Books, Reflection, sketchbook

A busy, bustling, still repeated dream

What life is, a minute’s pause, a moment’s thought, and I am grateful every day to have this practice of journaling.

Here are some recent pages from my sketchbook, unedited, unpolished, straight from my mind to the paper, drawn in usually less than fifteen minutes.

A skecbook spread. Drawing of me waiting under the sun and reading. At the passport office. Waiting in the crowded room for a long time. Thoughts about efficiency and people, employment in India. And thoughts on the UX of the passport system software.
A visit to the local passport office
A double spread. A boy asking Do you know centipedes lived in the time of dinosaurs?
Daily drawing at dinner
A double spread. Walking and how to use creative imagination in your spiritual practice.
Notes from a podcast

This was the podcast episode I made notes of, though it’s not my favorite episode. And surprisingly, I have been reading more about spirituality all of a sudden, but coming in through poetry, like this wonderful, magical book In the Shelter: Finding Home in the World by poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, who also hosts the podcast Poetry Unbound. In the book, Padraig has an amazing chapter on prayer “Hello to the imagination” which changed my perspective of it as an opaque ritual that was not for me.

You will find meaning
Where you give meaning.

The answer is in a story
and the story isn’t finished.

Pádraig Ó Tuama
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Books, sketchbook

Un Verdor Terrible

A few months ago I finished the book When we cease to understand the world by Benjamín Labatut. It’s an interesting non-fiction novel, the first of its kind that I had read.

Mr. Labatut says, “I love the way that physics deals with fundamental questions. It asks itself certain questions, and it gives concrete answers most of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve always been fascinated by fundamental questions, and science is, to my mind, the only part of human awareness that is still asking those questions.”

The title of the book, literally translated from Spanish, means, “a terrible greening” and was inspired by a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (The Cure of Folly)“.

I really enjoyed the book, because fiction sometimes gives you the power to go beyond what we know, “the strangeness of everyday physics”, to what we don’t know, an idea I first encountered through the stories of Richard Feynman, who held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life.

Read the book review here.

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Books, Life, sketchbook

I knew their joys, none of their sorrows

Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.

For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.

The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.

When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.

For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.

Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.

The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.

Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.

While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.

Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.

There’s a lot more to read and discover in these books, so don’t hesitate! In Bengali and available online from Joydhak Publishersঅগ্নিসম্ভব and অগ্নিকুসুম.

Title from a poem in this book

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art, Books, illustration, Life, List, sketchbook

My best books of 2021

Last year I didn’t read as much as I usually do, what with one thing and another, but I ended up with some good ones. Here are the highlights.

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman: Recommended by pacificleo, it was one of my best books of the year.

Voices of Dissent by Romila Thapar: This essay puts today’s responses to resistance in perspective, by charting out the history and evolution of dissent from the vedic times. A worthwhile read, even though the language was quite academic. (If you buy from Seagull, you can choose your version of the cover, designed by the brilliant sunandinibee.)

Among graphic novels, I read some beauties: Japanese Notebooks: A Journey to the Empire of Signs by Igort, The Winter of the Cartoonists by Paco Roca, Hostage by Guy Delisle, Leonard Cohen: On a Wire by Pilippe Girard and some more that I shared in Graphic novels by women.

Last year I also updated my perspective on feminism with We should all be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie and Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria.

Some other books that I enjoyed were Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing, Daybook by Anne Pruitt and The Pursuit of Art by Martin Gayford.

In fiction The Startup Wife by Tahmina Anam was enjoyable and different, as was Crudo by Olivia Laing and No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

Our best pastime was drawing with Making Comics by Lynda Barry that Guto and I used throughout the year.

I thought I hadn’t read much, but now I’m getting tired just looking at this list. Oh well, life is short, and my eyes won’t last.

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art, Books, sketchbook

Daybook: The journal of an artist

One of my best books last year was Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, by American artist Anne Pruitt. I wasn’t familiar with her work before and not even sure how I came across this book, but I enjoyed it immensely.

The book is a collection of Ms. Pruitt’s journals over multiple years, and she touches upon so many of the dilemmas we ourselves have felt. We, as in, anyone trying to balance motherhood and artistic or creative pursuit, to begin with, but also, for any artist who has ever questioned intuition, instinct, and flow in their own work. Here’s a map I was making while reading the book.

Her thoughts on art are highly conceptual, and she articulates them beautifully. Ms. Pruitt was a psychologist before she became an artist, and maybe that’s one reason she is able to tease out details of her experiences and subconscious thoughts with such great clarity, and in such elegant prose.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from the book –

“The meaning of our experience is held in the infinity”

Anne Pruitt

…which is about how we derive meaning from the short intervals between our sensory perceptions. As usual I drew it in my sketchbook.

By the way, WordPress was a bit of a letdown while making this post, and readers you may have some challenges here and there as well. First, the WordPress iPad app got stuck multiple times and so I gave up drafting there and used my laptop. And now there are other issues with the standard post format that I tried to resolve for the last half an hour. Oh well, tech.

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Books, Comic Strip, sketchbook

Graphic novels by women

We don’t often hear about graphic novels written by women. It’s not that they’ve not being made, but it’s just the usual process of whitewashing over women’s achievements by simply writing them out of history. We’ve all been there, in corporate work culture you would have heard of it as the Matilda effect.

It’s not that I have anything against Seth, or Guy Delisle, or any of the other authors we hear about. But sometimes we all like to be reflected through media. It validates our existence, it makes us feel seen. It universalizes us.

