Picador Posts

David Nott’s “War Doctor”

When I go to a war zone there’s a certain amount of my own equipment that I take with me. I take my own theatre scrubs and a gas mask, and I take my loupes, which are lenses with four-times magnification that help me perform intricate surgery on small blood vessels and flaps used in plastic surgery. I take a light source, a kind of headlamp, so that I continue to operate when the generators go down or the lights go off, and which also allow me to see deep into the crevices of a wound; and I take my Doppler machine, which allows me to hear the blood flow of the small distal vessels when the arteries do not have enough pressure to give a pulse. I carry it all around in a big, battered old suitcase.

David Notts is an NHS consultant surgeon specialising in general and vascular surgery. Since 1993 he has been taking two months unpaid leave every year from his job to volunteer his services in conflict zones mostly with Medicine San Frontieres (MSF). Over the years he has travelled to the most dangerous parts of the world where there is active conflict. He has worked in areas like Sarajevo, Kandahar, Chad, Gaza, Syria, Haiti, Libya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Iraq. War Doctor is a memoir focussed primarily on his work as a surgeon in conflict zones though covers some disaster zones as well. He has performed the most complicated surgeries under the most incredible conditions such as with only one bag of blood, no lights, no staff in the operating theatre while the hospital was being bombed. He has witnessed the most horrific wounds perpetrated upon civilians in the name of fighting for a just cause to seeing the ghastly condition of patients in Syria who were being hit by snipers as a part of a game to see who could win a packet of cigarettes. Their choice of targets would vary from day to day. Some days it would be hitting the groins of passers by or another day the bellies of pregnant women. A bullet lodged in the skull of an in-vitro foetus is an unimaginably despicable act but David Nott has had to operate upon such unfortunate victims.

Though there has been no world war since 1945 but the continuously raging conflicts in different parts of the world especially since the 1990s has been relentless. There seems to be no respite with wars of various intensities erupting around the globe. In most cases the war zones Dr Nott has been to have been fiercely fought religious clashes resulting in chilling pogroms. The horrors described in every territory, in every conflict zone, in every nation are numbing. Over the years David Nott has learned to focus on healing and doing the best by his patients irrespective of religion or colour. Yet he has over the years also sensed the growing hostility towards a British/a white man working in the conflict zones while realising he is also exposing himself to the very real danger of being kidnapped and taken hostage, worse still being killed. Anything is possible. In these zones no known rules of civil or military conduct exist or are observed. What exists are enforcement of irrational and arbitrary orders by the two opposing sides of the conflict and this seems to hold true universally for all conflict zones.

David Nott became interested in helping people after he watching the film The Killing Fields about the Khmer Rouge and its pogroms in Cambodia.

What first inspired you to become a war doctor?
Two things. The first was Roland Joffé’s film The Killing Fields, which had a huge impact on me when I saw it as a trainee surgeon. There is a scene in a hospital in Phnom Penh, overrun with patients, where a surgeon has to deal with a shrapnel injury – I wanted to be that surgeon. The second big spur was watching news footage from Sarajevo back in 1993. There was this man on the television, looking desperately through the rubble for his daughter. Eventually he found her and took her to the hospital but there were no doctors there to help her. I thought, “Right, I’m off”.
( War doctor David Nott: ‘The adrenaline was overpowering’, The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

David Nott is a seasoned hand at performing surgeries under the most distressful conditions. It has undoubtedly had an impact on his psyche as the near-breakdown he had in the Syrian hospital when reviewing a case, or when a debriefing at the MSF office which should have normally taken 45 minutes took six hours, much of which was spent with him crying. Or when he famously was asked to lunch by the Queen to Buckingham Palace and was unable to speak:

My diminishing ability to cope was rather spectacularly exposed a week later, when I was invited to a private lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The contrast between those gilded walls and the ravaged streets of Aleppo began doing weird things to my head. I was sitting on the Queen’s left and she turned to me as dessert arrived. I tried to speak, but nothing would come out of my mouth. She asked me where had I come from. I suppose she was expecting me to say, “From Hammersmith,” or something like that, but I told her I had recently returned from Aleppo. “Oh,” she said. “And what was that like?”

My mind filled instantly with images of toxic dust, of crushed school desks, of bloodied and limbless children and of David Haines, Alan Henning and those other western aid workers whose lives had ended in the most appalling fashion. My bottom lip started to go and I wanted to burst into tears, but I held myself together. She looked at me quizzically and touched my hand. She then had a quiet word with one of the courtiers, who pointed to a silver box in front of her, which was full of biscuits. “These are for the dogs,” she said, breaking one of the biscuits in two and giving me half. Together, we fed the corgis. “There,” the Queen said. “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?” ( “David Nott: ‘They told me my chances of leaving Aleppo alive were 50/50‘” The Guardian, 24 Feb 2019)

War Doctor is an extraordinary memoir for it details the unforgiving violence that man can perpetrate on his own kind with absolutely no remorse. It does not seem to matter to the people leading the wars that innocent lives and entire cities are being destroyed. David Nott while stitching up patients, performing amputations, delivering babies, watching babies and adults die, visiting morgues that are piled high with bodies that the director of the hospital shows Nott in a matter-of-fact manner, or constantly being drenched in blood gushing out of wounds, collapsing on to the bed in a deep sleep only to wake up and put on shoes and the surgical gown that are caked in blood. After a while the gut-wrenching descriptions of the patients Nott operates upon seem to blur into one another except for the consistency of the massive trauma they have all experienced. The patients he operates upon range from civilians, military personnel to even mercenaries. Descriptions of entire families wiped out by bombs, children orphaned, little infants abandoned with gaping head wounds, teenagers bleeding uncontrollably due to shrapnel wounds, a little boy burning with heat with a possible diagnosis of malaria by Nott which is ignored by the local doctor who insists it is appendicitis and the next time Nott sees the boy with an incision in his abdomen but is in a black body bag parked in the doctor’s changing room for there is no where else to store it in the overflowing hospital! There are some success stories too. For instance when he argued on behalf of an infant to be evacuated to London if she had to survive but was denied permission by MSF, stripped of his credentials with the organisation and permitted to take the risk on his own. He did. The girl survived.

