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I discovered ‘Crescendo‘ by Amy Weiss accidentally in the bookshop while I was browsing there a few weeks back. I tried putting it back but the description on the back cover pulled me and I couldn’t resist it. Did a long readathon yesterday and finished reading it.

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Crescendo‘ is a story of love, loss, grief and love regained. The main character is an unnamed woman who is married and she and her husband love each other very much. She is also pregnant, which adds to their happiness. Of course, this kind of idyllic beginning always portends something dark. And disaster arrives soon and the woman’s husband and unborn baby are taken away. The woman grieves for them. She has a mare to keep her company. Then one day she leaves her place with her mare, and goes on a long journey. On her journey she meets interesting and wise people who share their wisdom with her, as she tries to understand life, love, loss, death and whether there is meaning to all this.

‘Crescendo’ is a beautiful book. It is like a fairytale for grownups or like a spiritual fable The first three chapters which are about love, loss and grief were incredibly beautiful. There were beautiful descriptions and images in every page and Amy Weiss’ soft prose was an absolute delight to read. It is not a book that you read fast like a mystery or a thriller, but it is a book that you read slowly and linger on every sentence, paragraph and page. After three chapters, the book changes a little bit. An old man makes his appearance, as he normally does in a fable like this, and shares his spiritual wisdom. It is still beautiful and there are many beautiful passages, but it has a prescriptive quality and depending on one’s world view, one might agree with it or not. If you are a spiritual person, you will love it. The quest that the main character goes through resembles the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, though in this case, it is the reverse of that, because the Eurydice of this book goes in search of Orpheus. There are also references in the book to String theory, Many worlds theory, Big Bang theory, Theory of Evolution and other such interesting things. Some of them are easy to spot while others are subtly and deeply embedded in the story. Amy Weiss follows the golden rule, ‘show-don’t-tell’, pretty well. There is even an origin-of-the-universe myth which bears an oriental Hinduism flavour to it. The ending of the story is interesting – it touches on the non-linear, circular aspect of time and has a James Joycean flavour to it.

One of the beautiful things I loved about the book was the structure of the book. Each chapter is titled after a musical concept related to musical theory, technique and form. There is something in that chapter (or sometimes even the whole chapter) related to that particular musical concept. And as our heroine goes through her quest in life, we see it through musical eyes, and the whole book feels like the story of a symphony – how a symphony is born and takes shape with beautiful notes which after some interesting experiments fall into the right places to form beautiful melodies and how this symphony evolves and becomes the complex musical being it is meant to be and how it is unfurled, in the end, in all its musical glory. It is incredibly beautiful to read and experience.

I loved ‘Crescendo‘. Amy Weiss follows in the long hallowed tradition of authors like Kahlil Gibran, Richard Bach, Robert Pirsig, Paulo Coelho and Mitch Albom, and has written a beautiful spiritual fable, a fairytale for grownups, which addresses all the big questions in it – love, loss, longing, grief, the meaning of life, the true nature of time, the deep bond between humans and animals. Amy Weiss’ soft prose is beautiful and lyrical and luminous and a delight to read. The book can be read for that alone. One of the reviewers said this about the book, a passage which I absolutely loved – “Crescendo is a lyrical travel tale, a myth, a map, a parable – all of these and more. Amy Weiss has the skill of a poet, the dramatic flair of a storyteller, and the heart of a mystic. This little book is lit from within – lit with intelligence, spirit, hope, and mystery. Weiss weaves a spell that caught me in its luminous threads from the first word to the last. I feel expanded having gone on the journey of Crescendo.” If you like spiritual fables and fairytales for grownups, you will like this.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

      “That’s much too sad,” he says. “Sing me a love song instead.”
      As if every word she speaks is not a love song. As if there is not a love song in the way she looks at him, in his hands creating curls in her hair, in the touch of her cheek against his. A love song that has begun to form in her belly and that will, in due time, swell inside it. As if, each time he gazes at her, he is not sight-reading the music of her face. It is how they communicate, in that language of silence and sound. In the evenings they play together in the barn, where her harp tells of the quiet, naked things that hide within her heart, and his guitar shares secrets he did not know he had. They talk late into the night, their conversations becoming lullabies that send the mare, sleeping nearby, into dreams filled with desire and stallions and God.

