Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

I stumbled upon this book a few days back, and as I’m reading one nonfiction book after another, I thought I’ll read this.

Kuldip Nayar was one of the famous Indian journalists in the 1960s and ’70s. I think his peak in terms of fame came after the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, proclaimed the Emergency in 1975 and proceeded with her authoritarian rule. At that time Kuldip Nayar wrote a long letter to her protesting against the restrictions on the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. The next day, the police walked into his house, arrested him and put him in jail, where he remained for a few months. His protest was praised and admired by Indira Gandhi’s opponents and critics, and 14 years later, when the opposition came up power, he was rewarded for his resistance, when he was appointed as the Indian ambassador to the UK.

This book is a collection of his articles grouped under various themes, chronologically. There is a section on Partition, there are sections on the Indian Prime Ministers Nehru, Shastri and Indira Gandhi, there is a section on the Emergency. There are also parts on the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and the 1971 Bangladesh war. Some of my favourite articles were an account of Nayar’s conversations with Mountbatten and Radcliffe many years after the Partition happened. Radcliffe especially comes through as a nice guy, living a simple life, making the tea himself and offering it to his guest. The part on Shastri was very insightful as he is mostly forgotten today, because his time as Prime Minister was brief and lasted for only 19 months, at the end of which he died under mysterious circumstances. But during his time the 1965 Indo-Pak war was fought, and the Russians mediated a peace treaty between the two warring countries. Kuldip Nayar seems to have been well regarded in both India and Pakistan, which is rare for Indian journalists, especially during that time. So his thoughts about Pakistan and his interviews with some of the Pakistani leaders, especially Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, are very interesting. While reading the book, one sometimes gets the feeling that Kuldip Nayar is too full of himself, feeling that he is always right and the best. Sometimes he describes how he took confidential information which someone had shared off the  record and wrote an article about it the next day. I’m not sure whether this is ethical journalism. At other times, one feels that he speaks his mind and his thoughts are unconventional for his times. One of these things that I liked was his article on Srilanka, in which he criticizes the Indian government of that time for training and arming Srilankan Tamil terrorists and providing them a safe haven in India. I don’t know any other Indian journalist who has criticized the Indian government for this, at that time. An Indian journalist will typically say  that the Indian government was supporting the oppressed Srilankan Tamils, or will sweep the issue below the carpet and ignore it.

A couple of more things which I read in the book which I found very fascinating. It looked like in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, Russia didn’t take either side, and tried acting neutral. Which is very surprising, because I thought that during the Cold War era, Russia was on the Indian side, and America was on the Pakistani side. America was clearly on the Pakistani side, while Russia seems to have prevaricated, and sometimes even bullied the Indian side during the post war negotiations. There seems to have been some Russian support for the Indian side during the 1971 Bangladesh War, but in general, the Russian position seems to have been fuzzy. It seems that Russia regarded India as a poor country and a kind of inferior vassal state, not really a friend or an ally. It was not surprising when after the Cold War era ended, the Russian government dumped their so-called friendship with India, and I remember the then Russian President Boris Yelstin saying that the Russian friendship with India was a Cold War era thing, and it was past its expiry date now. It is ironic now that 30 years later, after Russian politicians have pushed their country into near international isolation with their acts befitting a cartoon villain, Russia is seeking friendship with India again. It is almost like a Coen Brothers dark comedy. I hope today’s Indian diplomats know their history and know whom they are dealing with here.

Another interesting thing which I found in the book was this. I remember my dad telling me when I was a kid that the American government threatened to bring their naval fleet into the Bay of Bengal and bomb India, during the 1971 Bangladesh War. I haven’t heard about this from anyone else since, and so I thought maybe there were just rumours at that time, or maybe my dad was exaggerating. My dad was a history teacher though and he never exaggerates. So it was interesting for me to read an essay in Kuldip Nayar’s book which confirmed what my dad said. For some reason, the American government didn’t carry out their threat, and their naval fleet didn’t materialize in Indian waters. This was probably the closest that India and America had come to actual war on the ground and the heart shudders to think on how things would have been if it had happened.

I’ve heard Indians sometimes say that it would have been great if India had strategic natural resources like oil and uranium. Oil is energy, and uranium is energy and weapons, and with these two, India would have atleast been a regional power from whom its neighbours and superpowers would have stayed away. I’m not sure about this. I feel sometimes that India got lucky because it didn’t have these things. If the Americans threatened to bring their naval fleet and bomb India, for something which didn’t concern them, I’m wondering what would have happened if India had stuff like oil and uranium. There would have been a superpower scramble for the resources and a superpower proxy war would have happened in Indian territory. The Americans have always hated democracy in non-Western countries, especially those countries with strategic natural resources. If there was a chance of democracy, they always intervened, orchestrated a coup, and installed a right-wing dictator who suppressed the people. The Russians, of course, always hated democracy. Being in the middle of these two bullies, India would have suffered. A tinpot dictator would have been installed who would have kowtowed to one of the superpowers. It would have been like the way it happened in the Middle East or in Latin America. India got lucky, because without these strategic natural resources, except for some superpower bullying and being treated with contempt all around, India was left alone. It continued being a poor country with 1940s technology, till the end of the Cold War era. Then the economy opened up, and as they say, the rest is history. It makes me think of one of my favourite verses (Verse 11) from the Chinese classic ‘Tao Te Ching’ by Lao Tzu. It goes like this.

“Thirty spokes share a central hub;

It is the hole that makes the wheel useful.

Mix water and clay into a vessel;

Its emptiness is what makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

Their emptiness is what makes them useful.

Therefore consider : advantage comes from having things

And usefulness from having nothing.”

The last lines always make me smile – “Advantage comes from having things. And usefulness from having nothing.”

Having nothing definitely helped India survive the Cold War era. Having nothing will sometimes keep you safe. There is no guarantee of it though. Sometimes even when you have nothing, people will treat you with contempt and will try to crush you. But in this particular case, having nothing seems to have worked. The Ancient Chinese were definitely wise.

I enjoyed reading ‘Scoop‘. Kuldip Nayar has also written a book on the Emergency. It was first published in 1977, and so probably offers a firsthand witness to the events. I want to read this sometime.

Have you read this and other Kuldip Nayar books?


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I wanted to start this month by reading some history. So I read Max Hastings‘ book on the Korean War.

The Korean War was probably the first war in the Cold War era when Western and communist forces clashed on the battlefield. It is not as famous as the Vietnam War, and it is mostly forgotten today. But though the Vietnam War has passed on to history and legend today, with the country filled with bustling cities with tall skyscrapers like any other East Asian city, the fires of the Korean War are still smoldering today, with North Korea and South Korea being two separate, distinct countries, with tension brewing in between. So I thought it will be a good idea to read this book and find out how it all started.

