Sunday, May 31, 2009

This Week's Picks

The library yielded a satisfactory bounty today. I went in with no particular book/author in mind, but for Pico Iyer- not much to choose from there, only one book that didn't impress me much. Among three of us, we hauled home seven books and another that doesn't count among one of mine- Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales (for all my pretence, I'll probably end up reading it, too).

What surprised and enchanted me most this evening was a book on Peruvian shamans, something I stumbled upon as I scanned the religion section- The Andean Codex. PG Wodehouse was a definite pick after last week's hilarity- this time it is A Damsel in Distress. (Last week, by the way, it was Cocktail Time.) Anita Desai again, Clear Light of Day (after Baumgartner's Bombay the last time around). Somerset Maugham's Catalina, Rudyard Kipling's autobiography Something of Myself and VS Naipaul's Miguel Street followed. This is my first try at Naipaul- I am curious to see how I'll like him. A book of Scottish short stories rounds off the list.

Now I shall be pretty pleased with myself if I can pack in half of all these books in three weeks- but of course, I can always get them renewed. I only hope none of the books disappoints, as Elizabeth Gaskell did last time. Sometimes, you just fail to connect with certain writers, and Gaskell refused to strike a chord and draw me in. Maybe if I try her again some other time I might like her better, but this time, I wasn't really interested in giving her another chance.

Oh, the blessings of a good, healthily-stocked library!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Planning my Dream

I'm about to go to bed, and I have decided what I want to dream about- Peru. Machu Picchu, Inca women in colourful clothes, mountains lost amidst swirling clouds, the ghosts of long-gone people crying out in anguish at the treatment meted out to them- of forests, diverse climatic conditions, rain and sunshine, torrid heat and bitter cold- of languages that seem like a torrent of incoherently strung syllables poured forth, but have a beauty and charm beyond comprehension.

Do dreams come true?

Friday, May 15, 2009

An Extraordinary Species

One of the lightest, healthiest sources of entertainment is something you would least expect - the badminton court. While play ought to be serious business, a lot of fun comes in from the antics and pretences of amateurs, belying the formal approach of more experienced opponents.

During training (not badminton- the months before I went to work as a 'software engineer') at Mysore, I often went along with a friend when she went to play. I was one of the very few spectators there, one amidst the hangers-around probably praying for somebody to sprain an ankle or fail an exam so they could usurp their spot on the court. To me, it was one of those few opportunities to view competition in sport- for no matter at what level games are played, competition and the will to win remain inevitably intense. The high ceiling, the nets, the green paint and the benches against the walls reminded me of the genuine athletes I'd seen jogging through the Port Stadium back home; not to say the people at the badminton court weren't taking their stuff seriously enough, but just like every crowd, this one had its own set of jokers, pretenders, people who tried too hard where it just wasn't necessary, and of course, the critics- and one undercover journalist.

I vividly remember one sweat-soaked person who plonked down next to me after a hard hour of trying, jumping high enough to give Yelena Isinbayeva the jitters, screaming loud enough to deafen Maria Sharapova's shrieks, swinging his arm so vigorously it was a miracle the racket didn't fly out of his hand or his arm out of its socket. He proceeded to 'entertain' me with the story of his life, his career, and a lot of other things that I honestly (and thankfully) don't quite remember. I would much rather have watched him play, and if you think I'm not enough of a badminton enthusiast to say so, rest assured a true badminton fan would have felt that way had he/she had to put up with his stories.

When he had run out of breath (and stories), we watched the others play; his friends and mine, some beginners on the court at the other end, a few really good players, others coming in for a Saturday morning exercise. Good play, pretence galore.
Then followed another session of story-telling and critiques- this time with a person who played reasonably well. We spent a hilarious hour watching people come in with new rackets, warming up, showing off, and finally leaving without having played a game; looking at foreigners who stared as if this game were the most unnatural of pastimes on the planet (now which country could they have been from, I wonder); praising genuinely good play, commenting, criticising, being entirely human. A complete display of honesty, if there ever was one. We had a good laugh, and though it is embarrassing to admit I don't quite remember his name now, I can remember he kept all of us in splits as the players rested and the undercover journalist continued to study the behaviour of the species that inhabited the badminton court. After that dry spell of terrible games and worse life stories, I was extremely relieved to find that there was still some sense left in the world. That hour we all spent together (the pretender, too) is something I vividly remember, and it just reinforces in my mind how memories can come from the most unexpected of places- even from a badminton court on a hot, dull afternoon in a small town, amidst people you're never likely to see again.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

A Room With A View- A Review

E M Forster exhibits his usual mix of depth and lightheartedness in A Room With A View, the story of a young Englishwoman caught in the preconceived notions of society and almost deceived into marrying a man she doesn't love; and again, being made to realise the folly of her ways through an accidental meeting in the most unexpected of places.

