Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Goodbye, 2014

How did it get so late so soon?
It’s night before it’s afternoon.
December is here before it’s June.
My goodness, how the time has flewn.
How did it get so late so soon?
- Dr Seuss

With two children whose combined ages still add up to a single digit, I do a lot of reading of children’s books. And Dr Seuss, with his penchant for rhyming, ranks up there among our favourites. And so it is only fitting that I should start this post with a quote from him.

For it’s that time of the year.

December has always been my favourite month, for as long as I can remember. A huge part of that has to do with it being Christmas season, and how it has always been synonymous for hope and faith and for believing again. Ever since I was a little girl, I just felt that no matter what had gone wrong that year, it was going to be set right in the most spectacular manner possible.

And that was the other thing about December. It brought with it the promise of newness, the opportunity to wipe out the disappointments of the year that was whizzing by, and to dream, build and hope again. To believe that we have been granted a clean slate, some coloured chalk and a chance to re-write our lives.

Are we going to grab that chance to finally set things right? Or is it easier to lull ourselves into believing the lie that nothing ever changes and that resolutions are meant to be broken?

I hope you and I both have the courage to start something new in the coming year.

And while we are still here, on this side of 2014, I invite you to make some goals for yourself.

Goals are magic. They are paths that could lead us down completely new directions. 


If only we let them.

So go ahead and make some goals. One, two, or twenty. It doesn’t matter how many. Of course, “15 goals for 2015” does have a nice ring to it.

Write them down on a sheet of paper, and put them up where you can see them every day.
On your soft board.
Or your mirror.

Maybe 2015 is the year when you will finally get over your fear of the deep and learn how to swim.
Or learn a new language.

Or maybe you will overcome your phobia of heights and climb your first mountain.

Maybe you will make the first move towards reconciling with that estranged loved one that you haven’t spoken to in a long time.

Or maybe you will put pen to paper, one word after another, and finally write the untold story that is inside you. 

The first of many you know you were meant to.

Whatever it is, no matter how unconquerable it may seem at this point, I hope you will take that first step. As the greats say, one year from now, you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s wishing you a truly fulfilled 2015.

I hope to see you more often in the coming year. I hope you'll drop by.





Saturday, December 20, 2014

Book Review: BITTERSWEET

Title: Bittersweet
Author: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Pages: 385









The cover page, with its expanse of a lake and the house in the distance, displays a steely calm that the events unfolding in the book belie. On the surface, life at Winloch is remarkably serene and beautiful, and yet there are undercurrents of bitterness that threaten to rip the calmness apart and expose the ugliness within.


First person narrator Mabel Dagmar is fat, short and hails from the wrong side of the tracks. Her roommate at the prestigious East Coast college to which she has a scholarship is Genevra (Ev) Kathleen Winslow, born to money, fame and sophistication and bred for a life of luxury and rehab clinics.

Mabel doesn’t think that Ev even registers her name, and yet gradually, she becomes Ev’s friend, at least that’s what she assumes. We readers are never really sure. Ev’s attitude towards her alternates between verbal abuse and patronization, but Mabel, lonely and bent under the weight of something that happened six years ago when she was 12, grabs at Ev’s feeble acknowledgement of her and assumes that it is friendship.

When Ev invites her to Winloch, her family’s summer estate, Mabel jumps at the opportunity. At Winloch, she tries to ingratiate herself into the good books of Ev’s family members. She is even willing to clean up Ev’s dilapidated and weatherworn cottage, Bittersweet. It is evident that Ev has brought Mabel along only to help her get the house cleaned. But for Mabel, it is a personal project as she looks upon Winloch as her own.

Meanwhile, Ev’s aunt, Indo, gives out family gossip and befriends Mabel, and the youngster learns a lot by shutting her mouth so the rich folk forget she is around or listening. When Indo asks her to find something untoward in the family archives in return for an opportunity to inherit her cottage after her death, Mabel, anxious to be a part of Winloch, immerses herself in the search. 


She finds a willing partner in Galway, Ev’s single, older brother. Rifling through the archive, she finds the diary of Katie Spiegel, Ev’s German-born paternal grandmother, which is almost ingenious in its deceptiveness. The diary is written in cryptic language, forcing Mabel to snoop further to solve its mystery. But is Galway truly an ally, willing to expose the wrongdoing of the family or will he sell out? And will exposing the family’s hideous secrets bring about her expulsion from Paradise?


The story begins in February at the college, then moves to June, July and August at Winloch and then to June the following year, the last an epilogue to the novel.

As a character, Mabel is shockingly different. The first shocker is when she unabashedly pleasures herself in Ev’s cottage in full view of open windows, her excitement heightened by the element of risk. And that is how she first meets Galway, making this the most unconventional meeting between two lovers of the opposite sex, in literary fiction.

From the beginning, Mabel comes across as needy, clingy, even slightly obsessed with Ev. Her relationship with her parents is not explained, cloaking their domestic life in mystery.

