Book Review: Perfect Eight

8525469I stumbled upon Reema Moudgil’s Facebook page Unboxed Writers a couple of years ago, and wrote to her like a shy squirrel, asking if she would like to feature one of my blogs in her website. She readily agreed, and since then, like a friend who secretly sends her artworks to media houses to have those published, she visits my blogs on her own, and publishes my stories in her website. Believe me. Such people exist!

Unboxed Writers is a central repository of inspiring, moving stories. (My stories are there too. Ideally, I shouldn’t be bragging much all right.) 🙂 But I love their stories.

A long time after I discovered the page, I learned that Reema Moudgil had written a book called Perfect Eight. I don’t remember when I bought it, but it was languishing in my little library for a while. Why I did not go to the book for so long is a mystery that I would never resolve.

I felt livid when I started reading Reema Moudgil’s Perfect Eight. I was smothered by the unfairness of the world. A beautiful, poetic book like Perfect Eight just has 17 ratings on Goodreads, when books which don’t really talk to our hearts garner soaring attention. But that’s how life works, doesn’t it? It’s not always just.

What can a reader like me do to honour the deserving books? Write about it.

Perfect Eight has a life of its own. The protagonist — whose name I choose not to reveal — stayed with me for a couple of days, relating her life. Sometimes, her presence felt ghostly, sometimes friendly, sometimes depressing, and sometimes she exuded hope and peace. I adored her company.

When she finished narrating her story, my hands pierced through the air, and searched for her. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her that she is loved and cherished. I wanted to tell her that she fought, and that her spirit is invincible.

She had no more words to offer, but I still feel her presence deep inside my soul.

Her mother bears the brunt of the Indo-Pak Partition. She is uprooted from Lahore, thrown into India, where she travels from one place to another, not feeling the sense of belonging anywhere. Her father — an inspiring idealist, a true worshipper of life, a smile-dealer, an eternal optimist — tries to keep their family happy despite all the adversities.

And their only daughter sees beyond what is apparent. She understands the displacement that has wounded her mother. She revels in the unconditional love of her father, and his songs and poetry and wit.

But she is lovelorn in her own ways. Samir. The annoying-yet-lovable Samir handles her heart with reckless abandon. She is vulnerable, and that makes her more beautiful. I won’t ask her to be any other way.

The atmosphere is thick. Indo-Pak Partition. 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. Demolition of the Babri Masjid. Maybe, it has to be thick, and laden with conflicts, for it is a true reflection of the battles which take place in her.

She bleeds all her life; she recovers like all of us.

Perfect Eight poses important questions on home, love, war, violence, passion, trust, fear… It allows me to meditate, as I travel along with the protagonist, from Patiala to Delhi to Bangalore to Ambrosa, from darkness to hope to light to death to rebirth, forming a perfect eight in life. Just when I begin to think that I need answers, it offers. I want to keep them safe. I would certainly go back to them.

Sometimes, I sat alone on my terrace to watch kites of the deepest pinks, blues and greens and pet pigeons being guided back home with flailing arms, strange, guttural, human-pigeon noises. I wished I could fly too. Somewhere. With someone. To someone.

‘This island is a miracle. It moves from one place to another but no one can see it moving,’ Inder uncle told me. I looked at the island and it looked at me. It was my mirror image. I knew then that, one day, I would move away to a place no one ever expected me to reach. The thought made everything else easier to bear.

The home town, I realise, is a memory of smells that trigger off unbearable nostalgia and unbearable joy, a place too small in retrospect but also the incubator of dreams, a womb of safety, a well-thumbed album of mohallas, familiar faces that smile at you, little lanes you will never be lost in, small shops with fading signboards and beloved bazaars fraying at the edges.

You cannot escape from life. It won’t let you escape. It will find you. And when it does you can either stay or you can run a few more miles till it finds you again. Choose. You tried to hide. To run. Always. What do you fear so much? When you learn to trust, you will learn to live.

Reema Moudgil has given us a heroine, who is incredibly alive. She is so alive that she often worries that she is not living enough, that she is not trusting enough, that she is not loving enough.

Now I must tell her that she is perfect.

She is as perfect as the eight that the silver road at Ambrosa makes. Walking along the eight might bring her back to where she started, but each new round would make her wiser, stronger, braver. So it doesn’t matter if she is taking the same path again. When she embraces her losses and pain, when she sheds her apprehensions, when she takes each step with the belief that she is a new person at every dawn, then every round on the same path is new, and full of possibilities.

