Another Year… Another Beginning…

It seems that we human beings cannot live without breaking the time stream down into discrete chunks.  Maybe it’s because of the repetition of night and day over twenty-four hours, or the repetition of four seasons over 365 days.  As a species, we are indubitably temporal – our existence made up of repetitive cycles.

Each new year is a new beginning. It is a time to renew oneself, as one looks at the dying year and the newborn year at the same time, Janus-like.  The past is dead, dying in small bits even as I type this – and the new year is already 8 days old.  Here I sit in front of the computer, blaming myself for things still left undone, and promising to do better this year – yes, the old business of New Year Resolutions.  Thankfully, I have stopped making them publicly.

Looking back, the past year has not been that bad on the intellectual front.  I completed one hundred blog posts – though most of them were embellished book reviews which I had already posted on Goodreads – and have established my presence here on the blogosphere to a certain extent.  I managed to read a hundred books.  I wrote a play and submitted it for a local competition (it did not win anything) and I have started work on a novel, which I hope, will not die a premature death.

In 2016, these are the resolutions I have made to myself:

  1. Read more Malayalam books.
  2. Read more on mythology and explore its intimate connection to the human psyche and creativity.
  3. Read some classics (both fiction and non-fiction) which have been on my list for quite a time.
  4. Write regularly.

Knowing myself, it’s quite likely that these resolutions may be honoured more in the breach than in observance.  However, it’s always advisable to set targets so that one will have something to strive for.

Belated Happy New Year to all my friends!

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A Quick Post to Round Off the Year

2015 is on its deathbed: in just over seven days, it will fade into history and the young 2016 will take its place.  As years go, it has been turbulent both nationally and internationally.  India has been at its divisive worst, with Hindu fundamentalists bent on “going back to the roots” on one side and leftists and liberals on the other side: the idea of a secular India is facing its greatest challenge.  Internationally, the rise of Daesh (the ISIS) and the turbulence in the Middle East, wars and atrocities leading to the displacement of millions and the worst refugee crisis in recent times, rising xenophobia in the west and the probable collapse of the European Union all seems to be heralding a period of prolonged unrest.  This, coupled with the falling oil prices and a possible worldwide depression around the corner, does not augur well for the future.

But on the birthday of one prophet and the eve of the birthday of another, I prefer to be optimistic.  After all, there are small rays of hope like the Paris summit on global warming.  Like William Faulkner said, I believe that man will not only endure – I believe that man will prevail.  Because optimism and the dogged determination to go on is all mankind has left: if we lose that too, we lose everything.

On that note, I am signing off for the year with this brief post.  I am going for a short and sweet vacation to India and shall be back on the blogosphere by the first week of January.

Au Revoir!

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A Review of “Willful Creatures” by Aimee Bender

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

In an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez I read way back in the late eighties, I remember the author saying that this one sentence started him on the road to literature. Until then, he had not known “people were allowed to write like this”!

This is what sets literature apart from all other arts – infinite freedom. The medium lets one create what one wants. Because the written narrative is a meeting of minds – the mind of the writer and that of the reader – imagination is the stage where they come together. They may watch two entirely different shows, and enjoy it all the same. The very abstractness of language proves its greatest strength.

CoverAimee Bender, in this collection of weird short stories, takes off from where Kafka stopped. Where in Kafka’s stories strange things happen in a normal world, here the strangeness is taken for granted. Kafka’s abnormal is the new normal.

A boy born to pumpkin-headed parents, with an electric iron for a head (Ironhead).

A universe in which little men are captured and kept as pets by big men (End of the Line).

A man with a set of keys for fingers (The Leading Man).

Potatoes who attain sentience (Dearth).

These are some of the inhabitants of Aimee’s literary universe.

The prose is economical to the level of terseness. There is no emotion: the narrative is akin to the way fairy tales are told. Some examples are given below:

Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. Five men cry. Three men rage. One man smiles. The last man is silent, meditative. Okay, he says. He has no reaction. The raging men, upon meeting in the lobby, don’t know what to do with the man of no reaction. They fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands.

The doctor comes out of his office and apologizes, to the dead man.

