Sunday, February 12, 2017

Book review - All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anthony DoerrAnthony Doerr was sitting next to a man talking on his cell phone, in a train heading towards New York. When the train approached the Penn Station, the signal dropped and the call disconnected much to the chagrin of the man who was talking. That made Doerr think about the things we cannot see - "the idea about all this electromagnetic radiation we can't see that's flying through walls and through buildings". ( Communicating through radio, and cell phones, bridging the huge distance that lay between the two ends was something that fascinated Doerr and he decided to write on the subject. He researched on radios and this research let him to the Nazi era. And the plot for the book All The Light We Cannot See[bookcover:All the Light We Cannot See|18143977] started taking shape.

When I started reading the book, it was a difficult and distracting read. Due to the complex language used, I found myself progressing slowly through the pages. And I would often want to opt for 'easier' works. But there was something that egged me on and I am happy to have finished the book. All in all, it has been a memorable read to me.

The story revolves around two characters - a blind girl Marie-Laure who is French and a young German boy, Werner Pfenning who is driven towards the magic of radio transmissions. There is the presence of that precious 'diamond', the Sea of Flames, which some believe carries a curse. The one who owns it will survive but bring disaster to those who are close to him/her. While he himself has never actually seen the stone, the warder of the museum says, "You have to believe the story." The stone looms large in the novel. Marie-Laure often speculates on the 'curse'. Things happen - events that change the course of her life in a way she had not imagined before. And just like Dr Geffard, the mollusk expert has told her, "You know how diamonds - how all crystals - grow, Laurette? By adding microscopic layers, a few thousand atoms every month, each atop the next. Millennia after millennia. That's how stories accumulate too. All the old stones accumulate stories. ...." Marie- Laure's story also accumulates layers, converging with that of Werner and then, drifting apart, only to merge again later towards the end.

Radio acts as a 'connect'. While it seeks to hunt down the enemy, it becomes way early in the novel, a means of hope. " Open your eyes, and see what you can with them before they close forever." It plays the music that fills the air around Werner with "possibility". It poses questions before curious minds - "So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?" Jutta, Werner's sister, is the voice of conscience that stays with Werner when he moves away from her. Jutta questions her brother about whether a thing that is being done by all "ought" to be done by them too. Her listening to radio broadcast makes her interrogate into the very idea of "purification" for which the Reich stands. She doubts "the staccato voice of the Reich" which "grows like some imperturbable tree". She does not belong to those who consider it as "the lips of God". She tells her brother that they are not "whole" - "We must be half something." What he refuses to hear from his sister, or perhaps hears but lacks the courage to believe in, he will hear from Marie-Laure through the radio. The radio, an instrument that is being used to capture, becomes a means of release.

Claire de lune by Debussy is a rendition of Paul Verlaine's poem with the same title. It is repeatedly referred to in the novel. The piece fits well with the larger theme of the book - a fight against the closed system of dictatorial rigidity. Werner's radio and Marie's adventures in reading are escapes within that closed system. The music of Claire de lune liberates. It lets the German Volkheimer listen not just to the notes but also "the silences between them" taking him to a place where his grandfather is. It gives Marie-Laure the courage to overcome her fear of General Von Rumpel. It brings back to Von Rumpel the memory of her daughter Veronika, who could sing. The world is being made a little human again, until the music lasts. Nothing is straight or simple in this world. As Marie-Laure contemplates:

"What mazes there are in this world. The branches of trees, the filigree of roots, the matrix of crystals, the streets her father re-created in his models. Mazes in the nodules on murex shells and in the textures of sycamore bark and inside the hollow bones of eagles. None more complicated than the human brain, Etienne would say, what may be the most complex object in existence; one wet kilogram within which spin universes."

The world of Nazi brutality, the "greatest project" of "ordering the evolution of the species", of "winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff" starts shattering. It is a closed world. It does not let the light in. But it degenerates from within. "The entropy of a closed system never decreases. Every process must by law decay." The decline happens from inside, giving way to a different kind of loss and a different kind of gain. Death stares in the face, but it brings with it "sublimity", "the instant when one thing is about to become something else. Day to night, caterpillar to butterfly. Fawn to doe. Experiment to result. Boy to man."

