Life in Gaborone

Image courtesy - stockvault

Image courtesy – stockvault

There are some writers who can mentally transform you to a time and place with their vivid descriptions, while physically you may be sitting on your comfortable couch, reading the book. Probably some part of that journey also depends on the imagination of the reader too. A saying goes that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and therefore, I believe it is indeed an accomplishment to be able to create a picture just with words.

I am getting these philosophical thoughts reading the books by Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Finished two books in two days. So you can imagine how captivating the writing must be.

My friend Y loaned me the books on Friday and I am so grateful that she did. I have not been to Africa so far but the books describe Botswana in so much detail that I feel like seeing those sights as if I am travelling myself.

The series is about a woman Mma Precious Ramotswe, opening a detective agency in Botswana, and through her, the author has shown the day to day life of people in Botswana. Their simple ways, sense of right and wrong, beliefs, social norms, relationships with one another and with neighboring countries, struggles – everything has been so well written that sitting in your living room, you can get the feel of living in Botswana. What I like about the book is that you are not made to feel right or wrong or wretched about the hardships. It’s like a matter of fact – the way one lives in his/her own country.

I have started the third one now (there are 13 in the series). Hoping to get my hands on the other ones too. So if you are looking for what to read next, give this series a try!

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World Without End

I think I can be quite proud of myself – I finished a 1111 pages book in a total of less than 24 hours (summing up the hours spent on it from Friday to Sunday). Well, for one – the story was interesting and second, I wanted to finish it so that I could do something else.
              The book is Ken Follet’s “World Without End” and is a sequel to his other famous novel “Pillars of Earth” which I haven’t read. That said, I didn’t have any problem while reading this story set in 14th century England despite not having read the first book. There were only some references to some characters from the first book and that didn’t affect the story.
                   Reading the book, my belief was reinforced that we live in a much much better world as compared to those times, but also that the basic human fibre is still the same. The politics, the passions, the fears, the weaknesses, the intelligence, the creativity, the craftiness – every possible goodness and badness of human mind, which has existed since probably when man first started roaming the earth, existed then as well as now. But that doesn’t matter for this book review :-).
                     So the story is of four children whose lives get intertwined with each other’s due to circumstances. And that intertwining also then connects the lives of their relatives, friends, neighbors and acquaintances in a variety of positive and negative ways. It’s quite interesting to read their stories – which I didn’t think for one moment to be imaginary – after all stories are inspired from real life only – isn’t it?  The plot also brings in the horror of the black plague which was at it’s peak in Europe from 1348 to 1351. It was interesting to read about the the effect that event had on the common people. Made me feel that there are only two type of people in the end – those who fear death and those who don’t. The ones who are afraid of death, are also afraid of more or less everything else in life while those who aren’t, have a strength of character which is quite a rarity.
                      I feel reading such books is a good way to get acquainted with history – there is no tediousness of learning the events and dates of those events – they are part of the narrative. And what’s best is – you also get to know the daily life of people and how the cities looked in those times – simply through the cleverly described situations in the story! I stumbled upon the reviews of the book while adding it to my Shelfari list on Saturday, and many readers compared it with the prequel and thought that it was repetitive – but for me, that wasn’t a concern because I had no reference to compare it with :-).
                             So I’d recommend it but only if you have an interest in history and anthropology (and also probably the human psyche). Let’s see when do I next get such a good book.

Stories from Old Masters

Alright..now coming back to the second thing that I wanted to write about. I got this book at the nearby bookstore, from where I have often dug out interesting stuff. This time it was – “Lajwanti and Other Stories” by Mulk Raj Anand. I’d never read anything from him before but of course knew the name! So got the book by the appeal of the author’s name. On reading the book, I could immediately place him in the same genre as Premchand. Now I have read a lot of literature from Premchand and that is really “earthy” – so much that you can smell the soil of Indian villages from the words! But..Premchand wrote in Hindi – so you need to know the language to be able to understand the nuances. Now there comes Mulk Raj Anand – who pens down the day to day lives of the Indian people – with the same sensitivity as that of Premchand – but in English! And I must say that I could feel the same vibes in his stories as those in Premchand’s – despite them not being in the language of the people about whom the stories were!
          It’s quite interesting to know that he saw the India over a period of almost 100 years! He was born in 1905 and departed in 2004. So I believe he must have seen everything imaginable and unimaginable, for looking back, this century appears to be the going forward so rapidly that it almost seems like warp speed!
I think I should read his books in the chronological sequence – to see history through the eyes of someone who has lived through it!

