone could recall what they were doing at the precise moment that the news broke about these deaths. The collective grief that was felt at Mahatma Gandhi’s death has been brilliantly captured by Melody.
But the reason why I had so many false starts to the book were because of the tiny historical inaccuracies in the opening pages. I can only recall one at the moment. She refers to Amul chocolates. Well, they did not exist till many decades after Independence. Amul is a dairy cooperative that was set up by Nehru under his modern India plans under the leadership of Mr Verghese Kurien (again, someone whom I have met). The chocolates came much, much later. So, this fact could have been checked. There were also spelling errors that annoyed me such as getting the name of All India Radio wrong and hyphenating “All India” or referring to the hot winds that blow in summer as “Lu” instead of as “loo”. (It is a hot wind similar to khamsin.)
I can see why Melody Razak has been showered with praise in the media and has been recognised as one of the debut novelists of 2021 by The Observer. She has a great sense of storytelling. Her pace is fantastic. She knows when to slow down her writing tempo or speed it up as per the requirements of the plot. Her characters are so alive. She is able to move freely between the Muslims and the Hindus and describes them well. Alma’s grandmother is particularly vile. To create evil in a person who is mostly ignored by the family, is quite a creative achievement. But alas, she is also so familiar. We have all come across such characters at some point in our lives. Melody also manages to share only that much of the back story of the characters as is relevant to the main plot. Again, an admirable quality as many debut novelists tend to get hijacked by their characters and create unnecessary tangents to the story. Whereas in this case, whether it is the stories of Dilchain, Fatima Begum, Ma, Bappa or even Cookie Aunty/Lakshmi, Melody shares enough to make them rounded rather than flat characters. There is no need to know more about them.
I had reservations about the extremely feminist angle to the storytelling. It was sort of unbelievable that these narratives could possibly have existed in 1947/8. It seems as if a very modern structure of feeling has been superimposed upon the past. It does not sit well. But then it brings me to the crux of literary fiction. At what point as Salman Rushdie calls it, does fiction “lift off” from the truth and begin a story of its own? Somewhere the writer has to be given the leeway to let their imagination fly. The reader too has to go easy on the writer for letting them tell the story in their own way. Perhaps I found it uncomfortable, even though I more than heartily agree with the feminist sentiments, because of the amount I know about the events of 1947. But the moment I sort of let myself go and just read the story for what it is, I realised it was the only way to “get into” it and enjoy it. Also, having read a lot of historical fiction recently has been doing this — of revisiting past events and imbuing the women characters with a strength and a personality with a very modern touch. It works for modern readers. And if historical fiction is being redefined today as historical events providing only a backdrop to the storytelling, then I suppose we have to make our peace with it. It is fine.
As for the sisters, Alma and Roop, they are incredibly well-created. Although making Roop cut off her hair, roam around naked and wear her father’s trousers whenever she needed to step out seemed a bit farfetched for a five-year-old. But then who are we to argue with the bizarreness of life under conflict. Or for that matter now, during the pandemic. That was another thing that I found so eerily parallel to Moth — our reality of rationing food given the lockdowns and irregular supply of provisions, not sure when to step out (in Moth for fear of communal riots and today, for fear of getting infected by the Covid-19 virus), creating community kitchens (in the novel for refugees and in modern life for migrants who are going home), etc.
As is fairly evident, Moth has triggered many memories as well as made me respond to the book in a manner that I did not think it would do. So there in itself lies the answer of a good emerging novelist. Moth is an extraordinary immersive experience and I am glad I read the novel.
But for me, the true gift was to watch them work and talk unconstrained. No men chaperoned them here, in thsi space sacred to women and thr goddess. I could watch the animation light their young faces and I could hear their breathless, excited conversations conversations echo of two sisters who had loved each other all those years ago in Crete.
In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint ( Hachette India) has not deviated from the well-told Greek myths. Instead she is so familiar with them, even the number of variations, that she is unfazed about multiple versions floating about. She knows the basic elements of every story, every Olympian God, every mortal, the legends and acts. Like an old-fashioned storyteller she weaves the stories together seamlessly. They are so smoothly nested inside one another without being jarring. The digressions, if you can call them that, happen beautifully. It is almost as if Ariadne becomes the reason to retell many of the popular Greek myths. It is the mesmerising storytelling meant for children but told to adults. It works. So many of the stories such as the twelve labours of Heracles, various quests of Theseus, King Minos, Minotaur, Zeus/Herald and Dionysius, travel to Hades, Medea, King Midas, Jason and the golden fleece and much, much more.
