Who’s Afraid of Decolonisation? Part II

This time I muse about how decolonisation would work in the Indian context. While the UK universities are actively using decolonial approaches, I wonder if that is the case with Indian universities. Of course, decolonial approaches in India would look very different. The context would differ in each country. The context thus becomes crucial. In the UK, a decolonial approach implies reckoning with its colonial past and how it shapes UK in the contemporary scenario. What would a decolonial approach in India look like? India has to a large extent shed some of its colonial baggage and with political scenario changing in India toward a more right-wing one, politicians are no longer only blaming British for India’s woes or changing British names of streets or cities (as was the trend in Mumbai for some time) in a bid to usher in development or more ‘Indian’ ways of existence. The ‘Other’ has now become anyone who does not side with the government in power: so it could be just about anyone in India.

Despite the sweeping political divides, colonial constructs, globalisation and now neo-colonial/neo capitalist impulses continue to shape who we are. A big part of this is of course the English language. English has and continues to rhold sway as one that will help in greater social and economic mobility and improve career prospects. English continues to be widely spoken in Indian urban areas and also becomes an important common language given the country’s linguistic diversity. Interestingly, recent attempts to impose a national language in India have also met with a lot of opposition, where people would prefer English over Hindi, given the politics of power behind the latter’s imposition. So English is not just seen as a colonial langauge anymore and debates about the validity of English have shifted from how it used to be in post-Independence India. English has further proliferated because of the growth of the internet and increasingly smart phones, that make the language even more accessible for large swathes of the population: urban or rural. English is definitely here to stay. And of course, we all know about how Indians have created a different kind of English: the Indian English and how it merges with other regional languages: Hinglish for instance. I as well speak more Hinglish and English in general than any form of pure Hindi which is my mother tongue. So to echo what Chimamanda Adichie says in her seminal interview, Indians do and have taken ownership of the English language. This is also seen in the ways in which English writing in India has gained immense popularity.

But then should a decolonial approach start with languages? Should we not speak in English? Should we discard that language? That is inevitably difficult to do, because of the global world we live and how English education in general is given greater privilege in India, and how English medium education does indeed open up more career opportunities given how privatisation and neo-capitalism has seeped into India, particularly urban India.

The National Education Policy’s thrust toward multilingual learning and teaching not just at the school level but at the university level was quite a unique approach. Study of different languages in English medium universities is generally not given that much support. Most universities that run regional languages departments have fallen into a state of systematic neglect. Schools in general across India do already have a policy of three language study, however the numbers of regional language medium schools has diminished and almost disappeared (at least in urban areas).

The importance of being multilingual or bilingual are many and the world is only just realising its benefits which again goes to show the entrenched beliefs about the primacy English holds globally. This does not mean that its primacy has reduced; in fact racial abuses toward those speak their mother tongues or speak English imperfectly still continues in countries where hyper nationalistic discourses are being associated with the English language.

So English reigns supreme in India in education, in career prospects, in offices (especially the private sector in urban India) while the NEP pushes for multilingual education in universities. So how do we then decolonise universities through language?

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Who’s Afraid of Decolonisation?

Decolonisation is increasingly become a buzzword in the UK, especially in universities where there is a push toward a decolonial curriculum. It is important to note though that the concept has been around for long. For each country, decolonisation would entail a different process. Perhaps for the UK, it would be more meaningful to engage at both school and university level with its colonial past and look at how contemporary systems and social mores have been shaped by colonialism. I remember the first time when I heard from one of my colleagues about how colonialism is not a major part of syllabi in the UK. It baffled me and still seems quite a strange phenomenon that defies logic in my mind, because if that is not one part of the syllabi then what is taught for say in history of Britain after 1600s? It has always made me wonder and still makes me wonder what is part of the history syllabi there then?

In literature, a push toward decolonial studies would mean incorporating a range of world literature as well. This has always excited me because even when learning literature as an undergraduate student or in my Masters, I often wondered why is my literature so white? Why are only these few authors taught? Why not others? It was refreshing and invigorating when in during my BA, we focused on Indian literature and I remembering discovering so many Indian authors and feeling a sense of oh I can see bits and pieces of myself in this literature; something which was not there in say reading Dickens or Miller. I still remember the feeling of recognition or a kind of empathy I felt for one of characters in Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, simply because he decided to pursue Arts. It is such a common aspect in Indian society to be disparaging of the humanities and even more so now with a push toward more right-wing fundamentalism. But to see this common perception represented in literature felt oddly good. I had not faced any opposition from my parents to study literature but remember some family members and people in general outright showing their disapproval for me pursuing arts/humanities. The point I am making through this diversion is that it is high time we question the English literary canon, particularly because one of the most widespread effects of colonialism (and now exacerbated by globalisation and neo-colonialism) is the acceptance of English as a global lingua franca. Throughout the world, people write literatures in English and even those who do not, get translated into English and gain wider, more international readers. It is essential to broaden our mindsets through a broadening of canons. The need becomes even more urgent as individuals become compartmentalised into very narrow points of view thanks to social media. its vast networks of unfathomable algorithms, and television media. Reading different perspectives through multicultural reading habits would go a long way to create individuals who do not merely think about different people through a prejudiced lens. 

