“Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram” by Dang Thuy Tram

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, I paid the princely sum of fifteen US dollars for the diary of a dead woman I had never heard of. As I began to read, the realization dawned on me that hers was a true rendering of history – and every word was dynamite. This was no ordinary woman, no white-collared doctor, no run-of- the-mill revolutionary. She had the heart of a humanist, the soul of a poet, and the grit of a guerrilla fighter. “For the first time I dig a grave to bury a comrade. The shovel hits a rock, and sparks fly like the flame of hatred in my heart.”

On 22nd June 1970, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, barely aged 28, was shot dead by American soldiers as she walked along a remote trail in Duc Pho with three others. Her diary made its way to the United States and remained for decades in the possession of Fred Whitehurst who worked for the FBI, turned whistleblower, and finally tracked down Thuy’s aged mother in Hanoi to hand over the precious memoir. Published in 2005, the diary was an instantaneous hit. The English translation emerged in 2007. Thuy’s last words express her deep anguish and sense of hopelessness in the face of a powerful destiny: “I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Born in a cultured, ‘bourgeois’ family, Thuy learnt to play the guitar and the violin. She qualified as a doctor and was accepted for higher studies in surgical ophthalmology. Yet she chose to move south and join the resistance in December 1966. Her beloved country was at war and America was no mean foe. Part of her motivation was her desire to re-unite with the love of her life, a man she simply calls ‘M’. Thuy had loved him from an early age but he had joined the North Vietnamese army four years earlier. The truth about their break-up remains shrouded in mystery. Thuy’s diary is actually the second volume, the first having been lost in the war zone during a miraculous escape on 31st December 1969. Did she write about her heartbreak in the first volume? We may never know.

The pocket sized diary was often scribbled in dark, humid, underground shelters or narrow caves in the mountainside. US President Richard Nixon is a “mad dog.” American soldiers are “devils” or “bandits”. Thuy speaks of revenge but never kills a fly. She only saves lives. Thuy speaks of young men dying in her arms, of performing amputations without anaesthesia, of a great many medical challenges. In mid 1969, she wrote, “I will not be there when they sing the victory song.”

Of her broken relationship she says little, but her words are powerful. “The trust stemming from ten years of waiting and longing does not erode easily, but when it cracks it’s hard to repair.” And, “I know the roots of my love still lie deep within my heart, dormant but not dead. It can sprout, it can grow if spring returns. A part of me is still that young girl you know, the one who loves to feel cool raindrops on her face.”

Her writing is embellished with simile and metaphor, and the play of emotions mingles with practical descriptions of life’s harshest realities. There is poetry in every sentence. One marvels at the ebullient romanticism of the young woman in an environment shrouded by the horrors of war. Bravery and optimism, pathos and idealism – a plethora of intense feelings gives the diary a powerful voice that reaches out to even the most disinterested reader. Some excerpts:

  • My soul is as full, as tumultuous, as a river after days of torrential rain.
  • My youth has been soaked with the sweat, tears, blood, and bones of the living and the dead.
  • The hand-basket is heavy, but my worries are much heavier.
  • Hatred is bruising my liver, blackening my gut.
  • This war has robbed me of all my dreams of love.
  • Oh! Cruel American bandits, your crimes are piling up like a mountain. As long as I live I vow to fight until my last drop of blood in this thousand-year vendetta.

The diary begins on 8th April 1968, when Thuy had already spent two years among the fighters. The words she used to pay tribute to a fallen comrade are entirely appropriate and applicable in her own case: “Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.”

Overall Assessment: Must read.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
AUTHOR: Dang Thuy Tram (translated from the Vietnamese by Andrew X Pham)
Date of Publication: 2007

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

“Farewell to Manzanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston


When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 at the climax of World War II, every American of Japanese descent suddenly became suspect. The Franklin Roosevelt government reacted by rounding up all Japanese Americans and carting them off to remote camps, where they were forced to subsist in sub-human conditions. Manzanar was one such camp on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert and in this book a former inmate gives a first person account of her family’s interment in this hellhole. After decades of silent denial, the author relives long forgotten memories and recollects heart-wrenching details to produce this deeply disturbing memoir.

Jeanne’s father (a native of Hiroshima) was interrogated, taken into custody and deported to North Dakota. Ko Wakatsuki had come to Hawaai at the age of 17 in search of work, moved to Idaho and later California, where he married a Japanese girl and had 9 children. His arrest and three year incarceration changed him. He became despondent, alcoholic, abusive, violent and eager to be invisible. In 1945 after the war ended, the family returned to Southern California and in 1952 they moved to San Jose.

Jeanne was seven years old and the youngest of the brood when the tragedy enveloped her family. Manzanar effectively robbed her of the simple joys of childhood. Growing up in this strange new place with minimal facilities, communal toilets and communal kitchens, deeply affected her – and the return to civilization was just as difficult when the camp was disbanded after three years.

Jeanne recounts her father’s behavior during a school visit by her parents: “I was standing at the head of the table shaking the principal’s hand, when papa rose, his face ceremoniously grave, and acknowledged the other parents with his most respectful gesture. He pressed his palms together at his chest and gave them a slow deep Japanese bow from the waist. They received this with a moment of careful, indecisive silence. He was unforgivably a foreigner then, foreign to them, foreign to me, foreign to everyone but Mama, who sat next to him smiling with pleased modesty. Twelve years old at the time, I wanted to scream. I wanted to slide out of sight under the table and dissolve.”

