Thursday, March 15, 2012

21 Books I’ve Loved That You Might Too

To start with, this is MY list. So replies like, “Why didn’t you include Atlas Shrugged?” or “Time Traveler’s Wife is boring,” are redundant. I say that at the start. That this is a list of books I have read, enjoyed, loved, and often gifted to other people, who have loved them equally. That doesn’t mean to say that everyone will love them, and that’s fine. It is why Chetan Bhagat is big, though most of us can’t see why. If you like some of these, you will probably like most of them. If you’ve read none of them, by all means, use this list! But then I would say that…it’s MY list after all. They’re listed in no particular order. Enjoy!

1.    The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger
What does one say about a book that has been commented on by every single literary person of worth? That it is perfect? That it is possibly the most phenomenal plot ever? That that fact combined with a heart-wrenching love story might make it one of the best books on the planet? It’s funny how many different kinds of people I know who like this book. It’s odd how many boys I know, who keep a copy on their bedside table. My mother gave it to me telling me, “I promise you, it’s not cheesy.” That’s the best I can say too. Henry and Clare’s story is one that will survive trends and critics, for years to come. Because everybody wants a love like that.

2.    Emergency Sex by Cain, Postlewait and Thomson
A book that follows three UN/Red Cross volunteers through ten years of conflict, including Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Liberia and Cambodia, it reads like dynamic fiction but is very, very real. In fact, while reading it, one needs to remind oneself that these are real events, with real consequences, and then the effect on the system is jarring. If you think politics is a boring topic, this will change your mind and make you want to hop on the next flight to the most terrifying, war torn country you can currently find on the globe.

3.    The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
Written in Rushdie’s usual cheeky style that I found ‘self indulgent’ when I was a teenager, the book is a rock opera of words and wonder. A book which serenades the sixties, rock and roll, Bombay before it was Mumbai, alternate realities and photography, it is both historical and lyrical as well as a love story that stretches beyond one’s wildest imagination. Though I love Shame, for me, this far surpasses it.

4.    Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins
Tom Robbins is a genius. There are no two ways about it. A lover made me ‘swear’ I’d read Jitterbug Perfume, and being heady in lust and full of faith, I went straight to a bookstore. The boy is now long gone, but the book remains and it’s a romance that will last me, forever. By far the most ‘conclusive’ of Robbins’ books, this made me believe that God might, after all exist and that Robbins might even be Him. For me to begin telling you even part of the plot would be like inviting you to a Rolling Stones’ concert saying the plan was to  “Go hear some music by a really nice band.”

5.    Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Better known for the book they made into a film, The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides writes one book every ten years (or something close to that snail pace). When you read Middlesex, you’ll understand why. It traces the life of a hermaphrodite, Calliope Stephanides, from 1960 onwards and is unlike anything you have ever experienced, simply because Eugenides is not scared to take the road less travelled, where writing is concerned.

6.    Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan
If you like the weird and wonderful, you will love this. Padmanabhan creates a world for you in which only one woman remains. On her 18th birthday, her uncles who have protected and hidden her for almost two decades decide to help her escape to a world where women might still exist. A courageous, philosophical and wholly feminist book, Escape is as much an action thriller as it is a serious ode to women.

7.    The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t let the size put you off. Read till the very end, and read every word, because it is worth it. Kingsolver writes about Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as if they were her friends, and she has been in their kitchens and bedrooms and studios, as a fly on the wall, a spy in the house of love. A fantastic, fictional biography that makes you feel very much a part of history, and as if history itself had come alive. Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on the Mexican Revolution, and all that followed it.

8.    Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
A book of loss, heartache and immeasurable pain, Maps… tells a story we all know too well. It sings the unsung song of every lover who has been parted from their beloved, for reasons as base as caste or religion. Though Aslam’s each sentence requires attention in order to read it, his words are, for the patient reader, a reward for surpassing the riff raff of regular writing.

