On 27 Jan 2023, Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan visited my daughter’s school. It was an author interaction organised for eighth graders. Apparently, the conversation revolved around poetry and writing. I am not surprised since Shobha’s debut book — It’s Time To Rhyme ( Aleph Book Company) — is a delicious collection of poems. My daughter too loves poetry and is musically inclined. For instance, when is in a foul mood or when she was an infant throwing a tantrum, the only way to get across to her was by playing music or speak to her in a sing song manner. So, the kid was thrilled to meet Shobha and talk poetry. And then the author very sweetly inscribed the book for Sarah.
What is not to like in this book! It is utterly brilliant. Stupendous!
With offerings from sonnets in iambic pentameter, to limericks, acrostics, and villanelles, It’s Time to Rhymeis the perfect introduction to the joys of poetry for readers of all ages. Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan should consider writing a long poem for children. A story well told is heard far and wide. Format does not matter. The few poems collected in this slim volume are a guarded taster of what she is capable of! It is high time publishers broke shackles of the staid expectations of educators and parents and brought the fun back in storytelling. Let it be wild. Let it be nonsensical. Let it be joyous!
In recent days and weeks, I have read a pile of books but not had the time to write individual posts. So, perhaps it is best to create a combined blog post.
The two debut novels that I read were poles apart in tone and pace. The first debut novel is The Elements of Fogby Boudhayan Sen ( Juggernaut Books) is an unexpected pleasant surprise. It is a combination of old-fashioned ( read nineteenth century) novel and a twenty-first century contemporary fiction. It is a reflection of the plot too that is set apart in time by a century and a half. The common factor being that the story is set in a high school/boarding school that was set up in a hill station near Madurai. It is a love story that is very well told. Perhaps Boudhayan Sen will follow it up with another novel/ a collection of short stories that is equally well paced. The second debut novel is The Shotgun Weddingby Suchandra Roychowdhury ( Aleph Book Company) that is a fast-paced, comic, romance novel. It is more in the ilk of commercial fiction, noisy with chattering dialogue propelling the plot, easily read; with the potential of spawniing back stories,and perhaps Malgudi Days-like stories. Who knows?! Time will tell.
The two collections of prose and poetry are also very diverse. Why do you fear my way so much? : Poems and Letters from Prison by G. N. Saibaba ( Speaking Tiger Books) is very powerful. Most of the poems were written in the form of letters to his wife to avoid censoring by the prison authorities. Saibaba is an academic and an activist who is confined to a wheelchair and has been incarcerated since 2014. In 2017, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his links to a banned organisation, CPI-Maoist.
The second is an anthology Khushk Zubaan, Bebaak Jigar: Of Dry Tongues and Brave Heartsthat has been edited by Reema Ahmad and Semeen Ali (published by Red River). It consists of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and artworks. Red River publications go from strength to strength. This particular anthology when it was first published had a limited print run as the publisher, Dibyajyoti Sarma, was unsure whether it would sell. It sold so fast that a second print run had to be done within a month. The publications in this frontlist are experimental, grungy, and generous as many voices — established and new — are offered a platform with equal grace and respect. Of Dry Tongues and Brave Hearts is no different. It explores the theme of “ghar-bahir” or “in the home and outside”. All the contributors are women even though it may not be clear from the bios published in the book. Because the editors did not want to foreground gender, instead the focus is on the individual identities, the myriad voices. This book is meant for everyone. Do read it.
Perhaps at this point, it may be appropriate to mention Elena Ferrante’s new book, In the Margins: On the Pleasures of Reading and Writing, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein and published by Europa Editions. The four essays included in this book are the Eco Lectures that the author wrote. In November 2021, the actress Manuela Mandracchia, in the guise of Elena Ferrante, presented the lectures at the Teatro Arena del Sole in Bologna, together with ERT, Emilia Romagna Teatro. There are many pearls of wisdom that Ferrante shares with regard to close reading of texts, her own writing craft and experience of reading some of her favourite writers such as Dante, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, Ingebord Bachmann, and others. There are many portions in my copy of the book that I have underlined heavily. There is a particular section that is worth sharing:
…in order to devote ourselves to literary work must we subscribe to the great scroll of writing? Yes. Writing inevitably has to reckong with other writing, and it’s from the terrain of the already written that the sentence might jump out that sets in motion a small admirable book or the great book that displays a trajectory and constructs a unique world of words, characters, and conflicts.