The California born author describes the incredible pain of growing up Japanese in post-war America. “Easy enough as it was to adopt white American values, I still had a Japanese father to frighten my boyfriends and a Japanese face to thwart my social goals.”

Jeanne met James D. Houston while attending San Jose State University and they were married in 1957. Her husband co-authored her autobiographical novel, which was published in 1973 and won many accolades before being adapted into a TV film in 1976. The book has since become a part of many school curricula to inform pupils about the Japanese American experience during WWII. It presents a thought-provoking account of a dark and embarrassing chapter in American history.

Overall Assessment: Must read, especially if you are Japanese American.

Farewell to Manzanar
Authors: Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and  James D. Houston
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Date of Publication: 1973

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


“A Place to Stand” by Jimmy Santiago Baca


A brutally honest memoir by a person born to deprivation and abandonment. Born in the southern state of New Mexico to parents of Mexican and Apache Indian descent, Baca’s early life is the very antithesis of the American dream. This book enables you to see the indifferent face of America, the very existence of which many in the developing world are unaware. Poverty in America? Don’t tell me! Here is a man lucky enough to be born in America and yet living a most horrendous and nightmarish existence from early childhood to adulthood. “I’d begun to feel early on that the state and society at large considered me a stain on their illusion of a perfect America. In the American dream there weren’t supposed to be children going hungry or sleeping under bridges.”

Baca and his two siblings were abandoned in childhood by both parents – their father drifting through life in an alcoholic haze and their mother eloping to California with a lover in her quest for a more settled lifestyle. Brought up by their grandparents for a while, the children keep yearning for their parents’ return. When their grandfather passes way, the boys are sent to an orphanage. Baca runs away again and again – and ends up in a detention center at the age of thirteen. From there, he moves on to street life marked by vagrancy, aimlessness, petty crimes, intermittent jail terms, violence and substance abuse, for a while reuniting with his brother and then losing him again. “And somewhere along the line, I started fighting just for the sake of fighting, because I was good at it and it felt good to beat other people up.”

Baca is sentenced for drug peddling and ends up in jail. During his five-year incarceration at a maximum security prison, he learns to read and write. He attained real literacy only when he was in his early twenties – and it turned out to be his path to salvation. While he speaks of the sub-human conditions that prevail in prison, something that the vast majority of us cannot even imagine, his language espouses a dark beauty and is more poetry than prose. “The rage that came out of him was the kind of rage that transcends friendship. It’s the kind of rage that can be created only in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest. It grows and grows, hidden deep in souls that have died from too many beatings, too many jail cells, and bottomless despair, contained like a ticking bomb.”

Of life in jail, he has this to say, “Three meals a day and a warm cot with a roof over my head was a vacation. It was often better in jail than on the streets; I didn’t have to worry for a while about surviving.” And “Handcuffs had become as normal to me as a wristwatch is to a free man.”

Baca draws plausible portraits of everything that is wrong with a system that recognizes human beings only when there is a perceived need to punish and restrain them. “You could see the narrowing of life’s possibilities in the cold, challenging eyes of the homeboys in the detention center; you could see the numbing of their hearts in their swaggering postures. All of them had been wounded, hurt, abused, ignored; already aggression was in their talk, in the way they let off steam over their disappointments, in the way the expressed themselves. It was all they allowed themselves to express, for each of them knew they could be hurt again if they tried anything different.”

The emotional content of the book is stupendous. It doesn’t come as surprise that Baca soon became an acclaimed writer. He had endured so much and he had so much to say. And most significant of all, he had overcome. Through the world of letters, the human spirit had broken out of the vicious circle of drugs, crime and depravity and settled down to the peaceful pursuit of true happiness. This memoir has the potential to awaken hope in the hearts of people who are going through similar travails and plumbing the depths of despair, not only in America but elsewhere. In the author’s own words, “I was a witness, not a victim. I was a witness for those who for one reason or another would never have a place of their own, would never have the opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together.”

Overall Assessment: Definitely worth reading.

A Place to Stand

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

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow


I read ‘The Last lecture’ on a flight from Dubai to New York. The book was published in 2008, the year Randy Pausch died of pancreatic cancer. The fatal diagnosis had come in 2006 and the following year Pausch delivered “The Last Lecture” at Carnegie Mellon on the topic “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Ironically, the speech was part of a series Carnegie Mellon called “The Last Lecture,” where speakers were asked to think about what mattered to them most and give a hypothetical last lecture. Pausch’s speech soon became a sensation on Youtube and the book (supposedly dictated over cellphone to WSJ journalist Jeffrey Zaslow) later turned out to be a New York Times bestseller.

Pausch, a computer scientist and university professor, recognized as a pioneer of virtual reality research, married with three little infants, finds out he has very little time left. This book is his last and final legacy. It is both touching and thought-provoking, leaving the reader sad and elated at the same time. Though it is about death and man’s helplessness in the face of the inevitable, it maintains a humorous vein throughout. Here are a few samples:

  • I quote my father to people almost every day. Part of that is because if you dispense your own wisdom, others often dismiss it; if you offer wisdom from a third party, it seems less arrogant and more acceptable
  • After I got my PhD, my mother took great relish in introducing me by saying: “This is my son. He’s a doctor but not the kind who helps people.
  • Throughout my academic career, I’d given some pretty good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs
  • While I went through treatment, those running the lecture series kept sending me emails. “What will you be talking about?” they asked. “Please provide an abstract.” There’s a formality in academia that can’t be ignored, even if a man is busy with other things, like trying not to die.

