Book Review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Bird Cottage, written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett, asks many questions. Why does one give up the comfort of a known life, and move to a cottage in the countryside, just to run a research on birds? Why does one antagonize one’s neighbour whose cats terrify the birds? Why does one choose to end up seeming rude to visitors who struggle to understand that every sudden movement would startle the birds? Why does one challenge nasty authorities when they try to destroy the birds’ homes? Why does one choose birds over everything else, at the cost of being called a misanthrope? Why? Why does it matter? But what else matters?

Gwendolen Howard wrote two books – Birds As Individuals and Living With Words — about her extraordinary yet quiet life with birds whom she extensively researched for more than three decades. The male world of science then, in the first half of the 20th century, looked down upon her reports. But Howard’s research offered an intimate view of her life with birds, and revealed a side that was largely unknown about the avian universe. Her best friend Star, a Great Tit, even learned to tap on tables and windows for a specific number of times when Howard requested. Howard was often found walking in Sussex, with a bunch of birds perched on her shoulders and arms. I often think of the image, and it warms my heart.

In Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage, fact meets fiction. Meijer takes some creative liberty, presents Howard’s life based on the available material, and fills the gap with her own imagination. The final product is a story that’s idyllic and heartbreaking in equal measure. After all the struggle to keep her cottage a safe haven for the birds, Howard left it to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust, with the hope that it would be turned into a sanctuary, but her dreams died too. Her books, I figure, are out of print as well. But it is comforting to know that there was a person who was unconditionally trusted by the often-misunderstood birds. And there will always be somebody, braving all the ridicule, only to deeply love life in their own ways.

I shouldn’t ask myself whether what I’m doing is useful, or whether it’s enough. The birds show me that time is not the straight line that humans make of it. Things don’t come to an end, they just change form. A feeling becomes a thought, a thought an action, an action a thought, a thought a feeling. The first feeling returns, traces lines through the new one. The first thought sleeps a while, then crops up again later. This is how times intermingle; this is how we exist in different moments all at once.

Book Review: Mermaids in The Moonlight by Sharanya Manivannan

Then there are dreamers like you and me who want to believe there can be mermaid in lagoon. Fish-tailed, with a human heart!

Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in The Moonlight starts from Mattakalappu in Ilankai. A note at the end of the book reads that we may know Mattakalappu as Batticaloa, and Ilankai as Sri Lanka. I am Tamil. And I know these places as how Nilavoli’s Amma calls them in her stories, and that’s how I want to remember these places too. From the meditative, enchanting Kallady Lagoon, as they try to listen to the song of a mermaid whom they name Ila, Amma tells Nilavoli about the mermaids, mer-creatures, and marine spirits of the world, and their stories which are deeply rooted in magic, faith, justice, love, longing, and loss. Just like the ocean, their stories come in waves, encouraging the child in me to hold on to wonder and curiosity, and comforting the adult in me with its poetry and the truth that I choose to see.

‘There is a lot of sorrow in this place,’ Amma whispered to me.
‘Sometimes you just have to pause and feel it.’

Mermaids in The Moonlight is just not imaginative, but it is politically correct, and that’s the change I have been hoping for children’s literature. The characters are from Asia, the illustrations are inclusive, there are stories about the women of Mattakalappu who lead their families, and there is a delightful surprise at the end, making the stories come full circle. There is also something beautiful about Hanuman, Ravanan’s daughter, and a love story about them that travelled from Thailand. The search to know more about mermaids can’t end with the book; it starts from there.

There are so many stories that disappear, like tears underwater…

When the book is set in Mattakalappu, how could Amma not talk about the land that saw war and pain? Children’s literature doesn’t just have to be about wise, talking animals. In ‘Mermaid in the Moonlight’, while relating the story of women in Rameshwaram in India, Amma tells Nilavoli about the people who reached the coastal town on tiny boats, escaping the war. The stories can hold safe space for adults, and children to understand that the world is kind and cruel at the same time, and to tell children that when life becomes overwhelming, curling up in the lap of stories could be restorative. Amma gives Nilavoli many things – truth, imagination, curiosity, and the cultures of many peoples. A child loved like that can make the healing less painful.

