I must have read these lines quite a few times, and I keep finding something new to smile at. Priceless.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
I must have read these lines quite a few times, and I keep finding something new to smile at. Priceless.
Friday, December 25, 2009
Imagine you're on a thing made of battered strips of metal tacked together (they call it a bus, I don't), with seats with unsightly sweat-stained stuffing spilling out of them. It jolts up and down one of the endlessly stretching thinly tarred series of potholes (they like to call them roads, I don't) cut into barren fields; your book threatens to fly out the window, the jumping letters form aberrated patterns in front of your eyes, and you get into an irritable mood and finally decide to snap it shut.
But if you've been reading Agatha Christie (juvenile? I don't think so) over the weekend, you needn't languish of boredom on the twenty-minute trip to office. You never know when crime is around the corner, especially when you can feel it strongly in your bones. In any case, you should always be on your vigil. A horrid, inconsistent world, this is. Start with suspects. Remember all those lists good old Fatty and his devoted followers made out, crossing out people by and by as their innocence was proved? (I'd like a Mr. Goon in my story too, and I am tempted to think I wouldn't be hard-pressed to find one.)
My list of suspects gleaned from the people I came across on a morning when the possibility of an act of crime seemed promising:
The lady in the elevator - She was old, wearing shoes that indicated that she'd gone for a walk and a sleeveless bottle green sweater on her simple, drab outfit. She gave me a generous smile as I entered the elevator and struck up a conversation about the merits of the tenth floor and its misty views of far-flung areas, and how she disliked the fourth floor for its lack of vantage points. The fact that she was elderly, though, wasn't reason enough to let her off the hook - paraphrasing Lady Bracknell, age isn't quite a sign of respectability. I mean, think Warren Anderson.
The bilingual beauty - I'm not sure she was a beauty- but I'll give her the benefit of doubt (because when you're observing people clandestinely, you don't stare them in the face, even if you're an amateur). She had freshly shampooed, medium-length hair that she kept flicking back. She kept up a steady stream of Malayalam into her mobile phone, then switched effortlessly to Tamil. (I wasn't eavesdropping - she was loud.) Remember those polished Ludlum men who speak German, Russian, Polish and any other language they might need at a moment's notice?
The man with the stubble - Now he was the one I was really suspicious of. He punched something into his mobile phone, looked all around furtively, then called someone and spoke in hushed tones, giving the whole act a rather secretive nature. Something was definitely fishy.
Rip van Winkle - He slept through the bus ride, his head reclining on the seat, the grey roots of his thinning hair exposed as the black dye wore off. More likely to be the victim of the 'biscuit bandits' than the culprit? You never know.
The talk-till-we-drop sisters - They talked throughout the twenty minutes of the journey without a pause; you shouldn't ask me about the nature of the conversation- it isn't polite- and they weren't loud enough, either. But yes, the chatter could have been a screen, so I'm not excluding the seemingly innocent women from the list.
The girl in blue - She patted her watch into position with curiously abnormal care; she was poker-faced, glazed-eyed, had long hair. I know her rather well. I might be inclined to trust her a little more than the others.
Now, for the crime. It didn't happen. Premonition deceived me, the feeling in my bones just turned out to be a case of more rattling than usual on that rickety bus. The stars sure know how to thwart an adventuress in the making. A big, wintry damp squib.
Maybe I'll just go back to planning a Polynesian raft trip. I've added a few new stops to it.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Do I know what it is to be Earnest?
I'm afraid not. I couldn't. Not unless I were christened.
Oscar Wilde's marvellously confusing play caught my fancy when I read an abridged version of it in school. It had been conveniently removed from the syllabus as our hallowed, haloed batch entered Class 10, to be replaced by a play about an android with a Bengali-sounding name and an apocalypse and some such thing; even somebody besotted with science fiction would have been bored to tears by it. It was the perfect foil to the other play we had to study, A Christmas Carol, one of the most delectable stories ever written.
We complained to our English teacher, and she broke the news of the delightful story of Earnest having been relegated in favour of this more contemporary (or futuristic) piece of 'sci-fi'. We begged a copy of the previous year's textbook off her and settled down one afternoon (skipping some dud class we were supposed to attend) to a comfortable perusal of The Importance of Being Earnest.
We took on roles to read it out loud. Cecily Cardew fell to my lot- pretty, dumb, romantic Cecily. I have a history of ending up with not the brightest characters. When we read Robin Hood, I was Friar Tuck- we weren't so particular about the gender of the character- and reading some other play in class in middle school, I was the character who invariable guessed the identity of a criminal wrong. And there is no resemblance whatsoever to reality. I am quite observant, really.
Reading the complete version of The Importance of Being Earnest brought that pleasant winter afternoon back to my mind. I remember how confusing the play had seemed then, how we had to stop and discuss Jack and Algernon's foibles to make sense of what they were really up to, to figure out who Gwendolen and Cecily were really in love with. I'd completely forgotten the story, eight long years having elapsed since, and the revelation towards the end did come as a surprise.
Laced with wit and sarcasm for Victorian hypocrisy, the play entertains with its sharp repartees and clever plots. Rediscovering it is definitely one of the better things I've done this week.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
They won't let me forget Singapore. I miss Clarke Quay - the Turkish ice-cream man's tricks, the huge swings that sent people screaming for dear life as they went high up into the air and gave the queasy, grounded people sprained necks, Haagen-Dazs ice-cream (rum-raisin: heavenly), the pub that wasn't a hospital, the quaint buildings with quainter windows, the fountains, the honeymooners, the smoke, the noise, the psychedelic colours - doesn't really matter that we were the only people drinking Sprite there. You didn't have to be a heady party-goer to enjoy Clarke Quay.
What wouldn't I give for just one more week in Singapore!
Monday, December 21, 2009
The day starts off normally- everything is as it should be, your dress is ironed to perfection, your flat footwear (extremely important if the person in question is the kind who totters even at the mere mention of the word 'heels') fits comfortably. You breakfast with your ex-roommate, drink horrid coffee, read The Guardian blogs, meet some more friends. You are plentifully supplied with candy and literature.
So why should the day suddenly go awry?
Treat it as a rhetorical question- or try to answer it. I don't know myself what happens on those simple, bright, clear days when things are as ordinary as can be, and suddenly, an invisible cloud casts its shadow, a malevolent eye throws a furtive glance at the happy, at-peace-with-itself world and slinks away. There is no visible, practical reason, yet the future suddenly stretches out in front of you, endless and lacking promise. Hopes shrivel away, dreams laugh in your face as they flit by, their turn at deception done.I live in anticipation of the future. I spend every moment working for a future that I do not know of; am I, in the process, forgetting to live the present? Whether my distant dreams of people unknown and shores unseen will ever come to fruition, I have no idea about; what really should matter to me now is to realise what lives and breathes around me, into me, and gives me the life that I have. To identify the presence that consecrates and beautifies every single day, to give it credence and take joy in the simple things that I come across. A little word of compliment, exaggerated though it might be, lifts my spirits- why should I doubt its sincerity, when it does the giver and the recipient no harm?
Simple is beautiful. I may not be able to keep the clouds at bay. They always loom low on the horizon, threatening to take your life over. Hope, though, is always round the corner.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Hyderabad, yet again, seeps into my veins (or refuses to cleanse itself out of them). However, I still cannot find it in myself to love the city enough.
The fly-over rises over a lake choked by a thick bed of algae; buffaloes wallow in the shallow pools near the edge where milkmen bathe their cows. Vehicles inch down the road, almost abreast of one another, jostling for space and air. Plumes of smoke splutter from engines of vehicles which, doubtless, would have passed the pollution test. A green-painted bus passes by, still advertising the World Military Games held in 2007. Disembodied voices chanting poetry waft from a single-storeyed 'school'- a building with very few rooms and an open storeroom heaped high with notepads and folders. Grey water gushes through a broad drain by the low wall. There is no evidence of a playground. Or children, for that matter, on this blazing Saturday afternoon. Could the sun be the culprit, shining unabashedly when a soft December wind should be sending yellow leaves drifting off trees? Or is it something as practical as exams and the constant race that we have so successfully embroiled ourselves in?
