Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Relationships and our Childhood Selves

Once I start on a book, I generally don't give up on it, no matter how bad it is. However, I think I'm going to make an exception for Carl Sagan's Contact. I picked up the book (again from my father-in-law's library) because I'd seen bits and pieces of the movie, and aliens are always interesting.

However, no amount of interesting content will make up for dense, convoluted writing. Reading the book, I suddenly had an urgent desire to lobby for a law ordering scientists to stick to science and not wander over to fiction. How can such exciting things be written about so blandly? Even when the heroine falls in love, her emotions are described so - forgive me - unemotionally that I felt like clouting Sagan over the head with his own book (it was only later that I discovered that he was dead and buried).

But in the middle of all that detached dead writing, I stumbled upon a few sentences that suddenly made sense - at least, more sense than the preceding hundred and fifty pages. I don't know if this is proof of the whole monkeys and Shakespeare theory, but anyway.
She began to understand why lovers talk baby talk to one another. There was no other socially acceptable circumstance in which the children inside her were permitted to come out. If the one-year-old, the five-year-old, the twelve-year-old, and the twenty-year-old all find compatible personalities in the beloved, there is a real chance to keep all these sub-personas happy. Love ends their long loneliness. Perhaps the depth of love can be calibrated by the number of different selves that are actively involved in a given relationship.
Note that even here, the scientist in Sagan is trying to come up with an equation to find the depth of love.

As for me, I think I'll just watch the movie.
• • •

Friday, December 06, 2013

I Want To Go Back To Hampi Again

It's winter and it's cold and it's sunny, and I feel like going back to Hampi again.

Hampi, two years ago, was magic. An overnight train journey from Bangalore, but it felt like we were on a different planet.

Red-brown boulders teetering precariously on hills. Ruined temples waiting patiently in the sunshine. The reconstructed monuments filled with tourists. The colourful shanty town with its cowshit-splattered streets and its numberless guest-houses. Flocks of foreigners flying by on bicycles. The Tungabhadra, flowing majestically through it all.

What I liked most was that we could lose ourselves if we wanted to - step away from the main touristy places and become one with the landscape. Climb a  hill of boulders and survey the almost-Martian landscape; sit on the cold stone floor of a temple and absorb the absolute silence; take a random footpath and stumble across a ruined building nobody might have entered in centuries.

It was hot, and our legs ached. We ate dosas from a hand-cart in the morning, curd rice on the banks of the Tungabhadra for lunch, and pesudo-Continental in a shady place for dinner. The temples smelt of pigeon-shit. The river was cold and slow and grey. The green sugarcane fields looked strange next to the copper-coloured hills. Monkeys sat on temple walls and made faces at us.

And through it all, there was a surrealness. How did this Martian landscape of red-brown boulders come to be on Earth? Had this deserted row of stone stalls really been a crowded market a few centuries ago? Did this cobwebbed monkey-infested stone structure really once contain the smell of incense and the sound of chanting and the glow of lamps?

Hampi, above all, was about the passage of time. The footsteps and laughter and prayers of people seemed to echo down the centuries to us. They seemed to mingle with the shouts and laughter of the Hampi of today. They seemed to say - yes, you shall also be gone one day, and what shall you leave behind?
• • •

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Nevil Shute - Pied Piper

Nevil Shute's Pied Piper was one of the books I discovered while riffling through my father-in-law's library recently. The name sounded familiar - maybe I'd seen one of his books in my parents' library. And the concept sounded interesting. I started reading, and was hooked within a few pages.

An old Englishman travels to southern France for a vacation, and is stuck in a war zone when the Germans invade earlier than expected. An English couple at his resort asks him to take their children back across to England with him. The rest of the book is about his arduous journey with the children across France to England, trying to avoid the advancing German army. On the way, the group has many close shaves. Somehow, the Englishman also manages to add to his group - he picks up orphaned children of many nationalities.

It's an unusual book, surprisingly well-written. I had initially been under the impression that Shute was one of those pot-boiling thriller writers - but I was mistaken. Shute develops a believable cast of characters, sets his scenes carefully, moves his plot along quickly. I followed the little group's many narrow escapes with bated breath. Shute also develops a subtle side-plot, where the Englishman comes to terms with his son's death in the war - his son's untimely death is in a way one of the reasons he manages to successfully make the journey.

As I was reading, I followed their journey across France on Google Maps - I couldn't find the little mountain village they started from, but I traced their journey from Dijon across Tonnerre, Joigny, Montargis, Pithiviers, Angerville and Chartres all the way to the coast.

The book is a little nationalistic, of course - the Englishman is apparently the only one kind enough to help out the orphaned children. "I'll never understand you English," says a young French woman. But then, the times probably needed a hefty dose of nationalism.
• • •

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

We're All Americans

From Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. Written forty years ago, and truer than ever.

It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning into. They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from the inside and the ones that have the disease can't tell the difference. Like the late show sci-fi movies, creatures from outer space, body snatchers injecting themselves into you dispossessing your brain, their eyes blank eggshells behind the dark glasses. If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them, I was saying, you speak their language, a language is everything you do. ...  It was like cutting up a tapeworm, the pieces grew. 
• • •

Friday, November 29, 2013

Of Books and Bookshelves

Going through other people's bookshelves is usually a rewarding exercise. You often discover books that you wouldn't have come across otherwise - books that were popular in a particular year or a particular age, and then faded from memory. You also come across authors you might not have tried otherwise.

I was riffling through my in-laws' library recently. I've done it before of course, but this particular stash had older books, yellow with age, that had been bought at least thirty or forty years ago. My father-in-law is a scientist, so the vast majority of the books in the library are related to chemistry or other sciences. A few books on history, some slim volumes of Malayalam literature, some quiz books - these complete the collection.

And the thought struck me - this is how kids get formed. These were the books that were available to my husband when he was growing up, and they were what formed his personality and his interests. Science, history, Kerala - their library is almost a summary of my husband's interests.

And what a contrast to the kind of books I read as a kid. Both my parents are Literature graduates, and the vast majority of the books in their library are novels. There was some non-fiction, of course - but the boring academic work-related kind. So it was natural that I grew up reading more fiction than non-fiction, and still prefer it.

I now feel sorrier than ever for children who grow up without books in the house. Imagine - they grow up without knowing that there are wonderful worlds inside each book - worlds that they can create with the help of a few words, and their own imagination. These children probably know of only TV or music as entertainment - they don't know anything about books! How terrible for them. 
• • •

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Once again, it has been a long time since I posted. The hundred posts target looks impossible now, but then I couldn't help it - it has been a crazy month. You make plans when you're free, thinking you'll have plenty of time to carry them out, but then life intervenes. I've barely even read a book in the past month or so.

It was partly my fault. I'd learnt earlier this year that planning trips on back-to-back weekends is a bad idea - not only do you fall behind on routine household chores, it also messes up your head. Unfortunately, a combination of events ensured that I couldn't avoid travelling this month. Add to that work-related travel, and it was a hectic month overall.

But don't get me wrong. The trips were all good ones, though I'm cribbing about them. Among other things, they've provided me material for a few blog posts. I'm planning a five-post travelogue; let's see if it materializes.

I was supposed to travel this weekend as well, and this was the trip I'd been looking forward to the most - a friend's wedding provided a convenient excuse to spend four days in Delhi. The plan was to visit the two-thirds of my family that is now in Delhi, shop to my heart's content, catch up with old friends, and attend a full-blown three-day Punjabi wedding.

But again, life intervened to ensure that I can't go. Strangely, the last time I planned to attend a wedding was when the horrible depressing three-week-long eye infection happened. And now this. The next wedding (this being wedding season) is two weeks from now, and I'm wondering what horrible thing will happen to stop me from attending that one. I tell you, such things could make even the most rational person become superstitious.

• • •

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Diwali Night

As I type this,whooshes and explosions surround me on all sides.The windows periodically light up with different colours. Any non-Indian would probably think I'm in a war-zone. But it's just Diwali in Bangalore.