One of the problems I had while choosing to read a particular history of the Korean War was this. Most history books which are available in English today are written by American or British historians. Occasionally, we might find a French or German book in English translation, but otherwise this is it. (There are lots of books on Indian history in English by Indian historians and writers, but that is a unique case, and so I’m going to ignore that for the purposes of our discussion.) So, because of this, a typical history book in English is going to have a British or American bias. Of course, historians try to be neutral, and try to provide the relevant facts, with objective analysis, but the bias always creeps in. For example, a typical British or American version of the Korean War could go like this – “The army of the evil Chinese empire, joined together with the North Koreans and tried to take over the whole of Korea. The heroic American army intervened with the help of friends and helped the South Korean people. In a furious war waged between the armies of the free world and of the communist totalitarians, the noble armies of the free world triumphed. That is why we have a democratic, free South Korea today, which is one of the biggest Asian economies, while totalitarian North Korea is poor and primitive.” This is the kind of history which is peddled by the international press, and media, and this is the history which most of us are aware of. So I was worried that a history of the war by an American or British historian would be a version of this. Maybe a sophisticated version, but still very similar to this.

So, what about Max Hastings’ book? How good is it? There is good news and bad news.

The good news first. I thought that the context that Hastings gave to the war with the background into Korean history of that period and how the Japanese occupied Korea and how the division of Korea into the North and the South happened – this is very well done. I learnt a lot while reading this. The actual war is described from a Western perspective, but to be fair to Hastings, he doesn’t hesitate to criticize the decisions by American leaders and military personnel. (He mostly treats British leaders and army personnel softly with kid gloves, which is very interesting 😊)  Occasionally he also describes things from a Chinese perspective, based on his interviews with Chinese veterans. There are many stories of heroism and valour and sacrifice during the war, mostly of the American and British and other UN soldiers, and occasionally of the Chinese soldiers which are very inspiring and moving to read. There is considerable space given to the American General Douglas MacArthur and his role in the war and how his decisions impacted events. It made me want to read more about MacArthur. The only things I know about him are that he was famous, he was featured in an American postage stamp, and he was suddenly dismissed by his President Truman. MacArthur looks like a fascinating, larger-than-life character, whom people loved or hated, but couldn’t ignore. I hope to read more about him. This is the good news.

Now the bad news 😊 The North Koreans are mostly treated as a mass of homogeneous, evil people, who are ruthless and barbaric. Though there is a lot of description of individual American or British soldiers, there is no mention of an individual North Korean by name. Except for Kim Il Sung. The North Koreans are regarded as a primitive, evil horde who are uncivilized and the author probably feels that they deserved what was coming to them. The Chinese soldiers are also mostly depicted this way – as an evil horde who keep on coming and fighting in the night. The Chinese get slightly better treatment though – individual Chinese soldiers are sometimes mentioned and the author is able to interview them and we learn their stories. One of the reasons for this could be that North Korean veterans of the war would have been inaccessible to Western correspondents, as their country was closed and continues to be closed to outsiders today. The same would have been true with respect to Chinese veterans, but there was a thaw between the Chinese and the West in the 1970s, which continued into the 1980s, when Hastings wrote this book, and so he would have been able to speak to some of the Chinese veterans of the war. But, inspite of this small silver lining, it is hard to ignore the fact that the North Koreans and the Chinese are treated as barbaric, primitive, evil hordes, who are out to destroy the beautiful freedom created by Western countries.

So, the book describes the Western perspective of the Korean War. It is detailed from that perspective. We get the occasional Chinese perspective. But the perspective from the opposite side is mostly simplistic or missing. But we can read the book against the grain, look at the author’s conclusions and try to see things from the opposite side. It is lots of hardwork, but it is interesting and rewarding. I do agree with the overall conclusion of the author though – that the American and UN intervention in Korea was good and South Korea is a thriving country today with a booming economy and it is a global leader in popular culture because of that. (Though why the Chinese didn’t take North Korea under their wing, make investments there and make it into a thriving economy, the way the Americans helped South Korea – why this didn’t happen, we’ll never know. What is the purpose of keeping North Korea closed and stuck in a Cold War era time warp? It doesn’t help anyone, including the North Koreans and the Chinese.)

I found Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War very informative and insightful, inspite of its limitations. I loved what Max Hastings said in his introduction to the book – “It is properly the business of a new generation of historians to correct the errors which have inevitably emerged over the past three decades, in light of updated statistics and declassified material. Authors addressing the subject anew must review and challenge my judgements as they see fit.” That is what a good historian says – that history is open to new interpretations as new facts emerge in the future, and his version is neither definite nor final. This made me like Max Hastings.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

This story made me cry.

“Suk Bun Yoon, the fourteen-year-old schoolboy who had twice escaped from Seoul under communist occupation, was living with the remains of his family as suppliants upon the charity of a village south of the capital in the spring of 1951. A government mobilisation decree was suddenly thrust upon the village: twenty able-bodied men were required for military service. Suk’s family was offered a simple proposal by the villagers: if the boy would go to the army in place of one of their own, they would continue to feed his parents.

An American army truck bore him and the other bewildered young men first to Seoul, and then on up the dusty road towards the front. They spent a night in an old station warehouse, where they were given chocolate and a can of corned beef. It was the first meat the boy had tasted for six months, and was impossibly rich. He was sick at once. Next morning, after five hours on the road, he and a cluster of others were deposited at the camp of the Royal Ulster Rifles. He was not to be a soldier, but a porter under military discipline. He found himself joining a unit of some forty porters attached to the battalion. His first job was to carry a coil of barbed wire up to the forward positions. It was hopeless. He was too young, and too weak. The corporal in charge took pity on him. He was assigned to become a sweeper and odd-job boy at the rear echelon. Yet life remained desperately hard. Each night, the porters were confined to their hut, yet they were sometimes awakened amid the sound of the gunfire to carry ammunition or equipment forward. One day, they found themselves hastily ordered back to a new position. Suk scarcely understood what was happening, beyond the confusion of retreat. Gradually, he and the others understood that there had been a battle, and heavy casualties. Around half the porters had disappeared, captured or killed.

After the battle, the porters’ conditions seemed to improve. Suk became more accustomed to the life, and determined to educate himself. As he learned a little English, he questioned the soldiers incessantly: What was the longest river in the world? Which was the highest mountain? How was England governed? Since in later life he became a professor of economics, this experiment cannot be considered a complete failure. The soldiers called him ‘Spaniard’, because he had a reputation for hot temper. Yet when the Ulsters were relieved and he found himself attached to the Royal Norfolks, conditions deteriorated again. He was caught scavenging for food, roughly handled, and sent for a spell in a barbed-wire cage. He was then sacked from his job as a porter at battalion headquarters, and sent to the pioneer platoon, where he spent several more months.

‘I was very homesick,’ he said. ‘By February 1952, I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The only letter I had sent to my family was returned undelivered. I was missing them desperately.’ That month, he was given leave to Seoul. He reached the capital determined not to go back to the front. He contacted some of his old schoolmates, and in April was able to arrange to return to school – a school without books or desks. His only asset was a strong command of the English language which he had acquired on the hills behind the Imjin.”

This happened hours after the war ended and the armistice was signed. It made me smile  It also made me sad at the meaningless futility of war.

“When dawn came, men on the UN line peered out across the silent valleys between themselves and the Chinese. In many places, little clusters of bold spirits slipped forward through the wire and the minefields, searching with intense curiosity for their former enemies. What did they look like, these strange creatures who had been glimpsed only momentarily through binoculars, or as screaming shadows in the darkness of an attack? The same curiosity possessed their enemies. On the low ground between positions, there were stilted little encounters. The Chinese passed over beer and bottles of rice wine. UN troops offered chocolate and cigarettes. Some Chinese made it apparent that they were as delighted that the war was ended as the Westerners. But these meetings could scarcely be called fraternisation. They were impelled not by fellow-feeling for the enemy, but by the same impulses that would provoke any earthman to inspect visiting aliens.”

