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The Reading Room of Satabdi Mishra (Co-Owner, Walking BookFairs), Bhubaneswar, India

This is a special picture from a trip Satabdi and her team made to Mayurbhanj district in Odisha where they started the first Walking BookFairs Library in Bisoi Government School for children who were working as child labourers. These 116 children have been rescued and rehabilitated by the district administration. They now go to school and all of them love stories. Walking BookFairs helped start a small library for them with a box full of story books and picture books (some of them cannot read yet).

Satabdi Mishra is a mother of a four and half year old. She co-owns and runs independent book shack Walking BookFairs in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, which mainly involves driving a van-full of books – the Walking BookFairs traveling bookshop – through villages and small towns of Odisha. She wants to spread the joy of reading all around and strongly believes that books are for everyone, including the poorest farmer in the remotest village.
This bibliophile loves good books, good cinema and good tea.

I invited myself into her Reading Room to hear all about the pages she loves, abhors, goes back to over and over again.

You’re currently reading

An Evening in Calcutta – Stories by KA Abbas (Harper Collins India)

Baluta by Daya Pawar, translated by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger Books)

Last book you bought

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk.

I have to confess that it’s been some time since I have bought a book, one of the perks of running a bookshop!

A Book you left unfinished (why, when)

Oh! I do that a lot. Only to re-visit them later.

A Book you’ve wanted to read for years, but haven’t yet

The Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali.

Three books everyone should read

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The Outsider by Albert Camus.

1984 by George Orwell.

We live in strange times. Anybody who has access to books, should absolutely read these three books!

An author you wouldn’t be caught dead reading

I am someone who would read anything in print. But even with all my love for adventures I am yet to read Chetan Bhagat.

A Book that sums up childhood reading years

Oh! Those glorious years! Alistair McLean, O.Henry, PG Wodehouse and some Sidney Sheldon too!

Book(s) you’ve read more than once & would love to read again

‘100 years of Solitude’ is a book I keep reading again and again.

‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago.

‘Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair’ by Pablo Neruda.

Favorite author(s)

Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago, Fakir Mohan Senapati, Manto, Nagarjun, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami

A fictional character from a book that you most identify with and why

One of the most brilliant characters in a book is Meursault from The Outsider.

When Meursault finally realizes that people’s lives have no grand meaning or importance, and that their actions, their comings and goings, have no effect on the world. This realization is the culmination of all the events of the novel.

The most prized book in your library

A copy of ‘Siddhartha’ from a very special person in my life. This book and the person who gifted me this book have been my anchor.

Your favorite reading spot

The garden at Walking BookFairs. I spend most of my days reading by the lily pond with butterflies, spiders, squirrels and sparrows for company. But I will read anywhere.

If you’d like to participate in this or other Q&A series, holler on Twitter or leave a message below and I’ll be saying ‘Hi’ very soon!

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In which Vikram Seth is (possibly) Drunk and Arundhati Roy asks Who I Am

The room is bathed in a red light reflecting off from the neatly laid out chairs and tables covered in red linen. The stage is lit, the podium is set, with a placard in front of it reminding everyone what this evening is about. It is the posthumous launch of Editor Unplugged, the autobiography ‘sequel’ of Journalist & Outlook Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Vinod Mehta.

AloneI walk in dressed in red corduroy pants (and a non-committal black & white tee), unaware then of being co-ordinated with the color of the night. My friend is waiting, with his brand new camera around his neck, waiting for her and him. She is a woman with a Man Booker Prize. He is A (bi-sexual) Suitable Boy. She is launching the book. He is going to read from it. They are the reason I’m not attending a string music festival that night at a garden across town.

IMG_20150331_185404771My friend ventures out into the thin crowd to thrust his camera unabashedly into the faces of attendees, only the remotely famous ones. I stand in a corner, watching him, wondering what wine they’ll be serving. And then she walks in, clad in a plain saree (is it light brown, with a green tinge, or does it bear the shade of dust in Delhi?). It is paired with a gold and green blouse that fits so well I want to ask her where she got it stitched. The saree is from “a small shop in Meherchand Market”, she’ll be telling gushing ladies later that evening.

IMG_20150331_195449800By now I’ve smiled at other guests, the kind of smile that simply acknowledges another human being, strangers though they may be. I’ve had a glass of white wine (of indeterminate origin, since the waiter does not know and I’d have to walk to the bar to find out, and well, let’s leave it be because it’s a nice drink on a fine evening). And then he walks in, with a non-polythene packet from the publisher (with the book inside I presume) and his mother on his arm. He’s short. He’s wearing a blue blazer and you can see that his hair will soon leave him. Some already have.

