Book Review: The Other Side of the Divide

Published in Daily Star Bangladesh on May 23, 2020

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The Other Side of the Divide by Sameer Arshad Khatlani journeys through the precarious landscape of people who live on both sides of the divide — the divide caused by the line drawn by Radcliffe in 1947 to split the subcontinent into Pakistan and India. The angst, the wounds linger on through even pandemics like COVID 19.

Was this divide a need of the Muslims or was it a result of politics beyond the comprehension of a common citizen of the Indian subcontinent, irrespective of the religion?

Sameer Arshad Khatlani, a journalist who had been with The Times of India during his trip, and then in Indian Express and now in Hindustan Times, journeyed to Lahore for a Peace Conference in December 2013 and in the process uncovered a story beyond the one given out. Though his book is compacted within that time period, it took years of research to write the book and it was finally published in 2020, just post the riots in Delhi and a little before COVID 19 disrupted our way of life. The book was something he wanted to do. In an earlier interview, he tells us, “I have always been very curious about Pakistan and wanted to write the book because I thought I have a unique, layered perspective that will make it compelling given the straight jacketed approach towards that country in India. The focus in India on issues that reinforce the same old view of Pakistan has left many compelling stories untold. I wanted to narrate those. Pakistan is a complex country and I thought its complexities were worth exploring in the form of a book.”

His book starts with the dilemma of Muslims who continued in India. They were not in favour of such a divide as it would upend their lives. And it did. They ended up in refugee camp. The reason given for the divide was politics per se: “Pakistan’s idea as a separate Muslim homeland—which was dismissed as ‘chimerical and impractical’ in the 1930s—now suddenly gathered steam. a tacit British support was at play—the payback Muhammad ali Jinnah received for backing the British war effort.”

Khatlani gives a first-person account. His family itself opposed his trip. He clarifies, their reactions or that of many Indian Muslims “can be traced to a latent legacy of wounds the subcontinent’s division inflicted on them and millions of other ordinary people.” They felt visiting Pakistan would be “rash.” Khatlani elaborates, “Like any average Indian, they hear, see and watch nothing that might humanize Pakistan. Not surprisingly, the country comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its portrayal in the news media, the cinema, as well as the terror attacks that emanate from that country.” When he does journey across, he finds a world where “India’s ‘soft power’, the reach and impact of Bollywood, helps offset anti-India sentiments in Pakistan. it humanizes India among the Pakistani masses; many shared problems besetting the two countries thus appear to be lopsided.”

He takes us through Pakistan weaving in how Partition created ruptures where none had been. The Radcliffe line split communities and villages. His telling is reminiscent of the fallacy described in Larry Collins’ Dominique La Pierre’s book Freedom at Midnight (1975). “Sometimes the line ran down the heart of a village, leaving a dozen huts in India, a dozen more in Pakistan. Occasionally it even bisected a home, leaving a front door opening onto India and a rear window looking into Pakistan.”

Khatlani factors in the human suffering sustained over the years by the community, the aftermath. He explains how “almost all Bhanu Chak residents have roots in Alwar and Bharatpur. However, none of them had been able to travel to meet their relatives in decades.”

Read the rest in Daily Star, Bangladesh, by clicking here

Book Review: The Good Day I Died by Desmond Kon

(Published in Modern Literature)

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Be silent in that solitude,
   Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
   In life before thee are again
In death around thee – and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still.
(From Spirits of the Dead by Edgar Allan Poe, 1827)

 

 

Almost two centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote these lines. Why did he write these lines? Why did he write of spirits? Did he glimpse life after death as described by the well-known Singaporean poet and writer Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé in his recent book, The Good Day I died, The Near-Death Experience of a Harvard Divinity Student (2019)?

Desmond in his ‘quasi-memoir’ (as he calls his narrative) tells us of his near-death experience in Harvard where his heart had stopped beating and he had to be resuscitated.

“There were thousands of people, all lit like white light, walking in one direction. Down the road, making a right turn, and out into the main road. Again, this only reflected the route outside my house, yet there were none of the accouterments. I remember being in awe of the sight, but I never joined them. I was always behind the window.”