The book encompasses many quotable quotes, sound business advice and much wisdom. A few examples:

  • There is more than one way to measure profits and losses.
  • On every level, institutions can and should have a heart.
  • A good apology is like an antibiotic, a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound.

Overall Assessment: Definitely worth reading.

The Last Lecture
AUTHOR: Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

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

“The Travels of Ibn Battuta” by Ibn Batuta (Abridged and Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith)

Travels of Ibn Battutah

“They told me that one of the Hindu infidels had died, that a fire had been kindled to burn him, and his wife would burn herself along with him.” Describing the practice of sati in 14th century Hindustan, Ibn Battuta observes that, “The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; but when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it…”

Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta is undoubtedly the greatest traveller in world history. Born in Tangier, Morocco in 1304, he set out for Mecca and Medina at the age of 22 and returned home a quarter of a century later, having visited much of the old world from Hangzhou in China to Timbuktu in Mali, and traversed an estimated 75,000 miles between 1325 and 1354. On his return he wrote his epic travelogue wherein he mentioned more than 1500 persons by name. Ibn Battuta (that’s his family name) was a Sunni Muslim and a scholar of Islamic jurisprudence.

He described Al Iskandariya (Alexandria) in Egypt as one of the most beautiful places he has ever seen. “Among all the ports in the world I have seen none to equal it except the ports of Kawlam (Quilon) and Qalicut (Calicut) in India……..and the port of Zaitun (Quanzhou) in China.” [Alexandria is still beautiful, but Kollam and Calicut are ports no longer.] Ibn Battuta observed the famed lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos), one of the wonders of the ancient world, on his outward journey and also on his return. When he saw it for the first time, only one face had been ruined but when he returned in 1349, it had virtually become inaccessible.

At Delhi, Sultan Muhammad bin Tugluq appointed him as Maliki Qadi and he spent six years there, referring to his benefactor as king of Al-Sind and Al-Hind. His description of the Qutub Minar and the metal pillar are revealing. There are some descriptions that would make painful reading for devout Hindus. “At the eastern gate of the mosque there are two enormous idols of brass, prostrate on the ground and held by stones, and everyone entering or leaving the mosque treads on them. The site was formerly occupied by a budkhanah, that is an idol temple, and was converted to a mosque on the conquest of the city.” (Delhi was sacked by Muhammad Ghori in 1192, Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated, and a few years later Qutbuddin Aibak established the Slave Dynasty.)

Of the holy man Shaikh Ala al-Din he wrote, “He preaches to the people every Friday and multitudes of them repent before him and shave their heads and fall into ecstasies of lamentation, and some of them faint.” Sounds familiar? These practices persist even today, but not necessarily in the Islamic world.

“No person eats with another out of the same dish,” Ibn Battuta noted. He also spoke of the Indian habit of eating betel leaves with areca nuts, sprinkling rose water and eating samosas. He recounted the common scenes in the capital, telling us a great deal about life in Delhi in the 14th century. “Every day there are brought to the audience hall hundreds of people chained, pinioned and fettered, and those who are for execution are executed, those for torture tortured, and those for beating beaten.” The shifting of the capital from Delhi to Daulatabd in the Deccan is recounted, probably with a little exaggeration.

Of the Syrian city of Aleppo he said, “The spirit feels in the environs of the city of Halab (Aleppo) an exhilaration, gladness and sprightliness which are not experienced elsewhere, and it is one of the cities which is worthy to be the seat of the Caliphate.” Well, if Ibn Battuta were to see the state of Aleppo today he would just sit down amidst the rubble and weep.

These teeny-weeny tales are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s lots more! Overall Assessment: Very, very interesting.

The Travels of Ibn Battuta
Author : Ibn Battuta (Abridged and Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith from the translation by Sir Hamilton Gibb and C F Beckingham)
Publisher: Picador
Date of Publication: December 2002

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

“Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening” by John Elder Robison

Switched On

How much of what we are, what we think and feel, and what we do is determined by the “wiring” of our brains? This question is at the heart of Switched On, a fascinating memoir of one man who was a participant in a TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) research study conducted at the Neurology Department of the Beth Israel Center, which is a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. TMS is a magnetic method used to stimulate small regions of the brain, allowing doctors to change brain activity without surgery or medication. It has been in research and development for over twenty years, which seems like a long time, but is actually quite short in the medical research field, which is why most of us have never even heard of it. I learnt of TMS during a Fresh Air broadcast featuring John Elder Robison, the author of Switched On, and the neurologist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, who led the TMS study at Beth Israel and worked closely with Robison throughout the time he was receiving TMS. The main reason behind inviting Robison to be a participant in the study was that he has autism, and the researchers wanted to investigate whether a non-invasive technique like TMS could help in any way.

Much of the book is a methodically detailed log of the author’s day-to-day experience with the study, including how he met the researchers, how he was invited to participate, why he agreed, what he was hoping for, the buildup to every session, what happened at every session, and what were the effects that he experienced afterwards. He also shares details about his family, his work, his autism, and the impact that TMS had on different aspects of his life. These details, in and of themselves, are not especially riveting—after all, who wants to know about the mundane details of the day-to-day events in our lives?

