Life in the conflict zone. Illustrated memoir. | MUNNU by Malik Sajad


4.5 STARS!!

I really enjoy reading memoirs that are written as graphic novels. That added visual feature is such a great way to develop an instant picture of the time, place and feel being described, the details and character expressions conveying more than words sometimes do.

Munnu is the third and probably last book I will be reading on the Kashmir issue, at least this year. But it marks a perfect conclusion to my attempt at trying to understand the human side of the Kashmir situation more deeply. The book is a semi-autographical coming-of-age story of a young boy growing up in Kashmir through the peak of the armed conflict. What I found very interesting was that the author depicts all Kashmiris as the Hangul Deer, or the Kashmir Red Stag, which is now an endangered species, due to the destruction of most of their habitat and poaching, and everyone else is shown as human. It is a clever metaphor and the symbolism is completely on point.

The chapters covering Munnu’s younger years were the most enjoyable, which is nearly half the book, with some really sweet laugh out loud moments interspersed in the tense lives of the artisan family. These two pages in the picture below are probably my favourite. Its a hilariously innocent conversation between Munnu and his older classmate after they see two dogs mating.

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But there is no shying away from death, loss and tragedy and how it affected the psyche of parents or gave young children episodes of PTSD. As Munnu grows up and becomes an adult, innocence is lost and “life” takes over, which is essentially a day to day struggle to remain out of trouble while navigating through numerous check posts and curfews. And that is where the story loses its charm… and why I couldn’t rate it a full 5.

A must read for sure.

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Bitter realities | BLOOD ON MY HANDS by Kishalay Bhattacharjee


2 STARS

I found this book through a string of articles I was reading on the Kashmir issue and the Indian Army’s role therein, which was in continuation to reading Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children a few months ago. While browsing these articles I came across one that referred to this book, detailing a disturbing confession by an unnamed army officer about staged encounters and extra-judicial killings by the Indian Army in disturbed areas like Kashmir and the North East.

Having grown up as an army kid myself, the details in the article were not only disturbing, but also unbelievable, and I certainly wanted to know more.
The book succeeds in making the reader understand the reality and existence of these staged encounters, and also explains why they take place. It describes how the “system” is wired to compel some individuals to resort to desperate measures to justify their existence or demonstrate their effectiveness. In shocking detail it relates how promotions, citations and awards are linked to body counts for those serving in these delicate areas, and how numerous innocent and unsuspecting lives have been lost in a bid to have the numbers add up.
Most do not succumb to this pressure, but some have and do, and this book is about those few…

The book also delivers perspective on the grey areas of military presence in Kashmir and the North East and why the conflict never seems to end. The army isn’t the lone perpetrator here – there is a well oiled organised mafia involving the local police and militant groups that traffic human lives for money, creating win-win situations for everyone but the victim, who is declared to be a gunned down terrorist. This quote from the confession makes the situation chillingly clear –


Militancy at any cost must be kept alive, even if it is on life support. You see the entire architecture of corruption and promotion will collapse if there is peace.

It is a bitter and dismal realisation to arrive at, since the army has always been lauded to be the most honourable and upright institution in the country, and more so when one has been a part of the institution, even if in a small way.

While this book had a significant impact on me, I give it 2 stars because I felt it could have been better written and documented. The writing felt rushed and amateur, especially in the confession chapters which read like direct transcriptions of the conversations, and which I feel could have been more nuanced and better written. The confessional narrative sort of digresses into various anecdotes and incidents and the author could have structured those better instead of just putting them down like they were told. References to certain incidents are easily traceable online and it would have been good if those were substantiated with evidence that is publicly available, and also lend credibility to the officer’s claims.

In any case, it is still a book worth reading once, to be mindful of some of the bitter realities of one of the most celebrated institutions of the country.

