Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Sanjay Story - Vinod Mehta

The cover is simple - black, with the title in yellow above, the author's name in white below, and a black-and-white photograph of Sanjay in the middle. His face looks familiar, maybe because of the similarity with Rajiv. Thick black sideburns, a receding hairline, a truculent mouth, uncertain eyes, that famous Indira nose. This, you think, is the man who terrorized one of the largest nations in the world for two whole years.

Vinod Mehta describes his 1978 book as one of a set of 'quickies' that came out in the months after the Emergency. The only difference being that while the others focused on the Emergency itself, he focused on Sanjay Gandhi, the so-called 'Extra Constitutional Authority' of Emergency times. Harper Collins has now re-published the book, with no changes apart from a 2012 Foreword by Mehta himself.

His focus on Sanjay was not unreasonable during that period. Sanjay may be largely forgotten today thanks to the succession of people with Gandhi surnames we have had to deal with since his death - Indira Gandhi herself, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, not to mention Maneka and Varun Gandhi. But during the Emergency, he was  seen as the force behind all the midnight knocks on the door, the forced sterilizations, the violent slum clearances.

Mehta sets out to write what he terms an 'objective' account of Sanjay. In truth, only the first two chapters seem even remotely sympathetic to him - they set out the strained relationship between Nehru and his wife, Feroze Gandhi's adulation of Kamala Nehru, his later courtship of and marriage to Indira, their estrangement. The young Sanjay is shown as a loner, though one who had an affinity for drawing the worst kind of boys and men to him.

Once the background is set, Mehta gets to the meat of the story. The next few chapters are devoted to each of the various unfortunate milestones of the Sanjay story - the setting up and bankruptcy of Maruti, Sanjay's takeover of the Youth Congress and conversion of it into a gunda gang, the mass sterilization program, his disastrous election campaign at Amethi. The tale is well-told - jaw-dropping, in fact, when you read about how much money both Sanjay and Rajiv made from Maruti during the initial years, when you learn that 14 million out of 104 million eligible couples in India were sterilized in exactly 270 days.

Mehta also provides a plausible explanation for the greatest mystery of the time - why Indira Gandhi decided to suspend the Emergency and hold elections. He says that she really thought she would win - despite the lack of press freedoms, the government actually functioned better during the Emergency. She thought people would respect that. Fortunately, it turned out the people of India knew better.

Apart from the Gandhi family, many familiar names find mention - Kamal Nath, Ambika Soni, Khushwant Singh, Navin Chawla. Kamal Nath is described as 'a voluble, loud lad who liked 'to throw his money around' and 'who failed two years in a row'.' Mehta also implies that Ambika Soni used her physical charms to climb to power. According to him, Khushwant Singh was a Sanjay apologist who unashamedly sang paeans to the young princeling, while Navin Chawla was a pliant officer who did whatever Sanjay wanted.

Mehta flounders a bit when he tries to analyze Sanjay's psychological makeup. Since Sanjay had very little education, he was a man who saw things in black and white - no subtle shades of grey for him. He didn't understand that issues could be complicated, with many rights and many wrongs. And then there's the eternal 'spoilt brat' explanation - his mother felt guilty about ignoring him as a child, and was very aware that he was a child of a broken marriage. So she could never say no to him.

The text seems to be unchanged from the 1978 edition. This lends it a poignant air, since the reader is aware that Sanjay died in a plane crash just two years later, leaving behind his young widow and a months-old son (who were eventually thrown out by his mother, and later joined the Opposition, etc etc).  However, the editors could have added a few explanations. The book refers informally to many people who were probably notorious at that point, but have cleverly hidden themselves amongst the pages of history now. 

Overall, the book is fast-paced, and reads almost like a political thriller. Mehta's prose is chatty and informal as usual, though he is very precise on his details.
• • •

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Out Of Touch With Reality

I lost three whole weeks of my life.

It started out innocently enough. I even remember the time - it was about 1 PM on a Sunday. I was bored with the book I was reading, and I wandered over to the bookshelf. Lazily flipping through some of the dozens of books I've bought on past binges at Blossom's, my eyes fell on a line of fat books I had propped up on top, above eye level - books 4-10 of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. (Here's a post on my history with these books.)

I had made Nikhil buy them for me nearly three years ago (he's no good as far as birthday gifts are concerned - fortunately, I always know just what I need). But I had given up on the series a couple of books later - partly because I got too busy to read, but mostly because I had started to find Jordan's prose repetitive and irritating. As Sandeep said, "If Nynaeve pulls her braid in anger ONE more time, I'm going to pull my own hair out."

I randomly pulled out one of the books, and read the back cover. And before I knew it, I was hooked. I had pulled out book 6 - Lord of Chaos. It is a thousand pages of closely printed text, but I finished it in three days flat. And then it was so natural to just keep on going through the rest, all the way to Book 10.

Jordan's prose continues to grate at times. But the story he spins is so delicious that I have decided to forgive him. His world is vivid and colourful, and it's easy to sink in completely. I have spent entire days just reading reading reading, often having to remind myself to bathe and eat. In fact, I was so addicted I used to get up at five in the morning to read. And hence the lost three weeks. I don't know what Nikhil thought of me - going off into another world for entire hours at a time.

Some time in the middle of Book 10 (the worst of the series by far), I suddenly realized in a panic that I didn't have the rest of the books. And I was determined to finish it this time - my third attempt. I went to Blossom's and bought Book 11. But they had only first hand versions of Book 12 and Book 13, and I wasn't so addicted that I would spend that much money on what is at the end of the day a potboiler. Besides I had some time - Book 14 isn't going to be published till January.

So I decided to order them online. India Book Store - that wonderful, brilliant page - told me that Homeshop18 had Book 12 cheapest, and I ordered it. A week later, they informed me by mail that they had cancelled my order because they were out of stock. Grr! And they had the temerity to end the mail with, "We hope you have enjoyed shopping with us." Of course I did.

I finally ordered book 12 on GOSF day, ironically at almost the price I would have got it second hand. It took nine days to arrive, and I'm very thankful for those nine days. I feel like I've come back to the real world after a long time. Though my reading has suffered. I'm unable to concentrate for long periods, probably because I've been spoilt by Jordan. I've started five books during these nine days, and finished only one. And that one was a book of short stories.

Here are the books I've started, by the way. I'm going to finish The Sanjay Story - it's a fascinating account, though written before Sanjay Gandhi died - and plunge back into Jordan's world. Goodbye, Real World!

• • •

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Difference Between Youth and Maturity

Hermann Hesse 1946

Herman Hesse, in Gertrude:

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one's wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn't one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school. "
• • •

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Sunday Market at Bangalore

Photo Credit: Akash Bhattacharya
It took me almost four years in Bangalore to hear of the Sunday Market for the first time. I stumbled upon a reference in a blog post and googled it out, curious. Many had blogged about it, and all said the same thing -  a paradise for bargain hunters on the lookout for old stuff. The market apparently starts in BVK Iyengar Road, and extends all the way to the KR Market Bridge. 

And of course, Nikhil and I had to go. Nikhil's heart starts beating wildly at the thought of anything old, even if it would be better labeled 'rubbish' rather than 'antique'. And me - I'm a bargain hunter of renown, though I stop being one just before the actual bargaining has to start. 

Sunday dawned cold but sunny. The market starts at seven-thirty and goes on till dark, the blog posts said. We got there around nine-thirty. 

And found - nothing. No bustling street, no stalls, no bargain-hunters. 