What we do want to know, however, is—does it work? Does TMS change our brains and consequently, our emotions and our actions? And if so, are the effects temporary or long-term? And since Switched On is a first-person account of someone who has actually received TMS, we actually get to know the answers to some of these questions. Robison does a terrific job of describing both the short-term and long-terms effects that he experienced after each TMS session, including being much more open to people and experiences, the ability to “read” people a lot better and understand nuances which had earlier escaped him thanks to autism, and even the ability to be moved to tears by a sad story, even if it was just in the newspaper or told to him by someone he had just met. Fortunately, being so overcome with emotion that life becomes difficult was not a long-term effect of TMS. At the same time, having had the experience of empathy and connectedness—however short-lived—provided him with a “knowledge” of these emotions that is helping him to better understand “normal” (non-autistic) people on an ongoing basis.

Of course, Switched On is one person’s account of the effect of TMS, and it’s possible that other participants in the study experienced somewhat different reactions and effects. It would be good to know more, and I hope the TMS researchers can compile their findings not just into research papers for the academic community but also articles and books for the rest of us. It is fascinating to think that everything we think and do—including this thinking!—comes from our brain chemistry. Does this mean that at some point, we will be able to manipulate brains to create “designer thinkers,” similar to how we could potentially manipulate genes to create “designer babies?” Another interesting question, brought to the forefront by Switched On.

Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening
Author: John Elder Robison
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: March 2016

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

“Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Everything about this book is shocking. The words are gentle, yet the message is powerful and the story spectacular. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman’s birth in Somalia, growing up in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and migrating first to the Netherlands where she is elected to Parliament and then to the United States, where she is on a mission to exorcise the ghosts of Islam.

“We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century,” she writes. “We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.”

The author’s account of her early life in Somalia is hair-raising. She gives a blood-curling description of her experience of forced circumcision at the age of five, as also that of her elder brother and younger sister, all performed on the same day at the initiative of her maternal grandmother. “Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam.” Though she squarely condemns FGM, she does not ask the question why boys need to be circumcised.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks of her stay in Saudi Arabia, where gender based segregation was strictly enforced and public beheadings were commonplace. “It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions. Hands were cut off. Men were flogged. Women were stoned.” The author points out that the Prophet did say, “Wage war on the unbelievers.” She adds, “Christians can cease to believe in God. But for a Muslim, to cease believing in Allah is a lethal offence. Apostates merit death: on that the Quran and the hadith are clear.”

She prayed five times a day and wore the veil. But soon she began to question her own beliefs. Was her religious instructor Boqol Sawm translating the Quran properly? “Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman’s statement in court should be worth the same as a man’s?” She describes her gradual loss of faith, her life in Europe where she learnt that human rights and dignity were cherished values, her outspokenness and the heavy price she had to pay for it, the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, her persecution by religious extremists, and her eventual escape to America, the land of the free.

Today she continues to write and speak out. Fearlessly – but with bodyguards. Her speeches and debates are all over Youtube. As there is a fatwa against her anyway, she can keep writing anything and it can’t get any worse. She says in the Introduction to this book: “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep on living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”

Overall Assessment: Thought provoking. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is possibly one of the most impressive voices of the 21st century.

AUTHOR: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
PUBLISHER: The Free Press
Date of Publication: 2007

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

“Goat Days” by Benyamin

Goat Days

It was the common dream of an average, economically weak Malayalee that drove Najeeb to also forsake all the little that he possessed, to borrow heavily from his kith and kin and to leave for the golden desert sands of the Gulf. Yes, he dearly loved his verdant green patch of land back home, the daily dip in the clear, flowing water of the village river, his Umma’s freshly cooked homely food, his wife Sainu, his group of friends, the simple basic joys of life in the countryside. Marriage, the beginning of a new family and its added responsibilities spurred Najeeb to opt for just a few years in the Gulf and then come back to his village and his folks.

Waiting expectantly, in a milling crowd of hopeful workers like him, at the dusty Saudi airport, watching the different arbabs pick the respective workers onto their new workplaces, noting the crowd gradually dwindling, losing hope, getting despondent, Najeeb at last observes a rickety old vehicle drawing close to him in a cloud of dust, an extremely shabby person alighting, walking up and down the airport a few times, most impatiently, then examining Najeeb’s passport and finally commanding him in brusque tones in Arabic to get into the vehicle.

In that almost unending, bumpy , dusty ride, lasting several hours, across the desert, with not a sight of a single human person in the road, we watch Najeeb’s hopes gradually change to a clammy fear of the unknown. With his passport confiscated, with not a soul other than the arbab driving the vehicle to god knows where, he realizes he is trapped irrevocably.

Najeeb’s maiden journey in what he now sees as the mirage called Gulf, ends in a horribly stinking, filthy goat farm, with hundreds and teeming hundreds of goats for company, with not even the basic necessities, let alone comforts, of life. Najeeb’s simple dreams of a new life in the Gulf get shattered one by one. We watch his gradual acclimatization with the new life, his forced foregoing of the daily routine back home, the sheer, inhuman hours of hard physical labour done even while being exposed to the killing heat of the desert sun during the days and the bone chilling cold during the nights, the minimal food with minimal water, with no human soul to look at and the punishing torture meted to him by his master at every step.