And Desmond remained in the room till he was returned to his body – in effect asked to go back as he was not ready to die. He had a telepathic conversation with angels who “told him to return if that was what I wanted. They then said: ‘We’ll come back for you another time.’”

Desmond goes into the circumstances, touches on them but not quite – his post-structuralist book is more an intellectual, erudite discussion with outbursts of emotion that touches the heart with poetic intensity. His choice of words essentially defines his experience – for instance, the use of the word “accouterments” gives a sense of a ceremonial procession almost Catholic in its intent. Desmond confesses he attempts a spiritually-centred worldview and lifestyle with his Christian upbringing, from a spiritually inclined family as he tells us in his book and has studied world religions in Harvard. He admits, “Were they angels? I would like to say there were. But to be responsible to both the reader and my memory, I’ll freely admit that I use the word ‘angel’ because that is the language I choose to access.”

But interspersed with his telling are literary outpourings from 2007 till now that he brings in to bridge the gap between our comprehension of the enormity of what he experienced and how it impacted his future life – for one he changed the flow of his career from that of a journalist to that of a full-fledged writer doing things that were more meaningful to him. “As mentioned previously, my own poetic vision and style started attaining a greater transparency.”

He has used some of his own earlier published works and interviews to summon more empathy for his experience.He has brought in his extensive research for this book and quoted many writers and books through his telling. While most writers would write the story, he meanders in a post-structuralist fashion. We pick it up in bits as we read. There are chapters on the real experience interspersed with his observations on the impact it had on his own work and reading. What makes this book unique is partly the post-structuralist telling. The other unusual feature in the book is it runs like a self-administered interview.For instance, he has a chapter heading – ‘Recollection’ followed by a question like “Many NDE accounts share surprisingly similar details. Let’s go through systematically the various elements of NDEs. Did you have an out of the body experience? Was there, for you, a distinct separation of your consciousness from your material body?” And he goes on to answer the question in this Chapter, starting: “Definitely, I had an out-of the body experience…”The next chapter is Disclosure, where he brings in his experience of angels. To authenticate it, he brings in interviews he has had earlier on his experience in journals. And then he plunges into his poetry and his work and the Bible. He quotes – sometimes, from the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and multiple post-structuralist writers, sometimes the Bible, sometimes his own works and sometimes, more conventional structured writers. His post-structural creation knows no bounds of erudition or of deconstruction

At the end of the book he talks of his takeaway, his insights – another feature that make the book really unique. He has devoted a whole chapter to this and come up with values that should move mankind: “Humility. Kindness. Gratitude.” and “Love is the answer.”  He has gone into different lores to find answers. He quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book How to Love:“True love is made of four elements: loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. In Sanskrit, these are maitri, karuna, mudita, and upeksha. If your love contains these elements, it will be healing and transforming, and it will have the elements of holiness in it.”

He even pauses a moment to glimpse at Emily Dickinson’s dignified stance- “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me” in her poem The Chariot(1890). He wonders if he should have gone with the angels, but he does not “have definitive answers”, he admits. However, he concludes his book with ecstasy in having lived on –“Wonderful, even as so much remains to be known, the world filling itself with wonder. Wonderful. Wonderful indeed.”

And does anybody have a definitive answer?

In A Heart of Darkness (1899), Joseph Conrad tried to trace the death experience of the villainous Kurtz: “Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror – of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

The horror! The horror!”

 And Kurtz died.

In antithesis, Desmond returns to life to enjoy the wonders of living – to discover that life is a gift and the best thing that he can have. Earlier in his NDE, he does talk of going through a few moments of terror before he emerges out into the white light experience. He writes, “Yes, the sense of fear was terrifying. The sheer intensity” and“I felt myself drowning, choking on something red-hot as that had the taste of blood and rust and fire, as if I was drowning in lava.”

