Saturday, December 25, 2010

My latest delivery from the library consists entirely of contemporary fiction. Considering how expensive new novels (under copyright) can be, it makes sense to buy classics and depend on the library for the rest of my reading needs and wants.

Today's list:

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje
Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh
Saraswati Park - Anjali Joseph

I've begun Saraswati Park, written by first-time novelist Anjali Joseph. It is quite a riveting read, blessedly unpretentious, earthy and compelling. The setting may not be entirely new, because over the last year I've seen Bombay through Rohinton Mistry and Suketu Mehta's eyes, but I like the quality of Joseph's writing. I am definitely enjoying this read.

Sadly, I had to abandon The Sea (John Banville) halfway through. I realised I wasn't in the right frame of mind for it and was skimming through it, instead of letting the words linger and seep in. I'd rather save it for another day, another time, when I can let the sentences take complete control of me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

At Random

The bus slows to a halt at the turn under the flyover and the driver turns off the engine. The traffic is thick and we'll be here for a good five minutes, time enough for a miniature Study of Human Nature. Postures change slightly but perceptibly as limbs are stretched in anticipation of the 'long' wait. The discomfort of cramped limbs seems to double when the bus ceases to move and the wind stops swirling in through the narrow gaps between jammed panes (for most of the windows are normally closed to keep out the chill and the dust) and the frames.

An unspoken-of camaraderie, born of impatience and tiredness, envelopes the stillness, broken occasionally by a sigh or a muffled whisper into a mobile phone- this isn't the right moment for intimate conversations. We envy the freedom of those outside, helmeted motorists powering their way home as we languish within the stagnant confines of an uncomfortable bus. There isn't much to do but look around, because the lights are too dim to read by.

A stout man in a white singlet wearily hands out cakes from behind the counter of his bakery, perhaps asserting his proprietorship in the way he is dressed. A band of thinly-clad beggars straggles by, disabusing the notions of merriment that have pervaded our cubicles rigged up in festive bunting (the debris of which will later have to be cleaned up by people who know few holidays, if any). Street lights glint off the black helmets of motorists making their way home in the rapidly falling dusk, pedestrians weaving their way dangerously through the endless stream of traffic- having to wait for a break in the flow of vehicles can reduce the most optimistic person to sheer hopelessness.

The air reeks with the odour of unwashed clothes, and my suspicions of the source hinge upon the man I am sharing the seat with, for a valid reason. As he hums under his breath, he scratches his ear and moulds wax between his left thumb and forefinger, and I cannot think very highly of his ideas of hygiene. Surely his clothes have been on him for two days on end? The thick, dark stubble on his chin strengthens my suspicions.

The wait ends. The signal has turned green and the bus roars back to life. Five minutes, and I'll be home.


Two Irish writers have strengthened my faith in the magic of words, even if one Ukrainian-born award-winner tried to jeopardise it (not that it is easily shaken, so no harm done). I have recently finished two books- Troubles by JG Farrell, and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka. The first was entirely deserving of the hype and the award of the Lost Man Booker Prize (though I've only read one of the other contenders); the latter, on the other hand, seemed rather reminiscent of a soap opera full of screeching women. Farrell's style is simple, elegant and honest- there is a practical solidity about his prose that brings to life the dreariness of the Majestic- without underplaying the somewhat colourful characters- and the troubled times after the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Lewycka, on the other hand, creates a 'comedy' that is rather too loud for my complete liking. (If I don't get too lazy over the weekend, I shall have reviews of both the books up here.)

Currently, it is John Banville's 2005 Man Booker-winning novel, The Sea, which has me captivated. His prose is fascinating without being pretentious, reminiscent of a journey on a gently bobbing boat on a day that is neither stormy nor overly sunshiny, but just right.

Hurrah to words.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The End of the Week

At close to half past four in the morning, the effects of two cups of midnight coffee are wearing off, and I don’t expect my writing to be at its best. However, there is a certain kind of peace that only words can buy, and it is therefore inevitable that even at this late (or early) hour, I should find myself curled up in the smaller of the two sofas, greedily reading one of my library books.

I have spent a night at work, peppering it with generous doses of Angela Brazil’s school stories, Marina Lewycka’s slightly disappointing ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’, and J G Farrell’s marvellous creation, ‘Troubles’. Brazil and Lewycka are light reading, but even with the strain of the night bearing down upon me, I find myself most drawn to ‘Troubles’. I forget that the book is not written in first-person and that I am not the Major, finding himself drawn into the strangely absorbing whirlpool of life at the Majestic in troubled Ireland. The cover is largely blue and green, and the letters of Farrell’s name look like they’ll topple over any moment, just about slotted into place anyhow by a quavering hand. Lugubrious the story might be, but you flit to it like an insect to lamplight, knowing well that it won’t cheer you up- but Farrell’s top-notch writing keeps you pegging away at it, dreading the approach of the end of the book. The frequent references to the English cricket team playing against Australia seem like a coincidence, and a reminder of the fact that while I sleep, England will be trying hard to save face in the third Ashes test this morning.

The ‘tequila shots’ (as Airborne, coffee-drinker-in-crime puts it) of coffee come in small tumblers- we get four for the two of us, the frothy spot of milk sitting topping off the lovely rich brown of the concoction. It isn’t bad coffee, by cafeteria standards, and it keeps us going as we rant, laugh and linger at the table, cigarette smoke mixing with the mists of cool winter nights. The air is rather foggy under the lamplights, and we reminisce about North Indian winters, quite removed from the moderation of where we now live.

I’m home now, and the sky is a murky pink. I have long forgotten my constellations, Orion being the only one I can now recognise. There are no stars here today, though, and no trees nearby- no birds or the soughing of winds through leafy branches. And because blades of grass don’t sing loud enough for me to hear, all is quiet but for the abrupt screeches of distant vehicles braking.

I am entitled to my “Friday evening”, to look forward to the weekend, and this is how I do it.

PS: If there are any glaring mistakes here, do let me know. At half-past four, you don't feel entirely inclined towards editing your own tripe.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

'Room' - A Review

Irish-born writer Emma Donoghue's novel, Room, was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. It didn't win, and like any novel propelled into publicity thanks to its appearance as a contender on major prize lists, had its fair share of fans and disparagers. Despite all the hype surrounding it, though, Room does come out as an honest novel, deceptively simple, but in fact possessing a depth that reminds you of life as it used to be, before you stopped letting the wool be pulled over your eyes and decided to open up to reality.

If you've forgotten the first time you visited the beach and the various sensations the pricking of the sand underfoot and the tang of the salt-air evoked, then Room will remind you of them. Swinging in the park, making real friends out of cartoon characters on television and forming an instant camaraderie with total strangers will no longer seem like childish pursuits to be looked down upon the length of adult ego-sized noses.

Having lived for five long years in one eleven-by-eleven cork-lined room, Jack is unaware of the world outside. Everything on television is just fantasy, his long-suffering mother tells him, to snuff out any craving he might have for an impossible whiff of fresh air or a romp in the streets. Their captor, whom they call Old Nick, visits them almost every night, bringing them supplies, taking the trash out, and then 'making the bed creak' while Jack stays closed up in the wardrobe until it is safe enough for him to scramble into bed beside his mother. Life goes on thus, until one day, Jack's little, room-sized world is shattered by the revelation that there is an 'Outside', that television isn't all fantasy- Dora the Explorer is, but not the men and women and children, the aeroplanes and the birds. What Jack and his mother see through the skylight actually exists, the objects whose names Ma keeps forgetting are real, and she has a name- two names, in fact- for the rest of the world to call her. For a child born into captivity, fathoming that the various planets on television are in fact all pieces of one large reality isn't easy.

When Ma finally reaches breaking point and makes a daring plan that she and Jack call their 'Great Escape', he is extremely nervous. He has to be 'scave'- brave though he is scared- and rescue his mother from the clutches of their captor. But things don't just end there, because that'll mean opening the door to reality, to a world that Jack is unsure of entering. And while Jack runs in pursuit of liberty, you find yourself egging him on, hoping and praying hard that he’ll make it safely into the arms of a trustworthy adult.

In Room, Donoghue makes you see the world in a way that you used to, through a pair of forgotten lenses buried deep inside but fished out with urgency as you realise that there is much that should be valued but is taken for granted. You warm to Jack instantly as he describes his life alternating amid Wardrobe and Bed and Skylight, his personification of all the objects around him, even as the existence of real people outside seems like a mystery. Inspired by the horrific Josef Fritzl case, Room portrays brilliantly the horrors of a life that most of us would struggle to imagine. Told entirely in Jack's voice, it is innocent and devoid of any frills or sensationalism.

There are instances towards the end of the book where it seems to lose a little steam and the tautness of the narrative seems to slack away a bit- however, as you read about Jack and his mother coming to terms with change and absorbing the ways of life around them, little by little, you cannot help but put yourself in their shoes. You do wonder at the tremendous intelligence of a boy who has lived a confined life for five years, exposed to the world outside only through an hour of television everyday and the five picture books he has obtained for ‘Sundaytreat’. Most of it seems to draw from real-life incidents across the world- they are shockingly many in number- and the powerful imagery Donoghue evokes brings credibility to the story.

Touching without being unnecessarily dramatic, Room is a strong recommendation if you're looking to fall in love with writing all over again.

PS: This is probably the first time I've read a novel in its year of publication, and I have my library, JustBooks, to thank for it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Thirty Years in Neverland

If I could save time in a bottle, I'd choose to borrow a time-machine first and travel back around twenty years to when I had just learnt to read. I wasn't much of a fan of colouring- though I liked collecting crayons- but I loved the splashes of brightness on the pages of comics. The speech balloons were invariably ignored as containers of serious, unwanted information, all concentration being devoted to pictures. And, of course, Tinkle was the comic that won hands down.

To this day, when I visit a book-stall at a railway station or on the pavements, my eyes skim past the rows of glossy magazines with photographs of larger-than-life celebrities on their covers, seeking the warm colours of that one comic that brings back waves of nostalgia of the years when life seemed more wholesome and complete than it does now.