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Gendered aspects of the Kashmir conflict. BEHOLD, I SHINE by Freny Maneksha


Behold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir's Women and ChildrenBehold, I Shine: Narratives of Kashmir’s Women and Children by Freny Manecksha

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish this book was more well known and more widely read than it appears to be, even though it is written by a well established journalist who has a significant body of work.
So, I am glad to have chanced upon it during one of my browsing binges on Amazon.

The author seeks to explore the assumption that women in Kashmir have not suffered the brunt of direct violence as much as men have, and in doing so brings out stories and experiences from Kashmiri women, old and young, which tend to be more difficult to access not only due to the prevailing ‘haalat‘ or circumstances but also the deeply entrenched patriarchal social structures that they live within.

In the wider context of the ‘Kashmir issue’, the author tries to answer questions like:
– does militarisation harden patriarchal structures?
– what happens to a woman when her husband ‘disappears’? does it change her status in the home?
– does she have the right to accept or refuse remarriage?
– how has the conflict impacted their freedom to safely move in open spaces?
– how does a male dominated society view women who have been assaulted and seen to have brought ‘dishonour’ to their family or community treated?
– how do women deal with and under these situations?

Through first hand accounts of tragedy and resilience, one begins to understand how deeply the conflict has impacted lives of women and children, who are left behind to fight for information, justice and closure – many of whom have been doing it for decades.

As someone who wasn’t too familiar with the history of the Kashmir conflict and why it continues to persist, I feel the book provides a fairly objective understanding and historical context. It also helps one understand why Kashmiris view India’s presence there as an ‘occupation’ and why they continue to fight for ‘azadi‘. I learnt about ‘Ikhwanis‘ for the first time through this book too – captured/surrendered militants turned into pro-government gunmen, nursed by the State and turned on civilians to extract information, often savage in their methods. This created a severe atmosphere of distrust and suspicion amongst Kashmiris, who no longer knew who they could trust or confide into.

As I read these stories, one thing that stood out for me in almost each one, and which is summed up in the very last chapters is the gender divide – that despite all the voilence and the loss of loved ones that families endure, instead of coming together to support the women (especially daughters in law), who are either victims of sexual assault or half-widows (whose husbands have ‘disappeared’), archaic patriarchal norms kick in stronger at such times and many women are abandoned or asked to leave, as they now bring dishonour to their families. Women who refused to back down from investigating the disappearances of their husbands or sons are also seen as trouble makers and asked to leave.

The book does well in disclosing and highlighting the gendered aspects of the Kashmir Conflict. It also makes one aware of how removed we are from the Valley’s struggles even though we have been hearing about them for over two decades, and how despite the political narrative and the means of maintaining control, we must consciously ‘humanise’ our awareness about the conflict and the people who bear the brunt of being the collateral damage in the proverbial crossfire.

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A life trapped in the fetters of India’s social structures and prejudices. BALUTA by Daya Pawar


BalutaBaluta by Daya Pawar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Baluta is a collection of memories. Memories of a life trapped in the fetters of India’s social structures. The frustration and helplessness of being born a Dalit, and the inner conflict that roils in the writer’s mind as a result of his education, something he thought would be the means to an escape from his downtrodden life, but ends up being the agent of his lifelong distress. At one point, feeling ashamed of living off his old mother’s earnings despite being educated, he says

“What was her work? The hardscrabble of collecting and selling paper? What dignity did society offer her for her labour? The question of dignity had been put into my head by my education. no one around me seemed much concerned by it. When you don’t know that you’re supposed to be unhappy, you can chug along quite well; only I was being hollowed out from within, as a tree by termites.”

The blurb on the book’s back cover describes how the book, when it was first published in 1978, hit upper caste readers and critics between the eyes, with its graphic and candid narrative, holding nothing back. But as I read the book, I realised that even though I sympathised with Pawar’s condition, the details of his plight did not “hit me hard”, and his story did not emotionally move me.

