“My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” by Mark Lukach

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward

This book has been selected as one of the two “Silicon Valley Reads” books for 2018, and as a result, it seems to be everywhere in the Bay Area where I live, prominently displayed on library shelves and multiple copies available for check-out. The author, Mark Lukach, is also local to the Bay Area, a high school teacher and freelance writer. As the title suggests, it is a memoir of his experience with the mental illness that afflicted the person he was closest to – his wife, Giulia.

Mark and Giulia had a fairy tale romance – they met as freshmen at Georgetown University, dated, fell in love, got married and moved to San Francisco to start their careers. They both come from loving families and had little to complain about – they were smart, good looking, ambitious (she more than him), and most importantly, they had each other.

Their idyllic life was unexpectedly shattered three years into their marriage by Giulia’s psychotic breakdown, which came literally out of nowhere. It started out with some normal stress at work which caused her some pressure, most self-imposed, and quickly ballooned into a full-blown panic attack, making her delusional and suicidal. She had to be admitted to the psych ward and was there for almost a month before she was allowed to come home. She went on to have two more psychotic episodes, one shortly after the birth of their son, and again a few years after that. The book closes with what seems to be the end of the third hospitalization. However, given the nature of this illness and its typical pattern, Giulia’s psychosis is likely to recur, so this is by no means the end of the struggle for her and Mark.

This book captures Mark’s harrowing experience as he goes from being a “normal,” carefree, happily married young man — who can scarcely believe his good fortune at being able to spend the rest of his life with the girl he fell in love with — to having his life completely upended and being thrust in the role of caregiver to the same girl who now seems to be a completely different person. Caregiving is hard enough for physical illness, but at least the person that is being looked after is the same — the illness may have devastated their bodies, but not their minds. With mental illness, however, the person can literally become someone else. In Giulia’s case, while she was eventually able to get back to the person she was after the end of each of three psychotic episodes she has had so far, Mark had to keep drawing from the memories of their earlier life together to keep going when she became ill.

And the “going” was unimaginably rough — doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, keeping up with work, worrying about rapidly draining finances, looking after their baby boy during her second episode, and continuing to be a single dad to a preschooler during her third hospitalization. Thankfully, both his and her parents were very supportive and tried to help out as much as they could, but there was only so much that they could do. It really was his “cross to bear.” In addition to being physically exhausted and having no time for himself, Mark also captures his anger, his resentment, and his feelings of helplessness candidly. Even though he knows that it’s not Giulia’s fault that she is mentally ill, he can’t help being frustrated to the point where it seems almost impossible to go on.

I found My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward a brutally honest account of how mental illness can come from nowhere and utterly devastate lives, not just for those who are ill but for their family members, who have to continue to look after them even when they become completely different people who often have delusions, hallucinations, manic depressions, and suicidal tendencies. Kudos to Mark for not giving up on his marriage — the thought of skipping out because it was too hard did not even occur to him. In a day and age when close to half of all marriages in the US end in divorce, Mark’s commitment to Giulia is an inspiring affirmation of the “in sickness and in health” maxim that a marriage is supposed to embody.

My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward
Author: Mark Lukach
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is the most well known novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature — unarguably the most prestigious literary award — a few months ago. Unlike most other writing awards, the Nobel Prize is awarded for an entire body of work rather than one particular book, and I was very gratified that it had been awarded to someone whose work I am familiar with and really like. I had read The Remains of the Day shortly after it was published in 1989 and while I couldn’t remember the specifics of the story, I remember it being a very good book. It won the Booker Prize the year it was published, which now seems remarkable to me as well — those were the days when the Booker Prize went to novels I could actually read and comprehend and admire, rather than the current trend of awarding it (along with other awards) to what seems to be post-modern fiction that does not believe in straightforward story telling. The Remains of the Day was also made into a highly acclaimed Oscar-nominated movie in 1993 starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, further cementing its reputation as one of the best books in recent times.

Given that I didn’t remember much about the book except that it was about a butler in olden day England, I picked it up again, spurred by the awarding of the Nobel Prize to its author. It is indeed told from the viewpoint of a butler, Mr. Stevens, who has been the head butler of a grand estate in England in the early 1990s. It traces the years of his work – he prefers to call it “service” – at Darlington Hall, starting from when he was a young man in the years before the First World War to several years after the Second World War. The story is narrated in the form of his reminiscences while he is undertaking a journey to reconnect with Miss Kenton, who used to work in Darlington hall as a housekeeper for many years and who he thinks, from a recent letter from her, might be interested in returning to work there. She left when she got married and while it has been several years, he gets the feeling that she is not really happy and may want to return. So he takes a few days off to journey through the English countryside to meet her.

