The Cat Who Saved Books

This beautiful book was on sale at my local store. Since it had two of my beloved things on the cover – cat and books – I had to read it. Turns out, book is also handily sized, so it came with me to two of my long weekend trips in Europe. And it was a great book to carry around, here’s why.

This book’s protagonists are a tabby cat that talks and a young boy who has recently lost his grandfather, thereby inheriting an old and crumbly bookshop. The cat appears one day, out of nowhere, to present the quiet Rintaro of Natsuki Books with a challenge – to save books that are stuck in various labyrinths. These books have come unto the possession of people, who through good intentions or bad, aren’t able to care for books as they should. And so Rintaro must intervene.

What follows are the tales of the journeys themselves, this boy and this talking cat on their mission. The book forces us to think of our own relationships with books – those we own, those we read and those we love. Through introspection it makes us reveal what it is we value about books, and also a great deal about our own ego.

Of course, Rintaro has a lady friend, and she somehow gets embroiled in this tale too. It is very cute. I really loved reading this book. It has all the hallmarks of modern Japanese writing – a quiet protagonist, a cat, a moral somewhere in there and feelings you cannot quite put your finger on. And magic realism, which I love.

Pather Panchali

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopdhyay is one of Bengal’s most well-loved writers. I grew up listening to his name being discussed in circles whenever literary merit was discussed. Like a lot of other Bengali stalwarts of his time, his reach remained largely regional. But it was the genius filmmaker Satyajit Ray, whose adaptation of Bandyopadhyay’s work brought it due fame and recognition.

Unfortunately, I have lost my fluency to read lengthy works in Bengali, and so I must console myself with the translation. And after all these years, I decided to read ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Road) to start off my 2022. The Folio Society edition is translated by T.W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji and at the very outset, I must admit, how excellent the translation is. The decisions to write names phonetically, and place names in transliteration is the right one.

I grew up with stories of rural Bengal. My father & my grandparents grew up in villages and they regaled me with stories of the trees, the rivers & ponds, and the unique ways of village life. In this book, the reader dives into the lives of siblings Durga & Apu, siblings growing up in the village of Nishchindipur. Their father, a poor but proud Brahmin, struggles to make ends meet. Eventually he leaves the village in search of work prospects.

Their mother, uneducated, poor and with no agency, is left to tend to the house and the children. Through Apu & Durga’s eyes the reader journeys through the seasons and time. It is a reminder of the vicious cycle of poverty and the deep pits it throws its victims into. The innocent and sublime lives of children are moulded in ways that age them faster.

Through the book as the story progresses, characters come and go. But the family and the weight of their circumstances remain, shackling them to their poor luck. It would be condescending of me to say I loved this book. It felt more like coming face to face with a literary great, as one may speak of Marquez or Toni Morrisson. An immense work, and such a way to start this year’s reading.

5 Books for Program Managers

I did a talk at work where I talked about 5 books that made me a better Program Manager. So I thought I would share them here for non-fiction lovers. These are just captioned with the notes I made for myself as talking points!

Work Rules

The importance of building and nurturing an open and transparent culture

Importance of OKRs – of setting and demonstrating that we are making progress

Examples from consultancies, finance, telecom, manufacturing – bringing in the best of lateral thinking

Thanks for the Feedback

All about receiving feedback effectively – personal & professional

What are our triggers, how are we uniquely wired

Turn feedback into actionable items and move forward

How can we give feedback better

Lean In

Find her hugely inspiring

Career is a jungle gym (so true for TPMs) who have a wide variety and diversity of backgrounds

Specifically helpful for women, but also anyone else who is ‘not the norm’

Everyone who wants to be an ally or is raising kids should read it

Stereotypes and how important  they are in shaping our sense of self

Mentors and how important they are in shaping our sense of self

How she negotiated her FB offer, the initial years of hosting important people and her TED talks

But also some special reflections, anecdotes and people from the early days of FB

Zero to One

A lot of work I have done in my career is zero-to-one

Requires being comfortable with ambiguity

When I built and ran my own startup I followed – how to compensate, how to hire, who to hire, how to price. 

