My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout

This book needed no summarizing, no review. At one hundred and ninety-two pages, it is a slim book. It asks for you to pause almost at every page a few times, get the words, the meaning, the narrative of that time when these emotions and thoughts, the context of when it was written. And that almost all of us would find it resonating with us.

It so happened that as I was rereading the book to capture those expressions which would take the book to others, I sat watching a hospital from the office window.

Lucy Barton was in a hospital for nine weeks and that’s when this story took shape. A daughter who did not see any of her family since a very very long time, until the day her mother shows up at the foot of her bed in the hospital where she has been…

Excerpts as is in the book:

She talked in a way I did not remember, as though a pressure of feeling and words and observations had been stuffed down inside her for years, and her voice was breathy and un-self-conscious.

We lived with cornfields and fields of soyabeans spreading to the horizon….in the middle of the cornfields stood one tree, and its starkness was striking. For many years I thought the tree was my friend; it was my friend.

I mention this because there is the question of how children become aware of what the world is, and how to act in it.

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true….So much of life seems speculation.

…but what I am trying to say here is that I always thought she liked my circumstances to be so much lower than her own.  She could not envy anything about me.

There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm. XXX I remained alone in the classroom, warm, and that was when I learned that work gets done if you simply do it. I could see the logic of my homework assignments in a way I could not if I did my work at home.

But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone. XXX I did not know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.

What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.

I say this because I didn’t understand the art; they were dark and oblong pieces, almost-abstract-but-not-quite constructions, and I understood only that they were symptoms of a sophisticated world I could never understand.

I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.

He spoke of her work, that she was a good writer, but she could not stop herself from a “softness of compassion” that revolted him, that, he felt, weakened her work.

I see children cry from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real. But once in a while I se a child crying with deepest of desperation, and I think its one of the truest sounds a child can make.

I had no knowledge of popular knowledge.

Dreading-in-advance: you are wasting time by suffering twice. I mention this only to show how many things the mind cannot will itself to do, even if it wants to.

There is that constant judgement in this world: How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another?

I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Many of us have been saved many times by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what made me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.

I have learned this: a person gets tired. The mind or the soul or whatever word we have for whatever is not just the body gets tired, and this I have decided, is-usually, mostly-nature helping us.

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn. A view of the horizon, the whole entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange lines of horizon, but if you turned around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.

All life amazes me.

Cutting For Stone

The meandering path of this story, spanning over five decades and three continents, it’s a son’s journey to understand a mother who did not live, a father who did not own up, and a twin brother who did everything his opposite, except that they were both doctors. A story around medicine in remote inaccessible corners, and a family, by birth and by destiny, love, betrayal and longing built around lives of life-saving doctors. Their skills, abilities, flaws and choices.

…to tell the story. It is one my mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, did not reveal and my fearless father, Thomas Stone, ran from, and which I piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me.

Marion and Shiva, twins with their entwined lives.

What is the texture of that betrayal which only your twin can do to you, because he looks exactly like you and because he can think what you are thinking and feel what you are feeling. But not care about the action he takes on your feeling because he is still, a different human being. You are both same but not the same, not totally. But having done all that he can do, not intended to hurt his brother, but does it in any case, and still leaves the brother with the most precious donation only he could give, and the burden to live with it.

Two young nuns torch-bearers carrying Christ’s love to Africa, what better way than to spread healing. A family constituted for the pursuance of medicine, in treating disease and complexities. They bond over their compelling desire to solve diseases. Unknown to them, the Government General Hospital in Madras had housed all of them at some point of time, and Missing (Mission lost in pronunciation) Hospital did that at another, caught in the conflict, Ethiopia.

This is a book of Eyes and Nose and Memory. Descriptions of the anatomy, the disease and the procedure will make you queasy. It will be like you can see and smell what was happening inside an OT.

It tells about lives caught, decisions made in desperation of war and conflict. Between countries, among people, between duty and compassion, choices made in fear and how that writes your life, charts your path.

We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime. We’ll leave much unfinished for the next generation.

The book begins with a dedication.

For George and Mariam Verghese

Scribere jussit amor

(Love is blind. Bestowed in love. Love is the breath that sustains us)

I was often reminded of Maugham,

“well, to tell you the truth, because I can’t imagine anything more heart-rending than to love with all your soul someone that you know is worthless.”

Whether it was worthless in this context of the story, it certainly brought irrevocable and unimaginable misery, perched on that life, parasitical and metastasized, never letting go till….   

And the mystery, what was in that letter which Sister Mary Joseph Praise wrote to Surgeon Thomas Stone.

And where is it?

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

“But we overlay the present into the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we are seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The Dutch House, built in 1922, is a house designed like a stage set up for performance. It’s huge and grandiose, enormous, preposterous spectacular. You can either like it or hate it. There is no place for indifference.

Elna, once wanting to become a nun, a woman who does not even desire surplus food, who is happy cooking pinto beans, using orange zest to bake a cake which she shares with the neighbour who gave the three oranges, recycling old sweaters to make warm clothes for her daughter, helping feeding a neighbourhood torn by war,  is suddenly shocked with a surprise by Cyril, her husband she loves, The Dutch House. It comes with furniture, clothes, linens, plates and even paintings of other people. That one hideous symbol of luxury puts an end to everything Elna had stood and lived for. It shakes her foundation so terribly, that she tries but is just not able to accept. She leaves, the house, the husband and her two children. The house took away all sense of proportion.

Maeve, at fifteen with a brother Danny seven years younger, takes over the role of the mother and the absentee father. She protects Danny fiercely and never gives up on what is best for him.

