Sunday, August 2, 2015

On Friendship Day

Monsoons are here. The day is a typical Monsoon day, all fresh, washed clean day, as if ready for proper parting of hairs and to be sent to the school. It is a perfect day. I slept through most of it.

In between, I thought about what the day signifies. It is Friendship day. I am at the age, on the wrong side of forty. There are articles in the newspapers proclaiming that forty is the new twenty. But than those are just pretentious words of solace as the life slides faster than before. I feel pre-historic, ancient on the days like this. It is not like we used to jog with the dinosaurs in our days. But we did not have the days like in our days.

I still remember going to Archies, near Sharda Chowk in Raipur in 1993. It was a new entity and was relegated, me and my Engineering roommate had first encountered Valentine day there. My room-mate, Arvind Gupta from Balaghat, was freshly in love and thought of buying a card. We both looked at each other, clueless of what it meant. That is the time we came from.

Friendship day, as we know it, did not exist then. Not that, without Archies telling us, we did not understand friendship. In those days, friendship was not about coffee at CCD. We were not children of liberalization and weren’t rich enough. But friendship meant many different things for us.

It is fun to look back and think of those friends. There were many who came in the way and touched my life in such fulfilling ways. Dileep Dixit shared my table in Primary school. He would make schematic diagrams to explain the story of movies he had watched. We would watch not more than two movies in an year in those dusty days of Kanpur. He was so neat and fair, I always felt that he was going to be a doctor, before we fell on either side of the rolling juggernaut of time. When we met again, couple of years back, he was still neat and soft as ever, not a doctor, but an engineer and a trained Architect, helping set up the Airport in Delhi which was to be one of the best in the world. We met and reminisced the day when eagles would leap onto our school Tiffin Boxes in Kendriya Vidyalaya No. 1 in Kanpur, leaving us scared, before we grew up and made an entertaining business out of it. We would tie envelopes to pieces of Paratha and watch the eagles carry them high into the sky. We would be immensely amused about it. Then I had Rajesh Tripathi, who lived next door, and I would spend winter evenings, playing marbles outside the N-4 Airforce quarters with him. Against the dreamy, idealistic Dileep, Rajesh was more matter of fact and realist even as a ten year old as we grew between Sanskrit lessons of Pandey Sir and loving Social studies lessons of Chauhan Ma’am. That was before teachers lost interest in us and we in them.

Then, we moved to Hasimara, a small town in West Bengal, touching Bhutan and overlooking KanchanJunga, in the thickets of greenery, where it rained every day. It was like dream and if passed away like dream. Not many friends there except few from Phuntschling in Bhutan- Navrattan Jain who had a hotel there, Kamalkant- who we, I guess wrongly believed to know Kung-fu, and Nagendra Jaisawal, who seemed to be the first amongst us to walk out of adolescence. But then, they were mostly names to me and I don’t think I existed for them. Then Patna, family and bad days of broken dreams. The days passed away, no friends stuck on. That is a casualty of transferrable life of parents. You are always the new boy in the school, falling outside the inner circle of kids who grew up together. Those were unkind days. I was a fauzi kid, inept and awkward in the civilian world. Tenth exams were then test of grit and the move into eleventh was an entry into adolescent. Patna was more of family than of friends.

