Travels in Iyer-land

I just finished reading this lovely article by Pico Iyer, another writer that I haven’t explored but is there in the back of my mind like Paul Theroux. A has been recommending his writing to me for ages and I have consistently ignored it. Ignored is a harsh word. I’d rather say hoarded it. I have no excuse – not those piles of unread books, not the stretched days I work, definitely not the sporadic blogging, or my Book Club – to blame for not reading Video Nights in Kathmandu or his other books.

Here’s an insight that makes me realise that I’ve always known it but never really thought too much about it. It takes a writer to put together a nuance like this.

What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion.

Why suddenly Pico Iyer you might ask? He has been around for ages. Well, it started at lunch. I came across this beautiful and wise conversation between Pico Iyer and the interviewer Peter Barakan on NHK World, the TV channel from Japan (It’s a free channel in India.) They were sitting on tatami mats and talking so eloquently about the stillness in the Japanese way of life which is what drew Iyer to Japan. If I remember right, he says, ‘the stillness between words’. That blew my mind away. I decided that must start reading Iyer’s work immediately. What better way to start than to post about it first?

Sigh! And now I get back to work.

Tea and Carol Ann Duffy’s Poetry

I love the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy and having made a u-turn towards tea from coffee, I thought what can be better than a poem about tea. I have at least 5 types of tea bags in the kitchen as I write this. (Ginger, hibiscus, lemon, Darjeeling, green and regular.) So when I found this poem tucked away in the drafts section of my email while spring cleaning my inbox, I thought I’ll post it.

Drinking I think tea leads you to introspection; coffee leads you to action. Both are required but at different times and that depends on what you need. My introspective friend, J, pays so much attention to the temperature of water before making his tea. I am no fanatic but each of those teas mentioned above seems to like a different temperature. So I have to go by that.

In literature, I found only one collection of poems on drinking tea: Ten Poems about Tea. Then there’s Marcel Proust drinking tea in Swan’s Way and thinking about Madeleine cakes. This is what tea makes you do – think! And since I don’t have a cuppa next to me at the moment, I can’t think of any other instances of tea in literature. If any strike you, do leave a comment.

Tea

by Carol Ann Duffy

I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid steams in your china cup.

Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.

I like the questions — sugar? milk? —
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.

Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say,
but it’s any tea, for you, please, any time of day,

as the women harvest the slopes,
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.

 

©Carol Ann Duffy

The Drabble

Thanks The Drabble for publishing The Flute Seller yesterday. I am so thrilled!

The Drabble_TheFluteSeller

If you are wondering what a drabble is, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

A drabble is a short work of fiction of around one hundred words in length. The purpose of the drabble is brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in a confined space.

When I first came across the word drabble, I thought of Margaret Drabble whose works I studied way back in college.

Do go and check out the other drabbles – stories, non fiction and poetry. There’s a new drabble published almost everyday.

Crocodile Dreams

Sometime mid last month, I had yet another weird dream. I don’t know anyone who has dreams like I do. I must be a psychologist’s delight! Then of course people don’t really share their dreams so I really don’t know. Again, I was puzzled by the end of it.  This is the dream.

A friend or neighbour of mine (not anyone I know in real life) has given me some food in a tiffin box. I am supposed to take it home. I get curious and open it and am shocked. It contains four baby albino crocodiles stuffed with something else. The crocodiles are floating in some yellow-ish white gravy. The neighbour also gives us a laddoo, the only vegetarian item and I cannot help eating it. I go home. My mom asks what did the neighbour give, and I reply, you won’t like it. Then I show her. I don’t remember my mom’s reaction but I am not interested in eating them. My brother says he will try and proceeds to take one.

What on earth does this dream mean? I do have a real-life neighbour who keeps sending food over. But they are snacks and sweets so nothing to be traumatised by. Also, I googled for baby albino crocodiles just to see if I have the description right. Finally, apologies to animal lovers who might be reading this.

Best Reads of 2015

Following yet another tradition and on the request of Rita, I have put down the five best reads of 2015. Technically, that’s seven best reads rather than the usual five that Rita asked. However, I am throwing in two more because I have always had a problem sticking to rules. Here they are in the order I have read them but in no particular order of preference.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

When reading Americanah I quickly got into the ‘good book zone’ mostly because it was a love story but such a political one. The long forays into African hair obviously was quite political by itself. I didn’t like central female character Ifemelu as much as I loved Obinze. Seriously, it’s like Adichie put all the ideal qualities into Obinze because I am sure no one like him exists in fiction. The one place he falters is when he marries the ‘well-fed houseplant’ (Adichie’s words, not mine) of a wife for no reason than the fact that he was dazed by his new wealth. Through the story of the two lovers (Ifemelu and Obinze), Adichie explores the vastly different post-colonial experiences in the UK and America. Finally though the houseplant and sapling are gently let go and the lovers come together to start their long awaited and much deserved life together in Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

I read Half of a Yellow Sun after Americanah. Does it matter that it was not chronological? There was a certain levity in Americanah that there was no space for in Half of a Yellow Sun. First of all, Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel set in Nigeria of the 60s at a time when the Biafran War was on. The Nigerian intellectuals wanted to create Biafra (pronounced Bee-ahfrah) and secede from Nigeria. This led to a civil war and unrest which claimed casualties on both sides. Many countries recognised Biafra but it couldn’t stand up to the military might of Nigeria.

