Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Interview with Sajita Nair

Sajita Nair - a former Captain in Indian Army, was one of the pioneer women officers. She is a full time writer now. Her short stories, articles and travelogues have graced some very reputed print and online publications. She also won writings contests conducted by the Kala Ghoda literary festival and Her debut novel titled ‘She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ (reviewed here) is released, in which she has shared some of her experiences while in service with the readers.

It was a pleasure to conduct an e-interview with Sajita Nair and here sharing the same with all the readers.

1. How much is this book a mirror of your own experiences?

The book is partly autobiographical. I have drawn from many of my own experiences, but there are also those that are purely imagined and some that I have borrowed from my fathers’ life in the Air Force, my husband’s in the navy and from my friends who served in the army. The storyline is fictional, but I have used many real life experiences in the army to give it an authentic feel.

2. How would you rate your experience in the Indian Army on a 10 point scale and what are the things/events that made it to this rating?

I think I’ll rate it 10! I enjoyed my tenure thoroughly and it was overall an enriching experience. It satiated my spirit of adventure,taking up new challenges and travelling extensively. There was also a sense of pride in wearing the Olive Green uniform, which I think is unsurpassed.

3. What were your feelings when you finished your term in the Army, were you waiting for it to end at that time or did you want to have alonger period of service?

I wished to serve longer, but since I was married to a naval officer,I had to make the difficult choice and quit. If I hadn’t, being indifferent services, we would almost never be transferred together.When I hung up my uniform, I felt emotionally low. I went into a depressing phase and took time to overcome it.

4. A hypothetical question - would you encourage your own daughter to join Indian Army or would you dissuade her if she shows the inclination towards it?

I would certainly encourage her since I know that she would then become a smart and confident individual. She would also learn much more than friends her age and experience so much more.

5. Why did you think of writing a book on this subject and do you think you are satisfied by how the book finally turned out to be or do you feel you could have added a few more things to it?

This book was something I always wanted to write. But before I began work on it, I wrote enough short stories, articles and travelogues to get confident with my writing style. I am very satisfied with the way it has turned out. Readers tell me that it touches an emotional chord and I feel happy for a job well done. No, I don’t feel the need to change or add anything, since this book had occupied my mind space for the last couple of years. Much thinking has gone into every little detail.

6. Which role you find yourself most comfortable in - being an Army officer, a writer, a full time mother/ homemaker or anything else?

At each phase in life, I feel comfortable playing a different role.When I was younger, I enjoyed the thrills of being an army officer.Presently though, I’m comfortable in the role of a full time writer and mother. This way, I think I get to enjoy a great work-lifebalance.

7. From your experience how hard was it to explore a totally new territory and excel in it? I am sure the experience must have given you ample confidence and self belief, I would like you to elaborate upon how you feel about your stay in the service.

My training at the Officers Training Academy, taught me a lot about camaraderie , working as a team and getting along with individuals of different temperaments. It also increased my confidence in myself since I learnt that I could succeed at tasks I thought impossible. All I needed was to set my mind to achieve it. This was especially true when my fatigued body almost gave way during tough physical training sessions and long distance route marches.

When I joined my first unit, I found that challenges were plenty.People assumed that I was not good enough to be in the army, being awoman. It was very important to prove them wrong, which is why I undertook difficult tasks and honed my leadership skills, in a bid to earn acceptance and respect.

I also have memorable experiences of staying in field conditions,which although difficult, was an adventure in itself. By facing new and challenging situations at my workplace, I learnt to overcome odds and emerge stronger.

8. Any more books you would like to write after this one? Do you have any plot in mind for something new?

Yes, certainly. This book is only the beginning! I’ve started work on a sequel to this book. I also have another entirely new story idea,which I would start working on soon.

9. Any suggestions that you would like to give to the girls applying for short-service commission and to the women in general?

I think women must realize that they are not the so called ‘weaker sex’. They have great reserves of strength, which they must use to succeed in anything they undertake. Women applying for Short ServiceCommission in the army must be dynamic and confident individuals who don’t cringe at moving out of comfort zones. They also need to remember that once they wear the uniform, the ‘officer’ takes precedence over the ‘lady’ bit.

10. If you are given three wishes by God, what would you ask for, in the order of preference.

First, I would ask for the good health and peace of all my loved ones. Second, I would ask for courage for those who adorn the uniform, so that they are able to face the perils that each day brings. And thirdly, I would ask for a copious flow of creative ideas and words so that I can write whatever I feel strongly about.