Box-like houses, discoloured, chipped and generously cobwebbed, stand in rows- no colour, no sign of habitation, not even a clothesline. Trees block the sunlight out, their shadows splayed across the walls. A temple with vermilion-red walls, pictures of deities painted in bright colours, spreads out in a small compound a few steps below road-level. Further down, spires, domes and intricately-carved minarets peep out from behind high walls.
Shops. Plenty of them. Glistening outlets which market goods from Cambodia, Sri Lanka and India under famous names, filling up coffers in Europe and the US and expanding egos closer home. Right next to the shack where the sweaty mechanic in grease-streaked clothes crouches by the rickety old motorbike and the stall that stocks everything from betel leaves to copies of economic intrigue.
Beggars cluster at the traffic signals, emaciated babies held at the waist in dirty rags by tired mothers, drunken fathers lolling on the dividers. You don't want to encourage them- but it isn't easy to turn away either, cold-hearted and indifferent; only, you know that single coin you give them isn't going to help them anyway, and you wish you could do something more, then forget about your resolutions promptly once the light turns green. Fickle, cold-hearted humanity.
The fly-overs and the faux-modernism cannot mask the infrastructural lapses and the glaring masses of people struggling to make ends meet. The few gardens and the sparkling fountains don't hide the vast tracts of barren land where garbage is heaped by the truckloads, the ponds wherefrom sickening odours rise and where parasites thrive. Tombstones and cremation grounds dot the outskirts, the dead and the forgotten buried and burnt and generally dispensed with. Life as it is, ironically, may not seem much better to some of those multitudes.
Time to weed the garden.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
The latest round of the Telangana agitation began last Sunday as KCR declared he would go on a hunger strike- a bandh was called and his supporters promptly went on a rampage, Osmania University was vandalised. Monday saw the shutdown of normal life, buses were off roads and shops were closed for fear of violence.
Things seemed to go on with relative normalcy Tuesday onwards, but then took a turn for the worse Saturday afternoon as rumours of KCR's condition began to spread and his supporters grew agitated yet again. Cable operators stopped beaming entertainment channels for a few hours, more buses were tampered with, petrol pumps shut down, shops had their display windows broken. With a two-day strike having been called and a curfew in place today, public life has ground to a halt. Buses are off the roads, a few shops have their shutters hesitantly half-open, all the ATMs are closed, the works- quintessential elements of an Indian bandh. As much inconvenience as possible.
We're destroying the public transport that we pay for, inflicting more blows on the poor. What will make them see sense, though? Sporadic acts of violence, a chance to smile and wave at the camera, a 'student agitation' (accompanied by vandalism) and blocked roads (which will in turn lead to traffic jams)- this is the strike we're talking about- and things are going nowhere. The political implications of the agitation are being thrashed out in studios, while we, as usual, are left to watch and crib. My mother tells me of a similar, though much more severe, agitation in 1969, when life came to a complete standstill. This was initiated by students as well. Schools were closed for eight months, while some others had their students abandon uniforms so classes could go on as usual.
Today, such a situation would hardly be feasible. In a recuperating economy, to think of shutting down completely and hamper with the functioning of businesses that work globally would be hara-kiri. Prices of commodities are already rising as a result of the strike; the state has suffered enough this year due to the heavy floods and the destruction of the kharif crops. Are they even aware of the trouble they are causing?
Tomorrow is Day 2 of the strike- what will it be like? I don't even want to guess.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Set in the imaginary town of Khaufpur, it sees the world through Animal's eyes- a young man maimed by the tragedy, but possessing a dauntless spirit. He utters the worst profanities possible and has lecherous thoughts, but is embroiled in a constant battle to find justice in a murky world that reels from the consequences of a tragedy long gone by, politics playing its part as usual. He goes 'Namisponding, Jamisponding', lives with a French nun who has quite lost her sanity, speaks a mix of English, French and Hindi. He falls hopelessly in love with a girl who treats him unusually kindly, not like the 'Animal' that the rest of the world calls him. The arrival of an American doctor rouses suspicion in the village- could it possibly be a continuing conspiracy of the company that lay at the bottom of the tragedy all those years ago.
Touching and thought-provoking, this book shows reality in its full, stark form. It doesn't gloss over the unmentionable, it uses strong language, it gives you goosebumps. But you see life through the eyes that tell you the true story.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
People come and go. They're never the steady companions that books make.
Monday, November 23, 2009
Welcome to my world over the past week.
While I wait for my project to take off, life has been pretty smooth-sailing, punctuated with regular bloggers' meets (oh yes, at times we are a jobless bunch), where we discuss almost everything else but blogging, go into reminiscences of old times (the others, not I- for I'm still relatively new here), criticise, drink coffee, quarrel over where to go for lunch, buy chocolate and popcorn. All in between spells of work. Spoilt for choice? Yes, we are.
I went to the British Council Library on Saturday, hoping to apply for membership. We're apparently still a long way from making things fast and easy. I was told to submit proof of residence (when I don't even have a permanent address here- but my uncle's telephone bill will do, as I'm staying with him- what sort of security are we ensuring here?), and so I just had to bring back the form so that I could submit it later when I had the 'documents' in place. The library itself was disappointing- I'd expected a large, imposing building, lined with shelves across a huge hall, books stacked from floor to ceiling. Somehow, the library failed to create the right ambience, and I'm not very sure I want to go back there. The collection wasn't very promising either, but maybe I need to go back a second time before I can really make up my mind about it.
I've in the meantime found a delectable book in my 'treasure-chest'- 44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith. While I haven't read any books in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Scotland Series book has impressed me a great deal. McCall Smith writes effortlessly, bringing you in contact with the people you know well, who exist all around and even inside you. Overbearing parents, narcissistic men, nondescript women, uncomfortable prodigies- almost everybody finds a place in this delightfully familiar world.
Monday draws to a close. Bedtime. And more coffee and bloggers' meets tomorrow.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
I have just finished Falling off the Map, a most remarkable travelogue of journeys to far-flung places misinterpreted and maligned in common conversation, but actually presenting a different picture altogether when visited. Iyer has a keen sense of perception, a very observant eye, writes with candour- and you can see he enjoys writing every bit of it. It isn't hard to form pictures in your head when you have someone like him doing all the travelling and writing for you. It is the next best thing to being at the place itself. Be it serene beaches, ever-awake cities, isolated monasteries or majestic mountains, Iyer produces spectacular imagery and sends you into transports of delight or wanting a niche of solitude, all to yourself. It isn't a dry list of places-to-visit and things-to-do. The essays are laced with lashings of humorous conversations with the locals, and you cannot help but find yourself incredulous at the way certain places 'function', if that's the right word.
North Korea, Argentina, Cuba, Iceland, Bhutan, North and South (and Central) Vietnam, Paraguay and Australia- these are the countries that Iyer describes as the 'Lonely Places' of the world- cut off from the rest of the planet, possessing identities of their own, liberally sprinkled with idiosyncracies and inefficiency, pretence and aspirations, which only add to their sense of individualism. Iyer mingles with the populace, talks to them of their dreams and of reality, tries hard to drive away the misconceptions that popular perception tends to result in.
Much must have changed, of course, in the nearly two decades since the book was written, but Iyer accounts for maintaining the originally written essays without updating them- they are snapshots of the countries at vital points in their history.
Change isn't easy to accept anyway, and while the fortunes of a country might alter, go upward or downward, the people remain the same- it is only circumstances that alter, and when you look at history, twenty years doesn't seem like too much time, after all.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
I have long been trying to map out the office-home bus route, to get a clear picture of what roads I'm actually travelling (might be of some help if I ever get lost in this huge city). There is nothing remarkable along the way, just an endless crowd that streams out of niches and cracks in every wall, people shuffling down pavements (where they exist) or down the middle of the road; risking their lives to get to the other side of the road, patience being an unknown quality. Unbroken chains of kebab shops line the roadsides, rickety stalls and tiled rooms, men in soiled vests toiling over frying pans, a boy pouring out tea as a winter-touched breeze blows over the aimlessly roving city. (He reminds me of the boys who go to the plains to earn their living in Ruskin Bond's Dust on the Mountain- no reason really, but that is just testimony to Bond's power of conjuring up realistic pictures.)
