A good witch

AF821452-3386-494A-BE17-B804BE448EB2  Mythological stories in general lack novelty. We have versions of the stories which already exist in our consciousness through tales heard and read since childhood. So how much can an author play around with a retelling? Stick too much to the original and it becomes boring, write something wildly different and it is unacceptable. However, Circe by Madeline Miller manages to find that ideal balance with a gripping retelling of the life of a minor immortal who is mentioned in a few passages in the Odyssey for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs and then showing him how to get home after having delayed him for a year.

  Miller manages to flesh out a more human character for Circe who was the daughter of the Titan Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perse (the daughter of Oceanus). Because she is not as lovely as an immortal should be, she receives only scorn in her father’s and grandfather’s courts. Perhaps because of the disregard of the immortals, she is drawn to humans in a different way from the other gods whose interest in humanity is purely for the sake of self aggrandisement. Through the book, written in the first person, Circe keeps referring back to the bleeding and battered Prometheus tied up in her father’s court before judgement was pronounced on him by Zeus for helping humans. The implication being that her own view of the treatment of humans was impacted in some way.

  Ultimately Circe is exiled, partly due to the politics played out between the Titans and Zeus, to the island of Aiaia which becomes her home. She teaches herself witchcraft and becomes a powerful witch and lives her life accompanied by wild beasts and the occasional visit from Hermes. It is at Aiaia where Odysseus, on his return journey to Ithaca after the Trojan war, encounters Circe. The way Miller tells the story, they are both fascinated with each other and find solace in each other without any element of entrapment. Even the crew being turned into pigs is explained as self defence.

  Circe is basically a feminist story about a woman who teaches herself her profession, lives her own life without any help from her family and yet she is always willing to help those who need her, including her sister who despite all her derision for Circe, calls her for help when giving birth to the Minotaur. The completely new perspective that Miller gives on Odysseus, as a man who cannot accept going back to a small life on a small island after having been on the centre stage and been the guiding force behind world events, is fascinating because it is so plausible.

  The story is, throughout, infused with the fickleness and perfidy of the immortals who are shown as self serving and basically full of themselves. In their desire only to be worshipped by humans but not really caring anything about the small lives of the mortals, is an explanation, as good as any, for why the religion might have died out. Even Athena the goddess of wisdom, does not seem have the wisdom to look beyond her own greatness. Only Prometheus is shown to have considerable nobility, grace and compassion. But then again, no human can possibly write about Prometheus without imbuing him with those qualities.

  Miller has written a gripping and easily readable book, shedding new light on a lot of known characters along the way. We absolutely loved this one.


Tasting the word

88E22C08-7FDD-486D-8972-2813FCF30F6B  Surprisingly,  a bit of news that escaped our notice about a month back was about Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books, having passed away on the 18th of January. The Indian news media, in its mysterious wisdom, felt it was not noteworthy and it was hardly reported upon. This despite his first book having sold something like six million copies worldwide, and which was extremely popular even here. The film ‘A Good Year‘, based on another one of his books, continues to be shown repeatedly on movie channels. We were particularly saddened by the news being ignored as A Year in Provence, though a little book, always has a big impact on whoever reads it and the author’s passing deserved more attention.

Peter Mayle moved to Ménerbes in Provence after selling up in England and wrote of his experiences of finding a house, refurbishing it, settling into the community and discovering the local food and wine. When published in 1989 (but we only discovered it in the mid 90s), A Year in Provence sold a dream to people around the globe, either overwhelmed by the rat race or running the treadmill of daily, mundane existence. The book, with its monthly chapters covering the changing seasons, descriptions of Provençal countryside, lavender fields and small market towns is the perfect vicarious escape for a reader. The descriptions of hearty, rustic Provencal food are written with such savour that the reader can almost taste it. And it doesn’t  matter if one is a vegetarian or meat eater. We have known vegetarians, otherwise experts at being grossed out at even the thought of meat, happily consuming Peter Mayle’s books and relishing them.