 

Read the rest in Modern Literature by clicking here

Book of the Year: Jorasanko

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Title: Jorasanko

Author: Aruna Chakravarti

Jorasanko was published in 2013, but it has been the best book I read this year, especially relevant for understanding the violence faced by women in our society, the fear instilled in them by age old blind beliefs and customs. Authored by Aruna Chakravarti, a translator, writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner,  the novel gives the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s family and the Nobel laureate himself — his wife, his inspiration, his daughters and the women who grew up within the manor of the same name in Calcutta.

What is fascinating is not just the compelling storytelling but the history of Indian women emerging out of abarodh and moving towards progress and education. Abarodh, literally means blockade, is the state of purdah among the Hindu women where we are told, they did not even have adequate woollens or shoes to face the winter as it was deemed unnecessary because they lived behind closed doors and never stepped out. It is an in depth telling, or a historical account one can say, of a change in the psyche of womenfolk in India, of the awakening of their strength and their sense of independence and also of Tagore’s own realisation of how much these women had impacted his life and creations.

It starts with Tagore’s grandfather, father, his brothers and then him. The story is not the Nobel laureate centric but women centric. We see Jnananandini emerge out of the young simple child Genu, the fashionable and Westernised mejoboudi* who evolved the modern day style of wearing the saree with a blouse; Kadambari, his sister-in-law who suffered from depression and yet was his inspiration and most importantly, Mrinalini or Chhuti, his own wife, a woman who metamorphosed into a butterfly from a caterpillar and the one who exorcised the ghost of Kadambari with her own vibrancy. Perhaps, one should not call Mrinalini a butterfly but a deep, caring, nurturing, kind and strong woman. She stood by her husband to her end.

I felt the book is really relevant in context of the current crisis faced by women where rape accompanied by murder seem to be on the rise in India.

The deeply patriarchal mindset prevalent in Tagore’s grandfather, Debendranath — who despite moving on to Brahmo faith, refused to countenance widow remarriage — can still be seen in the patriarchal statements made by earlier politicians in India about women’s safety and security and PM Modi’s stunning silence as rape and murder cases keep rising. Debendranath had perhaps a less patriarchal mindset despite his belief in abarodh and his opposition to widow remarriage as he does eventually cleave in to his grand daughter travelling to Mysore to teach in a school run by the Maharaja. That in the nineteenth century, men compelled women to stay home within ‘safe’ boundaries while they were free to indulge their whims and the women complied is well woven into the fabric of the narrative.

They advocated safety for women by keeping them in the house, and not by educating humans to treat women as equals and as more than vessels for bearing children and seducing men. That was actually the role of the woman as prescribed by Tagore’s mother who believed in, lived and died within the confines of the abarodh. We are told that she firmly believes, “Females… were required by society to perform only two functions. To serve as sex partners to men and to perpetuate their lineage.”

The call for change starts with Tagore’s generation. Satyandranath, Tagore’s elder brother, freshly returned with an ICS from England tells his father, Debendrenath —“…An educated woman will find it more difficult to stay within the rules of the abarodh. Education must go hand in hand with freedom. One without the other is meaningless.” When Debendrenath expresses his distaste for the changes his ICS son is making to the house and hearth as the women never complained, Satyandranath tells his father —“They don’t even know they have a right to complain. They’ve been conditioned, so thoroughly, to accept their lot in life that they have no idea that something is missing?”

Can this statement be still seen as true for some of the womenfolk in India and across the world? Can it be women are still pre-conditioned to look at themselves as helpless and disempowered when faced with masculine might?

As early as 1931, Begum Rokeya had written a novel called Abarodh Basini, which is said to be a spirited attack on women in purdah. Attempts are being made repeatedly to create an awareness and bring in a change. Things have definitely improved over the last century for women in general — though one is not fully certain looking at the violence and violation countenanced by them in the recent months if the perpetrators have evolved as humans at all.

The need for educating men and women to counter violence and violation of women is an ongoing issue. We find in these pages a powerful awareness among women wakening to the negatives of purdah and concealment, to the need for education and emancipation, to rebel against strong reinforcements of patriarchy.

