Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Original Title – Ghaire Bhaire (Bengali)    Translated by – Sreejata Guha

I read this way back in January and it has taken me all this time to write something about it. This book enjoys a somewhat cult status in India but I’m afraid it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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Here is the blurb from Goodreads which pretty much sums it up

Set on a Bengali noble’s estate in 1908, this is both a love story and a novel of political awakening. The central character, Bimala, is torn between the duties owed to her husband, Nikhil, and the demands made on her by the radical leader, Sandip. Her attempts to resolve the irreconciliable pressures of the home and world reflect the conflict in India itself, and the tragic outcome foreshadows the unrest that accompanied Partition in 1947.

The only positive in this were the arguments on political ideology and ethics that Sandip and Nikhil have. Many people suggest that the character of Sandip was in fact based on Gandhi and his ideology and that Nikhil could have possibly been based on Tagore himself. These portions are indeed thought-provoking but are sadly only a very small portion of the novel. The major part is the love triangle.

This is where I was majorly irritated with the novel. The style of writing is completely lost on someone like me. It is “poetic something” ( I even forget what its called 😀 ). So we come across Bimala saying things like “he loved my body like a parijata flower from heaven” and “his waves of masculinity crashed against my feet like the ocean”. After all this, nothing happens (if you get what I mean).

Read it only if you like pages and pages of such writing.

My own feelings are summed up below

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The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

I’m sensing a pattern this year …. I keep picking up these books that have this huge hype and hoopla around them, get disappointed and feel bad about leaving them unfinished. This is one more added to that alarmingly fast growing list. But having read quite a sizable portion, I’m going to go ahead and review it anyway. 10310 To prevent myself from ranting away without control I am going to just put it down as 3 points

1. History does not begin and end with Akbar and Ashoka 

The first essay is good since it outlines the history of argumentative tradition in India. But that is it. He then continues to refer to the first essay in all the essays that follow. Every other historical reference he makes is either Akbar or Ashoka. Out of some 1000s of kings who ruled India across history, he talks about only 2. For someone who knows even a little history, it is boring.

2. Culture does not begin and end with Bengal 

This should have been “The Argumentative Bengali” ! Why add “Writings on Indian culture” with the title when all we have is pages and pages of Tagore followed by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Aparna Sen, etc. ? Do not mislead the readers so !!

3. The overwhelming bias in the writing 

Numerous essays are devoted to the critique of a political party’s ideology. First of all, I would expect the scholarly work of an academic to be objective.Even if he is going to take sides so blatantly, equating donations made by NRIs to “religious fundamentalism” is taking it a bit too far and it speaks to a deep seated bias.

Bottomline : Do not fall prey to the hype like I did – just skip it !

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

Original title: Madhorubhagan
Translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan 

(Preview post with excerpt here)

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Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test.

I had initially given 3/5 for this but then upon giving it further thought for the review, I have revised it to a 2/5, which in Goodreads terms is “It was ok”. That pretty much sums up my feelings about the book. And all the hype and hoopla around the book didn’t help.

Somehow I had been thinking that it was set in contemporary times – turns out it’s set in the immediate post-independence period so that was a surprise.

The positives first ….

The story is definitely unique and the author claims he has done years of research for this so credit to that.

I liked how Kali and Ponna’s relationship has been portrayed – the story starts 12 years after their marriage and in all this time they have been quite happy with each other. They don’t blame each other for not being able to conceive a child. When others insult them, they withdraw into a shell and gradually cut down on socializing but never take it out on each other.

It also highlights how society reacts, superstitiously at times even, to couples who don’t have children.

The negatives …

The writing goes from one extreme to another – one line is a lyrical description of palm and the next line is full of someone hurling abuses. The abuses made me cringe and I suspect they have actually been toned down by the translation. Of course, this is subjective – another reader may justify it as being real so it depends on you.

The blurb is pretty much the story. In an effort to make it into a full-fledged novel, the author has dragged it on and on. There are so many repetitive threads in the novel ! For instance, if you had presented 5 cases of people insulting them, wouldn’t that have been sufficient enough to drive home the point ? But no, every alternate chapter has a description of one such incident. Similarly there is the non-conformist uncle Nallupayyan who turns up every few chapters to dispense unsolicited advise. There is also a random (and unnecessary, in my opinion) story about how Kali’s great-grandfather won a competition held by a British officer. Beyond a point they get tiring.

Final thoughts …

I wouldn’t recommend it. The ending is ambiguous and the journey towards it gets boring very soon.

Have you read it yet ? What do you think ?

Currently Reading – One Part Woman

I usually don’t write detailed posts on my current reads but this one has been in the eye of a storm recently so I thought I’ll share its background in detail.