Another significant character in the novel is Frederick, Werner's friend at the military academy. He is according to Anthony Doerr, a version of himself and of one of his sons. ( They belong to that category of people who "pay attention to things others don't", which may be their strong point but is a "social weakness". Frederick is philosophical, a dreamer. He loves birds. And while Werner thinks that he is weak, Frederick knows that " Some people are weak in some ways, sir. Others in other ways." His distraction is his way out of the brutality of war. He imagines the world when it was "one endless garden from end to end" - all connected, without divides.

The model house that Marie-Laure carries with her is a dominant symbol in the novel. It is a powerful antidote to the Nazi system that is closed and impenetrable. Whether it holds the real diamond or not is something that is not disclosed till the latter half of the book. The inspiration for the house lay in a Japanese puzzle-box the author received as a gift when he was eight or nine years old.( He was not told how the box opens. He was expected to figure it out on his own. The model house is also like a puzzle box. Whether it opens or not, whether it holds the 'real' thing or not, is something one needs to find out. It is the opposite of "certainty". It is the representation of "disorder" and "randomness". It is an expression of "imagination". It is a proof of "minds" working - minds, which are "not to be trusted" because they are always "drifting toward ambiguity".

All The Light We Cannot See is a brilliant work. It has been praised much for the its lyrical prose, and that is definitely justified. And despite my initial difficulty with the novel, I found it mesmerizing and beautiful and would strongly recommend it to all.

View all my reviews

Monday, January 30, 2017

While the Music Lasts.....

When Mohan emerged from the ramshackle hut, it wasn't just the roof that quaked. Vimla shook her head in disbelief while the little Sona jumped up with joy. Sahil stood stunned too looking at his father who was a picture of merriment, although quite a tattered one from here and there.

"What is all this buffoonery?" yelled the bewildered Vimla who was flipping the rotis on her chulha. She was about to burn one of them but Sahil warned her in time and she quickly lifted up the roti from the burning tava.

"This father-daughter team is going to make me crazy, Sahil." muttered Vimla. "Where were the two of you for the whole day? Don't you think you need to stop pampering this little girl of yours."

Sona in the meantime had hugged her father who then lifted her up. "You look like that hero who was singing....!" Sona's excitement was beyond words. 

"Arrey Vimla.....she just wanted to have some harmless fun. The film that we saw had this hero wearing torn pants and he was singing.....Now, you know I cannot sing like that but I thought of giving my gudiya a little happiness, that's it.....Don't you worry, the torn pieces are inside only. When you get time, just patch them back on these clothes," beamed Mohan.

"Ahha - hero.....then remain a hero....I will not stitch them." Vimla posed as if she was disgruntled. Sahil stole a smile too. Secretly, the two were enjoying all the silliness of Mohan. Vimla remembered her own father whenever she saw her husband being so playful with the kids. As for Sahil, he was content to see that despite the poverty, his father tried hard to make them smile. "Let me sing and you dance," he joked. 

The three started their own rock band. Vimla could resist no further. She started smacking the steel plate with a spoon. The music was loud. Maybe a little cacophonous. But it was the music of their life. 

Linking to Blog-A-Rhythm's Wordy Wednesday #4 #BarWoWe Picture Prompt.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

नानी का संदूक

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खोला नानी का संदूक
रंग-बिरंगे ऊन के गोले की  तरह
सिमटी स्मृतियों के धागों ने मुझे बाँध लिया

निकली सफ़ेद रंग की क्रोशिए की शाल
और बिखर गयी यादों की गर्मी
और खेत में लहराते सरसों के फूलों सी
वो पीली दुशाला मन को गुदगुदा गयी
एक जानी-पहचानी महक थी संदूक की
वो गंध जो कीड़ों को संदूक में रहने नहीं देती
छोटी-छोटी सफ़ेद गोलियां
कोने में लुढ़की
कपड़ों में दुबकी
नानी के संदूक में

वो तस्वीरों का गुच्छा

जैसे फूलों का गुलदस्ता
जताता इस बात को कि
कभी मम्मी भी छोटी थीं
और नानी भी मम्मी थीं

सिल्क की साड़ियां

ज़री सजा लहँगा
अखबारों के बीच सहेजा-संभाला
शादी का जोड़ा
अपना ही संगीत बुनती
लंबी सफ़ेद सलाइयां
तांबे के शोर मचाते
कुछ नटखट बर्तन
चांदी की चम्मच
चांदी का झुनझुना
मात्रियोश्का डॉल का एक सेट
कोई टूटा खिलौना
और छठी के छोटे कपड़े
जब दिया जला के रात भर जागी होंगी नानी
एक मीठे कल की आस में

नानी का संदूक

यादों का पिटारा
खट्टे-मीठे पलों का बक्सा। ...