This should be a book read by every man and woman. And then we should wonder — when will we all learn to be human … look beyond our animal needs and instincts and rise above them to have a humane world.

 

*middle sister-in-law

Book of the Year

 

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Title: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

 

Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated, struck me as an unusual read because it touched my heart. It had to do with people, their reactions and their ability to override adversities and find their way in a world very different from the one they were born to. Philanthropist and tech giant Bill Gates summed up the most important thing in the book in his review in Goodreads. “Her dad taught the kids that they could teach themselves anything, and Tara’s success is a testament to that.”

Born into a conservative Mormon home that rejected even basic civic services like education and medicine from the state, Tara and her six siblings received almost no schooling except how to fend for themselves and survive in a difficult and hostile environment. Three of the seven children, including Tara, despite not even having regular home schooling, went on to earn PHDs. The urge to learn came from within. The only schooling they had was from the lessons taught by life.

Transcending the limits and boundaries laid out for her by her parents, rebelling against odds, trying to dance in a sweatshirt instead of a tutu, attempting to conform to be like her peers who attended school and went for movies, Tara earns the sympathy of the reader as she finds it natural to love and battle for acceptance from all the members of her unusual family, a family that could have been termed abusive in their use of children in the current day context. The children were made a part of her dad’s “crew” and would labor under unsafe conditions, so much so that her brothers and father ended up with permanent scarring through life and her mother ‘changed’ after her head injury went untreated in a car accident. Her mother was a healer. The whole family turned to herbs and energy healing for medical needs and avoided hospitals and conventional health care. The father would hoard food for the advent of a hypothetical apocalypse when all the modern systems would collapse. While Tara studied in university, she discovered her father could be having psychiatric problems. Yet her love, tolerance and kindness towards him, though he refused treatment, remains unparalleled. That she could find love and learn from every adverse situation she faced with the family is fantastic and admirable.

It is difficult to sum up a memoir that journeys into a world that is so unusual, one whose parallels for me lie in the fifteenth or sixteenth century witch hunts described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter and by Arthur Miller in his play, Crucible. To find strength and emerge unscarred from a world that is dark with misconception and yet a critique on what our current beliefs and way of life are, is an amazing feat that has been successfully performed by Tara Westover. It is an education to learn that such an island of belief systems still exist in the heart of America, a set of thoughts and lifestyle which are perhaps as unique as that of indigenous tribes that stay removed from modern life. That basic humanitarian needs are often flouted by such a group within a leading philanthropic, charitable country is amazing.

The transition from her family’s world, the movement away from staunch Mormonism to being a liberal educated thinking person is stretched over a long journey into which Tara Westover is pushed by her siblings, and perhaps, her mother too. Finally she emerges into an independent entity, a scholar from Cambridge. She describes this process as “selfhood”. The last lines best describe what she feels she has become.

“You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.

I call it an education.”

To talk of stylistic perfection and literary devices in a book of this stature would seem superfluous. All one can say is that the book is so perfectly conceived and written that it is an unstoppable read, one that cannot be put down till the last page is reached. It has won the Goodreads Choice award for Memoirs and Autobiography. It has been a finalist for a number of awards and The New York Times listed Educated as one of the top ten books of 2018.

What I see myself take away from this classic is a lesson in tolerance, innocence, humility, kindness and love, the values that create a human being; an education in human excellence and what wonders unstructured learning can do for people, despite the risks the Westover family children faced on a daily basis.

This is one of the most impactful and wonderful books I have ever read.

 

 

Book of the Week

 

 

Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948

 

Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…

 

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

Book Review

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Title: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge

Author: Charlie Lovett

Published in 2016, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett is the story of the changes wrought in and wrought by Scrooge two decades after his ghostly adventures. It shows how the protagonist of A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens, published in 1843) creates a kind of butterfly effect to ripple social reforms in the world around him. The supernatural story is set in Dickensian England, twenty years after three ghosts paid a visit to Scrooge on Christmas eve to help make him a kind, humane, helpful man and to instill good values in him.