I didn't think much of Diwali when I was a kid. Unlike today, we didn't have too many varieties of fire-crackers back then. There were the the usual sparklers in white and red and green, and there were the chakrams (wheels) and the conical thing that goes whoosh into the air with a lot of light, I can't remember the name of it. If we were lucky, there would be one or two rockets, and a big red malappadakkam, which was scary. These would be saved till the end, and only one of the grown-ups was allowed to light them.

When we became a little older, we decided that crackers were for kids, and stopped pestering our parents to buy them. I think this was also the time the Sivakasi child labour aspect gained publicity, so that may have played a part. And so Diwali became just another holiday for us - no crackers or lights or anything. It helped that we Malayalis don't celebrate Diwali in any case. We have no puja or sweets associated with Diwali.

It wasn't until we moved to Delhi that I realized how big Diwali actually is as a festival. Our first Diwali there, we went up to the roof of the house to see the fireworks. Flowers of light bloomed all around us. Rockets went up into the sky with a whoosh and exploded. Below us, our neighbours lit sparklers wished each other. And then it hit me, in a way it had never hit me before, that the ENTIRE CITY was celebrating that night. Young and old, rich and poor, everybody could see and enjoy these lights.

I didn't think much of it back then, but apparently there is a reason that Malayalis don't celebrate Diwali. Somebody told me once that it's because Diwali is associated with Rama's victory over Ravana. Apparently we Malayalis identify more with Ravana than with Rama. But that didn't make much sense to me. Why would we identify with a Sri Lankan king?

The story I heard recently makes more sense. Apparently, Vamana vanquished our beloved King Mahabali on Diwali day. For us, it's less about the victory of some North Indian king over some Sri Lankan king, and more about our own king being sent underground, poor guy.

But Diwali seems to be spreading south as well, if how Bangalore is tonight is any indication. Maybe it's the number of North Indians here, or maybe it's the fact that it's such a fun festival, but Bangalore tonight reminds me of that first Diwali night in Delhi long ago.
• • •

Thursday, October 31, 2013

My Harry Potter Marathon

It all started with a Flipkart sale about a month ago. I'd been eyeing a Harry Potter box-set there for a while, watching the price drop with every sale they had. This time, the price had dropped to an unbelievable Rs 1300 for the entire set - that's less than Rs 200 per book! I figured it could go no lower; I swooped in and bought it.

Why a Harry Potter box set? Well, the copies I read and re-read a dozen times as a kid are at my parents' house, and they're much the worse for having been read by two kids so many times. The later books (the humongous ones) are in especially bad shape. And it's an incomplete set - we borrowed the sixth and seventh books from others, so those two are missing.

I told myself I was buying the set for my as-yet-imaginary children, but who was I kidding? Of COURSE I was buying them for myself. I'd never read all seven books in one go, which if you really REALLY think about it, means you can't call yourself a Harry Potter fan. Plus my memories of the books had been befouled by the movies, and I wanted to cleanse them.

But even after I received the set (and very beautiful it was) I resisted temptation for about two weeks. I knew that if I started reading, I would just get sucked in completely, and there would be nothing else in my life. It's happened to me before, so I know how it works. Unfortunately, other books started being boring. I tried reading some three different books, but was able to finish none. And so I gave in.

It started one Friday evening, and ended one Sunday morning two weeks later. I lost two weeks of my life, just like that. I was in between worlds. Outwardly, I was functioning like a normal human being. Inside, I was only half in this world. The other half was firmly at Hogwarts. I had no idea what was going on in the real world - I had stopped reading newspapers because every spare moment was spent glued to the books.

But it was so worth it. I am now even more of a Harry Potter fan than before. Having been away from the books for so long, I was able to appreciate the sheer amount of detail in the books much better. And every time I finished a book, I would gaze at Rowling's face on the back-cover and marvel at the fact that all this came out of that head.

Interestingly, I realized I could quote entire portions from the first three books verbatim, I'd read them so many times. Even the fourth book was quite familiar, because as a kid, I used to pick my favourite parts of the book and read them again and again. But the fifth book onwards, it was almost like I was reading the books for the first time. I remembered the plot thanks to the movies, of course. But the movies necessarily ignore a lot of detail in the books, which make the latter so much more worth it.

The fifth book is by far the worst of the series. It's 800 pages of nothing. I have no idea why it was even written in the first place. The sixth and seventh books are way better, because of the way they tie everything together. I always like it when a bit of history comes in, whether it's Voldemort's or the Potters' or whoever. I realized for the first time that Rowling must have been planning a lot of these things way in advance, probably by the second or third books. They didn't just pop out as she was writing the sixth and seventh books.

It's also when you read the books after a long time that you realize how different they are from the movies, especially the later ones. For example, the Invisible Cloak plays quite a large role in the action in the books, but it's barely there in the movies. For obvious reasons, I suppose. And the books are so much lighter than the movies. Rowling's prose, light as sunshine-filled clouds, makes even the darkest of things readable.

If I start bashing up the movies, I'll have to write a whole different post. But I have to say - the last scene in the eighth movie with Voldemort laughing (and hugging Malfoy!) is probably the worst scene in all the movies. Which idiot thought of that? Nobody who has read the books even once would think that Voldemort would ever hug somebody or laugh in that ridiculous way. It made him a figure to laugh at rather than fear. I wish they had used SFX for Voldemort rather than extremely stupid make-up, so that Voldemort was shadowy and skeletal and scary rather than just slightly eww.
• • •

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rain in the City

Tonight is our last night in the city.

It rained earlier in the night, a swift thundery rain. The clouds gathered silently over us in the darkness. And then they dropped their truckload of water on us and laughed. That's what the thunder sounded like - snickery-snickety laughter in the distance.

We were glad for some rain. Even though our mother cursed and did not allow us to go out, even though we sat in the darkness and felt the seats of our shorts go wet as the water seeped in, we were glad. We looked forward to dawn, grey wetness rather than dry sourness, cool wind rather than dusty droughts. The last dawn we'll see in the city.

Our mother doesn't like rain anymore. Before we came to the city, she used to like rain. She used to let us go out and play in the rain and then she used to towel us dry when we came back. But she says the rain in the city is dirty, not like the rain in our village. I think the real reason she doesn't like the rain is that she doesn't like anything about the city.

But we like the rain even more in the city because it's the only thing that is cool and clean. Everything else is so hot and dirty. Even people become nicer when it rains. The other day a man in a car gave me a hundred rupee note because he was so happy it was raining. I gave it to our mother. She cried when she saw it, I don't know why. That night we ate a lot.

Our father is gone. We don't know where he went. He came to the city first, and then he sent us money so that we could come. When we first arrived in the city, it was nice because our father was here. Our mother used cook his food early in the morning and send him off to work. And then she would feed us and let us go out to play. But then he disappeared.

Playing isn't much fun here. Our mother told us we'll like the city because there'll be more children to play with. But we can't find anybody. There's nothing but a lot of grey buildings. Are the children hidden inside the buildings? Why don't they come out to play?

In the city there aren't even any trees to climb or fruits to eat. Everything here costs money, not like in the village. In the village we plucked fruits from the trees and ate them and nobody said anything. Here it's called stealing and people run after you with sticks and call you bad words. I've learnt a lot of bad words to show off to the others when we go back to the village, though I don't know what the words mean.

The rain has stopped. We edge forward to the door of the hut and look out at the street. After a while, our mother follows us and sits behind us, silent. Things look so different. We stare up at the sky, at the heavy clouds reflecting the city lights.

I don't know if our mother knows the way back to the village. When we were coming to the city, we had to go to the nearby town first to get on the train. Our uncle came with us to make sure we got on the right train. We sat in the train for two days becoming dirtier and dirtier, and then one day we saw our father smiling at us outside the train window and we got off.

I went to that place with the trains once, to see if I could find our father there. I climbed a fence and went in. I walked around looking till a man in black coat saw me and threw me out of the place. I didn't see our father, but I saw that there are a lot of trains there. I don't think our mother knows how many trains there are in that place. I don't think she knows which train will take us back home.