      Without stopping, she leans against an oak, unaware that it is listening. Though the oak is a strong, stoic type, it is deeply moved by the woman and the gentleness with which she cradles the harp. It is mesmerized by the strange spell her hands cast over the wood : transforming a tree into melody, making it sing. It yearns to feel her fingers brush against its own body, to hear the sound she could coax from its silence. Leaves fall from its branches, flutter around her, surround her in a sea of longing. The cardinals and starlings perched in its hollows cock their heads and stare. They have never known the oak to cry; who has seen their house shed tears? Their songs are also made of light – a different one, a gilded one, which erupts from their little bird bodies when they can no longer contain it’s force – yet they are unfamiliar with sorrow. Only the mourning dove knows it’s dreary refrain.

A book belongs inside and beyond time and space. A reader can dip into its pages and swim in its words, put it down, walk away, come back to it years later, come back to it even after its author has died. It alters the consciousness and the heart, yet its effects do not varnish when its cover is closed, when it is returned to the shelf, when its events are purely fictional and never physical. The book itself may be destroyed, its words erased or struck from the page – but not from the reader. The material world is the same. Reality can disperse with the wave of the old man’s hand, the illumination of the woman’s mind. The medium comes and goes. The insight remains.

      “To become louder, to become quieter, to discover the strength in the softness : these are means of expression in music, and they are what move the listener. Beauty is born from the dynamics. Power has its own dynamics, and it too can be played both ‘forte‘ and ‘pianissimo possibile‘, as soft as possible.”
      “Soft power?”
      “Yes, like a butterfly. No one expects it to be a firecracker. It wouldn’t be a butterfly if it were, and it would devastate the flowers upon which it lands. Nevertheless, the power inherent inside it – to accept the dark days, knowing that they are when transformation occurs; to honor the time it takes for one’s wings to dry; to slough off the weight of its past and fly, when all its life it has known only to crawl – is far more explosive than any firecracker. Soft can be so much stronger than hard.”

Have you read Amy Weiss‘ ‘Crescendo‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Moupia Basu‘s book ‘Khoka‘ for a while, ever since I discovered it. Yesterday, I took it and finished reading it in one sitting.

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Khoka‘ is the story of two boys who lived in two different times. One boy is from today’s contemporary times. He is intelligent and smart but sometimes he is upset and it shows in his behaviour. To make him happy, his mother takes out an old diary and reads stories from it to him. Sometimes she gives the diary to him and he reads the stories to her. The diary contains stories about a boy called Khoka who lived more than seventy years back. The book then goes back and forth from the present to the past, but mostly it stays in the past as we learn more about Khoka and his life and times.

I loved Khoka’s story. It takes one to the small town India of a different era, when people lived in joint families, when children went out and played in the streets, went to the nearby fields and mountains and forests, plucked fruit from the trees and had fun and enjoyed life in a very different way, how strangers helped each other, how life wasn’t the meticulously planned thing that it is today. If you have lived that life or seen that life in close quarters, this book will make your heart delight with pleasure, it will make you nostalgic. I loved reading about Khoka’s life and the adventures he had. The book read like a collection of anecdotes rather than as one continuous narrative. This gives a realistic feel to the book – it makes us think that these events actually happened. Reading the book makes us feel like we are talking to our parents or uncle or aunt or a relative about old times. It is like a beautiful conversation on a summer evening. In addition to describing small-town India of the time, the books also weaves in stories about the independence movement – about how ordinary people felt about it, reacted to it, participated in it. I loved reading that part of the book. The book has beautiful descriptions of the forest, trees and wildlife. The book also has beautiful mentions of food – when I read about how Khoka and his friends were sitting in a hut and eating rice with fish curry and brinjal fry, it made me want to go back in time to that hut to try that delicious food. There are also beautiful line drawings throughout the book which illustrate all the major scenes and stories.