In the UK, though there is a push toward decolonising the curriculum, what then of the university itself? How would universities change policies to become more decolonial institutions? Is it merely enough to have decolonial syllabi in universities when the university itself still reaps benefits based on several different colonial privileges?

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A Rambling Review: Americanah

Note: This is just a rambling review where I have put down my thoughts because it was the first book of 2021 that was thoroughly stimulating in so many different ways.

There could be some spoilers in the way as well. You have been warned! 

I finally got around to reading Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie. When the novel was published in 2014, I had stayed away from the book because I thought it is only about an immigrant narrative and at that time, I was a bit saturated with immigrant novels. 

However, I picked it up last month and was absolutely thrilled to immediately feel drawn to it from the very first line of the novel itself. There is a certain boldness in beginning a novel by describing how a place smells like absolutely nothing! As I began to get even more deeply immersed in the book, I soon realised that Americanah is not just about immigration but also intertwines big topics about identity and race, and unpacks them so unabashedly that it is refreshing. 


Americanah centers around Ifemelu with a parallel narrative about her friend and boyfriend, Obinze, as well. Ifemelu grows up in Lagos, Nigeria and the earlier parts of Americanah focus on her childhood and her experiences as a student there. Ifemelu eventually moves to the US to pursue her degree because of the constant teacher strikes in universities across Nigeria. Adichie etches out Ifemelu’s experience and struggle in America as a student, trying to pay for her tuition fees through job.  A lot of her initial experiences in America were very relatable, especially her initial shock at how expensive things are or her fear of spending money at all. Ifemelu as a character is very observant and her perspectives around the different connotations of English back home or American English, or about the constructions around race identity in America reaffirm relevant debates about World Englishes as well as ideas of being racially colour blind and other forms of casual racism. The latter issues about race become even more pertinent, given the Black Lives Matter movement. This is one reason I am glad I read this novel when I did because it allowed me to pause and comprehend these notions much more clearly and in a nuanced way than I would have back in 2014. That is one of the beauties of this novel, Ifemelu’s (and by extension, Adichie’s) powerful ability to pinpoint the exact nuance of how racism functions through different means and how it gets recast and reframed in contemporary discourses. Americanah thus does not just simply look at race in a vacuum, but also how it impacts Ifemelu’s own views about herself, since she is not African-American, but from Nigeria. 

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Poesie: Why You Must Read Agha Shahid Ali

Today is Agha Shahid Ali’s birth anniversary! He would have turned 72 this year!

Let us re look at how his poems still resonate today and are a shining light through the haze of hate.

Ali wrote widely on Kashmir (his home), and his self-imposed exile and homelessness during his time as a student in America. He stayed on in the U.S.A. as the condition deteriorated in Kashmir in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He did visit his parents in Srinagar over summers in the ’80s and was thus ‘an intermittent but first-hand witness to the mounting violence that seized the region from the late 1980s onward’. Ali experimented with the ghazal style in his poems and is known for having popularised the form among American poets.

The Country Without A Post Office (1997) became one of his most well-known poetry collections, encompassing several facets of Kashmir’s destruction in the 1990s. The poems in this collection portray a Kashmir ravaged by terrorism, but go beyond statistics to show the impact of the rise of militancy on individual lives, the state’s culture, and on Ali himself.

Ali’s Poetry As Political

Though Ali’s poems take no political sides, they are political in the way they take the side of humanity in condemning all forms of violence that wrecked Kashmir during the ’90s. This condemnation comes in the form of invoking a Kashmir from a bygone era when unity reigned and not terror, or in recalling a deep sense of Kashmiriyat that previously united the people. It is these invocations that suffuse Ali’s poems with his trademark melancholic tint.

The condemnation also comes by acknowledging the violence and its repercussions on both Kashmiri communities. For example, in the poem, ‘Farewell’, from The Country Without, the narrator (presumably Ali himself) addresses a Kashmiri Pandit friend, stating:

At a certain point I lost track of you.
You needed me. You needed to perfect me.
In your absence you polished me into the Enemy.
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can’t forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect Enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory.