One evening two months ago, our mother got out her nicest sari from the trunk. She wore it and then she spent a lot of time in front of the mirror. When she was finished, she looked as nice as she used to back in the village. She smiled at us, but I saw tears in her eyes. I tried to wipe them away, but some of her kajal got smudged. I thought she would be angry with me because I had smudged her kajal, but she smiled and kissed my hand instead.

She told us to stay inside and be good boys. The way she said it, we didn't feel like disobeying. She came back late that night. Her sari was half off and she was crying, but she had bought things from the shop. She cooked us food and we ate. We were very hungry and we ate a lot. She watched us quietly. When we asked her why she wasn't eating, she said she wasn't hungry.

She started going out like this once a week. She always had money when she came back, I don't know where she found it. I asked her once and she said she had found a money-growing tree. We started looking forward to the days she went to the money-growing tree, because we had more to eat that night. I asked her why she couldn't go to the money-growing tree every day. I said I could go instead of her if she wanted. She said the money-growing tree is a normal tree on most days; it's a money-growing tree only once a week. But it has given us enough money now that we can go back to the village.

The rain has stopped now, but lightning still flashes in the distance. It seems to come from somewhere deep inside the cauldron of clouds. It dances for us, taunts us. It's like a predator, using itself for bait. If our mother wasn't there, we would run out and try to catch it. And then it would catch us instead.

The street is empty. Water flows down it in a stream, carrying its load of garbage. Shruti Didi will curse tomorrow because everything will be dirty and clogged up, and she'll have to spend twice as long sweeping the street. So strange it is that the rain cleans up the air and the trees, but makes the roads and the buildings so dirty. Maybe the rain doesn't like the roads and the buildings.

I like it that it rained on our last night here. It feels like the city wants to bid us goodbye. Or is it trying to make us think we can be happy even here? But I don't want to stay here. I want to go back home, back to the village. I won't miss the city. It's a bad place, even if there are men who'll give out hundred-rupee notes just because it's raining.

Our mother sits behind us with her hands on our shoulders. She is staring at the rain, deep in her thoughts, her face expressionless. I ask her what she's thinking. She starts, and looks down at me. She smiles and says, "I'm just so happy we're leaving."
• • •

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Rescue - Part II

Part I is here.

I climb the stairs two at a time, to reach one of the narrow balcony-corridors that lines the street on both sides. I run along it, towards her, dodging chattering women and playing children, clothe-lines and potted plants. I sneak a glance downstairs to judge my progress. I'm moving faster than them, but not fast enough, not fast enough. I reach the balcony directly across from her just as the the group reaches her.

The kids sense them much before she does, and they scatter in all directions. They vanish in seconds, squeezing into gaps and hidey-holes all around the street. She is suddenly all alone in the middle of a space that had contained wriggling black bodies moments before. She looks around in confusion, and it takes her a few seconds to see them, the young men in the black shades.

She is still not scared, I see. It's evening, yes. And she's in a neighbourhood she's probably not familiar with. But she is in the middle of a well-lit street, filled with people and lined with homes. She doesn't think they can do anything to her here.

Unfortunately, I know better.

I need to get to her, fast. There are no steps here, leading down to the street. Desperate, I leap over the balcony railing, land on a heap of rubbish below. I notice some of the urchins hiding behind an abandoned cart, peering out.

I join them.
"Traitors!" I hiss to them. "You made her stay back, and now you've betrayed her."
They look back at me with hurt eyes. "What could we do?" says one of them, in tattered t-shirt and check shorts, "They are much bigger."
"There are only five of them. And so many of you."

The group of youths is in front of her now, a solid leering semi-circle towering over her small frame. She is still trying to pretend everything is okay. She smiles at them, she backs away. She is afraid to turn her back to them.

The street is rapidly emptying, as people sense trouble. Above, the doors and windows are shutting quickly, the TV sounds become muted. Nobody wants to be a witness, nobody wants to be involved, nobody wants to annoy the gangs.

If she is to be saved, it has to be done now. I look around the street, hoping for - something, some inspiration, some idea.

I ask Tattered T-shirt beside me, "Do you know where everybody else from your group is? Are they all nearby?"
"Yes, they're all hiding around the street."
"Will you help me save her? Don't worry - they won't realize it was you."
The four of them look at each other. They seem to read each other's minds.
"Okay. Yes, we're in."

I look up, and I see that the goons are closing in on her. She has backed herself into a kink in the street, where a yellow wall runs across the street and makes it turn left. They are taking their time, teasing her, scaring her, playing with her. She's looking around the street like a trapped deer.

The place is now nearly empty, except for the gangsters and the girl and the hidden kids. And the street vendors who are trying desperately to pack up, pack up quickly before things get messy. They turn down their lanterns, they pack up their vegetables and spices, they cover up the hot oil because they don't have time to wait for it to cool.

The street is nearly dark now - the lanterns and the lights from the homes both gone, only an orange streetlight flickers above. Staring at the flickering streetlight, I get the beginnings of an idea.

I whisper to Tattered T-shirt, and he grins. He wants to do it, because the gangs always terrorize the urchins, steal their money, snatch their food.

I scurry across the street, with the four kids close behind me. The gangsters have their backs to us, and the girl is too focused on them to notice us and give us away. There are two-three carts on this side, all hurriedly abandoned. I touch the vats - they are still hot.

I whisper an order to the kids, and they run noiselessly up the staircase to the balconies on top. They find a large bed sheet on one of the clothe lines, and bring it down to me. Holding it by the corners, I submerge it into one of the oil vats.

I look back at the gangsters. I'm scared they will hear the glub-glub of the clothe sinking into the oil, but they are too engrossed in her. Her eyes are wide; her head moves quickly as she looks from one gangster to another. I feel a surge of anger, and my last misgivings about doing this disappear.

The sheet emerges from the vat dripping hot oil. It's heavy. I gesture to the taller kids to help me carry it. Carefully, we spread it to its full size, holding only the corners. We slowly carry it forward towards them, a silent funereal foursome. Oil drips from the sheet on the ground, forming a trail behind us.

This is the tricky part, I know. Many things could go wrong. One of the gangsters might look back and see us, or the girl might give us away. Or the hot oil might drip onto one of our legs.

We are almost behind the gangsters now. They have backed her into a corner, and are standing close together, luckily for us.

In one quick motion, we throw the sheet over them. The hot oil splashes on their skin, making them howl in pain. They flail about, trying to throw off the sheet. Quickly, I tie the corners of the sheet together with them inside, ignoring the pain on my palms.

The kids are cackling in delight. The girl is staring at us, bewildered. I grab her hand, and we run. We run out on to the next street, and then the next, and then onto the main road. The kids string out in a comet's tail behind us, shouting and clapping in glee.

"Where's your house?" I ask her, gasping, just before we enter the main road. I am still holding her hand.
She doesn't have enough air to respond; she points across the street.
"Is it close?"
She nods.
"Run, then. We can't come with you."

"..ank you," she pants.
She runs ahead, turns at the corner, looks back at us. We wave, knowing that we'll never see her again.
She waves, and disappears into the lights.
• • •

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Rescue - Part I

So it turns out that writing a story a week is harder than I thought. To make matters worse, I'm not even writing my regular pseudo-reviews of books because I'm telling myself I should be writing stories instead. So it looks like the target of fifteen posts this month is going to be harder to get to than I thought.

So I'm going to cheat a little. I'm posting a story I wrote some time ago. I didn't post it here because it's a strange sort of story and I'm not sure how I feel about it. I also couldn't think of a good title for it, so any help would be welcome.

It's also a long story by my usual standards, so I'm posting only half here. The second half will be posted tomorrow. Let me know what you think!


Her skirt looks like it's made of cobwebs. It shimmers silver in the half-light.

I watch her legs as they walk past me. They are light brown, supple, fluid. Her silver-grey shoes tap a perfect rhythm on the pavement. I dare not look up, lest the perfection be lost.

When she has crossed me, I let my eyes travel up. They climb up over her skirt, which swings gently as she walks. They lose themselves inside her long hair, waist-length and brown and curly.

I rise and follow her. I want to know where she lives, that's all. Perhaps she lives nearby, in one of these narrow streets where the buildings on either side lean in close, as if they want to talk. But that seems unlikely. She's probably just cutting through to the neighbourhood next door, heading for the broad streets with the trees on either side and the houses set back from the road.