9.    The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
Yes he gets two books on my list, and yes, he is the only one who gets that. If you found Maps For Lost Lovers difficult and depressing, you will find The Wasted Vigil twice as much so. But fear not, it has hundreds and thousands of beautiful reasons for you to buy and read it. To start with, the book opens in a house in Afghanistan where every book has been taken off the shelves and nailed to the ceiling, to save the literature from the hands of the Taliban. Such sad yet vivid imagery is the staple of Aslam’s books. Less rounded off and romance-driven than Maps For Lost Lovers, this is a harder book to read, but that is nothing, when compared to how hard it must have been to research and write it. A stark portrait of Afghanistan from the 1970s up until present day, Aslam wrote the book in a house where the windows were all covered in black paper, to allow him to lose himself entirely in his story. When he came out once in the middle, he couldn’t understand why the weather did not match that of the chapter he was then writing.

10. Seven Years In Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
I avoided the book for so long, because I had seen the movie and couldn’t shake the memories. Wanting my thoughts on the book to be fresh, I kept avoiding it. I had nothing to fear. Seven Years In Tibet paints such a vibrant image of the Land of Snows, that in retrospect I see how no movie could have actually represented Harrer’s story accurately enough. Far sadder and more relevant now that the Tibet of his time is a distant and fast fading dream, Harrer’s book, an account of his escape from India to Tibet on foot, and his subsequent time as a resident of Lhasa is anything but boring mountaineering chatter. In an interview once, Harrer spoke of the book and its relevance, saying, “Satellites cannot discover souls and languages and legends of culture.” He writes, “Though the aircraft had finally opened up the world, one last mystery remained: a vast country on the roof of the world, a country of marvels and wonders where monks could part their souls from their bodies to hover in the air, and oracles determined the course of events. That land was surrounded by the highest mountains on Earth, and the ruler of the state was a living god dwelling in a citadel of incomparable beauty built on a red rock. It was a forbidden country, and the capital Lhasa was closely guarded by monks. For romantics, there was even the attraction of the blue poppy that flowered in secret beyond the mountains.”

11. Freedom In Exile by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
For me, this acts as a sister book to Seven Years In Tibet. The Dalai Lama tells the story of his being found at the age of two and subsequently raised by the Tibetan government to be the spiritual leader and head of state of Tibet. He takes you with him as he escapes Chairman Mao’s Communist Chinese regime in Tibet, for India, where with Nehru, he set up the Tibetan Government In Exile. A remarkable story where the esteemed author is humble and accessible at all stages, it once again gives one a telling picture of a culture that is now all but lost.

12. Oil by Matthew Yeomans
Subtitled ‘A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth’, Oil takes you through the history, significance, use and consequences of the product. The best part about the book is that it treats oil not as a commodity, but as a protagonist. What I like most about Yeomans’ work is that it wasn’t intimidating. I bought it to better my knowledge of something that was only becoming more and more significant and found myself deeply engrossed and intrigued. Though I doubt Yeomans aimed for it, he has indeed created, of all the unlikely things to call a book on oil, ‘a page turner’.

13. Illywhacker by Peter Carey
My friend Neha Kaul Mehra bought me the book. I’m a book snob, but then so is she, so I put it on my shelf and waited for a time when I could really get into it, to read it. When I finally did, it completely overwhelmed me. It made me laugh out loud and cry and feel for the characters. It made me want to lap it all up and then slow it down so that it would never end. Peter Carey might be the best, most engrossing ‘story teller’ I have ever read. Do yourself the favour Neha did me, and go out and buy this book.

14. We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver is a witch. She gets under your skin and into your veins and haunts your sleep and rocks your stomach. And she does all this while using a vocabulary that requires you to keep open for the entire duration of your reading her book. The only way to rid yourself of the evil part of her spell is to get through the book. It isn’t me who says this. It’s everyone. Few authors can do that, and she does it, book after book. We Need To Talk About Kevin is where she does it best of all. Haunting, precise, animated and dark, it traces, through a series of letters written by Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, the life of their son Kevin. Kevin lives nearby in a juvenile detention centre, for having murdered nine people at his high school. An important book about family and society, its conclusion will chill your blood.

