Here are some brief book reviews since my last blog post. Have been short on time for posting detailed reviews, So here is just a quick update. In general, recommend most of these. Pick based on your mood.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – A chilling story of an 8 year old girl who loves to read in Nazi Germany, of her family that adopted her and of the jew hidden in their home. Story of war and of life. No matter how many WWII books or movies you may have read/seen, add this one to your list. One of my favorite books, I received the book as a gift, and I would surely pass it along as a gift to a friend.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Slow, detailed, epic story based in a hot, sweaty Caribbean land. Be prepared to be pained, to laugh at our own society, to fall in love with and to dislike characters who are a reflection of our own selves. A very big book indeed.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult – A story on racism that made my blood boil, made me reflect on my own biases. Not very impressed with the writing style, but still a story to be told and read. Some Jodi Picoult fans may find that the book is not written in her usual style. Another long book.
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – Story of dreamy, romantic author who unexpectedly finds herself in Guersney to discover a blend of stories of friendship and World War II. Light read although carries a heavy underlying theme. I loved this one and would like to own the book.
Tiny Beautiful Things – Advise on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed – Just what the title suggests, take it or leave it but surely read it kind of advise on love and life, touching, shocking, tear jerking stories.
This book is a rare gem and a must read. It is a window into her special life. It offers rare glimpses into her day to day life, her struggles and victories, her childhood recollections of various trips, people she met and her loving supportive family. It sheds light on the important role of her instructor Anne Sullivan in her success. Her command over the language impeccable and vivid. Her narratives are paintings made with words. This makes the book pleasurable to read. The book was delightful and high spirited for the most part.
One can not help but read her life’s story with rapt attention as the intrigue for her remarkable experiences keeps growing with every chapter – how can someone who can not see or hear describe intangibles like love, art or nature? How do they learn advanced mathematics or experience museums? or read countless books in Greek, German, French and English? The books aids in making sense of it all and much more.
“Even as the roots, shut in the darksome earth,
Share in the tree-tops joyance and conceive,
Of sunshine and wide air and winged things,
By sympathy of nature, so do I.”
I felt great admiration for her exceptional abilities, unshaken will power and extra-ordinary intelligence. The journey of not only how she overcame but triumphed over her deafness and blindness is incredibly fantastic. I felt my imagination of innumerable possibilities broaden through her journey.
As the recent American politics is no longer making sense to me, I can’t help but share an experience from earlier this week.
Nitin & I were seated next to a Brazilian family in this trendy, upscale restaurant on Rodeo drive. Our seats were so close to theirs that a conversation was very natural. Although at first I had wished that we should have asked for a more private, romantic table, I changed my mind as our conversation with them continued.
This Brazilian family of four, who was now living in Columbia, had previously spent few years in Switzerland and Brazil. The father, who was an executive in a multi-national company based out of Glendale, had come for work to LA with his fashionable wife, 8-year old son and probably 13 or 14 year old daughter. Unlike Nitin & me, this classy family assimilated perfectly into the creme de la creme of Rodeo Drive.
Myriad topics such as Rio-Olympics, politics (of course), world travel, etc. came up with the parents. Nitin & I also had a fun conversation with the two children who were very interested in talking about sports and international languages.
Finally the shy 8 year old popped a question to us – Are you for Trump or Hilary? To which the 14 year old instantly replied – Of course they must be for Trump! So the 8 year old turned to us and raised his eyebrows with a funny expression and in half disbelief said – are you really for Trump!
We were delighted and laughed at seeing that the 8 year old would believe anything the elder sister would say. The father was half-embarrassed and half-curious himself as he laughed nervously, but still awaited our response.
Nitin & I let the suspense build up for couple of minutes but the 8 year old had an almost disappointed look on his face that his new favorites had just done something that he quite disliked. So we broke the uncertainty and replied – Clinton. We expected a hurray from him. But instead the 8 year old groaned really loudly and said, Not Clinton! Ofcourse this surprised us given his previous sentiments and expressions. So we inquisitively asked if he would have preferred Trump? To which both the kids replied without wasting a second – No! Bernie!
