June 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in the month of June.

~The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey – A memoir of a year spent with a woodland snail. The author suffers from a debilitating illness due to a viral pathogenic infection two decades ago. A visiting friend picks up flowers from the forest outside her house, unwittingly bringing along a hitchhiker of a snail which provides companionship and many life lessons on the way. Well written and researched, with ample literature about snails, conversations with malacological experts, and a wonderful glimpse into a curious world. 5/5

~Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson – The merging of neuroscience with contemplative practices and ancient meditative techniques that seek to explain the rewiring of the brain towards peace, well-being, wisdom and happiness. Change your brain to change your life. Informative with practical applicability, the writing style feels a tad drab. 3.5/5

~How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones – A coming-of-age memoir of living as a homosexual, Black man, practising Buddhism in a Catholic family. Beautifully blending poetry with prose, Jones’ haunting narrative captivates throughout – a powerful voice in today’s literary scene. 4/5

~The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa – An English translation of a Japanese book about a housekeeper with a ten-year old son, hired to care for a brilliant Math professor with a memory lasting only eighty minutes. A mesmerising story about the love for and beauty of numbers, living in the present, and the equations that form relationships – in Math and beyond. 5/5

~It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini – A teenager on the way to kill himself, makes a desperate call to a suicide helpline and gets himself checked into a resident program at a psychiatric hospital. His interactions and experiences with his fellow residents help him to confront the sources of his own anxiety. A book about depression, self-harm, OCD, schizophrenia, narrated through a fifteen-year old. A tough topic tackled with light humor addressing dark issues. 3.5/5

~Downward Facing Death by Neal Pollack – An ex-cop turned yoga teacher cum private investigator is hired by the FBI to investigate the death of a prominent Hollywood yoga guru. The narrative is simplistic and might not appeal to all, but the numerous yoga analogies make this a fun read for yoga practitioners. A hilarious and insightful outlook into the commercialization of yoga culture. 3.5/5

~The Guest List by Lucy Foley – A wedding party hosted on a secluded island, where neither the victim nor murderer are revealed till the end, making this a dual guessing game for the reader. An entertaining story that keeps you hooked till the end. I liked the shifting perspectives – almost feels like you’re on the guest list yourself, obtaining a first person account of the events leading up to the moment of the wedding, while reminiscing about the past and raising the question of how well do we know the people we know.  4/5

~You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann – An English translation of a German book, featuring a screen writer working on the sequel to his hit movie in a newly rented house in a secluded location. That the house has a life of its own becomes obvious on the first night itself. Rooms rotate, swivel, appear and disappear; windows reflect things and not people, basic Maths doesn’t apply to the measurements of the house’s dimensions, you exit a room only to enter the same room you left. The first person narrative  of the book flows parallel to the script being written, heightening the eerie atmosphere – are the narrator’s thoughts part of his fictional story, hallucinations, or observations of what’s happening? Gripping and haunting, closely blending the lines of psychological horror and ghostly horror. 4.5/5

~The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday by Saad Hossain – Djinns and drones come together in this cauldron of fantasy fiction and science fiction. A djinn king awakens after millennia of slumber, finding an ally in a Gurkha, to take over a new kingdom to rule. Only it’s a post-apocalyptic world, run by an AI called Karma. A roller coaster of a read – hilarious, entertaining, thoughtful and literary, combining legends with speculations, a juxtaposition of the past with the future. Not a book to be missed. 5/5

June2020

International Mallakhamb Day – Building Connections Through Sport

Today is International Mallakhamb Day. Originating from the Indian subcontinent, the traditional sport involves a gymnast performing aerial postures on a stationary or hanging vertical pole or rope. The pole used in the sport is also referred to as “mallakhamb“. It is made from Indian rosewood, polished with castor oil. Mallakhamb is derived from two words – malla meaning wrestler, and khamb meaning pole. Literally translating to “wrestling pole”, it is a reference to a traditional training implement used by wrestlers.

In 1936, a troupe of thirty-five acrobats from a small town in Central India traveled to the Berlin Olympic Games to demonstrate this ancient sport at a formal gala convened by the International Olympic Committee, with athletics officials and media from around the world. The team’s intricate feats of contortion, strength, and gymnastics atop a narrow, 8½-foot pole led the Führer to bestow each acrobat with an honorary Olympic medal before the group returned to India.

