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I read two stories by Bosnian women writers yesterday and today for ‘Women in Translation Month‘, which is celebrated throughout August. I think these are the first Bosnian writers I’ve ever read. Both the stories were written for children.

Story 1 : The Poet from Unknowntown by Aleksandra Čvorović

The first story I read was ‘The Poet from Unknowntown‘ by Aleksandra Čvorović. Aleksandra Čvorović is a Bosnian writer who writes mostly poetry and stories for children. This one is a story for children. There is a poet in a small town who composes poems spontaneously and sets them to music and sings them. The people of the town love him. One day the poet sees a doll that the town toymaker has made and falls in love with it. He wants the doll to come to life. But to do this you need magic. And if you invoke magic, there is a price to pay. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. The last passage from the story is very beautiful and it goes like this –

“This is a story about the curse of beauty, and about transient, magic moments of love. I dedicate it to the people who give themselves up in order to grasp elusive fantasises. Happiness is an enchantress who slips from the hands of those wishing to hold her tightly. She roams about and favours only the free souls, the uninhibited pulses of real artists.”

I enjoyed reading this story, and I’d love to read more stories by Aleksandra Čvorović.

Story 2 : When Ivona Wants and Wants by Ljubica Ostojić

The second story I read was ‘When Ivona Wants and Wants‘ by Ljubica Ostojić. Ljubica Ostojić was a Bosnian writer who mostly wrote poems, plays, scripts for dramas and stories for children. This is a children’s story. In this story, the main character Ivona is a charming stubborn girl. The first passage of the story describes her perfectly.

“Ivona knows what she doesn’t want. She doesn’t want to eat spinach, put on the blue dress, wear pigtails, or sleep when she’s not in the mood. She doesn’t want to say “sorry” or “forgive me” when she has done something wrong. No! She’d rather be punished. Ivona’s like that. Which bothers mum, dad, the teacher of the older group in the kindergarten, everyone actually. But, when Ivona wants something? Then, she wants it, wants it, wants it. And the problems begin.”

One day, Ivona wants a dog as a pet. Her parents say ‘No’. From Ivona’s perspective, of course, this is not the end of the story, but the beginning. For her, ‘No’, is the beginning of a negotiation 😊 What Ivona does next forms the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading Ivona’s story. Ivana is such a charming character and Ljubica Ostojić’s writing is very beautiful to read. From the first passage, the story is charming and grabs the reader’s attention and never lets go. I loved it. I want to read more of Ljubica Ostojić’s stories.

So, these are the first two stories I read in August. What are you reading?

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Yesterday, late at night, I was watching my favourite Netflix show, when I suddenly remembered A.J.Cronin. It made me smile.

A.J.Cronin was probably the first literary fiction writer that I ever read. I was in my middle teens when I first discovered his books. I still remember how it happened. I was at the bookshop one day, browsing. I used to spend a lot of time in bookshops even then, when people my age were playing cricket or watching TV or gossiping. When I was browsing at the bookshop, I saw Cronin’s ‘The Citadel‘ in one of the shelves. I’ve never heard of him before. Most of the books at the bookshop were not affordable for me, and so I mostly spent time browsing, but this one was priced so low that I was surprised. I’d never seen a full novel at this price and I couldn’t resist getting it. I read it a little later and I loved it. Sometime later, when I went to the library, I saw another Cronin book. I couldn’t resist borrowing that and reading it. This continued happening and Cronin’s books started cropping up everywhere – I saw them at the library or at secondhand bookshops and I continued getting them and I loved most of them. I didn’t know anyone who had read Cronin. None of my friends or acquaintances had heard of him. He was my secret.

I continued reading Cronin’s books till my late twenties, but at some point it was hard to get them, because they went out of print and secondhand copies were hard to come by. I spotted the occasional copy at the library, but otherwise Cronin had just disappeared. When the Kindle arrived, I looked for Cronin’s books but they weren’t there. During the peak of his career, Cronin was a very popular writer, and many of his books were made into movies or TV series, but now it looked like he had disappeared. I was surprised when in one of the online bookclubs I used to be a part of, readers one day started discussing Cronin. I didn’t know anyone else who had read his books. Most of the readers who discussed Cronin’s books were closer in age to my mother, and when I told them that I loved Cronin’s books, they were surprised, because according to them, I was too young to have read Cronin.

Most of Cronin’s stories were about doctors – ‘The Citadel‘, my most favourite book of his, was about a doctor who worked in a mining village and his wife who was a teacher there; ‘The Green Years‘ was about a boy who wanted to become a doctor; ‘Grand Canary‘ was a story set in a ship in which the main character was a drunk doctor. ‘Adventures of a Black Bag‘ was about a doctor called Dr.Finlay and the cases he handles in a small town / village. ‘Adventures in a Black Bag’ was probably based on Cronin’s own experiences as a doctor and it became quite famous when it was first published. It was made into a TV series which was very popular. I think this might have been the forerunner of and the inspiration for most of the TV series which followed in future decades, including two popular Netflix series now, ‘Doc Martin‘ and ‘Virgin River‘, which are about doctors in small towns / villages. The doctor in ‘Virgin River’ looks like a drunk doctor who is perennially annoyed and he almost looks like a character who has stepped out of the pages of one of Cronin’s books.