For most of these years spent in the conflict and disaster zones he has been a bachelor with only his parents to be concerned about. Once they too were gone Nott was lonely and was able to focus upon his work with his heart and soul. It was years later when at a fund raiser for Syria he met his future wife Eleanor, then an analyst at the Institute of Strategic Studies, did the enormity of his loneliness sink in. Most likely this manifested itself in his breakdown as for the first time in his life he finally had someone whom he loved dearly to return to in London.

Now he lives in London with his wife and two daughters. He has also established the David Nott Foundation. It is a UK registered charity which provides surgeons and medical professionals with the skills they need to provide relief and assistance in conflict and natural disaster zones around the world. As well as providing the best medical care, David Nott Foundation surgeons trains local healthcare professionals; leaving a legacy of education and improved health outcomes.

War Doctor is a firsthand account of the unnecessary manmade violence and chaos unleashed upon other humans in conflict zones. It is a sobering reminder of exactly how much irrational behaviour man is capable of. The devastating repurcussions on society, on families, on individuals, the wilful destruction of property and the enormous rehabilitation and reconstruction work required to rebuild civil sociey seems to be of no consequence to those who revel in war mongering and in all likelihood participate in it as well. This is a book that must be read by everyone, even those who believe that going to war, performing surgical strikes, are the only way to resolve disputes instead of finding resolutions through peace talks and exploring alternative soft diplomacy tactics such as civil engagement.

Read War Doctor. It will become a seminal part of contemporary conflict literature. It will probably in the coming year be nominated for a literary award or two.

26 February 2019

William Fiennes “The Snow Geese” and “The Music Room”

Best selling author William Fiennes The Snow Geese and The Music Room are two incredibly stunning pieces of literature. They are both meditative in quality.  The Snow Geese was written soon after he had been convalescing from a then unnamed disease but in his later book he reveals as Crohn’s Disease. While staying with his parents and taking long walks with his father, an avid birdwatcher, William Fiennes develops this urge to follow the snow geese on their migration to the Tundra. There is a slow, methodical and precise quality to the book which is extremely peaceful and restorative. It is as if the tiredness and exhaustion of this noisy daily existence slowly drains itself from one and is replaced by calmness, peace and quiet.

A similar reflective quality is found in The Music Room except that it is a very personal account of his family particularly of his brother Richard who has epilepsy. Richard is eleven years older to William.  Richard finally succumbs to it at the age of 41 when he is unable to breathe during an epileptic fit at night. William is overseas and receives a short message from his brother Martin to inform him of Richard’s death.  It is a deeply moving book about living with an epileptic patient. Anyone who has lived with an epileptic patient knows how to deal with the episodes of absence attacks and convulsions although Richard’s form of epilepsy was particularly violent and abusive. Despite the strong medication consisting mostly of sedatives Richard managed to be violent. In one instance he physically attacked a nurse at his epilepsy centre and a case had to be filed. When Richard and his mother went to the police station for the interview and was asked for details of the incident, Richard said truthfully he could not remember.  The Music Room is a moving testimony to having an epileptic brother while trying to live together as a family. Constantly the love and caring for the brother is what comes through in the book. Although they live in a medieval castle with plenty of rooms at times the family has to hide from Richard especially when is on a violent spree. Once William recalls he was locked up in a bathroom with his mother while Richard was on the other side of the door. Another time William spotted his father leaning against the wall of the house and when asked what he was doing, the older Fiennes said “seeking strength”.

After the success of these two magnificent books William Fiennes co-founded a charity with Katie Waldegrave — First Story: Changing lives through writing.

The charity runs writing workshops in schools across UK, hoping to encourage that revelatory process of ‘finding one’s own voice.’ Fiennes thinks that we all have our own unique voice, and he quotes Philip Pullman on the importance of discovering it: “Real writing can liberate and strengthen young people’s sense of themselves as almost nothing else can.”

So true!

Both the books have been published by Picador and continue to be available years after their publication.

7 May 2018 

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 

 

Brad Watson’s “Miss Jane”

Brad Watson’s novel Miss Jane is about a girl born to a farmer and his wife in rural, early 20th– century Mississippi. The baby was born with “apparently manageable urological condition” makes her incontinent and later hampers her from marrying and being sexually active – considered to be a serious problem in her community. Later while explaining to her the doctor says:

“What you have on the inside is just as complex—I mean it is just as much a wonder of a miracle of the human body – as anyone else. But it didn’t get to finish putting itself all together, didn’t get to finish itself up and get everything right, before it was time for you to be born. Or maybe I should say at some point, for some reason, it just stopped making itself into what it was supposed to…”

Dr Eldred Thompson who assisted at Jane’s birth is a kind-hearted soul who does not share his wife’s ambition to move to a sophisticated urban practice but would rather than remain an old-time country doctor. He often marvels at the variety of patients he attends to: And all these wretched souls came out of the womb perfectly normal, the doctor thought, looking around. What can say what life will make of a body? Later Dr Thompson’s sentiment about keeping peacocks in his backyard to deal with his loneliness when a widower oddly enough illuminate his empathetic caregiving of Jane too “I like to think they really exist just because they are oddly beautiful” 

Dr Thompson takes little Jane under his wing and documents her progress meticulously. He shares his notes with medical colleague, Dr Ellison Adams, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland in the hope a possible cure can be discovered through research developments. The correspondence spans a few decades. By the time surgical intervention is possible to rectify it Miss Jane is elderly, more or less a social recluse, living on her family farm and has no desire to go ahead with the procedure.

