Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Read 206 of 2021. A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

A for Prayagraj - A Short Biography of Allahabad by Udbhav Agarwal

Title: A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad
Author: Udbhav Agarwal
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 9789390652723
Genre: Non-Fiction, Commentary
Pages: 120 
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 4/5 

Udbhav Agarwal’s writing is precise, and he knows how to cut to the chase. Udbhav’s Allahabad is of the past (of course), but it belongs to the present in so many ways, and not just as a means of nostalgia but so much more. And then there is the modern-day Prayagraj that one sees and yet doesn’t (thankfully). Who is to say that Allahabad doesn’t exist? Who is to say that people there do not address it yet as Allahabad and not Prayagraj? That’s hardly the point though.

A for Prayagraj brings forth the city through memory, through what is, what was, and its people who leave and return. The book opens with the prologue aptly titled, “Yogi ki Prayagshala” (a pun on Prayogshala) – where Agarwal returns to the city that is now a stranger in so many ways and yet familiar. The name change hasn’t changed the soul of the city. “That, in one of the oldest living cities in the world, things have come, and things have gone. Things have fallen apart. And yet, the city endures.” he writes with emotion that rings throughout the read.

Whether Agarwal is speaking of Holy Waters touring company owned and run by a practical Neelesh Narayan or when he is documenting his search for Upendranath Ashk’s autobiography “Chehre Anek”, or even as he speaks of the parkour boys, who just want a way out, Agarwal brings to fore the Allahabad – the one that is scrambling to accommodate all spaces – the past, the present, and perhaps even an uncertain future.

My most favourite section of the book has to be “F for Fyaar, F se Firaq” – a love story (lust story?) of sorts – somewhere between Grindr and poetry, there is love, with Firaq paving the way, and yet as it happens with most such encounters, it is in vain.

A for Prayagraj is a memoir of growing up in spaces that no longer exist, or some remnants do. It is a travelogue even, one that made me Google all the places Agarwal mentions in the book. It is about the good old days and how they have disappeared or so it seems. Udbhav’s writing makes you think, and feel, and leaves you wondering – it tells you that the personal and the political are the same, it shows you how a city can become a world.

Curry: A Global History by Colleen Taylor Sen

Curry - A Global History by Colleen Taylor Sen Title: Curry: A Global History
Author: Colleen Taylor Sen
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Limited
ISBN: 9789386338839
Genre: Nonfiction, Cooking, Food
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 3 stars

I am a fan of Indian food, and but of course because that’s what I grew up eating. Give me a good portion of Butter Chicken and I am capable of forgetting the world. The same goes for Biryani (is it Indian though, I wonder?) and Desi Chinese. Books about food, more so Indian food have fascinated me. Whether it is Rude Food by Sanghvi or a collection of essays by Madhur Jaffrey, each book on Indian food brings a unique perspective, and so does Curry: A Global History to some extent.

Curry gives you a lot of facts about how “curry” came to be – in India and then how it travelled to the rest of the world, thereby now becoming a global dish so to say. The book speaks of how the East India Company officers took to the Indian cuisine, thereby carrying our food with them “back home” and cooks from India, who eventually settled in Britain and some of them opened restaurants. Of how Butter Chicken was invented and became a sensation. Also, me being a lover of food had no idea of the number of curries which this book names and speaks of.

My favourite section was the one on the United States of America and how our food travelled there. The book covers all ground and how our food travelled mainly because of the colonial rule and influence – Singapore, Trinidad, South Africa, Burma, and others. Curry provides an education into the humble curry, its types, the way it is cooked, the spices used for various curries, making it extremely engaging, and yet falling short on not being comprehensive enough and seems rushed in the process. Nonetheless, a great book to know more about Curry and its place in the world.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Source of Self-Regard Title: The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations
Author: Toni Morrison
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525521037
Genre: Literary Speeches, Anthologies
Pages: 386
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Toni Morrison’s collection of essays don’t follow a timeline, neither it is linear, nor it is set in an order to make it easy for the reader. At first glance, it might even seem just a random collection of essays, speeches and meditations put together, however, it isn’t that. The book, “The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations” is actually a book that speaks directly to the contemporary reader, and hence the order of essays. It goes headlong into speaking about issues at hand and whoelse better to address and them and show us the mirror than the queen herself, Ms. Morrison.

