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Archive for March, 2022

Sujatha is one of the great Tamil writers. He wrote books is many genres — crime fiction, science fiction, literary fiction, short stories, essays, nonfiction. He was a true all-rounder. He was kind of the founder of Tamil science fiction, or atleast its most famous exponent. I started reading Sujatha’s books when I was a teenager. I read his crime fiction first and loved it, and then later his science fiction. I loved that too. Later I read his plays, and was surprised by how good and fascinating they were. I feel that Sujatha reached his peak as a literary artist in his short stories and his plays. So it is odd that I’ve only dipped into his short stories, but never read a collection properly before. So I thought I’ll redeem that now, and read this collection of his short stories.

This collection has fifty short stories. They were written in a period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. Sujatha says in his introduction that he was always working under the pressure of the deadline, and so many times he felt that he could have rewritten a particular short story in a better way, if he had more time. Sujatha says that the stories which didn’t make him feel that way — that is they looked good though they were written under deadline pressure — he included those stories in this collection.

There are all kinds of stories in this collection. Some have surprise endings, some are about small people who struggled in life but win in some way in the end, while other stories are about small people who are crushed by the system and by society. There are a couple of stories about depression which are heartbreaking. There are stories about women who struggle hard and try to get through each day, and there are other stories about women who show their defiance in unconventional ways. (One of the women, when she is asked why she is in a particular profession, replies that it is because she is arrogant and defiant 😁 She was one of the coolest characters in the book.) There were stories about how the government and the bureaucracy work and they were mostly Kafkaesque and hilarious. There were also stories about riots and the meaninglessness of violence. Sujatha is a master of the first paragraph,  the first page, and it shows in every story. Sujatha’s writing is breezy, conversational, cool and stylish, and it is a pleasure to read.

I loved all the stories in the book. I loved some more than the others, but I loved them all. It was 422 pages of pure pleasure. Hoping to read the second volume of this series soon.

A couple of Sujatha’s books have been translated into English. I’m not sure which stories are featured in them, but if you want to get a feel for his style, you can dip into them.

Have you read Sujatha’s short stories? What do you think about them?

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Seamus Heaney waxing lyrically in purple prose in his introduction to Michael McLaverty’s Collected Short Stories 😊 Wish I could write like this 😊

“But realism is finally an unsatisfactory word when it is applied to a body of work as poetic as these stories. There is, of course, a regional basis to McLaverty’s world and a note-taker’s reliability to his observation, yet the region is contemplated with a gaze more loving and more lingering than any fieldworker or folklorist could ever manage. Those streets and shores and fields have been weathered in his affections and recollected in tranquility until the contours of each landscape have become a prospect of the mind…in his best work, the elegiac is bodied forth in perfectly pondered images and rhythms, the pathetic element qualified by something astute…His voice was modestly pitched, he never sought the limelight, yet for all that, his place in our literature is secure.”

Left : Michael McLaverty; Right : Seamus Heaney

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I recently read and loved a friend’s reviews of a couple of collections of R.Chudamani’s short stories. I realized that I had one collection of her stories at home and so decided to read that. R.Chudamani was one of my mom’s favourite writers. Everytime I went to the library, my mom used to ask me to get a book by her. But, inspite of this, I’ve never read a story by her. So I was very excited to read these stories by her.

This collection that I read had 63 short stories. Most of them were around 10 pages long. The stories were written in a period spanning 50 years, starting from the early 1950s to the early 2000s.

