Book Reviews

The Forty Rules of Love : Elif Shafak

A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western…Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire. the universe turns itself different when fire loves water.

Forty Rules of LoveShort Overview

Ella is a housewife, leading a comfortable but mundane life in suburban Massachusetts. Her world revolves around her husband and her three children. But, she has now started to realise her diminishing worth in their lives; her husband is a serial philanderer and as her children are growing up; they need her less and less. To break the monotony of her life, she accepts the job of an editorial assistant and the first book she is given to assess is “Sweet Blasphmemy” by A. Z. “Aziz” Zahara.  Aziz’s book is based on the companionship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz; and its manuscript forms the parallel narrative of the book. Ella begins correspondence with the author of the book and he makes her realise that she is missing a very important thing in life; love. While she had always thought of love being as just a transient thing; not necessary to sustain life in the long run; she now begins to realise its true importance. But will this realisation liberate her, or will it completely shake the foundations of life that she has built so far; just as Rumi’s life was shaken up when Shams came to his life.

My thoughts on the book

I had picked up the book thinking it would be an intense love story. I was pleasantly surprised. The book is actually a very innovative way of spreading the teachings of Sufism, the religion that basically preaches love. These teachings are conveyed through the voices of two of its most renowned scholars, Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. The timelessness of these teachings is such that it helps a lady in the twentieth century to deal with the crisis that she is facing in her life.

The authors masterstroke was to present the story of Shams and Rumi from a lot of perspectives. The different voices create an atmosphere that transports the readers to the Konya of Rumi’s time. It also shows that it was not always that they were universally loved; there was a time when they had a lot of opponents. Rumi’s wife Kerra and his son Aladin were completely against his companionship with Shams. This goes on to show that any new idea does not find widespread acceptance immediately; it takes a while for the society to warm up to anything that challenges the established school of thought. On the other hand, they found acceptance from the most marginalised quarters, like a prostitute and a drunk. Their idea of religion did not treat these people as filth, but as living, breathing humans.

Real filth is the one inside. The rest simply washes off. There is only one type of dirt that cannot be cleansed with pure waters, and that is the stain of hatred and bigotry contaminating the soul. You can purify your body through abstinence and fasting, but only love will purify your heart.

The most beautiful aspect of the book is the relationship between Rumi and Shams and in present day, the one between Ella and Aziz. Rumi was looking for a companion and Shams thought that he could be one. However, what Rumi did not know was that he was meeting his soul mate; one who would embellish his knowledge, just like a jeweller polishes carbon and turns it to diamond. Before meeting him, Rumi was a renowned preacher and scholar; after meeting him, Rumi would become a poet; a title that made him immortal for posterity. Shams made Rumi see world in new light, mainly because he made him see God in a different light.

Nothing should stand between yourself and God. Not imams, priests, rabbis or any other custodians of moral or religious leadership. Not spiritual masters, not even your faith. Believe in your values and your rules, but never lord them over others. If you keep breaking other people’s hearts, whatever religious duty you perform is no good.

Stay away from all sorts of idolatry, for they will blur your vision. Let God and only God be your guide. Learn the Truth, my friend, but be careful not to make a fetish out of your truths.

Aziz’s friendship with Ella helps her discover what she has been missing the most in her life, love. Ella is a creature of habit; who finds a certain solace in the routine of her life. Aziz makes her aware that a live without love is not worth living. Love cannot be replaced by other comforts of life, neither can it lose its significance over time. He gives her the courage to move forward; leaving behind all that doesn’t make her happy.

It is never too late to ask yourself, “Am I ready to change within?”. Even if a single day in your life is the same as the day before, it surely is a pity. At every moment and with each new breath, one should be renewed and renewed again. There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.”

The forty teachings of Shams have been “fitted” very well into the narrative. The flow of thoughts is very situational, which prevents the narrative from being didactic. That is also the beauty of these teachings; they apply to all types of people and all types of situations in any given day and age.

