Saturday, December 18, 2010

Disgrace

John Coetzee is notoriously reticent.The testimony of this lies in the nature of his Nobel lecture,a reading from a chapter of one of his novels instead of a sweeping personal statement.It is said that he rarely smiles and almost never appears in public.This reticence is evident in his work, in the quiet shame of his protagonist David Lurie and in the woe begotten landscape of the novel 'Disgrace'.

'Disgrace' takes place in post-apartheid South Africa. The roles of slave and master have been reversed and the land groans from the weight of the unspoken racism that still persists.David Lurie,a rather ineffective professor of romantic literature, is twice divorced and has no future hopes of a stable relationship with a woman. He is content with a series of one night stands with an 'exotic' escort named Soraya.After Soraya disappears,he takes a keen interest in young student named Melanie. He invites her over to his apartment for dinner.One thing leads to another and, after what seems like a consensual affair, he finds himself mired in controversy. He is accused of sexual harassment and is given the option to either apologize in public or resign.He chooses to resign.

He moves in with his daughter Lucy,a farmer in a remote place.He tries to accustom himself to a pastoral existence; helping his daughter with the farm,volunteering at an animal welfare center and working on an opera about Byron.Lucy appears awkward,unfeminine and quite unlike David Lurie's women.He ponders over the minuteness of her world,the simplicity of her existence and its lack of urgency.This existence is interrupted by an attack by a group of miscreants.Lurie suffers minor burns while Lucy is subject to despicable atrocities that are only implied and never mentioned.The incident leaves David scarred; he is confounded by Lucy's tight lipped denial,the silent acquiescence of all that is meted out to her and a complete surrender to the local anarchy that is now her fate.

David realizes,slowly, that his relationship with his daughter is strained beyond redemption.He throws himself at his work at the animal welfare center;developing an unlikely kinship with Bev Shaw,a woman who almost single handedly runs the center.David doesn't understand Bev Shaw and her way with animals. She has taken it upon herself to put unwanted animals to sleep, 'because someone has to do it'. David offers to take corpses of dead dogs to the incinerator. This activity becomes almost routine, like hard labor. This daily routine, Lucy's condition, and the endless drudgery of a standstill existence form the outline of his penance,his disgrace.

Coetzee writes with grit and cynicism.The cloud of impending doom looms over our heads from the start. Coetzee's Lurie stands out in his attempt to question the anarchy of this troubled land.His trials compel him to face his deeds and the burden of his incapacity.The only thing fleeting in the midst of all this perennial doom is the existence of the people in its vicinity.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Reading Pamuk

I bought 'Snow' by Orhan Pamuk as a part of an exercise to read more contemporary fiction and started reading it as an antidote to 'The Diaries of Franz Kafka'.I read the first few lines of 'Snow' as I was travelling in a bus where the driver felt that lowering the temperature of the air conditioner would bring passengers more comfort. The freezing interior of the bus coupled with Pamuk's prose,to put it crassly, set the mood for the melancholic 'Snow'. When I picked up books by Lessing and Pamuk at a book exhibition, it was with a great deal of skepticism. I vowed, that after reading them, I would sell them at a second hand bookstore in exchange for classic 19th century literature (little wonder that my friends think my taste in books is 'archaic').

There are usually two very predictable reactions to Pamuk's work. I personally know people who've never been able to get past the tedium of the first few chapters of his books, and then there are folks like yours truly who can't stop reading his work. There are no in-betweens or gray areas to this rule.To me, reading Pamuk's work is like unraveling an impressionist painting. Superficially, it appears like something you may have seen before (Pamuk's influences include Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann and several other 19th century authors), until you decide to undo the novel layer by layer. Pamuk tells stories through the landscape of his hometown,Istanbul (with the exception of 'Snow' which takes place in Kars). He engulfs his characters in the spirit of the city, its 'Huzun' or melancholy, and its many contradictions.

Pamuk's characters grapple to come to terms with themselves, their surroundings and their place in time. One can liken each person in his books to a map; with textures, contours and fissures, like hidden wounds, running across the length and breadth of his being (to date all of Pamuk's protagonists have been male). He creates a gossamer web that underlies all his novels, delicately mixing fact with fiction till the reader loses all sense of what is real and what isn't.

Pamuk writes and thinks in Turkish. Readers in the non-Turkish-speaking world are left to the mercy of translation. Pamuk, by his own admission, says that a lot is lost and gained in translation. He works meticulously with his English translators to ensure that the spirit and voice of his books are replicated in a foreign tongue. We English readers are lucky to have Maureen Freely whose lucidity gives readers the impression that they aren't missing too much.

I leave you with a video of Maureen Freely discussing what it is like to work with Pamuk and the challenges of translating from Turkish to English.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Potential Gold Mine

I swore I would never enter 'Reliance Time Out' after an experience with an overzealous member of the 'literary police'. Thought policing apart, I abhorred the layout of the store which characterizes what may potentially be a librarian's worst nightmare.It is as though the retailer inherited a junk yard full of books,DVDs,watches,perfumes and miscellaneous paraphernalia and decided to host the world's largest garage sale.

Nevertheless, I decided to go in since I was in the neighbourhood and far from being in good humour. The organization of the store didn't help to alleviate my dejection, but the thought of leaving the store with a bundle of books did. One walks in and sees best sellers and potential revenue generators arranged in a pyramid. I was dumbfounded to see that the next two sections had nothing to do with books whatsoever. The third section was titled 'We Recommend', and it had the latest in contemporary fiction. I got the sense of a colonial hangover when I found one section called 'Indian Fiction' and another labelled 'Foreign Fiction'.

