The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

This is not a review nor an analysis. This is a recommendation. The book, the quotes, speak for themselves. When I read the book, I had no words.

Message to a friend while reading this. This went on for months! I’m not a crier.

I was too overwhelmed to write a review then and that visceral reaction, that gutting feeling, has still not gone away. Yet, I want to share my thoughts. As horrific as the book was, it’s something that needs to be read by more…

Summary from Goodreads –

More than 500,000 Soviet women participated on a par with men in the Second World War, the most terrible war of the 20th century. Women not only rescued and bandaged the wounded but also fired a sniper’s rifle, blew up bridges, went reconnoitering and killed… They killed the enemy who, with unprecedented cruelty, had attacked their land, their homes and their children. Soviet writer of Belarussia, Svetlana Alexievich spent four years working on the book, visiting over 100 cities and towns, settlements and villages and recording the stories and reminiscences of women war veterans.

The Unwomanly Face of War is an oral history recording the war through the perspective of the many women who played a role in it. It’s the war through a female soldier’s eyes, an image that we are so unfamiliar with that it is hard to believe it exists… that it was so commonplace for women to be soldiers. How many of us imagine a woman when someone says “war veteran?” So many World War stories… I did not imagine I would find anything I hadn’t read before – and, yet.

Were they forced to go to war? Will that make the image more palatable to our sensibilities? Were there just not enough men? Yes, and no. Some of them fought to go to the warfront, they begged their parents to let them enlist… to defend their homeland. They ran away from their homes to be part of the war. There were no clothes for women, so they wore men’s clothes. They menstruated through their pants till the cloth stiffened with blood and cut through their skin. Or they stopped menstruating entirely, the biological cycles thrown off by what they endured. Some had affairs, some of them had children at the front. Some married fellow soldiers, fashioning wedding dresses out of tarps, others returned home alone, only to be deemed too scarred, unrecognizable… unwomanly.

Foot soldiers, medical assistants, nurses… distinguished officers, radio operators…

Alexievich lets each of the veterans own their narrative, giving us brief glimpses from a hundred different perspectives… voices of defiance, reluctance, denial of the war, its glorification, the tragedy, the patriotism, the guilt and the anger… conflicting stories, each narrative is private, emotional and coloured by personal biases… but authentic, you know? Human. A must read, if ever.

“I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.”

WWW Wednesday #1

WWW Wednesday is hosted at Taking On a World of Words, participating in this after ages and ages… I do love getting back to blogging!

The three Ws are:

1. What are you currently reading?

I am currently about halfway into the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski – yes, after having watched and liked the show; instead of the other way round. I have kind of binge-read the books, right now I am on The Tower of the Swallow. Hoping to finish the books soon!

2. What did you recently finish reading?

Just before I started this series, I’d read Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. Got this book after glowing recommendations from two people.. and found it interesting. There are things that really resonated with me, thought provoking, sad, some things that I was a little surprised by or at times disappointed.. It was an overwhelming read, and not always in a good way.

3. What do you think you’ll read next?

Books on my shelf that I want to pick up but haven’t – The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. Here’s hoping I make time for these! Also, I wish I had something more comforting to read.. would love to finish one fantasy series and hop right onto another!

What about you – what have you been reading? What do you recommend I should read next? Any fantasy recommendations?

Bookish Things I Am Thankful For

For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday post, here are some bookish things I’m grateful for. Reading really does define a better part of my life and these are the things that make it happen!

0. Coffee. I don’t know if this counts as a ‘bookish thing’ in your world, but it certainly does in mine! My Instagram will show you just how!

