Ramayana Posts

Nabaneeta Dev Sen on “Women retelling the Ramayana”

It is sad to hear of eminent litterateur and academician Nabaneeta Dev Sen‘s passing away. She had been suffering from cancer for a while. She is known an incredible body of work but one essay of her’s that gets discussed often is “When women retell the Ramayana”, published in Manushi. Prof. Sen had presented this paper at “The Sita Symposium”, Columbia University, New York. ( Download the pdf.)

8 Nov 2019

“Aranyaka: Book of the Forest” by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattanaik

Aranyaka is the first collaboration between mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik and writer-painter Amruta Patil. Amruta is also India’s first female graphic novelist. “Aranyaka” is a modern retelling of the Vedic concepts that are not always easy to communicate. The best medium to do so seemed to be using text and imagery for which the graphic novel is the ideal art form. More importantly it is the creative energy between the authors that has been the prime force in narrating this parable, a love story, a creation myth, yet weaving in the essential elements of learning which the over 3000-year-old Vedas emphasise. The beauty of any scripture is its ability to be retold in any age and in any form without losing its core idea. With “Aranyaka”, the two authors seem to have achieved this magnificently. It is impossible to tell who contributed to which part of the storytelling apart from the obvious ones of Amrut Patil’s artwork and Devdutt Pattanaik’s corporate speak — at times the latter makes its presence felt in the dialogue. Nevertheless there is a seamless unified quality to the story which gets straight to the point — of immersing the reader immediately and effectively into the story about the forest. It is not imperative to have read the original Vedas in order to appreciate this modern version. It reads smoothly. Not once does the collaboration seem clunky! This magical jodi of Devdutt Pattanaik and Amruta Patil is perhaps the ideal desi version of Neil Gaiman and late Terry Pratchett who are equally phenomenal in retelling the scriptures.

Read Aranyaka!

29 October 2019

An interview with Cordis Paldano

Cordis Paldano’s debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is a must read. Story apart, the pace, the rhythm, the storytelling – everything comes together stupendously. This is a new voice to look out for in the coming years.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

1.    What is it about storytelling that fascinates you?

CP: For me, a good story is one that draws the audience in… It removes them from the banality of their everyday lives and transports them to another world. It moves them, outrages them, delights them… and then when the story is over and behind you, you are a little bit wiser than before.

We may not always succeed but I think that is what storytellers aim for. Because we have all been in the audience and we have all had great stories told to us and because you want the play to go on, at some point you get up and start telling a story of your own, because you don’t want to break the spell and because you really think that this is the most valuable thing you can do with your life – tell a story well.

I think of storytelling as a vocation, a calling, so I tend not to put it on a pedestal. But what I really find fascinating about it is how pervasive, ubiquitous and absolute it is! Honestly, I don’t really know if there is anything is this world which is not a story! Who you are is a story, your country is a story, your religion is a story… (This is not to deny the validity or the truths contained within those stories…on the contrary!)

I love the story you’d written some time ago of your little girl coping with the death of her great-grandmother. If I remember correctly, she finally comes to terms with her absence by concluding that her badi nani has become a bright star in the sky. The story never fails to move me for a host of reasons, but it also illustrates two things beautifully. One, that stories are how we make sense of the world around us and two, when we’re dead and gone, that is all that will remain of us, we shall have become stories too, to those left behind.

2.    How does your work in theatre inform your novel writing? What kind of theatre do you specialise in? 

CP: I do not do theatre any more. But for ten years of my life (soon after passing out of school), theatre is nearly all that I did. I am very much a child of theatre and so yeah, it does inform my novel writing in a big way. I approach writing the way a good actor approaches theatre — give centre stage to the characters and then wait patiently for them to tell their stories through you.