Many of the stories in the book depict the delicate, infinite states of the human heart, including love in its different forms. There are also many stories about women who fight in gentle ways against the restraints imposed by society and the patriarchy, and who sometimes win their freedom and independence. One of my favourite stories on this theme was about a woman who suffers her whole life. When she dies, a secret about her is revealed. We discover that there came a point in time when she was presented with two alternatives. She could have surrendered her freedom and lived a comfortable life, or she could have been free and would have suffered. She chose to be free and was defiant till the end, in her gentle soft way. There is also one interesting story in which the husband supports his wife when she pursues her interests and her dreams while their daughter is upset that her mom is independent and doing her own thing. In one of my favourite stories about love and attraction, a single mom encourages a young man who is courting her daughter, but the young man starts turning up when the daughter is not around and the mom discovers to her surprise that the young man is courting her. In another of my favourite stories a man is grieving the loss of his wife, and he is just ignored at the funeral, and the person who understands him and comforts him is his lover. In a couple of stories a young man’s heart opens up to love and desire for the first time, and the way Chudamani narrates the story is incredibly beautiful. There are also stories about the relationship between parents and children, about people who try bridging socio-economic barriers through love and friendship which sometimes doesn’t work. There is even a story in which God is the narrator. That story was fascinating.

I loved the whole collection. I knew that it would be good, but I didn’t know that it would be this good. Chudamani’s short stories didn’t read like short stories which came in popular magazines, which mostly had surprises with happy endings, but were complex, subtle and sophisticated. The editors say in their introduction that Chudamani’s art as a short story writer reached its heights in the 1970s, and when I read the book, I realized that it was true, because many of my favourite stories were those which came out in that decade. But I liked her stories from the other decades too. There is a beautiful interview by Chudamani at the end of the book in which she shares her thoughts on short stories. In reply to one of the questions, Chudamani says that writers shouldn’t use short stories as a training ground for writing their first novel, but should respect and love short stories as an independent art form. This is exactly what Alice Munro said years later when she won the Nobel Prize.

Ambai’s tribute to Chudamani

Chudamani was a prolific writer during her time. She has written around 574 short stories, but this collection which has around one-tenth of that, is the largest collection there is. Her stories have been translated into English during the past few years. There are atleast three translated editions in English, and they seem to be subsets of this Tamil collection.

Chudamani lived a simple life. She didn’t go to school and get a formal education, because of a health condition. She was homeschooled in her younger years. This makes her achievements as a short story writer even more astounding. She never married and stayed single all her life. Before she passed, she made a will and gave everything she had to charity, to help poor kids. It is unthinkable in these materialistic days. She was an amazing writer and a beautiful soul.

Have you read Chudamani’s short stories? What do you think about them?

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When Russian backed separatists in the Donbas region (Donetsk and Luhansk) declared their independence in 2014, and the border there separating the Ukrainian forces and the separatists turned into a permanent conflict zone, the people who lived in the villages between these two armies, abandoned their homes and left for one side or the other. But some hardy souls refused to leave. They just stayed put in their homes, grew vegetables in their garden, lived without electricity and sometimes watched shells whizzing past their houses. Sometimes soldiers from either side dropped into their houses for tea or for a conversation, or sometimes did a search of their house. These solitary hardy souls took it all in their stride in good humour. Andrey Kurkov’sGrey Bees‘ is about one such person, Sergey Sergeyich. Nearly everyone in his village has left. He is the only person left in his street. There is one person who lives in the next street. Sergey Sergeyich is a beekeeper. So what does a beekeeper, who lives in the middle of nowhere, in no-man’s-land, who is neither Russian nor Ukrainian, or who is probably both – what does this beekeeper do? Why does he even live there? What is the point? And what does his typical day look like? This story tells us about his life across a period of time (probably a year). I won’t tell you more, but I’ll let you read the book and enjoy its pleasures.

The whole situation described in the book is absurd and funny and it looks like a scene straight out of a Kafka story or a Beckett play. But the unfortunate thing is that what it describes is real and that is heartbreaking. There are people living in no-man’s-land in this border between Ukraine and the breakaway republics and if we step back and think, there are such places across the world and people who live there, who belong neither here nor there. This is the kind of absurd situation war leads to, and it is sad. Sergey Sergeyich is one of the great introvert characters and he made me think of the main character in Robert Seethaler’s ‘A Whole Life‘. His neighbour in the next street Pashka is very interesting too, and there are two women who make an appearance later in the book, Galya and Aisylu, who are fascinating.

Andrey Kurkov’s prose is spare and there are many beautiful passages in the book. The passages about bees and beekeeping are a pleasure to read. I think this is the first Boris Dralyuk translation I have read and I loved it.