For Danny, Maeve, is more than the absent mother, the near absentee father (except for the saturday collection of rents), the sister, the friend, all of them and more put together. They bond over everyday sister-brother rituals, like Maeve puts the toothpaste on the toothbrush for both of them. Maeve and Danny confront adversities together and in that process add incredible strength to that relationship.

I could read her blood sugar like the weather. Maeve gets diabetes. Her father thinks she fell sick because of her mother’s on and off presence. He also believes it will kill her if her mother ever comes back.

Maeve had been inclined to slouch when it first became apparent that she was going to be taller than all other girls in her class and most of the boys, and our father was relentless in his correction of her posture. Head-up-shoulder-back might as well been her name.  For years, he thumped her between the shoulder blades with the flat of his palm whenever he passed her in a room, the unintended consequence of which was that Maeve now stood like a soldier in the queen’s court, or like the queen herself.

Appears Andrea, who loves the Dutch House. Cyril and Andrea get married, their love for the house is mutual. Elna had embraced the people who worked in the house, Andrea believes in strata. For Andrea these are other’s children and servants, who were earlier the caretakers. The close-knit lives are distanced, what is cooked, how it is served, who stays in which room…she changes everything.

Then Cyril dies of a sudden heart attack.  Andrea acts on the accumulated anger and throws them all out abruptly, intending to make it as bad as it can get. The only provision his father had made was for Danny’s education. Maeve makes the most of it, she sends him to attend the longest and most expensive education possible. Medical school.

The Dutch House stays a big constant in Danny and Maeve’s lives. Nostalgia had moved from being people inside the house to being people parked in a car parked on the street. They have insatiable appetite for the past, the past as it happened and the past as it got lived by them.

Like swallows, like salmon, we were the helpless captives of our migratory pattern. We made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it.

Saving most important conversations for the car, they watch the Dutch House through the Linden trees, recall their past, exchange notes from their childhood, information, little or big details, which either of them had missed. “Why did my mother leave”, asks Danny. “Who were the others in her family”, asks Maeve.

Our professional education could be a choice or a chance. Most certainly, it is not genetic. But it can be a kind of inheritance or apprenticeship. When you are spending time with your parents, listening to what they do and speak, there is tremendous absorption, information seeping into the young minds. Though Danny does became a doctor, his real calling was what his father did, real-estate, hammering a nail and pouring cement, putting into practice all the Saturdays he had spent with his father collecting rent.

“The biggest lie in business is that it takes money to make money. Remember that. You’ve got to be smart, have a plan, pay attention to what’s going on around you. None of that costs a dime.”

Danny is aware, if you don’t want to follow the profession of your education, you have to be brilliant at what interests you.

He gets on with life, becomes big in real estate, lives closely with his sister, falls in and out of love, falls in love again with the same person, marries and has children. They go through life as all others.

Gradually, the earlier inhabitants of the Dutch house starts falling back together. Sandy and Jocelyn had taken up other jobs after being thrown out of the Dutch House,  but had stayed in touch with Maeve and Danny.  Fiona, Fluffy to everyone, who had come with the house, later taken in as nanny to the children, who was sacked after she hit Danny with a spoon, injuring him seriously. Many years later, when they meet again, she still carrying the guilt of wounding a child, but they are able to put that episode in a perspective, accept and become more than family to each other. In fact, Danny wonders, the likelihood that their lives would have been better if Fluffy had married their father.

We live forward but understand life in hindsight. Maeve and Danny sieve through their life to make sense of what happened. I’d never been in the position of getting my head around what I’d been given. I only understood what I’d lost.

But then their mother comes back. Maeve had had a chance to be with her mother. Danny had no such comfort.

To grow up with a mother who had run off to India, never to be heard from again, that was one thing – there was closure in that, its own kind of death. But to find out she was fifteen stops away on the Number One train to Canal and had failed to be in touch was barbaric. After so many years of chaos and exile, our lives are finally settled. Reigniting the fire I had spent my life stamping out.

How is it that two people facing similar situations, forgive differently?

Maeve on her mother who Danny is unable to forgive: “She is our mother and she is back. Do not ruin this for me.”

Danny who had spent some time with Andrea who Maeve is unable to forgive: “She was horrible to us in the end, I will grant you that, but sometimes I wonder if she just did not know any better. May be she was too young to deal with everything, or maybe it was grief. Or maybe things had happened in her own life which had nothing to do with us. Xxx the truth is I have plenty of memories of her being perfectly decent. Xxx

The point is that it’s true. At that time I didn’t hate her, so why do I scrub out every memory of kindness, or even civility, in favour of the memories of someone being awful?”

Andrea is horribly sick. She loses her memory. She thinks of Maeve as her daughter, whose portrait still hangs on the wall of the Dutch House, and Danny, who has striking resemblance with Cyril, she thinks, is her husband.

After nursing her daughter Maeve back to health, Elna goes back to the Dutch House to take care of Andrea, her late husband’s second wife. The very same house where she could not bring herself to live and left two children alone to face life without her. She goes back to serve the very Andrea who is the reason of all the misery caused to her two children. Her work is her calling, does not matter where.

I gave up caring where I lived a long time ago. You have to serve those who need to be served, not just the ones who make you feel good about yourself.

It’s a punishment and panacea together. That is an opportunity is rarest of all. The past is in the past and we need to let things go.

What does a grievous personal injustice mean to different people? How does age, and along with it, gathered experience, wisdom influence forgiveness or lack of it?

But your mother has a higher calling than we do. When you think about saints, I don’t imagine any of them had made their families happy.

