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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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 yet 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

The image below is a collage created from all the book covers.

April2020

Healing With The Arts

“Take your story – paint it, dance it, write about it, do drama about it, move into it – express the artist that you are. Art is five things: It’s the word which is a journal, poetry, and theater. It’s visual which is painting, sculpture, photography. It’s dance – moving your body; and Music – playing or listening. And all together a ceremony. Art is really about gifting. And the greatest gift you have is the gift of who you are.”

A few weeks ago, I had enrolled in a course on the Arts. The lines above are by Mary Rockwood Lane – one of the course co-ordinators – who acknowledges the many forms of art; all dependent on and leading to the artist – The merging of creator and creation.

Today 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 new 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

2020 – Books Read In January

January done well! 📚💪

It’s a good day when you can retire with a book at the end of it. And it’s a literary achievement for a reader when all those good books accumulate and the year kicks off to a great start. There’s no time to waste on mediocre books, and there’s truly a sense of satisfaction when all the books you read turn out to be gems.

A summary of books read this month:
5 paperbacks:
~The Wall by Jurek Becker – A collection of stories by a survivor of the Holocaust, using his memories at the concentration camps to weave out stories. 4/5
~Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges – A novel about the Goan, Mangalorean and East Indian Catholics in Bombay, travelling from the 1930s to the present day. 5/5
~Silent Was Zarathustra by Nicolas Wild – A graphic novel cum biography of the humanist Cyrus Yazdani, along with a history of Zoroastrianism. 4/5
~India’s Most Haunted by K. Hari Kumar – Essays of haunted places, superstitions, rumours, folktakes from around the country. 4/5
~Tödlicher Schnee by Felix & Theo – A crime novel about a private detective on holiday at a ski resort, who inadvertently gets pulled into a series of murders at a global environmental conference. 4/5

3 books read on kindle:
~The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – A novel about a teenager living life on the sidelines; ‘watching instead of participating’ in life. 5/5
~Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston – A verse novel about a duo of misfits trying to save the world from boredom. 5/5
~Booked by Kwame Alexander – Another verse novel about sport and books. Enough said! 4/5

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There’s Something About Christmas – Book Review

Title – There’s Something About Christmas

Author – Debbie Macomber

Genre – Fiction, humor, romance, seasonal, festive

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Emma Collins stopped celebrating Christmas the year her mother passed away. Christmas, for her, meant family and tradition and preparing cakes and sweets together, and it has failed to have the same meaning anymore. Emma works as a journalist with  ‘The Examiner’, a local newspaper for which she writes obituaries. The ‘Good Homemaking’ magazine had run a nationwide contest a month ago, for the best fruitcake recipe in the country – the winner of which would be announced on Christmas Day. Emma finds herself with a new job description – to interview the finalists of the fruitcake competition, and present a series of articles as a build-up to the Christmas season.

“Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.”

“Fruitcake is about the ritual of a family recipe. The longer the ritual is repeated, the more it becomes part of the holidays.”

The reader is taken through Emma’s life in the weeks leading up to Christmas – her earnestness in making a name for herself as a journalist, a boss who doesn’t take her seriously, a colleague cum best friend and sole support system, her estrangement with her father, her mourning over her mother’s death. The author begins every chapter with quotes by real life chefs and bakers, on what fruitcakes symbolize to them. Emma’s journey as a journalist also comes across beautifully, as someone who documents the lives of others but personally feels she has hardly made a smudge on the page of her own life. Her aversion towards Christmas and the festive season shows us how not everyone celebrates festivals the same way, depending on what memories are attached to specific days/seasons. Her interviews with people from various walks of life reveal the stark differences in each finalist’s life story, along with the common bond they share through their love for baking. From an octogenarian widow to a young mother of four, Emma receives life lessons along with fruitcake lessons from an unassuming bunch of people.

“When I was with my husband, I felt there must be something lacking in me. Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?”

