When Nature Sells…What Will You Buy?

Being ebullient in nature. A poem that appreciates the wonder and beauty the world has to offer.

 

BARTER

~Sara Teasdale

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

All beautiful and splendid things,

Blue waves whitened on a cliff,

Soaring fire that sways and sings,

And children’s faces looking up

Holding wonder like a cup.

 

Life has loveliness to sell,

Music like a curve of gold,

Scent of pine trees in the rain,

Eyes that love you, arms that hold,

And for your spirit’s still delight,

Holy thoughts that star the night.

 

Spend all you have for loveliness,

Buy it and never count the cost,

For one white singing hour of peace

Count many a year of strife well lost,

And for a breath of ecstasy

Give all you have been, or could be.

 

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The Blind Owl – Book Review

Title – The Blind Owl

Original language – Persian/Farsi

Author – Sadegh Hedayat

English translation – D.P. Costello

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The year takes off with a literary bang! The first book of the year and what a treat it has been. In continuation with my Birthday Reading Goals of reading translated books from languages starting with each letter of the English alphabet, I had selected this literary masterpiece from Iran for Persian.

There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.” When a book opens with such haunting lines, you marvel at the author’s ability to keep the reader hooked from the start, and at the same time to not discourage one with its morose theme. According to folk lore, screech owls are considered to be harbingers of death. The Blind Owl is considered as one of the major literary works of the twentieth century, and is a story of romance as much as it can be seen as autobiographical. The story opens with an unnamed narrator – a painter of pen cases – who has confined himself to a room, as he lumbers about within its four walls thinking of death, and gives the reader glimpses into his murderous thoughts as he shares his writings with the shadow on the wall. “My shadow on the wall had become exactly like an owl and, leaning forward, read intently every word I wrote. He understood perfectly. Only he was capable of understanding.” The narrator considers only solitude and his shadow as friends, to the extent of believing his shadow to be more real than himself. “The shadow that I cast upon the wall was much denser and more distinct than my real body.” He is in poor health and is waiting to die, while remembering an unrequited love that brought him to this state. Or maybe his ill health caused his love to be unrequited in the first place. Who knows for sure? “Was not my room a coffin? This bed that was always unrolled, inviting me to sleep, was it not colder and darker than the grave?” Is he waiting for death, or considers himself dead already (as he often refers to himself as a living corpse)?  Who are the familiar faces he sees, and what are the experiences he remembers as already having experienced in another life?

The narrative spans different times and eras, but the writing is almost surreal and leaves you wondering whether you’re reading about the same person or different people. We know the unnamed narrator is sinking into despair after the death of a loved one, and his own worsening health. But which one was the cause and which one is the effect? “I would cut up her body, pack it in a suitcase, take it away with me to some place far, very far from people’s eyes.” The writing swirls with memories, dreams, nightmares, a gory past, a fearful future, a confusing present, leaving the reader to figure out what is actually happening and which parts are in the head of a madman. Sightings or hallucinations? Dreams or reality? “It seems as though I have forgotten how to talk to the people of this world, to living people” , writes the narrator. So can we, as readers, be sure of what he writes for us?

Hedayat seamlessly weaves the overlapping narratives, often reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s morbid themes, but makes you read in awe as his writing, without for a moment, causes the book to appear sad. (The novel was originally banned in Iran with the reason that it made people suicidal.) He teases the reader with ironic lines from his narrator like, “How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!” But it is this very writing that makes this book so brilliant and a treat for literary enthusiasts. In spite of the narrator’s obsession with death, the lines are beautifully composed.

Death was murmuring his song in my ear like a stammering man who is obliged to repeat each word and who, when he has come to the end of a line, has to begin it afresh.”

It seemed a miracle to me that I had not dissolved in the bath like a lump of salt.”

The fact of dying is a fearful thing in itself but the consciousness that one is dead would be far worse.”

Some more beautifully constructed figures of speech:

It was more pleasant to sit in the dark, that dense liquid which permeates everything and every place.”

The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls.”

The interlocking trees with their wry, twisted branches seemed in the darkness to be gripping one another by the hand for fear they should slip and crash to the ground.”

The night was departing on tip-toe. One felt that it had shed sufficient of its weariness to enable it to go its way.”

Several lines strike a chord of what haunts us as humans – fear of death, loss of time, soul searching, hope, random musings being universal themes.

I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my face. The reflection was unfamiliar to me. It was frightening.

What do days and months matter? Time has no meaning for one who is lying in the grave.”

If it were possible for my being to dissolve in one drop of ink, in one bar of music, in one ray of colored light…

Silence is a language which we do not understand.”