Like those occasional marbles on a gravel path.

(FAO bloggers who love diverse reads: This book is written for you!)

Blog: The Collar Conundrum

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Bajji (Image from here)

The vet tries to breathe fear into me; he uses phrases which a small-brained bear like me struggle to understand. He says, “Ear haematoma.” The little voice in my head says that he is talking about the swelling in Anu Boo’s ears.

Father has given a name to the inflammation too. Bajji. That’s my father for you. His levity is endearing and infamous.

“It’s not fatal,” the vet breaks my reverie. Of course, it’s not. The lump has to be broken, the incision has to be sutured, and Anu Boo has to wear an Elizabethan Collar until the wound heals. I know the drill because I put Calvin through the same irksome procedure. “But wait! Maybe, we can give Anu Boo some more time since she is a mongrel. Let me give her a couple of shots and put her on some pills and syrup and ear drops. Maybe, she will recover without surgical intervention because mongrels can fight.” The vet is unlike other doctors who are fond of scalpels. I like him.

Queen Elizabeth I (1538-1603) in Old Age, c_1610 (oil on panel), English School, (17th century) Corsham Court, Wiltshire
Queen Elizabeth I (Image from here)

Anu Boo and I return home after an eventful auto ride when boys laughed at Anu Boo and women squealed. Anu Boo runs into the house, her collar collides with the door, and she feels disoriented. She will take a while to understand that her space is expanded now. Mother sighs. She knows the drill too. The Elizabethan Collar is going to make everything difficult for Anu Boo. Imagine carrying a cone around your head for 10 days. AK wonders how Queen Elizabeth wore it. That man can really make me laugh.

Mother and I masticate a couple of bland dosai while Anu Boo sits at our heels and drools. She loves everything that she shouldn’t eat. Mother pushes another piece of dosai into her mouth when the question strikes her. “She looks like a speaker, doesn’t she?” Mother is usually sombre; it’s unlike her to crack a joke. I want to hug that moment. “You mean a bullhorn, ma?” She is not sure what that is, but she is certain that Anu Boo reminds her of a speaker. “But ma, she looks like a table lamp. That’s how dogs look when they wear E-collars.” She shakes her head, not convinced.

 

Anu Boo looks at me and then at Mother. She doesn’t want us to debate but just drop a piece of dosai down for her. Mother, with her gaze fixed on Anu Boo, starts laughing.

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Anu Boo

Her laughter is a precious sound from my childhood. The kind of laughter that rises from her stomach, collects the contents of her heart, escapes her mouth, and fills the November air. The kind of laughter that didn’t ring for several years.

When that laughter falls on the dining table and splashes on our faces, it gives Mother a respite from Clinical Depression and Arthritis and Diabetes, it tends to my painful memories, removes anxieties about my future, and it bridges the gulf between us. The laughter then becomes a smile, an empty yet content silence envelops us. We heave a sigh of relief. Like dogs.

Where there was her laughter, there are tears now. Shy, happy tears.

The collar conundrum, quite like ‘the dress’ quandary, is hard to solve.

For once, I love an unresolved dispute.

(I intended to publish this post in my other blog The Zennish Panda, where I capture non-bookish thoughts. But I thought of using this post as a bait prelude to introduce that blog. I write teeny-weeny posts there and be my best melodramatic self. 😉 If you are okay about that, we shall meet there too. Thank you!)

Book Review: If A Horse Had Words

9781101918722If my canine friend Anu Boo had words, she would say… treat, squirrels, biscuits, crows, buttermilk, dosai, idli… 🙂 Our Red Badger — a young horse — in If A Horse Had Words might say peppermint, boy, seasons, and a bit more difficult ones like crocus, willow

If A Horse Had Words is heavily reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web. That’s saying something. Although this book is thin, its soul is as tender as EB White’s book.

The story is not new. A foal is born. She befriends a boy, the boy’s father sells the little horse, and they finally reunite.

No. I didn’t spoil it for you. The real beauty lies in the simplicity and the warmth of Kelly Cooper’s words and Lucy Eldridge’s watercolour illustrations.

Capture

If A Horse Had Words inspires me to go back to watercolour which I haven’t remembered for years. It also motivates me to kidnap children only to read this book to them. 🙂

Reading a book like If A Horse Had Words is like meditating. Time seems to shrug off the haste when I pay attention to these subtle words and subtler colours; my mind, which usually travels in the speed of several light years, stops, curls up like a kitten, and looks at me with benevolent eyes. Maybe, this is why I am incurably in love with children’s literature.

