Category Archives: history

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled Title: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria
Author: Wendy Pearlman
Publisher: Custom House
ISBN: 978-0062654618
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

It isn’t easy to write a book about ordinary people. It isn’t easy to make their voices heard, no matter what and when people who write such books and give us a chance to read it, it means a lot, to me. “We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria” by Wendy Pearlman is one such book which has impacted me a lot this year. It is definitely about the content, but it is also about rights – human rights that get violated and stories of ordinary Syrians that go unheard, which Pearlman has brought out in this fierce and poignant collection, basis her interviews with ordinary men and women over four years across the Middle East and Europe.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” is a collection of first-hand accounts. Like I said earlier, because it is of ordinary people – you empathize, cheer, and hope that life is kinder to them. It is also a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the tragedy that is the Syrian War. It is about the revolution and its aftermath, the war that began and how it has become political in every sphere of the ordinary Syrian’s life, sometimes way too sensitive because they weren’t expecting all of this to begin with.

Wendy serves it as is. There is nothing censored. The voices are raw and let the story teller and readers connect. In this case, then, the author distances herself and does not provide a point of view. She acts only but as a medium and yet that in itself is such a humongous task to undertake. The writing can be nothing but simple, from the heart and definitely the one you can connect with instantly.

“We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled” is a book that should be read. A must-read if you ask me. It is the book that demands to be read and will fill you with some hope and courage, just like the Syrians have for themselves, despite how things are.

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South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi by Swapna Liddle

chandni-chowk Title: Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi
Author: Swapna Liddle
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386050670
Genre: History and Politics
Pages: 196
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Cities have always intrigued me – more so their existence and how they came to be. Within cities sometimes you end up finding smaller cities that have their own tales to tell, provided people listen. Chandni Chowk of Delhi is one such city within a city. I also remember the first time I visited Chandni Chowk after much hesitation (I am from Bombay. I was born and raised in South Bombay. You can’t even begin to imagine the level of being a snob) and I was honestly mesmerized by it.

Initially, I didn’t think or make much of it, till I walked around in the snake-like lanes, made peace with all kinds of smells around me – from food that was being cooked to an open window of someone’s house from which there were other smells to finally the smell of comfort. I think a place like Chandni Chowk sinks into you only if you allow it to or else it will never become a part of you.

The book by Swapna Liddle is a historic tribute to Chandni Chowk and its formation over the years – from being a part of Shahjahanabad to how it came to be what it is today, over centuries. Liddle’s research is partly through the archives and mostly through what she conjures through her experiences. The book is rich with anecdotes – it chronicles the life of a city through its trials, tribulations and what it has seen through the years. My favourite part of the book was the cuisine of Chandni Chowk and how it has grown over the years. At the same time, the history of Chandni Chowk through all the wars and battles is staggeringly astonishing and deserves a read for sure.

“Chandni Chowk” is draws on a lot of sources as the story of a place progresses – from newspaper articles to accounts of Mughal chroniclers, travelers’ memories, poetry, and government documents (I was fascinated by what I read in this book. It opened a new side of this place for me). What I also felt most sad about is how this place has somehow lost its significance over the years and is lost in the hustle and bustle of the capital city. Perhaps, it will change as more people would want to know more about it. This book is the best place to begin that journey.

Swapna’s writing will compel you to visit Chandni Chowk the next time you are in Delhi (if you’re not from there), and if you are from Delhi, then it will make you want to go there again and again and discover the true essence of what was it and how it is today. Liddle’s writing is nuanced and at the same time full of brevity – she doesn’t cramp too much and that makes it way easier to read about a place. If you like reading about places, their history, their present and what they mean in today’s times, then you must include this one in your reading list.

Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People: Edited by Tarnya Cooper

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper Title: Imagined Lives: Portraits of Unknown People
Edited by Tarnya Cooper
Publisher: National Portrait Gallery Publications
ISBN: 978-1855144552
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 Stars

A picture tells a thousand words they say. We have all learnt it as we were growing up. Yet how many of us can actually make pictures talk? Do we even care about what they have to say? The National Portrait Gallery in London receives portraits on a daily basis. Sometimes there are portraits that cannot be identified and belong to a century and time long gone.

