Yes, book post. No, no imaginative title idea

Heart Shaped Bruise – Tanya Byrne

This is a diary by a young girl in prison, a juvenile home, really. It opens with her saying that she is not sorry. And all the while she reiterates that she isn’t, the story weaves back and forth in time, telling you about her past. She’s talks to a psychiatrist and each hard won confession tells you a little bit more of her past. It’s an interesting device in terms of authorial intervention. The story is quite compelling and only the last line finally tells you what her crime was, even though you try and second guess all along.

To a large extent it is very suitable for young adults. A lot of the time I was just looking down on the characters and wanting to pat them on the head and say, ‘There, there, it won’t matter so much, hurt so bad, bleed so furiously, when you’re 35.’ I know, patronising old hag. But you get what I mean, don’t you? That said, very well written.

PS: I lied. Even at 35, somethings will hurt very badly.

A girl’s guide to modern European Philosophy – Charlotte Greig

Of course as luck would have it, I got out of one YA book and fell into another. Yes, I’m just making bad book choices. This one too felt like it was aimed at younger girls. Girls who are still young enough to look around for guidance, not old hags like me who are always willing to give you gyaan and tell you how to live your life. I thought there’s be a lot more philosophy in it. But all I got was a teaser that wasn’t enough for me. Susannah Jones is a philosophy student who has a choice to make. Her older, in control boyfriend, or the new guy in class with unraveling sweater sleeves. It seems like an easy enough choice – or does it? It gets more complicated and as she dithers, I wondered why I was reading it at this late stage in life. There are bits of philosophy, but nothing you wouldn’t have picked up over the years anyway.

Read if you’re below 25 or don’t bother with this coming of age thing. I think I’m going to look for books written by grandmothers, for grandmothers, about grandmothers.

The Art of Undressing – Stephanie Lehmann

I surprise myself with my knack for picking up books of a similar type even without trying. And being very unhappy with the choice. This is yet another coming of age story, except that she’s 25. Ginger is the daughter of a stripper, Coco. Yes, love the names. And like all daughters, she’s the polar opposite of her mother, hiding her breasts in loose tees while her mother plumps up her implants and wags them in your face. Ginger is in cooking school and is torn between male X, male Y and male Z. She is disapproving of her mother’s professional and personal life but can do nothing much about it. Her emotionally distant biological father gives her an opening into his life and also the life of his daughter by another wife.  And then one day Ginger realises that she needs her mother expertise in holding a man’s interest. It’s a fast paced story and there’s lots of food involved. You also get a theoretical class in stripping and coming to terms with your body. At times I found it preachy and obvious. Very predictable. But nice for a slow day.

Swimming upstream slowly – Melissa Clark

These are exactly the kind of books I never pick up so I’m not sure what I’m doing with yet another one in my hand. Sasha Salter is the producer of an award winning kids’ show and wakes up one morning to find she is pregnant. Which would be fine if she were having sex, but not a-okay if you’ve had a 2 year dry spell. Further testing reveals she has a rare problem – a lazy sperm. I knew this was bound to happen. Lazy men are common – and now lazy sperm. I can quite see another sperm evolving – the one with a remote control as its extension.

Anyhow, getting back to the book, she now has the uneviable task of tracing her sex life, calling up all her partners and asking for a blood sample so that this medical phenomenon can be researched as thoroughly as it deserves to be. Strangely, she gets a lot more action now than she ever has and has the luxury of choice!

I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing. And it was the same old – so many men, so hard to decide. With a different point of focus. In the last one a stripper mother and body issues. In this one- crazy Ripleys Believe it or not type body issue. Quick one time read and move on.

84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff

A friend who reads good books but unlike me isn’t possessive about them, couriered her copy of it to me, and for that, I will always be grateful. It’s official. I like all books written in the form of communication. Ms Helen Hanff writes to Messrs Mark and Co for a rare vintage edition of a book. They write back. That is their undoing. Because Ms Hanff decides they are to be the best of friends and keeps up the communication. By the third letter I was giggling in bed. The stiff upper lip British employee meets a crazy American writer. I honestly believed there was a love story hidden somewhere in there and it was. A love story between Ms Hanff and London after the war.

Don’t read this if you’re not into humour, heart warming friendships and literature. What I loved most was the guided tour you get through London when Ms Hanff does come to visit.  I would tell you more, but I’m terrified of giving away the little poignant bits. Do read. Really.

Ada’s Rules – Alice Randall

Ada is the Preacher’s wife. Overweight, exhausted and running from home to home, serving, she wakes up one day to get an invitation to her college reunion and the memories of an ex flame and the good old days. She’s gained about a 100 pounds since college and there’s no time like the present nor any incentive like this one to lose weight. Thus begins her journey to weight loss. She makes a set of rules and keeps adding to them. The first one being Stop doing what you’ve always done.

Her weight loss journey is not easy and I like how they kept it real. She takes one step foward, she slides back, she takes another two forward. She has her regular life to live and  financial constraints too. I enjoyed the way the book dips into her crazy past  - those were the best bits to me. Her musician parents, their crazy boarders, their mental state, her unconditional love and caregiving. Her relationship with her twin daughters, her relationship with her body, her relationship with food, make up the rest of the book.

What irked me though, was how the book almost read like a how to lose weight book at times. I thought it would be just a metaphor for shedding baggage and weight but at times it was so literal that I felt almost patronised. I have to admit this is one of the better books I’ve read in the past which is why I am being so harsh on it – I felt it could have been better.

Does she lose the weight? Does she hook up with the ex? What about the fact that she suspects her Preacher husband of having an affair with one of the parishioners? Only one way to find out.

The Postmistress – Sarah Blake

It’s 1940 and the bombs fall on London and American Radio reporter Frankie Bard reports through it all, her voice touching many lives. Not always in a nice way. Who wanted women on radio? They were too shrill, sounded too involved. Far away in Cape Cod, Iris James, a postmaster does her duty diligently. And Emma Fitch, the doctor’s wife waits, for her baby to be born, for her husband to come back from London. A letter that must be posted, binds them all together. I have to confess upfront that I didn’t think much of the plot. But the book had me hooked. The writing is brilliant. You walk through bombed streets in London, you cower in funk houses and you look on helplessly as Jews are coralled and marched towards a certain death. I had great trouble reading this book because I kept going back and re-reading some sections, just for the beauty of the prose. I’m going to try and read this book again, maybe ten years from now. You try and read it now.

Mommies who drink – Brett Paesel

Brett Paesel is an American writer and actress, and this is her journey through motherhood. I read this book about 5 years ago, just after I’d had the Brat and the Bean and I loved it. Her sense of humour is wry and she makes you think. She ran so close to my own counter-culture parenting method that I almost felt like she’d written the book for me. Sign of a great book, I guess, if it speaks to you, whispers to you and at times just yells in your face.

Shall we snort coke? Should we take him to the doctor for that green goop coming out of his eye or ride it out? Why are most mothers so anal retentive about meals? And many more such questions were answered in the course of this book. I don’t know what made me pick it up again recently. This time, with an almost 8 year old I smiled through her panicky moments and at the back of my mind I heard Aamir Khan say, All izz well. New mums, do read it so that you know you’re not alone. Old mums, write one yourself.