We were incredibly Wowed by their declaration and were speechless as we did not anticipate that the children of their age would understand the difference in the various candidates, let alone have any interest in US political arena. We clarified that their question was to choose between Trump and Hilary. However. we too preferred Bernie and were very sad that he wasn’t in the race any more. But there was no more consoling to the kids. They were both dismayed that neither of the two candidates running for US Presidential election were up to the mark for the job.
Children and adults around the globe can see through the phony candidates that America is about to elect this year. This election is no longer about liberal versus conservative choices. It is a fake show and no one is buying this sh*t any more.
While growing up, I always wished that India would also become like America, in the sense that the people would have complete freedom, money, and equal opportunities. I believed in the ‘American Dream’. Although no-one had taught that to me, I knew it, wanted it and believed in it more than anything else.
Without any relation to America, I felt an akin like attachment to America, a country where honest, hard working, innovative and creative people are rewarded. I always carried the impression in my mind that in America there was no corruption, wrong were always punished and everyone was fairly treated. I felt like the American people were the most open minded in the whole wide world. And that only the really deserving leaders made it to the top here. It made up for me, in many ways what my own country could not do for me.
This is why I feel betrayed today. I am disheartened that the American politics is almost as corrupt as it is in my own country. Whether it was George W Bush before or Donald Trump now, they are as tacky, unpolished and vulgar as the rest of their kind elsewhere in the world. Whether it is the reason behind Black Lives Matter or Occupy Movement, my dream world is falling apart in front of my eyes.
With the change of scenery on the political battleground, I too feel as disconsolate as the two children from Brazil. I feel as if this world is sinking in a black hole, with no truthful, genuine leaders left any more to give me hope or to whom I can look up to for invoking peace, justice and prosperity.
The short book is written in the style of an earnest, poetic, forthright letter to his 15 year old. Never before have I read a book about someone’s life so much different than mine and it was an eye opening, enlightening and humane experience. I don’t know of anyone’s life to be as unfortunate in a developed nation as is the life of a person of color in America. (although I could see strong similarities in the challenges faced by the lower caste people and minorities in India). The letter is a narrative of his personal background and experiences, interesting and insightful stories from his own childhood, upbringing and youth, lessons he learnt from his life and the ones he wants his son to have the knowledge of.
There was no assuaging of emotions or mincing of words, he has written straight from the heart, a practical advice, that his son must learn how to live in this white-centric world where everyone is going after ‘the dream’. I personally agreed with his idea of of the dream as described in the book. (I myself came to the US seeking the same dream.) Racism exists and it has been institutionalized in front of our eyes. Ta-Nehisi initiates that perception for me, helping me see it in the slightest of behavior, action and words.
He points out similarities in the experiences of the black people from the time of his parents, to himself, to his son’s, and this helped me grasp the frustration and anger. I understood much better the oppression and helplessness that his community deals with.
I liked his poetic ramblings. He derailed a bit into trivial details a few times in the beginning not adding value to the main topic but I found it entertaining. I was pleased that he extended the idea of ‘the dream’ to not only resulting in unfair conduct to a race of color but also to how we have started taking nature for granted and accelerated the destruction of it.
The book requires keeping an open, imaginative and non judgmental mind every time he talks about ‘the Dream’ or ‘the white-skinned people’. That was the only way to empathize and genuinely comprehend their angst and fear.
If there was one important thing that I had to share that I learnt from the book, it is that they are asking for justice, and justice equal to all those pursuing ‘the dream’ and to the ‘white-skinned people’.
It is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking to understand the life of an African American from their point of view.
“I am Malala” paints a stunning, heavenly visual of Swat Valley (See pictures here, comparable to the beauty of Canada’s Banff National Park). It also describes blow by blow, incident by incident, the downward spiral of this beautiful place which ends up in complete havoc and destruction with Taliban’s encroachment.
Malala’s personal story is woven with multiple threads about the history of her family, of the Pashto community, of Swat Valley, of Pakistan and of Afghanistan. The stories of her friendships and squabbles in school and at home and their routine life under constant death threats is written with the backdrop of Jinnah’s vision, stories of various political leaders, the burgeoning power of Taliban, and inability of Pakistan’s leaders to tackle it all. The book gives a perspective of how their society transitions and deals with new kind of unforeseen and unprecedented challenges that they are unprepared to cope with.