11. Do you think you have already enjoyed your share of excitement in life and now want to lead a relaxed life reflecting and reliving the past memories from time to time, or would you like to have this kind or even more excitement filled life throughout?

I believe in ‘living’ life and not merely drifting along. I dare to dream and then of course, work towards it. An excitement filled life is what I prefer to a reflecting one, since I like to be on the go!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Book Review : She's a Jolly Good Fellow

Title : She's a Jolly Good Fellow
Author : Sajita Nair
ISBN : 978-81-906173-8-3
Publisher : Hachette India

Sometimes the urge to make a mark leads one to accept the challenges even in the completely unknown territories. That is the case with the two 23-years olds - Second Lieutenants Deepa Shekhar and Anjali Sharma who are into a domain which had been entirely male-exclusive since the conception of Indian army. Now they have an uphill task in front of them - to establish themselves as an important asset to the force and not mere drains on the resources. The two buddies are entirely different, Deepa behaves and conducts herself exactly as other male officers do and does not want others to make any special adjustments or hold any reservations because of her gender whereas Anjali (Anju) enjoys everything feminine and people appreciating her assets. The main protagonist - Deepa comes across as a strong willed person with exemplary determination and self belief, the qualities which would be greatly appreciated by the female readers.

The prejudiced attitude of some male officers, the unpreparedness of some for the feminine presence and the insecurities of some better halfs of the officers, help create some very interesting and hilarious incidents.
As the story progresses we see the personalities of Deepa and Anjali taking different paths. They prioritize things and events in their lives differently and many times find themselves facing a big issue of - when and for whom to hang their uniforms. Inspite of the situation being entirely different, the author touches the common predicament in many women's lives.

I must mention that the book is very crisply and neatly edited and its hard to find any part which does not take the story forward. The author - Sajita Nair, was a Short Service Commission officer in Indian Army and has done complete justice to the task in hand of giving expression to her experience through this book. A very light-reading, fun filled and engaging book, which brings a sneek-peek into the 'once all-male department' from a lady officers eyes. I feel she could have added the training period also as a small chapter in the beginning as I am sure there must have been many interesting anecdotes during that period too. Overall a wonderful book to read once, not a classic though.

Read the interview with the author Sajita Nair here.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review : The Land of Cards

Title : The Land of Cards
Author : Rabindranath Tagore
Publisher : Puffin Classics

Rabindranath Tagore is not called the 'Complete Institute of Literature' for nothing. He excelled In whichever field he ventured - be it poetry, short stories, novels, painting or music. What can a reviewer say about an author as great as him. But still attempting to write something about his piece of writing and feeling very honored to be reviewing one of his works.

'The Land of Cards' is a potpourri of some of his best works - poems, short stories and plays, translated from Bengali to English by Radha Chakravarty. A wonderful assortment to give the children little glimpse of the beautiful world created by Tagore's pen.

Poems - which offer different flavors in each piece - ranging from hilarious odd rhymes like the one in which a cat is trying to convince the fish to be its meal, to the ones which are brimming with sensitive emotions. The entertaining 'The Invention of Shoes' tells the story of the birth of shoes while the 'Hero' reveals the inner desire of a son to be by her mother's side and to protect her always. Through the poems like 'Two Bighas of Land', Rabindranath Tagore took up the social issues which were suffocating our country in ancient times.

The title play 'The Land of Cards' brings out the conventional restrictions of the society and in another play 'The Post Office', a boy being restrained to closed confines tries to live his life through the people who are busy in seemingly mundane activities in the free outside world and unknowingly teaches them the lesson to take pleasure in whatever they are doing.

'Kabuliwala' - a simple story bringing out the yearning of a father for his daughter, is one of the great classics which are lustrous ageless gems. I remember having enjoyed reading this story as part of course book during school years. Such are the pieces of writings which defy all barriers of age and time.

'The Land of Cards' is a book which can be read, enjoyed and appreciated by children and adults alike, offering them a peep into the world of literary genius.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review : The Bird with Golden Wings

Title : The Bird with Golden Wings
(Stories of wit and magic)
Author : Sudha Murty
Art : Ajanta Guhathakurta
Publisher : Puffin
ISBN : 978-0-143-33103-2

Sudha Murty has given another priceless gift to the children, a collection of 21 short stories conveying life lessons in a readable and relatable manner. Her earlier two books for young children to treasure were - 'How I taught my Grandmother to read' and 'Magic Drum and other short stories'. In 'The Bird with Golden Wings', some of the stories are age old fables showcased in a new garb and presented in a witty fashion with illustrations by Ajanta Guhathakurta adding colors to the stories.

