Book Review: Shoes of the Dead

Shoes of the Dead
Shoes of the Dead by Kota Neelima
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kota Neelima’s Shoes of the dead left me feeling uneasy. Uneasy is a vague description, I know, but that’s how I felt – part guilt, part sadness and somewhere in there a small sense of relief and gratitude that I live in a better world. A world infinitely better than what Gangiri Bhadra and his family live in. And what makes it all the more gut wrenching is the fact that farmer suicides are not fiction. There are scores of Sudhakar Bhadras dying every day, unable to take another day of the poverty and hunger. Not of their own probably, but of their family especially the children.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up the book – I bought it solely based on the blurb. That probably helps when trying to discover new authors, esp Indian ones. And Kota Neelima is a discovery for me. The prose was beautiful in places and the visuals and emotions were rendered crisp and perfect, like oil paints on canvas. I could’ve sworn I felt the winter in Mityala and the dirt and dust of its villages and streets. And that proximity, imaginary yes, but that proximity made it that much harder to digest the reality portrayed in the book about the vicious cycle of debt these poor farmers get into and how the politicians and local stakeholders still try to get mileage out of their grief.

The characters Gangiri and Keyur are written very realistically – the former suffering for his ideals and torn between standing up for justice and taking the easier way for the sake of the children and the latter showing his inexperience in politics, trying to learn everything on the fly. I liked the uncertainty about Keyur – one time he’s the ruthless politician and the next he’s almost humane and before you understand that he’s gone back to being a pampered son born into power. My only grouse is with how Videhi and Nazar’s characters are hardly used to their potential – the book was surely not that long so as to exclude these two the way they were. Under utilized, surely.

The last few chapters are a tough read because of the way the story progresses. I wish it were just fiction. Because if it isn’t, we’re all guilty of ignoring the plight of the farmer who grows our food. And their blood will be on hands as much as on the government’s.

And oh, if you’re wondering about the title – you’ll understand in the last few pages. Not before.

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Book Review: Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir

Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter's Memoir
Songs of Blood and Sword: A Daughter’s Memoir by Fatima Bhutto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The short version – I loved it! It’s an amazing account of resilience, courage, integrity and above all, the love between a father and daughter. All this, amid blood and swords.

The long version – nah, not very long. I liked the way the book was structured, how the people and places intwertwined and made it a surreal journey through the most violent and remorseless history of Pakistan and it’s politicians. I agree, there’s another side to every story and I haven’t read any from the enemy camp (Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari, etc.) but still…some things are incontrovertible. Like death.

All I knew about Pakistan’s politics was this behemoth personality called Benazir Bhutto (and after her assassination, her husband Zardari) and nothing else. We were all probably in awe of the fact that a woman was at the helm of affairs in an Islamic state like Pakistan, that too at the age of 34. (Yeah, 34. I’m 34!) But I never knew about her brother, Murtaza Bhutto or the fact that he was killed in what seemed like a government-sanctioned encounter. I did not know about this charisma or his socialist ideals. We will never know what Pakistan would be now if he had been alive.

The book traces the history of Pakistan from the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the fall of Murtaza, and eventually, Benazir herself. It’s heavily biased against Benazir and her husband Zardari and I guess it’s expected. But I’m still stupefied how Fatima Bhutto continues to live in the country, amid all those people in power who were responsible for her father’s death. That’s resilience of a different level. And courage too, for writing this book – I can imagine it would not have been easy given the political climate there. So more power to her!

I haven’t read her fiction (In the shadow of the crescent moon), but I might just pick it up – I like her style and her prose. I liked how she’s not overly filmi (for want of a better adjective) or verbose when describing events, people or places. I liked how she builds up to the event and quietly deals the blow.

When I finished the book, sadness aside, I felt a mild relief as if I’ve finally come out of Pakistan and their blood and swords.

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The ones we lost

There are some things we don’t talk about. Some words we just hush up or just whisper, making sure we’re not overheard. When the topic comes up, we look away, make some excuse, act like we didn’t hear or just change the topic.

