Sunday, November 29, 2009

The heavy silence of this wintry afternoon is punctuated by snores, the splash of water, the communication of insects and birds, a car door slamming in the distance. A heavy volume, the Complete Works of Saki, sits beguilingly on the divan, the somnolent eyes of the author peering out from the unimaginative brown cover, masking the world of humour and delight that lies within.

People come and go. They're never the steady companions that books make.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Blue decor, a quarter cubicle all to myself, an Internet connection (!) and a triangle of blue sky.

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

Lost in Lonely Places

If you were seized with a sudden sense of adventure and wanted to experience the most surreal places in the world (and of course, had deep pockets), the best travel guide I can think of is Pico Iyer.

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

Through the City

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

Of Languages, Luxury and Change

The AP education ministry thinks a Telugu song addressing Telugu Talli (mother) should be made mandatory at the morning Assembly in all English-medium schools, as opposed to Vande Mataram and the National Anthem, which are currently the norm. This sudden 'order' comes as a reactionary move to some students in an English-medium school being punished for speaking in Telugu. That such a hasty, thoughtless decree has been passed under the name of respect for the 'mother-tongue' and its Classical status is in itself a reflection of the lack of responsibility and application. Politics reigns. Who cares about the language? I can never understand the hostile attitude many officials adopt towards English. Instead of looking at it as a language that can contribute to growth alongwith the local language, they view it as an enemy, a hindrance to the development of local languages. In complete contrast is the attitude in China, which is rapidly trying to make its people acquainted with English for the very jobs that we vie for with them. Narrow-mindedness doesn't really help progress.

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.