  1. This blog. It’s over ten years old, so it has basically seen me grow up! But a lot of my reading and interaction has been influenced by the book blogging world; and always in a good way.
  2. Book clubs – and the ability to get together and kind of disconnect from the real world and dive headfirst into book-talk, no questions asked.
  3. The Goodreads annual challenges; they keep me on my toes, reading-wise. I can see why the number of books you read in the year doesn’t matter to many, but it serves as a great reminder to read when life starts to get in the way!
  4. Real places described in books, that I can actually visit and feel that much closer to the fictional lands that my mind regularly travels to! A lot of my travel-for-fun is me going off to places I’ve read about in fiction…
  5. Bookish friends I can drop a random text to, asking for recommendations and be sure to get a list in return! Also bookish friends I can rant/recommend to..
  6. Scribd – now I’ve heard mixed reviews, but so far, SO good.
  7. Used-book sales, book hauls, books-by-the-kilo sales; basically anything that fuels my reading addiction.
  8. Libraries. Nothing like stumbling upon a book that grows into your favourite…
  9. Ebooks, because, let’s face it, convenience beats all other preferences… can’t imagine all the books I’d never have discovered had it not been for ebooks!
  10. THE WRITERS who give us parts of their soul.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

This post should be called: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone – the good, the bad and the ugly. Here goes nothing.

The tagline of this book is a summary in itself – Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: a therapist, her therapist and our lives revealed. Gottlieb is a practising psychotherapist sharing her own tryst with therapy, along with stories of patients.

Things I Loved:

Therapists seeing therapists – The book begins with Gottlieb stressing on the fact that therapists seek out help too… Seeing her assert that she has the same struggles makes us warm up to the book… Do you ever wonder – “Do doctors get sick?” Of course they do. They’re human! We don’t need therapy because there’s something wrong with us. We find therapy useful because we’re… human. She normalises therapy by being both the expert and the vulnerable patient herself.

Dealing with mortality – Of all the patient stories, this was the one I appreciated the most – the idea of a young woman dealing with her own mortality. Gottlieb has explored the admittedly murky depths of this issue without slipping into drama or even that overwrought positivity. It could not have been easy being a therapist for someone in that position, with a terminal illness but with no certainty of the ‘how long…’ You feel for her, and you can see the relationship between these two people – Lori and her patient – and Life unfold before your eyes.

Little nuggets of insight – There were a lot of places in the book where Gottlieb gives us small bits of insight from existing research and theories and studies in psychology. These kind of went Bing! in my mind, because they were so relatable. Because I now had words for feelings I’ve felt and actions I have seen. Like this –

In projective identification, the man may feel angry at his boss, return home, and essentially insert his anger into his partner, actually making the partner feel angry. Projective identification is like tossing a hot potato to the other person. The man no longer has to feel his anger, since it’s now living inside his partner.

Man/boss stereotype notwithstanding, I do this ALL the time. (Sorry, Mom.)

Things That Didn’t Make Sense

Fact/Fiction? – At the outset, she informs us that she has changed the details of the patients just enough to make them unidentifiable. If this were true, considering that so much detail is revealed about each person, it makes one wonder, was this even genuine? Would it have been better as an autobiographic novel, drawing from reality, rather than fiction masquerading as fact?

Tone – About fifteen pages into the book, she calls herself an “unreliable narrator,” explaining how people (herself included) tell stories from their perspectives and tend to pick and choose, and leave out the unsavoury parts. I feel like she lets herself off the hook for that. She doesn’t hold herself accountable to the story.

She is also quite self-serving. For instance, she talks about a certain patient; and how she can’t help but have a caustic internal reaction to his behaviour; she finds him obnoxious and it colours her opinion of his struggles! This should have been an absolute no-no in her position! Her excuse is – “well, it’s bound to happen…” Can’t she call it a natural reaction, and still admit it was wrong? It’s tricky to write about yourself with authenticity, even the “unsavoury” bits. That was missing.

Things I Didn’t Like –

What’s the opposite of ‘crowning glory?’ This is the crowning failure of this book. It tries to be TOO much, failing to add up to anything. I vented my frustration in my Goodreads review that about sums it up – “I kept turning pages, flitting between this patient’s story and that, looking for a final point – a thread that connected them all into… one entire book. I didn’t know she was a columnist when I picked up the book; but now, I think I’d love her writing a lot more in crisp, limited doses!”

