WHAT I’VE LEARNED ABOUT LIFE BY WATCHING PEOPLE DIE

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Death is a fearful word,but inevitable.

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“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

Mark Twain

I was a child the first time I saw a man die. I don’t remember the event as particularly traumatic. The man was a stranger and I watched the tragedy unfold through a window, the glass glaring the line between reality and fantasy and giving the sensation of watching a particularly disturbing television program. While swimming in the basement pool of our apartment block my father, sister and I noticed a group of 3 people sleeping on the private dock outside the building. We saw the beer bottles and noted that all three were in their underwear and figured they were just “sleeping it off”. My father ran outside after one man got up, stumbled to the end of the dock and got into the…

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Amaryllis

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Its simply amazing piece of prose.The words draw you into a world of your own

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Shinedown – Amaryllis

‘I don’t want to tell you who I am,’ she whispers just as I’m thinking how much I want her to keep talking.
I want her to talk to me until I know enough to make her the main character of a novel I’d never even thought of before her.
‘You don’t have to,’ I say, ‘but I would love to discover you.’
‘Create me, then.’
She takes my hand and wraps it around her waist, and as I hold her I think that maybe this girl shouldn’t be out there. I shouldn’t think of her as a character, artistic as that might be. She doesn’t need to belong to the world. She doesn’t even have to belong to me. Some paintings aren’t meant to be exposed, they’re only meant to express something.
To keep flirting with God’s masterpiece feels almost embarrassing. I just want to capture her essence and remember it…

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Mahashweta: Sudha Murthy

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I was looking for a book to read with not more than 150 page or so. Mahashweta fit the bill. But I was not prepared for what was to come. Today when I put the book down I feel that I have lost a friend. So attached did I get to the protagonist that, I feel she is still with me. Anupama will stay with me for long for she has taught me some very valuable lessons.

The plot: This book is a moving tale of a female protagonist, who gets ostracized by all and sundry, including the man who marries after despite opposition , for the only reason that she has started developing white patches on her skin( leukoderma).

The novel starts off with the fairy tale like romance between Anupama and Anand. Anupama is your classic Indian heroine, a beauty beyond parallel with brains to match. The only defect about her is her poverty. The hero, Anand , is a charming, brilliant, but abundantly rich hero, who falls in love at the first sight with the heroine. Not all is hunky dory in this fairy tale. There is the typical mother-in-law who is always flaunting the social status, and an arrogant sister, who happens to get away with her mistakes just because she is rich (What a cliche!!!). And to match the mother-in-law we have the equally typical incapable father of Anupama, who is poor and a sorry figure, as is typical in Indian setup. Anand marries Anupama despite obvious confrontations and dispapproval of his mother.

He later flies to England for his higher studies leaving Anupama behind. She is convinces that he will be by her side always. Anand tells her to join him later, meanwhile Anupama is diagnosed with leukoderma/ Vitiligo. This releases a barrage of curses and taunts from the mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Anupama is all alone without any care or support , she turns to Anand for emotional support and soothing words. Being a doctor himself she has full faith in him. But she realizes that her faith was ill placed. For all she gets in return is his aloofness, uncaring and heartless. As as person obsessesed with beauty and perfection, Anand in a way highlights the stereotypical male mindset in India. All men want fair, slim, beautiful brides. This is only in keeping with the idea of having a trophy wife who can be showcased to friends and relatives, and then put away within the cages of marital home.

Anupama’s faith is tested in every step from there on. She is not allowed to live peacefully in her in-laws place nor in her parents’. Having suffered immensely, she decides to take the reins of her life into her own hands. She decides to live independently without any inhibitions and succeeds in the end.  In the course she meets people whom she not only inspires but also forges bonds that are thicker than blood.

For me its a book that I will definitely re-read. Not because it is something untold, rather for the very reason it is written. Through the novel Sudha Murthy has touched upon some very sensitive topics. These are understated and woven expertly throughout the book. Take for eg: the expectation of grooms to have a beautiful bride and also satatite their greed in terms of dowry. And if the bride is poor all hell is let loose. Similarly poverty is a curse for a girl if she is unemployed and dependent on her parents. Thus, self reliance and self independence is of utmost importance for every girl. Mnay incidents are criticized as cliches, but ironically they are very much the truth of our Indian society. Had Anupama brought dowry she would have been treated differently and not suffered. The society at large sees a woman who is separated/divorcee as an easy target and often perpetrate her privacy.

Though the ending is not your ‘happily-ever-after’ but nevertheless it is inspiring and uplifting enough for me to pick the book up for a read again.

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                                                                                                                                                                           The slideshow contains pictures of passages that left a mark with me. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Happy reading.

Her Father’s Daughter: Shekhar Mehra

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The blurb at the back of the book completely belies what lies inside 215 pages novel. I was taken unaware when I finished the book, waiting to let it all sink in. the blurb reads:

” When a girl child is born into the zamindar family of a village called Veerganj, she brings no cheer to anyone around. She is only just accepted by her family. But little Gayatri has set her rules early: she is not content with mere acceptance . She has taken after her father and demands attention,which she manages to get, and in ample measure. But when the same attention is denied to her as a woman- as a beautiful woman-what does she do? Just about anything. It’s her life after all.”