I loved ‘Grey Bees‘. I think out of the three Andrey Kurkov books I’ve read till now, this is my favourite.

Some of my most favourite passages in the book were about silence. I’m sharing a few of them here.

“A couple of days earlier, the last time he’d gone out to the edge of the garden, the snow-white field had been spotless. There had been nothing but snow, and if you looked at it long enough, you would begin to hear white noise – a kind of silence that takes hold of your soul with its cold hands and doesn’t release it for a long time. The silence around here was of a special sort, of course. Sounds to which you have grown accustomed, to which you no longer pay any attention, are also fused into silence.”

“All that remained was to pull the blanket up to his ears and fall asleep until the morning or until the cold woke him. Yet the silence, thanks to the snowfall, felt somehow incomplete. And when silence is incomplete, there arises, willy-nilly, the desire to complete it. But how? Sergeyich had long ago grown used to the sound of distant bombardments, which had become an integral part of silence. But now the snowfall – a much less frequent guest – had blocked out that sound with its rustling. Silence, of course, is an arbitrary thing, a personal aural phenomenon that people adjust for themselves. In earlier days, Sergeyich’s silence was not unlike the silence of others. It easily absorbed the drone of an aeroplane up in the sky or the night-time chirp of a cricket that had hopped in through an open window. All quiet sounds that cause no irritation and don’t turn one’s head eventually fuse into silence. So it was with Sergeyich’s peacetime silence. And so it became with his wartime silence, in which military sounds suppressed and displaced peaceful, natural ones, but, in due course, also nestled under the wings of silence and ceased to draw attention to themselves. Now Sergeyich lay in bed, seized by a strange anxiety because of the snowfall, which seemed too loud. Instead of drifting off to sleep, he lay there and thought.”

“…he tuned his ears to the colourful, sonorous silence of the world around him, the now silent flying-crying creature suddenly forgotten. Into this silence were woven the whisper of foliage, the breeze’s breath, the buzzing of bees – all the tiny sounds that constitute the peaceful silence of summer. As he listened closely, Sergeyich noticed that the sun had finally departed. The silence grew louder, more evident. One could stroke it, as one would a cat or a dog; it was warm, and it brushed up against Sergeyich gently, pleading for his involvement, his participation in its life, its sounds. And so, when his eyes had got accustomed to the sun’s absence, the beekeeper began to supplement the silence by searching for kindling. Having gathered some branches, twigs and even two planks from a wooden box, Sergeyich struck a match – and the sound of it also blended into the silence, becoming its property, an integral part of it, a note in its endless music.”

Have you read ‘Grey Bees‘? What do you think about it?

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Today, I thought I’ll write about some of my favourite Ukrainians.

From Top left clockwise : Elina Svitolina, Andrey Kurkov, Victoria Kokhana, Vera Brezhneva

Elina Svitolina – I have followed Elina Svitolina’s tennis career for many years. She is Ukraine’s greatest tennis player, female or male. It is a pleasure to watch her on court and she has a wonderful competitive game. She is such a beautiful human being off court.

You can watch a video of Elina talking about her life here.

Elina Svitolina’s romance with French tennis player Gaël Monfils is the stuff of legend. I was so happy when they got married.

You can watch a video of Elina and Gaël talking about their relationship here.

Currently, Elina is trying to keep it together, worrying about her family, who are either in Odessa or in Kharkiv, both cities which are currently pounded by the artillery of the invading Russian forces.

Andrey Kurkov – I discovered Andrey Kurkov’s ‘A Matter of Death and Life’ last year and fell in love with the book. It made me get more of his books. His most famous book is ‘Death and the Penguin’. Of current interest are his books, ‘Ukraine Diaries’, which is an account of the events surrounding the Maidan Protests and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and ‘Grey Bees’ which is a novel set at the same time. Kurkov’s sense of humour is understated and beautiful. Kurkov gave a beautiful, insightful talk on literature, human rights and freedom of speech, in Hong Kong in 2018. You can find the transcript of the talk here.