Najeeb’s undying love for life and his desire to live brilliantly shines through, even as he sinks into this dismal hopeless abyss. The typical Malayalee sense of humour gives Najeeb the strength to try and make light of the hopeless trap he has gotten into and helps him in his efforts to learn the new tongue and a smattering of Arab words. Above all, his absolute, steadfast faith in the Almighty at every step after faltering step of this punishing life he lives, gives Najeeb an indefatigable strength to pull on and never admit defeat.

Benyamin’s Malayalam novel Aadu Jeevitham, translated into English as Goat Days, unfolds the story of Najeeb and his life in the goat farm, in the middle of nowhere, and is a shocking revelation of the lives of the likes of several unknown Najeebs living animal lives in similar farms. Benyamin was awarded the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for this novel. Goat Days makes one ponder on the abject economic misery of a certain group of our own brethren that force them to migrate, of the absolute unscrupulous nature of the agents in our own country that lure such innocent people and throw them into immeasurable scales of suffering in some foreign land. The novel questions us and our complacence that make us turn ourselves away from the knowledge of the actual existence of such inhuman farms of labour. Should such slave farms be permitted to function? Do such similar places exist in our own country? Joseph Koyippally, who has done the translation into English, deserves a special word of mention for bringing this stark, bleak account of an astounding protagonist to a global audience.

Goat Days
Author: Benyamin, Translated by: Joseph Koyippally
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: June 2012

Reviewer: Uma Rao has a Ph.D. in English Literature with a PG Diploma in Journalism, works for the State Bank of India, and is fond of books, music, theatre, cinema and travel.

“In Other Words” by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the best known authors of Indian origin of our times, right up there on par with the most successful American authors. She achieved one of the highest writing accolades there is – the Pulitzer Prize in fiction – for her debut novel, the Interpreter of Maladies, and has not looked back since. Her second novel, The Namesake, not only won critical acclaim but was adapted into a movie by none other than Mira Nair, with top-of-the-line actors like Tabu, Irrfan Khan, and Kal Penn. Her two subsequent novels were also widely regarded, in particular, The Lowland, which was published in 2014. Born and brought up in the US (to Indian immigrants), Lahiri is a native English speaker, and writes, naturally, in English, making her novels readily accessible to the millions of English-speaking folks all over the world, including people like me.

In Other Words, however, is written in Italian and translated into English by a professional translator of Italian books to English. How did this happen? And why? This forms the main theme of the book. Lahiri describes the magical pull that the Italian language has had for her ever since she visited Italy shortly after college, and she spent the next 20 years or so — while writing her novels and getting married and having her kids, in short, living a “regular” life — trying to sporadically learn the language better. Living in New York, she had the advantage of having access to Italian teachers and went through several of them before settling on one that worked well for her. She did get a chance to practice what she was learning on her occasional book tours to Italy, and describes how everyone there was extremely encouraging and helpful when she told them she was trying to learn the language.

A few years ago, she realized that she could never become completely fluent with the language unless she lived there and was fully immersed in it, and that was precisely what she did. She packed up her life in the US, including her family, and they all moved to Italy. In Other Words is a collection of essays chronicling her journey and her progress with the language, right from the time when she first visited Italy to when she had mastered enough of the language to be able to read, write, and even think in Italian. What makes it most remarkable, and sets it apart from other memoirs, that it is written in Italian, a testament to not only Lahiri’s undisputed love for the language but also to the fact that she has gained enough familiarity and fluency with it to be able to do this. The book is a fairly easy read, which is not surprising given that it is written in a language by someone who is not a native speaker of it. For the English translation, Lahiri explains that she didn’t do it herself because she wanted to stay fully immersed in the Italian language and not fall back into her native English. With the publication of the book, the “immersion” which she had sought seems to have been accomplished for the time being, and she is getting ready to return to the US with her family.

While few of us can relate to hearing the siren call of another language as stridently as Lahiri did for Italian and going to the extent that she did of heeding it, there are some aspects to her experiences that are more universal. In particular, those of us from India can relate to the conflicted childhood she experienced, torn between the native Bengali language of her parents — which they sought to hold on even after moving to the US — and the native English language of the country in which she was born — and the American culture she wanted to fit into. She describes how her physical appearance always made people assume she was a foreigner and didn’t know the local language, not just in Italy, but even in the US, her own country. In Italy, the locals invariably assumed that her husband, who is American (of Spanish origin), was Italian and knew the language, even though it was actually she who spoke it well. We can also relate to the change of direction, the process of starting over and the upheaval it causes that she experienced, although in her case it was entirely voluntary and self-imposed, whereas for many of us, change is forced on us by circumstances. Either way, this change can often be a turning point towards a better and more interesting path, and is worth exploring — she cites the example of Matisse who, later in life, began to move away from traditional painting and developed a new artistic technique, which was groundbreaking and is now regarded as his signature style.

In Other Words may not be the most exciting of memoirs, but it gives us the opportunity to “get inside the head” of a highly acclaimed author and understand the overwhelming importance of words and language in, not just her career, but in her life.