Adichie mined the war part of the story from her own personal family history. The narrator is an outsider, a servant called Ugwu who tells the story of Olanna and Odenigbo. Both are intellectuals and are excited by the creation of this new country. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene and her boyfriend, Richard, chart another kind of journey before, during and after the war. In using twins to tell the story, perhaps Adichie is trying to say that Nigeria and Biafra are twin sisters who might not like each other but are still family. So they must tolerate each other and maybe over time even come to some sort of peace with the other.

To be honest, this book was quite adamant till around page 250 after which it started to yield its secrets and exploded. Half of a Yellow Sun is both a human story as a historical document. A must read if you want to understand politics through literature.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (fiction)

This is the first novel that left me breathless in 2015. What a brave and audacious write is Ali Smith! The story spans two different centuries and countries – 15th Century Italy and 21st Century England. The concerns are quite contemporary about the fluidity of gender, art and life. The story is narrated by two narrators: in 15th Century Italy, it is Francescho and in 21st Century George who seem to pass through both male and female identities quite easily. The most riveting part of the book is the arrangement. Half the number of copies printed by the publisher Hamish Hamilton has George’s story first and the other half has Francescho’s story first. So it’s a lottery whose story you get to read first. It’s fascinating what this means. Your perception of the novel is going to be driven by what you read first. I read George’s story first. So many levels of duality are explored through this novel. The book made me think so much that I didn’t finally write about it as I would have liked. (The same thing happened to me with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the year before last.)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (fiction)

Out of It has the distinction of getting me interested in the Palestine issue. I have struggled with understanding such an old and all pervasive issue but it has helped me a lot. You already know what I think of this novel. I am now constantly looking out for more Palestinian writers. I have started reading Raja Shehadeh’s Language of War, Language of Peace (non fiction) and Suhair Hammad’s Born Palestinian Born Black (poetry) thanks to this book.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (fiction)

I have already discussed this in a lot of detail in a separate post. Suffice it to say that it made a deep impression on me. I look forward to more books from this writer.

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction series)

What can I have to say more than what I have already put down here? I have continued to read McCall Smith after writing that post and I stand by what I wrote. I do dread what would happen if I run out of this series but since I am some distance away from such an emergency, I don’t have to worry about it right now. This series is by far the ‘lightest’ set of books I have read the past year. Light in tone that is but not light in seriousness.

Technically these books are classified as ‘crime fiction’ but that is a bit misleading. Yes, there are crimes in the book but it’s the mundane everyday kind: Think stolen office supplies rather than bank robberies. It’s more about human goodness, kindness and generosity and a certain way of life in a country in the middle of Africa.

One could argue of course that the mysteries of the human spirit does need a detective for them to be discovered. And that detective is Mma Ramotswe.

Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

I have been hearing about Beverly Naidoo about the same time as I was reading Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. So that’s quite a while back. However, getting my hands on her books did not happen. Where would I find South African YA lit so many years back? Luckily, after so many years I found a book of hers at the British Council library.

The time is 1951 to 53. Mathew and Mugo, two kids on either side of the colonial divide, forge a tenuous friendship by being thrown by circumstances to spend time together. It’s a difficult time. Not just because of complexities of race and colonialism, it’s also because this is the time of the Mau Mau revolution, the violent uprising before Keyan independence which left so many Kikuyus dead, whether innocent and not.

This is the story of an accident that involves Mathew or bwana kidogo (little master in Swahili) and Mugo the son of Kamau, the man who worked at Mathew’s Dad Grayson’s farm and stables. A small incident burns through the lives of both the boys affecting them in different ways and tearing them up within and apart from each other.

The book made a huge impression on me. I cried at the injustice of Mugo’s life. I cried for most of the second part of the book. How much injustice is there in this world! I am enraged and outraged that so many Mugos and Kamaus have had to endure the wrath of the greedy White Man. Colonialism has so much to answer for. No amount of reparations – if ever considered – can ever amend the lives scattered, lost and warped because of it.

This is my first Beverly Naidoo and she is a formidable writer. This is how YA lit should be – no easy answers, no happy ever afters, just the raw story.

A Stack of Post-its and Cats*

I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread. That’s because I had yet another weird dream.

