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Archive for July, 2010

I first discovered Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when I was a student, when one of my professors had it as recommended reading for one of our courses. The course was on organizational behaviour and so I still don’t know what is the connection between Harper Lee’s book and that field. But I am glad that I got acquainted with the book. I didn’t read Harper Lee’s book at that time (my group read Milan Kundera’s ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’) but I have had it on my ‘To Be Read’ list ever since. Then my dear friend M—–l raved about this book in his monthly book post and I moved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to the top of my ‘To Be Read’ list. Then came the 50th anniversary of this book and I read a few more posts by fellow blogfriends JenniferMichelle and Ben and I couldn’t put off reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ any longer. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the book as given on its back cover.

      ‘Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

      A lawyer’s advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of this enchanting classic – a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties.

      The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man’s struggle for justice.

      But the weight of history will only tolerate so much…

What I think

I had a few surprises when I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I thought the whole story would be a legal drama, but it wasn’t. The legal drama, for which it is famous for, was just a part of the story (maybe around 30%). Most of the story is about the daily happenings in a southern town called Maycomb, in America. The story is set during the 1930s and the book was published in 1960 – so I am guessing that Harper Lee used a lot of her own experience to bring the southern town alive in her book. Another surprise that I had when I read the book was that the story is told in the voice of six year old Scout (Jean Louise), Atticus Finch’s daughter. The story starts with this sentence : “When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” The rest of the story is about how Jem’s arm got broken. That is, of course, a simplistic way of summarizing the story 🙂 While telling the story of how Jem’s arm got broken, Scout talks about her family and friends and neighbours and people living in their town, their lives and beliefs and attitudes and the good and not-so-good facets of their personalities. Scout also talks about the case in which her father Atticus Finch is defending a black man accused of raping a white girl. I found this – the story being told in the voice of six-year-old Scout – quite interesting and refreshing. The innocence of a child as well as the ability of children to see things clearly, which adults seem to lose on their way to growing up, come through again and again, throughout the book.

I liked many of the characters in the book, including Scout and her brother Jem. There is Calpurnia, their African-American household help (who disciplines the children and shows them real love at the same time and who teaches her son English using Blackstone’s ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’ as the textbook), there is Sheriff Heck Tate (I loved it when he said : “I may not be much, Mr.Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County, and Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night, sir.”). And there is Dill – Scout’s and Jem’s friend, there is Reverend Sykes, there is Miss Maudie Atkinson, there is Aunt Alexandra (whom I didn’t like in the beginning, but I started liking her later, especially after the scene which ends in this passage : “Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded at them. I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs Merriweather. With my very best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.”). I loved the character of Judge Taylor too – he reminded me of the character of Judge Chamberlain Haller, played by Fred Gwynne, in the movie ‘My Cousin Vinny’. And then there is the character of Arthur Radley, who plays a mysterious and surprising role. There are also  Scout’s teachers – Miss Caroline Fisher, who is quite interesting, and Miss Gates, who thinks that Hitler killing the Jews is bad, while denouncing the African-Americans in her neighbourhood. And then, of course, there is the unconventional (for his times), heroic Atticus Finch, Scout’s dad. He says some of the most inspiring lines in the book (including the one about bluejays and mockingbirds). In one place, the inspiring conversation between Scout and Atticus goes like this :

‘Atticus, are we going to win it?’

‘No, honey.’

‘Then why – ‘

‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,’ Atticus said.   

In another place, Atticus says :

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Heady and inspiring lines!

There was another passage which gave me goose bumps, made my hair stand still, and brought tears to my eyes. It went like this :

      Judge Taylor was saying something. His gavel was in his fist, but he wasn’t using it. Dimly, I saw Atticus pushing papers from the table into his brief-case. He snapped it shut, went to the court reporter and said something, nodded to Mr.Gilmer, and then went to Tom Robinson and whispered something to him. Atticus put his hand on Tom’s shoulder as he whispered. Atticus took his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it over his shoulder. Then he left the court-room, but not by his usual exit. He must have wanted to go home the short way, because he walked quickly down the middle aisle towards the south exit. I followed the top of his head as he made his way to the door. He did not look up.

      Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

      ‘Miss Jean Louise?’

      I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was a distant as Judge Taylor’s :

      ‘Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.’

The Mockingbird in the title reminded me of a passage that I read sometime back, in a book called ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall (You can read my review of it here). The passage went like this :

They saw a bird. An ordinary rather sad-looking bird, with big eyes, pointed beak and long, straggling tail. He was scratching about for grubs. To the white children the scene looked very prosaic : an anti-climax. But the black boy was obviously enthralled; he signalled to them to be quiet, and so they knelt close up to the wattle-bushes : motionless : expectant. And after about ten minutes their patience was rewarded.

