Henna for the Broken-Hearted by Sharell Cook

I am an occasional silent reader at Sharell Cook’s blog, and when I found out that she had written a book, it came onto my wish list. A few weeks ago, I managed to lay my hands on the book.

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How far would you go to change your life?

Sharell Cook is 30 years old and living a privileged life in Melbourne’s wealthy suburbs. She has it all: the childhood-sweetheart husband, the high-powered job and plenty of cash to splash.

And it’s not destined to last. Sharell finds herself in a broken marriage, and everything she had taken for granted seems to have changed. Impulsively, she decides to take a break and go to India to do some volunteer work for a few months. Living in Calcutta, a life which was totally different from the time she traveled in India with her ex-husband as a tourist, Sharell grapples with life in India, the frustrations and joys, the unexpected and the normal. She also meets her future husband in India. Reading her book, you start to believe in destiny taking you where you belong.

The book is her memoir of her time in India, the way it changed her, and the way she now leads the urban life of a white Indian housewife. Her journey from what she was, to what she becomes, as she lives in a different culture, which she accepts so open-heartedly. Her transformation, as she calls it. Some of things which even, us, Indians would balk at, she calmly accepts and lives with them. It was fresh take, devoid of the stereotypes one would expect, and without any undue glorification of India either. She writes it as it is, and that in itself is very refreshing.

I loved reading her experiences in India, as she travels through India, lives in various parts, lives a life which is different at the same time, similar to locals. Washing clothes by hand, living through water shortages, temperamental landlords, nosy neighbours, part and parcel of middle class living in India, and accepting it all in a very matter of fact way. I absolutely love her attitude.

What really stands out is the risks she takes, probably because all that she considered familiar had changed after the breakdown of her marriage. The risks she takes in coming back to India, living with the man she would later marry, and her willingness to make the most of her situation, to accept what life has in store for her. It’s not something what most of us would find easy to do. And her attitude towards the changes in her life. Her open-hearted acceptance of the confusion that India can be, and her willingness to be a part of it all.

She literally taker us on her journey, through India, with the wonderful companionship she shares with her husband, and their adventures of various kinds. Living in different parts of India, until they reach the place they end up settling down in – Mumbai. Her husband’s family comes across as such wonderful people, accepting her a part of their family, and doing what it took to get her comfortable. The wonderful bond that she shares with them comes out loud and clear in the book.

If I had to describe the book in a few words, it would – honest and captivating. She keeps the pages turning, you want to know more, and you actually feel sad when it ends. A book I would definitely recommend.

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Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Sheils recommended this book, and on reading about the book, I found it very interesting, and was delighted to get hold of it so quickly.

Here we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first time you are a stranger, the second time you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to to anything – even die.

In 1993, after a disastrous attempt to climb K2, Greg Mortenson ends up in an impoverished village in Pakistan. He is touched by the villagers kindness and shocked to realize how tough life there was. The children had no school. He was appalled to see eighty two children, kneeling on the frosty ground, working by themselves. They shared a teacher with a neighboring village, and he taught here three days a week. The rest of the days, the children would practice the lessons he left behind, in the open, in all the harsh climatic conditions.

Seeing this, Mortenson resolved and promised to build a school for the village. The book is his story of how his personal conviction and efforts resulted in schools in many of these marginalized villages. He started off with the promise to build one school, but ended up building fifty five schools. Understanding how educating girls can change the lives of the villagers, he tried to make it easier to educate the girls. He wins the locals’ confidence, becomes one of them, understands the difficulties they face, and does whatever he can to help them. The story of how one man can make a difference, if he really wants, no matter what obstacles he faces.

It is the story of one man’s determination, and grit to overcome it all, to make a difference. He has risked his life, gone into dangerous territory, gotten kidnapped.. All for the purpose – his purpose to get the people of Central Asia education, a means to better their lives. The story, of course, is not just about him. It is also about his family. His wife who understood and supported his passion. Who made do with the fact that her husband would be away for months together. In places where it would be impossible to even reach him by telephone. Not knowing when or if he would be back. And yet accepting it, because that was the man he was. It is a riveting read. Very inspiring, and very touching. I would certainly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I did read some allegations of fraud and people contending that this book is actually more fiction than fact. So I am not really sure what to make of it.. Even if it were inaccurate, it would still be a very interesting read, albeit a fictional one, rather than a non-fictional account.

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

I came across this book during my weekly haunt of the neighborhood library. I remembered reading about this book somewhere, and decided to pick it up.

Lets just say that I certainly did not regret the choice.

The Swallows of Kabul is set in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban. Where a man and woman cannot even talk to each other in the streets, even if they are man and wife. Even laughing in the streets can result in punishments from the regime. The books main characters are Mohsen and Zunaira, and Atiq and his wife Musarrat. Mohsen is a middle class, educated young man, who in the madness of moment, stones a prostitute to death. After the event, he is wracked by guilt and shock to see the depths to which he sunk. Carrying his guilt home, he goes home and bares his heart to his wife, who finds it tough to understand what made him behave the way he did. His wife, Zunaira, is a former magistrate, who is now forced to remain indoors, cover herself completely if she wants to step out. The whole situation frustrates her so much, that she prefers to stay at home, and be the person she is, than step out,covered up in such a way that it takes away her identity.

