Best Books Of 2013

It has been an interesting year as far as books are concerned. Since I began formally recording what I read only in May, I cannot give the exact number of books that I read this year. I estimate it to be around 45. This year I read the kind of books that I didn’t normally read, and that has been very gratifying. The following is a list of the best ones.

1. Chokher Bali – Rabindranath Tagore

I read Rabindranath Tagore’s works for the first time this year; Chokher Bali (A Grain of Sand in the Eye) and a collection of short stories. I have to say that I greatly enjoy his writings. All the idiosyncrasies of his time and his world are so deftly described in his stories. The characters are extremely well-etched and all their complex emotions are presented with ease.

chokher bali radha chakravarty - Google SearchComing back to Chokher Bali, Tagore addressed many issues. Adultery, a widow’s dissatisfaction with a life doomed to perpetual loneliness, the subtle ways in which Binodini manipulates Mahendra and Asha; it was all presented so poetically. It was sorrowful to see that despite being bold enough to rebel against the norms meant for widows, Binodini ultimately decides to walk away from Bihari, the person who loves her and wants to marry her. Tagore himself said that he regretted the ending. But perhaps that was the way Binodini redeemed herself; by allowing herself to have a little pride left.

Asha’s progress from a shy, young bride to a woman matured by circumstances was very beautiful to see. Her plainness made her endearing, because there were probably so many women like her. I especially loved the scene of her turning point; her distress on seeing her house in chaos without her mother-in-law. Sure, I don’t agree with many of the choices that she made, especially her decision to take back her husband after he fell in love with another woman. But I have to concede because it was a different time; the book was written more than a century ago.

Radha Chakravarty’s translation was simple and easy to read. A beautiful and sad book.

2. My Sister’s Keeper – Jodi Picoult

My Sister's Keeper

This is one of the very few books that made me cry, literally. The biggest reason that I enjoyed this book was that everyone was right from their own perspective. I especially loved Sara’s conflicts regarding motherhood and the choices that she had to make for her children. The following quote says it all.

‘You think you can lay it all out in words, black-and-white, as if it’s that easy. But you only represent one of my daughters, Mr. Alexander, and only in this courtroom. I represent both of them equally, everywhere, every place. I love both of them equally, everywhere, every place.’

So many of life’s actual situations are like that, aren’t they? Where you can’t distinguish where the lines blur.

The book wasn’t perfect though. The clichéd love story between the lawyer and the guardian ad litem could have been completely avoided. It didn’t add anything to the story. Parts involving Jesse as the typical problem child also were a bit dragged. But regardless, it is definitely a book that I would recommend.

3. Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

Cover of "Interpreter of Maladies"

I began my reading life with short story collections; fairy tales, moral stories, Aesop’s fables. I discovered novels and the short stories lost their charm for a number of years. I think it was partly because at that time, I was given certain short story collections that I did not enjoy at all. Even when the stories were good, it seemed to me that as soon as I began warming up to the characters, the story ended. I did feel somewhat like that reading Interpreter Of Maladies, but I’m glad that I finished reading it at the insistence of a blogger friend.

I’ve got relatives who are immigrants; NRIs. They come here every couple of years, stay for a month or slightly more. They want to go back to their lives after that. I can understand that. I’m sure that people get used to new places and new people after some time. This is the time of globalisation and there are people who have lived in various countries. I find that a little scary, to be honest. It’s not like I don’t want to go out and explore the world; I do. But then, I want to come back home. Is it easy to make a home in a place that’s so different from what you know?

I think every person, who is contemplating migrating should read at least one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. She captures the nuances of relationships between people from both the worlds so beautifully. There’s longing for home mingled with the desire to make a new life in a new country. I especially loved the last story. All the hesitations of a new marriage, coupled with the efforts to adjust to a new country; it was very touching to read.

4. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale

Dystopian fiction always leaves you asking for something more; a proper closure of sorts. By definition, the story and the conflicts often remain unresolved. You read the entire novel yearning for a near-miracle. That was my feeling when I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale.