Happy Meat Shop- reads a board. More meat shops, with white roosters and heavily-muscled men painted across their walls, chunks of dead animals hanging in the shop-fronts, birds squawking in terror and misery as the butcher wrings their necks to give somebody his dinner. Pot-bellied men breathing heavily after hurried walks, women rushing home from work (some ironically conspicuous in burqas), their worry probably being the next meal, enervated children waiting to go home so they can change and settle down to another round of learning by rote and interrogation on tests and report cards. We definitely are an intelligent species if we've managed to create a mess that we can do without.
Nobody looks happy. A smile is an extremely rare commodity, given only in exchange for one, but never spontaneously. Frowns crease every forehead, childhood has to be redefined in the dictionary, for it now stands for something different than what it did forty years, or maybe even ten years ago. Momentary joys come and go in the form of full marks in tests, a cricket match won, a movie enjoyed. A temporary euphoria that sweeps people away before they inevitably fall back into their monotonous lives.
The bus passes the Hussain Sagar Lake, but it isn't something I want to talk about, having known the splendour of the boundless sea and the endless skies on rose-tinted mornings and neon-lit evenings. Lakes are pretty and soothing, but not when they are choked with dirt and debris. The road is an unbroken chain of potholes, a long drive past monuments, buildings, a few gardens (almost all these places named after Congress politicians now gone), and beneath the country's newest infrastructural attraction- the PV Narasimha Rao Expressway. The hills are encroached upon, broken buildings piled up anyhow like an ugly outbreak of warts. The land on the outskirts is barren, rocky outcrops untouched by human activity, their unproductivity being the saving grace. Dry, lifeless shrubs wave listlessly at passersby, discoloured by the dust stirred up by passing wheels settling on them.
People change. They move. But always in circles.
Sunday, November 01, 2009
Hindol Sengupta writes in the Hindu Sunday Magazine about what we should patronise and what we shouldn't, in our renewed attempts to buy 'luxury', as the worst of the recession is behind us now and interest in designer brands and labels returns. During the most torrid period of the economic crisis, I was in Singapore, and to all of us who travelled there last September, it meant a considerable increase in salary and purchasing power. We lived on our own, we didn't have any families to support, we were like kids in a candy store, and most of us were fresh out of college. We blatantly ignored the recession. Inflation, the glut of out-of-work professionals in the market, the fall in profits and the difficulty in procuring necessities, forget luxury, all went unknown or ignored. Coming from Vizag, we didn't know what life in a major city was like- and transported to a global city-country like Singapore, a shopping haven, we had our first glimpses of genuine malls and huge blow-ups featuring products from Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel. Models in outlandish make-up pouted and seduced from billboards that screamed money. It didn't matter if we couldn't afford them. We spent within our means, bought presents, fulfilled dreams. We were the new, albeit temporary, bunnies of retail chains and malls. Coming back here and seeing how things have changed, though, makes the guilt kick in. Everything costs twice as much as it used to, and we've had sense knocked back into us faster than we imagined. Maybe it was just an accident we lived out our dreams in the period that saw the most economic suffering since the Great Depression. Or irony. Sengupta is right, luxury never does go away. It just picks up new admirers, or loses them. The revelry is over, we are back home, sated and blissful, living where we belong, and thoroughly comfortable with it. Not that it's wrong to be happy, satisfied and to have fun, but I tend to look askance at happiness bought by plying yourself with things you want and probably don't need.
Life in Singapore has been mostly materialistic. And comfortable. The high quality of life is a result of proper planning and, more importantly, action. There was so much to see, so much to enjoy, so much to indulge the senses with, so little to complain about, that I was carried away by the grandeur of it all and began to imagine that life was almost perfect. I was quite like a Page 3 writer during my stay there, touching little of substance. Because life was on an upswing, we were Cinderellas counting out the hours in an enchanted palace, and now that the spell has broken, we're living in reality again.
Writing comes easily when something disturbs or inspires. Or annoys. In that sense, India gives you a lot to write about. When you see people soil pavements or spray worthless graffiti on walls, throw lit cigarette stubs in the middle of the road, stubbornly refuse to obey traffic rules, let the sight and the sound of money bring out the worst in them, you are left with the sinking feeling that nothing, really, has changed. One year hasn't brought about any improvement, people are poorer in their wallets and morals. Society isn't any kinder to women, people are as corrupt as they used to be, politicians continue to go on verbal rampages of no consequence, and all the fervent hoping and praying that you did has gone waste. We gave vent to the customary murmurs of dissent, the 'I-don't-want-to-go-back-to-India' line, knowing full well that we had to, after all. Singaporeans complain that they need to impose rules and penalties to have people behave courteously or do things they're supposed to- maybe we could begin with following rules. It isn't difficult, and it would be logistically easier if we could act on our own instead of having to push and prod one another. Or perhaps we could just have a reality show to start with.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
A lot has changed since then, though, and with Vizag no longer being home, I wasn't particularly keen to come back here. There are people who think you oughtn't to be saying so about the country you've grown up in, and I have often thought so myself about people who spent a spell abroad and came back all altered and a little irreverent, but I know what it really feels like, now.
My last week in Singapore went by in a blur. Shopping, cramming things into suitcases and cartons to be sent off through cargo, packing for the flight, last-minute goodbyes, and that one last, longing look at sights that had grown so familiar to me, and which I'd fallen wholly in love with. Oh yes, even the Merlion, a little grudgingly. (I'm not the biggest fan of the Merlion, you see- while it is symbolic of Singapore's rise as an economic power and a mix of history and modernity, the country definitely has plenty of other very interesting landmarks.) threaded numerous times through the alleys of Vivo City mall, which connects to our office at Harbour Front, and now I could probably go around blindfolded. I kept telling myself, don't say goodbye, it'll only make you feel worse. I went on a boat ride down the Singapore River, on one of the little cruises that operates from Clarke Quay, and saw the Fullerton in all its splendid evening grandeur. I went to dinner with cousins and had Thai food, for the first time ever. It was a pretty memorable week, little disappointments notwithstanding.
I still haven't reached the stage where I can say with a clear conscience that I'm glad to be back. I'm going to work from tomorrow, 9 AM to 6.30 PM, and obviously, not really looking forward to it after the almost regular 8-hour shifts I've been doing. It'll probably only be the beginning of something exciting and unpredictable, because that is exactly how Singapore came about. Touch wood.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Life isn't as predictable as it used to be. Not that it's a bad thing.
The past year has thrown up a number of surprises to relieve the monotony of unceasing weeks of work. Just when it began to seem that there never would be an end to listening to moaning users and reining in the unruly servers that insisted on crashing frequently, a little reminiscent of Indian politics, some special thing would come by to remind me that those few precious hours were what made life worth living, and I'd be a new person all over.
It is taking-stock time. Unpredictability, yes. I was supposed to return home this weekend, but after a few hours of suspense, will-they-will-they-not, my trip has been postponed to next Saturday. Doesn't make much sense to you, does it, that I would go around making such a fuss of just seven days? It does, to me. It is seven whole days that I am talking about, opportunity for another concert, or shopping (the song I'm listening to most now is Ka-Ching), or stumbling upon a perfect souvenir for somebody, going down an alleway expecting a hovel and tripping up on a castle- simply living out a dream for yet another week.
When you know it's time to say goodbye, it is hard not to ascribe a sense of finality to the smallest action of yours. Last week at Sentosa, it was about seeing the Merlion for the last time. It didn't hurt me much, because I've never been a big fan of this most famous tourist symbol and commercial money-spinner of Singapore- there are definitely better things here that the country can rave about. This morning, in a cab on my way to work, I watched with keen attention as the car burst through the Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway tunnel (called the KPE) out into the open- and what a sight it was. Illuminated skyscrapers soared high into a dim blue sky irregularly patterned with splotches of hazily grey-brown clouds. A faint peach flush coloured the distance where the sun was trying to break through with promises of a fiery flaming morning. The clouds won. As we neared office, the windscreen was speckled with droplets of water. Rain, sweet rain.