I found 'The Castle' by Kafka in the 'Foreign Fiction' section and picked it up. Since I have recently discovered that I derive tremendous satisfaction from the work of Orhan Pamuk, I started to rummage,without much success, through all the shelves to find his work.I don't consider a stroll through a book store complete without a visit to the 'Classics' and 'Literature' sections.I was overjoyed to find 'Orlando' by Virginia Woolf and quite surprised to find 'On Argentina' by Jorge Luis Borges. At this point I wanted to scream,'They have Borges!', as I started to pull out books from random shelves in search of Borges' works of fiction. When I realized that the uplifting feeling was starting to wane, I requested one of the shop assistants to help me find other books by Borges. He ambled to a computer, started internet explorer, refreshed the desktop a couple of times, logged into Amazon, searched for Borges and decided that Borges' work is classified as 'Literature'.

What ensued was plain hilarity.He searched in every shelf for a book by Borges. If you ever go to Reliance Time Out, beware. The classification of books is neither intuitive nor conventional. You may find Kafka in the 'foreign fiction' section,Margaret Atwood in the 'classics' section and perhaps a self help book lurking in the 'literature' section. I was almost sure that I would find 'My Name is Red' in the 'Indian fiction' section next to 'The Inheritance of Loss' (google Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai to see what I mean).

Somehow, by some twist of fate, I found 'Istanbul' and 'Other Colors' by Pamuk, placed on the bottommost shelf and books by the 2009 Nobel Laureate on the topmost shelf. I gathered that books by various Nobel winners are arranged in descending chronology. Paradoxically, there was no sign of Mario Vargas Llosa, the 2010 laureate.

I decided to buy two books by Pamuk, one by Kafka and one by Woolf. At first I politely declined the membership card. It's quite evident that,despite my little conquest, I had no intention of returning.It soon turned out that I would have to pay a pittance to become a member;the proximity of the store to the bibliophile's house was another nagging factor.

So there I was, the 'potential gold mine'. The bookworm who came empty handed,nearly launched a defamation campaign, and instead left with four books and a membership card.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Day at the Taluk Office

This is a dramatized account of my mother's recent tryst at the local taluk office. She was required to get a notarized document and was directed to this particular office. She was accompanied by a young man who works as an assistant to one of the many agents who help people with such legalities.

The scene: The lady and the assistant trudged down a narrow,woe begotten lane in a woe begotten location in North Bangalore.Somewhere, among the multitude of thatched huts, was the office. They looked carefully into each of those huts before they recognized one of them as the office.There was a lone man sitting at a table with a heap of papers to his left. There was a small cup of tea to his right. He seemed to be in a foul mood, quite typical of government officials who are forced to work,and the dingy room did nothing to alleviate his condition.

Before they enter:

The assistant: Madam, you will have to give him 'something' if you want things to get done quickly.

The lady nods and they enter.

Inside the office:

The lady: I need you to prepare a family tree. Here is a draft version of it (holding out a piece of paper).As you can see; this is my husband's name, this is my name, this is my daughter's and there are no others.Here's the necessary proof.(She goes on to show various government documents specifying the details of her family).

The official:Alright, but these names are written in English. I will prepare a document in Kannada.

The lady:I have to send copies of this to people in Mumbai and Hyderabad! How are they supposed to understand Kannada? (The assistant also pleaded in order to soothe the official).

The official (looking visibly offended): I belong to this state. You cannot force me to write in any other language. I will write it in Kannada.

The lady and the assistant decide not to push things further. They accept whatever he has written. The assistant,with some subtlety, signals to the lady. She duly offers four hundred rupees to the official as she has been instructed earlier.

The lady and the assistant make their way out of the miserable room and visit a notary. The notary translated and notarized the document.

The translated document doesn't state who is the husband and who's the wife. It doesn't specify if the child is a son or a daughter(this is actually a big deal in Indian family law).It only depicts a hierarchy of names. The script below the diagram reads, "If no female children/legal heirs are specified, then I take sole responsibility in case of any litigation".

The lady sighs; the fact that the child is female had been lost in several layers of translation.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

An Audience with the Tigress

I heard this woman play the sitar two weeks ago.Her nimble hands slid gracefully across the frets as she played with both soul and dexterity.It is a rarity among musicians these days,particularly among Indian classical musicians.Her style is typical of those who have trained under the tutelage of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Yes, she is one of his pupils, just not the one you're thinking about.

Jaya Biswas,a stalwart in her own right, epitomizes the artist who creates for the sake of art alone. She instructed the bewildered Master of Ceremonies not to make any introductory remarks about her save the name of her guru. She then apologized, in advance, for any mistakes that she might make during the course of the concert. I expected her to be some kind of Diva, but she only had one complaint; that the heat generated by the harsh lights was causing the strings of the sitar to expand, thus setting them out of tune. She nevertheless re-tuned the instrument painstakingly and without fussing over the laxity of the light attendants.

