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!

 

Book Review · Psychology · Sylvia Plath · Uncategorized

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

My friend, Loretta, and I keep talking about how we should resurrect the weekly book discussions we’d begun in Pune. It’s not quite easy though with her being in Australia, me in India, the major time difference between us, and the fact that we both have so much to do anyway. The book we’d chosen to discuss for our last meeting (which never happened, sadly) was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I managed to complete this book in one sitting on a Friday when I was feeling too blah to care about my other responsibilities. I spent most of that day lying on the couch, lost in Sylvia Plath’s shockingly hilarious book.

I don’t know why I’d waited so long to read this book. I’d known it was a semi-autobiographical account of Plath’s struggle with mental illness and clinical depression – and that had fascinated me, as a student of Clinical Psychology. I guess I kept putting it off because I expected it to be gloomy and depressing, like most other books based on psychopathology. However, The Bell Jar turned out to be a surprise. It was witty, insightful and intriguing. I hadn’t expected it to be so funny. It’s become one of those books I can’t help flipping through every so often, rereading my favourite passages.

Apart from describing the experience of being clinically depressed and schizophrenic (that’s what most researchers claim her symptoms indicate), this book is also revealing to the mind of Esther Greenwood, a 21-year old girl in the 1950s.

In brief, the story begins with Esther Greenwood as an intern in New York. The magazine Esther is interning for that summer is famous and comes with many perks. It’s striking that she isn’t taken up with the sudden glamour. In fact, on her last night in New York, Esther flings out her new stylish clothes one by one out the window and watches them float away. Her friends from the magazine, her boss, the boy who imagines himself engaged to her, and her longing to be a writer and to live an exciting life herself, are all sketched out in the most unpretentious way that it reverses the solemn subject of the story to amusement. Society’s expectations and Esther’s own conflicting views suggest a tangential independent streak that was probably quite foreign to the larger population of the time (I hesitate to use the word ‘feminist’ because it seems to have so many confusing connotations). For one, she voices her confusion of women having to remain pure and innocent, while men were allowed to follow a double standard. And when her mother tries convincing her to be a typist, she writes that she’d rather write her “own thrilling letters” instead of someone else’s.

 

Of course, somebody had seduced Buddy, Buddy hadn’t started it and it wasn’t really his fault. It was this waitress at the hotel he worked at as a busboy the last summer at Cape Cod. Buddy had noticed her staring at him queerly and shoving her breasts up against him in the confusion of the kitchen, so finally one day he asked her what the trouble was and she looked him straight in the eye and said, “I want you.”

“Served up with parsley?” Buddy had laughed innocently.

“No,” she had said. “Some night.”

And that’s how Buddy had lost his pureness and virginity. (pg. 146)

 

It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married, the way, Buddy Willard had? I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not.

Finally I decided that if it was so difficult to find a redblooded intelligent man who was still pure by the time he was twenty-one I might as well forget about staying pure myself and marry somebody who wasn’t pure either. Then when he started to make my life miserable I could make his miserable as well. (pg. 166)

 

In some ways this is a coming of age story, as many have pointed out. However, the bell jar that closes down on Esther’s life stifles dreams and hopes so that she’s wary and content with surviving. This book is fearless and modern in that Esther’s passage to adulthood is marked by rejecting the accustomed norm of womanhood i.e., marriage and children. At 22, she’s already been through enough to have a clear assessment of mental illness and an appreciation for the strength that helped her through it. This helps strengthen her existing views of societal norms, interestingly.

It was fascinating to read Esther’s thoughts, her slide into uncertainty, the gloom about meaninglessness in life and achievement, her attempt to commit suicide, and the journey to recovery. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Esther’s courage in both overcoming her illness and in daring to question societal norms at a time when it was unthinkable. Eventually, it’s her courage and ability to form an independent opinion based on her own experiences that mark the entrance into adulthood.

