April in Books

Island of a Thousand Mirrors

Nayomi Munaweera’s is a beautifully written book on the Sri Lankan civil war. It was really interesting to read about characters and quirks that I have learnt are more pan-subcontinental that I’ve been led to believe. From the cantankerous Beatrice Muriel to the indomitable Sylvia Sunethra to the upstairs neighbours the Shivalingams, the family antics are hilariously familiar.

The sway in Mala’s waist, the curve of her hip beneath the folds of her sari, have caught the eye of many young men, each of whom is secretly willing to denounce the colonial prejudice of skin colour by falling in love with her.”

– Munaweera’s observations are spot on!

But, this isn’t a happy book, as is apparent soon enough when the simmering Tamil-Sinhala tensions come to a head in the brutal civil war, and Munaweera minces no words in describing the horror.

Unfortunately, the change in tone from the idyllic world to the frantic one is too jarring. The lyrical prose begins to feel tedious, the later characters in this generational story become stock figures in a war drama rather than having the keenly observed personalities of their ancestors, and soon enough we are saddled with a hackneyed immigrant story. It was at this point that I looked up whether the author had lived in Sri Lanka and wasn’t surprised to learn that she had moved out of the country with her family just before the civil unrest started, when she was 3. While it’s possible to write about other people’s experiences, in this particular narration, it felt contrived and to me, even inauthentic.

Interestingly, I have of course heard of the Sri Lankan civil war, but from the Indian perspective. The Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, lent Indian aid to the Sri Lankan government to help them defeat the Tamil Tigers, and for the favour, when the PM was visiting Tamil Nadu (India), a woman bent down to touch his feet to get his blessings and blew him up instead. It isn’t necessary to mention India in a Sri Lankan story of course, but it provides the key piece of information that explains what changed in a years-long deadlock and is a reminder that conflict rarely ends at a country’s borders.

My other quibble with this book is that while it did start off by showing us “both sides”, it ended up feeling very much like the Sinhalese perspective on the war. If history is written by the victors, then so is historical fiction. To me, this book that declared moral corruption of both sides of the war, equated the Tamil minority, some of whom were radicalized into a cessionist terrorist organization with a clearly discriminatory society where the might of the national army was used by a government that seems to have grossly failed in protecting the rights of its own citizens to quell a violent uprising without critiquing the role of the powerful in driving the powerless into picking up guns in the first place.

The next book on my list is On Sal Mal Lane, written by a Sri Lankan native. I’m curious to see if a first-hand account is different. I still did enjoy reading Island of a Thousand Mirrors and would recommend it, especially for its poetic descriptions of life in Sri Lanka before the war.

Read it if you like generational or political stories like…


Who didn’t binge watch the disturbing Netflix series You? I did, and decided to read the book that it was based on. I assure you that the book is far more disturbing and rape-y than the Netflix series. While the series paints Joe in shades of grey, he’s the creepy stalker that you sometimes sympathize with and even *gasp* think of as a nice guy occasionally, the book leaves you in no such quandary. Joe is awful through and through and reading You is rather like reading Lolita: it makes you extremely uncomfortable as it describes the twisted mind of its anti-hero.

Read it if you like stories about disturbed people like:


Miss Marple returns! According to Jason Rafiel’s (from A Caribbean Mystery) will, Miss Marple must be contacted and a quest must be proposed to her. All she knows about this quest is that old querulous Mr. Rafiel has “made some arrangements” and the facts will be revealed to her when the time is right.

Usually Christie’s mysteries start with the murder, but the unusual twist here was that Miss Marple had to discover the murder first before unveiling the murderer. The fluffy little old lady proves yet again that she’s sharp as a razor and tough as nails! I’m a huge fan of Christie’s and this book did not disappoint me.

Read it if you like puzzlers, quests or detectives in books like:

Sleeping Murder

Imagine you moved to a new country that you’ve never visited, you take a wrong turn and end up at the perfect house that you want to buy. You instantly know that it’s exactly what you’ve been looking for. You buy the house and the workmen start fixing it up. You sleep in the smaller bedroom and dream that it could be a nursery with a distinct wallpaper pattern. You think there ought to be a door that opens out to the garden. The workmen manage to pry open a cupboard sealed shut in your room and lo and behold, it’s the wallpaper pattern you dreamed up! You point them to where you’d like the new door to be… except under the plaster they find a door in the exact same spot! What’s going on? Are you going crazy?
In a book that is one of Christie’s best murder set-ups to date, Sleeping Murder keeps you on your toes until the very end.

Read it for the atmosphere and if you like other books like:

The City of Ember

I can’t possibly write an unbiased review of The City of Ember because of a technical difficulty that goes something like this: I was devouring the book. The story kept building suspense and I kept waiting for an explanation. I was racing through the pages when suddenly my Kindle gave me a pop-up to buy the next book in the series. Confused, I went back to re-read the last page and pressed forward again and there was that pop-up again! “Please rate this book and buy the next one”. What?!
That’s it. The book had ended on an annoying cliffhanger.
I hate it when this happens. I prefer books that are both self-contained and part of a larger picture (think Harry Potter), but mostly I think I was so furious because I was reading this on my Kindle instead of as a physical book, and having turned off the percent-read feature on the Kindle, I had no clue how close I was to the end, which would of course never happen with a book. Argh.
The City of Ember itself was quite an interesting book. It starts with a builder, who, having built some sort quarantined city (very reminiscent of the Divergent trilogy) has to leave instructions for the city-dwellers on how to leave after two hundred years, but not before. He decides to tell the mayor and only the mayor, with each mayor promising to pass on the secret to each subsequent one until the time comes. Of course, things go wrong and a terminally ill mayor thinks the secret could be a cure for his illness and failing to break into the time-locked canister, dies without passing on the secret to his successor. And so two hundred years later the city is decaying with its inhabitants trapped inside with nowhere else to go and no knowledge of the fact that there could even be an anywhere else!

Read this if you like dystopian fantasies like:

Damn! It’s 7am! : The Definitive Ranking of Taylor Swift’s Music Videos

Is it just me or is You Need to Calm Down stuck in your head too?

35. Style

I honestly thought that Look What You Made Me Do would be last on this list, but I was wrong! What is this video? What are these lyrics? Having forgotten the drama with Harry Styles after that hot minute when it was everywhere means that this song makes no sense at all!

34. Look What You Made Me Do

Look What You Made Me Do has the godawful “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Coz she’s dead” line, so this goes last as noted above, this goes second to last apparently.

33. I Don’t Want to Live Forever

(Not last thanks to Zayn Malik).

32. I Knew You Were Trouble

Gosh I didn’t think there would be such competition to be last among Taylor Swift’s songs, but here we are. Some shots in this video are nice. That’s it.

31. Ready For It

Taylor Swift pretends to be a video game character in a mediocre song. *channels deadpan John Oliver*: Cool.

30. Out of the Woods

Ugh I swear there’s a raging battle for the bottom spot between some of these songs in Taylor’s roster. “Are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods yet are we out of the woods” makes my skin crawl.

The rest of the world was black and white, and we were in screaming colour

29. Change

It took me a second to recognize this song. I’ve never watched the video, and I see why. Mainly, there’s nothing to see. In terms of pure cinematography, I think it’s the worst music video of Taylor’s! I’m so relieved pop stars have got over singing to the camera with unblinking eye contact as a music video format.

28. Tim McGraw

Wow, I did not realize how many of Taylor’s old music videos are simply her lying somewhere or happily frolicking with Boyfriend. Tim McGraw is quite a good song, but less so than I remembered.

27. End Game

The best part of this song is of course Ed Sheeran. But it’s supposed to be a Taylor Swift song so…

26. Back To December

This song’s different from Taylor’s usual fare, so I like it. The music video is mostly Taylor sitting in her room full of regret and Boy just walks around, so nothing terribly interesting there. It’s not a song I play on repeat and mostly forget it exists.

