Essential reading. Eric Hobsbawm On Nationalism, edited by Donald Sassoon, published by Hachette India . It is a collection of the eminent Marxist historian’s articles, public lectures and book reviews. Well worth reading given the surreal times we live in. Read it along with the fascinating London Review of Books documentary, “Eric Hobsbawm: The Consolations of History”.
In this documentary, Anthony Wilks traces the connections between the events of Eric Hobsbawm’s life and the history he told, from his teenage years in Germany and his communist membership, to the jazz clubs of 1950s Soho and the makings of New Labour, taking in Italian bandits, Peruvian peasant movements and the development of nationalism in the modern world, with help from the assiduous observations of MI5.
The film features contributions from Frances Stonor Saunders, Richard J. Evans, John Foot, Stefan Collini, Marlene Hobsbawm and Donald Sassoon, as well as Hobsbawm himself in extensive archive footage.
Merlin Sheldrake, as per his website ( merlinsheldrake.com), is a biologist and a writer with a background in plant sciences, microbiology, ecology, and the history and philosophy of science. He received a Ph.D. in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, where he was a predoctoral research fellow of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Merlin’s research ranges from fungal biology, to the history of Amazonian ethnobotany, to the relationship between sound and form in resonant systems. A keen brewer and fermenter, he is fascinated by the relationships that arise between humans and more-than-human organisms. He is a musician and performs on the piano and accordion. Entangled Life is his first book.
Entangled Life is truly explosive in the manner Sheldrake upends so many longheld beliefs about evolution particularly anthropometric definitions that inevitably position humans always at the top of the intelligence rankings. He busts so many myths about about the importance of microorganisms. Shedding light on the theory of symbiotic relationships between algae and fungi is well enough but to go a step further and say that mitochondria and chlorophyll within a plant cell are the result of an astonishing symbiosis where the bacteria was engulfed the fungi and evolved to the stage is mind blowing. His chapters on truffles and lichens, that he refers to as ‘living riddles’, can be long length documentaries by themselves. The other chapters have much to offer as well in terms of the crucial role fungi can perform in environment preservation such as mycoremediation or cleaning up contaminated ecosystems. Mycofabrication, creating materials by re-composing the types of material such as mycelium foam that is used for packing as is being done by DELL for carting its servers. Mycelium leather can be used for furniture or as designer Stella McCartney is exploring– to create clothes. Researchers at NASA are interested in the potential of mycotecture and the possibility of growing structures on the Moon. These materials have proven to be lightweight, water-resistant and fire-retardant. Also stronger than concrete when subjected to bending forces, and resist compression better than wood framing. They also have a better insulation value than expanded polystyrene, and can be grown in a matter of days into an unlimited number of forms. Another fascinating discipline is bio-computing where slime mould networks are used to solve a range of geometrical problems. There is so much more about fungi Sheldrake shares that is illuminating, most significantly that living organisms have survived billions of years but are an intrinsic part of evolution. He explains this in detail.
Merlin Sheldrake’s extraordinary energy, vivacity and passion for his discipline sparkles through every page of this book. More importantly, his infectious enthusiasm to share his knowledge with the lay reader. It exudes through every word he writes. He is one flamboyant scientist to watch out for in the near future.
His exposition on microbes, the extent to which fungi have spread on earth, his worrying analysis of the impact human intervention has had on the social interrelationships of these microorganisms have to be taken cognizance of. They are alarmingly prescient given the times we live in. He brings in astrobiology, biogeochemistry, climate change, farmers rights and the impact of pharmaceutical corporates upon the farmer and his agrarian knowledge etc. Astonishing breadth of disciplines Sheldrake covers by sharing his passion for fungus. And you know what, it all rings true. There is so much logic in what he shares that at no point it feels that it is a scientist jumping all over the place in excitement. It is worth listening to. Entangled Life borders on the technical but when a specialist’s exuberance is so infectious, it spills over easily to grip the lay reader with similar enthusiasm. So much to learn! I love it.
