G= Guernsey of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society”

I am running very late today. I missed yesterday and want to make up for that as well as today. So this is going to be a short post.

For G, I want to cover Guernsey from Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. There are a lot of things which are good in that book, but I think the place itself deserves a mention. This is not only the story of a town, but whole place recovering from occupation as explained in the introduction to Guernsey in the beginning of the book.

Ships are coming to St. Peter Port everyday to bring us things Guernsey still needs: food, clothes, seeds, ploughs, animal feeds, tools, medicines—and most important, now that we have food to eat, the shoes.

This above paragraph explains so much about the impact of the war on the society which is further elaborated by the thirst for the news in local populace. And this was the state of a place, as book explains, where it was meant to be proven that “German occupation was a modern one.” Another of the passage explains how the parents had no news of their children, whom they sent to a safe place, for six months. German Occupation is further explained in the letters in the book:

“They kept track of every gallon we milked, weighed the cream, recorded every sack of flour. They left the chickens alone for a while. But when feed and scraps become so scarce, they ordered us to kill off the older chickens, so the good layers could have enough feed to keep on laying eggs.”

Further wartime is explained when there wasn’t any salt in the town and the people had to carry seawater to salt the food. I cannot even imagine the food without salt for one or two days (I have tried, and I get serious headaches). Imagine the suffering of these people.

There is a mention of the war everywhere in the book, but beauty of Guernsey is also highlighted in the story as it is in the following passage:

My greatest pleasure has been in resuming my walks along the clifftop. The channel is no longer framed in rolls of barbed wire, the view is unbroken by large VERBOTEN signs. The mines are gone from our beaches and I can walk when, where, and for as long as I like.

But I think what touched me the most was the way the war was described for this island. This is the island which had seen death—so much so that there wasn’t even place to burn the bodies. And yet the people of this island hoped: hoped that the vines will cover the bunker walls, hoped that the world will be a better and beautiful place, hoped to live their life normally. Among all the bookish places I have read and talked about, this is one place which is very close to my heart and one which makes me feel happy and safe.

P.S. : I have seen the movie and liked it as well. But the Guernsey which stayed with me is the Guernsey of the book, although the movie has some exceptional cinematography.


F= France of Laura Florand Books

I was in a mood to not write today, but since I am challenging myself to take the control of my writing and life, here I am, writing just 40 minutes before the day is about to end.

For F, I had a choice between Florence and France. Florence is one particular place well covered in Dan Brown’s books. But then, which is closer to me? I was still deciding till the morning when I went, in my kitchen, I saw an empty jar (being reused) of chocolate jam I got from Paris. It isn’t fair to Florence, but France has my heart in this.

I am not referring to one book today but a particular set of books by an author called Laura Florand. I have read two of her series – Amour et Chocolat which is set in Paris and La vien en Roses  which is set in mostly south of France. These series show different part of France, and that was the France I visited when I went to Paris (Technically, I just visited one city. But I am going there soon to visit the South France too.)

These books are not perfect, especially the second series. They have their flaws, but they do bring to the table the beauty of France. There are the sidewalks of the Paris that are talked about. There are sinful descriptions of chocolate shops that it became my fantasy to buy artisan chocolates from Paris. (I had to hunt for vegan chocolate shops opened during summers to fulfil this fantasy of mine. Thank you, Ara chocolates.) There is a description of magical hot chocolate stirred and taken on an island in France that you just can feel the warmth of it seeping in your soul.  

I have been to Paris, and one of the reasons Paris was on the list was because of these books. Before even setting the step in Paris, I had imagined myself sitting across Seine in Paris. I had already visualized the twinkling of Eiffel Tower and how it would follow me everywhere. There is one scene in the book where the character is tired of being watched by the Eiffel Tower. I had dreams about sitting in a small café in Paris to eat my lunch/ dinner (I did that too!).

South of France is not yet covered (I haven’t figured out vegan options there yet mostly!), but I can still imagine the fields of lavenders and roses. I can imagine smaller towns, churches and fields which will take my breath away. I can imagine dining in a Michelin star restaurant in a far-off place. (And no, I am not imagining the romance.)

There are many books which talk about France and probably, in more detailed and a better way too. But Laura Florand in her books has combined the magic, romance, dreaminess, and beauty of the country, which is there but never overpowering.  This is a present-day France whose every corner I want to explore. That’s the magic of this series for me.

