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DK Books – Excellent resource material

A pile of Dorling Kindersley books that Sarah has amassed over the years. They form the core of her library. An absolutely brilliant set of books that are created by teams of experts. Each page layout is done with care to detail, facts, and matching the text with the image. Children of today are #visuallearners and are fortunate to live in an age where books exist that are profusely illustrated with photographs. So they get doses of reality, a visual mapping, while learning becomes an enjoyable experience. These encyclopaedias are so packed with information but the pictures hold prominence in every layout. An interesting methodology to book design as the child immerses themselves in the book, absorbed by the visual richness and slowly, over a period of time, familiarises herself with the text. It is important to note that the text never dumbs down the facts. It presents them as is.

Some of these books were gifted to Sarah when she was 7+ and my goodness, how they magically transformed her reading experience. She would sit for hours looking at the pictures, flipping pages and as her #literacyskills became stronger, she began to make sense of of text too and identify more about the creatures, plants, organisms, experiments, objects, geography, weather, etc presented in the books. These books snapped her out of only being absorbed by picture books and story books. There is some merit in kids being allowed their free time to.do exactly as they please, whether it is daydreaming or flipping through books. They get lost in their own little dream worlds. These moments of daze are crucial to their growth as it is increasingly being documented that the #brain grows in such moments with the nerves connecting, synapses finding new routes. These magnificent volumes are storytelling with a difference. The child visually maps her world. She is incredible to be growing up in a world where these images are easily available. For instance, the book on Oceans has gorgeous pictures that do not make the watery world mysterious. Whereas we grew up in a world where Jacques Cousteau was still discovering the wonders of the deep. This particular volume has a preface by Fabien Cousteau, s/o Jacques Costeau.

During the pandemic, when children were confined at home and had to attend classes remotely, these DK books proved to be extremely useful resource material to have handy. Sure, the Internet exists. It is a vast ocean of readily available information but it is not the same thing as paper editions. Learning and reading in many ways is a sensual exercise. The brain needs to be tickled to come alive and absorb. Kids are surrounded by visuals and learn better if provided sensual opportunities of learning. They need to be left alone to slowly see, observe, ponder over and make connections for themselves. Large format, richly illustrated books like this permit the children to lie down on their tummies and stare into the book. Many peaceful hours can be spent like this without the parents getting frantic about excessive time spent on electronic devices or worrying about which links the children will click upon leading them to external websites etc. Books like this, developed by established brands, are good investments as they are sound on their factchecking and photographs used. It is ethicalpublishing too as every image or text used is always credited. It makes for reliable information that can be shared easily with children.

Of course these books are priced on the higher side but are an excellent addition to any home or school library. I understand the reasons for the expense and do not grudge it at all. I would rather buy one of these books than multiple volumes of different reading abilities to say explain the human body to the child. Children are incapable of grasping more than they can at any given time and slowly grow into these books. But it is incredible watching their growth as one fine day comes that magical moment when everything comes together. Now we are at a stage whereas parents we have to be very careful about identifying animals or fish as Sarah knows the exact species and names them accurately.

During remote learning I found it convenient to consult these books and explain the basic concepts of energy, periodic table, life cycle of rocks, vegetation belts, the various systems of the human body, etc. It was possible to let Sarah browse through the books and get a grasp of the concepts her teachers were introducing in their virtual classrooms. But when the teacher is reduced to a tiny box on a computer screen and valiantly attempts to draw sketches on her computer screen to explain to her class, it works but only to a limited extent. A substantial part of the heavy lifting of ensuring the child understood the concept is left upon the parents — this has been particularly evident during the pandemic. It is as if parents were assisting the schoolteachers in “minding the gap” between acquiring information and learning. Even so, once the kids begin returning to school, this kind of “blended” learning is here to stay. Schools are preferring to adopt the #hybridlearning — mix of digital and physical classes. But somewhere the balance has to be also struck between print books and online resources as well. This is were publishing brands like Dorling Kindersley India prove incredibly useful.