Merlin Sheldrake is certainly a scientist worth watching out for. He is to biology what William Dalrymple is to history. Hugely informative but both scholars wear their knowledge lightly, making it accessible to a vast circle of readers/fans.
On 24/25 August 2019, Sandeep Raina’s “Where No Daffodils Grow” was published in the Hindu Literary Supplement. Here is the link. Given the space restrictions in print, the article had to be edited. Reproduced below with the kind permission of the author is the unedited version.
Sandeep Raina was born and brought up in Baramulla, Kashmir. He studied engineering in Srinagar, and when in 1990 militancy gripped the Kashmir valley, he finished his education and left for Delhi. He lived in Delhi for 10 years and then in Istanbul for 3 years before moving to Surrey, England where he has been living for the past 15+ years with his wife and 3 children. Sandeep’s wife is a doctor in Surrey, their daughter studies medicine at the University of London, and their twin sons are studying engineering at the Cambridge University.
Sandeep has worked as a senior engineering executive in mobile telecoms for the past 28 years and travels globally for his work. As a mobile telecoms evangelist, he has been invited to speak at many conferences across Europe and the USA, and has published numerous professional articles. Currently, he works for a French-American telecommunications software company in London.
Sandeep has written a novel based on Kashmir, which took him over 11 years to write. The reason to write a novel was that it worked as a slow cathartic process to counter the traumatic and violent experiences of the early-90s Kashmir, and the harsh life of being a migrant/refugee in Delhi. As part of his life and travels outside Kashmir, he has acquired different perspectives of the Kashmir conflict. Through his writing about the Kashmiri people, of all communities, caught in the long-drawn, brutal conflict, he aims to present a better understanding of their predicament.
Sandeep has also published short stories about Kashmir, which reflect the exchanges with people caught in conflicts like Kashmir. They not only highlight the broken relationships, the loss of trust, the rising communal politics of Kashmir and India, but also offer introspection and a hope for the communities that have been disadvantaged because of the strife.
His stories have been published in several magazines and papers, including, The Hindu, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times of India/The Economic Times.
Men in tall black hats and flowing black
robes strode briskly down an empty street. Some of them had long side burns and
some had long beards. It was a summer
afternoon, hot, and they were quite overdressed. I was visiting a friend in
Golders Green in London and asked him what was going on, who were those people,
why the costumes?
“Nothing, they are our Jewish neighbours back
from a synagogue,” said the Kashmiri Pandit friend. “Many Jews live here since
Why were they dressed in such a pronounced
manner? I wondered. Here was I, trying my best to assimilate, just landed in
London. It didn’t make sense.
We had lunch at our friend’s home, typical
Pandit cuisine, mostly lamb dishes: rogan
josh, yakhni and matsch. I had
met him and his wife after many years. We chatted for long on the table,
reminiscing. The flat was sparsely furnished but had a few Kashmiri rugs. I noticed
a small ornate candle stand in the window and asked what it was.
“It is a menorah,” said my friend’s wife. “To light candles in the Jewish
festival of lights, Hanukkah.”
Until then I had thought Diwali was the
only festival of lights.
in this apartment building is a Jew, most of them old,” said my friend. “And
they are very nice people.”
The next day, I told Mike, my colleague in
office, about the Jews in costume. Mike was a small young man, who once had
said that being Jewish, Catholic and French was the worst one could be in
England, and he was all of them. One of his parents was French and Catholic,
the other English and Jewish.
“There are other interesting things that we
do, such as not doing anything on Sabbath,” he laughed. “Not even switching on a
“Why?” I said.
He didn’t want to explain or didn’t know.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In
Kashmir, on days of fasts, women in our Kashmiri Pandit family cooked strict vegetarian
meals, cleaning and praying, and not doing much else. And the fasts followed
the moon’s wax and wane. Punim, aetham, mavas. On full moon, mid
moon, and no moon. There seemed to be much in common with the Jews.
are also really good with money,” laughed Mike.