She walks on through the crowds. She doesn't seem to be aware of the stares and the comments that follow her. A girl like that would stand out anywhere, but more so in a neighbourhood like mine.

It's nearly dusk, and the birds are shrieking and flying in broad arcs overhead before roosting for the night. Cables crisscross above the street, black lines against the last yellow flourish of the sun. Dim lights are coming on in windows. Shrill women shout their lives' disappointments at each other across the street, competing with the blue droning of television sets.

She turns into a side road lined with food carts, alive with the smell of greasy paper and bubbling oil. The hiss of frying food mingles with the babble of a happy evening crowd. The vendors' faces gleam sweatily over their vats of hot oil. The bright lanterns on the carts burn her skirt golden.

Suddenly, a group of urchins surrounds her, teasing her, dancing around her in tiny banians and tinier shorts. Their teeth flash white on their dark faces, their voices come together in a meaningless cackle. There, she has agreed to buy them some bajjis.

I still haven't seen her face - only the gleam of her teeth as she laughs, the curve of her chin as she bends down to talk. Her hair frames her face, falls across it, hides it.

I turn sideways, step out of the flow of the street. I buy a cup of tea, climb a couple of steps of a nearby staircase, and lean against a wall, watching. I can see her better now, she's part of the golden circle cast by the bajjiwala's lantern. She is talking and laughing with the kids. They are mesmerized by her, only half-listening as their eyes take in her beauty, their smiles wide and glazed with the surreal-ness of her.

I'm jealous of them, they are so close to her. I would have been part of that group just three-four years ago. Now I'm in-between, too old to be one of them, and too young to join the gangs.

She is the center of the street now, the rest of the activity is only a background for her. She laughs, and the street smiles with pleasure. She frowns, and the street holds its breath. People move around her in eddies, they turn back to catch a glimpse of her again. They slow down as they move away from her, as if she's a magnetic center they can't quite escape.

A glimpse of black down there in that golden mesh. I tear my eyes away from her luminescence. A group of youths is threading their way through the crowd towards her. Jeans and tight bright t-shirts, shiny hair and black shades. They push men out of their way, fondle nearby women, pat children on the head roughly enough to make them cry. I recognize them - they are part of Sraav Usmain's gang.

The plastic cup of tea I'm holding is crushed by a sudden spasm of my hand, spilling hot tea on my fingers. I barely notice. How do I warn her, how do I rescue her?

• • •

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Neil Gaiman - The Graveyard Book

Like most women of any sense and taste, I'm in love with Neil Gaiman. I mean, what's not to love about a skinny man with unkempt hair who wears only black, and who makes up the most amazing stories and characters for a living? Throw in the deep voice and the British accent and the tech-savviness, and he's absolutely irresistible.

Now only if he weren't my dad's age and married to a rock goddess.

Now that I've made clear how entirely objective I am about Neil Gaiman, let me tell you about his The Graveyard Book. Actually, I don't know why I'm bothering, because it's already acknowledged as one of the best children's books to come out in recent years. It was even part of the New York Public Library's list of the best 100 children's books published in the last 100 years.

The Graveyard Book is about Nobody Owens, usually called Bod, whose parents and sister are killed by a mysterious man named Jack. While the murders are being committed, the toddler somehow wanders into a graveyard, where the ghosts decide to take care of him. He is given the Freedom of the Graveyard, which means that he can see the ghosts and enter the mausoleums despite the fact that he's alive. He has a vampire and a werewolf as guardians, and they take care of his "living" needs - food, clothes, etc.

Bod has an awesome childhood. He explores the graveyard, he is taught by ghosts who were teachers when they were alive, he makes friends with a little girl who visits the graveyard with her parents. This being a Gaiman book, Bod goes through scary things as well - he explores a hidden cave underneath the oldest crypt in the graveyard, he is kidnapped by ghouls, he is almost killed on his first visit outside the graveyard.

As Bod grows up, there are worrying signs that the mysterious man Jack is still pursuing him, to finish the job that he started many years ago. His guardians try to protect him, but it's clear that he will have to deal with Jack one way or the other, if he is to live a normal life and go out into the world.

According to Gaiman, he thought up the concept for the book many years ago while out on a walk with his son. They wandered into a graveyard, and his son had much fun exploring. What if, Gaiman thought, a boy were to grow up in a cemetery? It took about twenty more years for the book to actually get done, but boy, was it worth the wait!

Because TGB is a wonderful book. To use all the cliches in the world, it's heart-warming and funny and exciting and - did I say wonderful already? I wish Gaiman had written it back when he first thought about it, so that I could have read it through a child's eyes and loved it with a child's heart. If you know a kid who likes reading, gift her this book because she'll love it. If you know a kid who doesn't like reading, gift him this book so that he falls in love with reading.
• • •

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The February Resolution - Status Update

The handful of readers who still follow this blog despite the extinction of Google Reader may have noticed the sudden increase in the frequency of posts. Apart from a couple of incidental reasons such as sudden and glorious freedom from eye infection and a resulting increase in the number of books read, the bigger reason for the increase is that I suddenly remembered my February Resolution to post at least a hundred posts on this blog this year.

That target was always going to be a tough one. Even in the anonymous heydays of this blog, when it (technically, one of its many predecessors) was just a scribbling pad for all of my teenaged thoughts, the post count never crossed hundred a year (ninety-four was the highest - way back in 2005). And now here we are with three quarters of the year gone, and I've only posted fifty-three times (this will be the fifty-fourth post). 

Fifteen posts a month over the next three months looks daunting, given that my highest this year has been nine a month (not counting April, when I did the A2Z Challenge). Strangely enough, it's not that I'm lacking for ideas for posts - I have an entire list drawn up. What I lack is the patience to sit down and write them out. It also looks like the next couple of months will be pretty hectic for me, so time will be a problem as well.

In fact, one of the main reasons I made that resolution was to get myself to write complete more short stories. My problem with writing has always been my "finishing" ability - the ability to actually conclude a story rather than constantly thinking up new threads and background details that elongate the story till I give up on it.

But the resolution hasn't helped at all. I seem to be writing more and more about the books I read, and I've barely written a story in the last few months. Writing about what I'm reading is good - it makes me think about the books and the writing in a deeper way than I normally would. And it also ensures that I read better books, even if just to show off!

So here's a fresh resolution - yes, I'm all about the resolutions! I'll put up at least one short story a week here, no matter how bad it is. Feedback is much required and welcome. You can choose to leave anonymous comments as well, if your feedback is negative. The objective of this particular resolution is to get me to finish the many half-written stories I have in my Google Drive.


On another note, I've discovered something recently. Now that I'm writing more "content"-oriented posts, the number of visitors who come here through Google has been increasing. My 'Popular Posts' list changes quite frequently based on what people are googling for. I can instantly tell when one of my posts has landed up on the front page for a particular search string - the number of hits rises exponentially.

And as I predicted here, I guess those are the only kind of readers I can hope for now that Google Reader is dead. But maybe it's better this way - as long as the posts are useful for the people who're searching for them, I guess I'm happy.
• • •

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English

If you want to know how an ending can completely make or unmake a book, read Pigeon English. It's the powerful ending that saves this book, at least in my eyes - though given the hype that accompanied its release in 2011 (huge advance for a first-time author, Booker short-list, etc), others seem to think that it had more than the ending.

Maybe it's just that I'm sick of the whole "child narrator going through bad times" thing. It's been over-done so much that it's starting to feel forced - an easy way to get into all the shortlists.

But to be honest, Stephen Kelman does it well. His Harrison Opuku, fresh to England from Ghana, is eleven years old, and is trying to get used to everything around him - the council-estate flat he lives in, his school and classmates, the neighbourhood gang, the pretty girl in class, the constant violence around him. To make things more complicated, a boy at his school is stabbed to death. Harri is so thrown by the murder that he tries to find out who did it.