25. Begin Again

This is Taylor’s ode to Paris. It’s a lovely video, she looks lovely, the song is sweet, but I’m still not a huge fan of it, I can’t put my finger on why.

24. Safe and Sound

I’m thinking that I don’t appreciate Taylor’s sound in songs like this one, Begin Again or Back to December, which is strange because I usually like lyrical, melancholic music. The video is boring with barefooted Taylor walking through the woods in what could be District 12.

23. White Horse

Another depressing number. At least this video has a story.

22. ME!

Taylor Swift has honed the maddening craft of it’s-going-to-get-stuck-in-your-head. The fighting in French, the overdone pastels and the ill-fitting suit are pretty unappealing, and yet, I’ve listened to this song multiple times since its release. What is this sorcery?!

I’m the only one of me, baby that’s the fun of me!

21. Fifteen

I like the effect of how the world builds around Taylor as she walks around, it’s quite cool and does a good job of representing her memories of being fifteen.

20. Teardrops On My Guitar

I like some of these old favourites less than I thought I would! Sweet song, but the video is pretty bad. Taylor’s come a long way since!

19. 22

22 is a cute song. It’s really an anthem for the 20s and I loved it when I was 22, but it’s less wonderful than I remember it.

18. Everything Has Changed

Aw, Ed!
First friendships and schooldays, such happy memories!

17. Ours

This slice of life video is quite funny in its ordinariness and even has a little mystery reveal right at the end. Boring office life juxtaposed with vibrant love seems pretty accurate to me.

16. Our Song

Honestly, the music video is terrible, but the lyrics of this song make up for it. Very sing-able and very romantic!

15. The Best Day

My god this is adorable and I’m not made of stone! Plus I love baby videos. Great song, sweet footage of baby Taylor, so cute!

14. Mine

I like the song better than the music video, but really, it’s solidly middle all around.

13. I’m Only Me When I’m With You

I’m biased towards this song because long ago I used it to make a very similar music video for my best friend on her birthday. Taylor looks like she’s having a blast doing what she loves and that makes this song rank pretty high!

I’m only up when you’re not down, don’t want to fly if you’re still on the ground.

12. Wildest Dreams

Guilty pleasure alert: Look the first thing that hits me about this song is colonial nostalgia. I think it’s almost the surprise of how much The Empire is often thought of as A Great Thing in the Euro-American perspective. It really really wasn’t. And the rest of the world, which is the majority of the world, knows this. Having got that out of the way, this video is gorgeous! Taylor Swift is gorgeous! The story is heart-wrenching. Beautiful places, beautiful people and beautiful music, what’s not to love? (I mean besides the twenty-first nostalgia of Old Hollywood nostalgia of “wasn’t it wonderful when we made the natives slaves in their own lands?”)

11. Bad Blood

Bad Blood is less bad than I remembered! The story of the cool ninja assassin who gets betrayed by her co-conspirator and gets her revenge in the end after a training montage is actually pretty awesome! I guess without the Katy Perry nonsense and though the lyrics are only OK, Bad Blood ranks higher than expected.

10. We Are Never Ever (Ever Ever) Getting Back Together

Taylor Swift is full of surprises! I could have sworn that this song would have been lower on the list since the only lyric stuck in my head is “we are never ever ever ever ever ever ever getting back together” (oh my god I get it!) but it has a story and an actually fun music video! *shocked*. From the opening transition that I love to the silly “we-ee” friends jump, six years later (yes, 6!) this put a smile on my face.

… with an indie record that’s much cooler than mine!

9. Picture To Burn

The precursor to Blank Space clearly. Vengeful Taylor is the best! She’s so sassy and sarcastic and I love it. TPing his house, writing “LOSER” with toothpaste and throwing darts on that jerk’s picture? Hell yeah!

And if you come around saying sorry to me, my daddy’s gonna show you how sorry you’ll be!

8. Shake It Off

Catchy tune, and now I can’t get it out of my head! Great music video, I love every scene of where Taylor is doing things wrong or differently than everyone else and still ends up having a good time. It’s a great reminder to march to the beat of your own drum!

But I keep cruisin’
Can’t stop won’t stop movin’
It’s like I got this music
In my mind saying
“It’s gonna be all right”

Fun fact: Shake it off was playing in this year’s world cup! (West Indies vs New Zealand)

7. You Need To Calm Down

Oh my, turns out I love this song. I love the colours, the sass, the cameos (Ellen! Tan!). I wish the anti-gay squad wasn’t such a trope but honestly there’s so much to love in this video. That “oh-OH oh-OH oh-OH -oh-OH oh-OH!” is so catchy oh my god!
And have I mentioned Tan? Yeah, he’s there. Drinking tea straight out of a teapot. That’s my favourite bit. Or perhaps it’s Ellen’s tattoo. Or Ryan Reynolds with a paintbrush in his mouth. Or Hannah Hart!! Or “shade never made anyone less gay!“. OK, I’ll stop.

You are somebody that I don’t know
But you’re taking shots at me like it’s Patrón
And I’m just like damn! It’s 7 am!

6. Delicate

The music video is gorgeous. When I watch it, the song and the lyrics are really just the background score to a cool concept because who hasn’t dreamed of walking this world unseen? It makes me think of late night drives on otherwise busy traffic-laden roads and the peace and simple joys of those stolen moments.

5. The Story Of Us

Finally a song that is as good as I remember it! The video is full of great moments, the band is a neat addition and the way Taylor captures post-breakup awkwardness is so perfect!
The abrupt “The End” really hits it home. 10/10.

I’ve never heard silence quite this loud!

4. Blank Space

Oh Taylor, this was a masterpiece. The lyrics still leave something to be desired but the video! Edgy and hilarious! Needless to say, I’ve played this on constant repeat once upon a time.

Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream!

3. Love Story

Romeo and Juliet in song? Yes please. I’m an unapologetic fan of Shakespeare in pop culture. Hey, my favourite teen movie is 10 Things I Hate About You. Love Story was destined to rank high.

2. Mean

I love how this video opens, I love the reveal of more characters and sets with every “you”, I love that the video makes me feel determined to win despite all the naysayers. And the banjo adds an interesting element to the song. It’s an eternal favourite.

1. You Belong With Me

Classic Taylor! How I loved her! A sweet movie in a 4 minute song, perfect! The top spot ranking is of course liberally aided by a healthy dose of high school nostalgia.

March: Murder Mystery Month

Also my birthday month.

Agatha Christie, Queen of Mystery, and the most widely read author in the world besides God and Shakespeare. To be fair, I haven’t always enjoyed her work. It took me a lot of false starts when I was younger to really get into her style of writing, coming off the back of a childhood reading Enid Blyton’s calibre of mystery, Christie was just too incomprehensible. Today, of course, I pick up her books over and over again, always enjoying the puzzle, and in the latest rereading appreciating her humour that I had never previously realized existed.

I often wonder, if I have to hook someone into Agatha Christie, what is the first book that I would recommend to them? It’s the Doctor Who Dilemma if you will. I would never subject the uninitiated to the first season of Doctor Who, so I always recommend starting with Blink since Sally Sparrow is the perfect character to help a new watcher understand who The Doctor is, the complexity of Time, the magic of Space, the coolness of The Tardis, and of course, the best villains in Who: The Weeping Angels. Once there, I usually recommend skipping ahead to the Eleventh Doctor (Series 5, Episode 1) for the amazing River Song arc of course with an optional viewing of Silence In the Library along the way.

For Christie, the same principle applies, you want to get a taste of how good it can get without reading the best or the worst as the very first book. I still haven’t figured it out, though I would keep my personal favourites Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None for later so that their denouements can be most impactful (it’s how one doesn’t watch A Good Man Goes To War or The Angels Take Manhattan before getting familiar with The Doctor).