This is a heart-warming story of a larger family beyond the blood ties. The language is lucid, exact. Not over-powering or dramatic. It brings out every details and every personality like you can see a feeling take shape right in front of your eyes.

Many times one is unfairly treated, no matter where, family, work, friend circle, neighbourhood. I am not talking about being violated, physically, mentally, as those impact us at a very different level and permeate deep inside us. These is law and prescribed punishment. What we are talking about here are, discrimination, partiality, and such. This difference is important, as they in turn influence how we desire to avenge, seek closure, demand apology.

One thinks things could be talked face to face and sorted and closed. Only if it was all that simple!There is some truth in “time is the biggest healer”. It is not necessary that time itself is the healer; time lets many other things happen, to you and to the one who has wronged you. Both in a way bring some sense of righting to the wrong. It is to be realised that the closure is not necessarily induced and steered by the wronged. There could be a larger sense and a bigger player who rights the wrongs. Could be, we may not see it, may have no idea or any notion or any patience. The possibilities of how closure happens, is not limited by how much we understand closure or how we initiate a closure.

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

All the wonderful people who come into our lives when we are older,  we choose to be friends with, our spouse, partners, friends,  may be can never ever have a true and complete understanding of our life with our siblings, in which ever way that time had spanned out, it will always be layers and layers of depth, looking at childhood through adult eyes, adult interpretations and adult understanding of everything else.

Some books, as I read them, often make me pause and there is a deep connect that prods me to write about it. In this book it was the love between the siblings. Whether you grew up with just one or a bunch of siblings, that growing up together at the young age, good or bad, has no replacement. There can never be a repeat.

There are reasons why sibling relationships do not begin, grow or age well. But if it does, if it could…it’s a companionship for life.

I gave myself this small indulgence sometimes, the belief that, if only I paid attention, I would see her sitting in the darkness outside the Dutch House.

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Maeve at ten, in a red coat, her black hair loose.

 

PS: Most of the italicized test are quotes from the book.

 

Reading books: The Curious Incident of the DOG in the NIGHT-TIME

The deadpan matter of fact writing of this book, I who otherwise loves the complexity in expressions, found this so engrossing.

And who could have imagined what a title of a book like this would lead to!

Christopher, the narrator of the story is a fifteen year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome. He loves maths and his pet rat Toby, he hates the colour yellow and brown, and being touched and people telling lies.

(excerpts from the book in italics)

I do not tell lies. Mother used to say that this was because I was a good person. But it is not because I am a good person. It is because I can’t tell lies.

…I do not always do what I am told. And this is because when people tell you what to do it is usually very confusing and does not make sense.

Mr. Jeavons said that I liked maths because it was safe. He said I liked maths because it meant solving problems, and these problems were difficult and interesting, but there was always a straightforward answer at the end. And what he meant was that maths wasn’t like life because in life there are no straightforward answers at the end. (How lovely, though Christopher goes ahead and explains that life can really be straightforward!)

My memory is like a film. That is why I am really good at remembering things.  

And when you look at the sky you know you are looking at stars which are hundreds and thousands of light years away from you. And some of the stars don’t even exist anymore because their light has taken so long to get to us that they are already dead, or they have exploded and collapsed into red dwarfs. And that makes you seem very small, and if you have difficult things in your life it is nice to think that they are what is called negligible which means that they are so small you don’t have to take them into account when you are calculating something.

And then I thought I had to be like Sherlock Holmes and I had to detach my mind at will to a remarkable degree so that I did not notice how much it was hurting inside my head.

And this means that time is a mystery, and not even a thing, and no one has ever solved the puzzle of what time is, exactly. And so, if you get lost in time it is being lost in a desert, except that you can’t see the desert because it is not a thing. And this is why I like timetables because they make sure you don’t get lost in time. 🙂

People believe in God because the world is very complicated and they think it is very unlikely that anything as complicated as a flying squirrel or the human eye or a brain could happen by chance. But they should think logically and if they thought logically they would see that they can only ask this question because it has already happened and they exist.

And there is life on earth because of an accident. But it is a very special kind of accident. And for this accident to happen in this special way, there have to be 3 conditions. And these are

  1. Things have to make copies of themselves (this is called Replication)
  2. They have to make small mistakes when they do this (this is called Mutation)
  3. These mistakes have to be the same in their copies (this is called Heritability)

And these conditions are very rare, but they are possible, and they cause life. And it just happens.

And people who believe in God think God has put human beings on the earth because they think human beings are the best animal, but human beings are just an animal and they will evolve into another animal, and that animal will be cleverer and it will put human beings into a zoo, like we put chimpanzees and gorillas into a zoo. Or human beings will all catch a disease and die out or they will make too much pollution and kill themselves, and then there will only be insects in the world and they will be the best animal.

Note: Asperger’s syndrome is a type of autism, and autism can be difficult to explain. Reading Christopher’s story can be a good way to begin understanding. Autism is when something goes wrong with the development of the brain and the nervous system. People with Asperger’s syndrome find it difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. They can be very literal and find it difficult to understand complex languages and jokes.

Sleeping on Jupiter : Anuradha Roy

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I had picked up The Folded Earth quite by chance in an Oxford book store while waiting for a friend at the Cha Bar. It was such a lovely engrossing read that I quickly read The Atlas of Impossible Longing. Both books exceled in its narrative of the place of the story. Vivid description of the roads and alleys, the routine and mundane, people, relationships, trees, animals, flowers, food…they made me imagine the whole landscape. I recall how she writes about a girl bringing a hot potato for her teacher in The Folded Earth. That detailing of when you are holding something too hot, you need to keep moving it from one hand to the other, so that before its unbearably hot for one palm, it moves to the other and doing that cools the potato. And a man who relates to birds and animals in a different way like he understand their language, which of course the world cannot fathom and he is labelled loony. There was a description of chopping vegetables in The Atlas of impossible Longing, and a walk to the ruins, coming to Calcutta from the outskirts and being overwhelmed…the narrative is so good that you see it, actually, etched some-place in the memory.

