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)

Culture · India · Personal

My Final Post on Kashmir

It’s been two weeks since we got back from Kashmir and I still haven’t stopped talking about it. This post is actually a continuation of the last post (I noticed it was too long only after I began typing it in!) 

Day 3 : We woke up that morning in a mad rush to be ready by 7.30. The vehicle we’d booked would be coming to take us to Gulmarg. Up until we got there I didn’t know much about Gulmarg, apart from its name. I soon found out that it’s a famous skiing place and, of course, another favourite Bollywood haunt. 

We hired a guide so we were able to get tickets sooner than the others waiting in line. Tickets for what? The cable car to the top, of course! The view from the top of the mountains in Gulmarg is supposed to be absolutely breathtaking as it overlooks the Srinagar valley. It baffled me, though, that the cable cars were called Gondolas. But never mind that. The important thing was that we got tickets to both Phase 1 and Phase 2, something that was rather rare that day.

With the weather turning dismal, the only reason we managed to get tickets to Phase 2 was that we were one of the first in line that morning. Although it was foggy and soon began raining, our spirits were far from dampened. It was especially adventurous when there was a sudden power cut and we were suspended some 3000 metres above ground. We were asked to be very still and all was well in 20 minutes. The guide informed us, rather proudly I must say, that he had experienced power cuts mid air for up to an hour! A little difficult to envy that.

See how foggy it was!

We were somewhat amused to find tourists bundled in heavy winter wear at the top of the mountain. We made do with light sweaters and stoles – and later had to thaw with lemon tea and french fries. But in spite of our numb fingers and frozen faces we still had a lovely time at Gulmarg.

Pretty flowers in pink, purple, white, and some yellow covered the mountain side. There were also quite a few interestingly shaped boulders that caught our attention. Even the grass was noteworthy with baby cabbages and succulent little leafy plants. I even saw a couple of mushrooms! Our journey to the top was perfect until the guide informed us that had it not been for the fog we’d have been treated to an enthralling view of absolute scenic beauty! Unfortunately, the fog was too thick and we weren’t able to see the Srinagar valley.

We also saw a couple of rather bored looking mountain goats on our way back

Although we’d spent just three days in Kashmir it felt like we’d been away longer. The quiet old world charm that Kashmir is still steeped in, made this trip different from any other (It helped that we went in September and not during the tourist peak season). Both luxuriously relaxing and blissfully rejuvenating, Kashmir was the perfect mini vacation away from the hustle and bustle of routine. But what made it the perfect escape from reality was knowing that it was only a little more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from home!

The view from our guest house the evening before we left Srinagar.
Culture · India · Personal

Beautiful Kashmir : Part 2

Shikaras on the Dal Lake

So our first day in Kashmir  was spent visiting and admiring the Mughal Gardens. Our second day began with us waking up at 9 and Maria didi dashing off to the University. The rest of us, Abhilasha, Nandita, and I, went for a walk after breakfast and tried exploring the campus a little. 

We collected different kinds of leaves and I picked a few flowers  when no one was looking. Except for us, it seemed like everything else was still and mysterious. The tall Chinar trees added a whole new dimension to the picture we’d had of Kashmir on arrival. The Chinar trees were supposedly imported from Iran when the Mughals were ruling India.

But this is disputed. The population in Kashmir is still largely Muslim. In fact that was one reason we’d packed only conservative Indian clothes to wear there. We especially wanted to blend in after someone, meaning well, advised us that although the Kashmiri government encourages Tourism, tourists aren’t particularly liked. But after having spent three of the loveliest days there with everyone being so nice and helpful, we found that last part difficult to accept. 

For lunch one of the professors took us to the university canteen where we had a most delicious meal! Usually, I don’t enjoy meat all that much, but what we had that afternoon was a gourmet’s delight! I think what we had was chicken kebab. For certain, it was something with chicken. And we ate it with Naan. It tingles my taste buds even as a memory!

Almost all Kashmiri food is served with a salad/ chutney/ raita. I’m not sure what it was called but it enhanced the flavours of the curry. From what I could tell, it was made of mint, grated radish, and a few other herbs, all of it mixed in curd. I think we did ask for the recipe but can’t seem to recall anything specific.Well, all in all that was a fantastic meal that was only slightly overshadowed by conversation that was pretty sparkling. 

Kashmiri girls really don’t wear jeans! Actually they do, but they don’t wear them outside their home. How glad we were for that clever person who advised us to pack our salwar kameez, saris, and chudidar suits!

After lunch we were taken shopping by a very nice Kashmiri girl. Her uncle was the owner of a Kashmiri handicrafts emporium, she told us,and would be willing to subsidize rates for us. Not only did we get the best discounts on Kashmiri handicrafts but we were also offered Kahwah, Kashmiri Tea. Apart from Pashmina wool, Walnuts, Apples, its scenic beauty,  Papier Mache  handicrafts, and Pherans, Kashmir is famous for its Saffron. And the main ingredient in Kahwah is the saffron. I cannot even begin to describe how delicious the tea was. The flavour was delicate and its fragrant intoxicating. The herbs in the tea relax and have other health benefits if taken with a natural sweetener. Imagine something so yummy being equally  healthy! These three tourists were in love with everything about the place. 

After having shopped to our hearts’ content we went to the Dal Lake. We actually wanted to take a Shikara to the Char Chinar. But as it was getting dark we just had time to pose in one and then jump into a motor boat to the Char Chinar. 