Book post time

Seeing Like a Feminist – Nivedita Menon

If you buy one book this year, make it this one. Keep it by your bedside. Read bite-sized portions. I began to read this close on the heels of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s death and I found myself often on the verge of tears, other times choking back outrage. Nivedita’s writing isn’t fancy or witty or flowery. I don’t think you worry about those issues once you dig your teeth into it. There are so many more important issues that just need to be brought to the forefront. So much that we just didn’t know. So much lost time to make up for. Let me give you examples. Reading her book is like putting on x-ray spectacles and seeing the bones that lie under your skin, the underlying rules that make up our patriarchy. The structure that keeps society functioning in a certain way. One of the simplest examples she gives of society’s enforced order, is of a village girl called Moni who was beaten, tonsured and stripped naked for dressing and ‘behaving like a boy’. Is it a big enough deal to merit such a reaction? On the other hand, what would be the reaction if a male employee in a multinational corporation came to work in a saree and bindi? From here she goes on to talk about how social order is so fragile that simply dressing in a different way causes breakdown. I wish I could go on and on, but I want you, every single one of you who reads this blog, to order this book. I wouldn’t even request you so earnestly if I myself had written it. But this book shakes up the way we look at ourselves as women, social order, constructs and so on. Gentlemen, I’d request you to read it too. There is a certain privilege you avail of, as men in a patriarchal society. Should you take advantage of it or should you step back and do the right and fair thing and give the women in your life the equality they deserve? Inter-caste marriages, same sex marriages, property rights, violence, there is nothing Nivedita doesn’t cover. I want to go back and read the book over and over again to make sure I retain every bit. To ensure that I too, see like a feminist.

Again, if you’re buying a book this year, make it this one. If you’re giving a gift, make it this one.

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

If you’ve read my blog for more than a year you’re sure to know that my biggest bug bear is badly behaved kids. My hand itches to smack them and then their parents. It makes no sense for me to bring up my kids so strictly if others are going to let theirs run wild, misbehave with mine and generally create a shittier future for them. Which is why when I read the blurb on this book I knew I was picking it up. It’s easy to associate with this Greek family settled in Australia, because the family dynamic is so familiar to us Indians. Large families with everyone interfering. That one shocking incident that sends reverberations through the entire group and leaves everyone feeling awkward. In this case, a badly behaved child is slapped right at the start and the rest of the book follows through on the consequences. Frankly I’d imagine it would end there, but you honestly can’t slap someone else’s kids and get away with it (much though I’d love to!) so.

I do feel the book could have been shorter by about 1/3rd but that’s about the only peeve I have.

The Vague Woman’s Handbook – Devapriya Roy

I enjoyed the book. Devapriya’s writing is good, but I once again got the feeling that it was largely autobiographical. The college setting, the newly weds, maybe not much else. But I do wish she’d just dropped all similarities with her own life and done something different. Which is not really criticism of the book, again, more a problem with my own expectations- because she’s a great writer and I have very high expectations of people who I feel write well. I am sure it will be much enjoyed by many – a lovely story, gentle pace. I particularly enjoyed the attention to the friendship with an older lady. I have in the last few years befriended ladies who are older and I know what age brings to a friendship. And for that touch alone, I highly recommend the book. Well that and the fact that the protagonist is as directionally challenged as I am – spin me around in front of my gate and leave me, and I’d be hard pressed to identify my own home.

I kissed a frog – Rupa Gulab

I’ve never read anything else of Rupa Gulab’s and I don’t appreciate short stories. So when this book ended up in my possession I was rather ho hum about it. Actually I didn’t realise they were short stories until I began reading. And for once I was drawn in and finished the entire book in one sitting. In spite of the stories being very desi and very contemporary (you know I don’t really enjoy that). In fact, for those very reasons maybe. I also like that her writing is crisp and witty. A relationship that continues, and fluidly changes shape when one of the partners changes their sex. A mother and daughter go from being family to friends. A love story where love truly must be blind to accept the extra 40 kgs. The second section is on friendship among women, something I feel not enough is written about (refer to the book above this one). Almost every book I’ve read has been about women related to each other. Friendships among women are rare, even rarer, are books about those friendships. The last section however, totally fell apart for me. It is a section on popular fairy tales with a contemporary twist. I feel like the first two sections were meant for adult readers/young readers, but the last bit very definitely for teenagers.

Cold Feet – Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan

With this book I feel Meenakshi has really come into her own. I read her blog and I know her slightly, and so with her last book there was a sense of – I know she can do better. And she has. Five women searching for love, dealing with it in their own way. It’s interesting how similar her book and Rupa Gulab’s are in certain ways. Maybe it’s because as journalists/writers we all move in somewhat the same social circle. I saw so many people I’d almost recognise, the situations were so easy to relate to and the characters, some gay, some straight, some not sure, were so .. people we know. Her writing is witty, contemporary and she isn’t doing that awful thing a lot of other authors are doing – trying too hard. It sounds patronising but if Meenakshi reads this, she’ll know it was meant in the nicest possible way. Her writing flows beautifully, conversations are not stilted, the progression is measured and the structure is great. Frankly I don’t think the blurb does the book justice and I wish it were marketed better. Every character is distinctive and perfectly formed and nobody comes across as a caricature – yet another issue I have with a lot of desi writing – apart from the fact that very few writers seem truly comfortable writing in English. So more power to her, I’d like to read more of her work and I’m hoping she goes from glory to glory.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen – Paul Torday

Read this one in one sitting and loved it. The story is told through various documents – personal letters, emails, official documents, government memos and so on. I last read something like this in the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and am slowly falling in love with this literary device. Dr Alfred Jones is a fisheries scientist who is happy in his little academic cocoon and the height of ambition for him is his paper on caddis fly larva earning recognition. His marriage of 20 years holds no surprises and his wife believes that perfume can’t replace the merits of regular application of soap and water. Enter Harriet Chetworde-Talbot who represents a Sheikh in Yemen, with a request that is quite insane – salmon fishing in the Yemen. A whole lot of bureaucratic drama follows and the project kicks off.

And through these devices we get to know that Harriet’s fiance has been posted in Iran, Alfred’s wife is on a secondment to Germany and the Prime Minister of Britain is keen to distance himself from this crazy project that might just be egg on his face. The vein of dry humour that runs through this fairly peaceful story kept me smiling. I love how ‘British’ and formal most of the personal communication is, too. I don’t know if I’d ever write something so formal, boring and straitlaced, to my boyfriend in the army! My favourite part (spoiler alert) – referring the bereaved to a call centre in India! All in all, an easy read, a social and political commentary that is gentle, yet reveals more than it hides. Must read. Impossible to tell that this is a first book – so well held together, so beautifully crafted.

We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver

Kevin is a boy who goes on a rampage and kills about 10 of his classmates and a teacher. Nothing you haven’t heard before. Except, how often do you get to know the child and the family behind it? Do you assume they’re all trailer trash? I had no thoughts on this whatsoever, before I picked up the book. We have enough going on in India without trying to distract ourselves with US school shootouts.

I seem to be picking up books that use only communication as their device. This one is no different. Kevin’s mother Eva writes to her husband Franklin and from the early days of their courtship to the hours she spends visiting her son in jail, every bit is documented. Lionel Shriver is a brilliant writer and I was unwell for a couple of days so I actually put the book aside because I didn’t want to gloss over or miss any of the finely crafted points she makes. A simple one right in the beginning when she talks about testing for Down’s Syndrome, being an older mother. And how she wonders why kids are not tested for malice and spite and indifference, in the womb. Made me stop and wonder too, whether we’d like to do that. Now that we’re already down that slippery path where we test for abnormalities and ruthlessly discard a child with chances of muscular atrophy, would we keep a child who tested positive for violence? Would you pick that child over a paraplegic? So much to think about, so much realisation of the power we wield as parents. I plan to read this book again, simply to soak in the beauty of her words, the stark honesty of her arguments. Love.

Bringing up Bebe – Pamela Druckerman

This book, I believe, was written for me. To justify my thought process. Deep down I’m French – you guys just didn’t know it. I didn’t either, but now I do. Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist who moves to France when she gets married to a Britisher. Of course a baby arrives soon and she goes stark raving mad trying to have a dinner out with the child in tow. Reminds me of my first dinner out with the Brat and OA in Madras, a place called Bay Leaf that served Bong food. The 45 day old Brat screamed till he was purple in the face and the OA and I stood out holding him on the road side in turn, while the other gobbled down their food. I’ve never forgotten that and I swore I was not going to let it put me off eating out. We learnt to manage the Brat and had some lovely meals thereafter, at the Park, the Brat in a rocker at the pool side Aqua, and Bella Ciao and Benjarong among others. Often he’d fall asleep and we’d put him under the table and rock him with a foot and he’d sleep through our dinner without anyone even knowing there was a baby under the table!