Christina Lamb, a renowned foreign correspondent, has relayed informative facts about America-Pakistan love-hate political relationship, various barbarous acts carried out under Hudud law and jihadi movements, and the callousness of it all.
Malala’s story is also as much about her father’s as her own. His resolute desire to run a model school, educate students, and eradicate religious extremism has visibly had an influence on Malala’s personality. It also made him as much of a potential target as herself.
There are several conspiracy theories about Malala which reflect the dire state of mistrust in Pakistan. I felt like the book also helped clear those (for those who want to believe), although that was not the purpose of the book of course. Her contribution is difficult to grasp because it is immeasurable in tangible terms and unusual beyond belief for those of us who live a normal life. The book allows us a chance to empathize with the exceedingly uncommon and enormously fear-filled life situations that she and her family (also her countrymen) deal with. We know about the presence of religious extremism in Afghanistan/Pakistan through news/media, but hearing her story first hand is eye-opening and appalling.
If there is anyone who has lived up to her name, it is Malala as she is named after Malalai of Maiwand, a national folk hero of Afghanistan. Amongst all the millions of people and children in Pakistan, she was the only 11-15 year old who has repeatedly/loudly/clearly expressed the need for girls’ education and peace in the face of death and war with Taliban. (Note: Nobel Peace Prize has generally been full of controversies due to its political nature and it is awarded to qualified nominees from a limited pool of applicants) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Peace_Prize).
Discussions of gender equality and War and development in the western world are very advanced where we take education and peace for granted. However, in her world, to even ask for Education and peace means putting one’s life on the line. It requires extraordinary courage and conviction, which she demonstrated at a very young age.
The last section of the book talks about her family’s journey from the time she was shot to their life in London. It was very intriguing to learn how and which political leaders got involved, who played what role in giving her a new life and all the extra-ordinary politics that went on behind the scenes. Highly recommend the book “I am Malala“ and also watch the documentary “He named me Malala“ (which complements the book).
Imagine a sleepy and charming beach town on a tiny sliver of peninsula emerging from the southeast coast of Belize. Here Nitin and I woke up to a stunning yellow sunrise over the calm waters and for as far as you could see into the infinity, there was only the blue of the sea and the sky. We ate a skimpy breakfast in a rush, tossed our bag-pack on the beach chairs and pulled out a tandem Kayak to enjoy the azure Caribbean water. As always, I was over-enthusiastic – Yahoooo!!! We are going to Kayak, baby!
We had begun on the right foot, quite literally. We had managed to sit in the Kayak without turning it upside down, marking our first success of the trip already. An island far away from the hotel was visible on that crisp morning, and in that moment of exhilaration, it felt easily attainable. We decided to kayak there, ignoring the Caribbean breeze that was starting to pick up. Left right, left right, left right we kept paddling towards our mission… the mystical, mysterious island.
As time went by, the wind got stronger, waves got bigger and our hearts started pounding even faster. Our Kayak glided up and down with the gigantic waves creating a roller-coaster effect. We were scared but we covered our fear by celebrating how close we were to the island. Before we knew it, we had arrived what appeared to be an enormous isolated island of Mangroves. The water surrounding it was so shallow and crystal clear that we could see the rock-sized stones beneath us. We felt giddy with excitement on having made it. We did a couple of hi-five with our paddles, took a few selfies and videos using our water camera. But our cheerfulness was short-lived. The wind-gods over-powered us and they were fierce. Our kayak was jolted several times and thrown against the Mangroves. We were not overturned, yet, but we were drowning in water as the monstrous waves continued to crash into our faces.
We frantically began to kayak back towards the hotel, but the wind kept pushing us backwards. Boom, crash, splash, the Caribbean wind and waves had shown their true colors. We were paddling really really hard but were moving at a snail’s pace. After two hours of having left the mangrove island, we became famished and tired. We had no food or water, sun was growing hot overhead, salty water was burning our skin and the wind was withering our not-so-strong arms. We hardly seemed to be getting anywhere. Our mental and physical strength was waning.