Tinkle is 30 years old. It may not be as delightful as it used to be- the curse of modernity- but it is still relatively innocent and earthy, a breath of fresh air in the midst of pretences and the frightening race for an early adulthood.

Which Tinkle character/story lingers on in your head all these years on?

Monday, November 29, 2010

A City with Character

For a city bursting at its seams, the streets of Lake Market, Calcutta, are unusually quiet. The brilliant yellow taxis, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, make only sporadic appearances on the tree-lined roads. Green and yellow autorickshaws splutter past arrays of bouquets, funeral wreaths and dyed flowers (where else on earth could you find a parrot-green bunch of petals?). Tinny-looking buses- which seem to be gingerly held together by a handful of bolts- rumble by indolently, window-panes missing, variously-clothed elbows shoved out through the bars; the names of the origins and destinations are painted on the sides of the blue and maroon bodies in loud, curly-edged fonts.

In these quiet streets, time has come to a standstill. It is a Sunday afternoon towards the end of November, but it feels more like spring than winter- the end of March, perhaps, when the cold season departs reluctantly, lingering longingly in its favourite patches while the firm, lengthening arms of the sun nudge it away. Old-fashioned, stately bungalows cast their sleepy eye upon the loitering rickshaw-pullers who rest in the meagre shade of the slim trees that bend their supple bodies to the song of the wind. Who built these houses, and when? The slatted windows speak of a different era altogether, and the old man in a dhoti and vest, thick glasses perched on his nose, might well be a surviving relic of the days that live on only in the mottled yellow pages of old books (and on the screen of a Kindle, perhaps). An elderly lady, wearing a discoloured white saree in the traditional Bengali style, shuffles down the pavement. This street is vintage Tagore, and as I stand by a dripping hand-pump on which some homeless crows take refuge, I cannot think of a more effective way of time travel.

Calcutta, in many ways, has withstood the ravages of time. The grime of decades lies so thick on some of its buildings it can probably never be washed away. Broken balconies bend under the weight of decades of footsteps. There is a timeless grace to this city that endows it with a character of its own, unlike others that succumb to the lure of snazzy modernity, often bereft of any identity or uniqueness. I haven't seen much of Calcutta, really- just seen a battered tram or two, caught a glimpse of the Victoria Memorial and been driven a short distance by a paan-chewing taxi driver from Bihar who spits out red squirts with clockwork-like regularity while talking politics. I've seen the soot-blackened facades of shops in the New Market and the relentless crush of people milling around in every inch of space available. Through the crowds and the sticky heat, though, you sense the throbbing that drives this city and puts things together in its own sometimes ramshackle way, keeping the wheels turning with the occasional glitches.

I might have stepped right into the midst of two rallies, one led by the Trinamool Congress and the other by the Communists, but we'll leave politics to another day. At any given moment, I'm sure Calcutta will impress you as a city with a heart, amen to that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lifting Spirits

I have a mortal dread of elevators. No traffic, precipice or liberally-potholed road gives me more jitters than a closed elevator, so cramped and gloomy that the idea of a dungeon with bread-and-water begins to sound like Paradise in comparison. I might have to travel ten minutes or an hour through thick, honking traffic to reach home, but the worst part is almost always the eternity-long journey in the elevator up to my seventh-floor flat. There was a time when I enjoyed riding up and down elevators in shops, but that was when they were scarce- when do we ever want anything once we have plenty of it?

This particular elevator isn't the most modern of its kind- Elisha Otis himself would have shuddered it, because though physically safe, it isn't the best capsule for a tired mind winging its way home. Its walls are painted reddish-brown, just a shade lighter than the black on the doors. Profanities (more morally corrupting than the Rani heart-pierced-with-an-arrow Sunil kind) are liberally engraved on the paint, covered over, engraved again with the kind of determination that, if only displayed in more useful pursuits, would have allowed us to bid for the 2012 Olympics. Anyway. The only window to the world in this elevator of ours is the narrow dusty corona between the fan on the roof and the circular aperture it is set in. All you can see through this gap are grey-brown ropes, from this angle looking much too flimsy to be able to support potato-chip-and-soda-nourished weights. The only good thing about this lift is the privacy it affords- so you can pretend to be Vanessa Mae, play air-guitar, or waltz in the arms of an imaginary (or real) partner without fear of being found out. For when the elevator does stop, it does so with a noticeable convulsion- enough time for you to unentangle yourself from those imaginary (or real) arms and put on a poker-straight face, whip out your glasses from the cavernous depths of your handbag and assume the impression of a hardworking, ill-used software engineer with glazed, unseeing eyes.

Visitors to my flat will testify to the unholy claustrophobic gloominess of this elevator, and how it can drive you to hitherto unknown levels of temporary disturbance. (I have been known to talk to the fan in the lift, pitying it for its loneliness, perched up there amidst the grime and grease.) It also has a tendency to halt at the fifth floor for no reason. When it jerks to a stop and the doors slide open in a sinister manner, they reveal, almost always (only because nine of ten times cannot be an unqualified 'always') a nothingness, backed only by white walls. I jab frantically at the button to draw the doors shut and retreat into the unspirited safety of my four walls. The ride further up gets progressively eerie, because at half-past four in the morning, the slightest movement in the shadows is an impetus to an active imagination. Two floors up, the doors slide open, the familiar carpet appears and ground underneath- I'm home.

There was one occasion, though, when I was scared out of my wits as I stepped out, singing to myself, only to be confronted by the surly neighbour, who isn't the genial old 'Uncle' of books, but someone who grudgingly responds to your hello through set teeth, eyes boring into you as if you were a vile worm (I'd like to use the 'If looks could kill...' line, with a clever comparison, but looks can't kill, so I don't see why I should bother). On this particular morning, he was carrying a small brass plate with camphor burning on it, dressed in a dhoti and angavastram, looking askance at me as I almost bumped into him. I mumbled a greeting and walked away- spirits are trouble enough, without having to mention people. I turned the key and walked into my house, to the peace and quiet of wide spaces and large windows.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

There was a time when I used to await the postman's arrival eagerly. In the late nineties, when emailing hadn't quite caught on, and in the early part of this decade, when a friend and I refused to succumb to the impersonal, frighteningly quick transmission of events that took much longer to transpire, I looked forward to finding a thick envelope in the letter-box. I'd tear it open eagerly, trying to be as careful as possible but soon giving in to curiosity, leaving unsightly gashes across the envelope and leaving it just about fit to return the letter to for future sessions of re-reading. You know those lovely long afternoons when, on a sudden fit of inspiration, you pull out old stacks of paper from dust-laden shelves, intending with uncharacteristically stern resolution to throw away everything that you don't need- and at the end, the pile would perhaps be just a couple of sheets thinner, and you'd have ended up a lot richer for it. I love reading old letters- they carry the whiff of sky, sun and eucalyptus-scented winter breezes, of a childhood happily spent.

And now, while I don't have a postman to wait for, I do have another messenger- the man who delivers my books from the library. I love the texture of the plastic-covered, well-preserved books as they are pressed into my hand, more often than not new and unread (which is when I'm grateful for Chetan Bhagat's popularity); I sit down with them, puzzling over which to begin, admiring the covers, studiously avoiding the blurbs and saving the introductions for the last. (I have discovered spoilers in introductions earlier, and because I don't quite like skipping them, considering someone has worked hard on them, I just leave them to the end.)

So now, tantalisingly piled up on my bookshelf, lie Alice Walker's The Color Purple, a Rabindranath Tagore omnibus and Pallavi Aiyar's Smoke and Mirrors, a book on China that I've been wanting to read for very long. Lovely how you stumble upon books you really want.

Time, then, to set the pile receding.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What do these nights remind you of- these warm tropical nights, when perspiration trickles down your back in thin streams and your thin shirt scrunches up in sticky folds? The monstrous old fan huffs and puffs, hot dragon-breath trying hard to suck the beads from your forehead. You don't nuzzle your stained teddy bear as the night wears on- growing into the night, growing with it, its magic absorbing you, like life soon will. Your sheets are pooled around your ankle, kicked away in impatience. Is this how eager you are to go out into your new life, too, away from all you know now, familiar and loved though it might be?

When morning arrives, you will be a child again, rubbing the sleep from your eyes with your closed fists, faking a stomach-ache to get away from school. And maybe, just maybe, I'll let you stay home this once- some years on, you will not be able to, much as you wish. Run wild through the waving fields, soar away with your imagination into those vast blue heights, be one with those colourful kites and see the world as you want it to be. Because when you grow up, you'll realise that all that you were promised as a child doesn't quite exist.

Should I prepare you for deception, then? I'd rather not. There is nothing like a stash of childhood dreams and memories to draw strength from.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

When Billy Joel is reduced to comparison with Justin Bieber and Stephanie Meyer rubs shoulders with JD Salinger in "best books" lists, you really have to stop and wonder what the world has come to. Deification is not just for the gods any longer- you just have to be beautiful or write and sing about beautiful (as defined by society) people, and make plenty of money, to induce mass hysteria. It isn't just absurd, it is also deeply saddening.

Many-Coloured Splendours: Gangtok

The driver arms himself with a sackful of potatoes from Lachung and off we go, back to Gangtok. I look at the mountains, now hidden in the thick cloudy mist, that I feel like I’ve known forever. I cannot tear myself away from them, but leave I must.

Dusk falls in an hour or two after we set off, and the driver negotiates the tortuous slopes of the Himalayas in near-darkness. The Seven Sisters Waterfall, vibrant with human voices added to its relentless gush on our upward climb, now has nature’s night music for accompaniment. The tea stalls are shut, their proprietors walking about briskly in the cold air, and the prayer flags are no longer visible. For all we know, we could be driving down a road never traversed- and we still wouldn’t realise it.

The jeep halts suddenly and a torchlight is flashed through the windows. The tension inside is palpable- but then the man holding the torch grins broadly, says something in his language to his friends, and our driver steps out for a laugh with them. A collective sigh of relief is heard, confused questions are asked, and once again, a little weary, we’re on our way to the capital.