Lovett has made the spirit of giving the theme of the whole book, just like Dickens did. At the start of the book you have a quote by filmmaker Valentine Davies, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind”. And, it is in that spirit of giving that you have the altered Scrooge wishing everybody “Merry Christmas” in the middle of June. Lovett says he started by parodying the first paragraph of Dickens, which starts “Marley was dead to begin with”. Lovett starts with “Scrooge was alive to begin with”. Lovett starts with a sense of hope and continues bringing hope through the book. Dickens starts with a bleak picture and through darkness, he brings light and hope.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge fears the ghost of his former partner Marley and the three spirits. In Lovett’s book, Scrooge looks forward to seeing them. It is to help free Marley from his ghostly and shackled existence, Scrooge embarks on his second adventure with ethereal beings. Again in A Christmas Carol, Marley had helped Scrooge and in The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge helps Marley, Bob Cratchit, his former clerk and current partner, his nephew, bankers, the rich, the poor and the world. He helps bring out the need and to help mankind in others and make this world a better place.

The sequence of the ghosts is pretty much the same as in A Christmas Carol. I will say one thing of this book that one has to be familiar with Dickens’ creation to really appreciate Lovett’s sequel. First the spirit of Bob Marley initiates Scrooge in what he is to expect and then come the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future… except in Lovett’s book, Scrooge directs and accompanies the spirits to the persons who need to be awakened to make the changes. Unlike in Dickens where Scrooge went alone with the spirit, two men and the ghost embark on an adventure together.

The two books can be regarded as a set. Lovett has actually taken the sense of social reform a step further than Dickens and said how the reforms were being started and continued. Both the books end with a note of hope. They are good if you read them together or present them as a set to someone for Christmas.

Lovett has actually captured the Dickensian spirit of reform to make the world a better place more effectively than the Hollywood movie Scrooged (1988), for which again you need to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol. Scrooged is set in a more modern world context but the dialogues are weak and I would give it an adult rating for some of the dialogues, violence and disturbing content.

Lovett’s book is not only in the spirit of Christmas, reform and Dickens but it also is one which the whole family can read together… from age eight to eighty, a rare occurrence in present day literature. Perhaps, they can even make a movie of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge one Christmas!

Book Review

 

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Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Author: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the script of the movie of the same name,  written by JK Rowling. It was released on 18th November, 2016. Rowling’s style is distinctive, racy and clear. I enjoyed it while it lasted.

The book takes you on a journey to 1920s New York, where witch-hunts are still common. The dark wizard, Gellert Grindewald, is supposed to be on the loose and has wreaked havoc in Europe.

Newt Scamander, the protagonist of the story, is on a mission to free a magnificent thunderbird, an enormous magical creature somewhat like an albatross. He found it chained and wounded in an Egyptian black market. Being an animal lover, he rescued the magical creature and was trying to return it to its habitat in Arizona at the start of the story. He has a magical suitcase in which he conceals his astounding zoo with many wonderful magical creatures with the help of an extendable charm.

Scamander travels incognito to America and holds a muggle ( non-magical person), in MACUSA terminology, a no-maj, passport. MACUSA is an organization called the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is more or less a parallel to Ministry of Magic in the UK. You have an interesting angle brought in with Salem witch hunters trying to hunt out witches and a new dark energy called obscurial found in children who are forced to repress their magical energy.

Grindewald, under the guise of a MACUSA official, tries to harness the energy of obscurials for his own intent. Scamander, with his kind heart, tries to help prevent the destruction of an obscurial. However, at the end the obscurial is destroyed and Grindewald is exposed. The MACUSA, which had put a ban on all magical creatures that Scamander carried with him in his case, viewed him as an offender initially. When Scamander helps expose Grindewald, they become very positively inclined towards him. He also uses the thunderbird to erase muggle memory off these events, thus helping the MACUSA continue it’s secret existence.

There is a romantic angle brought in by the Goldestein sisters, Tina and Queenie. They grew up in USA and studied in Ilvermorny, the counterpart of Hogwarts.