Lucy Bartlett goes to Italy with her cousin Charlotte, a woman probably disposed to be kindly, but more often than not getting in the way and disrupting the ideas of romanticism that so naturally obsess young Lucy. Their disappointment in not being given 'rooms with a view' is alleviated when the Emersons offer to give up their own rooms to the ladies in exchange for theirs; an offer that Miss Charlotte Bartlett accepts with reluctance, for how can polished society ever make such a crude proposition? A walk with the exasperating Miss Lavish, an aspiring novelist who gets carried away by her literary ambitions and leaves her companion to her own devices, sees Lucy end up in a church with the Emersons. Further chance encounters with George Emerson and an unexpected burst of sentimentality in the midst of violets and enchanting scenery make the Bartletts leave for Florence abruptly.

On her return to England, Lucy is talked into engagement by Cecil Vyse, an artistic man who endeavours to influence her in every possible way and doesn't make himself too popular with her family. He lacks patience with her friends and their small social engagements, meddles with Lucy's plans to have acquaintances of hers inhabit a villa in the neighbourhood, refuses to participate in the acts of frolic of the family. Frustration mounts as George Emerson comes back into her life and gives her his own ideas; a sudden encounter with Mr. Emerson in the rectory leaves Lucy wondering about her decisions all through.

While Lucy probably makes the right choice towards the end, it does seem to me as if she never does think independently, being easily swayed by whatever she hears. It doesn't do much good to the idea of emancipation of women for sure, and she seems like a figure being moulded in and out of shape all the while by people who think they know what is best for her.

The writing is delightful in true Forster style and after The Longest Journey and Howards End, comes across as less tragic than usual. The society consists of the inevitable characters who take the liberty of making decisions for others, criticising, poking their nose into what is definitely not their business. We haven't really come too far since those years, have we? Maybe it isn't society, but human nature.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Oriental Delights

While I haven't gathered courage enough to let the experimentation go as far as the palate, I must confess I have been much enamored by whatever offerings of the Orient I have experienced thus far.

Saturday evening, I had the opportunity to take in two more monasteries. While the destination was the Burmese Buddhist Temple, the address, a nondescript street somewhere around Balestier Road, a short bus ride from Novena, did not make much sense to our cab driver. The map at the Novena MRT station not being enlightening enough as we scanned it for Tai Gin Street, we asked at enquiries, only to be told that there were quite a few monasteries along Balestier Road and they weren't aware of exactly what we were looking for. So, in the deepening blue dusk, under trees that spread their leafy branches wide open over the milling crowds at the churches and on the roads, in an area that brought back strong memories of our short visits to Bangalore, we waited for a bus.

Through narrow streets, past hardware and lighting shops, paint-stripped blackened walls and unsymmetric cobblestones, lanes that got increasingly reminiscent of home, we made our way on a bus in a spirit of adventure (a grandiose term for something as insignificant as this, I agree, but then we didn't know where we were headed); we got off at the stop by the first monastery we saw, and for perhaps the first time in Singapore crossed the road in the typical Indian way, cutting through the middle, for there was no crossing visible.

The monastery was medium-sized, not the one we'd been looking for, but pretty and inviting in its own way. Incense sticks and candles burnt at several places, and one of the people apparently working there welcomed us as we stood hesitantly outside, explaining the significance of the deities there, telling us about the Laughing Buddha, and then leaving us to wander through the room at the back and look at the glorious statues of the Buddha. The people here, as I have often said, are extremely warm and friendly, and importantly, have ready smiles.

A sudden streak of fortune led me to notice the sign that said 'Burmese Buddhist Temple' as we wandered out aimlessly, wondering where to go next. Off we went down the narrow lane, the much sought-after (for us) Tai Gin Street, crowded by a number of students and worshippers. I wonder if there is some sort of Burmese settlement there, because quite a few streets around bear names from Burma…Irrawaddy, Rangoon etc.

The Burmese Temple is a grand affair. A magnificent marble statue of the Buddha, carved in Burma in 1917-18, sits in state in the hall, inspiring awe and a feeling of incredible peace. A congregation was gathered there, singing verses, as a steady stream of people kept flowing in. We went upstairs to the third storey, where the muffled singing from downstairs wafted up; people sat quietly there, paying silent obeisance to the standing statue of the Buddha. There being few people up there, we were able to see the statue more clearly, and what a piece of workmanship it was indeed! The folds of the Buddha's robe fell gracefully against His strong, reassuring figure, the fingers of the right hand held up in a gesture of blessing. High up near the ceiling were pictures depicting various incidents from the life of the Buddha- Angulimala, dragons, elephants, demons, masses of clouds- it indeed felt like being in a temple back home. The tepid blasts from fans in the sultry evening, the quiet and the calm of minds coming to rest and surrender to a greater power, the irreplaceable sense of well-being: a sense of déjà vu was inevitable, of course. There are some mysteries that no amount of questioning can unearth.