If that’s true for the male “I” who writes, it’s even more so for the female. A woman who wants to write has unavoidably to deal not only with the entire literary patrimony she’s been brought up on and in virtue of which she wants to and can express herself but with the fact that that patrimony is essentially male and by its nature doesn’t provide true female sentences. Since I was six my “I” brought up on male writing also has had to incorporate a kind of writing by women for women that belonged to it, was appropriate to it — writing in itself minor precisely because it was barely known by men, and considered by them something for women, that is, inessential. I’ve known in my life very cultured men who not only had not read Elsa Morante or Natalia Ginzburg or Anna Maria Ortese but had never read Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Virginia Woolf. And I myself, as a girl, wished to avoid as far as possible writing by women: I felt I had different ambitions. (p. 76-78)
Suddenly, the title is illuminating. It is not merely about being a professional writer preoccupied with the craft of writing but metaphorically, it is about being a woman and a writer. It is incredible how the same stuff has been said over and over again and yet, it seems new. Read the book.
The idea of writing and what it takes to write are eternal questions. In the new age of publishing, “content” works in multiple ways. No longer is it necessary to first publish a book before exploring other platforms. The next two books belong to this category. Both are publications stemming from talks delivered over the radio and short stories shared on YouTube. The first is by well-known ornithologist, Dr Salim Ali called Words for Birds. It is a collection of radio broadcasts that have been edited by Tara Gandhi. It has been published by Black Kite (an imprint of Permanent Black) in collaboration with Ashoka University and distributed by Hachette India. These broadcasts are from 1941 to 1980 with the bulk being spanning 1950s-60s. It is an interesting exercise reading the essays as there is a gentle pace to them, much as one would hear over the radio, enunciate slowly and clearly to be heard. The idea being to communicate. The second one is The Stories We Tellby noted mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik ( published by Aleph Book Company). It consists of short stories that originated in a webcast that Pattanaik began from 21 March to 31 May 2020. It was in the early days of India’s countrywide lockdown to combat Covid-19. He says:
People were terrified of the virus and I wanted to life their spirits by telling them stories from our mythology that would make them less anxious. At these stories were told from 4pm to 5pm, around teatime, I named my webcast “Teatime Tales”. I genuinely believed the lockdown would end in a few weeks, but it became clear that we would remain indoors for a long time. I knew I would not be able to sustaing the enterprise endlessly. So, I decided to end it gracefully after seventy-two episodes. [ Seventy-two being an important number across cultures. He elaborates upon it beautifully in the book.]
These are very short, short stories. Very easily read. The sentences are short. The ideas develop slowly and methodically. There is no cluttering. The conversion of the oral into print has been done very well. The stories retain their capacity to be read out aloud. Also, as with many age-old stories and folklore, these stories narrated by Pattanaik lend themselves to be expanded and embellished. In his introduction, he provides a general description as “our mythology” and since his name is synonymous with mostly retelling of the Hindu epics, many readers would probably expect more of the same. Extraordinarily enough, Pattanaik displays extensive knowledge and understanding of other faiths too. Slim book, easily shared and presented.
Ultimately, it is the Internet that has made the revival and dissemination of literature possible. Earlier, a few copies were printed and circulated. But now, there is mass distribution of books and content — whether legitimately or pirated versions is not the point right now. The fact is literature is available to many, many people. Physical and ebooks can be bought online. Payments are made. Today, we take digital payments for granted but there was a time, in the not too distant past, that this concept did not even exist. In the 1990s, people were experimenting with the idea but it was not taken too seriously. Then, came along a bunch of youngsters, from 19 to their early 20s, who felt that this was worth investigating. The Founders by Jimmy Soni is about these young men such as Max Levichin, Reed Hastings, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. It is a book that is full of details regarding the fintech startup, surving the dot com bubble and its ultimate sale to eBay for US$1.5 billion — at a time when such figures were unheard of and certainly not for technology. This story is told at a furious pace, it is intoxicating reading about the highs and lows of the founders, but it is also seeped in masculinity. It confirms the belief that professionalism is a philosophy that is acceptable when imbued with patriarchy and makes no allowances for women and other responsibilities of life. It is almost as if one has to be wedded to the job and even in a marriage there is more leeway than these startups provide. On a separate note, I had emailed Jimmy Soni a bunch of questions for an interview on my blog. He had agreed in principle but then chose not to acknowledge the email, later asked the person who had set up the interview if he could change my questions, then suggested that one of the questions was incorrect but would not say which one and ultimately, he refused to do the interview. Here are the questions. Despite this unfortunate glitch, I would recommend The Founders.
Finally, an integral feature of the Internet is the search option. It is a critical part of the world wide web. It enables information to be discovered and shared. This is done by searching a vast index that the search engines maintain. It is nothing more basic than that — a feature that has been a significant part of the codex for more than 800 years, is now a fundamental feature of the Internet. So despite technological advancements being made, certain characteristics remain and continue to be adopted and adapted to new frameworks. Read more about it in this incredibly fascinating account by Dennis Duncan inIndex, A History of the. I loved this book!
A vast and eclectic selection of books to choose from!