Atiq is a jailor with a terminally ill wife. He is wracked by confusion of what he should do. His colleague advises him to divorce her and marry again. He protests that he can’t possibly do that – she has nobody else and she had once saved his life . He is told that he was the one who saved her – after all he married her – what more can a woman ask for. ‘She is a subordinate. Furthermore, it’s an error to believe that any man owes anything at all to a woman’. His wife is a woman who tries to do everything for him, even when she is so ill. There is nothing she won’t do for him – for him to be happy, and therein lies her tragedy.

By a cruel twist of fate the lives of the four of them intersect.

It is a sad, heartbreaking story. One that will stay with you for a while. One that I certainly can’t forget in a hurry. It also makes you think of the people who are actually living lives like that. People who have had their liberties taken away, who have had their identities taken away. It made me scared to see how easy it is to brainwash people, to make them react as a mob, in situations where otherwise, they would have walked away from.

A very thought provoking read. Something which will stay with me for some time to come.. 4/5

Edited to add: Just a little piece of information. Yasmin Khadra is the pen name of the author, Mohammed Moulessehoul. Apparently he was in the Algerian Army and used a pen name to avoid military censorship. 

Life and Laughing – My Story By Michael McIntyre

I haven’t read an autobiography/biography in quite a while. The other day, while browsing through a book store, we came across Michael McIntyre’s book, Life and Laughing- My Story. For those who may not know of him, Michael McIntyre is one of Britain’s best stand-up comedians. He has an amazing sense of humour, and has us laughing out loud at every line that he says. Both husband and I are hooked on his shows on the telly.

So going back to the bookstore, I saw the book, and casually mentioned to husband that it sure would be fun to read his book, given how funny he is. Husband agreed, and we moved on. Then last week, husband gifted me with it 🙂 It was all the more special because husband is the sort who rarely remembers anything of this sort!

To cut a long story short – I loved the book. Every line is a ‘laugh-out-loud’ line! Such a brilliant man, with such a wonderful sense of humour, and such a self depreciating style of expressing himself! He writes about his childhood, his smart sister, his parents, the love if his life – his wife. He writes about his failed efforts trying to attract the opposite sex, all through his teenage years. All those girls must be cursing their lack of foresight now 🙂

His struggles before he finally made it, drives home how difficult it is for someone trying to enter a career like this. There were times when he and his wife were deep in debt and deeply in love. Reading that phase of his life, I just kept hoping that something, someone would work a miracle and he would find success.And it did – it does all work out in the end. Despite his amazing success, he comes across as someone who is down-to-earth, with no signs of success having gone to his head.

I would give it a 5 on 5.  Funny, deeply sentimental when talks about his dad, and his love for his wife. Romantic, oh so romantic at times. I especially loved the part where he wrote of how he courted his future wife. Poignant, and gripping, while being extremely funny. If you like his style of humour, you will love this book!

Leaving you with a clip of his work.

The Sari Shop By Rupa Bajwa

Rupa Bajwa’s debut book The Sari Shop revolves around Ramchand a salesperson at a sari shop in the old area of Amritsar. Ramchand’s life is chronicled and interwoven with stories and tidbits from the lives of others around him. Ramchand and his colleagues wait on the richest and the most powerful ladies in Amritsar who choose to come to this sari shop for the variety and quality that it promises. From university professors who look down upon money, and rich business people who look down on people who may not have the kind of money they had.  The Sevak Sari Shop attracted all sorts. They have a strict task master of a boss called Mahajan who used to ensure that they catered to all the customers in the best way they could.

Ramchand lost his parents, who he adored and looked up to, in an accident when he was very young. He is brought up by his uncle and aunt.  As he grows up, he realizes that he has been cheated by his uncle of the shop that his father owned and the jewelery that his mother owned. He is left with nothing. His uncle gets him at apprenticeship at the sari shop and that is where he stayed.  He remembered  how his father used to want that his son to learn English. He realizes that people who know English have an edge, and so he starts his journey to self-improvement. He picks up second-hand letter writing books, a dictionary and works hard at it even when in most cases, the context itself is not very clear to him.

What I really loved about the book is the way the author describes things in the book. Right from the way the old market area in Amritsar is set up, to Ramchand’s sensitivity is beautifully portrayed. Ramchand’s amazement when he sees women wearing the sarees that they bought at the shop. For some reason he had never put it together that people wear the expensive sarees they buy to functions and weddings. Instances of how the sales people at the shops are considered invisible or non-existent by the customers as they talk and gossip away while browsing through the saris. The rich-poor divide is well brought out.  Ramchand is easily affected by the others around him. Even a scolding from Mahajan for coming late has quite an impact on him. One day he unwittingly comes across some issues which he initially ignores and later his conscience prevents him from ignoring and carrying on with his life. Things come to a head when lives across the spectrum of society clash in a way which most of them would have never anticipated..

The ending especially is poignant and makes one wonder at how different people come to terms with what life offers them. The book has several stories, intricately woven into one. It was a 4/5 read for me.  There was something that was missing from making it a completely wonderful read, for me.