Friday, December 25, 2009

On Writing

Every story that needs to be told has already been told. And now we're telling the same things over and over again, in different words, in different colours.

Where do I fit in? Do I have a story to tell? Does anybody want to listen? My ideas are cliched, my tone amateurish. I read what I've written and wince at myself.

Yet I need to put words down. I get joy out of seeing them there, little black squiggles on white, little bits of my soul that I've squeezed out and lined up.

Maybe that's enough, at the end of the day. But not at the end of the life. Surely not?
• • •

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Loneliness

Inspired by a couple of hours spent reading a book in the park today. Supposed to be fiction, but more a collection of impressions that a story. All characters are based on real people - complete strangers, except for a minor appearance by [drumroll please] me.

The park is cold today. The sky is dark overhead, no sunshine shining through the branches. I do my usual rounds, glad of the warm wool of my shawl, the silk of my salwar-kameez. Courting couples, a stern girl reading an orange book, gangs of boys, a family with a small muffled-up boy who smiles up at me.

I keep writing letters to you, letters I can't mail. I pile them up in my little wooden chest, one on top of the other, the older ones yellow and curling already. They keep me company these days.

There's an elderly man in a white kurta-pajama who comes every afternoon, accompanied by a teenaged boy. The boy holds the man's hand and walks him around the park a few times. The man's eyes are anxious, confused, scared. He doesn't know what's happening, why it's happening.

I've held on all this while because I thought it would be cowardice. But I'm tempted. Sometimes, I cross roads without looking either way. But always, somehow, I get to the other side. And I wonder why I did.

Sometimes I fantasize that I did die. Perhaps my body is lying on the blue road back there, streaming red blood onto the crevices. Perhaps it is only my soul, my spirit, that is walking on, unaware of the gathering people, the hushed voices. Any minute now, they'll come to take me to you. A golden chariot will land in the middle of the dirty road, and I'll ride away on it.

How does one know, anyway, when one is dead?
• • •

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Cause and Effect

Two men met under a board at a station. It was early morning, and there was no train on the platform. The two men carried identical suitcases. They exchanged them without further ado.

No on saw them. A group of coolies stood nearby, but they were busy commenting on a girl. The girl went away soon after, and the coolies quietened down.

The first man went to a room in the station house and opened the suitcase. It contained, among other things, a set of freshly laundered clothes. He quickly changed. While he was changing, he heard the train chugging into the station slowly.

He spent some time praying. The babble of voices outside rose steadily.

He came out of the station house. Earlier, he had been an anonymous man in a checked shirt. Now he was an authoritative clipboard, and a dark jacket over a white shirt and trousers. A crowd of people converged on him, gesticulating, negotiating, pleading, arguing.

The unlucky ones got seats. The lucky ones went away, cursing the clipboard and the dark jacket.

The man suddenly realized that he had forgotten the suitcase. He went back inside the station house and got it. He tucked it safely under his seat. The train left the station with a final whistle.

The second man went back to his house and opened the suitcase. The suitcase contained money in thick wads. The man had not seen so much money in his life. He went to a nearby hospital and paid a bill. They finally released his daughter's body.

A while later, there was an explosion. Several bogies of a train fell off a bridge. Others hung down from the rails, and it was like a garland of bogies on the neck of the bridge. The river was a deep one, and it flowed on, unmindful.

• • •

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life

It's been raining for three continuous days in Bangalore. Lovely wet weather. The entire world is gray, it reminds me of foggy winter mornings in Delhi, waiting for the school bus and shivering in my short skirt. But now it's seven years later, and I'm waiting for the bus that will take me to office. I tweet from my phone about the song playing in my head. I think of how much my world has changed in seven years.

Inside the bus, it's too dark to read my Murakami. I settle back with headphones plugged in and the music on shuffle. The first song is Blue October's 18th Floor Balcony, which doesn't quite suit my mood. Skip. Next up is Norah Jones, and she is exactly, exactly right.

I open my eyes and stare out through the window at the Bangalore traffic. Honking motorists, construction work, wet orange mud by the side of the road. The proverbial traffic jams of Bangalore, made worse by the unceasing rain. I float above it all, uncaring. I'm inside my exclusive shell, and nothing can touch me here. The rain makes wet channels on the window, wiping away the dirt. I watch the water flow down and wish it was that easy to cleanse human souls of all the bad things we accumulate. Not just sins - attitudes, habits, resignation, blind acceptance.

Vellai Pookal. Ah, even better. Such a beautiful, comforting song. The very first strains make me happy.

A flyover is being constructed, and we get stuck at the junction. I can't see the sky, or anything remotely green. A monstrous pillar rises up high next to my window, drowning out light, sky, nature. At the base of these pillars, scattered all around, are iron rods and heavy machinery, rusted metal and concrete blocks. Holes gape open for no particular reason. It's a sea of heavy sticky brown mud, thankfully fenced off from the road. I close my eyes rather than have to look at such vileness.

Tum Ho Toh from Rock On. We move on from the junction, and enter the road that leads directly to office. The land is more open here. Fields on either side, waterlogged now and waiting for the sun. A solitary lake, fuller now than I've ever seen it. The gray sky, heavy and roiling with rain. Apartment buildings dot the horizon, and more are under construction. Soon, I'm sure they will even fill up the fields to build more of them. I hate apartment buildings.

The office is two minutes away. I sigh. I open my bag and take out the tag with my office ID card. I used to hate it so much, it was a sign of my selling out. But now I'm resigned to it. It's there around my neck, the whole day. I barely notice it. I put it on, and step out of the bus with the rest, heading in a straggly bunch to the office building.
• • •

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Full Moon

Eight in the night, and the Fin folks and I are all alone on the floor. Today the rest of my own team has left early, for some reason. The music of choice today for the Fin guys is Enrique Inglesias. "You can take my breath away," the sweet Fin guy croaks gently. I hide my smile, because he's a sweet guy.

Outside, the office grounds resemble a resort. Bamboo groves and paths of rough stone; hidden lights and croaking frogs. It's so peaceful in the nights - partly the reason I prefer to leave at seven or eight rather than at six. I look up and almost trip over the pavement stones. It's a full moon night - or near enough as to make no difference. I stare at the moon for a full five seconds quietly. And then walk on, neck still craning to catch a glimpse of it behind me.

On nights like these, I think of XL. I think of the same moon rising over XL and I feel a strange sort of connection.

Full moons were always my favourite nights there. I would go for walks in the dead of the night, just to catch glimpses of the moon. Somehow, these nights more than any other used to remind me of how little time I had; how every day, every hour at that place was precious and should be enjoyed. At the same time, they were calming. I could sit back and relax and just watch the moon. Sometimes it was silver, sometimes it was golden, at other times it was almost a battle red. But always it was large, looming over the hostel terrace like some pre-historic God keeping an eye on his people.

And here in Bangalore? I only notice the moon on nights like these, when I'm coming out of the office in the night. Last month I noticed that it was a full moon when I went out to buy something, and took an extra round of the colony just to keep seeing it. And the month before, it was on MM's birthday, I remember. I came out of office talking to her on the phone, saw the moon and said, "Oh! It's a full moon!" And she said, "It is?" in that typical MM way. Of course, it turned out later that it was the day after or something.

I think I must have been a werewolf in a previous life. :)


• • •

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pazhassi Raja


If you're a true-blue Malayali, you have to be in one of two camps - the Mammootty camp or the Mohanlal camp. A minority might have sprung up recently claiming to like Dileep/Jayaram/Prithviraj, but I discount them. The Mammootty versus Mohanlal debate is too deeply entrenched in the blood of every Malayali.

Me, I'm a Mammootty fan through and through. I might like some of Mohanlal's earlier movies, but Mammootty has so much style, so much panache. I remember the exact moment I gave my heart to him. Anybody remember the movie The King? It featured Mammootty in the role of a dashing, rebellious District Collector, seemingly fighting all the crooked politicians on his own. Saying that it was not one of his best roles would be the understatement of the millennium. But "Wow!" thought my impressionable eight-year-old mind, and promptly surrendered itself.