Of course the focus is on the two sisters Ariadne and Phaedra. It becomes an excuse to explore sisterhood, friendships among women, building a community of women as Phaedra did when she invited talented weavers across Athens to create a bigger peplos than has ever been seen before, “big enough for the state of Athen at the heart of our city, and magnificent enough to please the goddess”. Her descriptions are stunning. For instance, this beautiful description of Helios’s daughter, Pasiphae, by her daughter, Ariadne.
Unlike the searing blaze of my grandfather, she shimmered with a gentle radiance. I remember the soft beams of her strange, bronze-tinged eyes, the warmth of summer in her embrace and the molten sunshine in her laughter.
The men too are discussed from the perspective of the women. It is much like the exploration Chitra Bannerji Divakurni did in The Palace of Illusions. Suddenly, the women in these myths/epics came alive as women of strength and character, not neceaarily as pawns in the hands of men. Having said that, Ariadne follows in the very contemporary trend of writers such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, and Natalie Haynes in retelling the Greek myths by exploring modern and liberal aspects. Earlier they may have only been hinted at but are now explored with confidence.
It is rare, even now in these liberal and emancipated times, for a publishing house to have a dedicated imprint to LGBTQIA+ literature. Under the excellent leadership and forward thinking of the late CEO and son of the founder, Dick Robinson, Scholastic launched such an imprint for its school and trade market — Arthur A. Levine Books. It was an imprint at the firm from 1996 – 2019. After that Arthur Levine left Scholastic to form Levine Querido. Having said that, the fact that Scholastic launched such a specific imprint was commendable. They did it well before it became fashionable or even before other firms became very active in commissioning same sex literature for young adults. This kind of literature is perhaps not very easy for many readers to “get into” as it requires an open heartedness, a sensitivity and an acceptance of different kinds of sexuality without any prejudice. But once you read these books, it changes your outlook on life. These books are astonishing to read as they not only delve into this niche space of teenage sexuality but also experiment with the literary form — prose, poetry, mixing prose and poetry or even graphic novels. Even with Arthur Levine’s departure from the firm, the legacy continues with the launch of a new imprint called PUSH, an imprint for teens, launched by David Leviathan. It is no longer an exclusive imprint for LGBTQIA+ literature but that in itself is a testament to how far we have come since the fin de siecle of the twentieth century, of being more accepting of diversity.
This was first published on my Facebook and Instagram accounts. It was on the last day of #PrideMonth.
Julia Cameron’s bestselling The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity( first published 1991) is celebrating its 30th anniversary. To commemorate it, the publishers, Hachette India, have released a special edition. It helps that the book has sold more than 5 million copies and been translated into more than 40 languages.
Cameron has devised a 12-week course to unleash a person’s creativity, irrespective of whether it is using words or visual mediums. The chapters in the book are structured to be read and used, one ever week, followed by the exercises. If hard pressed for time during the week to complete the exercises, she suggests that the individual attempt the most exciting and the most dull/challenging exercises. The middle rung can be left for some other time. It is rewarding.
Her book’s premise rests on two fundamental principles — the “morning pages” and the “artist’s date”. She recommends that every morning, it is advisable to write in longhand three pages of anything that comes to one’s mind. There is no need to read it, edit or review it. Just write and close the book. Pick it up the next day. Continue. One fine day, a force within will make its presence felt and you will find it your creative juices working. If you are spiritually inclined, you will identify it as God’s blessing, but if you are not, it will be defined as a life force, a creative energy. Terminology is unimportant as long as the individual recognises their potential, their self-worth and firmly believes in their artistic potential. It is not linked to an “appropriate age”, it is not linked to minting money, it is crucial to first being satisfied for oneself then others. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish until the far side of forty. Grandmother Moses began painting once she had completed three score years and ten. There is always time. Artbis the structuring of time.
Our use of age is a block to creative work interlocks with our toxic finished-produxlct thinking. We have set an appropriate age in certain activities: college graduation, going to med school, writing a first book. This artifical requirement asks us to be done when waht we truly yearn for is to start something.
The second principle of artist’s date is that it is a good idea to keep a little time aside every week to spend on nurturing one’s artistic sensibility. So it could be something as simple as taking time to visit a museum but do it. External stimulation is as important for one’s growth as inner creativity.
