11-year-old Pecola Breedlove believes she’s ugly. And nothing can change that. Nothing at all. Unless … unless she could trade in her eyes for beautiful blue ones. Now if she had those blue eyes, things would be different; because then, everyone would love her.
After a bit of break, I’m back to reading African American history.
Most of us have a vague idea of how scores of Africans were sold in European and American markets. We are familiar with slavery through books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, in a more glorified form, in Gone with the Wind. We read these books, ‘It was terrible’, we say, we shake our heads and then we get on with life.
It’s not until a book like The Book of Negroes comes along, that the horror of it all sinks in. In its entirety. It’s then that we truly begin to understand, just a little bit, what it would have been like.
For that, this book, is a must read.
Set in the 18th-19th century, we hear the story in flashback through Aminata Diallo, daughter of a talented midwife and a jeweller.
While on her way home from a neighbouring village, 11-year-old Aminata is kidnapped. Then on begins a long and arduous journey for her. Along with a group of other village folk, she is yoked by the neck and made to walk.
Aminata befriends a young boy Chekura who is helping the kidnappers. He is sympathetic towards her, bringing her food and water.
After months of walking, goaded along with whip-lashes from their captors they reach the sea. They are then loaded onto ships that sail to Carolina. Ironically, Chekura is also put in along with other Africans, becoming a prisoner himself.
Aminata survives the harrowing ship voyage as also a slave rebellion and lands on the shores of Carolina. She is sold off to Appleby, a ranch owner. She’s a smart young girl, quick to pick up skills, eager to learn new ways and new languages. She has picked up midwifery from her mother and that renders her invaluable.
However, not her intellect, nor any of her skills can protect her from her fate as a slave. She’s beaten and raped and separated from her husband; her child sold off. She moves from Carolina to Nova Scotia and she survives, as does her dream of going back to her village in Africa.
What I thought of it
The Book of Negroes lays bare the cruel practice of Slavery in all detail. It talks about how people from Africa were kidnapped, coerced, shipped, treated worse than animals and bought and sold across America.
The writing is lucid and flows easily. It’s simple and it kept me turning the pages. It is the story that remains the hero of the book. Aminata’s journey is execptional and yet hundreds of millions of blacks faced the same fate, cheated over and over again of their right to exist as humans. Despite its heart-breaking subject, the book manages to maintain an underlying upbeat spirit, perhaps due to it’s protagonist.
Aminata’s character embues the book with optimism, rendering it readable
Right from the beginning it is clear that Aminata is a gifted child. She grows up to be smart and intelligent. Her skill at mid-wifery, her mother’s gift to her, and then later, the gift of education put her in a league above the other black people. It ensures for her, a better life than most others. Which is why the book doesn’t turn into a weep-fest. It did however make me wonder how much worse it would have been for the vast majority of other slaves who were illiterate, uneducated and barely skilled. Would they have had any bright spots in their lives at all? That was a frightening thought.
The African Diversity
We often make the mistake of clubbing the entire African continent as one entity. The book brought home its diversity. It was good to be reminded that there were multiple tribes with multiple languages, dialects and religions. Not every slave could even understand what another one was saying. Also, it was Africans who were capturing other Africans. So to think that all of them were victims would be wrong.
In the end the book is about humanity
On the surface of it, this is a story of the white man against the black, and yet in the end it is about respecting another human, no matter his race or colour. Also, to lay the blame solely at the door of Europeans or Americans would be wrong. Almost every race, at some point, has people trying to prove their supremacy and to undermine others for power or money. Like I pointed out earlier, a lot of Africans were involved in the slave trade too. Closer home in India, the caste system was just a variation of slavery as were practices like bonded labour. None of us are truly exempt from blame.
The book is a reminder that every human deserves to be respected.
Last thought: Read this for a glimpse of African history.
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Book: The Book of Fate Author: Parinoush Saniee Translated by: Sara Khalili
Young Massoumeh moves with her family to Tehran from the small conservative town of Qum. The older daughter from among five siblings (three brothers and two sisters), Massoumeh loves to study. Her father supports her, however her mysogynistic brothers and her mother are against it, only wanting her to get married. Insulting and hitting the girls of the family isn’t unusual.
Even with her limited freedom, modern Tehran, is exciting to Massoumeh. It’s here that she finds her best friend, Parvaneh, and also her first innocent crush.
