Reviewing Posts

Kit de Waal’s “The Trick to Time”

‘One day,’ he says, and his voice is kind so Mona knows she isn’t getting a telling-off, ‘one day, you will want these hours back, my girl. You will wonder how you lost them and you will want to get them back. There’s a trick to time.’

‘What’s the trick, Dadda?’

He likes to explain things so Mona expects a good long answer that might delay them getting back home.

‘You can make it expand or you can make it contract. Make it shorter or make it longer,’ he says. 

Kit de Waal’s second novel The Trick to Time is about a young Irish girl Desdemona usually called Mona who leaves Ireland to work in Birmingham. It is the 1970s. On her first night in the city she meets William, an Irish lad, and soon after a whirlwind romance they are married. She is not even twenty. Mona had left her father and the tiny Irish village she grew up in to get a job. While in Birmingham she enrolled herself in evening classes to be a seamstress. William and she are extraordinarily happy with each other till a terrible tragedy shatters their world. It is compounded by the fact that William is caught in the ghastly IRA bombings that happened in Birmingham on 21 November 1974.

When the novel opens Mona, now nearly sixty, is an established doll-maker, mostly heirloom pieces, an exquisite seamstress of dolls clothes and sells beautiful wooden dolls, some fitted out in vintage wear. Dresses she painstakingly puts together by scouring thrift shops and flea markets for fabric and pieces of clothing which if need be she carefully pulls apart to recreate the clothes for her dolls. She relies upon a carpenter to make her wooden dolls. Ever so often her door will ring and a lone woman will walk in with the words “Gayle sent me.” A very peaceful air envelops the two women, strangers, while they converse engulfing the “howling grief” of the customer but Mona with immense tenderness seeks the relevant information about weight and fixes the next appointment. It all happens civilly without adding to the trauma of the grieving mother.

The Trick to Time is an extraordinary novel suffused with extreme tenderness, gentleness, understanding and kindness even though there is pain and misery. Its focus is on living life joyfully, considering each moment as blessed,  without ignoring or forgetting that which hurts, is what comes through beautifully particularly in the poised manner in which Mona conducts herself. While being an efficient seamstress who sells exquisite dolls, she quietly helps keening mothers deal with the loss of their newborns, sometimes many years after the birth of the stillborn. Her healing sessions are unusual. She requests the carpenter to carve and polish a block of wood equal in weight to that of the grieving mother’s lost newborn. Then tucking the woman into a comfortable chair holding the piece of wood draped in a garment belonging to the beloved child, Mona weaves a magnificently hypnotic tale involving shared moments between mother and child through adulthood.  The pained grief the reader feels too in these private moments are movingly created by the writer and yet there is an abundance of kindness and sympathy present.

The Trick to Time is definitely literary fiction that is recognizably working class in its themes, language, characters and stories. For instance it is not only a history of the changes in maternal care and attitude towards stillborn from the gruesomely cold attitude of the 1970s nurses to a more caring and understanding attitude including of setting up support groups for mothers in today’s day and age. The novel is a sensitive study of not only how women are affected but also men as evident in William’s reaction to the loss of his daughter. Kit de Waal also talks about the working class thereby subverting that which is even today considered acceptable in contemporary literary fiction — this at a time when the conversations about inclusive or diversity in publishing are increasing rapidly. In a fabulous talk “Where are all the working class writers?” on BBC 4 Radio broadcast on 23 Nov 2017 she said  “The more we reinforce the stereotypes of who writes and who reads, the more the notion of exclusivity is reinforced. It takes balls to gatecrash a party.” She reiterates talking about class is still an awkward conversation to have. In an interview with Boundless she was asked about Lionel Shriver’s ( now infamous remark) about “cultural appropriation” and if a writer should only write from their point of view; to which Kit de Waal said she concurred with Lionel Shriver but added wisely: “I have written to some extent about certain experiences I have had or have been close to. I would certainly write about experiences I haven’t had – I probably will do in future novels – provided I was certain of three things – and this is especially true where the experience was a sensitive subject (as is race, racism, adoption, mental health and stillbirth, as in my first two novels) a) that I was going to say something new or different to what had already been said on the subject, b) that I had done as much research as I possibly could including talking to people who had had the experience or were from the community, reading, watching films and so forth until I was immersed in that experience, certain of my facts, had paid the subject sufficient attention and had taken no shortcuts, c) that if someone criticised me for writing about that subject or experience I would be able to take that criticism.All of this is a question of respect. Lionel Shriver is completely right that we can write about whatever we want. Whether or not we are entitled to write whatever we want is an entirely different matter. Entitlement is a dangerous attitude, bringing with it notions of privilege, possession and exclusion. We only own our story and then only from our point of view – which one of us agrees with our siblings about every detail of our childhood? Stray from our narrow experience and we trespass on someone else’s, potentially. Yes, write whatever you want but interrogate yourself as to what you bring that is different, that is new, that is unique and whether or not you are best placed to be the one to tell that story. And always guard against arrogance and disrespect.”

