The Quest of the Sparrows: Book Review

Title: The Quest of the Sparrows
Author: Kartik Sharma, Ravi ‘Nirmal’ Sharma
Genre: Spiritual Fiction
Publisher: Rupa Publishing

The Quest of the Sparrows is a simple tale that brings practical spirituality to the reader without being preachy or pedantic. The story of a young, reluctant guru who embarks on a journey with his followers as a way to demonstrate and to test for himself the workings of the Divine, brings nuggets of wisdom that anyone can relate to.

Guru Partibhan has ‘guruhood’ thrust upon him. Considering himself unworthy and unequipped to take over the mantle of his father, who was an eminent spiritual leader, Partibhan starts on a 800 km long journey on foot along with his followers. The test is to see if the Divine would support their journey which they undertake without any food, money or belongings.

Surprising things happen on the way to Ganapatipule, their destination. The followers find many insights which broadens their understanding of situations and of themselves. This is the beginning of the spread of the practical spirituality movement that Guru Partibhan spearheads.

Narrated as a story of a spiritual leader and his followers, all battling the problems that life throws up, looking for peace, the book transcends from being a story and a mere lesson to a guide of how our lives need to be navigated.

The Book’s Premise
The book questions as to why spirituality ends outside a church or temple. Is spirituality a make believe concept that is impractical or should spirituality help us discover who we really are?

The book explores the idea that worry and insecurity limit human potential, making us mere survivors instead of evolutionary beings who contribute with their unique talents and gifts.

Review
Sparrows are considered carefree, gentle birds and when this book titled ‘The Quest of the Sparrows’ came up for a reading, I felt immediately that the book would be light and pleasing. And indeed, the books tackles the serious and the heavy topic of spirituality very simply and joyously.

An advantage is that the characters and the incidents are completely Indian and are very relatable.

The authors of the book are a father son duo. Ravi Nirmal Sharma is an Associate Creative Director with a reputed multinational agency. Kartik Sharma is an investment banker and an alumnus of IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad.

For the authors, the inspiration for this book arose on watching a sparrow eat a few grains of wheat and then flying away when it’s need was met. This led them to think about what it is that keeps a frail sparrow content but supposedly evolved humans unhappy.

The book is narrated from four different viewpoints. There is Nikhil, who is at the nadir of his existence and wants a way out of his misery. Sanjeev is a cynic due to his own experiences. The Guru also speaks of his own journey, from doubt to evolution. Lastly, there is the man who is motivated only by hate.

The first part of the book whets the appetite while the second part raises questions. It is the third part that brings forth the answers. The last part is the culmination of the story, tying up the characters and the story neatly. The names of the chapters are quite interesting and they follow a medley of their own.

The various seekers in the motley crowd of followers are people we can identify with and the situations and the problems they encounter like road rage, accidents, feeding poor people, helping the needy, taking care of elderly parents are commonplace. And yet, these hold the key to much understanding if people can empathize with others.

The writing is excellent; the pace of the book never slips and the characters are recognisable from the people around us. Something or the other is always happening. At no point does the book slacken.

The characters develop well through the journey and the book.

What I learnt from reading the book

The book addresses every concern that a seeker would have. In my life, I have had various theories and queries and somehow the author managed to address all of these.

Reading the book, I found the courage to be authentic, to be generous and giving, to be trusting and accepting.

I would doubt if Spirituality was a ‘real’ thing or just a brainwashed response? The Quest of the Sparrows provided me the answer and put my doubts to rest.

I understood that we need to connect with our own Higher selves and recognise that the Divine is within all of us. And also, we need to see the beauty and the Divine’s munificence.

As the Guru puts it,

“A song is composed of words, the silence in between, and music. The words slow down or hurry up. The notes climb high, and then descend low. The pace and pitch alter with grace and fluidity. A song touches our hearts in a way nothing else can. I wanted to make my spiritual lessons appear like a song of life. I wanted them to affect the listeners”.

Verdict
The Quest of the Sparrows is a must read for everyone, whether a conscious seeker or not. It would open your mind to new ideas and to a refreshingly liberated way of living.

Disclaimer: I received a digital copy of the book from the author in exchange of an honest review.

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How Chris Baty saved me from going down the rabbit hole of despair

Chris Baty needs no introduction to NaNoWrimers. The founder of National Novel Writing Month, in 1999, along with 21 of his friends set out to write a complete novel of 50k words. He has been an inspiration since, both in managing the November event and in pulling writers out from the depths of despair through his pep talks.

I had the fortune to read his book, ‘No plot, No Problem’, just before last year’s writing marathon. I sped read to ensure I knew everything about NaNoWriMo before getting into it. It is a hilarious, easy-to-read and profoundly informative manual on how to tackle the writing and how to conquer the fears, insecurities, the writing blocks and the inevitably super critical Inner Editor. Chris Baty goes into the entire month, moving from week to week, explaining what to expect and what problems the writers are likely to encounter and of course how to handle them. Through sharp wit and unrelenting humour, Chris Baty holds your hand through the entire process of churning out a first draft of a nearly full length novel.