It is a book full of common sense. She advocates taking baby steps to achieve a goal. She does not believe that there is a concept of a “blocked artist” or that there is a lack of time. It merely requires overcoming one’s fears, better time management and taking the plunge. It is only by confronting oneself in this manner that progress can be made. It requires humility to start something despite one’s ego’s reservations and the ability to recognise when one is making excuses.
The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron has plenty of sensible advice to offer. It is basically a guide to recalibrate one’s life to achieve a little for oneself rather than be sucked into the monotony of existence. Given that this book was first written in the late 1990s, it does not sound dated except for the fact that there is no mention of digital distractions or the need to digitally detox. So how will those at least less than thirty-five figure out how to manage their lives? Dependency on electronic gizmos and the Internet is part and parcel of their lives. Orienting themselves to a discipline as outlined by Cameron may take more than the stipulated 12 weeks. But anything is possible. In this case, it is well worth spending time with yourself and being constructively productive.
If it helps to know, artists like Martin Scorsese, Elizabeth Gilbert, Russell Brand and Reese Whiterspoon swear by it.
Buy it. Use it. Do the exercises diligently. It works.
Award-winning writer Anjali Joseph’s Keeping in Touch( Context, Westland/Amazon) is about Keteki and Ved Ved, both of whom are in their late thirties. (Ved is Ved twice over as the first Ved is the title for a doctor. The second is his name meaning “knowledge”.) They met at the airport while waiting for their respective flights. Coincidentally, one of the projects that Ved is assessing in India for a potential investment has a manufacturing plant in Upper Assam, very conveniently it is close to Keteki’s ancestral home in Jorhat. After a one night stand, Keteki heads off to Guwahati and Ved to London. They exchange phone numbers. Ketkei is a designer. Ved is a venture capitalist. They come across as mildly bored, disengaged with their world, their professional commitments are completed more than successfully but they remain dissatisfed, they seem to be unaffected by anything that happens around them and are always available for a party with like-minded souls. They seem to live lives that would be the envy of many — parties organised at the drop of a hat, jet setting between the UK and India as and when they feel like it, travelling within India upon a whim, an ease that is available to the single and unattached, without any other responsibilities. Even having sex seems to be a “time pass” activity. Yet, slowly and steadily, via text messages, unexpected as well as planned meetings in London, Guwahati and Jorhat, Keteki and Ved begin to get to know each other. It is almost as if they are behaving like teenagers, who are infatuated with each other, but for some reason are unable to express it clearly in words to each other. Although to be fair, Ved does say to Keteki’s uncle that he would like to spend the rest of his life with his niece. Keteki and Ved keep in touch but are unable to make a commitment until Ved decides to quit his job in London, puts his flat on rent and moves to Guwahati to be closer to Keteki. She too has for the moment moved base to the city to be with her aunt.
Anjali Joseph excels in these middle class stories. It is almost as if it is in the spirit of Jane Austen, to polish the two inches of ivory. There is the hustle bustle of the outside world in terms of social engagements and conversations, much of it polite chatter. But the focus of the story remains firmly upon the two main characters. The desis in Keeping in Touch are equally at ease in India or abroad. They have the mobility and grace to move in diverse social circles. Interestingly, this novel is probably a fine example of a new brand of diasporic literature that blends the cultures of the two lands deftly and unapologetically. It is evident in little details such as the use of Assamese words in the course of conversation or to describe dishes. Thankfully not once are these italicised in the text or over explained. Instead they are placed as they are meant to be on the page and the reader has to accept them.
As always, Saurabh Garge’s cover design is perfect. The lone, empty boat, marooned on the river bank is a symbolic image for the two lovers described in the story. It is intriguing. For those wishing to pick up a book based upon its cover, well they are in for a satisfying read.
Keeping in Touch is a very old-fashioned love story in a modern setting. It is beautifully told. It is impossible to put down. It lingers with you long after the book is over.
Sarah Winman’s Still Life begins during the Second World War and then the story develops over the next few decades. The cast of characters, more or less, remain the same. It includes a parrot that went dumb during the bombing of London.
Still Life is a large, expansive, slow moving historical fiction. It has the languid pace that one associates with all things Italian. And rightly so as a substantial portion of the novel is set in Italy. Even the sections that are set in England have a very slow pace that is mostly written in the third person. It is an odd literary technique to employ in a novel that could quite easily move crisply if the protagonist Ulysses Temper had had more of a voice. Instead, it’s almost as if he has a very dispassionate connect with the locals. This despite his wife, Peg, and her child, Alys, being part of the community. He is far too accommodating of everyone’s wishes and always does his best to please them. Until, he learns of his Italian inheritance. He has been bequeathed a property by “Arturo” whom he met briefly while stationed as a Private during the war. It is a life changing moment and he moves countries, taking Alys, whom he loves very much.
