Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

In 2010, intrepid young London journalist Monisha Rajesh decided to travel around India on 80 trains, mostly because she could. As a 9-year-old, Rajesh had lived briefly in India when her parents, both Indian doctors, had moved from Sheffield to Chennai in 1991; the family fled back to England two years later, unable to withstand rats nibbling at cakes of soap and loaves of bread, and sundry other inconveniences. Now older and wiser, and wanting a re-do of her relationship with India, Rajesh decides to explore the country over the course of 80 train journeys; the number pays homage to Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. Rajesh’s Passepartout for the journey is a cute Norwegian photographer dude friend. I know what you’re thinking: Will this friend provide benefits? You gutter-minds, buy the book to find out.

 

See, my favorite newspaper is The Guardian, and I follow Very British Problems on Facebook, and my best beloved author is probably Richmal Crompton. There’s a certain British sense of humor that sets me a-quiver, and that humor formula–which I believe can be approximated to (intelligent puns + extravagant Wodehousian similes ) X healthy dose of self-deprecation–is showcased in all its glory in this book. Rajesh is funny as heck, and despite her admitted partiality for Chetan Bhagat novels, you’re in good hands. Here’s a sunburnt Passepartout, who’s “adopted a cowboy swagger to prevent his inflamed skin from rubbing against his trousers although the desired effect was less James Dean and more piles sufferer. The surface of his skin had come to resemble patches of tissue paper, which had now started to flake off around the seats like an early spring flurry of snow.” About her pilgrimage to find the finest cup of tea, “…travelling to Assam felt to me what a trip to Colombia must mean to Charlie Sheen.” She’s particularly skilled at describing the quirks of the people she meets on her journeys–here’s Pradeep, “…who thrived on gathering useless trivia. His specialist interest was cash points [ATMs], but this also extended to enquiring about rucksack straps, our blood types, the expiry dates on English breakfast condiments, and star signs. At one point, he tried to scratch a mole off my right ankle, insisting it was dirt.” And her detailed descriptions of falling victim to Delhi Belly and her subsequent bouts of diarrhea on the Bhopal Shatabdi Express aren’t for everyone, but by god, they are magnificently chronicled.

Moreover, Rajesh is an outsider-insider, which is of course a decided bonus for a travel writer–she has a depth of understanding originating in lived experience, as well as a keen nose for the new and the odd. But for her ‘satiably curious fellow travelers, the least of her outsiderish-ness is her British passport, or even her twenty-something single woman traveller status. Nope, the real issue is that she’s so hard to slot. Monisha…now that sounds North Indian, but she doesn’t look like one, and her last name, Rajesh, could be from any part of India, could be Hindu or Christian. Such ambiguity is maddening for the average Indian, who would like to pinpoint your ancestral village to, say, a mere five centuries ago. Add to this the lack of mummy-daddy or brother-sister in the vicinity, the absence of a color-coded excel sheet for the 80 journeys, and throw in a male companion who’s neither brother nor husband, and you have a first-class enigma huddled in a tatkal second-class coach from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Rajesh doesn’t gloss over India’s unhappy bits–there’s the overabundance of creepy predatory men, the racism, the xenophobia, the shadism, the cockroaches, the crowds, the public performance of bathroom ablutions, and oh, the sheer anarchy.  In one instance, her bus’s “headlamps failed and the driver opted to drive in the blind spot of the car ahead, using its headlamps to guide him, while ploughing oncoming drivers off the road.” Sounds about right. Equally, Rajesh is quick to note the warmth of the people, and the kindness of strangers, who gladly share their meals with her, sacrifice their comforts to keep her safe, and arrange warm receptions at the remotest destinations, all without any expectation of return favors. And of course, there’s India’s over-the-top scenic beauty, from the northern Himalayas to the ocean at Kanyakumari. In all, Rajesh provides a real insight into how rewarding–and maddening!–the country can be.