I guess the kind of theatre we specialised in could be called ‘Physical Theatre’ though we ourselves never used such jargon. The actors told stories mainly through their bodies. Make-up, costumes, sets and dialogues were all secondary, the primary storytelling tool was the actor’s body. So naturally all the actors received frequent training in Kathakali, Kalaripayattu and Therukoothu. The theatre company that I used to be a part of – Indianostrum Théâtre, continues to stage plays in Pondicherry under the aegis of the brilliant Franco-Indian director Koumarane Valavane. When we started out, Indianostrum was nothing more than a rundown shed near the beach, and now, it has become an indelible part of the cultural landscape of Pondicherry!

3.    Would you venture into adult fiction as well?

CP: Oh yeah, for sure, in a decade or two… once I’ve written some good children’s books!

4.    What drew you to children’s literature?

CP: I love children and I understand them best. I know dozens of kids who are crazy about books whereas I hardly ever meet an adult who gets excited about novels. So as far as I’m concerned, I don’t understand why any author would bother to write for adults at all!

Jokes apart, because I grew up speaking many languages (like most Indians do), the choice to write in English was neither obvious nor easy. Children’s literature still allows you to get away with a less than adequate grasp of the language. Of course, the quality of language matters in children’s fiction, but I don’t think authors necessarily have to master the language. Another reason I write for children is because the narrative structure of children’s novels closely resembles the Aristotelian dramatic structure that I am more familiar with.

5.    Every storyteller has a soft corner for a particular kind of story. There is a vast gamut of stories to be told but what are the few you wish to play with and retell?

CP: I’m not really sure, I’m still discovering myself as a writer. When I started writing my first novel, all I originally had were the true stories of three women from three different countries – one was a child, another a young lady and the third an old woman – I was inspired by these three women and really wanted to share their stories with others! So I then went on to weave a larger narrative encompassing these three stories — the story of a girl seeking to save her mother and rescue her goat, and this little girl draws strength from these three stories in her moments of crisis. And by the way, the central characters of my second and third novels (still in progress) are also strong-willed girls, so I think maybe that’s a story that I’d like to tell. Stories with strong female protagonists. Another theme that has emerged consistently in all three of the novels (much to my surprise) is collective violence. At some pivotal point in each of the three works, a mob goes berserk and threatens the safety of the main characters. So ‘collective violence’ also is a theme that I’m perhaps interested in or I don’t know… maybe that theme is just a reflection of the times we live in!

6.    Does the medium of communication impact the story being told? Do you make minor changes to your styles of narration depending on the medium?

CP: Oh yes, each medium is like a language of its own. So a story told on the stage would be very different from a story written on paper. Usually, the story grows organically from the medium and I’ve so far never had to translate a story from one medium to another. But if I had to, I guess major changes would be required – you’d have to rethink the story in the new language.

7.    Would you ever explore film to tell stories and I do not necessarily mean a mere recording of your story performances?

CP: What a delightful idea! I’d love to explore film but before that I’d like to gain some mastery over the craft of writing that I’ve just ventured into… By all appearances, it seems like it will take anyone a few lifetimes before they can achieve some level of mastery in this craft!

8.    How do you work on the voices of the characters? Do they play out as you write them out or do you see them first as dramatized versions before writing them? 

CP: Hmm…character voices… I don’t think I’m particularly good at it and it’s an area that I’d like to work on but I don’t really know how, because yes, I see the characters and the story as a dramatized version before writing them. Plot, setting, characters and their voices, all come in a large ‘take it or leave it’ bundle and I don’t know yet how to delicately unwrap the bundle, perform a surgical strike and then seal it up again. Maybe I’ll learn or better still – I won’t have to learn, it’ll all get better on its own as time goes on!

9.    The pace and timing of your debut novel for children The Dwarf, The Girl and the Holy Goat is superb. Did you test parts of it on younger readers before publishing? 


CP: Thank you! Your words mean a lot to me… No, it wasn’t tested on younger readers before publishing.

10. What next? 

CP: I’m very familiar with the Mahabharata but not so much the story of Ram. And so I decided to go through Valmiki’s Ramayana and as I was reading it, I got the idea for my second novel – the story of a little girl who absolutely wants to play the role of Ram in her school’s Ram Leela. Her story is interspersed with tales from the Ramayana, of the adventures of Hanuman and others.