13 February 2021

Of Nayantara Sahgal’s “The Fate of Butterflies” and Toni Morrison’s “Mouth Full of Blood”

Nayantara Sahgal (b. 1927) and Toni Morrison (b.1931) have new publications out this past week. Nayantara Sahgal has a novella called The Fate of Butterflies. Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her non-fiction articles published over the past four decades. Every word chosen in these books is powerful. The two writers have witnessed significant periods of modern history — from the Second World War onwards to experiencing the joy of new democracies and its mantras of self-reliance, new freedoms as those made available with womens’ movements’ and the end of racial segregation, to the presently depressing times of rising ultra-conservative politics, authoritarian rule and sectarian violence. So when Nayantara Sahgal and Toni Morrison as seasoned storytellers pour their wisdom and experience into their writings without mincing words, you listen for the truths they share.

Nayantara Sahgal’s novella The Fate of Butterflies told from the perspective of a political science professor, Prabhakar, is a chilling tale about the all-pervading violence that exists in society. It is an insidious presence that is gradually transforming the rules of social engagement. It is licensing sectarian violence to such a degree that is fast becoming the norm rather than the deviant behaviour it is. The dystopic society Prabhakar finds himself in where people speak of “them” and “they”, mysteriously unnamned groups who are powerful enough to command and strike fear in the hearts of ordinary citizens. The horrors shared in The Fate of Butterflies of mass rapes of women and children, slicing bellies of pregnant women before sexually assaulting them, the homophobic behaviour of some expressed in the horrific violence towards individuals by setting them on fire after trying to castrate them, the quiet disappearance of kebabs and rumali roti from Prabhakar’s favourite dhaba with the excuse that Rafeeq the cook had disappeared making it impossible to offer Mughal cuisine to finding a naked body on the road wearing only a skull cap makes this fiction at times too close to reality. It seems to be a thinly veiled account of many of the witness accounts, oral testimonies and media reports of pogroms and communal violence that have been witnessed in recent years. Linking modern crimes to the historical accounts of Nazi Germany when such horrors unleashed on civil society where first witnessed and documented, Nayantara Sahgal, seems to be reminding the reader of the past being revisited today in the name of “nostalgia” and “harmony” when it is actually a crime against humanity, a human rights violation.

Lopez reminded his friends: no meat unless proven to be mutton, not cow. The Cow Commission went around making sure. He was thinking of becoming a vegetarian himself, he was scared as hell that his fridge might be raided and the mutton turned into beef. Suspects were being dealt with out on the streets, surrounded by camers and cheering beholders. He didn’t fancy that treatment for himself.  It was far from reassuring in view of Rafeeq’s disappearance or dismissal. they drank their cloying Limcas, not sure how to find out about Rafeeq. The kaif’s water wasn’t safe and there was no mineral water left. All the bottles of mineral water had been commandeered by ‘them’, the ‘they’ and ‘them’ who came and went, mysteriously unnamed.

Lopez, who taught Modern Europe, said, “This tea party you were at, Prabhu, you said the Slovak was well ahead of the others.’

‘Why wouldn’t he be? They’ve have practice. They had a flourishing Nazi republic during the war, with a Gestapo and Jew-disposal and all the trimmings, and evidently there’s a tremendous nostalgia for those good old days when everybody was kept in line, or in harmony, as they called it.

Togetherness was the watchword. Not that the other speakers weren’t harking back to the glories of the 1930s, but I did get the feeling that some of them were sitting back and waiting to see which way the wind would blow before they risked investing in it. Only fools rush in. Compared with the rest of them the Slovak was the only Boy Scout.’

‘But most people are little people who have to go along with whatever’s happening,’ said Lopez, ‘either because they don’t know any better, or they have no choice and can’t afford to lose their wages or their lives.’

‘Most people,’ repeated Prabhakar, and again with stubborn emphasis, ‘most people everywhere, in Europe or here or anywhere else, only ask to be left in peace to live their lives. It doesn’t seem too much to ask.’

Toni Morrison’s A Mouth Full of Blood is a collection of her essays, speeches and meditations. They are a testament to her varied experiences in American history and literature, politics, women, race, culture, on language and memory. These are structured essays to occasional pieces of writing to moving eulogies as for James Baldwin to her Nobel Prize in Literature speech. It is a wide range of pieces which deserve to be read over and over again but it is the introduction to this volume entitled “Peril” that is exceptionally powerful. It is a commentary on contemporary world politics while focused on the importance of a writer and the significance of making art especially in authoritarian regimes.

