Surveying the little scene around her, it occurred to Satsuki that the belief that the ancestral spirits returned at Obon wasn’t something mystical or paranormal, nor was it a metaphor for human existence—it was an expression of how the dead were resurrected through the gestures and actions of the living in the performance of traditional customs and practices.

– The Last Obon

Grief is an extremely short and abrupt word for losses that are so stubbornly hard to define, difficult to experience in a specific shade and impossible to experience in a singular emotion. So in this lies Nakajima’s artistry of combining varying emotional depths and balancing them through her craft of subtle story telling, which enables the readership to not only empathise with her characters, but also relate to their losses. Things remembered and things forgotten is therefore a collection of short stories through which Nakajima has not only woven a collection of memories of a forgotten young post-war Tokyo, but has also delicately sewn in threads of loss and grief, of both, the people and a nation.

When my wife was a shiitake explores the personal and individual journey of a widower’s loss, who stumbles upon his wife’s cookbook that she has annotated with personal notes. He begins a journey of re-discovering his wife, “the wife he wish he’s known…but whom she wanted to keep a secret”. The beauty in this short story was the ending, in how the widower healed, perhaps even unknowingly so.

Arguments have been made that Nakajima wants her readers to know that nothing is remembered forever and the supporting exhibit for this is The Last Obon, the final prose in the collection. In this story, various departed ones returns for the feast. Once the Obon ends, the house is sold and the families pack their bags and leave, suggesting that the departed now have nowhere to go and nobody to remember them. I keep coming back to this and whether or not this is what the author indeed intends to convey to her readership, personal experience and interactions with others has always led me to believe that those gone are never truly forgotten. Hindsight, experience and the absence of people, places and things can no doubt influence what we remember and how we remember it – if for nothing else then at the very least to help the human mind to cope and adapt so it can move forward – but for the essence of something to be truly forgotten and not leave an impact in time and space, that I have yet to see and experience.

Nakajima is known for her interest in post World War II Japan, a nation with thousands of years worth of history, scrabbling to recuperate, rehabilitate and recover from the aftermath of conflict. This interest is clearly evident in her stories, sometimes directly dissecting and examining the topic and sometimes subtly skirting around it. Through her characters and their journeys, there is a sense of collective amnesia of this aftermath and destruction left by the war. In Kiara’s paper plane, she combines the supernatural with the present day to offer a critique of the war experience through a veteran ghost, but also provide a social commentary on poverty, child neglect and need for healing.

In The Life Story of a Sewing Machine, we witness the premium that a sewing machine is, which records eras of contributing to the war effort by churning out clothes, providing a means to a woman’s education and livelihood and eventually being beaten to a pulp, torn apart and abandoned until it is reclaimed and refurbished to resemble a hollow shell of what it might have one day been. The machine is an apt metaphor not only for systems of oppression and exploitation of organisations, institutions and states; but also a critique of the human condition, where we use individual power over each other to determine the outcomes of another with the authority to walk away from carnage. However, there is also hope of some restorative justice; of being held, cared for and loved and of holding something, or someone, tenderly and knowing they will not be their former self, however, as close to that as can be managed.

Karajima directly deals with the role of women and the problem of their bodies being politicised and used in war rhetoric when a woman is interviewed for commercial sex work for GI’s. The author uses the language from Recreation & Amusement Association as used by historical Japanese officials of the time, “Are you prepared to serve as a sexual breakwater to protect and nurture the purity of our race for the next hundred years?”. This point in the story made for reflection of not only the abuse of power insidiously using language that offers a false glimmer of choice, but also the role of war, conflict and sexual violence and the problem of women being the vessels of carrying forward histories, legacies and collective traumas. The story, despite being set in Japan on the backdrop of World War II, is a most pertinent and present day issue.

There are unexpected turns of eroticism but also the examination of women’s sexuality and desire. In The Pet Civet, a young woman considers her aunt to be a withering spinster and was unable to see her in the light of being a woman with physical and emotional needs, especially given that she is an elder. I found this story beautiful as I did the message, that nobody is beyond the human need of love, companionship and physical touch. I have grown up hearing about pious women who do not remarry when their husband’s die or leave them for the sake of continuing the tradition of piety and honour. We have a tendency to see “mothers” as functional units who carry forward lineage, serve not only their men but nations of men and within this we lose sense of the humans behind those duties. So when the realisation of this human need comes from one woman to another, it remains a little more etched in memory.

Things remembered and things forgotten is an wonderful read. It is subtle, tender and gently shows the wounds of people, places and cultures, both individual and collectivist, without failing to offer twists in the story that will leave you pondering. As has been said about Nakajima’s art – you only know half the story.

“The moment when you are forced to acknowledge that what you experienced was no mere dream. Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a foot-long wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? To a rifle butt bludgeoning my cervix? To the fact that, when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I had gone into shock, they had to take me to the hospital for a blood transfusion? Is it possible to face up to my continuing to bleed for the next two years, to a blood clot forming in my fallopian tubes leaving me permanently unable to bear children?”

This is one of the many graphic experiences that the reader is taken through in Kang’s novel, Human Acts.

