This post has nothing much to do with our farm, it’s just an experiment to try & start writing about everything, which one feels like writing about. The way we do anything is the way we do everything……isn’t it ?
On FB many friends have been tagging & pestering me about my 10 best reads. Since i couldn’t think of only 10 best reads I let the matter rest there. I cannot just list out the author & the name of the book, there is so much more in it. There is a context in which one falls in love with a book, sometimes one goes in search of a book, sometimes the book comes searching for you, sometimes the author comes in person to you with the book…. isn’t it ? At an opportune time i hope to tag back all these friends with a list of 10 plants i planted this month…..and ask what have you planted ? That will be interesting.
Now back to the best reads…..
As a child it was comics, comics & more comics. Phantom, Tarzan, Mandrake were our favourites. Parents kept gifting us Amar Chitra Katha, but we kept them aside & went for Asterix, Tintin & then over to Archie’s. Slowly it became Enid Blyton’s Famous five & Secret Seven. We were in Trivandrum at that time, the British Council Library & Alliance Francaise were nice places to sit the whole day & read. ‘Though later in life one found most of the above books & comics quite sexist, racist & xenophobic.
For graduation & post graduation i was in Madras & soon together with some friends we formed a reading club. We used to meet regularly (almost daily). We had our favourite places: a tea shop down Sterling Road or a spot in Marina beach or in our respective college canteens or under a Banyan Tree in Theosophical society & discuss. If my parents had given me money to buy a latest pair of Levis jeans…. i would go & buy a book, they used to give me travel allowance to travel by public transport, i would use my bicycle & save up the money to buy a book. Then we started to invite people to talk to us. Bastiaan Wielenga, Gabriele Dietrich, Theodore Bhaskaran, Sadanand Menon, the late Chandralekha & as fate would have it, once it was a person by the name of Ossie Fernandes. Ossie & me just struck a chord, he became my mentor of sorts & once when he invited me to his house, my world of books just opened up. He allowed me to borrow his books one at a time & i kept a register in his house. So every weekend i went to his place not just to return the book & pick a new one, but also to talk & discuss. I also started to help him a lot with his work, slowly we became very good friends & inseparable. Ossie also introduced me to a retired postman, who after retirement became a braille teacher. Couple of rooms of his house were class rooms for blind students, another room was a massive library. He welcomed me to his library, with the one condition that i cannot borrow any books, if you want to read & browse you have to do it here. I said no problem sir. My wandering eyes had spotted a huge collection of bound volumes of Monthly Review & The New Left Review & i wasn’t going to let go this opportunity. By then i had become a serial bunker of college, i had lost all respect for my professors, lecturers & also started to lose interest in studies. I would go to college only early morning & evening for football practice…. otherwise it was me under a tree somewhere in campus, in our favourite tea shop, in the college canteen, or in some library…. reading a book. Those 3 – 4 years was an unbelievably magical period in the world of books, of reading & learning.
Around this time we had invited a famous writer to conduct a one day workshop for us on writing. At the end of the day she gave us an exercise. Each one of us was given a sentence & we had to write an essay of 3,000 words derived from that sentence. The sentence given to me was “I didn’t expect to see you here”. And i started writing …. i am here every minute, every day of my life, it doesn’t matter if i am dead or alive,, it doesn’t matter what form i come, but i am here everyday. Yesterday i came as a lizard, day before yesterday i came as a butterfly, day day before yesterday i came as a flea, today morning also i was here as a mosquito, tomorrow i will be here as a fish…...& went on to write 3,000 words. The cue was magical realism & it was our first introduction to a couple of the greatest novels (love stories) of the century Hundred years of Solitude (1967) & Love in the time of Cholera (1985). During this period we did spend a lot of time reading, re-reading & dissecting Gabriel Marquez Garcia, Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), The General in his Labyrinth (1989). Along with Diego Maradona, Gabo (as he is popularly known) is Kerala’s favourite adopted son. When he passed away on 17th April 2014 i was in Kerala & one could feel the mourning in the air. The Malayalam newspapers for the next few days covered him like he was a Malayalam writer. One person who used to work with my parents rushed back to his native village to organise a night long readings in the village library. There were night long candle light vigils & readings in the different towns. I’ve heard a true story about a book club members raising funds to go to Bogotá to meet him, they walked around the streets in Bogotá for many days searching for Gabo.…. but had to return without getting to meet him. He was living elsewhere 😦
Such is the legend !!