Although Kit de Waal reiterates in an essay in the Guardian “…without talking about the upper- or middle-class white men and women who wrote the classics and some of the masterpieces of literature. I love their writing, respect – no, envy – their skill and craft, and cherish those books that tell us so much about the world and what it is to be human. These are works that, as Italo Calvino says, haven’t finished saying what they have to say. This isn’t a plea to take them off the shelf. It isn’t a case of us or them; it’s a case of us and them. Shove all those other books up a bit and make room on the shelf for stories from all of the communities that make up the working class. We do literature and ourselves a disservice if we don’t.” ( “Kit de Waal: ‘Make room for working class writers’ ” 10 Feb 2018, The Guardian). In fact she crowdfunded Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers — a collection of essays, poems and pieces of personal memoir, bringing together sixteen well-known writers from working class backgrounds.

Kit de Waal has this incredible talent of making visible particularly that of female experience which is usually not seen in mainstream literary fiction especially when it comes to working class fiction. She is the 21C version of Charles Dickens. With her memorable and absolutely stupendous debut novel My Name is Leon she focused upon growing up as a child in early 1980s in a working class neighbourhood and related issues of fostering, childcare, angry children and looking out for one another. Kit de Waal has worked in family and criminal law for many years, has been a magistrate and written training manuals on fostering and adoption; she also grew up with a mother who fostered children. In The Trick to Time she makes visible tiny but crucial details such as Mona looking after the carpenter, her kindness extending itself to warmly embrace the grieving mothers without letting on that she herself would like to keen for her stillborn child, or simply the descriptions of her living alone at home peacefully and pottering. These tiny actions are liberating as most often than not women’s actions are either dictated or circumscribed by a man in their lives, who loves to colonise their time. This is evident in how the German Karl tries to woo Mona largely by disrupting her peaceful schedule. All these details that would otherwise be considered too pedantic for literary fiction are in an ever so gentle manner brought into focus.

With the generous publishing advance the author received for her first novel she set up the Kit de Waal Creative Writing Fellowship to help improve working-class representation in the arts. Launched in October 2016 at Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, the scholarship provides a fully funded place for one student to study on the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA, and also includes a generous travel bursary to allow the student to travel into London for classes and Waterstones’ vouchers to allow the student to buy books on the reading list. The inaugural scholarship was awarded to former Birmingham poet laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke.

The Trick to Time was on the longlist of the Women’s Prize 2018 and it is a pity it never made it to the shortlist. Nevertheless it is a book meant to be read and shared. It will be a sleeper hit for it is bound to be read by book clubs worldwide as well has great potential of being adapted for cable television or cinemas. The Trick to Time is a book that will endear itself to many as it justifiably should!

Read it.

Kit de Waal The Trick To Time Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, London, UK, 2018. Pb. pp.260 

27 April 2018 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Strout “Anything is Possible”

It seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old—the more he understood that he would not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.

… 

She came to understand that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live. 

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is an exquisitely written novel about rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois. It is about the people of the town Lucy Barton had left behind when she moved to New York to become a successful writer. Lucy is the heroine of Strout’s equally well-told novel My Name is Lucy Barton. In Amgash as like any other settlement, irrespective of whether it is a small town or a big city, there is great diversity across the socio-economic spectrum. There are people like Lucy’s siblings all of whom grew up in abject poverty and somehow managed a decent life as grownups. Since rarely do these people move out of Amgash, the past just as the present of the townspeople is an open book. It is claustrophobic and debilitating as it does not allow individuals to grow. The shadow of the past always looms large. This is precisely the reason why Lucy Barton fled. Despite this people continue to live in Amgash making adjustments to their lifestyles with growing old age and some are even successful in their social mobility.