1 June 2019

Book 21: 25 November – 1 December 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 21 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

3 December 2018

An Interview with Award-Winning Indonesian Author Eka Kurniawan

( My interview with award winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan was published on literary website Bookwitty on 6 February 2017.  In India the books have been published by Speaking Tiger Books.) 

Award-winning Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whose writing, often compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is an exceptional blend of myth-making, supernatural, fantastical, historical facts and horrendous amounts of violence. Told with such a flourish, his storytelling is unforgettable. Kurniawan was born in Tasikmalaya, Indonesia, in 1975 and has a degree in Philosophy. He writes novels, short stories, as well as non-fiction pieces. Beauty is a Wound and Man Tiger are two novels set in unnamed places with all the characteristics of Indonesia. His third novel to be published in English,Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, will be available in July 2017. Eka Kurniawan kindly agreed to an interview for Bookwitty:

How and why did you get into writing fiction? What is your writing routine?

First of all, it was just for fun. I read some stories when I was a teenager, and I tried to write my own versions. I shared my stories with some of my friends. When I studied philosophy in University, sometimes I got bored with my study and skipped my class to go to library and read a lot of classic novels. And then I found a book by Knut Hamsun, Hunger. After I read it, I felt like I wanted to be a writer. So I started to write stories, seriously. My writing routine? I don’t write everyday. I always think that I am more a reader rather then a writer. I read anything every day, and only write something when I want to.

Who are the writers who have influenced you?

Like I already mentioned, Knut Hamsun. I love his deadpan humor and how he discovered his characters. And then there are three great Indonesian novelists: Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Abdullah Harahap and Asmaraman S. Kho Ping Hoo. The last two are a kind of genre writers. They wrote horror and martial art novels. I can make a very long list of writers that I believe have influenced me, but let me add these three writers: Miguel de Cervantes, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Your storytelling is told with such a flourish that at times it is very visual or creates a strong physical reaction much like a response to watching a theatrical performance. While writing, how conscious are you of the reader’s response?

I am very conscious about the reader, but that reader is me. When I write something, at the same time, I always place myself there as a reader too.

“Magic realism” and “historical fiction” are how your books are described but how exactly would you like your special brand of storytelling to be known as?

I never think about it. People can give me any kind of label they please. But let’s be honest: in my novels, there are not only historical or magical elements, but you can find romance, saga, fighting, horror, adventure, even political and social criticism. I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

I prefer to see myself as an adventurer, with all the literary traditions as my map.

Your stories seem to rely heavily on the oral storytelling narrative form as the structural basis allowing you the flexibility to expand and repeat details and incorporate supernatural elements…

It is something inevitable. I grew up listening to a village storyteller when I was still a kid. And then there was also drama on the radio, told by one particular storyteller. I was very fascinated by all of these stories, especially because I had only read a small number of books at that time. The stories were usually about village legends, full of monsters, jinn, beautiful ladies and brave men. Many of these stories I actually retold in my novels, including the princess who married a dog.

There are so many brutal aspects of sexual violence which you explore in your stories. Why?

First, when you take a look into Indonesian history (maybe even world history), you can’t help but find yourself faced with this kind of violence. It can be sexual, physical, mental or political violence. Second, I wrote my first novel just two years after the fall of Suharto’s dictatorship. It was time for us to be bolder in writing, to open all these scars in our history and face them. Third, I used to write stories in a “matter of fact” manner, I don’t want to hide things.

You write with the sensitivity and understanding of a woman, often sharing her point of view, making the stories seem more feminist than what some women themselves pen and yet the plots move with a predominantly male gaze. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

It was a conscious decision. Actually, my first two novels were inspired by some women, and they are really at the center of my novels. I tried to place myself from their point of view. It is always something important for me as a writer to be there, to know how they feel, how they see the world around them, and how they react to something.

 

The strong women characters  in Man Tiger and Beauty is a Wound make choices which they follow through only to be labelled by society as insane. Why and how did you choose to create these women?