The conflict in the narrative (apart from Rajesh’s struggles to get a grip on India) is provided by the great divider–religion! Passepartout turns out to be a militant atheist, while Rajesh considers her mild affiliation with Hinduism to be a product (and talisman) of family and culture. Depending on how you look at it, India is  the worst or best country in which to hash out this sort of disagreement, and after one temple too many, Passepartout turns into an ass, partout, and the two go their separate ways. Do they get back together? Do they finally…like I said, read the book.

I have two gripes with Around India… First, even toddlers know that when you have a Dora and her Boots, you NEED a map. Less than a 100 pages in, I lost track of which train they were on and where they were headed, and there was no map, index or appendix to ease the pain. To fulfill the 80-train constraint, Rajesh and her companion zigzag back and forth across India, doubling back to a familiar place and then plunging off again, and after a point, the chatter about a train originating in Barmer, boarding at Bikaner and heading to Kalka might as well have been the BART from Tatooine with a stop at Loompaland before heading to Mylapore. The publishers ponied up for illustrations of monkeys and and samosas and Thums-up soda at the beginning of each chapter, but apparently couldn’t stretch to an informational subtitle. This book is begging for an appendix detailing the name of the train, origin and destination, and the particular segment of Rajesh’s journey, and while its lack thereof didn’t quite derail my reading experience, after finishing the book, I have a very hazy idea of the routes travelled. And I grew up in India.

My other issue is that while Rajesh is a whiz at describing her adventures, she can be incredibly irritating when pronouncing generalities to explain India. “If you give an Indian a chance he will take it.” There’s an authoritativeness about her opinions that seems misplaced at best, coming as it does from someone, um,  not-so-seasoned about India. “In addition to their penchant for arguing, Indians love a good monologue…” Hmmm. “A country’s greatness cannot be measured by its size, but the standard of living of every individual.” Get me on the rush hour local out of this clichéland, quick. And consider this: “When I had just left university, I did a work experience stint at a magazine in Delhi. Initially they gave me copy to proofread, but as soon as I started to pick out archaisms and anything else that was incorrect, they looked put out. They ignored my changes and gradually stopped giving me work.” While I have scant respect for India’s mainstream media, would you *really* expect a bunch of cynical, seasoned journalists to thank a young amateur for pointing out that their writing didn’t meet her standards?

But on the whole, I liked this book a lot, and recommend it wholeheartedly for those interested in travel writing and/or India. And while I didn’t exactly feel inspired to click on to indianrail.gov.in, the book left me awash in nostalgia as I read about passengers whipping out balaclavas when the temperature hit 65 F, about Rajesh being addressed as “Aunty” by a random child, the inquisition into her father’s name (a thinly-veiled attempt to find out one’s caste), about feeding Marie biscuits to a stray dog…and about her dawning realization of the impossibility of forming a single-line queue in India. Plus ça change, etc. My edition was published by Roli Books and sourced from India, but a new $10 edition is available in the USA. Check it out!

 

 

 

 

 

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Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

Mitali Perkins has a godly talent for taking on big issues in unfamiliar settings and turning it all into absorbing, magical Middle Grade stories. I admired Bamboo People, and adored Secret Keeper, and I’m firmly in the love end of the like—>love scale for Tiger Boy (2015). This novel tackles  profound moral dilemmas involving integrity, ambition, and sacrifice, all in Perkins’s trademark preach-free manner. And it’s set in the Sunderbans, an archipelago of islands that’s home to a unique mangrove forest, all of which straddles the southern part of Bangladesh and a small bit of eastern India.

Landsat 7 image of Sundarbans, released by NASA Earth Observatory , from Wikipedia.

The Sunderbans (“beautiful forest” in Bengali) is home to the Bengal tiger, whose population in recent years has dwindled so much that it’s considered an endangered species. The low numbers are partly due to deforestation and the rigours of a shared habitat with villagers, but mostly due to poaching for illegal trade in body parts and skin. Yep, we humans mostly suck.