So yesterday, when I suddenly remembered Cronin, I paused my Netflix show, and searched for Cronin’s books on the Kindle. When I pressed the ‘Search’ button, I was in for a surprise. Page after page of listings turned up with Cronin’s books! I’ve never seen that before! It was like a lost treasure had been found suddenly and Christmas came early. I was so thrilled!

I couldn’t resist buying the Cronin books, of course! I wanted to add every title which was listed, but then had to resist temptation and pick more carefully. I got all my favourites, ‘The Citadel’, ‘The Green Years’, ‘Lady with Carnations’. ‘Lady with Carnations‘ is one of the Cronin books in which the main character is not a doctor. The story is about an aunt and a niece who are very fond of each other, but then surprisingly discover that they are both in love with the same man. What happens after that is very beautiful. I also got ‘Shannon’s Way‘ which was the sequel to ‘The Green Years’. I always wanted to find out what happened to the boy in ‘The Green Years’ who wanted to become a doctor. I am excited to find that out when I read ‘Shannon’s Way’. I also got ‘Adventures of a Black Bag’, ‘The Innkeeper’s Wife‘, Cronin’s alternate Christmas story on the Nativity, ‘Hatter’s Castle‘, Cronin’s first book which I’ve always wanted to read, ‘Adventures in Two Worlds‘, Cronin’s autobiography, in which Cronin describes how he started out as a doctor and ended up also becoming a writer. There were not many doctors who wrote stories in the pre-Second World era (I think Somerset Maugham was trained as a doctor but didn’t practise, while Anton Chekhov was probably one of the few practising doctors who also wrote stories) and so that should make interesting reading.

I’m so excited to get started. I think I’ll probably read ‘The Green Years’ again and then get to ‘Shannon’s Way’. My long dream of reading ‘Shannon’s Way’ is finally going to be realized and I’m so excited!

Have you read A.J.Cronin? Which of his books are your favourites?

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The Ocean’s Own‘ is the third volume of Nandini Sengupta’s Gupta trilogy. I loved the first two parts, ‘The King Within‘ and ‘The Poisoned Heart‘ and was excited when I discovered that the third part was coming out. I just finished reading it.

The Ocean’s Own‘ is not a sequel to the first two parts but is a prequel to the first part. It tells the story of the Gupta emperor Samudragupta, when he was still a prince. The story starts with the newly married Prince Kacha (Samudragupta’s name before he became the emperor) going on his honeymoon with his young wife Datta with their best friend Harisena accompanying them. The young couple are enjoying the first days of their married life together, when they receive news from the palace, which is not good. Soon they are attacked by unknown people in the forest. The subsequent action moves the story fast and we can’t wait to find out what happens next and who these unknown assailants are and as Holmes is fond of saying, what plots are afoot. To find out what happens next, you have to read the book 😊

Historical fiction in English written by Indian writers is typically set in the British colonial era or during the Mughal era. This is probably because many Indian writers feel that these are the eras in Indian history which international readers are interested in and so if they want a book to be widely read, it is better to set the story in these time periods. This is odd, because India has a rich history stretching back to centuries before the Mughal era. The Mughal era started in 1526 CE and the Buddha was born at around 480 BCE (according to one estimate), so that is 2000 years of history out there, for which some kind of evidence is available, even if we ignore the mythical origins of Indian history before the Buddha. But Indian historical fiction writers writing in English have ignored this vast span of time filled with amazing events and have focused only on the past five hundred years. Nandini Sengupta has tried to redress that and has set her trilogy during the Gupta dynasty which was there between the third and fifth century CE. This era was regarded as the golden age of Indian history and culture and it was the time that the great poet and dramatist Kalidasa lived. So Nandini Sengupta has broken new ground here, in terms of Indian historical fiction writing in English, which is inspiring.

The three books in the trilogy focus on three different emperors and this third volume, ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ is about the Emperor Samudragupta. It has all the things that Nandini Sengupta’s fans have come to expect from her books – a wonderful start filled with mystery and intrigue, unknown assassins trying to do bad things, palace intrigue, beautiful friendship, wonderful descriptions of sword fights and battle scenes, passionate romance. And last but not the least, the amazing strong women characters. There are the quiet strong women, like the princess and the empress. And then there is the courtesan, the assassin, the warrior, all amazing women. This book features the Pallava princess and warrior, Angai, who is a fierce warrior like Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fights Achilles, and who teaches Emperor Samudragupta one or two things about how to fight in a battle, and gives him an education that he never forgets. She is one of the great characters in the story and the trilogy.

I loved ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ and the whole Gupta trilogy. Unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end, and I had a bittersweet feeling when I finished reading this final volume. I can’t wait to find out what Nandini Sengupta comes up with next.

Have you read ‘The Ocean’s Own‘ or other books in the Gupta trilogy? What do you think about them?

