Mexico City in Christmas Time

In Search of Macondo

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There are few places, known to us through literature, that let themselves be re- discovered. One of them is the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the site of some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century- the   novels of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It is easy to fall into the trap of missing the actual place when visiting a place that one has known through literature. This is not true,however, when in Colombia that Gabriel Garcia Marquez made immortal through his works, as a re-fabricator of its facts. Some of his greatest works, particularly his best known work, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ as well as ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘Of Love and other Demons’, derived much from two places that he lived and grew up in- the mofussil, and a rather nondescript town of Aracataca and the colonial city of Cartagena in Caribbean Colombia.

If Latin America found its literary voice in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ it is ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ in which Latin America found its hope and destiny. It was also the book and Macondo, the fictional place inspired by Aracataca, that encapsulated the whole of Latin America. Macondo became a byword for the school of writing that Garcia Marquez came to be associated with- that of magical realism. While his knowledge of Aracataca was deeply personal that of Cartagena was based on his knowledge that he gained while working as a journalist in that city from 1948 to 1955.

Like most readers of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I was bewitched by the place that he created his little universe in the fictitious land of Macondo. Almost three decades after I discovered ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ on a samosa wrapper made from the previous week`s newspaper  drenched in oil, I had the opportunity to visit the town that has renamed itself Macondo, and where reality seems to aspire to its literary image.

In Search of Macondo

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”

 – One Hundred Years of Solitude

The two of us travelled to Cartagena and Aracataca in March of 2019 to discover some of the places where Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works are based. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, affectionately called Gabo in his native country Colombia, shot to worldwide fame with the publication of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ in 1967, winning the Nobel Prize for literature fifteen years later. Continue reading “In Search of Macondo”

The Year Gone By – 2018

It has been a year of ‘reading’ audio books and books from the local used book store.

The former has made it possible to ‘read’ books during my drive to work and enabled me to read books that I found difficult to read before. Picking up books from the local used book store has made me discover forgotten or unheard of books, besides the fact that they cost practically nothing.

Audio books have constituted a majority of the books that I ‘read’ this year and the few non- audio books are marked to indicate otherwise (* indicates a paper book and ** an e-book). I have also used ‘listen’ and ‘read’ interchangeably when referring to audio books.

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Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2018”

Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life

Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, provided not merely a philosophy of the world and how to change it, but also a philosophy of life and how to live it.

The influence of Karl Marx and his ideas was a matter of course for many of us who grew up in the 20th century. How they affected us was a matter of degree, but the influence itself was inescapable. After all, even a character as insignificant and ordinary as the one in Robert Walser’s novel, The Assistant, has a brush with the ideas of socialism.

IMG-0957My earliest recollection of this influence, which went almost unnoticed, goes back to class 6, when I had to transcribe a page in English as part of my homework during the summer vacations. I picked up a book that had been lying around the house. It happened to be the biography of Karl Marx by E. Stepanova, which my father had received as a prize in school in the late fifties.

I slogged through the transcription with little interest, intrigued by unfamiliar words, such as proletariat, plebian, capitalism and socialism, understanding very little. These words came back to me in class 10, when I read the NCERT books by Arjun Dev that referred to Marx and the Russian Revolution. In a couple of years, I was to begin a journey that isn’t quite finished. Continue reading “Karl Marx’s Discovery of the Law of Life”

A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition

A Time of Madness by Salman Rashid 
Aleph, 2017

Salman Rashid in his slim memoir about a visit to his ancestral house, has also written about many more among the two million displaced by the Partition of 1947.

As someone whose grandparents migrated to Indian Punjab from what became Pakistan, I grew up on a healthy dose of family recollections about Partition. All my relatives who I know made their way from places like Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi – to Delhi, Jalandhar and as far as Gwalior. In all those stories, the overall sentiment was that of having made it in life despite losing almost all material possessions. Consequently, I grew up without much sentimentalism or curiosity about the event.

The silence was not just mine; I noticed how in several films, references to the Partition were replaced by metaphors like an earthquake. Waqt and Ek thi Ladki come instantly to mind. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is a rare exception. It was not until 1997, fifty years after the event, that the Outlook magazine carried a special issue on the Partition on August 15, which opened a floodgate of discussion on the topic. The online oral history initiative ‘1947 Partition Archive’ is of even more recent origin.

So when I chanced upon a review of Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness, I would have moved on had my eyes not fallen on this sentence: “Rashid travels to the land of his forefathers armed with a grainy photograph of a house on Railway Road in Jalandhar.”

