Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Indians are growing younger

The Stars Are Calling (Published in Sunday Herald

By 2020, the average Indian will be just 29 years old, making India the world's youngest country. Over 64% of India's population will be in the working age group, while the population of western countries, Japan and China grows older and less active. This would unleash a workforce with immense potential and give India's economy a massive boost.
On the other hand, this could become a demographic disaster if enough jobs are not generated and infrastructure does not gear up to adequately support the growth potential. Will our youth get a chance to test their wings and build a better India and world? Will our current leaders and policymakers be able to provide them quality education and training to prepare them to face tomorrow's challenges? Or, will India's youth be bogged down by lack of healthcare and social security, and cut-throat competition, to get and retain jobs?
India is already set to overtake China as the world's most populous country. In the coming years, New Delhi is likely to become the world's largest city, beating Tokyo. And India could, in a matter of decades, overtake USA and China to become the world's largest economy. India, as we know it, will be dramatically changing in the near future. What areas do our leaders and policymakers need to work on to make India the best she can be?
Are they prepared?
How do today's young Indians foresee this brave new future and their role in it? Let's talk to some bright youngsters from namma Bengaluru and find out. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Shashikanth V S, software engineer Anusha Sridharan, children's author and PhD scholar Shalini Srinivasan, software engineer Swateek Jena, Jindal Global Law School student Paushi Sridhar, and software engineer Mohan Sriram Nayaka are insightful and cautiously optimistic. They offer their views tempered with humanitarian concerns, enlivened with dashes of humour.
The youth of the future cannot give their best to the world unless they are adequately educated and versed in skills needed to become productive contributors to society. There are expected to be 600 million Indians below 25 years by 2030. Are India's countless and opening-every-minute institutions for higher education prepared for the challenges ahead? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just announced an assistance of a whopping Rs 10,000 crore to 10 private universities and an equal number of government ones for a period of five years.
While such steps make a few elite institutions of learning accessible to a minuscule number of students, the vast majority make do with universities which are below par or mediocre at best. India boasts of over 750 universities and 36,000 colleges and other institutions of higher education. Questions arise about the quality of education and the academic culture they provide. In 1931, C V Raman won the Nobel Prize for his research done in an Indian university. Since then, not a single Indian working in an Indian university has earned this honour. Dr Amartya Sen, Dr Har Gobind Khorana and other Indian Nobel laureates migrated to foreign universities mainly because Indian academic institutions could not provide them with an atmosphere adequately geared towards high-level research.
What about building foundations for primary and secondary education? If the roots are weak, can the tree grow strong from the top? We frequently come across news reports of dysfunctional government schools in various parts of India, which lack basic facilities such as proper buildings and trained teachers. 
"There could be a back-to-the-roots movement, based on how the present generation educates their children," Anusha Sridharan says. "I foresee many young parents sending their kids to gurukul-type of institutions." She feels that they would want to be the ideal parents who do not want their kids to suffer the mindless rote learning and academic pressures they suffered.
Lack of suitable employment and sustainable income for India's youth is another burning concern. A vast majority of Indians live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Their income is tenuous, and farmers' suicides are daily news. This uncertainty forces large numbers of rural Indian youth to migrate to urban areas. With poor quality education and vocational skills, they end up in urban slums where they live in inhuman conditions and eke out a precarious subsistence. Recent agitations demanding reservations in jobs by certain communities, and related violent incidents, are symptoms of a greater problem. In the Global Hunger Index 2017, India ranks 100 among 119 nations. This indicates the yawning gap between India's haves and have-nots.
Meanwhile, the privileged urban youth often amass higher qualifications to delay entry into the workforce. When an engineering degree no longer guarantees a job, they get MBAs or go abroad to study further. With many engineering and management seats going vacant in recent years, and not even all the many IIMs securing 100% campus placements, it would seem that more academic qualifications do not necessarily translate into suitable employment.
The hire-and-fire culture appears to be here to stay. Job security is likely to become increasingly rare as more young people join the workforce. Employers are likely to cut costs by offering fewer benefits and retrenching senior workers only to replace them with younger and less-experienced but cheaper workers. With the supply of labour even more rapidly outstripping employment opportunities, the prevailing insecurity is likely to increase.
"Our parents in private jobs are working harder, for longer hours, and with more competition and less job security than our grandparents who held government jobs," Paushi Sridhar observes. "India is likely to become more privatised in future. Jobs will not be guaranteed without the effort. The competition will be stiffer and more challenging than it is now."
"I think that the direction the youth take us in depends on how fearful they are about their future," says Mohan Nayaka. "I see a direct correlation between economic and cultural/social insecurity and an inclination towards authoritarianism. I've seen people in their 20s frantically seeking safe government jobs. Isn't that the age to go out on adventures? There's insecurity because of the hire and fire culture. One looks for safety when the risk seems too high. If one is confident about oneself and the environment, fear will reduce and productivity will increase greatly."
Dr Shashikanth goes a step further. "Youth can show their talent only when given an opportunity to serve the country. Highly talented and dedicated people should be in Indian Government and not in the US or some MNC. This itself will help improve the system when the right people occupy appropriate positions. A person who has got a suitable job in the right way will do full justice to the job. When you go to work in a government office, it is often the people who irritate you more than the system itself. "Things can change only if the job selection process is further streamlined. We often see less-deserving and less-motivated people in top positions where they don't fit in. Though we, young people, want to sacrifice high-paying jobs to help people, bribes, influence and reservations frustrate you to the core and prevent you from applying for the job.
"Good architects can plan better cities, good police can ensure safety, and good doctors can improve the health system. A relatively simple step like entrance exams after the Std 12th level to IITs, AIIMS and other leading educational institutions has given equal opportunity to all. Similarly, more scientific entrances to all jobs at state and local as well as central level would ensure higher quality and transparency.
"We need better planning for future, especially infrastructure. Every day new road construction happens. Freshly laid roads are dug up within months to lay water and sewage pipes. These mistakes are happening in every department of the government. You may pass as many bills as you wish, but skilled and motivated personnel are a must for effective implementation. There should be stricter quality checks and immediate action should be taken if standards are not maintained," Dr Shashikanth concludes.
Lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare continues to be another major concern for Indians. The Centre recently cleared the long-awaited National Health Policy 2017, which promises to increase public health spending to 2.5% of GDP in a time-bound manner and guarantees health care services to all Indian citizens, particularly the underprivileged. Will 2.5% of GDP be adequate for something as vital as healthcare? Opening more medical colleges and producing more doctors alone will not solve the problem. Sending doctors to rural areas without building adequate infrastructure will be a waste of talent. Can a highly qualified specialist, for example, who has spent over a decade to acquire skills, benefit needy patients in a run-down health centre with little or no equipment, trained support staff, or even basic medicines?
Today's youngsters foresee great changes in society. "The future definitely lies with us and our thinking," says Anusha Sridharan. "But it will take time for change to take effect. The political verse should get out of the hereditary lane. Family and relationships will become more superficial as more young people join the rat race for money and career. You wouldn't know whom to trust any longer. Arranged dating will gradually replace arranged marriages. The concept of marriage may get a new edge.
"Religion and spirituality will still be there, but secularism would cast itself better. Young people will not reject our spiritual heritage without trying to understand its intricacies. But they will take a more scientific approach, and superstitions will be less binding. Mythological fiction will create more interest where authors put creative twists while reinforcing ancient principles. Some of us will stick to our good old principles and beliefs after exploring the world of ideas," Anusha concludes.
"Hopefully, gender disparity will reduce," notes Paushi Sridhar. "We may see better-empowered women in the corporate world. We also need more women in public life and policymaking."
"Lack of sustainable development scares us all. This growth may continue at the cost of the environment. In a broad sense, our standard of living should be on a par with developed countries. Younger people would probably have more general awareness because of better education and exposure.
"As a student of law, I hope laws such as Section 377 can be decriminalised. As we move forward, Big Data is crucial and handling anything with respect to this is easier for youth raised with technology around them.
"Artificial intelligence seems to be the future. There will be more advances in technology, but how it impacts society remains to be seen. This will require more hardware, which will further exhaust natural resources over time. Already India is producing unmanageable amounts of garbage. Most of my fears for the future are environment related. We have only one chance with nature. India seems to be going the way of the Western world, and it may be a long time before people realise the consequences of exhausting nature," Paushi Sridhar adds.
"We're in for interesting times," quips Mohan Nayaka in a lighter vein. "Let robots do all the work. We will drink coconut water served by robot butlers on the beach and live happily ever after. Why not dream of self-sustaining energy, safe nuclear power, or renewable power sources? Don't worry. Elon Musk is on it, and he's far more brilliant and enterprising than any of us."
Swateek Jena sees the need for a change in our collective attitudes. "Patience, something uncommon these days, can change many things. Getting pizza within half an hour and noodles in two minutes has subconsciously changed our expectations. We don't think of or wait for the long-term effects of any solution; we need quick changes. We need to go back to the books, form an opinion over incidents and issues before providing judgements based on someone else's opinions. We need to learn and grow, help others grow; build the nation by starting with ourselves and then moving to change one person at a time.
"We understand that we are a young country, that we have more power to change things than ever before. But power is known to corrupt. We squabble among ourselves, go out of our way to prove a point, label people for their political ideology. Such pointless pursuits move our focus away from our goal of building a nation that will be better than ever before. If only we could get our focus and priorities right."
Shalini Srinivasan's optimism is uplifting and infectious. "I meet India's future youth every time I write a new book and go to schools for readings. Invariably, these turn into energetic conversations. Children are hopeful and open, animated by empathy, curiosity, compassion. Imagination and a deep concern with fairness thrive in them. And every time I hope they keep these things close, so we can look forward to a kinder, and possibly stranger, future."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Proud to be Indian