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Stationary pole performance

Mallakhamb finds a mention as early as 1135 AD in the Sanskrit classic Manasollasa written by Someshvara III. Rajput paintings dating back to 1610 AD show athletes performing acrobatics on poles. As a fantastical merging of history and myth, Hanuman is said to have appeared to the famed physical trainer of the Marathi kingdom’s royal prime minister, Balambhatta Dada Deodhar, in the late 18th century, after he was challenged to a wrestling match. The trainer watches Hanuman climb a tree and learns to mimic the monkey-God’s strength and agility. In the early 1900s, Rani Laxmibai learned mallakhamb with Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope. The Mallakhamb Federation of India developed mallakhamb as a competitive sport in January 1981, and the first national championships were held on the 28th and 29th of that month. Prior to this, mallakhamb made its appearance at gymnastic championships in India. On 9th April, 2013 the state of Madhya Pradesh in India declared mallakhamb as the state sport, and many other states followed suit.

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The hanging pole

Currently, three versions of the sport exist:

~Pole – a vertical pole made from teak wood or rose wood is fixed into the ground and smeared with castor oil, on which participants perform various acrobatics and calisthenics.

~Hanging – the wooden pole is shorter and suspended with hooks or chains.

~Rope – a suspended cotton rope on which the participant performs, ensuring the rope does not knot in any way.

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Samarth Vyayam Mandir – the home of mallakhamb

The heart of mallakhamb is at Shivaji Park in Mumbai, where the legendary Uday Deshpande has been practising and promoting the sport at Samarth Vyayam Mandir for over forty years. In addition to the state of Maharashtra, Mallakhamb features prominently in Gujarat, Kerala, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Deshpande has taken the art to the UK, Czech Republic, Italy and the USA, and has found the greatest acceptance in Germany. Several exchange programmes have also contributed in spreading this sport widely, from aerialists and acrobats around the world coming together to share knowledge, to those who knew zilch about the sport gearing up for lessons and starting from scratch. The first ever Mallakhamb International Championship was held in Mumbai last year, featuring participants from fifteen countries, who were assessed on speed, grace and difficulty.

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A mallakhamb act in India’s Got Talent Season 7
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Uday Deshpande with the mallakhamb rule book
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The teacher with young practitioners
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Uday Deshpande with an international aerialist

The link below is from an international conference held virtually today, on the occasion of the 4th International Mallakhamb Day celebrations.

 

References:

~www.sportssavour.com

~www.hinduismnow.org

~www.homegrown.co.in

~www.roadsandkingdoms.com

~www.udaymallakhamb.blogspot.com

Weekend Humor with the Wilderness

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit”, wrote Edward Abbey. Seeing how nature has been thriving since humans have been confined in a lockdown, maybe the wilderness could do without us. In these isolated times with restricted movements to the outdoors, here’s a lighthearted post for the weekend.

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Snakes by A.K. Ramanujan

A.K. Ramanujan was a poet, translator, folklorist and philologist from Mysore, India. He wrote in both English and Kannada, his poetry known for its themes of modernist transnationalism, hybridity and transculturation. His writings contributed to a wide range of disciplines including linguistics and cultural studies. He earned his PhD from Indiana University and taught at the University of Chicago, where he developed the South Asian studies program.

Here’s one of his poems titled “Snakes”, which appeared in the July 1961 edition of Poetry magazine – a monthly devoted to verse in the English language.

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“No, it does not happen

when I walk through the woods.

But, walking in museums of quartz

or the aisles of bookstacks,

looking a their geometry

without curves

and the layers of transparency

that make them opaque,

dwelling on the yellower vein

in the yellow amber

or touching a book that has gold

on its spine,

I think of snakes.

 

The twirls of their hisses

rise like the tiny dust-cones on slow-noon roads

winding through the farmers’ feet.

Black lorgnettes are etched on their hoods,

ridiculous, alien, like some terrible aunt,

a crest among tiles and scales

that moult with the darkening half of every moon.

 

A basketful of ritual cobras

comes into the tame little house,

their brown-wheat glisten winged with ripples.

They lick the room with their bodies, curves

uncurling, writing a sibilant alphabet of panic

on my floor. Mother gives them milk

in saucers. She watches them suck

and bare the black-line design

etched on the brass of the saucer.

