Through the Narrow Gate – Karen Armstrong

I want to write the review of the book before it gets off of my head. I know it will get off soon. It’s a good book. I appreciate the bravery of the author in baring her soul. But, I also know that this book has not made a deep impact on me. That could be because I am not religious and this book deals mainly with religion and struggles to keep up with a religious life.

‘Through the Narrow Gate’ is an autobiographical work by Karen Armstrong, chronicling her feelings about deciding to get into a convent, her years of becoming a nun and then finally, why and how, she gave it all up for the world. The convent life, which she describes, is haunting and a novelty for me. Guilt and punishment seem to be the major themes in becoming a nun. ‘A nun has to die every day’. This sentence captures the essence of living in a nunnery. Sisters are never allowed to question anything, they are not allowed to form friendships or even try to get close to a person, they are to dutifully follow every wish and command of their superiors – all the while introspecting their relationship with God. What Karen finds impossible to do is to muster up such abandon. She cannot abandon her rationale, her sensitivity, her questions, her need for friendship and community. This causes her much trouble. For failing to do such things, she is punished and made to feel guilty. She changes herself so much that at the end, she is almost a complete stranger to her former self.

One of the main highlights of the book is the difference between the dream and reality of a religious life. While Karen enters a convent filled with a hope of communion with God, what she instead finds herself doing is dealing with a lot of practical and physical inconveniences which somehow do not let her think so much about God. There is a fear, of having done something wrong, all the time, in her mind. It is this fear of being wrong and then feeling guilty for it, for having to ask forgiveness for letting herself be sometimes is what exhausts her. At Oxford, in literature, she finds the kind of intellectual stimulation as well as the human bonding which she has been looking for. She sees hope. She finds herself useful. She sees purpose and which is why she gives up the ‘religious life’. It is not easy. It is not easy because she is again filled with a sense of betrayal. But this time, she can not take it more.

It is a story of a deep internal struggle. I can feel it. But it takes courage to give up the world at seventeen and become a nun and then renounce it all after seven years to start afresh in an unknown world. Karen Armstrong is brave and she is courageous and her story is fantastic. But, I could not connect with the Godliness and the religious line so much and that’s why it did not move me at a level at which it can potentially move other people.

It is a good book.


I find this world more and more obsessed with beauty than ever before. But its the skin deep variety of beauty. That which is shown to you, in your face!! Intellectualism is suffering a death – slow and suddden.

A Lament!

While I very much enjoyed reading ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ I was again and again bothered by the fact that I do not get to see intellectual-ism, so to speak, in Indian Modern Fiction. In whatever Indian Modern Fiction I have read, I see only two or three main streams – a transition from rural to urban or its version of from India to Abroad, if its a woman’s tale, it is always set in the context of a family (husband, mother-in-law, kids, daughter-in-law, an extra marital affair or all of them together) and finally contrasts between upper, middle and lower class. There are many others like college love stories, mythological stories with a thrilling twist (hint: Ashwin Sanghi) but they are still so bad that I am not categorizing them as literature in the true sense of the word. They are books, novels to read, probably enjoy, and then forget.

But amidst all this, where is the intellectualism?? Some authors who tend to be intellectual become too preachy, almost pontificating from a pedestal. Others, Either don’t have the capability to or don’t bother to venture in that domain. It saddens me. It saddens me because I want to read about the current intellectual discussions going on (Are they going on?) in the Indian context. And, I feel that there must be such discussions somewhere. After all, this country is going through a mini cultural, social and political crisis – the crisis of ethos.

TV debates are not doing enough justice. We see propagandists of various parties coming and spouting propaganda (what else) in the name of debate. Its an inane display of shoddy intellectualism. Those who do have a point which makes sense, are afraid to put it forth on TV. So, where are these voices going?? I am not even hearing these voices. Where are they?? Where are the thoughts which these young people are brewing in their heads?? (Well, those apart from chasing girls or imitating blindly a ‘badass’ attitude.)

Print is a very good medium to record these voices, to make them be heard or seen by a vast majority. There should be good books. This is a good time for quality indian literature.

About a prince

A Prince walks among the Paupers.

Such was the story being told in news today about Rahul Gandhi who is on his pad yatra in UP and is going and mingling with the poor people, eating their food, sleeping in their cots, bathing from their handpumps but escorted by about 50 security people. Ah! A prince’s life !


i’d like to ask..

Are we Indians, as a people, as a country, very aesthetic?

I would say no. Otherwise, why don’t I see men spouting poetry, flowers being grown in homes, people talking articulately?