My grandfather’s father had been a zamindar,
a landowner, in Kashmir. My mother said that he was so rich that he didn’t
count coins, he weighed them out of hand balances. But, my grandfather was not
rich, nor us. My mental comparisons with the Jews ended at this thought.
Years went by. In which my grandfather
died. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, but his memories kept on coming back
to me in many different ways. By now we had moved into a new house, and I worked
for a different company, in a different town in England, where I became
friendly with an older Iranian colleague, Paymon.
It was the Persian new year, on spring
equinox, when the day equals night, and the opposites balance out, when I told
Paymon about Navreh, the Kashmiri Pandit new year. How on the eve, we filled a thaal, a deep plate with rice, milk, yogurt,
a pen, a coin, some lentils, a daffodil. Bits that made life.
“We do something similar on Navroz, and we
call it haft seen,” he said, surprised.
I felt a sudden connection build. We discussed
Navroz and Navreh in snatches between meetings, across our office desks, on the
coffee machine. Iran is so far from Kashmir, but it suddenly felt close. I told
Paymon about the chinars, the papier-mâché, and the floral woollen carpets that had travelled from Iran, and
the origins of rogan josh. Things began to tumble out. I even snatched a paper
napkin and wrote my name in Nastaliq, the script that had travelled from Iran to Kashmir.
“I didn’t know this,” he laughed.
I didn’t know either, when growing up in
Kashmir. If it’s a part of you, you don’t think much of it. I remembered my grandfather.
I remembered his bold loud voice, his very sociable manner, his rambling
conversations, his strong physical presence, his eloquent Farsi.
Grandfather used to recite Farsi couplets
when he was in a good mood, when he had an audience, which could be my reluctant
father or a hapless neighbour who had chanced to step by. Grandfather rolled
off the Farsi couplets with the same verve as chanting mantras in Sanskrit,
when he did his puja every morning, with
lots of flower petals and incense sticks, in front of an array of gods. I was
small, the Farsi and the Sanskrit both sounded magical to me, inspiring awe.
I told Paymon all this in the office
canteen, and he listened to me with an older man’s patience.
My euphoria was unabated. For a Foodie
Friday in the office, I woke up early and cooked rogan josh in the morning over
low flame for three hours. My wife
wasn’t happy that I hadn’t let her cook. I packed the rogan josh carefully in a
large plastic box, with a sticker on top and wrote- Kashmiri Rogan Josh in my wobbly Nastaliq, and sped to office, just
in time for lunch. My colleagues had already begun eating, and there were foods
of all kinds on the large canteen table. Italian, Greek, English, Brazilian,
Welsh, Indian, Iranian. The rogan josh was late. Then Paymon saw me.
“So, you can read and write Farsi?” said Paymon,
looking at the sticker, asking me to put some rogan josh on his plate.
“I can’t,” I said. I couldn’t even read and
Rogan josh disappeared fast, everyone ate
it. It was declared the best cooked food on that Friday. I brimmed with pride.
When I left that job, on my last day, Paymon
wrote four lines in Farsi on my farewell card. Under those he wrote in English:
Thank you for enlightening me about
Persian Kashmir. It has been great talking with you. It is sad to see you go
but I wish you all the best.”
I think Paymon said something about those
Farsi words in the card, but in my farewell hurry, I didn’t hear too well.
The card remained unread for years. Later,
I wished I had learnt some Farsi, some Nastaliq from my grandfather. I
wonder why I didn’t. My question took me back to a faint conversation from my
childhood. I was reading out two Kashmiri words written in Nastaliq on a
ten rupee note. In those days, currency notes in India had the value written in
15 official languages, each in its own script.
ropiye,” I read out, trying to decipher the curls,
whirls, and dots.
“It’s not dah ropiye, its duh ropiye,”
said my mother.
“What’s the difference?”
“Muslims say dah, but Pandits say duh,
because dah in Sanskrit means cremation. And
Muslims bury their dead.”
My mother also told me that the ancient script
for Kashmiri was Sharada, now dead, and nobody knew what it had looked like.
