An Interview With Arunima

August 5th, 2013

On the mountains, I would be in situations where my body had completely stopped supporting me but the will power was there. It was this will power that pushed me out of dangerous situations and kept me going. At one point of time, in -60 degree temperatures, my prosthetic leg was threatening to slip off. I was caught in a very bad situation as I couldn’t even take my gloves off to support my leg for fear of frostbite. We also had a limited supply of oxygen and it was important to reach the basecamp. I had to drag myself till the camp finally.

This is a totally inspiring interview with Arunima Sinha, who lost a leg fending off assailants on a train, but has gone on to climb Mt. Everest. Please do read.

apu Women & Feminism

On A Reading Spree

August 1st, 2013

This last fortnight, I’ve been on a reading spree. It’s probably because I’ve been staying in a couple of weekends, and so have been finding more time than usual to read. So, I finished The Amber Spyglass (the last of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman), I completed Aram by Jeyakanthan (reviewed earlier), The Crocodile Bird by Ruth Rendell, Roseanna, the first book in the 10-book police procedural/murder mystery series by Swedish authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall, A Mighty Heart, Marianne Pearl’s heart-breaking account of her husband Danny Pearl’s kidnapping and murder, and also re-read Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. I am at the moment reading Mul, an autobiography in Tamil, by Muthumeenal, an account of her life as a young woman affected by leprosy.

Apart from Roseanna, I didn’t buy a single other of these books.

Quite apart from the fact that I’m saving a great deal of money and space at home by not buying books indiscriminately, what strikes me is that I am also reading more diverse books than I would if I were buying. When buying, I tend to be rather cautious and stick to authors I’ve read or that I’ve definitely heard very good things about, from people whose tastes match mine.

Thanks to two things in the recent past, I’ve been freed of this. One is having joined an online library, Book & Borrow, (we interviewed them on Women’s Web) where I look through the catalogue and pick up anything that catches my fancy - if I don’t like it, all I need to do is return it and get another. The other thing that’s happened is a lovely group called RAPO - read and pass on, which works on the concept of members reading and passing on books that they’re ok with not keeping a copy of.

Together, they’ve started me reading authors that I may not normally pick up at bookstores and I’m much happier for it!

apu The Literary life

Aram

July 15th, 2013

The book I am reading at the moment is a collection of short stories in Tamil called Aram, by Jeyamohan. I’ve had this on loan from my dad for almost a year now, and he recommended it highly, but I started reading it only this month. I’m almost through it now, and I can understand why he recommended it.

Aram is a collection that is full of unforgettable stories, with intricate plots, memorable characters, evocative dialogue rendered in dialects appropriate to a community/region/period, highly visual descriptions - in short, everything that a story should have to keep a reader reading. But apart from the technical virtuosity, what kept me reading was that the stories are just so full of ‘heart’ - an undefinable quality that makes you laugh out loud and cry with the characters. Set in the Southern Tamilnadu districts of Nagercoil-Kanyakumari and spanning a time period from the 60s to the 80s largely, the stories are totally engrossing.

This is partly because Jeyamohan never lets on as to where the story is going. By this, I don’t mean the ‘twist in the tale’ kind of thing perfected by Western short story writers such as O’Henry. In Aram, the stories rarely have that kind of a twist; rather each story is like a powerful, meandering river that follows its own whimsical course, and the reader, swept away by the current can only go with the flow and watch awestruck at each new bend revealed by the river’s course. The crafting is so perfect that you can’t see it while you are reading, only after you’ve finished the story and go back to it.

One of my favourite stories in the collection so far, is ‘Thaayar paadam’ (’The feet of the mother’) that is ostensibly a story about an esteemed musician grandfather, but ends up being a story about the ‘crazy’ grandmother. The cruelty hidden inside ordinary families (and taken for granted as custom/tradition) is revealed ever so gently that the full extent of it is visible only as the story moves to its end. Another wonderful story is ‘Sottru kanakku’ (which is literally, the food ledger, but hard to translate), where pettiness and generosity are balanced like two columns of a ledger, through the eyes of a poor boy fed by a hotel owner (a character who comes to life).

Many of the stories can be difficult to read, with their precise description of poverty and unceasing hunger, and the misery that childhood can be for some; I had to stop at places for the tears running down my cheeks. Yet, the book doesn’t feel dreary. I read that Jeyamohan considers Tolstoy a big influence on his work, and it is true that the essential humanism and ‘light’ of these stories reminds you of Tolstoy, and also, of Chekhov.