Getting house help there was a nightmare because inspite of speaking basic my-aunt-has-the-pen-of-the gardener’s-wife type Tamil, I couldn’t figure out the names for vegetables and how to say sieve, stir or strain. So I got in a maid for the cleaning and would cook our meals myself. And that meant that the Brat who teethed early, just learnt to eat spinach raita and aloo posto if that is what I’d made. No ragi, no sabudana, no unidentifiable mashed and pureed food for him. Might explain why he loved calamari at age 2 when most other kids didn’t know what it was. Anyhow, I always wondered why we’d go to parties and find a delicious spread for the adults and simple pasta for the kids. My kids would love to eat the stew/biryani/whatever fancy food the adults were eating. But they’d be sat down earlier and fed some passably bland white food and sent off to play while we adults played gourmet. I on the other hand, never serve separate food for kids at our parties because I expect them to eat the salad, the cous cous, the whatever they’re being offered. Their parents probably hate me, but hey, my house, my rules.

Anyhow, I felt like I was weirdo, but then the Internet brings you closer to weirdos like yourself and that’s how I met BEV many years ago. It’s amazing how soul sistah we are in our parenting styles. We go over for dinner and the kids come with us, but we don’t hear or see them. They all know to stay in the nursery, share their toys, settle their disputes without violence and not come out until it is dinner time. Her daughter and the Bean get along like a house on fire and the Brat falls between her sons in age and plays with both. It’s amazing to see them quietly sit down for dinner, open up their napkins and have French Onion soup, or Hyderabadi dahi vada or something absolutely new, without a murmur. We have a rule – try everything once. And if they don’t like the food, too bad, they go home hungry. One uneaten meal won’t kill them.

So BEV lent me this book telling me it was about written for us, and it was. No noise at the fine dining restaurant, sleep on time, no throwing tantrums in public – that’s our kids for you. And I don’t mean this as some form of bragging, because I know a lot of people judge us for how strict we are with our kids. It just means they’re very welcome everywhere they go, they get to experience a variety of foods and situations and they’re learning to open their minds to everything. I realise this is more of a review of our parenting than the book, so I’ll try and drag myself back there.

The book talks about how French parents don’t let their kids take over their lives. So you don’t have them scribbling on your white sofa, screaming and demanding pish-pash for dinner or banging their glass full of water at a restaurant. A little pause before you pick up a screaming child, learning to taste new food, encouraging autonomy, simple manners like Good evening and good bye (remember we had a loooong post on that one?) and so on. If you expect your child to behave, he or she will. It’s just that simple. If you shrug off their misbehaviour with a smile, saying oh, he’s just a kid, well, he’ll just push all your buttons. It also talks about picking some battles and making do with the others. I realised what mine are – Screen time and manners. Other than that, I don’t stress if they don’t eat, I don’t care if they fall asleep on the floor at a wedding and I don’t mind (heck, even encourage them) if they miss a day of school to do something fun.

Anyway, this is not the book for parents who let kids take over their lives and ride rough shod over them. This is a book for parents who believe in having a life, who believe in manners, in treating kids like small sized humans and not imbeciles. Oh what the hell, it’s a book for all parents. Ones like me and BEV will feel like they’re in good company. The rest will have something to bitch about while their kids tear a friend’s house apart!

Author Druckerman does a fab job of understanding French Culture, the nuances that go in, and seeing where she’d draw a line to suit her own cultural expectations.

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm (Parenting wisdom from around the world) – Mei-Ling Hopgood

Yet another expat mum in a strange country, trying to raise her kids to fit in. As luck would have it, I read this just after Bringing up Bebe. And it was a nice kick in the pants! There I was, all feeling proud of my parenting style when this book came in and told me, everyone has their own way.

Actually here too, Mei-Ling picks up what suits her from various cultures, while walking her own path. And I enjoyed the read. Funnily she too falls back on the French teaching their kids to eat healthy food (check). How the Eskimos practice attachment parenting and keep their kids warm (check), how the Chinese potty train early (check) and how Kenyans don’t use push chairs (check!). On all other counts, from Asians teaching their kids to excel and Japs let their kids fight, I was not on board, but hey, I don’t have to be!

For some reason this book held me less – perhaps because I disagreed with a lot of the practices and felt they were not suitable for us as a family and the times we live in. But it’s an eye opener to see how other cultures live, why they choose the practices they do and how we could adapt those to suit us. Definitely a good read.

The Whore’s Asylum – Katy Darby

If you know me, you know I love my period fiction. Set in 1887, Oxford, this one gives you a fabulous picture of London in those times. From the colleges to the gin-deaths and whores. Stephen Chapman is a medical student and shares rooms with Edward Fraser, a theologist. The story is told in Fraser’s words. Chapman is a kind hearted sort, who gets involved with unsavoury types. Put simply, he decides to research venereal diseases. He also falls in love with the wrong woman, Diana. She works with the ladies of the night and is a perfect fit for Chapman, if not socially acceptable. I cannot tell you more for fear of spoiling it for you but it is interesting to see how dedicated and interested physicians in those days had to go out of their way to research their science. And what criminal acts, hardship and social stigma it brought. From robbing graves for a cadaver to experiment on, to frequenting the seedier parts of town, these gentlemen did it all. The book drags its feet through dirty lanes and hostels and ailments and social commentary and medical research. All this seen through the lens of a man of God. A slow read but an interesting one.

The House at Riverton – Kate Morton

I was warned by the friend who lent it to me that I wouldn’t enjoy it. That she didn’t even care if I never returned it. Not an auspicious start to a story no doubt, but then I do love my historical romances and period fiction. Set not so far back, in 1924, this one is about a glittering London full of poetry, mazes in the gardens, follies and romances. A film maker who wishes to shoot at the house and tell its sorry tale and calls upon Grace Bradley, an old maidservant and as everyone knows – the househelp knows everything. A young poet shot himself at a party held in this house and from thereon it declined. Grace was an eyewitness to the event and is taken from her nursing home to help reconstruct the sequence of events. Her evolution from maidservant to respectable old lady in a nursing home show the movement of time.

I found the book slow moving and denouement a slight letdown. But it is an interesting study in social structure, hierarchy and relationships. I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy this book, but I’d borrow it for a slow day.

Mummy’s Legs – Kate Bingham

I’m seriously thinking of avoiding all books authored by anyone called Kate. I picked this one up because the blurb fooled me. A young girl helps her mother get a hold on her life when she finds out her husband is cheating on her. It’s supposed to be told through the girl’s eyes and I’m probably really slow because after a point I lost track of who the girl was, who the mother was and what her problem was. I blame it on being under the influence of drugs (had the flu for a couple of days) and very very sleepy – oh, and the book being pointless. Whatever, don’t go there, don’t read it, booooring.

The Lake of Dreams – Kim Edwards

I read Edward’s Memory Keeper’s Daughter and quite enjoyed it, which prompted me to pick this one up. I found the blurb a little deceptive once I read the book, but we’ll get to that later. Lucy Jarrett lives in a little house in Japan with her lover Yoshi and is woken up by an earthquake. Far away from all this, her mother suffers an accident in America. So leaving behind the cherry blossom and her village on the rim of a volcanic mountain, Lucy heads back to her small town around a lake called the Lake of Dreams by the Iroquois or the Native Indian original inhabitants.

I enjoyed the whole small town feel to the book. Everyone knows everyone, a few new stores have popped up and are doing interesting new things, the old familiars are shutting down. An old flame is back, divorced, one numbers requisite gorgeous child in tow. It checks all the boxes and you wonder if she’ll go back to him. After all, he speaks the language of her growing years, unlike the Japanese lover who smells of foreign lands. What I really liked was how her mother had a life and a love of her own. While my parents are thankfully still alive and together, her mother reminded me of my parents. Young, fit, a life of their own and they scrub up good! My mum owns more fashionably elegant items of clothing than I do and my father books his exotic holidays faster than the OA can figure out where the ‘compose mail’ button on the iPad is. What I felt sort of distant from though, was the sibling relationship portrayed in it. They were so formal, so distant – I couldn’t relate to it at all, and it just annoyed me very much.