Then it was Guna, the dusty, sleepy world in MP, right on the edge of the dreaded Bhind, known for dacoits. Well, learnt much later that they were rebels not dacoits as Irrfan would tell us in the Movie- Pan Singh Tomar. The small town where nobody lost sleep over tall, thin men, with big Moustaches walking with their bicycle and a Rifle over their shoulder, embraced me once more with friendships which I had lost in Kanpur.  Rahul Mishra was there. Sanjay Tiwari was the first in the circle who I found to be politically aware. Student politics seeped right up the class XI in the DAV School. Rahul was my guide to that world. I was far away from the protected Airforce colony. I was in the Hindu school, away from the sophistication and stories of Christ Convent. Having studied in English medium, I continued with the same. I would attend classes in Hindi, come back translate notes in English and study. I passed with decent scores, English medium student from Hindi medium school. It really polished both the languages for me. It transformed me in many ways. Rahul was my guide in this new world. It was a sweet world, a small town in which everyone knew everyone. Rahul was my first friend, who was brave, understood politics, wasn’t afraid of Police. The entry to engineering those was a deeply contested fight. I moved into Christ School, a convent in the outskirt of Guna, but I kept on with my friends of DAV. I learnt to let the past coexist with the present, without judgment and prejudice. So while Manish Chawla and Dheeraj Oswal, former being the first friend I found to be really in love with a class-mate, and latter, the wittiest and most irreverent person I have ever known became friends, I continued with the Arya Samaj gang. The days were spread between school, walk in the evening to Rahul’s home right at the highway, Deepak Shukla, the sharpest of the lot from Arya Samaj, Tuesday to Hanuman temple with the tallest guy of the lot, Ravi Mishra, eclectic, Shyam Gurjar and Rajesh Arora, who ran a small-shop, the first among us to be independent.

Then, it was Raipur, which was later to become NIT. I was the guy from Guna. It stuck there. There was two distinct groups in the college, which we called Bhilai and Non-bhilai, latter referring mostly to people from Bhopal, and Gwalior part of the state. Funny thing, Manish and Dheeraj were on two different side of the divide, which left me right in the middle. Which eventually did not turn out to be much of a bad thing. I ended up having friends on both sides. Arvind Gupta, who came from Balaghat, always ready for a good fight became my room partner and we got ragged first together. He now is Indonesia. Then Yogendra Nigam was there, my room partner for the first year, who separated when we moved from four seater to two in the second year. But I would spend many nights there in his room, listening to Kishore kumar, assuaging my broken heart in his room. Arvind will be responsible for collecting my belongings from his room, as I would many times, fall asleep there. Shravan Sharma, our beloved Panditji was the fourth partner. He is the one we have lost track up. Rumours have it that he went for his Masters at IIT Kanpur and then went to the US. Sanjeev Mallik was there, a great singer, from Khariagarh, but maintained to be from Bihar. He loved the masculinity of Bihar and identified with it. Bihar also connected me with him, and he was like a brother. Rajesh Bhargava, the specked, studious room-mate of his was a friend within the electrical branch. Raji George was almost like a child, in the next room. That was before one day when me and Raji walked in Jeans to college one day, protesting against the first year dress code and eventually winning the day for the batch. Then Raji went about in a different direction of the power struggle of student politics. But we stayed friends, and I continued to care about him till ever. Pranay, I would discover later. He was a lanky, smart guy, eternally in search of love. He could not find love for himself, but he did, for me. He was my only connect with the girl’s hostel, me- a sad, brooding man, nursing my fresh wounds through a life of isolation. When during vacations, the whole of class would go home, I would stay back. With mess closed, we struggled for food, and Pranay would arrive. In spite of having home so close, he would stay back in the hostel as we tried figure out a way to get fed. He and Sushil Din, a senior, we called Kenchu sir, we stayed back and shared our hunger. Kenchu sir was bravest of us and most irreverent. Sometime we could get good food, and post that even managed amazing music by Shaibal (Bangali).

During Masters, had some friends but few. I was too much in love by then and most in Masters too focused on a career for friendships to deepen. I still had Rupesh Sengar, the effervescent man from Kanpur and the gyani Anand Menon during the masters. But I was more of an engineer, with my past years still wrapped around me as Ramesh Singh- Mowgli  and Buddhesh Vaidya from Raipur who by then had moved to Indore, were the ones with home I spent most time, including the nights at Sarvate Bus stand.

Those were great days. We would not write soft, lovely cards with touching messages for each other. But when police would baton charge us during student’s protests (and there were many), we would embrace to protect one another. Any student getting admitted to the government hospital, the DK Hospital was a nightmare as it meant at least fifty odd students hanging about through the day and night. A friendship day wish is too embarrassing for people of my age. But I thought, I would rather go back in time and remember friends from those day and what they meant for me. We were not friends, we were brothers, brothers of a lost world. We would guard our friend's dreams and love as if they were our own.We were willing comrades ready to live and die for one another, before life found us and domesticated us.

