The Phoenix: Bilal Siddiqi

The Phoenix by Bilal Siddiqi is a fast-paced modern thriller narrating the story of an Indian intelligence officer stuck in adverse situations. The story which starts with an encounter in Southall London in the year 2013 has a triggering effect, progressing through time, continents, and cities while only aggravating the seriousness of the scenario. Aryaman Khanna, an erstwhile intelligence officer is sent to the Lakshadweep high security prisons for breaching protocols during the encounter in 2013. An encounter which not only made him lose his friends and mentor,  but also saw him stripped of duty.

Fast forward to seven years Aryaman is still efficiently armed with his knowledge of service, but is unaware of the doom which lurks towards his family. He also reflects on his only child with whom he shares a restrained relationship. On release he has a feeling of self-doubt reminiscing if there ‘was any part of his old self still there . . . . .to recognize?’ but is determined to go back to his wife and son and reconcile for the lost years.

But trouble starts when a seemingly hit-and-run case claims his wife, Jyoti’s life – except that she is a successful journalist who was working on a top –secret story, powerful enough to get goons after her and to shake the secure foundations of a Nation serving millions of people. Here begins Aryaman’s journey back into the world of intelligence and espionage with the help of his ex-colleague and friend Randheer. Now it is up to him to not only avenge his wife’s death and protect his family but also to serve the Nation that had once refused to believe in him.

From the bazaars of Turkey to the luxury of Thailand, from the aridness of Pakistan to the serenity of London – a vortex of revenge so spun against the people of India, it is hard to imagine that it can ever be done. Siddiqi needs to be commended for merging the pieces of the puzzle so smoothly that they weave into a compact story. The Phoenix has several central themes,  starting from the working of the Indian intelligentsia to the psyche of the families of those working as intelligence officers.  Relationships – friendship, love, parent- children, forms an essential part of the storyline and almost gives it the right push to take it forward.

What The Phoenix accentuates through the narration is a weapon of mass destruction lurking over millions of people in India. This makes it very relatable to the contemporary condition of the country and the world which is almost in a state of Biological warfare with the Corona Virus; the only difference is that Siddiqi’s antagonist tries to make use of the same for personal revenge.

The Phoenix resonates how Dumbledore introduced one to Harry and-is personified by Aryaman. Having had a very fruitful career he is sent into the flames of high prison but resurrects seven years later to heal himself and the world due to the emotional blow that he receives. Aryaman may appear tough but is equally understanding, caring, and loyal. His loyalty towards his friend Randheer, or his continuous effort to try and mend his relation with his son, depicts that he is one of the fewer remaining officers who have true emotions left in him, but do not allow these emotions to take the better of him. He is still as prompt in planning, quick in understanding the enemy’s motives, and daring yet careful in his stances. His repeated mention of his mentor reveals how grateful he is of his late mentor.

It is interesting to note the way Siddiqi has used the role of the digital sphere. With the pandemic, the world is going through a digital revolution, at the same time he has exposed the darker side of this platform. How everything is digital and yet hidden, messages are bare yet coded, top secret missions are planned in broad daylight sitting in different parts of the world , yet difficult to crack by the cyber surveillance.

A gripping tale with ensemble characters and one truth- No One can be trusted, The Phoenix is successful in capturing the attention of the people. Definitely recommended, should you have a taste for contemporary thrillers.

No. of Pages: 228

Publisher:  Penguin India

Available at: Flipkart/ snapdeal/ Amazon

Rating: 3.5/5

Queeristan: The Roadmap to an Inclusive India

Queeristan is a one-stop book of inclusiveness in Corporate Culture! Parmesh Shahani’s second book is a treasure trove of knowledge and a reservoir of go-to materials when it comes to LGBTQ concerns. What makes it stand out are the possible solutions to the rising issues through the techniques of ‘cultural acupuncture’ and ‘jugaad resistance’. By these pioneering methods not only has the founder of Godrej Culture Lab normalised the presence of the community within Godrej but Shahani’s strong presence as a leader, speaker and media icon has helped in voicing the ideologies far and wide across the country and overseas, leading many to follow similar paths.

‘In our country [India] where the home itself is a space of identity erasure, the negotiation starts at workplace’. Queeristan beautifully portrays the two sides of the emotion called home – one where an individual is comfortably accepted, and the other, where the polarity of gender is coerced on them. For the former, a safe and continuous space with the same respect and freedom is provided by the workplace and for the latter; the workplace becomes the home, the family that every individual craves to live freely in. Thus, the workplace, where one spends almost eight to nine hours, probably more; 5-6 days a week needs to reinvent itself to be inclusive with amenities for the community. This includes recognition, comfort, support, exposure or anonymity, legal and medical provisions and awareness / leadership campaigns for the overall growth of the individual and the company.  ‘Ramkrishna Sinha from Pride Circle, a D&I Consultancy, put it… Generally, all benefits which are gendered, we need to look at un-gendering them.’

Loaded with surveys, statistics, citations, referral work and of course, Parmesh’s personal experiences, Queeristan gives the feeling of Parmesh speaking directly to the readers. It takes the form of a fluid narrative which cites the inception of the community (or to what it can be traced); to e over-the –years legal fight with the court for recognition; coupled with the concerns raised by the community with respect to equal opportunities at work; and most importantly to tentative solutions and techniques that can make the workplace,  a holistic environment for all.  Parmesh’s contemporary anecdotes and up-to –date methodologies make Queeristan really interesting, intriguing and definitely a guide which can be followed for building an experimental ground in the corporate sector. Of course, in the process of experimenting maybe newer policies and programs can be designed to enhance the cause being championed for.