My tribute to my homeland on her seventieth Independence Day. Published in Deccan Herald

As we celebrate seventy years of India’s Independence, let’s take justified pride in the wonderful land and culture in which we were nurtured. A cradle of human civilization, our motherland has an ancient heritage of greatness. The Indus Valley Civilization flourished in our subcontinent over 5000 years ago. Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus originated in India in times when humans in Europe were still hunting in the forests for food. Lagadha’s Vedanga Jyothisa, an ancient text on astronomy whose earliest version dates back to 1400–1200 BCE, has astronomical calculations, calendar related studies and lays down rules for empirical observation to help plan religious functions. Today India is the only country after USA and Japan, to have built a super computer relying mainly upon home grown expertise and resources. India produces the second largest number of scientists and engineers in the world. Our highly evolved schools of philosophy; our many languages each with its unique literary treasures; our eminence as the world’s largest democracy; the list stretches on.

India has the largest postal network in the world with over 1, 55,015 post offices. A unique floating post office in Dal Lake, Srinagar, was inaugurated in August 2011.The largest employer in India is the Indian Railways, employing over a million people.

While we have much to celebrate, we also fall short in many ways. Our current situation is riddled with contradictions. Our citizens are among the wealthiest in the world, and India is the world’s largest consumer of gold. Meanwhile, many Indians eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. Some suffer from severe malnutrition, while farmers continue to commit suicide when crops fail and debts become unbearable.  Patients from distant lands come to India seeking state-of-the-art healthcare at reasonable cost. Yet many Indians do not have easy access to health facilities. Mothers die from childbirth related complications, while others die from treatable ailments like dysentery and tuberculosis.

Let’s take pride in our many strengths and achievements, not for the sake of blinkered jingoism or a false sense of complacency. Let’s remember all our many great achievements to motivate ourselves to reach for greater heights. After all, if we could engineer such impressive feats in the past, then we are surely capable of even greater wonders in the days to come. Let’s celebrate the patriotism of hockey wizard Dhyan Chand. After trouncing Germany and leading India to the gold medal in hockey in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Major Dhyan Chand was offered German citizenship by Hitler himself. He was also offered a high post in Germany’s army, and a place in the German national hockey team. Dhyan Chand never hesitated to decline with polite dignity.

Let’s seek inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore, the only poet in the world to have composed the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh. He was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and was conferred a knighthood by India’s British rulers. He refused the great honour to register his protest against the bloody Jalianwala Bagh massacre.

India is the world’s largest democracy. We are a free people of a liberated country. Our elections are overall free and fair, and have been that way since the past seventy years. This is an amazing achievement, especially in a world where millions of people are ruled by totalitarian regimes, or face strong state imposed restrictions curbing their freedom. Our government goes to great lengths to ensure that all citizens are able to freely exercise their franchise. A special polling booth is set up since 2004 for a lone voter, Mahant Bharatdas Darshandas, in a place called Banej deep in the Gir forest of Gujarat. In remote villages in the mountains of the North East where there are no motorable roads, polling officials arrive with their equipment on elephants to dutifully supervise the election process.

