Monday, December 31, 2007

Mansfield Park- Almost Perfect

I would have gone into raptures over Mansfield Park, but for the fact that marriage between cousins reminds me of the ancient Egyptian custom where siblings in royal families married each other so that the blood of the offspring remained pure, unpolluted by external influences. In every other way, Mansfield Park is a lovely picture of English society and the disparities that plagued it in the nineteenth century.

Fanny Price is removed from poverty and brought up in comfort among her cousins, but she remains grounded. She remembers the beloved brother of her childhood, and is thrilled when offered a chance, after years of separation, to visit her family in Portsmouth. She takes this opportunity to wield a good influence on her less fortunate siblings, taking care not to offend her parents in the process. She resists the advances of the irrepressible Mr. Crawford after witnessing his flirtatious behaviour towards her cousins Maria and Julia. Fanny’s heart almost breaks when her kindest, most sensible cousin Edmund falls prey to Mary Crawford’s charms, Mary being one of those women who can never really prefer nobility of character to wealth. In every aspect, Fanny is the ideal young woman- never doing anything wrong, sticking to her principles and standing her ground even when everybody around her tries to push her into a financially favourable relationship. Perfect Fanny Price. The only part of Mansfield Park that doesn’t appeal to me, as I mentioned in the beginning, is the marriage of Fanny to Edmund, who were initially brought up as sister and brother.

I enjoyed Mansfield Park because of the variety of characters and scenes. It is not restricted to middle class or affluent society, like Pride and Prejudice, and doesn’t have endless conversations as Emma does. It is an extremely interesting mixture of the different sort of people and circumstances that society is made up of. Austen conjures up some memorable characters: Mrs. Norris, the regular shrew, who leads the girls of the Bertram family astray with her misplaced concern and detests Fanny for her poverty; selfish, indolent Lady Bertram, to whom appearance and propriety matter more than affection; the sisters Maria and Julia Bertram, who are only interested in being wooed, and turn against each other in their quest for the same man.

Mansfield Park also seems to me less sedate and prim than the other Austen novels. Perhaps because it tells the story of a girl who comes from a humble background and has no pretence in her manner, it comes out warm and pleasant. As of now, it is my favourite Austen novel- a rung above Sense and Sensibility.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Frigid? Not Really.

I detest cliched phrases. The one I dislike most is ‘Last but not least’, closely followed by a few others, one of which is ‘Man is a social animal’.

How do you like first-time visitors? Imagine you are out sauntering on the road, no purpose in mind, enjoying a tranquil, moonlit winter evening and hoping to come back to a warm house, to immerse yourself in a book you are eager to finish. You are in no mood for other company but your own thoughts, and rather look forward to one of these rare, carefree evenings of uninterrupted bliss.

Alas! When you approach the door to your house, you hear voices. Female voices you’ve never heard before. Slightly curious, but not enthusiastic, you enter to find a neighbour all eagerness to meet you and forward the acquaintance that developed in the course of an earlier introduction. She is accompanied by her college-going daughter.

And now I relieve you of the burden of imagination, because the people I mention are not likely to arouse everybody’s resentment (strong word, I seek a milder); indeed, I am probably making you wonder what you are in for, and if my manners towards people I hardly know are as frigid as an iceberg in the Arctic Circle.

Not really. I am warm and hospitable when in my best moods. But I wish you luck if you happen to visit me, for the first time, when my indolence is at its height, and there are other things I would much rather be doing than entertaining company. Coming back to these neighbours of mine, I was forced to smile and be polite much against my inclination that evening, for I was waiting to get back to my book. So this girl started talking to me, having been brought by her mother with kind intentions, so she could know me and we could be friends, being of the same age. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong day.

Anything that she said was likely to get on my nerves. I couldn’t help replying in monosyllables, and then, after a few sentences, there was nothing more to be said. My mother and hers, who had been keeping up some kind of conversation, also seemed at a loss to know what to talk about. Now such periods of silent inactivity often make the participants in the ‘conversation’ look foolish, and I have had a friend bursting into intermittent giggles when such a pause once happened in her presence. Aware that we would look extremely funny to any by-standers (not that there was anyone (un)lucky enough to witness our lively party), I tried to say something, and this time she replied in monosyllables.

For one whole hour, we kept up this sham of a conversation. She told me she liked to read, but we couldn’t find any common ground there as her tastes and mine seemed almost diametrically opposite. I broached the topic of ragging in college. She said something which seemed to advocate the ‘sport’ as a mandatory ice-breaker (rubbish!), and as I am totally against ragging in any form, I replied rather tersely, making my stand on the subject very clear. A moment later, I began wondering if I should have spoken so strongly to a guest, to a girl I hardly knew. I can’t say I repented it, but my temporarily-dormant niceness did come to the fore after much struggle against the demons that were tormenting me that day, and I was more cordial the rest of the evening.

After much floundering, mother and daughter finally left- to nobody’s regret, I should say. They invited us very cordially to visit them sometime. Please don’t remind my mother that she promised she would, because the invitation includes me. There is some truth in the theory of first impressions being the best (to use a cliché). The girl might be a paragon of virtue, a most agreeable companion, but I am not destined to know if she is. I have never really felt like trying to cultivate my acquaintance with her. Blame it on my disagreeableness, but when you feel a fit of perversity coming on, you have to succumb to it. Do I hear you grumbling at my nature? I assure you, most of the time I am as angelic as can be. But I believe there are these untamed demons inside all of us that unleash their power when they oughtn’t to, and curbing them requires superhuman self-restraint, which perhaps only the most forbearing and experienced can achieve.

To repeat what everybody probably knows: Just in case you happen to come across inexplicable behaviour, do remember that it might just be a passing fit. In all probability, if you are disgruntled by somebody’s conduct, you will be treated beyond your best expectations by the same person another time, perversity having long been replaced by repentance. Clichés are not always entirely true.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Getting Whimsical

Oh, to be 11 or 12 or 13 again!

Or even 10. Any age before 14, because after this the board exams, the entrance exams etc. come along and ruin the peace that has reigns long over the period of innocent happiness- childhood. Whenever I read books featuring young girls, I feel like going back to those times. I’m not so grown-up now that I cannot imagine what it was like when I was a little girl, but I do miss those carefree days of playing in the park till dusk and doing homework. School was often fun, though holidays, of course, were welcome. I actually liked writing examinations because of the challenge they posed, and the delicious days when the report cards were given away.