I didn't ruminate over how many times more I'd see the splendid sight of the city rising majestically in the distance, clouds hovering low over the buildings as they kissed the sky, a glimpse of the street circuit, the grandstand and the domes of the Esplanade- there is still a while left, and besides, it just hurts too much when you have to say grim goodbyes to things you know and like well. I'd rather be thankful for the chance I was given to experience things I could only have hoped for in my wildest dreams- the F1 race (which tops the list without doubt), an Il Divo concert, an ice skating show, the libraries thrown open to my ravenous appetite, the malls (I have turned into a slight brand freak- but it'll soon pass), meeting people from around the world- oh yes, it is a rather long list.
Goodbyes needn't always hurt. With a little artful convolution, you can always instill a sense of optimism into them.
Thursday, October 08, 2009
We love to take pride in the achievements of people born on Indian soil, and maybe it isn't entirely unjustified, but why can we not replicate them at home? Dissatisfied students go abroad for education, unhappy with the infrastructure or frustrated with policies and quotas. It isn't a wonder that they choose to settle there and work in more conducive environs than at home. Education in India reeks of divisions.
The Nobel Prize hasn't seen too many female winners. Would it have something to do with the fact that women in many parts of the world are still struggling for emancipation? It is rather baffling, considering that a large number of women write and pursue research and social work. I'm not talking of any conscious discrimination against women in awarding the honours, but just trying to figure out why it is that, despite their having made huge strides in various fields, women still don't feature often on the lists.
And finally, does it really matter? What sense does it make to talk of Polish immigrants or Hebrew-speaking winners or orientation or gender, when all that is important is if a person's work has really made a difference, contributed to the improvement of the quality of life? To me, a book is about how it enriches and moves me, not about the religion or nationality of the writer. When we try so hard to do away with religious boundaries, why do we persist with barriers based on nationality or religion? Being biased is ingrained in our nature, we cannot really help it, but that isn't valid reason to make one sort of discrimination, or identification, to put it politely, more acceptable than others.
Human beings. We're incorrigible.
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
Excessive attention is one thing. True, it is nice to be occasionally made to feel like a celebrity and bask in the glory of it all, but you also have to say thank you graciously to people who wish you in a half-hearted, formal, I-have-no-choice manner- you can just see it in their eyes, and what an effort it is to mask it in your own!
What made this birthday really embarrassing, though, was that my team at work and I managed to ruin somebody else's birthday. You see, my people had this cake in the fridge in the pantry, waiting to have teeth sunk into it. When they called me in, there it was in a red box, swathed in creamy vanilla, delectably adorned with slices of fruit and cherries, jelly permeating its layers, entirely in readiness, candles and all. We had a cosy little party and went back to work, sated with cake and delight.
We realised only fifteen minutes later that we had gorged on somebody else's cake.
There had been a terrible mix-up, you see. This vanilla impostor had somehow been mistaken for our own one, more compact and walnut-adorned. Don't ask me how the accident happened- I ain't the culprit.
We got them another cake, of course, to make amends. But we did have our cakes, and ate them too, for there was another party at night with the 'original' cake, and the story is still doing the rounds in office. As for the looks they gave us for having 'stolen' their cake- can we discuss that some other time?
PS- The person from the other team whose birthday it was did end up looking foolish- all ready to cut his cake, he could only smile stupidly when he realised it was already a shredded, crumbly remnant of its once plump self.
PS2- This post is named after a book by Jeanne Ray, where the protagonist bakes a variety of cakes and cheers people up. We had a variety of cakes in one day too, chocolate, vanilla and walnut, but the cheering-up part is still being disputed.
Sunday, October 04, 2009
We ended up at the souvenir shop like typical tourists, and as the man at the counter wrapped up my purchase, I asked him a question I'd been long wanting to ask the people working there- what it was like to come to work to the island everyday. He thought for a moment, and told me it was quite tiring- "but this is the retail shop with the best view here", and that his colleagues were fun to be with. I like optimism. He was very friendly and cheerful, and it must take a good deal of patience and saintliness to have to smile at every person who comes in and maintain an outward semblance of serenity, notwithstanding the rain or shine within.
Songs of the Sea is a tantalising treat- lights playing on water sprayed from the sea, huts on stilts forming the 'village' on the coast, colours conjuring magical shapes in the air, playing out the story of a sleeping princess awoken by a village lad's mesmerising song- telling how, along the way, he restores the lost arts and powers of various other beings. A short, simple tale, told in sparkling lights reflecting off the sea-spray, taking you back to when fairy tales were real, the whole entire truth, and being a child was all that mattered.
One weekend remains, and considering I have to use it well, I'd rather not do any planning.
Saturday, October 03, 2009
But for the competition part, the atmosphere at the Singapore GP quite matched what I've just described. Beer was by far the most popular drink at the venue. Why, you could even tell from the brochure- while not allowing visitors to bring in any food/beverages apart from water, it mentioned there was enough beer at the venue to cater to the 'thirst' of patrons.
In fact, F1 is not just about racing. There is much more than just fast cars and politics- it is a three-day carnival. DJs, discos, stand-up comedians, pop acts, a paddock full of celebrities- the Singapore GP is definitely one of the more glamorous races on the calendar, and also popular with a number of ex-drivers. The F1 race is preceded by other classes of racing, so spectators here were also treated to the sight of whizzing Porsche and BMW cars. The atmosphere is absolutely electric, charged up with thrill and a sense of anticipation. This being a night race, there are ample opportunities to make it a visual treat, and spice things up with a good dose of nightlife. F1 Rocks, a new concept, was introduced at this race, consisting of a series of concerts featuring popular acts from around the world, leading up to the three-day extravaganza. In simple words, F1 is money. It is a sport, of course, but also a means of flaunting wealth, yachts and celebrity girlfriends. Exclusive parties, corporate hospitality and champagne separate the 'riffraff ' from the 'celebrities', so while we buy our own tickets and walk around the circuit, soaking in the atmosphere and ogling at the large screens and the expensive cars, they watch from the comfort of the garages or their own personal suites, wherever they are. Which makes me wonder- how different would that be from watching the race on television, if you are ensconsed in a booth at the circuit and watching it on a screen anyway?
India should bring F1 to the country, but it shouldn't become a farce like the IPL, not a platform for actors to sell themselves and talk in outlandish accents about things they hardly understand. Considering that the Sports Ministry isn't, to put it mildy, keen on F1 or even faintly interested in its merits, and with all the sweating over the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever, it doesn't seem very likely that F1 will be in India in a hurry, notwithstanding the optimism of Vijay Mallya and Bernie Ecclestone put together. A few years to go, then, if we do ever hope to have in India a conglomeration of nationalities drinking beer, watching cars speed around curves and blind turns (legally, for a change).
How long can we avoid the lure of money, after all? Bring it on.
Friday, October 02, 2009
On Wednesday, as an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 struck Padang, Indonesia, tremors were felt in Singapore as well. Our beds rocked, the wind chimes jangled madly, the heavy LCD monitors at office trembled on the walls- enough warning, so we could rush down into the open space by the block. There was nothing to fear, but those few minutes of scurrying told us enough about what cowards we actually were, how we feared for our lives. It should tell us something about how lucky we are, in reality, and how often the fact just slips past our minds, making not the least impression until a slight jolt shakes things into perspective.
There was fear, a sense of excitement, the usual traps of sensationalism and the eagerness to discuss it with everyone possible- as if we were 'survivors' who had come through an unimaginable disaster unscathed. And of course, at office the next day, there were people paying more attention to the earthquake than to their work. We never learn.
Over the past couple of weeks, though, there seems to have been a spurt in the number of natural disasters hitting Asia, and things don't seem to be getting any better. Is this Nature's way of reminding us of our responsibilities? Of pulling us out of our highly synthesized lives and reminding us what actual living is about, and what really matters?