The brief interlude from my Christie-binge was Hemingway. Yeah, I don’t know what’s wrong with me either. The Sun Also Rises is a classic and like all classics, seems much more polarizing than most modern books. Some people hate it, “it’s so boring!” and others love it, “it changed my life!” I… waffled. At some point I thought I was bored, but I couldn’t stop reading, at other points I thought I was swept up in wanderlust, but I couldn’t get over the descriptions of Robert Cohn (how Jewish is he?!) and Brett Ashley (what an intimidating creature a sexually independent woman is!). The best I can say about Hemingway is that I’m conflicted. He reminded me of my mixed feelings with The Sirens of Titan, a legendary writer, but also a product of his time some of whose prejudices haven’t aged well. I always wonder – does that mean we should stop reading these books? And I answer myself, no, we shouldn’t, but it does seem extremely important to consider other books by historically under-appreciated authors to the fore and consider them our classics too.

After being entrenched in fantastically written but obviously biased twentienth century American and British authors, I think next month needs to be more international.

February In Books

The month of love. And Black History month! Valentine’s Day is pretty easy to understand, it’s the month where marketers get you to buy a ton of pink stuff you don’t need. Black History Month, on the other hand, is something that I’m still trying to learn about. Just a handful of years ago, I barely knew about what a big deal race was on this side of the world. Now, I’m quite aghast at how inequality can permeate every sphere of public life.


Is it just me or do you ever feel like reliving the good ol’ Harry Potter days? That’s how I’ve felt reading Nevermoor and its sequel Wundersmith. It’s not quite the best young fantasy series that I’ve read, but since I did read the sequel, I suppose there is something captivating about it. It’s hard to look past the fact that the school seems very similar to Hogwarts down to the Whinging Woods – a mashup of the Forbidden Forest and Sirius’ shrieking mum, the professors are right out of an Eva Ibbotson novel, and many descriptions sound distinctly Bartimaeus-eque. Still, it’s lovely to take a walk down memory lane again, especially as a palette cleanser to harder-to-read books like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Read it if you like…

A Day In the Life of Marlon Bundo

John Oliver. Need I say more? This book was surprisingly more beautiful and a better story than I expected, especially since I would have bought it no matter what!

Thanks, Obama

It was during reading Becoming by Michelle Obama last December that I finally understood what it meant for an African-American man to become the President. Thanks, Obama (I didn’t know about the meme before) is a hilarious window into the Obama years, and though no part of this book was sad, it did leave me feeling choked up about a world that was and might have been. Obama may not have been perfect, no world leader is, but he was a leader worth having, one with a greater, kinder vision for the world, not one entrenched in old and irrelevant prejudices that stokes the worst in us rather than inspiring the best in us.

Read it if you like…

The Hate U Give

This was my official book for Black History Month. I tried reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks but gagged at the description of her tumour and found it impossible to proceed. I’m glad that I read The Hate U Give instead. It gave me more context to Becoming that I read in December and since I do enjoy coming-of-age books, it was a lovely little bildungsroman about Starr, who navigates “two worlds” – her poorer mostly black neighbourhood and her richer mostly white private school. We meet her just before her friend is shot in a police encounter, and the rest of the book describes her experience in grappling with her worlds colliding. How should a jumpy police officer be punished, if at all, for killing a teenager? Does it matter if the teen in question was a drug dealer? Are we saying that it’s acceptable to kill an innocent drug dealer over the colour of his skin? The book was heart-wrenching and made me realize how insidious and universal the experiences of the unheard are. The writing, especially towards the end of the book, left me wanting for a more beautifully crafted and nuanced story à la Exit West, but that’s a minor quibble in the face of the importance of the story that needs to be told.

Read it if you like…

January in Books

Reading The Odyssey feels like an odyssey. To have to contort my mind to understand Ancient Greek customs, musings about the position of women in Greek life and the strange yet strangely familiar xenos, takes forever. And this was just the Author’s Note! It’s my excuse to Goodreads as it unhelpfully reminds me that I am “three books behind schedule”.

The Odyssey

Emily Wilson is the first woman to have published an English translation of The Odyssey, that I know of. And while the first female translator may have piqued my interest, it’s the fact that this is the best translation of The Odyssey that I have read, that’s kept it. I also own Samuel Butler’s prose translation of Homer’s works, and the difference is striking. Where Wilson is light and rhythmic, Butler is academic. Both are brilliant, but I prefer Wilson’s more readable, song-like one, that feels more authentic for a work that must have been narrated and performed over the years, not unlike the Ram-Leela.

Here are the two translations:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

– Emily Wilson’s translation in iambic pentameter

Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, oh daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

– Samuel Butler’s translation

Read it if you like…

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Another classic!

What can I say about Agatha Christie that hasn’t already been said?

Just that her reputation as the most widely read author in the world after God and Shakespeare, is well deserved.

Christie is a master of the craft of mystery writing. With no gore or cheap thrills, she cleverly weaves a murder mystery where you follow along with the clues liberally sprinkled through the novel, to try to figure out the identity of the murderer. But of course, more often than not, you can’t, and when Poirot does, you’re left agape. There are very few of her books where one feels cheated at the end, the vast majority are those that you could solve by paying attention.

Ackroyd is one of my favourite Christies of all time and it was a pleasure to read it again, even though I knew the identity of the murderer. Hey, she’s the best for a reason!

Read it if you like…

Revolution for Dummies, Egypt

“You might expect me to narrate the epic events of the Arab Spring — to tell you the details of the geopolitical and sociological circumstances (whatever that
means) that led to the various Arab revolutions throughout the Middle East, and the great hopes and aspirations that came with them. You might expect me
to give you an in-depth analysis of how everything there now seems to be a total desperate mess. But do you really care about that? Be honest, don’t you just want to make it seem like you understand the Middle East by dropping knowledge bombs (at least these don’t hurt) on your friends, but you’d rather hear it from that Egyptian guy you saw a couple of times on The Daily Show?”

You got me, Bassem.

Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian political satirist who was driven out of his country because, as he puts it, dictators tend to be very thin-skinned. What struck me most about his style is that he sounds like frustrated liberals everywhere, annoyed by people who use religion as an excuse for stupidity. This rings true in a post-Trump world where the media is constantly labelled “fake” (the same as Egypt) and a post-Modi world where journalists are murdered (also the same as Egypt), the Arab world simply doesn’t seem too foreign or unfamiliar. And Youssef is an excellent, witty guide through the madness of a revolution (or handbook for dictators, whichever way you want to look at it).

I’m also looking forward to watching a documentary about his story, appropriately named “Tickling Giants”.

Read it if you like…

2018: A Year of Change

In 2016 I decided to try to read a book from every country in the world. That plan had been coming along quite well until November that year. Before then, what did politics matter? Some power-hungry idiots were playing twisted games in a faraway capital.

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When the blacklisted massacre-overseer Narendra Modi came to power in India at the helm of his ultra-conservative Hindu-supremacist party, alarm bells didn’t go off. Sure, you have the unpleasant revelation that a few friends and classmates are bigots, but that’s really it. Well yes, there have been “lynchings” of Muslims in India, but it doesn’t really raise a red flag as a synonym for “brutal murder by a large group of people over dietary preferences” [Reuters], and sure, in a country where safety for women is on increasingly tenuous ground, members of the BJP attend a rally in support of the accused rapists [BBC] of an eight-year-old girl but enough people will say “it happens in a country this big” or “innocent until proven guilty even though the police officers tasked with the investigation were the ones who were later arrested” to brush it under the carpet, and sure, members of the ruling party have repeatedly upheld their homophobic views and maintained a stony silence at the Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize homosexuality, a basic human right to live and love, but so what?