All my life has passed within four walls.” I read somewhere about Hedayat’s writing – it is meant to be an experience in itself, and not a book about an experience.The themes are dark, but the lyrical prose shines a light on what great writing truly is. The Blind Owl  was originally published in 1937 in Bombay (India), and only released in Hedayat’s native Iran in 1941. The novel was written when Hedayat was a student in Paris in 1930, and ironically, the French translation by Roger Lescot during WWII was what first brought it popularity. The English version by Costello (which I read) was published in 1957. Hedayat committed suicide at age forty-eight, following years of addiction and disillusionment. (He allocated money for his burial, closed up the doors and windows and turned on the gas in his apartment in the heart of Paris city, where The Blind Owl was written years ago.)

Another one of those books where a review cannot do sufficient justice. It needs to be read to be experienced. The book has been translated into numerous languages, and much gratitude needs to be expressed to the translators who make such wonderful literature accessible to readers everywhere.

My rating – 5/5

A Bibliophile’s Farewell to 2018

Last book of the last weekend of the year. We got this! 💪😼📖

The curiosities of cats never cease. This little guy is about two months old. He was found abandoned soon after birth, and has been hand-reared. He’s one among the bookworm coterie now. 🤓 We’re looking forward to a cozy weekend with a classic Christmassy mystery – a whodunit written in the 1940s.

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Literary Christmas Tree

In keeping with the Christmas tradition in a house filled with bibliophiles, here’s my teensy, bookish Christmas tree for this year.

Story behind the picture: I’m out of shelf space and the latest purchases and gifts have nowhere to go. They’ve been in boxes the last few weeks, and ably supported the festive decor. The upper layers of the tree have Christmassy books that I’ve been reading this month. The lower ones, I will get to gradually through the new year. The bottom layer has books already read that need to be donated.

Merry Christmas, everyone! 🙂

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Have Yourself A Literary Christmas…

Season’s greetings to my bibliophile family! Five days to go for Christmas. Woohoo!! Here are my ongoing reads for the festive season. From thrillers and mysteries, to humor and drama, in the form of novels, anthologies or novellas, literature sure has some variety to offer through Christmas. Has anyone read any of these? Feedback is always appreciated.

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A Pawsome Christmas

The weekend ensured a pawsome prelude to Christmas Day, playing Santa to our furry friends. A canine Christmas party organized by the Welfare of Stray Dogs (WSD), comprised various sessions with behavioral therapists and grooming experts.  Pawfect – The Pet Salon and Spa, conducted the session on grooming tips, engaging kids in the talk as well, to teach them how to look after a pet. Spoilt Brat Barkery taught us to make and decorate cupcakes and treats for the doggies. All (human) attendees got a baked pug that could be decorated, or served to the dogs just like that. There were dog-related puzzles and games for the kids, and a quiz for the adults featuring dogs in movies, literature, cartoons, across history and science. WSD dogs Akshay, Sakshi, Donald and Marshall ably supported the volunteer team, with Marshall literally patrolling the area outside the venue. The doggo volunteer squad was absolutely thrilled to play with the kids, and seek head pats from the adults around. The wooftastic campaign had humans playing Santa to these canine companions by bringing biscuits and treats, collars, leashes, towels, brushes, medicated shampoos – anything to help the homeless dogs. There were WSD products available at the venue as well, which one could pick up to support the cause.

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Donald moderating the Q & A session
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Akshay finds the best spot in the room – in the middle of a circle of kids.
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Lokashi Agarwal from Pawfect conducts the session on grooming, with Donald ably keeping track of the proceedings.
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The poser!
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The baked pug for all attendees. Spoilt Brat Barkery specializes in doggie treats.
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A hand painted tote from WSD
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WSD note pads and bookmarks made from recycled paper.

Books and Pets

“There are many little ways to enlarge a child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”

~Jacqueline Kennedy

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When you belong to a reader family, a walk around the house is met with treasures scattered everywhere. This curious little kitty peeks into the bibliophilic world. Or maybe he’s drawing inspiration from Agatha Christie – Christmas is drawing near; time to find out where the humans have kept the Christmas pudding.

 

Burial Rites – Book Review

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Genre – Fictionalized biography

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Picture sourced from the internet. I read the e-book version.