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I started reading an anthology called ‘The Oxford Book of Essays‘ and in that book there was an excerpt of an essay by Thomas Macaulay on Robert Clive. I loved this excerpt so much that I went in search of the whole essay. I found it online and it was around 120 pages long. It was a book-length essay. I just finished reading it.

First page of Macaulay’s essay

In his essay, Macaulay gives us an account of Robert Clive’s life. There are some sketchy details of his personal life, a little about his parents, a sentence about his marriage, but most of it is about his work during his time in India. Robert Clive came to India when he was seventeen years old. He worked as a clerk in the Madras office of the East India Company. He worked in the same position for around eight years. When he was twenty five, circumstances thrust him into the forefront, and he distinguished himself by performing amazing deeds and with one thing leading to another, this lowly clerk became the Governor of Bengal and laid the foundation for the British empire in India. It is an amazing, unbelievable story.

Thomas Macaulay was probably one of the three great British historians of the 19th century. The other two being Thomas Carlyle and Edward Gibbon. While Thomas Carlyle’s classic book on the French Revolution continues to be in print, it has been joined by other modern books on the subject. Edward Gibbon’s book continues to reign supreme as the definitive work on Roman history in English, as most historians feel daunted by the subject matter and have avoided coming up with a new interpretation of that time. Gibbon’s book has attained the status of a classic, as described by Mark Twain – always recommended but never read. Beautiful collectors’ editions of the book are available which are snapped up by young collectors to adorn their bookshelves. In contrast, Thomas Macaulay’s classic book on English history has long gone out of print. Today, Macaulay is regarded as a historian who wrote beautiful prose, but who propounded the imperialist point of view and so his books have fallen out of favour. To use a modern phrase, he has been ‘cancelled’. Which is a shame. Because going by the evidence of this essay, Macaulay is good, really good.

By the time Robert Clive died after moving back to England, he was regarded as a bad guy, as an employee of the East India Company who achieved great things and acquired great power, but who used that in unscrupulous and immoral ways to accumulate personal wealth. Macaulay tries putting things in perspective, by explaining both sides of the equation and lets us draw our own inference from it. It was wonderful to read. Macaulay’s prose proves that its reputation is not unfounded – it is beautiful to read. 19th century English prose, especially in the hands of great writers, is like Urdu. Every word, every sentence is beautiful, is a pleasure to read. We can experience that beauty in every page of Macaulay’s prose. It is sad that people don’t write like this nowadays. Even the best writers today write prose which is only a little better than mine. I’m just an anonymous guy who revels in his mediocrity. I can never write like Macaulay or Dickens or Eliot or Carlyle. If this is the best there is now, it is sad how things have sunk.

I enjoyed reading Macaulay’s essay on Clive. Macaulay has written more such essays. I am hoping to read them soon. I also hope to read his book on English history and find out whether it is really an imperialist tract, or whether it is really good, but it got ‘cancelled’ because people didn’t like Macaulay’s face or some aspect of his opinions and politics.

Have you read this or other essays by Thomas Macaulay? What do you think about him?

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I got into a deep reading slump in the last couple of weeks and so to come out of it I decided to read one of my favourite writers from my early teens, Tamilvanan. The book I read was called ‘Fly With Me‘. I thought I had read it before, but the plot was new to me – it looked like I had confused it with another book.

The story told in ‘Fly With Me‘ goes like this. A mysterious rich man invites one of his young associates one day to his home. This rich man tells his associate that he wants to hire a pilot who can steal a plane from the Airforce airfield and fly it and land it in a forest at a specific location. The associate says that he knows such a pilot but that pilot is in prison right now and he’ll try to get this pilot out. So this associate gets into prison himself and escapes alongwith the pilot. Then these two gentlemen go to the Airforce airfield and the pilot gets into a specific plane and starts it. While he is getting started, a beautiful, young woman jumps into the plane, just before it starts taxiing down the runway. The plane takes off with the pilot and the unknown woman inside it. To find out what happens after that, you have to read the story 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Fly With Me‘. The first half was fast-paced and gripping with cool, stylish characters, but somewhere in the second half, the story lost steam, and the ending was too rushed and contrived – too many things happen in the last three pages that it feels like the author wanted to complete the story in a rush. The story seems to be inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel and movie ‘Thunderball‘ and one of the characters in the story even refers to it in an indirect way. There is even a Tamil version of Blofeld in the story. He doesn’t have a cat though.

Tamilvanan was probably the first Tamil novelist that I ever read. I read my first Tamilvanan novel when I was twelve and I continued reading him till my late teens. He was probably my most favourite author for a significant part of that time. Tamilvanan mostly wrote crime fiction, murder mysteries, action thrillers and noir fiction. He started his career writing literary fiction, but soon switched to crime fiction. His arrival heralded a breath of fresh air in popular Tamil fiction. He wrote in genres which no other Tamil author had attempted before – like action thrillers and noir fiction. His heroes were handsome, dashing, chivalrous men and his heroines were beautiful, elegant, strong women. Even his villains were cool and stylish. Before his advent, Tamil crime fiction was mostly humorous and cozy, with only a few authors writing in it. Tamilvanan reinvented that genre with his gripping, page-turning, sometimes dark and gritty stories and his cool, stylish characters. I think he can be rightly called the father of modern Tamil crime fiction.