(“Deathwatch”)

 

The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company. The pet store was full of dogs with splotches and shy cats coy and the friendly people got dogs and the independent people got cats and this man looked around until in the back he found a cage inside of which was a miniature sofa and tiny TV and one small attractive brown-haired man, wearing a tweed suit. He looked at the price tag. The little man was expensive but the big man had a reliable job and thought this a worthy purchase.

(“End of the Line”)

 

Two of us hold Debbie down against the passenger door. Two others grab her feet so she can’t run or kick. The one with rings strikes Debbie several times-a few times hard in the stomach and one fist in the face so it will show, tomorrow. So she will have to explain. Debbie is screaming and crying.

We rip the skirt off with our bare hands and her underwear is almost too much to bear, with that pattern that is the knockoff of the expensive one, and a giant maxi pad weighing down the middle. We rip the skirt into pieces, which is what all the mothers have wanted to do, because it is rags anyway, it is a rag skirt, made of rags. The one with the rings slides her hands down Debbie’s arms and the rings she bought at the street fair cut lines into Debbie’s skin, where drizzles of blood rise freely to the surface.

(“Debbieland”)

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Photo Courtesy: huffingtonpost

The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys. All except one, the pinkie on the right hand, had sharp ridges running along the inner length, and a point at the tip. They were made of flesh, with nerves and pores, but of a tougher texture, more hardened and specific. As a child, the boy had a difficult time learning to hold a pen and use scissors, but he was resilient and figured out his own method fast enough. His true task was to find the nine doors.

(“The Leading Man”)

By creating strange, unfamiliar worlds and divorcing emotion from the tale, the author succeeds in forcing the reader to look at the big picture. The structure of power within human communities (“End of the Line”), bullying (“Debbieland”), the outcast changeling (“Ironhead”), the stifling nature of religion (“Job’s Jobs”)… this method is Brechtian in its conception and execution, and works very well, as these stories are extremely short. I do not know whether they will hold up in a longer version such as a novel.

“End of the Line”, “Fruit and Words” and “Ironhead” turned out to be my personal favourites in this collection, but I loved all these weird vignettes. If you are a connoisseur of the strange, you will too.

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Movie Nostalgia

Going to the movies in the late sixties and early seventies was a vastly different experience from the sanitised one nowadays. Living in the suburbs (which was practically meant village in those days in India), our options were severely limited. My home town of Tripunithura in Kerala had exactly three theatres: none of them air-conditioned and only one provided with a balcony. You sat on cushioned chairs only if you had a balcony ticket. The first and second class had wooden or cane chairs (in one theatre, the second class was benches with backrest): after that there was the “bench” (without the backrest) then the infamous തറ (thara, “the floor”), where you squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor (even now, calling somebody തറ is derogatory in Kerala).

You paid the lordly sum of two rupees for a balcony ticket. First class was Rs. 1.50, second class one rupee, benches fifty paise and “thara”, 25 paise. As you moved down and down the hierarchy of classes, you moved nearer and nearer to the screen – with the consequence that the images got bigger and less clear (becoming virtual patterns of light for those at the very front), and you got a crick in the neck by the time the movie ended, as a consequence of staring upward.

The theatre would be usually filled with cigarette smoke. At the beginning of the show, the mandatory warning would be flashed on the screen: “Smoking inside the theatre is punishable under law.” This was the signal for all and sundry to light up. Soon, you could see the smoke swirling in the beam from the projector, creating interesting shapes (I used to amuse myself watching these if the movie was boring). The smell of the cigarettes would be mixed with the faint smell of ammonia from the urinals outside: even now, my recollection of old movies is invariably tied up with this smell.

The seats, especially the cane chairs, were breeding grounds for bed-bugs. They would start feasting on you the moment you sat down. Twisting, squirming and scratching your bottom was all part of the movie experience. After some time, you learned to take it in your stride, and the bugs never bothered you. (Once, I was even attacked by an army of really savage ants!)

The screen used to have lot of stains on it: it would be patched up in many places, and sometimes, there would even be holes. Thus, the drama played out on it would creatively enhanced by a sudden patch appearing on the leading lady’s nose, or the hero’s eyes disappearing into a hole.

But in spite of all these difficulties (which were never perceived as such in those days), movie-going was an adventure. In a world devoid of TV, computer and social media, it was the main source of entertainment for the community. It was a weekly ritual akin to a visit to the temple.