I have missed out some, not because they mean less, but because the space is much less.  I guess, this is the most narcissistic piece I have written in a while, covering my life and my friends. But then, it is friendship day and I thought about them. Forgive my vanity and accept my wishes for a very happy friendship day, for as a writer, now my readers are also my good friends.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Joy of Reading with My Child (And Necessity of it)

Easier will be steepest of
the paths
if you whisper to them,
to the trees, and the rocks
like a friend. : Me with Sanskriti (Nonu)
I finished reading The Book Thief to my seven year old, though in bits and pieces, and then closed it with watching the magnificent movie adaptation today afternoon. The weather was kind, her interest was up, having read the book and it was almost ethereal, in a happy way. I kept on thinking why did I watch this movie with Nonu. I thought about it and wanted to share.

Not that I do not watch movies often with her. I am a movie freak and the weekend with no new releases leaves me uneasy. Between me and my daughter, we keep on watching all the animation movies, much to the chagrin of her mother. But watching The Book Thief was different.

It struck me when I read another “All The Life We cannot See” right after I read “The Book Thief”. These two books are about World War II, these two books are about death. Should I expose a seven year old to the depressing sadness of the war?

But no, war is not only about death. War is also about hope, about survival, about coming out of war. These two stories are glorious stories about love, and hope and innocence of the children in the war-zones. The two books are also about one underlying theme which runs common to two stories, apart from deaths, childhood and war- that is books.

Books make even the wars survivable. Books will not erect a protective shed over your head that will protect you from the death falling from the skies. As Anne Lamott writes in her book Bird by bird: “It's like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can't stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. 

 They create a world of hope even in the most hopeless of the scenario. In words, we understand the world around us. We are able to bear its harshness and forgive it.

When death is around us, intimidating, gnashing its white ominous teeth through the hopeless darkness, words fall like snowflakes, and dance in the stardust, spreading its forgiving silken shelter, giving us a hope for tomorrow. The bombs exploding are suddenly not loud enough. In "All The Light We Cannot See" We find that the days turns into years as Marie-Laurie LeBlanc wades through the pounding of German warships in the sleepy French village, hopelessly waiting for her father, who unfortunately never returns. It is reading Jules Verne and Charles Darwin which saves her sanity.

In The Book Thief, Liesel Meminger spends nights in the basements watching over the Jewish fugitive, Max, struggling with sickness and impending arrest and subsequent possible death and reading stolen books to him. They hold each other through words which float between the two souls, aggrieved, punished and still their inherent kindness intact. Liesel is the book thief. She struggles with words and learns them with difficulty having missed out on initial schooling. But Hans Hubermann, with inherent father characteristics of ‘Thereness’ – of being there whenever the child might need it,  of as the writer says, appearing there mid-scream and not leaving, who is himself poor reader, she learns to read. She discovers words. In words, she finds solace. She is an orphan, she lives with foster parents, the war is looming, intolerance floats in the air with the smell of explosives and.. death. But she makes it, through all that. Her only hope is words. When being poor, she cannot get books in the society in the midst of book-burning frenzy, she is steals them. She terms it borrowing and Death - the narrator, names her -The book thief. Max gives her a Mein Kampf, with pages colored white and transformed into a notebook. Hans teaches her to read and Max teaches her to write and she earns two most important companions for all her life. Liesel finds comfort in words, which protects her from the tragic death of her foster parents, and her only friend, Rudy Steiner, shielding like a mother’s womb. She writes and as death tells us, writes stories for all her ninety three years.