Young Neel lives in near-poverty in an island village in the Sunderbans. He’d rather be swimming than studying for the scholarship exam for admission to a prestigious Calcutta boarding school. Oh, the English and Bangla exam portions are fine, but Neel (like a certain other young protagonist) has met his Waterloo in geometry. Moreover, he doesn’t want to go away to the city–he loves his family and his village. “The sights, sounds and smells of the Sunderbans were as much a part of him as his dark skin and curly black hair.” But his father, although a skilled carpenter, is short of work, and Neel’s scholarship (and his subsequent professional career) could be the ticket to a better life for his family.

Just as the headmaster catches Neel playing truant, big news comes their way–a tiger cub has escaped from the nature reserve nearby, and it’s hiding in their village! Neel is immediately aware of the danger–the mother will come in search of her cub. And there’s an additional menace–a rich city dweller named Gupta, who’s been buying up land in the forest, often forcibly evicting the occupants and wantonly cutting down rare Sundari trees, is searching for the cub too. Gupta is offering a large bounty for the tiger–and it’s not out of altruism.

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Neel and his sister Rupa (who would have been deemed an awesome scholarship candidate if she were but a boy, you know?) set out in secret to search for the baby tiger. Since this book is called Tiger Boy, you know that Neel (aided by geometry, no less!) finds and rescues the cub. His family could sorely use the reward money for his mother’s medicine, but Neels knows he must return the cub to the forest rangers. Can he avoid getting his father into trouble, dodge Gupta and his evil henchmen, and hand the tiger over to the rangers — and pass that terrifying geometry exam?

Since this is an MG novel, everything works out, but not once does Perkins sacrifice nuance, and the ending features a hugely satisfying yet unforced tying-up of loose ends. I really relished the elegant plotting, and I love her characters. As always, they’re mostly helpful, good-hearted people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and if they behave less than well, it’s usually due to ignorance or duress, rather than spite. And yes, it’s hinted that greedy Gupta gets his comeuppance. The text is accompanied by lovely illustrations from Jamie Hogan.

Much incidental information about tigers, conservation and the Sunderbans has been gently infused into this fast-paced, gripping novel, and there’s also a substantial afterword that includes plenty of learning resources. Tiger Boy won the 2016 South Asia Book Award for Grades 5 and Under, as well as whole other bunch of prizes; color me unsurprized. Check out more about the book at http://www.tigerboy.org/.

This Truck has Got to be Special by Anjum Rana, Sameer Kulavoor, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan

When Tara Books asked if I’d be interested in reviewing any of their new releases, I picked This Truck has Got to be Special, judging the book solely by the explosion of color and glitter on its cover. And oh, what a smart choice it was. TThGtbS is the story of Pakistani truck driver Chinar Gul, who’s finally paid off the loan for his vehicle; what better way to celebrate than having his truck newly decorated by his artist friend Zarrar? But not with any random designs in beige or oatmeal (or the more daring forest green or burgundy). Nope, this truck will be special.

(The gold bits on the cover are reflective, and super shiny.)

Author Anjum Rana, an interior designer by profession, writes on her website “…Pakistani Truck art is not only a legitimate and distinct folk art, but also represents the values and aspirations of vast majorities of Pakistanis”. The exuberant colors, the abundance of motifs, and the lavish application of glitter are all constituents of a deliberately flamboyant style that’s been honed over the years (some say it dates from the 1950s). Rana does a wonderful job of capturing Chinar Gul’s excitement and anticipation as he waits for his precious truck to be painted, and it’s all depicted without a hint of patronage.

Chinar Gul drives his truck along the Karakoram Highway, aka the Pakistan China friendship highway, aka the highest paved road in the world. It’s a tough life, albeit leavened with camaraderie with fellow drivers, and moments of stunning scenic beauty. As a poor young boy whose family could not send him to school, Chinar Gul worked as a truck cleaner (a”cleander” in the local dialect). When old enough to get a license, he began driving his boss’s truck,  becoming a driver-cleander-mechanic all in one. And now, after 30 years of being on the road, and driving his truck for 5 years, he finally owns the truck outright. The truck is his home; painting it makes it welcoming, “like a  decorated bride who is waiting for you at home”, says Gul.

