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Out of my mind: Sharon Draper

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I had just finished R.J Palacio’s Wonder,and was looking for my next read. There were a lot of titles but this book cover drew me towards it. But I kept putting it down for some reason or the other. And when I finally managed to read, I was filled with mixed reactions. On one hand, I enjoyed and was wiping tears at the end, and on the other hand I was furious with Sharon for having given a very poor and despicable picture of educators. Maybe she had a a bad experience, but a collective let down of the community was not at all acceptable.

At some points the story has a lot of power and magnitude but the author fails to maintain the same towards the end.

Plot: Melody is a fifth-grade girl who was born with cerebral palsy. Her body is crippled and there is very little she can manage to do by herself. She can’t even talk. She can, however, think,  and she does it better than anyone else, thanks to her photographic memory. She is a hidden genius who is lost in the milieu of words swirling within the confines of her mind. Melody looks helpless to the people who’ve not known her well, but if value is measured in terms of mental capacity for future learning and retention, then Melody outshines virtually everyone she meets. She is, without exaggerating to say, a wonder.

But life is not easy or simple for a person with the challenges that cripple the otherwise happy life of Melody every single day. Other kids cannot really understand Melody or comprehend her level of intelligence. Since they see her as vulnerable and incapable of meeting even her own basic needs they fail to acknowledge that she can be as smart and even better than them. Their unwillingness or rather lack of awareness about her condition blinds them to how smart and how good Melody is in the ways that matter. Ultimately, its Melody who bears the brunt of this ignorance  by not having friends. So, Melody understands “unfair”. She knows “unfair” more intimately than most of us ever will.

The plot of this book rocks back and forth, giving glimpses of hope for Melody’s future and then extinguishing them. There are moments to laugh and then it’s followed by scenes that will move almost any reader to tears, both of happiness and grief. There isn’t a single paragraph of Melody’s story that doesn’t jump up from the page with life and vigor, filled with intense relevance to our own lives. Melody happens to sink in within us and we start to care about her without our own knowledge and we wishfully think about a happy ending which in her story is … impossible.

Now for the parts that had me seething in anger. The characters are uni dimensional and seem like cliches. You can almost predict what their next action would be. The girls in the book seem to be ones suffering from disabilities as they can’t look beyond their own nose. Their lives are centered around them, and anyone who is different is a misfit. They are openly mean and use words like retard, which in today’s scenario would land one in principals office. So is the author stuck in 80’s time warp or does she forget that she is writing in his century where most schools have inclusive education and children are more compassionate towards the special children. The educators are not trained to be with children with special abilities and get into awkward silences when they are around them. The teachers appointed to the group with special abilities seems fit for kindergarten and not them, since all they did was play audio books that they had been listening for quite some time. It irks that a writer in 21st century would give you such a picture. There is no mention of occupational therapist or special needs counselor.

The book for me was like opening a box of my favorite sweet Gems, where I find chocolates in every color coating, but then chocolates are naturally brown. Which is to say, that every reader will find something to carry in their hearts and yet be angry about her the story that could have been uplifting loses its tangent by ignoring facts of recent advances and changes in education sector.

 

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Matilda Turns 30!!!!!

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Matilda as a world traveller in the new edition.

Photograph: Penguin Random House

Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors whenever I stepped into a library or bookshop as a child. And I still find myself swerve towards shelves that showcase his books. Thus, when I read that to mark the 30th anniversary of the first publication of the book Matilda, three sketches drawn by original illustrator and old friend of Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake, will appear next month on the covers of special collectors’ editions, showing Matilda, a 30 year old woman as an astrophysicist, a world traveler and as chief executive of the British Library. The collection will be released by Penguin on October 4, 2018.

Matilda was first published on October 1st 1988. It was the last major book published in Roald Dahl’s lifetime is one of his bestselling stories around the world – with 17 million copies in circulation.

Matilda was the prototypical young rebel, a girl ahead of her times. She broke all rules about how little girls should be in children’s literature. When girls were shown as dimpled, rosy cheeked with golden curls, she stood out as a modern spirited girl. She stood up to bullies twice her size without fear. She was tackled prejudices and discrimination, no matter what the consequences. She stood up to her nemesis, the horrible headmistress  Miss Trunchbull who made the grave mistake of underestimating her prowess. In turn she empowers and instills strength not only in her friends but also her timid and shy teacher Miss Honey.

