On issues that matter …

The Sufi’s Garland April 30, 2013

See where this writer and his writings are located…. on the wings of imagination; the essence of soil; the ephemeral thought; and the omnipresent divine.


The Sufi’s Garland

I am the fakir with a luxurious flair
I am the student with my heart at sea
I am the poet with no pretense of class
I am the anarchist with no concern of turns

The biggest reward for a poet as an artist and a messenger of the divine perspective is, perhaps when the reader relates not just to the beauty of the words but internalizes the emotion conveyed to reach the poet’s state of mind. The bigger reward, needless to say, is to the reader who is enriched by the elevating experience.

Bestowing just such an experience is Manav Sachdeva Maasoom’s debut rendering ‘The Sufi’s Garland’ in which the author holds a kaleidoscope to show life in a unique dimension of love, pain and hitherto unknown emotions etched against the unlikely backdrop of war ravaged Afghanistan.

Maasoom works at the United Nations in New York. In his role as a poet, however he lets himself free to not only transcend geographical boundaries in thought, but also syntactical boundaries of vocabulary.

The book as Maasoom himself describes “is a handbook for those who care to love.” Contrary to the popular perception he claims that Afghanistan must be seen as a land of love not as a land of terror. It is the land where “poetry still lives and can be used” he says.

The Sufi’s Garland which is also a song offering to Rabindranath Tagore, Antonio Porchia and Emily Dickinson was written during Maasoom’s stay in Kabul, Afghanistan. And it is only in Afghanistan the poet believes “the soil and the people are responsive to poetry in a way that authenticates the soul more than entertains the senses.”
The poet’s actual experience of working in Afghanistan, Liberia and Kosovo has given him the insight needed for this hypnotic rendition. The poems are aphoristic and pithy laden with spiritual effervescence. Some of the poems are rendered in the form of cubic collage. The fine-line between painting and poetry is snapped with an impressionistic brush.

Maasoom has been writing poetry since he was eleven. And that form of expression flows even in this emailed conversation with this writer:

What does the title of the book – The Sufi’s Garland – signify?
Maasoon: I don’t know. I was in Afghanistan and as I was working on finalizing the manuscript and editing, it arrived. It stuck. It is what it is. David Paquoit has written a review of the book asking, “Is the garland for the Sufi or by the Sufi?” I don’t know.

The book is a tribute to Emily Dickinson, Antonio Porchia and Rabindranath Tagore – what is the common thread among them that binds you to them?
Maasoom: The common thread among them that binds is the love for love. The love for going beyond experience to share in the receipt of everyone’s feeling, to share in everyone’s needs that are human. It is Gurudev Tagore’s ‘Love for God’, Antonio Porchia’s ‘Surprise’, Dickinson’s ‘Beauty and Hope’.

What aspect of Afghanistan inspired you to write this book? How did you find spiritual release amidst the ruin and shambles of that country?
Maasoom: One often finds spiritual release among ruin and shambles within one’s life. Only through destroying all that is comfortable in boxes of lives does one arrive at the opening. In Afghanistan, people love and dance and sing and eat bread in a way that is nourishing. I don’t know but it was a homecoming of sorts. Afghanistan inspired me to polish it, compile it, complete it.

Do you use your ability of poetic expression as a release for coping with contemporary social and political realities?
Maasoom: Sometimes. Mostly poetic expression is an expression of a dilemma, a startled moment, a way to address a conundrum, or simply a response to a song in nature. Sometimes these are internal struggles, sometimes social ills affect, always it is love’s enormous ability to stop one in their tracks and cross over.

There is angst, helplessness, acceptance, love and a certain universality of thought in the book – what did you feel the most while writing this book?
Maasoom: All. There is longing in it. I felt as I do daily a longing. A longing for the bliss. A longing for … who one cannot name.

Your academic and professional background belie your artistic side as a poet of such intense sensitivity… how do you reconcile between these two sides of your persona?
Maasoom: One must eat to write. But the academic and professional work in women’s rights and such also requires intense sensitivity. There are moments when one simply lets oneself go and let it write or be in terms of academic/professional work.

Where does poetry come to you from – is it religion, spirituality, romanticism, or the socio-political context of life around you?
Maasoom: Poetry comes from observation and craft. The better the craft, the more prepared one is to subtly, carefully, sharply bring to life what is happening…a moment of anger that was fake as the couple smile across a train platform when they are about to forget getting off at their stop, a bird stopping on your deck asking questions why there is no food out yet for her, mistreatment of another human, God.