Puzzled, we asked around, and were told that the market starts further down, not actually at the beginning of the road. So we walked on down, and soon enough, were rewarded with the distant sight of a busy market. Harried shoppers, wandering cows, loud vendors; autos threading their way through the crowd; the road paved over with straws and cow dung; the wares displayed on open tarpaulin sheets. The very air was different over the market - dim and dusty and yellow.

The market begins with the clothe stalls. Almost right away, we figured out that we weren't the target audience for these shops. Most of the clothes were so shabby we couldn't figure out if they were second-hand or not. There were also plenty of colourful blankets, jackets, kids' clothes and towels. I wouldn't have minded a second look at the jackets; they looked good, with nice colours and fur-lined hoods.

Next up are the stalls selling old hardware - gears and spanners and nuts and bolts and other things I can't even name, most of them rusted and with their edges worn out, but cheap. For some reason, many of these stalls had old dumbbells of all shapes and sizes and colours. 

There were plenty of stalls selling kitchenware - old appliances, steel utensils, plastic containers, aluminium vessels. Cheap electronics stalls were common too - everything from phones to memory cards. The place is a true heaven for a technophile, especially somebody who likes putting something together from old pieces.

Unfortunately, we reached the end of the market without seeing anything we wanted to buy. There were some brass articles of questionable provenance, which I spent some time examining. They would have cleaned up well, but we felt it was likely they were stolen.

Refusing to be discouraged, we decided to strike off on one of the side streets leading off the main road. Ignoring the stink and jumping across a large dirty puddle, we entered a shady lane with stalls selling a variety of electronic devices. We spotted everything from old mobile phones to card swiping machines to non-digital cameras. 

And then we spotted the clock. Nikhil had been wanting to buy an antique clock for some time, and had been scouring e-bay looking for one. And here it was. A tall black wind-up clock with a pendulum, covered by a hinged front panel of ugly plywood and glass. The front panel had stickers of a colourful Hanuman and an Om symbol. When we asked the seller the price, he put up two fingers. And we were so clueless we couldn't figure out if that meant two hundred or two thousand. Turned out he meant two hundred. But of course.

We spent some time examining the clock, figuring out the extent of repairs needed: the mechanism would have to be replaced, as would the front panel. But in the end, we decided not to buy it. Nikhil's problem was that the clock wasn't antique-y enough. My grandmother has the real version, and it's a huge heavy one, nothing like the cheap plywood contraption we were holding.

We also spotted some nice-looking wall lamps. When we start on the interiors phase of our flat, we're definitely coming back here to score some knock-offs. 

And that was it. We told each other we weren't part of the target group for this market, and walked back leisurely, stopping at random stalls, enjoying the sights and sounds, avoiding the wandering cows. 

So overall? The Sunday Market is worth a dekko, definitely. Don't go there hoping to find anything you want to buy. If you do find something, consider yourself lucky and hope that the damn thing works. 
• • •

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Girl - Sonia Faleiro

Sonia Faleiro can write, alright. Her prose is luscious, ripe, full of delicious images. Having read the first few pages, you're willing to let yourself sink into the book, its evocative rendition of a rich green rainy Goa - a Goa the average tourist never gets to see.

The Girl is about, well, The Girl. In fact, it is so obsessed with The Girl that it begins with her funeral. A funeral that is secretly watched by two men who are in love with her. They're both wondering the same thing - why did she commit suicide?

Faleiro sets up the novel well - a suicide-mystery to be solved, an interesting set of characters, a great setting in the Village of the Dead.

But that's about it. She errs in not having enough meat in her story. She depends too much on her writing, on her images, on the atmosphere.

Which may be why, halfway through, the book starts to grate. The descriptions are fine and all, you think, but how long will unlikely things keep melting/bursting/ripening? Can't things just stay the way they are supposed to stay? Tell us the story, dammit!

I had the sense that there were a lot of strings that Faleiro could have explored further - The Girl's relationships with her on-and-off boyfriend Luke and her friend Simon; Simon's mother Lula; the mysterious disappearance of the village priest. Maybe Faleiro just got sick of The Girl and wanted to finish the book quickly, just like reader does half-way through.
• • •

Thursday, November 08, 2012

In Other Rooms, Other Worlds - Daniyal Mueenuddin

The back cover of the book shows a bearded man with nice eyes. Looking at his eyes, you're already certain that this is going to be a good read. And the testimonials on the first few pages reinforce the belief. The first story is a bit disappointing, and you wonder whether to continue reading. But then you do read the next one, and you're hooked. 

Daniyal Mueenuddin's first book In Other Rooms, Other Worlds is a collection of eight stories, set mostly in Pakistan. Each story is linked in some way with the industrialist K K Harouni, sometimes through his nephew Sohail Harouni.

The best story in the collection is the longest one - Lily. The eponymous character is a Pakistani socialite who believes she wants a different life from the shallow one she is living right now. She chooses marriage as the way to get that life. But does she really want peace and quiet? Will she be happy living in rural Punjab, or will she miss all the drinking and the sleeping around associated with her former life? Mueenuddin does a good job of showing her indecision, of framing this turning point within the larger journey of her life. 

The other stories that are more than worth a read are A Spoiled Man (about an old man who enters Sohail Harouni's service - a poignant tale of a simple life), Our Lady of Paris (Sohail Harouni's mother tries to dissuade an American girl from continuing to date Sohail) and Saleema (the life of a woman employed in K K Harouni's service - her love story, and its ending). 

Mueenuddin's prose is simple, but never flat (something that I did experience with Jhumpa Lahiri's writing in The Namesake). Here's one of my favourite paragraphs, from Our Lady of Paris:
She sat back and looked up at the stars, at the moon framed by the pollarded branches of a lime tree, stark without leaves. The same stars lit the snowfield behind her house in Connecticut. She would never again be twenty-one in an old hotel in the Loire Valley in France.
Reading the book, it's hard to ignore how wrong things are in Pakistan - the rich are rich beyond belief, and the poor are poor beyond suffering. The rich vacation in foreign countries, their children are regularly educated abroad, they maintain separate summer homes abroad. And the luckier among the poor serve the rich, practically worshiping them, and yet siphoning off money wherever they can. 

One of the best aspects of the book is the effortless way in which it floats between these two different worlds - the luxurious idleness of the rich and famous, and the back-breaking hardship of the poorest of the poor.  It's not hard to see why, once you read the short note about Mueenuddin's life. He spent several years in the United States, before returning to Pakistan and living on a farm. 

Overall, this book is definitely an undiscovered gem. Not only does it showcase life in Pakistan, it's also a peep into life in general, with careful portraits of people, their aspirations, their lives.
• • •

Monday, November 05, 2012

Why We Don't Own A Car

Photo Credit: Vijay Sonar

When Nikhil and I got married, it was the Baby Question I was most worried about. Since I had married too early to give old aunties the opportunity to ask me the "So when are you getting married?" question, I thought said aunties wouldn't waste much time asking the "So when do we see a kunji kaal (little leg)?" question.

It turned out I hadn't kept up with the times. The question we get asked most these days is another one altogether. Yup, you guessed it.

"Why haven't you bought a car yet?"

Really, it's incredible. Our parents, close friends, distant relatives - somehow, the absence of a car in our garage seems to vex them no end. Their logic is simple - a  DINK husband and wife, both of whom have been working for many years, should have a car. The End.

Nikhil usually escapes the question by passing the baton to me, "My wife won't let me buy one."

