India · Non Fiction · Personal · Travel

Do-Nothing Weekend

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name sake.” ~ Psalm 23: 2, 3

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Have you ever felt so weary, that in the evenings you only have the energy to moan in your journal, and in the mornings your heart anxiously races when it is reminded of the long day ahead? If yes, this is a sign that you need a break – the way I did a few weeks ago.

The 12-hour bus ride couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for a weekend up in the hills. “We’re going on a Do-Nothing holiday. It’s going to be beautiful!” We excitedly told each other as we imagined dark purple mountains and clean air.

The next morning, we were thrilled to find that we were the only two people getting off the bus at Palampur. The fewer people, the better. Quiet, quiet weekend.

So quiet, we couldn’t find any transport to the hotel we’d booked. Nevertheless, they sent us down a cab. And then, when the cab came to a stop, the caretaker was there to welcome us and guide us through the half kilometer walk down the valley, where our cottage lay on the far side of a meadow, with cows lazily munching nearby. The nicest part of this picture, though, was the earthen walls of our cottage, the picket fence around the tiny vegetable garden, the friendly caretaker, and the quiet old cook. This place was a testament that simplicity can sometimes be overwhelming.

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After our breakfast of aloo parathas, curd, and bamboo shoot pickle, we set out exploring, beginning with the house. I was delighted to discover Jim Corbett’s ‘Tigers of Kumaon’ among their collection of books. Whoever selected the books for this charming library knew exactly which books are perfect to read in the mountains. So although I’ve read Tigers of Kumaon three times, I still took it with me when we walked down to the stream. The large boulders, the surprisingly loud chant of the water, and no people in sight, apart from us, set the scene perfectly for a story time of man-eating tigers and leopards. Not exactly the most ideal way to unwind, I suppose 🙂

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The first day we spent in exploring, reading, and wallowing in the gorgeousness we were so starved for. ‘It’s like a ‘scenery’ drawing from when we were little – tall mountains, blue water, an expansive meadow, and a charming cottage, complete with white curtains and a cozy attic with an extra bed!’ we remarked with amazement. The mountain birds were a lovely addition to the real picture.

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The next morning we booked ourselves a cab to Andretta – the pottery village a few kilometers off Chandpur (where we were staying). The drive through the pine forests, then the bamboo groves, to the adorable market place had us exclaiming how interesting everything was. The Andretta Pottery workspace was fun too. We admired the glaze-work and listened to Shubham, the person in-charge, explained what went into creating quality pottery. It was especially cute when he took a minute off to tell his younger brother to go buy vegetables at the market and that he’d be home in a bit to cook their lunch. I wish I could say that we helped make pottery, but all we really did was make awkwardly shaped jars while saying excitedly, “I’m a potter!”

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We got back to our meadow in time for our lunch. After which, my friend went for a walk and I sat on the porch with my book and journal. In between, I visited the kitchen to make myself coffee, and ended up chatting with the cook and the caretaker’s son, who were curious to know what I did for a living. In turn, I had questions for them about the best time to plan my next visit.

At 7:30, the next morning, we unlocked the front door to our home back in the city. We had been on the bus all night, and should have been queasy and washed out from the twisty roads. Yet, we were both smiling as we began getting ready for the day’s work, ‘So this is what it feels like to be rejuvenated by calm!’

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Book Review · Books · Fiction · Historical Fiction · James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier · Uncategorized · YA Fiction

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

 

Image result for my brother sam is deadThe American Revolutionary War is in its early stages, which is seemingly marked by people having to choose between two sides. Staying neutral is hardly an option when the choice is between remaining a British colony or to break free to a new America. Tim Meeker’s brother, Sam, has enlisted to be a part of the American Revolutionary Army. Sam and his friends at Yale believe in an America that is free of British rule. Tim, on the other hand, doesn’t know what to think. He admires his older brother, and when brave intelligent Sam talks about the necessity of defeating the British, it seems like the right thing to do. But to side with his brother would mean to go against his father. In fact, there are a lot of people who disagree with the revolutionaries. Which side is right?

Being faced with this question in the 21st century is not exactly overwhelming because we know how history has played out. But being drawn into the 17th century with Tim and his family makes this question seem so much harder. It makes the reader question whether the means ever justify the end. It’s especially stirring because the story is told through the voice of an 11-year-old boy. Though this book was written for young adults it can be appreciated by any thinking person, regardless of age.