All this while Lucy has come upon an ancient piece of embroidery and a connected piece of stained glass – something draws her to them. She begins to dig around church records and newspaper clippings to discover who the lady in the stained glass window is. While this is really what the story is supposed to be about, I wasn’t in the least bit interested in it. I was far more absorbed by the interpersonal relationships, the ebbs and tides of them and the family politics that played out. Again, I felt a little let down by the end but on the whole it was an absorbing read for the sheer fluidity of her language. I wish I could write like that.

Love Stories – Annie Zaidi

Disclaimer for those who don’t already know, Annie is a dear friend and an old classmate. But, you know me well enough to know I’d be deadly honest anyway. I loved the cover to begin with. Two smoldering matches. Tells you how much thought went into the book. The other thing that strikes you, a simple device, is that there are no names given to the characters in the 14 short stories. They don’t matter. There’s a he and a she and these are stories that play out across the world. Could be anyone, could be anywhere, their names don’t matter. And of course Annie’s trademark, keen observations – because what is a writer if not a keen observer of life? The plain shirt, the railway station clock, the five o’clock shadow. Annie notices it all. The language is simple. Not for her any flowery excess. Each one focuses on a different type of love. The man you’ve never met, the one whose voice you’ve never heard, the one who was a friend. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that. Only this time do you see the details pointed out. I pulled an all nighouter with this one – so will you.

Astray – Emma Donoghue

She is now my favourite writer, bar none. I don’t know how she does it – changes her voice and her tone and her ideas. I’m in awe of writers who can break free of a mould and do that. Who cannot be identified by blindly reading a page out of a book or a genre. So this one is a series of short stories inspired by news articles that cover a period of four centuries. Runaways, gold diggers, slaves, wives, immigrants, the theme is people on the move. I admire the way she picked the articles she did (she is a keen historian) and fleshed out characters, gave them a face and told their story. Sex crimes, Barnum’s circus, the woman who played the part of a widow and robbed a man’s life’s earnings, a cross dresser, the list is endless and mind boggling. This is a book that must be read to be believed. If there’s an Emma Donoghue temple, I might just become a praying woman.

I’ve Got Your Number – Sophie Kinsella

I don’t do chick-lit and this was an aberration. I find it boring, uninspiring and my own life is far more fun on a regular day anyway. But I break this rule for Kinsella’s writing. Light, frothy and a joy to read, her ditsy heroines remind me of my own haphazard existence. The story is simple – Poppy loses her engagement ring and finds a phone that does not belong to her. The right thing to do would be to give it back of course, but then where would the story go? Rich, magnetic Sam Roxton, owner of the phone would like it back, but Poppy’s having none of it. The story goes on from there. You already know how it will end, but you go along for the fun ride. A one time, borrow-from-your-friend-for-a-flight read.

An Almost Perfect Moon -Jamie Holland

I picked this up because someone compared it to Nick Hornby. Unfair comparison to say the least. This book is about 3 young men, and told from their perspective. One is about to get married, another is shifting into the country with his partner and the third is still searching for the perfect woman. Frankly I’m sick to death of adults who won’t just pull up their socks and get on with it. Whiny adults with first world problems and an inability to take life on the chin. But then that’s just me being intolerant as usual.

I found the story plodding, the plots unimaginative, the situations cliched. The usual harried new mum, the man who is never satisfied with the women he lands and so on. I don’t know why I dragged myself through it. Life is too short to finish books you don’t like, is my new mantra. So, this is a warning – don’t read this book.

Members of the cat family

Years ago I wrote a post on the taboo surrounding miscarriages. Over the years I’ve spoken about my own experience with other taboo issues like CSA, Child Sexual Abuse, molestation, and so much more. I don’t think I’ve been able to articulate exactly why I do this, other than the fact that I’m tired of the secrecy that shrouds everything that has anything to do with women.

Why is it that our sanitary napkins have to be wrapped in newspaper and disposed of ‘discreetly’. It’s not that we go around decorating our front door with them. Why are stained sheets and underwear whisked away and quickly washed before anyone realises what happened? Why do we not talk about a pregnancy until the first three months are over? So what if there is a chance of miscarrying? So what if we lose a baby? We lose older family members who have been a part of our lives – grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, all the time. That is never a secret. In fact we call up, text, mail and inform people far and wide of the loss. So why is the inability of the womb to carry through a pregnancy, such a hush hush issue? Oh, btw, I think I miscarried (ectopic pregnancy, didn’t know about it, glad the decision was taken out of my hands) around the Bean’s birthday two years ago – I think that is why I didn’t post about her birthday. No, I didn’t go to the hospital. Just lay in bed almost bleeding to death until someone called a doctor home and the OA rushed from work. I didn’t go for a procedure after it either. I just lay in bed, convinced that the body would take care of itself given time and rest. I’m still here, two years later so I think we’re doing okay.

Anyhow, getting on with more important matters, I read a fantastic piece on Kafila today ( I love that website anyway) and had to share it with you. Someone far more articulate than I will ever be, has explained the phenomenon. Am highlighting a few of the things she says. Please go over and read the piece by Anupama Mohan when you can.

“I teach a big word in my critical theory classes: phallogocentrism. It is the idea that our societies are centred by the phallus and language (logos) and is a word that often scares, perplexes, and disturbs my students, but I unpack it using an example. In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb.”

“So, how do we take the war to phallogocentrism? We begin, I think, by first acknowledging it as part of our everyday practices. Many people have been recently talking about “rape culture,” a phrase that disturbs me even as I recognize that what is being indicated is “phallogocentric culture” where the lingam is worshipped, women keep fasts for men’s welfare or for being blessed with a (good) husband, hide their faces, menstruation, pregnant bellies, abortions, and indeed, run the gamut of their social lives from one threshold to the next and the next, hiding various parts of themselves, physical and emotional. The focus on women as worthy of respect because they are mothers, sisters, and wives is almost always a ploy to constrain women within social identities where their “roles” are defined by and understood in relief from the normative male paradigm. This doesn’t mean that mothers, sisters, and wives are bad things to be, but it does point to the fact that in these roles, women are safest, most worthy, and most valuable to our societies.”

Also, do read this piece by Veena Venugopal. Where she talks about the denial of the existence of female desire. In some ways connected to piece above. A woman must be pure and have no desire. She must merely submit to beastly male desire. Oh well, anyone who knows this blog knows well by now that I have no such qualms. If Farhan Akhtar or Will Smith happen by, I’ll be happy to show them what female desire looks like, upfront and close!

A few days ago the Brat asked me, ‘Mama, can I call you a puma?”

Me: Erm, sure – but why?

Brat: Because Pumas are the best mothers in the cat family and you’re the best human mother there is.

Me: Oh well in that case :D

I put it up on FB and Diptakirti who exists for only two reasons – to obsess over Bollywood (have you read his book Kitnay Aadmi Thay? No? How could you not?!!) and annoy me, asked ‘Is Cougar next (hee hee)?’

I thought about it and while I hate stereotypes and terms of this sort, I’m happy this term came into existence. Happy that this sort of female desire is acceptable. That women no longer seek out merely the security of an older man but are happy to have their fun and move on – just like men traditionally have. That it’s common enough for there to be a term for it.

For years the woman has merely been a Puma. A loving mother. One who submits to her husband until the deed is done and then focuses on rearing her child, the milk of maternal love quenching all other desire (if she had any to begin with). If at all we compare her again, it is to a tigress protecting her young. As her young grow, she is meant to turn to God and community service while the old wily foxy man continues to mate and breed. Centuries have gone by and only now are we willing to accept that a woman can be a cougar, might want to be one too. More power to them cougars I say.

And on that (I’m sure, rather scandalous) note, have a good week you all.

That girl on the bus

I looked up from my books only when the librarian began to make shooing noises. About time anyway, I thought. My head was aching, my eyes burning and my body exhausted by all the last minute cramming. Quickly putting my papers together I picked up my denim backpack. At 17, heading off to college, I’d wanted a new backpack, just like I had at the beginning of every school year. It was covered in graffiti; lyrics from songs by Metallica, Sepultura, Anthrax, Iron Maiden and decorated with graveyards, skulls, all drawn by my brother and my friends. So that I didn’t miss them too much, they said.

I’d stayed on in the library after classes and most of my regular companions had left much earlier. For once I would have to take the bus alone and as I walked out I realised with a shock that it was dark. It was early spring and the weather unpredictable. I looked at my navy churidar, thin white kameez and chiffon dupatta; woefully inadequate once the sun set and the chill came in. I loved this particular hand embroidered kameez, more so because Ma had embroidered if for me.

Wrapping the dupatta tightly around me I hurried to the bus stop and caught my regular bus pretty soon. I soon got a seat and settled into a corner, my bag arranged over my chest protectively, to avoid roving hands. I’d been awake all night studying and then up early in the morning for college, very short on sleep. The bus rattled on and I gave in to my fatigue, fading in and out of sleep.

I woke up to find myself in a strange part of town. Obviously I’d slept through my stop, I realised in horror. Getting off at the next bus stop I began to to make inquiries about getting home. This was in the good old days when blue lines and chartered buses ran in equal numbers. The only way to ensure you were getting on to the right bus was by listening carefully to the conductor rattle off the route, none of which sounded like anything on earth unless you paid close attention.

India Gate, I asked him? He nodded. I hopped on. I had very little money on me and I couldn’t afford the indulgence of an auto every time it got late.

By now it was really late and dark and I had no fucking clue as to where I was. My head began to ache more. The bus trundled down unfamiliar roads and I felt the panic rise. This was not the age of cell phones. My parents, far away in a small town, saved every rupee to send me to the best college in the country. My brother would start college next year and money was scarce. We couldn’t afford daily long distance calls and if I got lost, no one would know I was missing for a long, long time. I used to be the praying kind in those days, and so I prayed.

Soon the bus did turn on to a road I was familiar with. Vaguely.

And then I realised my mistake. In my nervousness I had only asked the conductor if it passed India Gate. I hadn’t clarified which end of the huge circle I needed to be. And anyone who has lived in Delhi and is familiar with the area will know what a walk that would mean.

The crowd had thinned out and then before I could even decide what to do, the bus turned off into one of the radials. Collecting my belongings and my wits, I walked up to the conductor and asked him where it was off to. Why, its regular route of course, he said. This is where the depot lay and where it would terminate.

Oh, my face fell. I needed to be on the other side of India Gate. By now it was 9 pm and the streets were deserted. I could get off and walk, I thought. Except that it was cold and dark and my lack of sense of direction was legendary.

Why not wait, said the conductor. ‘We have to sign in at the bus depot and show that we completed our route in time. After that we will drop you home.’

It’s a testament to how young, innocent, tired, desperate and foolish I was, that I agreed nervously. It seemed like a better option to walking back down the lonely road in the dark, not knowing which was the correct radial to take to go back home, encountering all sorts of people on the road.

They stopped at the bus depot and got off to do their official business. I sat on the first seat, a stone statue. I began to count every mistake I’d made since the day began. From getting little sleep, to studying too late in the library, to dropping off because of exhaustion. Yes, victim blaming usually begins at home.

Around me was darkness. A few other buses were parked in the dark. Rough voices shouted out to each other. I held back my terrified tears. The conductor’s head popped in the door and asked, Would I like some tea; it was a cold night.

‘No thank you, I don’t drink tea.’ I really didn’t want to offend him but I wasn’t allowed to drink tea while growing up and hadn’t grown into the habit after leaving home.

Ah, you must be a Christian, he said sagely.

H-h-how did you guess, I managed.

Because Christians don’t let their children get into tea-coffee habits, he pronounced.

And then he walked off and got himself and the driver a cup of tea. While they drank it they chatted with me about what I was studying and where I was from. He told me about his daughter, also doing her BA so that she could better herself. She too often had to travel back alone from college. Considering I was at their mercy to get home, I couldn’t think of any other polite option so I kept up my end of the conversation.

They finished their tea, paid up and then true to their word, drove me not just to the street I lived on but as close to my residence as the bus was allowed.

I got off the bus, my knees weak with relief and waved them goodbye.

Years later a much older girl got on to a bus on a busy Delhi street, at around the same time of night. She was with a companion, yet she got brutally raped and died.

She shouldn’t have been out so late they said. They shouldn’t have got on to a chartered bus they said. They shouldn’t have stayed on the bus when they realised there were no other passengers, they say.

I’ve spent a lot of the last month fighting these battles online. Trying to do everything I can to spread awareness. To stop the victim blaming. Because as a wise woman once said, when you blame the victim, you are defending the rapist.

Have you ever looked at it that way? Every time you think she should have avoided going out late, she should have taken an auto, she should have, she should have, she should have, you’re missing the point. It’s not what she should have. It’s what he SHOULDN’T have.

SHE and WE are just regular women trying to make our way in the world. We’ve all been educated by our parents in the hope that we’ll make something of ourselves. We work the same hours and then carry the same weary bodies back home on the same crowded buses that men do. The only difference is the way in which we hold our bodies. Arms folded against our chests, heads down, bag held defensively.

We all have the same series of events leading up to bad days. Late nights, working too hard, long days, missed buses and exhaustion that leads to us making that one mistake. Getting off at the wrong place, getting on the wrong bus, trusting the wrong people. Sometimes the only difference lies in that one mistake, taking that day from simply bad, to fatal.

The truth is, we can’t just sit home now. We’ve tasted freedom and independence, and we’re hooked. We’ve come too far to turn back now. We can’t live our lives cowering in fear. We cannot be stifled or restricted. We cannot be sheltered any longer. If I must live my life in fear and depend on my husband or brother to take me out, I shouldn’t have wasted my time getting an education. I should have just stayed home and stuck to cooking and cleaning. Why this false sense of equality where education is concerned when we can’t take that education and equality and make something of it? When we’re constantly being chaperoned or else at risk?

I urge you all, don’t stay home in fear. Step out. Fill the streets. Let them know they can’t push us back in. Let them grow used to seeing us out and about. Make it safer for yourself as well as the other girls simply trying to get home. From office, from a club, from hospital, from the airport. We’re living the same lives that men are. We have a right to the same safety they have. They just don’t want to see it yet. Someday they will.

So. How *you* doin’?

2012 flashed by, ending in a lot of soul searching, outrage, and above it all, determination. Determination that we will no longer be cowed down, that this incident will not push us off the streets, that we will work to give our daughters a safer country.

So for 2013, my resolution is not to be a pushover. I try varieties of this resolution every year but it doesn’t work too well. One of the things I’ll grant the OA and I, is that we’re easy going parents where schedules are concerned. I’m strict on manners/behaviour and screen time, but those are the only two battles I fight. The rest I choose to let go.

Which is why when we’d make plans with friends and someone said they couldn’t go out at X time because their kids were busy doing something, I’d shrug and agree to change the time, even if it meant altering a plan I’d made for myself or my kids. So it was my lunch being skipped to suit someone else’s shopping plan. My kids’ naptime missed because another’s kids napped earlier or later and this suited them. Always, always, always us changing, shifting, altering, making way, being fluid.

I didn’t mind really. That’s what friends do. And being flexible and easy going is who we are. People flowing in and out of our house, laughter, chatter, an exchange of ideas, we love it. The kids have no stranger anxiety (unfortunately that is not always a good thing!), they’re curious and they have learnt to count in Spanish, take a map of Australia and put names to faces to places and say a few phrases in a number of languages. Of course they pick it up today and forget it tomorrow but it’s there and for this simple reason I’d not change the way we live. The only other person I know whose life is equally mad, is Aneela. Sometimes I think I am too trusting, but then as a friend said recently, this is a package deal. I am like this only.

Anyhow, the last year or two have given me plenty of time to introspect and I feel I’ve just been too easy going. It makes me an easy person to take advantage of. If a plan is to be made and it inconveniences anyone, that someone is usually me. I began to realise that my life was in a constant state of chaos mainly because I was always changing a plan laid well in advance, simply to suit someone else. Chaos is something I’m used to – but not something I’m willing to take on for those who don’t earn it. Not anymore.

For the last 4 years everyone I am even vaguely acquainted with, knows I have a knee problem. Most people know I moved out of my last home because of the stairs. I ask absolute strangers for advice because I am so desperate to heal faster. Yet, I have people who will not think twice before asking me to do something that requires stair climbing. No, I am not vain enough to imagine that everyone remembers my knee, which is why I’m quick to point out that it still hurts. Even then I have people telling me, eh, suck it up and climb for once. The point is, it’s never once. Today it’s your house, tomorrow it is the next person and day-after it is someone else’s party at a pub on the 4th floor. I have only one right knee and another 30 years to get through on it, even if my estimate is conservative. I don’t understand this sort of lack of consideration. Maybe it is because most people my age do not have this sort of an injury and have no idea how much it affects the quality of my life. I’ve had to move house, quit my job, stop carrying my precious babies, restrict my movement, go through a gazillion tests, do physiotherapy, let go of a number of heavy household chores and much more. This is my life. I live it without complaint because it is far better than many, many others’ and I am well aware of the privileges I have. But if friends won’t accommodate you, who will? If friends won’t say – hey, lets sit on the ground floor even if the AC isn’t working, then who will?

And this is just me. I’ve gone on holidays where the plans to sightsee are entirely suited to someone else’s kids’ schedule and diet. Mine have just gone along, eaten anything and slept anywhere. I say this not to praise them but because it’s not a big deal. We’ve all done it as kids – but parents now are madly anal about their kids’ schedules. What the hell are they doing traveling with them in a group, then? My kids will go to a home and take off their shoes at the door if required because you honor the hosts’ houserules. Of course after 4 hours of walking on the cold floor in only thin socks they both get sore throats and then the cycle begins. To say nothing of wet bathroom floors and mess on the kitchen floor. There are people who won’t bother with me for days on end and then ask me for a favour because I have a large network on FB.

Sometime last year I realised that I couldn’t tell the Brat to be more assertive in his dealings if I didn’t lead by example. And so I began to put my foot down. No, we would not be able to attend if the party was at X time because my kids were going for a playdate and I refused to cancel their plan to suit another. No, we wouldn’t be coming up for a quick drink before the movie because I was not willing to take the steps up and down for a 15 minute chat. If my kids don’t get along well with yours, I will only meet you sans kids. Our friendship will not be affected, but I’m not forcing my children to meet kids they don’t enjoy playing with. And if you have a no-shoes in the house rule, I’m not visiting in winter – my kids’ health comes first. If you insist on giving the kids junk every time they visit and cannot be bothered to make something healthy when you invite them, then they’re not being sent for a play date. No, it won’t kill them to eat Maggi yet again – but would it kill you to cook something decent when you’re inviting? A simple sandwich?

Here I will put in a disclaimer. I am willing to bend for an occasion like a birthday or an anniversary. Other than that I preserve the little strength I have left and don’t do general dinners if they require too much climbing of stairs. On the other hand I am willing to climb 15 flights for a friend who would do the same for me even just to say hi. I have finite time, patience, energy and health and no desire to extend myself for people who are rigid and don’t extend me the same courtesy. When I put in place this rule for myself, I resigned myself to losing a few of my more inflexible friends.

Strangely, all it did was open me up to relationships I didn’t realise were so good and give me a lot more time and energy to spend on the people who appreciate it and return it. I’ve often spoken about entitlement and kids. I seem to have missed that many adults have the same sense of entitlement. They feel entitled to re-organising your day, to expecting you to cancel a prior commitment, to dropping everything and rushing over just because they are free to do something but never returning that informality, to wanting everything done their way, almost like a 4 year old with poor social skills.

But I’m getting there, I’m reaching the point where I am finally learning to say NO. I used to believe that this was a skill you either had or you didn’t. But I seem to have been pushed into using it. I’ve begun to use my voice in the most random places now.

A few days ago we were shopping for utensils and the Brat and Bean were told to sit in a corner (and NOT TALK TO STRANGERS) because I was terrified they’d knock over something breakable. Apparently other parents didn’t seem to have that fear. One couple gave their kids a non-stick pan and egg beater each and sat them down on the floor. The din made me look up. Bang, bang, bang, screeeeech. The sound was ghastly and I lost my patience. Looking up and down the aisles I saw the kids. Of course I didn’t have the courage to take on someone else’s kids so I looked at the OA. He walked up to the kids firmly, bent down to their level and told them nicely, ‘Don’t do that beta. It belongs to the shop and will get spoilt’. One of them stopped and stared. The other defiantly went up a decibel level, bang, bang, bang.

I looked around and caught hold of a uniformed flunkey who was looking at us warily. Go find their parents, I suggested. It seemed like a good idea so he ran with it. The parents who as it turned out were standing a few feet away glared at us when the flunkey pointed at us. I might have melted away if it weren’t for the OA who looked at them and said politely but firmly, ‘Your children are spoiling the utensils. No one’s going to buy a nonstick pan with scratches.’ That’s all. And I nodded. By this time more sales staff walked up and the kids nervously handed back the utensils. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but in a country like ours where people seem to have no civic sense or concern for property other than their own, it seems to be the only option.

A few days later I saw a couple enjoying a meal at a food court while their kid happily yanked Christmas decorations off and smashed them. A listless maid stood by, looking around bored, not stopping him. I had the courage to tell her to stop him, ask the guard standing by to do his job and not let the mall get denuded and finally ask the parents who were sitting there ignoring all this, to keep an eye over and above the maid since she clearly had no idea of what was acceptable public behaviour. I might have come across as a nosy parker but I don’t care. It seems like people just stand by and let things go wrong, be it something as small as spoiling public property or an injustice taking place and an autowala getting beaten up.

Maybe I’m getting old and tired and cranky but I don’t understand why people can’t wait for the people inside a lift to exit before they force their way in. How do they expect the people inside to get out, if they’re standing in the door? I find it offensive to have to push past people and with my new found assertiveness I now stop right in the door, look people in the eye and say firmly, ‘Please let people inside the lift get out; only then will there be place for you to get in.’ One doesn’t have to be rude, one just has to state the obvious. It’s amazing how sheepish people look in the face of common sense.

But it’s been liberating. I feel less of a fraud for telling my son to assert himself now that I am doing it too. I hope he’s absorbing it and will find the strength to do it one day. I like giving of myself to people who make allowances for my eccentricities too. I love sharing my children with those who appreciate them and return their frank affection. I am still friends with everyone else, I’m just more reserved. I don’t know how long this will last, but it feels good right now and I’m in a happy place.

How’s your year going and what did last year give you? What lessons did you learn? What would you like to achieve this year?

I won’t cry tonight!

This is the second of my last 6 posts about live music acts. That says something about the neglected state of my blog and about decent big acts coming to India (No thank you, we don’t want the Bieber).

We booked our GnR tickets ages ago. When no one else had. It wouldn’t be the same of course, no Slash, no Izzy, no Duff. But after the Metallica fiasco we’re not being too choosy. We’ll take anything they throw our way. So we had the date marked on our calendar, babysitter organised, played every GnR album for days and sang Patience and Don’t cry as lullabies to the kids.

I’d like to be hipster about this but the truth is, no matter what you are listening to today, GnR is what a lot of us grew up on. To me GnR is not just a big act, it’s long afternoons in a dark old rambling house smelling of khus, American music banging out of tinny stereo systems and a bunch of desi kids sitting around on the floor rocking like their lives depended on it. It is my brother playing the lead to Sweet Child of Mine behind his back. Not an easy task when you realise an electric guitar is heavy and he was a young boy and always built slim. Not easy when you realise he had to reverse the position of his fingers and play the opposite of what he played when it was the right way up. He and his band would practice on our verandah, out in the heat and the blinding sun, wires everywhere, the frenetic drumming keeping my old great grandaunt awake. It was amazing fun to have awestruck kids bang on our gate and ask the boys for autographs. It was cool to be the only jobless one lighting cigarettes, untangling wires and holding down shaky plugs. And through this all we had a background score. Of GnR, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Anthrax, Sepultura, Alice in Chains and what not. We didn’t allow ourselves the luxury of dreaming that we’d ever get to see them. Until a few months ago.

About four days before the show I dislocated my navel (anyone who has heard of this ailment and knows a cure/ good doctor?).  Yes, apparently these things only happen to me. It first happened when I was 12 and turning cartwheels. My stomach crunches up and I stay curled in that foetal position for days. I can’t retain any food because all the internal organs are pushed out of place. It’s pure agony and the only flip side is I get a complete system detoxification. Okay, I jest. It’s a shit experience ( excuse the pun) and there are days I believe I will die of the pain. No amount of allopathy makes a difference, the diarrhea continues and only an experienced dai can massage it to relieve the knot or whatever my intestines have gone into. The only thing that worked wonders is when I was home and an old retainer would light a diya on my navel, upturn a cup on it and then once the diya burned out, yank it off. He called it a totka; I now realise the vacuum  it created yanked the navel back into place.

After the birth of the kids my stomach muscles have becomes more lax and now like all dislocations, the frequency has increased and it happens every 6 months or so. As luck would have it, this time it picked the day before GnR. I was literally writhing in pain. I spent the entire morning popping pills to stop the back door trot, but there was nothing I could do about the pain. I starved myself until I was dehydrated so that I didn’t need to use the toilet, but I could barely straighten up, so tightly knotted were my muscles/innards? The OA came home from work, took one look at me and said we’d either go together or not. I’d told myself that it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed it but I wasn’t able to buy my own story. And I didn’t want the OA to miss it, heck, I didn’t want to miss it myself. So we planned it such as to get there as soon as the opening act had finished. And as we parked and walked towards the lights arcing across the sky I forgot the navel and began to feel the butterflies.

A crowd of 20,000 and a live wire atmosphere. At this point I must be a snob and say I wish junta wouldn’t show up for an event if all they can do is name two songs. I saw loads of people who couldn’t sing along because they didn’t know any of the music. The reason behind the snobbishness really is that we would have a little more place to move if less wannabe types had shown up! Yes, yes, selfish! But that’s how it is. Everyone wants to say they listened to GnR growing up but won’t be able to name even two albums. Why then pack up the place for real old fans? Rant over.

My stomach ached but just knowing that I was listening to Estranged live, kept me on my feet. That and the crowd holding me upright long after my knees had given up the job.When you’re my height your impression of a rock show is loud music, the smell of weed mixed with sweat and that tall guy’s dreadlocks getting in your nose and mouth. This one was no different.

The OA of course towers above general junta and kept looking down in concern. Did I want to go home? Bathroom? Was I okay? Should he carry me? No, no, no. Carry me, I repeated in mock horror and genuine embarrassment. Yes, of course he said, looking offended. Did I think he couldn’t? Err.. no, I hastened to assure him. It wasn’t his capabilities I was doubting – it was my weight that would be a problem. What nonsense, he said – you’re just the right size for me. Erm. That is sweet, but no.

My earliest memories of how true love manifests itself at a rock show are from a college fest. Every batch has its first couple and my favourite was this petite girl with a riot of curls and a navel ring, and her very cute boyfriend who towered over her. The rock show during our college fest was on and she was hopping from foot to foot trying to catch a glimpse of the stage. And then he hefted her up with ease and plonked her down on his shoulders. Villager that I was, I stared, slack-jawed. What? In public? In college? And then I changed my tune to, how cute! Me next! Even though I was a mere 43 kilos, the then boyfriend couldn’t have been more than 53 kilos, almost a foot taller than me though he was – so I thought better of suggesting that he lift me up. Plus I have a huge dread of public displays of affection and I liked it fine down there, holding hands and staring at a back in front of me, imagining what the stage looked like.

So the OA’s offer was a dream come true, just 17 years too late. But there was no way I was climbing up on his shoulders and making a spectacle of myself. I had a gazillion friends in the crowd and a reputation to maintain, as a 34 year old mother of two. Until Sweet Child of Mine came and all sane thought vanished. I threw my jacket at an unsuspecting friend, tapped the OA on the shoulder and hopped on without a thought for his well being or my dignity. I saw the stage for the first time and I screamed like a banshee and waved. The crowd screamed louder, surged, waved, lighters came out (don’t ask me how they got them in) and in general I felt like a 16 year old. And the 16 year old me got closure in so many ways. Here I was, sitting on my better half’s shoulders watching GnR  - and he hadn’t keeled over under my weight and died yet, pushing 40 though he is! The man doesn’t do poetry, roses, chocolates or diamonds. But what he does for these old bones, I don’t know any other man who will.

When he took me down I was so content, I could have gone home right then. But not quite. I had to see the piano being rolled out for November Rain. THEN I could die. By the time it came to an end I was on cloud # 9 and ready to push through the crowds to get closer. The band was throwing plectrums into the crowd and I didn’t see them come, let alone see where they went. And so at the end, on a stranger’s encouragement I went down on my knees and dug around in the dirt. And I was rewarded.

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Now I am back in bed, dying. But at least I can go in peace. :p

Books galore

No, I’m not abandoning you. While I’m away on holiday, here’s a list of books you can pick up. Each one has touched me deeply.

The Village – Nikita Lalwani

Ray Bhullar is of Indian origin and lives in England. She works with the BBC and comes with a team to film an open prison in India. The people live together like a village. Prisoners are allowed to go out of the camp to work and the condition for living in this open prison is that you must bring your family to live with you and earn your living. The idea is to rehabilitate as well as give trust to beget trust. The host of the show is Nathan, an ex-con who will bring in nuance, since he has done time too.

It’s an interesting concept and I’m quite ashamed to admit that I was unaware of the existence of nearly 30 open jails in India. The story is interesting and I loved the choice of topic. So unusual. Viewing an Indian prison sometimes through firangi eyes and at other times through the NRIs eyes.

If I have any complaint, it is that I found the pace a little slow. Perhaps the idea was to build atmosphere, but it didn’t work. It took what could have been done in half the number of pages and dragged it on until I was begging for it to end. I know that is not high praise, but I don’t mean it that way. Definitely a story worth reading to show you how manipulative the human race is.

Awake – Elizabeth Graver

Anna Simon’s son Max has a strange and rare disease that doesn’t allow him out in the sun. The entire family, including her other son, Adam and her husband, need to restructure their lives to work with his condition and it’s not very easy. They live like creatures of the night; windows blacked out, a sign at the door that tells people not to push it open and suddenly let light in, sleeping in the day and waking at night, finding night time activities to do and so on. So night is day and day is night and they live a completely inverted life. Holidays and trips are out of course, until one day they hear of Camp Luna. A camp for children just like Max, set up by a father whose daughter has the same problem. Everything here is carried out at night; games, picnics, parties. For once, Max is normal and everyone else is out of place.  It is here under cover of darkness that things begin to unravel.

This book reminded me of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. One can’t help but feel very very sorry for the siblings of children with disabilities. They suffer a strange sort of neglect. So do spouses. Here is yet another obsessive mother, working hard to give her son what life didn’t. And in the bargain, alienating everyone else. But she comes to Camp Luna and it inspires her to go back to the artist and person she was. An interesting book with none of the moral dilemma that Picoult offers. Simply an observation and commentary on life. Very nice.

Silk – Alessandro Baricco

I fell in love with the name when I saw this book on the rack. So simple. Silk. Reminded me of the chocolate. It is set in 1861 (yes, yes, you know me and my love for the past) and a French merchant of silkworms, Herve Joncour travels across the world in search of their eggs. His travels bring him to Japan at a time when strangers were treated with distrust and suspicion. And there Joncour meets a woman – a woman he can never have. They don’t even speak or touch, but she feels the same way about him. I’m always intrigued by these stories. She gets a note across to him and he can’t read it until he gets back to his own country and gets someone to translate. And once he reads it, there is no turning back.

