A Fistful Of Mustard Seeds is compilation of 12 stories, originally written and published in Malayalam over a period of almost two decades. They represent different phases in E. Santhosh Kumar’s writing career spanning a quarter of a century. Hence the themes are different, though there are dark undercurrents that connect them.
The story ‘Hills, Stars’ starts with an innocent game of children that turns into a story of guilt and repentance. ‘Three Blind Men Describe An Elephant’ shapes our views and prompts us to look at things from a different perspective. In ‘Light Years’, a blind woman is on a trip with her new lover and yet she still pines for her ex in every other conversation. She later learns of the evil way of men and is promptly saved by it because of her quick thinking.
‘Three Fingers’ shows us the degradation of mental health of passionate yet unsuccessful artists and the extent to which they’d go for their art. ‘Another Summer’ is a beautiful story of a childless couple who visit the same town 20 years apart and how an encounter of the husband with a prostitute rekindles the lost love and memories the couple share. ‘Helmet, Not For Sale’ is a poignant and heartbreaking story of the sale of an old motorcycle gathering dust for years.
Finally, ‘A Fistful Of Mustard Seeds’ is a story of an almost single mother whose child is missing and who goes to a guru to seek answers. The guru tells her about the story of the young woman who went to Buddha to bring back her child from the clutches of death. In response to which Buddha asked her to bring a fistful of mustard seeds.
The book explores molar dilemmas, personal traumas and delves into the dark recesses of the soul. It’s insightful and perceptive, taking a reader on different emotional journeys with its different stories.
I read this for #southasianauthoreadathon for the prompts 8 (translations from any native South Asian language) & 17 (anthology of short stories/poems)
If you’ve just stepped into immortality and need a guide on how to survive eternity without going insane, fret not for you don’t need to look any further!
It’s 1714 France and a young girl is running away from a wedding she didn’t want. She prayed and prayed to the old gods but the prayers fell on deaf ears. Futile were all her attempts and so she ran into the forest away from the searching crowd, latching onto the last rays of sunlight to make one last desperate plea. She called upon the old gods and one of them answered only to realize the sun has already set. Horrified she remembers what Estele always said, “Never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”
Desperate to escape her suffocating life, she struck a Faustian deal in exchange of her soul with the entity who called himself Luc. Addie could live as long as she wanted to, but will be forgotten by all. Learning the truth of her deal with the devil a little too late, Luc had then said to her what better way to be free, to be untethered by the threads of familiarity, family and society.
So for 300 years, she flitted across time, changing towns, countries and then continents; forgotten by everyone who knew her and everyone she met on the way. Memories of her fading away just by the closing of a door or a back turned too long. Unable to leave a mark in the world— uttering her name, being captured on film, writing or sketching anything; to people she became a whisper, a hallucination, a fleeting memory just out of reach. She learned to leave her mark though, through art and music, becoming their muse; the seven freckles splashed across her cheeks a constant in those pieces.
“and it is sad, of course, to forget. But it is a lonely thing, to be forgotten. To remember when no one else does.”
V. E. Schwab
For 300 years she roamed this earth all alone, remembered only by Luc, who graced her with his presence only to taunt her. For 300 years, she absorbed all that she can— of books, music and art, slowly getting used to the mundanity that her life has become. Until one day when everything changed. One day when a boy with a broken heart said, “I remember you.”
V. E. Schwab’s writing is like velvet engulfing you in its warm embrace. The author’s storytelling is hauntingly beautiful and it progresses at a leisurely pace. The prose is poignant and heady, making one want to read the lines again and again and again, savouring its essence. I’m sorry but if you’re looking for a thrilling suspenseful read, this book isn’t for you. This book would be frustrating for readers who like propelling plotlines. But if you’re someone who loves stories, slow that burns with longing, this is for you. If you’re someone who likes to go over paragraphs and sentences over and over again, this is for you. If you’re someone who loves dark academia, this is for you.
Some of my favourite excerpts from the book:
Adeline is sixteen now, and everyone speaks of her as if she is a summer bloom, something to be plucked, and propped within a vase, intended only to flower and then to rot. Like Isabelle, who dreams of family instead of freedom, and seems content to briefly blossom and then wither.
Stories are a way to preserve one’s self. To be remembered. And to forget.
“I do not want to belong to anyone but myself. I want to be free. Free to live, and to find my own way, to love, or to be alone, but at least it is my choice, and I am so tired of not having choices, so scared of the years rushing past beneath my feet. I do not want to die as I’ve lived, which is no life at all.”
Sure, he’s tried putting pen to paper, but it never really works. He can’t find the words, the story, the voice. Can’t figure out what he could possibly add to so many shelves. Henry would rather be a storykeeper than a storyteller.
The darkness claimed he’d given her freedom, but really, there is no such thing for a woman, not in a world where they are bound up inside their clothes, and sealed inside their homes, a world where only men are given leave to roam.
She watches these men and wonders anew at how open the world is to them, how easy the thresholds.