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The race didn't go my way at any point. Hamilton sped off comfortably, the two safety car periods making no dent in his lead, his pit-stops flawless. Rosberg, challenging for a podium position, made a mistake that a rookie would have been ashamed of, driving clear over the white line as he exited the pit lane, incurring a drive-through penalty. Sebastian Vettel gave him company, being penalised for speeding in the pit lane. Adrian Sutil pushed a little too hard trying to get ahead of Jaime Alguersuari and took himself and Nick Heidfeld out, the latter already in misery having started in the pit lane. The Toro Rosso cars faced premature exits, in fact coming into the garage in the same lap, while brake troubles plagued Mark Webber.
Starting twelfth, championship leader Jenson Button did pretty well to finish fifth, consolidating his position on top. Rubens Barrichello finished sixth, giving the Brawn team something to smile about. The Ferraris continued their run of misery, both the cars finishing outside the points.
No pile-ups, no massive shunts, but the race never turned into a procession, as street races sometimes threaten to. The back of the pack- the Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella, the Force India cars, and Alguersuari's Toro Rosso, provided some excitement as they kept bunching up. On the track, how close or far apart the cars are becomes really evident, and you wait breathlessly for them to lunge at one another, to attack.
I wouldn't have missed this race for the world. One dream has come true, many to go.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
Qualifying didn't exactly throw up the results I expected. With little or no overtaking expected on a street circuit, the results of tomorrow's race have fairly been determined. Lewis Hamilton powered his McLaren-Mercedes to pole, while Rubens Barrichello will not be the most popular man in the Red Bull and Williams motorhomes tonight, the Brazilian swerving and shunting into the barriers just 26 seconds before Q3 ended, putting an end to any further efforts from the drivers to better their existing lap times. Sebastian Vettel will start second tomorrow, followed by Nico Rosberg in P3. Rosberg put up a decent show as the more fancied Brawns struggled through qualifying. Jenson Button didn't make it to Q3, nor did Kimi Raikkonen, the Brawn and the Ferrari not very impressive tonight. Raikkonen admitted they lacked speed, and attributed it to the fact that Ferrari were already concentrating on 2010, and work on the current car had stopped since the Hungarian Grand Prix. Ouch. That isn't very encouraging, with three races yet to go this season.
The other Ferrari of Giancarlo Fisichella failed to make it past Q1, his ex-teammates from Force India providing him company as they couldn't quite match the promise they have shown in the past few races. The Singapore GP seems to be all about adaptability- how well you can get out of your comfort zone and tailor your styles to suit the vagaries of a street circuit, especially, driving under floodlights.
Romain Grosjean spun initially as the cars came out on track, but managed to get his grip back and keep it going. Except for a few false alarms and sparks, there wasn't much excitement at qualifying. Barrichello's cup of woes overflowed, though, as a gearbox change means he will start tenth tomorrow, instead of from P5, due to the five-place penalty.
Stats apart, being at qualifying, hearing the first murmurs of disappointment and triumph, was an interesting experience. I might well have been watching a race at the Interlagos, squeezed in as I was between an Argentinian couple on my left and a group of Brazilians on my right. I don't think either party was fervently supporting Barrichello, though. They seemed more interested in the fates of Webber and Hamilton and, to make my life more bearable, Raikkonen. I saw only a couple of large banners, not quite the euphoric excitement I expected at an F1 race. This is probably the difference between a country that is steeped in motorsport tradition and one that has adopted it as, I hate to say this, commercial sustenance. I might be wrong, though. Tomorrow will tell. Singapore is a beautiful city to hold an F1 race in, particularly suited to a street circuit, and definitely rivals Monaco in terms of modern grandeur.
Just in case you are curious about the Fullerton, the Merlion, the Singapore Flyer and the Esplanade, names I have been mentioning off and on over the last few months, do make sure you watch the race. I have seen glimpses on the big screen on GP TV, and I never imagined it could look that real. The luminescence of the sea, the glitter of the skyscrapers, the magnificent structures all around the circuit make for some spectacular views. In just its second year, the Singapore GP has certainly proved a huge success, a massive magnet for foreign tourists and F1 connoisseurs.
Friday, September 25, 2009
I am finally watching an F1 race, live, at the venue.
The Singapore Grand Prix is here. The tickets which had been safely stashed away finally saw the light of day- or should I say the floodlights of the Marina Bay Circuit Park.
With traffic jams prolonging travel time around the island, taking a train was the best option, and I got off at Raffles Place and followed the clear directions to Gate 6, the entrance to the Esplanade Waterfront Grandstand. Full marks to the organisers for the arrangements- if India is ever planning to host an F1 race, it certainly has a lot of work to do.
Gate 6 is in the vicinity of the Fullerton Hotel, and the area offers some of the best views of the city. Merlion Park, the Esplanade, the skyscrapers in the business district, the sea- they couldn't have chosen better when they planned the street circuit. For once, without getting lost or confused, I made my way to the grandstand and settled in for the second practice session, having missed the first due to a delay at work.
Imagine. Think of a tight coil of anticipation unwinding suddenly, as the first F1 car roars around the corner, tantalisingly audible but not in sight yet. And soon, before you realise what is happening, it comes round the corner, speeding in with a high-pitched whine punctuated with thuds as the car bumps over the kerbs. The Red Bull cars came out first, followed by Williams, Force India, Ferrari, Renault, McLaren Mercedes and the rest. What an exhilarating sight it was, the glossy shine and vibrant colours of racing cars lit up by the powerful lights, sleek cars curvingh gracefully down the bend, precariously close to hitting the wall, but negotiating the turn with precision and near-perfection.
There wasn't much action during practice, apart from Mark Webber spinning while he was on top of the time-sheets and ending up in a wall, due to which the session was red-flagged for about fifteen minutes. This resulted in his slipping down the order, Sebastian Vettel clocking the fastest time, followed by Fernando Alonso with an inspired, last-minute dash in his Renault, shoving down ex-teammate Heikki Kovalainen to third spot. The Ferraris, sadly, were uninspiring, as was Lewis Hamilton. Earlier in the day, the first practice session had also witnessed a red flag, thanks to Romain Grosjean's mishap. This session was interesting in terms of the time of day- as twilight melted into night, the drivers had to deal with the transition from sunshine to darkness- a rather daunting task for them, considering every other race takes place in the afternoon.
Qualifying takes place tomorrow, and Red Bull and Brawn seem to be where most 'experts' are laying their money. Saturday will tell.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
I am no fashionista, couldn't be one if I tried ever so hard, but I like walking down the corridors of the impossibly glamorous malls on Orchard Road, looking into display windows at absurdly clothed mannequins, giant handbags, shoes that would make the wearer tower over an entire NBA team. Turn left, it's Louis Vuitton and Chanel, look right and you have Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. Labels rule. Orchard Road is the best place to be at to savour completely the flavour of the F1 season. Tourists throng the malls, and apparently, celebrities too.
Standing by one of the exits at Takashimaya, a small figure with an unruly mop of grey hair, wearing the familiar white shirt, he could almost have passed off for a nondescript shopper (if people who actually buy things there can be nondescript). But Bernie is the man with the deep pockets and the hands that hold the reins of F1, and it is hard not to recognise him if you have, for months on end, seen him strolling down the starting grid, patting shoulders in fireproof suits, having a word with team bosses.
I was, of course, dumbfounded, and after the word "Bernie", I just managed to choke out an incoherent sentence which I don't intend to repeat. I told him I was from India, to which knowledge his first sentence came out completely naturally- "India. We are coming there next year." He seemed pretty impressed by the fact that I was from India, and if I have contributed the tiniest mite in convincing the powers that be that there is quite a sizeable population looking forward to F1 in India, I will feel my life has had purpose and meaning.
I was speechless when I met Bernie and shook hands with him. I would have positively swooned if I'd run into one of the drivers. This is surreal. There was a very pretty girl beside Bernie, presumably Tamara Ecclestone, his daughter.