One of the greatest flaws in human character which is not easy to overcome is that of greed and a couple of stories highlight the magical powers of this folly. Have you ever imagined how greed can turn a woman into a demon and how it can make the once sweet ocean water become salty.
Trust is the mandatory building material of any relationship and the lack of this precious ingredient can break the relationship. This is beautifully portrayed in one of the stories when the banana lady leaves her husband after finding out that he did not respect her only condition of trust.
Sometimes the wit and presence of mind of an ordinary person can even outsmart Goddess Lakshmi. In another story, because of his wit, Shekhar could make the royal King relish plain boiled rice with salt as the best dish in the world.

Respecting elders, sincerely working hard towards the goal and not looking for any shortcuts, importance of kindness in life are some of the other values which have been projected through interesting short stories.

I firmly believe that getting such messages from different sources and different situations always help in making the values firmer in the impressionable minds of the children. Sudha Murty's stories are definitely very helpful as a step towards that goal.

{Image courtesy : flipkart}

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review : Hiking Through

Title : Hiking Through - Finding Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail
Author : Paul V. Stutzman
Publisher : Synergy Books
ISBN : 978-0-9840760-5-5

When I picked this book up to read, I was expecting a little drab memoir of trekking on the Appalachian Trail but I was glad to be proved wrong. One of a few books which succeeds in holding the attention of the readers right from page one till the last page. Generally this kind of engagement is felt in the books belonging to thriller or fiction genres, not very easily achieved by memoirs.

'Hiking Through' is a detailed chronicle of Paul's sojourn from grief to contentment, his search for peace and understanding God. What it took to be on the path to contentment and peace was the commitment to follow his heart. Having lost his wife Mary to cancer, Paul finds himself deeply grief stricken and hopelessly alone. When even after one year he could not come to terms with his loss, he decides to commence on his own healing process - setting out on the Appalachian Trail, a stretch of 2,176 miles, across 14 states, through all kinds of weathers and terrains. He started this uncertain journey aiming to heal himself and to convey a message to all people - 'not to take families and spouses for granted'.

Paul, who had many doubts and questions in his mind found the same doubts getting settled and questions getting answered as he progressed on AT. On this journey, he enjoyed the breathtaking vistas of nature while being able to remove clutter from his mind and stress that he had been carrying since ages. He could feel the presence of God besides him and realized that God has been there always, but with so much worries and distractions clogging the mind all the time, he could not listen to God even when He called upon his name. It is us who put obstacles between ourselves and the God and then keep looking for peace.

On the trail, the fellow hikers became his family and the hike became his life. Here he was able to understand the people and the messages they gave him which would go unnoticed or even unheard of in his everyday world. The physical body was experiencing exhaustion while his mind was enjoying the bliss of freedom from all shackles.

As he writes in the book, this trail does mirror Paul's spiritual journey. The book has been written straight from heart, revealing his true inner feelings, uncertainties and weaknesses to the readers without holding back anything. It is a treat for nature lovers and the people who seek peace and enlightenment. A good motivating guide for the people who are waiting for some future time to say something to their loved ones or to do something, for there may not be any tomorrow. I found it a perfect blend of being - a useful guide or handbook for future hikers, and a true journal of a person's spiritual odyssey. An easy, conversational style of writing makes the book an interesting read.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Interview with Dr. Danielle Milano

Dr. Danielle Milano is very active in the war against life robbing diseases - obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. In her book 'Skinny is Overrated : The Real Woman's Guide to Health and Happiness' (reviewed here), she encourages the women to 'Focus more on Health than on Weight' and to learn to love the size they are.

It was a great opportunity to conduct an e-interview with Dr. Danielle Milano.

1. How do you like your job and what are the most exciting things in what you do and what are the main challenges?

I absolutely love what I do. There are very few jobs or careers where you can interact with people on a personal level every day, build long-lasting relationships, and also have a positive impact on the lives of the patient, and by extension, their families also. The main challenges are time and money. Time is a constraint for physicians all over the country. We simply do not have enough time to spend with each patient, in order to give him or her all the attention they need. And, money is a constraint for patients. Especially in East Harlem, our patients are poor. They simply do not have the money to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, when processed foods are so much less expensive.

2. How do you handle the situations when people come to you with an aim to reduce weight more for the physical appearance than for the healthier lifestyle. How do you steer their thinking towards 'Focus on Health, not on Weight'?

