One of the ways I coped being within the circle was by reading books and this year particularly, I lost myself in many of them. Each one of them was different in its own way and a discovery by itself.
In the beautiful stillness that enveloped me on many a day, these books kept me engrossed like a sliver of light in dark days.
I must admit that I am a traveler on two roads: the one I greatly relish exploring is in the realm of nonfiction. Occasionally I heed Frost’s advice and take the road that leads me into the land of fiction and poetry. Hence, not surprisingly, the “list” of top ten books is a healthy blend of the two!
Like a spider I was weaving a web and many a book landed there…these are some that attracted my attention!
EAT THE BUDDHA
The Chinese have been trying to quash Tibetan independence for decades. There have been very few books that offer insights about the travails of Tibetans trying to preserve their culture, faith and language against the depredations of a seemingly unstoppable superpower. In this engaging book, Demick profiles a town in China's sprawling Sichuan Province. Travelling in disguise to evade the Chinese authorities, Demick interviewed residents of the town Ngaba over three years. In the 1930’s Mao’s Red Army fled to the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War. By the time the soldiers reached remote Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter. To Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha. Over the years the town became a hotbed of Tibetan resistance, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation. To make sure that there was no chance of rescue, some wrapped themselves in quilts and wire, while others drank gasoline so they burned from the inside. Over the course of centuries, hundreds of monks took their own lives. Having steeped themselves in Dalai Lama’s message of peace, the protesters turned the violence inward. One monk left a recording, “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness to free all beings from suffering.” The book is a vivid portrait of the lives of a people locked in a struggle for identity and independence. It was curious to read that “In 2007, the State Administration for Religious Affairs issued an order that said in essence that one needed advance permission from the Chinese government in order to be reincarnated!”
I am mesmerized by birds of prey and find them to be majestic. Helen Macdonald wrote a book “H for Hawk” a few years ago. It is a powerful narrative of the author’s battle with depression after the loss of her father and how she coped with it by acquiring a pet Goshawk called Mabel. Her new essay collection, “Vesper Flights”, is a stunning book that urges us to reconsider our relationship with the natural world, and the need to preserve it. As she writes in the introduction, "I choose to think that my subject is love, and most specifically love for the glittering world of non-human life around us." And that love is palpable in every page of the book.
YOU ARE NOT LISTENING
How often do we really listen to someone properly? This is a book that urges us to close our mouths and open our ears! While it is not necessary to actively listen to everyone, many a time in our everyday lives often we assume what the other person might be saying and don’t actively pay attention to the conversation. This is especially true when we are listening to views that we are not in tune with, especially when they are of a political nature. But active listening is the essence of all relationships and is an important part of therapeutic engagements. Information overload with its attendant distraction make us bad listeners. Simon and Garfunkel wrote about it presciently in Sounds of Silence, “people hearing without listening”. Though it’s hard to listen in a world so full of noise, this book underscores why being a good listener is important and it also shows us the way to be one.
BREASTS AND EGGS
What does it mean to exist as a woman? In this first novel published in English, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami follows three women and their relationships with their changing bodies, single motherhood, beauty and gender norms. There’s Makiko obsessed with her breasts and trying to make them more aesthetic through implants. This outrages her daughter Midoriko and she is filled with disgust about the ideal of feminine beauty and how women pursue it. Then, the story shifts ten years forward, focusing on Natsu, Makiko’s sister who is single, confused by her fears about aging but keen to have a child. As Japanese government policy prevents donor identification, leaving thousands of adults without knowledge of their biological father, she feels uneasy about the consequences of this policy and the possible fate of any child she chooses to have by herself.. In narrating these anxieties, the author offers us multiple stances, opinions and ideas about the expectations put on women by the world and by themselves. As the author observes perceptively, “While it’s true that this is a story about the life of three women … it’s ultimately a story of people, living life through tears.”
It is one of the most moving books I have read last year. It is the story of a young boy growing up in a dysfunctional family amid politically fueled economic turmoil. Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is an unrepentant alcoholic, and his father, Shug, is a taxi driver who despises his wife’s addiction, cheats on her and ultimately abandons them in a low-income housing development called Pithead, a depressing colliery where residents survive on government handouts. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie tries to negotiate his life caught between his mother’s alcoholism, catholic-protestant resentment, his own nascent sexuality, its social repercussions and loneliness. His unwavering love for his mother is the flicker of hope in this bleak scenario which sustains their lives. There is tenderness and resilience in the bond between Shuggie and his mother. It is a beautifully written, poignant story of the strength of human attachment and affection which is heartbreaking yet magically uplifting.
Fiction offers us a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of others, yet at the same time gently urging us to examine our own unlived lives.