Quite suddenly the bird raised his head; he drew himself erect and, with a stiff-legged goose-step, strutted into the centre of the clearing. Then he started to sing. And in an instant all his drabness was sloughed away. For his song was beautiful beyond compare : stream after stream of limpid melodious notes, flowing and mingling, trilling and soaring : bush music, magic as the pipes of Pan. On and on it went; wave after wave of perfect harmony that held the children spellbound. At last the notes sank into a croon, died into silence. The song was over. But not the performance. For now came a metamorphosis too amazing to be believed. The drab brown bird with its tatty, straggling tail disappeared, and in its place rose a creature of pure beauty. The drooping tail fanned wide; its two outmost feathers swung erect to form the frame of a perfect lyre; and in between spread a mist of elfin plumage, a phantasmagoria of blue and silver, shot with gold, that trembled and quivered with all the beauty of a rainbow seen through running water. Then, hidden behind his plumage, the lyre bird again burst into song. And as he sang, he danced; prancing joyfully from side to side, hopping and skipping to the beat of a high-speed polka. And every now and then his song broke off, was interspersed with croaking chuckles of happiness.

Then, as suddenly as his performance had begun, it ended. The feathers drooped, the polka came to a halt, the singing died. And he was just another bird, scratching the earth for food.

Appearances are so deceptive, aren’t they?

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ also made me think of juries and their effectiveness in general. Being from a country, where cases are decided by a bench which comprises one or more judges, my knowledge of juries is limited to what I have seen in movies and read in books. And because movies and books seem to dramatize the work of juries (as it has been done in this book and as it has been done in movies like ’12 Angry Men’ and ‘Shortcut to Happiness’), to me, the verdict delivered by a jury seems to be more a popular vote rather than a judgement which is based on the law. I will have to talk to some of my lawyer friends and find out more about this.

I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I think it is one of the great works of American literature and one of the cornerstones of American literature like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain and ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell. I am glad that I read it. 

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages (in addition to the above ones) from the book.

With him, life was routine, without him, life was unbearable.

I willed myself to stay awake, but the rain was so soft and the room was so warm and his voice was so deep and his knee was so snug that I slept.

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again. That fall was a long one, hardly cool enough for a light jacket.

The remainder of the afternoon went by in the gentle gloom that descends when relatives appar…

With his infinite capacity for calming turbulent seas, he could make a rape case as dry as a sermon.

People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything. A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer. There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people; Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Summer was on the way; Jem and I awaited it with impatience. Summer was our best season : it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the tree-house; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colours in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill.

      Next morning I awoke, looked out the window and nearly died of fright. My screams brought Atticus from his bathroom half-shaven.  ‘The world’s endin’, Atticus! Please do something – !’ I dragged him to the window and pointed.  ‘No, it’s not,’ he said. ‘It’s snowing.’

Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds, the carpenters at Miss Maudie’s house had vanished. I heard Mr Tate sniff, then blow his nose. I saw him shift his gun to the crook of his arm. I saw Miss Stephanie Crawford’s face framed in the glass window of her front door. Miss Maudie appeared and stood behind her. Atticus put his foot on the rung of a chair and rubbed his hand slowly down the side of his thigh. 

The Movie

I saw the movie version of ‘To Kill the Mockingbird’ after reading the book. Gregory Peck does quite well in his Oscar winning role as Atticus Finch and Mary Badham is excellent as Scout. However, there were a few things different in the movie when we compare it with the book. The movie was a compressed version of the novel and it focussed only on the trial of Tom Robinson. A lot of characters were not there in the movie (for example Aunt Alexandra is not there in the movie and Scout’s teachers are missing too) or their roles were vastly reduced (for example, Calpurnia came just in a few scenes, while in the book she plays an important role). Many of the scenes were omitted – I would say that the screenplay has taken liberties with the story. Also, the story in the movie was narrated by the adult voice of Scout, while when I read the novel, I heard the child voice of Scout. The movie is excellent on a standalone basis, but as an adaptation of the book, it is sometimes disappointing – not because it is not good, because it is excellent, but because it is quite different from the novel with respect to the finer details.

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I felt sad when the book ended. I feel sad that Harper Lee wrote just one book. The potted biography of hers in the book says this : “Her chief interests apart from writing are nineteenth-century literature and eighteenth-century music, watching politicians and cats, travelling and being alone.” If she had written more in addition to doing the above, I would have been very happy.

If you haven’t read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I would recommend that you go grab a copy and read it. If you are a classic movie person, do try to watch the movie too. It is equally good.

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When I made my New Year reading resolutions for 2010, one of the items I put on the list was ‘Read a book of essays’ and another item was ‘Read a book of humour’. My blog-friend and fellow book-blogger Kelly, after seeing my list recommended that I can try reading David Sedaris, because it would fit both the descriptions – essays and humour (Thanks Kelly :)). I hadn’t heard of Sedaris before, and so was looking forward to exploring a new author. So during my recent book-buying-binge (which seems to keep continuing in waves – I don’t know when it is going to get over and when I am going to read more than I buy), I got Sedaris’ ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.
 
Summary of the book
 
The description of the book given in the back cover is quite brief with a quote from the book. But, anyway, I am giving here.
Welcome to the wonderful world of America’s foremost humorist David Sedaris, where learning French, like life, is littered with idiosyncratic delights…
  
‘The Italian was attempting to answer the teacher’s latest question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?” The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain. “It is a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus. He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father. He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples. He nice, the Jesus.”‘
 
As you can imagine, I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this!
 