 

Doctor Nolan had said, quite bluntly, that a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper with a warning bell. My mother’s face floated to mind, a pale, reproachful moon, at her last and first visit to the asylum since my twentieth birthday. A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.

“We’ll take up where we left off, Esther,” she had said, with her sweet, martyr’s smile. “We’ll act as if all this were a bad dream.”

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream. (pg. 448)

 

I liked The Bell Jar for so many reasons, the most important being that it was exceptionally well written. There are quite a few books and movies about clinical depression but very few manage to describe the battle against hopelessness without being either detached or uncomfortably morbid. I don’t know how to describe this book without sounding morbid myself but, this book was laugh-out-loud funny as well as thought provoking. Read it and you will see🙂

 

Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

The Evolution of a dog into Mr. Dog

When I got back from my 2-month trip to Pune, a few weeks ago, I discovered that we had a dog, Spotty. I’d seen him before around the campus, all business like hanging out with the security guards ready to alert them of any passing snake or unknown person. He did like playing with my brother and would occasionally come home for a doggie treat. But while he wagged his tail at us from afar and let us pet him every once in a while, by and large he was not a people’s dog and lacked the general etiquette that most domesticated dogs take for granted. This, and the fact of his nondescript breed, kept me wary and unsure of how temperamental he might be. Needless to say, I did not pet him a whole lot or encourage him to spend time with me. IMG_20160613_212115

We adopted him when his previous owner left and he was bequeathed to us.  He continued his lifestyle of wandering around the campus and then he’d push the front door open with his snout and try to snuggle up on the couch (He seemed quite surprised to learn that the couch was off limits to him). He adopted our home as his home and we adapted to the idea that Spotty was our dog and to buying doggy food and feeding him every day. But there was still an ambiguity regarding the relationship we shared. He was still fairly independent and did not like being petted too much. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for hours on end because he’d be curled up in a hole he’d dug up in the mud, or outside someone else’s front door! But the ambiguity ended the day Spotty was poisoned.

Yes, Spotty accidentally stepped on some of the Phorate that had been put around our area of the campus to control the growing number of venomous snakes. It was a good thing that he came home immediately after, as soon as he  realized that something terrible was happening.  At first, when my mother and I saw him we thought he’d been cut. Only one of his legs was trembling violently and he was limping.  However, when his eyes began to lose focus and he began to foam at the mouth a few minutes later, we realized it was more serious than a cut. We supposed it might be a snake bite or scorpion bite – both options equally horrifying.  Regardless, Spotty needed a vet quickly.

The veterinary hospital seemed to be located on the other side of town. Also, Spotty had slipped away unnoticed by us. Fortunately, the security guard was able to tell us that he’d hobbled out towards the back of the house. And sure enough, when my brother went to get him he was curled up in a dark corner, shaking violently. He wouldn’t get up and seemed to realize that he didn’t have much time left. Siddharth, my brother, had to pick him up and carry him to the car. We were also grateful to find out that one of our hospital employees was married to a vet and that they lived down the road from our campus. (While we do live on a hospital campus, we don’t have proper facilities for animals).

I didn’t go to the vet (I stayed home and prayed worriedly that Spotty wouldn’t die. Also there wasn’t enough space in the car). But I was told later that the vet had immediately identified it as a case of chemical poisoning. Had it been a snake bite, Spotty would have turned blue, she informed us. We were able to identify the chemical only because my father had noticed a very strong and strange smell earlier that evening and had enquired about it. And while we wished they’d have informed us in advance about the snake repellant so that we could have kept Spotty with us, we couldn’t be terribly upset at the extreme measures taken when venomous snakes were being sited every day at residential areas.
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It took Spotty an entire week to get better and many bottles of intravenous saline and intramuscular injections. The poor thing got so weak he couldn’t eat or drink. We had to feed him water with a spoon.