I was hesitant to start Sleeping on Jupiter. The introduction to the book was about a child who sees her father’s brutal killing. I did not really want to read another gut wrenching story.

But there was curiosity, and that won.

The story begins with a train journey, instantly reminded me of The Ladies Coupe (Anita Nair). I have a thing for train journeys and sunsets.

Beautiful description of a temple town near the sea, the conch shells, the sea, with its salt in the air and sound, what people do to earn a living, around the temple and pilgrims and tourists, entwining their lives. What’s remarkable about the story is how the paths of so many different people cross, seemingly unknown to each other, but walking into each other’s lives and playing a role.

So often I think that there are these unseen strings and we are all puppets.

Expressions from the book in italics, interspersed with what these felt to me while reading.

Bare toe-ringed feet on the berth, chin resting on knees that she hugged close to herself, she occupied no more space than a curled up dog might, and appeared to be just as self-contained. (Toffee boy, he could be self content with just some petting 🙂 how simple, how easy.)

I got stuck trying to explain what a jamun was: was it sour, sweet or bitter? How to explain its strange taste, and the way our tongues went purple and fat after eating them? And wondering how to explain jamuns, I would be distracted remembering how all day we did our lessons or chores as if we boat girls were like other girls, but at night I would hear one girl grind her teeth fiercely enough to set mine on edge and another girl sob. Only when I felt my pillow wet with tears and spit would I know I had been listening to myself crying.

…cold earth planting bulbs for the spring…a bulb was a secret between the soil and me until the green tips of leaves poked out months later and gave it away…

What is memory, what triggers a thought from the past, a reminder, certain something…like when she ducks to find her fallen crayon and remembers when she ducked in the fateful van in which she was taken away, looking for her fallen baby tooth, and now in the classroom she finds Piku when she ducks. Or the shell necklace, reminding of what transpires between her and her foster mother, or the wooden toy boat reminding her that she is a boat girl, someone who had no land to her claim, attached to nothing.

No strings. The whole idea was to let it go – we made it as perfect and seaworthy as we could. But after that it was on its own.

A kite skimmed the sky, knife-sharp. It flew higher and higher. Her eyes followed it into the limitless emptiness of unblemished blue, not a wisp of cloud. The kite climbed further. It was a speck of sunlit red in the blue air.

Blue air, how lovely!

Some things are forbidden, you know that, don’t you? We need rules when we live together.

Don’t you wish it could happen? Your mind wiped clean, like a hard drive? Start again without memories?

I have never felt this kind of straight forward happiness…

“Do you usually talk so much with people you’ve just met? I don’t. I haven’t told anyone else that stuff about staying back at a random railway station.” ….every woman he’d ever known melted away when you said this kind of rubbish. They felt they had some special quality that made men confide in them. (Watch out women!)

…sidestepped tiny, translucent crabs which dug themselves out of sand and skittered towards the water, disappearing again. Any of us who have walked on a beach, bare feet,  looking down, so that not to step on a piece of glass or garbage, looking for shells, would have seen these crabs. I used to be wonder-struck at times when the tiny crabs swarm around your feet to get away and hide again.

…the musky smell of rain-wet earth in tea served in clay cups came back to her. She could not remember when she had last had tea smelling of rain.

Someone is forgetting and someone wants to forget…

There was something perverse about Gouri’s amnesia, it had an unfailing way of making her blab about the wrong things.

…the scent of those flowers still brings back that day.

Everyone has looked after plants sometime or the other.

It was a voice from long ago, a voice that contained grains of sand, winds from the sea. Why hadn’t she heard it as clearly before?

..to run away from life – as if life were something that you had to grit your teeth against and endure. She said he was an escape artist – when all he wanted was the freedom to just be, to come and go without hundred accusatory questions..

Can’t you sing a happy song? Why are all your songs so gloomy? They are not sad for me. They’re all I have left of my world. I have no cameras like these tourists – clicking all the time. Smile, smile. Click! He had tapped his forehead. I keep it all here, it makes me happy to remember.

When she chanced upon a spellbinding place she kept it a secret, as if it existed only for her.

I wish I did not have to read the nauseating details of the ashram and guruji. But like I was asked once about The God of Small Things and about the child abused in it, “does it really happen?” So I guess the abuse still needs to be written, still needs to be told, still needs to tell who the culprits are.

Shabari was a simple-minded woman who thought of God as someone very like herself, as a friend of hers. “She has tasted each one because she could not bear to feed me a sour or poisonous berry. How can I do otherwise but bless her with heaven?” The moral is that true, simple devotion is worth a hundred such displays.

xxx

He dreamed of living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons. When his teacher had told their class it had sixteen moons he had wanted to ask her if this meant that there was full moon on Jupiter every night? Or were there crescent moons and half moons all at once in that other sky?

At day’s end, like the hush of dew comes evening

The kite wipes the scent of sunlight from its wings

All birds come home, all rivers, all of life’s task finished, only darkness remains

“Banalata Sen”(Jibananada Das, 1942)

Badal, Jugnu, Piku and the guilt of surviving.

That I guess is a difficult closure to get.

I could not have not read this book, long-list, short-list, who cares?