Have you read Max Hastings’ book on the Korean War or any other book on the Korean War?

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I read an essay by June Jordan on Martin Luther King recently, and I realized that I haven’t read a proper book by him. Of course, I have read words spoken by him and have seen others quote him, but I haven’t read a book by him. So I looked around and found this book and picked it up, and I’ve been reading it for the past few weeks. I finished reading it yesterday. I read it for ‘Black History Month‘.

A Testament of Hope‘ is a collection of Martin Luther King’s important essays, speeches, interviews, and excerpts from his books. It has something of everything and it seemed to be the best one-volume collection out there and is a beautiful introduction to his work. The first part of the book has essays by King in which he describes his philosophy of nonviolent protests. It has one of the most beautiful descriptions of the philosophy of nonviolent protests that I’ve ever read. He talks about the three words for love in Greek, eros, philia, and agape, and it made me smile, because it took me back in time, to my teenage years, when I first encountered these three words. King also talks about how Gandhi pioneered the use of nonviolent methods to fight against oppression. There is even an essay on his trip to India, which was insightful to read. Throughout this part of the book, King also talks about the struggle against segregation, the fight for integration, and how equality can be achieved by peaceful, nonviolent means. One of my favourite essays of his was ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail‘.

The second part of the book has many of his famous speeches and sermons. I think all his famous speeches are there, including ‘I Have a Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘I See the Promised Land‘. Martin Luther King was a powerful speaker, and all his speeches were inspiring. My favourites were ‘The American Dream‘, ‘The Drum Major Instinct‘, and ‘A Time to Break Silence‘, his famous protest and condemnation of the American government for its role in the Vietnam war. One of the things I was looking forward to, while reading his speeches and other parts of the book, was to find where his most famous lines made their first appearance. My most favourite quote of his, and probably the most famous lines he ever spoke, is ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice‘. I found it in many places, in his essays, speeches, book excerpts. It was lots of fun to spot it.

There were five interviews in the interviews section of the book, and my favourite out of them was the Playboy interview. Playboy is a magazine which is famous for its centrefold pictures, but Playboy also has a serious side, and it has featured wonderful interviews with important people. This interview was very detailed and insightful and beautiful.

The book section had excerpts from all his books. My favourite was ‘Stride Toward Freedom‘, which was about the Montgomery bus protests. ‘The Strength of Love‘ is a collection of sermons and there was one sermon in it called ‘A Knock at Midnight‘ which was incredibly beautiful.

One of the things I loved about Martin Luther King was that he didn’t shy away from difficult questions and didn’t try to sweep things below the carpet. He answered these questions precisely and clearly. In one of the interviews, he is asked about whether nonviolence will continue to be effective as in recent times protestors have started resorting to violence after being influenced by the Black Power movement. The reply he gives to that is one of the best defences of the nonviolent movement that I’ve read. In another interview, a Jewish Rabbi asks him about why some of the black leaders are anti-Semitic and whether the overall African-American community is anti-Semitic. The answer he gives to this tricky question (in cricket parlance, it was a total bouncer or a googly) is one of the best parts of the book. As we say in cricket, Well played, MLK! 😊

I loved ‘A Testament of Hope‘. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life, and definitely one of my favourite books of the year. It was 700 pages of pure inspiration which gave me goosebumps all the time. I read it from the first page to the last, like a regular book, but I feel now that it is a book which is best read a few pages at a time, one essay at a time, with time spent after that in thinking and contemplation. I think that is the best way to get the maximum pleasure and learning out of the book. The book has a beautiful introduction by the editor James Melvin Washington, which talks about Martin Luther King and his life, and puts this book in context.

Martin Luther King was a soft-spoken, gentle preacher who suddenly emerged as a civil rights leader in 1955 during the Montgomery bus protests. He was 26 years old at that time and he was virtually unknown. In the space of a little more than a year, he emerged as a national and international icon and as a leader who fought for the rights of the oppressed through peaceful means. Fame, awards, and glory followed, including the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was the youngest to win. He didn’t rest on his laurels and continued his crusade and fought for the rights of his people, gently and nonviolently. He died when he was 39, when a mad man shot him, when he was planning a new nonviolent crusade the next day. He was still so young, with a rich future ahead. It is amazing to contemplate on the unbelievable things that he accomplished in this short span of 13 years. It also feels sad to contemplate on what he might have accomplished if he had lived a long life. Out of the three great nonviolent crusaders of the 20th century who fought against oppression and for the rights of their people – Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela – two were assassinated by mad men. I don’t know why people hate gentle souls who favour peace over war, and love over hate. Only Nelson Mandela survived as he managed to come out of prison and see off the apartheid era and take his country to a new age.

It is hard to believe that once upon a time a gentle soul like Martin Luther King walked on this earth, spread the message of peace and love while fighting for the oppressed, and accomplished great things. We are in his debt.

It is hard to choose a few favourite passages from a book like this, because the whole book was so beautiful and inspiring. As John Updike once said, “Just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment.” This is that kind of book. But I can’t inflict it on you and quote the whole book to you. So I’m just sharing some of my favourite passages here. Hope they’ll inspire you to read the book.

Three Kinds of Love

“Now when the students talk about love, certainly they are not talking about emotional bosh, they are not talking about merely sentimental outpouring; they’re talking something much deeper, and I always have to stop and try to define the meaning of love in this context. The Greek language comes to our aid in trying to deal with this. There are three words in the Greek language for love; one is the word eros. This is a beautiful type of love, it is an aesthetic love. Plato talks about it a great deal in his Dialogue, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. It has come to us to be a sort romantic love, and so in a sense we have read about it and experienced it. We’ve read about it in all the beauties of literature. I guess in a sense Edgar Allen Poe was talking about eros when he talked about his beautiful Annabelle Lee, with the love surrounded by the halo of eternity. In a sense Shakespeare was talking about eros when he said “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove; O’no! It is an ever fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, it is the star to every wandering bark.” (You know, I remember that because I used to quote it to this little lady when we were courting; that’s eros.) The Greek language talks about philia which was another level of love. It is an intimate affection between personal friends, it is a reciprocal love. On this level you love because you are loved. It is friendship.

Then the Greek language comes with another word which is called the agape. Agape is more than romantic love, agape is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive, good will to all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. Theologians would say that it is the love of God operating in the human heart. So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal him, but he loves every man because God loves him. And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “love your enemies.” I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people. Like is sentimental, and it is pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights. But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemp- tive, creative, good will for all men. And it is this idea, it is this whole ethic of love which is the idea standing at the basis of the student movement.”

On Being Maladjusted

“There are certain technical words which tend to become stereotypes and cliches after a certain period of time. Psychologists have a word which is probably used more frequently than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” In a sense all of us must live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the viciousness of mob rule. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to the inequalities of an economic system which takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating method of physical violence.

It may be that the salvation of the world lies in the hands of the maladjusted. The challenge to us is to be maladjusted – as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let judgment run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”; as maladjusted as Lincoln, who had the who had the vision to see that this nation cannot survive half slave half free; as maladjusted as Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery could cry out in words lifted to cosmic proportions. “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit Happiness”; as maladjusted as Jesus who could say to the men and women of his generation, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.”