Over the last few months, I unearthed some gems by women authors – Overeasy by Mimi Pond, Make me a woman by Vanessa Davis, This woman’s work by Julie Delporte, and a number of books by Posy Simmonds.

Mimi Pond is super funny, as I heard in this podcast episode; and so is Posy Simmonds with her biting commentary on British society. Julie Delporte ingenuously talks of some universal but not often articulated concerns with the challenges of motherhood and creativity.

Here are some other popular women artists whose graphic novels I’ve been inspired by, you would know of them: Marjane Satrapi , Eleanor Davis, Lynda Barry and Rutu Modan.

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Books, sketchbook

Not islands, but a life

Finally this year, the travel bug bit me hard. As we have all discovered, one can only do so much within the confines of one’s own home, and so I started reading travel books.

One part of Monisha Rajesh’s journey

After finishing Around the World in 80 Trains, I read From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides by Margaret Fay Shaw. She was a folklorist, a collector of Gaelic music, and an early photographer, and in this book she shares how it was, living in the remote Scottish island of Uist between 1925 – 1935.

The book was so detailed it was as if we were right there, looking over her shoulder. I think she must have kept diaries to be able to remember in such great detail.

Here’s a sketch that I made while reading about what they usually ate there.

“Don’t watch it being made, or you’ll never want to eat it again!”

Every once in a while you end up reading something that you don’t usually read, and this was one such book. Ms Shaw’s voice comes through joyously through the pages after all these years, and I ended the book thinking that she must have been quite a nice person to know.

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Books, sketchbook

Find little spaces inside of you and tease them open

After Lonely City I read Crudo, of course. More qualified people have written about it so I won’t go into that, but I enjoyed it immensely. It was funny, raw, and brilliant.

“When she was young, she’d sliced up her own flesh at the blink of an eye, she loved to get truly abject, but now she’d dried out…not appetising exactly, not desirable, but fodder for someone, a pigeon, at least. Was this getting older? Kathy was worried about ageing, she hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she couldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”

It takes place over a few days in her fortieth summer, and she’s about to get married. It’s not often that we see ourselves reflected so accurately in literature with all our fears and pimples and headaches, and Olivia Laing as Kathy Acker was spot on.

Take a look at the covers too: The UK paperback edition which I read, and here’s the US paperback one.

Title & this quotation from Crudo

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art, Books, sketchbook

‘If you’re lonely, this one’s for you’

If there was ever a book for the pandemic, it was this one for me – Olivia Laing’s Lonely City – Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Though written in 2016 I could not believe it was not written about the early days of the pandemic, our first experiences of living through a lockdown, and a disease for which, at the time, there was no cure…

Simply put I just loved this book. I read it first on Kindle, then bought a paperback and read chapters multiple times. Olivia Laing is a genius and a master of art and language. She skillfully weaves her experiences of being lonely in Manhattan, through the stories of these artists in Manhattan who had used their loneliness to create, and derives the most definitive insights about loneliness and art.

As always I keep drawing as I read.

Andy Warhol

“If everybody’s not a beauty, then nobody is.”

Andy Warhol
David Wojnarowicz

“Art was a way to bear witness; to reveal things I’d always felt pressured to keep hidden.”

David Wojnarowicz

One parallel to our present time was of course the loneliness that people felt as they stayed shut up in their houses. We often overlook the smallest social interactions we have in shops, with neighbours and so on. It’s even more pronounced if you live by yourself and then these small interactions are also missing. There is a universal human need for connection, for reaching out, for just being seen. I remember my first few weeks in Sweden when I didn’t know anyone. Swedes are wonderful, gentle people, but terribly shy, and they really respect each others’ personal space as well. For most, it means not even making eye contact. So you can imagine, even a smile from a shop assistant was a special day for me. For the first time in weeks, I felt seen.

The other parallel was the onset of the AIDS crisis in the States, and how the gay community were shunned and excluded. India’s Covid Relief has by default excluded multiple marginalized communities. (If you want to help, take a look at #DesignUpForACause)

Despite, or maybe because of all the pain, I found the book so uplifting and inspiring. I would read a few pages every night, these moving accounts of the pain and suffering that gave birth to so much art, and how they created what they did, and feel inspired and grateful.

Looking at Strange Fruit by Zoe Leonard

There are so many things art can’t do…but it does have some…odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and…of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly…

Olivia Laing, Lonely City
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Books, sketchbook

Books of 2020

Like everyone else, I probably broke my all time record for reading in 2020, so this is going to be the first of a series of book posts over the months.

Spring 2020 – Grapefruit by Yoko Ono, Daily Rituals by Mason Currey, Michael Rosen’s Book of Play and Keep Going by Austin Kleon.

Grapefruit was an experience – I found that it was an “early example of conceptual art“. I go back to The Book of Play and Keep Going again and again, both are inspirational and great for sparking ideas.

I don’t remember much about Daily Rituals, though, except that it gathered the routines of a large and diverse set of people, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, or whether you get up at 5 am like Medium articles recommend! Here are some of the sketches I had made while reading it – about Patricia Highsmith and Frederico Fellini.

Some other book posts from 2020: Sputnik Sweetheart (So many vaccine puns :P), a bit from Ruined by Design in The Difference between Friday and a Fried Egg (mustread for designers today) and Letters from Tove in Fjords & Islands

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