These lines depict the subsequent and almost inevitable hate that follows terrorist attacks – hate that is used to further pit one community against the other. Yet Ali manages to pre-empt this hate. He realises that the two communities will now view each other with mistrust, turning the other into an ‘enemy’, even though they used to coexist harmoniously earlier:

In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections.

And, it is because he anticipates this hate that Ali quietly emphasises on peace at the end of his poem, despite knowing it to be a difficult prospect:

There is everything to forgive. You can’t forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?

The poem, thus, as Claire Chambers mentions in her essay, ‘The Last Saffron: Agha Shahid Ali’s Kashmir’, is ‘about the ‘othering’ of the two sides in the Kashmiri conflict’.

(Image via Outlook India)

The Relevance Of Ali’s Poems Today

Though his poems speak of a time over 20 years in the past, many of the themes embedded in them are still relevant when one examines the politically oppressive manner in which Kashmir has been handled. ‘Farewell’ bids a mournful goodbye to Kashmir’s former peace, while finding relevance today in the ongoing religious and political polarisation of communities.

While the Internet did not exist in the ’90s, Ali’s poems talk about a different clampdown of communication when telephone lines and post offices were shut leading to countless unsent letters and postcards. In ‘The Floating Post Office’, from The Country Without, Ali portrays a city enveloped in a ‘fog of death, the sentence/ passed on our city’, where the roads are closed but the canals still function. Hope comes in the form of one quaint floating post office as it delivers letters; words that let people know their loved ones are alive. The waterways, thus, become vital for everyone’s survival, with the postman on the gondola holding on to the letters ‘like a lover, close/ to his heart’.

The titular poem from The Country Without also conveys the desolation and devastation of a land where no letters are being delivered:

archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.
Empty? Because so many fled, ran away,
and became refugees there, in the plains

In the poem, a solitary figure is wandering the city’s streets and taking in the destruction. In an attempt to understand the havoc, he reads these letters and answers them:

I read them, letters of lovers, the mad ones,
and mine to him from whom no answers came.
I light lamps, send my answers, Calls to Prayer    
to deaf worlds across continents. And my lament
is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
to this world whose end was near, always near.
My words go out in huge packages of rain,
go there, to addresses, across the oceans.    
It’s raining as I write this. I have no prayer.
It’s just a shout, held in, It’s Us!
It’s Us! whose letters are cries that break like bodies
in prisons.

One can’t help but interpret his answering of the letters as a cry for help to the outside world from which they are now cut off. It is his way of reminding the world that they exist. The letters are cries of anguish, cries of wanting to be recognised, remembered and treated fairly. Though written in 1997, the poem is almost prophetic, mimicking the ongoing communication clampdown in Kashmir where it is, once again, cut off from the rest of the country. It has, very literally, become a country without a post office.

Another pertinent poem from The Country Without that comments on the centralised decision-making process for Kashmir is ‘Muharram In Srinagar, 1992’. The opening and closing lines are similar, and succinctly use the metaphor of a bureaucrat from the plains bringing in death and pain to the region.

Ali describes the bureaucrat’s efficiency and the bubble he lives in:

He travels first class, sipping champagne…
He descends. The colonels salute. A captain starts the jeep.
The Mansion by the lake awaits him with roses….
The Mansion is white, lit up with roses.
He then juxtaposes this rosy picture with the horrors of death in the valley:
In the Vale the children are dead, or asleep…
He’s driven
through streets bereft of children: they are dead, not asleep,
O, when will our hands return, if only broken?

This contrast is telling, especially today, when politicians sitting far away decide on the fate of a region, without taking a deeper look at the consequences of their decisions.

(Image via Daak)

While Ali did write from a distance about his homeland, his words still carry an unbearable sense of loss and suffering that he felt and witnessed on his visits home. He used his words as a medium of resistance and to question the insensible violence wrecking his homeland.

This grief for his home and his role as a poet are beautifully voiced in the closing lines of ‘After The August Wedding In Lahore, Pakistan’ from The Country Without:

The century is ending. It is pain
from which love departs into all new pain:
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,
is bringing love to its tormented glass.
Stranger, who will inherit the last night
of the past? Of what shall I not sing, and sing?

We are now well into the new century, and recently celebrated the beginning of a new decade. And, it is time to pause and read Ali’s poems to remind ourselves to not fall prey to one-sided arguments that solely peddle hatred and hypocrisy. It is important to read his poems to understand the Kashmir conflict on a humane level and to know that love and friendship triumphs extremism and animosity.