Shikhandin never ceases to amaze me. She writes. That’s it. She is unafraid of experimenting with forms that are most suitable to her expression. She is impossible to slot as a writer belonging to a specific category. Her creativity gushes forth. She commands the reader to engage. Her observation is acute. Her commentary perceptive. She is unique. Using the feminine pronoun is probably a disservice to her since she consciously chose the nom de plume to mask any gendered reading of her works. Nevertheless, I can only urge you to read her works. Her short stories, novels, and now her poetry in this exquisite volume published by Dibyajyoti Sarma, RedRiver. Sarma’s sensitivity towards Shikhandin’s poems is evident in the care with which he has laid out her poems on the page. There is something magical about the reading experience of “AfterGrief”, poetry about mourning but the period in which she revised the poems, the pandemic, the poems took on a different hue. Instead of dissecting her poems, here are a few samples:
Death is the violence of silence tearing up your day with an unscrambled scream “Death”
There is a man standing on the shore, looking past the waves, frisky, frothy and white. He is looking towards the brightening horizon. He is weeping. He is weeping silently with an oddly self-conscious sort of abandon. He is holding on to a plastic bag crammed with indecipherable things and a motor cycle helmet. His sandals feet are digging, making washable prints on the wet sand. He is pretending to flick off the grit from his cheeks. “Man on the Shore”
After death’s ceremony there is numbness After funeral’s festivity there is stillness Afterwards, when the house has emptied, they arrive A Long and loyal line of days, to follow you around Twilight days to softly follow you around, mother Sentries of quietude — a river of boundless, soundless solitude. … Tell me, how much of grief can a human heart Store beneath the liquid of a tranquil face? “After the passing of father”
In the aftermath, when fire’s rage has cooled to skin-scorching Ash, the wood ones of dawn will break your heart with their absences. No deluge can dampen the spirits of free creatures, but fires are fierce opponents of joy . . . . … She was a woman who had loved the natural world. Speaking in hushed tones of the miracle of snakes birthing in a grove. After the garden was gone, she took to growing cacti and succulents. A dark green one with cylindrical shoots still remains. Growing from one pot into another, passing from house to house, but never yours, until now. “Woodnotes”
But it is the penultimate poem in this collection, “Crossing”, that is worth reading, sharing and discussing. (Photographed below.) I truly hope that one day, one day, Tishani Doshi and Shikhandin will be in conversation with each other about the crying need to be poets especially in these times. Perhaps, Ranjit Hoskote can be asked to be in conversation too. All three poets have published collections of poems in 2021 that will stand out for years to come; it is not just a witnessing, it is as if they are fulfilling their roles of poets as has been inherited from Classical times — their poems are recording history, telling stories and bordering almost on a prayer, urging people to remember their rich past and live in hope for the future, but not be passive agents in the present.
Today, my eleven-year-old daughter woke up much earlier than her usual time. She had had a nightmare. She dreamt that she was in 1939 Nazi Germany. She was in a classroom and then opened a door to go elsewhere. Then, to her horror, she was packing her precious belongings and needed to run. She did not know where she was running but she was and she was terrified. While narrating the incident, she looked alarmed and began wringing her hands in nervous fear. She kept using the collective pronoun “we”, but when asked over and over again, who else was with you, she finally admitted to the singular “I”.
The trigger for this dream in all likelihood have been the books and documentaries about World War Two that she has immersed herself in. She recently read a YA novel, based on a true story, of a Catholic girl who saved a family of thirteen Polish Jews. And much else. Much of it is driven by interest and partially by her school curriculum.
The point of this anecdote is that Art is powerful. It serves multiple purposes. If employed correctly, it operates more than Art for Art’s Sake. Most importantly, it allows the artist to use their creative sensibilities to observe, record, comment and preserve events in collective memory, lest we as a race forget the horrors that have been perpetrated.
Poet Tishani Doshi’s latest collection A God at the Door ( HarperCollins India) serves this purpose admirably. The seething rage and at times, a sense of helplessness, that she feels as an individual witnessing the systematic violence, communalism and the boxing in of women into their homes, are noted in her poems. “The Stormtroopers of My Country” that is an ode to the decimation of a beautiful country is extremely powerful. It is a country that will vanish rapidly if we allow it to happen. The poem ends with a firm belief in our abilities to survive the most violent of assaults.
with the pogrom atrocity death march love march no such thing as a clean termite to burn is to purify oh our culture so ancient so good we’re in the thick of the swastika now no brow beating will divide us together we must stick
The importance of the artists and writers in turbulent times can never be under estimated. They have the immense ability to imprint searing words upon the reader’s mind that are hard to shirk. Such as:
History too has a hard time remembering the black waters they crossed, … …History tries not to be sentimental, although letters give things away. ( “Many Good and Wonderful Things”)
There comes a point in the battle when the last international watchdog is forced to leave the country. Reader, I know you’re prone to anxiety. This is when it happens. The lagoon, the ambush, Bullets raining down in a no-fire zone. Quick, into my echo chamber. ( “Instructions on Surviving a Genocide”)
… I found a village, a republic, the size of a small island country with a history
of autogenic massacre. In it were all our missing women. They’d been sending proof of their existence —
copies of birth and not-quite-dead certificates to offices of the registrar.