This was a matter of different cultures, Dottie knew that, although she felt it had taken her many years to learn this. She thought that this matter of different cultures was a fact that got lost in the country these days. And culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite, but Dottie also thought people didn’t talk about class because they didn’t really understand what it was.

In Anything is Possible Lucy Barton is on a book tour in Chicago and decides to return to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her siblings. Unfortunately the flood of unpleasant childhood memories hits her as soon as she enters her parents cottage. She has a panic attack and decides to return immediately to Chicago. In the interim she has had smattering of conversations with her siblings who have updated her on the lives of people they knew as kids. None of the people have had a predictable lifestyle and it is certainly stranger than the fiction Lucy Barton possibly writes. For instance her distant cousin Abel who along with his sister Dottie would sometimes be found scavenging for scraps of food in a dumpster went on to become one of the richest men in Chicago. This story was the least sad of all that are shared. On the surface of it Amgash inhabitants were living the typical homely small-town-American lives you would expect them to have except there was a murkier underbelly to this. But as Abel Blaine realises it is possible to live the American Dream and improve on one’s status just as Lucy and he did—-“Anything was possible for anyone”.

Elizabeth Strout is known for deftly creating these fictional landscapes that are as finely detailed as a miniature painting. The characters, their personality traits, their lives and the umpteen cultural references are so well packed in the sparingly told narratives that they continue to be with one for a long time after the book is closed. She conjures up the scenes so minutely and exactly that it is crystal clear in mind’s eye. It is not surprising that Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible was on President Obama’s list of favourite books of 2017. Anything is Possible is on the Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist 2018.

Two legendary women writers have endorsed these books and truer words were never said:

Hilary Mantel on My Name is Lucy Barton: “Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.’

Ann Patchett on Anything is Possible: “Strout proves to us again and again that where she’s concerned, anything is possible. This book, this writer, are magnificent.”

Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 260 Rs 599

Elizabeth Strout My Name is Lucy Barton Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 200 Rs 699

28 March 2018 

 

 

 

“With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial” by Kathryn Mannix

Bereaved people, even those who have witnessed the apparently peaceful death of a loved one, ofen need to tell their story repeatedly, and that is an important part of transfering the experience they endured into a memory, instead of reliving it like a parallel reality every time they think about it. 

And those of us who look after very sick people sometimes need to debrief too. It keeps us well, and able to go back to the workplace to be reqounded in the line of duty. 

….

Cognitive therapist and palliative medicine pioneer Kathryn Mannix’s With the End In Mind is a collection of medico-narrative stories which focus on the stages of dying. Usually the stories focus on terminally ill patients as it is in such scenarios the patients and their families are anxious and fearful of impending death. The stories are based on decades of her experience with the NHS in UK. They are stories which work equally well as case studies and for the benefit of getting the point across well at times Dr Mannix has clubbed together experiences of more than one patient in one narrative. These are grouped in sections such as “Patterns”, “My Way”, “Naming Death”, “Looking Beyond the Now”, “Legacy” and “Transcendance”.

The stories included in the volume are extraordinary. It is not only the magical quality to the storytelling of experiences while sitting by a patient’s deathbed but it is the calm sense of peace and kindness that pervades every single story. Undoubtedly the crippling anxiety that grips every patient and their families as death approaches has its impact on the families. Every one has a different response mechanism in managing the situation. These may be defined by an individual’s choice of the cultural codes of behaviour they have learned to adopt while processing the dastardly news. The stories are about the experiences of all ages of patients including those who have died in hospitals or those who have died at home surrounded by family. It is always the conversations about dying with every person and their caregivers that may never be easy but has to be conducted.

Notice how often you hear euphemisms like ‘passed’, ‘passed away’, ‘lost’, in conversations and in the media. How can we talk about dying, plan our care or support those we love during dying, theirs or ours, if we are not prepared to name death?