While several of his reminiscences are about Miss Keaton, we also get to know about his life as a butler in detail, about his employer, the politics of that time, and about how his father, who was also a butler, exemplified loyalty, professionalism, and dignity, right up to the end of his days. It is these exact same values that Mr. Stevens also lives by. He has the utmost loyalty to Lord Darlington, an essentially good man who, in the years leading up to the second World War, tries to broker peace with the Germans and ends up being branded as a Nazi sympathizer. Needless to say, in the course of these years, Darlington Hall becomes the hotbed for a lot of political activity, with lots of important visitors and lots of meetings. Throughout, Mr. Stevens prides himself on running the household smoothly and precisely, and being the perfect butler, who strives to be as unobtrusive as possible yet always on hand when something is needed.

What Mr. Stevens sets most store by, however, is “dignity” — he seems to personify the “stiff upper lip” the English are famous for having. Nothing seemed to faze him, he was never flustered. Even in his encounters with Miss Keaton – some of which were rather unsettling – he remained very stoic, practically unfeeling. It is obvious to us as readers that Miss Keaton is drawn to him, but she becomes so frustrated in his apparent lack of outward responsiveness that she ends up accepting a marriage proposal and leaving. Their encounters are beautifully captured, and you can feel the underlying tension between them, the powerful emotion of unrequited love that she must have experienced until she could bear it no longer and was forced to leave.

The title of the book refers to a revelation Mr. Stevens has at the end of the book, thanks to a chance encounter on his return journey at a seaside town after his meeting with Miss Keaton. He gets into a conversation with a stranger sitting beside him on a bench, who talks about how relaxed and happy people feel in the evening after doing their day’s work, making it the best part of the day. They can just put their feet up and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Mr. Stevens realizes that this can apply to one’s entire life as well, where we can take the time to enjoy the later years of our lives — with no regrets — after the hard work we have put in during our earlier years. These are “the remains of the day” as it were, and it’s a beautiful and uplifting idea that all older people can appreciate. There a sense of rest in the later years of our lives, with all those hectic days – focused on achievement and success – well behind us.

The Remains of the Day is so beautifully written — it makes the old world charm of early England come alive — and is so authentic in its portrayal of a butler if that time that it’s hard to believe it is written by a contemporary author. I’m always amazed when a writer can create something so real from something so far removed from their own experience. The Nobel Prize in Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro is so well deserved. I absolutely loved this book.

The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Publication Date: May 1989

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winner (she is much in the news lately for her 2017 National Book Award winner Sing, Unburied, Sing which I loved). It is the story of a family living in poverty in semi-rural Mississippi in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage. The protagonist is a young teenage girl who has two older brothers and a younger brother. Their father is largely absent in any supervisory sort of parenting role and focused on preparing the house for the onslaught of Katrina. The mother has died some years ago in childbirth.

As the story unfolds, we get to meet the family and their friends and see the world from our protagonist’s viewpoint, with all the pain and panic of realizing she is pregnant, the care and concern for her brothers and the anguish of unrequited love. We see her brothers struggle with their own demons – one brother has basketball aspirations and hopes for opportunity, another is totally absorbed with his dog and her litter and the puppies’ well being. The father is focused on preparing their decrepit house to withstand the coming storm, oblivious of the storms raging in his children’s lives. Ward is not verbose and descriptions do not drag on, but the early chapters are awash with all manner of big and small details of life that make this family real to the reader. When the storm finally hits, we are heavily vested in their struggle to survive, and the description of the power and majesty of the storm is gripping. However, it is in the aftermath with the family picking themselves up, that this book shines brightest.

The writing is lyrical and reminds me of Maya Angelou – Jesmyn Ward writes like a painter or poet. The scenes she sets, the characters she puts in those scenes and the description is so absorbing that you barely notice the story unfolding. Ward takes a poor dysfunctional family with problems aplenty (petty crime, dog fighting, drugs and teenage pregnancy) and makes them beautiful and noble and heroic.

This is a book that will shine for some years to come. I am so glad to have read it.

Salvage the Bones
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: September 2011

Contributor: Seema Varma is an avid reader, sometime engineer.

“Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny” by Zahir Dehlvi

Dastan-e-Ghadar

This is an English translation by Rana Safvi of the Urdu original by Zahir Dehlvi. It gives a fascinating first person account of life in Delhi during India’s First War of Independence, an earth-shaking event that the British simply called the ‘Sepoy Mutiny.’ Zahir Dehlvi was a privileged official in the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, and he saw and reported everything that went on in those tumultuous days.