Soon enough, her crush is discovered by her family. She’s beaten up mercilessly and married off to a man she hasn’t even seen.
Her luck turns when she finds that her husband is way more modern than her own family. He is a communist dissident struggling against the oppressive rule of the Shah of Iran.
He champions the equality of women and, to Massoumeh’s delight, he pushes her to further her studies. They have two sons and life seems good For a while but then her husband is found out by the Shah’s men and is caught and persecuted.
Left alone to care for her children Massoumeh soldiers along through the revolution. She finds a job to support her small family even as she continues to dream about finishing her University education. Even after her husband is released, life remains a struggle for her.
The Book of Fate is Massoumeh’s story as she navigates life in turbulent Iran.
Originally written in Persian, this book has been translated into a dozen languages. It was banned in Iran for a while.
The Book of Fate is as much a story of Iran as it is that of young Massoumeh.
The story of Iran
I was only vaguely aware of the history of Iran. The Book of Fate proved to be the perfect way to get to know it. Massoumeh’s fate is entwined with that of her country through her husband and her children. There’s nothing poetic or romantic about the narrative. So if you’re expecting Shafakish descriptions you will be disappointed. The Book of Fate tells of life in Iran as it is without making it the focus of the book. Through Massoumeh we watch the Communists and the Conservative Islamic Leaders come together in the the revolution against the Shah of Iran. We watch as it becomes a success and Khomeini comes to power. And then we watch the crumbling of communist dreams and their terrible persecution under this new conservative rule. That is followed by the Iraq war.
I liked Massoumeh. She isn’t a revolutionary. She’d have been happy not having anything to do with the politics of the country. She doesn’t want her husband or her sons and daughter to become great rebels. She isn’t special or brave or heroic in a Joan-of-Arc kind of way.
And yet she is.
She is brave in an ‘every-day every-woman’ kind of way. She is modern in her thinking, in that she understands the importance of education, she understands the need for women to be independent. When her husband is taken prisoner she doesn’t mope around, she doesn’t reach out for help to either her family or her in-laws. She goes out and she finds work. She braves the jibes and barbs that come her way. And she takes care of her family. She is kind and thoughtful. And that is her strength. Her growth from a shy timid teenager to an independent woman was nothing short of miraculous.
She has flaws.
Of course she has flaws. Her upbringing and her years of conditioning hold her back. Like I said, she isn’t a revolutionary. She is conscious of what society thinks of her and expects of her, and she makes sure she remains a ‘good’ girl at all times.
To me, that made her relatable. I might not have agreed with her decisions (specially the ending of the book) but I could see where she was coming from.
This isn’t a book about the repression of women
A lot of reviews peg this one as a book on the repression of women in a patriarchal society. That would be true but only to a small extent. I like to think of it as a book about the triumphs of a woman in a patriarchal society. I’d like to see it more as an uplifting read than a heartbreaking one. Yeah there are heartbreaks, lots of them, and struggles too and yet I didn’t need to pity Massoumeh.
Last Thought: Read it for Massoumeh’s story and for a crash course in the history of Iran.
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Book: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek Author: Kim Michele Richardson
I’d promised you (and myself) that I’d read and review The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek right after I read Moyes’ The Giver of Stars. The books are both based on women packhorse librarians of Kentucky and were said to be very similar in content. Finally, after wandering off a little bit, here I am.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek tells the story of Cussy Mary Carter. Cussy suffers from a rare genetic disease that results in blue skin. She is called Bluet and is ostracised by the townsfolk, along with other ‘colored’ folks.
She joins the packhorse librarian initiative started by Eleanor Roosevelt, and brings books and other reading material to the people on the hills. Cussy loves books. The written word gets her pulse racing. She has read everything from Pearl S Buck to Aldous Huxley. She is perhaps the best-read person in the town. And yet, she is looked down upon, ridiculed and considered completely unworthy.
A curious doctor tries to find out the reason for her ‘blueness’ and succeeds too (It’s due to the deficiency of a particular enzyme). Bluet is cured for a while but hates the side effects of the drugs that include severe nausea and vomiting. Yet, so desperate is she to be a part of the mainstream of society that she goes along with it. However, the deeply ingrained prejudice against her doesn’t disappear with her blue colour. Finally, she chooses to stop trying to fit in.
Her work, hard and demanding as it is, is her only happiness. And that’s where she finds love too, though it comes at a cost.