And so, a decade and a half later, we come to Pazhassi Raja. I am no history buff, let me warn you at the outset - especially when it comes to Kerala. Before the movie was released, if you had asked me who Pazhassi Raja was, I would have probably guessed that he was a Tamil king from the seventh or eighth century. Obviously, I wouldn't have known that his real name was Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja. Yup, that's how far my knowledge of history goes.

I went for Pazhassi Raja for three reasons. One, that it featured Mammootty, of course. That too, in a role that reminded me of Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. (By the way, check out the two screenshots below. Almost wenty years between the two movies, but what has changed? Even the user ratings are the same!)



Secondly, because it seemed to offer a treat for the eyes, set as it is in Wayanad, in my opinion THE most beautiful region in Kerala. And thirdly, well - it's a must-watch for every Malayali this year, isn't it?

Trust me, Pazhassi Raja doesn't disappoint on any count. The movie offers everything - political intrigue, mesmerizing battles, an excellent cast, enough history for those interested. And yet it leaves you thirsting for more, wanting to find out more about this incredible man, the 'Lion of Kerala'. Mammootty holds back on the glamour and gives a restrained performance that is well worth applauding - especially in the later scenes in which Pazhassi is holed up in a makeshift camp in the mountains of Wayanad, injured and apparently losing the battle with the British.

But what I liked most was the fact that the film does not belong to Mammootty or Pazhassi Raja in any way. The entire cast pulls out incredible performances - especially Sarath Kumar as Edachena Kunkan Nair, the Commander of Pazhassi's armies. The last fight scene he features in and the aftermath - I had goosebumps, I tell you. I also liked Padmapriya's performance as Neeli, the gutsy leader of the Adivasi women fighting for Pazhassi Raja.

The battle scenes are to die for, no pun intended. Well, you can't call them battle scenes because Pazhassi seemed to believe in oliporu - I guess that would translate best as guerilla warfare. So you have the red-coats trotting complacently through the lush green forests of Wayanad, only to be beset from all sides by well-camouflaged Adivasis. Later on, there is also the excellently-shot pre-dawn storming of a fort, and the final battle on a hill-top. A few gruesome hangings also happen along the way.

A minor point is the length - at 200 minutes, it's easily the longest movie I've seen recently. But it is so good visually that there are very few scenes that I would want cut. I also found it strange that there were no Malayalam sub-titles for the English dialogue. Granted 100% literacy and all that, but are all Malayalis expected to be so well-versed with English as to understand British accents?

Oh, and I can't end without a note on the audience. They cheered everything, starting with the 'Special thanks to Mohanlal' legend to the first appearance of Mammootty (the two camps do have a few overlaps, please note) to the hanging of a British officer. It's so true that you may take a Malayali out of Kerala, but not Kerala out of a Malayali. No, not even at a 200-rupee-a-head screening at PVR at 8:30 PM. But Nikhil, with whom I watched the movie, was disappointed - he said the comments were much better at the eleven o'clock show at New Theatre in Trivandrum, where he watched the movie last Saturday. I suspect it was more about the show timings than anything else.

By the way, if you want to know more about the historical setting, you can read Nikhil's review of Pazhassi Raja here.
• • •

Friday, October 02, 2009

Open Letter to Facebook Spammers

I posted this letter as a note on Facebook, in a desperate attempt to get people to stop spamming my Facebook stream. Considering the zilch effect it had on them, I suspect it was drowned out by the very spam it was supposed to fight. Posting it here because it's sort of a continuation of this post.

Dear Facebook Spammer,

I know this letter of mine is going to cause some strain in our relationship, but I can't help it. Trust me, I've thought long and hard about this. The decision to write this letter was a painful one.

So I'll get straight to the topic.

Stop spamming - just stop. Desist. Refrain. Please.

I know it's tough, and I know I have no right to be ordering you about. It's a free country after all. But still.

I do understand that you feel the need to consult your daily horoscope every day on Facebook. And of course I can accept the fact that you must ask Mystical Meg a whole bunch of questions before you can make a decision of any sort. And believe me - I too want to know how many people have a crush on me and who my Enemy of the Day is. And when I get bored, I take random Facebook quizzes too, just like you.

After all, Facebook is all about the mindless entertainment.

But when these applications ask me whether I want to publish the results on my page -  now that's where I pause. I think about it. I weigh my options.

Do I WANT people to know that I just took the 'How well do you know your Harry Potter' quiz? Will the results of my consultation with Anita the Online Psychic interest them at ALL? Will they WANT to know what my Fortune Cookie (which, by the way, looks like something else entirely) just foretold?

I think these things through. And then I very deliberately click the 'Skip' button.

The problem is that you just don't seem to! And in choosing not to, you clutter up my Facebook stream! In desperation, I even tried Facebook Lite. The lack of spam was simply awesome for two days, but then the usability was kinda meh. So I came back to normal Facebook.

My second problem is with status messages. Don't get me wrong - they're awesome in general. They tell me what my friends have been up to recently. And even when they don't, the people on my friends' list are generally clever/witty/interesting enough for the status messages to be worth reading.

But.

Why oh why, dear FB Spammer, do you insist on linking  your Twitter account to your Facebook profile? Yes, I do know it must be a pain to have to post your awesome status messages separately on Facebook and Twitter each time. But there's this awesome app called Selective Twitter - the premise is that you can 'select' which of your tweets becomes your Facebook status message.

I think the problem is that you don't quite understand the difference between Twitter and Facebook, dear FBS. I won't mind if you spam me on Twitter, because I can always un-follow you there. Yes yes - I know I can hide you from my Facebook stream too - but then I DO want to know what you're up to, FBS. Just not every five minutes is all. I'm sure you understand.

Now now. Don't think I'm deaf - I can hear you wondering why the *BLEEP* I'm on Facebook in the first place, if it pisses me off so much?

I'll admit it's all about the entertainment for me. I like reading people's status messages. I like the videos they post and the photos they put up. I like staying updated with XL news. And of course I can stalk people by visiting their profiles and checking what they've been up to. Okay fine, I guess I might be slightly addicted.

But that's precisely why I really need you to stop ruining the experience for me, FBS. Please.

Love as usual,
Regular Facebook User


• • •

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Five Awesome Sites I've Discovered Recently

  • Xtranormal | Text-to-Movie: Truly, truly awesome. It lets you make your own animated movies! The line is, "If you can type, you can make a movie!" When you sign up (there's a basic account as well as a premium account), you get a bunch of sets as well as pre-fixed actors. You type dialogue for them and there are a set of emotions and gestures for the characters too. The possibilities are truly endless. The current problems with the site are two: the characters speak like robots (I guess they can't help that, since the words are pre-taped); and there's no way to make characters do actions like running. So it works fine as long as all you want is a couple of characters talking to each other.
  • Animoto (via Surya S Nair): You know how when you want to make a movie out of a set of images, you have to work painstakingly with Movie Maker. (Well, I've never done it, but still.) Animoto lets you upload images and makes a cool movie out of it on its own! You can add soundtracks and video clips too. The only problem here is that the basic account lets you make only 30-second movies. I guess you can make a bunch of movies and then string them together, though.
  • Readtwit: For people who use both Twitter and Google Reader. I used to find it a pain to have to click links on Twitter and follow them even to have to know whether they were worth reading or not. But Twitread creates a feed out of your twitter stream and lets you subscribe to it on GReader. So you get to read 2000-character snippets of the article and can decide whether you want to click through or not. Pics and YouTube videos get embedded automatically too, which is cool.
  • Trendsmap (via Nikhil):Lets you see trending topics by geography, and also has a scrolling set of updates by geography. So if you're missing a city particularly, you can go to the page and see what people from the city are tweeting. - a new definition for vicarious living! For example, the night Nikhil shared the link, people in Bengaluru were tweeting about the sudden rain and the (as usual) heavy traffic. 
  • Our Delhi Struggle: It's a blog run by a foreign couple living in New Delhi. I had to obviously like it because of the PJ (Pun Joke) in the title, but I'm liking the blog mostly because (A) it's funny; and (B) it puts me in touch with Delhi again. Yes, vicarous living again!


• • •

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wheel of TIme

I stumbled upon Robert Jordan's 'The Wheel of Time' series by accident. Back then, I was fourteen and living in Trivandrum. My parents had a copy of the first book, The Eye of the World, and I read it purely because the cover looked so interesting. (Just look at it - doesn't it promise awesome adventure and excitement?) I finished the 800-page book in two days flat. Of course, it was only when I was nearing the end of the book that I realized that it was just the first of an entire series. But I didn't bother searching for the rest of the books in Trivandrum, because I was very sure I wouldn't get them.

