Women Posts

Marius Gabriel’s “The Designer”

Marius Grabriel’s The Designer is a novel about the fashion designer, Christian Dior, in Paris in 1944. At this time Dior was still with the fashion house of Lucien Lelong, designing dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and French collaborators. His sister Catherine was a member of the French Resistance, captured by the Gestapo, and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was released in May 1945. The Designer is narrated by a twenty-six-year-old American journalist, Oona or “Copper” as she is universally known. She is stepping out of a short lived, messy marriage to an American and decides to set base in Paris as a fashion journalist. It helps that she is part of the inner circle of Dior.  It is about Paris, the war and the nascent fashion industry that blossomed into the multi-million dollar empire after the war.

The Designer is a pacy read for the first half of the book.  This was probably written to coincide with the 70th year celebrations of the Dior company. It is interesting how Marius Gabriel selects elements of historical truth for his literary backdrop, otherwise the story could be like that of any other commercial fiction novel. Once Marius Gabriel has made the literary setting with Christian Dior and his circle of friends including Suzy Solidor, usually to be found at the then fashionable La Vie Parisienne, he abandons all pretence of writing historical fiction. Instead the plot zips along purely on the basis of conversations which after a while become tiresome. Also his character, Copper, admirable as she may be comes across as too modern a woman fitting better in the twenty-first century than during the 1940s! Quite unlike Georgette Heyer who wrote with finesse a brand of historical fiction that today would be recognised as commercial fiction, Marius Gabriel’s story begins to jar. Having said that he does introduce concepts like Le Petit Théâtre Dior which ostensibly was conceptualised to create 2′ high dolls to showcase Dior’s creations, to avoid splurging on silk which was hard to come by in the war years. Obviously it is a trademark style that has survived within the firm judging by the gorgeous clips illustrating how perfectly these miniature mannequins are made. Be that as it may Marius Gabriel is considered to be a highly successful author who has also written romance novels under the nom de plume Madeleine Ker.

The Designer is a part of Westland ( an Amazon company) attempts to introduce in India original fiction published by Amazon abroad at reasonable prices.

Marius Gabriel The Designer Lake Union Publishing, Seattle. Pb. pp. 330 Rs. 399 

“Swallowing Mercury” by Wioletta Greg

Swallowing Mercruy is Wioletta Greg’s first novella is set in the fictional village of Hektary in the 1970s and 80s of communist Poland.  It is about the mundaneness of existence in the village but the sketches which are primarily autobiographical bring out the distinct flavour of what it meant to be in communist Poland. While the narrator’s father is an atheist, her mother and grandmother continue to be practising Catholics at least to the extent of having an altar at home. The clash between the communist government and the ground reality in the village which is still observing rituals learned over decades is a constant undercurrent. Whether it is the women of the village getting excited about the imminent arrival of the Pope and the atheist members of their family scoffing at their piety or sending the wind up the sails of the local school authorities upon being visited by inspectors from the city to investigate the smudged painting of Moscow done by a school girl as they misunderstand it as an affront to their authority!

It is a beautifully written book by Wioletta Greg while recollecting her childhood in Poland. It makes alive a recent past though it seems as if belongs to a different era altogether. So much has changed in the world after the fall of communism in 1989.  The greatest symbol of the fall of communism and end of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall coming down. Today, 5 February 2018, marks 10316 days since the Wall was broken — the exact number of days it was up and has been broken for!

Reading fine literature like Swallowing Mercury today is like reading a sliver of history but not necessarily of long ago — this is history which is very much a part of our living memory.  A time where the concept of individual freedom as we now know it did not exist. It was a period of learning to live with systems that were by nature autocratic and usually accepted as given by the common people. Today many democracies are returning to such a dictatorial order  with the difference being that individual expression flourishes ( although for how long is a different question!).  Swallowing Mercury while entertaining for the story it shares is also a sobering reminder that we should not forget the past. Learn from it. Don’t ignore it.

Wioletta Greg Swallowing Mercury ( Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak) Portobello Books, London, 2017. Hb. pp.150 Rs. 799

5 February 2018 

 

2018: All set to sparkle with new voices

( On Sunday, 7 January 2018, Asian Age published my article on the highlights of 2018. Unfortunately due to the constraints of space the sections on commercial fiction and children and young adult literature was dropped from the published article. So while I am reposting the original article, I have also included the sections that were dropped by highlighting the portions in red. )

The Indian book market, worth $6.76 billion, is perhaps one of the few where English language books sell well. As expected, 2018 is all set to sparkle — with new books and voices.