(The real reason I went to Orchard was watch-shopping. Tag Heuer blew me away. Only, the price tags were a little steep. We walked into Chanel for a lark, and walked out laughing after we saw a watch worth $75, 300. Only. Finally, though, I managed to find myself a decent black Esprit watch, not flashy, but very attractive. Simple is nice.)
Tremendous uncertainties, possibilities of turning round the corner and running into an F1 star, the thrill, the actual experience of living out what I've always wanted to see- it's all so overwhelming! Can I hope to get just a little bit luckier? Sunday will tell.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Today I am rather convinced that India is not exactly in a position to hold an F1 race on a street circuit.
No, I haven't joined forces with the Sports Ministry- sadly, we have people who cannot tell a sport when they see one. Seeing the length of the lines of cars jamming the roads of Singapore this week, however, I can't imagine a race through the roads in India, when it is already bursting at the seams and the traffic threatens to spill over into the tiniest crevice possible.
The lanes of the Marina Bay Circuit have been closed to general traffic this week, in preparation for this weekend's Singapore Grand Prix. Cars snake through the tunnels at snail's pace, and this is when you regret your decision to take a cab instead of the train that would have delivered you home in half the time. Now imagine blocking roads for a week in India. Of course, we have impromptu closures all the time, but then something of this magnitude, requiring the best possible infrastructure, is something I don't think we are quite ready to pull off at the moment. What an irony that many of the people working on construction and laying roads in Singapore are from India!
Living in Grand Prix country is a whole new experience. A week of excitement, an influx of tourists, F1 signs everywhere, designer boutiques more primmed up than usual, models of cars and art inspired by them. The thrill is palpable, and Singapore is glorying in the attention, notwithstanding the fiasco of last year's race and the Renault revelations.
Just one more day to Friday.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
I have a new name- Lizzie. Blame it on the adult lizard and, within a few weeks, the baby lizard, that found their way to my room and chose to make it their graveyard- or coffin. One died at the door, the other near my bed, and I was left with the distasteful, goosebump-inducing task of carrying the corpses out to the refuse chute. Ugh! I still cannot think of that disgusting activity without shivers running down my spine. I'm quite brave when it comes to cockroaches and lizards, but only when they're alive. I really don't fancy dead creatures, especially when they hobble all the way to my room, only to die there.
And then there was the day when it rained so heavily on a very windy day, that my blanket and pillowcase were clean lifted off the clothesline, clips and all, and floated down to a windowsill on the sixteenth floor. No amount of ringing the doorbell or gentle, persuasive knocking could induce the inhabitants of the flat to open their door to a girl seeking what was rightfully hers, and the next day, my precious possessions were no longer visible fluttering from the window. Gone, irretrievably.
The incidents above should have convinced me of the total unkindness of living, breathing creatures. I just realised the perversity of inanimate objects as well.
Troubles come by the handful. So here I am, at half past four in the morning, cleaning out the keyboard of my laptop with my new handkerchief, trying to get rid of the crumbs from a bowl that chose to upturn itself precisely on my keyboard. The revenge of the God of Electronics. As I type, therefore, I have to have my eyes on the screen- lest you should be left to fill up the blanks in my incomplete words.
(How can you explain the fact that most crumbs chose to settle under 'E', the letter that I seem to need the most?)
Sunday, September 06, 2009
Saturday, September 05, 2009
After hours of planning and trawling through the Internet for a place to visit this weekend, we fixed on the Esplanade- not for any particular reason. It was the best thing we could have done.
Cinderella, revamped and reinforced with a meatier storyline, played out on ice by top-class ice skaters- Cinderella On Ice- was the show we treated ourselves to. It was sheer delight from the beginning. Cinderella plays a chorus dancer who finds herself suddenly offered the chance to play Odette in a production of Swan Lake, and incurs the wrath of her already envious step-mother and step-sisters. Her grace enchants the young son of the Lord Mayor of the town, and of course you know what happens next. The fairy godmother, interestingly, is a gypsy woman in colourful clothes, carrying a crystal ball.
Ballet meets ice skating in this spectacular show, enacted by European skaters who have, at some time, been involved with the sport professionally. Clever lighting and sets, delightfully authentic costumes and apt music add to the thrill. Flying artistes, fire and rain, tap dancing on ice. I remember the 2006 Salt Lake City Olympics on TV, the never-ending sessions of figure skating on DD Sports, watching Ice Princess on Star Movies, admiring their pirouettes and lifts. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd watch it all for real.
Towards the entrance to the Esplanade Theatre, we were greeted by four violonists playing to a crowd lounging around, listening as they wove spells with strings. We had 30 minutes before the show began, so we decided to tuck in, as we hadn't really had a proper lunch. Adventures of people getting locked out of theatres because they were a minute late came rushing into my head, and so we crammed in our Swiss cheese and tomato sandwiches and gulped down the vanilla milkshake with the delicious whipped cream and the luscious cherry on top. When we made it into the hall, three minutes before the show started, we found somebody else already in our seats. (A brief line of background is due here- our tickets had been upgraded, and they had apparently messed up somewhere, giving us the wrong seats.) A profusely apologising theatre assistant helped us out, running as if somebody's life were at stake, changing our seats and giving us an even better view than we were originally offered. I wasn't a bit annoyed by the confusion- it all turned out for the best.
Violins, Cinderella, living in a city that's throbbing with excitement as it gets ready to host an F1 race in a few weeks, an Il Divo concert in the offing. I'm living a story here.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Where I work, people are primarily from AP, and that they were extremely interested in the developments was only natural. What was annoying, though, was how the whole affair was being made to sound bizarre, how people were actually calling home for updates from TV9, proudly declaiming the latest they heard. They were swelling up with pomposity, the gleam of self-importance breaking through carefully arranged expressions to make a show of sobriety appropriate to sombre situations. Would the death of a common man by the roadside have provoked such excitement? Their 'excitement' was absurdly hilarious.
The artifice that prevails through every one of our moments in public life becomes all too evident on occasions such as this. No wonder then, that the news channels do their homework and play to the gallery; despite our condemnation of the crass publicising of what should essentially be private and quiet matters, we crave for a bit of news to 'brighten up' the dreary, seeming endlessness of everyday life. Can we, true to human nature, pass the buck and blame it on psychology and the various nerves and neurons we seem to have no control on, or can we consciously do something to knock some sense into ourselves?
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
The 'playing truant' part follows- it was actually just about an hour. I knocked off work two hours early, and by the time I finished up at the MoM office, it was over half past one- doesn't make sense travelling from the Riverwalk back to Harbour Front when your shift ends at 2.30. So I just picked out the most interesting looking exit, which took me over Elgin Bridge over the rippling brown waters of the Singapore River, hit an intersection, took the road more travelled (though I'd never been there earlier), and went on straight- aimlessly. I wanted to get lost. Unfortunately, some convolution of fate took me past the heard-of Funan Mall, and in moments, I was in sight of the majestic white spire of St. Andrews' Cathedral. Sigh. Back at City Hall. No matter how hard I try to see different parts of the city, all roads seem to lead to City Hall. I avoided the trappings and temptations of Raffles City and turned left into Stamford Road. Oh, that lovely building- it houses some really classy galleries and shops which display a good bit of European influence. Wandering on, I hit the Armenian Street, and I came across an intersection with a signboard pointing to the Peranakan Museum. I had a choice- to turn left and lose myself in a bit of culture and history, or to walk straight on to Fort Canning Road and lose myself in another maze of traffic.
The museum won hands down.
Peranakan is the term used to refer to the descendants of the unions of foreign settlers such as the Indians and the Chinese, with people of the local communities. These inter-racial marriages led to a fusion of languages and traditions, and 'Peranakan' is indeed quite an adjective in itself now. It is housed in an impressive building constructed in 1910, originally a school and given up in the mid-nineties as the school moved to the suburbs to cater to larger numbers of students. Exhibits include clothes (sarongs, baju kebaya and other traditional outfits), jewellery, the finery and dowries at weddings (a whole section on a 12-day Peranakan wedding!), a coffin (depicting the death rituals), religious figurines and a model kitchen.