I had been kidnapped in my dream. The kidnapper was a man. There are other people in the house where I have been taken but I get the feeling they are scared of him too. I certainly was scared. I was shown into a room which already had things in it -a bed, an almirah, a table: I realise it is someone’s home. Probably the kidnapper’s. The door to the room is never locked. I am so afraid that I don’t move from the room. He expected a ransom but none was forthcoming. (Seriously, who would pay ransom for me?) I looked around – there was a single bed with a filthy mattress. I was so scared I didn’t notice. No one spoke in the dream. Not the kidnapper or his women. At right angles to the bed is a long window.

A bit later, my mom joined me in the room. She too I think had been kidnapped but she adjusted quite easily. She touched the kidnapper’s feet which made him gloat. I was so zoned out I followed suit not knowing what was expected of me and I was scared.

Sometime later I find my brother too in the same room. He looks carefree like it’s a holiday. He walks in and sits down on a chair. I feel bad about this kidnapping situation so I try to find some reading material for my brother. I looked under the beds and tables and find cats! Yes cats which are stacked on top of each other like a brick wall or clothes in a closet. They look neat and like they are sleeping. I leave the cats alone. I do manage to find some comics for my brother to read.

I know I have to escape so I want to write a note. (When I think about this, I don’t know why I wanted paper. My post-dream analysis is that I wanted to drop it out of the window so that people can find it and read and rescue us.) So I look high and low in the same dark and dirty room. The next thing I know I am sitting on the grubby bed and a cork writing pad like the kind I used back in school for exams is in front of me and some comics too. But no paper. Suddenly I realise someone is peeping from the door held ajar. It’s a woman. She is silent and expressionless and wearing a grimy sari. She holds out a stack of opened post-its – a thin stack and narrow yellow post-its – like the ones I use to mark pages and quotes in books. I accept it gratefully. I was looking for a bigger piece of paper but this is still paper. So I take it and try to hide it under the cork writing pad. When I look up, she is shaking her head: no. It hits me that it will be found and I’d be in trouble. She is warning me. I take it out and tuck it into my bra. (In hindsight, so close to my heart.) She nods her head: yes, that is a safe place. I wonder how much I would sweat into the post-its and then wouldn’t be able to write on them.

That’s all I remember of the dream. I wake up full of dread.

_________________________________________________

*Note for grammar Nazis: The title is not a misplaced modifier as you will know after reading the post.

Books Read in 2015

Following the tradition of listing books read in 2014, here is what I read all of last year. The list with the book covers is available on my Goodreads page. There seems to be a pattern and I was swinging wildly between two extremes – children’s/YA fiction and serious literary fiction – all year. There is no middle ground. I have neglected poetry a lot so I will make that up this year. Fiction – serious literary TLS kind of books – seems to have dominated my list. I pushed myself to finish 50 books because of the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The last book was finished on the afternoon of December 31st. I might not have read so many books had it not been for it. In 2013 I aimed for 100 and fell short at 77. I learned how many I can manage in a year. So, in reverse order of my reading, here is the list of books read in 2015. What did you read in 2015?

Burn my Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

Eating Air by Pauline Melville (Fiction)

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (Memoir in verse)

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Fiction)

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Fiction)

The Saturday Night School of Beauty by Marsha Mehran (Fiction)

Under the Weather edited by Tony Bradman (YA short stories)

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula (YA fiction)

Miranda Road by Heather Reyes (Fiction)

The Beaten Track by Sarah Menkedick (Travelogue)

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams (YA fiction)

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore (Fiction)

Miyoko & Other Stories by Michelle Tudor (Short stories)

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Fiction)

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Children’s fiction)

The White Giraffe/Dolphin Song by Lauren St.John (YA fiction)

The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La (Fiction)

The French Confection by Anthony Horowitz (Children’s fiction)

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Levin (Fiction)

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond (YA fiction)

From Somalia with Love by Na’ima B.Robert (YA fiction)

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells & Won, #1) by Robin Stevens (YA fiction)

The Rumbling Island edited by Zai Whitaker (YA nonfiction)

La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Someone Else’s Life by Kapka Kassabova (Poetry)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (Fiction)

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson (Graphic novel)

The Heavy-Petting Zoo by Claire Pollard (Poetry)

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Fiction)

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnswami (Picture book)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Talking Bird by Swati Sengupta (Picture book)

Stone Eggs: A Story of Indian Dinosaurs by Helen Rundgren (Picture book)

Tsomo and Momo by Niveditha Subamaniam (Picture book)

Excuse me, Is this India? by Anushka Ravishankar (Picture book)

Hambreelmai’s Loom by Mamang Dai (Picture book)

The Bubblegum Tree by Alexander McCall Smith (YA fiction)

Mr. Bliss by J.R.R Tolkien (Children’s fiction)

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Fiction)

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond (Fiction)

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Short stories)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Hotel at the End of the World by Parismita Singh (Graphic novel)