Over the years we have found ourselves recommending A Year in Provence to people as a good distraction from anything and everything. But it is a very difficult book to lend as it rarely makes its way back to the owner. We learnt this after losing a few copies and being forced to buy more for ourselves; because it is also a book that one keeps returning to. It was wonderful that Mr. Mayle was able to share this slice of his life with his readers. And perhaps he also inspired many to try a similar lifestyle for themselves, though not always as successfully. Ultimately it is the attitude that matters when moving to a new country or even a new community and in his humour and voyage of discovery, he seemed to have gotten that right. He is also credited with having inspired the trend of food and travel reality shows on TV which are so avidly watched but which are a pale comparison to the sensory experience of Peter Mayle’s words jumping right off the page.

A mixed bag

  What happens when Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or any of the regular TV channels produce a series based on a little read book which was published 20 or 30 years back? Or even a more recently published one, popular mainly with genre readers? The answer to that question is that suddenly the books start flying off the shelf, much to the publisher’s delight. In the case of the authors, the feelings are probably mixed as new found popularity will have them scrambling around in their brains to explain to interviewers why they wrote what they did. After all, thirty years is a long time and who remembers?

  Terry Brooks wrote the first book in the Shannara Chronicles forty years ago and now finds his events packed with very young people who have watched the series and as a consequence have discovered his books. The libraries have huge queues for books which had indolently been sitting on the shelves for a long time. Margaret Atwood’s amazingly thoughtful and disturbing book, the Handmaid’s Tale is being considered the story for this age although it was published in 1985. People who had never heard of Margaret Atwood are now reaching out for her books and attempting (or pretending) to read them. If nothing else, they look good on the book shelf or the side table. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens in 1990 and it is being made into a mini series to be released on Amazon Prime next year. Amazon has already released the TV series of Gaiman’s American Gods.

  This happens with classics all the time, with each new movie or TV series, the author is back in fashion. Not that people like Gaiman ever went out of fashion but their readership is limited because of their books being classified, ridiculously so, as genre books. For the writers, to find books they had written years ago as the hot topic of conversation and reviews, it must surely be a surreal experience. Though no doubt a very pleasant one. Readers who never read fantasy are watching these series and then getting drawn to the books. The flip side is that those who have read the books and loved them are sometimes up in arms about the depiction of favourite characters and vent to the author. This happens particularly with fantasy books as the fandom tends to be vocal and strident. And it is a rare director or scriptwriter who can truly understand the essence of the genre and deal reverently with the book. Not many realise that fantasy is not just sword and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. Sometimes, even if they do, they are too lazy to explore the depths. This happened catastrophically in the series adaptation of the Earthsea books. The readers were horrified at the clueless and careless production based on an amazing series of books. As indeed was the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who called it a ‘generic McMagic movie’.

  As fantasy readers, the increasing trend of adapting fantasy books to the screen is exciting because we are wondering what’s next and keeping our fingers crossed that a complete hash would not be made of a much loved book. After all, there is only one more season left of Game of Thrones and there are so many, many books that could fill that slot. More power to the magicians.

Words of power

3A0D6380-25CD-4DFA-884D-DCE5A4A6F89C.jpegIn times gone by, when the ignorant declared that science fiction was not within a woman’s domain, they would have Ursula K Le Guin‘s name thrown at them. Having won both the Hugo and Nebula awards twice in the 70s for her books The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, she made it much easier for women writers to be accepted in the science fiction genre.

But for us she is chiefly the author of the fantasy books of the Earthsea trilogy, that later became a quartet and are now a quintet. Magic is not only what wizards do in a story. Le Guin more than any other writer made her readers acutely aware of the magic of words strung together.

In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves; it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.’

And while the stories in the Earthsea books were about the power of names, the words written by Le Guin themselves hold sway. They imprint themselves on the readers’ mind and continue to exert their power and magic long after the story is told.