The sections depicting the lives of nonyas and babas (Peranakan women and men) are a real insight into Peranakan ways of life. The girls were traditionally brought up to be good wives and trained in household chores from early on. They were pressured to have sons, and a painting at the museum depicts it all so poignantly- a dejected-looking woman sitting down with her daughters around her- yet another example of how women were viewed as little more than instruments of procreation. The consummation of the wedding itself was accompanied by a ceremony- again, aimed at testing the purity of the bride, who could be rejected by the mother-in-law if she was not a virgin. How women themselves can turn against their own kind will remain a baffling mystery.
The section on cuisine had some interesting, colourful displays of crockery, and descriptions of the kinds of food eaten. All this while, I'd just heard of nasi lemak and sambal belacan- now I know what they actually are.
Baba Bling is a temporary exhibit at the museum- Peranakan-inspired jewellery. Hairpins, broooches, necklaces and bracelets encrusted with diamonds, pearls and jade were on display. They are all the more sought after now for the increasing rarity of genuine Peranakan jewellery in the market. There seem to have been quite a few wealthy Peranakans around!
The afternoon could have ended after a quiet browse through the museum's souvenir shop (which, incidentally, is so strategically placed that most people enter it before they go into the museum itself). But no, I wanted more out of this promising afternoon. And true to the feeling that had been in my bones all morning, I got it.
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Mister Pip is bewitching from the word go. You know how certain books bond with you instantly, talk to you and let you slip into the bodies and minds of their characters effortlessly? Mister Pip is one of them. Set mainly on Bougainville Island, it follows the life of young Matilda and other children trapped in the horrors of revolt, finding succour in the most unimaginable way as all other doors seem closed to them. After their school is closed down, the only white man on the island, Mr. Watts (or Pop Eye as he is called before they learn to really respect him), who is not even a teacher by profession, decides to take on the responsibility of teaching the children. He is not an expert, searches in vain for quite a few answers, but brings with him a gift that delights and gives the children another world to escape into- that of Dickensian London. He reads to them from Great Expectations, a chapter a day, until Matilda (and the others, as she realises gradually), find themselves drawn into Pip's life- she grows protective of Pip, travels with him, feels his pain, despises those who use him badly. She writes his name out on the sand and adorns it, her private shrine to Pip.
Matilda's mother doesn't quite approve of her passion for an imaginary character, though, more so when she realises that her daughter values him and the book more than her own departed relations or her Bible. The depth of her hatred is revealed when she stands unmoved, harbouring a secret while the islanders lose all their possessions to the 'redskins', who, in their quest for the non-existent 'Mister Pip', suspecting him of being a rebel, burn up everything the people own. Trouble is further fomented on the island with the arrival of the rebels, the Rambos, and things spiral downwards rapidly. What, however, remains with Matilda throughout the turmoil, is the story of Pip and the hope it gives her to hold on to. She likens people and circumstances to characters and situations from the book, almost lives in a different world of her own, of grey streets and cold rain and orphans with sudden strokes of good luck. Matilda moves on, goes to Australia to live with her father and finish her schooling, and finds herself in London doing a thesis on Dickens' life.
More than the thread of the story itself, what is appealing and evocative is the description of the characters themselves. You become Matilda, you transform into Mr. Watts. The questions she asks of Mr. Watts seem pertinent and very real. Imagination, that most precious gift given to all of us, is the thing to turn to when no other avenues seem available. The voice in which you say your own name is something which can never be taken away from you. Even when your house amounting to "something about containment that at the same time offers escape" is cruelly burnt down, you have that niche in your head, that secret room, which welcomes you and takes you wherever you want to go- the power of imagination, that parallel universe that the more practical scoff at. It doesn't feed Mr. Watts, as Matilda's mother says, but it gives rise to hope and courage, perhaps just as important as material sustenance.
(I only wish I'd finished Great Expectations before reading Mister Pip. I'd probably have enjoyed it better, because now I know all about the mysterious benefactor and Pip's fortunes. Oh, if only I'd been patient enough to finish it- luckily, I'd read enough to know Mr. Jaggers, Magwitch, Estella and Miss Havisham.)
I have seen reviews that don't really recommend this book and indict it for a plot that tapers out after promising much. Get into the characters' minds, though, and you'll probably see what I mean. It is magic. I hope Mr. Watts wasn't getting into the act, playing a teacher. And I also hope Lloyd Jones isn't pretending, that he means every single word about the enthralling power of books. Because it is all true, every bit of it.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
The decision to see the doctor turned out to be reasonably good, because it'll help me recover quicker now, and hopefully put an end to the enemy-of-the-people looks that I get when I cough in public. Paranoia about swine flu grips society, and you can see several mysteriously masked men and women all over the place. Yes, they're probably better off for all the precaution they take, but somehow you can't help associating it a bit with a comic quotient. There you are, immaculately dressed in your best clothes, with a grossly mismatched mask strapped across your face. Weird. But extremely important, if you don't want a nation down with the disease.
Consultation dispensed with, I made my way to the library. I have a sneaky suspicion Charlotte Bronte was reading my mind this morning when, browsing through Anne Bronte's life, I felt that Charlotte had not been very kind to her sister, dismissing a masterpiece like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for not having an appropriate subject- quite a progressive novel for those times, and so perhaps incurring the wrath of moralists and purists. Anyway, the point is, some sort of curse was cast and the library was still closed at 10.15 am, so I made my way home empty-handed, or to be precise, still bearing the books I was planning to return- Coetzee's Slow Man and the Maisie Dobbs mystery Birds of a Feather. I haven't read Maisie Dobbs yet, but set in the 1930s, I guess it'll have to take the place of a nineteenth-century novel- for the moment.
On the way home, I bought some chocolate, which was promptly confiscated by one of my roommates. She says sugar is not good for a sore throat. She says I should have sugarless tea, avoid juice, avoid cake. For heaven's sake, I tell her, it's a cold, not diabetes. My manager asks me not to read. No ice cream, no pastry, no sugar, no books. This is what they call life?
Yes indeed, there are other people waiting for the rain as well, I am not imagining it. The other day, a cab driver told me, in no dissatisfied terms, how long it was raining after- weeks of heat, and then, finally, rain. He was thrilled. Excited. This, though he had to drive with the pouring rain forming a thick sheet that he had to plough his car through, the wipers working furiously to break through the white, streaming wall. On either side of the road, greenery flourished with a tropical fervour, alive and awake after days of limpness.
Years from now, will I believe that I actually lived on an island? In a house with huge windows from which I stared out at the streetlights at dawn, having slept or waiting for an insomniac's sleep; or maybe having slept enough for an entire week? Alone, closeted with my thoughts, away from meddling crowds and cities bursting at their seams, people jostling madly to a post en route to the destination. Not that people differ- cribbing, complaining, hurting, envying, sometimes allowing bursts of happiness coming through. Tracing and retracing footprints in search of something elusive. Lost in thought, blank and weary, trudging on nevertheless.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Numbness hangs heavy in the dim room, almost tangible and material, quiet yet discernible. Emotions are quickly aroused, the senses are keener than ever, the overwhelming sense of well-being comes from deep within, dismissing the physical weariness of a night spent awake with an impatient wave of its hand. How rare these moments are- and all the more precious and valued for their scarcity. They coil up in deep recesses to come at you suddenly when things don't seem quite right.
Hope disguises itself in various ways.
Monday, August 17, 2009
I am trying to understand the depth of my dependence on my blog. For some reason today (poetic justice, retribution for past sins?), the Internet is not allowing me to sign in to blogger, and I seem to be taking it for granted that I cannot write today. What a ridiculous idea.
Which brings me back to the question of why I write. Have I turned into a publicity-seeking maverick who has lost all sense of writing for satisfaction, of using words as a palliative to dreary nights and early mornings, as an expression of the highest moments of a still uninitiated, unaccustomed life? Words are pure joy, they evoke a pleasure that is almost sensual, feel them come from deep within, without a second thought, and then find yourself fumbling for that correct word that evades you most annoyingly, you'll know what I mean.