Great musicians let their music speak. Western classical composers seek solace in knowing that their music is preserved for posterity. Sheet music survives the ravages of time and the limitation of human memory and serves as the only living proof of the composer's genius. Indian classical music, on the other hand, relies entirely on improvisation. Indian classical musicians are limited by the whims of a particular 'raga' (a limited sets of notes, their sharps and flats) . They must find their freedom in such confinement. Before the recording era, there was no way to preserve such impromptu compositions. Things like technique,interpretation, and a select set of compositions were passed down from teacher to pupil. An artist's reputation was left to word of mouth. The current situation of such musicians is ironic. One one hand, recordings of their work stand as stronger validation than mere word of mouth.On the other hand, it is nearly impossible for a musician to replicate that genius each time, without sounding repetitive.

It is for this reason that the audience was offered an apology that turned out to be rather pointless. While some artists wane with age others surge to new heights. The latter is the case with Jaya Biswas. At the ripe age of 75, her interpretation of the raga was original without any disrespect to her guru (all Indian classical musicians must allow their style to betray some proof of identity of their guru). Between performances she joked about how she is often referred to as 'the tigress', and compared to frightening women politicians. It takes a 'tigress' to admit that an experimental concert is likely to be flawed, and then to give a performance that speaks quietly of perfection.

I often wonder how, being a woman, she was 'permitted' to become a musician. Till the advent of playback singing and the national obsession with celebrity, Indian women belonging to families that were either 'respectable' or of 'sufficient means' were barred from becoming performing artists. Women in music either needed the protection of a doting father, the surname of a 'broad minded' husband or the patronage of a wealthy connoisseur to survive. It takes immense courage to create something with single minded devotion; allowing the music of the present to cast a shadow over unanswered questions of the past. I leave you with a piece of music here. It is a duet and the sitar is played by the 'tigress'.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Music Room

I am generally wary of the 'prowess' of contemporary writers, more so if they're Indians writing in English.There is something very unnatural about the writing style of most contemporary Indian writers who use English as a medium of expression.It's not that their writing comes across as foreign,it just appears as though they make a tremendous effort to sound literate.It is with this skepticism that I sat through a book reading by Namita Devidayal, a Princeton educated journalist turned writer, as she read out excerpts from her first book and memoir,'The Music Room'.

'The Music Room' is an account of the author's experiences during the course of her training in Indian classical music.It also contains the histories of Dhondutai(the author's teacher),Kesarbai(Dhondutai's teacher) and Alladiya Khan(Kesarbai's teacher).It begins with a reluctant child being brought to her teacher, Dhondutai,to learn music. It then covers the dichotomy of the author's 'double life'.On one hand she studied in a westernized school for the elite, and on the other hand she took lessons from a traditional Indian guru. The book talks about the author's personal strife to reconcile the two worlds, and the personal strife of her guru to carry her musical tradition forward.

The narrative tends to sound like what Indian writing in English has sounded like ever since Arundhuti Roy won the Man Booker Prize. What redeems this book is that it doubles up as an anthology of anecdotes that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The occasional clash of cultures that are diametrically opposite was something that most readers will find fascinating.The musicians mentioned in the book hail from a variety of backgrounds and, as the author said, 'would probably not eat food in each other's houses'. Yet they somehow touch each other's lives and, quite inevitably, the author's. The inexplicable relationship shared between a music teacher and her student can only be understood by one who is musically inclined. This book gives us rare insights into a world that is slowly withering away due to its inability to carve a niche for itself in the present.

Reading 'The Music Room' was a pleasant experience on the whole. It left me with a deeper understanding of a tradition that I've struggled to come to terms with(a different story all together).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Decoding Kafka

I have said enough and more about the consequences of reading Kafka's work. I have admitted,quite openly,that his diaries peak the limits of repressed gloom. With nothing better to do, I decided to read Max Brod's epilogue to the diaries. Max Brod's friendship with Kafka is probably the most enduring of its type in literary circles. Kafka made Brod the executor of his work and requested that his diaries be burnt after his death. Brod, however, skimmed through Kafka's diaries and published an edited version of them, so we may get an insight into the mind that gave us 'The Metamorphosis'.

Brod's task was nothing short of a mammoth effort.Kafka's accounts,often incoherent,are an editor's nightmare.Brod states that he left out the bits that were either too confusing or too personal.I was particularly struck by what Brod says about the dismal tone of Kafka's memoirs.He says that people use diaries as a means for catharsis. They are more likely to record unpleasant experiences and things of a darker nature that have been plaguing them;all with the idea of purging what is undesirable. Kafka was nothing like the man we see in the diaries. On the contrary, he was jovial and not quite the misanthrope they make him out to be.

There was a time when I was amused that Brod despised the term 'Kafkaesque'; not anymore. It is regrettable that Kafka,owing to posthumous fame,has been obscured into the uncomfortable niche of 'experimental existentialists who know nothing but grief'.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

On Reading Kafka's Diaries

I grate my hands
Along the pages of your memoir.
I see your vacant eyes
Scorching mine,so that
You could burn them
Before I stared to read.
I see samples of your scrawling hand;
The crests and troughs
Of your doodles form familiar shapes
As my mind acclimatizes itself.
I fathom nothing,
I cannot tell if you're right or wrong.
I only know
That you hold me
To an eternal ransom;
One that is interminably long.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Excuses

I realize I haven't been regular when it comes to updating this blog.I've been quite busy doing a lot of other things apart from writing.Here's a list of excuses to explain the rather blatant neglect of this blog.

