Thursday, July 16, 2020

Celeste Ng - Little Fires Everywhere

Publisher: Penguin
Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng

The world is marked with diversity.  There are different races, religions, physical characteristics, wealth, health and culture. Maybe in certain pockets of the world people grow up with a very insular view of the world. They don't know of life as it is beyond their narrow ken. There are people, well educated and well versed in the ways of the world who know about the diversity on offer. On face of things, they may say, they are cool with people who are different. Yet they may not like the idea of the others invading their lives. It is only when their worlds collide that they realize how uncomfortable they are with the others.

Little Fires Everywhere is a tale of one such collision. Shaker Heights is a place where diversity is welcomed. It has spacious lawns, vegetable growing is forbidden, overgrown grass is forbidden, each house has a tree in the front, no garbage bins are visible. It is a perfectly planned neighborhood which was established in 1912. Elena Richardson's family lived here forever. It was the center of her ambitions and dreams. She gave up a career as a journalist to work for a small local paper. She brought her college sweetheart back with her to live in Shaker and raise a family. Hers is a perfect suburban dream come true. A beautiful house in a prosperous neighborhood, four children, a successful husband.

Elena also owns a duplex house a little way off which she rents out. Into this rental walks Mia Warren and brings disturbance in her wake. Mia is an itinerant artist. Her primary medium is photography. She never stays for long in one place but now she wants to settle down. She has a young daughter, Pearl, who needs steady schooling. This kind of a makeshift life is something alien to Elena. In her mind, she is supporting a poor struggling artist. So far, things are fine. Mia lives in her own house, Elena is secure in hers.

Elena has four children in various stages of High School.  Moody is the one who is the same age as Pearl, Mia's daughter. He makes friends with her and brings her into his house. So far Pearl has lived a nomadic life which has been full of makeshift or patch up solutions. With Mia, she slept in their car or a single room studio where she had to share a mattress with her mother. Now she walks into this large six bedroom mansion with manicured lawn. She is wowed by the splendor and begins to spend her time with the Richardson kids.

Mia is a little bothered by the influence the rich kids have on her smart daughter and takes up on Elena's offer to do a little housekeeping for them. Elena's youngest, Izzy is fifteen years old and seen as a problem child. Izzy finds Mia sympathetic and opens up to her. The kids are all facing the usual teenage angst, relationships, some mild resentments towards their parents. Into this mix comes the curious case of the McCullough's adopted baby when the baby's biological mother, Bebe Chow, demands her daughter back. Shaker Heights is shaken by the trial and takes fierce sides. Families are split over their opinion over the rights of the mother versus the rights of the McCullough family.

At the heart of the novel is the differences between the life choices of Elena and Mia. They are different but Elena cannot swallow the path Mia has taken in her life. In her view, Mia has done wrong and should be corrected. Mia stands by her choices and richer life it has given her. She compares Elena's life to a birdcage. Also woven into the narrative is the question of who has the right over a child, a poor, loving biological parent or a rich, loving provider. Mia's daughter is pretty, sorted and clever. Elena's children are also good children, good at studies and games. Elena's children will probably have an easier path to a better life because of the support their rich parents can give them, while Mia may have to struggle with things.

The novel goes down smoothly. It is beautifully described. It does carry a message but the message is subtly delivered. Elena is not painted as a villain except for a couple of times that she does questionable things. The differences in the way of life of Bebe, Mia and Elena are vast. In fact, Bebe and Elena are at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  I loved the way Ng handled the timeline of the novel, the way she introduced the characters and handled their interactions with each other, the way the story progresses and the way it ends. The book is very interesting and I could barely put it down.

I also happened to see the television 8 part miniseries based on this book by the same name. Reese Witherspoon plays Elena and Kerry Washington is Mia. I found the series quite gripping and binge-watched it in one day. There are differences in the narrative from the book. Sometimes the series expands on something said in the book, most notably when we are given a couple of lovely poems written by Pearl. The book says Pearl writes poetry but we were not given any samples to read. Elena's backstory was given as much prominence as Mia's in the TV version, unlike the book. Also the shading of the character was more prominent in the series than in the book. The end was slightly altered. The acting of the seniors was good, a little too much in the face though. There are a total of five children in the book, Elena has four and Mia has one. All the kids turned in a stupendous performance; very natural. The face offs between in Elena and Mia were heightened and increased in the series, they were subtle and few in the book. In fact the tone of the book was far more subtle than it was in the series. The racial friction was highlighted in the series whereas in the book Mia's race is never brought into question.

