Like many book lovers, I hoarded many books over the years and they lay untouched, until COVID-19 packed us all indoors. Some were gifted by friends, others borrowed and yet some had been sent for reviews. And these gave me time to feed my brain, hone my skills and keep in touch with reality
1 The Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul
This book was lying in my collection since 2010, but I read it in 2021! And the timelessness of this narrative was inspiring. Sir VS Naipaul’s books were part of my curriculum during my undergraduate studies. And to be fair, I didn’t understand his works so well then. But that was early 1990s. Now, a few decades later, my exposure of cultures through travel writing has enhanced my brain cells and I loved the way this book takes us across Africa. This is a real account of his travels as he meets the natives, sees the customs and captures their beliefs. Each and every visit is recorded truthfully, there are no tales or pieces of imagination in this narrative. He did not want to discuss politics in the book, but no journey can be complete without some influence. And all those bits about governments are mentioned.
He takes us to Uganda, Nigeria, Gabon via the Ivory Coast and Ghana, and South Africa. You will see the continent as it stands in its rawness, nothing has been camouflaged in this book. Yes, he does it all—meet the witchdoctors, explores the land of magic and tribals, sees their rituals and then brings it back for all. You will enjoy the book if you wish to see Africa beyond the wildlife sanctuaries.
2. Love, Africa by Jeffrey Gettleman
Little did I know that this was a memoir, but it lay in my hoard since 2017. .Jeffrey Gettleman is currently the Southeast bureau chief of the The New York Times, as I discovered on Twitter after reading the book. I think all journalists aspire to find their feet in the hardcore world, bringing to light the tough stories, highlighting the human plight and giving the reader an option to think and find solutions. But only some manage to realize their dreams.
Gettleman’s tryst with East Africa began in his teens. This American fell in love with East Africa and ended up as a journalist who finally realized his dream of bringing the stories of Africa to the world. His journey as a war journalist, seeing countries in difficult times, facing death and disaster is nothing less than heroic. All through he gets support from his lady love whom he finally marries. Now, he has two kids too.
The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist has been kidnapped twice, met the dark forces, the rebels, sought the humane and fights racism. His American roots do not turn him into an egoistic villain, rather he seeks to make peace with the plight of life. Like all of us, he has opinions which don’t find their way into his stories, and the book reminds us that all of us experience life differently on the planet.
3. Becoming a Mountain by Stephen Alter
So, I heard of Stephen Alter during the time I was working with Swagat in 2008 (Air India’s now defunct inflight magazine). Maybe, I didn’t treasure the world of words enough then. And while I commissioned him articles for the magazine, I hadn’t read his books. But for anyone, who wants to read good English, and learn the craft, his works are truly an educational outlet. This book comprises ‘Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime’. We appreciate the divinity that the Himalayas stand for, but with Alter we see the flora, fauna, culture and the deep love for the mountains where he was born and lives.
Born to American missionary parents in India, Alter grew up in the hills of Mussoorie, where he lives now with his wife Ameeta. For a man who spent his life traversing the forests and the mountains of Mussoorie, Alter offers an inspiring view of Nature and the magnificence it offers us. His journey to the Kailash is not rooted in religion, but in deep love for the discoveries that travel brings. He enjoys mountaineering for the sake of it and conquering peaks is not the goal. He turns the Himalayas into a human affair, bringing to light the many tales and myths that lie hidden beneath the rocks, untrodden paths and snow.
Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime (Aleph 2014) was awarded the Kekoo Naoroji Award for Himalayan Literature. Educated at Woodstock School and Wesleyan University, Alter has taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and was the writer-in-residence at MIT for 10 years. Alter is founding director of the Mussoorie Mountain Festival.
4. The Ark’s Anniversary by Gerald Durrell
Born in India, Durrell’s life is an inspiration for many conservationists who are not officially trained in the profession. As he was home schooled, he learned it all on the way, working his way through zoos and internships. And through books, he earned his living, and used the funds for his expeditions and zoo. A tongue-in-cheek book, we travel with Durrell into the difficult world of saving species from extinction. We learn about orangutans and their behaviours, pink pigeons, pigmy hogs and how animal behaviour changes in captivity; releasing them into the wild requires expertise and care.
The book is simply written and traverses many aspects of Durrell’s life. It talks about 25 years of the zoo, childhood, studying and finding endangered species and then finding people who support this work, falling in love again. Working with wild animals is not a piece of cake and there are perils too.
As a layperson, the book gives one a fair idea of the pros and cons, the expense and the constant hard work to keep the magic of the planet alive. Recreation comes at a cost and that cost needs paperwork, passion, like-minded individuals, failures and trials. The book feels more like a colourful story that would make anyone feel the need to become part of this ‘save the animals’ journey. And more so, in the current times, when climate change is a reality that man needs to reverse for his own survival.
5. Jihadi Jane by Tabish Khair
Taking the bull by the horns, in this book he questions the radical associations with Islam. He weaves a story of two high school friends, poles apart and deeply religious. Between combating cultural differences and growing up in Yorkshire, UK, Ameena and Jamilla find a powerful Internet preacher—Hejjiye. The woman runs an orphanage-home in support of the men fighting in the name of jihad. One fine day, they run away to join the Islamic State in Syria and it is here that the girls realize the inferno they are in. Their beliefs and dreams shatter as they see torture and lack of moral uprightness. Caged and unhappy, the girls see injustice and a joyless life. The book takes us through the lives of militant brides and their hardships amid religious fanaticism.
The book touches upon many themes such as differences in cultures, bad and rigid parenting, the illusion of social media and internet, faith, friendship, sacrifice, guilt and penetrates deep into the soul, leaving the reader with a desire for peace and balance.
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