The Earthsea books are glorious and dark, thoughtful and yet edge of the seat story telling. Set in an archipelago housing the original school of magic, a wizard called Sparrowhawk, themes and thoughts that are distinctly Taoist and dragons the likes of which have not been seen before or after. Le Guin’s dragons speak the original language, the words of which are imbued with power. They can be savage and wise, detached and compassionate all at the same time. They can move between life and death and other dimensions. They have the power to take on human form and the eldest of them is perhaps also the creator although that is never addressed directly in the books. Le Guin describes their nature beautifully in The Farthest Shore ‘We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.’

Is it any wonder we were hoping she would write a sixth book in the series? As with all writers whose books we love, when Ursula K Le Guin passed away last week we felt a real sense of loss. After all there are many who write about magic but very few who actually create magic.

Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.’

Eternal Robin

Since conversations recently have been all about governments reducing taxes for the rich and for corporates and burdening everyone else, the mind automatically veers towards Robin Hood who did the opposite. That too with panache.

Of course, taking from the rich and giving to the poor is only one part of Robin Hood’s timeless appeal. But one wonders what it is about his myth (If he was a myth. Could have been real) that endures in the popular imagination and lends itself to so many retellings and interpretations. Over time there have been numerous books, movies and TV series that have made each successive generation fall under his charm.

PS: Just look at Ivanhoe, though he was the eponymous hero, Robin Hood was the one who saves the day. As a reader one waits for his character to come on the page.
LL: It’s also because in most of the retellings, Robin is a wisecracking and flippant character with hidden depths to his nature and dark undertones to his story. He isn’t two dimensional.
PS: There is always a degree of unpredictability attached to him. One never knows what he is going to do in a story, only that he will end up saving the day. I think part of the charm is that he is always a reluctant hero. He never set out to become a leader but in the process of surviving, he found himself unable to abandon others like himself.
LL: Then there are the other people around him who each have their own clear backstories which instead of detracting, only add to Robin Hood’s story somehow.
PS: A lot of the appeal also comes from the bad boy, rebel image. The constant challenging of authority has its own fascination.
LL: Perhaps he was the first socialist. I wonder which of his stories inspired Karl Marx. The best part is that though each book or TV series has interpreted him so differently, intrinsically his character retains the same ethos.
PS: Other than Ivanhoe which for most people is their first introduction to Robin Hood, I really enjoyed Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood.
LL: And there was Hood, the first book in the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It was a lot darker and had more magical elements than just the clever and good hearted outlaw story.
PS: Speaking of magical elements, how can we not mention the Robin of Sherwood TV series from the 80’s, there was quite a bit of magic in that one and I don’t just mean the charms of Michael Praed (who acted as Robin Hood).  The later BBC series, Robin Hood, was more edgy but with a Robin as incorrigible as a lot of other versions and with wonderful one liners.
We feel this quote from the BBC series pretty much encapsulates Robin’s cheekiness and hence his appeal:
“ I know I behave like I am more intelligent and sophisticated than other people. But the fact that I am aware of my arrogance puts me above others with a superiority complex”

Thus went 2017

Reading for us is an on going fact of existence but when everyone around you is counting the months gone by and reducing the year to lists, we too are forced to look back on the year in the only way we know – through books.
What made the year different was that we read more e-books than regular books. Sadly. Inspite of our love of the convenience of e-books, we can’t help the lingering feeling that we are letting the side down a little. But we suppose the the tides of change have swept us along with them. Out of all the books we have reviewed this year, only two were read by us in the physical form. And it seems extremely unlikely that our new year resolution will be to read more physical books.
Most of the books that we enjoyed reading during 2017 have already been written about by us. But we got to thinking that if we had to pick just two each out of the books that we read this year(not necessarily ones that were published during the year), to recommend, in both fiction and non fiction it would be the following:

