Interpreter of Maladies, India

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories was a fascinating throwback to the time I lived in Calcutta. After having been in close contact with Bengali culture, I quite enjoyed the vignettes in the book. The food, the societal norms, the connection to Calcutta were all evocative of a different life, a half-remembered memory.

I would recommend this collection even if you don’t know anything about Calcutta or India because their beauty lies in the little moments of human emotion that Lahiri captures exceptionally well. A common thread through most of these stories is marriage. Some of them are arranged marriages where you see the characters learn to grow accustomed to each other, while others are love marriages where the couple could feel like strangers after years of living together. The stories that I liked the best were ones that were based on unlikely friendships between older and younger people.

Many of the stories are about immigrants too, the problems that they face and you realize that oftentimes, they don’t really want to live in the country that they moved to, the countries that they travelled from will always be “home”. I think this is an interesting perspective from the author’s personal experience in living with two different cultures (Lahiri is of Indian descent).

If you’re interested in a glimpse into Bengali culture, here is a clip from The Namesake, a novel by Lahiri, which is also highly recommended.


Kartography, Pakistan

When I finished I am Malala, it felt good to read about Pakistan but there was something missing. I knew about Pakistan’s political problems and Malala was an international figure. What about the Pakistanis who were like me? I wanted a book on the urban Pakistan and I found Kartography, the much celebrated book by Kamila Shamshie.

Kartography is a book of love stories. The present is set in the 90s and the past is set in the 70s. Unfortunately, for the people who don’t know a great deal about Pakistani history, like me, the book does you no favours by indicating what the turmoil is about. I knew that India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947 and that in 1971 Bangladesh (East Pakistan) split from (West) Pakistan but what happened in Pakistan in the 1990s? These events are before my time! I spent a fruitless afternoon googling Pakistan/Karachi 1995, 1994, 1993, 1996 and only came up with this uninformative Wiki article on Operation Clean-Up. This was the largest contributor to my not enjoying the book as countless others have, as seen on Goodreads and Amazon reviews.

The central, framing love story is between Raheen and Karim, who are apparently destined to be together because they grew up together. It’s ridiculous that any two sane people should act like them. Their separation is contrived and over the tiniest perceived slights. They prefer to never talk about their issues or their feelings, just feel possessive about and infuriated with each other. While I do like the narrative, perhaps I don’t understand enough about Pakistani societal norms or the political situation to be sympathetic towards the characters and the pressures that they feel.

On the other hand, I did like the story of their parents. It goes something like this. Zafar asks out Yasmin. Yasmin jokes about it being inappropriate in Pakistan. Zafar, who doesn’t know Yasmin very well at this point, takes her seriously and does not continue to pursue her. Soon after, he is engaged to Maheen. His friend Ali is in love with Maheen and Yasmin is in love with Zafar. Seeing the two so happy together, Ali and Yasmin bond over their respective heartaches and in a moment of understanding, decide that they could come to love each other in time. So they get engaged.

It’s 1971 and there is a great war in East Pakistan. East Pakistan, being on the other side of India, feels like it gets the short end of the stick when it comes to administration and is revolting. In India, you never want to get between an arguing Punjabi and Bengali (forgive me, I say this with all the love for both of you exuberant and stubborn people) – they can and will decimate you. Pakistan’s civil war can’t have been pleasant. Maheen is a Bengali (it felt weird to read about Bengalis and Punjabis who weren’t Indian). When a neighbour’s brother is killed in this war, the neighbour rushes over to Zafar’s house, mad with rage over his choice to marry a Bengali. Zafar tries to calm him down by saying that he will “dilute her blood”. Ouch. Of course she overhears him and the engagement is off. Such a film cliché. With the objects of their affection no longer out of their reach, Ali and Yasmin break off their engagement too and eventually get with Maheen and Zafar.

That’s it. That’s the fiancé swap that’s in so many reviews. The phrase sounds far more illicit than the actual story. It wasn’t quite the mystery that it was made out to be.