Among the prominent narrative non-fiction is the much-anticipated debut of Dreamers written by journalist Snigdha Poonam. It is a remarkable cultural study of the unlikeliest of fortune hawkers’ travels through the small towns of northern India to investigate the phenomenon that is India’s Generation Y. The other equally anticipated titles are Why I am a Hindu? by Shashi Tharoor; The Gujaratis: A Portrait of a Community by award-winning journalist Salil Tripathi; Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar, a collection of stories depicting the lives of Arab women, ranging from hypnotic fables to gritty realism; Legendary Maps from the Himalayan Club by mountaineer and Himalayan Journal editor, Harish Kapadia.

Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Book of Numbers: An Indian Perspective, about the significance of numbers in Indian culture, also delves into Vedic and Puranic connotations of each key number.

Some quirky titles to look forward to are Jadoo-wallahs, Jugglers and Djinns: A Magical History of India by John Zubrzycki which tells the extraordinary story of how Indian magic descended from the gods and came to be a part of daily rituals and popular entertainment. Also on the shelves this year will be Showtime: A Spectacular History of the Indian Circus by Anirban Ghosh, which tells the incredible story of the circus in India from the 19th century to the present.

It would be interesting, and topical, to read Past, Present and Future; Dissent, Despair, Dreams: Student Activism in India by Anirban Bandhopadhyay and Umar Khalid; Economics for Political Change: The Collected works of Manmohan Singh; Demonetisation and Black Money by C. Rammanohar Reddy.

Power by Barkha Dutt is about the twinned stories of the changing fortunes of the Congress Party and the rise of the BJP through the men and women who shaped events before 2014, and after.

Then there is Note by Note: The Great Indian Playlist by Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Ankur Bhardwaj that uses one song from each year, accompanied by a brief essay, and tells the story of India since 1947.

Two critical books on free speech include The Free Voice: On Democracy, Culture and the Nation by Ravish Kumar in which he examines while debate and dialogue have given way to hate and intolerance in India, how elected representatives, the media and other institutions are failing us, and looks at ways to repair the damage to our democracy; as will be Why India Needs a Free Press by N. Ram.

Biographies
Some of the biographies/ memoirs to look forward to in 2018 are on film actors — Sanjay Dutt by Yaseer Usman, Sanjay Khan, Priyanka Chopra by Aseem Chhabra – and politicians. There’s veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar’s Close Encounters: The People I have Known and Biography of Mohan Bhagwat by Kingshuk Nag. The life stories of musicians Ilyaraja, Asha Bhonsle, S.D. Burman and Zakir Hussain (with Nasreen Munni Kabeer); spiritual leaders Dalai Lama (by Raghu Rai), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (authorised biography, Gurudev, by his younger sister) and Shankaracharya (by Pavan Varma) and Amrita Sher-Gil will also be out this year.

Celebrity memoirs this year include actress Manisha Koirala’s cancer memoir and model-turned-health enthusiast Milind Soman’s book and Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by her close friend and former husband Chiddanand Rajghatta. Mentor by Hussain Zaidi about Dawood Ibrahim’s mentor, Khalid Pehelwan, who was instrumental in the formation and success of the D-gang are going to be the highlights of 2018.

Other notable books to look forward to are Nalini Jameela’s Romantic Encounters of a Sex Worker; Yashica Dutt’s Coming out as Dalit: A Memoir and The Idol Thief by S. Vijay Kumar, the shocking true story of one idol thief, Subhash Kapoor, behind the most outrageous thefts of Indian antiquities.

Literary memoirs not to be missed are Rosy Thomas’ memoir about her husband He, My Beloved CJ (translated from Malayalam by G. Arunima) and Na Bairi Na Koi Begana by crime fiction writer Surendra Mohan Pathak. It is the first in the three-volume autobiography of crime fiction writer Surender Mohan Pathak and chronicles his childhood in Lahore. The Hungrialists by Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury tells the remarkable story about how a generation of Bangla poets braved state censorship, loss of income and even imprisonment, and went on to transform literary culture in Bengal.

Fiction
Established writers too are coming up with their new books this year. These include Anita Nair’s Eating Wasps, Esther David’s Bombay Brides, Tabish Khair’s Night of Happiness, Rita Chowdhury’s Chinatown Days, Shandana Minhas’ Rafina, Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived, Mirza Waheed’s In His Hands, Amitabh Bagchi’s Half the Night Is Gone, Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society and Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds.

Travails with the Alien: The Film that Was Never Made and Other Adventures with Science Fiction by filmmaker Satyajit Ray brings together a collection of his many writings on the subject, including the script he wrote in the 1960s, based on a short story of his, for a science fiction film called The Alien. On being prompted by Arthur C. Clarke, who found the screenplay promising, Ray sent the script to an agent in Hollywood, who happened to represent Peter Sellers. Then started the “Ordeal of the Alien”, as some 20 years later, Ray watched Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and realised its bore and uncanny resemblance to his script The Alien, including the way the ET was designed! The book includes Ray’s detailed essay on the project with the full script of The Alien, as well as the original short story on which the screenplay was based, apart from some of his most celebrated writings on science fiction.

