Saturday, 22 June 2013

Fiction Reads: The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond

It is a sweet rush to the senses when a book revisited after years still has the lure to momentarily bring back the magic of childhood. The Blue Umbrella, first published in 1974 is one such work. A book for children that can be read in a couple of hours, this Ruskin Bond gem is adorned with extraordinary black and white illustrations by Trevor Stubley and an eye-friendly font size.     

The story is singular, of quite charm and simple pleasures, set in the hills of Garhwal. Ten year-old Binya lives with her widowed mother and elder brother Bijju, tending to the cows Neelu and Gori and helping the family in cultivating various food items on their own terraced fields. The produce is not ample to sell, but enough to subsist on. One day Binya happens to chance upon a group of picnickers from the plains and among their throng she notices a blue silk umbrella and falls in love with it. A woman's attraction to Binya's leopard-claw necklace leads to a dream exchange and lo, Binya now owns the beautiful umbrella! Meanwhile, 'the richest man in the area', the old tea shop owner Ram Bharosa covets the umbrella as its fame grows on the quiet hill side.

Beneath its straight-forward exterior, The Blue Umbrella has its insightful moments. Here's an excerpt:

Binya belonged to the mountains, to this part of the Himalayas known as Garhwal. Dark forests and lonely hilltops held no terrors for her. It was only when she was in the market-town jostled by the crowds in the bazaar, that she felt rather nervous and lost.  

Seen through a child's eyes, the umbrella is an ode to beauty and utility. For an adult it is greed, materialism and a blindness to possess. Yet the two generations meet in harmony at the end of the book in an agreeable manner, and like the best children's stories, a glow of happily ever after pervades long after.   

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Friday, 21 June 2013

Fiction Reads: The Ragamuffin Mystery by Enid Blyton

As I bask in the pleasantness of the Monsoon and before I go for an immediate seaside holiday, I stumbled upon a really light read: The Ragamuffin Mystery by Enid Blyton. And what a thrill it was to read this at leisure! It spells holidays and adventure from the first page itself. I also liked what Barney, one of the main characters in the book had to say about the concept of a holiday - "Well -  I  hate modern holiday spots where there are crowds of people. I would rather go to some quiet old place - where we can laze about in old clothes, do exactly what we like, and not have to bother with anyone else at all." This is is the central theme of the book; although it is a book for children (for eight years and above), it is a page-turner for adults too. What is beautiful in this book is the description of Penrhyndeudraeth (what Blyton referred to as Penrhyndendraith) in  Wales - "It was a truly picturesque place, a fishing village, with a dozen or so old cottages built along the seafront and others straggling up the slope of the hill behind." Further 'Round the coast they went, with the splashing sea on one side, and the mountains on the other - for now the hills had grown higher, and some of them towered up into the sky'.

From the Barney Mystery Series or the R Series, as each title starts with the letter 'R'; this story includes Roger, Diana, Barney and his pet Miranda; Snubby and his pet Looney; and Miss Pepper. Roger and Diana are siblings and Snubby is their cousin. Barney is their friend while Miss Pepper is a family friend to Roger and Diana's parents. They holiday in the Welsh countryside by the Penrhyndendraith Inn (Miss Pepper and Diana stay there) while the boys retire to their caravan to sleep at night. The spot is idyllic and the inn is illustrated as 'a strange old place with curious turrets and towers. It was set right against a cliff-like hill, so that the back of it had no windows at all. Some of it was falling to pieces, and it looked in places as if only the ivy held it together'.

The descriptions in the book create a deja vu feel; illustrated by Eric Rowe, The Ragamuffin Mystery is a cool and read. It was first published in 1951.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Fiction Reads: Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

Last Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton is the last book from the Malory Towers series. It is Darrell Rivers' last term there and she feels nostalgic. She thinks of experiencing the utmost at Malory Towers and speaks of the road ahead of her - "We're (her friends, Sally, Alicia and Betty) all going to St. Andrews up in Scotland, and what a good time we'll have." There are new girls at Malory Towers in her section: Amanda Chartelow (an excellent swimmer and tennis player from the numero-uno sports school, Trennigan Towers who is aiming for the Olympics) and Suzanne, a niece to Mam'zelle Rougier. In the true Enid Blyton style, she wittily and creatively sketched characters such as Jo Jones, Deidre, June, Alicia, Gwen and a host of other characters (teachers included). It is a fun-filled story which can aptly be described as the story with a twist-in-the-tale ending - "They (Sally and Darrell) went there (the rose-garden) and looked at the masses of brilliant roses. Each was silently saying good-bye to the places she loved most. They went to all the common-rooms, from the first to the fifth, remembering what happened in each. They peeped into the dining-room, and then went into different form rooms. What fun they had!"

