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.
• • •

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Thoughts on Commuting in Bangalore

Long time readers of this blog will know that I'm against people using cars for their daily commute. It's a belief that has evolved over the past four years in Bangalore, and probably has a lot to do with how terrible Bangalore is traffic-wise. 

I also ascribe this belief in part to my first company, which tried to promote green values in its employees. (Though it was slightly schizophrenic in its actions. People were encouraged to cycle to work, but manager grades and above had subsidized car loans as a benefit. It ran buses for its employees, but the monthly charges were prohibitively expensive. It sent out nice colourful mailers to promote Bus Day, but refused to have parking fees for car-users.)

Anyway, back to topic. 

My daily commute offers me contrasting perspectives on Bangalore traffic. It's a pretty short commute by most people's standards - only 5-6 kilometers each way. But thanks to Bangalore's convoluted system of one-way roads, the commute becomes about eight kilometers long if I choose to travel TO office by bus. AND I would have to walk about two kilometers in total - not an easy thing to do in heels. So I take the easy way out - I get the long-suffering husband to drop me part-way, and then I take an auto. 

Yup, that was quite the decision to make for a bus-supporter. But I tell myself autos run on CNG, so it doesn't matter. (If you know otherwise, please don't tell me - I want a clear and ignorant conscience.)

But here's where the contrast comes in. 

In the mornings, sitting in my cold and windy auto, I curse pedestrians. And it's not me being elitist, by the way. To get to my office, I have to cross a junction where cars from my part of town turn into and join the main arterial road that leads to my office. It's a crazy place, with people trying desperately to get across before the allotted thirty seconds are over. And that's precisely when some amazingly intelligent person will decide that it's a good time to cross the road.

I've noticed this phenomenon at other places too - the pedestrians of Bangalore seem to have a biological urge to cross the road when the lights are green for vehicle movement. I've seen this over and over and over again. This may be forgivable in places where there are no traffic lights, but not at busy junctions, where there are separate timings for pedestrians to cross. Is it lack of common sense or lack of awareness of traffic rules?

But then I reach my office and get off the auto, and it's now my turn to be a pedestrian. Not for long - I just need to cross the road and enter my office building. And what a road it is - cars and buses and scooters and autos all screaming past like they don't know they're going to be stuck in a traffic jam just a kilometer ahead. 

Since I'm the pedestrian now, my resentment is towards the people in the vehicles. Would it kill them, I wonder, to slow down and pause for the pedestrians to cross? Do they think the zebra crossing is funny road graffiti that they can happily ignore? 

There have been times when I've stood at that zebra crossing for as long as ten minutes before being able to get across. And my chief entertainment at such times is to curse the men who're happily and ignorantly and idiotically driving their cars all alone to work. (I don't curse the women though - given what I hear from my friends, it's generally the women who do all the work at home, so they need all the extra time they can get. But my thoughts on that particular topic need a whole different blog post of their own.)

The evenings are better though. To assuage the grief that my conscience is giving me for having taken an auto in the morning, I take the bus back. I have to change once, and it takes double the time - but at least I feel better. To be honest, I like BMTC buses - the service is pretty frequent, the buses are generally clean, and the conductors are (mostly) civil. I keep wondering why more people don't use buses for their daily commute. 

Personally, I can't understand why anybody would voluntarily put themselves through the torture that is Bangalore traffic. Driving anywhere in evening rush hour takes an hour. Instead of torturing yourself, wouldn't you prefer to travel by bus - read the paper, watch people, get some more exercise than you generally do?
• • •