Book Review: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Millennials would hate Barrington Jedidiah Walker (Barry), and the Gen Z’s would call him a dinosaur like his grandson who banters with him. In Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Barry narrates what happens in his life from May 2010 to May 2011 while also recalling his life in Antigua, how he learned to live as a black immigrant in England, and how he is going to muster the courage to divorce his wife, and move in with Morris whom he has clandestinely loved for 64 years.

He is 74-years-old in 2010, but for him time has stopped ticking after the 70’s. He dresses like he has stepped out of the 50’s and looks ridiculously dapper. He is misogynistic, self-absorbed, hilarious and sometimes inappropriately funny. “Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium,” Barry proudly declares. It’s easy to understand why his wife Carmel chose him. But the mystery of how the kind, empathetic, perceptive Morris fell in love with Barry remains unresolved.

Barry is everything that the dwellers of 21st century despise. Through that lens, Barry becomes unlikable. Here is where Evaristo’s storytelling becomes even more powerful. She shows all the great and dark sides of Barry not because she wants to say that everybody is flawed and perfect at the same time, but she holds a mirror to the system that makes life difficult for everybody, that influences the process of making decisions, and that makes and breaks your image, that you meticulously sculpt, in the eyes of your partners, friends, children… All the while Barry could be thinking that he was in control of most parts of his life, but the system, which’s created to oppress the people of colour, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, was always at the wheel.

Named after Shabba Ranks’ addictive song Mr Loverman, Evaristo’s novel could be easily mistaken as a celebration of the life of a gay man who comes out of the closet at 74, and rides into the sunset with his childhood sweetheart, but through the second person narrative, where Evaristo’s words burn with grief, anger, and self-righteousness, the book also delivers a feminist sermon on what it means to be a black woman in England, the stigma around postpartum depression in the 60’s and 70’s, the pressure to play ‘gendered roles’, and the bouts of loneliness that the broken system impose on women.

If Barry’s chapters are full of colours, jokes, his narcissistic cartwheels, and sharp commentaries on racism, linguistic politics, and sexuality, if Barry’s chapters come across like a flowery filter on Instagram, Carmel’s chapters are sepia toned. A sharp contrast. Carmel talks about things which Barry refuses to share. It’s easy to love Barry — thanks to his large personality — but it’s not hard to understand Carmel. It’s not hard to empathise with her. Carmel could reach the point of making brave decisions at the end, but she wouldn’t understand what it was for Barry to live two lives for 50 years, and neither would Barry understand how Carmel feels about being a cover for her husband for half a century. As much as they think that they made each other’s life miserable, it’s not difficult to see what actually made everything unnecessarily complex and painful — colonization, racism, slavery, homophobia, misogyny…

If Barry is still living, he would be 85. And by now, he should have become politically correct, and more informed about systemic oppression. In 2010, he said…

‘Morris, I am an individual, specific, not generic. I am no more a pooftah than I am a homo, buller or anti-man.’ I start to quietly hum ‘I am What I am’. ‘You homosexual, Barry,’ he says, going po-faced on me. ‘We established that fact a long time ago.’ ‘Morris, dear. I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’ I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it…

…Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don’t like to buck the so-called ‘system’, like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it.

Among all sorts of growth that Barry experiences between May 2010 and May 2011, standing up for what he is, and what he believes in, must be the most meaningful. The cost — of having been forced to love a man in secret, breaking his wife’s heart, worrying if his grandson would throw one nasty glance at a white person inadvertently, and get some bullets pumped into his temple for that, being loathed by his own daughter — should be borne by the system.

He could write many letters apologising to Carmel, but he must ask himself if he would receive an apology from everybody who wronged his ancestors, who made his life harder than what it should have been. So, he should see some labels here. He is a black, gay man. He is an immigrant. He could be richer than many of his white neighbours, but he will forever be seen as a black immigrant. And for that, he can’t be oblivious to the existence of the box and labels. He should recognise them. He should take sides. He should fight the fight because it’s just not about Barry anymore. It’s about reorienting the whole world. It’s about keeping, and leaving it safe and inclusive. Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 can share some tips.

Somewhere in the last chapter of Mr Loverman, Morris says, “..let we enjoy the vibes, man, enjoy the vibes.” It’s strange that he almost sounds like Barry here, but that’s the whole mood of the book. The battle is going to go on for some time, and while that goes, you might as well listen to some good music — Like Shirley Bassey’s The Girl from Tiger Bay — and no, you wouldn’t be judged for living your life.