What I think
 
‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ is classified an autobiography, but it is more a collection of essays, written by Sedaris, on different topics, people and anecdotes which happened in his life. Each of the chapters which reads like an essay, is self-contained and stands independently. However, I read the book sequentially – because that is the way I always read books 🙂 The book is divided into two parts – the first part talks about Sedaris’ life when he was growing up. He gives interesting portraits of his family – his father, his mother, his sisters and brother and his teachers and about the dogs and cats in his home. He also talks about his early days of work, when he worked in different interesting jobs – as a theatre performer, as a creative writing teacher and as a worker in a packing and moving company. The second part of the book is mostly set in France, where Sedaris seems to have spent quite a number of years. In this part, Sedaris touches on his experience of learning French, about French culture in the countryside and on expat Americans and American tourists in France. Throughout the book Sedaris touches on his Greek heritage, his drug abuse and his homosexuality.
 
From a humour perspective, I liked the first part of the book more. The initial five chapters were hilarious and made me laugh aloud. One of my favourites was Sedaris’ humorous and heart-warming potrait of his younger brother. Later, somehow the humour tapered down (or maybe I had got used to it by that time that it was no longer making me laugh) and things proceeded at a normal pace. When I started to despair and started to think that I was not going to laugh out loud anymore, the last chapter came in and it was hilarious and I ended up with a bellyache after laughing out for so long.
 
Though Sedaris touches frequently and briefly on his homosexuality, I would have loved to know his thoughts on what he thought about the topic during his years of growing up, in a country, where opinion was divided on this issue.
 
Excerpts
 
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from this book.
How many grains of sand are there in the world?
 
      I tried to creep by unnoticed, but he stopped me, claiming that I was just the fellow he’d been looking for. “Do you have any idea how many grains of sand there are in the world?” he asked. It was a question that had never occured to me. Unlike guessing the number of picked eggs in a jar or the amount of human brains it might take to equal the weight of a portable television set, this equation was bound to involve the hateful word googolplex, a term I’d heard him use once or twice before. It was an idea of a number and was, therefore, of no use whatsoever.
      I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take…I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task. It hardly seemed fair, because, unlike a horse or a Seeing Eye dog, the whole glory of being a bird is that nobody would ever put you to work. Birds search for grubs and build their nests, but their leisure time is theirs to spend as they see fit. I pictured this bird looking down from the branches to say, “You want me to do what?” before flying off, laughing at the foolish story he now had to tell his friends. How many grains of sand are there in the world? A lot. Case closed.
 
You can’t kill the Rooster
 
(Comment : I am sorry if you feel that there are too many swear words in the below passage. If you ignore them and continue reading till the end, I am sure you will like this heart-warming portrayal of Sedaris’ brother)
 
      Our family remained free from outside influence until 1968, when my mother gave birth to my brother, Paul, a North Carolina native who has since grown to become both my father’s best ally and worst nightmare. Here was a child who, by the time he had reached the second grade, spoke much like the toothless fishermen casting their nets into Albemarle Sound. This is the grown man who now phones his father to say, “Motherfucker, I ain’t seen pussy in so long, I’d throw stones at it.”
      My brother’s voice, like my own, is high-pitched and girlish. Telephone solicitors ask to speak to our husbands or request that we put our mommies on the line. The Raleigh accent is soft and beautifully cadenced, but my brother’s is a more complex hybrid, informed by his professional relationships with marble-mouthed, deep-country work crews and his abiding love of hard-core rap music. He talks so fast that even his friends have a hard time understanding him. It’s like listening to a foreigner and deciphering only shit, motherfucker, bitch, and the single phrase You can’t kill the Rooster.
      It often seems that my brother and I were raised in two completely different households. He’s eleven years younger than I am, and by the time he reached high school, the rest of us had all left home. When I was young, we weren’t allowed to say “shut up,” but once the Rooster hit puberty it had become acceptable to shout, “Shut your motherfucking hole.” The drug laws had changed as well. “No smoking pot” became “no smoking pot in the house,” before it finally petered out to “please don’t smoke any more pot in the living room.”
      My brother politely ma’ams and sirs all strangers but refers to friends and family, his father included, as either “bitch” or “motherfucker.” Friends are appalled at the way he speaks to his only remaining parent. The two of them once visited my sister Amy and me in New York City, and we celebrated with a dinner party. When my father complained about his aching feet, the Rooster set down his two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and removed a fistful of prime rib from his mouth, saying, “Bitch, you need to have them ugly-ass bunions shaved down is what you need to do. But you can’t do shit about it tonight, so lighten up, motherfucker.”
      All eyes went up to my father, who chuckled, saying only, “Well, I guess you have a point.”
      A stranger might reasonably interpret my brother’s language as a lack of respect and view my father’s response as a form of shameful surrender. This, though, would be missing the subtle beauty of their relationship.
      …The two of them are unapologetically blunt. It’s a quality my father admires so much, he’s able to ignore the foul language completely. “That Paul,” he says, “now there’s a guy who knows how to communicate.”
 