Of current interest is Kurkov’s diary written during the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. It covers the first few days. It is moving and heartbreaking. You can find it here.

After getting their children to safety across the border, Kurkov and his wife decided to go back home. They could have opted to leave themselves, but they didn’t. I don’t know when or whether they’ll see their kids again.

Vera Brezhneva – Vera Brezhneva was born in a middle-class family, and had a challenging childhood, like most kids in the erstwhile Soviet Union. She started working while still in her teens, and somehow managed to get a break as a singer in a Ukrainian girl band. As they say, the rest is history. Today she is one of the stars in her country and the surrounding region. One of her first hits as a solo artist was ‘Любовь Спасет Мир’, which translates as ‘Love will save the world’. In the current tragic situation, how much we wish for that. You can listen to a recent version of the song here, which Vera performs with her husband in their home studio.

Vera Brezhneva performing ‘Любовь Спасет Мир’ (‘Love will save the world’) at her home studio with her husband

The first Vera Brezhneva song I listened to was ‘Тихо’ (‘Quietly’). It is a beautiful love song which is moving and haunting and made me fall in love with her music. You can find the live concert version of the song here.

Vera Brezhneva performing ‘Тихо’ (‘Quietly’) in concert

I’m not exactly sure where Vera lives in these days, but the last I heard was that she and her children were safe, while her husband and other relatives were in a bomb shelter and Russian artillery was pounding around.

Victoria Kokhana – Victoria Kokhana is one of the young Ukrainian music composers. She is probably one of the few women Ukrainian music composers out there – I don’t know any others – and so she is probably a pioneer. She composes music mostly for popular songs. She has won many awards for her musical compositions and her collaboration with fellow Ukrainian singer Taisiya Povaliy is quite famous. One of my favourite compositions of hers is the song ‘Я Буду Твоя’ (‘I’ll be yours’). It is a beautiful love song. You can listen to it here.

Victoria Kokhana performing ‘Я Буду Твоя’ (‘I’ll be yours’) in concert

Who are your favourite Ukrainians? Do share in the comments.

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I wanted to read something topical after the unbelievable happenings of the last week, and I decided to read Andrey Kurkov’sUkraine Diaries : Dispatches from Kiev‘. Kurkov is one of the great contemporary Ukrainian writers and his novels are widely translated and read and well acclaimed. I loved his book ‘A Matter of Death and Life’ which I read last year. Kurkov wrote two books about the happenings in 2013-14 in Ukraine, which are called the ‘Maidan protests’ and the surrounding events. One of them is the novel, ‘Grey Bees‘. The second one is this, ‘Ukraine Diaries‘. I decided to read ‘Ukraine Diaries’ first.

Ukraine Diaries‘ covers a period of nearly five months. It has an entry for nearly every day, and Kurkov describes the Maidan protests and the surrounding events in the way he observed them and experienced them. He also talks about his own life and his family and friends. So, in a sense, this book is an extract from his diaries of that period, and it is about his own life.

Kurkov’s writing is quite fascinating. He follows the golden rule, ‘Show don’t tell’. So we see events as they unfold and we observe the complexities of Ukrainian politics and its crazy corrupt leaders and the corrupt judicial system which typically is in the government’s pocket. We learn how Russia keeps meddling constantly in Ukrainian affairs and how some Ukrainian politicians themselves are compliant in it. We also see how the protestors start with a noble aim, and how things end up in violence. A part of the book also talks about Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It was surreal to read that part, because it mirrors exactly what is happening today – the Russian government calling the Ukrainian government fascists, then saying that the Ukrainian people have to be saved from their government, then starting a ‘peaceful’ special operation and sending in tanks and armed forces and taking over the territory. In the case of Crimea, there was one difference when compared to the present situation. Crimea, it appears, was a kind of semi-autonomous region within Ukraine, and the Crimean parliament voted to secede from Ukraine. Once they did that, the Russian ‘peacekeeping’ forces rolled in with their tanks. Russia, of course, has tried repeating this ‘peaceful’ special operation across Ukraine now, but unfortunately for them, things haven’t gone as planned, as Ukrainians have resisted this and have fought back. The Russian version of the current bombings and bloodbath that they have started is that the ‘peacekeeping’ is going well, but the crazy Ukrainian civilians are taking guns and shooting at each other and the Western media is lying by posting pictures from computer games. More on this later.