I look daggers at him, but it's true - I'm the one who has been delaying the purchase.

My brain usually wants to respond to the question with another one, "Why SHOULD we buy a car?" And then, ideally, go off into a rant about how the correlation between social status and car ownership is just another plot of the bourgeois capitalists, etc etc. (See, my mallu communist blood hasn't gone dry, despite three years in the corporate world.)

But since I have more tact than I'm usually given credit for, I don't do that. Instead, I choose one of the many many reasons I have carefully listed out in my head. In fact, if you're a close friend, you'll be honoured with more than one reason. Here are my Top Ten, in no particular order:
  1. Because we don't need one. Nikhil already has a bike. There are just two of us, and we're both fit enough to get on the bike, and young enough for it to not seem pathetic. The day we start a family (where family is defined as including a baby), that day we'll buy a car. I promise.
  2. Because it doesn't make sense in Bangalore. If you've ever experienced Bangalore traffic, you'll know why. And if you haven't - well, good for you. A bike moves about ten times faster than a car in Bangalore.
  3. Because we just bought a lake-facing third-floor apartment, yo! And we don't have any spare change at the moment, yo!
  5. Because it makes more sense to hire a taxi when we can't do without a car. For example, when the parents visit, or the time we were going all around Bangalore looking for the perfect apartment. We spend about a thousand bucks on taxis per month, which is obviously less than most people spend on petrol per month.
  6. Because Nikhil doesn't drive very well, and I don't drive at all. The reason Nikhil doesn't drive very well is that he only gets to drive when we go home to visit his parents. And the reason I don't drive at all is a long story involving a jumpy side-seat driver of a father who was too handy with the hand-brake - honestly, that story deserves a whole other blog post of its own.
  7. Because I really, REALLY worry about the environment - unlike, apparently, everybody else I know. I don't see how we're going to make it to the next century if we keep on like this. And not buying a car is my tiny way of not ruining the environment.
  8. Because of the number of times I have been stuck in traffic (in a bus, of course), and whole-heartedly cursed the idiots who drive themselves to work ALL ALONE in their big fat SUVs every day, thus adding to Bangalore's pollution levels as well as its traffic.
  9. Because it would mean paying our non-tax-paying multiple-flat-owning landlord another six hundred rupees per month for a parking spot, and I think that's daylight robbery.
  10. Because Bangalore has a mostly kick-ass public transportation system (except for the Metro which might as well not exist).
  11. Because it's what's expected. And for once in my life, I don't want to do what's expected.
  12. Because a car is a depreciating asset, as opposed to an apartment. (Dear Fin guys, I don't know if I used that term correctly, but please don't lecture me, okay? What I meant was that its price decreases over time, as opposed to a house. That's all. Thank you.)
  13. Because - I might as well admit it - I'm a cheapskate.
  14. Because I feel good when I travel by public transport. I feel all superior to the idiots who drive their own cars, I get to read a book in peace, I get to observe my fellow travellers, I'm spared the tension of driving in the messy Bangalore traffic, I feel like I'm still young and in college.
  15. Because I don't want to buy into the story the Point One Percent are selling, and become part of the mindless Matrix.
There. I was supposed to stick to ten, but I had so many more.

Do you own a car? Do you agree with the above? Will you decide not to buy a car just because you can afford to? Do you choose to travel by public transport when it's convenient? Do you car-pool? Do you think it lowers your social status to travel by public transport - buses, the Metro, etc? Do you want to be a puppet of the car manufacturers? Have I managed to change your thinking at least a little bit?

I really, really want to know. 
• • •

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Namesake - Jhumpa Lahiri

It was unfortunate, perhaps, that I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake immediately after reading Toni Morrison's Paradise. I can't blame anybody but myself - it was a conscious decision to pick a quick light read. I had seen trailers of the movie adaptation, but remembered nothing more than that it was about a guy named Gogol.

The thing is, after Morrison's novel, with all its layers and perspectives and sheer fluidity of language, Lahiri's book seems a bit flat. Unfair, I know, to compare a young writer's second book (and first novel) to one written by a Nobel Prize winner, but there it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Namesake follows the life of Gogol Ganguly, whose father Ashoke names him after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Ashoke believes that it was a page of Writer Gogol's collection of short stories that saved him from dying in a train accident. However, Gogol Ganguly hates the name, and changes it to Nikhil as soon as he can. He continues to be called Gogol by his family and everybody who knew him as a child, even while the outside world knows him as Nikhil Ganguly the Architect.

This dual identity is symbolic of the Bengali-American divide that Gogol experiences - the love and dutifulness of his parents in Boston contrasted against his life in New York and the succession of beautiful girls he dates.

Lahiri's writing works best when she is focusing on the female characters - Gogol's mother Ashima during her pregnancy and as a new mother, his wife Moushomi a year into their marriage. Even Ashoke's perspective of the train wreck is well done. It's only when she's focusing on Gogol (in the middle section of the book) that she falls flat. Gogol has no personality, no will of his own. The reader is forced to why so many implausibly beautiful, incredibly well-read women date him. Do such women exist in real life?

Strangely enough, the book works despite this huge Gogol-shaped hole. It succeeds in its attempt to showcase the contrast between the first generation immigrants and their children. Ashima was the character I liked the most, though she is so mild, so dependent on her husband, so set in her ways. If only the novel had been about her and Ashoke!
• • •

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood

The problem with writing about the biggies is that it can never be a review - because you're obviously not qualified to review. At best, it can be "This is what I thought about this book the first time I read it" - a note for a curious Future You. Because a book like this, you can't read it just once. Even as you're reading it, you're already planning to read it again.

The Handmaid's Tale was a book I had been itching to get my hands on for some time. The premise was delicious - a dystopian future in which women have been divided according to the functions the males have assigned them. Some women are housekeepers and nothing else. The women who are still fertile are turned into "handmaids", assigned to high-ranking men with infertile wives - they have to have sex with these men once a month, so as to increase the population. Others are Econowives, who carry out all functions for the poorer men.

How and why does the world end up like this? That was what I wanted to know.

The how is depressingly simple, disturbingly possible. In a world where a woman's wealth is in her bank account, it is easy to block her access to it. It is easy to pass a decree that women are no longer entitled to jobs, can no longer have independent identities separate from their husbands.

And why? It is done in order to protect the women themselves, apparently. Violence against women has been increasing. Objectification is at its peak, porn and prostitution abundant. So the men come up with this scheme to "protect" the women. The women were presumably not consulted.

The story is told through the eyes of "Offred", whose real name we never know. Her given name is nothing more than "Of Fred", Fred being the Commander she is assigned to. The name signifies the fact that she doesn't have an identity, she is just a possession. She exists in the household only because her womb still functions. The Commander can have a child with her - a child who will belong to the Commander and his wife, a child she will have no claim on.

Offred does mention that this system exists only in her country, the country of Giliad, formed on what used to the USA or maybe Canada. A group of Japanese tourists visit, dressed in a fashion that would have been normal for Offred before Giliad was formed. They ask Offred if she is happy. Conscious of the consequences of giving a true answer, she says yes. And we are reminded forcefully, so forcefully, of the societies all over the world today where women are similarly repressed - countries where they are forced behind the black curtain of the hijab, where they are not allowed to vote, where they can't drive, can't have a job. Giliad does exist today - it is not a hypothetical place.

As always, Atwood's prose is beautiful. I was torn between the need to hastily read ahead, because the plot is so engrossing, and the desire to linger over some of the more lyrical passages.