      After all these years our father has never understood that we, his children, tend to gravitate toward the very people he’s spent his life warning us about. Most of us have left town, but my brother remains in Raleigh. He was there when our mother died and still, years later, continues to help our father grieve : “The past is gone, hoss. What you need now is some motherfucking pussy.” While my sisters and I offer our sympathy long-distance, Paul is the one who arrives at our father’s hosue on Thanksgiving day, offering to prepare traditional Greek dishes to the best of his ability. It is a fact that he once made a tray of spanakopita using Pam rather than melted butter. Still, though, at least he tries.
      When a hurricane damaged my father’s house, my brother rushed over with a gas grill, three coolers full of beer, and an enormous Fuck-It Bucket – a plastic pail filled with jawbreakers and bit-size candy bars. (“When shit brings you down, just say ‘fuck it,’ and eat yourself some motherfucking candy.”) There was no electricity for close to a week. The yard was practically cleared of trees, and rain fell through the dozens of holes punched into the roof. It was a difficult time, but the two of them stuck it out, my brother placing his small, scarred hand on my father’s shoulder to say, “Bitch, I’m here to tell you that it’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this shit, motherfucker, just you wait.”
 
Christmas Dinner
 
      We used to return home for Christmas every year, my brother, sisters, and I making it a point to call ahead, offering to bring whatever was needed for the traditional holiday meal.
      “No, I already got the lamb,” our father would say. “Grape leaves, phyllo dough, potatoes – I got everything on the list.”
      “Yes, but when did you get those things?”
      An honest man except when it comes to food, our father would lie, claiming to have just returned from the pricey new Fresh Market.
      “Did you get the beans?” we’d ask.
      “Well, sure I did.”
      “Let us hear you snap one.”
      Come Christmas Day, we would fly home to find a leg of lamb thawing beneath six inches of frost, the purchase date revealing that had been bought midway through the Carter administration. Age had already mashed the potatoes, the grape leaves bore fur, and it was clear that, when spoken to earlier on the phone, our father had snapped his fingers in imitation of a healthy green bean.
      “Why the long faces?” he’d ask. “It’s Christmas Day. Cheer up, for Christ’s sake.”
      Tired of rancid oleo and “perfectly good” milk resembling blue-cheese dressing, my family began taking turns hosting Christmas dinner.
 
Final Thoughts
 
I enjoyed reading ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’. Though I found the humour going up and down in different chapters, when David Sedaris was on full song, the humour made me laugh aloud. (I still can’t stop laughing at the comment on the leg of lamb having been bought midway through the Carter administration :)) You can find another review of this book by fellow blogger Steve Betz here. I am hoping to try Sedaris’ ‘Holidays on Ice’ sometime. If you haven’t read Sedaris and would like to try a new humour writer, you can give this book a try.

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I am reading a book called ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ by David Sedaris. The book is making me laugh, like I haven’t laughed in a long while. Here is one of the passages which made me laugh and I am still not able to stop laughing, while I am typing it 🙂

      I tried to creep by unnoticed, but he stopped me, claiming that I was just the fellow he’d been looking for. “Do you have any idea how many grains of sand there are in the world?” he asked. It was a question that had never occured to me. Unlike guessing the number of picked eggs in a jar or the amount of human brains it might take to equal the weight of a portable television set, this equation was bound to involve the hateful word googolplex, a term I’d heard him use once or twice before. It was an idea of a number and was, therefore, of no use whatsoever.
      I’d heard once in school that if a single bird were to transport all the sand, grain by grain, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast of Africa, it would take…I didn’t catch the number of years, preferring to concentrate on the single bird chosen to perform this thankless task. It hardly seemed fair, because, unlike a horse or a Seeing Eye dog, the whole glory of being a bird is that nobody would ever put you to work. Birds search for grubs and build their nests, but their leisure time is theirs to spend as they see fit. I pictured this bird looking down from the branches to say, “You want me to do what?” before flying off, laughing at the foolish story he now had to tell his friends. How many grains of sand are there in the world? A lot. Case closed.

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I first got to know about Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ more than a year back, when I read reviews of it in book blogs. The reviews I read raved about the book, and so I have been thinking of getting the book since then. But I could get the book only a couple of weeks back and I have been reading it for the past one week. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given on the book’s inside flap.

We are in an elegant hôtel particulier in the center of Paris. Renée, the building’s concierge, is short, ugly, and plump. She has bunions on her feet. She is cantankerous and addicted to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she is everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood. But Renée has a secret : she is a ferocious autodidact who furtively devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor she scrutinizes the lives of the building’s tenants – her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth. 

Then there’s Paloma, a super-smart twelve year old and the youngest daughter of the Josses, who live on the fifth floor. Talented, precocious, and startlingly lucid, she has come to terms with life’s seeming futility and has decided to end her own on the day of her thirteenth birthday. Until then she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop subculture, a good but not an outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide both their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. They discover their kindred souls when a new tenant arrives, a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu. He befriends Paloma and is able to see through Renee’s timeworn disguise to the mysterious event that has haunted her since childhood. This is a moving, witty, and redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

  

What I think

What can I write about Muriel Barbery’s magnificent work? How can I, an inconspicuous reader, pass judgement on such a work of genius? But being the fool that I am, I am going to venture out to do just that.

First the bad news.

The plot of the story is extremely thin. It will probably occupy two pages. If it had been originally written in English, it would have been rejected by the publisher. I am glad that it was written in French. I am also glad that Muriel Barbery likes writing books with thin plots, but with great ideas, deep insights and beautiful prose. I love such books.

Another thing about the book which is bad news is this – the ending. Muriel Barbery, why did you do this? Exactly at the time when the reader is looking forward to some magic, you make her / him cry. Why? What is the pleasure that authors get by making readers sad? Is it because you subscribe to Shelley’s view that ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thoughts’?

