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Today, I believe, is International Women’s Day. The significance of this day would have escaped my notice if it were not for the radio station in my car exhorting the listeners every few minutes to “recognize” the women in their lives by giving them flowers and jewelry because women love these for gifts. Okay!

Who comes up with these “Days” to celebrate one thing or the other, I wonder?

Google's doodle to commemorate International Women's Day 2013

Google’s doodle to commemorate International Women’s Day 2013

As far as I know, we celebrate days for particular reasons:

  • To salute the achievements of a minority. Um, last I heard, the world’s population is almost evenly divided between the two sexes.
  • To commemorate the memory of someone who has made a difference in others’ lives. Women have not yet become a distant memory. They are very much here. So, why not celebrate individual women’s achievements and legacies instead of asking everyone to celebrate the lump-sum of “women?”

 

  • To support a role played by a percentage of the population, such as that of a father or a mother. Hmm … women have not assumed the role of a “woman” at some point in their lives. They were born as such.
  • To bring an endangered species into the world’s notice. Women are not nearing extinction.
  • To share an emotion like love with others. Women are not an intangible emotion.

Besides, none of the women I know is holding her breath for someone to pat her on her back one day a year and say, “Bravo! What a great job you’re doing being a woman!”

Like everyone else around her — men, other women and children – she’s too busy keeping up with her life.

The Courage to Live

As much fortitude as it takes to ride into the thick of war to defend one’s cause/nation, it takes as much courage to live through the daily details of one’s life under inhumane conditions. I can only imagine what kind of mettle is required to stand up and fight for what a person believes in, in these situations where hope for the future seems dead.

You may have heard about the 14-year-old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai and her fight against Taliban’s ban on education for girls in the Swat Valley. On October 9th of this year, Malala was shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman attempting to silence her voice forever. She has made a miraculous recovery over the last few weeks, and her father assures the world that she can’t wait to get out of the hospital and resume her activism for women’s education.

I came upon another article recently about three teenage girls in Afghanistan who made a short documentary called Kabul Cards about their everyday lives in the country’s war-torn capital city. Their goal was to show to the word that there’s much more to Afghanistan than constant bombings, warring factions and unsafe living conditions.

When asked why they don’t emigrate to a foreign country where they could aspire for safer lives, 16-year-old Sahar, the youngest of the three girls, had answered without hesitation, “We want to see a changed Kabul. If the youth flees the nation, who is going to bring about that change? We are going to live in a safe Kabul, one that has been transformed by people like us.”

The words and actions of these young girls brought to my mind one word about the future: Hope.

I’ll leave you all with a poem titled “Where the Mind is Without Fear” by famed poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action 
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Gandhi, the Mahatma

Today marks the 143rd birth anniversary of an individual who was born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and later was given the loving title of Father of the (Indian) Nation. He is more popularly known as the Mahatma, or enlightened soul.

October 2nd, Gandhi Jayanti or Gandhi’s birthday, is celebrated as a national holiday in India. And very well it should be for all that this petite (Gandhiji was five feet three inches in height) and unassuming man with a toothless grin has done for India.

He spearheaded India’s struggle for independence from the British, and all without raising one armament either in defense or offense. His weapons of choice? Truth, fearlessness, non-cooperation and non-violence.

I leave you all with a few quotes by world leaders who were inspired, directly or indirectly, by the life of the Mahatma.

  • In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi’s message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century.

                                               – Nelson Mandela

  • Gandhi did not descend from the top; he seemed to emerge from the millions of India, speaking their language and incessantly drawing attention to them and their appalling condition.

                                             – Jawaharlal Nehru

  • The Gandhian philosophy of nonviolent resistance is the only logical and moral approach to the solution of the race problem in the United States.

                                              — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • Gandhi showed how powerful change can start with one individual and spread to others.

                                              — The Dalai Lama

  • It’s time to heed the words of Gandhi: ‘Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.’

                                                — Barack Obama

  • Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.

                                              — Albert Einstein

Point of View

I recently read, back to back, two works of fiction that are based on one historical figure’s life. I didn’t expect them to be overly similar, but I wasn’t prepared for them to be so different either.

What made them so dissimilar was the point of view of each of the authors. And by that I don’t mean the first person or the limited/omniscient third person view they used to narrate the tale, but the perspective and understanding of the authors about the life and times of the subject matter.

The books are Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan and Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors. Both the books examine the life of Mughal princess Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan and Empress Mumtaz Mahal (yes, the Mumtaz Mahal of the Taj Mahal fame). The stories are set in an India of the 1600s that is thrown into turmoil by the constant bickering of the various invading forces like the Mughals, the British, the Portuguese and other opportunists.