Pandits and Muslims had other differences
too. I was aware of some. My pheran, the
long woollen garment that I wore in winters, had an extra fold, ladh, near its hem, while Bitta, my Muslim
friend’s pheran fell straight. My grandfather wore a pajama, not a shalwar. My
great grandmother’s pheran was ankle-length, with long sleeves, while old Muslim
women wore knee length pherans, and shorter sleeves.
Many differences, all small. Until someone
powerful outside Kashmir, heard about the tiny twists of tongue, the lengths
and folds of pherans. And questioned if Kashmiri had more Farsi or more Sanskrit?
Whether its script was Nastaliq or Sharada? When the powerful became more powerful with this
knowledge, a powerless man in a tempo bus, after a squabble over a seat, called
my grandfather a kafir, godless. Hurled
the word like a weapon. I was with my grandfather in that bus. I had seen him
pray to God every morning, in fact, many gods. My proud grandfather’s face was livid,
his complaint to the bus driver a mere mumble. I remember my own inertness, the
tremble in my fingers.
Not much later, a powerless young boy, just
out of teens, gunned down my grandfather’s nephew and niece, my mother’s
cousins, with their partners, inside their home. We fled Kashmir.
It’s been 29 springs since that happened. This
year, in London, I forgot to fill up the Navreh thaal. Or look up the new panchang, the Hindu calendar book, which
my mother posts from India every spring. On Navreh eve, when I was small in
Kashmir, I would run out to pluck a handful of nargis, white daffodils, that grew in our garden. They had the
sweetest of scents, but I wasn’t allowed to sniff; they were meant for God. And
on Navreh morning, when the April air pinched my winter-chapped cheeks, I would
wear a new kurta-pajama. Forgetting the thaal has brought sweet nostalgia and tremendous
Pictures of Navreh thaals flooded Facebook,
on cue. Rice, milk, yogurt, coin, pen. No daffodils. Where most Kashmiri Pandits
now live, daffodils don’t grow. A panchang said the year is 5094 by the Saptrishi
calendar, 2075 by the Vikrami calendar.
“29 by the Pandit exile calendar,” a friend
messaged. My heart stopped for a long moment.
On the cover of a panchang, I saw a script
that I had never seen before. Sharada. It had fonts like thick brush strokes or
like engravings on stone. Blurry, awoken from a deep sleep.
I had read a book long ago about the
revival of Hebrew after the Jews had fled from European towns. How Hebrew was
invoked to string the scattered Jews. How they would all go home, with a common
language and a new script to a land they could call their own. In a desert.
I think of Thar or Kharan, when I think of
deserts. One on the India-Pakistan border and the other on the Pakistan-Iran
border. I grew up with snow and mountains, I grew up with lush fields, streams
and lakes. What would I do in a desert? What if someone powerful traced my
roots to the Aryan Iranians? And sent me to Kharan in Balochistan. Would I go?
Would my children go? Would my children’s children go?
I am sure the Jews had said this too.
I thought about Iran. I remembered my
conversations about Navroz and Navreh with Paymon. I hunted for the farewell card
from my last job and found it in a stack of birthday cards that our children
had given me over the years. Among dozens of messages written in English was
the quatrain written by Paymon in Farsi, in flowing Nastaliq. Asking to be
I messaged a photo of the lines to Paymon,
asking him if he could translate it for me. Paymon did not reply, I don’t know
why. I had thought Paymon would be a friend for life. Friendship’s a promise. I
thought of who else could help me: Grandfather. But he was not around anymore to
fill me with the awe and magic of his Farsi. Not hearing back from Paymon, not able
to read his message brought a deep sense of loss. Like a forgotten Navreh. Like
a broken promise.
I asked an English friend to help me. He
sent a photo of the Farsi message, all the way to Tehran to his sister-in-law.
A week later, I received the transliteration and the translation in my inbox.
Grandfather appeared before me. And read out in a bold, loud voice:
keh beh nazd e oo gol o khar yekist
maz hab e oo mos haf o zonnar yekist
gham e on yar che bayad khordan
ra khar e lang o asb e rahvar yekist
“A friend who sees no difference between a flower
and a thorn,
In whose religion, the Quran and Zonnar are
Why should we worry about him?