Centred around the Gwangju uprising of May 1980 and revealed through the killing of a middle school boy, Dong-ho, this novel embarks on the ambitious task of asking fundamental questions to the existence of humans — what exactly is humanity? And as such Kang embroils her readership with difficult scenarios and an even tougher line of questioning. Power, responsibility, violence, helplessness, grief, guilt, trauma, relief, apathy…she does not leave an emotion or a morality unquestioned in her prose.

The 1979 assassination of President Park, South Korea’s military dictator, gave way to the implementation of martial law and thus, a heavily policed state. This was strongly criticised and a call for democracy was made on several societal fronts, across the country. On the 18th May 1980, in Jeonnam University, the armed forces opened fire on the protesting student body. What ensued was a public outcry. Special forces were soon deployed, who took to a heightened forms of oppression and brutality — students were beaten, clubbed, bayoneted and executed. There were protests, there were settlement committees, there were civil militias — various forms of individual bodies, all demanding a retreat of the army from the public space. On May 27th, the militias took to the Provincial Office, knowing full and well they were facing a final standoff. The army defeated the civil militias in a matter of hours.

This portrait based novel focuses on six characters, all who have been affected by the violence and brutality that consumed the air of Gwangju in 1980. Kang gives vivid insights into their pain, their loss and their lives onwards from the moment the army stormed the Provincial Office, with their narrative being intertwined with the narrative of Dong-ho’s death. The nature of the novel seems to be embroiled with the feelings, reflections and lamentations of the characters as opposed to the mechanisms of the violence or indeed, any explanations for it. There is an overall sense of mourning, whether it is the former factory girl mourning the loss of her intimacy or Dong-ho’s mother who mourns not only the loss of Dong-ho but also of the relationship between two of her existing sons, which has soured amidst blames for Dong’ho’s death.

Despite this being a palpably concise novel, Kang effortlessly cuts across boundaries of time and generation in her prose. Kang has not been shy in the novel to depict the violence with which her characters lost their lives, loved ones or even an aspect of their being in their respective spaces. Each successive page, each successive chapter unleashes pain in a new form, distinct from the previous.

Kang discovered the massacre at the age of 12 after having found a memorial of photographs on her family bookshelf and the final chapter is her link to Dong’ho and Gwangju’s bloody past. “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet…silently, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there”. The shattering of this unnamed thing deep inside Kang, is something that the reader experiences with each hopeless scenario faced in each chapter — and this realisation makes one appreciate the excellence with which Kang penned this novel.

So in the context of Kang’s novel, and her line of questioning as to what is humanity? I shall keep it succinct, humanity is bleak. Probably at its bleakest. Kang’s work is a feat in highlighting the aftermath of the Gwangju rising and painting sorrow on different canvases through the strokes of various colours. She brings to light questions of responsibility of government and establishments, which they owe to their citizens. Whilst putting the book down, I could not help but recall Habib Jalib’s lines, which focused on the struggles surviving in a dictatorship, which he so avidly spoke and rallied against:


کہیں گیس کا دھواں ہے
کہیں گولیوں کی بارش ہے
شب عہد کم نگاہی
تجھے کس طرح سراہیں

Kahin gas ka dhuaan hai
Kahin golion ki barish
Shab e ehd kum nigaahi

Tujhe kaisay hum saraahein


  1. Human Acts by Han Kang. Good reads.
  2. Kwangju uprising. South Korean History.
  3. Habib Jalib. The poet of the people. Bodhi Commons.

“Islam, for her, was reminiscent of a childhood memory — so very familiar and personal but also somehow vague, far removed in time and space. Like a cube of sugar dissolved in her coffee, there and not there.”

A polaroid photograph of three young Oxford students and their University professor falls to the ground following a physical altercation with a vagrant. The polaroid, a relic and painful reminder of a scandal involving the novel’s protagonist, Peri, sets the stage for the reader to cross three distinct time frames. These include the present day affluent Turkish housewife at a grandiose dinner with flashbacks to her childhood in the 80’s and subsequently at her University days in the early 2000s.

Peri’s earlier life has been one of a child in a dysfunctional family, amidst ongoing conflicts between her atheist nationalistic father and her devoutly religious mother. The conflict between her parents and ultimately in her understanding of religion swung back to the nature of God, and thus, the seeds of curiosity of the divine were sowed at an early age for Peri.

When she gets to Oxford, she befriends two women who are poles apart in their ideologies just as much as her parents were. Shirin, an outspoken atheist with origins from Iran and Mona, an American-Arab devout Muslimah with strong feminist principles. Shafak describes them as the Sinner, the believer and the confused.

Other than sharing bonds of a friendship, they also share the same classes with professor, Azur. An eccentric and unorthodox teacher who has had polarising descriptions from monster to saviour. Handpicking his students for these seminars, he will take them through seminars on scientific studies on the nature of God – and thus we work through the novel, with a climax of betrayal, anger and annihilation.

