Monday, December 26, 2011

L'attente




She keeps open her doors, and her flowers fresh

Gerberas that he may like, roses that may delight.

Their scent is all she has, for his perfume is long gone

from her hair, her sheets, her memory,

from her days and those long, sweet nights.

She has never shut her windows, for fear of a missed sight,

She keeps them open and her heart; some day he might...

She has never shut either, those teary eyes,

that read over the letters of promise (or perhaps lies?)

Rain on the garden path, washed clean of his tread,

A flood of despair inside, a sob muffled in bed,

A hundred moons have waxed and waned,

she tells herself, he is only late

Hoping against all hope, she lies in wait,

keeping open her doors, and her flowers fresh...


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This poem was penned exclusively for Puneet Vijay's wonderful composition, which he calls 'The Ballad of Lonesome Eyes'. I, on the other hand choose to call it L'attente, which means 'The wait' in French. See Puneet's wonderful pictures on http://bit.ly/s8lfuz

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Pregnant King by Devdutta Pattanaik: Impressions


He wept for his father, the pregnant king, for the imperfection of the human condition, and our stubborn refusal to make room for all those in between.


This last line of the book, The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik, succinctly sums up its message. And what a powerful message! The book is less about the 'aberrations in nature' and more about society disowning them. Whether in Dwapara Yuga or the Kali, human beings have remained the same in their non-acceptance of the non-normal. Through the story of many major and minor (as we call it these days) LGBT mythological characters, Pattanaik reminds us of the humanity we often forget to show to humans who are a little different. In his first work of fiction, he writes with the same signature elegance, that make all his books so readable. His merit is in presenting the universal aspects of ancient stories that make them relevant to the modern reader.

Pattanaik mentions right in the beginning of the book how he has neither adhered to chronology nor to geographical boundaries. He has pulled out many popular characters from across mythology, uniting them in this work of fiction to demonstrate the agony of persons whose minds and bodies are divided on the aspect of sexuality. So apart from the story of Yuvanashva - man and mother, there are stories about Shikhandi - woman and prince of Panchal, Ila - man and wife, Somvat- boy and wife, and even Arjuna - warrior and eunuch among others. Not just human characters, the author tells us stories of gods and demons also plagued by mixed sexualities. There is, for instance, Sthunakarna - a yaksha and yakshini and Ileshwara - god and goddess.When he needed to introduce similar queer characters into the story, who could not in any way be connected to the plot, the author made clever use of bards, who tell stories about them.

Coming back to the prime character of Yuvanashva, Pattanaik etches a well-defined character of the king who became a mother. Unable to bear a child for many years, the king seeks desperate measures. A magical potion churned by two Sidhhas promise him children, but not quite in the way he imagines. Instead of his wives, the king accidentally drinks it and begets a child. Though the truth of the child is kept a secret from the subjects and even the child himself, it manifests itself in the king's maternal feelings. Then comes a moment of truth, which threatens to destroy all order. When the truth is rejected, as it is done to this day, Yuvanashva leaves the world in search of a truth that transcends all human definitions.

The book tackles the questions of gender roles and discrimination very well. It explores the many relationships that define our lives. Parent-child, husband-wife, friendship, veneration and rejection. It draws richly from the many lessons in our ancient scriptures and presents a posy of wisdom. Though the plot was a little slow to start up, once it did there was no going back. Read it because it will impregnate you will some very worthy thoughts.         

Friday, December 09, 2011

Animal Farm by George Orwell: Impressions



As if the Crosswords of the world were'nt enough, the Flipkarts have joined in and made the world a rather difficult place for a bibliophile. With so many new authors every day, dozens of titles every week and multitudes of reviews, there’s always too much to read and too little time. In the times of shiny jackets craning their necks out of bookshelves, and their much-publicized insides egging a reader to sample one writer after another, it is rare to return to the works of the same author.

Not, if the author is someone like George Orwell. Most of Orwell’s works, iconic as they are, do not bear the tedium of other classics. It is not what Mark Twain famously said of them: A classic is something everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read. With Orwell, you are sucked in, pinned down and feel compelled to lick every last word before devouring it and wanting more. At least that’s what ‘1984’ did to me once, and ‘Animal Farm’ has done to me again.

Orwell liked to call this book ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’, but the publisher’s note in my Penguin edition mentions how many other publishers dropped the subtitle, and replaced it with ‘A satire’ or ‘A contemporary satire’; it is hard to call this book anything else. But Orwell’s original ironic subtitle serves the book well, exposes as it does the painful truths about human nature, albeit through animal characters. This book is a mirror reflecting truths that are so resounding and revolting, that men have not been able to stop looking at it since it was first published in 1945.

The basic plot of Animal Farm is seemingly simple. A group of farm animals revolt against their human master and take charge of the farm. But the revolution takes a rather unexpected course in time. It is in describing this awry evolution of a revolution that Orwell shows his genius. In Animal Farm he creates a miniature human society, with all the prototypes. There are shrewd and greedy pig-people, loyal dog-people, hardworking and honest horse-people, lazy cat-people and sheep-people with the herd mentality. He etches that hierarchical pyramid of power that emerges even in the freest of societies.

There’s a Bengali proverb I learnt from my mother: Je jaye Lankaye, shaye hoye Raavan, which means, ‘Whosoever goes to Lanka, becomes Raavan’. Orwell demonstrates this: power corrupts. Animal Farm resembles 1984 in many ways. They are, both, essentially stories about the rulers and the ruled and about the illusion that is freedom. Both the stories are about the few who will lead and trod upon the rest who will follow.

For every aspect about Animal Farm, there is only one adjective that comes to my mind: tremendous. The book is tremendous in its simplicity, tremendous in its style and tremendous in its message.

A special mention ought to be made about the cover design too. The Penguin edition has a simple, old-world illustration design overlaid artfully on newsprint. It portrays the theme beautifully. But other publications have equally beautiful covers, as I discovered while Googling it.

Add the reading of this book to your bucket list, if you haven’t already.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga: Impressions



So I finally read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I finally understood what the hype was all about. And I finally know what it takes for a debut novel to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize. And those who criticised this book because they've taken it upon themselves to criticise anything that's criticiseable (I know there's no such word), well, that's just too bad! Because this book is as sharp as they can get, yessir it is!

Perhaps I fell in love with the book, but how can one help it? The book fascinates from the word 'Go!' When was the last time you saw a satirical novel written in the form of a fantastic letter addressed to the premier of China!? My jaw dropped in awe over Adiga's style of narrative at page 1 and it still hasn't closed. Throughout the narrative, the author keeps bringing up Jiabao's name, and the sense of the letter is never lost. With his ample, casual references to China, when addressing Wen (teehee, could not resist that), Adiga never forgets, nor lets his readers forget, the brilliance of his style.