Post NaNoWriMo, it is desirable that the first draft be revised and edited and rewritten to make it a readable book. But even if that does not come about and you feel that the world is not ready for your masterpiece just yet, doing the writing marathon is an incredibly rewarding experience.

Check out the book and sharpen your pencils.

Autumn by Ali Smith: Book Review

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Genre: Fiction

Autumn is a very contemporary novel, set in the post Brexit Britain, exploring the themes of feminism, of memories and the fragility of life.

Elisabeth Demand, who could actually have been ‘de Monde’, is a junior lecturer in the history of art, having accepted art as a vocation early on. This is because of the charming and supportive neighbour she had as a child, the ‘arty art’, Daniel Glutch.

Through her growing up years, the 80 yr old Daniel, who has been a songwriter, keeps Elisabeth company, spending time with her and having long conversations about art and life. She loses touch with him for a decade or so but eventually tracks him down to an old age care facility where he lays sleeping and dying.

‘Autumn’ is about that season in our lives, the long winding down of lives lived brilliantly. Light and breezy on the surface, it reaches deep down into our hearts when it explores memories, moments and fragile relationships that are out of the ambit of the normal, accepted norms.

Review
Ali Smith is a Scottish writer whose book Autumn is considered the first post Brexit novel, touching upon the deep divide that UK saw over the referendum to withdraw from the EU.
It is an understated commentary, of the political situation in Britain. It also explores the themes of feminism through the fiesty British pop artist, Pauline Boty who is a thread that links Elisabeth and Daniel inextricably.

On the surface, the characters conform to societal norms but on a closer look they are all pushing their boundaries through their understanding of what’s right and how they want to live their lives. Wendy, Elisabeth’s mother courts arrest because she hates the fence and explores a same sex relationship late in her life. Elisabeth, the witty and the intelligent one, a ‘diificult’ child, has an undercurrent of understanding of the bleakness that surrounds her, affecting her directly and indirectly.

Autumn is a very much, of-our-times book, light, easy and seemingly mundane till we catch the brilliance of bold, unadulterated colours and forms/non forms and of images of images themselves. Art turns pop through an exploration of Pauline Boty’s work. Daniel is smitten and in turn, so is Elisabeth and those colours run right through the seeming shutting down of Daniel’s life.

The dialogue in the book is different. It is a free indirect discourse that brings us the feelings of the characters and yet keeps a distance from them.

What works well
In spite of the profound themes that are just beneath the surface, the book is very light, easy to read and contemporary. It has action inspersed with memories and musings and at no point does the gentle pace slacken so that we are led from one page to another regularly if not breathlessly.
The language is very evocative at places, especially when the paintings are described.

Pauline Boty, long gone is still a prominent character. She is there not only for art but richens the book in refering obliquely to the development of the world on her lines, modelled on her life. If she is a blast of colour, so are the other women, in their own ways.

What does not work so well
The voices of the different characters, especially the women, are all the same, nearly. Elisabeth is very witty, very intelligent and by the end of her book so is her mother who transforms from a selfish and neglecting mother to a caring and knowledgeable one. Her monologue of being sick of every thing just does not sound like her, the way her character has developed upto that point. Zoe, her mother’s fantasy star is much the same, witty, intelligent, discerning, just to a different degree. All the women seem to have been cast out of the same mould.

The child Elisabeth, at ten, is extremely clear. Her clarity of speech is disconcerting. Even at eight, her smarter self keeps peeping out from her little girl facade. Hannah, Daniel’s sister at twelve is like that too. Very witty, very smart, extremely well read and perspicacious.

I really wished some of the events in the book were followed through. We never find out about Hannah and how she died at a young age. We don’t know how it is that Daniel knows Pauline nor do we find out the cause of the rift between Elisabeth and Daniel that leads to their losing contact.

Verdict

Autumn explores the fragility and the brilliance of lives, of bold individual choices and the boundaries set on them by states and political systems. The book is an explosion of colour; vibrant and pulsing with life.
I am definitely waiting for the next three books in this series, named after the seasons.

This review is a part of collaborative book reviews that I am doing with fellow blogger, Bloggeray. Read his insightful review here.

How to Create a Literary Masterpiece in 30 days

For the writers who sweat it out day after day, painstakingly writing and crossing out, editing and rewriting and creating worlds through sheer hard work, the idea of writing a novel in 30 days is a laughable proposition. And incredibly naive.

Having been through NaNoWriMo once and having survived, I can say with confidence that it is possible to set down 50 k words in a month but that makes only an initial draft. True, writing a novel or a book takes more than that, both in time and effort. But NaNoWriMo is the first push you can give yourself and the first clear commitment you can make to yourself for getting over that writing project or starting a new ambitious work that would eventually became a literary masterpiece.

First and foremost, have the energy and the plan to write 1667 words per day, if you are going to write each and every day. That, sometimes is not possible because life catches up so the word count should be a little higher as a cushion for the non writing days. Prepare to write a lot every day and to prioritise writing over a lot of other things, at least for a short period of a few weeks.