The Knitting Circle

Yesterday I had gone to buy some grocery – there were no fresh vegetables and I get a bit nervous on seeing the refrigerator without them. I got carried away seeing the fresh produce and later the heavy bag made me contemplate if I really needed that much!  During this “self-reflection” time my eyes wandered to a book shop and my feet took me there. I browsed through some books and a book came into my hand titled “The Knitting Circle”. I sat down and browsed through the first few pages – got hooked and bought it. Finished the whole book yesterday itself – so moving was the story. I seemed to be seeing the story instead of reading it – that’s how nicely it was written!
           It’s a story of a woman Mary who loses her five year old daughter and goes into so much grief that it seems she wouldn’t be able to get out of it. But then like a rescue angel comes Alice who owns a knitting materials shop and also teaches knitting. There is a circle of women (and a man) who knit and they meet every Wednesday at her shop. They don’t talk much but everyone has a tragedy or a struggle and knitting gives them something else to concentrate on and thus, to take them out of their miseries. The book has the story of each one of them and how they become each other’s comfort.
             A quote was written – I guess somewhere in the book – “Grief brings people together more than happiness.” I guess that might be true as they say in hindi “जाके पैर ना फटे बिवाई, ऊ का जाने पीर पराई” –   roughly translated which means “one who hasn’t seen pain himself, he wouldn’t understand someone else’s pain”. And I guess it’s also true that one gets strength from seeing someone else being strong in the face of adversity. It’s kind of infectious – in a good way.
                 Later I read the back cover of the book and it seems it’s more of an autobiographical novel by the author Ann Hood who had lost her own five year old child. 
All in all, it’s a good book and I would specially recommend it for anyone who is going through the pain of loss of someone. 

Before the French revolution

I’ve started reading a book “Passionate Minds”, which tells a story (real life) set in the time before the French revolution – that of the life of the famous Voltaire and a remarkable but forgotten woman Emilie Du Chatelet. Whatever I’ve read so far tells me that it was a very strange time – Paris was not as we know it today. The French society was rife with corruption – both moral and official. Men from the elite class was supposed to have as many affairs as they wanted (despite being married) but would be looked down upon with contempt if they worked for a living, women were mere things of convenience (married women could also have affairs, as long as they didn’t display their affections in  public), the river Seine was polluted with everything from the city, protestants could be burned alive at stake and as can be expected, there was no real scientific progress. It was unthinkable for women to be educated, most of them couldn’t even write their names. It all seems so unbelievable today but that’s how it was!
              The book tells the story of Emilie who had a mind of her own – which was quite a hateful characteristic for a woman to possess, and then if she was brighter then most men of her times – that was absolutely unacceptable! Therefore, most of the current world knows of her as the mistress of Voltaire and not as someone who postulated scientific theories, which were experimented on by other scientists much later (almost seventy years after her). It is quite interesting to learn about the times when scientific theories were being formed and people were experimenting, yet the ruling class wanted people to believe only what had been passed on from centuries.
                When people’s minds were ignited with new thoughts, then the cinders which must have been smouldering since long, finally could not be contained any more and resulted in the French revolution.
I have yet to finish the book but needed to pen down the thoughts so far. Will update this post when I finish the book.

10/03/2012
I finished the book. It surprises me that she was simply removed from any historically important credit despite having written an important book giving the explanation of Newton’s book “Principia Mathematica”. Most of the people I talked with about her, either didn’t know about her or knew her only as the mistress of Voltaire!
I’m glad that I came to know about her through this book only and not through any other passing reference otherwise I’d also have not known her full story. She was an extraordinary person who thought ahead of the times in which she was tied to live. Sometimes I wonder how would it be – to be given a choice to live in a time in which your thoughts would fit? One may not be called extraordinary then but at least there wouldn’t be any anguish – which brings another thought that probably without the stimulus that comes from suppression, probably there won’t be any higher thoughts! Oh it’s really confusing – I wish there was someone to bounce back these thoughts with! Ah now I get it – that’s the nutshell of “Passionate Minds” – two people who found one another, with whom they could discuss their thoughts!