The other thing about The White Tiger that has stayed with me is the bitterness. SO. MUCH. BITTERNESS. Adiga paints such a powerfully grim picture of what he calls the Darkness, one would think he was born there, lived there, endured the unendurable there. The author cleaves the nation in two halves - into the two worlds of (to use his words) 'men with bellies' and men without them. He points to one India of the shiny, glass-walled malls and the other India of the inescapable 'Rooster Coop'.

Adiga's hero, anti-hero if you like, is Munna alias Balram Halwai, son of rickshaw puller alias Ashok Sharma, owner of White Tiger Technologies, and this is his story of crossing over from the Darkness into the Light. This is the story of a 'social entrepreneur', who seizes opportunity when he sees it, since no one will lay out golden roads for him. He kills a few moralities and people on the way, but so what? There isn't another way. Adiga delves deep into the mind of a man, who has to choose between a servile existence and becoming a master of his destiny. And the conundrum ain't easy to sort. Balram Halwai drags his readers along the gutters through the confounding streets of Delhi in a driver's seat, through the whorehouse and the servants' quarters, through a servant-turned-murderer's mind, through a fugitive's head and finally to an entrepreneur's chair, writing midnight mails to the premier of China. And he does it with so much page-turning ease!

The only place he lost me was in the protagonist's moment of resolve. Adiga's plot lost a little hold at the point when Balram decided to become his own master. There are exquisite psychological symbols of despair and agony, but his clear voice is lost among those. It seems all too sudden, when Balram strikes his master down with a surprising alacrity. Perhaps it was intended thus, since life-changing decisions don't really take place in one defining moment, as they show in the movies. A switch is flipped, unnoticed, after wounds have festered for a long time.

Adiga's pen seems to singe the paper with exactly the kind of long-suffering wounds, or perhaps he is just a super storyteller. Either way, The White Tiger is, as they call it these days, RAWRing!         

   

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Lovers


(Image: josephbarbara.com)

Voices, smooth, smoky,
rich like kohl.

Eyes that speak of delicious darknesses
Awake and seeking and bold.

Wait, is that a fallen eye-lash
or a dirty little secret?

Perhaps a wish you would want,
oh-so-badly want to come true!

Looking away doesn't help
when your rosy cheeks are screaming out.

Why then do your steps falter?
Your heart knows where it's bound.

Formulating coded moves to reach there unnoticed.
Surprise, love.

Beatskip, timestop, lifechange.
A surprise unlike any other.

With the sound of a piano on flames.
Not to be mistaken for pain.

What road this, despite its confounding twists,
leading yet to the beginning of a dream?

In tangles, wilted and quilted.
Arms in arms, legs between legs.

Two shades of skin - one pale, one blush.
The flutterings of a heart, a thrush.

In a cage of their own. Bar to bar, tease to tease,
felch and squeeze.

A bubble of exhaustion floats, sleep wins awhile.
Then it bursts. Boom!

Brings them crashing down,
to find new ways of love.

Heavy like stone, they lay.
Touch like feathers, they stay.

(Co-written with @bumblebooger)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Yuganta - The end of an epoch by Iravati Karve: Impressions



Commenting on this book would be a minor crime, for there are perhaps few equals to Iravati Karve’s Yuganta – The end of an epoch. Commentaries and commentaries have been written about the ‘Mahabharat’, and continue to be written today, such is the mystery and vastness of that epic. But few have dared autopsied it with the scientific precision of Karve. Little wonder that it won the Sahitya Akademi prize for the best Marathi book of the year in 1967. It was later translated and published in English.

An anthropologist, Karve dissects all characters with an objectivity impossible for most native readers. She begins with a neat introduction explaining the literary tradition of the ‘Mahabharat’. She writes about how the original work was called ‘Jaya’ (victory), and composed/carried forth in the oral tradition by the members of the Suta caste. This sauta (of the Sutas) literature is then passed on to different sections of the society (especially Brahmins), who make additions and interpolations, thus enlarging the original story. What we consequently inherit is the ‘Mahabharat’ (great story of the house of King Bharat).

In the subsequent essays, Karve picks each of the major characters of the ‘Mahabharat’, giving an incisive character analysis. The first of the lot is the character of Bhisma. Karve wonders aloud about the contrary motives of some of Bhisma’s actions, who while appearing to sacrifice all for the sake of others, takes some rather peculiar decisions that seem directed at proving his personal greatness.

The two great matriarchs are then dealt with in the next two chapters, which elucidate mainly the injustices suffered by Gandhari and Kunti. Yet, Karve goes on to show the strength of the two Kshatriya women, and what part they played in binding the Kuru clan together. Gandhari’s great sacrifice though laced with bitterness, and Kunti’s pain and guilt on parting with her firstborn, Karna, are some of the instances described in these two chapters.

An interesting chapter called ‘Father and son?’ explores the important character of Vidura, and the possibility of him being Yudhishtir’s (or Dharma as he is referred to in this book) father. Karve points to us the several similarities in character between the two, in addition to the custom of the time when the younger brother was allowed to sleep with his brother’s wife, if the brother was unable to beget children. Vidura’s fondness for Yudhishtir and his firm loyalty to Kunti, apart from an ambiguous passage towards the end of the epic proclaiming that Vidura and Yudhishtir are but one for they both are the reincarnations of Lord Yama, are served as evidence by the author.

There is yet another interesting chapter on Draupadi, and Karve compares and contrasts the character with that of Sita - the female protagonist of ‘Ramayana’. Karve points out the emotional richness and scope of Draupadi’s character as compared to Sita’s formulaic one. She also talks about her unique relationship with her five husbands, her ultimate insult at the Kaurava court and her thirst for revenge that, in part, pushes the Pandavas to war. Several more aspects are noted in this chapter.

Karna’s character too is analysed in detail. Instead of the pitiable hero that Karna is made out to be in the popular renditions of the Mahabharat, Karve paints a not-so-rosy picture of him. Despite the occasional show of the strength of his character, Karna, according to Karve, is a flawed man because of his deep bitterness and rashness.

Krishna is also studied from a very human perspective in Karve’s book. Krishna is not a god, whilst in the ‘Mahabharat’, but a very powerful, charismatic and clever man. He is shown by Karve to be more of a friend of Arjuna and a well-wisher of the Pandavas, rather than a divine being. She explains how subsequent literature, like the ‘Bhagvata’ accorded divinity to Krishna, unlike the Mahabharat. His role in the war, and the rise and fall of the Pandavas and the Yadavas is also spoken about in this chapter.

Of the two remaining chapters, one is a study of the mystical palace of Mayasabha in Indraprastha, and a concluding chapter on the manners of the time. These chapters too hold a wealth of information and detailed study of some of the nitty-gritties of the epic.