I loved ‘Khoka‘. If you are a child like me and are nostalgic about the bygone era, you will like it too. It is a great gift for children at home or for your young nephews and nieces.

Have you read ‘Khoka‘? What do you think about it?

When I was at the bookshop last weekend, I saw this gorgeous edition of Kalidasa’sMeghadutam‘. I couldn’t resist it. I picked it up to read a couple of days back and finished reading it yesterday.

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The story told in ‘Meghadutam‘ is famous and familiar to most of us. A yaksha, who serves under Kubera, the god of wealth, is banished from his home for a year, for failing in his duty. He misses his wife and yearns for her company and pines for her. Then one day he sees a dark cloud, a rain-bearing cloud, hovering nearby. He talks to the cloud and asks it to be his messenger and take his message to his beloved. Then he proceeds to describe the potential journey that this cloud will have to make, the distractions it will have on the way, and the message that it has to give his beloved, when it reaches the destination.

The book has two parts. The first part describes the potential journey the cloud has to make – through forests, over mountains and rivers, across cities and villages, passing by people who are rich and poor. While describing every scene, the yaksha tells the cloud what it can and cannot do, what it should and shouldn’t do, the distractions it will have and how to avoid them and the beautiful scenes and pleasures that it will encounter and how to enjoy them. There are beautiful descriptions of flowers and mountains and rivers and lakes throughout this part of the book. I loved the names of all these, especially the exotic flowers and what was special about each of them. And there are also beautiful, vivid descriptions of legendary cities of eras gone by. There are also beautiful insights strewn throughout the poem like beautiful pearls, and sometimes a verse ends with a beautiful question which makes us stop and think. Like this one :

Is it not better that a request be rejected by the virtuous
      than fulfilled by the weak?

And this one :

Don’t those who set out on futile ventures end up as
      targets of others’ disdain?

The book is filled with beautiful descriptions, lush imagery and brilliant metaphors. And it was beautifully sensual in many places. Which was totally unexpected. I remember many years back when someone asked the Tamil historical writer Sandilyan why he used too much of ‘Shringar Ras’ in his story, he replied that he didn’t write even  one hundredth of what Valmiki or Kalidasa or Kamban or Shakespeare or Keats did. I thought he was just trying to give a good reply to the question, but after reading this book, I know he was telling the truth. Kalidasa deploys Shringar Ras extensively and it is beautiful and sensual and luscious and rich and a pleasure to read. But it is definitely not for children.

In the second part of the book, the yaksha tells the cloud what it should do after it finds his beloved. The second part of the book is a big contrast to the first part, because while the first part is about the journey and the beautiful scenes and the excitement associated with them – it is about the outer world and its breadth – the second part of the book is about the heart and its yearning and its longing – it is about the inner world and its depth. In this second part, the yaksha describes how his wife will be pining for him and how she will be heartbroken in his absence. It is beautiful and moving and filled with love, yearning and longing. I loved both the parts of the book, but I loved the second part more – the desires and the longings of the heart have always appealed to me more. When the yaksha says in his message :

And then, my true one, as the wind
      drifts south, I run to
Embrace it, believing that it caressed your body
      before coming to me.

our heart pines alongwith his. It also made me think of Chiang Che-kin’s classic Chinese poem ‘Watching the Moon‘.

My beloved knows
That I watch thee, O moon,
And when thy beams caress her,
Our separation is less cruel.