Will Lahiri continue to pursue her love for Italian, or get back to writing in English, or do both? She doesn’t know yet, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

In Other Words
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: February 2016

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

“Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain

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Sometimes the most haunting and palpable accounts of war are not the sweeping explanations of historical background and strategy, but of a singular person’s experience, encapsulated in a memoir. This is certainly true of World War I, which comes most terribly alive in Vera Brittain’s home front account, Testament of Youth. Brittain writes with the skilled, articulate prose of a woman who had previously been interested in being a novelist, which lends a vivid dynamic to her retelling of real events. The outcome is a memoir that allows the reader directly into the mind of its narrator in a way that is reminiscent of fiction and makes the work all the more page-turning.

Brittain begins her story a little before the war, describing the hopeful life she had as a young woman who loved to write poetry and read the Romantics, entirely unaware of the impending carnage to her country and her life. Her cast of friends are introduced early, her parents, her brother Edward and his friends, particularly his schoolmate Roland Leighton, who takes an interest in Vera as she does in him. The novel starts with Brittain’s struggle to get accepted to Oxford and her romance with Leighton, both of which are heartbreaking to a reader who knows of the bigger problems to come. Brittain, of course writing in retrospect, often ends her chapters with dark foreshadowings of the war that render the problems of these earlier accounts rather inconsequential in her mind. This is where the power of the work comes from—the comparison of what Brittain’s life was before, to the life she had during and after the war, because it allows the reader to intimately understand the devastating effects of the first modern war not only for the soldiers in the trenches but for everyone on the home front as well. Brittain forces us to understand how the war changed people’s philosophical outlooks, their optimism, and their belief in the glory of death.

Brittain’s story finds its strength not only in her superior narration and her juxtaposition of before-and-after but also, unfortunately, due to circumstance. The reader flips the pages in horror as they realize that Brittain loses almost everyone she knows to the war. She hears of Roland’s death right before their wedding, an incident that is so devastating in part because Brittain recounts in earlier chapters how much he pushed to go to the front lines, and how frightened he was once he finally made it there. This, coupled with some of Roland’s poems about the war and about her, which Brittain includes in the book, prove almost as emotionally ravaging for the reader as it must have been for Brittain herself. Even the most ardent war hawks will have to think twice when they read of Brittain’s cruel loss. Furthermore, when Edward dies, the reader is reminded of 1914, the start of the war, when he asks Vera to help convince their parents that he should be allowed to join the army, to which she agrees and manages to succeed in. Brittain confides in the reader the guilt she feels upon hearing of his death, as though she herself sent her brother to die in the trenches.

It is common knowledge that at the beginning of World War I, no one understood just how catastrophic a fight this would be for all involved, and numbers can tell you just how many young men lost their lives, but Brittain really makes you feel the pain of finding out that the assumptions about a quick fight directly led to the loss of brothers, fathers, lovers, and friends. She speaks beautifully for a generation of young men and women who grew up during a devastating time that forever impacted their outlook on a much grimmer world. Brittain touches on the emerging pacifism, the skepticism, the spirituality or lack thereof, of the people who came of age from 1914 to 1918, while also giving voice to the experiences of those who were not lucky enough to make it past those dates. Her memoir is a reminder of the consequences of war, one that is relevant not only to the First World War, but even to the wars we continue to wage today.

Testament of Youth
Author: Vera Brittain
Publisher: Penguin Classics;
Publication Date: Reissue edition (May 31, 2005)

Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.

“Love, Loss, and What We Ate” by Padma Lakshmi


I am not really an aficionado of anything that is commonly associated with Padma Lakshmi – Salman Rushdie, her ex-husband; Top Chef, the cooking show for which is a judge; or her earlier modeling career. Thus, it would never even have occurred to me to give this book a try had I not heard an interview with her on NPR, shortly before the book’s release. Prepared to dismiss it as just another publicity stunt by a celebrity I wasn’t at all interested in, I was pleasantly surprised to find that she came across in the interview as an intelligent, articulate woman who had written this book primarily to talk about a painful medical condition she had battled with for a long time — endometriosis, in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside it — and to raise awareness about it. What especially struck me about that interview is that she was very matter-of-fact about her looks and attributed them to genes that she was just lucky to have inherited. I found that to be quite an enlightened attitude in contrast to the vanity most people in the fashion industry seem to have, even if they make a conscious effort to hide it. My curiosity was definitely aroused and it wasn’t long before I had borrowed a copy of Love, Loss, and What We Ate to read.

The blurb on the jacket cover was further promising, according to which, through all her travels in different parts of the world, Padma Lakshmi’s favorite food remained “the simple rice she first ate sitting on the cool floor of her grandmother’s kitchen in South India. “ How could this not tug at the heartstrings of those like me who were born and brought up in India?

It turned out that the actual book, however, was somewhat of a let-down. I found that it was primarily a chronicle of her life to date, from her childhood in India, growing up in the US, her modeling career, her growing interest in cooking which led her to publish some recipe books and eventually led to the Top Chef gig, how her endometriosis was diagnosed and treated, how her marriage to Salman Rushdie happened and why it didn’t last, how she had a baby despite the odds, and her steady relationship after Rushdie with a business tycoon whom she lost to brain cancer a few years ago. As a biography, Love, Loss, and What We Ate is not any more interesting than that of any other person who would take the trouble to write down their life stories. There was nothing particularly insightful in any of the experiences she describes. The writing is decent, but not exceptional in any way; in fact, it tended to be quite rambling at times, with lots of trivial details about her trips to different places, her experiences at modeling shoots and TV sets, and so on. I started reading the book word for word as I usually do, but found myself skimming through it after the first few chapters, looking for something that would justify the time I was spending on it. Sadly, I didn’t find it.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate – a catchy title, by the way – would be most interesting to someone who actually cared to know more about Padma Lakshmi and what makes her tick. For anyone else hoping to get some insights from someone who was – and still it – a celebrity and was married to a well known — and somewhat controversial — author, it would be a disappointing read.