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Zoom out and take a big picture view

Ask the big hard questions when the detail isn’t clear

What is our vision, our north star and why should we care?

How does what I do fit in with the wider society and humanity. 

How can we inspire those around us and those that come after us 

“We never really know where the next great scientific discovery will come from, nor who will make it. Opening up the thrill and wonder of scientific discovery, creating innovative and accessible ways to reach out to the widest young audience possible, greatly increases the chances of finding and inspiring the new Einstein. Wherever she might be.

So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”

Top 5 Literary Villains

Another booklover on Instagram prompted the thought of antagonists in literature. It’s the characters that drive us to hate and repugnance, the ones we gnash our teeth at when we read. I thought I’d compile my top 5.

In fifth spot – Joffrey Baratheon

Ah Joffrey, the first-born of the Baratheon clan, with a strong claim to the throne. All he had to do was to live his life, lead his subjects well, and not be a misogynist. These would probably have tilted popular opinion (ie the masses) in his favour somewhat, and prevented the disaster that ensued. Joffrey was vile and evil, and every scene he was part of made me so livid. Shoutout to Jack Gleeson, who did such a fantastic job portraying him on TV.

Source: Wikipedia

In fourth spot – Dolores Umbridge

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – I read when I was 13. As an angsty teenager, I was convinced that adults could be up to no good. Umbridge was a cloying character, like a horrible pill you had to swallow. Her actions were evil, but it was her delight at torturing students that set her as the true sociopath. I remember shaking the book with rage when she dismissed Prof Trelawney and her dialogues made me feel that no joy was left in the world. A brilliantly written character and also played wonderfully by Imelda Staunton.

Source: Warner Bros

In third spot – Uriah Heep

I had to read David Copperfield in school (Class 7, I was 11). I distinctly remember how relatable Heep was, with his unguence and sycophancy (also words I learnt that year). Heep was defrauding his employer – all the while being another one of the sickeningly cloying personalities. I am sure we have come across many such people in life, who are so fake you have to laugh, or you’ll cry. If you haven’t read this wonderful classic, then think of this character as Grima Wormtongue in GoT, who destroys King Theoden of Rohan by filling his head with nonsense.

Source: Wikipedia

In second spot – Mrs Danvers

It is impossible to read Rebecca and not be terrified of Mrs Danvers. The second Mrs De Winters is utterly traumatised by Mrs Danvers and everything she stands for. As I reader, I remember wondering if perhaps she was actually supernatural – a ghost or a witch. Her complete devotion and obsession with Rebecca becomes clearer as we progress through the plot, culminating in a truly unsettling scene in Rebecca’s bedchambers, which Mrs Danvers continued to preserve after her death. Terrifying.

Source: The Female Villains Wiki

In top spot – Captain Ahab

Moby Dick is one of my all-time favourite novels. I was 8 when I read the abridged version one summer. Over the years, I have re-read it many times. Captain Ahab is narcisstic, obsessed and the worst version of himself. But in his portrayal lies the seed that we have seen in so many male world leaders of late. Being in seats of absolute power, but using it only to drive authoritarian regimes of hate and divisiveness. Even if you ignore the political themes, Ahab’s single-minded focus on the whale is a wonderful piece of writing and a brilliant thing to lose yourself in, as a reader. My feelings for him are worse than anger, hate or repulsion – he makes me sick. And that’s what makes him my top antagonist!

Source: Wikipedia

Who’s your favourite? Tell me in the comments below!

Girl, Woman, Other

During the height of the pandemic last year, I went through a phase of watching book talks, interviews and opera that was all put online through the generosity of arts organisations. It was during this time that I watched Evaristo being interviewed by Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival. By this point, this book had already won the Booker, George Floyd’s dying words had brought systemic rasicm to the forefront, and people were starting to understand ‘intersectionality.’

This book deals with the lives of 12 black women and the stories of their lives. Some of them are related to another, while others are not. But regardless, each woman’s story completes a full arc. We start somewhere in the middle, getting acquainted to them only in the throes of their lives, and then a backstory unfolds. Evaristo’s prose gives these women depth and layers, and the readers are invited to partake in their most intimate thoughts.