What they received in response was a rake and a cobweb in a box. (“I Found a Village and In It Were All Our Missing Women”)
Forget where you came from, forget history. It never happened, okay? We need soldiers on the front line. Of course we can coexist. We say potato, they say potato. We give them their own ghetto. (“Nation’)
Say the words ‘Bay of Bengal’ and ‘Buchenwald’ one after the other, and they sound beautiful, just as ‘landfills does. And then imagine it: (“Do Not Go Out in the Storm”)
The poems in this collection are crying to be performed by multitudes of people. There is no other way to describe this but there seems to be a strong force at the core of these poems that is urging the reader to read these out aloud and share them with more and more people. It is as if when read out aloud, the truth these words enshrine will hit home hard and perhaps embolden us to push back. It is an incredible experience to read poetry that much of the time is a wail of pain and anger intermingled and yet gets transferred seamlessly to the reader and co-opt them into this collective grief. The desire to act can only happen if the personal will is strong enough to turn it into a political act. Perhaps by immemorialising contemporary events, the poet urges a mass awakening to fight against the ills.
My head hurts. And yet I find myself going over and over and over these poems. Soon, my daughter will be able to read and understand these poems. I hope she does. I hope she will convey them to her peers and in time, future generations. These poems/stories/ moments-in-history should not be forgotten.
Collegiality and Other Ballads: Feminist Poems by Male and Non-Binary Alliesis a unique experiment. Inviting people who do not identify themselves as of the woman gender but feel strongly on women-related issues offers a searing perspective on how feminism/women’s movements have impacted civil society. There is a collective anger evident in many of the poems at many of the injustices women face regularly. It probably stems from the sensitive understanding, empathy and the recognition on the part of the poets, many of whom belong to marginalised communities of society. Majoritarian discourses are blind or completely oblivious to the daily struggles of these individuals who are mostly left to battle an unequal social system. By bringing together these diverse genders, many of whom still inhabit a niche space in society or focussed LGBTQA+ imprints in mainstream publishing, Shamayita Sen ( editor) and Hawakal publishers have in Collegiality created a well-defined platform that may lend itself to more literary explorations in future.
Bessie Smithby Jackie Kay, Scotland’s National poet is a biography of a legendary blues singer. It is also a fascinating account of the history of blues, jazz, and what is today the popular form, Chicago Blues when the male musicians hijacked the scene with their acoustic guitars. Jackie Kay develops the scene brilliantly by pointing out that the blueswomen sang whatever they wanted to. They were ruthless while talking about men. These women were like a band of travelling musicians. They belonged to troupes. The most famous being Ma Rainey. All the women had “Smith” as a surname to give them some legitimacy as well as anonymity. These women were like a sisterhood that was powerful and knew they were good at what they did — singing. They also had no qualms being open about their sexuality even if they had male partners. They made lots of money and shared it generously. Their songs were the equivalent of modern poetry. They were also the first to adopt new technology like gramophones and made recordings.
Bessie Smith signed a lucrative eight-year contract with Columbia Records between 1923-1931. She recorded 160 songs, twenty a year! On 15 February 1923, the Queen of Blues, recorded ‘Downhearted Blues’ and ‘Gulf Coast Blues’. She arrived at the studio ‘tall, fat and scared to death’. It took her many attempts to make the wax recordings. She was probably nervous or stone cold sober. As Jackie Kay speculates, “She possibly mistrusted the whole technological thing, such as it was then. She might have felt that she was being had. But she soon got the hang of it. Humphrey Lyttelton says, ‘The singing that was transmitted to wax was, from the outset, mature, steeped in harsh experience and formidable commanding.'”
The sales of ‘Downhearted Blues’ — three quarters of million copies in six months — far exceeded the sales of any other blues record. The black public were eager to purchase records through mail-order catalogues, record stores in black neighbourhoods or even through the Pullman porters. The blues sold both in the North and in the South and became part of the record companies’ ‘race records’ series. These were issues directed solely to the black purchaser. By the end of 1922 Race records were being distributed in many Northern cities and as far south as Alabama.