Tamilvanan’s most iconic character was a detective called Sankarlal, who was a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. When he solved murder mysteries he assumed his Sherlock Holmes persona but when he went on international adventures to exotic locales like Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Geneva (exotic locales for Tamil readers), to solve international mysteries and catch the bad guys, he assumed his James Bond persona, frequently being involved in car chases and boat chases with typically a beautiful, kick-ass woman accompanying him. At the peak of his popularity, Tamilvanan couldn’t resist a narcissistic streak and introduced a new detective who was a fictional version of himself, had the same name as himself, and who sported a hat and dark sun glasses as the author himself. This new detective was a loner. He was not married or have any family or friends like Sankarlal, he didn’t drink tea or coffee but drank only fruit juice, he lived alone in a big house, and he solved mysteries. Though readers missed the handsome Sankarlal and his family of charming, eccentric characters, they were not complaining. The stories of this new detective were equally gripping and readers loved him.

One of the things that I loved about Tamilvanan was his prose. His prose was spare with short sentences, and he wrote in pure Tamil which was a pleasure to read. Even the conversations in his stories were written in this style, and they had nothing in common with the casual language in which people have conversations in the real world. This made the conversations in the stories so pleasurable to read. Most Tamil writers would use commonly used English words in their stories, but Tamilvanan refused to use even words like tea and coffee and juice in his stories, but used their Tamil equivalents. When I first read his books, I didn’t know the meanings of some of these words, because no one used them in everyday life, and I had to ask my mom what they meant. I still remember encountering the Tamil words for ‘juice’ and ‘file’ for the first time in his books. The characters in his stories also had pure Tamil names, inspired by names from classical Tamil literature, names which were beautiful and always had a meaning attached to them, the kind of names which parents don’t give their kids. His women characters had some of the most beautiful names that I had encountered in Tamil fiction.

Another thing that I loved about Tamilvanan’s stories was the way he reimagined Chennai. His Chennai was not the Chennai of the real world, in which people got up early in the morning and went to sleep early at night and life was simple and nice and boring. Tamilvanan’s Chennai was exciting – in the city depicted in the pages of his books, there were car chases and bike chases, boxing matches and horse races, there were night clubs which had beautiful dancers who had a gun inside their purse, and there were mysterious, powerful men living in dark bungalows in the middle of the city who plotted big crimes. It was a mythical Chennai which was present only in the pages of his books. Readers loved it. Many of them believed that it actually existed. Some of them went in search of these exotic places described in the book. Some of these places were present in the real Chennai, like the racecourse, but others were present only in the pages of his books, like boxing rings and night clubs filled with beautiful dancers. Tamilvanan’s mythical Chennai was a glorious reimagining of this beautiful city, where the imaginary version was more exciting than the real one.

In addition to crime fiction, Tamilvanan also wrote nonfiction. Most of his nonfiction was written for a young audience. He wrote inspiring essays dispensing advice to young people and also wrote books on fitness, health, martial arts, learning new languages and even the occasional biography. His book on Tamil hero Kattabomman was against the grain and controversial and his portrayal of Kattabomman was not at all flattering. Tamilvanan even wrote a sex manual which was popular among young men and women. It was unique in Tamil because it was the first time anyone had written a sex manual in Tamil – Tamil writers shy away from this topic – and it was a pure one-off because no one has written a sex manual in Tamil since. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print now.

By the time he passed away in the late ’70s, when he was in his middle fifties, Tamilvanan was probably the most popular writer in Tamil – he published his own magazine which serialized his stories and essays and he had his own publishing company which published his books. He was like a one-man army. He had inspired a whole generation of young people to become more confident, to read more, to acquire more knowledge, to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of their language, to have an international outlook. There had never been anyone like him before. There has been no one like him since.

Tamilvanan’s sons kept the flame burning and carried forward the family business after him. One of them handled the editorial responsibilities of the magazine he founded and wrote columns in it himself. The second son took care of the publishing company. The writer / editor son tried reviving Tamilvanan’s most famous fictional character Sankarlal and wrote a novel featuring him. It achieved modest success, but not at the same level as his dad’s books. Soon, this son gave up fiction writing and decided to focus on the columns that he wrote in the magazine dispensing inspiration and advice to young people. These columns became famous and the son became a famous writer in his own right. The son also delivered talks on topics which he addressed in his columns and he became famous as an inspiring public speaker who spoke in colleges and universities and on TV channels and who was admired by a young audience. At some point, the fame of the son eclipsed that of his dad and young readers started associating the Tamilvanan name with the son.