When the yaksha says :

Can the long hours of the night collapse
      into a single second?
Can the pleasures of a mild summer day
      last all season?
Listen, my love, for my mind entertains
      such impossibilities
Without solace, just as I burn and ache
      over our disunion.

our heart aches alongwith his. It also made me remember William Blake’s famous lines :

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

I loved ‘Meghadutam‘. It is a beautiful poem of love, loss, longing and hopefully of regaining. There have been many famous cloud messenger poems since, (including one of my favourites by the Tamil poet Kannadasan, in which a young man asks the cloud to tell his beloved that though he might be the hero of the princess’ epic poem, he is actually one of the thousands of slaves in the country), Kalidasa’s original is the first and probably the best. The edition I read has a beautiful introduction by the translator in which he talks about the pleasures and challenges of the art of translation, and a wonderful glossary which describes all the important words and names in the poem, including the exotic flowers, mountains, rivers and lakes. And isn’t that cover gorgeous?

I am glad that I finally read my first Kalidasa poem. I can’t wait to read more.

Have you read Kalidasa’sMeghadutam‘? What do you think about it?

Ghachar Ghochar‘ tells the story of a  middle class joint family. They live in Bangalore. The story starts with the narrator spending his day at a place called Coffee House, drinking a cup of coffee. The narrator describes Coffee House, the customers there, the random things that happen to strangers and also his favourite waiter Vincent. It is all beautiful and calm and serene till the narrator starts talking about his family – his parents, his uncle (his dad’s younger brother), his elder sister who is separated from her husband, and his wife. The narrator describes the verbal sparring which goes on at home every morning, which sounds innocent to an outsider but which is filled with hurt and emotional violence for the family members. From there the narrator talks about his past during which his family lived a lower middle class life and describes how things changed across time to take them to where they are today. Well, that is all I can tell you about the story 🙂 You should read the book to find out more.

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I loved the descriptions in the book about the middle class life. It brought back that era of the ’80s and before India so vividly – a time when it was hard to get a job, resources were scarce, all houses looked the same and had minimal furniture, individual possessions were few, when it was hard to keep secrets from your family, when family members counted every paisa, when middle class people rarely ate out, when families ate together everyday, when treats like akki-rotti (I so love that!) were rare and celebrated, when the only kind of marriage was of the arranged variety, when falling in love happened only in movies, when doing unconventional stuff (believing in a religion different from that of your parents, defying your elders, trying to become a writer or a social worker or a sportsperson etc.) was regarded with suspicion and frowned upon, when people treasured the small things in life, when buying a new TV or a gas stove or a refrigerator for the first time at home was a major newsworthy event, when women mostly cooked and took care of the home – these and more are described beautifully in the book. I also loved the description of the two types of ants – it was humorous 🙂 I have seen a third type of ant too – bigger but not really dangerous. Anyone who has lived in the South India of the ’80s or before will identify with all this. I also found the verbal sparring of the family members and the barbs thrown at each other, especially between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, quite interesting – I wouldn’t say I loved it, because it brought back lots of bad memories,  but those parts of the book were well written. The description of how a traditional South Indian marriage is held and why it works were insightfully written. I also loved the way the story describes what happens to a family when they move away from a situation where they have count every paisa to a situation where they don’t have to worry about money – how this sudden freedom from poverty does more harm than good. There is one passage which beautifully describes that – “It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind.

The book talks about the everyday present and past but at some point there is a subtle change – an undertone of menace sneaks in, which keeps getting louder and louder like a war drum. It made me think of the menacing undercurrents in Harold Pinter‘s plays, especially ‘The Homecoming‘. It turned me off Pinter’s plays for life. The last page of the book is open-ended and I was left pondering the fate of one of my favourite characters. I hope this character is alive and kicking in the story which happens after the last page.

