Wednesday, December 20, 2006

May our days be merry and bright

Pretty paper, ribbons, trees full of shiny things, lights, the smell of cinnamon and sugar, presents, parents, friends, food... it’s all very well to act post-modern and cynical, but the truth is that Christmas is fun, no matter how corny or commercial it gets.

Why is it only Christmas that does this? Yes, I did grow up in a small town with a sizeable churchgoing population. I have gone carol singing in December, with people I've known all my life, my breath rising in clouds before me as I sang Jingle Bells off-key. I know how good wine and cake taste in the cold. I’ve been to midnight mass in a small town church, where it always felt like Mary’s boy child was born just a few minutes earlier and the world was about to change for the better.

But I’m not Christian (and not particularly religious in any direction), nor have I lived in a predominantly Christian country. I have no warm-hearth childhood memories of sparkly trees, eggnog or chestnuts roasting on open fires. I’m not entirely sure what a chestnut is. I definitely haven’t known a working fireplace. The only snow I’ve seen is artificial, and that only last year. Nevertheless, all the Diwali lamps in the world cannot induce the aching combination of anticipation, nostalgia and glee that the words “white Christmas” evoke effortlessly.

Is it because it’s the only festival that’s celebrated in the only language that’s truly mine and the written word has always been more real to me than reality?

Or is it that I do have the memories? Not of chimneys and stockings, but of the spirit of it all. Life filled to the brim with brother, parents, dogs and a great many friends of all. Large-hearted dinner parties always full of familiar people. Equally large-hearted arguments to enliven it all. Cocooned in a peaceful suburb, a sense of security that’s absorbed into the bone, forever. Parents who were generous with laughter. Houses that were generous with space. Life that was generous with time. It was chaotic, crowded, noisy and fun. A lot like Christmas, in fact.

And may all our Christmases be white.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Indian, novel

An alarming number of new Indian writers are content to be Indian rather than writers.

Seven out of ten books are a uniform parade of red saris and spicy food, no matter which part of India they’re set in or what they’re trying to say. Yet, India is most emphatically not the sum of its parts. It’s not even clear know how many parts there are.

“Mango tree books” is what we call them, my friend and I. A shortened version of “My Grandmother's Mango Tree”, which was the derisive title of a hypothetical book, created to honour the annoying rash of “exotic Indian” writing that followed “The God of Small Things”. They got the exotic part, but missed the quality that made Roy's book a book worth keeping – integrity.

Or whatever the word is that means it's about writing because something clamours to be written, not read.

I have begun to avoid anything with silk and sindoor on the cover and am suspicious of blurbs that promise “vivid, unforgettable” prose. “Lyrical” is synonymous with empty nonsense now.

I probably missed some good books in the process, but on the detour I discovered that it's not an exclusively Indian phenomenon. There are Irish mango tree books, South African ones, Iranian, Lebanese, Australian, Middle-American. There's the “Modern Romance” category, spawned by Bridget Jones, the “Modern Man” category inspired by Nick Hornby and the “Boyhood” ones sprung from “Paddy Clarke ha ha ha”. They’re lesser than the originals and diminish them criminally.

It seems the mango tree is really the spreading banyan tree of marketing.

On the other hand, in the words of Amin Maalouf's Balthazar: “How can I who doubt everything not doubt my own doubts?” It's all subjective, after all. Reading is intensely personal, like the music one listens to alone. If someone likes it, surely it's entitled to exist unmolested? Why should anybody have to justify their tastes? I certainly don't! So does it matter? The answer is still a resounding yes.

If books are sold on the basis of the writer's origins, then so will they be judged. If all you’re doing is trading on your ethnicity, how can you expect to stand up and be counted as a writer? And unforgivably, it makes a mockery of those that deserve to be so counted.

Is it okay to read “100 Years of Solitude” only as “South American Writing”, if “Things Fall Apart” has no value outside of Achebe's roots, or if a promising Lavanya Sankaran is judged only within the parameters of Indian writing?