My first reaction was that it’s a book that must speak of woman’s liberation or a girl’s fight for self. But I was not prepared for what I read between the pages.

No matter how much we try and ignore or try to push it behind curtains or under the carpet, the truth is that the obsolete customs of caste biases, untouchability and the want for male child is very much in existence. It did not quite come to an end, it’s best to say it has been marginalized and forced to retreat from the face of urban India. But they can still be found in remote, far-off villages that are rigid and unbending in religious and social traditions. The Britishers may have left our land centuries ago, but we as a society are yet to fully wake up. In these remote interior villages there are millions of peoples labelled outcastes or untouchables, the lesser human beings. They are subjected to every conceivable form of discrimination. The high castes grade cows and snakes higher than their own fellow beings.

In urban areas it happens under cover of money. The higher castes who would never dream of touching them, are willing to work with them and under them, given the prospect of earning profit, read money. Though abolished by the constitution and the practice punishable by law, it still continues to play havoc with innocent lives.

These people suffered long and are still suffering. They did not raise their voice for the fear of retribution. Their counterparts in cities have survived and some of them are thriving as well. But those in the village never raised their eyes to look up, being employed as labour and menial hands, they feared loss of job and means of sustenance.

The government has set up panchayats for them where they can go for help and address their problems. But little did they know that the same enforcement agencies which should deliver justice have been bought and pockets warmed with money. These agencies cater to the interest of the high castes and are also manned by them. The Utopian dream did not deliver on ground. Poverty, illiteracy, caste system, political interference, factionalism, money and muscle power all grazed the dream flat.

It is under this premise that Gayatri’s story unfolds. She is born into a zamindar family. As a girl child she is unwanted and only just accepted. But she soon wraps herself around her father’s heart displaying the very same traits as her father. She is bold, fierce, independent and assertive. As a child her whims and fancies are brushed aside. Reality of dawns upon her when she grows up into a beautiful woman. Her movements are restricted and it slowly sinks into her what caste biases are. As a girl she has no say in how her life unfolds. Her father is a well known face in the village of Veerganj. To raise his position a bar higher in the society he decided to get Gayatri married to the son of a famous politician with a hold in state capital. The father completely disregards his daughter choice in the matter. Even when Gayatri hurts herself, she is asked to maintain composure and see that she will financially well settled. It did not matter if she like the boy or not. Matters escalate and go out of hand when she seeks help from Ghanshyam, an untouchable. She lets loose a can of worms and opens up Pandora’s box of troubles. Her father’s fury meets no match in deciding her future. Things turn ugly leaving the family disoriented and fractured.

The characters are well rounded and life like. There are no caricatures, rather genuine creation. All the characters have a progression as the book climaxes, no one character remains stolid.

The book is absolutely transparent with respect to how society functions in the villages. The untouchables are cornered towards the borders of the villages. The dark side of the Indian villages is exposed and so is the farce in the name of legislation and justice, namely Panchayats. There is no savior for these people and they are trampled by those with money and power. Shekhar Mehra has given a scathing account of how these people suffer, the tortures, the punishment and the suffering. The author has been true to the village life in depicting the  crude pleasure the muscle power enjoyed while exercising their strength on womenfolk.  Stripping the of their dignity, leaving them stark naked to all eyes, one can easily feel the humiliation and dejection of the people. The simplicity and candour with which Shekahr has written the novel, one would feel as if it’s recounting of a real incident.

If you have faint heart and gory scenes of violence and bloodshed make you queasy then do not pick this book. There are many scenes which recount extreme violence, savagery, brutishness and sadism.

 

The Binding Vine: Shashi Deshpande

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I am clueless how I happened to read this book. While looking for my next read, I was browsing through the bookshelf in the library. The book cover and the title held my attention. The lady in the cover especially had me captivated, and send mixed signals to my mind. On one hand, the lady seems sad and subservient, docile and acquiescent, yet something about her speaks strength as well. The title made me dive right in to find ‘ The Binding Vine‘.

Just like the title and cover made me think, after I finished reading the book, I was washed away with a flood of emotions that seemed to engulf me . I was drowned in the lives of the women the book spoke of, and many a times felt that I was standing in their place. The writing style of Shashi  is absolutely simple and natural. Yet it speaks volumes in a few pages without any effort. She manages to maintain a flow throughout the novel, slowly ‘binding’ her readers into the web of lives. She beautifully ties up all the subplots and has beautifully captured the issues faced by men and women under an oppressive patriarchal society. The novel does romanticize or glorify grief and pain, rather it is treated in a realistic manner wherein the writer manages to hit when tender. The hurt, the pain and agony of the character are real and when reading you are drawn to feel empathy.

 

Plot: This is a hard hitting novel about the issues that surround women in a male dominated/ patriarchal setup. The novel is triggered by the narration of the protagonist, Urmila and the women in her life, with whom her life gets entangled due to chance encounters. They come from various strata of the society which highlights that the general mindset of menfolk irrespective of the class remains the same. The women come together at various stages and happen to bind themselves together with Urmila.