Weekends are also often devoted to Buddhist music. One of the walks through the alleys of Chinatown led to the discovery of a shop that sells Buddhist music and artefacts; I love the Tibetan mantras that I picked up, sung in a mystical, soothing female voice, complemented by traditional wind instruments and drums, and as you hear them, it is hard not to be transported to the heights of the Himalayas, to imagine yourself by a prayer-wheel, monks walking to and fro, clouds drifting dreamily by a red-brick shrine nestled in a nook of a snow-clad mountain rising ambitiously into a lilac, sun-sprinkled sky, wrinkled women in colourful shawls and young women with babies smiling from the windows of stuffy little houses. The mantras are a delight- familiar verses couched in unfamiliar language to suit the pronunciation of their tongue; for instance, Om Mani Padme Hum becomes Om Mani Bae Mae Hom. What doesn't change, though, is the sincerity and the tranquility.

On to more materialistic pleasures, the Orient has always been an infinite source of trinkets, fabric and lore. Precious stones in unimaginable, pretty colours are extremely attractive, even if you are a practical girl with little interest in jewellery. I have already been lured into jades, amethysts and corals. Maybe sapphires, next? Tantalising indeed are the strings of agate, onyx, emerald, pearl and garnet, like treasures tossed out of a wrecked ship washed ashore from a distant century. What surprise is it, then, that they should warm the heart of a person who likes to revel in the unreal?

In broad daylight or at night, when blue glass reflects sunlight or the skyscape glitters with the lights from office towers, when the neon sheen blots out the simple, primitive shimmer of the faraway stars, the world comes back to what we call normalcy, puts on the garment of 'civilisation' and pretends and preens. Beneath it, though, the ghosts still lurk, the songs of the past reverberate and call, the stories strike a chord, and through all our pretentiousness, we thankfully succumb.


Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Book in Hand

A book is material comfort. Just as much as the inside of it matters, knowing that I have a book stashed away in my handbag is extremely important to me, as vital as having my ATM card (that'll do, you don't really need cash all the time, because NETS works quite everywhere, except at the MRT stations, where having a topped-up ez-link card is good enough, so life is pretty simple here even if you're as absentminded as can be).

Coming back to where I began, I feel incomplete without a book on me, even when I am perfectly sure I shan't have any occasion for boredom or be at a loss as to what to do with time on hand. Of what use is a book when you're going around the city in cabs, visiting monasteries, a mall and a restaurant?

This evening as I tucked my glasses and a thin shawl (for you never know where you'll freeze) into my handbag, my eyes fell on the book on the sofa. Notwithstanding the fact that my bag was already heavy and that I would definitely not need my book on the short outing, I found myself picking it up. I don't know if I should call it an obsession, but I derive an inexplicable strength from books, I get the feeling they'll keep me from loneliness, fear and boredom. No matter what, there is inspiration, succour and relief to be found in the pages of a book. I say this at the obvious risk of sounding incomprehensible; doesn't everybody look for something to cling to and draw strength from? For me, at any given time, it is the book that I'm reading, for I can carry it around with me wherever I go and take comfort in the knowledge of its existence. The extent of my dependence on books really struck me this evening as I wavered for a moment in indecision. Healthy or not, this is one obsession I do not want to get rid of.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Forget the fact that Ferrari are not quite there (an understatement, I agree) this season. They are almost as bad as, and how I hate to make the comparison, the Kolkata Knight Riders this season. So the IPL is not just about glamour and advertising and flashing your face and colours on television every other minute. It isn't about promos, controversies, publicity, and empty talk. Not entirely. Looks like a team missed out on one necessary ingredient- the game. And how I hope a particular person is learning his lesson! (Not that I'd really mind if he didn't; it just doesn't make the least bit of difference to me.)

Ferrari are biting the dust too, yes, and they'd better snap out of it pronto. While it might be politically correct to say seeing Button, Vettel and the rest of the upstart co. on the podium is good for the sport, I'll say this: I don't mind seeing them there, but where I'd like to see them is on the third step, behind the two Ferrari drivers. Pipedreams. Don't rub it in. I can hardly wait for the Europe leg to begin.