As a child Jane has a joie de vivre that astounds everyone given her condition. She is warm, loving and ebullient but becomes reserved as she experiences first-hand the hostility of her classmates at school until they are reprimanded by their teacher for not making fun of anyone for “being who she is”. Jane continues to live with grace and quiet dignity. “She was the only one made the way she was made…[but] is determined that she would live like any other girl as best she could.” Yet when as a teenager Elijah Key (who is keen on her) asks if she is happy with life Jane wonders.

She did not know what to say. She’d never put a word to the sadness she could sometimes feel, especially in the last couple of years, that would linger at the edge of her thoughts like the invisible ghost of someone she thought she recognized but didn’t know who it was, some kind of familiar she couldn’t quite grasp.

There are others in the community but her relationship with her parents is beautifully told. With her mother it is fraught with anxiety. As she grows older Jane notices “her mother shut herself down in the secretive way she sometimes did when she wanted to hide something from you”. With her father she shares a special relationship where she may be the daughter of his twilight years but he is sweetly protective of her. He teaches her to fish, literally and metaphorically. Her father would take her into the forest and point out the beauty in the flowers and trees to her all the while naming them but stopping short of their erotic overtones such as with the stinkhorn mushroom.

Her father would point things out to her. He knew the names of most trees, the oaks, elms, sycamore and sweetgum, the magnolia, swamp bay, cherry, cypress, pecan. Some shrubs, the buckeye, sweetshrub, huckleberry, sumac, snowbell. Flowers of the valley, wisteria, joe-pye weed, jack-in-the-pulpit.

Ironically Jane will forever be surrounded by the woods and animals that procreate and give sustenance while she cannot. Despite her physical constraints her father taught her to be alive. He is practical and makes her future secure by buying insurance in her name and bequeathing the farm to her since it will give her a living and privacy too.

Award-winning writer Brad Watson has been an aspiring movie star, a garbage collector, a digger of ditches, a bartender, a professor, and much more. Brad Watson wrote Miss Jane drawing upon the story of his own great-aunt. As he says in an interview, “My mother’s family was a pretty stoic bunch, after all. But Jane was not dour, like some of the tough ones in there were. From what little was remembered of her, she was kind, generous of heart, as well as tough. She did not ever complain about loneliness, I was told. She lived her life as if nothing was ‘wrong.’ I, at the time I became interested in her, was pretty much wallowing in self-pity for this or that. I never knew her. But I began to admire her. I wanted to know more. So I tried to imagine a life.” In an essay he wrote discussing Southern Literature “My working mine, in the novels, has been family history, looking to family stories for what might illuminate something about a place and time, and the people in it, who are now gone but who seem as real as anyone living today, and who perhaps may cast a light on how we came to be who we are now. But what seems to me still distinctive, most distinctive, about Southern writing, is the sense of place in the work.” Watson was born and raised in Mississippi, spent much of his adult life in Alabama, and has taught there, in Florida, Mississippi, California, and for the past 11 years in Wyoming. In Miss Jane Watson presents a multi-faceted society wherein he gently questions the idea of “normal”. It comes home strongly when Jane’s mother consults a psychic, only to be told that Jane will never be “normal, like other girls,” but she’ll be happy: “Unlike you.”

Miss Jane is an elegant and sensitively written historical novel that will linger longer after the book is shut.

Brad Watson Miss Jane Picador, 2017. 

Pakistani Author Maha Khan Phillips on her New Novel, “The Curse of the Mohenjodaro”

This interview with Maha Khan Phillips was published on Bookwitty on 7 March 2017. 

Maha Khan Phillips is the author of Beautiful from this Angle and The Mystery of the Aagnee Ruby. She is a financial journalist and the editor of Professional Investor Magazine in the UK, where she lives part of the year, the rest of the time she spends in Karachi.

Her novels are set in Pakistan and her fiction is unusual in its portrayal of the economic basis that defines relationships and her astute observation of social dynamics make her fictional landscapes absolutely believable. Her books show women are empowered if financially sound, irrespective of the socio-economic strata they inhabit.

In her latest novel The Curse of the Mohenjadaro, Maha Khan Phillips has taken her literary skills to a new level by venturing into myth-making and exploring the alternative social spaces of cults which ultimately tend to imitate conservative patriarchal structures globally. She kindly answered questions for Bookwitty about her new book:

Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre
Mohenjodaro © CRA-terre Pascal Maitre

Why this story? Why Mohenjodaro?