Much has changed. Exams are no longer as charming as they were, and I think the word ‘homework’ is blasphemy when used in the context of college. Responsibility grows with age, and so does confusion. Life gets complicated, and while certain joys can be felt with a greater degree of satisfaction than they once were, some others have to be given up.

What triggered these thoughts in my mind was my third reading of the book Little Women. I was in school the last two times I read it, and so this session brought back vivid memories of those days. Meg and Jo March are now younger than I, and I found it a wee bit difficult, to my astonishment, to look at them as the grown-up, responsible girls I once believed them to be. I have always liked the protagonists of a book to be older than I- just an irrational, crazy thought. But that’s the way things were (and are, I guess), and I worshipped these characters born out of some brilliant people’s imagination. I still do. I know they’re all fictional, but I have the same fervent faith in them that I once did. I used to fancy I was Jo March, while my friends took the parts of Meg, Beth and Amy. I enjoyed writing, I got into tiffs with the boys, I took on the seniors at school. I sorely longed for a brother-friend like Laurie, and to use the ‘slang’ (words that would be considered rather respectful if compared to the slang of today) that Jo did. Now, sadly, I am more sensible, but I do have this little world tucked away somewhere in my heart, peopled by the kinds that everybody wants for friends and family but doesn’t really have. A good imagination is an extremely useful thing to have, as Anne Shirley might have said.

When we read What Katy Did, we were seized by the desire to play the ‘Game of Rivers’. So there we were, thirteen-year-old girls, running up and down the aisles of the classroom during recess, looking like absolute geese (to use one of the bookish words). But what chance does pretentious dignity stand against harmless girlish fun? We turned a deaf ear to the sarcasm of our classmates and played our silly games, even after the boys got tired of us and made a childish complaint to our class teacher. Such ninnies! (Okay, the complaint might have been made to retaliate to an equally preposterous complaint that we girls made- but why rake up past differences now!) I wanted to be a tomboy and tear my clothes. Never was, and never did. This comes of being born with an innate sense of orderliness.

I cried over books. I felt terrible when Beth died. I felt quite a void in my life when Anne Shirley grew up and got ready to go to college, as Marilla realised her beloved Anne would never be a little girl again. I sympathised with Katy Carr when she had to spend years in bed after hurting herself in a fall from a swing, and when Aunt Izzie died. When Captain Crewe died, I was upset for Sarah. Is it silly to cry over books? I don’t know.

Every one of us can probably write a whole book on the memories of childhood. However, I must make sure I enjoy every moment as it comes and not spend all my time thinking of the days gone by. Who knows, one day I might wish I were in college again!

Friday, December 21, 2007


Now I am going to be prim, proper, old-fashioned and very girlish all at once, in keeping with the book I am reading and the mood it has put me in.

I first read Little Women when I was eight or nine, and soon it was forgotten, for I was probably not old enough to understand it completely. The only thing I remembered in it was a party- full of stuck-up, vain girls- that one of the girls went to. The second time I read the book I was thirteen. My English teacher happened to ask us girls one day in class if we’d read Little Women, and while everybody else replied in the negative, the memories started coming back to me, and I was very eager to read it all over again. A classmate bagged the only copy in the school library before I did, and I struck a deal with her to make sure I got my hands on it the next week.

Some weeks ago, when I walked into Crossword, there was this little green volume with the name Little Women on it in white, all beguiling and enticing, and I knew I had to get to know the March family and the "Laurence boy" all over again. So here I am, reading this bright, sunshiny story for the third time. This time, I know what’s coming in the book, for I have seen the movie quite a few times. Now I know it wasn’t a perfect interpretation of the book, but I enjoyed it. Of course, there’s nothing quite like reading the book, and it’s sure to become one of my most-thumbed books alongside Anne of Green Gables and the three Katy volumes. Much as I enjoy books of almost all kinds, I can never outgrow these delightful tales of innocent girlhood. These are classic stories, full of goodness and warmth and fun, and can never be replaced by chick-lit or any other pretentious, decked-up, sometimes nonsensical, girl stuff that’s written now.

I don’t think I’m imagining it when I feel American women writers were more informal and easy in their prose than their British counterparts. I’m talking of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here, and I know things have changed now. My limited knowledge perhaps deceives me, but there is more warmth and cheer in the styles of Susan Coolidge, Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery (a Canadian writer) than in those of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. The American women wrote of and for young girls; the British women were more formal and sober in their choice of subjects, sometimes imparting an overall gloomy effect to their works. I have no idea whom the critics appreciated better; but if I were a writer and had to choose my subject, I do think I’d decide on something that made my readers happy about their lives. We do need serious writing and books that make us think, but it’s books that are simple with familiar-seeming characters that are most inviting. (Frivolity at work?)

Digressing a bit, the first winter rain fell a couple of days ago. It started off as a drizzle, and as I went out for a walk, fell more heavily. The raindrops were light and soft and caressing, but never stinging. It was dark, no stars were to be seen, and the rain-kissed breeze was delicately scented by the damp earth. I wanted a few days of rain, to make the straggly, yellowish scrub on the mostly rocky face of the nearby hill a refreshing green again; to beat a rhythm on the fronds of the lonely palm tree. That was not to be, as the next morning, the sun shone bright in a clear sky streaked with the whitest clouds. (Today, the sky is irreproachably blue again, with not even a speck of cloud to mar its glory.) But I am being selfish, aren’t I, in praying for rain, when even the smallest hint of a chill in the air is sending pavement-dwellers scurrying for cover? It is all very well for people sheltered in expensive homes to talk about the weather, but what of the poor living in slums or by the roadside, who are always at the mercy of the elements or of other people? So I have decided to leave the weather alone for a bit, and appreciate whatever I’m given.

I must go back to the March sisters again, for I have spent quite a lot of time away from this much-beloved book. I shall not know peace until I finish it, even if I know the story. I am dying to know what scrape Jo is going to get herself into, next.