Karve opens the reader’s eyes to a lot of fallacies that are wont to be in a creation by human beings. She dispels a handful of myths and interprets the seemingly illogical in a manner best understood in our times. The best part about this book is that it critiques without ever being disrespectful or dismissive. For anyone interested in the ‘Mahabharat’, and the study of Indian mythology in general, this book is a must read.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A missed connection


  (Image: zazzle.com)

Humdrum-er it coudn't be,
Another day, to be lost in history,
No promise of love or magic,
until it caught my eye...

Your lime green scarf,
intimate with your skin,
Were there stars on it?
Or were they flowers?

Your phone rolled down your lap,
a delinquent, a runaway at my feet,
You turned to look, bent, picked it,
said, "Nice shoes."

Too dazzled to think,
"Nice scarf" is all I could say,
You turned away, lips curled,
in what I imagined a smile.

Three stations past,
The tube buzzed forth,
I sat in agony, wondering,
what destination would snatch you.

Lips sealed, muffling a drumming heart
Station four; you were gone.
No time for parting sorrow.
A vision snapped, a blossom plucked.

Only a whiff remained,
and a 'what could be'
with a girl with a lime green scarf, 
with stars on it - or perhaps flowers.

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 I chanced upon the most wonderful blog yesterday, via Twitter, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The magical realm of http://missedconnectionsny.blogspot.com drew me in and locked me up - at least a part of me. It is that part that has haunted me ceaselessly and pushed me to write this little poem. I, of course, couldn't name it anything else but A missed connection.


Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Best of Quest: Impressions




I did get lucky the fourth time and how! After three disappointing books, the universe conspired to bring me the Best of Quest through Blogadda’s book review program, and I haven’t stopped reveling in the 660 odd pages of sheer brilliance in the last 10 days. I knew when I applied to review it, that if I got the book, I’d be laying my hands on a minor treasure. Perhaps these parallels are not apt, but when researching Quest, I was most strongly reminded of Tehelka and Open, the magazine – two extraordinary periodicals of our times.  It has everything, from articles on political reform, history, the arts, psychology and education to a most wonderful section of poetry to a fantastic collection of short stories. Not to forget the enigma attached to it because of a mysterious CIA connection!

Because the book is an anthology, I decided to be random with my reading. The introduction had one of the editors talking about the erstwhile editor of Quest, Dilip Chitre, who was also apparently the mysterious columnist, D. I was immediately drawn to the last sections, where Mr. Chitre himself makes the admission, and also talks about his life and times and contemporaries at Quest. I, then, scurried to gobble up a few pieces written by D. While most were amusing, witty and even incisive, my favourite was the very tongue-in-cheek ‘Marriage & Morals: Updating the Pavitra Prostitute’. True that Chitre had to hide behind a pseudonym (a lone acronym really) to mention the unmentionables in a not-so-grown-up nation, but his take on issues such as sex, religion and women are refreshingly real. Writing as Dilip Chitre, he is a little more serious, a little more guarded, albeit equally insightful. His piece ‘Aspects of Pornophobia’, for example, deals with a hush-hush matter in a matter-of-fact manner.

The introductions and endnotes also pointed me towards another one of the enigmatic editors of Quest, Nissim Ezekiel. The In Memoriam section, comprising letters of people reminiscing about Nissim, the person and the poet, is heartwarming. Some of his poems in the poetry section, ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’ being my favourite, show just why the man earned the place that he did in the line of Indian poets.

Then there are many more pieces of social, political and cultural commentary by several authors, but I will remember very distinctly the following pieces because they are as relevant today as they were in the 70s India:

1.  ‘The Persistence of the Caste System: Vested Interests in Backwardness’ by Subhash Chandra Mehta – We all know too well what the race to be backward is all about, and what its consequences are.
2. ‘Am I a Muslim? Islam and Bangladesh’ by Mahbubul Hok – A bold piece by any measure questioning the validity of Islamic states and practices.
3. ‘Autobiography of Violence’ by Mihir Sinha – Though set in Calcutta, this account of how violence has seeped into our collective minds and lives is true of all of India.
4. ‘The Married Woman and Our Sex Morality’ by Sudhir Chandra – A piece way ahead of its times (even so now), discussing the possibilities of polygamy/polyandry within marriage and its acceptance.
And finally,
5. ‘The Coffee-Brown Boy looks at the Black Boy’ by J.S. Saxena – An insightful article exploring the deep racial biases that pervade nearly all humanity.

Some other articles/essays also found favour with me, because I have personal inclinations towards the topics. Among them are the point and counterpoint essays by Jyotirmoy Datta and P. Lal respectively on Indian English writing, ‘Konarak’ by Marie Seton – a detailed analysis of the erotic art of Konarak, ‘Sadhus and Hippies’ by Roderick Neill – where he is mainly showing off his knowledge of the holy men in India but pretends to draw a comparison between those mentioned in the title, ‘ An Interview with V.S. Naipaul’ by Adrian Rowe-Evans – A wondrous journey into the career and mind of the writer that is Sir V.S. Naipaul and ‘The City as Antagonist: Three Recent Films’ by Saleem Peeradina – the most detailed and ruthless film reviews I ever saw.

And while I did cheat through the Essays and Opinions section, often skipping a paragraph or two when the gravity of it all got too much for my frivolous mind, I was most agog when it came to the poetry and fiction sections. I lapped up every last turn of phrase, every dainty word, down to the last comma. And while most pieces were indeed masterpieces, I’d easily hand over the ‘Most haunting piece’ awards to the poem, ‘3 Cups of Tea’ by Arun Kolatkar and the short stories ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’ by Premendra Mitra and ‘The Moon Had to be Mended’ by Kiran Nagarkar.  Other memorable works in this compilation are ‘The Accompanist’ by Anita Desai, ‘Sword and Abyss’ by Keki N. Daruwalla, ‘Tangents’ by Abraham Eraly, ‘Love’ by Adil Jussawala and ‘Madurai: Two Movements’ by A.K. Ramanujan.

There is so much more meat, so much covered ground and so many perspectives for those who will care to plunge themselves into The Best of Quest.

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This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eunuchs



(Image from shaktisadhana.50megs.com)

By the swish of big skirts,
lips too bright, too red,
They care not, or
so it would seem.

Menacing claps,
inducing fright
begging hands, 
like it was their right,

By the voices loud,
louder manners still
Shameless advances
and cheap thrills,

A man or a woman or a monster 
Not one name, or too many 
They care not, or
so it would seem.

Until on a bus,
a manface on a woman's seat,
Unsure in a world of his and hers
Sitting, apologetic, seared by 'normal' glances.

Underneath their brazen crust,
Their pleading eyes, sometimes, flicker,
Perhaps we see them not,
Perhaps they care.