IMG_20150331_200348576After greeting certain other guests, they run into each other and smile, politely. They’re not friends. They’re here for respective roles in the book launch drama.

He’s called in first to read a passage from the book. He walks to the podium with the book packet in one hand and a glass of red (Merlot?) wine in the other. The audience will need theirs too. The reading is boring to say the least, irreverently mis-pronounced to say it all. In his drunken slur, ‘rummaging’ becomes ‘scrummaging’, silent pauses are deafening, not poignant and while he raises an arm to settle sparse but flowing locks, we all forget the man that we’ve gathered together to celebrate. And everyone claps.

“Vinod was in love with me.” She is looking in the distance as she talks about the editor who published her copious politically-incorrect essays that got both of them into trouble. My eyes dart towards the gentleman’s wife seated at the table near the stage. I can’t see her face. “We were partners.” She continues in a similar vein, taking everyone along on a walk through her years working with a man she believed stood for ‘fearless journalism’. Perhaps there are tears, if only a hint. But it now feels like an obituary in prose, befitting the event.

She smiles as she walks away from the podium and the guests are encouraged to wine and dine (with finger food). I wonder if I should ask her to write something in my book, not her book, but the one I’ve been reading. It’s from the 18th century so I presume she wouldn’t be miffed. Watching her I imagine she would smile even if she was miffed. I ask my friend if I should do it and he wants to click our picture together instead.

She is standing next to me and smiling at the camera. This is all quite neurotic (with an unhealthy sprinkling of thrill).

“And who are you”, she asks.

“I’m Manika.”

She goes back to smiling at me, at the camera and again at everyone else in this garden party book launch, before making a royal exit, the first for the night.

We follow soon after, less royally, leaving behind one of the many worlds that seem wonderful at a distance, are a tad humorous up close, and are positively entertaining if you’re watching from the sidelines, preferably with a witty partner and/or fine wine.

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One Love, Two (and more) Questions Asked

Peppa and George from Peppa PigPeppa Pig, my daughter’s many-a-dinner-time cartoon friend has a little brother George who’s answer to “What do you want?” is always “A Dinosaur”. He has a green toy dinosaur that accompanies him everywhere. This among other things, is the usual playground conversation between the little brother and sister.

After having seen several episodes of their harmlessly sweet adventures for months, my little girl turned to me a few days ago and asked, “Mamma, Peppa and George are two babies. But you have only one baby. Why is that?”

She’s three and I’m not stupid, so I knew this question was going to come soon. I smiled and told her that people could choose the number of babies they wanted, this could range from zero to four (it’s 2015, lets get real) and I had chosen to have one special little her.

Nothing happened for a few days. Then, there it was again, yesterday, hiding beside the conversation of a party invitation from a friend with twin girls.

“Mamma, A_ & A_ are two babies and you have only one baby. When you were getting me, couldn’t you ask for one more?”

“Honey, I didn’t exactly buy you at the supermarket.”

“Yes I know. But when I was a shiny star and you chose me, you could have picked one more.”

That children are curious and ask countless questions is common knowledge. That you must be prepared with ingenious retorts is a given. That you can lie through your teeth is just parenting privilege.

So why didn’t I pick two stars? (“we”? There is the husband and his wishes & whatnot to be acknowledged, not necessarily considered).

Well, we’re just about getting used to being adults, with jobs and school fees and drastically reduced frequency of sex in our lives. And then there’s this little person who joins all our couple (+1) hugs, berates the arguing party in couple-only heated conversations and makes us laugh silly…at her antics, at the wild, white skirt moves that made her, at our neat little party of three. And it ‘feels’ complete, in defiance of the sibling childhoods we come from and the “but two are perfect” noise around us. If there is a second child ‘star’ somewhere, the hubby and I aren’t looking for it right now. Perhaps we never will. Making her a playmate or a true blood companion after we croak, aren’t good enough reasons to have a second one.

In our own little, possibly flawed way, we try and teach her what ‘sharing’ means when she’s around friends, cousins or even little things like giving away balloons to stranger babies coming after her. The night activities are incomplete without wild jostling and pushing her down on padded bedding. Uncontrollable peals of laughter accompany the hubby’s “She doesn’t have a sibling, someone needs to push her around” in explanation to wild throw-offs.