I was a little surprised to find that this junior novel has been listed several times for violence and abusive language. It’s also been accused of being unpatriotic. I don’t remember coming across any shockingly vulgar language, but on further inspection this book does contain mild profanity. A search on why this book is banned will give you a better understanding of the instances considered violent, profane, and unpatriotic.

While I don’t understand how a story about war can be described accurately without violence of any sort, the descriptions here are not overly gruesome (in my opinion). I can’t say whether this book is patriotic or not. However, I will say that this book talks less about the importance of choosing the right side and more about how painful war is in general. My Brother Sam Is Dead paints an alarmingly clear picture of how in war there really is no good and bad side. Both sides are forced to act cruelly, regardless of what these actions are meant to achieve. As Tim’s father says, “In war the dead pay the debts of the living.” (Spoiler Alert: Skip on to the next paragraph if you’d rather not know Tim’s response to this) Continuing…Years later Tim writes in response to his father’s words, “…they have paid us well. But somehow even fifty years later, I keep thinking that there might have been another way, beside war, to achieve the same end.”

I thought that this book was an excellent piece of historical fiction. I especially liked the end where the writers include which parts of the story were based on true events. This book can be easily read in one sitting and it’s amazing how such a tiny book can be packed with so much. While 11-year-old Tim’s account can be amusing at times, you may also need a box of tissues at hand. This book leaves its readers with a very sobering view of both American history and of war, in general.

Book Review · Fiction

Two Book Reviews: Tara Road and Quentins by Maeve Binchy

Displaying IMG_20160926_173725.jpgDiscovering Maeve Binchy’s writing this last week was similar to when I discovered Amy Tan’s writing a few years ago: their books were read from cover to cover nearly non-stop, after which I went out and bought as many more books of theirs that I could find.

My aunt in Delhi sent Tara Road for me to read a few weeks ago, but I only picked it up to read last Thursday after having just completed the melancholic Brideshead Revisited (It was depressingly realistic while being beautifully sad at the same time, that I needed my next book to be very unlike it). One of the reviews on the jacket of Tara Road described Maeve Binchy’s writing as good natured gossip, which I felt I needed after Evelyn Waugh, who’s writing is equally impressive though definitely not gossipy in any way (More on that in another upcoming post).

I found that I quite enjoyed Maeve Binchy’s easy writing style. Her stories seem to be about regular people with regular stories that have been told very, very well.

Tara Road begins with the story of Ria and Danny Lynch, and how they buy their dream home, a sprawling dilapidated Victorian house, on Tara Road, Dublin. It doesn’t take very long for them to renovate the house and transform it into the warm, cozy home they’d envisioned it to be. Their kitchen is constantly abuzz with family and friends. They seem to have the perfect family life. So it comes as quite a shock to Ria when Danny informs her that he hasn’t been happy for a long time and is now leaving her for someone else. Up until now Ria, who hadn’t the slightest idea that their marriage was in trouble, had her life revolving around her family. Without her husband, she feels quite lost and unsure of how to even begin getting on with her life. It’s hardly surprising that when Ria receives a phone call from an American, Marilyn, who’d like to know the possibilities of a house exchange in the summer, she agrees without hesitation. The story goes on to describe the two women’s lives, the new friends they make, the experiences that add to their character, and their learning to cope with the heartache that life sometimes brings.

I actually picked up Quentins because I recognized it as the fancy restaurant frequently mentioned in Tara Road. And I did, in fact, recognize some of the characters. It made it all the more absorbing. Here’s a bit about the book, Quentins.

Ella Brady’s life gets hit by dire circumstances and she is forced to work at 5 jobs, 16 hours a day. One of the jobs she’s working at is with a friend who makes films. When he asks for ideas that might win a prize at a film festival, Ella suggests they make a documentary on the restaurant, Quentins. After all, this restaurant was founded nearly forty years ago. It might be interesting to use it to trace back the changing economy in Ireland along with its people and their changing hopes and aspirations. So while this book begins and ends with Ella, it’s infused with stories about the people connected with Quentins – its staff and customers alike.