As the world gets smaller, the minds seem to be shrinking to fit. In a time of sound bites, bullet points and quick edits, there’s no room for the whole truth, just enough to lend weight to the stereotypes and validate the pre-conceptions. Time was when reading broadened the mind, but that’s not a guarantee anymore.

Perhaps the only thing worse than a world that doesn’t read is one that is so eager to read the wrong things for the wrong reasons.

It's raining again


I was not made to live anywhere except in Paradise.
Such, simply, was my genetic inadaptation.

Here on earth every prick of a rose-thorn changed into a wound.
whenever the sun hid behind a cloud, I grieved.
I pretended to work like others from morning to evening,
but I was absent, dedicated to invisible countries.

For solace I escaped to city parks, there to observe
and faithfully describe flowers and trees, but they changed,
under my hand, into the gardens of Paradise.
-- Czeslaw Milosz

It seemed to have been written for me. I found it scribbled on a piece of paper in a battered book picked out of a big basket in a crowded shop run by an old hippie who was painting postcards at the cash register. Outside, a tough old Thai with tattooed arms was playing a guitar. As I was leaving the shop, an aggressive woman stopped me for a long discussion about writers from the Industrial Revolution because she was looking for translations of these into Thai as a present for a Thai boxer. When I came out of the shop, the monsoon had begun and the guitarist had been joined by several other Thais, all singing. Some of them had ties on, they seemed to be on their way home from work... during my first few days at the dodgy end of Bangkok, I felt like I was actually in a book.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The devil in Ms Jones

She’s good at her job. She’s looking better than she ever did. She’s comfortable with her body, easy in her own style. She’s fun. She’s single. This last seems to be the most important thing about her now, though it does not feature on her own list, except as an afterthought or a prompted response.

According to the explanations of her lifestyle that the media throws up, that’s why she buys all the clothes and books and CDs. She takes pleasure in these things and it annoys her that people define her by glib, simplistic classifications in magazines.

She’s surrounded by people who consider her incomplete, a temp in the corporation of life, because someone else didn’t choose to make her permanent. She lives with that, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in resignation, sometimes in amusement, but more and more, in secret despair. A girl who never considered marriage her life’s destination, now has to deal with the subject all the time, one way or another.

As the thirties flash past, she thinks about the great fairytale less and less. But she watches Kate Hudson get her man in movie after movie; reads books where girls named Sandy and Beth meet men of their dreams against all odds and live happily ever after with a brood of pretty children. And she wonders if she’s wrong.

Each year that passes makes it harder to avoid the schemes of friends and family to get her married to someone, anyone. Friends and family who took their time and made their own choices, but seem to believe she deserves less than that because she’s gathered a bit of dust.

She’s become very good at telling people that she’s fine. She’s even better at turning her life into funny stories. Laughter is a very clever barricade, almost impossible to detect or break through. She is aware somewhere inside that the it's too clever – it keeps her in as much as it keeps others out. That doesn’t matter because she’s also become very good at denial.

But she’s done it for too long, it gets harder and harder. She fears that sooner or later a moment of weakness will come, maybe after a bad day at work or an unusually silent weekend, and she’ll give in. And then she’ll be lost. She doesn’t know what she means by “lost”, and sometimes she feels it might be a relief, might work out, but in her head she knows without a doubt that it would be wrong. She would be moving from one person’s definition to another, always invisible to everyone but herself.

So she keeps a wary distance from the people who care for her because they’re the ones who make her feel inadequate now. Relative strangers accept her own definition of herself, so she can be single-attractive-fun, not single-tired-besieged. She’s not that fond of the parties, but admitting it is like admitting defeat. So she goes to a lot of them and is the life and soul.

More and more now, the ghosts of break-ups past visit her. They watch her with hopeful eyes, expecting to be released, but she can’t help them, any more than she can help herself. She’s a full-strength, red-alert crisis.