The book is divided into two parts, with an interlude. The first part is titled, “The Foreigner’s Home”, the second, “God’s Language” and in-between is the interlude aptly titled, “Black Matter(s)”. This is the structure of the book – it is Ms. Morrison’s essays, speeches, and meditations on living, race, gender, language, and the current role of politics in America and in effect its relation to the world. It is also about the duty of the press and media and what is the role of the artist in all of this. As a reader, please be prepared to face harsh realities, question the world around you and ponder over issues you never thought of earlier.

Morrison doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The candour is not just for the sake of it. This collection is deeply personal as well. From why she became a writer (Faulkner and Women) to her thoughts on Beloved. At the same time, this collection as every reader will know is about race and what it means to be black in America, not only today but for decades and centuries and how have that played out for the black person.

Toni Morrison writes with such elegance and dignity that you get caught up in her words, and then focus on the ideas, going back to the power of her prose. The interlude piece on Martin Luther King Jr. is not only searching but also mirrors the contemporary times. In the essay, Voyagers to the West, she speaks of the Scottish pioneer William Dunbar, and how he managed to build a fortune trading slave, and how ironically his achievements are extoled till date. This is the kind of voice Morrison is all about – she knows exactly when to make the impact felt through her words and how deep.

Morrison also speaks of writers and how they impact the mindset of readers. She speaks of how jazz brought American blacks a different kind of legitimacy. She also talks about why American and English writers could not speak for people of colour, hence the onus was only on black writers to do that. Literature then took a different form altogether, and its voice wasn’t restricted in a way is what I could make out of it. In her most poignant tribute to James Baldwin, the eulogy she delivered at Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987, she honours his literature, his voice, and how he used language so tenderly. Morrison’s heart is almost laid bare in this – this tribute of sorts to a dear friend. It is almost as if you start becoming her friend, piece by piece.

“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.”

Toni Morrison’s writing is not only simple, but elegant to the bone. It is as though you are speaking with a friend, an elder, a teacher of sorts who is telling you about life and its ways. Throughout the book, Morrison speaks of the personal and the political and how they are intertwined. The first section, The Foreigner’s Home deals not only with race, but also with the question: What is Home? Where do you find it? What does it mean? At the same time, the section has essays wide ranging from “Literature and Public Life” and also her Nobel lecture.

The third section of the book is my most favourite – the one where she speaks of language, authors, and the power of words. The essay on Beloved – how she came to write it and what it means to her, almost made me cry. Toni Morrison’s commentary on her own work – The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, and Paradise are honest, and she understands the time and space she wrote them in and how they might be read differently today.

Morrison’s works – fiction and nonfiction are always relatable. One doesn’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the heart of the matter is the writing – from conception of plot to the way her sentences are constructed, every step is well-thought of and crafted.

I am convinced that there is nothing Ms. Morrison cannot write about. It is almost as if she has to just enter the space and something extraordinary emerges out of her pen. Her voice we all know is unique and original, but that’s not what makes an impact. I think it is the emotional intensity attached to it that makes all the difference, every single time.

The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations as a collection of essays couldn’t have been compiled and published at a better time. We inhabit a world where people are extremely conflicted about issues of race, language, colour, and above all what entails to be human. I also would strongly recommend this book to every person who wants to understand home, race, the black person’s struggle, the place of literature in the world, and how it impacts us all. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations is illuminating, thought-provoking, and above all every piece has just been written from the heart.

 

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp by Józef Czapski. Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles

Lost Time by Józef Czapski Title: Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp
Author: Józef Czapski
Translated from the French by Eric Karpeles
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372587
Genre: Literary Speeches, Historical Narrative
Pages: 128
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Off-late, I have been reading a lot about memory and the passage of time and that has happened quite organically. There is no planned reading list around it. It just happened by the by and one of those books happened to be Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Camp by Józef Czapski.

The concept of suffering isn’t new to humans. We have been suffering one way or the other – in one situation or the other for decades and centuries. Of course, a certain group of people suffer more at any given point, but again that’s not the point here. The point is resilience in the face of suffering, in the face of the unknown, to not have any idea of what will happen to you. What do you do then?