The fairy-lights of the city come into view, spread across vast Himalayan slopes. It stretches out into the distance, wide and endless, even as we dip into one trough and emerge onto another crest. Dropped off at the “bus-stop” where all the jeeps to and from major towns in the region converge, we make our way up a steep, moss-covered flight of steps- there are narrow stairways connecting one street to another all around town- to Mall Road. It is past eight o’clock and the last of the souvenir shops are preparing to wind up their business for the day. A teacher in a red cardigan over her synthetic saree shepherds her girls down a narrow lane to a hotel hidden in its recesses; a schoolmaster asks his restless students to line up so he can conduct a headcount. We find a vegetarian restaurant and finish dinner quickly. There is one dream yet to be fulfilled.

I go to the balcony in the morning to be confronted by a strikingly beautiful view- where clouds have swirled for three days now, mountain peaks now stand out in snow-covered glory, their peaks softly tinged by the first rays of the sun. The sky has been washed clean and is deliciously blue- our last day in Sikkim is one of the finest the town has seen in a while.

We take a taxi to Tashi Viewpoint, and our garrulous driver sets off at breakneck speed, anxious that we should make it there before the sun comes out or the weather stops behaving. All through his hurry, however, he talks rapidly, his left hand gesturing and waving as he frequently takes it off the wheel to establish a point. He is a practicing Hindu, he says, but was born in a Buddhist family, where the norm was to give one child away, male or female, to the monastery. His elder brother is a monk. He points to the shiny prayer wheel on his dashboard, a ubiquitous presence in cars in the region, and talks of its powers- about how it must be blown on by a monk before its effectiveness can be made visible. He shows us his house, and the school where his son studies. All along the way, we see children trudging up to school, some reluctantly, others nonchalantly; a little boy opens a bottle of mango juice and pours some into his younger sister’s mouth, giggling at a secret joke they share meanwhile.

We make our way up to Tashi Viewpoint, and from there, magnificently rising into the clear skies, I see the Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. It is in fact a series of five peaks, and they spread out gloriously on this cool, crisp morning, unencumbered by their burden of clouds. A tour guide tells us of people who have been visiting for days for a glimpse of the mountain, but returned crestfallen each time, defeated by the weather- we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been blessed with such brilliant skies. And so I do- every inch of these ancient mountains teems with life, and to be able to see them in their full splendour, bathed in sunshine, is to have an imprint etched in my memory, one to pull out of the closet every time the question of the purpose of life nudges and haunts me.

Our final stop in Sikkim will be the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Ranka, an offshoot of the one at Rumtek, the monastery at the heart of the Karmapa controversy. We are delayed by an altercation between the drivers of two vehicles which have brushed against each other, taking the entire thoroughfare ransom- our cab-driver gets out to talk to them and manages to placate them. “Men from my village,” he explains, as he gets back in and drives us up the road that sweeps into the monastery gates.

A long line of dark prayer-wheels greets us. We are told to touch them, one by one, before we go up the flight of steps to the monastery. It is a graceful, red-roofed structure with a spacious courtyard, at the end of which is a brightly-painted wall. We greet the two monks seated near the door and they invite us in. We are directed up the steps to the large hall where Buddha, serene and beautiful in His golden form, flanked by other deities, looks upon humanity benevolently. The profound silence seeps is overwhelming, and I think of this quiet temple, tucked away in picturesque pockets of the Himalayas, cut off from the bustle of the world below. The corridors are lined with closed rooms, warmed by the mild sunrays that slant into them. Young monks learn their lessons, talking to one another in hushed tones, smiling, giggling- but there is also an air of grown-up wisdom about them, perhaps endowed by the discipline and the maroon robes. We can hear lessons in English from a classroom window- a disembodied voice talks of rising early and sleeping early, and a group of boys repeats after it. Behind the monastery, the ground slopes up further to another building that we see monks walking up to, going uphill effortlessly. Tall trees canopy the sky- what a beautiful place this is in which to learn and live- it must be so much easier to be good here than in the unholy machinations of the plains! The older monks tell us the monastery is twenty years old, and follows the principles of Mahayana Buddhism- differing from the Theravada form of Buddhism that is practised widely in Singapore, where I had my first tryst with the religion. We request them to light a butter lamp for us, because the lama is not around, and they agree to do so.

We slip into the souvenir shop, where, as we look around, we have a conversation with a Tibetan man who used to be a monk, but now helps out around the monastery and teaches children. He explains some of the characters on the scrolls in the shop and asks us about our stay in Sikkim. He is genuinely pleased when we tell him how much peace we’ve found here, and shakes hands with us as we leave.

This also marks the end of a fulfilling journey, my first visit to a tiny bit of the little-explored Northeastern parts of the country- and nearly a month on, the hangover has still not subsided. The Himalayas still populate my dreams, rising grandly into the clouds and blue skies, some with sunshine and shadow chasing each other on their green slopes, others coarse from erosion and showing off snow-speckled surfaces. The river Teesta, meanwhile, flows silkily through the valleys, fed forever by the melting ice, pure and crystal-clear. This, after all, is what will remain when we have managed to self-destruct with all our callousness- rigid testimony to the history of millennia.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Edge of the World

At half-past five in the morning, the sun is making ready to climb into the sky, and there is enough light by which to watch the mountains take on their distinctive shapes, after the single continuous blur they seemed to have been in the darkness last night.

As I stand on the narrow staircase of the guest house, I see snow for the very first time- and oh, what an exalting feeling it is. That very moment, knowing I am in a nondescript village deep in the Himalayas, eyes resting on snow-capped mountain peaks, I feel as if there is nothing more I’ll ever need to ask life for. In a while, the brilliant white snow will seem to rise from the peaks in a drift of smoke, the clouds weaving themselves gently about the mountain-tops like the train of an unusually long bridal gown. Now, though, the mountains stand proudly stark, save for their only adornment of a fine layer of snow. The sun lightens the sky gradually and casts a sheer golden web over the mountains; as we nurse our glasses of tea, we watch the spectacular play of light on the mountains, the snow now glinting with an added fire.

We are driven off to the Yumthang Valley. A lady in blue looks out from her verandah and I wave to her- she inclines her head and smiles prettily. This has to be said about the people of Sikkim- they are very warm and friendly, right from the boys working at the small hotels and tea shops to the young monks studying at the monastery- they give away their smiles and laughter readily. They are well-informed and talk without inhibition on various subjects. When asked if Sikkim had always received enough attention for development and growth, the proprietor of a tea shop tells us how the government has redoubled its efforts at building and maintaining roads and other infrastructure in Sikkim, “jabse China chhedne laga” (ever since China started messing with us). We meet a local who, when told we are from Tamil Nadu, tells us about his son who studies engineering in Chennai. Taxi drivers give us lessons in Geography, discuss religion, family and politics. The laidback pace of life sucks you in, but you know that underneath the seeming placidity, there is a great deal going on, healthy ambitions ripening.

Further up through the mountains we travel, jolting over rugged, sometimes non-existent roads, we pass signs for rhododendron trails and bump over pebbles on the beds of transparent little streams. More snow-clad peaks come into view, gleaming iridescently as the sun gets stronger, despite which, a chill lingers in the crisp, fresh air. We stop by a slope that leads down to one of the tributaries of the Teesta, quite surrounded by the rugged Himalayas. I look at the rosy-faced young Tibetan women who run the tea stalls and envy them for actually being able to live here, amidst this natural magnificence; older women in traditional clothes with leathery, wrinkled faces shuffle back and forth from the wooden tables set up in front of their charcoal-warmed wooden cabins, selling souvenirs and warm clothes. Yaks chew cud on the grassy slope, and we pick our way through yak gob down to the pale blue-white river swirling cheerfully over smooth white pebbles. I cup my hands and take a swig of the clear water- it is deliciously cold and unsullied. A little boy collects tiny stones and skips them on the water. Quiet and pure, this could almost be a place on another planet. I don’t have the heart to leave.

But move on we must, and we’re back in the jeep and climbing again, clinging closely to the narrow “road” where one misstep could hurl you to death instantly into the deep, plunging valley. You can well feel your heart in your mouth when two vehicles try to pass each other in opposite directions on one of the tight hairpin bends, and once the obstacle has been cleared, laugh shakily and throw Sebastien Loeb a challenge- with your driver at the helm, of course.

We drive past little patches of newly fallen snow that still haven’t melted. Vast expanses of snow cover the grey, rocky faces of some of the mountains we pass. Approaching a height of nearly 15000 feet, we come across army barracks- a grim reminder of the inhospitable conditions that our soldiers fight in, another reason to question the reason for war and the thirst for territory.

We are at Zero Point, the tip of North Sikkim, right at the border with China. It is extremely cold, and the strong breeze is freezing our hands and noses and lips. We can hardly talk for the cold, and our fingers tremble as we try to hold our plastic coffee cups. A couple of soldiers are getting ready to drive away, but when we request them for a picture, they readily oblige. Once more, we cannot help but marvel at their tenacity as they struggle in difficult conditions so far from home and their families, working endlessly at the borders to ensure the safety of our country.

Snow still lies in mounds or in crevices between rocks, and I finger it gingerly in my ungloved hands. A little snowball fight ensues, and soon we are packed off in the jeep again- it is just too cold up there. However, the spectacular views of snow-shrouded mountain peaks more than make up for all the discomfort.

I have seen the Himalayas and marvelled at them- but I still haven’t had a glimpse of the crown jewel- the Kanchenjunga. It will have to wait till we’re back in Gangtok, though, and then, the skies will have to be favourable and we’ll have to appease the sun. For the first time in my life, I’m wishing the rain clouds away.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Funny how you just need an unfairly forgotten relic from your closet to remind you that your best days aren't past you yet, no matter what the world might insist on saying. You're just as much a girl as you ever were, and always will be.

This is what I'm talking about. At twenty-four, I'm still capable of curling up with a fluffy doll I bought last year- it is dusty and unwashed and has the odour of unused clothes about it. But I can bury my nose into its soft head and it won't complain. Its nose is flat and ridiculously violet. Its eyes stare without expression and it is quite drained of colour. But does that matter when it is a much-loved toy, or for that matter person, that we're talking of? It holds many memories, and is storing up some more even now as it lies placidly on my lap.