Fortunately, in East Harlem, this is not a problem. There is different attitude. If anything, it is the other way around. People are overweight, or even obese, and think they are at a perfect weight. Some big women in my practice actually want to gain a few pounds. I have to convince them that losing a few pounds would be good for their health, which is no easy feat.
My big women who want to gain a few pounds because they feel they would look better, which is no different than the women at the perfect weight who want to lose a few pounds. This is a never-ending battle, since there is so much pressure from the media to be thin and perfect. All we can do is give people positive reinforcement, tell them that they are perfect just the way they are, and to focus on how they feel. We, as physicians, tend to focus on numbers: weight, BMI, blood pressure. But, more importantly, we need to ask the questions: “How do you feel?” “Can you walk up stairs without becoming short of breath?” “Is your hair brittle and your skin dry?” “What is your energy level?” And, the most important question of all: “Are you happy?”

3. How do you tackle tricky situations when the patient is in the denial mode and does not accept that he/she is heading towards obesity ?

Denial is a powerful defense mechanism. We see it all day, every day, and not just with weight issues. For example, look at the number of smokers with emphysema who continue to smoke. All that a physician can do is to be patient, continue to reinforce the message over and over. The smoker needs to hear it 100 times: “You must quit smoking or else you will develop lung cancer and die.” The obese person needs to hear it 100 times: “You must make lifestyle changes or else you will develop diabetes.” Notice, that I try to stay away from the value judgments about weight. I never tell someone to lose 50 pounds: it is too much of an impossible task. Start with 5 pounds, which is an achievable goal.
So, in short, physicians need to be patient, reinforce the message, and let the patient know that we will be there for them, whether it is for the smoker who asks for help to quit smoking, or for the obese woman wakes up one day, looks in the mirror and says, “Oh my! When did this happen?” They need to know that we will be there for them.

4. Which is the one advice that could be given to everybody - obese or not obese, diabetic or not diabetic - to lead a healthy life?

The most important piece of advice is to exercise. It does not need to be anything fancy. It could be something as simple as going out for a walk every day.
Since women are social creatures, the best advice is to find an activity that you love to do and to find someone you love to do it with. Men might enjoy going to the gym by themselves to lift weights and run on the treadmill, but women won’t do that. We prefer social interactions. So, pick an activity you love, for example, dancing. There are Zumba dance classes all over the country. Find a friend who loves to dance, and go together.

5. How do you see the eating habits of people changing, are they more aware about their health and fitness now or is it the other way round?

People are more aware, but not to the point of doing something about it. For example, people still drink soda, even though high-fructose corn syrup has had some bad press lately. People know they should exercise, but not to the point of getting out there and doing it. Which may account for the popularity of shows like “The Biggest Loser.”

6. What motivated you to write 'Skinny is Overrated' when there are umpteen books available in 'Health and Fitness' space already?

Yes. There are umpteen books on diet health and fitness. But, many of the books are not practical for the average woman on a diet. Some books are too complicated. For example, The Zone is an amazing and healthy diet. But, some people will be turned off as soon as they see the word “eicosanoid.” Some diets are too expensive, for example, South Beach. Again, South Beach is an amazing diet, but I don’t know many people who can afford wild salmon. Other diets are too strict, and people simply cannot maintain it in the long run. Starvation always backfires. So, I set out to write a book that was fun, readable, and most importantly, practical.

7. Why did you think of writing it for American readers only when the issues being handled are common globally. Don’t you think by just making it more generic in diet and food parts, the book could have earned international reach.

You are absolutely correct, but I did not think I could write a book based on the Mediterranean diet for people who live in, for example, East Asia, where obesity and diabetes are a growing problem. But, I do mention in the book that people should connect to their roots. We all identify with our heritage, not though the music or the language, but through the food. If we adopt a diet that our grandparents or great grandparents ate, no matter where you live, we would undoubtedly be healthier.

8. What are your personal goals? Do you have any plans of writing more?

My goals are to continue to educate people about health, and to help people, especially women, find their inner strength. Women have power over what foods they feed their family, and whether there is junk food in the house. Women have the power to determine the future health of their children. This is an enormous responsibility.
Perhaps there will be another book, and it will be entitled “Real Women Eat.”

9. Any case study you would like to share here so that more people get motivation to follow a healthful life?

There are so many to choose from, but this example is short and simply. About a month ago, a new patient came in. Obese and diabetic, she was practically falling asleep in my office during the initial history and physical. At my insistence, she stopped drinking soda. When she returned for her follow-up visit this past week, she was a different person. Bright and happy, and 13 pounds thinner. Although I don’t like to stress the weight loss part, and prefer to stress the health benefit, soft drinks can really pack on the pounds. Since this patient drank so much soda every day, for her it amounted to 13 pounds.