I wondered what that said about me or us as a society living with the privilege of not being born Dalit. Are we so far removed from the oppression of the caste system that we fail to acknowledge or recognise the realities of those who never had a choice in the matter? Or are we so overexposed to these inequalities that it has taken on a normalcy to the extent that we have become numb to its existence? Or is it just an inconvenient truth that we’d rather not deal with until it affects us directly.

I don’t think there is any foreseeable solution to the deeply entrenched and prevailing caste system in India anytime soon; there are too many vested interests and power dynamics that won’t allow it to end. But I do think that books like these have an important role to play, because they force us to see what we’d rather not and compel us to ask ourselves some difficult questions that might in some small way change how we operate in our more privileged lives and contexts, and not contribute to the existing caste divisions and prejudices.

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How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – INFERIOR by Angela Saini


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the StoryInferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As far as we’ve come into the ultra-modern 21st century, we are still women living in a man’s world.

Inferior is a well timed book that explores why the gender dynamic works the way it does, across cultures, generations and professions.
How did women come to be in the social positions they currently live in?
Who decided what roles men and women must have? And what were these based on?
Why are women believed to be inferior to men?
Are we biologically built to be lesser humans?
Do our brains have lower intelligence capacities?

Through really extensive research spanning neuroscience, psychology, medicine, anthropology and evolutionary biology, Angela Saini delves deeply into the question about women’s position in society, revealing hard scientific evidence that somehow never gets the limelight, but definitely questions the one-sided superiority argument that has favoured men in areas dominated by men.

The book lends a lot of perspective to the historical and social constructs, where “women have been systematically suppressed over the course of human history by men and their power structures“. It take a critical look at how we came to develop these traditional gender stereotypes of the breadwinning father and the stay-at-home mother, and if these are really part of our biological makeup. I think it’s a really interesting and important study into our evolution as the “social animals” we so like to label ourselves.

My favourite chapters in the book were Chapters 1 and 7 because they present such interesting insights into the patriarchy led socio-cultural control system that confines women within a desirable boundary of acceptable behaviour. These are norms that define our “character” or “characterlessness” for that matter, and we all still live by them today.

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Reading Plans for 2018 – THE FRAMEWORK!


I think I’m in trouble.

Because every passing day, the intensity of the “pull” from books I’m pining to read escalates. So much so, that the other important things I’m supposed to be doing in a day (like work!!) are now seeming like an annoying distraction. The only motivation to carry on working is so I can make enough of a living to feed this feverish and frenzied but oh so fulfilling habit.

Like I cannot wait for the weekend to get here, because the annual book fair is finally happening and I’ve already got my backpack cleaned up and ready, to stuff with all the loot I don’t deserve but have to have to, oh have to have!

This really is getting out of hand, or…. is it too late to worry now?

But wait, isn’t 2018 supposed to be about celebrating books? Of course it is! Thank you very much for the reminder!

My target for the year is 50 books – and here is how I am going to make the most of it!

The idea is to keep it structured but also allow enough room for those impulsive choices that are inevitably going to be made. I’ve learnt this about myself and I’ve stopped fighting it – because in the end, the discipline really sucks away a lot of the FUN that books and reading are supposed to bring. (The #unreadshelfproject, which I am following via Instagram, is a fun way of bringing in that tiny bit of discipline though!).

So after browsing numerous reading challenges from all over the web, this framework is what I’ve come up with. Finishing 50 books is itself a challenge for me so I am not making the framework too schematic or overly defined. I’m happy with the direction its  taken, and also because it will serve as a reminder to not miss the kind of genres I generally overlook.

I’ve already identified a bunch of titles for these categories, but I think it would be wiser to add those after I’ve actually read them. Lets see where I get in 6 months time.

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I’m so excited to begin and see how this goes!!

Are you also following a reading strategy this year? I’d love to hear  how you plan to do it.

Happy new year and happy reading!

Best of 2017: Non Fiction


I read some amazing non-fiction in 2017, ranging from memoirs to behavioural science to psychology and health. Even though reading 14 non-fiction books in a year has been a major achievement for me, a first infact, I regret not being able to cover a lot more of the exciting stuff that is being written and published almost every week!