I think Maeve Binchy is a very skilled story teller. She writes about the ordinary as if it were extraordinary. There’s so much to feel when reading her books – sad, angry, glad, amused, and, if ‘fuzzy’ is an appropriate word to use here, that also. Her books were a delight to read. I even did a bit of evangelizing at the used book store when I saw two copies of the same book. It was a little shocking when the lady I was talking to said she’d already read Maeve Binchy but preferred Barbara Taylor Bradford and Mary Higgins Clark. It threw me a little off guard. I’m still unsure about exactly which sort of reader might appreciate being recommended a Maeve Binchy book. Nevertheless, I shall try. If you are able to find joy in a story with ordinary complications, but one described charmingly well, with deep insight into human nature (and all that that involves), you may enjoy Maeve Binchy’s works. Her writing really is similar to good-natured gossip and goes well with a bag of chips, cups of tea, biscuits, and the occasional bar of chocolate.

Book Review · Books · Culture · India · Non Fiction · William Dalrymple

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple

Nine-Lives-final-frontFor the longest time I couldn’t understand people who read Non Fiction for fun. I couldn’t imagine getting lost for hours in anything that resembled real life too closely. But even then travel writing and history never classified as boring. How could they when they carried the potential of mystery, charm, and the idea that such fantastic magical things actually happened Once upon a time…!

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple happens to be one of those books that envelope its readers in a world that is both intriguing and unreal. Now add to that that it’s shocking because it is real. In this book William Dalrymple explores the impact of modernization on some of the religions in India, through the stories of nine people. As he mentions in the Introduction, the writer remains mostly in the background while allowing his interviewees and their stories to speak for themselves. The characters are not exoticized (I know because I didn’t roll my eyes once at the narrative). However, their stories are somewhat exotic.

In the first story, The Nun’s Tale, a Jain nun struggles to remain detached as her best friend starves herself according to ritual. The second story, The Dancer of Kannur, is about a Dalit (a low caste) man who’s worshipped as a deity once every year. This was one of the more exotic stories. The why may be a spoiler, so if you’d rather not know skip on to the next paragraph. Okay. This story involves possession by the deity during which time the protagonist drinks the blood of a chicken.

The third story, The Daughters of Yellama, talks about the temple prostitutes who are revered by a large number of people in Karnataka but also equally shamed and criminalized – sometimes by the same people.

The Singer of Epics was one of the stories I found most enchanting. It tells the story of a Rajasthani story teller and the oral epic’s struggle for survival.

The two other stories that I liked best in this collection were The Monk’s Tale and The Maker of Idols. In the Monk’s Tale, Tashi Passang tells us about his decision to break his vows as a monk and take up arms against the Chinese during their invasion into Tibet; the unbearable hatred; and the guilt that still remains with him for having taken part in such violence. He also tells us how he eventually overcame his anger and hatred. It was both touching and inspirational. (For some reason, I’ve always enjoyed reading about monks. In fact, I remember pouring over the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my Only Fiction phase).

The Maker of Idols relates to us the story of Srikanda Stpathy, a bronze caster. It was interesting to read about the rituals and requirements in creating an idol. I also found the dialogue amusing. It made the story seem more personal and because of that, heartwarming.

In brief, The Red Fairy explores Sufism and its rift with mainstream Islam. The Lady Twilight and The Song of the Blind Minstrel talk about Tantra and Baul philosophy. Both philosophies diverge from mainstream Hinduism by embracing the taboos of orthodox religion and rejecting socially accepted norms and traditions.

Nine Lives is a fascinating study into how religion is a major part of our identity, especially because it helps define our values, beliefs and priorities. Keeping up with the times while still preserving what we believe is an important part of us seems to be the struggle of a traditional society. Reflecting on this, it seems that most people are forced to compartmentalize their lives with religion in a separate box. The world doesn’t have time for religion that is all pervasive – not unless it’s heavily tweaked.

I enjoyed reading this book very much. I thought the narrative was fairly objective, but not so much that the stories were dry and harsh. I liked the snippets of history and brief descriptions given by the author. It felt very much like I was being shown a story rather than being told one. I don’t think this book will disappoint regardless of whether you’re interested in history, religion, people, good writing, or just a good story.

