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.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

A little green plastic card shouldn't feel like an inseparable part of life. Why should things seem to hinge upon it when, in fact, nothing does? But turning it in for good seems like an act of finality; tacking that final nail on a box of surreal, extraordinarily good times and adventures that were once dreamt of, to shove it into the attic of a cherished house that I'm moving out of, but will have to keep visiting against my will.

Memories are a curse. I cannot imagine I've spent so many years building them up- and still continue to, piece by piece, knowing there'll be more pain than reassurance whenever I decide to fall back on them. That's the way of the head and the heart, though- they only pretend to be sensible. Pragmatism flees when challenged by emotion. Things, memories- we cannot help but cling to them.

And yet, memento mori.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Everybody's Main Street

Sometimes, the words can’t wait to fly out of your soul. The soul, yes, that is where they reside- the brain and the heart are too commonplace for something as profound and mysterious.

I must write about this book, though I haven't reached the end yet. I am into the last fifty pages of Main Street, at last on my way to finishing a book that has gathered dust and biscuit-crumbs and slowly started to go dog-eared over the months, despite all my attempts at saving it from ruin. My efforts consisted of everything but actually trying to read it.

And now, as the clouds suddenly open up for five minutes after a morning of indecision, I am glad I decided to finish the book. I started it last December- and at a reasonable length of four hundred pages written in simple, uncontrived language, it wasn’t particularly challenging in terms of length or style. However, there was a sort of claustrophobia about it- a tiresomeness, the identification of Carol’s character with the life that a number of us are trapped in, the ambitions we set out with and are discouraged in pursuit of by baulking influences that don’t even deserve a place in our stories.

When a city-bred girl comes down to a village and tries to metamorphose it with her grand ideas and bring it up to speed with the cities, of course she isn’t looked upon with indulgence. Carol falls in love with and marries a doctor from Gopher Prairie, filled with maidenly hopes and ardour, but as the days wear on, she realises the chasm that lies between his dreams and hers. She is attracted to other men, questions her faithfulness, and almost always finds under their various facades an unappetising monotony, the acceptance of circumstances as they are, the reluctance to step away from all that is comfortable and familiar. She hopes of replacing the grime and the grey sullenness of the town with spanking grandeur- but it never was easy to awaken a sleeping giant.

Carol shuns the interferingly kind matronly crowd and the malicious gossipers- a perpetual layer of dust and antiquity seems to lie over the streets of Gopher Prairie, which makes it only natural that the slightest degree of polish, rebelliousness and sophistication in a newcomer warms her heart towards him/her. The drama clubs and the book societies are deftly taken from her hands and mauled to suit the tastes of the villagers- no breath of modernity or broadmindedness is allowed to reach them. A woman who reads a lot and dares to find love outside her marriage is to be regarded with scorn; it doesn’t matter, though, if a group of married men chooses to pitch camp outside the house of a single young woman at night- she can conveniently be accused of being a flirt and corrupting their minds. A drunken young man cannot misbehave with a woman he has escorted to a dance- it is she who has got drunk and seduced him.

The women are jealous, the men indifferent- an air of languor lies thick about the village, and it isn’t just one example of stubborn inertia. It is supposed to be reflective of the American society in the early decades of the twentieth century, a study of the weaknesses that pervaded the small towns of the country- and the fate that befell the few people who stepped out courageously, brimming with hope, to change the situation.

Sinclair Lewis eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize and this is the work supposed to have gained him recognition- and it isn’t difficult to see why, considering how many of us struggle against the trappings of our own lives- not always with the endings we choose.