Personally, there have been more Booker-winning-books that I have disliked than liked. However, I have to say, I really enjoyed this one. The characters felt both distant and familiar. And the combination of their identities, sexualities, ambitions and religions made for a heady concoction that never bored.

As with all books that have a plethora of characters, it is natural to side with one. And for me that was Penelope. For some reason, her story intrigued me, and I sympathised with her poor life choices and the suffering that resulted from it. You’ll have to read the book to really find your own favourite character, and until then, I’d recommend you watch the interview video too.

Women Hold up Half the Sky

Only 21 women hold the position of Head of state out of 193 countries. In total, only 60 women have ever held the position worldwide. Data shows consistently that women in leadership positions fare better, build more sustainable societies and are more decisive. And yet, due to societal frameworks, few women are afforded the privilege. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is one such woman.

I have been in the same room as her multiple times, but I have met her only twice. It so happened that they were both within a span of three weeks. When I ran into her the second time, she knew exactly who I was, commented on it, and remarked on where we’d met three weeks ago. Coming from a head of state who had met hundreds of people in the interim, I was amazed at her memory recall, her sharpness, and her intelligence. I do not agree with everything that her party stands for, but as a leader, I admire her immensely.

This book collects some of her speeches in office since she has come to power. Their gamut is massive – ranging from climate, to gender equity, to the betterment of remote communities, and the vagaries of politics. There are some political anchors in the book, like the historic SNP win in 2016 and the disastrous Brexit vote. Her commentary on these was nice to reread, since I heard the speeches live when she delivered them.

But most others were delivered in various conferences and fora worldwide. And reading those, as we went through a heatwave, brought to sharp focus the portrait of a lady. Sturgeon speaks honestly, she is intelligent enough to author most of what she talks. As a result, the reader sees everything she stands for, the society she seeks to build, and the principles of state she cares about.

Scotland is not without its problems. It mirrors a lot of the issues felt widely around the western world. But despite that, what it has, is a leader at its helm that genuinely cares about the people she is elected to serve. She does not display hubris, arrogance or the pig-headedness that we have seen so often from male leaders in recent times. She might run a small country, but her thoughts and words span large and global. She is just like the country she represents, whose contributions to the societal fabric of the world is disproportionately large compared to its size. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in wide ranging socio-economic-political issues.

5 Books to Read this Summer – 2021

Let’s be honest. Despite the progress with vaccinations, this year too feels like last year in terms of travel. Some of us have also had to deal with difficult personal and professional challenges. The pandemic makes the days blur. Despite all this, I still find reading the best form of escapism. I have read some wonderful books in the last few months. Although, I have been moving from Scotland to England, and I have been busy.

To share my joys, I thought I’d compile some summer reads here for you all –

5 summer reads - 2021
5 summer reads – 2021
  1. The Unremembered Places – Patrick Baker

This is one of the finest pieces of travel lit I have read in a long time. Baker’s prose is evocative and atmospheric. He writes about the remote and forgotten places in my dear country Scotland. And every chapter will take you on a journey through the pages ad reams of time. I found myself thinking about this book long after I had finished reading it. And I can also see myself re-reading it a number of times. If you want to switch off from the world and are happy when your mind is wandering, do read this.

2. Things I have Withheld – Kei Miller

This is for non-fiction lovers. It is also a book I’d recommend if you want to learn more and participate in the race discourse. Through a collection of essays, Miller explores what it is like to navigate the world as a black man. But it is not just another book on the subject. Miller’s work is unique in that he writes about the things he has stopped himself or been stopped from saying. And there is a lot of that. Race is a topic of nuance, and this is a book that respects that and does not shy away from it.

3. Empty Nest – Carol Ann Duffy

If you cannot concentrate on reading for too long as the stresses of the pandemic are too high, then I recommend this slim volume of poetry. Duffy’s seletion includes poems from a wide range of poets, who all explore the concept of their children leaving. It is, however, a very emotional read. If, like me, you have been forcibly separated from your family during the last 15 months, then this is a book that you will be phoning them about. It is as immense as it is small.