One of the things I loved about the book is Kurkov’s sense of humour. Though the book is about serious events, Kurkov’s humour, which is sometimes dark like the Coen brothers’ kind, shines throughout the book and makes us laugh. For example, this one.

“This morning, the weather forecast on Ren-TV, as well as other Russian television channels, included Crimea, Donbas and Kharkiv in their meteorological map of Russia. I realise that a political map is generally used for these things, but surely it should be one recognised by other countries. Presumably this map is Putin’s personal map, giving a clear vision of how he sees Russia’s future. Or is the aim to prepare the Russian population for the coming occupations of Ukrainian territory? In that case, I will have to pay more attention to Russian weather forecasts in future, to check that Kiev, Warsaw, Riga and Vilnius are not included in their maps.”

And this one.

“I am increasingly convinced that the entire Ukrainian legal system has not only entered the shadowlands, like the country’s economy, but has sunk into a deeper darkness. There are more and more legal judgments made in the middle of the night, when the country is supposed to be asleep. If the judges who are working nights are sleeping during the day, we can be somewhat reassured as to their mental health. But if they are working twenty-four hours a day, it has to be doubted whether they can even remember the judgments they made one hour earlier. And anyway, as has been proved on several occasions by journalists, judges have been handed judgments written in advance without their agreement, already unsealed and signed. This is, in any case, how they deal with opposition representatives – and, indeed, with anyone who is unhappy with the authorities and does not conceal their feelings.”

And this one.

“The flow of contraband over the Russian–Ukrainian border has suddenly fallen tenfold, and in certain areas has dried up altogether. Many people in border villages are extremely unhappy, as they have lived off this illegal activity for more than twenty years.”

And this one.

“In Mykolaiv, a peaceful mafia town of drug addicts and medium-sized companies, there was an attempt to seize the general administration, but only a few dozen people took part. The assault was defeated by citizens who gathered to defend the building.”

And this one.

“Putin has again demanded that the Ukrainian army not use force against the peaceful pro-Russian activists who walk around in combat uniform, with no badges or other signs of identification, carrying AK-100 assault rifles.”

And this one, which is straight out of a Coen Brothers movie 😊

“Last night, thirty-eight self-styled ‘warriors of Narnia’, brandishing clubs and knives, seized a bank in Kiev, disarming the security guards and occupying the premises. They were not after money or documents. When the police arrived, long and somewhat confused negotiations began with the armed robbers. One of them said they had come to protect the bank from a possible attack; others claimed they were just passing by when the bank, for no obvious reason, caught their eye. When the talks were concluded, they returned the security guards’ weapons to them and handed over their own to police, before vacating the premises. And the police let them go. They are now analysing all the recordings made by the bank’s CCTV cameras in order to understand what really happened.”

The book has a fascinating notes section in the end, which gives a lot of interesting background on Ukrainian history and about the various personalities featured in the book. One thing I’ve wondered is why the Russian government keeps calling the Ukrainians fascists and Nazis. Didn’t the Ukrainians suffer under the Nazis during the Second World War? Didn’t they fight against them? One of the entries in the notes shares some insightful information on that.

This book offers a very good account and understanding of what happened in 2014. It makes us understand the present situation better. I don’t know what Andrey Kurkov thinks about the war today. We’ll have to wait and find out. His last passage in the book carries a premonition.

“…it’s already quite clear that the good old Ukraine we have lived in for twenty-three years since she gained independence will no longer exist. What kind of Ukraine will replace this quiet, peaceful version, no one knows. It’s easy enough to conjure up a variety of possible scenarios for the immediate future, although none of them are particularly optimistic. The main reason for this is that Europe, so vociferous in her support during the Maidan protests, has subsequently fallen silent and walked away, preferring to profit from trade with Russia. Money matters more than democracy. This cynical lesson that Europe has taught Ukraine will inevitably influence the future of my country. Which means that it will influence my own future. Ultimately, it will influence the future of Europe herself – the future of the entire European Union.”