Beginning with the company HR policies and specific parameters for the LGBTQ employees, to actively recruiting more LGBTQ employees, opens the minds of the employer towards the community. In this regard Godrej’s LOUD –Live Out Ur Dream Initiative is the best example of attracting newer talents to the company by giving them opportunities to showcase their talent, excel in it, be mentored with financial assistance and of course retain them long-term for the company. This apart, taking active part in job fairs helps in broadening the network and meeting probable recruits. This is also a remarkable platform to see how other corporates are engaging with the new pool of job-seekers as well as see with the growing number of companies taking part every time. Post recruitment, the company needs to make sure that the individuals are treated equally and any instance of discrimination is to be handled strictly by the management. Provision of policies; restrooms; psychological, medical and financial assistance are some of the ways to create an inclusive corporate culture. Regular events and briefings for the employees broaden their perspectives and helps in welcoming the community wholly to the company.  Trans-employees need to be given extra support in any which way they need it and the company should provide as much support as it can. The LGBTQ cause in the ergonomic culture would remain unfulfilled if not spoken about in public forums and media. Thus, the need of taking the cause to any lectures, workshops, conferences and festivals, grows stronger by the day.

Queeristan is incomplete without the mention of inspirational leaders from the community- Hoshang Merchant, Pawan Dhall, Sushant Divgikar a.k.a Rani koHEnur, Grace Banu, Dhiren Borisa, Radhika Piramal, Keshav Suri, Akhil Katyal, to name a few who have used their field of expertise- literature, academics, business, social activism, to spread awareness  for an inclusive society. With extensive research in this domain, Shahani has also listed down the various organisations working for the cause throughout India. It is an excellent repository of information and should you like to explore your association or volunteer with them, you can get in touch.

Parmesh Shahani , through Queeristan, writes an open letter to the HR, Business Heads, and higher management of companies to envision an inclusive and healthy workplace with equal benefits for all employees, devoid of discrimination. The LGBTQ community is a reservoir of talent and it needs to be incorporated within corporates for better productivity of the company as well as the growth of the individual. Queeristan is a role-model and a stepping stone for newer companies to broaden their visions and join hands in making the society a safe and inclusive place for all.

No. of Pages: 328

Publisher: Westland Business

Available on : Amazon / Flipkart / Audible

White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

1943, Germany during World War II and the era of the führer. . .

Nestled near the border of the Black Forest and surrounded by the heavy winter snow lies a secluded summer cabin inhabited by Franka Gerber.  As she walks around the barren forest with thoughts of life and death, she chances upon an injured soldier, unconscious and freezing. Humanity, a rare attribute then,  awakens in her and she brings him back to the lonely cabin. Being a nurse by profession, it isn’t a big deal for her to apply first aid, except that she is low on resources and may be hiding an enemy of the State, for which she can be liable to execution by the Gestapo. In a Germany that knows no liberal thinking and free speech, where friends and family report trivial cases to the Gestapo in order to feature in their good books, and a land which has almost forgotten the meaning of humanity will Franka be able to help the man survive or will she succumb to the ideals of Nazi Germany? White Rose, Black Forest is a story of human strength, loyalty and yearning for freedom.

The readers get a glimpse of the lives of Franka and the injured soldier, who identifies himself as Werner Graff, through the non-linear narration of the novel interspersed with frequent flashbacks. Both Franka and Werner are constantly suspicious of each other and their real intentions. While she suspects that he is not revealing his true self, she decides to play along till he divulges his motives on his own.

Soon enough patience breaks, and they both narrate their true lives to each other.  Franka loses her mother to cancer, her father to an air raid, and her younger brother to the Gestapo’s. She herself has just been released from the prison for going against the ideals of the führer and offering her services to the group White Rose.  After careful contemplation, she is on a verge of committing suicide when she finds Werner Graff. Graff, of course is a soldier having an important role in shaping the future of the War. Coming from an affluent business family, he chooses to serve his nation and joins the armed forces.  He is on a mission to Germany, but as luck would have it, ends up with two broken legs in the middle of the Black Forest!

What is his mission? Is he able to fulfil it? Will Franka be unknowingly drawn towards his mission? What role does his mission play in shaping the war?  Will the Gestapo get a wind of their activities?  White Rose, Black Forest answers these and much more throughout the story which brings together two different individuals and binds them emotionally onto the path of humanity.  A tale told with minimal characters and yet complete,  rich in emotions, love, loyalty, betrayal, guilt, loss and devotion. It shows two distinct sides of patriotism and how one works for the good of the people while the other works for building an air of superiority devoid of the welfare of  the people.  

Dempsey’s remarkable symbolism through the title and the book cover says a great deal about his conceptualisation. There indeed is a world beyond the White and the Black with the existence of the Grey. White rose and black forest also stand for the distinct feminine and masculine projection of the two protagonists. White is seen as a symbol of peace and Dempsey quite subtly plays with the imagery to name a group which tries to usher in peace amidst violent philosophy. A highly recommended read if you are interested in the history of World War II , how it affected the various strata of the German society, and how sometimes individual  actions seem smaller in front of the goodwill of the mass.