As a book this was an easy enough read. The themes present are all pertinent to the modern day muslim; gender identity, religiosity and the conviction of faith. Shafak humanises her characterises and does this effectively as the protagonists are not simply good or evil, rather, portray the ups and downs of being human. I felt, however, that the book did not explore any of the other characters with real justice, with the exception of Peri. As my housemate put it so eloquently, “the book was not about the three daughters of Eve, it was only about one daughter of Eve”.

The book hinged on an alleged scandal between Peri and Azur. In fact, I would go as far as saying, most of the novel hinged on the character of Azur. This is an outrageous professor, of sorts, however, his actions, his outlooks and his behaviour have a reasoning and an important backstory. Despite this significant past, the reader is not able to empathise with him as his narrative is portrayed towards the very conclusion of the novel. I feel Shafak did not do justice to the final conversation between Peri and Azur – it was too incomplete.

I felt the sinner, the believer and the confused represented not distinct women or even their beliefs, rather, succinct histories of nations embodied in the human form. You have Peri, who lives in a space where orthodoxy and secularism meet, often, not successfully. To sum it up in one word, Peri’s life and existence has been one of doubt. Shafak argues, and argues quite well, that doubt is indeed a good thing in faith. Positive reinforcement in any group, order or institution is dangerous – and thus one must keep that in check through questioning, debate and learning.

If I lament on an example closer to home, it would be the age old topic of sectarian Islam. The Sunnis disagree with Shia’s, the Shia’s disagree with the Sunnis, and both of these groups actively denounce Ahmaddi’s as non muslims. Prominent figures from Pakistan have been outspoken in condemning and calling upon a fatwa and eradication of the Ahmaddi sect. Leaders, scholars and prominent Ahmadiyya figures have been attacked and killed. The 2010 massacre of an Ahmaddi mosque in Lahore left approx 90 people dead and almost 300 injured.

Another example is the persecution of Hazaras. People of Hazara origin are Shias native to Afghanistan and thought to be descendants of Genghis Khan. Historically they have been sold as slaves, ordered to be killed in the 1900s by the Emir of Afghanistan, and they continue to be attacked and discriminated against in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These atrocities are all examples of convictions that people have had in their beliefs.

Shafak also examines the identity issues that each of the three women have, and in doing so, she is able to show the three dimensional nature of women who have a rounded identity, of which Islam (or the lack of it) is a minor fragment. This is something to be valued in the book. I might have a partiality in this opinion, however, many exchanges with non ethnic individuals has led me to believe that it is difficult for many people to see past colour or the assumed faith. Certainly, this is also the case in reverse. However, the world has incredibly polarised views of Islam – and their idea of what it is. Unfortunately much of this has been fuelled by media. The blame entirely cannot lie with sensationalised news. One cannot also exclude the relationship between major incidents across the world and extremists who do this in the name of religion. Undoubtedly, the strongest correlation of major terrorist incidents have had links to self proclaimed Muslims.

It is futile to make arguments that Islam or religion does not advocate extremism or death. This is known amongst believers and amongst those who have working knowledge of the facets of this faith and its history. However, very many Muslims remain in awkward conversation cliffhangers when asked about their faith… often having to defend themselves or worse still, convince society that they are the “moderate muslims” who are not terrorists.

On a final note, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a Muslimus Modernus, a Muslim and modern mix. Groups cannot work successfully or flourish if they are not “modern” and if they actively reject the world in which we live in today – an important lesson for anybody belonging (or not) to any religious (or not) institution.


“Then he raises the knife and lays the blade up between her legs, stands scowling up at her. He says, ‘Just hang in there’. He presses up with the knife and says ‘upsy daisy’. Turtle does a pull up, places her chin on the splintery bean and hangs whilst Martin stands below her, his face stripped of all warmth and kindness, seeming fixed in some reverie of hatred. The knife bites into the blue denim of her jeans and Turtle feels the cold steel through her panties”.

My Absolute Darling is the debut novel by Gabriel Tallent. Set in California, the novel narrates and explores the relationship of Martin and his teenage daughter, Turtle. Martin is a self proclaimed survivalist and has led a life, which in his mind, will prepare him for a post apocalyptic world and has also provided his daughter with the same skill sets. He has breakfast with her, walks her to the school bus and despite their strained relationship, he sometimes joins Turtle when she visits her grandfather. Martin also rapes his daughter, night after night. He rules the relationship through dominating strokes of affection and fear. The arrival of the turning point in Turtle’s life is when she meets Jacob. Jacob’s family conventions are far more functional that Turtle’s. Through him she gets glimpses of a different form of family love, affection and security.

Tallent’s writing is direct, bold and ruthless. He certainly does not shy away from depicting the abuse that is an everyday routine for Turtle, he explores this relationship as one of love between both of the characters. What made the novel good on a literary pillar, was the characterisation of both, Martin and Turtle, presenting the reader with three dimensional characters. A father, a dominating monster exerting his control through physical, sexual, emotional abuse but also showing elements of shame and guilt. There is a daughter who has been conditioned to feel “empty” during the abuse, however, has feelings of extreme love for her father and a fixed delusion that nobody cares for her more than he does.