The story is interesting but too short. The script is exactly like the movie. However, It would have been nice to have a little more, both of the movie and the book. More could have been shown of the fantastic creatures created by JK Rowling. There is a whole lot available on Pottermore in the internet if you want to know. Perhaps, it would be nicer if some more of the Pottermore stories had been incorporated into the script.

You could have stories on how Scamander found each beast, on Tina and Queenie, on Grindewald and his ultimate battle with Voldemort, on how all this led to Harry Potter and his gang. You could do a whole series of books based on the lore started in The Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them.

Fantastic Beasts, is definitely a better read than The Cursed Child, but both these books have left readers thirsting for more books before and after the advent of Harry Potter. The book was fun. It would have been better as a proper book instead of a movie script. The earlier book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  Newt Scamander, published in 2001, has just got descriptions of magical creatures but not Scamander’s adventures. It would be good to have his adventures told.

Like The Cursed Child and unlike the earlier Harry Potter novels, one would have to be familiar with  Potter lore to appreciate this book fully.

I would like to look forward to a Harry Potter series that stretches out like the Star Wars adventures, making for a good read and written by JK Rowling herself…

 

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Book Review

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Title: Harry Potter And The Cursed Child

Author: Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling

                  John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

                   A new play by Jack Thorn

The earlier Harry Potter books make me happy. They bring sunshine into my mind, hope and happiness. But does the new book do this for me?

Perhaps, to an extent it does, though I do feel sorry for Harry’s sons, especially his teenager, Albus Severus Potter. At his age Harry, Hermione and Ron were having adventures of their own, whereas he needs a father to rescue him from the villain, who is really not as powerful as Voldemort.

This eighth story set nineteen years after Voldemort’s death spans a period of about three years, starts where the last Harry Potter, the Deathly Hallows, ended … at the King’s Cross Station.

It has been conceptualized by three persons; J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Thorne wrote it down as a play, much less detailed, much more focused on inter-personal relationships (father/son).

Perhaps, that is why, to some Harry Potter fans, it was a disappointment. While familiarity with the earlier stories is necessary to the understanding of the play, it is not as detailed as JK Rowling’s earlier books. Each Harry Potter novel could have been treated independently as a separate story. They were detailed enough to make them independent of each other as a lone book.

There is a new villain, Augurey, Voldemort’s daughter from Bellatrix Lestrange! She battles to bring her father back to life. Augurey is thwarted by Harry Potter’s younger son, Albus Severus Potter and his best friend, Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, who is as bookish as Hermione was in her schooldays. The boys are helped by their parents to overthrow her. There are lots of surprises when it comes to characters. Hermione is the minister of magic. Ron, her husband, runs the Weasley joke shop, which was Fred and George’s baby. So, what happened to George and Percy (who returns to the folds of his family in the last book)? Harry is the Head of Magical Law Enforcement. Ginny, his wife, is a homemaker, a mother of three. What happened to Luna and Neville? We are vaguely told Neville is a professor of herbology in Hogwarts. I was disappointed. I thought Neville would have done better than that, especially after his fabulous performance in the Battle of Hogwarts. The Headmistress of Hogwarts is Professor McGonagall. She is constantly ordered around by Harry, who seems to be rather bossy in the play. He was  humbler and kinder in the earlier books.

Also Voldemort having a daughter seems to be a bit out of character. He had been portrayed as wanting to be an immortal without competition. He would never have let anybody near him neither would he have loved or lusted for anyone. As a villain, he was inhuman in that he had no bodily existence till the fourth book and even after that he was not whole. Remember, there were eight horcruxes made from his soul.

However, despite the inconsistencies, the play is very well written. Independently, it would have been interesting if not for the inconsistencies and the dependence on having readers who are familiar with the earlier books. Perhaps, the next generation could have been given more free play and Harry’s generation should have taken a backseat graciously.

Though it is Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy who travel back in time to try and rescue Cedric and make changes to the future, the situation has to be eventually rectified by the intervention of Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron and Draco Malfoy, who in keeping with his earlier tendencies has moved away from dark magic completely. Cedric is not brought back to life as he would have turned into a death eater.