Urmila is mourning the death of her beloved infant daughter Anu.Her mother constantly tries to take her out of this depression but she is not willing to come out of it, not yet. She wants to make sure this grief of hers stays alive and wants it to become a part of her life, just so that at any given situation she would never forget her baby, her Anu. But being caught in an unhappy marriage where her husband is away on the sea most of the times, Urmila finds it difficult to cope with this loss. She struggles to accept the reality, both relating to her marriage with Kishore and Anu’s death.

While battling with her grief, Urmila’s life crosses path with three women; Mira, her dead mother-in-law; Kalpana, a brutal rape survivor and her impoverished mother, Shakutai. As their story unfolds, so does their strength and courage blossoms.

Urmila gets pulled into the sad tale of a comatose Kalpana , who  had been raped brutally , but whose mother adamantly refuses to file a case because she has two more daughters to marry and she fears that the ‘daughters honor’ would be sabotaged and tarnished beyond repair. As the days progress Kalpana is forcibly shifted to another far away hospital much against her mother’s wish. This forces her mother  to revise her views and give a statement to a journalist of how her daughter was raped and how injustice had been meted out to her all along . The process to justice is quickened , but little did Shakutai know that she was opening a can of worms. With the statement to the press, she comes face-to-face with some ugly truths and revelations that topple her world . Through Shashi’s work we see a reflection of the society when it comes to rape and the way the family is treated. Woman must know fear. This line comes from Shakutai after her brief encounter with Urmila. She complains that her daughter invited the rape by grooming herself and drawing attention to herself when she should have tried to be invisible. Urmila protests knowing it to be a case of victim blaming. The daughter shouldn’t ideally have anything to fear; she argues and yet, but Urmi believes she was probably afraid, since she too feels the chill :

I know how fearfully I look back, my heart thudding in panic, when I hear footsteps behind me on a dark deserted street.

The victim-blaming isn’t limited to the mother. The people in the colony think that her behavior was ‘objectionable’ or that she was prostitute (because that would justify the rape!). Police registers it as a case of an accident because a rape case is too much trouble for everybody – police, doctors, family, victim etc. By the end , Shakutai sees light and in calm undertones tells Urmila that her Kalpana is “not at all like that . She is a nice girl” . 

In between her grief and Kalpana’s case , Urmila unearths the sordid past of her long dead mother in law Mira. Urmila comes across Mira’s poetry, hand written notes, which spoke about her torturous arranged marriage to Kishore’s father and the life she desired. Mira was married off to a man who fell in love with her beauty at a social function. Her beauty leads her to become a victim of domestic violence and marital rape. Being a gifted writer she penned down beautiful poems, which years later capture Urmila’s attention who finds an escape in them. Urmila makes it her aim to get the poems published in the honor of the woman, who was forcefully made a wife and the mother. There are lines that speak for themselves for eg: These lines MIra pens when renamed as Nirmala . These four lines sum up the essence of what every young girl is taught the moment she is betrothed to a man .

A glittering ring gliding on the rice
Carefully traced a name ‘Nirmala’
Who is this? None but I,
My name hence, bestowed upon me .

Nirmala, they call, I stand satue-still.
Do you build the new without razing the old ?
A tablet of rice, a pencil of gold .
Can they make me Nirmala ? I am Mira

The women in the novel are weak, strong, submissive and independent. They are all bound by a vine called Urmila, nurturing it with love, concern, comfort and courage to each other. Each one of them has her own demons to fight and are trying best to deal with them. The author uses the themes of death, marriage, rape, loneliness, depression, patriarchy and loss to highlight the trials and tribulations of these women.

All the women have/had challenging marriages. They are lonely despite having (had) a life partner each. The question then arises Why is it so important for a woman to get married? When marriage is not a guarantee to happiness and security, why are women forced into the institution of marriage?

Rape is another violation of the self that brings the women closer. Mira and Kalpana both were victims, though a generation apart, one married and another unmarried. Yet it is the women who are blamed for their own horrific plight. They are blamed for bringing it upon themselves by being beautiful or drawing unwanted attention. Be it any generation of women, rape is a demon that still haunts them in the corner of their minds. Once married you are expected to give in to the demands of your husband willingly, even if your heart is unwilling. The husband can force himself on you, under the garb of marriage. So married or unmarried, the status holds no security from RAPE.

All the women are looking for their place in the patriarchal world. Being defined by her father or husband is not her only identity. She can be independent of them and make her own place if she manages to gather enough courage and likewise support. If a woman can bring a new life into the world, she definitely can take care of herself. It is only a matter of discovering herself and he own strengths. Urmila decides to publish Mira’s poems with the full knowledge that she will have to fight perosnal battles for them. While Shakutai decides to go public with Kalpana’s violator, thereby avenging the wrong done to her daughter.  This sense of being liberated from a cage, to get their voices heard and wings free from shackles, truly is their victory. The victory to fly with the winds, without the fear of chains or societal norms.