I don’t regret reading the book. I recommend it to those who ‘don’t‘ think therapy is normal, it can be a myth-buster, and will certainly transport you to the inside of a therapist’s office. The usual clichés are mercifully absent and it IS an important topic. To that extent, I did three-star it and do recommend it. A few weeks earlier I’d written about my own experiences in a post titled, We Need to Talk About Therapy. Do give it a read and share your thoughts!

Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman

Scribd is a delicious virtual labyrinth that keeps revealing its many mysteries, slowly and steadily. It’s been working out well and I find myself buried in the most unexpected books. Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman was one such delight.

Let me give you selected snippets from the Goodreads summary: “A phone call from a soon-to-be-deceased ex-boyfriend launches a young woman on a bizarre road trip to a dark supernatural world hidden beneath America’s heartland…. transforming our mundane world into a place where unseen monsters and paranormal beings have long inhabited the shadows… goblins, dragons, a road-weary clown, and creatures that have never been categorized, join a smart, tough, courageous female protagonist on a wild cross-country thrill ride…”

If the summary excites you, the book will too. It lives up to what it promises – a cross country thrill ride. The tone is dark, almost ruefully funny. I always find books that deal with the “blurred edges of reality” quite fascinating, and the author has some creepy, imaginative “origin stories” for things that go bump in the night This book is reminiscent of the reads I feasted on in the early 2010s; like a weird mix of American Gods and Dresden Files. It has elements of pure fairytale and quite a bit of supernatural weirdness, right out of a fading nightmare, a gritty contemporary fantasy… It is in no way a ‘popular’ read, with under 700 ratings on Goodreads. A lovely find! I’m so happy to have stumbled across it.

Quotes from the book:

“The air around the corner of Bush and Taylor changed when Vikous arrived. It was a distinctly unmagical place – everything from the trees to the sidewalks to the head-down pedestrians colored in various shades of gray – but for a moment, the air changed: filled with a hush stolen from a magician’s audience, thick with the sound of a day-dreaming crowd. A bus roared past a double-parked garbage truck, clouding the air with diesel smoke and timetables, and then he was there.”

“You know what’s the weirdest thing? You just told me that the highway disappearances I read about aren’t always criminals and abductions – that sometimes it’s dragons hunting for food – and that actually cheers me up.”

Reimagining Book Characters as Cats

Reimagining book characters as cats, just by their names… OR Book character names for cats of specific personality types! Returning to blogging, as usual, with a good ol’ Top Ten Tuesday post – Top Ten Bookish Cat Names.

1. Laska – from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Laska sounds like she would be a stately older cat, the kind who’d fix you with a withering stare if you tried to get her to play with a ball of yarn. She’d have this royal look about her and would perch herself somewhere that offered a bird’s eye view of the house. Queen.

2. Pipkin – from Watership Down by Richard Adams – Pipkin would be the kind of kitten that would be terrified of the slightest surprise, especially loud noises. A firecracker would send him scurrying off under the bed, where he’d stay hidden and all floofed up, till goaded out with food.

3. Crowley – from Good Omens by Sir Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – The lean slinky blacker than black cat, just the right combination of adorable and sneaky. Too rough to be domesticated, the inside/outside cat who appears out of nowhere just in time for the treats, and maybe a warm bed every once in a while.

4. Stuart Little – from Stuart Little by E.B. White – I’ve always insisted on calling our fluffy white family cat Stuart, because just like the book character, he looks “very much like a rat/mouse in every way.” White provides no further explanation, and neither shall I! If a kid can “look like a mouse,” so can my cat – and he does!

5. Ash – from Possession by AS Byatt – though inspired by a male character from the book, I see Ash as a charming household girl/boy cat; clever, subdued, and a really affectionate pet.

6. Dodger from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – like the book character himself, Dodger would be a feral tom, probably the kind of stray that gets into a lot of fights and comes out stronger.

7. Howl – from Howl’s Moving Castle (series) by Dianna Wynne Jones – Howl would be the kind of cat who growls at visiting strays from the comfort of his home, gets stuck on trees and yowls to be brought down, kind of moody (doesn’t warm up to strangers easily) but also perfectly playful – and very pampered.

