Read The Wor(l)d

This is a long overdue post. On April 23rd 2015 that is last year I was asked to speak as a reader (yayyy!) on World Book Day at the British Council. I wanted to post my speech soon after but I did not feel ready to share it. Today while hunting for something else, I came across the printout of this speech and I read it again. It felt powerful. I am so happy I could write something that more than a year on has the same feel that I aimed for. That gives me hope.

Each speaker had to speak for 4 to 5 minutes before the discussion on books and reading. This is what I wrote in preparation but I forgot most of it while actually holding the mic! (Yes, that happens) I had the printout of my speech in my hand but since it was a speech so I did not want to break eye contact with the audience to look at the paper. In spite of that whatever I wanted to convey was conveyed. I know this because by the end of my speech the two or three genial young-at-heart British ladies sitting in the first row were nodding their head vigorously. 🙂

Here we go:

When I was eight, I fell sick with three different childhood illnesses in one year – mumps, measles, and chicken pox. My parents’ way of helping me heal –apart from the obvious medical attention – was to give me books. Invariably they were fairy tales. They had wonderful water colour illustrations which I can even now picture in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the 80s, so my reading rite of passage took me through Tintin, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I did not have the wonderful books that Tulika, Tara and Duckbill nowadays publish. (Something that I try to remedy at every opportunity.) I don’t need to tell you that these were all books that I could hold in my hand. Ebooks hadn’t been born back then.

I love reading so much that I studied English literature in college. I continued to read books build up my own collection as I started working and earning and therefore spending on books that I would like to read.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the last five years, the way we read a book has changed. Thanks largely to the rise of ebooks and devices which can hold them.

Even say in 2005, if anyone had told me that I would read the poems of D.H Lawrence or War and Peace on my mobile phone, I’d have laughed. Mobile phones had a different function – talking to and keeping in touch with people. Books were heavy, solid, comforting objects meant for holding and reading. They still are and I still read them. It’s just the way we interact with them now – sometimes through another device – the tablet or the mobile phone.

To illustrate, let me recount an incident. Last month, I attended the relaunch of the British Council reading club. One of the ice-breaker questions I remember vividly was ‘Have you read War and Peace?’ I hadn’t. I did find one person who did. By the end of the meeting, I suddenly wanted to read War and Peace. So what do you think I did? Rush to a library? No. Rush to the classics section of the nearest bookshop? No. Order an edition of War and Peace from an online bookshop? No. I downloaded a free edition of War and Peace (the Maud translation, btw) on Kindle app on my mobile phone. I started but haven’t finished reading it but it’s comforting to know it’s there to be read anytime. Just like a leaving a bookmark in my physical book to continue later.

One of the changes as a reader that I had to confront has been the format. Earlier I had to worry about only two formats – the hardback and the paperback. But that was easy – it was always a paperback because of its affordability. Hardback only when there was no option. I remember the latter Harry Potter books were all hardbacks. Now I have to think about the device – a reading app or Kindle; the format – PDF, epub, mobi; and compatibility – will this app open that file?; and if compatibility is a problem, how to solve it?

I will not go into the many reading apps, softwares, formats, websites available which have their own library of books. Those are external details. The book or to be specific – what it’s made of – the story that makes us learn something about ourselves or the world around us – is still unchanged. The book is not dead. Those who love reading find it through libraries, sometimes through ebooks or digital books. We humans will always need a good story. As Philip Pullman said, ‘We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them’. And as long as we need a story, books will continue to exist. How they come to us – now that may be subject to change.

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

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.

The Idyllic Charm of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

This past month has been an Alexander McCall Smith December. I just cannot seem to get enough of them. I have read other books too but I have binge read McCall Smith more.

Rita gave me a gift to be used on Amazon and I have been spending most of it on McCall Smith’s books. (Thanks Rita!) I never thought I would get addicted to these books. I have relaxed almost every rule in my rule book to read these books. For e.g.: I had a rule that if I bought books in a trilogy/quartet/series, they should all be in the same edition. I returned Half of a Yellow Sun twice because the book was a movie edition and did not ‘go’ with the other two books. Another was if a book looked old or used in any way, I would return it. But the last two McCall Smiths I got had a broken spine and one even had a British Airways ticket tucked into it. I worried about that for exactly two minutes before I opened it and started reading it.

