Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Grudges and Discoveries

One of the few pleasures of work is a browse at the bookstore in office. Push open the door to this other world, inhale deeply, and you immediately shut out the noise of the clanking glasses at the juice kiosk and the relentless chatter of the crowds thronging the supermarket. Lunch, however, isn't always the ideal time to go in if you fancy being alone with the books, for there will always be those idiots- yes, I said it- asking at the counter for Chetan Bhagat, when their uninviting spines are already staring them down in the face from the shelves in the Indian authors' section, ranged alongside the more smug types like Shashi Tharoor and Arundhati Roy.

It takes all kinds to make the world, though, and none of us is above the occasional leave-your-brains-behind easy read, so I'll move on to my next, more reasonable grudge- people who talk loudly on their cell phones in the otherwise quiet confines of the bookshop, or worse still, let them ring loudly on. Why anybody should be interested in their ring tones I really don't know. A bookshop should be as sacred as a library when it comes to peace and quiet, but the fact obviously sails smoothly over some people's heads, so they'll laugh and giggle and organise games of tug-of-war in the aisles when you're trying to find a quiet corner where you can forget your latest confrontation with your team lead.

Despite these aberrations, though, the bookshop is still a happy place, thanks to the discoveries you can make. You must know the joy of having coveted a book very, very long and suddenly realising that it is no longer as expensive as it once was- and then you're prepared to worship the hordes of people who've conveniently ignored Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene in favour of Stephenie Meyer. I stumbled upon hardcover editions of The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and Vile Bodies in this fashion. (Only Decline and Fall remains unbought, and I'm going to get a copy very soon.) They were sold at throwaway prices for hardcover books, the original price being a prohibitive GBP 5.99. Only Christopher Columbus could have been slightly more ecstatic when he "discovered" America, but on that particular day, you could easily have spotted the happiest person in the world.

However, I did make another discovery today which was by no means as heartening. A sudden impulse to revisit Heidi made me look up the Wikipedia page, and I discovered that its English translator, Charles Tritten, had taken it into his head to write sequels about Heidi's life as an adult, and about her children as well. I read an abridged version of Heidi when I was around seven, and Heidi has more or less stayed the same age to me. I definitely do not want to think of her as an adult with a family of her own.

One of the charms of the books we read as children lies in the eternal youth of their characters. I have never enjoyed the sequels to What Katy Did or Anne of Green Gables as much as I enjoyed these wonderful celebrations of the captivating innocence of childhood. It's bad enough for me to have to grow into an adult- so why on earth would I want to be bothered with Anne's fretting over her children's attacks of whooping cough? Childhood is about abandon and having somebody else worry for you, trusting and liking everyone you know, throwing tantrums and being ingratiated. Watching young boys and girls grow into adults in books is a premonition of the future, of the distant days best avoided as long as possible (which, with the endearing ineptitude of childhood, you don't really realise till you're a full-fledged grown-up). These chronicles of adulthood should be saved for their readers' own adulthood, when people begin asking why on earth they would want to read juvenile fiction- oh the travails of life!

Only JM Barrie really understood this, and if I knew where Neverland was, I'd be getting on a plane this very moment.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Power to the People

For a change, the cricket World Cup is taking a backseat on Indian news channels.

While the Centre and various state governments have long been guilty of or struggling with scams, corruption and social unrest, there now seems to be a sudden spurt in efforts to bring the culprits to book. Whether they will endure and be brought to closure is yet to be seen, but any step forward is welcome. However, as the investigations proceed, it is evident that the rot runs deep; the scams have resulted in massive losses to the exchequer, and with evasive replies and cover-ups, the government is not helping its cause. The Prime Minister's press conference was a disappointment. No substantial answers were received, and if anything, it only threw up more questions on the methods through which the wrongdoings of various parties would be reversed. Equating the financial losses to subsidies and pinning the blame for corruption on coalition politics are examples of a weak defence. It smacks of the idea that the only intention of those in power is to stay there at any cost, and the interests of the people do not come into consideration at all. If this is the way a democracy functions, it makes you wonder what the countries in the Middle East agitating for democracy are in for. Stabilising a democracy is by no means an easy task, and considering the responsibilities the new governments will have to take up, the road seems to be going only uphill.