Back in 2014, The Hindu had carried an article on books that discuss gender. As always I had added the books to my Goodreads TBR and then promptly gotten distracted by other books 😛

Little did I know that one of those books would snowball into a major controversy …. *cue dramatic music*

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Here is the blurb to help understand things further

Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test.

Towards the end of 2014, there were protests demanding that the book be banned, the reason being that it portrayed the above mentioned temple and the community in a poor light. Copies of the book were burnt and the author was threatened.

In response to all this, Murugan announced that he had taken the decision to quit writing and requested his publishers to withdraw all his novels.

My curiosity has therefore been heightened and I’m already halfway through the novel now 🙂

Here is a summary of the events as they unfolded – “I am not Perumal Murugan ..

Here is the Goodreads link (in case you want to TBR it) – One Part Woman 

And here is an excerpt from the book – One Part Woman (excerpt)

What do you think ?

A sad day for a fan

The news pouring in at this minute is about the demise of India’s eminent cartoonist Mr.R.K.Laxman.

Needless to say its very upsetting – I’m sure not just for me but for millions of his other fans. Here are some snippets from twitter.

That Long Silence by Shashi Deshpande

Jaya’s life comes apart at the seams when her husband is asked to leave his job while allegations of business malpractice against him are investigated. Her familiar existence disrupted, her husband’s reputation in question and their future as a family in jeopardy, Jaya, a failed writer, is haunted by memories of the past. Differences with her husband, frustrations in their seventeen-year-old marriage, disappointment in her two teenage children, the claustrophia of her childhood—all begin to surface. In her small suburban Bombay flat, Jaya grapples with these and other truths about herself—among them her failure at writing and her fear of anger.

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There is so much potential for an amazing story in that blurb ! But this was such a disappointing read that I have given it a 1 star rating on Goodreads which is something I rarely do.

Where do I even start ??

Ok first, the writing. Jaya is the narrator and I think it is deliberate to make it seem unorganized and rushed because it is, in essence, what she is thinking at that moment. I didn’t mind the style per se – here is a sample

The illusion of happiness – yes, I had to let it go. Perhaps the truth is that I was not then remote enough from the scene I was fantasizing about to sustain the illusion. Perhaps – who knows ? – after some years time …..

I had 2 problems – one, the numerous typos that were distracting and two, the unnecessary and repetitive usage of certain words and phrases. Heavy words like “diaphanous” for sarees and every few pages there is “ambrosial” and “perspicacity”. Not at all impressive.

More than the writing it was the character of Jaya that irked me. Despite all her constant outpouring of grief and frustration, not once did I feel any kind of empathy for her. This is a character who is pretentious and judgmental – how can the reader even begin to feel sorry ? She looks down on poor women because they are poor and she looks down on rich women because she feels they are just arm-candy. There is no apparent reason for disliking her husband or children. She turns her back on people who have helped her in life –  her mentally ill cousin, her college friend, her neighbour, etc, etc. Her neighbour, Mr.Kamat, is someone with whom she cultivates a friendship bordering on intimacy but when she walks to his room one day and discovers him dead, she just walks back to her apartment.

Now I have the suspicion that all these situations are thrown in just to make the novel fit in the “literary prizes and awards” category. That way, we have pages and pages of her grief described in poetic flourish.

But what I got was a snobbish work in which I felt no connect with the protagonist.

Have you felt this way about a book ? If so, let me know !!

India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra

One more book that has been left unfinished this year. I did start it with the best of intentions, especially since I had enjoyed another book by the same author, but had to abandon it within a few chapters.

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Why didn’t it work ?

1. Certain issues that I felt should have been discussed in depth and should have received at least a full chapter to their credit get only one paragraph. That was a huge let down for me. We can get one paragraph summaries like that from Wikipedia but that is not what we want, is it ? I expected that issues such as Princely States, creation of new States, secessionist movements, tribal movements would be subject to the kind of analysis that was seen in India’s struggle for Independence but instead we get “A person X did this in year 1234 and then this happened.” 😐

2. In an earlier post about India’s struggle for Independence by the same author, I had written how the writing was objective and free from bias. I wish I could say the same about this one too. Most of the time, the debate on social media regarding representation of history takes a sharp turn towards ideology and from then on the discourse is more about proving that the other person is wrong. When I say this book is biased, I mean it from a purely neutral view. I don’t want to go in depth about the bias and its nature but let me put it this way – when the first 13 chapters are dedicated to just one person, you know something is amiss.

Since I didn’t read it fully, I can’t give a final verdict but based on what I did read, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Have you read the book fully ? What do you think ?

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

The cover page of this book has a quote from the Financial Times calling it “A magisterial work”. There is really no better way to describe this book. Its only after I started reading it did I realize just how many awards it has won and it completely deserves each and every one of them.