The Enfield rifles supplied to the Indian soldiers by the British rulers had greased cartridges said to be coated with cow and pig fat, which was obnoxious to Hindus and Muslims alike. They refused to bite the bullet. Instead they revolted. Soldiers from the Meerut cantonment killed their British officers, marched to Delhi on 11th May 1857 and declared the octogenarian Mughal as Emperor of Hindustan. The aged poet, a pensioner of the British, was simply not up to the task. Zahir Dehlvi was then 22 years old. His wrote his memoirs on his deathbed. While he is no historian and his narrative is prone to hyperbole and unmistakably pro-British it gives us rare insights into the events of the day, and for this reason alone deserves to be read. The translator has done a commendable job and the publisher has ensured that the book itself is a collector’s delight.

Dehlvi’s father and grandfather served the Emperor and he too was presented in court at the age of 12. He led a leisurely and lavish existence, riding horses, smoking the hookah, writing poetry and mingling with the likes of Mirza Ghalib. “Our days were festive like perpetual Eid….” Until the advent of the rebels.

After the mutiny was suppressed the Emperor was exiled to Rangoon and all his employees were fired. Dehlvi was destitute, having lost all his wealth and his ghazals as well. He fled with his family and later took up employment in the states of Alwar, Jaipur and Tonk which he described in great detail. He also presented interesting portraits of Bhopal, Baroda and Hyderabad where he had brief sojourns.

Here are some quotes and anecdotes from the book:

“There is a mosque here, which was built by Qutbuddin, though it is in a dilapidated condition. This mosque was built from the remains of temples. It had only been half done when the Badshah-e-Islam dies, and was thus left incomplete…….In the courtyard of this mosque is the broken temple, which is absolutely different and unique…….The iron pillar which people call killi or nail, has been installed in this courtyard. It has inscriptions in khat-e-shastri.” (The author meant Sanskrit but he was wrong. The translator tells us it was Brahmi script.)

“Once some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all the butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. The British government gave orders stating that these butchers should take their shops out of the city. They had all the shops within the city closed.” When the butchers and their families moved out and camped outside the city, the emperor insisted on pitching his tent alongside them. He stayed put until the British Resident rescinded the order.

The rebel soldiers after capturing Delhi appealed to the Emperor, “We are employees of the British. We have helped establish British rule from Calcutta to Kabul by sacrificing our lives, since they did not bring an army with them from England. All their conquests are due to the Indian army……And now…they want to destroy our faith and religion and convert the whole of Hindustan to Christianity. ….Now the time for revolt has come and the entire army has risen and refused to obey orders.” The Emperor’s response was, “Who calls me badshah? I am but a mendicant who is somehow living a Sufi’s life in the fort with my progeny…….The monarchy left my house 100 years ago.” His hapless grandfather had entrusted Hindustan to the British. He himself had no powers to take any decision. Therefore he has summoned the British Resident, Fraser. The Resident arrived soon thereafter.

The first victim of the riot was a Christian priest – a Hindu covert. Dehlvi says, “….as the sound of the shot rang out, the priest’s soul left for its heavenly abode.” The next to follow was Chamanlal, the emperor’s physician, who too had converted to Christianity. Then came the turn of the Resident.

Months passed. The rebels continued to hold Delhi. “The poor Badshah was always in a state of worry and anxiety and had stopped coming out of his Mahal. He was always sad and teary-eyed.” The Emperor said of the mutineers: ‘These rogues came to ruin my dynasty…..After they leave, the British are going to cut my head off, along with that of my children, and hang it on the Qila merlons.”

After several battles the British finally gained the upper hand and the rebels had to flee. They requested Bahadur Shah Zafar to go with them but he declined. The Emperor left the fort and took refuge in the environs of Humayun’s tomb. The British commander “arrested thirty Timurid princes, including the Badshah’s sons, grandsons and sons-in-law, and murdered them outside the walls of Delhi. He sent their heads to the Emperor.”

I read the book with a heavy heart.

Overall Assessment: Read it if you have an interest in Indian history.

Dastan-e-Ghadar -The Tale of the Mutiny
AUTHOR: ZAHIR DEHLVI
TRANSLATOR: RANA SAFVI
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2017 (Urdu original in 1914 at Lahore)


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small Bombs

This debut novel won a lot of awards when it was published last year and was one of the finalists for the National Book Award. Not only did it come to me with a strong recommendation, I was also intrigued at the prospect of discovering a new talented Indian author whose books I could identify with. Having grown up in India, it’s always nice to read fiction set in familiar surroundings that I can immediately relate to.

