Notes on books: The Ayah’s Tale by Sujata Massey

I’ve always said that I don’t choose the books that I read, they choose me. And it is all the more true when it comes to this book. I’ve had ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ with me for some time now (Thank you Sujata!) but something or the other kept interfering with my reading. It is only in the past two days that I have devoured it.

Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead.
Disclosure: As you will find from my other reviews on Goodreads, I am a big fan of Sujata Massey and she was kind enough to give me this one herself.

‘The Ayah’s Tale’ is a frame narrative of one English child and his Bengali ayah during the time of the British Raj. Sometime in the second decade of the past century, an English family hires a Bengali ayah or maid to look after their three oldest children. The middle child, sensitive Julian, is the one most affected by her. While rumours of the Indian freedom struggle swirl about in the humid air of Midnapore Menakshi Dutt, an English speaking Bengali Christian 17-year-old girl, steps into the Millings household. In doing so, she also steps into Julian’s heart. Menakshi to turn breadwinner to support her family since her father’s death. The ups and downs of such an arrangement is explored in the story.

As all good stories, it does not start at the beginning or the end, it starts somewhere in between with the now 40-year-old Menakshi walking in rain-soaked Penang to a library to get a book to read to Mrs. Abbot, a ninety-year-old British woman who had helped her when she first came to Malaysia. She discovers a book of short stories ‘The Ayah’s Tale’ by one J. Winslett, a former RAF pilot who now lives with his wife and 4 children in Dorset. J. Winslett turns out to be one of her charges who has now written a book about his ayah. As with all stories, it is only from one perspective. While Menakshi reads out the stories to Mrs.Abbot, she fills in the gaps with her own perspective, chapter by chapter. It is these interspersed narratives that we read as Massey’s novel.

One of the themes is the serious disconnection between the British and the local people. The children and later men and women had no idea how locals live. Julian says early in the story, ‘I knew all about native life was like from Mr. Kipling’s stories.’ (Kindle Location 182). He needs Kipling to tell him about local life because of the insularity of his own upbringing and in spite of being surround by them.

Another theme is the extravagance of English life – Dutch tulips adorn the Millings home:

…a long cobbled drive leading up to it lined with pots of foreign flowers called tulips. The tulips could only survive in the cool seasons of autumn and winter—and to my amazement they were replaced every few weeks by new bulbs that grew as tall and red as the ones before. The bulbs had been coming by sea-mail from Holland for many years, the cost absorbed without question by whoever lived in the house.

that contrasts with the poverty of affection. Long silences at the breakfast table between Mr and Mrs Millings signal to Menakshi that this couple is far from happy. It becomes her job therefore to protect the children from their parents. Mrs Millings finds her solace in drink and affairs while stoic Mr Millings buries himself in work. Menakshi becomes a sort of surrogate mother to Julian whose own mother is preoccupied by a thousand concerns none of which include her children. In addition, the threat of boarding school forever looms in the horizon. English children aged 6 or 7 were sent off to public schools (Think ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’) to one day return as ‘masters’ of the local people.

Names or their lack thereof play an important role in the story. Menakshi is called the Big Ayah, in contrast to Baby Ayah, thereby stripping her off her identity. We never get to know the real name of Baby Ayah. Menakshi herself confronts the strangeness of her name when she introduces herself to Ram Hollander. Ramsay Hollander has shortened his name to Ram. Julian, Julian Millings and J. Winslett are the same person. While J. Winslett retains his name in the book, he changes the names of his family. Julian’s father is the Commissioner Saheb of Burdwan but all we know is that he is called Tubby. We know in passing that Mrs. Commissioner is Marji. In other words, no one is known by their real name in the story.

Another theme that is explored is the idea of Home, home and homelessness. Menakshi is far away from home while the Millingses are far away from Home. Julian pities Menakshi at one point in the book because she has no Home to go to. He says, ‘She had no chance to go to Home one day, because she had no home except for ours. She would always stay at our house, working and watching the river flow by.’ (Kindle Location 184-185). When Menakshi asks for leave to visit her home, he is shocked that she has a life outside the Millings household. This attitude later changes as Julian runs away from home twice – once with his older brother Nigel and the second time by hiding in Ram Hollander’s tonga. Menakshi’s mother loses the house that Menakshi considers her home. Somewhere in between home and Home, the Millings children and Menakshi manage to make a home of their own. She tells them stories and shares a bed too. However, this is not to last.

