Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review : Goldfish Don't Take Bubble Baths

My first guest post appeared on Saffron Tree.

Title : Goldfish Don't Take Bubble Baths (Abby and Tess Pet-Sitters)
Author: Trina Wiebe

Illustrator: Meredith Johnson
Ages : 4-8
Publisher : Lobster Press

To start with, I would love to narrate one interesting anecdote from my childhood. I remember when we were very small, my sister and I used to love eating the meat of the melon seeds. It was a big effort to get those seeds cleaned first, to remove the pulp in which they are encased. Mostly we used to clean the seeds using a couple of vessels and a sieve. But one day we had a brilliant idea - we thought we should use the rough floor of our verandah for spreading the seeds on, it was easier this way as we could just squeeze the seeds and set them free from their pulp. It worked really fine and we were happy that we could accomplish the task sooner than previous times. When we brought the bowl of all clean shining seeds inside to enjoy them, our elder sister pointed out that the place where we kept the seeds on the floor is not a clean one and we walk on that floor all the time, we should not eat these seeds. That made us a little uncomfortable (as we were about to put the seeds in our mouths to pop them open) but we didn't want to lose our seeds, so we decided to wash the same seeds with "Surf" (detergent powder for washing clothes) and then have them. It seemed like the most intelligent idea we had at that time.

Not quite similar but somehow after almost 25 years I was reminded of this incident when I was reading - "Goldfish Don't Take Bubble Baths" , to my children. Innocent minds just know very simple ways to clean things up or bring some change.

In this book, the unaware Tess decides to give the goldfish a bubble bath by putting Dish Detergent in their tank, to make the goldfish feel better. This book is the first one of the series of - Abby and Tess Pet-Sitters. Two sisters Abby (elder one) and the younger one - Tess are desperate to have a pet of their own, but cannot do so because of the building rules - No pets allowed.

Abby wants to be a Veterinarian when she grows up and loves reading books on different animals. Fortunately she gets a chance to fish-sit Mrs. Wilson's two goldfish, when Mrs. Wilson went out of town for a week. She tries to get as much information on goldfish as possible by reading various books from the library on goldfish. As this is the first "pet-sitting" project that came Abby's way, she wants to prove to her parents that she is responsible enough to take care of the goldfish in the best possible manner. She wants to do it perfectly so that she can request her parents for the permission to start a pet-sitting business of her own.

The whole new experience starts and that is when while accompanying Abby to Mrs. Wilson's apartment to check on the goldfish, Tess does her bit too and it is interesting how Abby rescues the goldfish who seemingly do not like the soapy water. That is when all the information that Abby had gathered from the books comes handy. Obviously very angry at Tess's philanthropic act of making goldfish feel happier, Abby decides to take care of the goldfish all by herself. But later when just two days are left of this job, something terrible happens which can completely ruin all the impression that she wants to build to earn future pet-sitting projects. It is very natural that in the most miserable conditions, we tend to feel bad for what we do wrong, similarly, Abby now feels bad for Tess and talks to her and apologizes to her for her indifference towards her. Then two of them together try to save the situation. Initially Abby thinks of hiding it from her parents but then realizes that taking responsibility means owning the mistakes too and surprisingly for her, her parents understand that everyone makes mistakes and making mistakes is so human. They still decide to give her a chance to pet-sit in future too. The same night Abby gets busy in preparations for her exciting pet-sitting job with Tess as her reliable assistant.

We read this book over a few days, one chapter everyday, keeping the curiosity of kids high. Everyday they used to wait for the designated reading hour. A wonderful way to introduce children to the habitats, eating habits and other characteristic features of different animals along with some messages - working together is always better than working alone, owning the mistakes instead of hiding them. Getting such messages from different sources and in different situations always help in making the values firmer in their impressionable minds.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book Review : A Fine Family

Author : Gurcharan Das

Image courtesy : Amazon

After reading "Difficulty of being good" by Gurcharan Das, I had to read some of his other works. So I picked this book up. "A Fine Family" - a story of three generations, set against the backdrop of changing India - physically as well as at the soul level. The story starts from the time when India was trying to stand on her own feet to get the long due freedom from the Britishers. The main character - Bauji, was a successful lawyer in Lyallpur (now in Pakistan) with his extended family enjoying the benefits of being an urban middle class family. It focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the people at that time when the independence of India was being decided by the leaders on both sides of the table. How the negotiations affected the people of those regions, who literally paid the price for independence of India by giving everything which belonged to them - from material things to their lives. A heart wrenching narration of partition incidents and how some lucky few could cross the border to be on the safer lands. Bauji's family was one among those which could reach the new India, with smaller physical map and a bleeding heart. Loosing just one daughter to the mad riots at that time was the minimum damage they could think of. Many concerns have been raised by the author which I am sure lingered ( and still lingering) on in people's minds and memories - were/are we not competent enough to be a leader of ourselves, were we habitual of being led only. Was the partition of 1947 justified, did the leaders failed the common people who were living in denial till the last moments of partition thinking that this senseless communal violence would stop soon. These are the questions which have been raised and been discussed innumerable times but I guess, some questions are destined to remain unanswered.