Overall, I liked some bits Kamila Shamshie’s writing, didn’t think much of the story and wished that there was a stronger focus on the political situation than these city kids who left me with a Rich Kids of Instagram taste in my mouth with their smoking and driving at 13, the unbearable daftness of Raheen to the infuriating coldness of Karim to the insufferable piety of third-friend-I-couldn’t-care-to-remember to the biggest idiot of them all, Zia. Kartography might be a great book for those who understand the stuff going on behind the scenes, but to me it was far more trouble than it was worth with unlovable characters to boot.


Refugees, Not Migrants!

This week brought some more spectacular policies by the EU. They include closing off the Balkans Route that allowed Syrian refugees to enter countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden, instating further border controls restricting their flow into Europe, and striking a deal with Turkey where for every refugee sent back, they will settle one in Europe. Yes, the EU is essentially trading lives, but according to them it’s ok because then these asylum seekers can put in applications and go through a rigorous screening to enter instead of using precarious, illegal routes to flee for their lives. More on those applications in a second.

First, these Syrians are fleeing from the ISIS and seeking asylum in Europe and the EU, in its own way, is trying to accept them while crawling out of its economic crisis. The story starts with ISIS, who are they?

In 2003 after the US invaded Iraq for alleged connections with 9/11 and allegedly amassing weapons of mass destruction, they quickly won and executed Saddam Hussein, the Sunni dictator who oppressed the Shia majority in the country. The Shia majority now ruled the country and started oppressing the Sunni minority which resulted in a rebel uprising, which led to a civil war in 2006, and was now the perfect training ground for terrorist groups.

There are two sects of Muslims, called Shia and Sunni. The schism was the result of differences in opinion during the choosing of the new Caliph after the death of Prophet Muhammad. The Shias wanted Muhammad’s descendants to be the caliphs while the Sunnis wanted to elect their leader.

In the Arab world, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the major Sunni and Shia players respectively, with each supporting terrorist groups that fight against the other sect. One of these terrorist groups was the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, which was Sunni and funded by Saudi Arabia. After the Arab Spring, ISI expanded its ambitions of establishing an Islamic State to Syria and is now the ISIS, one of the most brutal and successful terrorist organizations in the world.

Caught between an evil dictator and evil extremists, millions of Syrians have been displaced and some have managed to flee their country, living in refugee camps in their neighbouring states. It is impossible to know how many refugees the Arab Gulf Countries have taken in because they haven’t signed with the UN to report these numbers, but officially they are 0.

These refugees are now fleeing to Europe in search of asylum but the continent has an unfortunate policy that they are to be housed in the country that they first enter, which puts an immense amount of pressure on the struggling countries such as Greece or Italy. In a remarkably humanitarian move by pretty much the lone voice in welcoming refugees in Europe, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has been constantly supporting policies that allow more refugees into the EU and urging the rest of the EU countries to do the same.

Unfortunately, German polls show that this is putting their Chancellor of over a decade’s chances of getting re-elected this year at risk with the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Germany. The same is happening here in the US, with Donald Trump, Chief Xenophobe, standing a good chance of being the Republican nominee, halfway to the journey of being America’s next President.

The general assumption surrounding the Western, “developed” countries is that these countries are more liberal, well-organized, democratic, more advanced and, better overall, the leaders of the world. The refugee crisis has brought to light how disappointing these assumptions can be.

First, the insistence on calling these Syrians who are fleeing for their lives “migrants”. Migrants are people who willingly choose to move for presumably better lives. Refugees are fleeing for their lives from persecution. They need safety, they cannot be turned back to their home countries, where they might be killed, and cannot be penalized for illegally entering a country. The distinction is important because it’s the difference between addressing a very real problem in the world today and copping out.

Instead of closing off routes, Europe should be giving refugees a safe channel to spread through the continent. This would help everyone! The refugees get a home and Europe can safely run checks on the people that they are letting into the country. But, they don’t want to do this because if they made these dangerous journeys safe and easy, more refugees living in abysmal conditions would make the trip.