While reading the novella, I found a few literary echoes such as the trip to a nearby town Ghoom.

It all started with a marvelous surprise. Mrs. Millings called me to speak with her by the fire one morning. As she sipped her rum tea, she said that she and Mrs. Berryman and some others would make a trip the next day to a neighboring mountain town. Ghoom was famous for its beautiful views and Buddhist monasteries. (Kindle Locations 455-458).

It reminded me of another Raj-era novel, E.M Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ specifically when Dr. Aziz and the two English women take a trip to the caves.

Massey deftly plays with several strong threads in the story each of which gives in a certain heft to the story. She explores the relationship between parents and children, Indians and the British, upper and lower classes, home and homelessness, India and abroad, stories and reality. Read it to find out which one speaks to you the most.


Best reads of 2013

It’s been a while since we stepped into 2014. So happy new year! ( A bit late but the year is still young.) I was having this conversation with Rita Says who asked me for the five best reads of 2013. Books that I read not books that were published in 2013. I obviously had a longer list. Here they are:

Anushka Ravishankar’s Moin and the Monster and its sequel Monster Songster. Both are so hilarious I laughed so much! I read out bits to my parents and they laughed as well. It got an element of fantasy as well.
Genre: Young Adult fiction.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. I went to a talk at Tara books by Sarah Odedena, the editor who oversaw the editing of Harry Potter at Bloomsbury when she was visiting India last year. She is no longer with Bloomsbury. She recommended generally to all those present to read this book because it was discovered by her current publishing house. It’s about a dyslexic boy and how he stands up to authority. It’s quite unlike any book I have read.
Genre: Young Adult fiction.
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. I kept hearing good things about this book. So when I found a worn copy at Odyssey, I had to buy it and no, I didn’t get a discount for it. But it was so worth it! It’s hilarious because it imagines the Queen of England as a reader who lost in the books once she starts reading. Very British, very funny.
Genre: Fiction.
Maus: Vols 1 and 2 by Art Speigelman. The artist who drew this book mined the story of his parents. It is a Holocaust story but explored through the media of graphic novel. Wonderfully moving. Very unique treatment of subject matter.
Genre: Graphic novel.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s a picture book for kids but it was rather appealing to me as well. I was trying to write picture books sometime last year so was trying to read up on some iconic ones to get a feel of the genre. This is one of them.
Genre: Picture book.
Mille’s Marvellous Hat by Satoshi Kitamura. This book touched me a lot because it asked the child/reader to imagine. A picture book again.
Genre: Picture book.
Not a part of the list but as a footnote: Finally, I will remember 2013 as the year I re-discovered Neil Gaiman. The Sandman series did not work for me. (Yeah, I know.) But his Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere are fascinating books. It makes me want to go back and reread Coraline.

Clowning with Hamlet

After much debating about venturing out in the hottest part of the day in May in Madras, I went to see, The Company Theatre’s Hamlet The Clown Prince last Saturday (May 18th). Madras does not have just a summer. It has summer squared. The blinding heat time during May is locally called Agni Nakshatram or the fire star. This year the days under the fire star are from May 4th to 28th. Hamlet was recommended by a good friend of mine who happens to be a playwright herself. My love of theatre conquered the 40 degree heat that was burning Madras. So off I went to see the famous Rajat Kapoor play at 3:30 pm in the afternoon at Music Academy.

I had some idea about the clown trope having seen Rajat Kapoor’s C for Clown many moons ago at IIT, Madras. Since I was reading experimental theatre then, I totally loved the way the play spilled over the proscenium.  Then, I saw Nothing Like Lear last year, which was again Kapoor bringing Shakespeare, the Clown, and a story from Bombay all in one play. So I knew what to expect. But what I didn’t know was how effective it was going to be.

The play opens with a frame narrative, a group of off-duty clowns have gathered together to decide what their next production is going to be. They start off with a comic introduction where each clown is introduced and their signature act hinted at. One of the clowns, Soso, is missing from this picture. He is a gap that will have to be filled. Soso (the outstanding Atul Kumar) walks in late, nearly 20 minutes in to the act and explains that the Chennai traffic and the construction of the metro are to be blamed, along with a fat lady who didn’t allow him to enter the theatre. This reference to the specific theatre went down very well with the predominately college audience. A rapport was created. (It would be interesting to see how the audience in Edinburgh or London would have reacted to this gag.) From here on, I knew that the audience would always support Soso. He was the – for want of a better word – the hero of this play. This is important because later on in the play, he displays many unhero-like characteristics and yet his stature as the hero will not be challenged. All this before even Hamlet has been mentioned.