I'm reminded of the story where a boy had to have his beloved stuffed hare (?) taken away because he was ill- oh the touching simplicity of childhood! A link to the story will be much appreciated- I can't seem to be able to find it.

The rain is pattering on the sunshades where the pigeons roost- where will they sleep tonight? Do they have memories to help them through the storm?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

9600 Feet Above The Sea...And Counting

Also posted on The Weed Joint

The road winds up into the Shivaliks, seemingly curving into their heart- the city of Gangtok is sprawled across these lower reaches of the Himalayas. It is still only October; when the cold months arrive, a bed of snow will flake the twinkling fairy lights of this hill town.

We walk down MG Road, Gangtok. How different it is from its namesake in the cities of the plains, a colonial reminder of the years gone by, the quintessential Mall of Himalayan towns. You can almost conjure up images of British sahibs and their elegantly dressed wives trotting up and down these hill roads, looking for respite from the searing heat of the plains. (All you need, in fact, is a haunted dak bungalow to complete the story.) Today, it is a paved road only for pedestrians, lined with Bose loudspeakers on lampposts, leading past a line of restaurants and shops selling clothes, electronic items and all sorts of curious artefacts to a nondescript, dank movie theatre. It is close to eight o’clock at night, and a cloudy mist settles over the town, people reduced to blurry shapes as they walk by. The shops are winding down for the day, and some already have their shutters down. Darkness falls as early as 5 pm, and it is only natural that the owners of the establishments here would want to go home to their dinner before yet another bright and early start the next morning.

We are in bed soon, too, because we have an early start ahead of us. We are taking a jeep to Lachung, a village in North Sikkim. Most places here mention the district on signboards- everywhere in and around Gangtok, the boards tell us we’re in East Sikkim.

A punctured step-knee means we’re delayed at a repair shop for about an hour. It isn’t a traditional garage- a man carries the tyre up a few steep stone steps to the courtyard of his house and works on it. From where we are parked, there is a brilliant view of a mountain-top, diaphanous clouds crowning its crest, a few girls in blue uniforms walking up to a small building perched on it. The hillsides bathed in yellow sunshine sprawl beneath us, dotted with variously coloured houses, the Teesta flowing further down on its ancient bed. Imagine waking up to this view every morning, instead of the jagged squares of white-hot sky and concrete that most of us are accustomed to!

We set off a little while later on what is going to be the most spectacular journey I’ve ever been on. The road hugs the mountains constantly, and thanks to the numerous landslides that occur in the region, is more often than not in a state of repair. The jeep jolts over rock and stream, coming precariously close to the edge from where there is only a sheer drop into the valley. The clouds cast large swathes of shadow over the rolling dark hillsides, and the sky remains placid and blue. Thick-skinned, rather furry cows graze on the hillslopes, and I see a few birds I cannot recognise. On and off, the hills break into a riot of colour, the grasses red, brown and green, speckled with bright flowers.

We stop at a couple of waterfalls on the way, rapidly gushing foamy streams of water that will meet one of the tributaries of the Teesta- at these heights, far from the swirling madness of the plains, quite untouched by human hand, everything is clean and pure.

Darkness is falling, and the eerie atmosphere is accentuated by the relentless trilling of insects. We stop for tea- fragrant, sweet and milky, most of it comes from Darjeeling- and are soon on the last lap of our journey to Lachung. The mountains are now just large, looming shapes in the dark, shorn of friendliness or any emotion whatsoever. As we climb higher up, lights flicker on in the valley sporadically, and we marvel at the tenacity of the people who choose such distant, almost isolated places to build their homes.

Stars sprinkle the velvety darkness of the sky as we reach our guest house in Lachung. We cannot see much at this hour, but we notice quite a few houses and a splendid monastery. As we step out of the jeep, we feel the biting cold of the thin air- at an elevation of 9600 feet, you sure feel the difference. The rooms of the guest house are sparely furnished, and the few men in attendance have quite a bit of rushing around to do to accommodate this new batch of guests. A hot meal of rice, dal, potatoes in gravy and cabbage awaits us, and we turn in early- not that we need much coaxing into bed. Tired out by the long journey and eager for an early start to the Yumthang Valley, we ignore the mosquitoes and hit the sack.

Onward to Yumthang

Friday, October 22, 2010

The sky is pale pink and white. Greenish in another part of the city. The moon peeps out from within its layered quilt of grey and white, cocking its head at the sleepless gaiety of people reluctant to go to bed this Friday evening. There is a nip in the air, winter is sending out its feelers. Flimsy curtains billow in the wind, the sails of the adventure-packed dreams of armchair travellers and keyboard traversers.

Here, I have neither mountain nor sea. What I do have is an imagination. And that bright star in the sky agrees with me.

PS: Can you even imagine a world without Ruskin Bond? I greeted the Himalayas like old friends during my first ever trip to them, and I owe it all to him.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

To Gangtok

Also posted at The Weed Joint.

Even as the train pulls into the railway station at New Jalpaiguri, I can feel the excitement building up. The dry heat of the plains has been long left behind, and though the sun is a bright circle in the sky, the weather is more forgiving than it was the previous evening at Kolkata. The humidity has been sucked out of the air, and on either side of the track as the train wends its way to this pretty little door to the Northeast, lush green fields catch the first rays of the morning light. Men are out for their ablutions, dark specks squatting amidst the waving crops. The inevitably dingy railway-side towns are passed, their soot-blackened, featureless faces staring out endlessly at the multitudes of people who pass them everyday. The walls plastered with movie posters and painted with advertisements for TMT bars, cement and footwear are a blur of colour and the angles of the Bengali script. At the railway crossings, forced into patience, people bend over their bicycles, waiting for yet another train to pass by so they can get on with their work.

At NJP, we board a jeep that will take us to Gangtok. This is a journey that, on good, flat roads, could be completed in about two hours. It takes us nearly seven, thanks to the rough terrain, a long lunch break when the driver went missing, and traffic jams on the narrow curves of the mountain roads.

But I don’t really mind it. The road first takes us through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, bordered by sturdy tall trees, an indication of the Alpine vegetation that is soon to follow. I keep my eyes peeled, hoping to sight a protected animal, but the disappointment of not seeing one is overshadowed by the delight of being driven down this road so marvellously shaded by trees benevolent and imposing all at once.

The road then begins to slice through the Himalayas, hugging the hillsides closely as the Teesta begins to make an appearance, a constant companion all the way up to Gangtok. It curves sinuously over its grey-white sandy bed where trucks lie scattered, picking up quarried stone. It is a river of many colours. Muddy brown at first, it changes to a clear blue and then to green flecked with white as it gurgles and splashes through the Himalayas, appearing startlingly from narrow niches in the mountains and flowing down in transparent clarity over bubbles and rock steps carved out in the hillside.

Being in the Himalayas is like feeling a prayer. There is no other way I can describe it, the absolute bliss that descends upon you once you are wrapped almost inextricably in the folds of these mighty mountains, as old as time itself. A sense of insignificance takes hold of me, and I succumb to it willingly- it is a humbling experience to be overwhelmed by Nature, akin to being felled by the enormity of star-sprinkled skies or the endlessness of the ocean.

Higher up, a new world begins to take shape. Houses perch on ledges cut out of the hillsides, prayer flags become ubiquitous. The red temple on the lower reaches almost resembles a monastery. Up here, there is a gentle confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism, made evident by the dashboards in jeeps where an idol of Ganesha reposes by a gold-coloured prayer wheel. The plants turn distinctly alpine- taller and with differently-shaped leaves, some grey from the dust from the mud roads. The flowers are bright and fresh; from amidst the creepers, a red or a white flower makes a surprising appearance. Moss-covered benches are set out at a few places along the way, and sudden foaming streaks appear through invisible cracks, the plentiful waterfalls and springs of the Himalayas.

We stop for lunch in a little bazaar set in the lee of an almost vertical mountain wall. The Teesta is barely visible in the distance through the thick green foliage; the air is getting colder. Goods that come up from the plains are expensive- “the higher you go, the costlier it gets,” explains the girl behind the counter at one of the shops, as she reaches out to a baby girl with distinct Tibetan features.

Not everything is idyllic and peaceful as the woods up in these hills. Where the roads diverge, one to Darjeeling and the other to Gangtok, a pillar bears the words, “Welcome to Gorkhaland”. Further on, more slogans on walls, banners and address boards at shops proclaim their identification with Gorkhaland. A hoarding advertises the Gorkhaland Tourist Festival. Dissent bubbles underneath the delusional calm that lies over these mountains; a few months ago, a couple of French tourists I’d met in Pondicherry had been stranded in Darjeeling due to a curfew.

Today, though, life seems normal. Without incident, we are deposited in Gangtok- and this is a world that I’m unaccustomed to, that I look forward to exploring.

A Vacation Well Earned

I'm back from my delicious, but extremely short, vacation. Ten days passed by in a whirlwind, and all I'm left with now is a store of memories, but oh, what a treasure chest it is! And so it is bound to be, if you get your first glimpse of the mightiest mountains on the earth, put yourself in the midst of a festival which is an exhibition of grandeur and crazy creativity, and walk down the aisles of the school your father passed out of over forty years ago.

I have my hurriedly scribbled notes beside me, whatever caught my fancy written down on three small squares of paper in a jeep jolting over uneven terrain. Some of the stories are in my head- conversations with the locals, ready smiles, lights and colours that no camera could ever capture. So I'll begin from the beginning, and describe my vacation right till the end.

May patience be your cherished virtue.

Here are a few road signs from the unforgiving mountain roads of Sikkim to kindle your curiosity, reproduced more or less as they were printed on the boards:

On my curve/Check your nerve
Reach home in peace, not in pieces
Safety on road is safe tea at home
It is not ralley/Enjoy the valley

And on I shall go to my Sikkim story, setting my mind in rewind mode and reliving those fantastic few days in the mountains.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Saving the Commonwealth Games

Enough has been said, but evidently not done, about the Commonwealth Games. You wouldn't have needed an astonishing amount of foresight to predict a few months ago that procrastination and corruption would ruin India's coming-of-age act; that the target audience is a handful of countries that comfortably excludes some of the major sporting giants, the USA, China and Russia among them, is a different matter. What we would have liked to see was the top runners, most of whom come from the Caribbean countries, and other major athletes lend their names to India's first major sporting event. (No, I don't consider the Afro-Asian games big enough.)