Nurjahan’s Daughter: Tanushree Podder

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If my history textbooks were anywhere as interesting as the historical fiction written nowadays, I would have done fairly well in my exams. History which already has a ‘story’ in it never held my interest due to the way its presented. The pile of facts and dates, rather than a narration of the events in story style. Many would agree with me that our history books do not make us delve deeper, rather we sink deep into slumber. The intrigues and betrayals are reported in dull and monotonous reporting style which adds no glamour to the otherwise colorful history of India. So when I picked this book for reading it was after I did some background reading.  And surprisingly, I found that not much is mentioned about the daughter of one of the most powerful and illustrious queens in Mughal history. Needless to say, this is owing to the fact that the daughter basically lived in the shadows of her mother. Thus, when I held the book in my hands I was more than excited to discover the girl for myself. The book left me with mixed reactions, disappointed, intrigued and least to say enthusiastic about unraveling more of the Mughal empire and the harem.

The title though is misgiving. The book revolves more around Nur Jahan than her daughter, who comes into scene briefly as a flying mention. The girl still remains to be as elusive as she is in history.

Plot: Podder has woven a  fascinating tapestry of a young, sensitive girl caught amidst the coils of her ambitious and ruthless mother’s schemes.

Mughal India was a man’s world and few women left a lasting impression. There aren’t many who are given any mention. Mumtaz Mahal is remembered because of the monument built in her memory , that too courtesy of  Shah Jahan and his love for her. But Nur Jahan’s left her imprints or rather seal on history by her deeds as well as her personality. Nur Jahan’s Daughter is a story that shows how Mughal women played an important role in governance. They were experts at intrigues and political maneuvering. Battles raged all the time as the women took one side or the other in their male relatives’ battles for the throne. Marriages were mostly political in nature, with the aim to strengthen the rule and build up allies, thereby squashing any attempt at overthrowing the throne.

The whole book really revolves around Nur Jahan, who uses her power over the love-smitten emperor in her court strategem and then ruthlessly manouveres her daughter’s life as well. She is portrayed as an ambitious, scheming woman, who maliciously forces her own daughter to get married to good -or-nothing prince Shahriyar . She is a woman who sacrificed much for her love, one who set her sights on being the empress of India and worked towards it with single-minded focus.  Yet there are times when your heart reaches out to her since beneath the facade one have a sneak peek at the girl who fell in love with prince Salim, but was married off against will. And in the race to the throne feels left out because she has no male heir to lead.

The tale supposedly narrates the graph of Laadli’s life. But it is not through Laadli, as led by the title, rather through Meherunnisa’s (Nur Jahan) rise to the throne. Laadli is a mere pawn, embroiled in the machinations of an ambitious mother. For Laadli, the crown or the empire held no charm or lure. She was a rather simple girl who was content living in the shadows, unnoticed and anonymous. Her mother had other plans, with no male heir, she saw her daughter as means of getting to the throne. So Nur Jahan forces Laadli to woo either of the princes, Khusrau and Khurram. The only time she happens to stand against her mother’s wishes is in her love affair with her music teacher Imraan, who suffers the impudence of loving an empress’ daughter and pays for this ‘sin’ with his life. Nurjahan marries her off under the influence of opium-laced drink, to Shahriyar, a drug-addict, drunkard and a gay, whom the empress intended saw as means of reaching the throne. But he is murdered in cold blood brother Shah Jahan’s bidding. Laadli then slips into a life in oblivion. With unflinching devotion to her mother, she acted as a crutch that provided the empress the security to plod through the rough patches during the last years of her life. The mother and daughter never see eye-to-eye on matters, but finally the meek and self-deprecating daughter becomes her trusted advisor.

It is only after NurJahan’s death that Laadli finds some peace and can live life on her own terms. A emeorable mother-daughter scnene is when on her death bed Nur Jahan piteously asks her daughter if she hates her and Laadli replies, “Is it possible for anyone to hate her mother? How can I hate someone who carried me in her womb for nine months? Nothing you did can alter the fact that you are my mother.” After which tears of remorse roll down Nur Jahan’s cheeks.

I had slight problems with the writing as at times, since many pages were wasted in describing the architecture and the elaborate ritual of harem ladies. Equally irritating was the detailed description of the jewelry and dressing of Nur Jahan and Laadli, as also the desgns Nur Jahan later designs. Instead of marveling at these details, more time should have been spent on Laadli, as a person rather than an offshoot of Nur Jahan. The eloquently written passages on Mughal architecture, dressing, jewelry could have been better handled had they been sparsely mentioned, with more effect to the girl about who the book is intended to be.

All in all, a fascinating read for history buffs, and those interested in reading about court intrigues, battles, betrayal and amidst this background a simple tale of a rather ordinary girl with an extraordinary mother.

 

 

Witness the night: Kishwar Desai

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Female Infanticide is problem that troubles India since many years. It has deepened roots to such an extent that even education and literacy cannot mar the effects of this crime. Though secluded to some states now, it still poses a serious threat resulting in an imbalanced male-female sex ratio. Girls are killed right in the womb without a second thought. And the hands that perform this dreadful act is not necessarily male, females who themselves have wombs are party to this crime in the name of taking forwarding the lineage. I was drawn to this book because of the cover, which shows a girl half cowering with deep eyes that see to bore through you. So I immediately read the blurb as to see what it holds for me. I was captivated from the start: Durga. A fourteen-year-old girl, found all alone in a sprawling house in Punjab. Silent, terrified, and the sole suspect in the mass murder of thirteen members of her family.  Though hard to digest I was hooked to the story line to know what can drive someone to commit such a horrifying act.