What I thought of it
I’ll come straight to the point, without beating about the bush (did you get that?), and say that I loved the book.
The author tackles multiple issues, all close to my heart. She talks of racism and how cruel it was. It is even now, but back in the early nineties, it was way worse than we can ever imagine. It was sanctioned by law. For instance, there was a law prohibiting marriages between whites and coloureds.
Through The Book Woman, I got to know about the Blue people of Kentucky. I found out that they really did exist and also that there really was a place called Troublesome Creek.
And there’s more.
I’d give The Book Woman a hundred out of ten on authenticity. It is a wonderfully researched book. The tone, the language, the customs and traditions, all transport you to Kentucky of the early nineties.
Cussy, the Book Woman
I fell in love with the self-effacing Cussy. While she was the most docile woman you’d ever meet and also very conscious of her standing in the society (or rather the lack of it), she had a certain doggedness that made her persevere despite all odds. She traversed the most treacherously prohibitive terrain, through flowing rivers and heart-stopping narrow mountain trails to get to her readers. I loved how she zealously she picked out reading material requested by her readers. Her pleasure at the thought of their happiness was infectious. Also, I loved how hard she tried to get people to read, sometimes even tricking them into it. That was endearing.
The focus on books and love for reading
I loved how books were such an inherent part of the narrative. The love and longing for reading were touching. It was miraculous that the hunger people had for books, even young children, surpassed their physical hunger. One part of me tells me that’s unbelievable, impossible even, but another part of me wants to believe it – that the thirst for knowledge and the lure of reading surpasses physical needs.
The love story
Cussy finds love on the mountains. Not many pages are devoted to it, there is barely any romance, yet the love story is very real.
Richardson’s Book Woman vs Moyes’ Giver of Stars
It’s not right to compare two books but I had to do this because Richardson accused Moyes of plagiarising her book and that’s what led me to this wonderful read in the first place.
I wasn’t convinced about the charges but the fact remains that the two books are very similar in content. They are, however, different in their treatment of the subject.
The Book Woman is way better researched, way more authentic. Cussy’s passion for books and reading is greater than that of all the women put together in The Giver of Stars and that makes the book so much more of a treat.
In Moyes’ book, the individual stories of the women took up a lot of space and that wasn’t all bad because I did love the stories, but their job as librarians didn’t get as much of a spotlight as I’d have liked. However, that also made the narrative more complex with many stories entwined together. The Book Woman, on the other hand, is the story of Cussy with a simple linear narrative.
If The Book Woman were a classic, The Giver of Stars would be the pop version, more fluff, more drama, easier to read and easier to connect with.
If you ask me which one you should read, I’d say why choose? Read both.
Last thought: Go for it.
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That’s my second Jojo Moyes in a row and she’s fast redeeming herself. I know I know I’d said I’d read The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, but The Girl You Left Behind was sitting there on my bookshelf begging to be read, and well, I couldn’t resist.
I thought I’d have a quick look you know, just to check if I needed to put Moyes back on my favourite-author list, but before I knew it I was sucked right in.
Books have a way of doing that.
Let me share the story so you know exactly how that happened
The Girl you Left Behind tells the story of two women in two different timelines.
First, there’s Sophie, a proud and courageous Frenchwoman. Her story is set in 1916 during the German occupation of France in the First World War. She runs a small hotel along with her sister, and is forced to serve the German Kommandant and his men, much against her wishes.
Sophie’s husband (who is away fighting the war) was a painter and did a striking painting of hers that hangs in her hotel now. It catches the eye of the Kommandant who seems to be obsessed with it. Through it all, Sophie struggles to keep her family safe even as she tries to find her husband through the Kommandant. How far will she go?
Cut to London, 2006. Sophie’s painting is now owned by Liv Halston, who is mourning the recent loss of her husband. The painting is now worth a fortune, although Liv is unaware of it. To her, its value lies in the fact that it’s a wedding gift from her dead husband. Events then on, shake up Liv’s life as she struggles to keep ownership of the painting.
What I thought of it
I’ve read a few other books with two timelines and in each of them one of the two stories has stood head and shoulders above the other. Moyes’ book also suffers from the this problem, although the contrast wasn’t as stark.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.