I shall not delve into the synopsis and outcome of the novel, for this prose is not entirely about the outcome for me. It is about the importance of boldly speaking about a subject that is more pertinent now than ever – about the abuse of vulnerable children. One can read endless articles, studies and statistics with regards to abuse, however, I find that prose has the power to evoke emotion on a deeper level. There were countless moments as I sat horrified reading the pages before me, on absolute edge, of what gruesome monstrosity will greet me as I turn the page.

As I browsed various pages talking about this book, I came across an interesting point of view as expressed on the Bitch Media website:

“The book fails to make the reader feel Turtle’s sense of conflict as she’s repeatedly raped by her father while at times feeling actively drawn to him; instead, the scenes serve only to violate both Turtle and the reader”.

I am not sure that as readers, whom I hope would have at least a basic understanding of power dynamics in abuse, should feel the sense of conflict. Rather, it is important to have an understanding of the underlying cause of the conflict. The recipient of this abuse is a child, who has been groomed to understand that the only person on her side is her father, who has raised her, taught her and through whom, she is alive. She has not had any other role models in life or people whom she is allowed to have other relationships with. She has grown up in a misogynistic environment and inherently embraced the trait.

Despite the hopelessness in the situation and plot, Tallent draws our attention to some slivers of hope and highlights the importance of certain people. One group of such people include teachers, in this case, Anna. She correctly identifies the “misogyny, watchfulness and isolation” are the triad often found in abuse victims. She delivers well in the remits of her role in her persistence of providing for and supporting Turtle as her teacher.

In conclusion, I cannot claim the book to be a literary masterpiece, it frankly, is not. However, it is an important book. It attempts to glimpse into the minds of the abuser and the abused. It makes you uncomfortable, it revolts you, it makes you cringe…it personifies, through good characterisation, the dismal situation of thousands of helpless children across the globe. For that only, I would pick it up and give it a read.



There is a crowd outside the main door, talking softly about the death as if they don’t want the dead man to know that he is gone.

A perfect moment at Dishoom – chai, kitaab aur Priyam!

The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in the late eighties in Madras, India. The prose follows Ousep Chacko’s quest to solve the mystery as to why his seventeen year son, Unni, jumped to his death from a balcony without any reason. The novel is not merely about the grief of a family. It is a dissection of human suffering, the delusions of happiness, and the hidden depths and identities of what is known, commonly, to be man.

Key characters include Ousep’s wife and youngest son and some flashback of Unni himself. His wife, Mariamma, who has frequent neurotic breakdowns and amongst other eccentricities, fantasises about Ousep’s death. The final member of the Chacko household, Thoma, is the youngest son tip toeing on adolescence whilst being firmly confined to a fear of most things in his life whilst crawling beneath the shroud of his brother’s greatness.

Although not alive from the prose point of view, Unni Chacko is very much the heart, soul and driving factor of the novel. Unni is a cartoonist, a popular teen and at a stretch, a social experimenter of sorts. There is no reason as to why someone like Unni would commit suicide, at least, not to Ousep. So when, by chance, one of Unni’s old comics is delivered to him, Ousep revives and puts to use the skills he gained as a journalist, to investigate why Unni died. Inadvertently, he sets out on a journey to discover an Unni he had no idea existed.

His journey includes tediously interviewing everyone he can associate and place with Unni at any time or place. The key issue for Ousep soon enough becomes to figure out who his son was, which he frankly, did not know. Joseph does not allow his readers to have one consistent view of Unni, which is not only an excellent literary style, he makes them uncomfortable in their views of this deceased minor. An example of such a situation would be when Unni instigates a mass lynching of a teacher at St Ignatius – I remember that particular point in the novel, where I was arguably the most uncomfortable.

I found Joseph’s dealings with the topic of mental health, rustic and very salt of the earth-esque. The primary character whose mental health is described unstable, is Mariamma. Not only is she dealing with the grief of her beloved son, but she also copes with other demons, suggested to be attributed to events earlier in her life. I liked the nuances, which Joseph pinpointed, that could be found in someone with a psychiatric diagnosis. The truth of illness, in this depiction, is that Mariamma has been running a house, finding work and somewhat assimilating in society. This is quite an important point – usual depictions of individuals with psychiatric diagnoses include ostentatious mannerisms, which can only be described as frantic chorea, which is of course, is not usually the case, and many people successfully manage their illness whilst assimilating in society. Mental health myth busted! Kudos, Joseph.

The book certainly has some excellent laughs, one of my favourite excepts is the dealings of mathematics, reflecting, perhaps, how the character feels about himself.

It affects him, the great arrogance of the Equilateral Triangle, the failed aspiration of the octagon to be a circle, the eternal suffocation of the denominator that has to bear the weight of the unjust numerator, the loneliness of Pluto. And the smallness of Mercury, always a mere dot next to a yellow sun. In this world, there is no respect for Mercury.

Joseph is an excellent writer – enough detail to give a great prose, but succinct where he needs to get a point. The cogs in the wheel of this tale are themes of identity, mental health, morality, sexuality, caste based discrimination – all underpinned by appropriate amounts of philosophy and enclosed in a frame of dark humour, with an unapologetic insight into the tragedies and dysfunction of humankind .  A fantastic dark but uplifting tale.