One of the major outcomes of this disastrous event has been to turn Spotty into a house dog. Where once he merely tolerated people, he now basks in the least attention they give him. It’s true. Before the accident he bared his teeth at me and tried to nip me once when I petted him too much. Now he licks me and rests his face against my palm while falling off to sleep. It’s also become difficult to get him to leave the house at night. He actually pretends to sleep at night while sneaking peeks at us! (Last night after we’d sent him out and locked the door for the night, he came back – just as I was walking up the stairs to bed. He stared at me for a long time and then stood purposefully at the front door waiting to be let in).

Spotty on high alert as he watches people from the maintenance department.
Spotty on high alert as he watches people from the maintenance department.

We can also say with certainty now, that any ambiguity about how Spotty felt about us or we about his has evaporated.  He is our dog. He turns ferocious when strangers come home and investigates the creepy crawlies in our home when he hears one of us scream or gasp in shock (As an example, I accidentally picked up a tree frog that was sitting with the potatoes in the kitchen yesterday). However, we all agree with my father who says that if Spotty were a person, he’d probably be Huckleberry Finn. That’s very likely. The other day I saw him burrowed in the mud, curled around a bush, an expression of bliss on his cute doggy face.

 

Books · Non Fiction · Personal · Uncategorized

Library Adventures

DSC05205This afternoon I decided to visit the high school library at the school (The Study) I’m teaching at.  Although not hugely impressive, it does have a decent collection of non-fiction and fiction.  Browsing through the shelves of YA Fiction unlocked a door of memories of when I used to have my nose in a book almost perpetually. There were times I even went to school on holidays so that I could spend them uninterrupted in the library. (Luckily for me, the school held workshops for its teachers on holidays, and I was able to make myself cozy among a stack of books).

The school I studied in was very particular about the literature it allowed in its library. And it was an excellent library. Unfortunately for me, they did not stock The Sweet Valley Twins series or The Babysitters Club series. I had to read those at the Bangalore Club when we visited our cousins.

The high school library at The Study, however, has quite a few books from both The Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club series. It made me wonder if perhaps I could enjoy them once more the way I used to. The reply to that was nearly immediate – most definitely not. I marveled at how I could turn up my nose at something I once used to find pleasure in. It’s strange that I wouldn’t consider reading those books again but that my eyes light up when I see books by Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and then some more. How have I been able to outgrow certain books, but not others?

This afternoon, the books that I decided to bring home with me were Henry Reed, Inc. by Keith Robertson and Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange. The first paragraph of Henry Reed, Inc. made me decide that I would have to complete this book first.

 

Sunday morning, June 23rd

My name is Henry Harris Reed and this is my journal. It is my private property and in case that it gets lost, please return it to me in care of my uncle, Mr. J. Alfred Harris, RD 1, Grover’s Corner, Princeton, N.J.

This is a journal, not a diary. Diaries are kept by girls and tell all about their dates and what they think of their different boy friends. My mother says that men keep diaries too, that the most famous diary in the world was kept a long time ago by an Englishman named Pepys. That may be so, but when I read about pirates and explorers and sea captains they always keep journals, so this is going to be a journal. It is going to be a record of what happens to me this summer in New Jersey. (pg. 7)

 

It made me shake my head and smile because it reminded me of myself at that age, and how important it was that people knew I kept a journal and not a diary. Of course I did write about boys, and even used code (precautions to be taken when one has a younger brother). But the reason I insisted it was a journal and not a diary was because

1) The words ‘journal’ sounded more official and grown up.

2) I recorded more than daily events and believed that that qualified my writings to be called journal entries.

Henry Reed’s journal is proving to be an amusing and light read, one that I am able to find time for in snippets and snatches. It’s perfect for busy times when one wants to read, but is unable to find the time to.

It was a very pleasant afternoon that brought back memories of how absorbing books can be.  And it was especially rewarding for me for what I learned of myself and of how I have changed.  I definitely plan on visiting this school library more often, and hope to read through most of its books.DSC06647