Love, Loss, and What We Ate
Author: Padma Lakshmi
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: March 2016

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

“Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan” by John Lang


“In almost every one of the villages in India, fowls, eggs, rice, flour, native vegetables, curry stuff and milk are procurable, and at very small prices.” Sounds like Ram Rajya? Well folks, that’s an Englishman’s account of 19th century India. Born in Sydney, Lang made India his home, travelling widely and marveling at everything he saw.

John Lang’s chronicles would have been lost to us had it not been for the efforts of our dear old Ruskin Bond. Lang practiced law in India during the British Raj, represented the Rani of Jhansi against the East India Company, made a fortune, owned a newspaper, died in 1864 and was buried at Mussoorie. His notes remained unpublished (in India) for well over a century until Ruskin Bond and Rupa Publications joined hands to bring about his reincarnation.

Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan contains interesting snippets that shed new light on India’s history and social systems. Gurkhas, Afghans and Bengali Babus appear in his anecdotes. At Monghyr on the Ganges, he makes the acquaintance of a few Thugs. “It is part of the Thug’s religion not to rob a live body. The crime of murder must precede that of theft,” he observes. Approaching a twenty something woman he asks her what she thinks of the crime of strangulation. She replies with a smile, ‘Heaven will hold us all, sahib!’ Presently her husband comes along and says she has strangled eighteen persons. She insists that her score is twentyone. Truth? Fiction? Exaggeration? We don’t know. But fascinating it surely is.

A transaction involving an Afghan trader and a British memsaab is particularly interesting. ‘…thirty five rupees….may seem a large sum of money to give for a brace of young cats, but it must be remembered that they came from Bokhara (presently in Uzbekistan), and were of the purest breed that could possibly be procured.’ The trader has a slave boy who was undeniably British. When Lang’s British hosts question the trader, they discover that the boy’s parents had been killed, but his wealthy grandparents are alive in Britain. The cross-examination goes like this: ‘What did you give for him?’ ‘Three camels.’ ‘Of what value?’ ‘Thirty rupees each.’ The story ends with the boy going to England and living happily ever after.

Describing the Taj Mahal as one of the wonders of the world, Lang goes on to share some contemporary gossip, ‘The Mahrattas carried away the huge silver gates and made them into rupees. What became of the inner gate, which was formed of a single piece of agate, no one can say. The general opinion is that it is buried somewhere in Bhurtpore. …Lord William Bentick was for pulling the Taj down and selling the marble, or using it for building purposes.’ OMG!

‘Runjeet Singh began life as a petty chieftain, with a few hundred followers. He acquired a vast kingdom, and had the most powerful army that the east ever saw. ….His chief horror was that the Koh-i-noor would be carried off – that diamond which Runjeet Singh stole, and which the Ranee has worn a thousand times as a bracelet. That diamond which is now in the crown of England.’ (The British, of course, did not steal it! No! No! Whoever would suggest such a thing? How can you ask how Lord Dalhousie perpetrated a fraud by taking it away from Duleep Singh, the minor son of Maharaja Ranjeet Singh?)

Lang describes a catastrophe that befell Her Majesty’s 50th Regiment of Foot at Ludhiana during the First Sikh Campaign in which only 300 of 900 soldiers survived. The survivors were felled by administrative neglect as a dust storm on 21st May of that year destroyed the tumbledown barracks, killing 51 men, 18 women and 29 children. Lang states that ‘The Jhansi Rajah had been particularly faithful to the British Government.’ He adds ‘In the time of the Peishwah, the late Rajah of Jhansi was merely a large zemindar…It was the acceptance of the ‘Rajahship’ that led to the confiscation of his estates.’ Lang’s encounter with the Rani of Jhansi evokes interesting observations: ‘The hour came and the white elephant (an Albino, one of the very few in all India) bearing on his immense back a silver houdah, trimmed with red velvet was brought to the tent.’ Lang notices the Rani’s beautiful eyes, ‘delicately shaped nose’ and ‘remarkable figure’ (though she appeared behind a veil) and goes on to say, ‘What spoilt her was her voice, which was something between a whine and a croak.’ She was generous with her gifts. ‘The Ranee presented me with an elephant, a camel, an Arab, a pair of greyhounds of great swiftness, a quantity of silks and stuffs, and a pair of Indian shawls.’ The year was 1854. Lang was in England when the 1857 War of Independence broke out. When he returned in 1859, not only the Rani but many of his friends, both British and Indian, were dead.

Lang laments that the Newab of Moorshedabad and the Rajahs of Durbungah and Burdwan did not lift a finger to help the British in their hour of need. He speaks of the incarceration of 5000 Christians in the Agra fortress for several months. He witnesses the discovery of bricked up bodies of young women and men in a vault in Agra and the hanging of a Brahmin convict. He reports the discovery of a ‘wolf child’ at Burnampore and describes the Gurkha method of hunting tigers by surrounding and closing in on them before attacking them with their kukris (knives).