This feature article was first published with The Curious Reader

Related Posts:

Poesie: A Country Without a Post Office

Poem of the Month: Agha Shahid Ali

Poeisie: Meraki by Tobi-Hope Jieun Park Review

*Disclaimer: A free copy of the book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Meraki by Tobi-Hope Jieun Park is a debut collection of poems published by Atmosphere Press.


The poems are at once thought provoking, beautifully vivid and visual while also occasionally etching out the complexities of Korean-American identity. 
Almost every poem of the collection begins by focusing on a simple moment that is made quite surreal with the language used to describe the moment. This technique flows into the rest of the poem, creating breathtaking entries that mesmerise the reader immediately. The surreal overtones are further added by the unique metaphors that bring in quite unusual comparisons that make the reader go, “Ah! That’s extraordinary!” These exquisite metaphors show the poet’s power of observation and insight to combine the most unfamiliar of things: a series of letters to bioluminescent planktons, crayons to flowers kissing or stars to porcelain. 

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Magic Realism of Vinod Kumar Shukla

Much awaited 2021 finally comes!

The Book Cafe wanted to start it off by reviewing this gem of a book by Vinod Kumar Shukla, whose birthday is also today!


Fantasy books are the surest way to escape the real and enter a completely new world. Magic realism is another genre that presents a unique blend where you are in the real world, yet experience the impossible or the magical.

To escape the uncertainty and anxiety, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s recent Hindi novel, Hari Ghaas Ki Chappar Wali Jhopdi Aur Bauna Pahad (published three years ago) is a must read. It takes the reader through a dreamlike ride of fun and adventure of the school children in a small village. Shukla weaves in fantasy to the realistic setting of a village in India, most possibly from his home state of Chhattisgarh.

This is why this novel can be considered as a shining example of fantasy and even magic realism.  The beginnings of magic realism are attributed to several Latin and South American writers such as Jorge Louis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Laura Esquival among others. It is a genre popular across the globe from Murakami to Toni Morrison. However, Indian writing has not fully embraced this genre with a few exceptions, notably that of Salman Rushdie.

Thus, when I bought this book because of its title and when I read it, I expected it to be a fun children’s novel. It was exactly that but the surprise was how subtly the author has mixed seemingly impossible things to the real life adventures of the three protagonists, Bolu, Bhaira, and Kuna. The school they go to is itself an example. It does not have the usual benches but instead the children sit on gunnysacks on the floor and the school’s thick walls have shelves or cubbyholes which are occupied by pigeons if not by the children’s bags and books. Eventually, even kids begin sitting in these shelves, first during their free time and later even during class. Imagine, trying to take your seat by climbing up ladders!

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Carol Ann Duffy’s Feminist Retellings In ‘The World’s Wife’

Female perspectives in the mythic and folkloric world are rare because of the universal importance placed on male perspectives. A male-dominated society puts the right to tell stories into the hands of men thereby appropriating women’s realities and downplaying them. Consequently, an idea has formed over the centuries that male experiences, then, are the norm to define oneself as humans.

Over the past few decades, feminist folklorists have tried to reclaim these marginalised voices and give them the space they have been stripped of over the years. Similarly, feminist revisionist mythology writers also try to recreate myths to give prominence to the hitherto unheard female stories and versions.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poems in her work, The World’s Wife, belong to this category.

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Guest Post: What is Blasphemy? Read this book 

Guest Post by Rajitha S

Rajitha is a 29 -year-old from Hyderabad. After working here and there, and tiring out, she is currently relaxing while waiting for inspiration to do something exciting.
Check out her Instagram, wetalkbooks, where she posts about more such cool books!

Note: This review contains spoilers and disturbing excerpts from the book. 

Blasphemy by Tehmina Durrani was published in 1998 and I happened to read it in 2020 by chance. All the while that I was reading the book I wondered, how much can a woman endure? Also, why and how am I able to go through this nonsensical abuse? But I did anyway. I got to the end of it and was without doubt shaken.  

I met with countless women, from so many diverse walks of life. I heard them share stories of abuse of all kinds. Listening to them first hand didn’t pain me as much as the life story of Heer, the protagonist of Blasphemy.  

Set in Pakistan, the fictional tale is based on real life incidents of a woman who is married off to a Pir. He lives exploiting people in the name of god and makes you wonder, where does it stop? The book opens with the death of this monster, which could be the reason why I was so determined to finish – despite how much I squirmed through the process. 

Heer is a beautiful woman born into a poor family. On the day that she receives a proposal from a man, who in her teenage mind is handsome and romantic, Heer’s mother fixes her wedding with a ‘rich and powerful’ man. Before Heer can make sense of all that is happening around her, she is married off. Raped on her wedding night, which she wonders if it was death, she is still trying to understand what is happening to her and why. Soon, survival becomes priority, because there is absolutely no escape from the monster, his activities or anything else that has to do with him. 