I did not have any rules about reading books in the order they were published in the series. Each book I think once published is a single entity and while there may be connections between books, there is no compulsion to read the books in order. I read Harry Potter #3 first and then #1 and only then #2. (HP #3 is still my favourite.) After that Rowling started to write tomes and we had to go by the order since they were published quite far apart. Enough of the HP digression.

This addiction to McCall Smith is all quite surprising because I had read the first book in the series way back in 2007 and was not impressed by it. It was unlike any detective book I had read till then. I remember feeling anxious all through the book looking for familiar P.D James-like patterns. I was hugely disappointed and didn’t go near it till this year.

While I didn’t find the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (book #1) that exciting to continue, I keep following the titles that were released year on year. They had such delightful names: ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’, ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’, ‘The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.’ It was of course part McCall Smith himself since I have read this ‘44 Scotland Street’ series and they had all names that stood out as well (E.g.: ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’, ‘The Importance of Being Seven.’) However, I think partly – a big part – was Africa as well – the African twist to the English language – and McCall Smith’s tapping into it. Just like Indian writers use the Indian English language. (The other day I came across ‘Shri Ruby Saloon Gents Beauty Parlour’ and I had to smile.)

The second thing that happened was that I was reading a lot of African literature or books set in Africa since last year from serious books to YA books set in Africa. I was just drawn to them. I saw films set in Africa too: Africa United (2010) about a bunch of underprivileged kids travelling to attend the Football World Cup in South Africa; and The Constant Gardner (2005) which was technically a spy thriller set in Africa; and a few I don’t remember since I forgot to note them down. You could say I was in an Africa frame of mind.

So when I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, I had to read another book connected to Africa. However, it was during the Chennai Floods, and while I had a lot of unread books, I didn’t have too many Africa-themed books. While watching gray gloomy days turn into rain-stuffy nights, I felt so restless and helpless that I started reading ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’ (#10), a book I had picked up idly from the library. I was hooked.

After ‘Tea Time’, I had a vague recollection of having picked up some of these No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books during the Book fair held in January 2015. I got them out and read them in whatever order possible. So, I read ‘Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party’ (#12) and ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’ (#6) back to back. I rearranged the events in my head.

Having finished whatever I had in stock, I turned to Amazon. I was finishing them at the rate of one book a day so I need more for my fix. I next read ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ (#5) and ‘Blue Shoes and Happiness’ (#7) in my frail attempt at chronology. Then I gave up and read ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’ (#8) and ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ (#4). By now, Amazon it seems has caught up with me. They have increased the prices and I’d rather wait a bit before ordering from them again since I will ordering more than one or two books.

I have seen when things get too much in life, I turn to Alexander McCall Smith. I saw that with La’s Orchestra and now these books. Of course, finding the sun shining and warm in the book was also a consolation since it was invisible for nearly a month or peeped shyly from behind the clouds. Mostly what I really enjoyed was the humour: I was laughing my head off on probably every page.

It’s so reassuring to come back to Precious Ramotswe and her Watson Grace Makutsi as they solve cases usually based on good sense and intuition. Completing the picture is Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé and later husband and also the ‘best mechanic in the whole of Botswana’ Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, whose apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, are always getting themselves in trouble. Not to speak of Mma Makutsi’s frictions with Charlie and Fanwell. We also follow Mma Makutsi as she finds love in the arms of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti, the owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop and confronts her nemesis in the vilest violet in the whole of Botswana, Violet Sephotho who’s only got 50 percent in her final exams at the esteemed Botswana Secretarial College but who can make Mma Makutsi’s life 100 percent hell. Other characters like the irritating and endearing Mma Potokwani, the matron of the Orphan Farm, who’d do anything to get a freebie for the orphans, Dr. and Mrs. Moffat and, a late entrant, the gentle Mr. Polopetsi add to the general goings on at the shared premises of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The actual drama does not lie so much in the cases that Mma Ramotswe is asked to solve as in the lives of these characters. They are just brilliant.