Set in small town Jullundur (Jalandhar) in Punjab, the story is about a 14 year old girl Durga caught in a nightmare, accused of having murdered thirteen family members, and a 45-year-old social worker Simran who is working hard to find out the truth. The story opens with the diary entry of the girl that feels unvarnished, though a confused confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are unclear and distorted, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.

Simran, a fiercely independent and outspoken social worker is given the task to speak with Durga and find out the truth from her. In course of time, Simran realizes that the incident is not as straight forward as it seems. Durga looks like a scared child but she keeps silent  about the incident and seems unemotional about the whole incident. It is up-to Simran to find out the truth on her own. As she tries to uncover the truth, she finds that the relationship of Durga with her family has sinister undertones to it. There are many skeletons in the closet which would be hard to unearth.

The narrative shifts between Durga’s diary entry and Simran. Durga, is sent to a remand home, as she is charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt. Hard as it seems to comprehend how such a task can be done by a teenager, when the coils unwind you do understand the working of a tortured, unwanted and neglected girl child. Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Simran is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved. There are many instances of her having to pilot around the police to reach the actual conclusion. Its in many ways depiction of the law and order system that goes silent when blinded by money.

What follows is Simran’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the corrupted and vile Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire clan intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that she begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.

The book is written from 2 viewpoints, Durga’s and Simran’s. While Durga’s writing is serious and dark , Simran’s is sarcastic and funny at times. Durga’s writing is reflective of the conservative, cloistered and shackled life she has led for 14 years. While Simran’s life shows the contrast in city life where even though a woman she leads life on her own terms and is fearless about it. By juxtaposing these two females, Desai shows the contrast in the existence of the two.

Though an easy read there were many issues I faced while reading. Firstly, I could not fathom the idea of a 14 year old girl murdering her family to avenge her unborn sisters and herself. Such a thought seems unrealistic no matter how many justifications are presented. Secondly the novel is riddled with continual exposition. Almost every chapter has something important to say about the plight of women, the trauma of having achild killed, ways foeticide is done, and so on. The author’s attempts to mould them into the plot is unsuccessful. They seem more like preachy monologues by the narrator than part of the narration. I do truly care about female infanticide, but would have preferred to discover the issues and decided what to think about them for myself rather than have them shoved down my throat, choking me, gasping for breath. I had almost put the book down if the desire to know the reason for the murder had not driven me on.

The opening chapter was shocking and held the promise of an intense mystery and drama, but the intensity evaporates by the climax. Motivations often seemed weak, and there were very few moments that pulled me out of my seat. The book marvels in parts where Desai describes how the girls where killed in earthen pots filled with milk(a cleanser in Hindu rites) or drugged to death, or worse buried alive in the fields behind the house. The incident with servant girls being bought as objects of pleasure to keep the boys tied to the house and not stray out. These give a depth to an otherwise rushed and hurried writing. The ending seems highly unacceptable after all that happens in the book. It seems that Desai after burning herself out of ideas haphazardly gave the ending . The book could have achieved greater heights if the writing and treatment to the sensitive topic was better handled.

Sharing some powerful quotes:

“Most of them I knew were just waiting for a chance to avenge themselves on the world that had robbed them of the one thingy they would never enjoy again, their childhood.”

“The midwives used to take away newborn girls from their mothers, seal them in earthen pots and roll the pot around till the baby stopped crying. Or they would simply suffocate them. Or give them opium and then bury them. For a largely farming community, girls were a burden. A woman confessed to having had seven abortions in the hope of a boy.”

“Tired of the sound of the baby crying, she took some poisonous juice from the oleander flower, mixed it with castor oil, and forced it down the child’s throat. Eventually the crying stopped. The crying had bothered her more than the act of killing.”

” Carefully, Sharda took out a paper envelope from which she drew out a tiny white skeletal hand…This hand was buried in the vegetable plot….Cradling that hand still in my hand, like a precious flower, I gazed out at the innocent-looking field behind our house which…., I  imagined the claws tearing away the flesh from tiny bodies which never had a chance to cry out or draw their first breath……

 

 

Dog Boy: Eva Hornung

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This was unlike any book I have ever read. After my first reading I was left aghast, as to how a child could be left to fend on his own. It took me a while to re read this one since the imagery had left such an impact, that the moment I held the book in my hands I had such an eerie feeling of deja vu that I had to push myself to re read. It is thought provoking, fascinating, gripping, sad, heart wrenching and at times so graphic that it feels your guts are being pulled out.

Imagine that you are a 4-year-old boy, abandoned in Moscow in the bitter winter cold?  What would you do? How would you fend for yourself in the biting winter? Would you wander off and join a pack of feral dogs and, over time, assimilate to the point of becoming one of them? Ludicrous? But these are the premises of Dog Boy”. Hornung’s work is inspired by the true account of a Russian boy named Ivan Mishukov, who lived with a pack of dogs for a period of two years before being discovered at age of 6. Ivan had run away from a home where adults had ill treated and abused him. In choosing to write about such a child, her dog-boy, Romochka, is not Ivan Mishukov, though he seems to share many characteristics with him. Eva Hornung opens up a Pandora’s box, full of questions about our humanity, our dealings with other creatures, our sense of family, and our sense of what is normal.