With renewed vigour to read a lot more in 2018, here are the 4 books that compelled me to think and stayed with me in 2017.

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THE POWER OF HABIT by Charles Duhigg

I enjoyed this thoroughly researched, well written and extremely interesting so much, I still haven’t stopped talking about it to people, months after having read it.
If you’re curious about the neuroscience of how habits work and manifest themselves through our daily routines, and want to really understand the key to altering or developing habits, then this is a great book to read. It is simply written and full of case studies from neurology, business, marketing, analytics, crime, religion, disasters /crises – – illustrating how habits are used by organisations and systems to influence beliefs and attitudes to elicit desired behaviours. You’ll read about Pepsodent, Alcoholics Anonymous, Target’s marketing analytics, the African-American Civil Rights Movement and much more!


51PF0757JNLBETWEEN TWO WORLDS: ESCAPE FROM TYRANNY: GROWING UP IN THE SHADOW OF SADDAM by Zainab Salbi

This is an intimate, revealing and disturbing first hand account of life inside Saddam Hussein’s inner circle and what it was really like for the people who were loyalty bound to the tyrant. Zainab Salbi’s father was appointed Saddam’s personal pilot, and someone who Saddam considered a dear friend. Fear made his friends acutely loyal. As much as this book is about how Saddam impacted Zainab and her family, eventually forcing it to break apart, it is also a chilling portrait of the man himself. Of all the stories one had heard about his savagery and ruthlessness, there is still more, and that in itself makes this book a remarkable read. To appreciate and understand Salbi’s struggles, her grit and determination to break out of a life controlled by fear and psychological manipulation, having a complete perspective on Saddam is imperative.

I already feel like I will read this book again.

 

25899336WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi

I will not be saying a lot about this book except that it is definitely one that you must read if you haven’t yet. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, When Breath Becomes Air has been one of the most talked about and appreciated books in 2017.

Written by a terminally ill neurosurgeon, who, finding himself on the opposite end of the table, looks back at his long and arduous training to become a neurosurgeon and comprehend what really lends meaning to life.

 

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DEAR LEADER: FROM TRUSTED INSIDER TO ENEMY OF THE STATE, MY ESCAPE FROM NORTH KOREA by Jang Jin-Sung

The two things we’ve seen mentioned together the most this year are Trump and North Korea. North Korea has always been a topic of interest for me. I find this book fascinating and absorbing because the author was not a regular citizen who had defected to South Korea, but someone who came from the very core of the North Korean control system – bringing a never before seen perspective and understanding of how the country operates, it’s governance and propaganda systems and how they manage to contain it’s people despite the harshest living conditions.

Though Jang Jin-sung is not the first government man to have defected, he is probably the only one who decided to tell, in as much detail and so openly, about the workings of DPRK’s administrative and government system. The closer he got to the Dear Leader, the more the smokescreen around him cleared and suddenly everything he knew and believed came into question. In an article with the Guardian, he describes the
regime’s grip to be so deeply psychological and emotional for North Koreans, that the closer one gets to the centre of power, the more dangerous it becomes because you know more, and then control is maintained through fear.

 

With that I wrap up my thoughts on my top 4 non-fiction favourites from 2017. If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear what you thought about them!

Until then, happy reading!

Reading Stats 2017!


Its been a great 2017!

The best I’ve ever had reading-wise in fact, with a challenge of 40 books done and dusted! In a world of voracious readers, I know thats a drop in the ocean, but this year I’ve seen myself read more than ever and get geekier about, as Anne Bogel would say, “all things books and reading“, like never before!