How come I had missed all of this? How did I come to this series or it came to me so late? I just can’t figure it out. I know we all change but did I change so much since 2007 that what was once boring is so rich and wonderful now? It is a mystery that only Mma Ramotswe can solve.

I have seen the Anthony Minghella-directed TV series based on these books because M used to talk about it. Though I found it a bit devoid of colour – African colours are not pastels by any stretch of the imagination – I enjoyed the series a lot.

Though I haven’t finished reading all the books in the series, it so heartening to know there are more out there. So in 2016, I know what I have to read.

‘Relearning the properties of light’

That’s a line from the poem I recently came across and it’s stuck with me. I have been relearning many things. Travelling does that to you. I have been away for a short time but it feels like my compass of understanding has shifted a bit. I’d probably need to examine that idea properly before I commit to more here.

In the meantime, the young poet whose lines stayed with me is Aisling Fahey. Here are two extracts from her poems. I am trying to track her work down. So far she seems rather elusive. She is a spoken word artist, which means finding her work in writing will be difficult. I just love the way she plays with words.

Cab Rides At Dawn (an extract)

by Aisling Fahey

In the place where dawn breaks continuously,

I am relearning the properties of light.

I used to go hunting for stars on my aunt’s farm,

come back with them between my teeth

like the flesh of an exotic fruit.

We dont have these in the city, I’d say,

swallowing them until they settled in my belly,

before exploding, making me shine outward.

I confess more to strangers than to friends.

I am discussing Poetry and God in a cab
with a driver from Bulgaria.

If I recorded my conversations with cab drivers

I think I’d be closer to my dreams.

I always ask them where is home 

as they drive me to a place that is meant to be mine.

Foreign Bodies (an extract)

by Aisling Fahey

When a stranger pronounces my name right

I want to cut our ears off,

dig for other sounds we share.

There are names I cannot pronounce.
Each time, my tongue becomes a guilty weight,
I score a tally on my thigh
of all the countries I have not been to.

We love what is foreign
because it reminds us of ourselves.

III.

My face is my parents’ homeland,

sometimes they look at it and cry

for all the things they’ve lost,

their lost things crawl under my skin,
look, there is the river we never did swim in,
I don’t know which one of them spots it,
the vein at my temple,
but by the time they turn around
the other one has long gone.

Entombed in my face is what they built together,
when they were in the business
of making love and lives
in foreign lands.

(The copyright for the poems/extracts rests with the poet.)

Saying no to reading favours

So I attend this book club at a library that I frequent. After a few meetings, one old man started pestering me to read a book he had written.

They are all old men there. Sometimes I think there are no young men left in the city. At least no young men who read. A handful of people land up at the book club most of whom are there because they are retired. And exactly two women including me. Where are the women who read as well?

You could ask me what am I doing there. Well, about 90% of time, I am conducting it. By that I mean come up with discussion questions and host the session. It’s not that difficult.

Anyway too polite to refuse, I agreed. And immediately regretted it. I had no idea how many pages that book had. I warned him that if I don’t like it I will be honest. He nodded his head vigorously. Right away, I knew I wouldn’t like the book. Thankfully, I got only one chapter to read. I discovered that he had illustrated it too! Well, I told him exactly what I thought of that chapter. I didn’t like it. There was such forced humour and puns without any effort at the craft. Puns, I am sure you’d have heard, are the lowest form of wit. Imagine if there are only puns in a chapter. Of course, I softened it a bit. I didn’t want the old man having a heart attack right there.

I ended the review with a disclaimer that I usually give for anything I review: ‘Feel free to ignore what I said and go with your instinct’. He replied without batting an eyelid, ‘Yes, I intend to do exactly that.’ What the eff? Then why waste my time?

This is the last time I am doing a stranger a favour. I don’t mind reading books of friends because (a) I know them (b) I care about them (c) I enjoy reading what they write because we think alike but strangers are a different species. I’ve made up my mind: I will not be reading books of anyone whom I have just met.