The next thing to be sure of is about what you are writing. I went in completely clueless last NaNoWriMo. I mean I had a vague plan, a very unformed story and just the mood and the emotion only three days before I actually started writing. This meant that I stumbled through the story for many days till I found my feet. I would go through the writing, even notching up the word count but much of the early writing needed to be cut out and rewritten. So having a good outline is good idea. There would be surprises, of course, and your story might veer off the path entirely but just in case the book does not write itself, you know in which direction to push it.

These are just two things, which, when done right would help you reach the 50k mark without much difficulty. Who knows, you may overshoot the mark and keep at the writing.

Good Luck to all the NaNoWrimers! Announce your novel to the world, soon.

NaNoWriMo 2017

Autumn is the season for reading and wtiting. After a month of reading voraciously, mainly the Booker nominated books (a couple more reviews to come, here are the links to Elmet, the Booker winner, Lincoln in the Bardo and Exit West), I am ready to go into the November writing festival of NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo in November is the best binge-writing time of the year, with thousands of writers coming together (virtually) to churn out entire novels, and complete an ambitious word count of 50,000 words in a mere 30 days.

I have always loved the idea of writing a lot, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. It brings to my mind romantic notions of a cabin in the dense woods of a hill, the pine scents pervading everything, no sounds except the chirping of the birds and no mundane daily routine either. It tells me that I am a writer first and foremost and I can pour out my soul into those pages.

But real life is rarely such a dream and we all have to earn and work and get through our days doing boring and unpleasant chores and sometimes writing takes a backseat. November is an excellent time to remind ourselves of our higher calling and purpose.

So I settle down this year, committed to writing at least 1667 words per day, putting down words without much editing or much fear or much self criticism so that I can create a shining, new draft that would become my next book.

Wish me luck. And tell me if you are joining along.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: Book Review

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction

Exit West is a story of love and loss, set against the backdrop of war and migration.

It starts in an unnamed city, presumably somewhere in the middle East and talks of the growing unrest there. The city is bursting with refugees and militants are gaining ground. It is in this time of impending turmoil that Saeed and Nadia find each other and try to grow their acquaintance tentatively.

Nadia is surprisingly independent, fierce and sure whereas Saeed is gentle and reticent. Soon, the war reaches them and Saeed’s mother is killed. This precipitates a situation in which Nadia moves to Saeed’s place. However, it is clear that they cannot stay in their city or country for long and try to move out to another place, safer and with more opportunities.

Exit West is the story of the migration of the pair, Saeed and Nadia and of countless others, across countries and continents so that the face of the earth is ever changing.

Review

The novel starts in an unnamed city and as people go about their normal lives, the warring and increasingly unsafe city is kept at an arm’s length, out of their private worlds. Indeed, we don’t get a real feel of the city at all and this may have been done deliberately so that this city could be anyplace the reader can imagine.

The city is under seige and we learn of the difficulties that the ordinary citizen faces. It was quietly reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s book, ‘We the living’, that explores war and desperation.

“…that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

One recurring motif in Exit West is blackness, the rectangular blackness that may mean to be doors that are mysterious and leading to equally mysterious destinations. These doors bring a touch of magic realism to an otherwise very realistic representation of the starkness of life in a war torn city. The technique is surprising and yet it does not stand out like a sore thumb.

Exit West touches on the cyclical nature of the world and of life.

What works well

Exit West has a different feel to it when you read the words and the sentences. Mohsin Hamid seems to be saying things in one breath so that he can set it all down before any of his thoughts get lost. The long sentences, oh, the multiple clauses and the rambling on, so that one sentence becomes a complete paragraph and a page. I found this way of writing and explaining and going off on a tangent, even within a sentence very liberating, so that all the thoughts that one can have for a particular thing are put in one place, separated in their breathlessness by mere commas.

The love story of the main characters, if their relationship could be called so, has a typical arc of infatuation, attachment and then indifference which may or may not melt into anger or bitterness. The romance is not fairy tale, as in our times. In this way, it mirrors relations everywhere and the way the characters are etched, clear enough but not very unique, so that they can represent many other young people of their country and elsewhere gives it an air of universality.

The writing is purposeful. Mohsin Hamid is a man with a clear story in his mind and he moves with clarity.

What does not work so well

The first half of the book, namely the coming-together and getting-to-know-each-other part and managing life in times of war is interesting. The little details are touching, like the lemon tree or the dyers in the millitant occupied neighborhood or the changing face of the city, the chequers of city that are held by opposing sides in a war. But the second half becomes more of a commentary on our times, on migration and the hopelessness of it all and the challenges that are faced by both the fleeing and the places where they land. I felt a little lost in this part of the book when I moved across continents with the people.

Verdict

A sensitive portrayal of love, war and migration. Read it for a commentary on our times and the unique narrative structure.

I am doing the book reviews of 2017 Man Booker nominated books with fellow blogger Bloggeray. Read Bloggeray’s wonderfully incisive review of the book here.