Category Archives: Nonfiction

Manto & I by Nandita Das

Manto & I by Nandita Das Title: Manto & I
Author: Nandita Das
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
ISBN: 978-8194365747
Genre: Nonfiction, Film
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I remember watching a play in the year 2007. A friend and I on a lark went to Prithvi theatre and decided right there to watch the play, “Manto Ismat Hazir Hain”. It’s been thirteen years now since I was introduced to Manto, and yet there is so much left to read. So much left for translators to translate. So much left for the world to know the man he was, and is, as he continues to live on. Writers always do. Creative people always do.

I also remember watching Manto in a small theatre in 2018 with my mother. My mother always admired his short stories. She took time to warm up to his style, but it was worth the wait she says, and I believe her. Manto is an acquired taste, perhaps. And I was ecstatic to see a film made on a writer’s life. I was overjoyed because not many writers get that – not in India at least. Kudos to Nandita Das for bringing a part of Manto’s life and stories to our lives.

Manto, the film is a story of a writer who is unafraid to speak his mind and heart. He says what he wants to without regret or thinking twice. There is no self-censorship. There was no question of that. To know Manto, read his stories. Read as much as you can. To know more about the movie, and its intricacies and in knowing that to also know about Manto, read Manto & I by Nandita Das.

The book reached me about two days ago and I was honestly fascinated by the way it was done. A coffee table book, and yet to my mind not quite. Not a memoir either. Not a slice of life. Just a love letter of sorts, from Nandita to Manto – for how she has gotten to know the man, over the years – right from thinking about this movie to the research to everything the movie led to – the casting, the sound design, the costumes, the works, including how actors worked pro-bono, and other such stories from the film and Manto’s life.

I loved the part of how she integrated the stories in the film, and how some essence of Manto was captured. The way she so lovingly speaks of the film, the writing process, how she got Nawazuddin to act, how he became Manto, and more than ever how everyone else on set also became Manto.  The letter written to Manto by her moved me to tears. It isn’t just about the movie then, or about one book. To me, Manto and I is about Manto that exists in all of us. Thank you, Nandita for this book and for the film.

And it suddenly sprang on me while reading this book, that we need Mantoiyat today more than ever. We need voices who believe in unity than division. We need to believe that we will overcome. The divide that he tried to bring down through his stories and works must be worked on again with great vigour. Read Manto. Read Manto & I. Evoke the Manto in you. May he never die.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid Title: A Small Place
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374527075
Genre: Nonfiction, Jamaica Caribbean & West Indies History, Memoir
Pages: 81
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

So, this is my first Kincaid read, and all thanks to the 2020 Reading Women Challenge. Their first prompt is an author from Caribbean or India. Since I’ve read a lot of women from India, I thought let’s give the Caribbean a shot and started with A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid – a rather short, but extremely powerful and engaging book about colonialism and its effects in Antigua. There were so many things I wasn’t aware about Antigua till I read A Small Place, and like I said I was only too happy to read something out of my comfort zone and thereby discover the writing of an author I had intended to read for a while.

A Small Place is a memoir, it is also a history of Antigua in a way, it is also an essay of anger against the people who colonised Antigua, it is also a voice of great empathy that Kincaid has for her country and people. The book begins with an attack on tourists who visit Antigua – what they expect and choose to see versus what the place is.

A Small Place is a short book – but extremely powerful and angry. Kincaid writes about home – about what it meant to her, and what has become of it. Of how the English ruled them, and how their independence has only worsened the situation because of corruption and bureaucracy. Jamaica Kincaid speaks candidly – almost to the point of being brutal – there are no holds barred. The prose comes from an extremely personal space and therefore the writing shines the way it does.

For instance, when she speaks of lack of clean water in the country or even about the beloved old library that was destroyed in an earthquake and how nothing was done to build the new one. And now that there is a new one that has been built (way after the book was published), but there is still doubt if it is open to public or not.

Kincaid’s book is large – very large not only in its scope but also in what it has to say – and how she manages to say it in all in less than hundred pages is nothing short of a feat. That explains the writer she is – succinct, bare-boned, and yet so deeply emotional that every emotion is reflected on paper, and in turn is felt by the reader.

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.

Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir by Jayson Greene

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene Title: Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir
Author: Jayson Greene
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524733537
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 256
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

I am not a parent. I will never know what it is like to lose a child. To grieve for the loss of someone you have created, looked over, been paranoid over, and prayed to God that they live healthy and happy, and yet you have no control over what happens to them. The sheer helplessness and then the realisation after. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene is the book that makes you see the world through the eyes of a parent – what does it mean to lose a child, how should one grieve, how much should grief take from you, and what it truly means to be able to move on (if there is ever such a thing).

It isn’t easy to read a book about the loss of a child. Of a two-year-old, who just wasn’t there in the world. Of Greta whose life her father Jayson speaks of lovingly. Of the way you as a reader become a part of it and can’t help but recollect the times you have felt that stabbing pain that doesn’t seem to go away, and it does one fine day, and it comes back once in a while, making you sense loss more than ever.

Once More We Saw Stars is also a hopeful book in so many ways. It teaches you how to grieve perhaps, and understand that at the core we are all the same people. We feel the same things. Jayson Greene takes us through this journey of loss, grief, and the coping process.

The book’s title is taken from Dante’s Inferno, also telling us that Greta’s parents will take their grief, make what they have to with it, and ultimately soar above. They will once again see the stars. The story is about love – of deep love and moments of transformation that Jayson presents with such clarity and in great abundance that you cry, weep, and sometimes smile with him, knowing that love will make it alright.

The book is full of memories. Of moments we live and some we do not and some we don’t get a chance to. Jayson’s clarity of thought – how he strings memory and presents them to us is stunning.  There is anger. There is frustration. There is also the knowing that life must carry on and in that process we know that love will remain. It will guide us and help us move ahead, to soldier on, to make us see the stars once more.

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel

The Kindness of Strangers by Salka ViertelTitle: The Kindness of Strangers
Author: Salka Viertel
Publisher: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 978-1681372747
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 368
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

If you feel like reading the quintessential twentieth-century autobiography, then this is it. You just have to read The Kindness of Strangers by Salka Viertel. It is everything I expect from an autobiography and it delivers down to the last page. Viertel’s life was not only interesting but also lived variedly and maybe that’s the reason the book shines the way it does. It is almost a pilgrimage of one woman through the twentieth century’s darkest times and also a chronicle of the good times. I could easily classify The Kindness of Strangers as an epic read, mainly because of its sheer expanse.

The Kindness of Strangers is the journey of a woman. It is the journey of a century – all rolled into one – from a province in the Austro-Hungarian empire to Hollywood. Viertel’s book is unique in the sense that it doesn’t try and pack everything in one chapter or paragraph. It takes its time talking about people, events, and their impact. Normally, I have observed myself getting bored of such autobiographies that start right from childhood and unfold against a backdrop of larger events. That wasn’t the case with The Kindness of Strangers. I enjoyed the read and that of course had a lot to do with the writing.

Of course this isn’t an easy read, in the sense of the turn of events – from the First World War to the Second and incidents that are recalled from memory, Salka Viertel’s writing is too detailed. Sometimes that works wonders for the reader and sometimes it is too much trivia. However, it made me think about how should an autobiography be written at all then? Is there a template? Should there be one? I don’t think so though. The Kindness of Strangers as any good autobiography merges the personal and political perfectly. For instance, her concern over her children’s safety during WWII or her time as an actress in Europe to her time in Hollywood and how that merged with political opinions of many is a delight to read.

There is a lot going on in the book and I was only too glad to see timelines so as not to miss the drift of what is being said. I had no clue of who Viertel was till I started reading her memoir. The relationship with her parents, the rebellion, the relationship she shared with her sister Rose, and most importantly leading the life she wanted to. The sense of loss of innocence is spread throughout the book. Nostalgia plays such an important role – not only in its conjuring but also it feels like it is not a thing of the past at all.

My favourite part of the memoir is Salka’s later life, spent in America, where she worked in Hollywood, made friends with Greta Garbo, became an American citizen as well, and helped many artists find homes – the ones who escaped Hitler’s clutches so to say. There are these lost worlds constantly at play of which the reader is privy to. The writing while gives a sense of staying on some details a little longer, still feels hurried. I wish for some parts there was more.

The Kindness of Strangers is full of life and joy. It is also full of instances that demand attention and empathy. It is the kind of book that talks about relationships – the constancy of them and the passing on of most. Ultimately, it is the book that makes us see our follies as humans and also the kindness we are ultimately capable of which sometimes we do not know of ourselves.