Since Kurkov wrote that passage, good old Ukraine has survived for eight more years. But she is now facing a new crisis, the most serious and dangerous one she has faced in the last 31 years. This time European reaction has been much better and more supportive, though it still leaves a lot to be desired. I hope this old girl, who has been through many challenging times, survives this and thrives. We are praying for her.

We are at the stage of the review, where I’ll share my favourite quotes, sing ‘Kumbaya’ and bid farewell, and wait for friends to like and comment on my post, while I go and pick my next book to read. But if I do that now, I’ll be like the reviewer of D.H.Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ who wrote that the book was not a great manual on game-keeping. So, I’m not going to do that today and sweep things below the carpet. I’m going to step out of my comfort zone and step into unknown territory.

A few days back, the unexpected crazy thing happened. After the previous weeks spent sabre-rattling, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. No one expected this, because one thought that the conversation and sabre-rattling will continue on TV and through press statements, but nothing much would come out of it. The official Russian version was that it was a special ‘peacekeeping’ operation conducted under the UN Charter. Nearly a week later, innocent Ukrainian civilians are dead, Ukrainian cities and buildings and streets are being bombed, people are living in bomb shelters or fleeing their homes into neighbouring countries. The Ukrainians aren’t giving up though and they are fighting for their freedom. The Russian forces thought that they’ll walk in and take over as they did in Crimea, but unfortunately for them, the Ukrainians have resisted. The Russian version of the current bombings and bloodbath that they have started is that the ‘peacekeeping’ is going well, but the crazy Ukrainian civilians are taking guns and shooting at each other and the Western media is lying by posting pictures from computer games.

The present situation is an invasion. It is not a ‘peaceful’ special operation. It is an invasion by Russia over a peaceful Ukraine. It should be condemned. This is not 1939 or 1956 or 1968 or 1980, when Russian tanks swooped into neighbouring countries. This is not 1939 when Germany decided to occupy the whole of Europe. This is not 2005 when America invaded Iraq. This is not 1959 when China went and occupied Tibet. This is not 1884 when European countries decided to divide Africa among themselves. This is 2022, and hopefully the era of big powers swooping into neighbouring countries and taking over their territory is over. And if they do that, they should be condemned and they should face the heat, and they should pay for it. Because if we let this slide, the United States will invade another country which it doesn’t like, and China which is itching to annex Taiwan will just do that. Who knows what else might happen. In the future, all small countries will feel threatened by their big neighbours. All small countries should be able to manage their affairs as they see fit, and should be able to have independent domestic and foreign policies which are sometimes different from their bigger neighbours. Their rights to sovereignty should be protected by the international community. If people want war, they should watch ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Dunkirk’, ‘1917’ and ‘Game of Thrones’.

I hope this war ends soon and the Ukrainian people come out of it, with their freedom intact. It is hard to watch them suffer everyday. I’ve always been quiet on social media on international happenings, though I have my own opinions and have shared them in private. But this is not the time to be quiet and so I have decided to put this out here.

To my Russian friends who have protested against this war – I’m inspired by your bravery and courage. You are amazing and I admire you. Thank you for speaking out and thank you for doing what is right.

To my Russian friends who support this war – I hope you’ll stop believing in what your government is saying. I hope you’ll do your own independent research and come to your own conclusions. This is not a ‘peaceful’ operation. Innocent people are dying on the streets. Please ask your government to stop this.

To my Ukrainian brothers and sisters – We stand with you. We are inspired by your bravery and courage. We are all praying for you. It has been an honour knowing you. My greatest desire is to live a long boring life, grow old, get grey hair and die of boredom. I know in these difficult times this seems to be an impossible wish, but I wish that for all of you. May the force be with you. Слава Україні! Slava Ukraini! 💙💛

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