Despite all the logistical problems and the concerns over large amounts of money being siphoned off to unheard-of quarters, perhaps it wasn't unrealistic to expect that somehow, at the last moment, the people in charge would pull themselves together to present a decent front and save the country from getting lambasted in the world press. I should have known better. Admittedly, there has been much embarrassment over the way the Games have been handled, and the people involved in the fiasco need to be pulled up as early as possible. However, in a country where traditionally justice has taken long to arrive or sometimes been entirely elusive, does it make any sense to call for a mass boycott so that the oversized egos of certain individuals are ground to dust, and those of others satisfied in the bargain?

When experienced politicians like Mani Shankar Aiyar and the "face of Indian writing", media darling Chetan Bhagat ask the public to oppose the Games to bring to book the parties that have brought so much disgrace to the country, I am left wondering if they have placed their brains in cold storage. Tourism isn't expected to bring in much revenues, thanks to all the negative press, the fears over filth and disease, floods and security. So do we really need a handful of smug, self-satisfied men, secure in the knowledge of their own standing and celebrity, to go around asking people to ignore the Games because, well, that's our answer to corruption and mismanagement? Really, now, this coming from individuals who are broadly considered intelligent leaves me genuinely confused- are we really hoping to solve the problems of this country with such ease?

How is this going to affect India's image? We need to ensure Bernie Ecclestone knows more about the revenues than the debacles; the future of motor racing in India could be at stake. Convince foreign tourists that the pictures of the Games Village were doctored. Filth? What filth? Your idea of hygiene isn't necessarily mine. A collapsing bridge or roof is just a minor glitch; if people are injured in the process, we could always give them a compensation and pose with them by their hospital beds.

The Commonwealth Games don't appear to be doing anything for sports in the country. With top athletes from around the world pulling out, the field has weakened considerably- so how much can medals be valued? Not taking anything away from the sportspersons who are braving all the negative publicity and ploughing on under obviously difficult conditions, the main idea of any international sporting event should be to have the best names compete against one another- an aspect in which the Delhi Games can be said to be heading towards failure. And if hygiene, sanitation and the quality of the infrastructure are the worrying factors, then four years is indeed a short duration. Inherent discipline is key, something that we seem to lack in quite a few areas.

If the Delhi Games, with their dubiously large budget, help us pull ourselves together and remind us of all that we're not but aspire to be, then it would be money well spent, and we could also rapidly erase the images we're currently flooding the world with. There are certain chronic diseases we need to eradicate- the sooner, the better. But boycotting the Games is not an option- we're not going to present a disjointed picture when a good chunk of the world has its eyes on us. Let the people with political vendettas and faux-intelligent personas froth away to glory.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Winters And Libraries

What sucks you into the past, drawing you inexorably into a vortex of mismatched memories pulled out of forgotten niches, a patchwork quilt of uneven squares put together effortlessly without your knowledge?

A little while ago, thanks to an untimely power-cut, I ended up on a chair by the open door, reading in the light from the corridor. A familiar fragrance hit me hard- a perfume I've used earlier, I think, but it was so strong and so pervasive that I was rather distracted from my reading, riveting though my book was. It carried the memories of a particular winter when I'd used it, also reminding me of welcome mild sunshine on misty mornings, yellow sun-dappled patches and moving cloud-shadows on rocky hills. Grumble as I might at having to force myself out of the sheets on cold, unforgiving mornings, I love winter.

I have been reading almost all day today, and now I am on the smaller of our two sofas, leaning against one armrest, feet propped up on the other. A chill wind, reminiscent of distant winters, blows in through the wire-mesh across the window. Of the jumble of winters in my head, the one I remember most clearly is that of my last year of school- when I had a complete volume of Sherlock Holmes presented to me (yes, I was quite old by normal standards when I read Arthur Conan Doyle) and I dipped into it, one story a day, eyes straining at the small print, nose burrowed in to take in the intoxicating fragrance of paper and print. I’d run my fingers over the illustrations, feeling the sticky texture of the inky black figures, losing myself in the lamplit fogs of Baker Street and London. I’d pick the stories out by title, trying to guess at their propensity to intrigue and astound. Exoticism helped, of course, and terms like “Greek Interpreter” and “Red-headed League” were met with eager curiosity.

That was a winter when my grandmother stayed with us. For some reason, it stands out in my memory. Was it the happiest winter of my life? I was preparing for my Board Exams then, so it wasn’t a particularly exciting period, but there was the feeling of standing on a threshold, girlish hope meeting serious ambition, the sense of a milestone about to be crossed. I was definitely nervous, but also quietly confident. Yes, I’d like that winter back- life has never been quite the same since then, ever since I finished school and entered the hellhole of Junior College amidst people so parochial they’d give the khaap panchayats a run for their money. And no, there isn’t any flippancy to this statement, because it is true, and I was extremely surprised, that even to this day in India, the girls of a college can be forbidden from standing on a balcony for some fresh air; the boys in the opposite building had full freedom to do as they liked, of course. Wear your dupatta this way so you are properly covered up (a group of seductive temptresses that they considered us); don’t talk to boys (a sure way to have the most serious aspersions cast on our characters); don’t go home even if you are very ill- all that matters to us is that we can use your rank in the entrance examination to rake in the money.

The long hours of grinding notwithstanding, I had to have my books. I’d strain my eyes on the bus to catch those few precious minutes of reading. A break from studies meant going back to Rob Roy’s adventures or Buck’s travails- I loved my books with a fierce intensity then, because they seemed the only thing to look forward in that bleakly competitive period, where people fought for dubious laurels and the only skill respected was that of learning by rote.

There, I’m done ranting. Now for a bit of excitement.

I enrolled with Just Books yesterday, the library in the neighbourhood (and I’ve been living here five whole months!), and came home with a rich bounty. They have almost every book that would, in a bookshop, result in a double-take or a sharp intake of breath when you look at the price tag warily, with one eye open, hoping it won’t cross that Scrooge-worthy budget of yours- because, after all, you are a girl of slender means (thank you, Muriel Spark!). I’ve chosen the option that allows me to order books online and provides home delivery and pick-up, twice a week, and I get to borrow four books at a time. So I have a fleeting feeling this is going to work out more conveniently than it did in Singapore- plus, they have a magnificent collection. There is no cap on the amount of time you can keep the books for (which detail I’m not going to succumb to- I want to get through as much as I can quickly), and one round of cursory browsing has already sent me into a dizzying spell of indecision.

Here is my first reading list:

Disgraced - JM Coetzee (finished in one sitting today, review coming up soon, though I suppose I’ve already dropped a hint now about what I think of it)

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (reading it now, and I think it’s going to be fantastic)

Three Cups of Tea - Greg Mortensen/David Oliver Relin (Airborne's recommendation, looks promising)

Nine Lives - William Dalrymple (which said Airborne has already staked a claim to, and that I have yielded to him without a murmur of protest- partners-in-crime deserve some gratitude at times)

Whoever says that the Kindle and all other fancy electronic devices spell the destruction of books has his head screwed on in the wrong place.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Never Judge A Book By Its Movie"

So said JW Eagan, quoted on one of my bookmarks from Crossword, and I agree wholeheartedly with it. A stack of DVDs isn’t on my “three things you’d take with you to a deserted island” list- I like cinema only in moderation, because it somehow seems to drain my reserves of patience (and I take the blame). But there is hardly anything as off-putting as a horrendous movie made out of a perfectly good book.

It is almost criminal to watch the movie adaptation of a book before having read the book itself. Reading is an impetus to the imagination, and it is the prose that is supposed to create the first impressions in your head-this is also the measure of how successful an author has been in impacting your thoughts. Succumb to all the hype of a movie before you’ve read the book it has been adapted from, you’ve almost surely lost the excitement of the richness of language and characterisation which drew such overwhelming images in a person’s mind that, incapable of suppression and containment, they spilled onto the screen. I floundered through the movie adaptations of Wuthering Heights, Mansfield Park and Rob Roy- finishing none of them- but ravenously devoured the books.

That said, there have been a few adaptations that have made a successful transition to the screen from paper. The eternal tearjerker Little Women was almost- certainly not entirely- loyal to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, but I’m thankful I read the book first; I wouldn’t have wanted Winona Ryder’s (then) rosy face interfering with my own picture of Jo. Into The Wild was just as good in its sincerity, but I’m glad the first images of the forests, the wildernesses and the people Chris McCandless met were in my head- even though it was a real-life story. Middle Earth wouldn’t have been as mysterious and darkly beautiful if I’d seen the Lord of the Rings movies shot in the more homely locales of New Zealand first.

The movies the actors choose to do later, and their real-life adventures splashed across newspapers also ruin it for me. I really don’t like to believe that the protagonist in the Twilight series (need I explain further?) was the thoughtful young woman who McCandless almost fell in love with. Ryder, troubled and accused of shoplifting, couldn’t have been the merry, still-tomboyish Mrs. Bhaer, could she?

Then there is the publicity. I would have enjoyed Ice Candy Man more if Deepa Mehta’s characters- omnipresent on television when 1947 Earth was released, thanks to relentless promotion- hadn’t superimposed themselves on the faces I was gradually painting in my head. My copy of Vanity Fair has a photograph of Reese Witherspoon and her corseted cleavage on it. Is she to form my idea of a character as vivacious and interesting as Becky? I think not, for I certainly trust Mr. Thackeray‘s capabilities better- I’ve covered the book in paper and shut out the names of the cast, the director and the costume designer. If the wise mothers and chaperones talk of sprigged muslin, I’ll figure out for myself what it is, thank you very much.

The day I decide to turn the awe-inspiring Mexican story The Power and The Glory into a movie, I’ll let you know. But you’ll be allowed to watch it only if you’ve already done Graham Greene the courtesy of reading the book. For in this case, it is extremely evident which one came first.