Atwood is famous for her feminist writings. Her first novel was overtly feminist, even though it was written in the era before feminism. Her Booker winner was more subtly so. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred is a complicated individual. Before Giliad happened, she considered herself a post-feminist, as opposed to her mother, an ardent feminist. She thought that she didn't really need to fight for women's rights because her mother's generation had already done what was needed. And now in Giliad, there is the need to fight, but she is too mild an individual to be able to.

The book does drag a bit in the middle, but picks up pace and twists near the end. The climax, however, is abrupt - too abrupt. The reader is left with a feeling of discontent, of having been led on. There could have been - should have been - more. We want to follow Offred on her final journey (nope, I'm not giving anything away here), but are not allowed to. 
• • •

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Watching Ourselves Grow Old

And all of us are going old. It was inevitable, of course. But it's sad, nonetheless.

When will we realize that we are? Growing old, I mean. When will we realize that we can't continue the same lifestyles we always had? That we're no longer immortal. That Time has touched us with his black brush, that we can no longer remain arrogant, uncaring. That we can longer eat and drink and smoke and smoke up like we used to.

When others tell us? When we watch television shows in which it happens to other people, and it strikes us in a blinding epiphany? When our bellies overhang our belts by a certain number of inches (because they already do, you know)? When we wake up from restless sleep, and try to decode the unsettling dreams we struggled through? When a friend dies one day - a heart attack, a brain hemorrhage, or something more innocuous?

'Carpe Diem' is so much more poignant now. Because the number of days we have, they dwindle. They're no longer infinite, stretching ahead of us like an endless golden beach.

It's easy to waste a day, many days. Just sit still in a corner, and the day is gone. That's good in a way, because it helps us survive. But it's also bad, because you wake up one morning, and your life is spent, over, wasted. How do you make it count?

How do you manage to get up from the couch in front of the television, how do you stop your hand from stuffing your mouth, how do you stop doing what's easy and accepted and acceptable? How do you figure out what you want to do? And if it's different from what you're doing right now, how do you make that switch?

It irritates me, in a way. That people are okay to do this. That they're not even aware of their own potential, of what they're wasting. It worries me that I'm the only who's worried.

I tell myself I'm not like them, that I'm not wasting my life. But me, what am I doing? Do I know what I want, am I working towards it?

A flat on a lake-shore. A green painting on a wall. Enough money to travel and see the world. Fulfillment, the knowledge that what I'm doing makes a difference. Books, lots of books, and enough time to read them. A book of my own, but only if it's good. These are some of the things I want, things I have, things I would like more of.

And what I don't want? No TV. No car. No middle-class urban life. Trainspotting pretty much summarized it for me. Maybe I should put it up on a wall, as a reminder. Though it may be too late already.

• • •

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Ukranians, Families and Communism

Most of us, we spend our lives trying to convert our ordinariness into extra-ordinariness. But people who have been scorched by extraordinary events, they spend their lives trying to get back to normal, to escape the pollution and the corruption of what happened to them.

Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is one such story. On the face of it, it's the story of an 84-year-old Ukranian widower settled in the UK, who falls for a 36-year-old Ukranian woman with fake blond hair and fake boobs. The woman (Valentina) is after the passport that she can get by marrying him. The man's two daughters try to get their father to see reason, to not marry her. When that doesn't work, they try to prove the marriage false and later on to convince him to divorce her.

Lewycka uses this story to explore the complexities of family relationships. The love-hate relationship between the two sisters, the hate-hate relationship between the father and the elder daughter, the love-love relationship between the late mother and two daughters. The trauma that Valentina causes in their lives brings them closer together, helps them understand things about their family that they didn't before, causes them to work through long-held grudges and misunderstandings.

By narrating the story of how the old man and his wife landed in England, Lewycka also explores the century old struggle between communism and capitalism, the excesses of both. Communism gets the worst of her treatment - the 1932 famine that Stalin imposed upon Ukranians to integrate them better into the Soviet Union, the independence struggle that Ukranian Radicals waged against the Soviet Union. The couple also survive Nazi camps and World War II before landing up in England.

A story about a bunch of Ukranians in England could easily have been about a clash of the cultures, but Lewycka thankfully doesn't choose that easy route. The story is set very firmly amongst the Ukranians, with the outside world barely getting a peep in.

Lewycka's greatest merit is that she chooses to show, not tell. The younger daughter is the narrator, and she is just as caught up in the family politics as the rest of the crazy characters. It's up to the reader to interpret her subjective account of the entire ordeal. Maybe Valentina is not as evil as she is shown to be? Maybe the late mother, whom the daughter has always worshiped, also used their father as an escape route? Maybe there is a reason their father is as crazy as he is?

The book's cover says it's a comic novel. But I couldn't see anything comic about it. What's funny about old age, about starvation, about the struggle to survive other people's cruelty? I guess it depends on the reader, as much else does in this book. 
• • •

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Manu Joseph's Illicit Happiness

If books could be judged by their covers, then Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People would be funny, cheerful, and eminently edible - in a mango ice-cream kind of way. Well, except for the corpse hanging from the top, of course.

The book largely does live up to the promises its cover makes. It's the story of a dysfunctional Malayali Christian family living in Madras of the 1990s. The father is a failed writer, a journalist, a drunkard. The mother talks to the walls and tries to find dignity in poverty. The younger son is bad at maths, and has to tell himself to 'put fight' every day, just to find the courage to step out of the house. And the elder son, Unni, the bright one, the cartoonist, the glue that held the family together, committed suicide at the age of seventeen.

The book takes up the tale three years after the suicide, when the father, Chacko, suddenly decides to investigate why his son killed himself. He speaks to Unni's friends one by one, he pores over the cartoons that Unni left behind, he goes over each of Unni's actions that day. The mother, Mariamma, wants to know only one thing - why did her beloved Unni not leave a suicide note, to tell her why he was leaving her?

Chacko's search leads him into the shadowy world of philosophy. Unni's conviction that the fight between good and evil has already been won by evil, that the world is an illusion to make people think that the fight is still on, that he is one of the few 'mutated beings' that Nature has created, who can see through the web. (Keanu Reeves, anybody?)

Most teenagers have such illusions at some time or the other. But they leave them behind with their acne and their confidence issues and their awkwardness, when they step into adulthood. Why did Unni not survive, then? Unni, who was bright enough not to fall for the engineering frenzy, who could lead the rest of his class into mischief if he wanted to, who read psychiatric books with names nobody could understand.

Joseph uses the story to explore dysfunctionality, the struggle to fit into society's norms and expectations. Each of the characters has something that doesn't let them fit into the Tam-Brahm wannabe-engineer-children good-husband good-housewife building they live in. He also explores the theme of men's sexual violence on women - pats and prods on the street, an attack by a familiar neighbour, an attempted rape by the side of a village stream.

Yes, there is philosophy, of the teenagerish, 'why-do-I-exist' kind. There is also humour, of the wry kind. But there is also a slight tendency to judge, to lay down the anti-engineering preaching with a heavy hand.

The book meanders a bit in the middle, but finds itself a rapid denouement later on - many apparently diverse strings coming together and meshing with each other quickly to show us the real pattern. It leaves us with a sense of waste, and more than a tinge of sorrow - a natural feeling about any suicide, I suppose.

This second novel from Joseph is definitely a step up from the previous one, Serious Men, both in terms of language and its characters. Serious Men had cardboard cutout characters - the flattest (no reverse pun intended!) of whom was Oparna, who could have been so much more. But in TIHOOP,  Joseph has managed to create better rounded characters. Thoma is funny, Mariamma is heart-wrenching, Chacko is pathetic. Unni remains shadowy, which is natural, given that we only hear about him from other people. 
• • •

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Little Red Riding Hood

Way back in 2004-05, just after this blog began, I was obsessed with a site called east of the web. It was  a place for wannabe writers, where people posted stories, critiqued other people's stories and had their own stories critiqued in turn. And the best part was that there were some decent quality writers there, and you could actually find some well-written stories among the blah ones.

Inspired by some of the stuff I read on the site, I wrote a couple of stories as well, one of which was particularly well-received. But then, as usually happens, I lost interest, and stopped writing.

East of the web shut down that section of its site some time ago, and I thought I had lost those two stories, since the old desktop had also crashed. Recently, it struck me that I could just go to and find them. It took some searching, because I couldn't remember when exactly I had posted those stories, but I found them!

The first story wasn't that great, but I realized that the second one (the one that was well-received) was actually decent. Slightly wannabe, yes - but crisp sentences, a well-paced narrative, good descriptions. Seventeen-year-old me was actually a passable writer - much better than 25-year-old me, at any rate. Though I was reading it after a gap of seven years, there were very few sentences that I would have changed. 

So here it is, with only a couple of typos corrected. 


"Excuse me, Mr. Wolf, could you tell me the way to Grandma's house, please?"
"Of course, little girl. Take this right fork."
"Thank you, Mr. Wolf. Have a nice day."
"You too, young lady. You too."

I creep through the undergrowth to the bright light. The sunlight is warm on the two figures standing face-to-face on the wide path. They are different; yet complement each other – the tall, lean wolf in a morning coat and top hat and the small, chubby girl in her white frock and red cloak. The sight of her floods my mouth with anticipation. I can almost taste those white legs peaking out from beneath the folds of the cloak. The fair hair escapes the hood of her cloak and waves invitingly at me. It takes all of me to not jump on her that very second.

But now I have a decision to make. The wolf or the girl? Well, I've always hated the scenic route, so I choose the wolf. 

It is easier to follow the wolf than the girl. I know that as soon as he turns the first corner on the left-hand fork, he will make a straight dash for Grandma’s house. For that is how the story goes. 

I wait a few moments while she hesitates between the two forks in the road – the one dark and shaded by tall curving trees; the other sunlit and filled with flowers and butterflies and bees. Finally, the light wins her heart. She smiles suddenly and skips down the right fork. 

So. The two protagonists are on their way to their common final resting place. My face – the last thing they shall probably see in their lives – curves into a leer: the moment I have been waiting for is about to arrive. I set off along the grass flattened only a few moments before by the wolf’s greedy lope.


The wolf is standing by the edge of the woods. He is naked. His pretensions to sophistication have been torn away in his haste. He is staring at Grandma’s house. It rises above us on a hill; its white fencing and its green grass and its red roof and its cheerful yellow curtains are poignant gestures of defiance against the dark, unwholesome woods. 

Suddenly, he sniffs the air. I tense, wondering if he has sensed me. He turns his long snout in my direction and his yellow eyes gleam for a moment. Slowly, he pads towards me. 

Adrenalin pumps its way through me in a sudden rush. I ease the knife out of my pocket. 

The snick of the unfolding blade makes him hesitate a moment. But he still comes on, sure of his ground.

It is over in a few seconds. In a disappointingly short while, he has lunged at me, I have sliced his throat and his blood floods the grass. Like a true professional, I have sidestepped the spurt of blood and I am clean: no part of me brands me a murderer.

I look down upon his body. His rough fur is red. A gash splits his throat like a horrible leer. I feel no pity, for he would have done the same to me.


I have done my reconnaissance earlier and I know that approaching the house directly would be folly. Grandma, an invalid, has had her bed positioned so that she can see down the garden path. 

So, keeping well inside the woods, I circle to the back of the house. Here, the trees creep almost to the back door before being tamed. I have no trouble getting in. 

The kitchen is golden, warm and musty in the afternoon sunlight. Yellow cabinets line the whitewashed wall. Spoons and utensils hang from hooks below them. A small wooden table sits in the middle, adorned with a bowl of fruit. I pick up the carving knife placed conveniently on the sideboard.

The door to Grandma’s bedroom is open. I walk in. The knife lies casually in my hand. She is staring out the window, no doubt awaiting her little girl. 

The room, again, is warm and golden – as everything seems to be this afternoon. The overwhelming illusion is of flowers: the curtain and the bed linen and the wallpaper are patterned with white lilies; half a dozen vases full of flowers adorn every available surface; she is wearing a white nightdress with a gauze rose at the neck; an elusive scent of jasmine hangs heavy in the air. 

I clear my throat. She turns her head and sees me. Her eyes skim down to the knife in my hand. 

“Who are you?” 

Slowly and silently, I advance to the bed. 

Her eyes widen with fear and helplessness. They flutter around the room, seeking to escape this horrible reality. But they cannot escape the knife. They keep coming back to pierce themselves on its sharp edge, gleaming golden in the light. 

“Please… Take anything you want… I won’t even tell anyone… my silver is in the sideboard….”

Her voice is squeaky with terror. She is speaking to the knife: she cannot take her eyes away from it. 

Finally, my silence draws her gaze my way. She looks up at my face. What she sees there makes her eyes flee back to the comfort of the knife. 

The certainty of death makes a person less selfish. She suddenly thinks of her grandchild. I can almost see the thought being processed by her brain: the fear in her eyes is replaced by the initial shock as the thought strikes her; then cunning comes on, as she wonders how to draw this assailant away from her precious. Should she tell me about the child and hope that I have some grain of mercy left in me? Or should she strike out at me, so that I kill her quickly and take whatever I have to take and run before the child arrives?

The look in my eyes has left her with no doubts as to the amount of mercy I have in my soul. She steals a quick look up at my face. That is her undoing. 

The acrid stench of human excreta fills the room. I curse under my breath. Her head lolls against the flowery pillow. At least, there is no blood. 

I smile to myself as I lift her feather-light body and stuff it into the closet. Look at me: I kill old wolves with knives and old women with smiles. 

I change the bedcovers, open the window wide and find the air-freshener. The things we murderers have to do. 

I slip on another nightdress and a cap and I settle down in the bed to wait.


She skips up the garden, showing off to her grandmother. Her path zigzags, as she runs after bees and stops to sniff flowers. She shrieks with delight as a butterfly brushes its wings against her face. She turns up her face at the sun and lets down her hood so that the wind can brush her hair.

Somehow, she finally makes it to the door.

“Grandma! I’m home!” The words echo through the house. 

She hums a nursery rhyme as, out of sight, she sheds her cloak.

“Grandma! Look what I’ve…” The childish voice stops mid sentence as she steps into the room. 

I wonder if she can smell her dead grandmother’s pee. Or did she recognize me under the cap? 

“So, you’ve finally found me,” her voice is sultry. The warmth in the room increases tenfold. 

“How… how did you recognize me?” 

My confidence has drained away and my voice is sweaty with fear. Now that the element of surprise is lost, my fate is certain. 

“That old bitch would never have bed linen that didn’t match the curtains,” she says dismissively. 

“Did He send you?”

“Who else?”


“Because you weren’t doing anything, you lazy old prick!”

“Well, I was sent only sixteen human years ago, you know,” I try without success to keep the wail out of my voice. 

“Sixteen years! I’ve been here only six years and look at what I’ve done!”

“So it WAS you.”

“Didn’t you recognize my style, darling? You prey on old women. I prey on young men,” she laughs a hoary laugh.

She sits on the bed and places her hand on my knee. It is strange to be in a flowery nightdress and cap and have my old partner, in a six-year-old human body, place her chubby hand on my knee. But we have been in more ridiculous situations before, far back into the millions of years we have been together. 

But that was long ages ago: back when I was hers and she was mine and we roamed the world together in elaborate disguises, wrecking havoc and spreading evil among unsuspecting animals.

Now she is His and she has more powers than me. And she is about to vanquish me like she would crush an irritating fly. 

I shudder, thinking of the pain. The pain of death is much worse than the pain of birth. Though I have experienced it many times before, it still fills me with fear. 

“You KNOW there is barely room for one here.”

Is that compassion I hear in her voice – compassion for an old fool who has outlived his usefulness and who refuses to change with the times? 

I look down at my pink nightgown and wish for a simple life. 

She too looks down at me. Contempt replaces the compassion. Her eyes give lie to the small frame and the golden hair and the pudgy cheeks and the white dress and the red shoes. She raises her hand. My eyes fill with tears.


Original story with all the comments here on Web Archive.
• • •

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Customer Is Always Right!

This is a very long and bad-tempered rant against telecom companies, written mostly to get a lot of frustration out of my system. 

The market economy - that great panacea for all consumer ills. Once the market was freed up, we were promised, we would never be short-changed by all-powerful companies again. Instead, the companies would be scared of us, the consumers, because we would be able to walk out and go to the nearest competitor in a jiffy.

Ha! I say to that. Double, triple, HA!

It all started at our last house in Koramangala, that most elite of all Bangalore neighbourhoods. We had just got married, and we needed the internet at our house, like all young people.  Both of us had had Airtel broadband at our previous houses, and had been happy enough with it. So we called them up, they gave us some options, and we chose our plan.

Things went fine enough initially. And then it started. Every half an hour, the net would suddenly disappear. It would come back again after ten-fifteen minutes, but that wasn't exactly what we were paying a bomb for every month, was it? It was extremely frustrating, especially if one of us was trying to work from home.

So we called up Airtel Customer Care, dumb dutiful customers that we were. They sent somebody. And of course, as generally happens when the service guy arrives, the net worked fine. The guy presumably diagnosed the problem as our joint hypochondria, and went away.

And then the problem started again. The entire Customer Care-Service Guy-No Problems cycle played out twice more before they decided that it was a hardware problem.

"Okay great," we said, "Now that you've diagnosed the problem, fix it."
"Um, no ma'am," they said, "We can't."
"Eh? Why not?"
"You need to talk to our hardware supplier, Alcatel-Lucent."
"Eh? Why should I talk to them? I'm your customer, not theirs!"
"Still, ma'am. Only they can service this. This is their number."
"Okay wait," I said, unable to believe this. "Let me get this straight. I use Airtel Broadband. Airtel uses Alcatel hardware. But if there's a problem with the Alcatel hardware, I have to contact Alcatel-Lucent, even though I'm not their customer?"
"Yes, ma'am."
"Brilliant. Very logical."

Anyway, I gave up, and called the Alcatel-Lucent guys. They came and did something. The problem continued.

Nikhil escalated to every single person possible, including the Airtel CEO for Karnataka. He spammed them on Twitter, he called up Customer Care every day - I guess the poor Customer Care guys became very familiar with his name, his voice and his sheer frustration with their system.

This continued for a couple of months. In September, we finally decided to give up on Airtel. Our faith in private companies irrevocably gone, we decided to switch to BSNL. People who had used BSNL Broadband said it was good.

Nikhil applied online and got two calls from their people within a day. Strangely enough, the first guy said he was from the Peenya exchange - a place so far way from Koramangala it might as well be in another city. When the second guy called up, Nikhil mentioned the first caller to him. The Koramangala guy asked us not to talk to the Peenya guy, because he wasn't authorized to deal with the Koramangala area.

But apart from that little bout of intra-organizational territory poaching, BSNL was just wonderful. We had our new connection within a week, and to have non-stop broadband was such a luxury after the Airtel experience! Everything worked fine till May, when we moved to CV Raman Nagar, about ten kilometers away from Koramangala.

We shifted on 2nd May, and Nikhil submitted an application on 5th May to have the phone transferred from Koramangala to CV Raman Nagar. Ah, that accursed date of 5th May - how many times we have referred to that date since, in frustrated phone calls to frustrating people!

Here's a rough timeline of what happened.

  1. 5th May - The application for the transfer of the connection is submitted at the Koramangala customer care office in the BDA complex.
  2. 9th - 11th May - We call up BSNL customer care to get the status of the application. They tell us that they can only answer technical help calls, and give us the number of the Indira Nagar exchange. We call the Indra Nagar exchange (since CV Raman Nagar apparently doesn't have a separate exchange), and are repeatedly told that the application is still pending at Koramangala. The number of the Koramangala office isn't available online, and we can't contact them. The Indira Nagar people claim, incredibly enough, that they don't have the number of the Koramangala office.
  3. 12th May - Finally, a frustrated Nikhil goes to the Koramangala office. He gets there at 9:30, not realizing that government offices start working only after 10:30. He is asked to wait, and then, at 10:30, is told that the office won't be functioning that day since it's a second Saturday! #$^@^&^&!!
  4. 13th May - 20th May - No following up on our part, since both of us are away from the house. On 18th, Nikhil gets a call from somebody asking if he knows a BSNL number that's close to our place. Since we've recently moved, we obviously don't know such a number.
  5. 21st May - 25th May - The Indira Nagar exchange still claims that the application is pending at Koramangala. They give us the name and mobile number of the person in Koramangala who is supposed to process it, but the number is always switched off. Nikhil reaches the end of his tether and calls up higher and higher people in the BSNL hierarchy. All of them promise action, but nothing happens.
  6. 26th May morning - Finally, I get tired of listening to Nikhil yelling at different people everyday, and decide to go to Koramangala myself. I get there at around 11:30, and I explain the problem. They show me a register which says the application has been processed on 8th May. Then why, I ask, are the Indira Nagar people saying that you have not processed it? They have no answer. They stop responding to my repeated questions after a while. They write the Indira Nagar exchange's phone number on a piece of paper and mutely give it to me. I already have this number, I tell them. I ask them if they can talk to the Indira Nagar people directly and sort out the confusion. They get up and walk away from the desk. True story.
  7. 26th May afternoon - I am back to calling up the Indira Nagar exchange. "Ah yes, Nikhil's number, right?" they say - like the Airtel Customer Care people, the BSNL guys have also become very familiar with Nikhil. "It is still pending at Koramangala. But don't worry ma'am - the AM has taken it up. It will be sorted out soon." The AM, I assume, is one of the poor people Nikhil has called up over the last one week.
  8. 27th May - 1st June - "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "Ma'am, it is still pending at Koramangala."  "But don't worry ma'am - the AM has taken it up. It will be sorted out soon." Oh, yay.
  9. 2nd June - I finally get a kind-hearted girl on the phone. She gives me the usual reply, but says she will call up Koramangala and get this sorted out. She asks me to call back in ten minutes. I call back, and she says she has spoken to Koramangala. She gives me the Koramangala office's number, and says I can follow up with them if needed. This girl is the first (and probably last) helpful person we have interacted with in the entire duration. If only somebody had done this earlier, we could have saved four weeks of following up.
  10. 4th June - I call up the number she has given me. The lady tells me that the application has been processed and is now with the Indira Nagar exchange. She even gives me our new telephone number. With tears of joy in my eyes, I listen to angels singing in heaven. It is done! Surely, we will get our phone this week!
  11. 5th June - I call up the Indira Nagar exchange again. The lady says they have processed it, and she gives me the number of the CV Raman Nagar office - the people who will presumably install the phone. Things seem to be moving pretty quickly now!
  12. 7th June - I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady says, "Final testing is going on. You will get it by today."
  13. 8th June -  I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady says, "There was some problem with the wiring. We have returned it and have got the new wiring. Final testing is going on. You will get it by today."
  14. 9th June - I call up the CV Raman Nagar office. The lady, presumably frustrated with me, gives me the number of some guy named Swaminathan with whom it is pending. I call up Swaminathan. His number is not accepting any calls. I leave him a message. 
And that's where it stands. Half an hour ago, Nikhil finally called up Mr A P Bhatt, the BSNL Head for Karnataka. He was quite nice and helpful, especially considering the fact that he was called on his residence number on a second Saturday. That can't fun. He said he would get it sorted out on Monday. But BSNL Karnataka and BSNL Bangalore are apparently different entities, so I'm not sure what he can do.

Anyway, the several morals of the story are:
  • The customer is always screwed - never mind if it's a public company or a private company. 
  • Companies should have a single Customer Care helpline. We had to follow up on this application through three different exchanges because the BSNL Customer Care guys said they would be able to address only technical queries.
  • Companies should have well-built websites. If only we had been able to get the Koramangala office's number on their site, we wouldn't have had to bug the Indira Nagar people so much.
  • Moral for HR people: It's great that you have incentives for the sales guys. This will help the customers get their connections quickly, but: (a) the incentives can back-fire, given the Peenya story; (b) you're missing out minor stuff like transferring connections on time, or behaving well with customers. I wonder if there are SLAs for phone transfers.
• • •

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The House

The silence, it tip-toes into the room behind the shadows. The afternoon had been yellow with the sounds of playing children. Now back to the darkness and the dustiness.

She doesn't like the harsh whiteness of tubelights - they remind her of hospitals and offices. She likes yellow light - sunshine, candles, small bulbs hidden behind creamy white paper. Yellow light makes everything shine - her blue and white china, the hundred year old wood of the table, even her cheap steel spoons. Yellow light makes life friendlier.

Her children berate her, of course. "You'll ruin your eyes, Amma," says the eldest from his first world home in Jersey. "Amma! You'll walk into something and break your bones," warns the youngest, balancing a baby in one hand and the phone in the other. The middle one stopped caring many years ago, after he got married. They want her to sell the house, to move in with them. Spend four months of the year with each of them, flitting from child to child like a lost migratory bird.

The house is shut up, the tables and chairs covered in dusty drapes. She uses just three rooms - the kitchen, the dining room, and her bedroom. She knows these rooms inside out, can find her way around in the darkness.

The afternoons are good, the children from the orphanage come to play. They are good children, they don't come anywhere near the house. Or maybe they are scared of her, she doesn't know. She supposes she must seem scary, with her mouldy eyes and the spots on her hands and her slow walk. Old age always did frighten youth, even when she was young.

She watches them from behind her curtains. Shrieking, climbing trees, daring each other, playing hide-and-seek - she is glad she allowed them to play in her yard. Children need space to run around and play, and the orphanage was too crowded for that.

Sometimes, after dark, she pretends she has gone blind. She doesn't light the candles. She walks around in the darkness with her hands slightly in front of her. A bit of moonlight filters in through the windows, which helps after a while - once her eyes have adjusted to the half-light.

She hopes that ghosts will talk to her in the darkness, tell her stories of long ago glory. She can tell them stories in return, stories from her own life. Her childhood was bright with yellow sunshine. She considers her marriage, and it is pink - a fresh, bright pink in the beginning, vivid and full of promise, but fading to the paleness of onion peels by the end. And after her husband died, there was grey, darkening now into black.

She walks through the rest of the house sometimes. She takes a candle along - she doesn't know the other rooms so well anymore. Furniture shrouded in sheets, an occasional rat squeaking around, a quiet that just reminds her of the excited shouts that used to ring out here many years ago.

She stands in the middle of the hall, and closes her eyes. She imagines the hall as it used to be - the black and white chequered floor, the large oval mirror on the far wall, the sunlight filtering in through the neem tree outside. A teak table with lion claws for feet, a dresser full of unused dishes. The children used to rush in after school, leave their bags and shoes in the hall, and run to the kitchen to be the first to tell her about their day.

On holidays, the house used to reverberate with their shouts. They used to play hide-and-seek on the grounds, throw stones at the mangoes on the trees. The boys' friends would come to play cricket on Saturday afternoons, and then beg her for her famous lemon juice. Her youngest was a reader, she would sometimes go off to remote corners of the house and read by herself.

The house seems to speak to her sometimes. "Can't you see what you're doing to me?" it asks her, "I am meant for a family. My staircases are meant for children to rush down, my balconies and turrets are meant for them to clamber over. My mirrors need someone to preen in front of them. You're wasting me. I could be making so many people happy right now!"

"Wait," she responds, "Be patient. I will go away soon. And then you shall have your wish."

She knows that none of her children will want to come back and settle here. They will probably sell the house and divide the money amongst themselves. She wonders who will buy, though. Who would want such a large rambling house, with its old-fashioned bathrooms, its outdated kitchen, its trees that seem to shed leaves every minute?

She knows what she has to do, of course. She feels that she is being guided by a power bigger than herself. It's too perfect a match, surely?

She wonders if her husband would have approved. He would have, she feels - he was always a kind and generous man. Her children will be livid, of course. But they won't miss the house. They'll just miss the money. 
• • •

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Changes in the Air

It is baking hot in Bangalore. Old-timers reminisce about ten years ago, when the weather never went beyond "slightly warm", even at three on an April afternoon. They speak with horror of the traffic, and the pollution, and the heat, and the dust. Walking about in the hot yellow afternoon, it is quite an effort to remember that Hyderabad must be hotter, Delhi must be dustier, Chennai must be muggier.

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. 
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way. 

Time feels strange these days. Maybe it always does during periods of change, if only one weren't too busy to notice.

Next week, after three years of corporate life, I am taking a break. Life will no more be split into five days of work and two days of relaxation. No more of hurrying to catch the 7:30 bus, no more coming home late, no more office food, no more of sitting hunched in front of a laptop.

I have to admit - it is damn scary. Life is easier when there's a set routine. And the easier the routine, the tougher it is to get out - of the rut or comfort zone or whatever you want to call it. People tell me it was a brave decision to make, but I did it without even thinking much about it.

I already know, of course, that it will require a lot of willpower. It is going to be a torturous year, where I will almost certainly be wracked by doubt, by a sneaking suspicion that I'm not doing what I actually should be doing, that I should be doing more than I currently am.

The other change is that we are moving to a new place. Not our own, though. We realized that we were doing the whole house-buying thing too hurriedly. After all, a house is a life-long investment - it's almost like deciding whom to marry. It's not something that should be decided with a deadline in mind.