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

No. of Pages: 266

Available on Amazon / Flipkart

A Night in the Hills by Manav Kaul

Remember the song ‘Ban Ja Tu Meri Rani, Tenu Mahal Bana Doonga?’  Writer and Actor, Manav Kaul definitely knows how to build castles by triggering the reader’s imagination through visual imagery, and what best than stories from the serene hills to take the readers on a tour of words. A Night in the Hills is an anthology of eight short stories, each better than the other, depicting the rawness of life, love, friendship, infatuation, and desire. Kaul’s portrayal of human nature is apt to the point and illustriously depicts the fallacies of mankind. His anthology makes space for every age and emotion, making it relatable to a wide audience base. It is best to let the readers pick their favorite ones from an anthology where each story has its own charm and aura.

A Bunch of Old Letters: ‘Sandeshe Aate Hain , Humein Tarpate Hain. . .’ becomes the theme song for teenagers who are on the verge of experiencing first love. . .  by exchanging letters. Salim, Raju, and Sunil are best friends and share everything with each other. Trouble begins when Salim’s girlfriend proposes that her friend would like to write letters to Salim’s friend.  A game of writing proxy letters, elaborate white lies and sacrifice begins among the three of them. But would such short-lived love and comical tragedy win over the eternal bond of friendship that the three share?

Kaul’s positioning of the characters is quite unique. While Salim, Sunil and Raju are best of friends one cannot deny the class and religious differences between them. What is more astonishing is the fact when Salim’s girlfriend, Meenakshi talks about the existence of communal difference between them. This reveals how youngsters are sensitized towards communalism.  A Bunch of Old Letters defines friendship in its various aspects- being a true friend, being jealous of seeing a friend excel, imagining the feelings of the otherwise denied first love, going too far for a friend and the likes.  Like all relations, friendship has ups and downs but it is on the shoulders of the friends to resolve differences or not.

Itti and Uday: is the story of a mature yet complicated relationship. While Uday is married and has a child, Itti longs for true companionship and a productive relationship with Uday.  Would Itti remain a mistress to Uday? Will he be able to give her the space that she rightfully needs? Will Itti even want to continue a relationship so claustrophobic and hush-hushed?  The story of Itti is reflective of several liberal feminists who act according to their will. Mistakes are made by all, but very few have the strength to correct it over time.

The Copy Artist: Revealing the artistic mind of a copy artist, Kaul portrays the brilliance that is supressed in the visuals and hands of a copy artist. The mundane copying of emotionless images and objects makes a person mechanical and artistically cripple. But should one not acknowledge that a copy artist too is primarily an artist? Is this a feeling that gets supressed while working as a copier? Will the narrator be able to find his true call for art or succumb to the pressures of being a dull copier?

The Swallow:  Oftentimes, relationships hit stagnancy. Love is laidback and there is no trace of excitement. In fact, individuals often start suspecting each other of not giving enough space or time or even of infidelity. Companionship seems to fade and a long silence makes the relationship choked. What happens when a lady blames her partner of being ignorant about her presence and feelings, in a slipped moment of deviation during intimacy? Can anyone be really blamed if the thoughts travel to far and wide spaces like the swallow? Would someone innocent swallow such blames or try to explain the rationale behind the actions?

A Night in the Hills:  The titular story in the anthology is bound to give you chills; especially if you happen to love some thrills. When a tourist has to return to his guest house by walking through the dense dark forest, with a man who refuses to talk; strange thoughts start entering his mind. At times, he wants to run away from the man; while at other times he is sure the man would transform into a vampire and that would be his end.   At last, hope is rekindled when he sees lights in a faraway direction but then, the man disappears.  Did the man really turn into some creature of the night; or is it more than it meets the eye?

Five Grains of sugar: For Raju urf Rajkumar life has always been okay, okay?  A self-rated mediocre person who has very little to look forward to from life, except living with his mother; listening to Pundalik, the poet; talking to Radhey, the eccentrically imaginative sweeper; and scribbling messages on truck backs. But what is special about Raju is his self-invented game with the ants, through which he has the supreme control over them. When he is put in a false position of being a poet and asked to play with words rather than keeping quiet which he is good at; would any of his dearest ones come to his rescue? Kaul highlights the worth of underestimation through this tale and it is indeed a reminder for the readers that every individual, object, or phenomenon has its own significance in the world and should be given its due when the right time arrives.

Words and Their Picture: A narrative solely driven by visual imagery re-counts the poignant tale of a man who pursues his lost love with true dedication. Would he succeed in gaining the lost trust? The story portrays how the protagonist like many others, falls prey to the decisions of society and ‘simply lived out, with honesty, what was decided for me’. Words and Their Picture describe the emotion of distancing from a relationship that cannot be saved and yet hesitating to start a new one, in case it meets the same fate.

Tragedy: Divided into three parts, the story follows the life of Inder who is hospitalised at present due to ill health. He meets a beautiful girl in the adjoining room who is recuperating from jaundice. He wants to call her Parul till he comes to know that her name is Roshni.  The narrative shifts to the past where a young Inder falls in love with his singer-classmate Parul. Would economic and class differences unite the two souls? Was Inder experiencing the fantasy of teenage infatuation, or was it true love? Does Parul reciprocate his feelings? Most importantly, would Inder’s ‘good boy’ image allow him to take revolutionizing decisions about his life? The storyline yet again shifts to the present where Roshni and Inder make the better of each other’s company while at the hospital and recollects the horrors of Roshni’s past and her abusive step-father. Her personal experiences coupled with the absence of a father in her life, makes her fall for men beyond her reach. Is it a way of taking revenge or is it a way to compensate the lack of a father-figure in her life? Tragedy talks about some of the most complicated existing relationships in modern society along with the rationale behind them.

Manav’s brilliance as a writer is expressed through his works, especially through the use of modern sentiments, relationship vacuums, and vivid imagery to portray and supplement human feelings. A Night in the Hills is an absolute must-read if you love reading about human emotions, short stories, or love to see the world through the eyes of the writer.

