Feeling Bookerish With Kids…

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.

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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.

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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!

A Beginning…

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.

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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.

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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!

When The Lights Went Out

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.

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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.

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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…

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A chill ran down my spine – simpler, maybe, but never easy. Life has nowhere, not at any time been easy!

How To Make Your Teen Read More…

The twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, saw a flurry of media articles on the way J K Rowling has changed kids’ reading choices forever. A lot was discussed on how  stories of the boy wizard making his way precariously through the forces of good and evil has caught the imagination of both young readers and their parents.  And statistics have been quoted to prove how the habit of reading was alive and kicking among children.

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And yet, why are these trends so rarely reflected in our own families? Why do I find it difficult to engage my teen with books? A major reason, I am told, is the vast range of recreational options available to kids these days. Smartphones, tabs, laptops, Playstations, the telly – a virtual Disneyland of electronic entertainment which streams endlessly into our homes… Why then take the trouble of choosing a book and make the effort to read and use your brain to figure it out too?

Experts on the subject have no dearth of suggestions on how to get kids and teens hooked to the world of books. Make them relevant, some say; why take them to Malory Towers and  Hoggwarts, when the wide open fields or the fantastic mythology one’s own country can be the setting for stories? Again others believe one has to make an extra effort to get these kids’ attention  – sign up for  story reading workshops, take them to celebrity book launches or get movie stars to act out the stories in films and TV series so that they can go back to the written word.

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Or maybe, just find the time to sit and read together. Though the initiative comes from me, and I have to call upon my limited dramatic skills to make the narration as lively as possible, after a few days of doing this, she picks up the book on her own and looks for the page where we left off. I guess, this works best with my teen –  let me know what works with yours…

The F word…

Today I came upon an interesting bit of news, tucked away in the inner folds of the newspaper – actress Emma Watson leaving around copies of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale all across Paris in an attempt to enhance awareness about women’s issues.

Despite being in an industry where an image is carefully crafted to appeal to the widest public opinion, fortunately Watson has no qualms calling herself a feminist. This got me thinking about iconic feminist books, one of which is The Feminine Mystique by the American writer Betty Friedan. The title refers to “the problem that has no name” – a sense of worthlessness women feel in roles that require them to be emotionally, financially and intellectually and dependent upon their husbands.

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Published in 1963, the book grew from the responses Friedan got to a questionnaire she sent to other women in her 1942 Smith College graduating class. Most answers indicated a vague dissatisfaction with their lives which led Friedan to expand the scope of her research, including not only suburban housewives but also looking into the psychology, media, and advertising of the time. Through her findings, Friedan hypothesized that women are victims of a false belief system that requires them to find and meaning in their lives only through their marriage and motherhood.

The impact of the book was immense – it asserted that women’s issues were not merely a private matter but were shaped by forces of politics, culture, media and commerce. More importantly The Feminine Mystique went on to influence theories in other related fields such as politics, sociology, history and literature as well as women’s studies, thus ushering in the second wave feminism in United States.

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Monsoon Musings

With the monsoon clouds gradually spreading their welcome shadows over the length and breadth of India, I felt like searching for poems which would make apt reading as it gently drizzled outside.

And while I browsed through a few classic verses on rains, it occurred to me how different cultures feel about this natural phenomenon. For the European landscape, where rains usually intensify the cold and bleak weather conditions, it can mean misery and suffering while in a country like India where the fields and its people wilt under the blazing summer, the arrival of the rain-bearing monsoon winds – ‘from the Arabic word ‘mausim’, meaning seasonal – spells relief and prosperity.

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Here is a poem by renowned American poet Emily Dickinson, which depicts the transformative beauty of the rains – its arrival is celebrated almost as a festival, something that Indian folk culture can relate to !

Summer Shower

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.

-Emily Dickinson

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Literature and Setting

On a day when The Hindu carried an interview with the Booker-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy, my mind turned to what really goes into writing fiction. When the interviewer Zac O Yeah asks her about how much autobiographical detail goes into her book, she responds with a question of her own – “…where does your imagination end and experience begin?”

As I began to ponder over the question, my eyes swept over the misty blue hills visible from my front veranda and my attempted intellectual exercise took an unscheduled turn. So then, could a physical setting – the colours, sounds, smells and even the mood of a place affect your writing? I began to wonder…

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There are accounts that writers look for a peaceful and evocative places to compose poetry – certainly the Nobel Laureate Tagore did that! He not only visited naturally exquisite places in India like Ranikhet and Shillong where he wrote some of his best works but travelled to far-flung places like Japan, Turkey and South America which provided the impetus for his essays and letters on a range of topics like culture, nationalism and history. Then there are the famous English Romantic poets like William Wordsworth who found inspiration in the serenity and beauty of the Lake District.

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On the other extreme are women writers – no surprises there! – like Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen who barely left their immediate surroundings and yet left a mark on the history of English literature.

How about dirt, pollution, conflict, violence – can one write in a place marked by such intense negativity? Even though a writer could be writing about experiences like riots and forced migrations, but can he/she do it while all around the landscape burns and smokes?

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These are questions to which there are no simple answers and which take me to entirely different time periods and settings – far, far away from my bit of paradise in the hills where my dog sits softly curled up at my feet and nuzzles me for her breakfast.