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.