15. The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal
I don’t like most Indian authors. There I said it. And I don’t think very many of my friends do either. We’re not trying to be ‘cool’ or international, we’re just baffled by what Indian authors write about. (Kiran Desai I don’t mean you.) There was a time when I thought, ‘If I read one more book where a woman raises her pallu, flips a chapatti, applies kohl/sindoor deftly and has a story dating back to 1947, I will cry.’ Who are these stories being written for? Who on earth is writing them? Before you point out the obvious class difference between the people the stories are about and those who are reading them (i.e. you and I), let me point out this too that most authors writing about ‘far off villages’ in India where women are beaten for having birthmarks/spilling dal/being widows, have most often and obviously done little research about the rural life they so eagerly romanticize and misrepresent. Stories like this insult both rural and urban India, and reinforce tired ideologies in a way that has just become boring to read. Tejpal is refreshingly dissimilar. He writes about sex, journalism and life in Delhi with wit, sieved by reality. It was exactly this raw tone that made my 518-page version seem like a breeze.

16. A Night Without Armor by Jewel Kilcher
I love my Neruda, Rumi and Dylan Thomas, but really, this book surprised me. A collection of poems by Jewel (yes, the folk singer) from when she was in her early twenties, the poems read like scribbles, but reveal a maturity impressive for a 23 year old.  Like this:
Awaken love,
we are a pair
two knives, two flags
two slender stocks of wheat
And the song that sleeps
inside your mouth
is the song which bids
my heart to beat.

17. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
You want to read one book on acid, read this. No wait, read Acid Dreams. Okay no, read this one. I’m a junkie for anything sixties, but this book…sigh…this book makes you want to do drugs. This book follows author and acid pioneer Ken Kesey, beatnik legends Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, The Hell’s Angels and The Grateful Dead amongst other ‘merry pranksters’ as they experiment with LSD in the sixties, often with hilarious results. Written in Wolfe’s perennially youthful style (really how is that man in a polka tie so damn cool?), it paints a clearer image of the madness of that time than almost any other book. Read this, and then read Acid Dreams.

18. Boys Will Be Boys by Sara Suleri Goodyear
One never finds this book anywhere. I bought it on a whim when I was researching Pakistani authors. Now if I see it anywhere, I buy two copies, because this slim book (120 pages) makes such a perfect gift. Suleri-Goodyear manages to write intimately about her family without ever sounding self indulgent or irrelevant. Blissfully irreverent, graceful political, heartwarmingly patriotic, modern and yet nostalgic, this book had me in piles of giggles, and made me yearn for my grandfather to come back, so I could read him the political bits. One critic called her writing ‘elegant’, and really I couldn’t think of a more accurate word to describe it.

19. No One Here Gets Out Alive by Hopkins and Sugarman
Technically, this is a Doors and Jim Morrison biography, but really, it is so, so much more. This book is why I started reading the way I did. Inspired by Morrison’s voracious appetite for literature and life, I in my teenage melodrama cut my hair short, wore my father’s trousers with white workman shirts and spent all my pocket money on books. This is the book that turned me on at 14 to Nietzsche, the beatniks (namely Kerouac), poetry, Buddhism, shamanism, music, Rimbaud, Warhol…in fact, it turned me on to life itself, while also being on of the finest rock biographies on offer. Full of a healthy mix of fact, philosophy and fandom, it has sold over 2 million copies, and continues to be the best Doors book on offer.

20. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Here’s where I admit I’d always thought Atwood was the writer of slightly smutty, old fashioned mystery novels. Can you imagine the horror when I realized what I’d been missing out on? Though a number of her books are a tad too rad for me (I’m sorry I thought Surfacing was so weird), The Blind Assassin deserved every inch of the Booker it was wreathed with. The story of two sisters effortlessly and subtly weaves through decades and drama, without ever feeling forced. And of course, as I had thought before I knew Atwood’s true depth…it actually does contain a pretty good dose of mystery.

21. Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie
And finally, the children’s classic I’ve never outgrown, Peter Pan. But it isn’t a children’s book. This for example, is about as childish as a mermaid isn’t sexual:
If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing.

There are obvious books like ‘An Equal Music’ and ‘Memoirs Of A Geisha’, that I haven’t put on my list simply because most book lovers I know have read them. I’ve also tried to keep the list mainly fiction-based, but there are books like the classic ‘May You Be The Mother Of A Hundred Sons’ that deserve a place on anyone’s good book guide. Then there are authors like Orhan Pamuk and Naipaul whom I haven’t touched yet, but eagerly wait to clear my schedule to read. This is a list of 21 books. They aren’t the 21 best books in the world, but I sincerely hope you read at least one, and that it warms your heart the way each one has done mine.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hear me sing the Wedding Blues...

Yesterday my beautiful friend Shambhavi raised her arms above her own veiled head and threw a rope of flowers around Sidharth’s. Everyone cheered as the bride and groom walked towards the mandap and the sun began to set behind Shambhavi’s farm, turning the sky momentously golden. My palms began to sweat and I turned to my brother and said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that.”

I am petrified of getting married. It gives me butterflies in a terrible way. As though butterflies have been caged within my stomach, and are fluttering there helplessly. When I say this, the response I get is – “Why are you so anti-marriage?” But I’m not. Note, I said what scares me is “getting married”. It took me years to realize, that the thing that gave me nausea at mandaps, wasn’t the unwillingness to be married. It was the trauma of getting married. The thought of a wedding turns my blood cold. Not any wedding. The great Indian wedding. Over the years, as my friends have begun falling like flies who’ve hit a glass wall, and I’ve had to memorise choreographed numbers on various occasions, I’ve begun to hate the sheer pomposity of the Indian wedding. The often outlandish d├ęcor. The colossal waste of cash. The incredible amount of outfits that ‘must not be repeated’. The heartbreaking waste of food. The self-indulgent dances and assembly line DJs. The sad fact that neither the bride and groom, nor their families, ever really look happy. The day I get married, I want to look happy. The culmination of love, for me, is not represented by a combination of designer outfits, a good event planner, how many people turned up and how late the night went on. My symbols of love are flowers, the music I really love and listen to, the friends I really value, and people who can afford me the comfort of me being myself. Ideally, I’d like to be alone with a boy on a mountaintop, our mouths full of kisses, our hearts full of love, and God as our witness. I understand the legal complications and selfish implications of this, and know that perhaps I will have to turn my dream into a big budget film, and make my big day a production with me as a deranged self-indulgent director cum star, and my parents playing producer. My sisters will be ADs and my best friends will all act superbly.

I know I’m being harsh. Everyone loves a good shaadi – lots of booze, lots of gossip, you meet old friends, you sing and dance and laugh and indulge. You have hangovers and tummy aches and funny moments and later, these make for terrific memories. I agree. But I don’t want my wedding to be about your memories. I also know there’s a middle ground. You can get married like my friends Sahira and Dhruv – big, but beautiful beyond belief. Or like Chandni and Jivjeet, who were relaxed, happy, and low key. Or like Sid and Shambhavi, who made yesterday look so easy. My aversion to weddings in general though make even beautiful examples like these scary, despite how wonderful they were to be at. When I imagine myself playing the roles Chandni, Sahira or Sham did with such grace and ease, my immediate thought is to run. Or burst into tears. I had to admit to myself while watching the ceremony yesterday, that possibly the main reason I don’t want to have a big or proper wedding, is that a part of me still isn’t emotionally intact enough. That my closeness to crying every time I watch a jai mala ceremony, help choose a friend’s bridal outfit, or attend a choora, represents something far deeper. I threw out arrows, hoping they’d hit something. My parents? My fear of commitment? My fear of dependence? Nothing struck. So here I am, surrounded by my dislike of weddings, and stuck with my honest hope that I can be the girl who avoids one. Because for that one day, I’d like to do what I want to. It’s not a lot to ask, is it?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Holi Now