I loved ‘Ghachar Ghochar‘. It brought back lots of old memories, some fond some not. I have read Tamil novels which have covered similar themes brilliantly, but I don’t remember any of them having an undercurrent of menace. I am happy that ‘Ghachar Ghochar‘ has got accolades across the world. It is nice to see Indian literature of the non-English variety getting accolades. I hope more beautiful books like this from Indian languages get translated into English.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Had Vincent taken on a grand name and grown a long shimmering beard, he’d have had lakhs of people falling at his feet. How different are the words of those exalted beings from his? Words after all are nothing by themselves. They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered. If you think about it, even those held to be gods incarnate seldom speak of profound things. It’s their day-to-day utterances that are imbued with sublime meanings. And who’s to say the gods cannot take the form of a restaurant waiter when they choose to visit us?

I leaned into one of the shelves, amidst the clothes, and breathed deep. It was a smell I could not identify, but I had come to know it so well. I took a sari and sniffed it. The scent seemed to diminish rather than intensify. It was the same with any garment I picked out of the wardrobe. Whatever fragrance the whole wardrobe had was missing in the individual clothes it held. The more keenly I sought it, the farther it receded. A strange mixture of feelings I could not quite grasp – love, fear, entitlement, desire, frustration – flooded through me until it seemed like I would break.

Have you read ‘Ghachar Ghochar‘? What do you think about it?

I have known about the documentary, ‘Fire in Babylon‘, for a while now. I have always wanted to watch it, but couldn’t get it. When I discovered that a book version of the documentary, by Simon Lister, has come out, I couldn’t wait to get it and read it.

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Fire in Babylon‘ is about the West Indies cricket team, which was the unofficial world test champion from the middle ’70s to the middle ’90s. The book starts from just after the 1975 World Cup which the West Indies won. Their tour of Australia followed. The West Indies team, though they played attractively, lost the series 5-1. Subsequent to that the West Indies played the Indian cricket team at home. And the Indians won an impossible match. That is when the West Indies captain Clive Lloyd decided to jettison spinners and go with a full on pace attack, which sometimes bowled intimidatingly and continued winning for the next twenty years. This book describes how that glorious era in West Indies cricket started and covers most of the important matches, major feats of batting and bowling, paints portraits of important players (one of my favourites was the one of Gordon Greenidge – that he was shy and introverted as a teenager – I always thought he looked like a nerd and I fell in love with him more when I read this), talks about the controversies and the politics including Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, the rebel West Indian tour to Australia, the relationship between the players and the board, inter-island rivalry among the players, how cricket was much more than cricket for the normal, everyday West Indian and other fascinating cricketing topics.

There is a beautiful chapter in the book which gives insightful portraits of all the great West Indian fast bowlers – Roberts, Holding, Garner, Croft, Marshall – and features interviews with them in which they talk about the art and technique of fast bowling and this chapter also shares their peers’ thoughts about them. It was one of my favourite chapters in the book. There is also a whole chapter dedicated exclusively to Vivian Richards, whom I love and admire so much, like every schoolboy of that era. The book also goes back into West Indian cricket history and talks about Charles Olivierre, Learie Constantine, the three Ws, especially Frank Worrell, Garry Sobers and their place in the scheme of things and how their life and cricket influenced this particular West Indies team. I loved this peek back into history. In more than a few places there were sentences in the book which said something like this – “The West Indian team had won series against Australia, England and India and so were the undisputed champions”. As an Indian cricket fan (of those times), I was happy to read those sentences 🙂 But I didn’t agree with them. I was surprised that the Pakistani cricket team was barely mentioned (there were some stray mentions here and there of players and matches), because during this time when the West Indies team was dominant, the only team which challenged its dominance was the Pakistani team – while other teams were getting walloped 3-0, 4-0 and 5-0, the Pakistani team drew three consecutive series against the West Indies team. And one of them was at home with neutral umpires, the first ever time that had happened in the history of cricket. That was one huge gap in the book, which was perfect otherwise. The book also had a beautiful introduction by Clive Lloyd in which Lloyd shares his thoughts on the book and on this glorious era of West Indies cricket. The book also has interviews of normal West Indians embedded into the book in which they talk about why a particular match or player was important and significant to them and what the success of the team meant to them as West Indians. I loved this part of the book.