I visited the ancient civilization of Mohenjodaro a couple of times when I was a child on school trips. I was enthralled by it. The thing that resonated most was that nobody knew what happened to its people, or how the civilization declined. I remember being bored and surfing the web one day and idly typing in “Mohenjodaro Mystery”. I wanted to see if there was information out there about the decline of the civilization. Instead, I was astounded to discover the so-called Forbidden History/Forbidden Archaeology movement. I learnt that an archaeologist named David Davenport had written a book entitled Atomic Destruction in 2000 BC (Italian, 1979) and that Mohenjodaro was the epicentre of many conspiracy theories about ancient technologies. I decided it would be a great premise for a thriller. In those days, I wasn’t writing at all, so I sort of forgot about it, for a few years, and then picked it up after Beautiful from this Angle.

How long did the research for this book take?

In reality, researching Mohenjodaro was the easiest bit, because there is so little known about the Indus Valley Civilization. I spent some time learning about archaeology in general, and had some help from a couple of brilliant archaeologists. I also researched Mesopotamia and Egypt in an attempt to get inspiration when creating my imaginary Mohenjodaro. But mostly, I researched cults, the psychology of cults, and the Forbidden History movement.

The Forbidden History movement is a term that derived from conspiracy theorists who believe that any artefacts or discoveries which question mainstream history or current theories of evolution are either dismissed, or covered up. They believe in ancient technologies, in humankind being older than we think, in alien influence on pre-historic earth.

Your fascination with trying to understand cults is evident in the ruthless characters of Iaf and Sohail. Why cults?

I could talk about this for hours… I’ve always been fascinated by cults. How do they work? Why on earth do people fall for charismatic leaders, giving up everything, even their lives in some cases? I suppose in my mind, there’s a resonance with the political world now. People have started positioning themselves with these myopic identities and ideologies and aren’t willing to broaden their thinking. Cults are very much about ‘Us and Them’ and I feel the world is heading in that direction too. Look at all the fake news we have been seeing, and how quickly it’s being disseminated as gospel through social media. Look at religious extremism. And, perhaps the best example – was there ever a cult leader as successful as Donald Trump? I don’t know what’s in the Kool-Aid he’s been handing out, but he’s tweeted his way to cult like devotion amongst his followers, in my opinion – providing them with an ideology that will not help them, and yet spinning the tale so well that they believe life will get better.

How did the creation of the Shakari, Goddess-Blessed and the Bloodstone myth-making come about?

I knew I had to have something – some supernatural force that would cause the chaos which occurs at the beginning of a novel, when the archaeologists go missing and are set on fire. I probably spent more time on trying to figure out what that would be than I did on anything else. In the end, I settled on a stone, because I liked the physicality of having something that could be held in someone’s hand. As for Shakari, many icons of goddesses were found in Mohenjodaro, and so I liked the idea of a matriarchal society which had been corrupted, but which believed in a Mother Goddess. I knew there would be priests and priestesses, and the Goddess-Blessed emerged as those priestesses, for want of a better name for them.

The icons of Goddesses were clay figurines. Numerous kinds have been found in the Indus Valley, wearing headdresses, for example. These could just be images of women, but archaeologists believe they are goddesses .

To my mind the character Jaya’s story was far stronger and tautly told compared to the Nadia & Layla story. Yet how do you occupy two dimensions/time and write two powerful stories?

For ages, I resisted the idea of setting anything in the ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha. I felt I couldn’t do it justice or make it credible, not without knowing more about the place. But that information simply wasn’t available. Eventually, I realised that it was the not knowing that was liberating. It meant I could let my imagination go wild. With so little information out there, I had a blank canvas to make up whatever I wanted. But before I made that realization, I had written an entire novel in the present day. It didn’t work, and so I tried other things. I initially wrote a couple of the ancient scenes as dreams that Nadia had, as a way to give context to some of the modern day plot. I quite liked those scenes, and they were so easy to write, they came pouring out. So I started writing more. And soon, I realised I wanted to intertwine the two narratives.

Why interweave stories? How did you decide to break one story with the other while retaining the reader’s interest?

I’m not sure I consciously thought about it. I’m a big fan of the novels of Kate Mosse, and she did this so effectively in Labyrinth. But more than that I didn’t want to give up either story, I felt emotionally invested in both. I let the writing decide when it was going to break from one story to another – I just did it when it felt like a chapter was finished.

The financial details of your novels are always so fascinating. For instance in this case “River trout which was bartered” and even the activities of Giving of Light Foundation have a clear economic basis which are outlined logically. Do you work out the economic intricacies along with the fictional landscape? 

I suppose that’s the financial journalist in me! I’m really aware of how economic realities affect our lives. I would argue that the Financial Crisis brought about Donald Trump and Brexit, for instance. I didn’t feel like the decline/destruction of my ancient Mohenjodaro/Meluhha was credible without a bit of an understanding of why the civilization’s economic system may have failed them, particularly since the character Iaf is driven by greed and power. I was also quite interested in how the people in this ancient civilization would have traded with one another. I loved the cubes they discovered on the site, and the weighing scales, it was such an advanced approach to trading.

The defiant assertion of independence by Jaya, Layla and Nadia against Iaf and later, Sohail, are very well etched. How challenging was it to create these women characters fighting “patriarchal” structures?

I think the challenge for me, at least early on, was actually to make them less assertive and bolshy! I needed, at least initially, for them to be reactive. For example, I needed to justify Jaya’s decision to remain in Meluhha, despite the loss of her parents, to passively accept her fate. I needed Nadia to go to Pakistan without asking too many questions. It was later that the characters all started to fight back, once they realised what they were up against. That was a more comfortable place for me to be in! Some of what happened in the ancient city is mirrored by patriarchal societies which still exist, which we see all around the world. That was deliberate, on my part. I liked that my characters were strong enough to take those on. I am a feminist, and my family is full of strong women who have never let anyone stop them from achieving whatever they set out to achieve, so I enjoyed writing these kick ass women!

