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War and Stories

general

War is the spectacular and bloody projection of our everyday living. We precipitate war out of our daily lives; and without a transformation in ourselves, there are bound to be national and racial antagonisms, the childish quarrelling over ideologies, the multiplication of soldiers, the saluting of flags, and all the many brutalities that go to create organised murder.”
Jiddu Krishnamurti

War conjures images of terror, worry, and a scramble for safety. While the world grapples with another crisis, for many of us readers, comfort lies between the pages of a book. While books allow us to escape to a different reality, they can also help us to come to grips with upending events. 

Recent world happenings have made us think of a different kind of nostalgia – a time when the world seemed put together and at least for a fleeting moment soaked in magic and history.

The Children's Picture Book

If you were born in the 80s, chances are you might have had these books standing tall in your bookshelf, wedged between an Amar Chitra Katha comic and a frayed Charles Dickens. Growing up, folk tales from the Soviet Union were an important element of our childhood.

From the 1970s, Indian children read hundreds of fairy tales, science fiction, and contemporary adventure stories from the Soviet Union. These were available to them in English translation and in many vernacular languages. Glossy, diverse in content, and featuring startling, colourful art, these books were commonplace in all Indian bookstores, book fairs, and even mobile stores. They also introduced young readers to high printing standards, unfamiliar layouts, and offset printing where texts and images shared a page.

Did these books wind up on our shelves because of trade practices or were they propaganda material that sneakily disseminated communism and anti-American rhetoric as CIA reports say? We would never know. But these books steeped in magical realism about eight-headed monsters that spewed wisdom, white deer, and lost brothers who reunited against all odds, kindled our imagination, and kept us company.

In the past few weeks, we have been rummaging through our bookshelves to dig out these vintage beauties. They encase moments that now remain frozen in time, of countries that do not exist anymore. Folktales from the Soviet Union came from different regions; the Baltics, the Russian Federation, Central Asia, and Kazakhstan. They acknowledge that these different regions had their own unique identity. Though they may have subsequently broken into 16 different countries, for better or worse, they were all tethered together by their common lineage of history and shared love for folk tales.

Sandwiched between some of my nonfiction, I also unearthed this gem — Alexander Raskin’s When Daddy Was a Little Boy, printed by Progress Press, Moscow. This collection of stories begins with a personal and moving note from the author. Raskin addresses the children that he is writing to and speaks about how he would narrate these stories from his life to his ailing daughter to cheer her up, and to also let her know that all adults were children too, once. Stories such as, “How Daddy Failed to Learn German”, “ How Daddy Tamed a Dog”, or “ How Daddy played with a girl,” combine simple language, interesting anecdotes, and little lessons, baked into one cheerful and funny story. The book ends with a small note from the publisher, a ‘request to readers’ asking for their opinion on the book and the design, reflecting a time when the book business was both personal and gratifying.

 

Tapping into India’s love for Soviet-era books, Tara Books’ Another History of the Children’s Picture Book – From Soviet Lithuania to India by Giedre Janeviciute and V. Geetha is an exhaustive guide of the history of the children’s publishing industry of the Soviet, and of India’s role in the same. It is also a gentle nudge to all readers to look further and in unusual places and come up with a more comprehensive and connected global history of children’s books that looks beyond the contexts of the USA and the UK. It calls for a reimagining of global picture book history, with the former Soviet Union at the centre of the narrative.

This is a treasure trove of a book, with an extensive archive of images, a liberal dose of history, research, and analysis. It's also a celebration of the global impact of the Soviet children’s picture book, and how this “ambassador of communist goodwill” was read and cherished in countries across South Asia, Latin America, and Africa. This is a must-read for all history buffs, especially the some of us who have been basking in Soviet nostalgia, of late.

Perspectives of war

Stories about war are plenty — there have been many wars, and every war has many narratives. So here is a collection of some of our recommendations, which offer us new perspectives into wars — who writes our histories, whose stories get left out, and how they affect people for years to come. You can get yourself a copy of these books on our website, and we ship across India. 

Notes from a Defeatist by Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco is known for ‘cartoon journalism’ or using graphic novels to tell journalistic stories. This book is a collection of war stories: "When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People," a history of aerial bombing that specifically targets civilian populations; "More Women, More Children, More Quickly," in which Sacco relates his mother's harrowing experiences during World War II in Malta; and, most personally "How I Loved the War," Sacco's impassioned but sardonic reflection on the Gulf War, the surrounding propaganda and media circus, and his own ambivalent feelings as both a spectator and commentator. You can buy a copy here.

Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia by Charlotte Hobson 

This witty and yet deeply moving tale of Charlotte Hobson's year travelling around Russia takes us to the heart of a country that we are continually interested in, yet can struggle to understand. Hobson's characters are wonderfully quixotic. She drinks with derelicts, hangs out with gypsies, and watches investigators go about the grim business of exhuming purge victims and giving them the Christian burial they have been denied for seventy years. This book is a great mixture of history and whimsical fun. You can buy a copy here.

Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich

Chernobyl Prayer is a powerful work of oral history on the Chernobyl disaster. Through the hundreds of people she has interviewed for this book, Alexievich brings to life the many voices of despair, death, anguish, and the terrifying future of nuclear war. You can buy a copy here.

The Great Imperial Hangover by Samir Puri

From Russia's incursions in Ukraine to Brexit; from Trump's 'America-first' policy to China's forays into Africa; from Modi's brand of nationalism in India to the hotbed of the Middle East, Samir Puri provides a bold new framework for understanding the world's complex rivalries and politics through the lens of colonisation, and how the age of the empire has profound impacts on foreign policy today. You can buy a copy here.

Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce

Wars are periods of great peril and inner turmoil. But when the entire country is going through it, who and where does one turn to for solace? Writing gives much-needed catharsis, says this little gem of a book that’s about a young woman’s dream of becoming a war correspondent but how instead, inadvertently discovers the joy of responding to letters in the newspaper’s Agony Aunt column. Soon she builds bonds with her readers and heals their troubled minds in war-torn Britain with her words. You can buy a copy here.

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told by Neerja Mattoo

While we may seek comfort in thinking that the war is happening many miles away from us, this book is a good reminder of the stories that need to be heard from our own soil – stories of strife, rebellion, struggle for identity, land and the war within. Some stories in this collection are realistic dramas that hold up a startlingly clear mirror to society, such as Sofi Ghulam Mohammad’s ‘Paper Tigers’, or lay bare the pain of losing one’s homeland, as Rattan Lal Shant does in ‘Moss Floating on Water’. Then there are others like Ghulam Nabi Shakir’s ‘Unquenched Thirst’ and Umesh Kaul’s ‘The Heart’s Bondage’, which look beyond the exterior and focus on the complex inner lives of the women of Kashmir. Selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo, the twenty-five stories in this volume, all born out of the Kashmiri experience, will resonate with readers everywhere. You can buy a copy here.

White Crane Lend Me Wings: A Tibetan Tale of Love and War by Tsewang Yishey Pemba

The novel begins with a never-told-before story of a failed Christian mission in Tibet and takes one into the heartland of Eastern Tibet.This coming-of-age narrative is a riveting tale of vengeance, warfare and love unfolded through the life story of two young boys and their family and friends. The personal drama gets embroiled in a national catastrophe as China invades Tibet forcing it out of its isolation. Ultimately, the novel delves into themes such as tradition versus modernity, individual choice and freedom, the nature of governance, the role of religion in people’s lives, the inevitability of change and the importance of human values such as loyalty and compassion. You can buy a copy here.

Rumours of Spring by Farah Bashir

While we may seek comfort in thinking that the war is happening many miles away from us, this book is a good reminder of the stories that need to be heard from our own soil – stories of strife, rebellion, struggle for identity, land and the war within. This is the unforgettable memoir of Farah Bashir's adolescence in Srinagar in the 1990s. Bashir recounts life with her dear grandmother, close family and friends over seasonal food, shifting culture, and disappearing adults, as violence suddenly envelops the Kashmir valley. You can buy a copy here.

Tibet: Reports from Exile

This book is a collection of essays and articles compiled by Blackneck Books, an imprint of TibetWrites, which brings to us the creative work of Tibetans, whether in memoirs, novels, or poetry.  These writings span across decades, bringing us a glimpse of the Tibetan struggle for freedom. You can buy a copy here.

The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid The Ruins of the Sri Lankan Civil War by Rohini Mohan

Award-winning journalist Rohini Mohan’s reportage is an evocative account of the many lives that remain in shambles in the aftermath of the three-decade long civil war in Sri Lanka that instilled deep fear and hate among millions in the multi-ethnic country. In 2009, when the army finally defeated the Tamil Tigers guerrillas, more than 40,000 people died, including many civilians. But what became of the people who managed to survive? This is a searing account of three lives caught up in the devastation and shows how war continues long after the cessation of hostilities. Wars may end, but is there ever an end to the war within us?  You can buy a copy here.

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam

In his second novel, which was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Anuk Arudpragasam takes us on a journey both internal and external. We follow thoughtful Krishan as he journeys to the north of Sri Lanka, as he muses about events, personal and historical, that led him to where he is now. A meditation on war and its effects, history and forgetting, language and ritual, this is a beautiful, immersive book. You can buy a copy here.


 

Three parts teacher, two parts writer and complete mental glutton, Shakti Swaminathan is a free(lancer) spirit based in Bangalore.


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