The snakeman wreathes their writhing

round his neck

for father’s smiling

money. But I scream.

 

Sister ties her braids

with a knot of tassel.

But the weave of her knee-long braid has scales,

their gleaming held by a score of clean new pins.

I look till I see her hair again.

 

My night full of ghosts from a sadness

in a play, my left foot listens to my right footfall,

a clockwork clicking in the silence

within my walking.

The clickshod heel suddenly strikes

and slushes on a snake: I see him turn,

the green white of his belly

measured by bluish nodes, a water-bleached lotus-stalk

plucked by a landsman hand. Yet panic rushes

my body to my feet, my spasms wring

and drain his fear and mine. I leave him sealed,

a flat-head whiteness on a stain.

Now

frogs can hop upon this sausage rope,

flies in the sun will mob the look in his eyes,

and I can walk through the woods.”

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Baking Diaries – Black Currant-Honey Sponge Cake

The pandemic has led us to inure in ways we might not have considered earlier. It was mum’s birthday on Monday. With the lockdown easing out around the world, people are still maintaining caution – venturing out only if absolutely required. Using the limited resources at our disposal, here’s what I made for her. A mishmash of available ingredients to create a Black Currant and Honey Sponge Cake, sprinkled with dark chocolate.

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I used a cup of whole wheat flour, two eggs, a quarter cup of olive oil (we’re out of butter), a quarter cup of honey (in place of sugar), 2 tablespoons of chopped black currants, baking soda, and a little milk to get the right consistency for the batter. The baking tray was “lined” with oil. Once done, honey was poured over the upturned cake, immediately grating a slab of dark chocolate over it (so that the chocolate melts and sticks to the surface before the honey soaks into the cake).

Readers and Writers, and the Thread of Books

In light of what’s happening in the world right now, a glimmer of joy found its way to me a few days ago. I had the distinction of being one out of seventy-five people from around the world selected by Reese Witherspoon for a virtual discussion on her book of the month, The Henna Artist. The Oscar-winning actress and producer runs a worldwide book community through her Hello Sunshine Club that serves as a platform for women’s stories. US-based author of Indian origin, Alka Joshi’s book was chosen for the month of May. As part of their month-long activities surrounding the book, Reese and Alka had organized a series of sessions through various social media platforms – a live class with an actual henna artist who taught us to draw mehendi designs, interviews with professional henna artists, and even cooking sessions according to recipes of the book.

On the last day of the month, a virtual book meet and discussion was scheduled, with Reese picking 75 readers from across the globe to be a part of the session with Alka Joshi herself, and actress-memoirist Tembi Locke moderating the discussion. We gathered from different countries and time zones to hear Alka and Tembi discussing the book, followed by a “breakout” session that had us separated into smaller groups of eight or nine people to share our thoughts on the book more intimately.  Here again, I had the distinction of being clubbed in the same mini-group as Alka, being lucky enough to speak with the author personally. We then returned to the main group and shared what each group had discussed separately; and those who hadn’t spoken with the author could ask her questions. I have not interacted much with authors before, and this was a unique experience of spending an entire month with a book and being able to speak with the writer about it. The time zone difference made it past midnight in my part of the world, but it was a session of distinction to be involved in.

In some ways, the pandemic has brought us closer via the virtual world. After my interaction with Alka Joshi, I wrote to her and she recommended some books. Building confidence, I also connected with Yangsze Choo – author of The Ghost Bride which is required reading for a course I’m doing on Historical Fiction – and she replied, too. For someone who is not professionally from the fields of literature, journalism, or publishing, but loves to read, though stays away from trending book challenges or book club events, preferring to do my own reading, it’s a different kind of thrill to read great works of literature and be able to speak with the authors themselves. I plan to do more of this now for the books I read (if the writers are alive, and they reply.)

Here’s a picture from the henna art class conducted by Neha Assar – the Master of Mehendi – who was invited by Reese to take a live class and share her experience of over twenty years as a real life henna artist. I couldn’t procure a henna cone due to the lockdown, and used a glitter pen instead – the nib is thinner than a marker/sketch pen, but thicker than an ink/ballpoint pen.