The world is in desperate need of such maladjustment. Through such courageous maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom justice.”

Human Progress

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. The Darwinian theory of evolution is valid in the biological realm, but when a Hubert Spencer seeks to apply it to the whole of society there is very little evidence for it. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without hard work, time itself becomes ally of the primitive forces of irrational emotionalism social stagnation.”

Just and Unjust Laws

“Much has been made of the willingness of these devotees of nonviolent social action to break the law. Paradoxically, although they have embraced Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s civil disobedience on a scale dwarfing any past experience in American history, they do respect law. They feel a moral responsibility to obey just laws. But they recognize that there are also unjust laws.

From a purely moral point of view, an unjust law is one which is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe. More concretely, an unjust law is one in which the minority is compelled to observe a code that is not binding on the majority. An unjust law is one in which people are required to obey a code that they had no part in making because they were denied the right to vote.

In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty,  whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

This distinguishes their positon on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects that law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

Civilization and Culture

“We have allowed our civilization to outdistance our culture. Professor MacIver follows the German sociologist, Alfred Weber, in pointing out the distinction between culture and civilization. Civilization refers what we use; culture refers to what we are. Civilization is that complex of devices, instrumentalities, mechanisms and techniques by means of which we live. Culture is that realm of ends expressed in art, literature, religion and morals for which at best we live.

The great problem confronting us today is that we have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance ends for which we live. We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture, and so we are in danger now of ending up with guided missiles in the hands of misguided men. This is what the poet Thoreau meant when he said, “Improved means to an unimproved end.” If we are to survive today and realize the dream of our mission and the dream of the world, we must bridge the gulf and somehow keep the means by which we live abreast with the ends for which we live.”

“Where Do We Go From Here”

“Now, in order to answer the question, “Where do we go from here?” which is our theme, we must first honestly recognize where we are now. When the Constitution was written, a strange formula to determine taxes and representation declared that the African-American was sixty percent of a person. Today another curious formula seems to declare that he is fifty percent of person. Of the good things in life, the African-American has approximately one half those of whites. Of the bad things in life, he has twice those of whites. Thus half of all African-Americans live in substandard housing. And African-Americans have half the income of whites. When we view the negative experiences of life, the African-American has a double share. There are twice as many unemployed. The rate of infant mortality among African-Americans is double that of whites and there are twice as many African-Americans dying in Vietnam as whites in proportion to their size in the population…This is where we are.”

Roget’s Thesaurus

“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example, blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence. A white lie is better than a black lie.  The most degenerate member of a family is a “black sheep.” Ossie Davis has suggested that maybe the English language should be reconstructed so that teachers will not be forced teach the black child sixty ways to despise himself, and thereby perpetuate his false sense of inferiority, and the white child 134 ways to adore himself, and thereby perpetuating his false sense of superiority.”

The Bootstrap Philosophy

“Now there is another myth that still gets around; it is a kind of overreliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the African-American is to rise out of poverty, if the African-American is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the African-American must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma; but beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863 the African-American was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln. But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful. It was something like keeping a person in prison for a number years and suddenly discovering that that person is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted. And you just go up to him and say, “Now you are free,” but you don’t give him any bus fare to get to town. You don’t give him any money to get some clothes to put on his back or to get on his feet again in life.

Every court of jurisprudence would rise up against this and yet this is the very thing that our nation did to the black man. It simply said, “You’re free,” and left him there penniless, illiterate, not knowing what to do. And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man – through an act Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest – which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm. Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so that they could mechanize their farms. And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm. And these are so often the very people who tell African-Americans that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

On the Vietnam War

“And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think if them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution until some attempt is made to know them and to hear their broken cries.

They must see the Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people weren’t ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned international atmosphere for so long.

For nine years following 1945 we vigorously supported the French in their abortive attempt to recolonize Vietnam. After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come through the Geneva Agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops, who came help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown, they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while, the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us – not their fellow Vietnamese – the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know that they must move or be destroyed by our bombs, and they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops, and they wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American fire power to one Viet-Cong inflicted injury. They wander into the towns and see thousands of children homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think, as we ally ourselves with the landlords, and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions : the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in crushing one of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political forces, the United Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. What liberators!

Now there is little left to build on – save bitterness. And soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call fortified hamlets. The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these; could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them, and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.”

Have you read ‘A Testament of Hope‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Martin Luther King quote?

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I wanted to read Wayétu Moore’s novel ‘She Would be King‘, but when I discovered that she has written a memoir, I wanted to read that first. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies’.

‘Read Indies’ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women’ is published by ONE, which is an imprint of Pushkin Press.

The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘ starts with the story happening in Liberia. It is narrated by the five-year old Wayétu Moore. We discover that her mom is in America and she and her sisters are living with her dad. Civil war breaks out in Liberia, and Wayétu Moore and her family have to flee their home. What happens to them is told in the rest of the book.

The book is divided into multiple parts. The first part, which is the longest part of the book, is narrated in the voice of the five-year old Wayétu Moore. That voice is beautiful, charming and authentic. I loved it. That was my favourite part of the book. Then the story shifts to the present say, and it is narrated by thirty-something Wayétu Moore. Then at some point, the story moves back to the past and continues from where it left off at the end of the first part and we hear the story through the voice of Wayétu Moore’s mom. And then the story is continued by today’s Wayétu Moore while she describes the events of the past, and the pages fly by and the tension increases, as the last part reads like a thriller.

I loved the first part of the book. It was my favourite. I also loved the last two parts which carried on the story which was told in the first part. The part in between was different – the voice was different, the themes were different. It talked about Wayétu Moore’s life in America as an African immigrant and the discrimination she suffers. What that part talked about is important, but it didn’t hang well with the rest of the book. It felt like Wayétu Moore decided to write another book in the middle of the first book. Maybe this middle part deserved a book of its own.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘. ‘Enjoyed’ is probably not the right word, as the story describes war and suffering. Liberia is a complex country with a complex history, and I learnt some of it through Moore’s book. It is so unbelievable that all this happened. When I read these lines on the last page of the book –

“My Ol’ Ma says the best stories do not always end happily, but happiness will find its way in there somehow. She says that some will bend many times like the fisher’s wire. Some make the children laugh. Some make even the Ol’ Pas cry. Some the griots will take a long time to tell, but like plums left in the sun for too long, they too are sweet to taste.

Suffering is a part of everyone’s story. As long as my Ol’ Ma is here, and I am here, as long as I become an Ol’ Ma myself and my children’s children become Ol’ Mas and Ol’ Pas, there will be rainy seasons and dry seasons too long to bear, where troubles pile up like coal to burn you to dust. But just like suffering makes its bed in these seasons, so does happiness, however brief, however fleeting.

There are many stories of war to tell. You will hear them all. But remember among those who were lost, some made it through. Among the dragons there will always be heroes. Even there. Even then. And of those tales ending in defeat, tales of death and orphans wandering among the ruined, some ended the other way too.”

– when I read this, I cried.

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

“The restlessness made a home on my shoulders, tormenting me as the day went on. This was the other side of love. Love gone is painful, and I existed in that grief…But love almost gone — the lurking threat of loss — that was a daily torture, death realized every morning.”