My heart skipped a beat. Continue reading “A Time of Madness’: Memories of Partition”

The Year Gone By – 2017

Without doubt, the best read of the year was Rana Ayyub’s Gujarat Files, a result of the young Indian journalist’s investigation into the extrajudicial killings of Sohrabbudin and others and its cover up by a network of government functionaries, civil and police officials and the majority of the mainstream media. Indeed, the key change in the last few years has been the throttling of the media as it has become corporatized and aligned with the government in power. Ayyub took on the identity of an Indian American filmmaker to gain access to middle and senior level officials.

Her own employer recalled her just when she was about to get direct access to the Chief Minister of Gujarat (and now the Prime Minister of India), Narendra Modi. The key person allegedly involved in the execution of the extrajudicial killings by the police was the then Home Minister of Gujarat and the current national president of the ruling Hindu right-wing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It’s not just the courage of the journalist and the depth of her findings but also the breezy narration, which reads like a crime thriller, that makes Gujarat Files such an engrossing read. In more open times, a book like this would have shaken the government.

On a related note, the 84 page booklet The Amit Shah School of Election Management by another young journalist Prashant Jha provides a number of insights on how the far right Modi- Shah election machine continues to roll on- with the BJP being the ruling party in 18 out of 29 states in India this year.

Random Picks

A book I picked up randomly just because I haven’t read recent Russian literature for a while was Vladmir Sorokin’s The Queue. The novel is about the late Soviet period, a time that hasn’t inspired any great works of literature. The Queue is a notable exception. The book is a subtle take on the dreary years of scarcity in the last few years of the USSR and an insightful look into the lives and minds of the ordinary citizens. The absurdity of the situation is revealed in the dramatic end, as funny as it is ironic. Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2017”

What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today

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Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and Social Justice
People’s Literature Publication, 2017

It is tempting to think of B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy as a hegemonic one, for today there is no one who contests his ideas and legacy. Just as one was a socialist of one variety or the other in the mid-20th century India (even the Bharatiya Janata Party adhered to ‘Gandhian socialism’), everyone now is an Ambedkarite, or at least not opposed to the man and his ideas. However, in the absence of a coherent ideology that could be identified as Ambedkarism, the term has been pulled in many directions, which has both diluted it and, in some ways, allowed a creative efflorescence. It remains, at best, a nebulous concept.

Much before it became an academic rage, Ambedkar’s thoughts were a beacon for activists in post-independence India. Contesting Marginalisations: Conversations on Ambedkarism and SocialJustice, Vidya Bhushan Rawat’s collection of interviews with the many foot soldiers and friends of what has come to be called the ‘Ambedkarite revolution’, attempts to collate what is sometimes left out of academic studies. It brings together many different perspectives on what constitutes Ambedkarism and, more importantly, what it has meant to individuals and activists working in various spheres.

The diverse selection of the individuals interviewed in this book provides a comprehensive picture of what Ambedkarism is or can be – these include associates and inheritors of Ambedkar who helped keep his ideas alive after he passed away, as well as contemporary activists who are guided by Ambedkar’s thoughts. The ideas debated centre around the connection between caste and class, conversion to Buddhism, human rights, secularism and culture. The personal experiences of those who grew up in Dalit families add another dimension to the discussions and help the reader understand the evolution of their ideas. Continue reading “What Ambedkar and His Legacy Mean to People Today”

Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions

By Bhupinder Singh

I was 16 when two major political events happened: the first was the Indian army’s assault on the Harmandir Sahib, and the second was Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s assassination by two of her security men. Even then, I realized that Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination was historic, so much that one of the only two full editions of newspapers I have saved in my archives is dated November 1, 1984, which published the news of her assassination. The other one is the day that Mikhail Gorbachev was deposed in a coup organized by the hardliners within the Soviet Communist Party.

A perusal of the newspaper datelined a day after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination makes for an interesting reading, 33 years on.

bhupinder-singhThe Tribune’s City edition, which used to be the last one printed in the early hours of the day and carried the latest news stories has a huge capitalized headline on the front page, “Indira Gandhi Shot dead”, followed by three more subtitles, “Rajiv Gandhi takes over as Prime Minister”, “Security men involved in killing” and “5-man Cabinet sworn in”. All of the front page is predictably filled with reports titled “Alert in region”, “World leaders shocked”, “Funeral on Saturday”, “Dastardly act: President”, “Shun violence, says Rajiv”, “12-day state mourning”, “Army alerted”, “Eyewitness accounts”, “Anguish, confusion in Amritsar” and “One killed, many hurt in violence”. It is ironic that the event is now associated less with Mrs. Gandhi herself and more with the violence that followed it. Continue reading “Jeene Nahin Doonga: India’s Persistent Partitions”

Om Puri

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Om (18 October 1950 – 6 January 2017)

We are a selfish people.