We are fortunate to have freedom of speech. Social media, that noisy ranting space for intellectuals and pseudo intellectuals, is flooded with shrill opinions based on questionable reasoning. Mainstream media is often accused of resorting to sensationalism in order to push TRP ratings. The corruption and ineptitude of our past and present leaders is a burning topic. Outrage is expressed selectively, and a sense of balance and objectivity gets lost in the babble of conflicting views. People like us love to complain how the country is run by unprincipled politicians. We must also remember that these same leaders we revile, have so far managed to maintain our homeland as a free country. And because we live in a free country, we can get away with such open criticism of the powers that be.

We have the right to express our opinions, so we rush to shout our half-baked views from the treetops. But when it comes to acting and contributing positively to society, most of us withdraw into our comfort zones without lifting a finger. Let us introspect and try to get a balanced and informed view of issues at hand, and act responsibly before jumping the gun on public issues. Let us also try, each in our small ways, to improve the world around us instead of simply complaining. After all, little drops of water make the ocean. It’s up to us to ensure that we don’t become ‘webaqoofs’; folks who take everything floating in social media as gospel truth. While taking pride in being citizens of the world’s largest democracy, we need to remember that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

True to its principles as a land of freedom, democracy and peace, India has been the largest troop contributor to the United Nations Peacekeeping Missions since its inception.

 India has the world’s third largest active army, after China and USA. India is the world’s largest importer of arms. But India has never invaded or attacked a country. In recent times, India has welcomed large numbers of refugees from Sri Lanka, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who fled from religious and political persecution.

Some people hold that the concept of India as a nation was a British invention. According to them, there was no connection binding all the people of the subcontinent before the advent of the British. However, thousands of years before the birth of Christ, the Aryans called the river Indus as Sindhu. Then Persians came and called it Hindu. Sindhu and Hindu combined to form the name Hindustan, which continues to refer to the entire land of the Hindus. Our homeland has also been called Bharat since time immemorial. Once upon a time, India was a land of fabulous wealth and great advancement. In 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Europe seeking a sea route to India across the Atlantic Ocean. He didn’t reach India famed for her spices, silks and jewels, but discovered America instead!

The British were certainly not the first to unify India under their political rule. Thousands of years ago, India was governed by the same code of laws and rulers when the mighty Mauryan Empire spanned across most of the subcontinent. Rock edicts and pillars inscribed by Emperor Ashoka stand witness to this fact in many far-flung parts of our country.

India had cultural and spiritual unity thousands of years before the British came. Scholars in ancient times traversed the length and breadth of the subcontinent in pursuit of learning, moving from the great university of Nalanda in modern day Bihar, to Takhshila in the far west in today’s Pakistan. Around 800 years CE, Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya travelled from his native Kerala in the far south, to important holy pilgrimage centres for the Hindus across the length and breadth of the land. He established Shringeri Sharada Peetha in Karnataka in the south, Govardhan Peetha in Puri in the east, Jyotirmath in Badrinath high in the Himalayas in the north, and a matha in Dwarka in the West, spreading his message of spiritual enlightenment from the mountains to the seas surrounding our homeland.

Our ancient places of pilgrimage drew saints and pilgrims from all over the land. Consider the example of Puri on the coast of Odisha in eastern India. Puri is one of the four holiest Hindu Char Dhams. Through the ages, saints and sages came here seeking divine enlightenment. Aside from the Adi Shankaracharya, Guru NanakKabirTulsidasRamanujacharya, and Nimbarkacharya also visited Puri. Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, prayed here for 24 years. Srimad Vallabhacharya travelled from his birthplace in the distant south and visited Puri, where he performed a 7-day recitation of Srimad Bhagvat. He also travelled to Gujarat in the west to establish his spiritual philosophy, Pushtimarg. The mathas and meditation spots of these saints continue to exist in Puri, though many are neglected and encroached upon.
Let us celebrate India’s beautiful tradition of religious diversity and harmony. India is the birthplace of four major religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which are followed by 25% of the world’s population. Islam is India's, and the world's, second largest religion. With lakhs of active mosques, India can boast of numbers larger than any other country, including the Islamic world. Jews and Christians have lived and thrived in India since 200 B.C. and 52 A.D. respectively. Zoroastrians came to India in waves over several centuries to escape religious persecution in their native Persia.
I remember with respect the Catholic nuns who affectionately taught us in school. Haven’t we all exchanged greetings, gifts and delicacies with friends from other religions, and shared the joys of each other’s festivals? Let’s maintain this friendship and harmony, and be proud of it.

Through the ages, India has made great contributions to world civilisation. The art of seafaring and navigation was born in the mouth of the river Sindh or Indus over 6000 years ago. Archaeological excavations in the Harappan seaport of Lothal in Gujarat, throws light on their advancements in shipbuilding. Indian sailors regularly sailed to Eastern Africa, the Middle East and Greece for trade. In eastern India, sailors set sail from the mouth of the Mahanadi River for the islands of Indonesia and beyond. The word ‘navigation’ has roots in the Sanskrit word 'navgatih'. The word navy comes from the Sanskrit word 'nou'.

The Indus Valley Civilization prospered 6000 years ago because of technological innovations such as drainage and sewerage systems. Sophisticated systems of irrigation and water storage, such as artificial reservoirs at Girnar C 3000 BCE, led to planned settlements and townships. Cotton and sugarcane were cultivated in this region as early as 3000 BCE. The Indus Valley civilization has also shown evidence of ploughs, hearths for firing terra cotta, map making and the use of weights and measures.

India has contributed to advancements in science since thousands of years. The studies of Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus had roots in India. The 'Place Value System' and the 'Decimal System' were developed in India circa 100 BCE. Baudhayana c. 8th century BCE composed the Baudhayana Sulba Sutra, with basic Pythagorean triples, as well as a description of the Pythagorean theorem for the sides of a square: "The rope which is stretched across the diagonal of a square produces an area double the size of the original square." It also has a formula for the square root of two. Indians used numbers as big as 10*53 (i.e. 10 to the power of 53) with specific names as early as 5000 BCE during the Vedic period.