Commercial fiction writers like Nikita Singh, Yashodhara Lal, Trisha Das, Ravi Subramanian, Ira Trivedi and Sachin Bhatia, Ashwin Sanghi, Amish Tripathi, Durjoy Dutta, Ravinder Singh, Novoneel Chakraborty, Kevin Missal have books lined up in the new year. Also expected is the debut novel by Shweta Bachchan (Paradise Towers) and short stories by Shubha Mudgal.

Political narratives scheduled for 2018 include The Aadhar Effect by N.S. Ramnath and Charles Assisi; The RTI Story: The People’s Movement for Transparency by activist and main architect of Right to Information movement, Aruna Roy; AAP & Down: An Insider’s Account of India’s Most Controversial Party by Mayank Gandhi with Shrey Shah; and BJP: From Vajpayee to Modi by Saba Naqvi.

Equally fascinating should be Strongmen: Trump-Modi-Erdogan-Duterte, essays by Eve Ensler, Danish Husain, Burhan Sonmez and Ninotschka Rosca. An account of Kashmir by historian Radha Kumar and another one by former chief minister Omar Abdullah should be worth waiting for. At a time when “talaq” is being discussed, two timely books slated are by Salman Khurshid’s Three Times Unlucky and Ziya Us Salam’s Till Talaq Do Us Part.

Graphic novels
Graphic novels are steady sellers with a well-defined market too. Some of the titles anticipated are: Long Form Annual: The Best of Graphic Fiction & Non-Fiction edited by Sarabjit Sen, Debkumar Mitra, Sekhar Mukherjee and Pinaki De. It consists of stories about ordinary people, autobiographies, travel tales etc. As yet unnamed graphic novel about a teenager in America trying to come to terms with her Indian roots by new voice — Nidhi Chanani. Also to watch out for are First Hand 2: Graphic Nonfiction from India and Lotus and the Snake by Appupen.

Translations
Rich translation works worth a read include The Book of Mordechai and Lazarus: Two Novels by Gábor Schein (translated from the Hungarian by Adam Z. Levy and Ottilie Mulzet and Very Close to Pleasure, There Is a Sick Cat and Other Poems by Shakti Chattopadhyay (translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). Some other notable titles slated in 2018 are: Chandni Begum: A Novel by Qurratulain Hyder (translated from the original Urdu by Saleem Kidwai); Tiger Women by Sirsho Bandhopadhyay (translated by Arunava Sinha) — it is the fictionalised story of Sushila Sundari, the first woman to perform in Indian circuses and gain immense popularity, Moisture Trapped in Stone: An Anthology of Modern Telugu Short Stories, translated by K. N. Rao; Timeless Tales from Bengal edited by Dipankar Roy and Saurav Dasthakur; Perumal Murugan’s double-sequel to One Part Woman; Jasmine Days by Benyamin.

Sahitya Akademi award-winning book If a River and Other Stories by Kula Saikia, currently DGP, Assam; On a River’s Bank by A. Madhavan (translated from Tamil by M. Vijayalakshmi); Here I am and Other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Telugu); Echoes of the Veena and other Stories by P. Sathyavathi (translated from Tamil); Havan by Mallikarjun Hiremath (translated from Kannada by S. Mohanraj) — this novel focusses on one of India’s most colourful wandering tribe, the Lambanis, who are found in large numbers in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Some of the important women-centric publications of 2018 are: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Qandeel Baloch by Sanam Maher. The 25-year-old Qandeel Baloch who was Pakistan’s first celebrity-by-social media, shot to fame when she uploaded a video on Facebook mocking a presidential “warning” not to celebrate Valentine’s Day — a “Western” holiday. At the time, the Valentine’s Day video had been seen 830,000 times. Five months later, Qandeel Baloch would be dead. Her brother would strangle her in their family home, in what would be described as an “honour killing” — a murder to restore the respect and honour Qandeel’s behaviour online robbed him of.

Other titles are: Civilisations how do we look/ Eye of Faith by Mary Beard; Women Rulers of India by Archana Garodia; Tiger Women: Profile of Women Militants in India by Rashmi Saxena; Being “Her” in New India by Rana Ayyub; Like a Girl by Aparna Jain; Feminist Rani by Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant; Daughters of the sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire by Ira Mukhoty; A Legal Handbook for Women by Nivedita Guhathakurta and Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan by Ruby Lal, a historical biography. The Bourbans and Begums of Bhopal: The Forgotten History by Indira Iyengar, a descendant of Jean Philippe de Bourbon, who arrived in India in the 1560s and was appointed a senior official by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, at his court in Delhi.

