Category Archives: Books

The Reader

Beat About The Book - fictionThe reader

Craft class was in progress. Forty girls sat on either side of a long table bent diligently over their embroidery frames. At the head of the table sat Ms Mathew, The Dragon. That’s what the students called her, for she breathed fire at the littlest opportunity.

Did I say 40? Well, I meant 39, for the 40th girl was not quite there. Sara sat right at the end of the table, with her head bent like the others, except she had no embroidery frame. On her lap rested an Enid Blyton and she was far far away in a land where a gorgeous tale was beginning to unfold.

DEAR BESSIE, FANNY, JO AND DICK,
We know that you don’t want any more adventures just yet, but you might like to know that there is a most exciting land at the top of the Faraway Tree just now.  It is the Land of Do-As-You-Please, even nicer than the Land of Take-What-You-Want. We are going there tonight.  If you want to come, come just before midnight and you can go with us.  We will wait for you till then.
Love from SILKY AND MOON-FACE

Midnight! This sounded dangerous… and exciting.

Oh go go go! urged Sara as she read on, her eyes shining brighter than those of the kids in the story. ‘The Land of Do-As-You-Please!! Wow! I’d eat honey pops and read all day‘, thought she turning over the page.

Of course the children decided to go – down the garden, through the lane, into the Enchanted Wood. Their torches shone in the moonless night. The forest was silent. Ominously so. Wisha wisha wisha whispered the mysterious trees.

An owl squealed and something ran across their feet.

The kids jumped and so did Sara, upsetting her neighbour, who pricked her finger, dropped her needlework and squealed louder that any owl ever could.

Tiny drops of blood were beginning to blot her young neighbour’s lemon yellow runner and before Sara could apologise she bawled, “OUCH Miss.. Sara pushed me and I hurt my hand, it’s bleeeeeding.”

O get on with it drama queen!‘ thought Sara, the apology dying on her lips, ‘It’s just a tiny prick for goodness sake!

She did try to look contrite but The Dragon was already bearing down upon them. Sara glanced at the book in her hand. Too late she realised she had no embroidery frame. Her heart sank right into her shoes. She would be caught red-handed.

**************

I need to put in a few apologies: One to Enid Blyton for taking liberties with her writing. And two to Bernhard Schlink, for borrowing the title of his book although there is nothing similar between the two tales except perhaps, a love for the written word.

It’s Day 4 of the #BarAThon Challenge from 1st to 7th August 2016.
The prompt for today is ‘Caught Red Handed’.

I am with Team #CrimsonRush

BAR-A-THON

Why I Write – Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto – A Review

Why I write – Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto
Edited and translated by Aakar Patel

manto

I’ve been putting off this review for quite a while now. Not because the book was a tough one to read but because it wasn’t my kind and I am not sure how to review it.

One: This is a translation – which I’m not fond of. Language I feel, is a part of the story and that is often lost in translation.Or so I thought.

And two This was titled ‘Essays by Sadat Hasan Manto’.. essays? For me E.S.S.A.Y. spells B.O.R.I.N.G. Consider it a hangover from school.

This book served to dispel both those myths. I do continue to suspect though, that it would have read much better in the original Urdu. But then that might be because even if I do not know the language too well I remain partial to it.

The Book..

… is a collection of articles by Manto that appeared in various publications over a number of years. They have been edited and translated by Aakar Patel. I have no way of knowing how much of the original has been retained but Manto’s thoughts certainly shine through.

The amazing thing about this book is that he wrote these articles (I prefer to call them that rather than essays) over six decades ago and yet they are more relevant than ever. It makes one think that either Manto had precognitive powers or that things really haven’t changed over the years or perhaps we did make progress only to regress again.

Manto picks varied topics from something like surviving in the Indian film industry (he wrote scripts for Bollywood, none of which were very successful) bumming cigarettes from friends and eve teasing to politics, politicians and partition riots. He wrote of his struggles with poverty and his inability to support his family as also of his brush with the law – he was tried a number of times for obscenity. Not once does he sound desperate or depressed. He writes with humour and a sharp satirical voice.

The ones I loved

One of my favourites was Hindi or Urdu  where he sets up a dialogue between a Munshi Narayan Prasad and a Mirza Mohammad Iqbal each making a case for their language. The futility of the argument shines through in the dialogue. He adds: Languages are not created, they make themselves and no human effort can destroy one already made. He reduces issues like Arms Control to a hilariously simplistic level in his piece How Arms Control works. Another one I liked was What Bollywood must do. It  is amazingly applicable today. Sample this India needs entertaining movies that also educate, exercise the mind and introduces us to new ideas and new thinking.