But Still Life is also about women, women painters, painting, and aspiring to be artists. Their impact upon others lives as Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenerian art historian, has upon Ulysses and later, Alys. Evelyn’s fine talk about aesthetics, artists, beauty ultimately impacts Ulysses life in many ways. This book is about their extraordinary relationship, being kindred spirits who discovered each other during the war and a spark was lit that transcended many social barriers.
Still Life also works as a metaphor in this novel. For its ability to capture a vignette of life as paintings with a “Still Life” theme attempt. Usually still life painting compositions are of the very ordinary elements found in daily life. The intense focus upon these objects by the artist transforms them from the mundane to something exquisite, a precious piece of artwork. This novel is much like this. It is to Sarah Winman’s credit that she takes the very ordinary lives of very common, nondescript folks and through her way with words, turns the novel into a piece of art.
To appreciate this story, the reader needs to zone into that mindset and engage with it; much in the way a painting is appreciated– you stand and gaze upon it, to discover more than the veneer.
At nearly 500 pages, this novel is meant for diehard fans of Sarah Winman. But those who like historical fiction may like it too. Winman has a way of getting the reader hooked from the first page. It works as long as the novel can be read without too many interruptions. Otherwise the large cast of characters can get quite tough to recall.
Writer Mohanlal Gangopadhyay’s Charanik: The Walkerwas first published in Bengali in 1942. It is an account of his walking tour of Czechoslovakia during his summer break in 1937. At the time, Gangopadhyay was studying at the London School of Economics, London. So he was able to plan a holiday in Europe with a friend, Mirek.
Charanik is a lovely, calm, account of these three months. The writer records their stay in various youth hostels or at the home of hospitable peasants. Along with Mirek, he would walk a few hours every day. They visited beautiful valleys, hills, glacial caves etc. They visited local fairs such as at Uherske Hradiste, visited the worle-famous primeval forests of Ruthenia, trekked in the High Tatras, visited the Demanovska Ice Cave with its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites that had only been discovered twenty years earlier, they went looking for Hribis mushrooms, they visited Poprad Lake etc. They lived off the land plucking wild berries, strawberries, apples, bilberries and mushrooms to eat. Using fresh spring or river water to brew hot tea for their soups or tea. Every night, if possible, the duo halted at a youth hostel, where only basic amenities were provided. Yet, it was comforting to a bunch of exhausted travellers. To the writer, carrying a rucksack with essentials on his back instead of relying on a porter or even halting at these hostels was a steep learning curve as he had no clue how to make his bed, fold his clothes or even wash them regularly. He was so used to having staff assist in domestic chores. But it did not deter him. He learned fast and enjoyed the experience.
The book has been translated by Jayanta Sengupta who first read the Bengali edition as a school student. He enjoyed the book so much that when he visited Europe for the first time, he decided to do so with a shoestring Charanik-like budget.
Mohanlal Gangopadhyay came from an illustrious family. His father was the writer Manilal Gangopadhyay and his mother, Karuna, was the daughter of Abanindranath Tagore. Surprisingly, the writer chooses in this book to not mention anything about Adolf Hitler, who was already in power in Germany. Nor that the Germans in Czechoslovakia were demanding the right to autonomy, which led directly to the Munich Pact being signed between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in September 1938; as a result, parts of Czechoslovakia would be handed over to Nazi Germany. Despite meeting people every day at the youth hostels, mostly walkers and trekkers like themselves, Gangopadhyay never mentions politics. Instead his descriptions are idyllic. Incredible to think that he had the ability to spend pages describing streams, mountains, forests, views from mountain tops and the unfortunate events of being caught in a sudden freezing downpour, in the middle of nowhere. But as the translator points out that now the map of Czechoslovakia has changed drastically over the past few decades. For one, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are independent nations. Ruthenia had not really existed as an independent nation. Many of the other places referred to in the book can now be found in the maps of Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and other countries.
Charanik is a soothing book to read. It has been translated beautifully. There is a gentle pace to the narrative that is very calming. It is illustrated with black and white photographs taken and sketches made by the author’s wife, Milada Ganguli.