बीते कल का प्रतीक
प्राचीन और भारी
आज के हलके सूटकेस
का मज़बूत पूर्वज
स्टोररूम में सुसज्जित
या किसी की कॉफ़ी-टेबल का विकल्प
विमानों और समुद्री जहाज़ों में घूमा
स्मर्णिकाओं का धारक
कभी नोट्रेडम के देश में
कभी ब्रुसेल्स के ताँबे के बुत के रू-ब-रू
कभी पानी पर स्थित इटली के शहर वेनिस में
कभी रंगून के पवित्र पगोडा की भूमि पर
साम्यवादी नीतियों का साक्षी
कभी बिग बेन के घूंजते घंटों की आवाज़ सुनता जो शायद ये कहते हैं 
कि समय ठहरता नहीं तो तुम क्यों रुके हो - चलते जाओ। ... 
उसकी बात मान शायद 
इतिहास के पन्नों से टहलता टहलता
आज आ गया इन शब्दों को अर्थपूर्ण करने -
मेरी कविता का प्रसंग....
मेरी कल्पना का प्रतिनिधि
नानी का संदूक। .....

इस कविता में जिन जगहों का उल्लेख मैंने किया है, नानी ने वहां पर कुछ वर्ष व्यतीत किये थे - यूरोप के विभिन्न देशों में रहने की वजह मेरे नानाजी का काम था। वो  विदेशी विभाग में कार्यरत थे।

Linking to #WYHO - Write Your Heart Out The Artist's Way being hosted by Corinne at Everyday Gyaan. While it is not a free write exercise, I have tried to respond to the prompt - And we found _________ in a trunk in the attic…….

Sunday, January 15, 2017

दो कमरों का घर

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सब कहते हैं बड़ा मकान खरीद लो 
कब तक किराया भरोगे 
दो कमरे छोटे नहीं लगते क्या तुम्हे ?
बच्चों को भी जगह चाहिए। ... 
नया घर होगा, नई खुशियां आएंगी 
मैं सोच में पड़ जाती हूँ 

ये दो कमरों का मकान 
घर ही तो है 
मानती हूँ दीवारें थोड़ी पुरानी हो गयी हैं 
पर वो जो लकीरें तुम्हे चुभ रही हैं 
वो मेरे बच्चों की पहली लिखाई हैं 
वो पहली तस्वीरें, जो किताब में होतीं तो मैं संभाल भी लेती 
हर जगह ले जाती 
पर दीवारें नहीं उठा सकती 
सोचती हूँ कुछ पल और जी लूँ उन्हें 
धुंधली हो जाएंगी अपने आप जब 
तब नया घर ले लूंगी। 

तुम कहते हो जगह चाहिए 
शायद देखा नहीं तुमने 
साथ बैठे कितने अभिन्न हो जाते हैं हम यहां 
साँसों का संगीत तक सुनाई देता है..... 
थोड़ा रुको 
जब कदम बढ़ेंगे महत्वाकांक्षाओं के साथ 
अपनी जगह भी खुद बना लेंगे 
तब तक जी लेने दो यह करीबी 
हर किसी को नसीब नहीं होती 

दो कमरों का मकान है 
यादों से सजा 
भावनाओं से भरा 
थोड़ा बिखरा सही 
थोड़ा मैला सही 
पर खुशियां भी सजी यहीं हैं 
आंसू भी थमे यहीं हैं 
तुम्हारे लिए ईंट और पत्थर की तंग दीवारें हैं 
पर मेरे लिए यही घर है 
मेरे दो कमरों का मकान। .... 

Linking to #MondayMusings at Everyday Gyaan

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Three Leaves, Three Roots and a Dream - A reading of Ann E. Burg's Serafina's Promise

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"Banza, I have nothing to give..." so says Serafina to her dog as he wags his tail and follows her. Serafina is busy with the daily chores she ought to complete. She has no school to go to, no time to play with friends either. But the faithful dog follows her, seeking only her love and affection. The elders tell her that a 'kind heart is the fanciest dress' and Serafina is kind. But she is unhappy too.