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The progress on the truck’s decorations runs parallel to the story of Chinar Gul’s life. The truck artist, Zarrar, is a truck painting ustaad (maestro), who, like Chinar Gul, began as a lowly assistant at a very young age, but who now has complete control over his art. Chinar Gul doesn’t tell him what to paint on the truck, other than two requests–on the front, the words “Mashallah’, the name of God, to keep the driver safe, and on the back, “Pappu yaar tung na karr”– an admonition to those driving behind him which translates into Pappu, Man [dude!], don’t hassle me. Someone on Etsy make a decal, quick.

After much deliberation, Zarrar decides to paint partridges and mountains on the side panels, while the wheels and the bumper will be decorated with reflector tape (chammak patti), disco style. The cabin ceiling will be painted too, and the seats will be clad in multi-colored velvet, with applique lace and gold braid. The large painting on the rear of the truck is a joint decision requiring much deliberation. Chinar Gul’s wife asked for the portrait of her favorite singer, his older son for his cricket hero, and his younger son wanted an airplane. Read the book to find out what the final choice was 🙂

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Trucks on the Gilgit Skardu road. (Pic credit : By Hollern1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40240457)

The illustrations bring alive the setting– here’s Chinar Gul’s wife and children fishing for rainbow trout in Swat, and then there’s Gilgit’s bustling market, with a signboard for “Mobile Repair” cheek-by-jowl with soaring minarets. The truck designs are exuberant and fun–there’s much use of hot pink and fuchsia and parrot green, along with plenty of gold. And the story itself is at least as appealing as the visuals, with Rana’s respect and affection for this art form imbuing every page of the book. In all, I was struck by what a lovely team effort TThGtbS represents, with two Pakistani truck painters, Hakeem Nawaz and Amer Khan, providing the truck designs, a Pakistani writer Anjum Rana working with a Mumbai-based illustrator Sameer Kulavoor for the story, and a London-based graphic designer pulling it all together. Quite fitting then, that this California-based blogger loved it to bits.

Soylent Coffiest: only technically, coffee.

Do you like eating? do you like coffee? then read no further. But if breakfast is but the step between drought-mindful shower and miserable schlep, then fill your bunker shelves with Soylent.

drink_300x400-e74e606ebde4 Soylent, as you may know, is “healthy, convenient, and affordable food” that provides “all the protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients that a body needs to thrive”. Soylent is a meal substitute, and is available as a bar, a powder, and a bottled drink, the latter  in  regular and coffee flavors. The bar was recently found to cause explosive diarrhea for some wretched souls, but I had no such issues while drinking Coffiest. In fact, it was quite the reverse, as you’ll see if you read on…

Unlike food–which is cooked or dished up or blended or roasted or baked–Soylent, the makers stress, is ENGINEERED.  The words used to describe its origins include “intelligently designed”,  “food system innovation”, “Food 2.0”, and “exploring the frontiers of food technology” — all deliberately evoking visions of astronaut rations. It’s all about technology–the bottle looks like a docking station for a nanobot (if such a thing should exist). When you unscrew the cap, you’re momentarily surprised it hasn’t unfolded into an Amazon drone. The formula could have been unearthed from a crater in Roswell. This Soylent is not green, people.

Soylent is targeted at a busy human without the time to slap together a PBJ-Sriracha sandwich or chew an apple. (Note: this person is probably so very busy as s/he works in TECHNOLOGY, and lives in the Bay Area.) S/he is concerned with good nutrition, is well-informed about gluten, and knows that granola bars are candy dressed as health food.