The Children Book Series: Kerala Mystique

I needed a cushioning. Two books that I picked up to read back to back were difficult though interesting. So I could not keep the Norwegian Wood aside, but wanted a more pleasing book to read, lighter, brighter, with some pictures and illustrations… Had recently read Sethu Learns to Smile from the library, a series called Kerala Mystique, written by Vinitha Ramchandani and illustrated by KR Raji. What appealed was the core of the book, how the child feels, what goes on inside that little head, each time, in so many overt and covert ways, we tell them to do something, to be something, to follow certain ways, to mould into accepted ways of the world. So I bought the entire series, six of them! It says Read aloud for ages 7+, Self reading for ages 10+. This may matter only if you are thinking of ‘age appropriate’ in gifting books. 🙂

In the circle of my kid friends, I get asked “did you bring me a book?”

I read all the books that I buy for the kids. One, because I enjoy them, two, to expect the questions, and three, to be able to have conversations with them  (and not ask questions like, how was school, what they want to become when they grow up, who do they like more, the father or the mother and such like….). Am also awed by how beautifully the genre of children’s books is coming up of late in India.

The Birdman: Few months back I read Rumi for the first time, a book named Birdsong. I have come across references to Rumi in many occasions but so far never followed any particular philosopher, thinker, mystic. Nothing against, but I like to read life’s lessons though a story, gives me a context. Birdsong was really good and Birdman got picked up first! Birdman here, referred to as Praandan-Pishashe (Mad-Devil) because of his long hair, unkempt and walking about aimlessly, and Lakshmi, who is the bully of the gang, her close encounter with him.

The Birdman
The Birdman

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Krishna and the Ducks: lovely story of a young boy, Krishna, the day he was born, rain created havoc in the little island, and it was thought that some of that rain trickled into his head and so he was dull. How Krishna takes to the ducks and changes the impressions of others about him when he finds something that he loves to do and does it so well.

Krishna and the Ducks
Krishna and the Ducks

DSC_0008 This story reminded me of Tsunami in 2004. While working in the affected areas of Karunagappally in Kerala, close to the Arabian sea, people told us that a flock of ducks came in the waves to this small strip of land near the sea, and the community had no idea what to do with them, they have never reared ducks! That was a pretty sight, flock of them quacking away, each reference to them brought in some laughter in difficult times.

Mallika and the Cobra: A story to get over your fear of snakes. You see sometimes it is not the person who gives himself his name, but the other way around….because of the stories that were built around him.

Mallika and the Cobra
Mallika and the Cobra

Turtle Tales: Keertiverman name of the turtle and Priyanka is the name of the girl. How she rescues the turtle and brings him up and in the process bonds with her grandmother.

Turtle Tales
Turtle Tales

The Tiger Charmer: about a pretty plump girl named Neha and she has a way with animals, which how, no adults understand.

Neha
Neha

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How do you know the way? Sometimes I don’t. But there are signs all over the place. Sometimes it’s the birds that tell me and sometimes it is the sun that does. Most of the time, I follow my heart. I seldom go wrong.”(The Birdman)

“The baby leaves have the brightest green. That’s because they’ve just caught the rays of light inside them. As they get older, the leaf gets darker and it takes less and less sun. Then the leaf gets wise again, learns to love the sun, and turns yellow – the colour of the sun. This is where it frees itself forever and decides to play with the wind, following it from place to place, resting when it rests.” (The Birdman)

When it rained in this island, it never just rained. Lightening cracked the sky in angry flashes and when thunder followed soon after, its powerful sound was worse than a canon exploding. After the light and shower show that the heavens put up, came the rain. (Krishna and the Ducks)

Didn’t I teach you that no animal will hurt you unless you threaten it or it felt threatened by you?         (Mallika and the Cobra)

Priyanka’s good behaviour was that she was happy. She felt loved and had someone to love. (Turtle Tales)

Grown-ups never figure things out 🙂 (The Tiger Charmer)

Little things like a squint eye, bullying, slow to learn children, their interests, countering all sorts of stereotypes, the books beautifully say things differently. I liked to see how animals, birds feel a natural part of life in these books. In today’s overprotective world, they are so refreshing to read.

Lovely illustrations, brilliant colours, leaving a lot to the imagination, how trees, forests, birds and animals can look like. Each book has translation of the few words of Malayalam used in the book.

They all end well, in peace, happy endings, and that’s lovely too. Whether reading children books as an adult, one reads too much into them? Am unable to go back that far to imagine myself back then and what these books may have meant.

These books were nice, goose-bump-ish nice!

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The Sense of an Ending

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I was reading two books over the past couple of weeks. The sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) and Maurice (E.M. Forster). Both books are difficult to summarise, Maurice, am keeping aside for another time, here is attempting The Sense of an Ending.

Ever been left with that feeling of something unresolved? Wondered what really happened? Whether it was a friendship that took an unexpected turn? Or meeting someone, friend of relative after many many years and realising something has changed fundamentally in how you look at things, or live life? Having shared the same upbringing, wondered how did this switch happen?

Or some stories, family archives, that left you thinking, what if…?

Or when someone you knew passed away and you had a whole lot to still talk about. And to ask, what did you really mean when you had said…

That need for closure is so desperate to all of us. I don’t mean the happy ending from our movies, but an ending where one is certain. This is what it was and this is what happened, kind of an Ending.

What that need for closure does to a person?

The book takes us through a friendship of four students, usual description of student life, curiosities, adventures, love and career. The book almost surprises you when it turns into a gripping suspense story. As you begin to assume so Adrian killing himself was the core of the story, you are taken on another long winding path to realise, that really was not.

Some intriguing excerpts from the book (in italics):

..but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.