Interestingly, while the Middle East grapples with political problems that involve dethroning the existing leaderships, Belgium is facing a situation of an entirely different nature. The political impasse since last June's elections has gone on for 250 days now, which means the country has existed without a government this long. It now holds the dubious distinction of having had no government for the longest period in recent times, taking the mantle from Iraq. While this has been a source of some hilarity in Belgium, it isn't quite the ideal situation, the differences between the Flemish and the French areas asserting themselves and preventing political stability. How much authority does a caretaker government assert, after all? The monarchies of most European nations aren't involved in major decision-making; they need properly elected governments at the helm of affairs, especially considering there might be important steps to be taken with the unrest in the Middle East. The volatile situation here might be a threat to oil resources and transportation in the Suez Canal. Trade will be affected, and so will the livelihoods of the large numbers of immigrants in the region. Bernie Ecclestone has indicated that the Bahrain Grand Prix, the season-opening race of the 2011 Formula One season, might not go ahead if the state of affairs doesn't improve. This, however, may only be the tip of the iceberg.

One positive aspect that the protests have made visible is the power of the media- and not just the traditional versions, but new media as well. Facebook and Twitter were used to rally support and mobilise public opinion; though restrictions were eventually imposed, it is apparent they played a huge role in helping the public channelise its hopes and ambitions.

Change is in the air, and hopefully things will take a positive turn here on. It is a rocky road and several difficult issues need to be tackled. It is important for these movements not to lose momentum but to sustain their initial enthusiasm and continue to work for reliable leaderships which will lift them out of poverty and aspire to meet their citizens' needs. As for democracies like ours, we need to ensure that the corrupt are punished and the country's wealth properly used- easier said than done, yes, but we have made a start, and there is no reason why we shouldn't keep going at it.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


I have memories of a sunshiny, airy house in Hyderabad, whose walls were kissed by the swaying branches of trees on soft summer afternoons. This house was populated by kindly spirits and filled with a quiet salubrious energy. I particularly remember a room lined with large bookcases- they might have appeared mammoth and daunting to a seven- or eight-year-old who was just learning to enjoy abridged illustrated classics, these bunches of different spines- but I also found it very welcoming and awe-inspiring.

More than fifteen years have gone by and much has changed. Two of the people whose kindness I remember from when I was a young girl have passed on. Aunty's shrikhand has sadly disappeared from memory. Uncle has left behind something more enduring- plenty of stories. I was enthralled when I came to know that this Uncle I knew was a celebrity in his own way; his stories won competitions for adults in Tinkle and were published in CBT books (an important part of my childhood reading), and how delighted I would be to see them in print! I stopped buying Tinkle a few years ago, but when I bought a copy on a whim, I'd be doubly thrilled to see one of Uncle's stories in it. And I came to know yesterday that there wouldn't be any more of them. I see a blank spot on the shelf.


His daughter is trimming her collection of books. I ask her how she can summon up enough strength to sell away well-loved books. She tells me with a laugh that she has reconciled herself to it; these are books that she has read twice or thrice every year, over many years. She is circulating the list of books she is giving away among a close circle of friends, people who she knows will care for them as she has. I've asked for some of them- Ishiguro, Dick Francis, JRR Tolkien, Sheridan Le Fanu. I don't know if I'll ever have enough courage to give up my own books. I gave away a copy of Kafka on the Shore a couple of months ago, and I still regret it at times, even though I know the recipient well and am sure that he will look after it properly.

Sometimes, though, keeping your bookshelves stocked isn't the most important thing in life.