The book opens with Sophie’s story…
…. and I was completely captivated. Historical Fiction is one of my favourite genres and Moyes brings it alive. The fear, the hunger and the cold. The shortages, the prejudices as also the sense of community, it was all there. And there was intrigue. Sophie’s interactions with the Kommandant made for compelling reading. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It was riveting right up to the very end.
Then came Liv’s story…
…and the pace fell dramatically; as if sudden brakes had been applied on an enjoyable adventurous journey. I had to push myself to keep going and my mind kept wandering away, wondering why Moyes had to desert Sophie at all, why she even attempted to add Liv’s tale and water down a stunning narrative.
While Sophie’s romance with her husband Édouard Lefèvre (before he leaves for the war) is passionate and real, their life idyllic, Liv’s remains vague. When I think of her husband, David, all I can think of is a genius architect, not a loving husband. And that is why Liv’s loss doesn’t ring true even though Moyes takes great pains to try to convince the reader of it.
That said, the story does come together towards the end. There’s a court trial and Moyes redeemed herself somewhat by the time I turned the last few pages. I still maintain Liv’s part could have been shorter.
…tied up neatly, a little too neatly, but I won’t complain, sucker as I am, for happy endings. Moyes seemed to be making up for Me Before You :-).
The title of the book..
… fitted both heroines beautifully. Sophie (as ‘the girl who was left behind’) pines for her husband, who, I have to add, was an adorable character and a perfect foil to Sophie. In the other story, Liv is the one who is ‘left behind’ and cannot forget her dead husband. It seems only right then, that the painting with that title holds both narratives together.
It may sound presumptuous to comment on a bestselling author but this book could have done with better editing. Just a bit of tweaking could have made a difference.
PS: If you’ve read the book …
….. do tell what purpose Mo served by being in it. I thought she ate up too many pages without adding a whit to the story or even supporting it in any way whatsoever.
Also, since I mentioned Sophie’s husband earlier, I have to add he was my favourite character in the book even though he’s barely in it. His letters to Sophie were enchanting. His bear-like joyful personality leaps up from the letters. I’d have given the world to see that drawing of his – the bear in a French army uniform with Sophie by his side.
Last Thought: This isn’t a perfect book but I’d still recommend it if you like Historical Fiction.
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I’ve had an up and down kind of relationship with Jojo Moyes. First I read Me Before You and I cannot ever put into words what I felt for that book. Let me just say that it made me laugh and cry like no love story ever did. This, despite my passion for happy endings.
Then I read the sequel After You and was sorely disappointed. It was just so very mediocre that I lost interest in the Louisa’s life as well as in the author. Then someone (and I cannot for the life of me remember who it was), strongly recommended The Giver of Stars. And because she felt the same about the other two books, I trusted her and I’m glad I did.
Here’s what the book is about
Alice, an Englishwoman, marries the handsome Bennet Van Cleve, more to escape her dull, restricted life in England, than for love, and moves to Kentucky, USA. However, she soon realises that with her domineering father-in-law always around, she had exchanged one prison for another.
When she gets the opportunity of becoming part of a girl gang of pack-horse librarians she signs on eagerly. These women travel long distances on horseback, through sun, rain and snow, carrying with them books to be delivered to isolated houses on the hills.
The library is headed by Margery, a strong independent woman and Alice is at once awed and enchanted by her devil-may-care attitude. Beth, Izzy and Sophie make up the rest of the group. Through their books the women open doors not just to knowledge but also to comfort and camaraderie.
They become an inseparable team, a support system for each other, specially for Alice, who has to struggle hard on the personal front.
Partly because Margery supports Alice and partly because of her love for the mountains and the mountain-folk, she comes into a confrontation with the Van Cleves who own the largest coal mines of the area. The story takes on a dangerous turn when she is accused of murder.
What I thought if it
The book is set in Kentucky during the times of the Great Depression. It intrigued me to find out that pack-horse librarians really existed way back then. I couldn’t help but marvel at these brave women who travelled 14-15 hours a day, four-days a week to bring learning and pleasure to the hills.
…is gorgeous. Moyes brings alive the raw beauty of the mountains – the vastness of the terrain in all its magnificence, harsh yet beautiful, the clip-clop of horse hooves and the chirping of birds, the sounds and the silences, as the women rode in solitude. She describes the changing seasons in all their glory – the heat, the intense cold as also the angry rains.
Her descriptions of life on the hills are real. While she doesn’t romanticise or glorify it, she doesn’t make it pitiful either.