Book Details:
Published by Tundra Books
48 Pages
ISBN 9781101918722
Borrowed from Netgalley

A favourite passage from Charlotte’s Web:

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell—as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.

Tiny Thoughts On Three Books I Read This Week

I read three delightful books this week: Becky Albertalli’s The Upside of Unrequited, Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin, and Abby Fabiaschi’s I Liked My Life.

The Upside of Unrequited: Diversity Galore

I approached The Upside of Unrequited with some expectations because I enjoyed Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. (I devour YA, Middle Grade, Picture Books, and Children’s Literature. In a conversation with Whispering Gums, it occurred to me that maybe I am making up for all the time I missed as I started reading only from 2015.) I digress. Sorry.

Molly has had 26 crushes. While her twin Cassie is all that Molly can’t be, Molly wonders what does ‘falling in love’ mean, how does one feel while kissing, and worries about other cute ‘existential’ questions. 🙂 Their parents are moms, their brother is 16 years younger than them, Cassie’s girlfriend is pansexual, and there are other endearing things in the set up. Molly is also dragged down by the perception that she is fat. If not for the generous diversity in the book, it could have been our regular, saccharine YA. But diversity is all that matters in The Upside of Unrequited. Becky Albertalli explores body-image issues, homophobia, racism, the usual teenage angst, and offers a story that is meaningful and adorable. (Bina, this book is for you!)

…when you spend so much time just intensely wanting something, and then you actually get the things? It’s magic.

Goodbye, Vitamin: Oh-so-full of Hearts

I LOVE THIS BOOK. Imagine that I went to the rooftop and said that. I LOVE THIS BOOK.

I tried hard to not become a stalker, because I am ridiculously in love with Rachel Khong’s writing. I wanted to read everything that the woman has ever written.

As I write this I think about what I am often told, that it’s easy to trash what I loathe, but it’s sometimes hard to find the right words to argue why I love something. Goodbye, Vitamin belongs to the second category.

Ruth is home after so many years, to care for her father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. No. Please don’t stop reading. It’s not about how the family copes with the loss as Ruth’s father loses his memories. No. It’s about how they confront their demons, learn to love each other unconditionally, AND make memories. Yes. That’s the thing. It’s not about letting go of precious memories, but about making more and keeping the love-tank full without agonising about what’s lost. I love that idea. It’s comforting to slip into nostalgia, but it’s done at the rate of neglecting the present. So why can’t we channelise our precious energy into making this moment memorable! Rachel Khong brings that thought home without being preachy.

Our heroine’s voice is a melange of child-like curiosity, warmth, kindness, vulnerability, and love. I adore every character that Rachel Khong has produced. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that such people exist. But I choose to suspend my disbelief.

What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person — what we felt about that person.

It didn’t matter what you remembered or didn’t, and the remembering — it occurred to me — was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the day was nice — was what it was.

I Liked My Life: I Liked The Ghost

I loved all the ghosts in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. After that, I love Maddy — the ghost who was a reader, who volunteered at a library, who quoted lines from her favourite books to express her feelings, who was a badass. Let me leave her that way. But she is dead. We don’t know why she killed herself when everything in her life was perfect. Her husband Brady and her teenage daughter Eve lash themselves for not knowing that their most important person was depressed. What I loved the most about the book was that Maddy was influencing their lives, scheming fruitful events from the great beyond, to clean up after herself and to enable them to let her go.

I particularly enjoyed how she communicated with them. Lyrics, planting random thoughts in their heads, sending warm vibes which her family can actually feel… (Claire, I thought of you when I read those parts. Maybe, you would like this book.) I am that sort of person. I seek solace in the belief that I receive messages and signs through unexpected sources. Hence, I enjoyed those parts in the book.

I Liked My Life is hilarious and profound. It reminds us to not take anything for granted. It wants us to make a genuine effort to choose presents for our dear ones, be there when they need us, pay attention, practise mindfulness. The takeaway could be threadbare, but that sort of reinforcement will always be necessary.

Loving a person doesn’t make them who you desire; it makes you vulnerable to their reality.

We don’t come into this world all-knowing. That’s what life is for.

When the world gives you a hard time, pick up a book and join another.

What do you think of these books? Which one would you like to read?

Book Review — Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

22813605(Maybe, this is not really a review.)

Is it fair to board Roxane Gay’s vehicle? To scream…

I see you. I have been there. Me too.