Matilda’s story reveals the need to stand up for what you believe is right. It does not matter what size or strength you possess, its the courage to stand up to big bullies that matters. And when you do that you can change your circumstances and steer the course of your life as you want, and even rewrite your story as you desire. But for that you too need to stand up and face your bullies- it can be a fear, a situation or even a person.

From the article:

In his foreword to the new editions, Blake, 85, reveals he enjoyed imagining what Matilda might be doing now she has grown up. “Since, as a small child, Matilda was gifted in several ways, it wasn’t very difficult. I imagined that for each version of our grown-up Matilda one of her extraordinary talents and achievements would have come to the fore and shown her a role in life,” he writes.

“I am sure that someone who had read so many books when she was small could easily have become chief executive of the British Library, or someone exceptionally gifted at mental arithmetic would be perfectly at home in astrophysics. And if you have been to so many countries in books, what could be more natural than to go and see them yourself?”

Blake describes illustrating Matilda as a wonderful experience. “It has been very special to revisit her all these years later and marvel at the woman she would have become.”

Matilda at the British Library, as drawn by Quentin Blake
 Matilda at the British Library, as drawn by Quentin Blake.

Given the sales of Matilda as compared to other books by Roald Dahl, is higher, the question surfaces what is it that draws readers of all ages and gender to enjoy it irrespective that the main character is a girl. If we delve into children’s literature we will not find many strong female characters that have been equally enjoyed by boys as well. Be it Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew Series, The Babysitter’s Club, Amelia Jane series and so on. These had few takers and were solely popular among girls. Children’s fiction is still vastly classified as for boys and girls. We have some brilliant fantasy series like Inkheart by Cornelia Funke  or Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng, but since the main protagonist is a girl I do not find boys reading then with as much interest as the girls. But magic of Matilda draws both boys and girls.

Children’s literature still makes erroneous decisions in publishing books which continue to have boys/ males as lead because publishers wrongly think boys don’t like to read books about heroines. This faulty ideology makes Matilda appear all the more appealing and relevant. Matilda catches us by surprise when even boys seem to enjoy and laugh with her because its a rare sight to see. But we shouldn’t be because times haven’t quite changed even tough we pretend to think and behave so.

From the article:

Carmen McCullough, Roald Dahl editor at Matilda’s publisher, Puffin, believes this reflects a wider trend in children’s fiction: “We’ve seen a real movement towards more feminist publishing recently. Parents are more keen than ever to present aspirational female characters to their young children – boys and girls – and that is what’s helping Matilda stand out, because she’s a wonderful example. She has such belief in herself and is every bit as relevant and inspirational to children and adults today as she was 30 years ago.”

Children’s laureate Lauren Child agrees part of Matilda’s enduring universal appeal is that Dahl chose to write about a spirited little girl. “Like Jo in Little Women and Pippi Longstocking, Matilda is an incredibly modern character. You can relate to her. She’s not a sap, she’s not a goody two-shoes, she doesn’t take everything sitting down, she fights back. She’s for justice.”

Matilda the Astrophysicist.
 Matilda the Astrophysicist. Illustration: Quentin Blake

Child, the author and illustrator of the Charlie and Lola picture books, believes Matilda would have become an inventor. “I think she would be a very creative person at 30. The way she thinks is interesting. She thinks in a sideways way, a way that’s out of a box. She’s not confined. But the thing that you feel most about her is that she could be anything. I think that’s the message of the book: You can’t beat someone down if they’re interested in the world and they have a good heart.”

Matilda is the epitome of the modern day woman. With her brains and abilities she can be whoever she wishes to be. She is not restricted in her achievement and is not dogged down by the expectations of the society. She is her own person and follows only her own dictates. She stands for qualities that we should encourage and teach our little girls to embody rather than preening and grooming themselves to be later carried around by their husbands as trophies. Girls at a young age should be taught to aim high and to believe in their strength to open their wings and conquer all horizons. They should not waiting in the wings for their opportunities rather create one for themselves.