As for him, a lame donkey and a swift horse
are the same.”
Zonnar used to be a girdle which Jews wore to
distinguish them from Muslims, long back in time.
Paymon had not forgotten, he had kept his
promise, he had written me a message to remember for life. Like a true friend,
he knew me more than I knew myself.
A few days later, I pulled out a pheran from
my clothes cupboard, which my wife had bought from a Kashmiri trader many years
ago. It is dull brown and woollen, a bit scratchy at the neck, and it does not have
a Pandit fold near the hem. I had never worn it.
That summer day, I wore it. It warmed me up.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and the image of the Golders Green Jews
walking briskly down a street flashed in front of my eyes. Now I knew why they were
dressed like that.
What they were holding on to.
Next spring, I won’t forget Navreh. I will fill
up a thaal with rice, pluck a yellow daffodil from our English garden, place a
pound coin, a pen and an idol of a god in the thaal. Some milk and yogurt too. And
pray. That I’m not sent to a desert.
( My interview with Emma Donoghue was published in the Hindu Literary Review online edition yesterday. 7 June 2014. An edited version has been published in today’s print edition. 8 June 2014. Here is the original url: http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-spirit-of-fiction/article6092640.ece I am c&p the entire text below. )
Special ArrangementAuthor Emma Donoghue.
Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue is an award-winning writer of fiction, drama and literary history. She did a PhD in eighteenth-century literature at Cambridge University. Her books include fiction both historical ( Frog Music, Astray, The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, Slammerkin, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) and contemporary ( Stir-fry, Hood, Touchy Subjects, Landing, and the international bestseller Room). These days she lives in London, Ontario, Canada with her partner and two children. She is currently working on the screenplay of Room ( which will be filmed in this autumn) and her first children’s book. For more information, please go to www.emmadonoghue.com . Excerpts from an interview:
Why do you like writing historical fiction?
Let me reverse that question: why do so many writers limit themselves to the historical era they were born in, when they probably wouldn’t dream of restricting their fiction to the place in the world where they live?
How long do you spend on research before you begin writing?
Hard to quantify, because I get ideas for moments, scenes, or even entire subplots of the novel while I’m in the middle of doing the research, so by the time I start actually drafting, I have already done much of the imaginative work of writing. Then I go back and do more research during the writing process as questions arise. So I don’t know how much time I’ve spent on each, but I would say that my historical novels probably take a bit more time to write than my contemporary ones.
How did you discover the subject of Frog Music?
In somebody else’s book: I found a page on the 1876 murder of Jenny Bonnet in Autumn Stephens’Wild Women, a marvellous compendium of American female rule-breakers of the nineteenth century.
When do you stop the research and begin writing the story?
For me there’s no hard line between the research and the story-making, because I approach the research in a spirit of fiction, meaning that at every point I’m looking for the unusual, the eye-catching, the strange and the atmospheric, rather than as a historian might, trying to generalise about the times.
How long does it take you to write the first draft of a novel?
Hard to say, because my projects overlap, to keep my working life varied. I got the idea for Frog Music about 15 years ago, but I’d guess that I spent about three solid years on it. If its historical fiction, I do spend time on checking facts once the story is completed. I keep checking things even while I’m proofreading.
Do you have a fondness for nineteenth century events? All though Astray had short stories set earlier.
Yes, my range (if you include my first collection of fact-inspired fictions, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits) has been from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. But it is true that the nineteenth century is an appealing one for me because it’s close enough to be highly relevant to our own society, but far enough back to be exotic.
Jenny Bonnet, the cross-dresser, is unusual in nineteenth century San Francisco, but she resonates with readers of the twenty-first century for the kind of debates about sexuality in society. The topic certainly will with Indian readers, especially after the recent Supreme Court judgement. Was it a conscious decision to set this story as a response to contemporary events?