Tamilvanan’s novels led to an explosion of the crime fiction genre in Tamil. Many aspiring writers started writing crime fiction including crime fiction legend Rajesh Kumar, who became one of the most prolific writers in the world. It led to new monthly magazines which were exclusively dedicated to crime fiction and some of them were dedicated to just one author. One of these magazines paid homage to Tamilvanan by introducing an annual special issue which carried a Tamilvanan novel, which introduced Tamilvanan’s fiction to a whole new generation of readers. Unfortunately, the genres of action thrillers and noir fiction in Tamil died with Tamilvanan’s passing. Tamil writers were more comfortable writing about the things they knew and they didn’t like doing research and so there was no question of setting an action thriller in a ship or a plane or an exotic foreign locale. Tamil readers mostly like their crime fiction in black-and-white featuring good guys and the bad guys, with the good guys winning in the end, and a noir fiction novel in which everyone looked bad or there were shades of grey made readers uncomfortable. It was amazing that Tamilvanan ignored this and went ahead and wrote noir novels and encouraged readers to step out of their comfort zone. But later novelists decided to play it safe and avoided noir fiction because they didn’t want to antagonize the readers and noir fiction died a quiet death.

When I first moved to Chennai, one of the first things I did was to visit Tamilvanan’s publishing company, Manimekalai Prasuram. I was like a devotee on a pilgrimage visiting a temple for the first time. The office of the publisher was present in a modest building which looked like a house. It was so hard to believe that this was the place which brought out magazines and books which inspired millions of young people. Well, great things happen from modest places. It gave me goosebumps.

In recent years, the publishers decided to revive Tamilvanan’s fictional work and introduce it to a new generation of readers. They brought out beautiful, hardback, omnibus editions of his most famous novels. I went and got some of them at the book fair. It was nice to read them again and experience again the joy I experienced during my teens.

Have you read any of Tamilvanan’s books? What do you think about them?

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I haven’t read a book in my native language Tamil in a while. So I thought that before I forget it completely, I’ll read a book in Tamil  I decided to read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ (Ponni’s Son) by Kalki.

Ponniyin Selvan‘ was first published in the 1950s, when it was serialized in Kalki magazine. It was probably the first (or one of the first) historical novels in Tamil and it got great acclaim and a huge fan following when it first came out. It led to a whole historical-fiction-industry in Tamil, when everyone and their brother and sister started writing historical novels. I think that craze died sometime in the 1990s.

I first read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘ when I was in school. It was reissued again  in Kalki magazine. We used to read a couple of chapters every week and then wait for the next week’s issue. The story ran for nearly three years. A few years back, one of the publishers decided to publish the book in the format in which it originally came out in the 1950s, with the same font, and the illustrations by the original artist. When this edition came out, I got it. It was beautiful. That is the one I am reading now. I finished reading the first volume today.

What is the story about? Well, ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ has a long, epic, rambling plot. It is a historical novel set at around 970 C.E. It is about the Chola king and queens and princes and princesses and their friends and enemies. It has everything that one would expect in a historical novel – many characters, intricate plot, conspiracies, palace intrigues, romance, war, amazing adventures, secrets from the past, charming characters, spies, badass villains, many surprising revelations. The influence of Alexandre Dumas is deeply felt in Kalki’s book – there is a young man, Vandhiyadevan, who looks like D’Artagnan, there is a beautiful woman, Nandini, who looks like Milady de Winter, and there is even a minister like Cardinal Richelieu. Of course, the actual plot and characters are different and fascinating in their own way.

One of the things I loved about the book is that it focuses on the plot and the characters. There is a lot of charming dialogue, but there are no long monologues or boring descriptions. There is rarely a dull moment in the story. Another thing I loved about the book is that, the author gives the required historical background, whenever it is required for a better understanding of the story. He doesn’t push the historical background into the footnotes or into the notes at the back of the book, but provides it in the middle of the story. That way he makes us learn history on the way and I loved that. Another thing I loved about the story is that different characters in the book quote classic Tamil poetry, and they follow it up with a commentary on the poem. Sometimes a poem has mythological allusions which are not readily apparent while reading the poem and the author, through a character’s voice, explains them. It was fascinating to read.

I read the book for the first time when I was fifteen and now when I am reading it again after many years, my reading experience is totally different. For example, when I read it the first time, I unconsciously classified the characters as good and bad, the way we tend to do when we are younger. But reading it now, I realized that the way Kalki has depicted the characters, they are complex and imperfect and fascinating. The bad characters are not really bad, and the good characters are not really perfect. It is fascinating how we see a book with new eyes, when we read it again after many years.

The artwork in the book by Maniom, is very beautiful. It has a classical, vintage feel to it. I’m sharing some of my favourite pictures from the book, below. Hope you like them.

Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Middle : Aazhvarkadiyaan
Left : Nandhini ;
Right : Vandhiyadevan
Palace sculpture
Palace sculpture
Left : Vanathi ;
Right : Kundhavai
Left : Vandhiyadevan ;
Right : Kundhavai

Hoping to start the second volume later today 😊

Have you read ‘Ponniyin Selvan‘? Do you like re-reading your favourite books? Do you relate to them differently when you read them again?