“How easy it is to create ghosts, he thinks as he begins to die a minute later, feeling his mind closing chamber by chamber, the memory of Naheed contained in each one. Just before the world vanishes, a hope surfaces in him that this wasn’t necessarily everything, that he will return somehow. His arm rises remembering when it used to be a wing”.


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Nadeem Aslam is from the rarest breed of writers. His prose has the power to grip you – in one moment it horrifies you, but in another it saddens you beyond belief. His characters, with all their flaws, follies and naiveties, will come back, invading all the senses of your mind long after you have finished reading him.

The ultimate strength in his writing lies at the heart of his description. Aslam not only makes his reader understand the emotion and reasoning of his characters, he can make one empathise and connect with their respective thinking. For most characters, this is not a problem, however, when you find yourself beginning to sympathise with, for example, a mother who intends on spiking her own daughter’s food to initiate an abortion – you have to pause, think and get over the “Wait, what…” moment. That is the strength and brilliance of Nadeem Aslam.

The Blind Man’s Garden is set a few months post 9/11, shortly after, the US announces the War on Terror and invades Afghanistan. The narrative takes place in a fictional Pakistani town of Heer as well as the Afghanistan mountains, where fighting between USA and the Taliban has broken out. The story starts with a medical student, Jeo, wishing to go from Peshawar to Afghanistan, in order to help with the casualties of war. Accompanying him is his foster brother, Mikaal, who is an able mechanic. They leave behind in Pakistan, their father, Rohan, and Jeo’s wife, Naheed, who must learn to await their return, and in the meantime, fight a war within a war, on homeground.

I would not say the book holds a grand mysterious plot – it is the simple but brutal tale of a family, which suffers on both sides of the border. The reader experiences the search of a father for his son; the wait of a wife for her husband; and the helplessness of a man torn between the duties of a brother and love for a woman.

Aslam does not pick a side – he gives no rationale for the Americans and he does not sympathise with the Islamist hardliners. This backdrop of the novel, however, is an effective canvas describing the issues faced by ordinary families in this specific context. Important themes are explored, which have always existed but further highlighted post 9/11 – these include religious identity, corruption, freedom, and the vulnerability of minorities in Pakistan.

Religion has been a key source of ignition whenever the ordinary Pakistani Muslim began to process the War on Terror, because it was not a war on terror for him, it was a war on Islam. Historically, this thinking, coupled with the exploitation of often uninformed and zealous followers, has led to countless hundreds picking up arms and crossing the border to Afghanistan to fight. It was therefore refreshing to see Rohan, the religious father, to not share a similar sentiment. However, in parts, it was also sad to see glimpses of his religious and moral standing, for example, when he expels a student upon finding out his mother solicits or the withholding of medication from his wife, in an attempt to make a believer out of her.

The power of faith and conviction is at its strongest, when it makes you question the definitive decisions in your lifespan. In the case of Rohan, it was whether he would marry his wife, if he could go back in time. The same woman, with whom he has been hopelessly in love for the best years of his life.

“We should make one of the children stand up on the windowsill wherever the firing is heaviest. It will silence the guns. The solution was revealed to me by an angel during sleep last night”.

You also get the other type of religious person; the fanatic. The unwavering conviction that the death of innocent people and their destruction is the way forward for a greater good. The above passage was a chilling reminder of this.

Tied in with the problems of a certain type of religious person, come the issues of the farce of a high moral grounding, which are intertwined and plaguing the minorities in patriarchal, muslim majority Pakistani society. The following passage beautifully captures the ugly face of this:

The police officer smiles. “Don’t worry. She’ll probably return. And when she does I want you to bring her here”.

“You won’t look for her now but you want to see her when she returns?”

“We might have to investigate her for immorality and wantonhood. She must explain to us, as against of decent society, where she has been all these days. A charge of decadence and wickedness might have to be brought against her”.

My attempts to make an argument for the beauty of this book have tried to not give out any plot details, however, I sincerely hope that I have been able to put across a few salient points, which would enable more people to read this book. I have laid out reflections specifically on religion, since this has unsettled me the most. The book has a wealth of other themes, which must be read to be appreciated as no review could do them justice.

If not for the crucial understanding of how religion, society and war can scar people; and if not for narratives of those not with the US or Taliban, yet destroyed by both; then, read this book for the sheer beauty of Aslam’s prose, which leaves you, the reader, in a vulnerable state somewhere between the blurred lines of sorrow and bittersweet joy.



“Please do not be angry with your life…nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered”.

-Anders, Meet Me at the Museum

Meet Me at the Museum was a very unexpected, however, rewarding read. I was drawn to it by the fact it was an epistolary novel and the title appeared to have an involvement with a museum. The subject matter caught me off guard and left me reflecting on a whole range of things, which I had recently not stopped to think about…about the human condition, its coping with grief, loss and its view of life.