Never on the sidelines, but always on your own path.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

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Khaled Hosseini is a name that reckons stories with a delicate yet intense voice that speaks volumes on the impact of war, riots and displacement, especially in the Islamic countries. All those who have read his books must have had shed tears in silence as you flipped pages and poured over the lives of Hassan and Mariam. His writing has pulled our hearts to see Hassan’s emancipation and have been company in Mariam’s journey.

But let me warn all Khaled Hosseini fans that you might be disappointed if you come looking for a full fledged novel. Hossieni was impelled to write Sea Prayer when the image of a 3-year old Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore in Turkey in 2015, splashed across the media. He didn’t make it. The image is vividly set even in my mind since I had many sleepless nights after I saw the image in the newspaper. When I held my own little one in my arms, rocking her to sleep, I was in tears as Alan’s image kept coming back to me. A life, just a bud, lost due to the monstrosity that humans inflicted on each other. This book is a tribute or rather a vent out for the anguish and ache Hosseini experienced. In this poignant account, he  tries to highlight the predicament of parents under such cataclysmic environs. The book, is a reflection of life like Kurdi’s, that has been fractured and forced to flee from home by war and persecution.

Sea Prayer is a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey that shall take them away from their homeland. Watching over his sleeping son, the father recollects how their land Homs, used to be before the wars and siege. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Syria, before the war, and of the swift transformation of a home into a deadly war zone.

Khaled Hosseini transports you to war-torn Syria and manages to rip your heart as he depicts how much the country has changed. It is told from a father’s point of view, telling his son how beautiful their country used to be. The father with a heavy heart says that his son would not remember his beautiful land and will only remember about hiding, praying and looking for shelter. Under the dark ominous clouds of the night, the father casts a nostalgic eye on the glorious days gone by at Homs. Through his words he seems to evoke hope in his young son’s heart, and perhaps within himself, despite their given circumstances. The father is uncertain of whether they will make it across or not. Hence the name Sea prayer, he prays the sea will not hurt his son.

This has been a difficult book to review simply because it gives rise to a whole gamut of emotions. The intensity of the letter grows manifold when read alongside the marvelous illustrations by Dan Williams. The water-colors capture the spirit of the story .They start with beautiful, rich vibrant colours that detail a breathtaking landscape, the souk and the land in all its beauty. As the book progresses they become more grey, dark, morbid and ominous. There is a stark contrast in the hues which once was a riot of colours is reduced to monochrome, justly so to highlight that the lives of the refugees too has lost its buoyancy.  This book is a perfect partnership between author and illustrator.

Do not expect the magic of his novels here, and yet you will have the strings of your heart being tugged and your soul scorched by the harshness of their reality.

Certain lines that really touched me:

” These are the things you know. You know a bomb crater ca be made into a swimming hole. You have learned dark blood is better news than bright. You have learned that mothers and sisters and classmates can be found in narrow gaps between concrete, bricks, and exposed beams, little patches of sunlit skin shining in the dark.”  

” I look at your profile in the glow of this three-quarter moon, my boy,your eyelashes like calligraphy, closed in guileless sleep. I said to you, ‘Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen’.”


” These are only words. A father’s tricks. It slays your father, your faith in him. Because all I can think tonight is how deep the sea, and how vast, how indifferent. How powerless I am to protect you from it…….

Because you, you are the most precious cargo, Marwan, the most precious there ever was. I pray the sea knows this. Inshallah. How I pray the sea knows this.” 

 

International Dot Day: 15th September

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As much as I had wanted to celebrate International Dot Day in my school I couldn’t since everyone is knees deep in studies. With exam just round the corner there was no way I could celebrate this fun day. But as a parent of a young child I feel that this day holds lot of scope and learning opportunities. 

For the uninitiated, the International Dot Day, is a global celebration of creativity, courage and collaboration. It began when teacher Terry Shay introduced his classroom to Peter H. Reynolds’ book The Dot on September 15, 2009.

The Dot is the story of a caring teacher who challenges a hesitant and reluctant student , Vashti to trust in her own abilities by being brave enough to “make her mark”. The teacher encourages her to begin with a small dot on a piece of paper. But the dot becomes the catalyst in developing confidence and courage in the child. It ignites a journey of self-discovery and sharing, which has gone on to inspire countless children and adults around the globe.