E= Historical England of Bridgerton Series

When I started thinking of the alphabets, for many of the alphabets, I had to think of the places for them. But England was a place which I struggled to place. Shall I talk about London and put it for L? Shall I talk about the countryside? Shall I talk about Devon? Then I decided England; it would be E. England covers the whole country. And this England is not the modern England or United Kingdom. This is the England which is still at war with Scotland, still colonizing other countries (including India).

Historical English romance is my guilty pleasure. The world of dukes and duchesses and ball-gowns entices and entrances me. Therefore, I decided to stick to Historical England of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series. I have written a huge post about it once in earlier times, but today I just want to talk about this England.

There is a place where there are dukes, duchesses, marquis, earl, and viscounts. There are genteel members of the society who do not do anything but are respected by virtue of being their sons and daughters. This is the England where business has just started. The focusses of these royal people is to take care of their estates, collect the rents, and go to balls and theatres. For women, the purpose mainly seems to be to do embroidery and to make a perfect match (AND SHOP!).

While for other places, the beauty laid in the description of the city, country, food—for England, my fascination is with this lifestyle. I was/am transfixed by the question of how they passed time (except for having sex and affairs. Nobody can do that forever, not even in novels). This England taught me the meaning of the word “ennui”. I mean I could understand why Colin Bridgeton would want to travel the world and return back only after years. There was bloody nothing to do except the matchmaking and attend parties. No wonder a character had to take up writing a “Whistledown’s Society Papers” in secret because what else is there to do.

When I think of England, I can see the heavy ball gowns, evening dresses, riding dress, britches, hats, and gloves. I can see a hero kissing heroine’s hand scandalously AFTER removing her glove. I have imagined my own dance card (never empty, always full) and have even named myself blue-stocking in this fantasy. I repeat I love these characters and stories, and I truly fascinated by this glimpse of the royalty and nobility. But I still am afraid to be caught in this fantasy because seriously, what will I do!

This historical England is not kind to women whose only purpose seem to marry and get children, yet there are women who drip contentment like Violet, the mother in Bridgeton series.

I now realize that I haven’t copied anything from the book today, no quotes to speak of:  but then, this England is imprinted in my mind. The quote which can add more substance to England of my dream is from The Duke & I : Is there anything more exciting, more romantic,… or more utterly moronic? The author here is talking of duel, but this quote can also be applied to England of Historical romance where women swoon, wear corsets, don’t talk much, don’t read, and are groomed to sing/embroider/run an estate; the England where men just go to clubs, hunt, become a spy, manage the estates, and work towards their rakishness in general.

D=Delhi from Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi

D never sired any doubts in my mind. The only place with “D” I wanted to talk about was Delhi. The only question was which Delhi do I want to talk about? The Connaught Place of Pricey Thakur Girls? Or Delhi of “Ministry of Utmost Happiness”? Maybe I want to talk about Delhi near IIT and take Chetan Bhagat just to spite myself? City of Djinns was a good book to introduce readers to Delhi.

But the problem with all these books was they were not describing “my” Delhi. I belong to Delhi (including my heart and soul). My childhood, teenage, and college years took me to those unknown corners of the city, and most of the time, it was in search of the food. So to bring Delhi in my blog, I selected the book called Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi. The author, like me, had travelled to many parts of Delhi in search of food. She felt like an outsider there (not at home like me), but her outlook shows us the Old Delhi in color. To my body living in Mumbai, the book was a peek back at what might have happened or might be happening at home. This post is in memory of Delhi food that I ache to taste sometimes in Mumbai. Mumbai might be a very good city, but when it comes to food, nothing can beat Delhi.

This book is an ode to Delhi’s weather and food. Although other parts of Delhi are explained in the book, but like me, the book thrives in Old Delhi. The book begins by explaining Delhi summers as “life-sapping feeling of being trapped inside a tandoor”. This was when I knew I wanted to see what is she talking about. Her exploration of Old Delhi starts at Sadar Bazar and Khari Baoli—two of most crowded places in Delhi at any time. She observes how “chai (tea) gets the market moving” because no morning starts without a cup of tea for many of the Indians. She explains the mayhem of the porters running back and forth with luggage cushioned on their head or in their carts in these areas. She also captures the crammed roads of old Delhi as “horns blare, bicycle horns tinkle, and skinny weather-beaten men in scraps of threadbare cloth wield sticks at equally bony bullocks.