Charaka consolidated Ayurveda 2500 years ago. This is the earliest school of medicine humanity has known. The Sushruta Samhita, an Ayurvedic text, has exhaustive descriptions of 1120 illnesses, 700 medicinal plants and a detailed study on Anatomy. Sushruta, widely recognised as the Father of Surgery, performed complex surgeries on cataract, urinary stones, and brain surgeries. Ancient Indian doctors used anaesthesia. The world's first university was established in Takshila in 700 BCE. Thousands of students went there from far corners of the world to study over 60 subjects. The University of Nalanda built in the 4th century was another shining example of India’s advancement in higher education.

India’s first satellite was brought on a bullock cart. India’s first rocket arrived on a bicycle to the Thumba Launching Station in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Yet despite financial constraints, India’s space program is among the top 5 in the world. In September 2009, ISRO’s Chandrayaan- 1 used its Moon Mineralogy Mapper to detect water on the moon for the first time. ISRO’s women scientists have helped build India’s spectacular Mars Orbiter or Mangalyaan project. These dedicated women teamed up with their male colleagues to set ISRO’s world record by launching an amazing 104 satellites in one shot.

While excelling in many fields, Indians did not forget recreation. Chess was invented in India. The popular game of Snakes and Ladders, earlier known as Moksha Patamu, was invented long ago to teach children moral lessons about karma. The modern version of this board game is popular to this day.

India boasts of the world's largest film industry. Around 1,100 films are produced annually, which is twice as many as the American film industry.  Commercial Hindi films account for around 200 films a year, followed by Tamil and Telugu films.

Let’ appreciate these and many more Indian achievements, and continue our best efforts to help our country forge ahead.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Disabilities; All in the Attitude

This was published in Sunday Herald

Immersed in our busy lives, we take our abilities for granted. To see and hear and speak coherently, to sprint across busy roads or dash up a flight of stairs, to think clearly and grasp what we read; we do it all without a second thought. Yet there are millions among us for whom these activities are impossible dreams. I recently fractured my knee, and experienced life in a wheelchair.

Taking even a few steps became excruciatingly painful. During the long process of recovery, routine daily tasks seemed as challenging as climbing the Himalayas. Taking a bath; crossing roads jammed with Bengaluru’s legendary traffic; balancing painful steps on uneven and often non-existent footpaths; ordinary tasks posed stiff challenges.

How do people muster the courage and determination to contend with such handicaps lifelong? How have severely disabled persons like Stephen Hawking and Helen Keller overcome impossible odds to become iconic inspirational figures for all of humanity?

Crippled by a rare disease, British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking lost control over his body and gradually became completely paralysed. He is celebrated as one of the most brilliant living scientists. American author and activist Helen Keller became deaf and blind in infancy from scarlet fever.

She was a terrified little child imprisoned in dark, silent and complete isolation. Her dedicated teacher Anne Sullivan painstakingly taught her to speak, communicate in sign language, and read books in Braille. Helen Keller travelled to many countries. She campaigned for the rights of women, workers and disabled persons, and other social causes.

The brilliant scientist Albert Einstein had learning disabilities as a child. In his early years, he was slow in school. Today he is celebrated as one of the world’s greatest scientific minds. They demonstrate the immense talent and potential of disabled people, and the importance of assisting them to integrate into mainstream life.

Disabilities in seeing, hearing, speech and movement have long been recognised. But problems of the mind are only recently emerging from under the carpet. Mental retardation, mental illness, learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and issues such as autism and depression are only recently being acknowledged and tackled. New advanced treatments and therapies are being formulated. Growing public awareness is slowly lifting the veil of secrecy and stigma in which mental issues are shrouded.

India’s official Census 2011 shows 2.68 crore people in India as suffering from some form of disability. Disabled persons comprise 2.21% of the total population of our country. That huge number is larger than the entire population of many countries! Government’s efforts to generate employment and enhance skills are bearing fruit.

However, there’s a long way to go before all persons with disabilities (PWDs), rich and poor, from urban and rural areas, enjoy universal accessibility to essential facilities. Access to equal opportunities in education, transport, employment and a non-discriminating and disabled-friendly workspace and living environment is vital.

Only then will our society become fully inclusive. This is critical for enabling them to gain equal opportunity, live independently with dignity and participate fully in all aspects of life. Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 provides for non-discrimination in transport, non-discrimination on the road and non-discrimination in built environment respectively.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), to which India is a signatory, casts obligations on the governments for ensuring to PWDs accessibility to information, transportation, physical environment, communication technology and accessibility to services as well as emergency services.

Individuals and associations are also pitching in to make this world a more comfortable place for our disabled fellow citizens. Several years ago, I was invited to a special camp organised by the Rotary Club in Bangalore. Doctors, paramedics and technicians had been brought all the way from Rajasthan to fit needy amputees with the miraculous Jaipur Foot.

Wheelchairs and other vital items were being distributed to grateful recipients. After some speeches, three men leapt up on the dais to dance and sing. Neither slickly dressed nor noticeably good-looking, they danced surprisingly well to Bollywood tunes. Their verve and enthusiasm was infectious. And then, the dancers transformed into magicians. They rolled up their trousers as they danced, revealing artificial legs strapped below their knee stumps.

Dancing on a single leg, the men then unbuckled their prosthetic legs and twirled them in the air to overwhelming applause. After the dance, they got down to work as technicians of prosthetic legs for other PWDs like themselves! This was the miracle of the affordable and easy-to-fit Jaipur Foot. Designed in India by Dr Ram Chander Sharma in 1968, it is benefitting countless people. A famous beneficiary is the brilliant dancer and actress Sudha Chandran.

Compelled to have her foot amputated at the age of 16, Sudha Chandran continued her career with tremendous effort and the help of the Jaipur Foot.
People with disabilities, both mental and physical, are now doing well not just in their jobs but also in life.

Thanks to improved health services and other support, PWDs are now emerging from seclusion to live longer and more fulfilling lives, and enriching the society with positive contributions. Famous inspirational disabled persons are many. There are also remarkable PWDs all around us.

Former Army officer Navin Gulia was a fighting-fit young man of 22 when an accident during military training forced him into a wheelchair for life. Spending another 22 years paralysed below the shoulders with restricted arm and hand movement, he continues to glow with infectious enthusiasm.

“I’ve never felt sad in my life,” he says. “Definitely not for myself. People tend to sink into depression, brooding ‘Why me?’ I say, ‘Why not me? Even Jesus Christ and Gandhiji suffered. Am I so special that I should be spared? What will I gain by being sad?”