Monday, September 06, 2010

'Unaccustomed Earth' - A Review

Cross-posted from The Weed Joint:

Some people never come to know a home.

Home isn’t always the brick-and-mortar structure where you took your first steps as a baby, played hide-and-seek with visiting cousins, did your homework as you struggled through the inevitable monotony of examinations and classes, wept into the pillow over the spurning of your crushes and had the numerous ‘final’ arguments with your parents about your decisions- before you gravitated back of your own volition.

Home is about wanting to belong to a piece of earth, to identify with something so strongly that it reverberates in your being no matter where you are, reminding you constantly of where your roots were first laid, before you were uprooted without knowing what the future held. Home is what you choose and which comes to your mind first- much like religion and the identification with God.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s third book, is a simple, beautiful nudge in that direction, trying to make sense of the confusion of being uprooted. This collection of short stories, crafted with unforced elegance, describes the sceptical migration, and eventual acceptance, of an unusual environment – the first few months of confusion and homesickness, the process of settling in, and often the resignation of first-generation immigrants, even as their children grow exceedingly comfortable with their new surroundings. Letters fly back and forth between Calcutta and the US, vacations are undertaken with solemn regularity- a few months of redemption from alien customs- as the children continue to outgrow their already tenuous bonds with their parents’ homes, the visits begin to grate on their nerves as time passes.

Lahiri’s prose is exquisite- never unnecessarily voluble or complex- she writes with an empathy perhaps born of experience. Her characters are very real and honest, their aspirations reflective of what we often see- the need to get into an Ivy League school and study a course that will please their parents, to drink alcohol on the sly, to try and make sense of the slick “arranged marriage” machinery that spreads its tentacles even in a foreign land, thanks to the omnipresent mashis and kakas of the neighbourhood. She writes about Bengali families and their fixations, the fragrance of her ancestors’ culture pervading the stories.

Stories about the Indian diaspora aren’t uncommon. Lahiri, however, endows her story with soul and that much-sought-after quality of re-readability. Sometimes, yes, the characters' lives do seem to resemble one another too much- but this might be viewed as a reflection of the universality of certain situations in life. Unaccustomed Earth, with its intelligence and searing insight, makes it a sheer pleasure to read, setting it apart from anything else in its league.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Night Soliloquies

They choose to spam my inbox.

Learn a foreign language in ten days, they say. Yes- why should I spend a lifetime mastering Latin and ruminating over sarcophagi when I can choose to zip through a crash course in French? Find yourself a date pronto and settle down in life- choose from a pool of eligible singles over 50. I don't bother to open the email and check the gender of the offering. "I want to talk to you"- says one, in the tone of a solicitous Godwoman, one who will step out of the screen any minute with a grave face and long, bejewelled hands and hold mine in hers. "Let's pray." Thanks, but no thanks- I don't belong to the Julia-Roberts-snap-conversion league. My loyalties don't change overnight, and certainly not if they decide to paint a caricature of the nadir that my life has sunk into and promise redemption before I finish typing this line.

At a quarter past two in the morning, the trees come into life. Birds don't have to worry about sinning, the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, do they? The cold wind slaps across my bare arms as I walk down to where a few bleary-eyed young people are waiting, my companions for the twenty-minute journey home, all waiting to shut their minds off and get into bed, even as the driver sets off on yet another of his sleep-deprived trips.

The roads are quite alive- this is when suspicious bundles sheathed in tarpaulin and plastic whoosh their way down state highways, the "Hum Do, Hamare Do" signs obscured in the night, the colourful symbols painted across the trucks to ward off evil now mere silhouettes that gleam only when surprised by a streetlamp. Hindi film music swells from the front cabin of one of the trucks that passes us on the way; psychedelic lights changing colours, a slightly evolved version of the rubber horn drowning the shrill love-stricken notes of the singer. An orange dot glimmers in the dark depths of the cabin- white threads curl tenuously away from it, the puff of victory, the satisfaction of having declared who the roads belong to.

What lurks in those shady corners, what makes the trees tremble so with sudden indignation? Every footfall and whisper is amplified manifold, the faces I see in the guarded light of the night I may not recognise in the brightness of day.

And I like nights all the better now for the way they keep their secrets.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

I now work unearthly hours- 5.30 in the evening to 2.30 in the morning, coinciding with the more humane 8-5 EDT in the USA.

And some people who know how I survived the perils of four years of engineering persist in asking me if my work is similar to what people at BPOs do. These are the members of the 'Put-them-down' club, who do not care to respect people's professions, to whom all that matters is the prestige of the title and the hefty amounts of money to be made by selling their souls.

What I do isn't BPO work- and when I say so, I can see the people asking the question pull a face and insist that it is. Okay- and if it is? I wouldn't be embarrassed about it. I don't understand the scorn that accompanies the question. What is wrong with working at a call centre? It is a profession like any other; why should youngsters staying awake through the night be looked down upon by this 'respectable' crowd that has hot food on the table at the right hours?

We're creating monied circles, people making quick money and barely learning to respect other people on the way. While we prosper, we cannot bear to see other people around do so- the only way to have a good night's sleep is to prove that what we do is infinitely superior to what those around us do, and there is nobody quite as capable as our daughters or brothers or favourite nephews. So be it. And there will still be a group of people, quietly persevering, trying to set things straight. A minority, of course, but present nonetheless.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Without embarrassment, I'd like to mention that Airborne and I didn't make it past the prelims of the Bangalore round of the Tata Crucible quiz. We got 7 of the 25 questions right, mixing guess-work with common sense, and we were absurdly pleased with the fact that one of the teams which made it to the final round had scored only 16- we were almost halfway there! No, it isn't a great piece of statistics for the record books, but we were thrilled about having cracked a few decent questions, despite not being regular quizzers.

On Friday, we attended the prelims of the ConcernIndia quiz- again, not a great outing, considering we got 13 of 30 questions right- but it was an exciting experience. just There are few things in life that come close to the satisfaction of an answer well worked out.

Airborne, here's to more quizzing- and maybe a final round appearance or two!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


The bus trundles into the city just as the sun begins to struggle its way through the clouds and I feel the difference. Bangalore's unbroken skyline of glass and concrete, the result of an almost rabid, ruthless growth whose only aim seems to be to blank out every trace of tradition and history, gives way over a journey of ten hours to a timeless city that is in no hurry to grow out of its skin. I'm in Hyderabad.

The muezzin's calls to prayer rise over the roar of traffic and impatient honking; spanking new specimens of modern architecture take turns with graceful domes and minarets in their quest for the sky, their motives carefully demarcated. Smiling families look down from hoardings at the lonely old bearded man sitting in front of the meat shop, his dhoti tucked up between his legs, looking out at the road despondently as he awaits business. Boys perch precariously on their bicycles as they manoeuvre through dried slush and narrow gulleys, the result of the heavy rains of the past week.

The arrival of the month of Ramadan is evident. For a change, the self-proclaimed merits of Hyderabadi biryani are relegated to second place as Haleem signboards pop up indiscriminately, on the walls and in the hands of young men outside the restaurants and dubious food stalls. Rows of lights adorn shop-fronts, men in white caps and knee-length kurtas mill around the mosques freshly re-painted green and white. Ordinarily placid streets are packed with pedestrians trying not to get run over by cars with bumpers kissing and two-wheelers fitting into abnormally tiny gaps, the bustle of Ramadan mingling with frenetic last-minute shopping for Raksha Bandhan.

I ride through the familiar lanes with old friends, and unwelcome doubts assail me. Do I miss Hyderabad? Why do these roads that once seemed jaded and devoid of charms suddenly seem spellbinding? I know. It's that old trick that the mind and the heart conspire to come up with, that disillusionment that hits you like a hurricane and throws all semblance of sense out of gear. It is absurd to compare the known streets of Hyderabad to Moroccan souks, but that is where fantasy decides it wants to go, and I shall let it wander thither. Of what use is an imagination if you don't let it run wild, especially when all else is so rigidly held back by unreasonable restrictions and rules?

And then, as the bus wends its way through the tree-lined streets of Bangalore on my 'homeward' journey, I realise that what I felt in Hyderabad was, indeed, a momentary restlessness- I don't despise the city any longer, but what I'd felt for it over the weekend was just a nostalgia-tinged infatuation. I might want to live there again, but not right now. Neither city has been able to give me what I seek- but because I'm still discovering Bangalore and have a little faith in the nooks and crannies I don't know of yet, I hope to come one step closer to that elusive thing without shape or form that lingers within my grasp, and yet refuses to let me close my fingers upon it.

Stubborn- that's what life is.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


One opinion, strongly expressed, has caused quite a storm in a large number of literary minds on the veracity of the accolades bestowed upon some distinguished writers. I’d like to see Indian writing caught in the throes of one such vigorous debate some day, with readers bewildered by the sheer quality and variety of work at their disposal.

Anis Shivani, without mincing any words, has launched an onslaught on modern American writing. Here in India, or even in the UK, as is evident from the comments here, the writers in this list may not have been much heard of. I admit to having read only Jhumpa Lahiri from amongst the authors Shivani lashes out at; and I've heard of Amy Tan, but that doesn't really count, does it?

A large amount of causticism has been poured into this article, and it isn't hard to agree with the fact that the proliferation of platforms for brazen publicity has led to a good deal of mediocrity being stood up on a pedestal and worshipped with unrestrained devotion. Does that inevitably lead, however, to a lack or loss of willpower to revolt against whatever is shoved down our throats as acceptable and deserving? A critic's opinion isn't the last word- surely we know how to think for ourselves and make our own decisions on the merit of a book, without succumbing to a more learned/degree-endowed person than us. Criticism shapes opinions, yes, but what is the yardstick that applies to a good critic? Look among the comments in the Guardian link referred to above, and you will find unsparing disparagement heaped on Dan Brown (some readers even use the looking-down-their-royal-noses tactic of having forgotten the name of the author of The da Vinci Code). Stieg Larsson, going by the thread, is headed for the same brand of literary infamy a few years down the line. Which brings to mind Chetan Bhagat, in our context.

