Tag 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.

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.

It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race. Edited by Mariam Khan

It's Not About The Burqa

Title: It’s Not About The Burqa: Muslim Women on Faith, Feminism, Sexuality, and Race
Edited by Mariam Khan
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1509886401
Genre: Essays, Anthology,
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Since time immemorial, women have been taught to be silent, or forced into silence, or submission. We have been following that for centuries now, maybe earlier than that. Women are seen or heard through a filter, and for what it’s worth it is 2019 and we should be done with all filters. It’s Not About The Burqa – an anthology of Muslim Women by Muslim Women does just that. It is about voices unfiltered – bare and open, waiting to be heard.

The idea of the anthology occurred to Mariam Khan when in 2016 she read that David Cameron had linked the radicalisation of Muslim men to the “submissive nature” of Muslim women. And this led to Mariam thinking that why was she hearing this about Muslim women from a man, and that too who wasn’t Muslim? As years passed since this comment, she realised a lot of Muslim women voices were buried or drowned. She then decided to come up with this anthology.

What is also funny is that in the Western world, the Burqa is perhaps the only thing with which Muslim women are linked or identified. The title of the book says it all – that this book is much more and beyond that. Might I also add that the title is no way “just an attention grabber”. There is more to it, which is evident right from the introduction. Mariam Khan along with her 16 other contributors, bring you a collection that is trying to change the way you look at women, at Muslim women in particular and try and look beyond the stereotypes and boxes they are carefully placed in every single day.

The issues are several. They have chosen a few, that’s also because it is next to impossible to cover such a wide range of their culture, and the way they live. From an essay by Sufiya Ahmed (The First Feminist) that speaks of how she found her courage in the book given to her by her father, when she realised that the first feminist was actually Khadija – the Prophet’s wife and how that propelled her to making her own choices, to the first one in the book by Mona Eltahawy on how the time of revolutions has come, this anthology surprises, shocks, and in turns also makes you laugh and cry.

There are others that I loved: Not Just A Black Muslim Woman by Raifa Rafiq – handling the minutest minority – Black, Muslim, and a Woman. The honesty of the essay left me wanting more. There was another one on being a Muslim woman and dealing with depression – when you are told day-in and day-out that there is nothing known as depression. This essay by Jamilla Hekmoun had me gripped and choked.

I think what most people forget, and mainly men that women are so much more. This anthology in more than one way is a reminder of that. The essays, and to me each of them gave me a perspective that I couldn’t think of – some I could, most I couldn’t. I could sense the anger, and again, it’s time that the anger and passion comes through, which it does without a doubt in these essays. These women write about the hijab, about sex and the female pleasure, about divorce, the need for open conversations about sex and identity, and mental health among others.

Its Not About The Burqa is a call to everyone – to sit up, notice, and understand that you cannot reduce Muslim women to pieces of clothing. This book will not disappoint at all. You also need to go without any expectations and let all their experiences wash over you and be ready to listen. To listen to voices that do not get heard. To listen to a representation – even as a sample perhaps, widening perspectives and the need to be empathetic and above all the will to accept and understand.

 

The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe

The Sakura Obsession Title: The Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of the Plant Hunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms
Author: Naoko Abe
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9781524733575
Genre: Nonfiction, Biography,
Pages: 400
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

One should always get out of their comfort zone and try things they say. Different things. For me reading something which I wouldn’t otherwise is radical enough. I mean, this book intrigued me, and I just had to read it to know more. I am so glad I did. To experience a different culture (which of course I have through other reads), but also knowing about the Cherry Blossom and how it came to be saved was a brilliant experience.

The story starts in 1907, when Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram fell in love with the sakura or the cherry tree, as he was visiting Japan on his honeymoon. He was taken in with the tree to such an extent that he couldn’t help but bring back hundreds of cuttings back to England, where he literally grew them, creating a garden of cherry varieties. In fact, in 1926 when he learned that the cherry tree was extinct in Japan, he sent a cutting of his own through the Trans-Siberian express. Not only that, Ingram also ensured that cuttings were sent to other parts of the world, where it was conducive to grow the specimen.

This in short is what the book is about. However, there is so much more to it. Abe writes elegantly, and not only that – the research is spot on – with photographs, details, linking of other events, and personal perspectives. At times, I also felt that I was actually reading a historical novel, it is so well-written.

The Sakura Obsession is what it is because Abe understands Ingram’s motivations, his complex nature – the oddity and the gentleness and that’s what makes this book so unique and refreshing. The Sakura Obsession tells a story that most people aren’t aware of – of how it took one man to save blossoms people enjoy over the world and are in awe of. I am only too glad that I got out of my comfort zone and read this one.