Friday, December 14, 2007


It took me quite a few aborted attempts to finally find the words I was looking for. Yet, they are not really what I want. They are just makeshift sentences to describe the alternate periods of thrill and gloom that I felt during my journey through one of the most amazing stories ever written. I shall not call this a review, because it does not even pretend to be one. I am just trying to express my incredulity and admiration of the talent and the research that must have gone into this creation.

At first sight, it appears like a confounding maze of unearthly names and maps of places that do not exist. However, the characters soon become familiar and their world opens up, revealing ambitions and traits much like ours.

This is the world of Middle Earth, immortalised by JRR Tolkien in the three volumes of ‘The Lord of the Rings’- The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Perhaps the entire story can be summed up as the traditional fight between good and evil, but there is something in its execution and charm that sets it apart from other tales of fantasy. I must mention that I have not read the Harry Potter books, and so there is no room for comparison here between Tolkien and JK Rowling, or their works, as is probably expected when talk veers around books involving magic and wizardry.

The Lord of the Rings is believed to have been influenced by Norse mythology. It follows the story of a hobbit, Frodo Baggins, as he sets out to destroy the Ring that threatens the existence of Middle Earth, should it fall into the hands of the evil Sauron. Frodo is accompanied by eight others: hobbits, men, a dwarf, an elf, and a wizard. They stand by one another during their arduous journey to carry the Ring to its destruction. They are stalked by evil in the shape of the nine ring wraiths, Sauron’s slaves who fell victim to his designs, and the wicked Saruman. Over-ambition also claims the life of one of the Company, splitting it apart and sending the travellers in different directions, but all with a purpose. All ends well, with the Ring meeting its doom in the fire, burning away Sauron’s dreams and restoring peace to the inhabitants of Middle Earth.

That is the gist of the story, but it’s not just the plot that matters. Tolkien weaves beautifully the characters of the various ‘people’ that the Company meets on the way. They all play a role in their own way, helping or hindering the progress of the travellers. My favourite part in the book? Hard to say. The appearance of the Nazgul, shrieking eerily in the dead of the night, forming shadows across the moon, was creepy. I greatly enjoyed reading about the Company’s walk through the forests, over hills, meeting wonderful characters like Treebeard and Tom Bombadil. The Battle at Pelennor was thrilling, while Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dead Marshes with Gollum sent a shiver down my spine.

I cannot say which character I liked best. Galadriel is mysterious and Eowyn intrepid; Sam is loyalty personified; Gandalf is all wisdom, Aragorn a mix of courage and tenderness. Endearing or loathsome, they all stay in the mind for quite a while after the last volume is done. It is like a journey coming to an end, and while there is a sense of relief that everything is over at last, it is accompanied by the inevitable feeling of regret that comes with the closure of a good, solid story. I must confess that there were moments when I thought the book got a little too slow for comfort. When I came to the part about Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom, accompanied by Gollum, it really became extremely gloomy (which says much for Tolkien’s powers of expression, and the magic he creates). And as the exams were upon me then, I couldn’t quite take the dual tension, so I decided to give it a break (and read Jane Austen instead; what a difference!).

I am glad I was talked into reading LOTR by a friend of mine (thanks!), and I definitely would like to read it again. I haven’t attempted the movies as yet, but I mean to. The journey through Middle Earth sure is one incredible experience, crafted with much ingenuity by a splendidly talented writer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Life Without Sports (Is Anyone Listening?)

Not entirely, perhaps...with the ICC working overtime, life cannot really be without sports. (I am strictly talking about television here, any suggestion of active sport is out.) Debates are on about the timing of Anil Kumble's declaration and the poor fellow will now be persecuted. But with action on the motorsport circuit, in my view, having long ended for the season, the weekends are pretty dreary. There is no hint of scarlet to brighten my Sunday evenings, no fluorescent '46' borne to the top step of the podium by 'The Doctor' to drive away the pre-Monday morning blues.

Why can't the F1 season be longer? What makes the FIA limit the calendar to eighteen or nineteen races? The winter break is necessary, of course, but it surely can be shortened, given that most of the testing begins well in advance. The teams are adept at multitasking, and should definitely be able to carry out testing within the season without much trouble. Think of the poor fans for a change! Posters and newspaper articles of a few measly lines don't quite make up for the absence of live action. This is one complaint I have with our newspapers- very little space is given to motorsport, especially F1 and the MotoGP. I don’t know what has happened to Heikki Kovalainen and why Nelson Piquet Jr. has been brought in to replace him. There is absolutely no news of Valentino Rossi. If we’re looking to make India a hub for motorsport, the print media will definitely have to play a bigger role. Sure I have the Internet at my disposal, but it’s not quite the same thing as fresh newsprint with the feel and the smell, first thing in the morning.

Coming back to action on TV, I don’t think the A1 GP is a patch on F1. It might be great training for future F1 drivers and be touted as the World Cup of Motorsport, and the similarity of the cars, which supposedly stands for equality, might be harped upon. However, to me, the similarity is a monotonous sameness. Some kind of disparity is good- not to the extent that exists between the top teams and the minnows in F1, of course, but just a little bit. It goes a long way in bringing the scene alive and making the arena competitive. A1 seems to boil down to the quality of the drivers, who are obviously stronger when they come from countries with a tradition in motorsport. So is A1 really fair and equal? We’ll have to look deep into the training systems of the countries to figure that out.

Meanwhile, I shall continue to bemoan about the lack of noisy (as in engine sounds) excitement on television. My suggestion of a longer system is glaringly impracticable and extremely insensible. I shall continue to hope, though- maybe someone is listening.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Understanding Wildfell Hall

The name of the book was intriguing, the blurb fascinating, so I decided to plunge into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall right after I finished Pride and Prejudice. Besides, I wanted to compare the writing style of Jane Austen with Anne Bronte’s. Bronte arrived on the scene a little later, but I did want to know if all British women writers had the same staid way of expressing themselves. They seem, more or less, to be quite formal in their approach, not as easygoing as their American counterparts, perhaps. But I shall have to wait till I finish another reading of Little Women to make the fair comparison that I want to- so that will have to wait. Coming back to Wildfell Hall, I wasn’t a bit disappointed. It was extremely engrossing, a true portrait of what young people had to contend with then, and still do.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen, a young woman who is led into marriage with a dissolute, brash young man on the strength of her innocent passion. Despite warnings from her aunt, Mrs. Maxwell, that Arthur Huntingdon is not the right man for her, Helen marries him with the idea that she can reform him and turn him into the angel he was never destined to be. Mrs. Maxwell’s prophecy comes true, and Helen is left to cope with her ill fortune on her own. Huntingdon turns out to be a philanderer, getting into a relationship with his friend’s wife besides other women. This and other discoveries turn Helen completely against her husband, and she decides to run away to a place where she can be free of his presence and raise their son, Arthur, to be the gentleman his father never could be.