‘Still, every day, I pray to our family deity, Kamakshi Amman, to change his mind and preserve the lineage. I have even promised to renovate her temple if my prayers are answered. But I know that if my boy gets high marks he will certainly go off to Bangalore – and it looks as if he will do well in his exams. For some reason all the Brahmin boys do well in maths and computer exams. Maybe that’s in the blood too – after all we’ve been making calculations for astronomy for 5, 000 years.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Srikanda, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s all part of the world opening up. After all, as my son says, this is the age of computers. And as much as I might want otherwise, I can hardly tell him this is the age of the bronze caster.’ – page 204 (The Maker of Idols)

Book Review · Books · Muriel Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

The first book I’d read by Muriel Spark was The Snobs and, like I confessed in my review of it, I did not care for it very much. I couldn’t understand how people could compare the work of Muriel Spark with Penelope Fitzgerald whose book, The Bookshop, I’d adored. In fact, the primary reason for my decision to read another Muriel Spark book was to explore her writing before I decided to write her off completely. I have to say that I enjoyed Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, far more than I did her book of short stories.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the 1930s in Edinburgh, Scotland. The story is of a Miss Jean Brodie, an unconventional school teacher and her chosen students with whom she can speak freely. These girls, chosen by Miss Brodie, are popularly known as the Brodie Set. And though they are admired for their exclusivity by other girls at the conservative Marcia Blaine School, their mentor isn’t as well accepted by her fellow teachers. In fact, the headmistress tries very hard, throughout the story, to wheedle out some proof of misconduct on Miss Brodie’s part.

Miss Jean Brodie believes that she is in her prime. This is a major asset to her girls, who now have the opportunity to absorb the enlightening things that Miss Brodie is experiencing at this time in her life – so she says to them. The story follows the lives of the Brodie set, the influence that Miss Brodie has on them, their own reflections, discoveries, and personal decisions. Most of the story is told through the perspective of the Brodie Set, although it is written in the third person and is also very objective in certain places.

 

“It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime; or that (since such things are relative) she was in any way off her head. She was alone, merely, in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blaine’s. There were legions of her kind during the nineteen thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war‐bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion. The progressive spinsters of Edinburgh did not teach in schools, especially in schools of traditional character like Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls. It was in this that Miss Brodie was, as the rest of the staff spinsterhood put it, a trifle out of place. But she was not out of place amongst her own kind, the vigorous daughters of dead or enfeebled merchants, of ministers of religion, University professors, doctors, big warehouse owners of the past, or the owners of fisheries who had endowed these daughters with shrewd wits, high‐coloured cheeks, constitutions like horses, logical educations, hearty spirits and private means. They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word “guaranteed” on a jam‐jar really meant. They went to lectures, tried living on honey and nuts, took lessons in German and then went walking in Germany; they bought caravans and went off with them into the hills among the lochs; they played the guitar, they supported all the new little theatre companies; they took lodgings in the slums and, distributing pots of paint, taught their neighbours the arts of simple interior decoration; they preached the inventions of Marie Stopes; they attended the meetings of the Oxford Group and put Spiritualism to their hawk‐eyed test. Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell.” ~ pgs. 34 – 35

 

I realize that the bit I’ve said about the book before the excerpt doesn’t say very much about the plot or the story itself. The truth is I’m not sure I can summarize the story well enough without spoiling it completely for anyone else planning to read this book. In fact, the best part of this book for me was the not knowing what would happen next. I thought it was very unpredictable in an easy going sort of way, unlike in a mystery novel.

I liked reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, mostly because it was excellently written. I know I compared her writing to Roald Dahl’s books for adults in my other review. I still think there are certain features reminiscent of Roald Dahl. In terms of writing style alone, this novel reminded me a lot of Sylvia Plath’s writing. The descriptions are vivid and sharp; the ideas blunt and amusing, and the expressions are unique. The writing voice is slightly stronger than Penelope Fitzgerald’s softer, kinder tone, even though her writing is very ‘matter of fact’ as well. Both Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald write very intriguing stories about brave spinster women stirring up change with individualism. If you’ve read any of these writers do let me know what you think 🙂

Adventure · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

The Challenges and Joys of Teaching

I don’t know how it’s possible, but a classroom of students, no matter their age, can be pretty daunting. I’ve agreed to teach English to my mother’s class 8 students this week, since she’s away. When I first visited the class last week I was slightly worried at the prospect of having to spend six days with a bunch of 14 year olds, who are especially boisterous.