I saved up my favourite one for the last – God is Gracious in Pakistan – a brilliant piece of satire where he professes relief that artists, poets, painters, musicians and even scientists had all been done away with for, Creation, as he says is the preserve of Allah. He is incisive in this derision of the Government that blocks out creativity.

How we need writers like him.

******

I wracked my brains thinking where I had heard of Manto before till it came to me that actor Naseeruddin Shah did a reading of his famous short story Toba Tek Singh – another masterful satire. Here’s a link if you want to listen to it.

The ghost who walks

Phantom

The Phantom in action with his horse Hero and his wolf Devil.

Remember Phantom, anyone? The great daddy of all superheros? If you’ve grown up in the India of the 80s you certainly would have encountered him in the pages of The Illustrated Weekly or the daily newspaper. You would know him as Vetaal in Hindi. Wiki tells me that at the peak of its popularity, the strip was read by over 100 million people each day.

How he was made

If you’ve joined the human race later and are unaware of this great mystery man, he was fighting evil way before Spiderman, FYI. He was born in 1936 and the strip is still going on in 2015. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? He was created by Lee Falk (who also created Mandrake the Magician). Phantom survived his creator’s death (in 1999) and is now produced by new writers and artists. I for one will always associate Phantom with Lee Falk.

Five Phantom facts

  1. When young sailor Christopher Walker’s father is killed by pirates he takes a vow on his father’s skull to rid the world of crime. And that’s how Phantom was born.
  2. He is believed to be immortal. The baton of superheroism passes from father to son so seamlessly that people never get to know when the old phantom is gone and the new one has taken his place. The current phantom is the 21st Phantom.
  3. Falk said his skin-tight costume was inspired by Robin Hoods green tights.
  4. He lives in a Skull Cave in Africa in a fictional country called Bangalla. He has many other houses including a tree house, an Isle of Eden and a castle.

phantom skull cave

phantom ring

5. Oh and this I must tell you – he wears two rings and leaves their mark – a skull (from the ring he wears on his right hand) for the bad people and the four sabres mark (from the ring on his left hand) on the good people who remain in his protection. Another bit of trivia – the Skull ring is supposed to be made from the nail that hung Jesus to the cross.

Five reasons why I love him

  1. The obvious one first – He’s a superhero – brave and indestructible, stranding up for the weak and fighting the bad people. What’s not to like?
  2. He’s romantically tantalizingly mysterious. You never get to see him really properly. He hides behind that hideous purple mask (Why Purple????). All you get are rare glimpses of half a profile or his back. And in your imagination you make him perhaps much more handsome than any man can ever be.
  3. He is real. Well as real as a superhero can get. He has no special powers. No spider senses tell him of brewing trouble. He gets and gives news through the Jungle patrol – tribal drummers. His best assets are his own strength and the undying loyalty of Devil and Hero.
  4. He has a love story too. He falls in love with Diana Palmer who he met during his college days. He later goes on to marry her.
  5. He’s a family man!! Yeah he has a wife Diana Palmer and twins (Yess!!) Kit and Heloise. A superhero dad – how adorable!

**********

Linking up to ABC Wednesday the fun weekly alphabetical challenge where I’m picking up a character each week to talk about.

abc 17 (1)

Rendezvous with Obelix

On Beat About the Book (BAB) blog today we have an interview with the most famous sidekick of all time – Obelix – the mustachioed, pigtailed loveable Gaul, best friend of Asterix. You may already know that when he was a baby he fell into a cauldron of magic potion giving him superhuman strength. That potion seems to have also endowed him with a klutzy endearing innocence. We bet you didn’t know that a survey of adolescent girls voted him the ‘sexiest’ Gaul of all time.

We have a breakfast appointment with him this morning and we find him chomping his way through a whole wild boar, a growing pile of licked-clean bones by his side.

Quintessential Obelix

Quintessential Obelix

BAB: Good morning Mr Obelix.
Obelix: Mornin’.

BAB: Would it be much trouble for you to put down that boar for a bit?
Obelix(Glaring): Don’t you come between the boar and me! Fire away. What is this about?

Obelix at breakfast

Obelix at breakfast

BAB: Well you agreed to be a guest on the blog here, remember? We need you to answer a few questions.
Obelix: Ask Asterix. He’s the talker, the one with brains.

BAB: And you? You’re the one with brawn?
Obelix: (Flexing his muscles) Yeah right.

BAB: You’ve been known to break down doors when you knock at them. Once you gave Asterix amnesia when you hit him on the head. Is it hard remembering that you’re this strong? Does it feel strange being so Big and Fa… err Strong. Doesn’t…
Obelix: WHAT??? Were you going to say Fat? Who’s Fat? WHO. IS. FAT. HERE?