“An Ol’ Ma, a grand-aunt maybe, told us that all of our dead and missing were resting peacefully in wandering clouds, and when it rains and you listen closely you can hear the things they forgot to tell you before leaving.”

“We had been together for two years, all of which were long distance. Long-distance relationships begin beautifully, end suddenly, sometimes by accident, and thereafter smoke rises not because all is burned to ashes but because there is always something left in the pipe…The Ol’ Mas did not tell us that you could not throw away love once it was finished. That it would remain on us like blackened scars, under neath blouses and in those places only we could see. That we would reach a point where it, once solid, would melt in our hands and we would never fully wash off its residue; and that some love, the truest love, also the most dangerous, could disfigure our core.”

“I thought of Mam in that moment. She had taught me many things, and at times, especially during those teenage years of promising her I would move far away to New York as soon as I got my diploma, she was more than I deserved. She taught me how to cook, how to write, my posture, how to care for a home, how to love God, how to read. She taught me politeness, creativity, how to write a letter, especially to those who had offended me. How to pray, how to fold clothes, how to love my sisters, how to love my brothers, how to love myself. She taught me about women—how to be one, how to know them, how to befriend them, how to give advice and love them, and how some would betray me because they saw kindness as weakness, and at the first sign of such brutality I should walk away, for such women did not even love themselves. That not all who chose to be around me liked me. That some knew too well how to pretend, and they would raise daughters with these doctrines, so I should remember her words and the words of my Ol’ Mas to raise mine. And some would raise sons they did not want to let go of, and would handle them like marionettes, and I should be careful never to sit in the audience of such a show for too long.

But there were things I went into the world not knowing. We did not talk about what to do when a boy was unkind, in words or actions, breaking my heart. I was lousy in the ways of healing. Mam had one true love and she married him. She had one true love in a country of women like her, whose sun took turns resting on their deep, dark skin. My true loves in our new country, by either inheritance or indoctrination, were taught that black women were the least among them. Loving me was an act of resistance, though many did not know it. And Mam could not understand this feeling, the heaviness of it, to be loved as resistance, as an exception to a rule. To fight to be seen in love, to stay in love throughout the resistance. This was my new country.”

Have you read ‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Black Foam‘ by Haji Jabir recently. It looked quite fascinating and so I decided to read it. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘.

The main character in ‘Black Foam‘ is a man who seems to be homeless, rootless. As we read the story, we discover that he is a young Eritrean soldier on the eve of Eritrea’s independence. Circumstances change for him after a while and he has to flee his country and he is on the run. He ends up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He changes his identity – his name and his religion – and from Dawoud, he becomes David. When things don’t go well for him at the refugee camp, he changes his name again to Dawit, somehow gets into a Jewish community, and migrates to Israel. What happens to this man, who belongs nowhere, or rather who belongs everywhere, is told in the rest of the story.

This is my first book by an Eritrean author and I found it very fascinating. The author is Eritrean, the book is written in Arabic, and the story happens in three places, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Israel – all these together made it a very unusual and fascinating book. At some point we read this passage in the book –

“He wasn’t asking for much: he just wanted to survive, live a normal life, wake up, sleep, love and have children, and then die in his bed. He wasn’t asking for more.”

It is such a simple life to wish for. The main character just wants this. But this is hard. For him, this is almost impossible. He has to change his identity, his name, his religion, his language, his country, and still this simple life is out of his reach. There is a famous place in Jerusalem where there is a ladder against a building. The ladder is short and is not able to reach the window. This ladder and window have been there like this for 300 years. It is described in the book. The main character’s life is like that. Inspite of reinventing himself multiple times, he ends up being like the ladder, which never reaches the window, which is the simple life he yearns for. It is heartbreaking.

This book asks big profound questions on who we are as individuals and humans – whether we really have an identity or whether it is all just a fleeting thing which can be changed at will, whether we belong anywhere, or we belong nowhere, or maybe we belong everywhere. It made me think a lot.

I enjoyed reading ‘Black Foam‘. It is an important book for our times. It is the first book I’ve read which is written by a black writer in Arabic. Black writer, writing in Arabic, translated into English – this is as diverse as it can get.

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

“An idea he had often entertained popped back into his mind—that Eritreans didn’t know anger, that they only grieved and were broken and withdrew, while never losing their temper. For the oppressed, anger was a luxury, and between them and anger there stood a fence of humiliation and oppression. Anger was an act of will, and the oppressed had no will and no ability to make decisions. He wanted to explain all of that to her…”

“Each time, he got deeper into the construction of his story, making many unnecessary embellishments. He usually didn’t like this method since this way he wasn’t the owner and master of the story. Instead, it became the property of his listeners. Storytelling was a dangerous game, and the tale could slip from your hands at just the moment you thought it was fully yours. Still, he felt this was a good test of his ability to narrate, or rather to fabricate. After all, narration was fabrication. Anything else was just a poor imitation, merely passing on a story made up by someone else.”

“Then suddenly she lifted her head and asked : “By the way, which of your names would you like me to call you?” The question threw him into confusion. Should he say Dawoud, with all the defeats and losses that old name carried? Or should he choose David, a newer name, yet with as many bitter experiences? Or should he stick with the infant Dawit, without knowing for sure whether it was any different from its predecessors? He couldn’t get rid of these names and everything they carried. Each one was a weight that dragged behind him, like a cupboard full of memories, and he couldn’t seem to pass by any bit of anguish without storing it inside them. He didn’t know if he gave each name its wretched shape and features or whether it was the other way around. What he did know was that his many names were a lot like him, a good fit for him and his amputated life. These names, which he had wanted to save him, had instead become a burden. It occurred to him that, even if he continued to switch between all the names, it wouldn’t change his fate. Thus, he felt a little more charitable toward the names since the jinx was part of his destiny. Names were just rags, after all; they couldn’t hide his fate. He surfaced from his confusion and told her to call him whatever she wanted.”

Have you read ‘Black Foam‘? What do you think about it?

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I thought I’ll continue reading books set in Ethiopia and so picked this one, ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘ edited by Maaza Mengiste. I read this for ‘Black History Month‘ and for ‘Read Indies‘.

Read Indies‘ is an annual event hosted by Kaggsy (from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings) and Lizzy (from Lizzy’s Literary Life), which promotes independent publishers and runs through the whole of February. ‘Addis Ababa Noir’ is published by Akashic Books, an independent publisher based out of Brooklyn.

Addis Ababa Noir‘ is a collection of 14 short stories. They are all set in Addis Ababa, of course  Many of them are poignant stories, sometimes with heartbreaking endings. Many of them are set during the period of the Derg, between 1974-91 when the military dictatorship was in power in Ethiopia and during which time innocent people suffered. As you might have guessed by now, this is not a book of classic noir. So you won’t find stories like a woman plotting with the insurance agent to kill her husband and pocket the insurance money, or a woman plotting with a guest to kill her husband who is the motel owner and get his money. This is not that book. The noir aspect here is that things are sad and dark and bleak and there are no happy endings. There are some stories which don’t have heartbreaking endings and sometimes the endings are almost happy, but the endings in general are sad ones.

My favourite story from the book was ‘Father Bread‘ by Mikael Awake. In this story a young boy ends up in an orphanage. His family has been attacked and killed by hyenas. The man who owns the orphanage tries to put the young boy up for adoption to an American couple. But this man’s intentions are not necessarily noble. And the young boy, he is no ordinary young boy. The ending of the story was stunning and surprising and I didn’t see that coming. It was wonderful how the author took an idea from Ethiopian mythology and adapted it to a modern setting.