I think they just appeared like that in front of me. These two characters are very different from each other. They are strong, die-hard, but have different reactions. I never write stories with a plan. I usually just have a small idea, and develop it gradually. The characters come out one by one. I rewrite it several times, and the characters, including these two women, become more complex and have their own personality in the end.

Dewi Ayu (in Beauty is a Wound)  remarks “The best stories are in religious texts”. Your stories seem to imbibe a lot of storytelling elements from the Hindu epics, the Bible and the Quran. How have these stories influenced you? What are the challenges posed in transference of popular tales when trying to recreate or apply them in secular literature?

My grandmother used to tell me stories from the Quran, and my father taught me to read it. So I am very familiar with these stories, as well as stories from the Bible (I read it later) as they are close. I discovered Hindu epics from wayang (puppet) performances, that usually used Mahabharata or Ramayana epics. The challenges occur with the fact that these stories are very popular. Many writers and storytellers retold them. I just picked the basic ideas and retold them in my own stories that have nothing to do with religious aspects, but with a parallel allusion to them.

Are the English translations true to the original Bhasa texts? How closely did you work with the translators – Annie Tucker and Labodalih Sembiring? Also why did you choose separate translators for the books – it is a slightly unusual practice given how authors and translators tend to forge a long term relationship. 

It’s almost true. I worked very closely with the translators and we tried our best to render the original into English. Of course we faced some problems with grammatical and word nuances, as Indonesian and English are very different, and we discussed this a lot. Those two books were acquired by two different publishers. Verso and I approached Labodalih to translate Man Tiger after we tried some translators, and around the same time Annie Tucker proposed to translate Beauty Is a Wound, later acquired by New Directions. So, that’s why I have two translators.

Given the time lag between your novels being first published and then made available in English do you think having Indonesia as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 helped in discovering contemporary Indonesian writers and making them available to the English-speaking world?

To be honest, before the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015, I knew nothing about that. My books were published in English translation the same year, but we prepared them three years before, in 2012. But of course, as guest of honor at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, this gave us an opportunity to be discovered, including my books. Publishers started to wonder about Indonesian literature…

Who are the Indonesian writers – based in the country or of the diaspora – that you would recommend for international readers?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, of course, and Seno Gumira Adjidarma.

7 February 2017 

Devdutt Pattanaik’s “The Girl Who Chose”

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Incredible dedication in the book

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Popular mythologist and storyteller Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Girl Who Chose is about the five choices Sita makes in the Ramayana. These choices have consequences. The beauty of Devdutt Pattanaik being so familiar with the Hindu img_20161007_223036epics is that he is able to play with the material which exists making apparent that has always been in the stories but largely ignored. This book is about one such aspect — the choices a woman can make and has the right to do so. In this case it is Sita no less who is otherwise in an overtly patriarchal interpretation of the epic is made out to be demure and obedient wife. Whereas Devdutt Pattanaik with his vast knowledge of the various versions of the Ramayana and the local interpretations is able to create an image of a strong and independent woman who knows how to negotiate and exist. In fact she is considered to have taught her twin sons — Luv and Kush — the art of warfare.

This slim text has been illustrated in the characteristic style by Devdutt Pattanaik. This is a must have text and should be circulated widely to counter many of the wrong and inevitably patriarchal interpretations of the epic. It would be interesting to see if even a small fraction of the strong Sita that comes through the evidence collated by the mythologist will ever makes its presence felt in the interpretation of Sita enacted in the Ramlila during navratri.

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Devdutt Pattanaik The Girl Who Chose:  A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana Puffin Books, Delhi, India. Pb.pp. 112 Rs 199 

 

7 Oct 2016 

 

 

 

 

Volga “The Liberation of Sita”

‘Till you take decisions for Rama’s sake and not yours, it will continue to pursue you, Sita. Look at yourself. You are enduring great pain. You think you are enduring for the sake of someone else. You think that you have performed your duty for the sake of someone else. Your courage, your self-confidence …you have surrendered everything to others. What have you saved for yourself?’