In the South the blues sold to black and white people; in the more ‘liberal’ North, they just sold to black people. It was possible to have been white in the North in the 1920s and never have known that blues records even existed. This is because in the North, advertising of so-called ‘Race records’ was restricted to the black press, and the distribution of the records took place only in black areas. Southerners, though, became part of the ‘race market’. White and black people, though segregated, crowded into those tents to hear the blues.
During the Columbia period, Bessie Smith worked alongside some of the best musicians of her day: Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Fred Longshaw, Jack Teagarden, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, and Joe Smith. But the most exciting combination musically was Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, in those sessions they recorded on 14 January 1925. ‘Reckless Blues’, “Cold in Hand Blues’, ‘Sobbin Hearted Blues’, and ‘You’ve Been A Good Ole Wagon’ were all recorded that day. It has turned out to be the most memorable dates in the history of blues.
Singers at that time were never paid a royalty but paid as usable side. These amounts varied depending on the musician’s popularity but Bessie Smith could earn as much as $250. She was the best paid of all the classic blueswomen. The women singers who came after her like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald were known as Jazzwomen who sang a different kind of music. Five of Bessie Smith’s records were on the market, and her reputation had grown beyond all expectations. But success would not last. After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Depression, a new combo style of blues became fashionable. ‘Urban Blues’ or ‘Chicago Blues’ then dominated the scene from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. The likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf took off; the classic blues singers were replaced by men with acoustic guitars.
In the 1920s she who loved to party, participated in many ‘rent parties’ or parlor socials. This was home entertainment. You could get into any of them from 10 cents to a dollar. The other guests were ordinary, working-class people: tradesmen, housemaid, laundry workers, seamstresses, porter, elevator ‘boys’. But writers and artists and singers loved to go along too. On a Saturday night in Harlem, the music pounder out of the open windows. There was always an upright piano, a guitar, a trumpet and sometimes a snare drum. Rent parties originated in the South, where rents were so high that people had to organise such socials to pay their landlords. You needed no social standing to throw a rent party. All you needed was a piano player and a few dancing girls. Drinks were bathtub gin and whiskey. Food was fried fish, chicken, corn bread etc. Music was played by some of the masters and students of Harlem stride piano. Dancing — the Charleston, the black bottom, the monkey hunch, the mess around, the shimmy, the bo-hog, the camel, the skate and the buzzard — went on till the break of day. You were not regarded as much of a jazz pianist unless, wherever else you appeared, you played the rent-party circuit. You earned your spurs not only by sending the dancers into flights of ecstasy but also by ‘cutting’, or outperforming, rival piano players. Duke Ellington, Bill Basie — not yet Count— a young Fats Waller and Bessie Smith enjoyed these rent parties. One of Bessie’s best-known songs, ‘Gimme a Pigfoot’, written by Leola ‘Coot’ Grant and Wesley Wilson and performed with Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman in 1933 is about rent parties.
Bessie Smith wrote blues for herself to reflect the experience of ordinary working-class people. The blues she sang and the blues she wrote often contained elements of burlesque, music hall and vaudeville which reflected her background as a young girl who had first joined a travelling troupe in 1912. A lot of her blues were raunchy, bawdy, double-entendre-filled, sexy sings, as well as tragic, painful and depressing. Bessie’s blues moved people.
According to Jackie Kay, “Her voice just got to them. Perhaps she reminded them of the past, of losses, of longing. Something in her voice went way back into a deeper past. Her voice seemed to contain history, tragedy, slavery, without self-pity. It had the ability to stretch beyond even the lyrics of her blues into something more complex. Her blues were universal, but also deeply personal. They allowed her to express the whole range of her complex personality– the wild promiscuous drunken side and the depressed, insecure, lonely side.”
Bessie Smith became poorer when the blues that she knew began to die. Columbia Records dropped her on 20 Nov 1931. Jackie Kay uses terms like hedonistic and self-destructive for Bessie Smith which are probably apt descriptors given her alcoholism, temper and impetuous nature. Nothing fazed her. She did exactly as she pleased. Once she confronted the Ku Klux Klan single-handedly. In July 1927, Concord, North Carolina, she was performing in a tent when her musicians discovered that the Ku Klux Klan had removed most of the tent stakes. Her prop boys ran away seeing the white-sheeted men, but Bessie Smith blasted the Ku Klux men:
“I’ll get the whole damn tent out of here if I have to. You just pick up those sheets and run.” The Klansmen, shocked, stand and gawp whilst the Empress shouts obscenities at them until finally they disappear into the darkness. “I ain’t never heard of such shit,” says the Empress, walking over to the prop boys. “And as for you, you ain’t nothing but a bunch of sissies.” Then she goes right back into that same tent for her encore.