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

attributed to Cornelius De Neve, oil on canvas, 1627

So this is what the gallery did. They commissioned eight contemporary authors of Britain and Ireland to weave stories around fourteen unidentified portraits. Who are these men and women? What were their life stories? What were their thoughts? The book is about the lives of these unknown sitters from a time gone by.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, transferred to canvas, circa 1570

The stories are deliciously written. Tracy Chevalier brings to life a painting and terms it “Rosy” about a man and his affair with another man. “I am Mary Douglas” by Minette Walters is a reflection of a time to connect emotionally with. You just want more of these stories recorded in the form of short memoirs, character sketches, diary entries and just a brief page or two about the subjects. There is also a brilliant story by Terry Pratchett on one of the portraits’ subjects meeting Queen Elizabeth. To me, that was the best piece in terms of humour.

Imagined Lives - Portraits of Unknown People - Edited by Tarnya Cooper - Image 3

Each portrait is written about and analyzed in detail – not a single element is missed out on. Alexander McCall Smith for instance does a wonderful job in “False Mary” where there is a sit in for Mary Queen of Scots herself. It is delicious and so absolutely believable that you want more from where that one came. Toward the end of the book is a brilliant explanation of how these portraits came to be by the chief curator of NPG and editor of the book Tarnya Cooper, titled “Did my hero look like that?”

“Imagined Lives” is a book about lost souls. It is about life and art merged and seen individually. I just chanced on this book and took to it. The stories and the portraits are something. Definitely something worth reading and owning.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani

Incarnations by Sunil Khilnani Title: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Author: Sunil Khilnani
Publisher: Allen Lane, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241208229
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 636
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” is one of my long-standing favourite books on Indian history (well of whatever is there in it) and civilization. Till “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” came along. Not that it is any better by any stretch of imagination than “The Idea of India” but I quite like the concept. So what is the book about? Just what it says – India in 50 people – their lives and their journeys as the country progressed or declined – a mirror of our times so to speak. The concept is terrific and so is the writing, at the same time, there are some places where the book falls short.

Mr. Khilnani however picks some very obscure people for the book – which again I think is okay, given the timeline he covers and what he wants to communicate, however, there is something which is amiss in the book – the time spent on each personality. I wish there was more written on each of them which is not the case, only because Khilnani’s writing is par excellence.

Now coming to the personalities from Aamchi Mumbai or the state of Maharashtra as well. There are only 8 of them – nonetheless – I thought there could have been more from our city; however we will make do with these eight.

The eight personalities are: Shivaji (quite an obvious one, isn’t it? – the warrior king and about how he changed the course of the state of Maharashtra), Jamsetji Tata (another obvi choice), Annie Besant (her role in Mumbai wasn’t all that much, but still noteworthy, given the educational institutions set up by her and the time she spent in the city so much so that people mistook her to be Indian and from Mumbai), Manto (one cannot forget the time he spent in India and most particularly in Mumbai working with Bollywood – given he was also a screenplay writer), Raj Kapoor (need anyone say more when it comes to him – the first true blue showman so to say, and yet Khilnani has such an unbiased perspective which I personally loved and enjoyed), Ambedkar (the man who no one will ever forget and his role in starting the Dalit movement – this is my favourite piece in the entire book – only because there is so many layers which have been uncovered where the man is concerned and that too only in about five to six pages), M.F. Husain (one of India’s most prolific painters) and finally Dhirubhai Ambani (I shouldn’t have to say anything at all about him, should I?).

So these are the personalities – the purpose of the book is to trace their lives and see its relevance in not only shaping India as a free country but also their ideologies communicated through their work and made a lasting impression on people’s minds.

“Incarnations” as a book to me is complete in the sense of an idea or a concept but again there had to be more personalities – a 100 of them would perhaps been ideal. Mumbai was a terrain has also perhaps not been explored that much because of the restriction to 50. The book reads slowly (of course) and it will take some of your time before you are done with it. What I also found quite magnificent was the way in which the illustrations are handled – some are prints of paintings, some posters and some in the form of maps, which gives the book its very layer dimension. “Incarnations” is a very relevant book for our times and the world we live in. It is time to go back and trace our civilization and history through people who lived then and the difference they made.