1.New books:I started reading 'The Diaries of Franz Kafka' and stopped abruptly.My tryst with Kafka's diaries is a lot like my tryst with 'Ulysses'.I find fresh new reasons to put off reading these books.I'm planning yet another intrepid reading of 'Ulysses' in the near future.While I firmly believe that 'Ulysses' can be conquered with the help of a few annotated guides and a PHD thesis or two;I think that Kafka's diaries are not for faint hearted individuals with a shaky mental disposition.I finished reading 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold' by Marquez.I felt as though I was in my element when I read Marquez.There is something very comforting and familial about Marquez.No matter how loathsome his stories get,I still want to read them.

2.A shaky mental disposition:I wasn't completely honest when I was talking about new books in my life.Literature apart;another new book in my life is 'The Art of Computer Programming' by Donald Knuth.As a result,I often see Greek symbols and MIX code in my dreams.I visited the IISc bookshop the other day, in search of a book on Lisp(it's a long story).An attendant managed to find me a book on Lisp and looked surprised when I thanked him profusely.In addition to Greek and MIX,I have also started dreaming of endless pairs of matched parenthesis containing code in prefix notation.

3.Lisp:I just love lisp so much.I want to spend as much time as possible with the common lisp console.I've become so obsessed with it that I've installed a CLISP console on every operating system that I run.

4.Another blog:I started a blog at wordpress with the idea of experimenting with CSS and a new blogging platform.What was intended to be a 'dummy' blog, ended up being an account of life as seen from the eyes of six mongrels in Bangalore.Updating the new blog has been a lot of fun.It reminds me of the hilarity of living in a house with six mutts.You can check out The Mutt Blog.

5.My ACM membership:I have to admit that holding the ACM membership card made me feel like a Diva with a new credit card.I spend more time at the ACM Digital library than I do at project Gutenberg.Hence,I am more likely to lecture you on the uses of augmented reality in the animal birth control program than on the utter hopelessness of empathizing with Franz Kafka.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

At Checkpoint Charlie

In the spirit of sharing my father's anecdotes(it's sad he didn't ever write a blog),here's one of his favorite stories about his visit to Germany.My parents lived in Germany for around two years in the early eighties.Germany was divided into West and East Germany by the formidable wall.My father decided to pay a visit to East Germany,possibly because of the notoriety of the communist regime.

A bus full of tourists,my father included,were driven to 'Checkpoint Charlie'.They were made to stand in a line after alighting from the bus.A stern faced communist guard went from one person to the next,scrutinizing passports and facial expressions.Since a majority of tourists were American, the guard had a perpetual scowl on his face.He then came to my dad,the sole Indian tourist,and his expression changed.'This is our friend!',he said,his rigid face breaking into a smile.My father was escorted out of the line and given a privileged seat in the tour bus.This meant that he was seated next to an overzealous,matron-like guide who directed all her commentary at my father and ignored everyone else.

My father admitted that the pro-Soviet propaganda was amusing and quite predictable.The wall came down a couple of years later and the East and West merged into a single country.Nevertheless, the experience was a priceless consequence of belonging to a left-leaning nation that called itself 'non-aligned'.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Nostalgia

It's been a year since I lost my father.I'm now at a place where I'm comfortable sharing past incidents that are now reduced to fond memories.

My father had a tendency to overuse tubes of toothpaste till there was barely any left.My mother and I would implore him,quite irritably,to discard the old tube and use a new one.The justification he gave was quite absurd.

My father,an engineer to the core,loved watching movies with a lot of gadgetry and espionage in the back drop of either the cold war or World War II.Gregory Peck played an American Spy in one such flick.In a particular scene, he is trying his best to squeeze out toothpaste from a near-empty tube.He is being watched and targeted by a sharpshooter in the opposite building.The sniper has zeroed in on his target and pulls the trigger.Our hero,in the meantime,lunges forward in another attempt to squeeze out toothpaste.The bullet grazes his hair and he escapes.Hence my dad's passion for spy movies and war aircraft.The first thing he said when we watched 'Dr. Strangelove' was, 'that's a B-52 bomber!'.

Here's to his resilience and originality.I only hope he's in a better place.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Of Football,Traffic Offenders and Other Things

I haven't written anything for a while,so I decided to get over my block by making lists of random things.

1.The Gallic shrug might have its origins in France,but footballers who have been yellow carded seem to employ it with the greatest aplomb.It goes a long way in placating furious referees who are on the verge of changing the card colour to red.

2.Divers in football need to learn Ballet and Kathakali.While Ballet lessons will make the 'fall' appear more graceful and sublime,a lesson in Kathakali will help accentuate the expression of 'pain'.

3.When Bangaloreans are caught for over speeding,their faces take on the most sheepish expressions.The sheepish quality of the expression is directly proportional to the apparent indolence of the cop.

4.People,in Bangalore,booked for driving under influence look so ashamed.Quite unlike their brazen,western counterparts in 'World's Dumbest Criminals'.

5.The number of goals scored by a footballer in an international tournament is inversely proportional to the product of the hype,endorsements and number of goals scored for one's club.

6.Irrespective of the quality of the teams,people in India will always support Brazil and Argentina.Both teams may have been booted out in the 2010 quarter finals,but it won't dampen the fervour of their Indian fans.

7.People love parking in front of 'No Parking' signs.There is a thrill in dashing away before the towing van arrives.