“I set up the Foundation after 2001, after the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. I’d been a banker then, but I have always been passionate about antiquity. Our history often defines our future, don’t you think?” It may be unfair to read the personal in fiction you create but somewhere does this novel stem from what you too feel – maybe the importance of getting to know the past better and how it informs our present?

Trust you to find the one sentence in the entire novel that means the most to me personally! Yes, I passionately believe this. History gets lost, but without it, we don’t know who we are. How can we learn from our mistakes, if we haven’t understood when and how we made them? Mohenjodaro belongs to the world – we’ve seen people in Scotland trace their roots back to Mohenjodaro, for instance. There is a worrying trend, as I mentioned, for myopic ideologies, and we have seen what ISIS does to pre-Islamic history and how they want to abolish the past. In their mind, there’s a good reason for their actions. The past can be dangerous. It shows us that we are smaller than we think we are. We will all, eventually, belong to history ourselves. And so we should not seek to impose our ideologies on others because no ideology, no civilization, no one culture, can withstand the sands of time. Instead, we should celebrate our extraordinary heritage and be made richer by what we learn from it.

Maha Khan Phillips The Curse of the Mohenjodaro PanMacmillan India, 2017. Pb.

9 May 2017 

Literature on mental health

Jerry PintoThis past month I have spent a while reading literature about mental health. It was sparked off by the publication of the maginificent collection of essays edited by award-winning author, Jerry Pinto. A Book of Light: When a Loved One has a Different Mind consists of essays written by caregivers to mentally-challenged patients. These could be daughter, mother, son, father or even a close friend. All the essays are written by a caregiver who is also part of the immediate family so has witnessed the painful deterioration of the loved one. Some of the essays like Nirpuma Dutt on her adopted daughter though written using the literary device of an omniscient narrator is one of the most chilling and moving contributions. Every single essay stands out for the grief caused but also for the time and effort required in the caregiving which was mostly offered uncomplaingly and with total dedication. Amandeep Sandhu’s essay about his mother which I first read in draft many years ago continues to be powerful once published years later. As if this caregiving was meant to be. This was the truth. Jerry Pinto who won the Windham-Campbell prize in 2016 has been writing for years made his mark as a literary fiction writer with the splendid novel, Em and Hoom. A thinly disguised fictional account about his mother who remained in poor mental health for most of her life. It was twenty-six years in the making. Despite the vast variety of literature across genres and now his forays into translations, Jerry Pinto is at his best when writing about mental afflictions. There is a certain tenderness and sensitive understanding that seeps through his essays as it does in the introduction to this book and his curation of the essays.

Having read this splendid volume in one sitting I found some more books to read. For instance, Matt Haig’s powerful autobiography Reasons to Stay Alive. It is about his leading a perfectly normal life except to develop acute depression and have a nervous breakdown in his early twenties. He even attempted suicide but then slowly recovered with the help of his then-girlfriend and now wife, Andrea, and his parents. Today, he is a successful author for children and adults and is a social media influencer ( @matthaig1) .

When you are trapped inside something that feels so unreal, you look for anything that gives you a sense of your bearings. I craved knowledge. I craved facts. I searched for them like lifebuoys in the sea. …Things that occur in the mind can often be hidden. Indeed when I first became ill I spent a lot of energy on looking normal. People often only know someone is suffering if they tell them, and with depression that doesn’t always happen, especially if you are male ( more on that later). 

Then I discovered bestselling author Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy that explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. It is written at a pitch that can get disconcertingly high, it is not easy trying to keep pace with the ups and lows in her life which are surpringly palpable in the text as well. But what truly shines through is the struggle of managing daily life and yet how determined she is.  Simple things are daunting but the unimaginable fear she experienced when recording her audiobook turned her into a nervous wreck. So she finally turned to her friend, Neil Gaiman, for advice and this is what he texted her: “Pretend you’re good at it.” She took his advice to heart and shone.

Reasons to Stay Alive and Furiously Happy are two books written from the perspective of people who struggle with mental ill-health but have had the courage to write about it too. Offer an opinion that does not consider them over sensitive, peculiar and odd.

And then I read Oliver Sacks absolutely stupendous memoir On the Move. It was first published in April 2015 a few51JcHq846GL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_ weeks before he succumbed to cancer on 30 August 2015, exactly a year ago today. In fine literary form it reflects upon a richly memorable life that spans eight decades focusing on his fascination with neurology, science, music, literature and his strong links with his family. Oliver Sacks came from a family of doctors where even his mother was a renowned surgeon. His father and two elder brothers were general practitioners but Oliver Sacks decided to become a neurologist. What is extraordinary is his recognition that when he began medical school in the mid-1950s there seemed to be an unbridgeable gap between neurophysiology and the actualities of how patients experienced neurological disorders. Neurology continued to follow the clinico-anatomical method set by Broca a century earlier, locating areas of damage in the brain and correlating these with symptoms; thus speech disturbances were correlated with damage to Broca’s speech area, paralysis with damage to motor areas, and so on. But by the mid-1980s scientists like Gerald M. Edelman were stating boldly that “We are at the beginning of the neuroscience revolution.” Having witnessed, documented and analysed significant neurological milestones writing about them in medical journals and popular magazines made him famous. It probably also helped recognise to some degree that mental ailments need to be discussed. Mentally ill patients are not pariah. Having firsthand experience of looking after a schizophrenic brother and extremely fond of a simple-minded aunt, a treasured member of their household he had a warm and sensitive generosity evident in the way he dealt with his patients too. More importantly he had a sense of history and an understanding to document what he experienced and analyse it. A rich and influential legacy he left on the way mentally-ill patients are perceived and how they can also learn to manage themselves. But at least he with his passion for neurological science made it possible for mental health to be made visible in public discourse. Otherwise how else would a well-known scientist and Pulitzer-award winner Siddhartha Mukherjee begin his fascinating account of the gene with a very personal account of his schizophrenic uncle?