Children and young adult literature 

Children’s and young adult literature is a vibrant space with the healthiest growth rate. Some of the titles planned are a poetry and song collection by Gulzar; Vaishali Shroff on a journey of the Narmada to learn about the dinosaurs of India; a new Hill School Girls series by A. Coven; Timeless Biography series of HCI launches with Amrita Sher-Gil, a painter whose biography has also been released by Alka Pande for Tota Books. DK India has a phenomenal collection of heavily illustrated titles planned – The Ultimate Children’s EncyclopaediaDK Indian Icons are their easy-to-use biographies, Birds about Delhi, 3D Printing, Robot. Indian myths for children by the brilliant storyteller Arshia Sattar; a delightful picture book The Cloud Eater by Chewang Dorji Bhutia and Prankenstein: The Book of Crazy Mischief edited by Ruskin Bond and Jerry Pinto. YA literature has some extraordinary titles such as The Other by Paro Anand; When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina in Duckbill’s ‘Not Our War’ series and is set in South Africa. It is about teenagers during the Soweto uprising of 1976. Why I Lie by Himanjali Sankar is a YA novel about mental health issues. Fireflies in the Dark by Shazaf Fatima , a young adult fantasy title that takes the reader deep into the world of jinns and shape changers and hidden family secrets. The Legend of the Wolf by Andaleeb Wajid , a fantasy horror novel for young adults.Refugee by Alan Grantz; The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel Fattah and A very, Very Bad Thing by Jeffery Self. 

2018 will sparkle with new books and voices!

7 January 2018 

 

Judith Kerr

Since the Nazis came, we haven’t belonged in any place, only with refugees like ourselves. And we do what we can. I make soup and bake cakes. Your mother plays bridge and counts the miles of Konrad’s car. And Konrad — he likes to help people and to feel that they love him. It’s not wonderful, but it’s better than Finchley, and it’s a lot better than Theresienstadt. 

Judith Kerr A Small Person Far Away 


The Out of the Hitler Time trilogy by award-winning children’s writer Judith Kerr are novels that recount her escape from Berlin, days before Hitler came to power, their move to Switzerland, Paris and finally London.

She began writing these books — When Hitler Stole Pink RabbitBombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away — for her children to give them some idea of her childhood and the challenges of living in war zones. Her children had been born and brought up in peaceful times  and were monolingual, absolutely different to their mother’s experience.  While writing the books she realised it was impossible to put herself as the central character and write about Nazi Germany and World War II, so she created the character of Anna. It is a literary device often used — consciously or unconsciously– by writers, particularly women, when trying to describe particularly traumatic events. They prefer to use the third person narrative voice. Reading the three volumes in quick succession is an interesting experiment. Although she wrote these once her kids were in their adolescence, its remarkable to see how the tenor of her writing is influenced by her memory. The first volume,  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit , is about her as a nine-year-old escaping Nazi Germany and it has a gentle pace to it with an almost childlike wonderment to it. The second volume, Bombs on Aunt Dainty, is set in war-time London, where she witnessed the bombing and her beloved elder brother was taken away from Cambridge University and interned at a camp as he was still not a naturalised British citizen. The tone of this book is of a bewildered teenager who has plenty of her own opinions to share, though not always readily shared. It also marks her transition from a child to a responsible young woman who joins the workforce. The final book, A Small Person Far Away , is about the newly married Judith Kerr visiting her sick mother in Berlin and revisiting the places she grew up in. Since it was still soon after the war, links and memories to Nazi Germany are still fresh as evident in the drapes of the decrepit hotel she was staying in. It was a hotel, probably once upon a time a lively household, managed by an elderly woman who had presumably fallen on hard times. Despite having lived in the room for more than a week while visiting her ailing mother, Judith Kerr had not realised that the design woven in the drapes was of tiny swastikas — a chilling reminiscent of Nazi Germany which to her relief she discovered only on the day of her departure home.  A Small Person Far Away is the most mature in tone with a greater control of her prose as by this time she had become a professional writer too.

Like her successful writer father and her screen writer husband, Judith Kerr, too went on to become a successful writer when the picture book she wrote for her daughter sold favourably — The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Years later it continues to sell. In fact, now at the age of ninety-four she is still writing. Her latest publication is a picture book about her eleven-year-old cat Katinka’s Tail ( to be published by HarperCollins) . In fact she describes her writing day in a recent issue of The Guardian “Judith Kerr: ‘I’m still surprised at the success of The Tiger Who Came to Tea’” ( 25 November 2017).

I would be very sad and lonely if I didn’t work. I finished this book a few weeks after the last one was published, which is unlike me, and I’m already thinking about the next one. There is a new urgency to my working. Maybe it is like the disease, honey fungus, that trees get when they have an incredible display one year and look better than they ever have before. And then it kills them. Perhaps you get something like that at the age of 94, because, after all, I can’t rely on going on and on. 

Her joi de vivre is magical and infectious!