She studies celebration Indian Independence Day in Delhi. “In Delhi kite battles are fought fiercely.” She even touches upon Janmashtami celebrations of Delhi as “parades of elephants, camels, horses, and requisite ragtag marching bands belting out tuneless cacophony”. Honestly, this is not my favorite description in the book. The cacophony is not tuneless—they belt out well-known tunes. I haven’t seen camels or elephants in Janmashtami too. But then, it is a festival when lots of road parades happen, so I am okay with discounting the author.

The author delves into the month after these festivals and states  “It was the calm before the storm of later autumn festivals—Raksha Bandhan, Independence Day, Janmashtami, Ramzan, Eid had whizzed by but there was still few weeks before Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali.” She understands how “not all food is to be available at all times, but there are seasons for carrots, mangoes, lychees, melons, etc.”

The book proclaims what I have always known for Delhi food, “Home cooks and even professional chefs can never compete with a street food vendor who’s been making the same dish hundred times a day, often for decades”. There is a section in which she wonders if  her “happiness levels were directly related to the time she spent thinking about, preparing and eating food”.  

If I start quoting Delhi of this book, I will end up quoting whole of the book. This part-memoir-part-recipe book illustrates what my Delhi looks like. So, I will end the post with the wish that author made, that I dream of: “If I had three wishes, one would be to time travel back to seventeenth century Delhi” to see her in its all glory.

C=84, Charing Cross Road

In past few days, I had been going through difficult time, and I requested Senior Raccoon group on Facebook, my reading group, to suggest me some feel-good books. This came as reference for that time. The book is very small, and it did not disappoint me.

The book is a letter-conversation between a reader in US, Helene Hanff, who is requesting the second-hand books from a store located in 84, Charing Cross Roads.

Honestly speaking, there is not much about the place covered here as much characters in the book, but it is the place which interested me more in the book. Letter after letter, the place came to life—Marks & Co. on 84, Charing Cross Roads. Helene sends across hams, eggs, and a lot of food stuff which I have no idea about to the people in the bookstore, and slowly with each character, the bookstore appears more clearly.  Helene Hanff  explains her fascination with London as “I live for the day when I step off the boat-train and feel its dirty sidewalks under my feet.” She says she will go “looking for the England of English Literature.” And that is what the book invokes me: a feeling that 84, Charing Cross Road is the “England of English Literature”.

In one of the letters written to author by author’s friend explain the bookshop as “loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens.” This small description is complete in itself. But the letter further describes, “It’s dim inside, you smell the shop before you see it, it’s a lovely smell, I can’t articulate it easily, but it combines must and dust and age, and walls of wood and floors of wood.” Can you imagine anything more peaceful than this shop? It sounds like heaven on earth.

The shop managed to find a lot of books for Helene. They are all listed out in the letters too and the book also has a bit of the bookish banter. I still do not understand how the book shipped from London to US could have costed less to her, but then I am not well-versed with US economy. It just reminds me of my childhood when I used to spend days and hours in the second-hand bookshops (Only the people there weren’t as nice as they are in these letters).

I have tried to keep this post as spoiler free as possible. I will close this letter from one of the snippets from the book as she urges her friend: “If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much (It here refers to Marks & Co.).”

I think I owe this place something too—for giving me a bookshop, for giving me a smile in VERY difficult time, for reminding me that there are so many more books to read. It is a very short read—97 pages only, and yet, it manages to transport the reader to a world where books are treated with love and respect.   

B=Benaras of Book “Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras”

“B” was one of the difficult choices in this list. I am living in Mumbai, and I wanted to cover Bombay. But more I thought, more I realized that the most of the Bombay that I read in the novels either was set in Bandra or in slums of Dharavi—none of the places I associate myself with.

But then, I realized I don’t want to write about Bombay. “B” reminds me of something else, someplace else—a place where I have never been, but yet I dream to go to. This is one of the few places in India which I want to explore. “B” reminds me Benaras and brings to me chimes of worship near Ganga river. Benaras is now named as Varanasi, but the book I am talking of calls it Benaras– Where even the Present is Ancient: Benaras. I do not think a lot of people know of this book, but I got a chance to read and review the book as a part of The Book Club. I did a review for the book in 2014, almost 5 years ago. But the lines of the poems in the book are still afresh in my mind.

The book starts its first poem by explaining what Benaras is:

Sometimes Benaras seems like a poem,

A long lost one, at that.

I know Benaras for Ganga, for a river that is known to wash away the sins of humankind. Even though I do not believe in such words, yet, sometimes, I wonder how much the river bears. Many times, I recall the lines from a poem in this book called “Meeting Ganga”

I meet Ganga today.