Notwithstanding all these differences, they hold their place. We all know the audio-visual medium is more dramatic than books. I would choose to read the book any day though. It shook me up and awakened me to the subtle ways in which disparity is dealt with in life.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Sakoon Singh - In the Land of the Lovers - A Punjab Qissa

Publisher: Rupa Publications
Author: Sakoon Singh
Title: In the Land of the Lovers - A Punjab Qissa

Nanki was orphaned at a young age when her parents died in a car crash. Her maternal grandparents took her in and raised her. They live in a cosy little house in an upper sector of Chandigarh. For those who live in Chandigarh, or know about it, will know that the upper sectors contain the old landed gentry, people of good means. The smaller the number of your sector, the better your location.

Coming back to Nanaki, she is now lecturing at Govt. College of Arts. When Nanaki's college decides to showcase the artwork of a couple of artists, she is appalled to learn that one of these has been promoted out of favoritism. She wants to promote the embroidery work of an acquaintance who deserves to be showcased.  She finds herself rubbing up her superiors the wrong way and is being discriminated against. In the meantime she runs into  Himmat Singh an architect who needs her help in choosing artwork to display in a club he has just finished constructing. She finds herself drawn to him.

Interspersed in the story are the tales of Nanaki's grandmother who had to flee their village in Pakistan during Partition. Her grandmother was then a young newlywed girl and pregnant. She had witnessed her father being killed by his neighbours. Her mother in tow, she had trudged for miles till she reached India to her husband and safety.  Nanaki grew up listening to these harrowing tales of her grandmother and developed an empathy for those in trouble.

I loved Sakoon Singh's descriptions. She takes time to describe everything, the run down college building, a tea shack, a garden, a house. Her magic touch makes us conjure up the picture she paints with words.
The house lay hidden behind dense foliage set off by a row of tall areca palms, their fronds and panicles making for dark silhouettes at twilight. On a day like this, the trees would sway noisily in the breeze, creating a loud rustle against the turbulent sky.
Indian Fiction is, alas,  often a victim of  inconsistent editing which brings down the quality of the book. Here and there, the book was peppered with avoidable mistakes.

Nanaki is a heroine of a kind we need to see more of. She is alive to everything world offers, good, beautiful, bad or ugly. She is a sensitive person who sympathises with people from all walks of life. To be honest, people in Chandigarh are famous for being very affected, conscious of their possessions and status. Rich people like to flaunt brands and go about living brashly, secure in the knowledge that their connections will shield them from harm, even if they commit murder. In such a culture, a heroine like Nanaki is like a breath of fresh air. Her empathy makes her a beautiful person, in and out.

I thought Himmat Singh's story was inadequate. He gets a chapter to himself. I would have liked to see his story run parallel to Nanaki's. If not that, it could have been reduced to a couple of paragraphs. It was neither here nor there to have his story told in some detail but not enough. Similarly Neena, their plump and garrulous neighbour needed more exposure. Neena is so delightfully human and Punjabi. She is devious yet affectionate, intrusive yet caring. I would have liked some more of her story.

Sakoon Singh brings out the favoritism and politics prevalent everywhere, from a college campus to drug rehabilitation center.  She describes the pangs of first love so well. Nanaki has not forgotten her first kiss and still moons over the boy who kissed her, while he has (typically) moved on. We get a wonderful glimpse into the awakened sexuality of Nanaki. Her first intimate encounter was very tastefully described.

Every Chandigarhian worth his salt has made a quick dash to Kasauli (a hill station about 60 kms away). This book, so steeped in Chandigarh culture, has a couple of such trips. I often wondered why there weren't more books based in Chandigarh. I am partially mollified by this book and hope there will be many more that depict this unique City Beautiful.