We remember others only when they die. It has nothing to do with the people who have passed on. The only reason we remember them is because a part of us dies with them.
It is no different when one reads about Om Puri’s passing on. I remember him not so much for what he was but for a purely selfish reason.

My first memory of Puri is of him being in a dilemma, switching on and off a table lamp in Ardh Satya. Of him reading Dilip Chitre’s poem, on which the film is titled, Half Truth.

In an inspired moment I wrote down the poem, translated it and then showed to a comrade who worked for the Communist Party’s Punjabi weekly newspaper. It so happened that at the same time, Santokh Singh Dhir, a well-known short story writer close to the CPI, was looking for someone to translate his poems from Punjabi into English for the Indian Express. This comrade connected the two of us, and I had my first claim to fame, as a half page supplement of the city’s Indian Express weekend edition carried the poems that I translated. I was in my teens.

My next memory is the film Aakrosh, in which he played the role of an adivasi whose tongue has been cut off. As idealist youngsters, we sympathized with him, his tongueless screech made us wrench and our blood boil. We felt like that bearded, kurta clad, jhola wielding, young man played by an actor whose name we never cared to find out- because we were him.

In those years, I grew up with Om Puri, whose pockmarked face captured the many pockmarks of our young, sometimes scared and sometimes hopeful adolescence.

As the news of his passing on sinks in, I remember him because a part of me goes with him.

It also awakens a part of me that time and age has camouflaged but never been able to kill.

A part that is alive.

Every obituary is also a celebration of what has survived.

The Year Gone By – 2016

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Over the last few days, the lawn outside my window has alternately been painting itself in green and snow white. As I get down to write this post, a few names conjure up. There is no immediate reason for this. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the green grass gives away temporarily to the snow. Some writers and writings are like that.

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My Documents by Alejandro Zambra was without doubt the most invigorating book I read this year. It’s a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. All the stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile, the characters being usually unsuccessful men. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see how Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired by the experience. The computer becomes a metaphor for our age — the post-1980s and a symbol of technological growth and dominance. (longer review here)

After-Dinner Declarations Nicanor Parra
I had not read Nicanor Parra before so it was quite a revelation to read the works of perhaps the oldest living poet who advocated “anti- poetry”.
Here are a couple of poems from the collection: Continue reading “The Year Gone By – 2016”

In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City

Bhupinder Singh and Bhaswati Ghosh

PART 1

A welcoming refuge: Bhupinder

Cuba, and not Mexico should have been the first Latin American country I visited. In my youthful years, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara held a special place in my mind.

Mexico came to me much later — in the murals of Diego Rivera, the paintings of Frida Kahlo, the magical realism of Juan Rulfo and other writers like Rosario Castellanos, Carlos Fuentes and Mariano Azuela. It was the country that had provided refuge to the leader of the Russian Revolution Leon Trotsky, the Indian communist and radical humanist M.N. Roy and later to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, among others. Mexico, therefore, held the promise of an exotic land that found a resonance in my literary and political imagination. It seemed like a welcoming home for those who were hunted and ostracised in their own countries.image00

The decision to make a trip to Mexico during the long Canadian winters when ‘snowbirds’ make short trips to warmer lands in the Caribbean was intuitive. What wasn’t as intuitive was our choice of destination. Much to the surprise of friends and colleagues accustomed to take vacations at beach resorts, we decided to travel to Mexico City. A few lessons in rudimentary Spanish provided me with enough confidence to take the plunge. Tripadvisor provided a good enough idea of the key sights to see.

It was with trepidation and expectation that we landed in Mexico City in the afternoon on Good Friday. The weather was perfect for our sun-parched eyes. The drive from the airport to the hotel reminded me of cities in India — New Delhi, Chennai — and also of how much at home I had felt on my trip to Tokyo. Being a holiday, the shops were closed and the traffic was relatively easy. The bright colours — green, orange reminded me of Chennai, the wide roads of parts of New Delhi and the easy walk of the pedestrians, in contrasts to the near-military gait of the Western people, reminded me of Tokyo.