Sita’s Ramayana

Just came across one book which has been written in a very interesting style – “Patua” drawings by the artist Moyna Chitrakar of West Bengal, interspersed with texts by a new age author Samhita Arni from Bangalore. The book is called “Sita’s Ramayana” which retells the story of Ramayana through the voice of Sita – one of the main protagonists of the oldest Indian epic.
           It’s a highly graphic book with texts being there just to let the readers not familiar with the Ramayana understand what the painting depicts.I’d rather have called the book “Sitaayana” – meaning the journey of Sita,  instead of “Sita’s Ramayana”!
                 The story of Ramyana originally was spread through storytellers. Valmiki was the first person to write down the complete story in Sanskrit – so he could be the original author – or not, nobody knows.
But what’s wonderful is that this story has been part of the Indian conscience since more than 2000 years! One can only wonder at the appeal of the narrative. Some read it as a sacred book like the Bible is read by devout Christians, some read it as one would read Homer’s Odyssey while some read it as an anthropological journal, to try and understand the structure of the society when the story would have been first written (and its present day influence). Whatever be the reason for reading it, I am doubtful if there would be anyone from India, who wouldn’t know the Ramayana – more so after there having been at least two television-serials on the epic and a few movies – one of them being a hi-tech animation movie!
                    However, nobody really attempted to tell it the way it’s told in this book. It has a local flavor of the way the story is narrated by local storytellers in West Bengal whilst keeping the main story as it is. But the most important thing is that it makes you see what Sita might have thought and felt about the various events of the story. It’s a beautifully painted and wonderfully narrated book; a perfect example of the saying – “a picture is worth a thousand words”! I could go on writing on what I have always felt and thought about the Ramayana myself, but I guess the blog would be too small a medium for that. So may be I will start writing about it in a journal. Meanwhile, if you want to know more about the authors and the making of the book, you can look here:
Making of the book

Subaranalata

I just finished reading the story of Subaranalata. It is written by Ashapurna Debi, a renowned author of Bengali literature. I got this book quite “serendipitiously” – I’d gone to check out the book sale and suddenly this book came into my hands. The series consists of the life-stories of three women – a woman – Satyavati, her daughter – Subarnalata and granddaughter – Bakul. I just remember that a very long time ago, there was this teleserial on the Indian television (Doordarshan – DD) called Pratham Pratishruti. It was based on the first book – the story of Satyavati.
I was too small at that time to understand that story. Now after finishing the story of Subarnalata, my curiosity has been piqued to know about the lives of Satyavati and Bakul as well. Let’s see when I find those two books.

The story of Subarnalata is a representation of the social & political conditions of India in the pre-independence era (somewhere in the 1920s). Ashapurna Debi has portrayed the feelings of a woman who has a mind of her own with rational thoughts (which was not encouraged in those times). How her life is decided by those around her, how she feels like a caged bird fluttering to get away from all the shackles of being a woman in those times, is very well explained. You can almost see it! All her life, she tries to do what she thinks is right and thus, gets alienated by everyone (except a few, who understand her but can’t do anything much to help her). She finally gets freedom “mukti” only by her death, which leaves her youngest daughter Bakul wondering how different her mother’s life would have been had she received whatever small things she had wished for.
A good book which gives you some food for thought…

The Books, The Accordion, 13 Gifts and The Basement

Sometimes when I think of the terrible events that took place in the 20th century, I can’t bring myself to rank them in the order of their horrendous nature. It just doesn’t make sense that man who is the self proclaimed most intelligent animal, can change himself and so many others into monsters. Over the last few years, I’ve been reading the recollections of the people who witnessed the holocaust and shudder at just the thought of such a thing happening. But reading “The Book Thief” gave me the perspective of those who were suffering just as much, even though they had the right color of the eyes needed in those times, just because their hearts were in the right place. It must be so much easier to be heartless rather than having a conscientious heart to see horrid things happening around you.
                       “The Book Thief” is a wonderful narration of Liesel’s story by “Death”, penned down for us mortals by Markus Zusak. Interestingly enough, even though my eyes have leaked on reading the recollections of people from those times, this book evoked not a single tear! May be because it was “Death” narrating it. It told about people who were just trying to survive the hard times, surrounded and tortured by those who believed in the strange ideas of their ruler. And why was it that the world had to see not one but many such maniacs who got the power to decide the fate of so many lives? Was it just something to do with the confluence of stars or was it some higher force’s way of punishing the earth people? I guess no one has the answer to such questions.
                           Coming back to the book, I was touched by the sadness in the heart of Hans Hubermann who was saved in two wars – once by a friend and the next time by a not-a-friend. His love for his foster daughter Liesel is so much about understanding and kindness, that it just breaks your heart when his own son calls him a coward for not being part of the ideology that most of the country was so eager to follow! His wife Rosa is another tortured soul who has the same goodness of heart as him, but who just has her own way of expressing it / hiding it.
            Then there’s Rudy – Liesel’s best friend, who is not afraid to show his derision for whatever he finds wrong and then being punished for it. Max – who is trying to survive, while dying a thousand deaths of shame at the thought of  putting the family, that’s protecting him, in danger. There are so many “Life” stories, seen by “Death” who had a busy time during those years. All of them with their own secrets, with their own burdens and a common burden of survival.
         Now one could say it’s a fiction while the others are real stories. But I think the stories in this book are also real. There were definitely people like these during those times – who helped the “hunted ones”. And this book shows the time from another vantage point – from that of a small girl who happened to live in those times.

