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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Books, sketchbook

My year in books: 2019

I read about 25 books this year, as compared to 33 books last year and 26 books in 2017. I try to have a healthy average around the number of books I read, since my reading habit also makes me who I am, but I’m not fixated into gamifying it by making it a challenge or beating my last years’ goals or anything like that! How about you? Do you keep a count of the books you read?

In 2019 I found that I read quite a bit of fiction, non-fiction and design books – and I’m still reading a couple of them. Also, if anything resonates with me, I often make quick drawings in my sketchbook while reading. It’s always interesting to go back and see which books sparked off drawings. On Kindle sometimes I leave tons of notes and highlights for myself, but drawing is usually much more alive!

Lots of great books this year:

Sapiens: I was late to the party but so good, nevertheless. Now looking forward to reading his other book.

Good Talk: I laughed and giggled through this one Sunday. If you’ve ever had to think about your race or felt uncomfortable about your identity you’ll relate to this graphic novel by Mira Jacob. (I also loved Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, obviously the defining book in this genre). Though Mira Jacob’s visual language didn’t appeal to me at first, it grew on me as I read, and integrated with the storytelling and the humor to emerge as an excellent read.

A quick sketch while reading Good Talk

The Messy Middle: A really useful handbook in my day to day work – pragmatic, relevant and inspiring at the same time. A great source for guidance around the choices a design leader makes. Check out my drawings from Scott’s other book Making Ideas Happen.

Dare to Lead: Gifted by my manager, it was my first book by Brené Brown. Inspired a whole post around empathy. A must read.

A smile in the mind: Take a look sometime…

Land of the seven rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal: A book published in 2012, and still so relevant. Found it in my parents’ house and really enjoyed it. It sheds light on a lot of questions that our classroom history of the Indian subcontinent didn’t answer. There’s also a version for children called The Incredible History of India’s Geography for young readers. The times we are living in are an apt time to be reading books like Sapiens and Land of the seven rivers as I found.

The Female Persuasion: Read the book if you’re interested in feminist thinking across generations.

A few other notable mentions: Men Without Women, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Sweet Shop and Transit by Rachel Cusk. I also read Plastic Emotions (Le Corbusier and Minnette de Silva) and Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process. This one was interesting to get an insight into their secretive culture, the design review process and how Steve Jobs prepped for WWDC.

Here are a few drawings made while reading Kudos by Rachel Cusk in Kolkata. Rachel Cusk has an amazing sense of storytelling, unique in it’s own way in the way she develops her characters. I will probably re-read this trilogy again.

Books that are movies:

Call Me by Your Name: Watch the movie. Then read the book. Each is wonderful in its own right.

Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything — what a waste!”

The Little Drummer Girl: I enjoyed both the book by John le Carré, and the TV miniseries. John le Carré is a master of craft, so I read not only for the story but also the language and the storytelling. The TV series was fabulously crafted by Chan-wook Park – the first time I watched anything by him and it was spectacular.

At the end of the year, I gave up a few books not worth the time, and I’m still reading The Year of the Monkey and a couple of other design books.

Someone once said that the point of reading is not to to see how many you can get through, but how many can get through to you!

And that is the pleasure.

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