So imagine my excitement when I landed up in Delhi and discovered that my school library had the entire series! Unfortunately, I was in twelfth by the time I made this discovery. And each of these books is a whopper - at least six to seven hundred pages long. I was sure that eyebrows would be raised at a twelfth standard student issuing big fat works of fiction.

So in order to fool the librarian, I would get a Jordan book and a Physics/Mathematics guide issued together. But her eye got beadier and beadier every time I brought the next in the series to her desk. And I had just finished reading the fifth one when the blow fell - she told me that twelfth graders were not allowed to issue fiction.

I should have protested, of course. Stifling students' imagination and all that blah blah. But she was one scary lady - huge and bulky and capable of silencing an entire library-full of students with a clearing of the throat. And I was just a spineless sixteen-year-old. Besides, I had already realized that I wouldn't be able to complete the series by the time the Board exams arrived. So I gave in.

But now I've discovered the series again! And it is still every bit a rollicking yarn as it was when I was fourteen! (So much so that I didn't even want to go out with my friends last night.) Unfortunately, my reading speed seems to have come down considerably from when I was in my teens, so the series might take me some time to finish this time around. But it's okay - I have time. After all, the final book is going to be published only in 2012!

P.S. - Anybody here who's into fantasy fiction and has recommendations? And don't worry, I read non-potboilers too. :)
• • •

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Facebook: An Imminent Implosion

I hereby predict that Facebook is about to die. Or perhaps 'implode' would be a better word.

The main mistake they made was, I think, allowing external applications free entry. These apps may have been fun in the beginning, with people taking nonsensical quizzes and publishing them on their pages. But now the site is so cluttered with applications, and people are so addicted to using them, that the Facebook Homepage has become a flowing stream full of garbage.

Why do I go on Facebook? To keep up with my friends. I go to my Homepage and I check status updates. I check if people have uploaded photos. I spy on random wall conversations.

But now there are so many people and so many applications that most of the stuff on my Home page is just spam. Going by their Facebook activity, the people I know have nothing in their lives except Facebook. They take random quizzes. They open fortune cookies. They ask gurus what their future is going to be like. They tag their Top Friends' photos. They update their status ten times a day. They link their FB status to their Twitter account and spam even more. They play Mafia Wars and Farmville. In short, they spam.

So I get an email telling me that X has tagged me in a photo on Facebook. I follow the link eagerly, wondering which pic it could be. And then I find something called the 'Top Fans' application. I have been tagged because I am X's Top Fan. Yeah right. I curse X mentally and go to my Homepage to see what my other friends have been up to. And what do I see there? Y has just discovered that Z is her enemy of the day! M just opened a fortune cookie and his fortune is, "You shall rot in hell for publishing this on your wall!"

Am I actually expected to trawl through this junk just to keep up with my friends? Bah - I decide that I might as well just call them up or depend on good old-fashioned email.

It could be argued, of course, that these apps are not killing Facebook, but merely adding to it so that it becomes more than a mere social networking site - it is also now a site that people turn to for entertainment. And I don't mean the 'Let me check how fat my sworn enemy from college has become' type of entertainment. I mean the 'I have time to kill and there's nothing interesting on TV, let's see if I can find an interesting game to play' sort of entertainment.

But my problem here is this: social networking necessarily means connecting with people. But most of these apps do not involve such connections - they are things that people do by themselves to amuse themselves. The only way they involve others is if the results are published - something people actually do with irritating frequency, I might add. Sooner or later users are going to realize that the whole 'connecting with friends' part has been erased from the Facebook experience.

Which is why Facebook is just ripe to go the Orkut way. I bet that, the minute another social networking site comes along, offering people an even cleaner interface and the chance to log in and get updated on their friends' lives without having to fight their way through masses of junk, Facebook is going to die. It's going to be a long, slow death, but it's going to happen.


• • •

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts on Books and Reading

Disclaimer: Long, meandering and highly self-indulgent post where I pretend that I know a lot about books. Some Thinking By Typing will also be practiced during the course of this post. Please excuse if you're not in the mood.

I've written many mental posts recently on the books I've been reading. I never got around to actually typing them  out because a) I didn't have enough to say; and b) I'm not sure if I have enough knowledge about books to be able to say anything of value about them.

But what finally prompted this post is the fact that I just finished reading Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveller. This was the first Calvino book that I'd gotten around to reading finishing. Mostly because I have this belief, well-founded or not, that translations are useless because of the sheer impossibility of capturing the flavour of the original in another language. I've read English translations of Malayalam books, and I always find myself mentally translating the English back to the Malayalam words that the writer must have originally used, and the translation always seems so dead in comparison.

But back to Calvino. IOAWNAT is a book about reading. The writer explores reading like I've never even thought of exploring it, and he explores it in a way I've never seen done before. The book is about you, The Reader. Or me, The Reader. I don't know which. Throughout the book, I couldn't figure it out. Is the book about me? Is the book about the writer? Is it about books in general? Is it about reading? Yes, that it definitely is of course, but what else is it about?

IOAWNAT contains the first chapters of eleven different books. It follows you, The Reader (or me, The Reader) as he pursues one book after another. He starts off reading Italo Calvino's IOAWNAT. He's unable to finish it because of a printing error. So he returns it and gets a fresh copy, which turns out to be another book altogether. In the process, he meets an attractive young lady, The Other Reader. She leads him on a wild goose chase through books written in other languages, books unpublished as yet, books written by ghost writers under popular authors' names. He starts each of these books, and is unable to finish them for some reason or the other. In the midst of it all, there's an organization that is trying to - well, I'm still not quite sure what the hell they were trying to do. There's also an old author living in the hills, who is struck by writer's block and spends his days spying on a young lady sitting in a chair and reading down in the valley. He wants to write the book that the young lady is reading.

So what is writing, exactly? Does a writer channel something that's already written? Some Divine Thought, like Mohammed hearing God's voice and translating it for us? Or does the writing come from inside the writer, something that he makes up on his own? It is a natural process, or is it artificial? And what about reading? Why do people read? Do they read to be entertained? Do they read so that they can take away something from the book? More and more when I'm reading, I find myself struck by some passage or sentence or meaning, and my mind takes up that trail of thought and wanders away. Is that what books are for? So that the mind is stimulated in different directions? And am I being a hypocrite when I read partly because I know it'll improve my writing as well?

These are some of the things that Calvino raises. He talks about a hundred other things as well, which I might understand on a second reading. Which I don't think I'll bother doing, because a second reading of books seems like such a waste of time. Though I always find that whenever I come back to a book after many years, I gain a whole new perception of the book and it's like I'm reading another book altogether. (Another thing Calvino says, by the way.)

I'm in the middle of some six-seven different books right now, all short story collections for some reason. I don't know why I've bought so many short story collections recently. I don't even like them that much. The list, by the way:
  • Murakami - Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: I started it back in June and then dropped it because I found other books more interesting.
  • Joyce - Dubliners: Blah. Not liking the stories at all.
  • Calvino - Difficult Loves: Liking it very much. But as usual, I can't finish short story collections at one go.
  • Stephen King - Night Shift: Recently started. Call him a 'mass writer' or not, King really is one of my favourite writers. His writing is simple and no-nonsense, and he can make you see what he wants you to see in a way that very few other writers can.
  • A collection of science fiction stories: Read only one so far and liked it very much. Though I'm not really into science fiction.
  • Madhavikutty - Ente Katha (My Story): I haven't really read Malayalam books since I was twelve or something. I picked this one up so that I could get back into it, but my reading pace was too slow for my liking. So I stopped.
Yeah, that's it, I think. I plan to finish them in the same mixed up fashion. Maybe dip into Calvino one day and Stephen King the next.