No. We are far far behind. Our middle class, but mostly, our children, need to see the beauty and experience it. They need to be creative. It is one of the most basic human needs.

Reading Lolita in Tehran – Azar Nafisi

‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is a book by Azar Nafisi who was a professor of literature in Iran and now teaches at John Hopkins University. The book is description of how and what Prof. Nafisi discusses inside and outside her classrooms in a turbulent period in Iran (when it was being transitioned from a democracy to a totalitarian regime). Through the classes and the students, we are shown the atrocities but more than that, the ideologies, the propaganda which was being perpetrated by the regime in the minds of young people ( students or not ). We see how patriotism is used as a tool to engage and call people forward to participate in wars and follow strict adherence to religious code. The struggle between duty towards homeland and the desire to be free in thought and manner is one of the main themes of this book.

However, any review would be incomplete if it does not mention the writing style of the novel. The book is divided in 4 parts and each part belongs to one classical author. For that whole part, it is this author’s ideas which are discussed and focused on as well as compared with others. Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen are the 4 authors with much focus being on Lolita and Gatsby.

The most important theme running throughout the book is that of struggle and uncertainty.

Let’s look at struggle first:

Like Iran, its children are struggling to accept the identities which are being forced on them. They are not comfortable with it. Some dislike it with a vengeance, some accept it but none are comfortable in the surroundings. Women are struggling to accept the compromise of their basic freedoms, Men are struggling to resolve their feelings of affiliation towards their motherland and their personal desires. Everyone is struggling to ignore the disruptions in their lives which come in forms of protests, rallies, bombs, executions and torture. There is a constant struggle to adjust to the new normal in Iran.

The next theme is uncertainty:

Uncertainty is a concept which Prof Nafisi expects her students to appreciate while she is teaching them James or other such writers. She gets annoyed when she finds her students to be ill equipped to handle uncertainty. Then, she realizes that they have forever been conditioned, regularly and strongly, to follow dictum without asking questions and that has been their definition of good. Some of the novels which are discussed in class do not espouse very clear boundaries between black and white. This makes the students confused. This is especially true of more radical students who have placed their complete faith in the hands of the regime. They constantly challenge and are unable to grasp the concept of ‘ambiguity’.

Another prominent recurring theme of this book is morality.

Through some of the radical Islamist students in the class, we see ideas and views about good moral conduct. There are discussions on the morality of characters in the novels. Words like ‘western decadence’ are put forth again and again to support this idea. Again, this also shows a failure to accept gray: West is ‘decadent’. No redemption. In fact, there is a very interesting incident which happens in the book – The Trial of Great Gatsby – whether its characters are moral/immoral and should they be taken as models. Let alone taken as models, should they be studied in class at all.

The strongest undercurrent/sub theme of the book is the importance of ‘Imagination’ or ‘Dreams’.

At many places, Nafisi mentions the need to create their own spaces – a home, to which they can escape or at least retreat to, in the face of demolition and destruction all around. When hopelessness is being peddled on a daily basis, it is important to dream up scenarios where you can fly and buy some hope. To the students in her reading group, this dreamland becomes the West while to some, it becomes a refuge in their homes, exclusion from all public activities. For herself, it is her class and the discussions which become a kind of sanctuary. The books are one place in which all the main protagonists choose to get lost. This point comes up when discussing Gatsby and his dreams. When he achieves his dreams, it gets destroyed. He is killed. So, dreams and imaginations are not really the places you reach but those where you constantly try to reach.

Women and their concerns form the backdrop of the book throughout.

All 7 participants in the reading group are women. The relations among these women and their relationships with men are a constant topic of discussion along with the pressing and more familiar concerns of women rights and freedoms in their personal and public spaces.

Another minor theme is the diminishing of the space between personal and public.

The regime is so total and so pervasive that there is no distinction between public and private. Its the death of individualism and that of extremely personal feelings like love.

This book strongly reminded me of one of the courses I took in college in English. This brought back so many fond memories from there. I am missing the course so much that I have ended up writing an almost assignment like paper about the book. Now, I am wondering what grade would have mam given me on this paper 🙂

Above all, I again realized that the highest purpose of literature is to enable us to question, to empathize and to feel. A novel can make you a better person. I love literature.

I found this book superb because it is a strange and delicious mix of academic and realistic elements. The style in which its written is scholarly and so fresh. Prof. Nafisi is a proficient writer and has written some sentences which made me stand up and say ‘Yes!! Absolutely!! I know!!’. This is a great book.