I don’t know when this problem will end or how, but for now governments of the world to come together to find a common solution. The citizens of the world, however, have been wonderful! If you’re here because you care about someone somewhere else in the world, good on you, mate! You’re brilliant, give yourself a pat on the back and go spread the word, write a blog post, donate or volunteer at UNHCR, if you haven’t already.

To end on a happier and more hopeful note, here is John Oliver. And about those applications…

We are writing history today.
This is our problem.
Until the war ends, we need to help these people how ever we can!

Donate to UNHCR

Get Involved with UNHCR



Landscapes, Real and Imagined

I completed my Modern Art course on Coursera with full marks for this essay in the Final! The brief was to choose an interesting theme that is an idea that can support multiple questions and to choose a sub-theme or essential question based on the theme.


Aquila Khanam

Introduction to Modern Art

February 22, 2016

Landscapes: Real and Imagined

How artists convey mood, emotion, atmosphere in their paintings.

My theme is to study how artists depict landscapes, whether real places that they know or places that they have imagined through the lens of their emotions and experiences. The essential question (or sub-theme) is “How is mood conveyed in these works of art?”

~ Starry Night Over the Rhone


The first work of art that I chose is Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh. Much like Starry Night that we studied in the course, Van Gogh chose to represent the light in Starry Night Over the Rhone with a fierce intensity, seen in blazing stars and street lights reflected long and bright in the water. Van Gogh was an emotional, volatile artistic genius who suffered from severe depression and had a deep love for his brother Theo. Clearly, he was a passionate man and his intense emotions are represented in the short, furious brushstrokes, painted wet-on-wet, the beautiful subtle and arresting shades of blue and yellow and this inexplicable tide of fervor that washes over the observer. Even though this ought to be a calm painting of the riverside in Paris, the mood of this painting seems quite the opposite. To me the mood it conveys a sense of movement, this isn’t a still, tranquil night, it’s a night that is alive. The stars aren’t merely twinkling, they are afire! The water is turbulent, causing the light to dance on its waves. In the foreground, two lovers are taking a stroll perhaps and boats that have been put away for the night. Somehow, these elements compound the feeling of agitation in the night by serving as a stark contrast. I like that Van Gogh chose to describe the painting in terms of color as

“The sky is aquamarine, the water is royal blue, the ground is mauve. The town is blue and purple. The gas is yellow and the reflections are russet gold descending down to green-bronze. On the aquamarine field of the sky the Great Bear is a sparkling green and pink, whose discreet paleness contrasts with the brutal gold of the gas.”

Van Gogh’s landscape is his interpretation of the Rhone River and the mood is vibrant, animated and alive – not words you would usually associate with the night.

~ Water Lilies   




The second painting that I chose is called Water Lilies by Claude Monet. In contrast to Starry Night, the mood conveyed by Water Lilies is serene, like sitting at the edge of a pond in the quiet part of your garden. This difference extends to the painters too. While Van Gogh was a volatile, depressed, impoverished, brilliant painter who wasn’t appreciated for his work in his time, Monet was a rich, well-respected, brilliant painter whose house at Giverny was a haven. Monet painted about 250 versions of Water Lilies and ensured that the paintings were housed in an oval room so that the observer would feel like they were sitting in the middle of a pond surrounded by beautiful water lilies. This painting is amazingly long, so much so that it was actually painted in three parts, called a triptych, and has this unique characteristic of a Monet that when you stand close to the painting and try to analyze each individual element, it seems like a random series of brush strokes and colors but if you take a step back (or several, really), you see the entire, breathtakingly beautiful landscape in one epiphanous gasp. Falling into my theme of real and imagined landscapes, no other painting blurs the lines quite like this one. The mood is undoubtedly: Serenity.