Tina, an English farmer’s wife and Anders, a museum curator in Denmark are the protagonists of this tale. Tina writes a letter to seek information about Tollund Man, an Iron Age human who was found in a Danish bog in 1950. The letter was initially addressed to the archaeologist (now deceased) who made the discovery. Anders, the museum curator, replies to the letter. The correspondence is, at least initially, centred around anthropological discussions around the Tollund man. However, as the letters continue, we witness not only a mapping of the histories and personalities of these individuals, but also the friendship that they go on to share. Both soon begin to reflect, reminisce and share an aspect of each other’s life from academic passions of history and nature; glimpses into their personal lives as well as their sense of a world that is firmly in the past and anticipations of what lies in the future.

I have been struggling to connect my thoughts in a coherent manner as a response to this book. At face value, as a literary text, the novel is an exchange of letters between a housewife with a difficult marriage, and a European curator, who is embedded in a world of loneliness. However, through the narrative of Tina and Anders, Youngson effectively weaves a pattern of isolation, grief, and hope on a tapestry of time gone by.

Ander’s wife had complex psychological presentations, which influenced the outcomes of not only his, but the lives of their children. A vast majority of written and other media has a tendency to portray mental illness as a very palpable and overriding phenomenon. One often will witness it no more than archaic lunacy. Youngson, however, does not find it her job to explain this so clinically. She has resisted, rather well, the temptation to fixate on mental illness as the overriding feature of his wife’s memory. Instead, the author focused on the traditions, rituals and love they shared, thus stripping away the traditional dehumanisation of a psychiatric diagnosis, which we have become prone to seeing.

Anders has been a widower and Tina is stuck in a loveless marriage and yet both are plagued by an overriding sense of grief and loneliness. Anders grieves his wife whereas Tina grieves a marriage and a life she has missed out on. Anders has a more natural process to come to terms with, which is governed by the laws of nature. What resonated on some level was how Ander’s moved ahead in the world after the death of his wife – almost as if he had a dead space in the cavities of his heart. A space that does not hold what it once did yet does not allow any other entity to fill it. Yet this person has meaningful relationships, friendships…he laughs, he cries, he worries. He carries on living somehow, and beyond all, he has hope.

In the case of Tina, I could hear echoes of a conversation, which I had with Sister Nomagugu, after reading the literary works of the great Chimamanda Adichie, on the position of marriage in contemporary society. Youngson’s novel, and her treatment of Tina had stirred similar thought processes. Anthropologically I understand, (however, object ferociously to) marriages that have the backbone of conditions and compromise. Conditions of pregnancy, conditions of social acceptance, conditions of men and women reaching their biological expiry dates etc. It can be argued of marriage, that in a social sphere, as a construct and as an institution, it has disabled humans. An institution, which allows the state to give you certain rights and protections, purely for the fact you are married, is a flawed system. These processes affect women more so than men, especially in certain societies, where without marriage, specific protections are denied to you on a legal framework. On a social framework, we are informed that women are incomplete without the sanctity of marriage and a family. Semantics ostracise them as “spinsters”, whereas single men are “eligible bachelors”. As such, we have maximised the potential to use marriage as an oppressive tool embedded deeply within patriarchal roots and manifested in several ways.

In the fashion of Youngson’s novel, I shall not end on a deeply dark note as I can anticipate some of the outcries of the torchbearers of marital union and utopic unconditional love. My misgivings stem from social inequality that can arise from such contracts, as opposed to the vows and agreements of mutual respect and love.

And so, here ends…Huma-babble on a novel that was simple, sweet and managed to engage some neuronal activity.

“When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.”

I have learnt two things in life about myself.

Firstly, I can recognise the people who love me. For they gift me books. Those who love me a little more than I deserve, give me good books…and so, ladies and gentlemen, I can now say with sheer confidence, that Gurmi loves me!

Secondly, no matter how hard I try at keeping psychiatry away from my immediate world, it has always persevered and presented itself when I am least expecting it. This time around, it was in the book, which Gurmi gave to me on my final day in Oxford, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine.

The protagonist of the novel is a thirty-year old female whose existence is one of a fixed routine. Eleanor Oliphant works in an accounts department and her daily routine consists of work, vodka and isolation. We come to learn of the low opinion her coworkers have of her, and she of them. We appreciate the pathological communication (well, mainly lack of) she has in her world. We also become aware of the extent of her socially awkward and uninformed framework of her limited world. Many of the book launch and discussion events, in addition to the book’s original description, pointed towards the theme of loneliness being integral to the premise of the story.

Many moons ago I once narrated to someone my ideas of mankind’s predestination to remain eternally alone. Be it in stable relationships or in the company of friends…we always come back to small corners lurking on the edge of our existence. These corners are sacred for they are closed to the rest of the world, no matter who they are. The only thing that has the power to reside in these are our own thoughts and reflections. Or so I thought in my speech, which at the time, was full of fervour, philosophy and youth.

So, recalling this conversation whilst reading the book, I was hoping to get more of a literary insight into the concept of loneliness and was eager to see how it manifested in a modern day character. However, for much of the novel, Eleanor was not aware of her loneliness and when she did become aware of it, there was a lack of tangible processing and coming to terms with an event, which I would classify as fairly significant. I would have imagined that the realisation of your solitude would bring about a weight heavy enough to crush your soul and sad enough to break your heart. The anxiety and distress associated with these sudden realisations was lacking, and as such, so was my empathy for the character.