Harri's language is interesting - apparently a mix of Ghanaian slang and English. We have to figure out the meaning of the words as we go along - Asweh, hutious, bo-styles, dey touch. The biggest success of the book is how it manages to show all the violence and small tragedies that surround Harri in a way that still endears him to the reader. There is the domestic abuse his aunt goes through, there is his mother's fear that they will be repatriated, there is the violence of the neighbourhood gang.

But throughout, the reader is wondering - what's the point of all this? Harri just seems to be going through his normal life - his tiffs with his sister, his conversations with his classmates, his discoveries of new things in this new country, his murder investigation that seems to lead nowhere. Is the murder the point? Is Harri's experiences of the new country the point? What explains the more-breathless-than-usual blurbs on the cover?

And then comes the ending. It's short, barely a couple of pages long, but it's "proper brutal" as Harri would have put it. Suddenly, the whole book makes sense, and you go back over everything that happened, in the new context of the ending. In fact, I was struck dumb for a few minutes, prompting the husband to wonder if something had happened to me!

Read it, yes. Read it for the language, read it for Harri, read it for the ending.
• • •

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jed Rubenfeld - The Interpretation of Murder - Book Review

Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder has all the typical characteristics of a book that you'd buy at the airport to help you pass the time on a long flight. It has the word Murder in its title, and starts off with a beautiful debutante being murdered. It has the usual breathless reviews on both covers. And its pages seem to turn themselves.

And yet, what sets the book apart is the detail - in the setting, in the characters, in the complex threads that make up the plot.

The setting is New York in 1909, and what a setting it is. The city is transforming itself. Skyscrapers are raising their heads one after the other, a new 'tallest building in the world' is being inaugurated every two years. Mighty bridges are being built across the Hudson River. The society scene is glittering, the police force is corrupt, the people are heady with possibility. Rubenfeld's New York is so fast-paced, the energy almost seems to seep out of the pages.

Into this scene arrives the founder of one of the latest fields in psychology - the field of psychoanalysis. Dr Sigmund Freud and his anointed successor Dr Carl Jung, both famous as yet only in Europe, arrive to give talks in the USA for the first time. Freud and Jung are not the only real people to walk the pages of this novel - there are lesser-known psycho-analysts, there are neurologists who are threatened by Freud's theories, there is the Mayor of New York City, there is at least one real-life psychopathic murderer.

Indeed, it is Rubenfeld's incredible ability to weave together real stories and people into a work of fiction that makes this book such a joy. Reading the book, I couldn't wait to google and figure out who was real and who was not, which incidents really happened and which did not, which of the landmarks did exist and which did not. It's a good thing the author has helpfully provided a note at the end of the book with the details. Rubenfeld admits that he has taken some liberties with the chronology, but most of the things the real characters say are extracted from their books and letters. The discussions on psycho-analysis are quite fascinating, in fact - especially when you know the impact the theories later had on the world.

I just realized that I've been raving so much about the setting and the characters that I've forgotten to mention a word of the plot - well, there are so many threads here that it's impossible to figure out where to begin. There's the usual murder plot-line of course - a beautiful girl is tortured and murdered, and an attempt is made to do the same to another. Then there is the politics of academia - scandalous rumours are spread about Freud so that his talks get canceled, mysterious forces try to play Jung off against Freud. There is a possible love story. There is the possible involvement of a convicted psychopath. There is a Chinese angle, brought in by a real-life inter-racial murder of 1909. Rubenfeld also throws around red herrings with a liberal hand, so that I for one had Carl Jung on my list of suspects almost till the end (it didn't help that Rubenfeld makes Jung sound like a most unpleasant character).

At first, it seems impossible that Rubenfeld will manage to unravel all these threads, but he does. His two heroes, both fictional, a psychoanalyst and an NYPD detective, manage to figure out everything. Given the complexity of the plot, the explanation is necessarily torturous - but it's unexpected and therefore satisfying.
• • •

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Philip Roth - Everyman

All of us are scared of old age, aren't we? We're scared of the possibility of illness, we're scared of the repeated hospitalizations, we're scared of the loneliness, we're scared of the slow inevitable decomposition of our bodies.

Philip Roth's Everyman is about this fear.

Poor Everyman. We meet him at his funeral. Around his grave are gathered his colleagues from his advertising career, his hale and hearty elder brother, his two sons who hate him, his daughter who loves him, an ex-wife, a former lover, fellow residents from his retirement village.

Having started with his death, the book jumps straight back sixty years to his childhood, to his first hospitalization, a hernia operation that was scary because he was so young and because the boy on the next bed died.

Many years pass before the next hospital visit - this time a routine appendicitis. And then, a few years later, comes the inevitable heart trouble. His life almost seems like a telescope aimed at death - each succeeding lens represents each of his major illnesses, coming ever closer and closer together, until he is in hospital at least once a year, until the final surgery that kills him.

As Everyman grows older, sickness and death seem to surround him. Constant back pain drives a lady in his retirement village to commit suicide. His friends seem to be affected by different horrible diseases - cancer, heart trouble, depression. Even the incredible good health of his elder brother seems to make fun of his own sickness.

Throughout, there's the harsh contrast with his own previous life. Everyman is a swimmer, he swims an hour every day - in the sea! His sexual appetite led him to cheat on his wives and cost him two marriages. In fact, it's while he's on a secret weekend with his mistress in Paris that his mother dies.

Everyman's active life is maybe a warning to the reader - don't feel superior, don't feel that this can never happen to you. If this can happen to somebody who's a regular swimmer, who has no history of illness in the family, it can very well happen to you.

In some sense, Everyman's sickness seems foretold. During the childhood he spent in his father's watch-and- jewellery store, he was obsessed with the old watches that people used to exchange for new ones. He spent hours with them, playing with them, trying to fix the broken ones. And he always used one of the old watches, one of the rundown watches, rather than a new watch.

But still, Everyman somehow never makes his peace with death. He visits the run-down Jewish cemetery where his parents and grandparents are buried. He spends time with them, seems to feel that they are with him. He talks to a grave digger, finds out how graves are dug. All this seems to be in preparation for death. And yet, as he goes into his final surgery, he's optimistic. He feels like he'll survive. He WANTS to survive. He doesn't know enough about the nothingness that comes after death to want to go into it. 
• • •

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Natwar Singh Walks With Lions

A book with stories from the life of a diplomat who was also later an External Affairs Minister sounds very interesting. Unfortunately, Walking With Lions promises much and delivers very little; it would have been better titled Looking at Lions in the Zoo, because that's pretty much what the reader gets - glimpses of world leaders, each of them with about as much personality as a cardboard cutout.

Perhaps I expected too much. After all, the book is just a compilation of fifty of Natwar Singh's newspaper columns. Therefore, each story is necessarily short. The language is terse to the point of brusque. Some of the chapters feel less like stories and more like disjointed sequences of thoughts and musings, as if written at the last minute to meet a column deadline. And sadly, most of the stories are not interesting enough - I guess the juicy stories must have been kept back for diplomatic reasons. Indeed, there's barely a story or two from his period as External Affairs Minister.

Admittedly, some of the tales are interesting - Margaret Thatcher's encounter with Chandraswami, for example. Another interesting revelation was that Nargis Dutt was almost caught for shoplifting in London. His essay on MF Husain is also excellent (part of the essay here). He also claims that Begum Bhutto told him that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not hanged - he hit his head and died in a scuffle with his guards the night before he was to be executed.

Be prepared for some sickening flattery of the Nehru-Gandhi family, especially Mrs Indira Gandhi. Natwar Singh was a huge fan of Mrs Gandhi, and the reverence seems to have extended to her son as well. Many stories are about how she dealt with world leaders on her own terms. His opinion of her nemesis Morarji Desai is made clear in the very first two chapters (vengeful; questionable dietary practices). He also raves about Rajiv Gandhi's eloquence, charm and charisma multiple times.

This would have been a much better book had the author chosen to expand upon the essays, fleshed them out and put them in context. The stories aren't even in any discernible order - at least categorizing them according to the period of Natwar Singh's diplomatic life would have helped. He could also have expanded upon the personalities and quirky characteristics of some of these leaders. But perhaps he didn't know some of them well enough.