The book is a depiction of Heer’s mother’s words – ‘we women are known to be a curse.’ 

This sets the tone of the book – all the women believe this and the men live by this. Heer naturally questions all the nonsense, but only in her head. The conflict between her thoughts and her actions is out there. For instance, when her monster husband comes home one day and summons his first daughter, a child and exploits her, Heer replaces her with an orphan house girl. She goes through an emotional turmoil with this decision. However, the thought of protecting her daughter becomes her consolation. This decision of Heer’s comes after she sees how another house girl’s spirit is killed after she is taken by the monster.   

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Pardesi: Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun

*Disclaimer: A free ARC of the book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

As the title of Jihyun Yun’s poetry volume, Some Are Always Hungry suggests, the poems feature food and hunger in all its forms: the decadent, the delicious, the heartwarming, the sparse and the ravaged. Food is at the center of existence in this collection. Its role in shaping one’s identity, memories and family ties are subtly depicted through the majority of her poems.

Jihyun Yun being a second generation Korean American, the other themes of Some Are Always Hungry revolve around ideas of immigration, feminism, Korean history and her family’s own stories. However, all these themes, like planets, revolve around the sun, food.

The descriptions of food in the poems are always indulgent, even when she speaks of the unimaginable hunger the poems’ persona faced during the Korean War in the early 1950s. Yun brings out both the visceral as well as the subtleties of making and enjoying any meal. She minces no words when it comes to vividly describing the preparation of the meat for the meals. Yet, she can easily and gently introduce the delicateness of enjoying all the ingredients of any dish. For Yun, food was the one crucial link to her past and to her present immigrant identity. This is brought out right at the beginning of the second poem, My Grandmother Thinks of Love While Steeping Tea.

“Drink it all,
dredge the bottom for sunk honey
pull the thumb of ginger in to your mouth
and suck. I mean for you to taste
your inheritance. The gunpowder,
our soil.”

Food is political and not new to the idea of ‘othering.’ This is seen in India as well where food of certain states is considered strange or barbaric. Worldwide as well, the distaste for food consumed by East Asian people, especially China in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, has increased. Although it is alright not to be used to a particular food or having only a set food as one’s comfort food, it is rather narrow-minded to mock cuisines of other countries or cultures merely because they are different from one’s own.

Perhaps as a result of such a constant ‘othering’ of her own Korean cuisine, in the poem, Benediction as Disdained Cuisine, Yun reclaims all the food items the persona or the poet has forgone. What is powerful about the poem is how it reiterates the phrase, ‘give me’ before listing out the food item the poet has avoided for far too long. Two words repeated are all it takes in a way to make a culinary heritage worthy again. It shows an assertive persona, one who is unwilling to erase her identity.

Food is one sure way to remain true to one’s own culture and identity. This is even truer in Diaspora literature. For Jihyun and her family, food was a way to show affection to each other. This perhaps explains why food is central in her poems. Jihyun Yun explores all facets of food and how it can speak volumes about a person.

Jihyun Yun’s family history and memories are irreversibly linked with the home country, South Korea. Her poems throw light on these three aspects through an interplay with food. The poems pull you in with all their tempting aromas, and then throw in the most painful remnants of her family’s history.

For example, the poem, Recipe, reads like a recipe. But Yun also narrates the disquieting experience of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Her grandmother prepares the dish and still confuses the Japanese and Korean words for the food items. Under the Japanese occupation of Korea, Koreans were not allowed to speak their language and were often forced to adopt Japanese names. The fact that the poet’s grandmother still confuses the words and “cannot discard Japanese” shows “a slim silhouette of occupation tethered to our language like a haunting.” Yun smoothly merges the act of cleaving the ingredients to the idea of a cleaved mother tongue or language.

Since preparation of the food is considered largely a womanly task, Yun also explores the notion of female labour and sacrifice. In the opening poem of Some Are Always HungryAll Female, Yun describes the act of buying food from the market and her grandmother or halmeoni dismantling a crab for a meal. Through the metaphor of women being confined to cook even meat that is female, Yun hopes for freedom. It is a decidedly intrepid poem but one whose boldness and power sneak up on the reader slowly but surely.

Since this is the opening poem, the unexpected juxtaposition of the gendered food and gendered tasks immediately pulls you in and you know at once this book is going to be a remarkable read.