In today’s technology-driven world, do you think poetic romanticism can touch people’s lives in a way to bring about transformation?
Maasoom: Poetry is the only thing that pauses. Indeed poetry in all life and all forms – painting, life forms, words – pauses. And in each pause, transformation is possible.

What do you hope readers will take away from Sufi’s Garland?
Maasoom: They will take away what I hope they will – a certain re-imagination of the beloved.

Can you talk about your early orientation and childhood influences that molded your thinking?
Maasoom: My early orientation was towards making beautiful things. Art, craft, toys, words…Nekchand from Chandigarh had made a beautiful garden of broken plates and shards converted into lovely sculptures, Rose Garden in our city, Rakh Bagh…childhood influences were many including prayer-time and listening to father.

Do you see yourself as a spiritual connector; a social commentator/reformer; a conscious observer; or just a man endowed with the artistry of words?
Masoom: Perhaps I don’t see myself as anything. I carry on the work of a lover of humanity and hope it plays these roles as above. I hope to listen better and then draft it out for Him better.

[The Sufi’s Garland, Published by: Roman Books; $24.95 (Hardcover)]




Radio Shangri-La April 29, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 2:52 pm
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Here’s another book review — taking you on a short trip to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth


Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

As humans go, especially in this increasingly fluid world of self-isolation and evolving personal and professional relationships, we are all entitled to a midlife crisis. While a midlife crisis in itself is as common as a common cold, surely, it comes custom-designed in each individual’s life, and is perhaps more pronounced if one happens to be a workaholic, forty-something, single woman in the disillusioning world of media in a big city like Los Angeles.

And such and so is a near description of the phase author Lisa Napoli, a LA-based public radio journalist was stuck in – that is until a chance meeting with a handsome stranger took her packing half a world away to the tiny kingdom tucked away in the Himalayas – Bhutan. The result: Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth

Whoever heard of Bhutan anyway… especially on this side of the Atlantic? Which is why, when Napoli volunteered to help launch the country’s first youth-oriented radio station, she found her journey gave her much more than unprecedented access to a culture largely unknown to Westerners – it proved to be personally transformative, taking her back to that magical place again and again.

It starts with the possible cynicism of helping bring the modern media to a country that measures its success in terms of “Gross National Happiness” rather than in GDP. Although conflicted, the author goes with an impressively open mind (perhaps aided by disillusionment with her own space in her part of the world). What the reader gets, as a consequence, is a wealth of information woven around human stories about a country that was shielded from the world until recently and its transition to democracy after a century of monarchy when its beloved king abdicated the throne.

Napoli’s adventure – whether it was understanding the profusion of phalluses as decoration (to ward of envy!), the Bhutanese love of spicy food, their resistance to have their country become a democracy as much as their zealousness in preserving their cultural heritage; or understanding her own role in the creation of a free press as an essential tool for a nascent democracy – is a feast of sights, colors, senses and warmth that make the reader want to take the next flight into Bhutan or at least have a midlife crisis-busting adventure of one’s own.

Bhutan was considered to be the “the last Buddhist Kingdom”, cut off from the world until television was introduced in the country for the first time in 1999. To this day, Bhutan manages to keep unwanted outsiders away by charging a minimum $200-a day tourist tariff, that makes it a destination for only the most dedicated and discerning travelers.

In a promotional conversation, Napoli says of why the radio station was launched in Bhutan that she helped build. “After years of monarchy, the country was transitioning to a democratic form of government. A radio station was an essential tool for democracy, especially since its focus was the youth, who comprise the majority of the population. Which is funny, because as our media infrastructure crumbles here in the US, who knows how that’ll impact our own long-standing democracy? I think about this all the time as I watch my chosen profession go through a major meltdown

The irony of being fed up of the American media, but going to another country to help launch a media outlet is never lost on the author.

For Napoli, the profoundness of the Bhutan experience, she says, had to do with her own state of mind, her hunger for a change; but partly also, because it was a fascinating time of development for Bhutan. “As a former technology journalist and a devoted student of early 20th century US history, I find what’s happening in Bhutan a merge of my favorite subjects: the impact of technology and development on how we live. But there’s also something about the openness of the people I met there, and the rhythm of life there even as media and technology encroach.”

Perhaps the most significant transformation that country brought in her was the realization that she couldn’t sit behind a desk and file 60-second stories all day anymore.

But what she wants the readers to get out of the book most is to learn about Bhutan and all its strange and wonderful quirks and charms; to look at Bhutan’s stage of development today and think about what’s happened socially and technologically in the US over the last 100 years, its impact on our lives and how we relate to one another; to think about how small the planet really is, how connected we all are, and to encourage them to experience it, if they choose.