Another legend from Kerala whose writings i couldn’t put down was Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Again like Gabo its impossible to choose which one is my favourite from his works Janmadinam (Birthday), Shabdangal (The Voices), Maranathinthe Nizhalil (In the Shadow of Death), Mathilukal (Walls) & all his short stories.
For me a good read is when i get sucked into the book from the first page itself & i start re-reading the book the moment i finish it. The first book which made me do that was Lust for life (1934) a biographical novel by Irving Stone based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh & his hardships. Even today when i re-read certain parts of the book i get goose bumps. Thanks to Leo Huberman’s: Mans’ Wordly goods (1952) & his very simple language one could understand a few things on how this bloody world functions. It was an age where we were all idealistic & romantic & there was a tendency to fall in love with every girl one met 😉 Ossie was observing me during that period & said Son, you be a bachelor boy, gave me a knock on my head & handed me a copy of Eric Fromm’s: Art of Loving (1956)…… a timeless epic which explores love in all its aspects—not only romantic love, which is steeped in false conceptions and lofty expectations, but also brotherly love, erotic love, self-love, the love of God, and the love of parents for their children etc.
I was never much of a poem person, however poems & songs from the resistance always interested me, its difficult to ignore Pablo Neruda. However when i heard of & read Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084) by Mahasweta Devi.…it was a very moving experience.
As a student of Political Science reading about Partition was very difficult & painful. It caused one of the most massive human convulsions in history. Within the space of two months in 1947 more than twelve million people were displaced. A million died. More than seventy-five thousand women were abducted and raped. Countless children disappeared. Homes, villages, communities, families, and relationships were destroyed. Yet, more than half a century later, little is known of the human dimensions of this event. All the recommended books for our graduation or post graduation studies never had the hand on the pulse of what actually happened. It was only later in life one got to read The Other Side of Silence (1998) by Urvashi Butalia. Many parts of the book was very difficult to read & i had tears just rolling out. Still worse is to read her stories of the innocent families which came to stay in Punjab during the partition, getting hounded & killed again by the Indian state during the Operation Blue star and after Mrs Gandhi’s killing.
I was in college in Madras (Chennai) when the civil war had erupted in Sri Lanka. There was a mass influx of Tamils from Sri Lanka into Madras, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had ordered all educational institutions to unconditionally give free admissions to every youth who came in from Sri Lanka. So naturally i had lots & lots of tamil Sri Lankan friends. Many of them were members of TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), after a year or so all of them had disappeared & later we came to know that they were killed. After a while we came to know that they were killed by another front named LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)which also claimed that they were fighting for the Tamil Eelam. WTF, we thought. It was a really disturbing period for me, especially when one tended to blindly support the resistance, without questioning. Again Ossie gave me a treasure chest. It was a book called The Broken Palmyra : by Rajini Thiranagama (please watch the link….its really moving). One always knew what to expect when one protests human right’s violations by the state, but how does one address human right’s violations by resistance groups ?
After that i had moved to the outskirts of Bombay & was immersed in full-time work, plus i hardly had any money. I would go to Strand Book Stall to just browse or search around in second-hand book shops. Whenever one had time i used to go to meet the late Prof. A.R. Desai (aka AR), just to clear some cobwebs in my head. Again he opened another window inside me by lending me all his books, pamphlets, research papers & the epic classic which he edited : Agrarian struggles in India after Independence.(1986)
It was period when Eastern Europe was crumbling, Tiananmen Square happened, the Berlin wall came down, Sandinista’s were dissipated & US invaded Nicaragua, Mandela was freed, Saddam Hussein was trying his luck in Kuwait & senior Bush got his chance to do mass murder in Iraq. Within our country the struggle to save the Narmada dam had caught our imagination, friends were getting tortured & were imprisoned, Shiv Sena had unleashed a reign of terror, the under-world/police/ builder/politician nexus were flexing their muscles in Bombay & its outskirts, the assassination of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the right-wing extremism leading to the destruction of Babri Masjid, followed by the riots & bomb blasts in Bombay……. so much was happening around us, it was actually difficult to understand & comprehend anything. That’s where interactions with AR became so critical. He helped me to understand all this in the correct perspective. His death in November 1994 was an irreparable loss to me & my friends.
After a while all these conflicts became impossible for me to handle. Partner & me bought a small piece of land & i plunged into full-time farming. The only resource i had was a book gifted to me by a friend, she was also one of the contributors to the book & it was edited by Claude Alvares : The Organic farming Source book (1996). Everyday i used to go through bits & pieces of the book, studying the experiences of farmers around the country. However after a couple of years i reached nowhere in our the farm & that was when i came across Prof S.A. Dabholkar, he gave me his book Plenty for All (1998) & asked me to study a couple of chapters in the book which was dedicated to soil building & observation of plant growth
You are not just reading this he told me, after you finish reading/studying these chapters i want you to ask me 1,500 questions in writing.