I had to watch this movie with Nonu. She needs to find a father’s embrace and a mother’s womb which will never leave her. She needs to discover the comfort that words offer. Words do not change the reality. They make them bearable. They don’t help you avoid life, they help you smile at life even when the dust of death flows into your eyes. In words, we understand our largeness and our smallness. The libraries are fading, words are shrinking with internet. But we must love words, caress them with tenderness. I hope, long after I am gone, Nonu will be able to survive her loneliest nights without bitterness, in company of words- her eternal companions. I am doing this to get her ready for life. I teach her words so that like Matilda of Roald Dahl, she could go on olden day sailing with Joseph Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India, with Rudyard Kipling,  and so that in her loneliest of nights, and there will be some, she, like Matilda, she gets the message: You are not alone.

I feel, we all must do it. Introduce our kids to words, not so that they do well in schools and bring us glory but to equip them to handle life better. Rest will anyways follow. We might think they will not understand these stories. But human mind is very adaptive, it rises up to the challenge we throw at it. It will pick things which it finds good. I was pleasantly surprised with the interest with which my daughter watched this movie and read this book. Could be the impact of this movie, today, she was reminding me to take her to the library. The books will make them dream and also believe in dreams. As Carl Sagan wrote, “ A book is the proof that humans are capable of magic.

From my Poem- We, The Word Catcher, from my book Rescued Poems I share an excerpt

Lovely words, brutal words
daring, demanding and casual
Forgiving, kind and killing words
Off-beat, eternal and usual.

Damaging and deadly,
Healing and life-giving.
Kinder and harsh,
Like childhood friend, in truth, unforgiving.

Book Review: The Book Thief
Book Review:  All The Light We Cannot See

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Guardians of A Terrorist

Blasts Which Killed 256 People (Courtesy: Huffpost)
It has been a longish week. Every week is the same, seven days, but some weeks have more than a fair share of events which demands your attention. This week was such. These are the weeks which decide what we will emerge as on the other end of the time.

This week, we learned much about Yakub Abdul Razak Memon, brother of fugitive, Tiger Memon- Key operative behind the 1993 Mumbai Serial Bomb Blasts. The media went into tizzy with the announcement of Maharashtra Government’s Announcement of death sentence to Yakub Memon, scheduled for 30th of July, 2015, at 700 hours, post dismissal of his curative petition on June, 21st.  As the channels planned for a walk towards gallows kind of programming, to much of their satisfaction, suddenly they had something better to debate and discuss.

Nobody would have expected support to pore in from places of eminence, like retired jurists and artists for the man convicted of planning the murder of 257 fellow citizens. Surprising and disgusting. We learned courtesy Main stream media that burgundy is the favorite color of Mr. Yakub Memon (Indian Express Report). We also know that he is a handsome man (same report). Death makes a good news report. That it needs heart, escapes most journalists. Also, the overwhelming number of deaths makes it difficult to even consider the life, or shortening of it in an individual perspective, let alone their favorite colors.

Internet is a great platform. User Generated Content, as we call in technical jargon is a great equalizer. So now everyone can be a journalist, including yours truly. It makes it very difficult for the overwhelming population of the country to hide stupidity. What began with trying to find an equivalence between other terrorists in the prison with verdict pending and Yakub Menon, slowly became blatant in protest. They in a way of sophisticated intellectual camouflage attacked the highest judiciary as the media oscillated between the term accused and convict.

An old report was unearthed, whereby Intelligence operative of RAW, B Raman was quoted as there was some understanding was reached, wherein Yakub Memon agreed to spill the beans on his brother, Tiger Memon. He did tell the story, how in a well-structured terrorist operator, the whole family fled away to Pakistan, where they were housed in a 20-bedroom posh house. B Raman’s words were cited to free Yakub, as if those words were binding over the highest court in the country. Yakub, it was proven in the court, ran the finances and logistics for the ghastly attack to happen which took away more than two hundred fifty unsuspecting lives. His role in the attack was well established by the prosecution.