I will certainly remember the book for its prose, but more for the ideas that it put across. It has taught me about different aspects of love; the love of a man for a woman, the love of man for God and also the love of man for self.

The quest for Love changes us. there is no seeker among those who search for Love who has not matured on the way. the moment you start looking for Love, you start to change within and without.

Overall rating: 3.75/5

 

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Book Reviews

When I Hit You – Meena Kandaswamy

I must take some responsibility over my own life. I must write my story.

Short Overview:

The unnamed narrator of the story is a what the society to call a “modern day” woman. She is bold, uninhibited and worldly-wise. She studies literature in Kerala and has a couple of casual affairs. The one guy she really falls in love is a maverick politician, who will not acknowledge her in front of the world. She does not want to be somebody’s dirty secret and hence breaks off the relationship which leave her emotionally wrecked. In her most vulnerable moment, she finds the man that she eventually marries.

The rest as they say is the unrest of the story.

Her husband is a communist. He had been a Naxalite and is still a fugitive living with a bounty on his head. She is enamoured by his idealism and “sense of adventure” and feels that he would make her see the world in a new light. However, her marriage is anything but ideal.

I must learn that a Communist woman is treated equally and respectfully by comrades in public but can be slapped and called a whore behind closed doors. This is dialectics.

She suffers unspeakable horrors and endures for a while; but ultimately gathers courage to walk out and pen down her story.

My thoughts on the book:

This books treats the topic of marital abuse in minutiae. The angle is unique because this is an evidently headstrong girl, not some docile girl-next-door. She was not forced into this marriage by her parents; she chose the man for her. Relationships were not a novelty for her; neither was she in search of a knight in shining armour. Yet, she lands in an abusive relationship, despite not checking off any of the usual pre requisites.

A very important issue spoken about in a rather brazen but realistic manner is marital rape. More often than not, the doesn’t even count it as rape, even though any sexual relationship that does not involve the consent of both the individuals should be termed so, no matter the fact that the individuals in the situation are husband and wife.

The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drinks. He is someone who wakes up next to me.

The horror doesn’t end with the act itself. The intense scrutiny that follows is tormenting. It causes the victim to hate herself, to think that she might have done something to deserve this.

The shame of the rape is the shame of the unspeakable. Women have found it easier to jump into fire, consume poison, blow themselves up as suicide bombers, than tell another soul about what happened. A rape is a fight you did not win. You could not win. A rape is defeat.

The double standards of men like the narrator’s husband is sickening. He claims himself to be a revolutionary. He is a communist; a worshipper of Lenin. The basic tenet of communism is that no class of human beings should discriminate against another. Ideally speaking, this should mean that men should treat women as equal to them and respect them as equals in a relationship. But, for some men, these ideals are left behind when they cross the doors to enter their homes. Women are reduced to objects to derive pleasure from and punish when she doesn’t confirm to the wishes of the man.

The narrator uses writing as an outlet; which is a good coping mechanism. She also begins to strategise to get out of the relationship. More often than not, it is assumed that having a child would repair all marital relationships. It doesn’t; in fact it forces women to stay and the child’s life is also gambled in the process. The narrator, realises that this is not a solution and makes sure this doesn’t happen.

The writer, explores why women stay in such relationships. Her perspective on this matter is nothing new or unique. It’s usually a lot of social pressure to make things work that drives women. It is also, the tiny bit hope that things would eventually work out. And hope is most often the last thing that dies; and makes women endure much more than they think they can and they should.

Hope – as the cliche goes – is the last thing to disappear. I sometimes wish it had abandoned me first, with no farewell note or goodbye hug, and forced me to act.

There are also people on both sides of the aisle who judge women. The radical feminists think of such women as a disappointment to the gender and ostracise them for choosing to endure abuse. The conservative society blames such women for being too progressive and not having the mettle to sustain relationships.

Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. the shaming is in being asked to stand to judgment.