The book may seem a flimsy 32 page , but it contains within its pages a story that  has transformed teaching and learning around the world as people of all ages re-discover the power and potential of creativity in all they do. The story leaves an impression on people of all ages. You don’t need to be a child to appreciate and be motivated by the simple story. When Vashti goes from being a gloomy and an irate child, with no confidence, to someone who has the maturity and ability to help someone else to believe in themselves. She helps others to gain confidence and search within themselves for strength.

On reading the book you question why are the other children not written about in the book. The story doesn’t speak about the other children in Vashti’s art class since it is about her personal journey. The story accentuates the fact that she is not comparing herself to others but challenging herself to do better. It is a typical human trait to constantly compare ourselves to others. We happen to judge our progress by comparing ourselves with others, rather than creating our own yardsticks. This often gets in the way of our own personal progression. When we begin to focus on our own individual milestones it becomes much easier to get on with moving forward, rather than wasting energy on worrying about what everyone else is doing. When we do not pay attention towards what others are achieving or planning, we can focus and concentrate our energy on enhancing and honing in our own innate talents.

What this book teaches is not just restricted to individual experience. We have all faced a roadblock, where we felt stuck and unable to move forward.  We have all come face to face with the fear of expressing ourselves. This fear arises out the trepidation of what people would think, and the fear of ridiculed or being jibed. This fear has led to shut down a long-held dream, wilting of long passions and the chance to truly succeed.

As a teacher- librarian what drew my attention was the role of the Art teacher. She didn’t make Vashti feel small for not being able to draw. But what she did is what we lack in the teachers nowadays. I know my comment here will not be welcomed but that’s how it is. Each child/ person has talents which are hidden and are needed to be discovered, which often than not has to be a teacher. But most fail to do so. Teachers expect children to have a set of skills and the one not having the is labelled a loser. But that is far from the truth. More often than not, it is this black sheep that surges ahead of the crowd and shines.

We need to celebrate differences and accept that each person is unique, and fit together as pieces in a big jigsaw puzzle. Each person has creativity and originality, but the acceptance for the same needs to be in place for a person to showcase it. So whenever in doubt about yourself and your potential, never let it come in way of your self-expression. Just like Vashti, make a small dot, start small, and then you will see can make a mark.

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.

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

 

Lanka’s princess: Kavita Kanè

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Lanka's Princess

Lanka’s princess by Kavita Kanè is about Surpanakha and how individual choices and mistakes they lead to can shape the destinies of those associated with us.

My memory and knowledge of Surpanakha is dependent on the reading of Ramayana while in school , and watching the epic serial on Doordarshan. Even then I was struck by the independent streak in her and thought that the punishment meted out to her was very harsh in comparison to her offence. So when I came across this book my curiosity knew no bounds.

It is an epic task to write a mythological fiction from the point of view of a character who has been maligned and vilified as an ugly monster. All knowledge about her is just that she is Ravan’s sister and when she is disfigured by Lakshman , a war is waged to avenge the act. The essence of the book is the choice Surpanakha makes and the unfolding of the events thereafter. Our choices define which part of our nature we allow to rule our minds. And that is the poignant within each of us. A small anecdote from the Puranas would make it clearer.

When the world was being created, the Devas and Asuras went to Sage Prajapati to understand the meaning of Atman, or the self. The first answer that he gave was a simple one. The Asuras accepted it and left with the confidence that they now had the power to use this knowledge as a weapon. But the Devas, led by Lord Indra were not satisfied with the answer. They kept cross-questioning the sage trying to grasp the complete significance and debating the ideas. This small anecdote from the Puranas defines the essence of an Asura – impatient, hungry for power and impulsive. One can also conclude from here that there is an Asura and a Deva within each of us. There is an Asura which always hungry and never satiated and a Deva which keeps questioning so as not to to be distracted fro the right path. It is our choice of the self that determines the events in our life.

The book opens with Krishna, who upon seeing Kubja, the hunchbacked woman of Mathura, recognises her as a reincarnation of Surpanakha. He reveals to her that he himself is Ram, now born as Krishna and has come to her to rectify the grave misdeed he committed in his previous life – of rejecting her. He begins to narrate Surpanakha’s story from the time she was born as the youngest child of Rishi Vishravas and his second wife Kaikesi. She was born Meenakshi – the one with the fish-shaped eyes. Since her birth she is rejected by her mother as an ugly and useless being. Her life as a kid at her father, Rishi Vishravas’ ashram was desolate, where she is neglected and overshadowed by her brothers. Even as Lanka’s Princess,she is again neglected and side-lined; It is only when she weds and becomes a wife and a mother does she find love and a sense of belonging.