I thought I was already beyond ‘borderline weirdo’ with the amount of time I spent updating my reading progress on Goodreads, adding books to my TBR shelf and only tweeting about books and book lists from my Feedly account; but who knew I had yet more manic bookwormy levels to cross! So now, in addition to being a book searcher, hoarder and review finder, I am also addicted to a bookish podcast called What Should I Read Next (WSIRN), which I listen to almost daily, and which has reassured me that I am not really as weird as I might imagine 😉

I have also started maintaining an over the top excel sheet on the books I read – a concept I also heard one of WSIRN’s guests talk about. Data visualisations  about what I am reading are now possible and that is so weirdly exciting! So without further ado, here’s what my reading stats and patterns looked like this year!

I was pleasantly surprised to see that 35% of my total reading this year was non-fiction. Thats 14 books in all – which is a big number for me considering I get super picky and moody about non-fiction, because I anticipate them to be boring, which, it turns out, is more often not the case. I  actually seemed to have had a much better time reading non-fiction compared to fiction – with over 70% rated 4+ stars – which is way better than my fiction experience at 62%.

I would never have realised this, but for this graph 😀 

Rating

I also managed to cover a pretty wide genre of books this year, more than I usually would or expected myself to. Again, strangely I read more memoirs and fantasy fiction than my favourite genre of thrillers, and even managed to read a number of classics, something I find very hard to pick up with interest – which is unexpected but also makes me happy because my conscious effort to diversify my book and genre choices really seems to have worked 🙂

Genre

And finally, before I bog you down with more psychedelic graphs, I’d like to share one more fun pattern I enjoyed seeing, which is where the stories in the books I was reading were taking place – and it is no surprise that the majority were set in America,  though in 2018 I would love to add more to the Indian, UK and Japanese contexts. To make sure I travel the world wider through books, I’m also trying to create a list of countries that I would like to visit and pick up books whose stories take place there. Maybe, if it works, I will do a post on that some time too.

Setting

So with that I conclude that 2017 has indeed been a very accomplished year book-wise, and on this happy note I look forward to an even more bookishly exciting 2018!

I will be sharing more about the books I loved in 2017 in the coming days!

Happy reading!!

Book Review: Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah


Born a Crime: Stories from a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 Stars
I’ve been watching Trevor Noah on The Daily Show a lot this year. I like his sense of humour, which is funny but also ruthless. Most of the content on the show is about Donald Trump and all thats going to hell in the American government under his presidency. It is well researched and Noah does a really good job of talking about issues and calling out a bluff with that twisted smile on his face.

So reading this book had been on my agenda for a while; and when I found an audio version read by the author himself, I decided to listen instead of read.

Trevor Noah’s story is surprising because it is difficult to imagine someone transitioning from the life he describes in South Africa to his current persona we see on TV. And that is why, his story is also inspiring. In this book, Noah shares his story of being born biracial in a country under apartheid, when it was literally a crime for blacks and whites to have sexual relations, let alone have children together. Being exactly one of those children, Noah was brought up almost like a secret until apartheid was outlawed, by which time he was 7 or 8 years old.

Being a colored person in a county where segregation by race was the only way people classified or identified themselves, Noah was always maneuvering situations where he had to constantly establish his identity, not just to himself but also to everyone else around him. What I like about the book is that even though he had a really difficult life growing up, the expression is honest and candid, and without a hint of self pity. Its a story proudly told.

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Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this book with a lot of expectation and interest. The point Cal Newport makes is very valid, but it is not a new point, and he doesn’t claim it to be.

In my opinion, the deep work approach is most applicable to “thinking work” – such as research, academics, writing, etc. The point is simple – work in larger chunks of time un-distracted and uninterrupted, to see your productivity and creativity soar. Make it a routine ordered by rules.
The book tries to offer these set of rules as a path to set yourself up for deep work.

One of its major points is – stay as away as possible from social media – which I tend to agree with to an extent, as it can really take over your life and time, once you’re hooked – and when you really come to think of it, it adds very little value to anything of depth. Its basically a superficial time guzzler that we need to be more mindfully careful of.

While I enjoyed reading the first half of the book, after the 60% mark I lost interest completely. It became a long winding narrative that I felt was repetitive with nothing new to share. I mostly skimmed through the rest of it.

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