It is – unsurprisingly – Soso’s idea to stage Hamlet and to star as Hamlet in Hamlet. There is much opposition in the beginning. But the clowns give in. The reasons for the opposition become clear as the play moves on. Nemo (the nuanced Namit Dass) who plays Polonius has his eye on the main role of Hamlet. At certain parts in the pay, he prompts Hamlet and sometimes even says his lines for him, much to Soso’s annoyance. Buzo (the delightful Puja Swarup) one of the female clowns, who also plays Gertrude, was at one point in time romantically involved with Soso, has her own problems with Soso. At one time, Soso says, “She is always bringing the bedroom onto the stage!” This also impinges on the Hamlet that they are trying to stage. The other female clown Fifi (the vulnerable Rachel D’Souza) who also plays Ophelia has no definitive agenda of her own but she is trying to curry favor with the director Popo by pointing out Soso’s ironic messages to the audience. Fido (the entertaining Neil Bhoopalam) is like the anarchic force in the play constantly breaking out into sudden references to popular culture (The Dark Knight, Ghost Busters, Michael Jackson). At other times, he is either lost in his own world thinking about his blue egg, or his dancing, or coming up with one-liners that provide comic relief. It sounds odd that one needs comic relief in a play about clowns. However, the drama between the clowns playing themselves was so intense that a comic relief was required. The director is Popo (the able Sujay Saple) who also plays the role of Laertes and is appropriately seen with a stick to signify his director status. Soso is always challenging Popo’s authority. So do the other cast members but not as much as Soso. This pushes Popo to always be in damage-control mode, cutting short long clown gags, longer asides, and bringing the clowns back on track from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet.

Soso breaks off from his comic persona from time to time to his serious Hamlet persona. Almost always that took me by surprise: as if the line between comedy and tragedy is not very well defined. The actors switched from playing themselves to playing the characters in Hamlet with such fluidity and pace that it was at times a bit overwhelming. But that said, this switch was rather dexterous and quite difficult to pull off.

Hamlet – almost anyone would agree – is not particularly suited for the comic stage. But I think the director wanted to bring his two favourite ideas together. It was an unexpectedly fruitful juxtaposition. Comedy has been described as the gap between what is expected and what is/happens. Rajat Kapoor and his able actors, specifically Atul Kumar who played Soso/Hamlet sought to explore this gap. The fact that an opposition (a tragedy) can be fit into it is to their credit.

The most obviously different part of the play was its language. (Even the ticket declared that it was a play in English and Gibberish.) Using Gibberish adds a certain dimension to the play. It decenters language and breaks it up so that new ideas or combinations burst forth. In this, the play excelled.  However, this Gibberish sounded either like faux Italian (in Soso’s case) or faux French (in Buzo’s case). Either way, there was not difficulty in understanding what the characters were trying to say. I wonder how Gibberish Hindi or Tamil or Gujarati will sound.  Is it easier to speak Gibberish Italian or Gibberish French rather than it is to speak an Indian equivalent? I am tempted to talk about the politics of language at this point but I doubt that was the intent at all. So I will let that be.

The trope of the clown itself is a non-Indian concept. At least the image of the clown is: the one that pops up in my mind when I say the word, clown. I doubt if it would work in an Indian setup. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong.) You could argue that the court jester – like say Tenali Raman – was very much an integral part of Indian history and one could possibly take inspiration from him. However, the court jester is closer to Shakespeare’s fool than the modern-day clown. I think Rajat Kapoor does not go that far back for inspiration.  He is perhaps influenced by clown-like figures of Charlie Chaplin and Raj Kapoor, who himself channeled Chaplin. You can say Rajat Kapoor is in good company. Picasso also went through a clown period himself. Many of his paintings of the Rose period focused on circus performers and clowns. It’s possibly the transgressive quality of the clown that appeals to an artist. The clown is never at the centre but always at the periphery. The point of view from the periphery is always closer to the truth.

Hamlet the Clown Prince is worth the watch – maybe more than once – because of its exploration of a well-known trope, excellent acting, and experimental ideas.