This post is written with the clear understanding that I meet few of the above criteria. I’m old-ish, and prioritize leisure over most activities. I’m not a serial thrill experiencer  whose brain and skills are so much in demand that I have no time for food other than as fuel–heck, I see your CTO promotion and I raise you my thrill on slicing open an avocado at its instant of green to yellow metamorphosis. I admire and respect a good meal, I do.

I’d never subsist on Soylent, but would I consider it for an occasional meal substitute? I tried Soylent Coffiest, sourced for me by my tech-genius nephew.

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My big, big problem with Coffiest is that it fails miserably on the coffee front. First, it is goopy, practically coating the back of a spoon like dilute custard, and its emollient consistency makes it the opposite of the texture I associate with coffee. And second, the coffee taste is of very low quality, and by low quality, I mean shitty. It’s got that burnt bean taste, and that sour metal aftertaste, and it reminds me of the worst coffee I’ve had in my life (back in an Edinburgh Starbucks in 2003, if you must know).

Coffiest is best cold. When it’s hot, it raises the vengeful ghost of the latte you might have had. When it’s room temperature, it tastes like the tears of Elon Musk. It’s oobleck all gussied up in a tuxedo–liquid down your throat, and then solid in your gut for hours after consumption. I’m slightly nauseous after half a cup; drinking a bottle (400 ml) at one go would be too disruptive to my inner bay areas.

BUT it’s nutritionally magnificent. The main ingredients are “Soy Protein Isolate, Algal Oil, Canola Oil, Rice Starch, Oat Fiber”, and the combination of soy and algal oil (yes, from algae)  gives it the optimal combination of protein and carbs and vitamins and minerals for humans. It is the healthiest bottled beverage on this planet–you could probably postpone death and reduce taxes if you drank this daily. It has 400 calories per bottle–a lot, until you remember that it’s a meal substitute and not a nutritional supplement. I don’t think you could get this level of nutrition within this calorie count from any traditional food combination at this price–approx. $3.25 per bottle.  It’s vegan and nut-free, though not gluten-free.

 

The beverage is dark, chocolatey brown,  but you’d likely never know that as you’d chug it straight down, being too busy to pour it from bottle to glass, see?

I can totally understand (and even second) the choice of Soylent if you must skip a meal and the alternative is junk food snacks and/or soda. Heck, I figure Soylent is much closer to food than, say, Coke or Pepsi, which I hear make for excellent toilet cleaners. But anything more than occasional consumption of Soylent seems unbearably joyless when you think of the pleasure foregone by skipping that rolling-pin burrito, by not slurping down chole with a hubcap-size bhatura. As with most things in life, moderation seems key; drink Soylent responsibly, folks!

Soylent Coffiest can be ordered from the company website or Amazon. 12 bottles for $39.

Deep Singh Blue by Ranbir Singh Sidhu

Before I moved to California, I thought of the state in binaries–NorCal and SoCal. NorCal was wine, technology, Berkeley, redwoods, and the irresistible melancholic appeal of Haight-Ashbury. SoCal was Hollywood and the Grammy Awards, surfer beaches, Disney, fitness, and kidney-shaped pools–all about mainstream glamor, and hey, I opted out of (i.e. was ejected from) that game long ago. And I was peripherally aware (from having read Steinbeck eons ago) that there was farmland towards the east. And wasn’t there a desert too, near the border with Nevada?