Another short story collection that I read recently was Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes. As I've proclaimed many times on this blog, Ishiguro is my favourite writer. Not my ideal writer, possibly, but definitely my favourite. So I was very excited when I picked up his new book. But I have to confess I didn't like it very much. Good stories, all of them, but not up to his usual standard. When you pick up an Ishiguro, you expect something different, but this one wasn't. So my updated ranking of his books is:
  1. The Unconsoled
  2. Never Let Me Go
  3. The Remains of the Day
  4. An Artist of the Floating World
  5. Nocturnes
  6. When We Were Orphans
(I haven't managed to get my hands on A Pale View of the Hills yet.)

On the other hand, a short story collection I would recommend highly is Yann Martel's The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Despite the unwieldy title (it seems deliberate, because all the other stories in the collection have even longer titles) the stories are all - well, I don't know what adjective to use - interesting? Different? The last story especially (The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come) was incredible. A tale of nostalgia and memories and loss and trying to capture the past. And all this through a way of writing that - well, go read it. The title story is also gripping. How is it possible for a writer to make the reader (me) shed tears at the end of the story despite knowing from the first that the protagonist is going to die and that I shouldn't attach myself to him? Yann Martel managed that somehow.

You know that thing publishers do where they hunt up old dead books by an author who has suddenly become famous, and publish it with a huge sub-heading 'By the author of Incredibly Famous Book!' For once I was glad that it happened to Helsinki Roccamatios.

But what I want to read right now is a good solid yarn, you know. Something that requires no brain, no mind. Something I can just breeze through and enjoy thoroughly. My cousin is reading Fellowship of the Ring for the first time now, after much cajoling from my part. I watch her with envy. How awesome would it be to go through Lord of the Rings again as if for the first time, just enjoying the adventure, not knowing what is going to happen next. Unfortunately, I've read the book (or my favourite chapters rather) too many times now.
• • •

Monday, August 31, 2009

Big Read's Top 100

Saw this on Shr1k's blog. Made me realize how many books I have NOT read.

The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they've printed.

  • Look at the list and bold those you have read.
  • Italicize those you intend to read.
  • Mark in RED the books you LOVE. (Slight change: I've marked the ones I loved right after reading them, but not necessarily any more. This is not a list of my favourite books, though 3-4 of the red ones would make it.)
  • (Added by me) Mark in BLUE the books you started, but couldn't quite get into.
  • Reprint this list in your own blog.
  • According to Shrik, having seen the movie/cartoon/TV series is not the same as having read the book.


The List
:


   1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
   2.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
   3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
   4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
   5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
   6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

   7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
   8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
   9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller

  12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  19.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
  20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
  23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
  24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling

  25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
  26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  28. Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
  29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

  37. Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  39. Dune, Frank Herbert
  40. Emma, Jane Austen
  41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
  42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  47. Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand, Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  55. Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

  56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
  63. Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
  65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus, John Fowles
  68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
  71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses, James Joyce
  79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
  82. Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  83. Holes, Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
  90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
  93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine, Anya Seton
  96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
 100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

• • •

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chasing the Sun

Early afternoon. I'm out to get myself a pineapple juice, to make up for having skipped lunch. I give the counter guy the token and wait for him to make it. Just then, I catch a yellow gleam from the corner of my eye. I look up and see that it's The Sun, winking and beaming down at me.

"Why, hello Sun!" I say. "This is a pleasant surprise! Been some time since we've seen you around here!"

"What - what are you saying, girl?" says The Sun. "I've been here almost every day! It's just that I get here a little late because of the rain, so you don't quite see me when you leave for work in the morning."

"Oh right, okay. And it's late by the time I leave, so I don't catch you then either. Right, yeah," I say absent-mindedly, wondering where my fruit juice went. "So what's up? What are you up to these days?"

"Oh, same old, same old. Rise in the East, set in the West. You?"
"Oh I recently started work, ya know. So that's pretty much it," I say glumly.

"Yeah, I was just thinking the other day that it's been some time since I saw you. I remember when you were at XL, you used to sit outside almost everyday, chatting with your friends or maybe reading a book."

"Yeah, those were the days..."

"You know, I like seeing you around. You should get out more in the daytime. Look at you, your skin so pale and your hair so dull."

"I know, I know. But what can I do? Job and all, you know how it is."

"Why don't you get a job that lets you be outside? It would do you a whole lot of good. You're wasting your youth, sitting at a desk all day staring at a screen."

"I know," I say, sighing. I look at the trees waving in the wind and feel a certain longing.

"Imagine," says The Sun temptingly. "Imagine watching a sunset sitting on a cliff. Imagine tramping through the jungle. Imagine swimming in a clear pool. Imagine..."

"Okay, okay. Stop being John Lennon," I say crossly. "It's easy enough for you to say all this. But how do I pay for my expensive education and support myself? Anyway, all this is pure romantic garbage. In reality there would be mosquitoes and heat and having to pee in the bushes and... and I bet it'll all get very boring pretty soon."

Pause.

"And where will it get me at the end of the day anyway? At least I'm doing something here. At least I'll get promoted in some time and reach somewhere and earn some more money. Something to look forward to."

"Oh right," says The Sun with a snicker. "I forgot about the rat race you're part of. Alright, whatever. Have it your way. I'm leaving. See you around, girl."

With that, he hides behind some convenient clouds, leaving me to my suddenly disturbed thoughts.

"Ma'am, your juice," says the counter guy.
"Thank you," I say automatically.

I make sure I leave early that day, just to prove The Sun wrong - in some obscure way. Unfortunately, it's raining and dark and he's nowhere to be seen. I shiver and hug myself and walk all alone to my bus.


• • •

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tilonia

Those two years of my life are not ones that I think of with any kind of nostalgia. I was lost throughout, bent on drowning in self-doubt and self-pity. The shock of the new environment didn't help either, I suppose.

But there are bits of it that I wish I'd enjoyed more. There was that one week in rural Rajasthan, for example. It was a mandatory trip for all of us, the school's way of ensuring that the sons and daughters of the rich socialites of Delhi went to an Indian village at least once in their lives. I remember at the introduction session at school, the program leader asked, "So have any of you been to a village before?" One guy raised his hand and said, in all seriousness, "Yes ma'am, to Ambala." I rest my case.

I went for that trip knowing that I would be an outcast again - and I still don't know who to blame for that. All these years, I've blamed them - those snobbish teenagers who couldn't understand me and therefore didn't accept me or include me. But as the years have passed, and I've become more and more like them, I've stopped blaming them and started accepting that I was also partly a cause for my exclusion. We were just too different, them and me. Neither of us could have been expected to fit so easily into each others' lives.

But I was talking about that week. I was so hung up on the people and the politics and the exclusion that I simply forgot to enjoy the trip - or, indeed, learn from it. The place we went to was Tilonia - the Barefoot College. I've since studied the project as a case in a course on social entrepreneurship. It was only while doing research for a presentation that I realized that I'd actually been to the place! I hadn't even known what the project was actually called.

The funny thing is that I can still remember most of the trip itself. The first two days, we stayed in Tilonia and were taken around the campus. I remember solar heaters and rainwater harvesting and women's groups producing handicrafts and something called 'Kabaad se Jugaad' - making useful things out of waste materials. The days were hot and brown. There was dust in little spirals, and sporadic short green bushes. We would wake up early in the morning and queue up before the tap, shivering in the cold of the desert. And the rainwater would gush out from the tap, warm from the solar heating.

After the first couple of days, we were divided into three groups and taken to three separate villages. The village I went to was better than I'd expected it to be - it wasn't squalid or dirty for one thing. There was some sort of drought relief work going on - the women were digging a trench in return for the wages that they would normally be earning from agricultural activities in normal years. We tried to help them a little bit with their digging - they laughed at our pathetic attempts, of course.

My clearest memory from the entire trip is of a group trek we did one night. We walked from the village to a nearby temple, all of us. If only I could describe that trip in detail. It was dark all around - not a single streetlight, no reflected glow from buildings, just the billions of stars overhead. And really, no light was necessary because the starlight was so bright. We city dwellers don't realize how accustomed we are to artificial light. Even when the electricity goes off, there's usually some sort of light - reflected light from the house next door, the street light filtering in. But total and absolute absence of any light but that of the stars overhead - that's an experience!