Poetry with John Burnside

I am fresh from a poetry session with the acclaimed poet John Burnside at the British Council, Chennai. I cannot believe my luck that he stopped over on the way to Jaipur Literary Festival. The workshop had a long and serious name: Introduction to Writing Poetry – Uses of Form in Contemporary Poetry. But it  turned out to be a free-wheeling discussion. What a fun evening! We (the workshop participants) even got a wing-side view of his forthcoming collection of poems.

He opened my mind to two ideas that I hadn’t even considered. I have written haikus according to the syllabic count and number of lines. But according to Burnside, it is not possible to write a haiku. I almost drew my breath as he said this. It was like a door closing on a form that I might have explored some more. He meant that it was not possible to write a haiku in the way that it was originally intended by the Japanese. The haiku was originally a few lines that accompanied a picture. The layered meanings that Japanese words had could not be replicated in English. For example: the word for “duck” would indicate the season in which the duck would appear. So just by saying “duck” in Japanese, the season and maybe even the time of the day could be indicated. But in English, it’s just “duck”. For all you know, it could be the duck on your plate! Similarly, the case of leaves that fall from a tree. Burnside then regaled us with an anecdote from his student days when he roomed with a Japanese student who used to recite Japanese haikus while taking a walk. He made a pact with him, to teach him English in return for the explanation for the haiku that he recited that day. The explanation for the haiku took longer than the English lesson! This was to illustrate how difficult it was to understand the way a haiku was meant to be written. This travelling poetic form came to English via the Americans and therefore, it was interpreted in a particular way and that is how the haiku continues to be written in English.

Which brings me to the second idea that Burnside turned my attention to. As a poet I had to consider the way a poetic form came to the language that I write in. The route it took. That would explain the way it shaped itself. His first example was the sonnet. From its Moorish beginnings via the Spanish, the Italian, and Shakespeare. (Here I was quite confident that it was the Italians!) I had never considered this particular point. I considered the sonnet  a highly stylised form which I might not even venture into. He however made the sonnet quite elastic. He stressed that the poem should choose the form and this form need not stick to the syllabic/metric formula. He practiced it in his poems. To disguise the form a bit or if working with the form, to change it a bit were two salient points that I took away from this workshop.

As late afternoon turned to evening, we also explored the pantoum using a yet-to-be published Burnside poem as an example. The “hedged in” (his words) feeling that the pantoum has with its repetitions, the “claustrophobic atmosphere” (his words again) it generates and how to use this to the advantage of the poem dependent, of course, on the subject. It was a light evening of several laughs, some coffee, and a few poems. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

PS: A poet is always know by the poems he writes. If you are curious, here are two poems by Burnside: Amor Vincit Omnia and The Good Neighbour. These are already published poems not the ones we discussed at the workshop. The copyright rests with the poet.

PPS: Thank you Anupama for bringing my attention to this workshop.

A new beginning

A friend of mine (you know who you are) had pointed out to me once that she found the font size rather small on my blog to read. Hence, I don’t think she even reads my blog. Increasing the font size alone was not the solution.  The balance of the pages would be skewed if I were to do so. Therefore, the whole look had to be changed. I have always admired the Thought Catalog theme with its big fonts, content focus, clean and minimalist look. Since I was thinking of changing the theme of this blog, I was quite excited to see that one of the recently released WordPress blog themes, Book Lite, mimicked the Thought Catalog theme in many ways. I had to have it. Plus, it’s New Year, why not a new theme to start it off?

Obviously changing requires some adjusting so you may not find the same items in their regular places. All the items that were on the right sidebar earlier now can be found at the bottom of the homepage. A couple of items like the contact ID, Disclaimer, Plagiarism Alert and CC License have been moved (appropriately, I think) to the About Me page.

I have removed two pages (on my My Pages list) which I thought was not adding value anymore: On Dreams and On Food. I may choose to bring them back if I have anything substantial to say on those two topics in the future.

Other than that, nothing has changed in this blog. I will still be talking about what interests me in 2013. So, do continue to visit. Oh, what do you think of the whole new look?

Notes on Books: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Very few completely epistolary novels in the contemporary scenario have made an impact. I’d like to think it’s because this traditional form is not pervasively present in our lives today. After all, no one writes letters anymore; would anyone read books that are a bunch of letters? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I am happy to say, is an exception.