8. Molly (fondly known as Mollywobbles) – from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling – a motherly cat, sweet but fiercely protective; the kind that would attack a pack of dogs if they seemed to threaten her kittens (yes I’ve seen that happen!)

9. Spike (fondly called Adorabelle) – from the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett – I mean, if I ever call a pet Spike, it would certainly not be as a Discworld reference; but I do feel that Adora/Spike would make a great cat. This one would be a fierce, independent, outdoorsy cat, who knows how to steal herself a meal when she needs it, but will also share her steal with her cat-mates.

10. Lyra – from His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman – this one would be the playful, feisty kitten; the first one of the litter to step away from momma to go exploring… not to mention, the first one to sharpen their little claws on an unsuspecting stuffed toy!

Other than Laska, I have picked either human or heavily athropomorphised characters. Laska was just a loving dog, but I really loved her.. and the name!

Which character names would you choose for pets?

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

*trigger warning for sexual abuse

SO I’m still in that phase of “I don’t know what to do with this site.” I’ve done something with it, but I’m not yet happy with what I’ve done. However, I did read this book recently and it has certainly been difficult to get my mind off it. So I thought why not go to the tried and tested basics and write a good ol’ review. I’ve been reading some interesting books this year and this tops the list of thought-provoking writing.

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell is the story of a woman in her thirties, named Vanessa, who discovers that one of her old teachers has been accused in a #MeToo scandal. Soon, we learn that Vanessa had an affair with the very same teacher. In fact, she had been in love with him. The story unfolds through her fifteen year old perspective. Meanwhile, in the future, the woman comes to terms with years of relationship mishaps, and the idea that her very first love was, in fact, sexual abuse.

It’s a controversial topic and it can be a trigger for many. So let’s start with what this book is not and who shouldn’t read it. It is not a love story. You are supposed to see the power play and the emotional abuse for what it is. This fifteen year old girl does glorify her romance with a teacher twice her age. She is obsessed with him, and she lets him convince her that what she feels is in fact love, and that love warrants sacrifice. Although it conveys teenage emotions – rather, because it conveys that young adult perspective so well – it’s not a book for teens. Strangely, the author had been writing the book since she was a teen; which is perhaps how she’s nailed that teenage voice. Yet it is that older, retrospective view, the growing realisation that these actions and feelings were misguided, that makes the book work.

It is not an easy read. The book is quite graphic. It is clear why Vanessa develops a crush on this teacher who charms her. Who lends her books on poetry, and brings out the poet in her. It is difficult not to love him, and as someone who’s loved all Literature professors ever, it is easy to share her fascination. It is when they start interacting that the relationship takes on a sickening, cloying quality. The ease with which he manipulates her, the small sacrifices she makes, the little things she finds herself agreeing to, the changes in her own behaviour that she justifies… seen from a third perspective, this is a hard pill to swallow. Much worse, I’m sure, if you’ve ever been in that position yourself. It’s frightening, compelling, disgusting – rolled into one.

My Dark Vanessa raises a very important question – something that we find difficult to address, awkward even, a kind of blurred line. What do we mean by “willingly” walking into an abusive sexual relationship? What do consent and complicity mean; is every relationship something of a power-play? Can a fifteen year old child have the agency that she presumes she does – could it be anything but manipulation when there is such a clearly skewed distribution of authority? What do you do with that murky, misplaced guilt of having “let” someone do that to you? As Vanessa puts it, “I don’t feel forced, and I know I have the power to say no, but that isn’t the same as being in charge.

The author gives us multiple other voices from Vanessa’s story – her parents, other teachers, friends, her therapist. These beg the question – what do you do if this were someone you know? How do you understand, and show empathy, and reassess your ‘judgement,’ even before you help? It raises questions about victimhood, and what keeps Vanessa from putting herself into that box. She says, “This, I think, is the cost of telling, even in the guise of fiction – once you do, it’s the only thing about you anyone will ever care about it. It defines you whether you want it to or not.”