As should be obvious from its title, The Association of Small Bombs is about terrorism, not the large-scale terrorist attacks that make deadlines but the many smaller ones that are set off in local markets and neighborhoods, which happen so frequently in India that not a big deal is made of them. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the families that are affected, in which case your whole world is turned upside down. The Association of Small Bombs starts off with one such bomb blast in a Delhi neighborhood in which two young boys — brothers who had gone to pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop, accompanied by their friend — are immediately killed. Their parents, the Khuranas, are shocked and devastated, and their marriage never recovers, despite having another baby five years after the blast. They spend much of their time in the courts where the terrorism suspects that the police have rounded up are on trial, and as to be expected, these are long-winded court cases where there is no real evidence of the crime. Eventually, the Khuranas take the lead in bringing together other families who have been affected by similar blasts into an “association,” which is where the title of the book comes from. Sadly, even this common cause is not enough to prevent the Khuranas’ marriage from eventually unraveling.

Meanwhile, the friend that the Khurana boys were with at the time of the blast, Mansoor, managed to survive but with severe injuries from the shrapnel of the bomb. He seemed to eventually recover and even goes to the US to study and get a degree in computer engineering. But after just a few semesters, the pain comes back with a vengeance, making it impossible for him to type on a computer and forcing him to return to India. He never goes back to the US to resume his studies and instead gets caught up in an NGO — a group of idealistic young Muslims — working on behalf of suspected terrorists — all Muslim — that have been jailed without any real proof of wrong-doing. While Mansoor is also Muslim, he was brought up in a non-religious family and never gave religion much thought until he joined this group, after which he becomes almost an Islamic fundamentalist. Eventually, one of his close friends, Ayub, from the NGO becomes inducted into the same terrorist group which had planted the first bomb and goes on to detonate another bomb, also in Delhi, on a scale similar to the first one. Ayub himself is injured in the blast and eventually dies. Mansoor is arrested as the bombing suspect because he was close to Ayub and spends several years in prison. The book ends with his release from prison; he goes home and never leaves the house again.

I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading this book or even learned something from it. It started off on a very strong footing by powerfully capturing the first bomb blast and the toll it took on a couple whose lost both their young sons to it, their utter devastation along with terrible feelings of guilt — why had they sent the boys to a TV repair shop to fix an old TV instead of just buying a new one? This “if only I had done this or hadn’t done that” persistent feeling of guilt will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the irreversible loss of a loved one. However, the rest of the book lacked a similar strong focus and seemed quite disjointed, going inside the minds of multiple characters including the Khuranas, Mansoor, Mansoor’s parents, Ayub, and the perpetrator of the original blast, Shockie, but without really delving too deeply into any of them. While it could have been very interesting to understand the mindset and psyche of a terrorist, The Association of Small Bombs didn’t really succeed in achieving that. Instead, there were bits and pieces of different lives, experiences, and thoughts, none of which added up to any kind of comprehensive understanding of even one person in the story.

It was all the more disappointing because the book had such a promising start. It definitely points to a talented author, and I hope he can bring it together in his next book.

The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: October 2016

 Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Revolutionary History of Interwar India” by Kama Maclean

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India.jpg

“On 12th April 1931, a conference of India’s martyrs was held in Paradise. We know because the proceedings were published in the Lahori Urdu newspaper Vir Bharat the following week.” This brilliant piece of anonymous journalism envisions a full-fledged conference with all the formalities and protocol, and presents an intricate blend of humour and pathos. Khudiram Bose, Ramparshad Bismil, Ishfaqullah, Haribhai Balmukand and Khushi Ram occupy prominent seats. The martyrs of Jallianwala Bagh appear in bloodied outfits. The martyrs of Sholapur are there too. Jatindranath Das as head the reception committee ushers in the much awaited trio of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev. Conches are blown, the gods shower flowers and shouts of ‘Shahidon ki jai’ rend the air. As Jatin Das delivers the welcome address, Jesus Christ arrives. Sardar Bhagat Singh says, “India’s martyrs greet the martyr of Jerusalem.” The Jallianwala martyrs chip in, “Accept our salutation O peaceful shepherd of bloodthirsty sheep.” Jesus announces that “Dyer is today being burnt in hell fire.”

Kama Maclean painstakingly traces the role of revolutionaries in ushering in India’s freedom, unearthing many enigmatic characters who fail to surface in mainstream narratives. In a 1937 book titled The Vanishing Empire, Chamanlal predicted that the British Empire would collapse in ten years. Later he became a Buddhist monk, ‘Bhikshu’ Chamanlal. Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was fatally stabbed in Kanpur when he intervened to make peace amidst communal riots. Uddham Singh waited 21 years to avenge Jallianwala Bagh finally murdering Michael O Dwyer in London in 1940.