One more complaint that I have about the book is that the potted biography of the author just says that she has written two books. How brief can biographies get? I was really disappointed with that. I did some research and found out that Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, studied philosophy in university and was a philosophy professor at the university when she wrote this book. I also discovered that she lives in Japan now and is working on her third book. We can see all these influences (philosophy and Japan) in ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’.

Muriel Barbery

Now that I have got the bad news out of the way, I can wax eloquently about the book 🙂 I think ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ is one of the best books that I have ever read in my life. The insights, ideas and wisdom that the author puts into the mind of the characters are amazing. Some of them were life’s lessons for me, which I had arrived at after a lot of experience of doing all the wrong things, observing things around and after a lot of contemplation. And then I read Muriel Barbery’s book and there are pages and pages of wisdom and insights and ideas – it was as if Barbery had read my mind! David Gilmour said this about ‘The Beatles’ in his book ‘The Film Club’ : “They had the extraordinary quality of making you feel as if, in spite of their hysterical popularity, you alone understood how great they were, that they were somehow your own private discovery.” This is exactly how I felt, when I was reading this book. It made me think a lot – where did it all come from? Did Barbery go through similar experiences that I did? Or did she go through different experiences, but were the insights she gained out of them the same as I arrived at? Or is she a contemplative genius who picks insights out of her platonic world and puts them in her novels, which we can relate to, after we have arrived at the same insights the hard way? Sometimes I wish I had written this book. I honestly feel that Barbery has stolen some of my lines 🙂

Now on the things that the book talks about. Within the cloak of a story, the book talks about such weighty topics like the meaning of life, love, friendship, art, good movies and soaps, the pleasures of Tolstoy and Russian literature before 1910, the pleasures of music, Japanese culture, autodidacts, philosophy (and philosophy and more philosophy), beauty, tea, bees and countless other beautiful subjects. (It will be impossible for me to list the topics that the book covers, in a few lines). Reading the book was like having a conversation with a wise friend, on serious topics. I was highlighting sentences and passages throughout the book – it was difficult to stop.

Having given the good and the bad news about the book, I will have to say that this book is not for everyone. If you are someone who reads for de-stressing after a hard day at work, or someone who expects a novel to have a plot and events which move the plot to an unexpected climax, this is not the book for you (though here the ending is unexpected). But if you are someone like me, who likes reading a sentence, reveling in its beauty and likes reading it again, contemplating on it and allowing your thoughts free rein before going to the next sentence, if you are someone who keeps going back and forth through the book comparing passages and if you are a person who enjoys digressions inspired by the book (like, for example, trying to get hold of Tolstoy’s book to see how Barbery’s description matches with what Tolstoy actually said, or trying to watch a video of a tea ceremony and experience the beauty of Barbery’s description there), then you will love reading this book. Also as a bonus there are cats named Constitution and Parliament in the book 🙂

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Words and Deeds

  …humans live in a world where it’s words and not deeds that have power, where the ultimate skill is mastery of language. This is a terrible thing because basically we are primates who’ve been programmed to eat, sleep, reproduce, conquer and make our territory safe, and the ones who are most gifted at that, the most animal types among us, always get screwed by the others, the fine talkers, despite these latter being incapable of defending their own garden or bringing a rabbit home for dinner or procreating properly. Humans live in a world where the weak are dominant. This is a terrible insult to our animal nature, a sort of perversion or a deep contradiction.

Who is really on the leash?

…in town it is the dogs who have their masters on a leash, though no one seems to have caught on to the fact. If you have voluntarily saddled yourself with a dog that you’ll have to walk twice a day, come rain wind or snow, that is as good as having put a leash around your neck.

The Pleasurable Ritual of Tea

      I pour the tea and we sip in silence. We have never had our tea together in the morning, and this break with our usual protocol imbues the ritual with a strange flavor.

      Yes, this sudden transmutation in the order of things seems to enhance our pleasure, as if consecrating the unchanging nature of a ritual established over our afternoons together, a ritual that has ripened into a solid and meaningful reality. Today, because it has been transgressed, our ritual suddenly acquires all its power; we are tasting the splendid gift of this unexpected morning as if it were some precious nectar; ordinary gestures have an extraordinary resonance, as we breathe in the fragrance of the tea, savor it, lower our cups, serve more, and sip again : every gesture has the bright aura of rebirth. At moments like this the web of life is revealed by the power of ritual, and each time we renew our ceremony, the pleasure will be all the greater for our having violated one of its principles. Moments like this act as magical interludes, placing our hearts at the edge of our souls : fleetingly, yet intensely, a fragment of eternity has come to enrich time. Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn – and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry ways, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn : human life continues to throb.

      So, let us drink a cup of tea.

      Kakuzo Okakura, the author of the book Book of Tea, laments the rebellion of the Mongolian tribes in the thirteenth century not because it brought death and desolation but because it destroyed one of the creations of the Song dynasty, the most precious among them, the art of tea. Like Okakura, I know that tea is no minor beverage. When tea become ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?