The clemency brigade still decided to take a contrarian view. They said why hang Yakub when Tiger has escaped? It essentially meant, if there is a crime which has happened, in which multiple people are involved, unless all of them are held and punished at the same time, none should be. So their story is till the time we get Tiger, Dawood and other perpetrators and additionally, get terrorists arrested and convicted in other terrorist acts march in a unison towards the gallows, no one should be punished. Salman Khan, happy in an erroneous commercial story of Bajrangi Bhaijan came with the same plea- If Tiger cannot be punished, why punish Yakoob? The absurdity of script of Bajrangi Bhaijan, touted, to my dismay as great piece of art is another story. When we righteously claim that India and Pakistan are essentially same people, we ignore the basic facts, for instance, why is it totally impossible to geographically reverse the script of Bajrangi Bhaijan. A Pakistani Muslim girl, mistakenly left behind in India could go back to Pakistan as her Identity can be established by indication like the little girl walking into the mosque, looking for non-vegetarian food; the same would have been impossible for a Hindu, Indian girl who might have lost her way into Pakistan, where she would have found no Temples, no vegetarian food, no sign of Hinduism to establish her identity. That the movie is naïve and ignores that people who moved to Pakistan were those who did not believe in secularism, is another debate.  That said, the actor, previously convicted for running his vehicle over poor pedestrians and hitting physically a famed actress, took the mantle of policy-maker and thought leader of international relations, appealing to Pak PM to send Tiger Memon so that justice can be served as if Tiger Memon were Munni of his movie and Nawaz Sharif were Bajrangi Bhaijan.

AIMIM Chief, as usual raised the voice, together with other political people like NCP and JDU, looking at Muslim Votes in Bihar election, citing religion as the reason behind Supreme Court decision. I am still trying to guess that in a PIL loving nation, where charges are filed for a sitting CM (which is another absurdity of the week) calling Policemen Thulla and seeking control over them on the premise which is as week as story line of any Salman Khan movie, why no contempt of court has been filed. Mr. Owaisi, whose brother, once famously claimed to wipe out one religion from the face of the nation, if only given free hand by the Police, cites Religion as the key consideration of the court in rejecting mercy for Yakub Memon and for obvious reasons ignores that out of 150 plus hangings in independent India only 15 thus far are of people from minority community, notwithstanding the fact, that the said minority community is not numerically minor in India. Owaisi reiterates and links the blasts itself with Babri demolition almost justifying the killings of 250 plus people, asks us to go back to the time of Babri demolition. He for reasons, stops some twenty years back in the history and refuses to go back to the time when the Mosque was made by an invader and the time when it was abandoned as a place of worship by the faithful. I would refer to Jaipur metro for which 200 odd temples where demolished, how many deaths would that justify, even if we do not go to the time of Mughal and Tughlaqi invasions? This man is a law-maker that we have elected.

Advocate KTS Tulsi, who appears on Television channel, masquerading as a neutral political commentator, without mentioning his official position as Congress’ MP for the Upper House, and without mentioning his own House in Lutyen’s Delhi which he got in hurriedly released orders of UD ministry right before the change of regime, goes further. He says that the nation should be grateful to Mr. Memon for having disclosed to the nation, the secrets of the crime to which he was party. This on the day that nation was expressing gratitude to the soldiers who protected the country’s honor from an enemy country. If he had a way, he would have added the name of Yakub Memon to the list of Martyrs as a grateful nation expressed its gratitude on Vijay Diwas. Media has long been in the habit of vociferously asking explanation from the PM for any utterances of right-wing organizations even if they might not be directly associated with the PM or his party.  I am yet to see anyone reaching out to Rahul Gandhi, the New and improved one, after introspection in Bangkok, seeking his explanation to the views of his MP. Two hours back, Retd. Justice Katju came out with a write-up calling the SC decision a travesty of Justice. We cannot take that seriously, after his emotional support for Sanjay Dutt in the same case, the eternal kid for the film fraternity, on the ground that he has been making good movies. However, mercifully, he doesn’t say that Mr. Memon should be granted clemency since he is a damn good CA, and he should be allowed to file the returns for the honorable Judge. But then, he questions the judgment and joins the forty others, who did not find time to sign the petition for Captt. Saurabh Kalia ( In a enlightened society of India, with Billion plus people, his father’s petition to take the case to international court of justice is barely shade over two hundred thousand citizens (The Petitionfor justice to Martyr Captain Saurabh Kalia), After all why go to the courts at all, when you one, don't trust them to do justice, and two, are ambiguous about idea of justice and penalty.