A scary, frustrating book; my review, if you can call it that, has been just a list of questions. But in the month or so since I read this book, I’ve found myself asking these questions to every new story that I read, real or fiction, that is about relationships, or control, or trauma. For that reason alone, this book deserves a reading, as harrowing and infuriating as the experience is. I recommend this video review for further insight into whether you should pick up this book.

“Girls in those stories are always victims, and I am not. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Strane did or didn’t do to me when I was younger. I’m not a victim because I never wanted to be, and if I didn’t want to be, then I’m not. That’s how it works. The difference between rape and sex is state of mind. You can’t rape the willing, right?”

Favourite Books of 2020 – Part 1

 
A third of the year is over. I haven’t read as much as I had planned, and I haven’t blogged at all! It’s hard to write individual reviews or a full recap at the end of the year either. So I have decided to do it in three parts. So here’s what I’ve been reading:
 
1. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
This is one of the craziest books I have ever read. Cosmicomics is a collection of anecdotes from a omnipresent narrator at different points in space and time. Each short story is built around a scientific or pseudo-scientific concept; a “what if” question. There is a story about a creature who, as his galaxy slowly turns, is eaten up with the frustration of being unable to leave a lasting impression on the endless nothingness around him that is sure to outlast him. Another story is about a couple living on an early planet where their blossoming romance is interrupted by the formation of the atmosphere, and therefore, the introduction of colour into their lives. The first tale, The Distance of the Moon, imagines life on earth if the moon were so close we could climb on to it! I could go on and on. Each story is bizarre, hilarious, beautiful.
 
2. The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton
This one of the most beautiful books I have ever read and the most difficult to write about. I have never given much thought to capital punishment or the laws that surround it, but after this book, I found myself reading up on the death penalty in India and contemplating how many lives depend on a flawed system. So this is Hinton’s story. At the age of 29, a poor black man was convicted of murder and spent three decades on death row in Alabama, after being finally freed for wrongful conviction. This is his memoir. I don’t even know where to begin to describe this book. I don’t know what I could say to capture how it tore at me. The raw terror, the compassion, the fear he describes are feelings I was not prepared to understand or confront. To spend thirty years proving your innocence, to be set free as an old man into a world changed beyond recognition? Just the thought of this book still gives me goosebumps. This is the only time that I’ve read a memoir once and then immediately flipped back the pages and read it all over again, cover to cover. Indescribable! 
 
3. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This book is about something I hadn’t given enough thought to but should have: geriatrics. Gawande talks about how we see death as inevitable and yet, an enemy, and know only one way to approach it: through weapons of modern medicine. He sheds light on the dearth of facilities that ensure an old person’s comfort in his final days. He describes the inadequacy of nursing homes in looking after an old person’s emotional and mental health. He tells us the importance of geriatrics and the lack of funding. He gives a unique doctor’s perspective on how, in the final years of one’s life (as perhaps at any other time) it is quality that matters over quantity. This book makes one demand: we need to change the conversation about old age. 
 
4. Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
I never would have realised how greatly I needed to read a book on conservation by a sort of cynical comic science fiction writer… And now that I have read it, I don’t know what I would have done without it. Books on conservation have some things in common – they’re sad, disconcerting, hopeless even when they’re trying to be hopeful. I am still drawn to writings about wildlife in spite of the hopelessness they often fill me with. But this wasn’t any old book on wildlife. Adams was able to give a new flavour to an old disconcerting conversation. And I am much the wiser for it. I couldn’t put it into a coherent review if I wanted to, but this is a must read – an unexpected perspective at the very least.
 
5. Goodbye Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto
Yoshimoto has been on my list of to-reads for years and years. It seems to me as if this is the first time that a Japanese-translation has resonated with me. This is a young adult book, but not your typical one. Goodbye Tsugumi is the story of our narrator Maria and her cousin and unlikely friend – a young girl named Tsugumi, who is sassy, blunt and bold. Bubbling with anger at a world that hasn’t given her a fair chance, Tsugumi has spent most of her life bedridden with an unnamed ailment. It’s a story about transitional periods in life, coming to terms with our destiny in a manner of our own choosing; it’s about family and friendship and all the pastel-tinted sweet nothings we associate with growing up. For the reader, Yoshimoto has crafted a character who creates such conflicting impressions at every turn – both instant dislike and unwavering compassion; Tsugumi pushes us to question our prejudices. 
 
6. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin 
Like the previous book, I just randomly found this on Scribd and fell in love with the concept. The book is a collection of short stories which are strung together by one shared element: all the characters are related in some way or the other to K.K. Harouni, a wealthy landowner. Servants, businessmen, relatives and acquaintances, all tied to each other through this patriarchal figure. The stories are rich, character pieces, with complex world building, which traverse the social and economic hierarchies in contemporary Pakistan. Very engaging. 
 
I’ve built a habit of writing Goodreads reviews capturing my thoughts right after I finished the book, so this post should have been easy to compile. Here’s the trouble though. For most of these books, my review just says “no words,” or “no words until I chew on this a bit more.” So I had to spend quite a bit of time writing this post, but it also gave me a chance to revisit the books and rediscover why I loved them. (It’s weird that three of these books are non-fiction, this has never happened to me before.) I hope that the rest of the year is as fulfilling. Have you read any of these? What have you been reading? 

Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke

Aurangzeb Alamgir, the sixth Mughal emperor, the last of the greats, as it were. His reign lasted nearly fifty years, I was not aware of that somehow. What I have been made consistently aware of in popular local media, is that he’s a much-hated figure in Indian history; known more than anything else as an intolerant anti-Hindu tyrant who destroyed many temples. It’s been repeated so often that I never actually stopped to wonder if it were true. A great example of history being bent into a political weapon. 
Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth by Audrey Truschke aims to distinguish fact from propaganda. The book begins with a chapter long disclaimer stating what the book is and isn’t. It then spends another chapter telling us how it wants us to use the information presented to view Aurangzeb impartially. I am no expert, but I feel that no compelling content should require so much contextualising. The author is so busy making her case, when she could have let the content speak for itself – then again, maybe the issue is that the content is unable to stand on its own.

“I wish you to recollect that the greatest conquerors are not always the greatest kings. The nations of the earth have often been subjugated by mere uncivilized barbarians, and the most extensive conquests have, in a few short years, crumbled to pieces. He is the truly great king who makes it the chief business of his life to govern his subjects with equity. —Aurangzeb, writing to the recently dethroned Shah Jahan.”

I liked more than a few things I learnt about Aurangzeb through this book. We all know that Aurangzeb earned much scorn, during and after his times, for overthrowing and trapping Shah Jahan at the Red Fort while he was still able. What I did not know was that Aurangzeb was plagued by guilt for these actions, especially in the latter part of his reign. The author quotes letters penned by the king to various trusted sources and his obsession with his “impending judgement” is revealing.
I had no information beyond Shah Jahan’s imprisonment about the war of succession between his sons. Aurangzeb was not the heir apparent. It’s interesting how he hounded, murdered and drove out his brothers in the pursuit of the crown. As the author puts it, given the choice, any of his brothers would have done the same. 
I am fascinated by the fact that the emperor asked to be buried in a simple tomb without the pomp and glory of the Mughal tradition. The detailing of his love for mangoes, dislike for courtly music and bias for his grandsons makes the king more than a caricature to sway historical narratives.  
The driving argument of the book is that we fail to see Aurangzeb as a product of his times. Colonial politics carved out the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy and enmity that was close to absent to during the Mughal times. It is therefore unfair to judge Aurangzeb through that lens. Though more pious than his predecessor and his brother, he was not a Muslim king. His motivations for controlling religious practices of either Muslim, Hindu, Jain or Sikh communities were political. He was a brilliant military and political tactician. Politics and religion are viewed as largely and purposefully separate in the modern world. This distinction did not exist in Aurangzeb’s time. The head of the state, the ruler of the empire was to take it upon himself to do God’s work. Therefore, his interest in religion was not interference as it would be in the modern mould. 
What the author has proved with a shadow of doubt is also that Aurangzeb was ruthless and power-hungry. His ambition often stood in the way of his sense of justice. Needless to say, it is this hunger for power that makes it so easy and compelling a narrative to cast this emperor as a soulless villain. Consider this example used by the author to show his lack of bias towards religion – paraphrased, a group of rebels caught by Aurangzeb’s army were to be punished differently, the punishment for the Hindus being more severe than that of the Muslims. Aurangzeb did not make such religious distinctions when doling out punishments. Instead, he ordered all their heads to be chopped off. It is difficult to contextualise any actions and eliminate our internal biases (products of our own time) when judging historical characters. 
The tragedy is that with a man as ruthless as Aurangzeb, there’s little incentive to see him as anything other than the devil himself. The author urges us to understand that this emperor was no more cruel than was expected in his times and she asks us to ease up on the ill judgement of his character. The book reiterates then that he was cruel and formidable. But, an honest treatment of history must make the distinction that this cruelty did not stem from a religious bias. This is an important point, and I’m glad it was presented so passionately by the author. I appreciate what the book hoped to achieve, I just wish there was more content. What we have is interesting, informative, but is it really enough to build empathy?

“Too great is the grief of this world, and I have only one heart bud – how can I pour all the desert’s sand into an hourglass?” – Aurangzeb 

Ten Favourite Books I Read in 2019

I saw someone post a list of their favourite books of the decade and while I would love to write a post quite as grand as that, it seems like an impossible task. I was 17 a decade ago and I honestly couldn’t look at the books I read at 18-19-20… now, through the same lens as I did then. So I’ll go with the Top Ten Tuesday standard, Ten Favourite Books of the year 2019 (how convenient that the last day of the year is a Tuesday.) I will be writing a detailed year in review post next week (yes, another new year’s attempt at blog revival as it were.) So today’s just a plain and simple list.

1.  Girl at War by Sara Novic: This is a book written by a Croatian writer about a young girl who loses her family in the Serbo-Croatian War. It exposed me to a part of the world I knew nothing about and with the glaring honesty of a ten-year-old narrator. Ana Juric, the main character, is rescued out of the war zone and adopted by an American family when she is ten. She grows up American, in denial and finally, mid-way into the book, unravels her past even as she comes to terms with it herself. A scene that still haunts me: this tiny little girl, convulsing in pain and vomiting as she has her first dinner with her new American family – she’s never known what it is to have a full stomach. She can’t bear it.

2. The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien: Oh yes, it took me 27 years to pick this up and I’m not unashamed to admit it. Where do I even begin with this? I don’t know what I was waiting for. Reading The Lord of the Rings sometime in May and and binge-reading up on Tolkien for the rest of the year has sufficed to transform my entire outlook on fantasy fiction — one of my favourite genres at that. I don’t think there is a greater quest in fiction nor a greater character than Sam. But that deserves more than a mention on a list, doesn’t it?

3. What the F*: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves by Benjamin K. Bergen: It’s not often that a non-fiction makes it to my list of favourite anythings (aside: it’s fascinating how favourite is underlined in red for its UK spelling, but ‘anythings’ isn’t.) I’ve annoyed everyone I know and would care to listen to exasperation singing praises of this book, so all I’m going to do is copy the book description from Goodreads. “Swearing is useful. It can be funny, cathartic, or emotionally arousing. As linguist and cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen shows us, it also opens a new window onto how our brains process language and why languages vary around the world and over time.” There’s no scope for being prudish while reading this one.

4. Columbine by Dave Cullen: Another non-fiction… what is happening to me. Now for the record, gun violence is as distant a reality to me as possible and that gives me the luxury of taking this book in a different vein than many other readers would. Takeaways for me, from this critical reporting of the Columbine massacre: compassion fatigue, misrepresentation of facts in the media, the celebration of a school spirit, urban myths and people juicing the tragedy for personal propaganda. The biggest trigger for me, as a school teacher, was just how much “in charge” a teacher is of her students’ safety. Foremost, I think we, as a thinking and feeling society, must read this book to see how a small twist of facts can colour an entire story; and how important it is to look for facts in the face of compelling emotion.

5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: I rarely pick up series, and even when I do, I hardly ever like the first book. Seraphina is a glaring exception to this rule. The beautiful medieval/steampunk story redeems its genre of young adult fantasy. Seraphina is the story of a girl who is part dragon, and her attempts to fit into the class ascribed to her by a society which doesn’t understand or accept her full potential.

6. The Elephant Whisperer by Laurence Anthony: This was my first book of the year, and a memorable read. This is the true story of an Australian-African conservationist and his efforts to to rehabilitate a herd of wild elephant in the Thula Thula nature preserve in South Africa. Laurence Anthony loves elephants, that much is clear from the first chapter; but what becomes increasingly, and amazingly, evident over the course of the book is that these elephants love Laurence Anthony too. What we get is a strange tale of patience, hard work and the careful and precarious bonding between one man and one alpha female elephant, who work together to protect the lives of her precious pachyderm family. It’s unforgettable. You learn about the intricate nature of elephant societies, their unmistakable intelligence, South African jungle laws and most importantly, the power of family.

7. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: It’s becoming increasingly hard to pick favourites in a year that was so rewarding in terms of reading. Yet, I cannot forget this particular book that had the most compelling set of characters of all the books I read this year. It’s the story of a Cameroonian immigrant couple and their struggle to settle down in New York city. It is also about the American family they work for, and how the financial crisis of 2008 shakes their perfectly built world to the core.

8. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Let’s be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love this book. It proudly proclaims to be a “YA” book and I have my biases about that. It also takes a line with so much power and cultural connotation as its title, I was certain it would be difficult to live up to the name. I was wrong. The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter, a sixteen year old girl who at the very opening of the book, witnesses a police officer shoot down her best friend Khalil. As the whole nation is taken up in a speculation game, the only person who knows the truth is afraid of getting involved. This is a complicated story of race, identity, violence, friendship, and risking the facade of normalcy to protect and celebrate your roots.

8. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie: Oh, but this book is an epic, a story spanning nations and generations. The surprised outrage of America at the time of 9/11. A young Muslim couple in love facing the Partition of two nations in an old, old Delhi. The bombing of Nagasaki and the far-reaching injuries of this war on the minds and bodies of the people. It’s set in Pakistan, and Japan, and Afghanistan too, and sheds light on war from any and every perspective, every generation and language. The storyteller is intelligent, unbiased, and compassionate and demands the same of her reader.

9. Scarecrow by Matthew Reilly: So, this may seem misplaced in an increasingly more serious list, but I abso-freaking-lutely loved this book. This is the premise: it is the greatest bounty hunt in history. The targets are the finest warriors in the world-commandos, spies, terrorists. And they must all be dead by 12 noon, today. On this list is the name of the US Marine Shane Schofield, who is not only a target but also quite possibly the only man who can stop this bounty hunt, if he doesn’t get killed first. Reading Matthew Reilly’s book is like watching a well made action movie. What Reilly lacks in terms of language or depth of character, he makes up for in speed and a kind of detail that is almost screenwriter-ish but in a good way. I won’t be able to read these books one after the other, but it’s perfect if you’re in the mood for some entertainment.


10. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
: The hardest pick of all that brings the list to a close. The Hired Man is yet another book set in Croatia, and a psychological dissection of war, when it comes unannounced and alters reality as you know it. This book takes you in the mind of a man who has suffered mysterious evils at the hands of an unnamed war, and the lifelong repercussions it has on his psyche. It’s the story of a small town and its culture being silently rewritten by its scant inhabitants to account for the damages that were caused to them, about how the world has somehow moved on to the future while they’re still grappling with a new present. An American woman and her two kids move into a house in small town Croatia. The woman hires a local man to help out with the refurbishing of what she wants to turn into a holiday home, and this man, our narrator, tells us the history of the house. A haunting read. The author hammers into your mind and turns the screw just when you least expect it.

That’s it for now, which were your favourite reads of the year?