Helen’s arrival in a new parish as a single married woman raises quite a few eyebrows, and gossip spreads like wildfire. She settles down to a quiet life with her son and her maid, painting to earn her living. But society doesn’t leave her alone, and matters grow worse when a young man, Gilbert Markham, the ‘beau of the parish and its vicinity’, as she calls him, gets attracted to her. More challenges beset Helen, and she is forced to take steps to prevent unwanted relationships. Things end happily, however, and Helen is restored to the position of dignity that she deserves.

Anne Bronte published the book under the pseudonym Acton Bell; in the mid-nineteenth century, female writers were not really accepted. The same people who advocate free speech now were detractors of the idea then, and it was quite a progressive story for those times, as the faults of men were not expected to be publicised in such a manner. Some critics claim to have seen through the pseudonym and figured out that Acton was, in fact, a woman. While the liberation of women seems to form the undertone, the book is not exactly about the profligacy of men. It has its share of lascivious female characters, in the shape of Annabella Wilmot; a snobbish woman who cannot put her education to good use, in the form of Jane Wilson, and others who take pleasure in putting down others of their own kind. The book might be called rebellious, but its story is one that takes place in every town, everyday. Many young women fall prey to the designs of people they do not know; young men are victimised by vices best avoided.

Anne Bronte wrote this novel for a purpose. She says in the preface, making references to Huntingdon and his companions, and to Helen, that she wouldn’t consider the book written in vain if ‘one rash youth’ or ‘one thoughtless girl’ had been prevented from making the mistakes these characters had. Instead of sparking off debates over whether Helen had her freedom curbed first by a profligate man and then a more civil one, or if Anne Bronte was influenced too much by her sisters’ writing, I think this book should have been appreciated for what it is. It is not a sunny, sweet romance, but reality. Without being preachy, it has lessons for life.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Little Bit of Romance

The mystifying strains of Kalyani wafted through the early morning air as Priti turned in bed. Motley smells floated in the air- pungent turmeric being sprinkled on the curry that the cook was frying, the floral scent of the moisturiser that Ma was applying, the strong herbal odours of the sticky oil Paati was anointing her winter-benumbed limbs with.

Priti recollected that she had a week of vacation left. One whole week! She had spent just three days in this obscure village in the depths of Tamil Nadu, but had already seen and done everything she possibly could. She had romped through the fields, singing to herself; she had watched the agile-limbed boys swim like fish in the white bubbling waters of the river; she had helped the girls make floral garlands, though clumsily and feeling rather like a foreigner because of her urban upbringing. She had woven Paati’s smooth, rippling silver hair into innumerable plaits and grown sick of the onslaught of Carnatic music- the form that seemed to form the very soul of this remote village. She had spent the afternoons reading with the warm sunlight on her face and indulging in siestas in the courtyard. She had done absolutely everything. When would she be back in Chennai?

The sun-kissed morning breeze brushed softly through the boughs of the sturdy trees as Priti made her way through the maze to the little pool that the ancient house overlooked. Save for a solitary bird’s heart-warming song on a distant tree, all was quiet and tranquil. Through a narrow gap in the crumbling wall, Priti emerged into the clearing and gazed at the clear surface of the pool. This was the first really clean body of water she had seen in her fourteen years of life, and it quite amazed her. In fact, almost everything about this tiny village was amazing. It seemed incongruous, like some wizard had cast a spell on it and cursed (or blessed) it, preventing it from moving with the times while all the surrounding areas fell victim to the vices of urbanisation.

Priti watched two butterflies chase each other around a clump of brightly coloured wild flowers. The sky was a dreamy blue, not a trace of cloud on the sun-splashed canvas. A mellow, ethereal light bathed the clearing. The pool glimmered like a giant star. "If I were not fourteen", said Priti to her reflection in the still water, "I’d believe there were dryads at work here."

"And what makes you think you are too old for such ideas now?"

Priti jumped. She turned around to find her grandmother looking at her solemnly, eyes smiling, however, in the wizened face.

"Oh, Paati, I didn’t know you were here."

"Evidently not, my dear, or you wouldn’t have spoken your thoughts aloud, would you? Anyway, what is wrong with believing in dryads at fourteen? I still do."

"Really?" Priti turned away to hide a smile. "You’re just saying that to make me feel better."

"I do believe in nymphs and fairies and every other pretty creature fantasy can conjure up. All romantic people do."

Priti looked into Paati’s eyes. "You can’t be romantic now, at this age."

"Yes, I can. Come along, I want to show you something."

Priti was not very happy, as she was sure Paati was making fun of her and, in fact, treating her like a child. But she decided to humour her and followed her around the outside of the pool, into a copse of closely-growing trees. They were tall, healthy old trees, their branches extending heavenwards, intertwining and forming a sort of leafy canopy through which sunlight fell in shafts. One of the trees, Priti noticed, was stunted and not quite as strong or imposing as the others. There was a little hollow in its deformed trunk.

Paati led her to the hollow and asked her to put her hand in. Priti recoiled. "There might be snakes in there!"

"Now, Priti, I thought you were braver than your mother," remonstrated Paati. "She reacted just as you did when I brought her here, several years ago. I decided then that she had not a spark of imagination in her. Of course, she is just like her father, but I hoped her daughter wouldn’t turn out the same. Unfortunately, you seem to take after her…let us go home." There was a strange tinge of despair in her voice as she turned away and beckoned Priti to follow.

"Paati, please wait! I…I’ll do it. I really want to. Please!" Priti did not know what drove her to say this, it was all done on an impulse. Maybe there was magic in the air.

Paati turned, a smile playing on her lips. "Are you sure?"


"Go ahead, then."