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After reading two books by Emma John, I told myself – “She has written just one more book. Let me read that too.” 😊

In ‘Wayfaring Stranger : A Musical Journey in the American South‘, Emma John describes the time when she took a year off and spent time in the American South researching on bluegrass music and trying to learn it and become a bluegrass musician herself. The book features a wonderful cast of characters who are fascinating and nearly always likeable, musicians who are barbers and carpenters and waiters and teachers in their day jobs, but who play bluegrass music in the evening and weekends and at concerts. For nearly everyone of them, bluegrass music is their life, and their day jobs are just a way of paying their bills. There are some legendary musicians too, who don’t play at concerts, who live deep in the mountains, who only play music  in their home or their barn and strive for perfection in their art. Emma John writes about some of these musicians too. Emma John writes about a whole list of great bluegrass musicians and it made me want to find their music and listen to it. The book has some of the most beautiful descriptions of music that I have ever read. Emma John was a trained musician (violinist) herself and it shows in those beautiful descriptions.

I loved ‘Wayfaring Stranger‘. It is a beautiful love letter to bluegrass music, the American South, and the Southern way of life. It is part memoir, part travelogue and part history of bluegrass music. It is one of the best books on music that I’ve ever read and it is one of my favourite books of the year. I enjoyed reading all three of Emma John’s books and I’ll always have a soft corner for her cricket book, but I think ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ is her finest work. It is destined to become a classic.

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

“The mandolinist began to play before anyone else was ready, a little atonal riff he seemed to be offering up to no one but himself. Was he still tuning, perhaps? The banjo plucked a few unlikely notes behind him. A guitar slid in with an answering run, like a batter stealing first base; the bass player laid down some long bow. I couldn’t tell if this was the start of a song or the end of a sound check. But then the individual noises began to grow and coalesce like a creeping threat. Alien bacteria, perhaps, absorbing their environment and evolving rapidly into something cogent, conscious, dangerous. The sound grew louder, more sinister; a fiddle added urgent spikes of fear; I felt my lungs begin to bubble with anxiety. The music reached a crescendo of terror … and stopped dead. A half-breath later, the guitar kicked up a funky beat, and the mandolin player began to sing about his friend who tended bar. The next hour was like falling down a rabbit hole and landing in a club compered by Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch. I had no idea exactly what was going on, but I recognised the genius at work. The band’s authoritative handling of their instruments matched anything I’d heard in the classical world, but their masterful playing was only the half of it. It was what they were doing to music itself that was extraordinary: bending it, contorting it, dismantling its molecules and creating new elements from scratch like chemistry savants. Certainly, this was music I could never think or hope to play myself; it’s probable that only a handful of people on the planet would have the skills to replicate what they were doing. They were a post-modern firework display, showering their listeners with ideas, allusions and deconstructed melodies that charged the atmosphere with electricity and emotion. When they finished, the air I’d been breathing was stuck in my windpipe like a bruise. After an ovation I didn’t think was long or vociferous enough, their mandolin player returned on stage alone and encored with a prelude that Bach had written for violin.”

Have you read ‘Wayfaring Stranger‘? What do you think about it?

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I read Emma John’s first book ‘Following On‘, which is on cricket, recently, and I loved it so much that I decided to read her newest book ‘Self-Contained : Scenes from a Single Life‘. This one came out just ten days back and so it is literally hot off the press.

The book starts with a party to which Emma John is invited. She appears to be the only single person out there. At some point someone asks her the inevitable question – whether she is single or has a partner. Emma John takes off from there and explores the single life from different perspectives – as a sister, as a daughter, as a friend who hangs out with guys, as a woman with many girlfriends, as a woman whose roommate and best friend is a guy who is gay, as an aunt who is single, as a romantic partner who finds it hard to settle down. Emma John is frank and honest when she shares her story and the story of her family and friends, and sometimes she takes an unflinching look at herself which must have required an incredible amount of bravery and courage. Sometimes it is frustrating to read about the things she does, but it is hard not to admire her courage in sharing it. Through the book Emma John highlights the good things that the single life has to offer, while also talking about the things that single people yearn for, which they don’t have.

I loved ‘Self-Contained‘. It is a beautiful, insightful, thought-provoking book. It talks about an unconventional facet of life which is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. I’d like to say that it is a celebration of single life, but I don’t think it is. I think it is a nuanced portrayal of single life in all its complexity. I’m glad I read it.

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

“Some say there is a state of flow inherent to manual pursuits, a hypnotic effect that encourages a mindful calm, and it is true that you can’t act out your anger with a roller brush (at least, not without splattering yourself). That night was my proof, however, that you can both paint yourself into a corner and decorate yourself into a depression. The moon was high outside the window by the time I gave up.”

“I often had fantasies about living in the past. A privileged past, obviously; I wasn’t interested in the world my real ancestors inhabited, struggling to keep their dozen children alive in a Welsh mining village or blacking the stoves of an east London slumlord. No, my escapism was born from a heady mix of my two favourite TV shows: Poirot, starring David Suchet, and Jeeves and Wooster, with my comic heroes Fry and Laurie in the eponymous roles. Both aired on ITV during my highly impressionable teenage years. The lead performances were sufficient to colour me obsessed; the intoxicating production design evoked a universe of its own. I quickly applied myself to the books too, reading and rereading them long after the plots had ceased to hold any surprises. Then came Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey stories and Brideshead Revisited – both the novel and the Anthony Andrews version. From then on, I immersed myself in pretty much anything that involved aristocrats, monocles or spats. Whenever I was bored of my surroundings – which happened frequently enough – I wished, with a passion that outweighed reason, that I had been born into the pages of these golden-age stories rather than my dull, unglamorous real life. I reimagined myself as one of their characters: a sharp-tongued, shingle-haired socialite with a devil-may-care attitude and a cigarette holder poised seductively between her lips. Her outline was drawn from 1930s detective stories and shaded with the devastating hauteur of a young Katharine Hepburn. She had the wise-cracking wit of Dorothy Parker, the intemperance of Zelda Fitzgerald and the stylistic flair of Elsa Schiaparelli. She was the sum of everything I wished I could be but wasn’t.”