And when all that is lost all that is left behind is simmering angst and bitterness. The later incidents and experiences keep fueling her inner desire for revenge, even at the cost of those few that she loves. She sets into motion the events that finally lead to Lanka’s war and the downfall of her entire race.

Alongside, there is unraveling of events leading to the rise of Ravan as King of Lanka and the ensuing effect it brings on his family, more predominantly Surpanakha’s life. The reader may sympathize with her for being the neglected child, while at the same time despising her for her vengeful tactics. The author portrays her not as a good or bad character, but simply as a misunderstood woman who, in her own eyes, is merely righting the wrong done to her when her one chance at happiness has been taken away.

The timeline is fast and keeps readers on tenterhooks such that you do not lose interest. In true Ramayana style, the author raises underlying questions about right and wrong, good and evil, gender discrimination, and women’s rights. An example of this is the confrontation between Surpanakha and Sita. The very attempt by Surpanakha to tempt Ram was unbeknownst at that time where women were not expected to be sexually active and and open about their own desires. Her boldness is a stark opposite to Sita’s meekness and it comes across vividly in every page where she clearly expresses her desires.

To summarize, Lanka’s Princess may be a mythological retelling of events. However in today’s day and age, when women are still subjected to various forms of discrimination, the author puts the spotlight on a woman’s individuality, her sensuality and sexuality, her choices and her desires, which the society wishes to keep hidden behind curtains.

As one reads the book, one cannot help but ponder whether we happen to identify the Asuras and Danavas that exist among us in the form of molesters, murderers, rapists, thieves, etc. Can we look into the mirror and see ourselves as we truly are, not black or white, but grey also when the demons within us shouts ‘tit-for-tat’ when faced with discord.  What Lanka’s Princess will leave you with is a food for thought. You will spend days thinking whether Ram and Lakshman have been on a pedestal due to worth or the male dominated society list virtues only for womenfolk to follow.

 

 

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Beyond books and walls: What it takes to be a 21st century school librarian

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wiki-skills

 

From connecting with parents and students to keeping up with the latest technologies, there is a whole lot more to the job than stamping due dates and lending books.

A few days ago, while going back home in metro, a fellow female passenger and I got talking. And in between the talk we shared what we do for a living. The moment I said I worked as librarian in a school, she smiled blissfully and remarked that I was lucky to have such a relaxed and comfortable job. Upon hearing this I asked what she meant by her remark. Lo and behold! what I heard next was just the stereotype people possess of the nature of a librarian’s job. For her all I, did was lend books to students in school and shush them when they talk. And the most painful was that I get to sit all day in a comfortable chair with tea on the side. Really!!!!

Is that how I work? Well my friend the answer is no. I do not get to sit on a chair or sip tea all day. Leave alone rest. My day does not merely involve stamping books. I do much more and I am proud of it. I did not choose this job so that I would be having an easy work to do. And yet who am I to get upset because if I stopped the next person walking by on the street and asked them what our jobs as librarians involve, I’d be willing to bet that their first answer would be stamping books. This is because the experience you all had of librarians is of the frontline, the old lady with glasses who kept books locked in cupboards and looked down upon you if your shoes so much as even squeaked. But dear friends have you ever spared a thought how the books get on to the shelves and ready for you to borrow? There is no magic behind it, but behind the scenes there are teams of librarians working to make this happen in universities and colleges. But in schools the job is carried out single handily by the librarian, or if the school infrastructure supports he/ she might have an assistant. Other than that, we ourselves do all the behind the scene from selecting the books for purchase, to processing the orders and later create the bibliographic records that make it possible for you to find the book in the library catalogue and then on the shelves.

I am not here to glorify my job or to argue. I only want you all to see us in the true light. For years, we have plodded to receive the status we enjoy now. And a lot of hands have worked towards making this job reach a level where we are not lesser than our teaching counterparts. No, I have no issues against. I have been a teacher myself, but it is disheartening to see them remark about the librarians’ job as being a job that requires no specific qualification or specialisation and can be done anyone. I was horrified when they said that it’s a job anyone can do effortlessly as there is no level expertise needed.