‘What is “I”, sister? Who am I?’

Ahalya smiled. 

‘The greatest of sages and philosophers have spent their lifetimes in search of an answer to this question. You means you, nothing else. You are not just the wife of Rama. There is something more in you, something that is your own. No one counsels women to find out what that something more is. If men’s pride is in wealth, or valour, or education, or caste-sect, for women it lies in fidelity, motherhood. No one advises women to transcend that pride. Most often, women don’t realize that they are part of the wider world. They limit themselves to an individual, to a household, to a family’s honour. Conquering the ego becomes the goal of spirituality for men. For women, to nourish that ego and to burn themselves to ashes in it becomes the goal. Sita, try to understand who you are, what the goal of your life is. It is not easy at all. But don’t give up. You will discover truth in the end. You have that ability. You haev saved Sri Ramachandra, can’t you save yourself? Don’t grieve over what has already happened. It is all for your own good, and is part of the process of self-realization. Be happy. Observe their lives. You belong to this whole world, not just to Rama.’ 

( Ahalya in conversation with Sita. p 40-41)

Volga’s Vimukta or The Liberation of Sita is a slim collection of five stories. It has been translated from Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijaysree. ‘Volga’ is the nom de plume for Popuri Lalitha Kumari.  These are five interlinked yet independent stories inspired by Valmiki’s Ramayana. In each of them Sita meets the minor characters of Valmiki’s epic — Surpanakha, Renuka, Urmila and Ahalya. With each interaction Sita learns a little more about herself and more importantly about what it means to be a woman, have her own identity rather than it being defined by the presence of a man in her life. As the translators say in their note: “The title story signals Sita’s emergence as the liberated one while the final story, ‘The Shackled’, shows Rama imprisoned in the bondage of Arya Dharma.” According to them Volga’s stories belong to a literary tradition of feminist revisionist myth-making but she takes it further and makes it her own.

Volga does not use re-visioning merely as a strategy to subvert patriarchal structures embedded in mythical texts but also as a means to forge a vision of life in which liberation is total, autonomous and complete. She also creates a community of women by re-presenting myths from alternative points of view, and by networking women across ages and generations. She achieves this through different narrative strategies: giving voice to women characters marginalized in the ‘master narrative’, extending the story of a character beyond its conventional closure; forging female bonds and creating a female collective; and redefining many conventional epistemes including liberation.

In fact reinvention of myths has figured prominently in Indian women’s writing. For instance, Mahashweta Devi’s ‘Dopdi’ and ‘Stanadayani’ ( Bangla), Yashodhara Mishra’s ‘Purana Katha’ ( Odiya), Muppala Ranganayakamma’s Ramayana Visha Vrikham ( Telugu), Sara Joseph’s Ramayana Kathakal ( Malayalam) and Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s magnificent Palace of Illusions. Now Volga’s brilliant 2015 Sahitya Akademi award-winning The Liberation of Sita can be added to the list.

Volga was an active member of the Communist Party of India ( ML) but quit it in 1980, frustrated by the party’s pink ladypatriarchal attitude towards women, she quit left politics and devoted herself to propagate feminism among Telugu readers through her activism and writing. Her favourite genre of writing are the short story and criticism. She has written over fifty books. For many years Volga was at the helm of the brilliant women’s organisation Asmita which is based in Hyderabad. Asmita were in fact responsible for creating the iconic “pink poster” which I fell in love with while curating Zubaan’s “Poster Women” — a visual mapping of the women’s movement in India.

It is commendable that HarperCollins India chose to print the name of the translators on the book cover rather than on the back cover or only inside. Translators names need to be displayed prominently too. A practice that has as yet not been widely adopted by publishers.