No. of Pages: 224

Publisher: Westland

Available on : Flipkart / Amazon

Shetective : Sudha Gupta Investigates by AMBAI

Ever wondered how the word ‘detective’ almost instantly flashes names of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot and not of Miss Marple or Bengal’s very own Mitin Mashi? Of late, the idea of the unequal representation of gender in detective fiction has come to the forefront and it is only then that readers have started recalling the names of women investigators who are value additions to this long list of sleuths. C. S Lakshmi or Ambai, India’s very own feminist writer and researcher on women studies, has contributed to Tamil Literature in volumes and has also fictionalized Sudha Gupta, another shetective who solves crimes in a jiffy. Gupta’s cases often reflect the feminist issues that Ambai herself champions for. Her cases are beyond the usual couples-trailing-each-other-due-to-suspicion-types!

I recently read the entire Sudha Gupta investigates series, which consist of three short stories. Ambai brings to forefront social evils, emotions, hidden trauma, and desires through her thrillers which are commendable, as it shifts the usual detection scenes from the monotonous dark and shady backgrounds to issues under bright daylight!

A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge 

A perfect introduction to Sudha Gupta and her work is what readers would get a glimpse of in this book. A mother, a wife, and an extremely talented sleuth, Sudha is on her way to wrap up two cases when she chances upon an old lady at the Andheri station. When almost after a span of eight hours, the lady still sits in the station; Sudha’s grey cells are triggered. What unravels next is the mystery of the old lady and how she came to be at the Andheri station. Would Sudha’s talent, empathy, and compassion help the woman in realizing her dreams or will she be entrapped in the web of worldly duties till the end of her days?

Ambai positions women’s desire, especially in their old-age as the prime theme of the story. A woman spends all her life serving her husband and the family and yet, does she truly have the freedom to take any decisions for herself? Interestingly, if a woman tries to choose an unconventional path, more often than not she is labeled as a mentally unfit individual. Ambai focusses predominantly on individualistic characters and the fact that being different is not equal to being mental. A Meeting on the Andheri Overbridge brings to the forefront the conditions of the senior citizens living in Mumbai and the whole of India per se; and how often they are ignored with the existence of their wish list being a mortal crime.

The Paperboat Maker

A chance request by Sudha’s house help to investigate a prospective groom for her daughter leads to open an array of questions. Simultaneously, when a woman requests trailing her husband who mysteriously disappears every night, Sudha finds herself on the crossroads of examining the same story through two different angles. Is the prospective groom really clear of all blemishes or does he harbors a secret? Is the woman’s husband having a secret affair or is it more than meets the eye?  Will Sudha with her band of trusted loyalists be able to uncover the mystery?

Ambai needs to be commended for portraying the basic human needs as a natural phenomenon, instead of the usual hullabaloo which follows it. Women’s desires are often misconstrued by society and their mistakes are made a mockery of for generations. But Ambai introduces strong female characters in the story which makes the readers feel like nothing is truly amiss. It is also notable how her characters accept their identity and mistakes in life, as naturally as possible, and live with their heads held high. It is a reflection of the fact that honesty is the true revelation of one’s character.

As the Night Darkens

What happens when a couple’s weekend family outing becomes a nightmare for them? Gopal and Archana along with their four children take time off from their busy schedules. However, on the eve of the day they were to return, their three daughters go missing from the beach. While the police are hot on the trails of kidnapping and business rivalry, Sudha Gupta is also asked to come in and parallelly investigate the case by unearthing any useful information from Archana. But what the investigation team uncovers at the end, is a story from the past which has a relevant impact on the occurrences in the present.

Ambai deals with some of the themes which often occur behind closed doors and within a family. The stigma attached to these is so deep that more often than not, no one tries to claim justice. From a husband-fearing wife to a paedophilic, from instability in mental health due to prolonged abuse to victim fearing,  all that Ambai writes of, shake the very foundations of humanity and the world we live in.

Publisher: Juggernaut

Available on: Juggernaut App & Amazon

Rabbit, Duck, and Fox, in Natures lap and locks! : The World of Beatrix Potter!

‘Thank God I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality’ opined Beatrix Potter about her life, knowledge, and career. Her ideals rooted deeply from the world around her made her a multi-faceted writer, illustrator, designer, and environmentalist earning her a substantial name in the fields of mycology and nature conservatism, which in early Britain, was quite unusual for a woman to be known for. On the occasion of her birth anniversary, here.s presenting her residence-turned-museum to all the readers.

NPG P1825; Beatrix Potter (Mrs Heelis) by Charles King
Beatrix Potter Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Lake District, Windermere, United Kingdom

Born 28 July 1866, Potter started out as a writer and illustrator of her books – thirty in total- twenty-three of which were for children. Her characters  ‘Benjamin Bunny‘ and ‘Peter Rabbit’ among others have been made immortal by her illustrations and later through digital series, movies, theatre, ballets, musicals, and others. Her beloved holiday location Lake District became her home in the days to come when she bought Hilltop Farm on Bowness on Windermere with the royalties received from her book.

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A Model of Hill Top Farm

I have had the privilege to visit the Lake District, Windermere while I was studying in Manchester. The beauty and scenic locales of unparalleled beauty, rightly preserved for years by the consciousness of humanity, was an unforgettable sight. In fact, much of its preservation is owed to Beatrix Potter. Nestled between the natural beauty of lakes, waterfalls, winding flowering paths and the hilltop view lies Bowness on Windermere– the former residence of Beatrix Potter, which has now been remodeled into the Beatrix Potter Museum.

