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 Héctor García 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.

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?

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! 🙂