Does this happen? Is there a stranger who crossed your path, one you’ve never forgotten? Can you fall so deeply in love with someone you’ve never even spoken to? Is that love? He goes back for her and well, I’ll leave you to read the rest.

Nothing grips me like a love story. I believe they are only stories worth telling. The only thing you can change is the setting. And considering how common love stories are, finding an unusual setting is not easy. This was an interesting one. The 1800s, a Frenchman, a Japanese woman he has never spoken to. I am always fascinated by how good authors can pick a time and a place and a couple you’ve never met before. The same holds true for the next book in this list. A Canadian woman, a Cambodian man, Canada and Cambodia in the 70s, so much music…

The Disappeared – Kim Echlin

I must be growing old and senile, because I could swear I wrote a post on this book. I did a search on my blog and couldn’t find it so I’m just going to do it anyway. If I’ve raved about this book before, bear with me. Anne Greves meets Serey at a blues bar in the early 70s when she is 16. I read that early scene and wished I were her. Who wouldn’t want to meet a long haired musician with a penchant for math (or something else equally geeky), from an exotic country, in a smokey bar?! It’s almost as the hero was created for me. A grouse many readers have is that you don’t see why Anne loves Serey so. Eh? Why does anyone love anyone. We all have our intense loves and I am sure no one looking from the outside in can see why we’re so besotted, why we’re hungering, why we’re crying. I didn’t have that peeve. To me it was rather obvious. There was so much music, so much chemistry, so much.

They fall in love and they live happily … well, not ever after. The borders open up and he returns to Cambodia to hunt for his family. For those who have any desire to learn about the Cambodian genocide and for those who have never even heard of it, this is your chance. It makes you feel dirty to know that you are a part of the human race that is capable of inflicting such pain. Well, that and so much else that history is witness to.

The writing is simply brilliant. It’s poetry. I read it over and over again. Going back and forth between chapters like a maniac just to experience a particular emotion again. Wanting to know that love, be that love. And suddenly, fearing that love. He disappears into the ashes and the blood of the killing fields and she despairs of ever hearing from him. Years go by and then suddenly one day she catches a glimpse of someone who looks just like him, on the news. Full of hope she leaves Canada to plunge into the horror that is the Cambodia of during the Pol Pot time. Does she find him? Let me put you out of your misery and admit that she does. But that is not the end. Oh no, we’re a long way from the end.

People keep dying in this book. Her mother, their still born daughter, and yet you keep reading because you can’t stop yourself. Anne’s love is the kind we all promise our lovers but rarely fulfill. It goes beyond the grave. I can’t tell you more without giving away the story. Suffice to say, if you want to read about love, if you want to read poetry, if you want to know how far violence can go, if you want to know how depraved a human can be, if you want to know how deep an ache can feel, this is where you will find the answers. Like all books that have a soundtrack to them, this one too had me hooked with the first song. Read Kim Echlin’s interview on music here – I have a deep rooted belief that every good writer has a love for music. Whenever I’m asked about a favourite book, I go back to this one. It’s seared into my heart.

The Lady of The Rivers –  Phillipa Gregory

I’m a PG fan. I love her writing, her research, her choice of subjects. If you can keep in mind that she takes liberties with her characters, you’re set. Intrigued by Jacquetta of Luxembourg who makes brief but important appearances in the lives of other major players, Gregory chooses to write about her. Historically you are not learning anything new, but again, to me, this was a love story. The Duchess who lowered herself to marry the blue-eyed squire after she was widowed. It wasn’t easy to remind myself that this was partly fiction.

She takes you through the Lancaster court and introduces you to the main players of the House of York. And all the while, the love story plays on. There must be more to it because I cannot understand Jacquetta and her husband Richard’s loyalty to Queen Margaret, who is clearly manipulative and untrustworthy. An interesting book because once more it brings out magic, chemistry and so much else beyond our ken. A fey twist to history.

The world according to Garp – John Irving

I find myself ill-equipped to talk about this book, but I must find a way to share it with you. I should probably have read it 10 years ago because I seem to have denied myself 10 years of absolute brilliance. Garp is the illegitimate son of Jenny Fields. Who inadvertently becomes a feminist when she writes her autobiography. Garp marries his boxing coach’s daughter Helen Holm and has a strangely open marriage. He writes one bestseller novel and spends a lifetime trying to recreate that success.

There are many mini-stories that make up the book and as I said, I’m a little overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. There are the Ellen Jamesians, women who are protesting the rape of a little girl whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from identifying the rapists – they’ve all cut their tongues out to show their support. There is the transsexual who was a football player, there is Garp’s own literary success that flows in and out of his narrative. Structurally it is amazing to be able to pull something like this off, because at no point does Irving lose the plot. And its a triumph for the reader to be able to just keep up and admire his skill.

Darkly comic, you come across rape and mutilation in every second chapter and yet, it doesn’t get you down. It is a commentary on the early feminist movement and there is something about the book that mocks anything and anyone who takes themselves too seriously. If I had to draw a parallel, it would be to a Govinda movie where nothing is implausible – and yet it is a classic. Just when you think nothing worse can happen, it does, in the most gruesome way and you find yourself laughing in horror. Raising the absurd to more than an art form, this is a book that should be read every five years. I’m sure it will bring you an entirely different layer each time. I don’t know if I’ve made any sense. Suffice to say – read it. You won’t regret it.

The Sealed Letter – Emma Donoghue

Every time I pick up an Emma Donoghue, I can’t help but be blown away by how each book is so starkly different, such a different voice, such a different time, place, idea. I’m not religious, but these are the kind of writers I’d like to build temples to. This one is based on a real story that shocked Victorian London. Vice Admiral Codrington has just returned from Malta with his much younger wife, Helen and their two daughters. Barely into the book you realise she is having an affair with a younger, dashing Colonel Anderson. The story later reveals that this is not the first of her indiscretions. Encouraged by prudish friends, he files for a divorce. Caught up in this mess is Emily Faithfull aka Fido, an old friend, who eventually drifted away because she was unwittingly forced to bear witness to their frequent quarreling. But Helen is back in her life, demanding her friendship and demanding that she go beyond the call of friendship. From using her living room in the afternoon and letting Fido hear the squeak of the sofa springs going up and down, to eventually living with her when her husband throws her out, Helen uses her friend quite shamelessly. I’m not sure if the book is ungenerous to her or if it is just me, but I felt no compassion for Helen who is so busy conducting her affair that she misses a telegram calling her home to her sick child.

I’m not usually very judgmental about extra marital affairs, specially in books (didn’t I once do a post on that?), but the moment there is a neglected child involved I change sides like a baingan. It’s just unfair for kids to be trapped in a mess. Anyhow, getting back to the book, it’s a fascinating account of divorce in Victorian England, and of the early women’s movement, again. Accusations of rape, hints of lesbianism and a sealed letter that contains… well, only one way for you to find out. Divorce proceedings anyway bring out the worst in people and you’re forced to take a harsher stand than you had any intention of. This sordid affair too, ends up with dirty linen being washed in public and I can’t help but shudder at how easy it is to get into a relationship and how hard to end it.

Once again, Donoghue has a winner. And I’m looking for funding to set up that temple to her. What? If someone like Khushboo *choke* can have a temple, I don’t see why people who really deserve it shouldn’t! And the more I read books of this sort, the harder it becomes to restrain myself from pelting Chetan Bhagat’s house with rotten tomatoes.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

I believe the publishers owe me something on this one. I’ve recommended this book to everyone, all the time. It is 1946 and Guernsey is under German occupation. And then one day author Juliet Aston gets a letter from Dawsey Adams who has come into possession of a book that once belonged to her. Their love of reading kicks off a correspondence and soon she gets to know all about life in Guernsey. The authors have used letters as their storytelling device and there is something simple, satisfying and comforting about the story. I’ve yet to have one friend get back to me saying they were unhappy with it. It’s that breath of fresh air from a slower time, that all of us need. A lovely, lazy, feel good holiday read.