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?