Alexa threw down her paintbrush for the umpteenth time. She was falling behind in submitting her entry to the painting competition at her college. The theme was Cloud. She had perched herself on top of the hillock with her painting paraphernalia and attempted to sketch the dark clouds that had hovered over. Each time she looked up, she remembered her brother, her biggest supporter, who had died the previous summer.

As she sat down on an outcrop, she felt someone pulling at her jeans. It was her brother’s dog, Carmichael. He picked up the paintbrush and handed it to Alexa. She was suddenly inspired. She had to do this for her brother. As she got up, some of the dark clouds had parted and a beautiful sunlight was streaming through, creating a surreal effect. She thanked Carmichael and started sketching. A week later, she was holding aloft the winner’s trophy.

Book Review – ‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead

When you sow, sometimes you may be sowing your death instead of your life. That was the saddest truth about the American slave era. It was perhaps the darkest period in a country which thankfully outlawed slavery later and made rapid progressions towards prosperity. My first read of the year 2017 was a story woven around the very heart of these darkest years.

Cora is a teenage slave in a tyrannical cotton plantation in Georgia when she decides to run away with a friend in pursuit of the seemingly illusory free life. Her inspiration is her mother Mabel who had also managed to run away from the farm when Cora was still a child. The secret underground railroad is their means of escape. She manages to evade the slave catchers for a while in South Carolina, even landing a couple of jobs there. But fate has a cruel way of catching up and when it does, Cora has to flee using the underground railroad. A kind white family helps shelter her in the attic of their home in North Carolina before she is discovered again. The harrowed girl escapes from her captors in Tennessee and ends up in a farm in Indiana where she begins to find meaning in life before things go astray again. The underground railroad is once again her solace as she tries to finds her way to the North.

Colson Whitehead uses an interesting narrative to pen Cora’s story. The images of slavery are arresting and thought provoking. He captures the extreme cruelty the southern states displayed towards the slaves. Like shelters that remain steadfast in every thunderstorm, Cora discovers many people in her escapade each of whom contributes to the development of her post-teen, perennial runaway character. However, the hunted is always on the run and that’s what Cora finds as she traverses one southern state after another, her mind numb, her body battered but her determination unwavering. I liked the concept of the underground railroad as a mirage – the railroad is the perfect means to achieve the end of being free in a land where the colored was increasingly trapped in the vortex of slavery in the 19th century. But the mirage only lasts for a while before the harsh reality of the life of a runaway sets in. Until the next underground railroad.

The prose is strong as it should be when such a daring stunt is portrayed. It’s haunting at times and that adds to all the drama. The angst in the writing is unmistakable – perhaps the author’s own colored upbringing and his understanding of what happened to his progenitors was fodder for this. The only drawback I found is the juggling between past and present – it is difficult to comprehend this in some sections and could have been made clearer.

Our knowledge of American history will not be complete until we learn about slavery and the effects it had on the minds of the colored people. The white man’s one-upmanship was certainly an abomination. The tale of Cora and the struggles of the colored is informative even as the daredevilry is entertaining. I’m giving 4/5 for Colson Whitehead’s ‘The Underground Railroad’.


Like the early morning resolve
To live through another day;
Overcoming the demons poisoning
The thoughts in the nooks of the mind;
Dancing gaily at a happy thought,
The unknown lift that fills the heart,
A blessing which does not allow me
To lay low or be vanquished;
The fire that kills the serpent of despair.
My spirit is my bosom friend;
Undying, undulating, unending,
In the toiling charade of life.
My spirit is my eternal mirror,
Showing me my true mettle.

The Ludo Dice

The box looked tempting. People called him whimsical but it was a solace to an otherwise traumatic period. But for this, he would have been shattered into a million pieces. The abuse of his stepfather had been bordering on the extreme.

He thoroughly enjoyed the whim. After each game of Ludo he played with his friends, he would pocket the die and deposit it into a box. Ludo dice were in big demand in his hometown because of him.

As he watched his own stepson playing, the small box containing the dice reminded him not to repeat his stepfather’s mistakes.