After a couple of months i did actually write down my 1,500 questions & posted it to him. 90% of those questions may have been bull shit ! It didn’t matter, that was his style of pedagogy. We then embarked on the journey to transform our small little farm of 1.5 acres….yes, we did that too. Now when i look at our copy of Plenty for All….. pages are torn & falling out, they are stuck around somehow. Those two chapters of that book was & is still bible for me.
This was the first case of the author presenting me the book i derived great pleasure when my contemporaries also became authors & presented me their books Recovering the lost tongue : Memoirs of a romantic among the Bhils, another friend had also proudly gifted me signed/ autographed copies of all his books.
My childhood & youth was in Kerala in places which has witnessed extreme political violence. As a 5-year-old i still remember seeing a battered & decaying corpse of a left-wing worker hung on a lamp-post near our house. No one was allowed to remove the battered, decaying corpse, it was kept as a warning, as a deterrent. Political violence of immense proportions was part of our daily life, so was sexual violence & child abuse. As a 10-year-old while walking with my mother to the market, i could see how men behaved & leched at her. As an adolescent, we’ve had football coaches, swimming coaches, even police men on duty in parks trying their luck to insert their “rod” into one’s mouth, Even people whom one trusted as one’s elder had no hesitancy in trying their hand to rape a male adolescent. I was plain lucky to have very good street smart friends, we somehow got out of such situations without getting scarred. Teachers in the schools that i’ve studied were the worst perpetrator’s of violence, they caned us everyday & there was “special treatment” for average students like me: they caned us till they took our skin out. We cared a damn ‘though, we got our thrill in bunking school & we got our high in winning almost everything in sports. The Kerala that i grew up was like a maggot infested body. Arundhati Roy in the God of Small things (1997) brought out so many of these things beautifully in words &, yes i also like everything which she has written since then.
Our caravan had moved to Oxford for a while & soon i discovered the Oxford Public Library, it was really a beautiful library….. books, music CD’s, movies, videos & remember all were free of cost. In the meantime Messrs Bush & his allies after destroying Afghanistan with their weapons of mass destruction were on their mass murder mission to gain control of oil fields in Iraq. For sanity i had discovered the writings of the late Edward Said, more than his books i found his other writings & articles very difficult to put down. It was here in this library i found Simone de Beauvoir’s Letters to Sartre (1990) & A Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelsen Algren (1998). These were simply awesome writing & if i could steal them, i would have. Another awesome read was Che Guevara : A Revolutionary Life by John Lee Anderson. Probably the best documentation of one the greatest men of this century.
I was always keen & interested in cooking, however i was plain ordinary. Somewhere along the line i read Isabelle Allende’s Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (1998)…..that read got me going. I was also very much influenced by Antonio Carluccio & his approach to cooking. Even though the favourite person in my family, my maternal grand mother is no longer with us her cooking remained with me. So, yes without saying we have a great collection of some of the best writing on food & cooking. It’s impossible to choose from any one of them …..
Our caravan by then had moved to Delhi. Then our son introduced us to birds & photography, so out of the blue Richard Grimmett’s: Birds of the Indian Subcontinent was all over us. I also had lots of long train journeys first to Indore, then to Dahanu, sometimes to Kerala & when this land came up i became a monthly Delhi-Pune-Delhi traveller. So for each of this travel i needed a book. Close to our house there was a book shop called Midland. It didn’t take long for me to become friends with Mirza saab the very likable & pleasing owner of the shop….. he offered massive discounts on books. Eloor Library was very good, especially their section on Indian Authors. The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, Elif Safak’s The Bastard of Istanbul (2006) & The Forty rules of Love (2010), An Equal Music (1999) by Vikram Seth, The Music Room: A Memoir by Namita Devidayal, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996) by P. Sainath, Manu Joseph’s Serious Men (2010) & Illicit Happiness of Other People (2012), everything which Annie Zaidi, Amruta Patil & my friend Salil writes are the best of the lot. For understanding our canine family members Inside a Dog (2009) by Alexandra Horowitz is an absolute classic.
Now after we moved to Pune i’ve become lazy again, the farm & our doggies are eating up all the time. So now it is Outlook or Caravan Magazine, or the maintenance manual of our car & lastly the Newspapers in India – because I like fiction 🙂