“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

He was too clever. If you’re that clever you can argue yourself into anything. You just leave common sense behind.

For most of us, the first experience of love, even if it does not work out – promises that here is the thing that validates, vindicates life.

And that’s a life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments.

History isn’t the lies of the victors…it’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.

Some paragraphs I needed to read several times to grasp what’s being said. Like these two:

Also when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleakness that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying.  You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire – and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is to look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.

XXX

We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it that said memory is what we thought we had forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.

XXX

Have you noticed how, when you talk to someone like a solicitor, after a while you stop sounding like yourself and end up sounding like them? 🙂 (smiley face added by me).

…she sees only what’s gone; I see only what’s stayed the same.

Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?

The more you learn, the less you fear. ‘Learn’ not in the sense of academic study, but in the practical understanding of life.

Made me think, closures are complex. Sometimes you get it, but over an unpredictable length of time, sometimes from an entirely unrelated source. There really is not a simple binary of black and white. The challenge is the sense of time; that things ought to resolve within a clear time frame, within how far we are able to see. Then and there. To calm the fidgety mind.

We liked a game that ended in a win and loss, not a draw.

The Sense of an Ending actually leaves it to the interpretation of the survivor.

Reading books: a Bear for Felicia by Jerry Pinto

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My name is Thurston Gustavus Buckridge III. I wish you would not laugh like that. It may be an odd name but you must remember that odd means different things to different people.

I started reading ‘a Bear for Felicia’ under a tree. I have read two books by Jerry Pinto (Em and the Big Hoom, Cobalt Blue), both extremely memorable books,so when I saw this at AA Husain & Co, it quickly made its way to the pile of books I had gathered. (https://anuradhapati.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/the-death-of-a-book-store/).

Staying in a small, tree-ed, beautiful campus for a few days while on work, I found motivation and time for my morning walks. It wasn’t a big campus, so I took several rounds of it, climbed the staircase, walked in zigzags to feel like having exercised.

At the end of which I made some black coffee and sat on a bench in the garden, surrounded by several trees, the most prominent being Amaltas with its bright yellow flowers in full bloom ( I always thought laburnum, amaltas and Cassia fistula are names of the same tree, but looks like they are from different families, am still confused)  and trees laden with yet to ripe mangoes.

Amaltas/ Cassia fistula
Amaltas/ Cassia fistula

Laburnum
Laburnum

It was a lovely place to watch the birds, so many of them, hopping, walking, flying and whizzing by.This tall leafless tree next to the bench housed so many birds, they would sit for a while and then go to another tree. It felt like a happy campus to be.

three birds on this tree

(all italics are excerpts from the book)

….and anyway, you should remember that most bears don’t get to choose their names. Their friends give them names. In the same way that your parents named you….

This in the second page of the story, so interesting, I straightened up!

As you may have guessed by now, it’s a story of a teddy bear, and is marked 10+ age group. Though I won’t limit it to that age group. And, no, am not telling you my age, but am thoroughly enjoying this book.

How as kids we wondered if our toys are talking! Or if they could talk! This is a conversation in a charity toy shop, the story of a wedding dress that was never worn. All the toys who ended up in the charity store, had a story to tell.

…and everyone told her that God must have had a reason for taking him away. The tiny cherub perched on her tiara told us that she had told her mother: ‘I want to understand God’s ways, Mother.’ Each time the cherub told us this, a tear would drop from his face and become a sequin on the dress beneath. The dress was filled with sequins since he told us this quite often.

There were many more sad stories in that shop, many sad stories of the war and of the bombs.

It was one of the few times when someone poor has benefitted from war. (the context being a charity store in England in 1940 does not want to keep a teddy bear made in Germany J and gives it away for free).

I realized that I was being sent away because of where I had been born. It was so silly. How can anyone be blamed for how they are born or where they are born or what colour they are born? A bear’s skin is not his fault, the place of his birth is not his fault. He does not choose them for himself. It’s stupid to hate anyone for these reasons. I can understand it if you hate someone for being mean or for being a gossip.

Dogs have a special vocabulary for smells, which few other species can understand. I am thinking of you Toffee, how you remember us even when we do not see you for months.

Toffee, our dear friend in Bangalore
Toffee, our dear friend in Bangalore

Absolutely incomprehensible names, a feast of imagination!

Amaranita Sarsaparilla Gloriosus (a doll)

Gardenia Silverna Pontistoon (a teddy bear)

Hopabout Reapsworth Roo (a kangaroo)

Abansionanda Shriohik Paliaketh (a boy doll)

Urbanie Jenovefa Balaclava ( the villain lady)

There is a relationship chart drawn out in the book to tell you about a bear which has been in the family for three generations. Quite an inheritance!

Joe is a soldier doll; he lives in another world within our world, a place of fear and fire and sudden danger.

…as if being together and unhappy is better than being happy separately.

Hmmm, made me think, as a child, may be yes, as an adult, I think the other way is better, if it comes to that.

An important lesson I learnt was that people are not logical at all. Wars, for instance, don’t make sense at all. There is enough land for everyone but no one ever seems to have enough. There is enough food for everyone but there are children who die of hunger.

But I should not judge… that’s another thing I learnt. You don’t know what the other person feels, thinks…you only know what you are seeing right now and you’re making up your mind on that basis.

It is only when you are much much older that you realize you can have great many friends but there will only be a few to whom you will be someone special. These friends become like another family for you.  

I am told it is very different now. No one makes things to last.

It’s called a sweatshop labour and it makes children into machines.