And tomorrow she might fall apart, but today, her hair’s looking good, the weather’s wonderful, the coffee tastes great and her shoes are new.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Planes, trains and automobiles

Writing a blog is like peeing outdoors in the dark. You know you’re doing it and it’s a (slightly nervous) relief, but you can’t see where it’s going or if anyone can see you doing it. It’s distinctly unsettling and if you didn’t really, really have to, you wouldn’t.

Long-distance bus rides long ago come to mind. Up mountains, down them, up them again, round and round the hell-born hairpin bends. When we finally stopped for a bit, the respite from nausea was overshadowed by needing to pee, and especially by knowing that it would have to be done behind a giant tyre in a place where trucks went to die. Of course it helped that there was usually a mother or an aunt to orchestrate this expedition. They never got it wrong.

In speeding trains, the shuddering, thundering loo seemed always to be on the point of wrenching itself away, but there was a door to keep out evil truck goblins. Unfortunately it also kept out mothers, fathers, aunts etc, so when you came out you might have found yourself marooned in an orphan cubicle, trundling along an empty track in bear country.

As for planes, if you were not maimed by one or the other silly device in the noisy can, there would be a hijacking while you were in there and you would have had the terrible burden of being the hero because you were the one who wasn't spotted.

Truck goblins and bears were upgraded to serial killers and creatures from The Descent, but hero-hood has since been recognised as optional, so progress has clearly been made.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sheep's clothing

There's a new version of Asterix and the Normans. This one's based on the movie and includes some new characters and situations. On the one hand, it's a good to know there's a new Asterix out there, if only a renovated one. On the other hand, it might be a terrible tampering of a brilliant original. There's only one way to find out of course, but the last time I bought an untried "new" Asterix, it traumatised me for ages.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A zed by any name would spell as sweet

The work was right, the timing was right, the location was right, the money was alright. The job was exactly what I’d been looking for. I could have done it standing on my head and they would have known it too, when they saw my portfolio. I mailed them my CV, it was rejected almost instantly.

Apparently I had all the qualifications except one: no history of travel to the US, nor a valid multiple-entry visa. For a writing job based in Bangalore. I’ve got used to not qualifying for certain jobs in Dubai based on the colour of my passport, but not qualifying in my hometown for similar reasons was quite a shock. Maybe I should have sued, got them used to that!

But on calmer reflection, perhaps it wasn’t the perfect job. I’d have had to unlearn most spellings and start again. And build up a whole new vocabulary of homely phrases and pointless mutations. In a world where sympathise supposably takes a zee instead of an s, irregardless of my own feelings, I would need to line up all my ducks very carefully if I didn’t want to look like being two vowels short of a sentence.

I wonder if professional writers in other languages have to watch out for words that change character as they cross oceans. My thanksgiving this year will be for having grown up in a country whose English wanders nonchalantly back and forth across the Atlantic. The country seems to have changed a bit lately, but it's the illusions I recall.

I don’t know what the point of this post is. Anger breeds incoherence.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The summer's putting up quite a fight...

... and the dust from the battle is very pretty.

Photo courtesy: Tehzeeb on a Nokia N91 and rather early to work.

Revised photo courtesy: Somebody Tehzeeb knows who was in a helicopter. She knows interesting people.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

My private world of Georgette Heyer

The battle rages in obscure corners and occasionally in the Amazon customer reviews.

Will Georgette Heyer finally be admitted into the hallowed ranks of “serious writers”? Or will she stay in the lace-edged, irrelevant world of historical romances? The world is not waiting with bated breath.

Those of us who already know are just deeply thankful for her mastery of her trade. Her books are a delight.

Mine tend to come fresh out of an Amazon carton or sometimes through strangers’ hands in a secondhand bookshop. But wherever they come from, they hold the reassuring smell of mothballs and Yardley lavender.

The Nonesuch is always the blue hardcover my mother read when she was young. Frederica is faded red, in the upstairs cupboard of a house in Ponnani. Arabella sits on a bookshelf in a sunny flat in Chennai. Beauvallet belongs to a frail old lady in a sturdy old house. The Grand Sophy is a severely restored volume that holds all the vast, weathered quiet of my college library. The ones on my bookshelf are merely manifestations.