Have you read ‘Self-Contained‘? What do you think about it?

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I got Emma John’s cricket memoir ‘Following On : A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket‘ a few years back. I finally got around to reading it.

Emma John and her sister visit their parents during a holiday. During the post lunch family chat, her dad goes to the basement and brings a big package. It contains cricket posters that Emma made when she was a teenager in the ’90s. It makes her nostalgic about the ’90s and about the English cricket team of that time. That team was regarded as a bunch of losers, because they lost a lot of matches. Emma wonders why she was obsessed with that team and followed their matches passionately. She decides to investigate. She also talks to some of the players from that era. The result is this book.

Following On‘ is a beautiful love letter to cricket, to a cricket team, to being a cricket fan. It is also a beautiful book about being a teenager, about growing up, about coming-of-age. I loved Emma John’s descriptions of the players and the matches. I also loved the interviews at the present time that she did with some of the players and the contrasts she discovered between how she imagined they would be and how they actually are. I was happy that many of the players I admired were featured – Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Jack Russell, Andy Caddick. I was happy that the maverick Phil Tufnell was featured. Even Alan Mullally was there. It was nice to know that John Crawley is now a teacher in school and Jack Russell is now a painter. It made me think of Chris Tavaré, who after his cricketing days were over, went back to teaching biology in high school. There is something charming about that – cricketers going on to do completely unrelated things, after their cricketing career is over. I remember Evan Chatfield became a taxi driver and Colin Croft became a pilot and Mike Brearley became a therapist and Kirmani became a banker. I would have loved to meet Chris Tavaré, the biology teacher, and attend his class 😊

The book also talks about how Emma’s mom introduced her to cricket, and how they watched cricket matches together and shared the highs and the lows, and how they continue doing it to this day, going to Lord’s or the Oval and watching a match and making a picnic out of it. I loved this part of the book.

Emma’s favourite cricketer from that time was Michael Atherton and the first thought that crossed my mind was whether she has covered the two most important things that happened during Atherton’s captaincy – his legendary 185 (not out) against Donald and company, and the time he declared the England innings when Graeme Hick was batting on 98. Emma covers them in detail and it was wonderful to read that.

I think Emma John’s book is cricket’s answer to Nick Hornby’sFever Pitch‘. It is beautifully written and it wonderfully evokes that particular era. I loved it. This book is also unique because there are not many contemporary books written by women writers on cricket (I know of only Sharda Ugra and Tanya Aldred who write on cricket) and so Emma John is breaking new ground here.

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

“I’ve always preferred watching my teams bowl to watching them bat. When your team are batting, your instinct is to maintain the status quo, and you don’t really want to see anything dramatic happen. At least, I don’t. I certainly didn’t in the 1990s, when England’s middle order carried a hairline fracture that could snap at any second, and I would watch an entire batting session through my fingers, praying desperately for nothing exciting or noteworthy to take place. When your team are in the field, however, you’re willing the action on. Perhaps even more so when things are going badly. Sure, your bowling attack may be getting thrashed around the park right now, but it only takes a single ball to get a batsman out. Nothing can rob you of that tiny moment of hope when the ball leaves the bowler’s hand. Every delivery is a miniature grenade of possibility.”

“It is fatal for a sportsman to start doubting himself, or his ability to win. By contrast, sports fans have to come to terms with the fact that we are, by and large, losers. Unless we win the lottery of life…we know that at any time the spectre of defeat is likely to cross our paths and ruin our day, our week, our year. We hazard ourselves, again and again, and we aren’t even doing it for the exercise. We’re not gaining physical benefits, or a social life, or status in the eyes of our peers. We’re doing it solely for the hope of a hit of victory, and a vicarious one at that. It’s a strange choice we make, to stake our emotions so wholeheartedly upon such meaningless outcomes. Sport is, by its nature, utterly trivial; a team’s success or failure doesn’t matter anywhere outside of its own universe. I suspect that this is why, paradoxically, we overinvest ourselves. We go all in, like a goldrush victim spying a fleck of something glittery in the ground. When our team win, we’re an instant millionaire; when they lose, we’re bankrupts. That’s the only way I can explain why fans like me keep supporting teams that keep letting us down. We’ve given so much of ourselves to this fictitious universe that we can’t withdraw from it until it has paid us back in good feelings. We become trapped in that gambler’s mentality. No matter what trophies our team win, or how far down the league we fall, we can never get out. As long as there’s another fixture, as long as there’s a revenge match, our sporting narrative goes on.”

