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!

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…

Rediscovering Don Quixote

 

While setting up house, I discovered that the abridged copy of Don Quixote – admirably retold by Henry Brook – that I had bought some months ago for my teenage daughter was still in a suspiciously good condition. After being assured that “Of course, Mom, I have read it till the end”, I decided to probe no further since I was myself guilty of merely skimming this classic when it was part of my undergraduate curriculum way back in college.

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So, I decided to give the Don another chance.

To say that I enjoyed it would be an utter understatement! Don Quixote, which is today best remembered as the source of common proverbs like “tilting at the windmills” and adjectives like ‘Quixotic’, has so much more to offer its readers. Yes, it is bustling with pranks, comedy, eccentricity, and wit but at the same time it underlines the importance of being true to one’s purpose – no matter how much derided by a world which does not understand.

Both the main characters are unforgettable, to a great extent because of the way they contrast and complement each other. The lean, middle-aged Don Quixote fantasizes about being an errant knight which repeatedly puts him at the receiving end of pranks and skirmishes, often with great cost to his physical and emotional well-being. His squire Sancho Panza on the other hand is more practical and loves his creature comforts, especially a good meal of pig’s trotters and a flagon of red wine.

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And yet all is not so simple – in the second book, Sancho Panza too succumbs to illusions perpetrated by the Duke and his wife. And in fact it is Don Quixote – the butt of jokes all this while -who eventually comes off as the epitome of true knightly qualities like simplicity, modesty, helpfulness as well as courage and conviction that are not just physical but moral.

Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects about the work is a self-referential exercise by the author. In Part Two, Don Quixote is told about how a book has been written about his ‘exploits’ and what a huge best-seller it has turned out to be. Here we can appreciate Cervantes’ nod at his actual literary project and possibly poor financial returns since at one point, the Don asks whether the author has been able to make any money out of the book – a predicament that us writers can commiserate with!

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Miguel de Cervantes is today regarded as among the greatest writers of all times and the most famous poet of Spain. Though his literary corpus includes poetry, plays and other novellas, his most enduring work remains Don Quixote often praised by eminent literary historians as the “first modern novel”. For someone like me, reading it on the other side of the world and four hundred years later, the novel not only appeals with its engaging plot, lovable characters, gentle humane vision but most poignantly the idea that before time runs out, follow your dreams – if possible with a companion who need not be a romantic partner and need not entirely share them but just someone who has your back!

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In Silence, Thy Voice will be Heard…

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

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Today – on the 156th birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore – these words of the Nobel Laureate’s deeply moving song is a reminder of the continuing relevance of his poetry and other writings. He was the first Non-European to receive a Nobel Prize when in 1913, his collection of poems titled, Gitanjali was awarded the coveted prize for Literature in recognition for having “written the finest poems of an idealistic tendency”.

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And yet his global reputation has not always been even.

When W.B Years, Ezra Pound and others tried to make the world aware of Tagore’s works, they heavily depended on the popularity of contemporary schools of mysticism, Theosophical Society and other spiritualist groups. This led to the image of Tagore as a Mystic of the East, the Bard who was the keeper of timeless fountains of spirituality and through his poetry was now spreading its precious waters across the world. Indeed Rabindranath’s physical appearance—handsome, bearded, dressed in Oriental robes—may, to some extent, have encouraged his being seen as a carrier of exotic wisdom. The problem with this image was that instead of encouraging people to evaluate Tagore’s works in actual literary terms, made them seem merely spiritualist, and as time went on, he and his writings began to be seen as repetitive and distant.

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The truth on the other hand was that his short stories, novels, plays, essays and letters show a keen engagement with the real world. He had practical and clearly thought out views about nationalism, war and peace, cross-cultural education, freedom of the mind, the importance of rational criticism, the need for openness – and did not just concern himself with mystical and religious experiences as the West would have liked to believe.