Bessie Smith died as a result of the injuries she got in a horrific road accident. She had thousands of mourners at her funeral. Yet her pallbearers were hired. None of the people she had helped over the years came forward. Her ex-husband, Jack Gee, siphoned away her money and despite there being two fund raisers for the specific purpose in 1948 and in the early 1950s he let her remain in an unmarked grave for 33 years. Then in 1970, Columbia Records reissued her five albums. They won two Grammy awards. At this time, it was asked by the public if Bessie Smith could have a headstone now. So, another fund raiser was organised. But it took only two phone calls to get the money. One donor was Bessie Smith’s former cleaning girl, now a rich woman, Juanita Green, who owned two nursing homes and the singer Janis Joplin. Coincidentally, Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose on 4 Oct 1970, the date of Bessie Smith’s funeral.
Bessie Smith is utterly fabulous. It is an excellent example of a biography. Jackie Kay hero worships Bessie Smith but as a professional poet herself recognises the challenges and joys of being an artist. Jackie Kay describes Bessie Smith as a strong woman associated with style, glamour, freedom, strong woman, a real queen, she drank, she cussed, she spent money, she partied, she fought, she was beaten up regularly by her second husband, and was a bisexual. She lived life on her own terms. Money just became another expression of her impulsive, party-loving, binge-drinking generosity. She spent money liberally on her friends and family but was not known to treat her musicians kindly.
There are so many ways in which the author’s and the subject’s professional and personal interests intertwine. Bessie Smith is written brilliantly. At the same time, it is an excellent historical account of blues. Faber Books imprint that focuses on music publishes excellent stuff. No wonder they once had hired Pete Townshend of The Who as Commissioning Editor. This is book is a fine example of this excellent list.
We gave this beauteous book to our daughter as a Christmas present. She loved it. Squealed with delight. She loves poetry. She loves painting. She loves nature. This is a splendidly elegant and quiet mix of all the elements. It gives one immense pleasure, peace and happiness reading it.
For me, the poem and gorgeous illustration of a daisy chain brought back memories of my childhood. My mother had taken my twin and me to the hill station Dalhousie. She had been instructed by my grandfather to pack up his childhood home, Snowdon and Shantikunj, as his mother had recently passed away. It was a bittersweet experience but mum made it memorable by taking us for long walks through the forest, instructing us to keep the doors bolted at night in case the panthers arrived and of course waiting out the tremendous racket the langoor raid created on our tin roofs. A particularly precious memory was seeing mum get very excited when she came across a patch of daisies by the road winding through through forest. So we plonked ourselves in the grassy-daisy patch, by the roadside and strung daisy chains, while madly waving to passers by. It was a fun, fun day.
Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane have the incredible gift of making magic together. In their own right they are astonishingly talented souls but together their creativity sparkles and this shines in The Lost Spells ( Hamish Hamilton). They are also very fortunate in their publishers being very generous and supportive in the book production. Little details beginning with the gold foiling on the cover to the richness of colours used, pocket size of the book that is unheard of nowadays as it is not an economically viable size to produce, the gold bookmark stitched into the spine and the sumptuous spread of illustrations is an utter delight to behold.
It is such a precious book at all times but particularly during the pandemic. We could do with such moments of joy!
Shimmering Spring ( Hawakal Publishers) is an interesting collection of poems and prose edited by Kiriti Sengupta. 39 contributors from around the world but mostly Indians. It is refreshing to see the arrangement of poets is alphabetically and not necessarily according to some perceived hierarchy of established and upcoming voices. A beautifully produced edition with very bright paintings by Pintu Biswas. The layout is generous and respectful to every single poet featured in the book. It is the kind of book that makes you want to read the poems over and over again till you zone in completely to what the text is saying and shut out the world. It works. My only quibble is the manner in which at times the text has been plonked on to the page, trickling into the artwork and thus disrupting the reading experience. Nevertheless, an edition that many will return to for the extraordinary variety of poetry.
It is not very easy to read while the lockdown is on but I have managed a wee bit. The following are only some of the books I managed to read in April. Many others that I read I wrote about in separate blog posts. As always it is an eclectic collection.
Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s The Universe: Everything you need to travel through Space and Time is a brilliant collection of essays about the universe. It begins with a beautiful but very brief essay by Professor Stephen Hawking, “The Creation of the Universe” where he simply and clearly tries to explain the origins of Universe, packing it with concepts too. The contributors to the volume consist of eminent scientists, some Nobel Prize winners too, and a school student, Nitya Kapadia. The range of topics is extraordinary — understanding the origin of life, the Big Bang theory, idea of Space, travelling through the Universe, the idea of Relativity, from the solar system, the planets, speculating about life in space, Zero-Gravity Flights, Time Travel, wormholes, the Goldilocks zone, the geographical structures on Earth, Artificial Intelligence, Robot Ethics, 3D Printing, Internet Privacy, Quantum Computers etc. The template set by the late Prof. Hawking is the blueprint for the subsequent essays in the book. It makes science so easily accessible for young and adults alike. ( Confession time: My 10 yo daughter and I have been taking turns to read this book as both of us are fascinated by complicated subjects explained ever so simply!)