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If you haven’t read the Henna Artist, do check it out. The story is set in 1950s Jaipur, India and tells us about the journey of a henna artist through her interactions with family, friends, clients, acquaintances and strangers. A cultural treat through history. Alka Joshi has had the distinction of her book releasing in the lockdown and still doing so well worldwide. Paperbacks are currently available only in the US and Canada, but the rest of the world has been lapping up the ebook and audiobook versions.

May 2020 in Books

I have been a little occupied over the past few months. Having utilized the lockdown period to enrol in literature courses, most of my reading these days is taken up by course material, required readings, lectures, and participation in student discussion forums. These are some of the books I read in May.

~Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks – Historical fiction based on true events surrounding the Plague that afflicted the village of Eyam in 1665. One of the first known evidences of quarantine as we now know it, the entire village decided to isolate itself in an effort to save neighboring villages and towns from contracting the disease. Eyam is a tourist destination today, known as “Plague Village” – the bubonic plague having ravaged through the self-sacrificing residents. 4.5/5

~Poisonville by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta – An English translation of an Italian language crime novel. A woman finds herself murdered a week before her wedding. Her fiance being the son of the director of the firm she works for is the prime suspect, but things are never what they seem. A noir thriller where the killer is not one specific person, but an entire corrupt system, bringing together the dilemmas of family, business, society, morals, obligations. A good work of Italian crime noir. 3.5/5

~Alien by Alan Dean Foster – A novelization of the screenplay that released before the movie came out. Consequently, the book is based on the original screenplay, straying from Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the horror classic we know. A brilliant science fiction read for lovers of the genre. If the silence and solitude of space scared you in the movie, the book ups the ante several notches. The fear is so atmospheric, with nothing and everything happening in the silence. Only seven characters occupy the entire length of the novel (and movie) and what a ride it was! 5/5

~Survival of the Sickest by Sharon Moalem – A scientific outlook on the evolution of disease and illnesses through the evolution of species. Viruses and bacteria have occupied our planet since the time of the dinosaurs. What makes them so resilient through millennia of evolution, with other species having come and gone? An engaging narrative on why we fall sick, and how disease within a species is inherent as we evolve. 5/5

~Mango Cake and Murder by Christy Murphy – A cozy mystery with a Filipino mother-daughter crime fighting duo who balance their investigations alongside a catering business. An interesting premise that had the potential to be a wonderful read, if not for the bland approach taken by the writer. A quick read that’s decent enough between heavy or more serious books. Not recommended as a must-read. 2/5

~The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi – Historical fiction set in Jaipur, India of the 1950s. A henna artist married at fifteen, escapes from an abusive husband at seventeen, and finds a path ahead applying henna/mehendi to the rich and famous of post-Independence India. Years pass and a sister born since after she left home shows up at her door step. Beautiful descriptions of the henna artwork, insightful concoctions of traditional herbs and restorative foods, recipes that make you want to eat along as you read – all travel parallel with sibling dynamics, interplay of past and present, the lines between clients and friends, family and strangers. A fascinating story and uplifting read. 5/5

~A Shower of Summer Days by May Sarton – An Irish estate home unoccupied for years, finds its temporary visitors turning permanent residents, as a middle-aged couple decide to settle in the wife’s ancestral house. A book about people not only bound to each other, but to the house itself – the house being a character in the story, a witness to emotions and conversations, providing a sense of familiarity and serenity as well as alienation and flaring tempers. Kind of a charming counterpart to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. 4/5

~The Rider by Tim Krabbé – An English translation of a Dutch memoir; a literary sports classic of the seventies. A tribute to the art of bicycle racing, Krabbé describes his transition from chess player and sports journalist to competitive rider and top endurance athlete – all interspersed within the pages of a 150-kilometer road race. A thrilling ride not just for cyclists or athletes, but anyone who enjoys an inspiring read. 5/5

~The Summer People by Shirley Jackson – A short story about an elderly couple that decides to extend their stay at a summer cottage. What happens when tourists turn full time residents? A sinister take on the relationship between locals and tourists and the outcome when these lines are blurred. 4/5

~The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – A re-telling of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, from the point of view of Draupadi/Panchaali – the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers. A well conceived interpretation with fantastic prose make this a book worth reading. 5/5

A collage of all the books:

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April 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in April 2020.

~Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – An epistolary and lipogrammatic satire, narrated in the form of letters between characters, by eliminating letters from the English alphabet as the story progresses. Pure brilliance in the concept and outcome. 5/5

~Meg by Steve Alten – A prehistoric marine dinosaur (that actually existed and was larger and stronger than the T-Rex) surfaces in the present age, wrecking havoc in its wake as top predator that ever existed. A thrilling ride of paleontology and marine ecology. 4/5

~Friend Request by Laura Marshall – A middle-aged woman receives a Facebook friend request from a school classmate. Only the latter died 27 years ago, and the protagonist was responsible for her death. An insightful tale on the obsession of social media and being consumed by the virtual world. 3.5/5

~Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata – A woman spends most of her adult life working in a convenience store, and feels like a misfit in the “regular world”. A simple story offering a fresh take on society and the pressure to conform. 3.5/5

~Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw – A post-apocalyptic novel about killer jam consuming the world. The tables have truly turned, and the eaten becomes the eater. A laugh riot all the way. 4/5

~The Yellow Arrow by Victor Pelevin – A train that has no start point and an undisclosed destination. Once you get on, you cannot get off, and you forget all about your time outside the train. The Yellow Arrow makes you a passenger for life. Philosophical and metaphorical, the train as an analogy for life itself. What is it about Russian writers that every book seems to warrant a 5/5?

2 books on Autism, since April is dedicated to Autism Awareness.

~The Color of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris – An autistic child with synesthesia narrates the story of his neighbor’s murder. Only he’s the one who murdered her. And nobody believes him because he’s on the spectrum. Interestingly chronicled through colors. 4/5

~Autism in Heels by Jennifer O’Toole – A memoir of being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 34, and subsequently bringing up children on the autism spectrum. A witty, humorous and informative read. 5/5

April2020

Healing With The Arts – Part 2

In a follow up to my previous post about a course on the Arts I am currently pursuing, I would like to present my take on photography for the module of Visual Arts. This period of quarantine and self isolation has left us with limited resources, leading us to work with the little we have available. I love to read, and books have always occupied a large part of my life, especially in today’s situation where they offer comfort and a connection to the world around. I have photographed some of my books, working with the theme of the books and what they meant to me. Both paperbacks as well as my kindle reader have been included – with reference to the complete lockdown here where we can neither visit book shops and libraries, nor can we order books online since home deliveries are not allowed, causing e-books to be a lifeline for us readers who do not have immediate access to paperbacks. Here are some book pictures clicked in the past few weeks:

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March 2020 in Books

A summary of books read in March – An array of women authors and female protagonists, in keeping with the month that celebrates Women’s Day. Due to lots going on around, I have not been able to get online much. Detailed reviews will follow as and when I find the time. Hope everyone is staying safe in these difficult days. It’s times like these when books are our refuge.

4 paperbacks:

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~Aranyaka by Amruta Patil and Devdutt Pattaniak – A graphic novel about forests – the wilderness outside and within; the beginning of life and civilization, the merging of elements, and the influence of nature on man and vice versa. 5/5

~Road to Mekong by Piya Bahadur – A memoir about 4 women motorcyclists who undertake a road trip, covering 17,000 kilometers through 6 countries, guided by the river Mekong that flows through Southeast Asia. 5/5

~Sand & Sea by Ann D’Silva – A novel about past lives and connected souls. A women’s dreams are haunted by a man she knew in another life, and she attempts to find out more about him. 2/5

~In My Dreams I Dance by Anne Wafula Strike – The autobiography of a Paralympic racer who overcame disability and prejudice to compete among top level athletes. 5/5

3 books on Kindle:

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~The End We Start From by Megan Hunter – A post apocalyptic novel with development and destruction running parallel in the narrative. A baby is born as the world is being submerged by exponential floods. As the child grows, the world sinks further. 4/5

~Mad Love by Paul Dini and Pat Cadigan – A novelization of the origin story of Harley Quinn and her subsequent prominence in the DC comic world. 3/5

1 re-read:

~The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – One of the books I read this month was so disappointing, this book was conjured to bring back some brilliance in my reading. 4 individuals are placed in a supposedly haunted house to measure hauntings and obtain evidence of ghosts. But ghosts are not always around you. What about the ghosts within us? When it’s pure, brilliant writing one is looking for, look no further than Shirley Jackson. 5/5