There are many conversations recounted that are memorable for demonstrating to a lay person and the medical professional that certain bedside manners with a large dose of humility, patience, honesty, level headedness, cultural sensitivity, and empathy are required when on a death watch whether offering solace to keening mothers who have lost their babies or even the elderly.  There is one particularly straightforward conversation the “leader” ( head of the hospice where Dr Mannix worked as a young physician) had with a WWII French resistance woman called Sabine who wears her Resistance Medal and who withstood the terror of war and yet was afraid of death. She was an elegant eighty-year-old inmate who was always well mannered and well turned out. Kathryn Mannix was a young trainee in the new speciality of palliative medicine. Her trainer was the consultant in charge of the hospice who had a good rapport with Sabine as he was bilingual and would at times converse with her in French. So when he decided to have the conversation about dying with her in the presence of the nurse to whom she had confided her fears and the young physician Kathryn Mannix, no one was prepared for how the conversation would develop. For the young Kathryn Mannix this particular episode was transformative and has lived with her throughout her career as if on a cinema reel. It formed the basis of her future practice, teaching her to be calm in the face of other people’s storms of fear and “to be confident that the more we understand about the way dying proceeds, the better we will manage it”. She realised over decades of clinical practice that:

The process of dying is recognisable. There are clear stages, a predictable sequence of events. In the generations of humanity before dying was hijacked into hospitals, the process was common knowledge and had been seen many times by anyone who lived into their thirties or forties. Most communities relied on local wise women to support patient and family during and after a death, much as they did ( and still do) during and after a birth. The art of dying has become a forgotten wisdom, but every deathbed is an opportunity to restore that wisdom to those who will live, to benefit from it as they face other deaths in the future, including their own. 

It is curious that Dr Mannix refers to the “art of dying being a forgotten wisdom” as coincidentally historian and chronicler of Delhi and accomplished Urdu translator Rana Safvi mentioned that she has read an account of daily life within the Red Fort during Mughal times where existed a category of women called khair salla waaliyan. They were employed in the Red Fort presumably by the noble families. Their job was to look after well being of the family. They weren’t necessarily nurses or care givers but who could make people feel good.  She thinks their job was to look after the emotional well being of the people being left behind the dying person. None exist now. It is only the professional mourners like the rudalis who continue to exist in Indian society.

Preparation for death is culturally specific too as with the Swedish ‘Döstädning’, or ‘death cleaning’ which is the focus of Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning discussed beautifully in Christina Patterson’s essay “The ‘new hygge’: downshifting for death“. Journalist Arifa Akbar in her interview with Dr Mannix asked a pertinent question noticeable by its absence in the book itself:

AA: The people whose stories you tell in the book do not ever talk about God or an afterlife. Did you edit out these discussions? (You have said that you didn’t want to discuss religion in the context of end-of-life as it can be polarising and unhelpful.) Could you say if some patients do talk about this aspect and if it is helpful to them?

KM: People’s spirituality manifests in different ways. Where this is a religious faith, then people do discuss God and their hopes, anxieties and desires for an afterlife, as well as measuring their personal worth against the constructs of their faith. I’ve met people hopeful for heaven, fearful of hell, anticipating reincarnation, angry with God, or leaving their fate entirely in Divine hands; I’ve met people with no belief and at peace with the idea of oblivion, and others feeling sad at the ending of self-awareness; I’ve met people who have lost their longstanding faith in the face of the perceived injustice of illness; I’ve met people who discover a faith amidst the emotional storms of terminal decline.

Dr Mannix offers some thought provoking options to initiate conversations about dying as well as a way for the mourners to come to terms with their grief such as death cafes where people in similar situations could gather and share their experiences. She also provides template of a letter with possible points to consider for having a conversation about dying. She shares a list of resources that can be considered to prepare for this ultimate stage of life and recommends watching Australian intensive care specialist Dr Peter Saul’s TED Talk “Let’s Talk about Dying” ( Nov 2011). She also acknowledges Dr Atul Gawande’s books too.

With the End in Mind is a devastatingly powerful book of which extracts must be made available freely. It is certainly a book to be read cover to cover and take its learnings to heart, make them your own.  Persuade those who are anxious about the deteriorating health of their loved ones to read it. It is going to be a near-impossible task, but try nevertheless.  It is unsurprising that this book is on the Wellcome Book Prize 2018 longlist. Well deserved recognition!

Kathryn Mannix With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial ( William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.340 Rs 599 

12 March 2018 

 

Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West”

We are all migrants through time. 

Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel Exit West published nearly a year ago in spring 2017 was received positively worldwide to rapturous reviews. Despite the extremely long and breathless sentences with innumerable sub-clauses the story itself moves smoothly while unveiling a bleak yet monstrously fragile world of migrants, violence and lawlessness. It is told through the lives of Saeed and Nadia but the narrator remains in complete control, much like a cameraman choosing to tell the story through selected frames. The prose is structured almost like a slow dance fusing reality with elements of speculative fiction. Take the black doors for instance which open like portals to another land, not necessarily another dimension of time, leading refugees away from one physical space to the next.

