J= J&K from Ministry of Utmost Happiness

J was a conflicting choice for me. Let me tell you first that I am going to talk about Jammu & Kashmir from Ministry of Utmost Happiness today. I have a friend who dislikes the author Arundhati Roy so much that he is not ready to give any of her books a chance. We had had a dirty shouting match about the left-right political ideologies, and since then, I have been very afraid of talking about this book. I tried to change my choice to Japan, but that didn’t feel right. I thought shifting the book to Delhi because the book covers almost all of the country, but that also didn’t feel right. So, here I am, writing about Jammu & Kashmir of the book that I know somebody hates.

What do you think of when Jammu and Kashmir comes to your mind? A paradise? Or as the book starts with the description of Kashmir—“snowy landscape and happy people in warm clothing sitting in snow sledges?” But this book shows the murkier water of Kashmir.

Next time the Jammu and Kashmir she talks of is in Delhi—sitting near Jantar Mantar, protesting. She wraps this J&K in “Association of Mothers of the Disappeared, whose suns had gone missing, in the war for freedom in Kashmir”. She explains their banner as

The Story of Kashmir

Dead= 68000

Disappeared=10000

Is it Democracy or Demon Crazy?

I ask again the question I kept on asking myself as I read the book. What do I think of when I think of J&K? The answers I had were “Pakistan”, “India”, “Wars”. But the book hinted on the mass exodus of Hindu Pandits from their houses. And I could not stop thinking of how many partitions we are going to go through?

The book further explores the concept of “freedom of Kashmir” and how absurd it is to the people from outside Kashmir. She goes deeper explaining the Kashmir from dissociative POVs—there is J&K which calls for our sympathy, where people are killed and imprisoned without any reasons, where terrorists are borne out of nowhere, where they are fighting to survive. There is J&K which is stupid in being swept away in the wind of “Jihad”, which does not understand what is good/right, which is an enemy of humanity.

I will deny the fact that the book is a chaos. There are threads crawling in the book from so many places. It is like you untangle one tragedy, there will be a next one waiting for you in the next lines. Despite that, the book made me think and wonder and worry. It made me rethink the meaning of humanity for me. There is a chapter in the book called “The Death of Miss Jebeen” which describes how a three-year-old girl ended up becoming a martyr along with her mother. Even the thought about this gives me Goosebumps.

There are many villains in the story. In fact, every character is a villain of some or the other kind. What J&K was left in my mind after reading the book? The J&K which is explained in this passage:

“In every part of the legendary Valley of Kashmir, whatever people might be doing—walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home—they were in the rifle-sights of a soldier. And because they were in the rifle-sights of a soldier, whatever they might be doing—walking, praying, bathing, cracking jokes, shelling walnuts, making love or taking a bus-ride home—they were a legitimate target.” 

Please understand this is one of the most political books I have read, and it happened to have quite a lot of vitriol in it. But then when I read, I dissociate and see from different perspectives. If your are in any way bothered by such thoughts, don’t read it.

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H=Hogwarts from Harry Potter Series

Hogwarts does not need any introduction. If you have ever read Harry Potter or maybe even watched any of the movie, you would remember Hogwarts. So, this is going to be a short post.

When I first read about Hogwarts, the best thing for me about the school was the sense of discovery. There are so many rooms, so much of magic in those halls that even teachers and guardians did not know what could be uncovered. The Great Hall, the different houses and their common rooms, the moving staircases, the flying ghosts, the paintings which could talk– I could go on and on and on.

Hogwarts is a school, but not in the traditional sense. It allows you to learn and grow and most importantly, explore. There are places like Chamber of Secrets which were untouched. The exploration was so much the part of the school that there was a whole Marauder Map which could track people.

Lastly, I would like to mention Hogwarts library where so many books were available. Every time, I read about Hogwarts, I wondered if there is a letter which is going to come for me too, even during this late age.

Hogwarts is a dream-school, despite being dangerous, it is a place which I would love to explore if given a chance.

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.   

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