Book Review — Too Afraid to Cry by Ali Cobby Eckermann

Too Afraid to Cry CoverThe Book…

Title: Too Afraid to Cry
Author: Ali Cobby Eckermann
Publisher: Navayana
Year: 2015 (Originally pubished by Ilura Press in 2012)
Price: INR 295/-

Too Afraid to Cry is a memoir by Yankunytjatjara poet and writer Ali Cobby Eckermann. The writing is sparse and the language is stark but don’t let the former mislead you or the latter deceive you.

Much can be said — and has been said — about literary critics either being too stubbornly difficult to please or, on the other extreme, being too quick to find, and in many cases supply, merit when there is none. My own opinion is that we are all entitled to our opinions!

Thoughts…

That out of the way, I now profess my absolute adoration for Too Afraid to Cry. Is it profound? No. Is it elegant? No. Not really. Is it joyful? God, No. These are all the wrong questions. And if you are asking them, you’d better get another book. The hard reality is that very few lives, if any, are filled with profundity, elegance and happiness. These are, to modernise Hardy, only occasional episodes in the twelve season series of a painful drama called life. And as we run through the book’s pages, we realise that for Eckermann, an aboriginal in Australia ‘stolen‘ from her mother, happiness was but actually only a few fleeting scenes spread across multiple seasons.

Ali Cobby Eckermann

The prose is jarringly honest. It neither embellishes nor exaggerates. Her own rather unwise decisions, the failings of society and the racism of government policy are there for us to see in their naked form. (“‘Aboriginal families don’t care for their children.’ Where did those words come from? Who put that shit in my head?” Eckermann asks after seeing a happy Aboriginal family camping in a creek.) The poetry that intersperses the prose sections is equally unabashed. “I am white. I am grey. I am black.” She declares at one instance resolutely lashing out against the racial prejudices.

It is a brave and powerful memoir that can be completed in a single sitting. But the experience is more rewarding with breaks taken for reflection — a lot of details are left, I can only assume, for the reader to imagine and perhaps fill in — and for placing yourself in her context. I teared up a few times.


I am appending a poem from the book. I hope copyright would not be an issue.

I Tell You True

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I watched my daughter perish
She burned to death inside a car
I lost what I most cherish
I saw the angels hold her
As I screamed with useless hope
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
It’s the only way I cope!

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I found my sister dead
She hung herself to stop the rapes
I found her in the shed
The rapist bastard still lives here
Unpunished in this town
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since I cut her down.

I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
Since my mother passed away.
They found her battered down the creek
I miss her more each day
My family blamed me for her death
Their words have made me wild
I can’t stop drinking, I tell you true
‘Cos I was just a child.

So, if you see someone like me
Who’s drunk and loud and cursing
Don’t judge too hard, you never know
What sorrows we are nursing.


Oscar’s Wild Wit in “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Guy uses the pseudonym Earnest to woo lady. Second guy, guy’s friend and lady’s cousin, uses the same pseudonym to woo second lady, guy’s ward. The ladies fall in love… but with the name Earnest. Hilarity ensues.

That is the outline of Oscar Wilde’s rib-tickling satire “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Crammed with nonsensical, but only seemingly, conventions and piercing wit, it’s a rapturous and riotous read.

Here are some highlights:

Algernon: Divorces are made in Heaven.

Algernon: Well, in the first place, girls never marry the men they flirt with.

Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.

Algernon: Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University.

Algernon: In married life, three is company and two is none.
Jack: That is the theory that the corrupt French Drama has been propounding for the last fifty years.
Algernon: Yes; and that the happy English home has proved in half the time.

Algernon: I am feeling very well, Aunt Augusta.
Lady Bracknell: That’s not quite the same thing. In fact, the two things rarely go together.

Algernon: If one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music, people don’t talk.

Gwendolen: I hope you will always look at me like that, especially when there are other people present.

Lady Bracknell: Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.

Algernon: Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest idea of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.

Algernon: It is awfully hard work doing nothing.

Gwendolen: Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old fashioned respect for the young is dying out.

Cecily: Well, he said at dinner on Wednesday night, that you would have to choose between this world, the next world, and Australia.
Algernon: Oh well! The accounts I have received of Australia, and the next world, are not particularly encouraging. This world is good enough for me, Cecily.

Algernon: If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.

Cecily: Oh, yes. Dr. Chusable is a most learned man. He has never written a single book, so you can imagine how much he knows.

Cecily: Pray do! I think that whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.

Algernon: Well, one must be very serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life.