The Hindustan Republican Army sprang up in the 1920s in the United Provinces, later metamorphosed into the HSRA (Hindustan Socialistic Republican Association/Army) and shifted its focus to Lahore. There were invisible linkages between the HSRA and Nau Jawan Bharat Sabha (NJBS) and the Jugantar and Anushilan groups of Bengal.

The revolutionaries were determined to free India from British rule. Their main strategy was to make targeted attacks on powerful people. They attacked a train near Lucknow on 9th August 1925, looted government funds and killed a passenger. For this ‘Kakori Conspiracy’, four men were hanged and five transported for life. On 17th December 1928 Bhagat Singh and Shivram Rajguru shot dead a British policeman J P Saunders at Lahore, and Chandrashekhar Azad killed an Indian constable who gave chase. This was their revenge for the lathi-charge in November that had resulted in the death of Lala Lajpat Rai. They went underground, regrouped in Agra and on 8th April 1929 Bhagat Singh and Batukeswar Dutt threw low intensity bombs and leaflets on the floor of the Legislative Assembly before courting arrest. Soon other co-conspirators were arrested. The trial dragged on for 23 months, and the bravery and brilliance of the revolutionaries captured the imagination of the nation. Interestingly, they had had themselves photographed in studios in anticipation of capital punishment. These pictures made their way to every nook and corner of India in a brilliantly orchestrated campaign, and soon Bhagat Singh was just as popular as Mahatma Gandhi.

In June 1929 in Lahore Jail the revolutionaries commenced a hunger strike in protest against the differential treatment meted out to Indian and European prisoners. On 13th September Jatindranath Das passed away after 63 days of fasting. Subhas Chandra Bose (on behalf of the Bengal Congress) arranged to repatriate his body to Calcutta, and all along the way it was hailed by wailing crowds.

Jock Scott, Lahore’s Senior Superintendent of Police (who had been the original target of the Saunders assassination) soon packed his bags and sailed for England. The California-based based Ghadar Party threatened that if Bhagat Singh was executed, they would assassinate the incoming Viceroy even before he landed in India.

The HSRA bombed the Viceroy’s train on 23 December 1929 as it approached Delhi but Lord Irwin escaped unhurt. In April 1930 the daring Chittagong Armoury Raid by the Bengal revolutionaries masterminded by Surya Sen rattled the British. However, the young militants were out-numbered and died fighting.

Azad managed to remain incognito until he was killed in a shootout with the police at Allahabad on 27th February 1931. British intelligence noted that the Allahabad Provincial Congress Committee “took an active interest in the cremation of Azad’s body.” Motilal Nehru had died only two weeks earlier and revolutionary memoirs recounted that Azad had taken part in the funeral procession in disguise. It came to light later that Motilal had communicated with and funded Azad. In fact the revolutionaries usually relied on Congress members for financial backing and legal defence.

Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on 23rd March 1931. It is one of the classic ironies of Indian history that Bhagat Singh, although shunned by Gandhi and neglected by historians, was omnipresent in visual culture. Though originally a turbaned Sikh, his ‘hat portrait’ was firmly imprinted on the Indian psyche, never to be erased.

In Bengal on 14th December 1931, teenagers Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Choudhury shot dead a British magistrate, and expressed disappointment when they received only jail sentences.

HSRA members had multiple aliases. David Petrie (who later headed the MI5) was convinced that Balraj, Chief of the HSRA, was Bhagat Singh but decades later Shiv Verma, a surviving member of the inner circle, disclosed that Balraj was Azad.

The book has a chapter on the secret life of Durga Devi, widow of HSRA leader Bhagwati Charan Vohra. The latter had died in a bomb-making accident on 28th May 1930. Durga had masqueraded as Bhagat Singh’s wife to facilitate his escape from Lahore in December 1928. On 8th October 1930 she took part in a daring shooting attempt on Lamington Road, Mumbai, leaving her infant son with Babarao Savarkar, brother of V D Savarkar.

Overall Assessment: The best part of the book is the exhaustive array of photographs and pictures.

A Revolutionary History of Interwar India
AUTHOR: Kama Maclean
PUBLISHER: PENGUIN BOOKS
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

The Story of the Jews

Well, I thought I knew their story – until I read this masterpiece and found out how little I knew. The Exodus story is something you can’t help knowing, how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, how they wandered in the desert and finally reached the Promised Land. You needed faith to believe the story but I had believed it anyway, at least most of it, excepting of course the more fanciful parts, like the parting of the Red Sea and the encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BCE. Cyrus of Persia liberated the Jews and enabled the rebuilding of the temple. Jesus was a Jew. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE and scattered the Jews in all directions. All this I knew. I also knew that my home state, Kerala, had a Jewish community from times immemorial – and after the birth of Israel many of them migrated. Like everyone else, I knew about the Holocaust. And well, the Qumran scrolls or Dead Sea Scrolls as they are called. (I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’d learnt about the Spanish Inquisition in my schooldays but had forgotten what it was all about.)