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In the days before TV, we got to know about movies through (1) newspaper advertisements (2) posters plastered on walls and (3) cinema notices. The last page of all our local dailies was reserved for films, where each Friday the new releases enticed us to the theatres. Much before that, posters would start appearing on the walls; smiling heroes, frowning villains and pouting vamps – with the tantalising caption “coming soon!” (This culture is still alive and kicking today.) But the most exciting was the cinema notice, distributed from cars fitted with loudspeakers, blaring announcements about the film in-between song bits. The notice would contain half the story, and leave it hanging at a crucial point with the statement “watch the remaining tense scenes on the silver screen”.

There would usually be three shows initially: the matinee at 3:00 P.M., the first show at 6:30 P.M. and the second show at 9.30 P.M. As kids, we were allowed to go alone only for the matinees. The first shows were for the family. The second shows were to be abhorred, only for bachelors as the theatres were likely to be populated by drunkards, women of loose morals and similar denizens of the night.

The shows were announced by music through the loudspeakers at the theatre, usually ninety minutes before the show – these would be switched off, and the music played only inside the movie hall, exactly half an hour before the start (this was the signal for stragglers to get to the theatre).

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“Goti Soda” (Image courtesy: Mumbaimag)

On opening days of popular films, there would be a mad rush for tickets: queues were at the best rudimentary, and the strong muscled in from anywhere and everywhere. (One of the theatres in Thripunithura was owned by a relative, and a family friend operated the ticket booth in the other, so I did not face much of a problem in obtaining entrance.) Even when the available tickets were sold out, the theatre owners often obliged by pushing in extra chairs in the vacant spaces, and I have even seen people standing and watching the movie once! Many a time, the show started late while these arrangements were in progress. People didn’t mind much, in those days.

There were some pre-show rituals – vendors would circulate selling roasted peanuts in conical newspaper packets, the iconic “goli soda” (the soda bottle stoppered with a glass marble) and the പാട്ടുപുസ്തകം (“pattupusthakam”, song book): a small booklet containing all the songs from the movie. (I had a big collection of these books. I used to learn the songs by heart and sing them – mostly off-key – in the bathroom). These vendors made their rounds again during the interval (the mandatory 10-minute break for all Indian movies).

Before the movie started, there would be ad films and then, the news reel. In the pre-TV era, this was our only exposure to news via the visual media. Sometimes, small documentaries created by the Films Division of the Indian Government would also be screened before the movie proper (some of these documentaries were excellent).

Then after all these preliminaries were done, the film proper would start – sometimes welcomed by claps from the audience.

 

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Our film-going experience was not without its hardships. Many a time, the power would fail, and the movie projector would be powered by a diesel generator. This would entail switching off all the fans in the theatre, making it swelteringly hot in the summer. The film sometimes got cut: then we had to wait till it was spliced together. Once, I remember the projector striking work in the middle and the show was cancelled – audience were given tickets to see it at a later date.

But we did not care about these. In a life largely devoid of luxuries as we know it today, these were all minor irritants in the magic ritual of “going to the movies”. Hardships were naturally to be endured when one awaited the favour of such a magnificent deity – the Goddess of the Silver Screen.

Back in Harness…

I returned from India on the 25th of August, after 18 days of “vacation” (the quotation marks signify that the vacation was anything but, compared to what is usually meant by the term!).  For an expatriate Indian, vacations are hectic; a thousand-and-one tasks to be carried out in the limited period of a month.  By the time it is over, one is physically and mentally exhausted… literally.

This time around, the monsoon failed big time in Kerala, so there was no respite from the sweltering heat.  The sweating was so profuse that I had to bath multiple times a day just to keep away the stink.  And the power failures (less frequent now than the olden days, thank God) did not help.

Now I am back at my work desk and still suffering from serious vacation blues.  I will slowly slide into routine as the week progresses, I expect: and I also expect that I will be updating my blog regularly.

So keep on visiting, fellow traveller on the world-wide web!  I look forward to it.

Salute to a Great Soul

I am going on vacation to India on Thursday, and shall be away for practically a month.  I was thinking of making a post in the usual vein – about books, movies or literary/ mythical themes.  However, something has happened which has resulted in a change of plans.  I have to pay tribute.

