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Archive for August, 2017

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?

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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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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?

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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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

(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?

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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‘ πŸ™‚

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?

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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?

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I discovered ‘When I Hit You‘ through reader-members of a book group I am part of. It looked like a tough read but a book which was hard to resist. I couldn’t. I read the book slowly but read most of it in a day. Here is what I think.

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When I Hit You‘ is a story told in the first person. The unnamed woman narrator talks about how she fell in love with a professor and married him. She is a writer, is widely read, has a deep and wide intellect, and has leftist leanings. He seems to have similar thoughts to hers in many things. But after they get married, things unravel slowly. He undermines her in every way, takes away her freedom slowly, first in small ways, by inflicting violence on himself and emotionally blackmailing her and then in big ways. Then he starts beating her when she defies him and violently rapes her. Will our nameless heroine get out of this bleak, violent situation before it gets too late? You should read the book to find out.

What do I think about the book? First, I love the subtitle of the book – ‘a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife‘. Totally love the nod to James Joyce here. Second, there is a beautiful quote at the beginning of every chapter. Each of them is beautiful, powerful, thought-provoking and made me contemplate a lot. I loved that too. What about the story? It is dark, bleak and hard to read. Our heart despairs for the nameless heroine as she sinks more and more into the dark place, the black hole, that is her marriage. We want her to come out of it, to escape, to run away, to leave this devil’s house, but the devil aka her husband breaks her down in every way and at the end of every day our heroine has sunk more into the dark pit. But, inspite of the dark, bleak emotional landscape, the prose is beautiful. It flows like a serene river taking us on a beautiful ride, showing us sights and smells and sounds which are beautiful, wonderful, delightful. Meena Kandasamy is clearly an intellectual heavyweight, but she wears her intellect lightly on her sleeve. She takes the reader by their hand, shows them the landscape, explaining things like our favourite teacher or our mother would – about the relationship between men and women, about the depth and inadequacy of language, about the infinite varieties of love, about the relationship between parents and children, about communism and capitalism and the grey areas in between, how we get used to and normalize violence within our family, about how one would go to any lengths to save a marriage, about silence and speech and how sometimes silence is louder than speech, about the rare words which describe beautiful things which are unique to a particular language and culture – Meena Kandasamy talks about these and other fascinating themes, topics, questions. Sometimes she gently takes us deeper into a topic and it happens so quietly that we don’t even realize it till we notice that we are in the middle of the intellectual ocean, swimming, and thinking complex thoughts. The prose is elegant but also tight – there are no rambling passages, no superfluous sentence, no wasted word. It is brilliant.

This book made made me think of all the women who have suffered in marriage, most of them silently, many of them withstanding emotional violence, some of them physical and sexual violence. Women like my mom, like Nora from ‘The Doll’s House‘ and countless others that I knew or read about. This book might open some old wounds if one has seen or experienced something similar. It is not for the faint-hearted.

I have read Indian writing / literature in English since I was a kid. I have seen writers write for an international audience, hoping to impress British and American readers and literary prize judges. Then I have seen writers write books on contemporary themes which capture the imagination of the young, modern, urban Indian, like the campus novel or the office romance. I have also seen writers interpret mythology in contemporary ways and make it engaging for the young audience. But I have always wondered – where are the novels that talk about people like me? Or a woman like my mom or some of my friends? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between parents and children? Where are the novels which talk about how constitutional freedom is nonexistent in the family? Where are the novels which talk about how religious rituals and tradition rule supreme in modern families? Where are the novels which talk about how utilitarian courses of study are winning over the arts and how we all are complicit in it? Where are the novels which talk about the conflict between science and religion that every Indian faces and how religion and tradition almost always win? Where are the novels which depict the actual state of the Indian marriage? There are novels and stories on these themes in many Indian languages – I have read some of them and they are great. There are American and British and French and German and Spanish and Japanese novels on many of these themes. But they are rare and nonexistent in English novels written by Indian writers. I have always wondered why Indian writers in English refused to explore these rich, complex themes, why they were running away from it. It was like the elephant in the room. And along comes Meena Kandasamy and breaks all past stereotypes and shackles and lights the fire in the room and it depicts the scene in all its blazing glory. It is so bright that it hurts our eyes. For that, I am thankful.

I loved ‘When I Hit You‘. Or ‘a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife‘, if you like that title more. It is one of my favourite books of the year and I think one of the most important books I have read. This book heralds a new, powerful, brilliant voice in Indian literary fiction, the likes of which we have never seen, and I hope and pray that Meena Kandasamy has many more novels left in the tank. I can’t wait to find out what she comes up with next.

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

There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centeredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description : defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

I write letters to lovers I have never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers I invent on a lonely morning. Open a file, write a paragraph or a page, erase before lunch. The sheer pleasure of being able to write something that my husband can never access. The revenge in writing the word lover, again and again and again. The knowledge that I can do it, that I can get away with doing it. The defiance, the spite. The eagerness to rub salt on his wounded pride, to reclaim my space, my right to write.

I think what you know in a language shows who you are in relation to that language. Not an instance of language shaping your worldview, but its obtuse inverse, where your worldview shapes what parts of the language you pick up. Not just : your language makes you, your language holds you prisoner to a particular way of looking at the world. But also : who you are determines what language you inhabit, the prison-house of your existence permits you only to access and wield some parts of a language.

Hope – as the clichΓ© goes – is the last thing to disappear. I sometimes wish it had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and forced me to act

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Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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