So we are moving to a rented place as of now. The guy who showed us the place kept using the word 'penthouse', but all that it means is that it's on the same floor as the terrace. Which is actually good - I am looking forward to the monsoons, and to seeing black clouds massed up against the afternoon sky. People crib about having to shift houses, but I find myself excited about it. I guess mostly because I've never done it before and I don't know any better.
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Friday, March 23, 2012

Hunting Again

And so we are back in the hunt again. Less than a year after we moved into the current place, we are looking for a house again - to buy, this time. With a year's worth of earnings in the bank, we have become so bold as to  think we can own a house.

Of course, we are low-budget buyers. We can't afford the Sobhas and the Purvas of the world. So we try the not-so-high-name builders, and the slightly older flats.

As before, it is a disheartening and dispiriting hunt. There is something extremely depressing about entering other people's houses and lives. The stained toilets and the washed underwear hung out to dry. The framed wedding photos and the multitude of gods on the shelf. The realization that this is how our lives would look to strangers, too.

And the houses themselves make the hunt even worse. Our spirits go down as we are asked to cross the posh locality mentioned in the ad and enter the not-so-posh locality nearby. The roads get narrower, the buildings closer together. There are no trees, there is no wind, there is nothing to see except buildings and clothes lines and electricity wires.

The flats are dim and ill-lit, the cupboards are of plywood. Children's voices echo from outside, women pace balconies and fight on the phone with distant people.

We leave each house dispirited. Our budget looks increasingly puny in this crowded and dusty city. On our way back, we stare with envy at the huge white houses of the posh locality. When, we wonder, will we live in such houses?

We will, of course. We are young. We are up-and-coming. We'll get there. In the end.

But till then, wish us luck. Wish us a cozy place close to the main road, with lots of natural light, and enough water, and maybe some open space around. Wish us a home.
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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Murakami - Running, Writing and Life

I gave up on Murakami some time after I finished reading Kafka on the Shore. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the book hugely while I was reading it. But a couple of days after I finished the book, while I was in the 'digestion' phase, I suddenly felt like I had missed a lot of layers and meanings in the book. Why had such strange things happened? What did this incident mean? I suddenly felt I had read a different book from the one that Murakami had written. And that completely threw me off reading any more of his books.

But a colleague of mine, who had got to know about my new found habit of jogging, lent me What I Talk About When I Talk About Running last week. I had seen it in book-stores a couple of times, and had been vaguely thinking of buying it, so she definitely picked  the right book for me.

WITAWITAR is very different from his other books (no cats, for instance!). It's a short book, quite introspective, and quite philosophical. He is mostly talking about running - about marathons, about triathlons, about the emotions in his mind when he's running, his experiences. But at the same time, he's also talking about writing, about willpower, about ageing, about life.

For a new runner jogger like me, it's extremely interesting to know the 'behind-the-scenes' story, so to speak. What goes on in a runner's mind during those grueling miles of the marathon? When I read about Murakami's first 'marathon', which was a solo run from Athens to Marathon on the Greek shore, and how hot it was, and how he had to push himself to finish the last few miles - well, I looked at myself and my puny 5 kilometers a day in the pleasant early morning weather of Bangalore, and felt rather foolish.

Murakami also expounds on his theory that writing is in general such an unhealthy profession, that writers need to do something intensely healthy in order to re-create the balance in their lives. Otherwise, they would burn out from sheer exhaustion.

The one thing I have realized after reading this book is that I will never become a marathon runner. I don't think I have the willpower to push myself to those limits. Murakami may be able to push himself to run the second half of an ultra-marathon (which is 62 miles as opposed to the 26.2 miles of a normal marathon) despite suffering from cramps. But personally, I would have just taken the cramps as a very welcome excuse to stop running. (I expect that's why he's a best-selling author and I'm not.)

Okay, I've just looked up the Bangalore 10K run - it's on 27th May this year. I may not be a marathon runner in the making, but a 10 kilometer run looks manageable, right? Let's see.
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gender Disadvantage and Class Advantage

Wow. I'd never thought of this that way.

Co-incidentally, just after reading this article, I saw the bookmark I was using. Flipkart has this series of bookmarks on the theme of 'Reasons to use the bookmark'. Reason #10? 'Your mum is vacuuming the sofa, and you are on it.' Never the dad.

The Hindu : Today's Paper / OPINION : The everyday embrace of inequality:

A professional woman who wants to have a serious career learns to use her class advantage (the ability to hire a worker) to minimise her gender disadvantage (the inability to insist that your husband do his share of the housework and childcare). To put it bluntly, men simply won't do housework and women don't feel they can make them. The dominant ideology continues to be indisputably that men are responsible for life outside the home and women for life within the home, even if women work outside the home. The presence of a servant simply mitigates the need to insist that men do their share at home, and because it is the servant that does the housework, it continues to be devalued labour.

'via Blog this'
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Sunday, February 05, 2012

How Much Should A Person Consume? - Ramachandra Guha

I picked up this book because of the intriguing title. And also because it was Ramachandra Guha, of course. Guha is one of the very few Indian intellectuals who write well enough to make their subjects accessible to the layman. His India After Gandhi is a masterpiece on the history of India after independence.

In this collection of essays, Guha introduces the reader to the history of environmentalism  - mostly in India, but also in the West. Three of the nine essays are profiles of prominent environmentalists - Lewis Mumford, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Madhav Gadgil. The others are masterful criticisms of the hypocrisy of certain types of environmentalists. 

The unifying theme of the book is the close relationship between environmentalism and the rights of the poor. There are three main ways, Guha says, in which the two are linked. 

The first is the hypocrisy of the West, when it comes to the rest of the world. Over the past two-three centuries, the countries of the West have enjoyed high economic growth, and the associated socio-economic development. They were able to achieve this mostly by exploiting the resources of the less well-off countries of the southern hemisphere. These countries have managed to protect their own ecology, but have destroyed that of the countries they colonized. And now that they have achieved the requisite levels of development, they preach to these same countries on the virtues of protecting the environment.

The second linkage between environmentalism and the poor is the tussle between the government and the indigenous people. The government, says Guha, is a centralized, bureaucratic entity. In trying to protect the forests and the wildlife, the government creates insensitive policies that trespass on the rights of the poor. The indigenous people have used the forests as the source of their livelihood for centuries, but are now restricted from even entering these forests. Not only that, the government displays its two-facedness by denying the people access to  the forests, and then allowing businessmen to cut down the trees for their own ends.

The third issue springs from the previous one - the contradiction between the needs of the rural millions, and those of the smaller number in the cities. The cities over-consume, and the government takes away rural resources in order to satisfy the needs of the cities. An obvious example here is the building of large dams in order to provide electricity to the cities. Millions are displaced in the process - the government does not provide adequate rehabilitation to them. They end up in the slums of the nearest city.

Guha does not just proscribe - he also prescribes. The solution to the problem, he says, lies in decentralizing our systems. We should devolve power to the people. Each village or community must have the rights to manage its own forest resources. The government must not interfere unless absolutely necessary. 

In the eponymous essay, the final one, Guha points out the contradiction between the West's over-consumption (an average American consumes over 20 times the amount an average Indian consumes) and its arrogance in preaching to the developing countries that they need to reduce their population. 

He also quotes Gandhi, "God forbid that India should ever take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts."

Believe it or not, he said that in 1928. And that's exactly what's happening today. Two gigantic countries, India and China, are scouring the world for the resources needed to meet their growing energy needs. Over-exploitation is hitting an all-time high, as the people of the world's largest countries (by population) start aping the consumption patterns of the already developed countries of the West. A scary prospect indeed.
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