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. 
• • •