~ Evening, Honfleur


The third work of art is Evening, Honfleur by Georges-Pierre Seurat. The previous two paintings were about short, quick brush strokes, whether the furious impatience of Van Gogh or the broken color of Monet. Seurat is different. He uses a technique called pointillism to tell the story of his landscape. This painting is composed of over 25 colors of carefully, meticulously placed dots, that highlight the luminosity of the painting. Like Water Lilies and unlike Starry Night Over the Rhone, this seaside painting is calm. The water is still, the shore idyllic. In his painstaking work, Seurat has created a landscape that captures a moment in time, in Honfleur exactly as he must have seen it. The colors that he chose give a sense of space and light, the sea seamlessly meets the sky at the horizon. As a mood for this painting, I would choose peace. An interesting fact is that Seurat added the wooden frame later, also meticulously painted in the same style of using thousands of dots, to heighten the visual appeal of the work.

~ Pines and Rocks

W1siZiIsIjE1MTA3MSJdLFsicCIsImNvbnZlcnQiLCItcmVzaXplIDIwMDB4MjAwMFx1MDAzZSJdXQThe fourth work of art is Pines and Rocks by Paul Cézanne. This work is an fascinating because unlike the usual expansive canvases that artists paint landscapes on, this work is compact and vertical. Also, unlike the previous landscapes, this one doesn’t look interpreted at all, it looks like an accurate, or “real” landscape, in the context of the theme, with a few shades browns, green and blues. However, the longer you stare at the painting, the more you see. The artistic flair is apparent in the mix of solid lines and smudges of paint that coexist. The forest floor, the rocks and tree trunks are solid but everything around them, the leaves, the sky, the moss exudes a feeling of airiness. The reds, yellows and violets become apparent. In some parts, the painting seems deliberate, like Seurat. In others, it’s breezy, like Monet or Van Gogh. This combination creates a shimmering effect that Cézanne called “vibrations of light”. As a landscape, I was drawn to this painting because it is a curious combination of familiarity of the scene and uniqueness of landscape painting style. The mood seems mysterious, adventurous and pensive like a long walk alone in the woods on a mountain.

~ Fin ~

Since I mentioned Monet’s oval room in my essay, I also added a picture of Musée Orangerie, a museum in Paris next to the Louvre that displays his paintings in an oval room, as he had wished.

Books · World

The Kite Runner, Afghanistan

Before I read The Kite Runner, I knew of Afghanistan as a war-ravaged country. A country ruled by the Taliban, invaded by George Bush’s American troops and afghan girlthousands of displaced people, producing the largest number of refugees in the world for a long time before ISIS in Syria happened. The Afghan Girl from National Geographic also stands out in memory but I was very young when I saw the picture and the issue was quite old by then. Her eyes are still the most striking part of the image.

For Afghanistan, I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner,  who during the Soviet War in Afghanistan fled to USA, a tale much like Amir’s from Kite Runner.

In many ways reading about Afghanistan was very difficult. I learnt about bacha bazi, which was an issue so vile and disturbing that I almost gave up on the book, but I had put off reading this for so long that I persevered.

 Like Malala, most Afghans are Pashtuns. There seems to be a social hierarchy in  which the Hazara people, who look Mongoloid, are oppressed by the Pashtuns and work as their servants. I’m sure that the real situation in the country must be different and I am happy to be corrected, but this is the knowledge that I gleaned from Kite Runner and Wikipedia.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan was a much bigger problem than I knew. Sometimes, when you read about wars in newspaper articles, it’s so antiseptic. I think fiction is important because it makes you feel for someone else on a personal level, much more than watching the plight of hundreds of people on the news can make you feel. To read about Amir, who managed to escape the miserable life under the Taliban menace, Hassan, who didn’t, and Sohrab, who lost his innocent childhood over it, they left long lasting impressions in my heart and they make me care about Afghanistan a lot more than the news ever did.


The Kite Runner is a difficult book to get through. It is heart-wrenching and I spent many pages reading with tears falling from between my fingers. What truly makes the book worth it though, is that these difficult bits are interspersed with pages of young boys running, jumping, laughing. In parts it’s like every childhood, in others it’s the deepest, darkest depths of human depravity. It’s so human. Our happiness is like sunshine, our dark secrets make us bury our heads in shame. A great book stays with you long after it is done. Even now, reading “For you a thousand times over” makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.