Lost Time is a book of lectures given by Czapski when he was a prisoner of war during the Second World War in a Soviet camp, as the title suggests. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, said Joan Didion in The White Album and it couldn’t be truer. Don’t we all at some level tell stories in order to survive? Whether it is merely surviving the mundane day after day or when we are caught in an extraordinary situation like Scheherazade’s?

These lectures brought Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to life for prison inmates. This slim volume is a collection of some of those lectures that Czapski gave, depending solely on memory (so befitting to Proust) – sketching characters, places, and time, thereby evoking so many emotions on the spectrum within the inmates. Also, it is so strange to be talking of Proust in a prison camp – the volumes of aristocracy, elegance, and grace – only to prove that Proust can be felt by all.

At the same time, what I love about this book is that it is an easy read. Czapski made Proust accessible – and perhaps may even encourage you to read Proust once you are done reading Lost Time. You don’t need to read it first. Also, Proust in Gulag – does it seem to say a lot about the human condition and how we are as a species? Czapski’s love for the master is evident – through every speech – he merges Proust’s life with the six volumes and that to me is magnificent. I just wish this book were longer. I wish there were more speeches. A definite must-read. For Proust lovers and the non-lovers as well.

RBC Taylor Prize 2019 Longlist

The RBC Taylor Prize is a Canadian Literary Award, presented by the Charles Taylor Foundation to the Best Canadian work of literary non-fiction. The prize was inaugurated in 2000, and was presented biennially till 2004, after which it became an annual award. 

RBC Taylor Prize 2019 Jurors Camilla Gibb, Roy MacGregor and Beverley McLachlin shared the longlist for the eighteenth awarding of Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize.

The jury reviewed over 100 books to reach this longlist and state that “It was no small task whittling down to this longlist of ten, and we anticipate many hours of re-reading and debate before we produce our short list, and, ultimately, the winner. We found the books breath-taking in their range of topics, and happily found so many of them serve as a useful barometer for current issues, from reconciliation to political trust. There is remarkable achievement here and we hope readers will celebrate that with us. “

The longlist books for the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize are:

RBCTP 2019 longlist IMG_1496cropped 4000

1.   Son of a Critch: A Childish Newfoundland Memoir, by Mark Critch, published by Viking/Penguin Canada

2.   Just Let Me Look at You: On Fatherhood, by Bill Gaston, published by Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Canada

3.   Jan in 35 Pieces: A Memoir in Music, by Ian Hampton, published by Porcupine’s Quill

4.   Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Roads, by Kate Harris, published by Knopf Canada.

5.   All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir, by Elizabeth Hay, published by McClelland & Stewart

6.   Trust: Twenty Ways to Build a Better Country, by David Johnston, published by Signal/M&S **

7.   Seeking the Fabled City: The Canadian Jewish Experience, by Allan Levine, published by McClelland and Stewart

8.   Power, Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill, by Robert Lewis, published by Dundurn Press.

9.   Heart Berries: A Memoir, by Terese Marie Mailhot, published by Doubleday Canada

10. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, by Darrel McLeod, published by Douglas & MacIntyre.

Noreen Taylor, chair of the Charles Taylor Foundation and founder of the Prize, commented: “What an amazing breadth of offerings this year. I can hardly wait to dive into the books I haven’t already read! Looking at this list it’s definitely going to be a busy holiday. What is so interesting is that this list reflects what Canadians are experiencing, worrying about and/or enjoying currently, and reminds Canadian readers how fortunate we are to have amongst us so many gifted and unique storytellers. Here’s to our publishers and their many distinct imprints for releasing a panorama of fascinating titles, and bravo to our jurors who performed the Herculean task of selecting this remarkable long list from amongst over 100 titles.”

Vijay Parmar, president of RBC PH&N Investment Counsel, added: “Once again, we have a longlist that showcases our national collective voice and the power that storytelling has to change our understanding and challenge our perspectives. Congratulations to the 2019 long-listed authors and thanks to our esteemed jurors for their time, dedication and reflection.”Key Dates: The RBC Taylor Prize Shortlist will be announced at a news conference on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, and the winner revealed at a gala luncheon on Monday March 4, 2019.