And oh what a treat it is to perceive and absorb all the paradoxical flavours of Yun’s poems in Some Are Always Hungry! From being no holds barred in their directness one moment to scaling back and bringing forth the most insidious of all metaphors in the very next, the poems in Some Are Always Hungry pack a powerful punch. They explore elements of hidden Korean history as well as the current realities of immigrants and assimilation. Yun also audaciously explores feminist topics such as in Menstruation Triptych, she speaks about three different perspectives to the monthly cycle. In Caught, Yun portrays the point of view of a rape victim questioning herself after the crime. It lays bare the constant victim shaming girls are subjected to. The Tale of Janghwa and Hongryeon is a retelling of the eponymous Korean folktale. It is a painful reminder of the many taboos that society still imposes on women.

All in all, Some Are Always Hungry includes a strikingly diverse collection of poems that captivate with both the personal and the historical.



This review was first published at The Seer

Belated Happy Halloween!

*Disclaimer: A free PDF copy of the book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Still not over Halloween? Didn’t think your kids got their fair share of fun cause Covid-19 ruined another great festival? Not over the Halloween hangover?

Don’t worry! Here is a great fun colouring book with a twist to channel the remaining Halloween enthusiasm for the year!

It is Halloween Coloring and Activity Book: The Underground Toy Society by Jessica Adams. It is a creative and really engaging.

The colouring book is not just simply colour here or there as you wish but has themed colouring sections and activities as well added to the colouring. The kids get to draw (such as drawing a face on a pumpkin) or get to practice their numbers and counting skills (How many large pumpkins are there?).

They also get some practical tips about Halloween like some safety tips to keep in mind while celebrating the festival.
But these are not simply just preached to the kids, but they have to think and jot down their own safety rules which is a great way for kids to retrospect about the ways in which Halloween can be made safer. It is also a must especially in this time of the pandemic.

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Guest Post: Why are dystopian novels more common than utopian novels?

Guest Post by Sheen!

Sheen Ben Philip is a writer at Binge Mad. Some of his interests include history and literature. He secretly wants to become a writer one day. For now, he is working on it. Check out his other pieces with Binge Mad here.


The addiction to lament. Why are dystopian novels more common than utopian novels?

Let’s take a quiz. List some examples of dystopian novels.

1984 is probably a title you’d name. Orwell managed to write something people would refer for years to come. You can probably spot some Orwellian reference in a publication of repute every other week.

However, Orwell is not the only name in the dystopian universe. You’d probably name Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as well.

There is no shortage in volume when it comes to dystopian literature. Any genuine reader can name three or four dystopian novels or movies despite having little interest in the genre.

Let’s take another quiz now. List some examples of utopian novels.

There is a real probability some readers will have to Google ‘utopian literature’ to even name of a few examples of the same. I did the same myself before writing this piece.

Why is there such a gap between dystopian and utopian literature? Why are multiple generations in the past and the current crop of readers predisposed to dystopian novels?

Let’s delve into this mystery to find out the answer!

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Albert Camus’ Birthday!

Albert Camus was born on this day: 7th November 1913 in Algeria. To mention the unnecessary, he would have been 107 years old this year!

While he died young, at the age of 46 in 1960, his ideas surrounding the absurd have made him supremely relevant even today.

So, on his birthday, let us revisit some of his ideas and question their importance today.

Contrary to popular belief or rather popular misunderstanding, his works do not celebrate absurdity or worse, nihilism but rather provide meaningful answers to overcome the meaninglessness of life.

His two most famous novels, The Stranger or The Outsider and The Plague look at the hopelessness of the situation the protagonists are in but also portray their rebellion against that utter lack of hope.

In 1942, he published his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. In this essay, Camus used the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus as a metaphor for absurdity.

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Graphic Novel on Yayoi Kusama

*Disclaimer: A free ARC copy of the book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

It’s no secret that the art and literature world are often dominated by male artists and writers. Everyone has heard of a Mark Twain or a Leo Tolstoy but few of Anna Akhmatova. Everyone must have heard of Picasso and Andy Warhol but few of Yayoi Kusama, who also created her art in the same decade as Warhol.

A striking graphic novel, Kusama, by Elisa Macellari and translated from Italian to English by Edward Fortes, pays a fitting tribute to this troubled and spectacular artist.

Image from Elisa Macellari wesbite

Yayoi Kusama was born in Japan and took a momentous decision of moving to America to take her career as an artist forward. It was an unthinkable decision for her parents, a decision which led to a breakdown of her ties with them. For painting then, and even now, is considered nothing more than a hobby. The disapproval for a girl indulging in painting is even greater.

Kusama arrived in New York in 1958 when the activism around peace and against the Vietnam War was underway. Yayoi incorporated several of those elements in her art works and installations. Her works got her in trouble with the police authorities for its protest value and obscenity.