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Monday, 17 June 2013

Fiction Reads: The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

A sigh isn't just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can.”

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie is a blend of magical realism and both historical (perhaps in my opinion) and speculative fiction. Impish, quirky and treacherous are what this book is all about; an account of a family traced to four generations: “There is a thing that lives in us, eating our food, breathing our air, looking out through our eyes, and when it comes out to play nobody is immune; possessed, we turn murderously upon one another, thing-darkness in our eyes and real weapons in our hands, neighbour against thing-ridden neighbour, thing-driven cousin against cousin, brother-thing against brother-thing, thing-child against thing-child.” This quote summarizes the theme of the story although one does not know what one is in for and what to expect at the end of the read. Narrated by Moraes Zogoiby (nicknamed Moor & the protagonist), from the fourth generation of the da Gama – Zogoiby family, it is a tale of people from multi-cultural origins and it takes us across varied geographies and histories. As Moor defines himself as - “I, however, was raised neither as Catholic nor as Jew. I was both, and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. I was--what's the word these days?--atomised. Yessir: a real Bombay mix. ”

Spanning Mumbai, Cochin and Spain, the story begins where it ends.  It unfolds in an estate in Cochin where the da Gamas settled, the descendants of Vasco da Gama after all – “they (da Gama and the Portuguese) came in search of the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart.” Moor elucidates, “What was true of history was true of our family in particular – pepper, the coveted Black Gold of Malabar, was the original stock-in-trade of my filthy-rich folks, the wealthiest spice, nut, bean and leaf merchants in Cochin, who without any evidence save centuries of tradition claimed the wrong side-side-of-the-blanket descent from great Vasco da Gama himself.” It is the early nineteen hundreds when Francisco da Gama and Epifania Menzes are the spice grandees of Cochin. It is a time when the society spells fusion despite the different environs and neighborhoods while history is in the making –  ‘the tales of Communist troublemaking and Congresswallah politics, the names Gandhi and Nehru, the rumours of famine in the east and hunger strikes in the north, the songs and drums of oral storytellers, and the heavy rolling sound (as they broke against Cabral Island’s rickety jetty) of the incoming tides of history’. Francisco is a patriot and so is his younger son, Camoens for ‘Francisco was all bustle and energy, so Aeres (the older son affected indolence, learned how to infuriate his father by the luxuriant ease of his lounging’.

Times are changing and so are the opinions in the da Gama household. Camoens and Aeres marry and attitudes run passionate. Francisco’s arrest being part of the Home Rule Movement and staging a protest against the British pick the momentum of the story. His beliefs are avant garde at a time when masses and classes cannot be part of the same club. His writings on the ‘dynamics networks of spiritual energy’ turn him into a laughing stock from an ‘emerging hero’.  He retires to his home which is like a ‘place lost in a fog’. His death brings several warring family members, Epiphania’s folks, the Menzes and Aeres’ wife Carmen’s folks, the Lobos at war for hegemony over the spice business until of course Belle, Camoens’ wife takes over the reins and revives it. This is the old world. Belle and Camoens’ daughter, Aurora is a child prodigy; after Belle’s death she emerges as the gifted, strong and gutsy artist with a lust for life. She falls in love with Abraham Zogoiby, a member of the da Gama business staff from the Jewish quarters of Cochin. There is a secret behind the Zogoiby lineage; he is a supposed descendant of Boabdil, the last Nasrid ruler of Granada in Iberia. Aurora and Zogoiby raise three daughters and a son, Moor. They move to Bombay where their trade flourishes.

Cutting a long story short, The Moor’s Last Sigh is a tale of love and betrayal, thievery and cunning, helplessness and lashes of power, and eccentricity and innocence. Rushdie reveals a world marked by both the old and the new; the illustration of cultural assimilation runs stark with descriptions of Cochin and Bombay. The title, The Moor’s Last Sigh inspired by Boabdil’s sigh on looking at the Alhambra for that one last time after his defeat shows the twilight of multi-cultured dynasties at another time and place. The distinction is well-etched and beautifully subtle. It is also the tale of a world marked by intolerance where Voltaire’s belief that ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it’ does not hold true enough and perhaps borders on ignorance and malevolence.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Book Excerpts: Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

At the time of writing I am getting through at a snail's place through Malkani's slang-decorated narration of Jas, a rich 19 year-old Indian brat growing up in London. First published in 2006, the novel is told from the perspective of Jas, a wannabe, confused affluent teen who pretends he is deprived of wealth and lives in a slum. A wannabe with a die-hard love for the materialistic, here is just a little pick of the humorous ranting that the boy gets into. The following extract features the most ubiquitous electronic device of our times.