We were exhausted and worried – What if our bag-packs got stolen from the beach? What if we never made it back? We were starting to lose hope, existential questions started coming to mind, not just of food and water but about family, life and death, what had we accomplished so far in our lives. Our fear and nervousness slowed us down even further. There was not a single soul around us in the sea to whom we could send our SoS call. What if they don’t find us, ever? With this intolerable thought, we managed to find some more strength and synchrony. Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage and it will promisingly lead to a rewarding experience.
It dawned on us that we didn’t have to make it back to the hotel, we simply had to make it to the mainland, so if we kept rowing sideways along side the wind, we would touch eventually touch the mainland some where and from there we would figure it out. Once we had this strategy, there was a renewed sense of purpose and energy, a silver lining in the sky. Although we were in the unplanned third hour of testing adventure, we propelled very mechanically, ignoring all the blisters, sunburn and body aches. There was a fresh determination to reach the mainland by hook or by crook.
We were so focused on the rowing that we barely noticed when we hit the beach. I shrieked with elation of having made it alive. We jumped out on the sand and did a little happy dance. As we ate a much deserved fruit plate and drank a cool pinã-colada, we recounted all the events in the last few hours. We sat and laughed at the wide-ranging emotions we had experienced in the middle of the sea. We had gone from enjoying the serene peaceful waters, to counting our last minutes on earth to this haven of a beach and fruit plate in a matter of just 3 hours.
We had drifted quite far away from the hotel, later we calculated it was about 5 miles. After a nice long break, we resumed kayaking from this unknown beach back to our hotel by keeping close to the land, which was less windy and felt safer.
The fatigue of previous 3 hours didn’t bother anymore as we had found renewed confidence in our abilities. We had not only proven to be a successful team but had also corrected our poor past records forever.
At the hotel, we found our bags in tact. We wanted to tell everyone on the beach who was sun-bathing and enjoying that pretentiously innocent Caribbean breeze that we had just gotten a little carried away.
Several months ago someone living in India dismayingly declared to me during a conversation – There are no poor people in India anymore. This was news to me because it is a commonly known fact that 70% of India’s population is quite if not abjectly poor. Talk about “what is on the periphery of our vision, continues to stay on the periphery and we don’t see it.” Just two days later he shared with us an absolutely adorable picture of his family in the verdant green fields of India sitting on a bullock cart driven by a very old, thin and frail man with white hair, chocolate colored skin, un-shaven, un-groomed white beard, with his skeleton structure showing through the dirty white tattered raggy kurta and cotton half pants, with a desi style topi, very much a part of this picture but my friend had clearly failed to notice or acknowledge as poor. Maybe it was the smile on the poor man’s face that disqualified him from being considered as poor. Or maybe in my friend’s world, rich people sometimes like to dress in rags and look so weak and frail.
Anyway, that dialogue has inspired this post. Not everyone who is NOT begging or NOT starving to death, is NOT NOT poor. What I mean is, they don’t always have to look poor (especially as you imagine poor to look like) or always die of poverty in order to be or prove that they are indeed poor. In fact, most of the poor India are living a hellish of a life and ‘d be rather dead but are not. So they strive to live as best as they can.
Here is a pic of a (poor) lady who we commonly fail to notice or see as poor. I called her the invisible cook because her presence in our world is usually not noticed unless she doesn’t turn up before we get hungry. In my home, she is helping us out temporarily while mummy is resting after her surgery.
Saku-ben’s eyes are crossed but she looks beautiful to me in her delicate features and unassuming smile. Her skin is dry, stretched and rough but her spirits couldn’t be higher. She is a single mother with one daughter and grandchildren with a temporary roof over her head. She walks her way to every single home where she cooks in her ragged rubber slippers. Although thin and frail looking, she has the stamina of a sportswoman, that somehow constantly reminds me of a bamboo tree. She works non-stop and extremely hard from early morning until late night. She repeats her sari every second day. She uses the dreadful public bathrooms and yet she is always showered and clean. Her meals are the most simple and amazing Desi (Indian) ones I’ve ever had.
On the first day of my arrival, I complimented her cooking and then assumed that I had made it evident that I liked what she cooked. But since then she calls me to taste the food to check if it was OK every single time she cooks. Very soon I realized that it wasn’t whether the food was okay or not (because it was lip-smacking every single time and she also knew it, her shining face told me so) as much as the compliments that I gave her after tasting the food that she craved to hear. Just that one sentence I say, twice a day, probably, rather, most certainly, makes her day! (And now it makes my day too.)