To say I had mixed feelings about the novel would be an understatement. It was hard to understand or appreciate this character, who initially did not seem lonely; rather, just socially awkward, unforgiving and narrow minded. As the novel progressed, it became apparent as to why Eleanor was who she was (and trust me, she was not completely fine). Gradually, we learn more about the character, her past and the implications of it.

The novel touches upon aspects of Eleanor’s behaviour and rationalises it through the lens of severe trauma, which she learns of through a cliched approach of a counsellor.

The issue with the perception of mental illness through the lens of pop culture is precisely this – the notion of talking things through with a therapist and approaching the so called nirvana of enlightenment. To her credit, the author makes the process somewhat painful and somewhat difficult for the protagonist, which is the tiniest indicator of how difficult it is to live with and work through mental health issues. Nevertheless, the glorified therapist and couch culture, is not the entire (arguably, not the truest) depiction of psychiatric medical care.

I suppose the book offered hope in that snapshot of Eleanor’s life, where things are ok. However, realistic nihilism has been at the centre of my existence for a while. So I shall leave it there…hoping not to break facets of hope amongst the existentialists.

So, is it a good book? In its principle, yes, for any book creating awareness of the complexities of a human condition cannot be bad. Would I recommend the book as a good read? No. However, I am glad to have read it to come to this opinion.

“What saddened Ronojoy was that his mother had underestimated the innate human capacity to forgive a loved one. Wasn’t this, essentially what made us humane – to see how fallible we all were, and to make allowances for it, for each other?”

Mukherji’s debut novel throws its readership into the varying depths of darkness associated with the trials and tribulations of two brothers, Ronojoy and Sujoy, who navigate their lives after the death of their estranged mother, Mala. Please note, the novel plot will be discussed at some length and there will be a significant focus on honour-based violence, which is not associated with the novel, but remained a thread of extra thought whilst examining the themes presented by Mukherji’s characters.

Subsequent to Mala’s cremation, Ronojoy is given a letter, which his mother wrote for him prior to her death. The letter is a confession regarding her acts of infidelity, a son out of wedlock, continuing self-blame for the consequences of all involved, and the guilt of not being an adequate mother. Ronojoy is left not only with the trauma relating to the letter content, however, also toils in the dilemma of sharing this with his brother, which he eventually, reluctantly, does.

Ronojoy and Sujoy have different feelings towards their mother, the latter being angrier and the former having resentment but warmer sentiments. During their childhood, and shortly after the suicide of their father, Subir, Mala sold the family home and retreated into an ashram, after sending the boys, aged twelve and six, to a boarding school in Nainital. From this point onwards, the primary maternal figure in their life was their maternal grandmother.

The novel, in its premise, is a simple one. However, interlaced with each character and their respective stories are questions that we ask of their lives, of our lives, of the choices our families make…and ultimately, questions to the society itself, which has firmly placed moral and social constructs through which we, often helplessly, weave our narratives.

The moral and ethical dilemmas were centred around the apparent shortcomings of Mala – it was her infidelity, which was unforgivable for her husband and was a causative factor for his spiral into depression, and eventually, suicide. She distances herself from her children due to feelings of inadequacy as a wife and mother and the relentless blame for the consequences her actions had on her family’s life. The added difficulty, for the family and to a degree, the readership, was to reconcile with the man she had a relationship with, Apu, who was the Subir’s brother. Apu had left for the USA soon after the death of his brother and chose to settle there.

Whether the author intended for this or whether it remains a subconscious bias, the social norms of blaming the woman were woven throughout the novel. Her marriage had broken down three years prior to her relationship with Apu and she was merely cohabiting with Subir. We are not informed of why the marriage broke down. It is important to consider that if one is to blame this woman for her choices then scrutiny of her marriage becomes crucial. Was this a marriage of two people who did not love each other? Were things repairable and was effort placed into this? Was Subir’s depression a key factor in the breakdown of everyone’s life? Why did they continue in this marriage when both were uninterested?

What will continue to surprise about the human condition is the lack of confidence in open and honest discussions humans can have whilst discussing the intimate details of personal lives. One can fixate on the guilt for not loving partners or being bored in relationships, however, there seldom is a discussion on such topics for the fear of judgement or the effects it may have on children. Perhaps, on a basic human level, there is a deep-seated fear of the unknown consequences of a decision to move away from unhappy relationships – and such is the power of this fear that we often choose to remain solidly in our misery.

In the context of the novel – Subir and Mala cohabited despite the lack of love or any significant relationship. One can argue that such arrangements are to afford psychological security to children and not displace them from both their parents. Why do we not question the effects of such fractured relationships upon the children and how it can set unhelpful and almost, pathological expectations of relationships. In many regards, such arrangements can set in stone the choices our children make in their personal lives for it is all they have known and experienced. We shield them from one major traumatic event of parental separation, however, we do not consider the hundreds of smaller traumatic events in their lives, which they bear witness to through the cracks in their parent’s relationships. We solidify the same beliefs – to continue to remain in unhappy relationships and not to leave comfort zones. We cut their wings and deny them the confidence that they WILL be alright in the abyss known as life – because as parents, we will have fulfilled our duties in building their resilience and equipping them with emotional life skills.

