Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mile sur mera tumhara 2.0, the buggy version

In between bouncing from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, and clearing away the bodies of people who told me not to take it "so personally", I knew I really needed to write a dissertation about it on my blog. An insightful one. Funny. Incisive. With biting wit and slaying sarcasm. Except I watched the video twice and sputter sputter, sputter, spit.

But that's a good thing because there's no way on earth I could have bettered this commentary: Mile Sur Mera Tomorrow? Fail

Click on the link. It's really worth it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Has it been that long?

Or maybe the question is: "Has it only been that long?" Got this in my Hotmail inbox today and it was interesting to read the last three bits. This was my first email account (actually the only reason I still have it) and also gave me the my "web name" of shilo70, which has totally stuck!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thoughts in a bookstore

Looking through the “Indian Writers” part of a bookstore (a section that seems to grow larger every month), I stopped muttering to myself long enough to register something I hadn't quite noticed before - there is a lot of Indian pulp fiction out there and that is a very good thing. It’s a sign of the market coming of age that there are different kinds of Indian writing in English and they are all of them prolific. It's several worlds removed from having the one Vikram Seth or Arundati Roy who had to be all things to all people.

The problem that lingers, I think, is that the rest of the world has yet to catch up. All Indian writers that are marketed right are treated with the same tone by the same kind of reviewers. Sacred Games is a case in point. Chetan Bhagat got the write-up in the New York Times that Vikram Chandra deserved. I believe that the increasingly hysterical Mann Booker Prize has a lot to answer for, too.

Often, good Indian writing - the books that are Indian only incidentally, or those that are so fundamentally Indian that they need no decoration with henna or scenting with sandalwood – these, like the independent Indian movies, cross borders quietly and make their mark among those who know. In the big picture, the whole publicity thing probably doesn’t matter.

So I’m left with one burning question and giant peeve – do Indian publishers not believe in editors or proof readers? Especially in a time when anyone with a keyboard can and does write, why isn’t this considered essential? I’m finding basic grammatical and structural errors in more and more books. A delightful read like The Zoya Factor was spoilt by weird grammar glitches that an average sub-editor with a hangover could have corrected. It drives me crazy. People have argued with me about preserving the integrity of “Indian English”. Bollocks. RK Narayan is the quintessential Indian English, and I have yet to see bad grammar or wrongly used words in his books.

I just finished reading a singularly execrable book. “What Would You Do To Save The World?” is essentially the story of a real beauty contestant, told through the thin fictional veil of a “Miss Indian Beauty” contest. With so much good material to work with, it could have been a Devil Wears Prada (the designer of the cover may have believed that, too, from the blurb). All that emotion, manipulation, the discomfort of a doctoral student making herself jump through frilly hoops for a tiara, frustrated at not understanding her need for it, the fact that the accolade is inevitably tawdry even with the real diamonds, a faded institution struggling to mean something to somebody against the backdrop of a country already torn by too many ideological paradoxes and a world that prefers to get that sort of fix from reality TV. Hell, in the hands of Rushdie, it could have won a Nobel! Instead, the book can’t be bothered to go higher than the level of a mediocre newspaper feature.

I’d decided not to trash any more books on my blog because of not wanting to give the universe ammunition for when it comes to payback time, but this one is wantonly bad. It makes me feel homicidal, not just the waste of good material (which after all, is just opinion), but also the fact that it's almost semi-literate in places.

Talking of payback, at the other end of the bookshop (and spectrum) is a terrifyingly eloquent Zadie Smith, to name just one, who makes me want to simultaneously stop writing and write more, the hit of pure joy and fear at the edge of a cliff with a glorious view. There’s a difference between talent and gift, and I may have the wrong one, but I’ll never know until I know, and at that point it will be too late. Someone may read my book and say “In the hands of PD James or Ian Rankin or Donna Leon or Ruth Rendell....” but just as I write that, I realize that none of them would produce this book. So it seems not to be derivative, then. At least that’s something.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Joy to the world

The Songtsen Library, 11km outside Dehradun, turned out to be exactly what I had had in mind when I started planning this holiday, which is something that almost never happens. I could do a lot of tedious description, but I think the pictures will be do a better job.