Gwendolen: In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.

Lady Bracknell: Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.

Lady Bracknell: To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out about each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Lady Bracknell: Untruthful! My nephew Algernon? Impossible! He is an Oxonian.

Lady Bracknell: Ahem! Mr. Worthing, after careful consideration I have decided to entirely overlook my nephew’s conduct to you.

Lady Bracknell: London society is full of women of the highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge, she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago.

Gwendolen: This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.

Gwendolen: I never change, except in my affections.

Jack: It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.


Aaarrrggghhh — Ad Hominems

Ah! most fallacious of the fallacies, the fallacy fallacy included — these ad hominems, common as M&Ms, or Eminem’s rhymes, only more decadent and subversive, a blot on the mechanics of reason and reasoned debate.  Why thou existest?

I once said ‘Praise be to reason for that with which life be understood and lived! Praise be to knowledge for that with which life be made sober and calm.’ I also said ‘Death be to God for that with which life be left unknown, unlived.’ Scarce had these escaped my tongue, the lot of salt and knife was thrown at me.

My pedigree, my loyalty, my trespasses of yonder past, my debts, my hair which long I keep, my parent’s work, how they earn their daily bread, and many things more — all brought up, questioned, inverted to make the argument, nay, pass the judgment, eternally binding, that reason and knowledge be cast away till Thy kingdom come; for what can I say, these sins attendant, oh such unforgivable unfathomable sins, that might be listened to, that might be of value except for the blasphemy of the Lord. They’ll none of it.

This fate I faced, this fate you’ll face. These things I’ve seen, these things you’ve seen. But to destroy the person to rid the idea, to target the person to weaken the idea — what myopic folly! What, sigh! influential, baloney fit for a felony; what poppycock deserving the 17 Glock; what balderdash waiting for a crash!

Argumentum ad hominem must die. But it continues ad nauseum. Alas!

Aaarrrggghhh — everything-you-need-to-know articles

No greater disregard for the collective conscience and intelligence of the human mind has been displayed than by the arrogant pronouncements of the self-appointed improperly informed establishers of propriety, deciders of ‘everything you need to know’ and assumers of ‘things you didn’t know’.

Lazy clickbaitery obliges dull assemblification — that’s an invention, deal with it — of simplified, often falsified, information fed through the medium — ah the tedium — of serialised, trivialised, bullet points which, after reading, you invariably realise were not at all things you needed to know and even if they were, that they definitely not everything you needed to know.

The obsession with simplification, the fixation with, indeed celebration of, short attention spans — inshorts! I am looking at you — leads to the eventual production of sterilised info-packs that convey neither the subtlety nor the severity or sometimes even the sense of what they purport to convey.

Must this stain be permitted to soil the absorbent canvas that is the human mind in a bland black monochrome rendering it incapable of producing the shades of colour that would otherwise make it beautiful?

Annie Zaidi Known Turf

Book Review — Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales by Annie Zaidi

Known Turf CoverThe Book…

Title: Known Turf: Bantering With Bandits and Other True Tales
Author: Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Tranquebar Press
Year: 2010

What do you do when you see a ‘Get 3 at INR 100/-‘ sign? I set to work seeking out the books with the most exciting covers. This one with the embossed shoes — made more attractive by my love of Converse canvases — and blurry newspaper snippets stood out dramatically. I purchased it. That happened at the Delhi Book Fair 2016.

I knew neither the author nor had come across her blog where she still writes. (Turns out much, if not all, of the material was already published on, or ‘inspired by’, her blog. VI. 1. What do you fear? for example can be found in this 2007 blogpost.) That mattered not to me anyway.

What is it about…

Apart from II. 1. Mornings, Evenings, Headaches, Preferences which is a genuinely fun if asinine banter about ‘chai’, the book is a series of short essays about otherwise serious issues ranging from pressing gender concerns to hunger among tribals to problems of casteist oppression and even a significant portion on Sufism. It is heady stuff written in a reportage/memoir/travelogue/commentary style.

The exciting and respectful I. 1. Please Do Not Carry Loaded Guns in the Bus which covers the notorious dacoits of Chambal is followed by a discourse on ‘chai’ (see above). III. 5. Losing the Milk is heart-wrenching as it lays bare the depressing realities of government enforced ‘displacement’ — which really is a euphemism for devastation — among the Sahariyas of Madhya Pradesh. IV. 3. Prone to Bondage shocks you with the dirty politics of caste oppression in a place many people least expect; Punjab.  Section V dabbles in the mysticism of Sufism and in VI. 1. What Do You Fear? the author tries to make sense of the drama around religion from a considered Muslim perspective. VII. 3. The Top One Per Cent, in a section centered on gender issues, reveals the shocking inadequacy of education in dismantling entrenched societal structures that perpetuate gender biases.