Shadow Princess is the last of a set of three books called the Taj Mahal trilogy. Sundaresan sets the stage beautifully for Jahanara and narrates her story (in alluring poetic prose that enhances the ambiance) with the right mix of awe and slight disdain that Mughal lives tend to evoke in most Indians’ hearts. Sundaresan’s Jahanara is bold and decisive, but tempered by subtlety and decorum. When suddenly burdened with the responsibility of a mourning father and confused siblings upon her mother’s death, teenager Jahanara steps into the role with aplomb. Over time, she learns to protect her own interests with the requisite cunning that is inevitable in her position.

Shors’s Jahanara, on the other hand, is outspoken and in-the-face courageous. So much so that she rides astride a horse in broad daylight, walks around the city unveiled and openly disobeys her husband. In short, she could pass for a twenty-first century (almost American) teenager, if you didn’t know any better.

Having grown up in India and read its history, I know that Mughal women were rarely allowed outside their palaces and certainly never without purdah. If it were a princess, then her life was even more circumscribed owing to the intrigues surrounding her as the candidate for a powerful political alliance.

I feel Sundaresan, being an Indian and a woman, handles the subject with better insight into the traditions and restrictions Jahanara possibly faced during her lifetime and how those same constraints shaped her into the strong and influential figure she grew into.

Shors deals with the situation head-on and makes a formidable heroine of Jahanara. I didn’t dislike the book. In fact, after I managed to swallow my irritation (even if it took me several trials and dozens of pages into the book to get there) at how modern Jahanara and the other characters and their interactions with each other sound, the book grew on me. I loved the gumption and resourcefulness of Shor’s Jahanara.

This exercise brought home to me forcefully once more that a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is colored by the past and present life experiences of the author among many other things. When we open a book, we’re stepping for the duration of the story into the author’s private chamber upon their invitation. And what each of us takes out of that visit, again, depends upon our own point of view as a reader.

Have you read two or more books by different authors but based on the same personality or incident? Please share with us your experiences from the activity!

I originally posted the article below close to two years ago, when I first spent a day at a State Music Teachers’ Association Convention. I’ve spent the last weekend at this year’s convention again. I was surrounded by hundreds of dedicated students of all ages putting their best feet forward. It was a fulfilling weekend, to say the least. So, I thought it only appropriate to re-post this article.

A small note: Below it wasn’t my intention to say that there’s anything wrong with being goal oriented. On the contrary, I believe it’s a necessity to have a target in mind before anyone sets off on a journey. My lament is that adults are rarely able to retain their original enthusiasm and passion for the task, as kids often do, while pursuing their goals.

– ** –

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be exposed to some honest determination and old-fashioned faith in human effort. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago I spent a Sunday at a convention held by the state’s Music Teachers’ Association. For the whole day I and six hundred other listeners kept company with children – anywhere from six years old all the way up to seventeen – who enthralled us with their incredible piano playing skills during several different programs.

Again, last weekend, I attended a traditional debut recital of a classical Indian dance form (called Bharatanatyamwhich is believed to have been in existence for over 4,000 years now) of a friend’s daughter. The girl has been practicing the dance form for over ten years tirelessly to get where she is now.

So, what do the two days have in common?

The diligence and determination with which the children practiced the art form (for hours and years on end) they have adopted as their own.

Children are generally not known to be forward-looking. So, how did they happen to get into something so grueling and time-consuming when they very well could have been watching TV or playing video games?

The majority of them probably got into it because their parents suggested it to them or just plain registered them in a class at the beginning. Soon, however, the child got so involved with the art form that he/she made it his/her own crusade.

Do any of these children ever sit down and think about how all those hours of dedication, nervousness before a performance, missed birthday parties convert into something useful for their lives later? Most probably not.

Do they ever mull over what kind of results will be produced from their steadfast effort? Most likely not.

Then why do they do it?

Because they began to love the art form for the sake of itself.

They do it from the blind faith that they are supposed to do what they enjoy the most.

Is there a wiser or more mature outlook in life?

This realization both humbled and inspired me. And it also raised some questions inside me:

  • When do we give up the grounded belief that we need to do what we believe in, basically what we enjoy, and that we need to leave the results to a higher power?
  • At what stage of growing up do we begin to get so goal-oriented and obsessed with results?

Ever since I began looking at books from a writer’s perspective (in addition to a reader’s), I’ve heard that a book’s first line is the best way to hook or lose your reader. So much so that, in this economy, many books make it or break it based on their opening words.