Then comes the next generation - a generation which mainly got busy filling up the positions which were being vacated by the British people. It is being depicted through the life of Bauji's daughter Tara and her family. The moods, likes and dislikes of Tara and majority of that generation, quite different from her own husband (Seva Ram) though. Inspite of spending the lives together, they both remain unconvinced by the ways which appeal to the other person.

And the third - Tara and Seva Ram's son - Arjun, who wants to achieve more. So he steps out on his own to explore life in a totally different city - Mumbai.

One striking thing which comes out after reading this book is that no matter what times, which generation, humans do have an innate ability of coming out even from worst of situations - triumphant, owing to the grit and determination. It was evident in all three generations - Bauji starting his life afresh after having suffered the perils of partition, Tara having to compromise on marriage front and getting on with the new life which was being chosen for her by her elders and Arjun having left the unpleasant experience of being convicted (wrongly) behind him.

Gurcharan Das is a great story-teller with flawless language and has beautifully portrayed the desires and then adjustments, strengths and weaknesses - of human mind.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review : Difficulty of Being Good

Image source : Flipkart
Author : Gurcharan Das

A book very well written and very informative. It has wonderfully analyzed the subject on hand - Mahabhartha, its main characters and how they handled the situations when their integrity was in question or at stake. I have great appreciation for the author - Gurcharan Das, who has dealt with the issues very objectively without getting biased towards or prejudiced against any particular side in the dharam-yudh. This epic is so vast, great and complicated that it validates the point over and over again- "What is here is found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere."

The book attempts to define two types of dharma - sadharan dharma and sva dharma. Former being associated to caste or varna or society and the latter is what defines the innte nature of an individual. For the perfect balance, these two need to work in unison but sometimes, they start conflicting with each other as was the case with Yudhishthir. The sadharan-dharma dictated him to function as a king, according to which, fighting/killing becomes part of the duties whereas his sva-dharma guided him to save every single individual no matter what.
I marvelled at one of the many observations of the author - "The epic is obsessed with questions of right and wrong and it analyses human failures constantly". All characters, without any exception, had to stoop down from their own high levels of being ardent dharma followers, when the situations arose.
Krishna - the God (or is he?), has a much larger than life role to play during His whole time on earth. Be it his childhood pranks in Gokul, his encounter with Kansa, his marriage expeditions and then his involvement with his dear friends Pandavas. While being a part of the battle between Kauravas and Pandavas, yet not directly involved as an active warrior, Krishna plots many plans to make Pandavas win the battle. He tries his best, as a peace messenger to avert the battle but when it is not possible, he believes that no matter what type of means are employed - fair or unfair, battle has to be won. The reason that Pandavas' cause is just, is sufficient enough to even use unjust means or tricks to achieve that result.
Other main characters of the epic are also a lot thought provoking - be it,
* Bhishma, who got his name after taking an oath - never to marry and to remain loyal to the throne of Hastinapur without giving it any thought that there may come some time when the king is not capable enough to deserve such loyalty. But he remained true to his words till his last breath.

* Karna, who even after coming to know of the fact that he was the brother of five Pandavas, remained loyal to his friend - Duryodhana and we do not find any flaw in this character except on two occasions when he was a party to the assembly where Draupadi was disgraced and when Abhimanyu was killed in a foul play. He remained "a true giver" all through his life. Our sympathies do go with this character, who had to pay for none of his faults.

*Yudhishthir, son of Dharma himself, who dared tread the path of doing what is expected of him at any given time, was put to tests many times by Dharma. In the end, Indra gave him an exceptional boon as he truly remained a great person and felt for other creatures more than how he felt for himself. We feel the anxiety, remorse and sadness that he finds himself in after the war. Despite having won the war, he considers himself a loser after the battle is over. He comes across as a very strong personality in the epic.

While reading this book, the readers would not be able to avoid getting many doubts and questions themselves. I think, the doubts basically on two planes - about some of the incidents that happened in Mahabharatha and then questions about the current times.
  • Is it even feasible to compare the two times and trying to get the answers from the epic? Are not the two situations so mutually exclusive or for that matter, any two situations and times are so disjoint that comparison becomes impossible.
  • What are we trying to achieve from this comparison? Fine, even at that time humans found it difficult to remain true to the path of dharma, is it a justification to not take - "being good" part that seriously.
  • Is "being good or not good" a function of situation concerned?
  • Who decides and on what basis can humans be good or not good at any particular time ?
  • How important is the fairness of the means in achieving a fair result? And who decides the fairness of means or of the result?
  • Can there be a broad definition of Dharma with which majority of people could relate and try to adhere to or is it too subjective and varied as the humans themselves are? The definition of Dharma was too varied for the characters of Mahabharatha themselves. Some did not think its wrong to sacrifice an individual for the benefit of majority whereas some were not ready to even sacrifice a single individual despite knowing the fact that that particular individual could bring more problems for others.
  • The author very nicely puts - "if greed is the vice of capitalism, envy is the flaw of socialism". Is there a possibility of having a stable system for human race, which can atleast aim to do away with these faults?
  • Is making the tricks (which Krishna plotted) public during the great battle, a way to convey the message to the world - to err is very much human.

The author has done a lot of research and compared the characters of this epic with many other kings and personalities from the world history. Really a thought provoking piece of writing and offers a lot of substance.

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