Tagore’s essays particularly traverse a wide range of topics, beginning from literature, politics, culture, social change, religious beliefs to philosophical analysis and international relations. Co-inciding with the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence, a selection of Tagore’s letters by Cambridge University Press was published which has helped readers and critics to rediscover Tagore’s ideas and reflections and made them extremely relevant to the modern world. Apart from being a literary genius, Tagore was a talented painter as well whose pictures, with their mixture of representation and abstraction, have started to receive the acclaim that they have long deserved.

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While the rest of the world has now only started rediscovering the beauty and power of his writings, Rabindranath Tagore has always remained a towering figure in the Bengali literary tradition which goes back to more than a thousand years. Not surprisingly in 1971, the newly independent country of Bangladesh chose one of Tagore’s songs—the “Amar Sonar Bangla” which means “my golden Bengal”—as its national anthem. Tagore had already composed the music and lyrics of Jana Gana Mana or “Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds” which had been chosen as India’s national anthem way back in 1947. This makes Tagore the only poet in the world to have been the composer of the national anthems in two countries – surely as significant a measure of his lasting relevance and greatness among the authors of history as any.

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– Excerpt from 20 GREATEST AUTHORS OF THE WORLD Kalyani Mookherji, Prabhat Prakashan, 2016. ISBN: 9788184303599, 8184303599

Strong Women of the Past

“…Human in their fallibility and sublime in their ambition”

These words elegantly describe the main figures of the book, Heroines: Powerful Indian Women in Myth and History. Authored by Ira Mukhoty and published by Aleph, this work of non-fiction focuses on figures as diverse as the Queen Draupadi and shepherdess Radha from mythology to the gifted courtesan Ambapalli, the courageous queen Laxmibai, influential Mughal princess Jahan Ara and the resourceful Begum Hazrat Mahal in history. The book makes a strong statement of reclaiming the stories of powerful Indian women – both from wilful forgetfulness of male historians and from bland standardization by cultural nationalists.

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Backed by solid research and narrated in a fluid language, the book appealed to both the scholar and the mother in me. The author not only resurrects women historical figures like Hazrat Mahal and Jahanara Begum whose influence and contribution to running empires have conveniently been glossed over by mainstream historians but also presents barely-known facts about them – for example Hazrat Mahal’s part-African lineage and Jahanara Begum’s immense fortune as she was one of only three women to own trading ships in her time. Most significantly, the book throws these characters in relief rather than indulging in hagiographic or critical accounts that mainstream historians are wont to do. Thus we are reminded that Radha was a married woman when she pined for Krishna and that Rani Laxmibai repeatedly sought the help of British officials to protect her people, before finally taking up arms. Likewise, figures like Ambapalli and Raziya Sultan who now in popular culture are merely associated with their sexual appeal/transgressions emerge as intelligent, brave women who became game-changers, not because of how they looked, but because of their ambition and worldly wisdom.

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What makes this book a success in my opinion is that it sets you thinking – why has history been a chronicle of only male kings and generals? Surely a developed civilization requires more than that…teachers, engineers, doctors, writers, artists! And what about the millions of women who silently go on with the practical business of running a home and family so that an Ashoka or a Chanakya can participate in the public domain and excel there. Indeed, we study history – but where is ‘herstory’?

And, oh by the way, this review of the book is entirely my own – no commercials here  ;D

First blog post

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“In this Universe, teeming with life –

Amidst this plenitude,

have I found a place –

My very own space

…and it fills me with wonder !”

These words indicate my humble attempts to translate one of the most epiphanic songs written by Rabindranath Tagore, winner of 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. In the original, the Bengali song  begins as “Aakaash Bhora, Shoorjo Taara…” and as it gradually rises to a sonorous crescendo, it never ceases to inspire me with the realization that Life – with all its vicissitudes and anxieties – is a Gift to cherish and nurture. And every time I hear the song, it moves me to silently bow my head in grace and thanks to the Creator.

There is, in fact, a more direct reason for choosing the words of this classic Rabindrasangeet to launch my blog – words, books, poetry, music and being a Bengali are all facets of my identity that I am passionate about. At the same time I am keenly aware that there are so many writers out there whose blogs on these topics are perhaps more popular than mine can hope to be.

And yet – here am I…This blog is my effort to claim in this digital universe a place of my own…my very own space…!!!