      The tea ritual : such a precise repetition of the same gestures and the same tastes; accession to simple, authentic and refined sensations, a license given to all, at little cost, to become aristocrats of taste, because tea is the beverage of the wealthy and of the poor; the tea ritual, therefore, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing into the absurdity of our lives an aperture of serene harmony. Yes, the world may aspire to vacuousness, lost souls mourn beauty, insignificance surrounds us. Then let us drink a cup of tea. Silence descends, one hears the wind outside, autumn leaves rustle and take flight, the cat sleeps in a warm pool of light. And, with each swallow, time is sublimed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog : on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog : a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.

Offending and Communicating Doors

From the very first film I saw, Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, I was fascinated by the way the Japanese use space in their lives, and by these doors that slide and move quietly along invisible rails, refusing to offend space. For when we push open a door, we transform a place in a very insidious way. We offend its full extension, and introduce a disruptive and poorly proportioned obstacle. If you think about it carefully, there is nothing uglier than an open door. An open door introduces a break in the room, a sort of provincial interference, destroying the unity of space. In the adjoining room it creates a depression, an absolutely pointless gaping hole adrift in a section of wall that would have preferred to remain whole. In either case a door disrupts continuity, without offering anything in exchange other than freedom of movement, which could easily be ensured by other means. Sliding doors avoid such pitfalls and enhance space. Without affecting the balance of the room, they allow it to be transformed. When a sliding door is open, two areas communicate without offending each other. When it is closed, each regains its integrity. Sharing and reunion can occur without intrusion. Life becomes a quiet stroll – whereas our life, in the homes we have, seems like nothing so much as a long series of intrusions.

On Bees

…the queen bee, when she is ready, takes off on her nuptial flight, pursued by a cloud of drones. The first drone to reach her copulates with her, then dies, because after the act his genital organ remains stuck inside. So he is amputated and this kills him. The second drone to reach the queen, in order to copulate with her, has to remove the genital organ of the previous drone with his feelers and, of course, the same thing will happen to him, and so on and so forth until you end up with ten or fifteen drones who have filled up the queen’s sperm pouch and will enable her, in the course of four or five years, to produce two hundred thousand eggs a year.  

The Beauty of Involuntary Motion  

I am particularly fond of this scene, first of all because it takes place in Pokrovskoye, in the Russian countryside. Ah, the Russian countryside…there is a very special charm about such a place – it is wild and yet still bound to mankind through the land, mother to us all…The most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina is set at Pokrovskoye. Levin, dark and melancholy, is trying to forget Kitty. It is springtime, he goes off with the peasants to mow the fields. In the beginning the task seems to arduous for him. He is about to give up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest. Then they begin again with their scythes. Once again Levin is about to collapse from exhaustion, once again the old man raises his scythe. Rest. And then the row moves forward again, forty hands scything swaths and moving steadily toward the river as the sun rises. It is getting hotter and hotter, Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid. A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.

       This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge – if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences, that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

      In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.”

Rebelling against Destiny  

Indeed what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing – or trying not to slide down – the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable – even merely phantasms – as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this tuoches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

       There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required to support our primitive requirements, we wonder bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

      Eternity eludes us.

      At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this : hold your rank, or die.

      At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.

 On Mothers and other things 

(Note : The following passage is some kind of spoiler. So, if you haven’t read this book and are planning to read it and don’t like spoilers, consider yourself sufficiently warned 🙂 I cried after I read this passage.)

       I remember all that rain…The sound of it drumming on the roof, the paths running with water, the sea of mud at the gate of the farm, the black sky, the wind, the horrible feeling of endless damp weighing upon us as our life weighed upon us : neither consciousness nor revolt. We are sitting huddled together by the fire when suddenly my mother got to her feet, throwing the rest of us off balance; we watched in surprise as, driven by some obscure impulse, she headed to the door and flung it open.

      All that rain, oh, all that rain…Framed in the door, motionless, her hair clinging to her face, her dress soaked through, her shoes caked with mud, staring lifelessly, stood Lisette. How did my mother know? How did this woman who, while never mistreating us, never showed us that she loved us, either by deed or word – how did this coarse woman who brought her children into the world in the same way she turned over the soil or fed the hens, this illiterate woman, so exhausted by life that she never even called us by the names she had given us – to the point where I at times wondered if she even remembered them – how had she known that her daughter, half-dead, neither moving nor speaking but merely staring at the door without even thinking of knocking, was just waiting in a relentless downpour for someone to open and bring her into the warm room?

      Is this a mother’s love, this intuition of disaster in one’s heart, this spark of empathy that resists even when human beings have been reduced to living like animals? That is what Lucien said : a mother who loves her children always knows when they are in trouble. Personally, I do not much care for this interpretation. Nor do I feel any resentment toward that mother who was not a mother. Poverty is a reaper : it harvests everything inside us that might have made us capable of social intercourse with others, and leaves us empty, purged of feeling, so that we may endure all the darkness of the present day. Nor do I nurture any sturdy illusions : there was nothing of a mother’s love in my mother’s intuition, merely the translation into gesture of her certainty of misfortune. A sort of native consciousness, rooted deep in the heart, which serves to remind poor wretches like us that, on a rainy night, there will always be a daughter who has lost her honor and who will come home to die.