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The Entrance to the World of Beatrix Potter, as it stands now

The museum equals being seeped into the pages of her books and living them in front of one’s eyes. Illustrations from her books and especially that of Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny have been replicated down to the last details. From the naughty Peter Rabbit creating havoc in Mr. Mcgregor’s garden and being rebuked at, to Mr. Jeremy Fisher, the slightly accident-prone frog who sets out on an adventure; from the dilemma of Jemima Puddle-Duck to  Mr. Tod, the fox reading a newspaper;  each life-size model reminds the children and elders alike of the magic of Beatrix Potter. In her own words- ‘What heaven can be more real than to retain the spirit-world of childhood?’  indeed the museum acts as a heaven for children.

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Someone loves his carrots…Guess Who? 

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Mr. Tod, keeping himself updated with the latest news 

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Jemima Puddle-Duck on her way to find a suitable place to lay her eggs

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Looks like Mr. Jeremy Fisher already met with an accident…AGAIN! 

But that is not all!  The Museum boasts of the Peter Rabbit Garden designed by Chelsea RHS Gold Medal Winner, Richard Lucas. Modeling on Potter’s belief of conservatism and environmentalism, the garden has been built with purely organic materials and farms local fruits, and vegetables. It doubles up as a kitchen garden and mouth-watering dishes made out these home-grown veggies and plants can be savored in the Café next door. But do be careful, “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’.

 The world-famous Gift shop in the precinct ships Beatrix Potter merchandise to over fifty countries in the world. Potters characters have also been brought to life by stage artists who perform theatricals in the Old Laundry Theatre. The most famous show ‘Where is Peter Rabbit?’  has been running 2- 3 times a day for the viewers. And if you thought that was it, it is not! Children love the world of Potter and what better than celebrating their birthday’s or special parties themed on Potter? Keeping this in mind,  the specially designed Laundrama has been hosting Potterific parties and special occasions for the people.

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No one leaves the Emporium without a new friend….. Neither did I 

The Beatrix Potter Museum serves as a time portal to her world.  It reminds the readers of a distinguished woman with a sharp intellect and irrefutable love for nature. Throughout her life, she has claimed ‘If I have done anything, even a little to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good’. Potter is not only remembered for her lively characters but also for the strength of power that she herself was. Numerous documentaries have been made on her life including a 1982 production by the BBC.

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Glimpses of her works presented digitally on loop 

Her principles in life teach all her readers quite a few lessons, the first being conservatism. Lake District, Windermere is one of the prime tourist destinations in the United Kingdom known for its natural beauty, much of which can be owed to the preservation policies of Potter. In fact, her local farming methods can be credited for the sustenance of various species of flora and fauna which would have been otherwise lost. Too few, in the contemporary world remember the importance of nature, else most usually take it for granted and abuse it. Post her death, her entire property in Lake District has been left in charge of The National Trust who continues to walk in her ideals of preserving nature.

Coming to the literary aspect, her very first book was a self-published work. But her growth in her scope of literature only accounts for the fact how well she matured as a writer and that self-publishing is parallel to publishing. As they say Content is King, so was true decades ago. Potter’s foray into illustrations, merchandise designing, farming has helped her to not only draw inspiration for her books but also made her an entrepreneur with several avenues of income. The ideals presented by Potter were relevant for generations to come and thus, even in the 21st century, children and elders alike marvel at the prowess of her creative imagination and the visual appeal of her words.

Potter’s books are widely available across all online and offline platforms like Amazon and Flipkart. It can also be ordered at your nearest bookstore. Currently, due to the grave crisis the world is in, Bowness on Windermere has canceled all its events. It is due to reopen with all safety precautions on 1 August 2020. Should all be well, a trip to this exotic world is a must!

My visit to Bowness-on-Windermere which was my first time at an author’s house-turned-museum brought questions to my mind about preservation. It is indeed true when we say that an author lives through his/her/their words and works but their residence, a prime source of their inspiration should also be equally protected and preserved. Visiting such museums only deepens the burning question in me – Are we doing enough to preserve what needs to be preserved or have we lost a huge treasure trove of knowledge already due to neglect and ignorance? I leave you with this question and would be happy to hear your comments on it.

Until next time……..

 

 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

‘But this is no ordinary thief. This is a woman who attacked a train full of people. She killed, directly or indirectly, more than a hundred people. Now, the TV channels are reporting, she is silent in prison. She has granted no interviews. She has offered no details, and other than a confession, which she insists she was forced to sign, she has shared no information. She is protesting that she is innocent.’ 

Majumdar’s debut, A Burning, is a reflection of the classic dreams v/s ethics in a world where everyone is in a rat race to prove themselves. When Jivan, a young girl of twenty-two is arrested on the grounds of a simple Facebook text which is construed as a linkage to a popular terrorist group that burnt a train, killing hundreds at the Kolabagan Train Station; the readers get to see the true hypocrisy of the four estates of the State. Following her arrest, it is up to two of her acquaintances to testify and prove her innocence- the enigmatic Hijra, Lovely who dreams of one day ruling the screen with her acting prowess and her PT Teacher who saw the spark of a good athlete in her once. But will each testify proving Jivan innocent given that they have their own HUGE dreams in life?  A Burning not only symbolizes the burning train which indeed creates a trickle effect and starts the series of events but also the burning within the hearts of the lead characters to excel, to be noticed, to be free, to be popular – a burning which is to stay with them forever, even after the flames have dried up.

