Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mister Pip- Visions from a Misunderstood World

The blue-grey jacket of the book almost obscured itself into anonymity amidst a sea of loud lettering and bold covers. However, it was perhaps this soothing subtlety that also made it stand out and brought it to my notice in the heap of books piled on rickety wooden tables at the book sale near Plaza Singapura at Dhoby Ghaut. One look at the blurb, and I wanted this book badly- keeping my budget in mind, I had made up my mind on the number of books I was going to pick up, and once I'd found it, there were no second thoughts. Doris Lessing was abandoned in favour of Lloyd Jones.

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

I have met a book which is on the verge of being the most beautiful thing to have happened to me in the past few months.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What need have I of human voices, when the rain and the wind sing to me?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


It takes a great deal of goading, threatening and pushing- and some bribing- to get me off to visit a doctor. In this case, what with my manager's continual reminders and my roommates telling me that it would be good to see a doctor for my sore throat and cold, I didn't really have much of a choice. I had to go to the clinic all by myself- not exactly an intrepid bit of action that would secure mention in the annals of history- but I've never done it earlier, so yes, it was a landmark in my life and times. However, it didn't come without a bit of bribery. Though the clinic opens at 8, I decided to go there around 9 so I could visit the library, which opens at 10, and pick up something new. You see, since early this morning, I've had a real craving for any Bronte novel that I haven't read, or maybe Thomas Hardy.

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?
It's been raining, again. The streets are wet, the last drizzle is just falling from the clouds softly and slowly, the road is already drying up in patches. Sneaky rain! to come so silently and without notice, when it knows a whole city of people is waiting eagerly for it.

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

Going to bed when the rest of the world is stirring and grumbling at being forced out of the solace of warm blankets and intricately woven, half-conscious dreams, feeling at peace with yourself, watching grey clouds hang low in the sky- impending rain, not gloom- and the rain fall, come imperceptibly, leave behind traces on the dry dust on the window-panes. Living the moment, knowing or caring nothing about the past and the future, just knowing that right now, the world is indeed a movingly beautiful place to be in.

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

Searching In Vain

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

Scenes from a Mall

Unrecognisable odours waft through the air, dirty dishes are gathered up by the armful. A steep, narrow pair of escalators moves ceaselessly, people with grim faces standing single file, not looking or heeding the continuous, restless movement all around them. Swirls of sticky noodles spill from bowls, birds roasted and plucked of the last vestiges of life are left to hang upside down in disgrace to appease the appetites of men voracious in more ways than one, envious eyes peep into shopfronts where mannequins with absurdly perfect bodies wear the most splendid gowns and life-size pictures of slender, innocently seductive East European girls with blonde hair stare unseeing with blue eyes, plucking at scraps of lace and trailing ribbons. Women clutch their purses and walk quickly by, hoping not to be entranced by the prospect of yet another mid-season sale. It is still recession season, they remind themselves. Young couples wander the aisles, fingers intertwined, oblivious of the existence of the rest of the world- though, of course, she is wakeful enough to notice the pretty woman standing a little distance away, and makes sure he keeps his eyes carefully averted. There go the striding teenagers with their eyes fixed on their mobile phones and video games, the office-goers who walk in and out of trains and step on and off escalators, eyes affixed on their books, miraculously without accident.

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

A Weekend in Malaysia- Kuala Lumpur

Melaka, spelt exactly that way, was the first familiar name that came up on the signboards as the van sped through the neon-lit streets in the late hours of the night. The thrill set in- yes, we were truly in Malaysia, on our way to Kuala Lumpur, living a distant, surreal dream of seeing distant places on the globe.

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!

Monday, August 03, 2009

Need I say a word? Behold, the spectacular Petronas Towers by night.