Indian writing, and indeed, any English writing outside of the USA and the UK, is hardly referred to in these columns. Readers have been asked for recommendations on underrated writing here- sifting through the comments, I picked up only two Indian names- Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy. A grudging mention was made of Aravind Adiga as a writer who failed to justify the hype. Vikram Seth was dismissed as dull. (Digressing, a few European authors whose works have been translated into English have been suggested, which makes the comments quite a treasure trove of probable good reads.)

Indian writing in English aspires high, but seems to flounder by the way and lose sight of its destination. You don't necessarily have to write an immigrant story to be recognised by the rest of the world, just as you don't need a Nobel or a Pulitzer or a Booker to place a final seal of approval on a piece of literary work and parade it as being something worthy of global attention. Most Indian writers who have a fairly wide reach abroad seem to tell stories of cross-cultural acclimatisation or indulge in a bit of India-bashing, dredging up sensitive subjects that fetch much international mileage and make the world turn superficially horror-stricken eyes on a country that forever escapes its comprehension, whose tenuous balancing of modernity and tradition obfuscates it. Occasionally, something as incisive as Animal’s People is written- but this is a story where the big players will have to share some blame and turn contrite- not comfortable enough for the collective conscience of two continents.

It may not be a conscious attempt at derision, but it is quite difficult to fathom why not enough writing out of India finds a global audience. Why does nobody discuss Tagore in the same breath as Dickens? It isn’t always necessary to write about people and places that are largely identifiable- science fiction isn’t based on credibility, Graham Greene probably had never been inside a temple or within the narrow streets of a colonised village to enable him to find delight in Malgudi. Tagore was humane and sympathetic, and quite often tragic- adjectives that are often attributed to Dickens as well. Why, then, don’t they enjoy an equal amount of popularity among lay readers abroad?

If the present state of writing in India has anything to do with distorting the image of English works produced here in general, there couldn’t be a bigger disappointment. Most Indian writers who find mention among global readers have had some degree of international exposure. What we need, perhaps, are down-to-earth sensibilities. This is where Chetan Bhagat, as I grudgingly admit, scores- his books are extremely affordable, and a bit of smart marketing has helped him strike a chord with a large Indian audience. Either substance or adroit marketing isn’t an option- it never was. Thanks to the amount of hype that can be whipped up in no time, and the minuscule attention spans that we seem to have ended up with, not all honest, genuine writing seems to find its right place.

Don’t get me wrong- I don’t mean to say that finding honourable mention in a British or American newspaper is the only measure of quality. What is most important to a writer is to write for himself- and then, if he is being published, to connect with a wide audience. It is, after all, interesting to see what it takes to transcend barriers and find acquiescence among distant voices. Critics and high-brow readers set their own rules. We don’t have to abide by them, nor do we always have to play to the publishing gallery. We do need to remember, though, that we’re more than shmaltz and garish weddings, poverty and social taboos. We have good stories to tell, and we can tell them extremely well.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

One Day of Life

I wake up to confusion. I cannot remember if I’m being jolted out of a dream, but I don’t know where I am, how old I am, or where I’m supposed to go. I vaguely recollect the striped white curtain and hear motley familiar sounds- the clank of utensils, the dull roar of the elevator, the cooing of pigeons. Soon enough, though, visions and voices unentangle- I’m in my room, where I ought to be, in this home of four-and-a-half months. I’m supposed to go to work, not to college. I don’t have licence to turn over amidst the blankets for one more nap. I hoist myself off the bed. I don’t know if this addled beginning to the day should make a difference, but my sensibilities feel sharper and keener than usual, seemingly hammered back into shape after weeks of nonchalance.

There is nothing unusual or remarkable about work today. The hours slip by with clockwork-like precision as I settle down for the grind in my cubicle, wishing for less noisy colleagues- or perhaps a room of my own- and walk to meet friends for breakfast, lunch and coffee. I drop a word of encouragement here and a compliment there, all entirely on general matters. Out on the roads, I espy a group of corpulent men in dark suits being driven around in electric cars, their pink faces puffy under the Indian sun. Almost all of them are rotund, the mark of a comfortable middle-age stamped on their brows. They are men who enjoy hospitality, write reports, and convey ideas to those who make caustic comments back home that’ll please their people and put them on the path to majority in the next election.

On the bus home, I read Paula- a memoir by Isabel Allende- written to and for her daughter lying in a coma induced by porphyria and an apparent overdose of sedatives. It is shattering to see the amount of pain a person can be put through, and the faith and courage demanded of the family caring for her. Is life indeed as challenging as this? In a way, I will be glad to get home and reach out for Nietzsche. I mean to read a chapter a day, because I find in the words of Zarathustra answers to a few of the questions I’ve been grappling with.

Home. As I change out of office finery into clothes that will bear crumpling as I curl up on the couch, I hear a furious rattle of tricycle wheels on concrete- the last laps of the day are in progress and the race is being closely fought; the culmination of a hard day’s play in pitched battles for supremacy, when mothers and grandmothers begin calling, eyes looking askance at the deepening twilight. The sky shows off its spectacular colours. Unknown hues of mauve and blue tinge the softly piled mountains of clouds, a chignon on the naked pink nape of sunset-kissed smoothness. The pigeons, having let off the last of their eerie, blood-curdling shrieks, have gone to roost on the window ledges like rows of inanimate effigies, a slight flutter of the wing or an inadvertent adjustment to find a more comfortable perch being the only sign of life.

I dump a large heap of clothes into the washing machine and turn it on.

Dusk will be here soon in its entirety, swallowing up the blasé screams of over-indulged children and tired parents’ futile efforts at resistance. My roommates and I will sit down to dinner in a while, I’ll hang my clothes out to dry, do some ironing for tomorrow and then go to bed to read more about the horrors of porphyria and a loving family’s patient struggle with it.

Life isn’t an interminable wait for weekends and the final rest. Dissected, minute by minute, there is a great deal to it- something that it takes a searing, momentary loss of all cognisance of reality, to recognise.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Good Things

I soar and glide to the bus, the softly-falling rain aiding and abetting my flights of fantasy. Walking is for mere mortals. I step into shallow puddles and the water swirls underfoot- it doesn't bother me. I glide. There are days (and evenings) when all seems right with the world- even with a dreary, gloomy sky reminiscent of the macabre darkness when the Nazguls flew down to attempt a defeat the good and the brave. Call me eccentric, but the blue night feels like adrenaline, a spurt of mysterious energy shot into enervated veins. Your face is a beacon in the night, easily spotted for all its plainness, an ethereal glow suffusing the spirit but also manifested corporeally.

A well-stocked refrigerator, along with a periscope-glimpse of a rainbow and a recently replenished bookshelf, helps matters.

There is no state or level of despondency that a succulent piece of chocolate cake, laced in unknown pockets with the richest dark chocolate icing, cannot cure. It surprises you with the absolutely numerous ways in which it can be delectable- and you don't tire of it, not of one reasonably-sized piece, crumbly and cool, generously sprinkled with nuts (and hazelnut in particular). You eye it with unabashed greed as it sits on a dish beside you, diminishing gradually as the spoon digs into it with unstudied eagerness, satiating and filling, the divinity of the epicure.

And now, as a chocolate-smeared dish is all that remains of the feast, I can sink into my couch and read into the night. A spot of unexpected shopping on Saturday has set my bookshelf creaking. Added to the pile now, after I stumbled upon the half-concealed book fair without a name and only a cloth banner to distinguish it from a warehouse, are JG Farrell, Isabelle Allende, Annie Proulx and Nicholas Mosley- a motley selection of recent writing (compared to the long-gone people I normally take refuge in). The 'book fair' was in a large room lined with tables and shelves. Erotica, thrillers and candyfloss romances with risque covers took up quite a bit of space- and after I'd patiently waded through the not-so-appetising fare, my patience was rewarded. I delved into the rows with delight- I played the pick-up-and-drop-in-favour-of-something-more-appealing game, upped the number of books I could purchase without contrition and left with a glance of fond regret at the ones I'd put away. It's about as painful as looking into the eyes of a wounded animal.

Tonight, though, it will be Life of Pi- and off I sail on the choppy ocean, rain drenching me body and soul, a tiger for company.

(Digression: Wikipedia tells me Nicholas Mosley is the half-brother of Max Mosley, once President of the FIA. What a small world!)

Sunday, August 01, 2010


Here's an impetus for me to continue building my castles in the air- sometimes, they turn into reality.

One of my old stories sees the light of day at a place that isn't my blog-, published on Aug 1.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Nondescript Bookshelf

A few months of extreme bibliomania have filled my narrow bookshelves to overflowing.

Technically, I don't even have a bookshelf. When you're sharing a flat with other people, you tend to forego certain privileges. I make up for the lack of space by crumpling up my clothes anyhow and jamming them into tight wads in the cupboard so that I can devote some space to my books. That the clothes are barely fit to be worn when taken out later and need quite a bit of patient ironing is a different story- rather that than silverfish fattening themselves on the precious pages of my books.

Another shelf where my books are piled up in chaotic fashion is prone to dust- this is where the not-so-new books go. On blue nights, though, this is what I like best- going into that tiny room which is occupied by two large study tables, an ironing table and a stand to dry clothes on. I shut the door and feast my eyes on the variously coloured and textured spines, swell with the pompous pride of possession. My fingers hover on one book, and then another- seductively ranged out that they are, where Dracula draws my attention one moment, I'm suddenly lured by Madame Bovary the next. I have the comfort of knowing that if this shelf doesn't satisfy my needs, there is another waiting in the wings. Books to dig into and lose myself in, one for every shade of the day- because when did I ever go through twenty-four hours without having a dark cloud loom ominously over my mood and then seeing a bright streak of glorious moonlight break through it?

My bookshelves are my vanity, as I unabashedly admit. But because the primary purpose of my books is to be read, I don't feel half so bad about my spending sprees as I might have if I were shopping for a bottle-green spine to go with the cream walls- or whatever it is that a colour coordinated person might choose. Books are not ornaments. I like having my bookshelf piled high and wide because it delights my soul. Nietzsche and Wodehouse might be unlikely bedfellows, far apart in nationality, genre and epoch, but put beside each other here, they feed and delight my soul.