I don't remember much about the temple itself. Just that we sat or lay under the trees outside. We were mostly quiet, even the shallowest, because of the sheer beauty of the spectacle above us. What can you do in such cases except stare upwards in mute and open-mouthed wonder? I remember thinking, despite the loneliness and the exclusion, that this was one experience I'd never forget. And I never have.
• • •

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Neighbourhood

It's forty minutes past seven. As usual, I am late for my bus to office, and I'm hurrying along with my laptop bag flapping behind me and my long silver house key still in my hand. It's a straight road downhill to the bus stop. On the way, dignified old paatis with silver hair stare at me in wonder. Every day they see me, a strange young girl with long hair streaming backwards in the wind, fast-walking down the road.

On both sides of the road are single- and double-storeyed houses. I like them because - well, they're not flats, they're actual houses with histories and personalities. Most of these houses have at least one tree growing in their tiny front yard,  and these trees generously spread their shadow onto the road. The entire neighbourhood becomes quite dark at night  - the trees reduce the orange streetlights to tiny little pools on the dark road. And when it rains, I  never need an umbrella, except to ward off the wet leaves that float down with the wind and stick to my hair.

My house has a tall jackfruit tree that has no jackfruits. Just outside, the first sight I see in the morning after I bolt the tiny black side gate behind me, is a tree with yellow and red flowers - I don't know its name. And on the way to the bus stop, there is a jasmine plant, the whole of its foliage covered in white. It's beautiful, a dark green round canopy dotted with white stars. I always stare at it with longing, because it reminds me of home.

Mornings and evenings, there are exercise-freaks walking busily around the neighbourhood. I see them in the mornings and wish I had the time to be like them. I see them in the evenings when I'm dragging myself home uphill with the heavy laptop on my back, and wonder at their energy.

In the evenings, you can see young moms walking along with babies on strollers; kids playing badminton in the middle of the street; old gentlemen in groups walking and laughing together; dignified old couples, the lady with her pallu pulled demurely over her shoulder, the gentleman with slow steps and a walking stick.

Every time  I see them, especially the elderly people, I feel like a trespasser. They've been living their lives here in this neighbourhood for years, knowing their neighbours and their neighbours' neighbours, and I have brashly intruded into their colony and their lives. I don't know them, I don't even wish to know them. The reason I'm here is that I like the security they give me, I like the fact that I have this tiny island to remind me of home while I try to find my way in this vast ocean of adulthood.

Sometimes I can almost understand why they want to kick us out.


• • •

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Word Field

They inserted a new word into my word field today. I'd laboured over my word field for so long, planting the words just so, making sure that they followed the design, that a purple word didn't clash with a pink one. And now they had added a stupid little black the, and I was powerless to throw it back out of my precious plot.

It stood there foolishly, looking around, a stupid grin on its e of a face. All the other words tried to ignore it studiously - they were my creations, after all. But I could see them throwing curious looks at it. They had never seen a black word before. All the words in my field are colourful. I water them with nice healthy commas and full stops, just the right amount. And I never take them away from their fellows. That's how words become black, you know - when they don't quite fit in, when they know that they're unwanted.

I knew that I shouldn't dislike the black the. After all, it hadn't asked to be put into a word field where it wasn't wanted. Making friends with new words is always tough. In fact, maybe it had been a bright red before it was plucked and put here.

But now it was stuck with me and I was stuck with it. Suddenly feeling sorry for it, I asked it to stand behind a big yellow banana. I wasn't supposed to, of course. The Authorities are very strict about the order they put the words in - I'm not supposed to change it. But I did this one time - it was better for everybody.


• • •

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Bengaluru Autowallah

My current favourite people to hate - Bangalore's autowallahs. Gosh, I've never seen such conscience-less people! You need do nothing more than flag one down for them to try and swindle you. I am actually surprised when one of them to go by meter - which doesn't happen very often, let me assure you.

The other day, I was coming back from Forum after dinner with Blue and Andy. It was around ten in the night. I had to take an auto, because buses would have dropped me to the main road, and the gali leading to my house wouldn't have been very safe at that time of the night.

The autowallah first quoted seventy rupees, but after some haggling by the Kannada-speaking Andy, he finally agreed to go by meter. Since it was after ten, the going rate was one and a half times the meter rate in any case. Within five minutes of getting into the auto, I knew I would have to watch out, because he tried to go by a roundabout route rather than a straight one. I told him the way, and then settled back, with the speakers blaring out Emosanal Attyachar at full volume.

Just before he entered my colony, he started cribbing - it's so inside, so far away, you'll have to pay me double. WTF! I told him - I'd told you everything before getting in, exactly where the place is, and anyway, there is a main road about two minutes away from my house on the other side. No no, he kept saying. Pay double or utaar denge.

Now, this was when I started getting really angry. How dare he threaten that he would drop me off on the way rather than take me to my house? Not only that, the street that we were in was very ill-lit and unsafe. It's a thriving market till about nine, but shuts down and becomes completely deserted soon after. I told him - no way, you have to drop me at my house, and I'm definitely not paying you anything more than one and a half.

About five minutes of this back and forth exchange, and he suddenly stopped the auto and told me to get off. I don't why I got off, but I did. Maybe because I was SO pissed by this time. I wanted to yell at him and use all the swear words I've ever learnt, but unfortunately I didn't know any Kannada ones. Instead, from God knows where, I got some random Hindi words that were definitely NOT swear words. I don't think I've ever even used the word tameez before in my entire life. And I only have a hazy idea what it means.

Either way, I suddenly started suspecting that the guy was drunk. He'd been singing along to the song in the auto, and his head seemed to be swaying a little bit. So I decided that it would be easier to just walk off. But I was so fucking angry I couldn't stop muttering swear words (English ones, and much too late) under my breath. And to top it all, I ended up paying him almost double because I didn't have change! He was belligerent and rude till the last.

I was pretty scared of walking home alone. So I called up Blue and spoke to him for fifteen minutes, till I reached home. I didn't face any trouble, not even from the college students standing around in packs everywhere. Ironically enough, I had more trouble from the autowallah than the random guys on the street.

When I got home and related the story to my flatmate, she said - why didn't you take down the guy's registration number? It's there on the back of his seat. I hadn't known this of course, but I don't think I would have done it anyway, given my suspicions that he was drunk.

Somebody please tell me this - why are Bangaloreans tolerating this? Why do they pay up every time an auto guy asks for 'meter plus ten' or 'meter plus twenty'? Or is it just me that they ask? They see that I'm not a localite and decide to milk me for more, is that it?

Anyway, I don't know what I would have done even if it had been broad daylight. Would I have threatened to take him to the police station? No way! Too much trouble, and which sane person in this country would willingly go to the police station and waste so much time and energy, when we know perfectly well that the guy is just going to pay a bribe and leave the place within half an hour?

I guess in the end we only have ourselves to blame, not these guys. They take advantage of our apathy.
• • •

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bangalore

It's exciting to be in a new city. To see twin lines of orange lights stretching ahead of you. To zip by glossy buildings that seem to have been transplanted from another world. To know that these very roads and corners, now so new and strange, will become dreary and familiar to you in a little while. It's exciting to know that there's a whole new culture waiting to be explored.

It rained just before I landed. At the innumerable traffic lights, the wet road reflects the red brake lights of the cars ahead. Half an hour into the journey from the airport to the city, I see a signboard saying, "Bangalore City - 9 KMs". I have to hand it to the foresight of whoever put the airport exactly where it should be forty years from now.

Unfortunately, the airport is just a sign of things to come. My aunt lives in the north of the city, in a place even Bangaloreans don't seem to have heard of. Travelling from here to anywhere else is torture. "Oh, that place?" the driver says of the hotel the alumni meet was held last night. "It's close by, just ten kilometers away." And it takes us forty minutes to get there. People at the party speak casually of travelling an hour or an hour and a half to work daily. I think nostalgically of Delhi, with its wide roads and flyovers, where you could literally zip from one place to the other - well, as long as they were the right places.

I keep getting taken aback by how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B in this city. Surely, Bangalore is deliberately trying to defeat its hapless commuters? It's an endless maze of one-ways and narrow roads and pretty police stations. Yes, that's one thing I have to give Bangalore - it has the prettiest police stations I've ever seen.