4. The Oak Papers – James Canton

For nature loves, this is a thoroughly delightful and unique read. Canton celebrates the oak tree, one that is central to the British isles. And he does so by picking a particular one dear to him and visiting it for a whole year, through all the seasons. What comes out is a wonderful read about the healing power of trees, the sense of entwinement with the natural world, and some introspection. Recommended read for a sunny afternoon in the park.

5. The Good Neighbours – Nina Allan

If, by some magic, you are travelling, then this is a book for you to take on holiday. Set on the Isle of Bute and with its murder mystery backdrop, this is a great read. The female protagonist is easy to relate to and her seach for the truth amongst the horrors in her past will keep you hooked. You can dive in and out of this, you can read and move on, or you can linger. Your choice!

5 Books to Read in One Sitting

Mental fatigue during the pandemic is a real thing. And if you’re like me, or like thousands of others, you might find it hard to concentrate on books right now. Ever feel like you need to turn back and re-read the last 20 pages because you have zoned out? Yes, I know that feeling to. So allow me to introduce you to shorter reads – still novels, but ones that you can finish off quickly.

1. Of Love and Other Demons

The story of 12-year-old Sierva Maria is larger-than-life, disconcerting, and endearing. A metaphor for life right now, her epidemic disease and her cure will seem so much closer to home right now. And what is love anyway, but the cosmic collision of two unlikely forces?

In this book, they come together as exorcist and a suspect demon, but you will not care.

Review: here

2. Mister God, This is Anna

What is it about children that gives them a direct connection to the divine, have you ever wondered?

This book is a life affirming story of a runaway child Anna and her friend Fynn. Anna has a quirky take on life that is innocent and childish; but often profound. Join Fynn in unravelling the Universe as he listens to Anna.

Review: here

 

3. Memories of My Melancholy Whores

This is a challenging book. One that will make you rethink the boundaries in which you think love should exist. A 90-year-old decides to give himself the gift of a wild night with a virgin. And we spend the next 2-3 hrs examining our own prejudices and perhaps dimensions of the nature of love.

A true classic.

Review: here

 

4. Jamilia

Why are all the shorter books about love? I think it is because it is an emotion most familiar to us and requires the least number of words to convey. Jamilia is a young Kyrgyz woman who is left behind in the village as her husband is at war. But she develops feelings for the village war-hero-return. And the dynamics of this forbidden love is told by Jamilia’s young brother-in-law. Read this book for literature from a little known country.

Review: here

5. Praise Song for the Butterflies

A beautiful read and trust me, Abeo’s story will haunt you. Many misfortunes befall this little girl in a deprived West African country. And eventually, she is sent to a cult-like shrine in her country by her own family. Written by a female author, Abeo’s story comes to life through the tortures and trials of her being. It really brings home the reality of life for millions of African women even today.

Review: here

 

10 Favourite Love Quotes

Here’s 10 of my personal favourites:

“I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it — to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more. Just once. ”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves”
Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

“For I am the daughter of Elrond. I shall not go with him when he departs to the Havens: for mine is the choice of Luthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

“It is that happy stretch of time when the lovers set to chronicling their passion. When no glance, no tone of voice is so fleeting but it shines with significance. When each moment, each perception is brought out with care, unfolded like a precious gem from its layers of the softest tissue paper and laid in front of the beloved — turned this way and that, examined, considered.”
Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

“The moment you stop to think about whether you love someone, you’ve already stopped loving that person forever.”
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

“You can never know if a person forgives you when you wrong them. Therefore it is existentially important to you. It is a question you are intensely concerned with. Neither can you know whether a person loves you. It’s something you just have to believe or hope. But these things are more important to you than the fact that the sum of the angles in a triangle is 180 degrees. You don’t think about the law of cause and effect or about modes of perception when you are in the middle of your first kiss.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

“The only thing worse than a boy who hates you: a boy that loves you.”
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles

“I want to fall in love in such a way that the mere sight of a man, even a block away from me, will shake and pierce me, will weaken me, and make me tremble and soften and melt.”
Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus

And in the end, I leave you with the most heartbreaking love poem by Pablo Neruda, placed to incredible violin, watch here.