This book was an eye-opener. It brought to mind just as many questions as answers. If the Israelites found Egypt so abhorrent, why did they keep going back there? “The very first time that ‘Israel’ appears on any historical artefact is on the famous late thirteenth century BCE triumphal inscription of Pharaoh Merneptah, son of Rameses II.” The inscription claimed that Israel had been routed. This lends credence to the belief that Rameses II is the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the Exodus probably did happen, though no evidence has been found till date.

Egyptian sources claim that when Sennacherib’s Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 715 BCE it was an army under the Nubian pharaoh that broke the siege. Very plausible, says Simon Schama. So Egypt wasn’t a permanent enemy after all.

In the 6th century BCE Jews were settled in many parts of Egypt. In Elephantine, the capital of the Pathros region, they even had a temple. They kept the Sabbath, made animal sacrifices and circumcised their sons. Surviving documents related to marriage and divorce reveal interesting facts. While Israelite men had unilateral rights to divorce their wives, in Egypt Jewish women were also entitled to initiate the separation. Tragedy truck in 410 BCE when the temple was destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. By the middle of the fourth century BCE, before the coming of Alexander, the Elephantine colony had ceased to exist. However, a century later Jewish settlements had popped up all over Egypt, especially at Alexandria and Thebes.

The Hebrew Bible was written over three centuries – eighth to fifth BCE. While it proclaims monotheism and an exclusive bond with Yehowah, it chronicles a saga of betrayals, transgressions, atrocities, disasters and defeats. “David’s best-loved son, Absalom, is killed in a particularly horrifying way while in rebellion against his father. Solomon’s imperially aggrandizing kingdom lasts not even one generation after his death. King Manasseh institutes the horror of child sacrifice by fire. The Egyptians are always at one gate and the Mesopotamian empires at the other.”

The Song of the Sea has much in common with the Phoenician epic of the storm god Baal’s conquest of the sea. Ecclesiastes is a ‘Wisdom Book’ that owes something to Persian-Babylonian proverbial literature. It was the Hellenistic Jewish world that invented the synagogue. ‘Holocaust’ was the Greek word for ritual cremation of whole animals. Only Greeks and Jews made fire sacrifices of whole animals.

Judaism was imposed at the point of the sword (and the circumciser’s knife) on neighbouring peoples like Itureans and Idumeans. In the first century BCE the Roman general Pompey marched through the Temple, tearing aside the curtain veil and entering the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was admitted. But he spared the temple, as Alexander had done centuries ago. Eventually Vespasian would destroy it.

The mass social upheaval in the towns and villages of Palestine, the coming of Jesus and his crucifixion, the exaltation of Christianity as the state religion of Rome, the birth of Islam, the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the persecution of Jews by Christians in various parts of Europe, and the horrors of the Inquisition are set out in explicit detail. One is left feeling sorry for the Jews, although the author recounts the atrocities committed by the Jews as well.

There is much that would evoke shock and/or surprise. Here are some examples:

  • Judaism and Zoroastrianism had shared purity obsessions,including a belief in the uncleanness of menstruation.
  • Peter the apostle refused to share a table with the uncircumcised.
  • The Prophet Muhammad first commanded the Believers to pray in the direction of Jerusalem. It was only when the Jews of Yathrib rejected his beliefs that he switched the orientation to Makkah.
  • Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest. So it wasn’t just the Jews and Muslims who had this prohibition!
  • Much of the heart of Westminster Abbey comes from the estate of Licoricia the Jewess and her husband, David of Oxford. The Crown had appropriated the estate in the thirteenth century. Soon thereafter the Jews of England were all sent packing. This happened in France, Germany, Spain and Portugal. By the time Columbus had set out to discover America in 1492, Spain had been wiped clean of its Jewish population and five years later Portugal followed suit.!
  • When Vasco da Gama returned in triumph after his India expedition he brought to Portugal back not only spices and animals but also a Polish Jew. I wonder what became of the poor man in a country that had evicted all its Jews!

The book has a sequel. I intend to read it soon.