Regarding an independent view on the validity of Capital Punishment, I am not very clear about my own mooring. As long as the gruesomeness of crime, the loss of lives it inflicted justifies it, I am in favor of it. I would go with Immanuel Kant’s thought when he says that, “ A society that is not willing to demand a life of somebody who has taken somebody else’s life is simply immoral.” John Stuart Mills (1806-1873) who is oft-quoted by the leftists on liberty, states the restraining influence of capital punishment, on the beginning of a thought which if indulged, will become a temptation;  the check which it (capital punishment) exerts over graded declension towards the state- never suddenly attained- in which crime no longer revolts, and punishment no longer terrifies. Strong arguments are placed by those opposing Capital punishment, mostly academics and rarely an affected party, citing it as an act of brutal vengeance for an act committed in the past. Plato answers it very clearly when he contends, “No, punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed….but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment someone else, from doing wrong again. This is a debatable matter and debate will continue forever, I should however, close here with Rousseau (Jeneva, 1712)- Again, every rogue who criminously attacks social rights becomes, by his wrong, a rebel and a traitor to his fatherland. By contravening its laws, he ceases to be one of its citizens: he even wages war against it. In such circumstances, the State and he cannot both be saved: one or the other must perish. In killing the criminal, we destroy not so much a citizen as an enemy. The trial and judgements are proofs that he has broken the Social Contract, and so is no longer a member of the State.”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Wars and Death of Childhood- the Unsuspecting Casualties- Book Review- All The Light We Cannot See – By Anthony Doerr.

The Unsuspecting Casualties of War- Courtesy: Getty Images
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Published: 2014
2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

It is a matter of sheer coincidence that I found two books written by authors from 21st century about the worst wars in the last century. The first one was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (My review of The Book Thief- Click Here to read). I was worried if it was too much of similarity for the book to be able to hold my interest, after one has read the beautiful account of the second world-war in The Book Thief.

But then perspective is what any author worth his salt can bring to his version of the story. The writer sits perched on a vantage point from where he watches the events of history and interprets them for us, the readers. The place from where he looks at the events makes the book or breaks it. While Markus Zusak and Anthony Doerr both speak about the war, its ugliness, how it irreversibly impacts the lives of kids in the war-zone, the tone, style and scope of the two books vastly vary.

While the prose of The Book Thief is more elegant, more elaborate, more definite in voice; All the Light We Cannot See is softer in approach. It is a story wrapped in silk. The book tells the story in almost whispering tone- short, crisp and urgent. Carmen Callil in his review in The Guardian  calls this style echoing the static of radios at another, calls it high-pitched, operatic, relentless.  He laments that the writing is interspersed with more than right dosage of adjectives and metaphors. But to my taste, this is perfectly told story with great gentility and appropriate delicateness. Even with his metaphors, Doerr never loses the story in long, winding sentences. In that sense, he is closer to Scott Fitzgerald than to Joseph Conrad. I loved it.

I understand, most reviews are written by journalists. A good journalist always loves the story which is closer to the facts and which doesn’t wander about. I, on the other hand, love when the writer, delicately steers us to the facts of the story. He, rather than thrusting truth on us, conditions our souls to bear it, and indulges us with truth. Truth in any case is never unambiguous and never definite. It carries many shades within. A war is many things and is never one-dimensional. It brings out the best and worst of us- a clichéd proposition, nevertheless, true. 

The story is broad and extensive, in direction and spread. It must have been hard for the editors to shorten it for the sake of meeting the standards of brevity often equated with modern literature. It is a great story of hope lingering through the melancholy of the scars of war, with the myth of a pearl built into it.