What a pity that she spoilt it all by being a snob. Beautiful people often do that. They become ugly inside since they only pay attention to the outside. You can’t blame them. The world only pays attention to their outside too.

I breathed all the old smells, the dark red smell of the courtyard in the centre of the building, the tang of dusty curtains, the wetness of hamam soap, and the snow hibiscus outside the window. ….And smell is home.

Indeed, smell is home.

What’s a CV? Well, it’s a kind of report card of everything you’ve been doing in your work life. The difference is that you have to write it yourself. But you can’t tell any lies or you will get found out.

I could not help but smile to that.

In a scene of a fights, between a daughter who is separated and living with her mother, …there are times when you become someone else. A simple remark will spark off a battle and sometimes a hundred insults pass without a murmur. …when people fight they lose all sense of proportion. They bring up old grouses. They remind you of things you did and said when this happened and when that happened.

But all of us seem to have elephantine memories for hurts and when we get angry, we remember every last nasty word that has ever been said about us. These memories live longer and often grow into ugly monsters if you do not deal with them quickly. This means if someone says something nasty to you, show that someone you are angry. If someone makes a joke that you don’t like, don’t smile and pretend that you find it funny. Just say that you don’t like it. It goes away quicker. You don’t feel like saying rude things to that person three days later for something else entirely.

That is a fine story. It has a happy ending. But there is a difference between stories and real life. In a story, you can always cheat a little and make sure it’s a happy ending. But you can’t do that in real life.

She didn’t look like a bad person but then I have found that bad people rarely go about looking like bad people. They look like anyone else. This is what makes them successful. If a bad person looked like a bad person, everyone would be careful and the bad person wouldn’t get to do the bad things that she or he wants to do.

To be a friend and not an owner, a child needs imagination.

When you don’t understand something, leave it for a while, a couple of hours may be even a night, and then try it again. You’ll find that the answer will spring into your mind.

I felt raw, as if I had no skin, nothing to protect me from being hurt.

But I could understand, even if I found it difficult to forgive.

I had also longed for a doll as a child. A doll with blonde hair and eyes that would close when she sleeps. So Ma requested an Uncle who was travelling to Calcutta to get me one. He also had a daughter, so he got two of the same kind, only their clothes were reverse. Mine wore blue pants with white polka dot with a red shirt with white polka dots. And hers wore the opposite combination of the same pant and shirt. For me it was the only doll, she had many. I had such fantastic time playing with it, making it wear a saree, putting a bindi on her forehead, we also had a doll wedding, but I can’t recall whose doll married whose. Ma still has the doll, one of its eyes does not close any more though.

While I was reading this, sitting on the bench, a dog came near. I had seen her before during my walks, sitting on the steps of the residential apartment block and would bark if she thinks am getting closer. But surprisingly, she came and stood very close. I petted, scratched her neck. She pawed my knees asking for more. It was so incredibly beautiful, a tree full of birds, a lovely book, and a dog by you. So when I wanted to get back to the book (the suspense has just begun) , I told her, “go for a walk”, she left hesitantly.

Brownie
Brownie

Later when I enquired, her name is Brownie. Unfortunately, her master died when he was away travelling few weeks back, so the family had rushed. It would be a while before they are back, trying to piece their lives, and Brownie was lonely and may be, not fed very regularly.

I felt so bad asking her to go away. There is nothing like enough of being nice, its infinite.

A friend should know who you are and what matters to you.    

Reading Books: “The Way Things Were” Aatish Taseer

(Excerpts from the book in italics)

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I read Aatish Taseer with a different kind of interest and reason. It’s his background of an Indian mother and Pakistani father, a union that in certain ways of the society, did not work, ought not work. Yet, there is him, caught between the two, figuring out the nuances of that relationship, the two countries, their cultures, ways, people and seasons, and writing about it.

After Stranger to History, Noon and Manto, I have realised the issues Taseer will write about are going to come from a different layer of the society, of people who are rich, they may get poor in due course, but his books are not going to be about survival necessities. Its survival, but of a different kind.

There are two primary threads in the book, both minorities in a way. The warp, Sanskrit, as a language, its exclusivity and alien-ness, and one person’s love for this language, the expressions in Sanskrit weave the story. And the weft, a Sikh family, its spiritedness, acceptance, rejection, denial of situations, some they create and some they are forced upon.

A lover of Sanskrit, and a Sikh air-hostess fall in love and leave for Hampi, literally from a party where they have just met.

Do you know where Hampi is? No ma’am, restaurant?

And they get married, the two distinctly different worlds they come from start sprouting the commonalities and differences. So something like Himachal, for one, is a beautiful word in Sanskrit and for the other, its cold, snow, beautiful hills…..In each of the many life’s events, situations, good and bad that they face together, each discovers the ugly, unlikable, a completely different way of the other. And most of the time, that different perspective, is loathsome to the other.

Every failed marriage has its victors. There are those who walk away from its ruins with its vitality, its lessons, its experience; and then there are those who are undone by it, who are left with futility and nothing else.

And she remembered it through separation, because in these moments, when the framework of a shared life comes apart, one’s emotions are unreliable. They are, like a swimming pool in spring, full of cold and warm currents. One has to be careful not to be taken by occasional bursts of tenderness; not to mistake these short-lived conflagrations for real fire, for love again. In these moments, one needs, as protection, a rationale for the separation, something immune to strong emotions.

Then 1984 happens, the butchering of the sikh community, altering hopes and dreams, forever. Its inconceivable how some of the everyday routine still goes on in the face of adversity, like the celebration of Diwali, cooking what can be called an elaborate meal when the family is not sure about the whereabouts of the son. Tremendous grit to go on, to push the obvious to the back of the mind and go on. To deal with here and now.