Surrounded by academics and travellers, and others who belong in a Leonard Cohen song, it felt like living on a small campus, my first-floor suite like my own flat. At times, when Joan Baez was singing Diamonds and Rust and I glanced casually up from my writing, it felt as if I was back in my flat in Muscat. In fact, since it was oriented similarly with the windows facing the sun rising over the hills, it always took a few minutes after waking to reorient myself to the present.

The gardens fell away to the thickly wooded Sahastradhara River Valley. The flowers were profuse, the people quietly welcoming and the unnumbered Lhasa Apsos frolicking about were friendly (these could have been three or four or just an optical illusion. It was hard to tell in the mist, compounded by the fact that most of them didn't have names).

My first evening here, I went down to the fence to enjoy the sunset, feeling a deep relief at the quiet beauty. I watched the darkness and mist fill the valley, until the outline of the hills faded out, and only the sky was left, clear and cold. The stars switched themselves on, one by one (coinciding with the half-hour load shedding on the ground), and the waxing moon showed up shortly after, way too bright for a mere crescent. It deepened the dark, intensified the cold, and sharpened the outline of the hills once again. And along with them, the dark shapes of bushes, trees and sundry undergrowth. Then, having been reading Jim Corbett and being possessed of an unreasonable imagination, I retreated hastily to where there were lights and tea, and humans. It was only six-thirty in the evening, but it felt like ten, so I prowled around the kitchens until dinnertime at seven. In yet another of those reminders that the Earth is round, the chef here turned out to have worked at Rice Bowl, the old Bangalorean institution on Brigade Road. Apparently, the restaurant belongs to the Dalai Lama's sister; I'd always assumed it was Chinese-owned, and rather tactlessly said so.

Once I'd gotten into a rhythm, I would only stop working in time to watch the mist and star show from my balcony. In any case I wouldn't have returned alone to the rather lonely viewpoint unless I could have got one of the dogs to accompany me. But small dogs have a lot of cat-like qualities and won't go anywhere inconvenient or uncomfortable unless there's something in it for them. I did manage to buy some man's-best-friend-ness with a chocolate biscuit, but it clearly didn't run to wandering outside in the cold.

Looking at my photographs now, there's still a sense of unreality to the whole thing, not least the fact that this perfect place was came my way because of a perfect stranger. There, cushioned within the blessed diversity of many nationalities and the anonymity of being just one among many, I got a lot of work done. Mealtimes were enlivened by cameo conversations, nearly always with someone new. These ranged from being silly with the merriest Germans I've ever met over the ways of fictional murderers and the possibility of any such making it to the Nobel list, to satisfying the bloodless curiosity of a librarian about a book in the making. It occasioned no awe or wonder or any singularity whatsoever, that I counted my holiday well-spent sitting at a laptop in a library all day; or that two hours of walking did not need to lead anywhere.
The Dalai Lama's vintage-ish Mercedes displayed on the Library lawns.

A hill station that's flat

After the hill-surrounded, green-valley-overlooking Songtsen Library, Dehradun town was horrible. A lucky conversation with my friend in town gave me the local name for the iconic clock tower, which was where I was headed. When I got off the bus, I was told it was round the corner. I unerringly went around the wrong corner, but decided to keep walking anyway to see where I would fetch up, and Dirk-Gently-style, ended up where I most needed to be – in front of a Barista. I hailed the sight of it with immense relief, exhausted by the blaring traffic (noticeably chaotic even to someone from Bangalore), open drains, ugly buildings and non-existent footpaths. In more than an hour of walking, I hadn't taken my camera out once.

The day before I left, my sister-in-law had warned me that Dehradun was entirely flat, saving me the added trauma of having to find out the hard way that the nip in the air was all there was to remind you that you were at the feet of some the greatest mountain ranges in the world. I had kept telling people that Dehradun would be like Ooty, doing the charming Nilgiri town a major disservice in the process.