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“But!” they say, “in a developing country we need development!”
To hell with human rights as long as there’s money to be made.
Of course, forcing qualified individuals like Raghuram Rajan to quit or posturing with “demonetisation” that brought the largely cash-based economy to its knees hasn’t done the BJP any favours, so it has pivoted with a vengeance to bringing its extremist Hindu agenda “Hindutva” back to the forefront.

But here’s the question.
What does it mean for us if we’re willing to sacrifice freedom for monetary gain?
Is it ever OK to kill, maim, assault another human being for the greater good?
To strike terror into the hearts of a few for the benefit of many?

November 2016 brought the same sort of resigned optimism as 2014 did. “Maybe he won’t be so bad”, “He’s all for business, so the economy will prosper”, “There’s no way that basic human decency will be flouted – stop being so dramatic”: Famous last words for both Trump and Modi, as it were.

If 2017 was the year of awakening, of realizing that the freedoms we take for granted, freedom to say what we feel, to love whom we want to, to roam around the world without fear of violence, are freedoms not just to be expected, but also protected.

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“Not In My Name”
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“Me Too”
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And we’re down to the last few hours of 2018. Change is in the air. With the rise of the unsavoury opinion, there’s been an equal and even more heartwarming rise of people speaking up in protest, that no, murder or assault are not ok even if we forsake the fevered daydreams of overflowing treasure chests of vast riches.

With that, my favourite books this year have been:

1. January: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid’s Tale was even more terrifying than 1984 since it seemed so much more real. A government run on a twisted extremist interpretation of a religion? *shudder*
Too real, it hit home hard, especially with it’s core focus on the very realistic violation of human rights. Definitely read it to gear up for the major elections in 2019 and 2020 – there’s a lot at stake here!

Of course, as usual, Tharoor says it best.

2. April: Inferior by Angela Saini

You know that bigot in your life who uses “biology” and “science” and “the natural nurturing ability of women” as excuses to condone misogyny? Think about this book while you’re fuming at Sexist Uncle who asks why you aren’t smiling or Sexist Aunty who condescendingly explains the “right” places in life for women, and men, for that matter.
Remember kids, smashing the patriarchy (or being a feminist) isn’t about women vs. men, it’s about offending your misogynistic family by suggesting that both girls and boys can choose not to conform to traditional gender roles! *gasp*

3. May: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

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Not another book on “minority rights”?, one might be inclined to ask.
No actually, I do have fun most of the time. I think the real trouble with growing up is the crushing disappointment that you’re suddenly confronted with from the people that you love dearly. Think of this as a successful attempt at experiencing the blissful and carefree joys of childhood, with monsoon rains lashing at the windows and you curled up in a blanket with the latest Harry Potter. I can’t wait to read the sequel!

4. Also May: Ismat Chughtai Ke Afsaney (Short Stories by Ismat Chughtai)

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How in the world did I end up listening to an Urdu book this year? I have no idea. It was on Spotify, accidentally queued because of what should have been a Google search and the most serendipitous book accident this year, since I discovered that there actually was some fantastic Indian literature written in the twentieth century, that there have been Indian feminists in history and modern history at that, and more than anything else, this lady might be the funniest author that I’ve ever “read”! Her short stories are simple and hilarious gems of everyday life!

5. June: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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A generational story of a Korean family that eventually ends up in Japan and how they navigate life as a discriminated minority there. Pachinko left a mark long after I had finished reading it. So much of the story rang true not just as a Korean or a Japanese story, but as a human story. I loved it, highly recommend it, and it got me excited to continue to seek out stories from around the world even though my momentum has slowed in the last several months.

6-8. August and September: The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

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This is the first series of Sanderson’s that I have read. He’s been really famous in fantasy circles for a while (think: N. K. Jemisin who I haven’t read either) for his much acclaimed Mistborn universe and I can attest that The Stormlight Archive is so good that I finished the three thousand-paged tomes released so far in about a month! I’m looking forward to the next two books in the first set.

9. November: Destiny Disrupted by Tamim Ansary

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I don’t quite like Destiny Disrupted as much as the other books on this list, though it deserves honourable mention for its topic and also to round off my list to a perfect 10. Ansary is an Afghan-American author writing world history from an “Islamic” perspective, which is a “world” comprising largely of the Middle East facing West. It’s clearly meant for a Western audience, and my most niggling critique of it would be the usual erasure of Eastern history in World History despite the fact that the Indian Subcontinent, the South-East Asian Islands and the China-Mongolia region (that’s not even mentioning entire continents of Africa and South America) have actually been integral parts of human history for all the bits that are skipped in most lists of world history. (Or mentioned in passing like “Rome” yadayadayada “European exploration of the world”).
That said, reading the history of Islam itself was illuminating in this climate of abject Islamophobia. Though of course, no academic or theoretical collection of facts can ever make up for the real thing: That people are people. Good and bad and no righter or wronger than anyone else.

10. December: Becoming By Michelle Obama

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Perhaps the reason that I’ve been contemplating politics so much at the end of the year.

Michelle Obama’s memoir isn’t meant to be political, but it did serve as a reminder to expect the best out of our leaders. Politicians aren’t just people playing games, they are elected representatives. We can expect them to be held to higher ideals, to be people to look up to, people who inspire us, and those who show the way to being our best selves.

It seems incredible that a wholesome, kind, generous family like the Obamas actually lived in the White House not so long ago, and changed the face of the world because of it. Obama may not have been perfect, and I don’t think that leaders need to be, but he did aspire to be the sort of leader who made the world a better place. Why are we willing to settle for those who don’t even have the baseline intention of equality for all, whether economic, religious or biological?

Looking Ahead – 2019

Last year I read books from the US, India, Canada, the UK, Russia, Israel, Afghanistan (Afghan-American) and Korea (Korean-American). I also read two Urdu books and two books translated into English.

This year, I want to read at least one book from each continent (last year I only managed four out of six eligible continents), a book in translation from each continent (that’s six compared to two this year), and books in three languages (as opposed to two this year).

Crimes of Grindelwald: The Life of Albus Dumbledore Continued

My last post on why Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a necessary prequel to Harry Potter is here.

I loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

I loved fantastically kind, funny and sweet Newt even more. He’s a hero unlike any other. The very best! When was the last time we had a protagonist whose main badass super power was kindness? And just look at that face!

Sure, Captain America is the quintessential boy scout, but to be one, he has to be large and beefy. Iron Man and Sherlock are wicked smart but also wickedly callous and inept at being plain nice. Hilarious characters, terrible people. There’s no doubt that Newt is a powerful wizard, his ability to feel doesn’t hinder his skill, unlike what popular media would have you believe and that’s what I loved about Newt in the first movie. He was strange, he loved animals and he was completely assured and unapologetic about who he was.

In the Crimes of Grindelwald however, everyone, including Newt, was a bit of a letdown unfortunately.

First, the story focusses on Grindelwald. The story begins with a prison transfer.  We are helpfully told that because his words are so intoxicating, they “removed” his tongue. Ouch.

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The way in which he is transferred between prisons from America to France though is frankly ridiculous. It’s a dark and stormy night, there’s a wooden carriage being pulled by thestrals, his vanguard and rearguard consist of presumably highly skilled aurors. However, he has managed to talk his jailer into betraying the MACUSA and has somehow switched places with him, and hitches a ride on the bottom of the said wooden carriage for some reason, perhaps to retrieve the blood oath that he made with Dumbledore, but mostly to throw off the audience.

Why is the security in the magical world so lax and terrible?  Why are Harry, Ron and Hermione, students who haven’t even completed their NEWTs able to break into both the Ministry of Magic and Gringotts?
And now this. They’re moving the most dangerous Dark Wizard of their time to a different continent, wasn’t there a better way to do it than by carriage on a rainy night? Excellent security MACUSA.