Overall - avoidable. 
• • •

Monday, September 23, 2013

Trivandrum Through Green Glasses

In Trivandrum, in the house that is 'home' still for another six months, it always sounds like it's raining. The house is surrounded by trees - coconut trees and banana plants of course, but also teak and jack-fruit and mango and coffee and others I don't know the names of. They loom over the house and protect it from the sun, but not from the rain. The wind riffles through their leaves up above, and I'm always looking out of the windows, fooled by the wind and the semi-darkness, to check if it's raining.

Why is it that these trees don't exist in Bangalore? Why is it that the first thing people do when they want to build a house is cut off all the trees in sight? Is there a law that says that the size of a city must be inversely proportional to the density of trees? Does that mean that these trees will soon disappear from Trivandrum too?

Trivandrum, it seems to me, has managed growth well. Technopark is one of the three largest IT parks in India, but it is situated well outside the main city; visitors can go there directly from the airport without having to touch the city proper. Around Technopark, multi-storeyed apartment buildings are coming up one after the other. Fast food restaurants have popped up like so many mushrooms after rain.

It's a strange sight. Coconut trees, thousands upon thousands of them, lay a green carpet along the shore of a lagoon. And between these coconut trees, a few tall cuboids, mostly white, have sprung up, and they hold their heads up proudly, despite being outnumbered by the trees. Technopark is expanding; I saw construction as I went by yesterday, ugly glass buildings that will suck up electricity. Soon, more people will arrive to occupy those glass office buildings. And then more tall cuboids will spring up among the coconut trees, until finally the coconut trees will be lost amidst all the white buildings. And that will be that.

Ah well - it's selfish of me to want things to remain the same. After all, Bangaloreans have been forced to give up their peaceful city and put up with migrants like me.

But then again - maybe I'll go back to Trivandrum too. Every time I visit, I sit on the terrace staring at the greenery, and I think of the drabness of Bangalore, and I shudder at the thought of going back. If it's so bad for me, a city girl, imagine how it must be for the true-blue village-born Malayali who has to go back not to the well-behaved benignity of Bangalore, but to the torturous sick desert heat of the Gulf.

It's such an irony that Malayalees, despite having such a beautiful home, choose to live outside all their lives, toiling in hot yellow deserts and cold grey cities, only to come back in their old age to Kerala and spend all their money on opulent houses, painted all the colours of the rainbow and then some.


Trivandrum is actually a nice little city, especially when it's not summer. It has cute narrow roads that go up and down like a roller-coaster. It has colonial buildings that look like red ice cream houses with silver icing. It has a pretty boast-worthy culturati. It has the sea, and really - what more do you need?
• • •

Of Consequences and Immortality

From Jose Saramago's Blindness:
... if, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and the evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or to ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much-talked-of immortality. 
• • •

Friday, September 20, 2013

Happiness Versus Meaning

It's not very often that you find meaningful passages in books that you picked up as potboilers with which to pass the time. But the very first few paragraphs of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder struck me as worth remembering. The book itself turned out to be not exactly a potboiler either, but more on that in a later post:

There is no mystery to happiness. 

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn - or worse, indifference - cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn't look ahead. He lives in the present. 

But there's the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning - the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life - a man must re-inhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them. 
• • •

Monday, September 16, 2013

Right Now

I'm sitting in a cane chair on the balcony, a tulsi plant on the floor to my left, and a row of drying clothes to my right. The balcony is a boring old thing, if I had any imagination I would fill it with plants and make a tropical rain-forest that would drown out the fact that facing it on the opposite side, barely a few feet away, is the wall of the next building, a horrible splotched wall decorated with old pipes, both rusty-red and plastic-grey, but it's alright, this time next year it'll be a blue blue lake out there, and a nice wind that will make me shiver.

Somewhere below a mother and daughter are making an Onam sadya, the daughter asking the mother for instructions on Avial making, I think they must be living in different apartments and talking to each other across balconies, for why else can I hear them so clearly. I try to listen in, are they mother and daughter or mother-in-law and daughter-in-law? I can't tell, their language is middle Kerala, all musical and affected and polite, illya's and varu's, not the straight talk of my own part of the world.

Above me drone helicopters, that's the price you pay for living behind HAL. But I like them, I've been reading a history of Bangalore, and I feel connected to the city, to the romance of the old companies that helped make it what it is today. I squint up into the sky at the helicopter, and two birds seem to be giving it company, but they see me and they veer off and settle down on the roof of the building opposite me.

I break off a leaf of the tulsi plant and tear it up and hold it to my nose, and that smell, it takes me back about fifteen years, to a broken old well, moss-covered and dirty and maybe filled with ghosts, what does an eleven-year-old know? A tall tulsi plant grew on the side of the well and now I can't see a tulsi plant without thinking of that tulsi plant, I don't even know if it's still alive. They cleaned up that place, it used to be a broken old temple and a broken old well, and snake gods and tall trees and vines that looked like real live snakes, and we used to play there, the three of us, but now it's all cleaned up and you can't step on the grounds without taking your shoes off and now what's the point anyway?

My feet are warm because I've put them right where a bar of sunlight has managed to break through the buildings. It's a good thing we're on the top floor, at least I have a bit of sky, and it's a glorious blue sky, who was it that wrote about clouds like woolly sheep on blue grass, that sort of sky.

On my lap is Blindness, a book both the brother and the father recommended, and I've been resisting it for a year, but what better time to read it than when I'm affected by a pestilential eye infection that seems to have found a nice home in my eyes. First it nested in the white of my eye and turned it red and made me leak tears all day long, it stayed there for two weeks, and then it decided the black part was better, and now I can't see a damn thing for all the fog. But at least it means I don't have to cook an Onam sadya unlike the poor women downstairs.

I've given up on the book, because I'm not reading it, I'm squinting at it, trying to stop the letters from turning into blurred black dots, and squinting is no fun, even in the sunlight, and why would I want to do it, I'm already half-blind anyway. But I like the way Saramago writes, my thoughts go wandering and they pour out like his prose, no breaks or full-stops, just an onward flow like a river towards an ocean, and hence this post because it's easier to write like this when you can't see what you're writing.
• • •

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Princess of Mars

As I mentioned in my last post, A Princess of Mars was the first audio-book I actually finished listening to.

APoM is a typical sci-fi trash novel, written about a century ago. It was considered pulp fiction a century ago, and age doesn't seem to have improved it much. In fact, it's completely silly for a reader of the modern times.

Captain John Carter, a Confederate veteran, is magically transported to Mars, and ends up spending ten years there. Captain John Carter is pretty awesome on Earth, but he becomes super-awesome on Mars because Mars has less gravity than Earth. Because his muscles are used to Earth's gravity, he can perform superhuman feats on Mars - jump several hundred feet at one go, kill Martians with just one blow of his fist, etc.

This ability continues even after ten years on Mars. But I wondered - wouldn't the muscles get adjusted to Martian gravity in ten years?

Such questions are clearly too practical for this book. The author's focus is on keeping the action fast and furious. There is an endless procession of strange creatures for the good Captain to fight. There are also endless missions for him to accomplish - saving a Martian princess, saving the Martian princess's kingdom, and finally saving life on Mars itself!

I learnt after reading the book that Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote Tarzan of the Apes. Which makes complete sense - think James Bond dressed like Tarzan on Mars, and you've got Captain John Carter.

Disney apparently attempted to start off a series based on these books last year, which didn't exactly turn out to be a great success. Again, I'm not surprised - audiences today probably (hopefully, rather) require a tad more plot and subtlety than these books offer. The only subtle side-plot in this book was a musing that green Martians are such emotion-less creatures because they bring up their young communally - none of them ever get to know their parents. Whereas we humans know what love is because we experience it from our parents first.
• • •

Monday, September 09, 2013

Will You Read To Me?

What does one do when an extremely persistent eye infection forces one to spend days at home eschewing any sort of "strain" to the eye? My usual past-times of reading and wasting endless hours on the internet were clearly out. Even watching TV, something I generally try to avoid, was banned by The Husband, who was very effectively playing policeman over my eye activities.