Some of the other things that I wish the author had talked about in more detail, which I felt were gaps in the book, were these :

(1) There is not much coverage of England’s 1981 tour to the West Indies, though there is a description of the ‘fastest ever over’ by Holding. Geoffrey Boycott wrote a whole book about that series called ‘In the Fast Lane‘.

(2) There is not much mention of the players from other teams who resisted the West Indian dominance during that era. Sunil Gavaskar is mentioned in just one place (I was hoping that his innings in Delhi in 1983, when he shed his defensive cloak and played more like Vivian Richards than like Sunil Gavaskar would find a mention) and there is no mention of Allan Lamb (Lamb made three hundreds in that ‘blackwash’ series of 1984, and then a few years later came back to haunt the West Indies in the 1987 World Cup when he made 18 runs in the last over to win the match for England – Lamb was a thorn in the West Indian flesh).

(3) The coverage of the post Clive Lloyd era is very brief. Lloyd captained for ten years. His successor Vivian Richards captained for six. Lots of wonderful things happened during Viv’s reign. They have all been compressed into one chapter. I wish there was more space given to that.

There were some interesting things that I learnt from the book. Some of them were these :

(1) ‘Dependant‘ is the noun form of the adjective ‘dependent‘. I didn’t know that! I have always spelt it as ‘dependent‘! The Oxford dictionary says that both are correct, but the former is the traditional spelling, while the latter is more common today. Love learning new things about the English language everyday!

(2) Guyana is in South America. I thought that the writer had got it wrong! Because I always thought that Guyana was an island! Then I went and checked the map and discovered that the book was right and I was wrong. So that is Simon Lister 1 – Vishy 0! I can’t believe that I got this wrong all my life till now! I thought I was good in geography!

(3) The book talks about a 1981 series between West Indies and Australia which West Indies won. The series I knew, which happened at around that time, was drawn 1-1. So I thought – “Yes! I have got the cricket writer on cricket history!” Well, it turns out that both of us were right! There was a series in 1979-80, which was drawn and another in 1981-82 which was won by the West Indies team. I don’t know why that 1979-80 series was not mentioned because it was one of the great ones. Ian Chappell wrote a beautiful essay about it. Well, one more new thing learnt 🙂

(4) David Murray is the son of Everton Weekes – I didn’t know that!

If you, like me, were a huge fan of the West Indies team while growing up and loved Richards and Marshall and Holding and Roberts and Greenidge and Haynes and Lloyd and others, you will love this book. It is a beautiful depiction of West Indies cricket history of that glorious era and if we ignore a few of the omissions, it is perfect. I have only one regret. I wish C.L.R.James was alive today. And I wish he had written this book. Because this was his book to write. Unfortunately, he is not around, and in his absence, Simon Lister has done a magnificent job.

Have you read ‘Fire in Babylon‘? What do you think about it?

When I discovered that the founder of the book group I am part of, Tanu Shree Singh, has written a book called ‘Keep Calm and Mommy On‘ I couldn’t wait to get it. I have been reading snippets from it since, and I have gifted it to friends who are moms with young children, in the hope that they will enjoy the insights shared by the book and find them useful. I also gifted it to a friend who was a mom to an older child because I felt the book will make her smile and feel nostalgic. A few days back, I thought that it was time for me to read the book properly from the beginning to the end.

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Keep Calm and Mommy On‘ is a collection of essays on questions and themes that every mom and every parent thinks about. The essays are reasonably independent and so can be read on a standalone basis. They are also loosely connected and so can be continuously read, like I did. The essays are organized into five themes – for example, Dealing with Friends and Family, How to Keep Your Child Happy, Keeping Your Child Safe. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning, which sets the stage for the rest of the book. In the end, there is a closing chapter which sums things up nicely.