Self-pity and negativity are not an option for this lifelong fighter. “The miracle is in being alive. If I ever meet god, I will thank him for what I have. The right attitude helps you deal with life. My self-esteem is high. I consider myself equal to others. After my accident, my sense of humour kept me going. I focused upon what to do with the rest of my life. I went on to earn my Master’s degree and studied Gandhian philosophy.” He has also authored a book, In Quest of the Last Victory, an inspirational story of his perseverance, fighting spirit and persistent efforts to achieve higher goals by stretching beyond his limitations.

Taking up the mantle of Directing Worker of ADAA (APNI DUNIYA APNA ASHIANA) came naturally to Navin Gulia. ADAA is an effort aimed at helping, assisting and guiding the lives of underprivileged, orphaned, abandoned and differently abled children in the weaker sections of society. “I wanted to give back something to society,” Navin Gulia says. “I connect very well with children and believe in doing the right thing, not to get attention and popularity, but because I want to be true to what I do.”

“Writing is such a powerful way to release emotions,” says Arundhati Nath of Guwahati, Assam, whose articles on travel, culture, parenting, current affairs and women’s and children’s issues are published worldwide.She’s even penned a book for children and trained in Hindustani classical vocal music while attending to her duties as an employee of State Bank of India. The first time I met her, it took me a while to accept that this charming young girl had just 25% residual vision, had been through multiple eye surgeries, and will need another one in 2018. She, along with her dignified and gently concerned parents, embodied courage and positivity.

Integrating productively into mainstream life wasn’t easy. “Apart from insensitive or sympathetic remarks about my eyes from people, I initially felt I was inadequate when I couldn’t even read the blackboard from the first bench in school. I never had a proper ‘aim in life’ like my classmates who wanted to be doctors or astronauts. I wasn’t confident of my abilities and loved music, science and literature equally, which is still a contradictory mix for higher education in India. In spite of scoring 98% — the highest marks in science in my Class 10 boards, I was discouraged from choosing the science stream because of my visual impairment. I still feel frustrated, but I’m thankful that there are plenty of wonderful books, websites, journals and videos which can take me back to the marvellous world of science. I do not have a degree in science or literature (as I’m a commerce graduate), but I’ll continue to learn more about both of these disciplines.”

“The incidents at school looked like trifles as I grew older,” Arundhati Nath shares. “Depression often reached its peak; and I went back to listening to music and Tedx talks on YouTube, and taking writing courses. I’ve been able to overcome my negative feelings because my parents have relentlessly supported and believed in me, introduced me to books and music very early, and have allowed me to take my decisions independently.I’m indebted to my school teachers: Aparajita Dutta, Ajit Kumar Misra, Rashmi Borkakoty, Mahua Das, Geeta Dutta and Bipasha Deka.In the growing up years, I took solace in music, reading children’s books, and writing stories and poetry.”

It’s all in the mind

Mental health issues have traditionally been treated with silence and denial in Indian society.Trouble and tensions smoulder under the surface. Many silently suffer or see others suffering in isolation, and would benefit from open discussions. Government and voluntary agencies as well as dedicated doctors and hospitals are providing valuable services to sufferers and their loved ones. They strive to bridge the practical and objective gaps regarding treatments and care facilities.

Meanwhile, Indian writers are trying to shed light and spread awareness on the subjective experience of mental illness. Authors Jerry Pinto in his book Em and the Big Hoom, and Amandeep Sandhu in Sepia Leaves, have artistically rendered the emotional alternate realities they have personally faced with their own suffering near and dear ones. Jerry Pinto has also edited A Book of Light, with pieces written by various authors, offering fictionalised or autobiographical accounts of dear ones with mental illness. These stories shed “light on the dark areas of pain and guilt and utter helplessness.” The family is our shelter from the pain, dangers and heartbreaks of the world outside. “But what if it is your mother who is wounding you and then soothing you by turns? What if it is your father who seems distant or desolate, living in a dark tower that you cannot enter?”

In his story in A Book of Light, Madhusudan Srinivas writes of the pressures to appear ‘normal’ regarding his own differently abled son. “Most of our children haven’t demanded anything of us, ever. It’s we who end up demanding a hell of a lot of them in our endeavour to meet society’s norms. To make the differently abled as non-different and as indistinguishable as we can” for the sake of gaining social acceptance.

Annabelle Furtado says, “There is no shame in telling my story. If it can help others understand that a breakdown doesn’t mean you are dysfunctional, I stand to be heard.” She points out something we all need to understand. “No one is merely crazy. We just don’t know how to describe or treat the illness. The lines between normal and abnormal are often so personal. What may seem normal to one may be abnormal to another.”

Such books help all of us understand the pain of coping, of suffering in isolation, the helplessness and lack of peace faced by the sufferers among us, and their caregivers. They spread awareness and sensitivity, and can enable us to better support and appreciate those around us of ‘a different mind’.

PWDs are shining and inspiring us in every sphere of life. Shekar Naik is aT20 Blind Cricket World Champion and has 32 centuries tohis name. Arunima Sinha lost her leg when miscreants pushed her out of a moving train. She became the first woman amputee to climb Mount Everest. PWDs have the potential to excel despite odds. They do not want pity and to be looked down upon because of their handicaps. They can overcome their physical limitations with the help of a strong will. It is up to each of us to support them by boosting their morale and determination.

Motivation and optimism are the key. “If I had a choice to go back in time,” Arundhati Nath adds, “I would change my attitude and belief in myself. That would have eased so much heartache much earlier. It’s our own attitude that ultimately matters.”

Amandeep Sandhu has the final word on disability — “Life can sometimes be hard, but we can resist being crushed.”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harilal & Sons Books Review

Harilal & Sons

Harilal & Sons  by Sujit Saraf     Speaking Tiger Books 

This skilfully crafted novel revolves around Harilal Tibrewal, a Marwari boy who leaves the deserts of his native Rajasthan to seek his fortune in ‘Kalkatta’, the city of dreams in 19th-century colonial India. While India’s freedom movement, the Partition of Bengal and World War II unfold in the backdrop, Harilal and his descendants spread, start businesses, suffer losses and gains, marry, produce children, and die. Based upon the author’s own family history, Harilal’s story imaginatively fills in the gaps in the dry accounts of history. We learn why and how clusters of people from Rajasthan settled in every part of the country, retained their unique culture and customs while capably managing shops and businesses all over India for generations. A strong and fascinating story with convincing characters, set against an expansive historical and geographic backdrop, this is the perfect read.