Sakoon Singh has given us this very evocative novel, set in our times, steeped in Punjabiyat (Punjabi way of life). I will be watching eagerly for her next offering.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Dr. Amit Nagpal - Heroes Amongst Us

Books on Leadership and Management aren’t really among my favourites. I am not very likely to pick them off a bookstore shelf and read them. However, ‘Heroes Amongst Us’ by Dr. Amit Nagpal was different, especially as it wasn’t about men with ‘larger than life’ personas – millionaires, CEO’s, Forbes Top 30, Times Top 100, entrepreneurs and suchlike – that you read about all the time as perfect examples to be emulated. No, no. The book was about ordinary people like me and you who have gone beyond their limitations to achieve extraordinary success in life. It was, for this reason, different from any other book in non-fiction that I have read so far.

To start with, the blurb set my expectations really high and I wasn’t disappointed at all. The book presents all the stories with lucidity and grace. Highly recommended for times we are facing now, for it leaves its readers with a message of hope and faith. The author has profiled about 32 people from different walks of life who have gone past obstacles to achieve their dreams and be a force for greater good. Each story has a common element of ‘struggle’ and it ends with a strong message that portrays the triumph of human spirit. The stories are heart-warming and inspirational.

One that particularly stands out is the story of an army man turned Buddhist monk, Bhikkhu Sanghasena. Sanghasena joined the Indian Army at a tender age of seventeen, but soon left it to pursue a higher calling. He became a disciple of the renowned Buddhist monk, Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita Mahathera, the abbot of the Mahabodhi Society Vihara, Bengaluru. And soon after receiving full ordination, Venerable Sanghasena undertook Dhamma studies and practiced Buddhist meditations of several types. Later, he started the Mahabodhi Residential School, an educational institution in Devachan, Leh, and founded the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre (MIMC) in Ladakh. It was fascinating for me to read about him and how he undertook numerous daunting activities in the harsh climate and unfavourable terrain of Ladakh. Sanghasena was honoured with the ‘World Peace Award’ in 2004 by the Gandhi Peace Foundation, India, in recognition of his work for world peace, inter-faith service and inter-religious harmony.

Among other stories, one that I found very interesting and relatable was the story of Murtaza Ali Khan. I met Khan at an event in my city and didn’t know anything about his humble beginnings. Khan is a renowned film critic, a famous columnist and one of India’s top film bloggers. He lost his father at an early age, and was faced with a tough choice – whether to pursue his passion for writing or to follow the wishes of his family. He chose the latter. However, after years of spending his life in an office as an IT professional, he realised he wasn’t cut out for it. His calling was different. It wasn’t easy to step out of his comfort zone but after several years of hitting against the wall and facing rejections, he finally made it. Khan is a prolific writer and has thousands of fans in the country. ‘I think it is all about self-belief and taking the leap of faith at the right time. If you do it too early, then you might miss your mark. Also, you don’t want to be too late and miss the bus,’ he says in the book. Fascinating!

There was one more story that deeply touched me, this one was about Rajeshwari Chauhan, a bestselling author who hails from the royal family of Chhota Udaipur. Dr. Nagpal has crafted a compelling introduction for Chauhan in the following words: ‘Rajeshwari’s story is that of a Cinderalla in reverse…from blingy ball room to a dingy studio; from high heels, pearl strings and shimmering chiffons to faded jeans and paint stained shirts; from designer perfumes to turpentine fumes. And all of this was by choice.’ He then goes on to describe how this rich princess faced all sorts of adversities and finally managed to achieve success in her life. He ends this story with Chauhan’s success mantra: ‘To keep the bonfire blazing and ambers aglow, we need to feed it with positivity.’

There were a few other stories that struck a chord, that of Manish Tyagi, for instance, a Commander of the Indian Navy who decided in 2014 to be a stand-up comic and never looked back. Or that of Amandeep Thind, who postponed his decision to commit suicide and never regretted it; Thind is one of the top motivational coaches in the team of internationally renowned speaker Tony Robbins. I also found Faisal Hoque’s story very interesting, especially as how this janitorial engineer eventually went on to raise millions of dollars for his businesses.

Dr. Amit Nagpal is co-founder of Bloggers Alliance and is a Personal Branding expert.  He has also published a book on Personal Branding. 