10. What are those two most important things which you would like to change around us so that living healthfully becomes a part of life?

First of all, fresh fruits and vegetables should not be more expensive than processed foods. This would entail changing the way America grows food, the laws, the distribution process, and so on. An enormous feat, but many people are working towards this ultimate goal.
And lastly, if we became a society focused on health, if each of us as individuals were excited and committed to health, we would inspire each other. We are more powerful as a group, than as individuals.
Thanks Dr. Milano for sharing your views here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book Review : Saving Max

Title : Saving Max
Author : Antoinette van Heugten
Publisher : MiraBooks

Danielle Prakman, a dedicated attorney who tries her utmost to prove that she is equally qualified and competent to be a partner in the firm for which she works besides being a single mother to Max, a boy of sixteen years, who has Asperger's syndrome - a high functioning form of autism. But while trying to justify these completely diverse roles, she finds herself in an unfamiliar territory when she gets to know of her son's volatile behavior and some indications of his violent outbursts. She decides to take him to America's best psychiatric hospital for Max's complete assessment.

Within a few days the situation deteriorates further when doctors diagnose Max with some severe conditions that categorize him as either suicidal or extremely dangerous for others - a verdict, which Danielle is not ready to accept. But what eyes see cannot be negated completely and the scene that unfolds in front of her eyes is - Max in an unconscious state near another patient who has been brutally stabbed to death. When all logics and reasons lead to just one conclusion that Max is indeed responsible for this ghastly murder, only a mother can keep a little hope alive of having her son out of this whole ordeal clean and safe.

That is exactly what Danielle takes upon her against all odds when even she gets convicted by the law and is stripped-off of her freedom to move around and to meet her son unsupervised. There is very little that she could do but desperate situations demand desperate measures.
She finds two trustworthy persons in this endeavor of hers - Tony, a lawyer and Doaks, an ex-cop who are old players of this field and know exactly which links to tweak to get to the truth but ultimately it is the motherly instinct that takes Danielle through this horrifying path where she is not sure whether she would see any light at the end of the tunnel.
Are her efforts sufficient and rightly directed to save Max from the harrowing future life? Or is she just not accepting the reality that her son has gone too far and is actually a threat to others?

A nail-biting story which engages the readers from the beginning itself. Truly gives an insight into the dilemmas of challenged or differently abled individuals and their care givers. The fears, insecurities and uncertainties of such people are handled and presented in a very humane manner. The author has used her experience of parenting two autistic children in highlighting the generally ignored details of the conditions and the mental agony associated with the same.

I really liked the character sketches of Tony and Doak, two different personalities in spite of being associated with the same areas of crime and law, day in day out. Tony is a true gentleman who comes across as a very sensitive, dependable and trustworthy person, whereas Doak is the other extreme who has been hardened by the number of cases he has handled and whose profession has imparted roughness to his personality.

However, I found the gory details of some stuff, to show the monstrous side of a person a little too much, definitely not suitable for a weak-hearted person. Some of that was unnecessary even keeping the story line in mind.
It was a little surprising to read the Epilogue that Max got diagnosed as being bipolar. I fail to understand how it did not come up before as Max had been under some psychiatric treatment ever since his early childhood or was it something that he developed later on?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review : Jalebi Curls

Title : Jalebi Curls (Bilingual book from Tulika)
Author : Niveditha Subramaniam
Art : Kavita Sing Kale
Age : 3+

Such is the magical spell of this curly sweet that when crispy, golden jalebis are popped into the mouth, sweet dense liquid fills every part of the mouth and gives a heavenly feeling. No wonder, the Raja of this story is a great lover of Jalebis so much so that he even dreams of them while sleeping. He dreams Jalebis everywhere - the jalebi moon, queen's earrings, even the two ends of his moustache turn into jalebis. And now his mother, daughter and wife want to eat the jalebis and his moustache is in danger. He wakes up from this nightmare and finds to his relief that there is still one Jalebi left to be relished by him and that is exactly what he does.

Illustrations by Kavitha Singh Kale completely captured the love of the Jalebis in her beautiful illustrations where only the Jalebis are in saffron colour and the rest of the art work is painted blue. Totally conveys the inner feelings of the person who is obsessed with a thing, and how that same thing comes to focus everywhere leaving the rest to fade away in the background.
{Image courtesy : Tulika Books}
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