This book is a lesson to judgmental feminists that they shouldn’t be too quick to judge, to women who are in abusive relationships that winning should not be coping but walking out and to young girls in hopes of love that happy ending is not a lover; but the freedom to love.

 

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Reviews

Things She Could Never Have – Tehmina Khan

Home is not the place where you were born or where you grew up, nor family, the people you were born to or grew up around; rather, home is the place that makes you feel that you belong, and family are the people who accept you as theirs.

Short review:

This is short story collection about Pakistanis, either native or immigrants. Some stories are related, but most are standalone. The stories are drawn from different walks of life. A young boy becomes a terrorist to support his family, another girl becomes radicalised for lack of an identity. At the other end of the spectrum, a blast destroys a whole family. A transgender is banished from her own home, another is accepted inside the walls of her house, but not outside. Some girls think sexually liberated but in reality they are looking for that man in life who could be their saviour, but some are abused by men and cannot talk about it. Some are betrothed to men they have never met; while some are living with men they don’t think they know. Some are ostracised or not breaking a child, while some for being a widow. 

In what looks to be a glimpse into the daily lives of people from Pakistan, the author succeeds to highlight some of the most relevant social issues, without being cynical or didactic. The characters are actually a medium to point out the traditions in the society and the highlight the plights of those who are either weak, marginalised or misguided. What actually pains me is that sometimes women fall into all three of these categories. I liked the honesty and simplicity with which the characters are written down. While the situations that they are in are not something I can identify with; there are probably many Zohras I know and many Farahs I have read about recently.

 

My thoughts:

I thought about what I could pen down about this book. A full length review would not be much of a value add given the length of the book, so I just decided to pen down my thoughts on each of the stories. These could be taken as my interpretations or takeaways; but will hopefully leave you with some food for thought.

Whisperings of the devil: This story highlights the class difference present in our society; and how it is sometimes knowingly or unknowingly evident in our behaviour. Sometimes even a nonchalant demonstration of such behaviour can destroy lives. 

To Allah We Pray: Violence perpetrated in the name of religion can shatter families even though the perpetrators might not themselves be convinced of the cause. Also, what god would want violence as a mode to uphold his name, honour and belief. Bloodshed is against fundamental tenets of any religion. 

A stranger in my own home and Things she could never have: As a woman, I often complain of the gender discrimination present in the society. However, we still make up one half of the society and that is indisputable. However, transgenders are not even considered humans, and the society does not grant them basic human rights. What is most hurtful is the shunning by the families. A home is forever an unfulfilled longing in their hearts.

This is our secret: There are evils present in our society that we are afraid to talk about, and abuse is one of them. We teach our daughters to be independent, but ironically we also silence their voice against abuse in the name of family honour and prestige. We need to ask ourselves, is it honourable to let crime perpetrate?

The Engineer’s Bride and The First: These two stories are not connected, but they depict women’s take on relationships in two different eras. While way back in 60s-70s, women did not even have the liberty to meet the one they were betrothed to before marriage; over the years society evolved to a point where it was okay to get intimate before marriage; though illicitly. What remains constant is that the society has assumed that the sole motive of a woman’s life has to be to find a suitable partner, without whom she wouldn’t be complete.

Flying in Andalusia: This story provides an insight into the plight of a couple who were brought together by families, but are so incompatible, that the beautiful journey of life becomes a tiring excursion. It makes me wonder, is it okay to continue with relationships in which there is no love? And does a loveless marriage legitimise infidelity? 

Born on the First of July: A significant threat to the youth of our generation is radicalisation. Young folks going through an identity crisis often are easy targets to be recruited into extremist organisation. Is it belief that draws them or just the thrill of being a rebel aligned with a misguided cause?

Closed door: This story raises two very obvious questions of our times: is a woman worthless if she cannot be a mother and is it given that she would be a bad mother if she wants to pay attention to her professional goals as well? These generalisations are making gender equality an even more distant dream than it already is.