My second favourite story from the book was ‘Agony of a Congested Heart‘ by Teferi Nigussie Tafa. It is about the struggle of the Oromo people, who have been oppressed by successive Ethiopian governments. This story offers an insightful, tragic lesson in history. When the narrator says that while his African brothers and sisters suffered under white colonialism, his own people the Oromo suffered under black colonialism, it breaks our heart. Einstein once said – “Two things are infinite : the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Humans just keep proving it everyday with their infinite levels of oppression. The oppressed continue to oppress others who are less fortunate than them, and this continues to infinite levels, and this has been there since the dawn of time with no end in sight. We’d assume that humans would have learnt the lessons of history by now and would try to be more kind and do better, but human stupidity is infinite as Einstein said, and it looks like they’ll never learn. When the narrator says in the end – “When I discovered this, I realized that my forty years of struggle had ended in nothing. Maybe struggle is not good. Maybe struggle is a curse! We all carry the agony of a congested heart. My agony, my people’s agony” – it breaks our heart.

I also loved the first story in the book, ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero, in which a man who is passing through a churchyard, is pulled aside by a stranger who then starts telling this man his story. ‘A Night in Bela Sefer‘ by Sulaiman Addonia is about a young man who responds to a strange ad in the paper and is hired for a job. It is a beautiful story about desire and identity and orientation. ‘A Double-Edged Inheritance‘ by Hannah Giorgis is about family and love with some revenge thrown in. ‘Dust, Ash, Flight‘ by Maaza Mengiste is a heartbreaking story about people who lose their family members to government-sponsored violence. ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about a mother’s love for her son. The mother is an unusual person, and you’ll know why when you read the story. ‘Of the Poet and the Cafe‘ by Girma T. Fantaye is about a man who goes in the morning to open his cafe and discovers that it has disappeared. He is even more surprised when no one seems to remember him or his cafe. It is a fascinating, surreal story and is almost Borgesian. ‘Kebele ID‘ by Linda Yohannes is a simple story but also a beautiful one. ‘None of Your Business‘ by Solomon Hailemariam is a story which asks questions on what is really a democracy and what happens when we fight for it and demand it.

I loved ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘. It was not at all what I expected. The stories explored Ethiopian culture and history and mythology and contemporary life and it was hard to classify them as classical noir. This noir series by Akashic Books is big and there is a huge backlist. Hoping to dip into that in the future.

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

From ‘Kind Stranger‘ by Meron Hadero

“Those subtle stings to pride—they’re worse than the big ego blows because they’re not like some obvious pebble you can remove from your shoe. They are like shards that you know are there but can’t find and can’t get rid of.”

From ‘Ostrich‘ by Rebecca Fisseha

“My father waited. I knew that wait. It meant that their conversation was one response away from becoming a fight. All it needed was for her to say words sharper than his. Unlike other adults, my parents never hid their fights from anyone. They believed that disagreeing was normal and good, and always kissed afterward, no matter who won. But my mother didn’t respond that day. She let the silence be. It lingered even after my father rolled down his window to the sound of the city.”

From ‘The Blue Shadow‘ by Mahtem Shiferraw

“Although Weyzero Fantish was a woman afflicted by many sorrows, she also loved life deeply. Mourning was what she did best, and she wanted to do it because everyone deserved to be mourned for, to be longed for, and the seed of sorrow she planted in her mourners’ hearts always loomed larger and more intricate, and would come back to her in the shape of kindness and kinship.”

From ‘Insomnia‘ by Lelissa Girma

“A mirror is a compassionate object reflecting false images the reflection wishes to believe,” his friend said. “If that man had watched himself from our vantage point, if he saw himself dining with his present condition, he would have thrown himself off a bridge and died. You can’t find out the truth about yourself until you come across your own self on the street, and then you observe yourself at a distance to decide what condition you are in.”

From ‘Of Buns and Howls‘ by Adam Reta

“To him, dead people were cool, because dead people couldn’t kill you.”

Have you read ‘Addis Ababa Noir‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other books in Akashic’s noir series?

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I got Maaza Mengiste’s first novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’ many years back, when it first came out. I was waiting for the right time to read it. It looks like now is the right time. I read this for Black History Month.

The story told in ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is set sometime in 1974. Haile Selassie is still the Emperor of Ethiopia. But there is unrest brewing in the country. There is a famine in parts of the country. Students and other people protest against the government for not helping those suffering from the famine. Parts of the army protest against the government for higher pay. We see all this through the eyes of one family and their friends. The head of the family is a doctor. His wife is unwell right now. His eldest son is a professor. His youngest son is a student who is one of the protestors against the government. What happens when this family is swept away by historical events over which they have no control forms the rest of the story.

Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ is a fascinating introduction to Ethiopian history of the 1970s, when great, terrible events overtook the country. Though it is a work of fiction, the story feels very real, and the author has done her research well. For me the book felt very personal. I spent my childhood in Ethiopia, and when I read names like Almaz, Kifle, Amman, Dawit and places like Arat Kilo, Sidist Kilo, Mercato, I cried, because those were all names I knew, and those were all places I’ve been to. We had a family friend called Almaz who was like a big sister to me. Yayehyerad Kifle was one of my best friends (we used to call him Mamush. Mamush was a kind of pet name for many Ethiopian boys.) Amman was another friend of mine. He told me that he was named after the great Ethiopian general. There was an old Italian man who used to live in Amman’s house, probably his grandmother’s boyfriend, who stayed back after the Italians left after the Second World War. He had an old Second World War Italian motorcycle, and every year he used to service it and get it ready and then ride it on the streets, and we kids used to run after him. Dawit (Ethiopian version of David) was the name of the son of one of my mom’s friends. The school my dad used to work in, Menelik School, was located at Arat Kilo. Mercato was a bustling market, and I’ve been there many times. So reading the book took me back across time and made me relive my own experiences.

During the time period that the story is set, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by the military and then killed. (The Ethiopian military probably followed the French and Russian playbook – kill the king and all his relatives. The only guys who did it differently and which had interesting results, were the Chinese. They put the emperor through a ‘re-education’ programme, and then offered him a government job. He became a government employee, lived life like a regular person, and retired as a government employee. It was almost like a Kafka story.) The military dictatorship called the Derg took over, imposed a communist totalitarian rule across the country, banned private property, and the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated all his critics and opponents. This book describes how rebels were shot dead and their bodies were thrown on the streets as a warning to other rebels and people who wanted to protest against the government. I can’t remember any of this from my childhood though. My childhood was filled with regular childhood stuff – going to school, coming back home, making my parents’ lives challenging, playing football with my friends on the streets, or doing crazy stuff like climbing water tanks like a monkey. I don’t remember gun battles on the streets and people being shot dead and bodies being thrown on the main streets. On one or two occasions, I remember soldiers carrying stenguns knocked at our door and searched our apartment. My dad said later that they do this everytime there is a coup. I remember the soldiers being polite and nice. It all felt like an adventure to me.

