This time the topic of my Feeling Bookerish workshop was ‘Mythology’. Almost all my young participants fell back upon the familiar and turned up to discuss the Ramayana and Mahabharata – the two epics of ancient India.
Of course these texts are an endless source of delight and entertainment for Indian kids – with myriad stories within stories but in the end the good winning over the evil. Thus Mahabharata unravels the genesis of the Great War between two families – the Kauravas and Pandavas – while Ramayana is all about the victory of heroism and the just over treachery and the unjust.
Somewhere along the way, we also got discussing gods and goddesses of Greek mythology and their Roman counterparts – Athena/Minerva with her wisdom and quiet courage turned out to be a particular favourite of the older girls in my workshop, especially in comparison to her brawny, vain brother Ares/Mars. Zeus and Poseidon were the subject of numerous anecdotes – thanks to teen fantasy fiction and movie representations which seem to have become more popular than the original mythological stories.
But where were the fascinating tales of Arabian adventure from 1000 and I Nights, brooding heroes like Odin and Thor from Norse mythology, the complex facets of Egyptian gods like Ra, Isis and Osiris and fascinating Native American creation stories? I wish the participants had taken a bit more effort and ranged a bit further in their reading. But as the session continued beyond its scheduled two hours, I realized that at least a spark had been lit and the next time the kids would find themselves in a bookstore or a library – virtual or real – they just might reach out for that book on mythology that is unfamiliar, remote and strange…
On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.
As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.
I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.
What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.
I feel a bit embarrassed to admit now but before the name was suggested by one of our book club members, I had never come across David Almond. The slender copy I decided to pick up was titled, intriguingly, Skellig. The book jacket informed me that it was the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year as well as the Carnegie Medal and comforted by such assurances of its worth, I dived in.
Skellig turned out to be a heart-warming story of the power of love and acceptance to bring about miracles. A lonely boy makes unusual friends in a new neighbourhood which eventually brings about more than one kind of blessing. It is also about how much humans can learn from Nature and how we are all part of the one universal soul that he beats within every heart.
The simple yet powerful theme is perfectly complemented by Arnold’s deeply symbolic style. One instance is his use of metaphors of birds and flying to unite his main characters and express the ability of love and innocence to lift an individual to a higher, more spiritual plane of existence. His sparse syntax and use of repetitions make his fiction read like a parable – almost Biblical, in fact.
In times of increasing cynicism and hopelessness about human bonds and environment, Skellig reads like an affirmation of faith in a child’s ability to give and believe – values which can yet make the world a better place.
Here is what another sixth grader of our Feeling Bookerish workshop, the cherubic Ishita, has to say about her favourite author…
“Did you ever ponder on how Roald Dahl got ideas for his books ? And before becoming an author , what was his life like? Well, all his ideas for books came from real-life incidents or stories he heard from his grandparents. Before becoming an author, he:
Wrote a James Bond film
Was utterly hopeless at English in school
Was a champion boxer
Loved practical jokes-the nastier the better
Was a Fighter Pilot in the Second World War and
Was a spy
Here are some more interesting facts about Roald Dahl :
Buckingham Palace once rang up Roald to ask him if he’d like to become Roald Dahl OBE (Order of the British Empire). He refused it because he wanted a knighthood so he could be called Sir Roald.
His love of Chocolate led him to write his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Remembering his wife, Patricia Neal’s stroke , he wrote his book The BFG . It was because his wife usually spoke nonsense during her time of recovery. The BFG also spoke in such a way. In the book, for example, Scrumdidlyumptious meant tasty, while Chiddlers meant small children and so on
During his school days, Roald though that the next door sweetshop owner, Mrs. Prattchett was a witch. So, one day he took a dead mouse and put in the jar of Gobstoppers when she looked away. This was the inspiration for his book, The Witches”
Yup! That’s the name of this literary workshop I have started with around six kids in the Nilgiris. Going by the fact that for each session, they arrive well before time, duly accompanied by a pen and notebook and before leaving, actually ask for “homework”, I think it is going pretty well.