What I should do this year

What does it feel like to be caught in a quandary? Do you succumb to the inevitability of the situation and wait for the storm to pass? Or do you take the bull by the horns resolutely and find a solution? It’s an interesting conundrum and something I faced several times in 2016, more so in the second half. Two offbeat movies I watched at home over the holidays gave me two beautiful perspectives of how to deal with a problem.

On Saturday evening, I watched ‘The Band’s Visit’ directed by Eran Kolirin. It talks about eight Egyptian policemen from an orchestra travelling for a performance in an Israeli town. However, they end up being in the wrong town where they see only unfamiliar faces. A kind restaurant owner helps the band members put up for the night at her and some of her friends’ places. It was a night where not only every single member of the band but also the families they spent their time with felt out of their comfort zone. The lead of the band, Tawfiq and the youngest band member are put up with the restaurant owner, Dina. Tawfiq believes that they ended up being in the wrong place because of the young trumpeter. However, he softens his stand after a series of conversations with Dina involving life. Tawfiq saw his lost son in that young band member and was being excessively stern. A mix of the remorse he felt in his own mind as well as the kindness and empathy showed by Dina helps him alter his outlook of the whole situation. Then there is the assistant lead in the band who had been, in the past, working on writing a concerto but was unable to finish it due to a lot of commitments. However, he is inspired by the family he spends the night with especially a toddler in whose room he is put up. The trumpeter has a chance to kindle the flames of love for a stranger who takes him on a blind date. The way he uses gestures and emotions to help the stranger express his love and feelings for his girlfriend is remarkable. All the members of the band are energized the next morning as they travel towards their actual destination where they succeed in performing the orchestra.

‘The Band’s Visit’ tells us that life often takes us through uncharted waters. Strangers can turn out to be a big help tearing down the barriers of language and culture. Kindness can be all around you. The spirit of kindness can open doors in our minds we didn’t know existed; a broadening of the horizons of behavior and understanding can be a great relief to overcome the problems at hand. The old and the young can be great lessons in the journey of life. A mix of the waiting game and the resolute bull-fight will get you to your destination. This is what ‘The Band’s Visit’ teaches us.

Impressed by the movie, I watched another offbeat drama last night – ‘Private’ directed by Saverio Costanzo. The movie is about a Palestinian family whose home is occupied by Israeli forces. Mohammed, the head of the family, wants to honor the promise he made to the forces that the family would not occupy the upper floors of the home. However, his family members are scared and wants to be aggressive in throwing the forces out. Theirs is a very peculiar situation – caught in the crossfire without any idea what to do or what not to do. Confined to their living room after sunset, the family members are driven to the point of insanity but somehow, they hold fort. One morning, they believe that the soldiers have left for good and therefore, they use the upper floors gathering their stuff. However, later that night the soldiers are back and when they find out that things in the upper floors was not how they had left them, turn livid on Mohammed. However, they are given a second chance. Mohammed’s eldest daughter overhears conversations of the soldiers and realize that they will be vacating soon. The relieved woman that she is, tries to make up with her father that night. However, to the family’s horror, they find another group of soldiers occupying their home.

While the movie leaves some questions unanswered, it speaks poignantly of the mental trauma of a war-torn land. In the midst of war, you are forced to prioritize as life becomes increasingly complex and threatened. Your blood boils seeing the sight of enemy forces but you also need to consider your survival. Mohammed is the voice of conciliation, adjustment and patience that is so required when you are facing your biggest problem. There is always the opposing thought, but throwing caution to the wind may not be a very good idea. You have to bide your time until the problem solves itself or until a new problem comes your way. Life will always throw stones or hurl thorns at you. It is the way you deal with that determines your survival. I really like the interpretation that Mohammed and his family represent opposing thoughts in our own mind. Here, it’s the waiting game that the family chooses to play, but the fact that they are confronted with a fresh set of problem towards the end speaks of the way life is.

It was inspirational watching the two movies this weekend. It gives me optimism for 2017. I do hope my mind has the strength and patience to play the waiting game while pouncing on the opportunities that come my way.