BAB: Strong.. I said strong. And brave – the strong and brave Roman basher.
Obelix: (Calming down right away, a beatific smile lighting up his face) Ah yes the Romans! I love ’em… though they’re not too good at our fight-game. Keep losing. Need more practice, I figure. Once I had this nightmare they were leaving. Imagine that! What life that would be, with no Romans to clobber! I’d likely die of boredom. Some folks believe they invaded us. Heck it was we who dragged ’em here for a bit of sport.

Obelix the brave.

Obelix the brave.

BAB: So what do you do for a living?
Obelix: You still need to ask? You slow or what? I beat up Romans Duh! And (thrusting a chunk of meat in our face) I hunt and eat wild boar for living and oh I make and trade menhirs.

Obelix at work on a menhir.

Obelix at work on a menhir.

BAB: Menhirs? What do people do with them?
Obelix: Buy ’em of course! Maan, you’re slow.

BAB: I meant what do they do with them after they buy them?
Obelix: Whatever they please. I sell ’em, what people do with ’em after that ain’t much o’ my business.

BAB: Mr Obelix we’ve heard you’re quite the ladies man. You seem to fall in love quite often.
Obelix: (Blushing) Well I’m a ‘motional kinda man and the girls move my heart. I’m quite a hit with ‘em too. That Panacea’s a beaut and also Mrs Geritrix. Her husband though is another story – crusty old blah.

BAB: What according to you is a perfect life?
Obelix: Boars to hunt, a bunch of Romans to play with, Asterix and Dogmatix by my side and life is perfect.

Linking up to ABC Wednesday the fun alphabetical meme. We’re at the letter O.

abc 17 (1)

Napoleon the Pig

On the blog today, I have Napoleon. Did you know that in France it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon? And yet it’s Napoleon the Pig that I have here – the cunning, plotting, power-hungry protagonist from George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Napoleon the Pig

Napoleon the Pig

The book is one of the finest satires ever written. It is amazing how much power a great author can pack into a tiny book. This one comprises just 127 pages. The Indian edition is priced around Rs 70/- (a little over a dollar) and comes with an enlightening introduction explaining the characters. Buy it, I say, if you don’t have a copy, for this is another one of those read and re-read books.

The tale is about a bunch of farm animals who, inspired by Old Major – a pig, rebel against, and oust their owner. They then take over the running of the farm dreaming of a society where all animals work together to the best of each of their capacity and share the fruits of their toil equally.

The pigs are the most intelligent of the animals. The rebellion is led by two of them – Snowball and Napoleon. They teach themselves to read and formulate seven commandments:

1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
3. No animal shall wear clothes.
4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
7. All animals are equal.
Most other animals are too stupid to learn to read but do pick up the basic commandment.
They adopt the motto ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’.

Even as the animals are revelling in their victory Napoleon puts his plan in motion. He begins with appropriating the milk from the cows exclusively for the pigs. His trusted deputy Squealer convinces the other animals that this is for their own good – pigs need the milk since they are the brains behind the operation and have the hardest task of planning. Napoleon hides away some new-born pups. He trains them secretly and they grow up into vicious dogs who follow no one’s orders but his. He then gets rid of Snowball who might have challenged his power.

By the end of the book the pigs are living in the human’s house, wearing their clothes, sleeping in their beds, getting the other animals to work for them and even brandishing whips as they walk on two feet. Slowly, secretly the commandments have been modified to just a single on:

The final commandment

The final commandment

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal that others.

And the anthem changes to Four legs good two legs better. Their transformation back into ‘tyrannical’ humans is complete.

By his own confession Orwell modelled Napoleon on Stalin. Most other characters, though a bit of a generalisation, do find parallels. Old Major could be Karl Marx (the one who comes up with the theory of Equality) Snowball was Trotsky (Stalin’s bete noire), Squealer (the Russian media, specially the paper Pravda that justified each of Stalin’s moves) and so on.

Orwell’s Napoleon is a classic example of how power corrupts. He works at multiple levels to get his way and crown himself the leader.

– He is a meticulous cunning planner.
– He makes rules and changes them each time they stop serving his purpose.
– He doesn’t offer explanations to the animals directly, letting Squealer do the convincing.
– He uses force to intimidate those who Squealer cannot convince.
– He is ruthless and doesn’t shy from massacring to drown out dissent.
– He loves power and will do anything to hold onto it.

Unlike some of his other books (I found 1984, very depressing) this one is an easy and very interesting read. And with its satirical background it becomes brilliant.