No, I don’t write historical fiction as a commentary on today (because that would be a perversely indirect way to comment on modern events!) but I find that it always does shed an interesting light on the now, especially because so many things that matter to us today (women’s rights, say, or anti-racism, or democracy) have their origins in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
The details about the baby farms/orphanages are horrifying. Did it require a lot of research?
Yes; I had to work for a long time to find out what it cost to farm out your baby, how bad these places were compared with the other available childcare options, etc. The key detail was when I found one farm that had a separate room for the babies who were ‘paid up’, meaning handed over with a lump sum, and a silent expectation that they would not survive. For the details of how it might stunt a child to live in such an institution, I looked at modern evidence about, say, children in Romanian orphanages. The great historical fiction writer Mary Renault once said that history is horizontal rather than vertical, meaning that almost everything that happened in the past can be found happening somewhere in the world today.
Blanche Beunon’s character, being a whore and on the margins of society, has greater social mobility than most people. Yet it is her aspect as a mother that comes out very well. Frog Music is a comment on how a mother balances parenting and being a working woman — a conundrum that exists even in the twenty-first century. Did this development in the story occur to you consciously?
I was conscious of it, yes, but surprised when I first found the book moving that way. I had thought I was more or less done with the subject of motherhood after Room (both the novel, and the screenplay which I’ve been working on since the novel was published), but Blanche’s reference at Jenny’s inquest to her missing baby really haunted me. And once I’d decided to let Blanche narrate the whole story, it seemed irresistible to make the plot a sort of double hunt, for Jenny’s killer and Blanche’s child (and for her own moribund motherhood).
Why did you choose to make the protagonist ex-circus performers? Were circuses popular in nineteenth century America?
They were, but here I was drawing on fact: when I finally found Blanche (under her real name, Adele Beunon) and Arthur on a ship’s passenger list, they gave their jobs as bareback rider and acrobat respectively. I thought circus was a great background for them anyway: so cosmopolitan, bohemian, and literally risky.
Why did you include a glossary of French words and expressions used in the novel? It is an aspect that is fast disappearing from literature published in the Indian sub-continent.
As recent immigrants, Blanche and Arthur — I felt — would be very likely to use at least some French between themselves, and I liked the additional flavour — the almost untranslatable cultural concepts — that the French gave. But I don’t want to make the reader who knows no French feel left out. Of course I tried to make each sentence so that you could more or less guess what the French meant — an insult, say, or an endearment — but for the reader who likes to be sure, I wanted to offer the glossary. All the extras at the end (glossary, author’s note, song notes) can be skipped, but many readers do like to have those resources.
Would you consider Frog Music also as a kind of immigrant literature? It gives details of the French, Chinese and Irish lifestyles, the challenges including the rioting they faced upon moving to America.
Definitely. It goes with my recent collection Astray (which is all about immigrants to or migrants within North America) and my contemporary novel Landing which is about a half-Indian, all-Irish flight attendant who moves to Canada.
Do you prefer to write in longhand or directly at the computer?
I’m so dependent on software that I really doubt I could write great epics on dried leaves, come the apocalypse! I use a great program that allows me to write each scene in its own little file and them move the pieces around freely.
Where did you find much of the musical references in the novel as well as compiled in your playlist (http://8tracks.com/emmadonoghue/frog-music)? Does it continue to be available today?
I did things like looking up lists of 1870s, 1860s, 1850s songs on Wikipedia, reading books of folk songs, searching listings of spirituals, ballads, and bawdy songs. What was really tricky was finding versions of the lyrics (and the tunes, for using in the audiobook) that were definitely published before 1923, to ensure that they were out-of-copyright. Folk songs are usually passed on in a hazy spirit of ‘this is an old song’, without references, so it was a really hard slog to find their earliest published versions. But that gave me such interesting data about each song’s history (for instance, the fact that the famous Negro Spiritual ‘City Called Heaven’ turned out to be adapted from a white gospel song, or the poignant Irish ballad ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye’ is actually an English music-hall satire) that I ended up including detailed notes on them too. I never end up resenting the time I’ve spent on research!