The plot: Romochka is four years old when his mother and uncle never return home (reason not known) to their small apartment building in an outer suburb of Moscow, leaving the little boy to fend for himself. While his mother had always told him not to leave the apartment or the building, when his food supply runs out, Romochka ventures out to explore.  All he has with him are some clothes and his blanket.

Outside, he ventures farther from his building than he’s ever been before, and starts to follow a beautiful stray dog down the alleys. The dog, a female clan leader, takes the small boy to her den . There he lives in the nest with her four puppies, and begins his life as a dog. There are seven dogs when he first arrives: the mother and leader, Mamochka (a Russian nickname meaning tender or sweet Mother); her two older offspring, Black Dog and Golden Bitch; and the four puppies: White Sister, Black Sister, Grey Brother and Brown Brother. Romochka becomes a member of their clan, sleeping and eating with them, hunting for food . He thinks more like a dog than a human, but since he was four when he came to them, he retains a mixture of confusing and complicated desires and human instincts. As the years go by, Romochka loses “normal human behaviour” and becomes wild. For an eight-year-old, he is feared, infamous in the poverty-stricken area that the clan considers its territory. Set in communist Russia there is  the militzia who are a constant threat, as are the gangs of kids who hang out in abandoned buildings before returning to their real homes and families. Romochka develops a bit of a reputation among both groups. There are increasingly military sweeps in an effort to round up homeless children to be locked into state run ‘homes’. The condition of these homes is hardly better than the life they are supposedly saved from. The fate of the thousands of dogs is at risk, if they are fortunate they’ll be spared, but most are mercilessly shot as menaces to humans. The possibility of discovering a real, genuine “dog boy” is tantalising to the psychiatrists who work with orphans. These people see such examples as research projects without understanding the impact and outcome of their intrusion. Thus, Romochka is hunted down like a prey by humans, even as the dogs try hard to protect him. The clan loses members but such is the loyalty and bonding that the sacrifice is hardly any task for them. The struggles of an eight year old, as he is pulled between his twin identities as a dog and as a boy is emotional and traumatic.

I had a very hard time getting through some parts of the book, as the writer doesn’t hold anything back. She goes into explicit and gory detail of their survival techniques; the constant licking of pus and blood from their wounds, the hunting and what they were eating.  Like for eg: the boy eats raw rats, pees on frozen food in order to eat it, plays with the bones from carcasses, and the most graphic and bone chilling is when he puts his hands into a bird carcass and pulls out the heart to eat it.

” Dog Boy” , gives rise to myriad of emotions and also kicks up a storm of questions in one’s mind. The story is like no other story that is told from the perspective of animals, or near enough. It is certainly no Charlotte’s Web or any other children’s book told from the point of view of an animal which leaves a soft fuzzy feeling inside. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that this is no children’s book at all. It is dense, descriptive, questioning, wondering and brutally honest. Beneath it all lies layers of philosophical thoughts and questions-the riddle of human nature, and a jab at what separates us from other animals, or at what we think separates us. I cannot do justice to the book while writing the review because there is so much to talk and question.

The book is a perfect platform to debate humanity and if humans really rise above the animals. A peek into Romochka’s life with the dogs reveals how they look after each other despite danger to own life. Quite unlike the humans who leave a small child alone in a big city, at such a tender age. It forces you to think, ponder, question, analyse, reflect and revisit the human aspect of life , and see for yourself are we human enough !!

Dahan: Suchitra Bhattacharya, Debjani Sengupta (Editor), Mahua Mitra (Translator)

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As a literature student I have been exposed to many books that speak of atrocities against women. But few have struck a chord when it comes to Indian  writing. On a vacation I happened to read the much acclaimed novel Dahan by Suchitra Bhattacharya. Being a fan of Bengali literature I picked up this book while surfing for a read at Amazon. To say the least, I was not disappointed, but the end was disheartening as I felt there was more scope of happening rather than succumbing to the situation. The ending seemed ambiguous leaving behind a trail of unanswered questions.

Dahan is a simple and yet hard hitting retelling of an incident that happened way back in 90’s when Bengal was suffering under the grips of Naxalites. This was a time when virtues and integrity had taken a back seat and the goons ruled the roost. Thus making the whole societal setup unfriendly and hostile for women and middle class. The novel seems inspired by a real-life incident in Calcutta, in which a journalist rushed to the rescue of a woman who was being sexually assaulted by a group of men near the Tollygunj Metro station. Bhattacharya claims that all the characters are fictional . But when one reads the fine lines it seems that she is  trying to make a crossover from reality to fiction while retaining the authenticity the horror of the incident. No where does she happen to dilute the details or lessen the impact of the gory episode.