When I did move to NorCal, to the Bay Area, hive to H1-Bees, it was pretty much as I’d heard–I was in the land of the dosa delivery, unfathomable home prices, kindergarten coders and #technology.  And then I learned more about California, and realized that the NorCal/SoCal binary was false–as most binaries are. Sure, you can divide California into a geographic north and south, but half an hour east of my city I’m in the Central Valley, home to an agriculture-based economy which produces over half the fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the United States. The region is sole supplier of all the almonds, olives and pomegranates in the country. Towards the southern part of the Valley, on the SF-LA route, lies Kern County, where not very long ago, KKK activities were comparable to those in the deep South. Today, the population in Central Valley is mostly white and Hispanic, but there’s also a sizeable Hmong community. And there’s a goodly number of Punjabi Sikhs, some of whom settled the area over a century ago; the first wave arrived in the 1860s, and but the largest number arrived during the 1970s. This is an area and (more importantly) a subculture that receives little to no coverage in mainstream media, art, and literature, not when there’s so much #glitter elsewhere. So when Ranbir Singh Sidhu asked if I’d review his novel Deep Singh Blue, set in the Central Valley of the 1980s, I agreed at once. I don’t know Sidhu, but I’d read his fearless, candid piece in Salon last year, and I knew I was in for an unsettling ride.

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The protagonist Deep Singh is born in a “no-name Central Valley town” to parents who’d immigrated from an Indian village. “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education; they were the other Indians, the ones who don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written–the children of farmers, not even farmers themselves when they left. […] Dad came to look for work, Mom came to marry him. They had no handholds to keep them secure, and the world they encountered was as mystifying as it was terrifying.” Deep’s parents, unable to settle, move from town to town, “each one held fast in its own [Central] Valley noose.” They finally end up literally and metaphorically at the very edge of the Central Valley, overlooking the Bay Area but unable to cross over, in a town with a missile base, high levels of KKK membership, and a used bookstore full of romances and Bibles.

Sixteen-year-old Deep, refusing to be dwarfed by his universe, tries to understand his place and his community, but is doomed to eternal displacement thanks to his family’s frequent moves. Full of teenage hormones, rage and sheer dumb bravado, he drops out of high school to attend community college, where he meets twenty-seven year old Lily, a half-Chinese woman with an “all-American” “biceps and blue sky and engine oil” husband. Lily gives him his first cigarette and first taste of gin, and soon they’re in a messy, destructive relationship.  Meanwhile, Deep’s older brother Jag is withdrawn and sullen, walking on the edge of violence, with a messy inner life that causes him to shut off from the world. The parents live in a sort of joyless denial of their isolation, mindlessly watching television and refusing to acknowledge their older son’s mental issues or Deep’s frustration.

Deep, for the most part, engages with the world in a blackly comedic way, walking into the girl’s locker rooms on a dare “to see what would happen”, running away from home (but in the wrong direction, d’oh!). He is compassionate one moment and massively cruel the next; in a sense, the lack in Deep’s environment is reflected in his own behaviour–he is complicit in Lily’s deranged, desperate acts of racism, and oblivious to the consequences of his stupider actions. You want to clout him on the head, yes, but you also want to rescue this kid from his brutal surroundings, whisk him to a city abloom with museums and libraries, where he can talk to random strangers about Spinoza and  Camus (The Stranger is one of the central motifs of this novel).  The only paths open to Deep seem to be futile resistance or passive acceptance, until life lessons, delivered through experience and through tragedy, bring Deep to a recognition of what he truly needs–and  values–in his world.

Sidhu pulls no punches when discussing the themes of alienation, voluntary exile, and the search for meaning in an absurd world rendered even more surreal through cultural difference.  Deep is constantly othered, and his statelessness stands in sharp contrast to the (white) locals’ deep affiliation with the nation-state, and to his uncle’s vision for the Sikh people carving a separate country (Khalistan) for themselves out of India. Sidhu’s vivid prose sharply illuminates Deep’s inner life as well as his California surroundings; altogether, the novel is deeply and rightfully unsettling in its exploration of topics such as masculinity, dislocation and white nationalism.