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Disclaimer: The image of Ardhanarishwara used along with this post is simply symbolic, and is meant as a reminder that the divine is in everyone.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Mysterious Dreams by Nandita Chakraborty Banerjji: Impressions


The title - The Mysterious Dreams - sounded interesting, and I had been waiting for the parcel to arrive from the Castle of Books. When it did, I excitedly tore the package open. But I could hardly mask my disappointment when I saw the cover of the book. Look at it! A specimen of bad design from a cheap design agency. As if the main image lifted off some stock photo site wasn't bad enough, the silly illustration of a man's fat face with an even fatter moustache on the water totally kills it. What was the graphic artist thinking? It's just sad, because a casual browser will never pick this book up, attracted by the cover. A pity, because the book has quite a bit to offer...

The author, Nandita Chakraborty Banerjji, has a LOT to say. The book is packed, from cover to cover, with  a lot of information woven, often unsuccessfully, into the plot. The plot itself is rather flimsy. It can easily be summarised in one line. Bengali girl meets hippie boy, they elope, they live together for a bit, he leaves her alone, and a sad end. More about it later.

The author does not lose even half an opportunity to share possibly everything she has learnt in this life. She talks about the America-Vietnam war, the Hippie movement, the state of Nuclear armament, popular music - from the Beatles to Bangla Baul, the uses of Hemp, Woodstock, Mardi Gras, drug abuse, Bengali culture, religion, cancer, ISKCON, tie-dye, terrorism, women's lib, consumerism, environment, Rabindra Sangeet...phew!

But I wasn't complaining because many of these ideas are very close to my heart, and the others, I've always wanted to know about - the Vietnam War and the Hippy movement, for example. Since my generation is historically so close to these events, I've grown up with these terms floating around in the media ever since I can remember. But I never really cared to go to Wikipedia and understand what it was that so many movies were made about or so many newspapers spoke about. Banerjji explains succinctly, though in the short, the relation between and the evolution of both these events that have shaped the present state of America, and consequently the rest of the world. The book is really a social commentary on the significant social, political and cultural changes that have taken place in the last half a century - both in the Western world and the Eastern.

Speaking of the Eastern world, the author makes many an accurate observations about the middle class society in Mumbai, Goa and Kolkata - places her protagonist, Shibani, goes to. Her notes, particularly about the Bengali way of life, its customs and belief systems were highly recognisable and even endearing to me. She also writes about life in the 60s and 70s in America whilst describing the life of the other protagonist, Chris, but their accuracy I can only guess at.

Coming back to the plot, we first meet the central character of Shibani as a teenager living in Mumbai with her parents. Aside from doing the normal teen things, Shibani lives with one constant nightmare. The nightmare is mentioned in the first few chapters and then the author seems to forget about it. By this time, Shibani has met an American hippie, Chris, who comes with a whole lot of issues, including mommy-daddy issues, drug issues, and peace issues. Chris has come to India looking for spiritual answers and following his romance with Shibani, they elope to Goa. After a few blissful years of living in, Chris leaves Shibani alone and returns to America. Shibani is stranded and after a few years of waiting for Chris decides to go back to her native place in Kolkata. The parallel lives of Chris and Shibani are rather aimless and drug-fuelled, signifying perhaps the way real hippies lived. With a rather sudden turn of events, we suddenly find that Chris has turned into an unwilling saint-terrorist having come back to India, and that Shibani has decided to go to America in search of Chris. When they do meet by chance at the Mumbai airport, both are so wasted they don't recognise each other. Then the said mysterious dream makes a reappearance to forcefully connect the dots before the story tragically ends. Why the author chose the title, The Mysterious Dreams still remains a mystery to me.

The book is quirky at best. Read it, if not for the sad-strange story, but for the many tidbits of information that you are not again likely to find all in one place.        

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Castle of Books is the agency responsible for the author promotion for this book. 

Find them on FB too at http://www.facebook.com/Castleofbuks. Read more about the author on http://www.nanditabanerjee.com/           

        

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma: Impressions


As much as I despise these preachy self-help books, I find myself reading one or the other every few months. Because it must have something in it for millions of people to like it, no? No, it isn't high literature. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari is management-lessons-in-the-guise-of-spirituality-for-dummies book. But I am not above learning.

I wanted to put this book away after about 20 pages, but this compulsion I've developed for writing book reviews kept me going. It wasn't fair to write off something without having read it all. So I did. And despite my initial derision, I found myself looking forward to my 20 minutes a day tryst with it.

Robin Sharma likes to spoon feed his reader. He simplifies things to the extent, you'd think he thinks his readers go to primary school. He spells everything out in such excruciating detail that at the end of every third paragraph you want to throw your hands up in the air and yell, I GETIT, OKAY? NOW GET ON WITH IT! Perhaps this follows from his habits as a motivational speaker, where the audience needs to be plonked in the head with loud and powerful but simple statements. But the written word is different.

That said, Sharma's style of writing is easy - something he has probably consciously worked at, to keep even the most casual reader from straying. The title is fancy. The plot, larger than life. A successful international lawyer giving it all up for soul searching in the Himalayas sounds like the greatest adventure of this new age. The content is okay too, though hardly original. The author talks about the same kind of spiritual ideas that have been done to death, including mediation, focus, time management, serving others, unity of mind, body, spirit, yada, yada, yada...

Sharma also writes about that concept made insanely popular by the book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne - the power of visualisation. It essentially means that a person should clearly visualise in his mind's eye what he wants from life. His persistent vision then compels the universe to fulfill his desires... or something like that. I realised why people are such suckers for this idea. It's like a quick fix to all their life's problems. It's like - So you are fat? Just imagine you are thin everyday and bingo! thin you will be, or rich or successful or whatever. Sure I believe in the idea. I understand the importance of a vision or a goal or call it what you may. And though these books also mention that you got to work towards achieving them, the work part is mentioned as a secondary thing. The act of envisioning is decked in gold and made to sound like some Alladin's lamp.

But there's nothing wrong with people lapping it up, like children do a fairytale. We all occasionally need the promise of some magic, don't we?    

Friday, November 18, 2011

India: What can it teach us? by F Max Müller: Impressions


Frankly, the only time I'd heard of Max Müller before I bought this book was with reference to one Max Müller Bhavan in Pune where German is supposedly taught. All I knew was that he was some hotshot Western thinker and that I ought to read him sometime. (Yes, scoff all you want. So what if I am learning about Müller after my hair has started greying?)

So while waiting for my bus one day, my eager eyes scanning the pile of old books at the raddiwala, I spotted a badly mildewed cover, peering out of which were the words 'India' and 'Müller'. I looked at its contents and spotted words like 'Vedas' and 'Hindus', and didn't have to think twice. I brought home this gem for 20 humble rupees, and unearthed the treasures within its pages in the next few days.