Lang’s observations are amusing as well as enlightening, especially if you can ignore the inevitable racist overtones. He opines that the people of Hindostan are the world’s best actors and hypocrites. ‘…when they cry out ‘if we do so we shall lose our caste’ it is nothing more than a rotten pretext for escaping some duty or for refusing to obey a distasteful order. There are hypocrites in all countries, but India swarms with them more thickly than any country in the world.’ Through the characters in the book Lang shares some universal insights: ‘All men born equal. God’s rain wet black man and white man all the same.’

The contrast between the lot of the ‘natives’ and their white rulers is particularly galling. Consider Lang’s account of his overall expenses: ‘My (travelling) establishment numbered in all eight servants, whose pay in the aggregate amounted to fifty rupees per mensum.….The expense of keeping the camels, the bullocks and the ponies was in all thirty five rupees per mensum; while my own expenses including everything (except beer and cheroots) were not in excess of fifty rupees per month.’ You need little imagination to figure out that he lived like a king, not to mention his compatriots. Of rental and property values in Mussoorie, Lang says, ‘The average rent for a furnished house is about five hundred rupees (fifty pounds) for the six months,’ adding, ‘The value of these properties ranges from five hundred to fifteen hundred pounds.’ Gambling was obviously a pet hobby of the British in India. ‘There were also two victims (both youngsters) to billiards. One lost 3000 rupees in bets, another 2500 by bad play. They too will have to fly for assistance to the banks.’ The 21st century banks that merrily financed Vijay Mallya’s peccadilloes are perhaps unaware that the roots of this practice are deep indeed.

Duelling appears to have been another pastime. This is how Lang sums up the events of a particular season: ‘Two duels were fought on the day after the ball. In one of these duels an officer fell dead……There were two elopements.’ Recounting an incident of grave miscarriage of justice Lang writes, ‘The man was hanged about six weeks ago; and now I have discovered, beyond all question, that he was hanged for the offence of which the prosecutor was guilty!’ So much for the famed British jurisprudence! On a visit to a graveyard Lang is asked by a Hindu sweeper, ‘Why don’t you British burn your dead as we do, instead of leaving their graves here, to tell us how much you can neglect them and how little you care for them?’

The Hindutva brigade will love this one: An Italian priest tells Lang that the Catholic Church is concentrating on fulfilling the spiritual needs of the Europeans as it is convinced of ‘the hopelessness of converting the Hindoo and the Mussulman to Christianity.’

The style is down to earth and the stories are sensitive, insightful and humorous. Innovative spellings add to the hilarity of the narrative. Allyghur, Futteypore, Oude, Muttra, Deyrah Dhoon, Nepaul, Caubul, Scinde, Cashmere, Loodianah, Hoolee festival, moonshee, shasters (shasthras).

Overall Assessment: Must read – but remember to take it with a pinch of salt. The masala is already there!

Wanderings in India and Other Sketches of Life in Hindostan
Author: John Lang
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Publication Date: April 2015

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

“When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi


The buzz surrounding When Breath Becomes Air was heard well in advance of the actual publication of the book. The background of the book was unmistakably tragic – it was authored by a young doctor who discovered that he has terminal lung cancer, and he actually dies before the publication of the book, which was then completed by his wife. The book was thus published posthumously. Written by someone who has only a few months to live – and knows that – the book was undoubtedly unique. A memoir of sorts, it was written by Kalanithi after his diagnosis in an attempt to discover what makes life worth living, and it became one of the key projects that he embarked upon precisely to make the rest of his brief life more purposeful.

Kalanithi was not only a brilliant doctor who scaled great heights in his career at a young age – he studied at Stanford and Yale and returned to Stanford to work as a neurosurgeon – but he also had an abiding interest in literature and history, which makes When Breath Becomes Air an extremely well written book, even without accounting for its theme and subject matter. It was fascinating to learn about Kalanithi’s background and upbringing, about his dual interests in both biology and literature, and how the idea of finding what it is within us that enables us to find meaning ultimately led him to neuroscience. The various neurological cases that he encountered while working at Stanford also made for interesting reading, and of course, his thoughts following his own diagnosis of terminal lung cancer – how to make the best of the little time he has left to live? – was the crux of the book. How often do we have the privilege of learning about anyone’s final thoughts before they die, let alone of someone so remarkable?

However, given that my expectations from the book were sky-high – from all the advance buzz and accolades – even before I started reading it, it seems that it was almost doomed from the start not to be able to live up to them. While this is definitely a must-read book, even a keeper – I bought it rather than just borrowing it from the library or a friend – I did not find it to be as insightful and profound as I had anticipated. I was hoping for some words of wisdom on how to live my life better, in a more meaningful way, but I didn’t find it in this book. Ultimately, for me, it was a very touching narrative about one person’s dilemmas and choices in the face of a rapidly approaching death, but I did not find it life-changing in any way, as I had been led to expect.

While it seems almost blasphemous to be critical of a book like this in any way – almost as if you are walking over the body of a dead person – I do wish that the folks in charge of marketing this book, as well as the media, had not hyped it up so much that it inevitably fell short of what it promised.

When Breath Becomes Air
Author: Paul Kalanithi
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 2016

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