Havin the blingest mobile fone in the house is a rudeboy's birthright. Not just for style, but also cos fones were invented for rudeboys. They free you from your mum an dad while still allowing your parents to keep tabs on you.   

(Article by Snehith Kumbla

Poetry Reads: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S Eliot

Among the works of existentialist literature, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S Eliot is one of my favorites. Written in 1910, it is a reflection of the inner torment in Prufrock’s mind. Eliot was influenced by French symbolism which reflects in this poem. He was also inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Bible and Dante Alighieri. It was first published in 1915 in an issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  This poem is a paradigm of modernism. Modernism is best described in the words of Herbert Read - “The modern poet has no essential alliance with regular schemes of any sorts. He reserves the right to adapt his rhythm to his mood, to modulate his metre as he progresses. Far from seeking freedom and irresponsibility (implied by the unfortunate term free verse) he seeks a stricter discipline of exact concord of thought and feeling.”

His mind is in a conflict because he cannot make up his mind to approach the woman he fancies. To him, the world seems alienated and he is angst-ridden and cynical; being middle-aged and socially awkward, he wonders if he should – “ask the overwhelming question (the existential question of approaching the woman)’. This poem is a monologue; however the first stanza appears as if it were a dialogue between two people. It is also a reflection of urbanity and superficiality. 

Read the poem here.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Poetry Reads: Published Haiku Selections (2011, 2012) by Snehith Kumbla

Ahoy, Wolf here and I am here to howl out the news that a couple of my haiku have been selected for publication in the forthcoming World Haiku Anthology. Also, this post is to showcase a bunch of my previously published haiku.

For starters, haiku is an ancient form of Japanese poetry. It consists of three lines. Traditionally, each haiku deals with nature and must contain syllables in the order of 5,7,5 for each line. English haiku poets have not adhered to this stringency. In a way, a haiku is the prose form of a photograph, it is not extravagant imagination. The purpose of the haiku is simple - to show as it was seen. The document of a moment without adornments - there lies its beauty and philosophy. 

chained dog
chases the bee
with its eyes

hair strand
divides her

battle scarred dog
can't lick its
bleeding ear

night shift
only the air-conditioner 
is not mute 

(First published in World Haiku Review, December 2011 Edition)


(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Monday, 10 June 2013

Book Excerpts: Conquest of Dehli by Timur-I-Lang

Conquest of Dehli by Timur-I-Lang is an account by Timur who captured Delhi in 1398 when he was more that sixty years old. Born in Transoxiana, in present-day Uzbekistan, his father was a noble from the Barlas tribe. This excerpt in English has been translated from his memoirs, Malfuzat-i-Timuri on his conquest of Delhi. Fourteenth-century Delhi was a place gripped by political uncertainty, marauding invasions and a freaky fear that loomed with the commoners having nowhere to flee but to face the wrath of the conquerors. The following is a description of the plunder that followed Timur's invasion and what he had to write:

'By the will of God, and by no wish or direction of mine, all the three cities of Delhi, by name Siri, Jahan-anah and Old Delhi  had been plundered. The khutba of my sovereignty, which is an assurance of safety and protection, had been read in the city. It was therefore my earnest wish that no evil might happen to the people of the place. But it was ordained by God that the city should be ruined. He therefore inspired the infidels with a spirit of resistance, so that they brought on themselves the fate which was inevitable.

When my mind was no longer occupied with the destruction of the people of Delhi, I took a ride round the cities. Siri is a round city. Its building are lofty. They are surrounded by fortifications, built of stone and brick, and they are very strong. Old Delhi also has a similar strong fort, but it is larger than that of Siri. From the fort of Siri to that of Old Delhi  which is a considerable distance, there runs a strong wall, built of stone and cement'.