Not knowing what to expect, Priti stuck her arm into the hollow. Something soft and lumpy met her hand, and she clutched the thing and drew it out tentatively.

A bundle of unknown treasures wrapped in faded magenta silk was what Priti held in her hands.

"Come here, Priti," said Paati, clearing away some branches with her wrinkled hands to reveal a small wooden bench. "Sit here and open the bundle", she said, sinking down herself with a sigh and leaning her back against a tree trunk.

Priti obeyed. Her fingers eagerly undid the bundle. What an assortment of things her eyes beheld! Tiny wooden vessels that once must have been the playthings of a young girl; a wooden couple united in matrimony in some distant era; dolls in different shapes and sizes, colour peeling off their painted clothes or brocade tearing off their old silk skirts; sheets of paper bound with string.

"Paati, what is all this?" Priti asked in wonder, as she fingered the dusty old toys with reverence. She wiped her hands carefully on her skirt and picked up the yellowed papers.

"My toys."

"Yours?" Priti looked up in astonishment. "You mean, you actually played with these things all those years ago, and you still have them?"

Paati smiled at Priti’s incredulity. "Yes; I was married when I was twelve. I realised I wouldn’t want them any longer, and in a fit of anger, wrapped them up and threw them into this hollow when I came here as a new bride."

"And these sheets?"

"Oh, those are some childish verses I wrote," said Paati, taking them into her hands and peering closely at the neatly written lines, now faded with age. "I always liked to write, but when I was married, I realised I wouldn’t have time to do what I loved most. I was very upset and I just wrapped up these sheets with all the toys."

Priti looked up at her grandmother with newfound admiration. "How unfortunate, Paati! All your talent wasted."

"Oh no, not all my talent…I was a good singer, and your Thatha always encouraged me to sing. He was extremely fond of music; he bought me an MS blue saree when he went to Madras, and always wanted me to sing when I wore it."

"But did you actually love him? I mean, he cut your childhood short, took away from you what you liked best…"

"No, he didn’t," said Paati, with some force. "When he came to know of my wish to write, he supported me in every way. I kept putting it off then, and the children came along…I would tell myself, just one more year, and then I’ll begin work on my magnum opus. It never happened, but I don’t regret it. I’ve had many other beautiful things, Priti. Most of them are now memories, and the good thing about them is that they never wear away through constant recollection. People call me a recluse, but I’m not one. My memories are with me, my constant companions. What more can I want?"

"But you still have a story in your mind…" persisted Priti.

"Yes, my story…a delightful story of romance which I live everyday, which carries me through all the days of loneliness. This very bench we are sitting on is a part of it…your Thatha made it so we could sit here on moonlit nights and spend time in solitude, away from the rest of the family. We kept coming here together till he died. And then I came here alone, but I knew he was here too, in spirit. He is, now, watching us talk." A strange, dreamy look came into her grandmother’s eyes as she looked up at the sky through the foliage. Priti followed her gaze. She slipped her young hand into her grandmother’s work-hardened, tired palm.

"Am I romantic, Paati?"

"Can you feel the Presence, Priti?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Then you are. Remember not to outgrow the romance, Priti. It will carry you through life, when you are sad, happy or lonely, just like the sun, the moon and the stars accompany you wherever you go, even if your earthly companions don’t."

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Beautiful October

October somehow sees it all. I consider it the most delightful month of the year. Writers often talk about the beauty of the weather and the landscape in October. Famous people are born in October (and every other month, of course, but somehow they seem to choose October more frequently than the others). October brings with it Diwali, the brightest and most visually appealing of Indian festivals. On the downside, the exams unleash their fury in the same month, but what is a little bit of inconvenience with so much joy and pleasantness to offset it.

The vagaries of weather are always on full display in October- oppressive heat (I remember having studied something about this in Geography in Class 9 or 10; I wish I’d concentrated better), cyclonic storms, and the approach of autumn. From what I’ve read in English novels, I’ve come to understand that October is a month much appreciated for its weather, for it brings along clear skies and cool weather, the transitory phase between the unpleasant heat of summer and the chill and snow of winter. If the advent of spring is welcomed for all the gaiety and colour that accompany it, so, I am sure, is the approach of autumn.

Living in a tropical concrete jungle, I have never really witnessed autumn in its full glory. There are no magnificent autumnal colours to admire, no brown leaves that crackle underfoot. All I can see is the stray leaf on the balcony that has floated in from the tree across the road, which sends out a gentle shower of tiny yellow leaves that drop soundlessly whenever a soft wind whispers through its branches. There is a nip in the air. The sun is no more an unwelcome presence; its rays tinge the remarkably cloudless azure sky and turn it softly golden. They are delightfully warm on bare skin and break invitingly through the morning mist, acquiring a touch of green as they are filtered through the foliage of the few trees along the highway.

I’d like to experience the autumn of New England. It has inspired writing and music, which means there must be something incredible about it. John Steinbeck talks of autumn in Travels With Charley, where he mentions a woman from New Hampshire telling him that the colours of autumn cannot be remembered, and always come as a surprise. I like to imagine whole forests in autumn, the floor carpeted with dry leaves in various hues, skeletal trees standing still and apparently lifeless until the first leaves of spring rouse them; I imagine a bench in this riot of colour, where I can read in peace and then rest my tired eyes by taking in all the beauty around me. So much is said about autumn; can any writer or artist or photographer do full justice to its brilliant, ethereal colours?

I started with October, and then wicked, wicked autumn drew me away. I see I have been rambling, but I couldn’t help it. October is beautiful and romantic, not just by its own virtue, but also because it unselfishly leads to things and seasons prettier.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Solitude in the Wilderness

The highway is crowded with vehicles of all sizes and colours. Everybody is in a rush. The harsh blaring of horns fills the polluted air. This is the road to take towards a bit of nature; winding past the nightclub, the bookstore in a nook of the large petrol bunk, the row of glittering fast food joints where people splurge and look for amusement on dull evenings, and the spanking building of the call centre, perhaps the most well-known building in the entire city. On past the grey, dreary University buildings. More shops, more people everywhere. They come and go. Similar lives, similar notions of joy and sorrow, yet strangers to one another.