Jerry Pinto ( Ed.) A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind Speaking Tiger, Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp.180. Rs. 399

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. Pp. 270 Rs 499

Jenny Lawson Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. Pp. 330 Rs 450

Oliver Sacks On the Move: A Life Picador, London, 2015. Pb. Pp. Rs 499

30 August 2016 

Robert Seethaler, “A Whole Life”

A Whole LifeYou can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. ( p.37)

Robert Seethaler’s novel A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who never grumbled about work and did it diligently through all seasons. He was “considered a cripple, but he was strong”. He was orphaned at two but sent to live with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker. At eighteen his uncle threw him out of the house and Andreas began working for Bitterman & Sons construction teams which were setting up cable cars in the mountains. Later he was conscripted during the war, became prisoner of war at a Serbian camp, Voroshilovgrad, for eight years, and returned home to discover the construction firm had gone bankrupt and he earned his living as a tourist guide. There is hardship. There is immense loneliness. There is brutal violence like flogging of the young Andreas Egger by his uncle and breaking his leg earning him the nickname in the village “Gammy Leg”. Despite being a nondescript novel at one level there are moments of pure earthy tenderness such as his proposal to Marie. Adapting the tradition of Sacred Heart Fires — huge fire pictures that were lit on summer solstice, illuminating the mountain by night. He enlisted the help of his co-workers and emblazoned on the Austrian mountainside “For you, Marie”. Unfortunately after her untimely death in an avalanche Andreas Egger remains a widower for the rest of his life.

A Whole Life is a seemingly nondescript novel but comes alive upon second reading with the tiny details embedded in it that illuminate it much like the summer solstice fires emblazoning the rugged mountainside with moments of extraordinary beauty. The deep loneliness of Andreas Egger is enhanced by the story being very masculine not because it is about a male protagonist but for a man who chooses to be a loner and hardly anyone is inquisitive about it.  ( For a woman it would be an entirely different story!) It is no wonder that the slim novella exquisitely translated by Charlotte Collins from German has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

A Whole Life is like old gold. It will become a modern classic.

Robert Seethaler A Whole Life Picador, London, 2015. 

( Originally published in German 2014 as Ein ganzes Leben  by Hanser Berlin, an imprint of Carl Hanser Verlag, Berlin.)

15 May 2016

 

Yann Martel, “The High Mountains of Portugal” and Kent Haruf, “Our Souls at Night”

Yann MartelLove is a house with many rooms, this room to feed the love, this one to entertain it, this one to clean it, this one to dress it, this one to allow it to rest, and each of these rooms can also just as well be the room for laughing or the room for listening or the room for telling one’s secrets or the room for sulking or the room for apologizing or the room for intimate togetherness, and, of course, there are rooms for the new members of the household. Love is a house in which plumbing brings bubbly new emotions every morning, and sewers flush out disputes, and bright windows open up to admit the fresh air of renewed goodwill. Love is a house with an unshakable foundation and an indestructible roof. ( p23-24, The High Mountains of Portugal)

Three widowers, Tomas ( 1904), Eusebio Lozora (1938) and Peter Tovy ( 1981), are the protagonists in three loosely interlinked stories — “Homeless”, “Homeward” and “Home”. These are in Yann Martel’s latest offering, The High Mountains of Portugal. There is a sense of loneliness and despair. The three long stories are the ways in which the men come to terms with losing their beloved. With Tomas it is walking backwards and then going off to the High Mountains of Portugal in search of a church relic. For Eusebio solace is to be found somewhere in the space of living and the dead, usually during the many hours he spends conducting autopsies in his office. And for Canadian Senator Peter Tovy it is buying a chimpanzee from a laboratory, Odo, and creating a life for themselves together in Portugal, Peter’s country of origin. The three stories are connected unexpectedly but these links do not strike as jarring a note as one would expect. Funnily enough these magic realist tales are incredibly soothing to read, particularly “Home”. It is inevitable comparisons will be made between  Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as was done by Ursula Le Guin in her book review. ( The Guardian, 27 January 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/27/the-high-mountains-of-portugal-yann-martel-review ) Yet the detail and incredible amounts of research it must have required to write this story are masked completely by the sensitive and movingly told relationship between Peter and Odo. But then the idea of a journey, self-growth of the narrator and with a wild animal as a companion is not a unique idea for Yann Martel.

Yann Martel was incredibly lucky when his second book, Life of Pi. It sold over 4 million units and continues to be in print. ( The success of this novel is indicated by placing it as a qualifier beneath Yann Martel’s name on the new book cover as “Author of Life of Pi“.) It is a an enviable luck. But what is even more striking is how the luxury of money allows the writer the time and artistic license to play with ways of storytelling. With a seemingly traditional and old-fashioned opening in “Homeless” Yann Martel moves on surely and steadily to tickle the imagination and challenge the reader to engage with the text such as the image of the ape, Peter and his son trying to read Agatha Christie’s Appointment with Death in Portugese, together. It is an extraordinary experience and not to be easily forgotten.

