Short Story Review: The Door

My dearest friend Delia has contributed to a horror anthology called Descent Into Darkness. Although I swore that I would not read another horror this year — thanks to Stephen King whose IT numbed my brain — Delia’s The Door was determined to break my oath. I am glad it did.

“You know, there is nothing as tempting as a locked door. Or as maddening. A tempting, maddening mystery you’re not allowed to solve. Oh, but we were stupid…”

36372020That’s quite an opening. Delia gets into business without allowing me the time to warm up. That’s how a horror should start and more so if it’s a short story. Every word counts.

The Door reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s stories which I loved. Perhaps because I see his motifs in Delia’s story too. A door. A missing woman. An elusive writer who hasn’t been in the sun for years. (Writers are fickle creatures…) A rookie journalist interviews this male writer whose second book is going to be published. And where does the interview take place? Of course in the house where the door is locked.

For the nameless narrator is a reporter, she slips into the writer’s head effortlessly. She is able to empathise and on the other hand, an inner voice asks her to pay attention to things which don’t fall in place (…the devil is in the details.) I love the narrator’s self-deprecating tone and the confidence of her inner voice too.

Delia’s writing is beautifully unpretentious. I can’t remember anybody breathing fear into me by describing one’s uncanny smile.

He seems relieved and the ghost of a smile flickers around his eyes then disappears. These little smiles make me uncomfortable but I try not to show it.

As the story reaches its crescendo, the sentences wash over me, one after the other, making me realise that it’s been a long while since I was in a great hurry to finish reading a story because I was honestly impatient to know how it was all going to end.

There is tension. There are details. The air is unmistakably eerie. The characters are unreliable. And they all come together organically to prove that Delia knows how to convert a non-horror-lover into a passionate horror-devourer. 🙂

The book has 19 more stories. I am thinking of reading one story a week. And if you love horror or even if you are a convert like me, Delia’s story and the book are waiting for you.

Book Review: His Dark Materials

In the Everyman’s Library’s edition of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman allows me to look at my beloved characters in a rare, personal light. They are not following the author’s instructions in those moments; I find that idea fascinating.

Pullman says:

As for why I call these little pieces “lantern slides”, it’s because I remember the wooden boxes my grandfather used to have, each one packed neatly with painted glass slides showing scenes from Bible stories or fairy tales or ghost stories or comic little plays with absurd-looking figures. From time to time he would get out the heavy old magic lantern and project some of these pictures on to a screen, and we would sit in the darkened room with the smell of hot metal and watch one scene succeeding another, trying to make sense of the narrative and wondering what St Paul was doing in the story of Little Red Riding Hood; because they never came out of the box in quite the right order.

Image from here.

Of all the universes and marvels which Pullman conjures up in His Dark Materials, my heart is after his Lantern Slides. I have fallen in love with them so much that I rushed from one book after the other, only to see how Pullman would marshal my favourite people in his slides after each book. Just some random vignettes, but to me, they are more beautiful than the books.

It’s so surreal to see them that way. I know I am saying that again but only to underscore its beauty, and because it’s unique for an author to let his characters’s guards down. Seeing characters that way is like entering my dear ones’s dreams and to see for myself what makes them smile and what fills them with terror. It is like standing beside my friend while she talks to her goddesses, supplying words to her wishes. It is like quietly watching my dog follow a fly. And it’s like watching a child doze off in her class as the teacher drones. It’s only that none of them are aware of my presence. My invisibility makes them vulnerable, but it makes me more compassionate. The bond that surfaces after seeing them in that naked light is stronger than I can imagine.

Pullman shows my favourite witch Serafina Pekkala in one of his Lantern Slides. And here, I see what a talented writer Pullman is.

Serafina Pekkala on her cloud-pine would find a still field of air at night and listen to the silence. Like the air itself, which was never quite still, the silence was full of little currents and turbulence, of patches of density and pockets of attenuation, all shot through with darts and drifts of whispering that were made of silence themselves. It was as different from the silence of a closed room as fresh spring water is from stale. Later, Serafina realized that she was listening to Dust.

Image from here.

Serafina Pekkala could be a great warrior, her spells could try forcing one’s blood to recede into one’s body, her ability to love is deeper than the ocean, but she is more than all of that when she stays still and listens to silence, and I want to remember Serafina Pekkala that way.

I meet many other characters and their unknown sides as Pullman changes the slides. However, my only complaint is, his box doesn’t have a slide for the bear Iorek Byrnison. If it’s not too late, I want to rename my dog Iorek Byrnison, or I must adopt another one only to turn that name in my mouth all my life. That bear is better than hundreds and hundreds of humans I have met. There! I said that! He is an animal. An animal who knows who he is. And an animal who can create wonders within the limitations of who he is. Oh wait! I wish I could be half as good as Iorek Byrnison.