Annie ZaidiWhat I thought…

I usually look at back blurbs with great suspicion but the book really did ‘engage, surprise and shock’ me. Mainly because of my less than passable knowledge of the topics covered. But also because of the measured telling of stories — pointed where critique is due but sympathetic where necessary. The commentary even if lacking in places — this is no dissertation anyway — is interesting and earnest especially on issues that the author identifies with — gender and religion. A flurry of emotions runs through as you read the book.

However, as much I enjoyed the banter on ‘chai’, I found it and the section on Sufism awkwardly placed alongside issues of immense gravity. (FWIW I would have thoroughly enjoyed a whole book on ‘chai’.) Knowing where the book is coming from and what it seeks to achieve, this is the only gripe I have. The book is a refreshing and stimulating read.

Book Review — Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths by Devdutt Pattanaik

Cover of Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek MythsThe Book…

Title: Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths
Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year: 2016
Price: INR 499/-

The book is a fairly comprehensive if highly simplified ‘retelling’, as its title implies, of Greek myths including Roman narrations (sources include Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid). The key selling point is that these stories are interspersed with qualifications and comparisons to Indian myths Ved Vyas’ Mahabharata, Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Puranas). The problem, however, is that Indian myths are fundamentally different from Greek myths. There are, as Devdutt himself acknowledges, more points of divergence than convergence and any similarity is only superficial.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the highly abridged nature of the stories, the book does not adequately engage the reader. Add to that the highly populated and maddeningly confusing family trees which are the very nature of these stories! Uninitiated and dispassionate readers — if there are any — will find the experience rather bland. Also, the notes remarking on Hindu myths require a fair amount of prior knowledge to actually be of use.

Devdutt PattanaikAs such, the book will not impress the seasoned student nor engage the uninvolved newcomer. But for the engrossed newbie and also for people — like me — who are about chest-deep in the irresistible currents of these tales, it is a must-read. The emphasis is on relevant structure rather than the minutest detail. But this is not at the expense of clarity — which means there are a lot of names and bloodlines to keep track of. It is a book I will frequently return to for quick patches to cracks in my mythological armour.

If I may…

If I have one person to thank for my love of mythology, it is Devdutt Pattanaik who is ‘a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession and a mythologist by passion’. Sometime in 2012 — or was it 2013? — I stumbled upon this TED Talk which cast me headlong into mythology. The story of Alexander and the gymnosophist offered a tantalising peek into what could only be a fascinating world. How could I resist? How could anyone resist?

Whether it is Manmohan Singh calling out the ‘drawing room Cassandras’ after the success of liberalization or John Milton invoking the ‘sisters of the sacred well’ in Lycidas or Rumbemo Kithan  talking about what seemed like a ‘Sisyphean task’ when he was grappling with the civil services exams or the IT guy discovering a ‘Trojan’ on your hard drive or the local church organising an ‘Orpheus Hunt’ or perhaps the local police officer declaring that the police would ‘leave no stone unturned’ to find the missing child,  they are all drawing upon Greek mythology. All of these references have stories that are guaranteed to fascinate you.

Interested? Get the book!

That Tuesday

It’s Tuesday,
A dusty dreary day;
Lonely hall,
Companion of the fall;
Marbled bench,
Beside a mud stained trench;
I sit down,
In distant mem’ries drown.

Puffy clouds,
The sky in dark tone shrouds;

Hazy hills,
Concealed within — sweet rills;
Wintry breeze,
Shivering hands — they freeze.
A long wait,
Three hours art any rate;

To survive,
Or even better — thrive
Midst the deep
If torpor — hope I keep.
But alas!
Restless — give up I must.
Patience stalls,
The voice of boredom calls.

Then I hear,
Soft footsteps closing near.
That fond voice
Before which had no choice;
At whose sounds
Happiness knows no bounds.
So we sat
And for long did we chat;

Of new days
And hopes of sunny Mays;
About life,
Wonderful love and strife.

We argued,
Teddies, barbies — which’s cute?
Dark or light —

What impels men to fight?

The ground chafed
But we made faces, laughed;
All the care,
Abandoned in thin air;
How time flew!
The swift winds never knew.
The sky’s hue

Had since turned brightly blue.