The book throws light upon the indomitable Marwari spirit of enterprise. “Everything made by Raamji can be bought and sold if a bania knows how to price it,” says the street-smart teenager and Harilal’s saala, Janardhan. “Like rain, urine was made by Raamji, so it can be sold.” A quintessential Marwari, Janardhan adapts as he works at various ways to make money, transforming into English-spouting Johnny when he strikes deals for sahib Andrew Yule. The Marwari is adept at making the best use of money. Even religious sanction can be bought for a price. “A rupee would do the trick — the Shastras had a way of bending to one’s will at the glimpse of silver.”

Bargaining is a vital skill, and thrift is valued. “Even a paisa saved in this manner was a paisa that could be better spent elsewhere.” When teenaged Hari receives news from home of the birth of his first son, prudence overcomes his sense of love and excitement. “They should not have wasted a full rupee on a telegram.” 

“Words meant different things to different people, while numbers were truthful. One bowed to context, the other only to the truth.” Hari values this lesson taught by his master in early childhood. “The name does not matter, the commissions do.”

Ultimately, a Marwari man with many sons must find shops to settle them with. It is this urge to set up a business of one’s own, to be one’s own master that makes young Marwari boys like Harilal to leave the parched deserts of their native Rajasthan to seek their fortunes in the fertile, prosperous distant lands of ‘Disavar.’ Harilal, and later his son Tribhuban, leave home alone at the tender ages of 12 and 11 respectively, to seek their fortunes in distant lands. This amazing spirit seems even more impressive when compared with today’s Indian children, who usually study and grow up under the care of their parents until well into their 20s.

The characters are well delineated and convincing. Hari’s father, his successive wives, and his many children sport unique traits and mindsets. Harilal himself is multifaceted. Stoic discipline rules Harilal as he copes with emotional upheavals. As his wife Parameshwari’s funeral takes place, he wonders about her soul, which nothing can destroy. In his sorrow at her untimely death, he wonders: “What use did a bania have for a soul at all? Buy cheap and sell dear, Master Bholaram had said. What else was there to existence, aside from stock that could be touched and felt and smelt and bought and sold, and what remained when it had been taken away?” With ingrained stoicism, Harilal knows that a man does not grieve like a child. Life must go on. As he watches his 21-year-old wife’s funeral pyre, he gets the idea of setting up a jute press. 

Yet, Harilal is capable of tender and intimate moments with his first wife Parameshwari, and his affection for each of his children adapts to their individual personalities. He can stand by a friend and love him, just as he can be strict in self-control. In difficult times, he gifts a sack of rice to a needy stranger, the Nawab of Bogra’s driver, while taking care to hide the tears in his eyes. His love for Parameshwari transcends her death. When his father manages to place Hari into a second marriage against his wishes, Hari accepts his father’s will with stoicism. He does his duty while retaining Parameshwari’s memory in his heart. In ripe old age, Harilal orders scenes from his happiest moments with Parameshwari to be painted on his bedroom walls in his new haveli. 

Life is precarious, with famines and riots in the wake of Partition. Yet the story is livened by occasional touches of gentle humour. Harilal’s perspective on World War II will make you smile. “If it was a dispute over rates, surely the sahibs were sufficiently good banias to resolve it themselves. What turn of events had caused Raamji to trap a poor bania underground so he could be burnt to cinders in a quarrel between sahibs?”

The narrative flows smoothly, and awkward passages are rare. The older and wiser Hemraj’s conversations with Hari seem stilted, as they board overcrowded trains from Rajasthan to ‘Kalkatta’. The artificial dialogues here obviously serve to inform readers of the facts and the backdrop of the story. Overall, this is a thoroughly satisfying read on multiple levels.

This review is published in Sunday herald

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Manjiri Prabhu Author interview