29 November 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 

 

“The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life”

Ann Burack-Weiss’s The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life is a slim volume where she explores through women writer’s prose what it means to them getting old. For decades she herself has been a social work practitioner who focused from day one of her career on the caregiving of the elderly. It was unusual when she chose this vocation in the 1960s but four decades later it is not. ” I became a social worker with the aged because I was afraid for my life.” It gives her a perspective and an understanding in a particular phase of a woman’s life when she is inevitably relegated to grandparent duties whereas continuity theory states that as people age they do not change their patterns of thought or action but continue to approach life in the same way as they always have.

Ann Burack-Weiss has been fascinated with the memoir/ autobiography or the essentials of life-writing experience. It encompasses a range of forms such as the transcribed interview, dictation, journal, letter and auto-fiction. According to her since the 1960s feminist scholars have been explored the woman’s “agency” ( the ability to speak and act on her own behalf) or the lack thereof. “They note that, through the ages, most of the writing about women, in fiction and nonfiction, has been by men, and that the male lens inevitably leads to distortion.” But as she discovers that many of her quoted authors in the book — Colette, Fisher, Sarton, Florida Scott-Maxwell– had published compelling life writing well before the editors determined what was worthy of inclusion in their collections. “The only possible explanation for their exclusion is that the editors themselves had little interest in what the old women had to say.”

The writers included in this book are categorised according to arbitrary time divisions:

1862-1909 (Fin de Siecle) — Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, M.F.K. Fisher, Anai Nin, Florida Scott-Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton

1910-1929 (Progressive Era) — Diana Athill, Maya Angelou, Marguerite Duras, Marilyn French, Doris Grumbach, Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Madeline L’Engle, Gerda Lerner, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton

1930-1943 (Great Depression- World War II) — Isabel Allende, Mary Catherine Bateson, Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Annie Ernaux, Vivian Gornick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Edna O’Brien, Mary Oliver, Marge Piercy, Anne Ropihe, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Alix Kates Shulman

1944-1960 (Baby Boomers) — Diane Ackerman, Alison Bechdel, Terry Castle, Mary Gordon, Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Mairs, Nancy K. Miller, Alice Walker

It is interesting Ann Burack-Weiss chooses to quote Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize for Literature ( 2002) acceptance speech where Morrison focuses on “word-work” and being an old woman. Toni Morrison’s last novel God Help the Child ( 2015) which began life as a memoir but transformed into a slim novel explores these very themes. It reflects upon the cycle of life from the perspective of an older writer. What truly struck me at the end of 2015 was that none of the “Best of 2015” lists included this novel even though it was “Toni Morrison”. Perhaps old age is too stark a reminder of one’s mortality.

It is a slim volume but gives one much to think about.

Ann Burack-Weiss The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life Columbia University Press, New York, 2015. Pb. pp.190 

27 Sept 2017 

 

“Reading with Patrick: A True Story”

“Ms. Kuo,” he said. “Things I see ain’t nothing worth talking about.” 

Reading with Patrick: A True Story  by Michelle Kuo is an moving memoir of her efforts at teaching American history through black literature in the Mississippi Delta. She is convinced that book therapy “could change the lives” of her students. She was twenty-two. She sets about her task with evangelical fervour.

“We all front,” I said. “You know why I love to read? It’s because books don’t front.”

They were listening — it was working.

“You can hear what people are thinking in books,” I continued. “They do crazy things, but you can figure out how they feel. You get to figure out what’s happening to them on the inside.”

We talked about what it meant to see only the outside of people. I asked, “Why do people keep their insides hidden?” The responses were painfully insightful, and the most common was a variation on this one: “People are afraid that if they’re honest about what they want, they won’t get it.”

I realized that I needed also to give them a sense of ownership over the people and stories in these books. I researched black writers for teenagers: Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Sister Souljah, Nikki Grimes, Jacqueline Woodson. I ordered these books and then I read them. I felt these writers knew better than I did what stories teh kids needed. The heroes were people who looked like them, talked like them, and faced the problems they faced. In Tears of a Tiger, by Sharon Draper, Andy, a teenager blames himself for his best friend’s death. In Jazmin’s Notebook, by Nikki Grimes, Jazmin, fourteen, is her mother’s primary caregiver. In Begging for Change, by Sharon Flake, Raspberry has to decide whether or not to welcome her estranged father back in her life. A state fund for new teachers had given me eight hundred dollars for the classroom, and I spent it all on these books. 