There’s a crack in every pavement
Underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing
As history repeats

Yes many times I’ve wondered
Why a part of me remains
In a place so full of beauty
That somehow never changed

I bought a ticket of a lifetime
There’s no denying who I am
Forever young, I will stay
The girl from Tiger Bay

Time has me believing
That there’s nothing left to prove
I feel the love within me
And love can’t be removed

All the memories and the scars
They dance away into the stars

Book Review: Woof!: Adventures by the Sea by Aparna Karthikeyan

That extra-friendly black-and-white dog I see at the beach every weekend, what does he do after humans leave? That reclusive brown dog I see at the tea stall, why does she prefer buns to biscuits? That senior white dog I used to see on my biking route, what is he doing now? Would he be lonely? Or does he have friends? What’s their story? How did they start living on the roads? Aparna Karthikeyan makes me ask such questions through her book Woof!: Adventures by The Sea. All the animals we see in public places, how much do we know about their lives, and how can we make their lives better? In the heartwarming tale about a pack that lives on the Mumbai beach, Aparna offers subtle answers. She throws gentle spotlight on the strays, our own Indian mongrels, and relates their stories with imagination that brims with authenticity, and empathy. If Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildlings made me purr for the cats in Delhi, Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! makes my imaginary tail wag, wag, wag for the strays in Mumbai.

On the third day of the great Mumbai monsoon, a small cardboard box appeared on the beach. It had rained and rained all afternoon; the sky was still and grey, and the sand was soggy. The box got wet very quickly. It started wriggling. The jute rope around its middle danced; the packaging tape along its sides bulged. Suddenly, a leg punched a hole through the top; quickly, another popped out. Then came a very long nose. And one folded ear. By the time half the creature had emerged, a small crowd had gathered. They were all dogs. And they were not happy.

The life on the beach is hard for the Don, and her friends. They are all stray dogs. Besides the harsh elements — the sun, the sand, and the sea — their souls are battered by the sheer struggle of living amidst a sea of humanity that ignores their existence, or unleashes its cruelty on them. Adding to their misery, there’s now another puppy — our heroine Shingmo. She will now become a part of their pack (the alpha is a girl, and that’s refreshing!), their joy, their everyday battles, and above all, she will go on a bigger adventure. While Shingmo is our heroine, the story just doesn’t follow her. The narrator knows about every dog in the pack, and even everything about their rivals. All the dogs’ backstories are memorable, their voices unique, their characteristics distinct. It’s only right to say that the book’s cast is an ensemble.

My favourite illustration by Sagar Kolwankar

Woof! starts with a very delightful illustration. It’s an introduction of the characters, with some adorable adjectives about each dog’s personality. Throughout the book, Sagar Kolwankar’s artwork is a fitting companion to Aparna Karthikeyan’s story. Just like how, in Aparna’s words, the dogs’ unique traits come to the surface, the illustrations, even if shown without any captions, can make me identify the dogs. Who can forget Thin’s Dustbin-is-Best face!

You know, people keep talking about this thing called kindess; they write poems and songs about it, but I haven’t really seen it much… Of course, some people are kind, but mostly, they’re very, very busy. They don’t have time to notice us; we’re just lumps curled up on the sand.

A rounded commentary about humans is made by Thug, a misunderstood dog, who just wants to have a chat, be scratched and hugged. People of all types can be found in Woof! Damu doesn’t have money to buy a cup of tea because he spent all that he had to get medicines for the strays. A policeman feeds the dogs biscuits dipped in tea. A woman brings meat and rice for the strays on the beach after a storm stops lashing. These are quotidian scenes in India, and they are even more soul-nourishing when they appear in Woof! because the dogs talk about them. And then there are those who abandon the dogs on the road because the dogs don’t know how to be Labradors, because the dogs are too much responsibility, and because the dogs are forgotten after a baby’s arrival. Imagine reading this book to a child. And how wiser the child would be for knowing that there are all sorts of people, different choices, and what does it take to being right! And, books on dogs don’t have to be awww-inducing, and tickle young readers with stories about goofy dogs. In Woof!, there is an elderly called Coconut, and he is often found ruminating about death. His meditation is full of wisdom, and warmth.