Juxtapose this with the late Kent Haruf’s heartbreakingly tender tale OurKent Haruf Souls at Night. It is about two elderly people — Addie and Louis. Both single having lost their spouses a little while earlier. Both have children who have left the small town they live in for better pastures in the big cities. It is about their unique friendship. Of spending time together at night chatting quietly, lying side by side in bed, neatly sidestepping traditional roles and expectations. This  gives them much solace since they are past the age of caring what others think. Yet it sets tongues wagging amongst the locals and upsetting their children considerably too who return to check upon the parents.  Both, Addie and Louis, have reasons to grieve but have worked out that they derive immense happiness in this unexpected way of life. Even for the short duration that they are responsible for the caregiving of Addie’s six-year-old grandson they come across as a contented family unit.

Our Souls at Night The High Mountains of Portugal are stories that gently but magnificently delve into that very moment immediately after the death of a spouse — loved or not is not necessarily always the question. But the sheer loss of losing someone with whom you have co-habited and existed for decades leaves a devastating hole in one’s life that is not always easily comprehended by family. These two books that despite being heartbreakingly tender are surprisingly very comforting to read. It is worth spending time with them. I hope many copies are sold. Question begs to be asked. Do readers have the space to read mature stories especially that are at a lower pace and dwell on old age? Nowadays there is so much of the angry new novel and baring one’s heart and soul, where do these beautiful novels find their readership?

( Two other novels I would put in the same category as these novels are Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover  and Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. )

Yann Martel The High Mountains of Portugal Canongate, London, 2016. Pb. pp. 332. Rs.599

Kent Haruf Our Souls at Night Picador, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 180. Rs 550

24 March 2016

Hanya Yanagihara, “A Little Life”

Hanya Yanagihara“Contracts are not just sheets of paper promising you a job, or a house, or an inheritance: in its purest, truest, broadest sense, contracts govern every realm of law. When we choose to live in a society, we choose to live under a contract, and to abide by the rules that a contract dictates for us… .” ( p.116) 

Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel A Little Life is a strong contender for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2015. It will be announced on Tuesday, 13 October 2015. Meanwhile it has created a more than a little storm in literary circles around the globe. Inevitably comments are being posted about how powerful it is, the incredible writing and not a single reader has been left unscathed, many dissolving into tears while reading it. Needless to say it rocks you emotionally. It has to be one of the most exhausting novels from contemporary literature and this is not a testimony to the time spent reading the 700-odd pages. It is the story itself. Four young men, friends from their days as undergraduates at a prestigious New England University, who try finding their feet as professionals as adults. The novel spans their lifetime but instead of it being a straightforward old-fashioned bildungsroman, it delves into their past particularly their formative years as children focusing primarily on Jude St.Francis. There is forward movement, it is hard-hitting, at times a painfully descriptive yet grippingly told narrative. It is a book that demands to be read at one-sitting ( read minimum three days) without getting distracted by anything else, otherwise it will be impossible to finish reading.

A Little Life is already being termed as a “queer classic” within a few months of its publication. It is a devastating look at adult male relationships primarily through the prism of love that the four men have for each other. The story is mapped from their days as students to old age. A time when most people have mellowed or come to terms with the life they live except for Jude who continues to be consistent in his personality –notably his physical self-flagellation whereas Hanya Yanagihara sees Jude as being “consistent in his hopefulness”. ( Hear the Guardian podcast.) If it were not for the immense love, tenderness and understanding his inner circle has for him, Jude would have long been dead. Somehow this inexplicably violent aspect of his personality overshadows his brilliance as a lawyer. Along the way other forms of love are also explored — the love between parents ( biological, foster and adopted) parents for their wards, the expression of love ( at times horrifically warped — between lovers, rapists, perpetrators of child sexual abuse) and how the bonds of love are forged over time? The factor of trust is also explored in many ways. Trust is an essential part of the foundation upon which love between two individuals is built, so should it be ever taken for granted or does it require constant nurturing?

Hanya Yanagihara is a journalist who has been with Conde Nast and New York Times. She spent a few years writing this novel.  Here is an interview between her editor, Gerry Howard and her, published in Slate. ( 5 March 2015. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2015/03/hanya_yanagihara_author_of_a_little_life_and_her_editor_gerry_howard.html ) There have been a deluge of articles, reviews, interviews, podcasts with the author, coming to terms with A Little Life. It is no mean achievement when a writer is able to create a work of art that has a phenomenal reaction. Over and over again readers are responding to the manner in which it transformed them. The only consistent element evident in the media buzz about A Little Life  is the astonished reaction at encountering this work of literary art. The fact that it is a work of fiction, but so magnificently detailed to make it powerfully moving and yet, as Hanya has discovered, young men have approached her saying this is remarkably true to their lives. But she clarifies in the interview with Claire Armistead that she has never known a Jude or a person who could have inspired the character. It is a novel that has created a new benchmark of literary fiction. Yet I cannot help feeling it is an example of a new form of decadence in the craft of writing. It rips apart the known “limits” of literary fiction immersing the reader in a vortex of pain, suffering, love, and relationships making it a harrowing experience but strangely addictive too — akin to the fascination upon discovering a mind blowing new art form. Even the author confirms that “this book is extravagant, its highly artificial, its large in its emotions…I want to push way up against the line almost of melodrama …and so I really wanted to push every single emotion, every single sensation as far as I could and I don’t think that is a very fashionable way to write fiction any more. Not that I was concerned about that.” ( Excerpt quoted from the Guardian podcast with Claire Armistead.)