Of course, Pullman wants me to remember that there is more to the book than meets the eye. I choose to be defiant and eschew the subtext though. Is it unfair to ignore the way that a book is supposed to be read? Is there one way to read a book anyway? As a reader, who prefers visceral rendezvous with books, I draw great pleasure from throwing light on parts which would travel with me forever. Passages like these:

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All this time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”

“Then,” said Tialys, “let’s make a bargain with you. Instead of seeing only the wickedness and cruelty and greed of the ghosts that come down here, from now on you will have the right to ask all the ghosts to tell you the stories of their lives, and they will have to tell the truth about what they’ve seen and touched and heard and loved and known in the world. Every one of these ghosts has a story; every single one that comes down in the future will have true things to tell you about the world. And you’ll have the right to hear them, and they will have to tell you.”

These are what I would remember about His Dark Materials. Not the Subtle Knife, not the Alethiometer, not Pullman’s extraordinary commentary on religion, and not even the auroras. But the quiet reminder that this universe of ours is made of stories. That this very universe is a story. As luminous beings who claim this universe as our own, we owe it to every element of the cosmos to breathe others’s stories and tell ours.

That’s one of the greatest ways to nourish our existence and make this capricious travel less uncertain. That means, I will try to share more Lantern Slides from my journey.

What are your thoughts? I am listening.

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

“Why do we smile? Why do we laugh? Why do we feel alone? Why are we sad and confused? Why do we read poetry? Why do we cry when we see a painting? Why is there a riot in the heart when we love? Why do we feel shame? What is that thing in the pit of your stomach called desire?”

— Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

12000020The secrets of the universe present themselves in their own time. They don’t pander to our hurry which perhaps doesn’t exist. So we wait. While we wait, we can learn to smile.

The secrets of the universe may appear ridiculous when they unveil themselves. They are not what we think. Most times, they are beyond our imagination. We should not be mad at them for being different. We can only laugh at our expectations.

The secrets of the universe don’t have to strip themselves to make us believe that we are a part of this sublime universe. When we are the secrets and the universe in some way, we don’t have to feel alone and sad and confused and ashamed. We are not our doubts. We are not our fears. We are our hope. We are needed and loved by this universe.

Maybe, the secrets of the universe should never be divulged because we can continue to look for them in poetry and paintings and stories and music and… people. Let the secrets make us cry. Let them create riots in our hearts. Let them light the lamps of kind desires to illuminate our dark corridors. Let them be elusive. Let them be obstinate. Let them come. Let them go. Let our quest never end. Let us never cease to believe, create, and accept.

The secrets of the universe are meant to be our beacons.

Book Review: Ikigai

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honourable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

— Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

35610900How do I understand how I stumbled upon three books on discovering life’s meaning when I am between jobs?

I read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive a couple of months ago, and I finished HĂ©ctor GarcĂ­a and Francesc Miralles’ Ikigai this evening. They all are unlike many inspirational speakers, who hire ghost writers, and whose books fill our heads with insecurity and inadequacy. The authors of all the three books take me on a road that is free of traffic and pollution. The road is bordered by enormous trees and when I walk slowly with the authors, I can hear the birds’s songs. They chirp, “Discover your life’s meaning in your own time. It’s okay. There is no hurry.”

Ikigai is my reason for being. What do I want to do with this wild, wild thing called life? Mary Oliver asked that question, didn’t she? But Ikigai is not about the question that recruiters pose — Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Oh! How I wish I could make them understand the beauty and agony of impermanence, how I wish I could laugh at the naivety of that question, how I wish I could tell them that I see myself loving my family more, reading more books, making more Zen-doodles, writing more, lifting more weights, bicycling more, discovering more hobbies, helping more animals, meditating more, relating more stories, eating well, sleeping for 7.5 hours, drinking three litres of water a day, eating more fruits, watching stars and sunsets and moonbeams, meeting more strangers, listening more to friends, smiling more, hugging more, moving more, collecting more feathers, observing more synchronicities, writing letters, being more vulnerable, being more antifragile, boarding more planes and buses and trains, taking more deep breaths…

Oh! How I wish this list could never end!

How I wish I could tell them that that is my Ikigai!

The book Ikigai asks me to take life one day at a time and to invest time and love in what illuminates my soul. There are urgent things like money and financial security; the urgent things will be heard if the important things are addressed. It might sound like a reductionist’s idea, it might sound absurd to take one step at a time, but time is relative, isn’t it?

Life will slow down and reach me like waves, one after the other, when I slow down, when I pause, when I listen. That is my Ikigai. That is enough.

One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

— Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl



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!)

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.


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?