Is it fair to air stories about my battle when Gay’s memoir is utterly raw and intimate? I don’t know. But Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body has exhumed some painful memories and writing about those here will be a comforting exercise in catharsis.

I was a few hours old when my aunt saw a nurse carrying me to another room. My aunt didn’t know it was her niece. Her jaw dropped; she asked my grandmother, “Whose child is this? So huge! Already looks like it’s 10-months-old!” The remark terrorised my grandmother. She said, “Shhh! That’s Ramesh’s child. She was born a couple of hours ago.” My mother always relates this conversation with pride because she pushed out that HUGE baby.

The word lives with me. HUGE.

My BMI has always been marginally alarming; I have been obese all my life. The biggest in my classroom, in my workplace, in my family, and even in elevators. Roxane Gay has given a fitting phrase to articulate my feelings — my body felt like a cage.

Someone whom I dearly love told her friend that I wasn’t going out often because I was fat. A cousin asked if my friends are scared of me in school because I am gigantic. My school teachers wanted me to try hard and win medals at shot put. In their minds, fat girls can lift heavy objects and hurl them effortlessly. Oh! And the elevators beeped, all heads turned toward me. Fine. I’ll walk out.

I was in Class 7 when my teacher took me to the staff room and whispered in my ears that I must start wearing a dupatta (shawl) over my school uniform to cover my large bosom. According to the rules, girls should wear shawls only from Class 8. I had one more year to enjoy that freedom. However, my teachers couldn’t handle the image of my chest. So she said, “Ask your parents to buy a dupatta for you okay?” I cringed, I collapsed into myself, but I decided not to tell my parents. I chose not to become different from my other classmates. I couldn’t envisage me being the only girl in the class to wear a dupatta. That would have been a shame. If I succumbed to fatshaming, it meant that I acknowledged that my bosom was a problem. I said yes to the teacher, but no to myself. I wore a dupatta only after I was promoted to Class 8.

My family was in a reunion. The oldest aunt in the family pulled my mother, directed her index finger at me, with a scowl on her face. I knew what was coming. I was livid and rebellious. “Why would you bring her like this? First cover her chest with a dupatta!” the aunt was almost yelling at my mother. I stood there, listening to the conversation. My mother uttered a feeble okay and I shot an angry glance at my aunt. That was all I could do then. But I continued to attend social gatherings without wearing a dupatta. I made my statement that way.

I walk to the men’s section to buy shirts; the salesgirls smirk. I ask for the next size and they stifle a giggle. At markets, strangers pass lewd remarks. Random women ask me in restrooms, “Where do you buy your plus-size clothes?” I wonder why they think it’s not a crime to ask personal questions to a total stranger.

Despite being rebellious, I felt like a victim. I bought clothes online to avoid human interaction and the ridicule. I chose oversized black clothes. I boycotted gyms because the trainers who had to be patient and empathetic were condescending. I was often mistaken for a man. (I still walk behind my boyfriend, use him as a fort since security guards rush to run their hands on me, presuming I am a man.) I intensely experienced the need to lose weight, become fit, look feminine. I still do. But since last year, the need seems less depressing and more motivating. I work out, try to watch what I eat, move often, because it feels good and I owe it to the people who love me.

Everyone was so worried about me when I broke my ankle and it confused me. I have a huge, loving family and a solid circle of friends, but these things were something of an abstraction, something to take for granted, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t… There were lots of concerned texts and e-mails, and I had to face something I’ve long pretended wasn’t true, for reasons I don’t fully understand. If I died, I would leave people behind who would struggle with my loss. I finally recognized that I matter to the people in my life and that I have a responsibility to matter to myself and take care of myself so they don’t have to lose me before my time, so I can have more time. When I broke my ankle, love was no longer an abstraction. It became this real, frustrating, messy, necessary thing, and I had a lot of it in my life. It was an overwhelming thing to realize. I am still trying to make sense of it all even though it has always been there.

I never had the right words to pin down my thoughts and then Roxane Gay’s book happened. It’s loud and sincere and burning. I am glad I read the book because I now have the vocabulary to embrace my journey. And I think we all must read the book because our bodies deserve the sort of respect that Gay advocates. This pale blue dot is everybody’s.

(I loved Big Reading Life’s blog on the book too. The link is here.)

Have you read the book? Have you read books like Gay’s memoir? What are your thoughts?

Blog: Hi, I Am Now An E-Book Monster!

kindle-bound-summers

“Check your Kindle!” says AK. I know such moments. The moments which fill me with surprise and love and kindness. My Kindle receives a new book, one that is not even in my radar. I absorb the cover’s beauty, read the praises, check the total number of hours I would spend with the book, and enter it. As simply as that. No ceremony.