Usually I use a image of the cover from Goodreads but here I have used a photo I clicked just to give you guys an idea of what you are in for 🙂 That is 900+ pages of history there. It is intimidating but the entire book has an almost storytelling like quality so take my word for it, it is not a tough read at all.

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The prologue “Unnatural Nation” makes for a great read since it outlines all the doomsday predictions made by  analysts and experts throughout history. They have all written with the utmost conviction that India, as a nation, will disintegrate as there is no common thread to hold her together. The prologue ends with “… why is there an India at all?” , a question the book seeks to answer.

After that it is a sweeping account of India’s post-independence history that is really awe-inspiring. It is tough to try and fit all this into a single book because each part can lend itself to volumes. Despite that, every event has got equal importance which I can imagine must have been a tough balancing act. The list of references alone runs to over a 100 pages so that gives us an idea of the kind of research that has gone into this book.

The secessionist movements in the North-East are usually not covered by books as much as Khalistan but this one does justice and honestly, this is the first time I read about many of the leaders who led these movements.

As always I love the little anecdotes that are peppered throughout the book. For instance, it seems the King of Bhopal wanted Sardar Patel to extend the deadline for signing the Instrument of Accession by 10 days i.e, after 15th August.  When Patel said that he could not make any exceptions, it seems Mountbatten intervened and offered to the King that if the Instrument was signed on 14th August, he would keep it under lock and key and give it to Patel after the 25th. Voila problem solved ! 🙂

The epilogue “Why India Survives” has these wonderful lines

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This is a must-read book irrespective of whether you are a student of history or not. I don’t think there can be a better way to understand India’s post-independence history with all its ups and downs.

The author ends his acknowledgements with

My greatest debt, as expressed in the dedication, is to the always interesting and occasionally exasperating Indians with whom I am privileged to share a home 

Hear ! hear !! 🙂

India’s Struggle For Independence by Bipan Chandra

Co-authors: Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, Sucheta Mahajan, K.M. Panikkar

This is a book I would recommend to anyone who wants to understand the Indian Freedom movement in depth. At over 600 pages with tons of detail, it may seem heavy but is well worth the read.

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The style of the book is such that it isn’t strictly chronological. Rather, some chapters trace the entire history and evolution of a particular issue. For instance, the chapter on freedom of the press starts analysis from mid-1800s to the time of independence. Similarly for labour rights, social reforms, etc. This is insightful and way better than just studying what happened in which year without comprehending the reasons (i.e. the school textbooks method). I ended up discovering a lot of new things that aren’t usually given the importance that is due.

Is the writing biased ? I wouldn’t say so. To me, biased writing would be if the author ignored the opposing views on the issue and presented only the good. That hasn’t been done here. For an issue or a decision, both sides have been presented first and then the author has given his reasons for defending one side. The way I look at it, since both sides have been presented, you can always choose to agree or disagree with the author’s defense.

Apart from a few minor typos, the only problem I would point out is that there is not a single photograph. None ! One of the most fascinating things about reading history is that the photographs have a much bigger impact than anything else. I still love going through old pictures of my city because that gives a perspective that words simply cannot. There are several iconic photos of the freedom movement that everyone is familiar with but because all the authors are historians who have spent their lives on this, surely they would have some unique photos to offer ?

Because it is so well-researched, the number of quotes and anecdotes you get are amazing. Each and every one of them raises the respect you have for the leaders. I have listed a few of my favourites below

On the Vernacular Press Act (1878) which targeted the vernacular newspapers for censorship 

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On Bhagat Singh 

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Gopal Krishna Gokhale on the role of the moderates 

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 Have you read this book ? Planning to read it ? Do you agree about the photos part ? 

Lets Talk Book Covers

Note: For this entire week I am going to be blogging about the various Indian history books I read recently so be prepared ! 🙂 

I usually don’t discuss book covers as much as some other blogs do but this is something I wanted to write on and get your opinion.

First check out these 2 book covers

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What do you think ?

Personally I wasn’t fond of the covers at all. For one thing they just don’t seem like a lot of work went in and the design itself is too literal. Its as if they looked at the titles and said “Just put a pre-partition map for one and a post-partition map of India for the other”. Sure there are other elements present but the maps dominate and I don’t think they are necessary at all.

The one on the left is slightly better but look once again at the right-hand one. Why are there silhouettes of street lights, trees and random people, running right across the center ? What are they trying to convey ? We had these even before independence right ? 😐

Now consider this

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Now this one I actually liked 🙂 Its not too literal but more importantly, it is as accurate as it gets 😀 Every one in India would have gone through this chaos at some point in their lives – I know I have ! If you look closely, some of the signboards are quite hilarious too. You can check out more such amazing photos by the same photographer in his blog here.

What do you think ? 🙂 Agree ? Disagree ? How would you design the first 2 if given the chance ?