“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott
Well, that’s what reading does. At least to me. September was a great month in terms of reading. I used to to be a voracious reader. I still am but mostly it’s been restricted to online reading. How I wish I could write reviews, feelings, reactions, lessons etc on whatever I read but then, procrastination is too good of an addiction to get rid of. Last month, I finished four books in places as usual or absurd as; my uni-dimensional room, near the sea-shore, in the train and even while talking to some boring people on phone. Reading tends to give you a huge high (Unless you are not reading Chetan Bhagat), making you totally unaware of what’s happening around and providing the oft-needed escape route from irritating reality which we all so secretly desire. So, this time, I was hooked to Survival/Adventure genre (May be something to do with my current mindset and also because ghost of Charles Darwin keeps reminding of importance of survival). I was looking for some real stories and not fiction which my life already has enough of! And once I had devoured one book, I wanted more…and more..First, I landed up with “Skeletons on the Zahara” by Dean King.
So basically as one GoodReads review says, “Skeletons on the Zahara is a true story of twelve American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in 1815. They faced incredible odds when they were captured by Arab nomads and sold into slavery. They crossed the Sahara (called the Zahara back then) and faced starvation, beatings, dehydration, sunburn, and hostile tribes. They did incredible things in order to survive.” That pretty much sums up the story line. Now, take your eyes off the screen for a minute and imagine the entire scenario. Think of the plight, travails, suffering and the mountain of the odds faced by the sailors in the unforgiving desert with temperature crossing fifty? Can you imagine the hardships? Did you just notice some lumps in your throat? if you did, just buy the book and read it.
Post reading, I googled about the entire expedition gone terribly wrong and about the authenticity of the voyage under the guidance of Captain James Riley. As the author claims, everything seems true. Dean King has undoubtedly done his research, personally visiting many details of locations that Riley had visited. This is an extraordinary detail of a survival journey gone haywire. Many a times, details were so lucid that I felt dehydrated while reading the book and needed a glass of water and the water never tasted this better. It’s a perfect tale of human suffering and human endurance, both assimilated in a way that we tend to realize that most of the details could be incomprehensible to the first world mind. I have always been very interested about far-flung places and historical events so that way, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Sahara, Morocco, facts about camels, cultural and theological aspects etc. It was also interesting to get a glimpse into social and anthropological insights into Arab culture circa 1815, a major part of which, unfortunately remains unchanged even now.
If you are a true literature aficionados you won’t find the writing style of Dean King very appealing. Sometimes, it felt rushed, some other times, it felt as if we could have done with some more details but then I liked it this way only. It was a prose told in a factual way. Queasy, dehydrating story of fate and pluck. Go, read it.
Second book was “Escape from Camp 14” which is about escape and survival of a person born in North Korean political prison camp. it’s gut-wrenching story about a nation, possibly most isolated and draconian in nature. North Korea has largely remained an enigma to the outer world. We all are pretty much well aware of what is taking place in Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia or other such regressive nations but North Korea has remained, by and large, a closed country. It’s isolated, belligerent, almost on the verge of bankruptcy and starving yet the world hears nothing about them. A wild estimate says, more than 2 lakhs people in this tiny peninsula are being held in it’s political prison camps with no respite in sight.
This is the story of Shin Donghyuk who was not just born and brought up in one such camp but also managed to survive and escape to Sotuh Korea and then to USA. Truly Remarkable! While reading this story, you can almost imagine what must have gone through the Nazi concentration camps and Gulags run by Soviet Russia at the behest of Stalin. It was that brutal and inhumane. You can be forgiven for assuming that you were reading a dystopian novel. Being a citizen of a thriving democracy like India, it was hard to imagine people are still being made to live on planet Earth in that fashion. Just the notion of that possibility can give you worst nightmares. Damn it Man, I am so lucky to be an Indian.
From literature point of view, “Escape from Camp 14” is not at all beautiful. Written by Washington Post correspondent Blaine Harden, the book has more of a journalistic style of narration. I did expect more drama, more fluidity & lucidity in storytelling but it was not to be. At times, it felt pretty straight forward and bland but all in all, this book was a huge eye opener.
That was all about the first two books. Will cover 2 more in next post. To sum it up, what I find most exciting about survival stories is how you start feeling grateful to all that you have been provided with. When you read, hear and think about such stories, you feel amazed at what the human body and spirit can endure without breaking. I mean, I do 20 sets of Surya-Namaskar or Push-Ups and I feel like drinking water every few minutes lest I fall flat with exhaustion. But how the hell these guys could go for months walking through the desert with almost nothing to eat or drink. It’s almost unbelievable but don’t they say, truth is stranger than fiction?