There it is at last, visible behind the star hotels all decked up for a wedding or a party- the open stretch of water, the dark sea crashing down on the sand without a pause. Further on, the sand and the sea come into full view behind the pavement and the low wall that serves as a bench for all those who choose to spend Sunday evening away from home. Lives are laid open, people sit in a single, long row, watching the endless stream of vehicles on the road. They talk. Voices and languages mingle. Odours mix nauseatingly in the stagnant air as the wind refuses to stir. However, the beach with its pockets of solitude, is still an escape from the monotony of work and home, a place to spend time with oneself or with the sea.

The soft, plastic-littered, sewage-blackened sand is pockmarked, depressed by the million feet that have staggered across, stumbling and sinking. A caricature of Mickey Mouse shows itself beside a small castle. The waves roll up from some invisible part of the sea, swelling with a roar and falling with a swish. Two people sit on the beach and converse intimately, defying the threats of the sea that creeps closer with every fresh wave. Nature has the last laugh; the sea comes too close for comfort and they jump up with a start and move away. The sea has scooped out large portions of sand from the beach over the last few days, forming pits and exposing the concrete bases of the lampposts once so proudly erected. Can man ever compete with nature?

The air carries the typical smells of the sea. A hazy mist hangs in the air, the salt spray combined with the bright neon lights across the stretch of the beach, obscuring the natural lights of the night. The unwanted half-moon sadly hides itself in a shallow pool of its own light; the ignored stars stay away, only a few defiant ones insisting on flickering and getting noticed.

The air is still stuffy, the people are as bored as ever. As Sunday evening draws to a close, the dream is over.
Adults grumble about the new week that looms ahead. The children are happy, clutching a new toy that squeaks irritatingly, like a piece of chalk against a shiny blackboard. The roads are packed again, streams of humanity rushing back and forth with or without purpose.

A week more to solitude.

In Love with the Rain

I somehow never seem to get tired of watching the rain, and thinking and writing about it. Words seem to take shape in my head as I watch and feel the rain and beauty in other forms accompanying it, invigorating and inspiring me.

This evening, the clouds gathered suddenly, a thick whitish-grey layer. They did not seem threatening, they did not crown the hilltop but seemed rather high and distant. As I leant out of the balcony, the alternately warm and cool breeze brushed past my face and through my hair, and seemed to say something to me, speak only to me. The wind and I were one, whispering secrets, communicating in a language imperceptible to the rest of the world. Boys laughed across the road, a mother lay against her daughter’s lap at the door of their house, a woman ironed clothes at her stall, all unaware- the wind was talking only to me. And then the rain joined in.

At first, as if unsure of its course and its destination, the rain fell hesitantly. Then, perhaps emboldened by the presence of people coming out to cheer its arrival, the rain fell faster and rhythmically. On it fell for a quarter of an hour, light raindrops dancing in the wind; yellow leaves drifted one at a time from the tree by the roadside, settling on the moist mud and the damp concrete after being serenaded by the raindrops.

The wind and the rain were no longer my own. There were people around, watching with interest, and as more men and women and children came out to be caressed by the moisture-soaked breeze and feel the soft, sometimes stinging, raindrops on their hands and heads, the spell seemed to have broken. I retreated to the door, to watch the rain in privacy. Two little sisters twirled around in the rain, arms outstretched, escaping from their father’s grasp as he tried to drag them into a sheltered corner. I was no longer the sole confidante of the rain and the wind.

The rain and the wind belong to everybody. But we still have our secrets…

A Sunday Afternoon Escapade

Half past one. Jatin peered into the hall to see if the coast was clear, if he could silently let himself out of the house. Lunch was long over, Ma must be having her afternoon nap, but he’d peek into the bedroom and make sure anyway. Just when he was about to step out of his room, his mother sailed into the hall from the kitchen, wiping her hands. She sank into the sofa and picked up the TV remote. Jatin slammed his hand against his forehead. How could he have forgotten! The Sunday recipe show! Now Ma would be in the hall for another half-hour before she went in for her siesta.

The thirty minutes dragged on like ages, as Jatin bit his nails and stared out of the window. Naren must have reached the stadium. Jatin berated himself with some colourful phrases. Why, oh why, had he broken that vase last week? His mother wouldn't have forbidden him from going out if he had been at his best behaviour. Jatin fumed. He didn't understand all the fuss over a sculpted piece of coloured china, and all he knew was that its existence, or rather its demise, was preventing him from going to the tennis match with a clear conscience. He'd begged, pleaded with his mother all week; even offered to baby-sit his pesky little sister whenever she wanted. But Ma was being unreasonable. It wasn't as if Rafael Nadal visited India everyday. Sure, his opponent was a non-entity, but that didn’t matter. If his father were in town, he'd somehow convince her to let him go, and serve out the remainder of his punishment later. Women! They simply had no idea of what really mattered. They didn't understand how much more important cricket, football and tennis were than Geography and Science.

At last, Ma was in her room. Jatin waited another five minutes, then cautiously looked in. Yes, she was asleep...even snoring in a rather embarrassing manner. He also made sure his sister was asleep and not watching him so she could wake their mother and get him into trouble. He'd manage Ma when he returned. He'd get her an autograph, perhaps, or if lucky enough, a wristband. But he did doubt if his mother would value a sweaty wristband as much as he would.

Slowly, warily, Jatin slipped out of the front door. Stepping out on the porch, he almost fell over his lazy dog Max, who, oblivious to the rest of the world and its cares, was enjoying a noon nap as well. Max opened one eye, saw it was only Jatin and no intruder (not that he would have done much had it been one), and went back to sleep. Jatin grinned his lopsided grin- summer was definitely the best time for such escapades, when the heat sapped everyone's energy, except of course twelve-year-old boys'. His mother was an exception too, because it only served to irritate her more, and he was sure to have an earful when he returned. But who cared? Right now, he was off to be overawed by a star!

Jatin ran like crazy. The sun beat down mercilessly upon the isolated streets. There was not the slightest hint of a breeze. Undeterred, Jatin legged it to the stadium at top speed, stopping finally when he saw Naren at the gates, waiting impatiently, spinning around in agony whenever a cheer sounded from inside. There was no time for explanations; Naren grabbed Jatin's hand, and the two handed over their tickets (coutesy Naren's father) to the security guard and rushed straight in.