The Plot- The story is based in two sides of warring nations, France and Germany. It is a great story of hope lingering through the melancholy of the scars of war, with the myth of a cursed pearl sewn into it. Although in the beginning of the story itself the main protagonist, the blind French girl is assured by her father, the museum-keeper, that there is luck, maybe, bad or good. A slight inclination of each day towards success or failure. But no curses  a myth silently lies dormant in the story- the myth of the pearl containing the sea of flames. He is a good father. His daughter in the beginning of the story suffers slow degradation of eye-sight and he a widower, a single father bravely teaches her how to deal with blindness, with so much of love and patience, counting steps, walking to places. He has the thereness of Hans Hubermann of The Book Thief, of any father as he tells her that he will never leave her, not in a million years.  The war doesn’t care about a father’s commitments or a child’s broken heart.

The story opens in France in the year 1944 as the war is dying, Germans are ceding the grounds and Marie-Laurie LeBlanc is 18 years old and she accidentally discovers the pearl, of the shape of an eye-drop in the model of the city her Papa had built before he left back for Paris and never came back.  It was the model of the city of Saint Malo, the city which was a refuge for Marie-Laurie LeBlanc during the war, as her grand uncle becomes, Etiene who becomes her protector and friend, reading to her Jules Verne and Charles Darwin. She reads in Braille, and then with her uncle reads on the radio. The words flow across the boundaries.

Then, we go the beginning of the war, 1934, in Paris, when the madness began. Marie-Laurie LeBlanc, 6 years old, is fast losing her eyesight, and the war is looming over the nation. She escapes Paris in time with her father, who carries with him the stone, the accursed, magnificent jewel, which, as per myths, will keep the owner alive forever, but will curse him with a lot of sadness and ill-luck. We do not know why her father comes out of Saint Malo on the ports of Brittany, having escaped from Paris and goes back to Paris, never to return, leaving his little, blind girl with her Grand uncle as every second Etienne’s house grows colder; every second it feels as if her father slips away.  We also do not know if he gets arrested and later fades into probable death because he parted with the stone or whether the stone protected Marie Laure through the worst of the war.

On the other side of the war is a 7 year old Werner Pfennig, an orphan who is an exceptional electronic genius, with soft white hairs who loves hearing the broadcasts of the Frenchman, Etienne on science, with his sister Jutta. They have a sanctuary in small German town where the childhood thrives for a very small time amid the cries of Heil Hitler when Werner’s genius becomes his curse. Werner’s childhood is not only annexed by the state, which is already at war, he is soon sent out to the fronts with fake age certificate. He has already lost his close friend in the military school. Frederic who suffers with poor eyesight, and hides three things, his eyesight, his hatred for war and his love for birds, to be in the Hitler's military school. He was the only friend Werner had as his childhood was acquired by the state and he spends rest of his life in vegetative state. 

The story toggles between France and Germany across the chapters. In the end, Werner could trace the little girl on radio, but keeps quiet about it to save her. Once her reaches the Saint-Malo, he again saves her from the desperate German officer looking for the accursed pearl. The girl gets rescued by the liberation forces and Werner is taken as prisoner of war. A tiny delicate thread ties the white haired young soldier to the blind girl, Love or friendship, we do not know and it does not matter. What we know is that Werner would think about the the girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist and when Werner, lost in the thoughts about the outcome of the war, walks into the landmines, built earlier by his own army, he had in his possession the miniature town model which Marie-Laurie’s father had built for her and in which he had hid the stone before it was taken out by Marie. Jutta travels to Paris to return that model to Marie-Laurie. The two women reminisce the inherent goodness of the German boy with white hair, the boy who made such a faint presence. It was like being in the room with a feather. But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness, didn’t it?

The story folds up in sadness lingering and strangely mixed in hope as we find Marie-Laurie growing up to be a grandmother. Life goes on. It is with sadness who could not walk along. It is also a lesson to those who reads the news of young boys being used as terrorists and then leave it half read with disinterest. There is a lesson when the writer writes of those who survived the war, “Even those who have returned, she can tell, have returned different, older than they should be, as though they have been on another planet where years pass more quickly.” Wars are created by older men and younger men die in them. Marie-Laurie hears Madame Manec: You must never stop believing.  Neither should we, neither should we.

Reviewer’s recommendation: Must, must read

Cheeky Quotes