Further, 'The pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city. Although I was desirous of sparing them, I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should fall upon this city'.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Friday, 7 June 2013

Poetry Reads: I Walked The Boulevard by E. E. Cummings

On a Friday afternoon, I would rather revel at E. E. Cummings' poetry such as this one: I walked the Boulevard.

In the true fashion of Cummings' poetry, he describes the setting of a boulevard and the people that are walking it in the poem. To me, the poem’s eloquence on the sight is mesmerizing, like a sketch coming to life.

I Walked The Boulevard 
by E. E. Cummings

i walked the boulevard

i saw a dirty child
skating on noisy wheels of joy

pathetic dress fluttering

behind her a mothermonster
with red grumbling face

cluttered in pursuit

pleasantly elephantine

while nearby the father

a thick cheerful man

with majestic bulbous lips
and forlorn piggish hands

joked to a girlish whore

with busy rhythmic mouth
and sily purple eyelids

of how she was with child


(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Book Excerpts: Under the Sun by Perceval Landon

The following is an excerpt from Perceval Landon's (1868 - 1927) Under the Sun. It is a description of Delhi. Being a writer and a journalist, he drew a memorable description of the ancient city:

"Delhi, the mistress of every conqueror of India, Aryan or Afghan, Persian, English or Moghul, remains unconquered still. Over twenty square miles of sun-baked plain lie out the debris of her many pasts, relics of her dead and gone masters, some perfect still, some once more crumbling back into the levels of red-yellow marl that have alternately fed and housed, and fed and housed again, forgotten generations of men. Yet Delhi lives. Like some huge crustacean, she has shed behind her her own outgrown habitations, as she has crawled northwards from Tughlaqabad and Lalkot, through Dinpana and Ferozabad till the red lizard of the Ridge barred her way, and now she suns herself, a raffle of narrow and congested byways, beneath the crimson walls of Shah Jehan's great palace-fort."

What has drawn me towards this excerpt is the way Landon added character to the city and how it still bustles with life and energy.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Fiction Reads: The Six Bad Boys by Enid Blyton

The Six Bad Boys was written by Enid Blyton for an entire family. I caught hold of a copy of this book as an adult and what a beautiful experience it was to read this book. As the note from the author in the book tells the reader:

"It is written for the whole family and for anyone who has to do with children. It is written, as all stories are written to entertain the reader - but it is written too to explain some of the wrong things there are in the world, and to help to put them right. 

I love children, good or bad. I know plenty of good ones - and I have been to the juvenile courts and seen plenty of bad ones. One of the finest magistrates of these courts is the well-known Mr. Basil Henriques, who deals so wisely and kindly with all the delinquent children brought before him. I have watched him at his court dealing with these children.In trepidation, I asked him if he would be kind to enough to read through my book to see if I had made many mistakes in Court procedure."

This sets the pace of the book.The Mackenzies at Barlings Cottage finally have neighbors; two families with children have moved into their neighborhood. The Mackanzie kids: Donald, Jeanie and Pat are tremendously excited. Being a friendly lot, they look forward to being friends with the others. However all is not hunky-dory with the other families. Summerhayes, the Berkeleys' home is a place of discontent with the parents fighting, while the children: Eleanor, Harriet and Tom appear surly. The Kents at Hawthorns are no different; while Bob is a friendly boy and wants his mother to be a stay-at-home mother, she has other plans. Familial discord lead Tom and Bob to escapism.

The descriptions in this book are though-evoking and familiar. Bob's chance encounter with The Four Terrors Gang (Les, Jack, Patrick and Will) at a 'small, dark, stone cellar' is an induction for him into the gang where Tom is included later. Here is a description of the gang: "The gang always wanted money - money to buy food, money to go to the pictures, which they loved above anything else. To sit in a comfortable seat in a warm place and see the people being chased and shot, to see horses galloping at top speed, cars tearing down along at eighty miles an hour, aeroplanes being revved up...this was all glorious to them. They didn't have to think, or use their brains at all - they only needed to sit back and look." Les and Will's mother does not care while Jack has a family to go back to; however 'the boy escaped from home as much as he could. The rooms were dirty and smelly and untidy. No one could eat, sleep or read in comfort. Jack hated his home, and though he really loved his mother he couldn't bear her whining voice and miserable face'. Further it is 'no wonder the boy went to find happiness somewhere else - and to him the little hidy-hole down in the cellar was heaven'.

Tom and Bob have similar traits; they are nice boys who have gone wrong and let off steam knowing fully well that it is a silly thing to do. Their circumstances are in sharp contrast to what the Mackenzie household is: full of warmth and kindness. Long story short, this tale is about reforming such kids.