An abortion.

A miscarriage.

A termination of pregnancy.

A stillborn child. (I like the other term some people use here – angel child.)

October 15, apparently, is Pregnancy and Infant loss Remembrance Day. I say apparently because I came to know of it just now. It’s a day for remembering our loss (es), a day to talk about it to show that those going through it are not alone. I wish I’d known this sooner. Why? Because I want to talk about it. Because this here, this blog, is probably the only place I can talk about it. No one at home wants to listen – it’s painful, so we bury it deep along with other unmentionables. We don’t forget, but we don’t remember either.

I lost 3 pregnancies before having my son. The first, at 9 weeks, was a spontaneous miscarriage. 2007. I was pregnant. They even found a heartbeat. But then 2 weeks later there wasn’t one. I got a tablet to expel the pregnancy, a super painful night of cramps and what not..and then it was over. The next morning I cried over the phone to my mom. I was back at work 3 days later.

I lost my second pregnancy at 23 weeks. 2009. It was supposed to have been a regular second trimester scan. But as the radiologist was doing it, I could sense something was off. He wouldn’t make eye contact and when I insisted he tell me what was wrong, he said there were some abnormalities and my doctor would explain it to me and most likely suggest an MToP. Medical termination of pregnancy. He wouldn’t tell me anything further. It was around 8 PM and I remember holding back my tears from the scan centre till the car. I was trying to be strong. I called my Dad from the car because my Mom was alone at home (Dad was traveling) and I didn’t know if she could handle it. I said hello and started sobbing uncontrollably, unable to utter even a single coherent word. My husband took the phone and explained it to Dad. He said they’ll take the next flight out. We went home, sat on our bed and cried. The next day, in the bathroom, I held my stomach and cried again, asking that unborn child to forgive me for what I was going to do and begging God to not let my child feel any pain. We were in the hospital the next day and 36 hours of labor-room-screaming later, it was all done. Not even a scar. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I came home feeling empty and guilty. I screamed at my Dad and husband that we threw our baby in a dustbin and came home. It was a girl.

13 weeks was how long I could hold on to my third pregnancy. 2010. The year my brother got married. I was around a month into the pregnancy at the time of his wedding. But the trauma of the previous one was still on the horizon. So I stayed back with my parents till the first trimester was over. 12th week scan. Rinse and repeat. I was a labor-room pro by now. The wide open hospital gowns didn’t make me feel naked. I couldn’t care less. A few hours of cramps, a D&C under general anesthesia and I was done. Back to work 2 weeks later. A girl. Again.

2012 was a good year. I had my own little miracle – my son. And I’ve bid adieu to this whole pregnancy thing. My body has done enough.

I’m crying as I write this now. It was 5 years ago, the last one. Yes, I have a child now. It should have healed by now, no? No. It never does. Not even time can heal this loss. Know why? Because you have nothing to hold on to and remember. No memories. No photos. Not even a name. Nothing. But that feeling in your gut every time you think of it, like you’re falling down from a height, like all your insides are suspended in mid air and then suddenly there’s a lurch and they all come crashing down – that feeling never goes away. Not in 5 years, not in 50. The first step in the process of healing – grieving – is absent. We don’t get an opportunity to grieve for a child we lost.

Let’s not be like that. Let’s talk. I’ll show you you’re not alone. You show me I’m not. Maybe just this one day. So we can remember the ones we lost. And grieve a little. They’re our children. So what if they weren’t born?

My unborn children showed me how strong I am, how strong I can be if I had to. They put all of my other troubles into perspective. They taught me to cherish what I have, to never take anything for granted. That the miracle of birth is exactly that – a miracle. There are a 100 things that can go wrong, in those 9 months. Sometimes they do. And when they do, we undergo a transformation and come out slightly (if not entirely) different. We won’t always have scars on our bodies, but in our hearts, we do. Once a mother, always a mother. Even if there’s no child.

We don’t have to forget, you know. And we can talk about it if we feel like. I’m listening. And I know you are too.