Her curiosity is perky and really excites me. She likes to ask why for everything. I haven’t asked her why she asks so many whys all the time. That habit of hers irritates the heck out of bed-ridden mummy who wants to simply say “because I said so”, but I have a feeling, from the sparkle in her eyes, that this otherwise illiterate woman probably feels like she learnt something new every time her why is answered.
Yes she has a mobile phone, because it helps her stay connected with the families whose homes she has to go to work, but it is a luxury which is not misused for her family gossip or WhatsApp (like the rest of us people-with-money-and-time do) and it indubitably does not make her UN-poor.
Saku-ben, the invisible cook, is indeed poor, who can not afford to lose a single family’s work else her family will most likely go without a meal that evening.
Poor people like her, just like the rest of us, also want to look and feel normal. Nobody likes to feel poor, not even the poor people. They also desire dignity and self respect. And like her, they too wish to earn their way through this life through hard work and honesty. We just need to have a little more faith in people and show kindness in our behavior.
Please listen very carefully
For taken Hypothetically
A single singularity
Exploded quite impressively
Creating stars and galaxies
With what must be quite logically
And coolly cosmologically
The building blocks of you and me
And continents and land and sea
A process evolutionary
Through dinosaur hegemony
Into our human ancestry
To cultural diversity
A growing global family
Religion met the sciences
Where people made discoveries
Of fundamental articles
And elementary particles
Both magical and technical
And also Mathematical
And random and symmetrical
Chemical and classical
Explained the metaphysical
That all things were divisible
But there must be a particle
Much smaller than a neutron ball
When answering the Hadron call
Will finally inform us all
That we are one and we are all
That we are great and we are small
We are day and we are night
We are dark and we are light
And I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together
I am the egg man
I am the egg man
I am the Walrus!
Coo coo ca Chooo!
When I used to live in India, Pappa used to hand draw maps for me so that I could learn the roads and get around the city on my own. His all-time favorite story is that when he first came to Ahmedabad many decades ago, he had first walked around the streets as that was the best way to know the streets of the new city.
Right now I have come home on a visit after couple of years. Ever since I left, the outskirts of city, especially the areas surrounding our then new apartment, which were hardly visited at that time, have now become prime areas of the town. There are new roads and new buildings everywhere. Many of my known landmarks have also changed. While I recognize all the old roads, I am lost in the world of new ones.
Yesterday I decided to take out my old scooty and go for a ride on my own in Pappa’s spirit of exploration and get a sense of belonging. (Of course) I got lost on the way back home. Ended up going in a huge loop around the city only to return home by following the only road I recognized, simultaneously staring at all the new buildings around me, trying to put old and new pieces of this puzzle together. Upon reaching home, I got very excited about my mini adventure and told Pappa, who got an anxiety attack hearing this. An hour later, he very enthusiastically came to my room scratching his head with one hand and holding two papers in the other. (See attached picture).
“This is still a work-in-draft” he explained, “I have to put some more landmarks and roads in it, but let me show you how the new roads work.” He was also a bit worried because one of the roads that flowed from the top paper into the bottom one was slightly mis-aligned when both papers were kept together. He intended to re-draw the entire map after showing this to me.
I reminded him that while these maps were worthy enough to be send to Google Maps and that he needed to be sent on a boat from centuries ago as a cartographer along with the world explorers of that time, he need not re-draw a more perfect map!
This, is my genius dad, whom now I have put to task to draw maps of some more of the other newly developed parts of the city and he is thrilled about this new assignment :)
Don’t let a little superstition ruin someone’s (probably your beloved daughter’s) life.
Although I had read this a couple of months ago, the memory of a recent post on Periods (for (open-minded) Adults only) on Twitter is still very very fresh in my mind to the extent that I keep playing it over and over in my head at random times sheerly for the truth of it – her words couldn’t be more true – “I bleed each month to help make humankind a possibility. my womb is home to the divine. a source of life for our species.whether i choose to create or not. but very few times it is seen that way…”
Belonging to a “modern” world, living independently in US, earning my own way through this life, talking and thinking big things about women’s liberation and women’s equality, I am left shaken since a conversation on my first night in India some days ago (as I visit from California (sometimes when one starts living in a certain world, one might forget the truth of other worlds that exist in parallel)); as this young married but separated maid (living with her parents) who works at our home was packing left-over dinner for her younger brother and felt necessary to clarify to me that she was avoiding touching the food with her hands (hence the use of spatula) because she was in time and that she should not commit sin and bring bad luck and make the food inedible for her brother by touching it even by mistake during this time.