She talks of small-town life with equal authenticity, the dullness of it as also the the gossip-mills that never stop churning and feuds that go on for generations.
…proves that Moyes is a master story-teller. The library is the heart of the book. Interwoven with it are personal stories of the women with their individual dreams and struggles. The narrative moves from Alice to Margery seamlessly including a host of characters as they go along. The two romances are sweet in their own different ways.
Although the story takes time to be set into motion and nothing much happens in the first few pages, I was happy soaking in the setting and acquainting myself with the characters. This isn’t a pacey read, but Moyes keeps one engrossed.
…were well crafted. I liked that most of them had strong, credible backstories. Obviously Alice and Margery were my favourites. I specially loved the growth of Alice’s character. From a sedate, timid, Englishwoman, constantly cowed down by her father-in-law, to a rebel ready to take on the world for the people she loved and believed in – the transformation was wonderful.
What I didn’t like
In Moyes’ book black is black and white is white with a fair bit of stereotyping (the rich mean mine owner). That doesn’t happen in real life and it pretty much reveals the end. While I loved the characters, I’d have liked them to be more layered. A little bit of grey could have added depth and intrigue to the story.
Also, the language didn’t seem to be in sync with time the book was set it. I could have been reading any book set in modern times.
My biggest grouse was with the ending.
***** Spoiler Alert*****
This last bit might have spoilers so stop here if you’re wary of them. And though I’m trying to keep it to a minimum I can’t help but rant just a tiny bit.
The court-case as the grand finale was an inspired idea, but the end was too easy, too tame. Also, had I been the judge or jury, it wouldn’t have convinced me at all, and lastly, it in no way assured me that Van Cleve was well and truly vanquished.
That’s all I’ll say. If you’ve read the book I’d love to know what you though of it, specially the end.
Despite the end, I’d recommend The Giver of Stars as a good read.
Last thought: A read well worth your time.
Moyes faced plagiarism charges after her book was published. Kim Michele Richardson accused her of plagiarising her novel The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.
And so that’s my next read. A little bit to check up on the claims of plagiarism but more because I don’t want to come back from the mountains of Kentucky or let go of the lives of pack-horse librarians.
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Book: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Author: Elif Shafak
After January’s reading spree February was a month for slowing down. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds was the perfect pick for the purpose. One cannot open a Shafak and breeze through it. Her books are to be sampled and savoured at leisure.
But before I get carried away by my love for the author let me introduce you to the story.
This is the tale of Tequila Leila – a prostitute in Istanbul. We are introduced to her as her body lies in a dumpster waiting to be found by friends or family.
The story stems from a piece of research that suggests that a person’s brain is active for about 10 minutes after the heart stops beating.
Each minute of Leila’s time in the dumpster brings a memory.
Fragrance, flavour, sights and sounds translate into memories as she reaches into the depths of her mind to relive moments of her life. We piece together her story through each flashback. More importantly, we get to meet The Five; five of Leila’s friends who constitute the family she could never have.
That makes up the first part of her story – The Mind. There is also a second and third part – The Body and The Soul – that take up the narrative after Leila’s mind stops working.
One would imagine a novel that hinges on death would be about death and dying. Contrary to that, the focus of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds remains on love and friendship and the relationships we form throughout our lives. Here’s what I enjoyed about the book
I absolutely loved it. What a fabulous peg to weave a story!
The poetic storytelling
While the story or the narrative is the life of a novel, there is also a special kind of charm in the way it is told. And that’s where Shafak excels. Almost every page of the book is a quotable quote.
Sample this one on friendship:
On days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they (her friends) would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.”
A sensory treat
Shafak’s story-telling stimulates the senses. So potent were her descriptions that the situations are forever tied up in my mind with the smells and sounds just as they were in Leila’s. The fragrance of cardamom coffee, the smell of sugar-and-lemon, the aromatic lamb stew as also the taste of watermelon and that of soil in her mouth – they will all remain with me forever.
The first part was unputdownable as I followed Leila’s journey through the young innocence of childhood to her stormy and traumatic growing up years and then as she lands into prostitution. The individual stories of her five friends kept me glued. While I didn’t much like Part 2, the third part was beautiful, though a little short.