So the book was a big surprise to me, of course. I didn’t know that the horrors that were mentioned in the book had happened. I can’t believe that I had lived in the middle of it. My dad went to work in Ethiopia when the Emperor was still around, and he continued to work there after the coup when the military took over. A year after my dad came back, the Derg dictatorship was overthrown and Mengistu Haile Mariam fled the country. I need to talk to my dad and find out how things were at that time, especially at the time of the coup and the years after that, when things were really hard and the government of that time did unspeakable things. When you are living in another country, you are mostly living in a bubble, and you never know what is happening to a local citizen and what kind of pressure and fear they are living through. I think that is what happened to my family and others like mine. But my dad taught Ethiopian and African history and so he probably knew better. Need to talk to him soon.

I enjoyed reading ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘ though it was mostly heartbreaking to read. I’m looking forward to reading Maaza Mengiste’s next book ‘The Shadow King‘ soon.

Have you read ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘Confessions‘ by Kanae Minato by accident. The plot was very appealing and so I picked it up.

The main character in the story is a teacher in middle school. One day her young daughter is found dead in the swimming pool behind the school. The verdict of the police is that she had drowned. But the teacher discovers that two of the students killed her daughter. She plans her revenge. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

When I started reading the book, I thought it would be a revenge thriller. I love a good old-fashioned revenge thriller, in which the good character plans a long, deep revenge on the bad guys and pulls it off. Who doesn’t love this kind of revenge thriller? But after I read the first part of the book, which stretches to around 50 pages, I realized that the story was mostly done and dusted. I wondered what the author was going to do in the next 200 pages. There was only so much you can do, when things are mostly done and dusted. It looked like the author had written herself into a corner. But Kanae Minato is smart, of course. If a simple reader like me can see this, then as a writer, she can see this much in advance. When I was wondering what was going to happen next, Kanae Minato does the Rashomon thing, and tells the story from different points of view. She takes the story forward from where the teacher left off, and we are able to see what transpires from the perspective of different characters. We are also able to delve into their past. This makes the book more than a revenge thriller, more than a regular crime novel. Before long, we start questioning the nature of good and evil, and we ask ourselves whether we can really tell whether someone is good or bad, or whether there is even such a thing. This makes the book complex and fascinating! The ending is surprising and I didn’t see that coming!

‘Confessions’ is a fascinating crime novel and revenge thriller, but it is also much more than that. It was a gripping read from the beginning to the end. Japanese writers are famous for their dark thrillers, and this is one of the good ones.

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

“I suppose everybody wants to be recognized for what they’ve done; everybody wants to be praised. But doing something good or remarkable isn’t easy. It’s much easier to condemn people who do the wrong thing than it is to do the right thing yourself. But even then, it takes a certain amount of courage to be the first one to come out and blame someone else. What if no one else joins you? No one else stands up to condemn the wrongdoer? On the other hand, it’s easy to join in condemning someone once someone else has gotten the ball rolling. You don’t even have to put yourself out there; all you have to do is say, “Me, too!” It doesn’t end there: You also get the benefit of feeling that you’re doing good by picking on someone evil—it can even be a kind of stress release. Once you’ve done it, though, you may find that you want that feeling again—that you need someone else to accuse just to get the rush back. You may have started with real bad guys, but the second time around you may have to look further down the food chain, be more and more creative in your charges and accusations. And at that point you’re pretty much conducting a witch hunt—just like in the Middle Ages. I think we regular people may have forgotten a basic truth—we don’t really have the right to judge anyone else.”

“Weak people find even weaker people to be their victims. And the victimized often feel that they have only two choices : put up with the pain or end their suffering in death. But they’re wrong. The world you live in is much bigger than that. If the place in which you find yourself is too painful, I say you should be free to seek another, less painful place of refuge. There is no shame in seeking a safe place. I want you to believe that somewhere in this wide world there is a place for you, a safe haven.”

“My father remarried the following year. I had turned eleven. His new wife, someone he had known in middle school, was pretty enough but she was also impossibly dumb. Here she was marrying the owner of an electronics store, and she couldn’t even tell the difference between AA and AAA batteries. Still, I found I didn’t really hate her. Mostly because she didn’t pretend: She was fully aware how stupid she was. When she didn’t know something, she just said so. If a customer asked her a difficult question, she would make a careful note of it and then ask my father before calling back with the answer. There was something admirable in this kind of stupidity. I took to calling her Miyuki-san, and the respect was genuine. I never once talked back to her or treated her like an evil stepmother, the way kids on those cheesy TV shows do. On the contrary, I was the model stepchild, finding a designer bag for her cheap on the Internet or going along with her to carry the grocery bags when she went shopping for dinner. I didn’t even mind when she showed up for Parents’ Day at school. I hadn’t mentioned it to her, but she must have heard from one of the other shopkeepers. Anyway, there she was, all dolled up and right in the middle of the front row. When I was at the blackboard solving some arithmetic problem that was too hard for the other kids, she took my picture with her phone, and then she showed it to my father when we got home—but I didn’t mind. To be honest, it made me kind of happy. Sometimes the three of us would go out bowling or to karaoke, and I began to realize that I was slowly becoming as stupid as they were—and that there was actually something unusually pleasant about being stupid. I had even begun to think that I could be happy being nothing more than a member of this family of dummies.”

Have you read ‘Confessions‘? What do you think? Have you read other Kanae Minato books?

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I’m participating in a year long Jamaica Kincaid reading festival this year. The first book that I read for this event was ‘At the Bottom of the River‘. It is a short story collection with 10 short stories. It is a slim book at around 70 pages, and I finished reading it in one breath.

This book is a collection of short stories, but the stories don’t look like any short stories I’ve read before. They defy classification and categorization and defy our attempts to put them in a pigeon hole. Some of them seem to be written in a style closer to stream-of-consciousness, and though I’m intimidated by the stream-of-consciousness style, I found these stories very accessible. Some of the stories seemed to address the grand themes, like the creation of the universe, the evolution of life and of humans, the future of everything, while others seem to address themes which are emotionally closer to us, like the relationship between a mother and a daughter. But this is all my interpretation. Your way of looking at it might be totally different. The stories are unusual and unique, and this book is very different from the other Kincaids I’ve read before. But the one thing I can say is that it is incredibly beautiful. So at some point I stopped worrying about the plot and the characters and just immersed myself in the beauty of the writing and the beauty of this thing which has been classified as a story. I loved all the stories in the book, but my favourite stories probably were ‘Holidays‘, ‘What I Have Been Doing Lately‘ (it is very, very interesting, but I can’t tell you more), ‘Blackness‘, ‘Mother‘, and the title story, ‘At the Bottom of the River‘.

I loved ‘At the Bottom of the River’. Looking forward to reading a new Kincaid book next month. I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘At the Bottom of the River

“I saw a world in which the sun and the moon shone at the same time. They appeared in a way I had never seen before: the sun was The Sun, a creation of Benevolence and Purpose and not a star among many stars, with a predictable cycle and a predictable end; the moon, too, was The Moon, and it was the creation of Beauty and Purpose and not a body subject to a theory of planetary evolution. The sun and the moon shone uniformly onto everything. Together, they made up the light, and the light fell on everything, and everything seemed transparent, as if the light went through each thing, so that nothing could be hidden. The light shone and shone and fell and fell, but there were no shadows. In this world, on this terrain, there was no day and there was no night. And there were no seasons, and so no storms or cold from which to take shelter. And in this world were many things blessed with unquestionable truth and purpose and beauty. There were steep mountains, there were valleys, there were seas, there were plains of grass, there were deserts, there were rivers, there were forests, there were vertebrates and invertebrates, there were mammals, there were reptiles, there were creatures of the dry land and the water, and there were birds. And they lived in this world not yet divided, not yet examined, not yet numbered, and not yet dead. I looked at this world as it revealed itself to me—how new, how new—and I longed to go there.”