Overall Assessment: A labour of love.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD
AUTHOR: SIMON SCHAMA
PUBLISHER: VINTAGE
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2014


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Tell No One” by Harlan Coben

Tell No One

When I started reading this book, I had this funny feeling that I knew this story, everything including the climax (that’s a nice feeling to have if you have not experienced it). As I progressed, the feeling became stronger but I couldn’t remember when or where it happened. Soon it dawned to me. I had seen a movie adaptation of this book a long time ago. I didn’t knew the movie name then.

I have to admit that even after that, the book managed to keep me on the edge of my seat until the very last page.

It is one of the best suspense thrillers that I have read. The story remains solid throughout the book. There’s romance, suspense, there are murders and twists to keep you engaged. And I felt that all the characters had a soul, even the secondary, not so significant ones.

You will feel sympathy for the main character, Dr. Beck, when you know the tragedy that happened in his life. And you will most certainly get chills from a man named Eric Wu and his way of handling people.

The story unfolds at a fast pace and there are enough thrills at the end of each chapter. And it ends with a beautiful flourish. You need to be extra sharp while reading the ending or you may lose some important information.

You can surely race through this book in a matter of hours. I highly recommend it for people who are looking for thrilling page turners.

Tell No One
Author: Harlan Coben
Publisher: Dell
Publication Date: August 2009

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Sing Unburied Sing

This book won the National Book Award for fiction this year (2017) and therefore has been in the news a lot, both before and after the award was announced. It seems almost mandatory for these awards to be given only to those books that have been on the radar, doing the rounds as it were, and heralded by book critics everywhere. I follow book news closely and am therefore always aware of which books are currently “hot” — so whenever I see them in the library, I never pass up on the opportunity to borrow them. While I can’t say that I have had a good track record lately with critically acclaimed books — I didn’t care much for Exit West, and I couldn’t even get beyond a few chapters of The Underground Railroad which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Lincoln in the Bardo which won the Booker Prize — it never hurts to keep trying. This is how I came to read Sing, Unburied, Sing, and the fact that I was able to read through and finish it, was, to me, a significant aspect in favor of the book.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in Mississippi and is focused on an eventful few months in the life of Jojo, a thirteen year old boy who is biracial and is being brought up by his maternal grandparents. They are from the black side of his family, or as the author refers to it, the “Black” side — black with a capital “B.” Jojo’s mother, Leonie, also lives with them, but she is a drug addict and has few nurturing instincts. Jojo’s father, Micheal, who is “White,” is in prison on a drug-related offence. Micheal’s parents refuse to even acknowledge Jojo’s existence, as they didn’t want their son to marry a black woman. Jojo has an adorable three year old sister, Kayla, for whom he is the world, given that their mother is not much of a mother and their father is largely absent. Jojo’s black grandfather, Pop, is thankfully a good man who provides the children with love and care — Jojo has the highest regard for him. Pop’s wife, Jojo’s grandmother, was also a loving and caring woman, but she is now very sick and completely bed-ridden. Pop has his own demons from his youth, notably from the time he was also in prison — the same one Michael is now at.

The trigger for the story — what sets it off — is Michael’s release from prison, and Leonie setting off on a road trip to pick him up. She insists both the kids go with her to pick up their father, and they set off in a car with one of her friends, whose boyfriend is in the same prison. The friend is as drug-addled as Leonie, and the trip is a horrible one — they make a stop to do a drug pick-up, Kayla is sick throughout the trip with Jojo comforting her as best as he can, and after they pick up Michael, they are stopped by the cops forcing Leonie to swallow the drugs they were carrying so that the cops wouldn’t find them. As wretched as this was — with the plight of the children especially gut-wrenching — what was worse was that a “ghost,” who had unresolved issues with Pop when he was at that prison, came back with them. This ghost, Richie, who was also thirteen when he died, can be seen only by Jojo, and is not able to transition to the beyond — he is “unburied,” so to say, which is where the title of the book comes from. He is finally freed from this unburied life by a song sung by Kayla.

Needless to say, it is hard to take a book as serious as this seriously when it involves a ghost. And the ghost is a prominent part of the story, even narrating some of the chapters in the book. It turns out that he is not the only ghost — Leonie, when she is drugged, can see the ghost of her brother, Given, who was killed by some of his racist white college mates when he was a young man.

Overall, I have to say that I had conflicting feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is a deeply moving and touching story, and what makes it particularly poignant is that most of it is narrated by Jojo, allowing you to see the world from the perspective of a thirteen year old boy in a very unconventional and troubled family. His devotion to his little sister is touching, and your heart goes out to these two children on their horrifying road trip, making you constantly dread about what is going to happen to them. There are also the themes of racism, mob lynching, and incarceration, and while these are hardly new — a great example being the classic To Kill a Mockingbird — they have been captured in Sing, Unburied, Sing in a manner that is extremely haunting. I can see why this book was so highly acclaimed.