I loved Leila’s portrayal. I liked that despite the tough situations life threw at her, she didn’t turn cynical or bitter. If anything, she valued love and friendship ever more and made warm heartfelt connections. Which is why her friends are ready to go to any lengths for her.
Most of all, there was Istanbul
No one, absolutely no one, can describe Istanbul the way Shafak does. Her love shines through each page even as she makes no attempt to camouflage its warts. Istanbul comes alive as a city with a million shades, innocent yet heartless, a city changing and growing constantly.
Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong… In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive
Quotes like these are liberally sprinkled, often innocuously placed in the narrative. They build a picture of the city without you even being aware of it. If I ever go to Istanbul, it will be Shafak’s version I’d be looking for. Here’s another quote I loved:
This city always surprised her; moments of innocence were hidden in its darkest corners, moments so elusive that by the time she realised how pure they were, they would be gone.
What could have been better
That’s my first gripe with the book – that her friend list, the ‘water family’, seemed contrived. It was almost as if Shafak was collecting one misfit of each kind to bring together to the group.
The individual stories…
… were too too short. I’ve said earlier I loved each of them and I wanted to know more about each of them. Some, like Humeyra, got a very raw deal. Her picture was incomplete, truncated somehow.
I would have liked Shafak to spend a few more pages establishing the camaraderie between the friends. I got their deep connection with Leila but they didn’t come together as a group for me. And that was crucial since they were working together as a team in the second part of the book.
The second part
This part, The Body, was to me, the weakest bit of the book. Moreso because the first part was so beautifully written. It comes as a rude shock waking one up from a poetic bit of writing to something almost caricaturish as her friends attempt to give her a befitting burial. A book like this didn’t deserve it.
Last thought: Despite the weaknesses, I’d say Read it.
I’d read and loved Liberation of Sita by Volga so it was with high expectations that I picked up Yashodhara by the same author. Here’s a quote from the book that made me think:
I can’t become a path finder though I have the desire to become one. So, I must make the path of the pathfinder more comfortable for him to tread upon. That shall be my aim and my life’s noblest ambition.
I get Yashodhara’s point of view here. It’s an unselfish perspective, where she’s thinking what’s best for the world, rather than of her own personal journey and that is definitely appreciable.
Yashodhara and Siddharth were a perfect match – two souls who thought the same thoughts, felt the same emotions. If anything, Yashodhara was the more evolved of the two (as depicted in the book). And yet she gives up her desire to be the ‘pathfinder’ because she realises that, being a woman, she wouldn’t be able to impact the world as Siddharth would and a valuable message would be lost to the world. And so she decides to take a backseat, letting Siddharth go, allowing him to become The Buddha, while she remains a ‘facilitator’. It’s only a long long time later that she is able to complete her journey.
There are many things about the Yashodhara-Siddharth story that have troubled me ever since I was a child. Finding out that Yshodhara was just as much a thinker as Siddharth only made it worse.
Perhaps, what she did was the right thing to do, specially in the context of the times she lived in.
What’s sad though, is that even today, a lot of women are content to play supporting roles rather than take centre stage. The tired old saying ‘Behind every man…’ gets to me sometimes. It’s as if the woman is given a consolation prize so she stops fighting for the Gold. Perhaps I am being harsh here and I do get that it isn’t always intentional however one does need to rethink this whole facilitator role that women are permanently cast in.
One needs to remember that sometimes they shoulder roles left to them unwillingly, protesting all along, at other times they step back and don’t push themselves enough to take centre stage and sometimes they actually delight in the sacrifice, in giving up their dreams for the men in their lives thanks to years and years of conditioning.
That’s just sad. The world would be a better place if people took up roles best suited to each one, irrespective of gender.
Perhaps then Yashodhara would have been the Buddha.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
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Book Title: The Legend of Genghis Khan Author: Sutapa Basu
Before I picked up Genghis Khan by Sutapa Basu all I knew about him was that he was an ancestor of Babur and a very cruel one at that. There have been several great conquerers who have set out to own the world. I find them intriguing. What drives them? Power? Money? What keeps them going in the face of extreme adversity? How do they motivate an entire army of people to believe in their cause, to follow them and their dream, to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks?
For those reasons I found The Legend of Genghis Khan fascinating – the man, the story, the story telling – all of it.