Stealing Apples from Heaven: This is a very sweet story which shows how sometimes children have a better understanding of priorities; that we must value people over things.

Come Listen to Me: This is a story about timeless and selfless love; the pain of partition and separation and social standing of a widow in the society. It makes me wonder what would be the intensity of love that would make one forget all sense of self; and if it is still found in today’s materialistic world. It also raises a question as to whether a women also loses the right to live with dignity the day her husband dies.

Overall rating: 3.75/5

Book Reviews

The President’s Garden – Muhsin Al Ramli

“Everything is fate and decree.”

What is the book about?

Abdullah, Ibrahim and Tariq are three inseparable friends living in rural Iraq. As they are at the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, Abdullah and Ibrahim are called for duty in the National Army as Iraq enters a period of turmoil stepping into decades of war, first with Iran and then with Kuwait followed by the American invasion of Iraq. Tariq is spared this since he is a religious teacher.

As years pass by, Tariq remains a happy-go-lucky teacher Abdullah and Ibrahim fight for Iraq, even though they are both not convinced by the reasons for the war, and hence their loyalty to their nation and their flag is not unquestioned. Abdullah is held as a prisoner of war in Iran and Ibrahim loses a leg. Having seen the horrors of war first hand, Abdullah is disillusioned with life to a point where he doesn’t see a difference between being alive and dying. Contrary to him, Ibrahim faces everything with equanimity and resignation as he believes that everything is fate and decree.

The novel draws heavily from the personal experiences of the author, whose brother was tortured by the regime. The narration is more like a folklore, and this has been kept intact by translation. The portions where the author describes carnage and torture in the aftermath of wars and in the service of the President are astounding pieces of writing which would invoke emotions of hatred and disgust in the readers.To say I enjoyed reading this is not a proper use of the word, but it was a gripping read till the last page. I am looking forward to its sequel.

 

My thoughts on the book:

I have always been very interested in stories from the middle east and this was the first and a very good insight for me into Iraq. What we know about this country is usually through the New York Times and CNN. To get a personal account was an eye-opener. And since the writer is an Iraqi, who witnessed the horrors of the wars first hand, the narrative is guaranteed to be authentic.

On a personal level, the various relationships are penned down beautifully. It is often tricky to make people and relations stand out in novels which are based in oppressed societies, because more often than not they just come out as victims and not regular human beings. The friendship between Abdullah, Ibrahim and Tariq is beautiful; it’s actually heartening to see that such relationships blossom in the land of distrust and paranoia. When Abdullah’s parentage is questioned, is his defence they say;

“Yes, we are all sons of the earth crack. The earth is our mother, all of us. Out of her we are born, and to her we return.”

At the same time, the conflict between Ibrahim and his daughter Qisma is portrayed beautifully. Qisma didn’t see her father much in early childhood, and when he came back home after the wars without a leg, she didn’t see the hero in him that daughters usually expect fathers to be. Despite Ibrahim’s constant efforts, she never warmed up to him, and they just settled into a routine of peaceful co existence until much later when Qisma acknowledged him to be the hero that he was for just surviving all that life threw at him;

“She now sam him as a hero, even if heroism was no longer esteemed in this country where heroes and traitors, humanity and savagery, sacrifice and exploitation were intertwined, and everything mixed together amid battle smoke, chaos, blood and destruction. True heroism lay hidden in self-denial, and that is primarily what her father Ibrahim had practised throughout his life with a remarkable patience and submissions”

The overall tone of the book is not black and white and that is, in my opinion, an ideal way to depict such a situation. Th situation in Iraq is grey and that’s how it needs to be portrayed for the narrative to be believable. For example, the people are genuinely disillusioned with the government and the patriotism is not heroic or sycophantic. Even when there is revolution, it lack direction. Abdullah had been seen so much atrocities, that he was completely disillusioned with humanity and life in general.

“When I look at the flag of any country, I see nothing more than a scrap of cloth devoid of any colour or meaning.”