Dahan revolves around the incident of  molestation of a housewife near a Metro station. She is rescued by a young school teacher who tries to bring the molesters to the book. The young men are arrested on the basis of an FIR filed at the initiative of Jhinuk, the teacher. But they get off the hook due to lack of evidence and the reluctance on the part of the assaulted woman Romita, the housewife to identify her aggressors. She gets little or no support from her conservative in-laws to fight the case, who are more concerned about waggling tongues rather than her self respect. Her husband Palash, who is unsupportive and passive  throughout, implies that Romita had asked for it with her beauty and dressing style, and takes out is aggression on Romita through marital rape. Eventually, the defense lawyer turns the table around for Jhinuk, by casting aspersions on her morality and motives in rushing to the aid of Romita. Her intentions are belittled as asking for five seconds of fame, since no one present at the time of incident comes forward. It highlights the prejudices in the urban, middle-class Bengali society through the tribulations faced by the two protagonists, Jhinuk and Romita. Romita belongs to an affluent family and hence is asked to mask the episode so that family name is not tarnished. On the other hand is Jhinuk, coming from middle class where ideals are still alive, but family pressures makes one bend. But the character that stays with you till the end is the taciturn, idealistic Thammi, Jhinuk’s fiercely independent septuagenarian grandmother.

Dahan literally translates as burning and in a normal scenario indicate a story about Sati pratha, but it is not so. The burning here is of the female soul . She burns in every strata of society and is not immune to oppression. There is burning when she is sexually molested in the middle of a street, she burns when she attempts to help her and is driven to personal horrors, woman burns when her own husband with whom she rests her trust rapes her to avenge himself and his ego. Dahan does not make for feel-good reading. It is an utterly unflattering portrait of the society by large. The novel on reading brings forth a web of thoughts. It is very tempting to cast away the books as another example of a male dominated society. But that would be belittling the work apart from a judgement which is biased and incorrect. Because a society that is male dominated does not easily tolerate a violation of a woman by strangers. Such a toleration goes to  shows a lack of virility of males and the social setting women belong to. This holds mirror to the idea that a woman is a possession, not a person in her own right, where a man claims his masculinity in sexual exploitation of woman.

Thus when a society tolerates this and fails to protect or even avenge the woman, it makes for modern society where people are immune to others’ pain and suffering and are in fact alienated and selfish. They would rather not risk their own security and fail even to seek justice for fear of safety, it creates a society paralyzed by fear of those in power and the internal terrorist elements within the society. When terror begins to reign at street level, and acid along with other weapons are easily available at disposal, the wise keep their own counsel until better times prevail. But then again, someone has to come forward and strike a determined blow at the terror or it would never go away. It is high time the dark curtain of terror and being passive/mute audiences is cast away and we become proactive. We should not need a Nirbhaya to remind us that society together needs to make living safe for women.

 

 

 

 

Three Women: Rabindranath Tagore (translated by Arunava Sinha)

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Having tasted the sweet nectar of Tagore’s writing, I am lately drawn towards his writings. My last read was ” Three Women”, a collection of three short novels . They are aptly titled that summarizes the whole complex setup within a word. The novellas, Nashtaneer( Broken nest), Dui Bon( Two sisters) and Malancha( The gardener). I would be only reiterating what the translator feels, that Tagore was a feminist before his time. Men often remark that women folk are beyond their comprehension. And yet here is a writer who not only understands women but each and every nuances of their heart.

The novels draw light upon the status of women in the Indian society across three decades. It highlights the complexities and the never ending maze created by love, romance and sexual desires. Add to this, the couples in the three stories are childless which seems a conscious effort on Tagore’s part to question the duplicity of marriage as a bond. The woman are barren which unconsciously is shown as a reason for the women to oscillate between the roles of a mother and lover with their husbands. As Tagore himself has written beautifully, ” There are two kinds of women, or so I’ve head some pundits say. one is mostly maternal. the other is the lover.” 

The first novel weaves the story of a lonely , love deprived wife and how she finds solace in a companion out of her marriage. She is sexually and emotionally deprived of  her husband’s presence in the married life. The 3rd story is about a sick and bed ridden women who is engulfed with despair at the thought of leaving her happy household very soon owing to her prolonged illness, which is further marred by jealousy and revenge.

The writing and the characters are all life like and completely relatable. Be it Charulata in Nashtaneer, who comes as a child bride and blossoms young womanhood unnoticed by her husband.  This is true for women married to men who pay more attention to their work than their spouses. Little do they realize that the first spring goes away taking with it many more seasons. Urmila and Sharmila in Dui Bon  are sisters whom we can find reflected in a family around us where when elder sister falls ill, the younger one fills the space. And sometimes that extension becomes a solid bond between brother-in-law and sister-in-law, resulting in an unhappy marriage to silence rumors. Though few such instances do happen. And in Niraja is every wife who lays claim on her husband as a property owned and not a person in question.