Rowling claimed that the play would explore the previously untold story of Harry’s early years as an orphan and outcast ( Matilda Battersby, 26 June 2015,  The Independent, London) but all we get to see are some of Harry’s dreams involving Aunt Petunia, a few of which Harry says never happened. We do get to see how Harry’s parents died, thanks to the travel in time with a time turner, but the magic spun by Rowling in the earlier books seems to have diminished.

The details are much lesser. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are very detailed in their descriptions. The play skims over the details. A play format would not allow for the kind of details Harry Potter fans expect of her storytelling. But then, we need to remember that the book is not by  Rowling alone. The concept could be hers but the story is by three authors together. Therefore, it is bound to be different from the earlier books. The villain is less powerful than Voldemort. The protagonist Albus, is more a troubled teen than the hero Harry was. Ron’s and Hermione’s children are only in the peripheries. Many characters, like Tonk’s son, Luna, Bill, the adult Weaseleys, Kingsley Amis, Xenophilus Lovegood, Professors Flitwick, Trelawny, Slughorn etc have been totally left out…not even mentioned…The plot at best seems to be a bit weak.

Perhaps, the Harry Potter series should best have ended with a bang, the death of Voldemort, rather than a whimper, the imprisonment of Augurey. We should have had, rather, a new series about the sons of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

 

Book of the week

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Title : Pebble in the Sky
Author: Isaac Asimov

Published in 1950, Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov makes for racy reading! It has an optimistic projection of the future.

Most of the story is set in a galactic empire, where Earth is but a pebble in the sky. Mankind has spread through the galaxy as Earth has become radioactive. A small population lives in the unaffected part of the contaminated Earth, which has become a part of a large galactic federation ruled by a representative of the galactic government, the procurator.

Joseph Schwartz, a sixty-two year old tailor from 1949 Chicago, is transported in time through eleven millenia into the radioactive Earth by some mysterious force.The people from the future initially regarded Schwartz as an imbecile as he did not comprehend or speak the common language. They used him as a guinea pig in an experiment to enhance brain powers. After the experiment, he not only picked up their language, but could read others thoughts and even kill without touching a person. His intellect was enhanced to a point that he uncovers and prevents a plot to destroy all the planets except Earth. The brotherhood that rules the earth, the Ancients, had developed a biological weapon to destroy mankind that living in the extra terrestrial world.

The Ancients were power brokers who sought to be exclusive.They had even installed euthanasia as a practice for majority of people over sixty, arguing that as most resources on Earth were contaminated and radioactive, they could at any point support only twenty million people. To make space for the younger population, at sixty, people were sent to die. However, some people, like the rulers themselves, were exempt of euthanasia.

Schwartz, with his enhanced intellect that he christens  Mind Touch , towers above the normal Earthmen and brings peace and sanity back to Earth. At the end, the new forces that govern the Earth set to rebuild the planet by replacing it’s radioactive top layer with healthy soil so that it could support more people and become self-sufficient.

The book starts and ends with a refrain from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra(1864). Shwartz is reciting these lines as he walks, ruminating on the hope for a happy retired life with his wife at the start of the book before he travels into the future.  At the end of the book, as he walks the new Earth that is being rebuild he again recalls,

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

The Ancients had taken away this privilege of growing old from Earthmen. In a way, Schwatrz, an old man from the past, returns it to them and the future that the best is yet to be. There is hope again for a wonderful future.

Interestingly, a year before Asimov published this book, Goerge Orwell published 1984. In 1984, Earth post world war is painted as bleak and hopeless. To love or live outside the box created by the Big Brother is hopeless and leads to death and desolation. There is no hope for the future. It is frightening in it’s depiction. In Pebble in the Sky, Asimov has started with a depiction of a bleak Earth but has ended his book giving hope for a fantastic future among the stars where mankind can flourish with his dreams and visions and look forward to an infinite of space and time… suggesting the best is yet to be.