Kusama’s struggle in finding a place in the world continued even while in America. In Japan, she struggled against the rigid notions of patriarchy her family also followed. While in America, she struggled against finding meaning in her work as well as a name for herself.

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Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

*Disclaimer: A free ARC copy of the book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

What does it mean for everyone to be normal? Does it mean being able to have all our five senses intact? Does it mean to prescribe to the rules of society? Does it mean obedience to our elders?

The idea of ‘normal’ packs in so much connotation and politics it is impossible to give a single definition. We shouldn’t ideally give it a definition either.  Yet unfortunately, it has become a category in which we neatly compartmentalise people, societies and cultures.  In India, ‘normal’ for any individual would be going to school, college, getting a job, getting married and having a family. The last two aspects are considered extremely important especially for women, as if the world would fall apart if that did not happen. Different countries and cultures would have their own such normal expectations out of its members.

What happens though if people do not want to follow that normal? This happens often. If people always followed the normative, there would be zero progress among humankind.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata is one such novel that explores characters who do not want to follow the so called normal expectations society has from them. It is translated to English from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Because it questions the normal, it is not going to be in any way a normal novel, whatever that entails.

Image from Groove Atlantic

The novel opens up on a familiar note of family festivities and togetherness. The protagonist, Natsuki, is visiting her grandparents’ house in Akishina for the Obon Festival. It is an annual trip her family makes. She loves visiting the countryside as she lives in the urban, Chiba city. She is close to her cousin Yuu, only because they are able to understand and connect with each other.

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Short Story of the Month: Lunch by Cristina Henriquez

Welcome to the eleventh short story of the month! 

It’s election time in the US and as always the world watches as the debates go downhill and the COVID cases go uphill. Immigration is probably up for debate as well as usual since people and governments love blaming outsiders for any faults instead of actually being retrospective and overhauling the system.

Cristina Henriquez’s ‘Lunch‘ is the focus of this edition of Short Story of the Month.

What is the story about?

Lunch‘ not a typical immigration story in the sense that it does not talk about immigrant hardship and the process of acculturation. However, through food the short story talks about a divided identity and families that spread across continents.

In just about 3 pages ‘Lunch’ creates a sense of warmth around family lunches and food in the protagonist’s home in Panama. The family get together is held strong by the protagonist’s grandmother.

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The Reading Spree: National Translation Month!

September was a month for unwinding to some extent. But it was a strange month of both relaxing and also constant busyness. I really wanted the month to just end for its strange busyness.

Hence reading this month was slow and more deliberate where I could absorb like a sponge all that lay before me on that page at that moment. Needless to say I did not read quite a lot of books!

I read two translated works in September to go in tandem with the National Translation Month.

The two works are:


1. Seasons of the Palm by Perumal Murugan: Perumal Murugan is hailed as a writer who does not shy away from the depicting the painful injustices in our society today. Seasons of the Palm does just that as it shows a group of children bonded to different rich landowners in their village. They must work for them to repay the money their parents take from the landowner. Their work also gets their family food to eat. The novel mostly focuses on Shorty and his struggles as a shepherd and doing all the tasks well for this master so that he does not get beaten or trapped in the dark debt web. The novel lays bare caste prejudices as well as a horrific bondage system still prevalent in many villages.

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Remembering T.S Eliot through his lighter verses

T.S. Eliot is known for epitomizing the 20th century post World War I disillusion with systems and civilizations.  His poem Wasteland flummoxed critics enough to be hailed as a masterpiece in chronicling the human condition post WW1. The poem still continues to perplex students as they pour over annotations and the history of English Literature to make sense of it all.

However, today on his birthday, let’s focus on his poems that do not need such meticulous study, that make no sense at all, and that’s the joy of of reading them! It is the exact opposite of The Wasteland. Let’s celebrate the famed poet’s birth anniversary by talking about his witty, utterly creative and absolutely marvelous poems in the poetry collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

A reputation of being indifferent, queenly and uncaring has been built around cats. Most view cats through this stereotype. However, far from being indifferent, I would think of cats as being creatures that value their space and show affection in their own unique ways. Each is endowed with a personality and style. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats celebrates this uniqueness.

In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Eliot penned light, humorous verses that create some of the most memorable cat characters in English literature. It was these verses that inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Cats. While the musical attempts to create a plot out of the poems, the original poems in the collection are largely stand alone poems that weave whimsical stories about different cats. The poems in a way anoint cats with a glory that the species deserve!


This is seen right at the beginning in the first poem, ‘The Naming of Cats.’ Naming a cat is a solemn occasion. One must choose the name wisely.  No silly riff raff of a name should be given. Instead,

“… a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified.”