The simple story weaved around Jivan’s arrest and her fight with the law bares open the very many loopholes in the system. From political dictates shaping the lives of people to dreams consuming a person into self-obsession; to reportage which often manipulates stories to add in the desired bit of masala to it to make it eye-catching are all relatable. It is interesting to note how all the characters represent the outcasts in society. Jivan being a young Muslim school dropout from the lower class finds it difficult to make her truth heard. Her economic handicap proves to be the biggest hindrance in making people aware of her situation. Lovely represents the transgender community and yet strives very hard to excel in her acting classes so that one day she can become a popular actress. Despite having talent, her identity hinders her from achieving her dreams. It is indeed a pure irony that those the society considers being capable of blessing children and couples at ceremonies have to beg to the same society for being considered at par as a human. PT Sir on the other hand is considered as one in the reduced ranks of teachers with only a handful of occasions like Republic Day to prove his abilities while adjusting microphones for school occasions for the rest of the time. His inferiority complex of trying to become more than a partial teaching staff is finally given vent to when he chances upon a political rally and gets absorbed into politics.

A Burning is a story of the evolution of characters, society, dreams, and most importantly, ethics. It is indeed remarkable to see how the characters are built up by Majumdar throughout the novel. Even though the world is considered as a social community or a society, at the end of the day, to each his/ her own prevails. This individualistic nature of mankind is purely circumstantial and one cannot but wonder after all who is to be blamed- the social oppressor or the individual oppressed. Every character has a back story that pushes them forward to behave in the manner that they did throughout the story. Even if one sympathizes with Jivan, one cannot but not support Lovely and PT Sir too. After all, don’t individual aspirations, dreams and success come before any community or social goal?

The hollowness of the four estates- Legislation, Executive, Judiciary, and Media – is beautifully portrayed in the novel. How each of them is intertwined, maneuvered, and manipulated keeping in mind the cause at hand. More often than not for some powerful sections of the society to succeed in their power retention, many unknown faces are made to become political scapegoats. Media on the other hand really does not ease the tension by knocking on the doors of the oppressed and asking several questions- sometimes obnoxious ones. They are often trusted by the victims but many times the truth is shattered behind the tools of editing in accordance with media policies and politics!

This powerful debut talks about the burning away of emotions and ethics more than the burning train. It is a burning of the cowardice of the common people to bask in the deceit of disillusioned glory and power. It is the burning away of one’s morals which are taken over by suppressed hunger for power and fulfilling personal desires. A much-recommended book that serves as a mirror to contemporary society and how it is nothing short of a chessboard where people are but mere pawns in the hands of the four estates.

Publisher: Penguin Random House

No. of Pages: 289

Available at Your Nearest Bookstore and on Amazon & Flipkart

Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Portrait of a Mother- Amma by Perumal Murugan

How often do we take our Ma, Mumma, Mummy, Mom, Aai, Amma, Ammi, and the numerous names that we call her, for granted? It is only during her absence that we recall her true worth. Perumal Murugan’s biographic novel about his mother, Amma, is an homage to motherhood. The story of a vibrant lady whose values are deeply rooted in the rustic, rural traditions, Amma stands as a metaphor of the saying Old is Gold in a constantly evolving world.

Remember Khushwant Singh’s Portrait of a Lady, Amma is today’s Portrait of a Mother. A village simpleton who excels in farming, household chores, natural remedies, and has a solution to every problem. She stands between Murugan and his father who share a strained relationship often butting in between to stop their fights and quarrels. Murugan’s mother is a pillar of strength and defines his relationship with the other family members.

Amma deals with a serious issue which most housewives in the village’s do- alcoholism. With Murugan’s father being addicted to alcohol it leads to a strain on the household finances. Amma takes to working doubly hard to make sure both her sons can continue their education, she can run the house sustainably, and most importantly she can cope up with the ever-growing medical bills of her husband. This leads to regular fights, abuses, cracks in the husband-wife relation but, Amma never lets such negativity come in the way of her family and destroy it. No matter how hard the situation is she fights with a smile and looks for ways to overcome it effortlessly without letting them influence the minds of her young sons adversely. But alcoholism is an addiction which corrodes the body and mind slowly and steadily, till it withers away. It claims Murugan’s father when he is only twenty years old and transforms his mother to join the white sari-clad women of the village.

Widowhood does not come easy to anyone especially those belonging to the generation gone by and from rural life. ‘If they dreamt about a woman clad in a white sari, they thought of her as Goddess Mariamman and rejoiced; but they didn’t approve of a woman in white appearing before them in person’. Such is the irony of being a widowed woman. The hypocritical society would only respect a woman till she is clad in red but the moment her husband dies, numerous traditions and rituals are forced on them. They are often isolated from the daily village norms and made to live a life following social distancing, embracing loneliness and away from the merry-making of the village life.

Through Amma’s eyes, Murugan describes the beauty of the rural community. A community constituting of farmers, the primary unit of food-givers for the Indian society; and yet how neglected they are as a community. The worse living conditions, lack of proper farming facilities and infrastructure, social and caste-based underestimation and bullying, ever-growing prices of food in the market and not to mention the several levied taxes often drive these innocent souls to claim their own lives to escape the burden of living. Yet, when the fields are nourished and nurtured by these very hands and grows beautiful yields many take to penning down their joy and emotions that they feel by looking at them. This is another situation in a polarised world where men find joy in the simple lifestyle and yet turn a blind eye when it comes to its preservation and upliftment in the society.