Lest all this sounds too earnest and theory-heavy, I want to mention (again!) how very funny I found this book. Here’s Deep’s dad, telling a prospective daughter-in-law (who looks like “the unhappiest girl who ever lived”) that his son works in oil. Jag was formerly employed in a warehouse in a refinery, see? Here’s Deep getting ready for his future–by practising to be a drunk “like Dylan Thomas”. Here’s the uncle, persuading Deep to fly to India and join the fight for Khalistan. “I’ll buy your ticket. No worries. Lots of fun for a young man. You’ll be a freedom fighter, like George Washington? They’ll give you fresh rotis every day, like home.”  Oooh, yes. The next time someone asks me to recommend a California novel, I’ll point to Deep singing the blues.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba

So, it turns out that I’ve birthed a child who likes reading and science. Specifically, he likes reading about science, which is Not My Thing at all (I finished The Martian in under an hour because I skipped the bits I didn’t understand). It’s been challenging to find him books we both like, and when we struck gold with the Young Reader’s Edition of The Boy who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba, I had to share the good news.

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TBWHTW is the true story of, um, a boy who harnessed wind energy. As a fourteen year old, William Kamkwamba hacked a windmill to provide electricity to his home. Good but not unusual in the Bay Area, you say, where peanut’s first word was “circuit”, followed by “Apple stock”? Well, Kamkwamba  overcame lack of schooling, zero supplies, and famine conditions in his quest to build his windmill. It’s a great story, one that actually deserves the accolade inspiring. Not because he’s from Malawi, but because this kid could take a microplane and a table fan and some EVOO and fashion a drone to Mars. This isn’t some creepy third-world inspiration porn: it’s Kamkwamba’s resourcefulness and intelligence and integrity and sciency-ness that make him a hero. And yes,  it’s all great reading.

William Kamkwamba was born in 1987, in a small farming village near the town of Wimbe in Malawi. He’s curious and adventurous and a natural-born tinkerer, cracking open old radios to figure out their secrets. “The [parts of a radio] that look like beans are called transistors, and they control the power that moves from the radio into the speakers. I learned this by removing one and hearing the volume greatly reduce.” (That’s how you do it, kids.) He wonders how gas makes a car move, how music is stored shiny little discs, how dynamos work–and realizes that he needs to know more SCIENCE.

But just when things are going well, nature and government conspire to bring about a catastrophe. The new Malawian President, “a businessman… [who] didn’t believe the government’s job was to help farmers”, eliminates fertilizer subsidies. William’s family, like most farmers,  now can’t afford to buy fertilizer for their maize crop. When the rains fail, Malawi begins to starve. Due to mismanagement and corruption, the government stockpiles of grain don’t reach the needy, and in a very short while, people are dying of starvation and cholera.

William drops out of school as his family can’t pay the fee, and soon, they are down to one meal a day. Somehow, the family must survive till the next harvest. “The bones were now showing in my chest and shoulders, and the rope belt that I’d made for my pants no longer worked. … My arms and legs looked like blue-gum poles and ached all the time. I had trouble squeezing my hand into a fist.” And William’s dog…oh, man.

Just as the family is on the brink, the next harvest comes in, and they are safe. But there’s still no money for school, so William keeps up with academics by reading his friend’s class notes. Then his life changes: he discovers the Wimbe Primary School library, which has three giant shelves of books. (This.This.)  He finds a book explaining all things science, but it’s in English.  “I devised my own system…for example, if I was interested in a photo or illustration labeled Figure 10 and I didn’t know what it meant, I’d comb through the text until I found where Figure 10 was mentioned. Then I’d study all of the words and sentences around it.” And then he’d ask the librarian to look up words like voltage and diode in the dictionary.

Having thus learned English, William chances upon an American text book called Using Energy, which depicts a row of windmills on the cover. He realizes: “If I could somehow get the wind to spin the blades on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I could create electricity. And if I attached a wire to the dynamo, I could power anything, especially a lightbulb.” Charlie, you can keep your Golden Ticket.