In the middle of the book, in the interconnected essays which are the core of the book, the author talks about nearly every topic and question that a mother of a pre-teen or a teenager thinks about, worries about, contemplates on – how to deal with diversity, how to talk about religion, how to introduce your children to the newspaper and the news (when the news covers a lot of violence these days), how do you handle sibling rivalry, how do you deal with friendship across genders, how do you deal with bullying and body shaming, how do you talk to your children about death, grief and loss, how do you make your kids do their homework and study for their exams without stifling their creativity and their passion for the arts, how do you answer the perennial question – science vs the arts (aka why should everyone become an engineer or a doctor), how do you make your children read and how do you handle inappropriate books – the author talks about this and other important and relevant parenting topics. She doesn’t shy away from addressing questions and issues on areas that parents find difficult and awkward – like attraction, teenage romance, sex, sexual orientation – the kind of stuff which gives moms sleepless nights.

Tanu Shree Singh’s prose is conversational, warm, friendly, passionate and humorous as she tackles these and other important topics and shares her insights and experiences. There were passages and anecdotes which made me smile – for example, this one which talks about how sometimes non-readers think that reading fiction is useless.

I had once won our team the class quiz. The question that clinched it was, ‘Where was the first lighthouse built?‘ The answer was Pharos, in Egypt. Source : Asterix and Cleopatra. Reading fiction, apart from being immeasurably fun, provides an excellent opportunity to get curious, learn entirely random facts, and increase vocabulary phenomenally, in addition to a fairly long list of other good stuff.

I smiled when I read this because the exact same thing happened to me, when I was in school. Only the question was different. In my case, the question was ‘What is the capital of Turkey?‘ Most of the class said Istanbul. When I shed my shyness from my last row for a short while, I said, ‘Ankara’, which was the correct answer. How did I know that? Because I read about it in a comic – ‘Johnny Nero in Turkey‘ 🙂

From the start of the book, which talks about how mommyhood is challenging, to the last chapter in which the author has inspiring words for moms, the book is gripping, engaging, insightful, thought-provoking and made me smile many times.

I loved ‘Keep Calm and Mommy On‘. It is a beautiful book on positive parenting. It made me nostalgic about some of the experiences that I went through. It also made me realize how challenging it is to be a mom and a parent today.

So, if you are having a challenging day as a mom or a parent, if you are stuck with some intractable parenting issues, if your kids are asking questions which are difficult and awkward to answer, if your angelic babies are running amok and you don’t know what to do, make yourself a cup of coffee, or masala chai, or a mug of hot chocolate, sit down with this book, and browse through. Maybe there is a chapter in here which talks about the exact thing that you are going through. Maybe it will give you some answers and offer you some insights. And I hope it will help you to Keep Calm and Mommy On.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Tiger Moms! Somewhere in the Sunderbans, a tiger mum just winced at that misnomer. She doesn’t push her cubs to swim an extra length or run an extra mile. She just sits idly and watches her cubs explore life, always keeping an eye out for danger and putting them in their place when they get to be a pawful. So, by that definition, I guess I am a Tiger Mom.

I am still made to read aloud. Ten minutes and a child is all it takes for one to become a storyteller. I am a storyteller for my boys. While I narrate to them, I see their faces change. The teenage aloofness melts away, and is replaced by smiles and sparkling eyes. The books picked by them for me to read out are mostly way below the ‘recommended reader level’. We march on, reading some quietly in a corner with a mug of hot chocolate, and listening to others amidst loud giggles and squeals.

As parents, we somehow tend to measure everything by its usefulness. Does a book have a moral? If not, it is useless, and there is no need to read it. Does going for storytelling sessions increase my child’s vocabulary to formidable levels? No? Bah. Do toys serve any purpose other than drain the pocket? Absolutely not. What underlies this is that as parents, we are always trying to balance spending money with the benefits that the child gets in being better equipped at handling the competition ahead. There is nothing wrong in limiting how much you spend on your children : the problem lies in the focus on utility or tangible outcome.