I’m only 27 so I shouldn’t speak so casually of ‘remember whens’, but I do recall a time when Holi was simple. When it was about colour, family, friends and good good food.  I remember playing Holi in disorganised driveways, with buckets and plastic chairs strewn down them. Some years we played in the gardens of generous people. The grass would stain and for days after, the soil would be iodine-tinted. Perhaps that’s what struck me as strangest of all. That today, the morning after, was so pale. I looked around and saw no signs of festivity still visible. No stained shirts – perhaps we all own too many now. No colour left on our faces, behind an ear, on an elbow or in a strand of hair. Life had already moved on this morning, and the pace was ‘business as usual’. Hangovers had been quickly dunked in morning coffees, and every phone call I’ve gotten today said, “What are you doing tonight?” and not, “What did you do yesterday?”

What did I do yesterday? I saw a few friends. I played Holi with the people who live and work on my farm – gentle puffs of colourful dust patted onto each other’s faces through big smiles. And then I made the big choice between Rang, Holi Cow, and Dog Day Afternoon. Two animals to choose from! I chose the more Indian of the two – the quintessential cow. It was lovely. For once the organisation was stellar, with security at every corner and ziplock bags being handed out with abandon. The weather was perfect, the bands brilliant. Bombay Bassment, Half Step Down and Menwhopause played their hearts out on stage, and though the members of Soul Mate seemed tired, I hear they’d played a more than incredible gig the night before. I had a wonderful time. Alcohol flowed, people were polite, and bathrooms were plenty, while bunting and balloons fluttered in the wind.

And yet, I left feeling as though something was amiss. It wasn’t the festival, and it wasn’t the desire to have gone for a different one. (Friends called Rang and Dog Day “shit” and “a shit fest”, respectively.) It was the desire to have a Holi like the ones I’d grown up with. Perhaps it’s the age we’re at, but a ‘family Holi’ seems to happen less and less each year. I wanted the driveway with murderous streaks of magenta running down it. I wanted the stained grass, the backyards and buckets of water. Where was the chaat? The gujias and biryani? Where were the white kurtas soaked in tesu phool paani? Or the one music system blasting random hits from somewhere in the house. The lazy afternoon brunch as everyone gets tired, sits in the sun and dries off, giggling over bhang tales. Where was the intimacy? I realized forlornly last night that we no longer want to invite Holi into the house. With our Canon 5Ds (everyone at the fest seemed to have one, wrapped in plastic) and super sound systems, our ‘international-level’ festivals, and big DJs, Holi too has become hi-fi. And though I love not having to clean up, and was wholly impressed by the number and quality of festivals on offer, I wish yesterday had been a little more about having to choose between pakka rang or natural colours…ducking buckets of cold water or being dragged through the mud, rather than Rang or Holi Cow. In our attempts to be and successes at being the coolest people on the planet, somewhere I felt we’ve taken what’s really cool about Holi away. That it’s a festival of disarray, abandon and spontaneity. Next year, I’m thinking very seriously about being generous with my garden, and going back-to-basics on my driveway. If I’m brave enough to, you’re cordially invited. 

While you're at it, take a look at this fantastic collection of Holi images:

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Editing

Editing your own work is like being made to look in the mirror after you've cheated on your lover. You look at yourself and wonder who you really are. Who committed these acts, of putting awful words in terrible syntax? You can't believe it was you. YOU would never do that. But indeed you have, you did, and the evidence is in the book and upon your face.

I began writing what became a book, on a KLM flight from Cardiff to Delhi via Amsterdam. I had finished my fourth year in a city that I had outgrown, and decided based on three reasons, that it was time to go home.