As Wikipedia told me later, Müller was one of the first and the best Orientologists in the last century, and has perhaps not had a rival yet. He is the editor of the stupendous 50-volume set of 'The Sacred Books of the East' (Yes, the set costs Rs 7600 on Flipkart. Sigh!), and only the tiniest glimpse of the ginormous extent of his learning can be seen in the book India: What can it teach us? The book is, in fact, a compilation of lectures the author had delivered to British students of the Indian Administrative Service when India was still under the colonial rule. What is entirely fascinating about this book for an Indian reader is the conviction with which Müller explains India to non-Indians. I don't think any of us could fight the case of our nation as well as this outsider.

But that's precisely why this book, like so many books on India by foreign authors, appeals to us. The foreign writer has the advantage of objectivity, and can sift facts from fiction. We are bred to revere our culture, and dare not question even the most absurd. In fact, we may not even notice the absurd, since they are so much a part of our consciousness. Through Müller's eyes, we see clearly the human angles of all that is sacred to us.  

India: What can it teach us? is divided into seven lectures with Müller gradually leading his skeptical students from mistrust to the beginnings of faith. Gently, yet with conviction, the author first dispels the myths associated with India in the minds of Englishmen, and slowly offers bauble after bauble of ancient Indian wisdom, infusing new perspectives. Citing one historical account after another, he refutes the common perception of Indians as a race of liars, among other things. He goes on to prove the worth of studying Sanskrit. As the mother of all Indo-European languages, knowing Sanskrit is the mandatory first step for any student of the history of language. Further, he points out that one understands not just the history of language through ancient Sanskrit literature, but the entire evolution of human thought. He helps establish the antiquity of the Vedas, by explaining the oral tradition. He speaks for the originality of the Vedic ideas as a natural progression of human thought, similar to all cultures of the world. He propounds some very rational theories about how our henotheistic system, our rituals, and our entire religion came about. He illustrates each of his points beautifully with Vedic verses or quotations from Western scholars, where the need arises. He presents in the most rational light, the mystique that India is to the Western eye.

And there is so much more for the Eastern eye. You'd be surprised at how much you don't know.

  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Keshava: Line drawings of my Lord

A series of 12 line drawings depicting Krishnaleela. I was inspired by the excellent Keshav Venkataraghavan, who works you can see on http://www.kamadenu.blogspot.com/

1. The son of Yashoda


2. The slayer of Putana






3. The stealer of butter






4. The keeper of cows




5. The tamer of Kaliya






6. The dancer to cosmic music






7. The lifter of Govardhana




8. The lover of Radha






9. The killer of Kamsa






10. The lord of Satyabhama




11. The friend of Sudama


12. The charioteer of Arjuna




Friday, November 11, 2011

I'm not twenty four... (I've been nineteen for five years) by Sachin Garg: Impressions



Three terrible draws from the Blogadda Book Review Program – in the order of bad, worse, and worst – but hope springs eternal. I keep telling myself the next book will be nice, and soldier through the not-so-nice ones that fall in my lot. The love of free books is dangerous. If it weren’t for keeping myself eligible in the Blogadda program, I would not have attempted to write this 500+ word review because I would not have read the whole book because I would have shut it at page 2 and exclaimed “What c**p!”

Sachin Garg’s ‘I’m not twenty four… (I’ve been nineteen for five years)’ has effortlessly topped my Worst Books Ever! list. No, it’s not the plot. The story was worth telling. But in Garg’s hands, it has managed to become one terrible tale. I feel bad using these adjectives, but I can think of no subtler words. The book is so bad, I felt like putting it away at the end of every page, heck, every line! It is unkind to say it, but I was sure the author turned publisher because even the most generous publisher wouldn’t touch it with a 6-foot long pole.

I don’t even know where to begin criticizing this book. There’s bad grammar, there’s bad editing, there’s storytelling with the vocabulary of a three year old… Wait, I know where to begin. I’ll start with the title.  Why the author chose this title or what it means is anyone’s guess. The closest it gets to the story is that the protagonist, Saumya Kapoor, is a 24-year-old. But yes, given the author’s writing skills, of lack thereof, Saumya is definitely made to sound like a shallow teen, with an IQ of perhaps 30. I feel bad for the poor girl, who trusted Garg to tell her extraordinary real life story.

And the tale is extraordinary, mind you. Saumya Kapoor, an MBA from Delhi lands up in the remote village of Toranagallu in Karnataka with a job in a big steel plant. Before she knows it, she has been inducted into the emotionally-taxing Safety Department, and is soon encountering men falling into vats of acid, body parts cutting loose in conveyer belts and people being thrown alive in blast furnaces. I give Garg full marks for the gore, mouthed by a girl.

Then there is romance – the juvenile kind. Saumya finds love in the Hugh Grant lookalike Bengali hippy Shubhrodeep Shyamchaudhary (I know, hyuk hyuk!), a mysterious guy with a maverick past. But soon Saumya discovers what a hero he is, secretly helping poor people gather little loans. How cute! But before Saumya can say Shubhrodeep Shyamchaudhary (although it takes quite a while to say it), the man has vanished following his Move On theory. The book is finished with the reader wondering whether Saumya is reunited with Shubhro, and that is perhaps the only intelligent thing about this book.

What I have learnt from this book (and my previous unlucky Blogadda picks)? Be wary of slim novels with red cover designs by new Indian authors. Very wary.

But do yourself a favour. Don’t read it.

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This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dragonfly


(Artwork by Bella Dos Santos from art.com)

I was seated alone
My thoughts asunder
The meadow, quiet
The waters, still
when that incessant dragonfly
of the green-gold wings,
bearing secret messages
and untold things
buzzed as if possessed.
It buzzed till I gave in,
till I let it sit,
till I let it sing.
It sang of the paths
that had led him here,
of loves and lives
and many a fear.
So I sat and I heard,
about gnomes and fairies,
till my head throbbed
with a hundred stories.
He sang some more
of my reluctant past,
about my childhood,
that had flown too fast,
Of forgotten kisses,
loves I still missed,
roads I had trodden,
that no longer exist,
More songs of passion,
lust and pain;
of emotions I'd grown to disdain,
Tunes of tears and laughter,
and tales of before and after.
He took lead, I flowed
wondrous streams we rowed
My limbs hung limp,
my heart a-skip
Consciousness drowning
phantom images
flying fast and thick.
Then the buzz was gone,
the shadows, long
the mist was swirling
in copious rings.
I awoke alone,
a curious sheen on my skin
that was perhaps
from a green-gold wing.

(Co-written with Anish Nelson - @nelsonnium)

Hit me baby...


Bringing up a baby is hard work, but that shouldn't stop you from laughing about it. Here are 10 things I learnt as a new mother



More than googoogaga: A lot of things change after motherhood, but most of all your perception of babies. No, babies are no rose-cheeked, gurgling angels that make your heart go all warm and fuzzy. Babies are hungry monsters who threaten to bring down the roof with their wailing if you don’t keep them well-fed, fell-slept, fell-changed, well-burped… ah well, you get the picture.