So we started with a session on fiction writing where fundamental concepts like character, plot and setting were discussed. This was followed by a game where the character and setting were randomly matched and such hilarious combinations as “FLOTUS at the Wellington Gymkhana Club” and “Policeman on a deserted island” were threaded into a plot.
Next followed a session on essay writing – and I was determined to make it more interesting than the usual school exercise. So I set the tone by asking the kids to read up the delightful “Bathing in a Borrowed Suit” by Homer Croy and then followed it by suggesting similar humorous topics for their essays.
Today of course was the most active session of all – drama. After a couple of theatrical warm-up exercises, we went on to discuss dramatization of character and plot besides setting a scene. The kids had a rollicking time acting out varied characters and minor plot-lines. In the end, they even dramatized a story of their own and agreed to write proper dialogues for it as a home assignment.
“You are never to do old to do goofy stuff…” said the character Ward Cleaver in the widely loved family sitcom of the 1960s, Leave it to Beaver – on this bracing Saturday afternoon by the Wellington Lake, as we all tumbled along the grassy slope, I couldn’t agree more!
Amidst the misty environs of the Nilgiris, few pursuits can be more fulfilling than reading. With a book in hand and a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, one could easily get lost in winding, twisting lanes of Imagination or get transported to faraway times and places.
And so, a long-held dream was given shape when our very own book club met for the first time. It included members from fields as diverse as pure sciences, management and literature. We began talking about the kind of books we read and subjects that interest us. What a myriad colours went up to make the palette – travel, fiction, poetry, philosophy, biography and so much more. We discussed the perplexing plot of The Time Traveller’s Wife which is nevertheless made relatable by its charming comedy. Also up for discussion was the philosophy of spiritual leader J Krishnamurti and the challenges involved in its comprehension. Far more engaging was the digression to Rishi Valley School, based on Krishnamurti’s vision of education and its relevance to present-day educational system. Scattered mention of Oprah Winfrey’s new biography as well as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet added variety to our discussions.
Eventually we got down to the business of choosing a book and headed for the library’s biography section. After a good deal of rifling through shelves and badgering the assistant librarian about book titles, we decided to go with four different biographies of the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. With her being at the helm of several controversial and decisive moments of the country’s history, the texts promise to be interesting!
As I looked for the candles, one of the stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies came to my mind. In this short story titled, “A Temporary Matter”, an estranged couple makes a series of confessions over four nights of power outage which eventually impacts their marriage in important ways.
Will this evening bring about such significant changes around me too? Unlikely, I thought as the cheery voices of my neighbours rolled in from their balcony, singling ‘Mamma Mia, here we go again, My My how can I resist you”.
In these times of social media compulsions, masks and faces have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. Perhaps, this darkness brought about by a two-hour power cut might be one of those rare occasions when, with no gadgets to fall back upon, human souls would be compelled to dig into their innermost resources. Thus while some belted out songs from a carefree past, one settled down with a book in the light of the candle. While I rustled up comfort food in the flickering kitchen lamp, another persistent soul, I realized with a rueful smile, sought out the powerbank to connect the smartphone.
What would people have done long ago, I wondered as I sat down beside my dog – petting her occasionally, unfamiliar as she was with this kind of darkness. In the past, when people’s lives were governed by the rhythms of nature? They would have got up with the sun, worked in fields or shops or travelled, and then winded up things with nightfall. Life would have been simpler ; indeed the significance of the Bengali ritual of lighting the evening lamp struck me now – in the gathering darkness, the first lamp to be lit in the home would be at the sacred altar accompanied by prayers for the family’s safety and well-being as well as the blowing of the holy conch. In fact according to my mother, the sound of the conch would serve to scare of any wandering snakes trying to get too close to village homes…
A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!