An invitation marks the beginning of something,” the author says, but here Mabel is destined to be forever on the outside, looking in, even as she longs to belong to this beautiful world.

There was altogether too much description, but I liked it, maybe because it was all so new to me, and it helped to establish the Vermont setting, something I was unfamiliar with. Even so, a greater part of this rather long novel is consumed by this relentless need to establish the setting, to indicate the idyllic nature of the haven that is Winloch. Day after day of picnicking seems to be the agenda for the Winslows, and the foreboding takes way too long to justify itself.

The novels that Mabel reads tell us a lot about the kind of person she is. In college, her idea of socializing is reading Jane Eyre, at its heart the story of a friendless governess who made good.

Then on her vacation to Winloch, she takes along Paradise Lost, required reading for the course she will take and emblematic of the big fight between Good and Evil that will soon play out at Winloch. She never goes beyond a few pages of the epic, throughout her summer at Winloch.

The chapter names are simple, to-the-point yet revelatory. They offer a good foil to the symbolism that is rife through the book. Winslow is an Eden, untouched, unspoiled. Galway and Mabel are almost like Adam and Eve; their snooping almost gets them thrown out. Strains of Paradise Lost, once again it is knowledge of the forbidden that takes away innocence here. 


True to its name, Bittersweet was exactly that for me, in parts bitter and sweet.

The bitterness arose from the fact that halfway through the book, I had no idea what was so hateful about Mabel’s family, why she invested so heavily in the Winslows when they were really no better. Was it the wealth that held sway?

We receive bits and pieces of information, a hint of domestic violence against her mother by her father, an unspeakable fate for her brother.

But the Winslow family also has its own secrets and almost everyone is hiding something.

The mystery element of the story takes much too long to be evoked and even longer to be resolved. Until then, the mystery bolts on all the doors are an irritant; they annoy one rather than whet the appetite.

It is also hard to get really involved in a book in which the main character is so unlikeable. Sometimes Mabel seems downright cruel, and I found it hard to sympathise with her because of her selfishness. It is hard to see the world through the eyes of a narrator who is as deceptive, in her own way, as Katie was in her journal.


This one was good while it lasted.




    Blogging for Books provided this book to me for free in exchange for an honest review.




Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: QUEEN OF ICE

Title: Queen of Ice
Author: Devika Rangachari
Publisher: Duckbill Books
Pages: 184










The cover illustration by Tejashree Ingawle is the first thing that catches your eye. The sinuously poised plait of hair adorned with flowers resting on the red-robed person of Didda, set against the silver-blue backdrop of Kashmir’s snowy winter. The final image that reels you in is that of the faceless Didda, seemingly emotionless in her hunger to rule.


Didda is the princess of Lohara, beautiful, intelligent and lame. Allowed to live because an astrologer predicted that she was destined for greatness, the prediction does nothing to endear her to her father who despises her, and fuels her desire to prove herself. Her childhood is bleak indeed, and Valga, a girl she hires to carry her around when she is too tired to walk, and Naravahana, a boy of her own age hired to be a stable hand, are the only friends she has.


When DIdda is married off at age 16 to Kshemagupta, the once-married dissolute ruler of Kashmir, she becomes aware of the factions and seething ambitions that riddle the court. She must hold her own against these, if she is to survive. Yet Didda wants to do more than survive. In her heart, she longs to play a more vibrant role in the history and destiny of her new home.


When her husband dies of a mysterious disease, Didda, as the mother of child-king Abhimanyu, becomes regent, a position she holds through the deaths of her son, and her three grandsons, until she appropriates the title of king for herself.


Set in 10th century Kashmir, each chapter of this story contains the alternating first person point-of-view accounts of Didda and Valga, each account taking the story inexorably forward, rather than merely examining the same event through different perspectives. 



Didda’s attitude is undoubtedly regal, believing she is beholden to no one and conscious of fierce ambition and an unquenchable desire to achieve something bigger than the feeble role that fate and the rigid traditions of the time seek to bind her in. Valga’s account is that of the outsider, a friend of the queen, and yet one who is aware of her lowly station in life, a mere porter-woman hired to carry the queen wherever she wishes to go.


This physical proximity enables Valga to see Didda from up close, to be a witness to her every mood. I found myself warming to Valga’s telling more, looking at the external viewpoint as more authentic and truthful than Didda’s own telling. There is more show, less tell in Valga’s account than in Didda’s.


Devika Rangachari has done a great service to Indian literature and history by bringing a character like Didda to the limelight. A character that has not received her due from historians.


As a character, Didda is not without her flaws. Her ego is too strong, and the gifts she bestows upon her friends are not so much expressions of friendship as charitable doles to the less fortunate. But the loyalties are there, even if they are not always apparent, even if they are second to her own sense of self. 


Above all, Didda rises out from the tale on account of her hunger to rule, a hunger for which she is willing to stoop to commit acts which she never admits to, but which Valga hints at. And yet, in that place and time, who is to say that she was wrong to commit acts that a man might have got away with impunity?