A great soul has left us.  An Indian, even after becoming the country’s first citizen, has forever identified with the common man.  A scientist who while crunching the numbers, never lost his touch with the music of nature.  An engineer who, while reaching for the stars, had his feet firmly rooted in the earth.

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Dr. Kalam, sir, as a technocrat you were an inspiration to the engineer in me.  As a statesman, you were a source of pride to me as an Indian.  As a human being, you were an ideal to strive for.

Your loss is irreparable.  Even though it is almost a cliché nowadays, I have to say this – when they made you, they really threw the mould away.

Pranamam.

A Review of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga

white-tigerBefore I begin my review, a statutory warning to all my patriotic Indian brothers and sisters… this is India-bashing, large scale. If you are the sort of person who gets all worked up when any aspect of India is criticised, this book is not for you.

That said, Arvind Adiga bashes India where it has to be bashed. No honest reader will be able to dispute that the picture of India he paints is a false one. You will find the majority of Indians embarassedly changing the topic when Bihar (the state Adiga names “Darkness”) enters the conversation. Most of the things he mentions are not only possible, but probable and even likely. You only have to read any Indian newspaper over the period of a week to know it.

But I believe the author fails in the creation of Munna alias Balram Halwai, the protagonist, because his voice is totally out of character with the person. It is the supercilious voice of a Westernised Indian, detached from his home country by education and station in life that comes through. The street smart Munna who murdered his employer and set up his business in Bangalore will talk in an entirely different way (for example, he will never say “five hundred thousand rupees” – he’ll say “five lakhs”). Here, the character just becomes a mouthpiece for the author.

Secondly, Adiga goes overboard in criticising India, so that some of his examples become rather extreme (the immediate one that comes to mind is the schoolteacher boozing and sleeping in the classroom). In some other cases, they are downright silly (Balram buys a dosa and throws out all the potatoes before giving to Mukesh, whereas he could have bought a dosa easily without the potatoes: these are two varieties). It also confirms the opinion I formed of Adiga from his bio that he is that type of Indian Lord Macaulay wanted to create: Indian only by birth but English in spirit.

Lastly, the story failed to hold my interest. Take out all the social criticism and it is nothing but a hollow shell. And the gimmicks, like framing it as a letter to the Chinese premier, are trite to the point of being nauseating.

The only thing that impressed me about this work is some of the pithy statements Adiga makes about Indian society. Especially the ones about how caste-ridden India was a zoo, with all animals in separate cages when the British let them all out, so now only the ones with the big bellies and the ones with the small bellies are left; about automobile horns during a traffic jam joining together to form a single wail like a lost calf wailing for its mother; and the one about how the major diseases India faces are cholera, typhoid and election fever (though I would also include cricket).

Interlude…

Dear friends,

I have been away too long from this space.  Bear with me, I have been very busy in the real world and also have been struggling with a mild attack of writer’s block.  Please do not go away – I will return soon, I promise.

Cheers!

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Another Year…

Happy New Year to all!

As another year slips by, should we be sad that we are that much closer to the inevitable end or happy that we have passed one more milestone on this wonderful road of life?  I personally do not know.  As I grow older, I find myself thinking more and more about death, about that point of time when I will finally cease to exist: when the window to the world that is my consciousness will close.  Maybe writing (and any form of creative activity) is a defence against this ultimate unknown.

I have been away for some time now from this space: one of my periodic bouts of inactivity, when I am unable to write anything serious.  I have started about two or three posts in the past three weeks, but all of them got stuck midway.  It was then that I decided that I should take a break.

Also, life intervened: my marriage completed a quarter of a century on December twenty-seventh, and we took a trip up to the charming seaside town of Khor Fakkan to celebrate.  Two days of sun, sand and the sea; eating, sleeping or just chilling out; quality family time.

I have been watching the amateur Malayalam drama competition conducted under the aegis of the Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi – this also eats into the available free time.  There is a play almost every night.  Most of them are of a surprisingly high quality, considering the fact that the participants are all part-timers with strenuous day jobs.  The festival goes on up to the 6th of January.

So hopefully I will be back with my regular weekly posts from next Friday onwards.  My friends who visit Sacred Space regularly – please don’t go away!

Once again, have a wonderful year.