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.

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