The setting of this book is Lappington and this book was first published in 1951. It is a recollection of Blyton's childhood. The illustrations were created by Glenn Steward.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Book Excerpts: I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale by Khushwant Singh

The monsoon has arrived! It fell upon the city without warning on the night of June 1, 2013, complete with lightning veins, thunder roll and a rush of drops that soon settled down to play a rhythm on all things that interrupted its airborne tryst. 

As usual, the meteorologists got it wrong - the monsoon has commenced its journey two days before the predicted date. To err is human, and in matters of nature, the scientists and experts are to be forgiven. For as much is claimed to be known about nature and atmosphere, human beings must concede that nature's mysteries shall always remain and maintain their allure. 

Anyway, I have been reading Khushwant Singh's remarkable 1959 novel I Shall Not Hear the Nightingale and it is a happy coincidence that the writer starts 'Chapter IV' with an eloquent five-page detailing on this wet, gray season: 

To know India and her peoples, one has to know the monsoon. It is not enough to read about it in books, or see it on the cinema screen, or hear someone talk about it. It has to be a personal experience because nothing short of living through it can fully convey all it means to a people for whom it is not only the source of life, but also their most exciting impact with nature. What the four seasons of the year mean to the European, the one season of the monsoon means to the Indian. It is preceded by desolation; it brings with it hopes of spring; it has the fullness of summer and the fulfillment of autumn all in one. 

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Travel Reads: The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux

The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux is an exhaustive, brilliant and comprehensive travel book encapsulating the thoughts, eccentricities and journeys of many travelers from Evelyn Waugh, Richard Burton, DH Lawrence, Henry Fielding, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Vladimir Nabokov to Dervla Murphy. However the list is endless. It also covers the thoughts and writings of Theroux himself.

The author aptly writes on the Preface: The Importance of Elsewhere:

'As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my mind was of flight - my little self hurrying off alone. The word "travel" did not occur to me, nor did the word "transformation", which was my unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find myself in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too young to go, I read about elsewheres fantasizing my freedom. Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I saw that the most passionate travelers have always been passionate readers and writers. And that is how this book (The Tao of Travel) came about'.

This book is an encapsulation of several ideas, crazy adventures, travelers' prejudices, obsessions, habits and neuroses. Read about Joshua Slocum who said he suffered from 'mental lapses' and was arrested for exposing himself to a young girl. Or read about the 'monumental grandeur' of Freya Stark. The excerpt highlighted from Niradh C. Chaudhuri's The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian is marvelous and gives the reader a sensory feel of the time and place. Or Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi is one of my favorite passages from this book. And so is No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi.

The list goes on. There are writers who have written about places they had not visited while writing about them as backdrops to their books. Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King is one such example and Theroux titles this passage as Saul Bellow's Fairly Serious Fooling. Edgar Rice Burroughs had remarked, "I can write write better about places I've never seen."

However one can summarize by saying that all these travelers and writers came, saw and conquered. The Tao of Travel is indeed a highlight of some of the best travel writings. It also highlights Theroux's favorite places on the globe and the ones that are on his wishlist.

Quoting from The Happy Isles of Oceania by the author: "One of the greatest rewards of travel is the return home to the reassurance of family and old friends, familiar sights and homely comforts and your own bed."

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Non-Fiction Reads: Useful Work versus Useless Toil by William Morris

An essay written in 1884 by William Morris can still be revisited for its wisdom, reflection and persistent relevance. A brief look at the life of Morris: William Morris was of all things, a textile designer, apart from a writer and artist. He was English and played a prominent part in the arts and crafts movement.

The essay takes us right into the heart of the thing, as it begins: The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it - he is "employed," as the phrase goes; and most of those who are well-to-do cheer on the happy worker with congratulations and praises, if he is only "industrious" enough and deprives himself of all pleasure and holidays in the sacred cause of labour.

Morris then cuts through the issue, delving deeper, on how every human being has to work in order to survive. He then speaks on the ‘nature of hope’, the things that you expect when you work – “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” He goes on to elaborate on these three points. Without ever wasting time on words, using them economically, he arrives at the statement that - All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves' work - mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.

There is much more to the essay, practices followed through history and civilization is quoted, but always with an objective, unbiased eye. An essay worth revisiting - you will always find something to think about in each reading. 

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)