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Anyway, since the series is really about fleshing out Dumbledore’s backstory, what do we know so far?

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First, Dumbledore as Jude Law is obviously ridiculously handsome. He’s supposed to be in his forties, being born in 1881, and I think looks his age, though Grindelwald, only a few years older, looks like a terribly old man in comparison. I really wish they had cast a more nuanced actor to play Grindelwald so we might understand what about him attracted Dumbledore to him so much, not just his supposed silver-tongue (that we are told about, not shown).

The last we knew of the Dumbledore family was that Albus was the brilliant one, similar to his mother Kendra. His brother Aberforth has a thing for goats and is close to his sister Ariana. Their father Percival dies in Azkaban after he’s sent there for killing the Muggle boys who assaulted his daughter causing her to internalize her magic because of the trauma and presumably become an Obscurial. After his 7th year at Hogwarts, Albus and Elphias Doge were supposed to go to on the world tour as tradition dictated for recent Hogwarts graduates, but Ariana caused an accident which killed Kendra. This was perhaps Ariana “exploding” as Credence did in Fantastic Beasts, leaving a wave of destruction in his wake.

So Albus has to forgo his journey to return home urgently to conduct his mother’s funeral and care for his sister while Aberforth, who had wanted to become Ariana’s caretaker, finished school. Being brilliant and ambitious as he was, Albus was terribly bored caring for his sister. Lo, along came Gellert Grindelwald, the brilliant nephew of their neighbour, Bathilda Bagshot, and Albus took an immense liking to the other boy. Both highly intelligent and ambitious, they wanted to fix all the problems of the world, help the muggles who were just killing each other (Europe was fighting the World Wars in the muggle world) and Ariana, who was critical to their success, didn’t have to be in hiding any more!

Just as they were about to set off to fix the world, and if they had to smash a few institutions along the way, why they would have done it for the greater good, Aberforth caught wind of their plans. Simple as he was, he didn’t care about the world or its problems or his brother’s ambitions, the poor boy only cared about his sister and wanted her to be safe and happy.  

Aberforth confronts Albus and Gellert, a fight breaks out, Ariana gets increasingly disturbed and is accidentally killed in the ensuing tussle. Grindelwald flees and the Dumbledore boys are left to clean up afterwards.

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Years later, they are the Headmaster of Hogwarts and owner of the Hog’s Head respectively, and seem to have an uneasy relationship, with Aberforth never forgiving Albus for what he did, nor Albus forgiving himself for being so enchanted by a boy he loved. It’s quite poignant really when years later, Dumbledore still believes in the most powerful magic of them all: Love.

But between the time Ariana is killed and Dumbledore meets Harry, Grindelwald is still at large and the Ministry of Magic is asking Dumbledore to help defeat him, though Dumbledore says that he cannot. In the books, the suggestion seems to be that Dumbledore can’t emotionally bear to confront Grindelwald, but the movie gives us a different explanation: A blood pact. What is that? Presumably something less severe than An Unforgivable Vow but meant for people who love each other, similar to the muggle version?

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So Dumbledore cannot move against Grindelwald and he fobs off the Ministry kindly. But he’s Dumbledore of course. As a precursor to his well-laid plans, reminiscent of a spider’s web to defeat Voldemort, he’s moving against Grindelwald too. The unfortunate truth of his life is that both times he’s had to defeat men who he’s cared about – an old friend and a potential protégé.

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Enter Newt. He’s just a kind boy travelling around the world looking after any hurt and abandoned animals and humans that he meets. He’s also been unlucky in love, having been expelled for taking the blame for his best friend and first love Leta Lestrange’s misdeeds only to find that years later she’s engaged to his brother. He’s also uninterested in taking sides in the battle lines that are getting drawn in the Wizarding World, as those who support Grindelwald’s resistance and uprising and those who oppose it. It’s an interesting contrast with the Harry Potter story arc, where at the end, it’s the establishment that’s on Voldemort’s side and it’s Harry who is the resistance.

Dumbledore seems to recruit Newt precisely because he cares about people and doesn’t care about politics.

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Newt is finally convinced to go to Paris because Credence is there. Credence seems to be afflicted with what would be muggle mental health issues, and is depressed and lonely. Newt cares about him and wants to help him, while others seem to either be afraid of him because he’s an Obscurial or use him as a pawn in their games. Grindelwald seems to be particularly interested in Credence because he lost the opportunity to have an Obscurial on his side with the death of Ariana.

Tina is also tracking down Credence and is annoyed with Newt, whom she thinks is engaged to Leta. Jacob is under the spell of Queenie’s love potion (which is a cute nod to our general assumptions of “witchcraft”) because she wants to marry him illegally while he doesn’t want to endanger her.

Credence is hiding in a circus and falls in love with Nagini. She’s a Maledictus who turns into a snake and will eventually stop being able to transform and live out her days as a snake instead. The big *gasp* moment is of course that she’s Voldemort’s snake! What’s her story? It promises to be fascinating!

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Credence is tracked down in a confusing set of events. The climax of this movie was great story-wise but the screenplay was all over the place. I think Rowling wrote a better movie script for the first movie and basically wrote a book for the second. Leta has a giant monologue (read: information dump expositional dialogue) where she reveals a lot of information, but since this isn’t a book, we haven’t really had the chance to know her or care about her enough to be shocked by her revelations. The bottomline is that Credence is not a Lestrange, and the biggest reveal of this movie is that… he’s a Dumbledore.

Grindelwald also manages to talk a bunch of wizards and witches into joining him, including Queenie, much to the chagrin of Jacob, Tina and Newt. Leta pretends to join him as well so that the Scamander brothers and their friends can escape. I missed this in the movie, but turns out her sacrifice was not for nought: she did destroy Grindelwald’s Seer skull, that I didn’t even notice!

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A cool moment that I wish hadn’t been revealed in the trailer, was that Newt meets Nicolas Flamel, who helps them contain the fire that Grindelwald unleashes on Paris. This is a truly spectacular moment, and is so satisfying to see adult wizards and witches perform really powerful magic.

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The minor victory is that Newt manages to steal the blood pact from Grindelwald and return it to Albus (there are too many Dumbledores in this story!). Albus maybe finds a way to destroy it so that he can defeat Grindelwald in the epic battle promised later in the series and immortalized on a chocolate frog in Philosopher’s Stone.

Sapiens, Israel

One Hundred Thousand Years Ago…
At least six human species inhabited the Earth

There is just one.

What did you do Sapiens?!

As Harari will enlighten me over the next several mostly excellently written pages, that we humans have a proclivity towards violence… and gossip.
He makes a convincing case that human evolution was driven forward by in no small part by the ability of humans to exceed the critical mass of animals required to form a group or tribe, where everyone knows everyone else and that familiarity builds trust, not because we are smarter in the traditional sense, but because a side effect of our intelligent brains is our ability to spin tales, to tell stories, and share gossip.

He expresses these ideas in very interesting and compelling terms.
Is Santa Claus a story?
How about a nation?
Isn’t a nation a made up concept? A story that we all buy into as its citizens and fight for our rights in it, fight to defend it? Would the US be the US if there were no Americans? If all Americans were moved to a different piece of land, would that land become the United States? If neither is true, then what explains this notion of a nation that is neither the landmass nor its population unless it’s both the land and the population and specifically, a story agreed upon by the people of the land and other people in other lands?