What DOES one do? It turns out that one sleeps a lot. One sleeps amounts that one didn't think possible, ending up in a disoriented half-moronic state of mind.  And then the doctor says one should keep one's eyes open as much as possible - which is sound advice generally speaking, except that she meant it in the literal sense, of course. 

One listens to music, and gets tired of one's paltry music collection pretty quickly. One taps out long soliloquies to oneself on one's online diary, with one's eyes fixed on some distant point (mustn't strain one's eyes, you see). And yes, one employs the same method to tap out disjointed blog posts. One hopes that the few minutes needed to correct one's typos won't strain the eye too much. 

A couple of days of this, and I was thoroughly bored. Then The Husband came up with a brilliant idea - he suggested that I try audio-books. 

Now, personally, I've never liked the concept of audio-books. Listening to an audio-book isn't the same as reading a book, is it? Where's the pleasure of converting those black squiggles into an image, a scene, a narrative; and where having a voice drone those very words into one's ears? And more to the point - it's cheating! Having a book read to you is so much easier than actually reading it yourself.

But considering the state I was in (still am in, in fact) - something was better than nothing. A quick search on Google Play later, I downloaded the LibriVox app. It's a pretty cool concept - public domain books read out aloud for free by volunteers from all over the world. 

The first book I attempted to listen to was Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Now, Dickens is a guy who has always managed to put me to sleep quite effectively. I hoped an audio-book might be slightly better. Unfortunately, it turned out be an even more effective soporific than reading the book. The poor reader read quite a few chapters into my ears while I slept heedless. 

My next attempt was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars. And it turned out to be just the ticket - full of action and never a quiet moment to push me off to Sleepland. Though I finished the book, it wasn't good enough to make me want to continue with the series. My third (and current) audio-book is Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel that supposedly started the American Civil War. 

The app is pretty intuitive and easy to use, except that it sometimes gets stuck between chapters. It even has a sleep mode for people who're listening to the audio-book in bed, and don't want the book to run on all night after they fall asleep. The readers, despite being volunteers, are surprisingly good! The reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin is just incredible - he does different voices for different characters (even the women), and the way he does the accents is just astounding.

So am I a convert to audio-books? Meh. No. I'll admit that they don't really take away the pleasure of converting those words into images and sounds, but the concept still seems too much like cheating to me.
• • •

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Raymond Chandler - The Big Sleep

I used to read a LOT of detective fiction in my tweens and teens. I mean, who hasn't? Any kid worth her library card starts off with the Famous Five, of course. And then come the entire bunch - the Secret Seven (a bit kiddish), the Five Find-outers (my favourites), the Mystery series (has anybody apart from me even read those?).

And once you consider yourself too old for Enid Blyton books, you start off on the Hardy Boys series and waste entire years trying to finish off the hundreds of books Franklin W Dixon apparently wrote. For the slightly more snobbish kids, there are the Three Investigators, also American. They had an extremely cool headquarters, and looked into more niche mysteries.

And then comes the day you secretly read one of your mother's Agatha Christie novels. I still remember my first - it was After the Funeral, and it made such a huge impression on me that I still remember the solution to the mystery. It was to be an addiction that lasted many years, and I still don't mind dipping into one as a guilty pleasure. I always preferred Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple though - she was way too irritating.

Who came next? There were so many. The fact that my parents had a membership at the British Council Library ensured that they were mostly British books rather than American. The ones I remember are Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, the amazing PD James and the ex-jockey Dick Francis - very recent, most of them.

The British, of course, are supposed to be the pioneers of detective fiction. Perhaps that's why my exposure to American detective fiction has been comparatively less, and why The Big Sleep is the first Raymond Chandler book I've ever read. That's right, I'd never read a Philip Marlowe mystery before.

I'll give Chandler this - his mysteries are more complicated than the average whodunnit. There are four different murders - with four different murderers! It takes even Philip Marlowe a little while to figure out everything. Chandler's characters are also more realistic than the suited and gowned people you find in the average English manor murder mystery.

But you know what? I don't think I'm going to read another book of his.

Why? Well, for one thing - I didn't like Philip Marlowe. Why is he so full of himself, and in a way that's not funny? Hercule Poirot was full of himself, but Agatha Christie let us laugh at him. Marlowe is always one step ahead of the villains, but not in a way that lets the reader feel superior. (Research has found that we find jokes funny when they make us feel superior. Does that work here, I wonder?)

Another reason is the women. One thing I've gained out of this book is a new and awkwardly long simile - as impossibly sexy as a woman in a Raymond Chandler book. Sample this:
She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn't reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn't often seen in bookstores. She was an ash blonde with greenish eyes, beaded lashes, hair waved smoothly back from ears in which large jet buttons glittered. Her fingernails were silvered. In spite of her get-up, she looked as if she would have a hall bedroom accent. 
She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men's lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of softly glowing hair. Her smile was tentative, but could be persuaded to be nice.
There are four main women characters in this book, and they are all along similar lines. And the interesting thing is that not one of them is a 'strong' woman. Two of them throw themselves at Marlowe; another one is foolish and keeps attaching herself to men who can take care of her. All of them get into tight spots, of course, and then they are rescued by - who else? - Philip Marlowe.

A sign of the times, I suppose - after all, Chandler was writing in the thirties. But if Jane Austen could create such strong women in Pride and Prejudice (published more than a century earlier), I don't see why I have to put up with Chandler's misogyny. (Readers who've read more Chandler books, please correct me if I'm wrong. This snap judgement was made on the basis of exactly one book.)

But at the end of the day, the reason I'm not going to read another Chandler book is the fact that he doesn't satisfy the absolute basic thing the reader is looking for in a murder mystery. I want to see if I can solve the mystery. I want the author to give me all the clues, I want to arrive at the solution before the detective does. Chandler doesn't even give his readers a chance.
• • •

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Kingdom of the Wheeled

This post is written out of sheer frustration. Not one bit is exaggerated.

Please pity the poor Indian pedestrian. Pity her, because nobody cares about her. It doesn't matter if she's walking on the road for exercise, or because she can't afford a vehicle. Is she is out to buy milk for her child, or is she just walking home from work? Either way, nobody cares whether she lives or dies. Because this is the Kingdom of the Wheeled

Let's take the case of an entirely hypothetical young woman.

There she is, walking home from the bus-stop in the evening. She's walking partly for exercise (though it's only a five-minute walk), partly because she thinks travelling by car is the ultimate sell-out. Either way, she feels good walking. She stares up at the darkening sky, she looks at the leaves waving in the wind, she smiles to herself.

The road to her house is better than most roads in India, because it actually has pavements.

Umm... Actually, I should qualify that statement. The pavement's only on one side, and only part of the way. But still, something's better than nothing, right? That's what she tells herself anyway.

Unfortunately, the pavement is on the left side of the road, which forces her to break a cardinal traffic rule, one that's taught to all Indian children right from school. Walk. On. The. Right. Side. Of. The. Road.

As a child, she used to wonder how one could walk on the right side of the road. What was the right side and what was the wrong side? Or did they mean the other right - the 'left and right' right? If that was the right they meant, then wouldn't the right side depend on which side you were facing?

Clearly, she wasn't very bright  as a child. But she grew up, and she figured it out. I'm not sure which one happened first.

So there she is, walking on the left side of the road. There is no concrete pavement on the initial stretch of the road she's walking on. But the road has an unofficial 'mud pavement'. There are occasional fruit-sellers on this unofficial pavement, whose stalls force her to step out onto the road once in a while.

But wait - what is this? An open sewage drain seems to have overflowed, and is spewing its nasty contents out onto the road! She is forced to hop-skip-jump so that she doesn't step on the sewage, all the while trying to avoid the stinking water that passing vehicles want to spray on her.

There - she has crossed the dirty stretch! She is very proud of herself and her nimbleness.

A few more meters of the unofficial mud pavement, and she comes to a blind left corner where there's no pavement at all. She's walking right on the road now, and she keeps looking back to see if there are any vehicles that want to hit her.

Navigating this stretch is a problem for her on the best of days, but on rainy days it becomes worse. Rain water pools up along the edge of the road. Since she's not Jesus and can't walk on water, it's a choice between walking IN the water, and walking on the middle of the road.