Welcome to zombieland! Since there will be no time to apply any mascara, you might as well embrace those deep dark circles, which will probably remain on your face till your baby learns to sleep through the night. If you are lucky, you can start living and working like a normal person in about 6 months’ time. But if you’re like me, you’ll be bumping into people and furniture throughout the day, even after two years.

The great booby trap: Every paediatrician worth his MD proclaims the benefits of breastfeeding, but it can be a tricky, messy business. So you soldier through hard, swollen, leaky, painful boobs and pray that each time some obscure uncle from the distant tendrils of your family tree comes visiting the new addition, you are not in a state of undress.  

Have crutch, will use: Perhaps not all women are lucky enough to have a pair of fit-enough-to-care-for-your-baby in-laws or parents, but those that do will probably give their right arms in return. I know I will. A support system is invaluable when bringing up a child, and if you must use it at the cost of your vanity, you should. Trust me; some help is better than no help.

No time to rend, no time to sew: A new baby can do wonders for your relationship with your partner. No, really. You can’t ask a grumpy husband for help, so you stop fighting with him over trivial matters. Because hey, eating the humble pie is better than having to do all baby duties alone, innit?

Like a virgin: Okay, but a new baby can do not-such-wondrous things for your relationship too. For example, if you, like me, have your baby sleep between you and your partner in the tiny bed of the tinier one bedroom matchbox of a house in Mumbai, you better get used to living like a virgin. ’Nuff said!

Public property: From the time you get pregnant, you become public property. Any Tom, Dick, Harry and their girlfriends, wives, mothers and sisters will deem it fit to lecture you on good parenting. Smile and ignore, I say. Like every mother, you will want and do only the best for your child. You will make mistakes, but that does not make you a bad mother. There is no such thing as a bad mother, and let no one tell you otherwise.

I’m an emotional rollercoaster, baby! I’m telling you those postpartum blues are bluer than any blue you ever saw. I don’t know about other women, but I’ve swung fast and easy between murderous and maternal, suicidal and soft, lambasting and loving in those first months. I’m surprised I wasn’t thrown into an asylum. Well, it would seem you can hide behind your hormones.

Live life XL size: It took a lot of will, but I finally accepted that I had neither the genes nor the personal trainer of Miranda Kerr and that those tiny-waisted jeans would never fit. I clung on to my pair of skinnies for a while, hoping that one day I’d wake up and the mommy tummy would be gone, but my body would have none of it. The skinny jeans were finally martyred to the cause of house-mopping.

Unto the kingdom of auntyhood: No amount of fashion and make up is going to spare you this one. Once you have a kid on your hip, you are aunty to the world. If being called yummy mummy is any consolation, sometimes you may have that. But to the aam Indian junta, aunty you are and will be.  

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This article appeared in the tabloid The Afternoon on November 10, 2011, in the Women's World section and can be read on page 19 of the e-paper on this link: http://www.afternoondc.in/epaper/default.aspx 




Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Firebreaths and friendships

(Image source: dart.fine-art.com)


The swords in her belt sat tight, but her heart had not agreed,
That was not the day to fight; might ought not always be right.  
She was to slay some dragons, she trained them instead.
They jumped through hoops in little carousel circles around her head, 
they made her joyful, they made her dizzy.
Sometimes the dragons snuggled up in bed too; 
she learnt to live with the fire-holes in her duvet.
She learnt to live with stares of suspicion too,
People and dragons are not usually friends - 
But all that mattered were her hoop-jumping, loopy dragons
who kept her dizzy with joy.
Dragon slayer turned dragon lover - 
her hearth was bright, her heart was warm. 
In firebreath she found love; unspeaking, but telling.
The story of their friendship spread - 
like wildfire, nay dragonfire!
And then the dragons just like that went away, 
in search of another slayer, a new battle, another lover to make.


Co-written with @A5ma - Asma Kazi

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder: Impressions


I had no inkling of the bestselling status of this book when my husband gifted it to me. I was even a tad disappointed on reading the title. 'Sophie's World' sounded decidedly like a teen novel, and I wondered at his choice of present. When I asked him what the book was about, he just said it was a very famous novel. I shrugged and left it lying for a while, unaware of the treasures that lay within. I picked it up after some 'to-be read' books were done with, and only when I read the preface did I realise that this book was really a short history of philosophy. Inwardly, I smiled a huge smile; my husband wasn't really as ignorant of my taste in books as he made out to be.

This was my Jostein Gaarder first, but it was easy to see within a few pages why it had become an international bestseller. Not just an exceptionally lucid work on the history of philosophy, 'Sophie's World' is also a gripping fairy tale, with a plot that might remind you of Inception. The author begins with describing a day in the life of Sophie Amundsen, a 14-year-old Norwegian, and a typical teenager. But the course of her normal life changes forever, when one day she receives three mysterious envelopes in her mailbox, posing some primary philosophical questions. From then on, a secretive teacher starts her out on a philosophy course, mailing her the course notes.

Before Sophie knows what is happening, lessons on ancient Greek philosophers have started arriving at her door. Her days begin to be occupied with the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, even as her bewildered mother wonders about Sophie's eccentric behaviour. The mystery deepens with Sohpie receiving mysterious birthday postcards addressed to one Hilde Moller Knag, another Norwegian girl who is exactly her age and even shares her birthday!

Sophie's philosophy teacher, Alberto Knox, soon meets her in person and they continue with their philosophy lessons on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period, even as the strange postcards - all wishing Hilde a happy 15th birthday - continue to make appearances at the weirdest places. Sophie begins to wonder about Hilde - is she for real or a dream?

And just as the reader begins to assimilate all these strange ideas, Mr. Gaarder, like a true philosopher, flips the book upside down. Suddenly, the reader finds that no longer is Sophie reading about Hilde, but Hilde is reading about Sophie! The philosophy lessons on Descartes, Spinoza, Locke and Hume stand on firm ground, but the plot sways dizzily, and the reader needs to align and realign himself constantly to the changing realities. Sophie and Alberto are now characters of a book written for Hilde by her father, Albert Knag. We can no longer be sure who is part of whose imagination. Like any good philosophy lesson is wont to do, it poses existential questions to the characters as it does to the reader. Who we are? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Are our realities, dreams or our dreams, realities? Are we masters of our destiny or mere puppets in the hands of a creator?

Philosophy lessons from the eras of Enlightenment, Renaissance, Romanticism and right through the present day continue in the book with their characteristic clarity, along with the highly fantastic central plot, interjected now and then with characters from fairy tales and mythology like Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin, Little Red Riding Hood and even Adam and Eve! The line between fact and fiction often blend, illustrating wonderfully to the reader the uncertainty of the world we live in. What holds true now may have once been false, and many beliefs of yore have now been proven untrue.