Why do we make up these stories anyway? Think about how we know people. We know our neighbours, our friends, people in our community that we speak to and interact with frequently. Then there are people that we meet once in a while, but aren’t a part of our community. How can humans create a sense of identity beyond community so that we can accomplish far more as a group than individually? Because individually we really aren’t anything special. We can’t stand temperatures too hot or too cold, can’t hear too well, can’t see too well, can’t run too fast, are kind of mid-way up the food chain. Sure we can make tools but so what? That just makes up for a lack of claws or strong teeth. Our strength lies in numbers. We aren’t actually too smart or effective by ourselves, but with a group? With social interaction? We’re better. How about if millions of humans could come together and work towards a cause, like say, climbing to the top of the food chain by fundamentally changing our environment? Hey, if we can’t win at the game, we’re going to change the rules.

And that’s exactly what we did. Together.

Hunter-gatherers were smarter and stronger individually. Each single person knew the lay of the land, how to hunt for food, how to protect their young, but agriculture was clearly the way to go because while each individual human was worse with directions and self-defense, we together got better at building GPS systems and armies.

And while none of these  nuggets of information are spectacular or astonishingly new individually, taken together, Harari tells quite an excellent story!

Interestingly, he also mentions something that in all my years of a scientific education, my teachers failed to bring to my attention:
When man started standing erect on two legs so that they could free up their hands to be more useful, no one really explained to me the change that this wrought to women specifically. Isn’t it strange when everyone says that “man did this” implies all humans, including women, did this, but it always seems to focus on the male perspective of human evolution? For instance, if you were to google “evolution of man” or “human evolution”, it would always be a series of images of clearly a male member of our species evolving from crouching to erect with umpteen memes of the said male member crouching back down to hunch over a computer. You try “evolution of women” and besides the lone “Descent of Woman“, most other images of evolution are meant to be provocative. How depressing.

Which is why when Harari talks about how human intelligence was a byproduct of shrinking uteruses, I was shocked. Were these facts that I couldn’t have stitched together or inferred from my scientific education? Of course not. But no one had ever put it so succinctly in paper and ink, and having a mainstream mass consumption science-history book highlighting this is nothing that I’ve ever read before!

What he says is very straightforward. Humans began to stand erect. In order to do that, the abdominal area of humans shrank. For women, this includes the uterus, where women carry babies. So babies now have a smaller womb to grow in and a smaller canal to pop out of. Which means by natural selection, the babies that are likelier to survive are premature babies, at least by the standards of the animal kingdom. And this is common knowledge right? That compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, human babies are born prematurely (in a mere nine months, compared to the 18-22 for elephants!) and that human babies are much much weaker than other mammal babies (foals can walk in as little as 2-4 hours after they are born!). Now these human babies with unformed brains are much more malleable, find it much easier to absorb information and can be moulded to their environment, which is why human babies find it extremely easy to learn languages, can communicate with ease, can learn to use tools, can learn to navigate complex social structures all before they catch up to the independence of their other animal counterparts who are much better-formed when they exit the womb.

And much of the rest of Harari’s book is the same. With these gems of insight, all written in extremely accessible language that is a joy to read.

Why then would I file this book under “Israel” when it is a history of humankind, which is universal? Because with this history book I still found it to have a certain view of the world that isn’t quite American, and certainly isn’t Indian, it’s more towards the middle of the world (geographically).

Israel. Most of what I knew about it, at least peripherally, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peripherally because while in many other parts of the world, it’s a conflict of central importance, particularly in the countries themselves and also in the US, in India, it’s simply another conflict in the world, and in the mind of the previous “Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire”,  a phrase typically uttered with a grim sardonic smile in India, another example of the colonial British messing up someone else’s lives.

To me, it’s Harari’s views on India that make his book’s tone decidedly non-universal. And it’s his view of “Muslims” as some monolithic entity (and hence different from “Indians”) that make me think of him as more “Western” and of course, his mention of Asia and Africa in world history make him more “Eastern”. No self-respecting American historian ever mentions Asia except in passing in world history, ha!

For instance,
“… the Taj Mahal could not have been built without the wealth accumulated by Mughal exploitation of their Indian subjects”

Hmm… Sounds awfully a lot like the British saying, “We didn’t oppress you! The Muslims did it first!” when they decided to divvy up Indian history as “Hindu” and “Muslim”. [Side note: Nope, they were totally not trying to drive a wedge between a diverse, syncretic population. Partition… that just happened, whoops!]

What makes Shah Jahan, who built the Taj, not Indian?
He was born and raised in India and thought of it as his homeland and kingdom.
His mother was the Rajput princess Jagat Gosini from Marwar (Rajasthan), his father was Jahangir, the previous Mughal king (Delhi) both of whom were also born and raised in modern-day India and thought of it as their homeland and respective kingdoms.
Jahangir’s mother was Mariam-uz-Zamani, more popularly known as Jodhabai in modern Indian pop culture, also a Rajput princess. His father was Akbar, the previous Mughal king who ruled from Delhi. Both of his parents (Shah Jahan’s grandparents) were also born and brought up in India and thought of it as their homeland and kingdoms.

Is the only thing that makes Shah Jahan “not Indian” that he is a Muslim? Because that’s laughably bigoted.

But Harari, similar to other non-Indian historians, tends to paint Indians as “Hindus” typically “oppressed” by their “Muslim” rulers, forgetting that even today, India is the second largest Muslim country in the world by population. Besides, just listing the religions practiced in India today wouldn’t do its diversity justice. It’s a conglomeration of people of different faiths, ethnicities, languages and histories, as it was in Shah Jahan’s time. And while the implication that the Mughal rulers (Indian and Muslim) needed to oppress their citizens to build extravagantly beautiful buildings, one might wonder why then “the average Indian peasant enjoyed a relatively higher income and lower taxation than his descendants ever would again” (Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelmann)

Sapiens is still a fantastic book. It tells a compelling story about human evolution from a couple of million years ago to today. It’s most interesting when it talks about the byline of the book, the six human species and how Sapiens is the only one remaining. It’s significantly more boring and lazier, if the lack of research on the modern Indian state is anything to go by,  in the second half. 

The reason for my harping on this of course is the doubt that if Harari got this wrong, what else did he get wrong in the rest of the book and how much of it can I believe?

It’s not a problem that’s particular just to Sapiens of course. I’m currently reading Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, written by an Afghan-American writer, and it has the same problems with India unfortunately, buying into the simplistic Hindu-Muslim view of the country, or even my eternal favourite web-series Crash Course World History by John Green talking about “Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan”. The country really isn’t defined by just it’s majority religion and worse, it’s not like “The Hindus” are a monolithic set of people anyway! In India, a Tamilian Hindu and a Tamilian Muslim share their culture, language and food far more than a Bengali and a Tamilian Hindu! The same for Bengali Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, everyone. Indian historians never seem to have this same problem thankfully, maybe because they realize that they are writing for an audience of locals who have internalized the diversity of their massive land.

The sequel to Sapiens called Homo Deus has been out for a while now. I may read it.

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5 Books for Independence Day

I wrote most of this on 15th August, I swear. *side eye*
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Glimpses of World History

By Jawaharlal Nehru

In 1934, between the World Wars, a man was imprisoned, along with thousands of others, for demanding freedom and equality, even as their oppressors fought major wars with forced conscription by their colonized for what they said were the ideals of liberty and equality (just not for their Indian subjects, of course). Highly educated, eloquent and a voracious reader, he wrote a series of letters to his daughter introducing her to world history, and to everyone else, a perhaps unintentional, non-Eurocentric version of it. Both the father and daughter would go on to become the prime ministers of the world’s largest democracy.
Even as Nehru’s liberal, equal, secular, socialist ideals are being corroded by current events, I think he remains more relevant than ever as a man who fought for what was right and led his country to life and freedom. [Read it instead]

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Malgudi Schooldays

By R.K. Narayan, Illustrated by R. K. Laxman

A childhood favourite, Swami’s antics have to appeal to everyone from anywhere. From trying to evade the “fire-eyed Vedanayagam” to regaling Granny with tales of how Rajam killed a tiger, Narayan never fails to delight. If you’re still unconvinced, the book begins like this:

“It was Monday morning. Swaminathan was reluctant to open his eyes. He considered Monday specially unpleasant in the calendar.”