The manner in which she narrated those sentences (using 3rd person instead of 1st), it was clear to me that it was not something she understood but just something she had heard repeatedly over the years and she had simply recited those exact sentences to me like a parrot. It occurred to me that she must have been thinking about it in her mind when I walked in. She had been brainwashed to believe that she was dirty this time of the month. The irony of this thinking couldn’t be more obvious than now when she was bringing food on her brother’s plate and still made to believe she could be dirty at any time in her life.
I had a strong urge to make her sit right there and tell her otherwise. I thought of telling her that, in fact, we worship women who are in Time and that it was considered a very fortunate thing to happen and that in fact she should touch the food with her hand to bring good luck. But I knew better than turning her into a rebel at 11 PM on a random evening of her life as I did not know the consequences she might face had I taken that rash emotional step without thinking it through. What if she blurted what I told her back to her family and got beat up. That wouldn’t be helpful at all. I felt so stupid as I realized that I had never given a thought to what I would do if I experienced something like this (which is very common in India) first hand.
If anything had to be done about it, it had to be properly thought out, planned and implemented, not randomly try to change one person’s mindset without changing the environment they lived in and get them into trouble. For all the activist thoughts I have otherwise, in this one moment, I felt humbled as my heart truly sank while reality slapped me in my face.
As I am writing this blog, it is becoming more and more certain to me that although I am feeling helpless at the moment, I will do something about this when the time is right.
The morning after I wrote this blog, I got invited to a Goddess Puja at a neighbor’s home (We Indians are not only very religious, our religious beliefs are highly ceremonial and very frequent). My otherwise very kind and progressive mother gently reminded me that “I hope you are not in Time, otherwise you can not go for that Puja (for the fear of it being a sin)”. I had forgotten this cardinal rule ever since I moved to the US, where my life hasn’t stopped even once because of periods.
This is such a common superstition in our culture that even the most progressive women/people believe in it very honestly and staunchly. I rebelliously asked the same question to her that she has heard me ask for several years in my childhood – “But isn’t the goddess a female too Mummy? Haven’t the Gods made me like this?” She left me alone because she secretly agrees with me.
As a child, when I was IN TIME and my (highly religious and old) grandparents were in town, every one in and around my house, who had no business in my Periods, knew about my personal matter and I was asked not to enter the kitchen and kept away from all Gods because I was considered Dirty. Of course, it wasn’t just me who was subject to this funda, all women in the house were. Everyone knows this system in our culture, no-one has to be taught or told. All the Beautiful Dirty Women, in good intention, believe, accept and follow it very sincerely. Essentially, they have all accepted they are DIRTY when IN TIME.
It isn’t enough that we feel PMS-y, moody, in pain and sick during these Periods, now we also have to feel highly embarrassed, ashamed and shitty. It is a very subtle way of making women feel inferior.
I am about to share a secret as this seems like an apt time and space.
After I was past my 10th grade, I learnt how to hide my periods from my family and since then, I have lied shamelessly to everyone who reminded me about MY TIME. I have, in fact, gone to ALL the ceremonies and temples while having Periods that I wasn’t otherwise allowed to attend (and some times my mother knew but chose to act ignorant because I know in my heart, she agreed with me – Don’t ask Don’t tell). I can assure you through my first hand experience, NO bad luck was ever brought. I had secretly fought for my right.
This thought process and culture can and will NOT change, until every parent starts letting go of this superstition against women and is willing to take a chance. Sometimes bad things may happen, but I hope the educated, wise and intelligent people of our society will put a little mathematics to work and associate that random bad luck to probability rather than a woman in Time.
The only way to change this taboo is by worshipping the women in Time around you, especially inviting them to all special, religious occasions where they are otherwise uninvited and by treating them normally, with love and care. The only dirty thing about Periods is our taboo-ed thinking about it.