The city purple: Bhaswati

I’ve come to the City expecting to see a riot of colours — bold reds, blues, greens and yellows. Yet, the colour that holds me in a dreamy sway all through my stay turns out to be purple. From the time we land in Mexico City on a warm Friday afternoon, the sky appears canopied on all sides with jacarandas in bloom. I instantly know what love is. It is to be in an absolute new place and not feel like even a traveler, much less a tourist.

Continue reading “In the Heart of ‘the Monster’ – Eight days in Mexico City”

Fragments of a life

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My Documents by the Chilean writer, Alejandro Zambra, is a collection of short stories that almost reads like a novel. It wasn’t until I read the fourth story that I realized that the book wasn’t a novel, but a set of interrelated short stories. There are a number of reasons why it is so.

All stories are set in and around Santiago, or urban Chile. The characters are usually unsuccessful males — drug and porn addicts, wife beaters, men unsuccessful in love and work. A number of the stories have a reference to Augusto Pinochet’s name, and though there is little else about him, it isn’t difficult to see that Zambra alludes to a correlation between the despot and the young men who grew up during the Pinochet years — their lives and minds permanently impaired. Continue reading “Fragments of a life”

Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar

Shahid AnwarRemembering theater activist Shahid Anwar ( 20th Sep-1965- 1st March 2016)

Death is like a sudden chill. It freezes liquid life into a block of ice. Memories, conversations, email messages become hard like rock, like frozen sculptures. When this rock is the life of a person like Shahid Anwar, it will be a long time before it begins to melt.
I knew Shahid initially as the colleague of a common friend. I never saw any of his plays although he talked to me about some of them. He went on to become a friend whom I met sporadically, but we developed a deep bond over time. I lived in Gurgaon and visited him, sometimes at his Sainik Samachar office in North Block — our first meeting and conversation was on an autumn evening under the shade of the trees on North Avenue. Later I met him a number of times at his house in RK Puram and then in Vasant Vihar.

Continue reading “Tum mere paas raho – Shahid Anwar”

Where did the Indians go?

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Statesbhupinder
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Beacon Press (2015)

In my many years of professional life in the US and Canada, I have worked with people from many nationalities but not encountered even one Indigenous person.

As I read through Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, it became easier for me to understand why this is so.

Dunbar-Ortiz delves into the history that is missing from the mainstream US history’s obsession with biographies of great men. Dunbar-Ortiz contends that the depopulation of the Indigenous people from around 100 million when Columbus reached the place was not just the result of diseases that the Europeans brought to the Americas, as is commonly perceived.

It is her well-argued conviction that it was the result of a genocide carried over the last five centuries.

Read the full review at Cafe Dissensus

The Year- and a decade- gone by – 2015

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A combination of unusual circumstances at work and home ensured there was more writing than reading for me this year. I reviewed some of the books I read besides writing two review essays based on blog posts written over the last decade. Several more — on subjects of caste, Indian politics and Marxism remain to be written.

Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams had been long on my list of to-read books and I finally managed to ‘read’ the audio version, and no disappointments all. Freud makes the book engrossing by including his own and some of his patients’ dreams to illustrate his method of analysis. It is a fascinating subject and helped me immediately to begin interpreting my own dreams using some of the concepts explained in this work. The book is long and sometimes long-winded, not unlike some other works written over a century ago. I was daunted by its sheer size and even though the audio version is lengthy as well, the journey is not without its rewards. Continue reading “The Year- and a decade- gone by – 2015”

The Significance of being Lalu Yadav

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Twice in his lifetime, Lalu Prasad Yadav has made history by taking on, and vanquishing the Bharatiya Janata Party, from its juggernaut roll. In 1990, he arrested L.K. Advani leading the  so-called Rath Yatra meant to liberate the Ayodhya temple. In 2015, he has stopped the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine from winning in the state of Bihar. Much decried by the secular liberals, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s one year has been marred by increasing intolerance and institutionalized mediocrity — whether it be in the quality of its central ministers, its appointees to educational institutions or in administration and governance. Its threat has been magnified by its continued successes in the states even after the 2014 general elections that brought it to power at the Center.

As in 1990, when the Rath Yatra seemed to know no fear and advanced across the country as few mass movements have in recent decades, the communal onslaught was stopped not by the ‘secular left’ or the the Congress — a party that swears by secularism but has followed a policy of balanced communalism for as long as one can remember. Though they were much relieved, as they are now, the same set of secular liberals deride the caste politics, as they perceive the politics of Lalu Yadav, and Mulayam Singh Yadav or Kanshiram and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party, to be. Ironic as it is, the reason for this is not far to seek. Continue reading “The Significance of being Lalu Yadav”

Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society

(The background to this post is the return of literary awards by many Indian writers, to protest against the killings of some writers and increasing attacks on minorities over issues like eating beef.)