In “Peril” Toni Morrison reasons that despots and dictators are no fools and certainly not foolish enough to “perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgements or follow their creative instincts” for if they did, it would be at their own peril. Whereas writers of all kinds — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that works like a coma on the population, “a coma despots call peace”. As she astutely points out that “historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow”. She continues that there are two notable human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. But she woudl like to add a third category — “stillness”. This could be passivity or dumbfoundedness or it can be paralytic fear. But in her opinion it can also be art.

Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, …writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. …The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that though is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” So begins Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture in Literature. Likewise pay heed when these two old and wise women speak. Pay heed.

22 February 2019

Fostering a reading culture / Happy Mother’s Day!

(C) Sudhanva Deshpande

(An extended version of this article was published on Bibliobibuli, my blog on Times of India, on Saturday 12 May 2018. Bibliobibuli focuses on publishing and literature.) 

Every Labour Day, the May Day Bookstore & Café holds a big book sale. It consists mostly of second-hand books being sold at reasonable prices and customers flock to the store. This year was no different. Later Sudhanva Deshpande, Managing Editor, LeftWord Books, posted a picture on social media platforms he had taken of a mother holding a tiny pile of books while her daughter stood by watching expectantly. It is a very powerful picture as it works at multiple levels. It is obvious the mother is in charge of her daughter’s education and is keen she learns further. She is the primary force. She is determined to buy the books for her child even though she can ill-afford the small number of books in her hand. The mother had only Rs 10 to pay for the books. She was short of money and unable to pay the billed amount. The unfortunate seemingly admonishing finger in the picture is not really doing what it seems to be doing according to the photographer. The bookshop attendants were telling the mother to take the books away and pay later, whenever she could!

(C) Mayank Austen Soofi

Books are respected all over the world but in India they are revered. Few can afford them and those who can, treasure what they possess. This picture by The Delhi Walla, epitomises it splendidly where the few books owned by the security guard are placed on the same shelf as the portrait of the god. It is understandable that the mother in the picture wishes her daughter to be literate as with it comes respect. For her to be in a bookstore is a path breaking moment. It symbolises the crumbling of a notional barrier of what is traditionally perceived as a popular middle class cultural space — the bookstore. Brick and mortar stores by their very definition tend to be exclusive even if some owners do not desire it to be so. Whereas the reality is that footfalls are restricted to those who are comfortable in these elitist spaces.

This is a sad truth because a thriving reading culture is critical for the well-being of a community and by extension the society. The Scholastic India Kids and Family Reading Report ( KFRR) found that “Parents and children agree by a wide margin that

John Travolta’s house with the airplane parked in it. (Image taken off the internet)

strong reading skills are among the most important skills children should have.” Undoubtedly reading opens a world of possibilities. When Hollywood actor John Travolta gave an interview to magazine editor Priya Kumari Rana ( Outlook Splurge, November 2015, Vol 6) he recalled reading Gordon’s Jet Flight (1961) as a child. It was about a little boy who took his first flight on a 707. At the time the 707 was the last word in aviation. It triggered an ambition and a dream. Today, Travolta not only is a trained pilot but owns a 707!

Buying books continues to be a dream for many individuals and families across the globe. American country singer Dolly Parton likes to give away books with her Imagination Library. In Feb 2018 she crossed the 100 millionth book. Writer Jojo Myes has pledged to save UK Charity Quick Reads ( Reading Agency ) from closure by funding its adult literacy programme for the next three years. Outreach community programmes are critical for fostering a reading culture particularly if access to existing cultural spaces are restricted.

Recently HarperCollins India organised an innovative book launch for children’s author Deepa Agarwal’s Sacked:Folktales You Can Carry Around. It involved a reading for children with hearing loss. So  while the author spoke there was a person standing next to her using sign language to translate what was being said. Recognising this need to foster reading, the nearly 100-year-old firm Scholastic  ran a very successful Twitter campaign in India (Sept 2017) where every retweet ensured a book donation to a community library. The publishing firm donated approximately 2000 books. Now they are running a similar campaign for Mother’s Day 2018 (Sunday, 13 May 2018) where a picture uploaded of a mother and a child reading will get one lucky family a book hamper.

Reading is a social activity. New readers need role models and encouragement. This is captured beautifully in feminist Kamla Bhasin’s nursery rhyme ( available in Hindi and English).

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

 

No mad rush to get to school

No timetable, no strict rule.

Mother’s home and so is father

All of us are here together.

 

Father’s like a busy bee

Making us hot cups of tea.

