HT Picks; New Reads
On the reading list this week are short stories that articulate the true cost of living, a book that blends the science of aromatics with travel writing, history and insights into India’s contemporary perfume trade, and a collection of the 24 Gitas from the Mahabharata
The strangeness of contemporary life
A grieving mother makes a spreadsheet of everyone she’s lost. A professor develops a troubled intimacy with her hairdresser. And every year, a restless woman receives an email from a strange man twice her age and several states away. In Yiyun Li’s stories, people strive for an ordinary existence until doing so becomes unsustainable, until the surface cracks and grand mysterious forces – death, violence, estrangement – come to light. And even everyday life is laden with meaning, studded with indelible details: a filched jar of honey, a mound of wounded ants, a photograph kept hidden for many years, until it must be seen.
Li is a breathtakingly original writer, an alchemist of opposites: tender and unsentimental, metaphysical and blunt, funny and horrifying, omniscient and yet acutely aware of just how much we cannot know. Beloved for her novels and memoirs, she returns here to her earliest form, gathering short stories and a remarkable novella. Taken together, the stories in Wednesday’s Child articulate the true cost of living with all Li’s trademark unnerving beauty and searing wisdom.*
Journeys through Indian fragrance
‘They are very particular in their personal cleanliness and allow no remissions in this matter. Every time they perform the functions of nature, they wash their bodies and use perfumes of sandalwood or turmeric …’
For as far back as it is possible to investigate such a thing, it appears that Indians have concerned themselves with making their environs, and themselves, smell good. The sensualist dandies and master perfumers of yesteryear have led to a sophisticated culture of fragrance aesthetics — not entirely surprising in a land that’s home to 18,500 varieties of aromatic plants. From the voluptuous allure of the rose to the musky tang of oud, the woody notes of sandalwood to the heady smell of jasmine and the lingering aroma of vetiver, fragrances unlock something at the very heart of India.
In this vivid narrative that blends the science of aromatics with travel writing, history and insights into India’s contemporary perfume trade, Divrina Dhingra investigates the idea of scent as a powerful trigger for memories and emotions, as well as a mode of self-expression and identity. In her telling, aromatic ingredients are not a mere indulgence, but instead, the backbone of the country’s struggling perfume industry and as a source of livelihood for many. A compelling, unusual narrative by a writer schooled in the art of perfumery.*
The many other Gitas
What is a Gita?
Our usual understanding of the word revolves around the Bhagavat Gita, which is embedded in the Mahabharata. Among Sanskrit texts that capture the essence of Hinduism, it is probably one that has been translated the most. The qualifier ‘Bhagavat’ indicates that it was taught by Bhagavan Krishna to Arjuna.
However, there are other Gitas too. The term ‘Gita’ indicates anything that can be sung and chanted. For example, there are more than 20 Gitas in the Mahabharata and many more in the Puranas; yet others exist as independent texts. Most of us are not that familiar with these other Gitas. For example, the Anu Gita was also taught by Bhagavan Krishna to Arjuna. The Dharma Vyadha Gita cogently states dharma for householders. The Yaksha Prashna and the Sanatsujata, fundamental to understanding the overall dharma of the Bhagavat Gita, are not explicitly described as Gitas but definitely hold the wisdom and relevance of a Gita.
This volume brings together the unabridged English translations of 24 such Gitas from the Mahabharata, along with that of the Pandava Gita (which is not part of the Mahabharata). It includes the original Sanskrit text for easy reference and avoids interpretations of the text, focussing on translation alone.
This collection reveals the wealth of wisdom in the epic that remains largely unexplored.*
*All copy from book flap.