8.I have never seen a more stoic loser than Fabio Cannavaro. It takes a lot to walk back to the dressing room with one's head held high;especially when one knows that one's career is almost over.

9.Zebra crossings in Bangalore are only for the benefit of motorists,not pedestrians.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Of Traffic and Bad Metaphors

I want to make this a post about the existentialism of driving and the associated state of being. I want to write 'lyrical prose' about the feeling of flying,of being a part of the ethereal and of the endless dilemma of not knowing how or when to stop.The only thing stopping me is the unfortunate truth;I live and drive in Bangalore.I write this as I listen to Carla Bruni and think of a million mundane metaphors.

I remember so vividly;the crawl of my ten year old car and the drone of my diesel engine. The cars aligned across seven lanes on a three lane road.I think of all the expletives I know,in five different languages,over and over, in my head.I have them practised to perfection. I intend to use them when wayward drivers cross lanes.I know I will shriek and wreak havoc till I have the road to myself.Yes I will.In my head I will.

The traffic crawls,like a moulting arthropod mentioned in a distasteful metaphor, and this is where I know that my articulation has taken a beating.I can't swear anymore.I've forgotten all the curses that I had recollected during the hours I spent at the signals.The light turns green and there is a surge of movement.From an astral plane,the cars look like bacteria in a Petri dish.In the larger scheme of things,it all looks so minuscule.As humans,however,we are bound by the Kafkaesque sense of 'refutation' and our own self-approved significance.

I end by saying this much.Girl who spend entire weekend driving in Bangalore write blog with bad metaphors.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Vacation in Divaland: Part II

The prequel to this post was inspired by 'Three Men in a Boat:To Say Nothing of the Dog'. This one is inspired by 'My Family and Other Animals';written by the venerable naturalist,the late Gerald Durrell.

Durrell purists are likely to be let down by this entry because of certain constraints in Divaland.I think it has been established by now that Divaland is a culmination of all the places that the Diva has visited in her lifetime.Given that this includes five cities,one small town and one hill station,all located in India;the scope of Divaland is somewhat limited.Nevertheless,one is allowed to let one's imagination run wild,especially in a place of such biodiversity as India.

The island:I propose to find a tiny island lurking somewhere in the Arabian Sea.I personally dislike the Bay of Bengal for its unpredictable spurts of turbulence egged on by several notorious cyclones.The Arabian Sea tends to be more placid.

The family:My family comprises two humans and six dogs at the moment.Of the six dogs,five enjoy the benefits of their 'stray' status;it allows them to doze all day in our garden and wreak havoc on the streets at night.All of them are unanimously terrified of travel.My mother and I are the two humans in question.My mother loves to travel and has this wayward sense of humour that took me more than two decades to understand.

The Journey:Two humans(both women) with what looks like a travelling circus;except that the animals aren't as well trained.I believe that dogs ought to behave like dogs and humans like humans,although the former and latter sometimes like to get into each other's shoes.So,here we are on a cruise ship.My mother being a stickler for cleanliness,has inspected every inch of our cabin to make sure that our quarters are 'habitable'.Our dog Toffee shares our cabin.The other dogs are in a separate place because Toffee has unresolved issues regarding the sharing of resources,like owners and food,with less fortunate mortals.Every time the ship lurches forward,the dogs howl in unison and Toffee barks,her voice taking on a series of variations.The lot finally arrive and meet a certain benefactor who has been kind enough to help us find an animal-friendly place to stay.

Biodiversity:Given that tiny islands are purportedly rich in flora and fauna,studies in biodiversity shouldn't be impossible.The only impediment I foresee, is that the dogs aren't exactly civil to non-canine and non-human life forms(they aren't particularly civil to fellow canines either).Imagine this;I'm nearly prostrate on the ground,eagerly watching an earthworm,and then all of a sudden, a huge paw quashes the poor creature into a shapeless,gel-like mass.Gerald Durrell was blessed because Roger was mostly co-operative during their many expeditions.Still,where there is a will there is a way.The Diva will gain the upper hand over her mother's aversion to reptiles and the dogs' tendency to chew anything lying within hunting distance.

Zealous Durrel purists can extrapolate the rest.Those who haven't read Durrell,animal lovers and otherwise,read his work now!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Going Home

The city ceases to smoke.The evening neon hovers like distended film across the sky.The streets are strained;bearing the weight of impertinent woe.Motorists stare into the blockade that divides here and now from there and then.Their impatience wears thin; horns blare and pedestrians stare.All is still,reminiscent of the result of a useless cosmic dance that culminated in creation.

The bus hobbles over potholes,passing claustrophobic construction sites.At a red light there are haggling vendors,foul mouthed eunuchs and beseeching beggars.They hover incessantly at the driver's arm.Stoicism is his element.He shrugs.He is pert and embarrassed.He speeds away,relieved,as the light turns green.

How they race,these motorists,so they may reach a second earlier than the other.They snarl insults at each other.Still, they are stranded at the same red light.They are bound together by this kinship of futility.All of this monotony is marked with the grit,the sheer desire to return to where one belongs.

As I alight and make my way back home,the neon has gone.I now see the familiar vapor of the street lamp and the dance of a dozen thronging flies.All is intact.All is familiar.The dance is in my imagination alone.

P.S. - Written to the music of Pink Floyd(Great Gig in the Sky).