      Lisette lived just long enough to give birth to her child. The infant did what was expected of it : it died within three hours. From this tragedy, which to my parents seemed to be part of the natural order of things, so that they were no more – and no less – moved by it than if they had lost a goat, I derived two certainties : the strong live and the weak die, and their pleasure and suffering are proportionate to their position in the hierarchy. Lisette had been beautiful and poor, I was intelligent and indigent, but like her I was doomed to a similar punishment if I ever sought to make good use of my mind in defiance of my class. Finally, as I could not cease to be who I was, either, it became clear to me that my path would be one of secrecy : I had to keep silent about who I was, and never mix with that other world.

      From being silent, I then became clandestine.

Further Reading

You can read the review by Emily, that originally inspired me to read this book, here.  

You can find out what Bina was doing when she read this book by clicking here 🙂 (Pictures are better than a thousand words, aren’t they?)  

You can read about Mrs.B’s experience of re-reading the book, here.

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’. It is a book that I hope to read again (and again). Highly recommended (subject to the caveat above). I can’t wait to read Muriel Barbery’s ‘Gourmet Rhapsody’ now.

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I am continuing to read ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery. I am still reading it slowly and there are beautiful lines and passages in every page or every alternate page.  

There are ‘hard’ passages like this, which have a lot of insights and make us think :

      “Indeed what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing – or trying not to slide down – the tribe’s hierarchical ladder, and fornicating in every manner imaginable – even merely phantasms – as much for the pleasure of it as for the promised offspring. Thus we use up a considerable amount of our energy in intimidation and seduction, and these two strategies alone ensure the quest for territory, hierarchy and sex that gives life to our conatus. But none of this tuoches our consciousness. We talk about love, about good and evil, philosophy and civilization, and we cling to these respectable icons the way a tick clings to its nice big warm dog.

      There are times, however, when life becomes a phantom comedy. As if aroused from a dream, we watch ourselves in action and, shocked to realize how much vitality is required to support our primitive requirements, we wonder bewildered, where Art fits in. All our frenzied nudging and posturing suddenly becomes utterly insignificant; our cozy little nest is reduced to some futile barbarian custom, and our position in society, hard-won and eternally precarious, is but a crude vanity. As for our progeny, we view them now with new eyes, and we are horrified, because without the cloak of altruism, the reproductive act seems extraordinarily out of place. All that is left is sexual pleasure, but if it is relegated to a mere manifestation of primal abjection, it will fail in proportion, because a loveless session of gymnastics is not what we have struggled so hard to master.

      Eternity eludes us.

      At times like this, all the romantic, political, intellectual, metaphysical and moral beliefs that years of instruction and education have tried to inculcate in us seem to be foundering on the altar of our true nature, and society, a territorial field mined with the powerful charges of hierarchy, is sinking into the nothingness of Meaning. Exeunt rich and poor, thinkers, researchers, decision-makers, slaves, the good and the evil, the creative and the conscientious, trade unionists and individualists, progressives and conservatives; all have become primitive hominoids whose nudging and posturing, mannerisms and finery, language and codes are all located on the genetic map of an average primate, and all add up to no more than this : hold your rank, or die.

      At times like this you desperately need Art. You seek to reconnect with your spiritual illusions, and you wish fervently that something might rescue you from your biological destiny, so that all poetry and grandeur will not be cast out from the world.”

And there are ‘soft’ passages like this which are lyrical and poetic and give us a lot of joy and pleasure :

      “I am particularly fond of this scene, first of all because it takes place in Pokrovskoye, in the Russian countryside. Ah, the Russian countryside…there is a very special charm about such a place – it is wild and yet still bound to mankind through the land, mother to us all…The most beautiful scene in Anna Karenina is set at Pokrovskoye. Levin, dark and melancholy, is trying to forget Kitty. It is springtime, he goes off with the peasants to mow the fields. In the beginning the task seems to arduous for him. He is about to give up when the old peasant leading the row calls for a rest. Then they begin again with their scythes. Once again Levin is about to collapse from exhaustion, once again the old man raises his scythe. Rest. And then the row moves forward again, forty hands scything swaths and moving steadily toward the river as the sun rises. It is getting hotter and hotter, Levin’s arms and shoulders are soaked in sweat, but with each successive pause and start, his awkward, painful gestures become more fluid. A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.

      This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this – ridiculous journal of an aging concierge – if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences, that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

      In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness.”

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I must be the last person to read ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery. But I am not to blame for that. I have been trying to get this book for the past six months, and the bookstore, where I placed the order, has been giving me one reason or another on why the book hasn’t arrived yet. I had tried ordering it from three bookstores (of the same chain) and each of them had different reasons to give me! But finally, one of them had the book, and I dropped all the work I was doing, to get it 🙂 I started reading it yesterday and I have to say that every page of the book is a pleasure to read. It is too early for me to have an overall opinion on the book, but I will say that I am reading it very slowly, like I haven’t done in a very long time, and each page has gems in it. Here is one of my favourite passages that I read today from the book :

“Then when the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them. At this very moment, as I am writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the door. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life and still she is heading toward something, probably an armchair. And you can tell from the way she’s moving : she is headed toward. Maman just went by in the direction of the front door, she’s going out shopping and in fact she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something : we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place. Crazy, no? When the haka began, I concentrated on him. It was obvious he wasn’t like the others. Moreover, Cassoulet Number 1 said, “And Somu, the formidable New Zealand fullback – what an impressive player, with a colossal build : six foot eight, and two hundred and sixty pounds, runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds, a fine specimen indeed, ladies!” Everyone was enthralled by him but no one seemed to know why. Yet it became obvious in the haka : he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players (slapping the palms of his hands on his thighs, rhythmically drumming his feet on the ground, touching his elbows, and all the while looking the adversary in the eyes like a mad warrior) but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him. What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered. That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance – everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots.”

