Book Review: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing


I first read about the book in a New York Times article where the outgoing US President Barack Obama, a voracious reader, mentioned that he had included the Golden Notebook in a Kindle collection he had presented to his teenage daughter Malia.

Interestingly, weeks later I found it lying in my husband’s bookshelf. He recommended it, adding that it was an important feminist voice in contemporary literature. The author Doris Lessing won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007 for her work, which included the Golden Notebook.


The book is over 500 pages long, and looks into the mind of a writer, who keeps her thoughts, writings, diary, and bits of newspaper clippings in four different notebooks.

It is difficult to keep track, because it is not written in chronological order, and you drift from one notebook to the other, but as you read on the dots connect. The protagonist Anna Wulf is a novelist, single-mother, communist, and a feminist.

She asks questions that many women can relate to.

“Being so young, twenty three or twenty four I suffered like so many ‘emancipated girls’ from a terror of being trapped and tamed by domesticity.”

A character in Anna’s novel Ella, which heavily borrows from her own life and experiences, falls in love with a married man, who finds her too career oriented, and leaves one fine day for Nigeria, on a work-trip. She never hears back from him. Years later she finds out he is in town visiting, and she waits for him every day at her window, the front lights of the porch switched on, hoping that he walks in. She fails to put words to the emotions— unsure if she can call it love.

“To show a woman loving a man one should show her cooking a meal for him or opening a bottle of wine for the meal, while she waits for his ring at the door. Or waking in the morning before he does to see his face change before the calm of sleep into a smile of welcome.”

“I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons—but I won’t do it, I can’t be like that…”

I have had these thoughts. Would it have been easier if I had found an ordinary man for bread and butter reasons? But no, I can’t be like that.

As the book concludes the protagonist Anna realizes that the main character of the novel Ella is in fact her own embodiment. “I, Anna, see Ella. Who is of course, Anna.”

The final chapter in the book called the Golden Notebook, details how Anna finds freedom, comes to term with her life, finds peace, and discards all four of her notebooks.


Helping street children dream big in Karachi


Every day at 6:00 AM a footpath near the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine, converts into a school—with red tables and chairs, students and teachers, microphone and blackboards, pencils and books. As the sun sets—the students disperse, teachers go home, and the table and chairs get packed into trucks—only to return a day later.

The Footpath School— is a unique idea to teach street children in their comfort zones—the menacing streets where they otherwise spend the day selling goods and services—and often getting shelter through gangs involved in crime and drugs.

Asniha, 13, worked with her mother in a nearby bungalow. She would sweep floors. Now she is one of the brightest students at the Footpath School.

“Every day on my way to work I saw these children study. I asked my mother to place me in the school. And she did. I don’t want to go back to the bungalow now. I want to study. I want to become a doctor,” Anisha said.

Sameer Ali eked out a living by selling shopping bags at the nearby Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine. When night fell he slept there. Now he spends his time doing Math and English at school. “I sell my shopping bags after school,” he says.

The school has changed many such lives. Children have gotten off drugs. Given up pickpocketing. They have learnt to dream big.

The woman behind the initiative is Anfas Alisha. Once she had a construction business. Not anymore. “Business took a setback. Now all my time is spent with these children,” she says.

She says the Army Public School attack in 2014 deeply affected her. “I thought I needed to get out of my house and do something.”

She started with placing a mat underneath the Clifton bridge, and teaching street children. She was surprised, contrary to popular belief so many of them wanted to study.

Her students increased. The mats were replaced by tables and chairs. She hired teachers, a guard and helpers. Black boards and mircrophones. Her students’ tattered clothes were replaced by crisp blue and white uniforms.

In two years, the Footpath School is imparting education to 400 street children, Anfas Alisha says.


On a regular school day, the footpath is packed with children. The din of the traffic outside drowns inside the make-shift school with students screaming out their lessons on the microphone. They can read English sentences, Urdu stories and do simple math— remarkable progress considering they’ve been in school for only two years.

They get lunch, and Rs50 every day. Something that Anfas, says she has to arrange herself. “We don’t get much help from people,” she explains.

1.2 million on the streets

An estimated 1.2 million children are on the streets of Pakistan’s major cities and urban centers constituting the country’s largest and one of the most ostracized social groups, a 2012 study titled ‘Surviving the Streets’ by Society for Protection of Child Rights (Sparc) points out.

Most such children are between the ages of 9 to 15 years, it adds, and earn a monthly income of Rs 4,000 a month.The term ‘street children’ include children who either spend the night on the streets, or those who earn a living on the streets and then return to their families in the night.
Estimates suggest 25 million children in Pakistan are out of school, education advocacy campaign Alif Ailaan states.
-Originally published here