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Reading Doris Lessing:Part III

In part I what I wrote was based almost entirely on first impressions.In part II I wrote mostly about recurring themes in the book.Now that I've finished,I intend to approach part III with a certain degree of candour.It may seem trite for someone who claims to be a bibliophile to lap up what the very next Nobel laureate has to offer;in my defense(and I only say 'defense' for want of a better word),I read 'The Golden Notebook' out of curiosity.

There is something Freudian about the book.Towards the end,I started to imagine Doris Lessing herself;a woman in her thirties,writhing in some inexplicable despair,writing in her diaries to gain a fake sense of who she really is.One of the tags associated with this book is 'feminist'.As a woman,I found it both empowering and derogatory.Perhaps some schools of feminism like to perceive women as invincible creatures who scorn domestic bliss and prefer what women loosely define as 'independence'.Lessing explores the meaning of terms like 'freedom' and 'liberation' only to remain inconclusive.On the other hand Lessing must be lauded for her depiction of women as human beings with blemishes and insecurities.

Very little is said about her depiction of men.It is quite hard,impossible actually, to find a man in Lessing's book who fits the conventional bill of 'a good man'.These men are either over grown babies with a need for mothering or adult and frigid.They are mostly married men with mistresses and a violent streak.Occasionally,one gets the impression that the real victims are women in the way that they hunger for a man to make them 'whole'.

The book is otherwise tedious.The blurring of the real and the surreal,fiction and fact and the vigorous rants organized categorically have something Kafkaesque about them(read Kafka's diaries before you kill me for saying this).The smattering of politics hampers one's sense of continuity.This may have been intentional to deprive the reader of a sense of time(Lessing says that people go insane when they lose a sense of time).

P.S. I am tired and infinitely more pleased with myself for some absurd reason.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Stereotypes in Classic Bengali Film

There is something about old Bengali films that make them archaic and endearing at the same time.Particularly the ones made in black and white(I just don't watch Bengali film that is made in colour).When non-Bengalis consider Bengal they typically conjure up names like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen whose work is anything but stereotypical.The characters that I am going to write about are the ones seen in the matinee lineup of Bengali television channels and the ones that were 'commercial' and not 'arty'.I urge my readers to note the subtle differences between Bollywood stereotypes and their Tollywood counterparts.

The poor but proud genius:In several movies,the hero is a poor young man supporting a widowed mother and,optionally, an unmarried sister(I mention optionally because in a Bollywood film the unmarried sister is not an option).He attends college and works odd jobs.He always scores the highest marks and 'scholarship' is his middle name.He never accepts money or favours even in times of dire need(hence the pride).

The intellectual daughter of the haughty tycoon:Unlike her Bollywood counterpart,the wealthy Bengali heroine is never a spoilt brat.She is well read,attends college and is ranked second in class(The first ranker is the 'poor,proud hero' remember? Stereotypes of the time remind us that film makers did this out of consideration for the fragile male ego.).She disagrees with her father's radical capitalist views and is openly left-liberal.She secretly gives the servants money in time of need and eventually falls in love with the first ranker.

The Oxford/Cambridge educated hero:This stereotype is very similar to the first with the exception that he has money.He has a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge(Brit degrees were more popular than American degrees back then).He spends his time playing billiards in various nightclubs,helps his father run the family business,takes beautiful and bratty girls for drives along Park Street and Chowringhee and doesn't fall in love with any of them.Unlike his Bollywood counterpart,he doesn't break into a desperate and personalized rendition of the twist.Oh I forgot to mention,he speaks impeccable English with an anglicized Bengali accent!

The poor under-educated heroine:She lives with her widowed mother/chronically ill widowed father in a shack.She has had to leave school at a very young age due to financial constraints.She is something of a maid in waiting for the rich heroine.She comes face to face with the Oxford educated hero and it's love at first sight.She is not an intellectual but her rich 'mistress' may have been kind enough to teach her how to read and write letters.

The capitalist tycoon:The pipe smoking,newspaper reading,Scotch drinking millionaire;the father of either the philanthropic heroine or the Brit-accented hero.He his full of disdain for his wards' penchant towards socialism.He intends to bulldoze his views upon them through various acts of stealth, which may range from disowning his children to forcing them to marry the bratty kids of his friends.

The forever weeping mom:All aging mothers are made to weep.Irrespective of caste,creed or social status.It is imperative that they love their children possessively and weep when they are disowned or wrong.Such women pay frequent visits to the famous Kali temple in Kolkata to offer prayers.Some of them are naive and others scheming but they all cry when the time is right.

The overzealous backstabbing in-laws:Without the backstabbing in-laws classic Bengali films would be unbearably tedious to watch.Most films have near-realistic stories told in the pace of real time events,mostly without fight scenes or cabaret.Anyone who appears overzealous is meant to be a backstabbing in-law.Such characters are modeled on the evil Shakuni from the Mahabharata and they stop at nothing to bring the next infeasible twist to the tale.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reading Doris Lessing : Part II

This entry starts from where this one ends.I'm nearly halfway through 'The Golden Notebook' and I'm pleasantly surprised by the simplicity of Ms. Lessing's style.I've grown more accustomed to some of the themes explored in the book, although I find a central theme rather elusive at this point.

A recurring theme in the book is that of the British Communist Party,it's modus operandi and the protagonist's strife with the party in general.I find her(Anna's) candid admissions about the party rather amusing;especially the general 'defensive and apologetic' air that ails all party members.The communists are far from being romanticized in this book,irrespective of whatever affiliation the author may have had with them.