I should be forgiven for being too sure about the belief that stories about strays should end with our heroine finding a home. But Aparna Karthikeyan doesn’t end the book there. She gives that, and more. The pack’s bigger adventure, which makes them heroes in the eyes of the humans, is quite a surprise. The author just doesn’t talk to you, about adopting our Indies, in a non-preachy fashion, but she also decriminalizes the strays through the bigger adventure, and through every back story. She tells you why the strays do what they do. When humans are quick to call the strays a menace, the book shows that knowing them makes it easier to love them, and they should be loved. They deserve nothing less.

Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! Adventure By The Sea is a paean to our community dogs, our Indian mongrels. This country is their home, our hearts their thrones.

There’s enough poori in the world for everyone.

Anu Boo approves of Woof!

Book Review: We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

The solar system in Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space consists of Cash, Fitch, Bird, and their parents. Who is the sun? Or rather, what is the sun? Isn’t it supposed to be love? But the siblings feel they are just drifting in the vast, dark, cold expanse of the universe, like rogue planets. The parents don’t stop fighting, and the siblings are mired in their individual battles. Cash has failed a grade, and because of which he can’t be on the school’s basketball team. Fitch struggles with a terrible temperament. And Bird, a very memorable character, who is the only one who tries to keep the family together, feels invisible. When they begin to believe that their lives can never intersect, a national tragedy — the Challenger disaster of 1986 — brings them together.

Erin Entrada Kelly is a empathetic storyteller. Even when she plants a couple of stereotypical characters in the story — like Fitch’s friend who can’t stop saying funny things about a girl who shows borderline interest for Fitch, like the girls in Bird’s activity group — she presents them all in a relatable light. There are mean children, but that doesn’t mean that they will always be mean. When Erin Entrada Kelly relates Fitch’s anger issues, the story seems extra real, as though it’s narrated from the place of lived experience. When she talks about Cash, the boy who ends up studying in his siblings’ class, she exhibits so much love for him. Everybody is special, including their parents, and especially their mother. She fights with her husband for gender equality, drops Gloria Steinem’s name in an argument, but always warns Bird to not eat junk because girls are supposed to look a certain way. The parents’ hypocrisy is criticised by the children, but Erin Entrada Kelly somewhere quietly asks, “Who is not hypocritical?”

Bird dreams of becoming the first female Shuttle commander. Her dreams are fuelled by her kind, passionate teacher Ms Salonga, who was not selected for Teacher in Space program. She might have been rejected, but she becomes a winner by spreading her love for space, by stirring curiosity in the young minds. She spends the entire month of January in 1986, 28 days before the launch of Challenger, by conducting activities after activities to make her students fall in love with space exploration. Her activities are profound. From questioning and understanding the need to learn about the universe, to drawing differences between humans and machines, Ms Salonga’s activities brim with her love for the universe, and only because of her enthusiasm, when the tragedy takes places, it hurts. It becomes easier to imagine why a 12-year-old Bird would be devastated by a national tragedy that she doesn’t experience first-hand, and how the catastrophe has the power to make and break dreams.

The imaginary exchanges which take place between Bird and her role model, astronaut Judith Resnik are the best parts of the book. A girl, who is made to believe that she is plain, who has big dreams, feels seen and heard, by an astronaut, whom she has never met, and whom she will never meet. Through those exchanges, Erin Entrada Kelly tells the young readers, and readers who feel young, that humans can be a mote of dust, and the universe can be incomprehensibly enormous, but that doesn’t mean we are insignificant, and that doesn’t mean our dreams don’t matter. And the author doesn’t offer a happily-ever-after. She shows that everything is not going to be rosy. The family doesn’t collapse into a group huddle at the end. But there will be helpers, and they will believe in our dreams, and in ourselves, as much as we do, and more so during the times when we struggle to believe in ourselves.

Sometimes I look up at the sky and I see all those stars and my mind works overtime. There is so much up there to explore. Who knows what’s happening in all that space? Maybe there’s someone on the other side of the Milky Way, looking up the sky just like I am. Maybe they see a dot in the sky and they make a wish on it, and the dot in the sky is Earth, and they’re actually wishing on me.