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.
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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?
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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.
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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. 
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