************

Linking up to ABC Wednesday the fun challenge that pushes me to write at least one post each week. Sending out thanks to Mrs Nesbitt who thought up the challenge.

abc 17 (1)

Six lessons modern-day parents can learn from Marmee

Picking up Little Women for a re-read meant a nostalgia trip. This book by Louisa Alcott, written over a hundred years ago has been a part of my growing up years. Way back in school we devoured the entire series. All my friends found at least one sister she completely identified with. Each girl is a protagonist in her own right, at least in the first book.

As I browsed through the book again, looking for a passage to share at my book club, the character that really struck me for its quiet strength was Marmee. I wondered how I hadn’t really noticed her earlier. I took her for granted, I suppose – just like we take mums for granted in real life.

Susan Sarandon as Marmee

Susan Sarandon as Marmee

I didn’t even know her real name. It is Margaret March, same as Meg’s. Other than that Alcott gives us very little background on her. I did read, though that she modelled her on her own mother Abigail Alcott – a writer and a social activist.

Here are some lessons modern-day parents can pick from this super-mum

  1. Break the mould: Marmee didn’t believe in pushing her kids to fit into predefined societal roles. Whether it was Meg and her fancy friends or Amy’s school pals, Marmee encouraged the girls to hold their own. When school becomes a chore for the painfully shy Beth she allows her to be home-schooled.
  2. No comparisons: She gave her daughters the freedom to be themselves. With four such different children comparisons would be inevitable. Not for Marmee. She appreciates each of her daughter for her individual qualities.
  3. Live your lesson: Marmee teaches by doing. The classic example is when she confesses to Jo about having a bad temper. “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”
  4. Back to the basics: Marmee’s life is guided by basic principles of piety, simplicity, honesty, hard-work and thrift. We often forget to reinforce them to the children  though her values stand the test of time.
  5. Money isn’t happiness: Though they are poor Marmee doesn’t push her daughters to marry for money and yet she isn’t biased against the wealthy Laurie. Here’s a woman to whom money truly  didn’t make a difference.
  6. Beyond vanities: She encouraged her daughters to look beyond external vanities. She brings a beautiful balance in her upbringing. Though she doesn’t forbid her daughters from dressing up or going to parties she does stress that they should be more than just that.

Linking up to ABC Wednesday with thanks to Mrs Nesbitt who thought up this wonderful meme.

abc 17 (1)

Leisel Meminger – The Book Thief

Leisel Meminger has had to wait too long to be written about as I’m lagging way behind with my post. You know her don’t you? From Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief? She’s the nine-year old German girl given up to foster parents since her own were Communists – a dangerous thing to be during WWII. She’s the one with brown eyes in times when blue was the safer colour. But she was safe – at least she was German.

Leisel Meminger

Leisel Meminger

What’s more, she knew how to keep a secret – an essential trait for a thief. This was a skill she would need later, to save a friend’s life. But first, I have to tell you about her stealing adventures. She stole her first book ‘The Gravedigger’s Handbook’ from the site where her 6-year-old brother was buried. They were meant to be together at their foster parents’ house but death claimed him first and then stayed on with Leisel to tell her story.

Through her life she manages to steal just six books but that was enough in times when owning one might have been a crime (apart from Mein Kampf) and when bonfires were fed by books. That’s where she rescues her second one from. She hides away the still-smouldering book in her jacket and almost sets herself on fire.

book thief

Helped on by her new dad, Leisel learns to recognise the power of words and falls in love with them. One day a new friend comes to live with them and shows her how words could be a double edged sword. Wasn’t it words that the Fuhrer had used to create a world so horrific it didn’t deem half its people fit to live? This new friend is a Jew. She needs to keep her mouth shut about him. His life depends on it. And she does. Didn’t I say she could keep a secret? Her foster dad wasn’t as good at it, though. The day he extended a bit of bread to a starving Jew he knew he’d made a mistake. He knew the Fuhrer’s men would come looking and find the friend hidden away in their basement. They had to let him go, to Leisel’s heartbreak.

Through it all she manages to learn to read, play football, steal some apples and make a name for herself as a don’t-mess-with me girl with strong fists.

Leisel is an unusual girl for her fierce loyalty, her sense of right and wrong, her knack for making unusual friends and above all for her love for books. This is the love that prompts her to scribble words on the walls of her basement, that helps her calm down frightened people in bomb shelters, that gives her the means to provide consolation to old women who had lost young sons to the war. In the end it also proves to be the love that saves her life, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to be saved.

Linking up to ABC Wednesday with thanks to Mrs Nesbitt who thought up this wonderful meme.

abc 17 (1)