Certainly from an Eastern perspective, the difficulties women face in ending relationships are astronomical. Not that it remains completely easy for men, however, there is a relative acceptance afforded to them by the societal norms purely due to their chromosomal order. The onus is on women to remain loyal and with their husbands until death does one part. If a man is disloyal, then certain sub-groups accommodate that with a classic cliche, “He is a man…why are you worried? You remain the wife…she is just a distraction”. Such phraseology is common – not only the emotional needs of such “primary women” are discounted here but the “other woman” is brandished dispensable and a fallen commodity. It is THIS fallen woman who is then blamed for breaking a marriage, not the man who also consensually engaged.

In the novel, Sujoy is abrupt with his family and relations are damaged to the point where his wife leaves home. His brother asks her to be patient as it is a difficult time for him. How often have we given space and asked our fathers, brothers and sons to be patient when the woman is going through distress? I often wonder why such courtesy is seldomly extended towards women – at least in the contexts that I am familiar with.

And the concept of choice remains inherent when considering any relationship – extra marital, pre marital, etc – the choice to remain in a relationship, the choice to leave a relationship, the choice to do with one’s body as they please and with whom they please. At a molecular level – is it the business of any other entity with whom you have consensual relationships with? Mala did not appear to have anything of substance in her relationship with Subir – why the judgement from every individual allied to her when she sought to fulfil her needs? Did Subir have the right to object when he had long left that aspect of the relationship, or indeed, the sanctity of marriage itself?

The transgressions a man makes are catered for with great ease in various societies. However, when it is a woman, then the central issue is not one of infidelity as a human, rather, the dishonour she has brings upon the family. The concept of women being equated to honour is yet another example of the insidious control patriarchy has fueled in the concept of ownership. At its worst, this control and ownership have often manifested through honour-based violence. Although in no way affiliated with the content or context of this specific novel, some time will be taken to lament on this thread of thought.

Honour based violence can centre on various acts or choices, which include individuals voicing their choice to not engage in arranged, force or child marriage; divorcing or separating out of choice; engaging in premarital or extramarital sex; dressing “inappropriately” to the norms of specific cultures, and even being victims of rape or sexual assault.

Punishments can vary from divorce or retaining the woman as a man or family pleases; in various jirgas the elders have ordered the woman to be gang-raped as honour revenge e.g. the case of Mukhtar Mai in Pakistan; and ultimately, it can be decided that a transgression is worthy of an honour-based killing. The United Nations has estimated approximately 5000 honour-based killings per year, however, various NGOs have cited concerns of the underreported data and predict that the true number is closer to 20,000 honour-based killings a year.

There is a myth that honour-based violence is very unique to the eastern world and primarily to those in India and Pakistan. Both countries certainly have a high rate of honour-based violence, however, this problem exists beyond the realms of the Subcontinent and certainly extends to Europe, where the numbers of such crimes are rising.

There remains a need for continuous revision and execution of laws pertaining to honour-based violence, however, more importantly, there is an urgent and dire requirement of present-day social education reforms. Looking at this in a historical context, Roman laws made it lawful for fathers and husbands to murder their daughters and men they had been intimate with out of wedlock. Such laws and sanctions were echoed in the French Article 324, which was repealed, however, not before it inspired many Arab laws of honour and related punishment.

Examining the specific context of the Pakistani legal system; honour-based violence became punishable by a prison sentence only in December 2004. However, the public sphere remained emboldened to continue to engage in honour-based killings and the problem here lies in their sense of accountability, which is a direct result of poor law enforcement and laxity from the legal system based on personal religious and cultural biases. An example is of the Women’s Protection Bill, which was initially rejected in 2005, due to reluctance of branding honour killing as un-Islamic. Furthermore, it was only in 2016 that the legal loophole was closed, whereby families could seek forgiveness for the violence and escape legal repercussions – and only in June 2016, the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises the Government with regards to compliance of laws with the Islamic Shariah, was able to decree that honour killing is un-Islamic.

Despite assurances of protective bills, why is the rule of law not prevailing in a country as Pakistan? The perpetrators have unilateral and unwavering views regarding honour, which are often falsely based on their ideas of Islam and its message – and these individuals have no incentive to educate themselves in the name of the religion they feel comfortable to kill in. Secondly, the ambassadors of law also remain uneducated on a similar level and will carry out their civil duty through the lens of their prejudices and personal views on honour and shame – most of whom are men identifying with a skewed view of Islam.

So what is required? The state must remain secular and deliver its duty in the spirit of law equal to men and women and provide relevant protection to the vulnerable and enforce the law against perpetrators.

Finally, we must consider our views about women, especially those confined to marginalised societies and/or situations. Not in the context of their gender, but in the context of their human rights. In order to do justice we must look at women from the confines of their personal spaces to their roles on a global platform – and ask the question – are we doing justice to them in the name of law, religion, culture, equality – but more importantly, humanity?