While teaching at the school she came across a lot of children who were existing but no one really cared about them. There was one particular student she was concerned about — Patrick. She persuaded him to return to school and be regular. He slowly picked up reading and writing. A couple of years later she had to leave to join law school. Two years after that she got a call to say that Patrick had been arrested for a murder. She was horrified and flew back to meet him in prison. She discovered he had stabbed a drunk who had brought his simple-minded sister home on a school night. The drunk had been aggressive at first and without realising what he was doing Patrick had stabbed him probably in the arm but a few steps from the house the victim stumbled and died. The police charged Patrick with manslaughter though months after the crime had been committed. All the while the young man languished in a prison. Around the time Michelle Kuo finished her law degree, passed her bar exam and decided to return to the delta. She also decided to set Patrick daily homework in prison of reading and writing while he awaited to go on trial. Reading with Patrick is about this extraordinary relationship of teacher and student. It is very reminiscent of the 1962 classic The Cross and the Switchblade in which the priest “saves” the young gang leader ultimately converting him to Christianity. In Reading with Patrick Michelle Kuo manages a similar transformation by gently persuading and teaching Patrick so that by the time he is released on parole for good behaviour he is able to apply to the local community college for further studies. He is able to get through the admissions test as his scores are good much to the astonishment of the official.

Years later when Michelle Kuo met a consultant who recognised her from Richard Wormser’s documentary Delta Dreams he remarked, “You have a gift for children, a real gift. For speaking with them. And speaking about them.” While writing this book Michelle Kuo told Patrick about her project but was not sure if she should use his real name or not. His reply:

“You can use my name,” he says. “I believe in testimony; I believe in God.”

I feel relieved. But I am thinking to myself, this is not his testimony: it is mine.” 

Michelle Kuo Reading with Patrick: A True Story Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. 

24 Sept 2017 

*Note: All images are off the Internet. If you know who is the copyright holder please let me know.

“Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love” by Hope Jahren


My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day. As we dug in our garden, I listened to the lazy buzzing of bees as they staggered drunkenly from flower to flower, the petty sniping chirps of the cardinals remarking upon our bird feeder, the scraping our trowels through the dirt, and the authoritative whistle of the factory, blown each day at noon. 

Award-winning scientist Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love is a poignant, almost lyrical tribute to her love for science and some special relationships. It is also a meditation on her absolutely passionate dedication to her subject, it shines through every word written with loving care as if she wants to share with mankind the precious magical secrets she has acquired from the Universe over the years. The last time I read such a beautiful piece of literature dwelling upon the intricate beauty of plants was Gerard Manley Hopkins essay on bluebells which he wrote as a Jesuit priest.  In the humble bluebell Hopkins saw the very glory of god. Hope Jahren has far more sophisticated tools at her disposal to understand and describe her plants unlike Hopkins who only had to rely on his naked eye. There is a great sense of peace which radiates through Lab Girl as if keeping herself occupied in her lab day in and day out even after the birth of her son keeps her centred and happy.

My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dishes, and unshaved legs pale in compairson to the nobel breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am. It is the place where I play with my best friend. I can laugh in my lab and be ridiculous. I can work all night to analyze a rock that’s a hundred million years old, because I need to know what it’s made of before morning. All the baffling that arrived unwelcome with adulthood — tax returns and car insurance and Pap smears — none of them matter when I am in the lab. There is no phone and so it doesn’t hurt when someone doesn’t call me. The door is locked and I know everyone who has a key. Because the outside world cannot come into the lab, the lab has become the place where I can be the real me. 

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. 

A fact recognised by her colleague Bill and her husband Clint.

They let her be.

The combination of freedom and love is a potent one, and it made me more productive than ever.

Lab Girl  is a book that will stay with you for a long time after having read it.

Hope Jahren Lab Girl: A Story of trees, science and love  Fleet, Great Britain, London, 2017. Pb. Pp. 370

9 Sept 2017

The Erotic in the Indian Imagination

Amrita Narayanan has edited Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica , an anthology consisting of extracts from literature published in India over centuries. There are pieces from Rig Veda; the Tamil Sangam poets; Bhakti poets Antal and Mahadeviyakka, who describe women’s fantasies of men (whether human or godly); short stories by Kamala Das that have been out of print for decades; excerpts from the work of contemporary writers like Mridula Garg, Ginu Kamani, Tarun Tejpal, Deepti Kapoor, Sudhir Kakar et al. It is not as comprehensive in its survey as say the two volumes of Women Writing in India were and thus falls short of one’s expectations. Having said that Parrots of Desire is a start maybe to be added to later in a revised edition? 

Here is an extract from the opening pages of the well-written introduction published with permission. This section is “Erotic in the Indian Imagination”. 