This aspect of the story has in fact resulted in an incredible art installation in London. It can be viewed till 20 February 2018. According to The Bookseller, Penguin Random House UK has teamed up with Audible and Jack Arts to celebrate the paperback launch of Exit West. To quote the article:

Penguin is partnering with Jack Arts and Audible to celebrate the paperback publication of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) with an interactive poster installation on Commercial Street, London.

Working with Jack Arts, themes explored by the Man Booker shortlisted novel such as movement and migration – and, as Penguin puts it, “the thin boundaries that exist in our world” and “the doors between neighbours” – will be “brought to life” in the form of poster art.

Taking a recessed wall space on Commercial Street, Penguin and Jack Arts have replicated the book jacket artwork of Exit West and installed posters with book extracts and cityscapes from locations in the book. Functioning doors open onto the posters, inviting people to engage with the story and to “rethink what the doors around them might mean”, according to Penguin. The campaign strapline reads: “You sometimes need a way out. You always need a way in.”

Penguin also teamed up with Audible, identifying the Commercial Street site profile as “directly overlapping” with Audible’s audience. The audiobook retailer is tagged on the installation and will promote the audio edition of the book to its four million UK social followers. Exit West will be an Audible Editorial pick and a recorded interview with author Mohsin Hamid will be available as an Audible Session.

The book’s author, Hamid said: “It was kind of magical for me to see the black doors on Commercial Street, to discover they could open, and to find words from Exit West inside.”

It is very exciting to see how many forms a good story will take. More so in this information age when readers have very high expectations and there are behavioural changes apparent in how people approach a book. With the blending of formats making it available in physical reality is truly marvellous — just as this unique book.

Read it if you have not already done so!

Mohsin Hamid Exit West Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017. Hb.pp. 230 Rs 599

18 February 2018 

Bear Grylls Adventures

Given how more and more children are being reared in urban settings it is getting tougher for them to be close to nature. For instance I was very surprised to watch the look of astonishment on a seven-year-old boy’s face when I was explaining crop cycles. Till then he was under the impression that the fresh produce arrived in the shop magically. Well, he was clued in sufficiently to realise people carted it in but was not curious enough to ask where did it actually come from? Where was it grown? So if urbanisation is robbing children of this basic knowledge of farming / nature under normal circumstances. Imagine how challenging it is to explain to the children on how to manage themselves in diverse ecosystems particularly at the time of natural disasters.

There is a paucity of literature on how adults should behave when a natural disaster strikes. What are the immediate responses and how to survive the long haul. ( Within this there are other complications of gendered responses, fragile situations and how to rehabilitate.) There is even less literature available for children on how they should respond in such situations. And if there is, it is mostly confined to Girl Guide or Boy Scout manuals, not necessarily accessible to the majority of children. Also books on disaster management need to be pitch perfect while communicating to the children rather than talking down to them. It will inevitably result in a brain freeze on the part of the kids and builld a resistance. This is where the Bear Grylls Adventures, a series of slim chapter books, created by noted adventurer and survival expert Bear Grylls are a delight to read. Simply told adventure stories in different settings where within the plot the young readers are shown how to respond and behave in different scenarios — earthquakes, blizzards, desert, jungles, sea and river. A pleasure to read these pitch perfect books.

In India the books have been published by Bloomsbury India. They are a set of six books reasonably priced and a must in every school library if not in every child’s personal library. In fact the importance the publishers rightly give to these series was evident at the posters displayed in their world book fair stall held in Delhi.

Bear Grylls Adventures by Bear Grylls. Illustrated by Emma McCann. Bear Grylls is an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre, a Bonnier Publishing Company, Great Britain, 2017. ( In India the books are distributed by Bloomsbury India and are priced at Rs 199 each.) 

8 February 2018 

 

“First Person” by Richard Flanagan

My review of award winning Australian writer Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First Person was published in The Hindu on Sunday, 4 February 2018. I am also c&p the text below. 

Flanagan examines the art and artifice of autobiography writing

Kif Kehlmann, a writer struggling to write his first book, is approached by his childhood friend Ray to ghost-write a memoir of Ray’s boss. The said boss is Australia’s most notorious conman Siegfried Heidl or Ziggy, who had swindled banks of 700 million dollars. Ziggy is out on bail.