People seem to be trying to solve the problem, though. Radio stations and billboards urge people to try car-pooling. A bunch of flyovers seem to be under construction. A Metro is on the way, apparently. I don't know if all these ideas and things will materialize while I'm here, but I'm definitely going to live as close to my office as I possibly can. Ah well, at least my office offers transport.
• • •

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Trivandrum Rising

The setting is a serene lagoon, on the far shore of which is a coconut grove. Line upon line of coconut trees rising up as far as the eye can see. A flashy new car draws up on this side of the lagoon. A couple gets out of it, the wife very heavily pregnant. "Why have you brought me here?" she asks the husband in confusion. "Because," the husband replies. "Because... I saw your drawings." The wife gasps in wonder and joy, and the beautiful coconut grove, green and innocent and defenceless, suddenly disappears into thin air. A block of tall buildings replaces it. The ad ends with the name of a popular builder, and a line about making your dreams come true.

I was sitting in the theater watching this, and I couldn't believe my eyes. Were they actually suggesting that it was alright to cut down those beautiful trees and build an apartment block instead? Did they actually expect that anybody would buy a flat there when they were told so explicitly that hundreds of trees would be cut down to build it? What sort of people could think of profiting from such a gross violation of nature?

But this ad is merely a sign of how Trivandrum is changing. The sleepy town that I knew seven years ago is slowly waking up. Stately old mansions all over the city are disappearing one by one. New buildings, multi-storeyed white monstrosities with room for several dozen families, are springing up in their place, changing the skyline of the city for ever. The city is expanding, and these builders are merely catering to the increasing demand for space and comfort.

I have no right to complain, of course. The apartment that my parents are renting is in one such building in the center of the city. My grandmother tells me that this land used to belong to an old Nair family. When the family elder passed away, his three daughters divided the land amongst themselves. The main plot was sold to a builder. The beautiful old house was razed to the ground, and this apartment was built.

It has its own underground car parking. There is a security guard night and day. He questions anybody who wants to enter, and will only let them in once it is confirmed that they are expected. Residents have to carry their own  electronic cards in order to enter the building. This is a place for the affluent, and they need their privacy and security. Who would have ever thought that such a system could exist in Kerala? But standing on the roof of the building, I can see at least three such buildings within a radius of a kilometer, sticking their white bodies out of the greenery.

And more are being built. I visit a grand-aunt who lives nearby. Her house is part of a posh colony in Trivandrum. She has lived there for three or four decades at least. The land is right in the center of the city, and commands lakhs per cent. She must be a crorepati merely on account of owning a house in that area.

However, she has her own troubles. A builder has bought three plots of land behind her house, and is planning to erect an apartment block there. She says, "You know, this house has always been so nice to live in. It has always had excellent sunlight and wind throughout the day. Why, I never even switch on the fan most days! And I've never faced any water shortage - never! But once this building comes up, all those days are over."

I go up on the roof, and I can see what she's talking about. The land slopes down on this side of the house. A wide stretch of trees lies ahead of me; I can see their heads nodding in the wind. Since the other houses are on a lower level, ample sunlight and wind come in from this direction.

But peering over the railing, I realize that that is going to change soon. Construction work is going on in the plot bordering the house. The foundation of a building is being built, and workers are swarming over the site like so many ants. I imagine it rising up storey upon storey, a malevolent monster of concrete and glass, blocking out the sunlight and the wind, dwarfing the little houses around it. Families will come and live in it, and they'll suck up the water in the area, leaving nothing for anybody else. More trees will be cut down, because they'll need space to park their shiny cars.

My heart yearns for the traditional houses. The whitewashed ones with clay tiles covered with moss, and wooden windows lined with bars. An overgrown parambu with coconut trees and banana plants. Jackfruit trees with fat jackfruits hugging the trunk like so many little round babies. Mango trees for the kids to climb, with a swing tied to the fattest branch during Onam. A nalukettu, into which rain thunders with impotent force. Maybe a temple nearby, with a green mossy pond.

I suppose I'm being a traditionalist. Such houses belong to an era long-gone. Change is inevitable, after all. Sleepy little villages have to become busy little towns. Busy little towns have to become polluted big cities. But I'm afraid. I'm afraid that my Trivandrum, the beautiful green Trivandrum of my childhood, is about to lose its lushness, its very personality. I'm afraid that it's going to become just another city.
• • •

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Great Mallu Wedding

It seems to be wedding season everywhere. On Facebook, there are endless wedding albums being uploaded. In my GMail inbox, there are at least half a dozen wedding invites from batchmates and seniors. At least four people I know got married last week. So I decided that, even though I wouldn't be able to attend any of these weddings, I would not get left behind. And since I couldn't find anybody to marry me at such short notice, I had to be content with just attending a relative's wedding.

Now, I haven't had a particularly close relationship with weddings in my life. The last one I attended was six years ago - my class teacher's. It was my first Punju wedding, and I was completely scandalized by the fact that they actually served alcohol! I was also surprised that the guests were off having fun dancing and gossiping, while the poor bride sat obediently and listened to the pundit muttering the 'last rites'.

So for various reasons, the one I attended last week was my first Malayali wedding in over seven years. I dug up an old silk salwar-kameez (last worn at the teacher's wedding!) and tried to pretend that I was an old hand at such things. Unfortunately, the wedding proved to me how much of a fraud mallu I am, so I'll describe it from a complete outsider's point of view.

The first discovery of the day was that dressing up for weddings takes much longer than normal dressing up. So, post the usual late-ness related bickerings ("Hurry up! You're  making us late!" "Why did you hog the mirror for so long?" etc), we reached the hall just in time for the ceremony. Amma and I hurried into seats somewhere in the middle, while Achan hung back to talk to the relatives standing around outside. The hall was restless with the sound of voices, above which flowed the rather nasal wedding music. I looked around, and saw that the back of the hall was filled with men, while women occupied the seats in front. Wow - gender division even when a man and a woman were about to be united in holy matrimony!

Soon, the groom, clad in the traditional outfit of white shirt and mundu, climbed on the raised stage with his father. He greeted the audience with folded palms and did a couple of rounds of the pandal. He prayed to the Gods, represented by a tall lamp standing on the pandal, and sat down. Considering that it was the day of his wedding and that he was never going to enjoy the fruits of singledom ever again, he seemed remarkably jovial, talking and laughing with his family and friends. A buzzing crowd of videographers recorded his every move, with assistants shining bright golden light whenever required.

This was when I noticed that something was wrong. "Amme!" I hissed to my  mother. "He's not facing the audience!"

"I know," she whispered back. "Must be some design flaw. The bride and groom are supposed to face East - I guess the builders forgot that when they put the audience on this side."

After a while, the bride came onto the stage, her father leading her by the hand. She was wearing a red sari and about a hundred kilos of gold. Bangles to her elbow and necklaces to her waist, a belt of gold around her hips and more around her wrist. It seemed to me that she could barely move; her father had to drag her around the stage. First, she had to take the blessings of every family elder on the stage. Then she had to do a couple of rounds of the pandal. Finally, somehow, she landed up beside the groom.

And now the real wedding began. The music rose to a cresendo as the groom put the gold taali around the bride's neck. They exchanged flower garlands, even as I suppressed an insane urge to clap loudly. Then she stood up so that he could give her the kalyanapudava - the sari that the groom's family gives the bride at the wedding. And that was that - I do love how short the great mallu wedding is!

Of course, we couldn't see any of this. First of all, the pandal was sideways. Secondly, the view was blocked by the bevy of videographers. Apparently, these days you can't really see any wedding. You can just sit blindly in the audience while the bride and groom tie the knot under the lights of the camera.

Suddenly, I heard a tremendous roar from the back of the hall. I looked back, afraid that the ceiling of the hall was caving in. Indeed, I saw that all the men who had been seated at the back were now fleeing. But when I looked up, the ceiling seemed perfectly fine. Confused, I looked at the stage again. But no, the wedding wasn't over yet; the groom and the bride were performing some complicated maneuver around the pandal. So where were these people fleeing?

I craned my neck, and saw that an untidy queue had formed outside a smaller hall to the side of the building. Of course - the lunch! The main event of the day, even though it was barely eleven. They were running to eat at the first sitting without even waiting for the wedding to get over. Nice! Though the women seemed to be better behaved; only a few were leaving.