The story is pretty horrific, but unfortunately, that is the reality of a certain section of women in the world, though maybe not to the extent shown in the book. For every atrocity I read, I was thankful for the choices that I’m allowed to make. My only problem was that Offred was an unreliable narrator. That makes sense since she was a prisoner,  but at some points, I just didn’t want to let it go; I wanted to know. I wanted to know more about her daughter, her husband Luke, and frankly it was maddening to never know.

I enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s style of writing, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her books.

5. Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

This was a disturbing book. It is impossible to discuss this book without spoiling it, so don’t read ahead if you’re planning to read the book.

gone girl book - Google SearchIn the first part we get to read Amy’s diary interleaved with Nick’s current reality. It was most perturbing  to read how much differently can two people think about the same relationship. It unnerved me to wonder whether that’s true for all relationships to some extent.

In the second part, we come to know that Amy’s diary was, in fact, fabricated. In reality, she was psychotic and crazy. She planned her own murder in order to frame Nick. Her original plan was to actually kill herself but she changed her mind later.

The genius of the book came into play when I thought back to all the crazy things that Amy did to frame Nick. The hidden meanings in the clues of the treasure hunt were especially chilling when re-read after knowing the reality.

It was a fast-paced book, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes reading psychological thrillers and doesn’t mind the foul language and explicit scenes.

Have you read any of these books? What was your experience?

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Authority, Obedience and Creativity

In second grade, my teacher was the ultimate authority, the one who decided what was right and what was wrong, the one that we complained to in case somebody took our big red-coloured Kit-Kat eraser. I was in awe of her, though I found her a bit strict.

Outside our school there were a few laaris (carts), where a whole lot of low-quality eatables were sold. It was stuff like tamarind, etc. One such taste-bud-tantalizer was some sort of tamarind powder. I never bought these things because my parents said they were bad for health. Our teachers also discouraged it.

Once, Miss B as I’ll call her, caught a boy in my class eating the said powder. She scolded him in front of the entire class, but that wasn’t all. She proceeded to read the ingredients on the packet too. One of them was citrus acid.

Now, mind you, we were in second grade, and didn’t really know the difference between edible acids and cleaning stuff. For us, any acid was ACID, THAT THING WHICH WILL BURN YOU, as was taught to us. Miss B, taking advantage  of the fact, lectured  us on the terrors of eating the thing.

I went home horrified at the foolishness of the boy. Over lunch, I told my parents all about it. My parents very gently informed me how fruits like oranges actually contain citrus acid and that it is completely harmless and edible.

My first reaction was disbelief. How could a teacher lie to us? How could she take advantage of our ignorance?

But soon, I realised why she did so. It was easier for her to say that the powder contained acid rather than explain the details of why exactly it was bad for health. Considering the fact that I was seven and idealistic, I think I forgave her quite easily.

How easy it is, to not explain and merely order. Explaining would take more time, more efforts and probably lead to further questions. Scolding, ordering and even scorning, would take only a few minutes and have a more immediate impact. And of course, a deeper impact, though that part is neglected: Children stop asking “Why?”

dontask

Don’t ask silly questions!

When I was growing up, keeping quiet was a virtue. All students of my generation have heard this from their teachers at least once: Finger on your lips! Don’t talk! Don’t disturb the class! Don’t ask silly questions! I’ve even heard of some teachers completely discouraging any questions when they are in the middle of their teaching, lest they lose their track!

I was a good student. I was, in fact, a model pupil. I even got an award for it: Best Conduct and Discipline. What does it mean really? Good conduct and being disciplined? In my day, it meant being silent in class, accepting the teacher’s authority, not talking back. It meant that I would never question the teacher. I was fed these “virtues” as food everyday. Distinguishing between proper questions and silly questions came easily to me; I knew instinctively which questions shouldn’t be asked. The teachers adored me!

But it also meant that a lot of those silly questions were never asked even though I was curious. I stopped daring to be creative with answers because I was afraid that the teachers would expect me to follow the right and taught methods. For each question asked, I had two answers in my mind; one that I wanted to give, and one which I knew the teacher wanted to listen. I always gave the latter one.

Times have changed now. Questions are encouraged. Creativity is rewarded. The definition of a good student has been changing. Now, we are told that one who asks the most questions learns the most. One who accepts the things as they are told is obedient, but not bright. “Out of the Box thinking” (a much abused expression) is encouraged. For some, the transition has been smooth. For others, it comes with effort.