Another theme is the way women relate to men,both physically and emotionally.Female stereotypes may exist,grow old and then vanish, but they all subconsciously yearn for the same thing;the comfort and security of domestic bliss.

Then there is the theme of writer's block and another one that I like to call writer's pride.I am a little disappointed with the treatment of writer's block.Perhaps all those witty Woody Allen flicks are to blame for my preconceived notions of it.On one hand Anna is reluctant to have her bestselling novel adapted for the small screen(one can't blame her,the offers are ridiculous) and on the other hand she seems to be recoiling in an endless cycle of self doubt.She prefers instead to log memories of her years in Africa and her sessions with a psychotherapist.

Anna maintains a separate notebook for her personal experiences(with men,her daughter and her friend Molly).I found it interesting that she writes it in a Kafkaesque manner;all the while referring to herself in the third person and giving everyone an assumed name(Note:Kafka's diaries have a fictitious quality just like Anna's journal).

I will post the next update when I have read a little more.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

One Step at a Time:Reading Doris Lessing Part I

This is a case of a book being judged by it's cover.I may have read the name 'Doris Lessing' on a couple of lit blogs forgetting,rather conveniently,that she had won the Nobel Prize.The jacket of 'The Golden Notebook' bears a picture of a woman sitting on the floor;writing with feverish intent.The summary at the back had the words 'insane','writer's block' and 'notebooks'.Something in my head snapped and I bought it.

It isn't an easy book to read.There are too many things on a woman's mind,particularly,if she suffers from writer's block and a troubled love life.The protagonist Anna lives off the money that she has earned from her first and bestselling novel.She laments the decline of the contemporary novel to a journalistic device for relaying facts.She has bouts of cynicism and insecurity as she contemplates her life,work and love affairs.Doris Lessing(like most Nobel winners for literature) leans to the left and so does Anna.Anna often reminisces about her affiliation with the communist party and their work in apartheid ridden Africa.Her reminiscing flows like an endless babble of memories,portraits and random doodles.All this in the first 120 pages!

Lessing's style is not unnecessarily verbose or conversational.She is one of those rare writers who engages the reader with the dullness of everyday life and the sourness of lofty ideals gone limp.What is inspiring is the attention to detail and the unique structure of the novel ;the way Anna divides her life into parts and chronicles each part in a specific notebook.The book was touted as the precursor to the women's liberation movement of the seventies and is often incorrectly dubbed as 'feminist'.The women in the book are fiercely independent and vulnerable at the same time. They have relationships,of varying degrees, with several men and are stung by feelings of insecurity and jealousy.Each section of the book is nevertheless titled 'Free Women'.

I will post more updates as I continue to read it.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

We don't Writhe

Sister,
Hold on to your pen
Before your fingers slide
And you forget.

We women don't writhe.
Not in the open;
Not in our books,
Doodles,scribbles and rants.
It is said
That we are subtle;
That we are made to bundle and pack
The drudgery of our lives
In quaint lies;
That we will always paint
Within the lines.

Sister,
Hold on with iron grip
Before you cast away your craft.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

To All my Sisters

As an only child I arbitrarily pick characters from books and think of them as my brothers and sisters. Since 'the international day of the woman' is around the corner, I thought that a tribute to my favourite 'sisters' is quite befitting.

Elizabeth Bennet:The headstrong heroine from 'Pride and Prejudice' and a sister like no other.Perhaps one of the first real feminists to appear in an 18th century book of fiction.The aspect of her feminism is often masked by all the endless musing on marriage and men; but Eliza is human,impulsive,imperfect and perfectly lovable.

Ursula Buendia: The endearing matriarch from 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. Marquez had a way with female characters and Ursula is probably the least vulnerable of them.She survives the whims of an eccentric husband,diametrically opposite sons,a spinster daughter,dysfunctional grandchildren,soldiers and other house guests who invite themselves over,a descendant who floats up into thin air and a motley crew of great grandchildren who count her as one of their toys when she goes blind.She is the least unpredictable and probably the least sensual of Marquez's female protagonists;she nevertheless commands respect like no other.

Tess: The milkmaid in 'Tess of the D'urbervilles' who refuses to become a victim despite being violated by one man and abandoned by another.She possesses a quality that is pure and unblemished by years of suffering.Her ethereal beauty and quiet stoicism break your heart.It is as though a part of you is altered.

Emma:Jane Austen's precocious heroine from 'Emma'. The kind of girl you would love to take on a road trip.Well meaning and naive; she will ensure that you are always entertained.Her misdirected efforts at matchmaking can drive you insane,but at the end it is only the thought that counts.

Here's wishing all you girls a very happy women's day.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When I Dreamt of IT

I sit hunched;my spine partly coiled in an unnatural arch.My eyes are glued to an LCD screen as I warm my feet to the buzz of a machine.I decide that I need to be kind to my back and pull my feet off the ground.I sit in a near-yogic pose,making good use of the back rest.The sun streams in,acting as a substitute for artificial light during the day, and I wonder how it all added up.