Thomas Mann’s observation that “a person lives not only his own life, but also that of his contemporaries”, applies to everyone, but perhaps even more to writers and poets because they feel and speak for us even when we are not able to put into words our deepest feelings, and sometimes are not even conscious of them until a poet or a story writer tells us.

Writers respond to what goes on around them and to the mood of the times. As thinkers, they occasionally express ideas and views that do not always find acceptance. This brings writers into conflict with the powers that be.

Books are banned and even pulped — as in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism. Authors are physically attacked and even killed for their writings. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for many years because of death threats. In conditions where writing is stifled, the form evolves and morphs to find expression. Continue reading “Indian writer’s on warpath: Emphasising the threats to a liberal society”

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies

Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Discreet Hero (2015) is one of the most readable and among his more optimistic novels in recent years, thoughthediscreehero his own claim that it is his “most optimistic novel” is a bit of an overstretch. The optimism may have more to do with Llosa’s winning the Nobel Prize in 2009, for one cannot ignore that a deep pessimism is instrumental in building the plot of this novel.

In his style familiar to his avowed readers, there are two alternating stories in the novel revolving around three sets of fathers and sons, sucked into a grim vortex of blackmail, threats and intimidation. Two stories of intrigues that are as fast moving as a soap opera and keep the reader glued to the pages, follow.

Common Threads

While the life stories of each of the men are different in many ways, what unites them is the disappointment that their sons turn out to be. The optimism of the hard-working fathers is offset by the pessimism of their descendants. The perceived optimism is limited to that of the two businessmen fathers enriched during Peru’s neoliberal upturn in the 1990s. Continue reading “The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The play of dichotomies”

Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand

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Nek Chand passed away on 12 June 2015.

Nek Chand‘s Rock Garden was one of the first places I went to see when I moved to Chandigarh in 1981. There were few places to see in Chandigarh — the Rose Garden and the Sukhna Lake being the other two major attractions. What made the Rock Garden stand out was the inventiveness with which everyday waste had been recycled into beautiful creations.

The middle classes at that time had not yet tasted the explosion in wealth that came in the 1990s, and as children our hobbies bore the imprint of the economic necessities that marked our lives. During summer vacations, I would try to make papier mache crafts from old newspaper and jell bits of leftover soap into a soap bar. The melted wax of the candles during Diwali would be patiently collected the next morning and melted again with a wick to create home-made candles.

Perhaps it was this economic frugality in the everyday life that subconsciously attracted us to the Rock Garden and left a deeper impression than most other landmarks in Chandigarh.

Unlike Le Corbusier, whose name we struggled to pronounce and spell, Nek Chand was a common man’s name. “Nek” means “a good natured” person and we imagined a person whose heart was full of kindness. The sculptures seemed to bear that out, too. We were awed by the presence of a local hero, a living legend. There were stories about how he moved around in the city on a bicycle. Kids claimed to have seen him in the garden, and I would not have believed them had I also not spotted him there myself.

DSC02790Stories about his simplicity abounded and sometimes made headlines. Continue reading “Chandigarh’s Rock Star: Nek Chand”

A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III

south_america2The Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli’s riveting memoir The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War gives a glimpse of the deep involvement of poets, writers and revolution in Latin America. Belli spent nearly two decades as a sandinismo, working for the overthrow of the US backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua. When revolution finally arrived, she contritely observes that “It was good to remember that political power, even when it was considered revolutionary, had been for the most part a man’s job, tailored to its needs”.

Women cadres that had fought arm in arm with men were sidelined once the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, starting with the disbanding of the women’s militia.The book delves rather long on the writer’s numerous affairs and escapades with the half a dozen or so men in her life but, in the second half of the book, meanders towards the victory of the Sandinista ‘revolution’. This successful revolution, the second one in Latin America after Cuba, is what leads her to end the book with a sense of optimism, despite the warts and subsequent failure.

I dare say, after the life I have lived, that there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world… My deaths, my dead, were not in vain. This is a relay race to the end of time. In the United States, in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixota who learned through life’s battles that defeat can be as much of an illusion as victory.

Continue reading “A Decade in Blogging: A literary journey to Latin America-III”