“People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”
~Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1828)

When I love a book, I waste no time in talking and writing about it – people need to know, and they need to read. There are very few books which strike such a chord that I’m left dwelling on them long after reading – whatever I say will not be enough; no review would ever do justice. “Burial Rites” falls in the latter category. This book came highly recommended from an online literary forum I follow, and in spite of receiving numerous recommendations I only recently got around to reading it. And what a treat it has been! I usually avoid reading fictional accounts of true incidents, and rather opt for non-fiction books on the same subject, if available. But Hannah Kent’s debut work was highly spoken of and I decided to give the then twenty-eight year old writer a shot. “Burial Rites” is a novelization of a true story set in the early 1800s cold, wintered landscape of Iceland, and is centered around the conviction and final days of a woman sentenced to death for a double murder – commonly known as the Illugastaðir murders, the farm where the killings took place. Capital punishment was abolished in Iceland in 1830, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be beheaded.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty something housemaid, is charged with the murder of her master and his friend. The district commissioner Björn Blöndal has entrusted her to the household of one of the officers – where she needs to be kept until her execution. In his words, death row convicts need to be placed in the homes of upright Christians who would set a good example and inspire repentance in the criminals, and at the same time benefit from the work these prisoners do in and around their farms as they await their judgement. The family is compensated by the government for their contribution to society, and officers are also present on the premises to ensure no harm comes to the locals. A young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson is required to visit the household and pray with the criminal to ensure she is repentant by the time of her execution. The family is horrified at the prospect of housing a murderess and avoid interacting with her. The reverend has no prior experience in dealing with murder convicts, and all he can contribute are passages from the Bible. Agnes has nothing to do at the farm since the family is wary of giving her any “tools” – suspicious of what she can use to kill them with. Even a request to knit is almost a plead, with the possible harm she could do with knitting needles. Having to idle away time till her death and no one to talk to, Agnes hopes to be killed then and there itself. “Why not kill me here and now? It is the waiting that cripples.”

The story is narrated through a series of correspondence between the various officials involved in the case – the district commissioner, the priests, the district officer, various clerks and officers handling the criminal records. Not to be confused with an epistolary novel, these were actual letters exchanged at the time which the author has translated and presented to the reader. Each chapter begins with numerous letters, and then follows changing narratives from the third person’s accounts of the happenings in the case, to Agnes herself speaking in first person. And step by step, the reader is led through Agnes’ story – her childhood and adulthood, her parents and siblings, her work life, ultimately leading to the core of the murder mystery that shook Iceland in the early nineteenth century – What exactly happened on the day of the murder that led Agnes to her present state?

“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground” , says Agnes, when taken to the farm that will house her till her death. And this is the crux of “Burial Rites” – the entire book is a rite of passage for Agnes as she readies herself for death. Agnes looks forward to living at the farm even when none of the residents want her there (and are only abiding to the district commissioner’s orders), being “grateful that I am returning to the valleys, even if I will die there”. Because living (and dying) in nature is better than “rotting slowly like a body in a coffin” – the atmosphere of the prison she was housed in before being transferred to the farm. Set in the present moment at the farm, the story is narrated in flashback mode through conversations and interactions with various family members – the officer, his wife Margret, the daughters Steina and Lauga, the priest Toti, and Agnes’ thoughts. And as the day of execution nears, the wife, daughters and priest learn of the other side to the sensational double murder story as projected by the authorities and rumor mills. Her final audience to life’s lonely narrative. An absolutely riveting account as Agnes goes from wanting to die to wanting to live, when people finally hear and understand her. “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!” But can they do more? Appeal to the government? Stop the execution?  No spoilers here since we know what finally happened to Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last person to be executed in Iceland, before the country finally abolished capital punishment in 1830.

Some of the quotes are so beautiful I thought they deserved a mention here:

~I was worst to the one I loved best.

~I will speak in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.

~The home had begun to disintegrate, a hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants.

~A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.

~A tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.

~Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another.

~There was some comfort in talking about death aloud, as though in naming things, you could prevent them from happening.

~There is so much illness in the world…so much that can go wrong with a person.

~A person you love as much as you hate the hold they have on you.

~They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

Kent’s interpretation of the Illugastaðir murders and executions is based on years of research through accessing ministerial records, parish archives, local publications,  historical records, letters and documents. There are several works of literature and poetry mentioned, highlighting the high literacy rates among Icelanders since the end of the eighteenth century. Some sagas quoted go as far back as 1245. I loved the snippets of Icelandic, and was glad to learn some phrases in the local language. Kent’s meticulously researched and written account is commendable indeed – for a debut writer, and just at twenty eight years of age when the book was published. When you already know how the story ends, it takes a great writer to hold the reader’s attention till the end. In today’s social media age, people’s opinions and judgements of each other are often based on what is read or heard or seen on feeds, posts and pictures. In the early 1800s, Agnes Magnúsdóttir raised the same question – What happens when one’s life is based on the stories told by others? Without speaking to the person, the world claims to know all about them. The fairness of the original proceedings of Iceland’s “most notorious woman” was questioned even centuries later, and reading “Burial Rites” is not for everyone. A difficult story to read but one that needs to be read for the many questions it raises. Kent is a talented writer and efficient researcher, and this is one of the few books where the author and protagonist of his/her story compete for attention – such is the brilliance of this speculative biography, a beautifully haunting, gripping, and outstanding debut work of literature. I read this on Kindle, but plan on procuring a paperback – it deserves a place in the library.