Have you read Emma John’sFollowing On‘? What do you think about it?

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I was in the mood for more cricket books and I decided to read Neville Cardus’ autobiography.

Neville Cardus was one of the greatest cricket writers – of his time and of all-time. Old-timers will probably say that he was THE one. He elevated cricket reporting and sports journalism to art. His prose was the very definition of purple. In addition to cricket writing, he was also a music critic, something which is less talked about.

Cardus’ autobiography is divided into three parts. In the first part called ‘Struggle’, Cardus describes his life from his birth through his teens and twenties, when things were really hard for him. In the second part ‘My Summers’, he describes his cricket experiences. In the third part ‘My Winters’ he describes his experiences as a music critic. Throughout the book, especially the third part, he talks about mentors and friends who influenced his life deeply.

My favourite part of the book was the first. The bare facts of the story are these. Cardus lived his early years in a joint family kind of situation with his mom, grandparents and aunts. His mom was a prostitute. So was his favourite aunt who brought him up. Cardus never knew who his dad was. He had just four years of formal schooling and hated it. He left school when he was 13. At some point his grandparents died, the family broke up, his favourite aunt took him to live with her but then she died too, and he was literally on the streets. From these surroundings filled with extreme poverty and with no future in sight, how Cardus managed to acquire the knowledge and education he had and how he became one of the greatest prose stylists of his time, is the stuff of dreams, it is the stuff of legend. It is nothing short of a miracle. I got goosebumps reading that story.

I enjoyed reading the second part of the book too because it was about cricket. I especially liked what Cardus wrote about Archie MacLaren. For a long time, Archie MacLaren’s name was the answer to the quiz question – “Who scored the last quadruple century in county cricket?” It was nice to see the real Archie MacLaren come alive through the pages of this book. It was also wonderful to read Cardus’ thoughts on Victor Trumper and his descriptions of Lancashire cricket.

The third part of the book was interesting, but I also felt that it was very specific to classical music of that period. I love classical music, but I don’t think I can read a lot about specific concerts, composers, conductors at one time. Classical music fans will probably love that part of the book. But I loved some of the things that Cardus said about classical music.

The book ends at around the eve of the Second World War. Cardus was around till 1975, and so we don’t know what happened in his second innings. I also read somewhere that Cardus was married, but he doesn’t breathe about it in the book. It is as if his wife never existed. I don’t know why. His readers would have liked to see the family-man side of him and would have liked to get acquainted with his wife.

I enjoyed reading Cardus’ autobiography. The first part was very inspiring and it gave me goosebumps. If a guy who came from extreme poverty with four years of formal schooling can become one of the greatest prose stylists, there is some hope for us all.

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

“Music, I say again, came to me by grace. A man is not boasting when he claims to have received grace. The things that we are praised for in this world, our “successes,” are exactly the things for which we do not deserve credit; successes are easy, they come by grace. It is our failures that go sadly by without recognition of the effort and talent we have put into them; single-handed we hammered them out, but inspiration left us in the lurch.”

“In his last few years he helped me, less by any precise instruction than by his company. For hours we sat in cafés in Manchester, deep under the earth on winter afternoons; his talk was a fire; not a crackling one but as a glowing hearth, steady and warm without obvious combustion. Once in June, after sunset, very late and still, he leaned over the gate of his garden and talked to me of Shakespeare’s lyrics and of the fragility of loveliness in life. The air was full of the scent of his own flowers; and the wisdom of his speech, genial yet deep, seemed part of the beauty of the summer night.”

“Stendhal said that for him a landscape needed to possess some history or human interest. For me a place must have a genius in the air, a sort of distillation of years, a pathos of perspective, a mist of distance. In a word, it must have ghosts of lost wandering life, now forgotten by the extrovert and contemporary world. Historical and archæological interest is prosaic for me; I do not particularly wish to see the house in which the greatest poet was born; but to walk from Grinzing down to Vienna on a September evening, as twilight deepens and the lights of the city begin to twinkle, and to feel the sense of the past, almost to hear the vanished beauty and song whispering in rustle of leaf or wind, and in some hurrying footfalls on the roadside; to feel an awareness to all the hearts that have beaten here, the hopes and the strivings in these old houses, huddled in deserted gardens; birth and marriage and death; the comings-home at the day’s end, the glow of candlelight and wine and fellowship that surely seemed perennial and everlasting; the security of life at the crest, and now not only dead but lost to a world that must for ever be up and doing—this for me, is to live and to “go places.” Every great city is a palimpsest not of facts and events but of atmosphere and feeling, shaped by the irony of transition. That means I cannot enter into an unexplored land, a new land, where nature has not acquired an æsthetic and a pathos. Mountains and grand canyons and plains and mighty rivers are only so much geography in my eyes; mere contour-maps built on a large scale. A sunset in the Indian Ocean once bowled me over because it was like the closing scene of Götterdämmerung. I suppose I am a far-gone case of the Ruskinian “pathetic” fallacy; the external universe must appeal to me as a theatre or as a series of dissolving views, with the lantern turned inwards to my own soul.”

Have you read Cardus’ autobiography? What do you think about it?

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