Having survived this stretch, she heaves a sigh of relief. A proper broad well-maintained pavement starts now, and stretches all the way to her house. Her steps speed up in anticipation.

But what is this? Her jaw drops open in surprise. The pavement seems to have become a cowshed!

Two cows are sprawled out on the pavement, and their shit stinks up the entire area. Disgusted, she crosses the road to avoid stepping on the cow-shit.

She is pavement-less once again, but at least she's on the right side of the road this time. She walks on, clinging precariously to the muddy edge of the road. A futile white line marks the edge of the road and leaves a tiny area for pedestrians - the vehicles neither see it nor obey it.

The other reason she doesn't like this stretch is the stinking garbage dump on this side. Skirting the pile of garbage takes her onto the road again, so it's a very good thing that she can see the cars coming at her.

Next in this obstacle course is a line of shops. Shops are generally no obstacles, of course. But the cars and scooters of the people who're shopping there take up whatever little space there is for pedestrians. She is again forced onto the road.

But she crosses that stretch and - thank God - it's home sweet home. She turns into the lane that leads to her apartment block. The contrast with the road outside couldn't be starker. Old people gossiping, young mothers chattering, little kids playing.

Here at least, it's the cars that have to be careful. Here at least, the pedestrian rules.
• • •

Monday, August 12, 2013


Before you begin reading, see if you can figure out what's wrong / quirky about the cover page on the left.

I admit - I'm a sucker for these kind of books. The Malcolm Gladwells and the Nassim Talebs of the world can make all their money off me. I enjoy these 'There's no end to the strangeness of the world' books. I know perfectly well that there's probably a catch to most of the research being quoted in these books, and that some of it may be out of context, but there it is.

Quirkology is a fun read. It's a quick summary of some of the quirky investigations researchers have been doing over the last century or so. Are the religious truly better people than the non-religious? What's the funniest joke in the world? Does astrology actually work? Are some houses really haunted?

The areas covered are vast and eclectic - superstition, decision-making techniques, humour, honesty, altruism, and many more. The research varies from truly quirky to investigations into something we all really wanted to know. The results vary from 'Meh. We all knew that anyway' to amusing.

An example of the former - to differentiate between a fake smile and a real smile, look at the eyes. Right - as if we didn't know that already. An example of the latter - about 50% of priests, when given a cheque 'by mistake', didn't bother to correct the mistake; they went ahead and cashed it! Priests also turned out to be Bad Samaritans, not bothering to help a passer-by who was clearly in need of help.

Apart from such quirky experiments, there's also simple data analysis to find answers to strange questions. For example, there's less traffic on Friday the 13th - people actually stay at home out of superstition! People with unusual first names tend to have unusual lives as well - either they're more successful than other people, or they tend to go to jail more! Another interesting aspect is how suggestibility results in people choosing professions that are linked to their names - for example, Bun the Baker, Peter Atchoo the pneumonia specialist and of course, Richard Wiseman the psychology professor!

Overall, an interesting read. Wiseman, despite being an academic, writes engagingly. The only complaint I had is that sometimes the book felt like nothing more than a compilation of research, with very few linkages in between.
• • •

Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window

In the initial years of my reading life, I used to read more Malayalam books than English books. Thanks largely, I think, to the amazing work done by DC Books. They had a great range of children's books - not only novels and short stories written originally in Malayalam, but works translated from other languages as well. My first introduction to Satyajit Ray's Feluda, for example, was in Malayalam. My familiarity with Indian mythology has been purely in Malayalam and only the children's versions at that - Mali RamayanamMali Bhagavatham, etc.

It was in Malayalam that I was first introduced to Totto-Chan. Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window is an autobiographical book by the Japanese TV celebrity Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Originally published in 1981, it became the best selling book in Japanese history. A couple of years later, it was translated into English as well. A Malayalam translation was available by the mid-nineties - I don't know how or why. 

Testuko's adventures were amongst my favourite as a young girl. So when I saw an English version recently in Blossom's, I picked it up on a whim. It was wonderful to re-read a book that I had loved as a child, and find those same images popping up inside my head again - even though I was reading it in a different language this time!

The book - more a collection of short stories than a novel - tells the story of the two years that the young Tetsuko (nick-named Totto-Chan) spent in an unconventional school named Tomoe Gakuen in Tokyo in the early forties. It appealed to both adults and children alike because of the simple narrative style, the unusual escapades that Totto-Chan got into, and above all, the wonder that was Tomoe Gakuen.

I didn't know all this history when I read it for the first time, of course. For me, the idea of a school where the classrooms were train coaches was absolutely wonderful. The idea that kids could wear whatever they wanted to to school, swim naked in the school swimming pool, decide what classes they wanted to have - Tomoe was indeed the perfect school. The school had only fifty students, and they had adventures of the sort that a child in a normal school can only dream about.

I'm not sure what the author's intention was in writing the book - was she trying to immortalize Tomoe and its visionary founder-headmaster? Or was she simply writing a book for children to teach them basic human values? The book is a success on both counts. Totto-chan's adventures bring out the school's unconventionality, but also show how successful it was in shaping its students. Her stories also provide valuable lessons in values and behaviour to the young reader. One of my favourite anecdotes from the book is one where Totto helps a polio-disabled classmate climb a tree. A young child reading the story would immediately pick up the lessons of being nice to physically challenged people, and of not giving up till the objective is achieved.

The book ends on a note of doom - Tomoe has been bombed out of existence by Allied forces, and Totto-chan is on an evacuation train out of Tokyo. Perhaps that's one of the reasons the book was such a success in Japan - it evoked a time of innocence, before Japan was defeated in the war, before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, before the Reconstruction and the frantic pace that life in Japan attained in the second half of the twentieth century. 

But that doesn't explain its success outside Japan. Personally, I think it's the innocence and the wonder permeating the book that makes it worthwhile.

• • •

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Real House

I learnt last month that the house that partly inspired this story has been demolished. An apartment building is going to come up in its place, each flat selling at the astronomical initial rate of Rs 5, 500 per square foot. Like dozens of other old houses in Trivandrum, this house too had become out-of-date, it couldn't live on in the new century, in the new Trivandrum.

(For those who've read the story, don't worry - the owner of the house, my grandmother's eldest sister, is not in the situation I've described in the story. She has five sons who take very good care of her.)

I couldn't help feeling a little sad about the house's demise, though I was never more than a casual visitor to the place. Somehow, despite never having spent too much time there, I have very clear memories of the house. But then, large houses are quite magical to young kids, especially when the adults are busy and the kids are left to their own devices. My brother and I have explored the large grounds, played hide-and-seek in the rooms, read books on the verandah.

I think the only occasion on which I spent a few days there at a stretch was during the monsoons of the year I was five. The house we were staying in at that time was on the banks of the Karamana Aar, and it flooded. Our house was in knee-deep water. To make matters worse, both my brother and I had chicken-pox. So we shifted to the grand-aunt's large house for a few days. Of course, I've also visited the house multiple times over the years I've spent in Trivandrum.

The house had a rare characteristic - two gates, one on either side, because the house was on a large plot between two roads. On one side, the road was much lower than the house, and steep steps led down to the gate. This gate was supposed to be the front entrance of the house, but later on, when cars became more common, the back gate of the house was more frequently used. The front gate was locked pretty much all the time. I remember my brother and used to find the moss-covered steps leading down to the front gate spooky - we rarely played there.

My grandmother's father built the house for his eldest daughter after she got married. So it can't be more than fifty or sixty years old, because she got married in the late forties. The rooms are not as small and dark as rooms in older Kerala houses generally are. They have high ceilings, large windows, cold red floors. Somehow, despite being so large, the house always seemed very warm and welcoming to me. I don't know if it was the house itself, or the warmth of the people who lived there.

I find it so weird that the house now lives on only in the memories of the people who lived there and visited there. Also, if I feel so sad about the house's demolition, I wonder how the five sons of my great-aunt must feel - they grew up there.

But I guess time has to pass, and the world has to change.
• • •