With time Amma grows older and gets used to living alone. She takes to loving her plants, utensils, house, and regularly works for their upkeep. She is fiercely independent and strong-willed. However, it is a universal truth that old age takes away the ability to perform various tasks and reduces the capability of working as before. But Amma having worked all her life endlessly finds it difficult to not work at all. She cannot and almost refuses to adjust to the newer surroundings where life has been made easier with the introduction of machines. She rejects any aid from anyone including Murugan as it becomes symbolic to her inactiveness and reflects her inability in certain cases. It also makes her overtly emotional with heightened sensitivity remembering her younger days. Elders are emotional and it is the duty of the younger ones to take care of their sensitivity and emotions.

Amma’s life has been that of a bittersweet fruit with its own moments of ups and downs. Her relations have taken different turns with each member of her family and yet she stands as a rock protecting them till all her life. Her ever smiling and ever young spirit needs to be commended by the readers. Murugan pens down about his mother but in doing so he has stirred the emotions of every reader and their relationship with their mother’s. Amma is quite capable of arousing buried emotions and sentiments for one’s mother through the journey of only a few pages. Sometimes, relations should not be taken for granted and Murugan beautifully reminds the readers of the same. Amma has been translated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan and without them, this beautiful story of a wonderful woman would not have reached hundreds of people.

No. of Pages: 191

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on Flipkart / Amazon

Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata

‘But, Bull, is it just because we’re Japanese?’ Twelve-year-old Sumiko is still not aware of the true consequence of her being Japanese when she asks her older brother Bull this question. The happy-go-lucky girl-next-door, Sumiko lives with her grandfather, uncle, and his family and her own little brother. Sumiko’s family is into farming flowers and she finds extreme solace in learning the tips and tricks of flower farming. Not only she helps in the farm post-school but also dreams of owning a flower shop of her own. . . . till the Pearl Harbor incident!

With the news of the bombings, starts coming news of Japanese arrests in America. Those born in America but of Japanese nationality seemed to be fleeing away from the land towards safety. Sumiko’s dreams are crushed under the weight of nationality and war and she is taken out of school, her books are burnt, her family photo with her late parents are burnt too, to remove the trace of her Japanese identity.

The Japanese community starts feeling like caged individuals after losing their identity. The fear of oppression by the Government is always on their minds which leads them to lead frightening sleepless nights. Japanese were being tracked and removed from the social milieu. It isn’t much later that her grandfather and uncle are arrested as well and Sumiko is only left with her elder cousins as the men of the house, to look after her and her little brother. With the man of the house gone, Sumiko could only look towards an unknown future. They started selling off their possessions including their much-loved horse, Baba at peanuts. In due course of time, they are shifted to Poston, a refugee camp in the desert of Arizona.

It is only in the camp where Sumiko’s real struggle starts- a struggle which is most internal than external. With no school and work, boredom starts creeping in her mind. The restlessness of getting news of her beloved grandfather and uncle also makes her uneasy at times. This affects her psyche and she starts reminiscing her life at the farm amongst flowers, family, and friends. Most days she sits daydreaming about a life that is light years away from her. She escapes reality in those moments to live a life elsewhere in peaceful bliss before the shards of reality strike her again.

Amidst all this, the Government provides no aid by further censoring the news. With no one getting the full picture of the war, the anxiety and anticipation grow harder and impatience finds its way, resulting in people taking drastic measures for themselves. News of proper facilities that the Government would be starting in the camps remain as an illusion for the longest time and what was permanent was a claustrophobic space suitable for half-a-person with an overhead shelter where families of four of five live cloistered along with their scaly companions like scorpions, cockroaches, and rats!

But Sumiko is a girl made of hard mettle. Even in dire circumstances as a flower grows, she starts showing off her skills as a gardener and starts helping their neighbor grow a small flower garden of his own. This becomes her world and she enjoys gardening and accumulating things that would help in a better yield in the harshest of the weather conditions. This gives her a purpose to look forward to each day and count the days until she can be living life as a free citizen.

In the wake of all these, Sumiko also makes a special friend- a young American Indian boy. Geographically the refugee camp is placed on (American) Indian Land which signifies the dispute between the American Indians and the unlawful usurpation of their native land by the Government. Boys from the nearby homes often enter the camps to bully the children out of the angst of having lost their lands. Sumiko’s friendship blossoms with one such American boy. Will such a friendship last forever? With Sumiko coming of age, will friendship mature into a permanent relation? It is interesting to see. . . . .

Kadohata tactfully shows the consequences of war and ethnic discrimination through the eyes of a child and takes the readers on a journey of friendship, betrayal, loss, illusionary promises, bullying, and of course mental health. The novel lays bare to the readers the other side of war where the casualty is not often physical but that of mental betrayal.

Also, one needs to talk about the beauty of the one-word name of the book- Weedflower. One of the most neglected and often mistaken flowers of great use is the weed flower, similarly, hundreds like Sumiko- Japanese American – were treated like weed flowers- useful but neglected, respectable but made to survive in the harshest conditions; who despite lack of opportunities or infrastructure keep their respect and beauty. Weedflower truly sums up the conditions of hundreds like Sumiko who bears the wrath of war for no direct fault of their own.

Weedflower plucks a chord in the hearts of its readers and even though it was first published in 2006, it still resonates with many, fourteen years later. I would clearly request you to grab your copy or read it online as an e-book or audiobook, it is surely worth it!