Mother sits and reads the news

Now and then she gives her views.

 

It’s Sunday, it’s Sunday

Holiday and fun day.

Kamla Bhasin, “It’s Sunday”

Noted Karnatik vocalist T. M Krishna in his book Reshaping Art makes an important point where he argues art has to break its casteist, classist and gender barriers and be welcoming to all particularly if cultural landscape has to expand. He asks for the inner workings of the art form to be infused with social and aesthetic sensitivity.

T. M. Krishna practices what he preaches. In December 2017 he sang a Tamil sufi song of Nagoor Hanifa which T.M. Krishna performed in a British-era Afghan Church in Colaba, Mumbai. He ended his performance with an invocation to allah in the church. Since then he has done other such performances.

Breaking cultural barriers and making books readily accessible and contributing to the growth of readers is exactly what the publishing ecosystem has to strive for. And as Kamla Bhasin rightly says the personal is political. There is nothing purely private or public. Every personal act of ours affects society. The act of reading and encouraging their children to read by mothers is not always welcomed in households, even today. Literacy empowers women with ideas, the ability to think and question for themselves, an act that is most often seen as defiance especially within very strongly patriarchal families. This act was captured beautifully in a wordless poster designed many years ago by a Hyderabad-based NGO, Asmita. It shows a woman with her feet up, reading a book, a television set in front of her and the floor littered with open books. Majority of women who see the poster laugh with happiness at the image for the peace it radiates but also at the impossibility of ever having such a situation at home.

So mothers like the one in the photograph are excellent role models and must be celebrated!

Happy Mother’s Day!

11 May 2018 

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

Donna Tartt, “The Goldfinch”

 

Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt can afford to spend years doing her research on art history, the underworld of antique and art sales, insights into high society, what it means to be tripping on drugs, some (peculiar) notions of love, etc. After having read the novel I am not surprised to read she can spend hours and days fidgeting with a comma or looking for a precise word. The craftsmanship is incredible. The long wordy descriptions about situations, rooms, people, etc. The novel is quite difficult to put down.

Read the book for understanding restoration of antique wood furniture. Read it for understanding the variety of drugs easily available. Read it for a peep into high society of New York.

A question that buzzed through my mind constantly was how do you spend over a decade tinkering with a story, without any part of it sounding dated. Well I am not sure of the answer. I can only offer a possibility. The answer probably lies in the details. Donna Tartt gets so absorbed in her descriptions of the school, the museum, the paintings, the restoration of antiques, antique trade, the underworld, that the story of Theo Decker remains bit of an excuse in the novel to keep the story going ahead. There is nothing in the story that will place it in a moment of time. Initially I thought that these were literary detours, well-crafted and well-researched vignettes, delicately put together to build the backdrop of the story. After all Donna Tartt is known to create male characters, with pithy psychological insghts into the character. It is not a Henry Jamesian kind of interior monologue. It is much more complicated than that, but at times I began to get a little stressed out with these vast passages, they seemed more self-indulgent than anything else.

In an interview with the Telegraph ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10505597/Donna-Tartt-If-Im-not-working-Im-not-happy.html) she referred to the destruction of the sixth-century Buddhist carvings in Afghanistan by the Taliban. This incident gave her the idea of writing a story that connected terrorism with the destruction of art, merging it with the obsession a child has with a painting. The result more than a decade later was The Goldfinch.

An author friend remarked the other day, after having read a big fat book, the reader tends to be biased towards the novel. I beg to differ. I would like to say, I enjoyed the experience of reading The Goldfinch immensely, but it was hard not read it with a critical eye. Also this novel requires the reader to be in a time and mental space that is peaceful and tranquil, before being immersed in the story. Otherwise it will miss you completely. I had so many false starts to the novel. Finally I made it.

I was left asking “Is it a modern day version of Catcher in the Rye?” This is a book that is definitely not a bildungsroman. All said and done, this is a book to be read. I can quite understand why it won the Pulitzer or why it is being discussed so much.  It is original in its “content”. It opens new vistas that are beyond the familiar domain of contemporary literature — family, college, diaspora/immigrant fiction, WW1, bio-fic etc. The Goldfinch is a bit of art history + family drama + young adolescent.

Read it.

Donna Tartt The Goldfinch Little, Brown, London, 2013. Pb. Rs. 799. pgs 775

 

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