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Han Suyin - My house has two doors

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (1980)
Author: Han Suyin
Title: My house has two doors

Han Suyin was a prolific writer. She wrote novels (love stories as she called them), biographical profiles (or Chinese leaders) and autobiographies. She also wrote many articles in leading newspapers and magazines of the western world. She lived in Europe - Belgium, France, England and Switzerland. She also lived for long stretches in Hong Kong and Malaysia. She traveled all over the world and met many great thinkers and statesmen of her time.

She put all her knowledge to good use by writing autobiographies that were more commentaries of her time than too many personal details. I love all the personal details she puts in, what it was like growing up in China of the early part of the twentieth century. What it was like to be a Eurasian in a conservative Chinese society. What it was like to be a person with ambition in those times. She loves her love for China on her sleeve and maps the painful journey her country took from the greedy warlords of the nineteenth century to the exploitative Kuomintang to the Communist China under Mao and Chou Enlai.  There are no revolutions that are painless and no changes that take time to settle.

The world in general was casting off the shackles of colonialism and moving towards self rule. To assume that democracy is a benign state that throws up good leaders is a fallacy. As we have seen for ourselves, democracy can throw up despots and dictators as easily as Fascism. It is not easy to achieve an 'ideal' state a country can be in. If this ideal state is achieved thanks to a good leader, there is a good chance that bad times are lurking around the corner. The masses who vote can be as uninformed and clueless as the masses in communist countries who do not get a say in who will lead the party. In the end everyone has to keep their eyes and ears open and hope to judge what is best for them.

Information is vital to all human beings regardless of the country they reside in. Pure information, that means simply to inform and not prejudice you in any way is very hard to come by. We feel the pinch now even more when there is so much conflicting information available on all sorts of media. In fact, controlling the media has been the number one priority of all political parties. In such times informing yourself by eclectic readings of various points of view is the only way out.

It is in this context that I realized the value of this book. Yes, Han Suyin loves China and there is a good reason for believing that her love colors her narrative. Yet, she never hesitates to reveal the warts of the state her country of birth is in. Her writing is never dry and never a one sided drone. She tells us as she sees things, which is such a valuable trait, one we sorely miss in these times. We learn of the struggle China had to undergo, the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is exactly the kind of writing the world needs now and in the future. Intelligent and incisive minds telling us as it is without fear or favor. It is such a pity her books are no longer in circulation. I have amassed several of her books by trawling the second hand book sites. They are all part of the precious collection that I will never give away.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Alice Albinia - Empires of the Indus

Publisher: Hachette
Author: Alice Albinia
Title: Empires of the Indus

I remember a time when I was momentarily seduced by the idea of following the Silk Route. It seemed like a glamorous idea, trudging in the wake of traders and adventurers who braved inclement weather, murderous dacoits, disease, illness, hunger, thirst to undertake seemingly foolhardy journeys into the unknown or nearly unknown far off lands. Men like Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Batuta and many many more.

Seemingly, we are well connected with the world in these modern times. We can fly to the other side of the world, or encircle it, within a day or two. Or more, given the airline schedules. We can eat sandwiches everywhere, sip bottled water and be fairly safe. But this applies only to beaten paths. If you decide to go off the beaten paths, be prepared to live it down. Knock about in ramshackle buses, drink contaminated water, eat iffy food and miss your cozy home.

Alice Albinia undertakes an arduous journey along the banks of the mighty river Indus, starting from the Sindh delta where the river merges into the Arabian sea. She tracks the river up to its modest source in Tibet, Senge Khabab (Mouth of the Lion). The journey is daunting. It is often through dangerous parts of Afganistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. As it is close to the borders of these countries often, the area is under military surveillance and not accessible. Alice has to take permission from the military of all these countries to be able to continue her journey.

The lower part of Indus is nearly abandoned and fisher folk living there are robbed of their fertile land and occupation because of damming on the river in upper areas. This region is populated by Sindhis who find themselves overshadowed by the rest of Pakistan. From here she moves on to the Sheedi's, African settlers who were brought here in the same manner as they were taken to America, for the purposes of slavery. She moved ahead, each stop more perilous than the last, under the shadows of the Kalashnikov and AK47. Her last journey is the most difficult of all. It is treacherous, changeable weather at high altitudes of Tibet, the most unmanned point of all.