It is so hard to live a life, against the all-pervasive power of a nation against you, like a giant weight on your chest, like a fear that shadows your body and haunts your soul. That feeling of claustrophobia when you want to run but all roads end in an un-penetrable wall and the earth is shaking with an earthquake.

People always say our literature is crammed full of big events. Of riots, partitions, and emergencies. Some may ask: is this really the stuff of everyday life? Surely some people may just be living quiet lives with quiet problems, unaffected by these cataclysms. My answer is no. It is as Naipaul says, “The train has many coaches and different classes, but it passes through the same landscape. People are responding to the same political or religious and cultural pressures.”

That lost hope of escape. Escape from a society and its ways, its languages, its relationships and how it Engages. Lunches, dinners, kitty parties….which thrive on things that have gone wrong, on someone else’s unhappiness. A failed marriage, illicit relationships, gossip, business failures… So far as one is part of those tables, one does not realise how quickly those chairs get emptied and reoccupied, and one becomes the other, the topic of a bridge table conversation.  When you are not invited any more. Its difficult to imagine what those spaces can mean to certain sections. This is what I meant “a different layer of the society” where existence is defined by where you are invited, your links with the influential and the moneyed. And it means so much.

Some delightful expressions form the book:

…all beautiful and complex things when they are crudely destroyed – or partitioned – produce at first a kind of wonder before the horror of their destruction sinks in.

‘ its always that way? With certain people.’‘What way?’ ‘They put in place mechanism for their own undoing.’

 He saw the world only through the lens of his politics. It reduced the complex world into simple binary, in which people were either this way or that.

And yet, strange as it must seem – they had corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality.

These goons in saffron, they say they want a Hindu renaissance, they have no idea what a Hindu renaissance would entail. Their shitty little values about sex and food would be the first thing to go out of the window.

Its so hard to connect one time with another, this world with that world, the scale feels all wrong.

….if you end up estranged from the natural world in your country then it comes to feel like a foreign country, its seasons alien, its extremities harder to bear.

The air of something build and abandoned, the lifeless majesty of the mausoleum or tomb.

And my favourite, rains and seasons, so beautifully written

To be delayed by the monsoon. When clouds as big as mountains cover the sky. ..if there was anyone to whom this season truly belongs, it is the peacocks. But not just because they are happy when it rains, but because of how sad they are when it stops raining.

 ‘A change in the weather’, Proust tells us ‘is sufficient to create the world and oneself anew.’ Never is this more true than with the rains, which arrive like a person arriving, and, one hour to the next, everything is altered: the character of the heat; the quality of the light; the colour and smell of earth.

It was a season that anticipated the great heat with a parade of flowers. The silk cotton, with its fleshy coral flowers and stony branches, casting long shadows over the ground, had come and gone. And now, as the days grew whiter, and the scorching breath of grisma began to blow over the city, a procession of flowering trees ushered in the season of death. There was the burnt orange of gulmohar, the phantasmagoric yellow of the laburnum and the heartbreakingly clement lilac of the jacaranda; on the city’s roundabouts, the thatched canopies of jarul were covered in bright purple blossoms. It was funeral, this solace of flowers, even as the frank gaze of the sun beat down on the land; and shadow grows short and inky…

Amavasya; which does not by the way mean moonless; it means a dwelling together – ama, together; vas, to dwell. The night the sun and the moon dwell together, and so, moonless, because –

I should think that if this is the only life, if really and truly there is this and nothing else, then one can relax, squander one’s life with impunity, spend it reading, sitting in a chair, or learning languages. Wait it out, you know.

Indeed.

Reading books: “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Richard Flanagan, Booker 2014)

A narration from an Australian surgeon while serving in a Japanese POW camp during the construction of the Burma Death Railway.

Two stories run parallel in the book, hunger, disease, filth of the camp of prisoners of the Second World War and a deeply moving sensuous love story. It’s quite a challenge, for the reader, to read the two together, to switch from the description of an emaciated soldier, the smells of death and disease, to the description of the red camellia in her hair.

The story tells that unalterable damage of an overwhelming war, a conflict beyond people and civilisation, beyond the forests, the hills, the songs and the sunset, something that removes compassion away for a lifetime…those horrendous stories of torture….

I had to skip the intricate details of violence, just could not read, without the images forming in my head or right in front of my eyes, on the pages of the book.

Few excerpts, that in a way, sums up the book…and a photograph of the Death Railway from the internet:

…for an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and the only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshiped, for it was only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under boots and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. 

***

Do you believe in love, Mr. Evans? Because I think you make it. You don’t get it given to you. You make it. 

***

Had he chosen? Had she? Was there ever a choice? Or did life just sweep people up, together and away?

***

…what did was an irrevocable idea of human goodness, as undeniable as it was beautiful….thereafter he took great pleasure in wind, in the sound of rain. He marvelled at the feeling of dawn on a hot day. He exalted in the smiles of strangers. He worked at habits and friendships, seeing in them the only alternative to what he felt the alternative was. He cultivated a flock of vivid green, blue and red rosella parrots that came to his yard for the food and water he laid out for them. Then came the wrens and the bullying honeyeaters, the gossiping firetails and the occasional scarlet robin, the bright blue wrens with their dun-coloured harems, the shimmering cranky fantail, the cuckoo shrikes and silvereyes and chirruping pardalotes. He would sometimes sit on a bench seat on his verandah for hours watching the birds feed, bathe, rest, preen and play. And in the mystery of their flight and beauty, in their inexplicable arrivals and departures, he felt he saw his life.

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