Still, amazing,

complex and terrifying,

melancholic, even sad at times–

her feelings hidden away in gentle laps

I thought.

For those who have sat near Ganga hearing the chants of “Har Har Gange” might get the above lines better. Benaras also means Gods and religion and that’s she describes as:

In Benaras, you open a gate, a God pops out.

Then the poem explores Manikarnika ghat and Assi ghat where the dead bodies are cremated/burnt. The book does not miss the evening prayer ritual of Benaras, the Maha arati on the Dashwamedha Ghat. She explains the whole ritual so simply in following lines:

Tourists shrieked, conch shells sounded

humanity applauded.

I lit a small lamp and let it flow

Into the unknown corridors of faith

I have seen so much of Benaras in these lines that it stayed with me even after 5 years. This is a book which put Benaras on my bucket list. And I haven’t been there yet because I do not just want to go there for one or two days. I want to meet the city like the author did, seeing all ghats, spending time with Ganga, watching Sadhus, finding that God hidden in every door, trysting with Benaras at different times to know it inside out.  I am not sure I will be able to do all these things, and hence, Benaras still remains on the bucket-list of mine, this Benaras where even the present is ancient.

It is sad that the book is not very famous. It deserves to be known. It deserves to be talked about. 78 pages and each page packs a punch!

A= Afghanistan of A Thousand Splendid Suns

“A” is such an interesting letter. A is the first alphabet of four of the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, and Antarctica. Then there are places like Aymanam from  God of Small Things that is forever imprinted on my mind. A offered me many options for selection. Still, this alphabet turned out to be the easiest one for me. All the options tried to seduce me in writing about them, of course, but my heart only went to one place and my first choice—Afghanistan of Khaled Hosseini that he brought to life in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I am a child of 1980s. By the time I came to understand or even think of Afghanistan, the war had already ravaged the country. News highlighted the place. For me, it was the city of wars, extremism and refugees. I am not trying to insult anyone here, but that’s all I knew. I was an ignorant teenager who had little interest in world politics. Till the newspaper highlighted the country, I had no particular thoughts about it.

I did read “Kite Runner” too, but that was more of a mixed book with all countries covered in. Even though Afghanistan is at its centre, there still are tangents. It was this book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, which made me see Afghanistan. As the book describes the city using lines of poems:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,

Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” (Pg 149)

The book spans two different eras for Afghanistan. The first era is the era of Mariam—the first character who was born in 1959, in peaceful Afghanistan. Part 1 of the book defines the Kabul which has just heard the distant echoes of wars and has not faced them directly. In Mariam’s words, one of the leading characters, tell about her impression of modern women in Kabul.

“Yes, modern Afghan women married to modern Afghan men who did not mind their wives walked among strangers with makeup on their faces and nothing on their heads. Mariam watched them cantering uninhibited down the street, sometimes with a man, sometimes alone, sometimes with rosy-cheeked children…”

This was the Afghanistan I hadn’t thought of, a country devoid of wars and tyranny , but home where people—men and women—lived in harmony. The book not only talks about the modern people.

It also talks about Afghani food like borani, daal, rice etc. There is a reference to communal tandoor where Mariam would go after kneading her dough where “Mariam could hear their high-pitched chatter, their spiralling laughs.” She also “caught the banter which had to do with sick children or lazy husbands.

This was a new Afghanistan I was seeing, yet it felt similar to my own country in some ways.  There is a beautiful description of Ramadan and Id which brought the city to life for me. All is not rosy in that world as well. In fact, the book shows the divide of that time between rural and urban Afghanistan. Book touches on the struggle of women who are new to burqa with quotes like how it “hampers the peripheral vision” but yet provide a “one-way window to the world.

Then came the Part-2 of the book which took me back to those newspapers and news channels showing the city being eaten up by war. When the book took the readers to Buddha’s statues in Bamiyan, I was living in the pages of the book seeing the world through the cavities in this huge Buddha statue. The lush green fields “bordered by poplars, criss-crossed by streams and irrigation ditches” mesmerized me as well along with Laila, the second character of the book. My gasp was real when I read about the statues being blasted.

I do not want to give the spoilers about the book, else there is much more marked up in my copy of the book. So, I will close it here. Also, I would like to clarify that this book talks about a lot more stuff—gender inequalities, the bombings, Taliban, education, and resurrection of Afghanistan as well. Even though my post just covers the setting of past and present as explained in the book, the book itself is more than that. If you haven’t read the book, do read it. It is one of the most heart-wrenching stories.

P.S. All the text marked in italics is from the book directly.

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