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because I imagine, dream, feel, love and reciprocate.
And because I have a story to extract from my interactions, from my emotions, whether in imagination or reality and turn it into a fictitious reality.
I want to create a world of my own and enjoy the trials and tribulations of the journey and finally when it is done, sit back and let the world see my creation.
I write because I want to create memories, because I want to learn, explore and live many lives and travel with many characters to lands known and unknown. To feel fulfilled, to remind myself how blessed I am. . . .
I write because that’s what I can do . . . …and love to do!
What advice would you give your younger writing self?
First and foremost, I would tell my younger self that she was right. That feeling that she had all along as a child that she was born to be a writer was completely justified. I would like to congratulate her on her success and persistence. As advice I would tell her to be ready for challenges, be patient and learn to take rejections as opportunities to do better. I would tell her to be more competitive in today’s world and go all out and shout out her achievements. I would tell her to go wild, travel more, love more, absorb more and create more. I would tell her to be more in touch with reality as well as fantasy, experiment more and get out of her comfort zone of writing. I would just want her to live every moment to the fullest so that writing would come inspired, faster and better.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
As a child I wrote for myself, content in the art of creation and heedless to public consumption.  As I grew older, I realized that it wouldn’t matter if someone read my work. In fact it would be great if others did. That’s when I published my first novel ‘A Symphony of Hearts’ in 1994.
Over the years, I’ve written and published books, and the need to reach out to more and more readers has increased. Mostly because publishing a book takes it out of your inner, controlled circle and exhibits it to a world of readers with varied views, opinions and backgrounds. Great feedback from readers is one of the biggest rewards of writing!
The equation of writing for ‘self’has now changed to writing for ‘us’ – for my readers and I. I still create plots that excite me and characters that speak to me but they carry a vision that I want readers to grasp and understand and emulate.
So publishing my book hasn’t changed so much the process of writing, as the need for visibility and exposure to it. Now marketing and promotion also take a big chunk of my time and attention.
What was your greatest writing challenge?
Actually, each of my books has posed a challenge. The Cosmic Clues and The Astral Alibi or Stellar Signs were about a lady detective who solves cases with the help of Astrology. So a lot of research went into choosing the right plots and solving them using Astrology in a systematic scientific manner, and not as a superstitious, magic wand. Similarly, The Cavansite Conspiracy takes place in 48 hours and the protagonist travels from Pune, to Hamburg, to the Isle of Sylt and to London in a matter of so many hours. Matching the time-differences and flight timings was a huge challenge. Finally, my latest thriller The Trail of Four takes place entirely in Salzburg and is about non-Indian characters, taking Re, the investigative journalist on a trail set 75 years ago. The biggest challenge was writing the novel like an insider, and combining history with a contemporary plotline. Having said that, I have enjoyed writing each of these novels.
What’s your idea of literary success?
I write so that people will read, enjoy the product of my imagination and take away something from it. When books sell, the monetary gain enables you to be at peace to write some more. So it helps. It is practical. But I would like to go beyond this materialistic gain . . . to grasp and capture something that is more ephemeral and transient. Memories. For me literary success would be when readers carry me in their memories forever, in the form of my books, characters, stories or messages. When I freeze into their memories, I would feel that I have touched that peak of success as an author and have attained virtual immortality.
What’s your idea of bliss?
My idea of bliss is complex. I want a world where every dog has a home – which means the world is compassionate enough to understand that ‘lives’ matter. It spells peace and love.
I also want a world where each being is treated with respect and love and given the freedom and choice to live his/her own life.
And finally, on a more personal note, my idea of bliss is to travel with my loved ones including my dogs, from country to country, absorbing new cultures, making new friends, writing and filming about it and more, and in the process collecting  answers from the Universe and unravelling the mystery called ‘life’.
Your latest novel, The Trail of Four, is set in Salzburg, Austria. As an Indian author, what inspired you to set your story here? Did you feel compelled to make Re, the protagonist, a person of Indian origin?
I have often wondered what the lure of the foreign books is for the Indian reader. Even today, I believe that books by foreign authors are read more than by Indian authors. And I think it is mostly to do with habit. I grew up reading books by British/American authors and I knew that I was totally fascinated by the milieu and culture and language. Now, after having written 8 books that are based in India but which pop in and out of some parts of the world, I felt this need to explore foreign horizons and move out of my comfort zone. And that is why The Trail of Four is based entirely in Salzburg with Non-Indian characters. However, the Indian in me needed to be satisfied too, so I made Re half-Indian, but alienated from his Indian roots.
But what really inspired me was a visit to the Palace Leopoldskron and Salzburg. I fell in love with them both. I knew way back, when I first set eyes on the Schloss that one day I would set a novel here. I think I was destined to write this novel. Incidents unfolded in such a manner, rather mysteriously and everything aligned perfectly for me to write The Trail of Four. I think the novel ‘happened’ to me. It got itself written. I simply followed a pre-destined path to accomplish this feat.
When did you first realize the power of the written word?
Speaking from an author’s point of view – My childhood was complete and content as I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and lost myself in the world of mystery, adventure and fun. I believe that those books laid the foundation for my career because I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer and create such worlds which offered hope and joy to every reader.  Personally for me, that was the first impact of the power of the word.
Later, as I matured and my reading habits encompassed more serious work, my belief in the written word was only strengthened. A good piece of writing, whether fiction or non-fiction is like a living, breathing entity. It can hook on to your brain and either mess up your thinking or create patterns of thought that can change the world. Either way, the effect can be stunning.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I get furious when I see dogs or other animals being abused or see nature getting destroyed.  I feel that taking care of street dogs is the answer to world peace. I have a philosophy called my ‘Dogtrine of Peace’. Destroying nature is like destroying ourselves. When you cut down trees, encroach into hills and the sea, all you are doing is cutting into the lifetime of your generations. Sooner or later, the consequences will rise like a Tsunami, sweeping off races.
Other than that I get furious when people lie, and are manipulative, are ungrateful, take advantage of the weak and tons of other things. I am basically an angry woman 🙂
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence. 
Kindness and love make a difference. Do your bit. . . .

About the Author:
Dr. Manjiri Prabhu is an independent film-maker for Television, a Writer/ Novelist in English and also the Founder/ Director of Pune International Literary Festival. Having authored 9 books published by Penguin, Bloomsbury, Random House USA and Jaico Books, Prabhu has been acknowledged as a pioneer in India among women writers of mystery fiction. She is also the first female mystery Author to be published outside India and has been labelled as the ‘Desi Agatha Christie’. She has been invited to reputed International Literature Festivals like The Agatha Christie Festival, UK and International Women’s Fiction Festival, Matera, Italy.
Her novel The Cosmic Clues was selected as a Killer Book, by Independent Mystery Booksellers of America and The Astral Alibi was honoured as a ‘Notable Book’ in the Kiriyama Prize. Her unpublished psychological thriller novel was adapted into a Hindi feature film by NFDC, titled
“Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha”. Her thesis-cum-book, titled Roles: Reel and Real, has become a rare reference book for students of Hindi cinema.
Recently chosen as one of 50 Inspiring Women of Maharashtra, she was awarded for “Excellence in Writing” by ERTC Global Herald, in Mumbai. She has also been awarded the Rex Karmaveer Gold Medal Award.
This review is published in Kitaab