I was systematically taught to be obedient. And now, it has taken a good amount of conscious effort to revamp the way my mind works, to stop the instinct to give a “desirable” answer and try giving one which may sound silly.

It takes courage to wonder, to be in any way, out of the ordinary. Thank goodness, those questions and those answers were only silenced and not completely removed. Thank goodness, that “creative” wondering was encouraged at home. I realise that school played a very major role in shaping the way I think, but I’m glad, that the very basis of my thought process was formed at home. Beneath those layers of obedience, the inquisitiveness remained, though a little rusty.

Children are curious by nature. Organised learning often kills that curiosity, one question at a time. Every time a teacher gives an order and refuses to answer “Why?”, the child learns to never question authority, to be a doormat.

Is it that difficult to tell a child Why she should/should not do something? How can one expect a child to choose between obedience and inquisitiveness?

How was your experience in school? Were all questions encouraged?

Is Feminism My Hobby?

The semester is officially over. I’m home, and have caught up on the lost hours of sleep. It’s good to be blogging again!

I took a Game Design course this semester. By the end of the semester, all of us were supposed to have made a simple game using Panda3D (the game engine) and python. No, wait! The technical part of the post is over, I promise. Hang on.

Being engineering students, all of us were doing the project at the last minute; finishing it an hour before the demo. My game is basically a Treasure Hunt in a farm-like environment. The final treasure is a book, reinforcing the moral that “Knowledge is the greatest treasure”. It is also  in sync with the book-lover that I am. 🙂

game

After the demo was done (which went well), all of us were discussing each other’s games. As I explained  our concept to a fellow classmate who happens to read my blog, and knows of both, my love of books and my “feminist tendencies”, he exclaimed, “Well, at least it has nothing to do with feminism!”

I was flabbergasted, to say the least. I recovered myself then, but I kept on thinking about it later on. Is feminism something that I merely dabble in, as a recreation, or as a fleeting interest? As far as I understand, the person in question isn’t a chauvinist. But it re-emphasises my belief that there’s still a lot of confusion regarding what feminism is all about.

I made a gender-neutral game. Sure, the player’s character was a male. I didn’t have a lot of choice in the models to be used. But the rest of it? The farm, the creatures, the treasure; they had nothing to do with gender. I can see why the person thought it had nothing to do with feminism. No elements in the game were regarding “Girl Power” or “Injustice” or “Inequality”. The challenges in the game were simply to find gemstones hidden around and not fight for women’s rights.

But you know what? I’m going to claim that it is a feminist game. Why the surprise? Because I used the expressions “gender-neutral” and “feminism” in the same post?

Let me tell you why I claim so. The final treasure is a book, not a sexy lady objectified as a trophy. The game’s concept talks about education, for anybody and everybody. And that is feminism, isn’t it? That I don’t focus on the gender, but instead talk about more important things like knowledge and education.

It’s a pity I still have to say this, feminism is simply about considering both as equal, about both having the same choices. Yes, some may say I’m simplifying the matters, but it really is that simple. The reason that feminism is mixed with women’s rights and inequality is because there is an imbalance. People tell me one should talk of equality and not feminism. They don’t realise it’s the same thing. The word for it is “feminism” because the imbalance is hindering the female population, not the male population.

The way I see it, feminism doesn’t happen to me bursts, or in specific scenarios. It’s not something that I’m interested in at the moment. It’s present all the time. It’s there in whatever I do. Or at least, I hope it’s there, and that I’m not a hypocrite. So yes, my game is feminist. Sorry for the confusion. My actions are feminist. My thoughts are feministic. And if you’re to be politically correct at the very least, yours are feminist too.

It isn’t an interest, or a hobby that I may mention to somebody. It’s so obvious that I don’t have to mention it. Why is that so difficult to grasp for people?

Have you ever been told that feminism is “too strong” a word? Have you noticed the confusion surrounding the word? How do you deal with that?

Note: I’m not bashing the person in question. I’m addressing a general confusion regarding the way feminism is perceived.