On Monday I woke up anxious even though I know from experience that only the first few days of class are worrying. After all it is the first day when boundaries are tested and important impressions made. I guess another reason my brain wouldn’t stop churning out the worst possible scenarios is because up until now I’d never taught this age group.

My first class turned out to be better than I expected. They were somewhat riotous, but also cute. One boy tried to fool me by telling me his name was Chunit when it was actually Niranjan.  Luckily, I knew who Chunit was! But then Niranjan said, “Yes, it’s difficult to forget someone who looks like a Panda.” Then Chunit called him a lizard. There were also some children who wanted me to know how their names sounded backwards. And of course there were girls who made as much noise as the boys but smiled sweetly and nodded when they saw me looking in their direction. They also told me that I looked like I was studying in class 12.  Such were the adventures of my first class.

The second class was worse than the first. Somehow no one feels like studying after lunch. They’d all rather shout. Needless to say, I was somewhat frazzled the first day. Now I start my classes by making my students do breathing exercises with their eyes closed. It seems to be the equivalent of the “Open them, shut them…” technique I used to use with the kindergarteners. It works wonders in calming them down and quieting them… to an extent.

On Thursday I taught one of the two 8 grade classes story telling. I explained the pyramid to them and gave them two possible topics to choose from if they couldn’t come up with their own ideas for a story. As an example, I told them the story of Little Red Riding Hood (heavily dramatized and tweaked for them). After that we discussed the parts of the story according to the pyramid we just learned.

It was interesting to watch them while I told the story.  They were so absorbed in it that they were leaning forward with wide eyes, even though many of them already knew the story. The class was completely silent while the story was being told. And after we were done, they were all shiny eyed and asking when they could begin writing, how long their stories had to be, if they could make up any story they liked, and on and on. That was fun 🙂

I’ve also been helping the psychology teacher out at school. She asked if I would conduct group counselling sessions with students whenever there was a free slot in the timetable, instead of calling in a regular substitute teacher. The last class I spoke to was class 9. We talked about stress and how to minimize it. It was interactive with a lot of exercises in between. We ended class with breathing meditation. They seemed happy by the end of it. Not everyone was expressive about how the session had made them feel, but, they were all smiling. Plus they call out to me now and wave at me whenever they see me. They are cute and the experience is not entirely different from teaching kindergarten.

I go quite a bit to the primary section as well, since the psychology teacher is an administrator there. I sit in her office, talk to her about workshop ideas, do odd jobs to help out, and visit with my kindergarten students who are now in class 1. They come to say hello sometimes or sometimes they just scream my name when they see me.

My week has been full and exhausting. And even though I’ll miss all of it, I’m also looking forward to working on my own time.  And yet I am glad that I’ll still be meeting with the students for counseling sessions and workshops.

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I don’t have a picture of my class. But here’s a picture of our evening at the beach yesterday 🙂
Adventure · India · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Ending My Day On A Jazz Note

I had an adventurous day, although that’s normal for me. Today’s adventure was slightly scary. I decided to take the bus into Pondicherry town all by myself. Everything was fine until I stopped to ask directions for the bus back home. The person who’d given me directions decided to follow me around and check if I had been listening to him. I got such a fright when I made a wrong turn and found him there asking me where I thought I was going. Then he tried to get me to sit on his cycle. When I refused he seemed to think he had the right to shout at me. I was so glad when a bus pulled up and the conductor told me they’d be going where I needed to. I didn’t even care when he “forgot” to return change for my bus ticket.

My evening was much more pleasant. I put up a presentation for my family on the history of jazz music. There wasn’t any important reason to – I just thought it would be a fun way to develop a deeper appreciation of the music. My father, brother and I enjoy listening to jazz music anyway. My mother listens to jazz as well, but I’m not very sure if she enjoys it as much as we do. She does like history though.  And my cousin, Amiya, seemed up for it as well. Plus we had the perfect weather to listen to this sort of music today! – refreshing cool breeze, uncharacteristic of Pondicherry, accompanied by light showers.

If you’d like to know more about the history of jazz music, and how it follows the history of America, this article offers a brief description..

I’ve included one of my favourite music pieces here. Hope you like it as much as I do!