1. Family. In the years I had spent 'discovering myself' (perhaps forgetting myself is more apt?), I had drifted away from the daily humdrum of Delhi. The maids and sisters and dogs had become trivial, pushed back into the caves of my mind. But while I drank Malibu-Cokes and bunked classes, my grandfather had left, finally telling cancer, "You win". And my parents had left each other. I needed to go home. I needed to remind myself where home was.

2. Sunshine. Everyone laughs when I say it, but I missed the sun. I missed the warmth on my skin, and the ability to wear a single layer. I missed the thong of a flip-flop between my first two toes. I no longer recognised the colour of my skin. Google told me, statistically, if I went on living in Great Britain I would die earlier, and probably suffer from severe depression before that.

3. Love. The boy. Of course there was a boy. There always is. He wasn't special. What was special was how freely, openly, and devotedly I had given myself to him. And here I was on a plane back to India, wondering if our paths might cross again. And how little I had left to say to him. And most of all, how much he had taken from me.

Now, six years later, I see how much he gave me. He gave me a story. How many people can you say that about?

As I edit this work that most people who read think is a monumental toast to him, but I know is a colossal affirmation of myself, I realise that I can’t recall what really happened. Reality has become a skeleton for a story much larger. I no longer remember what happened in reality, and I find the book has become my reality. I read on and judge my younger self…she uses more curse words than I deem graceful. I am harsh with her, and then I am fond of her. Best of all, there are moments when I am proud of her. Like this verse:

Come to bed, lay on me, eat me up and pierce me through
Write on me like letter paper, then rip me up in two.

I have written a book and it has freeze-framed my youth. Of that I am petrified, but I know this: For writing it, I will always have a standard to live up to, and a standard to better.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Two or three years ago, this would have been a blog made up of love-posts. A blog about a boy. Any boy - does it really matter who? It doesn't because all the boys in my past are the sum of who I was in the past. I met a boy and turned myself into him, and then I did cartwheels backwards to please myself, certain I was pleasing him. When I look back at these boys, archived, notes from the past...I see the different people I was.

I used to write about sad love almost as an obsession. Everything was on the precipice of heartbreak. The world was an oyster of adoration. Every morning had to be steeped in the goodwill of passion, else I would be angry. I was angry all the time. For a long time I feared if I was not in love like that - psychotically, obsessively, drowning myself in the other's shadow and spit, I would not be able to write. But here I am. I am proving that that Me, the sum of the boys of my past, was wrong. I am proving her wrong daily, as I pluck words like ripe fruit from branches that come towards me in peace.

Today the sun has risen milkily above my door, and a peacock shatters the quiet with its voice, an unfortunate characteristic. Every single other bird in the village has woken sleepily. They haunt the tree outside my room. I cannot see them, they are sounds. Ghost birds of the waking hours. I have ink on my fingers and red on my toes. I have a manuscript 165 pages long and nothing left to say. Today is going to be a beautiful day. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Why Blog?

I always wondered why people blog. Always found it ego-feed to presume what you have to say is so life alteringly interesting that it should make people stop to listen. Stop to think. But perhaps what I do is far, far more egoistic. Because I write for an audience. I get paid to write pieces that people will tell me are good. Presuming nobody reads this, I am now writing in the silence of my own space. For me. I wondered about Twitter for the same reasons.  Having become a member a few years ago, I promptly labelled it boring, and left it alone, forgotten passwords and tweets under ten. I rejoined a few weeks ago, and perhaps it is my willingness to now be 'followed', but I like it. To be honest I love it. I love the news, I love the ideas, I love that it's only 140 characters, I love that I can see what Slash has to say alongside Margaret Atwood. I love that it is at my fingertips. Most of all though, I think I have become a person who is comfortable audience-less. And when I throw a thought out there and there is no crash or echo that follows, I am not panicked that I am alone...I am, finally, able to hear it.