Settled into their seats finally, Naren turned to Jatin. "Next time, you'd better be on time, or I'll bring someone else along", whispered Naren furiously. "We're fifteen minutes late, and Nadal is probably going to bagel the man, which will hardly leave us with anything to watch."

"Sorry", mumbled Jatin, and embarked on a breathless explanation. The rest of the match passed off in relative peace; they clapped, they cheered. They also had an important conversation.

"We have to take back something today, at least an autograph. We need to teach Mani a lesson. He's been strutting around proudly ever since his father managed to get him a Michael Schumacher-signed cap. It's not something he earned on his own!" said Naren. "And he doesn't even admit it."

"Yes; and I need something to show Ma, to tell her what I'd have missed if I hadn't come here today", added Jatin. He turned around, surveying the crowd. A motley group; there were even some elderly men among the spectators, sitting a few rows in front. He recognised one of them- Mani's grandfather. Funny; wasn’t he a little too old for this stuff? Naren saw him too, and whispered to Jatin: "Mani’s grandpa here! Strange; I was sure he would be home napping." Both Naren and Jatin liked Mani's grandfather despite his weird sense of humour and feeble jokes; he was always ready with many fantastic anecdotes. In fact, he was more popular than his grandson.

The match ended in a predictable straight-sets victory for Nadal. He punched the air with his fists, shook hands with his beaten opponent, and then...slipped his wristband off and threw it into the stands. Jatin and Naren stood up, excited. It was coming towards them, in their direction. They stretched and grabbed at it...their hands locked, but the band slipped out and fell. Shocked, they glared at each other. However there was nothing they could do about it; it was irretrievably gone.

Naren and Jatin were locked in a verbal duel. They were both very disappointed, and blamed each other for being clumsy.

"That's it; I'm not going with you to any more matches!" declared Naren in a fit of anger.

"Why do you think I want you to?" retorted Jatin, equally upset. They looked away from each other, forgetting even to go and try to get an autograph. They stared straight ahead...and saw something strange.

Mani's grandfather was hopping gleefully like a child, waving the prized wristband in his wrinkled fist. His friends were clapping his back, cheering him. As Jatin and Naren watched, he made his way up to the exit. He didn’t see the boys; he didn’t even know the souvenir in his possession had slipped from their grasp. A dozen pairs of hands had gone up simultaneously when the wristband was thrown, and had Mani’s grandfather espied his two young friends fighting to get at it, he would have gladly made them a benevolent gift, notwithstanding his desire to prove himself to his grandson.

"Mani said I was too old for sport. He laughed at me when I said I was going to the match. He said I wouldn't be able to get a souvenir. This will show him! I'm not old...I'm as fit as anybody else!" As excited as a child with a new toy, Mani's grandfather hobbled out of the arena with his friends.

Jatin looked at Naren. All of a sudden, the lost wristband didn't matter much. They smiled, each instinctively knowing what the other was thinking.

"My dad says he'll get us passes for next week's India-England cricket match. We'll get to see Andy Flintoff! Make sure you don't break any more vases."

"Yes, and Daddy will be back tomorrow in any case, so I'm safe! I'll have to deal with my mum tonight, though", said Jatin, appearing slightly crestfallen. There was a momentary silence. Then Naren had an idea.

"Let's go for some ice-cream now. We'll worry about your mum later!" And off they went, forgetting their cares for the present.


The sky turns darker with every passing minute as the car weaves its way through the small-town traffic of two-wheelers, buses and cars. Thick clouds in various animal shapes stretch across the pale blue canvas of the sky, their broad arms slowly moving to merge with each other. These clouds are dark, but a fringe of white shows at the edges. Soon, they will blend into the deep blue darkness of the sky, and be studded with Night's gemstones.

The car begins its ascent up the hill. Everything around is cloaked in the gloom of twilight- the rocky face of the hill, the giant statue of Hanuman, the brambles and shrubs. This is no rose-tinted twilight; the world is made of only one colour, blue. The clouds are occasionally lit up by flashes of lightning and turn momentarily a ghastly white, very different from the placid white they are as they play in the soft sunlit sky of morning. Night certainly has a way of transforming objects and exposing the eerie shapes that lie hidden all day.

As the car climbs further up the hill, twisting its way on the road cut out of rock and bordered by mysterious thickets, the half-veiled Moon rises in the sky. Her handmaidens are yet to arrive, and she basks proudly in the glory of her own splendour, as if bestowing a cold, pitying smile on the less fortunate inhabitants of the earth. Blue mingles with silver- a shimmering evening sky.

Up on the hill, the car draws to a halt. Mendicants in saffron sit against the walls, arms outstretched. Ladies in rich silks smoothen their saris and look around to assure themselves of other women's envying glances. There is more to the decision to come to the temple than just worship. Vendors with tulsi garlands follow devotees up the steps to the precincts of the temple, trying to persuade them to buy their wares. Colourful shops selling almost anything one could possibly want (and not want) line both sides of the broad flight of steps. Psychedelic lights frame pictures of gods and goddesses; cheap toys catch the fancy of a little boy who runs to his mother, a toy in hand, asking her to buy it in an immensely desperate tone. The still air bears the mingled fragrance of incense, fading flowers and kerosene.

Once in the narrow, winding passages leading into the temple, a different ambience takes over. The stone floor is cold and, at places, damp; bare feet tread the path that millions of people have taken over centuries. A narrow roofed passage appears, with a few shallow steps and square windows in the wall. All noise but the chirping of insects in the distant gloom ceases. Fortunately, it is not dark enough for a hyperactive imagination to conjure up images of phantoms that exist, perhaps, only in the mind, and are stirred to life at the merest provocation of darkness and solitude. Further down the passage, the lights of the chambers of the temple come into view.
The stone walls are alternately warm and cool to the touch. The figures sculpted on the pillars stare passively at the rows of the troubled or thankful people passing by. Do these figures come to life in the dead of the night, when nobody is watching? They are perhaps real; they play a game with the pilgrims.

Closer to the sanctum sanctorum, the huge, exquisitely carved pillars make one marvel at the accuracy with which they were constructed in an age when there were no engineering aids as we know them today. How did those artisans design and build with such precision and symmetry? I run my hand across the relief on the brass door, feel the weight of the rings on it. Marvels.