WILD GEESE RETURNING
Chinese Reversible Poems
This was the most unusual book I have ever read! It is a collection of a form of poetry that can be read in different directions. Thanks to the way Chinese written characters take meaning from their position in a text, it is possible to write poetry that reads both forwards and backwards, whilst still retaining the rhymes and syllable counts. The reversible poetry's greatest practitioner was Su Hui, a woman who in the fourth century, embroidered a poem woven in five colors in silk for her distant husband with a 29 x 29 character grid consisting of 840 characters. No one has ever fully explored all of its possibilities, but it is estimated that the poem and the poems within the poem may be read in as many as twelve thousand ways!
Among the collections in this book, I particularly liked the one by Wang Anshi (1021-86) titled 'Thoughts of a Traveler', which begins with geese on a secluded island and flows with the twists and turns of a river; then, twisting back on itself, returns across the landscape to the wild geese at rest.
Thoughts of a Traveler
Wild geese at rest squawk on a secluded island Receiving
the pink clouds of the falling evening, a river.
The clapping of the night watch carried by the wind, the
The pavilion reflects the moon, its quarter tilts.
On the silent bank a sail beats
On the distant shore a fire flares.
Great peril in taking the narrow path. The twists and turns
of the channel unwind all around the leveled fields.
Flat fields skirt around the winding ravine The narrow path
surmounts the danger.
A fire crackles on the distant shore
A sail floats on the silent bank.
The low quarter moon is reflected in the pavilion The
shower checks the wind, one night watch follows
On the river, evening, red clouds that gather there fall On
the secluded island squawk wild geese at rest.
BREAD, CEMENT CACTUS
A Memoir Of Belonging And Dislocation
When the Covid pandemic swept across the country, we sought security at home while thousands walked their way back to their “native” abodes. As the old adage says there is no place like home. More than a physical space, home conveys a sense of belonging. For Zaidi, one of the first memories of home is cactus, conceivably associated with resilience. Twenty years later, when she returned to the place she wonders as to where she belongs. She tells the stories of migrants who end up in cities where they live on the margins and of minorities, including Muslims who face bias in everyday life, including the herculean task of finding a house to live in. She reflects poignantly, “Was Partition concluded in 1947, or was it initiated?” It is a haunting narrative of identity, belonging and dislocation in contemporary India. Zaidi thinks of home as morning mist, wispy and beyond her grasp. The book is embellished with wonderful illustrations by her mother.
OUT OF MY SKULL
The Psychology Of Boredom
When one my patient called me sometime back, I wondered whether she would talk to me about her anxieties during the lockdown. Instead, she simply remarked “I feel terribly bored doctor. I keep surfing the net, watch Netflix for long but there’s nothing of interest. Kindly help me!” Boredom seems to be a post modern malady as evidenced by the slew of books on it in the past year. This book is exceptional in exploring the larger landscape of boredom with interesting insights. The authors describes boredom as a combination of being mentally unengaged, and wanting to engage with something, yet being unable to, which they call as a “a failure to launch”. It is basically a feeling of lack of agency and dissatisfaction in life. Paradoxically boredom can be the result of too much information and stimulation or too less. They question whether evolution has built into us a desire to use our cognitive capacities well, and boredom is the adaptive signal that we aren’t doing so. Expanding the canvas further they reflect on the political ramification of boredom and postulate that boredom could be one of the driving forces behind the advent of tribalism and xenophobia of late. Did voters who are profoundly bored, elect leaders like Trump whom they believe to be stimulating?! It is also true that the consumerist world deliberately orchestrates boredom to profit from it!
The Power Of Quiet In A World Full Of Noise
“If I were a physician,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard, “and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.” In silence, we find ourselves. Most of us are enmeshed in the web of diverse thought processes that either drag us into the past or pull us into future, stopping us from living in the present and enjoying the moment. In this beautiful book Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to turn inwards and shut out not just the external noise but also the flurry of information that occupies our mind. Mindfulness facilitates such a process. In the words of the author, “you use mindfulness to become aware of everything, of every feeling, every perception in yourself and as well as what’s happening around you. You are always with yourself, you don’t lose yourself. That’s a deeper way of living.” Like other sages, most importantly Ramana Maharishi, Thich Nhat Hanh urges us to seek silence within us and does so eloquently. Read it aloud..better still when you are alone!
THE LOST SPELL
The last book in this list is one I treasure the most. It was a gift from a close friend who is also a talented artist. Robert Macfarlane’s Lost Words illustrated by Jackie Morris was an exceptionally beautiful book. They have followed it up with this pocket-sized wonder. Each "spell" poem conjures an animal, bird, tree or flower with which we share our lives and is embellished by Morris’s iridescent water colours. These painted verses shimmer with a magical exuberance in every page. To read The Lost Spell is to see the natural world anew…in every moment.
I would be delighted to hear from you about these books and also the ones that left an impression on you in the past year.
Feel free to pen your thoughts here!