Once, this place must have been like all the other colonial hill stations. The guidebooks and columnists are trying to pretend it still is, just like people keep calling Whitefield a picturesque suburb of Bangalore when all that's left of it is a cottage or three that hasn't yet been sold to a developer. (Important lesson learnt: If you want to know about a place, never ask someone who went to school there: the good old alma mater nostalgia cancels out all sense of perspective)

There's a cantonment area somewhere, which must have been nice, as all of them are. There must also have been Anglo-Indian and affluent pockets (I fervently hope), with roses climbing over cottage walls and the kitchen gardens that the girl on the train was talking about. But as with everywhere else in India, perhaps the world, gated communities called LA City and Greenview are working hard at removing the green from the view. There was a mall-like object far out of the city and I puzzled over its existence so close to a centre for Tibetan monks, until I explored a road beside it and came upon an "IT Park", of all things. I threw some garlic at it and ran away.

This, I suppose, is Progress and, indeed, why should the people who live here be left out of the consumerist orgy just because visitors want an "unspoilt getaway"? It's what's wrong with the times, not just Dehradun. Soon the only real holidays will be in the resorts enthusiastically creating debugged versions of the originals.

Once I'd seen the Barista, I was properly oriented to the instructions in the guidebook I'd deliberately left behind in Bangalore (since this was not supposed to be a tourist visit). So I kept walking until I reached the historic Ellora Bakery, where I bought several jam rolls, an old favourite that the even older bakery in Whitefield has stopped making in favour of ill-conceived croissant-like confections. Refreshed by the fact that I had high-sugar, fatty foods for future reference, I walked some more, noted the strange profusion of jewellery stores and dismaying lack of a restaurant that sold something other than butter chicken, and returned to the Barista for the rest of the afternoon. The friend for whose sake I'd come into town was mysteriously missing, but I'd found the me-shaped hole in a café and was very pleased with the day's work.

In the days that followed I made several short trips into town – I was situated outside a little village that lit dung fires at night, so, while their shop sold cream biscuits and bread, I had to commute a bit for anything else I wanted – and noticed calmer, more civilized parts of Dehradun from the bus window. Still, it's not really anywhere anybody would want to go on holiday. If you don't live there, it's just a transit or refuelling stop.

The bus was a smallish blue thing that you flagged down at the end of the village road. A few days of commuting later, I was negotiating with an orangemonger at Dehradun bus stand when the bus arrived, and I expected philosophically to have to catch the next one. But when I turned around with my bargain fruit, I found the bus waiting patiently for me. I remembered dimly that that's what rural bus services were about, and, in return, dug up the skills required to make space for a third person on a seat that was hardly big enough for two.

Barista, Rajpur Road, Dehradun

I visited this coffee shop quite a bit, mostly because it had a bookshop attached. Also, since I was surrounded by chai, I was automatically craving coffee, in spite of the fact that I'd long stopped drinking either.

Most of my fellow patrons seemed to be yuppie couples visiting from the capital or well-heeled parents of boarding-school-going children with said sufferers in tow. Now and then, there were people more difficult to place and some who were technically foreigners, but, I realized sadly, less foreign to me than the Indian peers around me there. There was a group of young men in the corner one day who had that certain something about them that said "motorcycle expedition". It was nearly an hour before I registered that the certain something was a pile of helmets. A lone cyclist consulted a map over a cappuccino. A few extremely well-dressed women settled their embroidered shawls delicately at a table near me – this must have been the 'Dun elite out for coffee; no tourist is ever that elegant. By about four in the evening the teenagers would arrive with their soothing, non-life-threatening problems. At least, it seemed like four. People kept looking at my new phone, so I stopped taking it out and therefore hardly ever knew the time. I woke when the sun rose, lunched when it was high in the sky and, if out, started for home when the shadows started to lengthen. It was very restful.

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