Gandhi vs Lincoln

Alright..it’s taken me quite long to write about this wonderful book “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
I laid my hands on this book, quite by chance on the day that we had this talk on Gandhiji by Ramchandra Guha. A colleague had it on his table and I asked if I could borrow it.

When I started reading it, I had no inkling of where it was going. I’d heard that it was about racial discrimination in the US of 1930s but it started with the reminiscences of an eight year old girl living in Maycomb, Alabama,  who went by the name of Scout (actual name Jean Louise), whose best friend was her twelve year old elder brother Jem (Jeremy). The kids’ mother was no more and their father Atticus Finch , a very affectionate and kind man, was a lawyer. As the narrative continues, we get to know her neighborhood, their day to day lives, her father’s clients, the various means of entertainment for the two kids, her school and so on. In doing this, Harper Lee is actually building up a strong foundation for what comes next.

One summer, their father is appointed a defence lawyer for a black man named Tom who is accused of raping a white girl. So the city gets divided into two factions – one who want Tom to be punished by death and another who want a fair trial for him. Scout and Jem are heckled at school by some of their classmates as children of “nigger lover” which was meant to be derogatory. Atticus’s strong resolve and the values that he’s instilled in his children are the things that take them through the whole ordeal. Even after Atticus proves in the court with his arguments that Tom was innocent and was being framed, the jury turns a blind eye and decide upon a death sentence for Tom. (It’s pointed out in the novel that even though the jury (all whites – of course) didn’t act fairly, they deliberated for quite some time before awarding the sentence – which means that at least one member of the jury did feel that it was not justice – which was a big step in those times.)

My recommendation – read the novel to get the full picture and what happens besides what I’ve writte. It’s too good a book to be missed.

Now let me tell you what made me find it significant to get this book after having attended the lecture on Gandhiji’s work. What Gandhiji started as a social reform – bringing the downtroddens of Indian society into the mainstream – whom he named “Harijan” (People of God) – was faced with similar antagonism as what was faced by people in the US supporting the cause of giving equal rights to blacks. Even so many years after the civil war and abolition of slavery in the US, people were prejudiced against blacks. At one point Scout innocently asks her brother that why one of her teachers Miss Gates, condemns the extremities inflicted upon Jews by Hitler, but supports “teaching a lesson to the blacks” or else “next thing they think they can do is marry us!”.
In India one can see the parallel. The social reform was brought so many years back but still people have a kind of pride on belonging to the so called “upper caste”. (Probably I’d see one difference here that politicians have played this caste card many times to win the elections – they’ve never let the common people forget the differences. I won’t say that people should understand it themselves because I know that “thinking” is a very difficult thing to do. It makes you uncomfortable and question so many things around you that it’ll become almost impossible to live in a society! That’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In general, people want a simple life – it’s easy to follow the established “ways of living” in the name of “culture”, than to create your own ways which some people might even call “a deterioration of values”!
Nonetheless, I still have hope that there would always be common people who stand up for the right causes. Real heroes come out of the ordinary, rather than being catapulted from space!

Great Stories

Yesterday night I finished reading the good old classic “David Copperfield”.
I had read that story as a child, in the 6th standard – in a book belonging to the series “Great Stories in Easy English” abridged by S.E. Paces.
I loved the story of the boy who was orphaned and then adopted by his father’s aunt and who made a man out of himself through his hard work, battling all the miseries life threw in his way.
So when I started on the real book a week back, I was expecting more or less reading the same thing except may be more dialogues and more philosophical ideas. But what I had in store was much more than what I had expected.
I am so glad that I read this at a time when I was more experienced in life about the shortcomings of the human nature and to accept the characters of the story as they were without being judgemental. Bless you S.E.Paces that you didn’t tell me then so many things like – what would Steerforth do in his restlessness, what would the innocent “Little Emily” do after she said “yes” to Ham, how would the Murdstones destroy one more young woman, why would Dr. Strong and Annie suffer for so many years, what heartbreak and pain would Mr. Peggotty go through..
Had I been exposed to all that then, may be I would have judged the people but now, I could understand the “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart”, the pain of an innocent heart on having betrayed someone, the woman who loved someone all her life – even at the time when he came to her to tell her about the woman he fell in love with. The meanness of people like the Murdstones, the Heeps, the Jack Meldon versus the goodness of people like the Peggottys, Agnes, the good heart behind the weirdness of Miss Trotwood – all that was so beautifully put by that great author whom we call Dickens – that one does not feel at all that the story was set in a time so long before – it could be the story of this day and age, if you just replace the props. The human nature still has the same variety of emotions, the same old impulses, the same fallacies. You can relate to the characters – just look around yourself and you would find them in one or the other person you are acquainted with!
All in all, it was a good read. May be someday I would read it again.