Let me take you back in time to the decade of the dotcom boom;when every middle class Indian kid either aspired to be a 'software engineer' or had parents nursing such aspirations.I was a high school student ,preparing for the board exams,watching all these people in their twenties looking rather affluent and working weird hours.I used to live in a place in Bangalore called Jeevan Bima Nagar.It was close enough to the then international airport and there was also easy access to the upcoming IT hub.The International Technology Park was all that people talked about back then.A workplace with a coffee shop and an oxygen bar was quite a novelty.The buildings in the park looked interesting,the lights were always on and they had names like 'Innovator' (there was a time in India when innovation wasn't a buzzword).The hype was pervasive to an extent that it inspired Bangalore University to organize a field trip for teachers to the tech park as part of a 'refresher course'.

There were a lot of new faces in the street where we lived. A new creed of people known as 'IT professionals' started to move in.There was nothing better for a teenager who needed a break from the monotony of public service employees and their 'stable' lives.These new folks woke up at 11 am to the sound of music blaring from a stereo system,drove to work in the latest car,came back at 11 pm and partied every weekend.

I recall a particularly memorable drive to the tech park that probably lead to all the things in the first paragraph.I needed a break from all the studying for the board exams, so my dad thought that it would be a nice idea if he took me for a long drive.We also took our car-crazy dog Jojo along.The drive from Jeevan Bima Nagar to ITPL was scenic.There were lush expanses of land,no flyovers and barely any traffic.There were two things that struck us about ITPL; the way the buildings looked like a patchwork of neon across the dark sky, and the scowl of a wizened security guard.We decided to leave as it was getting late.I took one look at the place and started to imagine myself working there.

I can sit no longer.I need to take a walk down the corridor and take a look outside.The drive from Jeevan Bima Nagar is no longer scenic, one is inevitably caught in a jam of traffic despite a criss cross of flyovers,the international airport has moved to a place far away from ITPL and I no longer live in Jeevan Bima Nagar. All the lush expanses of land are now occupied by various IT companies.I just happen to work in one of them.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

To James Joyce

Why did you write?
Squirming uneasily
Through the remains
Of an alien tongue.
Were you in search
Of an equal?
One who would walk
And linger with you;
Circling your errors,
Striking out your whims,
And marking your quirks
With vermilion ink.
Did you think
That the pen would suffice
For proof of erudition?
Or did you think
You could confide
In all who read
Without knowing that they did?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Things I've always wanted to Do

1. Go on a road trip with a pack of canines,stop at MacDonalds and give the poochies a treat so that I can eat sushi in peace.

2. Make wine and cheese at home

3. Take pictures the old fashioned way and get the film developed in my own personalized dark room.

4. Learn opera singing.

5. Watch the sun rise at Papua New Guinea

6. Clone my pets.

7. Travel back in time and say hello to Richard Feynman.

Friday, January 08, 2010

When Bookstores Annoy

I happened to be shopping and Reliance Time Out was just around the corner.I decided to go in;partly because it would be my first visit and partly because a friend said that it wasn't 'his kind of place'.I understood what my friend meant the moment I stepped in.The sheer disorganization hits you the way pretentious art does.There are best sellers piled at various angles,as is the norm in bookstore chains these days,followed by the section on music and movies with watches and mp3 players on either side!I realized that it was a rather crass imitation of 'Landmark',but I didn't mind because I have seen P.G. Wodehouse lining shelves labeled as 'Indian fiction' in Crossword.

I made my way to the classics section and then,quite inevitably,to the section on science.They seemed to have quite a collection on theoretical physics,the metaphysics of quantum mechanics,evolutionary biology,genetics and a book on math by Lewis Carroll.I was sufficiently pleased till I noticed a row stacked with self help books.The theoretical physics shelf faces the shelf of travel books and sits adjacent to the self help section without any hint of warning.It's a lot like being in a room with Richard Dawkins talking about the non-existence of a personal God, Richard Feynman giving a lecture on quantum mechanics,William Darymple raving about the forts in old Delhi and Rhonda Byrne saying that quantum mechanics supports 'the law of attraction' and hence the universe provides what you ask for! I tersely picked up a copy of 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor Frankel,not strictly self help in my opinion,but nevertheless occupying shelf space in the self help section.The next moment,a rather obnoxious gentleman asked,'Why do you read such books?'. I mumbled something and left the aisle quite annoyed.

The trouble with large bookstores is the loss of a sense of belonging.A large bookstore feels like an airport terminal;impersonal with an air of harried worry lurking at every corner.It is quite rare to find a brand that devotes itself exclusively to books.A coffee shop at the corner is quite inevitable and so are the multitude of other unrelated items.Books end up landing on shelves of different genres thanks to the flippancy of window shoppers who stroll in,pick up a book,forget where they took it from and place it back at an arbitrary location.Store personnel are equally indifferent when it comes to this matter(it is pretty obvious from the vacant stares they give you when you ask for something a little more 'niche').

Finally, the prize for 'The most annoying book chain phenomenon' goes to overbearing customers who take it upon themselves to decide what the rest of the world gets to read.I personally don't endorse the self help market, but I don't hold anything against others who do.The sheer pleasure of shopping at 'Blossoms' has everything to do with its silent,contemplative air(apart from the faint scent of tattered seconds).One can stand in the competitive exam section without appearing pitiful and soak in the mush of a 'Mills and Boon' without appearing desperate. Every reader has his or her quirks and a large bookstore is just incapable of respecting that.

P.S. I think the owner of 'Blossoms' owes me a commission for the following reasons:
- I always say nice things about 'Blossoms' in my blog.
- I have recommended it to all my friends who like to read.
- I have given them a great deal of business myself.