…and he assures you that you’ll find your calling, but that’s the whole problem, you’ve never felt called to any one thing. There is no violent push in one direction, but a softer nudge a hundred different ways, and now all of them feel out of reach.
Blink and you’re twenty-eight, and everyone else is now a mile down the road, and you’re still trying to find it, and the irony is hardly lost on you that in wanting to live, to learn, to find yourself, you’ve gotten lost.
He always liked learning. Loved it, really. If he could have spent his whole life sitting in a lecture hall, taking notes, could have drifted from department to department, haunting different studies, soaking up language and history and art, maybe he would have felt full, happy.
“Because time is cruel to all, and crueler still to artists. Because vision weakens, and voices wither, and talent fades.”
Lamhi. A small obscure village on the outskirts of Banaras. Lamhi. A village that is home to one of the most prominent author of Hindi Sahitya. Lamhi, that still is an obscure little place just outside Banaras, welcoming the occasional literature nerd that ventures in to see the place Premchand was born and grew up in, where a memorial now stands in his honour.
Munshi Premchand, born Dhanpat Rai Srivastava, also wrote under the pseudonym Nawab Rai. He was born on 31st July,1880 in Lamhi, a village located near Varanasi. His earlier works were in Urdu and he only started writing in Hindi because of the difficulty of finding publishers in Urdu.
It’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to visit Premchand’s memorial and his ancestral home when I was in Lamhi. I plan to visit it someday though. In the second slide, you can see the Lamhi gate, with the words “Munshi Premchand Smriti Dwaar” etched on it. His memorial is just over 2 km away from this spot.
I haven’t read many of his stories, only the occasional ones that featured in my Hindi textbooks. But I’ve been reading more of his works these past months. Mansarovar is on my TBR too. It’s a collection of short stories. My mother read it though and some of her favourite stories were: Jwalamukhi, Budhi Kaki, Guptdhan and Saut.
Have you read any of Premchand’s books, Hindi or translated? Also, have you ever visited the hometown of any famous authors?
It’s a bengali tradition that everyone is given two names upon birth— a good name and a pet name or daaknaam. The good name has an auspicious or great meaning behind it and is used in official capacity. Pet names, in contrast, are silly, used in the confines of our homes by people we know and love. They aren’t meant to be public.
Gogol Ganguli is born in US to Bengali immigrants from Calcutta. A series of misfortunate events— a lost letter and foreign rules, led to Gogol being given a pet name on hospital documents and later in school too because a five year old Gogol resisted on being called anything but Gogol.
It won’t be until his pre-teens that he’d realize how obscure his name is, that he’d never be able to find a Gogol or Ganguli in telephone directories, signboards or even tombstones. It won’t be until high school that he’d learn of the terrible story of his namesake Nikolai Gogol, the great Russian author. He’s embarrassed all through his teens because of his ridiculous name, which is neither Indian nor American. A name that sounds so silly, he’s afraid he won’t be taken seriously ever. That no girl would find it even mildly intriguing or exotic, that they’d laugh at his face, the moment he introduces himself.
The story takes place over decades and we glimpse the lives of the Gangulis in an unknown land, how Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, Gogol’s parents, settle and assimilate with the Americans, giving away bit by bit of their culture but still holding onto it dearly for without it they’d be lost.
We glimpse the life of Gogol— from his birth to his adulthood, how he tries to distance himself from his origin, trying with all his might to be different from his parents— to not make friends just because they share a common heritage, to not stay aloof from the Americans around them, to not marry just because he’s supposed to. We see his journey going from loving to hating his name and finally coming to terms with it. We see him growing from resenting all those trips to Calcutta to finally realizing that those visits could never have been enough!
It is a beautiful generational saga of immigrants and their children, their struggles in a new land, raising kids in a culture different from their own, their attempts at preserving their culture, language and religion and on the way discovering that though, the foreign land would never feel like home to them, it is home nevertheless.
Did you grow up in the same ethnic region as your ethnicity? Or is your family migrant?
“I think this is why writing happened to me. I never wanted to become a writer but I became one only so that another story of trauma does not get lost, so that through my story I can tell the stories of all the children who suffered the way I did, or worse.”
How do I write a review for a memoir on mental health? Will it be enough that I ask you to read this book so that, quoting Indurkar’s words, another story of trauma does not get lost?
Over there years, subconsciously the author kept all her dark secrets behind locked doors with the hope that they’d leave her in peace. But she didn’t know they’d come back to haunt her in uglier forms. And it did, a minor stomach bug reopened old wounds— of trauma and sexual abuse, the anxiety and the depression that followed after that.
She takes us through phases of her life, showing the good and the bad, the happy days as well as sad, to her journey of understanding her mind and her body, finding a good therapist, coming to terms with her illness and living with it day after day.
It’s not an easy path and your heart will bleed reading this, but it is also a story of hope, grit and perseverance teaching us that sometimes, when the going gets tough we just need to focus on taking one step at a time.
What I loved about this book were the literary references! And the poems written by the author herself were very impactful too.