Scientific discoveries do not necessarily happen always in a staid manner, in controlled laboratory conditions. S D Tucker’s fascinating book Forgotten Science attempts to uncover the backstories of some of the extraordinary scientific applications that we take for granted in modern times. For instance, figuring out the circulatory system within an individual and the effect of medication if taken orally or injected directly into the bloodstream was discovered after experimenting upon dogs. These experiments were conducted by Robert Boyle (1627-91), often described as “the father of chemistry”, and Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the anatomist, architect and designer of St Paul’s Cathedral to test William Harvey (1578-1657), court physician to Charles I, hypothesis about the circulatory system of various living creatures. Another equally bizarre and immoral experiment was carried out by Nazi doctor, Dr Sigmund Rascher ( 1909 – 45) to test the effects of high altitude and how to recover from hypothermia. Taking advantage of his close proximity to SS Head Heinrich Himmler ( 1900-45), Dr Rascher got permission to conduct experiments upon prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. In 1942 Rascher was given a pressure chamber and began locking prisoners inside to simulate the effects of high altitude upon Nazi airmen and parachutists. By altering pressure changes quickly or slowly, Rascher could mimic both gradual ascents and total freefall, and see what such states did to the human body. The effect upon the prisoners varied from exploding lungs, while others began to rip their own hears apart with bare hands due to the unbearable stress they felt inside their skulls. He killed about eighty prisoners in this ghastly manner but dismissed it as saying they were ‘only’ Poles and Russians. Some of his other experiments were on hypothermia, discovering the blood-clotting agent called Polygal and developed the cyanide capsule which later even Himmler took to avoid capture by the British. Ultimately Rascher too was incarcerated at Dachau for publicising the falsehood that he had extended the childbearing age of women and as proof he said his wife, touching fifty, had given birth to three babies, when in truth they had been kidnapped. Rascher was shot in April 1945. Several scientists who had worked with Rascher ended up working at NASA.
The next three books belong loosely to the category of science fiction — The Flight of the Arconauts by Sophia Khan ( steampunk fiction); The Sin Eaters by Megan Campisi and Analog Virtual by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. The Flight of the Arconaut is written at a nice pace. Neat dialogues. Interesting attempt at blending names to denote cultural melting pots. But it seems to have been heavily influenced by contemporary scifi young adult literature. It is also very desi in its telling by cramming the main narrative with so many stories and backstories. I see no reason why all must exist in the forefront. It is also inexplicable why must SpecFic, or in this case Steampunk Fiction, be so obsessed with conservative social rankings especially along gender lines? Why not break free? Also why is birth and regeneration such a massive preoccupation. It is as if it is impossible to think beyond the writing of H G Wells, Aldous Huxley et al. Sophia Khan’s saving grace is the packed dialogue and a superb grasp of the English language — LOVE IT! The second volume in this trilogy should be fun.
The Sin Eaters and Analog Virtual are debut novels. Both the writers seem to be voracious readers. Keenly imaginative writers too but not sufficiently confident enough to create landscapes of their own. While theatreperson Megan Campisi creates a parallel reality to Elizabethan England in The Sin Eater to explore the rumours of Queen Elizabeth I having had an illegitimate child. Campisi builds the premise of her story upon the social mobility a Sin Eater has within society and is able to pick up bits of information. So this part-mystery, part-historical fiction, is thrilling to read in parts with the strongest moments in storytelling being different scenes, much like the scenes enacted on stage. Usually the best moments in the novel are when the sin eater is in an enclosed space like a bedroom or a chapel attending a recitation or funeral and there are onlookers, replicating a play being enacted on stage, watched by an audience. Megan Campisi’s forte is theatre and not long fiction. But if she persists at this craft and attempts to write what her heart tells her to, she has the potential to do well. Much of this holds true for Lavanya Lakshminarayan who need to break the shackles of a well-read reader of science fiction and create with the assurance that resides deep within her, an imaginary landscape with its distinctive vocabulary, unique social structures, and a clear inner logic to the society she creates so that any reader coming to it for the first time will fall in love with her story. For now Virtual Analog is competent storytelling but no more. It may also fit snugly on the joint imprint that her publishers Hachette India have with Gollancz but Lavanya Lakshminarayan is capable of much, much more than what is displayed in Analog Virtual. What shines through the books is their keen imagination. They are creative writers whose confidence will soar with their third books. If they persist at this craft and attempt to write what their hearts tell them to, they have the potential to do well.
