Book Review: Manav Kaul’s Musings on Life

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Title: Bird of My WIndowsill
Publisher: Penguin eBury Press
Hardcover: 200 pages
Cover design: Shadab Khan
Release: October 2023

M.R.P: INR 499

Director, playwright, author, actor and filmmaker Manav Kaul’s latest book A Bird on My Windowsill is a collection of his poetry, prose, snippets, thoughts and random notes about love, nature, writing and home inspired by his personal recollections. In the book’s Preface, Kaul explains that the compilation contains travels, the free solitude while writing plays and stories and talks about silence. It also consists of some of his Instagram posts as well as anecdotes about different stages of writing. “It was like a dam that had stored the water for many years. I let it break loose in this book,” he writes.
A huge portion of the book is dedicated to Kaul’s travels far and wide, both in India and across the world – and captures his observations and experiences while there. “A few years later I might remember the towns but forget the streets. Remember the words but forget who said them. Remember what I lost but forget what I found…” he evokes.
While on a trip to Scotland, he laments, “There is so much beauty to be seen in the world that I fear I started late. And so afraid am I to miss out that I try to eat more than I can digest like a hungry child.” While in Prague, he visited Kafka’s grave, and was stumped by its cold silence and deep stillness. “They say things left behind tend to grow roots,” he analyses. He then talks about a journey through London with its many inspiring theatres and silent tube rides. Further, while on a trip to New York, he felt disconnected and longed to talk to people, all of whom seemed busy. He even missed his station, and got temporarily lost until a stranger befriended him and helped him find his way. In another essay, he vividly describes images and memories from Bhopal’s streets, particularly Bharat Bhavan, the place where he took his first step on stage and began his life as an actor.

Manav Kaul

Kaul also devotes much of the book to Baramulla in Kashmir, where he hails from. While reminiscing about Kashmir, he illustrates its fragrance: “It is the smoke leaving from a bakery early in the morning, the smell of the freshly baked bread; it is kahwa, a kite, Khawajabad, Abdulla’s tonga, it is the Bukhari, Titli, Feran, Banihal, rajma chawal,” he elucidates. In another essay, he shares his childhood memories of celebrating Diwali, with fireworks and watching the Ramleela, which he also acted in back then.
He writes most lyrically about nature – mountains, sky, sun, rain and all other natural phenomena around us that we take for granted every day despite it all being so beautiful. Kaul lists some of these small wonders that always leave a smile on his face: “watching a dewdrop balance on a leaf, a squirrel during the most critical leaps, catching the cat in the middle of mischief”.

Walking around a small town called Chayal in Himachal Pradesh reminded him of his hometown. In another fragment, he recalls an encounter with a chaiwallah in the old town of Mandi. Biking in the mountains and crossing remote villages, he portrays the surreal sight of bright stars in the sky each night. In another essay, he recalls a trail in the charming town of Almora in the forests of Kumaon, with the Panchachuli mountain range dominating the background. “This stillness, this quietude in the mountains makes your belly hurt,” he writes.

He then talks about a journey through London with its many inspiring theatres and silent tube rides. Further, while on a trip to New York, he felt disconnected and longed to talk to people, all of whom seemed busy. He even missed his station, and got temporarily lost until a stranger befriended him and helped him find his way.

Several pieces in the book also focus on writing. While explaining the process he uses to write a play, Kaul writes, “It is lovely to catch a glimpse of life in the moment when lifeless words on paper start breathing,” he writes. He also talks about his struggles with writing. “Sometimes, I’ve lived a whole story, yet not a single word made it to the paper,” he writes. However, he feels that these are the purest stories, completely untouched as they were by the outside world.

“I always long to read a new writer – to read words that ring so true that it’s hard to decipher if they were written for the world or only for me,” he wishes. He explains that it is possibly this search that leads one to write what they have been looking for. “This longing rips the heart open, and out pours a poem, a story or a play,” he elaborates.
He also talks about some of his favourite writers, such as Nirmal Verma and Vinod Kumar Shukla (whom he had the fortune of meeting at his home in Raipur). Later, while reading the letters between Paul Auster and J M Coetzee, he writes, “Some writers are like the music we like to wake up to,” he writes.
Translated by US-based Nandini Kumar Nickerson, each extract is short and sweet, and the anthology makes for a quick and pleasing read overall.

Images courtesy: Amazon & Wikimedia Commons

A Bird on My Windowsill  is available for sale on Amazon

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