“I never could figure out people, but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”

The more Emma goes over the notes of her meetings, the more she realizes that the interviews are not so much about fruitcake as much about the people themselves. “Lessons about life, wrapped up in a fruitcake recipe.” From traditional fruitcakes to personalized ingredients like chocolate or apples, and even no-bake recipes, Emma comes across a variety of methods to prepare the same product, which serves as a metaphor for life, in that, each of us lives our own journey. There are contestants who spent several years trying to bake the perfect fruitcake, only to realize that their life was what needed working on instead. Some divert from traditional recipes and use ingredients of their choice, serving the lesson of doing what you love and not following the herd. Others use the no-bake option because they want to “enjoy it now” – a lesson for living in the moment.

There are different fruitcake recipes provided in the book for the reader to try out. All-in-all, a sweet Christmas story that doesn’t succumb to clichés. Macomber writes with the right mix of humor and romance. Those who love baking and animals would enjoy this book. The epilogue was a tad drawn out and could have been done away with, but otherwise a cheery Christmas read that gets you into the festive spirit.

My rating – 3/5

The Ghost of Christmas Paws – Book Review

Title – The Ghost of Christmas Paws

Author – Mandy Morton

Genre – Fiction, crime, mystery

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“There are many types of civilization, depending on what you’re used to. Icy fog and torrential rain, punctuated by snow – though beautiful – had driven cats indoors,and brought life to a standstill.”

The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency is a series of books led by a feline detective duo. Hettie Bagshot and Tilly Jenkins are summoned to solve a case a few days before Christmas. The elderly Lady Eloise Crabstock-Singe lives in a manor off the Cornish coast, and believes her house is haunted by the ghost of a cat who wants to finish off the entire Singe family. Lady Eloise’s sister and brothers have already been brutally murdered by the hands of Christmas Paws, who shows up every Christmas Eve to wreck havoc on the Singe family. Eloise is the only surviving member, and is certain it’s her turn this Christmas and fears she has been brought to reckoning.

This cracking cat crime is an absolutely delightful and entertaining read for the Christmas season, populated by a world without people that cat lovers would certainly enjoy. All the characters are cats, and Mandy Morton has given each of them their own distinct character traits. Hetty and Tilly are named after the author’s own cats, and the other characters are based on her friends’ pets. Our protagonists are avid readers, and the book is peppered with literary references which are an absolute treat for book lovers. The word play is all animal-related – Santa Claws, Agatha Crispy, The Daily Snout, Cat of the Baskervilles, and the title itself being a take on Charles Dickens’ novel. A fun, feline read that is definitely recommended if you’re looking for something lighthearted and witty.

My rating – 3/5

In The Tall Grass – Book Review

Title – In The Tall Grass

Authors – Stephen King and Joe Hill

Genre – Horror

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“The grass flows and you flow, too. Think of it as becoming one with nature.”

With Stephen King celebrating his 72nd birthday last weekend, and the movie releasing next week, it was apt to read this collaboration with his son, Joe Hill on this seemingly fun family holiday, which soon turns nightmarish. A pair of siblings on a long distance road trip, find themselves on a deserted strip of road parallel to a large field. Sounds of a child in distress emit from within the field. The boy doesn’t sound too far away, but it’s easy for a small kid to get lost in towering blades of grass. Within minutes of entering the field on their rescue mission, the brother-sister duo lose track of each other, feel disoriented in blades over seven feet tall, and get entangled even further in the verdant mass while trying to follow each other’s voices. Turns out there are more people similarly lost in the tall grass, and though they can hear each other, they can’t seem to find the owners of the voices. Directions and time melt in the grass. “There is no morning or night here, only eternal afternoon. If we had shadows, we might use them to move in the same direction”, reflects one of the characters. The grass has dew throughout the day and cannot be burned, new blades shoot up as soon as old ones are crushed under foot, and the “softly flowing ocean of green silk” appears to move even though the people are still, causing them to move without moving.

The father-son imagination of King-Hill elevates the horror to another level, and might not be suitable for all readers. Caution is recommended to those who get squeamish easily, as the story has a lot of gore. King is known for his detailed writing – the subtle fun of a character who speaks in rhymes and another with a fondness for limericks, are easily interspersed with the brutality of its stomach churning moments. The protagonist/antagonist/lead character/side character, which ever way you see it, is the grass. And Stephen King proves once again why he is the king of horror, with his ability to find fear in the unlikeliest places/events. A disturbing read, but recommended for horror buffs.

My rating – 3.5/5