Now, who doesn’t know that feeling?
And the cherry on the cake is that this hilarious children’s book is illustrated by Narayan’s brother Laxman, equally famous in his own right, the inimitable creator of “The Common Man”.
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Midnight’s Children

By Salman Rushdie

I must admit that I’m always surprised by the love and international acclaim that Midnight’s Children has garnered. Because it’s such an Indian book! Saleem being born in a saffron and green hospital. Saffron and green, saffron and green. Or the constant references to Shiva-Parvati. Parvati-Shiva. Or,

“…time, in my experience, has been as variable and inconstant as Bombay’s electric power supply. Just telephone the speaking clock if you don’t believe me – tied to electricity, it’s usually a few hours wrong. Unless we’re the ones who are wrong… no people whose word for ‘yesterday’ is the same as their word for’ tomorrow’ can be said to have a firm grip on the time.”

But hey, if I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, knowing nothing really about Colombia, why shouldn’t someone love Midnight’s Children? Funnily enough, Rushdie says that his Indian fans often treat this book as “history” while everyone else calls it “magical realism”. I chuckle every time I think of it because I really do think of his tale as “history” and wouldn’t independently call it “magical realism” since it falls so neatly into the vast tradition of storytelling of the Indian subcontinent where miracles, curses, powers and history are all one big glorious story. Where words run into each other and stories take wild detours before getting back on track, or picking a different track entirely, where all tales are at least bilingual if not multilingual, and where Rushdie has managed the impossible: capturing the narrative style that mesmerizes children in their grandmothers’ laps.

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Afsane (Anthology of Short Stories)

By Ismat Chughtai

I have never read an Urdu book in my life. Including this one. I listened to it on Spotify and was shocked, amused and more than a little irrationally pleased with myself, when I, a Hindi student of five years, could understand every word. Hey, I wasn’t a good Hindi student, whatever my marks may say and the bulk of my education comes from the streets of Bombay with a frequent refresher from Bollywood, which most purists would argue isn’t Hindi at all.
Anyway, taking it from the top. Politically and socially, Hindi and Urdu are two different languages. Linguistically, thankfully (for me at least), colloquial Hindi and Urdu are basically indistinguishable, barring dialect differences from the regions that predominantly speak them, though as a contrast, there are more dialect differences within Hindi than there are between standard Hindi and Urdu. Don’t worry though, India and Pakistan are working long and hard to separate the two, even as Pakistanis watch Hindi cinema without subtitles, Indians listen to Pakistani-Urdu music also without “translation” and a plethora of Indian and Pakistani cricketers crack bilingual jokes (English-Hindi/Urdu) at each other’s children’s birthdays.
Moving on.
Ismat Chughtai. Famous as the female, feminist, wildly popular author, whose work is so pervasive in popular culture that even if you think you haven’t heard of her, you probably have. I hadn’t intended to read her but the opening line of the first short story of the anthology captivated me. It translates to “His name was Abdul Hai but smitten women just called him hiiii (sigh). And he was, from head to toe, a beautiful and pleasant sigh.”
The rest of the stories continue in their tongue-in-cheek slice of life of an India that’s still eminently recognizable today. Ismat Chughtai makes me want to learn Urdu, even though the script is so calligraphic that it hurts my head sometimes, even as I gaze longingly at its beauty.

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The Taj Trilogy

By Indu Sundaresan

The Mughals ruled a large swath of the world once upon a time. Indian emperors of Persian, Turkish, Central Asian and Mongolian descent, their vast kingdom was fabulously wealthy, at the centre of world trade and one where “the average Indian peasant enjoyed a relatively higher income and lower taxation than his descendants ever would again.”*
What might it have been like to be a princess, a queen, a citizen of such an empire? Especially one that seems to have lent so much of itself to fantasy fiction?
Most of the trilogy follows its most compelling character: Noor Jahan.
I had been taught about her in history class of course. Jahangir’s wife who ruled in his stead. “Was Jahangir a weak king because he let himself be ruled by his wife? Discuss.”
I wish my history teacher had reminded us that Noor Jahan ruled at a time when women were neither seen nor heard. They ran the harem, the palace, some personal trade and extensive spy networks, but were expected to stay out of the man’s business of administration, warfare and diplomacy.
In such a time, in patriarchal Hindustan, where women were veiled and didn’t socialize with strange men (has India really changed in eight hundred years one might wonder), Noor Jahan stood out as a woman who wouldn’t be cowed into submission by men, who rode out into battle to save her kidnapped husband, the King, and who was the only Mughal queen to have coinage issued in her name. She was pretty badass!
The story is about romance, political intrigue and bringing Mughal India to life. Noor Jahan or Mehrunissa, her birth name, even spent the last of her days constructing her father’s tomb with the pietra dura technique from Rome.
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The most famous structure that uses the same technique, indeed was inspired by Mehrunissa’s father’s tomb, is of course, her niece’s mausoleum:
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The Taj Mahal.
The pinnacle of Mughal architecture.
The monument of Shah Jahan’s eternal love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Indu Sundaresan gives both these winsome characters personalities.
Shah Jahan, or Khurram, is an ambitious prince before he becomes the “King of the World”. Mumtaz Mahal, or Arjumand, while of course having conclusively captured Shah Jahan’s heart in her lifetime, is also both petty and compassionate, and has no love lost for her illustrious aunt who oversteps her bounds into male territory.
I love how famous historical characters are humanized. I love that the events leading up to the construction of the Taj are fascinating, convoluted and full of subterfuge. All in all, it’s just an eminently readable, if not entirely accurate, version of history.
*Indian Summer, Alex von Tunzelmann

Fantastic Beasts: The Harry Potter Prequel We Needed

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows left too many loose ends on Dumbledore’s life, because we were only told what Harry needed to know at the time. In one measly, fantastic information dump chapter.

  • Why did Dumbledore place so much faith in the power of love?
  • Why did Dumbledore wait so long to face Grindelwald? “Maybe he knew who killed Ariana” didn’t sound like the whole story.
  • What was wrong with Ariana?
  • How could Dumbledore have been swayed by the “greater good” argument of Grindelwald’s? Intelligent, kind, standing-for-the-defenseless Dumbledore? Never!

At least a part of the mystery was solved during J. K. Rowling’s Carnegie Hall interview where she revealed Albus Dumbledore is gay! Contrary to the internet opinion of Rowling wanting to milk the Potter craze even more, I think it’s the only explanation that makes perfect sense and makes Dumbledore’s tale of woe perfectly poignant. The man who so ardently believed in the power of love being greater than all other magic was the one who was forced to duel and defeat the only man he ever loved. That’s why he bought into the ridiculous “greater good” propaganda!

Dumbledore couldn’t face Grindelwald because the boy that he had once loved had become this monster who wanted to take over the world with the philosophies that they had perfected together, with the powers that he could gain from the Hallows that they had wanted to hunt together and the last crucial ingredient: Ariana.

I think there’s also more to Ariana’s story than was revealed in Deathly Hallows. A fight broke out during Kendra’s funeral between Aberforth and the other two, Albus and Gellert, over Ariana. The two wanted to take Ariana with them. I believed Dumbledore’s explanation to Harry that she was his responsibility, but what if there was more to it than that?

And this is where Newt Scamander comes in.

Dumbledore is Merlin. He’s a kingmaker. He trained Harry to fight and defeat Voldemort. What if he had had that experience before? And what if Fantastic Beasts has some more answers? [Spoiler: Of course it does!]