Most children in my daughter’s class are already part of a pair and as the years go by, she will continue to question us on this point. Many of our friends are single children and are glowing examples of all that’s ‘normal’ and ‘well-adjusted’, the epitome of accepted adult behavior (for the most part). There will never be a right answer or the perfect number, but the ‘not-somethings’ will have to explain their choice that strays from the ‘norm’, established though it is by people whose lives have no bearing on that of others.The zeros and ones will come under the scanner and their lives will be used as examples for or against the motion.

Like all ‘good’ parents, we probably will not admit to our girl just yet that we don’t have all the answers. We will continue to believe, and tell her that we’re capable of crafting a well-functioning adult without a sibling partner (there’s no harm trying). And we won’t let her in to the big parenting secret (until it’s time to spill it): we learn as we go, build our own rules, stumble and rise. Somewhere along the way we will have built our version of an (im)perfect everything.

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Let’s share an ice-cream ©

1st October was International Day of Older Persons.

I didn’t know it when I took my baby girl to chat with an old lady who was sitting alone on a bench in a crowded mall. I saw the lady, in her plain white blouse and simple saree, looking in the direction of where her family members had probably gone. I took my daughter’s stroller next to the lady and we parked ourselves on the bench. Just as expected, the lady’s face lit up and she and my daughter began their conversations in the form of tongue-wagging and baby language. They sat thus, entertaining each other, till the lady’s family arrived and handed her an ice-cream. She looked at it and said she wished she could share it with my little girl. Always ready to eat anything everyone else is eating, my daughter leaned forward, but I had to stop the glorious act right there with an apology. It would have been perfect and all that but kiddo some rules are rules. After much cheek fondling and adoration all around, we said goodbye.

And it got me thinking.

Old age homes (there aren’t many) and orphanages should collaborate for the general merriment of it all. I don’t know how logistically sound this thought is, but it looks good at the outset. I may be naïve in thinking that this would help anything, or anyone. But at a very basic level it seems doable. A hundred thousand pages have been written on how old people and kids are alike in a lot of ways. And those who have been abandoned by their blood relatives have a lot more in common than others. So putting them together in a room is likely to do a whole lot of good.

After a certain age, kids want to disappear whenever an adult calls out to them and they begin to apply the Garbage-in-Garbage-Out concept to everything that is said. But interacting with golden oldies who aren’t sermonizing might be fun.

Of course I am neither a child in an orphanage nor a person living by myself in an old age home. But this is a free country (for the most part) and the thought seemed worth sharing.

P.S.: This is a copyrighted concept so if you’ve got the resources to make this work, I want in on it. Not because I need your money darling, but because I don’t want you to muck it up.

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No boxing about

Six months, ten extra kilos and (relatively few) sleepless nights after I gave birth two years ago, I had become accustomed to being told that I don’t look like a mother. I’m not sure if that translates to my being too young, too in-control or too fond of strumming air guitars.

In a nation whose collective consciousness defines a mother as a self-sacrificing creature with oodles of pity to dish out, there is no room for funky mamas. Lose the hair, gain the weight and perfect the hassled look. Do not fit into old jeans, sing zeppelin to the baby and have a post-delivery glow.

Also prepare for everyone and their neighbours giving you advice about this and that. Especially take the shield out for the “I’ve raised two kids” and “in our time…” attacks. They’re flung by possibly well meaning oldies, all of whom think it’s either their way or juvenile delinquency as far as child rearing is concerned. Smiling politely gets you off easy. Doing your thing in the end makes it better.

Some people will tell you motherhood is a test of tolerance. Yes. A test of how much of adults-gone-berserk-over-baby you can tolerate…looks like this one, talks like that one, sleeps like god knows who. From finger length to laughing style, everything is up for grabs and everyone has an opinion on it. Nobody’s listening to “but all babies do that”.

Meanwhile, the baby in question is not mama-glued. She is a global citizen who enjoys the company of disparate folks of the family variety, loves outings of any kind and does things her way (no like papa, like mama for her).

If looking the part is half the job done, I’m getting no medals (who made people in charge of these anyway?). I hope to never wear the sentimental-schmuck-meets-hassled-mother cloak and fit into a box marked ‘best mums’.

What I will happily do is tell stories, go places, write diaries, pass on sexy black dress, give ash-dispersing instructions (at exciting enough holiday-place) and train her ears to stay the hell away from the likes of Justin Bieber.