Serafina's Promise by Ann E. Burg is one book that will stay with me forever. I read it in one go - a story in verse form. It revolves around the little Serafina, who grows up in the earthquake-ridden, flood-prone Haiti. Full of Haitian wisdom, the book makes a compelling read. Just when the 11 year old's dream of going to school is fulfilled, hurdles cross her path. Serafina is beset with questions. She cannot find answers to all her doubts. Why does one need to remember? Wherein lies the bravery of fighting if it means losing your life? What is it that the flag remembers? Is the petty grudge she harbors for her friend who goes to school really worth it? What does it mean to be really educated? Is learning a colonial language a betrayal or a means to achieving a position from where one can speak? She slowly discovers for herself the complex thing called life.

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Serafina yearns to be a doctor. But poverty has trapped her. The death of her brother is followed by the birth of another one, whose arrival she thinks will make up for all the losses she has suffered. His birth is a hope that clings to Serafina's heart. She wishes to be just like Antoinette Solaine, the nurse, who tends to the children in the village. Grandma tells Serafina to stand up for herself - if you want your eggs hatched, you need to sit on them yourself. Serafina's father too pushes her to speak, to assert, to convince others of her beliefs. Despite the restraints imposed on her dreams by her financial conditions, Serafina promises herself to become a doctor, to save those in her village from ailments, from misery, from death.

Serafina's mother is reluctant to send her to school but she loves her and helps her wade through the rising waters. Serafina's father is poor but 'happy' that he could 'afford ribbons for Serafina's hair'. Amidst all the trials and tribulations, Serafina discovers something :

I wonder what hunger is like
without a family
to fill the emptiness.....

It is not a perfect family but it definitely is the strong foundation on which rests Serafina's life. After all the failures, one has to try again. After falling down, one ought to get up again. No matter what happens, one has to "beat the drum and dance again".

The book emphasizes how history is a significantly defining factor of who we are today. Remembering is a way of showing respect. Remembering is a means of assuring that the past sacrifices were not in vain. It is important not to forget so that it does not happen again - the injustice, the anguish, the sacrifice. 

Three leaves, Three roots......

To throw down is to forget.....

To gather up is to remember.....

'Twa Fey' or Three Leaves - The song is indigenous to Haitian culture - a song of recollecting, of bearing testimony to the struggles the country has been through. It is part of incorporating a 'collective consciousness' among listeners, and singers. They stand united in memory, in thoughts. Twa Fey is a song of blending in, of unifying, of solidarity within a group that shares a common past. Twa Fey for Serafina stands for her family, her village, her country.

Serafina gives back. Her kindness makes her courageous too. And in testing situations, she fights back. She keeps her promise. She embraces the 'conqueror's language' for the time being, to equip herself, to gather the right tools to bring the change she longs for....

The sun rises
the sun sets,
little by little the bird
builds its nest!

The book is meant for young readers. Brimming with wisdom and raising topics to help young minds think and interrogate the 'givens', Serafina's Promise is a promise of betterment to reconstruct the society on the foundation of hope, memory and courage.

The verse form of the narrative is captivating and keeps the reader engaged. Ann E. Burg has managed to insinuate on topics that would be tough for young minds to comprehend in an ingenious way. The everyday struggles of people living in poverty, the desperate need for medical aid, the utmost and indispensable necessity of dreams and a firm belief that they will come true one day are some of the crucial themes in the book. The "stethoscope" may be "broken" but its very presence is an indicator of hope. The "doctor's bell" may be like a "misplaced star" but it still emits light. 

In the poem titled "The Problem with History Books", Ann E. Burg states that "research has its limits.." It is true as far as fiction is concerned. And the beauty of poetry is precisely this - it lets you expand your horizon. It lets you imagine. Serafina's Promise gives space for imagination to soar as the little girl dreams and ventures on a path that is unknown to her. As she tries to light up the lives of those around her, her own life starts radiating too. After all the devastation of floods and earthquakes, her dream lingers as a promise that she can keep forever. It will "sprout" too like the seeds she has sown in the soil. It is the "history of the human heart" (to borrow the words of William Collins) that the mesmerizing poetry of Burg's novel chronicles - a history of hope, of dreams, of promise. 