“Later I realised that the cruelty of man is more barbaric than any other creature”

“I have become convinced, however, that man’s evil, bestial nature far outweighs his humanity.”

The perils of a dictatorship and consequently the importance of a democracy are highlighted in the book in bold letters. To say the regime is suppressive is an understatement. People are tortured and killed, countries go to war, lives are destroyed just at the whims of a lunatic. To even think what might be going through the mind of a man who liked to see people suffer causes me to shudder. Ibrahim aptly put this dilemma in words,

“How is it that a person is not satisfied with what occupies his own head, such that he strives to take possession of others?”

Overall, this books leaves a lot to think over. It surely reminds us to be thankful of what we have and be mindful of the sufferings of others.

Overall rating: 4.5/5

Book Reviews, Uncategorized

City of Spies – Sorayya Khan

Overview:

Aliya is a half Pakistani-half Dutch teenager living in Islamabad with her family. As is the case with most children with mixed parentage, she is also confused about her identity. Her family moved to Islamabad from Vienna, where her father was a diplomat; but decided to return to his motherland to answer the call of duty. Aliya doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t really look like the people around her and doesn’t identify with the ways of her homeland, which in many ways is “foreign” to her.Aliya and her siblings continue their education at the American school; something that her father considers to be a privilege. Another privilege Pakistan affords them are loyal domestic helps like Sadiq. At school, Aliya befriends Lizzy and her family; who family gets involved with Aliya’s family in a very complicated manner and this lays out the basic plot of the story.

In the background are the political events of the time. Aliya’s father came to Pakistan at behest of the then Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Soon there is a military coup and the extremist General Zia-ul-Haq usurps power. Bhutto is imprisoned and later hanged. In another noticeable event, American Embassy in Iran is attacked an diplomats are held hostage and the American Embassy in Pakistan is burnt down, an event that directly impacts Lizzy’s family and by extension, Aliya. Lizzy has to leave the country; and at this moment Aliya recognises that she is actually Pakistani; no matter what her parentage is. She isn’t sure if she is proud of it though.

Aliya’s conflict as a “half and half” is depicted very well. I really liked the fact that it is not overtly dramatised. Sure, she is confused at times; but that doesn’t make her a rebel or bitter in any ways. She is otherwise a regular teenager. However, what is remarkable about her is very well developed understanding of right and wrong and to be able to take stand whenever needed. Her absolute loyalty towards Lizzy is also admirable. Aliya truly stands out as very strong character, which was a refreshing depiction of a teenager.

The author has drawn very strongly from her personal experiences. Her background as a journalist is evident in the way she describes the events. The writing is on point; informative, yet creative. This book is a racy read, set in very politically tumultuous times in Pakistan.

What I liked:

  • The novel is very fast paced and the political events of the time are intertwined very efficiently with the fictional set up of the story.
  • The relationships are very beautifully depicted. My favourite was the friendship between Lizzy and Aliya.
  • The characterisation is strong, even a shot lived character like Hanif was very well developed. Also, there are no extras. Each character is there for a reason.

What I did not like:

  • The climax was a major disappointment. The build up to the story was great, so I was expecting a lot more from the climax. But most of it came in the epilogue rather than the climax chapter.
  • Some of the portions were unnecessary verbose, which stood out more so because of the weakness of the climax.

Favorite Quotes:

  • We are defined by the wars we have lived, regardless of whether we can name them.
  • All I’ve said above is true, but as a rule, truth is as wide and all-encompassing  as you let it be, and there is always more of it.
  • The fact was that Americans were always and unquestionable worth more than Pakistanis or anyone else.
  • “Ye afsanah nahin hai, ye hamari zindagi ki kahani hai.”

Overall rating: 3.5/5

Uncategorized

Peep In!

I read somewhere that a book is a proof that human beings are capable of magic. I solemnly swear by this statement. Ride along as I discover this beautiful world that we live in, through the pens of authors and the papers of publications. And in this process, I hope to discover a tiny bit more of myself as well.

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