I’m not sure if a translation is available in English, but for those of you who read Tamil, do check this one out.

apu The Literary life

Papillon

May 27th, 2013

This is not a review.

Just some thoughts floating around in my head after reading Papillon, Henri Charriere’s account of his incarceration in the French penal settlement of French Guiana and subsequent escape, indeed, after multiple escape attempts that had failed.

A true story (or at least loosely based on his true story), I read Papillon first when I was in college and enjoyed it very much as an exciting story of adventure and grit. The story of convicts’ life in a harsh prison environment and one man’s desire for freedom is very much in the vein of other stories like Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz - friendship, greed, jealousy, repression, despair, hope being the common elements.

In that sense, while an exciting story, it is not entirely new to most readers. Reading it this time around though, I was more impressed by the other themes that emerge from the story, themes of crime, punishment and redemption.

It is true that society needs to protect itself from those who are a danger to it, and prison is the answer that modern society has evolved in response to the question of how to protect people from others collectively deemed a danger. Yet, it is also true that not all crimes merit the same response, and not all criminals pose the same level of danger.

This raises the question of redemption and merit - which criminals merit a second chance and can be redeemed? Do justice systems as they exist today answer this question well? Can prison systems that crush human beings into atomised numbers give individuals this chance of redemption? Society’s need to safeguard itself vis-a-vis the rights of prisoners as human beings (even if dangerous human beings) - what is the point at which they should be balanced? Do human beings collectively judged a danger to society have the right to redeem themselves? Or should the greatest good of the majority mean that society should play safe and lock them up forever, on the grounds that they may be dangerous again? Papillon set me thinking on some of these topics, and I have to say that I don’t have any clear answers.

In some ways it reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment although the two novels are not similar at all in their story, characters or construction; only in some of the questions they threw up in my mind.

apu The Literary life

Schindler’s Ark

May 12th, 2013

Thanks to the award winning movie, Schindler’s List, most people, even those who haven’t actually seen the movie, have heard of Oskar Schindler, the German/Austrian businessman and trader who saved over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust.

In most cases, one watches the movie after reading the book (and usually comes away disappointed). In this case I saw the movie first, as a teenager, and remember being deeply moved by the movie’s portrayal of human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Reading Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark recently, many years after watching the movie, I underwent the process in reverse, and was struck by how many additional layers a book adds to the story.

Schindler’s Ark is the Booker prize winning novel based on which the movie was made. One of the things I found most curious about the book is that Keneally claims it is a novel, although based on extensive interviews with Schindlerjuden (as the Jews rescued by Schindler called themselves)  and others who knew Schindler during and after the world war. Keneally mentions at the beginning that he wrote the book as a novel because Schindler’s larger than life personality could not quite fit into any other format. However, while reading the book, I never really felt that it was a novel I was reading; perhaps the fact that the Schindler story is so well known now makes it difficult to perceive the book as fictional in any way. Moreover, although incidents are dramatized, to give readers the feeling of authenticity, Keneally interjects at so many places with phrases like “It is possible Schindler may have…”  or “Perhaps he thought that…” that it is hard to ever forget the journalist’s voice. So, Schindler’s Ark did not work for me as a novel, although I didn’t find that a problem.

Instead, it is an excellent read as a very well researched, insightful account of a complex man, who put himself at great risk, for motives never completely understood. It is evident that Keneally wants the book to avoid being seen as a hagiography, so he is at pains to look at Schindler from many angles; the desire to be rich and successful, the willingness to bend rules, to dine with evil in order to accomplish some good (while feathering his own nest), his love of women and shabby treatment of his wife are all as much a part of Schindler as his refusal to toe the Nazi line on Jews and the craftiness with which he is able to save so many from death in the concentration camps.

I remember the movie as focusing on Schindler’s rescue of the Jews, but the books makes it clear that he did far more than that - he also passed on information about the situation in Poland to Jewish organisations in Hungary and Israel which were collecting evidence even during the war itself, and gave evidence at the trials after the war, and well into the 60s.

Given the mass hatred of Jews that had been whipped up among the German-Austrian population of the time, quite where Schindler derived his convictions from and what drove him to undertake such enormous personal risks (he was arrested thrice) were never quite clear, and while Keneally does his best to trace the possible influences on Schindler, he admits that some questions about the individual human mind are perhaps never fully answerable.

For anyone interested in the history of this period, or even a well-written look at an unusual man at a time of great stress and ferment, Schindler’s Ark is a book worth reading.

apu The Literary life