I do enjoy peeking at other people's books on the bus or on the street, staring at the volume tucked under somebody's arm and observing the person so keenly I might be mistaken for a stalker. I like to know what other people are reading and be introduced to writers whose existence I've lived in blissful ignorance of. I cannot imagine a world where there isn't a book waiting to discovered and devoured or a new person wanting to connect with you through pages of print made strangely personal.

Friday, July 30, 2010


"Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!" - 'Thus Spake Zarathustra', Friedrich Nietzsche

I long for the sea.

As the rain builds up halfheartedly from the wayward drizzle that it was a few minutes ago, and the bone-chilling wind rattles the window panes, I want to feel the sand being pulled from underneath my feet. It is yet another form of dispossession- a reminder of the transience of life, the memento mori that keeps you from falling on the wrong side of the wall. In my head, I see the dark, velvety sky generously speckled with stars and unfurling into the distance, kissing the crests of the waves. Silky skeins of moonlight dapple the black waves, silhouetting the anchored ships like phantom vessels returned from an age long forgotten.

The sea has a soul. It fills the universe with its incessant murmur, swishes around my feet and caresses them, transports me into giddy heights of satiation; the discordant voices in the background and the chaos of traffic could be from a parallel universe, for all I know and care. A salt spray tinged with the odour of fish wafts into my nostrils, the stars beam their beatific light upon my upturned face.

Have you known the dance of delight and fury of the sea, the tepidity of waters that unexpectedly send a shiver down your spine? The foamy breakers come to rest around jagged, mossy rocks, seeking a moment of peace and rest before they are caught up in the sea's wild orgy again. The sea is life.

And I stand on the shore, city lights forgotten, primitive and one with a past that lies dormant in my breast, tearing frantically at invisible curtains and cords. I want to match my voice to the sea's alternately eerie and soothing roar, let it ring uninhibited through the wide open spaces. Isn't this where we came from? Weren't we better off foraging for food than we are now, complicating our lives as we overload our platters?

The sea speaks to me-

You are the vine growing against the weathered wall and humbled by its plainness. You are the parasite and the host it feeds upon. You are the personification of vanity and desire, a facile object of mirth in Nature's hands. Above everything, though, you're an island.

Once here, you make the best of the devices at your disposal. I can shut the raucous crowd out with my thoughts, keep the necromancer at bay with my own powers. I can conspire with Nature, but I must be wary of her because at the slightest sign of presumption, she can do a volte-face and disown me with ruthless abandon. Complain peevishly about the futility of life, an ambulance will tear by at breakneck speed, lights flashing and siren wailing urgently. On a day of the brightest rainbow fancies, the pillow will be steeped in tears by nightfall.

Foolish, fickle and fragile though you are, you're here for a purpose. Connect, and you'll know.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Please learn to let go.

If I make a mess of my life, let it be my mistake. Let me learn from the bruises that I choose to inflict upon myself, not the ones that you unwittingly scar me with. A cushioned, blinkered life never got anyone very far; if you think that is the antidote to all evils, you're wrong- remember Siddhartha?

There comes a point when we all choose to make our own decisions and abide by them to the very end- right or wrong. I'm at the crossroads, and this time I'll have my say.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


So one day I decided
That I'd pluck you out of thin air
Here's the thing they'll envy, I declare
I'll deck you in finery

You shall come to me bedecked
Simpering, ready to parade
Twirl on my arm and promenade
Drink, my pretty, of glory.

Momentary, it shall be
See it if you please, and you'll know
You, my trusting fool, take the blow
After basking in moonshine.

No, it won't be long before
You learn your lesson the hard way
Weep for that sordid, lonely day
When I stripped and lay you bare

Cavorting to my music
Dancing in the rain, for them to
Feast their many lustful eyes on you
Till it grew too hard to bear.

You'll accuse me of misleading
A heart that has known not sorrow,
Fear, pain, a bleak tomorrow-
Don't- for I am not to blame.

You chose to be tempted away
To trust me, whom you hardly knew
Into my deception you flew
For lack of better judgement.

Now, rest the lament and rise
And though things can fall back in place
Do remember my cunning ways
For I am whom you call Life.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Being Jo

Little Women might have been criticised by quite a few people as sappy and sentimental, but to me, it still remains a comfort book. I first read the abridged version when I was seven; the shock of my English teacher when I was in middle school at none of us in class having read the full book spurred me into embarrassed action. It then rapidly turned into one of my favourite books, and to this day holds its place in the list.

You don't have to be a wild, heedless girl of sixteen to identify with Jo; the very idea of harmless romps with the boy next door, the constant scribbling, the tempestuous outbursts of a fiery hot temper and the immediate need to make up are still very much me. Jo built fantastic castles in the air- so do all of us. The March family is human- and as I spent the better part of this afternoon skimming through Little Women and Good Wives, I felt my more unrealistic notions ebb away and sense close in on me.

The sense attack notwithstanding, I cannot for the life of me imagine myself in one of the roles the March sisters played- unselfish and angelic like Beth, or fretting over a baby on each arm like Meg, for instance. My imagination will need to be churned and wrung around a good deal to make it capable of conjuring up images of wifely behaviour and patient, devoted motherhood. Jealousy, for now, is my biggest weakness, and I don't see how I'm going to overcome it soon to be a model of good behaviour. I cannot, in a whole lifetime, see myself doing anything to be famous for after I'm long dead and gone. Mirages of the future don't show me responsible, dignified adults- I see my friends and me just the way we are, carefree and enjoying the guilty pleasures of minor rebelliousness.

I got myself a green-and-white copy of Little Women a few years ago at a sale- it is the book I'd bury my head in on a long, lonely night of despair, when life seems to lie ahead in endlessly bleak years. I must have shed numerous girlish tears for Jo, lamented her marriage to old Prof. Bhaer, triumphed everytime she got published, blushed whenever she wrote sensational nonsense that would sell. It is the book to up my spirits whenever the doubts start to creep in, when further anonymity seems like the only antidote to an already nondescript existence. It is like the stranger's smile that warms your soul- no compliments, just a flash of kindliness. Like the rainbow that rewards you with its pale splendour after you've trudged through pouring rain and are drenched and cold.

I know I'm slipping deeper into idealism, but for now, just let me be.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hair-Raising Tales

Think of birds being led to their death, crammed into coops or hung upside down on bicycle handlebars, wings flapping incessantly, feathers drifting off to lie on the dust and be crushed under an assortment of wheels.

Leaving out the exaggeration, walking to the beauty parlour, for me, is an act that requires a great deal of courage. Most of my few trips to these unearthly places have been as a source of moral support (?) or in the role of a nonchalant yes-woman to friends. In my short career as a beauty-confidante (for lack of another term), I have offended girls by not knowing that they'd gone and got their hair cut even after they carefully unravelled it and pointed the new shape out to me. Finally suspicious of my judgement when I was stupid enough not to tell a straight eyebrow from a curved one, they decided to leave me alone to loiter through dusty lanes and malls while they pampered themselves in claustrophobic rooms that smelled of sulphur and shampoo, and where the air-conditioner was almost always turned off.

Beauty parlours lack variety and scope for imagination. The shelves are invariably lined with containers of various shapes and sizes and nailpolish bottles in bizarre colours. The tables are littered with fashion/women's magazines, pouting women with outlandish hair-dos and half-closed eyes revealing coloured contact lenses looking lazily out of the glossy pages. They wear clothes that you wonder how they managed to get themselves into- were they sewn into them?

An overdressed, highly made-up woman sits at the reception, points at a brochure and asks you to choose the style you want- even if you were convinced ten minutes ago that you never could be a Gisele Bundchen, some smooth talking would turn you around with the alacrity of a suave politician. You go in to get your hair trimmed, your pimples and blackheads will be scrutinised, your feet will be commented upon, and your self-esteem will be torn into nice little shreds. Dignity, mercifully, can be bought, and you will lay your wallet down on the counter- take all you want, and give me my pride in return. How can I go about with a face pitted and cratered like the moon, the curse of puberty? Guiding angel, I've been walking around for years without knowing how ugly I looked- but for you, I'd have lived in horrifying ignorance.

So, this afternoon, when I left my hair at the mercy of the lady at the beauty parlour, my heart was in my mouth.

"What shape do you want me to cut it in?"

"What will keep the length intact and still make my hair look good?"- because, at that point, my hair rather resembled an unkempt jungle.

"I'll give you a U-cut." And that was that- a quick decision. It wasn't going to be such a big ordeal, after all; certainly not as bad as going to the dentist. I wouldn't have any fringes and layers in my hair- it would still be fit to tie back in a ponytail. If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is hair flitting around in my eyes. For what joy do people have strands cut so short that they keep falling across the forehead and into the eye at inconvenient moments, only to keep pushing them back with a manicured forefinger? Oh. That must be it.

I eased myself into the large chair trusting her implicitly, my hands clasped under the big black apron, my hair never having looked as glossy, luxuriant, and make-Rapunzel-jealous-worthy as it did at that very moment, cascading down in thick waves ( a hyperactive imagination might have helped- even so). I barely stopped myself from jumping out of the chair and tearing off the apron- I thought of Jo March who had sold her hair to the wigmakers' so that her mother could have money for her father wounded in war. I didn't have any such noble intentions in mind, of course, as vanity stepped into the fray at the right moment. I began to enumerate the advantages of easy-to-manage, slightly shorter hair, even as the scissors began to snip in quiet, sinister swishes, hair dropping softly to the ground (which I imagined I heard). I dreaded having to get up and look at my only vanity strewn on the floor- I could have howled at the sight of it when I finally got off the chair. What kept the floodgates in control was my friend's encouraging smile; I had dragged her down to negotiate with the ladies at the beauty parlour who might, in a fit of perversity, have wanted to brutally chop my hair off and reduce it to a scarecrow's mop.

I still don't know clearly why I wanted my hair cut- it now looks frighteningly cared-for and orderly, has lost the unkempt attractiveness of wild growth (even if I'm the only person who thinks so), and doesn't touch the floor when I lie down on the couch. Considering that it grows reasonably fast and that wild horses will not drag me into a beauty parlour for another year at the least, I am reconciling myself to it.