Born as Temujin to the leader of a Mongol tribe, Genghis Khan is prophesied to be a great man. A shaman interprets the signs at the time of his birth that signal the makings of a conqueror. That’s the thought that little Temujin grows up with. He accepts it and owns it till it becomes a belief firmly rooted in his mind and later, the biggest truth of his life. It is this thought – that he is destined to craft a vast Mongolian empire – that remains his guiding light during the darkest times of despair and through the toughest decisions of his life. He pursues it with awe-inspiring single mindedness.
No fictional tale could compete with Genghis Khan’s life. He goes from being a clan leader’s pampered son to a fatherless boy, to a leader himself, then a helpless captive in a hostile land until he finally realises his destiny. Khan’s life was a roller coaster.
The book begins with his men plundering a palace, destroying, burning, killing and taking prisoner. Among the prisoners is princess Enkhtuya. When she is brought before the Khan, something about her makes him pause.
Then on the story flits between the present and past with glimpses of the Khan’s childhood, even as he and his men plan and launch attack after attack conquering vast territories.
The introduction of Princess Enkhtuya was a brilliant thought. Her character added a whole new dimension to Genghis Khan. Basu manages to give us a glimpse of his gentler side, without taking away from the image of a ruthless conqueror. For some mysterious reason he has a soft spot for her, yet he remains focussed on his life’s mission and none of her entreaties can persuade him to show mercy to his enemies.
The story flows simply and well as we follow the Khan through dry desert areas with raging sandstorms to freezing ice lands. The writing is evocative and the characters consistent.
It is a storyteller’s delight as well as a challenge. The research must have been mind-boggling. What I loved most is the objectivity with which Basu approaches this story. It is easy, almost natural, to admire/love your protagonist and to go on to justify him/his actions. Sutapa Basu manages to not to do that. She tells the tale like a seasoned chronicler remaining true to the tale and nothing else. She writes without attempting to glorify Genghis Khan – without apologies, without explanations – a little like the man himself. She lets his faults and his achievements speak for themselves.
The Legend of Genghis Khan skilfully treads the line between history and fiction. Read this one for some great story telling.
Last thought: If you’re not a non-fiction reader but are a bit of a history buff this book is for you.
The more I read about the Second World War, the more I realise how little I know. So here’s another WWII story, another perspective, another group of people displaced from their homes and homeland in search of peace.
The War is almost at an end. Germany is on the back foot, though refusing to acknowledge it even as the Russian Army advances, raping and killing along its way. Through this terrifying chaos, four refugees – two Germans, a Pole and a Lithuanian – with dark tortured pasts, try to escape the war, making their way to the coast of the Baltic Sea in an attempt to board a ship to safety.
Even after they board the Wilhelm Gustloff their struggles don’t end. For one, they still have secrets to hide. Also the German ship is a target for Russian torpedoes even if all it carries are wounded soldiers, women and children.
Four protagonists, Four POVs, Many stories
The story is told through four points of view, with each of the characters getting two or three pages at a time. It took me a few pages to get used to it but then narrative caught pace and didn’t flag till the very end.
The success of a book like this one depends on how much and how soon the reader gets invested in the characters and their lives. I found myself gripped by not just the four main ones but by many others too. I wanted to know their stories, their families, their background and the past they were hiding. The secrets were revealed slowly over the pages leaving me horrified and amazed by turns. I wanted them desperately to find the safety they craved, I mourned them as much as their friends in the novel.
A large part of the book talks about journey of the four protagonists to the ship. It is a passage plagued with fear. The biggest threat is from the Russians who are technically the liberators, but are just as vicious as the Nazis, claiming all they find as victors’ spoils. There are the Nazis themselves who wouldn’t hesitate to persecute a Polish girl or a deserter as also the old and disabled. Above all there’s hunger and cold. Septeys descriptions brought home how cruel, how persistent and how insidious the two can be, cutting through layers of meagre clothing, freezing and starving victims to death.
On the ship
Images of surging desperate crowds anxious to board the ship with their belongings, often reduced to a single bag, were heart wrenching. There were moms throwing their children onto the ship hoping they’d get to safety or ‘buying’ children hoping they’d be their passport for the voyage – those are scenes that’ll remain with me for a long time. Desperation makes one act in ways one never thinks of. It brings out the best in people and also the worst.
I must mention that though Salt to the Sea talks about struggle and fear and loss, it isn’t a sad book. It has moments of warmth and genuine goodness that make it worth a read.
Last Thought: This one has to be read.
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