“But mostly what I hope a reader sees is how many exciting things there are for them to do in the world, right where they live, to help others, to make the most of our days. Isn’t that what everyone craves – meaning, purpose and connectedness?”

Before reading the book, one is inclined to unfairly wonder if this is yet another ‘Eat, Pray Love’ kind of privileged-American-looking of ‘happiness and meaning’ in the obscurity of a third world getaway. But mercifully, Napoli gives us more than just insights into her existential crisis to understand a contemporary geo-political revolution that is at once a result of modern technology and a people’s aspirations.

[Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, Crown Publishers; 304 pages, $25]



An Atlas of Impossible Longing

Filed under: Uncategorized — Srirekha @ 12:08 am
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I haven’t posted anything in a pretty long time. I thought I’ll re-start by posting some old published book reviews of mine (These books should still be available, if not on some shelves, then on Amazon).

I’ve reviewed a good number of books over the years. While review copies that come from publishers are never really literary masterpieces, they definitely make for very interesting reading.

I like it when I see the characters in the book located in my world; I like it when the author pre-locates herself/himself in the same world as her/his characters rather than pretending to be their creator; I like it when I can see exactly where the author is located.

If you happen to read these reviews, I hope you find at least some of those locations in your own sensory space.


An Atlas of Impossible Longing

It never fails to amaze me about books where there seems to be no love lost between the authors and the characters they create.

One is not necessarily inclined to read only stories with ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ but when you loyally stick with the trials and tribulations of a family over three generations – some from their birth to youth and some from youth to death – in a near epic novel, it is with an expectation to bond with the characters, to become part of their lives.

But somehow, throughout ‘An Atlas of Impossible Longing’ debutante novelist Anuradha Roy does not allow any of her characters – including a pet parrot – to endear themselves to the reader.

Roy, undeniably, has a treasure trove of vocabulary at her easy disposal, for she weaves webs of descriptive narratives loaded with adjectives whether it is molding her characters or painting landscapes or etching out simple default acts as talking or walking. And yet, the people and places in the book come out shaded under dark and near ominous canopies.

For the painstaking detailing, you only notice the writer’s penchant for the unpleasant – “… a pimpled half-moon that struggled up into the sky…”; “…I took the opportunity to study his face, which was pockmarked and dull, with one eye oozing a purulent infection…”; “He would stick his finger into his ear and with one eye closed and prise around until the fingernail emerged with wax rimming the end…” – and you leave with a sense devoid of empathy towards the characters who are allowed neither pride of any achievement nor elevation through virtuosity.

Such then probably is the life of ordinary folks and their story can be told too… and therein, perhaps, lays the writer’s might – the mastery over the written word.
The setting is in a vast house in an ultra dull little town in the Bengal of colonial India and revolves around a family that after having called it home for three generations, could not sustain it but for the intervention of the orphan boy adopted by the family patriarch.

There’s a widower who struggles with his love for an unmarried relative; a motherless daughter, who runs wild with the said orphan of unknown caste; a matriarch who goes slowly mad mouthing obscenities, confined as she is in a room at the top of the house; and her self-centered husband who dies, his search for the cause of his wife’s mental deterioration remaining incomplete.

As the younger generation grows up, it finds a new life for itself, but not without its share of mediocrity and heartaches.

One does get a perspective of unquestioned patriarchal authority that existed at the time, the prevalent caste and class distinctions and a bit of the pre-and-post partitioned India.

‘An Atlas…’ marks the American debut of the writer, who has garnered enough praise for her novel: ‘A story to lose yourself in… brilliantly told and intensely moving” says the Sunday Express review. “Roy’s prose does not hit a single wrong note… its restrained beauty sings off the page” says a Time magazine review. “A lyrical love letter to India’s past…” says the Financial Times.

Roy is the publisher of an independent publishing house in Delhi, India. ‘An Atlas…’ has already been published in thirteen languages around the world.

Some final thoughts on the novel: The character that takes on the lead in the final chapters does belie the book’s title to fulfill one of his long-held longings in the end; but having watched most of the characters live through their ordinarily lackluster lives from an almost voyeuristic perch, you close the last page without a smile.

Well, it’s a story, either you like it or you don’t like it. But that in no way is a reflection of the author’s prowess for writing. Although she does not fulfill the consummate (and hopelessly romantic) listener of stories in me, Roy does come through for me as a connoisseur of literature.

{An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Free Press, $14 – Includes Reading Group Guide}