“I had no name for the thing I had become, so new was it to me, except that I did not exist in pain or pleasure, east or west or north or south, or up or down, or past or present or future, or real or not real. I stood as if I were a prism, many-sided and transparent, refracting and reflecting light as it reached me, light that never could be destroyed. And how beautiful I became. Yet this beauty was not in the way of an ancient city seen after many centuries in ruins, or a woman who has just brushed her hair, or a man who searches for a treasure, or a child who cries immediately on being born, or an apple just picked standing alone on a gleaming white plate, or tiny beads of water left over from a sudden downpour of rain, perhaps—hanging delicately from the bare limbs of trees—or the sound the hummingbird makes with its wings as it propels itself through the earthly air.”

“And what do I regret? Surely not that I stand in the knowledge of the presence of death. For knowledge is a good thing; you have said that. What I regret is that in the face of death and all that it is and all that it shall be I stand powerless, that in the face of death my will, to which everything I have ever known bends, stands as if it were nothing more than a string caught in the early morning wind.”

From ‘Holidays

“The road on which I walk barefoot leads to the store — the village store. Should I go to the village store or should I not go to the village store? I can if I want. If I go to the village store, I can buy a peach. The peach will be warm from sitting in a box in the sun. The peach will not taste sweet and the peach will not taste sour. I will know that I am eating a peach only by looking at it. I will not go to the store. I will sit on the porch facing the mountains.”

Have you read ‘At the Bottom of the River‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Jamaica Kincaid book?

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I’ve wanted to read a Junji Ito book for a while. So finally decided to read ‘Tomie‘ which was his first book.

High school students go on a hike up the mountain, as part of a class trip. One of them goes missing. Her name is Tomie. It is later discovered that she is dead, brutally murdered. No one knows who killed her. After her funeral, the students go back to class. Their teacher tells them that they have to be careful as the murderer hasn’t been caught yet. At that point, there is a knock on the door. Everyone looks at the class entrance, and who do they find? It is Tomie! She’s alive and kicking and acts as if nothing has happened! Some classmates feel that the dead person must be a different person and it was a case of mistaken identity. But other classmates seem to know something that we, the readers, don’t. They are sure that the real Tomie is dead. So according to them, there can be only two explanations. One is that the new Tomie is an impostor. The second is that Tomie has come back from the dead. The first explanation is simple and logical. It will probably lead to an old-fashioned revenge thriller. The second explanation is scary and offers delightful possibilities in the telling of the story. Junji Ito being the smart guy, chooses the second one. And we have this beautiful, scary, delightful 750+ page horror manga book.

There are 20 stories in the book. Some of them continue from where the previous story left off. Some of them tell new stories with the characters which appeared before. There are other stories which are independent, and which can be read as standalones. I loved stories from each of these categories, but I loved the standalones more. In some stories, Tomie does bad things or makes people around her do bad things. In other stories, Tomie is the victim and she suffers at the hand of others, and later she comes back to haunt her oppressors and take revenge. I liked the second kind of stories more. There were a few stories which were neither, which was very unusual in a horror book. Some of the third type of stories were very beautiful. Many of the stories were predictable in terms of plot, and relied on the horror aspect to create dramatic effect. Some of them were unusual and surprising though. Some stories seemed to be a nod to other famous horror stories and fairytales.

I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book, but I loved some more than others. One of my favourites was ‘Little Finger‘. In this story, a few brothers do bad things (won’t tell you more) and call their youngest brother to clean things up. This youngest brother is very ugly. While he is cleaning up his brothers’ nasty deeds, the law comes after him, and he ends up living in a cave. Strange things happen in the cave, and five ghostly women rise from there. Four of them are pretty and one of them is ugly. The pretty ones taunt and torture the ugly one. When this youngest brother sees that, he fights for the ugly one and defends her. This woman falls in love with him. She is a strange being though, and she is not human. What happens after that is told in the rest of the story. It is a very unusual love story. It makes us think of ‘Beauty and the Beast‘.

In another of my favourite stories, ‘Boy‘, a boy is wandering in the beach, when he finds a cave. Inside the cave is a young woman who is in bad shape. The boy brings food and clothes for her and the woman recovers. She treats the boy like her own son and the boy treats her like his mom. But the boy has his own real mother. And this new mother is unusual and may not even be human…

I’ll write about one more favourite story. It is called ‘Waterfall Basin‘. In this story, a travelling salesman comes to a village. He sells a strange package and says that it will bring people happiness. People refuse to buy anything from him. Then, one villager relents, and buys a small package from him. And, of course, only one thing can happen after that. All hell breaks loose. This story made me think of Stephen King’sNeedful Things‘, which has a very similar overall plot, though both these stories are very different in details.

The artwork in the book is very interesting – it changes in style depending on the way the mood of the story changes. When the plot moves, the artwork is simple and straightforward. But when the situation gets intense, and scary things start happening, the artwork is intricate and detailed and is beautiful and also gives us nightmares at the same time. Have shared some of the pages from the book, below. Have avoided the more scarier ones.

From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 1
From the story ‘Moromi‘ – Part 2

I enjoyed reading ‘Tomie’. I loved the stories in which Tomie is the good person and suffers at the hand of bad guys and later comes back to haunt them. Of course, these stories are not as simple as I’ve described them, but I loved them. I don’t think I’d have loved this book as much, if I had read it when I was younger. I remember reading Charles Burns’Black Hole‘ many years back. It was too dark for me and gave me nightmares and I never went near his books again. ‘Tomie’ is ten times more darker and more scarier. Being older and wiser now (or maybe the mind has become numb, after watching series like ‘Game of Thrones’), I could resist the impact of the violent scenes, and appreciate the beautiful scenes. Luckily, the last few days, while I was reading the book, I didn’t get any nightmares. It would have been scary to hear Tomie’s whisper in my dreams and then feel someone prodding me, and then get up in the middle of the night to see Tomie sitting next to me laughing in a nasty way. Doesn’t mean that it won’t happen tonight and Tomie won’t step out from the pages of the book into the real world. But I hope and pray it doesn’t happen. Please pray for me.

I read in Junji Ito’s afterword to the book that he used to work in a dentist’s office during the day, and work on ‘Tomie’ during the night. It is interesting to contemplate on – that he was a regular guy with a regular job, but when the sun set and he came home in the evening, he dreamt of terrifying fantasies and put them in this book to scare us. Life is always surprising!

Junji Ito is one of the legends of horror manga. There are two more famous books of his – ‘Uzumaki‘ and ‘Gyo‘. I’ve heard Junji Ito fans saying that ‘Uzumaki’ is their favourite. I’m hoping to read that, the next time I feel brave enough.

This book is not for everyone. If you are not a horror fan and you find these things scary and they give you nightmares, please stay away from this book. But if you are a horror fan, this is 750 pages of pure pleasure. Go read it now.

Have you read ‘Tomie’? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Junji Ito book?

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