I am content. When my boyfriend can buy and send books to my Kindle just to bring light to my gloomy day, the word ‘content’ is underwhelming. I am happy.

Some things don’t bother me anymore: The jacket is colourless, the comforting scent of the book doesn’t brush my nose, I don’t feel the book’s weight in my hands, I can’t prove that I am a monster by brandishing my dog-eared paperback, I haven’t bought a bookshelf in the last two years, and Anu Boo doesn’t miss barking at Amazon’s delivery guys. And, I don’t participate in the legendary debate — Ebooks vs Print Books.

Because I am a Kindle convert.

There, I have come out.

What possessed me? The reasons are many: The Charlottes in my room have to be shooed away once in two weeks, my bank account now houses the said Charlottes, and Anu Boo and I have to vacate our room if it has to accomodate another bookshelf. So, I surrendered to the compassionate Kindle.

Although I have almost stopped buying physical copies, I can’t answer some questions. What if my friends want to borrow my books? Am I not supposed to collect books and build a library for my children? How could I become a rebel when all my friends are married to physical books? The answers are sent away with the Charlottes. But Michael Crichton was right when he wrote this in Jurassic Park.

Life will find a way.

The family retires for the day and my Anu Boo curls up at my feet. The room is dark. I lie down on my side, thanking the Gods for the comfortable mattress, and facing the Kindle that is propped against the wall. I blink. The room goes behind a veil. I blink. The Kindle disappears. I blink. I am in Berlin. I blink again when slumber clouds my vision. I slip into the oblivion with contentment Happiness that puts its arm around me like a dear one. Peace.

PS: Kindle turns 10 today.

PPS: I have read 121 books this year; 70% of it were read on the Kindle.

funny-picture-books-vs-kindle

Book Review: Maidless in Mumbai

Behind every successful woman, there is a maid.

Mother did everything. Washing, cleaning, cooking, helping us with our homework, walking us to the school… Everything. When her strength and joie de vivre were stolen by Clinical Depression and Diabetes, when we all joined work, we had to hire a domestic help. Mother’s mood reflected the helper’s. If she performed well, Mother would be happy. If she didn’t turn up for work or if her work was sub-standard, Mother would hold it against the family. Sometimes — I know it’s absolutely irrational and absurd to consider this insecurity — I thought that Mother loved the domestic maid more than she loved us, only because the weight of the workload was so massive that she couldn’t envisage a life without somebody to help her. We could empathise. However, we were guilty for not cleaning up after ourselves.

Anu’s problem in Payal Kapadia’s Maidless in Mumbai is real. She is a political journalist on the verge of exposing an earth-shattering scandal. She is also a young mother who is made to extend her maternity leave months after months because her maids never stay. Her mother and mother-in-law fill her with advice, instead of actually helping her, and her husband Sameer is so mired in work that Anu is on a Sisyphean hunt for maids.

Did I claw my way up the career ladder only to fall off the maternal footstool?

Will Anu go back to work? Will Sameer see Anu’s struggles? Will the mothers get down to work? Payal Kapadia shares Anu’s diary to offer answers to these questions.

36012955Anu’s voice is sometimes light, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes determined, sometimes annoying, particularly when she tastes no success in retaining her employees. Kapadia’s writing is hilarious and marginally cringe-worthy or offensive at times. For instance, her Anu’s friends seem stereotypical. So is her neighbour from Singapore. I would have liked the book more without their mindlessness. Their conversations were not exactly funny. Perhaps humour comes with that price.

Beneath the humour, Payal Kapadia explores some burning themes — motherhood, relationships, gender-equality, work-ethics, parenting, and friendship. There is even a lovely touch on the importance of ‘letting go’. Maidless in Mumbai could have assumed a serious tone, but the book doesn’t want to go that further. While that choice is obvious, it doesn’t make the work any less significant or entertaining.

Somewhere while reading Anu’s diary entries, I kept asking myself, “How did Amma go to work, manage chores, run the family? All in a day’s work. How? And why is it not possible for Anu?” But the answer seems elusive on so many levels. If I try harder to answer, I can come up with an easy, “Oh! The times have changed.” Or a truer one like, “Maybe, we aren’t really trying.” I don’t know.

But who am I to pass such verdicts when I complain about my four-legged furry-friend Anu Boo’s defiant refusal to take a quick dump! 🙂