After much trial and error, with the use of old bicycle spokes, a lotion tub, a broken cassette player, an old shoe from the garbage dump et al, William rigs up a working prototype. Followed by an actual, electricity-generating windmill that powers four bulbs and two radios in his home. This one:

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(By Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando – William Kamkwamba’s old windmill. Uploaded by Church of emacs, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9424456)

 

Much to his surprise, William’s windmill gets a little press coverage, and then a lot.  He gives a TED talk in Tanzania (utterly charming, he’s all of nineteen), and becomes a TED Global Fellow in 2007. He gets to complete high school. He travels to America, where he sees a wind farm, with windmills like those on the cover of Using Energy. At age 23, in the year 2000, he attends Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering. Meanwhile, with the money from the sales of this book and from TED donors , he helps provide electricity to every home in his village. He drills a borewell for his mom so she doesn’t have to walk two hours a day for clean water; the spigot from the borehole is free to use for the women of Wimbe. He installs solar panels on the village rooftops, and he helps the friends who supported him back when he was on a quest for copper wire and car batteries. He’s set up a nonprofit called Moving Windmills to help fund local village improvements and to pay for tuition.

This is the rare book that’s a winner on every count–it teaches kids about everything that’s important, and it’s a fast-paced, never-preachy read. Bonus points to co-author Bryan Mealer for making the story accessible but not overly Americanized (Kamkwambe uses the word petrol rather than gas, for instance). The book comes in three editions– a picture book for the very young, this young reader’s version (suitable IMO for 8-14), and a regular old people’s version. Read them all!

 

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

One of the dead giveaways I’m old, old, old is that I cheerfully part with my money to gain information I’d have sacrificed a limb to avoid in high school. Hands up if Figures of Speech sends a cold wave down your front, with the memory of similes, not metaphors–or is this all hyperbole? Anyway, last week, I sought out, and hugely relished Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. It’s full of useless, joy-sparking explanations of  rhetorical devices;  I can now tell you what hendiadys, epizeuxis and aposiopesis are even though I can’t pronounce them. The book starts off with a boring preface, warms up in Chapter 1, Alliteration, and then takes off in Chapter 2, Polyptoton, which sounds like a growth where no growth should occur, but is, in fact, “the repeated use of one word as different parts of speech.” Forsyth notes that one of the best known examples of Polyptoton is a song sometimes said to be about oral sex–“Please Please Me” by The Beatles, where the first please is an interjection, and the second a verb. Who knew grammar could blow you away like that?

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Forsyth, who looks and sounds as though he spends his hours reading the dictionary aloud to Pippa Middleton on a punt, doesn’t actually set out to teach you how to coin a perfect phrase. This book’s primary aim is to make you chuckle when you recognize the particular stratagem at work–and to then render you unable to read Wodehouse without gleeful ejaculations of adynaton! and diacope! There’s also much satisfaction in understanding why some phrases work “instinctively” better than others, and in putting a name to a hitherto-unknown rule. Take the hyperbaton for instance, which is the deliberate flouting of the rule for adjective order. Did you know that adjectives in English must be in a certain order?  I would never say that I have a literary brown old little odd blog, because it sounds weird and somehow off, but I could never explain why. But now I’ve learnt that it must be opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun, so I’ll own to sporadically updating my odd little old brown literary blog. And oh, Forsyth informs us that the only person who has carried off consistent hyperbaton “lived a long long time ago in a  galaxy far away. In Dagobah, to be precise.”

One of this book’s most appealing qualities is Forsyth’s careful choice of examples to illustrate the rules. There’s plenty of quotes from the usual suspects–Jesus, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker–and some delightfully unexpected ones. Sting, in stalker mode, showcases the periodic sentence in “Every Breath You Take”.   Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty” is an example of a chiasmus, but in the same chapter you also learn that T.S.Eliot insisted on the middle initial because he was “painfully aware” of what T.Eliot spelled when read in the reverse. The most extreme example of litotes is perhaps when Emperor Hirohito announced, after the two atomic bombs had been dropped, that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.” “Space: the final frontier” works so much better than “This is Space, which is the final frontier” because scesis onomaton sets a scene.  In all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and can’t recommend it enough for the reader in your life–especially if it happens to be you. Buy it!