But then there were the ghosts, and they just didn’t work for me.

Sing, Unburied, Sing
Author: Jesmyn Ward
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: September 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories” by Catriona Mitchell (Editor)

Walking Towards Ourselves

This book is a brilliant mosaic of many feminine voices from India, a collection of short stories carefully crafted to present a consistent and yet diverse pattern of thought and emotion. From Ira Trivedi’s Rearranged Marriage to Sharanya Manivannan’s Karaikkal Ammayar to Urvashi Butalia’s Oxygen, the book takes the reader on a roller coaster ride that is both exciting and frightening. The voices are by no means weak or even similar – and no facet of the feminine experience is left untouched. From the embarrassment of dark skin, to the agonies of match-making, marriage, motherhood and childlessness, alternative relationships and alternative sexual identities, difficult choices and painful lives, this book leaves no stone unturned in its quest for free expression of thought.

Mitali Saran writes, “This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course – perhaps you’re a rural woman who’s allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage – but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.”

Bollywood belle Tisca Chopra writes of the legendary casting couch, “I have been asked, plenty of times — by actors, directors and producers. I play dumb. Smile and pretend I don’t get the hint. Yet, somehow, many men from the film business think it is their right to ask.”

Describing the near trauma of hunting for toilets in the Mumbai metropolis, Annie Zaidi writes, “The commute was tough, the deadline pressure insane, harassment was a possibility that lay in wait at every corner. But my greatest worry was not finding a toilet when I needed one. Which was several times a day every day. The city seemed to be lurching along anyhow, kidding itself that women didn’t get out much and, if they did, it was never long enough for their bladders to fill up. Mumbai was rumoured to have public toilets, at least at train stations, but to my dismay and fury, I found that most toilets were either non-functional or locked up, especially at night. The official excuse was that women didn’t use them anyway and that if toilets were open, they might be used for ‘other’ purposes.”

“Women were so central in the battle for independence, why did we hear virtually nothing about them afterwards? Or for that matter during colonial times?” asks Urvashi Butalia, the firebrand founder of the publishing house Kali for Women.

Salma’s account of her urge to write (translated from the Tamil by N Kalyanraman) and the vicious suppression she encountered is especially heart-rending. The reader is left wondering: Is this my Incredible India? “After hiding within the lime-coated walls of my parents’ home for several years, I moved to my husband’s family house on a neighbouring street and was enclosed by brand new walls, freshly coated with paint.” Salma’s predicament would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience. “Writing poems and reading books were considered serious crimes. My husband warned me to stop reading. He threatened that if he happened to see any books lying around the house he would burn them, and if he saw me writing he would break my fingers.” Salma didn’t stop writing. Today she is a celebrated author, and everyone knows her given name is Rokkaiyya Begum.

“Within a marriage, fighting back comes with its consequences. The man who rapes me is not a stranger who runs away. He is not the silhouette in the car park, he is not the masked assaulter, he is not the acquaintance who has spiked my drink. He is someone who wakes up next to me. He is the husband for whom I have to make the morning coffee. He is the husband who can shrug it away and ask me to stop imagining things.” This one is by an anonymous author – not even a pen name.

Saranya Manivannan writes, “In the long history of female silencing, the wardrobe was an instrument long before the pen.” And she elaborates, “In order to be taken seriously, in order to be left alone, in order to be perceived as neither desirable nor desirous, I twist my uncombed hair into a bun and leave my face bare and bespectacled, throw a loose tunic over pants and slip into pre-distressed chappals. Make no mistake about it: it is a cultivated look. It is a form of armour.”

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni remembers seeing the picture of ‘Sultana Raziyya’ in her brother’s history’ book and being impressed with the way the queen exuded power. “In this picture the woman sat on a tigerskin while a man knelt nearby, offering her his scimitar. Instead of flowing veils, she wore the male attire of the time: baggy pants and a vest. Instead of daintily sniffing at a rose, like the women in my father’s book of Mughal paintings, she leaned forward boldly to grasp the weapon offered to her.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories
EDITOR: Catriona Mitchell
CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS: Ira Trivedi, Rosalyn D’Mello, Mitali Saran, Urvashi Butalia, Annie Zaidi, Anjum Hasan, Salma, Anita Agnihotri, Tishani Doshi, Margaret Mascarenhas, Sharanya Manivannan, Tisca Chopra, Deepti Kapoor, C S Lakshmi, Nirupama Dutt, Chitra Banerjee Diwakarunni and one ANONYMOUS writer.
PUBLISHER: Harper Collins
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2016

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.