The Liberation of Sita is truly Volga at her feminist best. (For once I have to agree with the book blurb! )

Volga The Liberation of Sita ( Translated from the Telugu by T. Vijay Kumar and C. Vijayasree)  Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Noida, India. Pb. pp. 130 Rs. 199 

31 August 2016 

 

An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture and Society

20150526_131129At a time when a law is expected to punish the polluters of river Ganga, an anthology of writings about the river is timely. An Anthology of Writings on the Ganga edited by Australians, Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson is a collection of extracts from the epics — Mahabharata and the Ramayana; poetry and the Will and Testament of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru; extracts giving a historical perspective such as by Jean Baptiste Tavernier, Iranian traveller Ahmad Behbahani to contemporary travel writers like Eric Newby, Raghubir Singh, Vijay Singh. The editors have even managed to make an eclectic selection giving a bird’s-eye view of how the river has caught the imagination of Indian fiction writers such as Manik Bandopadhyaya, Raja Rao, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and interestingly enough translation of a scene from a Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood film – Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The collection concludes with a handful of specially commissioned academic essays on the Ganga on topics as varied as culture, religion, Hinduism and the river economy.

The Central Government of India has established the National Water Mission for the “conservation of water, minimizing wastage and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated water resources development and management”. ( http://wrmin.nic.in/forms/list.aspx?lid=267) Apart from this there are two projects for river Ganga — Namami Gange project and National Mission for Clean Ganga.  According to a newspaper article published on 19 May 2015 (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/draft-law-to-curb-ganga-pollution-in-final-stages/article7219922.ece ) “the Rs. 20,000 crore Namami Gange project is spread over five years and covers 41 tributaries of Ganga. The National Mission for Clean Ganga that has been assigned the task of cleaning the river, is focussed on abatement of pollution and has designed its interventions around this. However, it is seeking partnerships and is tailoring its projects so that state governments, local municipalities and panchayats have a stake and take ownership of the projects for sustainability. To speed up the process of cleaning the river, the Mission has sought the participation of institutions, donors, overseas Indians, business and corporate houses to donate their might and money for projects or sponsoring projects to clean up the river . Already pilot projects have been launched in eight cities. The challenge is to set up a drainage system in thickly populated cities. The urgent need is to bring down lean season BOD levels in the river to 10 mg/litre/day, the Total Suspended Solid levels to 10 mg/litre/day and Total Faecal Coliform to 100 mg/litre/day. These levels run into over lakhs at present.

The Indo-Gangetic plain created by many years of sedimentation is the most fertile agricultural land in the subcontinent. The flat plains Gangastretch for miles till the horizon and are mostly covered in fields. So apart from the cultural and religious associations with the river the economic considerations are equally important for its preservation since India continues to be heavily dependent upon an agrarian economy — it is estimated to contribute at least fifty percent to the national economy. Given this scenario, it is handy to have an intelligently devised anthology tracing the history, cultural significance and contemporary views plus challenges on the maintenance of this river crucial to the socio-economic and cultural capital of India. The only quibble I have with this anthology is that when we have plenty of photographs of the river, including some iconic ones taken by Raghubir Singh, why was the book cover design inspired by Australian aboriginal art work?

Even so, read it.

Assa Doron, Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson An anthology of writings on the Ganga: Goddess and River in History, Culture, and Society Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015. Hb. pp. 380 Rs 895

 

Books in Indian advertisements

Breaking-the-Bow-finalTwo advertisements that have been shown on television recently have shown the women models reading two splendid books.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YBUMkQDadg

This is an advertisement for a property portal, 99acres.com and it shows the model reading Breaking the Bow. It is a fabulous anthology of short stories edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh. This is speculative fiction inspired by the Ramayana, published by Zubaan. ( http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/ )

The TITAN Raga watch ad has been garnering a number of rave reviews for its representation of a modernAleksander Hemon Indian woman. But I like it too for the impeccable good taste the woman shows in the book she is reading — Aleksander Hemon’s The Book of My Lives, published by Picador. It is a collection of essays he has previously published and updated. These are accounts of his life in Bosnia, before and during the war, leaving for USA for a scholarship and unable to return, his new life in Chicago and the heart wrenching essay about his nine-month-old falling ill.

The first time I saw these advertisements I was delighted. For once the women models were shown reading…and reading books– two books that I liked very much!

1 Jan 2014