Set during World War II, the plot of the book centers around Juliet Ashton, the writer and columnist who discovers a literary society with an amusing name on the Guernsey Islands, which lie on the English Channel. Ashton was in search for material for her column and she finds it when corresponding with the members of this society. Entwined in the ups and downs of her professional life is her personal life. Ashton starts a correspondence but is soon so attached to the members of the literary club that she visits the island for a longer book-length project. All the developments are shown through letters and telegrams, when communication is urgent. As the letters go back and forth, Mary Ann Shaffer’s wit and intelligence sparkles through the twenty odd characters whose voices pepper the book. This is a charming book that reminds me a lot of Eva Ibbotson’s A Song for Summer, another warm and sparkling book set during the Second World War. Definitely and without any sense of irony, this is a feel-good book that explores how to survive a war in the face of material and (for the want of a better word) moral deprivation. However, that does not mean it shies away from the complexity of war. Yet, a certain sense of innocence clings to this book even when discussing the tortures of concentration camps. It’s also a love story on many levels – between people as well as people and their books. Some of the best passages deal with what books mean to the members of the literary society, also referred to as the Islanders. The poetry of their feelings comes through even though they might not deal with literature on a professional or even daily basis. It’s a love letter to literature.

We get to know in the Afterword that Shaffer’s niece Annie Barrows had taken over when Shaffer’s ill health prevents her from completing the book. However, that doesn’t impact the text adversely: the voices of characters have a unity that sets them together and a diversity that differentiates them. It is an accomplishment that the two authors should be proud of. There is one grievance that I have: I would have liked a small introduction and a cast of characters right at the beginning of the book maybe in a Foreword or Introduction to keep track of the long list of characters at least till the reader gets used to them. Once you get the hang of who’s writing to whom, it’s utterly enjoyable.

A New Year Letter

Dear Readers,

Wish you a very happy, fantastic, happening New Year! Hope you had a good Christmas and really fun New Year party to start off the year. I curled up with a book and welcomed 2013 reading Peter Barry’s seminal book on the birth and evolution of literary theory. It was such fun. I also wrote an exam trying to qualify myself further. I will tell all about it later. I haven’t been regular with blogging because of various reasons. All of which I will spare you. I cannot say things will be any different in 2013 but I try. I cannot believe it is 2013. It sounds way more futuristic than 2012 or its previous years. Talking about previous years, this blog’s birthday was in December. I started the blog in 2004, so that makes it 8 years of blogging with gaps. It’s been an adventurous journey so far.

So what have you been doing/clicking/reading/writing? I’d love to know.

With love,


PS: The reason I have taken to the epistolary style is because I have been reading an epistolary novel. More about that in the next post.


Reading Carson McCullers

It’s early days yet. I had to put this down before I lose the thread. I just started reading the Carson McCullers novel The Member of the Wedding.  It’s like J.D Salinger (specifically The Catcher in the Rye) meets Haruki Murakami (specifically Norwegian Wood) and you’d want to be there when that happens.

What reminds me of Murakami is the inaction bit. There is no Murakamiesque surrealism though. The protagonist Frankie does almost nothing. She moves between confined spaces and the largest space (and also where the most action takes place) is in her head. Salinger’s legacy I could glimpse from the preoccupation with the adolescent world and the movement of the individual from the closed world of childhood to the open world of adulthood. Even though the focus reminds me of Salinger, the treatment is pure McCullers. Where it differs from Salinger is in the expanse of the focus. McCullers has a narrower focus but the description, the intricate and delicate description keep our attention riveted to this narrow focus. Salinger’s spreads his focus wider but we don’t miss that at all here. And therein lies the talent of Carson McCullers.

(This is how I got this book and also a bit of the history I have with it. Now, you will know why there is a percentage sticker defacing the front cover of the book.)

Carson McCullers

It’s Tumblr time

I have been spending an inordinately large amount of time on my tumblr blog. No, tumblr is not only the preserve of the chronically teenage or attention deficient person. There are some incredible blogs of independent bookstores and publishing houses like Strand Books, The Paris Review, WW Norton (can you imagine–Norton on tumblr!), Picador, LA Review of Books, Random House,and Penguin; book and reading centric blogs like Underground New York Public Library and Awesome People Reading. I follow them all eagerly, feeling like a kid in a toy store (in my case that would be a bookstore). I can’t tear myself from this fun company. I felt the awakening of a familiar feeling that I haven’t felt in a long time in the blogosphere–excitement. So I spruced up my tumblr blog, dusted the corners, got new clothes and tried to be presentable. The name however remains the same. Do visit if you have the time. I assure you that you will not be disappointed.