I’ve never thought of myself as a non-fiction person. Even last year, I tried reading a couple of non-fiction books and somehow gave up midway. (Lean in and I am Malala, if you want to know which ones they are! May be, I should just pick them up one day and begin reading again.) It was then that ‘Unbreakable’ happened.
Unbreakable is the autobiography of Mary Kom. It’s a pretty small book. No frills attached. Simple writing. In fact, there are some glaring grammatical errors in it. Yet, the book kept me hooked. Because of how much that lady has endured (is enduring?) If being born in the North East itself is a curse, then being born poor in the North East is beyond redemption. When Mary describes how she was asked to stand outside the school for non-payment of fees, you know, it isn’t easy to not shed a tear. But, these are early days. She had to endure so much more. Bureaucracy. Favoritism. Family opposition for taking up boxing. Unclean loos in trains. Racial slurs. Self doubts. And, so much more. Once you read the book, you’ll understand that she is not just a boxing champion; she is a true champion. Everyone kept speaking a lot about the film on her. I don’t know much about it ‘cos I’ve not watched it. But, I doubt anything said via someone else will have the same impact as that said by the person affected themselves. And, in that way, Unbreakable had a huge impact on me. Read it; it will help you put your life in perspective.
It was the season when one much hyped sports autobiography was launched. Also, trashed as soon as it was launched. You know which one I am talking about, right? 😉 And, it was precisely at this time that I chose to read another sports autobiography. ‘A Shot at History’. It is Abhinav Bindra’s story told by my favourite sports writer, Rohit Brijnath. To tell you the truth, I bought the book not to read Abhinav’s story but to soak in the beauty of Rohit’s words. For a poetry illiterate like me, Rohit’s prose is almost poetry. Rohit is THE best sports writer I’ve ever read. But then, once I began reading, I was into Abhinav’s life and his struggles. Which is quite a contrast to Mary Kom’s.
Abhinav was born into a pretty well-off family, which is why when he chose shooting as his career, he was able to get the resources to become the best of it all. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have his difficulties; or that we are entitled to belittle his difficulties. At one point, he says having the money itself was turning out to be a more negative influence than positive. He says a poor person is propelled just by his/her poverty to achieve more whereas if one has resources, he would have to summon a lot of inner stamina to get to achieve something. Being a child prodigy, there were innumerable times when he was written off for barging into an adult sport. Apart from his struggles, I loved the honesty with which the entire book has been written. Be it, introspecting about himself or shaming the system, the words come out with a kind of genuineness that touches your heart. Having known nothing about shooting as a sport, I was able to sit through the entire book and enjoy it. And, that is because of the honesty of the words. Also the words themselves; because Brijnath.
I think such sports autobiographies should be made a part of the school curriculum. Not to be memorized and judged, but to just imbibe the spirit of these heroes and help us set our goals, leave alone achieving them!
Now that the sports quota is out of the way, there are two more books that need to be mentioned here. First one is The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This is a memoir written by a son to his mother who has died of cancer. This book speaks about the last few days of Mary Anne, Will’s mother who suffered from pancreatic cancer. And, the last few days were spent between the mother and son reading books together and discussing them with each other. Sometimes, these books themselves paved way for them as a coping mechanism to deal with life and death.
The relationship between the mother and the son has been etched really beautifully. Every time I read about them talking about books, I’d imagine myself doing the same with my children. As a bonus to reading a beautiful book, this book offered me a lot of book recommendations. I really didn’t want the book to end.
We’re all in the end-of-our life book club, whether we acknowledge it or not; each book we read may well be the last, each conversation the final one.
Okay.. Now for the last book. I deliberately kept this one as my last. ‘Cos I didn’t know how to write about it. It stirred so many emotions in me that even after days of reading it, I am still stuck with the stories from the book. This Divided Island by Samanth Subramanian is the book I am talking about. This book is about post-war SriLanka.
My parents owned a house in the outskirts of Madras from 1984. In 1989-90, my parents let the house out to a group of bachelors. I think my parents didn’t do much of a background check and in 1990, when the LTTE leader Prabhakaran shot down in Madras a man called Pathmanabha, who was the leader of a rival Tamil outfit, the ‘bachelors’ ran away from our house. In the house later were found a lot of ammunition, syringes and the like. It was then that my parents realized that the bachelors were not really bachelors but a part of the LTTE. From then on, my parents did enough background checks while I became more inquisitive about this entire LTTE business. Also, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, my list of questions about the Tamil outfit and their intentions only kept growing.
Being born and raised in the south of the country, I’ve always never had an independent view of the LTTE and Prabhakaran but various observations with their share of favoritism. Exactly why when I read this book, I somehow couldn’t believe what I was reading. LTTE was always portrayed as a savior for Tamils in Sri Lanka. That, they definitely are. But, after reading the book, I realized that although their initial motive was right, their actions failed their cause. Their leader failed them in more ways than one. Otherwise how can someone pull a child of 12 and 13 into war? That is not to say the SriLankan government were never at fault. They’ve always been and more so, the current one which doesn’t know the difference between authority and democracy.
For me, the major revelation came from the fact that the Budha bhikshus are a part of the political system is SriLanka. I’ve always maintained (and I always will) that politics and religion are a brutal combo. Take for instance, Saudi Arabia. The laws of the land are governed by Islam which makes it almost impossible for development.
The best thing about the book is that it is an independent view of the entire post-war SriLanka. Every facet of the war damaged country is ‘reported’ without any leanings. It is atrocious, this war. How savage it can be, however good its cause, it’s effect on the common man is always always brutal. And, this book brings out this brutality of the war in full force.
I would be doing great injustice if I do not speak about the author. Samanth Subramanian. Like I’ve always maintained, I love lyrical prose. Samanth is one author who loves his words and makes us fall in love with them. His Following Fish is one book that I loved loved reading. When I heard that Samanth’s next book is out, I really wanted to pre-order it. But, because the book is based on war, I kind of hesitated. Then, I kept reading reviews after reviews about the book and at one point was forced to pick it up. Even though the book is about war, Samanth’s words don’t lose their charm. I felt anger; to the extent of digging my fingers into my palms at some places. I felt sadness; howled silently at times. But most of the time, I felt helpless. What am I doing in this world, is a question that I kept asking myself repeatedly.
Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.
Also, I would be missing something great if I don’t laud the author’s efforts in gathering the stories in the book. He’d gone to the extent of risking his life for writing this book. This book, the last that I read in 2014, is easily the best book that I read in the entire year. If you are interested in the stories of your fellow human beings, read this book. It will be worth your time.
In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.