To read centuries of voices writing on the erotic is to become keenly aware of a deep argument that exists in the geography of the subcontinent, an argument between literary romantics—who embrace the erotic for the gloss it adds to life—and religious traditionalists[1]—who caution against the erotic, for its disorderly nature and potential to cause chaos. While romantic and traditionalist voices are unanimous in their belief that the erotic holds an extraordinary power and attraction for human beings, each does something very different with that belief. Romantics are erotically positive: they believe life is made worthwhile by its erotic aspects, that the best life is one in which our understanding and awareness of the erotic are maximally enhanced. Traditionalists, on the other hand, are erotically anxious: they believe that a worthwhile life is one in which the four goals of life[2] are in balance; they do not favour the promotion of the erotic, worrying that if not tightly controlled, the erotic could undermine the other three goals of life. Aficionados of the romantic project used the arts as a vehicle of articulation; their literature, music, drama, even grammar, was thought to be imbued with the erotic and capable of enhancing our understanding of the erotic. Traditionalists used both religious writing and the social contract to articulate the dangers of the erotic, believing that the erotic must be kept on the sidelines, aside from its necessary use as a vehicle for reproduction. Romantics believe that coupling is a central life force, and they appreciate the energy that comes from all couplings, whether man-woman, woman-woman, men who identify as women (and are fantasizing about male gods), or (wo)men with God. Traditionalists believe in the notion of an ‘ideal couple’: heterosexually and monogamously married, with children and extended family in the foreground and a willingness and ability to keep the erotic in the background.

To further understand the argument between traditionalists and romantics, consider a brief history of the time that traditionalism and romanticism have held sway. The purview of this anthology begins about 1000 BCE in ancient India. For the first 800 years or so of this time period, that is, beginning with the Vedas, traditionalist sentiments prevail. During this time, the destabilizing dangers of the erotic are far better articulated in the literature than are its pleasures. From the Vedas onwards, traditionalist literature, which is largely in the form of religious texts, is squarely articulate on the need to manage the destablizing potential of the erotic. Beginning in 200 BCE, however, and continuing for several centuries, literary voices sang the glories of the erotic and their dedication to it—in Tamil, Sanskrit, and Maharashtrian Prakrit. From the second to the sixth century, an Indian literary-erotic-nature idiom was spelt out from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra and up to Madhya Pradesh. Here the poets embraced the erotic along with its problems, accepting that though the erotic often brought anger, grief and shame, it was still worth embracing for its pleasures. During this medieval period emerged the Tamil Sangam poets and the Maharashtrian Prakrit Gatha Saptasati, the prose and poetry of Kalidasa and Bhartrihari, as well as the Kama Sutra itself. After this golden age of the Romantics, puritanism once again holds sway and the next major erotic work—at least the one that has survived—is the collection of romantic poems known as the Amarusataka, written in Sanskrit in the seventh or eighth century and attributed to King Amaru of Kashmir. From the eighth century onwards there is again a long period in which very few important works have survived, the next set being from the Bhakti poets who compose discontinuously from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries in praise of erotic love with God himself. The fact that Bhakti poets praise erotic love only in language that involves a deity suggests that this was considered the most elegant and refined expression of romanticism at that time. Alternatively, perhaps, the social climate—which by this time included both Hindu and Muslim puritans—did not support an articulation of a more explicit person-to-person erotic love. The taboos on self-expression of erotic love might have impinged particularly on women poets and the re-direction of this love to the divine might have spared them the censorship that might have otherwise been forthcoming. Another way of thinking about it is that, dispirited with the limitations of romantic love between humans, some of these poets were able to find a more elevated idiom with the gods.

Following the Bhakti period, the proliferation of the Urdu language and the culture of refinement associated with Islamic courtly love played an important pro-romantic influence; but as the Hindu and Muslim puritans were joined by the British puritans in the seventeenth century, one has the sense that romanticism was very much in the dark ages. Nevertheless, important works continued to emerge in a more scattered fashion. Amongst these individual works are those written by courtesans, such as the Telugu Radhika Santawanam (The Appeasement of Radhika) by Muddupalani, in the eighteenth century. Another is the erotic proponent of the Lucknow school of poetry, Qalandar Bakhsh Jur’at, known for his bawdy yet spiritual imaginings of women in sexual union. As the reader advances towards and past the twentieth century, individual writers offer an exploration of contemporary erotic problems alternating with the past. Contemporary Indian writers who match and build on the efforts of their ancestors write in, among other languages, English, Tamil and Malayalam, and continue to shed profound light on the erotic. In this anthology the contemporary writers I have chosen include those who have made a searing commentary on the relationship between kama and society: Perumal Murugan, Kamala Das; those whose reverential treatment of the erotic couple recalls the glorious medieval period: Pritish Nandy, K. Satchidanandan, Tarun Tejpal; writers like Manto and Ambai whose erotic-nostalgic writings make us feel lustful and tender at once; modern Bhakti poets like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Kala Krishnan Ramesh; and those who have treated in great depth the extraordinary conflicts that the erotic poses for an individual life: here found in the works of Mridula Garg, Deepti Kapoor and Ginu Kamani

[1]I chose the word traditionalist and not puritan because of the historical origins of puritanism that are not pertinent to India. However I thought it worth mentioning that the traditionalist argument is close in nature to the puritan argument. Here puritan is used in the sense of against pleasure, see for example, H. L. Mencken, who sardonically defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy’.

[2]The four aims of life (purusharthas): artha (wealth), kama (desire), dharma (duty) and moksha (salvation from the cycle of life and death).