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Yellow Notebook

The yellow notebook was filled with gray lines - contoured into alphabets that said something, meant something. People said that she had written them every single day of the last year. Those words that seemed meaningless, like a forgotten memory, were part of her life each moment of the last twelve months. But to her they seemed like shady shapeless figures, visible now but disappearing the very next minute.... like figures in the foggy mornings of chilly winter months. Each word dispersed an aura of emotions that was alien to her....She could smell not their scent as they looked like flowers blooming bright on the spring canvas that adorned her wall. They looked beautiful but emanated no fragrance.

She struggled hard to gather them up in one coherent chronicle but they fell, like leaves falling in August. She shuffled them, rummaged through them but the rake of her mind worked to no avail. The task became laborious to her. She tried to shrug away the helplessness but it stuck on her like sweat pasted on the forehead in the months of May and June.

Exhausted, she planned to dump them , like some leftovers of the New Year party. But despite the cleaning, the crumbs lay hidden in the corners, on the counter, on the table..... poking her to pick them up as she got up the next morning. She took a deep breath, and opened the blinds to let in the sunlight. Then, very slowly she drew them together. They needed nourishment. She poured them in her lap. Steam rose from them reminding her of steam rising from the cup of simmering tea, her morning companion. She got up, cupping them in her hand. Then, she turned the stove on to prepare her favorite brew. As she dropped tea leaves in the boiling water, she realized it was time to spice things up. She added ginger. The pungent aroma enlivened her spirits. She hugged the words she was holding and then let them fall in the brewing pot. It was time to create a new concoction.

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(My post begins with the words 'the yellow notebook' and 'gray'- I borrowed these from one of the most touching children's books I have ever read in my life. It is titled Serafina's Promise. Written by Ann E. Burg, it is a novel in verse form. I strongly recommend it to everyone....will be reviewing it soon....)

Linking it to Indispire #151

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Let the Light Shine Bright This Year

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This New Year,  I came across two brilliant posts on word of the year as blogger - one by Shailaja and the other by Alana, I wondered whether I should have one too. And if yes, what would that word be? Three words kept holding my attention - Joy, Promise and Light. I could not in any way decide on one and let go of the other. Then, help arrived. In the form of a sign. A surprise so unexpected that it filled me with joy and showed me the promise of future. A promise that lay in the endeavors I would make if I remained true to myself. The surprise was a book I received through the Costco Connection Book Giveaway wherein Costco members can enter for a chance to win a signed copy of the book of the month. Since I had entered so many times with no luck, I had quite forgotten about it. But last night, when I checked the mail box, a white bubble wrapped package awaited picking. Still having no clue as to which book I had got, I opened the package and what did I see - Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See......

The book was on my wish-list for a long time but because it was in such high-demand, it was forever off the library's book-shelf. I could not believe my luck as I stared at the book, smiling like a child who had found a lost toy. 

And, if you have guessed it by now, the word of the year for me was decided. It would be - Light.

I remember a story I had read a long time ago. A master had to run some errands so he asked his disciple to take charge of his house. The only task the disciple had to do in his master's absence was to keep darkness out of the house. The master left. As the day descended, darkness started creeping in. The disciple was clueless. In his ignorance, he started beating around with a broom, thinking that would be enough to keep the darkness out. By the time the master returned, the disciple was exhausted and the house was dark. The master lit a candle which radiated the surroundings. 

What does the story tell us? 

The disciple focused on the darkness while the master brought out the light. 
Shifting the perspective towards one positive thing helped negate the gloominess of the house. 

We mortals have our flaws. We suffer from jealousy, anger, bias, ego and what not. All this blinds us. Our hearts close. Our eyes are shut. We forget what it means to be receptive, or loving or caring. We fail to see the light. It is not possible that we will not make any mistakes. We will. But when we fail to rectify the wrongs that we have done, we fail to see the light. We choose to be blinded. 

This year I will make every effort to see the light and be guided by it. 

This year I want to see What Else is Possible? A beautiful thought that stays with me from the past year. I borrow it from Andrea Davis Pinkney's The Red Pencil, a stirring portrayal of the genocide in Darfur, as seen from the eyes of a twelve-year old girl, Amira. Since I cannot do complete justice to the beauty of this thought, I am including the bit where it appears in the book:

Will you too, dear friends, see the light this year?

Will you too try to find out what else is possible? Will you too be guided by the light within and without to open the closed doors of your hearts?  

Linking it to Alphabet Salad Word of the Year Linkup - 2017 and #MondayMusings at Everyday Gyaan