The TRail of Four by Manjiri Prabhu: book review

This intriguing mystery by an Indian author is set entirely in Europe, in the historic city of Salzburg, Austria. The novel brings to life the beauty and rich heritage of an old European city, which serves as a striking backdrop for an exciting intrigue. The three-century-old heart of a princely archbishop is mysteriously stolen from its place of rest. Who would do such a thing, and why? An insane criminal is out to destroy the pillars of the city’s heritage and culture. Re, a photo journalist and psychic, Isabel the beautiful local historian, police chief Stefan and hotelier Dan, who is managing the prestigious high profile Salzburg Global Seminar in the Schloss, are compelled to work together to stop impending disaster. As the threats materialise and mayhem unfolds, they must figure out which of the city’s many historic landmarks will be the next target, and prevent further chaos.
It’s a well-crafted, exciting story that will keep you turning the pages all night long. The mystery and fast-paced action are cleverly plotted. There are deliciously interwoven mysteries within mysteries, leaving readers with never a dull moment. There’s even a mystery from the historic past, coming alive in the present. Renowned theatre director Max Reinhardt once owned the majestic Schloss, a luxurious palace by the lake. Forced to flee the Nazi advance during World War II, he left behind a series of complex clues to an unsolved mystery, a hidden secret. As the hours until the next attacks tick away, our heroes must solve the clues and hand over the hidden treasure to the shadowy perpetrator of the attacks on the city’s landmarks. This is the only hope to halt further destruction.
Isabel’s American husband Justin has vanished, and is suspected to be dead. He has left cryptic messages which connect to the attacks on the city. Is Isabel really an innocent, grieving wife, or does she have a hand in Justin’s murder? Is she truly working to solve the clues and save the city, or is she in league with the enemy?
This novel is great material for a film adaptation, with spectacular settings and nail-biting, edge-of the-seat action. With drones spraying toxic gas, floods from the city’s underground water supply system threatening to engulf the city, an explosion in a famous cathedral filled with praying devotees and tourists, shock waves are threatening the very foundations of a city famed for art, culture and fine living.
The plot and the mystery take readers on a virtual tour of Salzburg, and its history and heritage. It is a delightful bonus to the reading experience. Salzburg in all its beauty, is brought to vivid life. The shimmering lake with its undulating blue-green waves, the surrounding mountains, the magnificent Schloss, a historic palace turned hotel that dazzles “like an eternal bride in glitter and gold”; the vivid descriptions are deftly woven into the action. The Schloss, a focal point of the novel’s action, has its own fascinating history. “Concerts, theatre performances, serenades by the lake; the Schloss had created so many careers, ignited so many affairs – it was the perfect baroque dream.”
The novel at times rises beyond complex mysteries to present a blend of beautiful settings juxtaposed against many facets of subjective realities. “Laughter trickled in from the street, carefree and happy. As if just some hours ago the cathedral had not been almost blown apart, as if the threat to the fourth Pillar was only a frightening dream, as if every ticking minute they were not getting closer to a horrendous conclusion. That was why truth was subjective, reality had such different dimensions and memory was sweet and short.”
The characters are convincingly drawn, with light but firm touches which do not distract from the compelling action. Re, the photographer, journalist and psychic sleuth, has an Indian father and a French mother. As such, there are passing Asian cultural references in the story. Whenever faced with a difficult situation, Re clutches his ‘Om’ pendant, that powerful Hindu symbol, to regain spiritual equilibrium and focus. Since the author is Indian, one may have expected a stronger Indian and Asian connection. However, this does not dilute the overall reading pleasure. Readers can expect the unexpected, and turn the last page with a satisfied smile.
this review is published in Kitaab

Shahbano Bilgrami: THOSE CHILDREN book review

Those Children 
Shahbano Bilgrami     

Harper Collins
2017, pp 352
Rs 399

This is a delightful and sensitive tale about the innocence of childhood and growing up, of family ties, loss and love. Imaginative and poetic, with touches of humour and childlike innocence, this novel presents unique and engaging characters seeking their roots.

Ten-year-old Ferzana Mahmud’s life in Chicago is shattered by the untimely death of her mother due to cancer. As their affectionate father nurses his own sorrow, Ferzana and her older sisters Fatima and Jamila, and her big brother Raza, must console each other as they try to cope. They do this by creating their own fantasy world, where they are superheroes with special powers.

To further complicate matters, their father moves the family to Karachi, half a world away. Landing in a strange city with alien people and unfamiliar customs, the children must adjust to a completely new life. They now live in a large compound as junior members of the Mahmud clan. There are grandparents to deal with; sometimes distant and forbidding, and sometimes affectionate. Uncles, aunts and cousins with diverse personalities must be tackled, and school poses new challenges. There is the secrecy around their late mother and the circumstances of their parents’ marriage. Clandestine meetings with their flamboyant maternal uncles raise more questions than answers. What was their mother really like as a young girl? Why is she never mentioned in the Mahmud household? Why is Ferzana’s Dadi so sad, and what secrets lie buried within the folds of the Mahmud family?

“My instinct was to tell her that she was wrong,” Ferzana thinks at one point about her dear Dadi. “That it was unfair of her to deny us the right to find out about our family’s past. After our mother’s death, we needed anchorage; after being displaced... we were searching for something to hold on to, to explain to us who we were and why we were here.” 

As she navigates her way through this chaotic new world, Ferzana begins learning things that school books don’t teach. “It was no less a surprise to me, after countless geography classes and colouring my way through outline maps, that countries, like people, were not stable entities, that they were made and broken, then made again.”

Religious differences and intolerance are a reality creating rifts even within Ferzana’s own family. Her youngest uncle, Shahbaz, says in an uncharacteristic fit of outrage, “But the evidence is everywhere. Where do you think this rigid, intolerant, unforgiving version of our faith has sprung from?” Their orthodox uncle Jamshaid Chacha retorts, pointing at Ferzana and her siblings, “What about the filth these people have brought into our country?”

The influence of religious intolerance is all-pervasive and a reason why their late mother and her family are never mentioned. As Shahbaz Chacha points out to Ferzana’s father, “Even Bhabi and the kids are into it. It doesn’t end there... it just seems as if some of them have lost sight of the essence, or spirit, of the faith in the process.”

Her friendship with Shahnaz, their driver’s daughter who is a girl of her own age, brings home to Ferzana the reality of class divisions. “Even after months of living in Karachi it struck me as odd that people were not always seen as individuals but as products of several abstractions which, when combined, typecast them as surely as if they were mediocre actors in a third-rate comedy.”

People can be dangerous. Ferzana and her brothers and sisters barely escape an attack on their father by “a typical ‘aunty’ complete with full stage make-up... They were intentionally khatarnak, or dangerous, and feared by children the world over, especially for their wet kisses and cheek-pinching fingers.”

Ferzana learns harsh worldly truths when she realises she is being used by her teacher, Mrs Naseem, to carry on an illicit relationship with her rakish teenaged brother Raza.
Despite such grave themes, Ferzana’s imaginative escapades liven the story and prevent it from sinking into gloom. The children suspect the warm and lively Shahbaz Chacha to be “born of a scandalous union”, because he is so unlike the Mahmuds. Ferzana as the superhero Little Furry sleuths around, losing her sister Fatima’s black panties to a devious opponent in the process. She weaves fantasies around her parents’ first meeting and falling in love. A college trip to the scenic hills of Swat and the chance meeting of future true lovers; or Baba as a placard-wielding student protester and Amma as his revolutionary sidekick facing a lathicharge together; she imagines “their pure love a perfect example of the union of the personal and the political.” When Fatima raps her for reading their maiden aunt’s forbidden Mills & Boon romances, Ferzana’s innocent retort is hilarious. “I’m telling a serious story. What do baboons have to do with it?”
As secrets unravel, a transformation takes place in the family. Durdana Phupo emerges from the cocoon of her little-girl room, and slips off her chador. Shahbaz Chacha comes to terms with the truth of his parentage, which is stranger than any fiction the children could have concocted. Dada and Dadi mellow, and the beautiful ending is of hope, tender love and reconciliation. This is, overall, a heart-warming and memorable read.

This review is published in Sunday Herald