Read it.

Some links to read:

  1. The Guardian Books Podcast with Claire Armistead, 28 August 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/aug/28/novels-books-podcast-hanya-yanagihara-andrew-miller
  2. James Kidd talks to Hanya Yanagihara, 23 August 2015. http://thiswritinglife.co.uk/e/episode-27-hanya-yanagihara-a-little-life-part-1/
  3. Lucy Scholes  in Bookanista “Hanya Yanagihara among friends” http://bookanista.com/hanya-yanagihara/
  4. Jon Michaud ” The subversive brilliance of A Little Life” 28 April 2015 http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life
  5. A interview and a review in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/26/hanya-yanagihara-i-wanted-everything-turned-up-a-little-too-high-interview-a-little-life and http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/18/a-little-life-hanya-yanagihara-review-man-booker-prize
  6. An interview in the Bookseller http://www.thebookseller.com/insight/hanya-yanagihara-interview

Hanya Yanagihara A Little Life Picador, London, UK, 2015. Pb. pp. 734. Rs. 699

Sunjeev Sahota, “The Year of the Runaways”

Sunjeev Sahota‘It really is a pathetic thing. To mourn a past you never had. Don’t you think?’ 

p.216

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is his second novel. According to Granta in 2014, he was one of the promising writers from Britain. I have liked his writing ever since I reviewed his debut novel, Ours are the Streets, for DNA in 2011. The first chapter of The Year of the Runaways was extracted in Granta, Best of British novelists. It is about a few men from India who choose to migrate to the UK. They are from different socio-economic classes. Tochi is a chamar, an “untouchable”, from Bihar who had gone to Punjab in search of a job, but with his father falling ill, returned to the village. Unfortunately during the massacres perpetrated by the upper castes his family was destroyed too. So he gathered his life-savings and left India. The other men who leave around the same time are Avtar and Randeep, migrants from Punjab. Randeep is from a “better” social class since his father is a government officer and he is able to migrate using the “visa-wife” route. But when these young men get to Britain, they are “equal”. It is immaterial whether they are working as bonded labour or on construction sites or cooking or even cleaning drains. They are willing to do any task as long as it allows them to stay on in the country. Apparently living a life of uncertainty and in constant fear of raids by the immigration officers is far preferable to life at home.

The women characters of Narinder, Baba Jeet Kaur and Savraj are annoying. Maybe they are meant to be. Given how much effort and time has been spent figuring out the male characters, the women come across as flat characters. Narinder, Randeep’s visa-wife, seems to have the maximum social mobility in society as well as amongst these migrants but she remains a mystery. It is only towards the end of the novel that just as she begins to find her voice and asserts herself, the story comes to an abrupt end.

I like Sunjeev Sahota’s writing for the language and sensual descriptions. He makes visible what usually lurks in the shadows, confined to the margins. He makes it come alive. It is remarkable to see the lengths a storyteller can go to tell a story that has a visceral reaction in the reader. Also it is admirable that while living in Leeds, UK, Sunjeev Sahota has written a powerful example of South Asian fiction that is set in Britain without ever really showing a white except for the old man Randeep had befriended while working at the call centre. Sunjeev Sahota admires Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. ( It was also the first novel he read as he admits in the YouTube interview on Granta’s channel.) Rushdie too has given a glowing endorsement to The Year of the Runaways saying, “All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. ( http://granta.com/Salman-Rushdie-on-Sunjeev-Sahota/) True. The only way to read this novel is to surrender to it. But has Sunjeev Sahota broken new ground as his literary idol, Rushdie did with his award-winning novel? The purpose of literary fiction is to make the reader unsettled rather than just hold a mirror up to the reality. As a tiny insight into the hardships economic migrants experience this novel is astounding. But it falls short of being thought-provoking and disturbing or breaking new ground in literary fiction. I doubt it.

Sunjeev Sahota’s gaze on India is an example of poverty porn in literature. He has got the migration patterns, the hostility at ground level in Bihar and Punjab and the nasty descriptions of the Ranvir Sena or the Maheshwar Sena as they are referred to in the novel accurately. ( I think the novel alludes to these massacres as described in this wonderful article by G. Sampath in the Hindu, published on 22 August 2015 http://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/sunday-anchor-g-sampaths-article-on-children-of-a-different-law/article7569719.ece ) Disappointingly Sunjev Sahota’s voice is clunky at times and comes across as well-researched but a trifle jagged in the Indian parts. The British bits are brilliant as if to the Manor born, which Sunjeev Sahota is! Much is explained by what he hopes to explore in this novel in an interview he gave Granta ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65mtLCbODCk : 23 April 2013) :

What does it mean being unmoored from your homeland and what does that do to a person and subsequent generations? What happens to that hold that is created? What fills it? Then where does one go from there? 

This is a strong and fresh voice. Sunjeev Sahota must be read even if this novel ends with a bit of a convenient ending. This is an author whose trajectory in contemporary literature will be worth mapping.

The Year of the Runaway is wholly deserving to be on the ManBooker longlist 2015 but I will be pleasantly surprised to see it on the shortlist.

Sunjeev Sahota The Year of the Runaways Picador India, Pan Macmillan India, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 480 Rs 599 

27 August 2015