This gives his publisher, Gene Paley of Schlegel Trans-Pacific Publishing, about six weeks to commission a “page-turner” and have it published in time for the trial.

For this Ziggy is to be paid the handsome sum of $250,000 whereas Kif is offered $10,000, with no royalties, to be paid in equal instalments upon submission of the manuscript and the publication of the book. If Kif failed to deliver he would be paid only the termination fee of $500.

Faustian pact

The book is about Kif attempting to get Ziggy to share incidents from his life which he could then convert into a saleable story. This Faustian pact is a soul-sapping task for Kif as Ziggy is evasive or spins incredibly fantastic tales that are impossible to verify.

There are rumours of Ziggy’s links to the CIA in Laos in the early 1970s, of him being hired by NASA to establish a rocket facility in the southern hemisphere, being involved in the deposition of Australian Prime Minister Whitlam and his alleged role in the Allende-Chile affair. Kif’s description of Ziggy is apt: “Even working with him it was hard to see him. I remember he didn’t have much hair and he was of indeterminate age, small, slightly stout, [a] hobgoblin… little sorcerer… From the beginning he was always there and never to be found.”

The novel traces Kif’s growing frustration with his elusive subject. Kif had hoped that the book would be his ticket out of writerly poverty and perhaps fetch him a better publishing contract. While those possibilities seem to recede, his current publisher becomes more and more difficult.

Paley dispels any notion Kif may have had about artistic freedom by mentioning that in France ghost-writers are called Nègres or slaves.

With such limiting conditions, Kif sets to work, inventing where he cannot find facts. He delivers the page-turner within the stipulated time by “learning to distract from the truth by amusing the reader; to flatter the reader by playing on what they believed to be their virtues — their idea of goodness and decency — whilst leading them even further into an alien darkness that was the real world and, perhaps, the real them; and, on occasion, I feared, the real me.”

In the early 1990s, Richard Flanagan had been hired by the fraudster John Friedrich to ghost-write his autobiography in six weeks as he awaited trial for a 300 million dollar fraud. Friedrich died during those six weeks, as does Siegfried in the story.

Writing the self

Although First Person is promoted as a novel, it closely follows Flanagan’s experience of ghost-writing a novel for a criminal. It brings into focus much-debated issues of craftsmanship, of remaining true to one’s art or capitulating to market forces.

Flanagan also questions the premise of autobiography as an art form. Autobiographies are trending now as they go well with the general preference for reality shows and intimate confessions made in the first person.

For Flanagan, an autobiography is a literary selfie.

When Kif dwells on the fine balance between truth and storytelling in an autobiography, he too concludes that “a memoir was a series of selected lies”. Kif is a nom de plume, a short for “keefer” — a substance, especially cannabis, smoked to produce a drowsy state.

Isn’t the reader expected to suspend her disbelief while reading the novel?

First Person; Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, ₹599

In conversation with Namita Gokhale on her “Lost in Time”, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

Lost in Time: Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusions is Namita Gokhale’s first young adult novel, published by Puffin India but not her first publication for children – a few years ago she published the hugely successful Puffin Mahabharata.

Lost in Time: Ghatatkacha and the Game of Illusions is the story told in the voice of young Chintamani Dev Gupta who is sent packing to a birding camp near Sat Tal lake. Chintamani, AKA Chintu Pintu, is inexplicably transported to the days of the Mahabharata. Trapped in time, he meets Ghatotkacha and his mother Hidimbi. The gentle giant, a master of illusions and mind boggling Rakshasa technology, wields his strength with knowledge and wisdom, and imparts the age old secrets of the forest and the elemental forces. In his company, Chintamani finds himself in the thick of the most enduring Indian epic – the Mahabharatha. A tender look at a remarkable friendship as well as the abiding riddles of time , this visual treat of a book casts light on the first born son of the Pandavas, – one who finds rare mention in the fading pages of myth and legend. But there’s more to the story. Aided by Dhoomavati, the mistress of smoke and secrets, Chintamani returns to his own time – our time – and urban life in Gurgaon, AKA Gurugram. The rhythm of modern urban life, and his passion for football, cannot erase the memories of his incredible encounter with the past, and his friendship with Ghatotkacha which defies the barriers of time.