Right here, we come across the idea that cats are unique and their names should carry substance.

True to this idea, all the cats in the rest of the poems have unique and quite British sounding names. They have strange and peculiar qualities including the stereotypical ones such as being curious or having many lives.

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Tahmima Anam’s The Bones of Grace is a Haunting Tale of Incompleteness of Our Being

The Bones of Grace by Tahmima Anam carries a deeply profound sadness that is difficult to escape. It speaks of such absolute raw and bare emotions that it is hard to keep yourself distanced from them. The second person point of view used in the novel adds to this devastating feeling of the inescapable. The narrative pulls the reader deeper, forcing to confront some of the inevitable realities of human life.


One such reality that shapes the novel as well as human relationships is a sense that we are incomplete and we will not be able to overcome it. We just have to live with it.

As Elijah Strong says at the very start of the novel,

“Loneliness is just part of being a person. We long for togetherness, for connection, and yet we’re trapped in our own bodies. We want to know the other fully, but we can’t. We can only stretch out our hands and reach.” 

This crushing truth permeates The Bones of Grace from the very beginning. Each character is endowed with different shades of incompleteness or a loneliness that haunts all human existence.

Elijah Strong is the character to whom the entire novel is addressed. Zubaida Haque is the narrator. She is from Bangladesh and is a paleontologist studying at Harvard University. Zubaida met Elijah because of a serendipitous coincidence at a concert at Sanders Theatre. Their conversation started on an odd note that is perhaps possible only among complete strangers. Zubaida, submerged in Shostakovich’s Symphony 5, recalls a vivid childhood memory she had suppressed and reveals to Elijah, the complete stranger, about her being adopted. This strange introduction led to the two getting to slowly know and understand each other.

Zubaida has a seemingly well planned life. She has supportive roommates in America. She is selected to go to Dera Bugti in Pakistan to dig out the fossils of the walking whale, Ambulocetus natans. She is betrothed to her childhood friend and sweetheart, Rashid. However, her world collapses when her dig comes to an abrupt end and she returns to Dhaka. She is tormented with the nagging thought that she has lost an opportunity to make a dent in the world.

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Quick Reviews: Thank You, Miyuki

*Disclaimer: A free ARC copy of the book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Sometimes you tend to judge a book by its cover. Once while browsing through NetGalley’s books to read, I came across the intriguing and colorful cover of Thank You, Miyuki. It was listed under Children’s Books and off late I have enjoyed reading kiddie books because a) they are quicker to finish and b) are full of the most insightful insights packaged in simpler ways! 

From Princeton Architectural Press Website

Thank You, Miyuki turned out to be both. I simply fell head over heels with its profound simplicity brought out vividly through sparse dialogue and gorgeous illustrations. 

What is it about? 

Thank You, Miyuki is written by Roxane Marie Galliez and illustrated by Seng Soun Ratanavanh. 

It begins with Miyuki admiring her grandpa’s taichi skills. Then rushing off to make tea for him to show that even Miyuki can take care of her grandpa. Although he would like to focus on his taichi and meditate, the grandpa humours Miyuki and sits down to have tea with her.

Then, they go on a walk. And what a lovely walk indeed! The two take in the sights and sounds and indulge in them. 

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Talking Of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar

6th September is when 2 years ago in 2018, the Supreme Court of India ruled on Section 377 and decriminalised homosexuality.
Hence, today’s book review is about the YA novel, Talking of Muskaan.
It is insightful YA novel that explores the issue of bullying and homosexuality in high school. In doing so, it also speaks about class, an entitlement that comes with class, the need for better support systems for students to understand and gauge their identities.
The events around the death of a young and successful actor in the past months have brought to the limelight the stigma around mental health. It is important to start conversations around this to understand each other’s well-being. It is also imperative to acknowledge how society’s own rigid ideas around class, caste, gender and success can mar an individual’s mental state. To begin a conversation, we should also work toward creating equal spaces for everyone.
The novel begins with Muskaan’s best friends Aaliya, Rashika, Srinjini, Divya and Subhojoy being summoned by their school Principal. They are informed that Muskaan had attempted suicide and was hospitalized. The Principal tries to understand through them, about what could have been troubling Muskaan.
The story then reels back to five months earlier to flesh out the characters of Aaliya, Subhojoy and Prateek, along with unfolding the events that led to Muskaan’s suicide attempt. The rest of the novel is only seen through these three characters. The reader does not hear Muskaan’s viewpoint. The reader only hears about Muskaan and her thoughts through these characters. Aaliya and Muskaan are good friends. Prateek is a rich kid with a rich father who liked Muskaan but she rejected him. Prateek later gets put off by her quiet nature.

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