The greatest merit of the book is illustration - something that is sorely lacking in textbooks of philosophy. Through Sophie and Alberto's dialogues, the author beautifully demonstrates the philosophic points he preaches. The language is refreshingly clear, unlike those dense tomes an academic student of philosophy has to deal with. Jostein Gaarder delivers precisely what he promises - a book on the history of philosophy for young people. Having chosen a teen (rather two) as his protagonist(s), he has been able to speak simply of matters exalted. Combining it with a rather ingenious plot, he has won the complete attention and understanding of the reader. Yet another wonderful device used by the author is that of repetition. He never loses the opportunity to give the reader a quick recap of the previous philosophies, knowing well that there is way too much knowledge he has pressed between the pages, and that it is difficult to remember.

The plot culminates beautifully, if a little improbably. But one can expect no less from a book as ambitious as this. I'd even go so far as to say that this book should be made an introductory textbook for the student of philosophy. There is so much more to say, but I'd rather you discover them yourself - the answers, and more importantly, the questions.        



  

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Flood



(Image source: thisnext.com)

So say, oh stranger, why you come to my door?
The flood has had its way with me, I have no more.

I swim to you thirsty, I swim to your skin,
I wade through time, to be born again within.

I am bare inside, as I am out, perchance the water washed my soul away,
Will my heart love again? I doubt; O how I doubt.

I inch my way up the curves and the dips, tears in my voice quiver in your lips,
In silence I hear your dreams - they shout, 'Come to my fire and then put it out!'

Oh, traitor dreams, how you show yourself! she thinks and she smiles,
Says,'But you think all wrong!' she lies, she denies.

Unheeding, he unclaps her binds; his sinews ache, her body finds
wet love in the longings of her sigh; 'I want to reach out, to taste you and die.'

She sweats and she cries, she lets her passions flow,
Her coy breaks - like the village dam (not so long ago)

And it floods again, sweeping him away, engulfed in her lust, he pants, he tries
...And in the vortex of time and love, she feels joy and blessings from above.

Next morning sees the sun again, but he is gone long,
but in her heart there is new love, in her heart, a new song.

Co-written with @bangdu

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A familiar love


Missives from one side of the bed to the other



Dear Viren,

While reading through some of our first conversations on the Internet, I was jolted into the realization that I’ve known you for five years now. Wow, it’s been a while! And although I’ve been your wife for only three years and nine months of those five years, and perhaps do not qualify to be called an old wife, I certainly feel like one. But by old wife, I do not mean by way of sagging boobs or flagging sex drives; I refer to the feeling of an eternity by your side. We’ve often wondered if our relationship feels new or old, exciting or comfortable, and almost always have decided that it feels like both. But since the birth of Jishnu, our relationship feels more old than new, more comfortable than exciting. We are more mother-father than man-woman. Passion has taken a complacent second spot, even as familiar love rules the roost.

But re-reading those letters from five years ago reminded me of the person you really are, the person I married, and the person I had almost forgotten about, amidst diaper changes and midnight feeds.  He, who earned my respect from the first word uttered; he, who stood tall enough for me to look up to even with my head in the clouds; he, who earned so much regard that I believed I could spend the rest of my life with him, you are. You are the same man, who awed me with his mind, tickled me with his words, and humbled me with his self assuredness. You are the same one, who I so excitedly turned over a new leaf with. Yet in sharing the same house, same bed, same food, same people and same life with you day after day, everyday, I forgot the exhilarating beginnings of that sameness. Waking up next to you every morning, I had forgotten the privilege of getting to sleep with a man like you.

We have been through that difficult time most new parents go through, and sometimes it seemed we had drifted too far to ever be able to match wavelengths again. I snapped at you, raged, vented, and sometimes accused you of things you had never done, dumping ever so often my emotional excesses on you. You took it calmly – as I could never have, if our places were to be changed. You remained my bedrock, and I began to imagine you were obliged to be so.

But these old letters reminded me of that singular person you were, before you gave away so much of yourself to our family. You didn’t have to be kind, or loving, or understanding, or helpful, or supportive. A man with a mind as strong as yours, you could be the opposing force. But you lay low, played the good husband and an even better father, and you waited while I fought fatigue, sorted priorities, and found myself again. We stopped talking. I was always too tired. You sought refuge in your hobbies; I in my books. We sang this wordless duet for a while. I forgot how wonderful your voice was. But then I read those letters again, and realized what I have been missing. 

I haven’t written a letter to you in a long time. I haven’t told you how much you mean to me in a long time. I haven’t expressed my love in a sincere voice in a long time. So, this.

Urmi.  




Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh: Impressions




Just as I was beginning to fret about the lack of good women writers, came along Vanessa Diffenbaugh with a tale so compelling that I willingly took back all my words. I picked up The Language of Flowers on my husband, Viren’s insistence. Our reading tastes are just about as similar as chalk and cheese, and I would never have considered reading a book with a title like that, assuming it had something to do with nature. The book indeed had a lot to do with nature, but it also had intrigue in equal measure. The latter satiated my taste, while the former, Viren’s. But the story binds these elements as seamlessly as a flower with its fragrance, and proceeds to tell the reader about the magical floral tongue.

The Language of Flowers is the story of Victoria, an orphan, who learns the primal message of love through flowers. The book resurrects ideas from Victorian era florigraphy, and unravels its many forgotten secrets through the flower-loving Victoria. But the flower-loving protagonist is also a mankind-hating one, at least when we first meet her in a community house for orphans on her 18th birthday. Victoria is a difficult and defiant child, who knows no better, growing up with a string of rejections and returns from several foster homes. She gives the hard world a deserved hard time, until she meets her match in Elizabeth. Elizabeth is determined in her love as Victoria is in her hatred. Elizabeth almost wins 10-year-old Victoria over, but circumstances pull them apart.

A parallel storyline has Victoria as a young woman leaving the community home, fighting hunger and homelessness until she lands a job as a florist’s assistant. Her knowledge of and instinct about flowers helps put right people’s pasts, and offers beautiful promises to their futures. Her fame spreads, even as she uses flora to beautify people’s lives in more ways than one. One learns how Acacia stands for secret love, Basil for hate, pink Carnations for eternal remembrance, Dahlia for dignity, Oak leaves for friendship and many others. While bringing people together through the language of flowers, she yet remains firmly aloof – her mistrust of humankind guiding all her relationships.

Even when Victoria meets Grant, a man who understands florigraphy and loves her, she stays apart. When they eventually come close and Victoria gets pregnant, she runs away, fearing she will destroy the relationship, as she has done several times in the past. But a switch in her flips when she becomes a mother, and gradually love blooms in Victoria’s bosom.