It is a lovely book about a minor but significant character of the Mahabharata. Namita Gokhale in her story has told the story tenderly, focusing not just on the legend of Ghatotkach but placing it well within the context of the major episodes of the epic. Yet there are two elements in the book that are baffling. One is the illustration of Ghatotkach. According to legend he is given the name that he has because of his bald pate shaped like a ghada/ an urn. Yet the illustrations on the book cover and accompanying the text show him to have beautiful long hair. The second was the promotion for the Puffin Mahabharata written by Namita Gokhale ten years ago. Chintamani after returning to modern India is intrigued by the epic and goes to his bookshelf to locate it. He recalls his mother buying this particular version of the epic and then proceeds to quote the book blurb. Curious way of promoting the previous book given it has already been mentioned in the opening pages of Namita Gokhale’s publications.

All said and done it is a beautifully written book especially the stunning passages of the milky way, playing with the sunlight and weaving a hammock out of cobwebs. Absolutely gorgeous!

On Sunday, 26 November 2017, at the Times of India LitFest, New Delhi, Namita Gokhale’s book was launched. After which I was in conversation with her. Watch the event here:

28 Nov 2017 

 

Of Bitches

11 October 2017 is International Girl Child’s Day, declared by the United Nations. The idea is to raise awareness of issues facing girls internationally surrounding education, nutrition, child marriage, legal and medical rights. The celebration of the day also “reflects the successful emergence of girls and young women as a distinct cohort in development policy, programming, campaigning and research.”

But what happens when the young woman gains consciousness in a world where many of the structures are still very patriarchal; they inform and dictate many relationships and policies. Feminism, particularly women’s movements, of the 1960s onwards have influenced young girls world over. Women learned how to express themselves in a manner that enabled them to be heard. Slowly and steadily the impact was discernible in different spheres. In publishing too for the first time women’s presses were being set up. Virago and  Kali for Women were established. The magazine Ms was launched by Gloria Steinem. Women in Publishing was established at this time by Liz Calder, one of the co-founders of Bloomsbury. In India for the first time Status of Women Report ( 1975) was released. There was definitely a shift in perceptions and constructive action was being taken. Soon publishers worldwide recognised the growing importance of giving a space in their lists to women’s books — either by women or for women.  In living memory there has been a dramatic shift with now there being more and more women authors being published.

In this context there are three collections of essays that I read recently — Bad Feminist ( Roxane Gay), Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults ( Laurie Penny) and The Bitch is Back ( ed. Cathi Hanauer). These three books can be yoked together not only for their feminism but also that they mark the manner in which the feminists conduct themselves, the choices they make and how they evolve as individuals. Some of the older feminists as those sharing their experiences in their essays included in The Bitch is Back comment upon living their feminism by negotiating their spaces regularly and thereafter making peace with the decisions made. The common thread running through all these essays is how challenging at times it can be to find the same sense of equality and entitlement that men of diverse backgrounds seem to have in all societies. Women have to negotiate their spaces and stand by their choices, at times it is not easy, but feminism has granted this at least — the space to negotiate and as some of the older women discover it is also about making peace with having your own identity. There are two particularly fine essays that encapsulate and address many of these issues in The Bitch is Back — “Trading Places: We both wanted to stay home. He won. But so did I.” by Julianna Baggott and “Beyond the Myth of Co-Parenting: What we lost — and gained — by abandoning equality” by Hope Edelman.

These books are meant for everyone and not necessarily for feminists. Read them. Discuss them. Share them and not just with the girls in your circle as they come of age. It is a way of seeing. Hopefully reading about alternative gendered perspectives will enable a healthy debate in society and contribute to the transformation of traditional patriarchal structures of thinking.

11 October 2017 

 

Of books tackling medical science

Of late there have been a deluge of books making exploring medical science accessible to the lay reader too. This recognition of making technical knowledge available to the public in manageable morsels is a remarkable feat.