The Char Chinar is a famous spot in Srinagar as many Hindi movies have been shot there. It gets its name ‘Char Chinar’ after the four Chinar trees on the four corners of this tiny island. By the time we got there it was already dark but still breath taking. On three sides there were mountains and on one side sparkling lights from the city. The perfect view to close Day 2.

This is actually a much longer piece but I don’t want to scare anyone away with a 2000 word post so I will be posting the rest tomorrow. 

Culture · India · Personal

Where the Mind is Without Fear by Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into

the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening

thought and action-

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

-Rabindranath Tagore

Happy Independence Day! Jai Hind!


Adventure · Books · Culture · India · Personal

Books, books, and more books!

Book Shopping in Delhi’s Daryaganj Book Market!

These are the 20 rupee books!
More books
You can find books of all sorts here...
We noticed that there were more textbooks this time than last time. So now we know what India's been reading. Sad!
People standing around a 20 rupee book piles.

Books · Culture · India · Personal

Book Meme

Uninspired and exhausted to write a review, today I’ve borrowed a book meme from this very helpful blog. One of my new year resolutions will be to make more time for blogging and posting quality posts. But for today I’ve chosen this. Please feel free to use this meme as well. You can either post your response in the comment section or on your blog and link me so that I can visit.

This is actually one of the simpler, shorter memes and is handy in connecting with other readers.

What are you reading? India by Sarina Singh. It’s actually a travel guide. I’m reading it because apart from books and clothes, travelling is the next best thing that I love. And I think it’s important to know your own country well enough before you go traipsing around the world. I’ve also been entertaining fanciful thoughts of spending my first proper savings on exploring India completely. Exciting! 

How far in are you? I’m beginning page 77. 

What’s it about? It’s a travelling guide to understanding and experiencing India to the fullest. It includes the top 20 things that have to be experienced here, general information, historical facts, and other helpful and interesting things any traveller would be grateful to know.

With Yaks

Are you enjoying it? Yes! It’s especially fun to be able to check off places I’ve already been to, experiences I’ve already experienced, and facts I already know while marking those I need to tuck away into my memory for future use. It makes me feel less like a book “worm”. (I dislike being called a worm! Even if it is a bookish sort.) 

I would love to know what everyone else is reading. And if you’re feeling worn out and dry like I am, do give this meme a whirl. I can already feel the iciness of writer’s block melting.

Walking through Wheat Fields
Amy Tan · Book Review · Culture · Fiction

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Even though my aunt had told me that Amy Tan was a good writer I was still completely bowled over by this book. In fact, almost as soon as I completed this book I felt the strongest need to read The Kitchen God’s Wife, another book by Amy Tan. But I held myself back because I knew that if I read more it would make me lazy to write this review and more inclined to losing myself in another magical story.

I’m afraid this might be a long-ish review since I am very keen on convincing anyone I can to read this book.

Jing-Mei’s mother, Suyuan, was the one who had begun the San Francisco version of the Joy Luck Club. In fact, she was also the one who’d started the original Joy Luck Club way back in Kweilin during the Second World War.

Each week Suyuan and her three friends would gather to play Mah Jong for money. And every week they would take turns hosting this meeting and serving special kinds of food to bring good luck. Once they began playing no one was allowed to speak. They were to play seriously and only think of adding to their happiness by winning. After 16 rounds they would again feast, this time to celebrate their good fortune. And they’d talk all through the night up until morning exchanging stories of good times, both from the past and those yet to come.

Now Jing-Mei’s mother is dead, and her father has asked her to be the fourth corner at the Joy Luck Club. She is to replace her mother. And it is from here that the stories begin.

Like in the game, Mah Jong, the book has four parts and is further divided into four sections to create sixteen chapters. Each part is preceded by a parable relating to the game. The book is a collection of vignettes shared by three mothers (Suyuan’s friends) and four daughters relating stories from their lives. The mothers are Chinese immigrants and think the Chinese way, while their daughters are Chinese-American  and think the American way.

The Joy Luck Club describes the mother-daughter relationship that is made complex with the misunderstandings that is usually present between two generations. And this particular type of relationship that this book brings to light is made even more complex by the cultural differences that exist between the daughters and their mothers. The Chinese mothers belong to a culture where people are expected to know and understand certain things without anyone having to tell them and in the same way they expect their daughters to understand and know things in the same way as they do. But their daughters are of another culture and they do not have the ability to understand the unspoken thoughts and words of their mothers.

This book was inspired by an incident from the author’s mother’s life. Amy Tan’s mother, Daisy, had once been married to an abusive man back in China. She had had four children; three daughters and a son. Her son died as a toddler, and she was forced to leave her three daughters in Shanghai when she migrated to America. In 1987 Amy Tan travelled with her mother to China and there she, finally, met her three half – sisters.

Amy Tan is a brilliant story teller. And even though I say she’s a brilliant story teller, Amy Tan more than simply tells her story. I wasn’t even aware when I became part of the story, watching and hearing everything for myself. Apart from how descriptive her writing is I was also drawn to her writing style. It’s very subtle, yet telling. And some parts are beautifully poetic. It’s difficult to pull away once you begin reading.

This book is a great read for its captivating stories of different cultures merging, the beautiful way these stories have been told, and most of all for the thoughts and realizations that these stories make clear.

I am so glad that I picked this book up when I did – thank you, Aunty Reena!