 – From ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery

(Comment : The player described in the above passage looks suspiciously like the legendary Jonah Lomu, the Rugby great from New Zealand. Also, I didn’t know that they played rugby in France!)

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I have read essays by Shashi Deshpande and have liked them. So I thought I will try reading one of her works of fiction. ‘In the Country of Deceit’ was published a couple of years back and I thought I will read it. I finished reading it today. Here is the review.
 
Summary of the story
 
I am giving below the summary of the book, as given in the book’s cover.
      Devayani chooses to live alone in the small town of Rajnur after her parents’ death, ignoring the gently voiced disapproval of her family and friends. Teaching English, creating a garden and making friends with Rani, a former actress who settles in the town with her husband and three children, Devayani’s life is tranquil, imbued with a hard-won independence. Then she meets Ashok Chinappa, Rajnur’s District Superintendent of Police, and they fall in love despite the fact that Ashok is much older, married, and – as both painfully acknowledge from the beginning – it is a relationship without a future.
      Deshpande’s unflinching gaze tracks the suffering, evasions and lies that overtake those caught in the web of subterfuge. There are no hostages taken in the country of deceit; no victors; only scarred lives. This understated yet compassionate examination of the nature of love, loyalty and deception establishes yet again Deshpande’s position as one of India’s most formidable writers of fiction.
 
 
What I think
 
I had mixed feelings about the book. Deshpande’s writing style is easy to read (I liked the way she writes essays) and so the pages fly when one reads this book. The story is told from Devayani’s point of view, with many letters thrown in between her narration. The setting is authentic – smalltown India – and the characters described in the book look quite authentic. The love story is interesting with a bittersweet ending.
 
That is the good news. The not-so-good news (atleast from my perspective) is that I found the scenes where Devayani and Ashok fall in love not very convincing. It looked like Ashok chased her and bent her to his will. It seemed to depict Devayani as a very protected person – someone who wouldn’t open her mouth and talk to men confidently. It somehow didn’t seem to jell with the rest of her personality – someone who was at home with literature, liberal ideas and who was a lawyer by training.
 
The book started very well but then I had to really plough through till I reached around 150 pages. For some reason, it seemed to pick up pace again (or I was just reading faster) and I finished the rest of the book quite soon.
 
Some of the reviews said things like this :
“Shashi Deshpande’s extraordinary skill in portraying inner psychology builds a tale of beauty.”
 
“There is an epic quality that she brings to her portraits of families in a time of flux and disintegration of group identities.”
 
“One of our finest writers in English…Her style is elegant, substantial, full of the surprises of exactitude.”
I felt that they were all hyped up comments, as far as this story was concerned. The only thing that I agreed with was that her style was elegant – the others were a little bit true (the story does potray families in times of flux and it also does potray the inner psychology of some of the characters), but not really at the superlative level that the blurb leads us to believe.   
 
I also felt that the book might have read better in Tamil or Kannada. Somehow it didn’t have the expected impact in English. It is amazing how we think differently, when we read in different languages.
 
Excerpts
 
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.
Nature made babies as cute as they are so that we never realize what an exhausting and thankless job parenting is. By the time we know that truth, it is too late.
 
Isn’t it strange that people who don’t do what Nature demands of them, which is survival and self-protection, are the ones who make human life worthwhile? Doesn’t make sense, Darwinian sense, does it? Or do you think that caring for others is part of Nature’s great plan for the survivval of the species?
 
I love this country. It’s a strange country; but, then, so is ours. We are strange in other ways, that’s all. I think other people’s strangeness is more interesting than one’s own.
 
‘You can’t have anything in common with a policeman,’ Savi had said. I had hotly denied that, but it was true that we had very little in common. Music for him was jazz and the Beatles and for me, Hindi film songs, Hindustani classical and ghazals. He loved open spaces, the jungle, horses, dogs and I had my books, my walled garden, my plants. He could not imagine a meal without meat, and for me, even an egg was anathema. Yet, when we were together, none of it mattered and I, who hated the smell of whisky, could inhale his whisky-smelling breath with ecstasy.
 
It is one of the hardest things to accept in life, but it is true that the most important things that happen to us are not in our control. Birth, death, whom we love, whom we hate – we have no control over any of these.
 
And why, yes, why must I forget that I too had a moment, a very brief moment, when I raised my arms and my fingertips brushed the sky?
      No, I don’t want to forget, I want to remember; it is not remembering, but forgetting, that will be my greatest enemy.
      Is this what my life is going to be like from now – a constant struggle between trying to forget and wanting to remember?
Final Thoughts
 
I have enjoyed reading Shashi Deshpande’s essays before, but I have to confess that though this book had its interesting qualities, I somehow wasn’t very happy with it – maybe I had high expectations. I loved Deshpande’s writing style though. I will probably try reading one of her essay collections sometime.

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