And then there are the two works of fiction — Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers and Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s Like a Mule: Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun. Established writers. Controlled writing. Immersive reading experience. Meena Kandaswamy’s Exquisite Cadavers is an extraordinary reading experiment with parallel texts laid out on the pages — the main narrative and the interior monologue of the writer. Fascinating. It is a sophisticated cross between poetry and prose. Such books are meant to be experienced. In the old-fashioned sense. Linger over the pages. Dip into the text. Read along the margins. Shut the book. Mull over what one has read. Imbibe some more. Go back to a few lines. Meena Kandaswamy’s sense of rhythm as a poet has not left the prose. It is gorgeous! Her writings have always been infused with a ferocity that seems tto have been sharpened over the years but there is something special about this novel. Fifteen years down the line Exquisite Cadavers will be used a fine example of a literary text that will be read by the general reader as well as be a prescribed text. This is not a novel that will not be easily converted to an audio book — nor should it be. Likewise Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novella about Morayo Da Silva, a seventy-five-year old Nigerian, living in San Francisco. She reflects upon her life as an academic, author and a diplomat’s wife. It is also a moving tale about ageing and suddenly being at the mercy of tender and well meaning care of others. Ladipo chooses an extraordinary literary technique of giving every character the first person narrative which at first is confusing but slowly adds up to the variety of perspectives and unsolicited advice Morayo gets upon her hospitalisation. The saddest part in the novel is when her kind young friend decides to tidy up Morayo’s apartment thereby ridding it off a clutter of books. Morayo is understandably upset, a hurt that many are unable to comprehend. It is a novel that criss-crosses continents — Africa, America and Asia. Irrespective of the land she is in, or when nostalgia hits her regarding Africa, Morayo’s levelheadedness always wins. It is a novel that cuts across cultures seamlessly and sensitively. There is never an awkward sense of looking at other cultures as “other”.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do are ( to use cliches) — mind blowing books. Both by journalists-turned-authors whose books were written after many years of intensive research and recording testimonies. Both these books will influence women’s writing, women’s movements, and all aspects of feminism in a manner similar to that of Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer’s influence. Lisa Taddeo’s Three Womenis about talking to three women about sex and desire for nearly eight years. It became a publishing sensation. While the subject itself would attract attention, it is the narrative, the confidence with which the subjects explore their own complicated reactions to sexuality. Significantly Three Women marks a watershed moment in contemporary women’s literature on how women talk about their sexual desires and needs. In many ways the strength of Lisa Taddeo’s is very similar to male writing, an unquestionable confidence. Jess Hill won the Stella Prize 2020 for Look What You Made Me Do. A title that probably gets lost as it is very similar to many of yalit and chiklit titles, but this title has a purpose with sinister underpinnings. It encapsulates the blame-game that inevitably every male perpetrator foists upon his female victim, usually said in a manner that fools the victim to believe the falsehood — she is too blame for the violence being meted out to her. In this particular book, Jess Hill focusses on domestic violence and her analysis of it is horrific. She breaks many myths about it being only restricted to certain socio-economic sections . Her profiling of the perpetrators is pathbreaking as she creates categories. Some of the men when they appear in court seem as if they can never hurt a fly and yet the incidents they are involved in are gut wrenching. Much of what she says is familiar to women activists and legal teams such as that violence is not necessarily always physical but emotional, psychological, financial etc. The manner in which the information is presented in Look What You Made Me Do will help this material in reaching to newer audiences. Women who either need help themselves or those close to victims. Both these powerful books are going to be seminal in the field of women/gender studies, human rights, manual for legal and counselling professionals.
The final book is the stupendously magical award-winning Lampie and the Children of the Sea. It has been written and illustrated by Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap. This is her first novel. It has already won the Woutertje Pieterse Prize, the Nienke van Hichtum prize, the Bookenleuw and the Gouden Griffel for the best Dutch children’s book of the year. It has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. It is also the only translated book to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal Award. It is a stunning modern fairy tale about a little girl, Lampie, living in a lighthouse with her father. Due to some unfortunate events Lampie is sent off to live in the Admiral’s home where it is rumoured a monster resides. It is a heartwarming tale as it is also a tale of Lampie overcoming prejudices and learning to live on her own terms, overcome hurdles and set goals for herself to achieve. The joy with which this story seems to have been written flows splendidly in the translation. It is truly magical to read it even in the moments when there is deep sadness and unnecessary violence. The imaginative plot matches the wild imagination that children are prone to creating for themselves. Yet Annet Schaap, an adult, an illustrator and a storyteller, pulls her strengths together of — an adult’s perspective on a child’s world sans judgement, creative imagination and a wide-eyed wonder at the power of stories to weave her magic. There are multiple layers to Lampie and the Children of the Sea. Whether the monsters in a child’s life are real or imaginary, they can be confronted and set free. It is a book that will appeal to adults and children alike!