Because the writing is in first person, Devika’s own voice does not show through. She refrains from passing judgement on Didda, leaving us to decide for ourselves whether we want to see her as a heroine or as a flawed, egoistic person.


Devika also deserves to be commended for bringing history alive in such a vibrant manner. Relying upon the body of research that she has built up for her PhD, this young author has used the few facts she had and weaved in them fantastic elements of fiction to re-create a time at a turbulent period in history, when boundaries between kingdoms were as strong as those enforcing them, and peace was fraught with tension.
In such a time, we come to know of Didda who gives to her people the gift of good governance and progress, and the knowledge that, in her, they have a friend who cares.


The writing is mostly in the present tense, except in one instance in the first few pages when past tense seems to have sneaked past the vigilant eyes of the editors. The use of the present tense helps to make us a part of the telling of the tale, as if we were the confidantes of both these strong woman.


If there is anything that I must find fault with, it is that the story moves on too fast. There is so much of detail that would have helped the story further. Didda’s conflicts with her cousin, after she becomes queen; the protest on the part of the Brahmins outside the kingdom (they are all bought off); the intrigues at court; the slow deaths of those that stand in her way, all these could have benefited from greater fleshing out. Also, more direct speech and witnessing events in real time could have helped us, as readers, to get more involved. But these are minor issues.


Don't let them stop you from reading this book to see a slice of history come alive.



I received a copy of Queen of Ice for this review.








Thursday, December 11, 2014

Let's all become Akshaya Patras for our children

None of us wore watches to school, but that was alright. We didn’t need a timepiece to let us know that it was recess time. The loud rumbling of our stomachs and our increasing inability to focus on what was happening inside the classroom was enough.

Soon the tring-tring-tring of the school bell would sound over the clamour of the voices of a thousand schoolgirls and it would be time to dig into our little plastic and steel tiffin boxes and savour the joys they contained.

Most of us had been sent to school with a full breakfast. And the recess was only a comma in what would end in a hot home-cooked meal when school closed and we got home. Most moms were stay-at-home in those days.

I cannot even begin to imagine the plight of children, millions of them, who go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, then go to school hungry, their minds unable to hear the voices of their teachers over the din raised by their empty bellies.

If at all they go to school.

In between they might nibble on something utterly devoid of nutrition that does nothing to appease the hunger pangs.

What is their motivation for staying in school?

More importantly, what is their parents’ motivation for sending them to school? Their poor parents are more likely to pull them out of school, and utilise them as two more hands to work, rather than one more mouth to feed.

The promise of a meal at school is the key to keeping a child at school while providing for their growth and nourishment. The offering of one square meal in the middle of the day might seem trivial to those of us who have never known real hunger. But to the child who is malnourished and seemingly destined for a life of misery, it is the only means by which we can ensure a healthy future for both their bodies and minds.

The Akshaya Patra Foundation has been working relentlessly, not only to fight hunger but also to keep children in school, away from the streets, and give them the opportunity to better their lives. Beginning in the year 2000 by serving 1500 children across 5 schools, Akshaya Patra is today the world’s largest (not-for-profit) mid-day meal programme which serves wholesome and sufficient foot to over 1.4 million children from 10,661 schools across 23 locations in 10 states of India.




How much does it cost to keep a child fed through the academic year? Just Rs 750.

Take that kind of money with you to the mall, and you’d soon learn how pitifully insufficient it is. If you and a friend went to a multiplex to catch a film, you’d spend much more for the film and the snacks during the interval.

After the film, if you and the same friend went to a decent restaurant with that kind of money, I doubt you’d even reach as far as the appetizers.

And yet that kind of money can feed a child. For a whole year.

A startling idea that brings a whole new perspective to life.

If you want to be part of this revolution to defy hunger and build a new generation of people, you can. As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

If you are willing to do that, rush to the Akshaya Patra Foundation’s online donation page and see how easy it is to make a difference.


A nation that does nothing while its littlest citizens go hungry has no right to call itself a great nation. Over time, children who are hungry or even malnourished find themselves suffering from a diminished capacity to understand and learn, to make the right decisions and to live life to the fullest. It is one meal a day that can save them from such a cruel fate.

Poverty is a complicated issue. And despite decades of posturing and shouting slogans like “Garibi Hatao,” I doubt it will be possible to eliminate poverty. And yet, through a programme like the midday meals, Akshaya Patra offers us a way to break down the barriers of poverty and make a difference to each child.

A midday meal boosts school enrollment, attendance and academic performance. A child that is well-fed is a child that will stay in school. A generation of children who are well-fed will mean a stronger, more able-bodied generation, that is not just literate, but intelligent and more competent to steer this country forward.

Akshaya Patra’s efforts teach us that it is possible for each of us to do something to feed our children.


In the Mahabharat, the Akshayapatra (Sanskrit for inexhaustible vessel) held a never-failing supply of food for the Pandavas every day.

Each of us could be the Akshaya Patra for our children. All we need to do is to spare Rs 750 to feed one child for one academic year. 

One hungry child at a time.









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