For me, Georgette Heyer is forever mixed up with Lakme lipstick No. 53, Chanel No. 5, liquid foundation No. 3. Chiffon and cotton. Pearls and garnets. My mother, her mother, her aunts, my aunts. They’ve all read Georgette Heyer, almost as a rite of passage, but I think I’m the only one in my generation. That’s one more thing they shared that we don’t, my cousins and I.

Perhaps one day my niece will discover my books. If ever she has a private world of Georgette Heyer, I hope her aunt would have earned a place in it that’s at least half as kind. And the merest fraction as graceful.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Secret diaries I write
Hoping someone will secretly read
And find out that I’m secretly
Someone more interesting than I

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Those far away places, with strange sounding names

It’s that time of the year again. It starts small. There’s a poster in the window of the travel agent you pass every day on the way to work. Then a photograph of a wood as your screen saver. One morning, a sudden flashback of a landscape you may have seen through a train window sometime. Your shower starts to sound like a waterfall. Maps start to become 3D. Suddenly, the internet is buzzing with anticipation, the emails are full of plans, the travel sites are full of advice.

The travelling world seems to be divided between Lonely Planet enthusiasts and Everyone Else. What inspires this “love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it” reaction? The price? I used to be one of those who took the price as a personal insult to my ancestors, descendants, hometown and myself, until I had to plan a budget holiday in Scandinavia. After exhaustively researching Norway on the Internet and exhaustingly sifting through folklore for a month, I began to see why a Lonely Planet is worth its weight in gold.

But browsing through a row of Lonely Planets in a bookshop is as bad as looking at an atlas. You change your mind every 30 seconds. It could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or Rome, cause Rotterdam is anywhere, anywhere but here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Bus No. 402

Public transport drivers have to answer questions all the time. “Does this go to Al Khoz?” (Yes, fool, that’s what it says on the front.) “Is this the Crowne Plaza stop?” (Do you see the Crowne Plaza anywhere?). It usually never gets more complicated than “Why did that bus go by without stopping?”, and very rarely goes beyond the realm of timetables and driving. Unless you’re the driver of the bus that goes to the airport.

The driver of Bus No. 402 is a flight information centre, confessional, nanny, behavioural scientist, expert on the vagaries of the Dubai Airport Random Rule Making Committee and a linguist who knows the slang for these vagaries in the streetspeak of at least seven communities. He also has monumental patience and a fair amount of clairvoyance.

One anxious passenger is meeting someone at gate 16 but doesn’t know which one that is. I wonder how he has his gate number before checking in, but it emerges that the pillars outside the airport are called gates by a certain section of the airport-going populace, and have unwritten numbers. Another man wants to know if his flight is on time and he wants to know this every ten minutes. A woman confides that it’s her first trip home as an expat and worries about her excess baggage. The driver says: “The flight’s not crowded, you won’t have to pay.”

A sunburnt tourist finds he has no local currency left for bus tickets. The driver pretends he can pay in foreign coins and issues a ticket anyway. I want to know how to get to Arrivals from Departure and he gives me minute directions. He clairvoyantly knows that the minuter, the better.

His attitude is actually reflective of Dubai’s general kindness towards people with luggage. Anybody on the way to the airport is every one of us. I think that’s why personnel in the Gulf airports seem more human than most others. They smile when they greet you, they listen when you talk, they act like they want to help. (So it’s quite a shock when you land wherever it is that you’re going or when you get on the plane, depending on the airline.)

The certainty of that last trip to Terminal 1 binds the woman in the Cayenne to the boys in the hard hats in the non-air-conditioned bus next to her at the traffic light. They will, one day, leave the labour camps behind, just as surely as she will the tax-free Porsche. Perhaps that's when the field is finally levelled.

It was forty-five minutes to the airport.

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