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.