LL: In fiction I would recommend My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises by Fredrick Backman for its amazing and real characters and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for its magic.
PS: Definitely I too would vote for My Grandmother Sends her Regards. It is one of the most endearing books I have read in a long time. The second book for me this year would be The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry for the beautiful way in which it has been written. What about your picks for non fiction?
LL: I think the book that made me think the most would be We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. A book meant both for women and men. For the other book I would pick Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu. It made me relook at the way I do things.
PS: I notice that both are feminist books.
LL: Well, since the Miriam Webster word of the year is feminism, it is entirely appropriate. Which are your picks for non fiction?
PS: I think Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. An amazing look at the journey of human kind from its origins to now. For the second book I would pick The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. No other book has made me think so much about what I read and how I write.  Of course there is also a flip side to noticing the style of writing as it makes one less tolerant and consequently grumpy with books lacking it.

So, those were our picks of the year. Here’s wishing everyone who reads Mostly Mondays a Merry Christmas and a New Year spent happily getting lost in books.

The art of shopping at Khadi bhandar

Khadi –  Indian hand spun, hand woven natural fibre cloth.

Bhandar – a shop, store, stockroom, warehouse, depository.

Khadi Bhandar – a government run shop, supposedly for stocking and selling khadi products. But we are not quite sure about the selling bit.

Shopping is supposed to be fun and relaxing but we have learnt that this is not always the case. Normal shops by definition exist to ‘sell’ and to this end will do their best to keep their customers happy. One walks in intending to buy A and the shop will do its best to also sell you B and C. Not so at the Khandi Bhandar where even getting into the door is a challenge. Recent experiences have left us gritting our teeth in exasperation. Which is why we decided to compile a list of for and against to warn the unwary.


  1. A customer has to negotiate the two hour siesta which extends half an hour in each direction, government holidays, weekly off days, biannual stock taking week (sometimes fortnight).
  2. The only clear month that the customer has are the days in October following Gandhi Jayanti, when the shop is open through the day without a break for lunch. To make up for this, the shop employees are doubly unaccommodating and recalcitrant. The customer is likely to be left standing, hoping to catch someone’s attention while the shop ladies discuss the latest scandal in their lives as they shell peas on the counter for their dinner. Numerous “excuse me”s and discreet coughs are ignored, forcing the customer to curb their instincts to scream and storm out.
  3. Upon your obstinate refusal to budge, someone will finally deign to notice you and ask what you want in a tone of voice implying that there are no freebies, you have been categorised as a time waster and possibly a stealer of shelled peas. The reluctance to take anything out of the shelves is almost pathological since customers are well known to unravel bales of cloth with their grubby hands. Not to mention taking up time and space in the shop holding up said bales against themselves in front of the mirror.
  4. Persuasive powers and ingratiatingly smiley faces have no effect on the hardened Khadi Bhandar employee, nor does a display of clean hands and fingernails. If one does manage somehow to cajole them to cut meterage of cloth that catches the eye, it will be hacked viciously and unevenly by the bluntest possible scissors. The lady behind the counter must, till the very end, display her unhappiness at being made to work so hard. It matters not that the shop is empty otherwise.
  5. To top it all, we now have to pay 12% Tax on the fabric. It almost makes one wonder whether it is worth the effort.


  • Therein lies the catch. It is worth it. The Khadi stuff, once one manages to view some, is really great. It is also a very happening fabric right now, popular with high fashion designers and much more reasonably priced at the government outlets as compared to boutique stores. Which means we end up going back time and again, suckers for the total disinterest and disdain meted out to us. Also they probably don’t have an online presence because how do you bring these attitudes to an online store.

So the next time you are brave enough to venture into one of these places, make sure you are not in a rush, keep your temper in check and perhaps wear a tooth guard to prevent from grinding away the enamel on your teeth. Also, it is possibly a great place to work, taking into account the lack of work happening there.