No. of Pages: 260

Publishers: Atheneum, Simon & Schuster

Available on: Amazon / Flipkart / Storytel

Lovelocked? 8 Short Stories of Love by Debeshi Gooptu

Contemporary love is a maze of puzzles.  Life isn’t as simple as the boy-meets-girl – girl-meets-boy scenarios of the past. Today, adjectives before girls and boys have made life complicated or maybe, with the spread of liberalism, made life easy. But all in all, emotions have definitely become more complex. While browsing through the Juggernaut App for some short stories, I stumbled upon this collection of shorts by Debeshi Gooptu. Each of her short stories explores a different angle of love. From college sweethearts to office romance to love post marriage- all themes are dealt with in her stories. In this post I speak about 8 short stories of first love, each highlighting a theme of friendship, infatuation, betrayal, loss, and much more.

magazine seller

The Magazine Seller:  Ever since I didn’t get a job after my graduation’ Ujwal has been selling magazines in the local train. It is there that he spots Ananya, a professor commuting via the Kalyani local to her University every day. Both are drawn towards the other despite their uneven economic backgrounds. Gooptu has beautifully brought in the current economic crisis in the country as a parallel to the love story. Hundreds of qualified youth roam jobless in the streets of Kolkata and other cities or defeated, take to menial jobs to support their families. On the other hand, there are several who choose to serve the people, even though they come from the crème de la crème of the society. Would Ujwal and Ananya’s growing friendship culminate in a relationship?  One has to read The Magazine Seller to know.

Read here

FDFL

First Day First Love: It is love at first sight for Durga when she enters her new office. Deep, a well-known journalist with the news company Durga lands an internship with; as well as her boss becomes the apple of her eyes at first sight. But does all that meets the eye is as is? What happens when the bubble of myth breaks? Does it leads to a new beginning or endures heartbreak? Infatuation is extremely common among teenagers and post-teens. It is such that it blinds a person and reduces their ability to rationalize the situation. However, more often than not, a person cannot be determined, understood, or judged by their appearance.

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NOC

No Ordinary Crush: Sonali has always been very close to Anil Uncle, her father’s friend. What happens when years later she sees him in a different light? Is her attraction baseless or does it find reciprocation too? The author explores two significant themes in this story.  When a close relation suddenly finds a new meaning, individuals like Sonali are at a loss trying to find an explanation to the situation. They find themselves cornered and claustrophobic for the mere reason that they cannot speak to anyone about it for the fear of being judged by others. Furthermore, is love truly bound by the shackles of age? Can an individual not fall in love with an older man or woman and yet live a peaceful and loving life with his/her partner? No Ordinary Crush leaves the readers to ponder about the norm of relations and whether truly they can be broken by lovers.

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letters

The Letters: Shefali, Rajat, and Sanjukta have been childhood friends. While Shefali and Rajat leave for the US to pursue higher studies, Sanjukta stays back. The three of them are in touch for over four years through letters. However, their last letters to each other turn out to be confessions of sorts, where the readers come face to face with each friend having something to reveal about themselves. These revelations do turn their relationship complex, but to what degree is a matter of time. Gooptu touches upon a theme so relevant and yet debatably accepted in society.  Every individual has a right to choose the person they love; and love is not bound by age, caste, sex, religion, and the likes.

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connection

A Strange Connection: Akshay gets smitten by Swati from the moment his eyes fall on her during a late-night metro home. He starts finishing off his work quickly so that he can catch the same metro with her. However, Swati seems a reserved, quiet, shy, and quite a complex person; which is unnatural for a young college-goer who is often so full of life. Would Akshay be able to find out about the mysterious Swati? Would he ever be able to confess his liking towards her? An average college goer’s life is beautifully explored beyond the focal theme of the story. Today’s college students have a hundred things in mind besides studies- examination, results, competitions, achievements, parental pressure, peer pressure, early marriage, relationships, etc. These often form a heavy cloud of thoughts in their mind; which sometimes need immediate sorting out. At times, failure to do so might lead to disastrous consequences.

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piano

Don’t Stand So Close to Me: A college romance where the odd has turned against Anuradha, a middle-aged professor who is deeply drawn towards her student Sachin. Strangely it is music that binds them together and in one such musical soiree both comes face to face with a lot to say to each other. Gooptu raises a very pertinent question in this story about middle-aged single women and their needs. Every individual has a right to love and be loved. But it takes humungous battles with the self, the psyche, and the society to overcome the taboos and stand up for oneself in such situations.

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opposite attract

Opposites Attract: Can love and competition co-exist? Anjali and Rajbir are journalists who started their careers at the same time in the same news company. While Rajbir started developing feelings for Anjali, she started developing feelings for an ambitious career. Would these two opposites ever feel the attraction? Would love win over ambitiousness? Opposites Attract highlights the beauty of modern-day corporates and their ability to magically push an individual into the web of ambition. This transition is so subtle that one fails to realize when he/she distances from the loved ones and enters a world of lies where every action is measured in an equivalent pound of reaction. But do such growths really add value to an individual’s life, or it takes them away from themselves?

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maths

An Imperfect Equation: Abha, a young college-goer gets smitten by her professor from the first day of college. All she can talk about to her friends his him, to the extent that she even thinks that this is how love feels. Would she ever muster the courage to tell her professor? Would her professor acknowledge and reciprocate the same? Developing a crush or an infatuation towards school/ college professors are very common in today’s society. While some relations do mature, some result in heartbreaks and yet others realize their foolishness and move forward. It is interesting to read how Abha’s story progresses.

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Debeshi’s stories need to be seen as beyond love stories to understand the background and the society of the protagonists which hugely influences their actions. If you love short stories, then enjoy some nice love stories this monsoon and I will be back with few more recommendations soon.