In all the stories, the characters fail to understand each other as well as themselves. They are so full of themselves that their own potentialities cries in the shadows while they unnecessarily deride themselves for others. The women characters have more gall than the male characters, but are rendered helpless due to societal setup. Be it Charu living virtually in two corridors without a common meeting point. Though Amal is himself a writer, he fails to comprehend the proficient and natural literary style of Charu. It can also be seen as reflection of the male ego being hurt. On one hand, Charu is misunderstood by Amal, and on the other hand she suffers under the lack of communication and understanding from her husband, Bhupati.She leads a double life oscillating between the two. Similarly, In Dui Bon, Sharmila and Urmila play dual roles of lovers and wives. Sharmila and Shashanka though married are not united, and the wedge between them though blurred is evident. Sharmila longs for the consummation as a lover, but she readily surrenders to the role of the stereotypical women  who hides behind the shadow of her husband. She is happy in the background. While her sister Urmila is impulsive, passionate and quite the opposite. She becomes the lover for Shashanka, while remaining faithful as a wife to Nirad. Then again in Malancha, Niraja discovers the essential biological drives in married life coming upon her with all colors of sensuousness. But in her current lifeless form she is helpless and this drives her insane making her feel hollow and barren. So she holds on possessively as a wife what she fails to get as a lover in marriage.

The men in Tagore’s story fail their counterpart with respect to emotional gratification and vigor because they are pampered and spoiled by the society at large into emotional immaturity and crudeness. They do not share or understand the female realm to be real participants. This leaves the womenfolk at the core, lonely, depressed, traumatized and bereft. Tagore gives them their own realm to venture forth, reflect and come to terms with the situations in their lives. All three resign to the situation in their life, be it good or bad. Nevertheless, they are shown as strong and relentless despite hardships.

Lines that are hauntingly beautiful:

” Neither of them noticed that he period in which husband and wife rediscover each other in the exquisite first light of love had slipped into the past. Even before savoring the new, they had become old, familiar and accustomed to each other.” : Nashtaneer

 

” She had been banished from the very garden that had claimed her heart, the heart of the childless mother. It was such a cruel separation.” : Malancha

 

The Giving Tree: Shel Silverstein

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I revisited the book as I was looking for a short read for my daughter. My search led back to this book I had read when I first joined a school as librarian. This was one of the first books I had read in a Read Aloud session . The story remained with me and has haunted  me or rather gathered roots in my mind. I am yet to read it to my daughter but now that I reread it I saw the book reach up to me in various shades which I had earlier skipped to notice back then. There can be several interpretations to seemingly short read of roughly 600+ words. I stopped myself several times when I happen to understand that it can be hated on many aspects just as it can be loved. I for once loved the book and still do. But what strikes me is that there are readers ho can be bitingly rude and give visceral reaction to the book because for them a positive and uplifting tale of giving without expecting anything in return is unaccepable.

Nowadays we are accustomed to reading a rather vaccinated version of tales that are meant to give lessons but without the bitter pill. But the, do they serve a purpose. These books might make a good read but often the lessons are lost in the trappings of he world. If we see famous children’s literature, it can be easily observed that the writers wrote with a clarity and skill that delivered the harshest of content but they did not compromise to spare the children the horrors of the world. Moreover, the morals were never explicit in content rather implied and gradually absorbed emotionally through the reading. Shel Silverstein under the garb of a gentle little children’s story has tried to pierce the fabric that makes humanity to unravel its numerous faults. ” Giving Tree” is a very disturbing book,  perhaps it’s because it’s intended to be so.

One of the most readily accepted interpretation is that of unconditional parental love. But then again it is a very sad and aching story, where the child never learns to  appreciate his parents and remains to be ever demanding even in his old days. This might ring true in today’s highly materialistic and monetary society, where parents try and suffice for lack of time with giving into demands the kids make. This only breeds a want that can never be satiated.

Yet  another is man’s greed as explained by environmentalist. It is seen as a reflection of man’s selfish exploitation of nature. Many women consider it a depiction of man’s subjugation, suppression and abuse of woman and woman’s shortcoming and cowardice to stand up for herself . The tree is referred to as “she”. An anonymous domain reflecting the same anonymity woman are forced to live with. It is also seen as

Many see this as an allegory for Christ’s sacrifice. This is because the tree, like Christ, gives herself entirely for the boy without questions and self thought. If seen as  a Christian allegory, it is a disturbing retelling of Christ’s terrible, painful, continuous rejection by man, and not the heart-warming tale of unconditional love and forgiveness we are taught. There is no repentance or remorse in “The Giving Tree,” and therefore no exoneration.

This book is a masterpiece and it would be a blunder if readers expect this book to draw morals we get from the Greek myths, the Bible stories and the old fairy tales, which were the staples of past generations. Today we expect books convey lessons where the characters  learns his/her lesson, a simplicity that is classic of today’s children’s literature. Children’s literature such as “The Giving Tree” plays a valuable role by helping children understand the ugly, beautiful, and complex truths of the world.

© Sigy George

Plagiarism and Referencing Basics

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Plagiarism is a major threat for students and scholars submitting their works. The importance of Referencing and the dangers of plagiarism is lost on the students today since they are unaware about copyrights and its violation. Schools and universities rarely lay stress on the importance of giving credit to the original work that one uses while conducting research. With the information explosion and the ease of WWW, giving of due credit is easily forgotten and ignored. Thus, as a librarian engaged with students preparing to embark on a journey that can make or break their future, it is prime duty to teach referencing and impart knowledge about plagiarism. Here is the presentation on the same:

Plagiarism and Referencing Basics

Here is another one prepared for IGCSE Global Perspectives students.

Referencing & Plagiarism