And the expression was priceless when I informed that we do possess degrees to qualify as a librarian. Not many of my teacher friends were aware. And that’s the level of ignorance behind one of the oldest professions. The fault lies on our part as well because many librarian do not engage themselves beyond books and thus the stereotype continues.

But for me books are only one aspect of what libraries and librarians are about. Librarianship is a people profession. Our job is to connect people with the information they are seeking, whatever format that may take. At their heart, all library jobs have a central purpose: to help people access and use information, for education, for work, or for pleasure. In all library roles, irrespective of place and institution, customer service and communication skills are important. If anyone ever thought they’d become a librarian because they liked books or reading, they would be disillusioned if they did not also like people too. Libraries of all kinds are keen to demonstrate their value to as wide an audience as possible, and to open access to all significant resources that they hold.

In the digital age, with information explosion becoming a common term and every information becoming available online, there is a proclivity to say that libraries and librarians are redundant. But this is not the case. Information available online is often of dubious origin and there is still a wealth of information behind paywalls that can only be accessed by those who have paid. I have helped many students and teachers who have used search engines for their research and projects and come to the library perplexed because they cannot find the information they want or are rather baffled by the overflow of information pertaining to a topic. If anything, the internet has added to the range of services libraries provide and in turn this has also increased the variety of roles available to librarians.

As well as being good communicators with people and dynamic adopters and exploiters of technological developments, librarians need to have detailed specialist subject knowledge to pass on to library users. Our job now includes providing training to show people how to search for information and evaluate the same. These information skills sessions are now expanding to include digital literacies such as cyber safety, the use of social media sites and online collaboration tools.

There is no standard route into librarianship: librarians have first degrees across the whole spectrum of subjects. To become a professionally qualified librarian we also need a masters qualification in librarianship or information science. An introduction to librarianship can be gained through a graduate degree.  A year as a graduate trainee can be useful but it is not a requirement for a place on a postgraduate programme.

I have a job that goes beyond the school walls as I am in constant touch with teachers and students as and when they need any help. As a librarian, my job requires that I be available to them as much as possible. Last month I gave a workshop on Referencing and Citation. This required me to do a lot of reading and research so that the information I communicated was accurate and current. After the research, I was engaged in assembling the information and resources I gathered. Presentations and handouts were prepared keeping in mind the guidelines and student friendly. It took me weeks to prepare for it, as my mistake would cause the students lose marks in their research work. And people consider my job to be cakewalk.

My intention is not to belittle the teaching profession. But friends please be considerate when you happen to meet a librarian. We are not sitting idle all day. The 21st century librarian is more like an information officer who needs to updated and always abreast with the latest in information, books and technology. And this necessitates that we read and keep ourselves up on our surrounding. Nevertheless, we keep doing our work behind the curtains, but it does hurt when people deride our work. Every profession has its share of hardships and bounty, but it is not often that we give each their due.

Yes, teachers have lesson plans to prepare, report cards to write and much more. But we, the librarian work no less. We too have classes but our teaching is not limited to curriculum. We act as aide to your teaching and assist the students study and evaluate information, build up on knowledge and open the horizons for you. Just like your work, our work also requires hours of planning and hard work. Like preparing reading lists, deciding on age appropriate resources for their projects, guiding them in selection of collaboration tools and technology best suited for their need. And this is not easy for us. It involves lot of enquiry, research and assembling of information from the ocean to find that one drop that would quench the need of the user.

We have moved beyond books and walls, and moved ahead, just as information is not limited to books anymore. Our names have changed also, we are called information officer, information specialist, teacher librarian, information and media specialist, and many more. And with the change in the names our role and duty have also changed, become more extensive. We perform research, evaluation, investigation, exploration, curation, referencing, examination. I could go on and the list would only get longer. With the transformation in education system and advancements in technology, our jobs have evolved to extend beyond books. My job is not limited to stamping alone, I am an information officer trying my best to help students search information and evaluate its authenticity and suitability for their work.

So, friends I am not just a librarian, I am the librarian who works behind the scene to ensure you get what you come looking for. The next time you visit a library do pass a smile and give a second to appreciate our work.