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Book Watch

Roasted Armadillo, anyone?

LOUNG UNG was a middle class five-year-old who lived in Pnom Penh. She liked her noodle soup with extra chilli and her large family pampering her. When she was five, the Khmer Rouge came, looking for people just like her. Now, years later, Loung Ung is an American anti-landmine campaigner who has written about her early years. Her book made me murmur a "thank you" to those Up There for having spared me this particular childhood.

As capitalist city dwellers, Loung and her family had to pay by being sent to camps where they cultivated communal fields and lived on rations doled out from communal kitchens. Yet, ironically, for those surrounded by fields full of crop they cultivated, they got practically nothing to eat. The daily rations were calibrated for slow, degrading deaths. Stealing from the fields was not viewed kindly; the reward was death or a pulverising pistol-whipping. The hungry ate rats, snakes, grasshoppers, armadilloes, pieces of charcoal, even, sometimes, each other. Diarrhoea and poisoning from their unusual diet got them when they weren't being raped, shot or battered to death.

At seven, Loung found herself separated from her family, a child soldier for the Khmer in an orphan camp. Living through demented brutality and the death of her parents and two siblings, she developed from an indulged child into a frighteningly capable survivor, unafraid of horrific experiences. When her best friend's head was blown off next to her by a mortar shell, she brushed the brain matter ("like tofu") off her hands and ran for her life. She was eight years old.

What the Americans charmingly call "collateral damage" is given a face here and it is all the more poignant for being a child's.

First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung, Penguin, Rs. 295.

* * *

War words

Though a horde of flowers shall spring from this land,/ No one will know whose eyes have become narcissi,/ Whose forehead this rose, whose lips the poppy,/Whose outstretched arms these dancing branches.

THIS is Ali Sirdar Jafri during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. War and writing, especially poetry, are strange, yet familiar companions. The literary output of the poets of the First and Second World Wars is part of the English canon. Most of the war poets then were soldiers. In the Iraq war, however, the soldiers' literary pinnacle seems to have been telegraphic fantasies of destruction on the side of missiles heading for Baghdad.

Away from the battlefield, though, poets and writers have been busy. From Amitav Ghosh to Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy to Julian Barnes, all have written their impassioned essays. The sales of polemic and history by Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and others exposing America's dirty dealings have, surprisingly, outsold books about the "Axis of Evil" in the U.S.

Poetic offerings include doggerel like Tony Harrison's, "The Iraqis now are truly shocked and awed/at the inexorable Bushkrieg Juggernaut/ all the more crushing since it's got on board/the broad Brum bum and bosoms of Clare Short." There is more sober stuff from Andrew Motion, in whose poem Death assures us: "Take Tigris and Euphrates; once they ran/ through childhood-coloured slats of sand and sun./ Not any more they don't; I've filled them up/with countless different kinds of human crap."

* * *

House of spirit

SOMEWHERE deep in the Kumaon hills, is Mirtola. In the ashram celebrity stakes, as the author puts it, Mirtola doesn't rank anywhere. It runs no chartered flights for its devotees, puts up no posters with beaming god(wo)men. Mirtola was set up in the 1940s by an odd couple: the wife of the first Indian vice chancellor of Lucknow university and her disciple, a lapsed British fighter pilot. The next guru, Alexander Phipps, a.k.a. Madhav Ashis — whose teachings this book is mainly about — was a Scottish airline engineer before he discovered god in Kumaon. Madhav Ashis was an athletic guru who thought nothing of putting out forest fires and repairing broken roofs. He travelled the hills to convert people to sustainable ecological practices, devised unique systems of irrigation and even got the Padma Shri.

Madhav Ashis wrote articles and books on conserving not just the soul but also the earth. He was not the only writer Mirtola produced. The well-known travel writer Bill Aitken (also a lapsed Scot) spent seven years there. Madhu Tandon wrote of her spiritual journey at the ashram some years ago. S.D. Pandey's book is an attempt to come to grips with the "secular spirituality" of Mirtola, which was taught, the author says, "through hints, suggestions.... dreams." Drawing from experiences at an ashram that was as unusual as its gurus, this is an endearing, unpretentious attempt to share the buzz of spiritual highs with the earth-bound.

Guru by Your Bedside, S.D. Pandey, Penguin, Rs. 250.

* * *

Lover's guide

IN the film "Bend it Like Beckham", a Punjabi matron, hearing her young relative called a "Lesbian" is baffled: "I had always thought the girl was a Piscean," she comments wonderingly.

If you thought the world was confusing enough with just Lesbians and Pisceans, welcome to Vedic Love Signs, explained by a faded Bollywood actress who is now "Co-founder and Chair of the British Association for Vedic Astrology." Toss out your battered old Linda Goodman. Komilla Sutton provides Vedic star signs to tell us what our "souls need from love." Taurus and Aries are replaced by Rohini and Krittika, with a hefty seasoning of Indipop-philosophy. Scoring one over Goodman, Sutton even gives compatibility percentages. I'm shattered, having discovered I'm a paltry 51 per cent compatible with my Significant Other: in Sutton's book, that's almost a fail.

Vedic Love Signs, Komilla Sutton, Pan Books, Rs. 395.


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