Amrita Narayanan ( ed.) Parrots of Desire: 3,000 Years of Indian Erotica Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2017. Hb. pp. 304 

8 Sept 2017 

Cathy Rentzenbrink

Reading Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir The Last Act of Love and the companion to it A Manual for Heartache is a gut wrenching experience. The Last Act of Love was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize 2016   for its an account of how Cathy Rentzenbrink’s younger brother Matt had a head injury and was for eight long years in a coma. The medical term for it is PVS or “permanent vegetative state” or as their mother says of Matt “living corpse”. Matt was a teenager in his prime when he met with an accident that left him in this horrific state. The Last Act of Love is a compassionate account of a sister trying to understand what her brother must be going through if he can feel anything. More importantly it is an account of how much of themselves caregivers have to give to ensure that a patient is cared for well.

Caregiving can be a thankless task since it is repititive with no breaks whatsoever. After a while the sympathetic circle of friends and relatives return to their lives but the immediate family of the patient is responsible for the daily courageous and relentless task of caregiving. At times it can become exceedingly lonely, stressful and mentally debilitating. For Cathy Rentzenbrick her escape mechanism was reading.

Reading was still my friend, though. I read continuously and compulsively, drowning out sounds of my own thoughts with the noise of other people’s stories. I no longer turned out the light before going to sleep — I had to read until the moment my eyes closed. There could be no gap for the demons to jump into. 

Most caregivers are caught in a cycle of maintaining systems that they forget to take care of themselves or share experiences about the roles they inhabit. These involve a bunch of questions about the quality of life the patient has to how effective are advancements in medical technology.

The Last Act of Love written  many years after her brother passed away takes its title from a phrase the author’s mother used in her sworn affidavit to the court seeking legal permission to discontinue nutrition and hydration given how poorly Matt was with a chest infection and recurring epileptic fits.

I have known for some time that there is nothing I can do for Matthew to enrich his life in any way. He needs to die. We had hoped it would happen with an infection and without the need to approach the court. But the sad irony is that his poor body, unable to do anything else, seems capable of fighting infection. So we are asking the court’s permission to cease nutrition and hydration so that Matthew can be released from his hopeless state. It is our last act of love for him. 

Writing The Last Act of Love may have been thereapeutic for Cathy Rentzenbrick but it certainly provides a much needed account of hope and a way of managing caregiving at home, many times the dilemma it presents. Sharing of stories is a relief for many in a similar situation but few have time to do so. Reading an account is possible.

Within months of the successful publishing of The Last Act of Love, Cathy Rentzenbrick wrote A Manual for Heartache which can be viewed as a sequel to her memoir but works very well as a manual for managing grief and loss. It is full of wisdom and gently with big dollops of kindness shares wisdom garnered over the years of caregiving for Matt.

 

Here are some invaluable excerpts from the book

On grief

What I now wish someone had told me is this: life will never be the same again. The old one is gone and you can’t have it back. What you might at some point be able to encourage yourself to do, and time will be an ally in this, is work out how to adjust to your new world. You can patch up your raggedy heart and start thinking and feeling your way towards how you want to live. That’s what I wish someone had told me and that’s what I want to tell you. I think I’m finally doing it.

On etiquette of bad news

It seems ridiculous that in the face of someone else’s misfortune we spend time worrying about our own behavious, but it’s only human and is particularly true when it comes to death and grief. I’m sure it was easier in Victorian times when there were prescribed rules, when society and the Church provided a framework. There was guidance on what to wear, how to communicate with people, how much time should elapse before everyone rejoined the business of life. Visible signs such as black crepe and mourning brooches made of jet acted as clues to the rest of the world. Like a version of the “Baby on Board” sign stuck in the back windscreen of a car, the blackness served as a warning that an individual needed to be treated kindly. All cultures have rituals around death and mourning but, in our increasingly secular society, it’s easy find ourselves unsure of what to do. 

….

I have come to see there is a beauty in simply being present for someone who is struggling wiht a heavy burden. The best thing you can offer is unlimited kindness. People to whom the worst has happened can be out-of-control sad and unable to obey the normal rules of life. It mught be all they can do to hold on. If they are mean or cruel or temporarily incapable of good manners, we need to suspend our expectations around them and give them space and compassion as they splinter and behave badly and say the wrong thing. If they are behaving perfectly and holding themselves together, then that’s OK, too. 

Reading both the books together is highly recommended. Share, share, share these books.

Update ( 5 Sept 2017)

The Guardian Longreads published a fascinating account of “How science found a way to help coma patients communicate“. It is worth reading!

Cathy Rentzenbrick The Last Act of Love Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2015. Pb. pp.248 Rs 450

Cathy Rentzenbrick A Manual for Heartache Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2017. Hb. pp. 150 Rs 499 

31 August 2017