Maylis de Kerangal’s  Mend the Living is a novel about a young man who goes into an irreversible coma after a car accident. His organs, including the heart, are to be harvested. Mend the Living is primarily about the heart being transplanted. It is a haunting book for sharing different perspectives of all those affected by the death of Simon Limbeau. It is not only his immediate family — his parents, younger sister and girlfriend, but also the medical personnel responsible for Simon and the patients who would be receiving his organs. It is an extraordinarily mesmerising story, almost poetic in its narration, which has been translated fluidly from French into English by Jessica Moore. Here is a fabulous interview of the author by the translator published in Bomb magazine who insists “I have a strong conviction: I consider the translator as a writer, an author. I always have the feeling of being a translator myself, translating French into another language, which is the French of my books. All this nomadism of texts, the movement from one language to another, I find it so stimulating and rich. I don’t want to say at all that books’ themes, subjects, and stories don’t interest me, but for me what comes first is how a book provokes an experience of the world via language. So all these foreign languages remind me of the fact that I feel like a translator myself, and that translators, in a way, are the authors of these books.” Mend the Living, a work of fiction, won the Wellcome Book Prize 2017 — a surprising choice given that most often it is awarded to non-fiction.

Poorna Bell’s memoir Chase the Rainbow  is a tribute to her husband who committed suicide. He was a journalist who was able to mask effectively his acute depression and heroin addiction from everyone including his bride! It was only some years after her wedding did Poorna discover the truth by which time they had not only lost their home but were deep in debt. Mental health issues plague many but it is rarely discussed openly for the social stigma attached to it. Slowly there is a perceptible shift in this discourse too as more and more people are sharing their experiences of grappling with mental health issues or with their loved ones. This is critical since the caregivers too need support. It always helps to share information and challenging moments with caregivers in a similar situation without being judged — something those on the outside inevitably do.

Another fashionable trend in narrative non-fiction is to write histories of a significant medical occurrence. In this case Speaking Tiger Books has published the doctors-cum-writers team Kalpish Ratna’s competently told The Secret Life of Zika Virus . 


Bloomsbury has published a former consumption patient and scientist Kathryn Loughreed’s packed-with-information account Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis  

Many, many more have been published. Many are readable. Many are not. It is a fine balancing act between an overdose of specialist information and storytelling. The fact is ever since access to information using digital tools became so accessible there been a noticeable explosion of science-based texts in publishing worldwide and it is not a bad thing at all!

An article worth reading is by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee in NYT “The Rules of the Doctor’s Heart“, published on 24 October 2017. It is about his experience as a senior resident at a hospital in Boston in the Cardiac Care Unit, a quasi I.C.U. where some of the most acutely ill patients were hospitalized. One of his patients was a fifty-two-year-old doctor and scientist who had been admitted to await a heart transplant. It is an incredible essay!

Maylis de Kerangal  Mend the Living ( Translated by Jessica Moore) Maclehose Press, 2017. Distributed by Hachette India 

Poorna Bell Chase the Rainbow Simon and Schuster India 

Kalpish Ratna The Secret Life of Zika Virus Speaking Tiger Books 

Kathryn Loughreed Catching Breath: The Making and Unmaking of Tuberculosis Bloomsbury 

6 Oct 2017 , updated on 30 Oct 2017 

“How to Disappear” and “Project Semicolon”

Mental health issues at the best of times are rarely discussed. It continues to be a socially taboo subject despite it affecting millions of people across the world and of all ages. Despite it being an information rich world now where there are myriad ways of being able to communicate with people 24×7, loneliness and severe mental stress is on the rise. Recently I read a young adult novel How to Disappear and Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over published by Project Semicolon that consists of  testimonies by people affected by or have witnessed those suffering with mental health issues.

How to Disappear is about a shy and reserved young girl, Vecky Decker, who rarely meets or interacts with anyone, even with her classmates. The only person she is fond of is an old schoolfriend, Jenna, who has now moved to another city. The novel is about her discovering a new life through her virtual life by creating an Instagram account which belies her reality. She accrues more than 2 million followers. Yet ironically she continues to be a fairly lonely girl in real life. Later of course the plot morphs into a predictable sugary conclusion with Jenna becoming a local heroine for her good deed. She uses her vast social media network to find her lost friend, Jenna, whom she suspects is on her way to a cliff to kill herself.

Project Semicolon is an equally disconcerting book for the varied number of testimonies it has gathered. It not only gives an insight into the minds of people crumbling internally though outwardly all may seem well but it also helps in imparting a message of hope. For many of these accounts are by people who have survived a particularly rough patch in their lives either tackling their own mental health issues or of their loved ones.

Both the books are worth considering for a library where these can be shared widely. Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly and must be discussed frankly.

Sharon Huss Roat How to Disappear Harper Teen, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, NYC, 2017. Hb. pp. 380 

Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers , NYC, 2017. Pb. pp.