No pressure for the writer, huh?

Are we so desperate for immediate gratification that we’d put away a book we’ve committed to reading, only because its first few words failed to impress us?

Whatever happened to: “Don’t judge a book by its first line?” Okay, I made that up but that’s how I feel sometimes. But then, I’ve also never subscribed to the belief: First impressions are the best impressions.

Besides, whether a sentence does it for you or not, I think, is entirely subjective.

I’ve yet to set aside a book because its first line didn’t live up to my expectations. Having said that, I have come across books that opened with much promise in their very first words—they tickled my imagination about what genre they could be; whether I needed to suspend my reality and wear my fantastical hat; or if I should to tighten my seat belt and prepare for a breathless ride through a culture foreign to me.

There have also been times when my first impressions proved to be completely baseless in how clever/satisfactory/feel-good-read the book turned out to be in the end.

Here are the first lines from some books in my bookshelf, in no particular order.

  • The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.

             The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan

  • In a town called Stonetown, near a port called Stonetown Harbor, a boy named Reynie Muldoon was preparing to take an important test.

             The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart

  • He left the coffee-scented warmth of the Main Street Grill and stood for a moment under the green awning.

             At Home in Mitford, Jan Karon

  • Nailer clambered through a service duct, tugging at copper wire and yanking it free.

            Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi

  • Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone.

             The Full Cupboard of Life, Alexander McCall Smith

  • Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.

             The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan

  • The conch shell sounded, like the mountain’s deep call to the sky, and Mira knew they had entered the palace.

             Follow the Cowherd Boy, J.A. Joshi

  • “Eh, Tree-Ear! Have you hungered well today?” Crane-man called out as Tree-ear drew near the bridge.

             A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park

 

Has the first line in a book ever impressed you adversely enough to stop reading that book?

Miss Read

Miss Read: it’s the name of one of my all-time favorite authors. Dora Saint was her real name, but she was better known by her pseudonym, Miss Read.

Dora Saint worked as a school teacher before she began to write full time. She admittedly gleaned many of the subjects and topics for her numerous novels and short stories from her real life experiences while living and teaching in rural England.

She wrote three popular series of novels — among other fiction and non-fiction volumes — set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green, Fairacre and Caxley in the English countryside. (As far as I know she wrote only two books set in Caxley as opposed to at least a dozen in each of the other two.)

When my sister first introduced Miss Read to me close to two decades ago, it was a perfect opportunity for me to transition my childhood love for Enid Blyton’s rural England to a more mature appreciation for the lifestyle via Miss Read’s books. The settings and happenings in Miss Read’s novels couldn’t be farther from the hustle and bustle of my own life; I couldn’t devour the books fast enough. Luckily for me, and scores of others who adored her books, she has had a prolific writing career.

On the surface, the stories follow the laidback routines of pastoral England with its thatched cottages and primly laid out gardens. If you care to delve deeper into the pages, however, you will have gained a firmer understanding of the basic human emotions such as: love, curiosity, competition, eccentricities and companionship.

Dora Saint, the author, does not sit on a pedestal and pass judgment on her characters. Rather, her writing is a testimony to her incisive, but compassionate, study of the human psyche and its usual (or not so usual, at times) foibles. And that’s what makes the books so precious in their quality.

Each of the books set in Thrush Green chronicles the lives of the inhabitants of that lush and charming Cotswold village. Who can forget the unparalleled eccentricities of Dotty Harmer; the righteous laziness of Albert Piggott; the cheroot-smoking boisterousness of Ella Bembridge; the nonchalant promiscuousness of Nelly Tilling; the epic miserliness of the Misses Lovestock? You can’t help but fall in love with each of these utterly disarming characters.

Fairacre books feature the school teacher Miss. Read and her supposedly uncomplicated life as it becomes entwined with those of the others in the village and thus adds another full year to her life in each volume. Each character helps make Miss Read’s spinsterly life (which she means to keep that way despite the constant wooing of one or two beaus and the innumerable attempts of the villagers to get her hooked up) read delectably rich and engaging.

Among many others, Dora Saint has inspired Jan Karon, the American author who wrote Mitford Series. Irish musician Enya named two tracks in two of her albums after Miss Read’s novels.

Dora Saint passed away on 12th April of this year. However, she lives on through the numerous characters she brought to life with the gentle strokes of her pen.

I can never tire of Miss Read’s works; they only get dearer to me each time I re-read them.

In fact, Miss Read’s books to me are what “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” are for Maria in The Sound of Music.

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