The sandalwood paste-covered stone idol of Narasimha gleams in a mixture of the light cast by oil lamps and neon tubes or electric bulbs. Serene and magical, this is the Vision that people travel far to thank, to lay their burdens at the feet of. The jewels embedded in the sandalwood paste shimmer with an ethereal beauty. Can the most sceptical of people help but realise that there is an other-worldly power at work, exuding strength and grace in this small stone chamber that people throng for comfort and gratification? A power beyond measure, whose searing heat draws hordes of people year after year to view it in its natural form on one single day; people willing to put up with masses of jostling humanity for a fleeting glimpse of the unsheathed stone image of Narasimha.

Centuries of prayer impregnate the atmosphere in the temple precincts. Those seeking the gratification of a wish embrace a stone pillar and pray hard. Demands and bargains in abundance- who is satisfied with his lot, really?

The ghosts of the past seem quite real in the relative quiet of dusk. Children laugh. Anklets jingle as light girlish feet patter up and down stone steps. A priest, deep in study, leans over a low wooden desk in a secluded corner. Are these scenes from hundreds of years ago playing themselves out all over again?

It seems like sacrilege to step on the inscription on the steps hewn out of black stone. Much devotion and care must have been poured into those words on stone which will, in all probability, wear out in another few centuries as people go up and down the steps, none pausing or caring to decipher the ancient lines. This is the way out- God has been bothered or appeased, and it is time to perform one's duty towards the offerings and the sense of taste.

The night sky is liberally sprinkled with stars big and small, and a planet or two. Lightning still streaks through the masses of clouds, but there is no sign of rain. The air is clean and fresh and reveals the beauty of the sky in its entirety, unsoiled by the blanket of smog that invariably shrouds the city sky. From atop the hill, I see as many stars on one night as I would in an entire week in the city.

The car begins its descent homeward. The hills loom dark and large, miles away in the distance filled by the twinkling, tiny lights of the town. Blue deepens into black, punctuated by glaring neon and starlight. An aeroplane cuts through the clouds, red lights blinking intermittently before it vanishes into the night. A breeze starts up; Winter is at her games, teasing creatures with promises and threats of arrival, building false hopes, before she is suppressed by the earth's sending out vapours of heat to curb her vivacity. She is approaching, though, bringing along clear blue skies, mellow sunshine, and other playfellows.

Worship cannot quite be restricted to the walls of the the structures we create. Being out in the open, feeling Nature, is much to be grateful for.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Of Roads And Romance

How are the worst journeys in India made? Train journeys in the unreserved compartments and bumping down a pockmarked, bepuddled road in an auto are certainly strong contenders for the honour. However, if I had the privilege, I would bestow the title on a journey on the buses that carry passengers to town from the depths of rural India down the irreproachable highway- especially on a rainy day.

Soft masses of dull grey clouds slip and slide, layer upon layer. In the distance, a rim of pale blue sky resists the invasion as a frivolous wind rises from the sea and pushes the clouds around. Raindrops fall, form little shimmering puddles, fly in the alternately warm and cold embrace of the wind. Leaves blow lower side up, eerily grey-green in the suffused light of the sun that struggles to break through the sheet of clouds. The lofty palms sway and revel as the sea breeze sings to their fronds. Can anything hinder the enjoyment of such romance?

Apparently yes. As I begin to soak in the atmosphere and feel the pleasure of the numbing raindrops, my reverie snaps when I walk straight into the largest puddle on the road and am liberally splodged with mud (and manure, too, considering our cattle have more freedom on the roads than motorists). Discomfort begins here, and the rain ceases to be romantic when it gets heavier and pounds on the skin instead of falling in teasing, caressing pinpricks. And just in case I am in any danger of escaping into the blessed realms of imagination again (quite improbable if the 'discomfort' has already begun), I am brought back to earth by the hard-hearted sceptics that wander the planet in such abandon as cannot be justified or forgiven. This is the breed of drivers who have no concern, real or imaginary, for pedestrians, and revel in splashing them with not-so-pure rainwater; the men on motorbikes who choose this moment to put Valentino Rossi to shame as they whizz past, muddy drops flying in a million directions.

I consider myself lucky if a driver is kind enough to stop at the unauthorised 'bus stop' (no preaching, please- who doesn't break rules?) bang in the middle of the highway. These buses never do really come to a halt; they are like F1 cars raring for the five red lights to go off. Once I'm in, I heave a quarter of a sigh of relief, for the ordeal is not yet over; in some senses, it has just begun.

All the seats are occupied, and there are quite a few people standing. The 'Reserved For Ladies' seats are invariably filled by men. I don't really support this kind of reservation, though, so I decide to (do I have a choice?) stand and sway with the bus. Next comes an encounter with the rude conductor who has a bag full of new coins, yet insists that he doesn't have change. That obstacle surmounted after no little trouble, I wait until I can find a seat. I try to get as comfortable as I can while I’m standing, but very soon there are passengers ready to get off- carrying luggage, of course. So now I have to press myself flat against a rod or a seat. The driver brakes suddenly, I lose my balance, somebody else loses his/hers, and what follows is the Domino Effect.

I find a seat. If it’s next to a window, I can be sure that the panes will be jammed shut if it’s summer and refuse to slide close in case it’s cold or raining. If not near a window, then I’m next to a door. Past me file the passengers, with burdens of unimaginable kinds. One of them, though, is sure to carry a live rooster by the legs, the poor bird shrieking in agony. How I’d love to substitute the man for the bird! What wouldn’t I give to be able to travel once without coming across a person carrying home fish or a bird to make a meal of! (No offence to non-vegetarians, but I do think nobody likes to watch an animal being carried away for slaughter.)

There are days when the bus is almost empty, and the heart yields to the romanticism of sunshine and rain once again. The rattle of the metal of a bus coming to pieces, bereft of the accompaniments of irritating cell phone ringtones, howling babies and private conversations carried out in loud voices, is music to the ears. Nobody to stare or eavesdrop. Bliss overcomes my despair. Until I realise that this is yet another of the tricks of illusion and will not last long, at least while our civilisation flourishes and grows, and we persist in denying the existence of a code of conduct for public behaviour.