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.
• • •