All the characters in this book are extensions of Victoria – people with tough pasts, their love dammed in one way or another. But isn’t that true of us all? We are attracted to and finally surround ourselves with people who are like us, and will therefore understand us. Every character is deep, intense and broody, and plays their part – no frills. Major characters like Grant, Elizabeth, Meredith, Renata, and Heather and minor ones like Natalia, Mother Ruby, and Marlena stay in their mantles, never trespassing Victoria’s fiercely guarded private space. The language is terse, and throughout the book I kept marveling at how much was being conveyed and how little was being said. The content is emotional from the word Go!, but Victoria’s struggle with her new parenthood is what wrenched my gut the most, for personal reasons. Even in its ardent emotionality, it is extremely dignified – a rare quality in a book. Read it for these many reasons, and find some more of your own.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A fiesta of silence




How a mall-hopping city girl discovered the joy of doing nothing in an idyllic village near Mangalore

When the plans for the short family holiday to Thottam in Karnataka were being made, I began to panic.

“Would there be a Western loo?”
“Would there be an attached bath?”
“Would there be a bath at all!??”
Panic. Panic. Panic.

My kind father-in-law gauged my fears and tried to convince me that our stay would be comfortable. I nodded politely, even as I envisioned giant mosquitoes airlifting my two-year-old son during one of those notorious power cuts that Indian villages are plagued with.

I’d never been to a village before; so I packed every conceivable necessity, imagining perhaps a wilderness where nothing could be bought. After all, it is impossible to survive without toilet paper, isn’t it? I prayed that the several packets of mosquito repellant creams and coils, and anti-tan lotions, and instant noodles that I had packed would be enough to tide us through three days. At one point I even considered packing some eggs along, but if Hindi movies are to be believed, all villages have chickens (and hence eggs). Phew!
The day of the journey arrived, and I resignedly sat into the car that was to take us to the Mumbai domestic airport. I imagined being stuck in a remote setting, with no comforting commercial hubbub, and rustic villagers for company. I couldn’t be more wrong.

But the end of the hour-long Mumbai-Mangalore flight brought with it the first of many surprises. Mangalore has a table-top airport (called the Bajpe airport) and appears from nowhere as your eyes are busy scanning the ground from the airplane window, still many feet below. The view is beautiful after the landing, as is the 60-minute taxi ride to Udupi town. The major attractions of Udupi include an old Krishna temple and the large Manipal University.  And if you take the same road as me, your driver may even point out the Kalmadi village, from where the shamed politician, Suresh Kalmadi, hails. Our stop, however, was the tiny coastal village of Thottam, which takes about 20-30 car minutes from Udupi.

A narrow, winding road finally took us to the ancestral home we were visiting. The rest of the day was spent in introductions, and yes, discreetly checking out bathrooms. I was almost thrilled to see a Western toilet with running water and even a toilet roll! After our ablutions, we slathered on generous quantities of mosquito repellant, had a sumptuous fish dinner and retired to our rooms, where we slept on cane mats and thin mattresses.

By the time I awoke, the village was beginning to grow on me. The first thing that struck me was how incredibly quiet it was. Living in Mumbai I’d forgotten what my breath sounds like. I could hear some persistent crickets, punctuated sometimes with the crowing of roosters, a few barking dogs, and yes, the sound of crashing waves! I woke up my sleepy husband, and persuaded him to go for a walk with me to the beach.

The beach is one of the cleanest I have ever seen. With few or no tourists, it is as pristine as a private beach. The clean sand was strewn with shells, and the sea, gentle. October to February is probably the best time to visit this area, as the coastal heat isn’t too harsh. My nature-enthusiast husband took much delight in pointing out to me various kinds of shells and birds as we walked along the beach. At a little distance, the port of Malpe can be seen, where a fair number of tourists are to be found. Interesting things like fish auctions also take place at the Malpe beach! The beach walk became a morning-evening ritual, with little else to do.

The days were spent in perfect idleness, with some intermittent TV-watching (yes, they have satellite TV and Internet), and downing large quantities of seafood delicacies & booze. I sat back and relaxed as I hadn’t in years, and realized the pleasure of doing absolutely nothing. I desisted from even reading a book, allowing my mind to simply take in the peace of my surroundings. I was happy watching the ants walk along the many trees, and hearing the harsh-sweet calls of peacocks, and realized not when three days had crept by. 

I bid goodbye to my generous hosts, promised I would return, and meant it.
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This article appeared in the Mumbai-based tabloid, The Afternoon, on October 21, 2011.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Seven Sacred Rivers by Bill Aitken: Impressions



I picked this book up for 20 bucks from a raddiwala and the many times Mr. Aitken's views angered me, I wanted to fling it out of the window, knowing not much money would be wasted. But because Mr. Aitken is a mad man (like all men of faith are), he struck a love-hate chord with this mad woman. His oscillation between reverence and philistinism had my opinion of him swinging equally wildly. One page, I would be smiling at the Scotsman recognising the sanctity of our rivers, and the next page would have me raging, because how dare this foreigner criticise our ways?

But slowly I softened as I realised how uncomfortable Hindu discriminations - that we take as the normal order of things - must feel to an outsider. I began to understand the resentment he felt for our commercialisation of religion and nature - a worshipper as he was of the pristine. But what I did not agree with till the end was his condescending tone. Perhaps it is how the white man thinks/speaks, but to me he sounded only like one extremely ungrateful guest.

So this guest, in his sojourn across India, sought to understand our seven sacred rivers: Sindhu, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Godavari, Narmada and Kaveri. As he tried to follow each of their courses, he encountered more than just geological entities. Each river brought forth lessons in culture, history, geography, religion, nature and whatnot. While Bill Aitken's writing is a tad cold and objective, one cannot help but feel the warmth of a human touch here and there. Laced with wry humour, the author tells of the many adventures and misadventures of a solo traveller on a shoestring budget.

One laughs and frowns at many an interesting account. His experiences of ashram life and Gandhians are mixed; he admires the likes of Sundarlal Bahuguna, while the 'pompous' Vinoba Bhave he loathes. North India turns him off with priests being obnoxious, small businessmen being greedy, and everything generally being unclean and poverty-stricken. His admiration for South India is obvious with him finding the states cleaner, better organised, and the people better educated. Among the rivers too, he loves the southern Narmada better than any other, although he describes well his short romances with every river he meets.

Aitken is impressed by the Ganga and the Indus in their beautiful settings and might, whereas the Yamuna and Saraswati let him down. The Kaveri and Godavari cast their respective mild impressions on him, but Narmada has his heart. He goes off on trails of several other uncelebrated rivers and questions their religious statures, or lack of them. He traces several historical chapters, whereby ancient Buddhist pilgrim centres have either been seized by the Hindu order, or cast away in a bid for religious supremacy. He talks about several interesting religious cults and practices that have become strongly associated with each of these rivers.

However, Aitken's travels are too extensive and his account too hurried. Before you can drink in the locales of Kerala, he has already moved on to Ladakh. His fast-paced name-dropping is too dizzying even for a resident of India, and there is little time to savour the beauty of any of the rivers. Nevertheless, one is carried adrift in this journey - languorously, beautifully, pitifully, adventurously, mightily, crazily, softly or raucously - at different times with different rivers.