The little village of Godric’s Hollow has been home to many great magical families in its time. Why, rumour has it that the ancient Peverells, masters of the Deathly Hallows, lie buried in its church’s graveyard. More recent of its powerful families are the Dumbledores, neighbours to acclaimed historian Bathilda Bagshot. Percival and Kendra Dumbledore have three children: Albus, Aberforth and Ariana.

Albus was a prodigy, Aberforth was disgruntled, probably a consequence of living under his brilliant brother’s shadow, and Ariana was bright. All three promised to be powerful wielders of magic. Their world, and bright futures, took a dark and unexpected turn when six-year-old Ariana was attacked by muggle boys who caught her performing magic. Something broke in the child, and she was never again able to master her magical abilities. Furious, her father hunted down the boys and punished them, earning himself a lifelong cell in Azkaban. Her mother, Kendra, became her permanent cartetaker while Albus and Aberforth went off to become trained wizards at Hogwarts.

Life went on. As expected, Albus shone in every task he undertook, his brilliance unparalleled for generations gone by or to come. While his brother was the centre of attention, however reluctantly, Aberforth slunk further into the shadows, preferring to keep to himself and his animals. He had a special way with them. They seemed to understand him, just as Ariana did. They responded more to emotion than to words.

Aberforth was often worried about Ariana. Everyone knew that she behaved the best around him. He knew how to calm her, keep her happy, like a skittish unicorn. They could spend hours on end together, and his talented mother Kendra some time to herself and her study. She had long ago given up using her magical ability to its fullest potential since she had to care for Ariana full-time. Every summer Aberforth begged to stay home and not return to Hogwarts. Neither brother nor mother understood his pleas. Of course Hogwarts was better! Hogwarts was heavenly! Why on earth would he want to stay home with his Obscurial sister?

Because that’s what she had become, Ariana. Traumatized into internalizing her magic, she exploded when emotionally provoked. It was especially important to keep this information hidden from prying neighbours like Bathilda because if the Ministry caught so much as a whiff of the “dangerous creature”, they would haul her off to the Department of Mysteries to study her in the name of protection.

In her vast knowledge, Kendra didn’t know of another Obscurial who had lived beyond ten. Ariana was fourteen, and harder to control. When the boys were at Hogwarts, she had a particularly bad episode resulting in Kendra’s death. The Dumbledore boys rushed back to care for Ariana and hold a quiet funeral for Kendra, the only other attendee there being their long-time neighbour, Bathilda Bagshot. After the funeral, Albus remained as adamant as Kendra had been about Aberforth completing his education while he himself would put his world travels aside to settle down as Ariana’s guardian.

“Albus!” called Bathilda.

“Yes, Mrs. Bagshot?” smiled Albus politely as he tossed aside a book that was yet another magical classic whose teachings he had surpassed many years ago.

“My nephew Gellert is visiting. Would you like to meet him? You boys will have much in common and I do need to make this deadline. I’m writing a book. It’s called A History of Magic.” She ended with flourish.

“I look forward to it, Mrs. Bagshot,” sighed Albus. At least some company would be better than none at all.

When Albus and Aberforth met the handsome, smart and mischievous Gellert, Aberforth disliked him immediately and Albus didn’t know how he felt. That was odd. Albus was always self-assured. Over the next few days or perhaps weeks, Albus and Gellert spent an extraordinary amount of time together, even forgetting their families. They spent many a day debating life, arcane magic, the state of the world and how they would run it differently. Albus had never before met a wizard who could match his every step and had never before been so attracted to another mind. Gellert drew him in and entranced him.

They shared their deepest secrets. What had really happened at Durmstrang and how Albus felt about Ariana. Even the sacred secret: who she was, though of course Gellert had guessed. He wasn’t a fool!

“We should take her with us, she could be a powerful weapon! Let’s run our own experiments on her!”

As soon as Gellert had said it, he knew that he had said it wrong. Albus withdrew as he usually did from the people around him, the ones who couldn’t match his intellect.

“My sister isn’t a weapon. And we most certainly cannot experiment on her,” he said coldly before he stalked away, his blue eyes fiery. Gellert kicked himself for being an idiot and knew the matter would have to be handled delicately to bring Albus back. Albus, not for the first time, had misgivings about his new friend.

But of course Gellert could cajole Albus back. He always did. Though this wall lasted longer than any other had, Albus eventually thawed, unable to put up a permanent resistance against the golden-haired boy with the smiling face. Years later, that inability would haunt him.

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When they explained their plans the next time Aberforth was in town, Albus was shocked at the intensity of his brother’s disdain for Gellert and himself. He shouted at them for being cowards, for dragging off an innocent girl on their “world conquest” and many more terrible things. Gellert was furious. Albus was humbled. Before he knew it the matter had escalated into a duel between Gellert and Aberforth with Ariana getting worked up at her favourite brother coming to harm. Albus was ashamed that he hesitated. How could he choose between the people that he loved? But he retained his ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Had Gellert forgotten or had he never had it?

Aberforth was no match for Gellert. Albus stepped in. Though Gellert was powerful and talented, Albus had the edge. He felt the thrill of matching his wits against his friend as they had done so many times in the days past. It was Ariana’s screaming that brought him back to reality. This wasn’t a game and Gellert wasn’t playing.

The scuffle was too much for Ariana. She exploded and Gellert fled. Aberforth, stricken with grief and betrayed by his own brother, refused to speak to him for years. When Albus rescued him from penury by getting his a job at Hogsmeade, Aberforth had merely grunted as his way of thanks and continued to maintain a civil, if strained, correspondence with his brother until his death. Then he had had to help out another pesky boy dazzled with his brother’s greatness.

Albus for his part, returned to Hogwarts, shaken by how a lust for power had managed to ensnare even him, a man who thought himself above ordinary mortal follies. His saving grace had been love. His brother’s love for his sister, his love for his family… A feeling that he wasn’t sure Gellert felt, but he was too afraid to find out.

As a teacher, Albus found his true calling. Sharing his knowledge with the young, unformed and often bright minds. Many didn’t have his brilliance, but surpassed him in wisdom. He began to realize how short-sighted his arrogance had been. Forcing order for the greater good? How childish and dangerous the notion was!

Then the whispers started. Of a man who had become more than a man. He had stolen a powerful wand, some said the most powerful. He was taking over, quietly and swiftly. Dumbledore felt ice creep through his heart. And he did nothing. Though his instincts screamed, he had no proof, and no conviction to chase after an old… friend.

The whispers grew into rumours. The rumours turned into news. Proof mounted, letters poured in and yet, Dumbledore found himself incapable, unwilling to move. He couldn’t do it. He needed someone else. A boy of a pure heart, sensitive, kind, one who would know how to deal with the mysteries that this world had to offer and how to always make the right choice because he followed his heart, not his mind. Brave, but above all else, caring.

And there was only one boy, no, man, for the job.

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Most likely Dumbledore recruited Newt like he did Harry. He found the right person for the job and gave them the tools to be successful. We know they win of course.

Considered by many the greatest wizard of modern times, Dumbledore is particularly famous for his defeat of the Dark wizard Grindelwald in 1945, for the discovery of the twelve uses of dragon’s blood, and his work on alchemy with his partner, Nicolas Flamel. Professor Dumbledore enjoys chamber music and ten-pin bowling.

But it’s still exciting to relive the glory days of Potter, and answer some lingering questions with the new trilogy!

The fantastic trailer dropped this week. Wait for the huge reveal at the end!

And another thing…

I love Newt. I love the new series. I love Fantastic Beasts even more than the Harry Potter movies.

OK, I’m lying, more than the last 5 Harry Potter movies.

Really, only Azkaban compares.

Actually, Azkaban left out everything about the Marauders, so it’s probably not as good.

So, back to: I loved Fantastic Beasts, probably more than the Harry Potters (movies, not books, never books).

Anyway, Newt is awesome and you should watch this if you’re still here. I promise it’s worth your time: