Favourite Books of 2021 – Part 2

The past three months have been unreal. No words can describe my whirlwind of self-inflicted life changes – but it does reflect in the dark, dark reading choices. In no particular order, Part 2 of My Favourite Books of 2021 –

1. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong – a story of Alzheimer’s, caring for the old, caring for the young, unrequited love and coming to terms with death. It’s about all of this and still, breaks any of the stereotypes you may have associated with these themes. Khong’s charming, quirky, sad writing style is difficult not to like. Link to my review.

2. Lost Gods by Brom – WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN! No, seriously. Why am I reading this now? Lost Gods is a story of a man who finds himself in the land of the dead and has to push his way out of Purgatory to save his family. It’s peppered with art by the author himself (who is an artist) and is just so incredibly detailed, it makes your skin crawl!

3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – A modern adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, this is the story of a pair of British Muslim sisters whose brother has left the family on a terrorist path, following in the footsteps of their father. It’s the story of a family’s loss and the little, big things that make up identity – language, food, nationality, what you wear, whom you marry. A haunting tragedy. Full review here.

4. Nightbooks by J.A. White – A little boy who loves to write horror stories finds himself trapped in a witch’s lair. In an Arabian Nights fashion, the only thing that keeps him alive is entertaining the old witch with his ghost stories. What happens when he faces the dreaded writer’s block? I wish I had access to such delicious, and also tasteful, horror when I was in middle school. I loved this book!

5. The Dark Interval by Rainer Maria Rilke – Self help in my world often takes the form of writings by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dark Interval is about life and death. It’s a set of letters that Rilke had written to his grieving friends. Beautiful… that someone could be so sweet, sensitive and practical, and say the right things, in the face of loss… where most of us would just blubber and grimace.

6. Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K Massie – Wow, I’ve spent two months on this monster of a book! It is absolutely incredible just how much detail, intrigue and character Massie has managed to squeeze into the roughly 1200 pages of this book – not a word is superfluous. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar. I will write more soon.

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.”

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!

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 

Whispers From The Wild by E.R.C. Davidar (edited by Priya Davidar)

About a couple of months ago, one of my friends lent me this book called Whispers from the Wild which I had been immersed in for a couple of weeks. A beautiful read, just the perfect one to satisfy my newfound interest in memoir-style non-fiction. Written by an expert and activist, it’s a love letter to the vibrant wildlife of the Nilgiri forests in Southern India.

E.R.C. Davidar was by profession a lawyer. An avid hunter himself, Davidar was in charge of the Nilgiri Game Association in his early career. In a personal journey, that resonates with that of many shikaris from the British Raj, Davidar realized the natural costs of hunting – the loss of habitat for animals, the endangerment of many species. He gave up game hunting and turned into an ardent campaigner for wildlife conservation in India. Through his effort and struggle, the Nilgiri Game Association morphed into the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association. Some of his major undertakings include the work he put into preserving the elephant migration corridors in Southern India and the extensive census of the Nilgiri tahr. 

This book is set in a forest, quite a beautiful one at that. Possessing what can only be described as the eccentricity of a genius, Davidar, wife and children tagging along, had built himself a house in the forest at the foot of the Nilgiri hills. They christened this place Cheetal Walk, cheetal being the local name for the spotter deer found in these parts, the Indian Bambis if you will. The stories in this book are primarily from his time at Cheetal Walk. 
Throughout the book, Davidar is a combination of naturalist and nature-lover. The scientific aspect of his writing is most evident in the precision of his observations, especially of the elephants, their most frequent guest at Cheetal Walk. Every visit of an elephant is described in detail, every move, each contour on the creature’s face, its colour, its gait, how it fed – Davidar lists everything like a dispassionate observer. Then he tells you the name they have given the elephant, how they have grown to like his frequent visits, how they all stare out the window when he comes plodding along – and the warmth rushes back into his writing. 
This impersonal interest in his subjects which complements Davidar’s deep love for them makes the book most fascinating to read – it provides you information, while still hooking you into his life and stories on a sentimental level. You begin to care about that great brute of an elephant called Bumpty, just as you learn more about the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris and how they have been threatened through encroachment and poaching. Brain and heart, always, both brain and heart. 
“Nature is evocative, provided it finds a response. Responsiveness is born out of love. Once you find the right chord, you are never lonely in nature’s company. Sitting in a jungle environment, you begin to realize you are privileged. The realization rouses your awareness and sharpens your power of observation. You begin to notice little details you had not registered before, and delight in them. And there are a hundred and one simple but evocative things to observe – leaf patterns, the play of light at different angles, the changing facets of nature with the change in seasons, reflections in the pool below and smaller and less glamorous fauna – small animals, birds and reptiles that appear larger than life when you observe them closely. The visuals are accompanied by sound effects – wind playing among the leaves, the stream chattering among the rocks before entering the pool, birdsong (identifying the owners, especially the rarer ones becomes a game) and animal sounds. Your other senses also participate in the experience – especially your sense of smell. Some aromas are subtle and tease you to explore them, and others are raw. Altogether, sitting in nature is a rewarding experience, and soon becomes an addiction.”
Just last month, I taught a poem to my Grade 8 class – The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling. It’s the haunting story of a man who lives on the edge of a forest and has grown old there. There used to be a way through the forest, he says, which is gone now. But he can’t help but still hear the swish of a skirt and the trot of a horse’s feet as though there is someone moving along that long-gone road. And that keeps him company, though there is no road through the forest.
The children all declared that they would love to live in a forest, away from the city and did so with such confidence that I asked them to reconsider. Imagine there being no sound of whirring fans and fridges, even the lights make soft sounds; imagine not hearing the constant drumming of cars, and trucks, and bikes on the road, the honking. And not a single whisper of a person. That kind of silence will take some getting used to. It could really show you your place in the world.
We have adapted ourselves to the city so well, that being in a forest and being safe in one requires a drastic unlearning and reeducation. Davidar talks about the very same thing. When he describes any romp in the forest, he uses all his senses to produce such evocative descriptions. The taste, smell, the sound of the forest, his descriptions put you right in his worn-down shoes, and make you feel his world a million times more acutely. That perhaps is the best part of reading this book.
“Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty, clear, musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune his imagination to the read the music. When in full flow after a series of downpours, the stream roared like an angry tiger and could indeed kill the unwary. When the level fell somewhat, it growled. As the flow fell further, it would moan like a bear, coo like a turtle dove, whistle like a green pigeon, sing like a shama, hiss like a python, gurgle like a happy child of the wilderness. Sometimes, it was like a whole orchestra playing, if you had the imagination of a composer to supply the stops and pauses. We would never have believed that a that would come and that too so soon, when the Sigurhalla would be singing mournful dirges when it sang at all.”


Kashmir in two books – Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat

I’ve been on a non-fiction mission these past two months, catching up, one might say, on history the only way I know how – through books. Most of my last reads have been about Kashmir and the territorial conflict between Pakistan and India, written from many points of view and dealing with different times of Kashmir’s tumultuous history. 
Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer
It all started with a review of a book I’d recently read. The review mentioned Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, in some context or the other. Basharat Peer is a journalist from a small city in Jammu and Kashmir, the site of much militant and military violence. Basharat comes from an ordinary family, a government-employed father, with no militant sentiments. And yet he grew up hating India with all his might, fearing the constant army presence near his home. He left Kashmir to study journalism in Delhi, and later, returned to his homeland to tells its tragedies and stories.

I was intrigued by the blurb. I took Curfewed Night along on a trip and devoured it during a five-hour stop at Dubai, in the middle of the night.

“Srinagar is a medieval city dying in a modern war. It is empty streets, locked shops, angry soldiers and boys with stones. It is several thousand military bunkers, four golf courses, and three book-shops. It is wily politicians repeating their lies about war and peace to television cameras and small crowds gathered by the promise of an elusive job or a daily fee of a few hundred rupees. It is stopping at sidewalks and traffic lights when the convoys of rulers and their patrons in armored cars, secured by machine guns, rumble on broken roads. It is staring back or looking away, resigned. Srinagar is never winning and never being defeated.”

Throughout the book, Peer tells numerous stories of Kashmiris, Hindu Pandits and militants and separatist poets and pro-India Muslims and everyone in between, and there are so many in between. He talks about not reducing people down to labels, about a Haryanvi soldier who said to him once, “I was a different man before I joined the force and came to Kashmir.” Peer insists – talk not about India, and Pakistan, talk about Kashmir.
The writing is poignant but precise, a journalist’s hand. Curfewed Night is an incredibly humbling book. Blurbs by Khushwant Singh & Pankaj Mishra, among others, describe it as “brutally honest and deeply hurtful,” and a book that “challenges our most cherished beliefs.” Peer begins the book with stray incidents from his childhood, to give a glimpse of the world he grew up in, happy incidents, fond memories. But each has offhand references that impress upon you just how different your Indian childhood was from his – how his friends could name the gun from the sound they made, how easily influenced they were as kids and dreamt of carrying around Kalashnikovs and wearing cartridge-studded jewellery even before they knew exactly what the militants were, how in every cricket match, they would cheer for whichever country was playing against India, the loudest if it was Pakistan. 
There is a lot to say and it is packed tight in a slim book. The Mint blurb on the back cover says, “it represents the anger and loss of a whole generation.” Checking out other reviews, I notice this book has been called ‘biased.’ I didn’t see anything of an unfair agenda-pushing, perhaps only in the insistence of looking at the Kashmiri point of view​, yet nowhere does he say that he means his own separatist view. I don’t know who reserves the popular “sympathy” but this book is not a plea for pity. I feel it is a memoir everyone should read. How better to understand history than to start by understanding the people immersed in it, with their biases and other human “failings”?
Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by Amarjit Singh Dulat
Written by A.S. Dulat, ex-special director of the Intelligence Bureau and ex-chief of the Research & Analysis Wing, whose main focus of work had been Kashmir, who is considered the go-to man on everything about the Kashmir conflict; Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years was the book I read right after Curfewed Night.
Okay, first of all, A.S. Dulat is eminently unlikable, a callous man with a big ego. Not surprising from a seasoned politician, but it did get in the way of reading this book quickly. It’s a useful book for someone like me who doesn’t know a lot about the Kashmir conflict, or even otherwise, has big gaps in their knowledge. Dulat sort of gives a summary of what happened in Kashmir in the fifteen or so years that he worked with it, from the 1990s to 2004. Since this was during Vajpayee’s first thirteen-day tenure as the Prime Minister following Narasimha Rao and his second time in office for obviously much longer, Dulat may be right to title the book – The Vajpayee Years. 
Dulat characterises Vajpayee as not just another politician or worse, military man, but a Chanakya-figure. An intelligent man who thinks a lot and reveals little. The more significant reason for this title is Dulat’s claim that Vajpayee has been the Kashmiri populations’s favourite PM yet. Dulat credits him for assigning the intelligence agencies the task of talking continuously with the Kashmiris. Vajpayee was the only one who recognized the importance of dialogue with the Kashmiris to cut the Gordian knot that was the India-Kashmir-Pakistan struggle. And who, in his time, made significant progress in achieving this goal. Dulat spends plenty of time explaining just how. And even so, perhaps twenty percent of the book talks about Vajpayee. 
A big chunk, nearly half the book, deals with the Abdullah family. Dulat particularly stresses on the senior Sheikh Abdullah, Sher-e-Kashmir as he was called, and his son Farooq Abdullah, the on-and-off CM of J&K. A long chapter towards the end is dedicated to how Vajpayee and his principal secretary supposedly betrayed Farooq by promising and failing to make him Vice President. Whereas he openly idolizes Vajpayee, Dulat tries very hard to exonerate Farooq of the flak he received from his critics over the years. 
Dulat switches back and forth in time a lot, so it is actually not easy to get a straightforward timeline of events from the book, which is what I was looking for. (Foreshadowing has no place in non-fiction, and Dulat needs to learn about footnotes.) He talks about various kidnapping cases including Jammu and Kashmir CM Mufti’s daughter’s kidnapping, about the hijacking of, among others, Indian Airlines flight IC-814, breezes over the effects of 9/11 on India-Pak, and describes his conversations and “friendships” with a number of Kashmiri militants and separatists. Of course, sworn to secrecy in his position, there is no big revelation (other than Dulat’s utterly odious personality) but there are quite a few surprises. 
What is most interesting to see is how the Indian intelligence agencies work, both the Intelligence Bureau and our spy agency, the Research & Analysis Wing. Dulat, who has headed both in his time, is perfect to talk about either. My takeaway from Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night was the need to engage with and understand the ordinary Kashmiri, which Peer says is not done by the Indian government. Dulat’s book brought out the impracticability of Peer’s proposed solution. 
For all his time conversing with Kashmiris, for all his expertise, Dulat has no empathy, and mocks those who show any (i.e.: Rajesh Pilot, who according to Dulat has the rare patience “to listen to the Kashmiri bitching”) Dulat is simply doing his job, and his job requires him to be pro-India, to simply “humour” the Kashmiri sentiment. Every time he makes sweeping observations of the Kashmiri psyche (a Kashmiri never looks you in the eye, a Kashmiri can’t tell the truth, Kashmiris exaggerate everything) he negates his own aim to understand them. He is single-mindedly pro-India, and goes so far as to breeze casually over serious allegations which put the country in a negative light. These include the government bribing the militants, and certain officers in the army using their extensive power in Kashmir to torture or rape civilians, along with the authorities’ reluctance in dealing with such cases. 
There is a sort of ‘Chalta hai,’ ‘Kya karein’ tone when he talks about India’s mistakes, which is despicable, but seriously, kya karein? Reviews on Goodreads say that this book offers insight into possible solutions for the Kashmir conflict. What it does show very well is what has been tried so far. And it tells us how immensely complicated the issue is, how difficult it is to find a singular solution. Even a book about Kashmir, which claims to put the Kashmiri interests center-stage ends up doing quite the opposite. Dulat quotes someone (can’t remember or find) saying that Kashmir is like a courtesan surrounded by vile spectators who are enjoying her dance, laughing at her.
It’s an interesting phrase that Vajpayee apparently used to describe Kashmir, the Gordian knot. Cutting the Gordian knot means finding a bold and creative solution to an impossible problem. But there’s a myth attached to it. According to Greek mythology, when the peasant Gordius became the ruler of Phrygia, he tied his chariot to a pole with a tight knot and dedicated it to Zeus, the king of the gods. Gordius’s knot seemed impossible to untie. It was predicted that whoever unraveled the knot would be the future King of Asia. Many tried, and many failed. Finally, Alexander the Great arrived in Phrygia. He was a man of action. After a few tries, Alexander was overcome with impatience. In one swift move, his took out his sword and simply cut off the knot. He then set out to conquer Asia, leaving defeat and bloodshed in his wake. So, using that phrase does make sense, in ways unintended too. Kashmir is indeed our Gordian knot, and we are cutting it to shreds.

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

(I had to finish this in November, for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December.)

The first book I finished this weekend was a beautiful autobiography of German Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass. The title, Peeling the Onion, is a running metaphor for peeling back the layers of memory, gradually, carefully, taking care not to cut too deep too soon and unleash withheld tears. It is popularly considered a confessional account of Grass’s entry into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi military wing. It follows him through his days as an ex-Nazi prisoner of war and the later years as a sculptor and an artist, and how these life experiences influenced his writing and peace-time politics. 
To start with, let me just say I have read nothing by Grass and not a lot about him. And yet, I knew this – he was the voice of post-war Germany, their self-appointed moral compass, and the man who said, “it is a citizen’s first duty to not keep quiet.” And yet it took Grass so many years to break his silence. This book caused quite a stir when it was published, precisely because of the irony of its revelation; the fact that Germany’s so-called conscience-figure had been a willing believer in the Third Reich. This was why I was looking forward to reading the book. I wanted to read the ‘confession of guilt’, make sense of it, the scandal it caused; it could be a non-fictional version of Miller’s The Crucible, and with this expectation, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
I went in expecting a very different book. Peeling the Onion is not Grass’s daring confession about his part in the Waffen-SS. Guilt is a major theme in the book, and war played a major role in his life – but not in the way you’d expect or want it to be. The controversy, in hindsight, makes as little sense as accusing To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee of racist talk or trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The controversy takes a cursory glance at the book and misses the subtext. Grass was not a hypocrite, for the man demanding and expecting honesty from fellow men did not carry himself on a high horse. This book shows, in fact, that he was rather a man who had spent the better part of his life struggling with remorse for not having done just that – for not having had the courage to speak up. For not asking, “Why?” The narrator of a book is ideally a sympathetic character. This, Grass is not. Yet, it is perfectly possible to look past that for the book has a lot to offer. 

“When shortly after my eleventh birthday synagogues in Danzig and elsewhere were set aflame and Jewish merchants’ shop windows shattered, I took no part, yet I was very much a curious spectator. I simply stood by and observed, and was, at most, surprised.

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselves – exhilaratedly and exhilaratingly – modern, had to offer.”

Grass is unerringly honest. And this honesty is disconcerting to read, as in the chapter ‘His name was WEDONTDOTHAT’. Grass tells us about a spirited blue-eyed blonde boy, a fellow soldier in the Luftwaffe, who would pointedly refuse to hold any weapon because it was un-German. “We don’t do that,” he would say, no matter how and how often he was punished for it, and “Wedontdothat” became his name; Grass talks about how relieved they were when, one day, he disappeared from te camp and with him, the pricking doubt he put in the rest of their minds finally vanished. Grass didn’t care where he had gone, though they all knew. It was difficult to take Grass’s brusque honesty in a stride at such times. I had to take periodic breaks from the book as it was too emotionally charged to read at one go. 
Of course, the infamous Waffen-SS is only a minor feature in the 500-page book. One-fourth of it, perhaps. A large quarter of the book is about hunger, and how Grass spent most of his life satisfying one hunger after the other, hunger of the stomach during war-time, of the flesh as a youth and of the mind. How hunger frequently dictated the course his life would take. Grass details his experience as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen. Injured, in mind and body, yet never having shot a bullet himself. Tells us how it was to meet Jews for the first time since the war, how it was to learn about the horrors of the concentration camp and how the ex-soldiers would refuse to believe that it existed. He talks about listening to late night arguments on politics and coming to terms with his ignorance and indifference. He details later learning what happened to his family “when the Russians came.” How the war changed his mother, who never told him what really went on when Danzig, the hometown, was raided. How it broke his sister’s spirit. It is a cinema-reel of atrocities and the clear sun-lit reality of it all makes it so difficult to tell black from white. The supposed controversy of Grass’s revelation has long ceased to matter at this point.
Günter Grass was a sculptor. This, I did not know at all. He had been an art enthusiast as a child and artist was one of the things he wanted to grow up to be. A waning half of the book is about his career as a sculptor, the women in his life during this time. Amidst all the women (and his children) in his life, this book details only one of his marriages, to Anna Schwarz, the dancer. His second wife Ute makes guest appearances in his travels.

The various characters of his numerous books start taking shape now, inspiration flowing in from his war memories, and we finally begin to learn a little something about Günter Grass, the writer. He used to stand when he wrote! What a weirdly inconsequential thing to discover, yet it has stuck, maybe because it is so random – it was a habit he picked up as a sculptor, he wrote at his stand-up desk. He was left-handed, and talks as though he is constantly aware of his left-handedness; and of course he is, so am I. (Aren’t right-handers constantly aware of their right-handedness? Must be, because so many show surprise when I casually raise my left hand to do something.) He also dwells on his transformation from a total non-smoker who’d use cigarettes as a favourite barter in his prison days to the young artist who smoked for careful pretense until it became an incorrigible habit. 

Often he drifts into the third person talking not of himself but a boy and I cannot help but wonder, is he making it impersonal for our sake or his own? But, of course, he has already told me that. I should know by now… nothing escapes him, least of all his own failings. The very first sentence of the book reads – “Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great.”  
It cannot be easy to fashion a tangible narrative out of wisps of memory. Moreover, to convert ones past into something of interest to another. The writing does not possess an inch of self-importance or flattery, nor does he ever put on an air of fake modesty. Quite possibly because it took me so long to read it, but also because of how far and deep it extended, I neared the end of the book with the conclusive impression that I had experienced a lifetime – a long, long trek, and I was the mental equivalent of out-of-breath.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredible, honest book. Written in the face of cancer by a man who happened to have spent the better part of his life trying to gain an understanding of death, the book has the urgency of a story that needs to be told. There is no scope for pretences, there are no airs and, perhaps, Kalanithi held only a vague awareness of a reader in mind, and little concern for the impression the book would have on a prospective reader. Its authenticity is its driving force, which is a rare quality for memoirs.

“Most lives are lived
with passivity toward death — it’s something that happens to you and
those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively
engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and,
in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an
onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients’ lives and
identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are
perfect, the world isn’t. The secret is to know that the deck is
stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and
yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach
perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are
ceaselessly striving.” 
I sometimes feel like my childhood was a montage of medicine names
and hospital tales. I grew up around doctors and hospitals and what was
most interesting to me about this book was how so many of Paul’s
experiences with and views on medicine paralleled my father’s. The book
felt very personal. When Breath Becomes Air offers an insider’s view on
medicine, as a
profession, as a calling, as something that exists on the slippery slope
of morality. It gives a glimpse of the doctor’s view that we often fail to consider. 
Medicine, the hard reality of a doctor’s life, requires you to suspend the values you
have internalised – of what is right and wrong, what is permissible and
what is just, and most significantly, what is possible. Kalanithi writes, delicately, about music blasting in the
operation room, about dissecting cadavers in med school and about each time that a doctor has to tell a family that he is
sorry he could not help. 
When Breath Becomes Air is not about cancer. It is written by a man dying of lung cancer, yes. It is most definitely about death, or about life, which is rather the same. But it is not about struggling against the disease. It is not the glorification of a short life, it is not about making the most of your time left, it is no ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ (as my sister put it) and while there is nothing wrong with being any of these, I appreciated that the book was written not because the man had cancer but because he wanted to be a writer. His diagnosis only sealed the chosen fate.
“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I
didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die,
but I didn’t know when.
But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one.
The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
This book has a lot going for it. The biggest reason it appealed to me is for how it has planted this narrative in my head – this internal argument that forced Kalanithi to write the book. Have you read Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson? It is about the constant presence of death in the carriage of life. There is a persistent awareness of mortality in us, that Kalanithi suggests is what being human entails, be it in the form of loss or disease. What then, taking into account the inevitability of death, constitutes a meaningful life? A brilliant young man, in his final hour, muses on how to live.
When Breath Becomes Air lies on a fascinating intersection of
Literature (with an L) and science. Kalanithi writes at length about
studying literature with the aim to untangle the complexities of the
mind and later, almost dissatisfied with the limits of literature,
majoring in neuroscience to analyse the brain and its role in making
life meaningful. He flutters between the two, building a life around the
practice of science in the best of times, seeking comfort in Samuel
Beckett in the worst. He writes about where the two meet, philosophy and
science, their intersection. This book is about what literature and
science offer and what they lack, explained by a man who intimately
knows and loves both.
The book is also about family. About the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. Even as I write this, I wonder how a slip of a book was so many things… and this particular aspect of it, I don’t want to spoil with my words. I leave this for you to explore and experience. Terry Pratchett wrote, ‘no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.’ Paul Kalanithi has left us with a stormy ocean. Do read the book.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

In the last post, I mentioned a project. That is what has been killing my creativity for the past three months. The topic is metaphorical language; how it is stored and processed in the mind. Now, I don’t know if I am built for research, have a research bent-of-mind. I don’t know, for instance, how flattering it is that I got the idea for my first serious linguistics project from a science fiction novel (Embassytown by China Mieville, if it matters.) But over the past several weeks, I have managed to stumble and bumble along, and in this big jumble of data collection and experimental software and statistical tools, I have (almost) developed a taste for it. 
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is the first book I read post topic-selection. It is a book that is (un)popular for its intricate claims. I love it! The essence of the book is the claim that metaphors are the vessel for meaning. Linguistic experience is rooted in conceptual metaphors. 
We generally associate the word ‘metaphor’ with the literary device. Aristotle said something about a perfectly constructed metaphor being the awesomest thing ever (it’s been long since I quoted Aristotle, my memory is a bit rusty.) According to Lakoff and Johnson, we need to stop thinking of metaphors as some sort of flourish that poets add to their language and realize that it is something we all employ. It would be impossible to speak about ‘concepts’ without metaphors, that is, without likening them to concrete perceptual and physical processes. To explain what they mean, the first example they provide is that of the metaphor of ARGUMENT as WAR. 
Your claims are indefensible
He attacked every weak point in my argument. 
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument. 
I have never won an argument with him. 
You disagree? Okay, shoot! 
We cannot talk about arguments, without talking about war. The experience of ARGUMENT finds embodiment in the language of WAR. As someone who is entirely inept at arguments, always takes them as personal attacks and surrenders in every argument with a ‘Fine, I’m wrong. You win,’ I can personally attest to this metaphor. 
But that is not the end of their line of thought. What if instead of talking about ARGUMENT in terms of WAR, we adopted the language of DANCE? Imagine a culture where two partners are said to perform an argument, where claims are choreographed to aesthetically please, where strategies are twirls. Will the resulting act of communication be an argument at all? Not as we view it, at any rate. When the words change, they conclude, so does the experience, and with that, the very action changes.
The point here is that not only our conception of an argument but the way we carry it out is grounded in our knowledge and experience of physical combat. Even if you have never fought a fistfight in you life, much less a war, but have been arguing from the time you began to talk, you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT is WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live. 
They give examples of other such metaphors, a stand out being TIME is MONEY. You can spend time, give someone your time, and so on. These are called structural metaphors, where the language is so structured that ideas are objects that can be spent, stored, buried, wasted and given. The authors stress however that these metaphors are only partially structured, so you can spend time, but there are no time banks like money banks. The metaphors of time don’t hold true for all the structures and linguistic usages of money. 
Another interesting kind of metaphors is the orientational one. Anything that is GOOD is UP and BAD is DOWN. So your spirits rise, you are at the peak of your career, you do high-quality work, something boosts your confidence. In contrast, you fall into depravity, you are under someone’s control and so on. The authors explain again that these distinctions are not randomly assigned but based on a network of physical and cultural experiences, that may vary across societies according to what is valued more and what needs to be brought into focus. They give many instances, so many instances that you are overcome with awe by the sheer power of their observation and inference-making skills. 
Eventually, things begin to get really complex, when you see that ARGUMENT is conceptualised as more than just WAR. There can be an ARGUMENT is a BUILDING metaphor (his claims were shaky) or an ARGUMENT is a JOURNEY (you can’t retract your claim now, having come so far.) This is where the arbitrariness of such a descriptive piece of writing as this book begins to show through. All the hypotheses proposed by Lakoff and Johnson are strictly experiential and with every new page, they stray away from language science and into the realm of philosophy. This is not necessarily bad.
Towards the end of the book, they talk about the meaning and subjectivity of truth. How any statement is true only relative to some understanding of it. France is hexagonal, Missouri is a parallelogram, Italy is boot-shaped. All of these are true to a little boy drawing a map in school and laughably wrong to any self-respecting professional cartographer. 
It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.
The first time I heard of Lakoff had been (I later recollected) in a book where Steven Pinker made fun of his very unempirical analyses. The ‘language is thought’ hypothesis has been somewhat carelessly thrown out by most linguists. (But if you are interested in some recent relevant research on this, I refer you to a favourite cognitive linguist.)
In Embassytown by China Mieville, the book that gave me the idea for the project, there is a race of aliens called Ariekei. The one difference between humans and the Ariekei is that the alien language has no metaphors. The Ariekei can only talk about things that are physically and perceptually concrete. Unlike humans, you see, the Ariekei cannot lie. Embassytown has many holes, but one thing it did impress upon me was the value of our ability to draw creative links between what is and could be. Metaphors We Live By shows the extent of this, and it is so inspired. It is a beautiful read for any speaker or learner of English. It will give you a whole new perspective on the language and a keen awareness of every word choice you make the next time you speak.

The Tribes on My Frontier by E. H. Aitken

I have found non-fiction much lighter to read in the past few months than fiction, the best of which is too absorbing, dense and intricate. I was delighted to find this gem in the library, a book called Zoo in the Garden which comprised two of the most popular books by E.H. Aitken. EHA was born in Bombay and was one of the founding members of the Bombay Natural History Society or BNHS, a giant name on the biodiversity research and conservation front in India.
The Tribes on My Frontier is set in what is named Dustypore, which could be just about any place in India. Every chapter of the book is dedicated to the little and big creatures which inhabit EHA’s home and surroundings, be it rats, frogs, birds, even pet fowl, butterflies, mosquitoes (the pride of India!) or some larger mammals. He offers humorous character sketches of the animals, along with factual details wherever required. The book is written in the most disciplined manner. EHA strikes out many common myths people have about animals and pests. For instance, the stinky Asian house shrew is only a harmless shelter-seeker often mistaken for the rat which causes all the trouble in houses. (I had no idea!) EHA has the eye of a naturalist and the words of a poet. And the combination gives you a book of science like few others, one that appeals to both the mind and the heart.
I have never understood how particular books could be more suited for certain places. With The Tribes on My Frontier, the idea makes sense. This is an excellent book to read outdoors. I read it in an afternoon on a bench outside the library. As I sat there, I was alarmed by the sudden and conspicuous appearance of all these tiny tribes engaged in their daily business about me. Crows cawing their lungs out, an occasional bulbul, little black ants scurrying across the ground, tiny beetles, the twitter of many other birds, some I recognized. It was just fabulous. Now, I am fairly naturally-inclined, so I generally notice the odd squirrel on the tree and the tiny butterflies and bugs people miss. But even I was not prepared for this rush of activity. Of course, the book only foregrounded what was hidden in plain sight. Post reading The Tribes on My Frontier, I have noticed so much more life around me, it’s wonderful.
EHA speaks about animals with the very tenderness that I found lacking in my recent read of The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali. It may be a simple reflection of a “gentleman’s upbringing” as opposed to Ali’s slightly more unscrupulous childhood. But it is still curious how two people brought up in the same city, who ended up in the exact same field, the same Bombay Natural History Society, though years apart, viewed their work in such contrasting ways. EHA here makes the same distinction that Ali makes between killing specimens and hunting for sport – only he does it better. He condemns taking life for no purpose and claims that his curiosity is not only to study fellow creatures but to form an acquaintance with them. My personal bias finds EHA’s warmth more readily likeable than Ali’s defence for hunting and the strictly scientific interest.
At times EHA sounds far too imperial and I can’t help my immediate throwing-up-of-defenses in such cases. There are other moments too where I do not quite see eye to eye with him. There is a whole chapter on how insufferable he finds frogs. I would be reluctant to, say, kiss a frog, but I do find them kind of cute. That said, EHA’s distaste stems from an incident which he does mention. The tone of the book borders on pompous but I, for one, am fond of that funny stiff-upper-lip P.G. Wodehouse-y writing style. A favourite passage coolly describes the various ways in which spiders murder their victims, but I’d rather not throw that at you out of context. Here is a taste of something different, not my favourite, but more brooding –
Bats have one lovely virtue, and that is family affection. I shall never forget a captive family of demon bats I once saw, the grim papa, the mother perhaps a trifle more hideous, and the half-grown youngster, not quite able yet to provide for himself. There was something very touching in the tender attachment to one another of three such ill-omened objects. Fruit-bats, too, when they go foraging, never leave the baby at home. 

A friend of mine has communicated to me, for insertion here, a very affecting story of a bat which he found, prostrate and bleeding, with a mob of dastardly crows seeking its life. Running to the rescue, he lifted it up, and discovered, under its wings, a helpless little infant, which it was vainly trying to save from its ruthless prosecutors. The pathos of the story comes to a head at the point where my humane friend, putting his hand into his trousers pocket, draws out two annas and gives them to a native lad, charging him to protect the poor creature and take it to a place of safety. No one who has any respect for his own feelings will press the matter further, and inquire what the native did when he had received the two annas and my humane friend was gone.


As I fluttered through the pages looking for this, I kept finding more and more quotable quotes and now I want to read it all over again. That should tell you something. Here is another bit and then I’m done –

I have seen a posse of ladies almost disappear into raptures over a ‘quite too awfully delicious’ specimen of a Christmas card, and I was constrained to add some corroborative ejaculations with a tepid effort at enthusiasm; but who would put the prettiest conception in which art ever dressed a Christmas greeting beside that exquisite little butterfly which at this season flits over the barren plains of the Deccan, whose wings of velvet black and intense blue are bordered with peacock eyes of the richest red? And every day thousands of them are born and perish; for, like the bouquet on your table, these little decorations are being constantly renewed, so that they may ever be fresh and bright, and the old ones, before they have time to fade, are case away. Few of them live much over a week.

He then goes on to say how butterflies are more than just art, their peculiar characteristics and how they have adapted to survive their tiny lives. And now, as promised, I’m done!