All along the way we learn the fascinating history of the region she is in. The story is saddening and familiar. Where all was pure nature's bounty earlier, it is depletion and exploitation of natural resources by man now. The early civilisations respected nature and lived within its rules and enjoyed its bounties. Now man is in a hurry, he wants to extract the maximum out of the earth, its minerals, its flora, fauna and water. The deplorable effects of damming are seen everywhere. Politicians want to provide water for irrigation and puts up dams, harming the natural ecology of the region. Modernisation ignores the rules of nature and harms the earth in consequence.  Water becomes a weapon for negotiating with fractious neighbours.

Along with the author, we mourn for the lost glory of Indus. We shake our heads thinking of the heads of government who no longer care for nature, they care only to provide short term solutions to increase the longevity of their tenure.

I will pull out one quote from the book with the reminder that it was published in 2008.
As we move along the edges of the flooded fields, the village men talk of Kashmir, unburdening themselves of their disappointed life histories. They speak bitterly of the Pakistani Mujahideen. 'Nowdays we are not so deceived by their false promises of freedom,' one man says. Nor does the Indian state offer much hope, nobody in India, they say, wants to employ a Kashmiri Muslim. The only advantage that Kashmiris have is the law which forbids Indians from buying land in the valley: 'So even poor people here have a home and farmland.'

The subversion of Article 370 puts paid to this last tenuous link to self-subsistence the Kashmiris had.

So we can perhaps 'look forward' to the hell on earth that faces us as we kill the rich fauna and flora and dry up the bounties nature has heretofore offered us. And we offer no hope or reprieve to the people displaced by the hasty ill conceived actions of our politicians, no matter what their country or affiliation.

The books is excellently written, deeply researched and each region of the Indus personally visited by the author. I admire her tenacity and dedication to this project. It is a valuable book for someone wanting to know more about the East-Asian region. Alice Albinia joins the ranks of brave world travelers who suffered privations to add to the knowledge of people like us.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Inderjeet Singh Jaijee Dona Suri - The Legacy of Militancy in Punjab- Long Road to Normalcy

I lived my life in Gujarat though I am a Sikh. I returned to Delhi/Patiala/Chandigarh in 1979 after completing my schooling. I was looking for a job and reuniting with my family in Chandigarh. I was in Patiala in 1981 when newspapers were splashed all over with the killing of Lala Jagat Narain, owner of Punjab Kesri. To me that was the introduction to what would soon be known as the era of militancy in the region. There were numerous times when I held my breath when seeing blanket clad men. Militants usually traveled that way. My husband's boss and another friend were gunned down by militants. There were bomb blasts in Sector 22 market. Earlier, working at a newspaper office, I was privy to the news of Golden Temple being raided, Mrs. Indira Gandhi being gunned down. All employees of the office were pressed into attending phone calls that were flooded in. We had to parrot out the official line given to us. Militancy is history we have lived though.

Yet, reading this book was an eye-opener to me. I was perhaps aware of the official version, certainly nothing about what went on behind the scenes, how the police behaved, the number of innocents dead and how humanity could die a sudden death when faced by power hungry, money mongering individuals.

Punjab was the bread-basket of India, one of it's most prosperous states. I had the seen the sad plight of farmers in Gujarat. In comparison, Punjab looked so well to do. No more, alas. Militancy has taken its toll.

I am not the one to read non-fiction. I surprised myself by devouring the book in a single sitting. It was amazingly well written. Despite its grim topic, there are dollops of humor in it, especially while describing the shenanigans of the politicians. No one is spared the acerbic wit of the pen, not the Akalis, not the Congressis. That is the heart of the matter. Politicians who took the side of the populace did so more to snub their rivals. In the end, the sore and complete losers were the residents of Punjab and also those of India.

As a citizen of India, as a human rights believer, it is essential to read such books and try to understand the power that is vested in us as a voter.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee is a human rights campaigner and Dona Suri was a journalist and they both have impeccable credentials to author this book. All the claims made and reported have been meticulously backed with documentation.