Have you read ‘Keep Calm and Mommy On‘? What do you think about it?

When I discovered that Nandini Sengupta‘s first novel ‘The King Within‘ was coming out and that it was a historical novel set during one of the fascinating times in Indian history, during the era of the Gupta dynasty, I couldn’t wait to read it.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Darshini is a courtesan-actress. She is travelling with her escorts to Ujjayni to participate in a music and poetry festival. During their travel, Darshini and her group have to pass through a forest. There they are attacked by a group of tribesmen. Darshini realizes that they are outnumbered. Just when she has given up hope and starts praying to the Buddha, the Enlightened One, a new man enters the scene and engages the robbers in a sword fight. People who come with him also join the fight. Before long half of the robbers are killed and the other half beat a hasty retreat. The newcomer introduces himself as Deva. There is more to him than meets the eye. Deva offers to accompany Darshini and her group to Ujjayni. He also introduces her to his friends. And thus begins a long beautiful tale of friendship between four young people which stretches across time and geography, a friendship which goes through challenges hurled at it by personal relationships and historical events. What happens to these four friends forms the rest of the story.

For a book which is around two hundred pages, ‘The King Within‘ is epic in scope. The story starts at a time towards the end of Samudragupta’s reign and continues through Chandragupta Vikramaditya’s reign till nearly the end. I don’t know how the author managed to pack in so much in a book of this size. I loved the historical characters who came on the stage – Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Dhruvaswamini, Kalidas, Saba Virasena, Fa Hein, Queen Dattadevi, Varaha Mira – they were all complex and beautiful and flawed and real. I don’t know whether Darshini was historical but I loved her very much – to me she was the heroine of the story.

I loved the depiction of the life of that ancient era in the book – the dress people wore, the food they ate, the different kinds of wines, the different types of flowers, what people did for entertainment, the music people listened to, the relationship between Hindus and Buddhists – this was very beautifully written. Clearly the author has done her research very well. I also loved the description of the swordfights in the book – beautiful, elegant, graphic without being gory – it was like watching Gene Kelly dancing around with his sword, thrusting and parrying, in ‘The Three Musketeers‘. I loved Nandini Sengupta’s prose – it flowed smoothly with an elegant touch, page-turning during action scenes and slow and thoughtful in contemplative scenes.

The story is gripping from the first scene and as the book transitions from the everyday happenings in the life of four friends to the larger issues of governance and managing the empire, we move from the particular to the general, from the everyday detail to the bigger picture on a larger timescale, and the whole transition is seamless and brilliant. Reading this book made me want to read more about the history of that period. That, I think, is one of the great achievements of the novel – making the reader want to read more.

I loved ‘The King Within‘. If you like historical novels which are well researched, have cool characters, dashing adventures, cultural interludes and also talk about the bigger picture, you will love this.

I will leave you with some of my favourite lines from the book.

For what was love if not suffering? Was it not the touchstone that transformed the earthy into the ethereal, ecstasy into bliss, giving mere humans a taste of eternity? Why blame destiny when, as the Enlightened One said, ‘There is no path in the sky.’ If her actions were hers, so were the consequences. Darshini felt drawn to Urvashi, more strongly than she was drawn to Shakuntala. Shakuntala was blamelessly poignant while Urvashi was dignified in her tragic flaws – one a girl, the other all woman.

The relentless rains had made way for blue skies and a nip in the air. Winter was on its way and this was Darshini’s favourite time of year. She loved the autumn for its promise of a gentler season, unmarred by the harshness of summer or the bleakness of winter, an in-between time when nature’s bounty seemed so much more magnified. It did not have spring’s riot of colour, but autumn always felt like a time for celebration.

“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s all been worth it after all. You spend a lifetime putting in place relationships and then you turn your back for a moment and they all come undone. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing at all.”

If dawn is the purity of unspoilt promise, she thought, dusk is the brevity of conclusion.

Have you read ‘The King Within‘? What do you think about it?