My rating – 5/5

Food Photography – True Tramm Trunk

Some members from my book club got together for a mid-week dinner, to discuss possible activities the club could take up for its readers in the upcoming weeks to end the year, and also initiatives to usher in the new year. We met at a restobar called True Tramm Trunk ( a homonym for Too Damn Drunk), described as “the best place to go for a mid-week party” (which I found out just now). Since we happened to show up on a Wednesday night, the music was just too loud – shifting from English classics of the eighties, to electronica, and Bollywood music. The musical mishmash made speaking over the noise a strain. The place is too chaotic, lighting is low, outdoor seating is claustrophobic rather than relaxing, and the indoor section is even noisier. Service, however, is prompt and the multi cuisine dishes were a treat to the taste buds. I started off with a Sweet Orange mocktail (which I don’t have a picture of) – made up of star anise, orange, passion fruit and lime. Here’s a glimpse of what we ate:

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The Mezze Platter – Comprising falafel, hummus, labneh, tahini and baba ghanoush, with homemade pita and lavash.
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Salmon Sushi – Salmon, avocado and cream cheese.
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Paneer Pizza (thin crust) – Tandoori cottage cheese, capsicum and onion.
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Pesto Pizza (thin crust) – Creamy pesto, sundried tomato, bellpeppers, mushroom and olives.

All in all, the food was a delight, even though the ambience was not. I would recommend this place for a night of dance and drinks; not really to catch up with friends or enjoy a peaceful meal.

When Wonder Woman Turns Long Distance Runner

A belated write-up of the Halloween Run I had participated in earlier this month. Every edition of the fear n’ fun themed event is held on the first Sunday of November – the weekend nearest to Halloween. While last year I had to orchestrate the event myself in the capacity of SPOC (Specific Point of Contact), free from organizational tasks this year, I could dress up and run. The run is organized on a 21 km route from the Otter’s Club in the Western suburbs to the NCPA in the South of Mumbai, on which participants can run varying distances either as a point to point run or in any desired loop pattern within these points. Being racing season, many runners did a half marathon or distances above 30 kms ( for those training for full marathons). I did a 15 km run – a little after the start point, and up to the end tip of the city. A large number of runners opted for distances of 10 km and below, on account of this being a costume event.

Runners were required to run in costume, in keeping with the Halloween theme. We had Two Face, Batman, Catwoman, Superman, giving company to the great many vampires, witches, zombies and devils.  I went as Wonder Woman! In consideration of the distance required to be run in costume, I settled for a handmade costume constructed out of readily available materials – comfort in long distance running being the priority. The Wonder Woman costume comprised a basic red racerback top, and blue skorts – both in dri-fit fabric. The ‘W’ logo, bracelets and tiara were crafted from glitter foam, and star stickers were used for the skirt, bracelets and tiara. I didn’t make the belt on account of the running pouch occupying space on the waist. Here’s what I ended up with:

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Protecting the bay!

Overall, it was a fun event, racing through the city dressed as Wonder Woman, and receiving peculiar glances from morning runners who were not part of the event and/or not in costume.

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At the early morning start point.

15 km was the longest distance I had attempted since the accident, and pleasantly received company from the halfway mark onward, with a runner attempting 32 km. Step by step we trotted along to the finish point.

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When you feel like you’re the only one racing around like a weirdo!

It was a joy to see volunteers at the various water stations dressed up in their spine-tingling best, hiding behind parked cars, jumping out and scaring runners, and capturing a cornucopia of expressions.

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When Wonder Woman meets the Devil.

A common sight on Sundays are the vintage car rallies that occur within South Mumbai. Clicking pictures and taking in the sights on the seafront, the never ending run finally came to an end.

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Appreciating beauty on the route.

The only disheartening feature of the event was that many runners didn’t really run, but only showed up at the end point to click pictures dressed in costume. The idea behind a Halloween Run was to run the distance in spooky or fun attire. Merely showing up in costume for the sake of pictures defeats the purpose of a running event. Ah! The flip-side of social media.

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The ghosts and ghouls at the finish point.
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With Captain America cum Wonder Woman cum Super Girl