I know, for all my ranting and self-chastising, I am going to put this up on my blog. So why do I need people do read what I write? I am surely not naïve enough to think my writing is a bit of national treasure, to be cherished and preserved for posterity. I have written nothing worthy of attention- the two years of blogging have only been an invitation to view what could well have been written and stacked away in diaries in an attic, to be found years later, dust-covered and moth-eaten, by a generation that would scoff at or be amused by the old-fashioned reminiscences of 'the good times'. Curiosity and a keen eagerness to improve are the only valid reasons that I can think of, really. Curiosity to see how disinterested people view the few incidents and accidents that mark a plain, ordinary life, things that are not out of a book or a movie and could just as well happen to them. Do I write because I simply want to spread happiness and tell people that no matter how hopeless life seems at times, there is that one occasional minute, one fleeting moment, that can make up for all the pain? I honestly doubt that I have any such altruistic motive.
This craving to be read is probably just a phase, and will pass soon enough. I know it will, because deep inside, I know nobody needs a reason to write. Don't you see how words linger in the air, waiting to be grasped, and your mind extends invisible, intangible fingers, that still make their presence felt, to clutch at them and string them together in coherent sentences? Disjoint, perhaps, in the greater whole, and not making enough sense, written down nevertheless because they are simply inviting to be. A spectacular sunset and the people on the train- no connection whatsoever, yet belonging to one single world and calling themselves hoarse to observe them, write about them. Now this, I'd say, is what writing is all about. Finding inspiration in the simplest things, writing because you feel like it, because you can't sleep, not waiting for a magnum opus to come along and sweep people off their feet, just pulling the words out of an invisible hat and setting them down. How does it matter if you don't have a great vocabulary and don't read the classics?
Blame this bit of rambling on nature and biology. I have been trying to keep from sleeping since half past one in the morning, because I have to work the night shift this week, but my body insists on going to bed, and if I sleep this early, I'll end up drowsing at work tonight. But then, as I said, who needs a reason to write? I've had my catnap, and now I'm good to go for atleast a couple more hours, before my brain starts sending out the signals again.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Pamphlets are distributed, pushy saleswomen try hard to convince you that the items on sale are the very thing you've been saving up for, farthest though they might have been from your mind. Clever packaging, smart ideas to empty your purses- more often than not, you are gullible. You fall prey to the meticulously placed smile on the salesgirl's face, a plastic smile flashed at every prospective customer, manicured fingers handling your packages.
She sells because she is paid to do so. We buy because we take pride in our possessions and don't know what to do with our money. We care nothing for the person beside us who can hardly afford to pay his rent, and struggles to make ends meet. We walk by the Swarovski showroom, a mask of boredom put on appropriately to avoid the eyes of the customer assistant who is waiting to pounce upon us and seems to gloat when he realises that we are, in fact, indulging in that incomprehensible habit of 'window-shopping' and thinking how the price of one of those marvellous pieces of crystal could pay for an entire year of groceries. Never mind that the salesperson himself earns just enough to get by. We're all living out a farce. We're letting pride rule and take the place of discretion. We're allowing designer labels fool us. Made by our own hands, marketed elsewhere, filling up the coffers of an unknown entity smiling down at the insane drama playing out, yet a part of it too. We are going around in circles.
Beneath all the glitz lurks the human being we're trying hard to find. Perhaps, some distant day, when we grow tired of our constant buying and selling and bartering, and things begin to be treated as just things and nothing more important, we shall find a way out of the labyrinth.
Wednesday, August 05, 2009
The Singapore-Malaysia border is just about twenty minutes away from where we live, and as the van reached the checkpost and we were subjected to the customary immigration checks, we could hardly believe we were already entering Malaysia. The road took a sweeping curve, and suddenly, the signboards were bereft of English. Unknown words were splashed across signboards and shop-fronts, and driving deeper in, we wpassed a row of automobile repair shops and people sitting at tables in the open, smoking hookahs at three in the morning. We were stopped at a few checkposts, which got a little annoying- especially because there didn't seem to be any genuine checking going on. We were asked to get out and show our passports at one point to a group of trainees. Once all the bother was over, we were relieved to be finally on our way.
Five hours later, the skyline of Kuala Lumpur made itself visible through the hazy blue morning mist. Identical houses with sloping roofs, packed so close together as to induce claustrophobia, appeared on either side of the highway, giving us an indication of how populated the city was. Tall, unrecognisable outlines hovered in the distance, when all of a sudden, like a beacon, the famous landmark that we had seen and admired on television and in books appeared in the distance- the Petronas Twin Towers. A visit was in order later that day, and we could hardly contain our excitement as we drove on to the Batu Caves.
A giant statue of Lord Karthikeya loomed over the temples at the base of the limestone caves. A steep walk uphill led us to the interior of the caves which housed various shrines. Dimly-lit and bat-infested, the caves are a marvellous sight, opening up suddenly to the sky and the foliage above. Monkeys abounded on the steps, snatching at bananas and hopping around, disconcerting people as they made their way up and down the steps. Cool and invigorating, the walk through the caves was remarkable. The city was beginning to churn into activity as we looked down at it, the dust beginning to rise in the distance. Deciding it was time to move on, we made our way to the hotel for a short nap and to freshen up before we set off for our next destination- the KL Tower.
The Menara KL affords a fantastic view of the city from the observation deck. It is adorned with ornate arches, designed in Islamic fashion, and is an excellent way to take in a bird's-eye view of the entire city. Rainforests thrive right beside it, to break the monotony of glass and concrete.
One of the attractions that we were smitten with was the F1 simulators- getting into those really low seats in the car-shaped chambers and driving on a simulated track was a true insight into what F1 drivers actually go through- and for us, it was without the strain on the neck and back muscles. I had an embarrassing four laps, spending more time in the gravel and on the grass than on tarmac, and I am determined to have more respect than ever for anybody who ever drives a racing car.
The trip to the China Bazaar was cancelled due to some sort of protest going on at the market, so we were driven to the Petronas Towers earlier than scheduled. The towers are a stunning marvel in concrete and glass, rising impressively overhead, the tallest twin structures in the world. Underneath lies the Suria KLCC shopping complex, which, after some perusal, I decided was made for the likes of Paris Hilton and the devils who wore Prada. Articles from the streets of Chinatown were laid out at exorbitant prices. That said, KL in general appears cheap compared to Singapore, but just doesn't seem as comfortable and clean- perhaps a day is too little time in which to form opinions of a city, though.
We had the inevitable photo sessions outside the mall, and when we needed someone to take a group picture, I requested a lanky, long-haired (Dutch, I came to know later) tourist passing by to do so. He was very obliging, and asked us what we'd like for our backdrop. He looked around and, I am not sure what came into his mind all of a sudden, asked where the twin towers were. When we explained to him that he had in fact been wandering in the mall under the towers, he was perplexed and extremely disappointed. He complained he'd been walking through the "stupid mall" trying to find an exit, and all the while there he was, right by the towers. How he could have missed something as obvious as the nose on his face, I'm not quite sure, but it was a pretty amusing bit of confusion, and I wish I could have captured his priceless expression.
We came out into the open around seven o'clock to see if the lights in the towers had come on yet. The sight we were greeted with we shall probably never forget. The towers sparkled against the slowly darkening blue night, all shimmering with the electric lights artfully placed, the moon snug and aristocratic between the rods that met at the Sky Bridge, forming a V. People twisted and bent themselves into all sorts of shapes to get the best pictures of the incredibly tall structures. Looking at the towers, I knew, for once, that man had come quite close to beating nature at her own talents of irrepressible beauty and skill. I don't know if the towers are perfect in every sense- but to me, at that moment, nothing came close to matching the awe and the inexplicable gratitude I felt. The lights in the KL Tower had also come on, and I suppose I make it very clear when I say we were left massaging our neck muscles the rest of the night.
Day 1 in Malaysia ended with pizza in the hotel. Sleep came easily, accompanied by glittering visions of multi-storeyed structures. How different Day 2 would be!