Next, it was time for me to meet all my long-forgotten relatives. They were all agog to see the girl they had last laid eyes on some ten-twelve years ago. "Ayyo, ente moley! You've become so short and thin!" seemed to be the universal cry. Eh, I wondered. How fat had I been as a child, if they were saying I was thin now? And how dare they call me short! I was a healthy five-five and a half, thank you very much! Anyway, all these women seemed to be at least one foot shorter than me, so I decided not to accept their opinions. It was probably the angle they were looking from.

After a while, their focus shifted from me to the bride and how much gold she had been wearing. So I quietly escaped in search of my father. I found him having a heated discussion about the recent elections with my grandfather and granduncle, both of whom had been grassroot soldiers of the Red Party in their days. "It serves them right," my grandfather was saying. "They needed it. The core believers, they've been turned away by the party. And without them, the party is nothing." To have a loyal worker like my grandfather say that - that shows you how low the party has fallen.

After a while, it was our turn to have lunch. I went in with some trepidation. I'd had a healthy breakfast in the morning, and it was barely eleven now. So the thought of eating so much food almost turned my stomach. But the sight of the green banana leaf, with the multi-coloured accompaniments already laid out, enervated me. A sadya is a sadya, no matter how full you are.

The rice came, thumbapoo choru, as the poetically inclined put it. First round was parippu - that's dal for all you Hindi-speakers. Second round was sambar; it arrived even before I'd finished the first round. And I'd barely finished that when the payasams came.  As far as I'm concerned, payasams are the best part of a sadya. Adapradhaman, paalpayasam, and some sort of sharkara-and-dal combination. There were two more after these, but I had to feebly wave the man away.

And so ended my first mallu wedding in seven years. Probably my last proper mallu wedding too, come to think of it. I've heard that the high society weddings in Kerala have become 'modern' - the groom wears a sherwani and the bride wears a lehenga. And the women wear shiny saris with thousands of gold sequins on them, instead of proper Kancheepuram silk saris. Other people ape the West. We are different - we ape the North.

***********

And may I also use this opportunity to humbly congratulate Shr1k 'n' Sumana, XL seniors who got married last week. These two  make me jealous, but also give me hope. :)
• • •

Monday, May 25, 2009

Belhaven - I

"This is insane!" Rohan said suddenly, "I won't do this!"

The three of us turned around from inspecting the ladder and looked at him without speaking. Somehow, it didn't surprise any of us that he was the first to back out. He had been iffy about the plan from the beginning.

"I can't believe you guys are actually thinking of doing this!" he said. "No matter what we think of her, this is trespassing! We can't break into somebody else's house!"

"But think of what she did to Viju." That was the tiny voice of Kanishk. Small and slender, he was the pacifying force in our group.

Neither Shiju nor I would have bothered to reason with short porky Rohan with his glasses and his perpetual sweatiness. After all, his family had moved into the colony just last month. Our mothers had forced us into including him in our group.

"She didn't do anything to Viju. He had a bike accident, that's all," Rohan replied.
"Which she caused! I'm telling you! I spoke to Viju!" Shiju burst out. "She ran after him with a stick when he stole mangoes from her mango tree. She was really angry! She said she would teach him a lesson."
"Shiju, I'm very sorry about what happened to your brother, but there's a limit. We can't break into her house and snoop around just because you guys think she's a witch!"
"She is a witch! And we'll find the proof tonight. If you're scared, you can stay at home!" I said.
"It's not that I'm scared..." Rohan's voice trailed off. "Anyway, my grandparents are here, so I can't come."
"Fine. Sit at home on your granny's lap," I said, turning back to the ladder. "You're missing out on the biggest adventure ever!"

Kanishk, Shiju and I dragged the ladder out of the shed and towards the eastern wall of the compound. Rohan stuck around for a while watching us. But when he realized that none of us would speak to him or even look at him, he went back home.

"Good riddance," I said, the moment he had left. "Imagine having to haul his fat bum up the wall." Shiju snorted. Kanishk didn't say a word.

Both of them were to spend the night at my house, since mine was the only one that bordered the witch's. So they left to pack and get ready for the stay-over. We decided that we would meet at six.

**********

It was around six-fifteen when the doorbell rang. I was in the living room, on my PS3. Mum had already opened the door before I could reach it.
"Hello, Kanishk bete!" Mum said, opening the door. "My, somebody's looking dashing in a black t-shirt!"
"Mum!" I said. Why do mothers have to be so embarassing?
"Come on," I said to Kanishk, and took him upstairs to my room. He was carrying a small knapsack.
"Sorry I'm late," he said. "I was halfway here before I realized that I'd forgotten my flashlight."
"Good thinking with the black t-shirt too," I said. "But I wonder where Shiju is."

We deposited the knapsack in my room and came back downstairs. Mum was on the phone. "Bopu, it's for you," she said. As I took the receiver, I glared at her for using my nickname in front of my friends. I could hear Kanishk's smothered snicker behind me.

"Surya, it's me," Shiju's gloomy voice said. "I can't come."
"What! Why?"
"Mum's saying that with Viju in hospital and everything, I should stay at home."
"But we asked her days ago!"
"I know. But she says she's changed her mind."
"Oh no!" I said, looking at Kanishk. What would we do now?

(to be continued)
• • •

The Red Flag

He sat on the long verandah in his ancient grandfather chair. The chair's arms were scabbed with age and heavy use. Its seat and back were made of cane, carefully plaited years ago by some poor artisan. The threads were sticking out here and there. They needed replacing, but who could find skilled people these days? Those arts were dead and gone. Chairs were made of plastic these days. They lasted longer, he had heard. But nothing could be as comfortable as these old cane chairs.

He opened the morning paper and scanned the headlines. But even Desabhimani wasn't good these days - no news, just the latest doings of some party group or the other. Though he would never subscribe to those capitalist newspapers. And even if he wanted to, how could he look the news agent in the face and ask him for any other newspaper! Not that he, a young boy with barely any hair on his upper lip, would know anything. Even his parents would have been toddlers in the heydays of Communism in Kerala, when he, Cheparambil Balakrishnan, had raised the red flag in this village and led a grand procession against the landowners! Ah, the glory of those days!

Ever since Sathyabhama had died, a girl had been coming in every day to do the housework. His sons had engaged her, perhaps to assuage their guilt about living far away in the city and leaving their father to rot in this old house. They had asked him to come and live with them, of course. But he had said no. He would live out his days in this village, where he was known. Even now, when he went to collect his monthly pension, wearing his starched white shirt and his pale cream Karalkada mundu and carrying his black umbrella, the villagers always greeted him with respect. He was given preference at the lines at the pension office, too.

Of course, a lot of things had changed. The party candidate no longer came to seek his support and blessings before elections. But that was to be expected. After all, what use was the support of a lonely old man who spent his days dreaming of the glory of his youth? These days, it was all about which group you were part of and how much power and money you had.

He remembered the days when he would leave Sathyabhama in the house alone and go to the city to attend party meetings and demonstrations. God alone knew how they had survived those times! But all of them, the party workers, knew that what they were doing mattered. That they were part of a movement which would bring power to the masses, so that they could rise up against those who had tormented and oppressed them for centuries!

But those days were over now. All that was left was the scrabble for power. Nothing to work for, nothing to believe in. Nothing to experience but the twilight of decline, nothing to wait for but the certainty of death.
• • •

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rainy Morning

It's one of those wet rainy mornings in Trivandrum. Where you wake up knowing that it has rained all night. All of nature is wet and subdued, there's barely any wind. The only sound is the drip-drip of water from the leaves. The very sky is colourless and dim.

The rain started at around three in the morning. I woke up suddenly at a quarter to, and discovered that the fan had died on me. So I opened the windows to let the breeze in. Lightning flashed sporadically, though without any thunderclaps or rain. I lay on my bed under the motionless fan and stared out at the lightning. Hypnotized by the flashes, I soon fell asleep. The rain must have started soon after.

I remember such mornings from back when I was in school in Trivandrum. The way to school would be peppered with puddles full of muddy water. The poorer kids would come to school wearing bathroom chappals so that their shiny school shoes would not get ruined. If it was a Monday, even the rich kids would wear black shoes - though Mondays meant white canvas shoes. And the back of the class would be crowded with black umbrellas set out to dry.

The morning assembly would be held inside the classroom or on the verandahs rather than in the open quandrangle. And only the people in the front bench would sing. All of us taller people at the back would just move our lips studiously, heads bent, eyes closed and palms together. The braver ones would even whisper and giggle together.

Of course, the joy of classroom assemblies would die down as the morning wore towards the PT class in the afternoon. If the rain continued non-stop, there would be deep sorrow and anger amongst us, especially the boys. But if it thinned to a drizzle, the entire class would form a line - tidier than usual, to show how good we were - and go to the PT room. Mr. Vincent would come out and look at us. We would form puppy dog expressions and say, "Sir, please sir, please sir!" And he would judge how heavy the rain was and whether it was likely to get any stronger.

If he let us go to the ground, then - ah, no other such joy in the world! The basketball court would be wet with puddles, but the weather would be just right for playing. Splash, splash, the ball would go, but who cared?
• • •

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bhoomi Malayalam

T. V. Chandran's latest movie Bhoomi Malayalam is a mixture of stories, told from the viewpoints of seven women. The stories span sixty years of Kerala history, and show the difficulties that women undergo because of society and its restrictions. The seven women are from all strata of society: the sportswoman who has to shelve her dreams because of marriage; the factory worker whose brother gets killed in a political clash; the Muslim journalist whose husband doesn't like her profession; the girl whose brother gets stoned to death by the police; the housewife whose husband's first love is Communism; the rich kid whose mind is turned by books; the poor woman who is raped and killed by a rich landlord. The threads of their stories are woven together in this movie.

An excellent concept, yes. Probably a sign of hope in these times when the standards of the Malayalam film industry are said to be dipping. However, having watched the movie, I have to admit that the idea has not been translated to the screen particularly well.

The first problem with the movie is terrible acting. Except for a couple of the actors (I liked the woman who plays the Muslim journalist) most them over-act and ham and generally make the viewer wince. Nedumudi Venu and Indrans, accomplished actors both of them, were on screen for about two minutes each. Secondly, while the women are all linked to each other somehow or the other, the Director decided that he needed another, more obvious link. So he put each of the women in a red stone quarry and made them scream their hearts out, poor things. The pure contrivedness of the gimmick reminded me of a street play I did when I was fifteen. Thirdly, there isn't enough meat to any of the stories. I guess it's tough to give any characterization given that there are seven stories and only ninety minutes, but who asked him to bring in seven stories anyway?

The stories I liked were the sportswoman's and the journalist's - perhaps because of the relatively better acting. I also liked the story set in 1948. Suresh Gopi plays a man who comes to Kannur ostensibly to teach at the local primary school. In reality, he is a 'Commoonist' who has come to give red ideas to the farmers. He soon marries a local woman, and starts leading processions against the local landlord. The story is about the sacrifices that brave and idealistic people made back then in order to bring about social change. Somehow, the story struck a cord within me - perhaps because of the obvious comparison with the sad state of Communism in Kerala today.

I hope that good concepts like these come up more often. And that they are better implemented from now on. Considering the amount of talent we have, it's a shame that the Malayalam film industry has not made its mark anywhere outside.
• • •

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Firefox Add-Ons

I thought I would write a post on the dozen or so Firefox add-ons I use. I have absolutely no claims to being a techie of course, but most people in my circle don't seem to know the amazing things that can be done with Firefox add-ons. Whenever I think of some idea that would make any website more convenient to use, I immediately go to Tools > Add-ons in my browser and search for it. Purely because I'm sure that, if I've thought of it, then somebody more technically able than me would have definitely done so before me and, more importantly, created an add-on!

The only problem with add-ons is that they add to Firefox's memory usage. And since my laptop isn't the best-performing laptop in the world, I've had to restrict myself to the few that I absolutely can't do without. So here they are, in no particular order.
  • Scribefire: Scribefire is where I'm currently typing this blog post. It's a little button at the bottom of my browser that, when clicked, opens up a window from which I can directly post to my blog. So no more do I have to sign into Blogger to post. It offers every feature that the Blogger 'Create Post' page does - in fact, possibly more. I can do pretty much any sort of text formatting; I can embed YouTube videos directly or add images from Flickr. It even has a live preview function, which is pretty neat. And the best part is that, after posting, I can just open Scribefire and edit the entry directly if I need to, without having to go to another page. This add-on has been a favourite of mine for a very long time. The only hassle is that I can't find the spellcheck.
  • Personas for Firefox: Not particulary functional, but I like it. I used to download themes for my Firefox routinely. Except that I would get tired of them pretty fast and then I would have to browse themes all over again to find something nice. But now I can scroll through dozens of skins for Firefox in a matter of seconds. Awesome!
  • Kwiclick: A recent find. I click the button on my browser and a window pops up that lets me search several sites at once. No more of having to open several different tabs to search Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. My favourite function is that I can open a YouTube video and pin it to a corner of the browser while I go through my other tabs. My only crib is that it doesn't offer Google Images or IMDb search. Also, it doesn't seem to recognize operators like 'define:' that make Google easier to use. However, since the developer is available on twitter and is very open to suggestions, I guess future versions will be better.
  • Google Notebook Extension: Pretty staightforward. Opens a mini Google Notebook at the bottom of the browser, where you can add anything interesting that you come across on your daily browsing.
  • GMail Manager:I'm sure most of you have multiple GMail accounts. I have four. Two for blogging purposes and two for real-world purposes. And it's always a pain to have to sign out of one account and go to another just to check for new mail that might not even be there. So what I use is GMail Manager. It lets me check multiple accounts from the bottom of my browser.
  • TwitterBar: A pretty common add-on, I believe. It lets me post to Twitter from my Firefox address bar. I'm not into Twitter enough to use TweetDeck or Twhirl or any other desktop application. So this works fine for me. If a tweet strikes me while I'm surfing, I just type it out into the Firefox address bar and post!
  • Better GMail 2: A compilation of a lot of useful Greasemonkey scripts. It shows any attachments by type, and unread counts in the Favicon. There's also a filter assistant, Folders4GMail, etc. Only for people REALLY addicted to GMail.
  • Download Statusbar: Pretty basic. Downloads show on a bar at the bottom of your browser rather than in annoying pop-up windows.
  • Greasemonkey: Ah, Greasemonkey! What would I do without it? It lets me play around with websites. I can add things and remove things - well, as long as people have written scripts for them, since I definitely can't! I use only three Greasemonkey scripts, and all three are amazing!
  1. Facebook Purity: The reason I installed Greasemonkey in the first place. You know how the Facebook Homepage currently has all the annoying quizzes that your idiotic friends ever took? Well, you can remove all of them by just installing this script! Brilliant, eh? Well, unless you're one of those people who take great pleasure in clicking 'Hide' for each of these things, like Naween!
  2. Integrated GMail: I've blogged about this awesome script before. It integrates Google Reader, Calendar and Notebook into your GMail page. You can minimize and maximize these as you wish. Very useful for those who are addicted to these!
  3. Troy's Twitter Script: For people who use Twitter from Firefox. It adds several functions to your Twitter page - an RT button, automatic URL expansion, autopagination (pulling in the next page when you reach the bottom of the current one), shrinking of URLs in your tweets. My favourite function is that it shows tweets as conversations. You can see what people are replying to when they tweet something, which enables easy people stalking. :D Also, images and videos get automatically embedded if the tweet contains any such links.
There are also a couple of briliant add-ons that I had to uninstall for various reasons.
  • StumbleUpon: No need to elaborate on this one. Takes you to random websites depending on your interests.
  • CoolIris: I started using this add-on back when it was called PicLens. The very first time I used it, I was completely blown away by the 3D display. Try it - you will be, too. Back then, I was using it to browse images, mostly - on Google, Facebook, etc. Then it became CoolIris and added a lot of functions like video search and what not. I uninstalled it soon after that because my Firefox kept getting stuck and I blamed this addon, for no reason in particular.  I'd recommend that you try it at least once - just for the awesome display.
So tada! There you go. An Absolute Amateur's Favourite Firefox Functionalities. (Ha! Double alliteration! I like!) Currently, these add-ons are the only things stopping me from switching to Chrome. So I hope I've managed to inspire the non-techies who read this blog into trying add-ons. And the techies, please let me know of any nice ones that you use.
• • •